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Posted:|| August 27, 2020 Views: 38|
Chapter 18 of the book Light of the Heavens
Negotiations with a blood mage ending in a painful message.
"The Prick of Thorns"
by K. Olsen
Vassa and Seben have evaded assassins, unlocked Seben's divine aura, and come to the Ashen Tower. The arrival of a blood mage promises to complicate things.
The debate was amusing to Vassa, Anen’s traditionalist bent crashing headlong into the blunt-force charm that was the High King’s favorite mage. Despite her appreciation for the Kingdom of Ethilir’s lack of true spellcasters, Vassa would have been lying if she said it displeased her to see Adéla and her spellguards. She enjoyed the combination of good nature, healthy competition, and surprisingly potent intelligence behind the mage’s pretty face. Kamil’s staunch protective instincts were comforting and familiar, an echo of Vassa’s own, and coupled with a healthy sense of humor. Zdislav, she enjoyed more for his relentless romanticism and way with words as much as his blade.
Vassa also knew from experience that the three were each fearsome opponents and even more devastating when working together, mostly because their connection was seamless despite Adéla’s relative youth. Both spellguards had inner reserves immense for humans, the channeling markings more than enough to make the drain more efficient. If Adéla was on her game, which was true far more often than not, she could outpace even a djinn in terms of sheer destructive power.
Even in the High Kingdom, the largest concentration of mages in the south, the number of magically active people was less than one in a thousand. Less than one in a hundred of those would ever be anywhere close to battle-mage territory. The High Kingdom prized Adéla as more than a diplomat: she was a weapon, living and breathing, rare even in her homeland.
Which left Vassa with an interesting puzzle: why was the mage here? What could be worth risking such a weapon? They had forced her mundane guards to wait outside of the Ashen Tower, something surely the Leyans knew would happen when they approached their ancient rivals. Kamil and Zdislav were incredibly capable, but they were only two men. Trusting that numbers would not overwhelm was a gamble at best.
Whatever the High King wanted was a pearl of great price, if he was willing to place Adéla’s fate into the hands of the gods so.
“What artifact could you possibly possess that would be worth our toleration of this request?” Anen demanded, temper only somewhat contained.. “You have done enough damage for a hundred lifetimes on the field of war, witch. If you think we will tolerate your probing into our secrets—!”
“I care nothing for your secrets,” Adéla said, a hint of irritation flashing across her face. It was so swift that Vassa was likely the only one who caught it. “Truly, the inner workings of Ethilir’s djinn-collaring could not be farther from my concern.”
The masked woman smiled faintly. Patience was a virtue she knew Adéla sometimes struggled to find, particularly when she felt her way being closed off.
The same drive that had fueled the mage’s meteoric rise in Zaeylael also nipped her in the heels. Fortunately, the mágissa had her spellguards to bring her back to a more even temper. Adéla sat between the two men and Zdislav already had a hand resting against her thigh, subtly applying just enough pressure to remind the mage of his presence.
“Then pray tell, what is your concern?” Duaenre asked, steepling his fingers.
“I told you,” Adéla said with a hint of an edge of sharpness to her tone. “The High King has a question for your oracles.”
Duaenre chuckled a little, shaking his head. “We will need more information about this question of yours,” he said. “Surely you understand that we must ensure the protection of our kingdom as well.”
Kamil looked to his mage, studying her a moment before leaning in. Vassa’s ears were keen enough to catch his statement. “It is not unreasonable, darling,” the spellguard advised. “Out of context…”
Adéla gave him an almost imperceptible nod. She held a hand out to Zdislav, who produced a pouch containing some kind of hard angular object. She drew a spar of dark red crystal out of the bag, almost ruby in hue, etched in swirling silver symbols. Vassa identified it as the God-Tongue, but the sigils seemed almost infinitely more complex than even that used by the Eth, thousands of thread-like veins of silver coming together in twisted patterns. “This is what we offer,” she said, letting fingertips brush over the smooth surface of the crystal. “Your djinn should be able to activate it, since you do not have the draw of power yourselves.”
“What is it?” Seben asked, leaning forward. She cocked her head slightly, studying it intently. “Those markings are a name.”
“Indeed,” Adéla said with a hint of a smile playing across her lips. “But not of some djinn. A mage imbued this stone with their knowledge, etching portions of their own soul into the crystal. When touched by a corresponding elemental essence and the correct application of power, the contents can be...shared.”
“Quite the trick,” Duaenre said with fascination. He glanced over at Anen. “How do we know that this is the genuine article?”
Vassa leaned back in her seat, stretching with catlike grace. “By activating it,” she said. “The knowledge of creating phylacteries was lost in the Revealing, at least to mortal mages. Adéla, powerful as she is, could not create a genuine article tied to her own essence any more than you could, let alone fabricate a false one.”
Adéla laughed at that, looking over. “Who knew our own limitations would be so helpful?” She glanced back to Anen. “Our mutual friend is correct. I can only open and close this stone, just as a djinn can. This contains memories of a fire-speaker ritual that was created in the time of Godfall, the last days of the Revealing. Along with what I assume would be rather riveting diagrams.”
“That’s not possible,” Anen said brusquely. “All such things were destroyed.”
“Can I see?” Seben asked curiously. “You said that you could open it.”
“Perhaps a fragment before we seal our bargain. I’m not an unreasonable woman, despite what my opponents would insist,” Adéla said thoughtfully. “I do not expect you to make a deal blindly.”
“And your king’s question?” Duaenre said.
The mage sighed and leaned back between her spellguards, tipping her head back. “The question came from a strange dream. It is well known even among your people, I imagine, that High King Mirsolav is highly sensitive to magic, feeling its ebbs and flows, even though he is no mage. Thus, we are not in a habit of ignoring his visions. He asked us: when the sun falls from the sky and the Binding itself is tainted, when the Shattered Ones are stirred from their death, what will drive back the Devouring Dark?”
Vassa’s lips pressed into a thin line behind her mask. That question was far more about Ethilir than Adéla seemed to realize, given what she knew of the current situation regarding the King and the dark magic he wielded in secret...or that wielded him. She found herself far more invested in the little game being played now.
Or perhaps it was a warning of a danger far more potent than Vassa was comfortable with. What if that twisted, hungering magic sucked Ethilir dry and shattered its connection with the divine before moving on to Leus and all of its collected power? Would the shadow swallow the kingdoms of men until they were no more?
Fortunately, no one else in the room was wholly aware of the ramifications of the question. Vassa leaned over to Seben. “If I may advise?”
“By all means,” Seben said as Duaenre started to question Adéla about the crystal again.
“The gift of knowledge offered is priceless,” Vassa observed close to Seben’s ear, stretching again to cover the motion. Anen and Duaenre both looked heavily preoccupied at the moment, at least. “It would substantially enrich the Ashen Tower. It would also please an emissary of the High King. More importantly, that question is very much about the enemy we face and how to stop it. Be certain that your agreement includes both of us in that room with the oracles when Adéla consults them.”
Seben paused to think it over, but nodded after a moment. “How do I…?”
“Treat them as you would a djinni,” Vassa advised. “Be firm, be fair, be aware of their power and secure in your own.”
The apprentice fire-speaker pulled in a deep breath. “Fire-speakers can go generations without ever stumbling over a scrap of lore that has survived the Revealing,” Seben said firmly. “Surely the Ashen Tower is not going to let this simply fall between their fingers when presented with such an opportunity.”
Everyone else in the room pivoted towards Seben, showing varying degrees of surprise. “Your Highness….” Duaenre started.
Seben offered him and Anen a smile. “Wouldn’t it be wise to accept new knowledge of an era that’s both our origin and blank pages in our history? I’d like to hear what the oracles have to say in answer. After all, if this darkness is so terrible, surely it concerns all of us.”
Vassa was grateful that she had her mask to hide her grin from Adéla. The mage stared at Seben with the wariness of a cat walking into a carpenter’s shop. Someone is going to be far more careful about minding their tail, the masked woman reflected with amusement.
Anen and Duaenre looked at each other before leaning heads together to confer.
“I have no objection to Her Highness supervising our visit,” Adéla said with a faint smile, settling back into her comfortable calm after that moment of exposure. “I take it as a good omen. The High Kingdom and Ethilir need not be at odds all the time.”
“Better to quarrel with our other neighbors,” Kamil said with a chuckle, glancing over at Zdislav.
The tall spellguard shrugged slightly and put an arm around Adéla’s shoulders, bumping his fist into Kamil’s shoulder fondly as he did so. “Trouble,” he said of both his companions, shaking his head.
After a deliberation, Anen and Duaenre turned their attention to the small group of Leyans, though Duaenre also turned the corner of his eye towards Vassa and Seben. “This will be a boon to the Ashen Tower,” Anen admitted reluctantly. “I think that in this instance, Her Highness’s point stands. We will accept your proposal, if you agree to a visit with the Oracles that is supervised by fire-speakers, Her Highness included.”
“A satisfactory bargain, in that no one is entirely pleased,” Vassa said with amusement.
“I thought a good bargain was when both sides believed they’d cheated the other,” Zdislav said with a chuckle.
“I need a drink,” Anen muttered.
“Perhaps we all could use one?” Duaenre offered.
Adéla held up her hands. “A tempting proposal, truly,” she said with a small smile, “but I feel that we have occupied enough of your time. It will take us some time to return to the Sunlit Palace and the quarters provided for diplomats. By the time we reach our rooms, it will be late indeed, even if we leave now.”
“We have rooms suitable for guests here,” Duaenre said with a friendly smile. “Provided you don’t blow up the Tower.”
“I assure you that such things are not within the purview of our diplomatic protections,” Adéla said lightly. “Thank you for your hospitality. Kamil, would you tell the guards waiting that they may return to the Palace? I expect Captain Pavol will be back bright and early tomorrow to collect us, gods damn him.”
Kamil chuckled and shook his head. “Never one for mornings,” he said fondly as he rose to his feet. “Zdislav, you are in command in my absence.”
“I think we both know that is not so,” the tall spellguard said, glancing over at their mage meaningfully. “Not that she listens to you either.”
Adéla pouted at that while both master fire-speakers got to their feet. “Don’t be that way.”
“I will show you the way,” Anen offered Kamil with something approaching grace, though it probably had more to do with supervising a roving spellguard moving through the tower with a sword that hadn’t even been peace-bonded by the gate guards for fear of his mage’s wrath.
“You are welcome to remain in this area until his return,” Duaenre said. He held out his hands for the stone. “I will take this to our master of records, so that it may be opened.”
Adéla held up a finger to forestall his movements, ring gleaming in the light. “A gift better given publicly, yes?” she said with a wide smile. “As an overture of friendship, in honor of your king and mine.” She glanced at Seben. “Or at the very least, to gratify Her Highness.”
Duaenre gave her a grin equal parts appraising and amused. “Fair enough,” he said, moving his hands away from the crystal. “We will speak to the oracles in the morning and you may offer your gift in front of the Ashen Tower then. In that case, I will warn our good master of records that he is to contend with your charm in the morning. I leave you in Her Highness’s capable hands.”
Seben looked dubious at that, but didn’t raise an objection when Duaenre departed as Anen had.
“I wasn’t expecting your intervention, I must admit,” Adéla said thoughtfully, studying Seben thoughtfully. “It seems odd, given the resistance we received at the Palace itself.”
“Knowledge is important,” the apprentice fire-speaker said firmly.
“True on many levels, one seeker of power to another,” the mage said, twisting a ring on her finger as she studied Seben and her masked sentinel. “Then again, you keep far more interesting company than King Userkare. I could do without the usual sycophants, and you’ve settled for a very interesting companion.”
“Hardly,” Vassa said dismissively.
Adéla’s gaze seemed to sharpen. “Truly? Then I suppose there’s no reason a stranger arrived in Zaeylael asking very intent questions about you.”
Vassa’s eyes narrowed beneath her hood, thankfully hidden in shadow. “Who?”
“A creature that called himself Sethon,” Zdislav said with hints of a grimace. “He worked considerable evil to attempt to elicit information.”
Vassa felt a tendril of cold unfold inside her at that name. “Did you kill him?” she asked. She doubted it would be possible, given Sethon’s general prowess and unapologetic sadism. No doubt he had caused all kinds of trouble in her wake.
“No,” Adéla said, a shadow passing over her expression. “Though not for lack of trying. He was almost as capable as you.”
“That almost is rather flattering,” Vassa said as she leaned back to hide her tension, crossing one leg over her other. She turned her head, studying the rings on one raised hand instead of her audience. “Did he say why he was seeking me?”
Zdislav ran his hand down his throat. Vassa caught the hint of a fresh scar at his neck, barely showing above his armor. Not deep, but a line left with purpose. It gave the masked woman a definite hint how Sethon had manipulated his way out of a true combat with Adéla. Vassa knew from experience that the woman could demolish a formation. She would have been able to kill Sethon...had he not stripped her of the opportunity by using her own heart against her.
There was nothing in or under heaven that Adéla valued above Kamil and Zdislav, her faithful companions and defenders who had protected her since she was very first discovered to have magic. For a Leyan mage who had been born on the border with Yssa, where magic was purged with fire, that presence of protection meant more than anything. Vassa was quite certain that the blood mage would burn the world before she let either man die on her watch.
When they are grey and old, Adéla had whispered over drinks once. That is when I will let them go.
Vassa appreciated loyalty. It was one of the mage’s more redeeming qualities.
“He claimed to have a message for you,” Adéla said, distaste lingering in her tone. Her lip curled slightly as she moved ink bottles and several styluses off the round, polished silver tray at the center of the table. She put her fingertips to her temple and then lowered her hand, cupping it as she whispered into her palm. “I told him I would convey his message to secure Zdislav’s release.”
“Mercy for any reason is surprising, given what I know of him.”
“Kamil stopped the knife,” Zdislav explained with a glimmer of pride.
Vassa’s lips quirked into a humorless smile behind her mask. “I trust you know well enough that he was capable of a great deal worse than a knife.”
Adéla’s expression hardened. “He was,” she said coolly. “Fortunately, dealing with you was enough of an education to drive him off. Not that I think he was inclined to stay when no one could tell him where you had gone, given the disappearing act you pulled.”
“True enough. I exposed you to a trick or two that he might have stolen,” Vassa acknowledged, glancing over at Seben. She could see at least a dozen questions burning in the forefront of her companion’s expression. “What was the message?”
The blood mage let her fingers drift in a circle across the surface of the plate, tilting it so that Vassa and Seben could see into it like a mirror.
Burning green eyes stared back at them, a twisted smirk crossing a handsome, angular face. It was a face out of Vassa’s nightmares, one that sent hatred as cold as midwinter through her veins. She despised Sethon in a way few could understand, but she did not fear him.
“You are missed by our beloved, Vassa. Return and all will be forgiven.”
Vassa lashed out without thinking, driving her hand into the plate even as dark magic flared to life around her fingers. The sudden outpouring of power shattered the spell, burning across the polished metal surface like liquid fire, but so cold it cracked the surface of the plate.
Everyone else recoiled from the ripple through the fabric of existence. Even that bare hint of power was enough to rip into the threads, shredding them with a touch. Vassa was on her feet before anyone could react.
“Naev!” Vassa spat viciously. “Jhe vaniss annaë vhal! Ghoroth kes Lysaerys thel!” She turned on her heel and strode out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her.
“Vassa!” Seben called, leaping to her feet. She looked over at a stunned Adéla and an equally unsettled Zhislav. “What did she say?”
“In his language?” the spellguard said softly, his answer quiet enough for that even a pin dropping would be noticeable. “That she would kill herself before returning. That she belongs no more to Lysaerys.”
“I do not know that name,” Adéla said uneasily. “But I have never heard Vassa speak like that before.”
Zhislav wrapped his arms around his mage, holding her tightly to his chest. “She has many wounds,” he said quietly. “We spoke after the demon...held me. This one must be the deepest.”
“I need to find her,” Seben said, hurrying to the door. She opened it and saw no sign of Vassa.
“We will remain and clean up,” Zhislav said, his arms still around Adéla protectively. “Go gently, Your Highness. I owe Vassa my life and would not see the wound worsen. Even a scar not seen from the outside can have a wicked pain, doubly those applied with intent.”
|The book continues with Angel of Mercy. We will provide a link to it when you review this below.|
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