Monthly Archives: August 2023

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 67

“Go looking for adventure? Why would I ever be inclined to do that? Don’t you know that adventures are what ambush you when you’re attempting to take part in some entirely reasonable activity of your own, like an afternoon of calming gardening, or serving a new mixture of tea to an intimate party of guests, or casting a misguided Count down into the bowels of Hell, or a perfectly lovely stroll along the manor’s roads after the spring thaw to view the state of the grounds. No matter how mundane the task you set out to undertake, you can never predict when an adventure will be waiting to complicate everything you had planned.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame as he and two dear friends finish disposing of the last of the bodies.

It seemed like it would have been polite to let Yarrin and Narla head off to whatever assignation they could negotiate a path too, but, unfortunately for them, I had no idea how to find Vena and Hemaphora short of wandering back to where we’d last seen them and playing blood hound all over the Academy.

Since I was pretty sure the wrong sort of people would notice me padding around the grounds as a Dire Wolf, I had to regretfully impose on Yarrin’s time. To my surprise though, neither he nor Narla (nor Ilyan) seemed to have assumed they were going anywhere but wherever I was next.

“They’re not hidden at the moment,” Yarrin said before I could ask him if he’d help me locate the blood sisters. “So I think finding them shouldn’t be too bad.”

“You know where they are?” Mellina asked, only mildly surprise at the news.

“In a general sense, yeah, I’m not sure what else is around them though,” he said.

“You’re magic is limited to people you’ve met?” Idrina asked. She wasn’t sizing him up for battle. Yarrin wasn’t a threat to her. Plus she wasn’t in any shape for more fighting. Of those I was pretty sure at least one was true, and I was really hoping it was the one I thought it was. 

“No, or well, yeah, it’s better with people I’ve met,” Yarrin said, admitting weakness as though he was surrounded by people who would shield him from any harm that might result. “In this case though the problem is that I can see that there are people or things around them but those things are hiding. So when we find Vena and Hemaphora, we’ll have company, and I can’t tell how happy that company will be to see us.”

“This is not a good group to be unhappy with,” Narla said.

I saw Idrina straighten up at that, as though compelled to take her place on a fighting line that didn’t exist yet. Worryingly, I was still reasonably certain that even in her current state, she’d still be a better fighter than I was.

“Since I need to ask Vena and Hemaphora’s help, I’m thinking we’ll just try talking first,” I said. “If the hiding people are their friends and family, it may be better for me to endure a little hostility if that’s needed to convince them to work on the spell.”

“And what if they’re hostile to the rest of us?” Mellina asked, not at all worried by the notion, just curious from what I could see and smell.

“That would be a mistake on their part,” I said. “I won’t ask any of you to suffer any indignities on my account.”

“You haven’t asked for any of this,” Mellina said.

“It wouldn’t have been fair,” I said. “None of you owe me anything.”

“That is not entirely true,” Idrina said.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes it is. You are, all of you, free of any obligations to me or to House Riverbond. I refuse to bind you. Even implicitly.”

“That’s very important to you, isn’t it?” Mellina asked, her curiosity sharpening.

“I won’t own anyone,” I said. “That’s where most of the trouble in the world starts.”

It was a lesson Grammy had taught me without ever saying a word of it. She’d had simply been emphatic with the people she employed and how she believed others were to be treated. She lived her whole life as a sort of condemnation of what she saw as being wrong in the Empire. It hadn’t made her even a tiny bit popular, but there was a lightness to her spirit that seemed to come from living in a manner which agreed with her conscience.

“Yeah, no kidding, that’s why we love you,” Ilyan said. 

I expected him to punch my shoulder, and I’m pretty sure he would have except he was standing a bit too far away.  That none of the others disagreed with him seemed weird though. Of all of them, only Idrina had a notable reaction and that was to turn and shoot her brother a glare.

“And it’s why we’re going to help you contact your sister,” Yarrin said.

“Plus we’re really curious to see how this turns out,” Narla said. “And all the good fights are happening where you are and I don’t want to miss out on any of them.”

I suspected that last point was the strongest incentive for her and paused to be grateful that I was at least nominally on the same side as Narla was. I glanced over to Idrina to see if she shared Narla’s sentiment, since it seemed rather likely she did, but found she was looking away, her attention captured by some of the books I guessed.

“I’m going to do my best to avoid any fights for the rest of the night at least,” I said. “It’s been kind of a long day so far.”

“Would you like to travel under concealment then?” Mellina asked.

“Maybe we could skip that?” Ilyan said. “It’s great and all, but my magic goes a little nuts and…”

He didn’t finish the thought, apparently not being as willing to say ‘and I’m far too beat up to deal with that kind of agony tonight’. I was not one to throw stones in that particular glass house, and I noted that Idrina hadn’t even been willing to admit that Mellina’s cloak of shadows bothered her, when the whiffs of pain I caught from her said it was even worse for her than it was for Ilyan.

“That sounds fine,” I said. “If we run into anyone, I’ll tell them I’m following the directive of an Imperial Advisor, which has the benefit of being true and something that can be verified.”

It was a sound plan. I’d have a whole lot of companionship when I walked into whatever lair Vena and Hemaphora were holed up in, and my companions would be covered under the mandate that Doxle had given me. I could have explained too that the Empress herself had told me to seek out my sister, but I was pretty sure no one was going to believe me on that and I wasn’t sure I wanted people to know I was working for her just yet.

The thought struck me again that I was taking a page from Doxle’s playbook in trying to convince potential enemies to overlook or underestimate me.

That probably wasn’t a good sign. I hadn’t know him that long and he was already rubbing off on me. What was I going to look like after working with him for a month? Or a year? Or a decade?

Probably best not to think about that.

What would have been better to think about was the small patrol of upperclassmen who ran into us as we exited the library.

“Classes are done. What are you all doing here?” asked their leader, a tall boy who’d shaved his head bald and adorned it with a tattoo of House Ironbriar.

“Research,” I said. It should have been obvious, but then anyone who painted their house affiliation on the side of their head like a targeting bullseye probably couldn’t be relief on to figured out the obvious.

“Heh, right, what kind of research?” His six friend posted up beyond him, bringing their group to a point of at least numerical superiority to mine.

“The book kind,” I said. Yeah, I know I wasn’t being helpful, and my skills at deescalation were miserable, but I was trying.

“You’re funny. You think you’re funny don’t you?” He asked, stepping closer to loom over me. I smelled a few different aromas of aggression from behind me, but help out a hand as a small call for calm. 

The last thing I needed was Ilyan starting a brawl that would leave him in worse shape than he was.

“Not really,” I said. “I suck at humor. You’re with House Ironbriar right?”

He obviously wasn’t just a fanboy for them, but giving him something to talk about that he could be proud of struck me a decent approach to take.

“What’s it to you?” the boy asked.

“Ironbriar provides security for the Academy,” I said, ignoring his question. “Are you part of the watch?”

“Nah, we’re freelancers.” He said it like he was dropping a hilarious joke and his cohort seemed to agree that is was.

“Volunteers?” I said. “Your efforts are a credit to your house then.”

I was trying, really trying to find some peaceful waters to share with them. There was literally no reason at all for there to be hostility between us. Someday we’d probably need to work together. Heck someday our lives might depend on each other. Forging some tiny semblance of camaraderie would pay off so well in the long run.

Plus I had two members of House Ironbriar behind me and one of them had already tried to kill me for an insult given to her house.

“A credit? Yeah, that we are,” the leader said and for a brief moment I was able to hope he’d turned the corner. “The important thing is that you know that, and know your place.”

So much for hoping he’d discovered a clue there.

“Yep. Our place is over there,” I said, pointing in the direction we’d been heading before they stopped us.

“Nah, see, that’s where you got it wrong,” he said and stepped close enough to step on my feet. “Your place is where we say it is you little plebes.”

I want it noted that I did not do anything violent at all then. I feel I deserve a tremendous amount of recognition for that.

“You’ll want to step back and reconsider your position here,” I said in a calm and clear voice. 

So he shoved me in the chest.

“And why’s that plebe?” the leader said.

“Because she is the head of House Riverbond,” Idrina said. “Insult her and you insult her House.”

“Who asked you?” the leader said and then noticed who he was addressing. “Oh wait, you’re Iyrthan’s little brat, or wow, both of them. We got a matched set here guys. Heard the psycho-girl caused a big mess for her family though.”

“You’re going to want to address the people in my party with respect,” I said keeping the growl that was building inside out of my voice.

“Oh? What are you going to do about it if I don’t?” he said and cupped my chin with his left hand.

I feel it’s extremely important to note that it was still attached to him at that point.

“If you choose to assault my companions, physically, or verbally, I will be forced to take that as an assault on House Riverbon and react accordingly,” I said without emotion.

Was that not a clue? Was it not a very obvious clue?

“I’m not assaulting anyone,” the leader said without releasing my face. “I’m just saying what I heard. It’s not every day that the family council gets to kick a worthless lout like Iyrthan out after all. I mean I should really be thanking that little bi…”

It turned out to be fairly difficult for the leader to complete his sentence with a spear piercing the right side of his body front to back, including the lung he’d been using for being such an annoying jerk.

“You…you killed him!” one of his cohort shouted as they all began to back away.

“No, she didn’t kill him,” I said.

He was choking and gasping but he still hadn’t let go of my face.

So I tore his head off.

“I killed him,” I said.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 66

“When people talk of ‘Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know’, they are largely talking about things which are dangerous when one puts too little thought into their application.

The ability to call forth a Plague of Fire Devourers for example is a perennial scare tactic as an army of twelve foot long worms made of fire and rage tend to put a damper on most people’s plans for the day. 

Of course if one does possess the knowledge of how to call forth the Fire Devourers then one intrinsically will understand the mechanism for moving said creatures across dimensional boundaries. With that capability, the caster is as easily able to banish the beasts to their home dimensions as to summon them in the first place.

Of course, certain problems will arise if the summoner calls them into, say, a confined study and is burn to ash before they are aware of the need work the banishing charm. You would think that to be an unlikely event, and yet, here we are.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame in the ashen remains of the third manor to have burned to ground within one week of the publication of ‘The New Traditional Book of Proper Fire Casting’.

I have a thing about not being able to see people who are intent on doing me harm. Invisible predators don’t precisely scare me. I mean, being a predator is a perfectly natural thing, and being able to turn invisible is a solid trick in anyone’s arsenal. Neither of those alone is enough to set me on edge. It’s when someone thinks that they get to try to hunt me because they’ve put those two things together than I feel a deep visceral need to explain two things to them; first, invisibility is only one of the traits you would need to evade my senses and, second, I am a predator too and smart predators do not hunt things like me.

“How close are they?” I asked Yarrin and heard the others start to rise from table where they’d seated themselves. 

“Too far for me to reach, but so near I can feel their breath on my neck,” he said, still sunk into the distant eye’d daze.

I took a deep breath and smelled nothing but my housemates, the books, and the Archivist.

I believed Yarrin nonetheless.

There were plenty of places monsters could hide which would swallow their scent. Most of those were locations between the material realm, but it didn’t seem unlikely that Yarrin was peering well beyond the boundaries of our world.

I closed my eyes, laid a hand on Yarrin’s arm and changed my eyes to match his.

Regular illumination wasn’t going to show me what I needed. I needed the light of unseen stars.

When I opened my eyes it wasn’t the library or my companions that I saw anymore. Gone were the limitations of form and matter and in their place the vista around me burned with bonfires of light.

The torch-like fire beside me was Yarrin, or his magic to be more precise. All the power he held within, colored and spun into a holy flame of his own persona. Around us, where the book shelves should have been, flickers and sparks of power shone clearly against a backdrop of dark and empty tomes.

Rising from the emptiness where the table our housemates were at, four more sparks began to glow in power and brilliance.

And then there were the wraiths.

Not beings of fire and life but rather constructs of magic twisted back in on themselves. 

“They’re not people,” I said, probably sounding as distant as Yarrin had.

“They weren’t meant to be,” Yarrin said. “I can see the hopes in their construction. They were supposed to carry the souls of the ones who penned the book we need. Like armor to shelter a spirit in. It was part of their ritual. They made the book and inscribed it with their wisdom because that was part of how they intended to overcome death. Immortality bound in ink and words. The wraiths were the other half, but something failed.”

“Does that mean the book’s useless to us?” I asked.

“Not at all. We just can’t use it to become immortal. Looks like it works great for sending magic across the veil of life though.”

He sounded a lot more coherent, but I had to wonder if that was because I was seeing things from his perspective.

“What happens if you take the book?” I asked, wondering if that’s what it would take to complete the circuit and pull him free from their influence.

“They take me,” he said. “The book is acting as a phylactery for them. All of them. Anyone who picks it up with the intent to use the spells within risks disrupting it’s status as the anchor point for their souls, so they’ll drag the offender into their realm where the connection can’t be broken.”

“Oh. Is that all? Well in that case, allow me,” I said and dropped my touch on his arm before striding over towards the book case.

The others yelled “wait” and “stop” but we all knew I wasn’t going to do that. I was lucky there because Idrina could definitely have blocked me if she was up to full speed. Instead I got to the book I’d seen while sharing Yarrin’s vision and yanked it off the shelf, being careful to focus on the clear and specific fact that I was going to cast as many spells from the book as I needed to in order to contact my dead sister.

That did not endear me to them.

I’d gotten about two steps away from the bookshelf before invisible, intangible fingers wrapped around me and yanked me bodily across the veil between worlds, hurling me into the lightless, soundless void where the wraiths had managed to trap themselves in their quest for immortality.

Before I describe what happened next, allow me to suggest a scenario. Imagine a group of very clever chickens or pheasants or other disturbing poultry-form animals had managed to set up a hidden cave. They were cut off in the cave and safe there from the ravages of the seasons but they hungered deeply for the little bugs which crawled in the world beyond the cave. Perhaps once in a while they managed to tempt a bug into the cave’s interior when the poor little bug caught their attention and desired something cave-related. A miserable existence to be sure, but one in which the little collection of unthinking poultry instincts which passed for their minds assured them was right and proper. In the unforgiving gloom they’d banished themselves to, the silly little birds imagined themselves to be the brightest and most clever and worthiest beings in all creation.

Now imagine that in place of a helpless little bug, they lured a giant wolf into their tiny shadow realm.

That’s about how things went.

It was helpful that I’d worked out how to form rifts on my own. It made getting back from the wraith’s domain substantially easier than it would have been. 

To be fair, the wraith’s world was so close to the material one that the trip could barely be called a magical one. Tearing a rift open was roughly as difficult as ripping wet tissue paper, which was probably why the wraiths had been able to keep such a close eye on their book. Despite that, I still managed to plop back into the material world in a jumble of arms and legs which left a great deal to be desired in the dignity department. In my defense, I at least had said arms and legs looking properly human by the time I returned.

And, again credit to me, not a lot of time had passed.

My housemates wore various degrees of concern on their faces and the Archivist was in the middle of weaving a spell, but otherwise the library was unchanged.

“…should not have been…” the Archivist was in the middle of saying and came to a stop only when I hit the floor loud enough to draw her attention.

“Kati!” Narla said and had me hoisted effortlessly up onto my feet before I could blink.

“Oh, hey, thanks there,” I said. “Got a little turned around coming back.”

“Coming back?” Idrina asked.

“Yes. Please do explain,” the Archivist said, her fingers stilling and allowing the magic she’d built up to disperse harmlessly into back in the aether.

“There was a trap on the book we needed,” I said. “It was going to eat Yarrin, so I sprang it instead.”

“You disappeared,” the Archivist said.

“I sprang it into the realm of the trapmakers?” I said, which I knew wasn’t much of an explanation. “They won’t be a problem anymore.” I noticed I had some bits still on me so I brushed them off.

“And you returned when they were defeated and their realm collapsed?” the Archivist asked.

“I don’t think returning earlier was an option,” I said, which had the virtue of being both entirely true and nicely misleading. I mean if she was going to hand me a ready made explanation for how I got back that didn’t require I know how to make rifts myself, far be it from me not to capitalize on that. Especially if I could do so while technically telling the truth.

When I noticed how I was thinking I paused for a moment.

Was that how Doxle thought all the time?

Or was that why he’d picked me?

Yikes for either one.

“My apologies,” Archivist Zirneklis said. “It’s rare-to-unheard of that the guardians of a tome should be able to bodily abduct someone. Typically they will simply enthrall the mind in unbreakable bonds.”

“That sounds worse,” Narla said.

“The enchantments they use are less potent than the name suggests. The bonds are unbreakable for the ones entrapped within them. So long as there is someone aware of their fate who is not caught by the enchantments, freeing the captive is relatively straightforward. Had I known there was unusual peril waiting you here, I would have barred you from entry.”

“I’m glad you didn’t,” I said. “This book has what we need.”

“How can you tell?” Mellina asked.

“Yarrin picked it out,” I said.

“I don’t understand how the wraiths grabbed you though?” he said. “The magics I used to find the book gave them a channel back to me. That’s why I needed to get to it. Once I had it I knew I’d be able to claim ownership over and it break the book free from their control. But I didn’t do that and it looks like it’s free anyways.”

“Uh. Yeah. They’re not in an ‘owning books’ state anymore,” I said. I didn’t really want to explain what I’d done because it was kinda worrisome and I was happier with them just thinking of me as I stood before them rather than what I could be or do.

“Does that mean we can take it with us now?” Ilyan asked.

“Material ownership of the tome has not changed. It still belongs to my library,” the Archivist said. “Though should you need to reference it, I will ensure that it is always available for you.”

“I don’t think we’ll need very much from it, will we?” I said and cast a glance over to Yarrin.

“Sort of,” he said. “We’ll need everything in the book to adapt the spellwork to talk to your sister, but it won’t take long  to get it.”

“That’s a pretty thick book,” Narla said. “Even if you read fast, we’re going to be here all night and most of tomorrow won’t we?”

Yarrin smiled. No. He smirked. I smiled. It was good to see a bit of confidence bubble up in him.

Without saying a word, he laid his left hand on the cover of the book, breathed in, and then looked up.

“Did you have plans for tonight? Because I’m done,” he said.

I refrained from whistling, even though he deserved one for being that smooth.

The others were a bit surprised by that. I don’t think anyone had really fathomed just how potent Yarrin’s magic was. To be fair, they couldn’t smell it like I could.

Narla though? She took it all in stride, regarding Yarrin with an appraising eyes.

“You know, I just might,” she said.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 65

“When I was young, I dreamed of what I would need to be in order to change the world. It was a wretched place you see. Corruption throughout the halls of power, an endless army of people who cared only to see those like me suffer, and no spaces where I could live, and grow, and pursue the dreams which held meaning in my heart.

You may wonder if this bleak view of the world was merely a product of my youthful ignorance. The tortured imaginings of one who had been wounded by the world and could not see how it truly worked.

I assure you, this was not the case. With the benefit of years, and the callouses of time having worn the sting of my early sorrows down to nothing, I can look back on those days with a new clarity and see them as they were.

And they were awful.

They are still awful mind you – but – and here is the key understanding which the centuries have granted to me – things could be worse. Would be worse of a certainty in fact, but for the efforts of those who believed they could be better.

It is to them, we owe the world that we have, and to those like them who will follow after that we owe the future we will create. But what need we to be? What answer have I found for the dreams of my youth? Who must we become to forge the future we would leave as our legacy?

Ourselves. Nothing more if required, and nothing more can we be.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame whispering to his two hundredth niece on the day she was born.

Despite nominally attending the Imperial Academy in order to pursue an advanced education, it didn’t seem like many of the Imperial Cadets held much interest in cracking open the covers of a book, at least not based on the crowd, or lack thereof, in the Great Library when we arrived.

“Why is no one here?” I asked in a whisper. I didn’t need to whisper. There wasn’t anyone around to hear me, but the few times Grammy had taken me to a library the size of the Academy’s there had been very strict rules about making noise which had somehow stuck with me.

“Most Cadets have their own libraries to draw on, or have private tutors if they feel the need for one,” Mellina said. She was walking on the far side of Idrina from me, in part I think to guard our right flank and protect the twins who were still working on recovering from the fight with the Clockwork monster.

“That and the Library’s only open to the ranking cadets,” Narla said. “All the kids in the common track have to settle for the libraries in their dorms.”

“So the people who actually need these books…?” I asked.

“Are the ones who are barred from accessing them,” Yarrin said, as though the answer to my question was in the slightest bit of doubt.

“In truth, they do not need these books,” Idrina said. She smelled subdued and there was a wobble in her step when she spoke which suggested the words had jumped to her lips as a reflexive defense of the Academy but only been allowed to pass after they were painted with a coat of regret. “The coursework they’re given to study is focused on practical matters; logistics, scheduling, field medicine. Their whole curriculum is focused on teaching skills which have well understood structure. The books gathered here were collected for their information on esoteric subjects. They’re concerned more with the theoretical and philosophical than anything that’s applicable for daily use.”

“That sounds like what I need,” I said. “But shouldn’t anyone be able to benefit from expanding their mind if they’re willing to put in the effort?”

I expected to start an argument with that. I hadn’t been intending to, but as the words escaped from my mouth and reached my ears, I heard how Idrina might take them as a challenge. Weirdly, she didn’t.

Instead she chuckled.

Which…yeah that was creepy.

“Yes, they would, but the common program doesn’t have the gaps in training ours does. They’re still in class now,” she said. “Even should they desire to broaden their knowledge, none of the common students are given the time.”

I had no idea what the exact time of day was apart from ‘very late’. Since the sun hadn’t started rising yet, I felt comfortable calling it the same night as the one in which I’d met with the Empress Eternal, her Eternal Majesty and Dread Tyrant and all that stuff. The thought that anyone was still up and doing required classwork seemed mind boggling horrible and yet another reason to burn the entire place to ground.

“I would prefer prior notification if you should pursue that endeavor,” Archivist Zirneklis said.

I don’t startle. With what I can do with my body and my tendency towards claws and fangs, startling when surprised is the sort of thing that could leave a lot of body parts strewn over a rather wide area. So I don’t startle.

I did jump a little though, but the squeak did not come from me.

“What endeavor?” I asked turning around to find a completely mild and unassuming older woman behind me.

Archivist Zirneklis had her hair up in a bun, was wearing a simple pale blue blouse and a cream colored skirt, as well as a pair of multi-lensed glasses which prevented me from seeing anything about her eyes.

I was very glad of that.

I didn’t know why, but I knew that I was.

“Burning down the Academy,” she said.

Which meant she was a mind read.

“I am not a mind reader,” she said. “I am merely very familiar with how Doxle’s children think.”

“You were not married to him,” I said, because that was a perfectly reasonable thing to say to the perfectly ordinary woman standing in front of me, as opposed to something like ‘how did you know Doxle sent me?’ or ‘what do you mean Doxle’s children?’

“That is correct,” she said. “You are here for one of the Forbidden tomes.”

Again, lots of questions I could have asked there. Lots of questions I arguably should have asked. Instead I sniffed.

Book bindings and silk. No magic though. The first didn’t surprise me. The second was wrong. I knew it was wrong too. I could feel the aura that radiated from the Archivist but the threads of magic which made it up were invisible to me.

“We are,” I said. I’ll admit that I was unsettled by how much she seemed to know and the palpable sense of ancient wisdom which hung around her, but apart from those I found her rather delightful to deal with. She was so direct and clear. Like she understood that the point of speaking was to communicate ideas, ideally the faster the better.

“Which one.”

“We don’t know.”

“But I believe I’ll be able to find it,” Yarrin said.

“We want to talk to the dead,” Narla added, a fan of clarity in her own right it seemed.

“A loved one?” the Archivist asked.

“Yes,” I said. “My sister.”

“Departed this year?”

“No. It’s been ten years,” I said, the number not feeling real at all, despite it representing the majority of my time in this world.

“My condolences,” she said, and I knew she wasn’t offering me words of comfort for Trina’s death ten years ago.

“Lady Riverbond met her sister earlier today,” Yarrin said. “We believe one of the existing necromantic communication spells might be repurposed to establish contact since we’re not dealing with a ghost tethered to this realm.”

“Is that so?” the Archivist, wonder and delight lighting up her face as the scent of fresh ink rose from her.

That was probably a good sign. I was going to take that as a good sign.

“Would we be able to take the book with us if we can find the one we need?” Mellina asked.

“Of course not,” the Archivist said without admonition.

“Studying it here should be enough,” Yarrin said. “If that’s acceptable?”

“It’s gotta be. This is a library isn’t it? That’s what you do in libraries is read books,” Ilyan said.

“Just so,” the Archivist said. “Follow me if you will.”

And so we did because, seriously, who would refuse an invitation like that?

As we descended the fifth set of stairs into an even deeper basement level than the last I began to wonder if the correct answer was ‘any one with an interest in seeing the next sunrise’, but we pressed on.

The twins had the hardest time with the multi-mile hike down into the endless basements of the library. Ilyan put on a brave face but wound up with his arm over Yarrin’s shoulders for support once climbing the stairs and his injured muscles began to disagree with each other too much. Narla looked like she wanted to simply pick him up in a bridal carry to save him the effort entirely, but was probably concerned what it would do to the poor boy’s dignity. I suspected she could have hoisted both Ilyan and Yarrin up and neither would have complained all that much but that was for them to work out.

Idrina meanwhile soldiered on without flinching or complaint.

Because of course she did.

She only showed a moment’s weakness when we reached an older section of the stair and her foot fell off one of the fractured step edges.

I caught her before she could topple much – it wasn’t exactly hard since we weren’t that far apart on the stairs, but I did spend a moment considering if I should offer her my shoulder for support too. Before I could though, she straightened back up, nodded in thanks, and began to continue on, though just a little slower than before.

I stayed a bit closer to her after that since there was no telling how low her reserves were. My guess was ‘pretty much entirely tapped out’ since she didn’t seem to mind me being close enough to catch her if she even slightly started to fall again.

“I hope you will find what you are looking for,” the Archivist said, gesturing to the nearly endless rows of shelves on the final floor.

“Where should we start looking?” I asked, reasoning that a Librarian was the most appropriate person to ask that question of.

“Over here,” Yarrin said and started wandering off in what very much sounded like a daze.

I gestured for the others to talk a seat at one of the nearby tables, sliding out a chair so that Idrina wouldn’t have to, before hurrying off to catch up to Yarrin.

“What are you seeing?” I asked, trying to interpret his Thousand-Yard stare.

“Far too much,” he said, which was the opposite of both informative and comforting.

“You gonna be okay there?” I asked, ready to knock him out and drag everyone out of here if need be.

“I don’t know. That’s not knowable. This is fun though,” he sounded disembodied, which, I assumed, was not a good state for him to be in.

“Fun things can be dangerous,” I said.

“Everything’s dangerous if you know what to do with it,” he said. “Or if you don’t.”

“Right. That’s enough book-catnip for you then. Let’s go,” I said, taking him by the arm and dragging him back towards the stairs.

Whatever mystical tomes were held in the libraries lowest levels, they were clearly not the sort of thing that someone with as much informational magic as Yarrin possessed should be exposed to.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I can see the one we want.”

He pointed to a book on the third shelf of a rack to the right of us.

“This place is affecting you. I don’t think we want to open any book that’s calling to you here,” I said.

“We have to,” he said. “I have to complete the circuit or they’ll have me forever.”

“They who?” I asked.

“The ones who wrote the scripture we need,” he said. “They’re here with us now, and they’re not happy.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 64

“Those we lose are never as distant as we imagine.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame on returning from the venture of transformation to become an Imperial Advisor.

I’m good at noticing people sneaking up on me. I have senses that are far sharper than most animals. I kept the instincts from my early Dire Wolf form to stay sensitive to danger. I’m able to perceive magic directly if something seems off in my surroundings.

None of those had told me Yarrin had joined me before he spoke though.

He hadn’t used any special magic to do so. All he’d done was walk up quietly and sat down, leaning against the opposite wall. It hadn’t been his fault at all that I’d missed him. It had been my own.

“Yeah,” I said, mostly as an admission to myself that I’d fallen into a spiral of thoughts that wasn’t at all heathy for me to linger on, with a small bit of agreement to his assertion that I needed his help to talk with Trina again.

The little smile he gave me and the small shift in his scent said he’d picked up on all of that.

“You’ve had a long day. Are you up for making it a longer one?”

“I’m okay. It’s…there’s just been a lot to process today. Physically I’m in decent shape though,” I lied. I’d nearly ripped myself and my magic to shreds opening rifts to other worlds for the first time, I’d fought both against and for Idrina, and I’d tangled with both an angry clockwork monster and the cosmos it hailed from. My body was mobile largely because I desired it to be and my magic was willing to agree with that sentiment. 

I should have let myself rest, but I had more magic to drawn on, and more I needed to do.

“We can go now then if you want?” Yarrin asked, rising to his feet in the process. “The others are ready too.”

I stared at him for a moment, processing that.

Why were my housemates helping me with this?

I needed Yarrin according to Trina to help find the right book, and I needed the twins to perform the spell. I’d owe them all for that, and pay them back however I could. Apparently I had money now? Not that I expected they’d take gold coins for what I was asking. It seemed too directly mercenary somehow?

The others though? They didn’t have to be a part of this at all. 

Maybe they were just going to send us off?

Or maybe Narla and Ilyan wanted to safeguard Yarrin? That one checked out. I don’t think any of them knew the feelings they were developing for the others, but their subconscious awareness was already strong enough that they’d begun orbiting each other as a natural habit.

Mellina on the other hand? Curiosity maybe? I couldn’t really tell.

“Doxle said to ask the Archivist rather than simply stealing it,” I said, trusting Yarrin would hear the implied counterargument that we’d have to wait till the morning to do so.

“I know the Archivist he’s suggesting we speak to. She’ll be there now. In fact, it’s late enough that she may be the only one there.”

“We’ll need the twins too,” I said, not sure why I was coming up with excuses to put off confronting the biggest failure of my entire life.

“The twins? They’re here already,” he said, looking slightly puzzled at my statement.

“Vena and Hemaphora are here? Why?” There was no reason that should have snapped my disbelief. My entire life had been a shattering glass pain of what was real or unbelievable in the last few days. The idea that the two probably-not-human people I needed just happened to have already shown up on my doorstep was a step too far though.

Or a sign that I was trapped in a far more intricate scheme than I’d ever imagined.

Yarrin shared my disbelief for a moment. Or perhaps it was my confusion. It only took him a second to make sense of things though.

“Oh, okay, I suppose they would be helpful for something like this,” he said offering me his hand. “My mistake though. They’re not here, or at least not that I’m aware of. I had thought you meant Ilyan and his sister.”

I wish people would just start clubbing me in the head with tree trunks rather than saying things like that. It would be easier to understand and I could fix the damage to my brain with a lot less effort.

“Idrina? She’s here? What the hell is she doing here?” I got up. What else was I going to do? I clearly hadn’t come back to the world I’d known but rather some strange fun house version of it where nothing was allowed to make sense for longer than a minute at a time.

“She came to check on her brother. They both took some pretty hard hits from the clockwork knights,” he said. “Also, and I say this with the caveat that she is hard for me to read, I don’t think she’s too happy with her House at the moment.”

“Does she…” the idea was ridiculous, but since I had apparently become a resident in whacky world I asked anyways, “Does she want to stay with us?”

“She hasn’t said so yet. I think she might like that, but I can’t see if it’s something she’ll be able to ask for. It’s…she’s complicated to work out.”

I laughed at that. Not because it was true, though it was, but rather at the thought of Enika having a meltdown when her two star pupils defected over to Doxle’s house.

Not that they could really defect.

They had pact bonds the same as I did. So they were stuck with Enika whether they liked it or not.

Except she’d already let Ilyan join my House?

Which was weird, wasn’t it?

The tired mass of mush inside my skull threw a few pieces of itself back together and I caught a glimpse, or maybe just an imagination, of layers of political machinations unfolding with Enika and Doxle in a more complex relationship than the teasingly adversarial ex’s they claimed to be.

Happily that was not my problem, or my worry.

There was something freeing about knowing that the world wasn’t focused solely on me. There were so many problems floating around out there, knowing that at least a few of them would seek out someone else made it a lot easier to face the ones ahead of me.

“Thanks,” I said, setting off in the direction I presumed our main sitting room was.

“I haven’t done anything for you yet,” Yarrin said, falling into pace beside me.

“You know that’s not true.”

He smiled at that but the aroma of disagreement wafted over from him. We walked on without debating it further though until, by some miracle, we arrived at the sitting room I’d been trying to find.

Narla, Ilyan, Idrina, and Mellina were waiting for us, with Pastries embodied in barely visible whisps of water vapor serving a fresh tray of hor d’oeuvres to them.

“Hey, she’s back!” Ilyan said. He’d been laying down on one of the couches with Narla in a chair near his head and Idrina in one near his feet. “Where are we going next!”

I tipped my head to one side. I shouldn’t have wondered if he was being serious. This was Ilyan. If it was a terrible idea, of course he was being serious.

I bit back my initial answer of ‘the Library’. The hope which had spawned that was that Ilyan might find the library too boring to want to tag along with us to. Even before I spoke, I knew that was a foolish hope. 

Also, there was the matter of Idrina and how she would react to more rule breaking on my part. 

I wasn’t as terrified of her initiating another fight to death with me. In part because the secrets I’d been trying to protect were clearly not secrets to anyone important, like the Empress or the demon I was pact bonded to. More than that though, I was pretty sure she wasn’t interested in murdering me, like I thought she’d been.

Fighting me? Yes. Definitely. I could see the urge to hop into an enclosed space with me spark up behind her eyes as soon as she saw me, but for Idrina, fighting wasn’t about anger and rage. There was room for those emotions, and many others, in it, but she fought with her spears in the same manner that a poet writes with their favorite words. Both might say they wanted to kill you, but they were capable of expressing so much more than that too.

As oddly relaxing as a fight with her struck me as being in that moment though, I didn’t have enough left in me to speak her language properly, and to bring anything less to the contest would be an insult that I didn’t want to make.

Instead I held her gaze and nodded.

She was welcome here.

Whether it was only to visit her brother, or if she chose to stay, she was welcome.

I probably should have used words to convey that idea. Silent glances and subtle body language aren’t exactly the clearest modes of expression, but I thought she’d gotten the gist of my intent.

“Give her a chance to have some food,” Mellina said poking me in the arm to nudge me towards the open sofa which sat kitty corner with Ilyan’s couch and Idrina’s chair. 

Pastries produced another tray from, as far as I could tell, thin air, this one with a variety of meaty soups to choose from.

I was capable of eating them all.

I was capable of eating them all at once in fact.

I did not.

I probably should have. They were really good and having the extra protein and hydration and vitamins and minerals would have been delightful to have as easy fuel to rebuild my more dubiously reconstructed organs with.

But it would have looked gross.

And shown off how decidedly non-human I really was.

Which, again apparently, might not have been a surprise to anyone, but I…I just didn’t want them looking at me like something alien and weird.

So I ate the soup like a normal human girl of my age and general weight.

I mean, a girl my size could in theory have put away three of the soups if she was really hungry, so it wasn’t that unrealistic. 

And they weren’t staring at me as I ate which was what really mattered.

Instead they were talking about tomorrow.

No one knew what was scheduled to occur, but it seemed to be the common consensus at this point that schedules were a vague illusion at best. There was also a general consensus that the Imperial Academy was not what any of us had been led to believe it was. 

We danced around the subject of Idrina’s trial, mostly because Ilyan seemed borderline berserk over what had happened, specifically the danger Idrina had been in. He was cheerful enough about it, but I was reasonably certain if any of our classmates brought up the trial in the context of Idrina being in the wrong, or not having sufficiently proved herself in it, Ilyan would, without hesitation, murder the fool then and there.

Idrina didn’t look like she approved of that. I was reasonably certain she would want to be the one to murder said-fool instead, but despite the scowl she wore each time Ilyan spoke, there was a tenderness to her posture and a concern in her scent.

She loved her brother, and was endlessly exasperated with him, which, having met Ilyan for more than two minutes, I understood on a bone-deep level.

“So, are you done eating now our good Lady Riverbond?” Ilyan asked, adopting a flowery and formal tone and matching it to what was almost certainly the wrong form of address to help lighten the mood.

“I want to say no, but three bowls is probably enough,” I admitted, wiping the dregs of third bowl out with a final chunk of fresh bread.

Ilyan rose from his couch and stood tall and strong, only his scent betraying the lie in his posture.

“If you are done here, then where shall we go next?” he asked, his eyes, if not the rest of him, alight with a zeal for adventure.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 63

“We are never so powerless as we imagine ourselves to be. This can have dreadful and unforeseeable consequences though as each word we speak and each action we take sends ripples out into the great pond of the world and the effects of those ripples are ones which can easily pass beyond the farthest borders of our lives.

So are we to foreswear taking action, or speaking our hearts, out of fear of the disasters which can result? Perhaps. Long years of regret would certainly argue for that. As tempting as it is to listen to those regrets though, the truth is that silence and inaction cast their own ripples, and lead to their own disasters. 

So which is the correct path? I can’t say for you, I have certainly chosen both and been happy with neither. From where I stand now though? Even if it leads me to sorrow and hardship, I choose to claim my life as my own. I will be silent no longer. I will shy away from no more choices. I will build my future my these too fallible hands and when it falls down around me, I shall build it again, regardless of whether I have only a single hour left, or centuries untold. The time remaining to us does not matter, only what we do with it.”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm on the 50th anniversary of the Great Calamity to the first of her special agents.

The Empress knew about Trina. She knew that the real Katrina Riverbond wasn’t me. She knew Trina still existed. She knew what my sister had been doing all these years. 

Those thoughts hit me, over and over, like hammer blows in a hurricane. All the secrecy which I’d felt protected by was gone and I stood at a perilous portal to an uncertain future.

We’d made it down all the stairs, through a maze of buildings, and inside our home, and I was still reeling from the idea that Trina was really out there. That she had been out there this whole time. 

Meeting her in the Clockwork Cosmos should have convinced me of that, and it had, but somehow hearing that someone else knew she existed made my own experience even more real and undeniable than it had been.

“I need to steal a forbidden book,” I said to no one in particular. 

Doxle was walking right beside me, holding my arm, I think so I wouldn’t topple over. I wasn’t that unsteady on me feet but I also wasn’t paying all that much attention to where I was going, or other minor things, like how legs were supposed to work.

“Most forbidden books are in libraries,” he said. “While I shall never speak against theft, great or small, it may benefit you in this case to simply borrow it.”

“It’s forbidden though?” I was pretty sure he wasn’t being serious, but with he sounded so ernest it was hard to tell. “I’m pretty sure they don’t lend those out.”

“That largely depends on who you ask and how you phrase the request.”

“Do you know the librarian here at the Academy. Wait, were you married to them?” 

“That is of no importance,” he said, confirming my suspicion. “What matters is that the Archivist is a deeply curious woman. Explain why you wish to borrow whatever book it is you need and she will very likely allow you to at least study it within the library.”

That seemed terribly reasonable.

I squinted my eyes and searched for the joke or trap in his suggestion. Reasonable behavior was disallowed by Imperial decree or something wasn’t it?

To all appearances though, Doxle was being honest. 

Which he usually was I noticed. He could twist honest statements to make them work towards whatever end he wanted but despite being a demon he didn’t seem to lie much at all.

“You know which book I want, don’t you?” I asked, guessing mostly from how calm and incurious he was being.

“You wish to contact the previous Lady Riverbond,” he said. “There are, in fact, several forbidden tomes in the archives which contain the details on various methods to achieve that. If you ask the Archivist, she will insure you are given one of the ones with few curses on it.”

“How did you know…” I wasn’t sure how to even finish the question.

“I believe you were instructed to ‘ask your sister’?” he said, pausing us outside one of the living rooms I hadn’t been in yet. “I know some small details of your history, and could hazard guesses as to slightly more. That you are the second in your generation to bear the title of ‘Lady Riverbond’ took no great intuition though, not with the various members of the Riverbond family I’ve known over the years.”

“You knew…,” I wanted to say ‘my family’, but that was a complicated subject and one that I felt less comfortable than ever in laying claim to, “…the House before it fell?” 

“Not the whole of it, just some of the better and worse members,” he said. “Overall it was a very typical Great House before it’s fortunes turned. Your adopted father had the right idea in moving what remained of the family away from the capital and outside the realm of political influence. It wasn’t enough of course – the victorious Great Houses enjoy tying up loose ends more than in healthy or reasonable – but it was still likely the best he could have done.”

“If they wanted to finish off the Riverbonds, why did they stop there? Shouldn’t they have come after me too?” I asked. I’d always known that the death’s of Trina’s parents had been due to unnatural causes. Grammy hadn’t spoke much about it but she had disappeared for a couple of weeks after their funeral and when she’d come back she’d been strangely grim for a while. She hadn’t smelled of blood though. That was definitely not a memory I had excised in order to keep Trina from noticing any change in my behavior afterwards. I’d just been playing hide and seek for a while for reasons completely unrelated to letting a bloodscent dissipate. 

“They did,” Doxle said. “Why do you think you lost your sister?”

I turned and rooted myself to the floor.

“I’m sorry. What?”

“Your sister, the previous Katrina Riverbond, was lost in a Reaving Storm, was she not?” Doxle asked.

“No..she…I…how did you know?” He wasn’t supposed to have figured that out. No one was.

Except the Empress knew.

Had Trina told her?

Had Doxle talked to Trina too? Did he know about me before he ever met me?

“Curiosity,” he said. “After we forged our pact, I saw first hand what your Hollowing looks like. You aren’t just a remarkable caster, you are someone quite unique. Since House Riverbond wasn’t notable for producing powerful casters, I started investigating how someone of your skill and talent had been missed for so long.”

“But how did you know about Trina? Did you talk to her?”

“Alas, I did not have that privilege,” Doxle said. “Most of the departed do not linger in any realm close enough to ours for even the most truly dreadful of forbidden rituals to contact them. I should quite enjoy an opportunity to converse with her shade if she lingers still, but I imagine her time on this plane will be greatly limited and by rights, you should be granted as much time with her as the spellcasting can provide.”

“How did you know she was gone then?” I asked. I’d spent many years making certain no one knew of her demise, so it was hard to suppress the spark of anger at all of that effort having gone to nought the moment someone glanced in my direction.

“I asked your Grandmother,” Doxle said.


He didn’t say that.

Grammy was the reason I’d taken Trina’s form.

Grammy couldn’t know that her last grand daughter had died years ago.

Grammy couldn’t know that I’d failed them both.

Doxle was lying.

He didn’t smell like he was lying.

He didn’t look like he was lying.

But he was lying.

There was nothing else that could be true.

He had to be lying.

I turned to confront him, and found myself in a dark and unused hallway.

I’d been running.


I couldn’t remember the last few seconds? Minutes? Hours? Probably not hours. Probably minutes. I couldn’t remember them well, but I think I’d run away.

That was embarrassing. I’m not supposed to fall apart like that. I’m supposed to be inhumanly tough. Because I wasn’t a human. I was supposed to be brave, because nothing could hurt me. I was supposed to be…

I had no idea anymore.

For a long time I’d thought I was supposed to be a replacement for Trina. For Grammy’s sake. So she wouldn’t have to bear the grief of knowing her grand daughter was lost to her just as her children had been.

I slumped down against the wall and felt the memories of the most awful day I’d ever had crash over me, just as they’d done ten thousand times before.

It had been a bright and sunny day. I remembered that so clearly. The beauty of the day had stuck with me, and left me mildly hateful of clear weather since it was a lie about how nice the day would be.

Trina had wanted to play in the woods, and Grammy was willing to trust her so long as she brought me with her. A young girl in the woods might be in peril from many things, but a young girl and a full sized Dire Wolf who loved her had far fewer things to fear.

Trina had already given me the first part of her name by then – Kati being her mangled version of what was left over from ‘Katrina’ once she’d taken her part of the name from it. It didn’t really make sense. I worked that out a few years later, but it sounded good to her ears and I was happy to have anything that linked us together. I’d thought that link would keep us both safe. That as long as we were bonded together as the sisters she claimed we were, I could protect her with my teeth and fangs, and she could keep me safe and sheltered from the people who’d pulled me and mine into this world and then cut the rest of my family down.

Trina had upheld her part of that bargain, but I’d failed in mine.

The Reaving Storm, when it hit, had come on suddenly. From cloudless sky, a storm had rent through the bright blue dome and sent down a screaming wind which tore the ground open.

We’d been apart then. A dozen yard, which was eleven too many.

I’d leapt towards her as the ground split and she fell into the chasm which tore open at her feet.

I was faster than the wind but I wasn’t fast enough. I should have been faster. I should have been able to save her. To catch her before she fell. I should have been enough, but I wasn’t.

Instead she plummeted into the earth and I’d followed. 

The chasm had been deep.

And it had been sharp.

I’d known to abandon hope well before I reached the bottom. Well before I found her body. Well before I saw the cost of my failure. I knew to abandon hope, but hope is cruel and lingers far past when its been lost.

Down in the darkness, as the earth rumbled and crashed, as monsters emerged to scour the world, I saw the end of my world and I felt the unbearable weight of what I’d lost.

And then I heard Grammy calling.

And I knew I would lose her too.

I didn’t have a heart – not one that I needed – but anyone who did? It would have shattered and failed if presented with as much pain as I was feeling. I knew that with all the conviction of someone who was sure her experience was the same as everyone else’s in all things. 

That was when I gave up the life I’d had. Let go of the wolf I’d been pretending to be, and began a different game of pretend.

The world was not going to miss one mostly-civilized Dire Wolf cub. It would spin on just fine without the creature I’d been mistaken for. Without Trina though? Why even have a world without her? That was why it wasn’t a Dire Wolf who’d climbed back out of the pit we’d both fallen into.

I’d seen myself then,  reflected in Grammy’s eyes, when I crawled out of the Reaving Storm wrought crevasse. I’d looked terrible. The devastation of grief twisted my features even though I had changed them utterly from what they’d been.

Grammy and the others thought I was grieving the Dire Wolf cub who’d gone in to rescue me, and in a bizarre sense I was, so I let them continue to believe that.

That was the first time I’d turned to silence to hide from questions I couldn’t or didn’t want to answer. It was far from the last.

When the storm had passed, the crevasse had sealed itself back up, entombing Trina a hundred yards deep under the earth.

 Or so I’d thought.

If the person I’d encountered truly was her (and I knew she was, even if I’d wanted to deny it, I couldn’t, not with her scent being so true), then I’d failed her again.

Even with the earth crushed back together, I could have dug down. If she was out there, anywhere, I could have found her. Should have found her.

I’d seen the ruin the fall had made of her body. I’d felt hope slice my heart in two, and I’d done the only thing I could think of. 

I’d given up.

I wasn’t sure she could ever forgive me for that.

I wasn’t sure I could ever forgive me for that.

I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to.

“You’ll probably want to talk to her about that,” Yarrin said as he quietly sat down opposite me. “And to talk to her, you’re going to need me, right?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 62

“They say doing what’s right isn’t easy. That it’s hard to stick to your ideals when the world is oh so very complicated. There are so many compromises that we must make, so many evils we must overlook, but the reality is that those are all excuses.

In each moment, we have the choice to do the right thing. Regardless of what we’ve done before, regardless of what it might cost us, because our prior choices only inform who we are they don’t constrain who we can be, and the costs we can imagine are as often based on our fears as they are reality.

Doing what’s right isn’t easy, but that’s true for one reason only. Until we understand ourselves, and understand the world we are a part of, our understanding of what’s right will be only a guess, and understanding ourselves and our world is the journey of a lifetime.”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm in the speech which inspired the Great Houses to collaborate on ending her reign.

The funny thing about head trauma is that it can make you hear things that certainly could not be true. Okay, that’s a grossly inaccurate characterization of head trauma, not to mention the fact that I don’t really need my brain (Doxle smirked when I thought that, for which I will being enacting my revenge at some point), but I was really coming up without any better explanations for what the Empress Eternal had said.

“I thought you didn’t want anything to change?” I said, more than a little concerned that my little joke about tearing down all of the Great Houses had offended her? Except she didn’t look offended at all. And she didn’t sound offended. 

Delighted. If I had to place an emotional content for her words and her general demeanor, I would have had to go with “delighted”, except for the part where that made no sense.

“I have never said that. I want a great many things, almost all of which require change on a scale which would terrify any sensible being. What I do not want however is to sacrifice everything that is and everything I desire on an ill-considered stunt to assuage my former betrothed’s lingering sense of guilt at not preventing a Calamity which was in no way his fault.”

I glanced over to Doxle at that to catch his reaction, but he didn’t make any, his lips bearing only the slightest trace of a rueful smile before he spoke.

“Guilt or innocence weighs so much less than what we might still do for our benighted realm and, far more importantly, those we love,” he said. I’d expected him to offer a flippant remark. The sincerity in his eyes felt like something I wasn’t supposed to see. Doxle wasn’t the sentimental or maudlin sort. I hadn’t known him long, admittedly, but I’d thought I’d understood him. 

He was too old, and too removed to be touched by the world. Everything that happened was something he’d seen before and all the little trials and tribulations which worried us petty mortals so much were nothing more than passing amusements for him. 

It made sense that he’d either courted, seduced, or fought a blood feud with everyone vaguely of his social class – or even all of the above – because life was simply boring for him. 

What could be important after all that time after all?

The Empress? But she was so cold and remote, even less of a mortal being than he was.

Except she wasn’t.

She was his friend.

Probably his oldest friend.

And then there was the man in the ice. The one his eyes kept seeking out even though every glance looked like it hit him like a jagged knife through the heart.

Doxle was a demon. Demon’s didn’t hold tender places in their hearts. Demons didn’t walk under the weight of unbearable sorrow and hide it from all around them. Demons didn’t love. And Doxle was a demon.

Wasn’t he?

“They are trapped in a frozen moment, unchanging, uncaring, unknowing,” the Empress said, her words clearly a reminder which she’d spoken countless times before. “We’re the only ones for whom the grindstone of time turns and we’re the only ones who carry its weight.”

“It is a most unequal division though, you must agree,” Doxle said, his mask of charm and good humor still firmly in place.

“Of course,” the Empress said, ignoring his seeming and speaking with a compassion which refused to be blinded by the illusions Doxle so carefully wove. “You shoulder far more of it than you must, I skip from day to night like a stone on a pond, time passing me by in the blinks I never take, while you carry on across every weary second.”

“Some are not so weary,” he said and nodded at me.

Which…that made no sense at all.

“If we destroy the Great Houses though, won’t that be the end of the empire?” I asked.

“I should hope so,” the Empress said, brightening at the idea. “I worked rather hard to achieve the end of our wretched creation three centuries ago, and I can’t say that the conditions which drove me to that extreme have improved, or even remained at their previously intolerable state. We have less need of the Empire with every year, and more reason to see it end.”

“How did it get like this?” I asked. “If you’ve been here, working to improve, or even end it, or whatever for three hundred years, why isn’t it better?”

“That’s largely my fault,” Doxle said.

“How?” I asked, boggled at the idea that he was undermining the Empress’s work given how well they seemed to be getting along.

“He’s unwilling to make certain sacrifices which I have long since resigned myself to,” the Empress said.

“By which she means, I am disinclined to allow her to sacrifice herself in order to preserve those within the Great Houses whom she deems worthy,” Doxle said. “A better world cannot be…no, more accurate to say a better world will not be built on the sacrifice of one who has endured as much as she has to see it come to pass.”

“And on this, we have disagreed for centuries now,” the Empress said. “Though, I am not so passionately wed to my own destruction as he is to my preservation.”

“I…I don’t understand. Why would improving the Empire require you to be destroyed? There’s got to be room to make things better without going to that extreme right?”

“There are, and that is why I would be of service to you,” the Empress said. “My authority was built on the acceptance of it by the Great Houses, and the wealth, and arcane might which the Imperial Throne possessed. The Calamity marked the end of the first pillar of my rule and severely curtailed the second. As for the third, I possess a wellspring of power beyond what any mortal or god could hope to attain and yet each mote of it is circumscribed, held in rigidly in place lest they all crash down upon our world. I am the most powerful caster to ever live, or who ever could live, and I can work no magic at all.”

“Really?” I asked, pointing to her clearly magicked projection.

“Well, all rules are meant to be broken,” she said with a shrug. “At least a little bit.”

“It’s this room, isn’t it?” I asked, as I started to feel the shape of the magic which surrounded us. “We’re not…this isn’t within the Empire is it?”

The Empress’s eyes sparkled at that  as a broad smile spread across her face.

“It is not,” she said, sounding almost gleeful. “What you see, apart from the ice and those frozen within, is a projection.”

We were not in a projection. That was ridiculous. I could feel the solidly real chair underneath me. I could smell its definitely real aroma. And the carpets. And the walls of books. And the winds that blew in through the open window and the clear…

It was not sky that was outside the room.

It was not sky.

It was not.

It was.

I think I screamed for a bit at that point.

Not for long.

A couple of years maybe?

I was quiet too.

It wasn’t anymore than a muffled little whimper.

The nearest mountains crumbled from the pressure of the sound waves, but mountains aren’t that big. I mean they’re just little bumps on the surface of the…

Doxle helped me get back up into the chair, and I saw that the Empress had sat up and was regarding me with a puzzled expression.

“You…hmm, most people can’t see through that,” she said. “How are you feeling now?”

“One second,” I said. “Gotta put all that in the Forget-At-Once bin.”

I didn’t have a Forget-At-Once bin, but that did not stop me from slicing those memories off and casting them into what was either the dark recesses of my own mind or the deepest pits of oblivion.

“Okay. I’m better. Wow. That was a mistake.” I had learned my lesson though. I was never, ever going to so much as glance out the windows in the Empress’s room.

I was firm in that resolve as I glanced up, to just peak out the window again and had to blink. There weren’t any windows. There couldn’t ever have been. The entire room was filled with bookcases. Very real, very solid bookcases. There wasn’t any room for the windows which I definitely did not remember looking out and which I was absolutely not clawing away at in my mind to see again.

Yes. I know I was being stupid. I knew then that I was being stupid. I am occasionally very stupid. 

“You are far wiser than you believe,” the Empress said. “And intriguingly more adept.”

“I have a few advantages when it comes to manipulating magic,” I said, most of which boiled down to the fact that I was practicing my spellcasting at every moment of every day.

“Your advantages don’t make you what you are,” the Empress said before turning to Doxle. “Are you sure I can’t give her the Imperial treasury?”

“It would be magnificently disruptive, but I believe neither of you would enjoy the ultimate outcome of that particular brand of chaos,” he said.

The Empress sighed. 

“I am fortunate you chose to take the role of Advisor.”

“The fortune was all mine,” Doxle said.

“Not all,” the Empress said and cast a meaningful glance at me that I couldn’t decipher.

It was tempting to be silent and let them have their moment.

So I did.

What? I had a lot to think about. Or not-think about if we count whatever was outside the Empress’s windows.

“If I might make a suggestion,” the Empress said, maybe after a bit more banter with Doxle.

“To me?” I asked once I worked out that she was looking in my direction.

“In their greed the Great Houses have violated not only Imperial law, but natural law as well. You’ve encountered one of the fraying threads of the world’s tapestry they’ve torn loose already. Pull on that and all sorts of interesting things may unravel.”

I could have asked for her to speak a bit more plainly, but in this case I didn’t need her too.

“The Clockwork Cosmos, that’s not something they should be messing with is it?” I asked, already certain of the answer.

“They are courting disaster like the power-mad fools they are, and disaster is most receptive to their advances,” the Empress said. “My recommendation is to make sure the disaster befalls those most deserving of it, and spares those whom the Great Houses would have bear the suffering in their place.”

“I like the sound of that, but I could use some more concrete ideas on how to go about making it happen,” I said, hoping I wasn’t sounding too ungrateful.

“For that I would recommend that you speak to your sister,” the Empress said. “She’s been working on that problem for quite a while now.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 61

“It’s not so difficult to hire talented staff. Generally if you create a position which is amenable to work they wish to do, those with motivation and capability will find you. Occasionally they will even be aware of what they are doing and it can be helpful for your long term planning to see how long it takes each candidate to discern that they are now employed.”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm talking to a sunbeam while tidying up her room for impending visitors.

I wasn’t sure when Empress Eternal had started playing me. Probably well before I entered the room. I also don’t know why I thought I any insights that occurred to me would be ones which someone who’d been stuck in their room for centuries with nothing to do but think about their limitations and how to escape them would have missed.

I glanced over to Doxle to see whose side he was on but, from how he was smiling and glancing back and forth between the Empress and I, the answer was obviously ‘his own’.

Which left me with the most powerful person in the Empire, and possibly the world, having expectations for me.

I stared at her.

Not the best response, admittedly, but dead silence had served me well in many other situations before.

Of course this time ‘subvocal growling and growing subtly larger’ wasn’t exactly a viable option.

Also, the Empress had waited two years for Doxle to come back over what sounded like a minor tiff. I was not going to win a contest of ‘who could be silently patient the longest’.

“Do we even need the Riverbond escrow funds?” I asked, turning to Doxle. He hadn’t exactly betrayed me, but I was curious how much he’d deceived me so far.

“Access to them? Yes, most certainly,” he said. “You need a sufficient war chest to draw on for the other houses to take you seriously.”

“I could provide her with one for a most comprehensive war if your thoughts are tending in that direction Doxxy,” the Empress said. She was still slumped over the edge of the chair she was sitting in, but there were more gears turning in her head than the whole of the Clockwork Cosmos.

“Ah, no,” Doxle said, raising a hand to put a stop to that idea. “The purpose of a good war chest is to preclude the need to go to war. As our good Lady Riverbond stands today, the Great Houses will see only weakness to be exploited. Or they’ll destroy her in order to head off any future headaches she might cause them.”

“They would certainly try, but I believe they would encounter certain difficulties in doing so,” the Empress said, giving me a look that said she was all too aware of the sorts of things I’d been up to lately.

That probably wasn’t a good thing.

I hadn’t exactly been behaving as a model citizen of the Empire.

If she intended to hold some of that over my head…

I relaxed. She didn’t need to hold anything over my head. I was at the heart of her power. She could do anything she wanted and there was literally no one who would or even could object to it. 

And if she let me go? As far as I could tell, she was in the process of recruiting me to an army of operatives she had working throughout the Empire. To imagine that her influence ended at the door to her room was mistake even I wasn’t foolish enough to make.

“I would prefer Lady Riverbond be able to enjoy the occasional moments and peace and happiness,” Doxle said. “Constantly dodging social pitfalls and magically gifted assassins does get ever so tiresome.”

“So you say, but I’m afraid I’ve quite forgotten,” the Empress said.

“Being believed to be dead does have its advantages,” Doxle said.

“They think you’re dead? Like actually dead? Not just stuck in the ice over there?” I asked.

“Most of them. My subjects are among the most gifted schemers and connivers in the world. Many have stooped as low as it is possible to go and then setup mining operations so as outdo all who came before them. Sadly, that does not always translate into even a modicum of basic intelligence or honest curiosity.”

“I thought it was your great grandfather who eradicated the last strains of honesty from his court,” Doxle said. “Don’t tell me new mutations of it have popped up?”

“He thinks he’s adorable,” the Empress said to me. “I trust you know better already?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Am I meant to actually be listening to him most of the time?” 

Doxle looked stricken, which drew a giggle from the Empress.

“You’re right,” she said, addressing the comment to Doxle, “I do like her.”

“I’m guessing that means I got the job?” I said. My real guess was that if I didn’t start making clear and definite statements the two of them would be dancing around from topic to topic and needling each other for the rest of the night and well into tomorrow.

“Job?” the Empress asked, her amusement undiminished.

“That’s what this is, isn’t it? I work for you, and you give me enough of the Riverbond treasury that the other Great House stay reasonably wary of coming after me.”

The Empress laughed and I returned to my state of continuing confusion.

“That’s not at all what we are doing Lady Riverbond,” she said and produced a feather quill from thin air along with a stone disk the size of my palm.

Quills from regular birds don’t tend to leave much a gouge in solid stone. The Empress did not seem bothered by that however as she scrapped a glyph so deeply into the disk that it broke through the other side. In the empty spaces the glyph had made in the stone, gold flowed, gleaming bright as though it was being poured from a forge.

It was the worked of a moment to finish the glyph, another to inspect it, and a third for her to blow on it and toss it to me.

“You need do nothing for me to claim the fortune which is rightfully yours,” the Empress said. “Present that to any Imperial Exchequer and you will be able to draw on the funds accrued from the Riverbond’s first estate. Your wider holdings will remain sealed until you or your duly authorized representative,” she glanced over to Doxle for that, “request that they be released.”

I looked at the stone disk in my hand.  The gold was still glowing like it was molten hot but it felt cool to the touch. Also it smelled like me. Which was weird and disconcerting. Especially since I didn’t really have any claim over the Riverbond fortune.

“There is something I should explain.” It was possible that the disk was a test, but that wasn’t why I felt compelled to tell the truth. Surprisingly the compulsion wasn’t mystically driven either. The Empress was certainly capable of enthralling me with her arcane might, but she’d chosen to use the far more powerful magic of ‘basic decency’ which I apparently had next to no resistance to.

“Yes, yes, you’re adopted,” the Empress said. “You might be surprised how often the heir to a Great House arrives at their position through adoption. In some rare cases like yours, the family even has a choice in the matter.”

“I’m…” Wait, was I adopted? 

Grammy didn’t know who, or what, I really was. She’d always seen me as nothing more than her grand daughter, who I’d done an excellent job of copying.

An excellent job right from the first day.

Completely undetectable.

As little more than a small child myself.

But Grammy had named me as Katrina Riverbond. “This girl is the only heir the Riverbond’s have left.” But that hadn’t really been me had it? She’d been naming Katrina. It was my sister who was the heir to House Riverbond. Or had been before she’d been killed in a Reaving Storm. That nobody was aware of that last bit didn’t mean I was actually the heir.

A liar couldn’t be heir.

“I assure you, nothing you have done disqualifies you as the rightful heir of your House,” the Empress said, probably reading my mind. Or just familiar enough with the sort of facial expressions I was making that she didn’t need to waste magic on figuring them out.

“But I’m not…” 

Human. I wasn’t human. I’d spent my entire lifetime here pretending that wasn’t true. Because people would kill me for it. Because it would leave Grammy all alone. Because I didn’t want it to be true.

I blinked.


“You’re not quite what you appear to be?” the Empress asked, both unconcerned and unimpressed. “My that is a shocking secret for a True Protean to be harboring.”

I was too busy processing the idea that on some level I really wanted to be a part of this world to catch the significance of what the Empress had said. Fortunately Doxle didn’t miss it.

“I was wondering if you were going to notice that.” His smile was just as typically self satisfied as always but there seemed to be some hidden delight behind it.

“You do recall that I was the third best caster of our Age don’t you?” the Empress asked with a raised eyebrow.

“It’s only been three hundred years, are you ready to admit that so soon?” Doxle asked, placing a hand over his heart in mock surprise.

“Shut up,” she said. “If you start gloating now, I’ll have her spread the first volume of your poetry to all corners of the Empire.”

“You wouldn’t,” Doxle said. “You couldn’t. That was all destroyed two hundred years ago. I spent a decade making sure of that.”

“Did you now?” the Empress asked and with a wave of her hand she was holding a messy folio with assorted papers sticking out it.

“You didn’t!”

“Of course I did. They’re so adorable. I couldn’t bear that they be lost to the ravages of time.”

“May I have them back?”

“Absolutely not,” the Empress said and with another wave the folio was gone. Doxle looked pained or possibly mortified by this turn of events but he bravely closed his mouth and withheld any further speech which might degrade his cause further.

I was pretty sure Doxle’s silence proved I had the single wisest mentor in the entire Empire, and, learning from his example, I followed suit and kept my mouth shut too.

“So, as I was saying, as you are the Heir to House Riverbond,” again, no magic was involved, but I very clearly heard the Imperial Proclamation hiding in the Empress’s words this time, “you need do nothing for me to earn what it already rightfully yours. That said, you are not mistaken that I wish to enter into a employment relationship with you.”

“What do you want to employ me to do?” I asked, thinking of the many, many horrible things she could probably talk me into doing without much trouble.

“Nothing,” she said. “I do not wish to employ you at all. I am but a ghost you see and ghosts cannot interfere with the living.” She was absolutely not a ghost. Her projection wasn’t solid, but any one of my sense could have told me that she was as alive as I was. Possibly more so.

“So I’d be employed by no one then?” I asked.

“You will be employed towards whatever ends you choose,” the Empress said. “You will in turn employ me for aid in accomplishing those tasks which you believe will make my Empire a better place for all of those who live within it.”

“So I can just do anything and you’ll help me out?” I asked, knowing that no relationship with someone as power as her could be that simple.

“You can do anything,” the Empress said. “I will help, with what limited means I can, any endeavors which you can convince me will make my people’s lives better.”

“We could probably start by getting rid of the Great Houses,” I said, intending the comment to be a flippant joke to lighten the mood.

“Yes, that seems like an excellent task to begin with,” the Empress said. “When will you be ready to get started on it?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 60

“What they don’t tell you about being the absolute ruler of the most powerful Empire in the world is how little you will want the job after the first ten to twelve minutes. I was fortunate though, I figured out how to lay down my burden after only a decade of carrying the weight of an entire nation on my back. It was going to be so simple. One little ritual and everyone would be invested with the sort of personal power even the highest lords of the Great Houses would envy. Then, with the populace so empowered, their need for an Empress would evaporate and I would be free to live and love as I chose.

It was a brilliant plan and it would have improved everyone’s lives incalculably, which, of course, is why those already in power decided it couldn’t be allowed to come to fruition.”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm lecturing a stuffed animal Doxle gave her on the 237th anniversary of the Great Calamity.

I wasn’t supposed to feel bad for the Empress. She was, as she’d said, the absolute ruler of (arguably) the most powerful nation in the world, and, more importantly, possessed of so much arcane power my mind literally could not even try to fathom it. I’d tried to get a handle of just what it was I was sensing and some part of my psyche – the little used self-preservation instincts I’m going to guess – simply said ‘no’ in much the same tone they’d use if I not only tried to win a staring contest with the sun, but strapped magnifying glasses to my eyes first.

Despite all that though, I could hear the weight of the years in her voice. She was tired, and lonely, and well past the point where hope should have ended, but she was still hanging on. The look in her eyes wasn’t unfamiliar.

“How did they stop you though?” I asked, struggling to understand how someone who’d been able to endure what she had for over three hundred years and held so much power could have been undone by anything as trivial as the efforts of a few mortals.

In theory, I should have tried to steer the conversation back to the escrow funds for House Riverbond and beaten as hasty a retreat as possible, but the Empress and Doxle had fallen into banter and reminiscing so easily and she was so far removed from what I’d expected her to be that I found I wanted to know more. 

“They used the usual method – treachery,” the Empress said. “No one in the Great Houses had the stomach to oppose me openly, so they worked through proxies to disrupt the spell and got this for their efforts.” She gestured to the garden of frost behind her and the people frozen into the giant frozen crystal block which dominated the area.

“The Great Houses were the ones who encased you in ice?” I asked, absolutely certain that couldn’t be the case. I couldn’t begin to comprehend her, but I knew that even if every caster in the Empire focused on the same spell the Empress could blow it away with the smallest puff of her breath.

“No, no, she did that to herself,” Doxle said, audibly charmed by the idea. “It was really quite clever in fact.”

“Clever? You screamed yourself hoarse when you first saw my work! It’s only been three hundred years, has your view changed so much?” the Empress asked.

“That…I hadn’t lost my composure for the work you did,” Doxle said. “It was for them.”

“Them?” I asked. It shouldn’t have been getting easier to talk to them. Here, at the site of the Great Calamity, neither one of them were hiding who they were and that left me roughly as important as one of the specs of dust I’d carried in. Normally I would had have had the sense to just shut up and turn into something invisible. Like a dust mite. Or a bacteria. Their being at ease though was bleeding into me. 

“Our secret loves,” the Empress said, “I’ve had the benefit of their company this whole time where poor Doxxy has been entirely deprived his first husband’s warm embrace.”

I sniffed the air to see if she was drunk. Obviously she wasn’t. I’m pretty sure ghostly phantoms can’t get drunk, though with the amount of power she was carrying, the Empress might have been able to change that little bit of reality. 

“Neither his embrace nor hers have likely been all too warm, unless you’ve made progress in the last few years?” Doxle asked. He wasn’t hopeful, but it didn’t sound like he’d given up completely either.

“I cannot progress,” the Empress said gesturing to her unaging, and apparently illusory, form. “Nor can we risk even the slightest bit of change, so do not offer to take my place again.”

“You wanted to take her place? Is that even possible?” I asked Doxle.

“No,” the Empress said at the same moment that Doxle said, “Yes.”

“It is possible in theory,” Doxle said. “In practice however there are certain risks.”

“In practice, the world would most likely be annihilated if I let the ice thaw in the slightest,” the Empress said.

“The world will eventually be annihilated anyways,” Doxle said.

“Yes, but not before we get them back,” the Empress said.

“You know, I’ve spent centuries talk to all sorts of people,” Doxle said. “Why are you still so much better at it than me?”

“I’m not terribly good at conversation” the Empress said. “My thoughts fly all over the place. You merely started off so very bad at it.”

“I was considered very well spoken for a theoretician,” Doxle said with mock offense. “I even managed to speak to you didn’t I?”

“I literally had to kick you to get four words out of you the first time we met.”

“Well you were very intimidating,” Doxle said.

“I was nine years old!”

“And I was only eight.”

“I suppose I did have my crown by then. Blasted thing.”

“I offered to melt it down for you that first time didn’t I?”

“And I asked if you could melt down the responsibilities which came with it.”

“If only I knew then what I know now,” Doxle said, conjuring a drink into his hand which he offered to the Empress.

I thought it would fall right through her since she was made of smoke and mist but it held fast in her grip. Doxle’s magics were fairly ridiculous I decided, though I had to concede that he’d had rather a long time to work out spells which could interact with the Empress.

“If we knew then what we know now, this world would not be here,” she said.

Doxle offered her a silent toast with his glass and a nod of agreement. I’d been lost by most of the rest of what they’d been talking about but that bit made sense. If the spell the Empress had been channeling hadn’t been messed up, the after effects centuries down the line would have left the world unrecognizable from the one we lived in.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Guilty maybe? At one point, not existing in the world had seemed like a wonderful thing. Right after Trina had…I don’t know if ‘died’ is still the right thing to call it. Right after I’d lost her, I’d felt like the entire world was one big ball of suffering and that it was worth it to do anything to leave and get back to where I was supposed to be. I was motivated enough at that point that I might have been able to figure out how to open a rift if I’d really let myself work at it. There was only one problem with that.

If I left then Grammy really would have been all alone and that would have broken me too.

So I stayed. At first ‘for her’, but over time living the life I’d assumed began to feel comfortable. I couldn’t be miserable all the time, I’m just not built for that, and living with Grammy was good. It filled me up. Little by little, I became someone I liked being.

But all that came at the cost of a world that could have been so much better, and I wasn’t willing to trade everything I was for that.

Maybe that was selfish of me but reflecting on it, I was fine with that too. I wasn’t going to waste time regretting who I was, not when I was still figuring out who I could be.

“Can I ask a question?” It was a stupid thing to say, since it was, in fact, a question in and of itself, and I’d already asked several questions, but I was not at all sure where the boundaries for my participation in the conversation were.

“Ask as many as you want,” the Empress said. “One of us will probably answer some of them.”

“You said you can’t change yourself or this situation, so why not change the Empire instead?” 

Doxle started to speak but the Empress’s laughter cut him off.

“Look around,” she said. “We’re standing in the greatest monument the world has ever seen to the folly and hubris of attempting to change the Empire. I’ve spent the last three centuries living with the answer to the question ‘why don’t I change the Empire’.”

I looked over at the block of ice. 

I looked at the Empress and then at Doxle.

“No you haven’t?” I said, puzzled over her assertion more than I’d been over anything she’d said so far.

“Oh? Do tell me why then,” the Empress said, not moving from her boneless slump on the chair. She had the air of someone who’d heard everything I might possibly say next and had passed beyond the ability to being upset by any of it.

“This isn’t the answer to a question,” I said, gesturing at her, at the room, and everything. “This is the question.”

The Empress slid into a proper sitting position and took on an expression of mild amusement.

“Are you going to suggest that vengeance is the answer?” she asked. “That seems to be a popular choice, moreso when the people I could have theoretically taken vengeance against were still alive. It loses it’s sting a bit when there’s a dozen or more generations between then and now.”

“What? No? I don’t have answers for you,” I said. “That’s my point.”

“I’m afraid you’ve left me a bit behind,” Doxle said, which had to be a lie, though I only smelled sincerity from him. Of course he could lie with his scent as easily as I could breathe so I couldn’t be sure at all.

“Where we are now. This present moment? The ‘present’ in general. It’s always a question,” I said. “What we see and know and can predict? That’s all a statement of what is. Answers are the domain of what can be, or what should be, or what must not be. We find them in the act of living, and from them we see a new present emerge, which holds its own questions – at the very least ‘what comes next?’”

The Empress smiled at that, which was a relief. She wasn’t going to squish me for speaking out of turn. Probably.

“And what question do you see here then?” the Empress asked.

“Lots of them,” I said. “I think the biggest one though is ‘given what you can’t do, what’s left that you can do’?”

“And if the answer is ‘nothing’, the Great Houses won?”

“Then I’d say you need to keep asking question, because that answer is definitely wrong.”

“Is it?” the Empress asked and she was much too happy with were the conversation was going.

“You’re doing something now,” I said. “If you can interact with people like this, you can still learn about how the world is and then act upon it.”

“How can I act when I’m not really here?” the Empress asked and waved her arm through her seat’s arm rest.

“Just like this!” I said. “All you would need is someone you could talk to. Someone who would be willing to be honest with you and would be willing to act in your place.”

“Perhaps, but what would this person gain for their service?” the Empress asked, her eyes gleaming with delight.

“You’re over three hundred years old,” I said. “Even apart from the galaxy sized well of arcane power you’re holding, you’ve got centuries of knowledge to draw on, including the actual history of how we got here. Anyone who wanted to fix what was wrong with the Empire would need all of that.”

“Yes, I suppose you would,” the Empress said, the delight in her words sounding exactly like a trap closing right over me.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 59

“Meeting new people is always a such a bother. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and there are so many questions which influence what that first impression will be. Is black the proper color for an afternoon gathering? What about Blood Red? What if it’s actual blood? What if it’s the host’s blood? Is that more or less acceptable than if it’s your own? 

You spend so long dithering about things like that that it’s just so easy to miss the truly important questions like ‘will they be trying to kill me with poison or have people figured out that will never work’ and ‘if they have figured out that poisons are useless, will they graduate to fire next or go straight to silvered axes’? 

Honestly, you go in hoping for the axes and all you wind up with is tea cakes nine times out of ten. It’s so terribly disappointing that it always seems simpler to lounge at home and leave a few axes lying around in case any random assassin should get to feeling creative.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame whilst nibbling on his third arsenic cake at an Imperial Winter Faire.

The Empress Eternal was frozen in perfect ice. Eternal because nothing could change within the grip of the absolute cold she’d conjured to save the Empire. That was supposed to have been her end. An Eternal figurehead caught in her last great act.  I hadn’t been sure if I believed that as a kid but I could see her motionless form right in front of me as mute and unchanging testimony to her final deed. 

I could also see her wandering around the room like she owned the place.

Which, I guess she did.

It was weird. I hadn’t been particularly impressed with any of the instructors at the Academy, or the representatives of the Great Houses, or even Doxle when it came right down to it. I mean, I understood that they were all powerful in terms of either their authority, their personal power, or both, but despite that it had been relatively easy to consider them an obstacle at worst and a resource at best.

I didn’t have that illusion to cling to with the Empress.

It wasn’t that she was burning with power, or looming over me like a mountain of menace. To a casual observer, she looked like a woman a few years older than me, who had been stuck in her room for too long and was moping about, terribly bored with it all.

That was all true as long as a ‘few years older’ was allowed to encompass ‘more than three centuries” and ‘stuck in her room’ was enough to cover being entombed in never-melting ice. 

The terribly bored part though seemed spot on.

“Seriously, the furniture may technically be Imperial Artifacts of yore, but it’s still fairly comfy,” The Empress Eternal said.

I looked over to Doxle, wondering for the briefest of moments if this was a really good illusion he was casting.

It wasn’t.

I knew that and he confirmed it with a subtle smile and a nod to say that ‘taking a seat’ was fine in the presence of her Imperial whatever-her-honorifics should be.

I glanced back to the Empress because, you know, politeness never hurt when dealing with someone that could squash me like a bug.

She echoed Doxle’s nod, so I sat down in the seat nearest to me and the door. I didn’t have a prayer of making it out of the room if things went poorly, but sometimes clinging to the illusion of hope is the best you can do.

“So, what brings you here Betrothed?” the Empress asked.

She was looking at Doxle when she asked that which was better than the alternative but nearly as perplexing, since, as far as I knew, the Empire didn’t have a history of marrying it’s leaders off to demons.

“Why to beg a favor, oh dearest Breaker of My Heart,” Doxle said, plopping into a seat a moment before the Empress climbed over the back of one of the chairs and dropped into it in a posture that said ‘dignity is for other people’.

I was relatively sure I hadn’t heard that exchange correctly. I couldn’t remember the Clockwork Cosmos smushing me so badly that my ability to process language was lost, but that seemed like a more plausible answer than interpreting their words directly.

“You could just come by to say ‘hello’ once in a while you know,” the Empress said leaning her head back over the arm of the chair until she was staring at the floor.

“Oh? Am I invited to tea again?” Doxle asked. “It’s been ages since we’ve had tea.”

“Yes. Why is that?” the Empress asked without lifting her head.

“You slapped me into Mt. Helion and banished me from your sight for a year and a day,” Doxle said.

“Mt. Helion is what, two days ride from here?” the Empress asked.

“Four,” Doxle said. “To be fair I did deserve it. I always do.”

“Oh come here you idiot,” she said and shifted up into a normal sitting position, throwing her arms wide in the process.”

Doxle hesitated, his eyes looking everywhere except at her.

“I haven’t earned your forgiveness yet,” he said.

“It’s been two years, I’ve already forgotten what we were arguing about,” the Empress said, twiddling her fingers to show he should accept her embrace.

“I’m still working on debts a bit older than that,” he said.

The Empress Eternal rolled her eyes at that. “Don’t make me make it an Imperial Decree.”

Doxle let a rueful smile break across his lips and rose from his seat to accept the Empress’s hug.

Except when he embraced her it was as though she was made of smoke.

Which made sense. I could see her body ten feet away from us standing in the same spot she’d stood for centuries (probably?).

“You two are married?” I asked before I could stop and consider what a terrible idea it was to draw their attention away from each other.

In place of wrath though, they both laughed.

“Never, and certainly not to each other,” the Empress said, her form appearing solid once again as Doxle moved back from the hug.

“She wouldn’t have me,” Doxle said with a mock-wounded air.

“Revisionist history!” The Empress’s faked shock spoke to the sort of history that might have suggested they were an old married couple, but try as I might I just could not see that. “Who proposed to who?”

“In truth and fairness I must admit that you were the one who made the offer of matrimony to my most unworthy self,” Doxle said. “Though you must admit that it was done only under great duress and that I was not the one who suggested breaking the engagement off.”

“No, I suppose you were not,” the Empress said. “You were convinced the misery we would inflict on each other was inescapable.”

“Not inescapable. I knew many methods you could have escaped from me, some few of which would have even left me in a state approximating life. I just wasn’t quite clever enough to see how we might both avoid the dreadful bonds we were destined to be shackled by.”

“We were blessed then,” the Empress said and cast a glance back towards the ice, wherein other figures stood, shrouded in the impenetrable frost.

“And we will be again,” Doxle said, his voice tender and serious despite their earlier playful banter.

“You say that every time you know?” the Empress said.

“I have only a few guiding stars left,” he said with a quiet smile and a glance to the figures in the ice.

It didn’t escape me that they’d looked at different figures in the ice and the implications of that involved the sort of thing that would probably have been a huge scandal centuries back.

“What favor is it you would beg of me then?” the Empress asked, “knowing that I am indebted to you in ways beyond the reach of numbers to count.”

“Not so,” Doxle said. “You owe me nothing, and never will. You gave me everything and more than I was ever worth.”

“On that we shall never agree as you gave me far more than you can ever know, and all my heart had ever desired,” the Empress said.

“As I say, we are blessed.”

It was great listening to them talk about things I lacked even the slightest bit of context to understand. True, they might as well have been speaking an alien language but the important bit was they were not talking about, or evening noticing, me.

“That just leave the question of our good Lady Riverbond,” the Empress said, slouching to look over at me, because that’s how my luck runs.

“What question?” I asked, my feet frozen to the floor.

“What you need,” the Empress asked in a surprisingly kind tone. “Reminiscing with Doxxy is fun, but he really did take that banishment thing seriously and if he’s decided to forgive me for it, I can only imagine it’s because you need something.”

“Oh, uh,” I said because I am smart and able to form coherent thoughts like a normal human. “Money,” I managed to form the whole entire word on my own and then followed it up with a few more. “I need money.”

“Oh? Well that’s easy,” she raised her hand to snap her fingers, “You can have the Imperial Treasury, it’s not like I’m using it at the moment.”

Before she could finish the snap, Doxle caught her attention with a gesture to stop.

“Not that much,” he said. “She needs enough to make House Riverbond viable at the Academy. We don’t want to put every Great House against her if we don’t have to.”

The Empress chuckled at that. Just a regular little laugh, like Doxle was being a silly old goat.

“Doxxy, they’re going to be against her no matter what she does. If I give her all my money…” 

“She still won’t have a fighting chance,” he said. “For now, she just needs House Riverbond’s escrow accounts, and only enough of those to support a one or two handfuls of Academy students.”

“Riverbond’s fortunes were never that big, but that’s still only a tiny drop,” the Empress said.

“Which will paint only a tiny target on her back,” Doxle said and looked to me for support.

“I’m not sure I even need that much,” I said. “I may not be staying at the Academy much longer.”

It wasn’t a decision I’d put a lot of thought into, but it made sense at first blush. I’d joined the Academy searching for Trina and I’d managed to find her. In doing so though I’d learned for sure that she wasn’t at the Academy.

In theory, if Yarrin could help me find the right book and the twins were willing to work the seance, I might be able to leave the Academy before two more sunrises passed.

I wasn’t expecting that to be the case of course.

With the chaos I’d encountered over just the last few days, it was hard to imagine that the rest of my tenure at the Academy would be smooth and trouble free. If nothing else, I expected whoever had setup the apparatus in the Clockwork Cosmos to be more than mildly upset with me. Like ‘unbridle rage with a side order of vengeful homicide’ levels of mildly upset.

None of that would matter, probably, in theory, if I could contact Trina again and find out where she’ gone and how she’d survived all these years.

Assuming she would tell me.

She’d called me her sister when we’d met. She hadn’t even thought I was human then. Or maybe she had. Or maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe she’d considered me her sister because that’s what she needed then, or because she’d seen what I could become. We never got to learn what her magic was. It had been so long though she would only just barely be the Katrina Riverbond that I’d known. So I couldn’t be sure of what she’d tell me, or whether she’d even want me to come with her.

But I could hope she would.