“I don’t want to be evil!” She dropped to her knees and sank her face into her hands, sobbing so her shoulders bounced and the noise coming from beneath her hands was a gasping honk interspersed by snuffles.
Ven stood over her, watching her cry with nothing more than a tightness at the corner of his mouth to give away the empathy he felt. He let her sob until all that remained was sniffling and she dropped her hands into her lap, then he spoke with a tone that was soft, if not gentle.
“Why do you think this power makes you evil?”
She raised her gaze to meet his, face blotchy red and lids swollen. “It’s the power of death and darkness. How can it not be evil?”
His eyes narrowed in disapproval. “Death is not evil. Nor darkness.”
She eased her legs out from under herself, drawing her knees up and wiping her hand across her nose and cheeks. “You’re going to tell me about how death can be a relief or something.”
“No. If you didn’t already know that I wouldn’t have bothered teaching you.”
She frowned and looked away from him.
“Evil is what people do with power. It’s easier to do evil with some types of power, yes, but it’s never the power that’s evil, it’s you.” He looked around the cozy room, touches of her personality everywhere. Blankets were folded by the fire because she liked to study there, a row of rocks on the windowsill she’d picked up on the trail because they were pretty, the scent of apples coming from the kitchen. “You aren’t evil.”
“This power will make me do evil.”
“Are you that weak?”
She flinched and he sighed, squatting in front of her and catching her gaze.
“Being good or evil… that’s a choice. People are constantly making that choice, whether they have power or not. Your choices might be harder, or more limited, but they are still choices. If you don’t want to be evil, then don’t be.”
She stared back at him, eyes as eager as the first day she’d come to ask him to teach her, deep enough to hold the world if he’d only show it to her. Eyes strong enough to bear that weight, but wavering. He kept his hard and hoped it would steady hers. “Your power is not you.”
“Are you evil, master?”
He blinked. Her question wasn’t as simple as it would have been from anyone else’s mouth. He’d answered it many times, from many people, for many different reasons. He could tell her he was not, try to reinforce his point, but she would hear the lie. He could tell her he was, and sell their differences, but she knew better.
He kept his expression cold and steady, all seriousness. “Not today.”
Her brow wrinkled. “That’s not an answer.”
“It’s a faulty question.”
“If you can say whether I’m good or evil, surely you can say whether you are.”
“Are you asking if I’m mostly evil? Then yes. I’ve made easy choices. They get easier, the more of them I make.” He looked around the room again, a place he’d built to hide from the consequences of those easy choices. “It’s unfair maybe. You make the hard choices, and yours will only get harder.”
“Maybe you only say I have a choice because you have to believe you do. You have to blame yourself for the ones you made.”
He widened his eyes and sat on the floor, resting an arm over one raised knee. “I’m impressed, little bird. I hadn’t realized that before. All my life has been a game of self-blame and regret. You’ve opened my eyes. The student has become the teacher.”
She frowned and glared at him.
“The truth,” he said, “is that there is no truth.There is only what we believe to be true. Wise men spend lifetimes searching for an ultimate truth that doesn’t exist, and in searching for it they build it.” He reached out and touched a finger to her forehead. “This is your truth. If you want to know about good and evil, look there.
“I can tell you my truth, and it’s pretty good considering I’ve spent many lifetimes building it, but it’s going to fail you when you need it most. Look to yourself, little bird, and before you ask whether you are evil, discover what evil is.
“I’ve tried to teach you to seek. There is no question we should fear, and no answer we should hide. Discover who you are, accept it. Then everything you’re worrying about right now won’t matter. When you see what I see, you won’t need to ask the question at all.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better now.”
“What lie do you want to hear? I’ll say it.”
She rested her chin on her arms. “If truth doesn’t exist, do lies?”
That one made him smile. “Very good. Keeping asking things like that.” He pushed himself to his feet and dusted off his pants. “But try to think about it as you do your chores.”