A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

6.05 – Arbitrium {Choice}

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***

“Gather the students together and wait for me in the main hallway,” Elena said into the little wooden box, “if I don’t meet you out there in ten minutes, come in fast, and try to take out the old woman in the blue dress if you can.”

Elena’s heart pounded through her veins, tracing the outline of her injury in pain with every heartbeat. The little room was dark, but the lantern in the corner was enough to see the man and woman standing across from her.

“Twenty minutes,” Little One said quietly, “that’s not a ‘no’.”

“It’s not a ‘yes,” Elena grit her teeth, “I don’t…I need to talk to Ele.”

Little One’s guard narrowed his eyes, “we don’t have time to-”

“It’s not an easy thing I’m asking her,” Little One interrupted, “give her the time she needs.”

Elena’s head spun in the short quiet that followed, and she tried to latch onto a thought. There was no way she could take the old woman up on her deal, becoming a protege to the woman who had started a rebellion in her city, no way she could align with the Twisted who had betrayed her and killed her friend, who had tried to kill her. There was no way she could pledge herself to the Queen of two different rebellions.

But on the other hand, perhaps she didn’t have to lose Owl, Belloza, Apollo and the other member of the Eye. Perhaps she didn’t have to put the Studios in danger.

She had seen for herself the flaws in the Studio system, seen how it stifled art…what could she do with the rules, if given the opportunity to tweak a few of them? Her Storm rippled across her fingertips, not a buzz, but a brush like a moth’s wing.

Elena’s thoughts were interrupted when Ele cautiously slipped through the wall behind Little One and the guard and froze. “I need your help, Ele,” she whispered. Ele gazed at Little One and the guard suspiciously as he crossed the room to stand at Elena’s side.

“She’s not trying to kill you, which means she’s trying to manipulate you,” he said, “and the fact that your forehead is crinkled means it’s working.”

“That’s why I need your help. I don’t know what to think, and I…I need your help.”

Ele looked at her for a long moment, then nodded and turned to Little One, a single eyebrow raised, “what is it you’re offering my Stormtouched?”

Little One leaned on the cane in her hand, looking Ele up and down before answering.

“Prince Langone is dead,” she said bluntly. “Principessa Rodiano is probably dead as well, or will be before the night is up.”

“Both accidents, I’m sure,” Ele said sarcastically, “Langone trusted you and now he’s dead.”

“Langone was dead the moment I turned my eye towards ruling this city,” Little One corrected, “the entire point of the rebellion was to remove the head of Milia so that I could begin to move it in the proper direction.”

Your direction, you mean,” Ele said.

“Our direction,” Little One said, “mine and Elena’s. That is what I’m offering her, to rule Milia alongside me.”

Ele blinked, and Elena bit her lip at the look of confusion on his face. If the decision wasn’t clear-cut to him, she didn’t know what she would do.

“My rebels have all but taken the castle, and even had they not, you have no way of knowing if Langone’s successor is under my control or not. Your two options are to rule the city with me, or fight against me and at best leave Milia with a power vacuum and a pack of lieutenants who will rule a broken city even worse than Langone did.”

“I get it, I get it,” Ele said, “hold on and let me think.”

“You’re asking us to sell out our city…” Elena said, as if saying it aloud would make it easier for her to figure out.

“There is no ‘selling out’ here, Elena,” said Little One, “Milia will be safer tomorrow than it has ever been in the past. Those traits that make you so distrustful of me are the traits that will keep the city safe. I am manipulative, clever, ruthlessness, wise…I’m a Twisted, do you think I’ll let anything happen to my city when it becomes mine?”

Ele opened his mouth, but Elena spoke first.

“Being ruthless and manipulative might be good for Milia, but it’s not good for the people of the city,” she said.

“Then join me and be good for the people!” for the first time, Little One’s voice was heartfelt, earnest. “There is no greater reason for you to join me than that you don’t trust me to do what’s best for the people of Milia! You’re the only one I suspect has the capacity to actually learn once I’m gone.”

Elena blinked, the wind taken out of her sails.

“What…’when you’re gone’?” Ele asked the question that Elena was thinking.

“I am ninety-seven years old, Ele,” Little One replied, “how long do you think Milia will be ‘suffering’ under my rule? Whatever puppet I keep in place, they will report solely to Elena in the short amount of time it takes me to die. In the long term, you will be able to hand over rule to whomever you think is best, or keep it for yourself. In the short term, your friends in the dungeon will be safe, the students waiting in the hallway will be safe, Milia will be safe.”

At the reminder, Elena started and pulled Voicebox’s box from her pocket. “I’m still here, don’t…um, don’t do anything yet.”

“Gotcha, Cog,” Voicebox’s voice crackled through the wood, “your ten minutes are almost up, everything okay?”

“Sort of…I’ll get back to you, don’t worry. Ten more minutes, then swarm in.”

“Will do.”

The silence that followed was even deeper than before, and Elena glanced at Ele.

“I…don’t know,” he murmured. He looked just as torn as Elena was.

A part of her felt that it wasn’t even worth thinking about. This woman was as close to “evil” as one could get, and had brought death and pain to Milia. But on the other hand, Elena did know she was capable of running the city, and how horribly cruel she would be without someone to rein her in.

Even if it weren’t the best way to free her friends in the dungeon, even if it weren’t the best way to ensure the students in the hallway would stay safe. Of course, the thought of her friends and the students brought to mind the worst objection that gnawed inside her stomach.

Elena looked up to meet the woman’s gaze as she waited patiently in the long quiet.

“You killed my friend,” Elena said.

“And I would very much prefer to never have to do that again,” Little One replied.

“I don’t know if I can trust you.”

“Leave us,” Little One turned to the guard.

“No, ma’am,” the guard said. “Not like this.”

“Report to Gemma, she has need of you,” Little One continued as if she hadn’t heard the refusal, “regardless of how the night plays out, I don’t. Not anymore.”

Her guard wavered for a moment, then turned and left the room with a few longs strides. Little One turned back to Elena, spreading frail, wrinkled hands to indicate she was defenseless.

“This is it, Elena. If my words don’t ring true and you cannot see the sense in what I’m saying, there will be no one to replace me when I’m gone, and I’ve left behind all the legacy that I will with this life.”

Elena looked down at the warhammer in her hands. Even with the pain in her chest, she could heft it for one swing, and one swing was all it would take. She turned to look at Ele, but her Echo was standing with fists clenched, staring at the old woman with intensity.

“Ele?” Elena asked, but when he turned to look at her helplessly she knew she was on her own.

“I…I can’t make this decision,” he said. “Both options…both make sense. I don’t know. I trust you.”

Little One didn’t make a move, but her gentle voice carried passion. “The rebellion lives on no matter what you choose here. It’s come far enough that Milia will follow my plan whether I live or die, it is only up to you whether or not you will leave your own touch upon that plan.”

“I don’t trust you,” Elena whispered.

“That only shows me how wise you have become, only a fool would trust me. But if you do not trust me to lead, then join me and temper my rule with yours. If you do not trust me to not betray you, lift the hammer at your side and kill me where I stand. For as long as I’ve known you you have drifted like a stick in a current, all of your choices made for you. It is time for you to make a choice.”

Elena lifted her hammer up to rest on her shoulder, her heart breaking and her Storm shaking her whole body. Her eyes were watery, and the pain was making it hard to breathe.

Around her the castle split apart, its rooms unfurling and unfolding, the wings emerging and the stairs and hallways spreading out. The courtyard whirled around her, its walls laying flat, the streets were laid bare and the shops and houses exploded into shards. The eight Studios shone, infinitesimal points of light in the black void of the throughways and alleys that spiderwebbed up and down between them.

Mortalis and Stormtouched walked and talked and moved next to her, cats and spiders and vermin and birds, Masters and merchants, students and servants, a million prickles across her skin.

“I’ll join you,” Elena whispered, just as softly as the feathery brushes of the city around her.

Of my city, whispered the Storm in her ear.

Mine.

***

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***

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11 responses

  1. Maddi! Thanks for the chapter. I hope everything is okay :3

    Rein in, not reign in. It comes from the reins of horses.

    I can’t help it but feel that… Elena is being influenced by her storm :/ Either way, this is getting interesting. But how will everyone else take it, including the Eye…

    Like

    2016-01-26 at 2:32 am

    • Ack! Bad Llama! *slaps own hand hoof* I even knew that one! Thanks for the catch!

      Like

      2016-02-02 at 1:16 am

  2. Bart

    And as Elena stood there, gathering in the new threads of Her city, whatever Little One’s opinion on whose city it actually was, she heard a commotion approaching the room and saw, with all of her senses, with her own eyes and her omniscient city-eyes, the studio heads breaking into the castle, throwing open the first room they came to, and piercing Little’s One’s heart with an arrow. She made her face wear a glad expression as her friends rejoiced at how they had saved her and she took her first steps in consolidating her new rule over Her city. This year, the city. Next year, Her Kingdom. The year after that, Her world, and never again would any storms need to be tied to a person, to be thrust into the darkness to be ravaged by worse than wolves when that person died.

    The end.

    Like

    2016-01-26 at 3:30 am

  3. The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it.

    Like

    2016-01-26 at 9:10 am

    • *Note to self, introduce an Evil League of Evil Stormtouched, ruled by the mysterious Bad Horse….*

      Like

      2016-02-02 at 1:17 am

  4. Did little one say twenty minutes knowing she was going to get an extra ten, or was that a typo?

    Like

    2016-01-26 at 6:44 pm

    • JJ

      Oh wow, the 20 confused me too when I first read it, but you’re right, she eventually gets another 10. If it was deliberate, it’s a really nice touch to remind you of how powerful Little One is.

      Like

      2016-01-28 at 5:27 pm

    • To be honest this was a typo, but the implications are so cool that I’m totally leaving it in. Retroactive awesomeness :D

      Like

      2016-02-02 at 1:18 am

  5. Mark

    The main page has not been updated for the new chapter. I’ve been wondering where it was all week. Just clicked on the story to re-read the last chapter and here it is.

    Like

    2016-01-29 at 11:49 am

  6. jeray2000

    I always think that whenever the Big Bad offers the Hero to be Vice-Emperor of the world, they should take it. If you become one of the most powerful people in the world, it’d be easy to change things for the better even if the ruling government is evil.

    Like

    2016-01-29 at 6:22 pm

    • SpaceCadet

      Most of the time that offer is made when the hero is about to thwart or topple the villains plans, so the sensible thing to do is to refuse and remove them from power entirely.
      In this situation it doesn’t help to stop or kill the villain, it’s too late, Little One has already accomplished her goals and so the choice is to rule with her or pet the city face the chaos of a power struggle followed by inept rule.
      Personally I feel like I’d take my chances with controlling the chaos. Little One is far too dangerous a thinker to let her be in charge even if she doesn’t have long left to live. We know full well that she is capable of laying plans that will have consequences long after her death. If she rules the city for even a year, it will never be free of her influence.

      Like

      2016-01-29 at 7:35 pm

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