by K. Olsen
While enjoying Sarom's largest festival, Vassa's chance encounter with a half-elf bard ended with the approach of the Kingsguard. Now Rhujag and Seben have caught up to her, but danger lies ahead.
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.
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.
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.
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.”