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Six Limitations of the Truth Spell

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Limitation #1: It’s a Truth Spell, not an Impartiality Spell.

 

Oh, Catra realizes as Perfmua and Mermista step into the circle with her.  This is going to go badly.   The thought hits her with a surprising lightness, as nonchalant as It’s going to rain today or Adora finished off the cookies again.   

Melog, curled around her ankles, reacts with an uncomfortable, stirring grunt.  Catra does not look at them or at Entrapta, seated in a separate Truth Circle two yards away. Instead she moves her gaze between her cross-examiners and Micah, standing on the dais beside Glimmer.  She chances a short look at Castaspella, who is holding the two Truth Spells in place.  She does not look at the crowd of Etherians watching them.  She especially does not look at Adora.

“Continuing the proceedings in the trial of Princess Entrapta of Dryll, regarding crimes against Bright Moon and the Princess Alliance while in service to the Etherian Horde.”  

Micah’s voice fills the throne room with the rich authority of a King who didn’t spend 14 years alone on an island so dangerous that even the Horde was afraid of it. He’s technically the regent, of course, but Glimmer has stepped down from these proceedings due to the need for an impartial facilitator.  Say what you will about Sparkles, she knows at least some of her limits.

Catra wonders who will facilitate her trial, because it definitely shouldn’t be Micah.  Or Glimmer.  Or...anyone else who springs to mind.  But that’s not relevant right now.

“State your name,” Micah says.

“Catra.”

“State your relationship to Princess Entrapta of Dryll during the war between the Princess Alliance and the Etherian Horde.”

Catra pauses, and the Truth Spell tugs at her.  “Complicated,” she says before she can come up with a better response.  

“That’s not a real answer.” Mermista growls.  Who decided that - of all people - Mermista was supposed to be impartial when questioning Catra? Is that why Perfuma’s here?  For “balance?” Catra sighs.

“First, I was her enemy.  Then I captured her.  Then I recruited her.  Then, I was her superior officer,” the Truth Spell niggles her again. “Well, as much as I could be for someone who was technically a civilian. I gave her orders and she followed them, up until she…” 

Catra just barely stops herself from saying ‘abandoned me for Hordak.'  This spell is going to cause a lot of problems before these trials are over.  “...She started focusing on other projects.  Like the portal. Then, when she refused to set off the portal, I betrayed her, incapacitated her, and had her sent to Beast Island.” 

The murmur of the crowd is not unlike their response when Catra described her relationship to Scorpia at last week’s trial.  Next week is going to be a mess.

Obviously, Bright Moon trials are nothing like trials in the Horde, lack of dictatorship being the most obvious difference.  Here, the ultimate questions aren’t “Innocent or guilty?” and “What is the appropriate punishment?” Instead they’re “To what extent does the damage this person caused outweigh the good that they’ve done, or vice versa?” and “What, if anything, does this person need to do to atone?”  

Scorpia’s answers were “vice versa” and “nothing,” respectively. Catra hopes that Entrapta’s answers will turn out the same, but she’s not certain. These princesses are not nearly as impartial as they think they are, and Catra’s sure she’s about to see that put to the test. 

Yep, she thinks as Perfuma draws in a slow breath, this is going to go badly.



Limitation #2: The Truth Spell does not encourage brevity

 

Perfuma asks the first question. “Could you please describe Entrapta’s role in service to the Horde?” She’s doing that thing where she’s working so hard to sound calm and positive that her voice is audibly trembling.  

Catra answers as best she can.  She’s supposed to keep her responses relatively short, but Entrapta did a lot for the Horde and this magic circle isn’t letting her skip anything. She talks for a while even though she - and probably most of the people listening - would prefer a simple answer.

Part of the issue is that Catra implicates herself in Entrapta’s actions as much as she can, framing her statements with “under my direction,” and “because I ordered her to.” It’s awful, testifying to the terrible things Scorpia and Entrapta did under Catra’s command. It feels wrong, especially after everything she did to them.  I was a terrible friend, Catra implies at every possible opportunity.  The Truth Spell lets her. 



Limitation #3: The Truth Spell compels the castee to say the quiet part out loud.

 

In the silence that follows Catra’s answer, Perfuma tries even harder to force a smile.  It has the opposite effect.

“During her time with The Horde,” trembling again.  “Did Entrapta ever show any signs of empathy or remorse at fighting her friends?”

Catra’s stomach drops.  Melog grunts and looks up, their mane red and spiking.  Catra forces down a surge of protective anger with a long, slow breath.  Then she literally bites her tongue in order to keep herself from blurting out her first thoughts.  

“If Entrapta didn’t want to do something,” Catra says as slowly and deliberately as she can, “she didn’t do it. For example: she refused to activate the Portal once she realized the damage it would cause.”  

“Yes,” says Perfuma.  “But.  Before that.  When her robots were repeatedly attacking the Princess Alliance.  Did she ever show any signs of regret at hurting her friends?  Any empathy at all?”

“She wasn’t hurting her friends,” Catra snaps before she can stop herself.  She regrets it instantly, of course, but there’s nothing she can do about it now.  In her peripheral vision, Catra can see Entrapta turning to look at her full-on. Catra keeps her gaze resolutely ahead.

Several members of the audience gasp, while Mermista’s eyes turn so angry that Catra wonders if Bright Moon has a protocol for questioners attacking a witness.  Probably not.

Perfuma’s smile stays frozen to her face.  She opens and closes her mouth as if trying to speak but unable to find the words.  

“Please explain what you mean,” is what she ends up saying. 

Catra takes a slow breath, knowing that whatever the spell allows her to say will not be well-received.  She aims for tact anyway.

Scorpia was Entrapta’s friend.  I…” Nope, can’t finish that sentence. “Entrapta considered me a friend, though as I’ve said I wasn’t a very good one.” Catra pauses, filtering her words as much as the spell will allow her to.  “Entrapta never once attacked us.”

“We…I...” Perfuma gives Catra a look of betrayal.  You’re supposed to be better than this now, Catra imagines her saying.  “Do you think that we- that the Princess Alliance were not her friends?”

So.  Apparently they’re having this conversation right here, right now, like it or not.  Realizing that there’s no way to get out of this with everyone’s feelings intact, Catra gives up and leans into it.  

“After you left her to die in the Fright Zone?” Catra tries, at the very least, to modulate her tone. “No, none of us considered the Princess Alliance to be our friends.”

The silence seems to press in on all sides.  Melog is grumbling quietly now, their tail wrapping protectively around Catra’s ankle.  If anyone in charge of this Kingdom had any sense, they’d pause the trial right now and swap out the people questioning her.  But they don’t.  So they don’t.

“Do you honestly believe that?” Mermista says.  She looks offended.  Offended.  Catra smothers a laugh by holding her breath and biting her bottom lip so hard that it stings.

Catra gestures to the Truth Circle.  She tries not to say anything, but the words, “Wouldn’t be able to say it if I didn’t,” pop out of her mouth.  Mermista grits her teeth and narrows her eyes, looking angrier than she ever looked in battle.  That part is warranted; Mermista is high up on the list of people that Catra has hurt beyond reparation. But this isn’t about Salineas, and Mermista did not have to be here.

Catra tries to diffuse the situation by bringing at least some of the blame back on herself.  What comes out is this:

“I was a bad friend.  I manipulated people, including Entrapta, for my own gain.  I didn’t see her as a friend; I saw her as a resource. I saw that the rebellion had abandoned her in the Fright Zone, and I saw how hurt she felt - there’s your ‘remorse’ by the way - and I used that to convince her to join the Horde.  

“I told Entrapta that the princesses only cared about people who were just like them, and she didn’t have to pretend to be someone she wasn’t if she stayed with us in the Horde. Entrapta believed that, and so did I.” That she can say this aloud without faltering gives Catra a small thrill, one that is immediately extinguished by the sound of Adora’s gasp.

“Here’s something else you should know,” Catra presses her trembling hands to her knees, “since you’re asking me about ‘remorse’ and ‘empathy.’ Entrapta told Scorpia and me, more than once, that we were her first real friends.  We were the first people who ever truly listened to her.  We were the first non-robotic people who ever made her feel like she belonged.  So no, when Entrapta developed weapons and technology for us, she was not hurting her friends.”

Catra’s heart is pounding. She can feel Melog tense against her calves.  An excruciating silence follows; it stretches and stretches until Catra wonders if she’s going to physically snap. Mermista seems angry beyond words, and Perfuma is opening and closing her mouth as if unsure what to say.  To slow her own pounding heart, Catra strokes Melog’s head and waits as patiently as she can.



Limitation #4: Even the smallest, faintest uncertainty must be expressed under a Truth Spell.

 

“She…” Perfuma says.  “We… I…”  Tears spring to her eyes. She didn’t even get this emotional during Scorpia’s trial; quite the opposite, really, for the most part.

Catra bites her tongue again, hoping Perfuma will find some way to say whatever she’s thinking before the Truth Spell pulls something else out of her.

In her peripheral vision, she notices Castaspella frowning and giving Micah a pointed look.  Interesting.  Micah steps forward.

“If the court is satisfied with this answer, we can move on to the next-”

“No.”  Mermista again.  Her cheeks are flushing and a clump of hair has fallen out of her braid.  “You didn’t answer the question.” 

Catra tries to answer. She really tries, but she gives up after the third failed attempt. "I'm sorry," she says. "This spell won't let me answer that question with the word 'friends' in it.

The crowd reacts so loudly that Micah has to hold up his arms to quiet them. Catra keeps her eyes on Melog, scratching behind their ears with her expression as blank as possible. 

"You may rephrase," Micah says, and Catra lets herself hope that this will be over soon.

But no.

"I," Perfuma sputters. "We. No.  No. That's.  No. Do you think you were a better friend to Entrapta than we were?"

"Of course not," Catra says. "I was a terrible friend." The silence lasts long enough for the Truth Spell to pull another unfortunate statement off her tongue. "Scorpia's the only one who wasn't."

The ensuing silence is the harshest one yet.  Both Perfuma and Mermista are struggling to speak now, Catra realizes. Her heart skips a beat as she wonders if something more than anger is holding them back.

At this point, Catra no longer even wants to give a quick "no" so they can move on. The situation is more nuanced, and she - everyone, really - owes it to Entrapta to acknowledge that. If this is what it takes for the jury to understand, then so be it.

After an agonizingly long pause, Perfuma manages to shout, "We had reason to believe she was dead!" Her voice is tearful and shaking.  "We...the doors shut and there was a flash of light and we thought she was probably gone!"

Catra wonders if anyone else has picked up on her phrasing.

"We...I...the Alliance temporarily broke up after that mission. I made a statue in her honor!" Perfuma is full-crying now. Mermista looks like she's going to murder Catra as soon as she has the chance, but Catra notices tears in her eyes too.

"We...we were almost positive that Entrapta died," she says. Catra wonders if the word 'almost' is ringing as loudly to anyone else as it is to her. 

"And I was almost positive you'd left her behind for no reason. We both made our assumptions. But a tiny part of me wondered if there was possibly some other explanation. I ignored it because it wasn't convenient to me. I convinced myself it wasn't possible. But I could have investigated more and I chose not to because I didn't want there to be another explanation. Again: I was a bad friend."

Catra lets her statement hang in the air.

Perfuma looks stricken, clutching her face as more tears stream down her cheeks. Even Mermista is starting to shift from murderous to taken aback.

Was it different with you?  Catra wants to ask. But she doesn't. Because she already knows the answer - the true answer, and judging by the princesses' faces, so do they.



Limitation #5: No one under a truth spell can lie, not even to themselves.

 

"Your Majesty," Catra says. "I formally request that this question be skipped and struck from the record."

"On what grounds?"

"On that grounds that no question about empathy was asked at any point during Princess Scorpia's trial."

King Micah frowns. "It is my understanding that the situation with Entrapta is different in ways that warrant this particular question." He looks to the Princesses in the Truth Circle. "Is that true?"

"Yes," they respond in unison.

"How so?"

Both of them falter again. Looking at Mermista, Catra has a brief image of a fish caught out of water.

Perfuma looks desperate. "Because we." Pause. "The Alliance." Pause. "Entrapta." Pause. "Because Scorpia is easy to be around!"

And there it is.

There's another collective gasp.  Catra gets no satisfaction watching this unfold, but now is the time for all of it to be out in the open. 

There are plenty of debates to be had about what - if anything - this information means for Entrapta’s level of guilt or innocence, or however they phrase it in Bright Moon.  Still, if the Alliance is going to claim “friendship” with Entrapta, the jury needs to know everything.

“No,” Perfuma says, more tears streaming down her face. “N-no. I… Entrap... I…”  It’s a little frightening to watch now, her mouth opening and closing, producing little strangled sounds from time to time.  

Catra notices Castaspella give Micah an uncomfortable look.  Micah’s eyes are narrowed as if in confusion; Glimmer’s, on the other hand, are wide and full of tears, her hands clapped over her mouth. Meanwhile, the crowd has started muttering to each other.  Catra is the one everyone expects to try to force out a lie, not the Princesses.

“Your Majesty,” Catra says directly to Micah.  “Your aim is to search for the whole truth about everything Entrapta did and why she did it.  Entrapta left the Alliance in part because she believed they abandoned her in enemy territory, and in part because she never felt like she belonged with them.  I know this because she told me.  If there's another side to the story, obviously it needs to be told.  But asking about empathy and remorse is unfair unless the other Princesses are being held accountable for the same things."

“We are supposed to be questioning you,” Mermista growls. 

“The point stands,” says Micah.  “This question will be skipped for now and reconsidered after the members of the Princess Alliance have finished their own rounds of questioning tomorrow.

Perfuma pales.  She shakes her head, backing away.  “I. I.  I.  I... Entrapta was our friend! She was part of our group, and we only left her behind because we thought there was no way she could be alive! We wouldn’t have gone back for anyone in her situation!”

There’s another silence, during which a brief look of triumph crosses Perfuma’s face.  It’s a long, agonizing moment before she realizes her back foot has crossed over the edge of the circle. Everyone turns to look at Castaspella, who shakes her head.

“Put it on the record,” Micah says, his tone gentle, almost apologetic, “that Princess Perfuma’s last statement was made outside the reach of the Truth Spell.”

More murmuring in the crowd.  It’s almost a relief when Perfuma buries her face in her hands and runs out of the room.  Catra only has a moment to process it before Mermista rounds on her.  

How dare you,” Mermista says, her voice a low whisper.  “You don’t know anything about Ent… We...” Mermista grunts in frustration. “She didn’t…” Mermista growls, clutching her hair.  “How could anyone talk to her and think she cares about people at all?”

Catra gasps.  Several audience members do the same. “Are you serious?” she says.  It’s a stupid question; both Mermista’s feet are well inside the Truth Circle. “Just because she’s not like all of you doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about you. If you still believe that after all this time, maybe you’re the one who needs to be questioned about ‘empathy.’”   

Mermista’s hands clench into fists, and as Micah finally calls a recess, Catra could swear she hears water splashing somewhere far away.  But Mermista leaves the chamber without incident, leaving Catra alone in the circle.  

Catra meets Entrapta’s gaze for the first time.  Entrapta’s hands and ponytails are touching Emily, who is resting at her feet.  The tears pooling in Entrapta’s eyes make Catra want to vomit from anger and shame.

“I’m so sorry,” Catra says.  The Truth Spell lets her.



Limitation #6: A Truth Spell is no substitute for open and honest communication.

 

"So, that went badly."

Catra pokes her head into the room where Entrapta has been staying.  Entrapta is sitting on the floor tinkering with something inside Emily. At the sound of Catra's voice, she lifts up her face plate and grins.

"Hi Catra," she says, sounding surprisingly bright and cheerful. "Come on in." 

Catra sits on the floor a few feet away as Entrapta pulls the plate back down and resumes her work. 

“How are you doing?” Catra ventures after a moment of relative silence.

“Oh fine,” Entrapta’s voice echoes a bit inside the shield.  “I’m just working on an upgrade to Emily’s speech-to-text transcription module.”

There’s another beat of silence.  Catra pulls her knees up to her chest.

“I’m really sorry you had to sit through all that,” Catra says.  “And I’m really sorry for being part of it.”

Entrapta shrugs, “I forgave you for all that already.”  Catra wonders if she’s missing the point.  Just as Catra is opening her mouth to clarify, Entrapta says, “Social data collection is confusing and difficult, but it’s necessary for the trial process.  I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to interpret the findings.”

Catra feels herself relax into a small smile. 

“Anyway,” Entrapta continues.  “It’s likely to be much worse for you next week.”  

That’s…fair.  Catra feels her shoulders hunch and her tail wrap protectively around her ankles.  

Entrapta pauses in her work to look over her shoulder.  She doesn’t lift her mask again, but Catra can see her head tilt to one side.  “At least we’re allowed to keep our emotional support companions with us.”  Emily preens as Entrapta pats her.  Catra smiles.  “Anyway,” Entrapta continues, “after the disaster today, the jury agreed to let the princesses be questioned in a more private setting.  Also, King Micah says I’m allowed to send a proxy to tomorrow’s proceedings in my place.”  Entrapta taps Emily affectionately with the handle of her hex-driver, “That’s why I’m doing this upgrade.  Emily can transcribe the whole thing and I can read it back later.”

“Do you,” Catra says, “want company when you read it? Or would you rather be alone?”

Entrapta stops working, rolling the hex driver back and forth between her thumb and first two fingers.

“I don’t know,” she says at last, her voice quiet. “Is that the wrong answer?  This is the sort of thing I usually mess up.”

“What?” says Catra.  “No. There’s no...look, I’ll make sure I’m near my tracker pad all day tomorrow.  If you need anything: company, tiny food, whatever, you can call me.  If not, I’ll leave you alone. As Bow would say, ‘The right answer is the one that feels good to you.’”

“Bow’s a good friend,” Entrapta says.  “My data on him is very positive.”

“Yeah.” 

“Your data is good too, you know.  I had to readjust everything after you sent me to Beast Island.” Catra cringes. “But it’s increased significantly since you rescued Glimmer.”  Entrapta pauses for a moment before lifting up her face-plate and smiling at Catra.  Her next words are slow and deliberate, and Catra has known her long enough to know that they’re just as true as everything else she’s said.  “You’re a good friend.”

Catra ducks her head as tears prick the corners of her eyes.  Entrapta replaces the face shield and picks up what looks like a tiny blow-torch.  

“You are too,” Catra says once she’s regained her voice.  Entrapta pauses in her work but doesn’t look away from it.  

“Fascinating,” she says.  “Every single person with a fully positive dataset has said that to me at least once.”  

There’s a moment of silence as they both process what this means.

“People are confusing,” Entrapta says at last.  “I’m confusing too; I know that. But there’s a distinct pattern here.  That data suggests that...to some people it’s okay if we don’t always understand each other. And those are - it’s difficult to quantify these concepts, but the data suggests that these people are truer, better friends.  It also disproves my earlier hypothesis, which suggested that people were better friends to me when I could use tech to be useful to them.”

Catra doesn’t know how to respond.  Melog groans, their ears low. 

“I like this way better.”  Entrapta continues. “According to this model, when I mess things up, you and Bow and Adora and Glimmer and Scorpia and Wrong Hordak will all still like me. It’s more reliable and effective. And...it doesn’t matter if the other princesses never like me for who I am, because what I have with all of you is quantifiably better.”

“Data never lies,” Catra says with a small smile.

“Exactly.”  With a satisfied nod, Entrapta returns to her work.  Catra stretches out on the floor, Melog sprawled next to her, and for the first time all day, a comfortable, peaceful silence settles around them.