“I have been asked who my greatest enemies are and have always found that to be an absurd question. There’s nothing about my enemies that make them great. Just foolish and, ultimately irrelevant. No, the ones I find I must worry about the most are my friends. To the last they are dangerous beyond words.”– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame
Our carriage was made from gold, spun glass, and water vapor. I’m sure if Doxle put his mind to it he could have arranged an even more conspicuous mode of transportation and I had to wonder if it was only the time constraints involved that had held him back.
“There will be no end of people positively aggrieved that their arrivals will be consigned to a forgotten moment once we arrive,” Holman said from the front of the carriage.
“That’s rather the point, isn’t it?” Doxle replied, his mood stalking up on giddy.
He and Doxle were driving, while Mellina and I enjoyed the comfort of the carriage’s interior. Given that the horses were constructs of spun glass too, there was more of a reaction from the street crowds as we passed than I was used to from riding in Grammy Duella’s normal wooden carriage with normal flesh and bone horses but I could still make out what they were saying.
I have good ears.
I’m moderately proud of the work I did there too.
It also helped that the other passenger in the carriage had been wonderfully silent since she finished her entrance exam with Doxle.
“I saw myself standing over your dead body,” she said, breaking the agreeable silence with something that managed to not sound like a threat despite the words she chose to use.
I was tempted to nod in recognition and make no comment on it but I’d been curious about Mellina since I first caught sight of her lurking behind Holman’s back.
“When?” I asked, assuming that it either was a threat and she’d specify some time in future, or it was an odd dream she’d had which would place it in the past.
“Just now,” she said.
“Oh. Good.” Since I wasn’t dead and she didn’t follow that phrase up with an attack, I was pretty sure it meant I was okay.
House Astrologia is one of the Great Houses, in fact it’s one of the five ‘High Governors’, who supposedly administer the Empire directly in the Empress’s name. Since the Empress has been gone for hundreds of years though they more or less do whatever they want. In Astrologia’s case that meant endlessly trying to predict the future and failing miserably.
“Most people have a different reaction to things like that,” Mellina said. She was sitting with the sort of rigidity that said she wanted to be ready to dodge, flee, or take some kind of defensive action but the cramped quarters of a carriage weren’t offering her many options.
“Most people think they’re going to live forever,” I said.
“Not in my family.” She was looking down again, but was still watching me.
“Have you seen your own death?” I asked. In hindsight that might have been rude, but I was curious and we’d clearly left the comfortable silence leg of the trip.
“Yeah. A lot.” Her honey and woodfire scent turned sour at that and I frowned. She was a competitor for entry into the Academy but I didn’t want to make her miserable beforehand.
If we had to fight to the death, then whatever, we’d kill each other or come up with some better solution. That was a problem for later though.
“What was mine like?” I asked her, hoping to take her mind off whatever images she’d seen of her own demise.
“Bloody,” Mellina said. “Someone had slashed your throat.”
“You?” I wasn’t upset at the idea. If we had to fight to the death against each other and she got in a clean hit on my throat, then good for her.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “The cut came from a taller person.”
“You’re taller than I am.”
“Not by much. Also, I don’t want to kill you.”
That was nicer to hear than I’d imagined it would be.
“Might not have a choice,” I said, thinking how absolutely ridiculous it was to have mortal combat as part of any entrance exam, especially one that would draw in some of the best casters in the Empire.
“There’s always choices,” Mellina said. “Sometimes they’re just not good ones.”
“Is that why you came to this?” I asked, relaxing in my seat in the hopes of showing Mellina that she was safe with me. “Out of all the good options?”
“Elite Cadets can’t be assigned to research projects,” she said, which I assumed was some Astrologia thing.
“I’m guessing you’re also a pretty solid caster?” I said. She looked at me quizzically, questioning either how I could have known that or what possibly made me think it. “Doxle wouldn’t have passed you along if he thought you were doomed to fail.”
“Have you know him long?” Mellina asked.
“A day, or maybe a little less,” I said. “He’s not hard to figure out though.”
“That sounds like an interesting story,” she said, loosening up a little at last.
“I was in jail. He got me out,” I said. It didn’t cover everything about our arrangement, but it was the most important bit I thought.
“Jail? For what?”
“Resisting the Watch’s assault.” Really it was for ‘resisting the Watch’s assault too successfully’. I could have pretended that the first hit knocked me out and probably avoided a lot of the trouble I’d found myself in, but looking back I still felt justified in my actions.
“Why was the watch assaulting a Lady of the Realm?” Mellina asked.
“A what now?”
“The Imperial Advisor introduced you as Lady Riverbond,” Mellina said, looking as confused as I felt.
“Uh, that’s just a Doxle thing. You heard him. He’s an overly dramatic idiot,” I said.
“I heard that!” Doxle shouted from the front of the carriage.
“Gonna say it’s not true?” I shouted back.
The only response was silence, followed by Holman chuckling.
“Like I was saying.” I glanced back to Mellina to see if I’d convinced her but that didn’t seem to be the case.
“I’ve read about the Riverbond family,” Mellina said. “They were one of the original Great Houses, but they fell from power a century ago.”
“I don’t know much about the Riverbonds to be honest,” I said. “I grew up with my grandmother.”
“Your parents?” Mellina’s hesitation was understandable, but unneeded.
“Died a long time ago,” I said, which though technically true was a bit misleading.
“My family tends to foster their children out. I grew up with cousins who were adjacent to the house through marriage,” Mellina said. “Then when I was old enough to be useful, they called me back.”
“Doesn’t seem like a great method for instilling familial loyalty,” I said.
“Money does that,” Mellina said. “For most people.”
“Another reason to join the Imperial Elites,” she said. “Easier to survive on your own when you’re drawing an independent salary.”
As someone who had only ever lived in Grammy Duella’s household, the idea of working for a living had always been a distant, someday later sort of thing. I think part of me had figured that if Grammy passed away and I got kicked out of the cottage, I’d just go live in the woods. I liked the woods, and on some level I probably belonged there.
“Worried about passing the trials?” I asked her.
“I’ve seen myself passing them,” she said, with a huff of bitter laughter.
“Is that bad or good? The foresight part I mean?”
“Neither. It’s useless,” she said, her voice quiet enough that I don’t think Doxle or Holman could hear it.
“Isn’t it useful having some clue what’s coming up?” I asked. “You saw me for example, so you at least knew I existed.”
“When the visions contain a real clue to what winds up happening it’s even worse,” Mellina said. “It’s so easy to get distracted by something you recognize and wind up spiraling off into a magical mania without even casting a spell.”
“That sounds miserable. Why even bother casting precognition spells at all then?” I asked. I was surprised she’d offered me an insight into what sounded like a profound weakness for her whole family. Maybe it was an open secret?
“We don’t,” she said. “Most of the times the visions come on their own.”
“How do you control them?” I thought back to Doxle explaining how people used words, and gestures and special materials to put boundaries on spells.
“Poorly.” She met my gaze then and I saw the kind of laughter that’s disconnected from any form of sanity dancing behind her eyes. There was something else there too though. Honeyed traps for errant dreams and signal fires to guide her back to herself.
“I’ve heard that visions usually come in dreams?” I asked, revealing how shallow the depth of my knowledge on the subject was.
“From dreams, from distracted thoughts, can be any time at all really,” she said. “Stress and focus can often ward them away, but not always.”
“Does it get better with age?”
“For some people. For others the visions just get worse and worse.”
“Is there anything that can be done to make things better?” The Astrologia family had been laboring with their gifts for centuries, so I figured they had to have made some progress.
“There are. Sometimes they even work. We’d know more but my family is opposed to researching along those lines. They view stronger visions as a sign that you’re gift is stronger and therefor better.”
“But if you can’t see the actual future, what’s the point?” I asked.
“We see a future, it’s just not the future that usually come to pass,” Mellina said. “By being aware of it we change the conditions that lead to it, and I think even without that, what we see isn’t guaranteed to come about. It’s just the one possibility we can see. My family thinks that the stronger your gift is, the more visions you see, the closer you come to viewing the true path the future will take. Anything that diminishes or controls the visions harms that ability and so harms the family.”
I wanted to say that her family were idiots too, but I doubt she needed or wanted to hear that, so I settled for frowning at the idea instead.
She paused for a moment and studied my expression, a small smile creeping onto her lips as she did so.
“Most people think that’s stupid,” she said. “Or highly admirable.”
“Most people think their opinions matter more than the ones of someone whose had to live through what they’re opining about,” I said.
That won me a smile that reached up to her eyes before fading into her normal quiet expression.
“I don’t think we’ll have to kill each other,” she said.
“Another vision?” I asked, guessing that was not the case.
“Holman said the trials don’t necessarily include any killing. It’s just not forbidden. Or even discouraged.”
“I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse?” I said. It didn’t even seem more convenient since it wasn’t like the ‘killing if fine’ rule would prevent all the other consequences that would follow from eliminating a rival permanently.
If I killed Idrina, I was absolutely sure her brother would look for a chance to return the favor whether the revenge-killing was legal or not.
And then I’d have his dead body to hide somewhere.
“If I do well enough, House Astrologia will stand as my sponsor once the trials are complete,” Mellina said. “I think they would stand for you as well if you wanted them too.”
“But they don’t even know me?” I said, finding it hard to imagine that a group of strangers would see any value in what I could do, especially since it was so removed from precognition magic.
“They will if I speak for you,” Mellina said, offering her hand to a shake on a deal she hadn’t needed to make at all.