Monthly Archives: November 2023

Clockwork Soul – Chapter 91

“People get up to all sorts of no good at night, or at least that’s the common belief. In truth the robberies in the dark pale before the ones committed in the broad light of day and the secret trysts under moonlight are generally far more innocent than the betrayals of trust and faith which happen in the open without the hint of a disguise.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame presenting the annulment papers for his fifth marriage.

I needed to go to bed. Given that I planned to commit what was potentially world-ending mischief as soon as got under the covers you might think that I was pleased to see Idrina waiting for me at my door. I mean, bedroom mischief with her hadn’t been exactly far from my thoughts despite the fact that we hadn’t talked much since we kissed, but, as is often the case with my life, things just weren’t that simple.

“You’re turning in early,” she said.

I had two general paths open to me in response to that. The easy one would have been to agree with her and pretend I was simply tired, or wanted to be well rested for the trial ahead of us. In other words, I could have lied. 

But I didn’t want to lie to her.

I knew I should. She would have been a lot safer if she was as far away from, and as ignorant as possible of, what I had in mind. 

Also, she wouldn’t try to stop me. 

Which would mean we wouldn’t have to fight about it.

I knew she liked fighting, but I don’t think either of us would have enjoyed that particular battle.

So I could have lied.

Or, I should have lied, maybe, but the reality was I couldn’t.

I didn’t want that to be who I was to her, or who she was to me.

“I’ve got an idea I want to try out,” I said, choosing the other path and, I don’t know, maybe dooming us all?

From how I said it, I was sure she knew that it was the ‘potentially catastrophic’ sort of idea but she didn’t move to bar my path. Instead, she opened the door to my room and stepped to the side to let me enter.

Without asking permission – for which I was deeply grateful, I definitely did not want to have a boss and minion relationship with her either – she followed me in and closed the door behind us. If that lead the others to think we were engaged in the sort of activities they shouldn’t interrupt, well, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, just mostly so.

“A ritual?” Idrina asked, gazing around the room searching for spell casting components unless I missed my guess.

“Not exactly,” I said. “I really will be going to sleep.”

She tipped her head slightly, focused on me directly, and waited me for explain.

I drew in a breath and tried to find the right words so that I wouldn’t sounds completely mad. That was particularly challenging when the plan I had in mind was certifiably deranged.

“I’m not from this realm,” I said, starting at the beginning.

“You’ve mentioned that,” she agreed and continued waiting.

“When I came here I thought I was lost,” I said. “Surviving wasn’t a simple thing, and I don’t mean stuff like finding food. I mean my essential nature was anathema to this world. I was supposed to change, not once in a while either. Always. I was supposed to be something that isn’t supposed to be in this world.”

“Did it…you adapted?” she asked, aborting the question of ‘did it hurt’ which had too obvious an answer.

“I did. I fled into a single form. I started building an identity for myself like a shell to keep the world from tearing me to pieces. I wasn’t what I appeared to be, but it was able to act as a buffer between what the world wanted me to be and what I was.”

I’d never considered what I’d done in those particular words before, but as I spoke the ideas sort of came together on their own.

“What does changing now cost you?” Idrina asked, a scent of concern rising from her which her features didn’t betray.

“Oh, yeah, that’s the thing. I can change now without any problem,” I said and held up a clawed hand as an example. “Anything you’d like to see me become? I can do all sort of shapes without too much effort.”

“You don’t need to be anything for me but yourself,” she said and I felt my knees turn to jelly.

Did she know what that kind of statement meant to me? Was she flirting? I mean the bed was right there and…

Nope. Those thoughts would lead to all sorts of bad choices.

Still though.


“Oh, uh, thanks,” I managed to stammer out, probably without blushing as red as I possibly could.

A ghost of a smile flickered across Idrina’s face and she looked slightly away, which, yeah, that did things for me too.

“I, uh, I’m something different than I was now,” I said. “Still don’t entirely belong here, but that’s like an old argument the world and I have had and we mostly just leave it alone.”

Idrina’s scent grew more serious, though her expression didn’t change.

“You’re planning to reopen the debate then?” she said, not at all happy where that might lead from what her scent was saying.

Happily, that wasn’t my plan. At least not exactly.

“No, I only brought that up to say that while I’m different than I was, I’m also still connected to the realm I came from.”

“Via your magic.”

“Yeah, but for me it’s not quite what it’s like for other casters. Most of a you have a Hollowing, a space within you which resonates with one of the Transcendental realms. I don’t have that exactly. What’s inside me IS a piece of the realm I’m from, the realm that I am in some senses.”

It was a weird idea. I felt like a person, not a sentient fragment of another world. Maybe there wasn’t a distinction between “person” and “place” in this context either. Except that what I was connected to wasn’t exactly as limited as my housemates were.

“That would explain why you’re able to perform such diverse transformations,” Idrina said. “You don’t really need any part of the body you’re wearing do you?”

“That’s a complicated one to answer,” I said. “I am who you see in front of you now. I made myself this over the course of basically my whole life here, so being the me I am now shapes and defines me far more than any other form I might wear. I can repair myself from some pretty ridiculous levels of damage, but things like language and thought are a whole lot easier when I’ve got my brain and internal organs in roughly the right shape and composition.”

“So when I killed you…?”

“At the time, I really wanted to avoid that because I thought if anyone knew what I was they’d put a magical freeze on me and tear me apart permanently like they did with my family when I arrived,” I said. “Happily, you didn’t do that, and so I figured it was worth the risk to put myself back together where you could see.”

“That was a kindness,” Idrina said. “Though I don’t think I said so at the time.”

Given that I’d been convinced she was going to try to murder me again the next time she saw me, she had failed to convey her relief at not killing me pretty completely. It was going to be a long time before I could tease her about that though.

“That brings me to what I’m planning to do,” I said. “It’s something I think will either save us all, the Empress included, or it’s pretty much destroy the world, the Empire and everything else.”

“Oh,” Idrina said, and waited.

“I’m going to go to sleep,” I said. “Go to sleep and talk to the depths of the realm I come from.”

Idrina blinked. “And?”

“I still carry a part of my original realm with me,” I said. “In my dreams lately, I’ve gone back there, but it’s been more than a dream. It’s been like, I want to say reconnecting with them. Or, no, really it’s connecting for the first time. Ugh, this isn’t making sense is it. I need to explain what my home, my first home is like.”

To her credit Idrina was the soul of patience as I stumbled through finding the words to describe the flowing, aqueous nature of my home realm and the equally protean nature of my people as we swam in the sunlight reaches of the great flow.

“And the depths?” she asked.

“Below the layer my people are born to, there are other, deeper layers of my world. They are darker. More primal.”


“No. Dangerous yes. Even when I was fully adapted to my home realm, interacting with those from the depths was terrifying. They are vast, like living cosmoses unto themselves. Even their mere presence is crushing.”

“And you want to dream of them?”

“I want to speak with them again.”


“Because I think they are what the Clockwork Cosmos is missing,” I said.

“I don’t follow,” Idrina said, her expression growing visibly confused.

“Part of our plan hinges on subverting the Clockwork Souls program,” I said, not telling her anything she didn’t already know.

“Yes. Your sister is working to free those who are trapped and replace them with the spirits who wish to aid our cause,” Idrina said, also not telling me anything I didn’t already know.

We were on the same page though, which was important for the rest of my idea to make sense.

“The Clockwork Cosmos is fighting us on that because it has no choice,” I said. “I’ve spoken to it and it doesn’t want to grind us to ribbons, it just doesn’t have a choice because it can’t change anything about itself. It’s a precise, unchanging existence of pure Order. Except for the part where it’s not.”

“Then it can change?”

“It’s trying to change all the time, but any move against it’s fixed existence causes it to shatter itself and there are severe limits on how much it can change like that.”

“But the depths from your realm…oh. I see.”

The urge to kiss the brilliant woman before me was nearly overpowering.

“If a few drops of my power can change the projection mechanism in Doxle’s house enough that the Empress can eat food for the first time in three hundred years, then what might an ocean of that power do for a realm that wants to grow beyond what it is today?”

“We would be able to empower far more than the few hundred Clockwork Soldiers that we had in mind,” Idrina said, as stunned by the idea as I’d been. “We could realize the Empress’s dream and give that power to thousands, or tens of thousands.”

“What I’m proposing is even more dangerous than that,” I said. “Of course, if I’m wrong, then, well, mixing two realms together would probably upset the rather careful balance the Empress has been carrying on her frozen shoulders for the last three centuries.”

“And if she loses hold of two realms, all of the rest will come tumbling down too, won’t they?” Idrina said, grasping exactly how bad this could go.

“There will be no warning, and no hope of stopping them,” I said. “All of the Transcendental Realms will crash into the material world. Magic of every conceivable variety will tear across the planet and rip all of it to shreds. No one will survive that, no matter how good a caster they are.”

“Doxle and the Empress will never allow this. Not after spending all this time keeping the Empire intact.”

“I know,” I said. “The question is, will you?”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 90

“There are rules to running an Empire. Obligations to those from whom your power derives. I made a terrible mistake though. I studied history. I saw where we’d started. I read the accounts of the Founders of the Empire. The public ones which were meant to inspire the masses. The private journals where they tried to excuse themselves for what they were doing. 

Some of it even worked. 

It’s hard not to see in those early generations, the spark of a belief that they were making a better world than the one they’d been given, using terrible tools towards ends they could only hope the future would justify.

Nor is it hard to see, step-by-step how that ‘better world’ was shaped and hedged in to be better for only the ‘right people’.

We can be better than that.  Those who hold power needn’t be blind to the costs the Empire pays for inequality. To the costs they themselves pay in paranoia and blood.

We can better and we will be. We can make the brighter world which still inspires people from the Founder’s vision. We have the plans in place and we will move on them. All we ask is will you move with us?”

– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm presenting her plans for the Unification of the Realms to the High Council.

You’d think a surprise visit by the Empress Eternal would leave everyone speechless – or you would if you’d forgotten that Doxle was in the room.

“You were able to join us! Delightful!” he said, and looking genuinely delighted.

Enika extricated herself from Doxle’s lap and moved to draw back a chair for the Empress, adding a polite bow and a simple “My Empress”.

The Empress Eternal smiled at that, though I thought more at catching two of her Advisors flirting or fighting or whatever they were doing.

My other housemates reacted more how I expected a normal citizen of the Empire would – aka dead silence and awe.

To be fair, Indrina’s normal state was to be pretty silent (was that what we shared in common?), and Mellina was pretty unflappable from what I’d seen, but on Narla, Yarrin, and most especially Ilyan the stunned silence spoke volumes.

“You’re torturing me Doxle,” the Empress said, nodding towards the food. “Equipping the projection array here with an olfactory sense when I can’t even nibble on your host’s delicious presentation? Is this payback for something which has escaped my remembering?”

“Indeed it is,” Doxle said.

“Oh really, and what have I don’t to offend you so greatly, my fifth favorite Advisor?”

Enika snerked at that, which, okay, fair, it was a little funny.

“Let’s call it payback for the incident in Grimfall,” Doxle said.

“I recall being rather generous that day.”

“Exquisitely so,” Doxle said with a nod.

“And for that I’ve earned the scent of delicious food but no chance to partake in it?”

“Am I really so cruel?” Doxle asked.

“Yes,” the Empress Eternal and Enika said in unison.

“I am wounded, terribly wounded,” Doxle said, placing the back of his hand on his forehead as though he might faint.

“You can be!” Enika said, brightening.

“At your pleasure, my lady,” Doxle said.

That they were still that disgusting as ex’s made me glad I hadn’t seen then them when they were courting or actually married.

“Before I draw my last breath though, perhaps I might suggest one of the sweetberry cream puffs?” Doxle said, proferring a plate to the Empress Eternal.

“And what, exactly, would I do with one of those?” the Empress asked.

It was a reasonable question. For all that she appeared to be as solid as the rest of us, her scent was one of pure perception magic. What we saw wasn’t a real body, but only an illusion. Enika had offered her the chair because, I was pretty sure, the Empress couldn’t have moved it if she wanted to.

“There are some who prefer to lick the frost top off first, but I feel a good bite through the center combines the flavors better,” Doxle said, holding the plate with the puffs steady before the Empress.

“What…?” the Empress asked, allowing a moment of less-than-regal confusion to cross her features.

“Trust me, they’re delightful,” Doxle said, his words drawing a suspicious gaze from Enika and puzzled look of hope from the Empress.

With her eyes locked on his, the Empress stretched forth a hand and lifted one of the puffs off the plate.

Which was all kinda of wrong, but the swirl of magic I smelled waft through the room fixed that problem up.

I was almost distracted enough by that to miss the Empress popping the puff in her mouth and showing an expression which suggested a level of delight heretofor unfathomed by mortal or immortal alike.

“How?” Enika asked, since the Empress was far too drunk on bliss to form coherent works for the moment.

“Not easily,” Doxle said.

“No. Seriously. How?” Enika said. “If you just doomed us all for the cream puff I will feed you to the twins myself.”

Doxle chuckled at that, but did lean back to put himself at least slightly out of Enika’s immediate reach.

“We have the good Lady Riverbond to thank as it turns out,” Doxle said.

“I’m adopting her,” the Empress said, pausing between bites for what I dearly hoped was a joke.

Enika regarded me with narrowed eyes and I could smell that she wasn’t merely staring at me. All sorts of subtle magics where flowing around me and without the context clues I had I would never have noticed them nor had any idea what their aim was.

From Enika’s continuing frown, I gather that she wasn’t able to make all that much sense of my magic even with close and sustained observation. That wasn’t as heartening as it should have been, but I could live with it.

“How?” Enika repeated, sounding only slightly mollified.

“Our pact bond allows me to draw on her magics,” Doxle said. “They are exceedingly protean. It took no more than three drops to alter the projection spell, the food, and the house into vessels capable of providing our dear friend with the repast she is currently enjoying.”

That got more or less everyone looking at me.

Which sucked.

I felt like a bug whose rock had just been lifted up.

“You took three drops from her Hollowing?” Enika asked.

“Oh no. Of course not,” Doxle said. “Just three drops of her free magic. They’d sort of sloshed free, so it’s perhaps not even accurate to say I took them.”

I understood what he was saying and it raised all sorts of questions in my mind.

I didn’t know Imperial Advisors could take away someone’s Hollowing, or their reserve of magic. I suspected there were significant limits to that since the Great Houses didn’t routinely depower casters who annoyed them. Still even a temporary loss of magic could be catastrophic for me given how much I used on a continual basis.

More important than that though, was the idea of what my magic might really be capable of. If a drop had been enough to enchant the whole of Doxle’s house, what might a cupful do? What could I change if I was willing to drain myself dry. Or what if I claimed even more…

I felt myself go stock still.

Breathing wasn’t strictly essential. Nor was circulating my blood. Even the neurons in my brain froze for a moment.

The idea that had hit me fell with the force of a comet making landfall.

I didn’t know if it was possible. 

I didn’t know if I wanted it to be possible.

I didn’t think I had any choice but to find out though.

Later though.

If anyone in the room found out what I had in mind they would absolutely stop me.

They would have to.

I was going to destroy the world.

But later.

The trial was fourteen hours away.

That was plenty of time to have dinner and then destroy the world.

“I’m still adopting her,” the Empress Eternal said.

“Can you adopt a Head of House?” I asked.

“This is the first time in three hundred years that I have tasted food,” the Empress said, visibly hungry in a way that went beyond anything food could satiate. Before she could turn into a proper cosmic terror though, she regained her composure and her regal demeanor. “And it looks to be that I shall not be shackled by such limitations any longer.”

“You don’t have to stop eating,” Doxle said. “It will take a fairly large meal to tax the spell enough to generate a sense of satiation.”

I saw the Empress’s eyes dart towards the plate of roast silverdeer but she pulled her attention back to the party assembled before her before anyone could blink.

“There are, sadly, more important duties which compel me at present,” she said, her formal tone probably armor against the screaming need I could see clawing behind her eyes.

“Yes, alas,” Doxle said. “You’ve come about the unsanctioned war I gather?”

“I believe it is wars, plural,” she said.

“The Imperial House does not interfere in intra-House affairs though?” Enika said.

“The Imperial House is the Final Arbiter of all intra-House disputes,” the Empress said. “It is a so power rarely employed though as to be theoretical at this point.”

“But not all of you power in that area is theoretical,” Mellina said.

“Yes, as we discussed, there are options available,” the Empress said, which happily turned everyone’s attention from me to Mellina.

Mellina had said that she had some unusual allies who she could attempt to contact, but I don’t think any of us guessed that the Empress might be one of them.

No. Scratch that. Doxle had known. I could tell from the vaguely amused tilt of his lips.

Enika hadn’t though.

That was going to be a dreadful weapon in the little war they were already waging with each other.

“So have you chosen to grace us with your kind regards and the options that can afford us?” Doxle asked, his tone far too mild given the strength of the hand he was playing.

“That depends,” the Empress said. “Mistress Riverbond,” she indicated Mellina – guess she was my sister now after all if she’d dropped Astrologia from her name, “and I had precious little time to speak, but her ideas were intriguing. I would hear more of them and judge for myself whether your overall strategy is sound enough to spend what will be the somewhat limited form of control I have available on.”

“I have a presentation,” Yarrin said, looking paler with each word he spoke.

“And I can present it,” Ilyan said, taking Yarrin’s hand to comfort the boy before he hyperventilated.

“We can explain the tactical details Your Majesty,” Narla said, nodding towards Idrina, “There’s not a lot of them though.”

“Good you kept things simple then,” the Empress said, once more fully in control of herself. “That’s a mark in your favor.”

“They came up with most of it on their own too, believe it or not,” Enika said.

“With some input from us,” Doxle said.

“Good. They listen to advice from people whose entire purpose is to provide it,” the Empress said.

I wasn’t sure how Mellina had gotten in to see the Empress, but I also wasn’t entirely surprised she had. She was talented and capable enough that she seemed like a prime recruit for the Empress’s hidden cadre of agents in the field.

What was more surprising was how the Empress seemed to be evaluating everyone in the room for taking on similar roles. 

As talk turned to the details of the plan we’d put together, I watched each one of my housemates be drawn into the conversation, even Yarrin who seemed ready to go nonverbal with fright at the start, opened up within minutes and was answering the Empress’s questions with ease.

And she became more casual as well, dropping the regal facade as excitement began to sparkle in her words and gestures. 

Looking them I started to believe we might have a real chance of pulling things off.

Unless of course I went and ruined everything.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 89

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doxle had a very odd taste in decorating.

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

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

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

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

Which was ridiculous!

We’d made so much progress.

But maybe it was too much? 

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

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

Which was rude and stupid of me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 88

“When planning an evenings festivities, it is as important to consider the refreshments as it is the guest list. Guest lists are, of course, one of the most notoriously explosive elements of any gathering. Inviting the Count of Hardsway to the same city as the Duchess of Everglean is a recipe for a minor civil war, but getting them into the same room together? Unknowingly on either’s part? The cleaning bill alone will be astronomical. And you will simply never get out all of the blood stains. Better to simply burn the venue to the ground and start ove – which conveniently enough the Count and the Duchess are likely to arrange for you whether you ask them to or not.

How could refreshments be as critical as avoiding a faux pas such as that? Why what do you think precipitated their animosity in the first place? I mean, to be fair, it’s not often that you can manage to sneak explosive refreshments into a party you’re not attending, but the results do speak for themselves (again, convenient, since no one who was at the Duke of Everglean’s party was in the position to speak ever again).”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame going over event planning details of with Enika prior to his ward’s trial before the High Council.

Narla wasn’t happy when we got home. I was not surprised by this. I’d given Idrina a quartet of guards to command, I’d brought home a war on at least three more fronts, but I hadn’t gotten anything at all for Narla herself. Sure, she appreciated the war, but that lacked the personal touch that Idrina’s new minions carried.

It was probably a comfort to her that she’d at least gotten to be part of a fair amount of mayhem of her own, and as a result both Ilyan and Yarrin were still with us and in one piece.

“Ula was sure the puncture wound didn’t hit anything vital?” Mellina asked.

“She was sure nothing important was still punctured,” Yarrin said. “From what I can see, she heals shockingly fast.”

“Which is probably why she threw herself in front of the spear for me,” Ilyan said.

“I’m concerned that we don’t know which House hired the assassins that were sent against you,” I said, drawing in another deep breath to reassure myself that the blood scent which lingered on Narla, Ilyan and Yarrin didn’t belong to any of them.

From Narla’s story, and the fact that the scents were all unfamiliar to me, it seemed like all the blood came from the assassin’s who’d ambushed them a moment after they met Ula and Chase. Or perhaps a tiny bit came from Ula too? I felt bad for that if so. We hadn’t invited her to a meeting in order to get her stabbed, but more and more it was seeming like that was a likely outcome for anyone who allied themselves with us.

“No markings or obvious spellwork on them,” Yarrin said. “But that’s the baseline of what you’d expect from even a bottom tier assassin.”

“How is there enough of a market for assassinations that there’s a ‘bottom tier’ for the Houses to draw from?” I asked, perplexed at the notion that inter-House murder could be that common place in what seemed like a vaguely stable system.

“Most assassins only tasked with delivering warnings,” Mellina said. “Potentially fatal warnings, but usually it’s a single strike and then they flee as fast as possible.”

“People aren’t that sturdy though,” I said, being intimately aware of all of the systems that needed to be in fully working order for the average human to not keel over and die.

“They’re not,” Doxle said. “But the difference between an instantly fatal wound and one which will be fatal in a few minutes or hours is the difference between a killing strike and one which a healer can usually make disappear with time and effort.”

“Healing magic is fairly rare though, isn’t it?” I asked, since Grammy had always warned me away from dangerous things by saying ‘there’s not a healer in a hundred miles who’ll patch you up if you..” whatever it was I wanted to do.

“Exceedingly so,” Enika said. “What is it? Something like one in a thousand casters at the last census.”

“I think it’s dropped to half that,” Doxle said. “Although, that number likely doesn’t take into account all of the hidden orders.”

“And those would be?” I asked, already sure I was going to want to hit someone for the answer.

“It’s an open secret, well open to those within the Great Houses, that there are bloodlines which have offspring who more frequently bond to healing magics,” Doxle said. “In order to ‘preserve those bloodlines for the good of all’, various Houses have sequestered the members away, usually in remote monasteries or other isolated areas. There are still relatively few full healers in those families, but at something like one in five or one in four, the Hidden Orders provide them with a pool of magical healing which keeps the High Lords safely isolated from the woes of the common masses.”

I looked at my housemates for confirmation.

“Lightstone’s got a ton of them,” Narla said. “I didn’t used to think much of it until a few years ago, when I was ‘old enough to tend my own wounds’.”

“Astrologia is the same,” Mellina said. “There though it’s ‘the impact on the healthcare budget of your project’ which determines access.”

“And Ironbriar?” I asked, turning to the twins who were sitting side by side.

“Everyone has a claim on the healers in Ironbriar,” Idrina said. “But to use one incurs a debt to the family.”

“A debt that usually involves taking on a service no one else wants, and which will get you killed in an instant enough manner that you won’t be a bother again,” Ilyan sad.

“When we were five, our cousin Kalwen fell twenty feet onto hard stone. The healers saved him, but the price was a year of service as a page to Duke Mosgraf,” Idrina said.

“The official story is that he was killed during a hunting party,” Ilyan said. 

“We learned later that the official story was likely true,” Idrina said. “But then being staked out as bait for a Reaving Beast does tend to lead to fatal outcomes.”

“What? Why would…?” I’d known I was going to be unhappy with the answer, and I really shouldn’t have lost the capacity to form words in the face of the Empires endemic cruelty, but something about the long repressed anger I could smell roiling off the twins hit me harder than I’d expected.

“I imagine he was leaky,” Enika said. “Magically speaking. Young casters often slosh magic around like an overfull goblet. That’s one of the more effective mechanisms for attracting the attention of particular Reaving Beasts.”

“Because they want to eat the kids?” I asked, more or less beyond my ability to be further horrified.

“Sometimes,” Enika said. “Other times the Reaving Beasts seem to wish to save the children, as though they’ve mistaken the child for one of their own young. The hunters are able to find their prey in either case, so it makes little difference to them.”

“I imagine it makes a difference to the children whether the Reaving Creatures eat them or not,” I said, knowing I would regret that assertion.

“It would if the hunters bothered to draw the fight away from them,” Doxle said.

And there was the instant regret, right there.

“And no one stops this sort of thing because?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s highly illegal,” Doxle said. “Stopped every time it’s discovered.”

“But the Empire is very large, and the Great Houses allow only their own overseers on the lands they control,” Enika said.

“Also, the hunters wear all manner of magical camouflage, so unless one of them foolishly outs themselves as having taken part in such a hunt, it’s fiendishly difficult to determine who took part in it,” Doxle said, the weariness in his voice the ashes of battles lost again and again.

“There should be more assassins apparently,” I said, hanging my head in my hands.

“No, no,” Doxle said, putting a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Just few people in need of assassinating.”

Grammy had never believed that murder was the solution to someone’s problems. She’d made it clear that violence didn’t solve things, it just changed or pushed problems off. 

Of course she’d also single handedly killed an entire Great House.

But maybe that meant she was speaking from a position of experience?

I wasn’t sure where that left me. I wasn’t planning to kill everyone in all of the Great Houses. I wasn’t actually planning to kill any of them. 

But some of them were going to die.

Regardless of what our plans were, the inevitable outcome of changing a power structure was that some people would die. 

Was that on me?

It was my choice that we were going ahead with this.

But I also wasn’t forcing anyone to take any violent actions.

To a large extent, I wasn’t even forcing this to be a conflict. The leaders of the Great Houses could settle this at any moment they wanted to by simply walking away.

Except I really didn’t want them to.

The system of control which had metastasized throughout the Empire had to come down. If the Great Houses were capable of walking away from the conflict I’d brought to their door, maybe that wouldn’t have been true, but that was not the world I lived in.

“How about Ula?” I asked, changing mental gears before I ran off and did something immediate and stupid to solve the problem of the Great Houses. “Was she able to suggest a contact for us?”

“Even better than that,” Ilyan said. “The Empress’s Last Guard has distribution channels all set up. All we need to do is get them the gear and they can disperse it.”

I blinked. That was unbelievably fortunate.

“Well, they’re not used to moving gear. It’s usually a food distribution network,” Yarrin said.

“Apparently we have them to thank for the fact that both the Northern Ice Lake region and the Goldclover Plains didn’t fall to famine for the last two years,” Narla said.

I paused at that.

From our initial conversation, I’d, apparently, mistaken them for being a lot less impressive than that. Preventing a famine that would have claimed a few hundred thousand lives was far grander of an achievement than anything they’d claimed credit for.

But then, it hadn’t been just them stopping the famine I suppose.

Looking at it from their perspective, I saw how being part of an affair which had to include a thousand or more volunteers would seem like being a small and insignificant part of a much larger endeavor. 

I was sure the Great Houses thought of them in the same vein. A few noble hearted idiots who’d helped in the giant task of organizing a relief effort for two areas which would have crushed the profits of several Houses? Why certainly their antics could be tolerated a little farther than others might be.

It tickled my soul that what might be the Great Houses worst blunder would be overlooking the value of compassion and community. I was also wordlessly delighted at the thought that we really weren’t in this alone.

I needed to fight the Great Houses. For Trina. For Grammy. For Kelthas. 

And for me.

I was willing (because I’m occasionally kinda stupid) to fight them all on my own.

But I knew I needed more than that. I needed the people in my House and so many more. I needed the Empire with me, otherwise the destruction I was going to wreck would leave a void that something worse was sure to come crawling into.

But not if there were people there who were already caring for each other. People who were ready to make a better world, but who would be cut down the instant they tried take even a crumb of power away from those who hoarded in like life blood.

I wondered if any of the House leader would understand any of that as their ancient edifices came crumbling down to bury them in the unspoken annal of history.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 87

“Good deeds are neither punished, nor rewarded, by fate. A deed is a thing unto itself and a thing connected to all other things. The consequences of a deed may be agreeable or abhorrent, though almost always that judgment depends largely on the point of view they are observed from.

How can one know if they’ve done good then? If their choice was the correct one? We can never see all the facets of the decisions we make. Often we can’t even see all the reasons we had for making them. With such a dearth of information, we are left to fall back on simply doing our best.” 

– Xindir Harshel Doxle of the First Flame explaining why he destroyed the Green River dam and flooded out the town of Hazelport.

A man stared into my eyes with murder in his own. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t the one he wanted to murder.

“I was supposed to kill you,” Marzoss said, his voice a calm whisper. “Why aren’t I dead?”

“Because I had a choice,” I said. My reasons for making that choice weren’t all that important. Or they wouldn’t be to him. Also, since I’d saved his life, I wasn’t the one who owed him any explanations.

“It shouldn’t be possible for me to be alive now,” he said. “I am Branded. Failure means death.”

“It was a weak brand,” I said. “It’s gone now.”

“That’s…how?” To be fair to him, he’d definitely been told that removing the Loyalty Brand was impossible and the people who’d told him that had probably believed they were speaking the truth. They, and he, were wrong however.

I wasn’t uniquely capable when it came to destroying enchantments like that. My method was possibly unique to me, but there were other options for removing a spell like the one he’d been enchanted by. I was certain Doxle or Enika could have managed it and given how shoddy the spellwork was I wouldn’t have been surprised if Yarrin could see a counter for it too.

“With magic,” I said, not trying to be terribly helpful.

“The Ironbriars will kill you,” Marzoss said, confusion replacing the rage in his eyes.

“Do you think they sent you to me because they were pleased with something I’d done,” I said, honestly puzzled as to how he could have missed that.

He was silent in response to that, which was fine by me. Generally that means someone is thinking and he had a lot to think about.

I could have told him where those thoughts were going to run to, but he wouldn’t believe me. If anything, my suggesting the final outcome of his rumination would have soured him to what was in some senses the only logical conclusions.

“Would you please watch him?” I asked Idrina as I turned to the next assassin.

I had what I felt was a pretty solid guess as to what Marzoss would do, but guesses are not a great thing to bet your life on if you didn’t have to. Far preferable was betting your life on someone like Idrina. I knew if she let me down, the chance that I would have survived the encounter under any circumstances would have been next to zero.

In response to my request, Idrina took a half step forward and conjured a perfectly mundane spear into her hand, holding it like a walking stick. It was one of the least threatening gestures she could have made but it got her point across quite well.

For my part, I turned to the Loyalty Brands on the second and third assassins. They had already partially regained their senses, so I didn’t have long before their brands activated again and either killed them or forced them to try to kill me again.

Since I had no interest in either of those outcomes, I touched both of their brands at once, the contact with the silvery material opening me up to both of the controlling spells.

That should have made the effort more than twice as difficult as both of them began trying to overwrite my brain’s functions in different areas.

The poor little mind control spells had a serious disadvantage though. Where it had taken me two seconds to rip the first one out of it’s victim and devour, that had included the time I need to be spend understanding how it was constructed. I didn’t need to waste that effort on the next two because the person who cast the spells was an unimaginative loser.

Or they liked to stick with something that was proven to work.

I was going with unimaginative loser though. 

Also hopefully an already dead one, otherwise I was probably going to have to do something suitably horrifying to them to help balance the horrors they’d doled out. Balance for me. It wouldn’t help any of the Branded – sadly the spell wasn’t tied to its creator at all, so no step method of freeing them all. 

Also, revenge really wasn’t mine to exact here. For as much as I loathed the existence of the spellwork, its true victims were sitting before me.

So they had first dibs.

“What are you going to do with us?” Jainrue, the second assassin I’d free, eventually asked after I’d freed the fourth assassin we were carting around and set Barldo’s (the third assassin) broken arms.

“That depends on what you request,” I said.

And that was not the response any of them expected.

I was very good thought. I neither chuckled, nor grinned at them.

“What can we request?” Barldo, the assassin whose arms I’d broken asked.

“Sanctuary,” Marzoss said, his ruminations having run where I expected they would.

“What do you mean?” Jainrue asked.

“I just want to get out of here,” Barldo said.

“We can’t,” Lozor, the original assassin we’d stopped said.

“She changed the Brand?” Barldo said. “Of course she did.”

Jainrue went quiet at that but I didn’t have to explain anything. Marzoss did that for me.

“The Brand’s gone,” he said. “We’d be dead if it wasn’t.”

“She doesn’t need the Brand though,” Lozor said. “We don’t have anywhere else we can go than into her service.”

“We could just run,” Barldo said.

“And we would die,” Marzoss said. “Ironbriar will know we’re not dead. Even if the Brand didn’t tell them, they’ve got other options, other spells that can track us.”

“Why would they care though?” Barldo said. “We lost. We outnumbered them and we lost. We’re useless.”

“You’re not useless,” I said, which didn’t paint me in exactly the light I wanted to be painted in but I felt it was an important point to establish.

“You see, she’s got something she wants from us,” Marzoss said.

“I want nothing from you,” I said. “That does not impact your value however.”

I don’t know why I’d shifted back to my ‘Formal Head of House’ voice in speaking to them. Maybe I thought it would help them mistake me for someone who knew what she was doing?

“We are still trapped. Spellwork or no,” Lozor said.

“Are you?” I asked, knowing that they kind of were, but that they weren’t not necessarily bound to me.

“If we run, Ironbriar chases us and kills us. If we hide, Ironbriar finds us and kills us. If a miracle happens and we somehow escape, the is no life for us anywhere out there,” Lozor said. “There’s nowhere we can go where we’d be safe, no work we could take to earn food and lodging that would reveal who we were eventually. The Brand didn’t kill us, but we are dead nonetheless.”

“Would we have to wear a new Brand?” Jainrue asked.

“Never,” I said, letting a bit of the heat I felt scorch my words. “If I find who cast those spells, I am going to strangle them slowly.”

“That would be my uncle Galrosch,” Idrina said. “He deserves worse than that.”

I made a mental note; if I met him, there would be no negotiating, he was going to die.

“Then why do we have to serve you?” Jainrue asked.

“You don’t,” I said. “I place no restrictions on you. Should you even you wish to try to complete the task Ironbriar assigned you, you will not earn my wrath. I will likely injure you badly enough to prevent a third attempt, but I will not do so without malice or any lingering animosity.

“None of us are going to do that,” Marzoss said, not looking to the others for confirmation. They all knew how another scuffle with Idrina and I would turn out, and that Barldo’s broken arms would be a far lighter injury than they’d sustain next time.

“Why would Ironbriar go to the effort of killing us though?” Jainrue asked.

“They would have to,” Loroz said. “The Branded aren’t supposed to be able to escape the Brand. If we’d known it was possible, I would have been looking for someone to remove it for years now.”

“We’re not important, but they can’t let anyone like us escape,” Marzoss said. “We’re a challenge to their authority.”

“Just like she is,” Loroz said.

“Is that so bad then?” Jainrue asked. “To serve her I mean?”

“Does it matter?” Marzoss asked.

“Yes. It does,” I said, and refused to elaborate. Either they understood that they had value already or I would have to demonstrate it through my deeds (beyond simply not killing them and then freeing them from the Loyalty Brands). 

“Are you offering us sanctuary then?” Barldo asked.

“No,” I said, which shot a look of concern onto all their faces. “If you wish to request sanctuary, it is my House Militia Commander who will need to approve it.”

“You have a formal process for requesting sanctuary? No, wait, you have a House Militia Command already?” Marzoss asked.

“House Riverbond has a long history and a wealth of traditions and procedures.” Most of which I’d only barely skimmed, but as Head of House the only people who could really question me on those were either trying to kill me or were an Eternal Empress.

“Do you know if he will approve our request?” Loroz asked.

“If requested to, she will,” Idrina said.

“Then it appears you’ve managed to secure four assassin’s for House Riverbond’s use,” Marzoss said.

“No,” I said. “If you seek sanctuary, seek it with the knowledge that you will never be requested or required to kill another person. You will not be required to provide any service, and will only be allowed to perform tasks you chose to engage in freely.”

“I…what?” Jainrue asked.

“I did not spare your lives to make you slaves to House Riverbond in place of being slaves to House Ironbriar. If you wish to act as House Guards, you will do so under the command of Idrina Riverbond.”

“How would being under her command be any different than being under the command of an Ironbriar who’d kept their name?” Loroz asked.

I thought I would have to explain things, but Idrina spoke up before I could.

“The House Militia is not an army. We do not need the discipline and unthinking obedience a force assembled for war does. As a House Guard, you will be required to think for yourselves. To evaluate situations and take what you believe are the correct actions, regardless of what your standing orders are.”

Idrina hadn’t snapped to attention or spoken into a particularly loud voice. She nonetheless had their complete attention.

And mine.

Her scent was beguilingly happy.

At first I thought it was because I’d officially recognize her under the title she’d claimed while I was sleeping.

Inhaling deeper though, I could tell that wasn’t it.

My next thought was that her happiness stemmed from the fact that I’d just given her a small garrison of troops to work with.

Not particularly talented troops, and some of their were significantly worse for wear since we’d found them, but still it was a base to begin building upon.

But it wasn’t that either.

It was the name.

When I’d formally introduced her, I’d given her my name.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 86

“Finding allies is a tiresome task, all the more so when one is truly in need of them. For some reason when the whole world is out to rain down misery and defeat on someone’s head, everyone else is strangely inclined to avoid them, or, worse yet, take the world’s side of things.

For these occasions, my personal recommendation is waste little to no time attempting to discover new supporters. In fact, it’s also best to assume that some number of the supporters you believe you possess will reveal that they no longer have your best interests at heart. 

Why, yes, on occasion that number has been ‘all of them’. However did you guess?

As I was saying though, the best strategy isn’t to go out searching for allies. Far better to create them from the pieces offered you by your enemies.

Well, yes literally if need be. Reanimating the dead can be a phenomenally effective tactic, if a rather pungent one. Should you possess a modicum of imagination however, there are other, less odiferous approaches available as well.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame inspiring the villagers of Meadow Rain during the peasant rebellion against the unlamented Duke Janstan Astrologia.

Finding a place to work in private wasn’t a trivial challenge. While no one had assaulted us in several minutes (which given how things had been going was a definite sign the average intelligence of the Academy was rising sharply), we had attracted a fairly thick cloud of ‘secret followers’. 

I’m sure most of them simply wanted to earn a bit of coin by selling information on us to their contacts in whichever Great House sponsored them. They could have earned even more if they’d fulfilled the hidden and highly illegal bounties Ironbriar had posted on us, but the risk/reward ration on that was objectively terrible even before we’d trounced an entire patrol of Imperial Guards without killing any of them.

So they could learn! It honestly almost brought a tear to my eye. I was so proud of them. It was so tempting to believe the entire Empire was peopled by the stupidest of possible humans, but here the students of the Academy were, being smart and self-preserving and acting like real people and everything. There might be hope for them after all!

Well, some of them.

I had to assume some would eventually be overcome by greed.

Those I promised myself I would make sure had a chance to learn from their mistakes though. I could be better than literally every other Great House leader in that at the very least.

We did manage to escape our pursuers, or at least most of them (all the ones I could smell at a minimum) by sequestering ourselves inside the kitchen area of one of the mess halls which had long since finished serving the days meals.

Once we were safely clear of observation I tore a rift to the Clockwork Cosmos, went in, tore another one out (it turns out it was easier the having done it once already, and also because the Cosmos had a few other issues it was dealing with).

That let us take a shortcut no one else could follow, which dropped us off in an abandoned dorm adjacent to Doxle’s house.

I could have tried to open the rift inside Doxle’s place but that seemed like an inherently bad idea given the obvious space-warped nature of the place and the fact that neither Seaform, Piney, nor Pastries had said it was okay and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to upset the invisible caretakers of the place where I slept and bathed.

“They’ll be waking soon,” Idrina said, depositing the fourth would-be assassin in a seating position beside the other three.

That was a problem. We could fix it, but I didn’t like our available option for doing so.

So I was going to make a new one.

“I need to ask you to do something unpleasant,” I said, marshaling my arguments for why my request was necessary.

“I am not going to leave you alone with them,” Idrina said, her voice even flatter than usual.

“Not that,” I said, unable to fully hold back the smile for how pleased that made me . “I need you to stab me till I stop moving. If this goes wrong!” I added the last bit when I saw Idrina’s otherwise fixed expression going hard as steel.

“And what is ‘this’?” she asked.

“Three of them are have silver tattoos which I can smell are some form of obedience brands. I want a moment to see if I can subvert them.” Like I’d said, it wasn’t a plan yet so much as an idea that could lead to a plan.

“Subvert the brands or the people despite the brands?” Idrina asked, more curious than disbelieving from what her scent suggested.

“The brands. I think I can undo their magic, or maybe even twist it change its parameters,” I said. “But there’s a risk.”

“You might be driven berserk by them?” Idrina guessed.

“I might fall under their effect,” I said.

“I see.”

“Which is why I’d need you to render me inert since I wouldn’t be all that in control of my actions until you got the spell removed.”

“I assumed that was the idea.”

I blinked. Was she okay with my plan?

“I won’t be able to dispel the Loyalty Brand if it transfers to you,” she said. “I presume Doxle is capable of doing so though?”

I nodded. That was a good idea. Which I had not thought far enough ahead to work out.

I had no idea if Doxle was actually capable of erasing a Loyalty Brand of course, but it did seem like the kind of thing he’d have worked out if it was possible.

“Getting you to him won’t be difficult,” she said. “But it would mean leaving these four here.”

She wasn’t asking if it was okay to kill them in that case. They’d, technically, tried to kill me already, and I think her moral compass had fairly clear things to say in that regards. 

I had to disappoint her though. 

And help her build a different compass.

Growing up under the world view of House Ironbriar was not a healthy thing from what I’d observed, but for someone as sturdy as the steel she wielded, Idrina had shown an amazing ability to change already.

“If you do have to leave them, I think you should leave them as they are,” I said and then hurried to continue before she could protest. “I know they’ll still be primed to kill us, but that can be made to work in our favor too.”

“How?” It wasn’t unreasonable for Idrina to disbelieve my claim, but fortunately I did have an answer in this case.

“I know that using assassins against other Houses is considered just a part of playing the game. As a Head-of-House, I’m expected to employ sufficient security to make attempts like this basically nothing more than letters of mild discontent, right?”

That won me a tiny curve of Idrina’s lips which was the equivalent of a hearty chuckle.

“I haven’t heard it described exactly like that, but you’re not wrong either,” she said.

“The thing is though, it is technically still illegal, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes, I suppose it is.” Idrina said, seeing where my argument was leading. “If you bring that up before the High Council though the other Houses will take it as a mark of weakness.”

“I hope they do,” I said. “Maybe a few more will declare war on us if so.”

She sighed, acknowledging that I was right while at the same time protesting the danger I was continuing to put myself in. 

It would have been really wrong to start making out with her then and there. To my great fortune one of us knew that.

“They’re starting to stir,” Idrina said. “How long will you need?”

“If it takes more than two heart beats I’m lost,” I said and reached forward to put my hand on the nearest assassin’s forehead.

Idrina stopped me before I could.

“Don’t lose,” she said, and kissed my hand before releasing it.

I’d questioned putting in all the glands and response patterns that an actual human might have. Not all of them did after all, and many of the ones who weren’t subject to the irrational tides of desire and attraction seemed to live much happier and well balanced lives. 

There was something delightful about being unbalanced and irrational though, and as the warmth of Idrina’s lips cooled on the back of my hand I was oh so foolishly happy I’d built my body with the precision I had.

My task was still before me though and I had a new goal added to it: show the girl beside me how talented I could be when I put my mind to it.

That was usually the sort of situation where I fell flat on my face, but this time I simply refused.

Touching the Loyalty Brand I felt nothing at first, it’s power being directed entirely inwards towards the assassin. 

Breaking though that protection was as simple as morphing the tips of my fingers to mimic the assassin’s physiology.

That’s when the problems started.

But they were problems I was expecting.

As soon as the Loyalty Brand saw me as the proper subject of its magics, it surged into me, trying to sink roots in the new fertile and free soil of my mind.

I can’t blame the spell’s designers for not designing a defense against someone might willing pulling the Loyalty spell into themselves. It was both a terrible idea and one I’m not sure all that many people could have accomplished. 

I was tempted to give the spell a hard yank and tear it completely free from the assassin. It was an ugly thing and I objected to its existence on general principal. The only thing that held me back was a nodule I found in it that would shut off the assassin’s brain if it was deleted.

Granting them freedom in death was definitely not what I was going for, so I left that part untouched and spent the rest of the first heart beat feeling out the shape and scope of the spell.

It was sending roots down into my medulla oblongata, which seemed like an obvious target for something with killing capability, as well as spreading a fine net through my temporal lobe, probably in order to control how I perceived and felt about things.

As mind control spells went, it was remarkably unsophisticated.

As soon as I was satisfied that’s really all there was to it, I ate the parts that were inside me, dissolving the magic of them into a more useful general fizz of magical energy and shunting that into a little pocket in my finger for later use.

In devouring the spell, I’d seen the part which overlay that temporal lobe where authority recognition was defined. Anyone who the assassin believed to be an authority of House Ironbriar could give them any order and they would have to follow it.

My original plan had been to twist that portion of the spell and simply neuter it, leaving the overall effect in place but removing any possibility that they could be ordered to do anything by anyone.

I’d considered substituting myself as the authority but since the thought had made me violently ill, I’d rejected it like any sane person I was not likely to kill on sight should.

Looking at the control the spell gave the Ironbriar’s over the assassin though I scrapped my original idea.

The assassins weren’t nice people. They’d grown use to the Loyalty Brands and had salvaged what sanity they could by choosing to be even more loyal than the Brands required. 

They deserved better. Despite the things they’d done, they deserved better.

Eating the spell from their brain wasn’t easy.

I wound up eating their death too.

The ‘turn brain off’ function was too complex to undo before it triggered, but I was able to move it from them to me.

I suspect that looked worrisome from the outside, but only because Idrina is really fast. I didn’t fall more than inch before I brought my brain back online and finished eating the rest of the spell.

The assassin woke thanks to all that and I found myself staring into eyes that were full of hate and free of all restraint.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 85

“It can be oddly distressing to have people who are unhappy with you. Despite the numerous times someone has tried to kill me, it is still quite uncomfortable to know that someone is truly angry at something I have done or said. Uncomfortable or, hmm, what’s that other term? Oh yes, delightful!

How can it be both? Why it’s almost harder to imagine how it could be neither.

Being the little social monsters that we are, our survival depends, in part at least, on convincing the other social monsters who infest our world that there is no cause for them to do us harm. Hence discomfort is a natural reaction to tipping the balance of our surroundings towards violence.

On the other hand, some people are just so awful that imagining them thinking of you as anything like a friend or ally is sufficiently abhorrent that murder is a vastly preferable alternative, ideally theirs, and ideally with as much aggravation for them as possible.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame in the most successful speech given to a class of 8 year olds at the Westsea Scriptorium.

The first assassin came for me while we were walking back home. It wasn’t a particularly inspired effort, but I did have to give him points for promptness. He would have scored more for finding us, except we weren’t exactly hiding.

“Are we still going to take him with us?” Idrina asked, pointing at his unconscious form.

It was a point of the plan that she’d debated against and I’d been of two minds on. As Idrina argued, carrying a body with us would draw a fair bit of attention (which was a good thing), but at the cost of handicapping us if a second assassin, or a team of assassins, made a follow-up effort before we got home.

“We should, he’ll be useful,” I said, “And Ironbriar doesn’t seem to be sending the talented killers yet.”

I was curious how well we’d fare against the real professionals the Great Houses employed. Based on the performance of their cheap and expendable agents, I felt like there was an excellent chance we wouldn’t need either of the safety nets that we had in play.

“Let me carry him then,” Idrina said.

“You’re not my valet,” I said, feeling keenly aware of the potential power imbalance that existed between us and rather desperate to cut off any distancing it would create before that sort of nonsense could get started. “Also, you’re faster than I am. Slowing you down doesn’t make any sense.”

“Yes, but they will be striking at you, and you’ll have a harder time dodging if you’re weighed down,” she said, her logic sound, as I suspected all of her arguments would be.

“I don’t need to dodge most of the time.” It was worth noting I thought, even though this was one of the occasions were ‘most of the time’ didn’t really apply.

“That will become less true the better the assassins get.” She hadn’t picked him up yet, but I could see that she’d more or less made up her mind at this point. To be fair, she wasn’t exactly wrong, but I still hated the idea of exposing her to any more danger than was absolutely unavoidable.

“If we carry him together, we’ll both be less encumbered,” I suggested, striving to find some measure that would keep her safer.

“We can but then we’ll both be slower, and then any attackers will be more likely to strike us both.” Technically that was true, but until Ironbriar decided to pay for the high quality assassins, the chance that either of us would be slowed in any significant manner was  pretty much nonexistent.

“Okay,” I said, acknowledging her claim largely because a new idea had occurred to me. “You can carry him. That’ll leave me free to focus on protecting you.”

I watched her try to object to that, but come up short on reasons at first.

“I’m not the one who needs to be protected,” she finally settled on.

I gave her a skeptical glance. I knew she believed that, but it was also the farthest thing in the world from the truth, and it burned that no one had shown her that since she was old enough to form coherent thoughts.

“I believe I’ve made my position clear on what happens to people who try to harm you,” I said, gesturing vaguely in the direction where the Imperial Guards were probably still receiving preliminary medical care.

“That wasn’t necessary,” she said.

“I know. But it also sends a message.” A message I was not unhappy to have the world in general know, though I was sure the only option I’d have for convincing her of that was demonstrating my feelings repeatedly.

“That I am a weakness for you,” Idrina said, clearly appalled at the idea.

“That you are someone I will react in extreme ways for,” I said. “Which makes you as much or more of a target than I am, which should make your job a bit easier.”

“I have a job? Officially?”  she asked, a glint of amusement in her scent which failed to register on her face.

“You can have whatever you  want,” I said, knowing how unwise that sort of thing was to say and not caring in the slightest.

“Then I want you to let me keep you safe,” she said.

“Done, but for a price,” I said. “If you want to officially be charged with keeping me safe, then you need to allow me to be officially required to keep you safe as well.”

“That’s not the role a guardian has,” she said, aggravation rising in her scent.

Which was fine. We’d already fought for stupid reasons before, I was more than willing to fight for a good one for a change.

“Why? I would rather guard someone’s back who I knew was guarding mine,” I said.

“Guardians must be willing to sacrifice themselves for the one they protect. It’s their duty, it’s what defines them,” she said an air of befuddlement hinting at the back of her eyes.

“It means more to me that you’re willing to keep me safe than I can ever fully explains,” I said. “I never expected people to do anything but try to rend me down into spell fragments the moment they discovered what I was. I’ve thought, for my entire life here, that I was a monster. Unfit for this world except for the lie I’d wrapped around myself and the form I’d stolen from my sister. I’m starting to understand that might not be true. I’m starting to believe I don’t have to be a monster like I thought I was. Except I know I very easily could be.”

“It’s not as easy as you imagine,” Idrina said.

“Isn’t it?” I asked. “I’m ‘Head of a Great House’ now. I have access to wealth and authority beyond my wildest dreams. There is so little to stop me from treating others like tools, or pawns, or conveniences. The whole system of the Empire is designed to allow those in positions like mine to get away with whatever they want. I am officially above so many laws its ridiculous and even those who do apply to me are ones which can be circumvented in practice almost all the time. I can hurt people, people I care about, without ramifications, or even being aware of it.”

“Can you?” Idrina asked – not questioning the possibility but rather whether I had the innate capacity to do so in the first place.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “It would sure be comforting to say ‘no’. I’d love to believe that I’m just inherently good enough that I would never misuse my power or treat people as things, but that seems like an incredibly dangerous gamble. Especially because its so comforting.”

“You’re better than you think you are.”

“Maybe or maybe I’m better but only up to the point where I’m not,” I said. “I think all of that misses an even more important point though; regardless of what I turn out like, the whole system is broken because it has enshrined power into a position where there’s no consequences to its use.”

“And you think you can change that?” Idrina asked.

“Not alone,” I said. “But I’m not alone, am I?” I nodded to the body and offered Idrina my hand.

She hoisted the comatose assassin over her right solder and took my hand with her left.

“I want…” I started to say but my thought fritzed out at the feel of holding Idrina’s hand again. “Oh, wow, I want a lot of things.” Sticking to the truth seemed like my best play at that point. “In this particular case though, I want the Head of House to be the one who serves the everyone in the house.”

“If you spread yourself thin serving everyone, you may not have the strength to serve anyone as they need.”

“And that’s where I need you. That’s why I can’t let anything happen to you. It’s why I need to protect you as much as you want to protect me.”

“The other would keep you on track if I was lost,” Idrina said and I could almost hear the words, ‘I’m nothing special’ ringing in the silence which followed.

“They’d keep me on ‘a’ track, but with you, I feel like I’m on the track I want to be ok,” I said, refusing to add ‘please don’t let me lose that too’, 

Idrina was silent for several long moments as we walked (at a considerably slower pace thanks to her burden), before offering my hand a quick squeeze that said she understood what I couldn’t bring myself to say yet.

As though they’d been waiting for the perfect cue, three figures clad is flowing robes of dark blue and magenta appeared from thin air and attempted to stab both of us.

The one nearest to Idrina was wielding a pair of knives, which was going to a problem.

For them.

I’m not as fast as Idrina is – something I might be able to fix with enough tinkering of my own body – but I was fast enough to grab that assassin’s hand at the wrists and break his forearms in a manner that would take more than a few days to recover from.

In the time it took me to do that, Idrina had dealt with the other two. Both were breathing (if in a somewhat painful manner admittedly) but, given the silver bands tattooed on their foreheads, I didn’t think it would even be possible for them to give any insight into who had sent them or what their exact mission parameters were.

These were the disposable minions.

Which meant we needed to rescue them too.

Yeah, I know it’s weird to think about rescuing the people who’d just try to kill you and it would be if we were playing by the Empire’s usual rules. If we were going to change things though, we had to start by making different choices.

In this case that meant giving a second chance to people who’d probably always had to deal with the position of ‘so long as you’re useful we’ll let you live.”

“They should be coming around again in a few minutes, right?” I asked Idrina.

“I can wake them sooner if you like?” she asked.

“Nope. In fact, let’s see if we can wake them one at a time, and move them before we do so.”

“You have a new plan.” It was said without accusation or concern.

“I wouldn’t call it that yet,” I said. “More an exploration to see if its worth coming up with a plan.”

I was hedging my terms only because of I wasn’t sure how good my acting skills were and for this to work, I was going to have to be extraordinarily convincing.