Set just after Shattered Futures…
Light streams through the open window, landing just at the foot of the bathroom stool where Armand sits. Chin resting against the sink. Blinking at the mirror.
“Howard. Mr. Branch. Or, you know - whatever’s left of you. Can you hear me?” He lifts his chin with a certain amount of dignity. “You said all I had to do was look in the mirror, and say your name.”
There is a decidedly empty pause. His own face scowls back at him - and gods, but he is getting sick of that.
Sceptical, but not without hope: “I call upon Howard Branch, the Splintered Man?”
Armand heaves a sigh. Naturally. Divine guidance, then, is - as ever - out of the question. Why he expected anything less is beyond him, utterly false assurances about the nature of godhood aside. And it’s not the Splintered Man he’d truly like to hear from, anyway.
No. There are better things to do. Right now, the best way of serving the God he truly adores is by preventing himself from being manipulated by the people who would have him serve their interests.
By which, at this point, he supposes he means the god to whom he’s engaged.
“If you’re even listening,” he informs the bathroom mirror, anyway, “things are more complicated than I ever told you. You still think it’s a case of doing a whimsical dance round some echo-ey ice domain, and smirking gormlessly before declaring yourself ruler of it all, don’t you? You’ve no idea what the rest of us are going through.”
He is so unbelievably sick of talking to himself.
“I am so unbelievably sick of talking to myself,” he tells his reflection. Pauses. “And I’m even sicker of talking to people who might as well be made of stone, for all they seem to listen. Doesn’t matter whether it’s politics or my personal life - Jimmy Hoskins, or Senta Fernbach: no-one changes their mind through talk.”
He needs to talk to Francesco. Francesco, at least, will take account of what he has to say - will subject it to utterly undue scrutiny, in fact - even if his own opinions mostly consist of abhorrent, self-aggrandising garbage. Which raises another question: why are all his allies basically the worst, most self-involved people ever?
Food for thought, that.
“Not that talking to him ever does much good, either,” he admits to the mirror, picking up his thoughts from where they left off. “For one thing, he’s under the thumb of his uncle. For another, he’s an ambiguously malevolent psychopath who, when tasked with listing the five things he actually cares about, struggles to name three.”
Another thought occurs. Seized by the sudden, desperate urge to prove something once and for all, he practically leaps up from the stool. A moment later, he is back at his escritoire, reaching for one of the hilariously extortionate leaves of printing paper bulk-ordered from stationers Beerbohm and Seton the week before.
“Right,” he mutters, sweeping crunched-up scraps of paper aside until his fingers close on his favourite pen. “First, I’m not going to be an ass about this and list ‘myself’. Some of us have actual priorities.”
Instead, framed by the sunlight he has only just worked up the nerve to let in through the bedroom window, he writes, without hesitation, my family. And then, in brackets (reasoning that he doesn’t need to bother with padding out the list by separating subcategories) he adds: especially my parents.
That one’s obvious. Caring about House Cargan is not so much second nature as it is the very bulwark of his existence, and he doesn’t just mean that in the sense that literally every son or daughter of a halfway noble house means it - his commitment to the family endures. The Cargans have been everything to one another since their breach with Acryn: in Valydd, a city unto themselves; in Thys, an enlightened vanguard; in the days of Arcus Blackthorn, comrades in arms. He’s not sure what they’re meant to be now that they’ve returned, but regardless, he will personally see to it that they never waver from becoming - whatever it is.
He’d like to see the pathetic, piddling little loyalties of House Graves compare.
Wrinkling his nose at the thought that Francesco’s list had run along similar lines, he nonetheless dutifully prints: the city. That one’s as easy as the first one is obvious.
“Even so, you have a lot to answer for,” he mutters, tapping item one on the list with the nib of his pen. The ‘y’ in ‘family’ bleeds through the paper. “I don’t know what was worse: making us study to be the citizens we never had a chance of imitating, or fight to preserve a status quo that never existed. Either way, I hope you’re happy with what it’s done to us.”
Henry, determined to be Acryn to the point of idiocy. His other cousins, forever harping back on time long past, and ideals long drowned. And Penelope - desperate to outrun it all. Where is that supposed to leave him?
Regardless, it’s too late. Be it the result of starry-eyed bedtime stories, stern parental lectures, or rigorous deportment and elocution lessons from the age of eleven-and-a-half - he’s hooked. Acryn never had the chance to become a priority, purely because he cannot remember a point in childhood when it wasn’t already.
“Which is not to say I’m enough of an opinionless buffoon to worship the ground Kieran Salic walks on,” he adds - resisting the urge to add minus Alastair to item one.
He’ll find his own way to rescue Acryn. One that doesn’t entail trading in on antique family prejudices.
Item three, then. Again - easy.
The Warrior, he writes - ignoring the subsequent pang. He wonders if there’ll ever come a time when that fades. When he can speak her name and feel the same violent surge of pride he always did before: unalloyed by guilt, or unease.
He can’t blame family for that. Can’t even blame Penelope.
Could blame item four. But he writes it anyway, with a steady hand - and blots it too: The Traitor.
Because, curse everything, he cares.
Instinctively, his hand moves to the strongbox at his belt. If he strains, he thinks he can hear the minute pulse of his heart: as always, carrying with it the ineffable pull of the divine - the power he now knows for a fact that he isn’t strong enough to ignore.
He’d hated her. Of course he had. But then, he’s beginning to seriously wonder whether he has the strength of mind to sustain any hatred at all. Every time he tries, things just become horrendously - confused. She always deserved better than his scorn.
The Warrior recreated him. Changed him from a hapless, whiny, sort of embarrassing fop to someone actually worth knowing - or, at least, gave him the tools to change himself. But now, painfully - unavoidably - he can feel himself changing again, readjusting to realpolitik, and it’s not enough: aspiration isn’t enough; it’s no longer him, his sword, and a swarm of clawfiends - there’s so much more at stake.
Is it wrong, then, to have accepted that? To turn to the one god for guidance on what he might one day become - and the other when he needs to see things as they truly are?
He knows next to nothing about this latter, unfamiliar god, though he feels her presence keenly. Constantly. One thing he’s sure of, more than anything else: if he wanted, she - unlike the Warrior - would give him all the instructions he asked for. If he asked.
He’s not sure if he wants to pay the price for that kind of answer.
“Do you know what would be really helpful right now, Penelope?” he hisses, staring balefully at the corner of the room where she had once sat. At the bottle that would still have been sitting there, empty and discarded, had one of the servants not scooped it up later that morning. “Being able to talk to a real, bona-fide Traitor priest, who knows all about this stuff. That would be useful beyond measure.”
And then, furiously, for the first time in weeks, he scrawls a name down on a piece of paper. Doesn’t bother to blot it. Number five.
It still looks wrong. He can’t actually work out what would make this right. But he aches for some sign of her presence here: a whisper; a note; a stupid piece of printing paper for her to stick to his forehead in disdain. Some form of evidence that she existed before vanishing like a curl of smoke, the way she always has - the way she always did.
Every scar he possesses belongs to her. From the scrape of the knife on his arms, to the shadow of her nails against his ribcage.
To hell with reminders - it’s not… constructive. He needs more than the memory of the way she had looked at him at the debate: patronising - astute - he’d been out of his mind with grief, and she’d known it - and he, like an idiot, had botched that particular confrontation the same way he’d wrecked everything else since the day they’d met again in Acryn.
She’d seemed curious too. Leaning against that chair, as he sat and looked down at his knees. As if she couldn’t decide what was stranger or more amusing: that he actually cared, or that he was trying so hard to hide it.
This is getting stupid. This entire exercise was stupid from the outset. He almost regrets ever having subjected Francesco to it.
What’s he supposed to do now? List every individual he’s met recently to whom he wasn’t indifferent?
Emily Anara, he could write, closely followed by a scribbled Howard Branch, Rashida Worrn, Andrea Graves. People who’ve had impact. Whose words have held weight. Whose friendship might have held meaning, if he’d let it. But why stop there? Why not jot down Senta Fernbach, Bartholomew Banks, and their awkward, grotesque attempted courtship? Lucian Graves, and all the idiotic amount of things we pretend not to have in common? Why not go for broke, and write Xavier Sarmandastra, Founders preserve me, though if he fuses another bludgeoning weapon to his limbs, I’m throwing in the towel and moving to Serradis? Why not write Jimmy Hoskins, the man I tried so hard not to respect, and be done? - or rather, nowhere near close to done, because there’s more: there’s every single stupid adventurer he’s travelled with; every godsforsaken party he’s claimed to keep his distance from - because the truth is, no matter how much he might loathe the bulk of them on a regular basis, that’s nothing compared to how much he cares, and has always cared - how much each and every drivelling, moronic one of them has tracked great inroads on his existence.
And then, there’s -
No. No - he can’t even bring himself to think about that. Outright denial has served him well as a precaution against panic thus far, and he’s not about to wreck that.
Even if he is being honest with himself right now.
And if he’s honest - he’s terrified. There’s a serious difference between the intellectual concept of raising a child with your clearly evil godling fiancé, and the very real, if not quite tangible, fact of being spiritually impregnated with the sleeping soul of said child.
Gingerly, he picks up the pen again. Writes, despite himself: my somewhat-more-than-hypothetical future offspring.
It will be the first child - he realises, with a jolt - to be born to House Cargan in Acryn since their exile.
Now, it is with almost perfect understanding that he recognises everything his parents must have felt on that first voyage back from Thys: expectancy, heightened almost to the point of pain - mingled with the heady awareness of being on the cusp of something historic. The sharp ocean spray adorning their cheeks; every hand-me-down memory of a city they’d never witnessed brought to the fore. And, as such, terrified is the last thing he ought to be. An insult, really, both to the family and his own pride.
Accordingly, he urges himself to be proud.
Only, it’s not that there aren’t - complications. Because there are. It’s ridiculous: he had once thought the worst of these complications would be marriage to a man he hated - but the thing is - the hideously idiotic, irrevocably twisted, devilishly inconvenient thing is -
It’s just not that simple anymore.
He doesn’t know how to be a father. Scratch that - he couldn’t even reliably tell you how to support a baby’s head while holding it, let alone prevent it from growing up horribly traumatised by either his own gross incompetence, or by the antics of its cripplingly irresponsible other father. (What if a suit of armour falls on it? What if it crawls underneath the stamp of his printing press, and gets crushed? What if Francesco does something horrendous, and it dies of shame?) But, worse still, more than anything else - and damned if he could even begin to assess how it happened - but he’s beginning to realise that he no longer knows how to do the one thing he thought would always come naturally: hating his stupid fiancé.
There. He’s said it.
It’s all Penelope’s fault, of course, for getting those wires crossed in the first place. For making him think of the blasted man as an ally to be shielded, rather than an enemy to be despised. From there, it was practically a fait accompli - and she didn’t even have the decency to stay engaged to him once the damage was done.
The awful truth is, he’s getting perilously close to being okay with Francesco’s existence. Worse - it’s only a matter of time before Francesco himself begins to notice. If nothing else, he’ll be clued in by the way Armand has stopped gaping every time he says something outrageous, and started being amused instead. The way he’s started sharing information no-one’s actively forcing him to divulge. The fact that he’s gone to the trouble of finding a halfway decent tailor to design a wedding suit that’s not even the slightest bit appalling.
At some point, he might even realise that Armand is experiencing actual concern over the whole ascending-to-godhood thing - and, on that day, he might as well throw in the towel and surrender himself to lifelong mockery; the situation will be completely irremediable - assuming it wasn’t already. Which, come to think of it, it probably was.
Maybe he ought to start putting more effort into being antagonistic?
Yes. Almost definitely. The trouble is, though, he’s reached the stage where that thought is genuinely unappealing.
“You are the easiest person in the world to hate,” he grumbles - grudgingly penning a number seven at the bottom of the page. “So, tell me, why am I making this difficult?”
But - he’s being honest. And so, in the interests of honesty, he adds one more name to a list that is, in many ways - as far as it could be said to carry any point whatsoever - a record of his failings:
7. Francesco Graves???
He adds the question marks, not out of any real uncertainty, but more out of - incredulity, really. Allow him to keep some dignity.
The list itself soon goes the way of its fellows: crumpled into a ball, and discarded, bouncing off the overflowing bin in order to roll to some other, paper-strewn corner of his room. But he feels - better, somehow. Better than half an hour of railing at the mirror would have made him feel.
He opens the curtains as wide as they’ll go. All of a sudden, he can’t abide the dark.