“I see you’ve been working on your illusions. What do you call this face?”
Keshena, interrupted in her assiduous attempt to avoid Villi’s gaze, reminded herself not to scowl. Miss Kelly did not scowl. She curtsied instead, which brought her briefly to eye level with the imp who sat cross-legged on a table, a bowl in the cradle of her knees. The imp always knew more than she should.
“That’s my job.” Villi’s smile was sharp. “And your job is to answer my questions.”
“Can’t you simply pluck the answers from my brain?” Keshena asked, her voice piping and sweet, but not devoid of sarcasm. Miss Kelly did sneer.
“I could pluck many things from your brain,” Villi said. “I wonder how many you would miss?”
“I have plenty to spare, Ms. Selannor. Keshena Kelly, at your service.”
“Kelly, very well. I wish to talk to you about religion, Kelly.”
Kelly made a sound of unfiltered disgust and flounced into a chair. “Why?”
Unmoved, Villi stirred the bowl between her knees with her fingertips. “Because you are in our Father’s service, whether you wish to be or not, and you will speak of Him and His with respect in my presence.”
This is not the face to wear for this… Keshena thought, frustrated, but there was nothing for it. No changing costumes after your cue’s been called. And there was this much to be said for Kelly – she might not be reverent, but she was more than capable of matching Villi passive-aggressive jab for jab.
“As I understand it, He’s got a congregation in His service. I hope you’re not implying that the guild should be the congregation’s martial arm.”
“Of course not,” Villi murmured with ill grace. “That would be in direct contradiction of the guild’s treaty with the city. However, you’ll find that you won’t progress far among the Kumani without paying Him the respect He is due. So, do you intend to listen?”
Keshena drew her feet up and tucked them under the hem of her sundress. Kelly dressed like the ingenue she appeared to be, which hadn’t been a problem when she was a newlywed in Capria, but it was hardly well-suited to the Reach’s brutal winters. Even in the Kumani cavern she shivered.
“All right, I’ll listen.”
“Our Father Nieran, the Shade, does keep a congregation, of which I am the current leader. Their purpose is to serve His will. The purpose of the Kumani is to protect this city, which is also His will. Most houses in Lion’s Reach contain a shrine to Him, but He is not the only god worshipped here. Can you tell me the names of the others?”
“The numerologists revere the Engineer, Hadall. The Wolves have their own gods, but…”
“The Beasts do not have names you can pronounce with a human tongue, no. Good enough. What must one do to show fealty to our Father?”
Keshena took a long breath. “The Shade rewards personal commitment and creativity in His devotions. He prefers that His worshippers keep His name in their hearts as they walk in the shadow, as they listen and learn all there is to hear and know. He thinks of no knowledge as trivial – even the smallest word in the right place can move the world.” She watched with a shrewd eye for this recitation to land, and saw with satisfaction that Villi was impressed – or at least, sufficiently moved to pretend to be impressed, which might be the best she could hope for.
“Indeed. And in that respect, His tenets are very well-suited to the Kumani. What are the other values He requires, that He’s passed along to our guild?”
Keshena let this question hang in the air for some time. She was thinking about how she might get out of answering it, and her face made the process perfectly evident. Villi watched with ill-disguised impatience.
With no escape available that wouldn’t be more trouble than it was worth, Kelly responded at last: “Loyalty. He values nothing higher, I’ve heard.”
“Loyalty is a funny thing,” Villi answered, addressing the bowl between her knees. “Its face changes depending on what one attaches it to. Some loyalties can be delineated easily. But loyalties often change. Tell me – would you say a man is loyal, who changes his allegiance ten times in a year, but for each master or cause invests the whole of himself?”
Kelly sneered. “No. Loyalty means staying loyal.”
The look the imp directed at her was utterly bland. “What a perfect summation of a very complex argument. That takes skill, you know. Few people have the talent to distill centuries of philosophical debate into such a thunderingly content-free sentence. You should be very proud.”
The ingenue was proud. Keshena felt it, and at the same time, felt the resentment and frustration she always fought in this face. This is not a compliment, she thought savagely. She’s laughing at me, again. But Kelly loved the attention and the frustration both, took them as flowers tossed by an adoring crowd.
She gave back Villi’s steady, underwhelmed gaze with an insouciant grin, and for a moment, felt their wills come into conflict. There was a tense peace, a balance between them, and for a moment it teetered, as the imp stared and the ingenue smirked.
Putting on this face felt like a crime. The wig still smelled of funeral flowers and powder, and every time she swung it over her head, she gagged and shut her eyes until the process was complete. But there was a kind of strength here that Keshena, in her most private moments, knew she would not possess without the ingenue and the things she had done. Kelly could face Villi. Perhaps because they’re the same kind of person, she thought, and recoiled from the notion, dropping her eyes.
“I don’t expect that you will take me up on this,” Villi continued at length, “But should you ever wish to learn more about the one you serve – and you do serve Him, make no mistake – I will be happy to teach you. I’m His chaplain among the Kumani.”
“Oh, does that mean you marry people?” Kelly chirped.
“I have,” said the imp. “Perhaps it would be of value to you to investigate that question: if a servant of Nieran marries, do his loyalties change? Would you say that man is loyal?”
Kelly wrinkled her nose, an expression perfectly positioned on dual axes of nubility and nastiness. “Marriage doesn’t mean anything much,” she murmured. “His underlying loyalties are the same as ever; you just dressed him in a nice jacket.”
She expected an explosion at this, and awaited it eagerly, even as something inside her seethed at the pointlessly inflammatory remark. But Villi smiled, showing tiny, pointed teeth. “Good. You are listening at last.”
Kelly sulked. This, too, she did prettily, and she was capable of nursing an elegant sulk for up to a month at a time, but wasn’t given the chance. The door of the library creaked, and Lin poked her head in, then followed it with the rest of her when she caught sight of them.
“Villi! Have you seen – oh. Of course. Keshena, is this another of your faces?” The Speaker raised a skeptical eyebrow.
It was unwise to display too much eagerness to get away from Villi, but wisdom was not one of Kelly’s notable qualities. She jumped to her feet and curtsied to Lin, following it up with a toss of the hair and a wink. There was a faint sound of gagging from where the imp sat, and Keshena ignored it.
“Hello, Lin! Villi is teaching me all about loyalty!”
“O…kay then. That’s good.”
“It’s been hard to get through to… this… as I’m sure you can imagine,” Villi drawled. “But she’s satisfied me for the moment. Do you require her?”
“If you’re finished,” Lin answered. “Would you say she’s ready for her examination?”
The imp looked sideways at Keshena, that eternal laughter in her wide eyes. “That is for our fine Speaker to determine. If you say that she is ready, I will bow to your well-known expertise.”
Lin visibly contained a snappish response, putting on instead a bright, false smile that rather eerily echoed Kelly’s. “All right, then. Keshena, come along. We’ll talk in the Retreat.”
Like an unleashed puppy, Keshena jumped to her feet and scampered from the room, followed as long as possible by the imp’s interested eye.