Chapter VI:13

Men say we all bleed, the same red blood,
yet learned ways would deny it is such,
what foolish notions fill our heads,
stories fit for children sent to bed,

something glimmers there within,
a gift of starlight, so wearying,
a promise gilded and forsook,
ever humbling the sanguin hook,

O’ tis mostly, that same crimson thread,
if one ignores an illness best to dread,
O’ what gifts to bring us to such loss,
all we are given, doth come at cost.

– A Cursed Gift, 112 E.R.

The Silver Thread

There were a great many gathered in the orrery chamber. Locals and pirates, Red Women and those in contrary white. All, called by a song that touched air and heart with an alluring, joyous melancholy. Some, were cautious to enter. Three siblings, and the company that followed more than most.

Sund was already below. He stood outside a ring of Singers, at the edge of the lowest tier, just below the two steps back up a dais. He glared at Laset. She bore this little if any mind, and circled Orwell in a beam of sunlight, stood before Rihonae’s throne. It did not seem the right time of day, for the angle of the beam shone down upon him, and yet to look around, it seemed it might be.

Katrisha whipped a sun tracker above her palm, and saw it followed the angle, back up over her head. Far from where the sun had just stood. She turned to the others, but looked around again for some semblance of other explanation. “It was mid-morning when we stepped in, it’s just after noon now.”

“Impossible,” Ambrush protested.

“Unfortunately not, just very bad,” Kiannae said. “Please, tell me we are not stepping into something like that maze beneath Mordove?”

“Does it feel like it?” Katrisha countered.

Kiannae glared down at the scene below. Turned to those seating themselves around the circle. Glanced last to those lurking up near the outer arches. “No. Worse.”

“Come, come, honored guests,” Rihonae called out, herself in an enraptured tone. She beckoned from her throne, and ran her fingers down her throat into the neck of her gown. “Come see, Ascension, and bask in the dawn of a new age,” she added with reverent intensity, to rival a Clarion sermon.

Katrisha looked around, no more comfortable with the invitation. She caught Mayari amongst those lurking farther up, and opposite. This gave her no more comfort, but Katrisha marched down, and stood beside Sund. The others followed with as much hesitance.

She felt a bit of a fool to stand so near where the creature remained cautious. As though she had taken a dare, or laid one down. Mayari remained where she stood, but her presence implied some security. If nothing else that what was coming could not be completely cataclysmic, if she knew so much. A distance perhaps less caution than disapproval, it was hard to tell. Katrisha turned her eyes back to the scene before her, and an argument already underway.

“Are you really doing this?” Sund demanded.

“Yes,” Orwell answered. “I will be free, of these shackles, that bind. Old bones, misfit parts, and mismatched wants. A countenance that withers, made lithe and younger than it ever were.”

“Is that what their song promises?” Wren demanded. “I could almost hear it, the meaning underneath it all. Joy, and rapture, freedom, from what binds you.”

“Sounds more like a promise to bind me,” Etore cut back. It didn’t carry all the spite it might, even if a hand traced her short sword. The other seemed less certain what to do with itself.

“Can’t it be both?” Laset said, glancing a moment from Orwell. “There is a price. There is a price, in Ascension, that I paid, as much as any I ask.”

“Did you?” Katrisha demanded.

Laset laughed lightly. “You’ve read the stories. You know who I was, and the tale of how I began. They got surprisingly little wrong, but for that it is far from the whole story. Such powers, always have a mirror. One, must not stare into the mirror, for it is hollow. One cannot stare into what was, without becoming mad, and so we must look forward. We must change, adapt. We must not be as we were, for such ideas will rot, as sure as the flesh on old dead bones. The winds may drive, but are fleeting. The seas endure, where stones weather, and fire drowns.”

Katrisha narrowed her eyes at this. There were other tales. Other being such as Laset, that books claimed to have lived long ago. Half as much or more myth as the creature before them. She set it aside, for fear it was a distraction, and yet there seemed a warning there. It bore minding, but she wasn’t sure how.

The song in the air rose, and came in time with the beat of an unseen clockwork. An uneven rhythm, they somehow made work. Somewhere a more human voice began to mumble words. “…calls the flames to dance, oh would you tarry near my dear, oh take such a frightful chance…”

Some onlookers near the center slipped from their seats, and fell to their knees, and bowed to the Singers. Men, and women pawed at their legs in obeisant pleading. A few more mumbled voices joined, and the words to the old song filled out the melody in the air. Made the rhythm work.

The figures ignored the worship, but for a few moving to hold others back from Laset. A voice most intoxicating of all. Some had to be bound in water to contain them, held aloft in clear tendrils that defied gravity.

One hand still at the hilt of a sword, Etore’s other fussed at the blouse over her heart. She caught the eyes of Rihonae whose hand had found similar place, and looked away in annoyance.

Wren’s cheeks turned crimson, and he looked away as well.

“They promise you everything you could ever want, little bird?” It seemed Etore’s voice, felt like her close behind him. “Your song is louder, but there’s a part of you that doesn’t mind, sharing, does it?”

Wren turned sharply, but Etore was too far. She could not have been whispering in his ear, and bore his manner no mind. Distracted. Each hand fidgeting with equal unease. She pulled the one at her chest away, and gripped her other sword hilt.

Katrisha looked frozen with worry. Kiannae angry. Taloe cringed in on himself, and blew away as a mist. Ambrush seemed largely curious, and Mara near enraptured, face held high, eyes closed. A white woman grabbed her hand, and seemed to break the spell. They pulled each other close.

Dahlia took hold of Ambrush’s hand, who gave her a dubious look. Mahla stood opposite, but all turned back to the chorus of promises untold.

Laset was circling, fingers tracing over Orwell, in languid, wandering spirals. “I found the mirror, long ago. Stared too long, into desire’s call. I’ve had the world, or those worth the time. Sentenced to death, a thousand times, for my crimes. Oh, daughters of the world, I showed the joys of a girl, and boys, all preconceptions, blurred. I did not begin, as I am, and the world remembers more the woman.”

The wind. Katrisha wracked her brain for the memory. A thing like Laset, but formless, and ever whispering on the wind.

Laset smiled, and her hand drew up, and along Orwell’s throat and chin. His head rolled back, his eyes closed, and skin turned silver in the tracks. Patterns that spread over flesh that took to a glimmering sheen. A familiar and impossible thing.

Clothes fell away. A shirt as threadbare rags, and dust, tumbled off a chest. One that grew more curved as though painted by those languid fingers. A bare expanse, that a moment before would have drawn few eyes, demanded all attention. Silver, and water fought across a form lost and revealed. Translucent, cloudy, and then ever more reflective. Like a mass made of mageblood, it consumed the last of a man, and left a mirror that distorted all around her. No surface flat however smooth.

Katrisha’s eyes more than most were wide at the sight. Fear, that this was what she was becoming, from the inside out. The idea of the elemental as her mirror was uncomfortable, but palatable. That she was her destiny, filled her with dread.

The chorus grew more clear in human, and inhuman voices. “…calls the flames to dance…”

Transparent eyes met Katrisha’s, but Laset looked again to Orwell. She stepped around what she had wrought. A young, bare, silver woman, where moments before had stood an old gray haired man. His clothes then barely more than dust, and rags upon the floor. A woman formed of a warped looking-glass, that glowed more than the man ever had, or most gifted ever would.

“You look like me, when I first woke up.” Laset traced the lips of the figure. “A reflection, of all around you. So much violence cast in me, by those who killed, and stole all joy. Whom sought to enslave my people. All of my peoples. So much blood, I could… still feel staining their hands. Unfit they were, to guide their own step, or take another.”

Wrinkles formed like ripples on her brow, and passed away. “It took me time, to tell an individual, from a people. The act, from the cause. A species, from the world. I was death, for I was born amongst death, and always was. I had been sorrow, drowned in gentle games. I became vengeance, for I was born of a will to survive, made corruption. Their corruption.” She steadied herself. “I will not burn the chaff, for I cannot know it, but I will raise up the wheat. The worthy, will find greater purpose, and the worthless, drown, in a new self. What do you feel, Daughter?”

“Regret,” answered a wistful voice, a bit husky, but feminine, in two clear, smooth notes. What had been Orwell glanced at her body, and hands, then a bit narrower. A most mixed expression crossed her face, but she made no move to cover herself.

“What do you regret?” Laset asked, her own tone curious, and strained. “I can almost see it in your mind.”

The figure turned to Sund, who stepped down toward her, and was let through as Singers stepped aside.

“Regret, that nothing is fair in this world. I like this. I wasn’t sure… what I would feel, but I like this, and I can already tell… you don’t.” The voice became pained, and sorrowful.

Sund looked away.

“You can, like this,” the figure said, and stepped towards him. She held up her palm, and clear water formed there amidst that dainty silver cup. It trickled out between fingers, down the arm, there joined her skin once more. “I can still be yours, you must only find a place for me.”

Laset looked bewildered.

Sund stepped back.

“Do you trust me?” the figure asked in that melodic voice. Words from feminine lips, but some knew the man, and still saw his wryest smile, beneath the strange visage. The plea failed to stir none, or to not make any to wish it was meant for them. Even the one it was meant for.

“Do not pine for this man,” Laset intoned with harsh reproof, and took the arm, pulling the figure back. “If he will not have you, countless many will. If he comes around, forgive him, if you so please.”

Sund turned, and walked away, striding up the steps with driven fury.

Katrisha looked between the departing man, and a silver woman who lowered her head. Laset stroked the silver hair that was still growing out. As fine, and shimmering as Katrisha’s, how it caught the sunlight, the chamber around, and the sky above. At the arch, Mayari wore a still inscrutable expression. It wasn’t fear, or worry, not quite. Not displeasure, but cautious, whatever it was.

The song had ceased, and only the ticking remained. Katrisha turned, and walked away. Others slowly followed.

Ambrush remained, as did many, who grew closer to one another. Dahlia, and Mahla who stepped towards her. Each found a place beneath an arm, and lay their heads to her shoulders. Mara glanced her way, her own woman in white in her arms. The two exchanging most uncertain looks.

Katrisha glanced back at the arch, as Singers knelt before those still bowed. There raised their chins and kissed them. She caught her sister’s eyes, turned, and walked out.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Ok, you saw something, out with it?” Kiannae demanded, as Katrisha went straight to their belongings. All piled where men had left them, after hauling them up overnight from the ship. She pushed aside everything till she could get at saddle bag still full of books. Shuffled through three before she pulled one out.

Katrisha gave Kiannae’s impatience a glare. “You didn’t protest, when you saw this one packed. Though I admit, finding a point seemed unlikely, however relevant the subject.”

“A full record of all half-flesh, and elemental manifestations,” Kiannae said recognizing it. She’d tried to read through it a few times, but it had seemed futile, whatever Taloe was, or Estae had been.

“You heard her about the wind?” Katrisha pressed, and started thumbing through the start of the book. She held it up.

“Amir?” Kiannae said, and stepped closer. “I always found the stories of him bothersome.”

“Yes, not fond of leaving others clothes where they belonged, no,” Katrisha agreed. “Whether they liked it or not.”

Kiannae took the book, and started skimming the text. “You think… what exactly?”

Katrisha bit her lip. “What Mayari said to Liora, about Laset undressing one in a hurry. Laset implied she’s paid the price.”

“So… Laset… is connected to Amir?”

“It would seem sensible, perhaps the thin shadow of water is air, I don’t know,” Katrisha protested, and threw up a hand. “I know it’s important, but how… and… what she did, making Orwell give him his manhood, to become what? How do we say it’s even really him?”

“How do we know it’s not?” Sund demanded. “They were silver, but they were his eyes. They were fuller, but his lips, his smile. I’ve… worked with the man for fifteen years.”

“Worked, yes,” Etore interjected unhelpfully. She got a cold look from many corners, and walked to a seat.

“Well, you’re right, just makes it right, doesn’t it?” Sund snapped. “Him, being her now.”

“What you are, is not the source of my disdain. Do you think this girl, I’ve set my heart on, makes it more right? That he’s a boy, by some thin pretense.” Wren pursed his lips with annoyance. “I’ve met plenty of more many women than him, even his sisters. He chose it for me, I’m told. Is that better or worse?” She glanced to Kiannae, who looked away.

Etore shook her head. “You’re all missing, your own shadows, for those of the trees. I’ve heard the tales of Amir, Rihonae loved to tell them. Played out scenes of rapture upon the ‘ravishing winds,’ for lustful crowds. Not to mention her own all to clearly affected amusement. It was kind of her thing. Strange, for a woman who claims to have been forced. Not that there wasn’t always something there… something dark. Embracing surrender, to what demanded what it would have. Laset threatened me, so, who knows what still lives in ‘her.’ She wears a woman’s face, but, is she? Even human, in the most generous of estimations.”

Katrisha snatched the book back from Kiannae, who gave her an indignant glare. This was ignored as she started thumbing through it again.

“The North Wind and the Sea,” Katrisha read out. “It does not clearly state Amir, but one story of her early days was she also courted the wind. The warm waters won her heart. A story of force, and persuasion.”

“So you think Amir… is by her own words her mirror?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” Katrisha answered, “or made her.”

“I’ve seen the shadows of that path,” Kiannae said with worry. “I feel like something is about to go very, very wrong.”

“It already did,” Sund demanded with fury.

“Sorry, we’re used to bigger problems,” Kiannae obliged with thin resentment. “Trust me, I’ve had far more reason to doubt than you do, just now. Learning, I had been in love with a woman. All the more that I had never known. One who had been consumed by a thing like a god. At least, you were certain, of where you stood with, him. I didn’t even have that, but she died. She died for real, and now all I have are ghosts, even him. The man I thought I loved, I still do not know what he is, but he has proven himself to me. The problem is, this gets worse.”

“How?” Sund demanded.

“Regret. It breads madness in these powers. The ability to change things, does not play well with regret.”

“So, I need to… accept… ‘her’ then?” Sund sneered. “For the good of the world? It’s always the way, it is. Kiss the girls, because it’s what men should do. I proved I could get with them, I didn’t mind it. Got lectured for it, but the lectures… a man is supposed to get.” He looked away.

Taloe formed at Kiannae’s side.

“You became this for me?” Kiannae asked. “You chose, a self, and sacrifice, that let me love you?”

He shrugged, and could not hold her gaze.

“Is this what you want to be?” Kiannae pressed, “or was she born, of a soul torn in half?”

“Half…” Taloe shook his head. “More or less. Yes, though, I do not deny, I long to give you the world. All of it.”

Kiannae looked down, thin lipped, and brow furrowed. “The self denied, is a cancer, that spreads. Regret, a poison. I can’t tell you what to do here, or even be sure what path holds the greater folly to come. Let me propose, at least, that you must be sure, you, are not the one left with regret.”

Sund stormed deeper into the house in a huff.

“Yeah, the world is literally…” Etore began, but held up two fingers, and slammed them in the grip of the other hand.

“That an Osyrean gesture?” Katrisha asked, somewhere between annoyed and amused.

“No, Palentian,” Liora said, and marched for the inner door herself.

“Oh, not going to tell us what you thought of ascension, Clarion?” Etore challenged.

Liora gripped the door frame.

“You know,” Etore mused. “It’s funny. The whole business with assassins. It started from this fool notion, that women were oft inferior, and animal. That those not purer than the driven sand, had no purpose to the Path, but to breed. Even then, their weakness a bane, and curse. That they and their children, would fall from, and find no use, but to free men of distractions. In the old days, they took the chance of children from many. That’s what the cursed book Sylvia wrote tells. The secrets the rest of the world wished to forget, of the crimes of men.”

Liora’s glove crumpled with tension where she dug her fingers at the wall.

“Of course, that Path of men, was to forsake a drive more virulent than a woman’s. Surely, or they would not have to train them so to fill the role. That says something, for all I’ve known of passions. That men want it more, how do they even think? No, it’s no wonder, they might want to make women their pets, just to not spend every day, in abject service to chasing the next… Yet, it keeps being these creatures. Those surrendered to want, that work powers to defy mortal understanding. Even Clarions, arrived at the idea. That if a woman divested herself, from a flesh that consumed her, perhaps ascension this way lay. The promise they made to women, as they made them fall. I’d ask flower girl, if I’ve heard that right, but she seems to have stayed behind.”

“Leave her be,” Katrisha commanded. Not quite with the fire she meant to, it became a plea.

“As you like, boss.” Etore smirked, and Liora marched out.

“I thought you were trying to get in her good graces?” Katrisha cut back.

“Just stirring the pot, to force your hand, or buy your time. Not sure which.” Etore said. “People need to face reality. Embrace their goals, and the price they will carry, or their fate, as pawns in whatever comes. We all saw, what just happened in there. Fates, even I wanted what she made of that man. I heard the song, people singing. Funny Estae’s song fit that cursed warbling.”

“It’s not Estae’s song,” Kiannae said with annoyance.

“It is as much or more Rhaea’s,” Katrisha obliged. “Rather, a mockery of her. Of both of them, but from the stories, each embraced being what the world expected of her. Defying it in the same breath. The Stormborn, Queen of None, in the Summer Lands. If you read between the lines, she did away with the darkest parts of men. Made a twisted game, that none could break the rules of. For she was the enforcer, the keeper of a safe haven. A society of women, where men were kept on the outside.”

“I admit, this does seem more the part of Estae.” Kiannae grimaced. “Queen of the Saou, above the highborn, but below her father, and sister. I doubt we’d get a straight answer if we asked, but Etore’s right. We are missing the shadows. Red Women, Assassins, and Singers, all shadows of the Saou. Of a solution to that same problem of men, to want it as much as them. The power and carnality, or refuse it like the highborn Ladies. White Women kept to procreation, as a necessity. Which is only worth anything, if it actually gets you respect.”

“It sounds like you want to trust this, when you were just saying it’s going to get worse,” Katrisha snapped.

“No, I’m saying it’s going to get worse, and we have to work with that… reality.”

“Choose our enemies then?” Katrisha pressed, but glared at Etore.

“It bares saying, that those highborn ladies also had their Saou. Oft they belonged to the women, not the men, who ever made more use. Docile pets, companions, and relief.” Etore leaned her head back. “You can’t kill them all, these lords, and ladies, and a great many, will not be stopped, short of death. I’ve almost come to terms with it. She’s a whore of a woman, in every sense, let her be the Queen of Whores, and we’ll sort out the rest.”

Kiannae looked uncomfortable. “Queen of Saou,” she corrected.

“So you want to cast Rihonae as Estae now?” Katrisha pressed.

“Certainly a disciple,” Etore pressed. “The Queen is dead, long live the Queen.”

“The heir, I think,” Kiannae obliged.

“A shadow is not what cast it,” Katrisha said thin lipped. “All your mockery aside,” she looked to Etore, “are you still where you were last night?”

“Yes. Give ‘em a chance, or start fighting now.”

“Please, try to convince Sund to come back to the chamber,” Katrisha said. “It’s time we asked them to let us go.”

“Fine,” Etore said, and stood up.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“How long do you intend to keep us here?” Kiannae asked stepping up the dais of Rihonae’s throne. “Now that we’ve seen your little show. Truly, not all that impressive, for all else we’ve witnessed, and done.”

Rihonae shifted forward, and looked up at the tall woman that loomed over her. Imperious from below is a hard thing, but she wore it well. “Not all of your company will leave these shores, any time soon.”

“You intend to keep them — us — here?” Kiannae snapped.

Rihonae shook her head. “No. Do you intend to take them by force?” She gestured around the chamber, where many lay in another, or several other’s arms, more, or less clothed.

Katrisha stepped forward, and put a hand on her sister’s arm.

Kiannae stepped back, and turned away in annoyance.

“We will not take anyone, who does not want to leave,” Katrisha said with calm, “but we, do want to leave. So, how long, as my sister asked, do you intend to keep us?”

“Surely till the morning.” Rihonae leaned back, and gestured absently, looking away in a huff. “Do you think what good Laset did this day, was without cost? Your ship remains grounded, and she will need to muster the will to carry it back to sea.”

Katrisha glanced to the elemental that stood behind, and to the right of Rihonae’s throne. She looked worried, so much as weary.

“Another dinner?” Etore interrupted from the sidelines.

“If you wish dear, there is always a place at my table for you.”

Sund stepped forward. “So, all who wish to leave, may?”

“When practical,” Rihonae answered.

Sund glanced to Taloe, and turned to the silver figure, who stood at the left of the throne. Doubt lined his face, but he stepped up to stare into mirrored eyes. “Everyone?”

“If she wishes to leave,” Rihonae answered. “She is not a prisoner, is she Laset?”

“No,” Laset answered with unease.

“Do you want to stay?” Sund asked. “Is this what you want?”

Laset looked on with worry that read poorly on translucent features. Eyes closed, a cringe as though restraining herself.

“Is this what you want?” the figure echoed, with a sheepish gesture along her form.

“No, but you are, who. So, like that one time, in Palentine?”

An amused smile spread across those silver lips. Sund stepped forward, grabbed her hand, and brought it to his lips. The palm turned over, and pooled water flowed, for a man who drank.

Laset who had stood back lunged forward. She tore the arm away and it splattered across the floor, but Sund wiped his lips, lined with silver.

Orwell’s form became no less youthful, or in some sense pretty, but certain traits receded. Others rejoined, where they had once belonged, including arm. A man smiled at it, with same smile.

“What have you done?” Laset muttered, it seemed not a question.

“Beaten you, just not by arms,” Sund challenged.

“Well,” Orwell said in a tone that sent a chill up the spine. “One arm, but I didn’t need those ridiculous things you put on my chest.” He checked the arm that had reformed. Then reached out what remained a somewhat dainty hand, and stroked Sund’s cheek.

“No, no, you have no idea what you’ve done. I see it now, clearly, I’ve been a fool. You can’t become yourself, you can’t,” Laset implored. “If you stare into the mirror, you will see the other, and if the other wakes…”

“Love or war,” Orwell answered, “but I am already the mirror you have stared into. Oh, man of the south wind, oh woman of the warm sea.”

“Anyone else confused what’s going on here?” Ambrush asked, having wrested from two women’s embrace. “Yeah, you all look confused, that’s not good.”

Laset stepped back.

“Love,” Orwell intoned, though the smile on silver lips was not reassuring, “or war. I was never a man of war. Not in this life, or any other.” He glanced to Wren, and laughed. It didn’t seem all that friendly. “Some, prefer conquests by a gentle hand.”

Sund looked worried. “What did I mean, when I spoke of Palentine?”

“They were pretty, those two girls. The men had been talking, so we made sure they saw us, walk away with two lovely lasses. Sometimes, you must kiss the girls, to be distracting. Required much less undressing, than their usual work. Quite the contrary, a bit more, dressing up, to appear respectable.”

Sund stepped back. “No. No, that’s not right. Yes, a distraction, but old friends of yours… you said…”

“A man of some inclinations, may make friends, of feminine persuasion, odd ways.” Orwell shrugged. “I was a repeat customer.”

“No… they were ladies of the local court. I remember, we spent the evening there.”

“Some, move up in the world, for their talents. I admit, I may have forgotten which life we are in.”

Sund stepped back again.

Orwell held out his hand. “Come now, don’t be afraid, we have much to discuss. So many lives, and paths have led us to this day. Do you fear the sister who has returned?” He gave a nod to Dahlia, who sat behind Ambrush. One whose embrace she had risen from.

Sund looked to the others, and last to Laset, who looked anything but pleased. He seemed reassured by this, and took the hand. Orwell lead him away.

Rihonae clapped, as they departed in otherwise silence. It slowly spread through those who remained in the chamber, a great many releasing one another to do so.

Katrisha looked to Laset’s worried face, and after the retreating pair. Up to Mayari who still lurked at the edge of the archways. She seemed unsurprised, but not quite concerned. Laset turned and strode out of the chamber. Katrisha hesitated, but followed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Who was Amir to you?” Katrisha asked behind an elemental who basked, shimmering in the evening sun. She had followed atop the dome, and been born no mind the whole way. The creature had simply sat, and stared out towards the horizon.

“I shall do better, and tell you who Amir was,” Laset intoned, but did not look back.

“Fine.” Katrisha crossed her arms.

“The dark ones. Those of midnight skin, once lived so far south, as the north hills, above the central plains. In that land not yet Osyrae. Amongst them was a boy, so gifted as had been born in a dozen generations then, or hence. A child for whom the wind did call. Nine Sun’s he’d lived, and then a man, such even so young, did rest amongst the shamai.”

“Suns? You don’t mean years, do you?” Katrisha pressed.

“If not quite half of each life he recalled, then a child he was no more. For wisdom of lives that were. Yet was he wise at all? The intemperate wind, in need of a taming hand. He lay his head in full bosoms, and they would pet his curly hair. Lest he trouble girls that seemed his age, too young, to understand the tempest born.”

Katrisha looked troubled by the implications.

“Nothing is sensible when all things are broken,” Laset answered unspoken discomfort. “What does one, when in a child, stirs the longing nature of a man? Loins yet unfit to instincts, of a filthy old cur, whose seed would one day be in great demand. He… he had been worse, to be forsaken, and deprived as boys oft are. They made him sweet, to show him the tender warmth, to temper a man’s faulty way, and yet he was, the man he would be. Then came another, who put in chains, the lovely shamai.”

“Osir?” Katrisha pressed.

“Where do the cycles end, or begin?” Laset asked, and at last looked back. “Osir came, so sure as the Sun doth rise, and when young Amir bowed, he was given, of age, five brides. These to bear him many children, of his great seed, and one more, a young daughter of Osir with fiery hair. As most born of his darling Rosa were.”

“I’ve read how little he cared for his daughters,” Katrisha dismissed.

“Oh, not so little. Of course, she was to be placed above his concubines, when she too was of age. A young man though, had daughters, and not a son was there amongst his seed. Not a one. These were given the path of all gifted women in that day. Given as brides, to be owned, if need be, in chains. If he did not cry for the women, that had held him at their bosom, for those of his loins, he went to war.”

“One he didn’t win?” Katrisha pressed with a furrowed brow. “I’ve never heard of any of this, yet I know you are telling the truth, or, at least a truth.”

“Had a word been written, it would have been burned,” Laset answered. “Even the telling of the tale, forsook. For Amir would teach his youngest bride, her greatness, and together woke a fury, to almost end a would be god. It did not happen in this world, but long ago, and a brother, took the Sun’s eye.”

“Abass?” Katrisha pressed.

“Did the shadow cast the sun?” Laset asked, wistful. “Some would call him the North Wind, from whence he came. Some the South, to hence he did go. Yet Osir, would rise, so sure as the sun, and the wind did come to carry the sands. Yet the wind is subtle where a man is course. He whispered to the ones of dark skin, to leave before the south-men came, and the shamai answered a voice upon that wind. The animal woke the god, the god redeemed, became a protector. Though one who offered seductions, to great women, and a few great men. Those who could lend him an eye, about which to bend. A daughter forsaken, Va of the shiel. She of the house of the kept, and protected daughters. Yet even their walls, could not keep out the wind.”

“Vashiel?” Katrisha asked perplexed, and yet it made sense.

“A true god has not children of flesh, but divinity. So a bride lost, became a daughter born, and so, Osir, warred with his own blood forsaken. Saw his beginning, and his end. The folly of all he had done, or would do. Countless worlds, the Sun would rise, and do war with the ravishing Wind, and baking sand. Stillborn, a daughter who never was, the wind passed over, drawn where all things end, and begin.”

“Osir… was Vael?” Katrisha asked. “I have read that he always distanced himself from such stories. Whatever some of his sons did instead.”

“So much as I am Rhaea, so much as you.” Laset swirled up from where she sat, and stood before Katrisha. She put a hand on her cheek. “I have made a mistake, in the blindness you gave me, Sister. The gift, to not see all things, and so, I too, shall tell you no more, until folly comes. For might I hold hope, it will not?”

The elemental moved around, and poured down the stairs, so much as took a step. Left Katrisha to look to a setting sun, and day that vanished in worrying way.

She sat down, and stared at her staff. There were gaps there, in moments in the chamber. A place where something was meant to be. Both after the ascension, and before their return. It was the moment, in each, when Sund drank from her hand. It was worrisome she recalled only one, but saw the convergence of many. That on some instinct, there was a record.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhast 7th, 1 S.R.

A girl of bright blond hair, about sixteen, stood below a bewildered chamber of councilors. Growing antlers, in fresh bloom stood upon her brow. Her garment had been cut to lay about a fluffed tail, to match her crown. A black stripe on the white underbelly showed as it twitched. A man in brown, and a woman in white with a low cut neck stepped up behind her.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded the Archmage, standing from his seat.

“I have come for my elder, father,” the girl demanded.

“And who is your father? Who has shaped you, child? Who has defied the laws?”

The girl smiled. “A child was, by dragon born, with but one mark of the Faun. Some decades ago in this city, she was named, Aster. A star in her mother’s eyes, and worry in her fathers. Two drops of water placed between above temples, there beneath the boughs of a great tree. It was sworn to this council that she so began, an extra or so, below the waist. To repair what nature had wrought was denied, until the heart, her great gifts betrayed. In time, she would give herself the crown of the ancient ones, where once two drops of water lay. She saw the shadows, there upon the wall. How of a man they grew, where marked the blood of tree, and the sap of the sea.”

“I do not care how you have been twisted child, or for babbling nonsense. You are not her. Who did this? Who made you a mockery, of my poor old friend’s daughter?”

“A girl made herself,” Aster answered. “For the trunk had rotted, root and stem, but wisdom might endure, and a seed offered, still pure. A father I have come to seek, but a second stands behind me. A mother, who bore a child her love as a child, with nubs upon her brow. Safe in the city, that yet endures, where none should stand.”

“You,” the Archmage sneered. “You are the creature they… claim walked from a tear in the very air?”

“More of a hop,” said a man. He stepped out cautiously before the Council. “Forgive me, but I have seen such things, with my own eyes. I assure you, I knew the girl Aster… well enough. So well as to say that she was the same, as the one before you. Though the antlers have changed, all else remains, as I hear all have now seen.”

“I believe you no more before me, than in fool reports.” The Archmage banged his staff. “Remove this girl, these people from the chamber. Where are the guards?”

“Sleeping,” Aster answered. “I tucked them tightly into each others arms out in the hall. I think that one guard, rather likes the other, but the other thinks he’s oblivious.” She smiled.

“Enough,” came a high-pitched bark. All turned to a fox who stood in seat beside that of Helm, tail bristled. “The Torta recognize the girl Aster, reborn, daughter of Dorian, for the Sun doth rise upon a new age.”

Many looked bewildered for how well the fox had spoken, but he had been improving. A more lippy grin answered the stares. No less unnerving, that the changes hid a few more teeth.

“Your seat, is still in question, little fox,” the Archmage boomed back.

The fox leapt from his chair, and landed with remarkable grace upon a railing. There sat, and glanced around the chamber. “You mock me, with words I once could not say. Fox, vul-pine. Words given by men, like f-ish and f-owl, flower, and power. We, are the children of Rhaea, the servants of the girl who held the Sun, so long, that any might yet endure. Who tricked Syl-vans, you call them, that sought vengeance, that a woman of your kin, was chosen, to hold the Storm. Spared you all, that men yet live, and paid, with our kits and kin. Our wisdom, and mind reduced for countless generations. A thousand years, or more, it took for us to return, and now, we, recognize, the heir of our fore mother. We forgive sins of a Sister, that the girl hath returned.”

Aster wiped away a tear, stood straighter, and looked to the little fox. “Give Lota, my love,” she said with a nod.

“She has it, always, Mother,” Tock answered.

The Archmage banged his staff again. “Enough of this farce. Leave, or I shall remove you myself.”

Aster did not move, and the Archmage leapt the rail. He landed with a grace that defied a fall that looked apt to shatter old bones. Stood straight, and rolled his neck.

Aster remained unmoved, at the center of the chamber. The others stepped back swiftly, as the Archmage lunged. She stepped aside, grabbed a swing of his staff, and pivoted on a heel, before letting go. He tumbled across the floor, but recovered, clearly a bit sore for his fall.

“We have sparred, old man,” Aster said. “I learned to fight, in a life or two. If they are ones you recall, I could not say. The past, is past, but I will make your future more humbling, if you do not accept what stands before you.”

The Archmage circled, unsure, it seemed. Aster crouched down, and placed her hands upon the floor boards. An act that did not appear an obeisance, but a challenge, to come at her. He did, and struck again. What followed defined the eyes to believe. Old dead wood burst at the very center of the chamber. Twining branches followed her spreading hands, and caught his staff. It stuck, wedged through the heart of a small tree. Leaves formed on tender young shoots.

A murmur swept the chamber.

The Archmage yanked, and then released a staff he could not pull free. He stepped away.

Aster smiled. “Shadows may still hold such power. Where one folly began, I come to bring another to an end.”

“The Druid Seat,” was yelled from the rear of the chamber. “The Druid Seat, seconds, to consider the girl claimed to be our former Archshaper.”

“The Seers Seat has seen,” said an old woman standing. “The last child has come, heir of Thae and Thaea, of Rhan and Vael.”

The Clarion seat stood, and banged his staff. “We would call forth Dorian from his… chambers,” he answered to most’s surprise. “We would hear what the poor, touched old man has to say of this.”

“As would I,” said a woman with thickly coiled black hair, and deep Osyraen skin. She stepped up from the shadows below the Archmage’s seat.

The Archmage looked nervous, and then bowed to his knees. His hands to the floor boards, in far more certain, obeisance. The chamber erupted in a clamor that no banging staff could end.

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