Yami No Oozora: Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven: I Ask For...

Perfection? Recognition? Assistance? ...How about respect? The immortals each have their own wishes, and some are harder to grant than others. (Then again, there are those immortals who are just confused...)
This chapter gave me a lot of grief, let me say that right now. Whether it was the title (which changed at least 10 times), the conversations, the introspections, or the ending, everything had been reworked more than once. Or even twice. Or even thrice. And then I had to chop it up into two chapters...so perhaps chapter 8 will be out sooner than usual. Perhaps. I make no promises because I'm starting work soon.^^;

As per usual, standard disclaimers apply, yada yada yada... Take any original characters and I'll let Satan take your soul...you know the works. Don't run away screaming, there's nothing in this chapter that's too scary or violent. Although in this society, I'd be surprised if anyone complains about violence.-_-;

Vera stood, regal and unyieldingly tall, before her scrying mirror, which was suspended with nothing but air. Her clear eyes took in what the glass showed—flares of color indicating energy signatures—here a dark red, there a blinding white, there again a crystalline purple… The sight was beautiful, pure; she could stand and gaze upon Upperworld like this for eons. One of the advantages of helping Lux with scouring duties was being able to use her scrying mirror for hours, and not have anyone brand her as strange or suspicious.

Of late the sight had been more beautiful than ever, thanks to her efforts—Elusius and the jade green aura of the Healers shone, a gem of light next to the muted silver-grey of Sagacity Hall; the Temple of Beryllus and her Creator’s breathtaking whiteness. Lucid, blinding, its rays were rapiers stretching from one single point, cutting down whatever corruption stood in their paths. Vera allowed herself to love this vision, this manifestation of her Creator’s power. One day, she would spread this illumination to all corners of Upperworld, strengthening the beauty of her people. One day, she would at last be able to look into her scrying mirror and see perfection.

For, as beautiful as Upperworld was now, it was not perfect. It was flawed; she could see the blemishes as clearly as she could see the overall loveliness. Vera could not believe how she could’ve missed this earlier on in her long life. How could she not have seen, every time she used her scrying mirror, how the darkness corrupted her world, like a worm in a fruit, decaying it, rotting it? She thanked Beryllus that her eyes had finally opened, opened in time to stop this blight from spreading further.

Look! Even now, as if to mock her efforts, she could see the devil in that wretched other temple, tendrils of inky black seeping out like a disease, tainting everything around it. Vera inhaled deeply and released her breath, a controlled movement. She would not let her hatred rule her. She would proceed calmly, cautiously, until the time came and she could wipe out the blemishes in one motion.

“Lady Vera?” A familiar voice interrupted her thoughts. Valera.

“Do you see this, my friend?” Vera asked, sweeping her arm in a wide gesture at the scrying mirror. “See the darkness encroaching upon the purity of our world?”

“Yes, my Lady. I see it and I feel your pain.” Valera replied softly, stepping toward the silver-haired immortal, the one she served with utmost fidelity. “Rest assured we will get rid of the menace. Even now the wheels of our grand design have begun to turn.”

Vera looked down, standing upon the raised platform where the scrying mirror appeared, her head inclined with a proud tilt. The light from her mirror made her hair redolent with silver, as if each strand were threaded with stars. Valera gazed at the softness of her Lady’s hair as she replied. “All the intended targets have taken their places. As of now they are confused, disorganized. We could strike and rid ourselves of their likely meddling later on.”

“No.” Vera’s reply was quiet and firm. “We are fortunate in that their luck seems to have temporarily run dry, and they are encountering problems too immediate to set aside. This gives us extra time to prepare for them, so that even when they recover, we can still easily crush them.”

“Supposing they don’t recover from their setback,” Valera suggested. “It is a difficult thing to escape punishment. Aren’t we overestimating them, my Lady?”

“Have patience, Valera,” Vera rebuked. “You have always lacked it, and such rashness will hurt you someday.”

“I accept your criticism, my Lady, and I will work to change my flaw. But surely if you throw your influence against their tainted record, they’ll—”

“No, Valera,” Vera turned away to gaze steadily at her scrying mirror. “Not yet. Don’t you trust my judgment?”

Valera looked down, tore her eyes away from the soft brilliance that was her Lady, ashamed. “I trust you implicitly.”

For the briefest of seconds, Vera’s eyes shifted toward her most loyal follower, and something…it could have been sadness…traced across their depths. “Then believe me when I tell you that they will recover…and they will most likely do so quickly. Influence lies among them as well, and a sweet tongue can soften hearts already inclined to favor them, despite their blatant guilt. Now, please—leave me alone for a while.”

Valera nodded wordlessly and retreated out of the chamber. Left alone, Vera mused, planned, carefully sorting strands of her grand plan and examining each of them. Strike the powerful Daitra while they were unprepared, distracted…it seemed a good idea on the surface, Valera had a definite point. But Vera, after weighing the possible outcomes, rejected the proposition firmly. Too many things could go wrong in trying to get rid of them before they were completely ready. The targeted immortals might escape, leave to recuperate, and come back…and she will have revealed at least some of her hand in the attempt to destroy them. Armed with that knowledge, they would surely strike with all the impetuousness of their kind and everything would have been useless.

No. She would wait until she was ready. And then if they discover the truth, it will have been too late. Vera and her followers could easily wipe them off the face of Upperworld. And then…yes, her home would be clean…

* * *

If one were to question Valera’s loyalty, the famed wielder of Atrophos’ Blade would have been deeply insulted. Always obedient, she listened to Vera’s orders carefully and carried them out with utmost precision, even when she disagreed with them, an occurrence which was rare. When it happened that her ideas were at variance with Vera’s, Valera simply retracted her opinion in favor of her Lady’s, and it was good that she did so, because Vera always wound up right.

So now she fought against going back inside to tell her Lady that she still thought it would be better if they attacked the enemy now, while they were weakened, instead of waiting until they inevitably recuperated and were strong. Surely Vera knew what she was doing—she must have something up her sleeve that was so wonderful, it wouldn’t matter if the enemy was strong or weak…they would be easily wiped out. But still, couldn’t they stage…an accident or something?

Valera repressed a sigh and walked away from her Lady’s scrying chamber, eons of discipline keeping her from looking back. But if she had turned her head even for just a second, she would have seen another figure standing unobtrusively behind a tall decorative vase.

Zephyr ran a hand through her mane of silver curls and bit back a sigh of relief. For a moment she had been certain that Protector Valera would spot her. It seemed that her luck was holding out still. When Valera had rounded the corner and then retreated further away from her senses, Zephyr carefully stepped out from her hiding place. She had overheard the entire conversation between her blessed Lady Vera and her second-in-command (some say consort). It seemed that their major obstacles were at the moment incapacitated, and—of all things—her Lady had opted to wait, instead of swooping in and destroying them with one swift blow.

Zephyr thought that was terrible tactics. But she could not go inside and confront her leader directly, because it would mean admitting that she had been eavesdropping on her superiors—a dishonorable act suited only for Daitra in Vera’s eyes. It amazed her that Protector Valera was simply going to let such an opportunity pass; surely she knew that once the major roadblocks were taken down, the rest of the way was paved smooth for them?

Valera was nothing but a puppet, a marionette incapable of thinking for herself, Zephyr concluded contemptuously, and not for the first time. Lady Vera was a brilliant leader, but she had odd quirks in her personality which could impede judgment. Zephyr thought it likely that her Lady was letting some sentimental thing get in the way of their enemies’ speedy dispatch. And of course Valera, faithful, blind, dog-like Valera, couldn’t or wouldn’t see this possibility. She would listen to Lady Vera. And as a result, nothing would be done. Sickening, to let it all slip through your fingers like that…

Silently leaving the door to Vera’s scrying chamber, Zephyr made her way outside of the grand white palace that was her leader’s home. As second only to Protector Valera in the hierarchy of Vera’s followers, Zephyr always strove for the best in all that she did. Everything she was assigned, she performed with utmost perfection. She was innovative too, able to change with the situation like the wind which was her namesake, and more than once, Vera had complimented her on that talent. But compliments were all she ever received. How galling it was to see that despite her efforts, the beloved Lady Vera never, ever trusted her beyond Valera. What did that mindless immortal have that she did not? Zephyr stopped abruptly in her walk and realized she had made a complete circle around Vera’s palace. She thought again of the opportunity—their enemy helpless, where they wanted them…

Zephyr could guess why Vera had not wanted to take them while they were imprisoned. If improperly done, it could draw undue attention, and if by any chance it failed, their enemy would be alerted to their existence. Too much knowledge at the wrong time in the wrong hands could very well destroy Lady Vera’s grand scheme.

But she would make sure it was properly done. Zephyr reached into her tunic pocket and located a small phial. The contents would do a fine job of getting rid of troublesome immortals—even powerful ones like their enemies. Now, how would she deliver this ‘gift’? Slowly, she rotated the phial between her forefinger and thumb, her eyes growing misty with thought. A moment later Zephyr smiled, and her fist closed around the phial firmly.

She could hear her success in the breeze which danced by.

* * *

Themis arrived at Sagacity Hall to find, much to his annoyance, Thanatos waiting in the atrium. Puffing his chest out slightly as self-important people do when they feel they have been insulted, Themis walked past the God of Death without sparing him a glance. Thanatos looked on with sardonic amusement, and made sure Themis knew he was doing so. Unnerved, but making a good show of being completely unaware of Thanatos’ presence anyway, Themis reached the servant standing behind the single pedestal. It was white and pristine, rising out from the ground as if it had once been liquid and was now frozen, in mid-splash, by some magic.

“Let me in, Doorkeeper,” he barked to the servant, who was so-called because no one save the Sages could go into the inner chamber without this immortal creating a door—essentially an opening in the smooth, flawless wall—for him.

With infuriating calm and (Themis thought) incredible imprudence, the servant replied placidly, “I’m afraid, Lord Themis, that their Eminences are at the moment indisposed. They do not wish to be disturbed. If you would like to speak with them, you must wait with Lord Thanatos over there.”

Themis’ annoyance increased a hundred fold. He placed both hands on the pedestal and leaned forward insistently. “You don’t seem to understand that I am their Eminences’ Head Tracker, Doorkeeper. And it is my duty to report important, urgent information. He—” Themis jerked a thumb back toward Thanatos, “—might have to wait, but I demand an audience.”

“Your demand must be refused then, Lord Themis,” the Doorkeeper shrugged minutely. “Their Eminences specifically said that no one is to disturb them. They made no exceptions—”

On a normal day, Themis might have let it be. He would have grumbled about the cow-like stubbornness of certain Doorkeepers, but he would have obligingly backed off. Now, however, more and more aware of Thanatos’ mocking eyes boring a hole in his back as each humiliating moment passed, Themis could not let the issue drop. “I am an exception!” He practically roared. “How dare you insult me by letting me wait here with a commoner!?”

Themis regretted those words as soon as he said them. Thanatos might not serve the Sages directly, but he was a Chosen and indisputably one of the most powerful Daitra in Upperworld. Judging from the way the Doorkeeper’s eyebrow raised ever-so-slightly, Themis could tell the other was completely unimpressed, and probably even very offended (it was hard to tell with Doorkeepers), by his lack of decorum. But he could not apologize, that would be admitting defeat. So he stood there, glaring at the Doorkeeper (who, it must be remembered, held a lesser position) as if daring the immortal to reprimand him. The Doorkeeper only said, “Very good, Lord Themis. But nevertheless, I will have to ask you to wait with Lord Thanatos, who, I might add, has also come with some urgent issues.”

Snarling loudly but in truth rather ashamed of his foot-in-the-mouth, at least with someone else watching, Themis turned and stalked toward Thanatos. He would rather have gone to the other side of the atrium, but then Thanatos would certainly be gloating at his cowardice. When he reached the God of Death, Themis nodded curtly and stood to one side, arms crossed, legs planted apart, determined to ignore the immortal beside him.

Thanatos, watching Themis, tried but could not resist the inherent mischief of the Daitra kind. So he leaned over slightly and whispered, “What a shame that you have to wait until after this mere commoner speaks in order to report to the Sages, huh?”

That Thanatos would be admitted before him was a thought which evidently had not occurred to Themis. He fired a particularly nasty glare at Thanatos, then looked toward the Doorkeeper and called out, very confidently, “And who will see their Eminences first?”

With no hesitation the servant replied, “Lord Thanatos, my Lord. He made his request first, my Lord.”

Thanatos smiled benignly. Themis fumed.

* * *

There was something about being in close quarters with someone who had just dismissed one’s attempt to be concerned that grated on an immortal’s nerves, and the Sentinel was fully feeling the effect of Charon’s comment. He thought he did a fine job of letting Charon know how little the snub bothered him, but as time passed, he became more and more positive that, if he had to watch Charon pace the length of the cell one more time, he would certainly say something he’d regret. So the Sentinel did the only thing to could think of to save both himself and Charon some more grief: he stood up—Charon leveled a strange look at him—and walked to the little globe situated on the right side of the cell. Feeling Charon’s eyes on him—the immortal was obviously puzzled but refused to soil his dignity by asking questions, the Sentinel placed his hand over the globe.

A mere second later, one of the Cyphers, competent, shadow-swift guards of the Dungeons, appeared before the invisible wall. “Yes?” He asked shortly, but not without politeness.

“I request permission to go to the bathing area,” the Sentinel said.

The Cypher nodded, “Fine.” He gestured with his hand. Instantly the invisible wall ‘vanished’; the Sentinel could no longer see the slight wavering of air whenever he looked in the direction where the wall used to stand. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Charon’s jaw drop, uncharacteristically. Since he was not in the best of moods—warding bracelets and imprisonment and a seriously wounded friend had a way of spoiling moods, which had nothing to do with a certain immortal’s rudeness—the Sentinel didn’t bother hiding his amused smirk. Serves Charon right for always scorning to learn more about Upperworld’s various edifices and the duties therein.

He stepped out of the confining cell and stood waiting for the Cypher to erect the wall again. He knew where the bathing area was, having once been on a tour through the Dungeons, courtesy of Nemesis, but a prisoner could not leave before the guard on duty dismissed him. The Cypher began to raise his hand, but before he could finish the gesture, Charon stepped forward. “Wait a minute.”

The Cypher obliged. “Would you like to go somewhere as well?”

“We’re allowed to walk around??” Charon demanded, obviously throwing pride to the wind in the face of this startling and altogether unexpected bit of information. He shot a dirty look at the Sentinel for good measure. The Sentinel ignored him and didn’t wipe the smirk off his face.

“Certainly you are,” the Cypher, either not stupid or not interested in things other than his duty, was careful to remain expressionless and neutral. “With your powers sealed due to those warding bracelets, it is not as if you will get very far trying to escape. So some prisoners can walk around, as long as they ask for permission first, like your colleague did. That globe to your right is designed to communicate with all the Cyphers. You touch it, and the closest one will come instantly.” All this delivered in a matter-of-fact tone that certainly did nothing to convey the idea that the Cypher thought this ignorance was very amusing.

Charon was sure the fool guard was laughing at him anyway. “I’m getting out of here then,” he managed to say without any overt gritting of his teeth.

“Fine,” the Cypher said again. Charon stalked out of the cell, and without another word started to continue down the wide hallway. The Cypher promptly stopped him with the spoken command: “Wait.” By now both embarrassed and irritated, Charon paused, glad that his long, voluminous sleeves hid his clenched fists. “You must tell me where you are going and what you plan to do first. A matter of ‘Dungeon-decorum,’ we call it.”

“What happens if I don’t?” Charon’s voice sounded suspiciously sullen.

“Then a Cypher like myself will be forced to follow you around. Refusing to reveal your actions is suspicious. You should have nothing to hide. Realize, of course, that this privilege of walking around is awarded only to prisoners whose guilt is uncertain or whose accused crime is civil, not criminal. Yet even though these types are given some degree of trust, prisoners are prisoners, so we require that you tell us your plans beforehand so we can keep track of you throughout the grounds with our senses.” The Cypher’s longer-than-necessary explanation left Charon with the uncomfortable feeling that the other immortal was merely telling him all this for his benefit, so he wouldn’t make an idiot of himself later with stupid questions. That understanding did nothing to improve his mood.

“I’m going to just walk around, if that’s alright with you,” he answered in a tight, clipped voice. Apparently the statement was all the guard needed, because the other immortal nodded as if satisfied—

“Wander all you like, and you can go ahead to the baths—you know the location?…ah, very good. Make sure you are both back when the curfew bell is sounded. All prisoners must be in their cells during inspection time. A breach of trust if you are not, and then your privilege would be taken away.” With these parting words of warning, the Cypher vanished as quickly and as quietly as he came.

The Sentinel began walking rapidly down the hallway, headed with a single-minded purposefulness toward the bathing area. To his dismay, Charon followed, taking large, swift strides that made his black cloak billow out as if in imitation of wings. He hoped the Guide wasn’t going to follow him all the way to the bathing area, because the Sentinel was only going there to do them both a favor. Charon was…well, defeating the purpose if he was planning to walk behind him the entire time. The Sentinel felt a surge of irritation that he tried hurriedly to banish, but it whispered insistent things he could not help but hear.

Well, if the immortal found him so annoying, why didn’t he walk in the opposite direction? It wasn’t as if he’d get lost while walking in a straight line. And was it so hard to believe that the Sentinel would worry about his wounds? Was that what he seemed to Charon, some superficial immortal who spoke to others only to amuse himself? Then why tolerate him at all? Why be kind to him in his time of pain, so long and yet not so long ago…

Charon’s cloak made that curious swish! sound on the floor. It was a sound the Sentinel had come to recognize, because when the Guide visited him so many times in the darkness, the sound of rustling fabric was always a dead giveaway of his arrival. And strangely enough, it had a calming effect now on the Sentinel, who began to think that perhaps his bitter thoughts were slightly unjustified. Charon couldn’t help who he was, after all…there was probably just something quirky in his makeup that forced him to be rude or something… On a more serious note, the Sentinel reflected, a wry smile twisting his mouth: he knew very little, still, about Charon’s past and what motivated this immortal. So perhaps—the Sentinel was willing to give his colleague the benefit of doubt—Charon’s suspicious nature was reasonable, in the face of events which had happened long ago. The Sentinel took a slow breath, was about to turn, and say some teasing, harmless thing to his colleague—

—when Charon blew it.

The Guide of Souls had apparently been trying to hem in his temper and embarrassment, found both intractable, and finally gave in to his insulted pride.

“Why didn’t you tell me we could leave whenever we wanted to?” Charon hissed as, with an indignant burst of speed, he put himself next to the Sentinel.

In return, the Sentinel blinked innocently, trying to be his usual self, “You mean you didn’t know? I figured after being Nemesis’ friend all those years, you’d know the procedures in her Dungeons.”

“I am not her friend,” Charon glared furiously at his colleague, insulted that he’d even suggest such a relationship. “And I try my best to ignore her blabbering, obviously. You know that!”

Something in the Sentinel, already worn thin by being a prisoner, worrying about his job, worrying about Nemesis, worrying about Thanatos’ ability to bail them out, and doing his best to check his own temper, snapped when he heard that presumptuous statement. “No, I don’t know that. I don’t know you at all. And if you try your best to ignore Nemesis’ blabbering, as you claim, then you should do the same with me instead of taking everything that comes out of my mouth the wrong way.” Then, seeing the entrance to the bathing area, he quickened his pace and threw back over his shoulder, “I’ll be off now. Go walk around. Pace the floor until you wear it through. Amuse yourself.” The Sentinel disappeared into the bathing area, considerably astonished at himself and leaving an equally astonished, once again open-mouthed Charon behind him.

* * *

Charon wasn’t quite sure what button he’d pressed, but it was apparently the wrong one, because he had never heard the Sentinel sound so…angry. No, revise that. He’d heard the Sentinel sound that angry before, angrier even, but it was the first time the anger was directed at him. When the Sentinel practically stalked off into the bathing area, Charon didn’t slow down or speed up his pace. He just kept going steadily until he passed the large open door, several closed, smaller ones, and turned the corner at the end of the hall.

He supposed he ought to be pleased. He’d finally broken through that superior mask of calmness and gotten his colleague really riled. Only Satan had been able to do that before, and being evil, had not needed to try very hard.

But Charon didn’t feel pleased. He only felt confused. In trying to pinpoint when exactly the argument began, Charon easily picked the conversation in the cell.

“That’s what I seem like, isn’t it?”

Oh come on. Charon gave the Sentinel far more credit than that! There was no way in Daitra’s temple that his colleague could have been so angry merely because he’d dismissed his claim of being worried. Besides, Charon scoffed, it was true. The Sentinel did know of Elusius’ skill and had no need to be worried. He had been bored, so he decided to use Charon to relieve that boredom. The Sentinel had no reason to be angry just because he’d been seen through. Unless… Charon stopped in his tracks and raised an eyebrow. Could it be that he had hurt the Sentinel’s pride by guessing his motives?

As much as Charon wanted to leave it at that, he had to admit that his explanation didn’t fit the Sentinel. His colleague’s grace after losing that taktika game was a good enough example. So if it wasn’t wounded pride, then what was it? Charon backtracked mentally again, all the while cursing the Sentinel for making him waste his time on something so trivial, and thought their conversation over. He remembered, with sudden clarity, how he had thought the Sentinel’s tone of voice sounded…relieved, almost.

Relieved? About what? And if he had really been relieved, then why in all of Upperworld would he be angry over it later?

It should be impossible for immortals to get headaches from thinking too hard, but Charon began to feel like his mind was going to split. With a small sound of disgust, he began to walk again, faster and faster until he was nearly running. He gave up. The Sentinel never made any sense, and who cares why he was angry anyway?

* * *

Good riddance, was the Sentinel’s first thought after he stopped being surprised at himself for being so angry and merely felt angry instead. It was Charon’s own fault that he didn’t know how the Dungeons worked! And how dare he say that the Sentinel “should know” about his inability to listen to Nemesis? This was the immortal who liked to whine about how the Sentinel (or anyone else) didn’t “know anything about me and never will!” So what in the name of…

The Sentinel stopped his internal rant with a blink. What was he doing, still thinking about Charon? If someone annoyed him and he could do nothing about it, the rule of thumb was to quit dwelling over it. Shaking his head and feeling rather irritated with himself for not following his own advice, the Sentinel walked to the center of the main chamber without noticing his surroundings at first. When he finally stopped and looked around, Charon successfully slid to the back of his mind as he thought, Nemesis couldn’t have approved of this. The reason for his stalwart conclusion was simple: the place was completely white. Blindingly white, so spotlessly white he worried for a dazed moment that he had tracked dirt from outside. Then he had to laugh at himself for having such a “mortal” thought. It was impossible, of course, for him to track dirt anywhere; his body was more spirit than physical, and so things such as dirt didn’t ‘cling’ well to him. He’d have to be drenched in mud from one of Upperworld’s fields before he could track anything anywhere.

But anyway, Nemesis couldn’t stand all white, and since she had plenty of say in the reconstruction of the Dungeons, he didn’t see how she could have let this one slip by her. A half-second later the Sentinel smiled as a memory resurfaced. When Nemesis brought them on a tour around the renovated Dungeons, some time after she had settled into the duty of Warden, the bathing areas were unfinished and they weren’t allowed to see the chambers in-progress. She had confided to them that “the place is going to be designed by some Beryllus architect. I’m telling you, I have a bad feeling about how it’s going to look already.” To which Charon had promptly replied: “Then it’s probably a good architect.” The result was Nemesis coming close to destroying half the renovations in her attempt to gouge a hole in the Guide of Souls.

The Sentinel grimaced. It had been better when Charon was out of his mind, but now that he was back, their botched ‘conversation’ slipped unbidden into his thoughts as well.

He’d lost his temper at a colleague…an unforgivable slip of control on his part. But that wasn’t what bothered him. What bothered him was that he had thought he would prefer it if Charon were rude and ungrateful. Thanatos’ words earlier in the day had been disturbing, especially since the Sentinel had the alarming insight that parts of it just might be true. It wasn’t what Thanatos hoped—he and Charon weren’t anywhere close to being friends—but the Sentinel was reminded that Charon did seem to be, if not less impatient, at least more civil toward him than either Nemesis or Thanatos. And this slightly different treatment began after his brother’s… At any rate, the Sentinel had already decided he didn’t like what that implied, and he thought if Charon would just treat him like he treated everyone else, that suspicion he had about pity would be disproven.

So when Charon threw his concern back in his face, the Sentinel’s first reaction was one of triumph. He almost wanted Thanatos to be there, just so the God of Death could witness Charon being as snide as he was to his other colleagues. The three of them were equal in Charon’s eyes—there was no special treatment because Charon felt sorry for him. But then almost immediately the satisfaction faded as Charon’s words sank in. Really sank in—at that second, the Sentinel suddenly realized he had never let Charon’s rudeness sink in before. And to the Sentinel’s further amazement, he felt…hurt was too strong a word. Troubled was more like it. He actually felt troubled by what Charon said, when he ought to know that half the time, Charon just blurted offensiveness without thought.

But even thoughtless words had a ring of truth in them, or they wouldn’t be uttered at all. The Sentinel glanced, out of the corner of his eye, a row of pristine white fountains designed for washing hands or faces, and he headed toward them. Might as well do some cleansing, since he was in here.

“You’re bored and trying to find a diversion.”

The Sentinel couldn’t deny that he’d first made Charon’s acquaintance because the immortal was interesting and provided some harmless amusement in the form of a difficult puzzle. But couldn’t things change over a few eons? Charon wasn’t so bad; he was at his worst someone exasperating and callous, but at his best Charon was someone the Sentinel found he respected. While in the cell, the Sentinel could truthfully, earnestly say that diversion or amusement did not cross his mind when he asked about Charon’s wounds. Sure, he knew of Elusius’ skill, but it couldn’t hurt to be positive, and those burns had been very serious. Maybe he shouldn’t have prefaced the important question with superfluous comments about Charon being “the only point of interest.” But that was just how he did things…could he help it?

The Sentinel had reached the fountains and stood staring, for a moment, at the sheet of liquid crystal overflowing the large basin at the top of each. Plunging his hands into the clear water, he made the motions of washing them. The water felt very cold.

He had a fleeting vision of Charon finding him after his brother left him forever, and the words he said then. He remembered times when Charon held his tongue when he expressed an opinion, then infuriated Nemesis with some inappropriate remark about her opinion right after. He thought of Charon agreeing to play taktika with him.

The Sentinel found he almost preferred pity to the other possibility…which was that, if it weren’t for pity, Charon wouldn’t respect him at all.