“It is always refreshing to have a calm and reasonable conversation with someone who holds a fundamentally different opinion on the issues which stand between you.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame to the newly runebound ghost of Olthas Lightstone
I should have been afraid of Mellina. I wasn’t, but a part of me was still in awe of the idea that she’d managed to outplay a family of future-seeing seers, even if it had cost her a significant amount of physical pain to do so.
“What had your family wanted of you?” Yarrin asked.
“Marriage, among other things,” Mellina said.
“Let me guess, he was around sixty, smelled like a sewer on his best day, and had been interested in you for the last ten years?” Ilyan said.
“Probably not,” Mellina said. “They hadn’t selected a spouse for me yet. They wanted to see what my destinies looked like once I completed training as a cadet.”
“Destinies?” Narla asked. “I thought Astrologia didn’t really use foresight spells and people just laughed at them because they used to long ago?”
“They don’t use future viewing magics how most people imagine they do,” Mellina said. “It’s true that efforts to predict the specific shape of the future were finally abandoned more than a century ago, and it was mostly a fringe research subject by then anyways.”
“But they were using those magics against you anyways?” I asked. For all that Mellina seemed open and confident in the small group we were in, I recalled how careful she’d been when we first met, and how quiet she’d been in our interactions with people outside her immediate circle. That sort of behavior could be the result of natural inclinations, but knowing the Great Houses, I suspected it was a response to the kind of trauma only family can inflict.
“I’m not special because of that,” Mellina said. “Your Houses are a collection of families under a broad umbrella of close relations. House Astrologia isn’t concerned about that. It’s broken up into ‘Project Teams’.”
“What sort of projects do they work on?” Narla asked, frowning in entirely well founded suspicion.
“Each team has a different focus,” Mellina said. “In the end though they all have the same goal; acquire or create a caster who can undo the effects of the Great Disjunction.”
“That’s what Astrologia calls the calamity that killed the Empress?” Yarrin asked.
“So they’re trying to save the Empire?” Ilyan asked, his disbelief well warranted.
“No. If Astrologia can complete its Grand Design, there won’t be an Empire anymore. There’ll be a Holy Protectorate under the Divine Aegis of the New Divinites.”
I could hear each of the capital letters in the words she spoke, and caught the echo of a dozen generations of Astrologians who’d pursued their family’s decidedly unholy agenda.
“So they were going to have you marry a god?” Narla asked. I didn’t blame her for being confused, since there were still a lot of missing pieces to Mellina’s story.
“More like give birth to one,” Mellina said. “Or really, give birth to a better caster than I am, who’d then spawn a better caster and so on until, however many generations down the line it took, one of them turned out to be powerful enough to control the broken planes and make a claim to godhood they could successfully back up.”
“It was more than just a bad marriage that you wanted to get away from though?” I said, certain enough not to make it a question, but curious if she’d chose to explain what else her family had in store for her.
“Being part of a ‘Project Team’ means living under a very specific set of restrictions,” Mellina said. “The Team Leader’s visions of the future are more revealing if the lives of the members of the team are shaped to illuminate the possibilities the leader needs to see. There are bindings each team member is expected to accept to help ensure that.”
“Bindings that do what exactly?” I asked, thinking of the ones I’d allowed Doxle to inflict on me.
“The early ones are simple monitoring constraints,” Mellina said. “You can’t lie, or hold any secrets from the Project Team, but you’re still mostly free to act as you wish. That freedom vanishes in stages with each promotion as punishment and then direct control constraints are ‘gifted’ to the Team members who excel at the tasks assigned to them.”
“And if you don’t excel?” Yarrin asked.
“Then you only get the punishment constraints,” Mellina said.
“I’m glad you got out of that,” Narla said. “My family is awful but yours sound like slavers.”
“They see it as an honor and a blessing,” Mellina said.
“On a scale of ‘Won’t Send You Birthday Presents’ to ‘Will Send You Assassins’, how annoyed at you are they going to be for you leaving?” Ilyan asked.
Mellina laughed at that, which broke some of the tension that had been building up in the room.
“Somewhere around ‘Happy to Finally Have Me Out of Their Visions’, I think,” she said. “Some of them might keep in touch, but my immediate Project Team probably won’t speak to me again for the rest of my life, unless I seek them out. That’s when they’d send the assassins.”
She’d adopted a joking tone, but her scent said she was being entirely serious.
Which meant I had a new sister it seemed.
Possibly two of them and two brothers too from the look of things.
I wondered if Grammy would object to adding a few extra rooms to the cottage, or if she’d tell me to build my own. Probably the latter. The old lady who lived in a house in the forest that supported a tiny staff and one replacement grand daughter was not, as it turned out, terribly fond of people. Shocking, I know.
Though, now that I thought of it, Doxle had mentioned something that suggested he knew her already.
I wasn’t sure why that was worrisome, but on recalling it I couldn’t imagine anything good coming from that fact.
“On the upside, that means you’re now free to marry whoever you want, right?” Narla said.
“Which would be no one,” Mellina said.
“Haven’t found the right person yet, or they’re already taken?” Ilyan asked.
“Neither,” Mellina said. “I don’t feel like that about people. I know that makes me weird, but I don’t need someone in my life romantically. I never have.”
“That’s not what makes you weird,” Ilyan said. “Half my extended family hate the relationships they’re in but none of them will ever admit it. You being honest about what you don’t want is something people should give you an award for.”
“I think the award is ‘she won’t get stuck in a miserable, loveless marriage’,” Narla said.
Ilyan pointed a finger at her and nodded his head in agreement. “That’s a good reward.”
“So what is she weird for?” Yarrin asked, an relaxed mischief playing in his eyes.
“Huh?” Ilyan said, not expecting the teasing from Yarrin of all people.
“You said my romantic preferences or the lack thereof weren’t what made me weird,” Mellina said, joining in on Yarrin’s mischief. “That implies something else does.”
“Oh, yeah,” Ilyan said, as though the answer was too obvious to need explanation. “This.” He gestured too all of us. “That we’re all here and not doing what everybody expected of us. No one’s going to understand that, and I’m perfectly happy that they won’t.”
“Does that no one include your sister?” I asked. For no reason at all. Just idle curiosity really.
“Yeah. Maybe. Probably,” Ilyan said. “She’s not going to know what to do with me next time we run into each other,” he paused as a thought occurred to him. “I’m kinda hoping she doesn’t stab me in the heart like she did you, but I’m not sure I’d lay money on it.”
“Why would she…wait, she stabbed Kati in the heart?” Mellina asked.
“Only once,” I said.
“Yeah, and kicked her off a platform like the ones we were fighting on today,” Ilyan said.
“Onto something soft?” Yarrin asked.
“Sure. Granite’s pretty soft, right?” Ilyan said turning to me. From his smile, it was apparently my turn to be drawn into the teasing.
“It wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” I thoroughly and completely lied. “We were fighting a duel over an insult to House Ironbriar’s honor, I think?”
“You think you were fighting a duel?” Mellina said.
“Or you think it was about Ironbriar’s honor?” Narla asked.
“The honor thing,” I said. “Doxle had provoked them I guess?”
“And he didn’t fight the duel why exactly?” Mellina asked.
“It wouldn’t have been fair?” I said, not quite recalling why it had fallen to me to get stabbed. The truth was he and Enika had wanted to see how I and Idrina fought, and the duel had been a convenient pretext to arrange that. We’d all understood that going into it so the rationalization for it hadn’t really stuck with me.
“Well, you survived, so good job there I guess,” Narla said.
“She didn’t just survive. She won,” Ilyan said.
“And Idrina survived too?” Yarrin asked.
“I won on a technicality,” I said. “Idrina set foot outside of the ring by mistake.”
“And then she stabbed you through the heart?” Mellina asked.
“Yeah. Just once though,” I said, as though that made it a perfectly reasonable and minor event.
“You are really good at form shifting aren’t you?” Ilyan asked.
I glanced at Yarrin who had apparently been able to see that I was doing more than simple form shaping, but his expression was clear of any sign of the fact that he knew already the answer to the question.
“It’s the strongest part of my magics,” I said, which was mostly truthful. It was certainly the aspect of the magics available to me which I’d practiced the most and I was more than willing to put myself up against the best form shifters in the Empire if anyone wanted to challenge me on that.
“I’m glad,” Mellina said. “I’d seen a few futures where you won your arena duel but there were far too many to be sure they would be the ones that came to pass and it looked a lot worse for you when I saw it for real.”
“His weapon was weird,” I said. “It did something to my magics. It wasn’t a suppression effect but it felt similar to it. It was like when it hit my my magics got all twisted up.”
“I saw a few of the Cadets had weapons like that,” Narla said.
“Armor too,” Yarrin said. “And you’re not wrong about them twisting magic. I don’t know how they manage it, but those swords are casters in their own right.”
“Casters? But they’re not people?” Ilyan said. “They’re just tools.”
“No, Yarrin’s right. When I was fighting, the gear was casting its own spells on me,” I said.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Mellina said. “Objects can be enchanted with magic, but it has to flow through a caster to be set into a material. A magic sword can only express the spell that’s been worked in it, the casting is long since finished at this point.”
“Materials can absorb magic or be warped by it if they’re exposed for long enough though,” Yarrin said.
“That’s still a resting effect,” Mellina said. “Dynamically moving magic requires a sentient mind to form the bridge between the two worlds.”
“Maybe someone was casting through the swords from far away?” Ilyan asked.
“I don’t know how they could, but I guess that could work,” Mellina said.
“Doxle said it was House Lightstone who were trying out the new weapons,” I said and glanced over to Narla.
“Could be,” she said with a shrug. “Lightstone does a lot of experimenting and some of it’s pretty messed up. Swords that scramble your magic sound like the kind of thing they’d pay a ton of gold for, even if they needed a second caster powering it at a distance.”
The conversation moved onto something about the feasibility of having a distant caster channel their magic working through a conduit someone else controlled, but I stopped listening then.
Over the delicious aromas of the food that had been laid out, stronger than the current of wary curiosity which gripped my new housemates, I caught one breath’s worth of a scent I’d been yearning to find for days.
Trina, my first sister, was here.