“Sotha Sil is your patron, right?” Milia asked Talvini one day as they sat down for dinner. “Have you ever considered joining the Clockwork Apostles?”
“I’ve considered it, but I’m too busy adventuring to go live in the Clockwork City. Maybe once my life calms down.” Talvini picked up a slice of grilled nix meat and dipped it into the spiced comberry preserve before taking a bite.
Milia nodded, her gaze gently locked somewhere in the distance, fork hovering idly above her plate.
“Why do you ask?”
Her eyes came back to the present, and she shrugged. “Just wondering.”
“I think you’d make a good Buoyant Armiger, for what it’s worth.” Talvini kept her expression even, but her eyes glimmered faintly as she probed at her friend. “Is that where you were going?”
Milia’s contemplative expression broke into a curious smile. “Why do you think that?” she asked. “I mean, yes, but…” She laughed. “Shut up.” Her fork jammed into a slice of meat.
“What?” Tal said, smiling now too. “I’m serious.”
Milia waved her free hand dismissively as she shoved the meat into her mouth. “It was just an idea, anyway.”
“A good one. Why are you brushing it off?”
“I’m not going to be a Buoyant Armiger,” she said. “I’m neither a warrior nor a poet, at least not enough of either.”
“Mils, I’ve seen you fight. You’re absolutely a warrior.”
“Not enough for House Redoran,” she grumbled.
“Why? Because you’re too magic-focused? Too…” Tal paused to give appropriate emphasis to the last word, “poetic?”
Milia sighed dramatically.
“Of course, it’s your call,” Tal continued. “Don’t let me push you.”
“No, you’re right,” Milia conceded. “But what if ze doesn’t want me?”
Talvini set down her fork and folded her hands. “Milia,” she said in a tone that Milia knew to pay attention to. “How many champions does Lord Vivec have?”
Milia started to count the vestiges she knew.
“At one time,” Tal added quickly.
“Oh,” Milia said. Her eyes dropped in an embarrassed smile. “One.”
“One,” Tal repeated. “And, about how many Armigers does ze have? Just a rough estimate, if you would.”
“More than one?” Milia suggested.
“Yes, that sounds right,” she said. “So, by your calculation, what proportion of Buoyant Armigers are also champions of Vivec?”
Milia sighed, but she was smiling as she played along. “I think that would be none.”
“And so, if we invert that, the proportion of Buoyant Armigers who have made it into Vivec’s service without even being hir champion would be…?”
“All of them.”
“All of them,” Tal repeated. “Hm. Interesting.”
“Okay, I get it!” Milia was laughing now. “I’ll try. Sometime. Maybe.”
Milia mulled it over for a few more days, but she was not the patient sort. Once an idea formed, it burned at her mind until she acted on it. So, before it could become too hot to bear, she decided that she would go to the temple in Vivec City the next morning.
“So I’m…going to Vivec today,” she told Talvini over breakfast.
Tal noticed her hesitant tone and raised an eyebrow. “Vivec? Any particular reason?”
“Yes,” Milia said, her tone indicating that Tal knew why.
“Will you be coming back in a shiny new set of glass armor?”
“If all goes well.”
A wide smile spread across Talvini’s face. “I’m so happy for you!”
“Malacathuseht!” Milia laughed, warding off any curses her friend might have attracted by reacting so soon. “I haven’t even left yet.”
“Malacathuseht,” Tal conceded, barely sobering her tone. “But, truly, you have the skill. I know you’ll make it.”
“If Vivec wills it,” Tal added to appease her friend. “And ze will.”
“Are you Milia?” one of the Armigers guarding the door to the palace asked.
“Oh,” Milia said, surprised to be recognized. “I am.”
“Vivec told us to give priority to the ‘strong-but-nervous-looking pink-haired mer,’” the Armiger said. Milia could hear her smile through her helmet. She gave Milia an encouraging pat on the arm. “Go on in. You’ll do great.”
Milia nodded silently and stepped inside the palace. She felt like her stomach was trying to show off its flexibility by contorting itself into new shapes. Of course, she had known Vivec would be expecting her, but she didn’t realize ze was going to share hir expectations with the whole squad.
“My champion arrives!” Vivec’s voice rang out through the audience chamber.
There were several more Buoyant Armigers inside, and Milia was vaguely aware that the two at the door had followed her in. She focused on keeping her gait confident as she crossed the chamber, despite the many eyes on her. She knew that from the moment she had started walking up the steps, she was being judged, and she had to give off the exuberant self-assuredness that was part of the Buoyant Armigers’ style in order to succeed.
She reached the far end of the chamber and knelt before her god.
“Rise, Milia,” Vivec said. “Tell me, why have you come here today?”
She knew that the question was just a formality, as Vivec had already clearly indicated that ze knew why she was there. Luckily, she had planned a response in advance. She stood and said, “If it please you, muthsera, I wish to dedicate myself to your service by joining the ranks of your Buoyant Armigers.”
“A noble endeavor,” ze said, “and one for which you are highly qualified.”
Milia felt as if a weight had been lifted off of her, but she could tell Vivec was not done.
“While you have proven yourself several times over, I must ask you to prove yourself once more, for the sake of ceremony.” Ze lowered to hir feet and drew Muatra. “Would you fight me?”
Her eyes widened. “Fight you, muthsera?” she asked. She noted with a faint sense of pride that she managed to keep her voice from shaking even when faced with an unexpected twist. She hadn’t realized she would have to duel a god in order to be accepted. The bar was higher than she thought.
“Just a friendly sparring round,” ze said with a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry: neither of us will be hurt—I will see to that. You don’t even have to win. We would just like to see your skill in person.”
“Of course,” Milia said. She drew her staff. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the audience of Armigers stepping back to give them a wide berth.
“After you,” Vivec said.
Milia took a breath, cloaked herself in an armor of spikes, and slammed her staff down, turning the floor in front of her to lava. It was partly an attack, and partly a test to see just how fair Vivec was going to fight. As expected, when her staff went down, Vivec went up. Nothing ridiculous, just enough to keep hir feet off the burning floor. It was no matter; she had plenty more in her repertoire that did not involve burning her opponent’s feet.
She used her staff to parry a strike from Muatra, drew fire up into her chest, and blew it out onto Vivec. While hir vision was obscured, she used her free hand to drag burning claws across hir chest. Ze danced back, and for a moment, she faltered, worried that she should not have hit hir at full force. While her guard was lessened, Vivec leapt back in and landed a blow on her chest that would have done substantial damage, except it felt as though it had hit a cushion. Ze must had enchanted hir weapon for the fight. Still, it hit with enough force to send her staggering backward.
“I told you not to worry,” Vivec said.
Ze took another step and made a follow-up strike, which she barely managed to block. But block it she did, and as Vivec recoiled, Milia drew a molten whip and struck at hir shoulder, pulling hir further off balance. She landed a few more blows before Vivec regained hir balance.
Ze returned to a hover and danced a few paces back. Rather than follow hir in, Milia decided to stay at range. Although she was more comfortable fighting in close quarters, she could still shoot magicka-infused bolts of fire from her staff. Vivec, on the other hand, seemed to be limiting hirself to Muatra’s range for this fight, and would not be able to counter at this distance.
Milia was, of course, also aware that this whole thing was a test. Vivec was obviously holding back, and setting up specific scenarios to test her responses. She, in contrast, was apparently expected to show off in terms of both power and strategy.
Vivec lightly sidestepped some of the fireballs and knocked the rest away. Then ze came charging back toward her with Muatra. She was almost caught off guard again, this time by how loudly telegraphed the strike was—she probably had a solid two seconds to prepare. Was it a feint? That would be too easy. No, she realized, ze was giving her the chance to show off once more and end the fight.
She watched hir intently, making to block and biding her time. At the last moment, she stepped out of the way and swung her molten whip. She caught onto the spear and yanked, pulling it out of Vivec’s hands.
Vivec caught hir balance faster than would have been expected of one who had been disarmed during a lunge, further solidifying the idea for Milia that ze had planned for it to go that way.
Ze straightened up and opened hir arms, facing Milia with a wide smile, and then bowed. “I yield.”
Milia put away her staff and bowed in return, and then picked up Muatra and handed it back to Vivec. The crowd of Armigers burst into raucous applause. It seemed that this was a great source of entertainment for them, and Milia could see why. There was something exhilarating about fighting her god and winning, even if it was more a matter of solving a combat puzzle than a regular one-on-one duel.
“Now, let us talk,” Vivec said, returning to hir usual float-sitting position. Ze raised hir voice in an order to hir Armigers and said, “Clear the hall.”
The Buoyant Armigers filed out, and Milia was suddenly more uncomfortably aware of the one remaining pair of eyes trained on her than she had been of the twenty-or-so that were watching her moments ago. She kept her back straight and dared herself to look at her god head-on.
“Well done, Milia,” Vivec said. “Not many recognize the puzzle.”
She could feel her face burning from receiving a complement from the Tribune, but she tried to maintain her composure.
Ze continued, “Have you ever considered applying to be an Ordinator? Not as common of a position for a Redoran, of course, but you would certainly qualify.”
Before she could stop herself, Milia cringed. An Ordinator? Did she truly seem so dull?
Vivec’s laugh echoed through the nearly empty hall. “That is the correct response.”
Milia relaxed a little and allowed herself a light laugh.
“But tell me, why do you want to be a Buoyant Armiger?”
Another question she was prepared for. “I am an adventurer at heart. Even before this whole vestige business, I was an adventurer. But I’m not interested in ‘seeking my fortune’ or some such nonsense. I just like to see things, do things, help other people have their own adventures. I recently helped the Armigers in Molag Mar—”
“Ah, yes, the incident with my old enemy of legend,” ze said with some amusement.
“Yes, so the pilgrim believed,” Milia said with a chuckle. “Before that, I hesitated the romanticize the life of a Buoyant Armiger as one of pure freedom to adventure. But after that, I realized that even the more mundane tasks, like welcoming petitioners and protecting pilgrims, seem incredibly fulfilling.” She smiled and added, “As long as there’s a healthy dose of adventure in there as well.”
“Your reasoning is compelling,” Vivec said. “Yet, you have reservations. Speak freely.”
She nodded hesitantly and took a moment to get her thoughts in order. This was not a request she had prepared for.
“As much as I strive to embody your warrior-poet duality, I worry that I may not succeed in attaining it. I think my combat skills are respectable—even if House Redoran takes umbrage with my soft-robes approach—but poetry is less natural to me. Maybe in a broader or metaphorical sense: coordinating with one’s sparring partner for the drama of it, for example?”
Vivec laughed warmly. “Although literal poetry will be encouraged, how could I pass up the fitting paradox of metaphorical poetry?”
Milia sighed lightly in relief.
“Does that soothe your worries?” ze asked.
She nodded. “Yes, muthsera.”
“Then, are you ready to join?”
She smiled in what felt like childlike excitement, and nodded again. “Yes, muthsera.”
“In that case,” ze said with a bright smile, “welcome, my Buoyant Armiger. Let us invite the others back in so that you can take your oath.”
After taking her oath and receiving a warm welcome from her new colleagues, Milia recalled home. She was excited to see Talvini’s face when she came back in a shiny new set of glass armor.