Clockwork Souls – Chapter 42

“I cannot tell you how agreeable your company is Madame Greendell. The poison in the tea? No, I don’t mind that at all. It’s perfectly a reasonable attempt to have made. Well, yes, obviously it wasn’t going to work, but then it wasn’t intended to was it? 

House Nightshade needed an efficacy test performed and the present circumstances provided a perfect opportunity. I’d have been appalled if you hadn’t taken advantage of my visit to help further their arts.

How did I know of your bargain with House Nightshade? Because I recognized the flavor. Yes, I know the poison’s supposed to be flavorless, but there’s a wonderful numbing chill which creeps around the corners of the mouth about a minute after imbibing. Quite pleasant really. I’d recommend it for formal occasions but only if your guests are either expendable or quite thoroughly inhuman.

What comes next? There is business we must discuss, matters to settle concerning House Greendell’s position on the subject of House Riverbond, but it has been quite an evening, so I find myself in little hurry to get to that. Perhaps you could tell me of your trip to the Azure Springs? I haven’t been in years and I hear they’ve finished their renovations only recently.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, relaxing in comfort and sharing tea in Madame Heldina Greendell’s private sitting room.

It took me longer to fall asleep than it should have. By rights, I should have been unconscious the moment I slogged over the threshold to my room. Even making it that far had been rough but collapsing in front of my housemates wasn’t something I was willing to do for reasons that were as scrambled as my thoughts.

I found a fresh set of clothes waiting for me on the bed and considered shifting directly into them to save time, but opted against that. I had plenty of magic left but processing it was tiring and I’d been out of my normal body more than enough already.

Once I was dressed, I went and cleaned up like Grammy had taught me. I didn’t have the energy for that either, but I’d used that excuse too often and been rebuffed by Grammy too many time to not hear her voice telling me I had to brush my teeth anyways even though she was hundreds of miles away.

Falling into bed should have been simultaneous with falling to sleep but as I plopped on top of the covers, sleep scampered off somewhere distant and elusive. Fatigue didn’t of course. Fatigue seemed to be setting up permanent residence in my bones and behind my eyes, drawn there by the aching of my heart and the maelstrom of my thoughts.

So, instead of blissful unconsciousness, I just lay there.

Too tired to move.

Too exhausted to sleep.

Getting halfway through a dozen thoughts before another dozen distracted me with what seemed like ever more critical problems.

Trina wasn’t here.

Except that she was.

The Great Houses were going to kill me and all of my housemates.

Except they weren’t.

I was bound to one of the Imperial Advisors.

Except he seemed intent on making that deal work in my favor.

I had housemates who were doing stupid things for me.

Except it wasn’t for me, it was to satisfy some pretty reasonable curiosities.

I was an Imperial Cadet.

Except I had no interest in playing any of their games.

Around and around, I kept shooting down the problems that were gnawing away at my thoughts only for them to rise again.

“Oh, wonderful, you’re not dead,” Doxle said from the doorway to my room in place of knocking. “Would you mind if I came in?”

I waved a hand towards one of the chairs that was nearish to the bed.

“A thousand gratitudes,” he said and slumped down, pouring himself mostly onto the seat and half over one of the arms.

“Mrfph,” I said in place of ‘you’re welcome’.

He smelled noticeably smokier than normal and, though he’d washed a few times, it was hard to miss the scent of freshly spilled blood he wore like an overcoat. Some of of it was his, enough that I wasn’t sure he could have much left on the inside of his body any more, but there had been plenty beyond that too. 

I was sure he couldn’t smell the same on me. For one I’d been very tidy in my mayhem, and for another most of the bleeding I’d done had been with copies of other people’s blood.

“You will be happy to know that House Riverbond will be officially recognized as an active concern by the High Council,” he said.

“Ernff?” I said, feeling especially eloquent.

“Concern as in recognized entity,” Doxel explained. “Though it’s fair to say most of the Houses are concerned about you in the more colloquial sense as well.”

“Assassins?” I asked. Sleep wasn’t in the cards and exhaustion lost the battle to curiosity in terms of keeping me flopped down on the bed.

“Always a temptation, but for now its probably wiser and less expensive to deal with them via calm, rational discourse,” Doxle said.

I’m not sure why he thought I would believe he’d spent the night in anything like calm and/or rational discourse but given that he looked as bad as I felt, I was inclined to give that one to him. 

“Expense, being, sadly why I must disturb your gentle slumber this evening,” he said.

I raised my head for that. Was I supposed to pay for something?

Oh! Oh no!

I’d forgotten about how he’d dodged the question of whether my speaking for Mellina was something we could afford.

And then I’d gone ahead and spoken for three other people after that.

If we all got kicked out because I was flat broke…well, I wouldn’t be unhappy for myself, but it seemed like that wouldn’t be fair to the others. Not after what we went through to get into the Academy.

“After the evaluations tomorrow, we have a trip to make,” Doxle said. “We’re going to visit the keeper of House Riverbond’s escrow. To do that however, you will need to survive the evaluations.”

“Okay, sure…wait, survive? Are these more murder games?” If they were, someone was going to die, and it wasn’t going to be any of the cadets this time.

“Not as such,” Doxle said. “Cadet’s generally only start dying in their second year and that’s primarily due to unexpected occurrences during training missions.”

“That’s a year away then, what’s going to kill me tomorrow?” Or, to phrase it in other words, who was going to give me an excuse to kill them tomorrow.

“The Great Houses who spoke for the cadets today have all given pledges for your safety, so there won’t be any official declarations against you or your new household,” Doxle said. That was better than I’d imagined, far better in fact. “Which means all movements against you and yours will be via indirect means – lone agents, people with personal vendettas against you, random happenstance, that sort of thing.”

I sagged, my relief evaporating.

“I believe I have apologized for dragging you into all this,” Doxle said, “but I’m not sure any apologies could be sufficient.”

I sighed and raised my head to look at him.

“It’s fine,” I said. “Grammy said it would come to this no matter what I tried to do.”

“Your grandmother is a wise woman,” Doxle said. “I doubt she raised a granddaughter  without giving her the tools she would need to survive and prosper in this sort of life too.”

“I don’t seem to thriving,” I said.

“You’ve far outperformed anyone’s expectations,” Doxle said. “If you no longer wish to be a Cadet though, know that I will not hold you to that. There are decidedly more pleasant locales where we can make a home, and substantially better tutors than the instructors you’ll find here.”

That sounded good.

So of course I wasn’t going to do it.

“Can’t,” I said.

“You want to stay here?” Doxle asked, sounding both faintly surprised and mildly pleased at the idea.

“Sure,” I said, not wanting to get into why. I could barely explain it to myself, at least not beyond the fact that it was Trina and I had to know.

“Oh, she is going to enjoy meeting you,” Doxle said, the ghost of a smile gracing his lips.

“She who?”

“The holder of your escrow,” Doxle said. “She has a fondness for…let’s call them ‘driven and determined individuals’.”

I tried to work out what that meant and gave up. I’d know when I met the mystery money woman, until then she wasn’t an important part of my existence.

 “I thought you should know something else too,” Doxle said. “Though this is on a more personal level. The weapon you fought against in the arena? It doesn’t exist.”

I was tired, and things were processing slowly, but I couldn’t helping blinking at that since it made no sense at all.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The cadet you fought? Lightstone claims his weapons and armor were enchanted with nothing more exotic than strengthening charms from a mechanical realm. They even showed me a piece which they claimed had been used in the arena and it, in fact, bore no specialized functions beyond an activation and charging sequence which morphed the blade slightly.”

“They were lying then.”

“Of course. Air was passing outwards from their lips,” Doxle said. “Their deception did not rest in the blade however. It had been used yesterday in the arena.”

“It couldn’t have been the one used on me. I know that one was magical. So was the one used against Idrina.”

“They claim otherwise,” Doxle said., “According to them, all of the arena fights were fair tests of the combatants skill and there were no tests being performed on people they considered to be expendable.”

“Does that mean I can treat all of them as expendable? Because they were definitely testing something there” I said.

“I will not tell you how to treat, or not treat, anyone,” Doxle said. “What I will say is that no one else was under the impression that Lightstone had outfitted the cadets with normal weapons or armor either. Everyone knew Lightstone was doing the final testing on something, to the point where there’d even been a soiree planned for afterwards. For some reason however it was scrapped at the last minute.”

“Why?” I asked, not sure what part of that I was asking my question about. 

“I believe I mentioned earlier that your performance wasn’t expected? That was even more true for Lightstone than the rest,” Doxle said. “From what I can infer, they had planned to announce a new bit of magical trickery they’d developed but when you beat their prize champion, in a nicely definitive manner I might add, their triumph was reduced to ash. Who would want to buy, or be properly concerned about, a tool which even a fledgling cadet could overcome after all?”

“Do you know what their new thing was supposed to be?” I asked, my earlier jumble of thoughts swept aside by an answer staring me in the face.

“They were surprisingly tight lipped about that,” he said. “Couldn’t even pry it out of the dead ones.”

I was going to choose to believe he had visited the Lightstone family crypts rather than making a pile of new corpses as he so obviously had.

“Could they have been manufacturing Reaving Beasts?” I asked, which first earned me a look of amusement followed by concern when he saw I was being serious.

“What do you mean by ‘manufacturing’?” he asked.

So I told him what I’d seen. I admitted to breaking into the Research Quarter, and laid out the same bits and pieces of observation which I’d shared with the Last Guards.

To his credit, Doxle didn’t interrupt me, or cast any doubts on the story I gave him. He simply grew quieter and more alert with each detail I mentioned.

“I don’t know what they’re doing with the dead bodies,” I said, “but the idea that they could be using spirit binding to turn them into a form of controllable Reaving Beast came up when we were discussing it.” I hadn’t gotten around to mentioning the Last Guard but I was sure he would at least know that I’d gone out with the rest of my household.

“She will want to hear about that too,” he said after a long moment of silence.

“Who?” I asked, thinking that my mystery money woman probably wouldn’t also concerned with the machinations of the Great Houses. 

I was, as it turned out, breathtakingly wrong about that.

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