by K. Olsen
In order to fight King Userkare's dark magic, Seben made a deal to get access to a vast library of magical lore. On Vassa's arrival there, a figure from her past ambushed and almost killed her.
For all her training, or perhaps because of it, there was nothing in the world more frightening than Lysaerys’s anger, Lysaerys’s jealousy. It burned like fire in her veins as the dark magic around her heart thrashed and clawed like a thing alive, shredding her soul with pain. “You are mine, Vassa,” that voice breathed against her ear, every syllable as much as a trap as the body pinning her to the wall. “Always mine. Forever mine. Only mine.”
That touch would erase even the thought of any other’s.
It hurt so badly that all she wanted was for it to end, whatever that meant. Submission was the only escape, but there was still something in her that wanted to fight desperately for survival even as she drowned in Lysaerys’s fury, tortured by the fingers digging into her flesh and bringing with them the crackling touch of power that threatened to char her from the inside out. “It was nothing! Please, please stop...I can’t…” Her body couldn’t bear the wrath coming.
“You will do whatever I wish, whenever I wish it,” that voice whispered, low and smoky. She could hear the smile in Lysaerys’s voice at the plea, feel it scorching against her skin. “Don’t you love me?”
She closed her eyes tightly. Sometimes it was better just to try not to feel, to try and lock her heart away from everything happening, to forget. Not that Lysaerys ever allowed it, displeasure felt as a stabbing pain split her side—
Vassa opened her eyes with a hiss of breath, covering her aching ribs with one hand. It took her a moment to orient herself, but the pain was a blessed sign that she was still alive. Her hood and mask remained undisturbed, but she could feel sheets against her torso where it wasn’t covered in bandages. She felt feverish and her limbs quivered as she tried to sit up, sending bolts of agony through her chest.
“Stay down, Vassa,” Adéla said, putting a hand on Vassa’s shoulder on her good side and pressing down. “We cannot afford to have you open your own wounds again. They were problematic enough to tend.”
The masked woman’s mouth was so dry she could barely speak, but she was not about to remove her mask and ask for water. She turned her head and saw darkness outside the window, a sudden stab of concern disrupting her peace of mind even more. “How long has it been?” she rasped.
“It’s almost midnight, so hours,” the blood mage said, leaning back in her seat and brushing her brown hair back out of her face. “You crippled the creature that attacked you enough that he has not returned, at least.”
Vassa tried to ignore the sickness in her stomach, to tell herself it was the pain and whatever cures they had applied to her to heal her so well. She felt every breath as a torture, but she was breathing normally. Even with that attempted self-deluding, though, she knew the truth: Sethon’s words had empowered her customary nightmares. She could still feel the punishment in the dream’s touch, but that poisonous longing reared its ugly head too.
She would never understand how she could love, fear, and hate Lysaerys all at the same time with such violent intensity. Distance had done nothing to sever that emotional tie and time was not likely to either. The passage of minutes, hours, days, years...it did not carry the same meaning for Vassa as it did for others.
“I have to go,” Vassa said hoarsely. “I have been away too long.”
“You are in no condition to defend even yourself, let alone protect Seben,” Adéla said with a fierce frown. She went to grab Vassa again to hold her down, standing up from her seat to do so.
For a split second, Adéla’s features were replaced by Lysaerys’s visage and the firm but relatively gentle hold that trapped Vassa felt anything but. “Stop.” The word leaped out of Vassa’s lips, broken and terrified. Her next blink cleared her vision, and she saw Adéla looking down at her with concern even as the mage released her.
“You are not like yourself, Vassa,” Adéla said, brow furrowing with worry. For all their past difficulties, she still considered the masked woman an ally, maybe even a friend.
Vassa pulled in a deep breath and immediately regretted it as the agony in her side returned. She hissed, rolling onto her good side. It brought her to face Adéla, but Vassa could shutter away her emotion when she needed to. It was just more difficult when wounded so badly and disoriented.
“Do you want something for the pain?” the blood mage asked.
Adéla sighed, but gave no argument. Vassa knew well that it was a concession to her wishes, since the last time she’d limped into Zaeylael, after her battle to free Zdislav from the demon, she had refused all offers. Her threat towards the healers if they tried was probably still remembered.
Vassa closed her eyes and forced the memories from her mind. She knew how to center herself, to calm the raging torrents of her thoughts. She was grateful that Seben was not present and not exposed to Sethon’s malice, but part of her also intensely missed the warmth of the apprentice fire-speaker. “My injuries are treated. I am stable enough to travel,” she said, voice still harsh.
“Your injuries are severe,” Adéla said with a frown. “They had enough trouble just getting to your lung with all the scar—”
Vassa hissed again in pain as she sat up and held the sheets to her chest, but this time Adéla made no move to pin her. “What did you see?” she demanded, gaze burning into the mage. There was something dangerous in her voice.
Adéla tensed, reminded in that moment that she knew little of Vassa despite everything. “The healers said you had many, many scars across your chest and back,” she said softly. “That is all.”
“Did they describe them?”
The blood mage was no fool: deceiving Vasas was an impossible task. “They said it looked as if you had been healed and harmed more than should be possible,” she said. “I did not inquire further and instructed them that they were not to remove your mask or hood. We stayed with you to ensure that order was obeyed.”
“Kamil and Zdislav?” Vassa said. Even as she spoke, she attuned to the flow of magic through her body and her rings. She was not back to full essence, but most of her vitality was intact enough to ensure a powerful command of her magic. The physical wounds would heal more slowly, though the alchemy vastly accelerated her recovery as it burned like a fever in her veins.
“They should be back with clothes, food, and water at any moment,” Adéla said. She knew the actual concern of that question. “They saw nothing more than I, Vassa. We owe you twice now and will not betray your privacy. Sethon would have wreaked havoc had you not stopped him.”
Vassa nodded slowly, forcing herself to relax. “I need to return. I have magic enough to make the journey and at least ward Seben through the night.”
There was a brief knock at the door before it opened. Zdislav came in with a tray of food and Kamil followed on his heels, quickly tossing a folded shirt at Vassa. She didn’t attempt to catch it since his aim was good enough to land the fabric on her lap.
Her thoughts darted momentarily to the clothing she had lost. “I liked that shirt.” She would show weakness in front of one person if not given a choice, but she was not about to expose her pain to all three of them.
“It did you more favors as bandages than it did as clothing,” Kamil said with a chuckle.
Vassa sighed slightly. “Spoken as someone with no conception of the finer parts of fashion.”
“You must be feeling better,” Zdislav said with a chuckle, setting down the tray. His blue eyes were pleased when he turned them towards her. Apparently someone was glad she had survived. “Quite the display you gave. I have never heard of anyone who was not a spellguard interacting with a ward so without being ripped apart.”
The masked woman winced at the memory, grateful that her expression hid beneath fabric. “I have practice.” She waited until Kamil and Zdislav turned their backs to offer her some privacy before pulling the shirt on as quickly as she could without torturing herself.
“At least eat before you depart,” Adéla said firmly. “Your body needs sustenance if it is to keep healing.”
With the ravenous hunger from her alchemical healing, it was hard to argue with that point of logic. Vassa nodded reluctantly. “I would like to eat in private,” she said, everything about her words and posture daring them to refuse.
“On one condition,” Adéla said. “You must inform us before departing. I have something for you from His Majesty, as gratitude for defending my person from this Sethon creature and safeguarding us through Ethilir. He would be most displeased with me if I did not ensure you received it.”
Again, it was a request that she could not really deny. Staying in the High King’s good graces would be necessary to obtain access to the sanctum of magical knowledge that the Leyan monarch controlled. Despite the rumors that blood mages dominated court politics, she knew that the reality was more complicated than that and that Miroslav in particular wielded his gifted servants with a touch that was silk hiding steel. “I will knock when I am finished,” Vassa said.
“Be careful when you get to your feet,” Kamil said. “You may be weaker than you think.”
“I have endured worse and survived,” the masked woman said dismissively, though she knew he had a point. With the blood she had lost, her walk was bound to be graceless, at least comparatively speaking.
“Are you intending to depart so soon?” Zdislav murmured with concern coloring his tone.
“Would you stay in a sickbed if Adéla was alone and unprotected?” Vassa said pointedly, relaxing slightly when he shook his head.
“Your loyalty to her protection is surprising,” Adéla said as she rose to her feet. “I do not recall you having much interest in the preservation of others while you were in Zaeylael, except Zdislav’s rescue.”
Vassa shrugged. It was true, she had always been more willing to allow nature to take its course. She knew many mages from her time in the High Kingdom, but seldom did she ever intervene to save their lives amongst the infighting. She played the Game, keeping her heart at a distance and her mind honed on increasing her own knowledge and power. If she was being honest, Zdislav was only alive because of the grudging respect Adéla’s skill had earned and the echoes of her own protective past she’d seen in Kamil.
“What changed?” Kamil asked.
Vassa picked up a spoon, looking into the depths of her bowl. The soup was mostly broth, but there were shreds of chicken and vegetables in it. It smelled wonderful, her body reminding her that not only had she not eaten for more than a day, but her flesh was mending at a rate that demanded extra energy. “An answer I will not provide,” she rasped. She still couldn’t put words to the protective urges she felt around Seben. They just...happened. “I will inform you before I depart. Please give me the opportunity to eat.”
“We will,” Adéla promised before stepping out of the room. Kamil followed her immediately, but Zdislav lingered for a moment.
“I cannot say that I know how you have looked at her, behind that mask,” he said gently. “But I have seen the way Her Highness looks at you.”
Vassa looked over at him, not sure what to make of that. She kept her peace, waiting for him to say more even though she wasn’t certain she wanted to hear it.
The tall spellguard smiled faintly. “You are something special to that one,” he said. “I hope you both find your happiness, whatever that may mean.”
“Happiness is not in my nature, Zdislav,” Vassa said. The idea of it felt laughable, but it also sent a current of terror through her body. She did not want Seben looking to her for happiness. The only thing the masked woman knew to do with such an emotion was to destroy it.
He approached and knelt by her bedside, looking up at her. The angle revealed Vassa’s eyes, but the mask covered her face from the bridge of her nose downward and the hood hid much of her brow from view. “What has come before is not what must always be,” he said. “You deserve better than your past and the gods account for such things.”
It was hard to meet his eyes, so Vassa turned her face away. “I know what I deserve.”
Zdislav’s hand closed around hers and he brought it to his forehead, touching her knuckles to the stylized, blue sigil tattooed at the center of his brow, forming the pupil of an open eye symbol. “I hope that you find a change in your heart, Vassa,” he said gently as he lowered her hand again and gave it a soft squeeze. “For both your sakes.”
Vassa watched him rise to his feet and turn his back. He almost made it to the door before she found her words. “Zdislav,” she said quietly.
He stopped at the sound of his name and turned back.
She tried to wet her lips enough to speak with less of a ragged edge, but there was no use. The soup would help. “What if the past will not let me go?”
The spellguard smiled faintly. “Any chain can be broken, even those placed by the wicked. Eat, Vassa. Her Highness needs your strength. We will guard your door.” He stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Vassa pulled down her mask once she was safely alone and ate. The broth of the soup filled her with a less feverish warmth and soothed her throat, chicken and vegetables adding flavor as well as nourishment. It was nothing spectacular, but it was enough that she felt a hundred times better by the time she finished. Cool water helped more to ease the last of the dryness of her throat. She carefully got to her feet and then made her way over to the basin of warm water against the wall, scrubbing the blood from her face and rinsing it out of her mask. She had a second wrap of fabric tucked in a pocket along her thigh, so she pulled it out to cover her face with dove grey silk. It only took her a few moments to wind and pin her hair so it was back out of her face beneath the hood.
She felt better. Not whole, not healthy, but better. Well enough to return. She approached the door and knocked quietly. A key turned in the lock and then the door opened to reveal Kamil, Zdislav, and Adéla waiting patiently.
“How do you feel?” Adéla asked.
“Better,” Vassa said. She was awake enough now that she could imprison the memories again beneath the surface of her thoughts, back in the dark corners of her mind.
“You sound better,” Kamil said with a smile. “Less like the death rattle of the undead.”
“You say the sweetest things,” the masked woman said dryly.
“Since you seem well enough to go, I have this for you,” Adéla said, unwrapping a compact bundle. “As a gift of gratitude from His Majesty.”
The last uncovering of the soft cotton that surrounded it revealed a delicate bone bracelet. She recognized the dark letters and symbols of a flowing language etched into the bone and stained dark with ink. “An elvish artifact?” Vassa said, reaching out towards it. She stopped at the last second before touching it. “How did he come by this?”
“I think we recovered it from an expedition to the edge of the Vale of the Undying, to a section of ruins that lay beneath the trees. From what I understand, it is protective,” Adéla said as she offered the bracelet to Vassa.
Vassa touched the bone with her fingertips, a little spark of power leaping from the bracelet to her. She smiled behind her mask, comforted by the aura around the bracelet. “Indeed it is,” she breathed. “It shields the mind against forced control and other intrusions.” She looked up at Adéla. “A princely gift.”
“One you’ve more than earned,” Kamil said with a broad grin. “It seems only right that it should go with you.”
Vassa picked up the bracelet. “You have my gratitude all the same,” she said, dipping her head in a nod to the three of them. She slipped it onto her wrist, feeding a touch of her essence into it as she did so. The bone changed shape slightly, fitting itself to her wrist so it would not slip off. “Please convey my best wishes to the High King.”
“Be well, Vassa,” Adéla said. “Stay in touch. I will ensure you have access to the Sanctum any time you are in Zaeylael.”
“Indeed,” Zdislav said by way of agreement. “And remember to find a healer to change your bandages.”
“I will,” Vassa said. She took a step back and drew the power from her rings, again letting it swirl inside her chest. Without so many extra things to attend to, this would be enough to carry her back to Seben’s side. The threads of existence all around her hummed with energy, potential. She closed her eyes, picturing Seben’s room in her mind as she reached through the threads until she found those familiar four walls. She pulled in a deep breath that became a stabbing pain, then stepped between the spaces like a dancer.
There was a crack of thunder as she materialized in Seben’s room, a kingdom away from where she had been standing.
“Vassa!” Seben cried with delight, almost tackling the masked woman into a hug.
Agony exploded through Vassa’s chest at the squeeze. The masked woman had a pain tolerance that few could equal, but she still gasped and cringed.
Seben’s reaction was immediate, recoiling to arm’s length. “Are you alright?”
“Never better,” Vassa said with a dry tone given an edge by pain.
The apprentice fire-speaker realized it as soon as she took the second to scrutinize Vassa’s appearance. The bandages were visible as slight bulkiness added to the masked woman’s lithe frame. “What happened?” Seben said, worry and surprise spreading rapidly across her face.
Vassa sat down on the edge of Seben’s bed. “The...creature that was looking for me sprang an ambush when we arrived in Zaeylael. Nothing I could not handle.”
“But you’re wounded,” Seben murmured, concern weighting every word.
“It happens now and then,” Vassa said. Truthfully, it very seldom happened because of the immense care she took, but Sethon’s attack had been perfectly timed to strike while she was significantly weakened.
Seben stepped forward, reaching out to touch the bandage across Vassa’s ribs. She didn’t have to be a warrior to know such wounds were dangerous. This time, Vassa allowed the contact, knowing that it wouldn’t hurt as long as Seben was gentle.
The masked woman wasn’t prepared for dark eyes glossy with tears or the sudden determination that flared in Seben’s expression. “Next time, I go with you,” Seben said. “You shouldn’t have to face...this...alone.”
Vassa felt a flood of warmth and cold at the same time. Seben’s promise of protection was comforting even though it shouldn’t have been, but the thought of Sethon getting his claws on the apprentice fire-speaker was a vision out of the worst of nightmares. She covered the hand Seben held to her side with her own. “There are places I go where you must not follow,” she said quietly. When she saw the argument forming in the young woman’s expression, Vassa shook her head. “In this, I am wholly sincere. If you care even an iota for me, you will listen when I forbid it.”
“I care enough not to abandon you,” Seben countered. “What if you get hurt?”
“A small price to pay for your continued safety,” Vassa said calmly. Steel returned to her voice. “Remember who you are, Seben. If something happens to you, it is more than the loss of a single life. You have an entire kingdom depending on you to stop dark magic and a corrupted king. I am infinitely more expendable in this endeavour of ours.”
Seben’s eyes still blazed. “You are not expendable!”
“You are not listening to me,” Vassa said sharply. Her grip on Seben’s hand tightened slightly. “We need you, Seben. What do you think would happen if you died?”
“Another Sunblessed would rise,” Seben said, still tensed. “There will always be another.”
“Are you certain of that?” the masked woman countered. “You do not think that soon Userkare will learn how his magic hungers for the divine, how it would devour the essence of a Sunblessed if it was allowed to? You have fire-speaking to defend yourself, a tool no other Sunblessed has had, nor likely will have if Userkare can forbid it. You are the best chance to save not only Ethilir, but the kingdoms of men. When that magic has drained the Sunlit Throne and all its light, it will move on.”
Seben seemed to falter with every sentence. She sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the gloss of tears was back. “I just…” She pulled in another breath. “I don’t want to lose you.”
The ache in Vassa’s chest now had little to do with her wounds. She looked away from Seben’s expression and all the honesty shining in it. “That may be a request beyond my power to grant.” She brushed her thumb across Seben’s knuckles before letting go of her hand. The temptation to lie and offer comfort was almost overwhelming, but Vassa reminded herself that she didn’t like to deceive Seben. “I will stay as much as I am able, as long as I am able. That is all I can promise.”
The apprentice fire-speaker sighed and looked away as well. “I’ll take it,” she said, brushing at her eyes. She was quiet for a few moments before saying, “I suppose you’d rather talk about what happened here?”
“Very much so,” Vassa said, relaxing slightly at the subject change.
“A message came from Lord Osei. He wants to meet,” Seben reported dutifully. “Other than that, it was mercifully quiet. I stayed in, so I don’t know if Master Kakhent and Master Duaenre have returned yet from speaking with the King.”
Vassa smiled as she saw the small dish of seeds on the windowsill and a pigeon with its head tucked under its wing, the remnants of small leather ties on its leg. It had been a brief message. “Did he say where?”
“The manor, if we can get there unseen.” Seben gave her a small smile. “I’m sure that won’t be a problem.”
The masked woman inclined her head in a nod. “I have a few thoughts on the method,” she said with amusement. “Let us hope he doesn’t mind people appearing from thin air.”