Asha is five, and she is nervous.
Her parents are tight-lipped and nervous, and they hold quiet conversations when they think she is asleep. Asha cuddles down close under the covers and clutches her blue stuffed animal tight against her chest, pressing her lips against the cold jewel in the middle of its forehead. She doesn't quite understand why her parents are so unhappy; the town looks beautiful prepared for the Sorceress's visit. Asha doesn't really know what a Sorceress is, only that she rules the land and she is powerful and magical. But the garlands of flowers and brightly painted shutters--all in preparation of the Sorceress's visit--are so pretty and happy. And she has a new dress, a white one with blue ribbons. Mama says it will look lovely with her dark hair, and Papa says it matches her eyes. Asha thinks her dress is prettier than any of her friends' dresses.
She doesn't know why her parents press their lips together when she tells them how much she loves her dress, but it makes her feel guilty for liking the dress so much. Her sister Melline says Asha's dress is ugly; Mama sent her to bed without supper tonight for it.
Asha hugs her stuffed animal tighter. "Carbuncle," she whispers, "you'll keep me company tomorrow, right?"
In the shaft of moonlight that sneaks through the curtains her mother made, the ruby on its forehead flashes. Asha squeezes until her arms hurt and shuts her eyes firmly.
She dreams of a lady all in white, with a sad and lined face, who lays a hand on her hair and kisses her forehead, and sends chills down her spine like a draft of cold air. She wakes scared, to a room brushed with an eerie pale-blue glow, but the glow fades before she can convince herself to get out of bed and go look for Mama.
Eventually, she sleeps again.
The Sorceress is a tall woman with a severe face that seems mismatched with the long blonde hair that looks just like a princess in a storybook. Asha stands with all the other girls who are between five and ten years old, and clutches Carbuncle close to her left side. Her right hand is in a fist so she won't suck her thumb; Mama was very firm that she must not do that at all today. She can smell the flowers from the garlands, and her scalp itches in the summer heat, but she doesn't dare scratch. It took forever this morning for Mama to curl her hair just so, and she is wearing the prettiest dress, and she doesn't want to ruin it.
The Sorceress only comes once every five years, and waiting until she's ten would be forever. Asha wants to impress the Sorceress. Girls who impress the Sorceress are special, everyone says so, and it's so rare.
The Sorceress turns away from the mayor and starts at the end of the line, where the oldest girls are standing. Asha's older sister Melline is eight and she was absolutely sure she would impress the Sorceress, but she's passed over without a second glance.
Asha knows it's mean to be glad, but Melline pulled her pigtails five times yesterday, and Asha doesn't really feel like being nice.
As the Sorceress proceeds down the line, hardly pausing, Asha clutches Carbuncle tighter. Sun glints off the jewel in its forehead--Mama says it's only plastic, but Asha thinks it's a real ruby, secretly hidden to protect her. She always feels safer with Carbuncle.
Being among the youngest, Asha is at the end of the line, and she's bored. She squirms a little and sees her mother's frown across the square; she stops and tries to stand still.
She is the third to last in line, and the Sorceress is almost here.
The Sorceress passes in front of her and then pauses, her eyes narrowing as she looks down at Asha. The Sorceress's eyes are very very dark, like the night sky when there's no moon, and Asha clutches at the lace of her skirt to keep her thumb away from her mouth. The Sorceress is older than she thought, with more lines by her eyes than even Grandma, though the rest of her face is smooth. Her gaze is almost physical, a weight that presses down on Asha and robs her of breath. Despite the summer day, she is cold. Something sparkles between them, something in her that recognizes the Sorceress. She wants to run away, but she can't move.
The Sorceress looks away, and Asha gasps for air. The Sorceress's eyes skip over the two girls behind Asha in line, and then she looks back at Asha.
"This one," the Sorceress says.
Mama bursts into tears; Asha can hear it from here. She thinks she hears a muffled shriek of rage from Melline.
This one what?
The Sorceress's Knight approaches; he is a young man and very handsome, with beautiful hair that gleams blue-black in the sunlight and a face just like a prince in a storybook. He wears a dazzling silver sword, and he bows to his Sorceress as he should when he approaches. A Knight is the second most important person in a kingdom after the Sorceress; Asha's head feels funny and light, being so close to both of them. The Knight crouches and holds out his hand to her, smiling. "Come with me," he says. "The Sorceress has chosen you."
"Please, Your Illustriousness," she hears Papa say, "may we bid our daughter farewell?"
The Sorceress waves her hand, and light fractures off the jewels in her rings, dazzling Asha. It's cold and harsh, not like the warm glints of Carbuncle's ruby at all. "You may have five minutes," she says, in that voice adults use when they want someone to know that they're making a huge sacrifice and it's very annoying.
Papa kisses her cheek and tells her she must be brave--why wouldn't she be?--and Mama hugs her as tight as she hugs Carbuncle, until Asha can't breathe and her curls are all disarranged. Mama's crying. "Be a good girl," she says, "and grow up strong."
"What do you mean?" Asha clutches at Mama's hand. She doesn't like the sound of that.
Mama starts sobbing and presses her hands to her mouth. Papa crouches down and rests a hand on her head; her curls are all a mess now but Mama doesn't seem to care anymore. "The Sorceress has chosen you," he says, just like the Knight did, "and that means you're going to travel to the capital with her and learn lots of things, but it also means we're not going to see you for a while."
"How long is a while?" Asha asks.
Papa smiles, but it doesn't look right on his face, like somebody pasted the wrong cut-out on him. "We probably won't see you again until you grow up," he says.
That's horrifying--it's forever until she's going to be a grownup--but Papa hugs her breathless before she can protest and then the Knight is taking her hand to lead her to the Sorceress's carriage. She looks back to see Mama collapsing into Papa's arms, and now she thinks she knows why they looked so sad when they got her dress.
The trip to the capital takes several days; the Sorceress ignores her entirely. The Knight, whose name is Storm, plays card games with her sometimes but mostly she sits in the corner of the carriage and clutches Carbuncle close as the countryside races by. She imagines that Carbuncle hugs her back, and it keeps her from crying where the Sorceress can see.
Asha is eight, and the Sorceress is trying to teach her to resist magic by casting spells at her. At first it was gentle spells, like Shell and Protect (the maids said she learned to do that after the first three girls died from fire and ice) and those were difficult enough to learn how to stop. Now it is an endless cycle of ice and cure, the one for her to learn to resist and the other to heal her when she doesn't, though the Sorceress begrudges every Cure spell so much that Asha asked Storm to teach her how to draw them herself.
She still carries Carbuncle with her, in a backpack so the Sorceress won't mock her, and she pretends that it defends her. It makes the training easier to bear.
She's imagining that now, while she waits for the next Cure to settle in and stop the ache in her chest where ribs are bruised--she knows all her bones now, and which hurt the worst when they break, and which are easy or difficult to heal. She imagines Carbuncle standing in front of her, its ruby shielding her with bright light; Storm says it's important to have an image to focus her magic. (Storm is her favourite person in the Sorceress's palace, since the servants are too afraid to explain and the Sorceress is too impatient.) Someday, Storm says, she'll be able to defend herself without the image, but for now, she pretends.
"Again," the sorceress snaps, and Asha stands up wearily, her right hand forming a fist and her left arm clutched against her side as though she can hold Carbuncle close. She closes her eyes and pictures the light, and wishes very hard that it will work this time, because she's so tired.
Ice crackles and shatters, and Asha flinches, but nothing hurts. The Sorceress gives a cry of pain and Asha opens her eyes to see shards of ice rammed deep into the Sorceress's shoulder, and blood starting to flow.
The Sorceress laughs, a cruel little laugh that makes Asha's skin crawl. "Well, well," she says. "Maybe we'll get some use out of you after all, girl." She never uses Asha's name. Asha thinks she doesn't bother to learn the names of any of the girls she brings here. Bold white light flares as the Sorceress heals herself. "Get out of my sight," she says. "We'll try again tomorrow."
Asha flees to her room and huddles under the blanket, clutching Carbuncle close and thanking it over and over and over for defending her.
Asha is thirteen, and the Sorceress is gone on her tour of the villages looking for more apprentices who can become sorceresses. Less powerful sorceresses govern provinces within the kingdom, and if Asha survives the end of her training and doesn't anger the Sorceress too much, she might be given a province to govern when she turns sixteen. Two other girls have come and gone in the last eight years, and neither lasted long. The first, Irin, was ten when she arrived, two years older than Asha. Irin tried to cast a spell too strong for her, and she accidentally turned it on herself. The second, Pemie, was only five to Asha's twelve, and she fell off the castle wall when she tried to run away, to go back home. Asha tried to heal her, but only succeeded in wasting spells. She cried for a long time that night, hugging Carbuncle as she hadn't in years. This was what her parents feared when the Sorceress took her away: that she would die of her magic or the Sorceress's carelessness or her own high spirits.
She dreads the arrival of a new girl; on the one hand it will take some of the Sorceress's attention away from her, but on the other it will probably mean another death, and Asha doesn't want to watch. She can kill, and she has--the Sorceress ordered her to perform the execution on a traitor last year, as a test of her skills (and Asha still cringes remembering how she half-missed with her first Fire spell and the woman screamed and screamed until Asha's second spell hit true)--but she doesn't like it, and she'll avoid it if possible.
If she lives long enough to replace the Sorceress, and none of her fellow sorceresses kill her between now and then, she can stop those deaths. It is what keeps her going.
Carbuncle sits in her room, tucked away in a box, and she rarely has to hold it now, for its power is always inside her. Asha is powerful--the other sorceresses who rule the provinces say it with jealousy, and the Sorceress says it with a calculating little sting underneath it that somehow turns the compliment into an insult. Storm says it with pride, but not where the Sorceress can hear, because she thinks he spends too much time with Asha and not enough being the Knight.
Asha writes letters to her parents every month, and Storm sees them delivered. She doesn't ask how. She gets letters back and Storm slips them to her, under her door or in a pocket when the Sorceress isn't looking. She cherishes those letters, and keeps them hidden under her bed.
She looks up to Storm, who stands firm when the Sorceress tells him to do things he believes are wrong. He has taught Asha the difference between right and wrong--and he has also taught her to lie, to grit her teeth and do the wrong thing if she has no viable options, and how to know when she has run out of options. She suspects that this is the Sorceress's true complaint with him, and she hopes he doesn't tread too far out of line, because the Sorceress is no one to tangle with lightly.
Asha is fifteen, and Storm is dead on the ground in front of her, his blood still red and wet on her hands.
Someone assassinated him in the bazaar, where he was escorting Asha and the Sorceress on a shopping trip. The Sorceress levels half an aisle with a Firaga spell when it happens, incidentally killing the assassin as well as a dozen vendors and three dozen people whose only crime was proximity. Asha bites her lip to keep her fury bottled up, and tends to those who were on the edge of the event and have only minor burns. She prefers this use for her magic, not the flame spells that are the Sorceress's favourite. She no longer has to fight the Sorceress openly (she thinks it is because the Sorceress knows that Asha knows she could win), but it is no reprieve; she has gone from direct combat lessons to lessons in politics and bureaucracy for the next year. If she survives. Asha doesn't think the assassin was a disaffected rebel, as the Sorceress is loudly proclaiming. She thinks the Gil in his pockets, now melted to unrecognizable slag, had its origins in the Sorceress's private accounts, and she plans her revenge for her only friend.
Asha is twenty-one, and half the bones in her body are broken, and she is out of Cure spells, but she has defeated the Sorceress and she will be crowned tomorrow. She turns down the majordomo's offer of assistance--she has no Knight and she trusts no one who served the Sorceress, so she will remain alone--and gulps potions until she stops seeing triple and can go hunting for a draw point. In her bag is an old and battered stuffed animal, one that shows all the signs of being well-loved, and it was the image of Carbuncle that let her withstand the Sorceress's spells long enough to unleash Flare and win the duel. The spectators cheered her. Asha just feels sick. She wishes it had not come to this, but in the end there was no other way. She had to do something wrong because there were no options left; the Sorceress was bleeding the nation dry.
Asha is twenty-six, and she has just met her Knight. He is a fisherman's son from a seaside village, with dark skin and darker hair, tall and slightly built. He fights with two elongated cestus blades, and is a terrifying whirlwind in battle. His name is Lyven.
She hopes to never require his services.
He travels everywhere with her, as she makes the tour of the land looking for young sorceresses. Where the Sorceress wanted girls to break in her pursuit of underlings, Asha wants to build a school, where sorceresses will learn to control their powers and how to use those powers for the benefit of all.
The parents do not believe her. (She would not believe herself, either, if she had raised children under the Sorceress's rule.) One father attacks her, running at her with a harvesting scythe. Lyven disarms him in a moment's effort and has him pinned to the ground, immobile, looking to her for orders.
"Let him go," Asha says softly. "He meant only to defend his child."
The man's daughter, Tari, is eight years old, and the power that radiates off her has a terrifyingly familiar feel.
Asha takes her to the capital, and she is the first student of the new school.
Asha is thirty-two, and she has just had to order an execution for the first time. A band of rebels who would see the land freed from sorceress rule attempted to burn the school down. Tari saved the building and her classmates both with an impressive Waterga spell that far outstripped her control; she spent six days in bed afterward. She is standing beside Asha when Asha speaks the sentence.
Lyven offers to carry it out, and Asha forbids it. She hates to kill with her magic, and so she takes the burden upon herself, so that she will always think twice before she gives this order.
She uses ice, not fire, and she watches the bodies fall, blood-soaked and rigid with cold.
She does not vomit in public.
Neither does she pull Carbuncle down off the shelf for comfort; she will not taint it with her deeds.
Asha is forty-six, and she is burying her parents.
Lyven stands guard nearby as she holds vigil at the grave for the only two people in the entire world who loved her for who she is, and not what she is.
Alone, Asha weeps.
Asha is fifty-two, and she is defending herself against the woman she loves like a daughter.
Tari grew impatient waiting for Asha to die so that she could take over, and she tried to assassinate Asha. Lyven has already been knocked unconscious; he cannot help her now. Asha cannot see to aim her spells through her tears; she trusted Tari, and taught her everything she knew about how to be a good ruler, and still it is not enough.
She defends herself with the image of Carbuncle, and sends Tari's spells crashing back upon her own head.
Later, when Tari's broken body has been carried away to be disposed of and Asha is curled around an old stuffed animal with holes where seams should be and an eye dangling by a thread, she wonders if personality is transferred along with sorceress powers, and that is why Tari was so impatient for ever more power.
She closes the school, and integrates the children into regular schools, granting each a special tutor in lieu of a specialized sorceress education.
Asha is seventy-seven, and her ministers want her to name an heir.
She does not know how to tell them that she doesn't trust anyone else to take her throne. When she is alone, she admits that she dares not tell them. She can see that good is done only so long as she holds power at her sole discretion, and she is desperately afraid that that makes her worse than the Sorceress. Still she cannot bring herself to abdicate.
Instead, she and Lyven spend long nights together drawing up a charter for a system of representation. It will take effect when she is dead, and no one but Lyven will know of it until then. She sets her seal into the wax and looks at her legacy.
She wonders if it was worth it.
Asha is ninety-three, and she is alone.
She has no daughters and granddaughters of her body, and Lyten died last year after sixty-one years of faithful service. She has sent away her maid, and arranged for letters to be delivered to the prime minister tomorrow, when they find her body. It is time, and she knows it.
She must find someone to take her powers, but the thought of cursing someone to the life of a sorceress turns her stomach. In seventy-two years of rule, she has curbed the worst abuses of her kind within her kingdom's borders, and as her sisters grew old and died (or grew violent and died), she has watched their heirs and taken care to instill love and cooperation in the young sorceresses, rather than fear and competition as the Sorceress did. Her power gives her great capacity to effect change, but she begins to think Hyne cursed his daughters when he gave them this gift. Power is a poison. Sometimes a poison can be beneficial, like the poisonous roots that, in sufficiently small quantities, cure ailments, but it is poisonous nonetheless. Too much is deadly.
Some of her sisters, those who came to feel as she did, have given over their power to Guardian Forces, and Asha wanted to do the same, but there were none she felt comfortable with. Siren is too sly, Shiva too cold, Ifrit too fierce. Bahamut spurned the offer of the last sorceress to try, and ate her bones besides. His power is not Asha's power, and she will not give hers to him.
But there is another option, buried deep in ancient Centran textbooks that crumble at her touch, and that is why she is here.
She has had this stuffed toy for ninety years. She has spent weeks painstakingly repairing all the places a child's carelesness caused plush fabric to wear thin, and reaffixing an eye that had come loose. She has polished the lifeless lump of plastic that she used to pretend was a real ruby until it gleams like new. At time she had to steady her hands with magic, for even a sorceress's power cannot defeat old age. Carbuncle is as perfect as she can make it. She has made an addition, too: a flawless diamond the size of her thumbnail is cradled in the stuffing in the middle of Carbuncle's head, to focus her power. The seam has been sewn back up with exacting stitches that would have made her mother proud.
"You understand, don't you?" she says, and light glints off of Carbuncle's jewel as though it nods. "You've always kept me safe. Now, we can keep others safe."
Philosophers speculate on what a sorceress giving up her powers must feel. Asha feels only relief. She holds Carbuncle and focuses her magic on the diamond inside, and enacts a spell that every sorceress instinctively learns when she gains her power, yet will cast only once.
Carbuncle's body is ninety-three but better now than the day she was sewn, and her mind is brand-new, though she has Asha to guide her.
The ruby on her forehead pulses with protective light.
She stops to brush a paw over Asha's face where the sorceress's body lies slumped on the floor of her workshop, and then opens a portal in the floor.
There is so much to learn, and so many people who need her help.