Clockwork Souls – Chapter 81

“It is so often the urge to try to mitigate the outcomes from the mistakes we make. We spill something and grab for a cloth to contain the spreading puddle. That works fine when the spill  is one of wine or some lesser substance. Sometimes however our mistakes are not so simple. Sometimes they are not even mistakes, and yet still we seek to clean them up on impulse without stopping to consider whether we should or not.

Why do we do this? Because it is easy. Because it is a bribe towards the restoration of a comfortable harmony, even though that harmony may be filled with razor blades which slice away more and more of us the longer we cling to it.

What should we do instead? I will let you know once I’m done making up for my mistakes.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the Fire Flame shortly before the third trial which resulted in him being sent to the gallows.

Apparently, when you grow up in one of the most powerful Houses in the Empire, and spend your days training like a mad fiend, the basic interactions common among the lowborn aren’t part of your interpersonal repertoire. 

In theory they shouldn’t have been part of mine either – Grammy’s house technically was a ‘noble dwelling place’, but when she’d given up on the world, she’d given up on her title and the distinctions of class that came with it.

I wouldn’t say that means I was raised in a ‘normal household’. Almost by definition any house with me in it is not a normal one, and in Grammy’s house I was far from the strangest one in residence.

The other members of the household – proper nobility would have called them ‘the staff’ but Grammy called them ‘her people’ instead – tended to carry on like typical townsfolk for the most part. Some lived there full time, and others lived in town or their own places. They gave me examples to draw from as much as Grammy did some of which, like the offer of a fist bump of congratulations, were apparently unheard of in proper noble circles.

At least from the concerned look Idrina gave me.

As she started to square up on me with an even more confused look in her eyes, I opened my hand into a wave and shook my head.

“I just wanted to congratulate you,” I said. “It was fun to watch you work.”

There were a whole host of reasons that was wrong ranging from ‘watching people get beaten to broken and bleed wrecks shouldn’t have been fun’ to ‘I was probably enjoying just watching Idrina more than I should have. I couldn’t deny either one though, so owning them both seemed like the best option.

“Oh, uh, thank you,” Idrina said and turned to leave in the direction we’d originally been traveling.

I fell in beside her, wondering if I should take her hand again. There wasn’t any reason we needed to. Both of us knew where we were going. And it was better for us to have our hands free if some of the upperclassman, or worse the instructors, decided to ambush us.

I knew all that but it still felt weird to be just walking beside her.

I could do weird though.

It was normal for me.

“How long do you think it will take for Lightstone to get their declaration to us?” I asked.

Because idle chatter was something we were definitely both masters of.

“It depends when Nelphas stops screaming,” she said, and cast a quick glance in my direction.

For the record, Nelphas was still going but he’d at least dropped to his knees and sounded like he might pass out sooner rather than later.

“I’m impressed you got his hand to burn up like that without cooking the rest of his arm,” I said, because, damn, I had no idea how I’d pull that off, even if I had fire related powers, which I didn’t think Idrina did either.

“It’s a pretty simple trick,” she said, glancing down at something interesting on her feet. “It just takes two spears rather than one.”

“And, wait, you summoned both of them, right beside each other, so fast no one could see either one?” I asked and saw her cheeks flush a bit as a hint of pride laced the air.

“I worked that out when I was nine,” she said. “It’s really not hard.”

“You worked it out – it wasn’t something you were taught?” I asked. “I’m going to guess there’s no one else who’s managed to ‘work out’ how to do it, have they?”

“My style is unusual.”

“Your style is beautiful,” I said. “I don’t…I don’t see things like most people do. My perspective is skewed I think by what I am. I do know art though, and you’re…you are like watching a master crafter at work. When you dropped the thunder spear on the caster? I almost missed the upwards throw you made there. You blended it just so nicely into the parry that you did, umm, assuming I saw that right at all. Was that when you called the spear down?”

I sensed that I was rambling, but it was surprisingly easy to given how amazing her fighting style was.

I’d grown up in Grammy’s house hearing stories about the legendary warriors of centuries past. The ones who’d been around at the empire’s birth, and who’d defeated all sorts of titanic beasts and single handedly turned the tide of entire battles. I’d day dreamed more often than I could count about meeting them or finding myself in the situations they’d been in. 

The more I got to know Idrina, the easier it was to imagine her as one of the legends, while at the same time catching glimpses of the very real girl who was hiding behind all that skill and drive.

“It was,” Idrina said. “I didn’t think you’d noticed it. You sounded like you were trying to warn me about the caster.”

“I was, sorry, I know that was probably just a distraction.” Since she clearly hadn’t needed any help there.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m just not used to it. I haven’t trained in groups much.”

I was glad she didn’t have my sense of smell. I heard the loneliness in her words all too clearly and I’m sure she would have smelled the mix of outrage and sadness that rose within me as a result.

She ‘hadn’t trained in groups’ because she’d been forced to train alone.

Because her family, Ilyan excepted, were awful.

“Once we’ve dealt with all this nonsense, I’m sure Narla and probably a bunch of others would be happy to make up a training group. And me. I’d want to be part of that too,” I said, because I am very, very smooth and not at all stupid and clumsy when talking with someone I might possibly like.

Idrina responded with a quick smile and a short nod of agreement, which was better than a lot of other alternatives.

“Does that mean you’re going to keep this?” she asked and, as was fairly usual for me, I had no idea what she was referring to.

“Keep what?”

“House Riverbond. The people in it,” she said. “I know you want to take down my…House Ironbriar and the others. Will you dissolve Riverbond too then?”

I could have been stunned by that question, but, for a change, it was one I’d put some thought into.

“No. I don’t want to tear families apart. Taking down Ironbriar and the others isn’t about crushing the people in the Great House, or not most of the people. What I want to do break the position they have. Again, maybe it’s because of what I am, but to me, the “low born” and the “high born” really aren’t different at all. You’re all just people, and, I know this is apparently heresy, but I think if everyone was assumed to have the same value it would work out better for all of us.”

“But you won’t need Riverbond if this works,” Idrina said. “No one will be trying to kill you anymore.”

“I don’t…you’re not just a shield for me,” I said, sickly horrified by where I could see her thoughts going. “Wow. Where to start,” I shook my head and saw the dangerous slopes I’d been talking myself nearer and nearer to. “I think you’re amazing. Your casting and fighting prowess is literally the best I’ve ever seen. Here’s the thing though, those are two separate truths.”

Idrina tipped her head and stared, using my own ‘be silent and let the other person do all the work’ tactic against me!

“If we were in some far away land, where no one knew us and everything was peaceful, with no fighting allowed at all, I would still want you with me,” I said. “I know almost all we’ve done together is fight, but there’s a lot more to you than that.”

“Is there?” she said. “How can you know that?”

“Because you’re standing right here, right now,” I said. “If all you wanted to be was a fighter, you didn’t have to chose to stand with me. Honestly, you’d probably make out better standing with literally anyone else. I’m actively dragging you into trouble, and that’s not healthy in the slightest, not with the people I’m planning to get in trouble with.”

“Maybe that’s why I’m standing with you,” she said. “Maybe I’m just here because you offer the best fights.”

“Are you?” I asked, already knowing she wasn’t. “Is a fight all that you’re looking for?”

“It’s what I’m good at. It’s what I’m built for.”

“Yep. Both of those statements are true. You built yourself to be good at fighting and you did a damn fine job of it. Are you seriously asking me to believe that you’re not up to the challenge of being even more though? Or that you aren’t more than that already?”

“I…” she stammered and went silent again.

“If being part of my house isn’t what you want long term, I…” It kind of hurt to even think about that, but I pushed it aside. This wasn’t about me. “You should be free to go where you want and become who you want. I know you swore an Oath of Fealty to House Riverbond and I plan to add just one modification to it – a good House is there for the well being of family who calls it home. I want to make it so that a House needs to earn your fealty and support, not the other way round. If I can’t give you the life you wish, then Riverbond is failing you and you should be free to find something better.”

“And if we…if I want to stay?” she asked.

“Then I will hold onto you for as long as you like,”  I said. “I’m sure we’ll all change and grow over time. I think even if we don’t make an effort at it, that happens naturally. Some may come and some may go, and that’s be great and it’ll suck, but that’s life, and I think it’s better together.”

I was basing that on things that Grammy had said, and how empty life had felt without Trina, but some of feelings of loss echoed back farther than that. Almost back past my oldest memories.

We walked for a bit in silence, which was only surprising because from how my luck had been going I expected a pack of third year Cadets to ambush us at any moment. Maybe third years were smart enough not to mess with us? Probably unlikely, but who knows?

“May I ask you a question? A personal one?” Idrina said, turning towards me and taking my left hand in hers.

“Oh, uh, sure,” I said, not at all flustered and suddenly empty headed.

“What are you?”

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