“Finding allies is a tiresome task, all the more so when one is truly in need of them. For some reason when the whole world is out to rain down misery and defeat on someone’s head, everyone else is strangely inclined to avoid them, or, worse yet, take the world’s side of things.
For these occasions, my personal recommendation is waste little to no time attempting to discover new supporters. In fact, it’s also best to assume that some number of the supporters you believe you possess will reveal that they no longer have your best interests at heart.
Why, yes, on occasion that number has been ‘all of them’. However did you guess?
As I was saying though, the best strategy isn’t to go out searching for allies. Far better to create them from the pieces offered you by your enemies.
Well, yes literally if need be. Reanimating the dead can be a phenomenally effective tactic, if a rather pungent one. Should you possess a modicum of imagination however, there are other, less odiferous approaches available as well.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame inspiring the villagers of Meadow Rain during the peasant rebellion against the unlamented Duke Janstan Astrologia.
Finding a place to work in private wasn’t a trivial challenge. While no one had assaulted us in several minutes (which given how things had been going was a definite sign the average intelligence of the Academy was rising sharply), we had attracted a fairly thick cloud of ‘secret followers’.
I’m sure most of them simply wanted to earn a bit of coin by selling information on us to their contacts in whichever Great House sponsored them. They could have earned even more if they’d fulfilled the hidden and highly illegal bounties Ironbriar had posted on us, but the risk/reward ration on that was objectively terrible even before we’d trounced an entire patrol of Imperial Guards without killing any of them.
So they could learn! It honestly almost brought a tear to my eye. I was so proud of them. It was so tempting to believe the entire Empire was peopled by the stupidest of possible humans, but here the students of the Academy were, being smart and self-preserving and acting like real people and everything. There might be hope for them after all!
Well, some of them.
I had to assume some would eventually be overcome by greed.
Those I promised myself I would make sure had a chance to learn from their mistakes though. I could be better than literally every other Great House leader in that at the very least.
We did manage to escape our pursuers, or at least most of them (all the ones I could smell at a minimum) by sequestering ourselves inside the kitchen area of one of the mess halls which had long since finished serving the days meals.
Once we were safely clear of observation I tore a rift to the Clockwork Cosmos, went in, tore another one out (it turns out it was easier the having done it once already, and also because the Cosmos had a few other issues it was dealing with).
That let us take a shortcut no one else could follow, which dropped us off in an abandoned dorm adjacent to Doxle’s house.
I could have tried to open the rift inside Doxle’s place but that seemed like an inherently bad idea given the obvious space-warped nature of the place and the fact that neither Seaform, Piney, nor Pastries had said it was okay and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to upset the invisible caretakers of the place where I slept and bathed.
“They’ll be waking soon,” Idrina said, depositing the fourth would-be assassin in a seating position beside the other three.
That was a problem. We could fix it, but I didn’t like our available option for doing so.
So I was going to make a new one.
“I need to ask you to do something unpleasant,” I said, marshaling my arguments for why my request was necessary.
“I am not going to leave you alone with them,” Idrina said, her voice even flatter than usual.
“Not that,” I said, unable to fully hold back the smile for how pleased that made me . “I need you to stab me till I stop moving. If this goes wrong!” I added the last bit when I saw Idrina’s otherwise fixed expression going hard as steel.
“And what is ‘this’?” she asked.
“Three of them are have silver tattoos which I can smell are some form of obedience brands. I want a moment to see if I can subvert them.” Like I’d said, it wasn’t a plan yet so much as an idea that could lead to a plan.
“Subvert the brands or the people despite the brands?” Idrina asked, more curious than disbelieving from what her scent suggested.
“The brands. I think I can undo their magic, or maybe even twist it change its parameters,” I said. “But there’s a risk.”
“You might be driven berserk by them?” Idrina guessed.
“I might fall under their effect,” I said.
“Which is why I’d need you to render me inert since I wouldn’t be all that in control of my actions until you got the spell removed.”
“I assumed that was the idea.”
I blinked. Was she okay with my plan?
“I won’t be able to dispel the Loyalty Brand if it transfers to you,” she said. “I presume Doxle is capable of doing so though?”
I nodded. That was a good idea. Which I had not thought far enough ahead to work out.
I had no idea if Doxle was actually capable of erasing a Loyalty Brand of course, but it did seem like the kind of thing he’d have worked out if it was possible.
“Getting you to him won’t be difficult,” she said. “But it would mean leaving these four here.”
She wasn’t asking if it was okay to kill them in that case. They’d, technically, tried to kill me already, and I think her moral compass had fairly clear things to say in that regards.
I had to disappoint her though.
And help her build a different compass.
Growing up under the world view of House Ironbriar was not a healthy thing from what I’d observed, but for someone as sturdy as the steel she wielded, Idrina had shown an amazing ability to change already.
“If you do have to leave them, I think you should leave them as they are,” I said and then hurried to continue before she could protest. “I know they’ll still be primed to kill us, but that can be made to work in our favor too.”
“How?” It wasn’t unreasonable for Idrina to disbelieve my claim, but fortunately I did have an answer in this case.
“I know that using assassins against other Houses is considered just a part of playing the game. As a Head-of-House, I’m expected to employ sufficient security to make attempts like this basically nothing more than letters of mild discontent, right?”
That won me a tiny curve of Idrina’s lips which was the equivalent of a hearty chuckle.
“I haven’t heard it described exactly like that, but you’re not wrong either,” she said.
“The thing is though, it is technically still illegal, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes, I suppose it is.” Idrina said, seeing where my argument was leading. “If you bring that up before the High Council though the other Houses will take it as a mark of weakness.”
“I hope they do,” I said. “Maybe a few more will declare war on us if so.”
She sighed, acknowledging that I was right while at the same time protesting the danger I was continuing to put myself in.
It would have been really wrong to start making out with her then and there. To my great fortune one of us knew that.
“They’re starting to stir,” Idrina said. “How long will you need?”
“If it takes more than two heart beats I’m lost,” I said and reached forward to put my hand on the nearest assassin’s forehead.
Idrina stopped me before I could.
“Don’t lose,” she said, and kissed my hand before releasing it.
I’d questioned putting in all the glands and response patterns that an actual human might have. Not all of them did after all, and many of the ones who weren’t subject to the irrational tides of desire and attraction seemed to live much happier and well balanced lives.
There was something delightful about being unbalanced and irrational though, and as the warmth of Idrina’s lips cooled on the back of my hand I was oh so foolishly happy I’d built my body with the precision I had.
My task was still before me though and I had a new goal added to it: show the girl beside me how talented I could be when I put my mind to it.
That was usually the sort of situation where I fell flat on my face, but this time I simply refused.
Touching the Loyalty Brand I felt nothing at first, it’s power being directed entirely inwards towards the assassin.
Breaking though that protection was as simple as morphing the tips of my fingers to mimic the assassin’s physiology.
That’s when the problems started.
But they were problems I was expecting.
As soon as the Loyalty Brand saw me as the proper subject of its magics, it surged into me, trying to sink roots in the new fertile and free soil of my mind.
I can’t blame the spell’s designers for not designing a defense against someone might willing pulling the Loyalty spell into themselves. It was both a terrible idea and one I’m not sure all that many people could have accomplished.
I was tempted to give the spell a hard yank and tear it completely free from the assassin. It was an ugly thing and I objected to its existence on general principal. The only thing that held me back was a nodule I found in it that would shut off the assassin’s brain if it was deleted.
Granting them freedom in death was definitely not what I was going for, so I left that part untouched and spent the rest of the first heart beat feeling out the shape and scope of the spell.
It was sending roots down into my medulla oblongata, which seemed like an obvious target for something with killing capability, as well as spreading a fine net through my temporal lobe, probably in order to control how I perceived and felt about things.
As mind control spells went, it was remarkably unsophisticated.
As soon as I was satisfied that’s really all there was to it, I ate the parts that were inside me, dissolving the magic of them into a more useful general fizz of magical energy and shunting that into a little pocket in my finger for later use.
In devouring the spell, I’d seen the part which overlay that temporal lobe where authority recognition was defined. Anyone who the assassin believed to be an authority of House Ironbriar could give them any order and they would have to follow it.
My original plan had been to twist that portion of the spell and simply neuter it, leaving the overall effect in place but removing any possibility that they could be ordered to do anything by anyone.
I’d considered substituting myself as the authority but since the thought had made me violently ill, I’d rejected it like any sane person I was not likely to kill on sight should.
Looking at the control the spell gave the Ironbriar’s over the assassin though I scrapped my original idea.
The assassins weren’t nice people. They’d grown use to the Loyalty Brands and had salvaged what sanity they could by choosing to be even more loyal than the Brands required.
They deserved better. Despite the things they’d done, they deserved better.
Eating the spell from their brain wasn’t easy.
I wound up eating their death too.
The ‘turn brain off’ function was too complex to undo before it triggered, but I was able to move it from them to me.
I suspect that looked worrisome from the outside, but only because Idrina is really fast. I didn’t fall more than inch before I brought my brain back online and finished eating the rest of the spell.
The assassin woke thanks to all that and I found myself staring into eyes that were full of hate and free of all restraint.