by K. Olsen
Vassa has returned from the High Kingdom, still wounded after Sethon's attempt to kill her, with aid promised. Now she and Seben focus on their next move, going to meet with the Master of Malice.
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.