The idea that life is a series of trials is laughable. Simple observation will easily reveal that no challenge waits for another to conclude. Typically they descend in packs, like ravenous wolves, each hungry for a bite of our sanity.– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame
I sleep lightly. If it’s a noisy night, or a place I don’t know well, it’s questionable if what I’m doing can even be called ‘sleeping’. Trina called it ‘watching over everything with my eyes closed’ and I couldn’t disagree with her. Waking up to the early morning sun shining in through the windows of a room I’d never seen before with no memory of the time that I knew must have passed was therefor just a little disconcerting.
I shot up to a sitting position in a bed that was far too nice and felt the adrenaline responses I’d painstakingly constructed kick in.
I was ready for anything. An attack. An unseen visitor. Doxle playing a stupid joke.
So, of course, nothing happened.
I waited for at least a minute.
My new heart had survived the experience, which I took as a reward for my diligence in crafting it so well. Since it also calmed down as the situation remained steadfastly uneventful, I decided that perhaps getting out of bed should be my next step.
I sniffed first, trying to catch the scent of anyone who’d been in the room aside from me. Doxle was the first one I noticed, though his ash and lightning aroma was clustered tightly enough around the main door that I was pretty sure he hadn’t come into the room far at all.
So how had I gotten into the bed?
I struggled to recall what had happened, but all I could get was being sleepy and still conscious one moment and then gone the next.
Could that have been magic? Had Doxle knocked me out rather than worry about dealing with me any further? I couldn’t tell and finding out the answer jumped up into the top five issues I needed to tackle sooner rather than later.
I gave another sniff, noticing that I hadn’t detected my own scent yet. Like my heart, that was something I’d worked on for quite a bit longer than I needed to, but somethings are worth the extra effort.
Strangely my scent was there but it was muted and colored with the scent of fresh soap.
I hadn’t had a bath since I left my cell so I should have been powerfully rank. Neither my skin or the nightgown I was wearing held any trace of my time behind bars though.
I definitely hadn’t been wearing a nightgown when I passed out. The dress Doxle had gifted me was nowhere in sight. In its place, I had the nightgown I was wearing and a small pile of clothes laid out on a dresser with drawers large enough for me to hide in if the situation warranted it.
Beside the dresser, a door to the next room stood slightly ajar and from within it lazy tendrils of steam floated out.
I smelled good enough that I didn’t think a bath was necessary, but the scents of honey and lemon had snagged my curiosity, so I left the warm comfort of the bed and crept close enough to sneak a peek in through the open door.
I wasn’t sure why I’d expected to see Doxle warming the bath water for me. Maybe because he was the only person I knew who was supposed to be in his house. He wasn’t who waited behind the doors though.
“<I think she’s up!>”, a woman made out of mist said. She wasn’t speaking any language that I knew but that did not interfere in the slightest with my understanding her.
“<Excellent timing, the water is just about perfect>,” another, almost identical, mist woman said.
“<But the kitchen hasn’t sent anything up yet. What if she’s hungry?>” a third mist woman said. She looked younger, or at least smaller than the other two.
I couldn’t help staring at them. They weren’t people who were obscured by mist. They were people whose bodies were made of nothing but the steam rising from the bathtub in the center of the room. It would have been an exaggeration to say I could have swum laps in that tub. Not a wild exaggeration though. I was apparently staying in something akin to the Empress’s Imperial chambers.
Or so I thought at the time.
To be fair, I had been raised in a cottage in the woods. It wasn’t that hard to impress me.
I considered observing them for longer and trying to understand what they were. Then I considered how foolish I would look when they noticed me.
“Is that for me?” I asked, stepping into the bathing room and pointing at the tub.
“Why yes it is Lady Kati,” one of the larger mist women said, switching to Imperial Common. She had the faint scent of the sea to her. The sea and wet cotton.
“If you need anything please just let us know,” the other adult mist woman said. From her, I got the scents of pine wood shavings and turpentine.
“Breakfast will be up shortly too,” the last said. Her scents were warm pastries and icy cold milk. “Doxxy ordered for you though so let us know what we should send back.”
“Doxxy?” I asked. I could make the connection to who they were talking about but Doxle hadn’t seemed like someone who went in for cutesy nicknames.
“His heart’s well intentioned, but he’s something of an idiot,” Pastries said. “At least when it comes to food.”
“Oh, not just that,” Piney said. “If that man’s ever made a sensible wager in his life it was only because someone else tricked him into it.”
“Give him his due though,” Sea Cotton said. “For all his foolishness and foibles, he’s still been one of the best tenants we’ve had.”
“Tenant?” I asked. “Do you own this place?”
“Indeed,” Sea Cotton said. “Doxle holds the rental lease currently, and as part of his household you are our welcome guest as well.”
“Do you draw up baths for all the guests?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I was following the working relationship they had with Doxle but they clearly weren’t the trio of magical maids I’d guessed they were.
“We do all sorts of tasks,” Sea Cotton said.
“It’s wonderful to get to have bodies for a while,” Pastries said, and that was my first clue as to what they were.
“You’re not natives to this world, are you?” I asked, which in hindsight seemed like a fairly stupid question.
“What was your first clue?” Pastries asked, passing her arms through each other.
“Well, for starters, most people here wouldn’t call those ‘bodies’ exactly,” I said. “Did Doxle summon you?”
Could demons summon other supernatural creatures? I could foresee some obvious problems with that. Since those problems hadn’t occurred yet, I had to assume it was either not possible, or not practical.
“He lost a bet,” Piney said.
“He lost a bet and got you out the deal?
“No. He lost a bet and we got him,” Sea Cotton said.
“Did you get the rest of his household too?” I asked, wondering if they owned a piece of me as well.
“Alas, no,” Sea Cotton said. “Doxle’s the only tether this estate has. Come though, the water should be lovely.”
I don’t typically like undressing in front of anyone, not due to concerns about modesty but because of all the work I’d done on my body. Worrying about what people might see is completely irrational, but I can’t help thinking they might notice the artifice in my work.
It’s silly. My work is great and I look fine. I know that.
I just don’t necessarily believe it.
“Oh, yes, you probably prefer to bath alone,” Sea Cotton said. “It’s always difficult to tell with people in this world.”
At her sign the other two started following her out.
“Hey. Were you the ones who got me into bed?” I asked, the thought occurring to me before they could fully escape.
“Yes. Did I pick out a good nightgown?” Pastries asked.
I glanced down at myself. The nightgown was soft and heavy enough to still be warm from the bed.
“This is great. Thanks,” I said, relieved at the thought that she’d been the one to deal with my unconscious body rather than Doxle.
“You’re welcome, and if you need anything just call for us, okay?” Pastries said.
“Will I be able to see you?” I asked. They seemed to be fading the farther they got from the tub, so I guessed they were naturally invisible unless the environment provided something to give them away.
“Doxxy can show you a trick for that,” Pastries said and closed the door behind her.
Sinking into the tub, I tried to take stock of what my day would look like.
Those were going to be the two foremost components of what was to come.
No one in the Imperial Academy wanted me to pass the Cadet Trials. I wasn’t connected with any of the Great Houses who were running the entrance exams, and I wasn’t about to swear fealty to any of them either.
Even the good instructors, if there were any of those there, wouldn’t want to admit me because I didn’t want to be a part of the Empire’s ‘elite forces’.
I had one reason for seeking entrance to the Academy and it had nothing to do with the becoming a good little toy for one House to break another House’s toys with.
All I wanted was to find out why my sister’s scents were coming from somewhere inside the Academy.
Well, find out why and then probably kill the person responsible since I couldn’t imagine any good reasons for whatever it was they were doing.
Getting on with that was important.
But the rack of herbal shampoos was just too tempting to pass up. Honey and lemon scents were only just the beginning.
I’m not sure how long I spent in the tub. Not hours certainly. I hadn’t woken up that early, and we did need to get to the Academy to register for the Trials. Even knowing all that, along with the fact that breakfast was waiting for me, it was still agony forcing myself to get out of the bath.
“I could have spent the whole day floating, but no, I have to go and get myself stabbed,” I grumbled as I toweled myself dry and plodded out of the bathroom to get the clothes that were waiting for me.
Except it turned out they weren’t clothes.
“Armor?” I didn’t hate the idea but I wasn’t used to wearing chainmail and the other pieces looked complicated to put on.
As it turns out though, they weren’t.
At my touch, the whole ensemble flowed over me like a wave, each piece adjusting itself to fit me perfectly.
I was marveling at that when there was a knock at the door.
“Lady Kati?” Doxle said. “Are you fit to receive guests?”
The real answer to that is always ‘no’.
The answer I often need to give however is, “Yeah.”
The door swung open of its own accord, letting Doxle enter without putting down, or even looking up from, the stash of papers he was carrying.
“Did you sleep well?” he asked, his nose remaining firmly buried in his reading.
I wasn’t sure if what I had done counted as sleep, but it had removed a lot of the fatigue I’d been carrying.
“Good, good,” Doxle said, despite the fact that I hadn’t responded to his question at all. “And breakfast?”
I hadn’t eaten anything yet either, but with that reminder I glanced over and saw a tray of different food options waiting on a table near the dresser. I snagged a pair of egg sandwiches while Doxle continued reading.
“Excellent,” he said, again without my needing to answer his question at all. “There are two things you need to know then.”
I waited, since my participation in this conversation seemed entirely optional.
“First, registration for the Trials will close in five minutes so we need to be moving along.”
I jumped towards the door thinking of how long it had taken us to reach this room. Doxle made a shushing gesture though so I paused. Maybe there was some magic hallway that would take us right where we needed to go.
“Before we can attend to that however, there is a gentleman in the hall who is here for a duel to the death and he’s insisting it be with you.”