<== ==>  

Of all the people Grace pissed off with her speech, OPTICA seemed the most offended. Counterterrorism was mainly their job, and Grace all-but-accused them of shitting the bed. The fact that OPTICA was indeed shitting the bed did not seem to matter.

The BEACON girls formed a bulwark around Grace as OPTICA and SPRING sisters hurled insults at her. They only dispersed after Grace was safely outside, far from Sorority Hall.

Grace was on her third cigarette by the time Henrietta was able to work her way over to her. “And so concludes your first day on the job,” she said. “How do you like it?”

“Somehow both thrilling and unbelievably boring,” Henrietta replied. “I just sat around and listened to people talk. You’re at least fun to listen to- most of these girls sound like they’re delivering a book report.”

“Mmm.” Grace blew a cloud of smoke in the air. “You’ll get real work to do soon. Bills to draft. Maybe a speech or two of your own. For now, ears open, mouth closed- just like basic training at the Proving Ground.”

“I hated Basic.”

“Everyone hates Basic. C’mon.” Grace gestured for Henrietta to follow. “There’s something I want you to see.”

The two of them plus Manna headed towards the top end of the hill that lent Cresset Mound its name. The session had taken almost all day so the sky was dyed red by the setting sun.

There were dozens of buildings on Cresset Mound, but none half as impressive as the Astralon. Henrietta had seen pictures of it before, and it adorned many girls’ bags in keychain form. It was the tallest building in Chantico and easily the most famous.

The Astralon was made from a midnight blue stone that reflected no light. It was a tapering tower that grew thinner and thinner before widening again about midway through. After a moment, it became clear that the tower was an arm holding an enormous torch.

Of course, the torch was lit: a roaring red-and-yellow flame the size of a house at the tower’s top. That fire, the Eternal Flame, had been lit when the Astralon was completed a quarter century ago. It was supposed to never go out. “Never” was an awfully long time, though.

“Whose hand is that supposed to be?” Grace asked, gesturing with the cigarette.

“Mine,” said Henrietta. “And yours. And Manna’s, and everyone else’s. Because we’re all sisters. We all share this burden.”

“Good. Someone knows her mythmaking. What a pity that it’s bullshit.” Grace kept them moving towards it. “There’s a nice museum inside the Astralon that you should check out on a day off. But it’s not the part I like. I was against them building something so gaudy and oversized anyways.”

As they approached the Astralon, Henrietta noticed some figures surrounding it. They weren’t people but rather stone statues: life-sized, highly detailed ones arranged in a circle.

One of them was of Grace. The sculptor had captured the Mater’s features perfectly: the steely intensity in her eyes, the strength of her features and the imperious confidence of her posture. The Grace in the statue was clad in her armor, frowning, staring straight ahead and slightly up. “You feeling okay?” Henrietta asked. “You’re looking kinda grey.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “This one I wasn’t against… you have no idea how strange it is to stare at a doppelganger of yourself made from rock, though. And she got a few of my features ever-so-slightly wrong. The nose is a shade big.”

It actually was. Henrietta mockingly tweaked the statue’s nose. “So, you asked me over to critique the failings of the sculptor?”

“No. It’s important for you to understand our history if you’re going to represent us.” Grace began to walk, and Henrietta followed. “When TORCH was birthed from the ashes of GARDEN, I pushed endlessly for the creation of the office of Mater. Do the history books say why?”

“Not really.”

“It was so that our traditions would never be forgotten. Every young TORCH agent will at some point ask herself, ‘why do these women get so many special privileges?’ The answer is that these women sacrificed more than you could ever know for there to be a TORCH.” Grace stopped in front of a statue different from the others: it was turned towards the Astralon rather than facing outwards. A BEACON Mater, a petite and curvaceous woman with a clever glint in her stone eyes.

“Each of us was a veteran of The Cenotaph War. Each of us was a hero from that war, elected to her office by ballot. Because I knew that one day, most of the girls who had fought alongside me would be dead, like Zimri here. One day, all of these statues will be turned to face the Astralon- but until that day comes, I wanted those who founded TORCH to lead it. I want our vision of what TORCH should be to remain at the forefront. We fought too damn hard and sacrificed too damn much for anything less.”

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