As a mentor figure, one of the prime things to keep in mind at all times is your charge’s welfare.– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame
My first thought after slamming into the polished stone floor of the sparring chamber was that I’d been correct.
The fall had broken me a lot more than the spear thrusts had.
Since there didn’t seem to be any more spear thrusts coming, I laid there for a while doing a reasonable impression of a puddle of shattered human being, and reviewed exactly where I had gone wrong.
Getting into the ring in the first place seemed was probably one of the many mistakes I’d made. There really hadn’t been any need for that. I’d just wanted to show off.
I could feel Grammy Duella shaking her head at me from a few hundred miles away.
That hurt worse than the fall had.
Underestimating Idrina? Yeah, that hadn’t been bright either. If I was going to pass the Cadet Trials, I needed to be more on guard, and demand a more even playing field when possible.
I kicked myself for missing the bit where she called for ‘no weapons except conjured ones’. That should have been a dead giveaway that she could conjure weapons and planned to do so immediately.
To be fair, I don’t think I could have been expected to guess that she would be so good at it that she could pull off the spell in the first instant of the fight without words or gestures. Part of why I hadn’t been too worried about whatever magic she possessed was that I’d assumed all casters needed time and freedom of movement to cast their spells and I’d planned to give her neither.
I heard voices from the top of the platform but my ears were as busted up as the rest of me so making out what they were saying was a bit beyond my capabilities. I gave a wordless, and mostly soundless grunt, and got to work on fixing that.
The damage to my torso needed work, but the broken bits in my head took higher priority. Grammy Duella would have laughed about the idea that I could fix the broken bits in my head and assured me they were fine as is, but people generally seemed to expect skulls to be solid.
My thoughts strayed onto partially formed jokes about being a blockhead, which got me working on fixing the various bits of brain trauma I’d suffered as my first step in the restoration process. I could have managed the repairs in an instant, but brains are tricky things and mine was one of my most artistic pieces so I wanted it to be just right.
“So will you be starting your year of service immediately, or do you need some time to put your affairs in order?” Enika asked as the voice floated closer.
“My dear former beloved, I am always in service and of service,” Doxle said. “In this particular instance however, I am gladdened to have earned the forgiveness for my offense against House Ironbriar.”
“A curious thing to be glad of as your champion failed to survive even the paltry sixty seconds required by the terms of battle,” Enika said.
If my face had been functional, I would have been wearing an expression of either disgust or disbelief.
She thought I’d died there? And she’d done nothing to prevent it?
I wasn’t sure smacking an Imperial Advisor was a good idea.
No. Scratch that. I was absolutely certain it was a terrible idea. Fortunately I was too busted up to try it regardless.
I suppose it was a little unreasonable to think she or Doxle could have stopped things in time too. Idrina had gone from bouncing off the wall, to stabbing me through the chest, to kicking me off the pillar in around a second or so. I could tell that the Advisors had a lot of power at their disposal but that didn’t say anything about their reaction times.
That Enika wasn’t particularly regretful about Idrina apparently killing me seemed remarkably callous, but it wasn’t like I’d been raised to believe the Great Houses were the good and kind shepherds of the Empire that the official stories made them out to be.
“Yes, well, there are two small, yet relevant points you may be overlooking,” Doxle said as the floating disks drew himself and the others down to ground level.
“And those would be?” Enika asked, her boots clicking on the polished stone about fifteen feet away from me.
“Primarily, that the Ironbriar champion lost the duel,” Doxle said. I had my eyes closed still, mostly because I didn’t really want to see the state the fall had left me in, but I could still tell he was looking directly at Idrina.
I brought my nose back online as the final touch of fixing my skull and then got to work on the gaping hole in my chest.
“Lost?” Idrina asked, a trill of well suppressed anger rolling through the word.
“Oh, you’re performance was magnificent,” Doxle said. “A credit to your house, and doubtless enough to pass the Cadet Trials tomorrow.”
He waited a moment but she didn’t rise to take the bait he was dangling.
“There is only the small matter that you broke the terms of the battle before it was over,” Doxle said.
“How?” the brother asked. He was angry too, though a different shade of it than Idrina was. More protective of her honor I thought.
Breathing in slightly, I caught a whiff of musky protectiveness coming from him.
That was interesting. A lot of siblings in the Great Houses are taught to view each other as rivals at best and eventual enemies in all other cases, with the only familial affection resting on the fact that they were enemies united by the rest of the world being the Great House’s enemies too.
“Do you recall the terms laid out for the battle?” Doxle asked.
“It was five minutes ago, so, yes, I do,” the brother said.
“What was my one condition then?” Doxle asked.
Idrina groaned, but the brother didn’t follow. “No weapons, spells only,” he said.
“That was her condition,” Doxle said.
“No spell casting outside the circle,” Idrina said.
A pungent spike of self recrimination flowed off her enough that I almost felt bad for the poor girl.
That wasn’t a hard emotion to overcome. All I had to do was focus on the work of knitting my heart back together.
It wasn’t a difficult task to be honest. Hearts are pretty simple organs. Blood goes in, blood goes out. Getting it to react when the rest of the body needs it to takes a bit of doing, but a lot of that is in the brain and spinal cord, which I’d already put back together.
The lungs on the other hand? Those are a pain to reconstruct even when they’re far less damaged than mine were.
They are, again, a pretty simple organ but there are so many little alveoli, and if you want to do it right, you have to make each and every one, rather than just faking it with a single air bladder under the rib cage.
“You didn’t cast anything outside the circle though?” the brother said, the scent from him turning green with uncertainty.
“Didn’t she though?” Doxle asked and even I felt like slapping the smug, gloating smile off his face.
“Oh, pfff, that hardly counts,” Enika said.
“The terms of the battle don’t count? Is that truly a tack you wish to take?” Doxle asked, losing none of his delight.
“What? What did you cast?” the brother asked.
“A jumping spell,” Idrina said. “When I hit the wall. It was stupid. I didn’t need to, it was just reflex.”
I thought back to the flash of light when she’d bounded off the wall and back into the ring. It had proceeded my torso getting punctured by about a tenth of a second, so I hadn’t paid much attention to it, but Doxle was right. She’d cheated. Sort of.
It was still hard to count the fight as a win in my favor though.
“As I said, it was impressive. There will be few if any candidates at the Trials who can match that level of casting prowess,” Doxle said. “Casting prowess alone however does not assure a victory.”
“Yeah, but she still vanquished your champion in less than a minute,” the brother said.
I still didn’t think he held any particular animosity towards me, but defending his sister’s honor clearly outweighed any concerns about a random stranger’s demise. I could have been mad about that, but I didn’t feel like I had a reason to expect anything from him and, if I had a brother, I think I would want him to have the same priorities.
“That would be the other minor point which is worth consideration,” Doxle said.
He was gesturing towards me.
I still had my eyes closed.
And I couldn’t smell all that much from him, beyond ash and lightning, because he could lie through scent too.
So I had no actual method of knowing that he was directing their attention towards me.
But I knew.
I kind of hated that I understood his sense of the dramatic, and kind of hated even more that a part of me agreed with it, but despite that I couldn’t let a setup like that go unfulfilled so I opened my eyes, fast knit the bones in my legs together and rose to my feet.
My new dress had the small issue of a ghastly tear in the center of my chest and a matching one in the center of my back, but Idrina’s spear hadn’t done enough damage to compromise the modesty it provided.
Otherwise I was in acceptable shape.
I rolled my shoulders to test that theory and found I’d missed a few spots in my Trapezius muscles. I fixed those as the Ironbriars froze into silence.
Seeing that, and smelling the sharp kick of wariness that gripped the twins, I offered them a blank stare and a small shrug is return. That brought them from scared to confused, which at least smelled slightly better.
Enika’s posture and scent hadn’t changed at all through any of this. Because she could lie the same as Doxle. I probably should have guessed that before, and should probably assume all the Advisors could too. It was annoying, but that was probably going to be a good summation for all of the Advisors if the two in the room were anything to judge them by.
As lessons went, ‘the Advisors are annoying lying jerks’ wasn’t much, but I suspected I would have to take what I could get. Doxle seemed to be many things, but the jury was still out on whether he was a decent teacher or not.
“How?” the brother asked, managing to avoid stammering the word too badly.
“Ah, a form shifter?” Enika said, surprise and delight tickling her words. “How clever of you.”
Clever of Doxle? I felt even more annoyed by that. I let it show on my face. Enika didn’t care.
“Do you think so?” Doxle asked. “I’ve always found it to be a challenging art, and, let us be boorishly honest here, why should I ever wish a form other than this one? Am I not the pinnacle of magnificence already?”
“Ugh. Children, come along, it is clearly time that we took our leave,” Enika said, and began leading the twins out.
“I don’t hear you disagreeing!” Doxle sang out as they departed.
Enika did not choose to dignify that with any sort of response at all, but Idrina did look back before they passed out the room.
It wasn’t much more than a glance where our gazes met, but that short window of connection held a promise.
We were going to have another match.
I hadn’t won this one, and she’d lost it.
Next time, one of us would walk away the winner, and the other? Well I wasn’t sure the other would walk away at all.
She knew what I could do now.
And I knew I wasn’t unkillable.
My oldest, dimmest memories, the ones that surfaced only in hazy nightmares, held the proof of that.
I waited three breaths after they’d left the room before I turned to Doxle.
He was waiting patiently for me, the delighted smarm gone from his expression.
“You need to teach me how to kill her,” I said.
“By all means,” was his reply. “Let’s get started.”