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"Light of the Heavens"


Chapter 1
The Rescue

By K. Olsen

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Only the purest of fires burned without smoke, without ash, without spark. Vassa Ithrennyn sat with her back against a swaying palm, stomach full for the first time in a long time, resting in the cool comfort of the oasis's shade. The flames danced at her feet as the light of the sun slipped behind the horizon, ghosting across the bare stones, swirling and radiating heat that kept the approaching chill at bay. A desert at night was not as warm as she had once assumed in her own homeland, several years and several thousand miles ago. Nothing stopped the wind except the oases, and those were chilled by the cool waters that she was immensely grateful for.

Were it not for her own talents and Samir's amazing sense of self preservation, she would have died in the desert long ago.

As if sensing her thought towards him, the camel in question huffed and tugged experimentally at his lead. He didn't want to escape, but he did want to savage the dates growing on the palms. Currently he was tied where he could only browse on the grasses and drink the crystalline fresh waters.

"Do not be a glutton," she advised her sole companion in her native tongue, lips tugging into something approaching a smile behind the dark silk that covered the lower half of her face, from the bridge of her nose down. "You would not care for it."

Samir gave her a look that could only be called challenging. In this matter, she knew he had a diametrically opposed opinion. She hadn't decided if she believed that he was truly an intelligent animal, but he was certainly stubborn and expressive, more so than any horse she had ever known. He also possessed a low, yet most impressive cunning. She'd picked up the remains of her knots on his lead more than once, somehow untied so that he could go about his gluttonous work masticating the flora. His main defense when she intercepted was to spit wildly, but he seldom did it directly at her after nearly inciting a wrath worthy of the ancients when he landed a glob all down the front of her shirt on their first day alone in the desert.

Still, for all his annoying qualities, Vassa was pleased to know him. Even the smell had faded, though that was more because her nose had become used to him than anything else. She knew it probably lingered distressingly on herself as well, despite cleaning up as much as she could. What she needed was a proper heated bath with soaps and perfumes. It would never happen, but she could delight in the last vestiges of memories of otherwise forgotten luxuries.

"Would you listen better if I spoke the tongue of the men who raised you?" Vassa asked, stirring the fire with a long, delicate finger slowly swirling above it. The flames flickered and danced, offering up their warmth and threatening their bite. The stripes of burn scars across her knuckles and palms shone in the amber light. These reminders of the abuse no longer troubled her as they once had. That was a violent revulsion and self-loathing reserved for other wounds. It was easier in seclusion to push back her own insecurities, to tend to her damage.

Samir at least didn't care what stones she carried upon her soul, ignorant of the strain of it all, bearing down the weight. The camel cared about almost nothing except where his next meal was coming from. It was a refreshingly pragmatic trait that she found she appreciated more and more as time went by. It made her regret on some level that he would die long before her, if by age if nothing else.

Vassa gave it no thought until she heard the sound of riders. On horseback, even, which meant she was far closer to a settlement than she'd realized. Horses needed water more than camels did, after all.

She smoothed her hand over the low flame. "Sleep," she whispered gently, her touch extinguishing the fire. There was no avoiding the twinge of sorrow in her chest. If a fire was to die, she would have preferred it to be on the fire's own terms. It felt cruel to cut short the life of elemental essence. She glanced up at Samir and said more firmly, "Stay."

The camel didn't resist the order, though she knew he would probably unknot his lead and be ready to run when she returned. He was nothing if not a survivor. Fortunately, they had been together long enough with a decent enough relationship that he wouldn't quite bolt without her. She was his best protection against the denizens of the oases and desert alike.

Vassa wound her way through the trees with all the grace of a hunter, though she raised no weapon to threaten off thieves. The shortsword she wore was elegant and perfectly balanced, light as a feather and keen as a razor. It was elven in design though made by a particularly talented dwarf, a copy of the second blade of a zhendai. Such things were said to be made of moonlight and shadow imbued into living metal. How Durgan had come by the knowledge of their construction was a mystery of the ages, but the mithral and magic in the blade made her feel far more secure.

Any way to safeguard herself instead of using magic was welcome. She was not the best warrior, not among her people, but she had a great deal of practice. Perfection could only be reached through that means. No amount of study would ever supplant experience in practical application, year after year.

She crept closer to the sounds of voices, one hand near her weapon but not on it. Her first search was for lookouts so that there would be no attacks from the rear. She much preferred ambushing to being ambushed. Vassa had not reached her current age by being a fool and she had ample reason not to trust anyone.

Her vantage point came from a cypress tree. In its branches, she was concealed by the brush below and the leaves all around. She made a small window by carefully parting the greenery and listened intently.

Below stood four men, desert-blooded and attired as the followers of an emir, one of the desert princes joined in consecrated brotherhood with the King of Talin. Odd, considering she was fairly certain she was further south than that kingdom of men could normally reach. Not thorn knights, she reflected. Not a hint of green amongst them. The four men were certainly of that blood, though, deep brown skin with dark hair and dark eyes. She had a good opinion of those among their people who she'd met. After all, they were the breed that had raised Samir and she had much gratitude for him.

At their feet knelt a bound and gagged young woman, clearly Eth. Her skin was as dark as charcoal, her curling hair cropped short. She seemed young, barely more than a girl and appeared to pose no threat. She looked up at her captors with frightened eyes, swallowing her fear as much as she could. The tension in her body told Vassa that she was planning to do something, the flick of her gaze hinting at a desire to flee.

And where would you flee to in this vast sea of sand? Vassa wondered silently. Death of thirst and heat far from an oasis is perhaps crueler than a blade.

"We should kill the girl," one of the standing men said, drawing a curved dagger with a wicked edge. "She has nothing. There will be no ransom for her."

Vassa almost laughed. So they were bandits, marvelous. She had that to look forward to. Though if they were truly honorless—what a delightfully ridiculous concept, honor—she could expect a great many evils were they to find her. Mercifully, she knew very well how to hide.

"Shut up," the tallest one barked. He grabbed the young woman's head and wrenched it over, showing his audience something Vassa had initially overlooked. "You know what this mark means!"

Just below the Eth's bottom lip was a twisted sigil surrounded by the elaborate silhouette of a sun, both elements shining gold and catching the glare of the setting sun's last embers. Vassa raised an eyebrow, more interested than she had been before. Surprising that the girl could not save herself, but then again, Vassa saw no sign of a soul jar. What good was a fire-speaker without a djinn? She knew little about that particular tradition of magic. It seemed a weak, fumbling grasp on power. Devastating, of course, but it relied on control that could be all too easily stripped away. Djinn had minds of their own.

She had been hoping to see at least one in the desert.

"It means we should gut her now. Every second we waste, she could be calling one," one of the others hissed.

That piqued Vassa's interest. It made sense, of course. If one's entire tradition of magic depended wholly on piggybacking off the raw power of a sentient magical fire, it would damn well pay to have the ability to at least flag one down.

While she so often erred on the side of allowing events to unfold on others as they would, learning more about Eth magic was a curiosity to indulge in worth intervening. Besides, they would come seeking her when they found her camel, and she was far better as an ambusher if not expected. Fights were never simple when they were many against one.

Vassa hooked her leg around the branch she was sitting on and placed a hand on the main trunk, digging her fingers into the bark. The hard skin of the tree softened slightly, letting her find a firm grip that wouldn't snap. "Let us see how you like a little magic," she whispered. Without need for a clumsy word or a grasping gesture, she touched her soul to the threads of existence, the fabric of reality. For almost all living souls, such a grasp on magic would be utterly beyond reach, but it was, as all things, a matter of perspective. A kernel of power formed at the center of her chest, burning fury hoping so ardently to be granted life. It would really be a shame to deny it the chance to live.

She waited until the split second when the most aggressive of the men raised the knife. Time was different to Vassa than to any of them, the strict passage of hours far less important than the individual moments. She could navigate heartbeats more adroitly than the five below and many others, yet another thing that came with experience.

She exhaled and released her kernel of power out into the threads, accepting the brief drain on her vitality as the price of action. The blade exploded in the man's hand, fragments piercing deep into the four. The one who had been holding it was extinguished by a chunk of the blade ripping open his throat while the others staggered back, bleeding and stunned.

Their leader recovered himself quickly, drawing his scimitar. "That was no djinn!"

Vassa sighed. She'd been hoping for a little more damage. Clearly she was slipping, or perhaps it was because she wanted the Eth in one living piece. She let go of the tree with her hands and uncurled her leg, body tensing to spring. As much as she had no desire to risk harm to herself, there was no way out of it now. She flicked her fingers, fixing not her eyes but her mind on the very first layer of sand on the earth behind the leader.

Distance, like time, was far more fluid than people gave it credit for.

Vassa stepped between the threads of existence like a dancer leaping from pirouette to pirouette. The cypress swayed, but there was no sign of anything in its branches. When the men looked, there was nothing there. Nothing because at the same moment, Vassa stepped from the leader's shadow.

He made a harsh sound in his throat as her blade plunged through his kidney up into his diaphragm, angled hard to do as much damage as possible. Vassa wasn't strong, but with speed and a blade this sharp, she didn't have to be. The blow was carefully placed to be at the angle where his brigantine armor was its weakest.

The others whirled and charged. Vassa's eyes saw where they were headed and her mind knew where they would end. Again she stepped from sunset to shadow, blade glimmering with moonlight. They were only two now, another tick towards even odds.

She appeared beside one of them, slicing just under his chin, allowing his own momentum to drive him further onto her blade. He crashed to the earth across a bloom of crimson, blood soaked hungrily up by the sands.

That left her with one horrified bandit remaining. Instead of swinging for her, he took a step back. "What are y—"

Vassa stepped in, striking the inside of his blade with hers. When he flinched instinctively, parrying as hard as he could, she let her blade flick from his to stab wickedly at the opening she'd just created with her feint on his opposite side. He tried to recover, but he had six inches of steel through his teeth before he could react effectively.

"Your predations have ended," Vassa said as she watched him fall to the earth.

Something hit her in the side of the head with enough force to send her sprawling. Was there another? She blinked to reorient herself when she felt someone step onto her swordhand, holding her blade immobile. Her head hurt, but she was well acquainted with pain.

It was the young woman, the last of her bonds hanging from her wrists. Apparently she'd been more ready to escape than Vassa gave her credit for. "Well done," she said in the Eth's language, that almost-smile forming behind her mask. "I commend you on your initiative, though perhaps not on your sense of self preservation."

"I just wanted to make sure we could talk before you killed me," the Eth young woman said, nerves making her voice high and unsteady. It was still pleasant to hear. Of all the southern languages, Vassa appreciated the Eth tongue the most. It was rich and full of complexity, with many sounds that did not exist in her flowing native tongue. She had yet to ascertain what had made her kin denigrate the 'beast speech' of the southern people.

Vassa relaxed comfortably, even her grip on her blade. If she wanted to kill the young woman, she could even in her current position. After all, the Eth was clearly most worried about the least of her weapons, the blade itself. "How civil. Though perhaps next time you could try asking instead of striking."

The young woman's brow furrowed. "You don't seem worried."

"Perhaps," she said with a shrug. "But I am not your enemy, fire-speaker. Those men would have killed you and then I, the moment they realized I was present in the oasis."

"What are you?" the Eth asked, clearly trying to make out more of Vassa's features only to be thwarted by the hood and mask. "That was not Eth magic."

"No, it was not," Vassa admittedly freely. "I am a traveler, one who knows a few tricks. They certainly worked to your benefit."

"Quite the tricks," she said warily. "So, traveler, can I expect the same from you that they did?"

"You may expect whatever you wish," the masked woman said with an almost carefree patience. "But I will only harm you if you seek to do me harm. Is that acceptable?"

The young woman studied her, then moved her foot so Vassa was no longer pinned against the earth. "It is," she confirmed, holding out her hand to help her rescuer up. "I am Seben Femi and I thank you for saving me. You are?"

"Slightly bruised," she said as she accepted the help up. The Eth were tall as a people, and even on the shorter side, Seben was six feet tall in sandals. "My name is Vassa."

The Eth nodded, though her glance had fallen to Vassa's hand. It was pale in the moonlight. "Where are you from, if I may ask?"

"You may ask," Vassa said. She picked up her blade, prompting Seben to stiffen up. She ignored the young woman, using the body of her nearest fallen foe to clean off her blade before sheathing it. The Eth relaxed once the shortsword was no longer drawn.

Seben seemed to understand that meant she wasn't going to get an answer. "You are quite the warrior."

"Hardly," Vassa said. She didn't think of herself as a warrior, not really. "They were simply not accounting for me." There was only one word she felt described her adequately: exile.

A crash in the brush followed by a distant sneezing noise drew her attention away from the young woman. She was altogether too familiar with that sound: Samir was raiding the dates and knew she would have heard the crash. He was clearly already working up a frightful amount of phlegm.

"What is that horrible noise?" Seben asked with unmistakable concern.

"My very own gluttonous fleabag," Vassa said with a sigh. "I should go wrangle him before he demolishes everything. You are welcome to come."

"Is he dangerous?" the young woman asked warily, following on her heels.

"That depends on the level of peril you assign to a truly infernal amount of camel spit," she muttered.

Seben chuckled. "I have known camels before. Their spit is certainly foul, but not surely not infernal."

"I promise that it is malevolence incarnate, in both quantity and quality," Vassa said, stalking towards the camel laying waste to the date palms. "You! Off!"

Samir wheeled around and raised his head. Vassa dove to the side on reflex, leaving a woefully defenseless Seben behind. The gob of mucus and saliva that hit the Eth woman in the chest was about the size of Vassa's hand, spattering down the entire front of her white linen robe. Seben staggered back at the impact, eyes wide as saucers until the smell hit her, which disabled her with retching. Samir's head swiveled, hunting for his next target.

Vassa stepped out of the air beside the beast, catching his halter and forcing his head to point away from her. The spewing of camel snot reached a crescendo in velocity as he tried fervently to force her to let go of him with a combination of head-shaking and copious quantities of ooze. Even used to it, Vassa gagged a little. "Give it up, you ungainly trash-heap of malice," she said. "Any more of this and I will roast you."

Samir grudgingly stopped spitting, glaring at her with one baleful eye. He was waiting for her to relax her grip so he could break away and rampage anew.

"I know your game," she reminded him pointedly. She wasn't particularly strong, but his original owners had taught her how to catch him. "Give it up."

Her camel looked sullen at that, but ceased pulling and allowed her to find his lead. She guided him away from the palms and tied him securely to the sturdy cypress tree.

"Your beast is…" the young woman struggled to say.

"Foul?" Vassa suggested with amusement, lips tugging into a smirk behind her mask. "I did warn you." She patted Samir's side, ignoring the beast's glower but ready to dodge his spit if needed.

"Not warning enough," Seben muttered. She tried not to gag at the smell. "I'm going to see if those bandits had fresh clothes."

"I will be on the other side of the oasis's pond. I have a camp there," Vassa said, amusement still coloring her voice into something warmer than usual. "You may join me if you wish...or flee into the desert."

Seben nodded and headed back towards the horses and bodies of the bandits.

Vassa sighed. She wasn't used to having company who spoke. Samir had been her only true companion since she reached the Sea of Sand. Fortunately, this one would be gone soon enough, likely as soon as they reached civilization. That would be enough time to satisfy her curiosity and then send the young woman on her way before too many questions bubbled up in the fire-speaker.

She returned to her camp, meager as it was. Her bedroll was spread on soft grasses underneath a palm's deepening shade, her fire cold and dead. Vassa set about collecting palm fronds and woody pieces of those trees that had fallen and built a small fire again, igniting it with a flick of her fingers and a brief, tiny pulse of power. The flames bloomed to life and Vassa almost smiled, pleased to greet the element again. She took a seat next to it.

By the time she had finished, Seben emerged from the shadows of the palms as the sun finally made its descent behind the horizon. There was just enough light for Seben to see her path before reaching the firelight.

"Who are you?" Seben asked. The nervous unsteadiness in her voice was better, suppressed in favor of curiosity and boldness.

"I told you," Vassa said as she warmed her hands by the flames. Her rings gleamed in the light, each one intricately engraved with swirling script and sigils. "A traveler."

Seben hesitated, studying the rings. Vassa wore them on her ring fingers and thumbs, with an additional one on the index finger of her left hand. "Are you a Leyan mage? You lack the accent."

The masked woman laughed at that. "Hardly," she said, the eyes that gleamed in the firelight focusing intently on Seben. "These were...payment, for services rendered." She paused a second before shifting topics. "I think you are far more interesting than I, fire-speaker. How did you come to be held by these bandits?"

"I was with a caravan. They grabbed me in the night," Seben said.

Vassa knew when a great many salient details were being omitted. She had spent a long time learning to observe people, even the smallest of their expressions. Seben wasn't lying, but much was unsaid. It only piqued Vassa's curiosity more. "Details, my young friend. Surely my intervention is worth a few of those."

Seben nodded slightly, still watching Vassa intently as she sat down across the fire from the masked traveler. "I was with a caravan, headed to Okena on the coast, towards Sarom. The men you saw grabbed me in the night. It almost sounded like they were working for someone, but that doesn't make any sense."

"Oh?"

The young woman frowned. "I'm no one special, just an apprentice from a poor line. No one would pay my ransom. They couldn't."

Vassa cocked her head to the side, evaluating that statement. It was certainly a sign of something going on, though what was a question she wouldn't be able to answer without digging. "Did you tell them that?"

Seben shook her head. "I couldn't, not with the gag."

"Well, fortune certainly smiled on you this evening," Vassa commented. She rose to her feet and fished her spare blanket out of her saddle bag. "I suggest you sleep."

"I'll—"

"There is a perfectly fine bedroll here," the masked woman said as she unfolded her blanket. "You are welcome to it."

Seben's brow creased. "What about you?"

Vassa wrapped her blanket around her shoulders and leaned back against the large palm tree. "I will keep watch. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that others might stumble upon the oasis or seek it out with intent. At least one of us should be awake and aware."

"All night?" the young woman said with concern. "That doesn't seem fair. It's hard on you."

Behind her mask, Vassa's lips quirked into a half smile. "I will be fine. You have had a difficult day and need the rest."

Seben seemed uncertain for a long moment before nodding. "Thank you," she said. "I'm not used to—" The young woman stopped herself abruptly, pressing her lips together. After a moment, she repeated, "Thank you."

"You are welcome," Vassa said with a flick of her fingers as she bowed slightly at the waist, still seated. It was an imitation of a deep courtier's bow. "Rest well." She leaned back against the palm and pulled the blanket more tightly around her body, finished with the conversation. It was time to turn it over in her thoughts and pick it apart.

With some hesitance, Seben laid down on Vassa's bedroll and pulled the blanket over herself. It was comfortable and warm, smelling faintly of smoke and the woman herself as well as camel. Between the soothing comfort of the bedroll and the air of safety conferred by Vassa's watchful presence, exhausted, Seben succumbed to sleep quickly.

Vassa shook her head slightly as she looked over at the young woman. "You trust too easily," she whispered to the sleeping Seben. "Have a care, or it will be your end."


Chapter 2
Aura

By K. Olsen

Vassa ran her fingertips along the edge of her mask, smoothing the fabric thoughtfully as she regarded the distance. By Seben's estimate, they were only a day from Okena. The thought of a potential bath was almost intoxicating. Coin was not something Vassa spent frivolously and so she had a fair amount of wealth tucked away, though much of it was in the form of gemstones, high-value items that were lighter to transport than their worth in silver and gold. With Samir to defend them, she seldom had to concern herself with people rifling through her bags.

Seben held the reins of one of the bandit's horses. Fortunately, raised in the desert as the beast was, it didn't have the normal aversion to the smell and sound of a camel. "Are you going to Okena?" she asked, a note of hope in her voice.

"I am," Vassa said. She had no real destination to speak of, other than to see as much as she could. Much of her life had been spent secluded away from the world among her own people. That seclusion and the nature of her kind stoked curiosity, wanderlust, and a hunger for novelty in Vassa that she was ill-inclined to ignore. Besides, it was not as though returning home was possible.

An earnest smile of relief broke out across the fire-speaker's face. "That's good. I...don't want to travel alone."

Vassa arched an eyebrow, though the expression was hidden by her hood. "How charming."

Seben frowned at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"

The masked traveler laughed, the sound soft and almost silvery. "Few would so readily cast themselves upon the good graces of a stranger met in the desert." Her eyes flashed under the hood, catching sunlight. "A dangerous stranger, no less."

"If you wanted to kill me, you've had ample opportunity," Seben pointed out defensively. "You saved me when you didn't have to and you watched over me last night." She was perceptive enough to get a glimpse of Vassa's face where it was not shrouded by fabric: heavily hooded and almond-shaped pale green eyes. They were piercing and did not feel inclined towards habitual kindness, however amused Vassa sounded.

"It pays to be cautious. You know little of my intentions," Vassa said as she climbed up into the saddle on Samir with seemingly no effort required.

It was one of the things that gave Seben the most pause: every movement of Vassa's was fluid and worthy of a dancer. For supposedly not being a warrior, she moved with an almost otherworldly grace that any Kingsguard would kill to have. Her rescuer was slim, but it was hard to forget the precision and speed that she brought to her attacks on the bandits. "I know your actions."

Vassa half-smiled behind her mask. "Perhaps." She had no ulterior motive to helping Seben other than serving her own curiosity, which was fairly benign as far as such things went, but she found it wise to be skeptical of others. Hearts were such uncertain things. "Well, fire-speaker, shall we?"

"I'm not a full fire-speaker yet," Seben said as she mounted her horse.

"Fascinating. What do you have left to learn, apprentice?" Vassa said, keeping Samir close to the horse so they could talk without bellowing. The other horses followed close behind, carrying water. They were good, healthy beasts that would probably fetch a decent price and bore no brand to make anyone immediately suspicious. Vassa had opted to remove their saddles to ensure there would be less to remark upon.

Seben sighed. "Calling djinn." Her tone made it clear that she knew having that ability would have saved her. There was also a note of something else in her voice that Vassa placed immediately: conflict.

"You do not feel you are suited to your studies," Vassa said as if it was a question, but her inflection made it more of a statement.

The comment was not a critique, but Seben tensed as those words struck a nerve. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Clearly," Vassa said with a dry sort of amusement. "That was not an insult, merely an observation. You will find that in some respects, my perception is keener than most."

"And what else do you observe?" Seben said tersely.

Vassa shook her head slightly. "Do not ask questions you do not want answered," she said, torn between amusement and serious warning.

The Eth woman lifted her chin. "I am not afraid of your words."

"Perhaps you should be," Vassa said, fighting the urge to sigh. The young were always so willing to forge ahead in the unknown, blissfully ignorant of what could be around the corner. It was both impressive and very foolish. She pulled on Samir's reins, drawing the camel to a halt even though they were still within sight of the oasis, the sands still somewhat cool with dawn still rising in the east.

Seben matched her, frowning as Vassa urged Samir down and then swung off the camel's back. The masked woman stood by Seben's foot in the stirrup. "What are you doing?"

Vassa turned to face the young woman and lifted her chin, gazing up into Seben's confused eyes. Hide nothing from me. Casting a spell took effort, vitality sapped away, and could be quite lethal to the caster. Reading an aura, however, she could do with simple concentration. Show me what is within. She reached out and brushed her hand across Seben's where the young woman held the reins.

It was a brief contact, just a caress, but suddenly Vassa's perception shifted. Her field of vision narrowed, everything but Seben's dark eyes lost to the blur around them, the endless fabric of existence that shone like chains of stars caught on glimmering gossamers.

Whatever Vassa had been expecting, what she saw outshone it like a nova compared to a candle flame. Seben's aura was almost blinding to her inner eye, even sleeping as it was; a phoenix's glory burned at the heart of the young woman, waiting patiently for its release. The latent magic was ancient, as ancient as Vassa's own, and powerful beyond what humans were typically capable of. The young woman she had rescued was not a mage, nor perhaps even a fire-speaker. She was an artifact, a link to divinity, and that was not supposed to happen. It was peerless beauty, awe-inspiring power, and threatened apocalyptic devastation if misused.

Vassa forced herself to look away, expression fortunately inscrutable behind cloth. "You are not what you appear upon preliminary inspection," she said, voice steady despite the way her mind was reeling from that otherworldly radiance penned in such an unassuming package.

"What does that mean?" Seben asked, worried. She felt no flash of magic as from a djinn, but something had happened when Vassa looked into her eyes, if only based by the way the masked woman's eyes had widened slightly. It seemed more surprise than the stranger had given a sign she was capable of.

Vassa had already returned to Samir's back, urging him up from the sands. "Many things," she said. "Take it as you will." She glanced over and saw the young woman's concern had grown, overpowering the frustration. "I will tell you what I saw when we go our separate ways."

Seben looked like she wanted to press for more, but she hesitated. "As you wish," she said instead of pushing. "I'm sorry if I spoke harshly. I don't mean to be ungrateful. I just...wasn't expecting that."

Vassa waved a hand dismissively. "I took no offense," she said before urging Samir forward. She was intensely curious now about her accidental ward's history, but Vassa knew the more involved she became the more dangerous it was for her. Interacting with such gifts of the gods was no small thing, in some ways equally perilous to making a deal with the Deceiver. She was well aware of what magic could do and things like that had a way of bending the fates of those around them.

It was...interesting. Unfortunately, Vassa's natural pessimism told her it was likely interesting the way a premonition of her own demise would be interesting. An younger version of herself would have leaped at the chance to puzzle out the many secrets Seben contained and make use of them, but Vassa's exile had given her a great deal of time to reflect and grow wiser.

"So what is your story?" Seben asked to fill the now quiet air. "You speak with barely an accent, but you are not from here, yes?"

"You would find it tedious," Vassa said dismissively, well aware that the opposite was probably true. Her rescue seemed the curious type.

Seben shook her head. "Must you be so mysterious?" she said, amusement creeping into her tone.

Vassa's lips twitched, hinting at the ghost of a smile. It surprised her to be glad of the company. Perhaps it was just because she had not allowed herself the luxury of someone around her aside from her few interactions of business. She had not shared her fire overnight in months at least. "How else am I to keep myself amused?"

The young woman laughed. "So not even a hint?"

"What do you think?" Vassa asked, turning in her seat to regard Seben. It almost sounded like a challenge. "Has your training imparted perception?"

"It was mostly of books, not people," Seben said. "But I can certainly play your game."

"Then let us hear it."

"Your skin is pale enough that you must be from the east and north," the young woman observed. "You move like a dancer, but I do not think you are an entertainer. You certainly have magic at your fingertips even though you claim not to be Leyan. A mystery, to be sure, but I know one thing for certain."

"Oh?" Vassa said with amusement.

"You have a good heart."

The masked woman laughed more than she had in a very long time."You may certainly believe so, should it please you, though I would not recommend it," she said.

Seben didn't look dissuaded or disheartened when Vassa glanced over. Instead, the young woman was smiling faintly. "We'll see," she said.

Vassa shook her head slightly. "Foolish," she murmured. With an aura like that, Seben couldn't afford to trust so casually. The kingdoms of men were starved of magic, and scarcity of such power always bred avarice for it. Then again, the apprentice fire-speaker didn't know.

"What's the first thing you're going to do when we make it to Okena, Vassa?" Seben asked, still cheerful with the masked woman's comment inaudible behind fabric.

"Find an inn and a bath," the masked woman said, her sigh at the end of those words almost dreamy. She cared nothing for the food and drinks, which were generally of dubious quality, nor the beds, which were usually barely better than the ground, but the idea of being truly clean, no magic required to brush the dirt from her body...it was headier than any fine wine she had enjoyed before her exile.

"You sound like you're picturing yourself in it already," Seben said with a laugh.

Vassa glanced over at the tease, eyebrow again arching beneath her hood. "Frankly, I think you could stand to wash as well. You still smell of Samir spit."

"And whose fault is that?"

"I suggest you take it up with the villain himself, though I suspect he is itching for a rematch."

Samir let out a sneezing noise that was probably unrelated, but Vassa felt was potentially menacing. When she glanced over, she saw a flash of horrified trepidation on the young woman's face. Apparently the trauma of being assaulted by camel spit was still fresh in the Eth's mind. It faded quickly enough as Samir became the object of speculation.

"Woe to those who earn the ire of your camel," Seben said with hints of an appropriately respectful smile.

"His wrath is putrescent indeed," Vassa said dryly, earning a peal of laughter from her traveling companion. It was oddly pleasant to be around someone so free with their emotions, whatever they were experiencing, after a lifetime of learning to watch every gesture, word, and hint of her own. Vassa had spent much of her childhood relentlessly locating her own tells and purging them from her conduct. To survive in her homeland was to be as ever-changing as the winds and waters, as rigid as the bending reeds who were stirred by both, and to hoard secrets like the gods themselves.

"Is that why you cover your face?" Seben asked curiously.

Vassa shrugged, the wound still fresh and raw in her heart. "As good a reason as any, I suppose," she said with the exact same flippant tone.

"So that's not the reason."

The masked woman sighed and tilted her head back slightly as if lifting her gaze towards the heavens. "Am I to be interrogated all ride?" she said with that same dry air. "Surely I have earned a hint of privacy, even from the eternally curious."

Seben smiled at that. "It was worth a try."

The ride fell into a comfortable silence after that as both of them reflected on the secrets looming in their future: Vassa had the apprentice fire-speaker's unique aura and all of the implications it hinted at while Seben had Vassa. The masked woman mulled it over while keeping her eyes roving for any signs of more bandits headed their way. Samir was an excellent alarm to such things as well, something that had served Vassa well on several occasions.

For the most part, though, Vassa was untroubled by bandits. She understood how they worked and was quite good at either appearing not prey or not there at all. One or two had still chanced attacking her only to find it go entirely not the way they were hoping. Seben's captors were not the first bandits to feel the bite of her blade. When it was clearly desperation, she was merciful, but in other cases, she had been far more ruthless in making her point about the sanctity of her person.

These bandits, though, bothered her. None of them had given any indication that the young woman's aura was something they were aware of, but just a random ransom seemed unlikely. To go to the risk of taking someone as potentially dangerous as a fire-speaker, surely they would have waited until they had a guaranteed payday. Clearly one of them had been aware of the deal, if not the others. Was that ransom being paid for a fire-speaker or for something far more unique and dangerous? Money meant nothing to her except for the fact that it told her when and what was desired. It was influence, power, hooks in others. There was a reason she always made certain she had a ready supply of it in these lands, even when isolated like this.

Whoever they were to be paid by is probably in Okena. They were bringing her towards it and that is close enough for weak-willed, impatient men. Though not quite close enough, Vassa reflected. Her own curiosity was rearing its head, but she crushed it down with a reminder that even now, unfocused on it, she could feel Seben's aura like the sun shining onto her soul. It was unexpected and it was the kind of lore that would be difficult to turn up many answers of substance about.

She needed more information. As the sun sank lower to the horizon, Vassa finally broke the quiet. "How close are we to your city?"

"An hour, if that," Seben said, relaxing at the thought. "Though truthfully, I'm from a much smaller town on the far side of Ethilir: Losena. It's not much except for the fortifications."

"At the border to Leus. That does explain where you have seen a mage before," the masked woman said with a nod. "Many important people maintain estates there, behind the protection of those walls."

"Poverty and prosperity elbow to elbow," Seben said with a nod, a tiny frown forming. "It makes life more difficult for those who dwell there without a title or wealth. Every lordling is a king in Losena—just ask them."

"Surely it affords some opportunity for a fire-speaker, even an apprentice," Vassa said. There was something there, buried in Seben's psyche. Pain. Whether it was from wounded pride or something darker remained to be seen. Not that it was her place to pry, given how little she appreciated it when people tried prying into her own inner workings.

"Not as much as you'd think," Seben said with a sigh. "The fire-speakers there seldom take on apprentices who are not the children of lords too far removed from succession to inherit. A second path to power for the already powerful."

"And yet you were chosen," the masked woman observed. "Your talent must be remarkable."

"I think it was spite on Iahmesu's part. He was not a kind teacher, but he did enjoy offending the nobles with my presence," the young woman said. She hesitated. "I don't know what I'll do without him."

Vassa regarded the young woman thoughtfully as the sun finally touched the horizon, never urging Samir to break his comfortable strides. "I think I do," she said in her careful, observational way. "You will find another teacher and you will excel, even if it is not as a fire-speaker. There are plenty who would appreciate your endless curiosity in the realms of scholasticism. Magic in particular rewards diligence and punishes the indolent."

Seben looked taken aback by that comment. "That was a compliment, Vassa."

Her lips twitched behind her mask. "Am I so acerbic that you think me incapable of them?"

"Unwilling, not unable," the young woman said with a laugh. "You seem as apt to poke and prod as you say I am."

"Ah, but for different reasons," Vassa said, eyes half-closed beneath her hood as she studied her newfound traveling companion. "You seek answers. I seek reactions."

"You have a strange way of jesting."

Vassa shrugged. "So, when we reach Okena, where do you intend to go?" she asked. "To find a fire-speaker?"

"I suppose. Unless…" Seben paused, an almost hopeful light touching her dark eyes. "You know magic, Vassa. If you—"

That was an idea that needed to be nipped in the bud. Immediately. Vassa turned in her saddle. "No," she said firmly, barely stopping short of being harsh. "There are many things I could teach you, apprentice, but not about magic."

"Why?" Seben asked. The stiffness to her posture suggested that she thought she had raised the masked woman's ire and was very well acquainted with what that hostility might look like.

Vassa softened slightly, though her expression was impassive behind the silk covering her face. She hadn't meant to frighten even if it was probably the wisest reaction the young woman had given her. Still, she thought of that aura. That potential fully unlocked without accompanying precision and control, if it could even be used that way, was a disaster waiting to happen. Vassa had a sneaking suspicion that if she could delve more into it, she could help Seben open that doorway. It was almost difficult to resist the temptation, but she knew full well that such doors, once opened, could not be closed. "It is dangerous."

"And djinn aren't?"

"Comparatively speaking, no," Vassa said. She turned her face towards Okena, visible as lights across the dunes and announced by the sound of the sea. "Besides, you cannot access magic as I do. You would be better served finding a Leyan mage to teach you, if that is your goal. Not that I would trust one. Their political infighting is legendary for a reason, though I am certain the Sunlit Court is every bit as conniving and grasping."

Seben sighed and shook her head slightly. "So to the Ashen Tower it is. Sarom has more fire-speakers than anywhere else in the world."

"That it does," Vassa said thoughtfully. If she wanted to learn more about fire-speakers, maybe there was a place for her to go there. They would probably not allow her entry, as such practitioners guarded their secrets jealously, but that had not stopped her in Leus. Every door had a key, it was only a matter of learning what that was. Seben could potentially even provide her with that access, if she helped the young woman get there. Though...that idea left a feeling in Vassa's stomach that she didn't care for. She sighed and cast her gaze toward the darkening sky for a brief moment. Gods damn it.

It was so much easier to not care.

"Something wrong?" Seben asked, a note of concern in her voice.

"We should move more quickly," Vassa said. "If we arrive too late for a bath, I will be truly unhappy."

Seben laughed. "Race you there," she said before urging her horse faster.

Vassa didn't deign to respond, but she did tap Samir into motion. The camel could easily outpace a horse on sand, particularly since Vassa was such a light weight on his back.

It was strange, enjoying the company of another this way. It felt entirely unlike her home, and yet was every bit as dangerous.


Chapter 3
Visitors

By K. Olsen

It seemed every tavern of quality in Okena was packed with people, as their approach had followed on the heels of a great caravan. It was almost enough to drive Vassa to less reputable establishments, but she still wanted a bath and a private one at that. The city itself was hard to take a measure of in the dark except by the extent of lamplights, which hinted at a larger settlement than Vassa expected. Then again, Okena was a port city on the most sedate part of the Jagged Coast, a site of considerable merchant traffic and the occasional pirate. The air even inside hinted at sweet sea breezes, though ale and people overpowered that for the most part.

Seben stayed close to Vassa's elbow as they pushed their way through the crowded inn towards the bar. The man there giving orders to his small legion of workers was a wiry Eth man in his later middle years, grey streaking his black hair. Vassa was seldom jostled, to Seben's surprise. She seemed able to conjure a small distance all around herself despite the press. That did nothing to help the noise, however. There were people chattering in a dozen or more different languages, some even shouting to be heard over the chaos of dinner noises and a flute player off to one side on a stage made of upturned crates.

Vassa was too focused to be as disoriented as Seben by the noise and bustle. She stopped at the bar, looking up at the proprietor. His wide, friendly grin seemed designed to put people at ease. "If you would be so kind, my associate and I require a room. With a bath, if you would." They'd stopped just long enough to sell the horses that weren't being kept, though part of the value was guaranteed space at this place's bustling stable courtesy of an agreement with the owner. It meant that Vassa now had more than enough wealth at her disposal to be comfortable anywhere she went.

His brow creased. "I am sorry, but the merchant ro—"

Vassa flicked her fingers, almost conjuring a gold coin from nowhere. She always kept some of her money in a number of different pockets concealed on her person, including up a sleeve. She placed the disk marked with the crown of Ethilir on the bartop and pressed her thumb down on it. Even in a nation as prosperous as the homeland of the Eth, gold was of considerable value and most currency in circulation tended to be silver or the ubiquitous copper. "I think you will find me more generous than your typical merchant. My business has done very well for itself," Vassa said pleasantly. She leaned in slightly. "One of your better rooms. I will pay a fair price. I think this and four more should cover us for a night."

He smiled, as aware as she was that this was more than the value of the room. "With a bath."

Vassa inclined her head gracefully. "I thank you, sir. May you forever be in prosperous business."

Seben caught something out of the corner of her eye and put a hand on Vassa's arm as the inn's proprietor turned away to order that room be prepared. "We're being watched."

"Very astute," Vassa said pleasantly, turning to face the apprentice fire-speaker and putting her back to the observing table. "Keep your eyes on me and let your peripheral vision catch the details. What do you see?"

"Surely you saw them, to speak so," Seben said with a frown.

"That is not the point of this," she said pleasantly. "What do you see?"

"A merchant in his middle-years and his two guards."

"Details, my young friend," Vassa said. "The demons are in the details."

Seben took a deep breath and looked without obviously looking. She could see the three men over Vassa's shoulder, since the masked woman was several inches shorter. "Which first?"

"We will start with the least obviously interesting: the guards," Vassa said.

"Two large, muscular men in brigantine, their spears leaned up against the wall. They both bear a crimson sash pulled through rings bearing an insignia that I do not recognize. It looks like a flower. Both are pierced through the lips by gold rings many times. He must be a wealthy merchant, to have such coin for even his servants to wear such precious metals. They seem capable and they watch the room like bodyguards should. Their attention is not on us, at least not much. They must not see us as a threat," Seben reported, staying in Vassa's personal space so that she could speak more softly without being overheard. It was hard for the young woman to focus, given her curiosity about making out more of Vassa's features, though there were really only eyes for her to scrutinize.

"And the man in the center?"

"He dresses in the clothing of a prosperous merchant, linen dyed well in different blue hues. He wears a large ring set with some kind of stone and his sash is twisted and wrapped in a distinctive pattern. It's a fashion I've seen in Losena…" Seben said, words trailing off.

"Among nobles," Vassa said with a brief twitch of a smile behind her mask. Seben nodded, which only pleased her more. "Well done."

"Why would a noble be paying attention to us?" Seben asked nervously.

"Why do you think?"

Seben shook her head slightly, refocusing on Vassa. "Do you ever answer a question with anything but another question?"

Vassa's smile widened a touch. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

The young woman rolled her eyes. "Because I am the only fire-speaker in the tavern? He doesn't know that I'm only an apprentice."

"I have a competing theory," Vassa said, eyes lighting up when the innkeeper approached with a key in hand. "We can discuss it somewhere quieter. There is something you should know."

"Information that you are giving freely? May wonders never cease," Seben said, watching as Vassa accepted the key with a gracious bow of her head.

"Foolish, to assume there is no price to something as precious as knowledge," Vassa said, turning the key over in her hands. "Follow me, if you wish. I suspect that my lodgings will be safer and more comfortable than the stables."

Seben nodded, waiting until they were out of the barroom and half up the stairs to the upper story to ask, "Do you know who he was?"

"At the present time? His identity in particular is unknown," Vassa said quietly. She moved swiftly up the stairs, though it wasn't clear if she was leaving earshot as quickly as possible or if she was eager for her bath and an actual bed. "However, as I indicated, it would not be unwise to suppose that he is interested in our movements for a reason beyond your vocation."

Vassa unlocked the door and stepped in, drawing in a deep breath of sweet, clean air. The room was well appointed, worthy of a minor noble. The bed was large with a comfortable mattress and clean sheets, the rug on the floor soft and thick enough to absorb the sound of their footfalls. The bath was through a secondary doorway screened from view by a curtain, set into the floor and wreathed by warmth. Rose petals floated on the surface of the water, adding their perfumed smell. It was enough to make her almost pinch herself. She stopped, enraptured.

"What?" Seben asked, closing the door behind them. "Vassa?"

The masked woman let out a truly content sigh for the first time in a long time and stopped to take off her boots. Sand came along with them. "I merely long to soak away Samir's particular brand of fragrance," Vassa said. "I can brush away the dirt with a little trick, but it is distressingly unable to remove the smell. Fortunately, I think we can also afford a laundry service, which they will offer here."

"After the horses, you do have a lot of coin."

Vassa dumped the satchel she'd been carrying, the sound of significant coinage muffled by the clothes and bedroll she had wrapped around it. "Half is yours. I have little need of it," she said absently, eyes still fixed towards the bath. She turned. "You are responsible for dividing it up. I will only invoke the debt you owe me now, in one particular way. When I bathe, I bathe alone and without prying eyes. Curiosity or no, you yet draw breath because of me. I ask that you respect my privacy."

Seben gaped at her. "Half? I've never had that kind of—!"

"Did you hear me?" Vassa asked pointedly, picking up a change of clean clothes

That tone knocked Seben back to reality. She nodded. "I won't pry."

The masked woman studied her for a long moment, measuring sincerity before dipping her head in a nod. "Very well then. We will discuss the rest when I am finished." With that said, she vanished through the curtain, drawing it closed behind herself.

"You are a very strange creature," Seben muttered before turning and locking the door. She didn't like the idea of the noble or his guards approaching, particularly not when the more capable warrior of the two of them was naked in a bath. Vassa's blade had gone through the doorway with her, but that didn't mean it was going to stay ready on her person.

In the bathroom, Vassa approached the mirror that hung on the wall and turned it around, the face now pressed to the wall with the wooden backing visible to her. Then she went about the methodical process of undressing, removing layers of shrouding piece by piece. The last thing to be removed was the mask across her face. She closed her eyes as she lowered herself into the bath, hot water rushing over muscles tensed and aching from endless travel.

If heaven were a place, this most assuredly was it. Someone had left soap sitting by the bath's edge, perfumed with that same rose scent. It wasn't her preferred fragrance, but she would enjoy it all the same. She sighed and sank under the water for a moment just to be completely enveloped in the warmth before surfacing again. There were enough reasons to be cautious that she couldn't justify enjoying this for too long, but any desire to do anything other than bathe died a quick, painless death. Applying soap and soaking in a warmth so much more refreshing than the desert sun was going to be the highlight of her travel through the desert's majesty.

In the other room, Seben set about untangling the coin from Vassa's belongings. In all honesty, it didn't look like the masked woman had much in the way of property. There were several changes of clothing, the bedroll, a few camping supplies, and a shard of mirror that had been worn smooth around the edges by scraping it against a hard surface, probably a rock. If there were things that Vassa prized, they were apparently kept on her person, because she didn't seem to care much for coin or the pouch of stones that looked like it contained unfaceted gems when Seben dared to take a peek into it.

Her rescuer had a great deal of wealth. Was she a noble? The more Seben considered that, the more it didn't seem to fit. Even if the masked woman had money, her attitude was more pragmatic than the haughtiness and extravagance of nobility. Well, she might have the pride, Seben reflected, glancing towards the curtain. She still wanted to see her rescuer's face, but she would respect the boundary. Vassa was right: the masked woman was owed that much and she had her reasons for not wishing to be seen.

Seben wasn't entirely convinced she wasn't dreaming either. Some mysterious rescuer appearing out of literally nowhere to sweep her to safety and fortune felt altogether unreal. Vassa's manner was the only thing that convinced her otherwise. If it had been purely a dream, it would have made more sense. She sorted through the coin with hands shaking slightly from the sheer nerves of having that kind of wealth at her fingertips. Eventually it was divided as close to evenly as could be and she tucked the two halves into two separate pouches of about the right size.

There was no sign of any pursuit from the noble or his guards, even when Seben pressed her ear to the door to the hall and listened. The thumping of many feet going to and fro as people moved to their rooms, but none that stopped and lingered near their door. Now all she could do was wait for Vassa's return and whatever theory the masked woman was concocting about the man.

Given Vassa's apparent skepticism regarding people, it would probably not be a charitable view.

Vassa emerged almost an hour later, barefoot and dressed in clean clothes. She still wore her hood and the mask hid her face, no different from when they were out in the desert. Her walk seemed even more relaxed and graceful than before, whatever soreness she'd possessed finally worked out of her body.

"What stopped you so soon?" Seben said with a smile. Seeing Vassa relaxed gave her some hope that they would be safe, even if only for a night. "I figured you were going to spend days in there."

"The water cooled," Vassa said, plucking at her shirt. "I smell enough of roses that I suspect were I to near Samir, he would endeavor to eat me."

Seben laughed at the mental image of the aggressive camel's potential predations. "I think that would be him biting off more than he could chew."

"Assuredly so," Vassa said, moving over to the door to the hall. She brushed her fingertips across the door, testing the fit of the door in the frame. It was solidly built and would dampen sound, perhaps by intent. The floor had creaked ever so slightly when Seben followed her into the room, so it would betray anyone heavy standing near the door, if only for a split second.

As secure as they could probably expect to find without her expending more energy than she wanted to. Vassa turned to find Seben studying her intently. "Sorry," the young woman said quickly.

"Did I object?" Vassa said, approaching the young woman, She took a seat on the floor a foot or two away from Seben and picked up a stray silver piece. "There is something we need to discuss. You cannot be expected to follow your own star if you do not know how to find it in the sky." The silver coin danced across Vassa's knuckles, the simple sleight of hand trick done so effortlessly that it was almost hypnotic.

"What do you mean?" Seben asked, watching the lamplight flash across the coin and Vassa's rings.

Vassa took the opportunity while Seben was distracted to take a good, long, hard look at the young woman. It was not unheard of for powerful magic to exist in the world in unassuming packages, but this one seemed so perfectly chosen that it felt intentional. Whatever the origin of her magic, Seben most assuredly benefited from secrecy that someone had designed.

Now how to begin that conversation?

"You asked me about magic," Vassa said seriously, her tone and words enough to knock Seben out of her trance. "You should know, before venturing to the Ashen Tower where surely someone will be able to read your aura, that you have magic of your own. It is an old variety and very, very potent. I was not anticipating encountering such a thing."

Seben wanted to assume Vassa was making a joke about it, but there was something almost painfully grave about the masked woman's tone. "What do you mean?"

"I am unfamiliar with Eth magic," Vassa said thoughtfully. "I would need a great many more resources at my disposal to learn the truth of its nature. It would not be easy to find the full story, if possible at all. You have an ancient soul, Seben, connected to the divine. For you to even exist means that much lore is...incomplete."

"Is it dangerous?" Seben asked.

Vassa laughed at that in her dry way, the sound almost silvery. "Does fire burn?"

"And you think it's why the noble was looking our way," Seben said quietly.

"Very astute. Yes. Even if he was unable to read your aura as I am able to, it is entirely possible that he has those at his disposal who can see it. Thus, I would recommend a great deal of caution moving forward," the masked woman said. She sounded approving of Seben's matching connection in logic. "We do not have enough information to precisely identify threats, at least not yet."

"We?" Seben said, clinging to the lifeline of hope that Vassa had thrown her.

When the masked woman fell silent again, Seben felt a stab of doubt. Maybe she had overstepped. Maybe—

"You strike me as the type it would be difficult to rid oneself of," Vassa said with a shrug.

"That was not a compliment," Seben said, frowning at her rescuer.

Vassa brushed fingertips along the edge of her mask, smoothing the fabric. Instead of answering, she stood up and paced over to the window. She meant to look out towards the sea, but the barest glance of moonlight on steel dulled to shine in the street below gave her considerable pause. Assassins.

The masked woman extinguished all the lamps in the room with the barest pluck of a thread. "There are people here with death in mind. Theirs, ours, or someone else's, I don't know," she said quietly. "Get your things together. If they come, we will be leaving by the rooftop."

"I don't like heights," Seben admitted even as she started to pack everything back together as quickly as she could. "Are you sure?"

"Very," Vassa said thoughtfully.

"The noble's men?"

"An interesting question," Seben's rescuer muttered quietly. "I would be most eager to learn if they are working for or against him." She turned to face Seben. "There is coin enough between the two of us to book passage on a fast ship to Sarom. It may be time to spend it."

"What about Samir?" Seben asked.

"He is a very fine camel, but he would be at great risk in our company if this is the sort of danger we face," Vassa said, cautiously watching the street before opening the window and lowering her voice. "I would rather him be safe than at my side."

It was a touching comment to come from the somewhat abrasive woman, at least as far as Seben was concerned, proof enough that Vassa did have something of a softer side despite her assertion that she was not to be trusted. Seben picked up a chair and put it under the door handle to trap it in place, just in case someone tried to force the door.

Vassa didn't say anything, but Seben could have sworn she caught a flash of approval in those mostly hidden eyes.

"Now what?" Seben whispered.

"We wait."


Chapter 4
In the Streets

By K. Olsen

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Minutes dragged on like days, at least to Seben. She fidgeted slightly as she sat in the darkness, ready to spring up and flee the moment Vassa told her to. The masked woman had gone still and deathly quiet by the window. Seben wondered almost if she had suddenly turned to stone, not even her breathing audible. It was so quiet in the room that the creak from the hallway was almost deafening. Seben flinched at the sudden noise and the proximity it meant. It eased quickly, though, as if the person was moving already further down the hall. Seben relaxed slightly and took a small breath.

Vassa knew better than to assume they were gone. Her intuition told her that they were anything but safe and she had not lived to her current age by ignoring that. She finally moved, drawing Seben's attention with a beckoning gesture before signalling to the open window.

Seben got to her feet as quietly as she could. "Are you sure?" she asked nervously.

Whatever answer Vassa had intended to give, it died when she felt a sudden surge. The masked woman grabbed Seben by the arm and yanked, allowing herself to fall hard through the open window. She landed painfully on her back on the tiled roof only to have Seben's weight slam down on top of her, but at least they were both below the window's threshold when a deafening crack split the silence. The door exploded into fragments, crackling with flame, and the flash that illuminated the night would have been blinding: an assault meant to stun and debilitate.

Vassa levered Seben off of her and gave her a shove along the rooftop. "Go," she hissed in a low voice. "As quiet as you can while being quick."

Seben nodded and started moving, keeping herself calm with deep breaths so she wouldn't scramble. Her heart was pounding hard enough that her chest ached. She glanced over her shoulder to see Vassa following her, though the masked woman was facing the window rather than the edge they were rapidly approaching.

Beneath her hood, Vassa's brow furrowed. Her plan would require more power than she really wanted to use and she didn't have long to do it. She pulled in a deep breath. Without this, their lead would be short lived and they would be in combat. She knew better than to assume there would only be one assailant. They would be more than a match for her and she didn't know how capable Seben was in a fight.

The masked woman twisted one of her rings, tapping into the energy stored by the sigils etched into precious metal. It spread from her hand to her chest like the flow of cool, clear water. She caught the weave of existence around them and used the magic to wrap the threads around herself and Seben. The illusion effectively made them vanish, the twisted threads showing only what was beyond the two of them. Vassa turned and picked up her pace, drawing even with her companion. It was a powerful spell and not one she could sustain for very long on just the stored power. Already it was ebbing like water caught in cupped hands.

"Where do we go?" Seben whispered, stopping at the roof's edge. The stables were there, the roof lower by a story on this side, but there was more than six feet of gap between them.

"We jump," Vassa said, gesturing to the stable. "Hurry."

Seben swallowed hard. "I hate heights."

"Jump or I will throw you," Vassa said in a voice that was far more threatening than reassuring. They didn't have time to linger on this ledge. In another second, the spell would be drawing from her own vitality and while her inner reserves were substantial, they were a finite amount and her physical endurance would fade as they were depleted. She didn't want to have to use any of her other rings, not when she had spent so much time storing power in them. She would have tried a far-step with Seben, but she doubted her accuracy while maintaining the spell and appearing halfway through a rooftop would be horrifying and lethal.

Seben backed up on the roof to get a running start and sprinted as fast as she could. If she fell between the buildings, she was bound to break a leg or worse, so she needed to be sure she could land on the stables. The plummet made her stomach drop and the impact was hard. She scraped herself on the rough tiles of her landing place enough that her arm was dripping blood as she picked her jarred body up. She turned just in time to see Vassa spring like an acrobat from the higher rooftop. The masked woman landed in a roll that ended with her on her feet.

"There's a hatch to the hayloft over here," Vassa said quietly near Seben's ear with a gesture towards a trapdoor on the roof. "Go. Quietly."

Seben nodded as she pressed her sleeve against her wound to staunch the bleeding. It stung fiercely. She followed as Vassa eased the door open, almost collapsing into the hay waiting below. Adrenaline was coursing through her whole body like a river of fire. The only modicum of safety she felt like she had was the fact that Vassa hadn't abandoned her.

Vassa eased the trapdoor closed and looked over at the young woman. "You are injured?"

"It's nothing," Seben said as she got to unsteady feet. "Just a scrape. So we go to a ship?"

"It is not yet midnight, when the tide goes out. There will be some of the quieter and less scrupulous variety waiting to leave," Vassa said, the satchel still slung over her shoulder. Her blade remained in the sheath along her thigh, completely untroubled by her roll. The beauty of a saress was that such blades answered only to the will of their wielders. It was not going to slip free of its scabbard unless Vassa allowed it to.

"Pirates?" Seben said nervously.

"Smugglers," Vassa corrected. "I have the recommendations for a ship of such a nature, provided it is here. Shall we?"

"How do you know it?" the young woman asked, steeling herself for a paranoid walk through the city towards the docks.

"The gentleman who gifted me Samir has a brother who sails the Jagged Coast with contraband. His name is Inam-ul-Haq and he, last his brother heard, is still the captain of the Silvertang," Vassa said with a voice that seemed altogether too calm for their current situation. "I had debated the idea of sailing to Sarom, but decided against it. Such a ship would not have room for Samir. However, our present situation takes priority."

Seben took a deep breath and focused on the stinging in her arm. The scrape was annoying and infinitely less frightening than whatever was waiting for them outside the stable doors. She flinched when a stable boy scrambled up to his feet from where he had been sleeping in the hay near Samir.

Vassa held a finger up, pressed against the cloth covering her lips. The boy went still and quiet before he could open his mouth. His eyes darted to the sword Vassa wore, then her masked face, then over to the apprentice fire-speaker. "We mean you no harm," the masked woman said. She paused thoughtfully and glanced in the direction of Samir's stall. "That camel there, have you been tending to him?"

The boy nodded. "He likes grapes," he said.

Vassa laughed and the stablehand relaxed. "How generous to such a villain. Samir's gluttony is worthy of legend...and matched only by his loyalty. It would not please me to leave him without a caregiver kind enough to care well for him." She knelt on one knee in front of the boy, fingers dipping into the pouch of stones. It only took her a moment to find one the right size. "Your kindness deserves repayment. Hold out your hand."

He did so, but there was still an edge of wariness. He looked to be about twelve, on the shorter side for a growing Eth boy. His facial features were a little sharper than most, sign of malnutrition in his younger days. Seben knew the look, having worn it herself as she grew. The boy, soon to be a young man, had no real prospects other than servitude.

"This is so that you may buy the camel if they go to take him towards auction after I have gone," Vassa said, placing silver coins in the boy's hand. His eyes widened as he took in the sight of the coin resting on his palm.

"But—" the boy started to say, more a question than a protest.

Vassa again touched her finger to her lips. "This is so that you take care of him well," she said, folding his hand around the coins...and the gemstone that she slipped between his fingers with effortless grace. "Be good to Samir."

Seben smiled despite her nerves. It was another sign that Vassa was not everything she proclaimed to be. "We should go," the young woman said, urgency stealing some of the heartwarming touch that she felt at the scene. "They could still be looking."

"Indeed," Vassa said, looking into the boy's wide eyes. There was still some innocence there, though scuffed and bruised after tending to the affairs of people who took him for granted. "Stay quiet and near Samir, boy. He will defend you from all comers if you seek his protection. Go." With that said, she stood and headed for the side door out of the stables.

Seben took the lead and pushed the door open as slowly and quietly as she could. A hand seized her scraped arm and wrenched her out into the street. Suddenly, she was face to face with a tall and very dour Eth soldier wearing brigantine. Four others stood out in the street with him, all armed with unadorned scimitars that clearly favored functionality over style. The two drawn blades she saw looked wicked sharp. It was time to get away. She struggled and tried to wound him, but his armor rendered her blows ineffectual.

"This is the one," the man holding her said, dragging her a step towards the others. He drew a long dagger from his belt. "Let us end this."

"I would not advise such a course of action, Ammeris," a cheerful voice said, approaching out of the shadows further down the street. "That young woman is under my protection."

Seben turned her head. It was the noble they had seen watching them earlier, still dressed in blue and flanked by his two guards.

Vassa saw no reason to waste a moment of distraction. She slipped through the doorway and moved with a dancer's grace, dipping just low enough to draw the dagger from one boot. Her sword wouldn't be necessary for this. She stepped into the would-be killer's space, the dagger's edge a whisper against his throat that drew a thin line of blood even with barely any pressure applied. "Let her go."

The would-be killer drove his elbow backwards to strike Vassa, who shifted her position effortlessly. She caught his arm and applied leverage to the joint, locking it painfully while keeping her knife hovering near his throat. A little bit more of a twist and he would never have use of his right arm again. His men seemed frozen in place, torn between saving him and answering to the noble.

Vassa knew better than to smile when he released Seben. This was anything but over. All the same, she released his arm and withdrew her knife before stepping immediately between him and the apprentice fire-speaker with her blade pointed at his face.

"This affair is beneath your concern, Masaharta," Ammeris snapped, turning to level his glare at Vassa as he massaged his arm. He almost seemed to have forgotten about the noble he was challenging, particularly when Vassa gave no indication that she was at all intimidated despite the fact that he was eight inches taller and wearing armor where she had none.

"I disagree," Masaharta said casually, a grin forming on his face. "After all, you're here. I was expecting more subtlety than your kind, but perhaps that was defeated on a rooftop." He turned his gaze to Seben and Vassa. "Ladies, if I might suggest that you join my guards and I while these...ruffians...excuse themselves?"

Seben was frozen in place, the name Masaharta still ringing in her ears. She had never seen him or expected to, but the name was familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Ethilir's court. The nobles had many epithets for him, many of which were less than flattering, but the one that caught most the common ear was Master of Malice. The Kingsguard were noble defenders tasked with guarding the most powerful of the eastern bloodlines, obvious in their power and protection. Masaharta and his influence, though the extent of that reach was unknown, were rumored to serve the Sunlit Throne in more secretive ways.

"I will not surrender them to you," Ammeris spat before striking for Vassa.

The masked woman flowed out of the way of the plunging attack, bumping Seben back into the wall. She was faster than Ammeris, probably enough to kill him, but there would be four more to contend with after he was removed.

"A regrettable choice," the noble said, tucking his thumbs behind his sash. "Paser, Teos."

Masaharta's guards engaged the second their names left his lips. The two men charged without a shout, spears immediately seeking the vulnerabilities of their foes. It would take some of the pressure off Vassa and Seben, at least in the immediate.

Vassa palmed the dagger to Seben and drew her shortsword. Moonlight glittered on the blade, giving it an almost ethereal cast. She almost closed her eyes as he began his next stab, pushing the young woman she was protecting to the side. He would end hyperextended, off balance. She wouldn't even need to pull her disappearing trick. Instead, she dodged to the other side and pivoted as she passed him, turning her swing around into a wicked thrust. Instead of going for his back and the thickest pieces of armor, she angled her blade upwards, under his helmet.

Just like that, Ammeris could no longer rethink his decision.

"Vassa!" Seben shouted, already in motion by the time the masked woman could react. She crossed the distance between them and bulled past the slender figure of her rescuer, barely throwing her arms up in a block in time. She'd stepped in fast enough to get inside the reach of the killer's sword, her arms hitting his wrist hard enough to break his grip on the blade before it could crash down and hit Vassa.

The masked woman spun and struck. She wasn't strong, but speed made up for that even when it came to this. Her sword bit into his leg, earning a cry of pain and effectively hobbling the man.

The other three were struggling to contend with Masaharta's guards. One lay on the ground unmoving and his companions seemed little better. Even fewer in number, the noble's guards were clearly excellent warriors more than capable of handling this bunch.

Vassa took a second to breathe as she pulled Seben back away from the one she'd wounded. "That was foolish," the masked woman said sharply. "That could have very easily killed you."

Seben sighed. "You're welcome."

Vassa kept her eyes on the brawl, watching the other three killers hit the ground one by one. Masaharta's guards left nothing to chance, striking an extra killing blow on all of the fallen. Once the carnage finished, the noble himself approached.

"Well, that was rather bracing," Masaharta said, looking the pair up and down. "We should depart. The city guard will respond eventually and I would prefer not to deal with that variety of entanglement."

"Why did you help?" Seben asked.

Masaharta chuckled. The details of his face were more visible in the clearer lamplight that bathed the street outside the stables. Everything about his demeanor seemed far more friendly than Seben had expected with the nicknames he had might have hinted. "Well, is it really helping if the people you assist hardly need it? You have a very capable defender, it seems, nor do you seem to lack bravery."

Vassa didn't seem tense at all. "Departing is sensible," she said, focusing on the pragmatism of the moment. She shook the blood off her sword and put a hand on Seben's shoulder, guiding the apprentice fire-speaker carefully away from the scene of the crime. "We can discuss matters when we are away from here."

"Capable and wise," Masaharta said approvingly. "While I would like to suggest we retire to the inn, I think the others looking for you have returned to ransacking the place to find you. I am amenable to a different destination."

"The docks," Vassa murmured to Seben, letting the young woman lead the way. Then she shifted focus back to Masaharta. "There are more, then." It wasn't a question, more a statement of annoyed resignation.

"Indeed. Not enough to say Okena is crawling with those who wish you harm, but there are more than I imagine you'd care to deal with," Masaharta said as he strolled alongside them. His two guards fell in step behind him, armor still spattered with blood.

"I don't understand," Seben blurted out. "I'm not...not anything!"

"You are under my protection now," the nobleman said with a pleasant, soothing tone. "That does not mean as much here in Okena as it does other places, but I think you will find it sufficient to defend you against those like Ammeris."

Vassa pressed her lips together behind her mask and drew a handkerchief out of her sleeve that she could use to wipe down her blade before sheathing it. She knew better than to take the charity of a rescue at face value. She would need to go carefully around Masaharta, perhaps doubly so because now she had to concern herself with Seben. As much as the prudent thing would probably be pushing Seben into his arms and running in the opposite direction, Vassa couldn't quite find it in her heart to do so.

There was some spark in Seben that she rather liked the glow of, a fire barely more than embers. It was a way of seeing the world that Vassa wasn't certain she had ever possessed herself. She could only hope that what little she could do would preserve that part of Seben's heart, the laugh and smile that were so freely given without threat of death overhead.


Chapter 5
The Silvertang

By K. Olsen

The boards of the dock creaked under their feet as they found a place to stop and talk, sheltered from view by stacks of crates. Such a secluded place without witnesses other than the occasional sailors who were not likely to even be near a guard would not have been Seben’s choice, but she understood also that a man like Masaharta could have them killed in broad daylight at the center of town without fear of repercussions. The stories painted him as a forked-tongued devil with fangs aplenty, but also as a man who could charm a dragon into parting with its precious hoard. 

Vassa’s hand touched her back between her shoulder blades and stayed, offering silent reassurance. At least, that was what it appeared. The reality was that Vassa was readying herself for a far-step if things soured. It had been a long time since she’d had cause to bring another along, but she was confident in her ability to give them an ample head start even if Seben found the experience incredibly jarring. 

Seben eyed the nobleman cautiously, unsettled by the way his smile shone in the flickering torchlight as a stark contrast to his dark skin. He seemed perfectly pleasant, but the stories of him said one could never tell the difference between a smile and bared teeth. Hopefully Vassa’s damned perception would work on him as easily as it had on her. “There must have been a reason for you to assist, milord,” she said, willing her voice to be calm and collected. The words came out more confident than she’d feared they would be, but there was still a subtle tremor.

“Indeed,” Masaharta said with a chuckle. “Though judging by your unease, my reputation must precede me.” 

“You would be hard pressed to find anyone in Ethilir who hasn’t heard a whisper of you,” Seben said cautiously. She glanced over at Vassa to see if her companion was familiar with the reputation, but was instantly reminded that she couldn’t see the masked woman’s expression. Her posture gave no cue, perfectly still and calm. Perhaps that was sign enough that Vassa didn’t know anything about him. 

“True enough,” the nobleman said, leaning back against a stack of heavy crates. His guards moved away, to protect the approach along the dock. He studied the pair of them, smoothing a hand along his square-cut beard. “Still, let us have proper introductions. I am Masaharta Osei, Lord of Ashpeta, Keeper of the Seal.” He flashed Seben a broader smile. “Though I have other, less flattering names.” 

“Well met, Lord Osei,” Vassa said with an inclination of her head. 

Seben envied how poised the masked woman sounded. She steeled her own nerves and tried to summon up the same level of calm. The hand on her back was at least helpful there, a reminder that Vassa was still present. “Thank you for your intervention, milord.”

He chuckled. “I do appreciate your gratitude. It speaks of good manners,” he said pleasantly. “Now, I must tip my hand here and say that I know a little of you, Seben Femi. You are correct, I had a reason to intervene: your father and I were acquainted, when he lived, and his last wish was that I seek you out.” 

Despite every attempt to not react, Seben stared at him like he’d sprouted a second head. She didn’t have words to address the thousand and one questions that immediately charged forward. “You knew him?” she asked after a second of processing. “How?” 

“I know many,” Masaharta said with amusement. “Surely to be acquainted with a soldier in the Kingsguard is not such a stretch for a man like myself.”

Seben took a deep breath. “And why would a noble honor the last wish of a simple soldier?” she asked. 

Vassa’s lips tugged into a smile, though the expression was invisible behind her mask. There was a hint of the inquiring mind she had suspected the apprentice fire-speaker possessed even in the face of danger. The appearance of it now was timely. This matter was quickly becoming far more dangerous than even Vassa had expected. The masked woman understood the man smiling at them better than Seben did with all her knowledge of Ethilir. 

They were not so different.

Masaharta didn’t seem offended by the question. He tucked his thumbs again behind his sash, looking very much comfortable leaned back against the crates. “He was a good man. I respect his life and his memory. The loss of you was a regret he carried with him to his grave and I owe him enough of a debt that I will see you safe.” He turned his gaze to the masked woman. “Now, you have me at a disadvantage, I’m afraid. I am well known in Ethilir and you are not known at all, stranger.” 

“I am merely a traveler, Lord Osei,” Vassa said with a bow of her head. She was being far more deferential than Seben had expected. “You may call me Vassa, should it please you.” Under the shadow of her hood, her keen eyes watched him intently. It was only there for a split second, but a crease formed between his brows before smoothing again. 

He was savvy enough to be evaluating, but not enough to hide his scrutiny completely behind pleasant acceptance at face value. Then again, Vassa’s perception of people was quite practiced. He was not certain what to make of her and that was a tidbit of information both useful and dangerous. Much work would have to be done, if she was going to convince him that she was no threat. “Your sense of fashion is most intriguing, Mistress Vassa. That aside, I thank you for your swift action in the streets. Ammeris was a capable killer and to put him down so swiftly is a mark of quite the guardian.” 

“You spoke as if you knew him,” Vassa said, tilting her head slightly.

“He and I have crossed paths before,” Masaharta said, lip curling slightly. “Contemptible, really. A murderer slave to his great god, Avarice. The selfishness of people these days.” He shook his head. “Ethilir is fortunate to be rid of him.” 

Vassa’s gaze never wavered from his expression, the hand on Seben’s back still steady. You are not his master, but you know who was, she reflected as he turned his head to look back at Seben. It would take her time to puzzle out his intentions fully, but she knew for certain that what he had told them was not anything approaching the full truth. Some fraction of it was true, just enough to sell his answers, but not the whole. 

She was sorely tempted to just grab Seben and far-step away, but the one thing she did believe was that he had no intention of killing the young woman. There was just enough sincerity there for her to stop from fleeing his presence entirely. If handled deftly enough, his protection could be life-saving for Seben. It would just be very, very precarious until Vassa knew for certain what his real interest was. 

“So,” Masaharta said as he studied the pair. “A fine mess we are in now. Where were you intending to go?” 

“To take passage on a ship,” Seben said, glancing over at Vassa. “I desire to go to the Ashen Tower in Sarom and resume my studies.” 

“A noble goal,” Masaharta said. “Though you will find it very difficult with those provincial roots of yours. I would hate to see the daughter of my friend turned away from the gates. Of course, if...” 

“You are offering patronage,” Vassa said dryly, what was probably meant to be a question coming out as a statement of fact. While that was a definitely sound motive, to gain the assistance of a fire-speaker by any means necessary, again it lacked sufficient substance for Vassa to believe it the only thing he was after. Again, however, she knew discarding the offer out of hand would only get Seben killed.

He shrugged expressively, spreading his hands wide. “I offer my assistance. Seben may chase her dream to become a full fire-speaker and you, Mistress Vassa, may travel wherever you wish.” 

The masked woman understood the subtle suggestion, that she simply go on her way. “My path takes me to Sarom as well,” Vassa said, smoothing fingertips over the fabric covering her lips. “I will accompany Seben until then, unless she has no need for me.” 

Seben looked over, surprise and gratitude flashing across her face unhidden. “Thank you,” she said. “I am sorry that I’m putting you in danger.” 

Vassa flicked her hand dismissively, as if brushing away the comment. Then she focused on Masaharta. “We aim to catch a ship called the Silvertang. If you intend upon accompanying us, I would suggest you fetch your things.” 

He grinned. “A smuggler? What interesting circles you move in, my dear. I will remain with you lovely ladies while Paser and Teos fetch our things.” 

“You’re sending your guards away? Is that wise?” Seben asked, taking a half step closer to Vassa at the idea of any protection leaving, even if it wasn’t particularly trustworthy. 

“We are unlikely to be noticed here. Besides, I have a little skill with a blade myself if it comes to it,” Masaharta said, touching the wicked looking cutter tucked through his sash. The curved blade’s hilt was sleek, ebon wood with brass finishings, pommel carved into the head of a snarling leopard. It was beautiful and Seben was quite certain that in the hands of the Master of Malice, it could do a great deal of harm to his enemies. “Shall we go find this friend of yours, Mistress Vassa?”

“He is an acquaintance,” Vassa corrected calmly before pressing her palm more firmly against Seben’s back, urging the young woman to walk ahead of her. She turned her head as Seben passed her, taking the opportunity to whisper without being as noticeable. “Be calm and clear your head. These are dangerous waters, but for the moment, you are not alone.” 

“Do you believe him?” Seben asked, fighting the urge to cling to Vassa’s sleeve for something solid in the midst of this lunacy. 

Vassa shrugged but gave no word in answer, aware that their chance to speak was at an end for now. She picked her way through the docks, subtly keeping herself between Seben and Masaharta. It was less intentional and more habit  from a lifetime of serving as a protector...even if that life was ashes around her feet. She cursed herself for it as soon as she realized she was doing it. Loyalty is the one folly always punished, she reminded herself harshly. 

She almost pulled her hand away from Seben’s back, but stopped herself at the last minute. There was still so much to this situation that could be advantageous, if she could turn things the right way. Masaharta was likely far too skilled at capitalizing on doubt and weakness for her to show any sign of either...until it was useful to give that impression. If she wanted to pursue the knowledge dangling in front of her like a tantalizing fruit, she needed to move with care.

The Silvertang was a long, sleek ship with plenty of sail. It looked light enough to outpace anything else in the water and currently had only a little cargo on its deck. It was still preparing to depart within the hour, however, which Vassa knew meant it had taken on cargo enough to make the journey worthwhile. Its captain stood just behind the figurehead, the carved figure of a mermaid. Inam-ul-Haq was not an imposing creature, even with the benefit of altitude. He was a short, portly man with a finely combed beard, easily visible by lamplight. He wore a tunic that was almost mottled grey and black beneath a deep blue cloak, both designed for stealth if needed. At the sight of an approach along the dock, he straightened up.

The small group of sailors who were making things ready stopped immediately and turned.

“I am looking for Inam-ul-Haq,” Vassa said, stepping forward into the lamplight. “I fought alongside his brother, Riyadh, and would speak with him.”

Inam-ul-Haq strolled down the gangplank. “You are in strange company to be a friend of his,” the smuggler observed, gaze flicking from Seben to Masaharta. 

“The world is full of unusual bedfellows,” the masked woman said with a shrug.

“And how am I to know that what you say is true?” the smuggler asked, looking her up and down. “Only those with something to hide would mask themselves as you do. Let me see your face.”

“That, I’m afraid, is non-negotiable,” Vassa said, tone betraying just a hint more coolness than normal. She crooked a finger at the smuggler captain, beckoning him closer. “Riyadh provided a passphrase, should I travel your way, that you might know the nature of our association.”

Inam-ul-Haq stopped just short of Vassa with one hand resting on the fishing gaff tucked through his belt. The hook would serve as a weapon just fine if needed. “Let’s hear it, then,” he said cautiously.

Vassa held up both hands away from her weapons. “The storm and its maiden send their love,” she said in Giant just loudly enough for the smuggler would hear. The language was barely known and almost exclusively spoken in the far north, where Riyadh had met his wife. It was also not far from Vassa’s homeland, so she had studied the language in her childhood along with many other tongues.

Inam-ul-Haq chuckled and held his hand out to Vassa. “I thank you, stranger. I would hear of the service you performed for them, but perhaps after we set sail.”

Vassa clasped his outstretched hand delicately. “We are bound for Sarom, if you have room for passengers.”

“How many?” Inam-ul-Haq asked  while he shook her hand approvingly, looking past Vassa to Seben and Masaharta. His eyes were calculating. “I have more space than I anticipated, if your companions have the coin for it.” 

“We will pay you a fair fee for the voyage,” the masked woman said as she let go of his hand. “There will be five of us, as I am rather certain our noble guest would like to bring his two guards.” 

“I can work too,” Seben offered from behind Vassa. “My mother’s brother is a fisherman. I learned a lot about sail.” 

“I’m sure I can find ropes for you to tug on,” the smuggler said with a grin. He seemed pleased with the arrangement, a gleam in his eyes. “Now, stranger, I would have your name. It is only polite to have introductions before we begin our bargaining. You know my name, of course."

“Vassa,” the masked woman said. She gestured to her current accompaniment. “The fire-speaker with me is Seben Femi and I assume Lord Osei requires little introduction.” 

Inam-ul-Haq stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Fire is dangerous aboard ship and nobles draw attention, both perils in my line of work.” 

“And they are equally perilous to those who would put a crimp in  your business. Seben will give you her word of honor that she could not conjure a djinn aboard ship even if she wanted to and Lord Osei’s presence is more likely to deter guards than summon them. We have our reasons to leave quietly and without attention,” Vassa said smoothly. She had enough money stored to cover all of them, but she felt responsibility only for herself and Seben. 

“So it seems,” the smuggler acknowledged. 

“I can pay for passage for Seben and I. As for Lord Osei and his guards...he is wealthier than  I by far and surely can afford such things.” She slipped the purse with her half of the gold from the sale of the horses and dropped it in Inam-ul-Haq’s hand. It was in excess of the cost by her estimation, but the grin he gave her when he felt the weight told her it was money well-spent. “For passage, expenses, and no questions.”

Inam-ul-Haq bowed his head to the masked woman. “A pleasure doing business with you, my friend.”

Masaharta took that as his cue to step forward, a broad smile settling across his face as he looked down at the shorter, unassuming smuggler. 

Vassa moved back to let the two men discuss the fee for the noble and his guards, standing beside Seben. “Passage to Sarom,” she said lightly. “We will leave within the hour if I know anything about the tide.” 

“Can we trust a smuggler?” Seben whispered.

“A smuggler from a family that values their word and honor above all other things,” Vassa explained. “His entrepreneurial spirit might flaunt the law, but his is a victimless crime. He moves small amounts of high value goods and only the tax collectors feel the sting, and they only barely. Can we trust the man with everything under every circumstance? Not at all. In this, though, we can rely upon him to act as he is accustomed to acting.” 

Seben looked doubtful as she heard the men laughing. Masaharta clapped the captain on his shoulder, conversing in low, but very cheerful tones. “I’m not sure about this.” 

“Certainty is not required,” Vassa said as she crossed her arms. “Only an appreciation for our relative dearth of options. Would you rather contend with hunters in the city?” 

“No,” the young woman admitted readily. “You’re right. I’m just still…” She hesitated for a moment before continuing, “I feel like I’m drowning.” 

“You will have time to think on the ship, to reflect,” Vassa said. She tilted her head slightly, glancing over at Seben. “We should not speak of what I told you at the inn, not in the company of anyone else. Not until we know more about it and the people we are with.” 

“That sounds wise,” Seben agreed softly. Her eyes were still fixed on Masaharta, brow furrowed. “I don’t know what to think. Did he really know my father?” 

“You did not,” Vassa observed, her realization based largely on the lines on Seben’s forehead. “That does make it more difficult to check the veracity of the tale.” 

“I never met him,” Seben said quietly, a trace of bitterness in the words. “I was just a soldier’s brat in a brothel, and there are plenty of those around.” 

“Never ‘just’,” Vassa said absently, watching Inam-ul-Haq and Masaharta haggle over the price of his passage. 

“What?” 

The masked woman didn’t look over when she spoke. “Whatever your origins, there is more to you than merely your parentage. You have a fire, Seben, a light. Do not allow bitterness to snuff it out. The world is full of those who would delight in extinguishing your spark and turning you to something that serves their purpose alone.” 

Seben stared at her companion for a long moment, surprised to hear that from Vassa. “Kind words,” she said quietly. 

“And a dire warning,” Vassa reminded her. 

“We have struck a bargain!” Inam-ul-Haq called, waving the two women forward. “It seems you have those who are looking, so go below decks. Lord Osei’s guards have until the change of the tide to return to us. If they do not appear, we depart without them.” 

Vassa placed her hand back between Seben’s shoulder-blades, gently guiding the young woman forward onto the gangplank. “I am right behind you,” she assured the apprentice fire-speaker. “We can rest below decks. It may not be comfortable, but it will be safe enough for now.” 

“I’m just glad you got your bath,” Seben said, trying to find a smile and a lighthearted comment. 

The masked woman laughed as she followed her companion onto the ship. “As am I.”


Chapter 6
Hints of the Past

By K. Olsen

Vassa leaned back against a crate, eyes drifting closed. Like all her kind, she required little sleep and was able to maintain awareness even when resting. It was a merciful trait, though at present the danger of attack was somewhat lower. The impromptu bar on the tiny cabin's door would delay anyone attempting to gain entry. Seben's idea ensured that they would have ample warning if someone tried to come into the room uninvited.

The apprentice fire-speaker was sound asleep on the floor to Vassa's left, wrapped up in the masked woman's bedroll again despite protesting that Vassa should take it. She'd been too tired to effectively argue after the first few days on ship of being on high alert. The masked woman felt worn enough herself that slipping into the shallowest part of sleep was a welcome relief...for a brief moment.

fingers wound in her hair, lips against her own, then a soft voice whispered beside her ear with that smoky sweetness that concealed a wrath worthy of the ancients. "Did you think I would not find out, Vassa?"

"I aided them for love of you," Vassa whispered. Of all the pains in her body from capture and torture, her chest ached most of all. "You are destroying yourself for power. There is so little of you left. This madness has to stop."

Fingernails dug into her cheeks, forcing her to meet those crystalline blue eyes that foretold only the devouring rage of winter. "You promised me that you would ever be my right hand. That you would serve me until time itself ended, even if the whole of the cosmos turned against me."

Hot tears burned in Vassa's eyes, but she refused to let them fall. "I gave you everything and then you threw me away!"

"I needed the gateway open," the voice said, tone flat and indifferent. "At least you served some use before your betrayal."

She pulled in a deep breath. Even after having so much of her own essence drained, after being humiliated and tortured, some part of her still wanted to plead, to seek the return of the love once given. "Lys—"

The answer was sudden rage. A burning pain exploded through her face as magic surged out of her captor's hand. "How dare you speak my name?"

Vassa sobbed, resolve to be composed broken by agony. Few knew how to inflict pain as Lysaerys could, except Vassa herself. The magic burned and twisted under her skin like living fire, burning not the fragile muscles that could only sustain so much punishment, but the threads of existence that made them up. That magic could only ever be destroyed by Void, so the pain inflicted through it could be eternal if the caster knew their art.

"You are nothing to me, Vassa," the voice whispered again beside her ear. "Every night you were gone, another warmed my bed. Do not plead with me as if you are some special thing, unique in your love. I hold the hearts of many."

Vassa gasped through the pain, trying to pretend that Lysaerys's words weren't a knife twisted in her already bleeding, broken heart. She wished it was a lie, designed for the sole purpose of doing her harm, but Lysaerys never used a lie when the truth was far more agonizing. They had known each other for too long to miss signs of deception or the lack thereof.

"You were useful for a time, my zhendai. No longer. Things without use do not remain at my side," Lysaerys said, releasing her chin. Those blue eyes flicked their gaze at one of the other, less distinct shapes. "Every time she gazes in a mirror, let her remember her sins. Do as you will. When you are finished, cast her out."

"As you wish," Sethon all but purred. Vassa hated even the sound of his voice, but most of all the way he looked at the one she loved most of all. He would delight in destroying what remained of his rival in exchange for Lysaerys's illusory affections.

Even heartbroken and abandoned, however, Vassa would endure. She had become so very good at surviving. She didn't even flinch as Sethon approached, eyes fixed on Lysaerys's departing back until her liege vanished through the doors.

Callused fingers touched her chin almost gently, lifting it until she couldn't look away from Sethon's hungry gaze. The horrors awaiting her were almost unimaginable, but Vassa had seen and done enough that she knew what to expect. Sethon lacked her keenly honed edges as a torturer, but he was an enthusiastic amateur—

Vassa snapped awake, suddenly aware that Seben was hovering only a few inches away with a hand on the masked woman's arm. Before she could lash out, her mind caught her and pointed out that Seben looked concerned, not like she was going to try and remove the mask. "May I be of assistance?" she said in a cool, even tone.

Seben flinched slightly at the bite in the words, though Vassa had softened it to a degree. "I just wanted to make sure you were alright," the young woman said.

"Your concern is unnecessary," Vassa said brusquely. "I am fine."

"You didn't sound fine," Seben said softly. "You cried out in pain."

Vassa was quiet for a moment before shrugging slightly. "Just an unpleasant dream," she said with all the indifference she could muster with that pain returned to her chest. "They happen now and again to everyone. I am no exception."

Seben hadn't been around Vassa long, but she was getting a sense for when the masked woman didn't appreciate prying. "We're almost around the Hook. In a few hours, we'll be off the Jagged Coast and out onto the Sea of Pearls. We're close to Sarom."

The masked woman nodded absently, trying to focus on her traveling companion's words and not the empty void that existed inside herself where once there had been a heart. It was hard to reconcile her current situation with the passion and adoration she had thought she once shared. Now it all seemed delusional. Do not plead with me as if you are some special thing…

All things, all people, were a means to an end. Forgetting that was a mistake that carried consequences of its own. It was always where one felt safest that they were in the most danger.

Seben grew more and more worried as Vassa failed to answer with words, especially without the flippant kind she so loved to use. "Are you certain you're alright?" she asked very quietly.

The words broke Vassa from her thoughts. She turned an irritated gaze towards Seben, but the honest concern in the young woman's eyes blunted the sharp words collecting on the masked woman's tongue. However much she wanted no part of the apprentice fire-speaker's fate, Seben didn't deserve or need a verbal lashing. Besides, such an emotional reaction would betray weakness.

Vassa could ill afford to make such a misstep when they had Masaharta to deal with. "I am certain," she said firmly.

Seben looked more convinced by the resume of a normal tone. "We should be near view of the Colossus," the young woman offered. "I thought you might like to see it."

Vassa rose to her feet in a single, fluid motion. "An architectural feat, I assume."

"The greatest structure created since the Revealing," Seben said with a smile. "No hand of a god required."

"And what is the point of it?" Vassa asked dryly, letting Seben unbar the door and then lead the way upstairs.

"To honor the people of Ethilir and the spirit that forged the greatest empire of the East," Seben said with a touch of pride. "It was centuries ago, but once upon a time, the Sunlit Throne ruled all the kingdoms of men, turned back only by the wild lands to the north. Not that there was much there to rule."

"I am aware of the history," the masked woman said. "And the north is hardly empty. Ash Kordh, homeland of the orcish hordes, also possesses great magic. As does the Vale of the Undying."

"I've seen a few orcs, usually mercenaries. Never an elf, though."

"Consider yourself fortunate," Vassa said, lips twitching into a smile that was anything but kind. "They are cruel, capricious creatures who care nothing for those shackled to death by age. They use their beauty and charms to accumulate all they might desire and pluck the wings from anything that challenges them, just to watch it squirm."

Seben turned on the steps going up to the deck. "You sound like you've met one."

"I know enough to understand the dangers they pose," Vassa said, grateful that her hood shaded her eyes as they stepped up onto the deck. The southern sun was dazzlingly bright on all occasions, though out on the ocean was mercifully cooler than tthe desert sands. There was a good wind pushing them from the north, the sails full overhead. Inam-ul-Haq stood at the wheel, his sailors busy about deck or up in the rigging to keep the ship running smoothly as they followed the cliffs slowly descending off to the left towards flatter land.

Seben nodded a little. "I've heard they're beautiful."

"Elves?" Vassa said almost absently, craning her neck to look for the construction that Seben was so taken by. "I suppose, as are any poison flowers on a strangling vine." She spotted it as they made the last of the turn and found a good vantage at the rail surrounding the deck on the starboard side of the ship, closest to land.

The Colossus looked like a towering warrior rising out of the waves themselves, a gleaming bronze metal that had to be some divine alloy to have not corroded into nothingness by now. His towering spear was the tallest part of the statue, probably a thousand feet high, and the tip glowed with magical fire even during the day. At night, it no doubt served as a lighthouse visible from a great distance. Even from a distance and reflecting light, Vassa could tell there was intricate carving covering the body of the sculpted man. It towered over every ship that sailed before it. The foundation became visible as they approached: gleaming white stone equally undamaged by the ceaseless crashing of water.

"What do you think?" Seben asked with a smile, mention of elves mercifully forgotten.

Vassa studied the great statue. "I can see how it would strike awe into many sailors from foreign shores," the masked woman said. "A symbol of the pride and glory of the Eth. Certainly a marvel of engineering, to be not yet damaged by the waves even after several hundred years. I suspect the magic of djinn is involved somehow."

"I don't know," the young woman admitted. "Whatever the magic that protects it and keeps the light burning, I have not yet learned of it. The Ashen Tower does not maintain it as far as I know."

"Good morning, ladies," Masaharta said cheerfully, strolling across the deck towards them. He seemed in fine spirits to be sailing, even knowing that his guards were still sea-sick even after a few days on the water now. Vassa enjoyed the ocean and Seben had spent a fair amount of her childhood helping on a fishing boat, so they were faring much better than Paser or Teos.

"Good morning, Lord Osei," Seben said. They hadn't spoken much to him even now that they were in such close quarters. There had been customs stops and a search by a naval ship that meant Inam-ul-Haq's guests stayed below decks, crammed into smuggler's holds. Vassa had paid him for discreet passage and he took that very seriously.

"I was hoping to speak more with the pair of you today," the nobleman said. "We draw ever closer to Sarom and I thought it might be wise for us to converse before we arrive. Besides, the good captain has charitably agreed to allow me use of his chessboard." Masaharta smiled at them both. "I don't suppose either of you play?"

"No," Seben said, though she looked intrigued. "My uncle only ever taught me dice and a few card games."

"Games every bit as challenging, if not more so, as those rely upon luck. Chess relies upon skill. And leaves no room for randomness, only intent. That is why I enjoy it: it is utterly artificial." Masaharta chuckled. "And you, Mistress Vassa?"

Vassa shrugged slightly. "I am familiar with the rules, but it is not my preferred field for a battle of wills," she said. "Perhaps Seben will find it more to her liking. No doubt between the two of us we can instruct her."

"Certainly, though I hope you will illuminate me with what game you find truly diverting, Mistress Vassa. I am always eager to learn a new game."

"If I am able to obtain a board and pieces in Sarom, I will bring you a game to keep you fascinated for life," Vassa promised almost absently as she followed the noble and Seben over to the chessboard, tucked away out of the traffic pattern towards the bowsprit. It was set up on a heavy crate. The pieces were roughly carved, one set from bleached bone and the other from a dark hardwood.

Chess was a decent game that could tell one about their opponent, but Vassa found it too simplistic and short for truly understanding the working of the mind across the table. Maybe it only felt that way after playing her native strategy game. Jhalriss was a much more complicated web of possibilities, sometimes called 'wizard's chess' by the Leyan mages who had adopted it to hone their own abilities. Finding a set away from her homeland or the High Kingdom would be difficult, but not impossible. Chess was a game of rules and strategy, while jhalriss was a game of deception and betrayal.

It was a game she had not played since her exile, but she missed the challenge even if it likely had bitter memories clinging to it.

Masaharta took a seat behind the bone pieces and gestured for Seben to take a seat across from him. "I promise I will be kind," he assured the young woman. "You are learning, after all."

Seben sat down and then looked up at Vassa, clearly not certain what she was doing with the different pieces. "I could use your help."

The noble laughed. "Two against one? I suppose if one is a beginner..."

"I will impart the rules," Vassa said as she took a seat beside Seben. There wasn't much room on the crate for a seat, so she perched on the edge, one hand behind the young woman's back while she brushed delicate fingers over the chess pieces, straightening each one. "The game is not overly complicated. It is the application, the different movements and counters that make it challenging. I assume that Lord Osei, like many nobles, has learned it as part of his grooming for rule."

"Oh," Seben said, heart sinking slightly.

Vassa plucked the black king up from the table, turning it over in her fingers. "It is merely a game," she said close to the young woman's ear. "And as he said, you are only just now learning it. Forget about the notions of victory or loss. This is an opportunity to improve your knowledge and focus."

Seben nodded, comforted by that. "So what does that one do?"

"Very little, but loss of it ends the game," Vassa said with amusement that only grew at the young woman's confusion. "The king here must be protected at all costs. He is slow and weak, but the game hinges upon him. The queen is far more powerful and swift." From there, she began a patient, gentle explanation of each piece's role and ability to move.

"You know the game well, Mistress Vassa," Masaharta said, resting his chin on his clasped hands as he watched the pair. "We will have to play some time."

"As I said, it is not my preferred game," Vassa said with a shrug. "I would prove a poor foe." She looked over at Seben. "Do you understand the rules, at least a little? I will not intervene beyond this."

"Enough to try," Seben said with a studious set to her expression. She gave Masaharta a nod and frowned down at the pieces on the board.

Vassa shifted off Seben's seat, brushing her fingertips across Seben's shoulders before sitting down on a spare crate off to the side with a better view of both players. They made quite the study of opposites, the concentrating novice and carefree master. Masaharta was clearly evaluating Seben's thought process as the girl picked up her first piece: a knight. The next thing the young woman did, however, was not what he expected.

"You knew my father," Seben said.

Vassa smiled faintly behind her mask at the brief flash across Masaharta's expression. For a split second, he seemed taken aback by her being willing to distract herself. Seben didn't notice it from what the masked woman could tell, but it was certainly there.

"I did indeed," Masaharta said, waiting for her to commit to her placement of her piece before moving his own.

Seben's frown didn't change, but she raised her eyes. "Why did he leave?" she asked quietly.

The nobleman sighed. "What answer could I give that would make amends for the damage done, my young friend?" he said, voice sympathetic. "The life of a Kingsguard demands one serve the Throne and nothing else. He had no choice but to leave, as cold a comfort as that may be."

"He couldn't send a message? He couldn't visit?" Seben challenged.

Masaharta spread his hands, expression still intensely apologetic. "I cannot excuse his actions and inactions, only say that he regretted them deeply. A great many things have happened in Court since the day of your birth. Your father died almost five years ago, my young friend. It has taken me this long to find you."

"And why did he even want me found?"

Vassa was surprised by the amount of bitterness in Seben's words. It seemed a great deal for one so young, but then again, clearly this meant a lot to her. How long had she spent as a girl waiting desperately for her father to return, to sweep her family off to some better life? Now it would never happen and his regrets were here to slap her across the face. If what Masaharta said was true, of course. Vassa still watched his every move hawkishly, hunting for hints.

"He wanted a better life for you," Masharta said. "If that is not what you wish…"

"And the Master of Malice will give with one hand and not take with both?" Seben said fiercely, dark eyes touched by tears. There was real anger in her voice now and distrust.

Masaharta glanced over at Vassa and made a gesture of helplessness, as if asking for her intervention to soothe Seben.

Vassa shrugged. In the moment, Seben's pain was doing more to get information out of him than Vassa's simple observation. She didn't like seeing the young woman upset, but it was useful. "I would answer the question, Lord Osei," she advised quietly.

"My reputation is an unpleasant one and to a degree an earned one, but I have no intention of harming you," Masaharta said as gently as he could. "In Sarom, you may find no better friend to have. There are...those who will object to your presence. I am an antidote to them if ever there were one."

"Why would they care?" Seben asked.

"Your provincial roots, as I warned you, will not find easy purchase at the Ashen Tower," the nobleman said delicately.

Vassa understood in that moment, with the way Masaharta was so careful around every syllable of those words, that there was someone else in Sarom who would not take kindly to Seben's presence. The answer was potentially in the Ashen Tower, with magical knowledge, and certainly somewhere only Masaharta had access to. She leaned over, running delicate fingertips down Seben's arm, and leaned in. "Be calm," she said near the apprentice fire-speaker's ear soothingly. "You are not alone and he does not intend to kill you. More answers will come in time."

Seben's jaw tightened, like she was going to object, but stopped in her tracks when Vassa's long fingers lifted hers gently and placed them atop a rook.

"This one next," the masked woman said, still staying in Seben's space.

"You said you were not going to intervene," Seben observed even as she picked up the dark wooden piece.

"Did I tell you where to place it?" Vassa asked airily as she sat back on her crate and crossed her legs, watching the game as if nothing had happened.

Seben cracked a tiny smile, some of the tension in her body easing. "I should make you take over."

"Regrettably, I am not here to please," the masked woman said with a shake of her head. "You must trounce Lord Osei on your own."

Masaharta seemed to relax at that, though his gaze was now more thoughtful as he studied the hooded woman. Her mode of dress gave him no opportunity to try and divine her emotions by her features, however. "Trounce away," he said with a smile. "I would like to offer you both a place to stay when we reach Sarom, though. My estates are large enough that should you have no wish to speak to me, you may both avoid me with ease."

"That is most generous of you, Lord Osei," Vassa said mildly without making a commitment either way.

Seben was quiet for a moment, deliberating, before she finally said, "Only if there is a bath."

Masaharta laughed. "Of course there will be a bath. Why that specification?"

The young woman shrugged and placed her rook in the exact spot Vassa had been hoping for. "Vassa deserves as many of them as she wants."

Despite how little she knew the young woman and the magnitude of the favor owed, Vassa was still touched by that. It had been a long, long, long time since someone made a decision they weren't certain about in order to secure anything on her behalf. Behind the mask, her lips curved into a real smile wide enough to sting. "A sweet thought," she said. She turned her gaze to the noble. "I will not abuse your hospitality, Lord Osei. I have no desire to become entirely aquatic."

"Yet," Seben said, finally relaxing more. She offered Masaharta a small smile. "Thank you for the offer, Lord Osei. I apologize for my anger. Family is a...a very sore spot."

He chuckled. "I take no offense, my young friend. I did not think this would be an easy transition for you. Fortunately you seem to have quite the friend already to help."

Seben straightened up with a more serious expression. "Vassa saved my life. I'll never forget that."

Vassa felt a sudden urge to brush away all credit and surrendered immediately to the impulse. She didn't like how seriously Seben had taken it to heart. "It was hardly anything," she said, standing up from her seat on the crate. "Enjoy your game. I have some questions for the good captain about what to expect when we reach Sarom's docks."

"Vassa," the young woman started to say, face falling when the masked woman departed without stopping. "I hate it when she does that."


Chapter 7
Arrival at Sarom

By K. Olsen

Sarom, Crown Jewel of the East, was a vast, sprawling metropolis glittering on the shores of the Sea of Pearls. White sand beaches stretched in either direction beyond the bounds of almost endless docks crowded with ships. On either side of the deep harbor rose the Twins, two statues almost as tall as the Colossus. One was a woman, her hand outstretched holding a torch while the other held scrolls to her chest. Her face was marked with the same symbol as Seben’s, honoring the first to master fire-speaking. The other figure was that of a man, crowned and regal, bearing the mythical pride of the first kings of the Eth.

It was all very ostentatious to Vassa, every bit of the harbor meant to strike awe into those approaching. The palace was visible on the great cliff overlooking the sea, gleaming sandstone painted gold by the sunlight, its vast dome blazing beneath the sunlight to the point of almost seeming a second sun. The docks themselves were grand in a different way, teeming with people speaking almost every language known. Sarom was not only the greatest city of the East, but the hub of a vast trade network that spanned the entire known world....and then some, as traders appeared even from the whispered lands to the far west.

“What do you think?” Vassa asked, leaning against the rail as Inam-ul-Haq brought them gracefully up alongside a dock in the merchant section of the docks, away from the great warships and private vessels of the noble houses as well as the fishing fleets that that made their living in the crystalline waters of the Sea of Pearls.

Seben’s eyes were wide as she took in everything. “I had heard Sarom was incredible, but this...this is a great deal more than that,” she said with awe. She turned to look at Vassa. “What do you think? You are as new here as I.”

“It certainly aims to project an aura of power and majesty,” the masked woman observed. “And it is quite cosmopolitan if one observes merely the docks, but there is a great deal that remains unknown, and so my opinion is somewhat limited.”

“Does anything impress you?” Seben asked with a faint grin.

“Your persistence in curious prying into everything and everyone,” Vassa said with amusement. “Grand cityscapes, less so.”

Seben huffed slightly at that, but it seemed more good-natured than actually annoyed. “You do so love to nettle.”

“Your irritated sighs are somewhat endearing,” Vassa said idly, returning her gaze to the city. “Which one is the Ashen Tower?”

“There,” Seben said, pointing. “I recognize it from the stories.”

Vassa let her gaze trail the pointing finger. There, perched to the easternmost section of the upper city, was a towering grey spire that protruded out from the cliff face, the lower half of the building scarred with black as if ravaged by some fire. At its top rose a small plume of smoke. “Is it truly burned?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” Seben said, leaning against the railing on the deck. “Well, not physically. They used a dark stone and a light stone to give it that pattern. It’s more symbolic than anything else.”

“Fascinating,” Vassa said, her tone dry enough that it was difficult to tell if she was being sarcastic or not. For the most part it was a genuine statement. She wanted to direct her inner eye towards the tower, but a concentration of djinn and magical artifacts would probably blot out anything of interest from this distance even if the area somehow wasn’t warded. If she wanted to find anything in specific, such as any hint about Seben’s magic, she would need to be inside.

“So we go to the Ashen Tower as soon as the captain’s finished with the guards?” Seben asked more quietly.

“That would be unwise, I think,” Vassa said, tracing her fingertips over the grooves in the wood of the railing. “Firstly, we should find the accommodations that Lord Osei has offered to clean up at and then we should proceed about getting you better clothing and whatever else we might need. If your common roots will truly be a problem in gaining admission to the Ashen Tower, better that you at least be clean and well dressed. You will be that much less objectionable.”

“He has been kind, but I’m not certain I like relying on the hospitality of a noble,” Seben admitted.

“Your alternatives are somewhat limited at the moment,” the masked woman pointed out. “Once you have been admitted to study at the Ashen Tower, they may have a residence for you. Until then, however, Lord Osei’s generosity is the only thing between you and the street.” She leaned closer to Seben, tilting her head to speak closer to the young woman’s ear. “Besides, he has an interest in your continued survival at this time and that makes him a nominal ally. If he is close, it is easier to keep an eye on him, and if we are keeping an eye on him, we may catch a glimpse of the person who wants you dead so badly that they sent thugs in the night to kill you.”

Seben stiffened at the reminder of mortal peril and then nodded. “I suppose you’re right.”

“About such things, I usually am,” Vassa said, turning her head when she heard an approach across the deck. “Lord Osei, I take it you are prepared to disembark?”

“Indeed,” the nobleman said, flashing them a wide smile. “It is good to be home.”

“I’m certain your dashing guards agree,” she said with a nod to the two men flanking Masaharta. They looked immensely relieved to be about to set foot on solid ground again. “The land will undoubtedly be kinder than the tossing of the waves.”

Both guards nodded in agreement. Vassa had learned over the course of the voyage that neither Paser nor Teos spoke unless their master specifically commanded it. It was commendable dedication to their role, she supposed, and she had not endeavored to force them to break whatever vow placed them in such a habit. They could be forgiven the groans of sea-sickness. She had a firm appreciation for their skills after seeing them in action, even if only briefly. Masaharta had very capable help, as she expected from a man of his position and inclinations.

“But the sea air is so wonderful!” Inam-ul-Haq said jovially, stepping up behind the two guards and slapping them both on the back. He sucked in a deep, exaggerated breath and exhaled loudly. “The pitching of the deck in the waves, up and down, the swaying of the mast and sails, the beautiful roll…can you not feel the soothing rhythm of the ocean?”

“You can take sea air just fine on land,” Seben said, trying not to laugh when a distinct look of queasiness hit both Paser and Teos, no doubt the captain’s intent.

“Ah, but is it the same?” the smuggler said with a chuckle. He patted the guards on the back again. “I have business with the harbormaster’s nephew about my other cargo, so I must leave you, my friends.” He stopped in front of Vassa, offering her a bow. In his native tongue, rather than Eth, he said, “I wish you the best of travels, Mistress Vassa. It has been a pleasure doing business with you.”

Vassa returned the bow, touching her fingertips to her forehead, then her lips, and then over her heart before extending her hand towards him. “Be well in all things, Captain. I hold you high in my esteem.”

“Such generous words,” Inam-ul-Haq said, though he reverted back to Eth so that he could be understood by everyone present. He sounded pleasantly surprised by her grasp of the language. Vassa spoke it well, if with an accent he could not place.

“Your kindness in accepting us as last minute passengers is not forgotten,” Vassa said simply.

Their conversation was broken by the arrival of the harbormaster’s assistant, an officious man with lips pursed into a thin line, though it was hard to tell if he was just evaluating or already disapproving. “You are the captain of this vessel?” the man said, fixing Inam-ul-Haq with a glare. He was followed down the dock by a handful of guards.

“It is so,” the smuggler said, his smile never faltering. “Is there a problem, o most noble representative of the King’s authority? This visit is unexpected.”

“There is not,” Masaharta said, stepping directly in front of the assistant to effectively bar him access over the gangplank.

The man went as pale as possible with his dark skin and dropped to his knees so quickly there was an audible bang on the dock. Seben grimaced sympathetically even though the man looked like trouble. “Lord Osei!” the harbormaster’s assistant yelped.

Masaharta smiled, still perfectly pleasant. “If you could account for this disturbance, my good man?”

“A vessel such as this and its captain are wanted, Lord Osei,” the man sputtered out. “For piracy.” 

The nobleman glanced over at Inam-ul-Haq. “Are you a pirate, Captain?”

Inam-ul-Haq put a hand over his heart. “I am most offended by the assassination of my character, Lord Osei,” he said humbly. “I am no pirate.”

The anymore went unsaid, but certainly heard by Vassa...which his brother had charitably informed her of before she’d even met him. She rather liked Inam-ul-Haq, pirate or not. The way he conducted himself was quite charming.

Judging by Masaharta’s chuckle, he heard it too. He looked back at the harbormaster’s assistant, who was quivering slightly. “I will take up the matter of this accusation with the one who posted the warrant,” he said casually. “Until it is resolved, the Captain and the Silvertang are not to be harassed. They have come into the city with my blessing as well as my personage. I hope you will be thoughtful enough to impress that upon your fellow assistants to Harbormaster Abara.”

The kneeling man bowed his head. “As you wish, Lord Osei.”

“Thank you,” Masaharta said. “Please, go about your business. I am sorry to trouble you.”

Once the man was on his way, trailed by the guards they had brought, Seben exhaled in relief. “That had to have hurt.”

“Certainly bruises,” Vassa said by way of agreement while Inam-ul-Haq thanked Masaharta profusely and bestowed many praises on the noble. “It was well handled. Now Inam-ul-Haq will have ample time to conduct his meeting and move his cargo without disruption from the authorities.”

“Indeed, particularly considering the gruesome ends that come to pirates,” Masaharta said. “A messy death is precisely the kind of end that one would never wish upon an enterprising merchant like the good captain.” He clapped the Silvertang’s captain on the shoulder with appreciation. “Be well, my friend. I’ll remember your ship the next time I need something or someone moved without a question.”

“There is no better,” Inam-ul-Haq said. He winked at Seben just before they turned to go. “Do not let Sarom dazzle you to blindness, fire-speaker. You walk in the company of asps.”

Vassa was inclined to agree with him, given what she knew of herself and Masaharta. She touched between Seben’s shoulder blades with her palm. It was becoming a habit to be vigilant of precisely where Seben was at all times. It was enough to make Vassa uncomfortable at times. Her training to protect should have been crushed along with everything else, but it felt so natural here. More than ever, in fact. Perhaps it was because Seben’s warmth felt so fragile, fleeting. The young woman’s life was as delicate as eggshell, as brief as a candle’s flame. Seben was oblivious to it, but Vassa knew how precarious and unkind a world could be. Whether the protection was given by instinct or genuine investment was harder to parse out for Vassa. The old excuse worked well: because it pleases me. The implication was always that she would stop the moment it no longer pleased her.

“So where are we going?” Seben asked, raising her voice slightly as they approached the noise and chaos of the throngs of people moving through the Sea Ward. She caught hold of Vassa by the elbow and followed close on Masaharta’s heels.

Fortunately, people moved out of Masaharta’s way, sometimes aided by a bump from the butt of a spear held by Paser or Teos. Their scowls were usually enough, however. It left enough space for Seben and Vassa to follow in, if they moved quickly.

“To my home, but by the scenic route!” Masaharta announced with a broad grin. “Anything more direct would be criminal. This is your first time in Sarom, after all. It should be reveled in while it gleams most brilliantly.”

Vassa knew that there would be a great deal to explore once she had her bearings in the city, hidden places and dark corners that Masaharta would likely not bring Seben to, if he was even vaguely honest about his intentions. Such places were always most fascinating and often vital in terms of her survival. Until she had a chance to appreciate Sarom on her own, however, she could content herself with the surface appearance.

The markets of Sarom seemed endless, teeming with thousands of different smells, sights, and sounds. It was said that one could buy anything in Sarom’s markets, though the royal prohibitions on slavery and steep tariffs on certain goods rendered that technically untrue. To Seben, though, Sarom’s vast array of market stalls and shops were proof enough that the city was a place where anything was possible. She clung to Vassa’s elbow, watching everything with wide eyes as they passed.

It only took Seben a few minutes of wonder to find her voice. “How is this place possible?” she said softly. “It’s just...so much.”

Vassa’s lips tugged into a smile. “Sarom is the eldest city of humans built in the East. It stood even before the cataclysm of the Revealing was over. Age grows many things, like rings in a tree or layers on a pearl.”

“I suppose that is true, though I’m more used to erosion,” the young woman said, leaning into Vassa slightly to avoid the press of crowds as they trailed Masaharta’s strolling form. “The wearing away of things under desert sands is legendary.”

“It is part of their charm.”

Seben cocked her head slightly to the side. “What do you mean?” she asked curiously.

“There is rejuvenation in such destruction. You are fortunate enough to come from a land that allows the desert to sweep clear much of its past and the people who dominated it. Such purification is not possible in certain places and it carries an important reminder.” Vassa turned her head to look at Seben, eyes piercing in the darkness of her hood. “Whoever you are, whatever you become, you are only here but a moment. No royal power or godly blessing will stop the sands.”

“That’s a grim way of seeing things,” Seben observed.

“Hardly,” Vassa said with a shake of her head. She had seen enough of the hallmarks of immortality to fully appreciate the horrors it brought with it. Living as a mayfly, everything fresh and vivid, if only for a moment, seemed far preferable. That was the trick, though. Only the gods could choose who lived as a candle flame and who burned without ceasing like the heart of a mountain, and they were so universally callous in how they apportioned those conditions. “Consider it a lesson in modesty.”

“Fair enough,” the apprentice fire-speaker conceded. She smiled slightly. “I suppose you would know more about modesty than I, with how you dress. I’m amazed you don’t cook in that cloth.”

“It shelters me from the sun. As you have observed, my skin is ill-suited to such intensity from the sun. I would burn to blisters beneath its rays,” Vassa said.

“You keep it on inside,” Seben pointed out. “I wish you wouldn’t feel as though you have to hide.”

Vassa fought the urge to stiffen, forcing herself to maintain her smooth pace. Instead, she turned her gaze away from Seben towards a dealer of perfumes. “I do as I wish,” she said as pleasantly as she could, to calm the blade she called a tongue. “When it pleases me to disrobe, I do so.”

“It wasn’t a critique, Vassa,” the young woman said more gently. “I just want you to feel safe. You’ve saved my life twice over now. Is that so unreasonable to wish for?”

“I have no need for your concern,” Vassa said. “I am fine dressed as I am.”

Seben frowned, but she measured her words before speaking. “I am sorry to offend,” she said after a brief pause.

Vassa sighed slightly. She didn’t like the niggling guilt that that particular tone in Seben’s voice inspired. “You did not insult,” she said. Before she could elaborate or redirect, her hand moved automatically, catching a darting figure by the wrist. Instead of simply grabbing, which she lacked the strength to sustain for too long, she tripped her captive and twisted.

“Vassa!” Seben said, startled by the sudden movement. “Are we snatching random children now?”

Vassa looked down at the scrawny boy sprawled in the dust at her feet, all bones and angles. He looked like he hadn’t eaten well in a long, long time. He was more desert-blooded than pure Eth, his skin closer to the color of cedar wood rather than Seben’s mahogany. “Only the ones pickpocketing,” she said absently, hauling the boy up by his collar as her fingers freed a small coin pouch from his hand. “A decent lift, young man, but your choice of targets was not particularly savvy.”

Masaharta turned with his guards, amusement lighting up his face. “Ah, Mistress Vassa, you have found yourself a rascal! Enduring petty theft is practically a rite of passage in this part of the Market Ward.”

The boy’s eyes were wide as he focused on the masked face and piercing eyes, fear gripping him too deeply to speak.

Vassa, however, did not let her eyes linger on him long. Where there was a distraction, there were bound to be more to take advantage of it. She subtly held the coin pouch out to Seben. “This belongs to you, I believe,” she said before glancing back down at the boy. “What you have stolen from others, you may keep.”

“Thief!” someone shouted nearby, pointing at the obvious culprit that Vassa had a hold of.

The boy started to tug, at least until Vassa leaned down. “You will find me a better ally than a mark,” she said near his ear. “Play along.” Then she hoisted him up off the ground and knelt in front of him, dusting him off. “Shame on you, Alif, playing robber. And look at what you’ve done to your clothes! Your mother would be ashamed.” She let the rhythm of her voice change as she spoke, adopting the more familiar tone and patterns she’d heard used in the camps of Samir’s prior owners.

It was enough to puzzle the onlookers. Fortunately, the boy was quick to follow Vassa’s lead. “Auntie, it was just a game,” he said, now clinging to her instead of trying to flee. He didn’t seem to recognize Masaharta, but he had no reason to as a child not familiar with the intrigues of court. “Besides, you won.”

“And what do these people think? That you are a thief!” Vassa flicked him on the nose and then patted him down, tugging at his clothing like she was examining it for dirt and fresh holes. “You need a bath and new clothes. Honestly, I cannot leave you unattended for a moment. You’re walking between your cousin and I for the rest of this block.”

Seben would have laughed at the absurdity of the switch in Vassa, but she saw a bulky guardsman approaching in response to the cry of ‘thief’ with an expression that was downright menacing. “Vassa,” she whispered in warning near the hooded woman’s ear.

The boy swallowed hard as the guardsman neared, clinging to Vassa more tightly and looking up at her with pleading eyes. This time, Masaharta did not move to intervene, which the masked woman knew meant this was a test for her and perhaps Seben too.

“It seems we have a thief,” the guard said, approaching.

“Nonsense,” Vassa said firmly. “Our Alif is a little miscreant, true, but nothing criminal.”

“He can turn out his pockets, then,” the guard said, one hand on a long dagger that reminded Seben uncomfortably of the ones drawn by her would-be killers. The official punishments for theft were not brutal, but Ethilir was a land of laws and law required enforcement. The guards even in the cradle of civilization itself were not immune to corrupting forces that could make them rough.

“Very well,” Vassa said. She gave the boy’s shoulder a slight squeeze. “Empty your pockets, Alif.”

His whole body tensed, but the pickpocket obeyed. There was nothing anywhere in his pockets, except a few stained copper coins and a roll of twine. Even he seemed surprised, but the display was enough to satisfy the passersby who had crowded around. The guard grunted and leveled a finger at the boy. “You’d better hope I don’t find out you’ve been thieving,” he said sharply before striding off.

Vassa swiveled her head, surveying the area with a hand still on the boy’s shoulder. “Well done,” she murmured as she leaned down, palming silver coins back into his tattered pockets so he would feel the weight but they wouldn’t be seen by her companions. “Next time, be more careful. Not all strangers are as generous.”

The boy stood on his toes so he could whisper close to her ear, “You are a good thief.”

“Not a thief at all,” Vassa confided. She caught the boy by the hand. “Come on, let’s get you a meal before we part ways.”

“Does she often rescue urchins?” Masaharta asked with amusement, looking over at Seben.

“I found her, didn’t I?” Vassa said dryly, letting the boy swing her hand triumphantly as he walked between her and Seben.

Soon the would-be thief was on his way with two more silver coins than he had originally stolen and a stomach full of kebab. Even though it was distinctly different than her home cuisine, Vassa had to admit she thoroughly enjoyed the smell of the spices on the lamb. Seben was thrilled, as each kebab was grilled enough that the outside of each piece was crunchy, the insides soft and tender. Pieces of eggplant and other vegetables sat as layers between.

“You should have some,” Seben prompted, nudging Vassa gently in her ribs with her elbow.

“I am not hungry,” Vassa said dismissively, ignoring the way her own mouth watered. Mercifully, her stomach hadn’t growled. As tempting as it was, she could eat when she was free of prying eyes. She would not remove her mask in the company of others.

“You haven’t eaten all day,” Seben said with concern. She hadn’t seen Vassa eat since they’d met, but she wasn’t going to say that.

Vassa smoothed her fingertips across the mask where the fabric sat over her lips. “I am aware.”

“Is something wrong?” Masaharta asked, looking over at the two of them. He’d been enjoying his own skewer and watching the people passing by from his comfortable position sitting on a low wall. For a noble, his manners seemed almost common. If it weren’t for his fine clothes and his bodyguards, he wouldn’t have stood out at all.

“It is nothing, Lord Osei,” Vassa said calmly. “I am simply eager to reach our destination.”

“Fortunately, we are almost to the Crown Ward. By virtue of my position, I was favored with a residence close to the palace by the last King. Our present monarch, King Userkare, has found me slightly less to his liking.” He leaned in slightly so their conversation would be inaudible over street noise. “Such men are jealous with their power.”

“He is newly ascended, is he not?” the masked woman asked absently, mind in whirring motion. If Masaharta was anything like some of the people she had known in her youth, that comment was not dropped without purpose.

“You are correct. He arose to power the year before last,” Masaharta said lightly, standing up. He finished the last of his kebab with a single bite and chewed thoughtfully for a moment before swallowing. “We can discuss that more at my residence. The Ashen Tower is tangled with the forces that shape life at the Royal Palace, so it may be worth your attention to at least know something.”

Seben nodded even as she returned to her grip on Vassa’s elbow, slightly tighter than before.

“Relax,” Vassa advised quietly near Seben’s ear.

“How?” the young woman asked.

Vassa’s tone was almost gentle. “Just breathe. One thing at a time.” 


Chapter 8
Respite

By K. Olsen

For a noble estate, Masaharta’s home was tastefully understated, but it still exhaled wealth out of every inch of its being. Surrounded by high stone walls and a flourishing garden for grounds, the manor house existed in a quiet shade so different from the hustle and bustle of the city streets, though the Crown Ward was slightly less populous than the city streets. The exterior of the building was the same white marble that many noble estates were built from, decorated and accented by cuts of darker, bluish stone. The ceramic tiles beneath their feet as they approached the grand main entrance were glazed to look like lapis lazuli. Ahead, the set of double doors was carved of a dark wood, with rings for handles set into the mouths of brass lions. At the center of the door was a large, complicated looking lock.

It was not magical, but certainly ingenious. Vassa suspected dwarven artifice was its root, though it was possible that a human artificer might have crafted such a thing. Masaharta made no move to unlock it, however, as it was opened as they arrived by a stern, tall Eth man in a suit of ceremonial armor. “Welcome back, Lord Osei,” the man said stiffly, more in keeping with formality than being displeased. “I assure you that we have kept the estate pristine in your absence.”

“Thank you, Djau,” their noble escort said with an approving nod. “My guests will be staying with us for a time.” He turned to look at his bodyguards. “Paser, Teos, you have done exceptionally well. You are relieved of duty. Please, go eat and relax.”

Both guards bowed deeply and entered the house ahead of them, leaving their master and his guests standing before Djau.

Djau offered a deep bow to Seben. “I have heard Lord Osei speak of you, my lady.” He offered the same to Vassa, though he seemed distinctly warier. The sight of a mask and a blade at her side gave her an unsettling air, as did her ability to move. He was a servant of Lord Osei and likely no stranger to danger.

“Proper introductions are in order, I think,” Masaharta said with a chuckle. “My friends, this is the inestimable Djau. A more faithful friend cannot be found in Sarom. I am fortunate that he has chosen to look after the place for me. Djau, may I introduce Seben Femi, the daughter of my late friend, and her companion, Mistress Vassa.”

Djau raised an eyebrow at that, studying Seben more closely. “I see the resemblance,” he observed.

“You knew my father?” Seben asked. Her grip tightened on Vassa’s elbow, an indication that she wasn’t certain how to feel about that.

“As did many, though I did not know him well,” Djau said thoughtfully, glancing at Masaharta with a question in his eyes. Whatever he saw made him incline his head slightly in a nod. “It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance. I will arrange for the finest of our guest rooms for your stay, Lady, as well as for your companion.”

Seben seemed to lock up at being addressed as a noble, so Vassa guided her after the two men into the house. “He has a fountain inside his house,” the young woman muttered as they stepped over the threshold. There, in the middle of a tiled pool set into the floor, was a statue of a mermaid seated half up out of the water on a stone, her tail curled to form the edge of the pool. All around, the walls and columns of the entry hall were painted mimic the shores of the sea and broad, large windows left open to the air showed a breathtaking view of the ocean, out over the great cliffs. They were within sight of the Royal Palace, the view almost crimson as it was touched by the light of the sun setting into the Sea of Pearls.

Masaharta laughed at the comment, but in good humor rather than mockery. “I do indeed, though it was not originally my house. A gift, as I said, in return for service to King Ienheru. He was a most generous man. He appreciated my willingness to protect fair Ethilir, even if that sometimes required a...less straightforward touch.” He patted Seben on the shoulder. “You will become accustomed to luxury soon, I think.”

“Never,” Seben said, shaking her head. 

Vassa studied Djau for a moment, measuring the man with her eyes. He was slightly past his middle years, grey weaving its way into his black hair, but he still moved with decent grace even in armor and she suspected that even if he was less muscular than he had once been, he was still enough to break her in half. He was security as much as servant and his diction in Eth indicated an education. He was as much a servant in his purpose as she was, really. The appearance could readily be projected and taken at face value, but there was so much more under the surface.

She approved, though it would likely make her life that much more difficult if Masaharta ever proved a foe.

“Thank you for your graciousness, Master Djau,” Vassa said, dipping her head. She looked back at Seben, who was almost swaying on her feet between fatigue and overwhelming emotions. “It was a long walk through the city, Lord Osei. May we retire? Seben could use the rest.”

“Of course,” Masaharta said with a bow of his head. “We can discuss the Ashen Tower over breakfast. Shall I have something prepared for you for dinner, Mistress Vassa?”

“That would be appreciated, though I would prefer to dine in my accommodations,” Vassa said simply. So far, Masaharta’s hospitality had been flawless, but she wasn’t going to leave too much distance between herself and Seben until she was confident enough in her knowledge of her surroundings that a far-step would be easy. “I think everyone has earned a night of rest.”

“A sensible assessment. Djau, would you show these ladies to their rooms? I will retire to the library for a time before bed. I am certain I have a wealth of correspondence neglected in my absence,” their host said pleasantly.

“Of course, Lord Osei,” Djau said. He beckoned for them to follow and then lead them through beautiful, palatial halls adorned with breathtaking frescoes, sapphire blue draperies and inlays, and intricate bas reliefs carved into the walls themselves. No part of the manor had been constructed without an artist’s eye. Vassa was careful enough to listen to the sound of Djau’s footsteps as they passed. Someone had sculpted the house itself to carry sound beautifully, likely so any musical performance would have full benefit of the acoustics, but a decorating hand had used fabric and furniture to change the projection of noises. Some spots were very quiet, where little traveled, and other places, such as near doors, carried voices well.

It was an attention to detail that Vassa’s well-groomed skepticism could appreciate. If anything, it put her at ease, something familiar in an otherwise very different world.

Seben only relaxed once they were behind closed doors and Djau was on his way, after thanking the armored man profusely. The quarters were two bedrooms and a bathroom that adjoined a large living room, probably normally used for visiting dignitaries or fellow nobles, by the decor. The young woman just about fell onto an azure couch covered in gold stitching of patterns that almost seemed to flow like ocean currents. “I cannot believe this,” Seben whispered.

Vassa’s lips tugged into a smile behind her mask. “Might I recommend a bath before bed, if you have the energy?” she said. “Warm water can do wonders for the soul, with additional benefit that no salt spray is pressed into what I assume are very fine sheets.”

“Shouldn’t I leave that to you?” Seben said.

“I will bathe in the morning,” Vassa said as a counterargument. She waved Seben towards the curtain that separated the bathroom from the main living room. “I cleaned myself of the sea while we were walking back.”

“You have very useful tricks, for a mage,” the apprentice fire-speaker said with a small smile, getting up. “Fire-speakers say that Leyan magic is always so destructive that it’s hard to imagine anything else.”

Vassa’s smile faded slightly behind the mask, but there was no change in her voice. “Something that is anything but unique to Leyans. Few things can devastate as magic can,” she said. “Enjoy your bath, Seben. I am going to investigate my room. Tomorrow, we will return to the Market Ward. I need clothing almost as much as you do and a dozen other things as well.”

Seben hesitated before stepping into the bathroom. “Will you be alright?”

“Consider your own safety, if you would. I am more than capable of evading threats,” Vassa said dismissively, waving for Seben to venture into the bathroom.

“I know,” the young woman said with a tired smile, “but you don’t have to face it alone either.”

Vassa made a shooing motion and crushed the brief warmth that tried to fill her chest at the idea of having anyone who wanted to protect her. She knew full well what came of such hopes. “To the bath with you. I will leave out the spare clothes from Inam-ul-Haq. They are already clean.”

“Are you my protector or my nursemaid?” Seben asked with a laugh as she vanished through the curtain.

“Which would you listen to more carefully?” Vassa asked in turn, pulling out clean clothes from her bag as she set it down. She poked her head into the bathroom after Seben. The bath was set into the floor, much like the inn’s, but the whole room was perfectly pristine and crafted of stone rather than wood and tile. Soap sat in a dish to one side, the scent light and airy with cedar and cinnamon blended into it. She set the clothes down on a low stool and dipped her fingers into the bath. It was warm, not hot. Had they come along a more direct route, no doubt it would have been steaming. Still, plenty to soothe sore muscles and tension.

“I was a poor listener as a child,” Seben mumbled.

“Truly shocking.”

Seben knelt at the pool’s edge and splashed water at her companion. “Sarcasm is an unflattering tone, Vassa. I listen to you just fine, thank you.”

“Perhaps,” Vassa said, flicking a droplet of water back at Seben. “Now actually bathe or I will be forced to toss you in myself. I will be in my room. Knock on the door if you require me.”

Seben nodded, but her gaze drifted down to the water with a heavy air. “And if someone tries to kill me?”

Vassa rose to her feet. “In that eventuality, I suppose I will have to do something unspeakably cruel to them and then have you present the urn with their ashes to Lord Osei for his collection of statuary.”

It earned a laugh from the young woman, which had been something of the goal even if it was not entirely a joke. “You’re a good friend, Vassa.”

Vassa went still for a split second, almost...tense. “That I am not.”

Seben studied the masked woman’s form, wishing she could see a face so that she could put a name to whatever emotion had just flickered through her companion with enough power to disturb those serene waters. “Will you ever tell me why you helped me?”

“It pleased me to do so,” Vassa said, turning and striding for the curtain. “If I do not hear a splash in the next minute, I will come in here and create one.”

“Alright,” Seben said with a laugh, waiting until the curtain was closed after the masked woman to disrobe and step into the bath. She wasn’t certain where Vassa’s conception of modesty drew the line, but she wasn’t going to make a show to disturb it. Supposedly the peoples of the north and east were far more shy about their bodies than the Eth and Leyans. Her traveling companion’s mode of dress didn’t match the stories, but perhaps it was just an extreme form.

Vassa relaxed slightly when she heard the splashing. It bought her time alone with her thoughts, as did a soft knock on the door. She strode over and opened it, coming face to face with a servant holding a covered dish and glass of wine on a silver tray. “Dinner, Mistress?” the young man said, holding the tray out.

“My gratitude,” Vassa said, accepting the food. “Where would you like it left when I have finished?”

He gave her a bright smile and gestured to a small table standing to the left of the door. “Here. I will check for it.”

Vassa bowed her head in gratitude and took the dish with her into her room, making certain the doors closed and locked quietly behind her. Fortunately, solid stone walls meant spying would have to be much more creative. The room had a writing desk with a comfortable chair as well as a small table to one side with a bench seat. A large, four-poster bed took up the most prominent place on the far wall, the cold stone floor insulated by beautiful, intricately woven rugs. There was something to be said for the finer things in life.

She pulled a sheet off the bed and used it to cover the mirror on the wall, then closed the shutters on the window. To accommodate for the lack of light, she exhaled a wisp of her own essence onto the palm of her hand, igniting the magic with a hint of power. The hungry little flame was quickly moved to the wick of the oil lamp on the table. She didn’t bother to light the one over by the writing desk or the bed since she was near to neither.

She took a seat at the table and uncovered the dish on the tray. It was lamb over a bed of rice with grilled vegetables and fragrant flatbread, seasoned with salt and many of the same aromatic spices she’d caught scent of at the market stall. Whether this was a special effort put forth by Masaharta and his people or typical of Eth cooking remained unclear, but it was appreciated either way.

She carefully removed her hood, platinum hair spilling free. It was getting slightly longer than she liked it, but that was easily tended to. After most of a day without any food and an excellent meal in front of her, it was hard to temper herself and not wolf it down. She made a mental note to find Masaharta’s cook and thank them profusely. It was the best thing she’d eaten in at least a year, accompanied by a glass of excellent wine.

It was the kind of luxury she had not expected to see for the remainder of her life. Its return was both pleasant and deeply troubling. Her thoughts strayed to Seben as she finished her meal and then her wine. Have you learned nothing? she asked herself. You know how this story ends.

As much as she wanted to tell herself that this situation was different, that these people were different, experience had taught her how exceptionally foolish it was to trust anyone with anything. Hadn’t she trusted Lysaerys? Certainly, enough to all but gouge out her own eyes and follow in the dark, clinging to just the promise in that smoky voice. Even being shackled to an ancient ward and almost drained dry to destroy it hadn’t been enough to break that hold. She had still tried to intervene, to protect Lysaerys even from a self-inflicted wound, and that had ended in torment.

What made her think that this would end with anything other than isolation and torture? Companionship, friendship, love, these were things that a wise zhendai avoided, for all such madnesses found their inevitable end at the touch of one's hands. Hers was not a magic that could create. It only distorted, disrupted, destroyed.

Vassa sighed. She didn’t like revisiting those thoughts. It was easy not to dwell when she was alone, where the thoughts and motives of others were of no concern. She needed to leave and quickly, before this poison vine sank roots into her heart.

A soft knock on her door disrupted her thoughts. “A moment, please,” Vassa called before donning her mask again and pulling on her hood. She checked to make certain her hair was hidden and everything was covered before pulling the cloth off the mirror on her way to the door. She opened it carefully, standing not directly behind the door.

There was no threat on the other side, just a very sleepy-eyed Seben dressed in clean clothes and still damp from the bath. “I wanted to say good night,” the apprentice fire-speaker explained, the gold markings on her chin catching the lamplight. “Sleep well, Vassa.”

Vassa honestly didn’t know what to think of the gesture, but it at least said that the young woman had thought of her. “To bed with you. You’ve had too long of a day.”

“Too long of a something,” Seben agreed, rubbing at her eyes as she turned and headed for her room. “Will I see you in the morning?”

Despite all of her survival instincts screaming for her to run, Vassa shook her head slightly and laughed. “Probably.”

“I’m not going to bed without a yes.”

Vassa knew she could deal with her own thoughts in the morning as well. She was feeling the creep of exhaustion herself. Fleeing from entanglement was an attractive option, but the bed was singing a siren call in her tired mind that could not be ignored. “Sleep. I will see you in the morning.” 


Chapter 9
The Beginnings of a Plan

By K. Olsen

Vassa leaned against a delicate pillar as she gazed out over the city of Sarom. Masaharta’s dining room had a stunning view out the windows, between the trunks of the different fruit trees in his garden. He claimed to be most fond of the oranges, though figs sat in a prominent place on the table and the man ate them with decided relish. The masked woman listened to the conversation happening behind her more than the birds, though the opposite probably appeared true.

“I think that they would not be inclined to let you in if you simply approached,” Masaharta said thoughtfully, turning the stem plucked from a fig between his thumb and forefinger. He studied Seben intently as he spoke. “Things have changed in Sarom since Userkare’s rise to power. He exerts a great deal of influence on who is permitted to enter the Ashen Tower, as is his right, and he has been careful to favor his political allies. A commoner gaining entry would offer him nothing he does not already have.”

“Then what am I to do?” Seben asked. She sounded more determined than despairing. After all, she had come so far and had survived multiple attempts on her life to do so.

There was a creak as Masaharta leaned back in his chair, behind and to Vassa’s left. “There is a way into the Ashen Tower aside from direct sponsorship,” he said. “The Games.”

Seben took a deep breath, steadying herself. “I can’t.”

“Games?” Vassa asked idly, admiring the plumage on a brightly colored macaw. The parrot seemed intrigued by her as well, hopping closer on the branch of an orange tree. She extended a hand, able to just brush fingertips against its feathers even as she held out a piece of fig with care. That beak could draw blood if she wasn’t careful. The bird remained close, allowing her to touch its wing for just a moment before setting to work on the piece of fig.

“They are a tradition that stretches back centuries,” Masaharta explained. “Apprentices can gain access to mastery at the Ashen Tower by competing. It’s accompanied by the more standard set of spectacles: chariot races, foot chases, the occasional gladiators. The difference is that the apprentices are tasked with gaining control of a djinn.”

Vassa raised an eyebrow under her hood. “Dangerous,” she commented. “How fortunate that much of your city is stone.”

“There are wards carved into the Arena,” Masaharta said with a wave of his hand. “The djinn cannot pass beyond those bounds unless secured in a soul jar.” He smiled slightly. “I believe you every bit the greater of a djinn, Seben. Your master must have taught you to control them, if you bear the mark. Summoning is the last thing you learn, not the first.”

“He did,” Seben said, her nerves easily audible in her voice. “But those were tame djinn, who had encountered and served humans before. They bring them in from the Sea of Sand itself for the Games.”

“Is a fire ever truly tame?” Masaharta said philosophically.

“It is not,” Vassa said, turning to look at the two in conversation. Seben looked distinctly uneasy and Masaharta seemed his usual self. Djau was in the process of tidying up most of breakfast, humming to himself to cover the way he was absolutely listening to every word. “Nor magic, from what little I know.” She chose her words carefully. Better that Masaharta not know the depths of her familiarity with magic if at all avoidable. A dabbler was less dangerous an appearance than the truth.

“Seben mentioned you had some familiarity with the Art,” he observed.

“A touch,” Vassa said with a shrug.

“In your learned estimation, then, is Seben prepared?” the nobleman said, smiling faintly.

Vassa considered the question carefully. She had not met a djinn, but she understood fire. It had always been her element and so she understood its character. “I know little of Seben’s past training,” she said thoughtfully, studying the young woman. Again she thought of that image in the desert of Seben’s blazing, glorious aura. “That said, I would wager that with some practice, she could contend with an unrestrained djinn.”

“I take it you have some thoughts?” Masaharta said. His gaze on the masked woman was appraising.

“Perhaps. Something she and I might discuss on the way to get clothing and other supplies,” Vassa said lightly. “I would like to spend some time out in Sarom and no doubt you are a very busy man, Lord Osei. Seben will be safe enough in my company—if trouble appears, we will run.”

The nobleman considered this a moment before nodding. “You seem quite capable as a pair. Very well.”

Seben finished her tea with a gulp. “We’re going back to the markets?” she said with a growing smile.

“As promised,” Vassa said with a dip of her head. “There are things I consider necessary that I would like to purchase and you require new clothing. Besides, better that you blend as part of Lord Osei’s household in the meantime in case you are still hunted. Even his servants are well dressed, as evidence of his wealth.”

Seben looked down at herself. The shirt she wore was too large, and her pants were cuffed to not scuff on the ground. Her sandals were worn almost to nothing by travel. There was a definite point to Vassa’s argument the day before that she would need to look better to draw fewer critiques, even if they were not immediately going to the Ashen Tower. “Alright,” she said earnestly. “Are you ready to leave?”

“I am,” Vassa said. She had eaten well before Masaharta or Seben were awake, again secluding herself in her room. She bowed to their host. “Thank you for your hospitality, Lord Osei. We will see you again this evening, if that is acceptable. I do not know how long our errands will take.”

Masaharta dipped his head in a nod. “Enjoy your excursion, ladies. I have business to attend to today. Do make certain you get something presentable enough for a function and send the tab to my estate. There will be a gathering in a few days and it would please me greatly for you to be in attendance.” He dipped his hand into a belt pouch and then tossed a piece of engraved ivory to Vassa. “Your manners seem quite polished, if foreign, Mistress Vassa. Djau will be prepared to instruct Seben on the basics when you return.”

“That is most unexpected,” Vassa observed, impassive even behind the safety of her mask. “Such a function imposes risk on Seben.”

“I am confident in our ability to ensure her protection. A fire-speaker at such a function would not be particularly notable,” Masaharta said. He glanced sidelong at Seben, gauging her anxiety, and then offered her a comforting smile. “I have a great deal of practice maintaining the safety of many people, my young friend. It is part of my position here at the court, in fact.”

“Why does someone want me dead?” Seben asked. Her tone was as firm as she could make it.

“Clearly they believe you are dangerous to them,” Masaharta said. “Whether that is true, I do not know, but you have my word that I will not allow you to come to harm under my care.”

Seben sighed and looked over at Vassa. Her lips parted to say something, but she seemed to reconsider at the last second and said instead, “I am ready to go when you are.”

“Then let us be off,” Vassa said, patting herself down briefly to ensure her hidden pockets of coin and valuables were as they should be. She rolled the carved piece of ivory between her fingers as she offered Masaharta a proper bow. “Good fortune until we next meet, Lord Osei.”

Seben copied the gesture, but saved her words until they were out in the street. “I hate not knowing things,” she said.

Vassa tilted her head slightly as she regarded Seben, lips twitching into a smile behind her mask. “I suspect you will be highly disappointed for the rest of your days, o inquisitive one.”

“People are trying to kill me, Vassa,” Seben said seriously. “I deserve to know who and why.”

The intensity of Seben’s gaze pierced Vassa’s display of amusement. The masked woman sobered slightly and reached out, delicate fingertips smoothing the fabric over Seben’s shoulder to soothe. “I suspect the answer is still your aura,” she said softly as she let her hand fall away. “I do not know what its significance is, but I know that it is significant. I will need time and resources to divine more of its nature.”

Real distress shone in Seben’s dark eyes for a moment. Vassa averted her gaze, looking towards the street and whatever potential dangers lurked there. “But I didn’t do anything,” the young woman said quietly.

Vassa sighed slightly and started to walk. “I have found that seldom factors into such equations.”

Seben followed quickly, catching hold of Vassa’s sleeve just so that when they returned to populated districts, they wouldn’t be separated. This section of the Crown Ward was still always busy, goods moving to and from the great estates. Further down the block they passed under the shade of one of the great aqueducts that fed water to the city, the shadow cast a cool reprieve from the growing heat of the day. It was only morning and already the air was beginning to shimmer. Sarom did its best to build plenty of shade and shelter into its constructions, but the sun’s presence was most assuredly felt.

“Let us play a game,” Vassa said as they walked. Seben’s hold on her elbow wasn’t uncomfortable, just tight enough to hang on if they were bumped or pressed into, and the young woman was always careful not to cause even the slightest hint of pain. It was strange to have anyone in her space for any length of time. The masked woman wasn’t certain if she liked Seben’s proximity or not, but she didn’t devote her time and energy to analyzing that.

“A game?” Seben asked, tone almost grasping for some reassuring normality.

“That is what I said,” Vassa said lightly. “As we walk. The shops in the Market Ward closest to our current district should serve our purposes well, but they are a ways away and I find it better to keep the mind well honed.”

Seben sighed slightly, though the sound was more a release of tension than annoyance. “What game were you considering?”

“I trust that even in Ethilir, ‘I Spy’ is still a game known to children?” the masked woman said as she wove her way through the crowds, guiding Seben along behind her. Her routes were chosen carefully and she glanced up to the rooftops occasionally as well as to the people around them. They ran a risk and though an assassination in broad daylight was not likely, it was still possible. Vassa was also careful to keep them away from nobles whenever possible, mingling more with the servants and laborers who tended to everything.

“It is,” Seben said, studying her companion for a moment as they stopped on a street corner to let a carriage pass. “What is this about, Vassa?”

“Amusement, as one would find to be true of most games.”

“You don’t strike me as the type for a child’s game,” Seben muttered.

“Do you know me so well?” Vassa countered, turning to face her companion.

Not for the first time, Seben wished she could actually see the masked woman’s face, to get any clue of her motivations or moods. She trusted Vassa, but she didn’t know much about her rescuer. Even what she looked like was a mystery, so she’d been forced to try and build an image in her head using Vassa’s silvery voice. It was hard. Every time she thought she knew precisely what to expect, Vassa would reveal some other facet.

“No, I suppose I don’t,” Seben said. “You’ve been very careful not to let me see anything.”

Vassa laughed. “You may begin.”

Seben scanned the area as they started to walk. Her eyes settled on a waving banner for a noble house. It was the same color as the trees planted, so perhaps Vassa would mistake the cue for one of the spreading plants. “I spy something green.”

Vassa spent no time scanning the surroundings. “That banner.”

The young woman’s brow furrowed. “How do you know?”

“You turned your head at the same time as you raised your eyes,” Vassa said lightly. “You must learn to look less obviously if you do not wish discovery.”

“You have a decidedly unfair advantage if that is how we are to play,” Seben pointed out. “I cannot see your eyes or your face.”

“Then you must pay more attention to your surroundings to make up the difference,” the masked woman said. “We have a walk ahead with ample time for you to adapt.”

Seben did not find it to be an easy game. Vassa’s challenges began simply enough, targets chosen to be easily observable, but quickly grew more and more difficult, particularly when she started incorporating people into the selected pieces of scenery to be focused on. Moving back into the Market Ward surrounded them again with a sea of people, though they were well behaved so close to the Crown Ward, with no sign of urchins or pickpockets.

“You win,” Seben said with a sigh as they stopped in front of a shop advertised by bright bolts of cloth and dresses displayed on mannequins made of wood.

“This was not about victory,” Vassa said. “You improve every time you devote energy towards mastering your perception. It is a skill, not an inborn gift, and one you will find most useful.”

“Where did you learn to hone it so?”

Vassa shrugged. “Everywhere I have gone. Keen senses saved me many times on my traveler’s road,” she said simply. It was true, if not the entire truth. The games played in her native land demanded attention to detail and cunning, promising only ruin to those ignorant of the dangers all around.

Seben nodded slightly before looking at the shop nervously. “So clothing?”

“They will have to take measurements and make the garments, but yes,” Vassa said. “I suspect we can obtain clothing here suitable to Lord Osei’s company.” She wasn’t looking forward to it, but she was not about to confide that to anyone. While she appreciated good clothing and fashion, there was a deeply rooted part of her that disliked touch. She endured it in limited capacity with Seben, but that was the extent of what she would have preferred to tolerate.

“It looks expensive,” Seben said, her tone almost a protest.

“It is,” Vassa said, placing her hand between Seben’s shoulder blades and giving her a slight push towards the doors. “So let us have it over with sooner rather than later, for your comfort if nothing else.”

Seben nodded and opened the door to the shop. She regretted stepping in the moment she’d done it. Some of the dresses on display were absolutely breathtaking, between radiant silks and satins of many colors mingled with linens dyed in intricate patterns. It felt every inch like she did not belong and the judgmental eyes of a dressmaker indicated that she looked as out of place as she felt.

Vassa stepped in, the ivory token rolling across her knuckles. Even masked and hooded, clothes worn slightly after so long on the road, something about her seemed to fit as she modified her posture a touch and carried herself as if she owned her surroundings. For all her distinctive garb, Vassa knew how to blend with her environment.

“Can I be of assistance?” the dressmaker said, offering a wary smile as she approached the two.

Vassa dipped her head in greeting and acknowledgement. “My lady has been accepted to the Ashen Tower. She will require apparel appropriate to that status,” she said. Her tone was not harsh, but it brooked no argument. “We have a marker, a gift, but if you would prefer coin, that can be arranged.”

The dressmaker blinked in surprise, but it was not unheard of for apprentices of lower status to enter the Ashen Tower, and that acceptance opened the world of wealth and influence with them. “We honor markers here,” she said. “The noble house compensates in equal measure to the value of the marker. May I see it?”

“Of course,” Vassa said, presenting the piece of carved ivory.

The dressmaker took it with careful fingers to inspect the design. The woman’s eyes widened when she realized something. “Well....I….”

“If there’s a problem—” Seben started to say, worries redoubling.

“Not at all!” the dressmaker said quickly, offering them a pearly smile. “I was not expecting the patronage of Lord Osei’s friends.” She whistled and several assistants seemed to materialize from nowhere. She gave Seben a deep curtsey. “My name is Behenu and it will be a pleasure to assist you and your companion, my lady.”

Seben wasn’t certain how to react or what to say, so she settled on honest gratitude. “Thank you, Behenu. I...I don’t know for certain what I’ll need.”

“Then we will arrange an assortment,” Behenu said with authority. She turned to her assistants. “If you will begin with measurements.” The woman stepped over to Vassa. “And for you, my lady. You are a friend of Lord Osei’s as well, to carry such a mark.”

Vassa considered her options. She was short on clothing at the moment, a need that could be easily addressed here. “I need clothing that does not restrict. I am safeguarding the fire-speaker,” she said.

“We provide clothing for bodyguards as well on a regular basis,” Behenu said, leading Vassa into the back after Seben. The young woman was already being inspected as the assistants produced measuring strings, each one knotted at every inch for more precise measurements. “The nobility prefer even their security well dressed.”

“That will suit,” Vassa said. “I will not disrobe for measurements.”

Behenu turned to look at Vassa’s shrouded face. “As you wish. I assume a more subdued coloring?”

“I think that would be prudent. Far be it from me to distract attention from the nobles I am with,” the masked woman said lightly. She lowered her voice slightly. “You know how they can be.”

The dressmaker laughed. “True enough. Arms out and hold still. I will take your measurements.”

Vassa nodded and allowed Behenu into her space without recoiling. She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, not the quick and professional touch of the dressmaker. It was the most thorough measuring she had received since leaving her homeland and she knew that care would mean clothes that fit well. Fortunately it was swift and the presence of cloth concealed the secrets Vassa wished to keep behind her coverings.

Once she was done, Behenu set to work pulling out cloth of endless colors, patterns, and textures. She held the swatches up against Seben’s form, studying her hair, eyes, and skintone in combination with different colors and patterns, all while interrogating her about favorite colors and styles. There was something rather endearing about the way Seben stammered out answers to the rapid-fire questions.

Vassa took the chance to do something she had been neglecting to do since that day in the desert. She took a seat as if to watch the goings-on and closed her eyes. She opened her inner eye. Again, the threads of existence, countless and intertwined, glowed to her perception, life flowing through them like traces of dew gliding along a spider’s gossamer. The light in Seben glowed like a beacon even as it slumbered, showing a mere hint of its glory should it awake.

This time, Vassa gave it the study it deserved, a task more difficult with the chatter and motion around them, but still easily done for a creature like her. It felt like brushing against a piece of divinity, some ancient thing that had survived the cataclysmic war of the gods and demons with the same tenacity as her own gift. She was used to the auras of living things, even living things imbued with magic. This was nothing like that. Seben was a shard, a fragment, a piece of something much greater than even the glory in her own self. Perhaps the gates of Heaven itself.

That aura was power that would make a Leyan mage weep in envy, and it sat at Vassa’s fingertips. Seben was unaware of her gift and the magnitude of its significance. What if someone learned of it? What if they could drain her dry and wield that in their own name? Vassa was well acquainted with magic that could do such a thing. It was more typical of the Leyan school, but the most terrifying variety of elves could channel it as well.

The longer Vassa looked, the more certain she became that the aura itself was powerful, but its true value was in access. Seben was not just an artifact: she was a key.

Vassa allowed her inner eye to close and took a deep breath, exhaling it in a sigh. She still had no inkling of what Seben was connected to, but that would likely come in time. The Ashen Tower was most likely to have the resources to identify it, but that itself was a matter of concern. If they knew what Seben was, they could easily seek to turn her to their own ends. It could potentially be for the young woman’s own good, but in Vassa’s bitter experience, powerful people were only interested in perpetuating or increasing their own power.

The whirl of activity concluded once Behenu seemed to have enough information. “I will need a little while to finish the first few pieces of this order,” the dressmaker instructed them both. “Come back tomorrow for a fitting for them. The rest will have to wait until the end of the week.” 

Vassa rose from her seat and gave Behenu a deep bow. “Thank you for your assistance, Mistress. I look forward to seeing your fine work.”

Seben nodded. “Thank you,” she said earnestly.

“The honor is all mine,” Behenu said. “Now I must excuse myself. I have much work to do.”

This time, Seben led the way out into the streets. “That was intense,” she said, still looking a bit flustered.

Vassa’s lips tugged into a small smile behind her mask. “Merely out of your element. Intensity is something else entirely.”

“Where to now?” Seben said, looking around. “I assume you have other stops in mind.”

“Only two, and I suspect they will be near each other,” Vassa said, leading the way down the street.

Seben followed with her hold on Vassa’s elbow intact. “So what are we looking for?”

“Soap and perfumes,” Vassa said.

“You have extravagant tastes,” Seben said, though she wasn’t terribly surprised. Vassa seemed very, very fastidious by nature, so soap was to be expected. “You know Lord Osei provided soap.” 

“I would rather have my own,” the masked woman said with a wave of her hand, as if brushing off the suggestion. “His was rather floral for my taste, though I suspect it will suit you fine. Despite how we met, I assure you that I am not in the habit of reeking of camel nor inclined to acquire that smell about my person ever again.”

“As you wish,” Seben said with amusement as they stepped into a different shop, almost laughing as she watched Vassa make a circuit of the different rows, her face hovering close to different bars and bottles. It was hard to tell anything without seeing her face, but Seben could imagine the intense focus on her companion’s face as she deliberated over what she wanted. The young woman amused herself by people-watching out the front door of the shop once Vassa vanished around a shelf.

It took longer than she expected for Vassa to settle on something, but the clink of coin changing hands and the wrapping of a package told her that an agreement had finally been reached. Seben turned to see Vassa on the approach with everything tucked in one arm in a wrapped box. “You seem amused,” the masked woman observed.

“I’ve just never seen you so….engrossed,” Seben said. She turned her gaze to the box. “What did you get?”

“You’ll find out when I use it,” Vassa said.

“And the mystery continues,” the young woman teased.

“Have I ever given any indication that it would not?” Vassa said. She brushed past Seben towards the door. “Let us return to the estate. We have preparations to make. I have had a thought about our djinn problem.”


Chapter 10
The First Seed

By K. Olsen

“Taming a djinn is no easy thing. It takes knowledge, but also control,” Seben explained, seated on the floor of the entrance hall at the edge of the pool. Vassa sat with her side leaned against the mermaid’s, listening intently to Seben’s every word. Her fingertips danced across the stone of the statue. “It relies upon phrases of power, like Leyan magic, but the difference is the language. They use their own tongue, we use that of the divine. Fire-speaking is a gift of the Sun God.”

“Interesting,” Vassa said, tilting her head slightly to the side. Seben could feel a penetrating gaze coming from beneath that hood. “I suppose it makes sense. Leyan mages are proud of what they have done to magic, and while some of them may covet the power of gods, they do not court it. Your tradition sounds more in line with the orcs. They claim their powers were given directly by the gods as well.”

Seben shook her head. “We are not brutish with our use.”

“Would the djinn agree?” Vassa countered. She waved a hand, dismissing Seben’s protest before it could even finish forming. “So you leash them with incantations and contain them in soul jars.”

“That’s the simple explanation,” Seben said. “The words of power are formed into a name for each djinn. Once it has a name, it can be compelled with will. Soul jars do hold them, but they are also used in summoning them. I haven’t ever actually done it myself, but I saw my teacher do it on occasion. The jar is spun and special chants used to turn it into a...gateway.”

“And do you experience a drain? A lessening of your own vitality, a cost of power?” Vassa asked.

Seben frowned. “It can be a headache, but the only way I’ve ever heard of a fire-speaker dying during such bindings is if the djinn gets loose.”

Vassa was fascinated. All power came at a cost, the most cardinal rule of magic. While Leyan mages had learned to feed their power on living things around them, even they paid the cost if they ran out of life to siphon. Either capturing a djinn was a discipline so honed in economy that Seben didn’t notice the drain or, more likely, the djinn itself was paying the cost. There was no way of really knowing without seeing it in action, of course. “Can you show me?”

“I don’t have a djinn. I couldn’t call one if I wanted to,” Seben said with a sigh. “You said you had an idea, Vassa.”

“The point of failure in incantations, from what I have learned in observation of Leyan magic, is faltering,” Vassa said thoughtfully. She still had difficulty understanding that conception of magic. It felt so artificial, constructed, unnatural. It was a crutch made for one who did not know how to walk, let alone run. That said, it could be extraordinarily potent and mirrored the most devastating of elven magics. Overall, Vassa found she preferred the orcish traditions. Whatever one thought of the people, orcs were far more tuned into the flows of Creation than Leyan bloodmages.

“That’s how djinn break free,” Seben acknowledged.

“And how fire-speakers die,” Vassa said, observing the barest hint of a flinch. It was less than she’d been expecting, but still present. “You are uncomfortable with it.”

The young woman shrugged. “Most people are with a fiery death.”

“You cannot afford to flinch, Seben,” Vassa said seriously, rising to her feet. “You pit yourself against destruction incarnate. You must be every bit as powerful as the fire you seek to command.”

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Seben said. “Fire-speakers seek out djinn because they’re more powerful. They can do things that we cannot.”

The masked woman shook her head. “You said yourself that it requires will. Fire is a thing alive, all consuming. It wishes to devour, to thrive at all cost, to grow ceaselessly in size and intensity. That is a difficult element to command, perhaps the most difficult. Come. I cannot give you a djinn to practice on, but I can seek to break your focus as a djinn might.”

Seben got up and followed Vassa back towards their rooms. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Please tell me you’re not going to start a fire.”

“Not as such, no,” Vassa said thoughtfully. Illusions were something she was intimately familiar with, just as she knew a great deal about the behavior and experience of fire. In combination, those twin pieces of expertise would be invaluable. “Your courage merely needs a test for you to have confidence in it.”

“What test?”

“As I said, merely to see if I can break your focus,” Vassa said. She gave no further answer until they were back in their rooms, behind a closed door. She turned to face the young woman with an expression inscrutable behind cloth. “Do you require anything else for leashing a djinn?”

“No,” Seben said. “The sigils and rituals are used to keep the bindings in place for an extended period of time, but they aren’t strictly necessary if you only want to hold it for a little while. The Games don’t ask that you use more advanced techniques.”

Vassa slid the low table in the common room to one side, opening up floor space. “Kneel in the middle,” she said, indicating the vacant space. “Prepare yourself as one would to face a djinn.”

“But there’s no djinn here.”

“Then the task will be easy, surely,” the masked woman said dryly.

Seben eyed her companion cautiously, still fully cognizant that Vassa had something, perhaps several things, up her sleeve. All the same, she knelt down. “You’re supposed to stand when you leash a djinn.”

“You are showing it respect,” Vassa said. “Djinn have minds, do they not? Before their freedom is taken, they deserve to have their ferocity and independence honored.”

“Fair enough,” Seben said more quietly. She looked up at Vassa. “When you said that I thought I wasn’t suited to my studies...that’s why.”

Vassa paused before she could pluck the first thread. She looked down, studying Seben’s dark eyes intently. “You do not like taking their freedom,” she observed, softening slightly. It was not a concern she had heard of before with Eth fire-speakers. “Is that why you have not learned to summon them?”

“Yes,” Seben admitted, her gaze flicking away. “I was offered the knowledge. I...didn’t want it.”

“So why continue?”

“What else can I do?” the young woman said. “I have nothing and people are trying to kill me. I don’t want to compel djinn, but maybe someone at the Ashen Tower knows how to work with them instead of just using them.”

Vassa brushed Seben’s shoulder with a feather-light, barely-there touch. “A sweet thought,” she said gently. “I suspect you will be disappointed.”

“Then I will have to find the way,” Seben said more firmly.

The masked woman’s lips tugged into a small smile. “That determination will take you far, if you let it. But let us attend to the Games and then you may burn down the Ashen Tower on your own.”

Seben laughed at that and relaxed slightly. “I’m ready when you are.”

“Begin,” Vassa said with a nod.

The words rolled off Seben’s lips like soft thunder, less heard and more felt as a tremor through the air. The weave of existence around Seben quaked with every syllable. There was power in every letter, more than Vassa had ever felt from the incantations of Leyans. She found herself confronted with a feeling ancient and terrible in its power. How easy it would be just to bend a knee…

The thought snapped Vassa’s will together. She would never be controlled again, a promise made to herself that she would forever honor. She flicked her fingers, catching hold of the threads surrounding the young woman. “Do not flinch,” Vassa said. “You are capable of this.”

Even as the masked woman spoke, she fed her essence into the threads, distorting them. It was only a trickle of power, barely anything. Seben’s safety demanded that she maintain most of her reserves, so the illusion would not endure long or be as perfect as the invisibility she had created on the rooftop as they fled assassins.

To Seben, however, it seemed every bit a reality. Heat blossomed across her skin as the air before her started to shimmer. Flames bloomed upwards from the fire leaping from nothing, crackling becoming a roar as a furious inferno. The floor and ceiling started to char as the fire burned hotter and hotter, threatening to roast her.

“Vassa!” Seben shouted, recoiling away.

“Your chant,” Vassa said sharply. “Use it!”

Seben swallowed hard and started the chant again. The fire seemed to respond, lashing out towards her. Seben knew that she had to forge on, no matter how terrified she was, or she would die. The more she closed towards the end of the chant, the more the raging fire lunged at her but was forced down. She was too focused to see Vassa’s subtle movements of her hand as she directed the illusion.

After a terrifying eternity that was probably only a few minutes, Seben was looking at nothing but a hot coal. She exhaled, completing the chant.

“We will have to practice this more,” Vassa said, banishing the illusion with a flick. All signs of damage to the room and the coal disappeared as if they had never been.

Seben realized she was shaking from the adrenaline surging through her system. “What in the abyss was that?” she blurted out.

“A trick,” Vassa said simply. “One I would prefer you keep to yourself. Lord Osei needs no more reason to view me as a danger than you have already provided him.”

The young woman sucked in a deep breath and placed her hand on the floor where the coal had been. It was cold. “An illusion?” she guessed, wide-eyed. “It was so real…”

“Certainly real enough to disrupt you, though you were fine once you recovered,” Vassa observed. “I cannot recommend losing focus so when you are confronted with a true djinn.”

Seben smiled when she looked up at Vassa. “That was amazing. Terrifying, but amazing.”

“Certainly a trick that has its uses,” the masked woman said. “We will practice again tomorrow. In the meantime, I should send you to Djau for your etiquette lesson. Lord Osei seems to want us in attendance and the manners will serve you well.”

Seben sighed. “I don’t understand why he wants us there,” she admitted.

“Perhaps he wants to introduce you to the society you will be moving in as a fire-speaker…or perhaps he is prodding whoever wants you dead in order to provoke something useful. Both seems the likely answer to me. Whatever the case, he has extended an invitation and to refuse it would be perhaps imprudent. This offers us a chance to learn more of what is going on,” Vassa said. She knew Seben was still worried by the furrow in the young woman’s brow. “If someone places you in harm’s way, we will leave. You saw me far-step in the oasis. I can bring another with me when I do so.”

“Really?” Seben said, eyes widening. “Could you…?”

“And ruin the surprise?” the masked woman said lightly. She considered for a moment before continuing, “If you make good progress with Djau, perhaps.”

“Please?” the young woman said earnestly.

There was something hard to refuse in that tone. “I would rather only do it if we absolutely must,” she said simply. “Taking another who does not know how to move between is draining.”

Seben reluctantly nodded. “I suppose etiquette won’t hurt,” she said, though her tone had a hint of dubiousness to it.

“It will bring more favors than foes,” Vassa promised. “Speaking from experience, nobles appreciate being addressed as is their due.”

“I’m surprised you aren’t being put through it too.”

“I will have to brush up on noble styles, but otherwise my foreign manners will serve, polished as they are. I cannot pretend to be local, but I can pass as a foreign interest. Lord Osei hosts many such guests when it suits him,” the masked woman explained. She extended a delicate hand to Seben, helping her up from the ground.

“Are you a noble, Vassa?” Seben asked once she was on her feet, curiosity tempered by caution as she spoke. The masked woman still had volunteered no details about her origins.

“No,” Vassa said carefully. “Merely educated. Does it matter?”

“I just like getting to know you,” Seben said. Sometimes she felt like she was handling a spooked animal with Vassa, though it wasn’t fear on the masked woman’s part as far as Seben could tell. It appeared an overabundance of caution. Vassa always seemed too calm to truly be counted as afraid.

“The past is past. It cannot be changed and certainly is not worth discussing,” Vassa said dismissively, ignoring the fact that her nightmares and wounds still felt as fresh as ever. Seben had no need to ever know of such things.

“If you ever change your mind and want to talk, I’m here for you,” Seben promised gently.

Vassa didn’t know how to react to that statement. She was too used to being alone and had been even in her old life. “I...thank you,” she said. It was strange to think, but Seben was growing on her, like moss on a stone, softening the rougher edges. She wasn’t certain if she liked it or not. 

“I do have a question for you,” Seben said.

Vassa tilted her head slightly as an indication that Seben could ask, without guaranteeing an answer.

“You helped the stable boy and the young pickpocket,” the young woman said. “You did that without any expectation of reward. Why, if you are so untrustworthy? You had nothing to gain.”

“It bought me your trust, did it not?” Vassa said with a shrug.

“I don’t think that’s the actual answer, true or not,” Seben said, dark gaze as piercing as she could manage while thwarted by the cloth covering her guardian.

Vassa sighed. She didn’t have a simple, easy explanation for why she had acted so either. “I know what it is to be mistreated,” she said finally, settling on a truth. “In a different way, but such an experience breeds either sympathy or contempt. I am more of the former than the latter.”

Seben smiled slightly, though there was a worried edge to the expression. “I knew you had a good heart.”

“Even a murderer of the vilest quality can still smile to brighten an old woman’s day,” Vassa said. “Singular actions are indication of nothing. Only patterns tell the truth of people. I have killed more people in your company than I have saved.” She leaned in, eyes visible now beneath the hood. “Innocence is a beautiful thing, Seben. Do not put yours within my reach. It will only bring you misery.”

“And why is that?”

The masked woman almost answered truthfully, fully, but caught herself. “It is the way of things,” she said instead. “I have my own preparations to make before the dance.”

Seben tried not to feel frustrated. Sometimes it seemed like Vassa was so close to saying something meaningful, but she always diverted. Someone with such impenetrable armor around their heart was a new encounter for Seben, who had only been around those wearing their emotions where others could see. Even Vassa’s mask was a reminder of the barrier.

What purpose did it serve, shutting the world out?

I know what it is to be mistreated.

Maybe that was Vassa’s real answer. Seben studied the masked woman. “Thank you for helping practice and talking to me,” the young woman said. “Will you be nearby when I work with Djau? I’m still nervous about being in the estate.”

Vassa weighed that thoughtfully. She wanted to explore more of Sarom, but Seben had a point. While the estate was likely safe, there was still potential risk and it was reasonable of the young woman to be nervous. “I suppose I can observe,” Vassa said. “Djau’s instruction of the finer points of etiquette will fill the gaps in my own knowledge.”

Seben’s expression brightened visibly. “Thank you.”

“Besides, your flailing should be amusing.”

The young woman slapped Vassa’s arm, earning a laugh from the masked woman. “Be kind,” she said firmly.

That is something I cannot do,” the masked woman said, turning and heading for the door. She opened it and gestured for Seben to step through ahead of her.

“Can’t or won’t?”

Vassa smiled faintly behind her mask. The expression was becoming more familiar than it had been in what felt like a long time. Time was a subjective thing, particularly to Vassa, but there was no way around that suddenly her life seemed more vibrant. It cast a shadow back towards her past, almost rendering it darker than it had seemed before. Seben brought light with her wherever she went. It was very Eth. “Yes.”

Seben huffed at that, though playfully. She didn’t take comments like that from Vassa particularly seriously. She enjoyed the companionable quiet as they headed down the hall, following the masked woman. Vassa had a good sense for the layout of the building already, after a bit of scouting while Seben slept.

Vassa suddenly switched direction, catching hold of Seben’s arm and pulling her behind a pillar. Seben’s back hit the wall and Vassa stepped close, framing the young woman with slender arms in a way that tucked them both between the wall and the pillar. It wasn’t a large hiding place, but being pressed together only made it easier for Vassa to twist the threads around a smaller area, effectively making them disappear.

“Be silent,” Vassa said softly before directing her attention to the approaching footfalls. She peered out through the threads, her control over the distortion allowing her vision to pierce it.

Masharta approached with Djau close behind and a third man that she had not seen before. Unlike the other two, he wore a white robe with a sash of crimson worn diagonally across his chest. It was not wound or wrapped into a distinctive pattern, but it was embroidered with sunbursts. Another crimson wrap with the same pattern covered his eyes and his movements seemed dependent upon the cane used to feel the floor ahead of him.

“The signs cannot be mistaken,” the blind man said. “The Sunblessed no longer sit upon the throne.”

“King Userkare says otherwise, and he is fully able to access the power only usable by one who bears the flower of the blood,” Djau commented.

“That only means he has found a way to deceive the Seal,” Masaharta said with a grimness that seemed out of character for the genial man. “I had hoped otherwise, truly.”

“He is still of royal blood,” Masaharta’s second pointed out. “Even if the Oracles say something is wrong, the nobility will listen to him. They have no alternative with Princess Meresahkn and Prince Sanakht dead. They were the last to carry the gift.”

“Not the last,” the blind man said. “There will come another who will burn away the pretender’s malfeasance. We can only hope that it will happen before the powers of the Seal are misused.”

Masaharta’s frown softened to a more neutral expression.. “I think that is a safe bet, Seer Yuya. There are things in motion beyond Userkare’s control and knowledge. I take my duty to safeguard the Seal very seriously.”

At a mention of a seer, even though the man was blind, Vassa fed extra power into her illusion. The flow of her vitality went from a trickle to a small stream. She could hold it long enough if they kept on her way, but again she was conscious of her own limitations. She wanted to have more than enough energy at all times to defend Seben, which meant being economical in her use of power.

“Let’s hope it works,” Djau muttered. “In the meantime, I have a young peasant to transform into a lady.”

“You will find it easier than you think. She learns quickly, at least from her hooded companion." Masaharta looked amused.

“And what do you think of that one?”

“An unknown,” Masharta said as they rounded the corner. “You know how I feel about unknowns.”

Nothing more could be heard as the three men disappeared. Vassa dropped the illusion, fatigue clinging to her limbs like she had just run a footrace. It would wear off soon, but she was still aware that she was not at her full strength. “Fascinating,” she murmured before taking a step back from Seben.

“That didn’t sound good,” Seben said.

“Sedition rarely does,” Vassa said, dusting herself off. “Though if what they say is true, Userkare is only a pretender to the throne. Regardless, it seems our noble associate is working counter to the interests of the King. Something to be aware of for the future.”

Seben swallowed hard. “I don’t like this,” she admitted.

“Nor should you. It complicates matters,” the masked woman said. She sighed. “To etiquette lessons, I suppose. Better that the gentlemen not know we heard their discussion until it is useful to us to tell them. I will see what I can find out later. We still have a party to prepare for and then a battle of wills with a djinn.”

“I’m beginning to think the djinn will be the lesser problem,” Seben muttered as they started walking again.

Vassa's lips tugged into a smile. “The first seed of wisdom begins to flower.”


Chapter 11
A Hint of Revelation

By K. Olsen

For all the beauty Masaharta’s home already held, it became even more vibrant when bustling with people. His guests dressed in every color and dozens of different styles, many from Ethilir but others from the far flung reaches of the world. There had to be at least fifty nobles in attendance, enough to spread through the house. They congregated out in the gardens and in the dining room, which had been opened up to enjoy the sea breezes blowing in across the warm ocean. Even more servants and bodyguards buzzed about the expansive manor, seeing to every need and working together almost seamlessly to keep the festivities going safely.

Masaharta seemed in fine spirits despite the conversation Seben and Vassa had witnessed, every bit the carefree gentleman enjoying his evening in the company of friends and probably enemies alike. He was a stranger to no one and presided over the event with an almost regal air. Sweet strains of music played audibly throughout the house, caught by the perfect acoustics to carry now that dampening fabric had been tucked away.

Seben had not dared to go towards the center of the crowd in the garden. She stood at the edges, watching with fascination with her back against one wall. Behenu’s fine work as a clothier had done much to help Seben blend. She wore an emerald green dress that left her shoulders and sides bare almost down to her hips, modesty preserved by wraps of a lighter green fabric beneath over her breasts. It was a daring cut, for someone who was utterly confident in their body, and Seben wore it well. She wasn’t confident in her position socially, but she seemed to have no doubt about her appearance. Her short hair had been neatly trimmed and even cosmetics were applied despite her attempts to squirm away.

Vassa was impressed despite herself. Seben cleaned up marvelously and even more importantly, she wasn’t panicking at being put in such an alien situation. It was an admirable show of composure.

“This is...surreal,” Seben admitted, looking around at the groups of people laughing and chatting with drinks in their hands.

The masked woman smiled behind fabric. “I imagine it is certainly a change of pace.” She had not changed her mode of dress terribly to suit the occasion. Behenu’s work was fine: a silk shirt in dove gray and dark leather pants patterned at the seams and hems by a fine line of leaves. She wore a sash that matched Seben’s dress, wound and knotted in the particular style of a bodyguard. The hood remained, though clean and new, and the wrap of fabric across her face was grey instead of black.

“It doesn’t feel real, but if it was a dream, I would know how to dance,” Seben said.

“Surely you know how to move to music,” Vassa said. “That is something seen in the common people in Ethilir as well as its nobles, from what I know.”

“I do, but there’s a difference,” the young woman explained. “The dances I know are communal. Everyone is a part of them. Eth nobility are more like Leyans in how they dance.”

Vassa considered that a moment before offering idly, “I could easily teach you, then. I spent a while in the High Kingdom, enough to learn a few dances and both parts to each.” The idea didn’t sound unpleasant at all, though she knew she would have some difficulty allowing someone so close to her again. Her lessons on dancing had been dual-purpose: learning to dance and to tolerate proximity.

Seben looked over at her companion. “That’s kind of you,” she said. “I’d like to learn, though you’ll probably have to be a little patient with me. I’ve always been more in my mind than in my body.”

“It comes with practice,” Vassa said.

“How do they dance where you’re from?”

Vassa sighed wistfully. “Gracefully,” she said. “I used to adore it.”

Seben frowned slightly. “But no longer?”

“It has lost its luster of late,” Vassa said with a shrug. “Perhaps the challenge of being a teacher instead of a student will reignite the old flame. We will see.”

“Ah, here are my lovely guests! Hiding in plain sight,” Masaharta said with a chuckle, appearing out of the crowd with the blind man from the conversation they’d overheard on his heels and a tall, regal woman in her late-middle years following in his wake. “Not that such radiance can truly ever hide.”

“What is this about, Masaharta?” the older woman said. Her skin was so dark it looked like polished onyx, offset by a lavender dress with a pale purple rose worn at her shoulder. She seemed serious, not dour, and her eyes were inquisitive more than accusatory when they glanced from the nobleman to his two guests.

“I think you will find our young fire-speaker here one to keep an eye on,” Masaharta said. “Lady Kamara, may I present Seben Femi and her associate, Mistress Vassa. Seben is daughter of a dear friend and intends to attempt the Games to earn entrance to the Ashen Tower.”

“A dangerous proposition. Are you truly ready?” Lady Kamara said, her look evaluating as she focused on Seben.

Vassa let her hand brush Seben’s before the young woman could stiffen up under scrutiny, a subtle reminder that she was still present to assist if needed.

Seben relaxed slightly at the touch and lifted her chin. “The djinn will decide if I am ready or not,” she said. “I am not inclined to boast.”

The noblewoman laughed. “Modesty is a rare trait amongst fire-speakers, I have found,” she said with a mixture of amusement and approval. “Perhaps I will have to be in attendance at the Games, to see its application in action.”

“I am quite certain it will be an event to remember,” Masaharta said. “How many fire-speakers dare to attempt such a thing when they can lick boots to gain access instead? Courage is rather inspiring, I find.”

“That one would seek entry without the boon of a noble does speak of boldness...and perhaps a lethal lack of caution,” Lady Kamara said thoughtfully. She glanced over at the nobleman. “Particularly if His Majesty learns she has been nudged by your loathsome paw.”

“I have no intention of leaving her defenseless,” Masaharta said airily. “Nor does her companion, I imagine.”

Kamara turned her eyes towards the masked woman. “Ah, yes, the enigma that many have noticed. I admire anyone whose fashion daring can turn so many heads.” As innocuous as the comment was, Vassa could practically hear gears turning in Kamara’s head as she tried to work out what to do with the masked woman.

“I hope it does not offend,” Vassa said mildly.

“Hardly, though you will not find me likely to play cards with you,” Kamara said with a smile. She gestured to the shortsword worn at Vassa’s side, currently peacebound in its scabbard by a white silk ribbon wound and tied to make it at least more difficult, if not impossible, for the weapon to be drawn. “I am surprised you permitted that. Most foreigners resent such traditions. They like their blades accessible.”

Vassa smiled faintly behind her mask. Burning away the ribbon and drawing the blade could happen in the blink of an eye, though she had no intention of using or even needing it. All she needed was the ability to get Seben away, and that was easily accomplished. “Perhaps I am more civilized than most foreigners, Lady Kamara,” she said with a respectful dip of her head.

The blind man stepped forward, about to extend a hand to Seben in greeting. Vassa felt a subtle shift in the threads and knew that if he touched Seben, he could potentially sense her aura if he possessed anything like her own sight. Contact made it easier, not that it was always necessary. It was time to intervene.

Vassa stepped into the way, reaching across the blind man to tug at Masaharta’s sleeve. “Would it be permissible to find a side hall for Seben to learn to dance? I feel the music should be enjoyed while it is here.”

“Of course,” Masaharta said, though a brief crease formed in his brow. The masked woman knew from that look that the nobleman knew full well what his blind seer was seeking to do.

The blind man’s hand brushed across Vassa’s sleeve instead of Seben’s. Hers was not an aura anywhere as easy to read as the young woman’s, however. Illusion magic had its uses beyond the physical. When she felt him reach out towards her essence, she cloaked herself in the threads, feeding a trace amount of power into creating a sort of obscuring haze that would make her look in possession of a fraction of her true potential. Her magic looked weak, barely there, and her nature indistinct.

“You are a strange one,” the blind man said, brow furrowing in consternation. He seemed least able to keep decorum of the three, though his words made Kamara’s eyes narrow with focus.

“So I am told,” Vassa said with a dry amusement. She pulled Seben away, guiding her ward carefully away from the seer without him being able to contact her.

“What just happened?” Seben asked softly, allowing the masked woman to guide her away with only a few glances backwards.

Vassa turned her head, speaking close to Seben’s ear. “He was about to read your aura, with Lord Osei’s blessing. I think Lady Kamara was not aware of the nature of the attempt, but our host most certainly had a purpose.”

“I’ve heard stories of Sarom’s oracles. If anyone would know about an aura like mine...maybe he could have told us something,” the young woman said.

“Perhaps, but the fact that he was doing it with Masaharta’s approval suggests that we might not have received an answer absent...filtering,” the masked woman said, guiding Seben through the crowded area with a wary eye on the surroundings, one hand resting between Seben’s shoulder blades. Because of the cut of the dress, this put them in skin-to-skin contact and Vassa had to force her inner eye to stay closed or be blinded to dangers in the physical sense.

Seben tensed slightly at the touch, mostly because she realized she was expecting Vassa’s hand to be cold. Instead, it was warm and barely felt, just enough to make contact without applying any pressure. She relaxed quickly, finding comfort in the presence. They hadn’t known each other long, but Vassa had saved her life on more than one occasion now. “You’re concerned,” she observed as they moved.

A commotion started and Vassa’s gaze immediately snapped to it. The arrival of a man and his retinue seemed to stir the whole room, like a shark cruising into the midst of a reef. Unlike the vast majority of the nobles present, he wore armor: beautiful and polished, with gold embellishments and accompanying white silk edged in red. It was every bit ceremonial, but instead of a helm on his head, he wore a circlet of gold set with a gleaming diamond. King Userkare was every bit as proud and regal as one would expect from the monarch of the most ancient kingdom of men, his mouth forming a stern line as Masaharta approached. He was younger than Seben expected, probably only in his thirties, but he walked with the confidence of a warrior much older.

Something cold prickled in Vassa’s stomach. There was something about the King that reminded her too much of the bitter past. He could be as pleasant as the spring sun if he wanted to, but there was something there too familiar for her to feel well at ease.

“Your Majesty, what a pleasure to see you,” Masaharta said, offering the monarch a sweeping bow.

Userkare’s eyes swept the room, hunting for something. Vassa pushed Seben through the arch leading into an adjoining hall and followed, ushering her ward out of sight before the man could spot them. The answer that he gave Masaharta was inaudible from their current position, but Vassa had learned not to sacrifice her intuition to her curiosity: the King of Ethilir was a danger, not a savior, and eavesdropping would only put her too close to him without the use of magic.

“Vassa, what’s wrong?” Seben asked softly.

The masked woman could feel Fate hanging over her like a sword when she looked at Seben. Dread coursed down her spine like frigid water, but she forced herself not to shiver. “Something wicked,” she said almost inaudibly.

That answer intensified the young woman’s worry by orders of magnitude. “Is it Lord Osei? Whatever he was trying to do?”

“No,” Vassa said, shaking her head. “It is something far more dangerous. Something that does not belong in this place.” She ran her fingertips along the edge of her mask. The soothing sensation of warm silk beneath did something to ease her nerves. Now if she could just sift through her perception enough to get a better idea of what the hell had caused that reaction, she would be feeling not more secure, but at least more aware.

She was quite certain it was magic, however, and of an all too familiar variety.

“Are you alright?” Seben asked, reaching towards Vassa’s face.

The masked woman recoiled like the hand was a venomous snake. “We need an explanation from Lord Osei,” she said before Seben could react with offense. “You need not try to play nursemaid to me. There are more pressing matters to attend to.”

Seben took one step towards the doorway before Vassa’s hand clamped down on her wrist. This time, the touch was not gentle. The masked woman’s fingers dug into flesh cruelly as she pulled Seben away from the doorway. The grip only relaxed when Seben gasped in pain, vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared.

“Do not venture back there,” Vassa said. “There is a danger greater than all others we have faced put together.”

“Where should we go?” Seben asked, massaging her wrist.

“To our rooms,” Vassa said. She hesitated for a moment before saying, “I did not mean to cause you pain.”

“I think you hit a pressure point or two,” the young woman said with a wince, starting back towards their bastion of relative safety. “Remind me not to make you angry.”

“I meant what I said in the desert,” Vassa said, following so quickly that she almost passed Seben. She made no move to touch the young woman, not even placing a hand on her back. “I have no wish to cause you pain or distress.”

“Unless I do to you,” Seben said.

The masked woman was not entirely convinced she would inflict harm even under that circumstance. Leaving surely was preferable than another torment or betrayal. She turned her gaze away from Seben, the hand that had grabbed the apprentice fire-speaker so roughly now opening and closing reflexively. She regretted her use of force, small though it was. It represented, if nothing else, a loss of control. Her emotions had been allowed to overpower her will, and Seben had suffered for it. That was unacceptable.

It was a train of thought that left Vassa even more conflicted than merely whatever had happened behind them.

As soon as they were closed back in their quarters, Vassa locked the door and turned to Seben. “Tell me about your royal line, Seben,” she said. “What do you know of them?”

“The Royal Family is quite large, as marriages are the chief ways of forming alliances and so every ruler has several,” Seben explained. “The order of birth does not determine who inherits the throne, just the presence of the Blessing.”

“The flower of the blood,” Vassa said, reflecting on the words heard in the hallway the day before. “And if Userkare does not have it, who does?”

“I don’t know. They said that Princess Meresahkn and Prince Sanakht are dead, that they were the only others. When one Sunblessed dies, the Blessing is born anew into another with the blood, even if they’re already grown. So theoretically, someone somewhere in the royal bloodline has it.”

Vassa’s frown behind her mask deepened. “When did Prince Sanakht die?”

“About five years ago,” Seben said softly. “Then Meresakhn three years later, just before Userkare ascended to the throne. Why?”

“I have been exceptionally foolish in not following this line of questioning sooner,” Vassa said, approaching the window. “You are correct. We need to speak to one of your Oracles, but I would rather not have it be Masaharta’s pet.”

“They are in the Ashen Tower. We have no way to reach them unless they leave it,” Seben said. She wanted to reach out to put a hand on Vassa’s shoulder or arm, but the masked woman had already avoided one touch with emphasis. “Whatever this is, Vassa, please relax? We’re safe here for the moment.”

Vassa sighed, a sound harsh with frustration. She looked at Seben, this time without the use of her inner eye. “I have a supposition, but you are not likely to appreciate it.”

“Oh?”

“Who commands the Kingsguard?” Vassa asked.

“A prince of the blood, always. I’m sure Userkare has put a brother, nephew, or son in charge now. Well, probably not son. He didn’t look that old,” Seben said, her stomach knotting nervously as Vassa’s gaze failed to waver. “Why?”

“Lord Osei meant to test you, and meant to do so with one of the very few people in this world who would know intimately what to look for. I suspect that he thinks there is a chance, no matter how thread-thin, that you are wandering around the world with a blessing from the divine sleeping in your chest. I am inclined to agree with his suspicion.”

Seben stared at her like she’d grown a second head. “I was born in a brothel, Vassa.”

“Which means you know everything about your mother and nothing about your father. Except she said he was in the Kingsguard, didn’t she?”

“A fairy tale to make a girl feel less terrible about her roots,” Seben argued. “She had no way to know.”

“I might accept that if Lord Osei had not entered your life to confirm it. Either he is lying entirely about your ancestry, which I find unlikely given his attempt with the seer, or he is very, very desperate to find someone who can counter Userkare and you bear enough of Prince Sanakht in your history and your features to dangle hope before our Master of Malice,” Vassa said, tone almost harsh. She softened it slightly when she said, “I have seen your aura, Seben. It is divine in its origin. I do not think Masaharta has lied to you, but he has left a great many things out.”

The young woman did not look pacified in the slightest, posture and expression hovering on the ragged edge between anger and terror. “I don’t believe you,” she said fiercely. “You could be wrong, seeing something that isn’t there.”

Vassa didn’t expect Seben to take anything on faith. “Then we will speak to Masaharta’s seer. Would you trust his judgment over mine? Are your oracles more trustworthy in such matters? Masaharta has no reason to say that you are when you are not, not if his end goal is thwarting Userkare. Breathe and think.

Seben hesitated, wavering on the edge. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself. “Vassa, I don’t want this to be true,” she admitted finally. “It’s not who I am.”

Vassa sighed and reached out, letting her hand trail across Seben’s shoulder. “Such things are not about what we want,” she said. “This will be difficult, but I do not think that I am wrong.”

The young woman looked like she was going to be sick. “I suppose there’s only one way to find out.”


Chapter 12
Running

By K. Olsen

Masaharta spread his hands expressively. “I have no proof,” he said with a shrug. “Nor will I obtain any in the near future, with Userkare barring me from the Ashen Tower and its oracles from my company.”

Seben tried to sit tall across the chessboard from him. The firelight flickered low in the study between the different oil lamps, casting flickering shadows that made her already strained nerves even more frayed. She knew Vassa was behind her without having to look, the masked woman’s fingertips just brushing against her shoulder. “Why did you look for me, then? If you aren’t sure I’m his daughter and you aren’t sure I have the Blessing, why are you helping me?”

There was no sign of Masaharta’s easy grin now, replaced by a somber expression. “I am Keeper of the Seal. The preservation of the Sunblessed is my sacred duty. I do not know how Userkare is interacting with the powers bestowed by Sol without it, but he is a fool if he thinks he can tamper with divinity and not have it bring down a terrible wrath on all of Ethilir.” He cleared his throat before continuing. “I was fully aware that Prince Sanakht had a habit of playing common soldier and venturing into brothels, particularly in Losena. Cleaning up the royal heir’s mess was something of my unofficial job description. Plenty of children are born of such encounters.”

The young woman furrowed her brow as she considered that. “But you found me in particular.”

“Before he was struck down by a poisoned blade, the late prince confided in me that he had learned of a girl that he believed was his child, a commoner who had been taken under a fire-speaker’s wing. When I asked him if he had arranged such a thing, he denied it vehemently, but spoke with pride of it. I asked him if he had seen her, and he said yes. One evening in Losena he had neared where she was training with a tame djinn one day and said of her, I knew that spark.” Masaharta shrugged. “It was enough to send me to an oracle, who to my mind confirmed it.”

“Spark?” Seben asked quietly.

“I don’t know how true it is, but some say the Sunblessed can see the potential for another of the blood to carry it. Supposedly that is how legitimate heirs are recognized,” their host explained. “I had always assumed it was metaphorical. Regarding Sanakht’s heir, the oracle insisted when I argued with him that the next Sunblessed would be a phoenix rising from the ashes, renewal and rebirth rather than a simple continuation.”

Vassa was quiet still, considering what all this meant. That sickening feeling she’d experienced in Userkare’s presence was still eating away at her peace of mind. It had stirred to life the shadows in her own heart and now, as their claws were subtly sinking in, she found it difficult to focus long on Seben’s predicament beyond it. “King Userkare is not manipulating your royal powers on his own,” she said finally, breaking the quiet that had descended.

Masaharta steepled his fingers and leaned back slightly, regarding the pair before him. “Oh?”

“This is not some enchanted bauble that one can toy with as a mundane,” Vassa said bluntly. “The number of things that can exert influence on the powers of a god are almost nonexistent. It would require ancient and incredible power to deceive the handiwork of Sol.”

“Such as?” the nobleman said.

“A Leyan mage with sufficient stolen life-force could perhaps achieve it, though that sheer volume of power required would make that an unsustainable control. More effective would be use of a First World relic,” Vassa said. She knew better than to make reference to her own people. It was a box of elemental wickedness she was not willing to unleash on the minds of Ethilir.

“We were suspecting sorcery,” Masaharta admitted.

Vassa shook her head. “Magic and sorcery cannot coexist. They will battle for dominance and utterly destroy each other in the process, the victor obliterating even traces of the defeated. Were that the case, there would be a crater of glass where once proud Ethilir stood. What you are looking for is a magic feeding upon your magic, a parasite sucking sustenance and power from it while granting control to its master. It hides itself, masks, conceals, and from that obscurity does its wicked work.”

Masaharta’s dark eyes gave Vassa their undivided attention. “Would you be able to locate it? You appear the most knowledgeable about the Art of everyone in this room, perhaps everyone I associate with.

“I want no part of it,” Vassa said, voice hard as diamond with certainty in every syllable.

“Vassa, we need your help,” Seben pleaded. “No one else knows how to find it, let alone fight it.”. 

The masked woman shook her head, that sickening feeling returning at the thought of confronting such magic and its source. She had endured so much already and the thought of more was pure torture. What could she say to make Seben and Masaharta understand? As much as Seben’s plea stirred at her heart, memories of Lysaerys’s love could not be so easily brushed aside, nor all the promises she had made to herself after her banishment.

Seben reached out, fingertips brushing against Vassa’s arm. “Please,” she said.

Vassa was careful not to look at the young woman as she made her decision. Learning more of fire-speaking was not worth the danger of staying in Seben’s company and joining some dire conspiracy. She had endured enough plots and their inevitable fallout over the course of her long life. This magic was a problem for Ethilir, a land far from her home, far from connection to her.

She would leave, and that would be the end of it.

Vassa turned on her heel and strode out of the study, ignoring the shock it left in her wake. She took a deep breath, reaching through the threads of existence towards her room, creating a link as she stepped through. The crack of sound at the movement was barely audible, muted by her training as a zhendai. It took her only moments to throw everything in her bag and shoulder it. Another far-step took her back to the main hall, to the front doors.

Her thoughts tormented her as she moved out into the streets of the Crown Ward. There was no escaping that she was leaving Seben defenseless, Well, not entirely, given Masaharta was there, but he was not the kind of man Vassa would place her faith in. Besides, he couldn’t be what Seben clearly wanted: a friend, a confidante, someone she could trust.

Vassa was certainly not that.

She closed her eyes as she stopped on a street corner, leaning back against stone chilled by the night air. A vision of the past flashed into being. Cruelty becomes you, Lysaerys’s voice purred in her ear. She looked down to see her hands slick with crimson blood. The vivid image vanished on the next blink.

Vassa hated it. Even banished from Lysaerys’s side, the game went on. The scars ran far deeper than the skin.

What do you fear most, Vassa? Sethon’s voice murmured against her ear, even the barest suggestion of his breath scorching. Her skin crawled even at the memory. Her demons were at their strength tonight, carrying out the past’s wicked work. She knew it was the after-effect of seeing such magic again.

It was a good question. The magic plaguing the Sunlit Throne was certainly a terror, but she didn’t know if that was what she feared most. She took a moment to sort through her conflicted feelings before settling on an answer that she did not at all care for.

Seben. She was afraid of Seben. Maybe not of what the young woman was, but what she could easily become.

“Vassa!” Seben called into the night air a little ways down the street.

The masked woman looked over to see the young woman looking around. Unfortunately for Seben, Vassa long ago learned to conceal herself even in plain sight. She simply leaned back more against the stone, into the shadows cast by lamplight. It gave her an opportunity to study Seben without fear of being noticed. Concern and hurt shared the young woman’s features.

Seben then said something quietly enough that Vassa barely caught it. “I just want to say goodbye.”

Those words hurt, twisting the guilt that was already forming in the pit of her stomach. Seben was prepared to let her leave without a trick, without a hook, without pain. It was a reminder that this was Vassa’s present, not her past. That was the difficulty with living a long life: it made it easy to be caged by history.

Vassa stepped out into the lamplight and approached. “Seben,” she said quietly. “It is dangerous for you to be in the street without an escort.”

“I know,” Seben said. She swallowed hard, taking a moment to find her words. “I understand that this is a lot. I won’t make you stay. I wish I could go with you, but...if what Lord Osei says is true, something terrible could happen. I just want…” She took a deep breath. “I want to thank you.”

Vassa’s lips tugged into a wry smile behind her mask. “I did not act in expectation of gratitude.”

Seben almost tackled her into a hug, wrapping her arms tightly about the masked woman’s shoulders. “No one has ever looked out for me the way you did. You’re a good friend, I don’t care what you think.”

It took everything Vassa had to not go rigid at the touch, even knowing all that Seben offered was warmth and trust. “So you are inclined to pursue this?” the masked woman said. “Not ready, necessarily, but willing to step into the light of leadership?”

“I won’t let Ethilir be destroyed because I did nothing,” Seben said as she pulled back, reluctant to let go of her traveling companion. “Maybe there’s another Sun—” She stopped when Vassa’s finger pressed over her lips.

“Be careful what you say in the open, Seben,” the masked woman warned softly. “Even at this hour, even in this place.” She sighed, trying to release some of the tension of her emotions. “This will cost you more than you know. I know what paths to power look like. Many are littered with bodies of the nearest and dearest to those who walk them.”

“I’m not going to pretend I know,” Seben said with firmness. “But I’m not going to hurt you if you stay.”

Vassa could still remember with crystal clarity the agony of being shackled to that ward, her very vitality siphoned away to break the barrier. She was not alive because she was spared by a loving hand: the ritual completed without utilizing her entire essence. “Do not promise me such a thing,” Vassa murmured. “Oaths are only empty air.”

“Will you stay and let me prove it to you?” the apprentice fire-speaker asked. She hesitated before continuing, “You don’t have to. I just…”

“I was right,” Vassa said quietly, disentangling herself from the last of the young woman’s embrace. “You are quite difficult to be rid of.”

“Does that mean you’ll stay?” Seben said, trying not to smile.

“I need something before I agree to remain,” the masked woman said solemnly. She held out a hand palm up, reluctance in every motion. “If this magic is of the nature I think, it will corrupt anything that approaches. Even you, Seben. I can offer you my protection only through a vestali.”

“What’s that?” Seben asked.

“It is a...connection, forged by bonding threads of existence. There are many such things in magic, but this in particular is ancient. It has many uses.” Knowing what she did of Seben’s aura, there was an incredible danger that the sleeping power within the young woman might take exception to the touch of Vassa’s magic or that consequences unintended would wreak havoc on her. However, Vassa could use such a bond far more deftly than Seben would ever be able to and that granted the masked woman a distinct advantage if they ever came to blows.

Vassa didn’t want control, but she did want to protect herself against the possible future of betrayal.

“Will it hurt?” Seben asked with concern.

“It does not have to,” Vassa said, though her only experience with it had been agony. The masked woman promised herself that whatever her intentions were, she would use far more care with Seben than Lysaerys had ever used with her. “A vestali will allow me to know where you are at a thought and allow me to extend my protection to you against magic, if in a reduced fashion. Those who share the Gift can communicate with them, even share their perception or experiences, but you lack the training and ability to do so.”

Seben wished she could see Vassa’s face and read an expression. Instead, there was just darkness and the hint of eyes beneath her hood. “Is it permanent?”

“The one who forged the binding can undo it, but a piece will always remain. Like a scar.” Even as Vassa spoke, the center of her chest ached with a phantom pain. Lysaerys had placed their bond on her breastbone, a faint trace of dark magic still tangled with her heart. “If you do not wish it, I understand. It is not a small thing.”

Seben took a deep breath and placed her hand on Vassa’s. “I trust you,” the young woman said, honesty easily readable to the masked woman’s keen eyes.

The guilt twisted in Vassa’s stomach. If she would ever make a vestali of her own, the better part of her demanded that it not be with selfish motives. To do anything of the sort was Lysaerys’s influence speaking and it had nearly led her down a dark path. No matter how terrifying, betrayal had to be better than becoming the thing that had destroyed her, thrown her away. She let go of Seben’s hand and sighed. “You should not,” she said, relaxing slightly. “I apologize. I should not have spoken as I did, nor leapt so quickly to such a route. Magic of that nature is powerful and never to be used lightly. Besides, we do not know what your aura would make of it.”

“Are you certain?” Seben said. “If it will help….”

Vassa shook her head. “We do not need it, at least for now. Should a need arise and intent be what it should be, we can revisit it.”

Seben gave the masked woman a second, unexpected hug. “You can tell me things, you know,” she said gently. “I’m your friend too.”

It was difficult, but Vassa fought her urge to shove Seben away. It wasn’t the young woman’s fault that even a simple comfort could feel so fraught and she had no wish to hurt Seben’s feelings. She’d done that enough for one day. “I will keep that in mind,” she said as Seben released her. The sudden touch of the night air instead of Seben’s warmth was both soothing and slightly disappointing. After so long starved of connection, having it for a moment ignited a terrible wish for more. Vassa knew what came of indulging such wishes. “We should return to the house.”

To her credit, the young woman sensed the importance of the subject change. “Lord Osei said he was retiring after you left,” Seben said as they walked the short distance back. “I’m not sure what the plan will be in the morning.”

“Gaining access to the Ashen Tower is something of a priority now,” Vassa said once they were safely back inside Masaharta’s manor, turning over the matter in her mind. “That is the only way we will have the benefit of an oracle. However, we can assume that the King has far easier access to them and will seek their wisdom himself.”

“Will they help him?”

“He is the King,” Vassa said, adjusting the way her bag hung from her shoulder as Seben led the way back into their rooms. “Whether they believe he holds sway legitimately or not, he can have their heads cut off at a whim. For any resistance against such power to thrive, it must be subtle. Perhaps they will tell him the truth, perhaps they will give him misinformation. We have no way of knowing. I find it much wiser to assume that he will learn everything about you swiftly. Either we are correct and prepared or pleasantly surprised.”

Seben rubbed at one eye, fatigue clearly setting in full force now that the potential crisis of Vassa’s departure was over. “Why can’t it be simple?” she asked. “Couldn’t we just break the spell that he’s using and then everyone would know?”

Vassa smiled faintly behind her mask, but there was an element of gravity from experience that stopped the expression from spreading. “Have a care, Seben,” she said as she sobered. “Such an event might be one to rue for the rest of your days. The older a magic is, the deeper it runs through the threads, the more dangerous it becomes when severed.”

“I think I prefer djinn,” Seben murmured, sitting down on one of the couches. “At least you know what you’re getting.”

The smile returned, more genuine this time. “That is one of the reasons I most enjoy elemental magic,” she said. “There is a certain purity of intent that one does not necessarily find with manipulation magic. Fire wishes to thrive, water wishes to flow, wind wishes to blow, earth wishes to last.”

“The only mage I ever met before you was a Leyan battlemage,” Seben admitted. “They said he could conjure fires large enough to destroy a formation.”

“Perhaps he could, but at a terrible cost,” Vassa said. She leaned back, tilting her head up to look at the ceiling. “Magic is inextricably tied to life. It cannot exist without it and every use of it siphons away vitality. Leyan mages pay in blood to do what they do, whether theirs or someone else’s.”

Seben studied her friend. “Does yours use blood too?”

“If your concern is that I will draw upon your vitality, you may comfort yourself in the knowledge that I will never do so,” Vassa said. “The gods do not permit those of my tradition to do such a thing.” It was a way of dancing around the admission that she was not able to bend magic to feed upon others rather than herself. Study in Leus had taught her much of how they handled magic, but she could not access it the way a blood mage could. She’d learned to augment her reserves using her rings, but even that was only accomplished by storing her own energy for future use.

“I wasn’t worried about that,” Seben said. “More worried about you.”

“You will find me surprisingly durable when it comes to the Art,” Vassa said dismissively. “Practice and training have opened many doors to me that others cannot even think of.”

“Like your tricks.”

Vassa laughed, the sound brief in the air but heartfelt. She felt more at ease talking about this, less weighted. Seben’s good-humored curiosity reminded her of her favorite parts of being in Leus. “Like my tricks,” she confirmed. “I will do what I can with what I know, Seben. The rest is up to you.”

“I think we’ll be alright,” Seben said, smiling at the sound of Vassa’s laugh. “I mean, we only have a Master of Malice, an ancient curse, and a very angry King to worry about.”

“There are worse things than all of those,” Vassa said, closing her eyes again.

“You’re so cheerful, Vassa,” the young woman said, but it was more of a tease than a snipe.

“Merely observant.” Vassa stifled a yawn. The day was catching up with her as well. “Rest, Seben. I will retire as well. There has been more than enough excitement for one day and I suspect we are approaching dawn faster than I would like.”

“Will you be here in the morning?” Seben asked seriously.

The masked woman opened her eyes and looked over, meeting the young woman’s gaze. “I will be here in the morning,” she promised. 


Chapter 13
Awakening

By K. Olsen

Seben’s focus when she sat down to the task ahead was impressive, even to Vassa. According to the candle marking the hours, they were almost half a day into the last stretch of the young woman pouring over every book Masaharta could obtain that dealt with djinn and fire-speaking. As she studied, she scratched symbols onto a piece of papyrus in a complicated web of designs using a stylus and dark ink. The intensity of Seben’s attention to her work gave Vassa time to explore the city without fear of dragging the young woman into anything. She returned often, however, to keep an eye on things.

Soon, they would be placing a great many hopes on Seben’s shoulders. It was almost time for the Games themselves and for the apprentice fire-speaker to face her first feral djinn.

“This might be considered unwise,” Vassa observed. She leaned against the edge of the desk, keen eyes taking in the web of sigils in a language even she had only a rudimentary understanding of. Sarom’s tradition was far from a complete understanding of the God-Tongue, but it was still more extensive than most had preserved. Other languages could access some of the same magic, but the clearer the conduit, the more power would flow.

Seben leaned back and exhaled in a sharp sigh. “I know,” she acknowledged. “It’s just...I want to do this the right way.”

“Binding the djinn traditionally would be safer,” Vassa pointed out. Her lips quirked into a slight smile behind her mask. “If you don’t mind me playing demon’s advocate.”

“I can always fall back to that,” Seben said. She looked down at her notes, much of it resembling chicken-scratch more than the elaborate and precise glyphs used by Leyan mages. “At least this way the djinni has a choice. We won’t know for sure until I try the different incantations, but it’s more than others would do.”

“The freedom to choose is a precious gift,” the masked woman said. There was something endearing about Seben’s emphasis on granting it, but Vassa knew her own past left her biased on such subjects. “The djinn are fortunate to have you applying your knowledge with such consideration. I will warn you of only one thing: you may find yourself paying the cost of the binding with the alterations to control. That will not be a pleasant experience, particularly with no training to hone your resilience.”

“As long as it’s not lethal, I’m fine,” Seben said firmly.

“Death is a possibility. We do not know how much the djinn pay for their chains, and they are creatures all but made of magic. What a mortal would pay could be all-consuming,” Vassa warned. “I say this so that you contemplate your options.”

Seben turned fully to face Vassa, expression serious. “I would rather do this the right way than the easy way,” she said. “People should see that we can work alongside djinn rather than keeping them under our heel.”

Vassa shook her head, though her smile had returned. “Let it never be said that Seben Femi lacks conviction.”

“I need it,” Seben admitted. “It’s that or run away.”

“You are doing admirably, for having all of this thrust upon you.” Vassa knew that the young woman had buried herself in her studies to avoid dealing with the possibility of having royal blood and all the problems that accompanied it. The distraction was at least a useful one.

Seben flashed the masked woman a smile. “Thanks.”

“Lord Osei informs me that you cannot be accompanied into the arena.” Delicate, scarred fingers brushed across the surface of the desk as Vassa contemplated her options. Provided no wards prevented her from doing so, she could far-step to reach Seben in a heartbeat. “They wish to ensure no one is able to interfere with the trial.” While normally she considered the fate of others removed from her own and allowed the universe to do as it willed, the idea of being unable to protect Seben was...uncomfortable.

“I know,” the apprentice fire-speaker said, a hint of her nerves showing in her voice. All the same, she steeled herself. “I can do this.”

“Indeed,” Vassa agreed. She tilted her head slightly as she studied her companion. Doubt was still lodged firmly in Seben’s head, but so was that tenacity along with more confidence. Despite all of the young woman’s misgivings about fire-speaking, it was still an arena where she felt a little more secure by virtue of training. “I would not have agreed to Lord Osei’s plan if I thought you incapable.”

“You need to work on your inspirational speeches,” Seben said as good humor overpowered her worry.

“Oratory is not my area of expertise,” the masked woman said with that damnable smile returning. Even after becoming accustomed to Seben’s company, it frequently left her face aching from a gesture she had forgotten. Fortunately, it was fleeting. “I did not come merely to advise, however. I have arranged for a carriage to meet us at a tavern in the Market Ward, to take you to the Games. Better to minimize the link to Lord Osei since he is out of favor.”

“Would it be so terrible if people knew?” Seben asked. “Any who pass the test must be allowed entry for study.”

“This deception limits the inclination for them to bring up technicalities and trivialities that might make your passage more difficult. Perhaps it is unnecessary, but I felt it to be prudent,” Vassa said. She made no comment of the expense, as it was minor in her way of reckoning.

Wealth was something Vassa understood but had found little use for as she came into her own. Privilege mattered more in her homeland and that was tied more to inborn power and connections than the coin that flowed like golden blood in the veins of Ethilir’s nobility. Her exile had given her a fresh appreciation for what money was good for, but she had no real attachment to it. Spending it on Seben at least served their purposes.

Seben swept together her notes and tucked them in the journal Vassa had purchased for her on a venture out in the streets, already packed almost cover to cover with Seben’s spidery handwriting. The young woman looked around and then took a deep breath, corking the bottle of ink so it wouldn’t dry out. “I suppose I’m as ready as I’m ever going to get.”

“A promising declaration,” Vassa murmured, amused by Seben’s huff of displeasure at the faintest hint of sarcasm in her voice. The apprentice fire-speaker was learning quickly how to read her voice, perhaps because there was little else to read.

Not that Vassa couldn’t conceal things if she wished to. Her training had taught her to take great pains with her voice as well as her mannerisms, to choose her words like a poisoner chose their particular malice, each most suited to their task while betraying the least.

Her solitary wanderings gave her many evenings by the fire alone to reflect on the lessons of her past. They were useful, certainly, and frequently more accurate than the notions of others who walked the world, but sometimes their claws sank in until there was no escape. As she walked alongside Seben, she felt the hooks dig into her soul.

A zhendai did not forget the protection of their lisse.

There is no vestali, Vassa reminded herself pointedly. Of course, it wasn’t so simple when matters of finely honed instinct and rigorous conditioning crashed headlong into someone like Seben. I offer her protection because it pleases me. When it pleases me no longer, I will depart. I am not bound. I will never be bound again.

Seben was quiet at her side as they moved through the city streets, hand catching Vassa’s elbow as they stepped into the Market Ward with its crowds even as the sun set and the late hours began to creep over Sarom. The lack of their usual banter or Seben’s insatiable curiosity told Vassa how nervous her young friend really was.

Instead of immediately resorting to a dry comment as they reached the carriage, the masked woman turned to her companion. “Is there anything I can do?” she offered, voice slightly softer than usual.

Seben seemed jolted out of her nerves. “I don’t think so,” Seben admitted, a small smile forming despite the nerves. “It’s sweet of you to offer.”

“If you change your mind, you need only say the word,” Vassa said as she struggled internally again with the great gnawing beast that was her sense of loyalty. Apparently even exile was not enough to slay it forever, only take its eye and shred it at the edges. She ran a hand across her mask, brushing over her lips.

The apprentice fire-speaker took a deep breath. “Do you really think I can do this?” she asked as Vassa opened the door of the carriage.

Offering comfort was not in Vassa’s skillset. It had never been desired of her, never needed, never appreciated. She was under no illusions that she would be competent at it. “You are equal to the task,” she said without contemplating a more companionable turn of phrase.

“How do you know?” Seben said. The doubt in her eyes was deeper than it had been at Masaharta’s home. They were nearing the point of no return.

Vassa didn’t know what to say, so she let her words have free rein for the first time in years. “Some things do not require explanation to be true: fire burns, tides roll, moon chases sun. You possess the power to choose your own fate, Seben. Appreciate that freedom even as you dread it. Not all have such a gift.”

Seben took a long moment to process that, staring into the depths of Vassa’s hood at her masked face. “What about you?”

Vassa cocked her head slightly to the side, raised eyebrow invisible beneath fabric, in a silent request for elaboration.

“Can you choose your own fate, Vassa?”

Her lips twitched slightly behind her mask, this time not into a smile. “No,” Vassa said simply. The single word was as heavy as a mountain when it passed her lips. She gestured into the carriage without another word, indicating that the young woman should get in so that Vassa could follow.

Seben stepped up into the carriage, sitting across from Vassa. The young woman’s brow was furrowed into a frown, but at least she seemed distracted from her nerves at the moment. Silence stretched between them like a pane of glass for minutes that seemed like hours, something not easily broken.

Vassa had nothing more she wanted to say, putting the conversation out of her mind as much as possible. They were entering into a situation with too many unknowns for her to fixate on her own nature or past. It was better to be prepared and perceptive. She took the time to attune to her rings, checking the stored energy in each. The one she had depleted in the rooftop escape with Seben was finally back to its prior strength, fed strands of her own vitality. Whatever happened, she would have enough power to get Seben away.

Standing and fighting was never her first resort. Vassa knew full well that despite her cunning and skill, her body was still relatively delicate. Healing herself or others was a feat of magic alien to her nature, so carelessness was not an option.

Eventually the carriage lurched to a stop, the sounds of the Coliseum audible through open windows. The giant stone construction towered above them, packed with a massive crowd. Vassa opened the carriage’s door and stepped down, then turned and offered her hand to Seben. “Your test awaits,” the masked woman said. “We will see if your theory about djinn is correct.”

Seben stepped down, hand closing around Vassa’s tightly as she did so. She looked like a proper fire-speaker, the golden symbol on her chin flashing in the light of the braziers. She wasn’t wearing the ceremonial robe, preferring the saffron sash of an apprentice and street clothes from Behenu that were fine material and fine stitching. “I’ll do my best,” Seben promised.

“Good,” Vassa said firmly. “I will walk with you until we reach the point where only a contestant can enter, then I will go to Lord Osei’s side. He has a fine view of the arena from his box.” She lowered her voice before continuing near Seben’s ear, “Remember to pay mind to what is around you, Seben. You are still under threat.”

“I know,” Seben said, only hints of unease in her tone. The longer they walked down the hall towards where competitors waited, the more she tried to steel herself to the task ahead. “I’ll be careful.”

It felt unnatural to leave Seben’s side at a time so dangerous. The protections Seben needed in the desert were nothing compared to this. Vassa touched the center of the apprentice fire-speaker’s back with one hand as she left, a farewell that she hoped would not be final. Vassa disliked the concept of hope on principle, empty promises of Fate that it seldom satisfied. She had virtually lived on it in her homeland, starving her soul for things Lysaerys never intended to give.

She would not make the same mistake again.

“You seem particularly inscrutable in your quiet,” Masaharta said when she joined him in his box, motioning for her to take a seat. The chairs were near the edge, offering a perfect view of where Seben would be.

“Merely thoughtful,” Vassa said, her gaze settling on a large jar, covered in intricate symbols carved into the terracotta, that sat at the center of the arena. She knew without having to open her inner eye that a djinn was imprisoned in that soul-jar. The container itself was much larger and more ornate than usual, which she suspected was more due to its ceremonial nature than the size of the djinn. “Are there others attempting the trial by fire?”

“There were, very briefly. Both failed to pacify their djinn,” the nobleman said. He flashed her one of his friendly grins. “I have no doubt that our young friend is quite capable of finding a different fate.”

“Is it the same djinn?” Vassa asked, turning her gaze to look around at the huge crowds packed into the Coliseum.

“No. It must always be one straight from the desert,” Masaharta explained. “They are the most difficult to master, thus proving that one is worthy enough to stand on ability alone.”

A roar went up as Seben stepped onto the sands of the arena after the announcer boomed her name, her form illuminated by the great braziers that ringed the edges of the field. The crowd was ready to see their next brave apprentice, though whether they were hoping for magnificent success or magnificent self-destruction was not clear to Vassa. The answer was probably some proportion of both.

Seben approached the jar with a deep caution, taking a deep breath that everyone in the audience almost felt. She scratched a circle around herself and placed expertly drawn sigils at each of the cardinal directions based on where she’d seen the sun set.

“She looks nervous,” Masaharta observed thoughtfully.

Vassa didn’t answer, looking straight at Seben. This would be her first opportunity to see fire-speaking in action, even if this was the non-traditional variety.

A man standing at the far end of the arena tugged hard on the cord he held, ripping the jar’s lid off just as Seben moved to kneel instead of standing proudly. Fire exploded out from the soul-jar with such violence that the jar itself shattered, whipping itself into an inferno. The roaring conflagration towered over Seben, several times her height. It took the rough shape of a man, but featureless except for the curling of flame and the columns of smoke as it charred the sands beneath it into glass.

Masaharta let out a hiss of breath, clearly not pleased. “That is not a normal djinni!” he barked, springing up to his feet.

“What is it?” Vassa asked, gripping the railing tightly. Everything in her screamed to step to Seben, to get her away from the behemoth, but doing so would crush all Seben’s chances of future. She had to believe that Seben was capable of this.

“I don’t know,” Masaharta growled out.

Seben started her chant, this one very different from the ones that had come before it. The sound echoed, caught by acoustics and probably amplified by the wards carved into this place. Her voice sounded deep with confidence, but also reverent. Instead of the overwhelming compulsion to obey, it beseeched. The sudden silence in the arena’s crowds was deafening as no one but Vassa was certain what to make of it.

The sentient fire surged at Seben, slamming into the invisible barrier of her rudimentary defense. Vassa winced at the impact that split the air like a clap of thunder as fire struck at magic. Seben’s ward would only be able withstand a few blows of such power. The creature let out a howl as the wind it created to stoke its own power whirled and raged, drawing the djinni in a spiral around Seben and allowing to climb her wards, seeking an entrance. Hands split off the fire of its body, forming talons that would shred Seben’s protections to pieces.

In her circle, barely visible to the world with the raging flames of the djinni, Seben knelt serene. Vassa wasn’t certain that the young woman knew how fragile her ward was. The apprentice fire-speaker continued her chant. The djinni howled again and slammed into the ward, sinking in its claws and ripping away at the defensive magic.

“The hell is she doing?” Masaharta demanded.

“She—” Vassa started. She didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence as the ward shattered.

An avalanche of flames crashed down on Seben and everyone in the audience felt the explosive ripple through the fabric of existence. It knocked Masaharta and many off their feet. Vassa was unaffected, anchored by her grip on the railing and more accustomed to such things. The night was suddenly as bright as daylight.

At the center of the Arena, in the ashes of her circle, Seben burned with the white-hot light of a nova. Magic radiated off as if she was a second sun, igniting the threads of existence all around her with a brilliant glow. The djinni burned around her, but the flames did her no harm. Instead they unwrapped, the sentient fire pouring itself at her feet in submission instead of acting with aggression. Fragments of Seben’s voice echoed around the arena, pieces of the celestial language that she’d used persisting.

Vassa couldn’t help but perceive the unseen and seen alike. Seben’s aura was no longer sleeping: the phoenix inside her had risen to glory, celestial wings visibly radiating from the young woman’s back. She looked angelic, as one would expect from a facet of a god’s full glory.

“She is Sunblessed,” Masaharta said with awe. “I’ve never heard of one manifesting away from the Sunlit Throne, but that cannot be mistaken for anything else.”

“And now it is known to all,” Vassa said thoughtfully, watching as Seben reached out to the djinni.

The creature of fire rose, arching to her hand like a pleased cat. It seemed docile enough, but Vassa saw no sign of the normal chains that her companion described. Seben had gotten what she wanted, if after giving the djinni the closest thing to a heart attack one of its kind could ever experience. The djinn was free, but friendly.

The aura slowly dimmed from its blinding glory, eventually fading to nonexistence. Seben rocked on her feet for a second as the last of it faded, then collapsed back to her knees and caught her head in her hands. The djinni formed a circle around her again, but this time as a creature of protection.

“How the hell did she do that?” Masaharta asked no one as Vassa rose to her feet.

“Does it matter?” the masked woman said dryly. “The djinni will buy us time to retrieve her before the enemy can. We need to get to her.”

The Master of Malice came back to the current situation immediately. “I know the quickest route,” he said firmly. “Follow me.”

Vassa followed him with quick strides. She didn’t want to far-step in front of that many people unless she had to, even if they likely wouldn’t remember it as anything of note after what they’d just seen. She trusted a djinni that large and powerful to keep the King’s guards away. It was going to be hard enough to convince it to let Vassa or Masaharta by. They were fiercely protective creatures of things they considered theirs, which was usually territory out in the desert, but probably extended to the first person to ever offer a djinn a shared bond.

There would be a great many fires of their own to deal with after the djinni was again contained, like the fallout from everyone knowing that Seben Femi, apprentice fire-speaker from seemingly nowhere, was heir to the most powerful throne in the kingdoms of men and all its divine connection.


Chapter 14
Meeting Userkare

By K. Olsen

Seben’s eyelashes fluttered as she came awake slowly. She was in a room, but not her room, though the bed was as comfortable as the one she’d started to grow used to. The room was lit only by a single lamp on the bedside table, burning just high enough to illuminate the pages of her journal where it sat open on the edge of the bed. Her pillow smelled like jasmine and subtle citrus, hints of spice, and traces of smoke. She knew the comforting smell, though it was never strongly applied.

“Vassa?” she murmured, turning her head towards her journal. There was her companion, the masked woman deep in study of the complicated mess of Seben’s handwriting.

“You made quite the scene,” Vassa said without looking up from her reading material. “Lord Osei was concerned.” 

Seben smiled faintly. “Not you?” 

“I am seldom mistaken about people,” Vassa said with a subtle flick of her fingers, turning to the next page. “You were equal to the task.”

The apprentice fire-speaker laughed. “So I suppose it’s just happenstance that I’m in your room with you watching over me.”

Vassa raised an eyebrow, hidden beneath the hood, and her lips twitched at the corners, trying to become a smile. “I could be reading a very engrossing set of notes.”

“But that’s not what you’re doing,” Seben said more softly. “Thank you for your protection, Vassa.”

The masked woman waved a hand dismissively, brushing off Seben’s thanks. “Hardly an act of consequence. Besides, your notes are rather riveting, though unfortunately mostly a shorthand I am unfamiliar with. What I can piece together is...interesting.” She closed the journal and leaned back in her chair, stretching like a cat. “More to the point, how are you feeling?”

“Sore,” Seben admitted. “No scorches, though, so I must have passed the trial.”

Vassa paused, studying Seben. “You do not recall?”

“I remember the djinn crashing down at me and then...light. I felt it in every inch of my body, burning like the sun. Then I fell and woke up here.”

“You manifested an aspect of Sol. An angel, some people would call you, though I suspect your aspect is more of a partial fragment of a shattered god,” the masked woman said. “Lord Osei mentioned that it takes a great deal of discipline and dedicated honing for Sunblessed to master their gift. Granted, he was rather surprised that you were able tap into it away from the Sunlit Throne.” Before Seben could say it wasn’t possible, Vassa flicked her fingers and fed a trace of her essence into the weave of existence between them. She used the energized fibers weaving them together to display a vision of what had happened in the arena. “It was rather spectacular.” 

Seben watched the ghostly display intently. “That...I did that?”

“We are rather fortunate you did. The djinni would have killed you,” the masked woman said, allowing the image to still on the sight of Seben glowing with celestial radiance. “The wards you were taught were wholly insufficient for such a powerful djinni.” 

“It’s forbidden to use sajjad djinn in the arena,” Seben said, brow furrowing as she frowned. “They are too powerful for most masters to contend with and exceptionally hostile.”

Vassa brushed her fingertips over her mask. “What makes them so?” 

“No one really knows for certain. They’re likely the oldest, but some of the stories I’ve heard say that they’re infused with heavenly wrath, something extra besides just the normal fire magic,” Seben explained. “They come from the very heart of the Sea of Sand. It probably took several fire-speakers working together to capture him.” 

“Someone went to great effort to kill you,” the masked woman observed. “I imagine they rue that decision bitterly. If the stories of these sajjad djinn are true, that may be part of what triggered your manifestation. I expect them to be particularly sour since we are now in possession of their weapon.” 

“What?” Seben blurted out. 

Vassa motioned to the floor beside the door, where a soul-jar sat. The ceramic vessel was inscribed in incredibly intricate sigils inlaid in gold, the base glazed a dark black that grew to ash grey at the mouth and lid of the jar.. It was more typical of the size of a fire-speaker’s, easily carried if tied to a belt. “A gift from the Ashen Tower. While it is not traditional, I think they were eager to ingratiate themselves with their new Sunblessed scion of royal blood.” 

The young woman smiled. “I think Naji has a lot to teach me,” she said with a mix of fondness and excitement as she looked at the jar. 

“Is that our new friend’s name?”

“Sort of,” Seben said. “We usually give djinn a common name, with echoes of their divine one, so we can speak to them without immediately pulling on their collar. He doesn’t have a collar, but his true name still has power over him. Using it would be rude and risky.” 

It made sense, given how powerful the name forging seemed to be. “I am certain he appreciates your caution. The less likely it is for another to try and control him, the better for us. Lord Osei  has been quite the busy bee ensuring everything is together for your passage into the Ashen Tower, but he is anticipating the arrival of the King.” 

Seben tensed. “Why would he come here?”

Vassa laughed. “Clearly a visit to ensure your good health, given you share his blood,” she said with an amusement and sarcasm that could only be described as dark. “After the fire-speakers corralled Naji, it required Lord Osei using all of his authority to retrieve you before the King’s men could arrive and convey you to an unpleasant end. It is no longer a secret that you are in Lord Osei’s  care. Fortunately, we have made arrangements for your visit with the noble Userkare to be very public. The house is full of guests celebrating the revelation of your nature as we speak.” 

“How long have I been out?” Seben asked. 

“Almost a day. All magic, even divine, has a cost. Your vitality was exhausted, though fortunately not to a lethal level. You will have a great deal of labor ahead of you if you wish to fully understand and wield it. If we are to contend with the people who want you dead, I would consider it a priority to attain such mastery.” Vassa set the journal aside and rose to her feet using the burning lamp to ignite several others around the room. 

“Can you help me with learning?” Seben asked. 

Vassa hesitated before speaking, though her motions continued as normal. “I cannot unravel this mystery for you, Seben, not even if I wished to. This is your power.” She turned and studied the young woman who was watching her every move. “That said, I will offer you my protection until there comes a time when we part ways.” 

“If,” the young woman said, getting out of bed. 

A solitary, sorrowful smile tugged at Vassa’s lips. “I know where such paths lead.” 

Seben rubbed at her eyes. “You really think it will be so dark?” 

She is not Lysaerys, Vassa reminded herself. Perhaps her path will be different. Aloud, she said, “We have an evening to remember ahead, Seben. Eat and then we can join the revelry. Preferably before the King arrives, so you can enjoy the full experience of being interrogated about your display. Do not forget to keep Naji with you. If all else fails, burning Lord Osei’s house down around the King and whatever goons he brings will be something of a statement.” 

“You’ll be in that house, Vassa,” Seben pointed out with a small smile when she saw that there was food waiting on the table. She rolled out of bed and almost immediately regretted it, wincing. “I feel like I’ve run a hundred miles.” 

Vassa poured a glass of wine from the ewer that had come in with the food. She’d spent time while Seben was asleep checking exhaustively for poison. So far, there was nothing, but that was not something Vassa expected to last. She knew what desperate, powerful people could be capable of. “You might as well have. Remember when you are out there to be wary. A great many things could go wrong, even with many witnesses.” 

Once upon a time, Seben might have brushed off Vassa’s caution as paranoia, but coming to Sarom had changed all of that. “Your lessons on perception should help,” Seben said, easing herself down into a seat at the table. 

“Provided you remember them,” Vassa said as she approached the door. She placed both palms flat on the wood and then touched her forehead against the knot of magic she’d made on the surface of the door itself, merging it with its frame so that it could not be opened without actually breaking it down. The spell was unseen to the naked eye, but Vassa felt it easily and unknotted it with a wisp of power in her exhaled breath. The door creaked as it reverted to its previous state. She had enough experience with wards that creating one was simple, almost effortless. It was something rare among her people, one of the reasons zhendai were so prized. 

“So who is here?” Seben asked before starting to eat. Her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten for more than a day and with the trial completed, she actually had an appetite again. At least, if she didn’t think too hard about meeting Userkare. 

“Of the nobility? It would be a shorter list to number who is not present,” the masked woman said as she carefully picked up Naji’s soul jar and brought it to Seben at the table. “While royal blood is more common in Ethilir than the other kingdoms, you are a rarity. Sunblessed do not manifest away from the Throne, heirs do not become fire-speakers, nor come out of anonymous brothels, and yet you are all of those things and have done all of those things. Their curiosity is assuredly ravenous. Now, fewer questions, more eating.” 

Seben laughed as she returned to eating, wolfing down food with just enough care to avoid a stomach ache. Next was a bath while Vassa sorted through the clothes that Behenu’s people had delivered. This time, something more practical was in order, so Seben could carry the jar without looking out of place. 

“Thank you for your help,” Seben said with amusement when she stepped  back into the room, wrapped in a towel. “What would I do without your fashionable eye?” 

“You would still have Lord Osei and Djau to prevent anything truly egregious,” Vassa said. She’d chosen Seben’s clothing tactically, using the combination of red and white as a nod to the royal custom of such colors, with the saffron sash of a fire-speaker apprentice still there and dark trousers. 

“I think they’d enjoy it less than you do.” 

Vassa shrugged and stepped back into the common room to let Seben dress in privacy. She gave the young woman a nod of approval when she emerged. “Better,” she said as she turned a scrutinizing eye to Seben’s appearance. “You look well-rested and relatively at ease.” She held out Naji’s jar, so Seben could knot the special carrying vessel to her waist using the belt that was always covered by the sash. The weight of the jar seemed to comfort Seben immensely, which Vassa considered reasonable. 

“Do we have a plan?” 

“I’m certain Lord Osei has cobbled something together,” Vassa said mildly.

Seben shook her head slightly. “Do we have a plan?” 

The masked woman laughed at that. “I think we would be best served by you turning that wonderful charm of yours on your awaiting nobles. We will see what Userkare has to say for himself, since at present we do not have enough information about him or his intentions. We will most likely not have a chance to meet with Lord Osei in private to find out what he has planned, so it will be important to follow the flow.” 

“I don’t know about all of this,” the apprentice fire-speaker admitted, hand resting on Naji’s jar.

“At times like these, it is sink or swim,” Vassa said. She put a hand on Seben’s shoulder. “Remember to keep your temper mild and your manners graceful. Some of the nobility are already allied with you, like Lord Osei, by virtue of being opposed to King Userkare. Most will be neutral, which can always be swayed, and some will hate you with every fiber of their being as a usurper unworthy of Userkare’s throne. We will cultivate the first two and deal with the last whenever they attempt to do you harm.” 

“I hate politics,” Seben muttered. “It’s nightmarish.”

Vassa couldn’t help a grin behind her mask at Seben’s miserable expression. “Sweet child of summer, if only you knew,” she said, giving Seben’s shoulder a faint squeeze before letting go. 

“For a traveler and not a noble, you know a lot about how this all works,” the young woman observed. 

“People are fascinating,” Vassa said by way of explanation as she led the way out into the hall. The answer wasn’t a lie, even if it was nothing near the entire truth. “So, as you might imagine, the games that they play, whether for coppers or kingdoms, I find endlessly intriguing.” 

Seben let out a long-suffering sigh. “As long as one of us is enjoying this.” 

The halls were only empty of people for one turn of the corner. Soon they were packed in with people who greeted Seben with cheers and awe, neither of which the young woman had expected. Before she could get too flustered, they encountered a familiar face: Lady Kamara, the associate of Masaharta’s who had met with them alongside the oracle. 

“Sol’s light rest upon you, Your Highness,” the older woman said with a respectful curtsey. 

To her eternal credit, Seben didn’t gape like a landed fish, which Vassa admittedly had almost been expecting. “And on you,” the apprentice fire-speaker said with all the confidence she could muster. “How are you, Lady Kamara?” 

The woman smiled, though her eyes were still evaluating. Whatever she saw in Seben’s earnest expression seemed to meet her approval, thankfully. “I am well. I was fortunate enough to have been in the stands for the Games and your extraordinary display. I apologize for not greeting you as is proper last we spoke.” 

Seben smiled. “Don’t worry about it. A lot has changed since then.” 

“Indeed,” Kamara said. She glanced over at Vassa, her stare more piercing even though it was unsuccessful at breaching the barrier of fabric. “You have quite the bodyguard, you know. I have it on good authority that not even Djau, master of keys, could convince your door to open so I could leave a wreath for you.” 

“I’m lucky to have her,” the young woman agreed. She turned to Vassa to say something, but her words were lost to Vassa’s ears. 

She felt it again: that sickening, crawling, twisted magic seeping darkness into the world. Vassa closed her eyes tightly and took in a slow breath, trying to calm her heart as it pounded, the last vestiges of her own vestali sending little tremors of agony through her chest. “His Majesty is in attendance,” she observed, her tone still calm as she tried to quell her inner demons before they could rise to the surface. 

Seben shifted closer to Vassa, hand brushing over the soul-jar she carried for comfort. “Lord Osei is headed our way.”

“To head His Majesty off at the pass, most likely,” Kamara said with a gleam in her eye.  She leaned in to whisper to Seben. “You have allies beyond merely Masaharta Osei.” With that she winked and stepped out of the way of the mentioned man. 

“I delayed him as much as possible,” Masaharta reported as he approached, a sweep of his hand enough to direct away the lesser nobles clustered around Seben. “Are you ready?” 

Seben sucked in a deep breath. “As ready as I’ll ever be.” 

Vassa touched fingertips to Seben’s back with just enough pressure to be felt, offering a silent reminder of her protection. It had the desired effect: Seben stood a little bit straighter and set her jaw with determination. 

Userkare approached, golden circlet gleaming on his dark brow. His proud, sculpted features softened slightly at the sight of Seben. He gave the young woman a deep nod. “Greetings, Seben Adebowale,” he said politely, an approving  smile on his lips. The sound of Prince Sanakht’s surname attached to hers had a visible effect on the crowd. Murmurs rippled outwards. “I feel fortunate to have and meet a niece so talented and blessed.” 

“Sol’s light rest upon you, Your Majesty,” the apprentice fire-speaker said in greeting, dipping into the appropriate bow since she was not in a dress. She clearly remembered Vassa’s point about having gracious manners. “I prefer Seben Femi, if it should please you.” 

The King chuckled, a deep and pleasant sound. “An unorthodox choice,” he said. 

“It is who I am,” Seben said with a slight shrug. She couldn’t help her wariness, but she was keeping her tone pleasant despite the danger he posed. “How may I serve?” 

Userkare’s eyes narrowed slightly as his smile broadened. “I merely wish to acquaint myself with my heir. You are the only other Sunblessed, after all,” he said smoothly. 

Vassa leaned against the pillar beside her, blending into the scenery as well as she could. Userkare was too focused on Seben at the moment to pay her much heed, so it was time to see if she could identify the source of the magic. She drew in a breath, held it a moment, and then exhaled slowly. She closed her eyes and then opened the one within. 

Seben’s aura shone like a beacon now that it was awake, even brighter and more powerful than it had appeared before. What she stood in front of was an entirely different essence. 

Userkare was a man with no hint of his own magical talent, no connection of his own to the flow of the threads around him, but his aura was every bit as potent. Dark magic swallowed most of his being, eating away at his essence like a cancer, metastasizing slowly even as she watched. It pulsed in the presence of Seben with a terrible hunger, ready to devour her if given the opportunity, but Userkare’s body was its prison.

Vassa’s stomach roiled and her blood ran cold. She could feel it, the sickening siren call of the magic. It would be so easy to walk over and take it from him, pull it into herself, wield its power for herself. Normally she could not draw from another, but this thing, whatever it was, wanted to be pulled. It would destroy her utterly, but until that moment of oblivion, she could be as powerful as Lysaerys dreamed, with the combined power of the dark magic and the Throne itself. The hunger that defined the presence in Userkare mirrored the old ambitions embedded in her soul.

She shuddered and let her inner eye closed, mercifully before the magic realized it was being observed. She had a much better idea of what they were dealing with, but the name burned behind her lips with a cold and dreadful fire. 

M'ethvantai. The Devouring Dark. 

Vassa had no idea where he’d managed to find it. The gods had used it in the Revealing to destroy the most powerful mortal servants of the Deceiver and his demons, but as far as Vassa knew, the only living souls to have seen it since that apocalyptic war were herself and Lysaerys, lurking behind the ward that had almost drained the masked woman dry. 

Then again, such things wanted to be found.

She turned her focus back to the conversation. “....you are always welcome at the Royal Palace,” King Userkare said smoothly. “I promise you that you would find me a host without equal, and it most assuredly fits your blood and status. Lord Osei is a generous man, but you are my successor.” 

“Thank you very much for such a kind offer, Your Majesty,” Seben said, flashing the man a smile. “I know that I will set foot there in time, but my studies at the Ashen Tower have to be completed. I’ve taken the mark already, which means I’m bound to that path. When I’m finished with my training, I’d love to come learn from you.” 

“Surely after your display in the Arena, the fire-speakers would understand,” Userkare said, a hint of displeasure flashing across his face. He was not a man who appreciated challenges to his wishes. 

Seben maintained her picture of innocence, if barely avoiding locking up in fear. “I would be a far better servant for Ethilir and you with the full knowledge of a fire-speaker at my hand. I promise that I’ll make you proud, Your Majesty.” 

Vassa smiled behind her mask. Intentionally or not, Seben was doing a fine job of putting the man in a position where his refusal would look unreasonable. King Userkare clearly knew it as well, as his smile was fading slowly. 

“Very well, niece,” Userkare said with a smile returning. “I give you my blessing to study at the Ashen Tower. When you are finished, we will begin introducing you to the world of rule.” 

Seben bowed again. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Userkare bid farewell before turning to face Masaharta. “You, Osei, owe me an explanation,” the King said sternly. “You did not inform me of the existence of another Sunblessed when that is your entire purpose in life, last I checked.”

Masaharta spread his hands wide. “I was not certain until she manifested in the arena, Your Majesty. If I troubled you for every scion of royal birth popping out of the woodwork, you would scarce have a moment’s peace. Your brother, may he rest in peace, was something of a romantic.” 

“A rake,” Userkare muttered. 

“Perhaps we should discuss this elsewhere?” Masaharta said, giving Seben and Vassa a tiny nod to signal they could move away. “I would be happy to illuminate the matter further.”


Chapter 15
Cruelty Past and Present

By K. Olsen

The next few days were a flurry of activity between curious nobles seeking to learn more about the newly revealed heir as well as gain her favor and the preparations before entering the Ashen Tower. Vassa abandoned her notion of exploring the city alone and leaving Seben on her own for any real length of time. It was far too dangerous now that Userkare was aware of the apprentice fire-speaker’s identity. The Ashen Tower will severely limit his ability to work his will, Masaharta explained the night before. Fire-speakers police their own. He is likely to try something before she departs.

Vassa had yet to explain what she had seen either, the nature of the magic inside Userkare, feeding his ambition, stoking his inner shadows. Powers that ancient possessed motives of their own and manipulating mortals to serve their own ends was not unheard of. That ravenous hunger would mesh well with Userkare’s own lust for kingship. Or was he a different man before that corruption took root in his soul? Had he sought it out and been imprisoned  by his own horrifying bargain, or had it been inflicted on him as a curse?

It was a tangled web of possibilities that Vassa spent her nights picking at. She would need more information before she could say anything for certain. Darker parts of her wondered how it would feel, to have such power inside her again. If she took it from him, no doubt she would work devastation even more terrible than his possession promised to bring. 

With all of that at her fingertips, she could return home. She could punish those who had driven her out, or find a place again at Lysaerys’s side. The second of the two options stirred the fragments of her vestali as well as her heart. Granted, ripping Sethon to shreds would be a close second in terms of reward. 

It was a course of action that would mean both destroying her soul and abandoning Seben, however. While Vassa wasn’t particularly invested in the former, she was becoming fond of the latter. 

“I can practically hear the gears turning in  your head, Vassa,” Seben said with amusement as she watched her protector pace. They were in the entrance hall with the mermaid. Masaharta had moved the chessboard into the cooler area to play with Seben. Even into the evening, the summer sun had baked the city with extreme heat. 

“She is a rather cerebral creature,” Masaharta said with a chuckle.

Vassa paid them no mind, fingertips brushing over her mask as she moved. There had to be another way to coax the magic out of Userkare without sacrificing someone. The problem was that without a host immediately there to take it in, it would hunt Seben.

She barely caught the sounds of footsteps coming down the hall. It was not a familiar tread. Vassa turned and caught the glimpse of several armed men cloaked in shadows from where they’d extinguished the hall lights, one leveling a crossbow directly at the side of Seben’s head. 

The masked woman reacted without thinking. In less than the beat of a heart, she far-stepped immediately into the man’s face, slamming his crossbow to the side with her elbow as she drew her blade with her other hand. The bolt hit the tiles on the wall, scoring them, and both Masaharta and Seben sprang to their feet, turning to face the source. 

The man cursed and punched out to hit Vassa in the face. She sensed more than saw the movement and threw up an arm, just enough to knock the blow to the side. His arm brushed against her hood, almost pulling it back. 

Vassa felt the familiar cold, possessive fury that had once dominated her life roar into her being like a midwinter blizzard. Seben was hers. She grabbed the man by his belt and stomped down on his foot, boot scraping down his unarmored shin. These were assassins, not soldiers, and so they wore nothing that would make them appear dangerous. He howled and went to swing again, but overbalanced with her help and hit the floor hard. The next man behind him charged Vassa, crashing into her slight frame and knocking her back into the room. 

“Vassa!” Seben shouted, her hands falling to her soul-jar. 

“You have made your last mistake, my friends,” Masaharta said, drawing his curved blade, expression grim.

There were five. Two with crossbows at relatively the ready, one of which was on the ground, and three with long knives. 

Vassa caught her balance with the ease of a dancer when the leader gestured for his men to fan out and then advanced towards her. She far-stepped directly into his space, only an inch between them, and seized him by the face with one hand before he could react. All she could feel was the frigid hatred that burned in her tainted, fragmented heart. 

Suffer,” she hissed as she let her essence flood into his body, setting the threads of existence that made him up aflame with the darkest magic she could tap into. He screamed, expression contorting as he fell to his knees, body jerking and twitching like a marionette. She pulled the energy out of one ring with ease, more than enough to affect the mind. She planted seeds effortlessly, one in each of the assassin’s minds, and let them grow, feeding on the insecurities and fears that plagued the mortals they dwelt in. They froze in place like statues, shadows whispering into their ears as they stared in horror at the sight of their leader writhing on the ground. 

This was the magic she had trained to use more than any other, every touch of its power effortless after such practice. She barely felt the drain as she savaged the threads of the man in front of her. Death or mercy were the only escape from his torment, as such magic did not allow the victim to succumb physically or mentally and cease experiencing. 

Vassa put her heel on his sternum and pushed hard, slamming him onto his back. She extinguished the effect in his writhing body. “I do not care who sent you. I do not care why you were sent.” Her voice echoed and twisted around the room, crawling into the ears of all who listened to inspire a dread worthy of the God-Tongue. “If you ever attempt to harm Seben Femi again, I will show you an agony that will last from now until the end of time. Even death is no escape.” 

Horrified silence was her only answer as she looked down at the leader, lip curling in contempt behind her mask. Terror froze him in place, something beyond anything he had ever experienced. Vassa held out her free hand palm down in the air above his chest, blade in her other hand. 

Die.” A spiderweb of shadows formed around his body, dark magic shredding everything it touched. His screams would haunt those who heard them for the rest of their life, most likely. She let her hand close slowly into a fist, drawing the web tighter and tighter until it wrapped around his heart itself, all that remained in a pile of ashes. 

Vassa knelt and picked up the heart, turned into a black, shriveled stone scarred by the magic that had touched it. It was cold to the touch, but twitched in a helpless beat still. She rose to her feet and plucked the weave of existence with her fingers, uprooting her seeds and returning their minds to full faculties. She hurled the heart at the nearest one, striking him in the face, but he caught it in his hands and paled when he realized it was still beating. 

“There is my gift to your master, worm,” she said coldly, voice no longer distorting the fabric of existence. “Flee, or it will be your fate too.” 

They surged for the front door and broke it open, fleeing into the night as if Void itself was on their heels. 

Vassa brushed ash from her hands, attuning again to her own body. She’d spent some reserve, but it had drained most of the power out of her ring. That was a tolerable cost, if one that it would take her some time to replace. Fortunately, she wore others. Once her brief accounting finished, she turned over a dropped crossbow with her foot. “Are you both well?” she asked in a hollow voice, her heart and soul still locked away until the danger was clearly past. 

Masaharta made a sign of aversion and took a step back, shaken. “What in the name of Sol was that?” 

“Magic,” Vassa said more normally, the warmth returning to her essence as she sheathed her sword. “Of a variety not often seen, nor often used. They will not attack Seben again.” 

Seben hesitantly stepped towards Vassa, eyes as wide as those of the men who had tried to kill her. “Neither of us are hurt. What about you?” 

The masked woman contemplated her answer. She didn’t like fragments of her old life surfacing. It was something that was seldom a danger when she was on her own, but Seben for better and worse brought out her protective side...the same side that had been twisted into a devil in its own right. It was a reminder to Vassa that deep down, she was every bit as sick and dark as the one who had held her leash for so long. It had taken a great deal of torture to make her this way, but it had paid dividends as far as her training went. 

For all the legion of cruelties she had both endured and forced upon others, she would forever owe Lysaerys for making her into a zhendai with few equals. 

If Userkare thought he was unique in his connection to darkness, he was very much mistaken.

“I have not acquired a wound,” Vassa said, adjusting her hood to keep everything more carefully concealed. “We should ascertain how they came in and remedy that, lest we acquire more. I would prefer not to exert myself to that degree if it can be avoided.” 

“You seem remarkably calm about this,” Masaharta said, regaining himself. 

Vassa looked over at him, arching an eyebrow beneath her hood. “Would it serve a purpose if I panicked or went into a frothing rage?” 

“It would be less unsettling,” he said, a smile of dark humor appearing. “I knew you were not a woman to be crossed, but that was a...more dramatic demonstration than I was expecting.” 

The masked woman shrugged and strode out of the room, down the hall to track the assassins’ route of entry. She found her answer swiftly: a broken window in Masaharta’s office and the dead bodies of two servants, their blood a dark stain on one of her host’s immaculate, intricate rugs. It was messy, but it was also likely rushed. They had taken their opportunity while Djau, Paser, and Teos were off on errands. 

If Vassa was being honest with herself, she was more annoyed than anything else. At least, until she glanced back and saw Seben’s expression still fearful. That sent a current of dread through her stomach. 

For the first time in a long time, Vassa hoped that she would not be sent away. She would leave if requested, but she would not enjoy it. 

Masaharta sighed when he saw his servants and the rug. “I wish His Majesty would take into consideration how much I value my help,” he said, kneeling down beside the bodies. 

“Inconsiderate seems to be Userkare’s native state of being,” Vassa said dryly. “Can more guards be posted?” 

“Yes, though it will take me a little while to call them up,” Masaharta said. He hesitated, weighing his next words before speaking. “I suggest you two withdraw to your rooms. They are more defensible than a main thoroughfare in the manor, given the reinforced windows and solitary door. Provided Seben is comfortable with that.” 

Seben looked over at Vassa, unable to read any expression in her face with cloth in the way. “I know Vassa won’t hurt me,” she said with a tremulous confidence. She started moving towards their rooms, picking up her pace a little when Vassa followed. 

Once they were back in their own quarters, the masked woman let out a sigh. “I am sorry you had to see that, Seben.” 

The apprentice fire-speaker sank down onto one couch, looking over at her friend. “It was horrible.” 

“It was,” Vassa acknowledged, sitting across from the young woman. She leaned forward enough to rest her elbows on her knees, lacing her fingers together as she looked at her companion. “They would have killed you.” 

Seben took a shaky breath. “I know,” she said. “It was just...worse than what happened in the desert and Okena.”

“I told you that I was not to be trusted,” Vassa with her usual calm. “I am more acquainted with the darker side of magic than most.” 

Seben pulled in another deep breath, this time steadier. “Why?” 

The masked woman tilted her head. “Which part?” 

“Why do you know so much about dark magic?” the apprentice fire-speaker asked. 

Vassa knew she would have to go carefully to avoid revealing too much. “It is how I was trained,” she said. “In my homeland, those who hold sway are in constant, if subtle, conflict. They school their agents well and no magic is out of bounds. Most focus on elemental magics for offense and train exhaustively with wards and disruptions. Mine was a different path, not one of my choosing, but one I embraced. With the...conditioning...I endured, I attained mastery that few even among my people can boast.” 

“And the price?” Seben asked. “All magic comes with a cost, you said.” 

“One I have paid many times over,” Vassa said, a hint of bitterness creeping into her tone. “Dark magic requires a dark soul. Such things are not born: they are made. What you saw me do to those men was nothing.” 

The young woman pulled her knees up to her chest, looking at her companion. “Did…” she hesitated a moment, then continued, “...did someone do that to you?” 

Vassa bit her lower lip, considering how much she wanted to say. “More,” she settled on finally. It wasn’t enough to explain everything, not even a tiny fraction of what she’d gone through. 

“I’m sorry, Vassa. That must have been horrible.” 

The masked woman shrugged. She knew she had no metric for how awful it had been. There was something far too normal about it after a lifetime of it, though she knew that her training had been more intense than that of most. Lysaerys’s inherent sadism, most likely. “It was what it was. I would not even be half of what I am today without such attentions.” 

Seben studied her closely, expression soft. “Who hurt you?”

It would have been easy to simply end the conversation by getting up and going to her room. Vassa was sorely tempted to. Lysaerys’s absence was a ragged hole in her chest only equalled by the scars inflicted everywhere else as part of Vassa’s training and service. Speaking of it meant acknowledging it, and that looked unbearable. “Someone I cared for greatly,” she said, leaving it as the understatement it was. 

Seben’s sympathy was a small balm, but it was dangerous. Something deep down in Vassa wanted to let everything spill out, to tell someone about all the broken pieces buried inside. Seben seemed to care enough to listen. 

It was a trap. Such things were always a trap. Anything that seemed too good to be true was too good to be true. Besides, Vassa had learned that acknowledging it or focusing on it only made it hurt more. It made her ask questions that had no answer, like why someone that she loved so much, who said they loved her, would do such horrible things. 

“I’m sorry,” Seben said quietly. “Vassa?” 

“Mm?”

“I just want you to know that I’m not angry,” the young woman said with an edge of nerves. “You’re always safe with me. If you ever want to talk about it, I’ll listen.” 

Lies, something dark and deep whispered inside of Vassa. She forced it down, allowing herself to feel a brief glow of warmth at the reassurance, no matter how brief. “Thank you, Seben. I will try to remember.” 

Seben sighed. “I’m going to have nightmares,” she admitted. 

“Sleep in my room,” Vassa said more gently. “I can ward the windows and the door. You will be safe there.” 

“I don’t want to throw you out of your own room,” Seben said with a shake of her head. 

“Then I will make use of the very comfortable chair that Lord Osei thoughtfully provided,” Vassa said, rising to her feet. “Though I would like to take a bath first.” Drawing on that power didn’t make her feel sick or unclean, but thoughts of her old life were a painful reminder of being broken. She was eager to soak that away. 

“Alright,” Seben said, reluctantly uncurling and getting to her feet. “I’m going to read before I go to sleep. I want to let Naji out of the jar at some point soon, but I don’t know if he can change his size or sculpt his heat like other djinn. He may be an outdoors-only friend.”

“Enjoy your research,” Vassa said, stepping into her room just long enough to grab freshly laundered clothes. 

She took her bath at a lazy pace and stopped after getting dressed. She sat down with her back against the wall below the window and took a deep breath. This time, she turned her inner eye on herself. 

Her essence was not the beautiful thing it had once been. It was a tangle of darkness and scars, tainted and shattered. That her mind remained whole was a miracle for the ages. Sethon had pushed her harder and harder towards breaking, but something in Vassa’s heart was diamond-hard after all the pressure she had endured for so long. She hated to see it in tatters, but today had proved she was every bit as powerful as she’d once been. 

She raised her thumb to her lips, pulling essence out of herself and exhaling it into the depleted ring she wore. Normally she took in small pieces, but this time she filled it all at once, the drain enough to give her a headache and a burning desire for sleep. Userkare was not likely to act again tonight, not with a full complement of guards and his last attempt thwarted. 

After a few more minutes of quiet reflection, replaying the encounter in her mind, Vassa rose to her feet and headed for her room. 

Seben was curled up in the chair near the bed, her book still open on her lap, neck at an awkward angle as she dozed. 

Vassa almost laughed. It was so very Seben to try and be considerate even when it meant discomfort. “Trouble,” she said fondly, smoothing fingertips across Seben’s shoulder. She wasn’t strong enough to lift the young woman, who was taller and more muscular. That did not mean Vassa was above cheating. 

She used the same principle as she would for a far-step, but this time just to move Seben. The young woman shifted instantly to the bed, stretching out even as the sudden jolt of magic snapped her awake. “Vassa!” she protested when she saw that the masked woman had taken a seat in the chair. 

“Your consideration is endearing, but unnecessary.” Vassa kicked her bare feet up onto the bed and settled in to rest in that semi-sleep that her people had mastered. “Sleep.”

“That was unfair,” Seben grumbled. 

“Nothing I do is fair,” Vassa said. Something in her relaxed slightly at the knowledge that at least for now, Seben knew something of her nature and wasn’t running away. Granted, that could and probably would change if she ever learned how deep the corruption and tormented power ran. “Sleep. The Ashen Tower is tomorrow, lest you have forgotten.” 

Seben sighed, but it had the note of surrender rather than retort. The young woman rolled, putting her back to Vassa even as she sank into the comfort of the bed. “Next time, I get the chair.”

Vassa laughed. “Is that a royal decree?” 

“Hardly,” Seben muttered. “I don’t think you’d take a decree...or a divine commandment.” 

Vassa’s lips tugged into a faint smile. “Sleep well.” She crossed her arms and tried not to dream as she settled into her watch.


Chapter 16
The Ashen Tower

By K. Olsen

Vassa felt the Ashen Tower like the pulling of a whirlpool. The grand edifice of the tower, constructed of perfectly fitted stone that was dark as if scorched at the base and slowly lightened in color the higher one went, boasted wards worthy of the great Pharos of the blood mages to the northeast, every bit equal in power and grandeur. Sarom’s bastion of magic felt older, but only by a century or two if Vassa was to estimate. For the kingdoms of men, it was a jaw-dropping span of time, more than could even really be comprehended by people who would be fortunate indeed to reach sixty years of age before dying. Did they even have the capacity to appreciate magic that had endured an apocalypse and lasted nigh a thousand years? 

Not for the first time, Vassa mused that the mages who made their home in such a place were ants calling a mountain their hill. The scope of such ambitious entitlement was a monument of its own. 

Seben hadn’t stopped smiling since they drew within the Charred Walls, the ring of black stone wall that barred the uninitiated access to even the grounds around the tower. “We did it,” she breathed.

“You did it,” Vassa said with amusement. “I was hardly in that arena with you.”

“Maybe, but I wouldn’t have survived to make it this far without your help. We haven’t exactly had a shortage of people trying to do us harm,” Seben said. Masaharta’s guards had been forced to stay at the gate, but the apprentice fire-speaker’s insistence that Vassa be permitted was not refused. 

“Ah, and here you are,” a man’s voice greeted from the side.

Vassa turned, the fingertips of one hand touching Seben’s back while the other hand ghosted over the hilt of her blade, barely touching it. “I recognize you,” she said smoothly, allowing her hand to fall away from her obvious weapon. “The oracle from Lord Osei’s party.”

The elderly man smiled. He was again dressed in a simple white robe with a red sash embroidered with sunbursts worn diagonally across his chest, matching the blindfold over his eyes. His dark skin was surprisingly weathered for one who likely spent most of his time indoors. Leaning on his staff and so pleasant in his expression, the appearance was downright grandfatherly to Seben. “Indeed. My name is Seer Yuya. It is a pleasure to meet you in the proper place, Your Highness. And well met to you as well, Mistress Vassa. Masaharta speaks highly of you both.” He bowed deeply with his hand over his heart, turning his face towards Seben. “The Ash-Touched await.” 

Seben nodded and glanced at the main doors to the tower before looking back at the older man. “Lord Osei said he spoke to an oracle when he was looking for an heir. Was that you?” 

“It was indeed,” Yuya said. “I am the eldest of the oracles and age grants clarity, I find. I saw your image before I saw you: a phoenix rising from the ashes to renew the covenant and burn away the impurities that have accrued over the long centuries.” 

Vassa’s lips twitched into a small smile. “How auspicious a sign,” she commented. 

The seer sobered at that comment. “A vision of hope mired in darkness. I have seen images of the evil in Sarom in my dreams. It is enough to chill my body to the very bone, even in the heat of our summer. I believe that light will triumph in the end, but it is a fraught path at best.” 

Seben took a deep breath to steady herself. “We can stop the dark,” she said with all the firmness she could muster. “We just need to know more about it.” 

“You need to know more about yourself,” Vassa corrected. “You could know everything there is to know about your enemy, but such knowledge is useless if you cannot even fathom where your own roots of power lie.” 

“She is not wrong,” Yuya said. There was an element of caution in his voice. “But be wary.” 

“I am,” Seben promised. “Vassa reminds me. Excessively.” 

The seer’s covered eyes swiveled to fix directly on Vassa. “Be wary,” he said again, this time his posture showing his intent to Vassa even if Seben failed to pick up on the cue.

He was very much warning Seben to beware of her. Beneath her hood, Vassa’s eyes maintained indifference. It was a reasonable warning, one Vassa even agreed with, but it made her wonder what he knew about her...or her fate. She sensed the opening of his inner eye and cloaked her inner essence in a weave of power, forming the shrouding veil that had shielded her from his first attempt to see her. 

“Beware the poison flower of the strangling vine,” Yuya told Seben. “Its bloom brings ruin as surely as rapture, its corruption weeping from bloody thorns.” 

Vassa’s eyes narrowed. He knew something, maybe even a hint that could tug at the threads of her secrets, but not enough to simply blurt out her hidden self’s true nature. She had a feeling that the man would severely try her patience in the future. Fortunately for him, the enviable calm that she maintained would probably save his life unless he did something to harm Seben.

Her stomach twisted at the thought. All her carefully honed discipline was not serving her well, if merely a threat against her fire-speaker companion could stir her into the wrath of old. She couldn’t shake that single thought that had so consumed her the night before in her response to the assassins going for Seben. 

She is mine. That burning, possessive, protective certainty speaking like the law of the universe itself touched a dozen raw nerves inside of Vassa. It was not something she’d expected to ever feel again. Hadn’t she burned out that part of herself from feeling it too deeply for the architect of her exile? Hadn’t banishment exorcised that devil? Hadn’t she suffered enough without placing her faith again in another?

The seer’s point was felt, though not by his intended audience. 

“You are expected,” Vassa reminded Seben, nodding to the main doors. “Let me see you off to your place as a fire-speaker.” 

“Apprentice still,” Seben reminded her, linking her arm through Vassa’s before the masked woman could protest. “You’re coming with me.” She smiled at the oracle. “Thank you for your time, Seer Yuya. I promise I’ll be careful.” 

He sighed and shook his head. “Youth never is, Your Highness,” he said with a bow in farewell, hand resting solemnly over his heart. 

“You should pay his warnings mind,” Vassa said once they were out of his earshot, approaching the main doors to the tower. They stood twice as tall as Seben, carved of the almost ebony jungle hardwood found on the isles that dotted Sarom’s southern coast. It was expensive and rare even in Ethilir, as harvesting it could be quite challenging. “Caution is a vital ally in times like these.” She studied the doors intently as they approached, noting the glyphs that glowed like fire on the iron bindings across the sealed wooden portal before them. “How extravagant.”

Seben snorted at that, more in amusement than anything else. “Extravagant?” 

“It is an extra use of power, to be so unsubtle,” Vassa explained, gesturing at the glyphs. “Impressive, assuredly, which I imagine is rather the point. Wards are more efficient when they are not unnecessarily displaying themselves. Anything this elaborate requires a greater draw, which means a greater source of power.”

“Power from where?” Seben asked. “The tower?” 

Vassa’s lip curled slightly, studying the fire flickering there. The pure essence of flame fueled those wards, and in Ethilir, there was only one source that she had seen for such elemental power. Fire-speakers could not craft it from their own essence, after all. They lacked the Gift.. “Where do you think?” 

The way her companion’s hand brushed across the soul-jar that contained Naji told Vassa that Seben understood the implication. “Does it hurt them?” Seben murmured, tone soft with worry. 

—”Scream if you must, my precious doll. I will remember your devotion to the very end.” Fingertips lovingly brushed against her cheekbone, sweeping away droplets of blood from the ritual marks applied to her face. “Your voice never fails to carry a sweet sound.”

Vassa looked up, barely able to see through the blur of tears. Her whole body burned as the liquid fire of the warding magic ripped through her already tortured soul. She hung from her arms, back pressed against the magic as the ritual reversed the ward’s construction with her life-force as its fuel. It pulsed again, tearing her heart in two. Her voice was not enough to let the pain escape. Nothing could free her from this hell—

Vassa placed her hand over a glyph, blinking hard to keep back a very, very unfamiliar sensation: tears. “Yes,” she said, ignoring the magic burning under her scarred palm. “This pains them greatly.” 

“Why do they do it?”

“The use of power is cheap if you never have to pay the cost,” Vassa said bitterly. “Not that even a master fire-speaker has any conception of what it is like to be used as a source, unless they have had the misfortune of encountering Leyan blood mages.” 

Seben sighed. “I don’t like it,” she muttered.

“Good,” Vassa said, brushing her thumb over the glyph before taking her hand away. “If you truly care for djinn, their use in such a fashion must be abhorred. I ache for them. They come from the desert as elemental purity, as magic in pure form, only to be collared and spent wherever it pleases their masters.” 

A familiar hand settled on Vassa’s shoulder. “Naji proves there is a better way,” Seben said with confidence. “They’ll see.” She turned to the door and spoke a simple command word in the God-Tongue that echoed in the threads of existence around them. As she bid them to, the doors opened inward with only a slight breath of sound. 

Vassa was under no illusion that Seben would find it an easy persuasion, if it was even possible to soften hearts hardened by centuries of tradition and desperate clinging to power. Ethilir had enemies, the High Kingdom’s mages very much among them. Against blood magic, the destructive fury of a djinn was the only Eth power that could stand. Well, that and the power that coursed through Seben’s veins. 

Inside was a large hall, dark grey stone softened with light-colored tapestries depicting scenes from Ethilir’s history. Braziers lit the room with smokeless fire, each one a slumbering djinn that could be awakened if the Ashen Tower was ever threatened. Three Eth men waited for them, dressed in charcoal gray. They wore white tabards emblazoned in gold with that same sunrise symbol that graced their chins. Each one wore the saffron sash, theirs knotted in patterns that showed their seniority. 

They bowed when Seben stepped in, Vassa following slightly behind. “Sol’s light rest upon you, Your Highness,” the oldest one said. His voice had the scholarly accent of one who spoke the God-Tongue more than his native one, something Seben would probably take years to attain. “Welcome home.” 

“Thank you,” Seben said, nerves stripping her frown from her. 

“I am Master Anen,” he said, offering Seben a smile that seemed somewhat foreign to his face. He gestured to the tall,  spindly man at his side, who flashed them a broad and markedly more friendly grin. “This is Master Duaenre.” Then he indicated the last man, a sunken-eyed solemn figure standing slightly behind the other two. “This is Master Kakhent.” 

Seben offered each one a small bow in turn, conscious of Masaharta’s warning that she should not be subservient, only respectful.

“We are honored to have a Sunblessed set foot in our halls for study, but it has not happened before,” Kakhent rasped. His voice sounded like he had spent a lifetime inhaling too much smoke. “Forgive us if we seem unsettled.” 

“I still wish to learn,” Seben said. “So long as my presence does not offend.” 

“Not at all,” Duaenre said with a chuckle, slapping Kakhent on the back. “It will be glorious to one day have a Queen who fully appreciates our traditions, our roles.” 

“Plotting our King’s demise already, Duaenre?” Anen said with amusement. 

Kakhent fixed his genial companion with a glare worthy of a basilisk. “Have a care, you oaf.” He turned his eyes back to Seben, glancing at her soul-jar. “Your display in the Arena was certainly fascinating. We managed to contain your djinni after you collapsed, Your Highness. Has it been of any trouble?” 

“Not in his jar,” Seben said. “I haven’t had the opportunity to let him out. As you know, it’s difficult to come by any knowledge of sajjad djinn, but doubly so outside of fire-speaker circles.” 

“You have come to the right place,” Duaenre said, rubbing his hands together thoughtfully. “First, I will show you to your quarters. Then to the library, so you may study and determine where best to begin training it.” 

“Ah, there is a matter to discuss,” Anen said, holding up a finger. He looked at Seben more seriously. “For the safety of all, including your fellow students, Your Highness, we must insist that your companion be collared appropriately.”

Vassa’s lips twitched. “They don’t come in my size,” she said dryly, even though she knew who he actually meant.

Duaenre chuckled at that. “Not you, my friend,” he said to clarify. “The djinni. They are unpredictable creatures, particularly when surrounded by gawking students who bumble into them. A proper collar and leash will prevent any unpleasantness.” 

“He is at my command,” Seben said with a deepening frown. 

“When it wishes to be, yes,” Anen said. “Your Highness, what are you to do if the djinni decides it has changed its mind? Particularly if it is away from you at that time. We must be responsible with our power and part of that responsibility is predicated on control.” 

Vassa put a hand on Seben’s back. “Fighting them on this may cost you your access. Is it worth it?” she asked near the young woman’s ear. 

Seben’s lips pressed into a stern line. “And how will he trust me if I shackle him after promising him that I would treat him with mercy?” 

That seemed to leave all three men at a loss for words. Vassa doubted they had ever even considered the importance of having a djinn’s trust. 

“Your Highness…” Anen started cautiously. 

“The blessing in my blood will keep him contained,” Seben said, jaw set stubbornly. “If you are concerned about his presence around other students, I will keep him in the jar, but I give you my oath that he is bound, though not by force. If my word is not enough, I will depart.” 

Anen and Duaenre almost gaped, but Vassa caught a shrewd appraisal coming from Kakhent. “I will not be the fool who turns away the first Sunblessed ever to study fire-speaking,” the sunken-eyed man said sharply. “Your word is satisfactory as far as I am concerned, Your Highness. Should you be proven mistaken, we will discipline the djinni appropriately.” 

Seben nodded, hand resting on the soul-jar. “Understood.” It was as much of a compromise as she looked willing to make. 

Duaenre stared at his companion for a long moment before shrugging and offering the two women in front of him a loose grin. “Hard to argue with a man that sour,” he said. “Stings the tongue. Come, Your Highness. I will show you to your rooms. Normally apprentices stay in common, but you’ve already mastered enough to be an advanced student, and given your status, I imagine you’d like privacy.” 

“It would be nice to have some space of my own, though I’d prefer if it has space for Vassa,” Seben said, gesturing to the masked woman. “She’s saved my life frequently.” 

“Far be it from us to deny you protection,” Anen said to cover the residual shock. He didn’t seem certain how to handle Seben, like she was some kind of feral elemental. “There are plenty of other guards and servants who move through the tower.” 

Vassa let Duaenre and Seben take the lead. Master Anen hurried off, probably to warn the other fire-speakers that her companion was going to be a handful. Kakhent fell in step beside her, clearing his throat very quietly while his fellow master started in on the history of the Ashen Tower. “I know what Her Highness is doing,” he murmured.

“Burning down the Ashen Tower?” Vassa said with a hint of amusement audible in her tone. 

“It is the most dangerous of paths she could take,” the dour man warned. “There will be many within the Order who would see her ideas fail. Djinn are dangerous creatures.” 

“Dangerous and useful.” Vassa turned her head slightly towards him. “If I might be so unforgivably rude, might I inquire as to your opinion on the matter?” 

“I am...undecided,” Kakhent said. “If she proves that she is right, I will not deny her. But one cannot expect to move a mountain range.” 

Vassa laughed. “Spoken by a man who surely knows enough of magic to understand that many unthinkable things are possible.” 

“Hearts are not hedgerows that can be trimmed to a pleasing shape so easily.” 

Her amusement only grew, lips tugging into a smile behind the cloth of her mask. She knew well enough to disagree, but he spoke with such certainty that it was endearing folly. “I will take your gardening aptitude into consideration. You may rest assured that I will convey your warning to Her Highness.” She managed to keep her humor out of her voice, keeping her tone pleasant without hints of the grin she was concealing. 

“Thank you,” Kakhent said with a nod. “I am curious about your presence, I must admit.” 

“Most seem to be,” Vassa commented. “I assure you that there is nothing particularly interesting about me. I am here at Her Highness’s pleasure. When she has no need of me, I will depart.” 

“Your accent is unfamiliar.” 

“So they tell me. I don’t quite have the knack for the Leyan variety, which I imagine is the people you assign me based on my fashion choices.” 

“Those are the rings of a Leyan mage, and not an apprentice,” Kakhent observed. 

The masked woman glanced down at her hands. “A gift, for services rendered.” 

“What service?” he asked. 

“The truth or an entertaining lie?” Vassa said, lips quirking again into a smile. She rather liked Kakhent, sour as he seemed. He was at least more perceptive than most. “I retrieved the spellguard of a mágissa in service to the High King. He was held by a demon.” 

“Is that the truth or an entertaining lie?” 

Vassa laughed. “You decide.” 

The master fire-speaker cracked the barest hint of a smile. “Her Highness has a most capable safeguard in you, I think. One that her enemies are not prepared for.” 

“Let us hope you are correct. I imagine there is danger aplenty even here for a woman in her unique position,” Vassa said. “Safer than the world beyond, but for how long?” She glanced over at Kakhent as they walked. “I do appreciate your inquiring mind. I hope you put it to good use.” 

“I could say the same of your companion. You might give her some lessons on tact, however. Anen is not used to people running roughshod over our proud traditions,” Kakhent  advised more seriously. 

“What are you two mumbling about back there?” Duaenre asked jovially, turning at the top of the last set of spiral stairs. A row of doors lined the hall ahead. 

“Your insufferable cheer,” Kakhent snapped, abruptly resuming his complete display of sourness. “It is relentless in its offense. Carry on with your guiding.” 

Seben grinned at that and went back to following an equally amused Duaenre. 

“Don’t let that one fool you,” Kakhent muttered. “He can say Queen all he wants, but he’s the King’s through and through.” 

“Noted,” Vassa said with interest, filing that away for future reference. If it was accurate, it would be a vital warning for Seben. The masked woman sighed slightly, but it was a sound of satisfaction rather than anxiety. They had made it out of immediate danger from King Userkare’s men. Now they would only have to weather the new storm while Seben learned to master both fire and herself.


Chapter 17
Quiet Words

By K. Olsen

Vassa watched Seben work with a faint smile. The young woman had her shady corner of the Ashen Tower’s grounds and a stack of books half her height as reference material for what she was doing now. She knelt over a large, complicated network of glyphs, scribbling and shading with a fury that left her dark hands and forearms utterly covered in bright white chalk. She’d even smudged it onto her forehead with the back of one hand, perspiring just enough from the heat for it to thoroughly cling.

As far as Vassa could tell, Seben hadn’t even realized the mess she’d made of herself.

The apprentice fire-speaker spent most of her days in lecture, learning more and more about the theory of controlling djinn and the many, many different rituals used to connect the power of the elementals to thousands of different tasks and duties. Defense was the most straightforward, essentially pointing the djinn at the enemy, but there were innumerable other uses from what Vassa had pieced together. She was not permitted to attend the lectures, so she relied on Seben’s explanations and what she could piece together in the library late at night.

Naji hovered in the air nearby, always close to Seben's side, his form currently that of a slim, humanoid figure made of flickering flames. When not stirred to rage, he could shape his heat and size into something less alarming. Most still gave him an exceptionally wide berth courtesy of his unshackled presence. He listened to Seben, but they had yet to test if he would continue listening when enraged.

At the moment, the djinn seemed curious, circling slowly around Seben as she worked. That was his general demeanor most of the time. For creatures treated like animals by the people who conjured them, Vassa found it impossible to overlook their fascination with the world they were pulled into. Naji was Seben’s kindred spirit in that: both of them wanted to understand the world of the other.

Vassa flicked a pebble at him, lips twitching into a smile behind her mask. “Your heat will only make it worse,” she said.

Naji drifted closer to her, his answer a crackling of flames from the area that might have been a mouth. As far as Seben had told her, they could not speak, even if they were around humans enough to understand their master’s language. He flickered, tilting his head at her.

The masked woman doubted he could understand her verbatim, but he grasped her amusement as genuine and non-threatening, which was something at least. She always kept her voice gentle when addressing the djinni, more out of fondness than fear. Anything so willing to protect Seben without ulterior motive was a pleasure to be around.

“I think he likes you more than me,” Seben said, looking up from her work. She ran the back of her hand across her brow again, adding to the white smudge.

Vassa laughed at that. “I doubt that,” she said as she moved from her position leaning against the wall. “He is far too genteel to be enamored with me. I merely provide entertainment when you are preoccupied.” She glanced around. The area around them was deserted, students retiring into the Tower for dinner and rest or study into the late hours. The lessons were concluded for the day, the only reason Seben had such free time on her hands. “I must say, we are fortunate not to have an audience. You are not currently the regal figure your people expect.”

Seben looked down at her hands sheepishly. “It did make a lot of mess.”

Vassa let her internal debate rage over whether to warn Seben of her face or wait for amusement’s sake. She paid no mind to Naji drifting behind her. The djinni was only circling around to peer at Seben from over Vassa’s shoulder. He didn’t like direct eye contact, but was easily fascinated. “What are you laboring away at so industriously?”

“Well, I’ve been trying to make a sort of sustaining focus. I haven’t tried to direct Naji’s flow, but there’s a chance that even without the collar, I could accidentally make only him pay the cost of whatever task I set him,” Seben explained, sitting back on her heels. “He’s got substantially more...oomph than I do, but I want to pay at least part. It’s only fair.”

“Fairness has little to do with power,” the masked woman said thoughtfully, studying her companion. There was only sincerity to be found, so earnest that it made her want to shift uncomfortably and look away. As much as she found Seben’s naivety adorable, it was also exceptionally dangerous. “You will expose a weakness in your defenses.”

Seben sighed. “I thought you would understand, after the gate.”

Vassa’s gaze flicked to Naji’s presence moving around to her side. The djinni drifted almost lazily, studying the markings on the ground again. “I understand your intentions,” Vassa said. “I merely warn you that there will be consequences to your path, as any good demon’s advocate would.” She dipped her fingers into the pocket on the side of her thigh, mostly concealed by her blade’s sheath. No one had seen fit to complain about her moving around armed, probably for fear of Seben’s disfavor or the interjection of Naji. She pulled out a mirror, a rectangle only a few inches on each side. It was just enough to be used for signaling or grooming, though she only used it for communication.

“What’s that?” Seben asked curiously.

“A demonstration of how royalty is not supposed to behave,” Vassa said with dry humor, tilting the mirror so Seben could see her own face.

The young woman looked absolutely mortified. “I look like a ghoul!”

Vassa laughed. “Hardly,” she said with amusement. “Your complexion, however, has become somewhat chalky.”

Seben went to wipe her hands and then realized she had no cloth to do so other than her clothing. She tried to brush the chalk from her hands, creating a cloud of the stuff. “Gods’ breath!”

“Would you like assistance?” the masked woman offered, torn between creating more mischief and cleaning the young woman up. There was something adorable enough about the panic in Seben’s expression that she couldn’t find it in herself to be entirely impish.

“Please,” Seben said, hesitating when Vassa approached and knelt carefully out of the mess. “Magic?”

“A touch,” Vassa said, pulling a handkerchief out of the hidden pocket where she kept it carefully folded. “Though not enough to draw suspicion. Any number of people saw you working out here, fully immersed in your scribblings. If you return with no chalk about your person, it will be remarkable. We can settle for a lesser raise of an eyebrow than your current state would create.”

Seben watched curiously as Vassa passed her hand over the cloth. It required no incantation or gesticulation. Everything about what her masked companion did was more subtle than she’d ever seen from the Leyan mages in Losena.

Vassa let essence float through the threads to the cloth, imbuing it with moisture. She didn’t even feel the drain. Serious elemental magic was not something she had ever bothered to master, but minor displays were effortless, the kind of thing she had learned in childhood. “Hold still,” Vassa said, fingertips capturing Seben’s chin. She methodically wiped away the chalk on Seben’s face.

“I suppose I should feel lucky you didn’t spit on it,” Seben said, trying not to laugh at the current image.

“The thought never entered my mind,” Vassa said, shaking her head slightly. She was thorough about her work, though Seben’s giggling didn’t make it easier. She had to rinse the cloth several times to clear it of some of the chalk just to clean off the young woman’s face. For the first time in a long time, she didn’t mind being close to someone. Seben’s essence still blazed, but without manifesting it was more of an intense, if comforting, warmth than the nova she’d seen in the arena.

“You make that look easy,” the young woman observed when her companion paused to rinse the rag again.

“It is a trivial task,” Vassa said before starting work on Seben’s hands and forearms. The chalk would stay under the apprentice fire-speaker’s nails until she actually washed them thoroughly, but she could be somewhat more presentable.

“For you,” Seben said wistfully. “I wish I could do that.”

“I promise you that it is a burden as much as a joy,” Vassa replied, wiping Seben’s palm clean before gently turning her hand palm down to get the back.

“Is it really or are you just saying that to make me feel better?” the young woman asked. She hadn’t been expecting Vassa to take this much care with just getting the chalk off, but then again, everything she’d ever seen of her companion indicated an attention to detail and cleanliness that would put most to shame. There was something rather pleasant about being fussed over, particularly with Vassa’s normal reluctance to come close to anyone for any reason.

Vassa’s lips twitched into a wry smile behind her mask. “Magic is rare in Ethilir, as it is in many parts of the world. That is one of the things I enjoy most about your land.” She kept her gaze on Seben’s hands, inspecting them as she worked. They were not the hands of a high-born lady, in her experience: they had calluses from Seben’s relentless need to do everything for herself, the scars from little burns and playing in the dirt as a child, and even nicks in the pads of her fingers from trimming one new reed stylus after another nigh constantly for writing.

“If you say so,” Seben said. She relaxed slightly when Vassa finished her task. Questions about Vassa’s origins and the presence of magic in her homeland were buzzing around the young woman’s head, but she knew asking them was not likely to result in an answer.

For all the trouble they’d gone through together, Vassa was still every bit the mystery she had been at the start, maybe even more so. Seben only ever had more questions.

“That was less of an interrogation than I was expecting,” Vassa said as she rinsed the rag again and then dried it with a flick of her wrist. She carefully folded it up and tucked it back into her pocket before standing. She offered her hand to Seben to help the young woman up from the ground. The apprentice fire speaker had been kneeling there for more than an hour, so it was going to be uncomfortable.

“Vassa?”

“Mm?” The masked woman’s attention was already drifting back to Naji. The djinni was watching them with fascination. She stopped in her mental tracks when she felt Seben’s fingers ghost over the scars on her pale hands.

“What made these?”

Vassa debated whether or not to lie. It would certainly be easier to, but she wasn’t in the habit of using falsehoods when misdirection was more useful. On the other hand, that horrible little urge to just blurt out the truth to Seben was back. “They were acquired over years,” Vassa said with a shrug. “Each one is a reminder that fire is not to be toyed with. Something a fire-speaker appreciates, I assume.”

Seben wasn’t a healer, but she knew burn scars. She looked down at Vassa’s palm and brushed the masked woman’s sleeve up so she could see the full picture. There, at the center of her friend’s hand, bloomed a rose patterned in shiny burn scars. The stripes applied to each knuckle looked like they had been placed so very carefully, even and matching. “These aren’t accidental,” she said more gently, looking up at Vassa with too much warmth in her dark eyes.

“I never said that they were,” Vassa said, closing her hands to hide the roses. She turned, putting her back to Seben.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Seben asked as she got to her feet, stance ungainly now that she’d realized her feet were numb.

“No,” Vassa said, voice harder and colder. She retreated into herself, severing the closeness of the moments preceding. “Your absence is already no doubt marked upon. Better for you to return to the hall with your fellow apprentices, though I would suggest washing properly before dinner.”

Seben’s brow furrowed with worry. “What about you?”

The masked woman wanted to brush the concern away. Doing so without stinging Seben’s feelings would be difficult. “I can amuse myself one way or another.”

The apprentice fire-speaker sighed softly. “You can talk to me, Vassa,” she said gently. “Maybe I won’t understand right away, but I’ll try.”

Vassa knew that Seben fervently believed that, given her habit of only making guarantees from a place of honesty. She was hardly a good liar, something that would probably need to be corrected before she assumed any leadership role. Even knowing that, however, the masked woman’s secrets stayed locked away. She had become very accustomed to relying on herself, to keeping everything shuttered away. “I am certain you would listen,” Vassa said, softening ever so slightly. “That does not mean I wish to give such words breath.”

Seben caught Vassa’s sleeve, careful not to touch her hand without invitation. She didn’t want to cause discomfort if it could be avoided. “If you ever change your mind, I’m here,” the apprentice fire-speaker reminded Vassa with care.

The brush of dark fingertips against her wrist when Seben let go of her sleeve was a reminder to Vassa that she was not alone, a statement of fact that rendered the world insecure. Solitude, isolation, superficial relationships, those were all known quantities. Seben gave more and more, too much. It wasn’t safe. What was it the oracle had said?

Beware the poison flower of the strangling vine, Yuya’s voice echoed in her mind. Its bloom brings ruin as surely as rapture, its corruption weeping from bloody thorns.

She didn’t care for how close his words were to the reality of her nature.

“We should return to the tower,” Vassa said, turning to look at her companion. Worry shone from every inch of the young woman’s posture and expression. “I endure, Seben. We have other matters that require attention.”

“But are you alright?” Seben said.

“Fine.” Vassa tilted her head slightly to one side. “Do you really think that a matter as trivial as a few burns can dull the blade of my mind? Your lack of faith is disappointing.”

“I’m certain your mind and sarcasm are in full working order,” Seben said. “I’m much more concerned with your heart.”

Vassa laughed, a combination of amusement and bitter cynicism. “I think you would be better served in conservation of such efforts,” she said. “Let us not agonize over absent things.”

Seben frowned for a long moment, but then the expression faded with a sigh. “I like your actual laugh better.” She scooped up some of her books, but there was no way she could carry all the tomes. “I know these are heavy, but I could really use some of that magic for help.”

“I think my arms will suffice,” Vassa said, collecting the remaining books. They were heavy, but not so much so that she couldn’t lend her aid. “Naji will need to return to his jar.”

“Right,” Seben said, setting her stack back down. She opened the lid and spoke in the God-Tongue, inviting rather than compelling the djinni into the jar. She smiled when Naji drifted over, vanishing into the jar in a swirl of fire. She placed the lid over the opening and bound it closed.

“He has been most accommodating, for the fury he was when first released,” the masked woman observed.

“It is unusual, from what the books say,” Seben admitted. “Normally sajjad djinn are always ferocious when encountered. I’m not sure if they’re just reacting to someone trying to capture them or if my aura meshes with his in a way that he finds more pleasant.”

“I suspect the answer is a combination of things.” Vassa hefted her stack. “You might consider taking notes rather than requiring the whole volume each time.”

“I do take notes,” Seben said defensively. “What do you think is in those journals?”

“Ah yes, the added weight.”

The apprentice fire-speaker grinned at that. “There’s the needling that I was expecting.” She seemed reassured by any indication that Vassa was returning to her usual self.

It was impossible not to smile slightly at Seben in a better mood. Vassa put the thoughts of her scars firmly out of her mind, adding an extra bite of sarcasm to her next words. “How happy I am to indulge you.”

“I see why you get along with Kakhent so well,” Seben muttered as they strolled back to the tower with their respective burdens.

The main hall was fairly busy, students sketching out glyphs and otherwise studying in small groups. Eyes glanced their way as always, but this time the attention seemed to be divided between them and another group of strangers in the hall.

Vassa twitched when she felt a familiar stirring in the weave of existence. She set the books down on a spare side table that had been pulled out and turned to face the new arrivals, easily marked as foreign by their dress and skin tone. Two men stood in polished steel armor, every bit as intricate as that worn by the Kingsguard of Ethilir, but with considerably more metal. Both were striking in appearance, bearing intricate blue tattoos of sigils and lines across their faces, designed for precise channeling of magic.

At the center of the group, facing off against an offended Anen and a highly amused Duaenre, was a woman dressed in the High Kingdom’s fashion, a dress that left her midriff half bare and a long slit up the side of her skirt. No tattoos marked her olive skin, but the distinctive rings she wore were more than enough to mark her for what she was.

A blood mage.

“Is that…?” Seben asked with sudden nerves, almost enough to make her drop her books. “Are they even allowed to be here?”

Vassa didn’t answer, approaching the group with care so that the mage and her bodyguards alike would not be immediately aware of her presence. Even from behind, she recognized both the mage’s aura and posture. She waited until she was right behind the Leyan to speak. “It would appear the High King’s vetting of his diplomats has fallen by the wayside, for Adéla Vojak to be permitted in polite society.”

The blood mage almost spun on her heel, face lighting up with delight. “Vassa!” she said, catching hold of the masked woman’s hands. “You are a sight I did not expect. What in the gods’ names are you doing here?”

“Enjoying my travels,” Vassa said with amusement. “I see Kamil and Zdislav are still both swept helplessly in your wake.”

Both men chuckled, visibly relaxing even though they did not turn their backs to the masters of fire-speaking. “It is pleasing that you live,” the taller one said. His eyes had the hint of northern green that betrayed his mixed blood, the mark of his Yssan mother.

“You say the sweetest things, Zdislav,” Vassa said. She greeted both spellguards by placing one hand on each of their shoulders and touching her forehead to each of theirs in turn, resting against the stylized eye at the center of their brows for a second before moving back. “What business brings you and your lovely mage so far from Zaeylael?”

“Knowledge,” Adéla answered lightly. She looked back at Anen and Duaenre. “The High King has a question for the oracles and we bring something in exchange.”

Anen glowered at her. “The oracles are not for simply anyone’s use, let alone a foreign sovereign’s.”

“Perhaps this is a conversation better taken elsewhere?” Duaenre said, looking around at the apprentices watching with fascination.

Vassa leaned almost against Kamil’s side. “I think you will be a busy bodyguard,” she observed. “Adéla’s charms do not seem to soothe them overmuch.”

He grinned and flexed the fingers of his sword-hand. “I will be diplomatic.”

Adéla refocused when she saw Seben approach with a perplexed expression. “Who is your friend, Vassa?”

The masked woman cleared her throat. “Of course. May I introduce Her Highness, Seben Femi, Sunblessed heir to the Kingdom of Ethilir?”

“This is an honor, and most unexpected,” Adéla said with delight. She gave Seben the deep bow and gesture of respect that all mages gave to the nobility.

“Your Highness, this is Mágissa Adéla Vojak, servant of the High King, and her esteemed spellguards, Zdislav Kolar and Kamil Tesarik,” Vassa said. “We were acquainted when I stayed for a time in Zaeylael.” Her lips twitched into a faint smile behind her mask. “There are no more dangerous opponents or staunch allies.”

Adéla glanced from Seben to Vassa. “Apparently we have a great deal of catching up to do,” the blood mage said lightly. “After our matter with the Ashen Tower has been resolved, of course. Perhaps Her Highness would care to weigh in?”

“Upstairs,” Anen said with a grimace. “We will discuss this in private.”

“Quite the invitation,” Adéla said with a flirtatious smile in Anen’s direction.

Vassa stepped to Seben’s side. “It would seem our evening is to be far more eventful than I expected,” she observed.

“You know them?” Seben asked, surprise clinging to every syllable. She hadn’t expected Vassa to come that close to anyone willingly, and definitely not three people in a row.

“Yes,” the masked woman answered honestly, her smile widening as she moved to reveal the nature of their association. “Adéla tried to kill me on several occasions, admittedly at the behest of her instructors. We resolved our differences in the middle of a battle and I ended up performing a substantial favor for her.” She showed the rings on her hands to Seben. “Her gift.”

“She tried to kill you?” Seben said, eyes widening.

“What? She was hardly successful,” her companion said with a laugh as their strange group moved up the stairs, following on Anen’s heels. “They are interesting people. Just be careful around Adéla. I sincerely doubt she will use her more substantial powers while here, but she can be...rambunctious...when intoxicated.”


Chapter 18
The Prick of Thorns

By K. Olsen

 The debate was amusing to Vassa, Anen’s traditionalist bent crashing headlong into the blunt-force charm that was the High King’s favorite mage. Despite her appreciation for the Kingdom of Ethilir’s lack of true spellcasters, Vassa would have been lying if she said it displeased her to see Adéla and her spellguards. She enjoyed the combination of good nature, healthy competition, and surprisingly potent intelligence behind the mage’s pretty face. Kamil’s staunch protective instincts were comforting and familiar, an echo of Vassa’s own, and coupled with a healthy sense of humor. Zdislav, she enjoyed more for his relentless romanticism and way with words as much as his blade. 

Vassa also knew from experience that the three were each fearsome opponents and even more devastating when working together, mostly because their connection was seamless despite Adéla’s relative youth. Both spellguards had inner reserves immense for humans, the channeling markings more than enough to make the drain more efficient. If Adéla was on her game, which was true far more often than not, she could outpace even a djinn in terms of sheer destructive power. 

Even in the High Kingdom, the largest concentration of mages in the south, the number of magically active people was less than one in a thousand. Less than one in a hundred of those would ever be anywhere close to battle-mage territory. The High Kingdom prized Adéla as more than a diplomat: she was a weapon, living and breathing, rare even in her homeland. 

Which left Vassa with an interesting puzzle: why was the mage here? What could be worth risking such a weapon? They had forced her mundane guards to wait outside of the Ashen Tower, something surely the Leyans knew would happen when they approached their ancient rivals. Kamil and Zdislav were incredibly capable, but they were only two men. Trusting that numbers would not overwhelm was a gamble at best. 

Whatever the High King wanted was a pearl of great price, if he was willing to place Adéla’s fate into the hands of the gods so. 

“What artifact could you possibly possess that would be worth our toleration of this request?” Anen demanded, temper only somewhat contained.. “You have done enough damage for a hundred lifetimes on the field of war, witch. If you think we will tolerate your probing into our secrets—!”

“I care nothing for your secrets,” Adéla said, a hint of irritation flashing across her face. It was so swift that Vassa was likely the only one who caught it. “Truly, the inner workings of Ethilir’s djinn-collaring could not be farther from my concern.” 

The masked woman smiled faintly. Patience was a virtue she knew Adéla sometimes struggled to find, particularly when she felt her way being closed off. 

The same drive that had fueled the mage’s meteoric rise in Zaeylael also nipped her in the heels. Fortunately, the mágissa had her spellguards to bring her back to a more even temper. Adéla sat between the two men and Zdislav already had a hand resting against her thigh, subtly applying just enough pressure to remind the mage of his presence.

“Then pray tell, what is your concern?” Duaenre asked, steepling his fingers. 

“I told you,” Adéla said with a hint of an edge of sharpness to her tone. “The High King has a question for your oracles.” 

Duaenre chuckled a little, shaking his head. “We will need more information about this question of yours,” he said. “Surely you understand that we must ensure the protection of our kingdom as well.”

Kamil looked to his mage, studying her a moment before leaning in. Vassa’s ears were keen enough to catch his statement. “It is not unreasonable, darling,” the spellguard advised. “Out of context…”

Adéla gave him an almost imperceptible nod. She held a hand out to Zdislav, who produced a pouch containing some kind of hard angular object. She drew a spar of dark red crystal out of the bag, almost ruby in hue, etched in swirling silver symbols. Vassa identified it as the God-Tongue, but the sigils seemed almost infinitely more complex than even that used by the Eth, thousands of thread-like veins of silver coming together in twisted patterns. “This is what we offer,” she said, letting fingertips brush over the smooth surface of the crystal. “Your djinn should be able to activate it, since you do not have the draw of power yourselves.”

“What is it?” Seben asked, leaning forward. She cocked her head slightly, studying it intently. “Those markings are a name.” 

“Indeed,” Adéla said with a hint of a smile playing across her lips. “But not of some djinn. A mage imbued this stone with their knowledge, etching portions of their own soul into the crystal. When touched by a corresponding elemental essence and the correct application of power, the contents can be...shared.” 

“Quite the trick,” Duaenre said with fascination. He glanced over at Anen. “How do we know that this is the genuine article?” 

Vassa leaned back in her seat, stretching with catlike grace. “By activating it,” she said. “The knowledge of creating phylacteries was lost in the Revealing, at least to mortal mages. Adéla, powerful as she is, could not create a genuine article tied to her own essence any more than you could, let alone fabricate a false one.” 

Adéla laughed at that, looking over. “Who knew our own limitations would be so helpful?” She glanced back to Anen. “Our mutual friend is correct. I can only open and close this stone, just as a djinn can. This contains memories of a fire-speaker ritual that was created in the time of Godfall, the last days of the Revealing. Along with what I assume would be rather riveting diagrams.” 

“That’s not possible,” Anen said brusquely. “All such things were destroyed.” 

“Can I see?” Seben asked curiously. “You said that you could open it.” 

“Perhaps a fragment before we seal our bargain. I’m not an unreasonable woman, despite what my opponents would insist,” Adéla said thoughtfully. “I do not expect you to make a deal blindly.” 

“And your king’s question?” Duaenre said. 

The mage sighed and leaned back between her spellguards, tipping her head back. “The question came from a strange dream. It is well known even among your people, I imagine, that High King Mirsolav is highly sensitive to magic, feeling its ebbs and flows, even though he is no mage.  Thus, we are not in a habit of ignoring his visions. He asked us: when the sun falls from the sky and the Binding itself is tainted, when the Shattered Ones are stirred from their death, what will drive back the Devouring Dark?” 

Vassa’s lips pressed into a thin line behind her mask. That question was far more about Ethilir than Adéla seemed to realize, given what she knew of the current situation regarding the King and the dark magic he wielded in secret...or that wielded him. She found herself far more invested in the little game being played now. 

Or perhaps it was a warning of a danger far more potent than Vassa was comfortable with. What if that twisted, hungering magic sucked Ethilir dry and shattered its connection with the divine before moving on to Leus and all of its collected power? Would the shadow swallow the kingdoms of men until they were no more?

Fortunately, no one else in the room was wholly aware of the ramifications of the question. Vassa leaned over to Seben. “If I may advise?”

“By all means,” Seben said as Duaenre started to question Adéla about the crystal again. 

“The gift of knowledge offered is priceless,” Vassa observed close to Seben’s ear, stretching again to cover the motion. Anen and Duaenre both looked heavily preoccupied at the moment, at least. “It would substantially enrich the Ashen Tower. It would also please an emissary of the High King. More importantly, that question is very much about the enemy we face and how to stop it. Be certain that your agreement includes both of us in that room with the oracles when Adéla consults them.” 

Seben paused to think it over, but nodded after a moment. “How do I…?”

“Treat them as you would a djinni,” Vassa advised. “Be firm, be fair, be aware of their power and secure in your own.” 

The apprentice fire-speaker pulled in a deep breath. “Fire-speakers can go generations without ever stumbling over a scrap of lore that has survived the Revealing,” Seben said firmly. “Surely the Ashen Tower is not going to let this simply fall between their fingers when presented with such an opportunity.” 

Everyone else in the room pivoted towards Seben, showing varying degrees of surprise. “Your Highness….” Duaenre started. 

Seben offered him and Anen a smile. “Wouldn’t it be wise to accept new knowledge of an era that’s both our origin and blank pages in our history? I’d like to hear what the oracles have to say in answer. After all, if this darkness is so terrible, surely it concerns all of us.” 

Vassa was grateful that she had her mask to hide her grin from Adéla. The mage stared at Seben with the wariness of a cat walking into a carpenter’s shop. Someone is going to be far more careful about minding their tail, the masked woman reflected with amusement.

Anen and Duaenre looked at each other before leaning heads together to confer. 

“I have no objection to Her Highness supervising our visit,” Adéla said with a faint smile, settling back into her comfortable calm after that moment of exposure. “I take it as a good omen. The High Kingdom and Ethilir need not be at odds all the time.” 

“Better to quarrel with our other neighbors,” Kamil said with a chuckle, glancing over at Zdislav. 

The tall spellguard shrugged slightly and put an arm around Adéla’s shoulders, bumping his fist into Kamil’s shoulder fondly as he did so. “Trouble,” he said of both his companions, shaking his head. 

After a deliberation, Anen and Duaenre turned their attention to the small group of Leyans, though Duaenre also turned the corner of his eye towards Vassa and Seben. “This will be a boon to the Ashen Tower,” Anen admitted reluctantly. “I think that in this instance, Her Highness’s point stands. We will accept your proposal, if you agree to a visit with the Oracles that is supervised by fire-speakers, Her Highness included.” 

“A satisfactory bargain, in that no one is entirely pleased,” Vassa said with amusement. 

“I thought a good bargain was when both sides believed they’d cheated the other,” Zdislav said with a chuckle. 

“I need a drink,” Anen muttered. 

“Perhaps we all could use one?” Duaenre offered. 

Adéla held up her hands. “A tempting proposal, truly,” she said with a small smile, “but I feel that we have occupied enough of your time. It will take us some time to return to the Sunlit Palace and the quarters provided for diplomats. By the time we reach our rooms, it will be late indeed, even if we leave now.” 

“We have rooms suitable for guests here,” Duaenre said with a friendly smile. “Provided you don’t blow up the Tower.” 

“I assure you that such things are not within the purview of our diplomatic protections,” Adéla said lightly. “Thank you for your hospitality. Kamil, would you tell the guards waiting that they may return to the Palace? I expect Captain Pavol will be back bright and early tomorrow to collect us, gods damn him.” 

Kamil chuckled and shook his head. “Never one for mornings,” he said fondly as he rose to his feet. “Zdislav, you are in command in my absence.”
 
“I think we both know that is not so,” the tall spellguard said, glancing over at their mage meaningfully. “Not that she listens to you either.”

Adéla pouted at that while both master fire-speakers got to their feet. “Don’t be that way.” 

“I will show you the way,” Anen offered Kamil with something approaching grace, though it probably had more to do with supervising a roving spellguard moving through the tower with a sword that hadn’t even been peace-bonded by the gate guards for fear of his mage’s wrath.

“You are welcome to remain in this area until his return,” Duaenre said. He held out his hands for the stone. “I will take this to our master of records, so that it may be opened.” 

Adéla held up a finger to forestall his movements, ring gleaming in the light. “A gift better given publicly, yes?” she said with a wide smile. “As an overture of friendship, in honor of your king and mine.” She glanced at Seben. “Or at the very least, to gratify Her Highness.” 

Duaenre gave her a grin equal parts appraising and amused. “Fair enough,” he said, moving his hands away from the crystal. “We will speak to the oracles in the morning and you may offer your gift in front of the Ashen Tower then. In that case, I will warn our good master of records that he is to contend with your charm in the morning. I leave you in Her Highness’s capable hands.” 

Seben looked dubious at that, but didn’t raise an objection when Duaenre departed as Anen had. 

“I wasn’t expecting your intervention, I must admit,” Adéla said thoughtfully, studying Seben thoughtfully. “It seems odd, given the resistance we received at the Palace itself.” 

“Knowledge is important,” the apprentice fire-speaker said firmly. 

“True on many levels, one seeker of power to another,” the mage said, twisting a ring on her finger as she studied Seben and her masked sentinel. “Then again, you keep far more interesting company than King Userkare. I could do without the usual sycophants, and you’ve settled for a very interesting companion.” 

“Hardly,” Vassa said dismissively.

Adéla’s gaze seemed to sharpen. “Truly? Then I suppose there’s no reason a stranger arrived in Zaeylael asking very intent questions about you.” 

Vassa’s eyes narrowed beneath her hood, thankfully hidden in shadow. “Who?”

“A creature that called himself Sethon,” Zdislav said with hints of a grimace. “He worked considerable evil to attempt to elicit information.” 

Vassa felt a tendril of cold unfold inside her at that name. “Did you kill him?” she asked. She doubted it would be possible, given Sethon’s general prowess and unapologetic sadism. No doubt he had caused all kinds of trouble in her wake. 

“No,” Adéla said, a shadow passing over her expression. “Though not for lack of trying. He was almost as capable as you.” 

“That almost is rather flattering,” Vassa said as she leaned back to hide her tension, crossing one leg over her other. She turned her head, studying the rings on one raised hand instead of her audience. “Did he say why he was seeking me?” 

Zdislav ran his hand down his throat. Vassa caught the hint of a fresh scar at his neck, barely showing above his armor. Not deep, but a line left with purpose. It gave the masked woman a definite hint how Sethon had manipulated his way out of a true combat with Adéla. Vassa knew from experience that the woman could demolish a formation. She would have been able to kill Sethon...had he not stripped her of the opportunity by using her own heart against her. 

There was nothing in or under heaven that Adéla valued above Kamil and Zdislav, her faithful companions and defenders who had protected her since she was very first discovered to have magic. For a Leyan mage who had been born on the border with Yssa, where magic was purged with fire, that presence of protection meant more than anything. Vassa was quite certain that the blood mage would burn the world before she let either man die on her watch. 

When they are grey and old, Adéla had whispered over drinks once. That is when I will let them go.

Vassa appreciated loyalty. It was one of the mage’s more redeeming qualities. 

“He claimed to have a message for you,” Adéla said, distaste lingering in her tone. Her lip curled slightly as she moved ink bottles and several styluses off the round, polished silver tray at the center of the table. She put her fingertips to her temple and then lowered her hand, cupping it as she whispered into her palm. “I told him I would convey his message to secure Zdislav’s release.” 

“Mercy for any reason is surprising, given what I know of him.” 

“Kamil stopped the knife,” Zdislav explained with a glimmer of pride. 

Vassa’s lips quirked into a humorless smile behind her mask. “I trust you know well enough that he was capable of a great deal worse than a knife.” 

Adéla’s expression hardened. “He was,” she said coolly. “Fortunately, dealing with you was enough of an education to drive him off. Not that I think he was inclined to stay when no one could tell him where you had gone, given the disappearing act you pulled.” 

“True enough. I exposed you to a trick or two that he might have stolen,” Vassa acknowledged, glancing over at Seben. She could see at least a dozen questions burning in the forefront of her companion’s expression. “What was the message?” 

The blood mage let her fingers drift in a circle across the surface of the plate, tilting it so that Vassa and Seben could see into it like a mirror. 

Burning green eyes stared back at them, a twisted smirk crossing a handsome, angular face. It was a face out of Vassa’s nightmares, one that sent hatred as cold as midwinter through her veins. She despised Sethon in a way few could understand, but she did not fear him. 

“You are missed by our beloved, Vassa. Return and all will be forgiven.” 

Vassa lashed out without thinking, driving her hand into the plate even as dark magic flared to life around her fingers. The sudden outpouring of power shattered the spell, burning across the polished metal surface like liquid fire, but so cold it cracked the surface of the plate. 

Everyone else recoiled from the ripple through the fabric of existence. Even that bare hint of power was enough to rip into the threads, shredding them with a touch. Vassa was on her feet before anyone could react. 

Naev!” Vassa spat viciously. “Jhe vaniss annaë vhal! Ghoroth kes Lysaerys thel!” She turned on her heel and strode out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her.

“Vassa!” Seben called, leaping to her feet. She looked over at a stunned Adéla and an equally unsettled Zhislav. “What did she say?” 

“In his language?” the spellguard said softly, his answer quiet enough for that even a pin dropping would be noticeable. “That she would kill herself before returning. That she belongs no more to Lysaerys.” 

“I do not know that name,” Adéla said uneasily. “But I have never heard Vassa speak like that before.” 

Zhislav wrapped his arms around his mage, holding her tightly to his chest. “She has many wounds,” he said quietly. “We spoke after the demon...held me. This one must be the deepest.” 

“I need to find her,” Seben said, hurrying to the door. She opened it and saw no sign of Vassa. 

“We will remain and clean up,” Zhislav said, his arms still around Adéla protectively. “Go gently, Your Highness. I owe Vassa my life and would not see the wound worsen. Even a scar not seen from the outside can have a wicked pain, doubly those applied with intent.” 


Chapter 19
Angel of Mercy

By K. Olsen

Vassa exhaled in a slow breath. Everything was so very fragile and she was furious with herself. Any display of emotion was a display of weakness, a sin she could not afford to commit if Lysaerys was looking for her. She was skilled enough to hide from Sethon, potentially for a lifetime if she kept moving and he kept applying his repulsive charms so indiscriminately. She was under no illusions that either of them were immune to the defenses of the kingdoms of men, something she had learned to blend with instead of running at full speed.

She could not evade Lysaerys, however. The last of her vestali and the remnants of her shredded heart filled her with a poisonous longing. If they had sent a messenger with such fervent impetus to return her, that meant...she was wanted. All will be forgiven. Those four words were seductive, the memory of a devotion that burned as hot as the fires of a mountain’s heart. It meant a return to her people, to her world, an end to the exile. 

And yet, even that absolution could never undo what had been done.

Lysaerys never loved you, Vassa reminded herself coldly, crossing her arms. She stood at the edge of the great Western Balcony and gazed out towards the Sea of Pearls, the waters glimmering with lights reflected all around the docks. It was always about control, twisting and taking and breaking. Is that what you want again? To be a plaything, discarded the moment the game grows old?

She would not be bound again. It was as simple as that. “Let them sit upon their ageless thrones and rot,” Vassa whispered, voice soft and lost to the breeze.

The door behind her creaked as it opened, if very softly. It was enough to stir her from her thoughts. The tread and tiny clearing of the throat was definitely Seben hunting for words. Vassa sighed and searched her thoughts for a greeting, but couldn’t settle on one that wouldn’t sound forced. 

Seben’s voice was firmer than she expected, hesitance pushed aside by concern. “Vassa, are you alright?”

“Clearly,” Vassa said dryly, falling back into her usual habits. Hopefully that would be enough to reassure Seben. She cursed herself inside her own head again. Selfish.  They had Userkare to worry about, dark magic to confront, and Seben’s fate to reveal. Losing control was inexcusable. 

Seben’s hand touched the center of her back, tentative and light. It didn’t quite match her tone, but that seemed more out of respect for the masked woman’s boundaries than anything else. “I mean it. That wasn’t like you.” 

“If I may advise, standing so close to me is not promising as far as one’s health is concerned,” Vassa said. She turned her head towards Seben, even her eyes lost in the shadow of her hood with only a small brazier burning on each side of the balcony to shed light, leaving a great many shadows untouched. 

“Because of Sethon or—”

Vassa’s lips twitched behind her mask. “Do not speak his name,” she warned flatly. Her objection was less that he had power and more that she didn’t care at all for any reminder of him. Even hearing his name made her skin crawl with revulsion. 

“Alright,” Seben acknowledged. She studied Vassa intently, wishing she had even the faintest idea of what the masked woman’s expression looked like. “I don’t think you’re going to hurt me.” 

“I wish that I shared that assessment,” her companion said. She could see it too easily, winding around Seben like a parasitic vine strangling a great oak, siphoning away Seben’s light and goodness just like the magic that was already polluting Sarom drained at the celestial connection. Vassa tried to spend little time lying to herself about her own nature. “I will hurt you, Seben. I will destroy everything that you are if you let me. You will find me little different from those who made me.” 

“You can choose, Vassa,” Seben said firmly. “I know what you said about your fate, but I don’t believe you.” She hesitated a second and then asked, “Do you want to go back to the people looking for you?”

“Yes,” Vassa said without needing to think. Before Seben could look hurt, she added the other half of the truth. “And also no.” 

“What do you mean?” 

The masked woman brushed her fingertips over the mask where it covered her lips. “My people are there. My purpose is there. The heart I wanted to so desperately call my own is there. I long to return the way a soul dying of thirst in the desert longs for water, like an addict craves their drug. Yet, as much as I desire it, the thought of it fills me with hate. I will be a fortunate woman if I never live to see a single inch of my home soil again, nor any who dwell on it.” 

Seben was quiet for a moment, processing that. “They hurt you.” 

“They tortured me for pleasure,” Vassa said, bitterness seeping into her tone. “They ripped and tore and twisted until only a hollow shell remained, and even that was not enough. If they think I will ever return, they are mistaken.” 

“You have a heart,” Seben said gently. “I can see it.” 

Vassa turned to look at the apprentice fire-speaker. Her inner eye opened on its own, displaying Seben’s celestial aura. It burned with a brilliant white light, touched at the edges by gold, and reached out towards the masked woman like a phoenix’s feathered wings, trailing the ash of mortality from pinions. It was so beautiful it almost hurt to gaze upon it. “You see your own shadow,” Vassa said softly. “That is all.” 

The young woman shook her head. “You care about people, Vassa, even when you have nothing to gain from it. You saved me from bandits and assassins. You helped that stable hand. You protected the little thief. I want you to stay, but I want you to stay for more reasons than just hating the people who hurt you. I want to give you a reason to stay.” 

“You do,” the masked woman said in a low voice. “It is a rare quality you possess, seeing people as better than they are.” 

“I think what I see is plenty accurate,” Seben said, offering Vassa a small smile. 

Vassa wondered in that moment what her life would have been if Seben had been her lisse, not Lysaerys. Her grasp on magic would have been almost incalculably inferior without the torments she endured to hone those skills, but how different her heart would have been if surrounded by sunlight instead of icy shadows. For a split second, a stab of grief for a life that could have been struck her. She banished it with a thought. The past was what it was and there was no point in agonizing over changing it.

“I should not have reacted as I did,” Vassa said, letting her sigh creep into her voice. “You have your own troubles. I am more than capable of thwarting Sethon should he find me.” 

“I’m sorry he’s looking for you,” Seben said gently. 

“You have nothing to apologize for. His regret will be a thing of legend if he steps near you,” Vassa muttered. She would feel not a shred of guilt if he appeared and she gave him over to even the worst of the torments her mind could invent. Sethon’s cruelty was omnipresent, but her training ensured hers was bottomless. Enthusiastic as he might have been, he was not a zhendai and never would be.

Seben smiled faintly despite her worry. “You’re very protective, Vassa.” 

“Of things I deem worthy of my protection, this is true,” the masked woman acknowledged. There was little sense in denying it, given how much of her attention was now devoted to Seben being free of attackers. 

The young woman hesitated for a moment before asking, “Why me?” 

It was a good question. There were several answers. Vassa deliberated a moment before saying, “Your magic is unique, a connection to the divine otherwise lost to mortals. It cannot be allowed to die. More than that, Userkare’s corruption cannot be allowed to continue: when it has drained Ethilir dry, it will menace the rest of the world with its insatiable hunger.” She hesitated a second. “There is also the matter of you.” 

Seben tensed slightly. “What do you mean?” 

“As I said, you have a habit of taking people at their word and at their best,” Vassa said with a slight shrug. “I assumed it was bumbling naivety when we first met. Now I am not so certain. I think it has another root, one rare as rubies in the sand.” 

“I can’t tell if I should be insulted or not,” Seben said as she relaxed. That comment sounded like Vassa back to her old self. 

The masked woman glanced out over Sarom, then turned her gaze back to Seben with such an intensity that the young woman could feel it without seeing it. “Never let another take that quality from you, Seben. Perhaps it will be the price of obtaining power, but if  you can cling to it...that vision is the heart of compassion. After Userkare is finished, we will need it like water in a drought-struck vineyard.” 

“I’ll do my best,” Seben promised. She paused before adding, “You’d make a fine poet.” 

“It was a vice of mine once,” Vassa admitted quietly, “but there are things even beauty cannot endure.” 

“I’m—”

“Do not apologize,” the masked woman said firmly. “It is no fault of yours and royalty must always appear self assured. Only apologize if it is absolutely merited.” 

“I’m surprised you’re not telling me to never apologize,” Seben said. 

“Contrition has its uses.” Vassa’s lips quirked into a small smile behind her mask. “Besides, if I told you never to, it would be all that you do.” 

Seben nudged Vassa’s ribs with her elbow, though gently, as she looked out over Sarom. “You must feel better if you’re already back to needling me.” 

“Few things bring me such joy,” Vassa said with amusement. She turned her eyes to the view. Even at night, firelight played across the city, mostly from long-burning street lamps. It gave the appearance of a lake glimmering with starlight. Such a different beauty from her homeland, but Vassa couldn’t deny that it still struck her all the same. 

“It’s hard to believe that I might end up in charge of anything,” Seben admitted. 

“Ethilir will need your protection, even radiant and powerful Sarom. It will need devotion, love, care,” Vassa said softly as she looked out at the lights. She adored the cities of the south, so full of life and energy. They did not strike her with awe the way they intended, but filled her with a delight in their vivacity. To her, Sarom was breathless in intensity, in diversity, in change. Even at its most calm, like in the depths of the night, life cavorted on with the enthusiasm and wonder of a child. 

Seben glanced over. There was something wonderfully soft in Vassa’s tone, a departure from her usual sarcasm or prodding. “It sounds like you think well of Ethilir.” 

“It has a beauty only its own,” Vassa said, lips tugging into a faint smile hidden by fabric. “From the serene depths of the desert to the awe of its sandstorms to the thriving vibrance of its cities.” She touched Seben’s arm lightly with her fingertips. “And you, my young friend, should be in bed. I have kept you up late enough.” 

“I’m just glad you’re alright,” Seben said. The contact surprised her, mostly by its lightness. Vassa’s touch was barely there, a whisper against her skin. It was a pleasant feeling. Then again, the only time the masked woman had ever been rough, it was pulling her forcefully away from danger. 

“I endure,” Vassa promised. “We have a great deal to do in the morning.” 

“Oh?”

Vassa laughed. “We are hosting a blood mage and seeking oracles, lest you have forgotten.” 

“Adéla seems nice enough,” Seben said, letting Vassa lead the way back inside. “So do Kamil and Zdislav.” 

“Oh, I am certain she is nice,” Vassa said, stressing the word. “Her manners are pleasant and her compliments finely honed. You would do well to remember, however, that nice is meaningless. Adéla is an intensely destructive combat mage and would kill to defend herself or her spellguards without a second’s hesitation. An assassination attempt by Userkare’s men or your fellow fire-speakers could end in the devastation of the Ashen Tower and potentially part of Sarom.” 

“Do you think they’ll try to kill her?” Seben asked, worried. 

“It is a possibility that cannot be ignored,” Vassa said. “I would expect them to act after she has received her answer from the oracles, before she can return to the High King.” 

Unease swept through Seben in a wave. “We’ll have to stop the attempt,” she said. “Before anyone gets hurt.” 

“I was hoping you would say that.” Vassa said. She said nothing more until they reached the quarters given to Seben. She opened the door for the apprentice fire-speaker. “Rest well. You will need that strength for what comes next.” 

Seben stepped in and pulled Vassa into a fierce hug before the masked woman could escape. “Thank you for being here,” the apprentice fire-speaker said. It occurred to her now, holding Vassa close, that the masked woman’s body was so fragile. She was slight in build and smaller than she seemed with her confidence and magic. Vassa being hurt worried Seben. “If your hunter comes here, Naji and I will protect you.” 

Vassa’s throat tightened. She didn’t care for contact like this, but for Seben she would permit it. More than that, though, the offer of protection was unexpected. It was in keeping with Seben’s personality, but someone offering her defense rather than the other way around was new. At least, someone saying so and actually meaning it. Seben was not a deceptive creature. “Thank you,” she said in a low tone, stepping back the moment Seben released her. “That is...a generous offer.” 

Seben smiled. “I mean it.” 

Before Vassa could reply,  the sound of an explosion somewhere above them severed her thoughts, splintering wood and screams disrupting the moment. “We need to go,” Vassa said urgently. She wrapped an arm around Seben and far-stepped up to the next floor, outside the rooms reserved for special guests. 

Seben had only experienced a far-step before as the barest of shifting when she was mostly asleep. This was different, like passing through the bitter cold of death for a split second. By the time her blink finished, they were standing in a hall littered with the shards of a door and several armored bodies crumpled against the opposite wall. The air reeked of blood and death.

It took Vassa no time to orient herself. “Adéla, that’s enough,” Vassa said sharply as the blood mage emerged. Zdislav followed her with his sword drawn, supporting a staggering Kamil on his opposite shoulder. Neither spellguard was in armor, but both had shields. The Ashen Tower’s guards were flooding the hall on either side of the door. 

Kamiil looked horrible. He had dropped his sword, hand pierced by an assassin’s knife. His skin was taking on a grayish pallor despite the fact that the wound was relatively minor. 

Vassa knew poison when she saw it and cursed. She was not a healer. “A tainted blade,” she snapped.

“We need a healer,” Seben said, looking around. She spotted Kakhent behind them in the press. “Master Kakhent, we need a healer!” 

The old man nodded his head, grabbing two fire-speaker apprentices. “To Amenirdis!” 

Vassa almost snarled when she saw Duaenre on the opposite side, one hand on a soul jar. If he released that djinn, Adéla would respond in kind. 

The blood mage’s eyes fixed on the bodies crumpled against the wall, incandescent rage visible in her expression and the tension in her entire body. Behind her, Zdislav had to drop his sword to keep Kamil upright with both hands. “Adéla, he is not well!” the unharmed spellguard said urgently. 

“Stand down, blood mage!” Duaenre barked. 

Adéla’s lip curled and she looked straight at him. “Is this what your protection is worth, worm?” she spat. She extended her hand towards the crumpled bodies as they stirred, revealing that the blast hadn’t quite killed them. 

Vassa knew what was coming before it happened. She felt Adéla seize the threads of the assassins and rip the life out of their bodies, cracking their bones and ripping flesh as she did so. The blood on the ground flowed towards the Leyan mage, but not in simple rivulets. The path of the liquid twisted into lines of connected sigils as it flowed, as she started to chant in a language Seben had never heard before. 

Duaenre opened his jar, djinni flooding the hallway between its master and the mage with fire. It flashed towards Adéla, barely giving the mage enough time to channel her stolen power into a powerful ward. The fearsome inferno was halted almost effortlessly. 

“We cannot allow this to escalate,” Vassa said near Seben’s ear before turning her attention to Zdislav. “Zdislav, this cannot continue! You will all die!” 

The spellguard looked up at them, his arms holding his fellow spellguard cradled  to his chest. “I cannot save him,” Zdislav said, voice breaking. “He is cold as the grave.” 

Seben moved without thinking, Vassa on her heels. “A healer is coming,” Seben promised. “We’ll save him.” 

Vassa grabbed Zdislav by his chin, forcing him to meet her eyes. “We will stay with Kamil,” she said. “You must rein in Adéla.” 

“Tell that to the djinni,” Zdislav said bitterly. 

“I have need of you, darling,” Adéla said through gritted teeth, maintaining the barrier now by her own essence alone. Vassa knew that the mage was extremely well-trained, but also that Adéla couldn’t afford to spend all of herself now. She was clearly expecting having to fight through the tower, not that there would be a shortage of life to steal if that happened. 

Zdislav laid Kamil down gently and then rose to his feet, moving towards his mage. He placed a hand on her shoulder and bowed his head. Vassa felt the surge of power pass between spellguard and mage seamlessly, the threads that made up their souls entwining with effortless grace. That was the most dangerous and beautiful part of their connection: the union, the single self that they became. 

The ward exploded outwards, shards ripping into the djinni in almost innumerable fragments. The creature howled as it died, leaving Duaenre gaping in its wake. 

“I find your hospitality lacking,” Adéla spat, extending a hand towards the master fire-speaker. 

“Adéla, stop!” Seben shouted from where she knelt beside the fallen spellguard. His breathing was weak, shallow, but still there.  “Kamil needs you! He’s still alive!”

The blood mage turned, tears streaking down her face. She threw up another ward between herself and Duaenre before he could conjure another djinni, between their little group and the advancing guards. “I feel him fading.”   

Vassa put a hand on Seben’s shoulder. She could feel it in Kamil when she put her other hand on his chest. The poison was not magic, but it was made by it. “Manifest.” 

“What?” Seben blurted out. 

“I think we need divine intervention,” Vassa said through a tight jaw. 

“I don’t know how!” 

Vassa’s grip on Seben’s shoulder tightened. “Be an angel of mercy to Kamil,” she said. “I know it is in you.” 

Seben took a deep breath and looked up at Adéla and Zdislav, at the agony in their faces as they looked to Kamil. Both had tears in their eyes and a fragile hope lingering in their eyes at Vassa’s words. Then she turned her gaze down at Kamil, his face contorted in pain as his pallor grew worse and worse, clutching the hand that dripped dark, thick blood. She put a hand on his cheek and closed her eyes. He doesn’t deserve this. No one deserves this. Please… She reached down into herself, like she would to find the nerve to face a djinni, but even further, towards the core of her being. Please...please...please...please...

Brilliant white light exploded outwards from Seben as the phoenix of her aura unfurled its wings. She took on the angelic visage she had in the Games, glowing with celestial radiance. Kamil’s suffering sharpened in her senses, coming into focus. Seben leaned down, touching her burning forehead to his cold one, folding her wings over his body.

Please.

There was a pulse felt through the threads by everyone, whether they were normally capable of perceiving magic or not. Vassa smiled faintly as she felt Seben’s essence sweep through Kamil’s body, burning away the poison. The moment it had passed through him like a desert wind, Seben’s light faded away. The young woman crumpled backwards, right into Vassa’s waiting arms, body heated as if by a fever. 

“Kamil!” Adéla blurted out when she saw her fallen spellguard stir. The ward dropped, and she fell to her knees by his side, Zdislav crouching beside her. 

“You are beautiful sights,” Kamil said to his companions with a weary smile as he flexed his hand. When he realized there was no pain or wound, his eyes went wide and he looked to his other side. “What happened?”

Vassa adjusted Seben against her shoulder, a faint smile on her lips behind her mask. “An angel did it.” 

The approach of guards was a reminder of their immediate problem, Duaenre a rank behind them. “Arrest the Leyans!’ he barked. 

“I would not recommend it,” Zdislav said grimly, picking up his sword as he rose to his feet while Adéla helped up Kamil. “We owe a debt to your liege, not to you.” 

“Might I recommend you stand down?” Vassa suggested pleasantly to the approaching guards. “Her Highness will not be pleased to find you re-inflicting wounds she has just healed. Not to mention that assassins were the instigator of this.” 

The guards hesitated at that. Whether or not they trusted Vassa, they knew she was a close companion of the heir to the Sunlit Throne. Her words could easily shape Seben’s opinion...and her anger. Not that they looked eager to tangle with Adéla and her spellguards anyway after seeing what had become of the djinni. 

“We can talk this out,” Vassa said smoothly. 

“Is Her Highness well?” Kakhent said sharply from behind them, approaching with his apprentices and a gaunt, older woman carrying a bag that reeked of various healing herbs. 

“Exhausted, but alive and well,” the masked woman promised. “I will need help getting her to bed.” 

“I will assist,” Kamil said, expression softening as he looked towards the unconscious Seben. “I owe her my life.” 

“I’m sure she’ll be delighted to see this mess when she wakes up,” Kakhent said dryly. He looked over at Duaenre. “Guards to  protect Her Highness should be permitted, but until the truth of the matter is revealed, I see no reason to clap anyone in irons.” He looked to Adéla. “If you would kindly refrain from using spells or leaving, that is.” 

Adéla relaxed her posture. “I will harm no one unless sufficiently provoked,” she said, though she did glance at Duaenre. 

“Good enough,” Kakhent said. “I hope you can account for our dead bodies.” 

A quarrel quickly broke out between the master fire-speakers once Kakhent approached Duaenre, but the guards ceased their aggressive posture and advanced with weapons sheathed to protect Seben. Adéla and Zdislav relaxed, while Kamil moved to help Vassa lift Seben carefully. 

“Well done,” Vassa said to the unconscious Seben, smiling faintly.


Chapter 20
Visions in Ink

By K. Olsen

“If you are going to continue putting your hands all over him, the least you could do is find a private room,” Vassa said with dry amusement. She sat comfortably at Seben’s side, fingertips resting on the pulse point inside the young woman’s wrist. The beat was strong and steady, comforting in its fragile and fleeting rhythm. Seben would wake soon, hopefully feeling rested. The early light of dawn was just creeping up on the horizon. Vassa had spent much of the past few hours in her trance-like rest, keeping tabs on Seben’s wellbeing and her eyes on everything that moved in the room. 

Adéla laughed at that, tucking her head against Kamil’s shoulder. Her legs were across his lap already, arms  around his neck. “Jealous,” she said. “Do not think I cannot see your hand’s whereabouts, Vassa. You would do the same in my position.” 

Zdislav chuckled, sitting on Kamil’s other side with an arm around the recovered spellguard and leaning his head against the other man’s. Together, the three looked supremely comfortable despite the assassination attempt or at least very, very relieved despite the fact that tower guards surrounded them and watched like hawks alongside Master Kakhent.

“I have no inclination to dangle myself off Her Highness,” Vassa said dismissively. 

“You might enjoy it,” Kamil said with a chuckle. 

Vassa had difficulty believing that, though not because of Seben. Her past had taught her only that being close to anyone was a rapture entangled inevitably with pain. Even something as simple and pleasant as a kiss could easily become a bite. She was aware of the connection that the three had, but on a level she failed to understand it. 

It always struck her as so strange to see them like this: Adéla devoted and caring, Zdislav protective and considerate, Kamil affectionate and warm. They were all the antithesis of her own experience, where power demanded and took as it pleased, leaving only anguish and addiction in its wake. She saw it in Seben’s fondness for her too, a thing that she had no name or understanding for.

Vassa removed her hand when Seben sighed. “How do you feel?” the masked woman asked, turning to look at Seben. 

Adéla whispered something to Kamil and Zdislav that sounded suspiciously like, “See?” 

The masked woman didn’t dignify it with a response. She relaxed slightly when the young woman’s dark eyes opened.

“Like a mountain fell on my head,” Seben muttered, rubbing at her temple. She sat up immediately when she realized their situation, eyes widening. “Did it work?” 

“Wondrously so,” Kamil said. He looked like he wanted to stand up, but clearly he had no desire to dislodge Adéla either. Vassa knew he was fully aware of how tactile the mage could be when she needed reassurance and they had almost lost him. Even Zdislav was barely one step short of trapping him in a bearhug.

“I’m glad,” Seben said earnestly. 

“We all are,” Adéla said more seriously. “Your generosity with your power will never be forgotten, Your Highness.” She reluctantly moved off Kamil, though she didn’t shrug off his arm when it wrapped around her shoulders. They made for a slightly more proper picture at the moment. “It is a kindness that should be repaid in kind.” 

Seben pulled in a deep breath before blurting out the nonsense words that were her immediate thought at such an offer. “You’re welcome,” she said. “You don’t need to—”

“You will find Adéla Vojak a very, very particular woman about her debts,” Vassa said smoothly. “The same can be said for her charming spellguards, and I say that as someone who performed a great service for all three in the past.” 

“Your gallant rescue is most well remembered,” Zdislav said with a grin. “It is not every day that one sees a demon slain.” 

Vassa gave him a pointed look, though it wasn’t one he could see with her hood and mask. “We discussed how little I enjoy having my heroic deeds bandied about, Zdislav.” The sarcasm practically dripped off her words. “Need I repeat my threat?” 

There was an almost audible click as his jaw shut, but with a gleam of humor in the tall spellguard’s eyes. It earned full laughs from Adéla and Kamil.

Seben smiled at that. “Dare I ask what the threat was?”

“The kind of anatomical removal that would sorely disappoint his lovers,” Vassa said dryly.

“Vassa!” Seben said scandalized, swatting at her friend. 

“I only mostly meant it,” Vassa said to calm Seben, earning even more laughter from the three Leyans. “Now, can we finally discuss the matter of the assassins? If there is anything that needs to come to light, I would have it now, before we speak with the oracles.” She looked over at Kakhent. “Provided that is still permissible. I know that Master Duaenre has raised his objections strenuously.”

The old man’s jaw set firmly. “A bargain is a bargain. If Mágissa Vojak is still intent upon carrying out her end of the deal, we will uphold ours. I am a man of my word.” 

“A rare quality in the world,” Adéla said. She glanced to Kamil and Zdislav, who gave her subtle inclinations of the head. “I have every intention of bestowing the phylactery as promised, provided we are allowed audience of your oracles.” 

“And you still wish to be present?” Kakhent asked, looking to Seben and Vassa. 

Seben nodded. “I do.” She looked to her masked companion. 

“It seems more prudent than ever,” Vassa said. She was confident in her private suspicion that Userkare had sent the assassins to prevent the question from being answered after learning exactly what they intended to ask...probably from Duaenre, if Kakhent was right about his fellow master’s loyalty to the King. 

“If we might, I would like a private word with Her Highness and her bodyguard,” Adéla said, leaning back against the couch. 

Kakhent looked to Seben, a tension settling into his body. “Your opinion?” 

“Mágissa Vojak is not going to kill me,” Seben said with confidence. “And I trust Vassa with my life.” 

“Kamil and Zdislav will wait out with the guards,” Adéla said firmly.

Vassa could track the mage’s logic easily. The two men would be able to effectively bar entry or eavesdropping while they spoke. “I can protect Her Highness, Master Kakhent.” She gestured to the soul-jar at Seben’s side. “As can Naji.” 

The master fire-speaker nodded. He hadn’t seen Vassa in action, but he distinctly remembered the raging inferno that was an unleashed, feral sajjad djinni. “He is more protection than any number of our guards could provide,” Kakhent said. He gestured to the guards. “To the hall. I doubt there will be more assassins, but the chance is always there.” 

As the room emptied except for the three of them, Adéla blew her spellguards a kiss and then turned back to Seben and Vassa. She waited until she heard the door close completely. “I was sincere when I spoke of my debt.” 

“I didn’t doubt it,” Seben said. “Vassa generally raises more of a point when someone is being deceptive.” 

Adéla grinned at that. “That’s so very sweet of you, Vassa.”

“She has to learn from someone,” Vassa said almost indifferently. “You had something to say that you did not want overheard.”

“The King sent those assassins,” Adéla said with confidence. “I have encountered the Eth royal variety before, defending High King Miroslav. The poison that they use is very distinctive and has no cure. Except the divine, it seems.” 

Vassa filed that away for future reference, making a mental note to investigate the poisons in use in Ethilir much more closely. “Prince Sanakht was killed by a poisoned blade.” 

Seben’s hands tightened in her lap. She still hadn’t really confronted how to feel about the death of the father she had never known, if it even made a difference. “Lord Osei would know if it was the same variety.” She looked to Adéla. “I know I have royal blood, but…”

Adéla smiled. “I do not assume that you had your part in those machinations, Your Highness. If anything, I most firmly believe the opposite. Vassa’s silences speak louder than the words of many.  I will speak plainly, since we are not likely to have much time without prying ears. I know that the question I will pose to the oracles involves His Majesty and I do not care for the man after his assassins’ display. I will only ask you where your loyalties lie, to your crown or your kingdom?” 

Seben met Adéla’s eyes without flinching. “To my people.”  She took a deep breath. “Something evil is going on.” 

The blood mage nodded thoughtfully. “I thought as much upon meeting him, truthfully. He does not have the air of a King desiring anything but power. If you ever come to opposition to him, you will have my support. Not openly, as Leus interfering in royal affairs would threaten legitimacy, but if there is any boon that might aid you, you need only name it and it will be so.”

“There is something you can do that would be of help,” Vassa said, putting a hand on Seben’s shoulder even as her gaze met Adéla’s. “We will need access to the Sanctum of the Pharos’s library. As a mage in service to the High King himself, that is within your power to grant.” 

Adéla sucked in a breath. “I can,” she said, a frown forming. “Dare I ask what you seek in the most secret places of magic?” 

“Something that is better left forgotten,” Vassa said in a low voice. “I do not know what inklings your people will have about this variety of magic, but the knowledge will be far more likely to exist there than in Ethilir’s Ashen Tower.” 

Seben looked over at the masked woman. “You think there might be an answer in Leus?” 

Vassa shrugged. “It is the first place to look. I can think of nowhere else besides my homeland that is likely to contain such knowledge, and I have no desire to return there.” 

“Let us hope what you seek is in Zaeylael, then,” Adéla said. She gave Seben a smile. “If this is your request, Your Highness, it will be granted. The High King is most understanding. Though if we are to arrive in time to secure your access and still be of help…”

The masked woman gave a long-suffering sigh. 

“Vassa, your far-step is the only thing that could get us to Zaeylael immediately after speaking with the oracles,” the blood mage said. 

“I am aware,” Vassa remarked dryly. “That does not mean I appreciate it. Traveling across such a distance requires a great deal of energy. I will drain much of my reserve to do so even one way, accounting for the three other people I will be dragging with me.” 

“I promise I will replenish your rings,” Adéla said. “You have travelled such distances before in such a fashion, I am certain.”

“That’s months of travel,” Seben said, wide-eyed. 

“Surely you remember enough of Zaeylael to safely find your mark,” the Leyan pressed.

Vassa looked over at Seben. “Adéla has a point,” she said. “For us to receive information in a timely fashion, she will need to reach Zaeylael by tomorrow. That does mean I will not be at your side for a time.” 

“How long will you be gone?” Seben asked, a hint of nerves in her voice. 

“Several hours, perhaps even a day,” Vassa said reluctantly. Everything in her screamed in protest at the idea of being parted from the person she was protecting, but this was a necessary evil. They needed to know more about the dark magic eating away at the King and, by extension, Ethilir. “I will have to rest in Zaeylael and allow Adéla to replenish my rings. The return trip will be significantly easier, but I will still need to recover somewhat.” 

“Can I go with you?” Seben asked.

Vassa shook her head. “Not this time. Next time, when we actually seek answers.” 

Seben seemed caught between anxiety about Vassa’s departure and excitement at the idea of next time. “Really?” 

The masked woman smiled faintly behind her mask. “I have no intention to forget your scholarly mind when pouring over ancient, obtuse texts is the task. You will find it a delight.” She gave Seben’s shoulder a squeeze. “Keep Naji with you while I am gone, stay closed in your room, and study by the light of your djinni. Speak to no one, trust no one. It will only be for a little while.” 

That seemed to reassure the young woman. She nodded and turned to look at Adéla. “Thank you for helping us,” she said sincerely. “And please look after Vassa while she’s with you.” 

Adéla laughed when Vassa tensed at that. “You look so affronted, Vassa,” the mage teased. 

“I do not require a nursemaid.” Snow could have landed on those words without melting. 

Seben smiled at her companion. “You do need someone watching your back. Everyone knows Zaeylael is dangerous.” 

“As is Sarom, apparently,” Adéla said. She stood at the sound of a knock on the door. “Our privacy is at an end.”

“Come in!” Seben called. 

The door opened to reveal Master Anen. “The oracles are ready for you and your...guests, Your Highness,” he said, eyeing Adéla warily. “We intended for the exchange of the phylactery first, but Seer Yuya approached me and stated he and his fellows awaited your attention.” 

“Then we should see him,” Vassa said with a sigh. 

“Did you get any sleep?” Seben asked her companion, looking worried. 

“None of us did, Your Highness,” Kamil said, stroking Adéla’s hair to keep her calm as she glared at the master fire-speaker. It ruined her intimidation and relaxed her at the same time. “We will rest after the oracles.” 

“Does Vassa ever sleep?” Zdislav said with a chuckle. 

Vassa shrugged at that, rising to her feet. She held her hand out palm up to Seben even if it wasn’t strictly necessary, in case the young woman was still a little shaky from her overexertion. Drawing on celestial power with any kind of will was still more than she could handle or control for more than a few moments. It reminded Vassa that she needed to apply her own lessons to Seben’s gift, if much, much more gently than they had been impressed upon her. 

Seben’s callused touch came with summer warmth. “You don’t have to baby me, you know,” the apprentice fire-speaker said in a low voice. 

The masked woman’s lips twitched into a smile, offering her answer softly enough to be audible only to Seben. “I merely offered my hand. You took it.” She rather enjoyed the expression that flashed across Seben’s face, something approaching flustered. Vassa turned to Anen, pointedly ignoring the amusement of their Leyan guests. “Is there anything we need to bring when we speak to your oracles, Master Anen?”

“Respect,” he said coolly. 

“Oh dear,” Adéla said, glancing over at the masked woman. “Wherever will you find it in yourself to give anyone that, Vassa?”

“You would make a fine flea,” Vassa said, tone as biting as a wind through the Sea of Sand. She generally appreciated the blood mage, but tended to react to such teasing with her normal thorny barrier and had even in Leus.

“Transmutation isn’t your cup of tea,” the Leyan bloodmage said. 

Vassa’s masked face turned towards her, expression shrouded behind fabric. “Are you certain of that?” she asked almost idly, but still with a bite in her tone. 

Seben nudged Vassa’s ribs with her elbow, though lightly. “Be kind, Vassa,” she said. “They are still guests.” 

“As you wish.” Vassa’s glare towards Kamil was enough to menace him into silence even from concealment before he could make the whipping sound she knew was coming. She started to walk without waiting for anyone else, her feet carrying her towards a fate that she knew she would not escape. Seben’s presence at her side was surprisingly comforting.

For the first time, she was not alone. It was a thought that felt like wearing someone else’s clothes. 

They wound their way up the tower towards the roof, surrounded on all sides by guards with Anen leading the way. “Where is Master Duaenre?” Seben asked thoughtfully, looking around. 

“Reflecting upon his actions, I would hope,” Vassa said with a sigh. “That could have ended in far, far more blood.” 

“He and Kakhent both received royal summons before I knocked,” Anen reported. “Much of the Ashen Tower is secret, but the absence of the Leyans was noticed and a disturbance reported here.” 

“I’m flattered that His Majesty gave us a moment’s thought,” Adéla said airily, smiling at Anen when he glared. Clearly the traditionalist master was not fond of the blood mage and her making a mess of the tower’s hall had not endeared her further.

Something twisted slightly at the edge of Vassa’s consciousness. It made sense for the King to call Duaenre if the master was embroiled in the plot, but Kakhent was slightly more surprising given how firmly he had taken Seben’s side. Then again, maybe that was the reason both had been called: to chastise Duaenre and correct Kakhent.

If Kakhent is truly an ally, Vassa reflected. Keep one’s friends close and enemies closer.

That bothered her. She didn’t know why she would doubt Kakhent. There was no evidence of anything malicious. Paranoia from the life she had lived, most likely. She had neglected to puzzle out his intent and desires, too focused on Seben. She needed to shift her focus slightly if she was to truly protect the young woman. Simply waiting for a threat to materialize and then dealing with it was the action of an ordinary guard. Her own role needed to be more proactive untiil they had Masaharta again to assist with security. She still was willing to wager he was a better ally than most given his opposition to Userkare. 

A sickening thought struck her next. What if the magic Userkare played host to could work his will over the minds of others? Such a thing was not unheard of, not in the darker parts of her homeland. 

Vassa made a mental note to investigate that. Someday they would likely have to confront him directly and that would be a potential problem. Vassa knew her own will was strong enough to endure most things and Seben’s aura likely granted her some measure of protection, but that would be of no help if their own allies stabbed them in the back under such an influence. 

Dark thoughts hunted the masked woman even as they stopped in front of a large, beautifully polished set of stone doors, the shining symbol of the Sun God sending rays out in all directions on the bas relief carving into the alabaster. Anen whispered an incantation in the God Tongue, bidding the doors to open and they did so without a hint of sound from a mechanism, so perfectly balanced that they moved like a breath. 

The room revealed was full of bright morning light streaming in through many windows, the rays of newly risen sunlight pooling in a large, bronze brazier left hollow at the moment, the bottom colored from the past heat of many fires. Incense burned in several dishes, filling the room with a clean, perfumed scent. It was spice and sweetness, heady without becoming cloying. 

The blind seer was waiting alongside four others, two men and two women with blindfolds, all wearing robes of red with brilliant sunbursts of gold on their chest and back. Their sashes were white now instead of gold, completing the royal colors. The four sat in a semi-circle on a plain stone bench curved in a perfect circle around the brazier, elevated from the main floor by two white marble steps. Yuya stood in front, but there was an empty place waiting for him. 

“Your Highness,” Yuya greeted formally, bowing deeply to the young woman he could not even see to identify. “Be welcome in this place.” 

Vassa sensed the seers easily. All of them were ready for what was to come, their inner eyes focused on their guests. She hid herself in the weave of existence again, letting her essence blend just enough to lose focus and definition, concealing her true nature. She didn’t even feel the drain of the energy required, it was so minor a task. 

“Thank you,” Seben said with all the confidence she could muster, feeling not at all certain. Yuya’s grandfatherly smile helped put her at ease. “I have a guest with a question for you.” 

“Is it your will that it be answered, Your Highness?” Yuya asked. 

Seben took a deep breath and almost nodded, before remembering that the man was blind. “Yes,” she said instead. “The answer is important.” 

Yuya looked over at Vassa for a split second, a hint of a frown crossing his face, before settling his unseen eye’s gaze on Adéla. “Welcome, stranger. You have come a long way.” 

“To pose a question I hope you have an answer to,” Adéla said with confidence.

“We do,” Yuya said. He took a seat around the circle of oracles, casting a handful of black sand into the brazier. “You who seek must gaze within.” 

Seben, Vassa, and Adéla stepped forward together, each stepping up the small set of stone stairs that the brazier’s dais rose upon. 

The sand melted before their eyes, forming an inky substance that washed like water over the polished bronze. Vassa saw an almost dizzying array of symbols in the God-Tongue etched into the sides of the brazier and attuned to it, allowing her perception to rely on her innate gift.

This was not a simple piece of metal. It burned with celestial power, a knot in the threads that allowed perception deep into the weave of existence. Only someone with true power would be able to use it, like the seers and their Gift, but it was beyond some simple scrying mirror that allowed one to gaze across great distances. This was a look into the eyes of Fate. 

“Pose your question,” Yuya said. 

Adéla didn’t hesitate, an excessive self-confidence common to Leyan mages as far as Vassa was concerned. They knew just enough to be truly dangerous without appreciating the danger magic posed to even them. It approached hubris more often than was healthy. “When the sun falls from the sky and the Binding itself is tainted, when the Shattered Ones are stirred from their death, what will drive back the Devouring Dark?”

The blackness in the bowl swirled slowly, then began to move in unnatural ways. It flowed into the different glyphs in different patterns, creating images of revealed lustrous bronze defined by dark rivulets of ink. A gleaming throne appeared above the skyline of a city, surrounded by a gnawing, devouring darkness. The luster quickly died and the blackness consumed the throne before rushing down towards the city. 

A ray of sunlight caught the bronze just as the ink moved, creating the shape of a glowing phoenix that spread its wings. At first it pushed the darkness thrashing back, chains twisting beneath its wings as it chased the ink upwards, towards the rim of the bowl. Fires appeared all around, battling the dark. 

Instead of defeat, however, the darkness changed its shape. The phoenix was confronted with its shadow. 

Vassa’s heart lodged in her throat when she saw angular bronze eyes open in the darkness beneath the phoenix’s shadow, the crook of a finger beckoning the shadow down and down and down towards the depths of the bowl. She knew those eyes. The phoenix chased its shadow, but soon the shade was lost, dissolved into the rest of the darkness. The ink stilled, no longer flowing, and the vision faded.

“What does it mean?” Adéla asked softly. 

Yuya frowned. “It is incomplete.” He cleared his throat. “Do you know the significance of the phoenix, stranger?” 

“It is rebirth, yes? Renewal?” the Leyan mage said, studying the now motionless ink. 

“More than that,” Yuya said firmly. “The phoenix is purity through suffering, rebirth through destruction, salvation through sacrifice. Sol himself crafted that aspect of celestial power in godly image. For one to appear is the defining moment of any age. Only it can defeat the darkness that sinks its fangs into the connection to the divine.” 

“But it didn’t destroy the darkness,” Seben observed quietly. “It turned into its shadow.” 

You see your own shadow. The words echoed in Vassa’s head, giving her a sudden glimpse into her future. The knot of inevitable dread formed in her stomach. She had known from the first moment that she saw Seben’s aura that it was going to bring an apocalypse’s worth of trouble. This was merely confirmation. 

“And the chains?” Adéla murmured. 

“The ties that bind will be broken, changed to something new by the phoenix’s wings,” Yuya said with confidence. 

Seben’s brow furrowed. “What about the eyes?” 

“They are a thing of evil,” the oldest woman among the seers said, her expression somber.

“They were beautiful,” Adéla said. 

They were mine, Vassa whispered in her thoughts, drawn again to an ancient and familiar nightmare. “I do not believe the seers are incorrect,” she said aloud instead of giving voice to that. “It called to the darkness, drawing it further and further from the phoenix.” She looked over at Yuya. “You said it is incomplete?” 

“Prophecies are often incomplete,” Yuya said. “It is a strange thing, Fate. The more power involved, the fewer choices, they become. This one speaks to powerful choices unmade, its course mutable and undefined as a result.” 

“How unhelpful,” Adéla murmured, glancing up at Yuya. “Where does one find a phoenix?” 

Vassa looked to Seben, still deeply uneasy. Even if this was incomplete and mutable, she hated the way it appeared. There were too many dangers she could see ahead even in such a simple vision. “Seben, do you trust me?” she said close to her companion’s ear. 

“Of course,” Seben said without a shred of hesitation. It twisted something fragile in Vassa’s heart. 

“You are the phoenix,” Vassa murmured. She gave no voice to the rest and all the dread it filled her with.


Chapter 21
An Unexpected Sting

By K. Olsen

Vassa took a step back from Seben, towards her Leyan guests. “I will not be gone long,” she promised. She hoped that the space would give her some measure of clarity to collect her thoughts with. Sarom’s oracles left conflict raging through her excuse for a soul. Sometimes it was difficult to think clearly around Seben: her fondness for the young woman made her prone to errors in judgment that were in Seben’s favor whether or not it was wise. Given the vision they had seen, Vassa needed to find her own understanding of what was coming if she was going to help Seben with anything.

If she could help. After all, the vision seemed to hint that her own darkness would call to the devouring shadow they faced. Perhaps Seben would be better served by the masked woman’s permanent absence. It was a thought Vassa didn’t care for and one that had nipped at the corners of her mind constantly over the last few hours. Even the presentation of the phylactery to the Ashen Tower as repayment for seeking the oracle had not distracted her from her thoughts, despite the display’s general ostentation.

“I know,” Seben said with a reassuring smile, aware of the tension in Vassa’s posture even if she didn’t know why it was there or what it meant. “I’ll be alright.”

“Will you?” Vassa countered. “You must take care in my absence, Seben. Your world is more dangerous than the one I will be traveling to.”

Seben’s smile widened a little and she closed the distance between them, pulling Vassa into another tight hug. “I’ll be fine,” she promised. “As long as you come back.”

Vassa reflected that someday, she almost might be used to such warm affection. Her hands touched Seben’s back with a feather-light care. “I will return,” Vassa said, almost surprised by the conviction in her own voice. That dangerous loyalty rearing its ugly head again, she supposed. Her lips curved into a slight smile behind her mask, something softer than her usual wry amusement. “You will have to release me, however.”

Seben sighed. “I suppose,” she said, letting go of the masked woman. Little hints of anxiety were visible in the apprentice fire-speaker’s expression, but they were under control. No matter how worried Seben was, she would keep to her word to survive. “Naji and I will be waiting for you.”

The djinni in the corner of the room bowed his head, his fiery form currently floating in a brazier. He was barely more than a torch’s flame, but that would be remedied instantaneously if an intruder arrived to do Seben harm. His presence was immensely reassuring to Vassa. After seeing the ferocious elemental in action, she had no doubt that he would easily immolate anything that might threaten his fire-speaker.

“We should go soon,” Adéla said, though she sounded reluctant to draw Vassa away from her current conversation. There was a sympathetic and slightly amused gleam in the blood mage’s eyes that the masked woman ignored.

Vassa nodded and approached her fellow traveling companions. “This will be easiest if we form a ring,” she said. Kamil and Zdislav joined them, hands gripping tightly. Vassa took a deep breath and drew the power from her rings in a flood, letting it flow like a whirlpool at the center of her chest.

“Where will we arrive?” Kamil asked curiously.

“The Ivory Palace might upset the guards,” Vassa said tersely, devoting her focus to the far-step. “The core of the Pharos’s library will be much less agitated by a display of magic.” As she spoke, she visualized the grand open room in her mind, slowly parting the threads of existence. A far-step wove between spaces, but it still accounted for the size of the things passing through it and she had no one to assist. This would not be painless. “Hold tight.”

Vassa pushed off from the threads that currently surrounded them like a diver off a board using the current of the whirlpool inside her for power, plunging her essence into the between and dragging Adéla and her spellguards along for the ride. The drain was immense, ripping through her stored magic and into her own vitality. Vassa carried them through gossamers with a master’s expertise.

A deafening crack of thunder announced their arrival, all four falling onto the cold stone of the floor. The masked woman was definitely the worst for wear, though Kamil, Zdislav, and Adéla all shivered from the terrible cold. Vassa was immune to it, a blessing of her innate gifts, but she felt damn near exhausted after that display.

Around them were the grand shelves of the largest library in the world, towering and pristine. Mages and apprentices alike scattered in all directions in response to the sudden swell of magic through the threads and its explosive release, spellguards immediately surging forward to deal with a possible threat.

Adéla sat up and held up a ringed hand, the most immediate identifier of her status. “That is not necessary,” the mágissa said in her most commanding voice. It brought an immediate halt to the approach and everyone relaxed. Excited chattering spread through the apprentices all around, wide eyes studying not only Vassa, but her companions. “Alright, alright, that’s enough.”

Vassa got to her feet, her usual grace somewhat dampened by fatigue.

“Are you alright?” Zdislav asked, steadying her once he was on his feet as well.

“Never better,” the masked woman said with a definite note of sarcasm. She sucked in a deep breath, ribs aching like she’d run a marathon. It would take her more time than she wanted to recover enough to return, even with Adéla infusing power back into her rings. She held her hands out to the blood mage, not eager to be so drained for any longer than necessary. “Adéla, might I remind you of your promise?”

Adéla turned to oblige, but her eyes widened in a combination of fear and horror. “Vassa!”

The blow hit the masked woman in the side of her head with enough force to drop her, a strike she would not recover from as swiftly as usual. Vassa caught herself with her hands and turned to look, trying to snap herself back to full focus. The sight of her assailant was enough to send cold fury flooding through her body.

“Sethon,” she said through gritted teeth as she pushed herself up. “You should not have come.”

Sethon’s lips curved into a smirk. “I have so missed our talks, Vassa.” His glossy, dark hair fell almost down into his eyes, slightly longer than she remembered, but the cold, glittering emerald eyes hadn’t changed. His features were sharp and angular, a mark of his elven blood as much as the knife-like points to his ears. He wore armor that was a blend of leather and smoked steel, its glossy finish tainted to prevent a shine. “Do you truly feel in a position to make threats?”

Vassa’s lip curled behind her mask. “You are no longer in the Summer Court, Sethon. Whatever happens between you and I, you will have to contend with the mages here.” She knew that the odds of that continuing to be a problem for him were not in her favor. She drew her shortsword without a thought, firelight glimmering on the edge of the blade.

“So it seems,” Sethon said, stalking forward towards her. His smirk broadened. “Fortunately for us, I came bearing a gift for them.” His hand dropped to the scroll case on his belt.

Vassa knew that was not good. “Adéla, ward!” she shouted. Sethon was just out of her distance, she wouldn’t be able to stop him from releasing whatever horror he had brought with him.

The blood mage reacted on reflex, barking a short incantation as she brought her hands up, weaving gestures together. A ring of twisting wards surrounded Sethon and Vassa, isolating them from everyone else. The magical barriers burned with significant power, so both Kamil and Zdislav put hands on their mage’s shoulders. Several other mages and spellguards stepped up to help the containment.

Sethon let his hand fall away from the scroll case. “Why Vassa, if you wanted me alone, you only needed to ask,” he said, eyes hooded. “I so enjoyed our last private encounter.”

Never in her life had Vassa been more grateful that Seben was nowhere near her. “I am not your plaything any more than I am Lysaerys’s,” she said as she advanced towards him with a dancer’s grace. She knew the fatigue had taken the edge of her reflexes and depleted her reserves. On a better day, Sethon would be far more easily thwarted. This would be a test of her resolve and abilities beyond that she wanted to endure.

But if she far-stepped away, he would only pursue, and she would be so much the weaker for their confrontation. This was the best chance she was going to get.

“Is that so?” Sethon touched her essence without needing physical contact, caressing the remnants of Lysaerys’s vestali, the dark magic bound around her heart. “This says otherwise.”

“Never without my consent!” Vassa spat, blade flashing in the light as it snapped straight at his face.

Sethon contorted his body into a sidestep, slamming a fist into Vassa’s ribs as he turned. The blow came with enough force to disrupt her balance, but she caught herself before he could take advantage of it, blade stinging now at his sword-hand. He recoiled again. “Hardly how I recall your interactions with our beloved, Vassa,” he said with that same, self-satisfied smile.

Sickness welled in the pit of Vassa’s stomach, but she pushed the memories out of her mind. He was doing this to get under her skin, to try and break her. “Your beloved,” she said coolly, taking a split second to collect herself. “Though, if you are here, Lysaerys must be tired of your inferiority. How long did it take before you were exiled from bed?”

Anger burned hot in his expression at that and he lunged, but now his opponent was ready for him. Vassa moved at an angle, stepping past him as she caught his blade in a parry. With his armor, unarmed blows would have a lesser effect, but she pivoted behind him, striking him in the back of the head with her elbow as hard as she could manage. When he stumbled, she drove her blade down into his heel.

Sethon yowled in pain and spun, blade slashing at Vassa. She moved, but not quickly enough. A blooming line of crimson formed across her chest just below her collarbones, his shortsword sharp enough to slice even silk without meeting resistance.

“Is that your best? No wonder you were relegated to errand boy,” Vassa taunted. Pain hadn’t affected her the way it struck Sethon in a very long time. She had learned to find pleasure in it long ago, a consolation that showed its true value now.

“Have you forgotten what I worked upon you?” he said with a sneer. “I made you nothing.”

Vassa’s lips twisted into a rictus grin behind her mask. “Your little torture session? Oh, sweet little Sethon, if you think that broke me, you are mistaken.”

“I tire of your voice, Vassa,” Sethon snarled as he stepped forward.

Vassa knew she would have to choose her moment carefully now. He was angry and inclined to become imprecise, but not by much. Already her body burned with exertion just from the far-step to Zaeylael. Her power trickled into her open hand as she blocked his blade. His knee drove into her thigh, hitting a nerve that almost dropped her.

Sethon battered her with blows, using magic to fuel the savagery of his strikes. He forced Vassa further and further back, placing her completely on the defensive. She kept him from a truly debilitating strike, but her blood dripped to the ground from a dozen fresh cuts. Without armor, it was much harder to guard her body from him.

Not that Sethon was unscathed either. Even tired, Vassa was extremely dangerous. Her blade danced and wove like a viper, striking with speed at even the smallest of openings to leave agonizing wounds. They slowed Sethon, chipping away at his advantage. The blow to his heel definitely slowed his footwork, bringing them almost on par in terms of movement. Both of them were never still for a moment despite exertion and pain, each trying to press whatever advantage they could find.

He found his opening first. Sethon snarled and shoved her with all of his might backwards, a sickening grin splitting his face.

Vassa hit the ward, agony exploding through her body as the twisted threads of existence tried to rip her apart. Her hands spasmed in pain as her back arched on contact, the clatter of her blade striking the ground ringing in her ears along with his jackal laughter.

“Lysaerys said nothing of returning you whole,” Sethon sneered, grabbing her by her shirt and pulling her forward. His eyes focused intently on her even as he gathered his strength for a greater far-step. He intended to take her with him.

Back.

Vassa grabbed the hand that held her and poured her essence into his body, igniting the threads of his existence with an agony he had always coveted. She would never return to Lysaerys while she had any power to resist. Sethon screamed and tried to recoil away, but the masked woman was a master of twisting the knife, whether with an actual blade or the dark magic she had long ago mastered. She followed his movement, still driving her fingers into his hand and her essence into his, allowing his attempts to retreat to pull her out of the ward just before it could rip her to pieces.

Sethon was no fool, even when tortured. Vassa was no longer in a condition to dodge. He drove his blade between her ribs, piercing one lung. She caught his hand before he could angle it at all to strike something that would kill her more certainly, then snapped his wrist with a thought and a pulse of magic. There was something incredibly satisfying when he hit his knees, fumbling for the scroll case.

Vassa put her heel on his good hand before he could open it, grinding the bones into the stone floor, carefully removing the saress that transfixed her chest now that his power could not resist, even though she knew doing so would leave her to bleed. Sethon’s blade had a peculiar quality to it, a hunger for blood that could strengthen its master. Leaving it there would only aid him.

Her wounds were grave. There was a good chance she would die here and she knew it. Worse yet, she didn’t have the strength to kill him without killing herself with drain. Once upon a time, she would have done so gladly to slay Sethon and send his spirit to its own special hell, but Seben needed her protection.

Vassa had promised to return. She never wanted to be in a position where she would have to betray Seben’s trust. She staggered back away from him, though she only made it a few steps before collapsing to her knees. She ripped her power out of Sethon’s body, leaving him sobbing on the ground.

Sethon rolled on the ground to face her, hate twisting his expression into a grotesque mask at odds with elven beauty. “This is not over,” he snarled, but Vassa felt him reach between the threads instead of attempting another attack.

He vanished into thin air, no doubt pulling himself back to Lysaerys’s side to lick his wounds. Vassa took some solace in the idea of the unthinkable tortures that awaited him as punishment for failure.

All around her, the wards dropped and people rushed towards her. “Vassa!” Zdislav said, the first to reach her.

Everything blurred around her as the reality of exhaustion and her wounds hit her like an avalanche. “Seben,” she said, voice barely there after the damage to her lung. She tried to stand up, but her legs refused to work. She sagged against Zdislav, aware only of the crimson of her blood across the burnished surface of his armor. It was such a beautiful color…

Power flooded into her body as Adéla’s hand brushed her cheek, restoring some of the lost vitality. It wasn’t healing, but it allowed her to think more clearly through the pain. “Her Highness will understand,” the mage said. “You require healing.”

“Sarom has healers,” Vassa rasped, but she was too weak to fight off anything, let alone the combined force of Kamil and Zdislav. The spellguards ripped the cloth of her outer shirt to bind the wounds they could as tightly as possible to stop her from bleeding out as quickly. As soon as they had done so, they scooped her up.

“Do they come any more stubborn?” Kamil said as they carried Vassa’s bloody form out of the library, moving at a jog to get her to the healers as fast as possible. Fortunately, the Pharos was an academy of mages and had many excellent healers who were very proficient in tending to severe wounds, including those made by magic.

Vassa’s perception faded into grey as more and more blood seeped through the impromptu bandages and it became harder and harder to breathe. It took so much effort to keep herself even a little together through the pain and the creeping cold advancing through her limbs towards her heart with midwinter purpose.

This was not the first time that her body had been broken. She hoped dimly that it would not be the last.


Chapter 22
Aftermath

By K. Olsen

For all her training, or perhaps because of it, there was nothing in the world more frightening than Lysaerys’s anger, Lysaerys’s jealousy. It burned like fire in her veins as the dark magic around her heart thrashed and clawed like a thing alive, shredding her soul with pain. “You are mine, Vassa,” that voice breathed against her ear, every syllable as much as a trap as the body pinning her to the wall. “Always mine. Forever mine. Only mine.”

That touch would erase even the thought of any other’s.

It hurt so badly that all she wanted was for it to end, whatever that meant. Submission was the only escape, but there was still something in her that wanted to fight desperately for survival even as she drowned in Lysaerys’s fury, tortured by the fingers digging into her flesh and bringing with them the crackling touch of power that threatened to char her from the inside out. “It was nothing! Please, please stop...I can’t…” Her body couldn’t bear the wrath coming.

“You will do whatever I wish, whenever I wish it,” that voice whispered, low and smoky. She could hear the smile in Lysaerys’s voice at the plea, feel it scorching against her skin. “Don’t you love me?”

She closed her eyes tightly. Sometimes it was better just to try not to feel, to try and lock her heart away from everything happening, to forget. Not that Lysaerys ever allowed it, displeasure felt as a stabbing pain split her side—

Vassa opened her eyes with a hiss of breath, covering her aching ribs with one hand. It took her a moment to orient herself, but the pain was a blessed sign that she was still alive. Her hood and mask remained undisturbed, but she could feel sheets against her torso where it wasn’t covered in bandages. She felt feverish and her limbs quivered as she tried to sit up, sending bolts of agony through her chest.

“Stay down, Vassa,” Adéla said, putting a hand on Vassa’s shoulder on her good side and pressing down. “We cannot afford to have you open your own wounds again. They were problematic enough to tend.”

The masked woman’s mouth was so dry she could barely speak, but she was not about to remove her mask and ask for water. She turned her head and saw darkness outside the window, a sudden stab of concern disrupting her peace of mind even more. “How long has it been?” she rasped.

“It’s almost midnight, so hours,” the blood mage said, leaning back in her seat and brushing her brown hair back out of her face. “You crippled the creature that attacked you enough that he has not returned, at least.”

Vassa tried to ignore the sickness in her stomach, to tell herself it was the pain and whatever cures they had applied to her to heal her so well. She felt every breath as a torture, but she was breathing normally. Even with that attempted self-deluding, though, she knew the truth: Sethon’s words had empowered her customary nightmares. She could still feel the punishment in the dream’s touch, but that poisonous longing reared its ugly head too.

She would never understand how she could love, fear, and hate Lysaerys all at the same time with such violent intensity. Distance had done nothing to sever that emotional tie and time was not likely to either. The passage of minutes, hours, days, years...it did not carry the same meaning for Vassa as it did for others.

“I have to go,” Vassa said hoarsely. “I have been away too long.”

“You are in no condition to defend even yourself, let alone protect Seben,” Adéla said with a fierce frown. She went to grab Vassa again to hold her down, standing up from her seat to do so.

For a split second, Adéla’s features were replaced by Lysaerys’s visage and the firm but relatively gentle hold that trapped Vassa felt anything but. “Stop.” The word leaped out of Vassa’s lips, broken and terrified. Her next blink cleared her vision, and she saw Adéla looking down at her with concern even as the mage released her.

“You are not like yourself, Vassa,” Adéla said, brow furrowing with worry. For all their past difficulties, she still considered the masked woman an ally, maybe even a friend.

Vassa pulled in a deep breath and immediately regretted it as the agony in her side returned. She hissed, rolling onto her good side. It brought her to face Adéla, but Vassa could shutter away her emotion when she needed to. It was just more difficult when wounded so badly and disoriented.

“Do you want something for the pain?” the blood mage asked.

“No.”

Adéla sighed, but gave no argument. Vassa knew well that it was a concession to her wishes, since the last time she’d limped into Zaeylael, after her battle to free Zdislav from the demon, she had refused all offers. Her threat towards the healers if they tried was probably still remembered.

Vassa closed her eyes and forced the memories from her mind. She knew how to center herself, to calm the raging torrents of her thoughts. She was grateful that Seben was not present and not exposed to Sethon’s malice, but part of her also intensely missed the warmth of the apprentice fire-speaker. “My injuries are treated. I am stable enough to travel,” she said, voice still harsh.

“Your injuries are severe,” Adéla said with a frown. “They had enough trouble just getting to your lung with all the scar

Vassa hissed again in pain as she sat up and held the sheets to her chest, but this time Adéla made no move to pin her. “What did you see?” she demanded, gaze burning into the mage. There was something dangerous in her voice.

Adéla tensed, reminded in that moment that she knew little of Vassa despite everything. “The healers said you had many, many scars across your chest and back,” she said softly. “That is all.”

“Did they describe them?”

The blood mage was no fool: deceiving Vasas was an impossible task. “They said it looked as if you had been healed and harmed more than should be possible,” she said. “I did not inquire further and instructed them that they were not to remove your mask or hood. We stayed with you to ensure that order was obeyed.”

“Kamil and Zdislav?” Vassa said. Even as she spoke, she attuned to the flow of magic through her body and her rings. She was not back to full essence, but most of her vitality was intact enough to ensure a powerful command of her magic. The physical wounds would heal more slowly, though the alchemy vastly accelerated her recovery as it burned like a fever in her veins.

“They should be back with clothes, food, and water at any moment,” Adéla said. She knew the actual concern of that question. “They saw nothing more than I, Vassa. We owe you twice now and will not betray your privacy. Sethon would have wreaked havoc had you not stopped him.”

Vassa nodded slowly, forcing herself to relax. “I need to return. I have magic enough to make the journey and at least ward Seben through the night.”

There was a brief knock at the door before it opened. Zdislav came in with a tray of food and Kamil followed on his heels, quickly tossing a folded shirt at Vassa. She didn’t attempt to catch it since his aim was good enough to land the fabric on her lap.

Her thoughts darted momentarily to the clothing she had lost. “I liked that shirt.” She would show weakness in front of one person if not given a choice, but she was not about to expose her pain to all three of them.

“It did you more favors as bandages than it did as clothing,” Kamil said with a chuckle.

Vassa sighed slightly. “Spoken as someone with no conception of the finer parts of fashion.”

“You must be feeling better,” Zdislav said with a chuckle, setting down the tray. His blue eyes were pleased when he turned them towards her. Apparently someone was glad she had survived. “Quite the display you gave. I have never heard of anyone who was not a spellguard interacting with a ward so without being ripped apart.”

The masked woman winced at the memory, grateful that her expression hid beneath fabric. “I have practice.” She waited until Kamil and Zdislav turned their backs to offer her some privacy before pulling the shirt on as quickly as she could without torturing herself.

“At least eat before you depart,” Adéla said firmly. “Your body needs sustenance if it is to keep healing.”

With the ravenous hunger from her alchemical healing, it was hard to argue with that point of logic. Vassa nodded reluctantly. “I would like to eat in private,” she said, everything about her words and posture daring them to refuse.

“On one condition,” Adéla said. “You must inform us before departing. I have something for you from His Majesty, as gratitude for defending my person from this Sethon creature and safeguarding us through Ethilir. He would be most displeased with me if I did not ensure you received it.”

Again, it was a request that she could not really deny. Staying in the High King’s good graces would be necessary to obtain access to the sanctum of magical knowledge that the Leyan monarch controlled. Despite the rumors that blood mages dominated court politics, she knew that the reality was more complicated than that and that Miroslav in particular wielded his gifted servants with a touch that was silk hiding steel. “I will knock when I am finished,” Vassa said.

“Be careful when you get to your feet,” Kamil said. “You may be weaker than you think.”

“I have endured worse and survived,” the masked woman said dismissively, though she knew he had a point. With the blood she had lost, her walk was bound to be graceless, at least comparatively speaking.

“Are you intending to depart so soon?” Zdislav murmured with concern coloring his tone.

“Would you stay in a sickbed if Adéla was alone and unprotected?” Vassa said pointedly, relaxing slightly when he shook his head.

“Your loyalty to her protection is surprising,” Adéla said as she rose to her feet. “I do not recall you having much interest in the preservation of others while you were in Zaeylael, except Zdislav’s rescue.”

Vassa shrugged. It was true, she had always been more willing to allow nature to take its course. She knew many mages from her time in the High Kingdom, but seldom did she ever intervene to save their lives amongst the infighting. She played the Game, keeping her heart at a distance and her mind honed on increasing her own knowledge and power. If she was being honest, Zdislav was only alive because of the grudging respect Adéla’s skill had earned and the echoes of her own protective past she’d seen in Kamil.

“What changed?” Kamil asked.

Vassa picked up a spoon, looking into the depths of her bowl. The soup was mostly broth, but there were shreds of chicken and vegetables in it. It smelled wonderful, her body reminding her that not only had she not eaten for more than a day, but her flesh was mending at a rate that demanded extra energy. “An answer I will not provide,” she rasped. She still couldn’t put words to the protective urges she felt around Seben. They just...happened. “I will inform you before I depart. Please give me the opportunity to eat.”

“We will,” Adéla promised before stepping out of the room. Kamil followed her immediately, but Zdislav lingered for a moment.

“I cannot say that I know how you have looked at her, behind that mask,” he said gently. “But I have seen the way Her Highness looks at you.”

Vassa looked over at him, not sure what to make of that. She kept her peace, waiting for him to say more even though she wasn’t certain she wanted to hear it.

The tall spellguard smiled faintly. “You are something special to that one,” he said. “I hope you both find your happiness, whatever that may mean.”

“Happiness is not in my nature, Zdislav,” Vassa said. The idea of it felt laughable, but it also sent a current of terror through her body. She did not want Seben looking to her for happiness. The only thing the masked woman knew to do with such an emotion was to destroy it.

He approached and knelt by her bedside, looking up at her. The angle revealed Vassa’s eyes, but the mask covered her face from the bridge of her nose downward and the hood hid much of her brow from view. “What has come before is not what must always be,” he said. “You deserve better than your past and the gods account for such things.”

It was hard to meet his eyes, so Vassa turned her face away. “I know what I deserve.”

Zdislav’s hand closed around hers and he brought it to his forehead, touching her knuckles to the stylized, blue sigil tattooed at the center of his brow, forming the pupil of an open eye symbol. “I hope that you find a change in your heart, Vassa,” he said gently as he lowered her hand again and gave it a soft squeeze. “For both your sakes.”

Vassa watched him rise to his feet and turn his back. He almost made it to the door before she found her words. “Zdislav,” she said quietly.

He stopped at the sound of his name and turned back.

She tried to wet her lips enough to speak with less of a ragged edge, but there was no use. The soup would help. “What if the past will not let me go?”

The spellguard smiled faintly. “Any chain can be broken, even those placed by the wicked. Eat, Vassa. Her Highness needs your strength. We will guard your door.” He stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Vassa pulled down her mask once she was safely alone and ate. The broth of the soup filled her with a less feverish warmth and soothed her throat, chicken and vegetables adding flavor as well as nourishment. It was nothing spectacular, but it was enough that she felt a hundred times better by the time she finished. Cool water helped more to ease the last of the dryness of her throat. She carefully got to her feet and then made her way over to the basin of warm water against the wall, scrubbing the blood from her face and rinsing it out of her mask. She had a second wrap of fabric tucked in a pocket along her thigh, so she pulled it out to cover her face with dove grey silk. It only took her a few moments to wind and pin her hair so it was back out of her face beneath the hood.

She felt better. Not whole, not healthy, but better. Well enough to return. She approached the door and knocked quietly. A key turned in the lock and then the door opened to reveal Kamil, Zdislav, and Adéla waiting patiently.

“How do you feel?” Adéla asked.

“Better,” Vassa said. She was awake enough now that she could imprison the memories again beneath the surface of her thoughts, back in the dark corners of her mind.

“You sound better,” Kamil said with a smile. “Less like the death rattle of the undead.”

“You say the sweetest things,” the masked woman said dryly.

“Since you seem well enough to go, I have this for you,” Adéla said, unwrapping a compact bundle. “As a gift of gratitude from His Majesty.”

The last uncovering of the soft cotton that surrounded it revealed a delicate bone bracelet. She recognized the dark letters and symbols of a flowing language etched into the bone and stained dark with ink. “An elvish artifact?” Vassa said, reaching out towards it. She stopped at the last second before touching it. “How did he come by this?”

“I think we recovered it from an expedition to the edge of the Vale of the Undying, to a section of ruins that lay beneath the trees. From what I understand, it is protective,” Adéla said as she offered the bracelet to Vassa.

Vassa touched the bone with her fingertips, a little spark of power leaping from the bracelet to her. She smiled behind her mask, comforted by the aura around the bracelet. “Indeed it is,” she breathed. “It shields the mind against forced control and other intrusions.” She looked up at Adéla. “A princely gift.”

“One you’ve more than earned,” Kamil said with a broad grin. “It seems only right that it should go with you.”

Vassa picked up the bracelet. “You have my gratitude all the same,” she said, dipping her head in a nod to the three of them. She slipped it onto her wrist, feeding a touch of her essence into it as she did so. The bone changed shape slightly, fitting itself to her wrist so it would not slip off. “Please convey my best wishes to the High King.”

“Be well, Vassa,” Adéla said. “Stay in touch. I will ensure you have access to the Sanctum any time you are in Zaeylael.”

“Indeed,” Zdislav said by way of agreement. “And remember to find a healer to change your bandages.”

“I will,” Vassa said. She took a step back and drew the power from her rings, again letting it swirl inside her chest. Without so many extra things to attend to, this would be enough to carry her back to Seben’s side. The threads of existence all around her hummed with energy, potential. She closed her eyes, picturing Seben’s room in her mind as she reached through the threads until she found those familiar four walls. She pulled in a deep breath that became a stabbing pain, then stepped between the spaces like a dancer.

There was a crack of thunder as she materialized in Seben’s room, a kingdom away from where she had been standing.

“Vassa!” Seben cried with delight, almost tackling the masked woman into a hug.

Agony exploded through Vassa’s chest at the squeeze. The masked woman had a pain tolerance that few could equal, but she still gasped and cringed.

Seben’s reaction was immediate, recoiling to arm’s length. “Are you alright?”

“Never better,” Vassa said with a dry tone given an edge by pain.

The apprentice fire-speaker realized it as soon as she took the second to scrutinize Vassa’s appearance. The bandages were visible as slight bulkiness added to the masked woman’s lithe frame. “What happened?” Seben said, worry and surprise spreading rapidly across her face.

Vassa sat down on the edge of Seben’s bed. “The...creature that was looking for me sprang an ambush when we arrived in Zaeylael. Nothing I could not handle.”

“But you’re wounded,” Seben murmured, concern weighting every word.

“It happens now and then,” Vassa said. Truthfully, it very seldom happened because of the immense care she took, but Sethon’s attack had been perfectly timed to strike while she was significantly weakened.

Seben stepped forward, reaching out to touch the bandage across Vassa’s ribs. She didn’t have to be a warrior to know such wounds were dangerous. This time, Vassa allowed the contact, knowing that it wouldn’t hurt as long as Seben was gentle.

The masked woman wasn’t prepared for dark eyes glossy with tears or the sudden determination that flared in Seben’s expression. “Next time, I go with you,” Seben said. “You shouldn’t have to face...this...alone.”

Vassa felt a flood of warmth and cold at the same time. Seben’s promise of protection was comforting even though it shouldn’t have been, but the thought of Sethon getting his claws on the apprentice fire-speaker was a vision out of the worst of nightmares. She covered the hand Seben held to her side with her own. “There are places I go where you must not follow,” she said quietly. When she saw the argument forming in the young woman’s expression, Vassa shook her head. “In this, I am wholly sincere. If you care even an iota for me, you will listen when I forbid it.”

“I care enough not to abandon you,” Seben countered. “What if you get hurt?”

“A small price to pay for your continued safety,” Vassa said calmly. Steel returned to her voice. “Remember who you are, Seben. If something happens to you, it is more than the loss of a single life. You have an entire kingdom depending on you to stop dark magic and a corrupted king. I am infinitely more expendable in this endeavour of ours.”

Seben’s eyes still blazed. “You are not expendable!”

“You are not listening to me,” Vassa said sharply. Her grip on Seben’s hand tightened slightly. “We need you, Seben. What do you think would happen if you died?”

“Another Sunblessed would rise,” Seben said, still tensed. “There will always be another.”

“Are you certain of that?” the masked woman countered. “You do not think that soon Userkare will learn how his magic hungers for the divine, how it would devour the essence of a Sunblessed if it was allowed to? You have fire-speaking to defend yourself, a tool no other Sunblessed has had, nor likely will have if Userkare can forbid it. You are the best chance to save not only Ethilir, but the kingdoms of men. When that magic has drained the Sunlit Throne and all its light, it will move on.”

Seben seemed to falter with every sentence. She sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the gloss of tears was back. “I just…” She pulled in another breath. “I don’t want to lose you.”

The ache in Vassa’s chest now had little to do with her wounds. She looked away from Seben’s expression and all the honesty shining in it. “That may be a request beyond my power to grant.” She brushed her thumb across Seben’s knuckles before letting go of her hand. The temptation to lie and offer comfort was almost overwhelming, but Vassa reminded herself that she didn’t like to deceive Seben. “I will stay as much as I am able, as long as I am able. That is all I can promise.”

The apprentice fire-speaker sighed and looked away as well. “I’ll take it,” she said, brushing at her eyes. She was quiet for a few moments before saying, “I suppose you’d rather talk about what happened here?”

“Very much so,” Vassa said, relaxing slightly at the subject change.

“A message came from Lord Osei. He wants to meet,” Seben reported dutifully. “Other than that, it was mercifully quiet. I stayed in, so I don’t know if Master Kakhent and Master Duaenre have returned yet from speaking with the King.”

Vassa smiled as she saw the small dish of seeds on the windowsill and a pigeon with its head tucked under its wing, the remnants of small leather ties on its leg. It had been a brief message. “Did he say where?”

“The manor, if we can get there unseen.” Seben gave her a small smile. “I’m sure that won’t be a problem.”

The masked woman inclined her head in a nod. “I have a few thoughts on the method,” she said with amusement. “Let us hope he doesn’t mind people appearing from thin air.”


Chapter 23
An Unusual Ally

By K. Olsen

Vassa rapped on the door to Masaharta’s study. Her far-step had taken them to an empty room, though Djau greeted them in the hallway adjacent like a startled deer. It was amusing, at least. 

“Come in,” the Master of Malice called. 

Seben opened the door, lips parting in surprise when she saw the other guest of the nobleman. There, standing in front of the genial spymaster, was a real orc. From his size, head and almost shoulders above Seben’s six feet, and blocky, square jaw with protruding tusks, it was easy to tell that this was the genuine, full-blooded article. His grey skin was painted in red with whorls and dots, the thin lines bold by virtue of color. Yellow animal eyes focused on the two women, a crooked smile tugging across his face. 

Vassa was less in awe of the sight of one of the northern people, as she’d encountered orcs on several occasions in her travel through the wild lands of Ash Kordh. She focused on assessing this one. Clearly a warrior, from the battle scars that criss crossed his face and bare arms. He carried no weapon at the moment other than a long, wicked knife in a leather sheath, but Vassa knew from experience that orcs were even stronger than they looked, inhumanly so. His hair was cut short in a military style and his clothing was human in style rather than the furs and buckskin preferred in the north, likely for very practical reasons.

“Ah, just the charming ladies we were discussing,” Masaharta said, leaning back in his chair with a broad grin. “Your Highness, Mistress Vassa, may I introduce Rhujag of the Stone? He is a mercenary from the north, though he has been in and around Ethilir long enough to have a passable grasp on the language.” 

Rhujag gave them a sweeping bow, a chuckle rumbling out of his deep chest at Seben’s expression. “Well met,” the orc said, voice rough and rasping. It was likely the result of damage to his throat in battle, though crushing rather than slicing based on the lack of real scar. He was fortunate or particularly tough to have survived, maybe both. 

“Well met,” Seben said. 

Thur-arktsagh,” Vassa said, the Orcish greeting sliding silver off her tongue despite its guttural sound. She switched fluidly back to Eth out of politeness, amused by the way the orc’s dark eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Lord Osei, you keep fascinating company.” 

“You speak well,” Rhujag said. “I have not heard the ancestor speech in some time.” He paused, sizing up the masked woman with more interest now, not that he hadn’t looked curious before.

Vassa’s lips twitched into a faint smile. “A shame. It has its charms.” 

“What did you say?” Seben asked. 

“The way of speaking in your language…’May Death look kindly on you’,” Rhujag translated with surprise still lingering in his voice. “It is an old greeting, full of respect.” 

“Useful knowledge,” Masaharta said with a gleam in his eye. “Orcish is unheard of this far south. It may make communications much more difficult to decipher.” He tapped a fresh reed stylus against his lips thoughtfully. “I hope that understanding comes to be joined by mutual respect. After all, I think Rhujag would be an admirable fellow guardian for Her Highness.” 

Vassa raised an eyebrow at that. “Have I given the impression that help is required?” 

“I thought it might be appreciated. Eventually you will need to rest or attend to other tasks. Your unique skill set might be useful to Her Highness in ways beyond mere guard duty,” the nobleman said with a shrug. “You will find Rhujag exceptionally capable and so far beneath Userkare’s arrogant notice that he would pay more mind to a trundling ant.” 

“Fortunate I,” the orc said. 

“Your mercenary company will not object to your absence?” the masked woman asked, gaze shifting to Rhujag. Masaharta made an excellent point on both fronts. When not viewed with fear by the softer races of the south, orcs were often considered savages worthy of legend and in Ethilir, frequently nothing more than storybook monsters. His help would also give her time to gather information and work more proactively to prevent harm to Seben. 

“I owe Lord Osei a debt equal to my life. This task he asked of me,” Rhujag said with a shrug. He inhaled, about to speak or laugh, but stopped. His yellow eyes combed over the pair. “Blood.”

“Today was rather more exciting than anticipated,” Vassa said wryly. “Nothing that I could not attend to. That said, I may have to make use of one of your healers before I retire, Lord Osei. Bandages are such troublesome things.” She could see interest in Masaharta’s expression, that hunting for information that came so naturally to those who made their lives in service of secret catching. 

Vassa was not about to indulge him and not merely because it was an unflattering portrait of her abilities. There was no way in any afterlife that she trusted him or anyone in the room with intimate knowledge of her past. Even Seben needed to stay at arm’s length, though more out of concern for breaking the young woman than being broken. 

“Please do elaborate,” Masaharta said. 

“The matter is settled and not particularly relevant,” Vassa said dismissively, even if it was lying through her teeth. Sethon’s arrival meant things were anything but settled. The presence that had dominated her entire life for so very long was not inclined to take her refusal to return for an answer. Sethon might or might not be the messenger again, but there would be another. 

Her ribs ached with the lingering pain of Sethon’s vampiric blade….but his blows were papercuts compared to the possible evils that awaited in her future. 

“We should probably tell you about the Leyans,” Seben said, interrupting Masaharta before he could press the question. “After we helped them during the assassination attempt, they said they would help by offering Vassa and I access to the libraries of the Pharos. If there is something written about the curse on King Userkare, it will be there.” 

“Possibly,” Vassa corrected. “There are some things so old that the records of them were obliterated during the Revealing.” 

Seben looked over. “You recognized it.” 

“I am not a Leyan mage,” Vassa said, lips twitching with irritation behind her mask when she saw the gears in Masaharta’s mind turning. “There are some facets of the infinite jewel that are clearer to me than to them, and the opposite is true as well.”

“What has been your experience with such things?” Masaharta asked more seriously. He straightened up behind his desk. “As Keeper of the Seal, it is important to safeguard the Sunblessed against all threats and it is difficult to do that when an ally guards their knowledge so jealously.” 

Rhujag turned the chair across the desk from Masaharta to face the two women and then sat down comfortably. He tilted his head slightly as he studied Vassa before rumbling out his own question. “You have seen it before?” 

“Yes and no,” Vassa said, eyes narrowing in displeasure. 

Masaharta sighed. “I am afraid I must insist on more of an answer than that, Mistress Vassa.” 

“I have never seen it so...alive,” Vassa said as calmly as she could as the tremor started in her chest. It was so easy to travel the road back into that horror, but it exacted a terrible toll. “I once had the displeasure of encountering the tomb of such magic.” 

“It was dead?” Seben said with something approaching relief. “So it can be killed.” 

Vassa laughed at that, her amusement very much dark. “Can you kill death itself? It was fragmented, a shard of a greater power left withered to almost nothingness by starvation, imprisoned by powers no mortal mage can sunder.” She crossed her arms. “It was very much alive, pacing behind the bars to its cage like a captured panther. It took the sacrifice of a god’s own life-force to seal it in the hidden places of the earth.” 

“How did you reach it?” Masaharta asked, falling easily into the role of genial interrogator, though he had lost some of his softness. There was too much hunger in his expression for a potential answer to Userkare for his demeanor to be counted as truly relaxed. 

A bitter taste lingered on Vassa’s tongue as she thought of those first steps into the cave. Trust me, my precious doll. All of this will be worth it. Once we have finished here, you will be all that I desire. Gods, she had been a fool for ever believing that promise. She knew better, but she had succumbed all the same to the overwhelming power of that addictive love. “The means are something no one in this room could ever even dream of replicating, and every soul in Ethilir should kiss the dust in gratitude that this is so.” 

“Not even you?” Seben asked. She knew immediately that it had been the wrong question when Vassa didn’t answer immediately with either a rebuke or a deflection. 

There was certainly a possibility that she could recreate the way Lysaerys drained away the power of the wards guarding the tomb by allowing that ancient evil to feed on a heart that loved more than any other’s. She had helped construct the plan to reach it, after all. Years after years of delving into other ruins, researching magic, slaying rivals and sabotaging allies growing too close to their goal, ripping information from the minds of those who knew more than she did of the thing’s nature. Rivers of blood were required in pursuing such power and Vassa had created most of the current. 

Lysaerys preferred to watch, ever saving those little purrs of praise and wicked claws of punishment for the appropriate moments. Most of all, Vassa’s lisse delighted in watching the change the struggle brought about in the masked woman. The slow erosion of light and life was a pleasure for the dark and corrupted winter heart that held hers. 

“No,” Vassa said after a pause that felt longer than it was. Her tone sharpened. “This is a pointless discussion. That incarnation of this magic is not what we are dealing with. It is sealed away and this is not. The important matter is that we have an ally in the High Kingdom’s finest battle mage and her spellguards. If you are going to turn this into an inquisition, Lord Osei, I will return to the Ashen Tower. I have had a long and trying day, I am not about to prolong it with inane questioning.” 

“Agreed,” Rhujag rumbled, earning a sigh from Masaharta that the orc didn’t seem to notice. “This talk brings us no closer to victory and wounds need rest.” 

“Very well,” the spymaster said, rising from his seat. “We can discuss the curse more in the morning. In the meantime, you are welcome to stay and rest here. I would hope that you also take the time before you three make your way to the Ashen Tower to become acquainted. Rhujag is an excellent fighter and a tolerable conversationalist.” 

“He means I know how to shut up,” the orc said with a flicker of amusement across his fearsome features. 

“A more valuable skill than many appreciate,” Vassa said dryly. She still wasn’t pleased with Masaharta’s prying, but could hardly hold it against him. In trying times, instinct tended to overtake decorum. “Our current accommodations both where and in the Tower lack a third bed, but the couches are quite spacious. Perhaps even enough to accommodate an orc.” 

“I sleep better on floors,” Rhujag said, standing up. His full height was imposing without any attempt made to intimidate. Vassa knew that even a hint of his battle-rage would have Userkare’s assassins quivering in their boots. “Too much soft makes soft people.” 

“Soft, comfortable people,” Masaharta said, his good humor returning. “I am going to retire.” 

Seben glanced nervously at the orc as the Master of Malice departed, then looked at Vassa. “More help wouldn’t hurt.” 

“Thank you for saying yes,” Rhujag rumbled. He gave the apprentice fire-speaker a smile that was surprisingly warm for such a brutal-looking creature. “When Lord Osei told me of your fight, I wished to aid it.” 

“Why?” the young woman asked.

“Userkare is a monster,” the mercenary said, his face hardening. “Whether it is bad magic or a bad soul matters little. Maybe it is both.” 

Vassa leaned back against the wall, crossing her arms. She was careful not to stretch the damaged muscles of her ribs as she did so. As much as she had learned to enjoy pain, she wasn’t keen to damage her body further. “What do you know of him?” 

“They say he has good manners, but he is a wolf wearing the pelt of a sheep. His people have murdered many who opposed his rise. Now many flock to him out of fear of his reprisals,” Rhujag said. “I would not follow the banner of a tyrant, nor allow it to fly while I have strength of arms.” To Vassa, something unsaid lingered in those words.

“That’s...not what I expected to hear,” Seben admitted. “I’m sorry for being so rude, Rhujag, but the stories they tell of the northern hordes…” 

“That we are mindless barbarians driven by bloodlust and rage, beaten into submission by the cruelties of our leaders?” Rhujag said with hints of his crooked smile showing. “We tell stories as flattering of humans. Neither are true in whole, though some stories have...grains.” 

“Like orcish blood rage, which is very much a reality,” Vassa said for Seben’s benefit. “An orc will take a hundred blows and not fall if they are sufficiently motivated.” She cocked her head slightly. “Not that you are njoshari.”

Njoshari?” Seben asked. She frowned, but it was thoughtful instead of displeased.

“Adepts who channel magic through their bodies to accomplish great feats of strength, speed, endurance,” Rhujag explained for Seben’s benefit. “It is old, god-given magic.” 

Seben’s scholarly curiosity flared. “Vassa mentioned once that your people say their magic comes from the gods. So does fire-speaking. Maybe there’s some overlap. Maybe—” Her words came more and more quickly, excitement spreading across her face. 

Vassa almost rolled her eyes. “Excitement in the morning. To bed with you,” she said, prodding Seben meaningfully in the ribs. “You may interrogate our orcish companion later.” 

Rhujag laughed. “She sounds like a shaman finding a new plant.” 

“The fascinated glee is remarkably similar,” Vassa agreed. “It is late and I require rest as well. The wounds will be closed by morning after the rather sizable dose of alchemy, but in the meantime, a little sleep wouldn’t be amiss.”

Seben stifled a yawn, fatigue creeping back into her body. “Alright,” she conceded. 

“I have an asking of you in the morning, Mistress Vassa,” Rhujag said, his accent thickening for a moment on her name. “I would like to see how you fight.” 

“The sooner we are accustomed to working together in a battle, the better,” Vassa agreed with only a trace of reluctance. She didn’t like displaying her tricks and techniques, they worked better as surprises, but she was reasonably confident that she could get away and return with a vengeance if the orc turned on them. Not that her experiences with orcs gave any indication that they were particularly deceptive. Orcs didn’t stab in the back, as far as Vassa could tell. The face was a far more satisfying target for them. They liked the sound of crunching bone. “Also, my name will suffice without a title.” 

Rhujag’s grin was toothy, though it wasn’t clear if he most appreciated the informality or the idea of trading blows with the masked woman. “Good,” he said with approval. 

“The morning, then,” Vassa said, smoothing her fingertips over her mask. She had a feeling she was going to like Rhujag, which was somewhat concerning. 

Seben led the way through the door towards their rooms and Vassa followed beside the orc. He walked with a surprisingly quiet tread for someone so large, probably after a lifetime of living out in the woods. It made Vassa wonder what had brought him so far from his wild homeland, but prying into him while keeping her own past wrapped so tightly in secrets seemed in poor taste, at least for the moment. 

Rhujag turned his head as if he’d sensed her eyes on him. “You move well,” he rumbled. 

“As do you,” Vassa said. She slowed her pace slightly and lowered her voice. “You also know more of Userkare than you said.” 

“My mercenary company took his coin,” Rhujag said quietly. “When we learned of his task, there was a...bad talk.” He flexed his rough hands meaningfully, like he was grasping for weapons.

“Violent disagreement over his mission is an interesting avenue to take,” Vassa observed. “What task?” 

“There is no honor in killing the weak,” the orc said instead of answering the question directly. “But Captain Aahotepre was strong. I pleased the ancestors when I put his head on a pike.” 

Vassa’s lips twitched into a smile behind her mask. “Ah,”  she said smoothly. She could certainly read between those lines. “And the rest of your company?” 

“Split apart,” Rhujag answered with something approaching a shrug. “Some took Userkare’s coin more firmly. Others scattered to the wind, sensing a storm. I went to Lord Osei.” 

“If there is one thing I know of orcs, it is that they all but worship storms,” Vassa said thoughtfully, still smiling ever so faintly. 

“I look forward to the tempest of crushing the tyrant,” Rhujag murmured, hands tightening into fists.


Chapter 24
Tie-Breaker

By K. Olsen

“What if he hurts you?” Seben asked with worry, hovering near Vassa as she stretched out her shoulders. Her back still ached from contact with the ripping power of the ward, the last remnant of its power not quite banished by alchemical healing. 

Vassa looked at her companion with a hint of amusement curling the corners of her lips behind her mask. “So eager to leap to my defense?” she said. “Perhaps you should take my place in the ring. That could be entertaining.”

“I mean it,” Seben said firmly, looking over at Rhujag. “He’s huge and I don’t think he’s slow.” 

“I am more than capable of seeing to my own defense,” Vassa said, still amused by Seben’s fretting. It was rather endearing, even if she would never say so. “I am merely grateful that Lord Osei and Djau stepped out this morning to gather intelligence on the assassination attempt on our blood mage ally. I prefer not to display my tricks to an audience unless the situation requires it.” 

Seben nodded hesitantly, a bit of curiosity slipping out. “I suppose I haven’t seen everything you’re capable of.” 

“You never will,” Vassa said, slipping her sword-belt off. She ran fingertips lovingly over the hilt of her shortsword, the rayskin wrapping of the handle almost smooth from use. It had been bound and rebound many times since its reforging by her dwarven acquaintance in the north. The blade had followed her since her birth, a last relic of her heritage and the life she’d lived before her training sapped the light from her. She set it down carefully on the floor beside her outer shirt, though she was still covered from head to toe in fabric that shrouded her from the world. “I promise.” 

“You’re very attached to that blade,” Seben observed instead of pressing on Vassa. Her sense for the masked woman’s boundaries grew every day and she likely knew that Vassa was referring to the darker magics she was capable of using. What she’d seen already was fuel for the occasional nightmares.

“A saress is more than a blade,” Vassa said, sliding the blade out of the sheath. It was featherlight in her hands. “It is memory. This steel served zhendai like myself for thousands of years before I was born. They are relics now, things that survived the destruction of the First World, gifts of the Life-Giver in the war between gods and demons.” 

Seben tilted her head as she looked at the blade, watching sunlight glitter on the razor-sharp edge, the reflection refracted by the scars on the steel. “It looks like it was damaged and repaired.” 

“It was,” Vassa said. She hated the memory of Lysaerys shattering her blade in front of her. In that moment, she would have rather had her heart ripped out and shredded. Fortunately, Sethon had showered her with the broken pieces as an insult as he left her broken body at the threshold of her exile. His arrogance allowed her to recover all the fragments in order to have them repaired. She smiled faintly, brushing her thumb over the flat of the blade. “They each have their own qualities. No two are identical, even if they appear to be, and they change depending on their wielder. This one, Naesha’an, was a thing of fire and fury in the hands of the one who came before me.” 

“And what is it now?” 

“Shadow. Illusion. Deception.” Vassa sheathed the blade. “I have an orc to amuse, Seben. You may wish to stand back, lest the blood splash on your nice clothing.” 

“Your blood or mine?” Rhujag said with a deep chuckle as he approached. 

Vassa shrugged expressively, lips tugging into a faint smile. “Yes.” 

“That is your favored weapon, yes?” Rhujag said, gesturing to the blade.

“It is,” Vassa said. She’d always preferred the saress. It had less reach than a longsword, but that was no problem for a woman who could close distance the way she could. “Yourself?” 

“Shield and spear, though I carry an axe or two,” Rhujag answered. He hefted a staff, carefully padded at both ends for practice and a training shield, made from a light, more flexible wood. Just as she was setting her true weapons aside, he had set his: a shield and spear made of a dark, dense hardwood covered in carvings traditional to orc weapons, including the dragon marks that were said to ward off evil. The head of the spear was leaf-shaped, but tapered to a wicked, reinforced point that would pierce armor with ease. Both were heavy enough that even a Kingsguard soldier would struggle to use them effectively, but the orc could move them like they were toys. Two handaxes completed the picture, though they were much rougher in construction. 

“Your weaponry is most impressive,” Vassa said, nodding to the tidy pile of his gear. The weapons sat atop his armor, brigantine in desert style even down to its colors, which matched the sands at night. “It is rare to see an orc in armor, granted.” 

“It is easier to guard with only a shield when your enemy meets you only face to face,” Rhujag explained. 

“The threat of knives to the back does make one appreciate the concept of armor. I really ought to invest in some if I am to continue my fine tradition of placing myself between others and danger,” the masked woman agreed. She picked up the hard leather training sword, rigid around a core of light wood. It was stiff enough to mimic the feeling of a real blade, but would flex or snap before breaking a bone except maybe the more delicate bones of the hands. She wasn’t concerned here. Trying to shatter orcish bone with even a real weapon was like trying to smash steel with a hazel switch. 

“Ready?” Rhujag said, taking a few steps back into the center of the ring. The floor beneath them was raised slightly from the rest of the room by several layers of mats, each one with just enough give to soften impacts. 

Vassa stepped forward without hesitation, feet bare on the mat. Both she and Rhujag had shed anything that might add to the amount of damage they would do to each other. “Certainly,” she said, loosening up like a boxer.

Fighting Rhujag would not be easy. If he connected well enough, he would knock her down and possibly out in one hit. To hold her own, she would need to fight dirty, and he wanted to know at least something of what she was capable of. 

Rhujag’s padded staff darted out, probing her defenses. He wielded it like his spear, using the tip to guide it. The rest of it would become a weapon if she closed the gap between them, but while he had reach, he would use it with the most lethal aspect possible. He circled as he made his attack, using his shield as a perfect guard to his hands and body. 

Vassa’s lips tugged into a smile even as she stepped back and to the side ever so slightly, just barely out of reach of the feint. He was clearly more capable than even Masaharta had indicated. She could recognize an experienced warrior in the prowling aura of his movements. The time to talk was past, however. She needed to focus on how she was going to deal with him. 

The orc’s next blow was just as cautious, though slightly deeper of an advance. Again, Vassa evaded rather than striking or trying to get inside his reach. She allowed him to probe her defenses as she mapped in her mind exactly how far that spear and his arm could reach. 

There was a rhythm to the movements, almost like a dance. It was easy to follow him, movements smooth and thoughtful. Almost...lulling. 

Then Rhujag’s surprisingly graceful caution exploded into a sudden ferocity. The orc hurled himself at Vassa with perfect control over his speed and body, spear twisting and dipping as he approached with a speed powered by muscles that were beyond human. The masked woman hurled herself at an angle, barely dodging the attack. She slid on the mat, coming up on her feet with an acrobat’s grace, and brought her blade down towards the back of his knee. 

He parried with the edge of his shield, driving it back with enough force to almost knock her weapon from her hand. The movement was automatic, clearly so practiced that it required no thought. Muscle memory moved faster than the mind. 

Vassa grinned behind her mask as she recoiled away from his strike, circling around to his side as he pivoted to face her again, his spear aimed at her head. She adored lenthai, what human warriors called ‘broken time’. It was the process of setting rhythms and expectations, then shattering them into an advantage. That Rhujag was skilled enough to know it and use it so effortlessly spoke well of him. 

Seben watched them in awe. Rhujag’s brutality came effortlessly, hounding Vassa across the mat. The orc’s fighting style was unshakable in its aggression. He focused heavily on taking and keeping the initiative, relentless enough that it forced Vassa into reacting rather than acting. Eventually she would make a mistake. 

The masked woman faltered for a moment, a retreat not landing quite right. Rhujag pressed his advantage and lunged for her again.

It was good to know that she hadn’t lost her deceptive edge. Vassa recovered from her ‘mistake’ faster than he could react, slipping inside of his distance where the spear’s stabs couldn’t harm her. He had the sense to cover his body and head with his shield, but Vassa could generate enough flexibility to strike around the shield as she passed him, catching the orc hard in the ribs with a stab. 

She was rewarded by the padded end of the quarterstaff opposite the point hitting her in the back. Vassa rolled with the blow to soften its impact, allowing the force to throw her across the mat. She tumbled and sprang up, using the bounce in the mat to find her feet again. 

“That’s one,” Rhujag rumbled. 

Vassa laughed. “Are we keeping score now?” 

The orc’s yellow eyes gleamed with amusement. “Why not?” 

“Very well. And to the winner goes…?” 

He shrugged. “Bragging rights? I’m sure we’ll think of a thing.” Rhujag grinned at her. “We go until one or both yields. Whoever has given more death blows at the end wins.” 

“Seben will have to keep track,” Vassa said. The idea of combat as play was so very orcish. It was no wonder their kind were such fine warriors when they grew up scrapping and wrestling from infancy on. 

“One for Vassa,” Seben said with a smile. 

Rhujag gave the masked woman a nod. “When you are ready,” he said with a surprising chivalry. 

Vassa returned the nod and stepped in again to face that lethal spear without a trace of fear. It could and would hurt very badly if it really hit, but she suspected that Rhujag had enough control to avoid killing her with a training weapon even if he could easily do so.

The fighting quickly went from a graceful dance to something far more savage. Rhujag was a fearsome opponent between raw strength and speed, but Vassa was just as fast and complimented her technique with vicious precision. Soon Seben had a tie on her hands and the combatants were beginning to slow. 

The masked woman ached all over. She hadn’t entirely recovered from almost being ripped apart by a ward and Sethon’s assault. Now she had some large, beautiful bruises over the healing ones. She’d given Rhujag some debilitating blows, but not enough. The orc was moving with more certainty than ever, yellow eyes hungry for victory. 

It was time to stop relying on her blade alone. If he wanted to know what she was capable of, she could most certainly indulge him. 

Vassa dropped to one knee and fed power into the threads around her as he advanced towards her, twisting and weaving the invisible fabric of existence to craft an illusion of herself sharing her space. The moment she was finished, just as he started his lunge, she far-stepped, leaving the illusion of herself behind to keep him committed to his assault. 

In less than a heartbeat, the masked woman appeared behind Rhujag. Just as his training spear connected with the illusion, disrupting it for a moment like smoke, Vassa struck hard. Her blade cracked across the back of his skull with enough force generated by the movement of her body to ring even an orc’s bell. 

Rhujag roared and spun, dropping his shield and spear so that he could tackle the masked woman. They crashed together onto the mat, the impact and his grip bruising her wrists. “Magic?” he demanded as he pinned her to the ground.

Vassa had barely managed to keep her breath, a laugh slipping out. “No one has ever accused me of fairness,” she said, fingers flicking as she carefully separated her threads from his own, readying another far-step. 

The rumble in Rhujag’s chest sounded more like a growl as he pressed down harder. For the first time, the orc looked vexed by his opponent. 

She grinned behind her mask and disappeared in his grip, reappearing again behind him. Rhujag’s hands slammed awkwardly onto the mat without her arms there to stop him and this time she stabbed him in the back. 

He kicked out and Vassa turned instinctively, allowing herself to crumple and take the hit to the back of the knee rather than catching his blow with the side of her knee and breaking her bones. She rolled and grabbed his shield, throwing it up in time to catch the spear stabbing down at her. The force of the blow knocked her flat against the mats.

“You are difficult to pin down,” Rhujag rumbled, eyes narrowed as he kept up the pressure to trap her under the shield. 

Vassa wove a tiny pattern against the back of his shield with her fingertips. A whisper of dark magic seeped into the wood, flowing harmlessly to it until it reached the spear. Corruption and rot poured into his weapon. The force he was applying broke it, pieces crumbling into rotten wood. He almost fell, instead using the movement to grab the edge of the shield and yank it away from her. 

Her blade touched his throat even as his foot landed on her sternum, pinning her to the ground again. “Draw?” Vassa asked softly, exertion burning in every muscle in her body. 

Rhujag moved off of her and extended a rough hand to help her up from the ground. “Quite the trickster.” 

“You have no idea,” Vassa said. She had to admit to herself, a battle like that was rather exhilarating. She hadn’t crossed weapons with an opponent so skilled without the mired feelings of an actual fight to the death. Better yet, he was cunning and well-trained enough that she felt confident in his ability to defend Seben against just about any warrior Userkare could throw in their direction. 

“I look forward to seeing more in action,” Rhujag rumbled with his crooked grin. He looked over at Seben. “Score?” 

“A solid tie,” Seben said with amusement. 

Vassa drove her elbow into Rhujag’s solar plexus while he was distracted, the slim point of her bone enough focus to be particularly painful. He made that wonderful gasping sound of a person struck unexpectedly there. She hit him in the side of the head with the training blade as he doubled over. 

“Well, there was a tie,” the apprentice fire-speaker said, trying her hardest not to laugh as Rhujag grimaced and rubbed at his midsection. He hadn’t been braced for the blow, so he certainly felt it. “Was that really necessary, Vassa?” 

“My pride says yes,” Vassa said airily. 

“You have sharp elbows,” the orc grumbled, dropping the last piece of his destroyed weapon. “If this is how you handle your friends, woe to your enemies.” 

“To quote a Yssan proverb, in two affairs are all stratagems employed: love and war,” the masked woman said, laying aside her weapon once she was confident that the fight was actually over. She rolled up one sleeve, glancing at a massive bruise from where the padded edge of his shield had caught her forearm. “Besides, you had your revenge preemptively. My bruises have bruises.” 

Rhujag chuckled at that, straightening up. “No hard feelings,” he said. “I like your cunning, even if it stings.” 

“Well that’s good,” Seben said with a mixture of amusement and relief. “It’s not about to go away any time soon, knowing Vassa.” 

“Besides,” the orc said with another crooked grin, tusks on full display. “I respect any who can thrash me.” 

“That was far too close to be a thrashing,” Vassa said, using her outer shirt to dab some blood from her split lip. “You are more capable than the orcs I encountered in the north. I expect you would have been a goth if you stayed.” 

“That was what my tribe wished,” Rhujag admitted. “Leading was not for me.” 

“How fortunate you have Seben and her royal blood to command you,” the masked woman said with amusement. 

“I would not object to following you either, khelled,” he said, straightening up to his full height. “You are skill combined with purpose.” 

“Perhaps,” Vassa said, crossing her arms as she looked at him. The orc was barely even sweating, not that she was breathing too heavily either. “But it is not my desire or my place to order anyone around.” She appreciated the term of respect. It was rare for an orc to use such a word on anyone but the different peoples of the north. It didn’t translate well to the languages of the human kingdoms, but she understood it as a honorific denoting her as a warrior worthy of dueling. 

“A fine start to the day,” Rhujag said, stretching as if he didn’t feel his wounds. Vassa could see the battle scars littering his chest as the fabric of his shirt moved across them. “I hope there are many more like it to come.” 

“It would be beneficial to have some practice,” Vassa agreed. She assessed her vitality thoughtfully, measuring the drain she had taken from her spellcasting. The answer was hardly any: when she kept to the magic she had trained in, it was hard to exhaust herself without working a truly powerful force on the world around her. She picked up her saress and belted it back on, the barely-noticeable weight of her weapon comfortable along her thigh. 

“The beginning of a good friendship,” Rhujag said with a chuckle. 


Chapter 25
Child of Spring Leaves

By K. Olsen

Days turned into weeks as Vassa and Seben adjusted to the addition of Rhujag to their lives. The orc rolled out a mat on the floor of the living space between their rooms so neither of them had to give up space, steadfastly refusing to make use of a couch. He was a constant presence around Seben and just the towering bulk of the orc made people consider their words and, more importantly, actions beforehand. Vassa hadn’t finished her research through Sarom’s libraries about dark magic, so she wasn’t quite prepared enough to travel to the High Kingdom to peruse theirs, at least not yet. Soon.

It was almost too comfortable for Vassa. Both Rhujag and Seben wore on her resolve to be alone like moss growing over a stone. It was hard to contend with the thrill of excitement that came to the daily weapons training or the warmth and comfort that was reading in the same room as Seben. 

If she was being honest with herself, it wasn’t that being close to anyone reminded her of the torturous days with Lysaerys. It was entirely the opposite. Her memories of the Summer Court were those of isolation even when surrounded by others. It was something she struggled with constantly, the contradiction between what her experiences had taught her and the realities of the people beyond her homeland. There were no Sebens in her old world, there were no Rhujags—no softness, no warmth, no compassion. 

But maybe her vision of even that was distorted by the hands that shaped her perception, her sense of self. Maybe even among the undying thrones, what she had been through wasn’t normal. 

Vassa wrapped the cloth over her face as those thoughts tormented her. When she was finished, she flipped the mirror around only to meet her own conflicted green eyes. She didn’t like feeling this way. It was almost like frostbite, painful and uncomfortable easing of ice after so long feeling nothing at all. She felt like a monster behind a mask when she was around them, some twisted thing that could parade in the sunlight but never belonged. The poison flower of a strangling vine, the seer had called her. Oracular vision at its most accurate.

Seben’s knock sounded on her door, an unspoken reminder that she was probably taking too long. “Vassa, it’s been hours,” the young woman whined on the other side of the door.

The masked woman’s lips tugged into a smile as she opened the door. “How very dramatic for a woman waiting ten minutes. Patience is clearly the purest virtue you hold,” Vassa said dryly. It was hard to keep a sardonic edge to her voice at Seben’s unbridled joy. There was endless beauty to be found in the glow of that smile. The apprentice fire-speaker’s joy was so...alive. Fragile, fleeting, but as stunning as a sunrise over the Sea of Pearls. 

Rhujag chuckled from his position leaned against the wall. “She was bouncing up and down waiting for you,” he said.

Vassa envied the orc’s effortless good humor and the warmth to his voice. Neither were something her thorns allowed her. “That does not surprise me in the least.”

“It’s the largest festival of the year, Vassa. In Sarom,” Seben said, too excited to be truly irritated. “Can we go already?” 

“Do you have Naji?” Vassa asked pointedly.

As if in answer, the djinni drifted into the room, distracted from his investigation of the bath’s heated waters. The creature of smokeless fire wore his favorite form, that of a slim man composed entirely of flame with particular heat giving what looked like three eyes a bright glow. Two were in the place of a human’s, a third in the center of his forehead. It reminded Vassa of a spellguard’s tattoos, the symbol of the inner eye that allowed one to both see and affect the weave of existence in Leyan magical tradition.

“He’ll be fine around so many people?” Rhujag asked, eyeing the djinni with definite respect. The orc understood the destructive nature of fire instinctively. He had only ever seen Naji docile, but conducted himself with the utmost care and respect around the fire elemental.

“He’s been perfectly behaved,” Seben said. “Besides, on the Nights of a Thousand Fires, djinn can walk the streets instead of being contained in their jars.”

“Bound djinn,” Vassa reminded the young woman. 

“Most people won’t even notice the difference,” the apprentice fire-speaker said with confidence. “He has us to keep him safe and he’s been trapped in the jar for days. You wouldn’t like being cooped up in your room for that long.”

The masked woman exhaled a long-suffering sigh just loudly enough to be heard. “That depends. If it would preserve me from the folly of hyperactive children, I might relish the solitude.”

Seben scowled. “I’m not a child.”

It was so hard not to laugh. “Of course not. Only childish,” Vassa said, enjoying the huff Seben made at that.

Rhujag chuckled and put a heavy hand on Seben’s shoulder. “You make yourself too tempting a target,” he advised the young woman. 

“Irresistible,” the masked woman agreed as she opened the door to the hall. Students were all preparing to leave the Ashen Tower to join the festivities, the more experienced among them also accompanied by djinn, though theirs were far less potent and dangerous than Naji even if they hadn’t been shackled. 

Seben sighed slightly at the sight. Vassa knew she still hated the reminder that not all djinn were free the way Naji was. Still, the apprentice fire-speaker was better at taking it in stride, adding it as yet another reason for her commitment to change fire-speaking. Excelling in her training could only take her so far in that regard. It just wasn’t enough to change people’s minds. 

For her part, a slight creeping jealousy of the spirit of flame sometimes afflicted Vassa. Seben paid him almost constant attention when he was out of the soul-jar and spoke of him often even when he was in it. The regard the apprentice fire-speaker had for the djinni was unconditional in its affection, their connection growing stronger each day. He seemed to be coming out of his cautious shell more and more as he bonded to his fire-speaker. The masked woman found the elemental too endearing to really hold any antipathy towards, however, particularly the ceaseless curiosity. 

Almost as if he was sensing her thoughts, Vassa felt soft heat against her back, the djinni touching her in imitation of how she was often in contact with Seben: a palm placed between shoulder blades. This touch seemed more meant to comfort than guide. 

The masked woman turned to look at their fiery companion. He crackled softly in response, with little snaps and pops like a woodfire. Not for the first time, Vassa wondered if he was speaking a language rather than simply making noise. For a creature with no real face and an inhuman way of producing sound, he was intensely expressive. He seemed worried about her, if from posture and the way he dipped his head while looking at her. 

Seben laughed softly. “It’s Vassa, Naji. She’s fine.”

Vassa flicked her fingers almost playfully at Naji, shooing the djinni away even as she pushed her darker thoughts deeper under the surface. There was no sense in showing any of the internal conflict boiling away beneath her composed exterior. Understanding her present feelings was far too contingent on knowing her past and she had no intention of illuminating anyone about that. “Your mistress is correct,” she said. 

Naji made a snapping sound at her playfully, like a branch falling in a fire, as he drifted back towards Seben’s side. 

Rhujag grinned. “I think he’s flirting with you, Vassa.” 

The djinni brought his flickering hand to his face, then extended it towards the orc like a farm girl blowing a kiss.

Vassa laughed, though she was caught almost by surprise at how well the djinni had learned to understand their language. Then again, with all the time Seben spent chattering at him and teaching him words with games, it wasn’t entirely unforeseeable that he’d pick it up quickly. “I think Naji is an equal-opportunity flirt,” Vassa said, a hint of warmth creeping into her tone. 

They stepped out into streets filled with music and laughter, crowds pressing almost up against the Ashen Tower’s walls. The appearance of every djinni was greeted with cheers, some people raising glasses full of wine in toast to the mysterious creatures. These were the only nights of the year where jubilation and admiration joined the raw awe of the common folk meeting djinn, where the elementals of fire became heroes rather than mere servants of the fire-speakers.

The masked woman stepped close to Seben, though she still had to raise her voice to be heard over the sounds of celebration. “This is quite the revelry,” she observed. “Is there a story to this party of yours?” 

Seben beamed at Vassa, almost glowing in the light of the hundreds of multi-colored paper lanterns suspended over the street. “It’s a celebration of the breaking of the Siege of Sarom. When the empire fractured, only a thousand djinn stood between us and conquest by the rebelling kingdoms. They drove back the greatest army ever assembled in the kingdoms of men in a storm of fire worthy of Sol Himself.” 

“Quite the feat,” Rhujag rumbled. 

“I wonder how much of the story is true,” Vassa murmured, more to herself than Seben. She gave the apprentice fire-speaker’s shoulder a squeeze. More audibly, she said, “You are in the lead this evening, Seben. Naji, Rhujag, and I are here to ensure your safety.” 

“Promise me you’ll at least try to enjoy yourself?” Seben said, poking Vassa in the ribs with two fingers. 

“I will endeavor to pretend,” Vassa said with a hint of that same dry amusement. The feeling of warmth in her chest only intensified when Seben huffed again. Tormenting the apprentice fire-speaker was far too enjoyable. 

In truth, she was looking forward to their evening out. Even if she had to keep her focus firmly on Seben instead of mingling with the crowd just to chase the thrill of such a gathering, she could delight in the colors and emotions running wild. There was a certain euphoria to the music and laughter all around them. Vassa wished she could embrace it fully, move to music again, delight in drinks and company again, but that wasn’t her place. 

As much as she had placed her confidence in Rhujag and Naji, she was not about to leave Seben’s side in a place this unpredictable. Fortunately, Seben’s face was still unknown to the vast majority of Sarom after being cloistered in the Ashen Tower since her display at the Arena. That obscurity was protection of its own and made her more difficult to target, at least without her angelic nature showing. 

Seben was trying to go everywhere at once, practically vibrating with enthusiasm every time they came to a stop in front of a new spectacle. There were performers on every corner: acrobats, musicians, jugglers, fire-breathers, sword-swallowers, and more. Giant painted puppets of djinn roared past, held aloft by dozens of people moving in tandem, snaking through the crowds like a tongue of flame. The crackling of the paper used to construct much of the faces of the pretend djinn seemed to spark Naji’s interest. He didn’t approach, but his head turned to follow their course through the streets. 

Rhujag watched one of the strongmen flex his muscles at the next corner, a grin spreading across the orc’s expression. The man was quite large, nearly the size of Seben’s gray-skinned guardian in height, though he didn’t have the sheer dense bulk of the orc. The muscles were certainly impressive, but Vassa was certain they were nothing compared to Rhujag’s. “Do you think he would let me try a feat of strength?” the orc said with a burning curiosity. 

“There’s only one way to find out,” Seben said with a grin.

“Orcs do not require encouragement in such matters,” Vassa said dryly as Rhujag stepped towards the front of the crowd ahead of them. 

The moment he was visible, there was an audible gasp from the performers and the members of the audience who hadn’t seen him before. Rhujag gave them a deep bow and stepped up to face the strongman, his crooked grin displaying his tusks for full effect. 

“May I?” the orc said, gesturing to the strongman. 

The bear of a man took a step back, clearly anticipating the orc would lift the weights. Rhujag’s scheme was apparently far more dramatic. 

The orc picked up the weights with one hand and the weightlifter in the other, lifting both over his head with a ripple of muscle beneath his armor. The effort it took was immense, but Rhujag was a master of feats of strength after a youth probably spent performing as many as possible to impress his tribe’s young women. He kept all of his power in alignment and lifted with his legs instead of his back. The orc’s grin was ferocious, but he kept his warmth as he hoisted the man, held him for ten seconds, and then set him down before returning his weights to him, much to the crowd’s delight. 

Rhujag dipped into a deep bow to the strongman and his crew. “You’ve had a busy night and been such a good sport, friend,” the orc said, slapping the man on the back before handing him a small pouch. “Have a drink on me. Kick those feet up. Enjoy.” 

“That was ludicrous,” Vassa said with amusement as Rhujag passed back through the cheering people to them. 

“But it was fun,” the orc said. 

“You are fortunate you paid the man, considering the damage you just did to his performance.”

Rhujag shrugged at that, still grinning. “All in good fun.” 

Seben shook her head, but she looked completely on board with the orc’s display. “Lord Osei’s money going to good use?” 

“The best use,” he said with a grin. “Right Naji?” 

The djinni crackled in approval. He still stayed close to Seben’s side. People gave him plenty of room, but he was calmer when close to Seben’s aura, more difficult to startle or anger. Naji understood that this was a place and time where he had to mind his flames. 

They returned to their meandering through Sarom’s bustling streets, Rhujag and Seben buying food and drinks as they went. Vassa refused the offer of either, as she had no desire to try and drink through her mask, with even less inclination to remove the fabric covering for mere food or alcohol. She knew Rhujag would have to drink excessively to feel anything, so she wasn’t worried about his one mug of beer. 

A soft, sweet sound stirred at her in a way no other music had. Vassa’s gaze snapped towards the source, all thoughts of potential perils forgotten. She took a few steps towards the bard seated on the front steps of a noble house, surrounded by whispering people. The instrument was delicate, shaped like a lute if with a more tapered body and a dozen more strings. The soft, ethereal quality of its notes were anchored by the low, resonant rhythm of tapping on the body of the instrument by skilled hands. 

Vassa watched the long, delicate fingers dance for a moment before focusing on the bard’s face. A young man with a sharp, angular face and a bit of stubble on his chin. His elven blood was as plain as daylight to Vassa, but she knew most of the people here would see only a handsome man with a narrow jaw. A half-blood most likely. 

She drifted towards him anyway with more of a sway to her walk in time to the music, allowing her inner eye to open. There, trapped in a body afflicted with mortal blood, was the soul of a feyling: tarnished elven grace mingled with youth and energy, alight with just a bare hint of magic. Somewhere behind her, someone said her name in surprise, but she paid no mind as she wove her way through the crowd towards the young man. 

The masked woman had always adored music, the one balm best at soothing both her hollow heart and her physical wounds alike. She could feel him using hints of glamor, the gift of elvenkind so often worked as malicious manipulation of the mind turned to an evocative addition to the song, adding layers of stirred emotions in the hearts of the listeners. It had no effect on her, but it didn’t need to touch her mind to conjure up memories: the crunch of falling autumn leaves, the sweet smell of the eternal flowers’ petals, kisses beneath the first flakes of snow, the dearest parts of home. It ached so powerfully and so wonderfully that she felt tears building in her eyes. 

The young man looked up as his song came to an end, eyes drawn to a masked face. He bowed his head to her. “Greetings, lady,” he said smoothly, his voice like honey. 

“Do you sing, child of spring leaves?” Vassa asked. 

He nodded, sudden uncertainty flashing on his face. It wasn’t that she had recognized his heritage that probably startled him the most: it was that she used the elvish name for what he was without a trace of the sarcastic mockery normally infused into it. The words were soft from her lips, maybe because they were spoken in Eth instead. “What song would you hear, lady? I know many Eth ballads.” 

She shook her head. “Sing to me in the undying tongue,” Vassa said in Elvish as she sat beside him on the steps, voice a caress against his ear. “Your strings make me long for the land beneath shaded branches.”

His fingers trembled slightly against the strings, a look of awe flashing across his face. “As you wish, lady.” The young man cleared his throat, but his eyes were now fixed on Vassa rather than anything else in the street corner, a crowd of an audience utterly forgotten. He could barely make out the hint of her eyes beneath the hood. 

Vassa waited patiently for him to begin, closing her eyes as the first few notes washed over her like a soothing wave. 

Bound beneath the tree of roses, bound beneath the tree of thorns…”

The words hit Vassa with a torrent of longing, bittersweet love stirred to life by the song and his effortless skill. His voice rose and fell like an angel’s given the bewitching edge of the fey as he sang of the two lovers who pledged to each other beneath the eyes of fate, one eternal and the other mortal. His voice painted a beautiful portrait in the minds of his listeners even without them needing to understand the words, the ardent knight, bold and brash, and the eternal grace of the soul that loved her above all other things. 

The end was inevitable, not the shattering of a devastating tragedy, but the song of an elf letting go of the mortal they held so dearly, giving her over to the embrace of death of age. He played and sang, spellbound eyes fixed on hers.

It was the most beautiful song ever played in the Nights of a Thousand Fires, those who heard it would say for many years to come.

Vassa tasted salt on her lips and took a moment to collect herself before speaking, blinking away her tears. “Your voice breathed life to memory more ancient than this world,” she said, running fingertips across his shoulder. “My gratitude for a gift of beauty beyond compare.” 

The bard caught her hand with his. “May I have something to remember you by, Lady?”

Vassa leaned in, brushing silk-covered lips over his cheek. As she touched him, she let a wisp of her essence seep into his skin as a flare of rare warmth from her frostbitten soul. Then she stood, fingertips reluctantly moving from his shoulders as her reverie ended and left him staring at her, his almond-shaped green eyes wide. “Thank you.” 

She turned to see Seben, Rhujag, and Naji staring at her like she’d grown a second head. Both Rhujag and Seben had tear tracks down their faces, like everyone else in the stunned audience. Whatever she planned to say died on her lips at the approach of a half-dozen members of the Kingsguard. 

That cannot be good, Vassa reflected, more bitter at the end of her moment of peace than at the thought of the unpleasantness soon to come.


Chapter 26
Illusory Longings

By K. Olsen

Seben scrubbed at her eyes with her hands before turning to face the Kingsguard. “Why are you arresting him?” she asked the leader as he approached Vassa and the bard still seated on the steps, his pale hands wrapped tightly around the neck of his instrument.

“And why does it need six of you?” Rhujag asked, eyeing the group carefully as they advanced towards the bard.

“He is a poisoner, an assassin, Your Highness,” the sergeant said bluntly. “And elf-blooded at that. He is dangerous.

The crowd, once spellbound, flowed out of the way of the Kingsguard at that declaration. Vassa, however, stayed rooted to her spot between the guards and the bard. Whether or not the accusations of evil intent were true, the comment on his ancestry left a cold fury burning in her heart. The kingdoms of men all but worshipped the purity of their own blood, perceiving as much of the starlight that was elven power that ants toiling in the dirt might.

They corrupt everything they touch, Lysaerys’s voice whispered in her ear as if conjured by the music. Their every breath pollutes the air, their every footstep contaminates the earth. At least I treasure the beauty of the butterflies whose wings I pluck. They rip them apart with mere brutality and painful ignorance that defies any illumination.

Vassa’s eyes narrowed in the shadows of her hood as the Kingsguard advanced. “Move aside,” one said firmly.

Seben’s eyes widened when the bard staggered up to his feet and reached out for Vassa. His fingertips caught her hand, delicate warmth brushing against a scarred ivory palm. “Please,” he said in elvish beside her ear, stepping into her space. “Help me.”

The masked woman had a choice. She could ignore his plea and surrender him to Userkare, to the devouring magic that hungered for even the barest taste of such ancient power. It would shred his soul at a touch, consume all that he was and leave not even ash. The alternative, however, was to risk herself.

His grip tightened on her hand when the Kingsguard stepped forward.

“As you wish,” Vassa said, bowing her head to the Kingsguard. She went to step to the side and the bard cried out. The lights of the fires abruptly snuffed themselves all down the street, plunging the crowd into shadow.

Naji flared reflexively to illuminate the darkness for Seben, revealing no trace of Vassa or the bard anywhere to be seen. The Kingsguard cursed and looked at each other, no doubt weighing the consequences of their failure. Their leader looked to Seben and Rhujag. “Your companion, where did she go?”

“I don’t know,” Seben said.

“He could have taken her somewhere,” Rhujag said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Elves are dangerous and powerful. They have more magic in their little finger than all the bloodmages of Zaeylael put together, and none of it’s the nice kind.”

His words only intensified Seben’s worry. “We need to find her,” the young woman said firmly. She turned to the Kingsguard and swallowed hard. With all the confidence she could muster, she ordered, “I am certain the King will want to know of this. Report back to him. We’ll go looking for Vassa. She always turns up, and she usually has answers when she does.”

Across the city, on the balcony of the Ashen Tower overlooking the Sea of Pearls, Vassa stepped out of thin air with the young musician clinging to her arm. He fell to his knees, trembling and clutching his delicate, lute-like instrument to his chest. Brilliant emerald eyes looked up at her, his expression of awe and fear half cloaked in shadows. “You...you saved me,” he whispered. “Why?”

Vassa knelt down in front of him, still very conscious of the ache in her chest from his song. “They would have taken you to a fate worse than death,” she said gently. “Do you know how precious you are? How rare?”

He shook his head and pulled back away from her. “I am ashes,” he whispered. “The mark of a destructive fire gone cold. No people will hold me.”

Perhaps she was becoming too sentimental in her exile. Vassa’s tattered heart broke at the sight of his pained eyes as they sought the ground and the way his lips twisted to keep in any more words of heartache. That was the problem with the children of summer leaves: their elven side was so very sensitive, artistic and fragile, like stained glass feathers. Her fingertips brushed across his cheek, sweeping away a tear. “You are a spark, a brilliant spark of light. Your music is more beautiful than moonlight. Never let anyone tell you that you are nothing.

“You speak kindly with a tongue made for curses,” he whispered.

“What is your name?” the masked woman asked.

The bard hesitated for a moment before answering, likely working from the assumption that names had power. “Leiros.”

Vassa nodded at that. Whether or not it was his true name, she had something to call him. “Is what they said of you true, Leiros? I will not harm you whatever the answer. I care nothing for the politics of King Userkare.” The last utterance wasn’t strictly true, but right now those concerns were a thousand leagues away and accelerating into the distance.

“My mother taught me much of herbs and I expanded my knowledge greatly as I traveled,” he explained tremulously. “A man came to me, asking questions about the rarest varieties of dangers here in Ethilir. I told him the truth...and spotted his signet. He swore me to secrecy.”

“Yet that was not security enough.” Vassa sighed. “Now he wishes you dead. What signet?”

Leiros’s gaze dropped. “The Sunlit King himself.”

“Will you tell me of this poison in the morning?” the masked woman asked softly. “I think I know the future recipient of such a deadly gift, one who does not deserve such a fate.”

The young man nodded hesitantly. “I...I owe you that much, but what of the meantime?”

“I am not going to tell you to trust me,” Vassa said with a featherlight tone, as if she was afraid that he would vanish into a puff of smoke if she spoke too forcefully. “I treasure the gift that you gave in the streets. Let me repay it.”

“How?” he asked thickly, looking up at her.

“Let me hold your pain,” she said as she smoothed fingertips across his hair. “Let me catch your tears. You have suffered a lifetime of abuse for a sin you did not commit, from both sides. I know isolation and betrayal down to the core of my bones. Let me ease your soul for a night and then I will take you to beyond Ethilir just as I took you here.”

He hesitated as the caution inside him warred against the desperation for any inkling of understanding. “Only if I may see your eyes,” he murmured. “I would know if they reflect heaven or abyss.”

Vassa was still a long moment, but then her long fingers slowly drew back her hood, just far enough to reveal piercing eyes touched at the corners by softness. Sincerity flourished like a briar rose absent the pruning of a gardener. “I am so sorry that they hurt you,” she said as she helped him up to his feet, a few strands of platinum hair slipping free as she pulled her hood back up to conceal her face. Vassa let her fingers twine with his, snuffing the lights with a flick of her other hand as she pulled him into the living room she shared with Seben and Rhujag.

He sat down on the couch beside her, his instrument still cradled in his arms. His fingers rested on the strings for comfort, tension still present as he struggled against the tide of rising sorrows.

Vassa ran her fingers through his hair, letting her calm flow into his body like cool water. She was almost uniquely skilled in her ability to shift and sculpt the minds and moods of others. He was immune to glamour, as all other half-bloods were, but she had many other ways of achieving the same end. “Be at peace,” she murmured. “No one will harm you while I am here.”

A shudder ripped through his body as he curled into her, hands tangled in her looser outer shirt as the storm reached its full power. For the first time in his life, he was not alone to weather it. Vassa enveloped his essence with her own, forming a protective shell while she touched the root of his pain: the abandonment that ached deeper than even mockery and cruelty could dig, the loneliness that overpowered the shame and anger. She wrapped her arms around him and held him to her chest like he was her son, closing her eyes as his fears and hopes poured through her mind in a jumbled torrent.

She soothed every anxiety with a brush of serenity, touched every hidden wound in his heart with a tenderness she’d thought Lysaerys had tortured out of her. His tears soaked into her shoulder, but eventually they faded into dry sobs that subsided into exhausted relief. She pressed her silk-covered lips against the top of his head.

“Sleep, she urged quietly. “The road ahead is difficult. You will need strength to find your way.”

Even in her days at Lysaerys’s side, she had felt some sympathy for the rare feylings, cast aside by undying and mortals alike. They suffered through no fault of their own, seeking atonement for a crime they had no part in. If she was to truly be kind, she would plunge a dagger into his heart while he slept and ease him into the Life-Giver’s hands. His heart was not hard enough to endure his fate without bitterness flourishing like a twisted tree of tainted fruit.

Once he was sound asleep and his dreams shaped to a restful sort, she used a far-step to shift him to her bed, carefully easing his instrument from his hands. She set it on the table where he would see it when he opened his eyes and then stepped out of the room. The darkness of the rooms was comforting, offering her a chance to collect her thoughts in peace before going to find Seben and Rhujag again. No one would intrude into Seben’s quarters if she warded the door and she owed her companions an explanation for abandoning her post.

Vassa stepped into the bathroom, drifting over to the basin of cold water that stood near the window. Moonlight flickered on the surface.

She felt the ripple through the Weave of existence before she saw any sign. The ambient flow of magic, so weak in this land far from her birthplace, suddenly surged.

“Oh, how I have longed for this day, my precious doll,” that voice whispered against Vassa’s ear, breath hot as the presence of a magic as dark as her own enveloped her. Lysaerys’s fingers ran down her spine, touch frigid through even layers of fabric.

Vassa spun and stumbled backwards in shock, shoulder blades colliding with the wall. There was no space between them now, lips that burned like midwinter ice against her own matched by hands of ice encircling her wrists, every sensation calling to the remnants of the magic still tangled around her heart. She wrenched her head to the side, breaking the kiss. “No!”

“Do you truly think you can refuse?” Lysaerys whispered, lips brushing against the skin of her neck.

Her clothes covered her still, a conflicting sensation that could mean only one thing: the power here was certainly Lysaerys’s, but without a physical body. Every touch she felt was projected across the surface of her mind. Of course, Vassa knew better than any that a mage of such power could rend the fabric of the world even across such a distance, even through an illusion. “I am not yours,” Vassa hissed. “You made sure of that.”

Nails bit into her scalp, wrenching her head back. “That is what I love most about you, Vassa,” Lysaerys purred. “Sethon bows to my every whim without a hint of resistance. You were always my darling rebel. I could do anything to you, and never would you completely surrender, no matter how much you promised and pleaded. I still feel it inside of you, begging to be crushed.”

She needed to either dispel the illusion or reach the bracelet from Adéla, an artifact that could drive Lysaerys away. “I know what you are,” the masked woman hissed. “I see you clearly.”

“Do you?” The smoky laugh that haunted her dreams echoed in her ears. “You always saw what you wished to see.”

It felt like a dagger in the back only because it was true. That had always been Lysaerys’s game: why lie when the truth was far more excruciating? “I am not yours,” she said again, trying to catch her mental balance.

“But you could be again,” Lysaerys said. Suddenly, the fingers in her hair were soothing, no longer painful. The kiss to the corner of the masked woman’s mouth was cool to the touch, a balm to all the inner turmoil. “I could take you from here, return you to my side, to my favor, to my bed. All the worries of these flies and worms would fade from your mind. Just the two of us again. Isn’t that what you long for at night, Vassa? My love?”

She felt like she was going to be sick when that poisonous longing rose in her heart. “No.”

Again, that laugh ghosted across her skin. “Really, Vassa? A lie? Do you truly think you can hide your dreams from me?”

A shiver ran through Vassa’s entire body. “Your power has limits,” she said, trying to clear her head.

“Not as many as you might think. Sethon was not entirely unsuccessful in returning with you. He may have been empty-handed, but your lifeblood drenched his blade. All I needed was a drop to find you.” An icy finger brushed down the line of Vassa’s jaw. “Be mine again. That is all I desire: everything that you are.”

Vassa closed her eyes tightly, forcing herself to dig into her own wounded heart for the pain. It was the only thing that could remind her of why succumbing would destroy her. Seben flashed to mind. If she vanished, it would devastate the young woman. “I have a place again,” she said. “I do not require yours.”

“You think your little pet will save you from me?” Lysaerys said sweetly, but there was a dark undercurrent of jealousy to the words. “Tell me, Vassa, will she keep you close to her side when she learns what you are? Your love is no different from mine: it devours, it destroys, it burns up everything beloved with the all-consuming hunger of desire. She will be ashes when you have finished with her.”

Vassa let her own magic flare suddenly, pushing everything she had into it. The illusion snarled at her and vanished, but she knew Lysaerys was still there. “I will never be you!”

“But precious doll, you already are,” Lysaerys crooned, icy eyes glittering in the moonlight as the illusion stepped out of another shadow. “I can feel the power I coaxed to life in you thirsting for ruin, for ambition.”

“That is not what I want,” the masked woman ground out through clenched teeth.

“So ardent a protector. Have you forgotten the blood in your veins, Vassa? All your love cannot stop her from fading like a sculpture of sand beneath the ocean wave of Time. What will you do then, enduring when even the memory of her name is forgotten? Only I can give you a love that will span eternity.”

Vassa let her power collect in her fingertips. It would take a great deal to banish Lysaerys, possibly more strength than she possessed. “I do not care,” she said, opening her eyes again. “My fate is no longer bound to yours.” Even as she spoke, she felt blindly with her essence for the thread linking the illusion to its reality.

“Oh, that is where you are sorely mistaken,” Lysaerys breathed, suddenly so close again. “You are mine, Vassa. You will always be mine. Only mine. Your fate was never yours to choose.”

Vassa slipped her arms around the illusion, fingertips catching the tether. “Never again.” She ripped as hard as she could, draining every iota of power from her rings to savage the connection. Her vitality plunged towards the ragged edge between death and life, drained to almost nothingness in the attempt. The illusion wavered in her hold as the thread almost snapped.

Almost.

Lysaerys hit her with enough power to slam her back against the wall. Vassa’s head cracked back against the stone painfully, her lip bleeding beneath her mask from a bite. “Is that how you want to play, Vassa?” Suddenly, the darkness moved to the forefront, a vicious storm of rage brewing. “Enjoy your desolation for now. I will claim you when it pleases me.”

As suddenly as the presence had come, it vanished.

Vassa slid down the wall, cupping her hand over her mouth with a sob. A battle with Sethon was one thing, but Lysaerys was something else entirely. How was she going to resist the real thing if she couldn’t even fend off an illusion? That was the root of the pain, though. Sethon could only damage her body. Lysaerys had enough power to strip every hint of soul away until only a husk remained. She had fought so hard for so long, even against herself, but that would mean nothing if Lysaerys held her again and stripped away what remained of her will.

She needed more power, or she would not be her own for long.

Vassa stayed seated on the stone like a statue for what felt like an eternity, horrors of the past replaying behind her eyes, fingers wet with blood from her split lip.

I will never be you.

You already are.

Never again.

Your fate was never yours to choose.

The sound of the front door creaking open stirred her from the pain after a long few moments. Gods, but her head ached. “Vassa?” Seben called softly into the main dark room.

She had no strength to answer. Instead, Vassa closed her eyes and tilted her head forward, trying to clear her thoughts of Lysaerys’s voice.

She will be ashes when you have finished with her.

“Maybe she went to bed?” Rhujag ventured in the other room.

“I don’t think so. Her door is open. It’s never open when she’s sleeping,” Seben said.

Naji’s light poured into the main room as he trailed in after Seben. Suddenly, the djinni almost doubled in size with a sharp crackle, sensing danger. He surged into the bathroom, diminishing only when he saw Vassa there alone. Seben hurried on his heels.

“Vassa! What happened?”

The masked woman looked up at her companions through a haze of pain and churning fear. “Nothing,” she said thickly.

“You’re bleeding!”

Warmth enveloped Vassa’s damaged essence as Seben rushed to her side, that celestial aura burning away every lingering trace of Lysaerys. Dark fingers curled around hers. It took every ounce of willpower she had to jerk her hand away, particularly when all she wanted was some kind of comfort. “I am fine,” she rasped. “Nothing that I cannot recover from.”

Rhujag stepped in, his heavy orcish brow furrowed with worry. “Was it the elf?”

Vassa laughed at that, a rough and pained sound, but offered no explanation. She tried to get up only to almost fall as soon as she made it to her knees. Seben caught her. “Please, Vassa, you can tell us,” the apprentice fire-speaker said, dark eyes shining with that same earnest concern as always.

The masked woman turned her head to look away.

“Let’s get her to somewhere more comfortable,” Rhujag rumbled as he approached. “Bed?”

Vassa shook her head. “That would disturb its occupant,” she said. When she realized she’d confused them both, she cleared her throat. “The bard. He is sleeping.”

“You brought him here?” Rhujag said with concern. “An assassin?”

“Only his knowledge killed,” the masked woman said by way of explanation. “The hand that held the poison was not his. He may be of help.”

“We’re talking about this,” Seben said firmly. She hesitated when she saw Vassa’s head slump again. “...in the morning.”


Chapter 27
Binding Wounds

By K. Olsen

Vassa’s silence as dawn crept over Sarom was almost deafening to Seben. The apprentice fire-speaker hadn’t realized how much she looked forward to the teasing and absent bumps or brushes of contact throughout their normal routine. Vassa was still there, but also...not. She had withdrawn behind her silence into some other place. Her body remained in her usual chair, feet kicked up on the windowsill that looked out over Sarom, but she seemed stiff and lifeless. 

Rhujag’s large hand settled on Seben’s shoulder when he saw her staring at the masked woman for the hundredth time. “I’ll keep an eye on the feyling,” he said beside her ear. “She won’t talk to me.”

“And she will to me?” Seben said. Her feelings still stung from trying to greet Vassa and start a conversation. The masked woman hadn’t even stopped to listen, immediately brushing the young woman off wordlessly to take a seat in her chair, her back to them. 

She hadn’t spoken to anyone, not even to the bard she’d rescued. 

Seben didn’t know if it had to do with the song or something else, but she understood that something was wrong. Apparently it was also on her to bridge the gap, as Vassa wasn’t willing to. It bothered her most because she suspected that the root was pain, not anger. Seben doubted this was her fault or Rhujag’s. It didn’t even seem to be the bard’s.

Her hurt feelings wanted to snap at Vassa to get her attention, but Seben was certain that would only drive the masked woman further into the world of her demons. She gathered her nerves and approached Vassa from the side. The hood and mask that were so familiar served now as a formidable barrier, one that Seben hoped wasn’t impenetrable. The young woman laid a dark hand on Vassa’s shoulder, expecting a flinch away, but the masked woman stayed motionless. Hopefully that was progress.

Vassa couldn’t bring herself to relax even when she felt Seben’s warm, celestial aura brush against her. All night, she had been unable to rest, tormented by the memories of everything Lysaerys had done to her. The sickening insinuation that she had wanted it, asked for it, made her want to scream. She loved Lysaerys, but that didn’t change how much agony and helplessness she had endured at her lisse’s hands. 

And it’s true, isn’t it? You did everything your love desired, no matter how it broke you inside, Vassa reflected bitterly.

“Vassa,” Seben said gently, trying to reach her friend through the oppressive silence.

Her name sounded so fragile, pleading. It was absent the command Vassa was accustomed to. Not once had Seben ever taken anything that Vassa hadn’t given freely. For the first time since they’d all risen, she turned her head towards Seben, to listen to the apprentice fire-speaker.

“I’m right here,” Seben said, almost sighing in relief. “You’re not alone.”

“Perhaps I should be,” Vassa said quietly, the words jagged and harsh even if they came from a small sound. 

Seben squared her jaw. “I’m not going to abandon you, whatever you think you deserve.”

“If you knew me, you would reconsider,” Vassa said dismissively.

“I do know you,” Seben countered, gaze unwavering as she looked directly into the masked woman’s eyes. “I know you saved me. I know you gave a young stablehand money enough to live for years and left him with a faithful companion. I know you stopped a desperate urchin from losing his freedom. However rotten you think you are, I’ve seen the contrary.”

“Whims,” Vassa said dryly.

“You told me patterns tell the truth of people,” Seben said, forging ahead. “I’ve seen enough of one to know who you are now and I don’t care who you might have been.”

Vassa’s lips parted behind her mask, but she realized she had no good rebuttal to that. After a second of hesitation, she said, “A tiger does not change her stripes, even at the side of her tamer. I am every bit the monster I was made to be. That you have not seen my fangs fully does not mean they are not there.”

“You aren’t using them,” Seben said. “That’s all that matters.”

Vassa’s expression softened behind her mask. “If you were threatened, I would use every tooth and claw.”

“Why?” the young woman asked.

The masked woman hesitated. Exposing a chink in her armor was a dangerous proposition, but some part of her desperately wanted to “No one has ever looked at me like you do,” Vassa murmured, not interested in being overheard. “Like there is some jewel inside me to be treasured and preserved.”

Seben smiled faintly. “A lot of people have been wrong, then,” she said.

Thoughts of Lysaerys welled up again like poison and Vassa blinked hard to keep back the feelings that threatened tears. She couldn’t bring herself to say how much she disagreed. 

Seben glanced over her shoulder to see that Rhujag and the bard had moved out onto the balcony, giving them privacy. She knelt down beside Vassa’s seat, looking up at the masked woman. “What happened, Vassa?” she asked gently. “I can’t help if you don’t trust me.”

Vassa pulled in a deep breath, at war with herself. So much of her knew better than to show weakness, but the rest felt so alone.

“Please,” Seben pleaded.

Vassa’s silence snapped like a thread. “I was found,” she said as she opened her hands, showing the roses of burn scars on her palms, “by the one who made these marks.”

Seben squared her jaw. “I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

Vassa shook her head. “My return is commanded,” she said bitterly. “I will pay dearly for my disobedience when I do so.”

“You don’t have to return to that, Vassa,” the apprentice fire-speaker said. 

“I have never been able to resist,” the masked woman admitted, looking away. “Lysaerys is a manipulator without equal. My heartstrings are a puppet’s threads to my former lisse. That is a will that has broken mine times beyond counting.”

“You didn’t have me to protect you,” Seben said, covering a scarred hand with her own. When Vassa went to pull away, she held gently. “You’ve said yourself that my aura is incredibly powerful. With it and fire-speaking, we can keep you safe. I just need to learn more about how to use it, which we can do in Zaeylael. You know the mages there, you could convince them to teach me.”

“I cannot hope for that,” Vassa admitted. 

“Trust me,” Seben said. She took a deep breath. “I want you to make a vestali between us. Lysaerys can’t take us both, not if we work together.”

“It would ruin you,” Vassa said with a shake of her head. “The darkness in me would taint your essence, perhaps enough that the Sunlit Throne would reject you.”

“I care about you a lot more than I care about being a queen.” Seben laced their fingers together. “Trust me. I won’t lose my way and I won’t let you either.” 

Vassa was at a loss for words, mouth dry at the thought of being given so much trust without expectation of anything in return. “It will change everything,” Vassa warned.

“Not everything,” Seben said firmly. “It won’t change my mind.” 

“Are you certain?” Vassa asked, searching Seben’s expression. The only thing she saw was earnest sincerity. “If there is even a trace of doubt in your heart, we cannot do this. I would never be able to forgive myself.” 

“I am,” Seben said. She held out her hand palm up to Vassa. “Please.” 

Vassa sighed softly and reached out, tracing her fingertips down the side of Seben’s face. “I will undo it the moment you wish it of me,” she promised gently. “I will not be Lysaerys.”

Seben smiled at her. “I believe you.”

Sweeter words had never been spoken, as far as Vassa was concerned. It gave her a breath of confidence that maybe, just maybe, Seben’s foolish hopes weren’t misplaced. She covered the apprentice fire-speaker’s hand with her own even as she leaned forward, pressing covered lips to Seben’s forehead. With a thought, Vassa ignited her threads, essence suffusing her hand and lips, and let her inner eye open. 

Seben glowed like a sun, brilliance burning into the masked woman’s scarred, shadowy threads. All around them, the threads of existence gleamed like golden gossamers as they drew light and life from Seben’s celestial aura, phoenix wings unfolding in the young woman’s body. 

Vassa delicately captured Seben’s heart threads with a thought, just holding for a moment. The young woman’s pulse, her breaths, filled Vassa’s body as if her own. Then, ever so gradually, she let the barrier between them fade, allowing her own inky threads to twine with Seben’s where they were in contact. The connection was felt at the center of their chests, power burning between them as light and dark truly met for the first time. 

The binding was entirely different from the only other Vassa had known. She guided the magic with delicate touch from her soul, slowly winding the connection deeper and deeper, drawing from her own reserves as she pulled Seben into a fierce hug. She made no move to force, to leash with compulsion or bury hooks in Seben’s soul.

This felt right.

Seben had no way of knowing how a vestali worked or how to forge one, but she responded instinctively. Celestial power pulsed into Vassa’s veins as Seben pushed into the bonding rather than fleeing it, giving her strength to Vassa. It blurred the lines between them further until you and I became we. In that instant, the binding, burning like lava, suddenly crystallized and cooled to a comfortable warmth.

All around them the threads rippled outwards like a stone had been dropped into a still, clear pond. 

Vassa leaned back, relaxing her hold on Seben. Even as she did, though, the connection persisted. She felt Seben’s soul touching hers, that glorious warmth reaching every frostbitten scar. Slowly, her inner perception closed and she opened her eyes to see Seben’s visage radiant with light, angelic self revealed. She reached out, brushing tears away from Seben’s eyes. “Did I hurt you?” she asked gently, almost afraid of the answer.

“No,” Seben said, voice catching. “I just feel so many...”

“Wounds,” Vassa finished softly. She allowed the flow of magic between them to fade. The connection would remain unsevered, perhaps even inseparable, but less contact would allow Vassa to cloak her emotions again. She helped Seben up to her feet. “They are what they are. You do not need to share in that pain.”

Slowly, the celestial aura around Seben faded and she again became the young woman Vassa had come to know. She accepted the hand up gracefully, though she almost froze when Vassa knelt in front of her, putting a hand on the shortsword at her hip.

“From now until the Weave is no more or you release me from my service, Seben Femi, you are my lisse,” Vassa said softly. “I will guard you with everything I am, protect you with everything I hold. In life and in the Beyond, I am your servant and your sword. There will be no other before or above you. I am your zhendai.”

“Vassa, you don’t have to promise me that,” Seben said, trying to lift her friend up to her feet. The young woman understood the significance of the word now. Vassa was promising not only to die for her with that word, but to live for her. To act as her guardian and confidante, but also her avenger and assassin. 

“I do,” Vassa said solemnly as she rose to her feet. She felt that strange warmth still, like she was a shadow cast by Seben’s light. 

“I don’t bind djinn. I don’t want to bind you,” Seben argued.

Vassa’s lips tugged into a small smile behind her mask. “This is the freest I have ever been,” she promised. “You have not taken anything that I do not give wholeheartedly.”

The moment shattered when Rhujag stepped in, the half-elven bard following wide-eyed on his heels. “What the hell was that?” the orc asked, a hand resting on the ax he kept through his belt.

The masked woman’s lips quirked beneath fabric. “Magic,” she said dryly.

Rhujag gave a sigh that was almost exasperated. “I wagered that much, witch,” he said, though with a touch of fondness to his tone. “I suppose I should just be thankful you’re on speaking terms with us again.”

“My silence had nothing to do with you,” Vassa said, brushing invisible dust from her shoulder. 

“So what’s our plan now?” Seben asked, still slowly returning to the feeling of earth beneath her feet.

For her part, Vassa felt energized with purpose and the tiniest hint of hope. “We take a far-step to Zaeylael,” Vassa said firmly. “Adéla and the other mages have much to teach us, both about King Userkare’s devouring darkness and how to channel your celestial abilities.”

“Blood mages?” Rhujag said, furrowing his brow.

“We come closer every day to Userkare demanding Seben move to the palace,” the masked woman pointed out. “Love them or hate them, the High Kingdom’s blood mages know how to channel great power through a mortal lens. They would be able to help Seben hone her gifts outside the King’s reach.”

Rhujag nodded and then shrugged. “I’m just here as defense,” he said. “I can guard a princess in Zaeylael as easily as Sarom. The only down-grade’s the food.”

Seben winced. “Can we not call me that?”

The orc laughed. “You’d better get used to it,” he said. “You’re going to be hearing it from a lot more people than me.”  He jerked a thumb at the trembling bard behind him. “What about him?”

Vassa looked over, meeting Leiros’s green gaze with her own. The half-elf rubbed at his stubbled chin self-consciously. “What do you wish, Leiros?” Vassa asked.

“To be far from here, as you promised,” the bard said. “I will tell you what I know when we are away.” 

“Fair enough,” Vassa acknowledged. “We will speak of things in Zaeylael. Gather anything you wish to bring, though no more than a bag.” Determination gleamed in her eyes beneath her hood, renewed by the warmth still seeping into her bones. “We have much work to be done.”


Chapter 28
The Hidden Memory

By K. Olsen

“At least you can’t fault their hospitality,” Seben said with a smile as they opened the door to their rooms. It looked every bit as comfortable as a nobleman’s home, well-appointed furniture and rich tapestries granting a softness to the stone space. Shelves lined one wall, full of leather-bound treatises on the foundations of magic and history. She and Vassa were sharing a set of chambers, with Rhujag and Leiros right across the hall.

The trip to Zaeylael was mercifully short, courtesy of Vassa’s magic. The far-step left the masked woman feeling immensely drained, but this time no ambushing specter from her past had attempted to kill or claim her. That absence of hostility did nothing to ease Vassa’s paranoia, however. She wore the bracelet of mind-shielding around her wrist just in case, with no intention of taking the artifact off for any reason. “Their generosity is not wholly altruistic,” Vassa reminded the young woman. “They can glean something of your nature if they agree to train you and you are heir to a powerful throne, someone they will not wish to anger without good reason.”

“It’s hard to remember that,” Seben admitted. “It still doesn’t feel real.”

“You grew up with no inkling of that nature. Shifting perspectives from pauper to princess is not something that can happen overnight,” Vassa said, setting her bag down on a backless couch. The air drifting in from the open window was warm and comforting, but she could not afford to feel at ease. “Besides, I would wager you consider yourself more of a scholar than anything else given your training.”

“Study is where I thought I’d be spending my life,” the apprentice firespeaker agreed. She hesitated for a long moment, studying her hooded and masked friend. They hadn’t discussed much privately, given they’d been met by mages as soon as they arrived. Adéla had excused herself quickly to seek an audience with her liege lord about the possibility of training Seben, but there were still plenty of apprentices and spellguards around to gawk at the strangers who had appeared out of thin air.

Vassa exhaled a wisp of essence into her cupped hand, letting it dance as a tiny flame that she used to light the rest of the lamps in the room. “I can hear your questions clamoring to be spoken,” she said dryly.

“I wanted to talk to you about what I...felt when you forged the binding between us,” Seben said with a hint of nerves coloring her voice. Vassa’s softness had faded quickly, replaced by a quieter version of her normal brusque self.

The masked woman sighed, forcing herself to remain relaxed. She was still one step short of jumping at every shadow and the stinging of her bitten lip was only a reminder of the danger she faced. “Ask away,” she said, extinguishing the little flame she’d conjured now that the room was bathed in amber lamplight.

“Are you alright?”

“Of course,” Vassa said dismissively. “Why?”

Seben weighed her options carefully before speaking. Pushing too hard on Vassa was the best way to get her to shut down again, but it wouldn’t have been honest to pretend she knew nothing now. “Vassa, you don’t have to pretend with me,” the apprentice fire-speaker said. “I saw….” There weren’t really words to describe the visions that had flooded through her during the binding. For a moment she had seen herself through Vassa’s eyes even as she drowned in darkness and cold, pain and anguish.

She will be ashes when you have finished with her, something had whispered to the masked woman, about the apprentice fire-speaker. So much of Vassa’s essence was dominated by that voice, sweet and dark with threads of bitterness under the surface. Seben didn’t know who was speaking, but the current of dread that even the thought of it sent through the masked woman spoke volumes about their evil.

Vassa took a breath, weighing her options. She could feel Seben’s celestial warmth brushing against her own dark soul through the binding that joined them. Keeping things hidden would be very difficult now, but she couldn’t bring herself to regret the joining. “It’s been a long day,” she said instead of addressing the inquiry in any meaningful way. “I think I am going to retire early.”

Seben’s ink-stained fingers closing around her wrist to stop her from leaving rendered Vassa as caught as surely as some snaring spell would have. “Don’t hide from me, Vassa. I can’t help you if you do.”

“I…” Vassa took a deeper breath, feeling her resolve to shove Seben away crumble. She turned her head, the gleam of her eyes beneath her hood fixing on the apprentice fire-speaker. “I know you want to help me, Seben, but you must also guard yourself.”

“You won't hurt me,” Seben said with confidence.

The masked woman sighed. “It is not that simple.”

“You’re not Lysaerys.” The faith in the young woman’s voice was unshakable.

“Yet,” Vassa said, twisting her wrist to escape Seben’s gentle hold. A knock at the door mercifully saved her from further discussion. “Enter.”

A familiar face stepped into the room, though not either of the two Vassa had been expecting. Zdislav entered when she bid him to, the spellguard out of his armor for the moment. The tall, athletic man offered the pair of them a bright smile. “Adéla wished me to tell you that the High King has given his consent for us to teach you, Your Highness,” he said, giving Seben a respectful bow.

“Already?” Seben said, startled. “I figured he’d need to think about it at least a little.”

Vassa smiled faintly at that. Her experiences with the Philosopher King had taught her that Miroslav could act incredibly quickly when he felt he had all the information he needed. “The prophecy of a coming darkness probably motivated him quite well,” she pointed out. “Besides, he has a difficult time refusing his favorite mage anything.”

“As we all do,” Zdislav said with a chuckle.

“Speak for yourself,” Vassa said airily. Granted, she did owe Adéla a substantial favor for agreeing to teach Seben, but that was a matter she would discuss with the blood mage at a later date. “I trust our access to the Sanctum is still honored?”

“You may research to your heart’s content, so long as you do not remove anything from the Sanctum,” Zdislav confirmed.

“Very well,” Vassa said. “When is Adéla coming to collect Her Highness?”

“As we speak,” the spellguard said pleasantly. “Your orc said that he would stay and supervise if you needed to attend to any business, Vassa.”

“I will begin research in the Sanctum,” Vassa said with an acknowledging nod. She turned to face Seben. “You will be in very capable hands. Adéla is the finest of the High King’s battle mages and she tends to be patient with apprentices.”

“I thought I was going to help you,” Seben protested.

“You will be,” Vassa said gently. “The more of your nature that you can control and channel, the better our chances of taking on Ethilir’s tainted king and any other evils that might come out of the woodwork. I am more than capable of sifting through musty tomes on my own.”

Seben grumbled under her breath, but saw sense enough not to argue. “Fine.”

Vassa laughed, silvery sound echoing with fondness. It was brief moments like these when she appreciated Seben most of all. “Truly gracious,” she said with amusement.

“Shall I show you to the Sanctum?” Zdislav offered.

Despite the exertion of the spell that had taken them across vast distances in a moment, Vassa felt a sudden wave of reinvigoration flood through her at the idea of access to power. The old hunger for knowledge reared its head, given urgency by the very real danger of Lysaerys returning at any moment to claim her. “That would be appreciated.”

“Follow me,” the spellguard said, gesturing for Vassa to join him out in the hallway. Once they were on the other side of a closed door, his smile broadened. “I cannot think of a time I have heard you laugh like that, Vassa.”

“I contain multitudes,” the masked woman said dryly as she followed him through the winding corridors of the Pharos. The tower of mages in Zaeylael was a massive construction, two thousand feet high as it jutted out from rocks above the sea, its only junction to the mundane world a mostly transparent skywalk that joined it to the tower reserved for spellguards. The arrangement ensured that any attacking army would have to fight their way up through a tower of the High Kingdom’s finest arcane warriors before even being able to approach the precious mages.

Their path took them to the base of the tower, a large set of stone double doors engraved with sigils over every inch. The gray granite was reinforced a thousand times over by powerful wards. These were far more subtle than the Ashen Tower’s fiery defenses in Sarom, barely perceptible even to Vassa. They concealed themselves beneath the ambient flow of magic through the Pharos that kept the tower in a cool, dry, constant climate designed for optimal preservation of texts and scrolls.

Despite that subtlety, they were every bit as capable of rendering an intruder to ash as the djinn who warded Sarom’s seat of magic. The defenses were far too potent to be the construction of human mages and their tenuous connection to the powers of Creation. Yet another sign of the new built upon the old, a power of the First World incorporated seamlessly into the ambitions of humanity.

Zdislav drew an unassuming stone key from a pouch on his belt, touching the rod of granite to the door. The wards rippled outwards, distorting the stone around the portal as it unsealed itself in answer. Then he turned and handed the key to Vassa. “Do not let this wander,” he murmured.

She closed her hand around the magical key, the stone hot to the touch. “I will not,” she promised before approaching the doors. “Take good care of Seben.”

“I think we can manage protecting Her Highness,” Zdislav said with a chuckle.

“I will take it from your flesh if you do not,” Vassa warned over her shoulder before placing her palm against the door. It opened smoothly and soundlessly, so perfectly balanced that a breath of air could have moved it.

Cool, dry air washed over Vassa in a wave, moaning softly like the opening of a tomb. Darkness yawned before her, not a single light visible beyond the door for best preservation of the records kept within. She exhaled a wisp of essence into her palm, weaving it into a small, glowing orb of light with a thread-like tether that kept it linked to her shoulder. She tucked the key into a pocket on the inside of her shirt.

“Good luck, Vassa,” Zdislav said in farewell. “I hope you find what you are seeking.”

She doubted he would be so understanding had he known what dark avenues she intended to search down. The masked woman padded forward through the doors, letting them ghost closed behind her. The Sanctum was nowhere near as large or full as the rest of the Pharos, a home for forbidden lore and ancient secrets. Many of the texts on tall, narrow shelves bore scorch marks from the flames of purification that meant once to destroy them. Scrolls were kept neatly preserved in pottery jars, the contents labeled in spidery writing painted over the blank glazes.

Vassa picked her way through the shelves, perceptive eyes raking over every signpost and label that she passed. It wasn’t long before her attention could no longer focus on the books, however.

Power crackled across her skin like invisible static as something shifted, aware of her presence in the Sanctum. Vassa put her hand flat on her blade’s hilt, ready to curl her fingers and flick it from its sheath the moment anything attacked her. A mere blade would likely not kill anything entrusted with guarding down here, but then again, her weapon was not of mortal make.

Why have you come to this place, undying one?

Even Vassa’s keen senses could barely make out the specter before her, a gaunt and shadowy figure with multiple slitted eyes that glimmered faintly in the dark. She recognized it all the same: nyvai, a gloaming spirit. They were dangerous creatures, occupying the twilight places between worlds. Leyan lords used their power to bind mages somehow, through ritual and blood. “You are not what I expected,” she said coolly. “What is your purpose here, shadow-kin?”

To guard, to guide. The specter’s voice entered her mind without being audible. You possess the key. What would you learn of?

Vassa wasn’t certain she liked her new tutor, but there was no way around the fact that she needed its help. “I wish to know of the Devouring Dark,” she said with confidence. It was never wise to display weakness in front of such creatures. “Surely the greatest city of magic in the kingdoms of men knows something of it.”

The specter drew back from her, beckoning with spindly, insubstantial fingers. There is a phylactery that may contain the answers you seek. Follow.

It was not an answer that gave the masked woman any comfort. She had expected a tome, and an echo of some ancient mage impressed upon lifeless stone was far more dangerous than a simple book. Then again, she was examining the most powerful of the ancient darknesses found in Creation.

Vassa knew better than to blindly trust a gloaming spirit either. They were creatures inherently of malice, though they minded their leashes. No doubt they disposed of the unworthy or unauthorized people who might set foot in the sanctum.

They stopped before a polished orb that was nothing like Vassa had ever seen in a human mage’s possession. It was clear, with tiny motes of light in it that formed the spiraling arms of a brilliant array of stars, every bit as innumerable as those that shone above at night. In the darkness, with only her light casting on its surface, it glittered and swirled. Vassa tilted her head slightly as she studied it, taking care that in her fascination, she did not lose sight of the specter. She had better things to do than feed such a spirit’s hunger for harm. “Who created this phylactery?”

One your kind knows well, undying one, the specter whispered inside her head, stirring up an image: a burned woman, unrecognizable beneath the scars of her injuries, pieces of her entirely ripped away by battle with raw Void itself, hidden in a cocoon of delicate spun glass and glowing light.

Even normally imperturbable by nature, Vassa’s jaw almost hit the floor. “The Life-Giver?”

The gods were dead, the scholars of men said, and only their works remained. That was not, in the strictest sense, true.

Shattering the Deceiver in the Revealing had come at a terrible price. The Five who remained were all in their various ways no longer accessible to the world. Sol, the Undying Light, was felt now only through the powers of the Sunlit Throne and its associated bloodline. Nessa, the Goddess of Death, had disappeared into the aether, her tomb nowhere to be found. Tek, the Great Artificer, no longer sang to his dwarven children. Mode, the Lord and Lady of Beauty, they said, was corrupted beyond any hope of restoration and left to wander the world alone.

And the Life-Giver herself? A twisted wreckage of what had once been a goddess, sleeping eternally in silence that left her children a slowly dwindling legacy of the First World. There was no doubt in Vassa’s mind of that silence. For all her time in the Summer Court, Aimti had not even stirred in her slumber. There were no visions from the goddess, no portents, no comforting words to a people who had in some ways lost their path.

Only empty air could ever be found in the audience chamber surrounding the Life-Giver’s chrysalis.

“Are you certain?” Vassa said unsteadily. This was a chance to actually hear the voice of the goddess her people worshipped so fiercely even in abandonment, as their progenitor as much as their protector. After all, they were the Firstborn, beloved above all others, gifted with the powers of Creation in direct image of the gods.

This relic, if it was what the specter said, had a far further reaching implication than Vassa felt ready for.

Decide for yourself.

Vassa sighed. She really should have been expecting that answer. “Begone,” she said, flicking her fingers at the specter.

It bowed and retreated into the darkness, leaving her alone with her fragile light and the orb.

The masked woman took a deep breath and reached out, brushing her fingertips across the glossy surface. The artifact seemed to stir under her fingers, the galaxy flowing and moving in the glass like a fish in a bowl displaying the beauty of its long fins. Something within was awake, the primal essence of Creation flowing to the surface. Flashes of emotion surged through Vassa: longing, sorrow, anger, betrayal.

I know you. The voice was silky and sweet, but the undercurrent of darkness in it almost made Vassa shiver in fright.

She kept her hand on the orb all the same. “Do you?” she challenged softly.

You may run as far as you like, Vassa of House Ithrennyn. You will not escape yourself.

“I have no intention of fleeing anything,” the masked woman said evenly. “I came here to seek knowledge to fight and defend.”

You came seeking a way out of the chains of fate that bind you, a way to wish away a darkness that cannot be destroyed, a way to avoid recapture at the hands of the one that tortured you so sweetly. Your intentions are not as noble as you protest. When the thread that holds the sword above your head snaps, your true self will be revealed to all.

Vassa grit her teeth. This voice reminded her almost too much of Lysaerys. The ring of accuracy in its tone was no more comforting than the timbre of it. “Am I so selfish?”

Would you not give up your connection to the scion of the phoenix if you could escape your tormentor forever? If you could draw into yourself that incredible power and use it to work your will? Tell yourself it is for her protection and advancement all you like. I am not deceived.

As much as the masked woman wanted to argue, her immediate retort died on her tongue. Was the Life-Giver really wrong? She was here in the vaults not just to protect Seben. There was another, very large part of her that wanted desperately to avoid recapture by Lysaerys. When the ends were so drastic, what means could ever be put out of bounds?

For her old tormentor, any and every stratagem was valid. How could she fight against that without sinking to the same depths?

“Then show me what you know of the Devouring Dark,” Vassa said firmly, reaching her decision. “We will see who I am when that choice comes.”

Very well, Vassa of House Ithrennyn. Gaze into my depths and know the unknowable.

Vassa looked directly into the center of the orb, the glowing heart of the galaxy, as it was suddenly snuffed out. The light floating at her shoulder died a sudden, violent death and then she was swallowed up by the darkness, leaving no trace of her to be seen in the Sanctum by any who passed. Some mysteries were meant for only one set of eyes alone.


Chapter 29
Missing

By K. Olsen

You desired it.

Vassa struggled to breathe, sprawled on the stone floor of the Sanctum. The orb, the galaxy within alive with an inner fire, seemed to loom over her from its stand on the table. It wasn’t exertion. A mixture of echoes of old pain and a sudden, crippling fear clenched the muscles in her body until she quaked.

You asked me for every punishment, Lysaerys’s voice whispered in her ear. You begged me for every caress.

Memories flashed unbidden behind Vassa’s eyes, times where Lysaerys had broken her so thoroughly that her body could take no more, that her spirit was alive in name only. She knew distantly it was the orb provoking the memories, stirring them up like hot coals. The masked woman forced herself to push the thoughts away. “It does not matter. It is over and done. It cannot be changed,” she whispered to herself.

The harder she tried to lock everything away in some dark recess of her mind, the more powerful the visions became. The smell of blood was everywhere, the taste of wet copper filling her mouth. Everything in Vassa wanted to weep and plead for it to stop or to wretch and be sick. That taste always mingled with humiliation and anguish. The only thing worse was the feeling of those freezing-cold fingers stroking through her hair like she was some pet.

“Why are you doing this to me?” she hissed, looking up at the orb, focusing through the visions.

The phylactery’s response was cool, no hint of the warmth that had once been the Life-Giver. Where once she was the loving earth mother, this echo of her seemed a cold dealer in Fate. M’ethvantai, the Devouring Dark, is drawn to more than just magic. It cultivates the darkness within a soul and feeds upon it, drawing power from pain and cruelty. It can appeal to the shadow-self, those most damaged parts of you. That little trinket of yours cannot save you from its seduction.

Vassa glanced at the bracelet of mind-shielding she wore. She’d hoped that it would offer her some protection from confronting the magic as well as dealing with Lysaerys.

It would protect the scion of the phoenix. Her soul is untainted. You? It would be as substantial a barrier as parchment in a hurricane.

“Would it attack Seben first?” Vassa asked.

The opportunity to corrupt and consume divine power would be irresistible to it.

“Can it be destroyed?”

Can you turn the night into day for eternity?

Vassa sighed bitterly and levered herself up into a sitting position, still trembling. Every now and then, flashes of waking nightmare still played across her vision. She hadn’t realized how delusional she was when she was with Lysaerys, how devoted. The Life-Giver’s essence, trapped within the orb, left no room for avoiding that truth as it replayed moments in the stark light and clarity of hindsight. “There must be a way to stop it from attacking Seben.”

Give it another host, something it will find just as tempting, and take it far from her. It cannot die, but it can be locked away. Surely you recall the wards that Lysaerys siphoned your vitality to destroy, just to get at a fragment of such power.

“Those wards were placed by a god,” Vassa snapped. She had little patience with her past so close to the surface, worn paper-thin by the memories. “Last I checked, the gods were shattered.”

Take it to the Summer Court and I will show you a place where it can be sealed away.

Vassa’s blood ran cold. “I will not return,” she said. “Not there.”

Because of Lysaerys? The phylactery’s voice in her mind was sweet, almost cloying, and had an edge of mockery to it. How selfish are you, Vassa of House Ithrennyn? You claim you wish to protect your darling princess.

The masked woman made the mistake of closing her eyes, visions of Lysaerys’s burning eyes flashing through the darkness of closed lids. An icy caress touched her face, stroking her cheek. When she opened her eyes, there was no sign of the creature from her nightmares. “I will do anything but that.”

Only I alone remain in a form with enough remaining power to imprison such potent dark magic.

Vassa grit her teeth. The echo of the Life-Giver imprisoned in the orb was probably telling the truth. “You slumber dreamlessly. How are you to help me? Besides, Lysaerys would…” She couldn’t finish the thought out loud.

Claim you? Make you again what you once were? Perhaps, perhaps not. Bring me the magic and I will dream you an answer. It is the only way you will ever stop the Devouring Dark from destroying the kingdoms of men.

Native skepticism left Vassa conflicted. She didn’t want to trust the presence from the orb, but its words had the ring of a brutal truth. She knew perfectly well where the Life-Giver’s sepulcher was after growing up in the Summer Court. Going to any other divine power for help would be a fool’s errand. Even if she found some shattered piece of a god, it would probably be too little, too late.

The idea of facing Lysaerys made a lump of dread form in her throat. She wanted to believe that she could maintain her defiance, but that will had broken her own tens of thousands of times over. Dealing with an illusory projection had thoroughly beaten her. How was she going to contend with the genuine article in the flesh without that poisonous love rearing its ugly head?

You know how.

Vassa shuddered at those words. They had a gravity of their own, cold and heavy with prophecy. She got to her feet, less than graceful after her unwilling trip down memory lane. Over and over as each vision unfolded, she had tried to cling desperately to the thought of Seben. The young woman’s warmth and light were powerful, maybe enough to ease the stains of the past for a little while. Unfortunately, if she wanted to feel them, she had to open herself to the apprentice fire-speaker and that was the last thing in the world she wanted to do.

There was so much risk that her own darkness would taint Seben’s essence beyond healing and lock the heir to Ethilir’s Sunlit Throne away from her birthright. Even if Seben didn’t care, the desert kingdom needed a ruler of virtue instead of the corrupted Userkare.

“I understand what must be done,” Vassa said. She bowed to the orb. “Thank you, All-Mother.” It was hard not to say it sarcastically, with all the hurt done by the orb, but those were hardly torments of the presence’s invention.

Reality could be far more torturous than conjured illusions.

We will see.

Vassa didn’t dignify that with a response, dreading the echoes of possible futures she heard in those words. Instead, she left the Sanctum, guided through the darkness by a tiny light she conjured with a flick of her fingers. Her eyes were keen even in the ocean of shadow that was the hidden trove of knowledge beneath the mages’ tower.

She exhaled a sigh of relief once she was beyond the doors, locking them behind her. She kept the key hidden in her shirt pocket and strode for the rooms she was sharing with Seben, grace returning swiftly with every step.

There was no sign of the apprentice fire-speaker, but Vassa was too tired to worry. She stepped into her room and took a seat on the edge of the bed, pulling off her boots. The sight of the rose-like scars on the palms of her hands prompted a prick of tears that threatened, but didn’t fall. How could she even say she was free of Lysaerys when every memory of the past still tormented her every night?

“It made you powerful,” Vassa reminded herself in a whisper, trying to speak the words aloud to add extra certainty. “No one could have trained you as well as Lysaerys.”

She had no way of knowing if that was true, but it was a cold comfort.

“Vassa?” Seben called from the main room. 

“In here,” the masked woman responded automatically. She wasn’t really in the mood to talk about anything, but evading Seben would only prompt more concern, which in turn would mean more prodding.

The young woman poked her head in, looking every bit as exhausted as Vassa felt. Her wiry hair had grown long enough since they met that it formed a halo around her head, dark like a raven’s wings and currently mussed into wildness. Her mahogany skin even had a faint sheen of sweat. “How did it go?”

“I learned a great deal,” Vassa said. She couldn’t help a faint smile twitching to life on her lips behind the fabric of her mask. “I take it your magical instruction put you through your paces?”

Seben grimaced. “I see why they’re called blood mages,” she muttered as she stepped in.

“You need a bath,” Vassa said, standing up. “I’ll run one for you.”

“I can take care of myself, you know,” Seben said, almost exasperated. “Besides, you have to be dead on your feet.”

“The mages have pipes that carry the water. I am hardly lugging buckets of hot water up the simply ridiculous amount of stairs that this place has,” Vassa said dismissively, padding past Seben towards the baths. “You are fortunate that we have a diplomat’s room, otherwise you would be in a public bath.”

Seben shrugged as she followed her friend. “Baths are communal back home.”

“You are a future queen. People would talk,” Vassa reminded her, stepping into the bathroom. The cold tile beneath their feet was a particularly unpleasant sensation after everything she’d experienced, but she was too tired to think about it for long. Instead, she pulled on the rope that released the hot water into the stone pool set into the floor, flooding the room with steam.

She turned her back as Seben stripped down, finding a towel inside one of the polished oaken cupboards in the corner of the room. She tossed a bar of soap over her shoulder in Seben’s direction, satisfied when she heard Seben catch it. “I have a hair brush in my things. You might consider using it once you’re clean.”

“It needs to be cut,” Seben grumbled, no doubt tugging at a lock of wiry, kinked black hair. “It gets wild.”

Vassa smiled at that. “Perhaps you could make it a fashion. Royalty do set trends.”

“I think I’d prefer it being kept out of my eyes,” the apprentice fire-speaker retorted.

“As you wish,” the masked woman said with a shrug. “I suppose short suits your practical nature.”

“Do you have long hair under that hood of yours?” Seben asked as she sank deeper into the hot water. The sigh of bliss from the young woman told Vassa that the bath had been a good idea.

“To my shoulders,” Vassa said absently, heading for the door without a glance in Seben’s direction. She had no intention of intruding into her friend’s privacy too much.

“Vassa?”

“Mmm?”

“What color is it?”

Vassa frowned slightly, turning her head to look at Seben. She could only see the young woman’s head and shoulders. “Why? I fail to see the relevance.”

“I can imagine what you look like, but I’d like to get to know the real thing,” Seben said gently.

The masked woman felt a pulse of warmth come through their magical connection, genuine fondness from the apprentice fire-speaker. “Very well,” she said cautiously. “It is silver.”

“Surely you’re not that old,” Seben said, surprised. Her friend’s voice sounded like a woman barely into her middle-years.

Vassa knew she was on dangerous ground. “Every woman is eighteen,” she said dismissively.

Seben laughed and slid deeper into the bath. “Go get some sleep, young lady,” she said authoritatively.

It was impossible not to smile at the good humor in her friend’s voice. “I will,” Vassa promised. Crawling into bed sounded more and more attractive with every passing moment. She was exhausted in every way after the day.

A knock pounded on the door, heavy and hard enough that it could only be Rhujag. Vassa frowned and hurried to the door, opening it to reveal the big, burly orc bodyguard. “There you are,” he said, a faint relief crossing his face.

“Was I supposed to be elsewhere?” Vassa said mildly.

“The bard’s gone,” Rhujag reported. “I was afraid he might have taken you with him.”

Vassa cursed inside her head. “So much for our chance to learn about the poison Userkare has been experimenting with,” she said with a dry sigh. “Did you find any sign of where he went?”

Rhujag held out a rough hand, something that gleamed resting on his palm. “Only this.”

It was a silver leaf, decorated with patterns of frost. Vassa’s blood ran cold. “I do not envy him,” she said quietly, staring at Lysaerys’s symbol with haunted eyes.

“Is he in danger?”

Vassa mentally debated her answer. The truth would probably fire up Rhujag to rescue the young man. “That depends,” she said, lying through her teeth. There was only one truthful response to that question: yes. “If he chose to leave, it’s hardly our problem.”

“Did he choose?” Rhujag asked more firmly, yellow eyes narrowing as he looked at the hooded woman.

“He is beyond our reach,” Vassa said as she looked up at the orc, his heavy brow furrowed in consternation.

“You were awfully eager to protect him before,” Rhujag said.

Vassa’s heart ached. A child of summer leaves would freeze and shatter in that midwinter. “I will consider what we might do to find Leiros,” she said, giving ground slightly. “Perhaps there is something that can be done.” If it was Sethon who had grabbed the young man and if they had not gone directly to the malevolence that was Lysaerys, perhaps there was a chance. “I am too drained to do anything right now. Give me an hour or two to recover slightly and then I will see if I can find him.”

Rhujag closed his hand around the symbol. “Good,” the orc rumbled. “I liked the little guy.”

Vassa sighed. “I doubt you will appreciate what we will find, then.”


Chapter 30
Cracks in the Walls

By K. Olsen

Scrying was not a magic Vassa had spent much time mastering. The only person she had ever needed to find in an instant was Lysaerys, and with the pact chaining them together, peering between the threads was entirely unnecessary. In this matter, she would have to rely on the expertise of one of the High Kingdom’s mages, which was rather galling even though she had manners enough not to say so.

“He is in a cave,” the young man said, his eyes closed as he concentrated on the faint essence of the feyling bard. “With a male elf. There is a great deal of blood and pain.”

Vassa bit back the sarcastic comment that leaped forward on her tongue at that. There was no way they were going to get enough information from this mage’s fumbling explanations of what he saw. She needed to see it for herself. The masked woman pulled out her small, square mirror as Rhujag and Seben exchanged worried glances. She pushed it into the mage’s hands and angled it so that it reflected back her own cloth-covered visage. “Show me,” she ordered.

The surface of the mirror swirled and darkened as he linked it to his vision. Then, gradually, a grey graveyard glimmer appeared. She saw flashes of Leiros’s face, cut and bruised. “Why is the image shifting so much?” Seben asked, peering over Vassa’s shoulder. “We need to know where he is to find him.”

“Something is interfering,” the mage said.

“His captor?” Rhujag grunted. The orc had a grim expression, heavy brow furrowed as he tightened his grip on his spear.

“No. Wherever they are, there is a disturbance in the Weave,” the young man said. “It feels very old and very...conflicted.”

The vision flashed again. The young man’s tormentor faced away from them, but Vassa was more interested in what she saw beyond him than the torturer himself. Etched into a stone wall were distinctive, swirling patterns of elven script. She recognized those prayers to the Life-Giver, partially defaced as they were. “I know that place,” Vassa said firmly, ignoring the churning in her stomach at the sight of those carvings. Her memories associated with them were anything but pleasant. “It is just short of the Vale of the Undying, in the lands of the wild north.”

“Could you take us there?” Rhujag asked.

“It is within the realm of possibility,” the masked woman said before turning her attention back to the mage. “Are they alone or is there another presence besides the ambient disruption?”

The young man’s expression tightened with focus, eyelids flickering as he struggled to expand his focus. “They…” He pulled in a deep breath. “...are alone.”

It was an answer that complicated things for Vassa. If it was just Sethon who had the bard, that was a battle she could win, even tired, with Rhujag there to support her. However, it was so close to enemy territory that she could easily travel there and suddenly have to contend with additional problems.

A heavy hand settled on her shoulder. “We can’t just leave him,” Rhujag rumbled. “Not to be tortured by some elf.”

Vassa shot him a glare that he was utterly impervious to, likely because he couldn’t see her face or eyes. “I am not taking Seben into a trap.”

“Vassa, please, we have to help him,” Seben said fiercely. “If you can take us to him—”

You are staying here,” Vassa said sharply, turning to face Seben. Even slighter in build and shorter, the masked woman seemed somehow more domineering and menacing than Seben had ever seen her before. “Keep your djinni close to you and remember that even here is not safe, let alone there. Rhujag and I will attempt to reclaim the bard, if that is what we are doing.”

“But—”

“Argue with me on this point, Seben, and you will find yourself warded into a corner,” the masked woman said, a distinct frigidity to her tone that Seben had never heard before.

Seben scowled. “I’m not some little child you can—”

“Enough!” Rhujag roared, the orc’s booming voice enough to jar both of them from their defensive stances. He crossed his arms as he looked at Seben, expression evaluating. “Vassa is right. This is too dangerous for us to risk you, whether you like it or not. We are more than capable of the task ahead and you are still untrained.”

“What if something happens and I’m not there?” Seben said forcefully.

Vassa’s expression softened slightly behind silk. “Then Rhujag and I will consider ourselves fortunate that you are protected from that danger.” She stepped in and caught Seben’s hand with a surprising gentility given how harsh her tone had been. “Trust us to do as we do best.”

Seben struggled with herself, conflicted emotions flashing across her face unhidden. “I don’t want to lose you,” she said finally, settling on something that she could say. A little catch in her voice betrayed her fear and the hint of tears. A thought slipped through the bond between her and Vassa, echoing in the masked woman’s head. I don’t want to be without you.

“We are at less risk if we are not entering combat while protecting you at the same time. Divided attention is easily conquered,” Vassa said smoothly. She ran her thumb across Seben’s knuckles, trying to reassure the young woman. “I promise you that we will return.” She knew Fate had a habit of making such statements into lies, but sweet falsehoods would settle Seben enough to prevent her from doing anything too foolish.

Still, Vassa hated the idea of being made a liar, so she resolved to keep her promise with everything she had. Besides, she had a very strong secondary reason for Seben not accompanying them: the horrors she was going to visit on Sethon when she got her hands on him. Not only was his torture of the bard something worthy of punishment, she had to repay him for his brutal ambush. She was still tender in places where the wounds had closed.

Rhujag gave Seben a grin. “We’ll be back before you know it. I’ll even look out for Vassa for you.”

The masked woman’s elbow driving into his floating rib snapped the smile off his face. “I do not recommend jocularity,” Vassa said severely. “Even alone, an elf is dangerous. You should know that better than most.”

“I do,” Rhujag said more seriously, hefting his shield. “Let’s get after them before they make it to the Vale. Even a fool wouldn’t chase an elf into his own forest.”

Vassa nodded firmly and put a hand on his shield for connection, drawing her short-sword with her other hand. She pushed Seben’s concerned expression out of her mind as she closed her eyes, visualizing Sethon’s lair. Memories of her last visit to the wretched ruin percolated up, but she shoved them away just as quickly. She would need focus and Sethon had done nothing to her that she had not already learned to accept gratefully from Lysaerys.

She let her essence flow between the threads of existence, stepping for a moment out of the confines of space itself. Her body followed like a dancer expertly shadowing their partner, dragging Rhujag less than gently along with her. Fortunately, orcs were creatures of magic, even if he had command over none. He adapted to the sudden shift much better than Seben had.

They arrived in the cave with a muted clap of thunder. Vassa knew full well that Sethon would have felt the shift coming, so she made no effort to stealthily approach. She stepped out of thin air between Sethon and his victim, blade slashing down in a wicked arc at Sethon’s head.

The dark-haired elf recoiled like a viper, his green eyes lighting up with delight as they met Vassa’s hooded gaze. “Well, this is a delight,” the elf almost drawled, painfully perfect features feline in their amusement. “She returns to the scene of her own disgrace. Such a spine!”

“Don’t flatter yourself, worm,” Vassa said flatly. Exertion burned through her body like a wildfire, even though she’d drained most of the energy required from the rings that she wore. She kept one of the power-storing bands full to the brim, just in case, but this was an exhaustion she could fight through...particularly since she had Rhujag along to bring orcish ferocity to bear on the elf.

Rhujag let out a roar before Sethon could mock the presence of the brute, acting with a ferocity and speed that the elf hadn’t expected. Vassa had learned for herself after sparring with him that the orc could move even if he lacked the same grace she had. His spear plunged into Sethon’s leg, breaking bone.

Vassa found Sethon’s howl of pain delicious after having suffered so much at his hands. She allowed him no time to recover, even as his bone cracked back into place and his flesh mended almost instantly. “You should not have taken what was not yours,” she said, gathering together her will.

Sethon snarled from his position on the floor and surged forward, catching Vassa by her legs and bringing her crashing to the ground. He clawed his way onto her, fingers digging cruelly into flesh, blade forgotten. The move hindered Rhujag’s ability to strike with his spear without hitting Vassa as well.

“Get Leiros!” Vassa shouted as she struggled with Sethon. He trapped her sword hand with an expert ease, though he kept his body pressed against hers so it would be more difficult for Rhujag to get him off of her.

“How I missed this,” Sethon purred, letting his fingers dig into the soft flesh beneath her jaw, angling expertly to strike pressure points. His grin widened when Vassa cried out.

Vassa drove her knee hard into his groin, earning a grunt and a wheeze. Sethon pinned the offending leg, but she knew she’d caused him significant pain. Her strikes had less power on the ground rolling around and Sethon was both taller and heavier. He had always been stronger physically, meaning she had always relied on technique and magic to maintain her advantage.

The elf slid a hand up under Vassa’s hood, pushing it back as he grabbed a fistful of platinum hair. Her counter came automatically, placing her palm flat on the cage of his ribs before releasing a flood of punishing dark magic into his body, where it could rage like freezing fire. He howled and yanked hard, wrenching her head back painfully.

An orcish boot hit Sethon in the side of the head to knock him off Vassa. Sethon had been so focused on Vassa that he had no counter to it. The elf went sprawling and Vassa turned, using the momentum of her roll to become a solid stab to his side, her blade slipping effortlessly between ribs. In any other opponent, the blow would have been fatal, but as long as Sethon had energy, he could heal himself.

Rhujag hauled Vassa up to her feet. The orc had slung his shield and carried the limp body of their half-elven bard over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He let Vassa stand on her own two feet and readjusted his grip on his spear. “Take us from here,” the orc said. “He will not pursue.”

Vassa grit her teeth as she watched Sethon stand, one of his hands cupped over the wound to his side. She knew the flesh was mending beneath his fingers. She wanted so badly just to kill him, whether that meant plunging a blade into his chest or wrapping her hands around his throat and wringing the life from his miserable neck. Burning him from the inside out with magic was equally tempting, but Rhujag was right to prioritize leaving. The longer they stayed, the greater the chance of encountering something far, far worse than Sethon.

The male elf lunged for them, but Vassa was already moving backwards between the threads, her essence curling around Rhujag and Leiros. The last thing she heard was Sethon’s howl of impotent rage as the three vanished.

A swift fight was the best kind as far as she was concerned.

They collapsed onto the floor back in Zaeylael, arriving with a crack of thunder. Vassa lay with her face pressed against the cold stone, utterly spent and aching. She had no reserve left and felt dangerously weak, but Rhujag was right: Sethon was not likely to follow them back into a city full of mages who could do him serious damage.

The orc was the first to move, setting Leiros down and getting up to his knees. “You’ve looked better,” he said with a chuckle, putting a hand on Vassa’s shoulder. Something he saw stopped him in his tracks.

It took everything in Vassa to roll onto her back. Muscles screamed in protest as she moved after so much power spent so quickly. She blinked in the light, unexpectedly bright without her hood to protect her. Her mask was in place still, mercifully. A shadow fell over her and she flinched until she realized that it was Seben.

Vassa felt dark fingertips run across the scars on the outside curve of her left ear.

“Vassa?” Seben said softly, worry etched into her features. “What—”

Later,” the masked woman hissed, pulling her hood back up to cover herself again. She knew the issue was anything but settled. Even if Seben lacked understanding, Rhujag was from the north and anything but stupid. He would be able to put things together.

If she was incredibly fortunate, he would be smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

“Allow me to assist,” a familiar voice said, arriving on the scene. Kamil scooped Vassa up from the ground as Rhujag picked up Leiros. “They both could use a bed, though your bard could use healers.”

“Can you take her to our room?” Seben asked.

“How bad are his injuries?” Vassa rasped.

“The worst are his fingers,” Rhujag reported. “Sethon did a number on them.”

Vassa closed her eyes, thinking of the moment she’d met the young bard and the delicate dance of his fingers across the strings of his instrument. She prayed silently that his dexterity would return. Sethon always saw things of beauty and had to destroy them, but she had to hope that he had failed in this regard. Leiros had a soul that needed music the way others needed oxygen.

Unfortunately, with only alchemy for healing, there was a chance their bard would never play again.

Despite knowing on one level that Sethon was to blame, Vassa felt intensely responsible. She had made a terrible mistake when she didn’t immediately leave the bard after saving him from King Userkare’s men and the devouring dark magic that had awaited him. Sethon’s motivation was entirely to torture Vassa.

What if he had taken Seben instead?

Warmth suffused the threads of Vassa’s hand as Seben’s fingers closed around her own, celestial power starting to flow into the masked woman’s exhausted form. It felt like rejuvenating sunlight that chased away the dark shadows of the past. Vassa still felt sick and tired, but the calming presence at her side was immensely comforting.

“Are you wounded?” Seben asked softly as Kamil set the masked woman down on the bed.

“Very drained, a bit bruised, and my scalp stings,” Vassa said, struggling to sit up. With the trickle of Seben’s power flowing into her body, her groaning muscles would at least obey her for the moment. “I am far more concerned for Leiros.”

Seben seemed to radiate concern, but it was only so painfully obvious because Vassa could feel it crashing over her like an ocean wave through the magic binding them together. “Me too,” the apprentice fire-speaker admitted. Behind her, her djinni floated like a man sculpted of pure, smokeless flame, though his legs were more of a cloud than limbs. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not worried about you.”

“I will survive,” Vassa promised dryly. “It is something of a specialty.”

Silence stretched between them as Kamil left the room, no doubt to inform his mage that Vassa and Rhujag had returned. After a long moment, Seben seemed to piece together the courage to ask a question. “Vassa, I want an explanation,” she said more quietly. “What is the elf to you?”

“Sethon?” Vassa said, even the taste of his name sour in her mouth. “That is a long, long story.”

“I have the time,” Seben said. “You can trust me.”

Vassa sighed and closed her eyes. “I do not keep my secrets because I do not trust you, Seben,” she said, a hint of thickness creeping into her voice.

“Then why?”

The masked woman leaned in, resting her forehead against Seben’s shoulder so she could speak more quietly without falling over while trying to whisper into the young woman’s ear. “Because speaking makes things true, and some truths cannot be endured.”


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