Chapter 19: Vesta Fox doesn’t need to use torture
Copyright © 2018 by Brian Bixby
Vesta returns just after noon, and Charlotte goes off on a break from me. Vesta looks over her shoulder as Charlotte closes the apartment door. “Hope she hasn’t been too much bother.”
Bother, no. Disturbing, yes. I ask, “How old is she?”
Vesta grimaces. “Nineteen. Found out about her powers at age fourteen by unintentionally killing a playmate. Nothing seems to faze her for long.” She looks at me. “Unlike you, who still look like you want to forget last night. So, tell me all about what happened in Exile before you returned.”
Despite my fears for myself, I am feeling a bit better today, sleep does wonders, but not really feeling up to that. I sulk. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
Vesta’s voice takes on an edge. “No, and I don’t care if it makes you feel like hell, either. I agreed to help you put your sister Agatha on the Council in exchange for evidence about your birth that would make All-Father’s marriage plans impossible. That’s why you went to Exile. Now you can tell me about it, or we can just let the whole scheme fall apart.”
I’m ashamed. So I tell her. I edit out irrelevancies, including my own emotions, but I tell her. It takes quite a while. Charlotte comes back and Vesta sends her off on other tasks.
When I’m finished, Vesta sits back and looks quizzically at me. “Don’t feel like you failed because you didn’t bring your father back. From the perspective of our little conspiracy, knowing you are partly hell cat is perfect. It’s so outré that no one will want proof, let alone ask for it. Tomorrow the Council meets. We’re going to have more members there than have gathered together in over half a century. With your story and what your mother and I have set up, we stand a very good chance of getting what we want.
“And yet you have a haunted look about you that practically screams you don’t care anymore. Want to tell me why?”
I don’t. I say nothing.
Vesta reached into her pocket book and pulls out a little plastic bag and opens it. Two second later, I bolt for my bedroom and close the door behind me. There was merketh, the hell cat nip, in that plastic bag of hers. I cannot let it strip me of my reason again.
A minute later, she opens the door to the bedroom, sees me, comes inside and sits down on the bed by me. Without looking at me, she says, “I’ve put it away. It bothers you a lot. Why?”
I might as well tell her. “It makes me into an animal. I have no control over myself, none at all.”
Vesta turns to look at me. “So that’s what it is: merketh. I thought so. Merketh is magical in nature. That’s how my people found your supply of it in your kitchen last night. Oh, don’t worry, they didn’t touch it, apart from nicking that one sample to show me. Why did you bring it back with you, if it affects you so badly?”
There’s no point in not telling her that, too. “I want to experiment with it, see if I can control what happens to me under it.”
Vesta mulls that over a bit, nodding to herself. She stares off into space. “Suppose you can get used to it, the merketh? Does that mean you’re not an animal anymore?”
“Maybe,” I acknowledge sullenly.
Vesta laughs. “Maybe. You’re planning to conduct what amounts to a scientific experiment on yourself to see if you can get used to merketh. Animals don’t conduct scientific experiments at all, let alone on themselves.” When she looks at me and sees I’m unmoved, she adds, “Animals don’t get worshiped as gods, either. Although maybe that suitor of yours you sent to screw a pig might have proved otherwise if I hadn’t stopped him. Hail Pig Goddess!”
That I cannot help but smile at.
“Better.” Vesta reaches over and brushes some hair out of my face. It’s an oddly intimate gesture from her. “You’ve just been through a hell of an experience that’s shaken your very idea of who you are, what you are. I don’t imagine you’re going to get over this any time soon. But we’re almost out of time, Daphne. Tomorrow we face Council, and unless we do this right, it will all have been pointless. You’ve got to pull yourself together. Do this for Agatha, okay? But do it for yourself, too.”
I lash out. “Great. I get to show the Council I’m worthless. Why not tell them I’m a murderer, too?”
Vesta’s voice turns hard. “I may just do that.”
I am astonished and horrified. My jaws drops, my eyes go wide, and I briefly consider whether I should kill Vesta, too.
Vesta’s interrogated too many people not to know what I’m thinking. So she explains, “Pedro was a demigod, Daphne, and more capable than most such. You killed him. You, a person who didn’t even get partial Council status because you have so little power, killed a demigod who should have outclassed you entirely. You have no idea how much that will shake up the Council, if I use it.” Vesta lets me absorb that before going on. “Are you still the same person whether the Council hears that or not?”
What sort of stupid question is that? “Of course.”
“Then who you are does not depend on what the Council thinks of you. And you’d better knock that silly idea out of your head that being partly hell cat makes you inferior. Neither you nor I really know whether hell cats are better or worse than we are, and I guarantee we will be the two most knowledgeable people on that subject in the room tomorrow.”
I respond with a bitter truth. “They know that hell cats can kill them.”
“You bet. Hell cats are feared creatures of legend. But none of the Council has ever met a real one. Knowing you are one won’t make you worthless in the eyes of the Council, Daphne. It will make you an unknown quantity, possibly a dangerous one.” Vesta pauses. “You go in there tomorrow thinking you’re worthless, you’ll be the only person in the room thinking so by the time we’re finished with them.”
I nod. “Okay, coach, you’ve given me your pep talk.”
“Which is worthless for what bothers you the most.” Vesta stands up and starts pacing in my bedroom. She walks back and forth a few times, and then stops directly in front of me. “I know I have a reputation for being vicious. I deliberately created it. So why didn’t I torture you and your mother until I got the answer I wanted?”
I think back. “Because it wasn’t worth it, that’s what you said.”
“It wasn’t worth it to me. I do use violence, I have to, I run Enforcement, but I have my own ethical standards about how I use it, when I use it, and how much of it I use. So tell me, Daphne, why did you kill Pedro?”
“He threatened me.”
“Why haven’t you killed me?”
What? “Why would I?” I have second thoughts. “I’ve been tempted, I’ll admit.”
“Exactly. Animals kill to survive, by instinct. You choose whether you will, choose if being tempted is sufficient reason.”
True, but only up to a point. “I can’t help myself when exposed to the merketh.”
“And I could shoot you up with drugs that would make you lose control of your behavior in a number of different ways. So what?” Vesta’s standing before me, hands on her hips.
All right, but you’re leaving out one thing. “I killed a man.”
“Already covered that: self-defense. But do keep going around in circles if it makes you feel worse.” Vesta exhales audibly. “Look, Daphne, I need to go to finish my preparations for tomorrow. So I can’t finish this, not that that’s likely any time soon. This has marked you, probably permanently. But permanently doesn’t mean you’ll always feel the same way about it.” She pauses for a moment, thinking. “Go talk with Charlotte. Yes, she’s weird, but so are you, and you might find her experience illuminating. At the very least, she’ll help make you feel a bit more human again. Maybe that will remind you of what it’s like to be human. Maybe it will remind you of why you agreed to all of this in the first place.” Before I can reply, in a few quick steps Vesta is gone out the door.
Marked permanently. Well, yeah: I am not what I thought I was only a few days ago. I have done things I never would have thought I would have done. I have changed. I am not myself anymore.
I laugh to myself. I was already in that situation with “Perfect Daphne.”
Hmmm, that’s a thought. What would Perfect Daphne think now?
Well, for starters, “Perfect Daphne” would be a different Perfect Daphne. I don’t need to be blond, tall, and frankly a pain in the ass.
Perfect Daphne would understand this situation. Perfect Daphne would know exactly what a goddess/dwarf/hell cat hybrid should think and do, tomorrow and after.
So what does that mean? Perfect Daphne would regret killing Pedro, but consider it a necessity. She’d worry about the sex part of it later, once she has a better handle on her nature. Perfect Daphne will go in tomorrow and be proud of being what she is, no matter what the Council thinks.
I smile, because if Perfect Daphne Mark II is anything like Perfect Daphne Mark I, she’d also enjoy scaring the shit out of the Council. “Hell cat on the loose! In our midst! Already killed one of us!”
But I’m not Perfect Daphne Mark II. I’m me. I can dream about Perfect Daphne Mark II, and I can’t help but remember what I did to Pedro. The question is whether that’s going to be good enough.
I hear Charlotte come in. I think I can actually manage to have this conversation about killing people with her, and not lose my mind.