The Cultivator looked forlornly at the Chinese finger trap abandoned at the other end of her desk, then returned her gaze for the umpteenth time to the notebook in front of her. It wasn't long before her eyes wandered back to the toy again while she tapped a pen unproductively against paper and sighed. It wasn't her fault she couldn't focus, really: the finger trap was an intriguing puzzle, promising enlightenment and maybe some of the secrets to the universe she hadn't already found and forgotten; the notebook just had "some kind of spaceship?" written on it below several things that were too scribbled out to be readable. With extreme resignation, she began doodling calligraphic ornaments on the word spaceship. At least it looked like she was being productive that way, and it was good practice. Not that she really had anyone to put on a show for, though. The Composer had long since left, once she'd been given sufficient promises that everything would be taken care of.
By the time spaceship was barely readable under all the leaves and flowers and flourishes and strokes, she had worked herself into the foulest temper she was really capable of. So what if she wanted to spread the responsibility a bit? Or not plan all the way ahead? It'd all worked out just fine so far. Heck, Battletopia had been spur of the moment, and look how well it was proceeding. Well, she hadn't actually looked at how well it was proceeding, but... She was sure it was proceeding well. Actually, she should probably check up a little, just to see what was going on. And not because it was a good excuse to stop staring fruitlessly at the brainstorming page. That would be irresponsible.
She kicked her way over to a monitor and watched idly as most of her contestants were captured and neutralized in short order. Well, that was pretty boring, on the whole. Maybe she should have given it a bit more thought beforehand, or even just removed the crystal guy from the equation first. Idly tabbing through her viewpoints revealed that at least the new ant lady was organizing a rebellion of some kind, which should be good. She probably wouldn't have to do anything herself, just let the battle run. Yeah, it'd all be fine.
She watched for a while longer, letting the notebook and its spaceship and everything they represented gradually slip from her mind. A smirk gradually crossed her face as she plotted the paths of several of what looked like they'd be the major players. It was actually going to get pretty good sooner than later. In fact, if she–
That train of thought was interrupted rather savagely by an arrival; the Cultivator jumped in a manner entirely unsuited to someone of her power and position and hastily scooted back to where she'd been working, scribbling madly at half-thoughts and ideas. Her brow furrowed sullenly as she tried to maintain a charade she knew would be immediately seen through.
"I thought you said you were just going to leave me to it. I don't need you hovering around all the time, alright? Just... just go away, I'm busy."
"I didn't come back to check on you, Cultivator."
"Oh, no, of course you didn't. This is just a social call for your big dumb idiot friend who can't be trusted to handle everything because you're just soooo much smarter than she is."
"Please! You've barely been gone for..." She glanced at a watch that had long since stopped running under the stresses of extralinear time. It groaned and coughed up a small cog. "Oh. Well, it's been longer than I thought." She stiffened back up a bit. "But I still don't think you're here just to say hello. You never are. I mean, when was the last time you just came over for tea? Sometimes I really think you're using me, just like the rest of them."
The Composer sighed. "Give me your notebook."
"Ah-HA! I knew it! And no, it's not done yet. And it's private anyway. You can't just boss me around like that." She huddled over the brainstorming session and winced. She couldn't even read most of her handwriting.
Actively restraining herself from rolling her eyes, the Composer snatched the book with lightning speed, eliciting a fishy little flop from the other grandmaster; without even glancing at its contents, she snapped it shut and set it aside.
"I am not here to browbeat you, nor am I here in any capacity as a taskmaster. I'm here as your friend, and I just want to talk."
"Oh." She spun a lock of hair around a finger for a few moments before speaking again. "Sorry."
The Composer drew a chair from the air, the mirror to the Cultivator's preferred swiveling control center and sat in it as stiffly and straight as her anthropoid morphology allowed. "I appreciate that I may not always comport myself in a way that makes that obvious. Or believable."
The Cultivator contrasted the image sharply, apparently trying to do her best to become a liquid in her seat, limbs draped over arms and back. "Heh. I guess."
They sat in brief silence before she spoke again. "How about some of that tea, then?"
"If you're offering."
A cat-themed teapot and a pair of mismatched mugs materialized, and the Cultivator cheerfully poured a cup of strong black pekoe for The Composer and a concoction that was more cream and sugar and lemon and spice than tea for herself.
"Good. It's always nice to have these little chats."
They proceeded to stare at each other for some time, one demurely sipping at her drink while the other seemed content to simply bask in the aroma.
"Always nice. These little chats."
Quiet descended again, broken only by regular sipping sounds from the Composer. The Cultivator rolled her eyes and sighed heavily.
"Oh come onnn, just say something! You've got to have something on your mind."
"On the contrary, I just wanted to enjoy your company."
"Yeah, uh-huh. Okay."
“It’s just that... I’m having second thoughts.”
The Cultivator nodded sagely. “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Me too.”
“I think,” the Composer said icily, “that that is only unusual for one of us.” Her face softened after a few moments before she continued. “And in any case, I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing.”
The Cultivator continued as though she hadn’t heard, which wasn’t strictly speaking true; it could just take her a bit to switch gears and she tended to treat conversations like a monologue with gaps in any case.
“I mean, it seemed like fun at first, but it’s so boring, and they’re all trying to do the same stuff, and I’ve seen it all before anyway. I thought only picking evil ones would be interesting, but...” She blinked and played the last few seconds over again in her mind. “Oh. What are you talking about, then?”
“The same thing as when we last spoke.”
The Cultivator cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “Sooo... We were talking about my battle?”
“No! The other thing. Look, you remember. Just before I left, I asked you for some advice.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess. Vaguely. You weren’t really being very clear.”
The Composer sighed, but she supposed there wasn’t much point in coming here if she wasn’t going to put all her cards on the table.
“Well, you're the one who set up the Conservatory for me. Do you recall why I came to need it?”
The Cultivator's eyes widened. "Are you alright? Does it need maintenance? What happened?"
"I'm fine, and it's undamaged. Do you remember?"
“Uhhh, yeah. I think so. You were a death goddess under a big, important progenitor type guy, but you got kicked out and needed another source of vim. Right? Something like that?”
“Close enough. Did it ever occur to you to wonder why I was banished?”
The Cultivator sent her chair spinning in rapid circles with a kick. “Didn’t really cross my mind. That’s your business, you know? Stuff happens.”
The Composer drained her mug and set it on the arm of her chair, pursing her lips as though she intended to launch into a full lecture. “Well, I was not the only servant of the creator’s. There were others. From Origin, there originally came Saber..."
The Cultivator had the good grace not to let her eyes visibly glaze over, but not enough of it to actually pay attention to the complicated genealogy being laid out in front of her. Names and stations and stories and powers laid themselves out in front of her, a complicated coruscating boring web of words that she just couldn't muster the attention to focus on. It wasn't long before the Composer realized that not only was she losing her audience, most of what she was saying was immaterial to the point and just a stalling tactic so she could defer saying what she had come here to. She cleared her throat.
"In any case, once I had safeguarded the dead and the realm of the living from the ravages outside, Saber was able to populate the world without fear of it collapsing under the void. With that task finished, he turned his hand to acts of creation almost on par with Origin's. Though he was... perhaps too proud, many of them were successes. One in particular was not."
“Yes. Rebellious, self-important, clumsy. He developed ideas above his station. He began to plot and scheme, and eventually he enacted his hateful plan. He was foolish, and he should have failed, but luck was on his side. Saber was killed, and the energy of his death was enough for the construct to harness to his ends. He escaped with it into the multiverse proper. He used me as part of his plan, and as such he – perhaps inadvertently, perhaps knowingly – made a scapegoat of me. Much of the blame was laid at my feet. I was made to pay for his heresy.”
There was a short silence as it gradually dawned on the Cultivator that something was expected of her here. She did her best. “Gosh.”
“I was banished. Stripped of my name, stripped of my station. Stripped from my home. Made to wander a million planes of existence knowing that none of them were mine, and none of them could be. I was made to suffer the agony of every conceivable hell without the mercy of death. Punished for the trickery and treachery of another. An eternity of meaninglessness and regret.”
“I spent eons trying to find the construct, trying to take my revenge. Trying to make my exile if not less unbearable at least less pointless. My final act as an arbiter. But I couldn’t, and I could never go home. No power I could find could break my curse. Maybe none existed. No source I could find could give me the information I needed. I thought maybe it was forever lost. I resigned myself to my fate, in time, and eventually sought other ways to face eternity. You gave me back a taste of what I once had, and my battles have been an interesting diversion. I have been... mollified, if not content.”
“Well, that’s... good?”
“No. But it was better. I thought it would last me. It was healing wounds I thought would never fade. I was prepared to forget the emptiness I’ve carried past the deaths of stars. To try, anyway. I was going to break from my past, or at least from the parts I’d lost.”
“But the source I could never find finally found me. Just as I had finally, finally readied myself to forget, I was reminded. I was given what I’d sought fruitlessly for the majority of my existence, given it without prelude or even so much as the hint of a cost. I had to watch as my own lips smiled and spelled out the secret as though it couldn’t have been more obvious. Mentioned practically in passing, just an interesting fact.”
“Haha, what, the Organizer? Really? Man, where does that guy even get his information?”
The Composer sucked in a lungful of air between her teeth before sighing heavily. "I have long since stopped trying to speculate. There’s just too much about him I don’t understand. But he told me where the construct was, who it was. Told me it was one of us. Told me I’d been begrudgingly rubbing shoulders with my mortal enemy and didn’t even know it!”
“Another grandmaster, huh?” The Cultivator whistled through her teeth, a skill she’d been practicing with little success. “What are the odds?”
“I doubt odds come into it.”
“Huh.” The Cultivator drummed her fingers on her console for a bit, then proved she was at least a bit more perceptive than she often seemed. “So, what, you found out where this guy you’ve spent allll this time hating is, but you didn’t do anything? That doesn’t really seem like you.”
“Well, I mean, how come? Don’t get me wrong, I stand by what I said before. I don’t think you should go around flying off the handle about stuff from forever ago and whatever, but... You had to have a reason to hold back. It’s pretty out of character, if you don’t mind me saying.”
Rather than answer, the Composer bolted up out of her seat and began pacing.
“Come onnn, if you can’t tell me, who can you tell? It’s not good to keep stuff bottled up, Posey.”
The Composer must have been upset, because she was distracted enough to let the nickname slide.
“And you said you were having second thoughts. So, really, that must mean you agree with me! You’d have done something already if you thought it was a good idea.”
“Who are you to tell me to let bygones be bygones, anyway?” The Composer produced a typewritten note from nowhere and waved it in the other woman’s face. “I haven’t seen much restraint from you on that front. Where’s the forgive and forget attitude for Mr. Ghost, then?”
The Cultivator’s arms crossed defensively and she scowled. “That’s different. That’s now. And anyway he’s interfering with my battle, and I’ve got to treat battles like they’re important. You said that yourself.” Her arms uncrossed and flailed briefly above her head. “And anyway you’re just trying to change the subject!”
The Composer stopped pacing and lowered herself gently into the chair again, back ramrod straight and face carefully impassive. She picked the empty mug back up, bone-white knuckles the only outward indication of how upset she was. “I think I have overstretched myself.”
The Cultivator made a vaguely-interrogative noise and beckoned for her friend to continue.
“You know I haven’t been the most... insular of grandmasters.”
“I have frequently interceded with other battles and advised other grandmasters.”
Nod, nod, beckon.
“Made it my business to ensure things are run properly. By the proper people.”
“Yesss, come onnn.”
She sighed. “Since I took over–” here the syllables clanged with distaste even through her air of hesitance “–the Delicious Engagement, I’ve been harried. By the Eccentric, of all things! I’ve been made to fear and hide myself by that ludicrous parody of sentience. I’ve been worrying, and it’s made me wonder if it was what I should have done. If any of it was.”
“So, what did you do about it?”
“Nothing. What’s done is done, and I have to continue to manage the consequences of my actions. I am nothing if not responsible. But... I resolved not to meddle more outside my own domain. To stop imposing my will where it had no place. Stop fighting battles just because they were there to be fought.”
Light dawned. “Ohhh! And that’s when you heard about your old enemy guy.”
“And it made you wonder if you’d made the right decision and ought to go rough him up and maybe take over his battle.”
“But eventually you decided to just let it all go and get on with your life.”
“And why did I decide that?”
“It seems to meee...” The Cultivator pursed her lips and shifted them back and forth several times before continuing. “It seems. To. Me. It seems to me like if you did that, you’d just end up right back where you started. You’ve got the starts of a good thing already, but if you go off and fight this guy, you’ll throw it all away and end up in the same headspace from right after you got banished. Only this time you won’t even have a goal! He’ll be dead and you’ll be just as exiled as before. You won’t be able to go back to battles or the dead, and you won’t be able not to, and basically... Basically everything’ll suck!”
“As much had occurred to me, yes.”
“But that’s not even the only reason.”
“Because I’ve made enemies among the grandmasters.”
“And I need to accept my limitations.”
“Right! That’s the thing of it, from what I can see. You’ve just got to let go and accept things. Accept what happened, accept you can’t change it, accept how other guys want to run their things, accept what you can and can’t do. Accept the past and embrace what’s to come!”
“I think a lot of you guys cause yourselves trouble with that. You think omnipotent really means omnipotent, and then you get all bent out of shape when things go wrong.”
“A lot of us? And what about you?”
By now, her chair was spinning again. “Hey, I accept lots of stuff. All the time.”
There was another brief silence, which was soon broken by both of them speaking at once.
“I just wanted to say that–”
“And besides, it’s not like–”
They both stopped speaking at the same time, too; they felt the arrival of another presence, and neither really wanted to be seen having this conversation.
“Ah, Ms. Composer. I must say, I didn’t expect to have to come here to find you.”
The Composer considered tidying herself up and trying to regain some of her bearing, but... She just couldn’t be bothered. Especially not for the likes of the Executrix.
“Well, you found me. What do you want?”
The newcomer glanced at the gently-revolving Cultivator. “I have recently come into some information that I thought you would find illuminating, and wish to share it with you.”
"Yes? What is it?”
She paused again. “It concerns your personal history. Perhaps you would prefer to–”
“Anything you could possibly have found out, the Cultivator probably already knows, and I’d take her knowing it over you any day.”
“That is to say, it concerns your shared history. With the Observer.”
“Oh, is that who it is? Weeeird, I was guessing, like, Zaire. Or maybe the Stranger, he seems pretty shady.”
“Yes, it is the Observer. I would never have guessed, but it seems painfully obvious now that I know."
The Executrix's eyes scuttled back and forth between the other grandmasters. This was not even going remotely like she had expected or planned for. She swallowed her surprise and pressed on.
"Nevertheless, I think I really would prefer to speak to you alone, if–"
The Composer's eyes narrowed dangerously before she completely lost her patience and composure. Cracks zigzagged across her mug as her lips tightened; it exploded into powdery shards, followed by its mate and the teapot. The Cultivator was left drenched and looking hurt.
"Posey! Those were part of my collection!"
"Say what you have to say and get out, Executrix. I have neither time nor patience for your games and airs and attempts at maneuvering. Your master is an associate of mine. The same relationship does not extend to you."
The wooden woman coughed and stepped back. "Very well then, my apologies for intruding on your time. I simply learned something that I thought would be best if it didn't remain hidden from you forever, and that I thought might require discretion."
Of all the grandmasters, it was the Executrix who was most likely to have literal gears turning as she thought, and if she did they were working furiously now. Her entire plan revolved around the assumption that the Organizer had continued hiding the Observer's nature from the Composer, but if she was interpreting the conversation she'd intruded upon correctly, that had already become old news. Right at the most critical moment for its revelation. And that revelation was not having its desired result. The Executrix was not a woman who ever proceeded without a backup plan or ten, but she loathed the prospect of playing her trump so soon.
She did her best to smile and changed gears.
"I'll be brief. It has come to my attention that Scope–"
"How dare you speak that name? What gives you the right to pry into my history? I should–" She bit her lip and forced herself to calm down. This was exactly the sort of behavior she'd just finished resolving to avoid. "Just... Continue. Preferably while maintaining the pretense that you haven't been prying open secrets that your little wooden fingers have no right to touch."
"Apologies. It has come to my attention that the Observer is harboring a desire to make amends for whatever slights he has perpetrated against you, but is too worried that you'll react badly to make the first overture."
The Composer snorted uncharacteristically. "And well he should be. I may not be tearing his eye out at the moment, but I have no intention of becoming friends with that... that..." Her nostrils flared and she forced herself to breathe deeply. "With that."
"That's a pity. I had hoped that in the interest of Grandmaster fraternity–"
"Hmph. You are new at this. If all you came over for was to play matchmaker or happy families, I think you should just see yourself out."
Ever since the ceramic-shattering outburst, the Cultivator had busied herself trying to glue bits of pottery back together, but she looked up at that.
"Actually... I think she's right, really."
"No, think about it!"
"Well, I mean, if you want to kind of come to peace with yourself and your history, and leave it all behind and stuff, it's not helpful to hold grudges anyway. You nearly blew poor Franky's head up right then and there when she said his name like that. I saw you, and she's just trying to help. Obviously you're not as over it as you want to be."
"I fail to see–"
"And sooo, I think that the best way to get right with yourself is to let go of that anger, and the best way to do that is to forgive him!"
"I don't want–"
"And the best way to forgive him is to go see what he has to say!"
"I don't think–"
The Cultivator stood up and grabbed her friend's hand, tugging gently at it.
"Come onnn, you came here for my advice and that's what it is. I'd be sooo hurt if you didn't take it! And anyway you owe me, so if you won't do it for yourself, do it for me."
The Composer stood, scowling. "This is a mistake. If I go now, I will lose whatever goodwill and composure I have maintained, and thus all the progress I have made in relinquishing my anger."
"Naaah, the longer you weight and worry about it, the more you're gonna get resentful. And once you hear him apologize for yourself, you'll have a way easier time moving forward, right?"
The Executrix drew a glowing mote of information out of one of her stylish pockets and proffered it. "This is where he's been basing his operations since the near-destruction of the Speakeasy. If you'd like to know."
The Composer snatched it peevishly at the Cultivator's prodding. "This will be, and is, a mistake."
"Don't you trust me, Posey?"
"Stop calling me that." She sighed. "Please stop calling me that."
She grinned. "Don't you trust me, Her Ladyship Ms. Composer, Esquire?"
The Cultivator received a withering glare for her trouble before the Composer spoke again. "I will... consider it."
"Good! You really should go through with this. It'll be good for you!"
"Perhaps. I have... A lot to think about first." She absorbed the multiversal address and turned away. "I will speak to you again soon."
"Don't be a stranger! And bring more cups next time, I really liked these ones."
Without another word, she was gone. The Executrix folded her hands behind her back and watched the remaining grandmaster happily gluing things to things.
"I should probably thank you for that."
"I was thinking much the same thing."
"She can be such a sourpuss, but I really think she means well. And I hate to see everyone fighting all the time, you know? I mean, it practically makes the battles redundant!"
The Executrix matched the Cultivator's chuckle with a small smile, saying nothing. After a time, the Cultivator set her repairwork aside, shaking her head.
"Where are my manners, anyway? Would you like a cup of tea? I'm sure I can get another pot somewhere."
She turned away as the offer was extended, idly watching the patch of air the Composer had disappeared from. "I'm afraid I have to decline. Hot drinks tend to make my face warp."
"Oh. Sorry. Anything else then?"
"No, I think I have to leave. Thank you for your hospitality, though."
"Oh." The Cultivator deflated slightly and shrugged. "Alright then, have fun with whatever. Hope things work out well with Posey. I'm glad you could tell her where old One-Eye's hanging out."
"I have high hopes as well."
Of course, the Composer wouldn't find the Observer there, but what she would find would, with any luck, prove even more interesting. Interesting enough to completely nullify a few meddling influences for a while, and probably pit them against each other.
The Executrix hated relying on luck.