Relationships come to us through the accident of our birth, and, sometimes, the accidents of our judgment.– Glenmorda Tinbellus Enika of the Reaper’s Mercy
Part of me wanted to leap at the intruders in Doxle’s house and take them down before they had a chance to blink. That part was very stupid.
Enika moved with the graceful, self-assurance of a predator pacing around an unfortunate prey which had lost every means of escape. The two people behind her didn’t move at all.
Both of those facts bothered me.
Doxle, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care. That seemed odd given the effort he’d made apparently to avoid this meeting, but the slump of his shoulders suggested that he wasn’t so much unconcerned as resigned to his fate.
“Ex-wife? As though that’s a mark of any distinction.” Enika’s laugh was filled with the honey that surrounded her. “I share that status with how many now? Have you lost track yet?”
“I will have you know I remember those seven years with remarkable fondness,” Doxle said, looking to me as though I had some stake in choosing which of them was correct.
“We were only married for three.” Enika didn’t seem either concerned or surprised at the mistake.
“I am of course adding in the years I dreamed of winning your heart and the ones I spent pining away after I lost it,” Doxle said without missing a beat.
“Oh my dear sweet one, you never had my heart.”
“I suppose if I had, we would not be parted as we are now.”
Enika laughed with what sounded like genuine amusement.
“And yet we are,” Enika said, with a complete absence of regret.
“And yet you are here,” Doxle said.
“Are you going to pretend you don’t know why?” she asked, and the urge to attack first leapt down my spine.
It was still a stupid urge.
“I can venture only guesses and you know how ill founded my imagination can be,” Doxle said.
“My presence does not elicit specific remembrances?”
“Seven years worth of remembrances,” Doxle said. “And more beyond that of course.”
“Allow me to assist your recall then,” Enika said, taking a step closer to Doxle.
It was the best chance I was going to have to strike, and that was still the worst idea I could have had.
“Winter Faire, there was a crystal chain, the corpse of a raven, and a child, who was how old?”
“It was a crow,” Doxle said before brightening his tone. “And of course I remember that evening. You cut a stunning figure in that blue and gold dress with the high neckline.”
“See, your memory isn’t so fallible as you believe. Which means I’m sure you recall our arrangement.”
“You desire a soiree? Now?” Doxle asked.
“Of course not my dear one,” Enika said. “I desire a soiree in three days time. One that you will host and make the talk of the season.”
Doxle drew in a long slow breath and I could feel the tension in him rising, as though he was poised to flee at any second. He released his breath though and mastered the impulse, which I wasn’t certain I was grateful for.
“Three days is precious little time,” Doxle said.
“You’ve done with less,” Enika said. “Our wedding if I recall, but then you are well versed in those.”
“You must admit, they are delightful affairs.”
“Indeed, and you will make the soiree three days hence their equal or superior. As was agreed.”
“Am I allowed to review the guest list?” Doxle asked.
Enika thought for a moment and shook her head.
“No. I don’t think you will require that.”
“With but three scant days?”
“Consider it a kindness. I had intended to give you only two but some of the guests will not have arrived by then.”
Doxle frowned, but there wasn’t any anger flickering behind his eyes. If anything, he looked like he was already plotting the logistics of the event.
“Theme then? Or the occasion which warrants the gathering?” he asked, his gaze going distant as he mulled the idea over. “Not a funerary observance?”
Enika blew out a puff of breath.
“As though I would waste you on a funeral?” She shook her head and looked appalled at the idea. “No, this is to be a celebration.”
“In that case will there be one guest of honor or two?” Doxle asked casting a glance at the two people standing behind Enika.
They weren’t frozen like statues. They were both breathing and their eyes were tracking the back and forth of the conversation, but each of them stood at what I imagined was perfect attention and kept stock still.
It occurred to me that if they were pacted casters, Enika might have paralyzed them both, but their eyes were relaxed where their bodies weren’t.
“Two,” Enika said with a smile. “Which suggests you already know two of the entries on the guest list and it’s been less than a minute since you started preparing.”
“You do know that you’re asking a lot,” Doxle said.
“As did you,” Enika said.
There was clearly a story there. History between them. So far though none of it included me though so I let me attention wander over to the two people Enika had in her wake while they bantered back and forth.
“And this is Lady Kati?” Enika said, turning her gaze on me, though she continued speaking to Doxle. “However did she have the misfortune to make your acquaintance?”
I wasn’t sure ‘I found her in a stinking jail cell’ was going to be an answer that would do me any favors, but it was what it was.
“Oh, this is more than an acquaintance,” Doxle said. “She is my latest charge.”
“You’ve formed another pact bond?” Enika asked. “Wait, that was you earlier? I thought Xarxes had run one of his quarries to ground?”
“He did stumble on us shortly after the bond was forged, though I don’t believe he had been searching for Lady Kati prior to our meeting.”
“Tell me, was he mad? Did he rage and froth?”
“Oh of course not. Xarxes can be civil. At times.”
“With you? You were going easy on him, weren’t you?”
“I did feel some sympathy for the poor fool. He landed in Ironbriar of all places.”
I knew the two people following Enika weren’t statues because of how they stiffened at that particular remark. Neither of them managed to rise to presenting the level of threat Enika did but it wasn’t hard to smell that neither of them were happy.
“You have always had the most unwise of tongues,” Enika said, marveling at Doxle as she did so. “And so unkind, to torment my charges like that. Now I shall have to find some suitable target for the aggressions you’ve raised in them.”
“I of course offer myself,” Doxle said. “Though I have only one body to give, I shall gladly sacrifice it to make amends for disparaging the Great and Noble House of Ironbriar, stewards of the Empire’s might and protectors of us all.”
“As though that body is your first or will be your last,” Enika chided him. “You would need someone like your charge to stand in your place for the offering to matter.”
“While I would never shelter one of my own unduly, calling her to the battlefield even for a simple sparring sessions is a touch premature as this is only the first day of our engagement,” Doxle said.
“I’ll do it,” I said, taking a half step forward. It was still a bad idea, but a sparring session sounded a lot more controlled than chancing a surprise attack and hoping to escape in the ensuing chaos.
Apparently that hadn’t been the response anyone in the room was expecting though.
For a solid five seconds I had four people staring at me and not saying a word.
“I’ll do it. I’ll fight. What shouldn’t we break in here?” I repeated, in case they were unclear on what I was signing up for.
That didn’t seem to help them, though Doxle rallied quickly.
“You truly do not need to do this,” he said.
“I know.” I nodded, hoping body language might get the idea through the everyone if my words continued failing.
The room that we were in was something like a family room. Hallways led off into darkened corners of the house and the stairs suggested there was an upstairs as well.
The furniture that decorated the room looked more than nice, it looked expensive. Ornate carving were visible on all of the woodwork and the fabric on the couches was stitched with the kind of needlework that only someone with a fantastic eye for detail and a tremendous amount of time could create.
I breathed in and confirmed that, unlike the alley outside the now closed door, everything in the room smelled clean and fresh.
In short, it was not the sort of place where blood should probably be spilled.
Unless Doxle employed a magical cleaning staff, in which case I supposed blood and viscera removal might be a standard part of their job.
“An unexpected delight then! How wonderful,” Enika said and turned to Doxle. “You still have the dueling ring setup do you not?”
I had no idea where a dueling ring might fit in the the house given the size of the buildings we’d walked past but Doxle surprised me.
“I had two more installed in fact,” he said and offered Enika his arm.
He led her down one of the hallways that I was pretty sure should have dropped us back out into the alley, except of course it didn’t.
With no better idea of what to do, I tried to fall in beside him, but the hallway was too narrow for three and the other two people had the same idea.
I could have insisted on sticking close to Doxle but the idea putting of two hostile people behind me, even if they did seem to be roughly the same age as me, was one I instinctively shied away from.
They were confused by that choice too and took a moment to stare at me. I guess they expected me to try to push past them but when I held my position they got the point and marched forward together, taking a position behind Enika and Doxle.
With them between me and Enika, I was able to pick up more details from their scents, starting with the fact that they were siblings. Twins I was pretty sure. The girl was taller than me, and her brother was taller than her. Both moved with a precision that came from more than their familial connection though. They’d trained. A lot.
A glimpse of the callouses on their hands confirmed that. There were scars there too which said either they’d been thrown into real combat or whoever trained them had stopped holding back at some point.
I knew House Ironbriar by reputation. Grammy said they’d been the source of the Empire’s elite troops for centuries. Once upon a time that had been because the scions of House Ironbriar had been trained from birth for their roles. People seemed to think that was a good thing, but the real Ironbriar families had figured out that it worked out a lot better for them if they simply bought or ‘adopted’ people who were promising fighters in order to fill their ranks.
With these two though, I could believe the old ‘trained since birth’ regime might have held true.
Doxle led us down three flights of stairs, which should have put us well underground, and then out through a rooftop garden, and up another two flights of stairs to an open air courtyard with perfectly manicured grass and two columns of stone, each twenty feet in diameter.
I did not understand Doxle’s house at all.
“So you see we have our choice of venues,” Doxle said. “From safest,” he gestured at a stone circle at ground level, “to dangerous”, he gestured at the nearer column which rose ten feet in the air, “to deadly”, which was of course the last column at twenty feet tall.
“Which would you choose?” Enika asked the brother and sister pair.
“Deadly,” the sister said.
“Deadly,” the brother said.
That was a shame. I didn’t want to kill either one of them.
The blood scent that rose from the two said they didn’t feel the same though.