by K. Olsen
Rhujag has joined Seben and Vassa as a second bodyguard for the heir to the throne, life settling into a comfortable rhythm at the Ashen Tower despite the brewing conflict with the King.
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.