<== ==>

Manna walked around to the other side of the desk and stood behind Grace with her hands folded. She almost faded into the background. “What will we talk about?” Tomasa asked. “Sports? Video games?”

Grace wiped a few ashes from her glove. “Small talk, sure. You had a long flight over.”

“Seven months, and it was incredibly boring. Only so much to be done, and we ran out of soap.”

“How did that happen?” Grace asked.

“Oh, uh, we were washing our sheets a lot.”

Grace cocked an eyebrow.

“…And taking a lot of showers.”

“Oh.” Grace closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Please tell me you didn’t spend the last half-year doing nothing but rut like a bonobo.”

“Only my free time,” Tomasa said. Grace wasn’t charmed or flustered, just annoyed. The Mater was a lifelong soldier, she had probably heard much worse. “Come on, give me some credit. I got valuable work done.”

“Such as?”

“I read all the legislation and discussion passed in the previous Sorority session, and I have a few suggestions for what BEACON should do for this session.”

“Every single bill and debate? That’s quite a bit to read,” said Grace.

“When will you learn not to underestimate me?” Tomasa said with a cocky grin.
Grace looked up at her, studying her intently. Her eyes were gunmetal grey, razor sharp, hacking away at Tomasa’s cockiness without a sound. “…Uh, why you looking at me like that?” Tomasa hazarded.

“Like what?”

“Like you’re about to eat me.”

“I daresay you’ve been eaten plenty,” Grace said dryly. “Suddenly, I no longer desire small talk. Let me ask you something instead: why are you here, Tomasa?”

“Here in your office? Chantico? Earth? This universe?” Tomasa took a deep breath. “You know this verse is terse, cuz Tomasa’s curse is to put ’em in a hearse in just one burst. For foes I’ve got L’s to dole, I’ll be parrying contrarians and swallowing ‘em whole- this hole has an ace from space, placing disgraces in their place at Grace’s pace.”

When Tomasa was nervous, sometimes she freestyled. She was very nervous right now- it wasn’t one of her best. Grace covered her mouth with her interlocked fingers while Manna stared at her vacantly.

“I don’t think I follow,” Grace said finally. “What did that even mean?”

“I mean, you brought me here as, like, an attack dog, yeah? A vanguard.” It was a concept that existed in both warfare and politics: you put your meanest, toughest girl in front. She did as much damage as she could and focused the enemy’s attention on her while the leader was free to enact their greater plan. “You want me to say the things you can’t to your enemies.”

“That’s a sharp guess. I’d probably think much the same in your position,” nodded Grace. “But that’s not quite it. Also, in your… rap, did you call me a ‘hole’?”

“N-no, I meant Chantico. Like, swallowing them whole and ace in the hole. I’m the ace, in the city, which is a hole… I guess it’s not perfect, the city seems kinda nice.”

“No, I think a ‘hole’ is a perfect description for Chantico.” Grace sighed. “I hate this place.”

“You do?”

“Too many bad memories.” She looked out the window wistfully. “There’s something about Chantico that… I don’t know, slowly petrifies me. I wake up in the morning and feel like I’m swimming in molasses. I work and I work and nothing ever seems to get done.”

The Sorority had a reputation for being corrupt, inefficient, and partisan, so Grace’s feelings didn’t come as a shock. Perhaps the bigger surprise was that the usually austere Mater was being so candid. “What’s the issue?” Tomasa asked.

“How much TORCH history do you know?”

“A bit… I mean, there’s not a lot of time to read up on it while afield. And what I have read tends to be… dry and contradictory.” Tomasa had aced all her history exams in both TORCH’s Academy and BEACON’s Proving Ground, but without absorbing much of it. Written exams always came easily to her, she just crammed the information the night before and let it leave the moment the assignment was turned in.

Grace pursed her lips. “As it were, I lived through most of it. I think the organization has a problem… when TORCH was created, the intention was for the branches to rely upon one another. Links in a chain. Now we’re more like nine organizations under a single umbrella. Maybe this makes us more resilient, but it’s also making ‘TORCH‘ meaningless. Someday, sooner than you’d think, it’d mean nothing at all.”

“But you’re the Marshal of BEACON. The most powerful person in TORCH. Couldn’t you just, I dunno, change that?”

Grace’s eyes were without joy. “It’s not so simple. I command the loyalties of many in BEACON, it’s true, but there are growing multitudes who resent and object to my leadership.” Her eyes narrowed. “And that’s just within my own branch. I am widely despised elsewhere. They call me butcher, fascist, warmonger- or worse, a relic of a bygone era. A stubborn old fossil who refuses to accept that she’s finished.”

<== ==>

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