Clockwork Souls – Chapter 79

“Typically when you set out to find something, even if it’s something you run into every day, you will find that the mere act of searching has rendered your quarry invisible, intangible, and possibly even unreal. There will be no signs of where it might be, no signs of its passing, and no clue as to its existence in general.

The one exception to this seems to be when you set out in search of trouble. As this is, in general, a phenomenally bad idea, only the most foolhardy of people ever make the attempt. Their fortune is that while they are clearly lacking wisdom, so too is trouble, which is often all too eager to be found, even when its discovery will be to the regret of all the parties involved.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame trying, unsuccessfully, to convince a toddler of his acquaintance that they did not, in fact, wish to chase after the kitty they had just seen.

I wasn’t sure why I was holding Idrina’s hand. I wasn’t sure why she was holding mine either. I’d made the gesture without thinking about only to have it become the only thing I could think about. What was worse, my usual conversational strategy of ‘remain silent and let the other person take all the risks and do all the heavy lifting’ was not even slightly viable to use with Idrina.

We’d walked through about half the Academy’s campus, in silence, holding hands because neither of us apparently knew how to let go, before we saw something which gave us a reason to. 

Nelphas Lightstone had gathered a group of sycophants and was holding court before them on the steps to an abandoned dormitory which had formerly belonged to House Dryleaf.

I turned to glance at Idrina to see if she was still okay with our plan of action. It was one thing to be in trouble with a House she’d officially renounced, accumulating additional charges like we planned too was all too likely to convince the Heads of the Houses to get serious about the nasty things they had in store for us.

Idrina was, of course, undeterred. Before she could step forward though I raised our hands, questioning if she wanted to let go now that we were on the brink of needing them to be free.

I hadn’t expected the small shake of her head that she gave, or the happy little trill that bubbled up inside me on seeing it.

I mean, she wasn’t wrong that we didn’t really need both hands free to deal with someone like Nelphas, so I suppose it could have simply been an intentional handicap to keep the proceedings from being too boring, but it was still nice. For some reason.

“Oh, and who is this?” Nelphas barked out, interrupting some self aggrandizing story which resembled the truth only where they both involved Nelphas utilizing a large pile of money to solve his problems.

As per our plan, we ignored him and kept walking.

It’s what you’re suppose to do with tyrants and bullies right? Just ignore them. Words aren’t a crime, and we can’t expect people to remain civil at all times.

For the record, we knew exactly how poorly the ‘ignore him like he’s meaningless’ strategy would work with Nelphas. While we hadn’t counted on running into him specifically, the overall plan was more or less foolproof for this stage given a Nelphas-sort of audience.

The important thing was, that by ignoring him we accomplished two things at once. First, we essentially punched him in his oh-so-fragile narcissistic ego and, perhaps more importantly, second, we established as a truthful narrative that we were not the ones who provoked the conflict that was to come. 

At least not in a legal sense.

“Looks like we’ve got some scummy intruders trying to sneak back in where they’re not wanted. Little bits of rotten trash who should have been smart enough to stay in the garbage pit where they belonged.”

That was when I saw the wisdom of continuing to hold hands with Idrina. As long as we were joined together, we didn’t have to worry that the other one was going to snap and begin the inevitable battle before us.

Nelphas, bless the poor idiot, directed his cohort to part before him and then fan out to surround us. It was meant to be a menacing display. An immediate show of his dominance not only over them but us as well.

I fought very bravely to keep the wolfish grin I was feeling off my face. It was not easy.

“We’re here on official House business. Step aside,” I said, doing my best to channel Idrina’s calm, emotionless demeanor.

Nelphas laughed. It was the sort of cruel laughter of unearned superiority which told everyone around him that he feared nothing, and was going to take great joy in pulling the wings from the butterflies who flittered before him.

“And why would I do that?” he said, walking close to loom over me. “I deserve to be here after all. No name trash like you should be on the ground licking my boots clean. And your little friend there should be lower than that. Why, I could save Ironbriar all the bother and pass sentence on you myself.”

“You do not have standing to speak in this matter,” I said, fighting to remain as blank as possible. If even a hint of my glee leaked through, I was pretty sure Nelphas would have had the foresight to start questioning the terrible life choices he was in the process of making.

Despite my poor acting skills though, Nelphas was far too committed to the illusion he’d spun of his own importance and competence to question just how deeply in over his head he already was.

It helped of course that in simply stating the plain legal truth of the matter, I’d also managed to puncture his ego in one of the sensitive bits with the implication that he didn’t have the right to speak to me.

“Oh yeah? Well it looks like I’m standing right here. So what are you going to do about it?” Nelphas puffed out his chest as though he was some form of particularly dim bird. His hangers on loved the display, and started cheering him on, giving him the ego boost he craved and degrading his survival instincts even further.

“She will do nothing,” Idrina said. “As the Head of House Riverbond she is not obligated to deal with subordinate members of other Houses directly. Should a person lacking in significance pose an impediment or danger to her however, any member of House Riverbond is free to act in her support or defense.”

We’d read a lot of law books over the course of the day. Not enough to practice law, but enough to cover the specific situations we expected to arise (or cause). 

“Oh no,” Nelphas said with comically feigned concern, “The murderer Ironbriar kicked to the curb is threatening me too. Wow, what do you think folks? Can she get away with that?”

Idrina squeezed my hand to stop me from going after him right then and there.

Which was good.

I mean, I was definitely going to stick to the plan.

And I definitely hadn’t been shifting my weight and the muscle mass in my arms. 

Because that would have been a preemptive attack on my part and somewhat harder to justify in the court.

“I repeat, step aside,” I said.

“And I repeat; or what you puny little freak?”

That was probably all that we needed. Probably but I wanted more. 

“Are you offering insult to the Head of House Riverbond?” Idrina asked.

There was a right answer to that question.

“And what if I am?” Nelphas said, which was not the right answer.

“Then I would ask if you speak for House Lightstone, or if you intend to divorce yourself from them?” Idrina asked and I could feel all of the tension drain away from her as the scent of sweat and chainmail oil rose.

“Divorce myself from House Lightstone?” Nelphas laughed again and spun around raising his hands to encourage his supporters to laugh with him. “You think I’d give up my House? For you? You two are nothing more than common road scum. Your precious little house is a fake and a lie and everyone knows it. Ironbriar is going to cut you to little pieces and then stitch you back up into something useful.”

That was interesting.

We’d only gone fishing for a grudge against House Lightstone, and Nelphas, gift that he was, had given us so much more.

He knew about the Clockwork Souls program. Which meant House Lightstone did too.

Narla hadn’t been sure of that, but she’d suspected it was true. Lightstone would never have allowed Ironbriar to develop a weapons program which could give them such an overwhelming advantage against the other Great Houses unless Lightstone was the one holding the final leash.

Thanks to Nelphas’ blustering we had our first line of admissible proof to present as justification for the rest of our ‘inquiries’.

“Or maybe I’ll save them the trouble,” Nelphas said, turning back to us with magic swirling around his right hand.

The cheering from his fan club had pushed him exactly where I’d hoped it would, but I still could barely believe it.

It was my turn to squeeze Idrina’s hand, cutting off what would have been a rather final response to Nelphas’ provocation.

“Look at that!” he said. “Now they’re all terrified. What do you think? Maybe they don’t have to die? Maybe Ironbriar will only want them hobbled so they can’t get away?”

He aimed his right hand down at my left knee.

It was amusing that he thought I would notice his poison bolt, but for a future recounting it needed to remain clear that he, at least, thought he was threatening me with a permanent bodily injury.

“Even posturing harm against the Head of a House is an actionable crime,” I said. “As you claim to speak for House Lightstone, any actual commission of a crime against the Head of House Riverbond will automatically be judged an act of war.”

He laughed again. For one last time.

“Do you think House Lightstone, my House, the greatest of all the Houses cares about a war with you? With the worthless, pathetic delusion you’ve come up with?” 

I was making him mad. More than mad in fact. By remaining entirely unafraid of him, I was making him incandescent with rage.

And that was entirely intentional.

“I think you spend time with words because you fear the cost of your deeds,” I said and let go of Idrina’s hand. 

There are techniques one can use to deescalate potentially violent situations. 

This was the opposite of those techniques.

And it worked like a charm.

Nelphas’ eyes flew wide open as the fact that I was not only baiting him, but also going to make him look like a powerless fool in front of his sycophants finally dawned on him.

He fired the poison bolt he’d gathered at point blank range into my chest.

Honestly, he should have stuck with my knee. Those are fiendishly difficult to get just right. Especially with the little improvements I insist on having in mine.

Instead, his poison bolt struck me with enough force to give a ballista a run for its money.

And, as the name implied, it tried to paralyzed every nerves in my body, and then melt them.

Which was silly.

Why would I let it do that?

I absorbed the pointless thing in order to make sure none of it splattered onto Idrina and then smiled as the screaming started.

Nelphas had an impressive set of lungs it turned out.

And Idrina had an impressive amount of restraint.

I’d had to argue, vociferously, that allowing one of the students to attack me was a crucial part of the plan. Only by soaking an attack which should have been fatal would I be able to make an irrefutable case that another of the Great Houses has declared war on me. Anything less could have been “miscommunication” or “children misbehaving”.

Idrina and Narla had countered that allowing me to soak the attack was irresponsible and that it was both their job to defend me and to deal out retribution on my behalf.

None of us had been happy with the compromise we’d reached, but, as it turned out, Nelphas was the least happy of us all.

Since he’d misused his right hand, Idrina had take it away from him. I hadn’t actually seen her move, but watching Nelphas scream at the stump where he’d previously had five of his best friends was something of a balm to my soul.

From here on out, I expected trouble was going to learn an important lesson that if we were looking for it, it should really start running.

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