“It’s challenging to rise from bed each day, greet the morning light with even a modicum of awareness, and not observe a hundred and one different reasons why the world should be allowed, or even encouraged, to burn right down to the ground.
My preferred solution to this problem is simply not to rise until it’s the next day. Apocalypse’s are so much work to engineer after all and sleeping in winds up being so much more agreeable to both myself and others.
On those days when I am forced to rise and confront the teeth grindingly horrible stupidity of the world around me, I am forced to fall back on the next strongest bulwark against invoking armageddon – namely that, for as full of malice and cruelty as the world may be, there are people in it who deserve better, some few of whom I may or may not harbor the smallest possible bits of appreciation for and whom I am loathe to see any further misery inflicted on.
Saving the world for myself? Why, no, that would be ridiculous. I clearly do not deserve a better world.
For many reasons.
No, it is simply not something I can lay claim to.
But that doesn’t mean I have to accept the world as it is.
Not when I can make it better for them.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame lecturing a very confused assassin who thought his quarry was a simple farmer who’d been caught unaware in a tavern at dusk.
I was setting myself up for a battle. No holds barred. Knockdown and knockout. Winner take all. On one side there was me. On the other side there was, basically, everyone else.
You’d think that would have given me a clue that I wasn’t thinking clearly.
You would be wrong if so.
You would also think I must have had some profound and well considered reason for setting myself against Mellina, Idrina, Yarrin, and even Ilyan, any one of whom could probably beat me one-on-one (maybe not Ilyan, at least not without time to seduce a whole army of followers). It would be entirely reasonable to take my opposition to them as proof that I had rock solid ground to support my arguments with.
You would be wrong there too.
Looking from one of them to the next, I couldn’t have offered any rational explanation why I was so opposed to them being part of the “tear a Great House to pieces party” I’d burned into my dance card.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want their help. Taking on a Great House was far more than I could possibly handle on my own.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them either. I’d told them enough about me that they could basically erase me from society, and possibly existence, if they put their minds to it, and yet I knew they wouldn’t.
And I knew they were capable. I had no idea how I’d ended up with a group of housemates who were all so exceptionally talented. I certainly hadn’t applied any kind of rigorous screening process to the strays I collected. Really, I hadn’t even collected them. They’d sort of collected me.
So I wasn’t responsible for what was going to happen to them if they followed me down a path that couldn’t possibly lead anywhere good even if it was the only even marginally sane course of action there was.
That should have been enough for my conscience right?
No one would blame me when they got hurt, and permanently disabled, and killed.
It wouldn’t be my fault.
Except I’d already lived for a decade knowing that something horrible had been my fault even though no one had ever blamed me for it.
I knew I could lie myself out of any consequences for my actions and never face the anger and disgust that I deserved to endure.
So that was it then, right?
Everything was great.
I had all the bases covered. No matter what happened, I didn’t need to worry.
Yep, definitely, except not a word of that was true, and I’d been willing to fight till I was exhausted to convince the people around me of that fact.
But then Trina had asked her question and knocked all the ground out from under me.
“Why can’t I just run away too?” I asked, trying to compute something that was innumerable.
“Yeah,” Trina said. “You’re afraid of what’s going to happen to your friends here? I’m not going to argue you’re wrong, and I don’t think they will either. They know as well as you do the kinds of things the Great Houses will do to stop you, or against you if you succeed. Grammy had a reason for retreating to the forest and living in a fortress of her own making after what she did, and I don’t think either one of us imagine we could match her at her prime. So why don’t you all go somewhere safer.”
It looked like Idrina had an answer for that but she held her lips shut and focused on me, I guess more interested in the wrong answer I was going to give than the right one she held.
Not that I had even a wrong answer available.
I could have babbled off the first thing that came to my mind, but I hadn’t missed the lessons Grammy had taught me. She’d never expressed her philosophy in words but she’d lived it so clearly that I couldn’t help but hear and understand it.
‘If you don’t know an answer, wait to speak until you understand the question and yourself.”
So I did.
A breath in. My eyes closed.
Why was it that I couldn’t run away?
Or could I?
I tried to imagine fleeing to some foreign shore.
I could take them all with me. House Riverbond had the funds to pay for a journey anywhere in the world and the means to live comfortably once we got there. The Great Houses wouldn’t be happy to have a threat lingering on their periphery but their ability to project force into the Stoneling lands or other distant countries was limited enough that we’d make short work of any assassins they sent after us.
It wouldn’t be a bad life either. There were plenty of places outside the Empire which could use our help. Peoples the Empire had little contact with and ones it had entirely too much contact with.
So why not leave and go help them?
Why fight a doomed battle?
I opened my eyes and glanced at Trina.
Was I doing this for her?
Was this revenge on the Great Houses for taking her from me? Had I known, on some level, that their were responsible this whole time?
No. I hadn’t. I didn’t hate them for Trina’s death. Or I hadn’t. That was rapidly changing the more I thought about it, but it wasn’t the central reason why I couldn’t leave this behind.
“If I run, no one is ever going to fix this,” I said.
“Are you sure this can be fixed?” Trina asked. “Are you even sure you know what needs to be fixed at this point? Or how to fix it?”
“No. I’m not,” I said. “What the Great Houses are doing? How they treat people and how many people still support them? Maybe that’s a sign that there isn’t anything left to salvage. Maybe there’s no point to any of this and nothing will ever get better no matter what we do.”
No one interrupted me even though I let a silent moment pass to allow them to.
“Maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t matter,” I said. “Unless I try I’ll never know, and if I don’t try I’ll always have to wonder if there wasn’t something I could have done to make things better. I’ll always wonder if I couldn’t have been better.”
I paused again and again they let me continue.
“I couldn’t save you. I’ve spent ten years crushed by that. Even a decade of guilt over not being enough is better than what I would have felt if I hadn’t even tried though,” I said. “I think if I hadn’t done anything, my heart would have died that day too and, even if it sucks, I’d rather have a wounded heart than a one that had crumbled to unfeeling ash.”
Mellina put her hand on my left shoulder. I hadn’t noticed her approaching but my instincts were strangely accepting of her.
“Do you see now why this needs to be all of us?” she asked.
And I did.
Curse them all, I did.
“You deserve better than this,” I said, playing the last gambit I could think of because it was true for all of them. Narla too, and she needed to hear it as well, but I only had my audience at hand to work with.
“So does everyone,” Ilyan said, stepping in close as well, with Yarrin at his side.
“We’re as afraid as you are,” Yarrin said. “But we’re in this together with you.”
I may have flapped my jaw a few times trying to find a coherent response to that.
“Why me though?” I finally asked, hating how it sounded as the words escaped from my lips.
“Because you inspired them,” Idrina said.
“How?” I wasn’t inspirational. I wasn’t even real. Not like they were.
I saw a dangerous flash shoot across Idrina’s expression as those thoughts crossed my mind, and I reconsidered them in light of her previous demonstration.
Maybe I was a little bit real.
Maybe I was more like them than I’d understood.
“You got into an arena with her, and then got back up afterwards,” Ilyan said, gesturing towards his sister. “So don’t try to pretend you’re not brave.”
“You avenged Kelthas,” Yarrin said. “So we’ve seen your compassion too.”
“I ripped that guy apart though! How was that compassionate?” I could still feel his heart like a warm squishy blob in my hand if I thought about it.
“You cared enough about a common born boy to bring his killer to immediate and irrevocably justice,” Mellina said. “And you saved who knows how many other applicants from meeting the same fate.”
“And you are loyal and true,” Idrina said, almost sounding as though she was embarrassed to give that particular compliment. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to summon your sister to speak with us.”
Ilyan glance over at his sister with a surprised expression and a scent of amazement that I couldn’t make out either.
“I know what you think you’re not,” Trina said. “If I’d been around, I’d have spent the last ten years convincing you how much more ‘what you are’ matters than what you’re not, but we lost that time. I can’t make it up to you or make any demands of you. It wouldn’t be fair because there’s nothing I can give you in return. All I can do is ask that you not miss spending the next ten years with people who will show you what I couldn’t.”
I glanced around from one of my friends to the next.
They all had small smiles and were waiting for Trina’s words to sink into my thick thick skull.
Well, almost all of them. Vena and Hemaphora were watching from the sidelines but nodded in agreement with Trina when I glanced over at them. Idrina however was looking away.
She didn’t smell angry or appalled at the idea. If anything she smelled nervous, which really didn’t make any sense.
It was possible that I’d miswired something in my brain. Connecting neural pathways had taken a fair bit of practice, and learning to use them was an ongoing process.
Which pretty much defined all of the rest of me.
I had friends. Or so it seemed.
That was new.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them.
Protecting them wasn’t it though. At least not how I’d gotten fixated on what I could have done to protect Trina.
They had as much stake in making our world a better place as I did, and I needed to respect that, and respect them by asking for their help when I needed it not trying to go it all alone.
“In that case,” I said giving them the best smile my weary face could manage. “Which Great House are we going to take down first?”