“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.
“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?”