Arkenheart had been left alone in the company of her uncle Argus. Well, not completely alone, daddy had also left her about fifty bajillion guards. They wore dark shades and had serious looking suits on, but now they had disguises and she could only really see them if she tried. They were very good at… at… the word. Blending in. Hiding in places where they should be easy to spot but weren’t.
Samophlange. That was the word. They were all very good at samophlanging themselves.
No wait. That wasn’t it. The samophlange was the spinny thing uncle Argus was showing her.
She loved visiting uncle Argus. He always had such cool toys. The rest of her family was uninteresting. They’d ask how primary schooling was going, then talk to her dad about boring things. Argus was different. He wouldn’t ask if she could count to ten yet (she can do algebra now thank you very much!), he’d ask something like “hey you wanna watch a tiny dragon robot spasm randomly then explode?!” and she’d say “INDUBITABLY!” or some other word that meant yes and was fun to shout.
Affirmative! Beyond a doubt! Naturally!
Uncle Argus was the best.
He was fat, very fat, but he seemed so much happier than all the skinny people. His face always smiled at her, his eyes twinkled, and he smelled so strongly of oil, grease, and a dozen other chemicals she couldn’t place. He’d show her his little creations, their tiny gears gleaming, turning, clicking in perfect unison. And he always let her keep something, anything she wanted. She had taken a tiny robot squirrel the first time, delighting in its stilted movements. It acted exactly like a robot squirrel would. Robotic… but squirrelly.
It was awesome.
She took it apart not a day later, and tried unsuccessfully to put it back together. Again and again she tried, refusing to admit to herself that she had destroyed the precious gift. Eventually she had gone to her dad, crying. He had understood, somehow, and taken her back to Argus that morning. She’d been afraid that he would be angry, that he would refuse to have anything to do with a little girl that couldn’t keep a squirrel robot safe.
But he had merely winked, and given her something he called a “Gyrochoreographic Tension Adjuster”, a highly sophistimicated tool that could do many things that were magical but weren’t actually magic at all. Argus had called it “science”. Now there was a fun word to shout. SCIENCE!
She’d taken it for a trial run, right then and there. It could manipulate pieces of metal so easily, almost as if her will was being focused and directed by the tool she was holding. Argus told her it worked by drawing “reality ripple tension” from her “natural synapse coalesce ley line energy”. Her dad had smirked and said “is that not just magic wrapped up in technobabble?” and Argus had said “only if you don’t consider the Sheer Principle, which I do, because it’s certifiable fact, and you are a fool for ignoring Palatinus’ Third Law of Babble Babble Strangewords” or something to that effect.
She picked the lock to one of the large tool chests while they were talking. It was really easy to do. The tumbler just moved around until it clicked. She relocked the chest and opened it several times with the tool before they had noticed. Dad seemed kinda mad, but her uncle said something, then dad had just rolled his eyes and said “try not to steal anything.”
So Arkenheart had gone home with her broken squirrel robot and her new science magic wrench, filled with new found confidence and a bunch of scary words to intimidate her classmates with. Repairing the squirrel was actually pretty difficult. She spent that entire afternoon figuring out how to make it work again. Then, the next day, she had shown it off, the little robot coming to life and squirrelling robotically about, eliciting gasps of fear, joy and incredulity from her fellows.
“This is my Geosynchronous Detention Fillibuster,” she had said, proudly showing off the device. “It’s simple really! Using this, I can use science magic to disney tangle Paladin’s Third Law of Propter Cos Quantum, allowing me to triple the number of branches of electromagnetic wave field chips. After those biflirtations, the pietic energy studs are left goblin, so the antimatter spandrels can form a spatula hyperlink!”
They had all been amazed, nodding in feigned understanding. She knew what she was talking about, because she was so cool, and they knew what she was talking about, because they were cool too, right? Anyone who didn’t know what antimatter spandrels were faced eternal social banishment!
She had tried to explain it to daddy too, but he hadn’t really understood. The Glyphospurious Mention Supercustard was sadly a far too advanced piece of technology for him. She tried to tell him all about Salad’s Second Flaw of Helicopter Because Count’em, but he didn’t even know what aunt Chatter’s spandex was. Very sad.
Uncle Argus had understood though, about her dad. She told him, and he knew, somehow, how she felt. “Your father just isn’t built that way, Arkie. If he can’t stick his sword in it or kill it with that blade of his, he’s just not interested.” Wasn’t that redundant? “You’ll know when you’re older.”
Everyone kept saying that. When she was older, when she was older. Well, she’s nine now! Almost ten! She was not a child anymore! She even knew what the word redundant meant!
She was not a child anymore.
The books they read in literature studies all seemed to be the same. Her teacher told her they were great novels, speaking deep to the mortal condition or something. Arkenheart guessed she just wasn’t built to understand art. A young child lives a normal life, then something absolutely horrible like his dog dies or his mom falls off a building and dies of cancer before she hits the ground, landing on the dog. That was the whole story. That was art?
It just made her really sad. Why would anyone want to read that?
Something called catharsis. It made you feel better when you were feeling sad. She didn’t get it from Argus. She’d asked about the bodies, about the smell, that horrible, horrible smell of… something. Something just at the edge of her understanding. And when the sword had begun to sing. When those men died.
Daddy hadn’t had time to hide her anywhere. They’d come, five strong, pretending to know dad, to help dad. And they had attacked him, tried to take her. She had screamed. Daddy, help me!
The stranger’s arm, its pull so powerful, she remembered how it had jerked and suddenly gone slack. How her father had taken her back, how she had watched her would be kidnapper fall. His eyes, registering surprise, then… nothing. They just went blank. Blank as the robot squirrel’s eyes.
It was wet. She remembered the wetness. Then the stickiness. How they had all stopped moving. They didn’t breath anymore. They couldn’t. Their bodies weren’t together anymore.
Her dad had killed them. Because… they were going to kill him. To kill her.
Why? Why would they do that?
She couldn’t understand. She cried. Uncle Argus didn’t know what to do with a crying child. He offered her something made of sugar. It helped a little.
Dad didn’t come back for a few days. He looked so tired when he came back. Like he’d been gone for years, and become so very, very old while he was gone. He smiled weakly when he came for her. “Sorry, I… took longer than I expected. I didn’t mean to leave you alone for so-”
She cried. She cried fiercely, beating her small hands ineffectually on his armour. Why, she screamed. Why. She didn’t understand. Why, daddy, why did you kill them. Why did they want to kill us. Why.
He picked her up, held her. Just holding her, letting her release everything that had been building since they went into the house that reeked of death.
Eventually she stopped. Sniffled. Then just rested against him, drained. He carried her upstairs, murmuring calming, meaningless words in ancient thalassian, soft sounding words with no other purpose than to make her world kinder. Sat with her on the bed her uncle always gave her when she stayed over.
Still he said nothing. Arkenheart accepted this, she didn’t really think she would understand even if he had explained. She grabbed one of his arms, wrapping it around herself, a protective blanket of muscle, bone, and forged plate armour. He shifted slightly, then began to stroke her hair, slowly, with his free arm.
Comforted, she fell asleep.
Catharsis. Of a sort. At least daddy was home.
Thalorien woke in the morning when Arkenheart began to stir. He grumbled deep in his throat, and tried to sit up. Immediately his body was flooded with pain, stiff muscles and sore joints finally shouting their complaints. He had slept away the entire night in his armour, his limbs folded up bizarrely, having spent the night curled around his daughter on a children’s bed.
He forced himself into a sitting position, biting back curses as his joints creaked in protest.
“What’s wrong daddy?”
“Daddy’s limbs aren’t all working properly, Arkie. I didn’t take very good care of them last night.”
“Well that was stupid! You have to take care of yourself dad! What happens if… if…” she was very serious.
Thalorien sighed. It was too early. He needed some breakfast. “Hey, Arkie, do you want some breakfast? I promise I’m not dying any time soon.” At her look, he added softly, “And neither are you. Okay?”
She still looked scared, but she agreed nonetheless.
Breakfast was a simple affair in Uncle Argus’ home. Numerous types of freshly baked muffins and bread, with eggs, cheese, fresh fruit and meat combined in any number of ways. Things like eggs benedict, triple stacked pancakes, omelet wraps cooked over open flames, simple foods. The two ate in silence for some time, as Thalorien debated on how to talk to his daughter about recent events. She spoke before he did, asking the only real pertinent question.
“Why did those men want to kill us?” she asked, her voice quiet and subdued, as if she was afraid of the sound.
“They wanted to kill us, Arkie, because they wanted to make their own lives better.” Thalorien figured the best possible answer was the truthful one. No lies, no embellishment.
“They had been lied to. They thought that… that our family, and the other powerful families, were abusing them somehow. That we were trying to repress them, their families, make them second class citizens. They wanted to… start a revolution. To kill us, so they could rule instead. They were tricked into believing they could solve a problem that didn’t exist.”
Arkenheart seemed to sense Thalorien was trying to treat her like an adult. She thought hard, mulling over what he had said.
“They weren’t happy.” she finally said.
“That’s why they wanted to kill us. So they could be happy.”
Arkenheart nodded sagely and returned to her food for several moments. She looked up, and asked, “Why were they unhappy?”
“They were not. They convinced themselves that they were unhappy, and tried to fix things that were not broken. Does that make sense?”
Truthfully, Arkenheart had only the faintest idea what her father was talking about. Yet, she sensed that he was telling her a lot more than he ordinarily would. He wasn’t treating her like a child anymore. He was using small words, or trying to, but still explaining things to her like she, too, was an adult. She had to prove that faith in her was justified.
“Yes.” she reluctantly said. It made sense, in a crude way. Her teachers had used the phrase once, a conflict of interest. They wanted her dead, she wanted to not be dead. Only one side could have what it wanted. “What do dead people smell like?”
Thalorien winced. He hadn’t even considered that. “At the house…” he said, trailing off. Silence reigned for several moments. “I think you know.” he finished.
Arkenheart hung her head, ceased eating. “Yeah.”
Thalorien finished eating in silence. Then sat there, neither father nor daughter quite knowing what to say or do.
Thalorien coughed. “So! Do you… want to go see your new baby sister?”
She snapped her gaze to him, curiosity and the beginnings of excitement shining in her eyes.
“Come along then, Arkie, let us brighten up and go see your mother and Sariah.”