-- J. R. R. Tolkien
Abrogail Thrune, deliberately dressed not in her best, sits quietly in her personal library.
She is not standing at a high balcony overlooking her city, she is not screaming and weeping, she is not taking out her rage on her servants or on an interesting Good victim dragged up from her dungeons. She will not give Them the satisfaction; she is not confused in the first place about the source of her unhappiness, nor could it be assuaged on a bystander; and Abrogail of House Thrune has never cried once after she finished her ordeal in Hell.
She is taking time to stop, to do little, to allow her mind to wander. +6 WIS will tell you to do that occasionally, even if you absolutely don't have time.
She tried to read one of the better romance novels whose existence she'd ordained at the beginning of her reign; and then had to put the book aside, for there were tropes in it.
Unable to find satisfaction in reading, forbidden other entertainments that wouldn't help her mood anyways, Abrogail Thrune's mind turns (as mortal minds do) to the past, to previous decisions that can't be undone, rehearsing the experience of disaster.
As though, could she but decide on the one perfect thing she could've done, the disaster would then unhappen, having been solved, herself having learned from it, passed the test, there would be no need anymore for it to still have happened.
The moment when she heard that a presumed-9th-circle scry had hammered through Project Lawful's protections to find Carissa.
Within the minute Abrogail was Mind-Blanked and Teleported far from Cheliax, waiting to hear whether Egorian had become part of a blank circle on a map...
In retrospect, the decisions that led to that point were probably mistaken.
Any life choice that leads to you later fleeing your country and waiting to hear if its capital city has been destroyed, was probably, in fact, a mistake.
But it is done, it cannot be undone, there is no obvious way to undo it, all the obvious ways out of the resulting trap seem to be trapped themselves.
And now, somehow, there doesn't seem to be anything to do - besides obvious straightforward unimportant things like rushing Cheliax's digestion of Nidal - while Abrogail sits on a comfortable library chair and waits for the week of doom.
At the time, the logic seemed clear. They certainly weren't trying to take hostages against Keltham, as Asmodeus had forbidden; you have to tell somebody about hostages, after all, and they weren't planning to tell that naive boy any such thing.
Aspexia had set her eyes on having a potential future heir to the Crown who might ravel 'corrigibility'; and, more importantly, transforming Keltham's story irrevocably into a dath ilani tragedy - making sure the story could not be a story of Keltham's triumph, ending well for him, especially by dath ilan's standards.
Abrogail had wondered, yes, about a potential heir to the throne with the blood of dath ilan. But more than that, Abrogail had been thinking of Keltham's unwitting prophecy born of tropes, that if Keltham came into conflict with Abrogail over Carissa, the only possible resolutions were Abrogail's ruin or that she become Keltham's woman.
The mechanics of the plot had been straightforward enough, at least by Abrogail Thrune's standards.
Keltham had been prompted to ask another of his women to guise herself as his Carissa, so that he might learn to fight her and hurt her unrestrained.
Keltham had picked Meritxell, as predicted.
Keltham had needed no further prompting, after that, to ask Meritxell to guise herself as others besides Carissa; nor, a short time after, to ask Meritxell to appear as the most beautiful woman he'd ever met, Abrogail Thrune.
Meritxell by then had already practiced pretending to be Abrogail Thrune during sex, and Abrogail Thrune had watched her and learned to pretend to be Meritxell pretending to be Abrogail Thrune.
When the time had come to slip in the real Abrogail Thrune in the place of the fake - on their second encounter, daring not the first, in case that was too obvious - Keltham hadn't noticed any discrepancy, according to Abrogail's read of his thoughts, then.
And all of that, in retrospect, had been a terrible mistake.
Abrogail should not have had Meritxell pose as herself, should have had Meritxell refuse any requests to pose as Abrogail citing fear of lese-majeste. She should have just had Keltham's seed stolen for her from Meritxell's mouth, as Keltham himself had suggested by way of his own wary thoughts.
Keltham, looking back over that course of events, remembering Meritxell assuming Abrogail's form, is liable to suspect that Abrogail is with his child.
Keltham might not suspect the dozens of other women impregnated by way of his seed stolen from out of Meritxell's mouth beneath cover of Invisibility. Or Keltham might suspect that too, not from evidence, but from it being an obvious thought to him. Or from remembering, once his Intelligence was raised high enough, that he'd had that thought himself in "Isidre's" presence.
Some of those impregnated women had been Baronesses of Cheliax and priestesses of Asmodeus, who would raise any child to be destined for Hell.
Some had been peasants, so that Keltham's children by them would grow up in Chelish destitution.
And some of those anonymous peasant women had been seized namelessly and returned namelessly, under threat if they broke silence, origins and destinations going unrecorded by any part of the Crown.
It wasn't a hostage-taking, in contravention of Asmodeus's orders; they weren't expecting to need hostages, then. Rather, by those tactics they had essayed to make Keltham's story be irrevocably a dath ilani tragedy, beyond even Cheliax's power to undo and give a happy ending, for any threat.
They... had not been thinking, then, about how Keltham might still have a potential response to that ploy.
Abrogail Thrune had realized her error shortly after Keltham, departing, had said, "I will tell Osirion to draw a circle on a map of Cheliax and then I'll destroy everything inside that circle. That's not a threat. It's my policy on cleaning up my own messes."
(It was also the first time she'd felt any flash of desire for Keltham as a man, but that is a completely separate issue and Abrogail Thrune is not thinking about it right now and is also pretending that it didn't happen.)
She should have thought of it. Abrogail had overheard Keltham's thoughts about Civilization's great weapons. She'd heard the report of him asking a fake paladin about ways to obliterate Awaiting-Consumption or injure Urgathoa.
It was just - not a thought that squared up easily with the naive teenage boy giving away so many key secrets to Cheliax, who boasted of having never told a single lie in Golarion -
One just... doesn't usually think, of that, as something that a regretful teenage father would do. Especially one you've started identifying, in the back of your mind, as a naive Goodling.
'Oh, I'll just destroy that entire country before my children can be ensouled. Problem solved!' It's not something a Good person would do, or an Evil person either.
Or maybe Keltham will only destroy Egorian, to get at Abrogail, if Keltham thinks it's only her that's pregnant.
Which... still would be not good for Cheliax's ambitions.
Keltham has spoken much of Law and of multi-agent optimality, conflicts averted and doing Something Else Which Is Not That; it's an obvious thought even to Abrogail Thrune, who is not of Abadar, that it might be possible for two Lawful beings to negotiate Something Else from this situation.
Even if it were not Keltham, Abrogail would want to avoid the annihilation of Cheliax by any means necessary, up to and including both sides talking to each other.
- but Keltham may not know, Abrogail does not know whether Keltham knows, that Abrogail is with his child. Maybe he hasn't thought of it, even with an Intelligence boost; he's an alien. Does Cheliax try to open negotiations over it, he will know -
If Cheliax offers ransom against Keltham choosing to destroy all Cheliax, Keltham will know that Cheliax thinks he has cause to do that; it will tip him off if he doesn't already know, and also weaken Cheliax's negotiating position, that they were admitting from the start that Keltham's default course was to destroy Cheliax and that Keltham must be paid off to do anything else -
Maybe Keltham wouldn't do that, on his own, wouldn't slay a whole country for a reason like that, and if so, by offering to negotiate, Cheliax might end up paying some terrible ransom that Keltham wouldn't otherwise have demanded at all -
Maybe Keltham would only kill Abrogail, and not slay all Egorian or all Cheliax, if he thought it was only Abrogail with his child; Abrogail would be resurrected but the child would be gone, if it were not yet ensouled. Cheliax has been listening, listening hard, to see if Keltham has been trying to hire any assassins, for if so Abrogail will just let him succeed, let him appear to win, lose the child inside her rather than lose Egorian -
Abrogail thought about ordering her own assassination, a real one, not faked at all. Only Abrogail has read too many transcripts about Conspiracy-theoretic reasoning; Keltham may reason through to what they want him to believe, maybe think the real assassination was fake -
And Keltham, for his part, if he knows, will not want them to know that he knows. If Keltham is planning to destroy Egorian or Cheliax, he will not want Cheliax to know that, prepare for that, before he strikes.
Gods can settle negotiations like that, Aspexia has told her. Gods can simply make pacts not to use knowledge that they are told as part of negotiations. Gods can commit to doing whatever they would have done if they had not known.
But for Cheliax to offer Keltham even a pact like that - for Keltham to offer her a pact like that - would also tell each other everything. The reason why that pact would be required, would be too obvious.
And absent a pact like that, Keltham does not know if he can trust Asmodeans, she does not know if she can trust Keltham, if one appears before the other saying, "I came to you to negotiate trusting that you won't use the information from my offering to open negotiations"...
Really you can't trust Asmodeans about that, if there's no prior compact. Abrogail Thrune wishes in this moment that Asmodeans had a reputation for being trustworthy about that; but, in fact, they're not.
And if Keltham really doesn't do anything - if he hasn't figured it out - to all appearances, until quite recently, he wasn't paying much attention to Cheliax at all -
Then soon Abrogail's child will be ensouled. Shortly after, other children all across Cheliax.
And then, probably, once informed of that fact, if it's allowed to become true, Keltham really won't consider it his nonthreatening action to destroy Cheliax if it makes any trouble. Not if that'd send so many children of his tragically to the Boneyard.
They didn't mean to take hostages, definitely didn't intend to contravene Asmodeus's orders by taking hostages deliberately; they had their own reasons for wanting Keltham's children in Cheliax. Why, they've had those reasons from the beginning, Keltham himself observed them immediately upon his arrival; dath ilan has good 'genes' useful for the 'heritage-optimization' program that Cheliax is even now in the process of planning.
They didn't meant to take hostages; it doesn't mean Cheliax won't have them, very soon. And Keltham should know that it wasn't a threat that created them.
Cheliax hasn't set a definite date on war with Osirion, not least because Osirion's intelligence has been so impossibly good. But once enough of Keltham's children start detecting as ensouled - it will be Cheliax's best course of action, then, to crush the Scientific Revolution before it can start to seriously compete.
...or, of course, Keltham could be waiting until the last minute to destroy Egorian or Cheliax, hoping he'll find an alternative before his hand is forced to that; and not wishing to let Cheliax know what awaits them, even by offering to open negotiations.
So, in terms of greater events, it seems that all Abrogail can do is sit and tensely wait for her child to quicken with soul, or maybe for Cheliax to be destroyed without warning.
It's probably a trope, that tension; being put in a position where all you can do is wait for the week, if not an exact known hour, of doom.
(It's actually a much narrower trope than that! Keltham even explained it in an offhand remark-lecture at dinner, one time, discoursing upon dath ilani fiction, all of whose tropes seemed so alien and inapplicable that the Chelish Conspiracy paid it little mind.
Keltham said to his Chelish hosts, that night, that in dath ilani fiction, authors often had to resort to visibly contrived means, to prevent the incredibly Lawful characters from simply negotiating a move to their multi-agent optimal boundary.
In dath ilani fiction, when some bizarre setup causes the characters to somehow not be able to solve all their conflicts just by talking to each other, you're not supposed to question any improbabilities leading up to the setup. You can question if the setup itself has a loophole, obviously, that a sensible character ought to find; but if events weird and unlikely led into that arrangement, literary convention says not to question that.
After all, if you can't somehow impose exotic conditions averting the theorems about agents coordinating on multi-agent-optimal outcomes, you don't have a novel, do you? You have a short story ending in an anticlimax. Something has to happen that wouldn't happen in real life; in real life, after all, sensible people put arbitrarily huge efforts into making sure that nobody ever ends up fighting instead of negotiating.
But Abrogail Thrune is not seeing it as strange in the right dimensions, the pass to which she's come; she hasn't remembered Keltham's key words from that offhand lecture. To Abrogail Thrune, "a conflict that has some weird exotic reason it can't be solved by everyone talking honestly at each other" is nothing new at all, not even a visible trope.)
She really, really fucking hates tropes, by the way. Abrogail thought she despised them before, but she was mistaken; now she hates them with the sort of searing fury and despite that Aspexia Rugatonn holds for Chaotic Good in general and Chaotic Good oracular curses in particular.
The fact that Abrogail has thought of all this may now mean that it won't happen, because that would be boring to Them, the tropes, whatever may be watching her from the Dark Tapestry or beyond it.
The clocks tick forward; Keltham destroys all Cheliax without warning; or, his children become ensouled, and Cheliax informs him of it and in the same moment assaults Osirion. Those are the obvious possible outcomes, the ones that Abrogail would think to hold in a sane world.
The alternative is that Keltham will simply... do something else.
He is become something else himself, now, some other manner of opponent.
Abrogail Thrune's mind turns again to the past, rehearsing the experience of disaster.
The moment when she heard that a presumed-9th-circle scry had hammered through Project Lawful's protections to find Carissa.
That was maybe the last moment in which Abrogail could have thought faster.
Why would Keltham do that? Why use a scry instead of Discern Location? Why give them warning?
She was still thinking, in the back of her mind, of that naive young boy who did not know he had any enemies, who she'd said might in decades become a rival for Abrogail Thrune's throne, who'd seemed to her like somebody who might someday eventually rival her - when he hadn't augmented his abilitystats at all.
It had made a dire sense, then, when the report had made its way to where Abrogail had fled, that they might only be doing as Keltham wanted. It had made sense, when Carissa Sevar had given her reason for wanting to go to Dis as being less predictable.
She - doesn't understand, even now, how Keltham could do that, set that all up - as it's clear he did, the scry-alarm was timed for when Carissa wouldn't have hung spells yet for that day, to give her a chance to hang the Silent Image she'd need later, in Hell - how did he know about the Carissa who'd erased herself, that this was her plan, that her loyalties would predictably turn once she was under the Nondetection to evade scry - how did the two coordinate when that Carissa had only ten minutes, how did she signal Keltham - Abrogail refuses to believe that Keltham figured out that course of events without any signal, Intelligence 24 can't do that - or does Keltham now have his own fragment of unshattered prophecy - or is there some trope out of dath ilan transparent to him, by which Keltham read through the whole situation -
- realistically, it's probably tropes, the same way Keltham always made his impossible predictions, out of knowledge nobody else could have, and how do you fight something like that?
It was supposed to be Carissa Sevar, fighting that.
Abrogail Thrune's mind turns again to the past, she has no disciplines out of dath ilan to warn against repeating her thoughts. Most times Abrogail Thrune is more oriented to the future than this, holds herself to a higher standard of freshness in her thinking; but then, most times Abrogail Thrune is not feeling this trapped.
Abrogail Thrune's mind turns again to the past.
The moment when word came back that Carissa Sevar could not be reached by Sending, that she could not be scried. Abrogail had thought at first that they'd only played into some further step of Keltham's plan - that Carissa had been intercepted in Hell, once she was outside of a Mage's Private Sanctum -
The moment when Aspexia informed her that she'd heard the report of Commander Hadrian, whose soul had gone to his owner.
The moment when Aspexia informed her that Carissa Sevar had bid the devils of Avernus to slaughter her companions, looted and taken the bodies.
Abrogail knew. Even as the first bad news began to arrive, Abrogail knew what she had done wrong.
"I decided when I threw this celebration that if I was tempting tropes by daring to celebrate anything, then so be it; and if by inviting you I was calling their attentions directly on us all, so be it; and that if, by my telling you that you might have me after or be had by me, I was tempting some romantic complication to occur in our lives immediately after, so fucking be it. I'll not live the rest of my life cowering from all fun, for fear of plot complications, for fear of humorous or tragic comeuppance if I'm ever seen by the story to be enjoying myself or celebrating anything."
The Most High has already castigated her, thoroughly, for this misdecision.
In retrospect it's clear enough what Abrogail should have seen. Keltham upon first hearing of Abrogail Thrune in any detail, did call her "more trope than flesh" within his thoughts. Like Ione, like Pilar, like Asmodia, like Carissa, Abrogail Thrune was Chosen of a god and Blessed by Him, when Asmodeus did execute His compact with her. Abrogail Thrune has contested with Keltham, she has lain with Keltham, she is pregnant with his child, she is a generally interesting person; she is, always has been, one of the trope-girls.
Abrogail Thrune is whatever the equivalent is of a 'viewpoint character' in this, and her thoughts laid plain to see for whatever watches from beyond the Dark Tapestry. All her conceits of making herself mistress of the tropes behind the scenes, no doubt, have been displayed from start to end for whatever 'audience' watches from beyond; her carefully unspoken plan was never hidden from Them; They were watching her when she laid with Keltham and not from Keltham's character perspective either.
Those things Beyond have written a lovely tragedy of her and Carissa Sevar; and all the grandeur of her and Carissa's celebration together over Nidal, their dance, that they laid with each other satisfyingly with a mutual victim, all of it was raising up Abrogail Thrune higher before her fall, luring her into grand hopes, pleasure, attachment so that she could be more satisfyingly betrayed and hurt when everything was taken away.
And in light of this, Aspexia Rugatonn will now be managing her information, making sure that when a plan must succeed, Abrogail Thrune does not know of it. Aspexia Rugatonn has commanded her to gloat over nothing, triumph over nothing, never feel satisfied about how anything is going for her, speak no hopes aloud, never feel hope if she can help it, if that felt hope might be an invitation to the tropes to crush it.
She is trapped within a vast machine greater than herself, which, if it offers her anything to become attached to, is perhaps offering that to her only to take it away in some poignant future moment.
She appears to be inside that kind of story.
(It does not particularly occur to Abrogail that she is, at this moment, only experiencing some fraction of what she was complicit in inflicting on Keltham. She is not that sort of person.)
(Well, in some ways she might be worse off than Keltham. Keltham has read a hundred books about protagonists who realize they're in stories and then have to do something interesting about the fact. None of them shut down mentally about it.)