"I'm still not speaking to you," Camilla said crossly as the blue light of the teleportation effect faded away and left us standing on the landing platform just outside of Taft. The planning and negotiations with Thinker had taken much longer than we'd expected, and it was getting on towards late evening. The rain and hail had ended at some point while we were away, but moody gray clouds still dominated the sky and there was a sharp chill in the air that magnified every time a gust of wind blew in from the foothills.
Camilla's mood had been a match for the weather ever since we left Black Iron Castle. After more than ten years together, it was hardly the first argument we'd had—nor even the worst. But she was pissed, and on some level I recognized that she had a right to be… even if it wasn't entirely fair. I'd proposed my idea to the Army without consulting her, and it had undercut her own plan for taking the fight to the bandits herself.
But this wasn't really out of the blue, not in my mind. I'd been putting a lot of thought into this over the last day, particularly with regard to what was bothering me about Camilla's behavior. I'd never really been good at realtime face-to-face arguments, not the way she was. But if I took the time to reason things out and plan my words, I could usually put together a fairly solid one—provided the conversation didn't take any unexpected turns that I hadn't anticipated or thought through in advance.
"Fine," I said as we entered the town and walked down the street towards the inn where we were still staying. "I'll speak, you can listen—and if you decide you have anything to say, I'll listen to that too. Fair?"
She said nothing. Silence was acquiescence in this case, and I went on.
"Ever since Weilan Marsh, you've been acting different—taking worse risks, being unusually short with me, and making plans that assume my help without asking me. I was willing to go along with the trap you set with the Black Cats because it was a reasonably sound plan. But what you're trying to do isn't just about solving the bandit problem here—you're trying to turn us into vigilantes. I don't want any part of that. You want to be a hero, Camilla, and it's going to get us killed."
"You really think that's what this is about?" Camilla said, stopping abruptly and grabbing my shoulder as she looked me in the eye. "You really think this is about being a hero?"
Of the many differences between my wife and me, one of the most basic has always been her direct, confrontational nature—whereas I've always disliked open conflict. Some of that was because of where each of us was born and raised, but in both of our cases these stereotypical ethnic traits were magnified—in large part because of who we were as individuals. I forced myself to hold her intense gaze, forced myself to respond firmly and with equal directness.
"Some of it, yes—but not entirely. I think it's also about revenge and absolution. I think you want both for Niara and Reznor's deaths, and you think you can get that by hunting down the bandits here and getting a chance at taking out the player who was truly responsible for their deaths."
"Don't you?" she shot back, almost yelling. It wasn't anger that I heard in her voice; it was something else and it was painful to hear. "Don't you want that too, Kadyn?"
"What makes you think I don't?" I asked, ignoring the stares from the players passing us in the street. "There isn't a day I don't think about what happened down there in some way. But that bandit kid you scared the life out of earlier? He didn't kill Niara. The bandits harassing the players on this floor, they didn't do that either. They're being used, and probably by the person who did kill her. Exterminating them won't bring back our friends."
"No," she responded tersely, and this time the anger had returned. "But it'd be a good start. And getting rid of them would put a stop to all the harassment that's going on here."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I stared at my wife, drawing out the words as I said them. "So would the plan I offered to the Army. These aren't aggro mobs we're talking about, Camilla—they're people. Human beings with families, people who will die when their avatar does. You understood that once. How many people have you killed in this world so far? With your own hands?"
"Four," she said instantly, without a trace of doubt or hesitation.
"It used to bother you. The first time it almost tore you apart."
Silence. Camilla's eyes were locked on mine, flecks of ice in a face gone pale. "You think it doesn't?" she asked finally, voice nearly a whisper. "You think I don't remember each of their faces? Why do you think I didn't even have to think about the number?"
I didn't have an answer for that. We started walking again; the inn wasn't far and the rain was starting to pick up again.
"Being bothered by the necessity of a distasteful thing doesn't have anything to do with whether or not you do it when it needs to be done," she went on when I didn't say anything.
"And what if it doesn't?" I asked. "What if there's another way? Ask yourself this, Rebecca: if you could wave your hand and solve the bandit problem here in one of two ways, one of which involved killing off the orange players and the other of which didn't involve killing anyone... would you take the option that saved more lives? Answer that, and I think you'll have a better idea of what your real priorities are here."
The sound of her name snapped my wife's gaze back to me. I didn't turn to look, but I could feel her eyes on me. After a few moments of this, I heard her reply—and it wasn't an answer to the question I'd asked. "They're not going to leave us alone, Seiji. They made this personal. If we don't hit them, and hit them hard, they're going to keep coming after us and we're never going to know when until it happens. We know they're here right now. We don't know if we're going to get another chance like this."
We stopped before the door to the inn, taking partial shelter under the awning. "Let's assume you're right," I said. "What part of that means you have to do it alone?"
"But I don't," she insisted, stepping towards me and taking both of my hands. "I want us to do it together."
"But we can't," I said simply, bringing her hands up to my chest and holding them there. "And there's no reason that we should have to. I love you and I'd protect you with my life, and you know that. But you still haven't given me a single reason why getting Thinker's help is a bad idea. You were perfectly happy to bring in the Black Cats to help, but for some reason this is different? Why?"
"It's different because—" Camilla stopped in midsentence, the reply coming to her lips before her thoughts had finished.
"Because?" I prompted, releasing her hands and stepping aside to get out of the way as a group of players exited the inn.
I could see her thinking it through, trying to form the argument. When seconds passed and she hadn't answered, I said, "Because the Black Cats were the little guys helping the Valkyrie take the fight to the enemy, but with the Army we're just the little guys calling in the cavalry to deal with something we can't handle?" I tried to keep my voice neutral, but it was hard to keep some of the scorn I felt for the idea from leaking through.
She glared at me. "Now you're being insulting."
"Am I wrong?" I asked.
More silence stretched on, an uncomfortable quiet broken only by the patter of the rain on the canvas awning above us. "I don't know," she said finally, turning and opening the door to get out of the rain.
We let the subject drop once we were inside, renewing our rental of the inn room and going upstairs to warm up a little and change back into city clothes. Our conversation was limited largely to simple sentences when a question needed to be answered; the closest thing we came to a nonessential conversation was when Camilla asked me if I thought she should wear the blue dress she'd had on the night before or the deep wine-red one that showed a little more cleavage. I thought the blue dress was a better color for her, but being a longtime fan of anything that showed my wife's figure in a flattering way, I went with the red. In truth, I could've gone either way—I was just happy to have her ask my opinion about something like that; it felt indirectly like a step towards mending fences.
When it came time to head over to the pub, though, Camilla asked me to go on ahead without her.
"Are you sure?" I asked. Arguments to the contrary aside, we loved each other's company and were almost always together. There were times when it felt like it bordered on unhealthy codependence, but we'd talked it over more than once and come to the conclusion that it was more a fear we both shared of being alone in this world—of losing track of one another and something unexpected happening.
Sitting on the bed in her pretty red dress and staring pensively into the fireplace as the virtual flame cast flickering shadows across the room, she looked up and gave me a weak but sincere smile. "It's fine. I just need some time with my own thoughts. I'll catch up with you there in a little bit."
I crossed the room and set my hands on her shoulders, leaning over and kissing the top of her head. "Okay. Send me a PM if you need anything. Love you."
She reached up and briefly covered one of my hands with hers. "Love you too. If anyone asks, just tell them I needed a nap. It's not far from the truth."
It wasn't the first time we'd been apart since being trapped in SAO, but it wasn't exactly a common occurrence—not for more than a few minutes, anyway. I always felt odd when it happened, the absence of our usual back-and-forth banter or wordless exchanges hitting me like a radio station that was always on suddenly being silenced. Inevitably there were moments when I'd see something that struck me funny and caught myself turning to point it out to someone who wasn't there, or I'd go on autopilot while deep in thought for an extended period of time and realize that minutes had passed and no one had been there to snap me out of it.
Maybe it was healthy to have some time apart now and then after all.
The rain was back in force when I opened the inn door, coming down in wind-driven sheets that advanced down the street like ranks of marching soldiers. I stopped underneath the awning and opened my menu to equip the cloak I'd bought for my wife's plan, and grimaced when I noticed a large hole where the bandit's sword had punched through it when I'd used it as a distraction. It was better than nothing; I just wanted to keep the rain out of my face during the short walk next door.
The downpour was loud enough that I almost didn't hear the quiet voice that called out to me from the darkness of the narrow alley separating the inn from the pub. I stopped, cocking my head and looking around, and then thought to toggle on my Searching skill. Immediately the green cursor of another player sprang up within the alley, surprisingly close but hanging over the head of someone who was still out of sight. "Who's there?" I called, approaching the mouth of the alley.
Slowly, tentatively, a figure moved forward just enough to catch some of the ambient street light. A cloak not too different from mine—aside from the holes—covered a head with features I could only barely tell were feminine, or at least androgynous.
"Can we talk, please?" the person asked, the voice confirming her gender. Something about it was familiar, but I couldn't place it.
"We can talk out here," I said, a little uneasy with the whole cloak-and-dagger routine—the "cloak" part was quite literal and I wasn't eager to find out whether or not there was a dagger involved.
"I can't," she said, stepping back as her voice took on a note of pleading. "Please. You're in a Safe Zone; there's nothing I or anyone else can do to you here. But they have eyes in the town and I don't want to be seen talking to you."
Then I realized why it was the voice sounded familiar. "Viyami," I said.
I thought I caught the faintest hint of a smile in the shadows that still mostly covered her. "You remembered my name. I didn't think you would."
"I remember you and your boyfriend tried to mug us," I pointed out, still standing where there was light.
"And I remember you saved our lives."
I toggled Searching on again, just to be sure of what I was seeing. She must have noticed the luminous color sheeting over my eyes when I did. "Yes, I'm green. For lesser crimes the orange goes away pretty quickly, and no matter what you think, I've never killed anyone."
That made one of us—in a flash I remembered the bandit I'd killed during the pursuit in the swamp; it had been my first time and I hadn't allowed myself think about it too much since. A little nervously, I looked around to see if anyone was there to see—no one with any sense was out in this weather—and took a step into the alley. "What do you want from me, Viyami?"
I vaguely saw her head turn within the shadows of the cloak, and she withdrew another few steps into obscurity when a pair of players emerged from the pub in a loud conversation. "I wanted to give you a warning: I think they're planning to set a trap for you and the Red Valkyrie."
It only took me a moment to process what she meant by Akai Varukirii. "Who's 'they'?"
"They… he…" She trailed off slightly, and I could hear genuine fear in her voice as she lowered it to a whisper, even here in the alley with the rain beating down and making it impossible for anyone beyond us to have heard. "There are two of them. They showed up several weeks ago with a handful of orange players we'd never seen before. Mostly other desperate people—people like us. These two, though… they're different from the others. Meaner, crueler. They like to kill, and they don't seem to care who. Especially him."
She didn't specify who she meant by him. I thought I could take a pretty good guess. I'd privately had my doubts regarding our assumptions about who was behind the bandit epidemic here, but any such doubts vanished as Viyami kept talking.
"Before they came, there were only a few of us. Most of us knew who each other were, if by faces if not by names, but we usually kept our distance from each other. We were just trying to get by, not hurt anyone. I think for these two though, hurting people is the whole point."
"If it's who I think it is," I said slowly, "then that's exactly the point. And they're trying to find others like them."
Viyami nodded, and then looked down at her feet. "I think you're right. They took over, and started organizing us into parties. Discouraging us from leaving survivors, giving us assigned areas to hunt."
"You mentioned a trap," I said, trying to steer the conversation back to what I most wanted to learn. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know much," she replied. "I overheard Mallek talking about it, but not any of the details. Ever since Yarritt came back with that message that the Valkyrie made him memorize, I know they've had people watching the town, waiting for you to leave."
"Why are you telling me all of this?" I asked, suddenly suspicious.
The only sound for a few beats was that of the rain. "You were kind to me when you had no reason to be," she said finally. "And you saved Mallek when you didn't have to. Mallek… he didn't used to be the way he was when you saw him; the way he is now. He's changed. Almost everyone's changed, whether they wanted to or not. And those of us who haven't… we're too scared to do anything about it."
But not too scared to sneak out at night and rat on them, I thought. "What will you do now?"
"I-I don't know," she said, voice trembling. "I want to get Mallek out of there. I want to just pick another floor for us to go to, somewhere we can start over, but he's still orange—and I don't know how long he'll stay that way, especially if he keeps on working for them. I volunteered for duty as one of the people watching the town so I'd have an excuse to stay green. But he's part of the hunting parties."
I then knew what I wanted to ask. "Okay, listen to me. You know that your best chance to get out of this is to get rid of the two players who changed everything, right? We need you to keep your eyes and ears open, and tell us anything that you think will help. You don't have to risk coming to us—if you go to the pub next door and ask the waitress to give us a message, she will. Or if you can't go in through the front door, knock on the back door—I'll tell Parida to expect it, and why."
I could see her shifting uncomfortably in the shadows; hear the doubt in her voice. "I don't know if I can—"
She gasped quietly, startled as I took a brisk step towards her. I stopped just short of grabbing her by the shoulders, forcing my hands back to my sides. "Viyami, listen. And think. There is no chance that what's happening on this floor will end well for you or Mallek if you stay here and let this go on. None. If you can convince him to run away somewhere, more power to you—do it. But if you're going to stay… then your only chance to get out of this is to help us. Please."
If my eyes hadn't adjusted enough to be able to pick out the outlines of her cloak and the ambient light as it reflected off the wetness on her face, I almost could've missed the fact that she was still there. She didn't answer for a long time, and I was about to turn and leave when she finally did.
"Okay. I'll do what I can. That's all I can promise."
"That's all I can ask," I replied. But by then she was already running down the alley. The darkness swallowed her, and then the rain did the same for her receding footsteps.