“When one enters a negotiation, one should always keep in mind what one hopes to gain, and what one cannot afford to lose. It is perhaps useful at the present moment to draw your attention to how very little I have and how uniformly consistent I have proven myself to be when it comes to losing even that. Reflect on that before another word passes your lips and we may all wind up spending a far more enjoyable evening than your previous utterances suggested as the course of action you preferred.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle, punctured by three magical knives and gripping Layton Greyfall by the throat.
People wonder about the afterlife, but there is a heaven and I was soaking in it. To say that the mist women knew their stuff when it came to setting up a bath was a criminal understatement. I would have suggested violence against anyone who disparaged their work, but floating in the tub, wrapped in perfect warmth and an array of aromas which could only be described as transcendentally soothing, everything just melted away. My anger, my strength, the whole terrible day, and week, and month that had led me here.
I could have let myself literally melt, but while a blob floating in the water has no back to have back pains in, it was the feeling of my body absorbing the comfort and releasing the pain it held which brought me the true relief that I was feeling.
Floating there forever seemed like a fine idea until my watery paradise was lost, not due to any change in the bath, but due to me.
My stomach grumbled. Loudly.
All the other pains I’d been carrying had pushed my hunger to the distant background but as the agonies of the day fell away my ever practical belly informed me that sustaining myself by consuming real food was tremendously easier than subsisting on raw magic.
And also much, much tastier.
The dining room wasn’t close to my bedroom but I’d fixed up my nose and the spiced meats which had been laid out were aromatic enough to call me even given the distance involved.
I reluctantly got out of the tub, toweled off, and tossed on one of the bathrobes that Pastries had left for me. It was too big, but was my own fault. It was sized for a normal woman of my age and I was not that. I could have grown up into a tall and imposing woman like Narla if I’d wanted to, or even a regular sized one like Idrina. I hadn’t wanted to leave behind too much of the form I’d modeled myself on though, and Grammy Duella was short, so I’d only changed my height a little bit over time. I told myself that less height and weight meant more mobility with the musculature I had, but given that I could shift to far more mobile forms with a thought I knew I was mostly fooling myself.
Whether I was too short for it or not though, the bathrobe was still soft and warm and that was enough for me. I followed the scent of the food as much with my stomach as with my nose. It led me down stairs again, though not to the foyer I’d come into but some other room, like the house was made of puzzle blocks and fitted them together in whatever odd order it felt like at any given moment.
A hallway, an observatory, and a trip through a room decorated as an underground hot spring grotto led me, finally, to the dining room.
I was the last one to show up.
I was also the only one who wasn’t dressed in a cadet’s uniform.
I probably should have checked for that in my room before I left.
Not particularly caring, I plopped down in the open seat between Mellina and Ilyan. The table had room for twelve but with only five place settings out, it was pretty obvious which chair had been left for me. Narla sat opposite Ilyan which put Yarrin beside her and opposite me.
“Try the Cressnut Salad,” Ilyan said, pointing to one of the three dishes in the center of the table which were in front of me. “It’s better than my Nan makes.”
As far as I could tell he hadn’t noticed or thought to care about my attire, which was oddly refreshing. Mellina meanwhile wore a tiny smile that suggested she found it amusing, and Narla and Yarrin were too busy fork-fighting over a candied yam to show any reaction.
“Did Doxle want to talk about anything important?” Mellina asked, leaving the question open ended enough that I could have avoided answering it without resorting to pure silence.
“He wanted to apologize,” I said. “I guess people are going to be upset that I’m part of House Riverbond?”
“Well, sure,” Narla said. “Riverbond was supposed to be one of the dead Houses. Whoever their senior house was, they’re going to be worried about losing control of all the Riverbond money they’ve been ‘managing’.”
“Riverbond was part of House Lightstone’s coalition when it was active,” Yarrin said. “I’m guessing they don’t talk about the House’s they’ve absorbed though?”
“They don’t talk and I never listened,” Narla said. “I wasn’t what you would call one of their favored daughters.”
“Why?” Ilyan asked. “You’re amazing!”
“I’m strong,” Narla said. “But not how my family, or I guess my ex-family now, wants people to be strong. Also, I don’t exactly look like a ‘Lightstone Princess’, do I?”
Ilyan and Yarrin were both silent for a moment, glanced at each other, and, like they’d been practicing it, said in unison, “Yes, you do!?”
Narla tipped her head to the side and looked annoyed at that.
“Don’t lie. I don’t need it,” she said. “I know who I am. I know what I’ve got and what I don’t.”
“But no, you’re…” Yarrin managed to say, before Mellina cut him off.
“Okay with who she is, like we should all be?” Mellina said.
It was hard to argue with that, so neither Ilyan nor Yarrin tried, and Narla seemed happy with that outcome. Or at least she smelled satisfied with it and I think it was a nod of thanks she gave Mellina.
“Is that why you left them?” I asked, still puzzled how I’d wound up with not one but four new members of House Riverbond.
“Oh, no, not really. I was used to that,” Narla said. “I mean I’ve wanted to leave my family since I was five I think.”
“It’s not easy though is it?” Mellina asked, solidifying my impression that being part of House Riverbond had been none of their first choices.
“Somedays? Somedays it seemed like it would be, but I could never make that leap,” Narla said.
“Because where would you leap to?” Ilyan said.
“Especially since they’d come looking for you,” Yarrin said.
“You two get it,” Narla said. “It’s supposed to be such a privilege to be part of the one of the Great Houses, and, I can see why. There’s no chance you’ll starve, you’ll always have clothes, a lot of things people worry about won’t be a problem for you. Your House will do everything for you that they need to so they can look good. Which means there’s always the thought that ‘if I leave I’ll have it so much worse’, and I probably would have. What was I going to do at eight years old the first time they sent me to the dungeons to ‘starve the fat off me’?”
I knew I’d heard that correctly, but I very much wanted to believe I hadn’t. It was that or water the seed of another killing rampage and I’d just started feeling better from the last one.
“I think I want to hurt your parents,” Ilyan said.
“You’d be part of a big group there,” Narla said. “They weren’t the only reasons I wanted to leave Lightstone though. The rest of my family was just as terrible.”
“Your brother too I imagine?” Mellina asked.
“He was the worst of them,” Narla said. “I came here today because I knew he’d be one of the Senior Cadets for the third trial. He promised me if I ever called attention to myself and the fact that I was a part of House Lightstone that he would kill me himself for ‘dishonoring our house by claiming that anyone of their breeding could produce a deviant like me’.”
“You wanted him to try that in front of witnesses?” Mellina asked.
“No, I wanted to kill him for all the other things he did to me, and if he faced me in the arena I thought I wouldn’t get in trouble for it,” Narla said.
“House Lightstone sounded like they still wanted you after you won your match though?” I asked.
“Sure. I’m not good enough to be a proper daughter of House Lightstone but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t be a useful tool for them. Put me in some armor so no one can see me, and trundle me out to a Reaving Storm and they can claim that they sent a mighty House Lightstone warrior to deal with it, and if I don’t survive then they haven’t lost anything of value.”
She was too far away for me to hug, and I wasn’t sure if she’d even want one, or need the comfort for horrors that had faded to being a part of the background noise of her life.
“They said those exact words, didn’t they?” Mellina asked. Her voice was mild but her scent had the frozen scent of a killing frost.
“They stuck with me,” Narla said. “But I got over it.” She hadn’t. I could smell the pain the memories brought back to her. “And today I got to see a sight that almost made up for all of that.”
“Your grandfather’s face when told him to shut up and go to hell?” Ilyan asked.
“Oh, yeah, that too,” Narla said. “Today was really good day but that wasn’t the high point.”
“You were happy when I killed your brother,” I said. It wasn’t a question, but I was still somewhat surprised, though less so than I’d originally been.
“You are an angel. I cannot tell you how many time I prayed for someone to do what you did. I cried myself to sleep hoping that someone like you would find me,” Narla said. “It didn’t look easy or fun for you, and I’m sorry for that. I wish our fights had been reverse so you could have avoided getting stabbed so much, but I don’t think I could have done what you did.”
“You wouldn’t have gotten stabbed,” I said. “Even if he meant to kill you, I saw how you fight and how he did. He wasn’t fast enough to dodge the punch you threw, or tough enough to survive it.”
Narla wiped away a couple of tears and said, “Thank you. For everything.”
“We all owe you,” Mellina said, placing a hand on my shoulder in support of Narla’s point.
“I literally owe you my life,” Yarrin said.
“Me too,” Ilyan said.
“Wait, how?” I asked. “I get that Yarrin’s family had lethal plans for him, though I’m not clear on why, but I thought Ironbriar loved you?”
“They did,” Ilyan said. “Or at least who they thought I was. I’m not that guy though.”
“And they were going to kill you for that?” Yarrin asked.
“Not directly,” Ilyan said. “Ironbriar’s doesn’t need to stab the family members they hate in the back. They just send them out under-equipped, on impossible missions, and let the Reaving Beasts stab them in the front.”
“How about you?” Narla asked, nodding towards Mellina. “You were friends with Kati before this right? How come you both didn’t go into House Astrologia?”
“Was it because you lost control of your magic during the fight?” Yarrin asked.
“I didn’t,” Mellina said.
“But you flooded the stadium with it?” Ilyan said. “After you got burned.”
“Yeah, that part wasn’t fun,” Mellina said. “But it was the only thing that would convince them to let me go.”