by K. Olsen
Seben has saved Kamil's life and helped defend the blood mage and her spellguards against assassination alongside Vassa, but they have more questions than answers.
“If you are going to continue putting your hands all over him, the least you could do is find a private room,” Vassa said with dry amusement. She sat comfortably at Seben’s side, fingertips resting on the pulse point inside the young woman’s wrist. The beat was strong and steady, comforting in its fragile and fleeting rhythm. Seben would wake soon, hopefully feeling rested. The early light of dawn was just creeping up on the horizon. Vassa had spent much of the past few hours in her trance-like rest, keeping tabs on Seben’s wellbeing and her eyes on everything that moved in the room.
Adéla laughed at that, tucking her head against Kamil’s shoulder. Her legs were across his lap already, arms around his neck. “Jealous,” she said. “Do not think I cannot see your hand’s whereabouts, Vassa. You would do the same in my position.”
Zdislav chuckled, sitting on Kamil’s other side with an arm around the recovered spellguard and leaning his head against the other man’s. Together, the three looked supremely comfortable despite the assassination attempt or at least very, very relieved despite the fact that tower guards surrounded them and watched like hawks alongside Master Kakhent.
“I have no inclination to dangle myself off Her Highness,” Vassa said dismissively.
“You might enjoy it,” Kamil said with a chuckle.
Vassa had difficulty believing that, though not because of Seben. Her past had taught her only that being close to anyone was a rapture entangled inevitably with pain. Even something as simple and pleasant as a kiss could easily become a bite. She was aware of the connection that the three had, but on a level she failed to understand it.
It always struck her as so strange to see them like this: Adéla devoted and caring, Zdislav protective and considerate, Kamil affectionate and warm. They were all the antithesis of her own experience, where power demanded and took as it pleased, leaving only anguish and addiction in its wake. She saw it in Seben’s fondness for her too, a thing that she had no name or understanding for.
Vassa removed her hand when Seben sighed. “How do you feel?” the masked woman asked, turning to look at Seben.
Adéla whispered something to Kamil and Zdislav that sounded suspiciously like, “See?”
The masked woman didn’t dignify it with a response. She relaxed slightly when the young woman’s dark eyes opened.
“Like a mountain fell on my head,” Seben muttered, rubbing at her temple. She sat up immediately when she realized their situation, eyes widening. “Did it work?”
“Wondrously so,” Kamil said. He looked like he wanted to stand up, but clearly he had no desire to dislodge Adéla either. Vassa knew he was fully aware of how tactile the mage could be when she needed reassurance and they had almost lost him. Even Zdislav was barely one step short of trapping him in a bearhug.
“I’m glad,” Seben said earnestly.
“We all are,” Adéla said more seriously. “Your generosity with your power will never be forgotten, Your Highness.” She reluctantly moved off Kamil, though she didn’t shrug off his arm when it wrapped around her shoulders. They made for a slightly more proper picture at the moment. “It is a kindness that should be repaid in kind.”
Seben pulled in a deep breath before blurting out the nonsense words that were her immediate thought at such an offer. “You’re welcome,” she said. “You don’t need to—”
“You will find Adéla Vojak a very, very particular woman about her debts,” Vassa said smoothly. “The same can be said for her charming spellguards, and I say that as someone who performed a great service for all three in the past.”
“Your gallant rescue is most well remembered,” Zdislav said with a grin. “It is not every day that one sees a demon slain.”
Vassa gave him a pointed look, though it wasn’t one he could see with her hood and mask. “We discussed how little I enjoy having my heroic deeds bandied about, Zdislav.” The sarcasm practically dripped off her words. “Need I repeat my threat?”
There was an almost audible click as his jaw shut, but with a gleam of humor in the tall spellguard’s eyes. It earned full laughs from Adéla and Kamil.
Seben smiled at that. “Dare I ask what the threat was?”
“The kind of anatomical removal that would sorely disappoint his lovers,” Vassa said dryly.
“Vassa!” Seben said scandalized, swatting at her friend.
“I only mostly meant it,” Vassa said to calm Seben, earning even more laughter from the three Leyans. “Now, can we finally discuss the matter of the assassins? If there is anything that needs to come to light, I would have it now, before we speak with the oracles.” She looked over at Kakhent. “Provided that is still permissible. I know that Master Duaenre has raised his objections strenuously.”
The old man’s jaw set firmly. “A bargain is a bargain. If Mágissa Vojak is still intent upon carrying out her end of the deal, we will uphold ours. I am a man of my word.”
“A rare quality in the world,” Adéla said. She glanced to Kamil and Zdislav, who gave her subtle inclinations of the head. “I have every intention of bestowing the phylactery as promised, provided we are allowed audience of your oracles.”
“And you still wish to be present?” Kakhent asked, looking to Seben and Vassa.
Seben nodded. “I do.” She looked to her masked companion.
“It seems more prudent than ever,” Vassa said. She was confident in her private suspicion that Userkare had sent the assassins to prevent the question from being answered after learning exactly what they intended to ask...probably from Duaenre, if Kakhent was right about his fellow master’s loyalty to the King.
“If we might, I would like a private word with Her Highness and her bodyguard,” Adéla said, leaning back against the couch.
Kakhent looked to Seben, a tension settling into his body. “Your opinion?”
“Mágissa Vojak is not going to kill me,” Seben said with confidence. “And I trust Vassa with my life.”
“Kamil and Zdislav will wait out with the guards,” Adéla said firmly.
Vassa could track the mage’s logic easily. The two men would be able to effectively bar entry or eavesdropping while they spoke. “I can protect Her Highness, Master Kakhent.” She gestured to the soul-jar at Seben’s side. “As can Naji.”
The master fire-speaker nodded. He hadn’t seen Vassa in action, but he distinctly remembered the raging inferno that was an unleashed, feral sajjad djinni. “He is more protection than any number of our guards could provide,” Kakhent said. He gestured to the guards. “To the hall. I doubt there will be more assassins, but the chance is always there.”
As the room emptied except for the three of them, Adéla blew her spellguards a kiss and then turned back to Seben and Vassa. She waited until she heard the door close completely. “I was sincere when I spoke of my debt.”
“I didn’t doubt it,” Seben said. “Vassa generally raises more of a point when someone is being deceptive.”
Adéla grinned at that. “That’s so very sweet of you, Vassa.”
“She has to learn from someone,” Vassa said almost indifferently. “You had something to say that you did not want overheard.”
“The King sent those assassins,” Adéla said with confidence. “I have encountered the Eth royal variety before, defending High King Miroslav. The poison that they use is very distinctive and has no cure. Except the divine, it seems.”
Vassa filed that away for future reference, making a mental note to investigate the poisons in use in Ethilir much more closely. “Prince Sanakht was killed by a poisoned blade.”
Seben’s hands tightened in her lap. She still hadn’t really confronted how to feel about the death of the father she had never known, if it even made a difference. “Lord Osei would know if it was the same variety.” She looked to Adéla. “I know I have royal blood, but…”
Adéla smiled. “I do not assume that you had your part in those machinations, Your Highness. If anything, I most firmly believe the opposite. Vassa’s silences speak louder than the words of many. I will speak plainly, since we are not likely to have much time without prying ears. I know that the question I will pose to the oracles involves His Majesty and I do not care for the man after his assassins’ display. I will only ask you where your loyalties lie, to your crown or your kingdom?”
Seben met Adéla’s eyes without flinching. “To my people.” She took a deep breath. “Something evil is going on.”
The blood mage nodded thoughtfully. “I thought as much upon meeting him, truthfully. He does not have the air of a King desiring anything but power. If you ever come to opposition to him, you will have my support. Not openly, as Leus interfering in royal affairs would threaten legitimacy, but if there is any boon that might aid you, you need only name it and it will be so.”
“There is something you can do that would be of help,” Vassa said, putting a hand on Seben’s shoulder even as her gaze met Adéla’s. “We will need access to the Sanctum of the Pharos’s library. As a mage in service to the High King himself, that is within your power to grant.”
Adéla sucked in a breath. “I can,” she said, a frown forming. “Dare I ask what you seek in the most secret places of magic?”
“Something that is better left forgotten,” Vassa said in a low voice. “I do not know what inklings your people will have about this variety of magic, but the knowledge will be far more likely to exist there than in Ethilir’s Ashen Tower.”
Seben looked over at the masked woman. “You think there might be an answer in Leus?”
Vassa shrugged. “It is the first place to look. I can think of nowhere else besides my homeland that is likely to contain such knowledge, and I have no desire to return there.”
“Let us hope what you seek is in Zaeylael, then,” Adéla said. She gave Seben a smile. “If this is your request, Your Highness, it will be granted. The High King is most understanding. Though if we are to arrive in time to secure your access and still be of help…”
The masked woman gave a long-suffering sigh.
“Vassa, your far-step is the only thing that could get us to Zaeylael immediately after speaking with the oracles,” the blood mage said.
“I am aware,” Vassa remarked dryly. “That does not mean I appreciate it. Traveling across such a distance requires a great deal of energy. I will drain much of my reserve to do so even one way, accounting for the three other people I will be dragging with me.”
“I promise I will replenish your rings,” Adéla said. “You have travelled such distances before in such a fashion, I am certain.”
“That’s months of travel,” Seben said, wide-eyed.
“Surely you remember enough of Zaeylael to safely find your mark,” the Leyan pressed.
Vassa looked over at Seben. “Adéla has a point,” she said. “For us to receive information in a timely fashion, she will need to reach Zaeylael by tomorrow. That does mean I will not be at your side for a time.”
“How long will you be gone?” Seben asked, a hint of nerves in her voice.
“Several hours, perhaps even a day,” Vassa said reluctantly. Everything in her screamed in protest at the idea of being parted from the person she was protecting, but this was a necessary evil. They needed to know more about the dark magic eating away at the King and, by extension, Ethilir. “I will have to rest in Zaeylael and allow Adéla to replenish my rings. The return trip will be significantly easier, but I will still need to recover somewhat.”
“Can I go with you?” Seben asked.
Vassa shook her head. “Not this time. Next time, when we actually seek answers.”
Seben seemed caught between anxiety about Vassa’s departure and excitement at the idea of next time. “Really?”
The masked woman smiled faintly behind her mask. “I have no intention to forget your scholarly mind when pouring over ancient, obtuse texts is the task. You will find it a delight.” She gave Seben’s shoulder a squeeze. “Keep Naji with you while I am gone, stay closed in your room, and study by the light of your djinni. Speak to no one, trust no one. It will only be for a little while.”
That seemed to reassure the young woman. She nodded and turned to look at Adéla. “Thank you for helping us,” she said sincerely. “And please look after Vassa while she’s with you.”
Adéla laughed when Vassa tensed at that. “You look so affronted, Vassa,” the mage teased.
“I do not require a nursemaid.” Snow could have landed on those words without melting.
Seben smiled at her companion. “You do need someone watching your back. Everyone knows Zaeylael is dangerous.”
“As is Sarom, apparently,” Adéla said. She stood at the sound of a knock on the door. “Our privacy is at an end.”
“Come in!” Seben called.
The door opened to reveal Master Anen. “The oracles are ready for you and your...guests, Your Highness,” he said, eyeing Adéla warily. “We intended for the exchange of the phylactery first, but Seer Yuya approached me and stated he and his fellows awaited your attention.”
“Then we should see him,” Vassa said with a sigh.
“Did you get any sleep?” Seben asked her companion, looking worried.
“None of us did, Your Highness,” Kamil said, stroking Adéla’s hair to keep her calm as she glared at the master fire-speaker. It ruined her intimidation and relaxed her at the same time. “We will rest after the oracles.”
“Does Vassa ever sleep?” Zdislav said with a chuckle.
Vassa shrugged at that, rising to her feet. She held her hand out palm up to Seben even if it wasn’t strictly necessary, in case the young woman was still a little shaky from her overexertion. Drawing on celestial power with any kind of will was still more than she could handle or control for more than a few moments. It reminded Vassa that she needed to apply her own lessons to Seben’s gift, if much, much more gently than they had been impressed upon her.
Seben’s callused touch came with summer warmth. “You don’t have to baby me, you know,” the apprentice fire-speaker said in a low voice.
The masked woman’s lips twitched into a smile, offering her answer softly enough to be audible only to Seben. “I merely offered my hand. You took it.” She rather enjoyed the expression that flashed across Seben’s face, something approaching flustered. Vassa turned to Anen, pointedly ignoring the amusement of their Leyan guests. “Is there anything we need to bring when we speak to your oracles, Master Anen?”
“Respect,” he said coolly.
“Oh dear,” Adéla said, glancing over at the masked woman. “Wherever will you find it in yourself to give anyone that, Vassa?”
“You would make a fine flea,” Vassa said, tone as biting as a wind through the Sea of Sand. She generally appreciated the blood mage, but tended to react to such teasing with her normal thorny barrier and had even in Leus.
“Transmutation isn’t your cup of tea,” the Leyan bloodmage said.
Vassa’s masked face turned towards her, expression shrouded behind fabric. “Are you certain of that?” she asked almost idly, but still with a bite in her tone.
Seben nudged Vassa’s ribs with her elbow, though lightly. “Be kind, Vassa,” she said. “They are still guests.”
“As you wish.” Vassa’s glare towards Kamil was enough to menace him into silence even from concealment before he could make the whipping sound she knew was coming. She started to walk without waiting for anyone else, her feet carrying her towards a fate that she knew she would not escape. Seben’s presence at her side was surprisingly comforting.
For the first time, she was not alone. It was a thought that felt like wearing someone else’s clothes.
They wound their way up the tower towards the roof, surrounded on all sides by guards with Anen leading the way. “Where is Master Duaenre?” Seben asked thoughtfully, looking around.
“Reflecting upon his actions, I would hope,” Vassa said with a sigh. “That could have ended in far, far more blood.”
“He and Kakhent both received royal summons before I knocked,” Anen reported. “Much of the Ashen Tower is secret, but the absence of the Leyans was noticed and a disturbance reported here.”
“I’m flattered that His Majesty gave us a moment’s thought,” Adéla said airily, smiling at Anen when he glared. Clearly the traditionalist master was not fond of the blood mage and her making a mess of the tower’s hall had not endeared her further.
Something twisted slightly at the edge of Vassa’s consciousness. It made sense for the King to call Duaenre if the master was embroiled in the plot, but Kakhent was slightly more surprising given how firmly he had taken Seben’s side. Then again, maybe that was the reason both had been called: to chastise Duaenre and correct Kakhent.
If Kakhent is truly an ally, Vassa reflected. Keep one’s friends close and enemies closer.
That bothered her. She didn’t know why she would doubt Kakhent. There was no evidence of anything malicious. Paranoia from the life she had lived, most likely. She had neglected to puzzle out his intent and desires, too focused on Seben. She needed to shift her focus slightly if she was to truly protect the young woman. Simply waiting for a threat to materialize and then dealing with it was the action of an ordinary guard. Her own role needed to be more proactive untiil they had Masaharta again to assist with security. She still was willing to wager he was a better ally than most given his opposition to Userkare.
A sickening thought struck her next. What if the magic Userkare played host to could work his will over the minds of others? Such a thing was not unheard of, not in the darker parts of her homeland.
Vassa made a mental note to investigate that. Someday they would likely have to confront him directly and that would be a potential problem. Vassa knew her own will was strong enough to endure most things and Seben’s aura likely granted her some measure of protection, but that would be of no help if their own allies stabbed them in the back under such an influence.
Dark thoughts hunted the masked woman even as they stopped in front of a large, beautifully polished set of stone doors, the shining symbol of the Sun God sending rays out in all directions on the bas relief carving into the alabaster. Anen whispered an incantation in the God Tongue, bidding the doors to open and they did so without a hint of sound from a mechanism, so perfectly balanced that they moved like a breath.
The room revealed was full of bright morning light streaming in through many windows, the rays of newly risen sunlight pooling in a large, bronze brazier left hollow at the moment, the bottom colored from the past heat of many fires. Incense burned in several dishes, filling the room with a clean, perfumed scent. It was spice and sweetness, heady without becoming cloying.
The blind seer was waiting alongside four others, two men and two women with blindfolds, all wearing robes of red with brilliant sunbursts of gold on their chest and back. Their sashes were white now instead of gold, completing the royal colors. The four sat in a semi-circle on a plain stone bench curved in a perfect circle around the brazier, elevated from the main floor by two white marble steps. Yuya stood in front, but there was an empty place waiting for him.
“Your Highness,” Yuya greeted formally, bowing deeply to the young woman he could not even see to identify. “Be welcome in this place.”
Vassa sensed the seers easily. All of them were ready for what was to come, their inner eyes focused on their guests. She hid herself in the weave of existence again, letting her essence blend just enough to lose focus and definition, concealing her true nature. She didn’t even feel the drain of the energy required, it was so minor a task.
“Thank you,” Seben said with all the confidence she could muster, feeling not at all certain. Yuya’s grandfatherly smile helped put her at ease. “I have a guest with a question for you.”
“Is it your will that it be answered, Your Highness?” Yuya asked.
Seben took a deep breath and almost nodded, before remembering that the man was blind. “Yes,” she said instead. “The answer is important.”
Yuya looked over at Vassa for a split second, a hint of a frown crossing his face, before settling his unseen eye’s gaze on Adéla. “Welcome, stranger. You have come a long way.”
“To pose a question I hope you have an answer to,” Adéla said with confidence.
“We do,” Yuya said. He took a seat around the circle of oracles, casting a handful of black sand into the brazier. “You who seek must gaze within.”
Seben, Vassa, and Adéla stepped forward together, each stepping up the small set of stone stairs that the brazier’s dais rose upon.
The sand melted before their eyes, forming an inky substance that washed like water over the polished bronze. Vassa saw an almost dizzying array of symbols in the God-Tongue etched into the sides of the brazier and attuned to it, allowing her perception to rely on her innate gift.
This was not a simple piece of metal. It burned with celestial power, a knot in the threads that allowed perception deep into the weave of existence. Only someone with true power would be able to use it, like the seers and their Gift, but it was beyond some simple scrying mirror that allowed one to gaze across great distances. This was a look into the eyes of Fate.
“Pose your question,” Yuya said.
Adéla didn’t hesitate, an excessive self-confidence common to Leyan mages as far as Vassa was concerned. They knew just enough to be truly dangerous without appreciating the danger magic posed to even them. It approached hubris more often than was healthy. “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?”
The blackness in the bowl swirled slowly, then began to move in unnatural ways. It flowed into the different glyphs in different patterns, creating images of revealed lustrous bronze defined by dark rivulets of ink. A gleaming throne appeared above the skyline of a city, surrounded by a gnawing, devouring darkness. The luster quickly died and the blackness consumed the throne before rushing down towards the city.
A ray of sunlight caught the bronze just as the ink moved, creating the shape of a glowing phoenix that spread its wings. At first it pushed the darkness thrashing back, chains twisting beneath its wings as it chased the ink upwards, towards the rim of the bowl. Fires appeared all around, battling the dark.
Instead of defeat, however, the darkness changed its shape. The phoenix was confronted with its shadow.
Vassa’s heart lodged in her throat when she saw angular bronze eyes open in the darkness beneath the phoenix’s shadow, the crook of a finger beckoning the shadow down and down and down towards the depths of the bowl. She knew those eyes. The phoenix chased its shadow, but soon the shade was lost, dissolved into the rest of the darkness. The ink stilled, no longer flowing, and the vision faded.
“What does it mean?” Adéla asked softly.
Yuya frowned. “It is incomplete.” He cleared his throat. “Do you know the significance of the phoenix, stranger?”
“It is rebirth, yes? Renewal?” the Leyan mage said, studying the now motionless ink.
“More than that,” Yuya said firmly. “The phoenix is purity through suffering, rebirth through destruction, salvation through sacrifice. Sol himself crafted that aspect of celestial power in godly image. For one to appear is the defining moment of any age. Only it can defeat the darkness that sinks its fangs into the connection to the divine.”
“But it didn’t destroy the darkness,” Seben observed quietly. “It turned into its shadow.”
You see your own shadow. The words echoed in Vassa’s head, giving her a sudden glimpse into her future. The knot of inevitable dread formed in her stomach. She had known from the first moment that she saw Seben’s aura that it was going to bring an apocalypse’s worth of trouble. This was merely confirmation.
“And the chains?” Adéla murmured.
“The ties that bind will be broken, changed to something new by the phoenix’s wings,” Yuya said with confidence.
Seben’s brow furrowed. “What about the eyes?”
“They are a thing of evil,” the oldest woman among the seers said, her expression somber.
“They were beautiful,” Adéla said.
They were mine, Vassa whispered in her thoughts, drawn again to an ancient and familiar nightmare. “I do not believe the seers are incorrect,” she said aloud instead of giving voice to that. “It called to the darkness, drawing it further and further from the phoenix.” She looked over at Yuya. “You said it is incomplete?”
“Prophecies are often incomplete,” Yuya said. “It is a strange thing, Fate. The more power involved, the fewer choices, they become. This one speaks to powerful choices unmade, its course mutable and undefined as a result.”
“How unhelpful,” Adéla murmured, glancing up at Yuya. “Where does one find a phoenix?”
Vassa looked to Seben, still deeply uneasy. Even if this was incomplete and mutable, she hated the way it appeared. There were too many dangers she could see ahead even in such a simple vision. “Seben, do you trust me?” she said close to her companion’s ear.
“Of course,” Seben said without a shred of hesitation. It twisted something fragile in Vassa’s heart.
“You are the phoenix,” Vassa murmured. She gave no voice to the rest and all the dread it filled her with.