Othorion waited patiently behind two other lieutenants, who chatted anxiously between them. The shorter, a red-haired, narrow-shouldered elf, had taken off her gloves and was biting her nails. Her companion, a pale elf with a slight limp and a ragged scar from the side of his mouth down his chin, leaned over her.
“Only three captaincies available this time,” he whispered to his nervous friend. “And look how many lieutenants are already in this room? How absurd is all this?”
The shorter lieutenant pulled her hands away from her mouth long enough to whisper, “Very,” before she went back to biting her nails. She made a face, saw she was bleeding from one of her fingers, and clenched her hand into a fist, fingertip pressed against her palm. “But our captains wouldn’t have put us up if they didn’t think we could do it.” Her words were more confident than her tone.
“I think mine just wants to get rid of me.”
They stood in line in the Martial Commons, a brutal, squat, square building of gray stone that seemed to have emerged like a wart among the far finer, more elegant face of eastern Heliohart. There was a Martial Commons in most of the Empire of Faydark’s cities to coordinate the Emperor’s Children, that is, the army and the navy. Othorion had seen a number of the Martial Commonses in different cities, and Heliohart’s might be the ugliest. It had been built nearly two hundred years ago when Faydark pushed for a consolidation of power. Rumors held that each of the Martial Commons were connected by some magically-powered device that allow immediate transportation from one building to another, and that were all of these devices initiated at once, the entirety of the Empire could be transported, though exactly where the theories didn’t agree.
Heliohart was a landlocked principality, so the army generally used the Martial Commons as a sort of gathering place, but today the navy had taken over it over, as lieutenants waited to learn the exact date and times of their written and oral exams for captaincy. Even with just the elves in Heliohart’s Commons, the likelihood of getting a captaincy was one in twenty. Throughout the Emperor’s Navy, the likelihood was easily one in one hundred.
Othorion smirked to himself briefly. It wasn’t that Othorion was so smugly certain of his inevitable success in gaining one of the three captaincies available when dozens or even hundreds of other lieutenants were vying for the same position. He would never be so foolish as to think that.
No, Othorion was only certain that he would do the best he could and that everything else was out of his hands.
Of all his siblings, he was probably the one who worried the least. Upon their mother’s death, Ynaselle had taken it on herself to be their father’s housekeeper and even the family’s liaison and ambassador. She had always worried about her siblings, but not she was downright anxious. Vithian was constantly concerned about what others thought of him, always ambitious, always afraid of failure or even the perception of failure. Jaonos, well, he pretended he had no concerns, but Othorion saw how shadows passed over his face when he thought no one was watching. Perhaps Jaonos had shared his concerns with Vithian, with whom he had always been close, but Othorion doubted it. Vithian would have said something by now. Vithian could never keep a secret.
Othorion didn’t worry even though he had every reason to do so. A life at sea was dangerous. If disease took hold in one crewmember, the entire ship could fall. Malnutrition was a constant threat. Fire and drowning were, of course, too. And even though months could go without any confrontation, confrontations could easily end in blood and death.
Othorion never worried about that. Certainly, after brushes with death, Othorion was nearly prostrate, overcome with nausea and the echoes of the fear as it drained out of him. When he rose every morning, knowing that it could easily end in disease, hunger, or death, though, he didn’t worry.
Three other lieutenants passed him, walking out of the Commons. One recognized him and touched center of her forehead and nodded. A human habit. Othorion touched his lips as the trio passed. He was plain elf but for having one blue eye and one yellow eye. They had met when Othorion had originally joined, and this elf had been the recruiter who guided him.
“I’ll have to leave tomorrow if I’m to make it to the written exams in time,” another of the trio was complaining as they left. “Why would they hold an exam in Furosia?”
“What happens if I just don’t go to the exams?” Another asked.
“You’ll be arrested for dereliction of duty,” the heterochromatic elf said. Othorion wasn’t certain whether he was joking or not.
The line moved forward, and Othorion was fourth in line.
He supposed the reason he didn’t worry as much as his siblings was because he was more thoroughly himself then they were. How odd, he considered. For the first few years of his life, he had been raised as a daughter. He had changed everything about himself after only a year at The Tressera School with Ynaselle. It had taken him years to be willing to wear something other than black or gray again, despite his father and brothers regularly choosing jewel-toned hues. Although, he mused, he still tended to prefer to wear his black and white navy uniform than more fashionable civilian clothing. He had kept his hair short, even has the fashion moved toward long hair for all elves. He changed his name.
Once he was thoroughly himself, thoroughly Othorion, he never doubted himself again.
Jaonos wasn’t himself, as the blood heir of the Blackwells. He wasn’t dutiful, ambitious, or even particularly clever. He worried, Othorion was certain, because he would never be the Lord Blackwell he knew he needed to be, because he would be happiest if he were allowed to live his life without any responsibility.
Years before, Othorion had seen a seaside village in which a particular class of dwarves lived with seemingly no occupation. They would fish until they had some fish, climb a coconut palm until they had a coconut, and spent the rest of the day sleeping in their canoes, or upon the beach or on the docks. If a boat needed fixing, they would fix it. If they had no fish, they’d roast a pig. But they seemed utterly determined to do as little work as possible, and perfectly happy to satisfy only their most basic needs. It was almost a religious sect Fasriel had told him; they believed that life was meant to be enjoyed and that any work beyond the bare necessity was an affront to one god or another, Othorion couldn’t remember which. Jaonos, he thought, would have been happy among them.
Vithian, on the other hand, made a terrible priest. He was too ambitious, too involved in the material world. He had no room in his mind for the spiritual when he could instead learn about what was happening in this city or that Court or this other part of the world. He was more interested in sports or politics than in anything religious. He might, Othorion realized, even be an atheist. That wouldn’t preclude him from being a priest, but it certainly didn’t help.
And then Ynaselle. Ynaselle was too clever. She wanted too much to do something useful, to be something useful. Yet, she had consigned herself to a life where she would be little more than a lord’s spouse, her responsibilities and occupation totally dependent on that lord. Or, gods forbid, she would be a Lady of the Chamber, her occupation almost exclusively limited to producing the next generation of Blackwells. Their mother had been a perfect Lady Blackwell, and Ynaselle had aspired to be the same, though she would never be happy as such.
Othorion pitied his siblings. He could live as himself, while his siblings found themselves pinned into lives they would never enjoy. He didn’t miss the irony of that. He wondered if there were anything he could do to help them.
“Excuse me,” an elf behind him said, touching his shoulder. “Are you in the line?”
Othorion pulled himself from his revelry to see that the line had moved on without him. It was his turn. “My apologies,” he said, hurrying forward.
Othorion had already been told, of course, but the Emperor’s Children tended to make changes without notifying those affected, so he checked to be certain.
There had been a change, he saw.
He was surprised to see a line struck through Rothniel and the word Heliohart written in tight, blocky handwriting. The times had been changed as well. The written exam was three days sooner on the first day of the exams, the 7th of Rammas, and four days after Ynaselle’s dinner. His verbal exam was listed as the last day of the exams. Othorion frowned, then straightened. There was no time written for his verbal exam. His stomach turned as he stepped back. Something very serious had changed.
Othorion turned on his heel and hurried out the door. A sudden and powerful urge to get to the safety of home washed over him. Perhaps not even returning to the house his father kept in Heliohart was safe enough. Perhaps returning to Blackwell and Pheasant’s Cross was the only place he would be truly safe. He hurried down the stairs.
Othorion paused at the bottom of the steps. He was suddenly reminded of a story from another Court, he didn’t remember which, of some Lord’s child accused of mutiny hiding out in their family home. She had argued that each the ancestral home of princes and lords were technically nations in and of themselves and not even the Emperor could trespass there. Othorion brushed the thought away. There were so many lieutenants, it didn’t have to be him.
Othorion felt an icy touch at his spine as he turned back toward the Commons.
The heterochromatic elf stood at the top of the stairs, watching him. His blue and yellow eyes were now heavily lidded, nearly black in the shadow of his brow. His face carefully neutral. He wore a smile like a mask, and Othorion noticed that he did not wear the pearl and iridium tiara of navy lieutenants, but the plain bronze band inlaid with five ruby chips worn by military police.
“Almost missed you,” he said. He walked leisurely down the steps, once more touching the center of his forehead.
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Othorion said, not feeling that way at all. He touched his lips once more in greeting.
“I knew I had recognized you, though I wasn’t certain you were Lieutenant Blackwell. You’ve grown since I saw you when you first signed on to the navy.”
He stood nearly a head taller than Othorion, though Othorion was rather short. When he reached the same step as Othorion, he pulled a letter from within the hem of his coat. It was sealed with yellow wax and the seal of Faydark.
“I’m glad to see you’re sitting for your captaincy exams. I’m always happy to see the elves I recruited excel. Best of luck.” He bobbed his head as Othorion took the letter and then continued down the stairs.
Once he had passed, Othorion opened the letter. He felt his heart sink as he read it.
He was to be taken into custody after his written exam. There would be a trial to determine the truth of Reconna’s charges. Othorion swallowed. Perhaps his siblings didn’t need his help as much as he needed theirs.
Othorion crushed the letter in his hands. He decided he wouldn’t tell them. They had their own concerns.
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