by K. Olsen
After the Arena, the kingdom knows that Seben is heir to the throne and assassins have already made one attempt. Vassa and her secrets have been the best defense.
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.