by K. Olsen
After the rescue of Seben in the oasis from bandits, they have pushed on to the town of Okena. Seben has been told about her strange aura, but the arrival of assassins complicates the matter.
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.