It was an eerie thing, looking one’s doppelganger in the face. Her memories of Triss Locke were from her own perspective—both their perspectives, in a way, blended into one. The whole thing made it altogether more disorienting than it already was. Regardless, Trissiny now stood face-to-face with herself. The same face and build, with just enough differences to be unsettling. Her own apprentice attire was simply nondescript and practical; Triss clearly had a sense of style, from the tailored coat to the gleamingly polished, oversized buckles on her boots and trousers. Her hair was shorter and loose, and she wore a cocky grin which, for the first time that Trissiny had noticed, accented the resemblance of her face to Principia’s.
That was the most disturbing thing of all.
She let barely a beat of startled silence pass before replying, though. If nothing else, she had an ingrained response to being caught off guard: take action.
“I don’t think I need to be…straightened out. I just need a little help.”
Well, talk was still action, by certain definitions.
“Hey, it’s your bullshit elfish vision quest thingy,” Triss said airily, shrugging. “Protest and drag your heels if that makes you happy. Only thing at stake here is whether you learn what you came to. C’mon, let’s take a stroll around.”
She turned and ambled off, hands in her pockets. Trissiny frowned after her for a long moment before following with a sigh, sheathing her weapon and slinging the shield over her back as she went. It seemed fitting that she was back in armor. The contrast helped ground her.
“Wait a moment,” she protested, lengthening her stride to catch up. “Why in there? Those things are nothing but trouble, trust me. I’ve been there.”
“Right. Me too, if you’ll recall.” Triss gave her a sardonic, sidelong smile and did not slow her progress toward one of the mist-filled halls where dreams and visions lurked. “Anyway, what’re you afraid of? There’s nothing in there but you—there’s nothing in here, in any of this place, but you. You’re wanting to go deeper to find your answer, right? Well, your mind’s thrown up a memory of a place that provides answers. Where better to start?”
“It’s not that you’re wrong,” Trissiny grumbled. “I just really hated this place.”
Locke laughed. “Hey, no offense taken.”
“It’s not… I’m sorry, none was meant.” They stepped into the mist without slowing, and she glanced worriedly around. Nothing but mist and stone walls, so far. “After all, you’re the one I’ve been wanting to speak to this whole time.”
“Hmm. How come, if you hated this so much?”
“Because… You’re the one who understands what I need to.” She sighed, giving her counterpart a surreptitious glance. “I remember that much distinctly from my last time here. It’s stayed with me; it’s the reason I went to the Guild when I decided to pursue, you know…alternative ways of thinking.”
“Alternative.” Triss grinned without looking over at her. “I like that. Obliviously condescending, I’ll have to remember that one.”
“I mean, the technique can be learned,” Trissiny continued doggedly. “It’s the mindset I’m struggling with. And you have it.”
“Yeah, well, here’s the thing.” Triss took one hand out of her coat pocket to gesture at the air. “All this, yours truly included? This is you. There’s nobody in here but you, lady paladin. Which is why I can’t teach you any of that technique you were talking about; you don’t know it, so neither do I.”
“What’s your point?” Trissiny asked somewhat testily.
Triss stopped walking and turned to face her, expression suddenly serious. “Y’know, you retain a lot of information that you don’t acknowledge. Everything you see and hear, it’s in here, but if it doesn’t fit with your worldview? Ffft!” She flicked her fingers. “Out it goes. Not lost, just not acknowledged.”
“Yes,” Trissiny said in mounting exasperation. “That is the point. That’s what I’m doing here!”
“Okay, fine, so let’s talk about what I’m doing here!” She spread her arms, grinning again. “If you can imagine someone’s point of view, you become them, at least to an extent. Professor Ekoi said that, during one of her attempts to shove some social skills down Gabe’s throat.”
“Professor Ekoi is crazy,” Trissiny muttered.
“Oh, she is that,” Triss agreed, “but she’s also wise, and cares deeply about her responsibilities as a teacher. And if I know that, it means you noticed it. Fine, though, here’s another one: the ability to understand characters in fiction is the same that lets you understand people you know, and it’s rooted in your ability to have a personality. That one’s from Teal. Got something snarky to say about her?”
In fact, she had an immediate thought about Teal’s tendency to confuse principled pacifism with hand-wringing ineffectiveness, and instantly felt guilty for having it. Teal was still one of the kindest and most level-headed people she knew. Fortunately, Triss continued without waiting for a response to her question.
“Once again, here I am,” she stated. “Triss Locke—thief and daughter of a thief, irreverent and stylish, by a wide margin more a lover than a fighter. Ooh, that’s right, you’d forgotten that part, hadn’t you? But seriously, as I keep having to mention, everything going on here is in your mind.” She reached out and gently bopped Trissiny on the head with a palm, smiling. “The very fact that I’m here, with my mindset and everything, means you still have it. You still have the means to call it up and use it, without having to get help from not one but two generations of elvish shamans.”
“Isn’t it shamen?” Trissiny asked.
“Isn’t it a clumsy deflection? Yeah, I see why you need me, girl; I’d never try such a lame evasion. Come on, Trisssss…iny. This is the progress you’re looking for. You’ve still got me in here. So why are you having such trouble remembering? There’s gotta be a reason I’m out of your reach. You even went to Mom and asked her advice. And by the way, she gives great advice and I suggest you think carefully about everything she told you.”
Trissiny sighed heavily. “All right, well… Yeah, you’re right. That’s progress, of a sort.”
“Of a sort,” Triss snorted. “Ooh, look, finally some action. Maybe this’ll help.”
The mist had begun clearing, rather abruptly. There was no sign of the hall around them; as the fog thinned, the scene revealed itself to be the lawn outside the gazebo on the Unseen University’s campus. Dusk was falling, the fairy lamps just beginning to come on.
Right in front of them, Gabriel and Trissiny stood almost nose to nose, shouting furiously, while Shaeine and Teal stood nearby, the latter hovering nervously and occasionally trying to cut in. The silence was absolutely eerie, given the agitated demeanor of the central players.
“I don’t need to see this,” Trissiny said tersely, turning around.
“Whoah.” Triss grabbed her by the collar of her breastplate before she could take two steps. “Yeah, you do. That’s the entire point of this, remember? Apparently what you don’t need to is to hear it. I guess you remember what was said pretty well.”
“You think I haven’t been over this?” Trissiny snapped. “I know how wrong I was. Dragging it up again is pointless!”
“Excuse me, but who do you think you’re arguing with?” Triss said wryly. “I’m just the spirit guide, here. Your mind, your quest, your idea. If you can’t trust yourself to show you what you need, at least don’t be a coward.”
Trissiny shook her hand off, turning to face her. “Excuse me?”
“Running away from what you don’t want to face is pretty much the definition of—whoah.”
In the silent scene before them, Trissiny had lit up with a golden aura, driving Gabriel back. A moment later, after making some inaudible pronouncement, she drew her sword.
They stood in silence, watching the rest of the scene, until Vadrieny finally emerged, grabbed Gabriel, and took off into the sky. The past vision of Trissiny gesticulated after them with her sword, shouting, before rounding furiously on Shaeine, snarling an accusation.
She hadn’t noticed it at the time, but after a year and a half of getting to know Shaeine and watch for her tiny displays of feeling, Trissiny actually saw the flicker of annoyance which crossed the priestess’s face. In the next instant, a wall of silver light flashed into being and impacted the Trissiny in the vision, bowling her over backward.
“Had that coming,” Triss observed.
Trissiny sighed. “Oh, yeah. In hindsight, I don’t think I could’ve objected to her doing a lot worse. Shaeine wouldn’t, though.”
“So, well then.” Triss turned to her, raising an eyebrow. “That was a gigantically shitty thing to do.”
“I know,” Trissiny said quietly.
The thief reached out to pat her on the arm. “And it seems to me like that’s the better part of the point, here, after all. It’s in the past and you know you fucked up. I gather you don’t still do things like that, right?”
“Of course not!” she snapped. “This is the absolute low point in—”
“Okay,” Triss interrupted soothingly. “So the question becomes, why is this relevant? You didn’t just see it at random; we’re here for a purpose, after all. We were just talking about your problem relating to the Eserite mindset.”
Around them, the mist had swirled back in, obscuring the scene. Trissiny frowned into the emptiness, absently running one thumb over the familiar pommel of her sword.
“…I don’t know. I mean, not exactly. It seems there’s a fairly obvious connection, though, right? That was a moment when I let my sense of…of religious duty completely overwhelm all other considerations. Including the moral factors I really should have been thinking about.”
“Hmm.” Locke began pacing in a slow circle around her, chewing her lower lip in thought. “Well, it all makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?”
“Do enlighten me,” Trissiny said sourly.
Her doppelganger grinned. “That was an example of your problem, a demonstration of what’s in your way. You’re making progress just by being here, doing all this, but there’s still this core idea of ‘Avenist good, Eserite bad’ that’s influencing your thinking on a very basic level. Y’know… No offense to your boss lady, but I think Avei was wrong. Your spirit knew exactly what it was looking for, wandering about like that, and you did need to see glimpses of those previous Hands.”
“How so?” Trissiny asked, curious in spite of herself. On one level she was finding the trend of this conversation almost insulting, but at the same time, there was a prickle of recognition deep within her, a sense that she was indeed getting near what she’d come here to learn.
“What precipitated this newest crisis?” Triss prompted. “You spent time with Grip, and got to see firsthand how very, very ugly sincere Eserite belief can be, in the wrong hands. Eserite bad. But Grip herself said it best: a religion is only as good or bad as the people using it. It’s a tool like any other in that regard. As horrifying as that was, it doesn’t need to be the straw that broke the donkey’s back, any more than seeing Jayanta lose her shit should’ve turned you away from Avei. It’s the same in both faiths, in all faiths. For every Jayanta or Grip, there’s a Laressa or Glory.”
“I…suppose that’s true,” Trissiny said slowly, almost grudgingly. “But it’s not my entire worry. By the very nature of Eserite belief, isn’t it more prone to…”
“To what?” Triss shrugged. “Eserites aren’t supposed to abuse people who don’t deserve it, any more than Avenists are. Surely you’re not naive enough to think it doesn’t happen in both cults. Remember that conversation you had with Rouvad about the actual Bishop of Avei?”
“The High Commander thinks she’s under control…”
“Yeah,” Triss said skeptically, “and consider who set you on that track. If I were you, I’d find time to have a sit-down with Mom and get the full details on Basra Syrinx; something tells me you’d learn things that Rouvad can’t afford to tell you. But we’re wandering off topic, here. From your point of view, the Sisterhood of Avei has the moral and philosophical high ground, because it actively seeks to be and to do good, while the Thieves’ Guild deals more in gray areas. From mine,” she grinned, pressing a hand to her chest and bowing, “the Guild is the more likely to be moral, just because both systems—all systems—are equally prone to corruption, and the Guild, at least, is set up to watch for that and correct it. End of the day, both are cults which, with the best of intentions, seek to impose their views on the world by force. And the problem here is that you’re trying to integrate their two philosophies while you’re carrying a big, fat bias against one!”
“You can’t contend that both are equally moral!” Trissiny exclaimed. “You’re comparing those who break the law with those who uphold it!”
Triss shrugged. “We’re talking ethics, not law. When the law is unjust, upholding it can’t possibly serve justice.”
“But the spirit of law—”
“Bias,” Triss said with a grin, pointing at her.
Trissiny gritted her teeth. “The Sisterhood seeks to help people—especially women in need of it. Who does the Guild help?”
“Anyone who’s harmed by having abusers and predators roaming the streets. And, just for a more concrete example, some of those the Sisterhood threw to the curb. Like demonbloods. Like a certain Elspeth in Lor’naris who, after dealing with both cults, knew damn well which side her bread was buttered on.”
“I launched the Silver Missions specifically to start addressing that!”
“I’m proud of you,” Locke said with a smile. “That was a damn good thing you did. Doesn’t alter the current topic, which is that you are biased and it’s causing you all sorts of inner friction right now.”
Trissiny repressed the urge to pull her own hair. “But—it’s apples and oranges! How can you possibly compare the two?!”
“You can’t!” Triss replied, grinning gleefully. “And that is the point here! Maybe the Sisterhood is better—maybe it’s not. The point is you’ll never know as you are now, because you are biased!”
Growling aloud, Trissiny turned her back on her and stalked a few feet away into the mist. She stopped, though, and didn’t retreat further from the sound of Triss’s soft footsteps coming after her.
The thief laid a hand on her shoulder, saying nothing. After a long moment, Trissiny sighed.
“It isn’t that I think you’re wrong.”
“It’s just… This kind of thing isn’t processed in an instant.”
“I get it.” Triss jostled her shoulder gently. “That’s what this is all about, right? Finding the answers.”
“So… Basically, the problem I’m having with Eserites is I can’t… Or, okay, won’t see them fairly.”
“Mmmm…” Triss tilted her head back, studying her thoughtfully. “Nnno, I don’t think that’s right. You don’t have an inherent problem with Eserites, at least not once you started getting to know some. You like some just fine, notably the ones who behave like decent people. Where you’ve got a problem with an Eserite, in every case they damn well did something to deserve it. And hell, that’s pretty fair; that’s exactly how any good Eserite would approach their fellow thieves. No, you’ve got issues with the Guild itself.”
“This is just ridiculous,” Trissiny grumbled. “I left school and came here to apprentice with the Guild, and now it turns out I’m not learning anything because I just hate them?”
“Okay, let’s back off from the drama a little bit,” Triss said with a grin. “As I was literally just saying, you don’t hate ’em, or the Guild itself, you’ve just got a perception of it as something inherently corrupt. And y’know what? That just might be your most Eserite trait of all. Be suspicious of institutions, and definitely don’t trust people who manipulate you or torture others right in front of you.”
“But what is my problem?” Trissiny wondered aloud, pulling away and beginning to pack back and forth. “That’s what all this is about. There’s something holding me back…”
“Don’t rush to expect something really profound, here,” Triss cautioned. “Most people have heads full of bad ideas. Hell, pretty much everybody. I bet you could work through all this given time in the Guild if you just don’t quit it, but we’re here, so maybe we can shave some time and effort off this. But still, you’re talking prejudices, not enemies.”
“I know,” Trissiny said absently. “I get it, and you’re right. But I can’t… I can’t do this if I can’t approach it with an open mind and a sense of fairness. I like to think I’m a fair-minded person, but…”
“Um…are really, though?” Triss shrugged when Trissiny stopped, turning to glare at her. “You know most of your classmates see you as kind of judgmental, right?”
“Just because they think that doesn’t mean I am!”
“Damn straight, and don’t you forget it. But on the other hand, they didn’t just make that up for no reason.”
“Well… I’m a paladin, after all. Fair or not, we have a certain reputation…”
Triss raised her eyebrows. “Do people think Toby is judgmental?”
Trissiny stared at her for a moment, then sighed. “All right, fine. I guess I’m judgmental.”
“Now, I’d add a stipulation, there,” said Triss with a grin. “It’s probably a good thing to be a little judgmental. If you can’t make moral judgments, you pretty much can’t have a morality. It’s all about where you draw the line, though. Other people’s lives aren’t your business, and people should be judged according to their actual actions, not the stereotypes and old prejudices you learned from an old ex-Legionnaire in the heart of Viridill libram-waver country.”
“Watch it,” Trissiny warned. “I’ve refrained from bashing Principia, here; that’s my mother you’re talking about.”
“Okay, fair enough,” Triss said peaceably. “My apologies, that was over the line. It’s not irrelevant, though; we’re trying to understand the source of your problem with the Guild, and honestly it pretty much has to be rooted in your upbringing somehow.”
“I suppose…you’re probably right.” Trissiny peered around them at the mist. “Well, we don’t seem to be learning anything else from this. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go back where we can at least see.”
“Fair enough,” Triss said, then suddenly glanced back and forth nervously. “Uh…wait. Do you remember which direction was out?”
“You’re hilarious,” Trissiny said sourly, turning to stride back they way they had come.
The thief laughed, lengthening her step to catch up. “Oh, come on, it was a little funny. Maybe that’s part of your problem; so serious all the time. Everything’s going to look worse than it is if you can’t…”
She trailed off. They had exited the wall of mist quite abruptly, finding themselves back in the octagonal main chamber. The room itself had not changed, but this time, someone was waiting for them.
Trissiny’s armor came with a helmet, but she rarely wore it. This, in fact, was at Avei’s urging; Hands of the goddess were meant to be seen as individuals, and only used protective headgear in pitched battles for the same reason Silver Legionnaires rarely wore their helmets on city patrols. A person whose face was obscured was anonymous, and not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat inherently creepy. Avenist doctrines covered the psychological angles of the art of war as much as the physical.
The figure in the center of the chamber, though, was helmeted. She wore Trissiny’s silver armor, with the shield slung over her back and short sword hanging at her waist. In fact, her armor gleamed, freshly polished as if for a parade. Of her face, nothing could be seen; the T-shaped face openings in traditional Legionnaire helmets, either bronze or silver, weren’t too obscuring except at a distance, but behind this one there was only shadow.
“Is that…a statue?” Trissiny whispered.
As if on cue, the armored figure drew her sword and grabbed her shield, turning to face them.
“Come on,” Triss muttered. “Why would there be a statue?”
“Yeah, I figured.”
“This is you all over. Nothing can ever be the easy way.”
“Well, after meeting Kuriwa, I guess I know where I get it from…”
That was as much time as they had for conversation; the faceless paladin charged forward, weapons at the ready.
Triss skittered off to the side, while Trissiny whipped out her own blade and met the attack. She pivoted like a bullfighter, bringing up her shield to deflect a sword strike and jabbed with her own blade in passing, shrugging aside her foe’s momentum rather than meeting it head-on. The other paladin moved as well, turning to face her as she passed, but allowing more space to open between them.
The faceless woman’s sword was bright and new, gleaming with the same polish as her armor. She and Trissiny slowly circled, studying each other. Trissiny, to her unease, was at a disadvantage here; her own expression was exposed and readable, but she could get nothing from this creature. It had no eyes to betray its intentions; its movements were precise and controlled, giving no tells.
“Think,” Triss urged from a safe distance to the side. “It’s all metaphors in here! I don’t believe you’re supposed to fight.”
The shadow paladin surged forward again, slashing. Trissiny parried with her sword and attempted to smack her foe back with her shield, but the armored enigma retreated. They parted and came together a few more times, trading blows.
This was the most even match she had ever faced. This was herself, arguably more than Triss Locke; the combat style was identical, the level of skill the same.
“I don’t think she wants a hug,” Trissiny growled.
“You’re getting distracted by having an enemy to swing your sword at!” Triss shouted. “You always do this. Think! You’re supposed to learn a lesson here. Who is this, what does she represent, and what are you supposed to do about it?”
“Okay,” Trissiny muttered, parrying another blow and stepping back to avoid a charge. “Who’re… You’re not Mother Narny’s teachings. She never taught me to rush in this way.”
The shadow paladin paced back and forth a few steps, like a caged tiger working off energy, before attacking again. This time, Trissiny gave ground, using her shield and sword to deflect attacks and letting herself be pushed way toward the open center of the chamber.
“Are you…me?” she wondered aloud. “My…I don’t know, aggressiveness?”
The shadow stopped, balanced threateningly on the balls of her feet, weapons upraised and ready, but held back now.
“Too vague,” said Triss. “Everything in here is you. Think specifics.”
“You’re not Avenist battle doctrine,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “Too belligerent, too thoughtless.”
The armored doppelganger charged again, and this time she came forward to meet her. They clashed, spun, pivoted around each other and backed away, having traded positions.
“The historical Hands… No, that’s wrong, Avei said I had nothing from them unless I went looking for it through my connection to her.” She chanced an annoyed look at Triss. “I don’t know! A little help, here?”
“Come on, you know how this works,” the thief said. “Your mind, your test, your rules. You set this up to make a point to yourself. I’m not the one who needs to solve it.”
Trissiny had to tune her out at that point to repel another assault. This time, she retaliated fiercely, and it was the shadow who gave ground, finally breaking away and retreating to gain some distance.
Neither of them had scored a hit, even on armor. Shields and swords were unmarred by the pounding they had given and received.
“What are you supposed to be?” Trissiny demanded in rising frustration. The shadow just paced back and forth again, turning her helmeted head to keep that eyeless stare fixed on her. “I don’t understand this. Fighting for no reason, attacking without communicating… This isn’t principled, it’s not Avenist. It’s pointless. What are you trying to do?!”
“Can’t you think of a time when you’ve done something like that, though?” Triss prompted. “Or, y’know, a whole pattern of such times?”
“I…” Trissiny stopped, her eyes widening. “Yes. I have.”
The shadow charged; this time she threw herself to the side in a roll, coming up and turning to face her enemy but not raising her weapons.
“I was talking to Shaeine about this in the first semester,” she recalled aloud. “About the expectations of the calling weighing on me. How liberated I felt after making a huge mistake, learning I could and it wouldn’t end the world. I was never so stiff or aggressive before Avei called me.”
The shadow tried to charge again, but she simply dashed to the side, and after a few seconds of chasing her, the doppelganger gave up, pausing to pace again.
“Getting there,” Triss prompted encouragingly.
“You’re what’s holding me back,” she whispered. “You’re the idea that things have to be a certain way. That I have to be perfect. And you’re not from Avei. You’re not from me.”
The shadow paladin twirled her blade once, a foolish thing Trissiny would never do, then charged again, pelting straight at her, shield first.
Trissiny just stared, watching her come, and lowered her weapons.
The enemy dissolved into mist. Swirling tendrils of vapor washed across her in place of the body blow that had been coming, then dissipated into the air.
Triss circled around into her field of view, grinning, and ambled forward. “So. Did you figure out what you needed to?”
“This was never about figuring it out,” Trissiny said wonderingly. “Figuring things out is the point of the training. This was about letting myself.”
The thief grinned wider. “Was?”
“I think I get it now.” Trissiny smiled back. “Goddess, it all seems so stupid now that I look at it clearly. There’s no reason I can’t see things more openly, or why Grip and Style and Ironeye bother me so much more than Jayanta, Dailah and Sharai. I was just tied up in myself and not thinking.”
“So!” Locke stuck her hands in her pockets and smirked. “What kind of paladin—what kind of enforcer—will you be?”
Trissiny, to her own surprise, had to laugh aloud. “I don’t know yet!”
The thief nodded, smiling proudly. “Attagirl.”