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 Category:  Fantasy Fiction
  Posted: August 25, 2020      Views: 46
Chapters:
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 ABOUT
K. OLSEN 
It feels like I've always been writing. I have an avid interest in history, but the core of my interest has always been in the human story and how people act under different circumstances. This probably explains the focus so much on characterizat - more...

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Chapter 17 of the book Light of the Heavens
A secluded talk and unexpected visitors at the Tower.
"Quiet Words" by K. Olsen
Background
After the revelation of Seben's royal blood, she and Vassa are settling into life in the Ashen Tower, a place of great knowledge and hidden danger.


Vassa watched Seben work with a faint smile. The young woman had her shady corner of the Ashen Tower’s grounds and a stack of books half her height as reference material for what she was doing now. She knelt over a large, complicated network of glyphs, scribbling and shading with a fury that left her dark hands and forearms utterly covered in bright white chalk. She’d even smudged it onto her forehead with the back of one hand, perspiring just enough from the heat for it to thoroughly cling.

As far as Vassa could tell, Seben hadn’t even realized the mess she’d made of herself.

The apprentice fire-speaker spent most of her days in lecture, learning more and more about the theory of controlling djinn and the many, many different rituals used to connect the power of the elementals to thousands of different tasks and duties. Defense was the most straightforward, essentially pointing the djinn at the enemy, but there were innumerable other uses from what Vassa had pieced together. She was not permitted to attend the lectures, so she relied on Seben’s explanations and what she could piece together in the library late at night.

Naji hovered in the air nearby, always close to Seben's side, his form currently that of a slim, humanoid figure made of flickering flames. When not stirred to rage, he could shape his heat and size into something less alarming. Most still gave him an exceptionally wide berth courtesy of his unshackled presence. He listened to Seben, but they had yet to test if he would continue listening when enraged.

At the moment, the djinn seemed curious, circling slowly around Seben as she worked. That was his general demeanor most of the time. For creatures treated like animals by the people who conjured them, Vassa found it impossible to overlook their fascination with the world they were pulled into. Naji was Seben’s kindred spirit in that: both of them wanted to understand the world of the other.

Vassa flicked a pebble at him, lips twitching into a smile behind her mask. “Your heat will only make it worse,” she said.

Naji drifted closer to her, his answer a crackling of flames from the area that might have been a mouth. As far as Seben had told her, they could not speak, even if they were around humans enough to understand their master’s language. He flickered, tilting his head at her.

The masked woman doubted he could understand her verbatim, but he grasped her amusement as genuine and non-threatening, which was something at least. She always kept her voice gentle when addressing the djinni, more out of fondness than fear. Anything so willing to protect Seben without ulterior motive was a pleasure to be around.

“I think he likes you more than me,” Seben said, looking up from her work. She ran the back of her hand across her brow again, adding to the white smudge.

Vassa laughed at that. “I doubt that,” she said as she moved from her position leaning against the wall. “He is far too genteel to be enamored with me. I merely provide entertainment when you are preoccupied.” She glanced around. The area around them was deserted, students retiring into the Tower for dinner and rest or study into the late hours. The lessons were concluded for the day, the only reason Seben had such free time on her hands. “I must say, we are fortunate not to have an audience. You are not currently the regal figure your people expect.”

Seben looked down at her hands sheepishly. “It did make a lot of mess.”

Vassa let her internal debate rage over whether to warn Seben of her face or wait for amusement’s sake. She paid no mind to Naji drifting behind her. The djinni was only circling around to peer at Seben from over Vassa’s shoulder. He didn’t like direct eye contact, but was easily fascinated. “What are you laboring away at so industriously?”

“Well, I’ve been trying to make a sort of sustaining focus. I haven’t tried to direct Naji’s flow, but there’s a chance that even without the collar, I could accidentally make only him pay the cost of whatever task I set him,” Seben explained, sitting back on her heels. “He’s got substantially more...oomph than I do, but I want to pay at least part. It’s only fair.”

“Fairness has little to do with power,” the masked woman said thoughtfully, studying her companion. There was only sincerity to be found, so earnest that it made her want to shift uncomfortably and look away. As much as she found Seben’s naivety adorable, it was also exceptionally dangerous. “You will expose a weakness in your defenses.”

Seben sighed. “I thought you would understand, after the gate.”

Vassa’s gaze flicked to Naji’s presence moving around to her side. The djinni drifted almost lazily, studying the markings on the ground again. “I understand your intentions,” Vassa said. “I merely warn you that there will be consequences to your path, as any good demon’s advocate would.” She dipped her fingers into the pocket on the side of her thigh, mostly concealed by her blade’s sheath. No one had seen fit to complain about her moving around armed, probably for fear of Seben’s disfavor or the interjection of Naji. She pulled out a mirror, a rectangle only a few inches on each side. It was just enough to be used for signaling or grooming, though she only used it for communication.

“What’s that?” Seben asked curiously.

“A demonstration of how royalty is not supposed to behave,” Vassa said with dry humor, tilting the mirror so Seben could see her own face.

The young woman looked absolutely mortified. “I look like a ghoul!”

Vassa laughed. “Hardly,” she said with amusement. “Your complexion, however, has become somewhat chalky.”

Seben went to wipe her hands and then realized she had no cloth to do so other than her clothing. She tried to brush the chalk from her hands, creating a cloud of the stuff. “Gods’ breath!”

“Would you like assistance?” the masked woman offered, torn between creating more mischief and cleaning the young woman up. There was something adorable enough about the panic in Seben’s expression that she couldn’t find it in herself to be entirely impish.

“Please,” Seben said, hesitating when Vassa approached and knelt carefully out of the mess. “Magic?”

“A touch,” Vassa said, pulling a handkerchief out of the hidden pocket where she kept it carefully folded. “Though not enough to draw suspicion. Any number of people saw you working out here, fully immersed in your scribblings. If you return with no chalk about your person, it will be remarkable. We can settle for a lesser raise of an eyebrow than your current state would create.”

Seben watched curiously as Vassa passed her hand over the cloth. It required no incantation or gesticulation. Everything about what her masked companion did was more subtle than she’d ever seen from the Leyan mages in Losena.

Vassa let essence float through the threads to the cloth, imbuing it with moisture. She didn’t even feel the drain. Serious elemental magic was not something she had ever bothered to master, but minor displays were effortless, the kind of thing she had learned in childhood. “Hold still,” Vassa said, fingertips capturing Seben’s chin. She methodically wiped away the chalk on Seben’s face.

“I suppose I should feel lucky you didn’t spit on it,” Seben said, trying not to laugh at the current image.

“The thought never entered my mind,” Vassa said, shaking her head slightly. She was thorough about her work, though Seben’s giggling didn’t make it easier. She had to rinse the cloth several times to clear it of some of the chalk just to clean off the young woman’s face. For the first time in a long time, she didn’t mind being close to someone. Seben’s essence still blazed, but without manifesting it was more of an intense, if comforting, warmth than the nova she’d seen in the arena.

“You make that look easy,” the young woman observed when her companion paused to rinse the rag again.

“It is a trivial task,” Vassa said before starting work on Seben’s hands and forearms. The chalk would stay under the apprentice fire-speaker’s nails until she actually washed them thoroughly, but she could be somewhat more presentable.

“For you,” Seben said wistfully. “I wish I could do that.”

“I promise you that it is a burden as much as a joy,” Vassa replied, wiping Seben’s palm clean before gently turning her hand palm down to get the back.

“Is it really or are you just saying that to make me feel better?” the young woman asked. She hadn’t been expecting Vassa to take this much care with just getting the chalk off, but then again, everything she’d ever seen of her companion indicated an attention to detail and cleanliness that would put most to shame. There was something rather pleasant about being fussed over, particularly with Vassa’s normal reluctance to come close to anyone for any reason.

Vassa’s lips twitched into a wry smile behind her mask. “Magic is rare in Ethilir, as it is in many parts of the world. That is one of the things I enjoy most about your land.” She kept her gaze on Seben’s hands, inspecting them as she worked. They were not the hands of a high-born lady, in her experience: they had calluses from Seben’s relentless need to do everything for herself, the scars from little burns and playing in the dirt as a child, and even nicks in the pads of her fingers from trimming one new reed stylus after another nigh constantly for writing.

“If you say so,” Seben said. She relaxed slightly when Vassa finished her task. Questions about Vassa’s origins and the presence of magic in her homeland were buzzing around the young woman’s head, but she knew asking them was not likely to result in an answer.

For all the trouble they’d gone through together, Vassa was still every bit the mystery she had been at the start, maybe even more so. Seben only ever had more questions.

“That was less of an interrogation than I was expecting,” Vassa said as she rinsed the rag again and then dried it with a flick of her wrist. She carefully folded it up and tucked it back into her pocket before standing. She offered her hand to Seben to help the young woman up from the ground. The apprentice fire speaker had been kneeling there for more than an hour, so it was going to be uncomfortable.

“Vassa?”

“Mm?” The masked woman’s attention was already drifting back to Naji. The djinni was watching them with fascination. She stopped in her mental tracks when she felt Seben’s fingers ghost over the scars on her pale hands.

“What made these?”

Vassa debated whether or not to lie. It would certainly be easier to, but she wasn’t in the habit of using falsehoods when misdirection was more useful. On the other hand, that horrible little urge to just blurt out the truth to Seben was back. “They were acquired over years,” Vassa said with a shrug. “Each one is a reminder that fire is not to be toyed with. Something a fire-speaker appreciates, I assume.”

Seben wasn’t a healer, but she knew burn scars. She looked down at Vassa’s palm and brushed the masked woman’s sleeve up so she could see the full picture. There, at the center of her friend’s hand, bloomed a rose patterned in shiny burn scars. The stripes applied to each knuckle looked like they had been placed so very carefully, even and matching. “These aren’t accidental,” she said more gently, looking up at Vassa with too much warmth in her dark eyes.

“I never said that they were,” Vassa said, closing her hands to hide the roses. She turned, putting her back to Seben.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Seben asked as she got to her feet, stance ungainly now that she’d realized her feet were numb.

“No,” Vassa said, voice harder and colder. She retreated into herself, severing the closeness of the moments preceding. “Your absence is already no doubt marked upon. Better for you to return to the hall with your fellow apprentices, though I would suggest washing properly before dinner.”

Seben’s brow furrowed with worry. “What about you?”

The masked woman wanted to brush the concern away. Doing so without stinging Seben’s feelings would be difficult. “I can amuse myself one way or another.”

The apprentice fire-speaker sighed softly. “You can talk to me, Vassa,” she said gently. “Maybe I won’t understand right away, but I’ll try.”

Vassa knew that Seben fervently believed that, given her habit of only making guarantees from a place of honesty. She was hardly a good liar, something that would probably need to be corrected before she assumed any leadership role. Even knowing that, however, the masked woman’s secrets stayed locked away. She had become very accustomed to relying on herself, to keeping everything shuttered away. “I am certain you would listen,” Vassa said, softening ever so slightly. “That does not mean I wish to give such words breath.”

Seben caught Vassa’s sleeve, careful not to touch her hand without invitation. She didn’t want to cause discomfort if it could be avoided. “If you ever change your mind, I’m here,” the apprentice fire-speaker reminded Vassa with care.

The brush of dark fingertips against her wrist when Seben let go of her sleeve was a reminder to Vassa that she was not alone, a statement of fact that rendered the world insecure. Solitude, isolation, superficial relationships, those were all known quantities. Seben gave more and more, too much. It wasn’t safe. What was it the oracle had said?

Beware the poison flower of the strangling vine, Yuya’s voice echoed in her mind. Its bloom brings ruin as surely as rapture, its corruption weeping from bloody thorns.

She didn’t care for how close his words were to the reality of her nature.

“We should return to the tower,” Vassa said, turning to look at her companion. Worry shone from every inch of the young woman’s posture and expression. “I endure, Seben. We have other matters that require attention.”

“But are you alright?” Seben said.

“Fine.” Vassa tilted her head slightly to one side. “Do you really think that a matter as trivial as a few burns can dull the blade of my mind? Your lack of faith is disappointing.”

“I’m certain your mind and sarcasm are in full working order,” Seben said. “I’m much more concerned with your heart.”

Vassa laughed, a combination of amusement and bitter cynicism. “I think you would be better served in conservation of such efforts,” she said. “Let us not agonize over absent things.”

Seben frowned for a long moment, but then the expression faded with a sigh. “I like your actual laugh better.” She scooped up some of her books, but there was no way she could carry all the tomes. “I know these are heavy, but I could really use some of that magic for help.”

“I think my arms will suffice,” Vassa said, collecting the remaining books. They were heavy, but not so much so that she couldn’t lend her aid. “Naji will need to return to his jar.”

“Right,” Seben said, setting her stack back down. She opened the lid and spoke in the God-Tongue, inviting rather than compelling the djinni into the jar. She smiled when Naji drifted over, vanishing into the jar in a swirl of fire. She placed the lid over the opening and bound it closed.

“He has been most accommodating, for the fury he was when first released,” the masked woman observed.

“It is unusual, from what the books say,” Seben admitted. “Normally sajjad djinn are always ferocious when encountered. I’m not sure if they’re just reacting to someone trying to capture them or if my aura meshes with his in a way that he finds more pleasant.”

“I suspect the answer is a combination of things.” Vassa hefted her stack. “You might consider taking notes rather than requiring the whole volume each time.”

“I do take notes,” Seben said defensively. “What do you think is in those journals?”

“Ah yes, the added weight.”

The apprentice fire-speaker grinned at that. “There’s the needling that I was expecting.” She seemed reassured by any indication that Vassa was returning to her usual self.

It was impossible not to smile slightly at Seben in a better mood. Vassa put the thoughts of her scars firmly out of her mind, adding an extra bite of sarcasm to her next words. “How happy I am to indulge you.”

“I see why you get along with Kakhent so well,” Seben muttered as they strolled back to the tower with their respective burdens.

The main hall was fairly busy, students sketching out glyphs and otherwise studying in small groups. Eyes glanced their way as always, but this time the attention seemed to be divided between them and another group of strangers in the hall.

Vassa twitched when she felt a familiar stirring in the weave of existence. She set the books down on a spare side table that had been pulled out and turned to face the new arrivals, easily marked as foreign by their dress and skin tone. Two men stood in polished steel armor, every bit as intricate as that worn by the Kingsguard of Ethilir, but with considerably more metal. Both were striking in appearance, bearing intricate blue tattoos of sigils and lines across their faces, designed for precise channeling of magic.

At the center of the group, facing off against an offended Anen and a highly amused Duaenre, was a woman dressed in the High Kingdom’s fashion, a dress that left her midriff half bare and a long slit up the side of her skirt. No tattoos marked her olive skin, but the distinctive rings she wore were more than enough to mark her for what she was.

A blood mage.

“Is that…?” Seben asked with sudden nerves, almost enough to make her drop her books. “Are they even allowed to be here?”

Vassa didn’t answer, approaching the group with care so that the mage and her bodyguards alike would not be immediately aware of her presence. Even from behind, she recognized both the mage’s aura and posture. She waited until she was right behind the Leyan to speak. “It would appear the High King’s vetting of his diplomats has fallen by the wayside, for Adéla Vojak to be permitted in polite society.”

The blood mage almost spun on her heel, face lighting up with delight. “Vassa!” she said, catching hold of the masked woman’s hands. “You are a sight I did not expect. What in the gods’ names are you doing here?”

“Enjoying my travels,” Vassa said with amusement. “I see Kamil and Zdislav are still both swept helplessly in your wake.”

Both men chuckled, visibly relaxing even though they did not turn their backs to the masters of fire-speaking. “It is pleasing that you live,” the taller one said. His eyes had the hint of northern green that betrayed his mixed blood, the mark of his Yssan mother.

“You say the sweetest things, Zdislav,” Vassa said. She greeted both spellguards by placing one hand on each of their shoulders and touching her forehead to each of theirs in turn, resting against the stylized eye at the center of their brows for a second before moving back. “What business brings you and your lovely mage so far from Zaeylael?”

“Knowledge,” Adéla answered lightly. She looked back at Anen and Duaenre. “The High King has a question for the oracles and we bring something in exchange.”

Anen glowered at her. “The oracles are not for simply anyone’s use, let alone a foreign sovereign’s.”

“Perhaps this is a conversation better taken elsewhere?” Duaenre said, looking around at the apprentices watching with fascination.

Vassa leaned almost against Kamil’s side. “I think you will be a busy bodyguard,” she observed. “Adéla’s charms do not seem to soothe them overmuch.”

He grinned and flexed the fingers of his sword-hand. “I will be diplomatic.”

Adéla refocused when she saw Seben approach with a perplexed expression. “Who is your friend, Vassa?”

The masked woman cleared her throat. “Of course. May I introduce Her Highness, Seben Femi, Sunblessed heir to the Kingdom of Ethilir?”

“This is an honor, and most unexpected,” Adéla said with delight. She gave Seben the deep bow and gesture of respect that all mages gave to the nobility.

“Your Highness, this is Mágissa Adéla Vojak, servant of the High King, and her esteemed spellguards, Zdislav Kolar and Kamil Tesarik,” Vassa said. “We were acquainted when I stayed for a time in Zaeylael.” Her lips twitched into a faint smile behind her mask. “There are no more dangerous opponents or staunch allies.”

Adéla glanced from Seben to Vassa. “Apparently we have a great deal of catching up to do,” the blood mage said lightly. “After our matter with the Ashen Tower has been resolved, of course. Perhaps Her Highness would care to weigh in?”

“Upstairs,” Anen said with a grimace. “We will discuss this in private.”

“Quite the invitation,” Adéla said with a flirtatious smile in Anen’s direction.

Vassa stepped to Seben’s side. “It would seem our evening is to be far more eventful than I expected,” she observed.

“You know them?” Seben asked, surprise clinging to every syllable. She hadn’t expected Vassa to come that close to anyone willingly, and definitely not three people in a row.

“Yes,” the masked woman answered honestly, her smile widening as she moved to reveal the nature of their association. “Adéla tried to kill me on several occasions, admittedly at the behest of her instructors. We resolved our differences in the middle of a battle and I ended up performing a substantial favor for her.” She showed the rings on her hands to Seben. “Her gift.”

“She tried to kill you?” Seben said, eyes widening.

“What? She was hardly successful,” her companion said with a laugh as their strange group moved up the stairs, following on Anen’s heels. “They are interesting people. Just be careful around Adéla. I sincerely doubt she will use her more substantial powers while here, but she can be...rambunctious...when intoxicated.”

The book continues with The Prick of Thorns. We will provide a link to it when you review this below.
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