“If you need a reason to work against Izma, then what about your mistress, then?” Quincy asked. She stood facing down Lethia with arms crossed and feet planted. An inkling in her mind told her that something was amiss, and she wasn’t about to let her guard down.
Call it a hunch…or the magicked pearl earring tugging on my ear. This girl? Up to something. As if my stupefied friends aren’t enough of an indication. Her eyes drifted to the back of Elmiryn’s head. Well. Nyx and Hakeem, anyway.
Lethia frowned and shrugged her shoulders. “What about Syria?”
The wizard raised an eyebrow. “Take into account her imprisonment and subsequent escape from Holzoff’s. Isn’t that enough? Her horrible time as a prisoner–abused and malnourished. Her murder of everyone in the tower–”
“If you’re trying to tell me bad things will happen in Izma’s service, you aren’t digging deep enough then. Nyx has been dismembered in the service of Lacertli. Elmiryn fell prey to Meznik under the neglect of Halward. Misfortune comes to us all, and much of the time it’s really our fault, not our benefactors.”
“Very well. I agree. But I think you’ve got it wrong when you equate Izma to the gods. She is responsible. Do you want to explore the realms of responsibility?”
“If you think it needs to be discussed, then please. Let’s.”
Quincy smirked as she stroked her chin. It had been nearly ten years since she’d had to delve into the difficult mazes that were theistic and philosophical thought. Deep logic boiled everything down to basic concepts, removing such fallacies as emotion and whimsy. It had nothing to do with wrestling established facts. After all, those were concrete. It had everything to do with taming the infinite, however, and as a wizard dabbling in many styles of magic, it was essential to be able to discern for yourself the value of the world and all its mysteries.
But the woman was aware that if Lethia Artaud truly wished only to discuss which side she should choose, then the isolation of their group would hardly have been necessary. Quincy couldn’t say for certain what Lethia’s motives were, but she was moving in concert with Izma, whatever she said, and that made the girl dangerous. Still, if what Quincy had gathered of Izma so far was true, then she had to tread lightly. Simply calling the demon out was likely going to get the woman killed. She needed to know when to strike, and how. It wasn’t as if she knew this creature, if it really was an astral demon, could be slain by conventional means.
Quincy started with a wave of her hand. “To illustrate the difference between Izma and the gods, I’d like to start with two questions. First. What is it to be responsible? Second. What is a god responsible for?”
“Those are deceptively simple,” Lethia said with narrowed eyes. Her hands were threaded together on her lap, but the wizard saw them tighten at the knuckles.
“For the sake of time, I’ll try to simplify.” She cleared her throat. “Now, I won’t muddle with the messy theistic issues you come across when connecting the mortal plane and the heavenly plane. But if we refocus, we can ask ourselves, what is moral agency to the gods?”
“Some would say you’re treading on blasphemy, even considering such a thing.”
Quincy shrugged. “Many lay believers have issues with magic users, believing we’re arrogant. I respect our world’s pantheon, but I do not go out of my way for the gods. Our relationship is…standoffish at best.”
“Why is that?” Lethia asked with a tilt of her head.
Ah. She IS trying to worm her way in.
The wizard held up a hand with a strong shake of her head.
“No. That’s not what we’re discussing.” Her voice was firm. She had to keep talking, she had to make Izma show herself. Wiping at her lip with her thumb, Quincy started to pace slowly, her other hand resting across her stomach where it could reach her pouch. “The first question I posed brings up moral agency. When we talk about moral agency, some believe that a rational agent chooses to act in light of principles. Others believe that reason cannot provide us with moral guidance. These people see that it isn’t our self-evaluation that guides us, but the way others judge and influence one another. So how do gods function? Clearly, they don’t seek the validation of one another. If the era of champions taught us anything, it’s that the pantheon is forever pulling in different directions–sometimes even clashing heads–and the only one who seems capable of bringing about any semblance of order is Halward, their king.”
Lethia’s eyes widened. “That is blasphemy! What you’re saying implies that the gods lack both principles and unity.”
“No, of course not. You didn’t let me finish,” Quincy snapped.
The enchantress flinched and seemed to wither in her seat. “I apologize. C-Continue.”
“Thank you. Now. As I’d been trying to tell you, the gods fear their leader, but they hardly fear one another. If anything, they each obsessively pursue their personal goals of governance over the mortal realm. That said they do have principles. How could they not, when their entire existence is tied to the Harmony that fuels their power? Would Kupala have any power left in this world if she allowed Halward’s followers to destroy her forests? Would Aelurus and Artemis have any sway if they allowed Azad, Nitor, and Vires to dominate the sky? And it breaks down further. The virtues they represent, the cultures they helped to grow, the lands they fought to create–these are things they seek to protect and advance. The gods are essentially rulers of reality, only their subjects are the mortals whom rely on them.
“So it’s a combination of both forms of moral agency. They are guided by a purer set of principles than we are–for the nihilistic heathens, they would argue that it’s a narrower set of principles. They are also affected emotionally by the very investments their existence is tied to, and their ambitions are culled by their fear of Halward.”
Quincy glanced at Lethia. The teenager had sat forward and was now leaning on her knees. From the way Elmiryn sat at her feet, the wizard could see the girl’s breath tease the warrior’s bangs. Her brow twitched at the sight, wondering if it were a sign, but she let the observation go. She needed more. That unusual disregard of personal space was not enough to illustrate Izma’s presence.
“Now that I’ve addressed how moral agency functions for the gods, we come to our second question: what is a god responsible for?” Quincy paused and gestured toward the ceiling with both hands. “In a way, I’ve already partially answered this. You can’t examine the moral agency of heaven without examining how this function would operate.”
“So from what you’ve outlined, those would be the elements that define the gods, and their relationship with Halward.”
Quincy snapped her fingers, allowing one eyebrow to arch up. “Yes! The gods, as the governing entities that control and foster the systems that uphold their elements of Harmony, are responsible for their domains. Njord is master of the wind and the virtues tied to this. Atargatis is mistress of the sea and the virtues tied to that, and so on. Next, if the gods hope to remain in Halward’s favor, they must regulate their actions, even with respect to their duties, so as to avoid repercussions.”
“Is fear really enough to encourage moral decision making?”
The brunette sucked at her teeth. “That’s annoying. You’re backtracking.”
“Is it my fault you’re trying to sprint through this like it were a marathon?” Lethia snapped, her lower lip pouting. “What is it, Quincy? Are you expected somewhere? Your companions aren’t leaving any time soon, so just answer my question: is fear an appropriate function of moral agency?”
The wizard spared the girl a suffering look. “In measured portions, yes.”
“So tyrants and despots–”
“It is a simple fact of life that mortals consider the pros and cons of everything, Artaud. It’s not enough to look only at the good things. A person has to consider what consequences they’ll face with a decision, and much of the time, it is fear that keeps a person from committing terrible sins. It could be that they are afraid of being caught, afraid of dying, or perhaps just afraid of what they’ll become, should they cross that line. Not everyone can stop and look at a situation and simply know what to do, present company being perhaps my best example. The only difference between a normal person and you, Artaud, is that you have a little more pluck than most–a trait that, for once, serves against you.”
The girl’s face twisted into a harsh scowl. “I am afraid, and I know what’s right or wrong! But my principles and my values amount to different things than everyone else, and with my soul outside of the realms of heaven, I have to consider what situation I can make the best of!” Her eyes fluttered and she swallowed. “Or if I can’t make the best of…anything.”
Quincy glanced at her sharply at this. She was certain that this was Lethia–the real Lethia, to be speaking so fatalistically.
She dared to step closer, her expression softening as she tried to catch the girl’s green eyes. “Lethia, this leads into my next point rather well, so I’m glad we took this small detour. You see, in the end, our decisions are our own. It is perhaps the greatest gift of the gods that they allow those on the mortal plane free will to either follow their light or slip into darkness. We are our own salvation. Heaven is only there to guide us, and in the case of an exceptional few, like Nyx, you might even enter contract with the gods. But those are all things us mortals choose for. So you’re right in stating that our mistakes are our own. But don’t you see? Just think. Has Izma given you or your mistress the sort of free will that the gods have? In what ways does the demon operate that makes her so beyond reproach?”
Lethia stared at Quincy, a hand on her chest. Then she turned her face away. The brunette frowned, feeling her chance to win the girl over slip through her fingers.
“So if you believe mortals to be responsible for their own fates, why are you so distant from the gods? Why do you resent them?” the enchantress whispered.
Quincy closed her eyes and ran a hand through her hair. “I don’t…resent them. I just celebrate my mortality. I’ve seen too many people caught up in the designs of heaven to let myself be lost in divine perception.”
“You celebrate your mortality?” Lethia’s voice took on a critical tone.
Quincy’s eyes gained a level of intensity as she paused to stare at the girl. “Now that sounded doubtful…”
“I just…I find it odd that someone with your history would claim to embrace such a mundane station of life!”
Lethia frowned. “I didn’t think Tonatiuh was such a distant thing quite yet, but I sensed you might dislike me saying otherwise.”
“You just did.” The wizard’s voice was venom now.
The girl blushed, but a smirk appeared on her face. “Ah. Sorry.”
Quincy clenched her jaw. “Tonatiuh was a mistake. I know that now.”
“What motivated you to join with such a parasite anyway?” At the brunette’s glare, the youth rolled her eyes. “Fine. Don’t answer. We’ll just keep pretending you aren’t being a hypocrite by spinning more useless academe.”
“I took on Tonatiuh’s spirit because I wanted to be strong. Okay?”
“Why did you need to be strong?”
“To do my job.”
“We both know that bounty hunting was an accident for you. Believe it or not, I didn’t need my enchantment to learn that. With a reputation like yours, it was easy to hear the whispers and learn which were true.”
Quincy’s face turned red. “Well since I’m such an open book, you’ll know that my life had been dangerous before I arrived at Crysen. I lived with pirates for years. Do you know what it’s like? Do you know the sort of fear I felt, living with cutthroats as a young girl? Of course you don’t. It’s hell. I had to do things that would make your skin turn just to keep from being sold into prostitution or passed around the crew!”
Lethia’s eyes widened. “Did Hakeem ever find out?”
“No. Yes. I have no idea.” The woman rubbed her face wearily. “I’d like to think that my husband wasn’t so naive, but in the end, I didn’t want to address the issue either. It was easier playing dumb for both of us. Ignorance is bliss.”
“So the rumors about you and Hakeem being taken in by Tulki…” Lethia breathed.
“True.” The word came out an acerbic piece. Against her will, the wizard was beginning to feel ill.
“But your safety… The only one capable of it was–”
“For gods sakes, it was Tulki, Lethia. I was Tulki’s concubine. Okay!?”
Quincy snorted. “When I became a teenager, however, I knew my time was about through. I was too old for the good captain’s tastes, and he would soon cast me out. That would’ve been hundreds of times worse than anything that man subjected me to. So I fled with Hakeem to Crysen.” The woman knuckled her eyes. “At the time it was the only thing I could think of.”
“You couldn’t find succor anywhere?”
“Lethia, I think you’ve made it clear that you’ve learned a lot about my companions and me. You know that Elmiryn is turning into a fae. You already knew Nyx was a champion. You know how we came to arrive here. So you must know then, that my father was Njord’s champion, and in his long career, he made many enemies. Those people were always hunting me. I couldn’t risk making it easier for them to find me.” The wizard went to sit on one of the tables, her gaze spacing. “I had to…go to a place where I knew it would be hard to reach me. Somewhere I could get strong and bide my time until I knew I could travel the world unhindered.”
“And that was Crysen?”
“Naturally. Just getting to the city is a test in of itself. You can’t take a ship straight there because of the sea monsters plaguing its waters, and the coastline is teeming with powerful creatures all thirsting for blood. It was a perfect spot to lay low.”
Lethia pressed both hands to her lips, but when Quincy glanced at her, she thought she could see a twinkle in the girl’s eyes, as though she were trying to restrain herself from smiling. Just when she was going to comment on it, the teenager cut in with another question.
“Amazing that two children were able to brave the Kilemare coast and survive.”
Quincy shrugged, frowning at her knees. “We weren’t without our skills. Living with criminals hardens you. But even before Tulki, we knew a thing or two about avoiding wildlife. For a short time when we were children, we lived in the Fanaean jungles alone…”
The wizard anticipated the next question and braced herself for it. She let her hand inch closer to her pouch, the other sitting on the edge of the table to better rise and call her staff. The conversation was coming to a head. Her heart rate was up. It was no accident that Lethia pushed her buttons this way.
That’s it. No more games. I’m not stupid, demon. I can see what you’re doing. Go ahead an ask about Kimbia. Ask about how it was razed to the ground!
“I’m sorry, Quincy. You’ve gone through a lot.” Lethia sat back in her chair, her hand running through her long hair. Her expression appeared troubled.
Uncertainty held Quincy fast, and her body tensed at this new change. There was a clear line of attack and the girl was purposefully stepping back. The relent only made the woman suspicious.
“I thought I was a hypocrite?” she said with a sneer.
Lethia chewed on her lip, then shrugged one shoulder. “You are. But you didn’t just become a hypocrite for nothing. You’ve suffered a lot, and you felt the gods could’ve done something. After all, your father had done so much for them, why would they let his only daughter fall prey to so much misfortune?”
Quincy bristled. “The gods had nothing to do with it!”
“But doesn’t your life fall into their realms of responsibility? Is it really within Harmony to allow a champion’s daughter to become the concubine of a bloodthirsty pirate? Or for her to live in the jungles like a wild animal–?”
“Shut up! It was nothing like that!”
Lethia’s eyebrows rose. “But…Quincy, you were sacrificed, don’t you see? Njord needed Jack to focus on his duties to heaven. You were a distraction. By taking you away from your father—”
Quincy punched her thigh. “I wasn’t taken away from my father! He left.”
“Only to handle what he was chosen to do—”
“No, no, no! He left because he couldn’t handle sitting still for too long! I was just a burden to him, and he didn’t want me. He abandoned me, Lethia!”
Lethia flinched. “Y-You don’t really believe that, do you–??”
“Of course I do.” Quincy’s hands were claws now, holding onto her knees because she could feel her control vanishing, breath for breath as the tumult of unwanted memories struck. Days of wishing, days of wanting, days of waiting for Jack—only to be rewarded with a monstrous band of marauders instead. Her life became chaos and misery, and it was only with bloody fingers that Quincy had been able to wrestle any sort of control for herself.
“Jack left to be the hero, like he always did. I was suffocating to him. He wasn’t suited to being a father. I wasn’t suited to being a daughter. When I came to understand that, all I wanted was for him to die so that Hakeem and I could live in peace. You think it was the god’s who shat on our lives for so many years? Let me tell you something girl. None of these things would have happened if Jack had never conceived me to begin with. I was the mistake. I was what brought death to Hakeem’s village. The problem was, I was too young and naïve to understand what a horrendous error I was until it was too late. Now I just…exist, hoping that I can destroy the ones who let me live and suffer.”
“That’s what you exist for?” Lethia’s voice was filled with pity, and her eyes turned big and watery, making the wizard want to gouge them out. “You live for destruction?”
Quincy felt her muscles tighten. When summarized like that, it felt so horrible.
Horrible and wrong.
“N-No…” she said quietly. She started to shake her head slowly, then with more passion. “No! That isn’t it!”
Quincy stared at her hands, feeling her chest clench with apprehension. When she spoke her voice was faint. “I hoped…I hoped for a family. Any kind. Whether of…of my blood, or someone else’s.” She swallowed. Her throat was tight. “And a home. Some place Hakeem and I could call our own. A place where we could feel safe.” The woman’s eyes narrowed as her eyes burned. “I never thought about it, but I don’t have a home. A real one.”
“But Hakeem loves you, doesn’t he? Isn’t that enough?”
The wizard’s chin tucked in, and her eyes ticked back and forth. A tear slipped down her cheek. “You don’t understand. I could never bring myself to die freely. I’m too stubborn. So if…if I could not kill myself…I had to accept that I was choosing to live. But living is a threat to Hakeem, because I attract bad things. So if I am to exist, it has to be to create something new. Better. A family…I just want a family.”
Quincy heard Lethia stand up, but couldn’t bring herself to lift her head.
I’ve never said that out loud… she thought with awe.
“And to have a family, you have to be strong?” the enchantress replied.
The wizard nodded. Footsteps. Lethia was coming closer.
“With strength, you’ll be able to destroy that which would threaten your family. Jack. His enemies.”
“Yes,” Quincy breathed.
The wizard looked up sharply, and it was to see Lethia standing before her, hands wringing with a nervous expression.
“You must have considered this, Quincy. Your life was not spent just combating the misfortunes brought on by being your father’s daughter. It was a collection of mistakes, wasn’t it? Tonatiuh, bounty hunting, wizardry…what has it earned you but more things to threaten your future children with? If you become pregnant, you’d have to go into hiding. If you adopt, you’d be knowingly choosing a child to take on the same kinds of burdens your father passed onto you. It’s a dark thing to hope for, isn’t it?”
Quincy’s mouth was dry. “But—”
Lethia’s eyes trailed down to the woman’s abdomen. “Even now, a new error comes.” Her eyes flickered back up, and the wizard withered under the cruel edge in them. “Your romp in the forest was without protection, was it not?”
The brunette’s heart skipped a beat, and she hugged her stomach. “Y-Yes. But the likelihood of—”
The girl tsked. “Now you’re just being naïve! Even taking into account your cycle, there is still a fair chance that you’re—”
Quincy jumped to her feet, panic seizing her as her eyes wide. “No! Not here! Not now! I can’t be pregnant!”
Lethia held up her hands. “Quincy! Calm down. Syria had me mix many potions here for many different purposes. I know we have something to abort unwanted beginnings. I can give it to you if you’ll just wait here.”
The girl started to turn and leave, but the woman caught her arm in a tight grip. “Now wait a minute!” When Lethia met her eyes, Quincy took a step closer. “This seems horrendously convenient doesn’t it? What is in that potion, really? Something to make me infertile, perhaps?”
Lethia gave her a stung expression. “If you really don’t trust me, you can watch me mix a new abortive potion now. But…” She looked away and looked back at the woman, visibly pained. “Quincy, you’re more like your father than you think, aren’t you? You don’t like sitting still, and you like the thrill of an adventure. For years you believed your father to be dead. You were at the top of the bounty hunting profession. In that time, why didn’t you stop to start a family and make a home, like you said? Maybe…M-Maybe you don’t really think you can have those things? If that’s the case, isn’t it better to stop lying about it?”
Quincy paled, feeling as though she’d been struck in the chest. Lethia gently pulled herself out of the woman’s grip and left to go up the staircase. The wizard didn’t move to follow her. She just watched, through clouding eyes, until the girl was out of sight. Then she covered her face with her hands and let her misery take her.