“We are never so powerless as we imagine ourselves to be. This can have dreadful and unforeseeable consequences though as each word we speak and each action we take sends ripples out into the great pond of the world and the effects of those ripples are ones which can easily pass beyond the farthest borders of our lives.
So are we to foreswear taking action, or speaking our hearts, out of fear of the disasters which can result? Perhaps. Long years of regret would certainly argue for that. As tempting as it is to listen to those regrets though, the truth is that silence and inaction cast their own ripples, and lead to their own disasters.
So which is the correct path? I can’t say for you, I have certainly chosen both and been happy with neither. From where I stand now though? Even if it leads me to sorrow and hardship, I choose to claim my life as my own. I will be silent no longer. I will shy away from no more choices. I will build my future my these too fallible hands and when it falls down around me, I shall build it again, regardless of whether I have only a single hour left, or centuries untold. The time remaining to us does not matter, only what we do with it.”– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm on the 50th anniversary of the Great Calamity to the first of her special agents.
The Empress knew about Trina. She knew that the real Katrina Riverbond wasn’t me. She knew Trina still existed. She knew what my sister had been doing all these years.
Those thoughts hit me, over and over, like hammer blows in a hurricane. All the secrecy which I’d felt protected by was gone and I stood at a perilous portal to an uncertain future.
We’d made it down all the stairs, through a maze of buildings, and inside our home, and I was still reeling from the idea that Trina was really out there. That she had been out there this whole time.
Meeting her in the Clockwork Cosmos should have convinced me of that, and it had, but somehow hearing that someone else knew she existed made my own experience even more real and undeniable than it had been.
“I need to steal a forbidden book,” I said to no one in particular.
Doxle was walking right beside me, holding my arm, I think so I wouldn’t topple over. I wasn’t that unsteady on me feet but I also wasn’t paying all that much attention to where I was going, or other minor things, like how legs were supposed to work.
“Most forbidden books are in libraries,” he said. “While I shall never speak against theft, great or small, it may benefit you in this case to simply borrow it.”
“It’s forbidden though?” I was pretty sure he wasn’t being serious, but with he sounded so ernest it was hard to tell. “I’m pretty sure they don’t lend those out.”
“That largely depends on who you ask and how you phrase the request.”
“Do you know the librarian here at the Academy. Wait, were you married to them?”
“That is of no importance,” he said, confirming my suspicion. “What matters is that the Archivist is a deeply curious woman. Explain why you wish to borrow whatever book it is you need and she will very likely allow you to at least study it within the library.”
That seemed terribly reasonable.
I squinted my eyes and searched for the joke or trap in his suggestion. Reasonable behavior was disallowed by Imperial decree or something wasn’t it?
To all appearances though, Doxle was being honest.
Which he usually was I noticed. He could twist honest statements to make them work towards whatever end he wanted but despite being a demon he didn’t seem to lie much at all.
“You know which book I want, don’t you?” I asked, guessing mostly from how calm and incurious he was being.
“You wish to contact the previous Lady Riverbond,” he said. “There are, in fact, several forbidden tomes in the archives which contain the details on various methods to achieve that. If you ask the Archivist, she will insure you are given one of the ones with few curses on it.”
“How did you know…” I wasn’t sure how to even finish the question.
“I believe you were instructed to ‘ask your sister’?” he said, pausing us outside one of the living rooms I hadn’t been in yet. “I know some small details of your history, and could hazard guesses as to slightly more. That you are the second in your generation to bear the title of ‘Lady Riverbond’ took no great intuition though, not with the various members of the Riverbond family I’ve known over the years.”
“You knew…,” I wanted to say ‘my family’, but that was a complicated subject and one that I felt less comfortable than ever in laying claim to, “…the House before it fell?”
“Not the whole of it, just some of the better and worse members,” he said. “Overall it was a very typical Great House before it’s fortunes turned. Your adopted father had the right idea in moving what remained of the family away from the capital and outside the realm of political influence. It wasn’t enough of course – the victorious Great Houses enjoy tying up loose ends more than in healthy or reasonable – but it was still likely the best he could have done.”
“If they wanted to finish off the Riverbonds, why did they stop there? Shouldn’t they have come after me too?” I asked. I’d always known that the death’s of Trina’s parents had been due to unnatural causes. Grammy hadn’t spoke much about it but she had disappeared for a couple of weeks after their funeral and when she’d come back she’d been strangely grim for a while. She hadn’t smelled of blood though. That was definitely not a memory I had excised in order to keep Trina from noticing any change in my behavior afterwards. I’d just been playing hide and seek for a while for reasons completely unrelated to letting a bloodscent dissipate.
“They did,” Doxle said. “Why do you think you lost your sister?”
I turned and rooted myself to the floor.
“I’m sorry. What?”
“Your sister, the previous Katrina Riverbond, was lost in a Reaving Storm, was she not?” Doxle asked.
“No..she…I…how did you know?” He wasn’t supposed to have figured that out. No one was.
Except the Empress knew.
Had Trina told her?
Had Doxle talked to Trina too? Did he know about me before he ever met me?
“Curiosity,” he said. “After we forged our pact, I saw first hand what your Hollowing looks like. You aren’t just a remarkable caster, you are someone quite unique. Since House Riverbond wasn’t notable for producing powerful casters, I started investigating how someone of your skill and talent had been missed for so long.”
“But how did you know about Trina? Did you talk to her?”
“Alas, I did not have that privilege,” Doxle said. “Most of the departed do not linger in any realm close enough to ours for even the most truly dreadful of forbidden rituals to contact them. I should quite enjoy an opportunity to converse with her shade if she lingers still, but I imagine her time on this plane will be greatly limited and by rights, you should be granted as much time with her as the spellcasting can provide.”
“How did you know she was gone then?” I asked. I’d spent many years making certain no one knew of her demise, so it was hard to suppress the spark of anger at all of that effort having gone to nought the moment someone glanced in my direction.
“I asked your Grandmother,” Doxle said.
He didn’t say that.
Grammy was the reason I’d taken Trina’s form.
Grammy couldn’t know that her last grand daughter had died years ago.
Grammy couldn’t know that I’d failed them both.
Doxle was lying.
He didn’t smell like he was lying.
He didn’t look like he was lying.
But he was lying.
There was nothing else that could be true.
He had to be lying.
I turned to confront him, and found myself in a dark and unused hallway.
I’d been running.
I couldn’t remember the last few seconds? Minutes? Hours? Probably not hours. Probably minutes. I couldn’t remember them well, but I think I’d run away.
That was embarrassing. I’m not supposed to fall apart like that. I’m supposed to be inhumanly tough. Because I wasn’t a human. I was supposed to be brave, because nothing could hurt me. I was supposed to be…
I had no idea anymore.
For a long time I’d thought I was supposed to be a replacement for Trina. For Grammy’s sake. So she wouldn’t have to bear the grief of knowing her grand daughter was lost to her just as her children had been.
I slumped down against the wall and felt the memories of the most awful day I’d ever had crash over me, just as they’d done ten thousand times before.
It had been a bright and sunny day. I remembered that so clearly. The beauty of the day had stuck with me, and left me mildly hateful of clear weather since it was a lie about how nice the day would be.
Trina had wanted to play in the woods, and Grammy was willing to trust her so long as she brought me with her. A young girl in the woods might be in peril from many things, but a young girl and a full sized Dire Wolf who loved her had far fewer things to fear.
Trina had already given me the first part of her name by then – Kati being her mangled version of what was left over from ‘Katrina’ once she’d taken her part of the name from it. It didn’t really make sense. I worked that out a few years later, but it sounded good to her ears and I was happy to have anything that linked us together. I’d thought that link would keep us both safe. That as long as we were bonded together as the sisters she claimed we were, I could protect her with my teeth and fangs, and she could keep me safe and sheltered from the people who’d pulled me and mine into this world and then cut the rest of my family down.
Trina had upheld her part of that bargain, but I’d failed in mine.
The Reaving Storm, when it hit, had come on suddenly. From cloudless sky, a storm had rent through the bright blue dome and sent down a screaming wind which tore the ground open.
We’d been apart then. A dozen yard, which was eleven too many.
I’d leapt towards her as the ground split and she fell into the chasm which tore open at her feet.
I was faster than the wind but I wasn’t fast enough. I should have been faster. I should have been able to save her. To catch her before she fell. I should have been enough, but I wasn’t.
Instead she plummeted into the earth and I’d followed.
The chasm had been deep.
And it had been sharp.
I’d known to abandon hope well before I reached the bottom. Well before I found her body. Well before I saw the cost of my failure. I knew to abandon hope, but hope is cruel and lingers far past when its been lost.
Down in the darkness, as the earth rumbled and crashed, as monsters emerged to scour the world, I saw the end of my world and I felt the unbearable weight of what I’d lost.
And then I heard Grammy calling.
And I knew I would lose her too.
I didn’t have a heart – not one that I needed – but anyone who did? It would have shattered and failed if presented with as much pain as I was feeling. I knew that with all the conviction of someone who was sure her experience was the same as everyone else’s in all things.
That was when I gave up the life I’d had. Let go of the wolf I’d been pretending to be, and began a different game of pretend.
The world was not going to miss one mostly-civilized Dire Wolf cub. It would spin on just fine without the creature I’d been mistaken for. Without Trina though? Why even have a world without her? That was why it wasn’t a Dire Wolf who’d climbed back out of the pit we’d both fallen into.
I’d seen myself then, reflected in Grammy’s eyes, when I crawled out of the Reaving Storm wrought crevasse. I’d looked terrible. The devastation of grief twisted my features even though I had changed them utterly from what they’d been.
Grammy and the others thought I was grieving the Dire Wolf cub who’d gone in to rescue me, and in a bizarre sense I was, so I let them continue to believe that.
That was the first time I’d turned to silence to hide from questions I couldn’t or didn’t want to answer. It was far from the last.
When the storm had passed, the crevasse had sealed itself back up, entombing Trina a hundred yards deep under the earth.
Or so I’d thought.
If the person I’d encountered truly was her (and I knew she was, even if I’d wanted to deny it, I couldn’t, not with her scent being so true), then I’d failed her again.
Even with the earth crushed back together, I could have dug down. If she was out there, anywhere, I could have found her. Should have found her.
I’d seen the ruin the fall had made of her body. I’d felt hope slice my heart in two, and I’d done the only thing I could think of.
I’d given up.
I wasn’t sure she could ever forgive me for that.
I wasn’t sure I could ever forgive me for that.
I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to.
“You’ll probably want to talk to her about that,” Yarrin said as he quietly sat down opposite me. “And to talk to her, you’re going to need me, right?”