Note: This is a follow-up to the series Duplicity published from issues 710-721. You do not need to have read it to understand the story, but it does help to make more sense as to what's going on.
Danner leaned on his desk and rubbed his temples, hoping to coax his blasting headache away. A tiny trail of steam from a piping hot cup of tea wafted slowly toward his head, imparting a most metallic and bitter scent. He did not particularly enjoy tea, let alone this mauled abomination that the castle's potion-master had brewed for him, but it did work for its intended purpose, presumably.
And without it, he could not quite focus on a single thing, not even his pain, which, of course, was little more than a sensation. Sensations existed purely inside of his head, and well, you could never trust your own perceptions. They were little more than a flawed imitation of reality, pieces of an otherwise-crumbling mosaic, a tiny sliver of light shining through a cave.
Everybody knew this to be technically true. They moved on with their lives as usual, brushing off this miniscule doubt, accepting that an imperfect model was still an adequate representation of the world. Not Danner. He couldn't stop thinking about this point at all. He doubted everything: his headache, the rough wood scraping against his arms, the tepid air around him, even the miscellaneous reminders his mind gave him to hurry up already and continue on with his work.
After all, for Danner, every single one of these things was deliberately tampered with, sculpted to make a reality where he was little more than a puppet.
No, that's wrong, he thought to himself, slowly inching his shaking fingers around the tea cup's handle. I know it's wrong. Don't complicate the situation. I remember what it was like, right? It wasn't a perfect reconstruction of reality. I could instantly tell it wasn’t reality, and I could sometimes see past his smoke and mirrors into the real world. This one, the one I’m currently experiencing.
Taking a few breaths, Danner sat still and listened, squinting at every detail of his surroundings. No flaws, no imperfections, like usual--but what if this all just meant his puppeteer simply became more talented at imitating reality, like a master painter over time?
What if he wasn't bothering to be subtle at all? The royal physician—who worked for the royal "family," including Jeran—ordered this for him. It ameliorated his anxiety, but... but what if it was instead intended to simply make him more complacent, to more easily accept the entire illusion?
I know that's not how it works. Nobody, no matter how talented, can perfectly simulate reality for anybody. I would know. I have studied and dealt with this area of magic. Before any of this happened. Be reasonable.
And he wanted to be reasonable. Beneath all his mental chattering, he knew, on a fundamental level, that his rational side was correct. It always was. Yet—well, that was the problem, wasn’t it? But and yet followed every action he took, stuck themselves onto any reasonable proposition he made.
With a long sigh, he pulled the cup closer, ignoring the nagging at the back of his mind begging him not to take it. The tea burned its way down his throat as he took every precaution to avoid tasting it. When he’d gulped the entire thing down, he slid the cup to the edge of the desk with some disgust, even as his hands ceased shaking.
Maybe he was just crazy, he thought. Maybe Jeran had never truly betrayed his trust. After all, he had very little memory of it all. He did not exactly remember all he had done, all he had been led to believe, only the general gist of it, the general feeling.
No. That was hopelessly idealistic. His anger and paranoia did not come from nowhere. Besides, if nothing had really happened, Jeran wouldn’t have acted as if something had happened, wouldn’t have explained almost everything to him.
It would have easy for Jeran, logical, even, if he wanted to cover all his bases, to simply let Danner’s memory lapse into a general gist. He could have simply acted as though nothing happened, knowing full well Danner wouldn’t seek help from anybody on his own, let the secret die that way.
If it were the same Jeran who had put him under the mind control spell, he might have, and he had been different back then. He wasn’t quite himself, but that “quite” was an important qualifier. It was also his friend Jeran that could have done this, only Jeran that knew him well enough to… to…
Havister. That was it. He grimaced. That’s the reality he sent me back to.
And the inch he’d given to Jeran vanished.
If someone decided to use magic to alter your perceptions and make you do what they wanted you to do, it hinged on the notion that they expected you to act in accord with your personality and history. It followed, then, that if you were to act randomly, the illusion would vanish.
Despite his best reasoning, Danner resolved to do something erratic, an action he’d quite literally written down and picked out of a hat. He had not shattered any illusion this way, nor did he expect it to, but it made him feel better. Safer.
Today, he was to share an entire basket of freshly-baked bread and molten chocolate with a randomly-selected Neopian in the eastern courtyard. The name that he’d pulled out of his files was Lissandre, and when he sent her the invitation, he honestly did not expect her to accept it.
Instead, he found her waiting for him at a bench beneath the trunk of a sycamore. The golden accents of her Brightvalian robes glimmered painfully in the sun.
“Hello, Captain Toron!” she greeted him with what seemed to be a perfectly symmetrical smile that conveyed little warmth. Her soft features struck him as being unnaturally beautiful—like a mask.
“You made it,” said Danner.
“Of course I did. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find a break in my schedule, but I managed it—and besides, I couldn’t say no to buttered bread and chocolate.” Lissandre rolled her wrist to gesture at the basket hanging from Danner’s right arm. “It is a bit… embarrassing to admit to liking such a simple Meridellian delicacy, but sometimes parsimony leads to the most ideal of results, wouldn’t you say?”
Lissandre and Danner spent a few minutes chatting about miscellaneous happenings around the palace. The conversation moved to Lissandre listing all the ways in which the unorganized degeneracy in Meridell Castle would never occur in Brightvale Castle. At the very least, degeneracy in Brightvale was always coordinated.
“Sounds like an easy place to take care of,” said Danner.
“Absolutely. Brynn works very hard, but we’re civilized folk and easier to manage. Must be more difficult trying to ensure the security of this place, what with all the… chaos. That must be why you look so tired” said Lissandre.
Danner’s hand made a slight motion to his face to swipe away a long strand of hair to the side before stopping himself. Cleaning up his hair wouldn’t make him look that much better, especially taking into account the rest of his face. “Is it that obvious?”
“Captain Toron, to be perfectly honest, your eyes look like you spilled an ink pot all over them.”
“And how did you know I didn’t have a mishap and spill ink all over them? I could use some beautification on a good day—and I’m much too cheap to try and find somebody to beautify them for me.”
“Oh, don’t be like that,” said Lissandre. “Not everybody can be as gorgeous as I am. I, for one, think your eyes are perfectly adequate.”
“That’s some comfort.”
The two Neopians sat in relative silence as they decided to eat a few more slices of bread from the basket. Lissandre did not seem to have anything else to say, but she looked in his direction every so often, expecting him to speak. When he did not, she let out a sigh.
“Captain,” said Lissandre, “I’m very much glad you decided to invite me to chat; not many people really desire my company.” Here, Danner expected to hear some quip about how most people were simply too dumb to understand or appreciate her, but instead, she continued on: “I am curious as to the exact reason as to why you decided to do so—and why here, of all places.”
“All right, all right. This will sound very stupid, but I pulled your name out of a hat.” The blue Aisha’s face shifted slightly into confusion. “I know, it’s very strange, but I’ve had a sort of initiative to be more spontaneous. I was just tired of meeting the same old people for lunch.”
“I would have guessed you were already quite spontaneous. There’s little need for you to become even more so.”
“It helps to push the boundaries of what you think of ordinary life sometimes,” said Danner, forcing a corner of his mouth into a smile. Until he had spoken about his routine, he hadn’t quite realized how much he’d wanted to tell somebody about the lingering dread that seeped into his life.
Who was this Lissandre, anyway? Somebody he’d interrogated a few times, someone to whom he’d said “hello” to in passing. He didn’t know anything about her. He didn’t know how she acted or what she believed beyond the shallowest level. She was somebody who was ripe for imitation, to try to extract from him the reason for his erratic behavior—
I picked her randomly. Remember that.
Or made to believe that he picked her randomly.
You know that isn’t true. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you simply accept reality as it is? Stop being an idiot, you know this is it. There’s no trick. There’s no trick. There’s no trick.
When Danner’s attention refocused on Lissandre, he realized that a few tears were sliding down his cheeks. His companion stirred a hand in the air as someone might a pot, and from the swirls of magic she created, a white handkerchief materialized between her fingers.
“Here,” she said with her unerringly cheery tone, handing the handkerchief to him, “you can get rid of anything unseemly.”
As Danner wiped the edges of his face, Lissandre continued, “Cap—Danner, do you remember what happened here? In this very location?”
The blue Wocky shook his head.
“It was night a few months ago. Lisha and I were… well, let’s say that we were participating in a magical experiment gone wrong”—the official story that Lissandre clearly had little intention of deviating from—“and you came on walking to demand my arrest. Quite forcefully, might I add, and I would have complied if I hadn’t known you weren’t quite yourself.”
“I’m sorry,” said Danner.
“You should not apologize for anything.” Lissandre patted him lightly on the shoulder. “I cannot exactly empathize with what happened between you, but I realize it must have been quite a large betrayal of your trust, and it must weigh heavily on your mind. You should address it directly if you can, at its source.”
Danner wanted to tell her that she had little idea of what he’d already done, but this was likely all that she could say without making any explicit mention toward anything. Besides, what else could he have expected her to know or say?
“Thank you,” he finally decided to say.
Lissandre rose. “And if you ever decide to invite me again, don’t hesitate to do so. You have excellent taste in food.”
At its source.
Danner stood in front of the office of Prince Jeran Borodere, which was currently guarded by a plucky Tonu guard who always greeted him with a grin and some dumb joke. Most of the time, he understood that it was meant to be friendly, but today, the grin, completely unchanged, seemed as though it were mocking him.
“Hello, Captain! Hey, listen, I—”
“I have come to speak to Borodere about a matter of utmost importance and am a bit pressed for time,” he lied, “I would love to talk to you otherwise, but today, circumstances will not let that be. Please let me in and give us necessary distance.”
“I—of course, sir.”
“I thank you.”
The guard took a few steps aside, allowing Danner to entire the office. In the past, this room had been one of the worst chaotic disasters he’d ever seen, but now, everything was in an organized and proper state.
Jeran sat in front of a map of the kingdom and a few Brightvalian stained-glass windows depicting images of flowers, trees, and other artifacts of nature. If it were not for the hints of light gleaming from the glass, one could have been forgiven for thinking it a straight mosaic. Nothing could peer into this room, and nothing could peek out.
“Hello Da—Captain Toron,” said Jeran with a monotonous tone. The light from the windows poured in around his figure, leaving it mostly in shadow. “It is unexpected to see you here at this time of day. What pressing matter have you to report?”
Danner walked up to the desk and slammed his palms on its very edge. “Nothing.”
He raised a brow. “Nothing?”
“No, nothing. Everything is fine in the palace.”
“Then there is something else.”
One of the only good things about speaking to Jeran was that the tiny voice in Danner’s head that told him to doubt whoever he was speaking to simply vanished. If this were the real world, then he was speaking to Jeran, and if it were not, it didn’t matter anyway, because he was still speaking to Jeran.
“I just wanted to talk to you,” said Danner, an undertone of bitterness to his voice, “like the old days.”
“Oh,” said Jeran, “well, captain, you’re welcome to do so.”
“Whether or not I am welcome is of no concern to me. Last time I had done something unwelcome here, I ended up paying the cost of it quite dearly. You remember this, of course.”
“I do remember this,” replied Jeran, strumming his fingers on his desk.
“So you do not have this convenient sense of amnesia that I do,” said Danner. When Jeran tried to get a word of protest in edgewise, the blue Wocky simply talked over him. “You know I do not remember much, but some things resurface, things you conveniently omitted from your Fyora-cursed, roundabout explanations.”
Jeran eyes shifted away from Danner. “I—I attempted to give you as complete an explanation as possible. There would have been a few details I simply neglected to mention.”
“Neglect. Yes, that’s one way of putting it. You are surprisingly thorough with what you do, Jeran, and I don’t think you would simply forget details.” Danner flicked his hair to the side. “Tell me, because I neglected to remember, what is the prerequisite you must meet before casting a mind control spell on somebody?”
“You must have them in a vulnerable state,” answered Jeran, “before you can place them under your control.”
Like cracking a bone before it could be recast. “And different people have different thresholds to ‘breaking’ this way. What I want to know is how hard it was for you.”
“I don’t understand your question.” Jeran positioned his gaze so that it only seemed as though he were looking at Danner; in fact, he was looking past him.
“You understand me very well.”
“At least look me in the eye!”
When Jeran did not, Danner’s face contorted into the very expression of rage. No, this mongrel would not feign stupidity and get away this easily. He reached for Jeran’s side of the desk and pulled himself forward, propelling his fist in the general direction of Jeran’s face. It landed with resounding success: the blue Lupe prince recoiled with pained shock.
I punched the crown prince squarely in the face, thought Danner, watching as Jeran instinctively prepare for some sort of counterstrike. Must have expected it, but couldn’t do much about it. That’s how I know this is real.
Jeran’s eyes locked squarely onto his with the briefest sliver of determination. Before he could move a muscle, however Jeran took a breath, as though planning to expel the pain between his eyes as easily as he could expel air.
It seemed like he could. In a mere moment, he’d gone back to his cool, restrained self. “You want an answer to the question of how hard it was to circumvent your will. I remember it being exceptionally difficult.”
Jeran pulled up the papers he was working on before Danner had entered the room. He picked up a pen and started dipping it in ink before his former friend continued speaking:
“The shock of your betrayal, that was the easy part. You needed something else, something you knew was bound to weaken me. You constructed a reality where I was back there at Havister. You made me relive the worst moments of my life—and various constructions of it—repeatedly.”
“No, you will stay silent and listen to me, Jeran. This is not something you forgot to mention. You knew you’d tried to progressively eat away at my conscious self, and you hoped I’d forgotten you did so. The question is why you would ever go to such absurd lengths, rationally speaking. There were arguably more useful pawns for your little ‘game.’ If I were so much trouble, why keep me in the first place?”
Danner did not come to him like a puppet that hardly tried to interfere with its strings. He had tried to tear them away, repeatedly, and whenever he succeeded in doing so, Jeran painstakingly seared a new, hardier set of strings onto him.
“Well? Do you have nothing to say?”
“I have no explanation,” replied Jeran.
There must have been one, thought Danner, just not an explanation he was comfortable giving. “There’s a story underlying every decision."
Jeran shook his head. "I'm afraid there isn't one underlying my decision here. When you are, well, walking around with a missing part of your soul, you may tend to forget all the complicated reasoning behind a good chunk of your actions.
"That may well be true," said Danner, "but I hardly think this applies to the circumstance I speak of.
"And you have a good grasp of my thoughts?"
Danner leaned in to obviate any possible attempts by Jeran to steer his attention elsewhere. "I remember the moment you decided casting a mind-control spell would be a good idea--you were quite... emotional over it. You may have had a lot of conflicting thoughts, but it's impossible that you forgot any of them. Put simply, I think you're being a coward."
Jeran paused, then laughed. “I am being one, aren’t I? I truly hate appearing monstrous to you.”
"If that's your intention, then obfuscating all this does you no good. You've always appeared at least a little monstrous to me."
“Because you were always good at seeing through me. You know what's odd, Danner? I could anything from Skarl, Tryse, Isede… even my own sister, but never you. Were I to lose my right hand now, I have no question you could guess exactly what I would do with it at any given moment."
Danner couldn't help at feeling some triumph at that line.
“When you so clearly disapproved of what I did, I suppose a part of me hated that you would. I knew what your reaction would be; that’s why I needed you out of the picture, somehow… and I couldn’t stand it. I wanted you to make you agree with what I was doing—and I would achieve that at any cost.”
He narrowed his eyes. "You wanted me to be complicit with you."
“It’s all quite despicable,” said Jeran. “It’s so sordid, I didn’t even deserve a chance to ask for your forgiveness.”
“I’d say it’s more pitiful,” replied Danner. "Pitiful and sad."
Jeran frowned. Briefly, Danner saw the same version of him corrupted by the Three in his place. “I hardly need your pity.”
“You don’t control who I have pity for,” said Danner with a bitter smile. “If I want to feel sorry for you, I certainly can.”
“It’s your choice to do so.” This combination of words, though quick, seemed to be unnaturally spoken, almost slurred. “I can do absolutely nothing about it, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried,” replied Danner, making a motion to the door. "I don't need to be."