by K. Olsen
Now that Seben is aware of her celestial gift and strange arrivals have come to the Ashen Tower, Vassa has learned her past is not ready to let her go.
Vassa exhaled in a slow breath. Everything was so very fragile and she was furious with herself. Any display of emotion was a display of weakness, a sin she could not afford to commit if Lysaerys was looking for her. She was skilled enough to hide from Sethon, potentially for a lifetime if she kept moving and he kept applying his repulsive charms so indiscriminately. She was under no illusions that either of them were immune to the defenses of the kingdoms of men, something she had learned to blend with instead of running at full speed.
She could not evade Lysaerys, however. The last of her vestali and the remnants of her shredded heart filled her with a poisonous longing. If they had sent a messenger with such fervent impetus to return her, that meant...she was wanted. All will be forgiven. Those four words were seductive, the memory of a devotion that burned as hot as the fires of a mountain’s heart. It meant a return to her people, to her world, an end to the exile.
And yet, even that absolution could never undo what had been done.
Lysaerys never loved you, Vassa reminded herself coldly, crossing her arms. She stood at the edge of the great Western Balcony and gazed out towards the Sea of Pearls, the waters glimmering with lights reflected all around the docks. It was always about control, twisting and taking and breaking. Is that what you want again? To be a plaything, discarded the moment the game grows old?
She would not be bound again. It was as simple as that. “Let them sit upon their ageless thrones and rot,” Vassa whispered, voice soft and lost to the breeze.
The door behind her creaked as it opened, if very softly. It was enough to stir her from her thoughts. The tread and tiny clearing of the throat was definitely Seben hunting for words. Vassa sighed and searched her thoughts for a greeting, but couldn’t settle on one that wouldn’t sound forced.
Seben’s voice was firmer than she expected, hesitance pushed aside by concern. “Vassa, are you alright?”
“Clearly,” Vassa said dryly, falling back into her usual habits. Hopefully that would be enough to reassure Seben. She cursed herself inside her own head again. Selfish. They had Userkare to worry about, dark magic to confront, and Seben’s fate to reveal. Losing control was inexcusable.
Seben’s hand touched the center of her back, tentative and light. It didn’t quite match her tone, but that seemed more out of respect for the masked woman’s boundaries than anything else. “I mean it. That wasn’t like you.”
“If I may advise, standing so close to me is not promising as far as one’s health is concerned,” Vassa said. She turned her head towards Seben, even her eyes lost in the shadow of her hood with only a small brazier burning on each side of the balcony to shed light, leaving a great many shadows untouched.
“Because of Sethon or—”
Vassa’s lips twitched behind her mask. “Do not speak his name,” she warned flatly. Her objection was less that he had power and more that she didn’t care at all for any reminder of him. Even hearing his name made her skin crawl with revulsion.
“Alright,” Seben acknowledged. She studied Vassa intently, wishing she had even the faintest idea of what the masked woman’s expression looked like. “I don’t think you’re going to hurt me.”
“I wish that I shared that assessment,” her companion said. She could see it too easily, winding around Seben like a parasitic vine strangling a great oak, siphoning away Seben’s light and goodness just like the magic that was already polluting Sarom drained at the celestial connection. Vassa tried to spend little time lying to herself about her own nature. “I will hurt you, Seben. I will destroy everything that you are if you let me. You will find me little different from those who made me.”
“You can choose, Vassa,” Seben said firmly. “I know what you said about your fate, but I don’t believe you.” She hesitated a second and then asked, “Do you want to go back to the people looking for you?”
“Yes,” Vassa said without needing to think. Before Seben could look hurt, she added the other half of the truth. “And also no.”
“What do you mean?”
The masked woman brushed her fingertips over the mask where it covered her lips. “My people are there. My purpose is there. The heart I wanted to so desperately call my own is there. I long to return the way a soul dying of thirst in the desert longs for water, like an addict craves their drug. Yet, as much as I desire it, the thought of it fills me with hate. I will be a fortunate woman if I never live to see a single inch of my home soil again, nor any who dwell on it.”
Seben was quiet for a moment, processing that. “They hurt you.”
“They tortured me for pleasure,” Vassa said, bitterness seeping into her tone. “They ripped and tore and twisted until only a hollow shell remained, and even that was not enough. If they think I will ever return, they are mistaken.”
“You have a heart,” Seben said gently. “I can see it.”
Vassa turned to look at the apprentice fire-speaker. Her inner eye opened on its own, displaying Seben’s celestial aura. It burned with a brilliant white light, touched at the edges by gold, and reached out towards the masked woman like a phoenix’s feathered wings, trailing the ash of mortality from pinions. It was so beautiful it almost hurt to gaze upon it. “You see your own shadow,” Vassa said softly. “That is all.”
The young woman shook her head. “You care about people, Vassa, even when you have nothing to gain from it. You saved me from bandits and assassins. You helped that stable hand. You protected the little thief. I want you to stay, but I want you to stay for more reasons than just hating the people who hurt you. I want to give you a reason to stay.”
“You do,” the masked woman said in a low voice. “It is a rare quality you possess, seeing people as better than they are.”
“I think what I see is plenty accurate,” Seben said, offering Vassa a small smile.
Vassa wondered in that moment what her life would have been if Seben had been her lisse, not Lysaerys. Her grasp on magic would have been almost incalculably inferior without the torments she endured to hone those skills, but how different her heart would have been if surrounded by sunlight instead of icy shadows. For a split second, a stab of grief for a life that could have been struck her. She banished it with a thought. The past was what it was and there was no point in agonizing over changing it.
“I should not have reacted as I did,” Vassa said, letting her sigh creep into her voice. “You have your own troubles. I am more than capable of thwarting Sethon should he find me.”
“I’m sorry he’s looking for you,” Seben said gently.
“You have nothing to apologize for. His regret will be a thing of legend if he steps near you,” Vassa muttered. She would feel not a shred of guilt if he appeared and she gave him over to even the worst of the torments her mind could invent. Sethon’s cruelty was omnipresent, but her training ensured hers was bottomless. Enthusiastic as he might have been, he was not a zhendai and never would be.
Seben smiled faintly despite her worry. “You’re very protective, Vassa.”
“Of things I deem worthy of my protection, this is true,” the masked woman acknowledged. There was little sense in denying it, given how much of her attention was now devoted to Seben being free of attackers.
The young woman hesitated for a moment before asking, “Why me?”
It was a good question. There were several answers. Vassa deliberated a moment before saying, “Your magic is unique, a connection to the divine otherwise lost to mortals. It cannot be allowed to die. More than that, Userkare’s corruption cannot be allowed to continue: when it has drained Ethilir dry, it will menace the rest of the world with its insatiable hunger.” She hesitated a second. “There is also the matter of you.”
Seben tensed slightly. “What do you mean?”
“As I said, you have a habit of taking people at their word and at their best,” Vassa said with a slight shrug. “I assumed it was bumbling naivety when we first met. Now I am not so certain. I think it has another root, one rare as rubies in the sand.”
“I can’t tell if I should be insulted or not,” Seben said as she relaxed. That comment sounded like Vassa back to her old self.
The masked woman glanced out over Sarom, then turned her gaze back to Seben with such an intensity that the young woman could feel it without seeing it. “Never let another take that quality from you, Seben. Perhaps it will be the price of obtaining power, but if you can cling to it...that vision is the heart of compassion. After Userkare is finished, we will need it like water in a drought-struck vineyard.”
“I’ll do my best,” Seben promised. She paused before adding, “You’d make a fine poet.”
“It was a vice of mine once,” Vassa admitted quietly, “but there are things even beauty cannot endure.”
“Do not apologize,” the masked woman said firmly. “It is no fault of yours and royalty must always appear self assured. Only apologize if it is absolutely merited.”
“I’m surprised you’re not telling me to never apologize,” Seben said.
“Contrition has its uses.” Vassa’s lips quirked into a small smile behind her mask. “Besides, if I told you never to, it would be all that you do.”
Seben nudged Vassa’s ribs with her elbow, though gently, as she looked out over Sarom. “You must feel better if you’re already back to needling me.”
“Few things bring me such joy,” Vassa said with amusement. She turned her eyes to the view. Even at night, firelight played across the city, mostly from long-burning street lamps. It gave the appearance of a lake glimmering with starlight. Such a different beauty from her homeland, but Vassa couldn’t deny that it still struck her all the same.
“It’s hard to believe that I might end up in charge of anything,” Seben admitted.
“Ethilir will need your protection, even radiant and powerful Sarom. It will need devotion, love, care,” Vassa said softly as she looked out at the lights. She adored the cities of the south, so full of life and energy. They did not strike her with awe the way they intended, but filled her with a delight in their vivacity. To her, Sarom was breathless in intensity, in diversity, in change. Even at its most calm, like in the depths of the night, life cavorted on with the enthusiasm and wonder of a child.
Seben glanced over. There was something wonderfully soft in Vassa’s tone, a departure from her usual sarcasm or prodding. “It sounds like you think well of Ethilir.”
“It has a beauty only its own,” Vassa said, lips tugging into a faint smile hidden by fabric. “From the serene depths of the desert to the awe of its sandstorms to the thriving vibrance of its cities.” She touched Seben’s arm lightly with her fingertips. “And you, my young friend, should be in bed. I have kept you up late enough.”
“I’m just glad you’re alright,” Seben said. The contact surprised her, mostly by its lightness. Vassa’s touch was barely there, a whisper against her skin. It was a pleasant feeling. Then again, the only time the masked woman had ever been rough, it was pulling her forcefully away from danger.
“I endure,” Vassa promised. “We have a great deal to do in the morning.”
Vassa laughed. “We are hosting a blood mage and seeking oracles, lest you have forgotten.”
“Adéla seems nice enough,” Seben said, letting Vassa lead the way back inside. “So do Kamil and Zdislav.”
“Oh, I am certain she is nice,” Vassa said, stressing the word. “Her manners are pleasant and her compliments finely honed. You would do well to remember, however, that nice is meaningless. Adéla is an intensely destructive combat mage and would kill to defend herself or her spellguards without a second’s hesitation. An assassination attempt by Userkare’s men or your fellow fire-speakers could end in the devastation of the Ashen Tower and potentially part of Sarom.”
“Do you think they’ll try to kill her?” Seben asked, worried.
“It is a possibility that cannot be ignored,” Vassa said. “I would expect them to act after she has received her answer from the oracles, before she can return to the High King.”
Unease swept through Seben in a wave. “We’ll have to stop the attempt,” she said. “Before anyone gets hurt.”
“I was hoping you would say that.” Vassa said. She said nothing more until they reached the quarters given to Seben. She opened the door for the apprentice fire-speaker. “Rest well. You will need that strength for what comes next.”
Seben stepped in and pulled Vassa into a fierce hug before the masked woman could escape. “Thank you for being here,” the apprentice fire-speaker said. It occurred to her now, holding Vassa close, that the masked woman’s body was so fragile. She was slight in build and smaller than she seemed with her confidence and magic. Vassa being hurt worried Seben. “If your hunter comes here, Naji and I will protect you.”
Vassa’s throat tightened. She didn’t care for contact like this, but for Seben she would permit it. More than that, though, the offer of protection was unexpected. It was in keeping with Seben’s personality, but someone offering her defense rather than the other way around was new. At least, someone saying so and actually meaning it. Seben was not a deceptive creature. “Thank you,” she said in a low tone, stepping back the moment Seben released her. “That is...a generous offer.”
Seben smiled. “I mean it.”
Before Vassa could reply, the sound of an explosion somewhere above them severed her thoughts, splintering wood and screams disrupting the moment. “We need to go,” Vassa said urgently. She wrapped an arm around Seben and far-stepped up to the next floor, outside the rooms reserved for special guests.
Seben had only experienced a far-step before as the barest of shifting when she was mostly asleep. This was different, like passing through the bitter cold of death for a split second. By the time her blink finished, they were standing in a hall littered with the shards of a door and several armored bodies crumpled against the opposite wall. The air reeked of blood and death.
It took Vassa no time to orient herself. “Adéla, that’s enough,” Vassa said sharply as the blood mage emerged. Zdislav followed her with his sword drawn, supporting a staggering Kamil on his opposite shoulder. Neither spellguard was in armor, but both had shields. The Ashen Tower’s guards were flooding the hall on either side of the door.
Kamiil looked horrible. He had dropped his sword, hand pierced by an assassin’s knife. His skin was taking on a grayish pallor despite the fact that the wound was relatively minor.
Vassa knew poison when she saw it and cursed. She was not a healer. “A tainted blade,” she snapped.
“We need a healer,” Seben said, looking around. She spotted Kakhent behind them in the press. “Master Kakhent, we need a healer!”
The old man nodded his head, grabbing two fire-speaker apprentices. “To Amenirdis!”
Vassa almost snarled when she saw Duaenre on the opposite side, one hand on a soul jar. If he released that djinn, Adéla would respond in kind.
The blood mage’s eyes fixed on the bodies crumpled against the wall, incandescent rage visible in her expression and the tension in her entire body. Behind her, Zdislav had to drop his sword to keep Kamil upright with both hands. “Adéla, he is not well!” the unharmed spellguard said urgently.
“Stand down, blood mage!” Duaenre barked.
Adéla’s lip curled and she looked straight at him. “Is this what your protection is worth, worm?” she spat. She extended her hand towards the crumpled bodies as they stirred, revealing that the blast hadn’t quite killed them.
Vassa knew what was coming before it happened. She felt Adéla seize the threads of the assassins and rip the life out of their bodies, cracking their bones and ripping flesh as she did so. The blood on the ground flowed towards the Leyan mage, but not in simple rivulets. The path of the liquid twisted into lines of connected sigils as it flowed, as she started to chant in a language Seben had never heard before.
Duaenre opened his jar, djinni flooding the hallway between its master and the mage with fire. It flashed towards Adéla, barely giving the mage enough time to channel her stolen power into a powerful ward. The fearsome inferno was halted almost effortlessly.
“We cannot allow this to escalate,” Vassa said near Seben’s ear before turning her attention to Zdislav. “Zdislav, this cannot continue! You will all die!”
The spellguard looked up at them, his arms holding his fellow spellguard cradled to his chest. “I cannot save him,” Zdislav said, voice breaking. “He is cold as the grave.”
Seben moved without thinking, Vassa on her heels. “A healer is coming,” Seben promised. “We’ll save him.”
Vassa grabbed Zdislav by his chin, forcing him to meet her eyes. “We will stay with Kamil,” she said. “You must rein in Adéla.”
“Tell that to the djinni,” Zdislav said bitterly.
“I have need of you, darling,” Adéla said through gritted teeth, maintaining the barrier now by her own essence alone. Vassa knew that the mage was extremely well-trained, but also that Adéla couldn’t afford to spend all of herself now. She was clearly expecting having to fight through the tower, not that there would be a shortage of life to steal if that happened.
Zdislav laid Kamil down gently and then rose to his feet, moving towards his mage. He placed a hand on her shoulder and bowed his head. Vassa felt the surge of power pass between spellguard and mage seamlessly, the threads that made up their souls entwining with effortless grace. That was the most dangerous and beautiful part of their connection: the union, the single self that they became.
The ward exploded outwards, shards ripping into the djinni in almost innumerable fragments. The creature howled as it died, leaving Duaenre gaping in its wake.
“I find your hospitality lacking,” Adéla spat, extending a hand towards the master fire-speaker.
“Adéla, stop!” Seben shouted from where she knelt beside the fallen spellguard. His breathing was weak, shallow, but still there. “Kamil needs you! He’s still alive!”
The blood mage turned, tears streaking down her face. She threw up another ward between herself and Duaenre before he could conjure another djinni, between their little group and the advancing guards. “I feel him fading.”
Vassa put a hand on Seben’s shoulder. She could feel it in Kamil when she put her other hand on his chest. The poison was not magic, but it was made by it. “Manifest.”
“What?” Seben blurted out.
“I think we need divine intervention,” Vassa said through a tight jaw.
“I don’t know how!”
Vassa’s grip on Seben’s shoulder tightened. “Be an angel of mercy to Kamil,” she said. “I know it is in you.”
Seben took a deep breath and looked up at Adéla and Zdislav, at the agony in their faces as they looked to Kamil. Both had tears in their eyes and a fragile hope lingering in their eyes at Vassa’s words. Then she turned her gaze down at Kamil, his face contorted in pain as his pallor grew worse and worse, clutching the hand that dripped dark, thick blood. She put a hand on his cheek and closed her eyes. He doesn’t deserve this. No one deserves this. Please… She reached down into herself, like she would to find the nerve to face a djinni, but even further, towards the core of her being. Please...please...please...please...
Brilliant white light exploded outwards from Seben as the phoenix of her aura unfurled its wings. She took on the angelic visage she had in the Games, glowing with celestial radiance. Kamil’s suffering sharpened in her senses, coming into focus. Seben leaned down, touching her burning forehead to his cold one, folding her wings over his body.
There was a pulse felt through the threads by everyone, whether they were normally capable of perceiving magic or not. Vassa smiled faintly as she felt Seben’s essence sweep through Kamil’s body, burning away the poison. The moment it had passed through him like a desert wind, Seben’s light faded away. The young woman crumpled backwards, right into Vassa’s waiting arms, body heated as if by a fever.
“Kamil!” Adéla blurted out when she saw her fallen spellguard stir. The ward dropped, and she fell to her knees by his side, Zdislav crouching beside her.
“You are beautiful sights,” Kamil said to his companions with a weary smile as he flexed his hand. When he realized there was no pain or wound, his eyes went wide and he looked to his other side. “What happened?”
Vassa adjusted Seben against her shoulder, a faint smile on her lips behind her mask. “An angel did it.”
The approach of guards was a reminder of their immediate problem, Duaenre a rank behind them. “Arrest the Leyans!’ he barked.
“I would not recommend it,” Zdislav said grimly, picking up his sword as he rose to his feet while Adéla helped up Kamil. “We owe a debt to your liege, not to you.”
“Might I recommend you stand down?” Vassa suggested pleasantly to the approaching guards. “Her Highness will not be pleased to find you re-inflicting wounds she has just healed. Not to mention that assassins were the instigator of this.”
The guards hesitated at that. Whether or not they trusted Vassa, they knew she was a close companion of the heir to the Sunlit Throne. Her words could easily shape Seben’s opinion...and her anger. Not that they looked eager to tangle with Adéla and her spellguards anyway after seeing what had become of the djinni.
“We can talk this out,” Vassa said smoothly.
“Is Her Highness well?” Kakhent said sharply from behind them, approaching with his apprentices and a gaunt, older woman carrying a bag that reeked of various healing herbs.
“Exhausted, but alive and well,” the masked woman promised. “I will need help getting her to bed.”
“I will assist,” Kamil said, expression softening as he looked towards the unconscious Seben. “I owe her my life.”
“I’m sure she’ll be delighted to see this mess when she wakes up,” Kakhent said dryly. He looked over at Duaenre. “Guards to protect Her Highness should be permitted, but until the truth of the matter is revealed, I see no reason to clap anyone in irons.” He looked to Adéla. “If you would kindly refrain from using spells or leaving, that is.”
Adéla relaxed her posture. “I will harm no one unless sufficiently provoked,” she said, though she did glance at Duaenre.
“Good enough,” Kakhent said. “I hope you can account for our dead bodies.”
A quarrel quickly broke out between the master fire-speakers once Kakhent approached Duaenre, but the guards ceased their aggressive posture and advanced with weapons sheathed to protect Seben. Adéla and Zdislav relaxed, while Kamil moved to help Vassa lift Seben carefully.
“Well done,” Vassa said to the unconscious Seben, smiling faintly.