“When planning an evenings festivities, it is as important to consider the refreshments as it is the guest list. Guest lists are, of course, one of the most notoriously explosive elements of any gathering. Inviting the Count of Hardsway to the same city as the Duchess of Everglean is a recipe for a minor civil war, but getting them into the same room together? Unknowingly on either’s part? The cleaning bill alone will be astronomical. And you will simply never get out all of the blood stains. Better to simply burn the venue to the ground and start ove – which conveniently enough the Count and the Duchess are likely to arrange for you whether you ask them to or not.
How could refreshments be as critical as avoiding a faux pas such as that? Why what do you think precipitated their animosity in the first place? I mean, to be fair, it’s not often that you can manage to sneak explosive refreshments into a party you’re not attending, but the results do speak for themselves (again, convenient, since no one who was at the Duke of Everglean’s party was in the position to speak ever again).”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame going over event planning details of with Enika prior to his ward’s trial before the High Council.
Narla wasn’t happy when we got home. I was not surprised by this. I’d given Idrina a quartet of guards to command, I’d brought home a war on at least three more fronts, but I hadn’t gotten anything at all for Narla herself. Sure, she appreciated the war, but that lacked the personal touch that Idrina’s new minions carried.
It was probably a comfort to her that she’d at least gotten to be part of a fair amount of mayhem of her own, and as a result both Ilyan and Yarrin were still with us and in one piece.
“Ula was sure the puncture wound didn’t hit anything vital?” Mellina asked.
“She was sure nothing important was still punctured,” Yarrin said. “From what I can see, she heals shockingly fast.”
“Which is probably why she threw herself in front of the spear for me,” Ilyan said.
“I’m concerned that we don’t know which House hired the assassins that were sent against you,” I said, drawing in another deep breath to reassure myself that the blood scent which lingered on Narla, Ilyan and Yarrin didn’t belong to any of them.
From Narla’s story, and the fact that the scents were all unfamiliar to me, it seemed like all the blood came from the assassin’s who’d ambushed them a moment after they met Ula and Chase. Or perhaps a tiny bit came from Ula too? I felt bad for that if so. We hadn’t invited her to a meeting in order to get her stabbed, but more and more it was seeming like that was a likely outcome for anyone who allied themselves with us.
“No markings or obvious spellwork on them,” Yarrin said. “But that’s the baseline of what you’d expect from even a bottom tier assassin.”
“How is there enough of a market for assassinations that there’s a ‘bottom tier’ for the Houses to draw from?” I asked, perplexed at the notion that inter-House murder could be that common place in what seemed like a vaguely stable system.
“Most assassins only tasked with delivering warnings,” Mellina said. “Potentially fatal warnings, but usually it’s a single strike and then they flee as fast as possible.”
“People aren’t that sturdy though,” I said, being intimately aware of all of the systems that needed to be in fully working order for the average human to not keel over and die.
“They’re not,” Doxle said. “But the difference between an instantly fatal wound and one which will be fatal in a few minutes or hours is the difference between a killing strike and one which a healer can usually make disappear with time and effort.”
“Healing magic is fairly rare though, isn’t it?” I asked, since Grammy had always warned me away from dangerous things by saying ‘there’s not a healer in a hundred miles who’ll patch you up if you..” whatever it was I wanted to do.
“Exceedingly so,” Enika said. “What is it? Something like one in a thousand casters at the last census.”
“I think it’s dropped to half that,” Doxle said. “Although, that number likely doesn’t take into account all of the hidden orders.”
“And those would be?” I asked, already sure I was going to want to hit someone for the answer.
“It’s an open secret, well open to those within the Great Houses, that there are bloodlines which have offspring who more frequently bond to healing magics,” Doxle said. “In order to ‘preserve those bloodlines for the good of all’, various Houses have sequestered the members away, usually in remote monasteries or other isolated areas. There are still relatively few full healers in those families, but at something like one in five or one in four, the Hidden Orders provide them with a pool of magical healing which keeps the High Lords safely isolated from the woes of the common masses.”
I looked at my housemates for confirmation.
“Lightstone’s got a ton of them,” Narla said. “I didn’t used to think much of it until a few years ago, when I was ‘old enough to tend my own wounds’.”
“Astrologia is the same,” Mellina said. “There though it’s ‘the impact on the healthcare budget of your project’ which determines access.”
“And Ironbriar?” I asked, turning to the twins who were sitting side by side.
“Everyone has a claim on the healers in Ironbriar,” Idrina said. “But to use one incurs a debt to the family.”
“A debt that usually involves taking on a service no one else wants, and which will get you killed in an instant enough manner that you won’t be a bother again,” Ilyan sad.
“When we were five, our cousin Kalwen fell twenty feet onto hard stone. The healers saved him, but the price was a year of service as a page to Duke Mosgraf,” Idrina said.
“The official story is that he was killed during a hunting party,” Ilyan said.
“We learned later that the official story was likely true,” Idrina said. “But then being staked out as bait for a Reaving Beast does tend to lead to fatal outcomes.”
“What? Why would…?” I’d known I was going to be unhappy with the answer, and I really shouldn’t have lost the capacity to form words in the face of the Empires endemic cruelty, but something about the long repressed anger I could smell roiling off the twins hit me harder than I’d expected.
“I imagine he was leaky,” Enika said. “Magically speaking. Young casters often slosh magic around like an overfull goblet. That’s one of the more effective mechanisms for attracting the attention of particular Reaving Beasts.”
“Because they want to eat the kids?” I asked, more or less beyond my ability to be further horrified.
“Sometimes,” Enika said. “Other times the Reaving Beasts seem to wish to save the children, as though they’ve mistaken the child for one of their own young. The hunters are able to find their prey in either case, so it makes little difference to them.”
“I imagine it makes a difference to the children whether the Reaving Creatures eat them or not,” I said, knowing I would regret that assertion.
“It would if the hunters bothered to draw the fight away from them,” Doxle said.
And there was the instant regret, right there.
“And no one stops this sort of thing because?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s highly illegal,” Doxle said. “Stopped every time it’s discovered.”
“But the Empire is very large, and the Great Houses allow only their own overseers on the lands they control,” Enika said.
“Also, the hunters wear all manner of magical camouflage, so unless one of them foolishly outs themselves as having taken part in such a hunt, it’s fiendishly difficult to determine who took part in it,” Doxle said, the weariness in his voice the ashes of battles lost again and again.
“There should be more assassins apparently,” I said, hanging my head in my hands.
“No, no,” Doxle said, putting a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Just few people in need of assassinating.”
Grammy had never believed that murder was the solution to someone’s problems. She’d made it clear that violence didn’t solve things, it just changed or pushed problems off.
Of course she’d also single handedly killed an entire Great House.
But maybe that meant she was speaking from a position of experience?
I wasn’t sure where that left me. I wasn’t planning to kill everyone in all of the Great Houses. I wasn’t actually planning to kill any of them.
But some of them were going to die.
Regardless of what our plans were, the inevitable outcome of changing a power structure was that some people would die.
Was that on me?
It was my choice that we were going ahead with this.
But I also wasn’t forcing anyone to take any violent actions.
To a large extent, I wasn’t even forcing this to be a conflict. The leaders of the Great Houses could settle this at any moment they wanted to by simply walking away.
Except I really didn’t want them to.
The system of control which had metastasized throughout the Empire had to come down. If the Great Houses were capable of walking away from the conflict I’d brought to their door, maybe that wouldn’t have been true, but that was not the world I lived in.
“How about Ula?” I asked, changing mental gears before I ran off and did something immediate and stupid to solve the problem of the Great Houses. “Was she able to suggest a contact for us?”
“Even better than that,” Ilyan said. “The Empress’s Last Guard has distribution channels all set up. All we need to do is get them the gear and they can disperse it.”
I blinked. That was unbelievably fortunate.
“Well, they’re not used to moving gear. It’s usually a food distribution network,” Yarrin said.
“Apparently we have them to thank for the fact that both the Northern Ice Lake region and the Goldclover Plains didn’t fall to famine for the last two years,” Narla said.
I paused at that.
From our initial conversation, I’d, apparently, mistaken them for being a lot less impressive than that. Preventing a famine that would have claimed a few hundred thousand lives was far grander of an achievement than anything they’d claimed credit for.
But then, it hadn’t been just them stopping the famine I suppose.
Looking at it from their perspective, I saw how being part of an affair which had to include a thousand or more volunteers would seem like being a small and insignificant part of a much larger endeavor.
I was sure the Great Houses thought of them in the same vein. A few noble hearted idiots who’d helped in the giant task of organizing a relief effort for two areas which would have crushed the profits of several Houses? Why certainly their antics could be tolerated a little farther than others might be.
It tickled my soul that what might be the Great Houses worst blunder would be overlooking the value of compassion and community. I was also wordlessly delighted at the thought that we really weren’t in this alone.
I needed to fight the Great Houses. For Trina. For Grammy. For Kelthas.
And for me.
I was willing (because I’m occasionally kinda stupid) to fight them all on my own.
But I knew I needed more than that. I needed the people in my House and so many more. I needed the Empire with me, otherwise the destruction I was going to wreck would leave a void that something worse was sure to come crawling into.
But not if there were people there who were already caring for each other. People who were ready to make a better world, but who would be cut down the instant they tried take even a crumb of power away from those who hoarded in like life blood.
I wondered if any of the House leader would understand any of that as their ancient edifices came crumbling down to bury them in the unspoken annal of history.