“My greatest work? The hardest endeavor I have ever undertaken? Why I assure you it is a simple matter to name. No spell I have cast, or duel I have fought comes close to earning that title. The grand tests of my youth? The ones I studied and practice for until my fingers were raw and my eyes bled? Child’s play. The burdens of my position as First among the Empress’s Advisors? As light as a feather. Staying married for three whole weeks to my own doppleganger? While we tried at every moment to destroy each other? Including the acid pool we pushed each other into during the reception without giving away that we were anything but madly in love with ourselves? Like unto a vacation of bliss.
Far harder than any of those, so taxing that even with all these centuries of innumerable attempts I can claim no victory at it, is the dread task of resting both when and where I am supposed to.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame attempting and failing to talk an Imperial Nurse into allowing him to leave his hospital room before his physicians would allow it.
I was wanted for murder. That wasn’t terribly surprising. I was far more shocked that I was wanted for being myself. Out of everything that had happened to me over the last few days, that was left me feeling the most disconnected from reality.
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe my housemates…my friends. I’d been really careful in fixing up the olfactory center in my brain and my nasal cavity. I could smell the honesty of their appreciation and the lack of, what would have been entirely sensible, fear on their part.
They knew who I was, who I wasn’t, what I was (mostly) (somewhat) (a little), and what I wasn’t, and they still wanted to be around me. None of them even wanted to kill me. I mean Narla and Idrina were still eager to fight me, but there was a disturbing lack of malice or homicidal undertones to their desire.
A normal girl wouldn’t have found that so shocking. If Trina had lived and taken her rightful place…well if that had happened she definitely wouldn’t have been where I was. My sister, even when she was a little girl, had been far too wise to get herself embroiled in the ridiculousness that was the politics and machinations of the Great Houses.
I wasn’t that wise – demonstrably – but had I been the girl I’d been claiming to be, I probably wouldn’t have had such a hard time believing what my senses were telling me about my friends. If I’d been the girl I’d claimed to be though, I wouldn’t have spent the last decade convincing myself that anyone who learned my secret would work to see me destroyed instantly.
To be fair to my younger self, and my present self for that matter, I hadn’t been entirely wrong. The group of weirdos I’d gathered into my house – or taken hostage in Idrina’s case – were not particularly representative of what the ‘average Imperial citizen’ was like. No one in their right mind, for example, hitched their fate to a last heir of Great House which had been all but destroyed. I absolutely lacked the power to keep them safe, the prestige to assure them a position in high society, and the wealth to allow them to live as equals to the siblings and cousins they’d left behind.
And none of them cared. Each of them seemed to prefer that in fact. They’d walked away from lives that other people routinely killed and died to attain, and not a one of them was looking back.
So, on reflection, I felt like I should forgive myself for feeling a bit adrift from the world. Too much had changed, both in my circumstances and in me, to not require some time to process it all.
As I floated in the tub that Pastries had filled for me, I let my body absorb the warmth and the heavenly fragrances both while my mind slowly, oh so very slowly, began to untangle itself.
The future was terrifying. I couldn’t deny that. I more-or-less couldn’t even face it.
And that was okay.
The future wasn’t here. It would come in it’s own time and I would face it then whether or not I gave it space in my thoughts while I was floating and drifting.
I would adjust to people accepting me too.
I’d have to become someone new for that to be true, and I wasn’t ready to be anyone but who I was at the moment, and that was okay too.
I didn’t need to be my future self. Her time was still to come. All I needed to do was hold the image of who she was, who I wanted her to be, in my mind and use it as a guiding star to chart my course.
I’d fail at that too of course. Because that’s how life works. We try. We fail. We try something new. Maybe we learn something. Maybe we refuse to learn. With each step though, we build up some parts of who we are and cast aside others.
I bobbed along, letting my mind wander through fields of thought like that, hoping that if I gave it the freedom to go where it needed to and the quiet to let it say what it needed to, I’d be able to clear away at least some of the thoughts I’d been shoving off to ‘think about later’.
That didn’t work either of course. The mind, or at least my mind, isn’t like a filing cabinet you can move stuff into and out of at will. The things I’d pushed off I either wasn’t ready to deal with yet, or had forgotten, or had been changed enough by my experienced since I pushed them away that they’d resurface as something else entirely.
I’m not sure how long I rested like that. Not as long as I needed, or as long as I would have liked, but probably longer than I should have. It was at least long enough though that when there was a knock on the door I didn’t leap out of the bath in Dire Wolf form.
“I’m still alive,” I said, loud enough to carry through the nice solid wood in between me and whoever was interrupting my bath.
It was probably Doxle. He seemed to have a talent for interrupting, and I hadn’t heard from him since we’d gotten back home.
I braced myself and marshaled all of the entirely reasonable explanations I was going to need to give for the entirely unreasonable things I’d done and, more importantly, intended to do in the near future.
“I am glad to hear that,” Idrina said through the door.
That got me up quickly.
I wasn’t worried about her attacking me in the bath. I knew her better than that by this point. What I was worried about, I definitely could not say.
“Is anything wrong?” I asked, drying my hair as quickly as I could.
“The charges against you have been delivered,” Idrina said.
I breathed a sigh of relief. We’d been expecting that, and the speed with which they’d been drawn up said that House Ironbriar, or at least one of the members of it’s internal council had been enraged and foolish enough to act against me without spending the time to get the back of their other Great Houses.
“That’s excellent,” I said, and then remembered the other important element we’d been counting on. “Do the charges mention you or your brother?”
I slipped into my clothes in a blink, morphing myself as needed to slither into them without impediment, before opening the door so that we could talk face to face.
Idrina was waiting for me a tactically sound distance back, standing with her hands folded comfortably at her waist.
“No mention is made in the charges which were presented of either Ilyan or myself,” she said. Her gaze was focused at an indeterminate point behind me somewhere, and her scent was all but screaming ‘conflicted’.
“That’s good news too, isn’t it?” I said, confused over what could be bothering her. “I thought you and Mellina said that if they didn’t mention you two in the charges officially it would be because they planned to focus solely on me.”
The idea, as they’d explained it, had been that in my role as the Head of House Riverbond, any charges against me would fundamentally sweep up any other wrong doing of those “under my auspices”. It was expected that if one of my subordinates was guilty of some wrongdoing, that the bill would be sent to me and I would be free to inflict whatever punishment I chose to on the unlucky fool who’d cost me whatever resources were required to pay off the charges once the case was settled.
“With no charges made against us, Ilyan and I are free to return to our House without fear of official censure.” Idrina should have looked happy about that.
Or not. She didn’t really do ‘happy’ from what I’d seen. But she should have smelled happy about it. Instead, she smelled more conflicted than ever.
“Is that what you want?” I asked.
“As your hostages, we are more valuable,” she said, and even I was able to catch that she’d dodged the question.
“That’s not true,” I said, objecting to a very specific part of what she’d said. “You’re value doesn’t depend on me or anyone else. You’re valuable no matter where you are or why you’re there. Ilyan too.”
I didn’t let her get that thought out at all.
“You owe no one,” I said. “Or, wait, no, you owe yourself, and that’s it.”
She glared at me.
Which was good.
And she smelled annoyed.
A short while ago I would have been afraid to aggravate her like that. Just like she’d punched the stupid out of my face though, I decided she needed me to punch it out of her emotions.
“You need us to stay,” she said, the slightest hint of anger peeking through her words.
“Nope. I want you to stay. But that doesn’t mean you should.”
She blinked and fought to control what looked like a variety of emotions from showing on her face.
“If you stay, I want it to be because it’s what’s right for you,” I said. “I want you to stay because you are frankly amazing, and you’ve shown me things no one else could. I want you to stay because I don’t want to be your enemy. I was afraid of your strength before, but strong enemies aren’t something to run from.”
“You would embrace me then? Because of my strength?” she asked, her scent firmly back in the realm of deep confusion.
“I respect your strength. I admire the work you’ve done to develop it. But that’s only the smallest part of what makes you amazing,” I said.
“And if I could never pledge my strength to you cause?” she asked. “If I vowed never to fight with you?”
“I would want you not the slightest bit less,” I said. “Make the vow right now, and I’ll be glad to prove it to you.”
“You think I wouldn’t keep it? That you could suborn me as you’ve suborned my brother?” she said and I couldn’t tell which answer she was hoping I’d make.
“Idrina, on my life and power, I would never ask you to break a vow, or ever believe I could change your heart. I’ve seen you. I know you. I can only imagine how much pain that would cause you and even that is terrible.”
That made her angry.
Which was weird.
She hid it completely on her face and in her body but buried deep down some quality rage was burning hotter than the sun.
Without another word, she gave a formal nod, spun on her heel and marched out of my room, leaving me perplexed where I’d gone wrong and why she was so mad at me.
Or was I was the one she was mad at at all?