Category Archives: Clockwork Souls

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 89

“They say an army marches to war on its stomach. Always struck me as odd. Feet seem so much better adapted to the needs of marching, but then armies supposedly do require those with ‘guts’ so perhaps soldiers are simply built differently than the common masses?”

– Glenmorda Tinbellus Enika of the Reaper’s Mercy attempting to inspire the Imperial 4th legion shortly before their resounding defeat at Fort Sparkshower on the Empire’s eastern border.

Three days passed before the High Council managed to set a date for the official hearing into the ‘small matter of a conflict declaration between two or more of the Empress’s Houses’. They sort of gave away the urgency of the matter though by setting the hearing for the next day. It was possible that had something to do with the nine waves of assassins which had been sent managing to all go mysteriously missing.

Dead assassins, it seems, were an expected part of the proceedings. Certainly if they did a good job and escaped unnoticed, there was every reason to retain their services for future endeavors. From what the others told me that gave the premier assassins as good as a one-in-three chance of surviving a successful return – the number being so low as successfully assassins were quite expensive and notably troublesome when they weren’t properly paid. Assassin corpses on the other hand exhibited none of those problems.

The startling lack of dead bodies however raised other concerns among our fellow Great Houses. This ranged from the purely reasonable worries with the first few waves of whether or not those assassins knew anything of value which they might be forced to divulge. Generally the screening process for murderers-for-hire was not the most rigorous when the intended target was a collection of academy students and their staff.

Doxle was mildly perturbed by that, feeling (rightly so) that his presence should have merited a more thorough response than that. Enika however was delighted, revealing that she’d gone to some pains to convey the impression that the two of them were vacationing in Rosetide on the southern coast of Thistlehill. That Doxle hadn’t noticed her machinations became a potent weapon in their continue battle of sly glances and carefully chosen words.

For the rest of us though the important daily considerations were; a.) surviving the next wave of assassins, b.) removing the Brands of Loyalty from the previous wave, c.) preparations for the Trial, d.) plotting to overthrow the entire Imperial power structure, and e.) enjoying a relaxing meal at the end of each day.

The meal was really the best part of all that – at least in my view. Partly that was because Idrina and Narla ensured that I never got to join in the ‘thwart the assassins’ work. They had a running tally between them with my score sitting at a dismal zero. Unsurprisingly, to me at least, the leader of the race was Mellina who tended to bring in assassins in a cart, thoroughly disabled, and from where none of us could guess.

It was fortunate that Doxle’s house was as spacious as it was since we were able to repurpose a few rooms into a sort of infirmary and jail complex.

This was because they’d been built with medical facilities and holding cells.

Doxle had a very odd taste in decorating.

There had been some discussion as to whether going out and hunting assassins for sport should be counted in the same tally as the ones who were clearly aggressive and had made their intentions clear by such subtle means as setting fire to my bed with me in it (I was fine). It was one of the few point where Narla and Idrina found themselves in agreement, but they were sadly overruled by a majority vote (from which I abstained) when, after being freed from their Loyalty Brands, the assassins Mellina captured revealed that they had indeed been planning to assault us and had simply been caught before they could make any headway on the effort.

That had led to Narla and Idrina both politely excusing themselves from dinner on the second night and vanishing for several hours, only to return hours later with dour looks on their faces and the scent of frustration lingering about them for the rest of the night.

That, in turn, had lead to another night where I couldn’t talk with Idrina about…anything.

Okay, I could have talked to her. There was time. We were in the same place. At least physically. She wasn’t ready though. And, if I was feeling honest, I wasn’t ready. 

Which was ridiculous!

We’d made so much progress.

But maybe it was too much? 

I don’t know. I had precisely zero experience to draw on, and romantic endeavors were never something Grammy was all too keen to share. 

It wasn’t hard to tell though that Idrina was feeling unsettled. Or that I had no idea what to do next. My hope was that once people weren’t trying to kill us daily, we’d be able to take some time away and get to actually know each other, but I think part of me was worried that without the excitement of our current predicament, she wouldn’t be all that interested in me.

Which was rude and stupid of me.

Knowing that however, did not provide the emotional roadmap to do better though.

Fortunately there was Pastries amazing cooking to distract all of us from thoughts like that. By tacit agreement, we decided that discussion of assassins and all of our other external endeavors was out of bounds during the dining hour. The food simply demanded better of us.

“I think I want to actually visit Rosetide,” Ilyan said, between bites of a roast gamebird which was covered in gravy and a sour berry accompaniment. 

“Now?” Idrina asked, pausing her own enjoyment of the same dish.

“No, I mean, after everything’s wrapped up,” he said.

“Everything is likely to be on fire and drowning in screams when everything wraps up,” Enika said.

“Yeah, but after that,” Ilyan said, waving away the concern as though the collapse of an Empire was something that would sort itself out in an afternoon or so.

To be fair to him though, that was more or less the plan we had in place, I just wasn’t sure anyone except him thought it would work out quite how we hoped it would.

“Rosetide is lovely this time of year,” Doxle said, “but if I may be allowed to offer an alternative, I would suggest the Dhalian Isles. They are truly magical in the fall, and have a far wider array of recreational facilities than Rosetide does.”

“Also, they are outside the Empire,” Enika said from her perch on Doxle’s lap, accepting the grape which he lowered into her waiting mouth.

“Won’t we want to be here to make sure things don’t fall apart completely?” I asked, knowing that they were going to fall apart regardless of our presence or absence. We were dealing with people after all. A lot of people. There’s a certain predictability to that.

“Things are going to fall where they will,” Doxle said. “Should we be temporarily absent, they are less likely to fall on us.”

“Isn’t it our job to carry the load here?” Narla asked. “I mean, we are setting this all up.”

“Are we?” Enika asked, turning her attention and gaze away from Doxle.

“We were the ones who provoked a war with six of the Great Houses,” Ilyan said.

“Seven,” Yarrin corrected him. “We got the declaration from House Farsail just before dinner.”

Ilyan opened his mouth to congratulate Yarrin and Narla on their work there, but clamped his mouth shut a moment later and returns to his food, the prohibition against ‘work talk’ firmly in place still.

“All the more reason to leave as quickly as possible once the deed is done then,” Enika said.

“Because those loyal to the old guard will target us even more fiercely?” Mellina asked.

“That is likely to be little more than an annoyance,” Enika said. “The true danger lies in how the people who’ve supported you will react.”

“If you don’t escape their clutches, they’re likely to foist the entire apparatus of the government on you,” Doxle said. “That’s rather how the Empire got started in the first place if you recall your history lessons.”

“I don’t remember the founders ever being described as unwilling rulers?” Mellina said.

“And you would not be either,” Enika said. “There are oh so many persuasive arguments they can employ, ones steeped in guilt, or rage, or even the honest desire to do better than those who came before.”

“We call that last one hubris, though it often doesn’t start out as that,” Doxle said, maneuvering a bit of the roast bird around Enika to take a bite before she could finish off the rest.

“The challenge is that you will have done a wonderful job, and so people will wish to extract even more wonderful work from you while they can. They will give you power, and prestige, and every worldly comfort they can find in order to buy the illusion of you which they’ve built up,” Enika said.

“And should you fail to match the illusion of you who they want to see, they will turn, not on you, but on themselves,” Doxle said.

“Why would they do that?” Idrina asked, and I could smell the disbelief floating off her.

“Because, they will believe in you, and it is much easier to continue in their belief and find a scapegoat whose existence doesn’t call into question the validity of the ideas they’ve chosen to make central to their sense of self,” Enika said.

“Won’t they just blow us up into even more ridiculous figures if we’re not here to show them that we’re just regular people?” I asked.

Doxle and Enika both laughed, which was rare enough to be disturbing.

“There’s not a regular person in this room, or even in this house,” Doxle said.

“You are correct that people will mythologize you in your absence, but that’s the kind of thing that can be addressed on your return,” Enika said. “The key is, if you are not here for the aftermath of our plans coming to fruition, people won’t be able to turn to you for further answers and solutions to their problems.”

“They’ll have to turn to, or perhaps turn on, each other,” Doxle said.

“The turning on each other seems like something we want to avoid,” I said.

“Do we?” Enika asked, and I could tell from her tone she was taking what I’d said in a different manner than I’d intended.

“Our allies falling into conflict seems like a bad thing,” I said, hoping that provided greater clarity.

“That all depends on how they resolve it,” Doxle said. “This sort of change is a rare occasion, and one of the few opportunities to see if people can learn from past mistakes and grow.”

“Brutal opposition is the most common answer people make to change, but we do have one advantage here,” Enika said.

“The people we’re working with already have a history of working together,” Doxle said.

“The strain of leading an Empire will be new for them, which always makes things a bit of a gamble,” Enika said.

“But they know as well as we do, or perhaps more, what changes are needed,” Doxle said. “They have the example of the Great Houses as they stand now to highlight the cost of acting as they do.”

“Some will fall off the path,” Enika said.

“And we will be there to pick them up,” the Empress Eternal said.

I hadn’t known she could project herself into Doxle home.

I hadn’t known she was listening to our conversation, or was even in favor of what we were doing.

I was supposed to go talk with her to find that out, but I’d been putting it off, mostly because I had no idea how to say ‘we’re going to wreck your empire, is that okay’?

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 88

“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.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 87

“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.

And mine.

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.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 86

“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.

“I see.”

“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.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 85

“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.

For them.

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.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 84

“When meeting with those in positions of authority, I have often found it beneficial to remind myself of the singular fact that they are nothing more than humans, no matter how much power may be invested in them. 

Yes, at various times, I have been required to seek concessions from those with the capacity to make my life a living hell, either directly or through indirect means such as depriving me of opportunities or associations I have greatly desired.  That, however, does not mean that they are in any sense ‘more important’ than I am. 

At best, those in power, are significant side players on the stage that is my life, and at worst they are obstacles and impediments. For the former, it is often useful to understand them as individuals and work around their hopes and concerns, as one would with any other reasonable entity. For the latter, well, obstacles exist to either be smashed down or snuck around now don’t they?”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame offering a verbal defense to charges of expediting the subversion of Noble Authority over the distribution of grain and fresh seed.

Jalaren was not happy to see us. This was not surprising. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been happy to see us either. Well, I wouldn’t have been happy to see me. My brain was still doing all sorts of funny chemical stuff at any and every thought of Idrina.

“I see you have chosen to darken my doorstep. I had hoped that expulsion would preclude such an event, and yet, I am reminded of who your pact mentor is and as such can not claim to be surprised,” Jalaren said, not even bothering with the sigh he was clearly holding still holding in.

It was comforting in a sense that he knew he was likely to need it later.

“We do not pay you this visit as students,” I said, attempting and probably failing, to speak with the proper formality of a Great House leader.

That, if anything, seemed to upset Jalaren even more.

“Close the door,” he said and added. “As a courtesy please.”

Idrina, who’d been standing behind me as a sort of honor guard, shut and traced a sigil on its handle which presumably locked it?

“He put you up to this, didn’t he?” Jalaren said, dropping all pretense of formality as he drew a bottle of amber liquid from his desk. There were four glasses on a shelf behind him, but he only retrieved one, which was probably for the best. Whether the alcohol was a rare vintage or pure rotgut, I wasn’t about to let it dull my sense even if I’d had to imbibe it for some reason.

“Our Advisor has provided counsel but the course of action we undertake now is solely of our own choosing,” I said, under the delusion that fancy phrasing was going to get anyone to take me more seriously.

“And what, I and the heavens must wonder, inclined you to choose a path where, from the reports which have managed to cross my desk already, involved you – wait let me read this verbatim.” He shuffled through a few papers which seemed to be on the legal precedents around noble inheritance and drew forth a single sheet of paper with ink which looked to still be drying.

“According to this account you rendered seventeen members of the student body non-violable for performance of their standard class schedules, including seven with injuries severe enough to warrant a multi-day stay in the healer’s ward and at least one who will need to be put on long term rehabilitative league and prosthesis training.”

“We do not deny that accounting,” I said, since it was a rather important part of our plan that people be aware of what we’d done and that we were the ones responsible.

“You don’t? Well that’s quite convenient. The High Council will be able move directly to sentencing.” Jalaren said that without looking up from the sheet.

He knew what was coming.

He didn’t want to deal with it.

In fact, he wanted to be as far from it as possible.

Which put him in the same club as all of the rest of us. Well, except maybe Narla. She seemed to be pretty excited about the whole thing. 

“That would be convenient,” I said, choosing to play along a little more before forcing him to confront the mess we were tangling him up in, if even just in a peripheral manner. “We will likely ask that their sentences be of a mild nature and duration, given that a fair portion of justice has already been delivered to them.”

That was enough to draw out Jalaren’s sigh.

“You’re doing this then? You’re really doing this?” he asked, massaging his temples with his fingertips.

“This has been done to us,” I said. “That is rather the issue at stake.”

“Just..please…he really didn’t put you up to this?” Jalaren asked, and poured himself a second glass after quickly downing the first.

I decided to relent a bit and relaxed back into my chair. From how his expression sank, I think that might have been exactly the wrong move to make and it took me a moment to recognize that I’d adopted basically the same slouch that Doxle often used.

Eh, I decided, there are worse influence I could have in my life.

“He really didn’t,” I said completing the transformation into informality. “We, my house that is, went over a bunch of options, and this is the best of them.”

“And what, exactly, do you think this,” he gestured at the report of our ‘rampage’, “is going to do for you.”

“Ideally? Get Lightstone, Grayfall, and hopefully a few others to officially declare war on us.” I said. “Oh, I know none of the students who were with Nelphas were from Grayfall. There’ll be another report showing up pretty soon on an Imperial Guard patrol from Grayfall we encountered. They’re going to need, uh, let’s call it a longer medical leave, than the students. In my official capacity I will not be seeking additional justice be done on them. Unofficially, I would like to extend an apology to their leader. Dropping him was unkind.”

Jalaren had paused with the second glass halfway to his lips.

“I’m sorry. I believe I…an Imperial Guard patrol?”

“They interrupted a private negotiation,” I said, lapsing back into a bit of formality.

“And you…,” he put glass down. “No. I don’t care. It didn’t happen here. It’s not my business. I…I don’t need to care.”

“I might owe you an apology too,” I said grimacing at pulling him in even deeper than I’d planned. “They are, hopefully, undergoing treatment for their injuries over by the Metalwork Hall.”

He closed his eyes and seemed to be focusing on breathing for a few moment before he spoke again.

“May I inquire as to whether there were any fatalities in the altercation?” he asked at last.

“Thankfully no,” I said. “All of the Imperial Guards were left in a viable, if not precisely functional, state when we were done with them.”

“You mentioned dropping the leader?”

“Yes. From the top of the Metalwork Hall.”

“From the top?”


“Of the third tallest building in the Academy?”

“That would be the one.”

“And you were atop it because?”

I did not actually have an answer for that beyond ‘it seemed like a good place to scream at him at the top of my lungs’.

“The altercation was a highly mobile affair,” Idrina said. “In attempting to impress on the Imperial Guard that they had violated their mandate, we were required to seek refuge in unconventional positions,” Idrina said.

Jalaren gave a little giggle at that.

“Unconventional? They’re calling it unconventional.” He looked at the glass he’d put back down, and then at the bottle, clearly torn between which of the two to empty first. “They’re going to fire me. In a kiln. If I’m lucky. Or perhaps they’ll get unconventional. That would be amusing I suppose.”

He probably wasn’t wrong about that. If things were allowed to proceed as they normally would, Jalaren and the Academy as a whole would either be caught in the splash zone when the Great Houses rained down fiery vengeance upon me, or, if destroying me wasn’t enough to satisfy them, he would likely serve as a convenient additional scapegoat.

“No one will be firing you,” I said. “In a kiln, or from this position.”

“You think you have a say in the matter? Do you understand what you have done child? This is not a game you can play at. You’ve called down the wrath of the most powerful people in the world, and you think hiding under the shelter of a House they’ve already managed to kill is going to shield you due to some technicality you’ve discovered?”

The amusement I felt at seeing Jalaren lose it was probably a little mean. He’d never done anything directly antagonistic to me, and I didn’t feel I owed him payback for anything. On the hand though, he was part of a system which routinely murdered the children of commoners and anyone the Great Houses felt like eliminating, so maybe he deserved the stress I was bringing to him.

“You’re mistaken,” I said and then did not elaborate, because that’s annoying and I’m occasionally like that.

“I’m mistaken? Really? Am I the one who wasn’t happy with being annihilated by House Ironbriar? Am I the one who decided to make a glorious show of by getting all of the Houses to condemn me? No. I don’t think I can claim that honor.”

I let him rant. It seemed like getting it all out was helping him find some equilibrium again.

“The only honor I’ve claimed was what was mine by right of inheritance,” I said, careful not to claim that it was by right of either birth or blood, since I’d never bothered with the former and only held a replica of the latter.

“Oh, yes, forgive me. How foolish to overlook the title you’ve born for – has it been a full day yet?”

“It’s been a few days,” I said. “What I lack in experience however does nothing to diminish the authority of the position.”

“The High Council will not concern themselves with that,” Jalaren said. “Oh, certainly while they are in session all of the proper forms and procedures will be followed but you will never get to see them. They’ll give Ironbriar leave to strike first, but even if by some miracle you survive that, the assassins which follow will be alert and aware of the stratagems you employ. No one can survive an unending string of attempts on your life, and history suggests that you’ll be dead before the third is complete.”

“History provides a lesson to us all,” I said. “You may want to keep in mind that it’s only an example of what can happen though. The future is not so limited.”

“You, I am sad to say, aren’t going to have a future. Nor will I.”

He seemed so certain of his words that it felt almost criminal to take advantage of them. Doxle’s my mentor though, so of course I did.

“Would you care to wager a lifetime of service on that?” I asked, feeling a devilish thrill sparkle at the end of my fingers.

“What? That you’ll survive?”

“That we both will,” I said, baiting the trap a little better.

“And what would I win if I’m right? I can hardly enjoy my victory if I’m dead.”

“If you’re right that the Great Houses can slay me, you’ll gain Doxle’s protection and his aid in obtaining passage out of the Empire to somewhere beyond the reach and even notice of the Great Houses.”

“Exile in place of death? It’s not the worst deal I’ve been offered,” he said.

“Excellent! I need quite a lot of staff and someone used to managing them,” I said.

Jalaren shook his head at that. “Ah to be young and delusional again. But tell me, why did you seek me out.”

“Oh, that’s very simple,” I said. “We wish to officially request a private tutor be assigned to House Riverbond so that once the small matter of the wars we are embroiled in are settled that the members of the House will be eligible to continue their education as cadets.”

None of us had any interest in that of course, but it was a legitimate request to make and that was all that the plan needed.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 83

“Have I ever been the object of someone’s attention? The pursued rather than the pursuer? Do you know I honestly can’t say. I’m not certain if I’ve ever fit into either roll. Don’t misunderstand me, each looks to have their own charms and innate appeal, but on the whole I would say that participating in such a dance is simply too much effort directed in too unpromising a direction.

What other option is there? Why I should think that would be obvious. In place of the hunter and the hunted, take the stage as look for a partner whose steps are in tune with your own.

You say you don’t dance? Why of course you do. Every breath is a step through time, every beat of your heart carries you to the unknown land of tomorrow.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame convincing his ‘nephew’ Duke Jeren Greendell to make a nemesis of Duchess Marrin Astrologia.

I had to contend with a weird feeling where I wanted to shift into something and flee with all possible speed, and I also (more strongly?) wanted to stay exactly as I was and close the last little bit of distance between the Idrina and I, and then stay like that forever.

“You…I’m why you…but,” I said, expressing the sum total of my eloquence and poise in that moment. I’ve never claimed to be a great speaker, but this went above and beyond my usual lack of verbal skill. My mind felt like it was scrambled while also drowning in an unknowable yearning. 

“I don’t expect anything of you,” Idrina said, thankfully without moving away. “And if you don’t want…”

“I do,” I said. Again, a paragon of clarity and suave communication, which I could forgive myself for given how my blood pressure had shot up high enough to burst solid stone.

And then she laughed at me.

It wasn’t a full laugh.

In fact it wasn’t one anyone else would have caught.

But I did, and she knew it.

Not that she acknowledge that in words. Instead, she raised an eyebrow by the width of an eyelash to encourage me to elaborate.

Yes, that was evil.

And of course if I took too long to respond she’d leave.

And then I’d bite her.

And…and that wasn’t how any of it was going to happen. I wasn’t going to turn this into a brawl. I didn’t know what I was doing or how anything was going to go, but I wasn’t going to hide behind a fake conflict, or treat the moment we’d somehow fallen with anything but the seriousness it deserved. 

I drew in a breath that I technically didn’t need and tried to slow my spinning thoughts down to where I could get a handle on at least one of them. 

That was easier than I thought it would be. There was a question waiting for me the moment I made the room to think of it.

“Why me?” I asked, desperate and terrified to know the answer. “You chose to stay before you knew what I was, but you knew something wasn’t right with me even then. I’m not a particularly good leader, and I don’t have all that much to offer beside a House name that got the last people who carried its name murdered to extinction.”

“And what do you think I have to offer?” Idrina asked. She might have moved a fraction of an inch closer. And shivered. 

Or that might have been my overly eager imagination.

The pain I saw lurking in the shadows of her eyes was all too real though and it twisted my guts up just to think of it. She deserved to know how amazing she was. She deserved for someone, for everyone, to tell her that.

“Yourself,” I said. “More than anyone I’ve ever met, well except perhaps for my Grandmother, you are your own person.”

I saw her breath hitch for a moment and she definitely swayed closer.

“And why would you want that?” she asked, her hands rising a heartbeat closer to me.

There were so many choices I had for answering that.

I could have spoken of her bravery, both in the fights she’d refused to run from and the courage she’d shown in breaking away from her family. They were different sorts of fears and took different sorts of personal resolve, and she wasn’t lacking in any of it.

I could have sung the praises of her strength, citing the evidence she’d already demonstrated to me, and the power I knew she was holding back still.

I could even have waxed poetic about her beauty. It wasn’t something I’d consciously let myself acknowledge, but she was radiant. From her features, to her finely honed muscles, to the depths she kept guarded behind her eyes. What nature had graced her with, Idrina had worked to perfect, not at all for the sake of appearance, but sometimes that comes along for free with the other improvements one strives for.

I could have offered any of those as the reason why I wanted her to stay. 

But the truth was I didn’t just want her to stay.

I wanted her.

For myself.

I had all of zero experience with such things – isolated houses in the woods do not contain particularly large courting pools – but if I was going to court anyone, I knew I wanted it to be her. 

And that was mind numbingly terrifying.

Again the split sense of needing to run away and leaving being inconceivable crashed together inside me.

There weren’t a lot of things in the world that could truly injure me. Idrina held the magic to do so though. Not with any spell, all it would take was a single word, or even just a silent gesture. All she had to turn was turn away,

I could deny her that power of course. All I had to do was shut myself off. There was a perfectly safe road forward where I shaped my answer around all of the benefits she could bring to House Riverbond and what my House could do for her.

Except she was worth so much more than that.

She was worth the truth.

“Because you excite me. Because everything I’ve seen of you makes me want to see more. Because I think I’ve admired you since the first time we met, and everything you’ve said and done since then has just made that feeling grow,” I said.

If she wanted to destroy me, this was her chance. I was done lying to myself about where my thoughts went every time I so much as glanced at her.

“I…I…” she said without breathing, making me think I had perhaps been a bit more open than she’d been expecting. “I’m going to kiss you now, if you’ll let me?” she asked.

I didn’t let her. 

I didn’t want to wait that long.

We were inches apart so I let the gap between us close and drowned myself in the sensation of her.

With no experience to compare to, maybe I wasn’t qualified to say that it was the best kiss ever, but it was definitely one I was never going to forget. 

Normally there’s a little bit of effort that goes into keeping my body in the proper form, but as I lost myself in rapture of Idrina’s lips and arms and warmth, I found myself both turning completely to jelly inside while also being absolutely and completely present and embodied in every one of my cells. There was no need for even a hint of magic. This body that was sharing a kiss with her, was the only place and the only form I ever wanted to be in.

If we’d been halfway intelligent, we would have known the standing on a random street corner maybe two minutes away from where a whole pile of cadets were nursing severe beatings was not the safest thing in the world.

We are, in fact, brilliant, so we were well aware of that particular reality, but as far as I knew, neither one of us cared.

I heard the footsteps rushing towards us.

I knew it wasn’t a good sound.

But again, I didn’t care. I was lost.

Now, in hindsight, I may have overreacted to being found.

In my defense though, it was a really really good kiss.

“Idrina Ironbriar, you are…” was as far as the Imperial Guard managed to get.

I knew what was coming next. She knew what was coming next. From how she squeezed me closer it was clear that she didn’t care either. 

I think we both really needed that kiss.

Then I heard the sound of magic suppression manacles clank against each other.

The image of the jail cell I’d been chained in until Doxle freed me shot through my mind, except instead of me bound arm, leg, and neck, it was Idrina.

As I said, I’m willing to admit that I may have overreacted to that.

And I feel that it is an important point to consider that no one was brutally murdered, or even permanently injured. Yes, I am considering that if a limb can be reattached it is not a permanent injury. Also any internal organ which is returned to the inside of the body before someone bleeds out is barely an injury at all. 

Really, the whole mess was on them. 

I mean metaphorically, in addition to literally.

If they’d approached us in a manner befitting a bunch of House Guards approaching the Head of another House and her Chief Military advisor (or whatever Idrina wanted to be), then the problem we’d have had would have merely been one of sharp words being exchanged. 

It also would have lasted long enough to leave a solid set of memories rather than the red blur of rage clouded images I managed to retain from the whole thing.

The one which sticks out the most clearly to me is, obviously, how it all ended.

I don’t know how I wound up hanging from the spire of the building we’d been near. I also don’t precisely remember when I grabbed the leader of Imperial Guards, or why exactly I dragged him to the top of the building.

I do however recall screaming at him “WHICH HOUSE TRESPASSES AGAINST ME! WHICH ONE!” more than a few times and at an admittedly unreasonable volume.

Not to blame the nearly-departed, but if he’d just answered the question, I suspect he wouldn’t have needed quite the degree of magical restoration as he wound up requiring. 

“They were from Grayfall,” Idrina said, appearing beside me standing on a spear she’d embedded into the wall.

“Oh,” I said, changing back to my human form.

Okay, yes, I did in fact drop the leader of the Imperial Guard patrol at that point.

No, it wasn’t a short fall.

Yes, he could have died, but the point is that he didn’t.

“We should probably go,” Idrina said.

“That seems wise. Do we have any special cleanup to do?”

“No. There’s another squad inbound. They’ll have a healer with them.”

“Good. We should probably find Jalaren to make our visit here official,” I said, remembering that we did need to establish a solid cover story for why we’d come to a school we were expelled from and left a trail of patients in need of critical care in our wake.

“So. That was…” Idrina started to say and came up short.

“Intense?” I suggested.

“Yeah. I didn’t know…”

“I didn’t either.”

“Is it going to cause any problems?”

“They’re worth it if so. A thousand times worth it.”

“Just to be clear, we are talking about the kiss?”

“Yes. Yes! I…” Had about a thousand things I wanted to say and they all wanted to be said at once.

Idrina answered my lack of eloquence with a nod.

We had a lot to talk about.

But we also had a lot left to do.

More than ever I was committed to the plan we’d come up with.

There was no chance that I was going to have anything like a life, normal or otherwise, until the issue with the Great Houses was resolved, and I wanted a life now that I had someone to share it with.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 82

“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.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 81

“It is so often the urge to try to mitigate the outcomes from the mistakes we make. We spill something and grab for a cloth to contain the spreading puddle. That works fine when the spill  is one of wine or some lesser substance. Sometimes however our mistakes are not so simple. Sometimes they are not even mistakes, and yet still we seek to clean them up on impulse without stopping to consider whether we should or not.

Why do we do this? Because it is easy. Because it is a bribe towards the restoration of a comfortable harmony, even though that harmony may be filled with razor blades which slice away more and more of us the longer we cling to it.

What should we do instead? I will let you know once I’m done making up for my mistakes.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the Fire Flame shortly before the third trial which resulted in him being sent to the gallows.

Apparently, when you grow up in one of the most powerful Houses in the Empire, and spend your days training like a mad fiend, the basic interactions common among the lowborn aren’t part of your interpersonal repertoire. 

In theory they shouldn’t have been part of mine either – Grammy’s house technically was a ‘noble dwelling place’, but when she’d given up on the world, she’d given up on her title and the distinctions of class that came with it.

I wouldn’t say that means I was raised in a ‘normal household’. Almost by definition any house with me in it is not a normal one, and in Grammy’s house I was far from the strangest one in residence.

The other members of the household – proper nobility would have called them ‘the staff’ but Grammy called them ‘her people’ instead – tended to carry on like typical townsfolk for the most part. Some lived there full time, and others lived in town or their own places. They gave me examples to draw from as much as Grammy did some of which, like the offer of a fist bump of congratulations, were apparently unheard of in proper noble circles.

At least from the concerned look Idrina gave me.

As she started to square up on me with an even more confused look in her eyes, I opened my hand into a wave and shook my head.

“I just wanted to congratulate you,” I said. “It was fun to watch you work.”

There were a whole host of reasons that was wrong ranging from ‘watching people get beaten to broken and bleed wrecks shouldn’t have been fun’ to ‘I was probably enjoying just watching Idrina more than I should have. I couldn’t deny either one though, so owning them both seemed like the best option.

“Oh, uh, thank you,” Idrina said and turned to leave in the direction we’d originally been traveling.

I fell in beside her, wondering if I should take her hand again. There wasn’t any reason we needed to. Both of us knew where we were going. And it was better for us to have our hands free if some of the upperclassman, or worse the instructors, decided to ambush us.

I knew all that but it still felt weird to be just walking beside her.

I could do weird though.

It was normal for me.

“How long do you think it will take for Lightstone to get their declaration to us?” I asked.

Because idle chatter was something we were definitely both masters of.

“It depends when Nelphas stops screaming,” she said, and cast a quick glance in my direction.

For the record, Nelphas was still going but he’d at least dropped to his knees and sounded like he might pass out sooner rather than later.

“I’m impressed you got his hand to burn up like that without cooking the rest of his arm,” I said, because, damn, I had no idea how I’d pull that off, even if I had fire related powers, which I didn’t think Idrina did either.

“It’s a pretty simple trick,” she said, glancing down at something interesting on her feet. “It just takes two spears rather than one.”

“And, wait, you summoned both of them, right beside each other, so fast no one could see either one?” I asked and saw her cheeks flush a bit as a hint of pride laced the air.

“I worked that out when I was nine,” she said. “It’s really not hard.”

“You worked it out – it wasn’t something you were taught?” I asked. “I’m going to guess there’s no one else who’s managed to ‘work out’ how to do it, have they?”

“My style is unusual.”

“Your style is beautiful,” I said. “I don’t…I don’t see things like most people do. My perspective is skewed I think by what I am. I do know art though, and you’re…you are like watching a master crafter at work. When you dropped the thunder spear on the caster? I almost missed the upwards throw you made there. You blended it just so nicely into the parry that you did, umm, assuming I saw that right at all. Was that when you called the spear down?”

I sensed that I was rambling, but it was surprisingly easy to given how amazing her fighting style was.

I’d grown up in Grammy’s house hearing stories about the legendary warriors of centuries past. The ones who’d been around at the empire’s birth, and who’d defeated all sorts of titanic beasts and single handedly turned the tide of entire battles. I’d day dreamed more often than I could count about meeting them or finding myself in the situations they’d been in. 

The more I got to know Idrina, the easier it was to imagine her as one of the legends, while at the same time catching glimpses of the very real girl who was hiding behind all that skill and drive.

“It was,” Idrina said. “I didn’t think you’d noticed it. You sounded like you were trying to warn me about the caster.”

“I was, sorry, I know that was probably just a distraction.” Since she clearly hadn’t needed any help there.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m just not used to it. I haven’t trained in groups much.”

I was glad she didn’t have my sense of smell. I heard the loneliness in her words all too clearly and I’m sure she would have smelled the mix of outrage and sadness that rose within me as a result.

She ‘hadn’t trained in groups’ because she’d been forced to train alone.

Because her family, Ilyan excepted, were awful.

“Once we’ve dealt with all this nonsense, I’m sure Narla and probably a bunch of others would be happy to make up a training group. And me. I’d want to be part of that too,” I said, because I am very, very smooth and not at all stupid and clumsy when talking with someone I might possibly like.

Idrina responded with a quick smile and a short nod of agreement, which was better than a lot of other alternatives.

“Does that mean you’re going to keep this?” she asked and, as was fairly usual for me, I had no idea what she was referring to.

“Keep what?”

“House Riverbond. The people in it,” she said. “I know you want to take down my…House Ironbriar and the others. Will you dissolve Riverbond too then?”

I could have been stunned by that question, but, for a change, it was one I’d put some thought into.

“No. I don’t want to tear families apart. Taking down Ironbriar and the others isn’t about crushing the people in the Great House, or not most of the people. What I want to do break the position they have. Again, maybe it’s because of what I am, but to me, the “low born” and the “high born” really aren’t different at all. You’re all just people, and, I know this is apparently heresy, but I think if everyone was assumed to have the same value it would work out better for all of us.”

“But you won’t need Riverbond if this works,” Idrina said. “No one will be trying to kill you anymore.”

“I don’t…you’re not just a shield for me,” I said, sickly horrified by where I could see her thoughts going. “Wow. Where to start,” I shook my head and saw the dangerous slopes I’d been talking myself nearer and nearer to. “I think you’re amazing. Your casting and fighting prowess is literally the best I’ve ever seen. Here’s the thing though, those are two separate truths.”

Idrina tipped her head and stared, using my own ‘be silent and let the other person do all the work’ tactic against me!

“If we were in some far away land, where no one knew us and everything was peaceful, with no fighting allowed at all, I would still want you with me,” I said. “I know almost all we’ve done together is fight, but there’s a lot more to you than that.”

“Is there?” she said. “How can you know that?”

“Because you’re standing right here, right now,” I said. “If all you wanted to be was a fighter, you didn’t have to chose to stand with me. Honestly, you’d probably make out better standing with literally anyone else. I’m actively dragging you into trouble, and that’s not healthy in the slightest, not with the people I’m planning to get in trouble with.”

“Maybe that’s why I’m standing with you,” she said. “Maybe I’m just here because you offer the best fights.”

“Are you?” I asked, already knowing she wasn’t. “Is a fight all that you’re looking for?”

“It’s what I’m good at. It’s what I’m built for.”

“Yep. Both of those statements are true. You built yourself to be good at fighting and you did a damn fine job of it. Are you seriously asking me to believe that you’re not up to the challenge of being even more though? Or that you aren’t more than that already?”

“I…” she stammered and went silent again.

“If being part of my house isn’t what you want long term, I…” It kind of hurt to even think about that, but I pushed it aside. This wasn’t about me. “You should be free to go where you want and become who you want. I know you swore an Oath of Fealty to House Riverbond and I plan to add just one modification to it – a good House is there for the well being of family who calls it home. I want to make it so that a House needs to earn your fealty and support, not the other way round. If I can’t give you the life you wish, then Riverbond is failing you and you should be free to find something better.”

“And if we…if I want to stay?” she asked.

“Then I will hold onto you for as long as you like,”  I said. “I’m sure we’ll all change and grow over time. I think even if we don’t make an effort at it, that happens naturally. Some may come and some may go, and that’s be great and it’ll suck, but that’s life, and I think it’s better together.”

I was basing that on things that Grammy had said, and how empty life had felt without Trina, but some of feelings of loss echoed back farther than that. Almost back past my oldest memories.

We walked for a bit in silence, which was only surprising because from how my luck had been going I expected a pack of third year Cadets to ambush us at any moment. Maybe third years were smart enough not to mess with us? Probably unlikely, but who knows?

“May I ask you a question? A personal one?” Idrina said, turning towards me and taking my left hand in hers.

“Oh, uh, sure,” I said, not at all flustered and suddenly empty headed.

“What are you?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 80

“Outings with friends are always clever things. It so often starts off so very innocently. Oh wouldn’t it be fun to take a little stroll, they say. Why yes, I would enjoy spending a spot of time in your company, you say. Hours later, after a minimum of three buildings have been set on fire, half the city watch is trying to arrest the other half, and somehow a lemure has absconded with the ducal crown, you’ll find yourself bereft as you pour out the sad dregs from the last bottle of wine to survive the rampage by the local Mummer’s guild.

That sounds overly specific you say? Why, yes, I might have thought so too, but this being the third time those exact events have unfolded, I feel as though I allowed to recognize a trend when I see one.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, with a lamentably empty bottle of wine and no other means to placate an annoyed Enika.

Nelphas, apparently having done far more cardio work than I would have given him credit for, seemed disinclined to stop his screaming any time soon. I wasn’t sure why he was so upset though. I mean, yes, losing an appendage isn’t terribly pleasant but it wasn’t as though the schools healers would have any problem reattaching it.

That thought was rolling through my head when I chanced to glance down and noticed the fallen Nelphas hand burning away to ash.

Which, okay, that was going to be a problem for him.

To her credit, Idrina would have been legally justified (so far as I knew) in removing his head rather than his hand, so she had exercised a commendable amount of restraint.

Assuming that the searing flames weren’t also going to travel down Nelphas’ arm and eventually turn the rest of him to ash too.

I threw Idrina a quick questioning glance about that to which she she shook her and gave a small eye roll.

Nelphas would be fine.


For someone who’d been so sure he could murder the both of us without consequence, he really seemed to have very little stomach for injuries really meant. Even if we hadn’t been, well, us, any targets who chose to fight back at all could have accomplished the same thing.

But that was the point, wasn’t it? Nelphas knew his place. He knew that Lightstone was a power that almost no one dared oppose and as long as he limited his predation to those who couldn’t afford to fight back – out of fear of what might happen to their families, or the knowledge of just how awful Lightstone could be – then even Nelphas didn’t need to worry about contending with even basic survival reflexes.

I don’t think the Head of House Lightstone understood just how useful of a tool he’d allowed Nelphas and all the others like him to become. I am abysmal in terms of manipulating people but Nelphas’ control buttons were so glaringly obvious even I couldn’t have messed up the assignment.

There was a less predictable part of the scenario though, namely how Nelphas’ fan club was going to react. I had a few suspicions, with ‘run the hell away from the girl who had dismembered someone so quickly no one had seen it’ as a leading contender.

Of course that outcome failed to account for how tremendously stupid people are capable of being.

Oh, did we just demonstrate that Nelphas is a braggart with nothing to back up his claims of even base-line competency? 

Would everyone be better off not to poke the girl who claims to be a Head of House with the authority to invoke summary executions on the lot of them?

Perhaps, even the basic wisdom of ‘just don’t say anything’ might have been appealing. People are phenomenal at pretending something they didn’t want to see simply didn’t happen.

Any or all of those would have insured a calm and peaceful resolution to the situation. I did need to cause more trouble before the night was over, but I was looking for useful sorts of trouble. Random mayhem, while more enjoyable than I’d originally considered it to be, was not on the agenda.

It’s possible I was starting to take on the traits of those around me, since I knew that random mayhem led nowhere good, despite how much my friends seemed inured to it. 

Of course it also may not have been them. After the ups and downs of the last several days, I might have been left a little more cranky than usual.

Figuring that out wasn’t quite as important as dealing with the in rushing hoard of Academy first year cadets.

Because, of course, rather than being sensible, Nelphas’ fan club had decided that they’d based their both social standing and personality around supporting him and there was simply no chance that objective reality was going to convince them that he was anything but the mighty and powerful figure they’d deluded themselves into believing he was.

I wasn’t going to kill any of them for that.

I really wasn’t!

I thought Idrina grabbed my arm to hold me back from a flurry of claw and teeth related violence, but, foolish me, she of course had other things in mind.

“I defend you,” she said, cutting the idea down to as few words as possible to fit into the time available.

And then she did.

And she was gentle.

I mean, yes, bones were broken, but for the first three cadets who rushed towards us, magic crackling in their hands and/or weapons summoned, none lost any body parts beyond a little blood and the integrity of a forearm or a shin.

Again, I would have thought that seeing their three quickest fighters taken out almost simultaneously would have convinced the idiots to stop fighting. 

Or rather I would have thought that before I came to the Imperial Academy.

Out of the twenty or so hangers-on, another five came charging in, these with slightly more planning than the others. The two in the lead blocked Idrina’s strikes with conjured shields while one of the others peppered her with quick cast little dart spells and the fourth did much the same with an arcane bow they’d conjured. In the back, far enough that I wasn’t sure Idrina had seen him, the fifth was building power to feed into what looked like a fairly nasty area spell.

“Idr…” I started to say when a spear dropped from the heavens to explode about a foot away from the caster in the back.

Amusingly, well amusingly from my point of view, the caster also lost control of the magic he was gathering and it exploded too. That knocked him into a tree and blasted two others to the ground. Since they were all writhing in residual lighting from the caster’s spell I didn’t think they’d be much of a problem, but I kept an eye on them just in case.

The archer and the dart conjurer weren’t having much luck getting past Idrina’s guard, and from what I could tell she wasn’t even putting much effort in protecting herself.

In her hand, a short spear spun fast enough that I thought she’d enchanted it to actually be a shield. Nope. The spear wasn’t enchanted at all. She was spinning it in her hand. Because she was enchanting. Or enchanted. Or something like that.

She was fighting real good with it.

And she looked kind of bored?

I mean, not that she has the widest range of facial expressions. Normally she’s just got a ‘Are you going to do something that makes me have to kill you’ look which is so relaxing. Its what she looks like, its what she’s thinking, its so nice and easy to decipher. And her scent matches right up with it.

Was that why I liked her? Wait? Did I like her?

Well she was fighting to defend me, so its hard not to be at least marginally well disposed towards someone whose doing that.


Five more Nelphas flunkies came in, relieving me of the need to introspect or ponder anything.

Well, anything except Idrina yoinking me gracefully behind her as she parried the archers arrows and the dart casters projectiles into two of the five new flunkies.

I giggled.

What! It was hysterical watching them flounder like that. Any reasonable person would have laughed there.

Idrina even let the corners of her lips tug a hairs breadth higher in the approximation of a smile too. So I wasn’t alone.

I wasn’t alone. 

I felt a shiver go through me. Not a bad shiver either, despite the glassy eyes it left me with.

Three more flunkies joined in, which at this point I couldn’t blame them for. Sure, from their point of view, attacking us was a bad gamble, but being sensible and running away at this point would mean giving up entirely on a social circle who clung to their delusions with a grip tighter than any vice and who would crush you like that vice if you ever even hinted that they were wrong about anything. I mean, how could you walk away from a treasure like that?

I gestured towards the new comers who were wielding a flaming sword, a pair of storm cloud and another flaming sword respectively.

I could have dealt with them myself but Idrina could handle this on her own and I wanted to show her that I trusted both her skills and her intentions.

And I was willing to bored for her.


Well, not that it was boring to watch her work. Storm clouds, it turns out, serve as excellent bombs if you break the casters concentration. Idrina managed that by nothing more complex than tripping of the flaming sword guys into the storm caster. The two went down in a jumble of limbs and before they could get up, the two storm clouds exploded with lightning bolts flashing everywhere.

That had bought time for two other attackers to stealth up and get the drop on Idrina from close enough to stab her.

If they’d hit her, I would have stepped in to help. If they’d killed her…probably best for me not to think about what I would have done then.

Especially since I didn’t need to worry about it.

Their invisibility didn’t fade until after they stabbed at her, one from the front, one from the back.

But when the blades struck out, she wasn’t there. 

The two would-be assassins were far enough apart that they didn’t skewer each other. Instead each only got a small knick on the other.

Hysterically, both then immediately passed out due to the paralytic agent they’d put on their blades.

It wasn’t a particularly strong paralytic from what I could smell, and it seemed ot be targeted at the leg muscles only. That was a lot of info to read from a scent but I was reasonably sure of it given the confirmation of the two assassin’s collapsing instantly and yet still seeming to breath.

Idrina spun back to the shield guys, who were looking more than a little concerned and started advancing on them. They both took a step back and then planted their knees on the ground to brace against her charge.

Except she didn’t charge.

She leapt.

Up and over the shields which gave her a clear shot at the archer and the dart caster, each of whom ceased to be a problem with Idrina’s choice to smash the archer’s bow in half and reflect the dart casters projectiles right into them, 

I waited to see if any more flunkies would join them, but there were none left. That fact registered from the shield casters a moment later and in a stunning burst of basic competency, they turned tail and fled with the others who finally been convinced that this was a lost cause.

Seeing our opponents fled, I held out a fist towards Idrina, who in turn…looked at me funny?