(Set directly after the Debrief of Faith Healing.)
The crypt feels - fresher than it should. Airless, but not yet decayed. She is gracefully arranged in the open-top coffin, prepped for interment: the plan is to have it sealed - sooner, actually, but Armand told them to wait. The idea of the coffin itself being ransacked is repulsive; better for them to lift her out, to have a clean exchange.
Her wounds have been neatly closed. Someone has done a good job of washing away all the blood. In light of it all, her face is almost recognisable.
Her hand trembles where it rests against the stone. They’ve scoured it till there’s no trace of all the grime that must have been under her nails, but they couldn’t do anything about the callouses, the abrasions - a litany of imperfections that will stay with her into eternity, or rot. Whichever comes first. He’s not sure if she’s meant to decompose. Or if he’ll ever find out.
He takes her by the hand.
“Hey, Penelope,” he says, weakly. “The Traitor called. She says she forgives you.”
Her hand is very cold, but not at all still, in his. It jumps, a little - twitches, every time a new tremor wracks her body.
Maybe there’d be some measure of comfort if he could remember exactly what he said to her - just before the end, when she’d been hesitant, unsure: if he could remember whether he’d had any thought for the ramifications. But all he can recall is urgency, terror - telling her to do it, do it now, as if he’d had any idea what it would entail, any idea what it would achieve. As if he hadn’t.
Even now, it’s - hazy.
“You just had to do it again, didn’t you?” he laughs. Rueful. “Run away the instant we agreed to work together. I’m beginning to think that’s all you’ve ever done, but - but, gods, maybe that’s uncharitable. Hah.”
Outside, the weather is mild - all pallid sunlight, interspersed with bustle and birdsong. He will stay here until it’s dark: until the dense false night of the tomb becomes indistinguishable from the world without.
“Embarrassing, isn’t it? That I spent so long trying to deny you were worthy of being a Cargan, only to have you go haring off every time I tried to usher you back into the fold.”
For some reason, his thoughts keep anchoring on the way she’d looked at him at the debate - back when he’d been sulking at some perceived slight - when the thought of her there, alive again, had blotted out all rational response. She’d looked down towards him - physically down; she’d always been taller - and sort of caught and held his gaze: amused, half-pitying. Curious. So many other things he couldn’t bring himself to parse - and he had spent hours afterwards scrutinizing every facet of the recollection.
He’d tortured himself with that look for weeks afterwards. Now, he’s seen plenty of the girl behind the bravado, shorn of all but her belief - and with even that stripped raw, worn to the bone.
She’d seemed far more knowing than she ever did afterwards. He got caught up in that, a bit. Looking back on it, perhaps it was that illusion that had made him love her.
“I still don’t know if I forgive you,” he tells her. “I said I did, didn’t I? But it was - pointlessly vicious, exaggeratedly cruel. However sorry you might have felt afterwards, it still stood. Stands. Still, the fact is - and this is what I realised back there, before it all went to shit - it’s irrelevant, because beyond all that… I love you.” A frustrated gesture, mid-air. “Not the way people said I did. It was true for a time, maybe - but that’s changed; it’s been changed for a while. I love you the way I ought to: as family loves family. And for all that, it’s too late.”
He’s clenching his eyes shut against the sudden ache of it all - but gods, he’s already cried for her so much more than she deserves. He could cry for Booker instead, but that would feel less of a waste, and more of an imposition - and whilst he’s lived long enough to understand the distinction between mourning consequence and mourning loss, it hardly seems like one that he’d appreciate.
Gods, Booker. There had been nothing to say before it was all over, though he’d run the gamut from disbelief to anger. In the end, there was so very little to give; he’d made his choice, had made it long before anyone else suspected. After rifling through the wreckage of all his expectations for an appropriate response, all he’d managed to wish him was courage.
It was the only blessing he’d been qualified to give: a gift, from a devotee of Lynndis to a servant of Abraxis.
“I’m glad she’s out in the world,” he tells Penelope. “Acryn needs its gods more than ever - not the least, to lend their followers some kind of direction. She’s a pragmatist, but she doesn’t realise that her brand of pragmatism corrupts. It’s corrupted her precious church. They’d willingly allow one of their number to take on an eternity of suffering, rather than shoulder the burden collectively.” At the memory of this latest humiliation, he winces. “That’s the kind of specious utilitarianism I won’t abide. Individuals matter. Families matter. And it became quite clear that nothing I said over the course of the conversation could sway them - that nothing could. Acryn is under a tyranny whether it knows it or not.”
Penelope’s corpse gives another fierce shudder. He squeezes her hand.
“I can see how it’ll work out from here,” he says, quietly. “From now on, every so often, I’ll be faced with a choice that is no choice at all: compliance or removal. And I’m not prepared to be their lackey. Not when I’ve worked so hard for the power I’ve managed to glean.”
He feels a shiver chase up his spine - as if Penelope’s movements are their own form of contagion.
“I’ve been so wrapped up in trying to outwit them all that I’ve forgotten what needs to be done: to take the Warrior’s route. To get stronger.” He shakes his head. “I’d almost forgotten the Warrior altogether. When I saw her, there was virtually no - connection. I love her more than anything, but at the time, I was too - too wrapped up my duty. To her. And as consequence, I’ve gained an understanding I never asked for. A sympathy I could never… control.”
But he can’t go any further - not here, not with her. Can’t give voice to this, any more than he can ease the slightest bit of her pain.
He swallows, hard. “So I guess it’s the same answer as ever: accrue more power to protect myself. I can see why Francesco does it. Funny, how he and I so often see eye to eye these days.” A beat - a breath of laughter. “Or maybe not so funny.”
There’s nothing left to say. Nothing she’d care about, at any rate - if, that is, she would have cared about anything he had to say. Had she ever cared about any of them?
She’s not capable, Francesco had said. And Francesco had been accused of that often enough by him. Francesco would know.
He closes his eyes again. In the end, it doesn’t matter where they take the body. Doesn’t matter that every minute she’ll convulse with sharp inevitability - as if the violence of what has been done to her has waves of torture and respite like any other kind of pain. That he’s the keeper of this maze: heir to an impossible task, and inheritor of a thousand answerless questions.
“This isn’t - you won’t - I’ve the beginnings of a plan, okay?” Gently, he sets her hand back down on the stone. “Goodbye, Penelope.”
It is dark by the time he vacates the tomb, having redirected security and cleared a path for those ruthless enough to take her by more violent means.
It’s dark as he forces himself up the stairs - and darker still as, lanternless, he unfastens the door to his room. He’s quite prepared to stay in the dark for at least the next week or so, if not more. It is with a small jolt, however, that he realises there is something bright at his feet: a tiny square of white at the edge of the floor.
There are two people in the world that might have reason to post notes underneath his door. One of them is dead.
It is therefore with something approaching terror that he opens the paper.
It’s short, but he has to look over it several times to process its contents - and then, once more, as a helpless smile breaks across his face.
One word, in smug calligraphy. Yes.
Proof beyond hope.
It’s a while before he can bring himself to breathe - much less move. When he does, it’s to stumble into the seat at his escritoire, bury his head in his hands, and laugh in great, wracking sobs.
He has little recollection of falling asleep - but when he wakes, it is to find that the paper is still clutched tightly in his fist.