By Moe Lane


Each of the two discovered that he wasn't the only celestial in the room at roughly the same time: in fact, they came to this realization while reaching for the same sugar packets.

The confrontation that followed went completely unnoticed by the humans in the room. Indeed, most angels or demons would have missed all but the most obvious eye movements as each celestial simultaneously assessed his opponent, the potential weapons in the room and the relative positions of everyone around them. A hypothetical observer might have noted, with some bemusement, the identical vacant looks that flickered across the two combatants' faces as they quickly assessed the Symphonic strains around then ... but possibly not.

Even a perceptive human would have noted the faint but unmistakable relaxation as both of the two celestials stood ever so slightly down. This was not the time for violence: in fact...

"Word-Truce?" asked Simon, Mercurian Friend of the Sages.

"Word-Truce," agreed William, Impudite Knight of the Infernal Hourglass.

Word-Truce is one of those informal yet ironbound concepts that spring up among field agents of the War. After all, there are times when intelligence simply must be gathered, regardless of the natural antipathy between two particular Words. It is only invoked when no intervention by either side is planned: someone asking for Word-Truce is indicating that he or she will neither attack nor interfere in the Other Side's observations, for precisely so long as the courtesy is returned. Those going back on Word-Truce tend to afterwards have exciting but short lives: neither side is tolerant of idiots that make their lives more difficult.

Of course, there's nothing in the unwritten rules against verbal sniping.

"What, no popcorn?" murmured the angel.

"I was going to bring beer, but I then I realized that I wouldn't have gotten it past the gate guards," replied the demon.

They were both quietly speaking a variant of archaic Navaho: it was better suited for expressing celestial concepts than most corporeal tongues, and sufficiently complicated that even celestials not serving either Yves or Kronos would have to have a compelling reason to bother learning it. And as for humans... well, suffice it to say that the threat of successful eavesdropping was remote.

The Mercurian drummed his fingers on the chair arm, looking around as he idly noted the usual complex interplay between the prison officials, 'real' journalists and the personal witnesses to the execution. He turned to the Impudite.

"You must love this."

William grinned. "Of course." In a pig's eye. "Nothing like a good public execution to polarize the walking batteries - especially if he turns out to be a martyr after all. A shame that Nybbas couldn't get the web feed rights." Oh, the lies I tell in the service of my Prince: I would feel shame, except I don't quite know how...

Simon's eyes slightly narrowed. Nice try. The angel's voice was dry as he replied,

"No matter that these things never work out in the long run?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, let's face it. The very nature of terrorism means that their victims are usually chosen for their shock value, which means that they usually aren't fodder for Hell. Tell me: how many souls did your side gather from his" - the Mercurian flicked a chin at the glass window, currently curtained - "attack?"

"Enough." Three ... and two of those three still had a couple good decades of nastiness in them, thought William behind a bland smile. Of course, if we had been given advanced warning about the attack, we might have done better. That would, also of course, require a boss that doesn't think that 'efficiency' means 'forbidding all unnecessary use of Essence'. How he got his position is beyond me completely - and thanks to a few indiscreet comments of mine, I'm up here as a punishment, instead of being at the Welcome Auction.

"Don't insult me: we know precisely how many you got, and we know how many we got, and how many went back to the Wheel to try again. And what did he accomplish, really, besides killing a lot of people? How will his actions or death further your cause? Once he's gone, they'll put him in a few books, possibly a movie, and then he'll fade away and be half-forgotten. And the world will move on."

"Every little bit helps, angel. Besides, you don't know that the ripples from his actions won't upset a boat or two somewhere else. It's amazing what excuses humans will seize upon to justify their pathetic hates and fears. Besides..." - the Impudite looked smug - "leaving beside the tactical issues, my Prince wants this one. He's already started the auction for the final disposition of his soul, or so my immediate superior tells me." Not that the arrogant, credit-grabbing, moronic bastard has any real feel for his job.

If Servitors of Destiny have a universal vice, it's card games: the combination of chance, skill and chutzpah appeals to them. They play them at every opportunity, preferably against those who could normally detect a bluff. There is a room in the Library where a game of poker has been going on continuously for the last hundred and twenty years: almost every Shepherd with a Distinction has sat in on it at least once.

Simon had played poker with Yves himself, once: not that he had won, of course, but he did manage to walk out with his shirt. Thus, it was no real surprise that his reaction to William's statement was masterfully controlled. The Mercurian merely gave a slow nod, then straightened up as the curtain opened.

The man that both celestials had come to see was already strapped into the device that would end his life. He looked pale, but maintained a stoic silence as he looked at his last moments: the Impudite and Mercurian took special care to match the humans' expressions as the condemned terrorist locked eyes with each of the witnesses. As a general rule, both Mercurians and Impudites disapprove of executions, or indeed of any form of human death other than old age. However, both the Choir and Band disapprove even more of mass murderers, albeit for completely different reasons, so the celestial observers were able to maintain a certain equanimity as the execution proceeded.

However, both of their expressions flickered at what happened afterwards: one in apparent surprise, and one in a certain grim pleasure.

William spoke first, stunned amazement in his voice.

"He didn't Go Downstairs." He turned to the angel, who had finally allowed himself a small smile. "He didn't Go Upstairs, either. He just - fell apart."

Simon's voice was a trifle light.

"My, my, has Kronos been neglecting to teach his Servitors? You do realize that sort of thing can happen when someone achieves neither his Destiny nor his Fate?"

"168 people," grated William. "The final death toll was 168. He showed no real remorse. His final statement was a deliberate exercise in hubris. What does it take to damn someone, these days?"

"His Fate, demon, his Fate. None of you actually bothered to check, did you? That fool's Fate was to start a violent revolution against the United States of America: that was the first thing we worked out, when his case came to our attention. We've spent the last few years nipping that in the bud... and you never even noticed." The Mercurian chuckled. "I'd suggest that all of you should work on that sort of hubris, but frankly we'd be worse off if you did.

"Well, I must be going. Good luck with your report, you poor bastard: you'll need it." The angel got up and left, still smiling faintly. William remained slumped in his chair, his expression still showing a faint look of dismay... until he was sure that Simon was gone.

Then he started to smile. Thanks for the wish for luck, geek, but I actually won't need it: chance favors the prepared mind, after all.

It was always gratifying to see a hunch pay off. William was an experienced Servitor of Fate - unlike my fool for an immediate boss - and the entire situation had simply felt wrong from the start. But, of course, thanks to my superior's 'efficiency policy,' I couldn't be allowed to check, could I? Mustn't waste Essence on confirming such a notorious talking monkey's Fate, after all - so I get labeled as 'obstinate' for insisting that we should. Hell, I even put it in writing. How the idiot laughed at that!

Well, now the idiot's trying to explain to Kronos why the guest of honor isn't showing, and the report that will demonstrate my prescient worries is wending its way to the Prince's desk. That should be enough to get the whole case investigated by the BS artists, especially since it was my boss who squashed the report in the first place. William openly laughed as he got up and left. Really, I'm doing Hell a favor by getting rid of that incompetent. How he got as far as he did, I'll never know. Well, nothing's perfect.

The most wonderful thing about this is, I won't even have to lie. I did report my concerns, just like a proper Servitor of Fate, and I was properly indifferent of my personal safety while doing so. I didn't even break any of my boss' idiotic rules in the process - especially the one where I was actually forbidden to warn Kronos face to face, in flagrant violation of my rights as a Knight. All in all, I feel almost ... well, virtuous.

What an odd sensation.


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