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I’m told that when I was born, my Pith was too large for the limited neurons of the body I was born with. The doctor was forced to transfer my consciousness to an artificial body just minutes after I emerged into the world, and my father had fallen into the depths of the paralyzing anxiety and nerves which so often afflicted him. But my mother had merely smiled, wide and toothy and all of those things the noble Epistocrat smile was never supposed to be but which in that moment she could not help. She knew from then forward that I would always be exceptional, that I was truly her successor in all ways that mattered.

She hadn’t manhandled me into that perfectionist life, either. No, from the moment that my mind could fully stretch itself into a brain with true capacity to it, I had remembered what once was. My memories of my past life were fuzzy, oddly focused on only those things with which I conflicted, and even more oddly constrained to a small stretch of years within that life. But I remembered enough vague details of my past family, which I had recalled was once so happy, and yet which all my remembrances of came from a cold war among its shattered remnants. The father was so similar to my present one, devoted to his singular calling and scared beyond belief of confrontation, but once he had lost the counterweight of his wife, only the negative aspects of those traits shone through.

Looking back on it, I’d tried to escape something I could never fix by fixing what I could. In that time I could only presume was that of the Great Scholars’ fall, I’d tried to fix myself, fix my city, fix the brokenness evident in every piece of my world. But I’d never repaired my old bonds, and if I’d made new ones they weren’t relationships fraught with enough conflict that my Pith had bothered to remember them.

See, I’d realized now that there were certain things which couldn’t be repaired, only made and preserved. I couldn’t brush off my family while it was falling off a cliff to help a stranger, then return and weld it together again. I needed to remember my family even as I wished to help the stranger, since while the stranger's brokenness could be fixed, my family's could not. And so I was the perfect heir with all my heart, because I loved this new family of mine with all my heart, and I could not bear to lose my family again. I would protect it with my life, and so I lived to protect them.

Still, some aspects of this life were harder than others. The projection was my favorite, as it is during projection training that my mother’s attention is most on me, and (as the size of my Pith had indicated even during my first minute of birth) I was exceptionally talented at it, manifesting my personal Vocation at the tender age of three and wreaking all sorts of havoc. The mental tampering of Whisper projection, the mental enhancements of Praxis, and even the not-so-mental effects of Physical projection— each and every Vocation I learned thrilled me, and I was looking forward to when it would be time for me to go to Paragon academy, where I could apply what I learned in more than just friendly spars with Eliya.

But there was more to the Epistocracy than shaping the fabric of reality with merely the force of your Pith— some parts of it more pleasant than others. The aspect of it I was currently engaged in was, decidedly, one of the worst I’d ever experienced.
“Wasn’t the garden lovely, dears?”

No, it had been hideous. It had also been ridiculously expansive, not just encircling the perimeter of her house as was expected on an Epistocrat estate, but also encroaching so close to the house that any security measures would be useless wastes of funds. Much like the woman herself, actually— a rather impressively wealthy snag for the far more talented husband, but useless without guidance.

Lady Pakhem was a peacock, one who could not help flouncing around while saying nothing of substance. Still, I did my best to not just appear, but to be attentive. It was difficult, particularly on a day as supposedly exciting as my tenth birthday, but I managed.

“And this is, of course, the reason you’ve come here today. Samuel, come here.” We were in the exercise room of her estate, and as a boy who was apparently to be my future husband strode over from the far corner of the room, I began to assess him.

His body was well-muscled and bulky, with dark hair cropped short and tranquil brown eyes— a John Tarquis, by the looks of it, one of the most infamously high-maintenance male combat bodies on the market. And, judging by his previous behavior, he maintained it himself rather than transferring out and having seom fitness double do the work. As he strode towards us, the lines of his body speaking to his painstaking effort, I felt my respect for him increase, even if just by a smidge. This relationship may just work, if he was as diligent as that particular habit suggested.

But as he silently ushered me into a more private room of the house, his eyes boring into mine as if his Pith could somehow connect to mine through that fragile connection, my hope for this relationship’s success only died.

I wasn’t looking for some personal thing, to know him as well as myself and create some everlasting bond of love between us. I would need to trust him to start trying to love him— but ironically enough, my trust didn’t come unless it had been preceded by some level of love.

So as we sat down at a small, wrought iron table on the patio outside his house, the sun’s beautiful light blocked by his mother’s garishly wastefully extravagant flora, and he clutched my hands in his, I decided to clarify our relationship.

“Let’s be clear here: I don’t want your love. I don’t want your affection. Your respect would be highly preferred, and your devotion would be greatly appreciated, but the keystone that this relationship rests on is this: we’re here for each other’s benefit. My family gives your parents the military clout and societal influence they crave, and yours gives me and mine funds to add to their already impressive wealth and a spouse that can be expected to not embarrass their heir with incompetence. Clear?”

At this point, the moment Samuel had been building towards was dead. Even as a flurry of white petals fluttered down from the branches above us, presumably all a part of this romantic location he’d settled on, all he could do was gape.

I decided to give him at least a bit of mercy. “Look, this doesn’t have to be unpleasant. In fact, I’d rather the situation be enjoyable for both of us, even if it’s not what some of us expected.”

At that, Samuel seemed to pull himself at the very least somewhat together. “I’m sorry, but, but you’re right, this isn’t what I expected. I don’t think I can do that, do a relationship without love. I mean, I’ll do my best, but— look, please. Could you please try at this? Just give me an ounce of relating in this relationship?”
I could make it seem that way. Could fawn over him, make myself the Lady Pakhem to his Lord Pakhem. But in the end it would all be fake, and were my acting ever uncovered— well, a lover scorned had been the downfall of many of history’s greatest families. I would never do that to mine— not for mere comfort.
I wouldn’t ever be able to go to Samuel for support, to help in most vulnerable moments and paper over the cracks in my life. I would have to rely on myself and those I could trust for that, those family and friends which I had chosen, and which had not been for me. I would fight by tooth and nail and Pith and body and bone and blood for those I loved if I had to. I would not lose those I loved again.

As I returned home with my mother, leaving a conflicted Samuel Pakhem behind, we both relaxed our respective masks. My mother’s, an advanced variant of the facial muscle control Vocation known as the Stone Mask. Mine, a more mundane attempt at the same.

“How was it?”, she asked, but her sad frown told me she already knew the answer.

“Unfortunate.” I responded, my eyes watering slightly at the disappointment she must think I was at the moment. I clenched them tight for a moment, trying to stifle the tears. But then I felt her arms encircle me, pulling me close, giving me warmth.

She stroked my back, reassuring me in her kindest voice, the one she only used when we were alone. “You don’t need to be perfect in this. It would be nice to have the Pakhems as allies, but with your father’s newspaper and my position in the military, we hardly need their clout. I don’t want your perfection in the necessary things ruined trying to get this right as well.”

She was right. The Typhoon of the South was a legendary figure in our nation’s navy, and the Elmidde Gazette controlled the flow of information for the entirety of the Principality. With that revelation, the tears subsided, and all that remained once I had gotten past the sadness was that ever-present, iron resolve which had led me in my past life to a lifetime of conflict in barely half a decade. I wouldn’t cancel the arrangement, but it would never be something I prioritized. Instead, my priorities would be as they always had been— defending my family, my friend, and the Epistocracy each and every one of us were duty-bound to protect.

“Now, would you like to return home immediately, or would you like to enjoy your birthday gift?”

Wait, what?

Obviously seeing the confusion on my face, my mother chuckled. “Now, normally you’d only have access to Paragon’s library once you became a student. But when you have as much rapport with Headmaster Tau as I do, and such a gifted daughter, the rules can be bent.”

And as our ride slowed to a stop, I indeed realized that we had arrived at Paragon’s esteemed library.

We stepped out, our masks sliding into place with well-practiced ease. “Now, while you’re in there, there are several things you should be sure to do. In particular you cannot forget to…”

And as my mother lectured, the two of us striding into the library together, I mused to myself. Even at the supposedly clueless age of nine, I knew I had a bright future ahead of me. And I knew I would make my mother proud.