“People love to argue about guilt and innocence, taking an emotionally charged action and winnowing it down to just a single facet, a single dividing line to slice it between those who deserve to be punished, and those who are allowed to inflict punishment.
Typically the answer can be determined before evidence is presented. In some cases that’s fair, with the whole constellation of factors which led to an action being definitively wrong. Some people simply have no moral boundaries and act with greed and malice aforethought after all.
In other cases, generally where an offense has been made against those who hold power, the powerful will ensure that the powerless will receive a verdict designed to ensure that they remain so.
Where things become interesting is when someone with power offends another powerful faction. Do their reasons matter then? Is it possible to untangle who is deserving of punishment from those who should be allowed to deliver it when both parties are capable of thoroughly obscuring the truth?
There answer there is a simple one; sometimes it’s not possible. The vital corollary to that however is that you must always try nonetheless.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame on presenting the corpse of Vorthos Greycloak to the Imperial High Council.
Some forms of combat are clean and bloodless. Ones which involve beheading, unsurprisingly, can not be counted among that number. The host of problems with that only occurred to me after I’d been covered in blood once again. That it wasn’t my blood was a welcome change but still felt like a mistake.
In fact, I knew I had made a mistake, and an apology was definitely in order.
“Please forgive me,” I said. “I did not mean to steal your kill like that.”
I was speaking to Idrina of course, since I had in fact been somewhat rude in overriding the attack she’d made on the miscreant who’d set her off.
“No forgiveness is required,” Idrina said. “He gave the first and fatal offense.”
“And the second and the third,” Ilyan said. He was smiling where his sister was not, which was probably not doing anything great for my mental health. A week ago, I’d never killed even one human being. Within the last two days my body count had been steadily rising and, disconcertingly, I couldn’t find it in myself to be upset over this one.
“Damn it!” Narla said. “They all ran off!”
I knew my housemates were not normal people. Normal people wouldn’t have joined someone like me in the first place. Narla’s look of disappointment at not getting to tear anyone’s head off herself though told me that I had probably been underestimating just how ‘not normal’ they were.
“We should leave before a real patrol shows up,” Yarrin said.
“That would be a mistake,” Idrina said. “We will need to answer for what was done here.”
“They’ll have less of a case against us if we’re not here when they find the body,” Mellina said.
“What is this ‘us’?” I asked. “There is no ‘us’ here. ‘Me’. They will try to bring a case against me. None of you had any choice in what just happened.”
“I must disagree,” Idrina said.
“You took the fall for me once already today,” I said. “It’s my turn now.”
“It doesn’t have to be either of your turns,” Mellina said.
“I’m afraid it kind of does,” Ilyan said. “The guys who ran off? They know how we are. At least Kati, Idrina and me.”
“Their testimony against the head of a House won’t be worth anything,” Mellina said. “They probably won’t even be allowed to testify.”
“I’m not worried about court proceedings,” I said, because I was slightly stupid in that regard. “House Ironbriar’s not going to overlook this, will they?” I looked to Idrina and Ilyan for the answer I already knew they would give me.
Except they didn’t.
“You were given offense. I was given offense. We acted within the bounds of honor. There should be no judgment passed against us,” Idrina said.
“Come on sis, you know there will be,” Ilyan said. “If they took what happened earlier as an excuse to kick Dad off the family council, you’ve got to see they’re not playing by the rules that they taught us.”
“We have only the word of a dead man that Father has been removed from his position,” Idrina said. “I would verify his claim directly before I assumed anything the dead fool uttered is true.”
“Is that something you can check?” Narla asked. “I mean, if it’s true, wouldn’t you be in danger if you marched in and asked your family directly?”
“We are not without allies of our own,” Idrina said. “Holman spoke for me, and he would speak you as well,” she nodded to Ilyan when she said that. “Though you have done nothing to besmirch our Houses honor.”
“I left them,” Ilyan said. “Trust me, they will not care whatever else I’ve done wrong. If our Aunts and Uncles can find a path to eliminate me, they will take it, whether it’s honorable or no.”
“If you return with me…” Idrina started to say but Ilyan gently cut her off.
“If I go back with you now, they’ll consider me a coward as well as a traitor. This isn’t the time for that, and…well, they aren’t the people I’d want to go back to.”
Idrina didn’t react to that. She didn’t flinch back, she didn’t frown, and she certainly didn’t cry. Only her scent carried the sharp sting of pain that followed Ilyan’s words.
Even without my olfactory abilities though, he sensed it too.
“They aren’t who I thought they were,” he said. “But you are. The only reason I’d go back there is for you, if you needed me, or just needed anyone in your corner.”
Idrina remained as impassive as ever to that but a melange of emotions too complex for me to unravel rolled off her in waves for a few moments.
“Neither of you need to return to your House,” I said. “In fact, I believe I should ask you to stay.”
“Why?” Mellina asked, her eyes narrows in suspicion.
“I’m not versed on all of the finer points of Imperial law, but when one of the Great Houses is considering declaring war on another, it is common to take hostages in preparation for the declaration and the negotiations which follow isn’t it?”
No one answered me for another long moment, but I could smell the surprise wafting off all of them.
That probably shouldn’t have made me smile.
A girl my age who was covered in blood and smiling is not, it turns out, the most comforting sight in the world.
“You…you’re going to declare war on House Ironbriar?” Mellina asked.
“House Riverbond plans to, yes,” I said.
The Empress had been onboard with my half baked idea to destroy the Great Houses. I wasn’t sure what sort of support I could expect if I tried to take down Ironbriar, but I was pretty certain anything she could do would be more than House Ironbriar would be counting on.
I expected a loud and sustained chorus of voices to follow my declaration telling me I’d lost my mind and that I couldn’t possibly do what I so obviously wanted to.
And of course I was mistaken again.
“Adopt me!” Narla said, her eyes so wide and hopeful I could have gone for a swim in them.
“There are official papers you’ll want to draw up to declare war,” Yarrin said, apparently as unconcerned as the rest with the still leaking corpse at my feet.
“You think this is a good idea?” I asked, unable to keep my astonishment from showing.
“It has merit,” Idrina…IDRINA of all people…said.
“You’re thinking that if you and your brother are held as hostages, House Ironbriar will have to negotiate in order to save face with the other Houses?” Mellina asked.
“That and Lady Riverbond has room to go on the offensive here,” Idrina said. “She can argue that not only did House Ironbriar offer insult to House Riverbond in the form of their Cadet’s actions, but that House Ironbriar has engaged in a pattern of such assaults and is waging an undeclared war against her House already.”
“What pattern?” Ilyan asked.
“Oh!” I said, catching Idrina’s line of thinking.
“Mine,” she said. “I’ve assaulted Lady Riverbond twice now, on one occasion causing grievous injury.”
“That doesn’t count,” I said. “That was a fair duel and you acted honorably within the confines of the battle.”
Yes, I was arguing that it was fine that she’d stabbed me in the heart and kicked me off a forty foot tall pillar to my death. No, that wasn’t terribly rational of me. Yes, I knew that. Most importantly though, shut up.
“You may still point to it in support of your claim,” Idrina said.
“I will not,” I said. “It would dishonor you.”
A particularly fragrant burst of frustration mixed with something else followed that.
“I do not need you to guard my honor,” Idrina said, frustration tinging into anger.
“Of course not,” I said, affronted at the very notion. “But neither can I in good conscience cast doubts or aspersions on it.”
Somehow when I was speaking to Idrina, it was very difficult not to fall into the same level of formality she used. I had Grammy to thank for giving me any ability to mimic that kind of speech, since otherwise I tended to talk like the house staff rather than the nobility which I was apparently claiming to be.
“One thing to consider though,” Yarrin said. “If we become embroiled in a legal proceeding between House Riverbond and House Ironbriar, we may not be able to speak with Vena and Hemaphora until we’re done, which will delay speaking to your sister.”
“Allow us to remain here then,” Idrina said. “Ilyan and I can stay and explain things to the next patrol to show up. You don’t need to be here to present your case in person.”
“That’s a good idea with one significant problem,” Mellina said. “On the positive side, a patrol might be inclined to try to take us all in for arrest, and even though they lack to authority to arrest a Head of House, the lack may not prevent them.”
“Which means we’d need to kill a real patrol too.”
“Yes, but that’s not a significant problem,” Mellina said, which, again, not normal people my housemates. “No, the problem is with our hostages being the ones to enter House Riverbond’s grievances.”
“Ah, yeah, that would be hard to justify wouldn’t it?” Ilyan said.
“Not if we’re bond by honor,” Idrina said.
“Sorry sis, a hostage’s duty is to gain their freedom unless and until an agreement has been reached for their release,” Ilyan said. It sounded like he was quoting someone they both knew and from the look on Idrina’s face she remembered that lesson as well.
“That’s not a problem,” Narla said. “Oh, not you two. Ilyan’s right, we can’t have you two explain anything. Your House would just snatch you both back up, and then do whatever they wanted to you. We need an actual member of House Riverbond to do the talking.”
“I can stay here alone,” I said. “You all can go and find out what’s up with Vena and Hemaphora and I’ll join you once I’m tired of answering the Academy’s questions.”
“Nope,” Narla said. “Did you miss the part about you not being allowed to get arrested? The Academy can’t arrest a Head of House. So if they arrest you, that’s an argument that you’re not really the Head of House Riverbond.”
“Uh, I don’t think it actually works like that,” I said, feeling pretty certain at least Doxle would raise a few pointed objections on my behalf. “And, if I don’t stay, who’s going to? You said we need an actual member of House Riverbond to do the talking.”
“Yeah. Me,” Narla said.
“You’re a member of House Riverbond?” I asked.
“I will be once you adopt me,” she said with utter and complete seriousness.