“The best method of ensuring that you are always far busier than you would ever prefer to be is to attempt to expend as little effort as you possibly can. A life dedicated to idleness and ease inevitably comes to ruin beneath a mountain of tasks no mortal can ever hope to accomplish. It is worth noting however that a life dedicated to productivity and hard work comes to the same end, hence why I shall ever fight for what I believe in, and do my very best to do nothing at all.”– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame on his third day of mucking the Imperial Stables
Idrina had all but killed me. She wanted to take another shot at it and she wasn’t hiding that fact. The reptilian survival center I’d built into my brain was screaming at the idea that I was within eyesight of her, much less weapon deployment range. So why, in all the ten thousand hells, was my bedraggled heart beating quicker at her claim that I was a worthy opponent?
Worthy opponents were people she wasn’t going to hold back against.
That was terrible.
I’d seen how she’d fought the Decent Cadet. I couldn’t fight like he could. If she didn’t hold back about 80% of her strength and speed I’d be rebuilding body parts for weeks after our next clash.
And my stupid lips were joining in my heart’s conspiracy, curling up into a friendly smile which Idrina absolutely did not return.
“Let’s see what exercises they put us through tomorrow,” I said. It was a promise. If the Cadets were setup to fight each other – and there was zero chance the instructors weren’t going to inflict that on us at the first opportunity – I was promising that we’d have another deadly little dance.
And I was looking forward to it.
I had no excuse for that. It was completely irrational. I had no reason to want to fight her again. I had been dreading that exact eventuality. I was still dreading it.
Nope. I was not following that line of thought.
“You okay with me taking in your brother?” I asked, desperately casting about for anything that would steer the conversation somewhere, anywhere, else.
Idrina’s blank expression flickered through a brief moment of puzzlement before returning to neutral.
“He did that to himself,” she said.
“Any idea why?” I asked. That might have been an insensitive question, Mellina, Yarrin, and Narla all apparently had less than favorable relationships with their families, and from what I’d seen in Doxle’s house, the Ironbriars were kinda big on House loyalty.
“He had never been one to do his duty,” she said.
There was anger in her words and longing in her scent, and for once in my life I managed to stop myself before I said anything really stupid.
The awkward pause that my silence left in the conversation was broken by Proctor Jalaren rapping on the podium atop the small stage in front of us and the Imperial Elites who’d appeared at the head out of each column of Cadetlings coming to attention.
Idrina straightened up and took on a statue-like solemnity, while I followed Narla’s example and turned to face forward, standing somewhat less causally than I had been.
“People will offer you congratulations on passing the Trials and taking your new roles as Imperial Cadets,” Jalaren said, his voice no longer magically amplified but still loud enough to carry to the back ranks of the cadets. “They are mistaken. They do not know that your trials have only just begun. By this time next year, half of you will no longer be Cadets. Some will have had the sense to purchase a more comfortable position, and the wisdom to be content with being able to claim that you ‘attended the Imperial Academy’. Others will too broken to function as viable soldiers. The other half will be no more worthy than the rest. Those who proceed into your second year will bear the scars of your training and the knowledge of exactly the sort of suffering you can endure.”
As welcoming speeches went, it really wasn’t.
I wondered if Jalaren was overselling how bad training would be so that the proto-Cadets would be braced for and able to weather a somewhat gentler reality. After the bloodbath the Trials had been though my suspicions ran more towards the idea that he was underselling what we had to look forward to. That could explain why all of the third year cadets seemed to be irrationally aggressive.
“If this is not what you thought you were signing up for, I say to you leave now. I say this knowing that you will not. ‘I’m different, I can take it’. Each of you believes that and each of you are wrong.”
Well, he had me pegged there at least.
Not that I was interested in enduring years of misery and suffering just for the privilege of being used as one of the Empire’s very special attack dogs. I just needed to get inside the Academy and have the time I needed to search it thoroughly.
If I could pick up Trina’s scent again? If I could follow it back to its source? I…I honestly had no idea what would happen then. I’d certainly be willing to drop out of the Academy, but the fact that she was here, or had been here, was so impossible that I couldn’t imagine what the future beyond discovering the answers I was looking for could be.
I drew in a long, searching breath and found her scent only in my memories. It was here, just not on the winds that blew in the setting sunlight.
“Why will we do this to you?” Jalaren asked, and shockingly all of the mini-Cadets understood that it wasn’t a question they were expected to answer. “We will hurt you and break you and even possibly kill you because what emerges from this Academy as an Elite will be required to face far worse than that.”
Again, fantastic sales pitch. Definitely a job I was all in on signing up for.
Also he was lying.
The Imperial Elites had a mythic reputation, but according to Grammy Duella that dated back to a time when the Empress still ruled, and the Empire was beset by foes who only champion level troops could engage with. The original Imperial Elites could slay an army alone and in the squads they worked in, could withstand the oldest of dragons and the most terrible of summoned Fiends.
No one bothered messing with the Empire like that anymore though. At least not within the Empire’s boundaries because no one wanted the headaches of dealing with Reaving Storms (and everyone was afraid that if the Empire fell, those storms would roll across the rest of the world too).
The Empire had holdings outside its centuries old borders, but those were defended by the Imperial Foreign Legions, aka the expendable and largely non-magical troops drawn from the common masses who were paid handsomely for however brief a time they managed to survive.
I knew Grammy’s view of the Empire came with a heaping helping of biases – there were reasons she lived in a cottage in the middle of the forest and they weren’t ones that involved either love or tolerance for what the Empire had become. Even trying to correct for those though, I felt she was probably more right than not. If the Imperial Elites were able to live up to their mythology, the Cadets wouldn’t have been so eager to murder the weakest of the applicants.
There was nothing disciplined or admirable about the pack of killers the Academy had assembled to represent the output of their instruction. Nothing worthy at all about them in fact, unless you were a Great House lord looking for people who would happily kill to advance your interests.
A stupid smile crept back onto my face.
I was better than them.
Well, me and Narla.
Idrina had said so.
I scowled the smile away. I could not afford to let myself buy into that line of thinking. It didn’t matter if I was better than them. No one would care about that if they knew what I really was. They would simply kill me, without hesitation or regret.
“Your suffering will begin tomorrow,” Jalaren said. “For tonight, you will find your place in the dormitory of the Great House which spoke for you. Your senior Cadets have arranged welcome dinners for you all. I suggest you enjoy your repast, make what allies you can, and sleep the last peaceful and sound sleep you will enjoy for the next three years. Cadets dismissed.”
We had no training, and no organization, so that of course signaled ‘The Great Milling About and Going Nowhere in Confusion’ as a mass of clueless students tried to figure out where to go and who to follow.
Over the disordered din of the crowd, amplified voices began to call out the names of the various Great Houses which had been present to speak for the Cadets. Lightstone was first, probably because the House’s ego could have filled the entire assembly area we were in. Greyfall, Ironbriar, Greendell, Astrologia and the others were heard from next, in some cases repeatedly as the Senior Cadets came to collect their new fledglings.
House Riverbond didn’t have any Senior Cadets though.
Nor did House Riverbond have a dormitory, at least not as far as I knew.
Somehow Yarrin, Mellina, and Ilyan made it through the crowds to meet up with Narla and I though.
“Inspiring speech,” Narla said. “Are we supposed to sneak out with our tails between our legs now, or just sometime before dawn do you think?”
“I doubt they’re going to let us sleep until dawn,” Yarrin said. “Especially not this year.”
Because this year they had a whole bunch of extra Cadets that they needed to get rid of still.
“Have we worked out where we’re sleeping at all?” Mellina said.
“The ground’s nice and flat here,” Ilyan said gesturing to the rapidly emptying field around us.
The few proto-Cadets who were nearby gave derisive laughs at that before scurrying off to their new Houses sheltering arms.
“I feel like House Riverbond should be able to do a whole lot better for you all than just this,” I said gesturing to the lonely desolation around us.
“Pfff! You didn’t ask for any of us, and we all know you didn’t have time to prepare for this,” Narla said.
“Yeah, if I wanted to make someone feel bad, I would have signed up with Ironbriar,” Ilyan said.
“We can do better than this field too,” Mellina said.
“Does Astrologia have a few rooms they’d rent us?” I asked. Holman had seemed to be on good terms with her, and she’d originally offered to have her House speak for me, so it seemed like that bridge might not be entirely burnt away.
“Oh, umm, no I don’t think so,” Mellina said. “They’re probably fairly cross with me at the moment.”
“You had something else in mind, didn’t you?” Yarrin asked.
“We have a diverse and useful set of skills,” she said. “We don’t have to be given a dormitory if we can simply take one.”
“Fight one of the other Houses for their dorm?” Ilyan said. “Count me in!”
“Me too!” Narla said.
I sighed. I’d thought I was going to be the unhinged one in any group I wound up in. Instead I had not one but two House mates who were vying for that position.
That they immediately exchanged a fist bump and a nod of approval with each other told me it was even worse than that though. They weren’t vying for anything, they were quite willing to share the position and inspire each other to go even further.
“Not to spoil your fun,” Yarrin said, “but I think there are dorm rooms which aren’t being used at all.”
“There are, but they’re locked up tight and warded against intrusion,” Mellina said.
“The wards won’t be problem,” Yarrin said. “Not if they can still be opened.”
“And the locks won’t be either,” Narla said, slamming her left fist into her right palm.
“Repurposing” some rooms from the Academy was a terrible idea and there was no chance at all that we’d get away with it. Someone was going to ask where we’d spent the night and whatever answer we gave the truth would be discovered, probably in short order.
And I simply didn’t care.
“Let’s go steal ourselves a dorm then.”