Raoul got back up, scrubbing a fist across his mouth. He didn’t try to run, and he still didn’t cry—just glared. So Emilio hit him again.
The smaller boy rocked back, staggered, but caught his feet. Raising his head, he sneered at Emilio. “Feel better?”
“Shut your little mouth!”
This time, Raoul dodged—the first two blows, anyway, before Emilio landed an uppercut on his chest, driving the air out of him in an audible whoosh. Raoul was lifted slightly off the pavement and fell back down in a slump, landing on his hands and knees. Emilio grinned down at him and pulled back his leg for a kick.
He wasn’t even completely sure…why. It wasn’t because Raoul was smaller—they were the same “probably about seven” the monks had vaguely decided, but definitely not growing at the same pace—or because he disliked the boy in particular. Emilio was big for his age, and also fast, which meant he’d gotten accustomed to venting his anger, whatever its cause, on whoever was nearby, just as the older boys did to him and anyone else they could. For a temple of Omnu, the orphan wing was host to a whole lot of petty violence whenever the monks happened not to be looking. Which was often; they seemed mostly concerned with their spiritual practices, doing their “duty” of providing a home for orphans and regular soup lines for the poor almost begrudgingly. In fact, they seemed to prefer having the orphans do that, as well as the lion’s share of the vegetable gardening, so they could meditate and practice martial arts. The kids got a very basic coaching in Omnist doctrine, enough to parrot the right answers, and then mostly left alone unless they were causing trouble or needed for chores.
Sariana had opined to Emilio that the Lower Ward Temple was home to some not-very-good Omnists. He hadn’t any basis for comparison, really, but he doubted any others were notably better. It was tough all over and adults were just generally disappointing.
This was just how it was. Life was kick-or-be-kicked, and Emilio knew which he preferred, and this little bastard Raoul always denied him the satisfaction by refusing to cry or flee or be cowed, no matter how one-sided their fights were. So he pulled back his foot in preparations for a hard blow to the boy’s ribs, anticipating the satisfaction of finally pounding some fear into the little brat, and so in the first instant after he was yanked physically off his feet and into the air he felt outrage at being thwarted before confusion or fear.
“What—hey! Let me go! Put me down!”
“Why don’t you make me, little man?”
He kicked, thrashed, and swiped, none of his limbs connecting as he was slowly spun in a full circle. It took him a few seconds to realize he wasn’t being picked up by a normal grip on his shirt as usual, but levitated off the ground. Even that didn’t click until he saw her standing there, a full three yards distant, holding up one hand in a lifting gesture and smirking at him.
Emilio paused in his struggling to stare. He’d never seen an elf this close before.
The way people talked about elves, he’d expected basically a person with Stalweiss coloration and pointed ears. Her ears were not only pointed, but long, sticking straight up through her blonde hair till their tips were even with the top of her head. Overall, her facial proportions were…off. Just a bit too fine-boned, features a hair too sharp, her green eyes seeming a little too large. You could meet a normal human with a face like that, but you’d look twice. There was nothing unusual about her clothes, just boots, pants and a vest over a collared shirt, but she wore striking gold-rimmed spectacles.
“Get outta here, elf witch!” Emilio shouted fruitlessly, swiping at her from yards away and only setting himself into a slow rotation in midair.
“Elves can’t be mages!”
She practically howled with laughter at that; fortunately his languid spin had put his back to her at that point so he didn’t have to watch. Unfortunately he was now facing Raoul, who was now grinning despite being partially doubled over in pain. Emilio kicked at him, too, but he was out of range.
“Yeah, doesn’t feel good, does it?” the elf commented. As Emilio drifted back around so that he could see her again, she made a contemptuous twirling motion with her finger, setting him to a faster spin. “Somebody with more power picking on you. Helpless. It’s not nearly as funny when you’re on the other end, huh? But then again…”
He suddenly stopped, then was bodily whipped around to face the street, whereupon he yelped, finding the elf had silently crossed the gap and was now almost nose-to-nose with him.
“Maybe you already know something about that.”
Emilio tried to punch her. Probably not the best move in that situation, but it was all he could think of. She caught his fist and held it effortlessly.
“Tell me, boy. Have you ever given any thought to why you do the things you do?”
“Let me go!”
“Make me,” she repeated.
He kicked at her midsection; she batted his foot aside with one lightning-quick swat of her free hand, then gave his fist a shove, sending him drifting away. Emilio found himself regretting—among other things—having cornered Raoul in this unoccupied cul-de-sac far enough from the street festival that there were no monks, patrolling soldiers, or adults in general. He could scream. There was always somebody not too far; it was Tiraas. But people who heard screams didn’t always care enough to do anything about it. It was, after all, Tiraas.
Anyway, screaming would be admitting weakness.
“Let me guess: your dad likes to smack you.” The elf cocked her head to one side, peering at him. “Big brother? Other boys at school?”
“He doesn’t have any of that,” Raoul piped up, finally straightening. “We live at the Omnist temple.”
“Ahh, an orphanage.” She nodded sagely. “That explains a lot. Why, your whole life is helplessness and people pushing you around, isn’t it? Hence…this. You can’t push back against the bigger powers around you, so you push down at whoever can’t stop you. And sure, while you’re pummeling the younger kid, for those few moments you feel like the big man.”
“I’m not younger!” Raoul said defensively. “Just…not as big!”
She shrugged. “Well, that’s what it all comes down to. But it’s never enough, is it? Never lasts long. Soon enough, you’re back to being the buttmonkey, storing up that anger till you can take it out again on somebody else who’s not big enough to fight back. Around and around and around, and what does it get you? A bully is a weakling, sonny boy. Strength is standing up to those who are stronger than you, not weaker. Long as you only pound on the small fry, you doom yourself to forever be small fry.”
“You don’t know anything!” Emilio shrieked. He hated how high his voice rose in pitch, hated the trembling behind it as tears of sheer frustration threatened.
“Yeah, that’s right, kid, I haven’t seen this a million times in my thousands of years on this world,” she chuckled. “Please, you think you’re special? You know how many hundreds of little buggers exactly like you are doing exactly this thing right now in this city alone? Well, I’ll give you this much: I’m in town to drop in on Theasia, but I honestly think this here is more interesting.”
“Th-the Empress?” Raoul stammered. “You’re on first name terms—”
“Oh, she is not a fan of me,” the elf cackled. “Truthfully I approve of the girl, broadly speaking, but she had the unmitigated gall to suggest, in public, that I wouldn’t dare show my face here, and obviously I can’t have that. Once people discover they can push you around, they never quit. You two know that as well as anyone, right?”
“Then why don’t you go pick on the Empress if you’re so special!” Emilio snarled.
“Because that would cause me a shit ton of problems,” the elf explained, now smiling with something akin to satisfaction. “Maybe enough to put me in real danger. An Empire is a hell of a thing to have mad at you, boys. See, that’s the thing about power: there’s never enough. Somebody always has more. If you live to chase power, it’ll eat you alive and you’ll never be satisfied. Instead… Well, let’s try a theoretical exercise. You are even more in my power than your little buddy here was before I came along. Tell me, boy, how would you prepare yourself to not be in this situation next time?”
Emilio growled at her, kicking at nothing in midair. Now she was holding him in position so he had to face her.
“Well,” Raoul mused, “I’d—”
“Ahp!” The elf held up a hand at him. “You don’t need this lesson. Well? Go on, boy, pitch me an idea.”
“Fine,” Emilio spat. “You want an idea? Then I’ll become a wizard. Or a warlock! I’ll learn enough magic to tie you up in the air and see how you like it!”
“Okay, sure,” she said, shrugging, and still wearing that infuriating little smile. “Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you have a chance in hell of ever being good enough at any school of magic to take me on. I’ll have a good cackle about that over tea later, but this is a theoretical exercise, after all. What about the next person? The next dragon, or paladin, or archmage, or whatever? Because it’s like I said: there’s always someone better. What’ll you do about them?”
“I’ll… I’ll just get more—”
“Until there’s no one more powerful than you?” She raised an eyebrow. “You know how many people have wasted their lives trying that exact thing? Most just destroyed themselves. A rare couple bumped up against the actual gods. There is always someone bigger, lad. No exceptions. Power is a dead end.”
“Easy for you to say!”
“Yes, it is,” she agreed, “because I have the power. But there are people more powerful than me, things in this world I wouldn’t dare screw with. Wanna know how I still get to be alive and as powerful as I am?”
“Because you’re too chicken to fight them?”
“Close!” She held up one finger. “So very close. Because I have no need to fight them. Because I’m not trying to shut up that little voice in the back of your head right now which is always angry and frightened over how weak you are.”
“Shut up!” he screamed.
“No,” the elf said implacably. “I’m about to tell you how to silence that voice; this is the important part. Instead of power, you need strength.”
“Uh…” Raoul blinked quizzically. “I don’t get it.”
“Power is the outward quality,” the elf lectured them. “The capacity to get stuff accomplished, to exert your will on others. Useful, to be sure; everybody needs some of it. But it doesn’t satisfy. If you have nothing in your heart but power, you’re imprisoned by your need to exert it on others, and your horror of having it exerted on you. Strength is the inner quality. Strength is expressed in calm, in courage. Strength is your capacity to be sufficient in yourself, unbroken by those who defeat you and free from the compulsion to defeat others.” She made a beckoning motion with one finger and Emilio found himself floating back toward her, though now he was, to his own surprise, listening closely. “It is strength that lets you know how much power you need, enables you to gain that much power, and then—and this is the really hard part, boys—stop. You wanna be free from the fear and anger others cause you, and free from the need to pound on the little ones? Then you need to be strong.”
“I’m…already stronger than them,” Emilio muttered.
She shook her head. “Nope, you’re just more powerful. You wanna learn about strength? Then you should ask him.”
The elf pointed at Raoul, who blinked. Emilio turned his head to stare at him in disbelief, and at that moment he was dropped. It wasn’t far to fall; he caught himself after a stagger, then turned back to stare up at the elf, a frown of confusion creasing his face.
“Small fry here is stronger than you are, right now,” she said.
Emilio scowled. “Huh?”
“That’s why you felt the need to pound on him, boy,” she said relentlessly. “Because no amount of pounding would break him. Because he took it, stood back up, and took more. Whatever you could dish out. Your need for power demands satisfaction, and someone with strength can deny you that. Strength beats power, every time; a powerful person can destroy a strong one, maybe, but they’ll be left with that feeling of weakness that you hate so much. Strength is the cure for that.”
“Wh…I…” He looked at her, then at Raoul, who seemed almost as confused as he did, then back. “How?”
“Well, hell, son, there are whole religions based on trying to figure that out,” the elf chuckled. “It’s not my specialty; I’m out to cure stupidity, not weakness. But I’ll tell you what: start where you are. You boys live in an Omnist temple, right? If you want to develop inner strength, one of the best things you can do is take up the martial arts.”
“They…the monks don’t teach us that,” Raoul said.
Her eyebrows drew together. “What?”
“Yeah, they’re not… Well, some of the kids, I guess,” Emilio muttered, sharing a sour look with Raoul. “The suck-ups who wanna learn their…monk stuff. They don’t have time for the rest of us, it’s just the religious ones they care about.”
“Huh. I hate to break it to you, boys, but it sounds like you live in a pretty shitty temple.”
“We know,” Raoul muttered.
“But there, again, is an opportunity,” she mused. “Omnism leans pretty heavily on meditation and inner peace; that’s its own kind of strength. My advice would to be do learn what you can from them, and do what you must to get them to teach you. Those are qualities you can then parlay into getting yourself out of there and into better opportunities. Meanwhile, mister, I’ll leave you with this thought.” She leveled an accusing finger right at Emilio’s nose. “Stop picking on the littler kids. A bully is, without exception, a pathetic weakling. Everybody understand that, on some level. Every time you do this, you leave behind a trail of everyone watching who knows how weak you are inside. You wanna stop feeling that way? Step one is to cut that shit out.”
Emilio scrubbed at his nose with his sleeve, saying nothing. He couldn’t find anything to say.
“Well, do what you want, I suppose,” the elf sighed. “I’ll admit I’m just venting my own frustrations, because I can’t damn well shake some manners into that Empress. Maybe this visit won’t be a complete waste of my time if somebody came out of it a little better for the benefit of my perspective. You remember what I said, now. Goes for you, too,” she added, pointing at Raoul. “Just cos you’ve stumbled onto a useful character trait doesn’t mean you’ve got no room to improve. It’s up to you now, boys. I have my own passel of dumb kids to handle.”
She winked, snapped her fingers, and was just…gone. There was the faintest puff of air, that was all; where there had been an elf, suddenly there stood nothing.
Emilio and Raoul jerked back in surprise, then both turned to peer around the little open-sided courtyard. They were alone; this was a quiet area, but the sounds of the city still drifted in over the rooftops and there was of course the omnipresent noise of the Wildfeast celebrations going on just one street over.
Their eyes met. Raoul made a wry face, and Emilio frowned, unconsciously clenching his fists.
“I…I think that was Tellwyrn.”
He snorted. “Omnu’s balls, you’re stupid. Tellwyrn’s not a real person, that’s just a story.”
“She is too real! She’s a historical figure!”
“I’m gonna tell Brother Timon you’re cursing in Omnu’s name!”
Emilio took one step toward him, glaring and raising a fist.
Raoul puffed his chest up, which was rendered almost comical by the difference in their sizes. But he didn’t back away, or so much as flinch.
Emilio stopped, narrowing his eyes, and just stared down at the smaller boy for a few seconds. Then, slowly, lowered his fist and forced himself to relax it.
“Why are you…like that?”
“Like what? You mean my inner strength?” Raoul grinned, showing off the gaps in his teeth. “I’m just awesome, that’s all.”
“I’m gonna thump you.”
“Ooh, you’re gonna thump me. I wonder what that’ll be like. Maybe this time I’ll actually…nah, you’re still gonna walk away pissed off and not feeling any better.”
“Don’t tell me you believe that elfish crap!”
Raoul shrugged. “Made sense to me. You’re so big and like to punch so much, why don’t you ever hit back when Divradh takes your porridge?”
“He’s twelve! He’s twice my size! What do you know?!”
“You think I don’t know what it’s like? Seriously?” Raoul spread his arms wide in an incredulous gesture.
“That’s just what…everything’s like,” Emilio muttered, looking away. “Everybody gets hit. Everybody gets pushed around. You’re not special.”
“Yeah. Everybody gets pushed around. It’s gonna happen no matter who you are. So at least you can make sure they don’t get to enjoy it.” Again, Raoul grinned. “Try it sometime, Emilio. You know how much it pisses you off.”
“I did!” Emilio shouted. “He just kicked me till I couldn’t breathe, and laughed!”
“Yeah, and so next time, you didn’t fight back. So he got what he wanted. And did that stop him punching you?”
They stared at each other in silence again. Emilio scowled, but this time at his own thoughts more than at Raoul.
“How about this,” the smaller boy suggested. “Next time he steals your breakfast, toss it all right in his stupid face.”
Emilio had to laugh incredulously at that. “Are you nuts?”
He shrugged, grinning. “Well, you’re not gonna get to eat it anyway. What sounds better to you, letting Divradh get what he wants or ruining his whole morning?”
“He’ll beat my face in!”
“Yeah, and who gave you that bruise? Giving in sure doesn’t stop him! Tellwyrn was right—”
“That wasn’t Tellwyrn, you little weirdo! What would Tellwyrn be doing in some alley in Tiraas talking to the likes of us?”
“Whatever, she was still right.” He folded his arms self-importantly. “I’m the expert in this. I get my butt kicked three times a day, and you don’t see me crying about it. An’ you know what? Madi and Nomar and Brad don’t bother anymore. You wanna piss Divradh off as much as I piss you off? Just do the same.”
Emilio hesitated, considering. There was the urge, of course, to just put an end to the frustrating conversation by punching Raoul in the face. After being manhandled and talked down to by that witch he was definitely in a punching mood. But the idea…
“Yeah, okay,” he said at last. “And then what?”
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