It might have been the most peaceful place she had ever seen.
Peace hung in the air like the warm scent of bark, like the silvery-green leaves which occasionally fluttered down and danced around the ancient pitted courtyard on tiny gusts, like the shafts of coppery sunlight that crossed the open space at an angle from the west. It was a familiar sensation, one she had experienced in Toby’s presence, especially when he was filled with his god’s power. Peace as a tangible quality, something not felt by any of the physical senses for which there were names, but clearly experienced and understood just as well.
This was the first time she had felt that peace just existing, though. When it happened at Omnu’s behest, that was an act of will. An exertion of power, an attempt to deny the brutal nature of life and impose something better. In the week since they’d returned to school, she had begun to suspect Toby finally understood that fact; there was a directness in him beneath his serenity that hadn’t been there before, an unyielding oak behind the bending willow. The three paladins had been cagey about their experiences over the summer, but she was coming around to the opinion that some answers needed to be dragged out of them, one way or another. If nothing else, she very much wanted to know what had pounded some understanding into Toby.
He wasn’t the only one who still needed to absorb that lesson.
Teal’s consciousness shivered unhappily within her, and Vadrieny paused, taking a moment just to be with her counterpart, to acknowledge the love between them. It was love strained with growing tension, a complex state of emotions that, like the peace beneath the Great Tree, could not have easily been spoken but could absolutely not be denied.
The fortress was physically defined by the roots of the tree now supporting it as much as by its own shape. Apart from the cataclysmic battle that had wrecked it to its foundations, three thousand years atop a mountain had reduced worked stone to weathered shapes that might just as well have been so many boulders. It seemed as if the tree itself had made an effort to preserve what there was of the old fortress.
That might have been the literal case. Between gods, the Crawl, and the Golden Sea, she was well aware that a consciousness too diffuse to carry on a conversation could still have an agenda and the means to enact it.
Vadrieny climbed carefully up the roots to the trunk, balancing on each step without allowing her talons to dig into the wood. The colossal trunk was vertically flat on this side, enormous roots fanning out to embrace the ancient courtyard and leaving a towering, arched surface against the rear. In shape, it actually very much resembled a gate. There was no hellgate here, though, not even the distinctive prickle of infernal magic at work. This might be the least magically corrupted place she had ever visited; even the Temple of Avei had a martial harshness to its ambient energies, never mind that her Talisman of Absolution was meant to protect her from them.
The archdemon rested one clawed hand against the living wooden surface where, long ago, there had been a gate to Hell. One she had passed through in both directions.
Nothing here sparked even a hint of memory.
Wings folded, she climbed back down just as carefully and made a slow circuit of the courtyard on foot, gazing across every feature of the wood and stone encircling it.
Her eye was caught by a depression in the ground, slightly off-center from the gate. Vadrieny paced around it in a full circle, then stepped down into it and carefully stretched herself out.
Its walls were gently sloped after millennia of erosion, but with her wings spread behind her and limbs spread, it was almost like the base of the crater, over a yard down, was shaped like a person of about her dimensions. As if something had made a Vadrieny-shaped hole in the ground.
Then again, it was probably just the wind-carved remains of some forgotten artillery strike. Professor Tellwyrn had covered in detail the propensity of the sapient mind to find patterns that weren’t there and attach significance to things that had none.
She still lay there, though, staring up at the branches of the tree. The sheer size of the thing made it hard to get a sense of perspective; a tree that big was outside her frame of reference, and the sight messed with her instinctive sense of spatial relationships. But that, too, would be corrected with time and exposure, if they stayed here long enough.
It was funny, how you couldn’t really trust your own mind. Funny, and horrifying. Tellwyrn said the best you could do was to be aware of the ways it tended to go wrong, and try to account and compensate for them.
A lot of them could benefit from some practice at that art.
The distant yapping noise made Vadrieny clamber back out of the hole, snapping her wings once to dislodge dust, leaves, and stray bits of gravel. She turned toward the tumbled gap at the front of the courtyard that had once been its gates, pacing forward to meet what was coming.
He emerged over a low ridge of fallen rocks, bounding toward her in comical little leaps each punctuated by a yip. Vadrieny couldn’t help but smile as she met the young hellhound partway. F’thaan flopped over on his side upon reaching her, panting furiously, his tail beating an excited pulse against the dirt despite his obvious fatigue.
“Aw, buddy,” she murmured, ruffling his ears. He licked at her claws. “Poor guy, that was quite a hike, wasn’t it? And what did you do with Shaeine? You know you’re not supposed to run off on your own.”
F’thaan, unrepentant, struggled back upright and began pawing at her leg.
When the others caught up, they found Vadrieny sitting on a root, slowly stroking the half-grown pup draped over her lap, already sound asleep.
Shaeine quickened her pace, crossing the broken ground with that almost liquid glide of hers and nonetheless moving as fast as a human in a sprint. Vadrieny smiled, watching her approach. Just the sight of the drow—their wife, though neither of them was truly accustomed to the thought yet—was enough to make both her and Teal feel physically warmer, a blend of pure adoration and carnal hunger, neither of which showed signs of fading with familiarity. She was such a vision, a sleek, dainty specter of beauty and danger constrained by the serenity of her own will, those garnet eyes glittering with promises for no one else to interpret.
Shaeine slipped onto the root next to her and Vadrieny draped an arm and wing around her slim shoulders. For a moment the drow hesitated, stiffening barely perceptibly, then relaxed into the embrace. She took no offense; this was a public space, and those distinctions were drilled into her with a severity that went beyond culture and religion. The drow of Tar’naris couldn’t function without their rigid distinctions and hierarchies. Shaeine relaxing in public wasn’t a simple matter of coaxing her out of her shell. Even now, the bare extent to which she was willing to relax and show feeling around others was offered only to the handful of people now joining them.
The rest of the class of 1182 crossed the old courtyard more sedately, gazing around at the scenery now that they were satisfied Vadrieny didn’t need any immediate help.
“Well,” Ruda said aloud after they had assembled in a loose cluster near Vadrieny and Shaeine, the pirate tilting her head back with fists on hips to stare up at the swaying branches high above. “Whaddaya think of that?”
“I never thought I would say this,” Juniper murmured, “but this tree…makes me uneasy.”
“How’s that, Juno?” Gabriel asked.
“It feels…it smells…” The dryad shook her head, absently running a hand over the beak of her little bird-thing companion. “It’s not exactly the same, but the feeling I get from this tree makes me think…sister. And my knee-jerk reaction is that no, Mother would never do something like that. Then comes everything I’ve learned and I realize that yes, of course she would.”
Sniff leaned against her leg in silent support. Vadrieny would never have said so aloud, but she already liked the proto-bird better than Juniper’s last pet. Even with his training apparently just begun, Sniff behaved himself in public and actually performed useful tasks, two feats Jack had never managed.
“Nothing about this suggests sentience to me,” Fross buzzed, circling lazily above their heads. “I’ve never felt an instinctive kinship with dryads or other fairies, though. With the way pixies are raised, that really…wouldn’t work.”
Trissiny sat down on Vadrieny’s other side on the root, of course not nearly as close as Shaeine. “I don’t understand the magic at work here,” the paladin mused, also staring up at the tree, “but I could get used to it. This place feels…safe.”
“Yeah,” Vadrieny agreed, gently squeezing Shaeine’s shoulder, ever mindful of her talons. “For me, even. Safe, and unfamiliar.”
Trissiny looked at her, inquisitive but not pushing.
“I was worried,” the archdemon admitted. “You know I’ve had flashes before, little bits that rise to the surface. After what Tellwyrn said, I thought maybe a place like this would…” She trailed off, and shook her head. “I wanted to face it alone at first, just in case. But no, nothing. Not a twinge.”
Shaeine mutely rested a hand atop the claws that were slowly stroking F’thaan’s dark fur.
“I’m sorry, Vadrieny,” Toby said simply.
“No, it’s for the best. Like I said, I was worried, not hopeful. I think Trissiny put it best, back when we visited the Temple of Avei. My history is not a good one to have. However it came about, I got a blank slate, and… Some things about my existence now might be a little awkward, but whose life is perfect? I have everything anybody could reasonably desire.”
She shifted to press a brief kiss to Shaeine’s hair. Again, a fleeting stiffness passed through the drow’s body, instinctive discomfort with the display in front of others. It brought a responding pang from both Vadrieny and Teal, equally fleeting and then gone. Their relationship was necessarily complex, but all three of them understood it. Love soothed over many affronts, so long as it was nurtured.
Trissiny was gazing up at the tree again, her expression far away. “It’s so easy to forget that Elilial is a person. Was once, anyway. The choices she made were the ones that seemed best to her at the time, under circumstances I doubt any of us could even imagine living through. She was a friend to the Pantheon. I can’t help but wonder what could possibly have been going through her mind.”
“Sympathy for the Dark Lady, now,” Ruda said incredulously. “What the fuck did those thieves do to you, Boots?”
“Oh, it’s not just them,” Trissiny said with a passing grin. “And it’s not sympathy, just…understanding. Or an effort at understanding, anyway. The enemy you refuse to understand is the one who’ll defeat you.”
“Careful with that, though,” Gabriel murmured, also staring up at the tree. “What you understand too deeply, you become. If you’re not practiced at taking that mask off when you’re done with it, you might find it stuck in place.”
“I can’t conjure up any sympathy for…my mother,” Vadrieny said quietly. “Whatever the reasons for her choices, she made them. I can’t imagine anything that justifies the harm she’s done to the world and everyone on it. Thinking about the fact that I used to be a willing part of that… The sensation is like vertigo. But,” she added in a softer tone, “I do wish I could have known my sisters.”
Shaeine deliberately leaned her head against Vadrieny’s shoulder, nodding once to rub her cheek against her.
“It must be hard to disentangle those things, huh,” Fross said, fluttering down to hover in front of the archdemon. “I feel like I don’t get to hear your perspective very much, Vadrieny. I’m sorry to just be hearing about this now.”
“It’s fine,” she said, smiling. “And it’s not so very hard to reconcile. All I have to do is remember that, in the end, Elilial and her schemes are the reason I don’t have sisters.”
“Vadrieny,” Trissiny said seriously, turning again to face her, “I don’t really know if I can call you sister. I mean, whether that closeness has been earned. But after the last two years I can say that I would be honored to.”
“How is that done?” Shaeine asked suddenly. “In your Sisterhood, that is. I assume there is some rite of adoption that links sisters in arms?”
“Well, not…explicitly,” Trissiny said with a thoughtful frown. “There are formalities in joining either the Legions or the clergy, of course. And within those groups there’s a very strong sense of sorority. But then, the doctrine of the faith teaches that there is a universal sisterhood among women. It’s…well, it’s vague, Shaeine. I, uh, guess it’s all very un-Narisian. All feelings and personal judgment and working things out organically, how matters stand between any two particular women.”
“I see,” Shaeine murmured. “I have been… More and more, lately, I struggle to reconcile the different parts of my life. I will never be anything but Narisian, nor do I desire to. But I feel I have become sufficiently Imperial that… That the very barriers I must keep up to protect my own identity have begun to pain me. There are people I no longer wish to keep on the other side of them…people for whom adoption into my House is simply not a prospect.”
“Aw, honey,” Ruda said, grinning as usual, but with sincere compassion now. “We all love you, too.”
“Yeah,” Gabriel added. “Ruda even declined to punch you, that’s gotta show how serious she is. Remember that time she—”
“Fucking stabbed you,” all eight of them chorused, Ariel included. F’thaan raised his head, peering sleepily around at them.
“I just want to make sure everyone remembers,” Gabriel said primly.
“The record time elapsed between you making sure we remember is one week,” Fross informed him. “I have kept track.”
“Course you have, Fross.”
“I have a question,” Vadrieny said suddenly, “for Toby and Trissiny. And Gabriel, I suppose. The Pantheon-trained among us.”
“Oh?” Toby asked.
Vadrieny drew a deep breath, seeking to still the emotional clamor rising up in her. Most of it wasn’t hers. “What is it that defines a bard?”
A beat of silence passed. The first hints of tension gathered in it.
“Based on that lead-in,” Trissiny said in a careful tone, “I assume you’re not interested in an easy definition covering musical ability or membership in the Vesker cult.”
“Sort of? My knowledge of the Vesker cult is thirdhand, at best. We’ve had a conversation with Vesk himself, and yet…”
“Control,” Toby said quietly.
Everyone turned to look at him.
“The world isn’t made of stories,” he said, “it’s made of math. But the way people perceive the world is made of stories. Thought is narrative, that’s the heart of Vesker doctrine. Every cult, every tradition, ever mortal pursuit, is an attempt at control through some method or other. If you think of the core actions of Avenists, of Eserites, of Elilinists or Omnists or anyone, it all comes down to a belief about what the world should be and a set of actions intended to make it so. Including, necessarily, a means of imposing your will on the people who have a different vision. Veskers…bards…do it by stepping into the story and controlling how it develops. You can’t change the physical world that way, but you can certainly change the way people perceive what’s happening to them. And therefore, what they decide to do about it. At least,” he added with a self-conscious little shrug, “that’s the theory.”
“That…is really well-put,” Vadrieny said slowly. “Thank you, Toby. That tracks perfectly with everything I’ve learned from Teal. When she would read adventure stories as a girl, it was always the bards she admired because they got done what they needed to without resorting to force, or even trickery a lot of the times. It was like they just… Knew how people worked, and got the results they needed from that.” She nodded, gently squeezing Shaeine. “Teal never laid it out in those terms, but that’s what it was. Skillful, passive control.”
In the quiet, there was only the breath of wind across the courtyard, the sound of air through leaves so high above them and in so vast a spread of branches that it was like the sound of a nearby sea.
“This is an awkward silence,” Fross stated at last. “The thing we are all carefully not saying is how Teal does absolutely none of any of that.”
All of them lowered their eyes, Gabriel and Trissiny sighing softly. Shaeine once again pressed her head against Vadrieny’s shoulder.
“I don’t know if I could even tell you how hard it is to have to do this,” Vadrieny whispered, “but by myself, I can’t make her… It’s getting to be too much. She depends on Shaeine to make any arrangements to ward off conflict, and on me to smash down whatever else slips through. And if Teal was weak, or stupid, I could accept that. There’s nothing I would not do to protect her, and my love for her isn’t contingent on anything she does. But she doesn’t need this. She’s so smart, and so gifted, and so averse to proving it! And so, so afraid of her own capacity to do anything that she…doesn’t. As if exerting any energy onto the world were an act of violence.”
“I recently received a stern lecture about confusing pacifism with passivity,” Toby said with a sigh. “I think Teal could’ve benefited from hearing it, too.”
“Okay, I need to interject something here.” Ruda stepped forward, and then crouched on her heels in front of Vadrieny so that she was looking up at the seated archdemon from a lower position. “I really feel like we don’t get to talk with you nearly enough, Sparky, and I really hate the thought of asking you to go back inside so we can talk to Teal instead. But the fact is we’re now criticizing a friend behind her back and that really sits badly with me.”
“Teal is fully conscious of this conversation,” Trissiny pointed out, her forehead creased in a worried frown.
“Yeah,” Ruda retorted, scowling back, “but she’s not able to have her say in it!”
“Teal does not need to have her say,” Shaeine whispered. All of them turned to stare at her in naked surprise. The priestess squeezed her eyes shut, visibly struggling for control, then turned and wrapped both arms around Vadrieny, pressing herself close. “My beloved, light of my universe… There is nothing I would not do for you. I have broached this gently, and in private, and you don’t hear. I cannot fail to serve you as you need from your mate…and if that means I must shame you before our friends, I will not flinch from it. I will abase myself in whatever manner I must to earn your forgiveness again, but they are right. You need to shut up and hear this.”
She buried her face in Vadrieny’s collarbone, shoulders quivering with barely-repressed sobs. The demon swept a glowing wing around Shaeine, all but hiding her from view and cradling her head with one clawed hand.
“Love,” Toby said in a soft cadence as if reciting something, “means placing another’s needs before your own. And sometimes, what a loved one needs is a swift kick in the ass.”
“There will be no abasing,” Vadrieny murmured, caressing Shaeine’s hair with careful talons. “She adores the air you breathe, aithrin. And she knows we’re right about this. These are family. There’s nothing to forgive.”
“Man, this is really uncomfortable,” Ruda grumbled, standing back up and beginning to pace. “Putting all my instincts against each other, here. You gotta have straight talk between friends, but you can’t do it at somebody who can’t talk back…but fuck if this isn’t overdue. Teal, you’re the sweetest human being alive and I love you like my own blood, but Naphthene’s tits, girl! It kills me how you refuse to deserve the respect I know you’re capable of earning. Aw, fuck me running, now you assholes’ve got me doing it.”
She savagely kicked a chunk of masonry from its millennia-old resting place.
“So…yeah,” Fross chimed awkwardly. “This here is a whole set of issues, isn’t it? I, uh, I’m pretty out of my element, too. Just like to add that I also love Teal and I dunno what to do about any of this, but if somebody does you can count on me.”
“Growth can’t really happen without pain,” Juniper murmured, chewing at her bottom lip. “Sometimes… I guess sometimes you have to try to cut in the right place, so it heals the right way.”
“Growth, like healing, is a process,” Toby added, nodding. “What’s important is that we will be here for each other. There are no magic solutions to things like this.”
Gabriel cleared his throat. “Actually…”