A flower blooms where men can’t see,– Flowers of Lycia, 160 E.R.
a nectar sweet brings bird and bee,
there hidden proud ‘bove forest frond,
where lurk the ancient hairy ones,
oh there though ‘pon yon daring cliff,
by moonlight’s grace is brought a gift,
basked in tranquil Laeune’s light,
might one catch a shimmer in flight,
what strange compulsion in stygian gloom,
compelled the hummingbird’s bright plume,
oh there north in these summer lands,
where did come forth lady, and man.
Weaver of Secrets
Etore had been right. The north did become lovely as forest gave way to jungle. The village of Overlake clung along a cliff, as the name implied, above a lake. An inn balcony also rose over jungle canopy, in full summer bloom, above waters shining calm and still.
The white flowers of the trees almost glowed in the moonlight. Katrisha would have called it glorious, if not for the muggy summer heat. Enchanted undergarments had been her fix for hot summer days for over a decade. Sometimes, however, they only helped what they covered. She pulled her robe tighter over her chest against the heat.
Ever so often something would glimmer in the distance. Her spectacles had not helped to make out what it was. They flitted between the trees, darting, stopping, turning another way with incredible speed. She’d never quite seen the like. Not wisps, that tended to spiral, and were fainter. She’d caught a few of those, midst the trees as she tried to solve the puzzle.
One zipped up most unexpectedly from below, and stopped right in front of Katrisha. Everything seemed pale to the iridescent plumage, cast in rainbows even by moonlight. The wings were a mesmerizing blur that defied any idea of solidity. A humming bird seemed to find her silver hair as fascinating as she found its feathers. Probably mistaking her for one of the flowers. How it had achieved its metallic coloring was a curiosity.
The bird darted off, and Katrisha felt a presence, trying to go unnoticed. She glanced out of the corner of her eye. “Why are you being sneaky?” she asked, and took off her spectacles.
“Because someone else is,” Etore answered.
“That’s not good.”
“No, it’s not,” Etore agreed. “Could be a lot of things, but good, I don’t believe is on the list.”
“Do you think it’s Elise?”
“I hope it is.” Etore smirked. “I want that sword.”
“I read the writ,” Katrisha said in a warning tone. “Terms say you can’t sell the blade the smith is making. Planning to grow a third arm?”
“The expression is usually third leg, and that would seem more useful to your proclivities.”
“Not what I meant,” Katrisha said measured, and thin lipped.
“Eh… I might try dual rapiers.” Etore laughed. “Or just a backup, should the old girl ever fail me.”
“Your sword’s a girl?” Katrisha asked with pursed lips.
“Eh. Never met a man that sharp.”
Katrisha laughed. “Fair. I’m one to talk. I mean, my staff is… something… Fates.”
“Yes, I’ve heard you talking with the other two. Guess you presumed Wren would fill me in, but he knew I was there. Saved him the trouble.”
“I’m not trying to keep things from you, you don’t have to go skulking around to learn what’s up.”
“You lot are lousy at keeping secrets. I just do it to keep sharp, since every one of you is amongst the hardest I’ve found to fool. Still, so long as you take me for granted, for the moment, I can. You weren’t just now, taking me for granted, I imagine.”
“Hmm. Now you are keeping something from me. We aren’t back to your story of a past life, and who won a coin toss are we? You quite certain you aren’t remembering Elise? I had a bad feeling that first night you two snuck off together.”
“No. I suppose I’m not,” Katrisha admitted. “It’s more an impression any way, not a memory. I hadn’t even considered, had this whole idea of… Ugh. Never mind, doesn’t matter.”
“What doesn’t matter? Cause I’ve found those words most often mean the truth is hiding from you, or you are hiding from it. So, what made you think of me just then, and notice I was here?”
“Jealousy. Not for you personally, so don’t let it go to your head. Yer more difficult than I think I have patience for in a lover, but passable, as family.”
“Well, you’re passable yourself, Miss Pot.”
Katrisha stifled her laughter to little effect. “You still calling me that?”
“When it fits.”
Katrisha’s smile faded, as she returned to the situation. “Rowana is out of the picture, for now, I’m fairly sure. Amalia… I suppose it could be one of her agents, but I doubt she’s lurking about herself. Also, Elise could be called one of those, at a time or two. So, most likely Elise lurking in the shadows. What do you think she intends?”
“I don’t know.” Etore shrugged. “One thing, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want to kill me. My little gamble, playing on all this past life nonsense, settled that. It distracted her far too well to have not struck a chord.”
“So you three…” Katrisha started, sighed and shook her head. “Huh. I’ve found myself there, though mine were a pair of sweethearts, not two of the most dangerous women alive.”
“You wouldn’t think it, to look at my little flower, but I could see him handling it.” Etore leaned out over the railing, and looked across the canopy ahead.
Katrisha chuckled, but shook her head, and felt the need to massage her temple.
“Really, that one rub you the wrong way? Usually you’re fine, and just Ms. Skunk, is groaning on the inside… or out.”
“It’s not that exactly. Just back in loops. You are one of the most dangerous women alive, but so am I. I’m dangerous just to be near. Yeah, you think it’s folly, my whole thing with Adria, but… can you even understand what it’s like? Being afraid that just to be with someone you love, could destroy them?”
“You do remember who you’re talking to?” Etore asked. “Just being near me has ended a few people I loved… though none particularly that way, and a bit more violently. Still… love, and all the more surely an end.”
“I’m sorry,” Katrisha apologized. “You came to mind, much like Taloe did, because I’m jealous that Wren and Ki… They get to have someone… to love… that way. I’m afraid any distinction on kinds of love isn’t enough.”
“This all on your mind because of our paladin friend? I’ve got dibs you know, but, well… Accept a position in my court, and we’ll talk. I’m looking for a general, and advisor, not a wife.”
“I really don’t think your court would be the largest obstacle in the matter,” Katrisha said thin lipped. “Also, I’m not a big expert in the field, but I believe such… dibs end at first refusal. Also, I maintain, if you are too difficult by half, she’s too infuriating, trice over.”
“Sounds like love to me,” Etore teased. “Fine, I’ll win you both over.”
“Fates, you really are family. You’re worse than… Ms. Skunk.” Katrisha could not keep a straight face, but good humor couldn’t keep hold either. “Course who am I. I mean, am I Katrisha Ashton, my twin, or someone else entirely? She remembers being me, but I’m not sure I really remember anything. Just impressions.”
“Above my pay-grade. I’m just a lost princess keeping an eye out for a doppelganger, with a sword that kills gods. Still, not even sure exactly what the story is with her, and me, but I’m fairly sure, I’m not her.”
“Kia told me she had a dream,” Katrisha said. “If… that is, you weren’t spying on us at the time.”
“Hard to say, you’d need to be a lot more specific. That poor woman has a lot of unsettling dreams. Not the sort of thing I’d normally offer sympathy for, but… special cases, can bare exceptions.”
“She saw a moment through your eyes. She wasn’t specific about everything, but a blush on her cheeks told me what she held back. Spying on the Queen, Selene, and some servant… having fun.”
“Strange,” Etore said. “I can guarantee that did not happen. I might have once made a habit of… such things, but it got me in a lot of trouble.” Her fingers were tracing the hilt of her short sword.
“Not the fun kind of trouble?” Katrisha asked in as sympathetic a tone as she could manage for the words that slipped out.
“Matter of opinion I suppose,” Etore answered thin lipped. “I also heard you telling your sister, what I told you. I suppose it wasn’t really in confidence, but let me be clear, I’m not guaranteeing I would take an offer either. Even if the cursed spirit were in any shape to make it. Thing is, she’s the wrong kind of familiar, but the other didn’t have quite so much of use, to offer.”
Katrisha looked a bit wounded for her implied betrayal, but recovered. “If you’re looking for answers, about you, and Elise… Then Estae — if she can be woken — may have them.”
“Seems an awkward favor to ask, given I’m not sure if I want to know those answers.”
“Well, give it some thought, but don’t wait too long. From all I can gather, she’s still fading. Ki… really doesn’t seem happy about that, and that… Well… One more thing I don’t quite know what to do with.”
Etore glanced to Katrisha. “I’d offer her my sympathies, because I think I understand, but I could never explain it. I think I’d feel the same, but it’s only a guess. Of all the people in my life who suffered for that fool scheme… one in particular, was not one of them.” She turned, and walked away, and while not easily forgotten, still hard to keep the eye on.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Estae 10th, 1 S.R.
Kiannae was looking rather fresh and clean, after a humid night, in a room that did not have a private bath. Etore tried not to smile too much at this, let alone say anything snide. She was already at the woman’s door, to ask favors that neither of them would be happy about. No sense making that harder.
“Yes?” Kiannae finally asked.
“I hear you’ve been having dreams about me?” Snide still found a way to slip in. Etore didn’t let her composure drop, as she realized just how biting it might be taken.
“Oh, did she tell you, or were you just watching?”
“Told, this time. I’m curious what you saw, but… it is more the implication that has me here. Is it still possible to conjure your other spirit?”
“She is the only one, who might have answers about me and Elise, and… Katrisha and I agree, the cursed woman is likely the one I’ve felt lurking in the shadows.”
“Fates…” Kiannae rubbed her forehead, stepped back, and held open her door. “Fine, come in.” Kiannae closed the door behind them. “I’m starting to wonder if all the prophecy around us really ties to these cursed rebels. Not Osyrae, or anything else.”
“Couldn’t tell you, though why presume it’s at all so specific, since it’s been seen so far and wide. I presume, because you’ve invited me in, you think it’s possible to wake the cursed creature?”
Taloe appeared, and did not look pleased. “It might be, but it would probably be easier for me to play messenger.”
“Alright, ask her the truth, about me and Elise. Why I have pieces of her memory, why Kiannae is seeing… was it through my eyes? I really have stopped making a habit of snooping on that sort of thing. Still, I suppose a morbid curiosity abounds at the sorts of things such an entity might get up to.”
“Yes,” Kiannae said, crossed her arms, and looked away. “It was through your eyes.”
“Was it a good show? Was it like watching a girl with a very inappropriate set of dolls, playing house, Lycian style?”
“Couldn’t tell you. All I saw was a dragon, made of shadow grinning over an overly occupied bed, and your reflection, in a mirror. Probably yours… any way.”
“So it could have been Elise?”
Kiannae furrowed her brow in annoyance. “I don’t think so, the hair was wrong. At least I’m pretty sure, but I wasn’t in control of where I looked. Whoever it was, did not seem overly interested in their reflection. Which I guess is strange, not like the spirit, or the rest of the vision.”
Taloe looked distracted, almost vacant eyed, staring to the side. He stepped back suddenly with a start, and again up to a wall. He grabbed his chest as though worried, and gave Kiannae a pleading look. His face changed, not really to anything specific, but far less so.
“I’m glad to hear someone still wants me,” said the slightly incoherent mouth of the spirit. It was a tone half feminine, partly garbled like bubbles of silence chipping away at the sound.
“If you were still powerful enough to make it worth the trouble, we could have a talk,” Etore answered. “For now, I presume you have answers to give me?”
“That’s… not helpful,” Etore said with bemused weariness.
“She generally doesn’t do helpful,” Kiannae said eyeing the spirit. “You aren’t making things too uncomfortable for Taloe, are you?”
“Oh… maybe the good kind. He’s currently lost in a rather fun memory. One of his, mind you. I could offer you the… details… Your shadow and him had some fun, back in the day.”
“No, thank you. Tell Etore what she wants to know, or return to the aether.”
“Not the Abyss?” the spirit said almost pouting. “It’s calmer there. Peaceful. The aether burns, but you know that… You know that.”
“I was trying for it not to sound like a curse,” Kiannae said with a weary guilt.
The spirit stepped closer, and closer still. Kiannae held her ground, but looked away again, when the spirit reached for her cheek. Not the balks of her fingers for once, but the palm.
“You feel shame, for what you’ve done, but I am no more than a shadow, here to serve a purpose, an other who could at last be free. I see that now. I still love you, my fair, frail goddess.”
“Not complaining, but that’s not what I asked,” Etore spoke up.
The spirit looked to her. The features were hard to read, or imagine any look seeming pleased upon. None the less the expression did not look displeased.
“Yes. I’ve made bargains that tie me to you. Had you asked at the right moment, it might have been enough, to let me be yours, if this one, would just let me go.” She turned fully, and stepped towards Etore. Her fingers again traced the hilt of her blade, but stopped. She wasn’t sure she could threaten the creature, so it was best not to insult her.
Estae reached out delicately, and at first Etore seemed unfazed. A caress across her collarbone made her retreat, with a very unnerved look. One of disturbed familiarity.
“Are you her?” Etore demanded.
“I’m everyone, girl.” She leaned closer, and set a hand on Etore’s shoulder. “You, Sister Lynx, Brother Wolf, Ms. Skunk.” She giggled in an almost childlike cadence. “That’s cute. You two would be delightful together, oh Wren would mind, at first, but he still has an option who doesn’t want a boy. So many birds, with one stone. The other, wouldn’t mind, once he got used to it.”
Etore’s unsettled expression became more stern. “No.”
The spirit hummed disappointment, and stepped away. Her fingers trailed down her own chin, and found the robe that Taloe had learned to form. With a pluck and wave of her hand it tore away in mist. Her face became whole, though her antlers twisted slightly as they formed. “Not even if it could restore me to power, and place that power in you?” She glanced to Kiannae then. “Would you, oh woman who mourns her sacrifice of another, take this dangerous woman to your bed, to save me? You owe me after all.”
Kiannae did not answer, just looked away.
“You’re out of luck,” Etore interrupted. “I’ve made my choices, and you aren’t one of them. So your cursed blood, not that you have any, can be on my hands, not hers.”
“I’ve plenty of blood, it’s just harder to tell from the rest of me.” Estae seemed unbothered by the refusal. “Might be a bit blue in certain light, but I assure you it’s quite red in other senses.”
Etore just glared at her.
“You still want answers?” Estae pressed.
“Not at your prices,” Etore moved to leave, and a mist swirled to blocked her.
“I thought you knew how to haggle?” the spirit smiled up at her, suddenly a bit small, and yet oddly no less imposing. It seemed a gamble to appear more harmless. A facade for a purpose.
“What even do you want?” Etore asked. “What is your currency?”
“Desire,” she said with a gleeful grin. “Love, a placed in your heart, for me.”
“Then my purse is empty,” Etore said with cold resolve.
“My prices are gifts,” the spirit answered. “One kiss, and I will tell you what I know.”
“And that’s more than nothing?” Etore demanded.
“First taste is free. It all started with a bookkeeper. A clumsy one, but deft enough with words, to talk himself back from a hastily drawn blade at his throat.”
Estae bit her lip. “One kiss.”
“You keep your hands to yourself,” Etore answered.
“Just the one, right here,” Estae said with a grin. She placed her fingers just above her collar bone, above her heart, if she had one. The other hand rested across her lower back in a very humble demure gesture.
Etore could feel the touch there on herself, and glanced down but nothing was touching her. Estae stepped closer, and Etore almost felt like the world was tilting towards the spirit. She’d only felt such a gravity for two others, and it reminded her of her every doubt about him. She resisted pulling away. She grew fierce, as the spirit took another step, and got up on tip toes. So comically miss matched to the power she exerted. Girlish, just like the oh so not innocent smile on her face.
Estae stopped, right there, just an inch away. It felt like Etore was lifting herself from the presence, warm, like the sun, and with a gravity like the world. A slight tilt of the grinning head made all that was required, to fall into her.
She did, and against all better judgement embrace her. The spite of it, playing a little innocent, while toying with her body. Methods more invasive than two hands clutched to slippery ice smooth skin. The thought was intrusive, imagining what it would be like, inescapable.
Etore tore herself away gasping. “Are you him?”
“I’m everyone,” Estae repeated. She grinned, and wiped her lip, though it was dry, such as could be. She had absorbed any lingering moisture.
“You had your kiss, now give me answers, you abyss bound harlot.”
“That’s in you now, a piece of me, just a little more added to what was already there. Sister saw it. I’m everyone, but some, more than most. Because some are more than most. You change, not just because the world around you changes, you change it. Your hand, is death, the great changer. Far more blood than you can ever imagine, spilt at your hand.”
“I can imagine quite a lot,” Etore answered the claim.
“Yes, you can.” Estae turned, and wandered to a window. She yanked open the curtains with no mind to who might be looking. Just as likely with every hope they were.
“Answers,” Etore snapped, “or we find out if I can add your blood back to the oceans, you say I’ve shed.”
Estae laughed. “It started… well, it started a lot of ways, but your life was a fixed rut in creation. Dark, bloody… The history of a people leaves a stain, and Osyraen blood, stains like no other.”
“That’s not what the saying means,” Etore growled.
“Says who? I find that most who use the words, mean it both ways at heart. Even if they don’t think about it. Are you sure you want to know? Do you need the reasons for their crimes, when you already have condemned them in your heart. It won’t make it better.”
“My uncle, and that cursed mongrel he might call the same?”
“Yes.” Estae answered. “I would say that Wolf is irredeemable, but he did something I cannot find sense in. His nephew, I understood. There is humanity in that one. To step between a mad king, and a brother who even with two years upon him, was the weaker. To defy that monstrosity, twisting in ascension to a dragon. They fought side by side, but still lost to those powers run mad. He would have been like a mountain. The city would have been consumed to make him. The last god the world would ever see, for he was the one it could not survive. You think the dragon war began long ago? It doesn’t move one way. Everything reflects, all that made us, and all we made. Cycles.”
“What did he do?” Etore asked. “I’ve read the books that gloss over the damage to the palace at the end of the war, and those that dare hint at reports.”
“The King was not interesting, he died. The son he liked, and had spared, stepped in to join the boys, but he was still the man he was. There was no sense in it. He risked his life, to save them, and so, his life was spared. Together they finished the mad king, but the mercy he earned, was a life not worth living. One bound in chains. Fed like a child, not a lord of Osyrae. He found new ways to break people, so they bound his jaw.”
Kiannae got close enough to give Estae a look, but the spirit bore no mind. She smiled at a man outside.
“You want me to feel sympathy for him?” Etore demanded. “They don’t bind someone like that unless they’ve earned it,” Etore countered. “It’s not worth the trouble, I’ve never understood why they even kept him alive. As you say, it was crueler.”
“It was Vharen’s doing… He had a strange love for his uncle, however hateful the man was. No, not like that… Nothing untoward, but the man himself, even in my eyes. He was a merciless tutor in combat, and yet his beaten student, one of the most gifted mages alive, would visit. Talk, even if Cadith could not speak back. It really was for the beast, and at times, even Vharen admitted it.”
“How touching,” Etore said with disdain. “Get to a point.”
Estae turned, and sat on the windowsill, having assured she’d gained an audience of gawkers. She tilted her head, and a deformed antler sorted itself out. She still bore no mind to Kiannae. The woman turned and leaned against the wall. A pretense to ignore the naked spirit, sitting in her window, for all to see.
“Vharen had it in his mind, a bloodless coup. His brother was weak, he moved against him because he was weak. He believed he would bow, when he was beaten, that he could then restore Osyrae, to its role in the world. With all the blood that would shed, it wasn’t his families.”
“What went wrong?” Etore asked.
“Two things,” Estae answered. “Vharen underestimated his ‘good’ brother. When challenged for the throne, he at last became convinced his brother was too dangerous. That the black sheep of the family, must be put down, like dogs.”
Etore gave no reaction.
“He was trying to bring peace to the world, ‘good’ Herron, and some he realized could never abide it. So war had its place, along with all the unseemly things that lurk in dark shadows. Vharen would have won, but it was a tight contest, once an old alley cat stepped in to protect his new master.”
“Tom?” Etore asked with sudden interest.
“No, his father. Tom was barely more than a kitten. Fresh blood, so the Underlord took the boy. The King in the bargain, claimed the elder, though the elder pleaded the reverse. The deal was struck as it was, your old boss would not be convinced.”
Etore closed her eyes. It was a different version of the same story.
“You were always, raised by a cat, though how feline varied. I can see shadows of a world where they were still but dire beasts. We, still fauns, and hairy things that rolled in the mud. The faces, the names so often change, but these stories are etched in the world. If not like tracks of rivers, then like the paths of animals. Widened through the underbrush by larger things. The least resistance.”
“Not the nonsense, what is the point? Why is there this connection with Elise, and me? What could any of this have to do with it?”
“You lived. You do not owe your life to Myrn, only who you became. You are an accident, literally. Eight hundred thousand times he got up the same morning. Again, and again, he did not trip on the loose stone that had always been there. Then one morning he did. Fell into the budding bosom of a young woman over a decade his junior, however pretty he was. More gift than most that boy. He hadn’t seen her, by design. It was best, the world forgot the princess, the deadly, left hand of the king. How apt she was a moon paw.”
“That’s how I happened, that’s how I met him… I don’t understand.”
“Lets not count the number of times he tripped without such a soft landing. All on some instinctive level trying to meet you again.”
Etore looked away.
“He didn’t know he was doing it, but that was, why he was doing it. Tripping on a stone he damn well should know was there, over, and over. The world is full of broken ones. They outnumber those of us who are free, but some are more obvious than others. Free to see that we are stuck in the same cycles. Walking the same paths we did before, even if the whole landscape changes. Somehow, the paths still lead to us to these potentials.”
“That… didn’t answer anything.”
“Yes it did. He changed your life. I leave it to you, if it was for the better, because it got you killed.”
“How?” Etore demanded.
“You started to let that cold ache in. The pain of what you were doing, and to what end.”
“Call it that, but it was more… indignity. Yes, you did not like what you had long noticed you’d become. That you were killing for their gain, and not your own, made it truly intolerable. So, again, for better or worse, you got it in your head, you were the heir, and they needed to go. The world would be better, wouldn’t it? A queen on her throne, also the blade in the dark.”
Etore’s expression remained neutral.
“You are an incredible fighter. Few can challenge you with a sword, but with magic… against two of the most deadly mages in this world? You could kill Cadith, sometimes, but Vharen always won. Then Cadith got smart.”
“Why, by having you killed, when you were still just a baby.”
Etore’s expression tightened.
“I say, I see no sense in what he did, to save his nephews,” Estae intoned. “Myrn, changed your life, but in any world you weren’t in, he lost interest in Osyrae, and left the city.”
“Ok, so, what if I believe all this? What does any of it have to do with Elise?”
“Myrn,” Estae answered, and stood up.
Kiannae moved over, and closed the curtains. To the frustration of at least one man who made himself heard.
The spirit bore this no mind, and stepped towards Etore. “He, met a girl, a young woman of a street rat. The kind the kids called ‘mom.’ Kind that usually wound up enforcers, madams, or whores in a few more years. He caught her trying to cut his purse. Damaged thing, but ever so quick, just not so quick as the thieves of Osyrae, or, so he told her.”
“Yeah, he likes that line,” Etore said with annoyance.
“Mordove is still a good city for an ungifted man, good at writing and math. Bookkeepers are indispensable, when there are hundreds of thousands of people. All their transactions to keep track of. Spares the more gifted to do better things with their time, such as bread like bunnies. In my day, they simply were the books.”
Estae smiled, and tilted her head to the side at Etore’s reaction. “Myrn had done well for himself, and he had the coin to offer a ‘would-be’ cut-purse he fancied, a very nice meal. That was if she would join him. She was still a woman nearly a decade his junior, but least they were each a bit older. He wilier, and worldlier than the bumbling virgin that had stumbled into you. He started making up fanciful tales. Rooted in dreams that had haunted him. The woman he loved, and never was. He claimed the daring rogue lived. A princess hidden away in secret, amongst all the redheaded bastards of the city. That people learned not to see the urchins, or they would not be able to get through their days.”
“She reminded him of me?” Etore pressed.
“Yes. Damaged, the same sort of way, but her wounds were much curler, and the other way around. Her manner at first, more timid. The things men do, make me regret my attractions to them, and my own inclinations. There are some mirrors, you do not wish to see yourself in.”
Etore looked down.
“You aren’t just mirrors. A luxury of being so small, and insignificant, is you can find another, so much like you.”
“She’s… faker,” Etore challenged.
“No, you’re just better at it. She’d be like you are about women, with men, if it weren’t for what happened. Not quite, and a little uncomfortable, but there, if they’re pretty enough. She felt it for Myrn, but she needed an outlet she could handle. The boy is very good with words, but he only wound her up, and drove her to a Red Sister’s bed.”
“The Assassins?” Etore pressed.
“Rowana herself, saner then, and all the more dangerous. Elise needed a friend to share what she was going through. The wonderful and strange birth of her path, and, so she turned to Myrn. He wove from his stories, and hers a blushing young Osyraen girl back home. A tale in the streets of his more familiar, to others exotic, homeland. Tales of lust, suspense, deadly sword play, and a warped understanding of magic.”
“Ok, it’s my turn to complain,” Kiannae said. “What is the point?”
“Mine to make when I feel like it,” Estae countered. “It was very accurate. He did his research, added it to what he knew off assassins skulking in the shadows. Oh, those stories were a twisted delight to a young acolyte in the throes of a cult. A woman losing herself to fantasies of being a princess, a lost princess. She wasn’t really sure who her father was. Some man who’d come through from a foreign land when she was a girl. Even I’m not sure, but I wonder about could have beens.”
“No, just uncertain, it’s not her truest connection to you, even if it were… true.” Estae answered reprovingly. “I’m fragments, not the whole, I can only see so far. Regardless, the point you are so anxious to see. The assassins permitted the stories to be published. Boosted them as rumors circled of their own activities. They gave them a better image, or the one they deserved at least, and not the history they could not change. Rowana and her daughter, both saw benefit to the idea of a rightful heir, out there, somewhere.”
“What now, does this have to do with me?” Etore answered. “Other than cursed books. This is a world where I didn’t live, right?”
“She was in love with the girl in those stories, of course she was really just in love with herself. The idea of her, as that woman. It’s a bad thing, to enter the harrowing in love with yourself, and not your sponsor, or anyone else. That’s how you meet us, or in her case, you. Her idea of you. That’s why she really calls you Sister.”
“I thought it was my mother, or theirs,” Etore protested.
“Love for what you’ve created, of every sort touches me. I am, everyone. Your will to live, even as you hate what made you. Your doubt, that it can ever be justified, all that must suffer, that you, live. So I am the martyr, the mother who would die for her children, the soldier who would die for his country. The thief, with so little, who drops coins in the cups of poor orphans. Ones she stole at a great risk, from cold men. No matter the trouble it gets you in.”
“So, it was you?” Etore pressed.
“What, I can’t be the hero? The abyss itself struck a deal with your mother. Her life, already lost, her fate, for her daughters. A fate to avenge the wrongs of this world… When she sees them, if only because they offend her sensibilities. I have spared women who have betrayed me, and risen them up. Elise, the wronged woman. I’ve let her join the true queens of this world. Not a princess anymore. We’ll see if she thanks me.”
“So, she carried the stories to the end?” Etore asked. “Found a common love that joined with a dying mother?”
“Yes. Neither of them, those mothers, were killers. The mothers you see are two, but they are legion. Laeune, who in the end did bear a daughter, that was herself. The true purpose of children, is that some part of us carries on. They learned to kill, but there was no room for doubt, or hesitation. If one’s entire will is needed to move without breath, or heart beat… there could be no hesitation. One needed the conviction of a killer.”
“How, how does this leave her memory upon me?” Etore demanded.
“That thing, that composite, touched her daughter, and gave the last of her fading light. She bestowed on her a great gift, without the terrible cost.”
Etore wiped away a tear.
“You made your bargain, but I am no longer strong enough. I can only offer you the closest to trust, you will ever feel for me. He is my kindness, learning to be harsh, you are my cruelty, learning to be kind.”
Estae whiffed away, and Etore gave Kiannae a look.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” the woman said, and crossed her arms. “Also, did I gather right, that you have been calling me Ms. Skunk behind my back?”
Etore shrugged. She straightened herself, and walked to the door. She stopped, and looked back as she opened it. “Thank you, for what it’s worth.”
“You’re welcome, for what it’s worth. Almost a relief, to have her be someone else’s bane for a moment. Could have done without seeing the kiss.”
Etore laughed tersely, and without much humor. “You could have looked away.” She stepped out, and found Damian marching towards her on sight. He looked a bit bothered.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Estae 9th, 1 S.R.
The Previous Night
“I want to finish,” said a dark haired, fine featured young woman.
A blade hung in an arcane crucible before her, held aloft by the strangest of forces, magnetism. The surrounding air had been extracted by the magic, such that nothing touched the metal. Oscillations in the field maintained a searing radiant heat, and a bright orange glow. Not quite liquid, but highly malleable.
“All forty-nine?” Damian demanded incredulously. “So, you want me to elevate you to master, then?”
“I’ve come this far,” the woman answered. “You didn’t think I could.”
“You should come this far a few more times, first. Fine, if you understand this is your test. If you fail, you are not but an apprentice, for ten more years. Worse, you’ll have to answer to delays, personally. I wouldn’t want to be the one delivering that news.”
“Very well, forty-three, begin.”
The woman closed her eyes, and focused on the spell. The metal was like a hole in her awareness. A hole in the world, in the shape of where an unfinished blade should be. She could feel the pull of its stretched and layered fields on her magic. She twisted, and pulled upon the metal in opposing directions. The center held, the edges twisted around the core.
It curved rather than folded, but she pressed the center, and pulled the ends. It stretched with reluctance into thin layers. Vacuum is an incredible insulator without evaporation. Any remaining impurities had long since been expressed in pops and crackles. Nothing was trapped between the folds but will, emotion, and determination. It was now about order. It was a blade forged of defiance, a mirror from what her mentor had said of the other blade. One done in secret and shame, one done in pride, for the world to see.
It was the purpose, she understood of Etore’s style, to draw the eye. To fool the enemy with the obvious, and so she put her gleaming pride into it. The greatest discovery Damian had made, was not the results the process produced. It was an understanding of the fate of a blade. How it would be used.
It was full of war, and cut a bright gleam against the setting sun. She could see the shadow of the woman who would wield it, and her enemies. She turned her eyes from the blade to its mistress. The forty-third fold completed, with the understanding of whom it would serve. She could not be permitted to fail, and so, nor could her instruments. Determination. It had a will, a purpose, and truly belonged to a person in a way that neither an object nor a living thing ever could. It was cutting steel, it wished to bear a sharp edge, and slice through all that opposed her.
“You can see me, can’t you?” asked a red-headed woman from the shadows.
She could have been her, lurking unnoticed in the distracting presence of the forge. All was gray, except two women, and the blade between. I crackled with an iridescent pattern of light and shadow. All was still, but for Elise, and the eyes of an enchanter, following her approach. She could not spare focus for either fear, or excitement at this uncertain intruder. Awareness, and caution were needed instead.
“Have you ever been here before?” Elise pressed.
“This is the place I find when I forge the metal.” Her face tensed. “How are you here? I’ve never seen anyone else move. You aren’t her, the one this blade is for, I can feel it. Are you an assassin?”
“No, I’m not her, as to the other thing… Such a crude old word. We own the truth, but prefer other names.”
“Such as?” the woman said with a willful calm, the blade waiting.
“Rebel, Sister, Red. Future Queens of this world.”
“Do you aim to foul my work?”
“No, far from it. I want her to at last stop trying to take what’s mine.”
“The sword on your hip, show me?” the enchanter demanded.
Elise drew the blade, which glowed so hot as the steel between them. She swung without warning at the crucible. Spells already rendered brittle by the shadowed place sliced like thread. The core turned a brighter yellow, that spread from where it was struck.
“Fold it,” Elise commanded. “Fold it into the heart.”
The world returned to color, and the woman caught the air before it could touch the steel. Her crucible wove back together around a vacuum maintained by will.
Damian jumped away, throwing up defensive spells. He eyed the burning blade. His apprentice began the next fold, made all the harder by new energies raging through the metal. It defied her, but her will was stronger, the fields twisted the metal, stretching it again as she made the next fold. Desire, hopelessness, sacrifice, love, sorrow, regret, every emotion warred within, fighting the enchanter. For they were not hers, but hers to tame.
“What have you done?” Damian demanded.
“Given a True Sister what she wished for. A weapon, to rival the implements of gods, not, the implement of a god.”
Sweat rolled down the enchanter’s forehead. All other magic, that might have kept her cool from that sweltering place was a distraction. She let it fall away as she stretched out the forty-fourth fold. It naturally took its bladed shape, but it was not complete.
Damien fiddled with his defenses, considering options.
A gleaming blade answered his moves, and tore through magic like air. It stopped before his eyes.
“You wished to examine it, examine,” Elise growled. “Tell me what you see, oh great mage-smith.”
The man hesitated, but the blade did not move his expression grew curious. “It’s not hot, whatever the appearance, though it is molten, and crystalline at once. I can… feel it. It’s not mage-iron at all, I can see its truth… Chaos and order in perfect harmony. Entropy itself flees the surface, or it would burn the air. It is no longer mater, and cuts only what the wielder wills.”
“Not all, it seems. Her little blade should fail. It should have shattered before such a weapon, but it does not. She has been touched by the Lady, but the lady is gone. Only servants and shadows remain. Let the Queen show she is worthy, not take what has a mistress, already. Call it a trade, that she did, once already.” Elise huffed.
Forty-five was clearly a struggle. Damian looked to the defiant metal, warring to tear apart a crucible as strong as he could have forged. He doubted greatly that he could have done any better. Elise withdrew her sword as she stepped around, and returned it to its scabbard.
A tear had joined the sweat on the enchanter’s skin, and Elise leaned closer.
“You’ll distract her,” Damian warned.
“The truth, is never a distraction.” Elise reached out, and stroked the woman’s cheek with the back of her fingers, wiping away the trickling tear.
The forty-fifth fold finished, and the blade again took its cutting edge, losing the glow of heat. The enchanter twisted her spell, feeding power into it. Will in raw form forced through magic that wanted to die. The blade shook with such fury it should have turned liquid. Had it touched the air the sound would have been deafening, but barely regained its bright orange.
“Two more,” Elise whispered, leaning closer to the woman. “Your husband left you, didn’t he?”
The enchanter’s face twisted.
“Men, cannot be trusted. No matter how noble, good, or wise they seem.”
Another tear ran down the other cheek.
“We, must set this world right. You have learned, all you need to from this man. I see who you are, oh one the world forgot. They killed your daughters, and erased your name. It is time, you became the teacher, or great Weaver of Secrets. Wake.”
The enchanter trembled. Her legs shook beneath her. Her arms straining through the waving patterns she repeated.
“Wake,” Elise repeated.
With a sudden snap her arms shot out to the side. The forty-sixth fold completed with a crack, as a wave of force drove air farther back. It was bit wider, and thinner this time. More to the form of the blade Elise had shown. It struggled to lose the glow, wavering yellow to red.
“One more, oh great shaper of things. Weaver of mysteries. Wake, «Anaera,» Queen of Witches.”
Her arms wove back before her, around the blade’s crucible in arcs. They left trails that became other arms. They shifted in, and out phase, appearing, and disappearing. Images one could not tell from real. Damian stepped back as the blade folded, and folded, and folded, and folded. It was impossible, it was inconceivable. It swirled, so much as folded. New curls beginning before ten, twenty, a hundred folds behind had finished. It could not be counted, and then it slowed, into a final straining wave, but the blade was unfinished.
“One more,” Elise whispered, and her presence was almost hotter than the steel.
The enchantress glanced to the face so close to hers. She was huffing with exhilaration, and exhaustion. Elise leaned closer, and kissed her. With a final blind wave, the enchantress arms undulated and the extras dissolved. The blade twisted across itself, snapped taut, flat, and took its final razor sharp shape. It cooled in an instant.
Back from the cutting edges a pattern repeated along the center. Arcs, and curves, woven. Spiderwebs interleaved, made of branches. Patterns of sevens, repeating, long, then short. Dark, and bright, catching a slight rainbow hue even in orange light. It fell cold from its crucible that tore apart, and sliced into the floor where it stuck.
The enchantress took the impertinent but lovely woman in remaining two hands. Kissed her, as a mind struggled to sort through impossible understandings. It all became noise, as she was lost in the moment. Surrendered to sweltering heat that crawled inside her skin, and felt at home.
Damian looked from the pair to the blade, knelt down, and examined it. It was cold, but only so much as ice. Hot humid air rolled off it in a cool mist. A few other apprentices who had come in to check on crucibles had seen the last of this. Two men were a bit too distracted by the kissing women, another woman however, knelt beside the blade as well.
“How did she do that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Damian said running a finger along the floor stone, perfectly cut to hold the blade.
He looked up at the woman standing over them. “What did you do…” he was going to demand answers by her name, but could not recall it. Rather, he was certain he was remembering the wrong one, the name the rebel in their midst had said so strangely.
“You will address me properly, if you wish to be my apprentice,” the enchantress smiled.
“How did you do it, Master Smith?” the woman opposite Damian asked.
“My true name,” the enchantress repeated.
“I don’t remember,” the girl said looking rather pale.
“It was just said…” was the chiding answer, with narrowing lips, and eyes.
“Your name… I know it wasn’t… It started… with a… a…” the girl protested nervously.
“My true name,” the Enchantress intoned more clearly.
“Anaera, Master Anaera,” Damian tried with uneasy conviction.
“Do I look like a man to you?”
“Mistress?” he tried instead, all too uncomfortable. He was quite certain the woman who had started the task bore another name, but her new one, defied him to believe it.
“Lady, will do,” Anaera said. “Swear to me, any of you, even the men, seven years, as my apprentice, and you will learn… whatever you manage to learn. Then you may swear again, so long as you please. You’ll never learn, all I can teach.”
“Even the men?” Elise pressed with some annoyance.
“I do not know who you think you’ve woken, girl, but I am my mother’s daughter. What’s more, the girl who lost her husband last year, more than any other.” Anaera smiled. “They are not to be trusted, you are right about that, except to do what benefits them. So what trust, need we, who it will do them no good to betray?” She looked across the others. “Who will swear first?”
The apprentice opposite Damian turned, and knelt before her. “I swear myself to you, Lady Anaera. Teach me, as your apprentice, for seven years, or seventy.”
Anaera turned to Elise. “Who do you serve, girl?”
“I serve none,” Elise answered. “Though I have allies.”
“What is your name?”
“Elise,” she answered.
“You pretend to walk amongst gods, you wake one, and bare that name, but despise men so? They have their uses.”
“If one can bear them, even so short a moment.” Elise sneered.
“Swear yourself to me then. Seven years, my wife, as your namesake made custom. Do so, and your allies will have the finest of armor, and blades, or leave my sight.”
Elise stepped closer, and looked the woman up and down. “What sort of wifely arrangement do you seek?”
“An obedient one,” Anaera answered.
Elise stepped very close again, and reached for the enchantress’s cheek.
“Later. After we’re wed. We’ve work to do.” Anaera turned to Damian. “What were you saying about crushing thorns, Apprentice?”
“Haven’t sworn myself to you yet, Lady,” Damian said standing up. He straightened himself, and eyed the two dubiously.
“Do you mean not to?” Anaera asked. She seemed almost literally drunk with power, certainly amused.
“I mean to give it a moment of thought.”
“Very well. Take the blade from the stone where it fell, be very careful. It will do the job, or rather, you will. Think while you grind two of the thorns with the flat of the blade. Apprentice Bethany, bring me the third thorn, no less carefully. I think I know what they are.”
The female apprentice scurried off, and Damian followed.
“I’ll leave you to your work,” Elise said. “Look for me, north of town if you want me.”
“No. You’ll start obeying, now. Find me a good clearing.”
“Where I’m staying should do. Come find me, I can obey very well, but let me assure you, it will go both ways.”
Anaera smiled, and glanced to the men still present. “So, did you two want to learn from me as well, or just gawk?”