“It can be oddly distressing to have people who are unhappy with you. Despite the numerous times someone has tried to kill me, it is still quite uncomfortable to know that someone is truly angry at something I have done or said. Uncomfortable or, hmm, what’s that other term? Oh yes, delightful!
How can it be both? Why it’s almost harder to imagine how it could be neither.
Being the little social monsters that we are, our survival depends, in part at least, on convincing the other social monsters who infest our world that there is no cause for them to do us harm. Hence discomfort is a natural reaction to tipping the balance of our surroundings towards violence.
On the other hand, some people are just so awful that imagining them thinking of you as anything like a friend or ally is sufficiently abhorrent that murder is a vastly preferable alternative, ideally theirs, and ideally with as much aggravation for them as possible.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame in the most successful speech given to a class of 8 year olds at the Westsea Scriptorium.
The first assassin came for me while we were walking back home. It wasn’t a particularly inspired effort, but I did have to give him points for promptness. He would have scored more for finding us, except we weren’t exactly hiding.
“Are we still going to take him with us?” Idrina asked, pointing at his unconscious form.
It was a point of the plan that she’d debated against and I’d been of two minds on. As Idrina argued, carrying a body with us would draw a fair bit of attention (which was a good thing), but at the cost of handicapping us if a second assassin, or a team of assassins, made a follow-up effort before we got home.
“We should, he’ll be useful,” I said, “And Ironbriar doesn’t seem to be sending the talented killers yet.”
I was curious how well we’d fare against the real professionals the Great Houses employed. Based on the performance of their cheap and expendable agents, I felt like there was an excellent chance we wouldn’t need either of the safety nets that we had in play.
“Let me carry him then,” Idrina said.
“You’re not my valet,” I said, feeling keenly aware of the potential power imbalance that existed between us and rather desperate to cut off any distancing it would create before that sort of nonsense could get started. “Also, you’re faster than I am. Slowing you down doesn’t make any sense.”
“Yes, but they will be striking at you, and you’ll have a harder time dodging if you’re weighed down,” she said, her logic sound, as I suspected all of her arguments would be.
“I don’t need to dodge most of the time.” It was worth noting I thought, even though this was one of the occasions were ‘most of the time’ didn’t really apply.
“That will become less true the better the assassins get.” She hadn’t picked him up yet, but I could see that she’d more or less made up her mind at this point. To be fair, she wasn’t exactly wrong, but I still hated the idea of exposing her to any more danger than was absolutely unavoidable.
“If we carry him together, we’ll both be less encumbered,” I suggested, striving to find some measure that would keep her safer.
“We can but then we’ll both be slower, and then any attackers will be more likely to strike us both.” Technically that was true, but until Ironbriar decided to pay for the high quality assassins, the chance that either of us would be slowed in any significant manner was pretty much nonexistent.
“Okay,” I said, acknowledging her claim largely because a new idea had occurred to me. “You can carry him. That’ll leave me free to focus on protecting you.”
I watched her try to object to that, but come up short on reasons at first.
“I’m not the one who needs to be protected,” she finally settled on.
I gave her a skeptical glance. I knew she believed that, but it was also the farthest thing in the world from the truth, and it burned that no one had shown her that since she was old enough to form coherent thoughts.
“I believe I’ve made my position clear on what happens to people who try to harm you,” I said, gesturing vaguely in the direction where the Imperial Guards were probably still receiving preliminary medical care.
“That wasn’t necessary,” she said.
“I know. But it also sends a message.” A message I was not unhappy to have the world in general know, though I was sure the only option I’d have for convincing her of that was demonstrating my feelings repeatedly.
“That I am a weakness for you,” Idrina said, clearly appalled at the idea.
“That you are someone I will react in extreme ways for,” I said. “Which makes you as much or more of a target than I am, which should make your job a bit easier.”
“I have a job? Officially?” she asked, a glint of amusement in her scent which failed to register on her face.
“You can have whatever you want,” I said, knowing how unwise that sort of thing was to say and not caring in the slightest.
“Then I want you to let me keep you safe,” she said.
“Done, but for a price,” I said. “If you want to officially be charged with keeping me safe, then you need to allow me to be officially required to keep you safe as well.”
“That’s not the role a guardian has,” she said, aggravation rising in her scent.
Which was fine. We’d already fought for stupid reasons before, I was more than willing to fight for a good one for a change.
“Why? I would rather guard someone’s back who I knew was guarding mine,” I said.
“Guardians must be willing to sacrifice themselves for the one they protect. It’s their duty, it’s what defines them,” she said an air of befuddlement hinting at the back of her eyes.
“It means more to me that you’re willing to keep me safe than I can ever fully explains,” I said. “I never expected people to do anything but try to rend me down into spell fragments the moment they discovered what I was. I’ve thought, for my entire life here, that I was a monster. Unfit for this world except for the lie I’d wrapped around myself and the form I’d stolen from my sister. I’m starting to understand that might not be true. I’m starting to believe I don’t have to be a monster like I thought I was. Except I know I very easily could be.”
“It’s not as easy as you imagine,” Idrina said.
“Isn’t it?” I asked. “I’m ‘Head of a Great House’ now. I have access to wealth and authority beyond my wildest dreams. There is so little to stop me from treating others like tools, or pawns, or conveniences. The whole system of the Empire is designed to allow those in positions like mine to get away with whatever they want. I am officially above so many laws its ridiculous and even those who do apply to me are ones which can be circumvented in practice almost all the time. I can hurt people, people I care about, without ramifications, or even being aware of it.”
“Can you?” Idrina asked – not questioning the possibility but rather whether I had the innate capacity to do so in the first place.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “It would sure be comforting to say ‘no’. I’d love to believe that I’m just inherently good enough that I would never misuse my power or treat people as things, but that seems like an incredibly dangerous gamble. Especially because its so comforting.”
“You’re better than you think you are.”
“Maybe or maybe I’m better but only up to the point where I’m not,” I said. “I think all of that misses an even more important point though; regardless of what I turn out like, the whole system is broken because it has enshrined power into a position where there’s no consequences to its use.”
“And you think you can change that?” Idrina asked.
“Not alone,” I said. “But I’m not alone, am I?” I nodded to the body and offered Idrina my hand.
She hoisted the comatose assassin over her right solder and took my hand with her left.
“I want…” I started to say but my thought fritzed out at the feel of holding Idrina’s hand again. “Oh, wow, I want a lot of things.” Sticking to the truth seemed like my best play at that point. “In this particular case though, I want the Head of House to be the one who serves the everyone in the house.”
“If you spread yourself thin serving everyone, you may not have the strength to serve anyone as they need.”
“And that’s where I need you. That’s why I can’t let anything happen to you. It’s why I need to protect you as much as you want to protect me.”
“The other would keep you on track if I was lost,” Idrina said and I could almost hear the words, ‘I’m nothing special’ ringing in the silence which followed.
“They’d keep me on ‘a’ track, but with you, I feel like I’m on the track I want to be ok,” I said, refusing to add ‘please don’t let me lose that too’,
Idrina was silent for several long moments as we walked (at a considerably slower pace thanks to her burden), before offering my hand a quick squeeze that said she understood what I couldn’t bring myself to say yet.
As though they’d been waiting for the perfect cue, three figures clad is flowing robes of dark blue and magenta appeared from thin air and attempted to stab both of us.
The one nearest to Idrina was wielding a pair of knives, which was going to a problem.
I’m not as fast as Idrina is – something I might be able to fix with enough tinkering of my own body – but I was fast enough to grab that assassin’s hand at the wrists and break his forearms in a manner that would take more than a few days to recover from.
In the time it took me to do that, Idrina had dealt with the other two. Both were breathing (if in a somewhat painful manner admittedly) but, given the silver bands tattooed on their foreheads, I didn’t think it would even be possible for them to give any insight into who had sent them or what their exact mission parameters were.
These were the disposable minions.
Which meant we needed to rescue them too.
Yeah, I know it’s weird to think about rescuing the people who’d just try to kill you and it would be if we were playing by the Empire’s usual rules. If we were going to change things though, we had to start by making different choices.
In this case that meant giving a second chance to people who’d probably always had to deal with the position of ‘so long as you’re useful we’ll let you live.”
“They should be coming around again in a few minutes, right?” I asked Idrina.
“I can wake them sooner if you like?” she asked.
“Nope. In fact, let’s see if we can wake them one at a time, and move them before we do so.”
“You have a new plan.” It was said without accusation or concern.
“I wouldn’t call it that yet,” I said. “More an exploration to see if its worth coming up with a plan.”
I was hedging my terms only because of I wasn’t sure how good my acting skills were and for this to work, I was going to have to be extraordinarily convincing.