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Where the Self Resides

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Do you wonder where the self resides?
Is it in your head or between your sides
And who will be the one who will decide
Its true location?
--"Dark Matter" - Andrew Bird

There are many reasons that Cata's displeased, when the spell breaks. The fact that she's lost seven years of her life to someone else's idea of what was best for her is only the most obvious, and she's content to let the rest of the house think it's solely because she's out of shape and out of practice.

Waking up in bed with a man who is neither Sam nor a mark, and to the sounds of children elsewhere in the house, certainly isn't helping her mood.

***

It didn't take long at all for Cata to build a reputation, after learning all the Assassins' Guild had to teach her; it seemed Bistort had a niche for a young woman who could lure men into her bed before doing anything fatal to them. Of course, she didn't pursue actually bedding her marks to the extent they might appreciate, but she saw them to a pleasant level of distraction before making a move against their continued livelihood. There was an art to it that she had no trouble grasping.

On the other hand, she quickly learned that she couldn't do the same to women. The class of women who attracted the Guild's services proved extremely difficult to talk into bed; they often seemed to think some sort of gossip would ruin their social standing. Not that they would be around to see that happen, but she could hardly tell them that.

She did succeed in convincing a woman to join her once, which presented another problem: Cata found herself so caught up in the bedding part of the process that she nearly forgot what she was there to do. She remembered in time to fulfill the contract, but decided to devote some thought to the matter later, when she had a bit of free time.

In light of her experience, she decided it would be best to keep the business side of her bed restricted to men. Seeking women for her pleasure troubled her far less than the thought of defaulting on a contract, and so drawing a line between the two pursuits seemed like the best solution.

***

"Catherine, wait, I'm sure there's some way we can sort this out."

Roderick is very earnest; Cata can't tell if he's that way by nature, or if some lesser power who hasn't apparently died overnight put a whitewashing spell on him. Either way, his attempts to confront this like it can be solved with a simple discussion are beginning to grate, especially when she's trying to decide what of her current possessions are worth taking to Bistort.

"Catherine is gone," she finally says, sounding slightly more harsh than she meant to. "Catherine never should have existed in the first place, frankly. I'll do you no good here, in your fields or in your bed."

"And the children? You'd leave them that easily?"

"I would. Should they ever get to asking, it is not their fault. Nor is it yours - it's partly mine for being caught at all, and partly Mizzamir's for thinking he was being merciful. As things stand, we'll all be best served if I go home, and you find someone who can love you and be a mother to them."

Roderick sighs. "All right. Since there's no appealing to sentiment, do what you will. I... think I need a drink."

He was closer to appealing to sentiment than he knew; Cata is infuriated by what Mizzamir did to those children by proxy, bringing them into the world under false pretenses. But that's as far as it goes. Their mother died when the spell broke, and with her wits about her once again, she has no maternal instinct to speak of. Leaving is the best thing she can do, and if it's not particularly nice... well, she's not particularly nice, so it works out.

She never thought she'd be relieved to have her menses start, but when they do a week after she starts back toward Bistort, she all but jumps for joy. If she's going to put this behind her properly, it's best that she doesn't have a little reminder hanging about the place.

***

Cata never fully trusted most of her fellow professionals. Certainly anyone who completed the Guild's training could be expected only to work on assignment, but they rarely discussed the nature of those assignments; one never knew when they might be contracted against, under the circumstances.

She never felt any such hesitation about Sam, though. Perhaps it had to do with them training at nearly the same time - but probably not, as she found little such common ground among their other fellow trainees. More likely, it had some ties to the fact that he seemed to like her far too much to be capable of stabbing her in the back. It was no secret that he lusted for her somewhat, if not more, and there were occasions when Cata wished she could indulge him.

Mostly, though, she quite approved of his taste in women, and appreciated the challenge of trying to keep up with his impeccable aim.

She met Viola on Sam's recommendation, when one of her favorite tunics ripped during training; he said that Viola could not only fix it, but make it look as though the damage had never occurred. Cata took a liking to her almost immediately; Viola had a refreshingly practical outlook, and was one of few women outside of the Guild who didn't hesitate to use her brain. Cata suspected the apparent disappearance of female intelligence was likely a sign of these supposedly enlightened times, and it rather saddened her that a perfect world apparently included so many mindlessly happy people.

In any case, she and Viola began making an effort to talk in their free time, and neither of them complained at all when the talking turned into something more. Sam seemed like he was trying his best not to be disappointed, but Cata trusted that he would recover if given enough time.

On the balance, things were going quite well - at least, they were until Mizzamir caught up with Cata.

***

The Guild almost has to start rebuilding itself quite literally from the ground up; fortunately, the City Council never completed their repurposing of the Guild hall, so simply occupying the building as though they had never left seems to do the trick on that front. In any case, they've all lost time and practice, and some of the best senior members... aren't back at all.

That's going to prove complicated, once they feel they're in a position to train new people again; everyone's sure they want the Guild to reopen eventually, but equally sure they can barely take on contracts just now, never mind teach novices everything they need to know.

And to make matters worse, at least from Cata's perspective, there's no trace of Sam. The last definite reports have him sulking in the Guild hall a few months before people started coming back; Black Fox thinks he saw Sam in Mertensia a bit after that, but he can't be sure, even though there was apparently a game of darts involved. How anyone could see Sam playing darts and not know it was him - or, in light of the whitewashing, realise it after the fact - is completely beyond Cata.

Sam finally turns up about five months after everyone else started drifting back, with a city-shy redhead in tow. Once again, Cata finds herself approving of Sam's taste in women; she values her life far too much to step between them, of course, but that's not going to stop her looking, at least until the girl makes for the nearest stables. After that, she and Sam fall to catching up.

It doesn't surprise her at all to learn that they've got Sam to thank for restoring everyone's wits by proxy. If anyone had the aim and sheer bloody-mindedness to hold out against Mizzamir long enough to kill him, it's Sam. Some of the other revelations that crop up during his tale are surprises, particularly the one regarding his heritage - though that feels like it shouldn't be.

It does, at least, explain why there were still rapes for Sam to take his vigilante sort of stance against.

"So now that you're back, are you sticking around?" she eventually asks.

"I don't know. We haven't really discussed it yet, and Kaylana... isn't terribly suited to city life."

"I'd noticed." Cata does her best to keep the remark within acceptable bounds of 'dry.' "I can't see you taking country living all that well, though, and I say that with something pretending to be experience on the subject."

"We'll come up with some sort of compromise, I'm sure. And at the very least, I'll be back to visit, now that there's something here to visit. It got terribly dull after all of you were gone."

"I assure you, none of us would have done that at all, if we'd been in our right minds."

There's a slightly awkward pause, which gives Cata some idea of Sam's next question before he asks it. "Don't suppose you've found Viola yet?"

"I haven't had much time to look, all things considered. I've been busy trying to get back into practice - and taking assignments, where I feel I can. Whether she made it through unscathed... I couldn't say, given one of Mizzamir's reasons for going after me."

"Your wonderfully dubious profession wasn't cause enough for him?"

Cata snorts. "Don't be ridiculous. His moral high ground, for lack of a better term, had no room for bedroom activities that don't produce children."

If he weren't already dead, she'd want a crack at him herself. But she trusts Sam's work, and the evidence of having her wits about her again; no one's going to be reviving Mizzamir, and his sincere adherents will find it much harder to push his policies without a Hero's backing.

***

Mizzamir had been going on about pocket dimensions and related nonsense for so long that Cata had quite lost track of the conversation. That was just as well, she supposed, since it was clearly meant to be one-sided anyway; in her experience, people inviting open dialogue didn't chain their company to the wall.

"I don't suppose," he finally said, "that you've heard of the spell of Attitude Adjustment?"

"Not so far as I'm aware."

Mizzamir started blathering again, but this time, Cata got the point all too well. This was the whitewashing, but far more sinister than anyone still at the Guild had suspected - and he seemed to have every intention of making her the next person put under the spell.

"...And, in addition to your profession weighing against you, there is the matter of your... proclivities."

"And what do you mean by that, if you've already addressed what bothers you the most?"

"Why, the girl, of course." Mizzamir smiled; Cata supposed he meant it to be kindly, but it hardly looked as such. "You cannot expect that such a dalliance is truly healthy. Do you even know her real name?"

"What she's chosen to tell me is none of your business, and I can't fault her for using something that most people in this town stand a chance of pronouncing."

"The fact remains that it's hardly a productive endeavor for either of you. You would be better served by putting those efforts toward raising a family."

Cata scowled. "I don't have the kind of maternal instinct required to raise a family, to say nothing of the interest."

"You needn't worry. The spell will see to that for you, and soon enough, your days in the darkness will be nothing more in your memory than a bad dream."

"So I haven't made it clear enough yet that I don't want your help? I must not have, since you seem determined to give it to me anyway. Tell me how that makes it better than killing me while you've got me captive. Tell me how it isn't rape, when I wouldn't consent to a man in my right mind."

Mizzamir scowled, and while Cata suspected the expression was meant to be terrifying, she found it familiar - and infuriating, just as soon as she placed the resemblance.

"You didn't," she said, not meaning to say it out loud, but too caught up in a sort of detached, dark amusement at how it would answer a lingering question about the spreading light.

"I didn't what?"

"Sam is going to kill you when he finds out, you realise."

Mizzamir smiled again, with a hard edge that brought the expression into territory she knew well. "He need never know. And you will certainly not be the one to tell him." He began casting the spell without another word, leaving her to wonder when he had set up the components.

Cata fought against it with everything she had, but in the end, it was Catherine who emerged, thanking Mizzamir for freeing her from the path she had been taking.

***

A couple of months after Sam's reappearance, Cata finds Viola again.

She's hard to miss, when one's making an effort to look for her; Viola's complexion stands out, in Bistort. Cata just hadn't been able to make the time, before now, what with all the Guild business going around.

She finds Viola on a park bench, taking advantage of the warming weather - seasonally warming, this time, not staying unusually warm even in the winter - to get some of her sewing done. This gives Cata the element of surprise, though she's careful to use it only when unwarranted injuries might be avoided.

Even then, Viola doesn't look all that surprised. "I thought you'd find me eventually," she says. "So long as you were disposed to find me, anyway."

"I'm not that hard to find, am I?"

"We both know I'm easier to spot in a crowd around here than you are. It seemed easier to wait and see if you were disposed to make the effort."

Cata smiles. "I didn't have time, for a while, and then I decided to make it. How did you manage, through everything?"

"Better than I'd expected, actually. Someone tracked me down, but wasn't sure he could do the spell and keep my sewing skills intact, and word from on high came down that I provided too good a service to compromise. Accompanied by the thought that my... secondary income would drop off as time went by. What about you? Sam told me as soon as he heard that you'd been whitewashed."

"And it's seven years of my life I won't see again. I'm trying to ignore the part where I bore children. As for now, we've been trying to rebuild. We might be ready to take on students next fall - and I may end up teaching."

Viola raises an eyebrow. "And here I thought you'd once said there was no way you could contain a classroom."

"Oh, I'm still not at all sure I can do it. But I'm the best hand at poisons that's come back so far, and that's not the sort of thing you leave in inexpert hands."

"Well, no. And if you feel they're getting out of hand, you could always mix them a drink and have a practical lesson."

Cata laughs. "I suppose I could, at that, though it would be bad form to kill all of my charges."

"Oh, but there's nothing like knowing from experience what some things do."

"This is very true. Incidentally, I don't suppose you'd mind if I came by sometime soon?"

"Not at all." Viola smiles. "And since it's you, I won't even charge you for it."

"You say that like you ever have charged me."

"Well, no. But... it's the freedom of being able to say so. You know how it is."

Cata knows all too well, all things considered. "Indeed. Are you still living in the same place?"

"I am. People need to know where to find the seamstress, after all."

"They would, at that. In that case, I'll be by sometime this week, I think. Guild business has been a bit slow lately, and what with one thing and another, it's... been far too long."

Viola grins. "It has, at that. I look forward to it."

***

There were some nights that Catherine had dreams in which she shared her bed with someone other than Roderick.

What could possibly possess her to do such a thing, she had no idea - not during her waking hours, in any case. Roderick was perfectly pleasant, and everything she could have hoped for in a husband; given that, she never understood why he failed to feature in her dreams of this sort, and never told him about them, as they would only cause concern.

She also tried not to think about how the men in these dreams regularly died before she awoke. Surely, pressing that matter too closely would only lead to questions she neither wanted to ask nor answer; better to leave it untouched.

Besides, it was not the dreams where she shared her bed with men that confused Catherine the most; that honor went to the ones where she shared her bed with women.

There were fewer women in those dreams, and they tended to survive the encounter, so far as she was aware by the time she woke up. These dreams frequently left her puzzled, as she could find even less reason for the urges they expressed than she could for sharing her bed with men other than Roderick. Surely, she would have no reason to pursue such an act in her waking life.

One woman featured Catherine's dreams of this sort rather more than most people - some Shadrezarian girl, if her complexion was any indication. Catherine had no idea what could make her stand out so much, in such a case as this; what she did know was that she woke up on the heels of those dreams with a profound sense of loss, only exacerbated by the fact that she couldn't place what she had lost.

The matter rarely bothered her once she got involved in the day's activities, and had the opportunity to remind herself why her life as it was suited her. She had a lovely husband and wonderful children, and their farm did well enough to keep them on their feet.

Surely, there was nothing more in the world that she could want.

***

It's more of a relief than Cata can say, having Viola back. She's never been one to have faith in something happening again just because it happened before - she needed to see Sam's aim in action several times before she accepted it as his default, and there's little in the world more certain than the fact that he will hit something every time he throws a blade.

In any case, she'd been half prepared for Viola to take exception to how she disappeared, even though she hadn't had much say in the matter, or to find some other reason not to resume their relationship. She wouldn't have been pleased, and might have had to work out the matter over the course of a few contracts, but she would have moved on eventually.

But Viola had become a constant in her life, before Mizzamir stepped in, and especially if Sam's going to be roaming the Six Lands with his girl, Cata thinks she's going to need someone who's been there.

She lasts all of two days, between finding Viola and going to her flat. It occurs to her that they should have picked a more exact date while they were at it, but she suspects that if Viola's got business of either sort, said business will be gently but firmly pointed toward the door.

Viola has no business, as it turns out, so they very quickly get to making their own business. It's been far too long, and they sort of rush into things at first, but that's all right. They've got all the time they want; they can slow down, and do, after some of the initial excitement dies down.

After they're done with the slower edition, Cata says, "I had a few dreams about you, during the spell."

"You did? Nice to know you were thinking of me on some level, but - was that usual, for that piece of work?"

"Not so far as I can tell. I've asked a few people at the Guild if they ever did, and they said not so much as a peep, that they could remember. I have some cause to wonder whether it was shoddy work on Mizzamir's part."

Viola snorts. "Shoddy spell work, from the 'best' wizard the world's seen in at least three hundred years. Not an accusation I thought I'd hear any time soon."

"I stand by it. It took me a while to make the connection, even after the spell broke, but I think I worked out something that he didn't want anyone to know, just before he started the spell. I may have rushed him into it, and no one does quality work when they're in a hurry."

"I learned that one the hard way myself. Do I get to know what the big secret is?"

"As one of the affected parties is still alive, and I haven't had a chance to talk about how much he wants spread around, I don't think that would be wise." Cata knows that's probably enough to tell Viola everything she needs to know; she's always been rather perceptive.

"I see. Well, if anyone asks, I don't know a thing about it. I'd imagine there aren't many people who would want to flaunt a connection to Mizzamir anyway, at the moment."

"Not anyone willing and able to use the brain in their head, anyway."

Viola laughs, and pulls a blanket over them. "I've missed this."

"I did too. When I could remember it to miss it, anyway."

"I can only imagine. In any case, the worst of that would seem to be behind us."

"Best place for it."

Cata's smiling, as she drifts off to sleep. If she'd been aware of the spell while it was still on her, she would have preferred to die, but living well is, at the moment, looking like the best revenge a girl could hope to have.