The Riddle of Witch Flesh: Part 8

From Magical Girl Noir Quest Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

As it turned out, the place Umika led me to was her own cella.

"This is where I eat my simple meals, and dream my simple dreams. Though I guess I cook a lot and I've also seen some shit, so neither my meals nor my dreams are really all that simple." She pointed me towards the table, and it was sort of difficult for me to tug my body between a chair, the table, and the wall, since I'm a huge slav like Mucha's models.

Although, obviously, Mucha would pick a girl with a pretty face over me.

Conversely, Umika is an oriental midget, and even accounting for it's owner's size, the room was cramped. "Speaking of cooking, are you hungry? I cook to lift my stress, and don't always have someone to eat it, you see. I have to shove it down the throat of whatever scribe is helping me at the moment, and there isn't always somebody like that."

I was really hungry. Even after ordering some food for the squad after work, gone was the usual joy from moving my limbs around that a fit person feels. Honestly, I felt pretty terrible, and had been running on anger today.

What Umika was saying also suggested that she was previously used to having somebody like that, and just can't break the habit. She must have left a lot of friends in the Tenth.

They may have reputation as some of the biggest assholes walking the Earth, but here you've got it. They are really tightly knit.

I said small, and that it was - for all that had to fit inside. Umika's crib was pretty impressive for a Vanus cell. Those scribes who apparently visit it must envy her position even more for this.

First thing I've noticed, she had a naginata hung on the wall. Must have been commissioned from the old weaponsmith. The fact that he could make such an exotic weapon really shows his skill off. Shame that he had to make it blunt.

We basically feed him, these days. Of course, we can use the old weapons, some of these swords have been already held in a thousand hands - but a hundred standing Eversors is about as hard to supervise as an army regiment, and keeps breaking about as many things. This guy would usually reforge the old, so he must have been happy to actually make something this time.

I think he doesn't believe me we're a private school with fencing classes anymore. The very vague internet page might suggest that, but it's a paper thin excuse for everything we do, a joke. He always insists he wants to see us spar, and the excuse that no men are allowed on the school grounds is wearing thin. Old man, you should have been able to figure it out. Someone who signs the contract as "Woland" without even showing himself to you is mighty suspicious. It's a wonder he didn't stick his paw print next to it.

Now, the oriental polearm was striking, but another thing that must have caught every native's mind had been the bookshelves. No two are alike, and Umika's had been pretty impressive. Among the books she had wanted to keep close to her was the Grand Grimoire, the Necronomicon, and both Gate and Practice from Byrdon's work - Introduction strangely absent. She also had copies of the Bible, Qur'an(I think, can't read arabic), the Vedas, and the Book of Blessed Lady, without doubt for study purposes. A brochure I thought must have been a joke, titled "Dr. Strangeaeon, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Alpha". Another familiar name was 'Two Heads of the Eagle', Panna wrote that. There was also a comically large one on the shelf's edge, with its back modelled into a spinal collumn, and a purity seal, titled 'The Un-Founding copy part 2'.

She brought a bowl of risotto for me to eat. I've hoped for some sort of oriental kitchen, but this was fine too. Especially since it was proper Italian Risotto, not the knockoff mid-Europan version that we call 'rizoto', which has almost nothing to do with it beyond being mostly rice. It doesn't even use olive oil, just sweet vegetables.

This thing, on the other hand, had strawberries in it.

"So, now that you've bought me, what do you need me to help with?" The first bowl was empty before I knew it. Panna's healing cream really took a lot out of me as it advertised. It probably affected my gains in the short term. Despite eating nearly a whole pizza afterwards, from the order we had brought to the roof, I found myself to still be deceptively hungry.

Umika was going through her own personal bookshelf, however, probably already looking for what she had needed. "You are an important person here, you must have seen a lot. I am interested in all of that. Mysteries, secrets, and mechanics. We wouldn't go through it all in a week. So I'll just ask you about the things that matter."

Now, I usually hate giving accounts, so I'd avoid talking to the kind of Librarians who just won't shut up. This girl hit it off right, though, through the stomach. So, I didn't mind. "Classified stuff is of course out, but I'll help as I can. I still have to kick Renata's ass today. Take your time, though, I wouldn't waste food like that."

"Glad to hear that." She gave me a weird glance, there. Looked content, though. "So, I didn't want to breach the subject of Liliana while you were eating, but it seems you won't be stopping anytime soon. I understand that you did not fight her?"

This grub was amazing. "I fought her twice - first time just after she popped up. I wasn't around when Kamile had witched out, though, that's probably what you have heard. I was being taught by the Second's Witch hunters then. Martina would know better, she fought her right as she Witched out. You know, she was pushing her third year of service, but barely through with her Vindicare retraining, herself. Still held her own. Pretty amazing, all in all."

"Miss Twardovska is much less cooperative, it seems, when it's not a part of her job. I had a very specific question about Kamile's Soul Gem."

I didn't manage to multitask eating and speaking very well there. "It was, like, lila. Munch. Salmon pink. Munch. Almost white."

"I mean, your colleague had observed it's change into a Grief Core. It would be nice to at least know what it looked like. The one I saw sketches of looked like a Gem with a looser gliding. It didn't look like a Grief Seed at all." She looked at me with her two eyes, the soul gem she wore on her forehead appearing curious as well, the small grain of corruption in its middle catching eye, like it was the third pupil on that face.

"Oh, hers got naked, so the bauble stayed - and then it, like, bloomed on her hand, when she Witched out." Then it got dark, and people started to hear the drums, oh god, the drums. And then they saw the Barrier, and started to drown and die.

The thing she held before the Barrier was done was this pretty sparkling thing, like waterdrop in a flower. And it wasn't all pink anymore, it had a lot of colours. That's what Martina told me. Don't think it should be a secret or anything."

"But she'd never be white again, eh?" Umika noted that down, but decided to go on. "It's probably too personal, but I don't suppose you could tell me more about her personality? Something people don't tell me often?"

"Asking about Kamile's character today is like you're beating a dead horse with a fish, but let's see." I am, after all, a contrarian in nature. "I'd say the most important thing about Kamile that you shouldn't misunderstand is that she was a monster. Panna would sometimes say she's a Myshkin. It's sort of like with learning a skill, I think. Kamile was a good person, but she didn't learn to be one. She was talented at morals. But you would be scared that she would make a terrible basic mistake at any time she came across a more complicated choice, because she approached everything naively. Like a kid."

"She wished to stay a kid forever, right?"

"Yeah. It meant she could never grow up. Never learn complicated things. It got really creepy really fast, but after some time, her presence was reassuring. "

You could tell she wasn't pretending out of misery like some of the girls that can't keep it together, and her smile wasn't the cynical smirk of she who lost it all - she was actually that pure. She liked Panna like a good kid can love the hard working parent, but like most kids, she wouldn't care what the parent's job actually was. People would die around her, and she accepted it. She would not think about it.

"Do you wish you were like that?"

Where the hell did that come from?

"Not really. She could tolerate the way Twelfth was, because she was insane. The wish was like a fucking lobotomy. I can never be like her. But that level of tolerance is something to strive for."

Umika smirked. "If you actually become perfect, though, the struggle would be over. You would get stuck in the place you were. That scares you. Right?"

"That, exactly. Nothing wrong with an adult acting kiddy sometimes, but actually giving up, becoming a kid again, and just spending your life like that? That's awful. Like those shut-in people. There's more to life than that."

Umika reaffixed her glasses. "It sounds a like she was already fairly in tune with her nature. There must have been more to her, though. Her Barrier's imagery was quite particular. To begin with, how could someone like that even Witch out?"

That was another question I knew an answer to. "I think that she figured out that Juunibey is the bad guy."

She stayed silent. I talked on, without even checking my words before they left my mouth, just naturally connecting to the conversation we had with Panna a while ago.

"If you asked me, I think that the thing about Alpha Witches is that they were happy. They witched out because they were done with their lives. That's what's not normal about Kamile. She witched out out of resolution. That's the way those people are twisted. Because the most horrifying thing is to accept oneself entirely - I heard that from Panna once. "

Umika didn't say a word again, noting nothing down. She did have a book open on the side of the table, though, shooting glances at it.

I waved the fork in the air, dismissingly. "I just couldn't do that, you know? Even if I didn't mind being a Witch, I'd like to be a human as long as possible. I would actually want to be the lesser thing for a while longer. I wouldn't want to 'grow up'. Just because there would be no way back.

So, if she was the childish one, why did she go ahead with it? Because kids do reckless things? I can't be like that anymore. I know too much about it for me to give in now. It's just all upside down. Humans can want to, but aren't supposed to be that way.

But both Panna and the cat probably want them to give in too. Well, except for the part where Kamile ended up killing almost fucking everyone because she did. They probably didn't plan for that. How am I supposed to do that job for them, though? I don't even agree with it."

After a long pause, she spoke herself. "There are crazier people doing crazier things out there, trust me. But, I guess it's not like you're looking too much into it. I am sure that you consider the Twelfth to be corrupt to its core. From a worldly perspective, though, you are fairly pure. You take a piece of Witch Flesh, and then look at it. You don't want to eat it, or even become it. You put it on good light and draw a study of it into your sketchbook.

Really. I came expected to find a bunch of lunatics in here, eating Witches for breakfast, but there is nothing of the sort."

"Oh, there is. We just keep those guys officially outside of the Officio. They're still Juunibey's contracts, though. It's all for show."

"I see. First time I hear that." She noted nothing down, but turned a page, and apparently underlined something. Four or five words. Could it be 'Cult of the Black Rose'?

She looked back at me. "Anyway, it's actually cute. You look at a Witch, and don't want to be "strong like her", or "so interesting". You just want to understand why is she the way she is. You perfect your magic in solitude, so you can match a Witch on her own terms - but you, of all people, are not trying to be the same. You don't actually want to be monsters. Everytime your girls Witch out, every day, they do so in fear of what's to come. Not like the cultists. This is the right way."

I had a good idea of what she might have written down there. I was too far in to care, though. This was sort of fun.

Consider this: Martina never wears her blindfold to spy on people directly, if it's not necessary. Active magic apparently shines far enough that she can just perform cursory checks out of duty. She avoids it because seeing people naked is indecent, or so she says. I believe this only feels that way to her because she actually likes naked girls.

Umika seemed to have no qualms about this, which would even disgust a Culexus. Perhaps she did not care about people's secrets in the way Martina cares about naked female bodies.

"Are you reading my mind right now?"

"Yeah. Got clearance to do this with anyone in the Officio but Panna. It's harmless. Want me to stop?"

I waved the notion away. And she went on talking, as if this was the most common conversation in the world, and she wasn't crossing any social or moral boundaries. Then again, I hang out with stranger people. This sort of honesty was refreshing.

Martina will fuck her up when she finds out, though. It sounded anything but harmless. The Incubator seemed to have an immense amount of trust in this person. Transferees usually come here to die. This one apparently took the Officio for a stepping stone, and not the other way around.

"So, my opinion is that you should keep at just what you are doing, but make it more of an Officio philosophy, if that's the kind of power you're getting here. Accept the inevitable end, but don't obsess over it. Admit the grief of loss, don't seek it or flee from it. I can't do this, but you seem to be able to. You might be able to teach this fortitude to others. I think this is the answer to both the Riddle and the best advice I can give you."

In the end, I have to add that in this case, Umika was only half right.

I have always thought that Panna treats people like things, but in the end, that was never the case. She had feelings, however alien they were to me. She's a much worse person for this, too. It frightens me when I have to accept that her job can easily be done by me, if I chose to take over that particular duty and didn't take the easier path.

Humans simply do have this level of self-delusion they can reach when it's necessary. It doesn't actually take a fanatic to obey a fanatic, in this case the Incubator. The most common folk can end up genociding people in gas chambers as their Tuesday workload, if they are allowed to believe they are justified enough. It dawns on me that, if someone like me were in her place, they'd end up being evil in the most intense way imaginable. Making a point of it being real people that I send to their deaths.

This what the cult of the Black Rose is like, but I digress. The important thing is that if the Twelfth were to change, I knew this was not the way to go. But, to think of Panna as of a person like me rather than a complete monster alien to my values, that meant admitting that I could become like her, too.

It dawned on me then, that I have probably drank her kool-aid a long time ago, and the time has come that its poison would kill me.

The compromise offered by Umika could work, but it was harsh. It didn't ask me to tell people lies - it asked me to teach them to lie to themselves.

That, somehow, didn't sound difficult to do, though. There used to be people who would oppose me in this. Now I can only really think of a handful.

Did they all have to leave me behind? The cynic in me says it was all their fault for being weak to begin with. I used to hate a person like Martina, but these years together made me respect her. Because, no matter how misdirected her efforts might be, she is strong without doubt. If only for somehow getting all the way there. She may have spent the better part of her career just splashing around in the water, learning useless things, but she splashed so strongly, it kept her alive. Maybe it wasn't water, but milk, and Martina was one of those mice? Or was it frogs?

"It's still immoral." I said, "You can't convince me it's okay."

The ideal answer to this, of course, and the way to easily shut up a moralist, is that life is immoral in its nature, and that's also what Panna would say. Umika just nodded, and thought about it for a while. Finally, she asked a question.

"Don't get angry here, but this is a mystery to me. Nobody else in here talks or thinks that way, not even Jackdaw, really. Not even that Toyen. Where did you get the viewpoint of morality from?"

That was sort of uncomfortable to talk about for me. It wasn't classified, though, and I had promised something. "Oh, well. That's an old story. A long time ago, I became involved with a little moral codex of sorts. You see, I am a warrior, but I could have also been a knight..."

And I couldn't call myself a knight knowing that I stood for this.

Why did I put up with it to begin with? It's complicated. Although there are parts of my early career that I am proud of, the incident with Řeřicha in particular, it's not like I came in as a good person and turned worse with time, as the jade set in. Somehow, it's quite the opposite. This isn't in any way me gloating about how much I have improved over time, I am just saying that I used to be a really terrible person.

I became the rank leader's favourite and got special treatment because of all the corners I would cut. I made the wish out of jealousy for my older sister, who succeeds the family, and its fencing school. I used to be a brat eager to prove herself, and the Vanus, as Martina later told me, would joke that I am the dumbest gorilla of them all.

Someone who wouldn't hold back in spars. Found out about the Cult, and just accepted it. Told girls they are going to die when it seemed so. Hit a scribe that wouldn't want to help me, damn, I am really ashamed of that now. Shout orders out of rank, and make shoulders on Squad Leaders because Special Operative has the special in it. I only became the good cop to the girls halfway through.

Kamile taking a liking to me, and suggesting me for a squadless hunter, is the only reason why I didn't get sent to the cult, and am now munching strawberry risotto, rather than Witch flesh.

When I had been sent on the apprenticeship in Second, to become a certified hunter, I became enchanted by the curly speech of the knights. Their boisterous claims and fervent oaths on the ideals of chivalry, and the proper manners of a warrior. They spoke of all that my life had lacked. At the same time, though, I knew I didn't belong in there. My hands were already stained with innocent blood, I would always be a villian. I could make a rogue knight at best, a knight of infamy, a paragon of viles.

I am now also reminded of something: While in there, I got to know a girl named Mordred Pendragon, an incredibly annoying girl. She is apparently a relative of Nero's too, it must run in the family. Given that, she might also be really famous these days, I wouldn't know. Anyway, she made me feel funny. Like I was looking at a mirror and hated what I see.

With those sharp analytical skills acquired from nerds making fun of me back in the Twelfth, I couldn't avoid understanding this. Her entire problem was trying to be what she wasn't cut out for. Those shoes she was trying to fill weren't her size or shape. It was like seeing Cinderella putting on the shoes of her sisters. Round stick, square hole. I hated her. Because, deep inside, I knew that I am just the same.

So, I took the easy path. When the Big Fish came flooding the whole sewer system of Prague with sea water, and after a few hunts on her had gone places, I was glad to be called by my own, and agreed to come back to rebuild.

Kamile had saved me, for the final time. Had I been judged in the eyes of their First Knight, there was no way she could have found me worthy. I would just twist their virtues, and make an ugly thing out of something beautiful. I was glad to leave on short notice like that, saying goodbye instead of a ceremony. The honor of shaking my superior's hand was already more than I deserved.

It is better, I had thought, if I never become a knight at all.

Umika was entertained.

"Have this old wisdom: Change in yourself is something you can't avoid, but you can direct it. If you leave anything to flow naturally, the only direction it will go is down. You never wake up a better person. You have to act yourself into becoming what you want to be, by picking right every time."

Fair enough. "I want to be like Kamile, then, because she never changed. She would pick the same every time, without regrets. I don't have the time to waste an hour of sleep on wondering when did I go the wrong way." That really came right from my heart. A bit more complicated a thought than I am used to expressing, but still.

"You have said this - she was a monster. She can be an ideal for you, but she can't be a precedent.. " Umika tapped her forehead with a chopstick. "For a normal person, it takes at most seven years until your cells are exchanged. If not for the quantum states in the brain, the strings of your soul, nobody could ever be the same person they were seven years ago, they would be disconnected. And even for beings like us, mere human mind can't encompass the entirety of life. You will never remember everything you did or said, and that's why it seems meaningless to try to hold yourself together, because folds and corners of your memory will always escape you. And holding onto a memory just twists you. In time, the colours will bleak, and the details will blur. And one day, all the pictures in your mind will fall over, and there will be nothing left of you in this world anymore. That's the most terrible of fates, and most ironic.

A person in touch with the world cannot be said to die until the ripples of their being die away. But if you shut yourself inside of your little magical Christmas land instead? Your death will be much heavier in meaning. And everything, everything more that happens after that one moment of happiness, even the slightest change, becomes corruption.

If you can only live in the past, then you are already dead."

It sounded an awful lot like the Riddle. Was she saying that it's nonsense?

"Curious you would bring that up again. I suppose it ties into our previous discussion. The Riddle, if I am not mistaken, only asks for a pointer. All the ones that work are vague - like I just said, holding onto something overly specific will destroy you one day. I do think that the original stating of the Riddle did have to do with people changing. Panna may have forgotten as well. Anyway, I'm saying that a memory shouldn't be the pointer."

So, having a key gives you security - but it runs the risk of you losing it, or having it break in the lock. In reality, you could have a spare, but you can't make a spare memory.

That's odd, though. Feels like a false metaphor. Wouldn't a general feeling be even easier to lose track of? What with the meanings behind words changing so suddenly these days.

I wouldn't ask that, though. I wouldn't actually ask a question. That's a Librarian's funny bone. Responding with questions in this fashion instilled the fear of getting a lecture in me, in this case on the importance of etymology, and the boons of conservatism, all the way down to a dissection of the tale of Babel Tower fable. Umika was doing great, and this would just be shooting myself in the foot.

Also, there was a much easier point to make. We were in a library, there was a ton of recorded memories in it, so that part didn't seem true. What if I write down my precise feelings from this time? So I have something to go by later, if I lose my way?

Say, if I were about to do something extremely stupid. Something so idiotic that I am likely to regret it the moment I lose hold of this peculiar feeling that is making me want do it, and will continue to loathe myself for it until the day it will mean my death.

"Text and languages are but a medium, forever insufficient to convey the intricacies of mind. And context is everything. I should know. You still do that, though."

I would have written it down, had I a journal to write it down into. Instead my eyes became locked on the table. For some reason, Umika kept bringing more bowls of the rice sweetness, rather than refill the first, so there was a high stack of bowls on my left side. It seemed she wouldn't bring any more, and there were still more bowls on the dryer next to her sink.

"So, we ate the whole pot, right? It's all green tea now. What else are you interested in hearing about?"

"Let's see. Tell me more stories. You've seen a lot, and make for a decent storyteller. I hate reading the Gatherings. They're just dehumanizing. I need the human element to get inspired."

I hesitated for a while, but in the end, figured I had nothing to lose, and that whatever Umika might find out from the story on my mind, she would have already known. "Okay. So, the best one I have. I tell it to recruits a lot, cut down, but I guess I can tell you the full version. This one time, when I was still green, we had a case of a masquerade breaker. A Witch that set fire to houses and left, they actually put a bounty on her. It seemed like an easy way to get a few Seeds, but it got complicated fast..."

"...and that's the story from the Rank Leader tourney, how I got gifted a cofee mug by the Betrayer."

Umika made for a good listener herself. She would ask a questions a lot, eventually going as far as arguing against some of my choices during that incident - but she would always end up asking me to go on, no matter how radically different she would say I should have acted. Her attitude betrayed her petite looks, and I could tell there are quite the violent depths under the waterline. What a sciencist! Umika would like for me to cut corners, first smash, and only then ask questions and study the fragments.

Not only did I finish the story of the firestarter Witch, I managed to connect it into two more. I would have gone on, but we have been interrupted by a skeleton in a suit.

"I came for you, Jarmila. There is a test the Incubator wishes you to undergo, as a Warmaster candidate. Come with me." The gypsy was wearing her shades again, and definitely would not answer queries for what good are sunglasses underground this time, either.

That was very sudden, and made me a bit mad at the intruder, but I guess I had to pay for the rare nice moment in some way.

I turned to the Librarian as I got up. "There's one last thing I've wanted to ask you, Umika. Where is Renata's place? I've got a bone to pick with that girl."

Panna answered for her, clearly annoyed. "You should have already been there, that's where I've looked first. It's just next to the place we are going. I'll show you the door when we are done. Now come with me."

It turned out Panna was taking me to the inner Librarium, on the left side, reserved for more manual tasks. You could see the lift into the Librarius just at the end of the hallway. The clean and simple double door, in it's steel coldness, looked quite menacing even before I knew what's behind and down under.

I haven't been to here in a while - was it more than a year? That would be because every Librarian gets to order me around in these spaces, and it gets annoying. So, it surprised me to see the walls of this corridor littered with colorful paintings now.

Paintings of Witches. There were many I did not know at first, but I recognized most of the ones found deeper in.


There was the Holy Quintet and among it Candeloro, of whom Jackdaw talked.

There was a scythe wielding Witch that I didn't know yet, but can now recognize as Libuna, the Witch of harvest.

There was Barbara whom I have just defeated this morning, and there was Ekpirosa, the firestarter Witch.

There was Kamile's Witch, Liliana, whom I fought myself.

There was the Betrayer.

There was Itzli, in whose name cultists make bloody sacrifices, and there was even Walpurgisnacht herself. The laughing wheel showed up several times, like she was really my guide through the gallery, and not Panna.

One caught my attention, and actually shook me quite a bit. A carnaging rakshasa with many hands, wielding a different weapon in each, tied down in place with many chains and sutras. Her world was hell, and a prison. Though the infernal flames of her fur ate her bindings away bit by bit, it was clear that once she got rid of these, the little breasty devils around her would only ridicule her with throwing more, and keeping her down. If I am not mistaken, the inscription under the painting had said that her name was 'Stella'.

Nothing besides that. Some of the other paintings had fairly rich texts.

I wondered who painted these - I am sure this corridor was empty, last I've been here. When I have asked Panna about this Witch, she just nodded to herself and said she has no idea. And right after that, that the test was done, for some reason.

"The Renata girl painted them. In her free time. It's just a decoration of her workplace, you know." She pointed to a printer hidden in a closet near by, covered in cloth - a machine, which was a rare sight in here. "We gave her clues on Witches we didn't know about, and she would make these paintings in her trance."

So she's a spoiled art student, huh. Wasn't she supposed to be a mechanicus? That didn't seem to mesh well together.

"She is skilled in practically everything. Art is just what she chooses to occupy herself with outside of work. She churns out a few every week, we only started putting them up just recently. And even with that hobby, she helps us - we just don't tell her, since it could ruin the spell. In my eyes, she fits well into our shrine to Sarasvati."

I came closer to the painting, morbidly curious about its details. "Say. Are there Witches in here that don't actually exist?"

"There are Witches that could exist, or Witches that some have met, but that you could never meet, unless you went beyond the ends of the world. What does it matter, though? There are a lot of things in here that just wandered in from elsewhere, too." She came near me, and took a better look on the composition herself. "So, it's this one. I guess the name really gave it away. What do you think of it?"

"I think that the artist had no idea what they were actually doing, and that makes it hard to judge as an art piece."

Panna was content with that answer "You seem to know your way in art criticism.".

"I just don't shove it in people's faces. More seriously, though - I hate this thing. If the artist wanted to make me sick to my stomach, she succeeded."

Panna had nodded. "It would be terrifying if you could just accept it."

I spent a while taking it in. Witches normally don't shake me up this much. I could put two and two together. "Did Martina get a test like I got?"

"She wandered into here months ago. Saw one, and ran away screaming. I believe she took a whole day's leave to recover."

Martina was an enigma from the first time I met her. She was a person fighting battle with her own demons, but I expected her to be one of those who could prevail. In the end, contrary to appearances, I was better at seeing to it that I don't become a monster myself, and avoiding the abyss with my gaze.

Or was it actually just me being more used to it, because I come into contact with it more often? So that I just gracefully dance among all the elephants in the room?

In retrospect, I regret not asking Panna about her own painting. That old chatterbox may have been good for a few more laughs.