“I’ll be honest,” Mags said, “I’m not the sort of ambassador or whatever that’s going to be super formal or do everything right. Let me get out in front of everything and make it clear that I mean no offense, and, really honestly, what’s going on outside looks like the sort of thing that makes us want to get past the talking and get to doing.”
Rose couldn’t help but notice that there were a few nodding heads from among the Junior Council. Mags might not have been the type to manage a diplomatic arrangement with a Faerie noble, but she could speak to the younger, more human demographic.
“Do we need to do any introductions?” Mags asked. “Gut feeling, personal preference, there’s a few new faces. Do we need to know who is present and what they’re capable of?”
“I think that would be a good idea,” Sandra said. “I know and have met virtually everyone in this room, barring a few sitting at the edges or back of the room, but teamwork will be important, moving forward.”
“Uh, right. Good. That’s Sandra Duchamp, for those who don’t know. She was leader of the Duchamp family, before she recused herself. Most of you know her, as she said. The rest of you Duchamps, please stand?”
The gathered Duchamps, in two or three separate groups split up over four rows, rose from their seats.
“Enchantresses. In their number, they have a scattered assortment of practitioners of a bunch of different types…”
“Not nearly as many as we had, before incidents earlier in the night,” Sandra said.
She glanced at Rose, and Rose felt Blake stir.
Rose maintained her composure. Chin up, eyes turned forward.
“Behaims,” Mags said, pausing while they rose and turned to face other members of the church. Rose looked up at Alister as he stood. Mags added, “Chronomancers, led by Alister.”
Alister raised a hand, remaining standing for a moment as others returned to their seats.
“Two of three major powers,” Mags said. “Johannes isn’t here, and according to Sandra, that’s because he’s dead?”
“Worse than dead,” Alister said. “He’s possessed. The most powerful practitioner in Jacob’s Bell, along with his gatekeeper familiar, is now under the control of a demon.”
“Okay,” Mags said. “That’s bad.”
She seemed momentarily at a loss for words.
“Uh,” she said, floundering a bit. “We’ll get back to that in a second. Other players. Briar Girl, off to the side there. Local hermit and nature mage. We have the local assortment of monsters, both native and visiting, toward the back right corner there…”
“Eat spunk!” one goblin shouted, as heads turned its way. A larger goblin reached between its legs and hauled it off the back of a pew.
“The two witch hunters who keep them in line and serve the council are Andy and Eva,” Mags said, gesturing to the pair, who were sitting in their customary positions, at the far left of the stage.
“Absent are Crone Mara, recently removed from power, and our local Faerie-in-exile, plural, who seem to want to keep their heads down. Unfortunately. Moving on to Toronto…” Mags said.
Skipping me? Rose wondered.
Was it because she wasn’t considered an ally, but an extension of the problem?
“I’m afraid I don’t know you. If you could introduce yourselves, that would help,” Mags said.
“I believe we’ve met,” the Elder Sister said.
Mags shook her head.
Having been skipped in the order of things, Rose was reluctant to jump into the conversation. It might have been easier to do if she could draw more on Conquest, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to lean on that connection so soon after Fell had eroded part of that connection. Where drawing on Conquest before might have been as easy as drawing in a breath, it didn’t feel quite so natural now.
She didn’t want to test that and be wrong. Not when it might affect her, or it might affect Conquest. Too many people in attendance had relationships of some sort to Conquest, and might react badly to a sudden broadcast of Conquest’s presence.
He could stay where he was, largely dormant, even if it meant she didn’t have nearly as much power to draw on.
It was the sphinx who jumped to the rescue. “The girl many of us were acquainted with was one of the local Faerie, as I understand it. Wearing this one’s face.”
“Ah. Yeah,” Mags said.
“My name is Isadora, and Paige, sitting over there, is with me. She is a tool for me to express some of my power with.”
Rose could see that Paige had been put on the spot. Her cousin hurried to stand and present herself.
Even as Peter whispered, “Even she knows you’re a tool.”
Still smiling, looking proper, Paige managed a short, sharp kick at Peter’s shin.
He bit his tongue to avoid crying out in pain.
Rose privately wished one of the two had been able and willing to ignore the other.
“While everyone is looking this way, I am Jeremy Meath, High Priest of Dionysus. My god’s favor is limited, tonight, largely spent. I still hope to find a resolution.”
The introductions continued.
“I am the Elder Sister, Lord of Toronto. You should know who I am. These three women are elementalists in my employ. This is the Eye of the Storm, a moderate elemental.”
“Emily Attwell, illusionist. I’m part of the Toronto council for my own protection, as my father didn’t make many friends.”
“Diana. Astrologer. I don’t have a lot to bring to the table, but more because it’s fixated in Toronto. I brought three arrangements, and a fourth to recharge another. I’ve already used two.”
“I’m Nick, of the Knights of the Basement. With the Elder Sister’s permission, we joined this conflict over the Lordship, as Rose Thorburn was very convincing in her explanation of how the city might be swallowed up by darker powers. We’re novices, better with guns than with practice, though we prefer weapons and armor augmented with practice.”
“I’m the Queen’s Man,” another said. “I’m well out of my depth. I serve a spirit of patriotism for a place that isn’t here, my responsibilities lie more with gathering knowledge so others might deal with Others, but this isn’t a realm I can contribute anything to. Not demons, never demons.”
Rose hadn’t paid much attention to the man, and it seemed it was for a reason. He didn’t have much presence or power.
“If nothing else,” Mags said, “You’ve helped me launch into the next part of our discussion. Rose? Thorburns, allies of Rose? Could you present yourselves?”
Oh, she skipped me so she could leave me until last.
She put more thought into this than I gave her credit for.
Rose stood from the pew. Alister held her hand, giving it a squeeze before letting go.
The stares were so hostile, Rose realized. They were scared and that fear sought someone to blame.
But, in the midst of that, there was something gratifying in having so many people stand with her.
At the very beginning of this, she’d been so alone. Even if the memories were spotty, heavily and badly edited, she could connect the dots, and she knew the feelings of loneliness back in the beginning were real.
Even when she’d had Blake there, when she’d worked alongside him, she’d been entirely isolated. Only a surprise kiss from Padraic had broken that seclusion. If there was anything else, it had disappeared along with her memories of Blake.
Now, she could see, that Paige was standing with her. Tiff had her back, while Ty wasn’t here. She’d seen him come in, which meant he had to be lying down somewhere, hopefully bandaged or healed by some practice.
She felt bad that she hadn’t focused on him more. Too distracted, too tired.
But Peter was standing with her, and Roxanne was too. Christoff, Evan…
They shuffled a bit as they returned to their seats. Rose was left standing.
“Am I wrong, or do you know the most about what’s going on?” Mags asked.
“I think I do,” Rose said.
Mags took a step to stage-right, away from the Altar, and away from Rose.
Rose took that as her invitation to approach.
She’d invited these people here to force them into a conflict. All well and good when they had to decide between fighting the enemy and fighting her, but the enemy wasn’t here.
Blake moved around inside her, touching on different things. It felt weaker than before, though no less uncomfortable.
This is the culmination of everything I’ve studied. All of grandmother’s work. A failure here would be devastating.
“Mags just introduced us. Let me introduce them. They are members of one of several groups that exist around the world, dedicated to diabolism. They call themselves lawyers, and they sort of are in the activities they focus on, but that’s only theme. There are others. In each case, they’ve traded away their selves and souls to escape the consequences of their actions. They wanted me to do the same. In an abstract way, it speeds things along. Gives more power to their side.”
The room was impossible to read, in expression and body language. She had to dig for some context to figure out how to address them, and she dug for the academic. Just as she’d needed to fine-tune every assignment to the tastes and moods of her teachers, she did it here. They wanted answers, to know what they were up against.
Blake had given her the information, she only needed to convey it.
“As a group, they’re strong, but not so strong they truly want to go head to head against Toronto or other major groups. Or they weren’t, until they got Johannes and the gatekeeper, Faysal. They have monstrous power at their disposal, but they’re not inclined to use it. They help others use it, and I think they work with demons to do it, but the dynamic there is too complex to get into, and I’d be making less educated guesses and statements than I’m making now.”
Rose thought of Ornias. The offer Ms. Lewis had made only made sense if the firm had been in direct communication with demons. Ornias might well have promised great power at a minimal price, if only the firm helped establish first contact with a new diabolist and gave him access to the world.
Every set of eyes and ears was on her.
“As individuals,” Rose continued, “They’re people who sold out humanity, in ways many accused me of doing. They want to finish with their deal and their loss of self and there’s a fucked up pyramid scheme where they can shave years off their sentences by sentencing others.
“In life, most were depraved, dangerous types. The sort we all fear when we think of diabolists. They could end this almost easily, but they’d destroy themselves to do it, and they won’t do that. I believe they’re motivated by a desire to keep their group operating, and I think that if they fail to meet expectations, the power that makes their group possible is going to revoke its favor, and them with it. Self preservation is going to come to a head with the need to keep their positions secure. Our problem is that they already have the means of doing that.”
“Johannes,” Mags said.
“Johannes,” Rose agreed. “And through him, they have Faysal. The Barber that possesses Johannes has a physical form while he’s inside the body. We don’t need to worry about his abstract nature. We do need to worry that he can penetrate most barriers and protections. Even here. Alister Behaim knew some measures, but they won’t work while the Barber has a body. It can rewrite reality with its shears, an object possessed in an entirely different sense, and it can carve a person or Other in two, giving each half the traits it wants. It has all of this, it has Faysal, who can carry it anywhere, it has Johannes’ Demesne, and it has, I’m very concerned, the ability to crown itself Lord and seize Jacob’s Bell.”
Oh, so many of them had known individual elements, but so very few had heard the whole story. Only Alister and Tiff were really equipped to know, and Tiff might well have been ignorant of the implications of possession. Even Blake had been in the dark about parts.
She could feel his agitation. He wanted to act. She suppressed it.
“They are our enemies. In the broader sense, we are fighting against the end of all things. Not everything, now, but everything here, soon enough. If they get what they want, they will take everything we are, everything we hold dear, and they will defile or destroy it all in the worst ways.”
There were murmurs. Paranoid looks at the shadows.
Leaders in individual groups were trying to reassure, or organize. Some people were standing from their seats, unwilling to sit and listen much longer.
Rose glanced at Mags, hoping for a call to order.
“I can’t,” Mags said, then said, “My dads.”
Not refusing to call things to order, but hesitating at the call to arms?
Was that part of it? Why they were falling into disorder? Behaims and Duchamps, maybe, who wanted to go find their family or friends who had stayed back rather than come to the meeting?
All in all, a disaster.
Rose had meant it as a rallying cry, a call to battle in the sense that, if they didn’t fight, all was lost. Because it was.
But, she realized, Conquest still had an influence on her, as did her lack of social flexibility. If she needed to intimidate, to be arrogant, or be formal, she could. She’d been made to. Yet in trying to raise them up, she’d ground them down instead. In trying to give them vital information they could use, she’d outlined too much too fast. She’d destroyed their morale.
She’d forgotten how much one person could fear for their loved ones. She’d felt so little of that fear herself.
I’m too cold.
She wished she could call on Conquest here. Even knowing it would sit badly with the Toronto practitioners and Others, it would give her the ability to seize control here.
Blake shifted, the movement too acute to be anything but a response to the thought.
She didn’t trust it. Even as spooked and out of her depth as she was, ill-equipped to organize an outright war, she still trusted herself more than she trusted the incarnation’s power.
Rose swallowed hard. Speaking as if they weren’t actively breaking ranks, she spoke out, “Listen! My grandmother studied this enemy!”
That got attention. People did listen. Some.
Isadora opened her wings wide. More heads turned that way.
But the sphinx was merely stretching. She sat her leonine hind end on the church floor, beside the pews, and squared her shoulders, attention on Rose.
Thank you, Isadora.
“My grandmother studied this enemy. She noted a great deal of what I described to you. She studied demons and the way this world is put together. Trying to find an out, a loophole.”
“Did she find it?” Isadora asked, calm.
Rose felt Blake provide something. She gripped the sides of the altar, head bowed, as the ideas settled into place.
“You can answer the question without fear,” Isadora said. “I can suppress instinct, tonight.”
“She found a way out for my family, kind of,” Rose said. “She studied karma, and she decided to use a demon to break the family line. If all had gone according to plan, the line of diabolists and the karmic responsibility would have ended with me.”
The words were hollow, coming out of her own mouth. Not easy words to say.
“Our enemy here put safeguards in place, trying to set things up so the title of Thorburn diabolist passed from one of us to the next, but I was intended to outlast the others. I was made from the cut of the demon’s shears. My counterpart was made to die, and I was made to last. Until all the other Thorburns were dead, the lawyer’s safeguards having no living cousins to default to, with childbirth being largely impossible on my part.”
She stared out at the others.
“If I hadn’t, the family was positioned to self destruct. Each heir worse than the last, armed with a demon while residents of this town were equipped with a means of turning that demon back on them.”
Ellie and Roxanne stared back at her.
“Everything was planned, and I don’t know the entirety of her plans. I do suspect that she had Laird help manipulate Jacob’s Bell into helping those plans along. Putting pressure on us. Being actively hostile. Positioning everyone else as enemies. Setting individuals in her own camp so they’re engineered to fail. All to mask what she was doing right under the lawyers’ noses.”
Molly. Even Blake.
“What I’m saying is this: they can be outplayed. They can be beat. If we play our cards right. The kink in the workings, one that the plan couldn’t account for, was Johannes, and it was Faysal. Faysal was too Other to grasp the plan or the implications, just like the group was too big and focused on the whole of their work to see what one old woman was scheming.”
Even as she talked, she was getting something of an idea.
“I think,” Rose said, “And I welcome any other ideas, but this is one… I think Faysal and Johannes are still kinks. Still the key to bringing down their power structure here. I won’t deny that they’re terrifying, or that stakes are high. But they’re unsteady. They’re likely just as scared as we are, if not more. Even if they don’t show it.”
She raised a hand to adjust her collar, and her hand trembled, visibly enough that people in the back row could have seen it.
Idiot, she admonished herself. Damn it. Can’t show weakness here.
And don’t you try and tell me to relax by shoving a memory into my head, it’ll do more harm than good, she thought, pushing the idea at Blake.
There was no response.
“They’re unstable, and we know exactly where we need to hit them. We know their weakness – their scope is too broad. They’re too big to see the small picture. The bulk of their weapons are so devastating they’ll only use them as a last resort. They want us scared and stupid. They show off the power and knowledge they have readily and easily, theatrically, to mask their weaknesses and make themselves out to be more than they are. But if my grandmother had won, they might well have suffered a telling blow, or collapsed entirely. If we win, we can destroy them, utterly and completely. We just have to win smart.”
She let the silence hang.
“Together,” she said.
This time, the silence was less strategic. She waited, uncomfortable.
A bead of sweat ran down to the small of her back, as if to mark the passage of every long second that passed. Cold against warm skin, dancing along her skin, touching minute droplets of moisture and tiny pale hairs, almost imperceptible to the eye, each touch provoking it to halt for a moment or changing direction.
She could see how tired so many of these people were, especially the locals. The night had been endless, the wars in Jacob’s Bell and Toronto both had cut far too close to home for everyone present.
Nobody was speaking up to voice their support. Even from her own camp, though she suspected there was a strategic reason for it. If one of them backed her up, it would change the tone of things. The others would have room to argue.
But, Rose realized, nobody wanted to argue to say that this was a bad idea, because they could get shouted down.
The atmosphere suggested that the next to speak would lose the argument.
One voice broke the silence.
“Penis!” a small goblin cried out. “Peeeenissssssss! Penispenispenis-”
One of the other Others at the back gave him a solid smack.
It did something, however, to ease the pressure.
“Well,” the Elder Sister said. “I knew your grandmother. I’m of the impression the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Rose was silent. There was nothing she could say here that would position her better.
Turning it on me. I can’t say I’m surprised, Rose thought.
“What you’ve done here, bringing us here to suit your greater strategy, it seems very similar to what your grandmother did with her own grandchildren.”
“In a sense,” Rose said. “Is that really the concern here?”
“Isn’t it?” the Elder Sister asked. “Your grandmother deceived you, and you admit she provided only a portion of the information. She used some of you as sacrificial pawns. If she made you to fulfill a role, and if it isn’t a coincidence that you’re as similar to her as you are, why shouldn’t we assume you’re not just as deceptive? The type to provide only a share of the information needed, on a need-to-know basis?”
Rose felt Blake move, and it was an uncomfortable movement. Close to the skin, touching the ribs. Agitated, upset.
There was no good answer to that. The Elder Sister wasn’t wrong.
“You’ve given us good information. I understand you’ve worked hard to move away from the path that was laid out for you, and I believe you think you’re working to good ends. But, all that said, you very recently called us out for not recognizing those demon-made vestiges for what they were. You. A demon-made thing.”
Rose was still. Too scared to even tremble.
“You, a creation of a demon, brought us into this. You’ve turned a bad situation into a worse one. We’re dealing with powers so vast that they simply consume all they touch, and all you’ve done is add more wood for the fire.”
An all-out offensive, then.
“What would you have done?”
“What we have done,” the Elder Sister said. “Left it be. Minimize the damage.”
“As you did with Ur, the demon in the oil factory?”
“Yes. As we did with the demon there. As we will continue to do.”
“Even if people get consumed? Stumble into the factory and get eaten?”
“We have more wards up than before. Very few will slip past. Are you going to tell me that your method was better? How did that turn out? I can’t quite remember.”
Rose grit her teeth. She drew in a breath, and the Elder Sister spoke before she got a chance to give a response.
“We did the same with the Hyena. We sealed it away to languish in obscurity until an opportunity to deal with the problem presented itself.”
Evan took flight.
“No!” Evan said, loud. “That is a bad, bad answer!”
“Evan!” Mags said. “Let’s not-”
“You jerks,” Evan said. “I thought it was Conquest who ordered it, but you’re okay with that idea!? What’s wrong with you!? You let me die!”
“-Agitate things,” Mags said, trailing off. “Enough!”
The order didn’t help.
Mags suddenly stepped closer to Rose, who backed away a step at the movement.
The ambassador reached beneath the altar, picked up a length of pipe with a strap attached, then aimed it at the ceiling.
She jerked the pipe, and it fired off, a sudden, explosive sound.
Plaster and bits of wood rained from one spot at the side of the church.
“Order,” Mags said, calmly. “Evan, little man, come here.”
Evan winged his way over to Mags, who put him on one shoulder.
“Elder Sister?” Mags said. “Do I have that title right?”
“What do you want? What course of action do we take, right here and right now?”
“We minimize the damage,” the Elder Sister said. “The sorcerer has a powerful demesne. It’s a grievous loss for humanity as a whole, but I would approach the opposing forces and try to negotiate a resolution. They don’t want this conflict, nobody but the Thorburn Diabolist has committed to it, and we can try to secure a total or partial release of everyone else here, along with a promise that the demon stay within the demesne. We seal it within, we evacuate and condemn Jacob’s Bell so there is no town for the demon to claim Lordship over, and settle it at that.”
“And everything goes back to the way it was, with them winning just a little,” Rose spoke. Her voice was soft, but the church was quiet enough to let the words carry. Acoustics helped.
“Any option you propose, including an attack, the Elder Sister said, “Is going to see them winning a great deal more. Even if you win, we collectively lose, because we’re simply feeding more of reality to the metaphorical flames, as soldiers in an ongoing war.”
Fear was going to win, in the end. Fear drove individuals like the Astrologer to nod her head at the Elder Sister’s words.
Fear made the sphinx want to avoid this conflict altogether. A rare creature who put great value on her own ageless life.
“Okay,” Mags said. “Okay. That’s one side. Rose, what do you want?”
What did she want to do?
A heavy, heady question. One Rose had already answered, in abstract. Take out Johannes, hit the lawyers where it hurt.
But in terms of battle plans?
“I want to invite Ms. Lewis or one of the other lawyers inside,” Rose said. “She’s not stupid. She knows what we want, and she’ll hit us right there. She’ll offer you exactly what you asked for. Escape. Freedom. Concession. But if you want to know what I want? I want her to ask, and I want her to hear a no.”
“You want us to fight in a war no sane individual would take part in,” the Elder Sister said. “One with permanent consequences, reaching well beyond simple life and afterlife. A dozen or two dozen lives lost, a few more pieces of reality carved away, permanent damage to creation. All to gamble that you can keep them from taking the sorcerer and demesne.”
Rose nodded. “Damn straight.”
“Then why don’t we see?” the Elder Sister asked. “Both of our plans start at the same place. We talk to the enemy.”
“You want to talk to her, let her make her proposal, and see what people decide?”
“I know what I’ve decided,” the Elder Sister said, offering a small smile. “If the others want to decide one way or the other when the time comes, then that’s up to them.”
Talk to the lawyer, let her offer a way out, then see who went with.
“I don’t think that’s the way to go,” Mags said. “Um. Does anyone have another plan? Suggestions?”
There were a few exchanged glances and murmurs.
Nobody voiced any reply at all.
“Actually,” Rose said, meeting the Elder Sister’s eyes. “It might be.”
The Elder Sister raised her eyebrows, genuinely surprised.
“Two concessions,” Rose said.
“Concessions? You brought us here, why should we concede anything?”
Mags stepped forward, “Wait. Let’s hear them first. If we disagree after the fact, we can talk that out.”
“First off, this is all or nothing. Either everyone that can retreats, and I work with those who stay to try and kill Johannes and keep them from gaining power, or we all fight, and you help to create an opening for a strike. Going halfway doesn’t achieve a thing.”
Rose frowned, then continued, “I know you’ve made a decision, but I’m worried you’re making that decision for others. Conquest showed that’s very easy to do. You have influence, given where you stand.”
“Ironic, coming from you. At the head of the room, Conquest’s power visible to anyone who looks.”
Rose shrugged. She didn’t trust her hands enough to make any other gesture. “We let everyone present decide on their own, if and when the question gets asked. You don’t get that ball rolling, you can’t be the first one to accept.”
“The goblins too,” Mags said. “They don’t count, they can’t count. If you little bastards fuck around here, I will hunt you down, I will bind you, and I will make you wish a demon had gotten you.”
“You know I’ll follow through!” Mags said.
There wasn’t another shouted epithet, which Rose took as assent.
Rose nodded slowly. That’s one problem out of the way.
“That’s a heavy concession,” the Elder Sister said.
“Yeah,” Rose said. “Because if you don’t make it, if you just take the offer right away, you automatically win. We all know it. One person leaves and we’re weaker. More people leave, and the ball gets rolling. But that’s not a meaningful result.”
“What’s meaningful about your result?”
“That’s the second concession I want,” Rose said.
“Just… let me explain. People are scared. Let me… try to make sense of it all.”
“To convince them?”
“Not directly. I’ve already made my argument, you’ve made yours. I just… like I said, my grandmother studied how things work.”
The Elder Sister spread her arms. “I reserve the right to stop you.”
She drew in a deep breath, and sighed.
“According to my grandmother, the demons already won, a long, long time ago. They devoured the vast majority of the universe, and that’s why the planets are so relatively small, compared to the sheer amount of nothingness. It’s why we’re so very tiny, in the grand scheme of it all. But these things we erroneously call angels surged in strength, they spun out a complete universe from the scraps, and on select scraps, or on a select scrap, they prepared life to emerge.”
Rose glanced out over the room.
“It would be easy to say that the universe is an unending repetition of creation and death. That this has happened before and it’ll happen again, and this is the heartbeat of the universe. But in looking at the history of this world, both the clear history and the one behind the curtain, something stands out. Us.
“We’re another force. And we’re only still emerging. We’re change. We’re an equal to them. We just don’t realize it yet. All the Others took our faces and our personalities, or fragments of them, and Faysal’s kind and the demons did the same. We’ve evolved so quickly in so short a time. Faysal saw it in Johannes, as he tried to change the system with his new way of dealing with Others. He tried to harness that. Now the lawyers are doing the same.”
She let the words hang.
She could have explained, could have elaborated, but that would have violated the deal. Would have verged too close to an outright attempt to sway the others to her side.
We’re capable of change. Will you embrace that, or hand that power over to them?
“Does anyone have anything to add?” Mags asked.
There were murmurs. A question was asked, but Rose could barely hear it. About protecting others, one way or the other. Some Behaims and Duchamps had family, tucked in their beds.
“Do what you think is right,” Mags said.
“Okay, that’s settled,” the Elder Sister said. “How do we invite her in?”
Rose’s throat was dry.
“We just say her name. Ms. Lewis. To Ms. Lewis alone, we give permission to enter, for peaceful negotiation.”
The door opened.
Blood pounded in Rose’s ears. Blake was writhing, anxious, restless, eager to act if he needed to act. Maybe if he didn’t.
She couldn’t even hear Ms. Lewis’ footsteps, or the initial words the lawyer spoke. A greeting.
She could process the words that Mags asked, see lips moving, just as she’d anticipated. She knew what they were saying, but she couldn’t wrap her head around it.
“…would like to offer an out, to those uninvolved parties,” Ms. Lewis said.
The silence that followed was louder than any tolling bell.