HEARTH #12

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“Do you smoke?” Grace asked.

“Nah. Should I?”

“It’s a terrible habit. Makes your hands sticky and your clothes smell.” She inhaled. “It’s Henrietta now, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Do you like it?” Henrietta wondered why she’d ask the Mater such a banal question and felt a bit stupid.

Grace didn’t seem to notice. “It suits you better than Tomasa. Too long, though. What do you think of ‘Retta’?”

“Sure.”

Grace took a long drag of the cigarette. “I wanted to get your opinion on the first half of the session.”

“You want me to speak candidly?”

“Always.”

“I think we’re screwed,” said Henrietta. “Your message is not gonna land with younger agents. Your speech was great, but these ideas of sacrifice and martyrdom and discomfort… nobody wants to hear that except the people who already support you. We’re not lazy, I think we work hard too, but we also want to enjoy our work and our lives. Maybe that’s not right, but it’s what is.”

Grace nodded solemnly. “But it’s what I believe,” she said wistfully. “I’m not lying when I say those things- and it wasn’t so long ago that they weren’t even controversial statements.”

“Things change,” Henrietta said with a shrug. “It’s been generations since you and the other Matres founded TORCH. But you say the same things in the same way. I think that might be the problem.”

Grace stared out at the garden, smoking the rest of her cigarette in silence. Henrietta didn’t know what to say, so she just stood at parade rest and waited for someone to do something. “What do you think of Davida?” Grace asked, exhaling a cloud of white smoke.

“The Mater Tormentum… she’s like a dinosaur, exactly what Enron accuses you of being,” said Henrietta. “She still sees all of TORCH as a military hierarchy with a commander on top, not a union of nine distinct but equal branches. She thinks force is always on the table, she doesn’t understand that the weapons we use here are words. She lets protocol and tradition get in the way of her decision-making. She’s a great soldier, but… I don’t think she deserves to call herself ‘Mater’. If that’s something I’m allowed to say.”

“I didn’t bring you on to blow smoke up my ass or bullshit me,” Grace said airily. “Nor can I particularly disagree with anything you said… except one bit. You’d be impressed at how much fighting you end up doing in this job, and I mean that in the literal sense. Don’t think you’re completely safe here, Retta… there are few creatures more dangerous than insecure people entrusted with enormous power.”

“Beg pardon Mater, but do you want to practice your second speech a little?” Manna interjected.

“No, I’ll improv it. No need to write anything.”

“What’s this other speech?” Henrietta asked. “Something to do with the terror attacks?”

That finally earned Grace’s attention, and she glanced at Henrietta. “Yes. How did you know?”

“Deduced it with my huge brain. Also, you mentioned it yesterday. Anything you need from me?”

“No, I think you’re doing well to just keep watching and listening. Trust me, you’ve already earned enough attention by standing near me.” Grace gestured out with her cigarette, which was nearly burned down. “You may have surmised that I have many enemies in TORCH. You’re well on your way to inheriting them.”

“When you face down a quartet of Bactrarii death commandos with nothing but a pneumatic blade and a big smile, a few politicians don’t inspire much fear.” Henrietta flexed her bicep. “Don’t you worry about me, Grace. I can handle whatever’s thrown at me. You point me at something you want done and I won’t just do it, I’ll destroy it.”

Grace didn’t smile exactly, but she gave an amused, approving nod. “I may just take you up on that.”

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