“Good deeds are neither punished, nor rewarded, by fate. A deed is a thing unto itself and a thing connected to all other things. The consequences of a deed may be agreeable or abhorrent, though almost always that judgment depends largely on the point of view they are observed from.
How can one know if they’ve done good then? If their choice was the correct one? We can never see all the facets of the decisions we make. Often we can’t even see all the reasons we had for making them. With such a dearth of information, we are left to fall back on simply doing our best.”– Xindir Harshel Doxle of the First Flame explaining why he destroyed the Green River dam and flooded out the town of Hazelport.
A man stared into my eyes with murder in his own. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t the one he wanted to murder.
“I was supposed to kill you,” Marzoss said, his voice a calm whisper. “Why aren’t I dead?”
“Because I had a choice,” I said. My reasons for making that choice weren’t all that important. Or they wouldn’t be to him. Also, since I’d saved his life, I wasn’t the one who owed him any explanations.
“It shouldn’t be possible for me to be alive now,” he said. “I am Branded. Failure means death.”
“It was a weak brand,” I said. “It’s gone now.”
“That’s…how?” To be fair to him, he’d definitely been told that removing the Loyalty Brand was impossible and the people who’d told him that had probably believed they were speaking the truth. They, and he, were wrong however.
I wasn’t uniquely capable when it came to destroying enchantments like that. My method was possibly unique to me, but there were other options for removing a spell like the one he’d been enchanted by. I was certain Doxle or Enika could have managed it and given how shoddy the spellwork was I wouldn’t have been surprised if Yarrin could see a counter for it too.
“With magic,” I said, not trying to be terribly helpful.
“The Ironbriars will kill you,” Marzoss said, confusion replacing the rage in his eyes.
“Do you think they sent you to me because they were pleased with something I’d done,” I said, honestly puzzled as to how he could have missed that.
He was silent in response to that, which was fine by me. Generally that means someone is thinking and he had a lot to think about.
I could have told him where those thoughts were going to run to, but he wouldn’t believe me. If anything, my suggesting the final outcome of his rumination would have soured him to what was in some senses the only logical conclusions.
“Would you please watch him?” I asked Idrina as I turned to the next assassin.
I had what I felt was a pretty solid guess as to what Marzoss would do, but guesses are not a great thing to bet your life on if you didn’t have to. Far preferable was betting your life on someone like Idrina. I knew if she let me down, the chance that I would have survived the encounter under any circumstances would have been next to zero.
In response to my request, Idrina took a half step forward and conjured a perfectly mundane spear into her hand, holding it like a walking stick. It was one of the least threatening gestures she could have made but it got her point across quite well.
For my part, I turned to the Loyalty Brands on the second and third assassins. They had already partially regained their senses, so I didn’t have long before their brands activated again and either killed them or forced them to try to kill me again.
Since I had no interest in either of those outcomes, I touched both of their brands at once, the contact with the silvery material opening me up to both of the controlling spells.
That should have made the effort more than twice as difficult as both of them began trying to overwrite my brain’s functions in different areas.
The poor little mind control spells had a serious disadvantage though. Where it had taken me two seconds to rip the first one out of it’s victim and devour, that had included the time I need to be spend understanding how it was constructed. I didn’t need to waste that effort on the next two because the person who cast the spells was an unimaginative loser.
Or they liked to stick with something that was proven to work.
I was going with unimaginative loser though.
Also hopefully an already dead one, otherwise I was probably going to have to do something suitably horrifying to them to help balance the horrors they’d doled out. Balance for me. It wouldn’t help any of the Branded – sadly the spell wasn’t tied to its creator at all, so no step method of freeing them all.
Also, revenge really wasn’t mine to exact here. For as much as I loathed the existence of the spellwork, its true victims were sitting before me.
So they had first dibs.
“What are you going to do with us?” Jainrue, the second assassin I’d free, eventually asked after I’d freed the fourth assassin we were carting around and set Barldo’s (the third assassin) broken arms.
“That depends on what you request,” I said.
And that was not the response any of them expected.
I was very good thought. I neither chuckled, nor grinned at them.
“What can we request?” Barldo, the assassin whose arms I’d broken asked.
“Sanctuary,” Marzoss said, his ruminations having run where I expected they would.
“What do you mean?” Jainrue asked.
“I just want to get out of here,” Barldo said.
“We can’t,” Lozor, the original assassin we’d stopped said.
“She changed the Brand?” Barldo said. “Of course she did.”
Jainrue went quiet at that but I didn’t have to explain anything. Marzoss did that for me.
“The Brand’s gone,” he said. “We’d be dead if it wasn’t.”
“She doesn’t need the Brand though,” Lozor said. “We don’t have anywhere else we can go than into her service.”
“We could just run,” Barldo said.
“And we would die,” Marzoss said. “Ironbriar will know we’re not dead. Even if the Brand didn’t tell them, they’ve got other options, other spells that can track us.”
“Why would they care though?” Barldo said. “We lost. We outnumbered them and we lost. We’re useless.”
“You’re not useless,” I said, which didn’t paint me in exactly the light I wanted to be painted in but I felt it was an important point to establish.
“You see, she’s got something she wants from us,” Marzoss said.
“I want nothing from you,” I said. “That does not impact your value however.”
I don’t know why I’d shifted back to my ‘Formal Head of House’ voice in speaking to them. Maybe I thought it would help them mistake me for someone who knew what she was doing?
“We are still trapped. Spellwork or no,” Lozor said.
“Are you?” I asked, knowing that they kind of were, but that they weren’t not necessarily bound to me.
“If we run, Ironbriar chases us and kills us. If we hide, Ironbriar finds us and kills us. If a miracle happens and we somehow escape, the is no life for us anywhere out there,” Lozor said. “There’s nowhere we can go where we’d be safe, no work we could take to earn food and lodging that would reveal who we were eventually. The Brand didn’t kill us, but we are dead nonetheless.”
“Would we have to wear a new Brand?” Jainrue asked.
“Never,” I said, letting a bit of the heat I felt scorch my words. “If I find who cast those spells, I am going to strangle them slowly.”
“That would be my uncle Galrosch,” Idrina said. “He deserves worse than that.”
I made a mental note; if I met him, there would be no negotiating, he was going to die.
“Then why do we have to serve you?” Jainrue asked.
“You don’t,” I said. “I place no restrictions on you. Should you even you wish to try to complete the task Ironbriar assigned you, you will not earn my wrath. I will likely injure you badly enough to prevent a third attempt, but I will not do so without malice or any lingering animosity.
“None of us are going to do that,” Marzoss said, not looking to the others for confirmation. They all knew how another scuffle with Idrina and I would turn out, and that Barldo’s broken arms would be a far lighter injury than they’d sustain next time.
“Why would Ironbriar go to the effort of killing us though?” Jainrue asked.
“They would have to,” Loroz said. “The Branded aren’t supposed to be able to escape the Brand. If we’d known it was possible, I would have been looking for someone to remove it for years now.”
“We’re not important, but they can’t let anyone like us escape,” Marzoss said. “We’re a challenge to their authority.”
“Just like she is,” Loroz said.
“Is that so bad then?” Jainrue asked. “To serve her I mean?”
“Does it matter?” Marzoss asked.
“Yes. It does,” I said, and refused to elaborate. Either they understood that they had value already or I would have to demonstrate it through my deeds (beyond simply not killing them and then freeing them from the Loyalty Brands).
“Are you offering us sanctuary then?” Barldo asked.
“No,” I said, which shot a look of concern onto all their faces. “If you wish to request sanctuary, it is my House Militia Commander who will need to approve it.”
“You have a formal process for requesting sanctuary? No, wait, you have a House Militia Command already?” Marzoss asked.
“House Riverbond has a long history and a wealth of traditions and procedures.” Most of which I’d only barely skimmed, but as Head of House the only people who could really question me on those were either trying to kill me or were an Eternal Empress.
“Do you know if he will approve our request?” Loroz asked.
“If requested to, she will,” Idrina said.
“Then it appears you’ve managed to secure four assassin’s for House Riverbond’s use,” Marzoss said.
“No,” I said. “If you seek sanctuary, seek it with the knowledge that you will never be requested or required to kill another person. You will not be required to provide any service, and will only be allowed to perform tasks you chose to engage in freely.”
“I…what?” Jainrue asked.
“I did not spare your lives to make you slaves to House Riverbond in place of being slaves to House Ironbriar. If you wish to act as House Guards, you will do so under the command of Idrina Riverbond.”
“How would being under her command be any different than being under the command of an Ironbriar who’d kept their name?” Loroz asked.
I thought I would have to explain things, but Idrina spoke up before I could.
“The House Militia is not an army. We do not need the discipline and unthinking obedience a force assembled for war does. As a House Guard, you will be required to think for yourselves. To evaluate situations and take what you believe are the correct actions, regardless of what your standing orders are.”
Idrina hadn’t snapped to attention or spoken into a particularly loud voice. She nonetheless had their complete attention.
Her scent was beguilingly happy.
At first I thought it was because I’d officially recognize her under the title she’d claimed while I was sleeping.
Inhaling deeper though, I could tell that wasn’t it.
My next thought was that her happiness stemmed from the fact that I’d just given her a small garrison of troops to work with.
Not particularly talented troops, and some of their were significantly worse for wear since we’d found them, but still it was a base to begin building upon.
But it wasn’t that either.
It was the name.
When I’d formally introduced her, I’d given her my name.