The sharp screech of steel on steel rang out in the overgrown courtyard of the rotting family home as Rathas and Tobias traded lightning-quick blows. The two broke momentarily, then lunged forward at the same time. A quick three-strike exchange sent Rathas to the ground, Tobias’s sword at her throat.
“You’ve improved remarkably over the last week.” Tobias withdrew his sword, then offered her a gloved hand.
“Not enough,” she said, not moving from her position. He hesitated, then sat down on the packed earth of the dueling ring next to her.
“Your offense is superb,” he said quietly, so much so that Rathas thought she’d misheard him.
“That’s the first straight compliment I’ve heard all week outta your mouth.”
“Your defensive footwork is lacking. I was able to knock you over without so much as a sweat.”
“Ah. Yep. There’s the follow-up.” She sat up, then met his eyes. Dark. Brooding. Boring. Other words that began with B.
“What? Something on my face?” He looked away.
“Nah, I was just thinking that it’s a shame you’re not prettier. You coulda just married into a higher ranking. Wouldn’t have to deal with all this training crap.”
Tobias sputtered over his words. “I- You- I assure you, I maintain myself perfectly-”
“Nah, nah, you can’t fix what you’ve been born with, I get it,” she said. “I’ve seen plenty of ugly men. Comes with the whole ‘street urchin’ schtick. We make do.”
“I’m certainly more- more… better looking than those pirates you tarried with!”
“Yeah, but at least they had senses of humor.”
Ugh, what was she doing? Dissing the men she practically owed her life to behind their backs? Was that what she was stooping to?
It wasn’t all that bad, right? She’d managed to convince Tobias to discreetly land them all short sentences, as a precondition for her own cooperation. They’d spend a year or three in prison, tops, and maybe get their act together a little as a result. Kinda like herself, really. Nothing that
bad could happen to them there, right? Tobias had even gotten them into a nicer cell block. The wonders of a noble name, even if that name was coughing its intestines onto the gilded floor on its last legs.
Honestly, what was she even here for? What was the point, working so hard to save a house that had made her life a living hell all those years ago? To stick it to her father? Or would it blemish his legacy more to let House Graves fall to ruin?
“What do you think of the Graves breeding program?”
“The– that’s certainly out of nowhere.”
Rathas had told Tobias and Elina about her history in detail after he executed her father–about the eugenics program, about the hellish training, the enhancement drugs illegally imported from House Lapseus. They’d sat in silence the entire time. By the end, Elina was sobbing.
“Tobias. What do you think?” Rathas sneered a bit at his hesitation.
“I think… Well, it’s a practice that many houses partake in. Not the–the training side, but the act of marrying in order to produce stronger gates in one's heirs…” He shuffled from asscheek to the other.
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I really don’t have anything to say. I personally wouldn’t do it.”
“Yeah, you’d have to have a good gate to even consider it.”
He winced. “Well, there’s no denying that I don’t have the option. But even if I did, I don’t think it’d be very morally sound. Magusism focuses on power, yes, but also the responsibility that comes with it. Breeding children doesn’t seem very responsible to me. Also, it’s technically illegal. Code 13.11.13911a: “the act of specific selection for desirable genetic traits is outlawed.”
Rathas snorted. “Sure. Illegal.”
“Well, just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean people won’t do it. I’m sure you have plenty of experience with breaking the law.”
“Oooh, stick in the mud has splinters, huh?”
“I am simply repaying you for your earlier comment.”
“Yeah, okay, I’ll take it back. You have a little
something there.” Rathas shrugged. “We’ll work on it.”
“Hey, are you two done trying to kill each other?” Elina stepped into the courtyard, carrying the hem of her dress a few centimeters above the packed earth. She was wearing green today. “‘Cause I’ve got news. Some good and some bad.”
The two combatants got to their feet. “Bad news first,” Rathas said.
“Alright. The bad news is that so far, nobody’s responded to the letters I wrote. Nobody was interested in anything we had to offer. Not a single branch house wants our assistance in anything. None even wanted us as vassals.”
The group of three stepped into the parlor, setting the practice weapons by the door. Jill, the maid, handed Tobias and Rathas towels.
“Thank you, Jill,” Tobias said. “Elina, what’s the good news?”
“Well, okay, I lied. There is no good news. This one is just slightly less bad. Good-bad, I guess. The only two candidates vying for the title of House Pachel proper are Alana Pachel and Otto Barnes.”
Rathas cocked an eyebrow. She knew Alana Pachel–hell, pretty much everyone did, but she sure as hell didn’t know this other contender. The emergency political lessons she’d been taking with Elina hadn’t covered him, whoever he was.
Sensing her confusion, Elina quickly explained. “House Barnes is, well, to put it simply, the least warlike of the House Pachel subfamilies. They've been more concerned with the economic side of war throughout history, making and selling weapons, supply lines, et cetera.”
Tobias frowned. “Odd, considering we very well might have a war on our hands soon. I would think them better off in a support role, not leading the entirety of House Pachel.” He kicked off his boots.
“The two of you should clean up after you spar. We can talk more over dinner.”
Dinner wasn’t anything special. Steamed vegetables and rice.
“There’s a chronic lack of salt in the house, Toby. Are you sure we can’t get any more?”
“Okay! Okay, I’m just a little worn out, you know?”
Rathas cleaned the last of her plate. She was always the first to finish, even back on the Ironmaw. Old habits from her time on the streets–you never knew who was waiting to swipe your last few chunks of hard-earned bread.
“Okay. Toby, Rath, let’s consider our positions. What do we have that other houses don’t?”
“Uhh… optimism?” Rathas gave a cheeky smile. “I mean, what other house would be trying so hard to save a sinking ship?”
“Haha. Very funny.” Tobias’s expression indicated that it was anything but.
“We have Rath!” Elina pointed her fork at her.
“Yes, and what good will I do?
“Well…” Elina thought to herself. “Toby brought you on because you were the key to stopping Peloston from running us down any further, right? What else can we make use of?”
“Her Northern background, perhaps?” Tobias mused.
“Wait, hold on, I thought you brought me on to become a Southern lord. How’s my history on the streets gonna help?”
“Wait, wait, I think Toby’s onto something.” Elina stuffed a bell pepper into her mouth, continuing to talk while chewing. “Let’s consider this. Is anyone else in House Pachel like, actually concerned about the North right now?”
Tobias leaned back in his chair. “Unlikely. Alana’s running on a platform of continuing the dominant power of her late husband, even though she curses his name. And Otto… just says he’ll do better. I don’t think he’s solidified it fully yet.”
“Rath, do you think we should be concerned about the North? If blows come to blows.”
“I… don’t know. I wasn’t really in-the-know on politics. But if I had to hazard a guess, it doesn’t seem like House Pachel is prepared to fight. And with House Lapseus to our North, I wouldn’t exactly be optimistic about…” Rathas trailed off. An idea was beginning to form in the back of her mind. “Tobias. What’s the closest military station to House Lapseus?”
“That’ll be Brickshead Fort, near the Valley of Rest,” he replied automatically.
“We’re going. Tomorrow, or the day after”
“What?” Tobias did a double take. “Why so suddenly?”
“I have an idea. A barest hint of an idea. But if it works out, I think we have a lot to gain.”