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Behind a Smiling Face

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"Are you sure this is a good idea, Ambrose? Ethically, I mean?" asked Azkadellia, looking at the Sun Seeder blueprints.

Ambrose was taken aback. He was doing the young princess a favor by letting her in on the details of his new research project; he hadn't expected her to offer criticism right away. It's my own silly fault, he scolded himself. I made a point of teaching her about rational discourse - I should be proud of her for having the courage to question my plan!

"Why do you say that, Princess?" he asked pleasantly.

"Well, I realize that extending the growing season will benefit the farmers and the people who need food. But it will make the winter shorter, and there must be some other people who earn their livelihood at that time. And they would suffer from having that period of time cut short."

Ambrose nodded thoughtfully. "You know, Azkadellia, I had very carefully considered a number of ramifications, including the issues you mention, but in light of the overall advantages I decided that those factors didn't warrant much consideration."

"And furthermore," Azkadellia went on, with the twelve-year-old determination, "what about the effect on the rest of the solar system? There might be life on other planets that would suffer if altering our orbit somehow affects theirs as well."

"That's a very imaginative extrapolation," Ambrose conceded, "but we don't have any evidence of life on other planets."

"That doesn't mean there isn't any," said Azkadellia.

"Then I suppose," Ambrose said, careful to sound as if he were taking her seriously, "we should find a way to factor the interests of possible but unknown life on other planets into a decision about whether this is a good idea." He beamed at her, glad to see that she appeared placated. Her ideas may be irrelevant now, but it's good to see her thinking creatively. Everyone adored the mischievous, outgoing DG, but the quieter, more thoughtful Azkadellia was Ambrose's favorite little princess.

******

Azkadellia looked at the beautifully laid out table and buried her face in her hands. The tea service gleamed brightly; the Witch had always had a weakness for polished metal and had kept it shining. The kitchen had sent up shortbread cookies and lemon bars; DG had made elegant little cucumber sandwiches. There was sugar, there was cream, and there was the very best tea. Ambrose didn't actually take sugar or cream, and neither did Azkadellia, but they were part of the ceremony and could not be omitted. He had always loved every detail of the tea tradition; it had been one of the very few things that would get him out of his laboratory in the old days. Inviting Glitch to tea had seemed like an ideal first step in reconciliation, but now the gesture appeared tiny and pathetic compared to the wrong she had done him.

Glitch arrived exactly on time and she regarded him anxiously. He looked well; dressed with quiet elegance, he had filled out just a little from regular meals and had lost that hunted-vagabond look he had acquired during his years on the run. If it weren't for that gleam of metal down the center of his skull, he could almost have looked his old self.

He put out both hands to take hers, a gesture of warmth that she did not expect. "Princess," he said with a smile, squeezing her hands gently. His hands felt warm, and she realized hers must seem ice-cold. "Thank you so much for the invitation," he said.

She forced herself to smile back. "Ambrose," she said. "Thank you for coming." She seated herself at the table and gestured to the other chair. "Tea?"

"I'd love some," he said. Looking into his eyes, she saw no shadows or reservations; she realized he held no grudge against her. Like everyone else, he assumed that she had been a helpless pawn of the Witch.

Her hands shook as she poured the tea, and he looked at her, startled.

"I'm not who you think I am," she said in response to his questioning glance.

 

******


The Sorceress waited impatiently for Raynz, the senior alchemist, to answer her summons. "You rang, Sorceress?" he said at last, a sheen of sweat glistening on his bald head as he bowed before her.

"Any progress?"

"The subject is as yet unresponsive. I believe, however, that he is weakening."

Azkadellia regarded him with contempt. "The process is taking too long," she said.

A voice sounded inside her head. We're not in that much of a hurry, dear. Don't you want to see him suffer?"

"It's not enough," she snapped.

"Sorceress?"

She hadn't realized that she had spoken aloud. "Raynz, I want you to prepare for an operation."

"The headcasing we discussed, Sorceress?"

"Yes. But no ordinary removal this time. It must be done delicately." She rose from her throne and paced. "I want you to remove his memory only. Nothing else. Like taking the core storage out of a reasoning-engine."

"Sorceress, I—"

She held up her hand and Raynz was immediately silent. "I want everything else left in his skull. I don't want that memory cluttered up with any personality that might resist information extraction. And I want what's left of him to be aware of exactly what has happened." Her eyes narrowed, and her voice became bitter. "I want him to realize what he's lost. I want him to know that he has lost everything that he worked so hard to acquire all his life: his knowledge, his skills, his experience. The only thing he ever really cared about. Himself." She felt the Witch's dawning appreciation and allowed herself a smile. "Do you understand?"

"I understand, Sorceress." Raynz hesitated, then spoke again. "What you ask has not been done before. The human brain is not a reasoning-engine." She was about to speak again, but he continued hastily. "I believe I can adapt our techniques to achieve your goal. It will take somewhat longer than usual, but the results should be very satisfactory."

She eyed him carefully; sometimes her minions were too eager to promise exactly what she wanted, regardless of whether they could actually deliver. She recognized the gleam in Raynz's eyes; he really did have an idea of how to accomplish his task, and she knew she could rely on his twisted genius to carry it through.

After Raynz left, she could feel the tickle in her brain as the Witch shuffled through her thoughts and feelings. You really wanted him, didn't you? Azkadellia was annoyed; as usual, she had no hope of prevarication. She had had a crush on Ambrose for years, since the day when he had sat down with her, a precocious ten-year-old, to teach her the ancient hieroglyphics. She picked them up so quickly that he had rumpled her hair and compared her favorably to his classmates at the Academy who had never learned them as well. With a sudden flash of sympathy she had tried to picture him as a student--a brilliant, lonely young man who had felt closer to the scribes of antiquity than to his boisterous classmates. Of course, he thought of her as a child, even when she came to him at twenty and offered him the position of royal consort, an honor she had never dreamed he would turn down.

The Witch interrupted her reverie. Well, we tried our best. It doesn't do to get so personally involved, you know. Though I must say, bitterness suits you.

A few weeks later, Raynz, beaming with pride, brought her into the recovery room to show off his handiwork. She had thought that this would be her moment of triumph. She had not reckoned on the visceral impact of that raw gash in the shaved skull, the obscenely glittering teeth of the zipper clawing into the exposed bone on either side.

The Witch had no patience with Azkadellia's horrified reaction. You got what you wanted, didn't you? This is no time to be squeamish. Azkadellia realized with a sickening jolt that the Witch expected her to enjoy Ambrose's suffering, to revel in his mutilation. Azkadellia wanted to strike back at the Witch, to yell, "Look what you made me do!" But she already felt the Witch's response: I didn't make you do anything, my dear. This was entirely your doing.

This had been the Witch's plan all along, Azkadellia realized. Bitterness suits you. Keeping an unwilling host under constant control was hard work; achieving a modus vivendi would make the Witch's task far easier. Easier still if the host gave in to her own dark impulses, taking the first steps toward evil on her own. Azkadellia flinched. "You may have won this battle," she told the Witch, "but I'm not going to help you any more."

As you wish, said the Witch's voice, cold as a mausoleum.

******

Glitch accepted his teacup from Azkadellia's trembling hands. I'm not who you think I am, she had said.

"Neither am I," he assured her sadly.

******


During the short time that Raw had reconnected Glitch to the missing portion of his brain, Glitch had learned a great deal about himself. Despite Raynz's best efforts, the Ambrose portion of the brain still retained a modicum of free will, even a trace of personality. Glitch, however, had gotten the entire conscience; Ambrose had none. Ambrose had willingly, even cheerfully, participated in the construction of the Sorceress's machine. Not only did he hand over the blueprints without hesitation, he lent his portion of creative intellect to help the alchemists work through various complications and setbacks that always seem to arise when ideas are embodied in circuits and gears.

Ambrose seemed to feel no loyalty to the Sorceress's regime; he was equally happy to help Glitch retrieve the codes to shut the machine down. Glitch felt as if his own dark side had been released and allowed to grow stronger; he wasn't certain, if his brain were ever reassembled, that he would be able to control that dark side--to control himself. "Everyone has dark thoughts that enter their minds unbidden," he told himself, but he knew that everyone else was normally able to squelch those thoughts, to ensure that they weren't turned loose, given free rein, allowed to grow and build.

During the connection with Ambrose, Glitch had momentarily tasted the wild joy of pursuing science wherever it led, heedless of the consequences. It was utterly terrifying how much it tempted him. He was deeply ashamed of what Ambrose had done, but Ambrose was only a part of him, a part that could hardly be expected to control itself. He was far more ashamed that he himself could so easily recognize the allure of experimentation without boundaries. Sometimes he woke up sweating in the middle of the night, wondering what kind of monster he might have become if the Sorceress hadn't had him headcased. Perhaps she had done him a favor.

******

"Lemon bars!" Glitch exclaimed. "My favorite! At least, I think so." He took a tentative bite and beamed. "Well, if they weren't before, they are now."

Azkadellia was glad of the new topic. "Sonia in the kitchen makes them. She's amazing. I suspect she'll be the new Royal Baker when Parker retires."

"She'll have to learn his secret for making meringue, then," said Glitch. "I hear that's more closely guarded than Ozma's sceptre."

He took a cucumber sandwich and bit into it; Azkadellia found herself struggling not to laugh at his expression, as he was obviously trying to control a negative reaction of some sort. He finished chewing and swallowing, took a large sip of tea, and finally said in a hoarse voice, "DG made these, didn't she?"

"I'm afraid so," said Azkadellia. "What tipped you off?"

"No one else I have ever known," Glitch said in a more normal tone, "puts jalapenos in cucumber sandwiches." Their eyes met, and they both burst out laughing.

The rest of the visit passed pleasantly, and when it was time to leave, Glitch hugged Azkadellia goodbye. With her face pressed against his shoulder, she finally said what she had wanted to say from the beginning of the visit. "I'm so sorry," she murmured, carefully not saying, It really was my fault and no one else's.

"It's all right," he answered, carefully not saying, You saved me from myself.