“If this is to prank on me, I strangling you,” Scorn warned.
Iris sighed; after the fifth repetition of these threats in which their fulfillment failed to materialize, they were notably less unnerving. “Well, you didn’t have to come, Scorn. It was an invitation, not a command.”
“No one is give me command!”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Iris said, rolling her eyes. Positioned as she was in the front, her eyes were safely out of Scorn’s field of view. She didn’t lack for confirmation that the demon was following, between her heavy footfalls and the constant rattle of her various bangles, bracelets and necklaces.
Fortunately, they were nearing their destination. Iris had veered as far to the right as possible on the way down the mountain, which of course forced them to hike through the grass rather than using either of the convenient paths, but the mountain’s broad base made it possible to reach the bottom without actually stepping into Last Rock—and bringing Scorn into Last Rock seemed like a bad idea, considering the loud arguments which had ensued when Trissiny had ultimately refused to take her there yesterday. There was, in fact, a very faint trail worn through the grass here; it wasn’t nearly as commonly used as the paved paths, but marked the route taken by student groups headed into the Golden Sea. In theory, that happened only once a semester, but University sanctioned trips were far from the only reason students left the campus without going into town.
“Right around here,” Iris said, glancing back at the towering demon with a forced little smile as they reached the level of the prairie. For the most part, the gentler side of the mountain eased smoothly into the ground, but there was an upthrust outcropping of rock, here, separating the grassy slope from the base of the mountain’s craggy and nearly vertical northwestern face. Scorn just snorted, but kept following.
Once around the natural barrier, however, their destination was apparent. The ground swelled here, rising slightly into a low hillock abutting the mountain’s base; a small thicket of stubborn bushes and stunted trees clung to the edge of the rocks, creating several hidden little spots which were favored canoodling spaces for students and townies alike. Far above, the alarming spectacle of Clarke Tower extended from the peak of the mountain; considering the slight elevation, this area had a beautiful view out into the infinite horizon of the Golden Sea, unmarred by the town.
A table had been set up on the little hill. Not a portable, folding table; it was a dainty little thing, relatively, but carved from solid oak and had clearly taken some doing to bring out here. A white linen cloth was laid over it, a subtle bouquet of flowers in its center, and a bottle of wine set to one side, surrounded by empty wineglasses and a plate of small cookies. Two matching carved chairs sat nearby, as well as a sturdier armchair.
“Ah, ladies!” Ravana Madouri said, waving to them as they appeared. “There you are! Please, join us. Scorn, I’m so glad you agreed to come—it’s such a pleasure to see you. Please, make yourself comfortable!”
Iris glided forward and settled herself daintily into the wooden chair beside Ravana’s, leaving the larger one for their guest. Scorn approached more slowly, enough that she barely rattled, studying the setup through narrowed eyes.
“What is this?” she demanded. “Why out here? You can have snacks on the school. If you are to luring me out for a trick…”
“Oh, nothing so sinister, I assure you,” Ravana said with a light laugh. “It’s just that alcohol is prohibited on campus—and as I have discovered, that is a rule one cannot simply break, and it’s a crime to waste a good vintage trying. No, one must unfortunately venture down here to the surface, as it were, to enjoy a glass of wine, which is one of civilization’s truest gifts. And as it seemed unwise to escort you into the town itself without the blessing of your friends, this was the only feasible way to include you! Don’t worry, it was no trouble at all.”
Scorn arrived at the table but made no move to seat herself, still squinting suspiciously. “Why you are not have class?”
“Introduction to Alchemy with Professor Rafe is scheduled for this hour,” Ravana said primly. “The Professor has suddenly canceled class, leaving us with a free period.”
Scorn frowned. “He is cancel…why?”
“Because,” Ravana said with a calm smile, “I bribed him to, with a pea-sized vial of hellhound breath. Believe me, that is the largest quantity obtainable without hiring mercenaries and spilling significant blood, and even that much cost more than any structure on the campus. Please, Scorn,” she added in a gentler tone. “Sit down.”
Finally, her uncertain expression calming only slightly, the demon lowered herself into the armchair with a last soft clatter of beads. Despite the way it dwarfed the other furniture present, it was barely serviceable to contain her, and creaked in protest under her weight.
Ravana, meanwhile, busied herself prying the cork from the wine bottle and pouring a judicious measure into each glass. “I think you’ll enjoy this vintage. I understand you have a preference for strong flavors—this is actually an elven wine, and they have different priorities. Grove vintages aren’t favored by most wine snobs in Imperial society, though I fear I must disagree with them. It is rather sweeter than one generally prefers in a red, true, but also has a distinctive yet subtle tartness which human vintners are rarely able to produce, and offsets the flavor beautifully, preventing it from becoming cloying. I believe the disdain shown by so many of my fellow enthusiasts is little more than bitterness that our race hasn’t managed to reproduce such flavors.”
Having finished pouring, she set aside the bottle and picked up her own glass, pausing to sniff it before taking a tiny sip and closing her eyes momentarily to savor the drink. Iris followed suit more slowly, her reproduction of Ravana’s behavior slightly halting and punctuated with glances at the other girl.
Scorn grunted and snatched up the remaining glass, tipping its contents into her mouth in one go. She swallowed convulsively, a trickle of scarlet liquid escaping to run down her chin. “Hn! Good stuff. Weak, but pleasing for taste.” Absently, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, smearing traces of wine across both her skin and the numerous bracelets on that arm.
Watching her, Ravana winced as if pained.
“So, thank you for booze,” Scorn said brusquely, slamming the delicate wineglass down on the table hard enough to set it rocking. “Now you are tell me what you really want, yes? Or going to think I am suddenly nice by you for no reasoning?”
Iris frowned. “Um…what?”
“Your Tanglish needs some work, still, Scorn,” Ravana said calmly after another dainty sip of her wine. “There seems to be nothing wrong with your intelligence. Why is it you haven’t attempted to further your command of the grammar?”
The Rhaazke leaned forward over the table, baring her fangs. “Listen here, tiny girl. I am not come all the way down the mountain at being insulted by little vrekhshentmi. Maybe if your tongue is not better behave, I pull it off you. Yes?”
“Now, that is an interesting proposal.” Ravana set down her wineglass and folded her hands in her lap, regarding the towering demon in perfect serenity, while Iris stared up at her in clear alarm. “Let us pursue that hypothetical action. Suppose you ripped my tongue out. What would happen then?”
“You being quiet,” Scorn snorted, settling back in her chair.
“Of course, briefly,” Ravana said, nodding. “And after that?”
“After?” The demon shrugged in annoyance. “Who is care after? Is done.”
“Well, first of all,” said Ravana, “Iris here would apply healing magic to ensure I did not bleed to death. Unless, of course… Well, this is your scenario—would you prevent her from doing so?”
Scorn was frowning down at her in increasing confusion now. “I—what? Why I care? No, she can do…”
“All right, then,” Ravana continued. “First, on-the-spot healing, and then I would have to leave the campus for tissue regeneration treatments. It is dicey work, repairing severe damage to delicate organs, but actually regenerating a limb removed wholesale is comparatively easy. Expensive work, of course, as one has to contract a very competent fae healer, who are not common among humans, but for someone with access to my resources, not a hardship. So! All told, this would cost me some severe pain and a few weeks of missed schooling—and, of course, a ruined dress, as blood is highly unfriendly to fabric—and then I would be right back where I was, no worse for the wear.”
Scorn’s eyes narrowed to slits. “So?”
Ravana smiled coyly. “But that’s just me. What do you think would happen to you while all this was going on?”
The demon stiffened. “If you are to threaten me—”
“Please.” Ravana held up a hand. “I’ve not intention of doing anything to you at all. We are merely discussing a hypothetical scenario—which you proposed, I might add. Indulge me for a moment. In this scene, you have just brutally assaulted me. What happens to you immediately after that.”
Scorn clenched her hands on the arms of the chair, shifting nervously. “I don’t—why is matter?”
“Well, there is the issue of your friends,” Ravana said ruminatively. “I rather think Teal, and by extension Vadrieny, might be inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. Miss Falconer has a low opinion of me, I fear. Trissiny, though… I cannot say how she would react to such a thing, but I highly doubt you would enjoy it. Of course,” she carried on over Scorn’s nascent objections, “all that would very likely be moot. After such an attack upon a student of the University, Professor Tellwyrn would immediately descend upon you. Immediately, and with terrifying finality.”
“All right, fine,” Scorn huffed, folding her arms and slumping back into the armchair hard enough to rock it momentarily backwards. “I not kills you, or rip off your tongue. Happy, then? We can put down the talk?”
“Forgive me, but you have misunderstood my intention,” Ravana said calmly. “I am not attempting to shut you up, Scorn; after inviting you all the way down here for wine, I am quite interested in having a conversation with you. Do try the cookies, by the way—they are a rather cheap mass-produced brand, but I confess I enjoy them immensely. Once in a while, even craven industrialists stumble upon a perfect recipe. I anticipate with great glee feeding these to some of my peers who would not ordinarily deign to eat anything not prepared by a private chef. But to continue! Let us carry this hypothetical in a different direction. Suppose the University were not overseen by a nigh-omnipotent and infamously disagreeable archmage. In the aftermath of your theoretical assault, and in the absence of such an overweening power, what follows?”
“This is the point of what?” Scorn demanded, glaring at her and not reaching for the cookies. Iris was ignoring her own wine, now, eyes fixed firmly on Scorn and one hand slipped into the pocket of her dress, which the demon fortunately did not notice.
“At that point,” Ravana continued, ignoring her query, “you would find yourself contending with, immediately, Imperial law enforcement. Trissiny would be legally entitled and perhaps doctrinally compelled to destroy you—I am not entirely certain about Avenist policies or how much leeway she has to make such decisions, much less what she would decide. You would most certainly be branded a living hazard by the Empire and probably immediately attacked. Whether you can stand up to a basic Army unit, Scorn, I am quite certain you are not a match for a strike team.”
“I am not come here for being threatened!” Scorn shouted, starting to rise from her chair.
“Sit down,” Ravana said. Her voice was quiet, her expression flat, but there was such utter finality in her tone, a complete faith that she would obeyed, that Scorn found herself back in her chair before deciding to go there. “You are not being threatened, Scorn. No one is going to hurt you. I am making a point. But very well, I think you are not without a point yourself. Going on to elucidate all the powers—the Empire, the cults, the Universal Church, not to mention House Madouri—which would descend upon you if you attacked me would swiftly become tedious and repetitive. And, yes, somewhat hostile. So let’s dispense with all that, shall we?”
“What is you want?” Scorn snarled.
“Why, isn’t it obvious?” Ravana replied with a sweet smile. “I want us to be friends.”
Scorn stared at her for a long moment, then turned incredulously to Iris.
“Oh, she’s serious,” Iris said, her lips twitching in suppressed amusement. “Believe me, I’ve been there. But yes, this is just what she’s like. If you want my advice, pay attention; she’s usually going somewhere worthwhile with these things.”
“Thank you, Iris,” Ravana said, smiling warmly at her before turning her attention back to Scorn. “What little I know of your homeworld and culture come thirdhand at best, Scorn. I have been forced to chat with Trissiny, Zaruda and others to seek information, as Teal is unfortunately disinclined to speak with me socially.”
“Why is Teal not like you?” Scorn asked, peering at her suspiciously.
“Presuming that you mean why does Teal not like me,” Ravana replied, “it’s quite simple: Teal Falconer is an extraordinarily kind, compassionate, and basically decent person.” She smiled, thinly and somewhat sadly. “And I am…to put it gently…not. She was in a position to see my character firsthand not so long ago, and I fear it rather distressed her. But again, we digress. At issue is you, and how well you are faring here.”
“I am do just fine,” Scorn huffed.
“Are you?” Ravana raised an eyebrow. “You are supposed to be learning about this world and fitting in, are you not? What have you done toward that goal?”
“I fit in!”
“Scorn,” Ravana said gently, “no, you don’t.”
“Please, calm yourself. I’m not trying to insult you; I am offering to help.”
Scorn paused, a suspicious frown again descending over her features. “And you are help me…why?”
“I’m going to tell you a very great secret.” Ravana picked up her wineglass but simply toyed with it slowly, watching the crimson liquid shift about within and not lifting it to her lips. “In this world, Scorn, no matter what strength you possess, no matter your capacity to impose your will upon others or cause destruction, the truest and most consistent path to power is to show kindness. To provide for others, to accumulate favor. Placing people in your debt, building alliances…”
She trailed off as Scorn’s derisive laughter echoed over the prairie. “Are you drink too much of this grog? Power is power! Being nice is nice—is a…don’t know word, a nice thing, a, uh…”
“Luxury?” Iris suggested.
The demon shrugged. “Is a thing for doing when you have extra means, can afford to waste time for fun.”
“Yes, that’s a luxury,” said Iris.
“And that is the core of your problem,” Ravana said with a satisfied little smile. “Power in Hell, and presumably the sub-dimension from which you come, is about strength. Power in this world is about connection.”
“Connection?” Scorn’s frown deepened.
“The links between things.”
“I know what is word means!”
“You know the definition, yes,” Ravana agreed, “but you don’t seem to comprehend this point. In this world, Scorn, the abundance of resources has led to an abundance of people. Large populations require increasingly elaborate systems to support them. That is why we have complex laws, and political and economic structures far more sophisticated than anything you are used to. With me so far?”
“Go on,” Scorn said, nodding and still frowning.
“At issue, then,” Ravana continued, “is that when dealing with any person or any thing, one cannot simply calculate that person as a function of their own strength. You have seen spider webs since coming here, have you not?”
“Bah!” Scorn snorted. “Piddly little things, you call spiders. Good for snack, not scary. Where I am from there are spiders that are eating my kind if we are stupid around them!”
“And they hunt with webs?” Ravana prompted.
“Yes, webs, sticky thread, why is that matters?”
“It is a metaphor one encounters in Eserite literature, and one which I find explains the world better than any other I have heard. You can view each person as an intersection in such a web—tied to countless other things by multiple threads, and each of those things are linked to more things, and so on and so on, far beyond the point where one can see. By applying force to one such nexus, one causes the entire structure to shift, to vibrate…”
“And maybe,” Scorn said more softly, “to bring the spiders.”
“Precisely!” Ravana grinned at her in evident delight. “That, I think, is what you fail to understand about this world—being richer makes it more complicated. You seem accustomed to getting your way by applying force. Now, you are in a much denser web, and any power you exert in any direction is likely to cause vibrations that you cannot predict. In your position, it seems the wisest thing you could do would be to devote yourself to understanding this web as best you can. That, indeed, is the wisest thing anyone in this world can do. Those who have done it can be easily differentiated from those who have not: we are the ones who rule.”
Scorn’s face had not lost its pensive frown; she now stared off into space past Ravana’s head.
“You are sound a little like my mother,” she said at last.
“I take that as high praise,” Ravana said gravely.
“It is. This, you talk about kindness… You are make more threads, yes? Things, people connecting on you, who protect you.”
“They said you were intelligent,” Ravana said with satisfaction. “I am pleased to see they did not exaggerate.”
Scorn peered closely at her. “And this is how people becoming powerful in this world?”
Iris snorted softly, earning a sharp look from Scorn.
“In a way,” Ravana mused, “it is the essence of all power…but it is a truth not grasped equally well by all. Oh, anyone in a position of authority must necessarily provide some service for those beneath them, or they will not be permitted to retain their position for long. Governments exist, I firmly believe, for the benefit of those governing, but they do so by providing for the governed, and failing to remember this inevitably leads to their replacement. Those who are powerful and wise act in a way that does not look immediately different from compassion. It may be morally right to care for those beneath you, but that hardly matters to people like me.” She smiled, a distinctly feline expression. “Any sufficiently examined self-interest is indistinguishable from altruism.”
“Hum,” Scorn muttered. “Well. Is nice, I guess… You are make one mistake, though.”
“Oh?” Ravana raised an eyebrow. “Please, enlighten me.”
“I am not interested very in being power.” The demon started to rise from her seat with a soft rattle of costume jewelry. “Thank you for drinks, and interesting talk.”
“And are you interested in enjoying your life?” Ravana asked mildly.
Scorn froze. “What? Why?”
“Here’s the rub, concerning the difference between your people and mine,” she continued in a light, conversational tone. “By any reasonable standard, we are better than you.”
The demon again narrowed her eyes. “You are trying to make me angry?”
“Perhaps that was poor phrasing,” Ravana said thoughtfully. “Yes, it would be more accurate to say we are better off. I mean, look at yourself! Physically, you are an incredibly powerful specimen, compared to most earthbound races. I understand you have a substantial gift for magic, as well, and you certainly do not lack for intellect, as we have already discussed. If you are a typical example of your kind… I rather suspect that if the Rhaazke occupied a realm as abundant, peaceful and prosperous as this one, they would by now have achieved things beyond the ambitions of the mortal races.” She tilted her head to one side, studying Scorn thoughtfully. “But they haven’t, because—through no fault of their own—they don’t. You are here, however. If you are not interested in having power over others… Well, honestly, that is probably for the best. As I’ve told Iris before, the quest for power can become an all-consuming thing that leaves you little time to truly experience all that is good in the world. Since you don’t choose to embark upon that quest, doesn’t it seem you ought to do your best to fully enjoy what there is, here? If nothing else, don’t you owe it to all those of your kin who shall never have the opportunity?”
“I am still not know where you are talking,” Scorn said, but sank back down into her seat.
“Well, let me back up a step, then. In enjoying a pleasing experience, do you believe that more is better?”
“Of course,” Scorn snorted. “Always, is simple.”
Ravana nodded. “And that speaks of a mindset accustomed to scarcity. If you have few opportunities to savor good things, and must compete with numerous others for them…well, naturally, it would seem the only reasonable thing to do would be to grab at everything you can get your hands on and wring every last ounce of benefit from it you can, before someone comes along and takes it from you.”
“And now,” Scorn said, staring piercingly at her, “you are going to explain why it is different here, yes?”
The Duchess smiled broadly. “Again, you show your perceptiveness! And you are correct. Excessive, thoughtless self-indulgence is one of the most obvious signs of weakness a person here can display.”
“Weakness,” Scorn said flatly.
“Consider the thing in context,” Ravana continued, still unfazed by the demon’s annoyed expression. “Where one’s ability to act effectively is a function of one’s ability to choose one’s actions with care, any ill-considered grabbing motion can backfire just as severely as an unwise attack. Gluttony is considered a sin in some faiths—and I have often had the observation that what the religious call sins are generally just harmless behaviors which become dangerous when taken to excess. And so, among people on this plane, restraint is honored far more than indulgence.”
“Restraint,” Scorn said, her expression unchanged.
“The person who drinks too much and loses control is regarded with contempt,” Ravana said, gazing up at her. “The one who eats too much and becomes obese, likewise. Or the one who indulges excessively in sex, or drugs, or something as relatively harmless as a niche hobby. Not because others do not have the same drives, but because a balanced person understands that such self-indulgence is a failure of character. The drunkard, the glutton, the dissolute wastrel, they lead lives of misery. By fixating upon a simple pleasure which is within their reach, they cut themselves off from the experience of all the other joys life could offer—including the companionship of others, often, as doing this makes them objects of ridicule.”
“I am not follow your changes of talk,” Scorn said. “What is this to do with me?”
“Really,” Ravana said mildly. “Can you not think of anything you have pursued to the point of losing control? Of not experiencing fully because you’ve grabbed at quantity rather than quality?” She held up her wineglass, swirling the liquid within and gazing thoughtfully at it. “Tell me, can you appreciate the beauty of a gem more when it shines alone, or when it is buried in a pile of others?”
Scorn froze, her eyes widening in an expression of painful realization. “You are…say… To have too much of a thing, it makes people to mock you?”
“Well,” Ravana mused, “rarely when you can hear them, but yes…”
The demon grimaced in sudden revulsion, grabbing a handful of the necklaces and beads hanging over her chest.
“Stop!” Ravana barked, raising her voice for the first time. Scorn froze as the young Duchess leveled a finger at her. “You are about to allow others to control you, Scorn, and I won’t stand for that. You are better, and deserve better.”
“Who is control me?” Scorn asked plaintively.
“All those whose opinions you care about enough to change your own behavior. If you throw away your jewelry, you’ve as much as declared your willingness to be bound by their whims. And people will take advantage of that.” Her eyes bored into the demon’s, her expression serious and intent now. “Since you disdain the pursuit of power…how will you stop them? If your own strength is expressed through sheer force, how can you contend with those who manipulate using subtlety? That’s the real issue, Scorn, the great and painful fact of life. Even if all you want is to be left alone, and to enjoy your own existence… Well, if you’re not able and prepared to contend with people who choose to understand the arts of power, they simply won’t let you.”
“But…” The Rhaazke gulped, looking lost. “What about… How am I do…”
“In this case,” Ravana said in a suddenly more gentle tone, “if you’ll accept my advice, there’s a fairly simple strategy to employ. Remove one item of jewelry every…let us say, three days. Gradually diminish what you wear, so that the change is not immediately noticeable. It will clearly be a natural trend in your own tastes, and you can thus arrive at a state that will not invite the derision of others, without ever hinting to them that they had any power to sway your actions.”
Scorn swallowed again and nodded, settling back in her chair. “And you…teach me more? Of how to…to do this?”
“I am willing to,” Ravana said, turning a smile upon Iris and getting one in return. “It’s a new course for me, but I have learned a great deal by showing Iris, here, some of the tricks of the powerful and cunning. I had thought, at first, that doing so would be incompatible with any kind of happiness…but I’ve come to appreciate how these things can improve every aspect of one’s life. The same aptitudes that lead to power are those which heighten the sweetnesses of mortal experience.”
“How is this?” Scorn asked uncertainly.
“Well. Perhaps you would be willing to indulge me in a little experiment?” Ravana picked up the wine bottle again and poured more into Scorn’s glass. “Let me show you something. Take a very small sip of the wine, and hold it on your tongue for a moment. Then, before swallowing, pause and inhale through your nose.”
“What in crap?” Scorn exclaimed in exasperation. “How are we get to this from— Are you trying to choke me or just make me look stupid?”
Ravana smiled in amusement, showing only a hint of teeth. “Trust me,” she said quietly.
Scorn pursed her lips, staring at her in suspicion, then shook her head and picked up the wineglass. For a moment, she peered distrustfully at it, then sighed, shrugged, and very carefully tipped a small amount of wine into her mouth. Then she paused, lowering the glass, and breathed in deeply.
Her eyes widened, an expression of surprise and unexpected pleasure washing over her features.
Watching her, Ravana settled back in her own chair, folded her hands, and smiled.