420: Brimstone?

on November 17, 2009 in Book 15

In Which… Oh, Shit. Martha’s Here.

My insides turned to ice at the sound of her voice. I felt paralyzed, like the way it feels sometimes when you wake up too quickly from too deep a sleep. My throat locked shut, which was entirely incidental since my lungs also refused to work. I could feel her gaze beating into the back of my head, could feel her looking down at me.

I felt tiny. I felt trapped. I felt nine years old and alone.

But I wasn’t alone… I had Amaranth and Ian, and I had Lee who was being well-compensated by someone to watch my back. Granted, I wasn’t sure exactly what good a lawyer was against an authoritarian grandmother… but in thinking that, I realized that his relative uselessness directly related to the lack of actual power she had over me.

She could talk… that was it. It could be awful, it could be hard for me to get through, but eventually it would be over. She couldn’t make me do anything. However difficult it could be for me to say no to her, she couldn’t make me say yes.

I turned to face her.

She was as I remembered her, wearing the winter version of what she called her “traveling clothes”, though she’d never traveled more than two towns over in them that I could remember: a tweed overcoat and a riding cape. The bottom of the long coat was segmented , as was the woolen skirt I knew she’d be wearing beneath it.

I couldn’t picture my grandmother as any kind of a knight, but it occurred to me that her clothing always tended to resemble armor of a sort: thick layers, little skin exposed… as though it were protecting her from a wicked world.

Her face was… not something I could comment on directly. I could picture it well enough without raising my eyes to meet her gaze. Stern… hard and cold as stone. It wasn’t a face that needed to be seen more than once or twice before it burned itself all the way into the back of your skull.

“You might say hello to your grandmother,” she said.

“Hello, Grandmother,” I croaked through lips that felt heavy and numb.

“Ungrateful as ever, I see,” she said. “I traveled all this way to do what I can…”

“Excuse me,” Lee said, rushing just past me to stand slightly in front of me. “We appreciate how far you’ve traveled, but as I told you before, my client has nothing to say to you at this time.”

“That’s fine for your client, but I have plenty to say to my granddaughter,” she said. “I have come all this way to help her.”

“That’s kind of you, but what she needs right now is capable legal representation,” Lee said. “Which is something, regrettably, you cannot provide… especially as you have insinuated yourself into the investigation.”

“Insinuations are for serpents and servants of the dark ones,” my grandmother said. “I offered my services, as it was needful and I was nearby.”

“Commendable,” Lee said. “But having done so places you in something of a compromised position with regards to…”

I winced at his choice of words, and was not surprised at what came next.

“‘Compromise’ is a dirty word, Mr. Attorney,” my grandmother said.

I touched Lee’s arm and stepped forward. His words were carefully chosen, but he wasn’t dealing with a temporal court when he spoke with my grandmother. He was not going to do anything if he stood there trying to ironwall her except maybe provoke another physical response. Maybe that was his goal… maybe he was trying to get her removed from the situation entirely, I didn’t know. But I didn’t want to see it happen.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll talk to her.”

“Mackenzie, I think we should just walk away,” he said quietly.

“I walked away from her already,” I said. “It didn’t take.”

“All the more reason not to engage with her now,” he said. “I can’t speak about your personal life, but there are more important things going on right now… you can’t afford to be distracted.”

“I know,” I said. “Let me try to deal with this now, and if it works… then there won’t be any distraction.”

He looked at me, and then nodded.

“If we get that reflection I’m waiting for, we’re going,” he said.

“That’s fine by me,” I said.

I kind of hoped it came sooner rather than later.

I didn’t really deserve any bravery points for deciding to confront my grandmother. I was, after all, simply giving in to what she wanted. It came naturally, even as my mind rebelled from it. This was why I had been so reluctant to read her letters or reach out to her. I’d spent nine years jumping at her command, fearing her anger, hiding from her disapproval… a couple months of relative liberty was not going to undo all that.

If I didn’t have Amaranth in my life… if I didn’t have her physically present… I couldn’t say that I wouldn’t just surrender completely and go back with her when she demanded it.

“Hello, Grandmother,” I said again, a little more clearly.

This time I raised my eyes… and I was surprised to find that my eyes were just about level with hers. I was maybe even a little taller. It seemed strange… it had always felt like she towered over me.

Her face was as I had expected, and not. She looked tired… tired and older. She’d never been young even in my dimmest memories, but somehow she seemed to be, well, diminished. Had the years caught up with her suddenly somehow? Or had my impression of her been frozen in time, and it was only when seeing her with fresh eyes that I could see what the last decade or so had done?

“Well,” she said. “The academic life has wrought some changes, I see.”

I nodded. For the better, I thought, but I couldn’t bring myself to say that. I kicked myself inwardly for not being able to voice disagreement. How much could I really believe it if I couldn’t say it?

“And your… companion,” she said, looking past me. “I heard about that, of course, but I wasn’t sure I believed it.”

“I’ve heard about you, too,” Amaranth said, her voice getting closer as she spoke. “I want to thank you for keeping Mack safe after her mother’s passing. It can’t have been easy…”

“Do not condescend to me, creature,” my grandmother said. “I won’t stand for it.”

Hey!” I said, my voice rising completely out of control. “Don’t you talk to her like that.”

My grandmother recoiled as if struck… struck by something ugly, poisonous, and unexpected. She stared, her face frozen in a horrified expression.

“Baby…” Amaranth said.

“I’m sorry,” I said to her. “I know I shouldn’t have raised…”

“Your head is on fire,” Amaranth said.

“What?” I said. I touched my face with my hand. My fingers, up near my hairline, felt the tickle of flame. “Oh, shit.” I tried to calm myself, while also drawing the flame back into me. “Um… how’s that?”

“Better,” Amaranth said.

My grandmother clicked her tongue. I looked and saw her shaking her head sadly.

“All that work, undone just like that,” she said. “Apparently my love for you is no match for a little lust.”

“I love Amaranth,” I said. “And she loves me.”

“You poor, confused child,” my grandmother said. “She cannot love you. Her mistress makes nothing but low beasts, and that is what she is: a beast of the field, wrapped up in sinful flesh to mock and tempt the creations of more civilized gods.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Blaise, but I think your grasp of theology, while undoubtedly very good within a narrow field, is somewhat lacking in breadth,” Amaranth said. “That is to say, I think that perhaps you aren’t as knowledgeable about deities who aren’t your own as you maybe think you are.”

“Ooh, sick burn?” Ian said.

“Well, excuse me for being polite, but I’m not about to speak disrespectfully to a senior citizen, who’s also a paladin and Mack’s closest living relative,” Amaranth said.

“I’m sorry, folks, but I really can’t allow this… reunion… to continue right now,” Lee said. He had his mirror out. “Mackenzie, do you know where the admin building is? We’re going to go there right now. Even if we have to wait when we get there… I’d rather wait in a closed environment than hang around in the open and wait to see what else comes along.”

He looked at me like he expected an argument but I just nodded. There wasn’t going to be anything productive coming out of talking to my grandmother, obviously. By speaking to her… even lashing out at her a little… I felt like I’d won a small personal victory. She could intimidate me, yeah, but I didn’t have to let her control me.

“It’s over by the east edge of campus,” I said.

“Alright,” he said. “I’m just going to let them know we’re coming.”

“Wait,” my grandmother said. “You could at least hear my offer, Kenzie.”

“My mother named me Mackenzie,” I said. My effort to control the volume of my voice only succeeded in turning it into a sort of growl.

“The least of her sins,” my grandmother said. “But not so small that I’ll take part in it.”

“You’re going to insult my mother…”

“And you, baby,” Amaranth said, putting her hand on my shoulder.

“…and expect me to listen to what you have to say?” I asked.

“I loved your mother as dearly as any mother loves her child,” my grandmother said. “Faults and all. That doesn’t mean I can be blind to them. Real love isn’t blind, Kenzie. It keeps its eyes open. If I were blind to your nature, for instance, I wouldn’t have been able to care for you as well as I did. That was a difficult job, and a thankless one, and one that no one could have forced me to do if I hadn’t felt obliged to do it.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Really. I could sit here and argue about whether you made the best decisions or whether you were fair or kind or loving, or whatever, but you’re right, you took me in for nine years and I’m still alive and I’m free. So, thank you… but you’re done. I’m eighteen. I’m an adult.”

“You’re a demon,” she said. “You don’t grow out of that, child. If there’s any truth to what I’ve been hearing in the news, you’ve been growing into it in my absence.”

“Yeah, I’m half-demon,” I said. “Going back with you isn’t going to change that either, is it?”

“It’ll matter less,” she said. “Out here, you could kill someone so easily. I know you didn’t have anything to do with that shifter girl, Kenzie, but you could have… and eventually, inevitably, it will happen. You will kill someone and they will put you down, or you’ll be killed by someone trying to stop you. And you probably think that’s the most awful thing, but that’s not even the beginning of your torment. You’ll end up the only place in creation meant for your kind, and your precious human soul will suffer forever for it.”

“You’ve always made it sound like you think that’s going to happen anyway,” I said. “No matter when I die.”

She nodded.

“It’s a hard truth, child… all you can do is live as well as you can, as long as you can,” she said. “I don’t want to hold out false hope… I know the ways of the gods and the ways of souls as well as any mortal woman, and that isn’t saying much. I suppose it’s possible that if you do as little evil as you can, there might be… well, the main point is that if you live a quiet life, under close supervision, it may be longer before you have to find out.”

“And that’s your idea of living as well as I can,” I said. “Going back and hiding in your basement.”

“You never complained about the basement before,” she said.

“It took me away from you,” I said. “It was my place. You came into my bedroom. You searched my bag, my books, my bed sheets. I didn’t even have a fucking door for years. The basement door locked. You never went down there. You never bothered me there. No one ever bothered me there.” I laughed as I thought about what I was saying. “Do you know how messed up it is that I’m grateful for a door that locked on the other side? That’s all the privacy I had.”

“My vigilance kept you safe,” she said.

“Well, I’m done being kept,” I said. “And anyway, what would happen to me when you die?”

“I’ve made arrangements,” she said. “The temple has institutions…”

“Yeah, I’ve heard of them,” I said, remembering Mercy’s story about where her new half-demon slave came from. “I’ve seen what they do to people.”

“As with anything of the mortal world, there’s good and there’s bad,” she said. “I have your interests at heart, child.”

“Actually, I represent her interests,” Lee said. He snapped his mirror shut. “And we’re going right now. Mrs. Blaise, if Mackenzie wishes to discuss this any further after the present situation is resolved, she knows how to contact you. Come along.” He gestured to an eastward path, and I started walking down it. He stepped in behind me.

“This discussion is not finished,” my grandmother said.

“It was, um, nice to finally meet you,” Amaranth said as she and Ian followed behind Lee.

“Mackenzie,” my grandmother said.

I stopped. Lee took hold of my arm.

“Mackenzie… if I were not your attorney and you were not about to speak to an imperial investigator, I’d still you it’s not a good idea to let her play on your emotions,” he said. “If I were your friend, I would tell you that you’ve got nothing to gain by giving her any more of your time.”

“Yeah, and you’d be right,” I said. I sighed and pulled my arm away. I turned and walked back past Amaranth and Ian.

“Baby…” Amaranth said, but she didn’t seem to have anything to follow that up with.

“What do you have to say?” I asked my grandmother, looking her square in the eye. My gaze was as steady as it had ever been. The rest of me was about as steady as an overcaffeinated sylph.

“This is not a good place,” she said.

“Even if that were true, that still wouldn’t make me come home,” I said. I winced at the fact that I’d called it home.

“We can find a better one,” she said. “Come home and we’ll look. A smaller school, not so far away.”

“Any school that meets your approval is not likely to approve of me,” I said. “Or be safe for me to walk around on.”

“Secular,” she said. “You’ll live at home. Think about it: you’ll be able to focus on your studies. How much studying do you do here, with your wild parties and all the trouble you get into?”

“You don’t know anything about my life here,” I said.

“A beautiful child got murdered here,” she said. “A godless child from the Shift, but I’ll eat my cape if she was the only one who died this weekend. There’s a culture of death here.”

“It’s a dangerous campus. A lot of the courses are adversity-oriented,” I said. “I’m just here to learn to enchant.”

“You could do that other places.”

“Not as well as I can do it here,” I said.

“We could get you into a guild school and you’d be finished in three years,” she said.

“And then what?” I asked.

“And then you go off and do what you want to,” she said. “Can I stop you?”

“You mean if I went off and got a job somewhere on the coast or wherever else, you wouldn’t turn up there trying to talk me into coming back to your house like you did here?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t pick the coast for you,” she said. “But, Kenzie… this is not a good place. I knew it wasn’t a godly place when you left, and I let you go. It was only when I started to see just how bad it was for you that I followed.”

“And I’m supposed to believe that won’t happen no matter where I go?” I asked. “If I went back with you and started next semester at a community college, how long would it be before you saw something in the paper or heard about something that you disapproved of? How long before you decided it was bad for me?”

“Kenzie, you’re not being reasonable,” she said.

“My name is Mackenzie,” I said. “I’d say you can call me ‘Mack’ if you want, but that’s for my friends. And I don’t for one second believe that you’re being as reasonable as you want me to think… you came here because you don’t believe I should be out in the world. Whatever you’re offering me now, I don’t believe you’d follow through with it.”

“Are you calling me a liar?”

Her tone rattled me, but I stood firm. Well, I took a step back, but metaphorically I stood firm.

“I’m saying you have dishonest intentions,” I said. “So, uh… yeah, I guess that’s a yes, I am calling you a liar.” I watched her lips get very thin and very white, but I kept talking. If I stopped, I might not get to start again. “You’re thinking of it as the truth because you’ve convinced yourself that you really would help me find another college, but you know in your heart that it would never happen… or that it wouldn’t last. You think that if you can get me back under my roof, you can just wear me down again and eventually I’ll stop fighting… and you’re probably right, and that’s why I’m not going back, no matter what you promise.”

She didn’t respond immediately. Her upper lip trembled a little and her nose kind of bulged out at the side a bit, like her nostrils were flaring. I didn’t know how to read that… I’d spent years not looking at her face, especially when she was angry. It didn’t seem like it could be good.

“Well,” she said. It was a whole sentence in and of itself. “I hope that you remember that I came to you in love and kindness. I’ll be in Enwich for a week, maybe more, but not less than a week. If you decide to come back to me after that… well, a lot will depend on circumstances.”

“That’s not going to happen,” I said. “If you want me to, you know, keep in touch or something… I’m not making any promises about that, either, but I’m definitely not going to have anything to say to you when I know you’re angling to drag me back home with you.”

“You can’t trust yourself,” she said.

“Maybe not,” I said.

“That’s why you have to trust me, Kenzie,” she said.

“You’re the reason I can’t trust myself here,” I said.

“I’m not one to give up,” she said. “And I’m too old to learn the habit. This is a wicked place. It would be better for all if you would leave it… it can do no good for you, and you can bring no good to it. I came to you in love and kindness, Kenzie… I’ll be back if I have to, and if need be, I’ll leave the kindness at home.”

I felt Lee’s hand on my shoulder. It occurred to me that I was getting touched an awful lot, but except for that weird moment where I realized it, I didn’t mind it. It was a very neutral touch, an announcement that he was here.

“That really is enough,” he said.

I didn’t expect my grandmother to back down, but she nodded once.

“Any thing further I say would be a waste, I expect,” she said. “And I’m not in the habit of wasting words. I’ll leave my current address at your hall, Kenzie.”

I didn’t respond, didn’t even so much as nod back. I just turned and started walking away again. This time she didn’t say anything to stop me, didn’t follow.

“You know,” Amaranth said to me, as we got farther away from the classroom buildings and from her, “she really does seem to have your best interests at heart.”

I couldn’t really disagree with that… I didn’t particularly want to agree, and I was afraid of where she might be going, but I couldn’t disagree.

“That doesn’t make her right, though,” she said, taking my hand. “And more, it doesn’t give her any control over you. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since coming here… well, I’ve learned lots of things, I mean, it is a school and there are so many new people and… sorry, that’s a little off topic. What I meant to say is, someone can have the best of intentions and still screw things up terribly.”

“You know, when you put it that way, I’m not sure I agree that she has the best of intentions,” I said. “I mean, there are intentions behind intentions. What she wants could be summed up as being ‘for the greater good’ or even ‘the best for me’, but… it’s based on assumptions about who and what I am and what I’m going to do that really aren’t… good.” The tail end of that thought process had got away from me, but I thought the idea came across pretty well. “And you… you’ve never wanted anything for me that I haven’t wanted for myself. Well, I mean, you haven’t actively done anything that wasn’t based on what I want for myself. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, baby,” Amaranth said.

“You don’t actually think she’s going to leave you alone for the rest of the week, do you?” Ian asked. “I mean, I don’t know her at all, but… she didn’t really give off a ‘leave well enough alone’ kind of vibe.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t think she’s done with me, but I don’t care. I’m done with her.”

“Listen, Mackenzie,” Lee said. “I let you play that out because I don’t believe she’s going to be integral to the investigation in any way. But it’s going to be a different situation when we’re dealing with the imperials… a much tighter leash. If someone makes an emotional ploy, let me respond. Whatever arrows come your way, I’m your shield. Got it?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got it.”

“Good,” he said. “Now, I had a quick conference while you were… involved, and so I think we’re going to be able to see Gregory fairly quickly. There are going to be a few reporters around, but they should behave themselves… the imperials don’t have to play nice with them. We’re lucky, if this weren’t an imperial matter then the campus would probably be lousy with reporters. We wouldn’t have taken a walk outside if that were the case, of course… as soon as we’ve spoken to Gregory, I’ll get a statement out with the highlights: you’ve spoken to investigators as a floormate of the deceased, you weren’t present, aren’t under suspicion, and so on. I have a draft of it on my tablet already to go… I don’t want to send it out before the ‘definitely not under suspicion’ and ‘most certainly not under arrest’ parts are officially true.”

“You are pretty confident that they will be true, though, aren’t you?” Amaranth asked him.

“I am very confident,” he said. “I just don’t want to tempt fate… or anybody else. Despite all the pressure, a murder investigation can drag on a long time. The longer it drags on, the more attractive a convenient solution looks. That’s why I’m determined to get this resolved for you today, before anything else goes wrong.”

I appreciated his enthusiasm, but it seemed to me like Lee could have used a few lessons in the whole “not tempting fate” thing.

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13 Responses to “420: Brimstone?”

  1. pedestrian says:

    The problem i have had with people such as Martha Blaise, is their narcissist assumption that SAYING they do good, they are good; because they SAY they are good because they SAY the good they do is PROOF that they are good. They are blind to their subconscious attitude that an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent deity has to be stupid.

    Now a deity does not have to be intelligent or even sentient as we recognize such things, in our smug pretensions that create the deitys as a reflection from a mirror of our own image.

    The Hawaiian indegens have a saying; “The missionaries came to do us good and they wound up doing very, very well for themselves.”

    Current score: 2
  2. Mactire says:

    As a paladin, if we run by D&D prereqs, Martha has to be Lawful Good. So, she is actually Good, alignment wise. That doesn’t mean that she is a “good” person, though. She does what is Good, but not always what is Right. And she is convinced that she is doing what is Good. Which makes her that much more dangerous.

    Current score: 3
    • Kato says:

      I don’t remember where I heard it but there’s a saying, “Lawful Good doesn’t mean Lawful Nice.”

      Current score: 5
      • Jechtael says:

        Which relates to Embries’ Other Tale: “Nobody ever said that being a NOBLE dragon meant being a NICE dragon.”

        Current score: 2
    • Kanta says:

      D&D Good is not the same thing as good. I’ve seen discussions about why Necromancers are always Evil that pointed out that in D&D terms, you can literally sit down and pour yourself a glass of Evil, and anybody who spends enough time around that stuff is Evil, no matter how good of a person they actually are. I’d say the same applies to Good.

      Current score: 4
  3. Cedjuct MacMan says:

    Someone lawful good and wise would find the right way. This does not mean they would be accurate or be free of misunderstandings as the grandmother of Mack proves.

    Current score: 0
  4. Anonymoose says:

    ^^ That is some shit logic right there. Ignoring the fact that personal interpretation of D&D alignments fuel over 50% of flame wars on Fantasy Roleplaying Forums, only an unimaginative cretin with lukewarm porridge where creativity goes would assume that because a Player Class in an entirely unrelated fantasy setting has the same name, it must therefore operate exactly the same way. There is nothing Good in someone made up of equal parts Blind Faith, Self-Righteousness, and Bitter Hatred for Anything Different.

    Current score: 2
  5. Downside says:

    After this, I think Mack COULD grow from having a SLIGHTLY closer relationship with her Grandmother. She could learn more about her mother, despite the strong Khersian filter in Martha’s inhibitions. Mack has also shown an interesting ability to shock Martha into… not admission of wrongdoing, but… reflection? I don’t know. Perhaps she could actually help Martha expand her worldview a bit. At least she could help her see other Gods as being important to the whole of nature, and not just mini-Khersises with different spheres of influence.

    Current score: 0
    • bleph says:

      Eeeeeegh no.

      Okay, I’m not going to say anything is impossible, but at this point Martha has lived her entire life facing a wide variety of extreme challenges to her faith, a faith which absolutely requires believing that Mack is inherently doomed.

      This chapter heavily alludes to her wish to believe that something, anything that she or Mack can do could save her from Hell – but she’s not even willing or able to explicitly say that that possibility could even exist, because to do so would be heretical.

      She has, of course, that hope. Deep down inside she wants to believe there can be a good ending for Mack.

      But she has shown that she will never give in to her fleshly desires if it means compromising eternal principles. She stopped being amenable to change against her god long ago, and ever since the world’s events can only entwine her outlook and behavior with her fanaticism. As such, with what obviously must be incredible talent and drive, she represents one of the most potent threats to the self-esteem and mental stability of any half-demon – in the case of Mack, a danger exponentially multiplied.

      Current score: 7
  6. MadnessMaiden says:

    Pop quiz! Who’s scarier? Martha Blaise or Mercy?

    Current score: 1
  7. Cadnawes says:

    Hey, folks? As a literally blind person, I would greatly appreciate it if you’d quit using “blind” as a synonym for “willfully ignorant” or “devoid of understanding”.

    I know I’m fighting some pretty entrenched linguistics, here, but I have just fucking had it with that one. Maybe I just don’t like words that literally describe me to figuratively describe someone like Martha. But yeah, straw, meet camel.

    Current score: 11
  8. Jechtael says:

    Has Mackenzie ever noticed how much it means that she spent nine years of living with her grandmother, some of that time having been pulled out of school, that she still thought of herself as “Mackenzie” and not “…Kenzie” when she first showed up at the university?

    Current score: 8
    • Athena says:

      Probably not. It’s a good point though.

      Current score: 0