“There are but few constants in this life, and of them all it is the ineptitude of those in positions of authority which is the most comforting. True, most people find that reality annoying, and it is often a justified reason for mass homicide, but in its oh so dependable consistency one can find the latitude to get so very much accomplished.”– Zindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame
So, I wound up with Idrina’s brother in my fledgling House. That was a fact that I was absolutely certain would cause me no trouble whatsoever. None at all. Idrina, for example, wasn’t going to take that as another insult against Ironbriar and break my poor twice battered heart again. House Ironbriar itself wasn’t going to join Lightstone and Greyfall in taking umbrage at their children who I’d collected under the banner of a House that I didn’t actually have a legitimate claim to represent. Everything would be fine. Completely fine.
I clung to that belief as the Trials wrapped up and Jalaren directed that the winning applicants, or perhaps the ‘surviving’ ones was a better term, were to line up up inside the Academy for our first orientation speech.
I wasn’t clear why we would need more than one orientation speech, but at this point the Imperial Academy working under a set of counterproductive and arbitrary rules failed to come as much of a surprise.
“I believe congratulations are in order,” Doxle said. “To all of you. You have taken the first steps on the path to true wisdom!”
That sounded complimentary, and the others seemed to take it in that light, but it wasn’t. Wisdom doesn’t come from making good decisions, it comes from suffering the consequences of poor ones.
“Are they going to let you into the Academy?” I asked, wondering if he would be tailing along after me from here on out.
“Lady Riverbond, there are precious few places in the Empire which anyone can me from, and the Imperial Academy is most certainly not one of them.”
I didn’t frown quite as hard as I could have. Having Doxle shadowing my every move was going to complicate the real work I wanted to do inside the Academy, but he wasn’t hiding his scent and so I had a strong guess as to what his next words would be.
“That said, there are also a great many places which I have little interest in visiting at present, and the Imperial Academy is most decidedly on that list as well.”
“Are you still responsible for my actions if you’re not around to stop them?” I asked. It was in no sense a hypothetical question, and I had no illusions that Doxle would mistake it for one.
“Even more so than when we are together,” he said and offered no further edicts or reminders to be on my best behavior. Oddly that was more effective in convincing me to make sure I wasn’t caught doing the misdeeds I had in mind than any of the alternatives would have been.
“When will I see you again then?” I asked, the broken gears in my brain spinning in calculation of how much I could get done in whatever time I have available.
“Tomorrow night I should think,” he said. “Though circumstances could easily change between now and then.”
Since he was going to be able to take my magic no matter where he was, I wasn’t sure what could change that would lead to him find me sooner, but from how he seemed to get on with people I could easily imagine his return being delayed a while.
“Send me an invite if you get married again,” I said as our spectator box touched down and my House started filing out.
“I assure you should I find a suitable spouse, well, honestly I’ll probably be divorced by the time you hear of it, but if there are invitations you will mostly likely receive one,” he said.
That was a joke. Or at least he meant it as a joke. Part of me wondered how often it had been the truth though. Part of me wondered what had broken a demon to make him be like that. And part of me had absolutely zero interest in finding out.
I waved a thanks to Doxle and set out to follow the others who were marching into the Academy with the much reduced crowd of applicants.
Or I guess we were fledgling Cadets now. That thought did not do wonders for my beleaguered insides.
Doxle gave me a small bow of his head and turned, vanishing halfway through the twist of his body.
“They’re going to line us up according to our scores,” Mellina said when I caught up to her. “Where should we meet up afterwards?”
“Where will they let us meet up?” I asked.
“Each House has it’s own dorm,” Yarrin said.
“All of them? Even the ones who weren’t speaking for anyone here?” I asked.
“No, just the sponsors, they…” and that was when the problem I’d noticed a moment earlier hit the rest of the people I’d spoken for.
“We don’t have a dorm, do we?” Mellina said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “To be honest, until Doxle spoke for me, I had no idea that was a thing the Riverbond family could do.”
“Maybe there’s an empty one?” Narla said.
“No worries,” Ilyan said. “We can just sleep under the stars if we need to. I had to do that for training a bunch of times.”
He had a point. It wouldn’t be the end of the world to spend a night outside. A courtyard in the Academy had to be more comfortable than a jail cell with magic dampeners clasped on your arms, legs, and throat. Looking at Mellina and Yarrin though I wasn’t so sure how well they’d do with a night of exposure to the elements. Narla might have a problem too, but her magic smelled like it was strongly biased towards the physical, much like Ilyan’s was, so low temperatures and exposure probably wouldn’t be an issue for her, though if it came to that I intended to ask to be certain.
“That’s a problem for after orientation,” I said. “We’ll work something out so that no one freezes or starves.”
I didn’t want to have to kick one of the other Houses out of their dorm rooms, but I was willing to keep all our options on the table for now.
The crowd funneled down into a single file line, which let one of the proctor’s (not Jalaren, he seemed to be entirely absent) sort us by checking our names against a list which reflected the points we earned from fighting in the proper quadrants.
“Riverbond? Row 1, position 2,” the proctor said and waved me through the checkpoint.
Narla followed me, having received ‘Row 1, position 1’ as her assignment. That placed us at the far left edge of a roughly square arrangement of new Cadets, most of whom were standing on disc on the group which bore their row and position number and facing forward towards the slightly raised stage in front of us.
It didn’t occur to me what our positions meant until I was standing on my assigned disc and I saw how the other people who had filled in were grouped. Yarrin was on the farther side of the formation, in the rightmost row and the furthest back position. Mellina was notably closer being in the second row from the left and midway down it. The other new Cadets were filling in the spots between us based on how well they’d done. That I was in the second highest spot, behind only Narla finally clicked and became terribly real when Idrina took the space directly behind me.
The rules for the scoring came back to me in a rush, fractured neurons knitting furiously back together and reminding me that ‘defeating’ the Cadet we were facing gave us the maximum possible point value.
“Congratulations on your victory. You fought well,” Indrina said. Her voice was flat and unemotional but her scent suggested she was being sincere?
I turned to try to read her expression because her tone and scent were too at odds for me to make sense of.
Catching her gaze did nothing to help that though. She wasn’t like the Lightstone rep, where he’d been surrounded by rigid walls of anger which the steel in his will prevented from ever being unleashed. From Idrina, I didn’t smell any rage, or at least not any directed at me.
“You fought much better than I did,” I said, stating what was clearly the plain truth.
“I did not defeat my foe,” she said.
“You also didn’t lose control,” I said. “And my surviving that was as much luck as power or skill.”
“He missed your heart, didn’t he?” she asked. “I wondered if he’d come close with the cut through your collarbone.”
“That was bad,” I said. “But the sword he was fighting with was a problem all on its own. He did something to it I’ve never seen before. Transformed it, but he didn’t look like he was using magic. Or at least not his own.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, tilting her head slightly and focusing on me completely.
“Yes. The sword had its own magic. I can’t tell you what kind of magic it was or what it was capable of doing, but I am sure it was external to him.”
“They give the Cadets new enchantments to test sometimes, but I’ve never heard of one being used in a Trial before, or one that has its own Hollowing. I thought the only tools they gave the Cadets for the Trials were standard mana amplifiers.”
I hadn’t known there was a thing called a ‘mana amplifier’, standard or no, but I kept that to myself.
“If I can find another one, I can examine it closer and with a clearer mind,” I said. “I don’t believe my wounds threw off my perceptions that much, but it would be good to rule that out.”
“Are you wounds healed already?” Idrina asked.
“Mostly,” I said. “The major damage is okay now, but there’s a lot of minor injuries that I need to work on still.”
I wasn’t sure why I was admitting weakness to someone who was responsible for a decent portion of it and was demonstrably capable of inflicting far worse on me. I had to chalk it up to my brain not being fully rewired yet.
Also Idrina wasn’t conjuring spears at the moment, and that made her seem a thousand times easier to talk to than she’d been the last time we’d been within melee range of each other.
“We should spar then,” she said.
Because that was definitely something that wouldn’t leave me bleeding out on the ground with multiple fatal puncture wounds to deal with.
“That depends, are you going to break my heart again?” I asked.
“Would it matter if I did?” There was no animosity in the question from what I could tell, just genuine curiosity.
“It’s not terribly pleasant,” I said.
“What we do isn’t meant to be pleasant,” she said.
“I’m aware,” I said and gestured to the drying blood stains I was wearing over pretty much all of the clothes I’d been given.
“We should spare so that we can improve,” Idrina said. “If we hold back, we won’t learn as much.”
“Do you want me to improve though?” I asked.
“You are a Cadet now,” she said as though that explained everything.
“After today I don’t have a particularly high opinion of Imperial Cadets,” I said. “Present company excepted.”
I don’t know why she was an exception. As far as I could tell she was just as bloodthirsty as the rest of them.
Except, in her it wasn’t really bloodthirst.
I drew in a long breath through my nose and tasted a world of determination from Idrina but not a single whiff of sadism.
“They don’t matter,” she said. “They’re not worth measuring anything against. Most of them.”
“Who is then?” I asked.
“Only a few people,” Idrina said. “Two of whom are starting in this line in front of me.”