“Our victories can bring us comfort, while also planting the seeds for future defeats. Should we fear victory then? No, of course not. That would be stupid. Making ourselves small and terrified, and losing because we’re too afraid to win is a living death. Striving to win, knowing that it will bring even greater challenges? It’s the Fool’s Path, but with the world we live in, is there anyone wiser than fool who embraces what they are?”– Zindir Harshek Doxle
I don’t know why it came as such a surprise to me that the Cadet I’d brutally murdered would have a younger sister. Great Houses had a lot of kids. It made it easier to sell a few off to other Houses or swap in a spare when one or more of them got killed.
It should have been reassuring too that Narla was looking at me with a happy and hopeful expression. Announcing that I’d killed her brother was clearly not the beginning of a blood vendetta’s declaration.
On the other hand, she’d hit someone hard enough that with one punch she caved in an armored chest and had sufficient force remaining to launch the rest of the corpse a good thirty feet off the platform.
I was hard to kill, and somewhat stupidly aware of that fact. There were extremes of force however that I would have a hard time tolerating and staying away from Narla Lightstone seemed like an incredibly wise course of action if I wanted to make sure I never wound up getting turned into a bag of jelly.
“Sure. Why the hell not,” I said, fully taking leave of my senses.
Jalaren scowled at me and waited.
“I don’t think that’s formal enough to count,” Mellina said.
“House Riverbond will speak for the applicant,” I said, feeling honestly bad for the nonsense Jalaren apparently had to put up with on a continual basis.
Jalaren shook his head and sighed. It wasn’t hard to see why. I was making a hash of his carefully controlled (and probably bought and paid for) trial process.
“House Lightstone speaks for the applicant,” the Lightstone rep repeated. “She is ours by Right of Birth Investiture.”
What that was supposed to mean, I had no idea, but Doxle bristled at the words and started to get up. Before he could contest them however, Enika spoke up from the Ironbriar box.
“You will want to withdraw that claim Synoda,” she said. “Or have you forgotten the responses the Scion of a House is allowed to make to an attempt to assert ownership over them?”
“Oh! What can I do?” Narla asked. From her posture she was unconcerned and undiminished by whatever stratagem her House rep was trying to pull on her.
“You can declare War on your house,” Enika said.
“Don’t be absurd. She can’t declare war on us. She’s ours,” Synoda Lightstone said.
“I’m afraid she’s correct,” Doxle said. “The second paragraph of the Right of Birth Investiture is quite clear on the remedies the offspring is provided. Should she force you to sue for peace, she may name any price up to half the wealth of the Great House as her prize.”
“She will not declare war on us,” Synoda said.
“Like hell I won’t!” Narla said. “Like I said, I’m not interested gramps. Leave it at that or I will War all up and over your face.”
“And who would support you?” Synoda asked. “You cannot stand against your whole House by yourself.”
“She won’t be alone,” I said, standing up too because if everyone else was getting to be all dramatic I didn’t see why I should miss out.
I honestly didn’t expect Mellina and Yarrin to stand with me as well, and I absolutely did not expect about half the applicants to rise from their seats too.
You’d think that sort of moment would feel amazing, and you’d be right, but I was also keenly aware that things were escalating a lot quicker than I had any hope of keeping a handle on, and part of me was dearly hoping they’d escalate even further, which was absolutely a bad sign.
“Take this path and you will be cast out,” Synoda said, entirely unphased by the small army that had risen to have Narla’s back.
“Yeah, I know, that’s fine,” Narla said. She probably didn’t need to add in the dismissive shrug, but the stifled rage it induced in Synoda I’m sure made it was worth it.
“House Lightstone withdraws its offer. Narla Lightstone is dead to us and will be stripped of position and title, to no longer enjoy the shelter and protection of our house,” Synoda said. As threats went it wasn’t even slightly subtle.
I wasn’t sure if he actually possessed the authority to disown her, but it seemed pretty likely that whoever did would back up his words.
“The applicant has an offer still standing,” Jalaren said, struggling to drag the proceedings back to the sham of formality they’d worn in other years I imagined. “Does she accept.”
“Hell yeah, I mean, yes, I accept Riverbond’s offer,” Narla said and started walking towards the edge of the platform nearest us.
Strangely, no one jeered her this time or suggested that the disc wouldn’t be able to hold her weight. Shocking to see that the Cadets did in fact possess some rudimentary survival instincts.
I knew Doxle could not have been expecting this outcome, but the fact that he’d rented a spectator’s box will room for all of us and more left me wondering about that.
“Thanks for speaking for me,” Narla said when she got to the box.
I could have said something like ‘sorry about killing your brother’, except I really wasn’t, so I nodded to her instead.
Yeah, I probably could and should have said something insightful or clever or cool but I’m not that good with words.
“Think we can spar later?” she asked.
It sounded an awful lot like ‘I just killed a guy with one hit can I try hitting you next’, but Narla seemed so ernest about it my response left my mouth before my brain had any input on it.
“Yeah. I’d like that,” my mouth said with zero help from any higher functions whatsoever.
So, I was going to die.
But the smile that lit up Narla’s face was really a sight to behold.
I’d said the right thing?
That didn’t seem likely, but…
I turned my attention back to the arena where the next match was getting underway. They had to bring in a new Cadet on account of the corpse shaped hole in the schedule the last one had left.
The one that arrived on the platform was heralded by the other Cadet’s loudly proclaiming his strength and that he should ‘kill that little puke’, meaning presumably the applicant.
For about half the flight from the box to the arena, the Cadet played up the cheer, but by the time he stepped onto the platform he was looking much more subdued.
His opponent wasn’t anyone terrifying or impressive. He was a commoner who I’d seen shift his hands into claws and scratch lightning from the air. The shapeshifting part had caught my attention because of its similarity to what I could do and lightning was intriguing because, well, lightning. It’s just bright and cool to see.
Their fight wasn’t a slaughter. Not on either side. The Cadet wasn’t exactly holding back but he also wasn’t going for cheapshots or low blows. Which may have simply been from a sense of self preservation. Two Cadets had died already. Overextending themselves for flashy effect or to sneak a kill in might have served the Cadets well in earlier years but I don’t think anyone was all that eager to become Corpse’d Cadet #3.
In the end, the applicant managed to score a few points by fighting in the colored quadrants and the Cadet managed to keep those points to a minimum by forcing the applicant into unfavorable spots more often than not. It wasn’t the best performance in the trial but it was far from the worst and House Greendell and Astrologia both offered to speak for the applicant with the applicant choosing Greendell.
For all the action and demonstrated peril, the battle felt relatively calm, as did the next several which followed it.
About fifteen fights later there was a moment that looked like it was going to turn bad – the applicant was knocked to the edge of the platform and she only barely caught the edge. All the Cadet would have needed to do was step on her fingers and she would have plummeted to a painful impact (though possibly a survivable one, given her magics). Instead the Cadet took a step back which gave Jalaren the moment to speak and declare the fight over by virtue of forfeiture.
Either falling off the platform wasn’t a serious enough failing to remove the applicant from consideration, or my poaching a few of the applicants had left the Great Houses hungry to snatch up what they could get before I made any other offers.
In this case it was Astrologia whose offer was accepted and the Trial continued.
It wasn’t until and dozen fights, as we were getting reasonably close to the end of the applicants that someone else I recognized was called to the arena, though I didn’t notice that till I saw him step off the transport disc.
“Ilyan Ironbriar” turned out to be the name of Idrina’s brother.
He drew the same Cadet that she had and from the looks of it had been expecting that, offering the Cadet a cheerful little salute, which the Cadet returned as a small head bow.
Their fight grabbed my attention from the first exchange.
Like with Idrina, neither fighter was holding back and neither one was throwing anything except killing blows or attacks meant to open the other up for a killing blow.
And yet neither had any interest in harming the other.
Okay, maybe no interest in killing the other. From the hits that they had to let get past their guard, they were kicking and pummeling the hell out of one another with zero remorse shown.
What they were not doing though was using any obvious, external magic. The speed they moved at and the forced behind their blows was clearly magically enhanced, but from the demonstration they were putting on, it seemed like both of them had exceptionally strong body enhancement magics, to the extent where any other abilities would have been a lesser option to choose against the other.
After all the bloodshed, more violence shouldn’t have been at all appealing, but the dance the two bodies in the arena spun through was undeniably beautiful. To me at least. Each move was so aware of the balance and speed and force involved. Nothing they did was impossible or relied purely on magic to jerk their limbs around. It was a sublime blend of natural motions and magical augmentation, showing what the human form was capable of when it could be pushed to its utmost limits.
Where the individual hits were too quick to follow, the overall pattern read as cleanly as a book, the dialog between the two fighters one of respect and even a subtle teasing back and forth.
It took me till nearly the end of the fight to really understand the conversation between the two of them though. They were having fun. Standing on the edge of overwhelming catastrophe, the two idiots were all but bursting out in laughter with one another.
I’d been concerned about fighting Idrina again, but watching her brother tangle with the ‘Decent Cadet’ (as I’d started to call him in my head), gave me a visceral understanding of what a bad idea it was to mess with their House in general.
Where Idrina was frankly terrifying though, Ilyan somehow wasn’t. He fought with the same steely-eyed focus as she did, but something was missing from him, or maybe missing from her.
It would not be healthy for me to hang around either one in an attempt to discover what that quality was, and I knew that.
When it came time for the Houses to speak for Ilyan.
Of course he had to make things difficult.
Because why would my day ever, under any circumstances, get simpler?
“Hey, before you ask if anyone wants to speak for me,” he said, “can we check with Riverbond? Cause I kinda want to join them.”