After Legion finished the official welcoming speech she vanished off to somewhere private with some of the Overseers, Haunter and Nirav. They left us with the assembled Gods of the Pantheon.
I had to work to keep the smile off of my face.
I had wrought this. Two years ago I sat down at my desk in Shington, Thui brought me a soda and I mapped it all out in my head. The risk of Her displeasure, impossible to anticipate in any reasonable way, was too extreme. I needed to join a Fist, and then to get to the Pantheon. I set my plans in motion.
There had been times when I’d despaired of getting it to work out. When She sent us to Redo without the Link, when the Union ambushed us and seemed to have us at their mercy, I hadn’t been able to see a way forward. But I had persevered.
I had chosen my comrades, those that I could influence anyway, perfectly. I had martialed my agency, carefully anticipating and surmounting those moments when my natural timidity could have ruined everything. I had even fought in pitched battle, spending freely of my gift to cement my reputation with our rescued Host.
It had all been for this, and it had all paid off. I was, for the most part, out from under Her heel, in a society where those with my gifts were in charge. I was Linked to mighty comrades, who had incentive to defend me in order to preserve their own lives. I was as safe as I was ever likely to be.
This wasn’t absolutely safe, of course. Death and her ilk were a threat to be overcome, and there was always the possibility that She might feel horny one evening and drag Dale off. But overall I was feeling less threatened than I had been in quite a long time. The Gods that surrounded me had had their chance to take a shot, and they’d all backed down.
I allowed myself a quiet tightening of one fist, no more. There was no gain to be had from boasting of this, no other to whom I could gloat, but in the silence of my mind I breathed a word of congratulations.
Then I set to work.
Fisher was already mingling with the assembled Gods. No one who looked like the Lure would ever remain an outsider for long, and I watched with envy as she was swallowed up into their ranks. Whatever she felt about how Nirav was behaving, she was keeping it hidden for now. That explosion would be pushed out into the future, along with Haunter’s retribution for Irene’s fate.
Dale was doing his own version of mingling, which was more about smiling and being gawked at than it was any particular communication. I doubted any of them had ever seen anyone or anything quite like our leader before. He massed more than any two of the people around him, and from his booming laughter it seemed like he was entirely at ease already. There were times when I almost envied his heedlessness.
My own path was more careful. I had no fear of what these Ultras could do to my person, but I had to be mindful of the danger that they posed to my image. This was my first real opportunity to build upon the Host’s reports of me. I had to be careful not to seem weak or foolish.
I left the main room, heading out into one of the surrounding corridors. I was ever conscious of the watching eyes, the whispering voices, but I worked hard not to let it show. No one who ‘tried’ to fit in ever could. Visible effort would doom me here, I had to fake the same easy confidence that came so easily to my comrades.
I crossed my hands in front of me as the urge to flap them grew stronger. That would avail me nothing. It would be counterproductive, and so it would not occur. I laced my fingers together and took a few more steps, waiting for my timidity to die down.
When it showed no sign of doing any such thing I wheeled in place and strode swiftly over to a pair of Pantheon members standing by one of the walls. They’d been watching one of the screens that Haunter’s shades had been carrying around, whispering to one another. At my approach they turned to regard me, giving no sign of their feelings.
“Where is Gonn?” I asked.
“Who?” asked the shorter of the two. She was definitely from the eastern part of the Pantheon, with slim eyes and dark straight hair. She was wearing some kind of handmade body armor, seemingly cobbled together out of old sporting equipment.
“Gonn, the blind healing boy?” I asked. “He came in with the most recent Host, there should be a number of people availing themselves of his gift.”
I’d let an opportunity to benefit from his healing slip by me once before, but that had been in far less controlled environs. If I could get a hold of him in here I ought to be able to manipulate a time and place without any witnesses and finally get rid of the nagging pain of Her casual brutality.
The shorter one stayed quite for a long moment. Possibly the word ‘availing’ was a bit much for people who wouldn’t have spoken a lot of English before.
The taller of the two spat out something in a language I didn’t understand, and my arms were in motion before she finished the sentence.
The secret to strangling people, I’d learned from my days tending the Garden, was to move smoothly and without ceremony. I lifted up my hands with the same easy motion I would use to wipe dirt off my shoulder, and had them locked around her throat before she had even realized that I’d started.
Her first reaction was a startled frown and an instinctive jerk away, which didn’t move me an inch. She fell still after that, wide eyes gaping down at me.
“Let her go!” said the other woman, pointing a hand at me with her palm outstretched. It gave me the impression that she was threatening me with a gift of some kind.
“I prefer if you speak English in my presence,” I said, keeping a conversational tone. “I don’t understand your tongue, and the only reason I can think that you’d be keeping secrets from me was if you were insulting me.”
“She wasn’t!” said the young one again. “She was just asking me what you had said. She barely understands any of your talk at all. Please let her go!”
I nodded, solemnly. My hands, vexingly enough, had stopped their trembling. It was strange that standing in front of strangers gave me such concern, but I had not a qualm when actively attacking them.
“Please!” said the short one.
It might have been because I had no script for celebrity. I’d always hidden behind the more famous Ultras in the Lair, behind Adder and Her other flunkies. I hadn’t had to deal with the regard of anyone that I actually cared about.
The tall one reached up to my arms, and her own trembled furiously where she clutched at me.
She was presumably trying to wrench my grip apart. I couldn’t tell, but that’s what most people did in her circumstances. It wasn’t reasonable. She’d had a better chance at pushing the Sun out of its place in the sky, but people did all sorts of stupid things when their air started to run short.
“Please let her go!” said the short one, again. She was still pointing a hand at my chest, but she had apparently realized that blasting me would be pointless.
“It seems as though letting her go is suboptimal on my part,” I said. “Do you understand suboptimal? I’m not sure how much English you know.”
The taller one slammed her fist into my face, probably with some kind of Ultra Strength, to judge by the way the bones shattered in her hand and arm.
“I understand,” said the short one, speaking quickly now. “It means wrong.”
“Yes!” I said, putting a delighted tone into my voice. “If I let her insult me and walk away, then everyone else will insult me. But if I punish her properly here, then I believe people will learn the lesson. You see?”
“We have learned the lesson!” she said.
Another God chimed in. She’d walked over when she saw the fuss.
“We understand, we speak English near you!”
The tall one hit furiously at me, trying to knock me over. She was probably getting a bit weaker by now.
“If you really understand, then tell me what she said about me. Be honest this time.”
They looked to one another.
The Ultra with her palm pointed at me spoke first.
“It’s like I said. She asked what you were said!”
I looked to the other, the one who’d just come over.
She nodded, slowly.
“What did she refer to me as?” I asked.
My victim’s eyes were rolling about wildly in her head. Her tongue was extended and she was biting at the air. I’d killed enough people this way to know that I had maybe a minute left. It looked dramatic, but if I let go at this point she’d just gasp a bit as she recovered.
“Short Foreigner,” said the newcomer.
I looked back at her.
“Short Foreigner,” I said, without putting any expression into my voice.
“She’s just stupid!” begged her friend. “Please let her go!”
She hadn’t quite collapsed into weeping, but she was on her way. People always thought that if they just cried in front of me I would do what they said. As though I didn’t already know that they were sad.
“Do you think ‘Short Foreigner’ is an insult?” I asked her.
She shook her head, furiously.
Thui had done that, I remembered. Way back when I’d…
My hands let go, slipped back to my side.
“What about you?” I asked, owning it. “You don’t have a problem with Short Foreigner, do you? You weren’t trying to bad mouth me?”
She just gagged, heaving great breaths mixed with convulsive coughing. Pussy.
Mercy was probably the better way to go, all things considered. I knew enough about societies like this to know that you had to throw someone up against a wall on your first day here, and I’d been meaning to kill the first person to insult me, but thinking on it I was kind of glad it had gone down this way. An execution would have been at odds with the heroic rep I’d gotten from the battle.
It took her a moment to come to herself, a moment before she was frantically shaking her head and swearing up and down in terribly broken English that Short Foreigner was actually just a description, with nothing whatsoever bad implied by it.
“Glad to hear it,” I said. “because that is your name now. You will be Short Foreigner, Shofo for short, from now on.”
She froze for an instant. Had she been on a path to a Divine Name? Had she perhaps already had one? If there was anything that might set her off, this would be it.
Instead she groveled before me, wildly praising her new name.
I had her. The hardcore orthodox Pantheon, women like Annubis, would never let someone who’d answered to a name given them by the hated Regime know a moment’s peace. Shofo was bound to me now, as the onlookers carried word of this humiliation back to their fellows. She would thrive nowhere but in my shadow.
“What’s your name?” I asked the talkative one.
“Fox,” she said.
“Fox,” I echoed. “It looks like Shofo has hurt her hand. Would you mind showing us to Gonn, the young healer who came in with the most recent Host?”
She gave a sickly smile, and looked back and forth from Shofo to me.
Got her too. I’d seen that look plenty in my time in the Lair. These two were an item. That explained why Fox hadn’t scampered off when I’d snagged her partner. It meant that she was already mine, linked inextricably in the mind of her peers with my first minion.
“Of course,” she said, and started leading us through the corridors.
Why had I thought of Thui there? I’d been so good about keeping him from my mind, ever since that disastrous parting at the porch.
There was no profit to it. He was either dead or a traitor, beyond doubt. Either way, nothing good could come of turning my mind to him.
It was the damned uncertainty!
If the Copyer theory was wrong, he’d died before my eyes. Remover’s beam had erased him, and I had to come to terms with that. I could have put him behind me. I’d lost lovers and lieutenants before.
If it had only been a Copy, however, then he was still out there. Still in First Fist’s clutches. Still at the mercy of a group that had not the faintest idea what the word meant. He’d have been broken by now, shaped into their own willing tool. If I saw him again I’d have to treat him as an enemy.
The pang I felt at the thought was smaller now, nothing like the dramatic grief I’d suffered as we cast off in the Strongboat. Even if I couldn’t mourn him, I could at least work through my sorrow. Or so I’d thought until I’d let Shofo go.
It had been beyond stupid. When we’d been together Thui had never spoken a word, but I’d always felt his silent condemnation of my methods, his fervent hopes that I would become less violent, less cruel. It had given me pleasure, at the time, to dash those fantasies. To make sure that my every action had been as optimal and efficient as I could make them.
Thinking back on it now, I wondered if I could actually use those terms for my behavior. Had I been more cruel than was needful, solely in order to prove to myself that he didn’t control me? Had I been the fool all along, letting a dagger’s unspoken preferences dictate my actions? Perhaps.
As stupid as that would have been, this was far dumber. Thui was gone. No action of mine would ever disappoint him again.
A flashing stab of pain from my mangled teeth broke me out of this foolish internal spiraling. That, at least, was a problem I was finally going to do something about.
“We are here,” said Fox.
She gestured at a sort of an archway that yawned out of the wall. It was less a room than a malformed crevice where two hallways had been squeezed together at some time in the past.
Male Ultras filled it to overflowing, their mutations consigned to the darkness of this cubby so as not to offend their more powerful sisters.
“I…sorry…dust,” said Shofo.
I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, till I saw her gesture at her eyes.
I kept my face expressionless as I wiped the tears away.