“To one part attention, add two parts curiosity, a dash of insight, several bushels of perseverance and as many wheel barrows of patience as can be acquired (there is no danger of overdoing it, you will not be able to locate enough patience no matter where you look), mix with back breaking labor and allow to set for fifteen to twenty years, checking on the process frequently, but not disturbing it any more than is absolutely required. If you’ve followed this recipe properly you will have a slight chance of producing a worthy heir to your endeavors.
The alternatives are either a.) allow your children to run completely feral and hope that nature is a wiser mentor than you are, or b.) let someone else do all the hard parts and then adopt the ones who turn out well, or c.) accept that no matter what you do, your heir will be as imperfect as you are and support them as they are.
You would think that option C would be the most promising and healthy option to pick. Or, to be accurate, you would think that if you had never met an actual human. They, or to be fair, we, are a special sort of mad however, and whatever path you would presume to be the most sensible is the one you will find most people either walking backwards on or proceeding in a diametrically opposed direction from.
It is, therefor, quite fortunate that occasionally our madnesses align with one another.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame reciting his wedding vows to Glenmorda Tinbellus Enika of the Reaper’s Mercy
There are questions which catch you by surprise. Ones you have never considered and have no ready answer for. Ones you wish no one would ever ask you.
Idrina’s question was none of those things.
I’d been expecting it almost my entire life.
To be accurate, I’d been expecting it to be asked with a blade to my throat after my magic was locked down and my essence frozen into the form I wore. That Idrina was perfectly capable of putting a blade through my throat at any instant wasn’t lost on me, but coming from her ‘what are you’ seemed a lot more comfortable to answer than I’d anticipated it would be.
“I don’t know the name of my people,” I said. “I can tell you what I can do, I can confirm, if you aren’t sure yet, that I don’t come from this world, but as to what I really am? I guess ‘a monster’ might be the most accurate term.”
“No. It’s not,” Idrina said and help her hand up before I could protest or explain. “I know you’re not fully human. The body you wear is one of choice not necessity, but if you think you’re a monster then you haven’t met one.”
“I…,” How was I supposed to respond to that? I knew, from having listened to people speak of the ‘horrors from other worlds’ exactly how most would react to learning that I was spawned into this world by a Reaving Storm.
Idrina didn’t know that part yet.
I bit my lip trying to hold it back. She’d made a mistake. She thought I was something weird but still from this world. That I was supposed to be here. Sure I’d said I wasn’t from this world, but maybe she hadn’t heard that.
Yeah, I know that wasn’t a terribly rational idea to jump to on my part. The words I needed to speak were buried under about a decade of living in fear of being discovered though. Things like that don’t just come up easily or cleanly.
“I’ve done some pretty monstrous things,” I said, deflecting away to what was clearly not a better or safer topic.
“I don’t have the right to ask you what those were,” she said, and pulled away in exactly the manner I didn’t want her to.
“You do,” I said. “If you’re willing to be with me, I mean with House Riverbond, you have the right to know what you’re getting into. Though I guess you already know the worst of what I’ve done. Coming to the Academy has not been particularly good for me, present company excluded.”
“What do you regret that you’ve done?” Idrina asked, her gaze sharper and somehow more perilous than I’d expected.
Her question was a daunting one too.
Did I regret tearing the cadet apart during the trials? If I was being honest, no, I didn’t. If faced with the same decision, my only fear is that I would make it hurt more for them.
And the Ironbriar student?
I should have felt bad about that.
There were a lot of choices I could have made which would have defused the situation. There were so many more he could have made to though. Simple, basic, decent choices. And he hadn’t made any of them. Worse, he’d intentionally tried to hurt Idrina in a manner which was the most likely to cause deep and lasting pain.
So I didn’t regret what I’d done there either.
There was one thing I that I had done wrong though.
“I shouldn’t have let you take the fall for our fight in the holding facility,” I said. “You never should have had to stand trial or be forced to fight a trial by combat.”
That confused her, which I probably should have seen coming.
“Did I look like I was unhappy to have that opportunity?” she asked.
“He hurt you,” I said. “And that’s on me.”
“Would you claim credit for my victory too then?”
And I saw where I’d gone wrong.
“No. That was your choice and your fight. You were hurt and you accepted that in accepting the fight. I can be as unhappy with the Imperials as I want to be, but I can’t take the glory or honor of that fight from you. You earned all of it.”
“I…” It was her turn to be tongue tied, which was nice for a change. “You’re not a monster. You…”
I waited a moment but Idrina didn’t seem to know what she wanted to end that sentence with.
“I come from a Reaving Storm,” I said. “It was dozen or more years ago, when I was torn down into this world. My…I don’t think ‘family’ is the right word, but it’s as close as anything in this world will get, was brought through what I now know was a rift.”
My memories were weirdly vivid of some moments from that time and horribly hazy on others. Probably because I was only partially attuned to this plane, I finally put together as I was telling Idrina the story.
“This world is not like the one we came from and it hurt. A lot. We took forms of the things we could see so that it would stop tearing us apart and I got lucky.”
“You chose to look like your sister?” Idrina guessed.
“No, there was a Dire Wolf puppy nearby and I let myself become a reflection of it.”
“What did the rest of your family become?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think they ever finished taking on a form that would let them exist in this world.”
“The Hunters found you before they could.” Idrina said, not as a question or a guess.
“How did you know there were Hunters?” I asked, knowing she wasn’t old enough to have been one of the ones I saw that day.
“You’re family is gone, and I know why the Great Houses summon the storms,” she said. “They were looking to harvest magic.”
I swallowed. That was exactly what had happened, and my memories of several of those moments haunted me still.
“We were trying to shape ourselves into something we could hold onto, and that wasn’t easy. We never held onto anything, and I was the youngest of us all so I had the least control of my magic. The others were the ones caught in the spell web though. It missed me.”
“Spell webs are supposed to be something we would have covered next semester,” Idrina said.
“I…I might have had a problem with that,” I said, entirely unsure what I would have done if I’d felt someone cast another one on me.
“It might have revealed what you are,” Idrina said.
“Then I definitely would have had a problem with it.”
“I can show you how to break them. Oh, uh, if you need?”
“Are you sure you want to do that?” I asked. “All the stories about what a Reaving Beast can do? A lot of them are true. Especially for me. I mean, you know how hard I am to kill.”
“I do,” she said and looked away.
Her scent gave me the sense that I’d said something wrong there, so I took her hand again.
“Hey, that was my choice, remember?” I said. “You did what you had to, and you did it well.”
“I…you frightened me in our first fight,” she said. “I meant to disable you but even after I hit you with a disabling blow you still kept coming. I…There were better choices I could have made there.”
“Except for the loophole that Doxle put in, you won that fight and we both know it,” I said. “I don’t begrudge you using whatever force was required. We hadn’t put any restrictions on what we could do to each other. In fact, if we had, if you knew I wasn’t going to do anything fatal to you, you might have fought differently too.”
“I don’t think I would have,” Idrina said. “I am not good about not winning. And I was fighting for my House.”
She deflated noticeably when she said that and went silent for a moment.
I wanted to say something, offer some encouragement, but everything that came to mind seemed like it would be invalidating her feelings in one way or another.
I didn’t know what she was going through there. I had a bunch of guesses about what her life had been like, but I didn’t know anything for sure. More importantly, I didn’t know what her feelings on the any of it were either.
“Was it hard making the decision to leave?” I asked. If she didn’t want to talk about it, that was fine, but I was going to let her make that choice.
“I don’t know why, but no, it wasn’t hard.” Her eyes had an unusual glassiness to them when she looked up. “It was like as soon as I thought of leaving, I was already gone. Like I’d been gone for years, or maybe never even really there.”
There was a lot of unspoken pain there, but it was up to her to decide when she was ready to talk about it, or process it at all. I’m not great with people but I at least knew that.
“I’m glad you landed with us,” I said. “I already said if you wind up wanting to leave, I don’t want my House to be a trap that holds you in, but I’m glad you’re here, and, well, I know this totally selfish, but I’m hoping you’ll stay. Not for me. If I ever pressure you at all, you should smack me. I know you can, you know I can take it, so just know that it’s fine if you do, okay?”
I’d kind of lost track of where I was going there, but I was torn between really wanting her to stay and never, ever treating her like Ironbriar had. She was incredibly useful, but I never wanted her to be ‘a tool in my arsenal’. That kind of thinking led to the core problem the Great Houses faced; treating people like things.
“If not for you, then why would I stay?” Idrina asked, her voice gone oddly wistful? I couldn’t quite process that one and her scent was making no sense either.
“For you,” I said. “Stay because it’s good for you. If it is I mean. I want the life we build in Riverbond to be one where we help each other flourish without giving up who we are. I think if we can just treat one another with basic respect and decency, we can make a place that’s a paradise compared to most of the alternatives.”
“It’s not the House that’s the trap,” Idrina said, closing the distance between us. “It’s you.”
“Uh, what?” I asked, struggling to figure out what I’d done wrong, and how it could be wrong, when this seemed to be going very right?
“I didn’t join Riverbond for the House. Or for the others, though they are better than I’d expected. I joined for you,” she said, gazing directly into my eyes.