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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

With A Love So Hard And Filled With Defeat

Val stood frozen, unable to hear anything but the roaring of her own blood in her ears. She’d been afraid of something like this since the Madness; combing over every non-elven interaction with a shaking hand, afraid of finding something lurking inside her that she didn’t want to face. Repeatedly failing to find it didn’t bring any relief, no more than remaining celibate did. Whatever defect in my heart led me to incest and racial attacks... it’s still in there, somewhere. Oh, gods, I have confirmation now.

“Cat got your tongue?” Shilree said. “Valende?”

The words shook Val out of her paralysis, and she turned on the Dagger Hero with ferocity. “How--how dare you?” she hissed, her eyes stinging with pain and despair. This was all so unfair. “In more than a hundred and fifty years I have never once attacked anyone on the basis of their race... and I have slain men for serving in an opposing army, so if I had the inclination to kill them for belonging to a different race or faith I would damn well have done it!”

“Not necessarily Val. Everyone has inhibitions after all, at least they do when they are not under the control of magical artifacts. I am sure you would not have wanted to jeopardize your status as a priestess with mass murder sprees. Besides, you are not a violent person by nature. I am sure that under normal circumstances your racist inclinations would not manifest themselves that way.” Shilree peered into her face. “What about your opinions... the ones you have in your heart Val? Can you honestly say you don’t look down on other races--that you don’t become impatient with their childish ideas and stupid customs?”

“You’re in a fine position to talk,” Val snapped. “You called me kiljhac the minute you walked into this room! You have more impatience for other people’s ‘stupid customs’ than I ever will in my life!”

“Perhaps Valende, perhaps,” said Shilree. “However I have never hidden this flaw from the people I care about.”

“Well, if I’m hiding it,” she said through her teeth, “then I must be ashamed of it, mustn’t I? If I were truly a racist, I would hardly care who knew it, now, would I?”

“Maybe you would,” Shilree said. “There are many people who are ashamed of their violent tempers after all. Many men who regret abusing their families, but nonetheless continue to do it.”

“I am not an abuser,” Val exploded. “How dare you accuse me like this? I know all about you, Shilree; Luthien told me what you did. You faked your own death so you could abandon your half-breed baby. How dare you talk to me about bigotry?”

“You speak of things you know little of,” Shilree said sharply. “Shilree is just a convenient archetype whose avatar I’m borrowing, but since you insist on making this personal: I welcomed that pregnancy, when I thought it was the child of the human man I loved. I intended for us to raise the baby together. It was only when I learned that the father was a doppelganger rapist, and that my lover was dead, that I decided to abandon it. Maybe I shouldn’t have done it, but I knew I couldn’t be a fair mother, so I left him with someone who could.” She crossed her arms. “And I’ll tell you this: I have my own bigotries it is true, but I have also stood against the stupid customs of my own people in favor of the kiljhacs I cared about. I could have been executed back home for my relationship with Ralchar, but I did it anyway. Would you ever have married Jack in violation of your religious beliefs, even if you never had that falling out? I do not think so Val.” She paled, but did not contradict the Diarian. “I may have my quaint ideas about who is unnatural and who is not, but I have never pitied a friend’s children for being mixed-race, either. Can you say the same?”

Khyrisse’s jaw dropped, and she turned her head to stare at her friend. Valende put her face into her hands.

“All right,” said Rani, too loudly, standing up. “All right, look--that’s enough.”

“You are trying to tell me the only way to save my wife is trapping my friends in this place for 144’s of years?” Tarrin was aghast. “This is a nightmare! Will--will she die if I don’t go now?”

Talakan shrugged. “Depends. Even we don’t control the future, you know. She may die; she may live. Heck, I can’t guarantee she won’t die if you go to her right now, or that you won’t save her only to see her run over by a carriage tomorrow. Me, I went and sacrificed my loyalty to my goddess for the power to save my country, and the damn place has wound up in the shitcan anyway. Life can be cruel sometimes, you know?” He took a blase drink from his valeshr farlin. “I’d say that practically speaking it’s pretty likely that she’ll be in a lot better shape the sooner someone gets to her. And you’re the only ‘someone’ there’s going to be.” Tarrin pulled his hair in anguish. “But really, what this is truly about is this: would you rather be the archetype who abandoned his dying wife when she needed him, or the one who betrayed his kiljhac friends? Or, if you’re the half-full type: would you rather be the archetype who put his love for his family first, or his honor as a friend?”

“That is the devil’s choice,” cried Tarrin.

“Well, yes. Sometimes it works that way, doesn’t it? The Code of Vyrag is so full of commandments. It’s functionally impossible to be true to all of them, so there are dozens of conflicts like yours and mine just waiting to fight their way out. Time’s a-wasting, lad. What’s it going to be?”

Tarrin buried his fingers in his hair and shook his head. “Some of them have families too,” he said. “I can’t leave them behind. I would effectively be orphaning their children. I--I love my wife, but I won’t betray my friends for her. She would not want me to.”

“I don’t know that I’d be betting the farm on that part, you know.”

“She wouldn’t want me to if they were Diarians,” Tarrin said. “Coyri doesn’t understand kiljhac yet. She’s never had a single real interaction with one of them in her entire life. As far as she knows they could be iguanas. I can’t make a decision based on ignorance.”

“Suit yourself,” Talakan shrugged. “It’s your destiny. I do suggest you try to talk your kiljhac friends into picking the pace up a little bit. And if not... well, I’ll leave the door here, just in case you change your mind.”

Tarrin slowly sank to his knees and pressed his forehead against the blue wood as the Psilord strolled off through the streets of Rumi.

“I beg your pardon?” Shilree looked startled.

“I said that’s enough.” Rani rubbed her temples. “Both of you. Val... there’s a lot of shitbags in this world. God help me, I’ve met most of ‘em. A little bit of less-than-fully-conscious supercilious pity does not put you on the list, okay?”

Val slowly lowered her hands to stare at Rani. “You... you knew?” she whispered.

“Look, Val,” Rani sighed, “I don’t usually call attention to this, okay, because otherwise I’d never get laid at all, but I am a psychometrist. I get psychic impressions through physical skin-to-skin contact. Which if you’ll remember, we had some.”

Valende paused. “You’re right,” she said. “I wouldn’t have gone to bed with you if I knew that.”

“Welcome to my life. Anyway, look, the point is this: I’ve also known a lot of people who think I ought to be euthanized, or put in my place, or kept out of polite society, or that I make a particularly good place to displace aggression. And I know the fucking difference, okay?” She sighed and swept her hair back out of her face. “So you think I’m a little disadvantaged. So I think you’ve got your thumb up your butt a little bit. It doesn’t stop us from liking each other. And if you’ve got some negative feelings in there you’re not acting on--if you’re able to treat people fairly and take their skills seriously and maybe even give them a chance emotionally--well, in my opinion, that makes you a really fucking admirable person.” She sat back down, looking intensely at the floor. “That’s all.”

Khyrisse sighed and unclenched her fist, the sense in that overriding her immediate maternal reaction to kick anyone who suggested her child might be anything less than perfect. I have a stronger reaction than that to the damn Diarians, she reminded herself. I have to work my butt off to keep from being prejudiced against the ruder ones in my official capacities, but I do. “Rani’s right,” she said. “Shilree, whoever you are, if--if you could please just finish up whatever you’ve come here for, so we can get the rest of our party together and get out of you people’s hair?”

“Oh, I am finished Khyrisse,” said Shilree. The defensive sharpness Val managed to provoke had subsided into her original air of smug mystery. “Val has made her choice.”

“What?” Val demanded in a brittle panic. “What choice? What did I choose? You never even asked me anything!”

“Yes I did,” said Shilree. “I asked you whether you wanted to stay with your friends or face your fears alone. Everything since then has only been consequences.”

There were a few fragile moments. “You mean you tormented me with my darkest secrets just to--”

“Just because that was your choice,” Shilree interrupted. “You have been wavering between withdrawing from the world and staying connected to it Valende. Faced with the thing you feared most in yourself, you preferred to rely on the support of your friends rather than flee from them. In my personal opinion it seems like they have risen to the occasion pretty well Val. But that is neither here nor there, as we say in Diaria.”

And then the mirage of Shilree was gone as if it had never been there, not even a flicker in the air of the museum. Khyrisse pressed her own temples. “This is the most confusing place I’ve ever been,” she said aloud.

Valende sat down on the bench and trembled with more emotions than she could put words to.

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