“The greatest comfort we have is each other. That is complicated by the fact that what we most often need comfort from is each other.”-Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame.
A thousand bitter arguments rose to my lips in response to Doxle saying we needed to talk. He’d had his chance to chastise me over what happened at the arena. I wasn’t going to listen to any criticism after I’d finally started putting myself back together.
Except waiting to criticize me in private was much better than doing so in public.
That did nothing to cool my temper, but it did help me keep my jaw locked closed before I could say anything regrettable.
“Fine,” I said and walked forward to make it look like it was my decision as much as his.
The others were left, understandably, a little uncertain by this but I heard them follow along after me into the bright and clean foyer of Doxle’s house after a moment anyways.
“There’s a bath waiting for you Lady Kati,” Sea Cotton said, gesturing up the curving stairs which ran the length of the foyer and back as it rose to the second floor.
I glanced over at Doxle demanding that he explain what the priorities were here. Was I going to get in trouble right away, or was I going to have to stew in the bath and my own feelings for a while first.
“She’ll be along for that shortly,” Doxle said. “Anyone else who wishes to bathe before dinner is welcome to though.”
Narla and Ilyan gave themselves a few quick sniffs and seemed noncommittal about the idea, but Yarrin and Mellina were already following Sea Cotton so they joined her.
“They’ll get settled in and you can all have dine together,” Doxle said, gesturing towards the door to a study which was adjoined the foyer.
I followed him in, selecting my angry rebuttals to whatever complaints he tried to lodge against me.
“You seem ready to scream at me,” he said. “By all means, please do so.”
I opened my mouth with my best comeback ready. Except it wasn’t for that.
Doxle collapsed into one of the stuff chairs and gave a tired wave directing me to my choice of the two sitting opposite it.
“I can’t sit in those. I’m a mess,” I said.
“They’re only chairs,” he said. “Rest. Today has cost you enough already.”
I stared at the chairs. I really was a mess. Hiding in a drain pipe after the ugly battle I’d fought had not left me in anything resembling a presentable state. Both chairs looked brand new and the moment I sat down they were going to be ruined.
Doxle noticed my hesitation, waited a moment, and then flicked his fingers towards the chair nearer him which was sucked into a warp in space and replaced by a much older and less puffy chair. It was clean but it showed the stains and repaired rips that only age and use could inflict.
I was going to make a mess of it, but he wasn’t wrong that I needed to sit.
“I won’t keep you long,” he said once I’d collapsed into the older chair. “But you are owed an apology and restitution.”
I tried to respond to that, but words were not…they weren’t a thing I had at that moment.
Angry screams? Sure. More tears? Probably, but I wasn’t going to burden anyone else with those. Coherent words though? I’d left those somewhere outside the magic door it seemed.
“It was not my intention to reveal your lineage or standing publicly, nor to place you in the position you now occupy,” Doxle said. “Should you be planning any revenge, please rest assured that your grandmother will doubtless hear about the outcome of today in short order and Duella will enact a far worse vengeance than anything you have the wherewithal to engineer.”
“Revenge?” I asked. The concept had been floating around in my consciousness since my match, but only in relation to what the senior cadets would do to me or anyone near me.
“The plan, such as it was, had been for Holman to convince House Astrologia to speak for you, and I would then be able to claim your debt to them in trade for one of the several hundred favors they still owe me.”
I could hear his word, and I could understand what they meant. Translating the fact that he was apologizing to me into whatever language my heart spoke though was proving to be fairly difficult. Mostly due to the staggeringly giant wall of disbelief which had hemmed in my thoughts.
“So this isn’t…” I started to say and cut myself off. Why would I want to bring up what I’d done? Any of what I’d done.
“No, it’s not where I’d planned to have you stay tonight,” Doxle said, missing my point deliberately. “I dispatched some couriers to arrange the proper grants of occupancy after the idiots from Lightstone and Greyfall objected to Riverbond’s claim.”
“Why…” I started and again cut myself off. “What happened to the original plan?”
It was a ridiculous question. I was wearing bits of what had happened to the original plan still.
“Lightstone decided to try out some of their new toys,” Doxle said. “Which I also owe you an apology for, and a new set of armor it seems.”
“Wait, no,” I shook my head. He was not making any sense and part of me felt a lot more comfortable with the idea of being in trouble rather than inhabiting whatever strange world it was that I’d stumbled into. “Why do you owe me anything? I…you didn’t have to do any of this. We could be starving out on the green tonight and you still wouldn’t owe me anything.”
“You entered our contract in good faith and I promised in return to teach you what you needed to know,” Doxle said. “Your side of the contract binds you into taking it seriously, but on my side no such binding exists. I am free to do whatever I please, including nothing for you.”
“Exactly!” I said.
“Which is why I owe you an apology and new armor,” Doxle said. “All I have to be worthy of the contract between is the choices I make. You are free to rage, and hate me, and say all the horrible things you can imagine. None of that would lessen your worth. When I fail you though, I allow myself to become someone the one person I have ever loved would turn away from, and even after all these years without them that is the one thing I cannot do.”
“So, you’re taking care of me for someone else?” I asked, not quite following what he was saying beyond the broad generalities of it.
“No. I am taking care of you for you, because it’s what I pledged against your freedom. To do less would make me less.”
“Oh,” I said. He wasn’t hiding his scent. The ash and lightning was shot through will an ancient longing and the pain of a wound which a blade of hope would never allow to mend.
“I would like to speak again later,” Doxle said. “I have some ideas which might help if you need to face one of those odd blades the Lightstone cadet was carrying and there are logistical considerations we’ll need to work through for your new household of fellow cadets. For now though, I’m sure you’d prefer to soak for a bit, change into some fresh clothes, and then enjoy the dinner which awaits you all.”
“I don’t think I have any fresh clothes,” I said.
“Your travel case awaits you in your room,” Doxle said. “It’s doubtless missing some of its contents, but it seemed to be fairly fully still. If you like I can arrange for a tailor to stop by tomorrow to replace or add to your wardrobe.”
“Oh,” I said, wondering how he’d managed to find my travel case.
“I will likely be out for the rest of the evening,” Doxle said. “Certain parties need to hear a few choice words before their dried up little raisin brains concoct any foolish ideas. If you should have need of me however I’ll leave you with my calling card.”
“Calling card?” I asked.
“Yes,” he conjured a small rectangle of white paperboard and gold ink into his fingers. “Pitch this into a fire and I’ll arrive in a moment or two. Maybe three. It’s a somewhat tricky method of travel but I’m sure I can manage it still.”
“So, not for if I just feel like having a chat,” I said holding onto the card since I didn’t have anything like a clean pocket to put it into.
“For any reason,” he said. “I doubt I’ll enjoy very many of my engagements tonight. At the worst you’ll be giving me a reason to depart early. At best you might save someone’s life, though that is, I must admit, unlikely.”
So he was going somewhere, for me I had to assume, and homicide was on the table if he didn’t like the answers he received.
I finally grasped why he had no criticisms to level against me for my actions in the arena.
“Be careful,” I said as I got up. I wasn’t sure if Advisor’s could be the victims of a homicide and I definitely didn’t want to find out the answer first hand.
He replied with a wry smile and a wave but, tellingly, nothing like a firm commitment.
I could have worried about that but he was, at a minimum, hundreds of years old and had been playing the games the Great Houses got up to for centuries.
So I trudged up the staircase to the second floor. The layout of this part of the house wasn’t at all familiar but I figured if I walked far enough I’m stumble into something that looked like my room. Instead of a room though, I stumbled into a patch of clear air that smelled of warm pastries and cold milk.
“I’m so sorry,” the unseen Pastries said, supporting me before I could fall over. “I was just coming to see if you were done with Doxxy.”
Behind her the door to my room stood open and I could smell the warm, soapy bath water awaiting me.
“My fault,” I said. “I didn’t see you.”
“Did Doxxy forgot to teach you the spell for that?” the empty air asked.
“It’s been a busy day,” I said and lumbered carefully towards the bath.
“You can leave those clothes out in the main room and I’ll…” she looked at the shredded armor and clothing I was wearing. “Burn them. I will probably burn them, unless you’ve developed a sentimental attachment to…” Closer to the bath, the mist was starting to give her a vague outline so I could see as she gestured to all of me.
“Burning sounds lovely,” I said. “The armor might be a problem there though.”
“Not if I try hard enough,” Pastries said.
I waited until she closed the door and then stripped down by simply shifting my body directly out of the clothes leaving them in a rumpled pool on the ground as though I’d been disintegrated.
Climbing into the bath nearly knocked me out.
I’d fixed up my muscles and bones but the experience of being chopped up had lingered inside me nonetheless. In the warm embrace of the water that started to flow away.
The scented shampoos and soaps helped too. As the blood diluted into the warm waters, the worst of the day diluted with it and I felt my fears and hurts and angers diminish too, just a little bit.
They were part of the past. I wasn’t particularly adept at letting go of that, nor did I necessarily want to be. I wanted to remember what had happened. I wanted to remember what I’d done. I wanted to remember a friend I’d only had for a few hours. My body would forget, the wounds would vanish out of sight, but I’d carry my experiences forward as elements that would define me.
But not the only elements. Or the most important ones.
I had other days worth of experiences to blend them in with, and many more to come to help refine what those experiences would mean to me.
Out beyond my rooms I heard distant voices reminding me that, though I was far from home and the little family I loved, I was also far from alone.