Jul 1, 2017

Short Story: "Change of Choice"

“This will be an interesting tour if neither of us know where we’re going.”
“Interesting is what I strive for,” she replied with a wink. “Now let’s see what’s that direction. I predict a bathroom, another art studio, and a room with nothing but a collection of decorative wooden spoons.”


(When I saw the prompts "4 people are shown where the made the biggest decision of their lives and what would happen if they had chosen differently" and "Your OC has the chance to go back in time and change something in their past. Do they take it?" a story immediately started brewing in the back of my head. This short story would take place somewhere between book 2 (Sentinel) and book 3 (Iconoclasm). It's basically true to the books, so I consider this canon.)

Unexpected Inspiration Short Story - "Change of Choice"


“What exactly do you mean by ‘can you see a different me?’ Did you do some of your weird illusion weaving again?” Blythe squinted as she looked Adair over. “You don’t look any different. Maybe a few extra paint stains since this morning. Or is that pie filling?”

Adair scooped up some of the questionable splotch with his finger and put it in his mouth. Belatedly he realized this could be a bad move, but to his relief it wasn’t paint. “Jelly.”

Blythe covered her face with her hand. “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. So what was your question about?”

Adair wiped his hand on his shirt, adding more stain to a piece of clothing already overdue for the trash bin, and found he couldn’t meet her gaze. He knew his request was going to sound foolish because Blythe rarely cared what other people thought. He usually didn’t either. Just about this and only because… he looked over at Etri who was too engrossed by the book in his hands to pay any attention to the conversation going on not five feet away. Etri was the one the horrible words were usually directed towards. Adair didn’t really care when someone said he was a failure as an Artisan; he’d heard it for most of his life. He was nontraditional and he’d ended up with nontraditional muses. The other Artisans didn’t approve of this. Blythe and Etri were carnival performers and to top it off, both were Adair’s sentinel. There was no rule saying an artist couldn’t have two bodyguards as their spouses, but it was all about tradition. Two artists were bound to one bodyguard. That was how it was done. That was how it had always been done.

So the other Artisans- and more than a few sentinels who were insulted by carnies having the same status they did- didn’t hide their disapproval. Etri, who was unusually tall, pale, and foreign, got the brunt of this. Blythe, as a local who trained as an ordinary guard before becoming a performer and healer, at least looked the part. She was also likely to out-snide anyone who tried to sass her. Etri, on the other hand, never said much. He didn’t have to. Adair could sense Etri’s anger and frustration through their link. So could Blythe, which is likely why she had so little patience for rude comments. Now that Adair thought about it, her knee-jerk response to Etri feeling hurt probably didn’t help matters.

All this was the reason for the request Adair wanted to make of Blythe. He was pretty sure he’d made the right choice. His pair of sentinels felt right, inside his head or his heart or wherever it was his weaving linked to them. Still, a part of him couldn’t help fearing that maybe the naysayers were right. If he’d chosen tradition instead of his own path, would he have ended up with “normal” muses? If his choice had been different, would the chosen be changed?

Adair’s mind made up, he looked into Blythe’s dark, worried eyes. “You learned how to read memories and predict actions, right? Can you tell me what would have happened if I did something different? If I was something different?”

Blythe held out her hand and brushed Adair’s forehead with her thumb.“I can try. If I do this, will you promise to not taste-test paint in the future?”

Adair fully trusted Blythe inside his head and so let his eyes close. “I only did that because I thought it was-”

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Adair’s ears picked up the grating sound of Feren’s voice. Even the overpowering music and laughter of yet another party couldn’t mask a sound he had heard almost every day for the past ten years. Feren reached him before Adair could decide between ducking under the nearest table or making a beeline for the kitchen. He did inch closer to the table just in case.

“There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Adair didn’t budge when Feren held out his hand. “It’s another of your Protectorate friends, right? Can’t we do this later? I’m really not feeling up to it.”

Adair coughed to try to make this sound truthful, but knew before Feren let out a too-dramatic sigh that it wasn’t going to work. He found ways to avoid this often enough that now Feren didn’t believe any of his excuses. Ever since Feren gave up his original role as Adair’s sentinel-intended from fear of being inadequate as a bodyguard, it had become a nearly daily goal to set Adair up with another one. While Adair appreciated his concern because an artist did need a sentinel, Feren had far different taste than Adair. Every single one was bossy or crude or lacking in the brains department. Sometimes all three at once. Usually all three. Could Adair help it if he wanted a sentinel who could hold an actual conversation?

Feren was not to be deterred. He tucked a loose strand of Adair’s hair back into the hated style- Adair pondered briefly what Feren would do if he hacked it all off like he wanted to- and brushed a few crumbs off the front of Adair’s silken dress robe. He made a disapproving clicking sound with his tongue. “You’re never going to make a good first impression. I swear you do this on purpose.”

Adair bit back a retort about not wanting to impress anyone Feren introduced to him. If he argued, Feren would make a scene about how he should act like a proper Artisan. The last thing Adair wanted was all those disproving stares directed his way again. Directed at Feren’s outburst would have made sense. Instead it was at the fact that Adair was so flawed he needed a scolding in the middle of a crowded room.

With his reluctance remaining unvoiced this time, he allowed Feren to take his hand.

His silent prayers of escape were answered when an artist he didn’t know stopped Feren to ask him a question Adair didn’t bother to hear. He took this distraction as the lucky break it was and headed for the staircase at the back of the house. Adair plopped down at the top of the stairs- not caring about the wrinkles it would make in the draping fabric he wore or the anxiety caused by being up high- and propped his head on his knees. Hidden behind the railing he would be able to see if Feren approached again while hopefully remaining unseen, which made this the best location even if it did make Adair’s insides twist from the elevation. He wished he had brought his sketchbook despite Feren’s assumption that it would be rude to be so distracted. Adair’s protest that this was an Artisan party and others likely had brought their tools with them had been disregarded. Adair’s protests were usually disregarded.

As he traced his fingertip over the intricate floral pattern carved into the banister, he could feel the sour taste of regret begin to ferment into resentment. He never should have chosen to stay with Feren. He could have been somewhere, anywhere else right now.

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Blythe leaned against the wall and crossed her arms over her chest. Unaware of her boredom, her roommate talked on and on with a cluster of other Protectorates. Occasionally her friend tried to draw Blythe into the conversation, but Blythe had nothing to add. She had been away from soldier gossip for too long. She had no idea who they were talking about or what “whip-flopping” even meant. Blythe got the feeling she’d only been invited along because her roommate felt sorry for her.

When Blythe overheard the word “carny” and saw a few heads turn to look curiously in her direction, she pushed herself away from the wall. She didn’t want to talk about this. There were always two reactions when people learned she had worked as a carnival performer for two years: curiosity and disdain. Curiosity led to far too many questions about her past that she didn’t want to answer and disdain meant she wasn’t seen as a “real” Protectorate because she’d been forced away for a few years. Sometimes she wondered if it would have been better if she’d stayed with the carnival troupe instead of returning to her original career path.

Deep in these thoughts, she headed in the direction she hoped the nearest set of stairs were located. Artisan houses were built with plenty of floors, display cabinets, and windows. What they weren’t built with was any common sense. A staircase in a house like this couldn’t be directly next to the one leading to the next floor down. No, that would be too logical, too mundane. Instead the one down to the next floor would be across the house in the library or the back of the kitchen. It would probably be simpler to knot together a couple of tablecloths and use the makeshift ladder to climb out a window.

She smiled for the first time this evening when she spotted a staircase that did in fact go down. Another few of these and she could be out of here- assuming she hadn’t entered one of the artists’ paintings and was heading sideways. She stepped around the person sitting hunched over on the top stair, then stopped when she noticed the glare he aimed at nothing in particular. He was the first person besides herself who looked like he didn’t want to be here. “Hey, you okay?”

It took a moment for the boy to realize she was talking to him. When he saw her he shrugged. This made his collar start to slide down his shoulder and he yanked at his sleeve to put the fabric back in place. Artisans dressed the way they built their homes: too many layers, too many colors, and a style that made you wonder how the whole thing didn’t come apart. As it was, a section of his hair had fallen out of its twist and hung down to the floor. She avoided this as she sat down.

He didn’t seem to mind and leaned his back against a baluster to give her more room so she didn’t have to sit in the way of staircase-traffic. “Yeah. Let’s just say this is the last place I want to be right now.”

Blythe chuckled. “Tell me about it. You got dragged here, too?”

He wrinkled his nose. “Yeah. Third party this week. I’m so sick of parties.”

“I was looking for the exit a second ago. Why don’t you come with me and we can both leave, assuming we can find the dang thing.”

Blythe meant this as a joke, but he frowned and gestured in a downward direction. “My muse-intended would never let me hear the end of it if I left. Creators forbid there’s something I want to do...”

It sounded as though he wanted to say more. Instead he trailed off and lowered his chin down on his knees.

“Then how about we poke around the place instead? It has to be better than sitting here all night and your intended can’t complain if you’re still in the house, right?”

“I guess not...”

“Good. Then it’s settled.” Blythe climbed to her feet and held out her hand. “I’m Blythe and I’ll be your tour guide tonight.”

He let her pull him upright then released her hand when his outer coat began to slide off his shoulder. After a mumbled curse and some adjusting, he said, “I’m Adair. So wait, you’ve been here before?”

Blythe grinned at him. “Nope. Have you?”

For the first time Adair smiled. She thought he had a nice smile and had a feeling he didn’t make that expression often. She decided that she’d make it her goal tonight to make him smile as often as possible.

“Nope,” he replied. “This will be an interesting tour if neither of us know where we’re going.”

“Interesting is what I strive for,” she replied with a wink. “Now let’s see what’s that direction. I predict a bathroom, another art studio, and a room with nothing but a collection of decorative wooden spoons.”

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Spoons. Etri had broken into more than a few homes and this was the first time seeing a room full of eating utensils. His employer had specified a spoon from a particular set and while that instruction sounded easy enough when assuming no sane individual owned more than maybe a dozen spoons, Etri was now at a loss as to which spoon. The one he was tasked to steal was imbued with weaving which would have been helpful if he had been given any way to test this.

He reached out to take the nearest one from the where it hung on a rack with eight other nearly identical ones. It felt like a wooden spoon. In the hope it would play a song or light up, he turned it around in his hand. It remained spoon-like. Perfect for eating soup, not so perfect for determining its status as mundane or magic. Finding a needle in a haystack would be easier than this; at least he would have known the needle when he found it.

He stared around the room in growing trepidation. He had but one more hour before he needed to report back to his employer with her requested theft. If he failed...

Etri heard laughter from the hallway and hastily replaced the spoon with its siblings. It slipped off the hook and fell silently onto the carpet. He had just enough time to blend himself into the shadow of a curio cabinet- filled with forks as a nice change of pace- when the door opened.

“It is a room of spoons! How in Petra’s name did you know that?”

“Would you believe me if I told you I was psychic?”

The first speaker broke into a chortle. His laughter was the contagious kind and it made Etri want to smile- if Etri was currently in possession of a mouth. “Nope! How’d you really know?”

It was never easy for Etri to see when he took this form. The world became fogged and grey, as though he looked through a piece of fine gauze. The one was certainly an Artisan and the other, judging from her height and build, was likely his sentinel.

The sentinel’s footsteps took her closer to Etri who tried to meld further against the wall. If only his shadow-weaving allowed him pass through it! She stopped a few feet away and picked up the spoon he so recently dropped. “Earlier tonight I poked my head into a studio and saw a bunch of spoons spread out on the work table. I figured whoever lives here made them and would probably be vain enough to display them. I was right, although I have to say I didn’t expect an actual room.”

“Then you don’t know how vain most artists can be.” The artist came up next to her and took the spoon from her hand. “I see where this one’s supposed to go. I wonder how it fell?”

This was all the warning Etri was given before his hand reached for the hook- and passed through Etri. It was the most uncomfortable and intrusive thing Etri had ever experienced. After the artist stared at his hand and the spoon in confusion, he turned his attention towards the narrow space between cabinet and wall.

He hooked the spoon onto the rack and took a step back, never once taking his gaze away from where Etri hovered in the shadow of the cabinet. He couldn’t have seen him. Etri was all but invisible when he blended into shadow. Yet the artist didn’t look away until the woman asked, “What are you staring at the wall for?”

Etri’s hope that he’d been wrong, that the artist couldn’t see him, was dashed when he reached back into the shadow. “There’s weaving here. Not the spoon weaving. That’s deep olive green. This one’s a sparkly pewter. And it’s cold. Feel it.”

Now the sentinel held out her hand. This was disturbing and Etri really wished they’d stop prodding him. “I can’t see your weird artist colors, but you’re right about the cold. Are we near a window?”

When they both looked around to see if this was the cause, Etri slid away and over to the far wall.

“Now it’s warm again,” she said.

The artist turned around to look at the room and his eyes fell on Etri almost immediately. “Because it’s over there now.”

Etri didn’t have time for a hide and seek game. Whatever they could do to him wouldn’t be any worse than what would happen if he didn’t return back with the spoon in hand. He supposed the sentinel could try to arrest him for art theft, but it wouldn’t be successful when he could simply go intangible again. His only option was to take human form again and try to get out of here with the correct spoon. Whichever one was the correct spoon.

He visualized his human self and when his vision returned to normal he found to no surprise that the pair had noticed. There was no way they could have failed to notice a person appearing out of thin air directly in front of them.

The woman took a step forward and pulled the artist behind her, placing her body between him and possible danger. This solidified Etri’s theory that she was the sentinel. “What are you doing here? What are you?”

“Why do you have weaving?” the artist piped up as he stood on tiptoe to see over her shoulder.

Would truth or a lie be better? Etri decided on truth without all the details. “I am seeking a spoon.”

The sentinel snorted a laugh. It was strangely endearing even if it wasn’t as infectious as the artist’s. “You do know you could buy a spoon anywhere, right? Not that the artist would notice one missing out of four billion.”

“He is not the artist?” Etri nodded his head towards the boy who grinned at him.

“Cartographer and part time painter. The only thing I use spoons for is eating.”

The sentinel nudged him in the ribs. “Hush for a minute.”

Then to Etri she asked, “What kind of thief steals a single spoon?”

Etri couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice. “One who has been ordered to steal a particular spoon. One who would much rather be anywhere else right now. One who would prefer any other career.”

The artist's voice was soft when he asked, “Then why do you do it?”

Etri looked over at him in surprise. He expected anger from an artist after catching a thief, not… sympathy? While the sentinel didn’t seem quite as calm about this, she also hadn’t made any move to stop him. This was not his previous experience with sentinels. Perhaps his assumption about her status was incorrect.

“If I do not return with this spoon, my employer will turn me over to the guards and claim she caught me stealing from her. If I could escape the guards, she would find me. Find us. I could not leave my brother behind. We are too foreign to remain hidden for long.” His mouth twitched into a wry smile. “There is not a day where I do not regret a decision I made.”

The artist’s breath caught sharply and he turned to the woman. “We have to help him. I know what it’s like to have a choice like that.”

She frowned, then looked from one to the other. Slowly she spoke, “I could change the choice I made. If I did, if I went back to the people I left, I could protect you. You would be out of the city where anyone would be hard pressed to find you.”

“Why would you help me?” Etri’s voice was barely audible, but she heard him.

“Because my heart tells me that walking away and leaving either of you where I found you tonight would be disastrous for you both.”

The artist looked towards the door, then stood tall. “I don’t care where this place is, it’s gotta be better than what I have now. I’m in.”

“I will only agree to anything if I can bring my brother.” At the probably-not-sentinel's nod, Etri added, “I would like to know where you plan to take us.”

“My former carnival troupe. I was told if being a Protectorate didn’t work out, I could always come back. Frankly it’s a choice I don’t think worked out, so I’m willing to use my mistake to fix both of yours.”

Troupes constantly traveled and in costume Etri and his brother would be hidden in plain sight. For the first time in years, he had hope. “I also accept.”

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"-pie.”

Adair opened his eyes and found that he was back in the room the three of them shared at the Artisans’ guildhall. He pulled Blythe into a tight hug with a squeal of joy. Then he threw himself at Etri, causing the book to go sailing through the air as Etri fumbled it and scrambled to catch him.

“What is the cause for such excitement?” Etri asked.

Adair grinned up at him, too elated to make words work. He had his answer: any change in choice would have brought them together. Even if he had suffered through tradition, he still would have met his beloved carnies.

It was a long time before he stopped smiling any time he saw a spoon. Although as Blythe could attest, Adair usually smiled whenever he saw a spoon because it might mean dessert.

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