Monthly Archives: October 2023

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 84

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knew what was coming.

He didn’t want to deal with it.

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

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

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

That was enough to draw out Jalaren’s sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mentioned dropping the leader?”

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

“From the top?”


“Of the third tallest building in the Academy?”

“That would be the one.”

“And you were atop it because?”

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

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

Jalaren gave a little giggle at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? That you’ll survive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 83

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then she laughed at me.

It wasn’t a full laugh.

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

But I did, and she knew it.

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

Yes, that was evil.

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

And then I’d bite her.

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

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

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

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

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

Or that might have been my overly eager imagination.

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

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

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

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

There were so many choices I had for answering that.

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

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

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

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

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

I wanted her.

For myself.

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

And that was mind numbingly terrifying.

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

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

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

Except she was worth so much more than that.

She was worth the truth.

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

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

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

I didn’t let her. 

I didn’t want to wait that long.

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

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

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

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

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

I heard the footsteps rushing towards us.

I knew it wasn’t a good sound.

But again, I didn’t care. I was lost.

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

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

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

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

I think we both really needed that kiss.

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

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

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

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

Really, the whole mess was on them. 

I mean metaphorically, in addition to literally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, it wasn’t a short fall.

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

“We should probably go,” Idrina said.

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

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

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

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

“Intense?” I suggested.

“Yeah. I didn’t know…”

“I didn’t either.”

“Is it going to cause any problems?”

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

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

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

Idrina answered my lack of eloquence with a nod.

We had a lot to talk about.

But we also had a lot left to do.

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

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

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 82

“To one part attention, add two parts curiosity, a dash of insight, several bushels of perseverance and as many wheel barrows of patience as can be acquired (there is no danger of overdoing it, you will not be able to locate enough patience no matter where you look), mix with back breaking labor and allow to set for fifteen to twenty years, checking on the process frequently, but not disturbing it any more than is absolutely required. If you’ve followed this recipe properly you will have a slight chance of producing a worthy heir to your endeavors. 

The alternatives are either a.) allow your children to run completely feral and hope that nature is a wiser mentor than you are, or b.) let someone else do all the hard parts and then adopt the ones who turn out well, or c.) accept that no matter what you do, your heir will be as imperfect as you are and support them as they are.

You would think that option C would be the most promising and healthy option to pick. Or, to be accurate, you would think that if you had never met an actual human. They, or to be fair, we, are a special sort of mad however, and whatever path you would presume to be the most sensible is the one you will find most people either walking backwards on or proceeding in a diametrically opposed direction from.

It is, therefor, quite fortunate that occasionally our madnesses align with one another.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame reciting his wedding vows to Glenmorda Tinbellus Enika of the Reaper’s Mercy

There are questions which catch you by surprise. Ones you have never considered and have no ready answer for. Ones you wish no one would ever ask you.

Idrina’s question was none of those things.

I’d been expecting it almost my entire life.

To be accurate, I’d been expecting it to be asked with a blade to my throat after my magic was locked down and my essence frozen into the form I wore. That Idrina was perfectly capable of putting a blade through my throat at any instant wasn’t lost on me, but coming from her ‘what are you’ seemed a lot more comfortable to answer than I’d anticipated it would be.

“I don’t know the name of my people,” I said. “I can tell you what I can do, I can confirm, if you aren’t sure yet, that I don’t come from this world, but as to what I really am? I guess ‘a monster’ might be the most accurate term.”

“No. It’s not,” Idrina said and help her hand up before I could protest or explain. “I know you’re not fully human. The body you wear is one of choice not necessity, but if you think you’re a monster then you haven’t met one.”

“I…,” How was I supposed to respond to that? I knew, from having listened to people speak of the ‘horrors from other worlds’ exactly how most would react to learning that I was spawned into this world by a Reaving Storm. 


Idrina didn’t know that part yet.

I bit my lip trying to hold it back. She’d made a mistake. She thought I was something weird but still from this world. That I was supposed to be here. Sure I’d said I wasn’t from this world, but maybe she hadn’t heard that.

Yeah, I know that wasn’t a terribly rational idea to jump to on my part. The words I needed to speak were buried under about a decade of living in fear of being discovered though. Things like that don’t just come up easily or cleanly.

“I’ve done some pretty monstrous things,” I said, deflecting away to what was clearly not a better or safer topic.

“I don’t have the right to ask you what those were,” she said, and pulled away in exactly the manner I didn’t want her to.

“You do,” I said. “If you’re willing to be with me, I mean with House Riverbond, you have the right to know what you’re getting into. Though I guess you already know the worst of what I’ve done. Coming to the Academy has not been particularly good for me, present company excluded.”

“What do you regret that you’ve done?” Idrina asked, her gaze sharper and somehow more perilous than I’d expected.

Her question was a daunting one too.

Did I regret tearing the cadet apart during the trials? If I was being honest, no, I didn’t. If faced with the same decision, my only fear is that I would make it hurt more for them.

And the Ironbriar student?

I should have felt bad about that.

There were a lot of choices I could have made which would have defused the situation. There were so many more he could have made to though. Simple, basic, decent choices. And he hadn’t made any of them. Worse, he’d intentionally tried to hurt Idrina in a manner which was the most likely to cause deep and lasting pain. 

So I didn’t regret what I’d done there either.

There was one thing I that I had done wrong though.

“I shouldn’t have let you take the fall for our fight in the holding facility,” I said. “You never should have had to stand trial or be forced to fight a trial by combat.”

That confused her, which I probably should have seen coming.

“Did I look like I was unhappy to have that opportunity?” she asked.

“He hurt you,” I said. “And that’s on me.”

“Would you claim credit for my victory too then?”

And I saw where I’d gone wrong.

“No. That was your choice and your fight. You were hurt and you accepted that in accepting the fight. I can be as unhappy with the Imperials as I want to be, but I can’t take the glory or honor of that fight from you. You earned all of it.”

“I…” It was her turn to be tongue tied, which was nice for a change. “You’re not a monster. You…”

I waited a moment but Idrina didn’t seem to know what she wanted to end that sentence with.

“I come from a Reaving Storm,” I said. “It was dozen or more years ago, when I was torn down into this world. My…I don’t think ‘family’ is the right word, but it’s as close as anything in this world will get, was brought through what I now know was a rift.”

My memories were weirdly vivid of some moments from that time and horribly hazy on others. Probably because I was only partially attuned to this plane, I finally put together as I was telling Idrina the story.

“This world is not like the one we came from and it hurt. A lot. We took forms of the things we could see so that it would stop tearing us apart and I got lucky.”

“You chose to look like your sister?” Idrina guessed.

“No, there was a Dire Wolf puppy nearby and I let myself become a reflection of it.”

“What did the rest of your family become?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think they ever finished taking on a form that would let them exist in this world.”

“The Hunters found you before they could.” Idrina said, not as a question or a guess.

“How did you know there were Hunters?” I asked, knowing she wasn’t old enough to have been one of the ones I saw that day.

“You’re family is gone, and I know why the Great Houses summon the storms,” she said. “They were looking to harvest magic.”

I swallowed. That was exactly what had happened, and my memories of several of those moments haunted me still.

“We were trying to shape ourselves into something we could hold onto, and that wasn’t easy. We never held onto anything, and I was the youngest of us all so I had the least control of my magic. The others were the ones caught in the spell web though. It missed me.”

“Spell webs are supposed to be something we would have covered next semester,” Idrina said.

“I…I might have had a problem with that,” I said, entirely unsure what I would have done if I’d felt someone cast another one on me.

“It might have revealed what you are,” Idrina said.

“Then I definitely would have had a problem with it.”

“I can show you how to break them. Oh, uh, if you need?”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” I asked. “All the stories about what a Reaving Beast can do? A lot of them are true. Especially for me. I mean, you know how hard I am to kill.”

“I do,” she said and looked away.

Her scent gave me the sense that I’d said something wrong there, so I took her hand again.

“Hey, that was my choice, remember?” I said. “You did what you had to, and you did it well.”

“I…you frightened me in our first fight,” she said. “I meant to disable you but even after I hit you with a disabling blow you still kept coming. I…There were better choices I could have made there.”

“Except for the loophole that Doxle put in, you won that fight and we both know it,” I said. “I don’t begrudge you using whatever force was required. We hadn’t put any restrictions on what we could do to each other. In fact, if we had, if you knew I wasn’t going to do anything fatal to you, you might have fought differently too.”

“I don’t think I would have,” Idrina said. “I am not good about not winning. And I was fighting for my House.”

She deflated noticeably when she said that and went silent for a moment.

I wanted to say something, offer some encouragement, but everything that came to mind seemed like it would be invalidating her feelings in one way or another.

I didn’t know what she was going through there. I had a bunch of guesses about what her life had been like, but I didn’t know anything for sure. More importantly, I didn’t know what her feelings on the any of it were either.

“Was it hard making the decision to leave?” I asked. If she didn’t want to talk about it, that was fine, but I was going to let her make that choice.

“I don’t know why, but no, it wasn’t hard.” Her eyes had an unusual glassiness to them when she looked up. “It was like as soon as I thought of leaving, I was already gone. Like I’d been gone for years, or maybe never even really there.”

There was a lot of unspoken pain there, but it was up to her to decide when she was ready to talk about it, or process it at all. I’m not great with people but I at least knew that.

“I’m glad you landed with us,” I said. “I already said if you wind up wanting to leave, I don’t want my House to be a trap that holds you in, but I’m glad you’re here, and, well, I know this totally selfish, but I’m hoping you’ll stay. Not for me. If I ever pressure you at all, you should smack me. I know you can, you know I can take it, so just know that it’s fine if you do, okay?”

I’d kind of lost track of where I was going there, but I was torn between really wanting her to stay and never, ever treating her like Ironbriar had. She was incredibly useful, but I never wanted her to be ‘a tool in my arsenal’. That kind of thinking led to the core problem the Great Houses faced; treating people like things.

“If not for you, then why would I stay?” Idrina asked, her voice gone oddly wistful? I couldn’t quite process that one and her scent was making no sense either.

“For you,” I said. “Stay because it’s good for you. If it is I mean. I want the life we build in Riverbond to be one where we help each other flourish without giving up who we are. I think if we can just treat one another with basic respect and decency, we can make a place that’s a paradise compared to most of the alternatives.”

“It’s not the House that’s the trap,” Idrina said, closing the distance between us. “It’s you.”

“Uh, what?” I asked, struggling to figure out what I’d done wrong, and how it could be wrong, when this seemed to be going very right?

“I didn’t join Riverbond for the House. Or for the others, though they are better than I’d expected. I joined for you,” she said, gazing directly into my eyes.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 81

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least from the concerned look Idrina gave me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could do weird though.

It was normal for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My style is unusual.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because her family, Ilyan excepted, were awful.

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

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

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

“Keep what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…” she stammered and went silent again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 80

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nelphas would be fine.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really wasn’t!

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

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

And then she did.

And she was gentle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was fighting real good with it.

And she looked kind of bored?

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

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

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


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

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

I giggled.

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

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

I wasn’t alone. 

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

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

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

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

And I was willing to bored for her.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except she didn’t charge.

She leapt.

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

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

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

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 79

“Typically when you set out to find something, even if it’s something you run into every day, you will find that the mere act of searching has rendered your quarry invisible, intangible, and possibly even unreal. There will be no signs of where it might be, no signs of its passing, and no clue as to its existence in general.

The one exception to this seems to be when you set out in search of trouble. As this is, in general, a phenomenally bad idea, only the most foolhardy of people ever make the attempt. Their fortune is that while they are clearly lacking wisdom, so too is trouble, which is often all too eager to be found, even when its discovery will be to the regret of all the parties involved.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame trying, unsuccessfully, to convince a toddler of his acquaintance that they did not, in fact, wish to chase after the kitty they had just seen.

I wasn’t sure why I was holding Idrina’s hand. I wasn’t sure why she was holding mine either. I’d made the gesture without thinking about only to have it become the only thing I could think about. What was worse, my usual conversational strategy of ‘remain silent and let the other person take all the risks and do all the heavy lifting’ was not even slightly viable to use with Idrina.

We’d walked through about half the Academy’s campus, in silence, holding hands because neither of us apparently knew how to let go, before we saw something which gave us a reason to. 

Nelphas Lightstone had gathered a group of sycophants and was holding court before them on the steps to an abandoned dormitory which had formerly belonged to House Dryleaf.

I turned to glance at Idrina to see if she was still okay with our plan of action. It was one thing to be in trouble with a House she’d officially renounced, accumulating additional charges like we planned too was all too likely to convince the Heads of the Houses to get serious about the nasty things they had in store for us.

Idrina was, of course, undeterred. Before she could step forward though I raised our hands, questioning if she wanted to let go now that we were on the brink of needing them to be free.

I hadn’t expected the small shake of her head that she gave, or the happy little trill that bubbled up inside me on seeing it.

I mean, she wasn’t wrong that we didn’t really need both hands free to deal with someone like Nelphas, so I suppose it could have simply been an intentional handicap to keep the proceedings from being too boring, but it was still nice. For some reason.

“Oh, and who is this?” Nelphas barked out, interrupting some self aggrandizing story which resembled the truth only where they both involved Nelphas utilizing a large pile of money to solve his problems.

As per our plan, we ignored him and kept walking.

It’s what you’re suppose to do with tyrants and bullies right? Just ignore them. Words aren’t a crime, and we can’t expect people to remain civil at all times.

For the record, we knew exactly how poorly the ‘ignore him like he’s meaningless’ strategy would work with Nelphas. While we hadn’t counted on running into him specifically, the overall plan was more or less foolproof for this stage given a Nelphas-sort of audience.

The important thing was, that by ignoring him we accomplished two things at once. First, we essentially punched him in his oh-so-fragile narcissistic ego and, perhaps more importantly, second, we established as a truthful narrative that we were not the ones who provoked the conflict that was to come. 

At least not in a legal sense.

“Looks like we’ve got some scummy intruders trying to sneak back in where they’re not wanted. Little bits of rotten trash who should have been smart enough to stay in the garbage pit where they belonged.”

That was when I saw the wisdom of continuing to hold hands with Idrina. As long as we were joined together, we didn’t have to worry that the other one was going to snap and begin the inevitable battle before us.

Nelphas, bless the poor idiot, directed his cohort to part before him and then fan out to surround us. It was meant to be a menacing display. An immediate show of his dominance not only over them but us as well.

I fought very bravely to keep the wolfish grin I was feeling off my face. It was not easy.

“We’re here on official House business. Step aside,” I said, doing my best to channel Idrina’s calm, emotionless demeanor.

Nelphas laughed. It was the sort of cruel laughter of unearned superiority which told everyone around him that he feared nothing, and was going to take great joy in pulling the wings from the butterflies who flittered before him.

“And why would I do that?” he said, walking close to loom over me. “I deserve to be here after all. No name trash like you should be on the ground licking my boots clean. And your little friend there should be lower than that. Why, I could save Ironbriar all the bother and pass sentence on you myself.”

“You do not have standing to speak in this matter,” I said, fighting to remain as blank as possible. If even a hint of my glee leaked through, I was pretty sure Nelphas would have had the foresight to start questioning the terrible life choices he was in the process of making.

Despite my poor acting skills though, Nelphas was far too committed to the illusion he’d spun of his own importance and competence to question just how deeply in over his head he already was.

It helped of course that in simply stating the plain legal truth of the matter, I’d also managed to puncture his ego in one of the sensitive bits with the implication that he didn’t have the right to speak to me.

“Oh yeah? Well it looks like I’m standing right here. So what are you going to do about it?” Nelphas puffed out his chest as though he was some form of particularly dim bird. His hangers on loved the display, and started cheering him on, giving him the ego boost he craved and degrading his survival instincts even further.

“She will do nothing,” Idrina said. “As the Head of House Riverbond she is not obligated to deal with subordinate members of other Houses directly. Should a person lacking in significance pose an impediment or danger to her however, any member of House Riverbond is free to act in her support or defense.”

We’d read a lot of law books over the course of the day. Not enough to practice law, but enough to cover the specific situations we expected to arise (or cause). 

“Oh no,” Nelphas said with comically feigned concern, “The murderer Ironbriar kicked to the curb is threatening me too. Wow, what do you think folks? Can she get away with that?”

Idrina squeezed my hand to stop me from going after him right then and there.

Which was good.

I mean, I was definitely going to stick to the plan.

And I definitely hadn’t been shifting my weight and the muscle mass in my arms. 

Because that would have been a preemptive attack on my part and somewhat harder to justify in the court.

“I repeat, step aside,” I said.

“And I repeat; or what you puny little freak?”

That was probably all that we needed. Probably but I wanted more. 

“Are you offering insult to the Head of House Riverbond?” Idrina asked.

There was a right answer to that question.

“And what if I am?” Nelphas said, which was not the right answer.

“Then I would ask if you speak for House Lightstone, or if you intend to divorce yourself from them?” Idrina asked and I could feel all of the tension drain away from her as the scent of sweat and chainmail oil rose.

“Divorce myself from House Lightstone?” Nelphas laughed again and spun around raising his hands to encourage his supporters to laugh with him. “You think I’d give up my House? For you? You two are nothing more than common road scum. Your precious little house is a fake and a lie and everyone knows it. Ironbriar is going to cut you to little pieces and then stitch you back up into something useful.”

That was interesting.

We’d only gone fishing for a grudge against House Lightstone, and Nelphas, gift that he was, had given us so much more.

He knew about the Clockwork Souls program. Which meant House Lightstone did too.

Narla hadn’t been sure of that, but she’d suspected it was true. Lightstone would never have allowed Ironbriar to develop a weapons program which could give them such an overwhelming advantage against the other Great Houses unless Lightstone was the one holding the final leash.

Thanks to Nelphas’ blustering we had our first line of admissible proof to present as justification for the rest of our ‘inquiries’.

“Or maybe I’ll save them the trouble,” Nelphas said, turning back to us with magic swirling around his right hand.

The cheering from his fan club had pushed him exactly where I’d hoped it would, but I still could barely believe it.

It was my turn to squeeze Idrina’s hand, cutting off what would have been a rather final response to Nelphas’ provocation.

“Look at that!” he said. “Now they’re all terrified. What do you think? Maybe they don’t have to die? Maybe Ironbriar will only want them hobbled so they can’t get away?”

He aimed his right hand down at my left knee.

It was amusing that he thought I would notice his poison bolt, but for a future recounting it needed to remain clear that he, at least, thought he was threatening me with a permanent bodily injury.

“Even posturing harm against the Head of a House is an actionable crime,” I said. “As you claim to speak for House Lightstone, any actual commission of a crime against the Head of House Riverbond will automatically be judged an act of war.”

He laughed again. For one last time.

“Do you think House Lightstone, my House, the greatest of all the Houses cares about a war with you? With the worthless, pathetic delusion you’ve come up with?” 

I was making him mad. More than mad in fact. By remaining entirely unafraid of him, I was making him incandescent with rage.

And that was entirely intentional.

“I think you spend time with words because you fear the cost of your deeds,” I said and let go of Idrina’s hand. 

There are techniques one can use to deescalate potentially violent situations. 

This was the opposite of those techniques.

And it worked like a charm.

Nelphas’ eyes flew wide open as the fact that I was not only baiting him, but also going to make him look like a powerless fool in front of his sycophants finally dawned on him.

He fired the poison bolt he’d gathered at point blank range into my chest.

Honestly, he should have stuck with my knee. Those are fiendishly difficult to get just right. Especially with the little improvements I insist on having in mine.

Instead, his poison bolt struck me with enough force to give a ballista a run for its money.

And, as the name implied, it tried to paralyzed every nerves in my body, and then melt them.

Which was silly.

Why would I let it do that?

I absorbed the pointless thing in order to make sure none of it splattered onto Idrina and then smiled as the screaming started.

Nelphas had an impressive set of lungs it turned out.

And Idrina had an impressive amount of restraint.

I’d had to argue, vociferously, that allowing one of the students to attack me was a crucial part of the plan. Only by soaking an attack which should have been fatal would I be able to make an irrefutable case that another of the Great Houses has declared war on me. Anything less could have been “miscommunication” or “children misbehaving”.

Idrina and Narla had countered that allowing me to soak the attack was irresponsible and that it was both their job to defend me and to deal out retribution on my behalf.

None of us had been happy with the compromise we’d reached, but, as it turned out, Nelphas was the least happy of us all.

Since he’d misused his right hand, Idrina had take it away from him. I hadn’t actually seen her move, but watching Nelphas scream at the stump where he’d previously had five of his best friends was something of a balm to my soul.

From here on out, I expected trouble was going to learn an important lesson that if we were looking for it, it should really start running.

Clockwork Soul – Chapter 78

“The webs of political intrigue grow no more fascinating after you’ve watched them break and rebond time and again for centuries. As the years go by the details change, who is enmeshed with what interests, and who plots against whom, but the overall pattern remains depressingly the same. 

It seems like any group with more than two people in it must inevitably form a snarl of conflicting loyalties and layered deceits, and try though I might to walk those paths with the care the Imperial Commandment which binds me to this world demands, even I have found the dance tiring on more than a few occasions.

Lately, even when I am not exhausted by the pointless drama of it all, has a singular thought crossed my mind – webs constrain, webs tangle, and webs block you from where you wish to go. Do you know what else webs do though?

They burn.”

– Glenmorda Tinbellus Enika of the Reaper’s Mercy uttering the last words ever heard by Sherrif Lazgo Ironbriar of Sounding Deeps.

It was well past sundown by the time Mellina had laid out her plan for us and we’d gone back and forth on each of the points were someone either thought they had a better idea, or simply objected to the risks involved. Okay, to be fair, I was the one doing most of the latter, and in the end I was forced to, reluctantly, agree that I wasn’t going to be able to do everything by myself with no risk to anyone else.

No matter how much I wanted to try.

There was just one point that hit me at the end of our discussion though that seemed odd.

“Why, or maybe how, would House Ironbriar send Holman as their champion?” I asked. “He’s part of House Astrologia isn’t he?”

I was pretty sure he’d been introduced like that but he’d also been the one to speak for House Ironbriar when Idrina had been sent to a trial by combat.

“He’s an Intercessor,” Enika said, as though that explained everything.

“Technically a Most Honorable Intercessor,” Mellina said but continued since she could see how confused I was. “Holman was born a member of House Astrologia but part of the function of an Intercessor is to take on the burdens of the Great Houses where political neutrality is desirable. They’re intended to advance the ‘legal and just causes of the House’ they’re contracted by while remaining committed to the Empire above all of them.”

“That’s why he spoke for Idrina at her trial?” I asked.

“Yes. House Ironbriar retained his services after the admissions were complete,” Idrina said.

“That’s probably my fault right?” Ilyan asked.

“It’s all of our faults,” Mellina said. “We all broke with our Houses that day. Or reestablished one in Kati’s case. Holman was convenient for them to acquire because he already had a connection to us. They would have been thinking all along to use him against us in some manner, this is simply the most direct approach they could take.”

“Couldn’t he just say no?” I asked.

“Of course. He’s free to do as he wishes,” Enika said. 

“But then he’ll be hauled before the High Council and forced to explain what Imperial Edict House Ironbriar violated to cause him to refuse a lawful order. If he doesn’t have a legally viable complaint against Ironbriar, they would strip him of his Most Honorable status.”

“So he’d lose his job?” I asked.

“And his head,” Enika said. “Intercessors are not allowed to have lapses in judgment.”

I shook my head, not in disbelief but ever deepening exasperation.

“Is every Imperial rule designed for maximum cruelty?” I asked.

“Not a single one was designed for cruelty,” Doxle said. “The cruelty is the work of later hands, and is remarkable mostly in how comprehensive it is.”

“The beheading part, for example, was added almost a hundred years after the addendum which required that Intercessors be stripped of rank if they were found to be guilty of “being subverted to the favor of any entity other than the Imperial throne,” Enika said.

“So what happens to him when we show what Ironbriar has been doing?” I asked.

“He might be executed. Might not,” Enika said. “The laws are specific in the various and horrible punishments they suggest, but the enforcement and infliction of those punishments varies wildly, based usually on how influential the culprit is.”

“And how influential is Holman?” I asked.

“Oh that doesn’t matter,” Enika said. “Ironbriar, should there be anything left of it, will ensure that he doesn’t live long enough to stand trial. It’s the same plan they have for you largely because it’s worked for them in the past and they don’t believe in changing tactics when they don’t need to.”

I recalled how touchy Enika and Idrina had been about Ironbriar’s honor and insults against it when we first met. Or rather how touchy they’d appeared to be. Hearing Enika bad mouth her former employers and sensing no new spikes of rage from Idrina gave credence to the idea that they’d been far more focused on taking the measure of “Doxle’s new pactling”.

Or at least Enika had. Idrina’s emotions were still a maelstrom of conflicting heartbeats, though after a long day of discussion they’d spun down a lot from where they’d been the last time we’d talked.

I sighed, dreading the possibility of even more talking, but I had to asked the question anyways. “Do we need to plan on rescuing him too then?”

Doxle chuckled at the idea and continued massaging Enika’s scalp as she sat in front of him. “No. Holman’s quite adept at keeping himself out of trouble and, when it comes to it, I suspect we’ll want him positioned wherever he chooses to be rather than somewhere safe and fighting to get free.”

“He agrees with that,” Ilyan said.

We all turned to look at him with the same question on our faces. He’d been silent during most of the planning so I’d sort of forgotten he was there, and I don’t think any of us expected that he’d been doing anything of value while we spoke.

“Who agrees with what?” Doxle asked, without pausing the scalp massage he was providing.

“Holman,” Ilyan said. “He agrees that we should leave him where he is. He says he’ll be fine.”

“And how, exactly, would Holman know to answer that particular question?” Enika asked.

“Because I asked him?” Ilyan said, holding up the scroll he’d been scribbling away on.

It was my mistake that I’d assumed he was doodling little cartoon images or something. When he turned the page to us, I saw the most recent bit of three different conversation threads he’d been having.

“Who have you been messaging?” Idrina asked. If she’d posed the question in that manner to anyone else, I would have assumed she had selected ‘murder’ as the reply to the wrong answer, with Ilyan though the aggravation seemed like it was a siblings thing.

“I checked with Holman just now, but I’ve been writing to Ula and Chase for a while now,” Ilyan said, gesturing to the top two sections of the scroll, both of which were forming new words and erasing old ones as we spoke.

“Ula?” I asked, thinking the name sounded familiar.

“Yeah. You remember. We met them after you…uh,” he said with a quick glance at Enika who did not know the ‘uh’ in question.

Fortunately I did, and the ‘uh’ reminded me of who Ula was as well. Ula Zarn of House Farsail, who had the flawless beauty of a statue without being a blockhead at all. Also, possibly, the leader of the ‘Empress’s Last Guard’. Most of that was probably stuff Enika already knew, but out of respect for Ula and the other’s privacy I drew the conversation away from that detail.

“After I invaded the research quarter,” I said. “They were a help in getting us home but why message them?”

“We need contacts outside the city,” Ilyan said. “I’ve got some and I know those two do too,” he nodded at Doxle and Enika, “but those aren’t exactly a secret. We’ll need some new connections right? Ones Ironbriar and Lightstone and the rest don’t know about? Ula’s been making some suggestions and thinks she can arrange a few meetings. I’m supposed to be having dinner with one of them later tonight.”

“You should take backup,” Narla said. “Just in case.”

“Yeah. I was hoping to bring both of you,” he threw an one arm around Yarrin and one onto Narla’s shoulder. “If you wanted to join me that is?”

“Like you need to ask,” Narla said, while Yarrin just nodded.

“I will guard our Head of House then,” Idrina said and for a moment she and Narla exchanging a challenging stare before Narla gave a small nod of agreement.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “I mean my job now is literally ‘get in trouble without killing anyone’.”

“Without killing anyone else unless you must,” Idrina said. 

Mellina was, for some unfathomable reason, trying to hide a smirk. “I could help with that, but the information we need is not going to steal itself.”

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” I asked, genuine concern rising inside me for the thousandth time at the thought at what everyone else was tasked with doing.

“Would you like me to say I’ve seen a vision of this turning out just fine?” Mellina asked.

“Sure. I like comforting lies like that.”

“And what makes you think it would be a lie?” she asked.

“Because you’ve made it clear how and why foresight is useless, and I know you’re too smart to base your actions off it,” I said, hoping that meant she was also smart enough to be right about her evaluations without it.

“I never said it was useless, just that what is foreseen only rarely comes to pass.”

“But you haven’t had a vision about this,” I said, guessing rather than hoping that was true.

“Or I’ve had hundreds,” Mellina said. “Both are equally frustrating, let me assure you. In this case however, it isn’t prophecy but rather my own talents I‘ll be relying on.”

“And you’re sure I can’t come with you?” I asked.

“You need to be out causing trouble,” she said. “And disguising two is more difficult than one.”

“Okay. Just make sure you come back,” I  said. “All of you.”

I couldn’t get over how maddeningly worried I was over a bunch of people who’d been complete strangers to me up until a few days ago. 

Had I been that desperate for family that the moment any potential siblings, or cousins or whatever they were, showed up my heart was going to latch right onto them and not let go?

Apparently the answer was ‘yes’, but my heart remembered the pain that came with family too and was fighting against that as much as it was fighting to hold onto them. 

So I was a mess.

Nothing new there.

Turning to Idrina I asked, “Ready to go out with me?”

She gave a little blink at the question, which was a big reaction comparatively speaking, and then nodded with an “If you are.”

“Well, trouble’s not going to make itself,” I said and stood up, which seemed to be the sign people were waiting for that we could finally get to work.

Doxle and Enika were the only two who remained where they were, with Enika asking, “Oh my, the children are away. Whatever will we do to occupy our time?”

She meant it to sound flirty and suggestive, but they were going to fight. Not emotionally or verbally. Regular fighting. Like with swords and daggers. Enika had been itching to do that all day according to her body language, and Doxle seemed to be inclined to humor her from his.

I’d call them weirdos except for the part where both Narla and Idrina wanted to fight me still and, as I came to trust them more, I was sort of intrigued to find out how that would go too.

Offering my hand to Idrina, I headed out the door which would lead us back to the Academy’s grounds. The ones where we weren’t, officially, allowed to be anymore. 

It seemed like a good option for getting into the right kind of trouble, though when Idrina took my hand a spark jumped up my arm that made me wonder if I hadn’t found all the trouble I could handle already, right beside me.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 77

“The only thing less agreeable than the company of perfect strangers is enduring the attention of those to whom you are known.

Happily, having rid myself of the most ill-conceived martial vows in the history of the institution, the one thing I need never tolerate again is the presence of a husband.”

– Glenmorda Tinbellus Enika of the Reaper’s Mercy addressing a roaring tavern on the occasion of the formal dissolution of her matrimonial vows to a fellow Imperial Advisor whom she refused to name.

I was pretty sure Enika wanted to kill Doxle. It wasn’t a scent thing – Imperial Advisor’s seemed to lie through the scent as a matter of course – it was more of a vibe she radiated.

Of course sitting plopped casually on his lap didn’t exactly support that vibe but it was still there. If it had been focused against anyone else, I would have had problems believing the little cues I was picking up, but given that her completely unexpressed ire was directed against Doxle I was willing to give my disbelief a bit of suspension.

“Were you planning to swear fealty to House Riverbond too?” I asked her, fully aware of how ridiculous the idea was, but with how my life was going any answer seemed as reasonable as any other.

“I should think not,” Enika said lazily finding a path through each word as though she was making up her mind as she spoke. “I’ve just broken one set of fealty agreements, and former employers can become so cranky when they believe you’ve betrayed them.”

“To be clear though, you are betraying them are you not?” Doxle asked.

“Well, yes of course, but its unseemingly to make them overly aware of the fact,” Enika said. “One never knows what favors one may need in the future.”

“Wait, I don’t get it,” Ilyan said. “Why are you here?”

“For you of course,” Enika said. “The both of you.”

“You betrayed our House for us?” Idrina asked.

“Not at all,” Enika said. “This is your House is it not? I am quite good at noticing when bounds of fealty snap and I am sure yours broke almost together last night.”

“So we made you do this?” Ilyan asked.

“He’s adorable isn’t he?” Enika said, turning to face Doxle so closely that their noses touched.

“Indeed. I would have thought you picked them for the sister but you’re devilishly clever sometimes, did I ever mention that?” Doxle asked.

“Now, now,” Enika said. “Flattery will get you stabbed.”

“Few can be so lucky as to perish so well,” Doxle said.

“I didn’t say I’d be kind enough to make the wound fatal did I?”

“Now who’s flirting?” Doxle said.

“Do you two need us to give you the room?” I asked. “We can go plan our war somewhere else if you like?”

“Oh, it’s not going to be a war,” Enika said.

“Because they’re going to crush us before we can fight back?” I asked. It seemed to be the most likely outcome of all this I could see, but that didn’t diminish my desire to see it through. 

The Great Houses had murdered my sister, and every new thing I learned about them just made me hate them more. They were a terrible system of governance for the Empire, and they encouraging systems like the Imperial Academy which seemed to exist for no other purpose than to consume the best and brightest of the Empire and produce easily manipulatable shells for the Great Houses to use and dispose of as they saw fit.

“Because war between the Great Houses is simply not allowed,” Enika said.

“There’s precedence for it,” Yarrin said, holding up the book he’d been reading. “House Yellowleaf legally erased House Coldmourn through an officially declared war.”

“And House Lightstone declared war on House Greyfall two years ago,” Narla said, gesturing with her book.

“Yellowleaf’s squabble with Coldmourn was unusual since they were both subsidiaries of Greendell,” Enika said. “Also that war occurred prior to the Calamity. It’s not a scenario which will occur again.”

“Lightstone’s war on Greyfall is more representative of how wars are handled today,” Doxle said. “No organized fighting, just a few strategic assassinations and diplomacy over contract negotiations which could have been handled without the bloodshed.”

“The bloodshed was the entire point of the war though,” Enika said. “Remember Jobar Lightstone had been humiliated by Fredrar Greyfall at the previous years Winterfest.”

“Oh yes. That was a lovely time,” Doxle said.

“No it wasn’t,” Enika said. “It rained when it should have snowed and half the food spoiled in the unseasonably warm weather.”

“The wine however was excellent, as was the company,” Doxle said.

“You spent the night with the cleaning staff, helping them clean!” Enika said.

“Yes, and none of the nobility knew I was there. It was delightful! Such a shame they turned me down though, I really thought we could continue like that for quite a while.”

“Turn him down for what?” Narla asked.

“Marriage,” Enika said. “He tried to marry all four of them at once.”

“How much wine did you have?” Ilyan asked.

“Far too little, I assure you,” Doxle said. “If I’d gotten another bottle of two in me, I still think I could have made a compelling enough case to win over at least three of them.”

“Wouldn’t a war work just as well in this case?” I asked, trying to drag the conversation back somewhere in the vague vicinity of the problem Ironbriar posed.

“You’re think to assassinate the heads of Ironbriar and negotiate with the rest?” Idrina asked.

Saying yes to that would have gotten me stabbed as recently as the day before. From the expression Idrina wore and the focused commitment her scent bore though I almost thought an assassination job was exactly what she was hoping for.

“We talked about me fighting their Champion, but we don’t know who that will be,” I said. “With the protections Ironbriar has I think that’s going to be the mostly likely step they take.”

“No,” Narla said.

“No,” Idrina said.

“No,” Enika said.

And all three meant something different by it.

I held up my hand to stop the inevitable rush of chaos, and, shockingly, it worked. Since I could only hold for them so long, I nodded to Narla to allow her to explain.

“No, we didn’t talk about having you fight their Champion,” Narla said. “As the head of the House, you’re too important for that now. That’s my job and, you will let me do it.”

I wasn’t willing to concede that point just yep but it wasn’t an important fight to have yet either, so I nodded to Idrina next.

“I can tell you who they will send as a Champion if it comes to that,” she said. “They’ll send Holman.”

“That cannot be a good thing,” I said, asking for elaboration as much as confirmation.

“It’s not. It will be punishment for him siding with me,” Idrina said. “Either he will kill our Champion and then inflict whatever consequences Ironbriar desires on the rest of us, or, more likely, we will kill him.”

“Which would rid you of a friend,” Enika said. “That is indeed what they would do if they were going to send a Champion to fight you in some official capacity, but it will not come to that. Ironbriar is not the most powerful, or the most clever of Houses but they are savvy enough to prevent this from entering any arena where there exists a chance of failure for them.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t give them that much credit,” Doxle said. “Clearly they will try to ensure that all routes lead to their victory, but there are always some eventualities which are difficult to plan for.”

“Yes, that’s rather why I’m here,” Enika said.

“I thought it was the appetizers?”

“Those as well,” Enika said, licking a dab of whipped cream from her lips before continuing. “Before House Riverbond’s declaration of war is accepted, they will call for a hearing by the High Council to determine the legitimacy of Riverbond’s claim.”

“We can give testimony as to the insults done to House Riverbond,” Idrina said.

“Oh, it’s not the claims in the war declaration they will question. It’s hers,” Enika said. “As she has not been formally recognized in the Court of the Empress, they will advance the claim that she does not have the standing to speak for House Riverbond, and without that can enjoy none of the rights of a House citizen, much less the privileges of a Head of House.”

“I made several compelling arguments on that point already,” Doxle said.

“Yes, but those won’t matter since they will be killing her well before she shows up for her confirmation hearings,” Enika said.

“Then she probably shouldn’t go to that, right?” Ilyan asked.

“In which case the High Council will have no choice but to rule against her,” Enika said. “It’s not terribly brilliant but it does grant them victory in either case.”

“I’m not all that easy to kill,” I said, knowing I was tempting fate by making that particular claim. “And wouldn’t an attempt on my life more-or-less confirm the claim House Riverbond is making?”

“In the eventuality of the attempt being unsuccessful, the assassins, should any be locatable, will be discovered to be members of no house and in the employ of ‘unnamed foreign powers’. Should they succeed, the assassins will, in all likelihood be found dead with similar results for investigations into their backgrounds.”

Ilyan wasn’t terribly surprised by this but looked upset at the idea. Idrina looked entirely unmoved but her scent said she was stewing in a ball of rage and despair.

I really need to get her alone somewhere.

And say what I had no idea, but my instincts were screaming to get her somewhere that mask she was wearing could crack before everything inside her just exploded.

Not that I could blame her for wanting to explode.

If anything I couldn’t fathom how she hadn’t already done so. Even allowing me to “take her hostage” had been a monumental leap given the years of dedication and tireless work she’d given to her House. 

From her skill, I knew she’d endured as much training in a day as most children managed to do in a year. If I was able to match her in any manner, it was only because holding my human shape had effectively been training for me every moment of the day, and if I was being honest Idrina’s command of her magic was simply flat out better than my own.

All of that could have been explained by devotion though, something which the Great Houses were always eager to extract from their children. The mask she wore was something else though. That didn’t come from hard work. That came from pain. And it wasn’t the pain of training herself and pushing past so many of her limits that I’m sure she’d lost count.

The training itself was something she endured rather than endure the pain she was being offered. 

I looked for the scars but there were none there. It wasn’t her body her family had hurt. It was her soul. Ilyan had to have seen it too. That was why he’d finally left. How long could you endure a family who hated a sister that you loved?

And Idrina? Who had endured that even more directly? Who’d believed in her House even when that family never believed in her? Never acknowledged how amazing she was? In whose esteem she could never rise even while she fought endless to rise in her own? What kind of shards would it shatter one’s soul into to finally break free of all that? To finally admit, if only just enough to take action, that the vision of acceptance you’d been chasing your whole life was nothing more than a lie dangled before you by those who should have been so much better?

I couldn’t know if any of that was true, but I could make absolutely certain that, whether she chose to remove it or not, the mask Idrina wore would never be necessary in my House.

“It would seem that we have a relatively simple task ahead of us then,” Mellina said.

“You’re professed goal is to wage war on one of the Great Houses of the Empire and you believe it to be a simple task?” Enika said. “Do enlighten us as to how that will be accomplished.”

“Why one step at a time of course,” Mellina said, meeting Enika’s gaze with the sort of confidence that was only found in someone with a plan they knew would work.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 76

“Whether my enemies come for me as singularly deadly threats or as a nuisance of armies, the same is true of them all. To the last, they are under the impression that they, somehow, are the most dangerous thing I shall ever have to face in my life.

It’s quite absurd of course. How could they possibly be the most perilous encounter in any given day, or at all likely to be the ones who manage to bring about my downfall, when I must greet everyday by first looking in the mirror and spying the one who is unequivocally the most dangerous menace to my health and sanity.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, speaking at the trial Farmer Jedri Brownsaw of Cedarbrook against the charges that Jedri had filched two pails of milk from his neighbor when he’d only paid for one, moments before the 5th Imperial Legion stormed through Cedarbrook, reducing all the buildings in town, save the courthouse, to rubble and kindling.

I hadn’t planned to fall asleep. In fact, falling asleep put a significant kink in my plans. I needed that time to deal with all the problems which were still waiting there for me when I woke up. If I was being honest with myself though, and there is a first time for everything I suppose, I really did need the rest.

I can ‘sleep’ faster than most people because I can handle the detoxification and regenerative elements of sleep as fast as I’m willing to spend magic on them. That’s great for waking up feeling physically refreshed. It is much less great for waking up with a clear head though. 

If I spend five minutes seriously working on it, I can put my body in pretty good shape (well, five minutes if it hasn’t been literally put through a meat grinder). Five minutes of noodling on the problems before me though typically means it will take me at least ten minutes longer than it otherwise would have to come up with the solution for them.

To really clear my brain out, I need to give it time to work on my problems without “Worry” and “Anxiety” tag teaming against all the useful part of my mind. 

On this particular occasion though, my night’s sleep had given me something better than a fresh line of attack on my problems. The images of the other world – my other world – lingered as clear as any waking memory in my mind. So much so that I was reasonably sure it hadn’t actually been a dream but something more fundamental.

Each ‘dream image’ was darkness wrapped in shadows, but the memories held so much more than that. I hadn’t needed to see the vast and formless others which had swum around me. There wasn’t anything of them to see after all, but touching them? Moving through them? Feeling the ever changing flow within me that was the heart of my magic and the heart of me, and finding that essence moving and shifting in time with theirs?

I’d forgotten, or maybe never known, just how vast that side of myself was. 

My people, well my original people, after my declaration to the formless others I had to admit that I had people here too, and that I’d had them for a long time now. My first family though? They played and swam and danced their ever changing lives in the epipelagic reaches because the light let them change in new ways.

In the darkness of the bathypelagic, there was no shifting of colors, there was no fine patterns and every swirling textures on skin or fin or wing to tail. Much like they’d found new modes of expression and being in the sun touched waters, living on the surface world and staying in one solid form for so long, I’d discovered even more subtle modes of expression as well. 

I’d learned to be one thing, or one sort of thing, so well that the changes I’d embraced changed me in turn. I would never be fully at home in the depths of the ocean of magic which had spawned me. Despite those changes though, I still carried my past with me. I was no longer a creature solely of the Boundless Deeps, but in me their currents still flowed, and, most importantly, to them I could still speak.

That put so many ideas in my head that they all but crowded out the previous nights worries. 

Which was bad.

I knew the things I’d been worried about were legitimate concerns, and ignoring them to flit off after a half baked baker’s dozen of thoughts would only lead to disaster.

So I went to go find my friends.


Eh, friends. As long as I was on a roll of not lying to myself, I might as well drop that one too I supposed.

They were, for a change, not in the dining room. They were still eating of course. In a house with cooks like Sea Cotton, Piney, and Pastries there was basically no reason not to stuff your face with snacks at all times.

Okay, there may have been some reasons, but it wasn’t like we didn’t have a higher-than-average calorie-burn-rate given the sort of nonsense we’d been getting up to.

“Hey, you’re awake!” Ilyan said, being the first to notice me as he chomped down on a cinnamon cookie which smelled delicious even from where I was standing.

“Yeah, what time is it?” I asked, curious at how much sunlight was streaming in through the windows.

“Around noon?” Narla said, without looking up from the foot-thick tome which was spread on the table in front of her. Everyone else had one or more similar doorstoppers in front of them and were similarly engrossed in their contents.

Even Idrina.

“Did I miss something? I thought our instructors were going to be running us ragged for school drills or something?” I asked, stepping over to the tray that had the current selection of treats and grabbing a cake that had seven layers, chocolate, and some kind of raspberry wonderfulness going on.

“Not today,” Yarrin said.

“They expelled us,” Narla said. 

I don’t know why that hadn’t occurred to me as being a possibility.

“On what grounds?” It wasn’t that I didn’t believe them. Honestly, on reflection, I was surprised we’d made it past the first day. I was legitimately curious what completely bonkers reason the Academy’s administration had come up with for denying us the education which, I think, we’d already paid for though.

“Imperial Academy cadets are not allowed to serve as active duty soldiers,” Idrina said.

Which, okay, that made some amount of sense, except for the glaringly obvious problem with the statement.

“You’re not active duty soldiers though?” It was a question regardless of the grammatical construction.

“We are since we declared war on House Ironbriar,” Mellina said, passing me one of the textbooks when I took the seat on the couch beside her and adjacent to the chair Idrina was sitting in.

‘A History of House Dryleaf; Amended’ seemed an odd choice of reading assignments, until I remembered what, or rather who, had happened to the former Great House.

“So, and I know we talked about this, I’m just curious, who declared war on Ironbriar?” I asked, flipping through the first few pages of the roughly thousand page book as I chomped on the cake. As breakfasts went my inner wolf pup grumbled at the lack of meat, but my outer young human woman was delighted with the sweetness and the easy carbs.

“Officially, you did, but I submitted the paperwork for you,” Mellina said. “I’m your Senseshal now as a note. You can fire me whenever you like.”

I laughed at that, which earned me a sideways glance of confusion.

“You seriously think I’d let you get out that for all the gold in the Imperial Palace?” I asked. “I’ll say you can quit whenever you like, but Grammy did not raise any idiots. I am not firing anybody in this room from anything.”

“Good. I will retain the position of House Militia Commander then,” Idrina said without any emotional embellishment.

I nodded in agreement for a good second and a half before her words fully translated in my brain, at which point I froze mid-nod and turned to her, my hand raised to ask a question that my brain, mouth, and lips seemed incapable of forming.

“I’m your Diplomatic Attache,” Ilyan said, plopping down on the sofa opposite us, in between Narla and Yarrin. How he managed to cuddle up to them both was as intriguing as it seemed to be unconscious for him.

Still not able to form words properly, I turned to him and gave him the same look I’d been querying his sister with.

“It’s no bid deal,” he said. “I just know Damiana – she was the courier they sent over the with the charges, so we talked for a bit while your House Archivist and Seneschal drew up the response.”

“Archivist?” I asked, to which Yarrin, of course, raised his head and hand in answer to the question.

“Right, of course,” I said. It was the most sensible role for him and he was the most sensible one to fill it.

“And you? Got a job you’d like yet?” I asked, meeting Narla’s gaze.

“Yep,” she said, straightening up to her full sitting height. “House Executioner.”

Again, I couldn’t argue that it fit for her. Wasn’t sure I was going to have any executions that I was planning on ordering, or that I’d be willing to let anyone else bear the burden of it if I did, but she definitely projected the sort of power your want from a House Executioner.

“And House Champion,” Narla said, shooting a challenging glance in Idrina direction.

Idrina scowled but did not respond. From her scent, I knew the matter was far from settled between them, and, I suspected, was not something I wanted to get in the middle of unless I really had to.

“Right, right,” I said. “So, just one thing. Don’t you need to officially be members of a House to take on governmental roles. I don’t think student bonds qualify for that. Do they?”

“No. They don’t,” Yarrin said.

“Which is why you’ve adopted us,” Mellina said.

“I’m sorry, I’ve what now?” I asked, staring at my…my children? No that definitely did not sound right. Especially not for…

“We renounced our former houses,” Yarrin said said. “Doxle witnessed our pledge of Imperial fealty to make it official. It was the only option if we want to participate in the war on your side.”

“That’s not true,” Idrina said. “Technically she could have hired us as unhoused mercenaries.”

“But then if the High Council declared this Private and Restricted, we would have been cut off with no appeal,” Narla said.

“Not that they’d do that without a massive bribe on our part,” Ilyan said.

“Or a direct order from the Empress,” Mellina said.

“That’s only a technicality,” Yarrin said. “The Empress hasn’t had a voice in the High Council since the Calamity.”

“Well, she’s been dead since then hasn’t she?” Ilyan said. “I mean, we saw with your sister that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have an opinion on things but…”

“She’s not dead,” I said. “It’s not life as we know it, but she and the others she cast the spell with? They are very much alive.”

“Can we use that somehow?” Narla asked.

“If she hasn’t been able or willing to speak to the High Council in three hundred years, I’m guessing she won’t, or can’t, make an exception for us,” Yarrin said.

“It’s not that she won’t or can’t,” Doxle said, sauntering into the room with an unusual amount of smoke wafting from his otherwise pristine suit. “The High Council knows she’s there, and she can communicate with them directly if she chooses to, but until she can put in an appearance in body as well as spirit, they are free to continue to brand her projection as being of uncertain provenance and as likely to be a subterfuge by one of the lesser houses or even an unbound spirit.”

“They’ve done that?” Narla asked.

“Consistently since the day after the Calamity,” Doxle said. “We’ve had a few discussions on the subject, but the bylaws of the High Council are remarkably clear on the need for physical representation, and the Houses have been uncommonly united on that front for centuries now. It is a remarkable testament to their ability to work together which they utterly fail to recognize or replicate in any other endeavor.”

“So you took all of their fealty oaths?” I asked him as he collapsed into the remaining open chain in our little circle.

“In your name of course,” he said. “I trust you do not disapprove.”

“Not at all,” I said. “And it was all of them? No one took the mercenary option instead?”

“Oddly that was the case,” Doxle said. “I tried to stress how much wealthier they would become individually if we had to pay for their services, but I was an unconvincing advocate for the mercenary position it would seem.”

“And so everyone here joined what is almost certainly a doomed project to take on a power structure which has been in place for longer than our collective ages put together?” I asked.

“Well, you would need to count me out of that list for the calculation to be true,” Doxle said.

“And me as well,” Glenmorda Tinbellus Enika of the Reaper’s Mercy, aka one of Doxle’s ex’s and Idrina and Ilyan’s pacted Advisor, said, wandering into the room holding a tray she was sampling from liberally, before plopping down into Doxle’s lap.