“We all need a place of refuge in our lives. Somewhere we can go to feel secure, somewhere we can recover the strength the world seems intent on sapping away, somewhere we can arrange to our own tastes. It is for this reason that one should never have children.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame
I had been through a day. My brain was literally still broken. That wasn’t an excuse for anything in my case. I only sort of use my brain.
And that is a line I can never utter aloud or Doxle will never let me hear the end of it.
The point is, when Sea Cotton opened the door and invited us in, I was not ready for it.
Mellina, blessed wonder that she is, was just as silent and still as I was.
Yarrin however, smiled, nodded, and walked in like it was exactly what he’d been expecting.
And that was good enough for Narla and Ilyan, who followed him right on in too.
“Lady Kati?” Sea Cotton asked.
I think my expression may have suggested that I was not okay with this turn of events. I think the others might have noticed that too when Sea Cotton cocked her head to the side.
Why they weren’t more concerned about a woman made out of mist, who they did not know, inviting them into a place that magically hadn’t been there a moment earlier? That doors to people could be anywhere and that was ok was not processing for me.
Yes, Sea Cotton was, from our brief interaction, a kind and generous spirit. Sure, Doxle’s house had doors that were connected to things other than his actual walls. Dinner sounded lovely too. And if Sea Cotton was there, I’d probably even be able to have another bath, which would be fantastic. Because I was covered head to toe in blood.
I should not have run away.
That wasn’t a rational response to the situation.
If anything all it did was place me in more danger. My fellow Cadets, at least the senior ones, were proven killers. In a one-on-one tourney, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to think I could defeat, or at least survive, any of them. After my performance in the arena though, the chance that they’d ambush me one by one was less than zero. If they found me, and I still reeked of blood so I wasn’t exactly hard to track, they would come as a mob.
Would they bring someone who knew how to kill something like me? Probably?
And there could be doors anywhere.
Even in a blank wall.
I needed Yarrin. He knew how to find hidden doors.
Except if he was with me, they would definitely kill him too.
I am fantastically good at hiding when I choose to, and so I found a spot they wouldn’t track me. Huddled inside a rain water pipe that was only a half a foot in diameter wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it did give me a moment to breathe.
Breathe and reflect on what an idiot I was being.
My brain wasn’t broken. I’d fixed up the rest of the damage I’d taken a while ago. Sure there was more work I could do. I had some ideas for strengthening my collar bones for one thing, since taking swordstrike through them was not fun and they really should be able to do a better job than they’d done.
That wasn’t important though.
What was important was that my brain wasn’t broken.
There wasn’t a mob after me at the moment.
The senior Cadets were killers, but that didn’t mean that more than a few of them cared about the guy I’d killed.
The guy I’d killed.
That was probably what was going on.
Living with Grammy Duella, I’d heard all sorts of accounts of how horrible the Great Houses were. We lived in the woods though. It wasn’t like either of us got into many duels to the death with Great House scions.
And by not many duels to the death, I meant none.
For me at least.
She never talked about it, but I had the sense Grammy had a more colorful life before retiring to the woods than she ever let on.
I wasn’t sad about killing the Imperial Cadet though.
He’d deserved it and I’d do it again, without hesitation.
In fact if I had a chance I’d do it sooner.
I could have made the leap into the arena while Kelthas was still fighting.
It had been obvious how that fight was going to go.
He couldn’t have won it.
He wasn’t a threat to the Imperial Cadet at all.
He’d been helpless at the end and no one had helped him.
I heard some familiar voices speaking in a low whisper as they walked past my hiding tube. They weren’t going to think to look for me here. No human body was even vaguely capable of fitting into a spot like this.
Their voices and steps faded away without a pause.
Except for one.
The last remaining was quiet and still, but their breathing was impossible to miss. For me. I caught their scent too, but in the form I’m glooped myself into I’d forgone a lot of human elements like a nose, so all I picked up was who was waiting for me.
“You can take your time,” Yarrin said. “I’ll bring the others back to the dorms in about fifteen minutes. If you’re not back in an hour or so, I’ll come and drop off dinner for you.”
And then he left.
I was not okay, but Kelthas had been his friend, or at least his acquaintance, longer and if I was this messed up by the death of someone I could barely claim to have known, it had to be harder for Yarrin.
“How did you know I was in there?” I asked as I glooped out of the rain pipe and resumed the closest thing to a ‘real form’ I had.
“It’s my magic,” Yarrin said. “I can see things.”
“You could see me through a metal pipe?” I asked. It was magic, so anything was on the table, but there were a bunch of other possibilities too. None of which were important at the moment but it was easier talking about those than what was actually going on in my head.
“Yeah,” he said, and glanced away, as we started walking back to our new dorm.
Oh right. My clothes were a wreck since I’d dragged them up into the pipe with me. I wasn’t indecent or anything, but I did look like I’d gone three rounds with a patch of sentient swamp and lost every one of them.
“How did you recognize me?” I asked, wondering if it was the disheveled clothes and torn armor that had tipped him off.
“You’re sort of hard to miss,” he said. “I…,” he hesitated, wrestling with some decision I couldn’t begin to guess until he spoke at last. “I know what you are. In general terms. I have since you walked up to us before the Trials.”
I stopped walking.
That was more frightening than any horde of upperclassmen could ever have been.
So why wasn’t I afraid?
“What do you think I am?” I asked. I wasn’t going to try to deny anything. If he was able to track me into a rain water pipe, he would be able to see through any denials I could conceivably come up with in my current state.
He looked around as though checking to be sure we were alone, which I was already pretty sure we were. One thing about freaking out like I had? All of my senses were cranked up to levels no human could possibly match.
At least without magic.
Which, given where I was, meant I was far less certain than I’d thought I was on reflection.
Yarrin didn’t suffer that limitation though.
“I think you’re something other than human,” he said. “Or, maybe something not from this world would be more accurate. Except that’s not true either. You’re both from here and not from here. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but that seems to fit what I’m seeing the best. Unless my magic is as messed up from today as the rest of me feels.”
“You’re magic is fine,” I said. “I’ve been here a long time but this isn’t my world. I’m from some place else.”
“Well, I’m glad your here now,” he said. “Or, oh, is that okay? Is this where you want to be?”
“I killed a guy to get here, so signs seem to point to yes,” I said.
“No, I mean in this world?” Yarrin asked. “I’m glad you’re here for selfish reasons, but if you were dragged here unwillingly, I might be able to help you find out how to get back home.”
I shook my head.
“This is my home,” I said. “It’s complicated but I’m okay here. No need to feel bad.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“You’re the one who got me out of the pipe,” I said.
“You’re the one who made sure the Cadets didn’t kill me in the third trial,” he said.
“That…” that was exactly what I’d intended with my final remark before leaving the arena, but I didn’t want to claim credit for it. I’d still been half berserk then. And I’d already failed at that point. “That should have come sooner.”
“I didn’t see it coming either,” he said and there was no need to specify what ‘it’ was. “I can see so much, almost everything it feels like most of the time, but I’m not House Astrologia, I couldn’t see what that cadet was going to do to him. I thought…I thought they’d send him to medic tent and fail him out of the Trials.”
“He was supposed to be safe,” I said. “I thought his magic meant I didn’t have to worry about him.”
He hugged me. Like the too-young kid that he was, he hugged me, and we spent several minutes shedding tears for the boy who was supposed to be with us and who never would be and the people we never would be as a result.
“Thanks, I needed that,” Yarrin said, pulling away and drying his eyes. “The others are heading back. Did you want to wait for them.”
“No, but I should,” I said, “they didn’t have any better of a day than either of us did.”
“I don’t know,” Yarrin said. “Narla looked like she had a pretty easy time in the last trial.” He smiled in broad appreciation at the memory and mimed her single fight-winning punch.
“Oh yeah. That was amazing,” I said, his excitement for her performance proving to be more than a little infectious. “I was thinking I was going to have to jump back in the ring and then, just, damn, the sheer crunch of that hit.”
Again, I probably should have been horrified, someone had died there. It wasn’t Kelthas though. And I hadn’t done it. And it had been provoked. And…and none of that made it right.
It wasn’t right, but neither was the alternative, and I wasn’t sure Narla had really had any better options.
As answers went, it needed work, but if I couldn’t acknowledge my own limitations and the ones of the people around me, I was going to tear myself and them apart. I needed work, but acknowledging that I’d run into my limits was an idea I could live with for the time being.
“Oh, you found her!” Ilyan said.
“Yeah, sorry folks, I…we should probably go have dinner,” I said, with my usual masterful eloquence.
“Sounds good to me!” Narla said, patting her ample stomach. “This doesn’t run on skipped meals.”
“Is that how your magic works?” Ilyan asked. “Food gives you strength?”
“Food gives everyone strength,” Yarrin said with a roll of his eyes.
“Yeah, but she’s amazing,” Ilyan said. “One hit! It only took her one hit!”
“That uh, that wasn’t my best punch even,” Narla said, blushing a little.
“WHAT!?” Ilyan, Yarrin, and I said in chorus.
I lost track of time on the trip back to the dorm, and didn’t even notice Mellina cloaking us in shadows again thanks to the rest of us badgering Narla for details of what she could do for the whole trip.
This time when the door opened, Sea Cotton wasn’t waiting for us. Doxle was.
“Ah, good. You’re back. We need to talk.” he said.