“Those we lose are never as distant as we imagine.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame on returning from the venture of transformation to become an Imperial Advisor.
I’m good at noticing people sneaking up on me. I have senses that are far sharper than most animals. I kept the instincts from my early Dire Wolf form to stay sensitive to danger. I’m able to perceive magic directly if something seems off in my surroundings.
None of those had told me Yarrin had joined me before he spoke though.
He hadn’t used any special magic to do so. All he’d done was walk up quietly and sat down, leaning against the opposite wall. It hadn’t been his fault at all that I’d missed him. It had been my own.
“Yeah,” I said, mostly as an admission to myself that I’d fallen into a spiral of thoughts that wasn’t at all heathy for me to linger on, with a small bit of agreement to his assertion that I needed his help to talk with Trina again.
The little smile he gave me and the small shift in his scent said he’d picked up on all of that.
“You’ve had a long day. Are you up for making it a longer one?”
“I’m okay. It’s…there’s just been a lot to process today. Physically I’m in decent shape though,” I lied. I’d nearly ripped myself and my magic to shreds opening rifts to other worlds for the first time, I’d fought both against and for Idrina, and I’d tangled with both an angry clockwork monster and the cosmos it hailed from. My body was mobile largely because I desired it to be and my magic was willing to agree with that sentiment.
I should have let myself rest, but I had more magic to drawn on, and more I needed to do.
“We can go now then if you want?” Yarrin asked, rising to his feet in the process. “The others are ready too.”
I stared at him for a moment, processing that.
Why were my housemates helping me with this?
I needed Yarrin according to Trina to help find the right book, and I needed the twins to perform the spell. I’d owe them all for that, and pay them back however I could. Apparently I had money now? Not that I expected they’d take gold coins for what I was asking. It seemed too directly mercenary somehow?
The others though? They didn’t have to be a part of this at all.
Maybe they were just going to send us off?
Or maybe Narla and Ilyan wanted to safeguard Yarrin? That one checked out. I don’t think any of them knew the feelings they were developing for the others, but their subconscious awareness was already strong enough that they’d begun orbiting each other as a natural habit.
Mellina on the other hand? Curiosity maybe? I couldn’t really tell.
“Doxle said to ask the Archivist rather than simply stealing it,” I said, trusting Yarrin would hear the implied counterargument that we’d have to wait till the morning to do so.
“I know the Archivist he’s suggesting we speak to. She’ll be there now. In fact, it’s late enough that she may be the only one there.”
“We’ll need the twins too,” I said, not sure why I was coming up with excuses to put off confronting the biggest failure of my entire life.
“The twins? They’re here already,” he said, looking slightly puzzled at my statement.
“Vena and Hemaphora are here? Why?” There was no reason that should have snapped my disbelief. My entire life had been a shattering glass pain of what was real or unbelievable in the last few days. The idea that the two probably-not-human people I needed just happened to have already shown up on my doorstep was a step too far though.
Or a sign that I was trapped in a far more intricate scheme than I’d ever imagined.
Yarrin shared my disbelief for a moment. Or perhaps it was my confusion. It only took him a second to make sense of things though.
“Oh, okay, I suppose they would be helpful for something like this,” he said offering me his hand. “My mistake though. They’re not here, or at least not that I’m aware of. I had thought you meant Ilyan and his sister.”
I wish people would just start clubbing me in the head with tree trunks rather than saying things like that. It would be easier to understand and I could fix the damage to my brain with a lot less effort.
“Idrina? She’s here? What the hell is she doing here?” I got up. What else was I going to do? I clearly hadn’t come back to the world I’d known but rather some strange fun house version of it where nothing was allowed to make sense for longer than a minute at a time.
“She came to check on her brother. They both took some pretty hard hits from the clockwork knights,” he said. “Also, and I say this with the caveat that she is hard for me to read, I don’t think she’s too happy with her House at the moment.”
“Does she…” the idea was ridiculous, but since I had apparently become a resident in whacky world I asked anyways, “Does she want to stay with us?”
“She hasn’t said so yet. I think she might like that, but I can’t see if it’s something she’ll be able to ask for. It’s…she’s complicated to work out.”
I laughed at that. Not because it was true, though it was, but rather at the thought of Enika having a meltdown when her two star pupils defected over to Doxle’s house.
Not that they could really defect.
They had pact bonds the same as I did. So they were stuck with Enika whether they liked it or not.
Except she’d already let Ilyan join my House?
Which was weird, wasn’t it?
The tired mass of mush inside my skull threw a few pieces of itself back together and I caught a glimpse, or maybe just an imagination, of layers of political machinations unfolding with Enika and Doxle in a more complex relationship than the teasingly adversarial ex’s they claimed to be.
Happily that was not my problem, or my worry.
There was something freeing about knowing that the world wasn’t focused solely on me. There were so many problems floating around out there, knowing that at least a few of them would seek out someone else made it a lot easier to face the ones ahead of me.
“Thanks,” I said, setting off in the direction I presumed our main sitting room was.
“I haven’t done anything for you yet,” Yarrin said, falling into pace beside me.
“You know that’s not true.”
He smiled at that but the aroma of disagreement wafted over from him. We walked on without debating it further though until, by some miracle, we arrived at the sitting room I’d been trying to find.
Narla, Ilyan, Idrina, and Mellina were waiting for us, with Pastries embodied in barely visible whisps of water vapor serving a fresh tray of hor d’oeuvres to them.
“Hey, she’s back!” Ilyan said. He’d been laying down on one of the couches with Narla in a chair near his head and Idrina in one near his feet. “Where are we going next!”
I tipped my head to one side. I shouldn’t have wondered if he was being serious. This was Ilyan. If it was a terrible idea, of course he was being serious.
I bit back my initial answer of ‘the Library’. The hope which had spawned that was that Ilyan might find the library too boring to want to tag along with us to. Even before I spoke, I knew that was a foolish hope.
Also, there was the matter of Idrina and how she would react to more rule breaking on my part.
I wasn’t as terrified of her initiating another fight to death with me. In part because the secrets I’d been trying to protect were clearly not secrets to anyone important, like the Empress or the demon I was pact bonded to. More than that though, I was pretty sure she wasn’t interested in murdering me, like I thought she’d been.
Fighting me? Yes. Definitely. I could see the urge to hop into an enclosed space with me spark up behind her eyes as soon as she saw me, but for Idrina, fighting wasn’t about anger and rage. There was room for those emotions, and many others, in it, but she fought with her spears in the same manner that a poet writes with their favorite words. Both might say they wanted to kill you, but they were capable of expressing so much more than that too.
As oddly relaxing as a fight with her struck me as being in that moment though, I didn’t have enough left in me to speak her language properly, and to bring anything less to the contest would be an insult that I didn’t want to make.
Instead I held her gaze and nodded.
She was welcome here.
Whether it was only to visit her brother, or if she chose to stay, she was welcome.
I probably should have used words to convey that idea. Silent glances and subtle body language aren’t exactly the clearest modes of expression, but I thought she’d gotten the gist of my intent.
“Give her a chance to have some food,” Mellina said poking me in the arm to nudge me towards the open sofa which sat kitty corner with Ilyan’s couch and Idrina’s chair.
Pastries produced another tray from, as far as I could tell, thin air, this one with a variety of meaty soups to choose from.
I was capable of eating them all.
I was capable of eating them all at once in fact.
I did not.
I probably should have. They were really good and having the extra protein and hydration and vitamins and minerals would have been delightful to have as easy fuel to rebuild my more dubiously reconstructed organs with.
But it would have looked gross.
And shown off how decidedly non-human I really was.
Which, again apparently, might not have been a surprise to anyone, but I…I just didn’t want them looking at me like something alien and weird.
So I ate the soup like a normal human girl of my age and general weight.
I mean, a girl my size could in theory have put away three of the soups if she was really hungry, so it wasn’t that unrealistic.
And they weren’t staring at me as I ate which was what really mattered.
Instead they were talking about tomorrow.
No one knew what was scheduled to occur, but it seemed to be the common consensus at this point that schedules were a vague illusion at best. There was also a general consensus that the Imperial Academy was not what any of us had been led to believe it was.
We danced around the subject of Idrina’s trial, mostly because Ilyan seemed borderline berserk over what had happened, specifically the danger Idrina had been in. He was cheerful enough about it, but I was reasonably certain if any of our classmates brought up the trial in the context of Idrina being in the wrong, or not having sufficiently proved herself in it, Ilyan would, without hesitation, murder the fool then and there.
Idrina didn’t look like she approved of that. I was reasonably certain she would want to be the one to murder said-fool instead, but despite the scowl she wore each time Ilyan spoke, there was a tenderness to her posture and a concern in her scent.
She loved her brother, and was endlessly exasperated with him, which, having met Ilyan for more than two minutes, I understood on a bone-deep level.
“So, are you done eating now our good Lady Riverbond?” Ilyan asked, adopting a flowery and formal tone and matching it to what was almost certainly the wrong form of address to help lighten the mood.
“I want to say no, but three bowls is probably enough,” I admitted, wiping the dregs of third bowl out with a final chunk of fresh bread.
Ilyan rose from his couch and stood tall and strong, only his scent betraying the lie in his posture.
“If you are done here, then where shall we go next?” he asked, his eyes, if not the rest of him, alight with a zeal for adventure.