Everything was more beautiful, just as she had been warned it would be, and every bit of it threatened to consume her attention and drag her focus away from the gathering at hand.
She found that it was exceedingly easy to become distracted by everything around her that hummed and sparkled. The crystal spires braided through by moonflower vines that curled upward right out of rock and stone to coil towards the sky, reflecting the sunlight in a kaleidoscope of hues, brought her frequently to pause. Marble veined and freckled with smatterings of gold and bronze glittered beneath her feet so abundantly that she frequently lifted them up to inspect the bare soles just to be sure she wasn’t taking any of the beauty from the floors. Gold and moonstone fixtures silently begging to be touched and caressed. Even the path that led away from the eluvian that had deposited them just outside the palace had been beautifully polished onyx peppered with silverite that had flowed over steps in a grand staircase where the black gradually bled out into the shock white marble.
It was a stark contrast to the Wilds, where so much was wood and green, alive. There, the ‘palace’ was warm polished ironwood where living trees and other fauna were part of the building’s ever-growing structure. Every trace of furniture was carved carefully and intricately of some sort of hardwood, elfroot occupied pockets of space beneath stairwells, morning glory curled between spindles and over railings, and lilacs thrived in most windowsills.
What prickled her most was the undiluted flaunting of emotions that near every guest she had happened upon thus far had let roll off themselves in torrents. There was no…compulsion to keep them against their skin, or maintain a shallow pool, rather they left themselves open to be read and interpreted by anyone. It was unsettling, disruptive. Hunters kept their fields closer to themselves in mixed company, only allowing their scope to unwind amongst themselves, degree varying on individuals present and bonds already forged. The people gathered within and around the current given palace either did not know any different than outright display or had little care what another may think.
She frowned slightly in the wake of a cresting blend of adoration and desire as another pair of guests moved by her, arms linked, and she took a single step closer to Ilona. It proved trying to keep a frown from creasing her brows and pinching her lips, and she noted the sound of the other huntress stifling a snort, even as her features remained as neutral as ever. How the other woman managed such composure was beyond her comprehension.
Shaking her head, she sighed and turned her attention back towards the main veranda where the bulk of celebration had congregated, a few strands of her carmine red hair catching in the firelight. A quiet steady stream of notes plucked from a trio of stringed instruments kept a seemingly mellow cyclic chorus behind the ongoing discussions and occasional bouts of laughter. The scent of mead was tempered by wafts of grace, sage, citrus, and the delicate perfume of roses that sought to reach inward to join the fray.
“Watch.” Ilona instructed quietly.
Doing so was akin to watching carefully measured motions in a well thought out game. One piece moved half way across the board, then the next kept vigil while waiting to strike. Every high born, every noble, every envoy, every official, every servant. There was so much that she had been unable to fully perceive or analyze when she had been small. So much that had been hidden away from inquiring young eyes and ears. This was an entirely different world from the one that she had been born into, or the second that she had been swept away to. But there was nothing and no reason for it to be kept hidden any longer, no innocence to keep safeguarded, and no gentle mind to preserve. She had to see. That was the whole point of the evening, to see.
She brought the mead glass to her lips and took a moderate sip of its contents. It danced across her tongue; honey, apples, subtle notes of mint, and a ghost of spicy embrium. She knew what sat at the bottom of her cup waiting to be gulped down greedily if she allowed it, she had watched several guests already overindulge. Several of which had disappeared, likely tucked into some nook or stairwell alcove with a companion or two, there were numerous guestrooms standing idle in wait for occupation.
An appealing dark blonde sat astride Dirthamen’s lap, smiling and leaning in to whisper in his ear. He smiled in return. His appreciation of her company would prove fleeting. It was like that for all their kind. Something beautiful would be offered up and they would hold and toy with it with great fervor, until interest inevitably waned. Then it was on to the next pretty thing that stepped willingly into their path. Their favor garnered much both inside and outside of pretty walls. Still, she was told he had always had a preference for golden strands, perhaps he held his playthings longer simply to appreciate having them. Or perhaps she would be tossed aside when the dawn broke.
Ilona shifted ever so slightly in her periphery and she allowed her eyes to sweep towards the other huntress. She met the other woman’s emerald eyes and Ilona fixed her carefully with her gaze. She was just as beautiful as any other woman there; tan skin, chestnut hair, toned lithe form. The small black dots that were painted over her eyebrows and along her cheekbones as well as the black line that split her lower lip and chin defined what she was – hunter and favored, they stood bold against the pale lines of her vallaslin. Her outright noted status, though, was the reason that they had managed to stand apart from everyone else. No one was allowed to approach Ilona without Andruil’s consent, and by proximity default, no one approached her either.
But that was part of the point. She was meant to observe and she had been strategically placed to do so. This was a learning exercise that Andruil hoped she gained from. She had been kept in the wild for so long with her primary interaction being with a hundred hunters, that this sort of gathering, where everyone was hiding something behind their gold and finery, was almost foreign to her. If asked her opinion, she still wasn’t sure why Andruil felt she needed to learn from this, she could spend the rest of her life in the Wilds and be content for eternity.
“How do they all stand to be so…dull?” She whispered to the woman beside her.
A smirked tugged at the left corner of Ilona’s mouth. “This is quite the gathering, you should know.” She murmured back. “There must be at least a hundred people within these walls.”
That didn’t answer her question.
She tried to survey everything with more care, tried to make note of every window and doorway within their vicinity, every entryway and every way out. She attempted to number the people and their faces to memory. It wasn’t difficult to differentiate between the high born, the nobles, those for entourage like herself, and the servants; the lines were exceedingly well defined by dress, posture, and the presences or absence of vallaslin. Amongst the intermittent sea of bodies and faces, she met Andruil’s gaze just as the Huntress happened to glance her way. A warm smile was offered and for the moment that single action settled the unease inside of her.
A glass shattered and instead of shock, a woman’s muffled giggle swept through their portion of the room, drawing her attention away from Andruil and towards the western hall. It should have been easy to dismiss a pair of nobles stumbling half-drunk through the gilded arch. The woman’s wheat blonde hair was gathered back into a very intricate weaving of braids and jeweled ribbons that wound loosely at the base of her skull. Her pretty lavender eyes flashed in the torch light, lively above the smile that split her petal pink lips wide. She was lovely to look at, narrows nose, perfect brows, slender neck, and unmarred pale skin draped in amethyst silks that cut deep enough down the front of her that she was surprised she hadn’t spilled outward when she had stumbled. But that was part of the ever present game.
“Anara.” The woman’s voice called and she snapped her fingers, beckoning a servant to her side as she gestured towards the broken glass.
It was the figure that chuckled and bent over to help the woman up off of her knees that brought her to pause. Both sides of his head were shorn close to the scalp and the remainder of his dark mahogany hair was caught up in a multitude of braids and twisted pieces secured by clasps of silverite and gold, all held back near the crown of his head. He wore red and gold fineweave silks, a white fur stole wrapped diagonally across his right shoulder and seated by a belt at his hips. He tugged the woman back up to her feet as the servant ushered forward to clean up the shattered glass.
It took every effort she possessed to keep from rolling her eyes at the display and instead of speaking, she tucked her left behind her back and curled her fingers against her palm. Every speck of glass lifted carefully into the air around the serving girl and a mousy gasp escaped her as the shards spiraled back together like pieces to a puzzle caught briefly in a tiny funnel. When every part of the item returned to itself, she infused the item with heat to reset it back together once more. The servant hesitated at the sight, glancing towards her mistress, before she lifted her arms and the glass settled in to her upturned palms. She watched the poor servant swallow uncomfortably and she fought the urge to wince.
“Careful.” Ilona warned her quietly.
She watched him scan the crowd even as the woman at his side stumbled once more, clinging to his shoulder, another bout of drunken laughter ripe on her lips. For the briefest of moments, his eyes locked with hers until another form slipped between them. Andruil’s amber eyes, dark brows, and perfect cheekbones removed Fen’Harel from her line of sight. “Careful.” The Huntress’s voice echoed Ilona’s warning as she moved towards them and used her steps to misplace direction away from her, Andruil closed the gap between herself and Ilona to take the woman’s lips with her own.
“I’m going to put an arrow in that inconsiderate bitch’s face.” She muttered under her breath.
“I do so adore you, my little fox.” Andruil smirked when her lips parted from Ilona’s. “Walk with me.” She said to them both and she led them away from their perch on the steps. “Turn your focus. These people have little care for servants.”
She rolled her fingers against her palms and let the nails bite at her skin without drawing blood. Ilona had warned her that the high born loved to flaunt their wealth and power beyond lavish garnishment, they liked to flaunt their servants, their slaves, with very little regard for how it drew them out to be. There was no one to pose judgement when they were in shared company.
“I see Ilona is still accompanied by the second most beautiful woman in the Empire.” A darkly clad individual slid up before them.
Andruil tipped her head in his direction, a smile toying with her mouth. “Hello, brother.” She greeted simply.
“And who is this?” Falon’Din gestured towards her and she averted her eyes towards the floor. It was what a lower elf would do, and she honestly couldn’t allow herself to look at him further without color painting her cheeks.
Andruil turned and looked at her, lifting a hand to beckon her forward and she obliged her, though she kept her gaze downcast. “This is Mihrin.” She introduced her. “She has garnered my attention with a griffin, of all things.”
“Truly?” Falon’Din asked with enthusiasm. “They are magnificent creatures, though they often slaughter any who dare to stalk them.”
Andruil wrapped her fingers around her left wrist and lifted it upward. “She may not be one for much in the way of conversation, but this hand is capable of feats few before her have managed.”
“Fascinating.” They continued to converse and she was allowed to fall back into Ilona’s shadow. Every so often, she would lift her head just enough to look at Falon’Din through her lashes. He had garbed himself in black from head to toe save a sash of iridescent ivory about his waist. Rather than wearing his ebony curls loose, he had drawn them back and twisted them towards the back of his head into a simple knot. “And where is the youngest?” He finally asked.
Andruil stepped forward and set a hand lightly against his chest. “Youngest will be here, Ethelan has been sent to retrieve her.”
“I imagine he accepted that task with grace.”
Andruil smiled. “Of course he did, he has had a soft spot for her since the day she was born. She will be down soon enough.”
“I am anxious.” He inclined his head. “It has been a long while.”
“About three hundred years, if memory serves me well.” Andruil replied.
“Time is rather elusive as of late.” Falon’Din confessed. “Though considering the youngest’s age…”
Andruil folded her arms across her chest. “Time is inconsequential when you have eons at your back, brother, but when you are young, even a few mere centuries, moments still matter.”
He exhaled through his nose, a tight-lipped smile seizing his mouth. “Will you sit with us?” He held his hand out, the direction indicated was back towards his twin with the blonde on his lap and another woman who swept in to sit beside him. Sylaise’s cinnamon hair had been left to hang free straight as pins, a single braid against her scalp just over her left ear made an effort to keep her hair from falling in her face. The green gown she wore fluttered gently with each step she took and billowed almost like liquid as she sat herself down on a chaise somewhat beside Dirthamen.
“Of course.” Andruil agreed and they all but glided towards the mismatched gilded chairs and cushions.
Shoulders back, stand up straight, but do not meet their gazes unless addressed. She was a huntress personally selected for accompaniment by Andruil, but that did not give her permission to eye or address any of the Evanuris without their say so. There were so many rules that she was starting to wonder how any person managed to keep them all straight or how any servant ever lived through such gatherings to see another.
Andruil sat and Ilona stood at her right side. She remained in Ilona’s shadow, her eyes subtly taking in her immediate surroundings. She wanted to look once more to Sylaise once she was closer, but the attempt to measure the other woman would have been obvious. Instead, she stood with her hands folded behind herself and let her eyes wander elsewhere.
From the garden, she noted the head of blood red hair first, then she noticed the thin iridescent ivory ribbons woven through the shiny strands. A circlet of scrolling gold sat against her forehead and twisted back into her dark waves. It was delicate, much like the pale gold dress that appeared secured by little more than a large ruby broach at her right shoulder. Much like Sylaise’s gown and that of most of the women present, the fabric shifted fluidly and gracefully. Her lovely shaped lips smiled when a nobleman offered her greeting and the smile reached her reflective dark blue eyes. Perfect straight nose, gently arched brows, flawless pale skin, thick lashes, gentle blush; she was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen in her entire life.
“I had wondered when mother would grace us with her presence.” Falon’Din commented.
Dirthamen nuzzled his face against the blonde’s shoulder and she gracefully slid from his lap. She stood with ease, twirled for him once and then moved to mingle in with the rest of the socializing nobles. “She is rarely the first to arrive to any gathering.” Dirthamen finally spoke. He and Falon’Din were identical, but the similarities ended with their physical traits. Where Falon’Din’s voice was calm and steady, Dirthamen’s was full and resonant, ready to argue or berate on a whim.
“Oh, Andruil.” Mythal’s velvety voice prompted the Huntress to rise once more and turn to greet her mother. Both women reached for one another, their hands sliding around the back of the other’s neck as they pressed their brows meet. “I have missed you, my darling.”
“It has only been six months.” Andruil insisted.
Mythal’s eyes widened when she seemingly suddenly took note of the others around her. Falon’Din having risen to reach for her first and they met similarly to how Mythal had met with Andruil, then Dirthamen rose, soon followed by Sylaise in similar fashion. It was fascinating to watch them. They could apparently go years without seeing one another and yet greet each other with such care one might assume they had not been parted at all.
“Where is my youngest?” Mythal finally asked.
“Youngest will be here soon.” Andruil assured her, as she had done with Falon’Din when he had posed his similar question.
“Likely your genetic trait for arriving fashionably late has been passed down and has blossomed in at least one of us, mother.” Dirthamen half rolled his eyes.
Mythal offered a coy smile in return. “At least one of you then has inherited something of mine.” Her attention moved beyond Andruil then and settled on the darker woman behind her. “Ilona, as radiant as ever.”
“You honor me, my lady.” Ilona dipped her head.
Then the liquid sapphire eyes shifted once more towards the slightly shorter form behind Ilona. “Is this your griffin slayer?” Ilona stepped out of the way to give the younger huntress the full attention of the goddess addressing her.
“Yes, mother.” Andruil affirmed.
“I should like to hear that story, some time.” Mythal purred.
She hesitantly lifted her eyes upward to meet the all-mother’s own and heat flooded her cheeks. “As you wish, my lady.” Her voice offered gently.
“You truly wish to hear about some young huntress gutting a griffin?” Dirthamen sighed. “I doubt such a tale would honestly suit you, mother.”
“You do not believe she would be regaled by the tale of a well laid out hunt for one of the most oppositional prey in the Wilds?” A deep throaty voice spoke and notable footfalls against marble steps drew focus briefly away from Mythal and towards her counterpart that made his way towards them. He was garbed in robes of black accented by ivory, against his dark skin the contrast was both notable and stunning. Unlike most, his ebony hair was shorn close against the scalp all around. And unlike any other elvhen, the same color, length, and texture of hair framed his mouth and chin and stretched up along either side of his jaw towards his ears. The faintest hint of a burn scar barely noticeable near his left lobe. His gold eyes caught in the sconce firelight and danced.
“Mother was once a hunter, Dirthamen, I would have expected you of all people to have aligned that information.” Sylaise spoke, her voice smooth as silk with a bite around the last syllable.
“My aim was to spare her a bloody and likely poorly executed tale.” Dirthamen replied.
“Poorly executed?” Andruil snapped. “I do not recall your presence during the hunt.” She turned so that her entire form faced her brother.
“It was unnecessary. I was not referring to the hunt but the matter in which the tale would be unfolded.” His nose wrinkled slightly. “Your child hunter would likely blunder the tale with her apparent youth and offer little in the way of an enthralling fable.”
“How dare you insult one of mine with your assumption.” Andruil took a single step towards him, halted by Mythal’s fingers against her shoulder.
Dirthamen scoffed. “Perhaps mark the girl and shield her from my attempts, decorate her as you have Ilona to keep her from being fair game.”
“She is young.” Falon’Din offered.
“Not all of us is as frivolous with our things as you, brother.” Sylaise shifted and folded her arms, the hem of her dress sliding along the floor with the effort.
“My dear children,” Mythal finally interrupted, adoration in her voice, a warning in her tone. “I believe that I can speak for myself as I have already done so, I do not need to be coddled, and to circumvent your mounting argument, mind your own people.” She lifted a finger then as Dirthamen moved to speak. “That goes for you as well, my darling.”
Dirthamen pressed his lips together and shot her a hard look that she tried not to cower from. Andruil had stood up for her and recoiling before six of the Evanuris would not bode well. The fact of the matter that was within those walls, he posed her no threat so long as Mythal’s word held fast.
“Now, I should like to assuage my appetite for the evening.” The All-Mother smiled and gestured towards the tables waiting out in the gardens.
“Are you learning?” Andruil asked her quietly as guests milled around them towards waiting chairs.
She swallowed but gave a nod. “Should I have said something else?”
Fingers braided with hers and Andruil lifted her hand upward to press a warm kiss to the back of her hand. “Dirthamen lives for conversation and thrives on deliberation. He would have made an argument out of any subject presented to him just to see how you would react and how each of us would rise or bend.”
“And if I had said nothing at all?” She ventured.
“Mythal would not have stood for your silence unless you were mute.” Ilona offered from her other side. “She would have baited something out of you one way or another.”
“Let’s join one of the tables before Dirthamen prods at our hesitation.” Andruil sighed.
She let the pair guide her towards the long rectangular wood and alabaster tables, each waiting with flutes of amber liquid and center displays of perfectly ripe fruits. Andruil sat first, as was customary, and then she and Ilona sat on either side of her. When Andruil and Ilona reached for the fluted beverages, she followed suit, sipping shallowly at the sweet contents and letting her eyes and mind wander once more to take in the arrangement of the present gardens.
“You should not be so obvious in your quest to catalog every escape route.” A figure sat down opposite her at the table and she settled herself back once more on Fen’Harel, the daft woman no longer clinging to his side, no where to be seen at all. Perhaps she had been discarded to a lower seating placement.
She studied him openly because he gave her the opening to do so; took mental stock of sky blue hue of his eyes that seemed to contrast against his dark hair, brows, and thick lashes. She might have thought someone of his complexion better suited to darker eyes, but for him, the match seemed to work. “I was not attempting to-” He lifted his brows in question and she bit the inside of her left cheek. That was too bold.
“Our hosts may think you unhappy with the arrangements that have made to cater to your whims for the evening.” He added smoothly as he reached forward and plucked the glass up by the stem with care. “This has all been carefully arranged for each and every guest sought to attend. Every napkin, every plate, every grape, and every glass.”
She snorted at the thought and he tipped his head curiously. “Did they plan for the one that was shattered in the hall?”
For a very long moment he said nothing, and gave nothing away in his features. An odd silence settled at their table and she became acutely aware of the lack of further discussion by anyone else seated with them. Turning to assess would break her visual hold on him, however. He simply held her gaze and the longer she allowed it, she more she refused to back down from it. She had already been underhandedly insulted by one of their kind.
Then he smiled at her. “Do you allow all your hunters to speak so freely these days, Andruil?”
Beside her, the woman that he addressed laughed without restraint. “If it amuses me so.”
“And we all know how you appreciate your amusement, my lady.” June shifted at a neighboring table, emerald green eyes swimming in contained merriment of his own.
“As well as any of us.” Andruil lifted her chin slightly, a smile on her face colored her cheeks beautifully.
“An aside. Come, Andruil,” June lifted his goblet up before him, almost beckoning to the Huntress, “when is the little princess going to make an appearance? We have all missed her terribly these last centuries.”
“Likely dawdling to draw out a dramatic flair.” Dirthamen quipped. “Here I thought you would have taught her to have a care for respectable timing given you should have wrought a hunter of her.”
Andruil smirked, not her frightening smirk that bordered on madness or victory. It was the half smile that told anyone in her presence that she knew something that they did not, and in that moment, that was exactly the case. “Oh, June, dear Dirthamen,” she sighed, “I can no longer keep the up the charade.” She twisted the glass stem between her thumb and forefinger. "Ivuni is already here.” The conversations around them simmered and quieted and eyes swept towards their table, curiosity so thick in the air that she thought she would choke on it. “Go ahead, my little love.”
She glanced once more at the blue-eyed man before her and held his gaze as she wondered. Of any of them to have caught on, it would have been him.
It was barely telling when she dropped her gaze back towards the table and then tilted her head to the left. With little effort, she let the magic slip, felt it near her eyes first, the artificial blue in her left giving way to gold, leaving the pair mismatched as they should be. Then her shoulder length straight red hair gained weight and texture, shedding its bloody hue for something more akin to moonlight that fell in rippling waves to her waist. When she glanced at her hands, the shade of her skin darkened accordingly from the creamy color she had cast herself in earlier in the day to its natural bronze hue.
“For me, at least,” she spoke, not quite as boldly as Andruil would have likely wanted her to address the room, “this has at least been educational.” A light smile pushed up at the corners of her lips, and when she allowed herself to once more look to Mythal, her mother mirrored her expression.
There would never come a day when she the sight before her wouldn’t steal her breath. From the fountain, she could just make out the fading edges of both moons. It was still strange, even after so many moonsets, that when her feet were firmly on the ground, rather than lifted by the magic that kept the present area of Arlathan afloat, only one of the celestial bodies was visible. But now, back in this place after so many years, she could make out both defined edges of the twin spheres as the impending sunrise offered the horizon a subtle cerulean glow. It often had her wondering senselessly through long nights what kept the pair so tightly bound in orbit that one seemed to be perpetually hidden behind its sibling, and what forces kept them from tearing each other apart.
She sighed. It was easy to lose herself there when everyone else still slept. It was easy enough to let her eyes slide shut and allow her lungs to draw in a breath of cool predawn air. There was magic in the moment like being caught between two worlds, the hush of the night and the threatening hum of the day. It tickled something beneath her fingertips waiting to be let free and she curled her hands into loose fists.
A shimmer or yellow beside her coalesced into a female form when she glanced sideways at it. Warmth thrummed up against her skin and beat almost in tune with her own heart. It was comforting, unique to the being sitting at her side regardless of how many of her like she had happened upon since she last engaged her in particular.
“It has been a long while since anyone sat here with such undiluted appreciation for the simplicity of the world.” The being spoke, voice quietly delighted.
Ivuni smiled as she turned towards the glowing figure. “Perhaps you have bound yourself to the wrong place.”
“Not all of us are as brave as you, so willing to be swept away with the winds.”
She sighed once more. “You’re not a tree, Joy, you may pick yourself up and take yourself wherever you so choose.”
“To the Wilds, then?” The spirit countered. “With your sister’s hunters?”
“I would be there too.” Her smile broadened.
The glow radiating from the spirit dimmed slightly at the edges as something caught in her yellow features. “I wonder…” then she tilted her head and turned her focus back towards the sky that Ivuni had been staring at. “I have never heard a tree complain about being rooted in one place. With the sun for warmth, the rain for thirst, the moon for light.” She sighed almost enamored with the thoughts. “It may just be wonderful.”
Ivuni stared at her shimmering profile for a moment longer before she turned and looked once more towards the slowly descending moons. “Perhaps you should consider folding yourself into such a form, then.”
“Would you fashion it for me?” The spirit wondered.
“If you so desired, I imagine I could manage something decent.”
“Decent.” The glowing form attempted what sounded like a snort. “Such a humble thing still, yet not quite so little now.”
“I’ll have you know that I am near as tall as Andruil.”
“That’s not saying a lot.” Yellow shifted beside her. “She has always been rather…lacking in such, as you will be it seems. I wonder,” she leaned forward to get a better look at her, “if you would get lost amongst a clutch of children.”
Ivuni scoffed at the thought, unable to completely hide her amusement. “That,” she licked at her lips as she struggled for her words, then settled, “that is just rude.” But then she laughed, clear as day and unrestrained.
“I have been waiting to hear that sound.” The spirit brightened, her light enough to illuminate the entire courtyard.
“I am not sure if I should be surprised to find you -of everyone invited here- awake already.” A deep voice mused from her left.
When she turned her head to look at the figure an arm’s length from her, she noted the golden hue of his familiar armor before anything else. Her eyes traveled up from his hip, noting his hands folded behind him before moving up towards his shoulder and then settling on his profile. His hard cut features brought a smile to her face as she visually traced the firm line of his brow and nose, then lingered briefly on the swell of his lower lip, and sturdy jawline. When he turned to look at her, her smile broadened and she climbed up to her feet. Without warning she lunged for him, wrapping her arms around his neck and shoulders, a contented sound escaping her when his arms lifted to curl around her upper torso.
The motion of her half tackling him, managed to slip his hood from his head, revealing his silver hair that was cropped close along the left side of his head, while the right half was plaited tightly into three braids against his scalp until it was gathered with the section atop his head and secured at the crown with a simple leather tie. The deep green branches across his forehead and over his cheekbones framed his golden eyes and she found herself settling on them as she had often as a child.
“I have missed you.” She breathed against his shoulder.
“The youngest is no longer quite so little.” He replied and his smile sounded in his voice.
Ivuni groaned at both the designation and assessment. “Not you too.”
With a practiced ease, he let her body slide down against his until her feet set gingerly on the smooth black stone. “I had been told that I was to have escorted you to the gathering last night.” An irritated look pinched at his features. “And then I find that instead you were quietly snuck in under false pretenses.”
“You imply such action might have left unexpecting parties wounded.”
He smiled then, something broad and…amused. “Dirthamen’s pride, perhaps.”
Ivuni rolled her eyes. “Ugh, still with you two?”
“That man’s arrogance could topple an empire. It would be a treat to see him brought low.” He briefly glanced towards the spirit before back at her. “I heard he insisted that Andruil mark you.”
She bit off a half laugh. “That is accurate. If you had been there, regardless of how close my sister keeps her emotions against herself, her agitation may have left physical marks.”
“As I said, Dirthamen’s arrogance could topple empires.” His hands slid up from her shoulders to briefly cup her chin before rising to gently pinch at her earlobes prompting her to squirm. “And I assume your mother remained neutral, forever the quiet observer formulating judgement.”
“She was also happy.” The spirit interjected joyfully, the light contained within her temporary form threatening to spill out around them. “So delighted…to have each of you together in one place again.”
Ethelan. The fountain water rippled and Mythal’s voice cast about the calm surface like a distorted echo seeking to break free of the dark confinement.
“And now I must leave you once more.” He smiled down at her, his eyes tracing the details of her face before he leaned forward and pressed a warm kiss to her forehead. “Rouse your sisters for me, your mother wishes their presence this morning.” One hand briefly lingered at the side of her face before he completely withdrew and turned on his heel, leaving her where he had found her.
“I will be off as well, my friend.” Joy hummed from her perch. “I will find you after midday.” A giddy smile further lit up her already bright features. “We can meet in the rose garden if it suits you.” Then her form gave and she was a cloud of light that quickly dispersed.
Rays of sunlight were reaching beyond the horizon, painting the sky a brighter blue than when she had first taken her spot at the edge of the fountain, almost the edge of the palace grounds. A new day meant no more hiding away in the safety that the evening had offered even as she had quietly ducked out of the party that had been meant to welcome her home. No one had noticed save Andruil who had appeared through her room’s mirror and tucked her in, loudly whispering half inebriated into her ear about how she had so adored the look on every face in attendance when Ivuni had disrobed her glamour. Her sister had stammered on about the walls being too close and the call of the wild being too dim before she had sauntered back out into the fray.
She shook herself from the cage the brief memory could pose to hold her contained within. With a sigh and a silent farewell to the quiet, she turned back towards the palace and made a beeline for Andruil’s rooms. She was a safer start than Sylaise.
Her feet seemed to remember the way, as though the memory had been tattooed onto her soles. A corner here, a hallway there. A servant halted short of colliding with her and blushed a deep scarlet. She was offered a hurried apology before the other woman knelt to retrieve a few toppled rolls of linens that had tumbled from the pile in her arms. Without thought, she knelt and retrieved the lost items and the servant took a hesitant half step backward.
“Can I help you carry these?” She asked as easily as she would have spoken to Ethelan, her sister, or the spirit of Joy that had sat with her.
“Thank you, my lady.” The woman replied quietly, avoiding her eyes. “But I believe you are needed elsewhere.” And without much further exchange, the servant took the rolls from her hands and hurried away from her and continued down the hall.
She watched the woman retreat as though she were afraid of some nonexistent repercussion and it unsettled her that anyone would feel that way around her. Then she caught her thoughts and realized that though these people know her name and what she was, they did not know who she was anymore. She had once been a child that skipped through those very halls, singing and smattering the walls with greenery and flowers. She had once been small and scolded for painting a crude depiction of a dragon on one of the southern walls that had to be scrubbed from the otherwise pristine white surface, even as her mother chuckled quietly behind her hand. She had once been nothing more than a little girl who smiled at the world and thought everything in it was good.
Now, all that preceded her was the blood in her veins and the status that afforded her.
A familiar pulse of magic brushed against her outermost reach and she straightened, banishing her more melancholy thoughts back into the recesses of her mind. Andruil was awake at least, so there would be no poking and prodding her into consciousness.
The tall green and gold door swept open with silent ease with little more than a thought rather than outright manipulation and she stepped herself into her sister’s room, sliding easily through the tangle of Andruil’s magic. She should have tasted it in the air.
“Andruil, moth-” she faltered at the sight of Andruil with her face deep between Ilona’s bare thighs. Even as her sister lifted her face, Ivuni averted her gaze more out of respect for Ilona than for her sister’s placement.
“Ah, my little fox.” Andruil purred, an acknowledgement more than a greeting, yet no malice was extended, more so perhaps an air of amusement. “Something about mother?”
She drew in a steadying breath. “Mother wants to see you.” She offered out as she fixed her sights on a silver flecked painting of a griffon on the wall to her right. “And Sylaise.” She tilted her head as a wry smile tugged at the left side of her mouth. “I had assumed you the safer pick.”
“Me between another woman’s legs or Sylaise at dawn.” Andruil mused. “You should never assume, Ivuni.”
“Sylaise does not entertain mornings well after she has gorged herself on wine.” Ilona offered lightly between breaths.
“Sylaise has never been a morning person.”
“Thank you both for the stellar counsel.” Ivuni rolled her eyes and a chuckle slipped between her teeth. “I’ll leave you to your…task, but you’ve been informed.”
“Thank you, my little love.” Andruil replied, a hiss issuing from Ilona. “You might fancy a blade during your next undertaking.”
The beginning of a high sounding moan followed her towards the door and dissipated the moment it closed behind her, the hallway offering her safety once more. She paid it little heed, rather accustomed to previous similar interactions, and turned her focus back to her errand. She had delivered Ethelan’s message to Andruil and she would keep her word by carrying through to Sylaise. Alone, apparently.
When she had been small, Sylaise had always been…different. Andruil had doted on her endlessly, enthusiastic about including the youngest family member in every endeavor. Falon’Din and Dirthamen had offered her patience, excitement, and teasing that had brightened any moment of her youth that had teetered on the edge of displeasure. Sylaise had always been more like Elgar’nan, a quiet sentinel that offered the occasional smile and encouragement to think the best of herself.
Ivuni lingered at the imposing blue and gold doorway, hesitant, the familiarity present with approaching Andruil all but absent. The memories she had of Sylaise were distant, regardless of how warm they seemed framed by her recognition, she had been a child and easily forgivable. When she had stumbled into Sylaise’s room as a child, she could easily apologize and was often forgiven with a tight smile. Now she was grown and three hundred years -at least to her- was a very long time.
But then without warning, her sister was standing in the open doorway.
She startled at the sudden presence. “Mother would like to see you.”
“Thank you.” Her tone even and her lips set into a firm line, hard sapphire eyes boring straight through her own as though they could burn through the back of her skull, waiting.
Sylaise lifted a hand to halt her. “Who dressed you today?”
“I…no one?” She faltered. A frown tugged at her brows. “I dressed myself?”
“Do not formulate your answer as a question, Ivuni.” She replied as she turned and beckoned her to follow into the room.
The doors drew shut behind her near whisper quiet as she complied with the unspoken instruction and fell in step.
“You will not present yourself here dressed as some rabid Wildish.” Her sister’s tone barely broke the monotone she had set into, and the jibe barely registered until she restrung the words together once more in her head.
She glanced down at herself; tight near black leather leggings, cream colored tunic cinched by a dark leather wrap buckled about her waist, deep green lower legs wraps that left her heels and toes bare. She had thought she looked reasonably well dressed. She had left her arms bare as she assumed would be expected given the warmer weather.
“Take all of that off.” The instruction given brought her back into focus, realizing she had mindlessly followed her sister into her bedroom. A brunette servant waited with her hands folded before herself. “She needs something better suited to her status, Imari.”
“The pale green will work for her build, though her height will warrant shortening.” The servant replied as her eyes followed Sylaise towards the far wall decorated by swaths of fine fabrics in rich colors hanging from thick golden knobs.
Sylaise glanced back at the servant. “That will be fine. She’ll need clothing made for her, but until then, she needs to be dressed accordingly. Make any alterations that you deem necessary.” Then her beautiful eyes were back on her. “I told you to take your clothes off.”
Ivuni swallowed, more in response to the weight of her sister’s attention on her rather than the task at hand but gave a hesitant nod. The waist wrap was first, unbuckled and unceremoniously allowed to fall to the floor before she bent over to uncurl the wrappings from her lower legs. The fitted leggings were untied at her left hip and she shimmied out of them, adding to the pile of discarded clothing. Her fingers skimmed the edge of the tunic then bunched at the hem to tug the item up over her head. She looked to Imari then, finding the other woman moving towards her with a bundle of pale green gauzy fabric.
“Hold your arms out loose at your sides, please.” The woman instructed and she did so.
A pair of gathered sections were draped over her shoulders first, part of them cross over her chest to cradle her breasts, and the lower tails of the same sections were secured in a knot at her back. She tried to follow every motion that Imari made, but quickly seemed to lose track until the other woman set her hand against her clavicle and the garment was drawn taut, magically conforming to her every contour. For something so seemingly simple, it had taken multiple steps to garb her in a fluttering dress that barely clung to her upper torso, wrapped multiple times about her waist, then fell down from her hips and puddled about her feet. Imari knelt before her and a warm buzzing tickled at her ankles and the excess was trimmed away with little more than a fluid gesture by the servant’s nimble hands.
“I will have Ishara obtain some blues, golds, and perhaps a few measures of obsidian to begin constructing items specifically for her.” Imari said as she tilted her head, inspecting each measure.
“Thank you.” Sylaise reminded her that she was still present and when she met her sister’s eyes, there was nothing readable in her features. “Now you are suitable, let us see to mother.”
“I don’t think that she wanted to see me.” Ivuni offered. Ethelan had instructed to find her sisters.
“Yes, she does.” Sylaise was moving by her then, back through her rooms and out once more into the hall. “You need to relearn who you are, so your attendance is expected. If Andruil and I were to heed her call and you were to be left out of a gathering, it would appear to servants and others that we deemed you less important.”
She had not considered the angle. Andruil included her on meetings frequently, though they often entailed the presences of dozens of other hunters as well, so her significance had always seemed casual. Here in this place, she was still new and unknown. There was nothing special about her save the fact that her birth had randomly slotted her directly into the life of the Evanuris. She was of them, but did not see herself as one.
“You need to temper your confusion.” Sylaise instructed from beside her. “Regardless of how closely you keep your emotions against your skin, you need to bury any measure of weakness. Andruil has molded you into the form of a hunter and instilled a need to keep yourself tightly bound which is necessary for hunting, but here, people will expect to brush up against your feelings time and again. Push out your strengths and keep softer ones beneath the surface.”
Just as she had encountered the night previous, the overwhelming torrents of emotions that those around her had allowed to swell and ebb without caution or care. She did not understand how any of them managed in such a perpetually cumbersome cloud of others.
“It’s…dizzying.” She finally responded.
“It is.” Her sister agreed. “Others will find it somewhat offensive if you continue on as you have, it is far too quiet. You are no longer within the confines of the Wilds, here you are part of society and your placement in the hierarchy demands you conform. Your hidden emotions will give the impression that you have something to hide.” Her tone finally gave from the flat note and softened ever so slightly. “You need to learn to weave yourself more fluidly. I can help you, if you desire. Joy and Wisdom as well, if you wish.”
The rose garden came into view, as did Mythal, a pair of sentinels within reach, Ethelan to her left, Elgar’nan before her, a trio of servants in quiet wait. A table with correspondences and a pair of benches opposite and unused.
“There have been recent talks about tremors and the discussion of matters with the Children of the Stone.” Sylaise informed her.
Her memories drew on the form of a woman from her youth, a young woman in appearance, though well beyond adolescence who had stood present at a meeting her parents had orchestrated. Dark hair, clover green eyes, yet even in her youth, she had been as tall as that woman.
“Mother does not want a repeat of a thousand years ago.” Her sister said.
“And she’s the only one at the moment keeping father quelled.” Andruil’s voice alerted them both to her presence joining them, a warm smile at the ready.
“Yes.” Sylaise said. “Their people have been invited to a meeting at next full moon to discuss what is going on diplomatically.”
“That’s near a month’s time before the summer solstice.” Ivuni noted.
“Very good.” Sylaise commended.
“And twenty-six days from today.” Andruil added.
Ethelan noted them first, his face an unreadable mask, his eyes following them down into the courtyard where Mythal stepped away from her consort and moved towards them. An arm from each of her sisters slid across her back and she stiffened slightly, though they did not give her the opportunity to flinch away. The motion, she realized was to draw them all together into Mythal’s waiting embrace, and she sighed contentedly between the three other women.
“My beautiful girls.” Mythal hummed, her gaze swept over each of them, offering each a moment individually, before she stepped back and let her arms return to her sides. She smiled, her attention sweeping over Ivuni’s shoulder. “Your presence is telling, my dear.”
When she glanced over her shoulder, she watched a dozen rosebuds unfurl into thick blush petals and she felt heat creep into her cheeks, likely painting them a similar rosy hue.
“You did not request us to muse about flowers, surely mother.” Andruil hoisted herself up onto the marble table littered with scrolls and crossed her ankles.
“No, though it is a beautiful side effect to your presence.” Mythal smiled at her.
“Did you not desire the presence of our wonderful brothers as well?” Andruil teased.
Mythal chuckled. “Not when Dirthamen’s ego remains cowed.”
“The poor little dove.” Andruil rolled her eyes.
That man’s arrogance could topple an empire.
She smirked at the thought, her eyes sliding to Ethelan who ducked his head slightly, likely to quash his own smile at the thought.
Mythal stepped away from them and moved towards the table then, her hands and focus going to the paperwork and offering a response to another barb by Andruil. The discussion escalated, but her focus was taken up by the man who loomed over her, and the warm hand that reached out to caress the side of her face.
The ground beneath her feet quivered, but the deep rumbling sound that echoed like thunder buried within the earth was so much more. Leaves shook, wood groaned, and a swell of birds lifted up from and into the air from beneath the suspended palace.
She moved out of her father’s reach and around her mother and sisters. Her feet took her through the rose garden and she was acutely aware of a single pair of feet moving in sync with her own steps. The lush green of the garden unfolded around her, blooming flowers uncurling to offer both color and intoxicating scents. She didn’t find pause until she ran out of path and the floating terrain broke off into a jagged cliff face downward.
A large flock of gray birds scattered upward followed by a smaller blue drake. It wasn’t predator in pursuit of prey, or a playful ascent, it was evacuation. The drake’s splintered strain of fear odd against her skin. Below, Arlathan spread out. People lined fractured obsidian streets, spirits flitted about, confusion so ripe and potent it wafted up to brush against her.
“The tremors are happening more frequently as of late.” Ethelan’s smooth voice alerted her to his presence just behind her.
“What is causing them?”
“Normal quakes would be brief. But these…they linger, and you can hear their voices resounding in the deep.”
“Who?” She breathed the question because it needed voice.
“The Living Stone. The titans.”
Ivuni turned and looked at him over her shoulder. “But…why?”
“Now this one!” Joy declared as she wrapped warm constructs of fingers around her wrist, tugging her forward and pressing her palm against the soil of a rose bed on the precipice of waking. Nine plants stretched green with blushed canes, plump buds waiting to unfurl into the midday sunlight.
It had been the very same every afternoon for the four days since she had returned to what had once been ‘home’. Wherever she was and regardless of what she was doing, Joy would materialize beside her and insist that some other corner of the rose garden needed tending to, that some other bed of saplings needed encouragement, that some withering stalks needed rejuvenation. The kitchen staff, at least, was delighted by the inundation of early herbs.
She smiled at the spirit whose overflowing joy was intoxicating, her demeanor so childlike and innocent as she waited for the magic to take hold and indirectly adhere her request. And Ivuni gave in, gave in to watch her light brighten all the more. She pushed her reach down in towards the roots and snaked them up every reaching coil pushing the nutrients and moisture in the soil into every particle of the plants to coax them into waking. And then within moments, each flower bloomed, an array of blush pinks, deep reds, and a fair few ivory blossoms.
Joy beamed at the sight and the perfectly balanced scents, drawing in a deep and appreciative breath that did nothing for her biologically. “They’re all perfect.” She flitted about taking in each and every rose. “This one smells good.” Then she was on to another flower. “This one smells good too!”
“I’m glad that you think so.”
“These ones.” The yellow glow glided towards the palest of the flowers. “These ones are yours.” Yellow fingers gently swept the petals of one of the whiter roses. “They’re golden at the center,” she said as she tipped it slightly to reveal the yellow stigma, “just like you.”
She didn’t so much notice another presence as much as she felt it. A wave of curiosity brushed up against her perception and she noted the way that Joy straightened somewhat from the flowerbed and briefly blinked out of existence. A glance over her left shoulder immediately identified him to her and she took a quick account of his appearance. Rather that the finery he had worn at the revelry, he now wore a cream fineweave tunic over dark pants and lower leg wraps. His hair was styled similarly, but appeared fastened and tied with leather and onyx clasps rather than the finer metals he had opted for previously. He did not necessarily look like someone of his station.
Ivuni turned back to the bed and turned her focus to a neighboring magnolia sapling and pushed her magic into the soil once more to tangle with and infuse the roots. “Solas.” She spoke his name more of an acknowledgement than anything else as she wasn’t sure what else to say to him. Three hundred years stood between that moment and the last time she had truly spoken to him, long ago when she had still been small. Then, she had usually seen and interacted with him if he were in the company of her mother.
At the moment, Mythal was nowhere to be found.
“So,” his quiet footsteps brought him closer to her, his pace somewhat carefully calculated, “you do remember me.”
She tried not to laugh at the indication that he supposedly lacked confidence in her memory keeping. “You assumed I may have forgotten you?” His feet finally paused beside her and she drew her hands back once she was confident the small tree would grow rapidly on its own as thin green leaves unfurled and reached towards the sun overhead. She looked up at him towering over her, his shadow only half draping her form. “That’s disheartening.”
“You were rather young when you left for the Wilds with Andruil.”
A chuckle did escape her then. “I wasn’t a newborn babe.” She momentarily bit at the inside of her cheek before she caught herself, Andruil’s voice ringing in her ears to desist. “I wouldn’t forget you.” She assured him with an endearing smile.
“What a flattering notion.”
“If you need to be flattered.”
He returned her smile, though not quite with her exuberance. “What are you doing?”
Her lips pursed and her brows pressed together. “I would assume that ‘helping the garden grow’ was an obvious undertaking, as it’s my affinity after all.”
“I sort of gathered that fact the day you were born.” He commented with ease and her smile suddenly fell from her face, his own slowly following suit. “Was that not the right thing to say?”
For some reason, the concept of him noting her magical presence the day that she was born settled strangely in the center of her chest. No one had spoken to her about that in three hundred years, save for Andruil and her mother, and Andruil loved to avoid the topic. Mythal was always the one insistent on recounting the very first day, but that was what mothers did, how all the gardens in Arlathan had come to life even as frost sought to cling to the empire in the wake of the first day of spring. It just seemed…strange for Solas to comment on it, though she wasn’t sure why it should, age didn’t bother her like it did so many others. It should have been a casual comment, and it probably was, it had simply struck her off chord.
Ivuni sighed and forced a tight-lipped smile back into place. “I’ve been away with Andruil and a hundred of her hunters, and dozens of servants, for three hundred years and I have never, until this moment, felt like a child.” She swallowed and fought the urge to draw herself inward. If she suddenly withdrew her emotions into herself it would immediately insinuate that there was something wrong.
There shouldn’t be.
Sylaise had gone over it half a dozen times already.
She was not a child. She was grown. She had come into her own magic and learned to harness it.
“I did not mean to imply such.” He folded his hands behind himself. “Barely moments and I have already offended you.”
She smirked and forced herself to gently push half her emotions back away from her skin. Forced a ribbon of calm to the surface and drew her unease beneath it out of his or anyone else’s reach. “Would it be easier to speak to me if you thought me a servant once more?” Their brief engagement when she had appeared little more than one of Andruil’s had had him addressing her with ease, confidence even, but that was acceptable when he was Evanuris and she was little more than part of an entourage.
“I will confess that your boldness had been intriguing.” He tilted his head slightly. “One bound directly to an Evanuris, apparently of worth enough to be brought to such a function, with a gaze and a mouth worthy of nobility. Unmarked, yet seemingly unafraid.”
But he had always been easier to speak to than half the others. He had always interacted with her when she had been small if she had requested it. He had taught her how to lift her barrier about herself and hold it with ease when she had struggled to keep it formed without fissures. Even the centuries hadn’t chased her memories into the dark.
“Your boredom and desire to escape should have been the tipping measure.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was boredom.” She wrinkled her nose.
“But nothing like running the lengths of deep wending woods.”
“Definitely not.” She agreed with a nod as her smile widened once more. She watched him, watched the way he moved, shifted slightly between words, watched the way his features only gave away the slightest hint of his thoughts. He would smile, but she wondered if it was genuine, given in polite manner, or if it was simply a social muscle memory. “It’s just…different.”
“Because your sister has made you a hunter that longs for the forests, the stars, rivers, lakes, the dance of predator and prey.” He caressed the words with his voice the way one might the cheek of a loved one and she imagined if she closed her eyes, she could feel the thoughts he described with ease. Then he was looking at her. “Perhaps, it was a lack of wonder, then, instead of boredom. Most individuals of the station you sought to emulate would have been captivated by the offered surroundings and festivities.”
Ivuni frowned even as her smile threatened to return and pushed herself to her feet, her height only bringing her to his shoulder. “So you thought me a snob, then?”
His brows lifted gently as he inhaled. “You are putting words into my mouth.”
“You’re dancing around them.”
He took a single step closer to her. “I am being polite.”
She glanced briefly at his collarbone before back up at him. “And I am not?”
“I do not think you want my honest opinion.” He countered with the start of a lopsided smile.
“I think I am entitled to it.”
“Entitled to it?” He chuckled and leaned forward, near close enough that she could count the freckles across his nose. “And why is that?”
“You have indirectly insulted me twice in the span of moments, so yes, I believe I am entitled to your honest opinion.”
Solas tilted his head and she was acutely aware of the short trail his eyes skimmed down towards the lower portion of her face, fixing on her mouth. “No trembling tell these days.” He noted and she suppressed the urge to draw her lower lip between her teeth just to be sure it didn’t give her away.
“That was a component to my childhood.” She tried to stand taller.
“So you are being very…” he trailed off and leaned back out of her space, standing to his full height over her. He clenched his jaw and she wondered if it was for organize his thoughts or if he was trying to fight back what he truly wished to say to her.
“That was both informative and enlightening.”
“You are not what I had expected.” He finally said.
That was not what she had been expecting. She had thought he would berate her for her mouth, however calmly he could manage to wrap the notion with the smooth timbre of his voice. It made her wonder what he had expected. “Sorry to disappoint.”
Solas shook his head. “It is not disappointment. Most people are predictable.” He leaned slightly towards her once more. “You’re seemingly more of a puzzle that I can’t decide all the pieces for. The night of the gathering I had wondered if I was seeing you, or if I was truly seeing one of Andruil’s.”
Her brows pinched. “I had assumed of everyone present, you would have figured the rouse.”
“I had…suspected, especially given how deflective Andruil had been when others had asked after you. I suppose I could have asked you outright, but watching it all unfold had been far more entertaining.” He offered her a lopsided smile and she struggled not to blush in the wake of it. “Your quip about the shattered glass about sealed it, however.”
The glass itself had not even been the issue for her, it had simply opened the opportunity to address the situation. The ire in her tone had stemmed from the manner in which the woman on his arm had snapped at her servant. No, that wasn’t the right term to use. Not in that place. Servant. There were no servants in Arlathan. The memory souring her mood.
“You select wonderful guests for accompaniment.” Then she stepped around him to hide her frown and moved onto the next flowerbed. She didn’t need to reach for the spindling evening clover, the hundreds of small flowers responded to her closing proximity and bloomed in an array of purples and greens.
“She wasn’t my guest, if I am being honest, she was simply present.”
Ivuni rolled her eyes. “She was such a delight, I can see why my mother might have invited her.” At her feet morning glory vines coiled into knots and the flowers slowly twisted shut. “She was pretty, if anything. Might have looked prettier with an arrow in her eye.”
“An inebriated guest managed to rouse that much distaste?”
She rounded to face him again, finding he had followed her, and her single step back in his direction about ran her directly into him. “It was her manner.”
“Her manner of…?”
She drew in a careful breath as she glared up at him and his stupid height advantage. “Her manner of breathing.” She flicked her hands out briefly for some form of emphasis.
“You have been gone for a very long time.” He gave a nod of his head.
“That has nothing to do with it.” She flipped her hand dismissively and moved around him once more, the shimmering presence of Joy once more drawing her focus. The spirit shifted, her attention slipping between her and Solas before her makeshift face wrinkled and she let her form disintegrate once more. “You chased my friend away.”
“I chased Joy from this courtyard? If-” Then he seemed to catch himself and snapped his mouth shut with a somewhat audible click and she found herself grateful for the however brief silent reprieve.
Joy’s absence chased any desire to linger in the gardens right out of her and she made herself move back towards the marble steps that would take her back inside. A desire to put herself amongst the people had started small and bright the moment they had stepped within the proper limits of Arlathan, to see what it was like, how much the same it had remained, and how different it had grown. The high markets then, a bath perhaps after that, a meal…her hand reached out from her side without conscious thought to trail the braided trunk of a wisteria tree, painting its boughs in violets shades.
“It was the slave.” He turned once more after her and she felt the air shift with him. “It wasn’t Valera. It was the girl.”
His voice brought her to pause, baiting her to turn back to the discussion. “The girl.” She murmured. “Just because she bears vallaslin, does not make her any less.”
“You fixed the glass.” He said it as though he had only just realized that fact.
“Yes.” She admitted and fought the urge to frown. “Something so easy that it could have been done by anyone in that room and yet no one else bothered.”
He moved to step towards her, though he seemed to catch himself after one. “You imply everyone there should have lowered themselves to the station of a slave?”
“My implication,” her voice snapped, her words laced with her sudden frustration, “was that it would have been easy for any individual in that room to utilize their own magic to function as a courteous person.”
“Ivuni, you must-”
“No, Fen’Harel.” She waved a hand dismissively. “I mustn’t anything.” Then she leaned into her step and moved away from him towards the palace. His feet moving after her nagged at her irritation more than anything else.
“I am not handling this very well.” He hastened his pace to put himself in step at her side.
“No, you’re not.” She offered him a glare as she turned into a corridor.
“The social standing of the people gathered that evening-”
“I don’t care about their social standing!” She cut him off. She cared about…she cared about only… A familiar emotional and magical signature tickled the fringes of her reach and she set herself towards it.
“Yet that seems to be what has your displeasure so provoked.”
A door drew open and a familiar woman stood in the opening, her mother's vallaslin done in clover green against dark skin.
“It was not them I was most interested in.” She finally told him, mustering her calm, before she turned back towards the taller woman. “I’m here to help you, Elwen.”
She watched deep green eyes sweep over her shoulder at the man behind her before returning to settle on her own. “I’m cleaning floors at the moment, little one.”
“Then I will help you clean floors.”
Elwen sighed and pushed the door open further enough to allow another body to press into the room and Ivuni did so, grateful to be drawn in. “I will make you some tea.” Ivuni disappeared behind the door and pushed her fingers thought her hair. “Good day, my lord.” She tipped her head slightly and Ivuni exhaled as the doorway was sealed without any further argument.
Red was not her color, though she’d call it more of a rosewood.
“What’s wrong?” Elwen asked from behind her, dark eyes over her shoulder in the reflection in the mirror.
A faint touch of apprehension flushed her expression. “I don’t think this is the right one for me.” She glanced down at herself, at the thin fabric that clung to her torso and then flared loose from her waist towards the floor. Unlike the last several days, the upper straps wrapped beneath the shoulders rather than at them, and rather than a single split over one thigh, both would slip slightly between the thin silk with each step.
“Is it the color?” An amused smirk flirted with the left half of Elwen’s mouth. “Or the fact that your garbed in fineweave rather than leather, linen, and furs?” Ivuni stuck her tongue out at the other woman’s reflection and Elwen chuckled. “That’s becoming of a child of the Evanuris.”
“I feel naked.” She folded her arms which covered the section of skin between her breasts that was left bare by the current chosen wrap style.
Elwen swept her hair from her shoulder. “And why is that a problem?”
She chewed at her lower lip until Elwen’s hand seized her jaw and she forced herself to exhale. “This is just not how I would choose to outfit myself.”
“This is how you are meant to present yourself here.”
Most of the highborn dressed in similar fashion, even the lower rungs emulated the appearance, as Elwen was currently draped in cream thickweave, though she was afforded the benefit of her legs being fully draped.
“Naked emotions, naked skin.” She muttered and rolled her eyes.
“Naked thoughts, if you aren’t careful.” Elwen huffed out a breath and gathered up Ivuni’s pale hair that hung without direction and started to work it into a lax four strand braid. “Are you truly so perturbed by the exposure of so much of your own skin?”
She wanted to immediately respond in the negative because that wasn’t what bothered her. How often had she walked through Angdruil’s holdings in next to nothing or nothing at all without batting an eyelash? Numerous times. Amongst people she had spent three centuries with and several she had known intimately. There was next to no modesty in the Wilds. Nudity was a normal part of life.
As it was in Arlathan. And everywhere their people existed.
But she did not know the people she had been brought to. There were people she felt out of place before, people that made her skin crawl with a simple glance, people that she noted already judged her every motion. Blue eyes that sent a flush through her. Ivuni swallowed and shoved the thought immediately from her head and glanced once more at Elwen over her shoulder.
“Try as you might, you weren’t that quick.” The other woman informed her as she tied the end of the braid. She took a single step closer and wound it loose at the nape of her neck. “It’s not surprising, to be honest. Seven days within the clutch of Arlathan and away from everything you’ve known and become accustomed to, the fact that a different set of eyes could turn you a lovely shade of pink is natural.”
“It’s irritation.” She argued.
Elwen snorted and pushed a pair of pins into her hair. “If you insist. There, you’re ready.” When Elwen took a step back, Ivuni turned so the work could be appraised. “The last time that I dressed you,” she mused, her voice gentle and nostalgic, “you only stood to here.” She held her hand against the base of her sternum and her face softened. “You were so little then, hair in a mess, magic all askew.” Then she sighed, tangled in the past.
“I could tug the braid apart.” She offered.
“Don’t you dare.” Elwen lifted a finger in scolding fashion. “Go on.” She set her hands on her shoulders and turned her towards the door. “Your mother expected you already.”
Ivuni perked up and beamed. “Yes, of course, off to dispense justice.”
“Behave.” Elwen huffed and pushed her towards the doors that slowly pulled open with just a thought to do so. “Who is he?”
She frowned as she half turned back towards the other woman. “Who?”
“The blue eyes?” Elwen clarified.
That Elwen had not gleaned the full scope of her thought brought her to pause and she struggled to keep the surprise from her face. “He?” She masked it instead with a smug grin. “Wouldn’t you like to know.” Then she glided through the opening in her room and onto the walkway in front.
“Ah, baby sister.” An approaching figure greeted, hands folded behind himself.
She schooled her features to neutrality. “Dirthamen.”
“I thought I would walk with you into the city.” He offered as he initiated their motion towards the southern garden.
To break their visual connection, she lifted her hands from her sides and tinkered briefly with the silverite and ruby bracelet at her wrist. “I’m not sure, my lord, what would people think of you in the company of a child hunter?”
Dirthamen cleared his throat and turned his focus away when she looked back at him. “You’re honestly still bothered by that? It was days ago.”
“Oh, I am not bothered.” She leaned towards him. “I just wouldn’t want to sully your perfect image, dear brother.”
He smiled then, a tight-lipped sort of smirk when he met her waiting gaze once more. “I would have never guessed that you’d spent the last three centuries with Andruil.” Sarcasm dripping from his lips as he shook his head.
Hydrangeas lined the pale marble and quartz path into the garden, blooming in her wake and spreading cerulean and burgundy against the near colorless walkway. Violet morning glory that spiraled and vined around the mirror unfurled at their approach and he glanced sideways at her even as he coaxed his magic into the smooth reflective surface. It rippled in reply and he paused before it, extending his hand to allow her through before himself.
There was a moment of suspension where she held her breath, when she felt as though her spirit would separate from her body and be caught within the confines of the mirror. In the brief second of being caught between one dimension and the next, everything was weightless. Until she leaned forward onto her leading foot and drew herself through.
It was cooler in The Wayfare, raising a smattering of gooseflesh across her exposed skin. People immediately moved out of her direct path and knelt eliciting an urge to rouse them to their feet. Dirthamen followed her through and moved beyond her hesitant form, prompting her to catch her steps up to his. The view over his shoulder, however, stole her breath.
Andruil had guided their party through an outer reaching of The Wayfare when they had returned to Arlathan, but Dirthamen had opened her directly into its epicenter. Hundreds of mirrors stood along pathways buzzing with magic and light and kaleidoscopes of color, hundreds of people populated the winding walkways. Only a fair few mirrors that she barely noticed were quiet and unmoving.
A pair of halla crossed their path, the nearest nipping at her shoulder in passing, the man at their flank blanching at the act stuttered out an apology as he ducked his head. When she offered him a smile instead of anger, he swallowed uncomfortably but carried on with the halla. A dozen women stood out, their arms draped and cradling thick swaths of silks in a rainbow of colors. A young elf approaching from her left came to a dead halt beside her, a woven basket against his hip filled with citrus fruits. She watched him flush when his eyes met hers, then he glanced at his basket, his blush deepened and he made to look back at her but never could quite pair his eyes to hers again until she set a hand gently at his shoulder.
There were so many people moving about, so many with direction and purpose littering the alabaster walkways that she had to take a moment just to temper her wonder.
Perhaps, it was a lack of wonder, then, instead of boredom.
Solas’s words echoed to the forefront of her thoughts and she understood the gauging behind them. She had not felt even remotely this way during the initial evening and the festivities that had been so planned out. That had been a gathering meant to reveal her to the upper class. The view in The Wayfare in that moment was something else entirely. It was their people, whole flocks of them moving about amidst their daily lives. It should have been simple, a view she was somewhat accustomed to, but the air thrummed with life, voices trading, thoughts being offered, hearts beating in tandem, and lovers braiding fingers.
Then her delight slowly waned.
Nobles led, entourage followed, and servants were tugged here and there at the ends of invisible leashes.
“Have you decided to stay permanently in Arlathan?” Dirthamen asked from beside her.
She opened her mouth to respond, and then reconsidered her response. If she were being honest, she wasn’t sure if she would remain as a permanent fixture, or if she would return with Andruil once her sister decided she was fed up with all the walls, people, and finery.
“You know that mother would be delighted by your perpetual presence.” He offered, and when she glanced up at him, he offered her a warm smile.
“I…hadn’t really thought too far ahead.” She confessed, unsure where her place was even meant to be. She had barely seen seven years before she was whisked away to Andruil’s lands. Her memories could recall hiccups of time before that, small little handfuls that smeared at the edges and sharpened along certain points or people, but the fact was that the Wilds and the hunters were what she was accustomed to. Still, how many of their kind adapted and readapted throughout the indefinite courses of their lives?
“There is really no need to rush into a decision.” He said with a nod.
A cluster of four maroon spirits cut off their direct path bringing her brother to a brief pause to allow them to carry on their way. Shards of Wisdom.
She looked at him from the corners of her eyes rather than turning to look at him directly once more and she wondered about the tempered tone and warmth he wrapped his words in. They were nothing like the biting barbs he had put forth during the revelry. Alone, with her, he was seemingly…kinder.
Once the spirits moved on, his hand settled gently against the small of her back as he stepped them into motion once more. “Whatever you choose, it should suit you and your desires, and should not feel pressured or compelled by anyone other than yourself. My preference would be for your happiness and safety.”
Ivuni gave a nod of understanding and a quick smile, wondering which version of him was genuine.
“Here.” He gestured to a tall gilded mirror decorated along one side by a coiling dragon seeming to chase a crescent moon.
With a flick of his wrist, the glass gave, a wisp of deep amethyst magic fluttered across the surface and like before, he extended a hand to incline she enter first. She looked up at him again, then, meeting his blue eyes, and she wondered if Falon’Din had traded places with him, though she was sure she would have recognized her other brother if she had been met by him. Perhaps being away from them for so long she had lost the ability to differentiate.
Then she stepped away from him, through the mirror, and onto the streets proper of Arlathan.
Her thoughts and senses were assaulted by a multitude of scents and emotions all at once blending together as though each spice was meant to enhance each freely offered feeling. They seemed to-
A shadow passed overhead, the familiar sound of heavy wings flapping to keep a large body aloft had her turning her focus towards the sky and the dark underbelly of an otherwise light-colored dragon that she did not recognize.
Dirthamen was immediately beside her.
“Who was that?” She asked as she watched the creature move towards the northern woods.
The call of another dragon reverberated from behind them and a familiar darker dragon form moved after the first. She would almost say that it was in chase of the initial creature.
“Dirthamen,” she started until his hand set once more against her lower back and he urged her forward, somewhat tucking her form against his side as he guided them through the gathered crowds of the high market.
The air was suddenly abuzz with anxious confusion and at first, she thought it was her own billowing away from herself until she realized her emotions were stuck to her skin. When she looked up at her brother, his face was an unreadable mask as his focus was dead ahead of them. He stepped them around pedestrians, merchants, and nobles with ease enough it seemed they were separate from everyone else.
When she worked the nerve to form words once more, the sight of the judicial temple and Solas paused halfway up the light stone steps wiped her thoughts clean. She fixated on him and as the shadow of Sylaise’s dragon form passed beyond them, Solas briefly glanced about at the people nearest him and he nearly passed them over.
The first step was easy to navigate, as was the second and third, and each subsequent until they found themselves on level with the only other visible Evanuris.
“Who was that?” She asked, trying to pause beside him.
Similar to Dirthamen, his hand set against her upper back and the pair ushered her up the steps. Once they met the landing and crossed the threshold within, she pressed her heels into the floor and twisted herself out of their shared hold.
“Ivi-” Dirthamen started.
“No!” She cut him off, a swipe of her hand for emphasis. “What is going on? Who was that?”
A dragon’s cry sounded somewhat nearby and the ground quivered in the wake of an impact.
“I don’t know who that was.” Her brother confessed. “So I would prefer you inside somewhere safe.”
“I am in agreement.” Solas added.
The glow of blue sconce light against gold flecked travertine floors greeted them. A handful of priestesses milled about, task oriented, pausing only when another vibrating bellow sounded nearer to the temple. Mythal noticed them before Elgar’nan or Falon’Din. Ivuni shrugged off Dirthamen’s and Solas’s touches and made her way directly to her mother’s side.
“What is going on?” She asked quickly.
“Whoever has taken our form is unknown to us.” Her mother replied, giving more than either of the men who had accompanied her inside. “Sylaise should be here with him or her momentarily.”
A shouted ‘please’ preceded Sylaise’s appearance in through the front doors, but it wasn’t her sister’s voice, it belonged to the man she shoved in ahead of her. Fear wafted off of him in torrents. His honey colored eyes glanced briefly towards her and Mythal’s direction before he rounded back on Sylaise. “Please, my lady!” He reached for her forearm, and Sylaise tensed, though did not shake him off. “I would have never-” he seemed to choke on his thought and his footing staggered, trying to keep pace with the woman at his side.
Ethelan moved in through the doorway after them, a pair of sentinels at his heels.
Sylaise shifted her arm, her magic snapped through the room and the man was pushed forward onto his knees. He lifted his chin and his eyes fixed terrified on Mythal. His golden blonde hair was askew, strands plastered to his sweat dampened tan skin, Dirthamen’s mark on his face. When he inched forward on his knees, a few gasps issued from beside them, priestesses pausing, their offense over his proximity to their Evanuris tangible.
“My good lady goddess,” he pressed his forehead to the hard tile, his breath ragged in his chest, and Ivuni flinched at the identifier offered, “I beg your pardon and protection.”
“You have taken on a form meant for the divine.” Mythal replied, tone neutral.
His form shook. “Yes, my lady, I beg your forgiveness.” He admitted, face still to the floor.
Mythal straightened and Ivuni glanced at her from the corners of her eyes. “Taking on a draconic form is punishable by death.”
Then the man lifted his head and tears streaked his cheeks. “Please, my lady.”
“What compelled you to seek such action that you would be willing to throw your life away?” She took a step forward. “You took our form and then flew directly this way.”
“To seek your forgiveness and justice.”
He swallowed, the action a thick motion and then he dropped his face back to the floor once more. “Lady Ghilan’nain insisted I take such a guise.”
“Ghilan’nain?” Ivuni took moved to step once more to Mythal’s side, then hesitated, her gaze sweeping towards the cluster of people to her left. She fixated on her father who lifted his chin and fixed her with a hard look. She felt his presence move through the room and brush up against her, prompting her to reluctantly press her lips together.
The man immediately took to being addressed by another and locked directly onto her, then. “Yes, my lady, Ghilan’nain commanded me to take the form when she learned that I could harness it.”
“And why would she do that?” Mythal seized the conversation once more.
The blonde man shook his head. “I…do not know.”
“Then why did you take the form?”
When he exhaled, the air quivered up the back of his throat. “She said…” he pressed his eyes shut, “she said that if I did not heed her command, she would slaughter my sister and feed her…heart to her horned creatures.”
Ivuni rolled her hands into fists at the thought, her nails bit into her palms, and she drew her emotions about herself like a second skin to keep them from polluting the air with her mounting agitation and anger.
“Is your sister Dirthamen’s also?” Mythal asked evenly.
“Yes, my lady.”
“Why did you not seek him out? He is here, now.”
“And I do not take well to threats against my people.” Her brother added.
The man nodded weakly. “I sought you out, my lord.” He shifted towards Dirthamen then. “You were not at your temples, you were not at your estate.”
Hushed voices billowed in through the front doors of the temple and she fought the urge to shut the doors to keep prying eyes out where she felt they belonged.
“You have made quite a spectacle.” Mythal’s voice quieted. “And I have already told you the punishment for your actions. With the number of witnesses you amassed, I cannot give you what you wish. Elgar’nan will deal with you.”
Then her father was moving from his position towards the kneeling man. She watched the servant start to shake uncontrollably, yet he offered no fight when Elgar’nan’s large hand wrapped about his upper arm and hoisted him to his feet. The pair of sentinels that had accompanied Ethelan stepped forward to flank her father as he all but dragged the man towards the back doors of the temple.
“I will speak to our people.” Mythal told her before gliding across the temple towards the front door and those waiting for her, Sylaise and Ethelan at her back.
Ivuni frowned and glanced towards Dirthamen and Solas. Her brother pushed a hand through his dark hair and Solas’s eyes followed Mythal, ever watchful. If anyone should have spoken or acted for that man, it should have been her brother, his vallaslin on his face.
The clench of her fists tightened and the spun on her heel and pursued Elgar’nan towards the back courtyard. She shouldered passed a priestess who had not noticed her sudden presence and waved off the hurried apology put forth.
The moment she stepped into the rear garden, the man was already on his knees, his forehead pressed to the square travertine block. He shook, near violently, his jaw clenched, his terror palpable, yet he offered no sound of protest. This was how their world worked, how it existed, a component that she had been shielded form in some regard in her sister’s custody. One Evanuris commanded another’s into action when it was not their place, and the lower individual paid whatever price was deemed ‘acceptable’ for the travesty committed. He had acted to save someone he cared for. It shouldn’t be death that he was rewarded with.
Elgarn’nan drew a curved blade from a sheathing at his hip. The metal was near black along the edge, steel folded with shards of the Abyss, meant to create permanence. No magic in the world would unmake the result of a stroke delivered by that blade. No reach would draw a cleaved spirit back to its physical form.
“Father.” She breathed and his hand around the hilt tightened, but he did not turn to look at her. Her bare feet made quick and near silent work of bridging the gap between her and the taller darker man. She set her hand gently against his forearm and looked up at him. “Please.”
“Mythal has given judgement and turned his fate into my hands.” He replied without meeting her gaze.
“He did it to protect someone he cares for.” She insisted.
“That is what he says. Yet still, regardless of motive, he has broken our laws.”
“He should not be offered death for trading his life for another’s.” She countered, her brows pinching together. “That should not be a crime.”
“He has been sentenced.”
“Turn him in to my custody.” She blurted out, then bit the inside of her lower lip as though surprised at her own words.
Elgar’nan finally looked at her, his brow wrinkling. “Excuse me?”
“I’ll pay for his blood with my own.” That was fair.
She stepped away from him and set her right foot next to the servant’s head on the block, drawing back the thin overlapping sections fabric that constituted the ‘skirt’ portion of her dress to expose her leg. “Do it.”
“I am within my right to purchase his death and his life with my own blood.” She swallowed and pulled her eyes from his, instead setting them on his collarbone. Then she straightened and peeked at him through her lashes. “Please, babae.”
His emotions flared and snapped against her like an angry sail caught in a storm. He looked briefly down at the cowering servant then back up at her before homing in on the exposed skin she offered forth, her blood rushing wildly beneath the surface.
The cold steel against the exposed flesh of her thigh hadn’t even broken through and already it stung like poison. She lifted her chin, locked eyes with her father’s until he turned his face away and the black metal bit through her skin. The pressure was quick, deep, and well placed, tracing from a hand-width beneath her hip and inward at a diagonal angle. She sucked in a sharp breath and clamped her teeth together, swallowing the scream that rushed up against the back of her throat.
The line was long enough to span the tip of her pinkie to the tip of her thumb if her fingers were stretched out. Blood immediately rushed through the gash and streaked around and down the length of her leg and pooled against the simple pedestal. Her magic quivered, an unconscious thought to preserve herself and her form itching to knit her broken skin back together. Yet regardless of any attempt she could offer, nothing would undo what was done, no flood of power, no compulsion, no spell, nothing could counter any shred of the Abyss.
At some point, the servant had turned his head to look up at her, he watched her blood stain the stone and he pressed his eyes shut as though the image was too painful to bear. A shudder of power weakly spread from the smooth surface beneath the sole of her foot and turned every surrounding flickering orb, torch, and ember a deep shade of crimson.
Elgar’nan’s presence caressed the wound, then slid up around her hips and shoulders almost seeking to embrace her in an attempt to comfort her, but there was no driving out the venom-like throb that pulsed away from her leg and through entire form. “Rise.” He ordered calmly, his voice flat, and the servant lifted his head and staggered to his feet. Elgar’nan lifted his free hand towards him and pushed his magic forward.
Her vision blurred slightly, but she could make out her brother’s mark being drawn free of her servant’s face. She shook slightly at the thought. She had paid for him, with her own blood, her own choice. When his face was bare, he dropped his eyes back away from the imposing man before him.
“Mark him.” Elgar’nan spoke. The instruction was directed at her, even when she didn’t want to acknowledge it. “Before you leave this place if you wish him to preserve the life you’ve claimed.” She didn’t want to own someone. Ever. Her father, however, reached towards her and drew her hand from her side, pressing it against the warm blood at her leg. “Now.”
She wanted to argue, insist that if he belonged to her, then she could do as she pleased with him. She didn’t have to mark him if she chose not to. To boot, she had no idea what to do, what shape to create, what lines to draw. She did not have vallaslin. If she did, that would make…that would make her…she exhaled, a painful motion as it shook her where she stood and aggravated the still open cut.
Elgar’nan seized the wrist of her now bloodied hand and stretched it towards the standing servant, pressing her bloody fore and middle finger to the man’s temple and started to draw a pair of thin lines downward towards his jaw. Her attempt to struggle against the action, though, curved the pair of lines somewhat towards his ear and then back out towards his chin when she tried to correct. Seemingly satisfied, her father released her and she slouched away from him, her foot drawing away from the block and she pressed her lips together to once more muffle a painful sound.
“You must walk out of this temple, da’vhenan, to seal this.”
Her lower lip trembled, and she gripped at her right hip as though an attempt to tourniquet the area above the gash would somehow stem the flood of the pain upward. She didn’t look at either of them as she took her first step back towards the temple. When she stepped onto her right foot, the pain lit up her nerves almost akin to being struck by a current of lightening and she swallowed a groan. The next step was a limping endeavor as she attempted to keep as much weight and time off her right side as possible.
Bare feet against the temple’s cool floors, the slight chill against her bare soles was almost a welcome sensation, it stole part of her focus elsewhere from the stabbing ache. Occupied her senses with something else, something easier to process.
She was aware that both figures had at some point moved to shadow her steps.
Ethelan stood taller when he noticed her, and a pair of priestesses knelt as she moved by them. Her mother’s silhouette in the doorway became a focal point that she made herself move towards. Another step, another shock of heat, but each motion forward brought her closer to the temple’s doors, closer to the steps, and then closer to the glittering path. She could collapse there if she chose to.
Mythal exhaled, audibly, when she moved by her. For the briefest moment, her mother’s fingers curled around the inside of her elbow. When she glanced at the beautiful woman, she noted her father over her shoulder drawing her mother back towards himself. She tried to smile for her, the action tight and thin, and it failed when she forced herself forward once more. Her sister’s gasp, her brother’s shocked expression, they paled to the back of her thoughts when she began the descent downward, the new motion and distribution of her weight jarring the agonizing wound.
Darkness hovered at the edges of her sight like a twisted spirit waiting to sweep in and attempt to overrun her mind. Her fingers curled against her palm and she swallowed, exhaled slowly through gently pursed lips, then clenched her teeth each time she had to lean herself, however briefly, onto her right side. The moment her feet touched the lower landing, she opened her eyes and wondered when she had actually pressed them shut. The gathered people stepped out of her way, kneeling at her sides, their voices silent.
A hand set against the middle of her back, and then without much further warning, a forearm swept beneath her knees and then hoisted her form upward. A whimper slipped through her teeth and her fingers immediately coiled into the tunic of the individual she couldn’t decide between being captor or savior.
“I have you.” Solas’s voice murmured against her ear as she turned and pressed her face to his shoulder. “Close your eyes.”
She had cleared the temple, the place she had offered her blood and made payment. She had left on her own two feet and made it to the waiting streets of the city. The servant was marked, in a fashion and she had made it on her feet all on her own. He was hers. The thought bittered on her tongue.
“Close your eyes.” Solas repeated.
With a look just beyond his shoulder, she met her mother’s imploring expression, and then her figure flickered. Her fingers loosened from the white knuckle grip in Solas’s tunic and she forced her body to relax in his arms. When she let herself close her eyes once more, the rest of the world fell away, and the scent of him followed her into unconsciousness.
A breeze fluttered against her cheek, nipping at stray tendrils of hair and tickling them against her ear. The familiar scent of morning glory and clover wafted in through the garden doors, bathing the room, and she drew a full breath in to fill her lungs. She turned her face into the pillow in an attempt to snuff the light from against her eyelids as though simply curling back into darkness would let her slip back into slumber.
Warmth skittered across her exposed fingertips and a brush of familiar magic buffeted against her perception, tugging at her attention like a child.
Dust motes caught in the morning light casting in through the doorways and she tracked a pair for a moment before rubbing at her eyes and giving into a full yawn. She pushed back the thin sheets and sat up onto her left hip as she rubbed the bridge of her nose. It was quiet, which meant it was still early enough that most of the palace was still bound within their dreams and beds. Still, she had slept passed dawn, left the dark courtyard and fountain to witness the rising sun without her. She wondered if Joy had lingered in solitary audience, or if she had chased after a different distraction.
Turning towards the garden doors, she tilted her head as she took in his profile that never changed. Save his nose and lips, he was almost a straight line from forehead to chin. His jaw hooked upward in a steady curve towards his ear lobe, the point tipping where the line of his hair was shaved to and the upper portion was then gathered back in a simple tie.
Just beyond him, a shimmer of green, what had been a female figure, disintegrated into the fabric of the world and he gave a nod of his head as though to bid her farewell.
“I’m asleep, aren’t I.” It wasn’t a question, because she was already sure.
“You were always quick at that assessment.” He replied, his smile sincere.
She shifted and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, a perfect replica of her actual bed, in her actual room, in the waking state of the world. Her feet set against the pale marble floor and she pushed herself up onto them. Her balance swayed ever so slightly as she rose and because she wanted to be steady, she became so. She crossed the room to stand in the open doorway beside him and the lilac gossamer curtain brushed at her toes.
“Why are you here?” She asked.
“I was the last thing you perceived as you fell asleep.”
Ivuni smirked and looked out over the perfectly imitated garden. “You’re not a construct.”
“Are you sure?”
She swept the fingers of her right hand out towards him, pushing her will behind the gesture, and Solas’s form held fast.
“You comprehend the state of your dreams better than most.”
She smiled again, something more genuine when she let her right arm settle at her side and she looked out across the garden once more. If she willed them, the flowers would bloom, but it would not be the same as it would be outside of that place. They would offer whatever scent she wanted because she wanted it so, not because they smelled the way they were meant to. “I had a good teacher, once.”
A flare of curiosity and nostalgia pulsed from where he stood and then the sensation dissipated as he seemingly tucked the memories away, the brief ghosts of his thoughts slipping through her mental fingers when she tried to reach for them. The sound of a child’s laughter quietly shifted about them and the transparent form of her smaller self slipped through a cluster of bright embrium. The younger form glanced hastily over her shoulder, a wide smile on her face as she huffed in a handful of sought breaths. Little hands set against her face first, then pushed into her moonlight waves and drew blood red from the roots towards the tips and paired her eyes in blue, then the entire form faded.
“That was the first time that you did that.” Solas spoke, his tone reminiscent, yet it seemed to be the first time he had made the realization.
“I’ve never thought I looked good in red, so I never bothered with it before then.”
“No.” He shook his head. “That’s not what I was referring to.” When she lifted her brows imploringly, he smiled again. “It was your eyes.” He clarified and gestured to her now absent littler self. “You’d never thought to match them before that moment.”
“I was trying to hide from you.” She remembered. “Every other guise I had ever tried, you had always seen through and caught me.” She had tried every array of hair color she could manage, changed her height, her seeming age, but he always found her. “I had been running towards mother.” When she had finally molded herself into what she perceived to be a smaller form of Mythal, he had caught up to her in the garden, yet had seemed taken aback by her appearance enough to allot her time enough to run once more and tuck herself behind her mother’s figure once she had found her.
“I know.” He replied. “And two days, to answer the question lingering at the back of your thoughts.”
Ivuni looked up at him, unsure when she had let her focus slide towards the steps out of her room. She wasn’t sure if she appreciated how easily he could read her, and then she stifled the thought downward and away from the surface of her thoughts when he chuckled.
“My apologies.” He added and turned to look at her.
“Two days.” He nodded. “The laceration was deep, and longer than I think was necessary.” He inhaled through his nose, his features souring, and she half expected him to roll his eyes. “It took near half a day to stem the blood flow.”
That wasn’t shocking news. She knew what she had been facing when she had offered her blood, magic didn’t just fix with ease what remnants of the Abyss could break. “Have you kept me here?”
A brush of uncertainty smattered against her skin and she looked more directly at him. “You were…difficult to keep placid in a semi-conscious state.” He confessed, tipping his chin slightly as his eyes shifted between her own half a dozen times before settling on gold. “Drawing you fully under the surface of waking helped speed your recovery.”
“I was naughty, so you put me in time out?” She chuckled, and her smile broadened when she noted the quirk at the left corner of his mouth. Just as quickly as it had formed, though, it melted and his brows pinched a line of worry across his forehead. “It was a joke, Solas.”
“That’s not what has me concerned.” He replied.
He sighed and she felt the way his eyes slid along the line of her face as though committing the contours to memory. There was a sense of trepidation in the way he that looked at her, in the way that he let himself look at her. When she reached for the sensation, he drew it out of her reach and tucked it away beneath his skin. “Probably best discussed after you wake up.”
A breeze fluttered against her cheek, nipping at stray tendrils of hair and tickling them against her ear. The familiar scent of morning glory and clover wafted in through the garden doors, bathing the room, and she drew a full breath in to fill her lungs. Then she winced. It felt as though a halla fawn sat across her chest. She forced her thoughts into proper cohesion, but drawing herself into a wakeful state was harder than it had seemingly been behind the veil of her dreams.
Her fingers twitched at her side, at some point having migrated from the edge of her bed, and brushed against something thin and pliable. She turned her head, groaning at the weight that shifted between her ears and momentarily pressed her eyes shut, then slowly peeled them open to assess whatever it was she was touching. It felt like the page of an open book, but the visual was far greener. A shield shaped leaf attached to a thin vine reaching up for her touch. It was more than just the simple spindling vine and bright orange trumpet flowers that had twisted into her room, though, and the sight had her up off her side and propped against her elbow. It was as though half the garden had migrated into her room. Clover scattered across the floor, carpeting the white marble in thick greenery, vines coiled along furniture and walls, bright blossoms peppered the room is shades of orange, blood, citrine, and mauve.
“Haven’t done that in a while.” She tried her voice and it grated like dried bark.
“It is a natural response for someone of your nature.” A deep, smooth voice commented.
She turned about as quickly as her tired body would allow and fixed on the man sitting at the end of her bed. His skin was as dark as she remembered, near onyx, and the blue light from the single lit lamp on the nearby wall gave him an almost cerulean glow. His eyes were silver, the irises seemingly perpetually in motion as though formed of bound liquid. His nose was slightly wider than most, his ears slightly longer and almost sharper looking. His silvery white hair was shorn close against the scalp. Nothing was different about him. Not his appearance, his dark garb, or the timbre of his voice. As defining as he could look, he was so very similar to… Ivuni swallowed.
“Anaris.” She spoke the name with guarded care.
She frowned slightly at the designation. “I am not Evanuris.”
“Your blood would argue such denial.” Anaris sat up straighter and glanced to his left towards the sleeping form of the servant she had claimed as her own, curled up on a round lounge chair. “The mark on that boy’s face says otherwise.”
“I did not do that.”
“Your father’s handiwork, I have been led to believe.” He sighed. “Not that that is surprising considering his affections. He has forced your position.”
“Why…” She shook her head and immediately regretted the thought to do so as a weight tipped from one ear to the other. “How are you here?”
Anaris said nothing directly in reply, instead, he glanced over his shoulder at Solas who stood in the garden doorway as he had in her dream, hands arms folded across his chest and his gaze somewhere cast across the foliage. “I asked him here.” Solas confessed without turning to look at her. She wondered why. “Your mother was beside herself.”
Of course, always aiming to please Mythal.
“That’s not fair.” Solas countered.
“I don’t need you in my head.” She muttered.
He shifted from his perch and finally looked at her. “My apologies, it is not intentional.”
“Regardless, you don’t need to give voice to reaction.”
“How do you feel?” Anaris asked, drawing her focus and momentarily suspending what could amount to an impending argument. “Any lingering pain?”
She glanced down at herself, at the thin ivory sheets strewn across the lower portion of her body and then tugged them aside. At some point, she had been extricated from the red dress that Elwen had garbed her in, and had been put into a shorter, simpler blue sleeping tunic. It was easier then to draw the hem back from her knee to inspect her upper right thigh.
The line that stared back at her was dark and dusky in appearance, split angry and glaring through the skin, though near straight as an arrow from one point to the next. Half a dozen blackened veins reached out like spider legs from it and gradually faded beneath the warm color of her skin. “It’s fine.”
“You were not quite this calm when I first arrived.” Anaris ventured and he held her stare when she offered it, no intimidation or menace. “It will be several days still before the appearance recedes any further.” He lifted a hand from his side and moved it to hover over the affected appendage but never made contact. “The irritation will wane and the darkness of it will dissipate in time, but you will never be completely relieved of this…mark.”
She gave a nod and swallowed. “I know.”
“Do you?” He leaned forward, seeking her eyes once more and she lifted them up to meet him. “You will spend the rest of your existence with this reminder etched into your skin.”
“A mar against my appearance to spare another’s life.”
Anaris sighed once more, set his jaw and leaned out of her immediate space. “I hope that he was worth it, Ivuni.”
When he rose, she didn’t watch him directly, rather shifted her sights towards her periphery as he stalked towards the mirror in her room. He threw his magic against his reflection and his fingers danced too quickly for her to memorize until the surface rippled. He lingered for a moment, turned himself as though he intended to speak further, then caught himself and silently stepped through to the Wayfare, or wherever it was he had cast his destination.
“Why did you call for him?” She asked once the mirror was quiet.
“You know why.” Solas replied as he folded his arms, apparently unwilling to abandon his post at the garden doors.
She drew her fingers gently along the dark line in her leg, tactically committing the uneven planes to memory. “Does my father know that he was here?”
“Of course not.”
Quell Mythal, enrage Elgar’nan.
“I have no desire to bait Elgar’nan’s anger.” He turned himself more towards her.
She scoffed as she shifted towards the edge of the bed and carefully pushed herself up onto her feet. “Bringing Anaris here was an obvious way to prove that.” A step forward proved shaky and she was aware of him taking a step in her direction and then hesitating when she seemed to find her footing.
“Anaris’s presence within these walls could be very easily explained if made in relation to you and your well being.”
Another step and she shifted her weight onto her right leg which prompted a dull ache to throb out from the mar, but the gut wrenching sensation from its initial placement was absent. She swallowed back a dismissive groan of protest and stood to her full height when she looked back up at him once more. “Not so bad now.” She breathed. “You give my father’s emotions too much credit.”
When he didn’t immediately retort, she took a steadier step towards him.
“Your father would unmake the world for you.” He insisted, calmly, as she limped closer to him. “The presence of someone he loathes within these walls to spare you suffering would seem a trivial form of payment.”
She smirked. “Are you trying to win his favor or mine?” When she finally put herself beside him, she lifted her chin to look up at him, quickly assessing his height advantage over her and fixating briefly on the artery in his next that beat in tune with the heart in his chest, the barely perceptible flutter was steady. When she looked up to meet his eyes, she found them not waiting for her and instead focused on the lower half of her face. When he did flick them up to hers, she watched his pupils dilate slightly.
The pad of his thumb set against her chin, and the forefinger curled beneath her jaw. “I thought I had earned yours long ago.” His lips parted slightly into a something like amusement.
She could number the freckles across the bridge of his nose and the sparse sprinkling of them across his cheek bones. One sat just along the left point of his upper lip, soft, pinkened with a flush of blood flow, if she just-
“It is good to see you up on your feet, my little fox.” Andruil purred from the doorway between the room and the outer halls.
Solas’s hand withdrew and he quietly cleared his throat.
“I was wondering how much longer he would have to keep you spelled.” Andruil stepped into the room, her steps feline. “Has our guest vacated the premises?” Her attention shifted from her to the man beside her.
“Of course.” Solas replied.
“Good.” When Andruil snapped her fingers, Ivuni felt something sticky fall away from her skin, then watched an iridescent substance melt away from the walls. A clouding spell. “You need to get your head on straight, my dear.” Andruil shook her from her thoughts and moved towards the corner of the bed. “Your thoughts and emotions are exceedingly loud and reaching at the moment.”
“A side effect.” Solas stepped into the room, distancing himself somewhat from her side.
“I understand.” Andruil’s voice was almost sing song. “Still, she needs to regain herself otherwise she will give away our brief little coup.”
“I would hardly deem a negation as such.” He shook his head.
“What would you call sneaking one banished into the home of a ruling party?”
“When that individual is necessary in accomplishing a task, I would call it responsible action.”
“How fancy of you.” Andruil sauntered towards him, lifted a hand and set it gingerly against the side of Solas’s face and Ivuni beat down a pinch of…of…what… “Interesting.” Her sister drew the word out, a wide grin plastered to her face as she looked her way.
“I will inform your mother of her state.” He said as he wrapped his fingers around Andruil’s wrist and removed himself from her presence. He offered nothing else, no departing comment, no farewell, nothing in the slightest as he exited out into the halls. Apparently in search of Mythal.
“You were in agreement to summon Anaris?” She asked when they were alone.
Andruil sighed and sat down at the edge of her bed, the thin fabric of her deep green skirts swaying with her every motion. “His command of…other magic is-”
“Blood magic.” Ivuni interrupted her. “Say it.”
“Blood magic.” Her sister appeased her. “Of those who dare to attempt its utilization, Anaris possesses far more control than anyone else alive. Or dead, for that matter.” She shrugged. “A fact that you are well aware of, so your surprise over his presence is somewhat odd.”
“No one was concerned about my opinion prior to his arrival.”
A curl of laughter bounced off her bedroom walls. “Were you afraid he would discover your little secret, baby sister?”
Ivuni rolled her hands into fists, blunt nails biting into her skin. “I think I would be more concerned with your mouth in that regard.” Her steps took her further from her bed and towards the large closet where she carded her fingers through thick swaths of fineweave silks in an array of colors.
“Ah but my mouth is often far too preoccupied with lips, skin, and wine to be whispering such secrets to waiting ears.” Andruil pushed herself to her feet with the grace of a cat and twirled once towards the door. “I will find you someone to assist with dressing and then I am sure mother would love to see your radiant face.”
As the sound of Andruil’s steps receded from her room and her presence, Ivuni stepped deeper into the closet. She pushed aside another collection of fabrics to reveal a trio of trunk sin varying size, the last of things she had brought from the Wilds that yet to be sorted. She lowered herself onto her knees next to the smallest one, a perfect cube large enough to hold a pair of foxes. She traces her fingers gently along the outline of the round lapis stone and it warmed beneath her touch, activating a locking mechanism that unbound.
Amongst the items within, she zeroed in on a smaller trinket box that possessed a smaller, albeit similar, stone that responded in similar fashion. Tipping the lid, she reached within and gently rubbed her thumb the length of the off-white jaw bone, thin silverite wound around the condyle, and a braided silverite chain curled around it. She wrapped her fingers around it and lifted it out of its small compartment and turned back towards her room only to watch her thoughts take form, wisps of magic and memory weaving together giving life to ghosts.
“What if some of Ghilan’nain’s monsters still stalk the woods and all the wilds places?” She had asked in both concern and excitement, her wide eyes staring up at him imploringly.
“Ghilan’nain was ordered to destroy her monsters, little one.” Solas had assured her as he took a knee to put himself at her level. His hair had been fuller then, no trace of it shaved away, but gathered similarly into thick twists and braids at the crown of his head.
“That doesn’t mean that she did, or even could!” She had insisted as she set her small hands against the sides of his face. “Some of the dragons in the deep still live because they cannot be bent to her will.”
“The serpents in the deep will not find you in the Wilds.” He had chuckled in reply.
“Will you come with me?” Every part of her had wanted him to say yes, even if only to reassure her. “I still do not know how to hold my barrier very long.”
He had sighed, a gentle smile on his face. “Lift it and let me see.” Without much further coercion, she had let him go, stepped out of his personal space, and had quickly pushed her field out around her, transparent gold creating first a ring around her upper abdomen before spreading around her like a bubble. A flash of worry in his eyes that she had not seen when she had been before him was quickly chased away by his approval as he pressed a palm against the field. “It will hold off even the bears and wolves, Ivuni.”
Her features had fallen and she had let her hands hang loose at her sides. Then he had reached forward and tipped her chin with a single knuckle, and then chuckled when she refused to look at him. His touch withdrew and then a slight weight had been settled around her neck, his jawbone dangling against her waist.
“There.” He tipped her chin again. “Now I will be with you.”
Blood splattered across her face and she momentarily pressed her lips together.
“How old are you?” She sighed between clenched teeth.
Andruil snorted from across the deer carcass, her hands quickly delving back to work, her blades nimble in well trained fingers. She could perform the given task with her eyes closed. “I honestly have no clue anymore.”
It was a struggle to keep from rolling her eyes.
“A component to the elderly.” Ilona hummed from beside Andruil. A flash of heat shuddered between them and Ilona set the heel of her bloodied palm against the cedar carving slab. “Not fair.” She gasped against the onslaught.
“Elderly, my love?” Andruil teased. “Good thing my knees do not protest while I whisper all my secrets against your beautiful lips.” Her voice crooned as she flicked one blade closed and then pressed her left fingers between Ilona’s thighs. “Should I breathe poetry against them now and see just how well my elderly body keeps me?”
Ivuni reached forward and smacked her sister’s right shoulder, immediately snapping the Huntress back to attention, and spreading fresh blood against her dark skin.
“You do not need to plead for hands.” The Huntress smiled widened. “I would be delighted to find you a pair to do with as you please. I assure you there would be lines of volunteers for days upon days.”
She pointed a bloody finger accusingly at her. “I will…”
“What, sweet fox?” Andruil leaned slightly forward in her direction. “Tie me up with thick vines and pretty flowers? It’s no wonder Nerien sought your bed for so many years.” Her eyes widened, amusement alight. “Did you whip him with them?”
Ivuni shook her head. “Is that all that you think about?”
“Are you truly asking in earnest?” A wide smile drew the corners of Andruil’s mouth apart.
“No,” she chuckled, “not truly.” She knew better. Andruil was called the Huntress by her people, often meant to imply her love of the act. Yet the title, she had learned early in life, leaned more towards her appreciation for chasing Ilona through the woods rather than halla, deer, or other sought prey. As much as the element called to her, wreathed her in light to stalk quarry in the woods, to spend days tracking the likes of a griffin, a drake, the pursuit of something finer, a mental and magical equal, always won out.
“Take your new mark to bed, Ivuni, and end the drought you’ve allowed to linger since you parted with Rosha.” Andruil drew her lower lip between her teeth and let it slide back out slowly, teasingly. “I am sure under the likes of Dirthamen he has learned something well enough.”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Is it not? Mother turned your keeping over to me, as such, it is my duty to see you well cared for, well looked after, well…tended.” She drew the deer heart up into her right hand and used the blade in her left to carefully sever it free. “So-”
“I am grown, Andruil.”
Her sister chuckled and set her right elbow against the slab, the heart clutched in her grip spiraling new rivulets of bright red blood down her forearm. “Do not mistake your power for age. You have grown into a fine young woman capable of standing on your own feet with a measure of control over the endless possibilities that your magic would allow you. Every new quirk, spark, and evolution, I am sure you will master with both care and ease. But my little love, you are still very young.”
“Perhaps you should not be instructing me to be taking lovers to my bed, then, if I am still so young.” Ivuni scoffed. “The scandal.”
Andruil huffed out a breath in exasperation. “There are moments when you dismiss every word I offer you, and then there are moments where you cling to every scrap and throw it right back in my face.”
Ilona snickered beside her and Ivuni bit at her lower lip to keep from following suit.
“But dear sister, I learned from the best.” She batted her lashes innocently.
“Ohhh.” Andruil drew the simple exclamation out. “We are discussing things that we have learned? Like the apparent pair of blue eyes I have learned about that seem to twixt your nethers?”
“What a beautiful color to stare into above you!” Ilona said, dreamy and imaginative. “Or dipped down between your breasts or legs. It’d be like looking at the sky while your body shook.” She sighed. “Come, Ivuni, tell us their name.”
“No.” She replied without hesitation. When Ilona reached forward, she felt the cold precede her touch, frost licking towards her. Her fingers immediately wrapped around the other woman’s wrist. “No.” She repeated, unwilling to part with her guarded sliver of secrecy, she tucked it as far away from the prying inquisition as she could manage. Her eyes glanced at the thin aurum bangle about her sister’s most loved’s wrist, it was nothing but show, no magic breathed within it to keep the woman who bore it grounded. A thin layer of ice coated Ilona’s fingers as though responding to her thoughts and she locked her gaze on Ilona, a hint of desperation threatening to crack through.
The other woman stared at her, her eyes shifting between her own, seeking to unravel the depth of her secrecy until she relented. “My apologies, darling girl.” Ilona murmured, her gaze softening. “I anticipated a game, but you really…” her fingers flexed towards her as though she could take a scrap more, “you may keep your secrets.”
When her grip slackened, Ilona carefully withdrew her reach, her gaze still curious.
It had taken her a decade to keep most out of her head, and then almost a century of her life to learn to keep her thoughts to herself and out of the reach of the likes of Ilona or Elwen. Even as she had built up her walls to block out the prying fingers and minds of the majority of the people around her, all her effort could be funneled into the singular task of locking her mind, and with little more than a gesture, Ilona would often have whatever she wanted.
“Ivuni.” Andruil’s voice shook her gently back to focus. “If you are planning to make it to June’s observatory by dusk, you had better go and clean yourself up.” She insisted. “Ilona and I will finish. Go bathe and dress.”
It was as though an invisible force possessed her and compelled her to rise away from the stool she had perched at. She set the knives down to be dealt with by whomever came for them, and then followed her sister’s instruction to bathe. Regardless of the three hundred years that stood between that moment and the last time she had been within Andruil’s Arlathan halls, finding the baths was like following a well-worn path from a dream. She knew where to go, when to turn, which doors to push through.
When she found the white alabaster alcove absent of any other being, she sighed, relieved. It smelled like lavender and lilacs, a hint of sage. A flutter of blue in her periphery had her briefly turning towards a sense of Curiosity as it swept through, but it ultimately left her alone to undress.
Her feet moved of their own accord, pausing briefly at the point between dry floor and bath water, then progressed further into the otherwise silent pool of opaque water until it lapped at her thighs. She sat, then, the waterline hitting just above her breasts and she sighed as it heated around her and seeped through her skin.
Andruil had coerced her into playing decoy during the hunt, insisted she run as fast as she could through the wood away from the pair of deer to to circle them back towards her and as well as she could navigate a forest floor, the trees that gave way to the wilds surrounding Arlathan were nothing like the Wilds that Andruil had stolen her to in her youth. The terrain here was unfamiliar, uneven, and at times sandy and loose, shifting beneath her steps and prompting unanticipated muscle structures into action. And yet she wouldn’t have changed a moment of it; the thrill of the chase, the wind in her hair, the soil beneath her feet. It had been…freeing, worth the dull ache that had settled into the deeper tissues of her makeup.
She reached a right hand towards her left shoulder and pressed her fingers against a knot there, rolling her head to stretch the muscle there. When she closed her eyes and breathed, phantom fingers skimmed a line between her shoulder blades and her entire form shivered. Lips against the point of her ear, teeth at her lobe, a second hand at her thigh sliding inward. There. Voice against her cheek. Now I will be with you.
Ivuni’s eyes snapped open and immediately fixed on the magenta spirit lingering several arm lengths away. If spirits could blush, that would have been the expression she would have described. “That’s enough.” She told it, and Desire collapsed in on itself.
Cupping her hands, she splashed water against her face and pushed her fingers through her hair, working at the half braids that had been woven loose against her scalp until she could push her finger through the wavy locks without inhibition. Blood rinsed away from her scalp down her shoulders and over her collarbone until it mingled in with the rest of the bath water and seemed to dilute.
“Should you be here?” A flickering amethyst form appeared almost directly before her.
An unnecessarily strong urge to glance over either of her shoulders was pressed down into her gut. Had anyone else entered the baths, she would have felt them. The new spirit was addressing her.
The figure regarded her, its form taking on shape and dimension to mimic her own. “Andruil took you from this place.”
“That was a long time ago.” She replied evenly.
The spirit slowly shook its head, then its brow wrinkled as though it were trying to make sense of something like the sun. Its form shuddered, threatening to break apart before it drew in a needless breath and regrouped itself back to somewhat mirror her. “Too many paths, too many eyes, too many possibilities that all lead back to the beginning.” It shivered, blurred, and it briefly lightened to lilac. “Too much black.”
“Ambiguity.” A deeper voice prompted Ivuni to lift her gaze away from the spirit and turn to fix on Sahren as well as Telahmis behind him, the latter’s gaze fixed ardently on the floor.
The spirit put itself back into her direct view, flittering as though trying to decide if it should keep itself solid or break apart. “Maybe it will be different, or maybe the same.” It rambled as though unsure. “If it doesn’t turn black, will that make it something else? Maybe it could be better if he was there. But I’ve seen that line of it all the same.” It seemed to recoil then as though it thought better of lingering, then shattered and dispersed.
When she looked once more towards Sahren, she noted he was waiting with a pale fold of linen over one arm, and a deeper swath of green over the other, his gaze beckoning. She rose from the bath and moved towards him as he tossed the linen towards her which she caught with ease and wrapped it about herself. “Yours insisted on escorting you.” He gestured towards the individual that accompanied him.
Dressing, regardless of how much she still despised the odd fluttering fabrics and dresses everyone insisted she wore, was becoming gradually easier. Telahmis had only had to hold one section into place as she lacked a third hand. She had considered drawing a temporary appendage similarly to how she drew arrows from nothing, but relented to his assistance when she notice the insistence in his eyes. As much as she loathed what the mark of his face meant to her, he was what he was and seemed -for the time being- unwilling to relent what he perceived as expected duties to serve her.
He lingered just out of her periphery to the right, jaw set, eyes ahead, hands folded behind himself, but perfectly in step with her. It was a shadowing position, one that put him a step behind her to signify her station, but one close enough that it allowed him to observe her entirely, allowed him to move to her side at her whim, or intercept an adversary. He kept it perfected as they had left Andruil’s holdings and traversed the Wayfare to put themselves in June’s district. It nipped at her curiosity, wondering what he was before she had claimed him.
“Just ask.” A lavender presence coiled into a male shape, falling in stride to her left.
She frowned, briefly, but kept her pace.
“June creates, but he will not fashion you an answer.” Reason offered. “If you pose it, he will respond truthfully. Regardless if he wishes to or not, the boy is indebted to you and your mark holds.” When she stopped, the spirit followed suit without, glancing over her shoulder and then fixating back on her. “Or you could allow him to confess it himself if he so chooses.” The spirit sighed.
She held Reason’s gaze for a few beats further before resuming her direction.
“You confuse me.” He confessed.
“Because I am not singly dimensional?” She asked with a hint of tease.
Reason’s brow pinched as though trying to puzzle out a problem. “That you do not take when it is within your reach.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Others like you-”
“There are no others like me.” She quickly cut him off.
He chuckled, something light and quick. “That is only a half truth.”
“Similar is not identical.”
“That is wise of you to discern.” It nodded its approval. “If I didn’t know your true nature, I would wonder if you were born of Thought or Wisdom.”
A sentinel moving towards her side stepped out of her way, pressed his right fist to his chest, and then dropped his chin against his chest as she passed him by, the sentinel just beyond him near the front doors to June’s observatory saluted her approach in similar fashion. He turned to put his side towards her and the pair of tall ornate doors drew open for her.
June offered her little more than half a glance as he skated across the wide open floor from a table in disarray towards the large telescope pointed out through the ceiling of the building. “Oh good, Ivuni, come decipher the shape of this star cluster.” He called to her as he set his fingers delicately around the eye piece and bent forward to peer through it.
When she glanced towards the spirit beside her, he shrugged his shoulders, and then glanced beyond her once more towards Telahmis before dematerializing. She took several steps to bridge the gap between herself and June and put herself to his right, waiting for him to draw back. When he did, he once more barely offered her a look, a smile plastered wide across his face, as he gestured for her to look.
It was blurry at first, the form not quite clear cut until she opened her eye further to move her dark lashes out of the way. Just to the right of the immediate zone he had her focused on was something familiar…
“Not that one.” He quickly corrected and she glanced sideways at him as he bent over beside her as though they could both peer through the same glass. “Over further and slightly deeper set into the sky.”
There was a grouping near the top of the designated viewing scope that tapered slightly towards a longer set of four stars, a random triangle-like bundle that branched out part way between the not-quite-straight line. Near the bottom, another shape started but seemed cut off.
“It somewhat looks like a flower.” She said as she stood up and looked over at him.
“Any particular sort of flower?” He encouraged further and she looked through the eyepiece once more.
It could have been trumpet shaped and looked like a morning glory, though the descending four stars seemed straighter than a curling vine that such a flower would grow on. A lily perhaps, or, “A rose.”
“That’s what I was thinking as well.” He mused. “Two of the stars in the actual blossom portion are new in the last month.”
“Though, if you turn your head and take into account that lower cluster near the bottom that look like roots when upright, they could turn into curling horns. Then it would look like the head and front portion of a halla with that dim bunch between it and the wolf.” She scrunched her nose and gently twisted the ocular ring. “I mean if you take even more of the wolf you could turn it into a full halla if your looking at it from an inverted angle.”
“Dear girl, it’s a rose.” He sighed, and she noted his smile still in place when she drew back.
His expression was contagious and she felt it mirror in her own skin.
“Was that the only thing that you wanted to show me?” She asked, folding her hands behind her back and rocking forward onto her toes.
“Do you know that every rose in Arlathan bloomed the day you were born?”
Ivuni sighed, mentally bracing herself for a retelling of the day. “Yes, I am aware.”
He regarded her, his smile waning to something gentler. “That had been quite a day.” He reached towards her and pressed the tip of his forefinger against the right side of her neck, drawing something, or pushing something away. When he drew his hand back, she noted a scant smear of blood and she pressed her lips together.
“Andruil thought it quite the game to see who she could bloody the worst during carving.”
He smirked, and the light in his eyes wavered. “There was a time when those smattered with blood in her presence did not ever leave where she left them bloodied.”
She felt herself sober at the thought, felt the smile slip from her lips.
“I count you among the lucky young that did not know her then.”
Though she had never been present for that darker time in her sister’s life, she was fully capable of gleaning the memories from the minds of others, as much as she despised doing so. Sometimes, as with Ilona, the information, the memories and the sensations, were offered to her at her request, even as Ilona sought to curb the more volatile glimpses from her. Still, every recollection aligned. Andruil’s madness, the draw to the Abyss to confront the Others. Her repetitive return to the darkness, to shrieking into the ether, baiting the likes of corrupted spirits. They say a plague swept her lands, ate up all the beautiful green, diseased her people, drove the fauna from the Wilds.
Until Mythal stole it all away, tore the path to the Abyss from her memories, drained her of her magic, drew the shadows from her veins and eyes. Left her mind fractured, almost worst for the wear.
“And then there was you.” June spoke gently. “The moment that she held you, tiny, innocent you…” he smiled, lopsided, drawing a breath in between his teeth, “everything broken inside of her realigned itself as though remade from scratch.” He shook himself and opened one of the drawers at the desk he had leaned back against, drawing something dainty and golden from within. It jingled ever so faintly and he stepped towards her, holding the dainty braided chain out towards her to display the disk that was barely bigger than the pad of her thumb. Holes had been punctured through the thin gold and she tipped her head slightly, smirking when she realized it was meant to replicate the constellation. “It’s for you. A welcome home gift, if you will.”
She lifted her right arm from her side and he made simple work of clasping it about her wrist.
“Come on.” He stepped away from her and back towards the telescope. “There are further designs I’d like you to give names to in order to chart them for the world. And you can tell me if the dragon appears a dragon, or more an old woman in a frumpy dress.”
Since the last chapter took so long, here is another a little earlier than I had anticipated posting.
Voices, thoughts, feelings, it was a riotous cacophony that emotionally gluttonous beings could grow fat on with ease. It all swirled and brushed up against her senses almost begging her to partake of the offerings beyond the physical displays that crammed every corner and nook of the high market. It was dizzying and she wondered why she had been cut off from this sort of exposure for so long and then expected to sink or swim when thrust back into it.
Sunlight glinted off an array of perfect blue sapphires displayed in gold and silverite alike in the jeweler’s tent immediately to her left and she found her focus drawn like moth to flame. Each facet danced and refracted light right back towards her regardless of whether she took a step or simply drew in a breath. The man beside her cleared his throat and when she snapped her eyes to meet his, he turned his face slightly and she caught the tail end of a smile that he almost smothered before she noticed
“No, my lady.” He replied quietly, and she watched the corner of his lips twitch, threatening to curl upward again.
She narrowed her eyes as she turned more directly to face him, a figure sweeping beside her and bumping against her shoulder, a quiet apology offered in passing. “Out with it.” She insisted.
“I would not offend you, my lady.” He insisted, still refusing to look directly at her.
Out in the open, the afternoon sun on his face, his profile to her, it allowed her the opportunity to look him over. Something she had attempted to do discreetly for days since he had been marked and forced into her charge. His forehead sloped gently, interrupted but his dark golden brows, before sloping into a straight nose that hooked ever so slightly at the tip. His plush lips pursed slightly as though he knew she was analyzing him, but she didn’t care if he knew she was staring or not. She briefly glanced at the pair of lines her father had forced her to draw with her own blood, now seared into his skin.
“And what if I thought your silence was offensive?” She baited as she leaned towards him.
He swallowed. “Then you may met out your punishment as you see fit.”
Ivuni started at the bluntness of his instruction and her confusion rippled off of her before she could keep it from him, gradually it coiled into discontent and she bit at the inside of her cheek.
“I am yours, my lady, my life is yours to do with as you see fit.” A well scripted response.
She drew her emotions back within herself, not caring much if the sudden void offended anyone around her. When she exhaled, she allowed her field to unravel slowly back around her. “You do not-”
He turned suddenly and stepped forward to put himself directly in front of her, close enough that her nose briefly bumped against his clavicle. “Yes I do, my lady.”
Looking up at him, she scowled at the mark along the left side of his face, it deemed him as he claimed. Turning to move herself away from him, the vision over his shoulder hitched her breath in her throat. Taller than any elvhen, thick horns curling away from his temples, near ebony eyes, and blood streaked stormheart armor. But almost as quickly as she had noticed it, as a pair of patrons moved by them, the figure vanished as though it had never been.
Curiosity bristled beside her, blue like the shallow sea, its presence warm against her shoulder. “How long ago?” It asked without turning to look at her, its gaze on the hole where the horned one had stood. “It would seem so recent, considering the clarity your thoughts could construct him from.”
“He was there.” She murmured.
“Was he?” The blue pressed, urging her to give more, urging her to give in to her own curiosity and delve further into her memories.
“Are you all right, my lady?” Telahmis’s voice shook her and reoriented her back into the market and the presence of everyone crowded about her, every being breathing, every being thinking, speaking, trading and offering to exchange. When she looked up at him, and anchored herself to his amber eyes, she felt Curiosity lose interest and fall back into the crowd. “There you are once more.”
She swallowed and took a single step back, putting a healthy dose of distance between them, even as a flutter of his concern followed after her.
“Would you like to return to your mother’s estate?” He asked.
Ivuni shook her head. There was no reason to leave. She had planned to make a few trades. Only half thinking, she slipped her hand into the leather satchel that crossed from her right shoulder to rest against her left hip. Her fingers pushed through a few tender leaves and the citrine encrusted comb, finally wrapping around the jawbone. It bit into her skin she squeezed it so tight. She exhaled and released it, curling her fingers instead around a dragonwood sapling that she plucked out of the clutch.
Three steps took her to a smith’s tent and she opened negotiations with the seller -his face marked for Falon’Din, his master several paces away with his own patron seeking to haggle- for one of his master’s daggers rather than a finer piece or token. The handle was folded everite encrusted with a trio of raw cut rubies, the blade quartz folded steel that curved at the end. From tip to pommel it was the length of her forearm from inner elbow crease to fingertip. The man asked for gold or emerald, balking when she claimed she brought neither, near insistent on turning her away until she produced the sapling and he visibly froze.
“Where did you steal that from?” The seller accused, disbelief and fear in his voice, his gray eyes hard.
“That is a loaded accusation.” A new voice interrupted.
Her brows pinched and her lips pursed as she glanced at Dirthamen from the corners of her eyes.
A hush settled around them and bodies shifted, folding themselves down on knees, and the seller she had been dealing with gaped, uncertain of what course of action to seek. Until his mastered stormed towards them and forced the servant onto his knees, a backhand against the side of his head toppling him further to the ground. “Some respect, boy.” The craftsman growled out, nodding his head before the dark haired Evanuris. “You, girl, the same for you. Or do you need it beat into you as well?” He snapped at her, then.
“Touch her and you’ll lose your hand.” Telahmis was suddenly beside her, shifting himself forward enough to put his left shoulder before her right one, effectively preparing to shield her with his own form.
The craftsman wrapped his hand around the hilt of a longer blade and drew it from its sheathing. He managed two long steps before Telahmis had him unarmed and on his knees, a tan hand in the man’s ruddy brown hair drawing his head back enough to expose his throat.
A slow clap of hands prompted her to clench her jaws together to keep from snapping.
“Ah, baby sister, I must commend you on the slave that you lifted from my number.” Dirthamen mused. “Had I been aware of his fluidlike speed and his hand to hand skill, I may have fought just a little bit harder to keep him.”
“Si-sister.” The craftsman choked out, his fear suddenly palpable and thick on the back of her tongue.
“You would have let him die.” She said, picking up Dirthamen’s claim. He would have let Telahmis go to his death as Mythal had commanded, as Elgar’nan would have struck. One in a thousand, one face to be easily replaced. Too afraid to tempt Mythal’s ire.
“Give up the ruse, Ivi.” Dirthamen cooed. “You’ve already been outed. At least spare this poor fool the thought of finding himself at the tip of one of Andruil’s spears.”
She fought the urge to snap back at him but gave in to the suggestion and let her glamor melt away from herself in its entirety until she stood exactly as her. She watched the man press his eyes closed, and visibly watched him swallow, his figure still bound to the submissive position that Telahmis had twisted him down into.
“Release him.” She said quietly and Telahmis did so, allowing the man’s form to slump forward. “Give me your sword.” She instructed and the craftsman nodded quickly, turning the item about to present her with the polished basalt and gold grip. Her fingers wrapped around it with care and drew it to herself before she stepped closer to the kneeling individual, leaned in to nearly press her cheek against his ear. “Strike that boy ever again, and this blade will find you wherever and whenever you are.” She promised, infusing the weapon with her words.
Standing back to her height, she turned back towards the seller, the ‘boy’, and moved towards him, motioning for him to stand, offering the sapling towards him when he did. He took the little plant without hesitation, cupping it carefully against his palms. She took up the dagger that she had initiated their discussion for and then turned and left the stall without another word.
The rest of her purchases were made with ease, her desires and offerings made at the beginning of each discussion. Each merchant accepted each transaction with ease and enthusiasm, though she was aware of the fact that no individual could or would tell her no in regard to what she wanted. She could have offered dry, dead grass for the pearl cuff she had procured, or dust for the lavender seeds she had obtained, but that would have proven fruitless, truly. She enjoyed the bartering, enjoyed the interaction. Each item was tucked carefully into her bag, trading places with the saplings she had brought to bargain for them with, one an opalite shrub, the other crystal grace.
At some point, Dirthamen had quietly disappeared back into the crowd without any further provocation.
“Here.” She turned abruptly once they stepped into the Wayfare and offered both of the blades to Telahmis without looking up at him. “These are for you.” She told him. “I watched you in my mother’s weapon room.” Of all the displayed weaponry from great swords to bows to javelins, he had been drawn to the seemingly mismatched sword and dagger sets, his appreciation obvious.
“I am not worth the heat that was used to fold these.” He whispered down at her and she snapped her eyes up to meet his. “You traded a dragonwood sapling for these. I am not even worth the soil used to grow it in.”
“Did I tell you such things?”
He shook his head.
“Then why would you believe that?”
“I know my place.”
She frowned at the notion and that he would think such. “You say that you are mine, yet you do not accept what I tell you and instead disregard my words as though they are worth less than your own opinion.”
He considered her accusation. “I have offended you.”
“Take these,” she pressed her occupied fists more firmly against him, “before I skewer you with them.”
He hesitated but followed her order. He wrapped his larger hands around hers and she turned the blades over to him. Then she took a step back and looked up at him.
“The cuff,” he glanced down at the aurum bracelet about his left wrist, “you have yet to spell it.”
She wrinkled her nose and waved her hand dismissively. “I do not plan to.”
“My lady, I-”
“Do you plan to raise your magic against me?”
“No!” He spit out, his eyes widening, his straight golden hair falling forward as he sought to bow his head.
With little more than a thought, she coerced the sections at his temples to braid themselves back, drawing his hair out of his face, and secured the pieces at the back of his head. “That’s better.” Then she looked just beyond him towards the mirror she sought. Ivuni sidestepped around him and headed towards it, casting her destination from her fingertips to flutter against the surface and it shuddered in response. “You are relieved of your obligations to me for the remainder of the day.” She called as she stepped through and the mirror solidified behind her.
A kitchen welcomed her and she wondered when the spell she had thrown had been altered to exit there. Still, she was in the general vicinity of where she wanted to be and left the room behind via its northern exit which curled into a hall that skirted an herb garden. His deep, calm voice drew her further along it until a pair of open glass doors allowed her to step out onto the terrace that led further into the lush green growth.
Palms unfolded and iridescent pink peonies blossomed in her presence, the scent of citrus suddenly perfumed the air. It could distract her, easily, if she allowed it to, the hum that the foliage all about her calling out like a siren. She reached her hand into her bag and once more found the jawbone and coerced herself into following the white stepping stones around the back of the manor.
She paused when she finally reached the crest of a set of pale marble steps, a sigh slipping through her lips and a smile ghosting over her features, his voice clearer. When her eyes lifted and settled on him, everything shifted and her anticipation was doused like a flame under a smothering glass. Another familiar magical signature tickled her senses.
He sat reclined across a tall back onyx chair, an apparent throne, his back against the arm nearest her with his legs kicked up over the other. His dark hair was gathered back by a band of some sort at the crown of his head, and even from the distance she paused at, she could make out a few thin braids clasped by silverite. His arms were bare, allowing her eyes to trace every line and stretch of corded muscle beneath his skin. A swath of silk draped over his left shoulder and whatever else he was wearing fell to being of little interest in the wake of the form sat straddled over his reclined lap.
The servant was slender and petite, though she wouldn’t assume much more than herself, possibly less so. Dark waves were piled atop her head into a mess of braids, curls, and pins that allowed a few loose ringlets to grace her right shoulder. Crimson vertical rhombus shapes lined her brow, six in number, a call to his shifted form. Three red dots had been infused into he skin beneath each eye, the same color stained her upper lip and a thick line of it split her lower lip and chin. Her form left little to the imagination tangled in a loose gauze wrap dress cut deep enough that her small pert breasts were all but falling forward out of it as she leaned forward rather precisely to push a grape into Solas’s apparently waiting mouth.
She heard him offer the girl a contented and appreciative moan and she smiled down at him.
“Do you enjoy flaunting your conquests?” Andruil’s voice cut her back to the fact that her sister was in fact there, the second signature she had noted, and hadn’t just vanished into vapor while she had become so transfixed by the wolf instead.
“Uncomfortable, Andruil?” He asked without turning his gaze away from the girl.
Then her sister’s dark eyes were on her. “I am not.”
There was a moment where she considered turning back, taking the path that had brought her there back to the mirror she had emerged from to disappear back into the Wayfare. Ivuni wound her hand about the silverite chain, drawing the item more securely against her palm and all but buried it in the light folds of her silken skirt. She sucked in a steadying breath and made herself move forward across the carved dais, her bare feet all but silent against the cold stone. She was aware of him shifting and she let her eyes skim across him as he arched slightly to get a look at whatever had taken Andruil’s attention away from him. And for the slightest moment, the light in his eyes dampened.
“I apologize for the interruption.” She stated as she looked back at her sister. “I didn’t realize you were so…indisposed.” She continued as she glanced at the all but half nude serving girl astride him, then let her eyes fall to meet his blues. He sat himself a little bit straighter under the weight of her scrutiny, but she tore her attention away from him. “I’ll meet you later this evening.” She spoke to Andruil, and her sister gave a nod. Then she gathered herself and drew in a breath. “Solas.” She tilted her own head slightly in his direction without looking at him and excused herself.
Rather than leaving his gardens from the direction she had come, refusing to directly backtrack as it seemed like retreating and she refused run, she turned from her sister’s side and headed east. If he hadn’t ever changed the layout of the place, she could find her way out with ease without looking completely foolish. Hushed tones were exchanged between the pair as she left them but she kept her pace, refusing to turn back, regardless of how many things she wanted say. Her grip on the jawbone in her hand tightened, pressing deeply against the skin of her palm, and in her frustration allowed it to bite through the thin flesh, feeling it knit back together immediately.
Her hurried pace took her deeper into the gardens and under different circumstance she would have marveled at the beauty presented to her. The shifting form of a gardener tending to roses brought her momentarily to pause. She watched the woman turn the soil, pluck away stray lower leaflets, muttering something along the lines of, ‘come on, already’ as she trailed a finger down one of the thorny canes. There was magic in the woman’s touch, yet the plant refused to respond.
Ivuni realized as she glanced up towards the blossoms that the buds were large and round, seemingly over ready to bloom, yet appeared to remain dormant. She let her magic connect with little more effort than it took to breathe, turned it to warmth as tendrils reached out and caressed the foliage first near the root and then let it spiral upward to the waiting buds. It was a gentle ministration, coaxing the greenery back from each waiting pod until they gave way to thick cream colored petals. Her mind briefly recalled Joy identifying the same colored roses in her mother’s gardens as hers, and the thought of a familiar hand tucking a creamy rose behind her ear as a child. Her magic snapped at the memory and the rest of the plant’s blooms unfolded beautifully.
The gardener gasped and Ivuni looked down at the woman right as she turned to face her. “Oh, my lady.” She beamed as she bowed her head. “I have been trying to coax them out for days.” She confessed as she scrambled towards her on her knees. The other woman took her free hand between both of her own and pressed warm kisses to her knuckles.
“It was nothing.” Ivuni tried to assure her. “They were ready.”
“They were waiting for…you.” The gardener brightened. “I apologize for my boldness,” the woman’s voice turned, sinking slightly as she chanced a glance up at her. “Would you mind?”
At first, she was unsure what it was she was being asked, then the gardener swept an arm out at her side back towards the rose bush that filled the air with its subtle fragrance. Following the indicated line, she took note of a dozen other rose bushes that seemed to be in the same state of being overripe and ready, yet seemed unable or unwilling to bloom. It was odd, if she thought about it too long. They were not like other flowers that required the help of ants or bees to open. Roses tended to give and bloom when mature and ready.
Meeting the gardener’s eager brown eyes, she gave a nod of her head and knelt down next to the woman who all but shuddered out of her skin at the act and the sudden proximity. Rather than unleashing her will and power, she took the other woman’s hand in her own and carefully pressed her palm against the soil before she pushed her magic forward again. She let it curl around their joined hands initially, tingling across their skin before focusing it downward into the ground.
It worked exactly as it had with the single plant, only she let her focus split to thread it out towards each root system, sparking magic at the heart of each before coiling it up along the thickened canes and leaflets, brushing each exposed bit of foliage with magic towards the hips where she willed each waiting bud to uncurl. As greenery gave way, peeling back to expose petals, she was acutely aware that every flower was cream colored. No array of reds or pinks or any smatterings of yellow or peach, they were all a perfect shade of off white in hue.
The woman beside her let out an appreciative sound, bringing both hands to her lips as she surveyed the flora around them. “It’s beautiful.” She whispered. “So very beautiful.”
“Please…” her voice trailed off when she noted the top of the head of a taller figure making his way towards them, her complete view of him obscured by several rows of foliage between them. “I assure you it was nothing.”
“I am sorry.” The woman bowed her head again and released her hand. “Your gift is truly the most wonderful. I am honored by you and would be honored by any time you would offer should you wish to return.”
“Ivuni.” Solas’s voice called after her.
Ivuni offered a warm smile and a reassuring nod of her head as she pushed herself up from her knees and stood back at her full height. She turned and forced herself to move again. She kept to the stone pathway, afraid if she let herself, she would venture deeper into the garden and lose herself again. As much as she wished to lose her pursuer, he knew this place like the back of his hand. Even as the moment with the roses had briefly tempered her, she was not in any mood to deal with the wolf that was seemingly nipping at her heels.
Determined steps were overtaking her own progression towards her from behind and then his voice called her name. Her only response was to lift her free hand to shoulder level and wave him away without halting. Long warm fingers wrapped about her wrist pulling on her insistently to stop, and she gave him her attention, even as she yanked herself free of his grip. “That wasn’t-” he cut himself short and she wondered if it was because he was scrambling for an explanation, or if he was wondering why had had to produce one. He wasn’t an individual that often needed to explain himself. To anyone. His scent hit her in the face like a tidal wave and it made everything inside of her wind tight with anticipation.
“That wasn’t what?” She prompted him to fill in the blank, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted or needed any explanation he could put together. “That wasn’t some component to yours and Andruil’s stupid little game?” She offered. “That wasn’t ‘what it looked like’?” Her tone shifted, mockingly, her mind once more offering her the vision of the girl on his lap. “You don’t need to explain yourself to me, Fen’Harel, do as you please.”
He frowned at her in response. “Then where are you going?”
“I’d think it was obvious.” She snapped back. “Anywhere else.” Then she turned to step away and vines quickly wrapped about her bare ankles, rooting her to the spot. “You would dare?” Her features darkened. “I am not some silly little serving girl for you to do with as you wish.” She all but growled out.
“Is that really what this is about?” He pressed.
“Let go of me or I will-”
Rather than shift himself to match her tone and posture, he stepped closer to her, her nose near his chest and his words against the shell of her ear. “Lower your voice.” He instructed carefully, enunciating each word with care, his tone implied little for her to argue with.
Ivuni scoffed, almost unbelievingly that he would attempt to order her around. Regardless that this was part of his estate, he was in no position to ever order her. “Or what?” She challenged, imaging the manner in which the nobility in this city treated their servants. “You’ll beat me into submission?”
“If you so desire.” He countered, a teasing edge to voice.
She struggled not to roll her eyes as she forced her own magic down towards her ankles and the offending vines he had thought would keep her held. “You’re ridiculous.” She bit back angrily as she tried as delicately as she could manage to pluck the twisted greenery from around herself. She had little desire to destroy it if it weren’t necessary. Once she was free she willed herself to move again and stepped once more away from him, only to be halted by his grasp yet again, only this time around her upper arm rather than her wrist. He used the grip to draw himself closer to her once more, prompting her to look over her shoulder at him.
“Please just wait.” He finally said, more quietly, more for only her ears, no demand to be made of it at all. A request, if anything else.
Her mind wanted to see him as she had thought him to be, the kind individual he had always been to her, the one that sought to care for people, the person who had once told her that people were people. Part of her reasoned she had likely thought him greater than he was when she had been young, her mind too narrow to take into account what he really could have been. What a sham that would prove to be. Something, someone so perfectly envision cracked at the edges and dimmer than initially perceived. Perhaps her will to make him something perfect was simply a romanticized notion that had grown over time out of something that she wanted to believe.
She inhaled to steady herself and once more was assaulted by the way that he smelled, even within the sea of scents that the garden around them offered, he stood out like a flare. It wanted to chase her anger and irritation from consideration. His blue eyes searched her face, seeking the thoughts she kept locked inside of her head and out of his reach. How often he must have been able to pluck up what he sought, and she pushed up every wall about herself to refuse him entrance.
It was difficult to look at him when he looked back at her as he did in that moment, it was difficult to remain angry when his eyes silently pleaded for her to acquiesce. “I thought you were someone else.” She wanted to give in, follow him wherever he wanted to take her until she once more remembered the shaded dais and the overeager servant and just how content he had appeared to toy with her atop himself. Just as Dirthamen had been with his plaything the night she had been brought back. “You’re just like them.” She whispered, and her features softened more into a mask of disappointment than anger.
Her words seemed to have the effect she desired; his jaw clenched and his features tightened. She pulled herself free, then lifted her hand that still held the necklace gripped so tightly, and she shoved the item against his chest. When he lifted his own hand to accept it, she made way for her freedom once more.
To both her great relief, and her great dismay, he did not chase after her.
As captivating as the sunrise could prove to be, climbing over the horizon beyond the black fountain, the reflection of light that the double moons cast against the dark surface upon rising created a shimmer that was rarely duplicated anywhere else in the world. The full round orbs offered their complete brilliance, bathing the entirety of Arlathan in a glow of light that rivaled the brightness of day, unaided by flame.
“You have xanthium burs in your fur.” Ethelan commented as he sat down beside her, his fingers sliding through the silken fur behind her ear, tugging gently at one of the barbs until is slipped free. When she offered no response, he sighed, his posture slouching ever so slightly. “This was always your sulking form.”
She tipped her head and narrowed her eyes without turning to look at him, an unspoken questioned offered.
“It’s the truth.” He shrugged his shoulders. “This form was always a giveaway to your emotions even when you weren’t actively exuding them.”
Don’t you have somewhere to be?
“No.” He shook his head once, pretending to wonder. “Not that I can recall at the moment.”
My mother does not require you at her side?
Ethelan chuckled and his eyes swept towards the fountain. “I imagine that if Mythal desired my presence, she would find some way to make that known.” His fingers returned to the fur behind her left ear and she turned in against the touch.
She imagined the fountain water rippling like it had the morning after her arrival when she had sat in the same place, Joy beside her, as the sun rose and the moons set. Mythal’s voice had beckoned for him then, when she hadn’t wanted to let him go. Now she wanted to be alone and her mother’s call was nowhere. Latched on to her emotions, he was unlikely to leave her.
“Sylaise claims you have been like this for four days.” He nudged her, looking for an opening or an explanation.
What would she know. She hissed back without missing a beat. The tone, regardless of whether it had been thought or spoken, slipped out unbidden and she wanted to take it back. That was rude.
He exhaled carefully. “She keeps her distance, that is truth, but do not mistake her absence for apathy, Ivuni.”
Sylaise had always been distant, quick to snap a reprimand for falling out of line or conduct. She was quick to carry out necessary justice and put lower ranks in their place. Still, she had never been outright cruel. To anyone. There was a quiet loathing buried deep in Ivuni’s heart, though, that raged when she allowed it to, that her own sibling at times treated her like any other person in the world, at times even seemingly perturbed that-
“Stop it.” Ethelan’s voice cut sharp against her thoughts.
She swallowed and shifted up into a seated position, letting the vulpine form shed away, leaving her seated beside the fountain in nothing more than her skin. She lifted her left arm from her side to loosely cover her breasts, refusing to look at Ethelan, more so out of guilt for her thoughts than for her nudity in his presence. There had been moments during most of her youth when she had thought him more of a brother than either of the twins and she shoved that thought out of her head as quickly as she could manage to keep it from him, not intent on hearing him tease her just to prove such a thought fact.
A soft drape of fabric settled about her shoulders and she turned slightly to assess it. Crushed ebony velvet, and then she glanced briefly up at Ethelan. “Thank you.”
“Our guests will be arriving shortly, and I doubt appearing a fox or in little more than the skin you were born in would prove…hospitable?” He pursed his lips and a smile draw at the corners of her mouth. His thumb set against her jaw and she turned in against the palm of his hand, glad for the warmth and comfort. “That’s better.” He braided his fingers and settled his forearms on his knees. “Ellowen is waiting to dress you.”
She smirked, something lopsided but grateful. “I think that she really missed me.”
His features sobered and he sat up just a bit straighter. “You were always her little doll, Ivuni, I do not feel that I need to regale you with every attempt she made to dress the court in your absence.”
“Oh Ethelan.” She whined as she leaned towards him, tipping her temple against his shoulder. “Tell me, please, did she garb my brothers in pretty gowns?”
“If anyone could have, it would have been her.”
Elwen had thought sapphire the perfect shade, draping it from her left shoulder and winding it about her chest and waist, then allowing the full loose ends to fall to the floor. Her right leg slipped through the waist high slit in the flowing skirt ever so slightly, offering a brief glimpse of copper skin. She had asked what the children of the stone wore, and Elwen had shrugged her shoulders. Elwen had then clasped June’s tiny gold bracelet, momentarily highlighting the thin scar between her thumb and forefinger and the memory that burned it into her skin. Then she was shuffled on her way.
“This dagger would look perfect sheathed at the small of your back.” Telahmis commented, nodding towards his side, his posture stiff, his hands folded as casually behind himself as he could manage. It was an attempt at conversation, and she felt herself thrilled by his stroke of courage.
She glanced at him, their steps in synch, and noted the dagger and sword strapped diagonally across his back, the hilts peaking from over his right shoulder. She smiled at him. “It might, but then what would you defend me with?”
He shook his head. “I doubt my lady requires any attempt I may make for her defense.”
“But I appreciate familiarity at my side, and I cannot see behind my head.”
“I will not be standing directly beside you.” He clarified.
Her smile widened. “I am aware.”
“What’s your favorite color?” She asked as she sidestepped a hurrying servant dressed in midnight blue, a splattered apron tied about her waist.
“My lady?” He looked at her sideways from where he lingered in her periphery.
“Your favorite color.” She repeated, and when she frowned, she struggled to keep from rolling her eyes. Trying to communicate with him was frustrating, and it was something that she could not entirely blame him for. And then that line of thought stoked her anger enough that she could burn the nearest piece of furniture if she allowed herself to feel it deeply enough.
“No one has ever asked me such a question.” He confessed, his voice dipping in volume.
She swallowed back her mounting agitation. “Well I am asking you.”
Silence then, but it was a full-bodied sort, one where she could tell he was considering what she had posed and was attempting to grasp at a response, she could feel his churning thoughts rolling off of him like sweat. The brief interlude at least implied that he gave her question a somewhat genuine consideration and presented her with the idea that he had likely never been taught to shield himself when she gently prodded at the edge of his thoughts.
“Sunset.” He said, drawing her attention.
She looked at him in mild confusion. “Sunset?”
“Mm.” He gave a nod. “I love the burning peach-gold hue that paints the sky when the sun sits at half point on the horizon.”
It was easy to imagine, drawing from her memories the endless number of days’ ends she had sat witness for. Ivuni smiled and gave a nod of agreement, her features shifting when she noted his own solidifying beside her and his feet pausing as they entered the audience hall. She quickly followed his line of sight until it settled on a woman near half Telahmis’s height.
The woman turned half towards her, eyes seeming to trace the curling vines that coiled around every opportune perch before fanning out against the ceiling of pale pink cabochon stones. When the woman noticed them standing and waiting, she startled, and a hand immediately clutched at her amethyst cloak. She offered what sounded like a hurried apology, but her words were stilted and somewhat strung together by hard consonants.
“I apologize, but I do not understand.” Ivuni replied.
“It is Stonespeak.” Telahmis muttered from beside her.
The woman frowned, herself confused, and she started once more, a line of broken tones and rough consonants that Ivuni tried to make sense of until she pressed her lips into a line. She realized rather quickly that that seemed to set the woman further on edge, her tone spiking until Ivuni lifted her hands up from her sides, palms facing outwards, and took a few hesitant steps forward. It was difficult to read the woman properly with scattered verbal ques, but she seemed willing to remain put as she moved towards her.
When she was within touching distance, she extended one of her hands outward for the taking. Wide, bright blue eyes shifted nervously between her own, breaths in short huffs, but inevitably, the woman lifted her smaller hand and slid it against her palm. Carefully, she wrapped her fingers around the other woman’s wrist and leaned in, drawing on the spell she had woven when she had learned to speak to the giants, and braided her breath with power as she whispered it against the shorter woman’s fingertips. It skated over her skin in a shimmering golden cord, up the woman’s arm and around her shoulder before splitting to wisp into her ears and between her lips. Then it turned back, following near an identical path back towards her to mimic the delivery of magic into her own system.
“Is that…easier?” She tried, and the woman perked up.
“I can…hear you.” Then she blushed. “I can understand the structure of your words.” Her mouth split into an appreciative smile. “Would you…teach me that song?”
Ivuni tipped her head slightly, confusion washing across her emotions and features. “Song?”
“The formatting of your magic into words.” The woman tried to clarify.
“Is that what you call it? That is a pretty word.” She beamed. “Spell.”
“I would teach it to you.” Ivuni offered.
“Ar-are you one of them?”
“One of what?”
“The Sky People’s gods?”
Ivuni attempted to keep her lack of appreciation over such a title in check and struggled with her response, though the designation of what her own people were called tickled her curiosity enough to nearly chase it from her. “I am one of their children.” The woman gave a single nod of her head before she dropped her gaze to the floor and fidgeted with her fingers. “Did you come alone, or with a retinue?”
The shorter woman perked once more as though she were surprised to be spoken to further and glanced over her shoulder. “I came with members of the court.” She admitted, glancing back before once more casting her eyes to the floor. “My court!” She quickly corrected. “My people, I mean, not your court or people. They’re mine, well, like me. Not Sky People, is what I meant.”
She forced her features to remain neutral, no matter how taken she was with the flustered flush that painted the other woman’s cheeks. “What’s your name?”
The Stonewoman swallowed and lifted her chin once more, albeit hesitantly. “Anika.”
“My name is Ivuni.” She offered in reply. “Do you weave your own spells, Anika? Or…songs?”
Anika nodded eagerly and then her feet were moving, her steps taking her away from the hall and towards a rear veranda.
“Are you sure we should be pursuing her rather than moving on to the main gathering?” Telahmis moved once more into her periphery.
“I’m pretty sure that I already find her far more fascinating that whatever diplomatic and fluffy individuals my family insists on entertaining in regard to discussions on earthquakes.” She flipped her right hand through the air absentmindedly, then turned her wrist to point after Anika’s still moving form.
“And you are not concerned that this may be a move to separate you from our own court and the numbers offered in regard to your well-being?”
Ivuni rolled her eyes. “She doesn’t look that threatening.”
“And if there are more of her kind lying in wait?”
“That’s what I have you for.” She knocked her knuckles gently against his ribs, eliciting a faint oof sound from between his clenched teeth.
“My lady is so very kind when doling out her trust to me.” He sighed, a hint of tease on the tip of his tongue.
“My, my, Telahmis, was that an attempt at humor?” The corner of her mouth tugged upward, and she compelled herself to move towards Anika. “Do you need to sit down and catch your breath?”
An exasperated hum followed her, as did the sound of his steps.
Fireflies sparked in the evening air, holding their lit ember forms when Anika drew her left hand out in a sweeping motion as though to conduct an orchestra of light. When it seemed she was sure they had joined her in the lilac garden that led out into the orchard, Anika lifted her right hand from her side and lifted numerous thin granite slabs that varied in height from Ivuni’s ankle to her knee and created a circle around the nearest fruit tree. She turned her left hand over and the moss on the trunk woke and flushed green and gold, then the orange blossoms scattered through the thick green leaves bloomed and scented the air.
It brought a smile to Ivuni’s face immediately and she moved towards the tree, kneeling onto the grass outside the stone ring. “Here.” Her smile widened as she set her hand against the soil, willing her magic into the depths. She opted for a lavender clutch and imagined the roots taking shape, the sprout burrowing up through the top soil, the penducle thickening as it stretched and matured into corolla and whorls, then further calyces. The leaflets greened and stretched. With little coercion, each tiny but peeled back and added their soft scent to the already awakened citrus.
“You can help things grow, also?” Anika brightened and stepped to put herself beside her.
Ivuni cupped her hands and willed it to fill with rich soil until it was nearly overflowing. Her magic reached into its depths, forming the basis of a seed and spinning it in to full creation, she coaxed it to split and take root. Once a small system was established and the roots could draw on the soil she ushered it upward until a green shoot sprouted upward. Three familiar leaves uncurled and she smiled at Anika.
The dwarf exhaled, but it was shock on her face, not relief or joy that Ivuni found painted across her features. “You created it.” There was a hint of disbelief in her voice as she stepped forward, closer to inspect the item more carefully. “I do not possess this kind of magic.” She whispered. “None of my people do.”
Anika gasped and straightened, prompting Ivuni to seek out whatever had stolen her attention, only to find it on the steps leading down into the garden. Her mother with Solas to one side of her, and her father to the other, with half a dozen important looking dwarves, a pair of golden clad sentinels, and Ethelan. “I was not supposed to leave the foyer.” The woman beside her confessed timidly.
Mythal gave a nod of her head, a silent beckoning. “The fault is mine.” She assured Anika as she straightened, aware of the potential dirt smudges along the lower parts of her dress. “If anyone is to blame, it is me.” Then she made herself move, acquiescing her mother’s subtle request for her.
She was aware of the shorter body moving after her, but the slightest of glances told her that Anika moved behind her, trying to step in sync with her own pace and it prompted Ivuni to slow herself ever so slightly to allow the smaller woman to keep up. She wondered if it was fear that compelled Anika to keep at her backside, or if it was second nature, as she was seemingly a servant of some sort.
“Ivuni.” Elgar’nan’s deep voice nearly shook the branches of the nearest trees.
“I engaged Anika.” She confessed, because it was the truth.
“Who is this that she speaks so freely?” One of the male Stonemen looked up at Mythal.
“You don’t have to refer to me in the third person as though I am not present.” Ivuni grumbled.
The man whipped his attention back towards her. “And how have you come to learn our words?”
“I spoke with Anika.” She replied, it was the truth.
When the Stoneman stepped to look around her form towards the other woman, Ivuni held her ground, a frown burrowing her brows. “She was to remain in the first chamber.”
“In our court, should Ivuni engage an individual, it is expected that they in turn reply.” Solas cut himself into the conversation. “She is daughter to Mythal and Elgar’nan.”
“So the blame for leading her astray from her apparent post, is mine.” Ivuni reiterated and allowed her eyes to sweep to the ground beneath them with a bow of her head. “I inquired if she possessed magic and she replied honestly. Then I asked her to show me, and she obliged my request.”
“Did Anika give you our words?” The Stoneman narrowed his eyes.
Ivuni swallowed. “I asked for them. I wanted to learn to speak with her.”
“My daughter is very inquisitive.” Elgar’nan’s deep voice rumbled, a brush of his magic sending a tingling along her skin that indicated to her directly that though his eyes were on the dwarves, he had his focus on her just the same, if not in heavier measure.
“Ethelan?” Mythal shifted subtly towards him, her left arm lifting form her side in a quiet beckoning. “Please see Ivuni inside to the rest of the gathering.”
She frowned, but knew when to keep her tongue behind her teeth. “Here.” She shifted and held out the sapling towards Anika. “This is for you.” She watched the way the woman seemed to glance at those who were apparently superior to her before she carefully cupped her hands together to accept the sapling. “They like when you sing to them.” She said as she placed the baby tree in the stonewoman’s woman’s waiting hands. Then she dusted her hands off on each other and took three steps up towards her mother. Mythal nodded her head once more and Ivuni took note of Ethelan moving to her side, prompting Telahmis to flank him. “It was nice to meet you, Anika.” She offered the woman a smile before moving towards Ethelan and following him away back inside.
She became aware of another figure shadowing her steps once they were within the confines of the estate and she glanced over her shoulder to see Solas all but on her heels, his gaze fixed ahead of them and his hands folded behind his back. Her brows buckled in confusion at his presence before she shifted her glance to Ethelan.
“I wasn’t aware I required two chaperones.” She commented.
“There are many things that you are not aware of.” Solas replied but kept his eyes on the path.
Ivuni paused and looked up at him as he came to a halt beside her. “And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Not here.” She watched him glance over his shoulder as he moved closer to her. Then his hand was at her waist and she felt the world fall away.
Her fingers bunched the gray silk of his tunic tightly in her left hand when gravity settled back around them and she drew in a sharp, deep breath. Stars twitched in her eyes and her knees wobbled, threatening to give out until the hand at her lower back became an arm that hoisted her against his side and she pressed her face against his shoulder. “A little warning next time.” She huffed out, groggy, her head light and her mouth dry.
“What can I get for her, my lord?” A male voice inquired.
“Water.” Solas replied in the next moment. “And something citrus.” He continued as he swept her up in his arms. She groaned as the action prompted her equilibrium to tilt once more. “Perhaps some of the breaded pheasant.” Then he was moving and she pressed her eyes shut.
“Where are we?” She pressed out, more a of a demand than she intended.
“One of my holdings.” He replied simply.
“Where is Telahmis?”
“Ethelan will bring him through one of the mirrors.”
They had started moving upward at some point, a…spiraling ascent towards another level of wherever it was he had stolen her away to. When she chanced opening a single eye, she spied alabaster veined with gold, and flecked with smatterings of jade. When he turned, she snapped her eye shut once more as the world tried to tilt. The floor evened out and a wash of cold air brushed up against every exposed bit of her skin, prickling it into tiny peaks.
His steps halted, and she became aware of him lowering her, settling her onto something soft that gave and cradled beneath her weight.
“Andruil apparently rarely split the world around you.” He commented, a hint of disappointment or disdain. She somewhat expected a tsk, but it never came.
“There was rarely a need for such.” She grimaced as she leaned forward and set her forehead against her knees. It was the edge of a seating surface, a cushion, or a…her eyes popped open to take in the edge of the bed he had settled her onto, her toes barely touching the floor. “And she warned me before drawing me through.”
He scoffed and she turned her head lazily to the side to watch him latch a pair of tall stained glass door shut, diminishing some of the chill sweeping into the room.
“Why am I wherever it is you’ve brought me?”
“Because you are a distraction.” He replied as he walked himself around the end of the bed and she tried to follow him with her eyes, turning over her other shoulder when he briefly moved out of her field, and watched him shut another beautiful set of doors.
“A distraction for who?”
“You too easily engaged one of the Children of the Stone.” He deflected with ease.
She wrinkled her nose. “By being cordial?”
“By assuming that you may speak to whomever you choose.”
“She was in the main audience hall.” She countered and quickly rose to her feet, an action she immediately regretted as her vision swam. Rather than rushing to her side as most would, Solas kept his ground and folded his hands behind himself. “What was I supposed to do, ignore her?”
“Would that have been so difficult?”
“Yes!” He was prodding at her irritation and she was beginning to despise him for it.
He stared at her, his eyes shifting between her blue and gold before they briefly slid down the length of her neck and he hesitated to step. “Why?” His gaze flicked back upward.
“Because I am not rude.” She growled. “I may be highborn, the child of Evanuris, but that does not elevate me above anyone else.”
“Yes, it does.” He breathed.
“No, it does not.”
“Ivuni-” He faltered when she shook her head, and then he bit his lip, her focus immediately zeroing in on the action.
“Solas.” He lifted his head at the sound of his name and she struggled to right her balance. “Focus should be on Anika.”
“There is no need to focus on a servant, Ivuni.” He replied, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
She snorted. “She is the Paragon of Korsikha Thaig.”
Solas frowned at her, confusion and suspicion swimming into his emotions. “She is a child.”
“I am a child!” She snapped back, her frustration spiking, not even the bitter look that he offered could chase it from her voice. “Three hundred and seven years old and I am looked upon as such. Does my age diminish my status?” She pressed and took a step closer to him. “Our society views me as a child, but I bow to no one.” She lifted her arm from her side, drawing it through the air and scattering ivy against the nearby set of doors. “No one. Now take me home.”
“I do not want you near the Children of the Stone.”
“The last time I checked, my father was a taller and darker man.”
“Your mother wants you safe and away from them.” He countered.
“Do you ever think for yourself?” She grumbled back as she stumbled towards the foot of the bed, aware of the concern on his face when she mis-stepped and her weight and disorientation dropped her to one knee. “Mythal this, and Mythal that.”
“Have some respect.”
“Have some respect for yourself.”
He inhaled sharply through is nose, biting back whatever retort sat prime on the tip of his tongue. “A meal will be here for you shortly.” Solas offered her barely half a glance as he moved by her towards the spiraling walkway.
“That’s it?” She called after him.
He halted at the sound of her voice and she watched his ribcage expand, inhaling before he turned back to face her. “What else can I do for you, my lady?” He sighed, irritated.
“Where are we?” She enunciated each word.
“The south.” He replied.
“That’s rather vague.”
“It was meant to be so.”
“Why are you like this?”
Then he was moving back towards her and she half climbed, half slithered back up to her feet, her fingertips against the edge of the bed as a mock of support as he moved directly into her personal space.
His scent hit her, hard; lemon grass, mint, parchment, paint, the remnant of whatever last spell he had cast. She immediately fixated on the thrumming pulse at the side of his neck, his heart beating just as quickly as her own as his emotions and thoughts ricocheted against hers. If her head wasn’t already a mess, she would have shoved him back away from her for tipping both her thoughts and emotions on end.
“You push without considering consequence.” His voice quiet, his breath light against her cheeks.
She swallowed and lifted her chin. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Yes, it does.”
The mirror in the corner near a closet shimmered, waiting to be released, but Solas leaned somewhat closer to her as she swayed once more. Her weight listed towards him and a hand slid up around the back of her neck as her cheek bumped up against his shoulder, dousing her once more in the way that he smelled. The tip of his nose brushed the point of her ear as he steadied her back on her feet and slowly withdrew. He swallowed, and she watched the motion in his throat with more than simple fascination.
He lifted his free hand and a flutter of his magic caressed the room, a figure tripped through the mirror. When she turned towards it, she noted Telahmis first, and then Ethelan stepping through after him.
“Get some rest.” Solas spoke against her ear, and then suddenly his presence was moving away from her and her mouth failed to call him back.
Light refracted from the perfectly cut translucent yellow center and she smiled. Her brow wrinkled in curiosity as she looked up at the large looming figure. Deep set, near obsidian eyes glinted in the midday light as he peered down at her, long curved ivory tusks seeming to frame his jaw from the angle she sat at below him. His large misaligned, sharp teeth clacked together as he smiled, seemingly taken by her overwhelming appreciation; it rolled off of her and she wasn’t even concerned about hiding it.
“How do you manage such beautiful and refined precision on something seemingly so small?”
He looked down at the gem that seemed tiny between his smudged gray thumb and forefinger, then he glanced at her briefly before seeming to look beyond her as though he could weave an answer for her from the air above her head. “Time.” He replied, his voice a gentle, deep tone, somewhat akin to a large boulder rolling slowly through a rocky crevice. “Patient mind,” he continued, his octave dipping impossibly further, “patient fingers.”
Ivuni leaned forward on her knees and traced a fingertip along the table line of the stone. In its entirety, it was larger than her hand, regardless of how dainty it appeared in his. “It is far finer than any stone worked by any Elvhen hand that I have seen.” She whispered and muffled a laugh with a palm against her lips.
The giant chuckled in response, the sound a deep rumble in his chest that sent a subtle shockwave through the ground beneath her. “Not tell small people.”
She shook her head. “Definitely not.” Her people were proud and would take overwhelming offense to such a declaration, regardless of their unwillingness to share such with her directly. They would whisper and grumble about it once she left their presence.
“You tell me if stone not…beautiful.” It was almost a question. “I would try new stone, to make beautiful.”
“I highly doubt you would need to ‘try new’ with any stone.” She beamed up at him. “Your mastery is rather obvious.”
“You are kind.”
“You are modest.” She replied with a shake of her head.
“I learn for many ages.”
She wasn’t sure if she could ever comprehend just how many ages he might have spent learning to perfect the skills needed to render something so lovely. She could barely comprehend the vastness of Andruil’s own existence, and she was the youngest in their family next to herself. “Did you learn this from another of your people? Your mother? Father? Or were you born with a drive to cut stones?”
He turned the stone between his fingers with ease and allowed the sunlight it captured to bounce against her face, throwing a halo of rainbow of light about her form. “Mother.” He ‘murmured’. “Long ago.”
The silence that lingered allowed for her mind to once more consider the cold that hovered about her form. Where it seemed to prickle her skin regardless of the cloak that one of Solas’s people had insisted on draping around her shoulders. The giant beside her, however, almost completely lacking in any extra clothing was by all accounts unperturbed by the biting chill.
He appeared to consider broaching further, then hesitated and regrouped his thoughts. “Hard to decide how to respond to you.” He shifted then, sitting somewhat more upright as he rested his hands on his knees. “Small people…not speak with mine this way.” Turning slightly, he glanced at her. “You reach with your words.” He pressed the hand not holding the gem against his chest. “You let feelings brush me, here. Not…hiding.”
The admittance sobered her and the smile gradually bled from her features. She mimicked his settling, letting her left foot slide outward until she could curl it around her right leg and folded them. So he could perceive her emotions, at least to some degree. Giants had fought with the Banished Ones, or so the stories went. Warred, and warred, and warred.
“Ears and eyes like old ones from before.” He commented, aligning her appearance with the others that he was familiar with. “You become like the sky serpents?” He asked somewhat more carefully.
She flinched but looked up at him, meeting his imploring gaze. “I can.” She admitted. “But I have not taken such a form in a very long time.” It was the truth, no reason to lie. “Not since I was smaller than I am now.” And she often wondered what it would feel like were she to ever try again. She wondered about it being painful, her body possibly having forgotten how to realign itself into such a guise.
His features scrunched into what she would describe as confusion, his jaw flexing as his brow puckered. “This form already small.” He nudged her shoulder gently with a knuckle.
A sliver of laughter curled up the back of her throat in reply and she pushed herself up to her feet. She watched him watch her with interest as she lifted her hand out from her side and held it out flat, level with her thigh. “When I was this small.”
The giant leaned somewhat forward to assess the indicated size and he pursed his lips. “Very small, then.” He decided. “Not many ages. You…crawl when that small?”
Her smile returned in earnest. “I could walk.” She snorted and waved her hand dismissively. “My legs were just much shorter.”
He exhaled, and his breath cast her in a brief bubble of warmth, a welcome break against the cold of the mountain. “Legs short now.”
Another bubble of laughter baited his own forth and she basked in the rumbling that passed from him into the earth. “Not all of us can be tall enough to reach the sky.”
He gave a nod of understanding, then narrowed his eyes. “But if you become like sky serpent,” he tilted his head, “you become like jötunn?”
A reply hesitated on her tongue as she considered it. “I…” She frowned slightly. “I have never tried, to be honest.”
“You more intimidating el-vhen if you large like jötunn.”
She looked up at him again. “But if I became like you, then being you would not be unique.” Taking a step forward, she set her ridiculously miniature hand against his warm wrist. “And there is no reason for me to be intimidating.”
He considered her words with care as he mindlessly turned the gemstone about between his fingers again and she wondered if his pressing about her changing forms was out of genuine curiosity or cautionary inquiry. She had offered him no threat, yet her approach into the frost laden valley had apparently startled him upon first meeting. The way he had reared back, hand seeking the massive axe left idly beside the cliff face had been telling. Her small stature and lack of aggression had initially proved little in the way of ‘friendly’ to him and it had prompted her to wonder just how conflicted the history between her people and his had been. The giantess she had met in the woods to the east had not been quite so put off by her.
The stone bounced a smattering of light around her as Elshamir continued to consider her words. With little further thought, she pushed her fingers up into her hair and drew her magic about herself. She was aware of the sudden jerk in motion made by the giant beside her, but she had taken to her vulpine form so often in her life, that slipping her skin for it was somewhat like taking a breath. Her clothing fell away into a pool of fineweave and velvet. She sat on her haunches then, her front paws together before her in proper form, briefly, before she rolled through the snow and onto her back, tilting her head awkwardly sideways.
The change and presentation earned her another rolling bout of laughter. At the trembling sensation, she rolled back onto her front and up onto four legs. She yipped at him and nudged her nose against his hand, and immediately his fingers brushed along her form, gently slicking her fur in a motion back towards her fluffy tail.
“A very disarming choice.” He chuckled. She turned about several times, nipping at his fingers until he relented and petted her once more. “Still commanding.”
A whine caught on the gentle frosty wind and Ivuni turned her attention towards a looming ridge a healthy distance from their location. The giant stiffened and immediately drew away from her, rolling to his side to immediately stand.
The large black wolf lingered along an invisible barrier line, his figure unmoving save his eyes that shadowed the giant’s every move. Ivuni immediately banished her borrowed form and stood completely nude in bronze Elvhen skin, pale hair tickling against her shoulders and waist. The shift seeming to take the wolf’s focus from the giant. It yipped low and stalked the invisible line.
“Time you go.” Elshamir murmured to her.
She swallowed, but relented. “So it seems.”
The giant knelt with caution, no quick motions, no threatening reaches, as he settled onto a knee beside her and set the canary colored stone into the snow before her. “You keep.” Then his hand wrapped around the haft of his dark bladed axe and he moved away from her further into the valley as he regained his footing. His steps cast tremors through the ground beneath her feet that receded in intensity the further away her acquaintance moved, never turning back to look at her.
She bent over at the waist to scoop the gem into her arms and then called for her clothing without motion. The cloak folded about her shoulders and the wispy lengths that constituted her dress when folded and knotted properly were tucked around her chest and left to hang loose. She didn’t need to be called or beckoned to move herself towards the waiting wolf. Her feet moved her because they were meant to, yet rather than dipping her head and staring at her toes as they combed through loose snow, she kept her focus on the him.
Beyond the ridge it stood upon, she exhaled audibly at the sight of Telamis lying in wait, his massive leather wings tucked tightly against his back, his long tail curled about him like a waiting snake. Lips drawn back to reveal half a snarl, head lowered to promote the curling horns from his crown. She would venture to say that he was beautiful if not for her thoughts cohesively forming properly, puzzling together as Solas stepped out from behind the dragon’s side.
She turned back to the wolf, stepping to put herself next to him. He stood somewhat taller than she did, his obsidian fur a stark contrast against the snow that spread out around him.
It ruffled her irritation. Had it been only him, she might have grumbled something smart and dismissive, snapping about not needing someone to watch her. Finding a dragon and Solas lying in wait unseen, eavesdropping, seemingly waiting to strike…it poked at and riled her anger into sharp focus. She curled the gemstone more tightly against herself and pressed her teeth together as she met the wolf’s waiting gaze. There was no malice, no judgement, no anything. Just silent contemplation, simple and neutral.
Then she moved once more, only away from him rather than towards and set her focus on the keep. Telahmis’s dragonself chirped after her but she stomped on, snow shifting beneath her soles and she hastily wrapped herself in a cocoon of heat.
She did not look at the pair of golden sentinels that waited at the gates, refused to offer any individual her attention or focus even when they hurried out of her way, or hesitated to take a knee as she brushed by them. She angrily swept her way through the front courtyard, her mind set on climbing path that led up into the main building and heading directly to the room quartered for her. It took less time than she imagined it should, her mind clouded and her focus tripped. The hall stretched out before her, dim initially, torches igniting blue as she stepped within, responding to her presence. The cloak fluttered and offered the faintest sense of drag in the wake of her determined steps.
The feet that moved after her, she assumed to be Telahmis and she half rounded ready to berate him for succumbing to the whims of the other two that presently held the source of her ire. Even still, part of her brain, the rational portion, acknowledged that he should hold the least guilt, if any. He had spent the entirety of his life being coerced by those in positions of power greater than his own, greater than he was ever to know. It was his nature to obey. Especially after the manipulation thrust upon him by Ghilan’nain.
She laughed then, when her eyes settled on someone else, something amused and tinged in irony. With little more than a thought, she bent the fabric of the world around herself to cross the half-length of the hall to put her directly before him before he could blink. Her figure suddenly within reach, by the look in his perfectly blue eyes, had not been something he had anticipated, and she noted the momentary lapse in his neutral mask. A shred of something victorious and smug needled her.
“Anaris?” She growled at him, her free hand rising to set against his chest before she shoved, prompting him to take a step back to absorb the brunt of her dismissible assault. “Telahmis in dragon form? What did you think was going to happen?”
“You left the grounds.” Solas replied, evenly, dark robes settling about him.
“You didn’t answer my question!”
“I am not bound by any means to do so.” He took a single step forward enough to all but banish any space between them, his voice rising quickly and his tone hardening, his teeth barred. “I am not some servant for you to command.”
She laughed again, letting her head fall back as she took a step back to mirror his previous motion forward. “That’s rich coming from you.” She sneered, and her words lanced through her own chest. It was like a spell cast about her, to seek to wound him with her words. She knew the root of it, but she did not want to acknowledge it, did not want to envision him with a servant or anyone on his lap. It should mean nothing, and the sooner she destroyed the whims of her childhood the better. In seeking to rid it from her thoughts, she moved on and hesitated when a new consideration presented itself. “You summoned Anaris to track me.”
He had the decency to-at least briefly-look away form her. She watched his jaw work, caught somewhere between deciding on words to offer and struggling to swallow them down.
“Too good to weave the blood spell yourself? Don’t want to get your own hands dirty? Or do you not want to be confused for being one of them? One of the rebels, Fen’harel?”
He looked at her once more. “Blood calls to blood.”
She lightly pressed her eyes shut and swallowed, the attempt a thickened undertaking. His emotions and inclinations were a torrent that he had drawn closer to himself and her own pride kept her from reaching out to broach beyond the wisps that gently pebbled against her own field.
“I feared for your safety.” He told her then, whisper quiet, it sounded a confession from his lips, seeking to soothe the ache she had pierced through her barely moments prior with her accusation. “When he found you with the Jötnar, my response was impulsive.”
The sincerity in his voice caught her off guard, disarming her of her anger. The down turned corners of his mouth relaxed and his eyes softened, the fight draining out of him and replaced by concern and regret. “Why?” She breathed, tilting her head curiously.
He stared at her, his thoughts creating a kaleidoscope of changes within his eyes as she sought to hold them. She glanced at his hands when movement drew her to them, watching his fingers flex and then curl into loose fists. She swallowed again and erased the step she had backtracked onto, putting herself all the closer to him once more.
She searched his eyes, seeking his unspoken words, and then slowly swept lower, down the line of his nose towards his nostrils which flared in response, then settled on the plush swell of his lips. If she took even half a step closer, she could easily lift up onto her toes and nudge his chin with the tip of her nose. She could feel him watching her. When he kept his place and continued to do little more than breathe, she raised her left arm from her side, slowly as though afraid to spook wild prey, and the tips of her fingers skimmed the sharp line of his jaw. The miniscule motion of him tipping into her touch could have been easily missed.
Drawing her courage, she spread her fingers upward, tracing the vague hollow of his cheek towards the bone that crowned it. The pad of her thumb touched the corner of his mouth and her gaze swept to the pulse in his throat, lingering on the rapid thrum and the peripheral view of his chest rising and falling with each audible breath.
The black silken tunic he had opted for was stitched with iridescent ivory along the neck and down the front where it was left open for a trace of skin to be perceived beneath the thin gold and silverite chains that disappeared into other layers. Her hand slipped lower, then, abandoning its ascent to gently frame the column of his throat, her touch ghosting over the surface of his skin, noting the heat his body put off.
Fingers tangled loosely in her hair, and she chanced the fraction of a step closer. It was like jumping into a pool, one moment being dry, and the next completely submerged. His scent rushed to surround her and the cacophony of emotions he had drawn to himself bled against her own. She was aware of him tipping forward, hearing and watching him inhale, deeply, fully expanding his lungs. She trailed her fingers away from his neck, down the opening in his shirt and the hand in her hair fisted in response.
“Why?” She murmured, seeking an answer still.
That was the moment the spell broke.
He released her and immediately stepped out of the intimate space that had been created. When she looked up at him, his pupils had dilated with enough extent to have all but banished any trace of blue. He lifted his right hand and the larger mirror in the hall rippled to life.
“That was inappropriate of me.” He confessed, his voice hazy and dry, his body tense. He looked to her feet. “Elgar’nan sent word that the Children of the Stone have left Arlathan, that was why I followed you off the grounds.”
“You’re free to return to the city.”
At his name repeated, he met her gaze again, meeting her eyes with a deep-seated sense of guilt.
“Why?” She pressed again, barely above a breath.
He folded his hands behind himself, his focus lingering on her for another beat of her heart against the back of her ribs, then he turned immediately towards the hall’s doors. When she took a step and a half after him, he tore the make-up of the world apart and vanished.
Ivuni. Her mother’s voice called form beyond the mirror and she curled her gemstone tight against her chest.
“But can you do it?”
She rolled her eyes, biting back a smile that threatened to bloom in response to his sudden interest and enthusiasm. “Yes.”
“And what do you look like when you do?”
“Uhm…” she frowned for half a moment wondering why he would pose such a question. All of their kind carried similar traits through every form unique unto themselves. He had seen her as a fox, pale in most regard and she twisted a forefinger through a loose tendril of her hair for emphasis. “Like this?”
“You did not seem too sure of that.”
She exhaled audibly. “It’s been three hundred years. You’ll have to excuse me if my memory is somewhat strained.”
“You don’t change your appearance the way that your mother does?”
Her upper lip curled slightly. “Why would I do that? You don’t think that she resembles herself?”
Telahmis shook his head. “She is an entirely different creature.”
“Why don’t you change yours?”
“Fair point.” He nodded. “Will you show me?” He asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a child eager to unveil his newest spell. There was-more often than not- a reserved quality to everything he did, as though he were constantly on guard for her mood to shift on a pin, yet his genuine curiosity and wonder was captivating.
“Why not?” He pressed.
Ivuni inhaled and struggled to lift her chin. “Our people fear dragons.”
It was something that she felt did not need to be elaborated on. The Banished Ones had taken to draconic form and never returned to anything that even minutely reflected what they had once been. They had seized power as it was presented to them, wound it into their very beings, spread terror across the world by taking such forms. Her thoughts pooled around her and she felt him draw them in.
“June believes that they lost themselves in those guises, that they succumbed to corruption in the wake of ecstatic highs.” Telahmis offered.
“They were like us.” She breathed, and she hesitated at the precipice of her thoughts, wondering if she considered their status like her own, Evanuris, or if she reflected on their appearances and identities having once been Elvhen. “What’s to stop me from becoming like them?”
A warm hand settled onto her shoulder. “You are kind.”
Ivuni sighed and folded her arms, fixing her sights on the edge of the woods ahead of them. “You do not believe that they had ever once been kind? Any one of them?”
“I am unsure if it was in their nature to have ever been as you are.”
She smirked at the neutrality in which he constructed his words.
“I know that I should not be surprised by your presence on this line, but some -apparently daft- part of me had thought you to spectate rather than participate.” A velvet smooth voice commented, amused, and a dark blur settled into her left periphery.
“What would be the fun in that, brother?” She glanced sideways at Falon’Din.
“It boggles me that you consider the death of anything to be any measure of fun.”
“Death has its place.” She dipped her chin slightly.
“Wise of you to acknowledge.”
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up on end as her skin prickled, something familiar, a memory, a buzzing at the back of her head. Turning towards the sidelines, she scanned the faces present, lingering briefly on those of her parents conversing with one another before sweeping across the array of other spectators.
Dark eyes drew her in like a void seeking to claim all light and attention. Thick horns curled away from his temples, emphasized by his snow white hair drawn back and knotted at the base of his skull. Unlike in the market, he did not appear blood splattered, the stormheart armor clean, the leather underlayers pale against his dusky skin. He stood motionless, his eyes fixed somewhere ahead of himself. She blinked, slowly, and when she opened her eyes once more, he remained, an immovable statue.
Until his eyes suddenly met hers and held fast to her attention.
Blonde hair briefly obscured her view, but he kept his place regardless, his focus directly on her.
“Ghilan’nain has brought her pets.” Falon’Din scoffed. “That one,” he moved closer to her side and nodded towards the horned man who had looked at her, though his gaze was once more elsewhere, “she keeps close and on occasion speaks to as though it could understand.”
She frowned, then, and looked at her brother once more. “Why would he not understand?”
He turned and looked at her, incredulity ripe in his assessment, his gold eyes shifting between her own, trying to riddle out her question and she frowned further. “They are empty.” He gestured back again with his chin. “They feel nothing, think nothing.”
She noted another of his kind beside him, female, dressed similarly, black hair drawn back, slightly daintier horns bent back and curled at the ends, dark eyes fixated and watching. “What do you mean?” His silence drew her round again. “Falon’Din.” She prompted and he shook himself slightly at her address.
A waft of confusion rubbed up against her and she tilted her head. “Ghilan’nain could spin her magic and build and build, but everything she gives existence to…it is not life. When they look at you, there is nothing within looking back. No will, no drive, no spirit of their own. They simply breathe in and out, following orders blindly.”
The idea of such brought her to pause, to exist without any compulsion to do more than just that. If they were so void of any such else, how could Ghilan’nain allow that kind of life? No, it wasn’t life, Falon’Din had crafted his words precisely. Were all Ghilan’nain’s creations that way? Every creature, every beast, every slip of tale she had ever been told, every thing she had cast out into the world-were they all devoid of being?
Ghilan’nain was ordered to destroy her monsters, little one.
Were they all monsters, then, if they felt nothing?
Her quiet contemplation carried her through the initiation of the hunt as she and Telahmis crossed into the woods. She was aware of the other hunters following suit, breaking into small bands or pairs before disappearing into the lush forest, but she continued to round back onto the horned people. She bit at the inside of her lip to derail her identification of them as ‘people’, Falon’Din would immediately argue such with her if he had not disappeared into the wood.
They felt nothing.
No hope, no anger, no desire, no rage.
There was depth in his eyes when he had looked at her, there along the edge of those gathered, and she had felt it in the market even if he had been a figment of her memories then. Her hold on the bow grip tightened. She had spied him in the market for the briefest of moments, lingering unmoving within the shuffling masses, his focus on her when she had found him. If he had been there, he had been real. If he had been a figment, she wondered if she had perceived him in a vision of what was to come. Ivuni shook the thought free; that was not her gift. It was rarely anyone’s. Barely Ambiguity had a grasp on the perception of the unknown ahead.
But those eyes, she had seen them before, long ago. And they had not been empty.
“Your shuddering thoughts and emotions so far flung are going to chase anything and everything away from wherever we step.”
She pursed her lips and offered him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry.”
“You do not need to apologize to me, little princess.” Telahmis teased gently and nudged her jaw with his forefinger. “You are allowed your contemplations.”
“Have you seen them before?”
He swallowed and shifted his gaze away from hers and ahead of them. “Seven different occasions.”
“Are they as Falon’Din says?”
Telahmis gave a hesitant nod and she wondered if it was out of fear of what he had seen, or if he was suddenly concerned with upsetting her. “They do as they are bid without question or concern for their own wellbeing. I would deem them slaves, but even my kind feel.”
That brought her up short and she wrapped her free hand around the bend in his arm. “You are not a slave, Telahmis. I have told you many times that you may leave, be as you will, and that-”
His hand settled around hers. “I have spent thousands of years under the thumbs of other masters, my lady, I would ask your forgiveness for the poor manner that I have indirectly shaped you. You have shown me kindness and a genuine care that I cannot recall every being gifted before in the entirely of my life. I could not leave you, even if you shoved me from your presence.”
“You made it weird.”
He grinned down at her.
Their steps took them further into the woods and she let their shared silence surround her, tried to form it around them like a shield against the wild. They needed it for the task meant to be at hand. The Summer Solstice loomed on the horizon, and Mythal had sent Andruil’s entire throng of hunters to seek a bountiful cache to provide for the festivities.
“We could take to the trees and blow darts at the others.” Telahmis offered. “I’m sure if you-” He turned suddenly, and she lifted her right hand back towards the quiver of arrows. He took several steps away from her and lifted a finger to press silently against his lips, his body wound taut in anticipation. Without warning, he bolted and she had half a breath’s time to process that fact before she urged her body to follow suit.
He moved ahead of her, a sense of familiarity lined every hurried step he put down against fauna and soil, and it tickled her to wonder if he had hunted before he had been charged to her. She wanted to call to him to ask what he was chasing when she heard it, faint, but very defined as a wail. It was not animalistic, per se, but it was strangled and very clearly that of a person.
When he altered their direction slightly, she didn’t miss a beat, and when the cry pierced through once more, closer then, she stepped and leapt with care, her strides overtaking his until she put herself out to lead.
It was distraught, pained, she realized.
The trees thinned, and a flutter of red whispered through the canopy of branches and limbs. The scent of camp fire was dim, but present. Her feet slid to a stop along the suddenly even terrain and the sound of a bowstring pulled tight had her ears perk. She huffed in full lungs of air as her body worked to right itself and Telahmis moved to put himself at her right side.
“It’s fine.” She told him quietly.
“You have an arrow pointed at your throat and you’re fine with that.” He grumbled.
She wanted to look up at him to assure him that her words genuinely expressed what she felt, but she was far to hypnotized by the engraved details that had been so expertly crafted into the wood bow of the ornate wagon that loomed just above her. The cry lit up her senses once more and she was moving with purpose. She felt a barrier fall about her skin, but she said nothing about it.
Other fields of thought, emotion, and magic feathered and railed up against her own, curiosity seeking answer. They moved in about her like water hovering around a speck of oil, yet she barely offered much beyond a few glances at the Wildish elves about her, each of whom stood with some kind of weapon in hand. They were meant to be threatening, her splintered focus could manage that much of an acknowledgement.
Her focus was following the sound of sorrow, that baited her towards a red tent, one of the flaps fluttering gently in an intermittent breeze. When she reached for it, a freckled hand immediately locked about her wrist. “Let me see.” She spoke quietly, lacing her words with an order, and she watched her would-be detainer tip his head, caught between following the instruction and fighting the compulsion. “Let me help.”
“There is no help that you can give.” The man replied carefully. He was clad in leathers and thinly woven metals, a beautifully crafted spear in his other hand. A hunter, like her, and yet so entirely other.
“I can help.” She insisted, her voice never rising to challenge.
A woman moved from her other side and drew the tent flap back enough that her slighter form could slip within without difficulty, and then she did so when the hunter released his hold.
It was warm within, almost damp, her hair seeking to cling to her skin. A woman sat reclined against pillows and furs, a bundle clutched to her bare chest. Her amber skin was flushed and slick with perspiration, dark hair plaited back out of her face. Another woman shifted near her feet, hands at work in a basin of water tinged and swirled scarlet and coral.
Ivuni swallowed as she stepped further into the dwelling and was acutely aware of every set of eyes that sought to map her form. She movedt carefully closer to the woman with the bundle until she stood near her shoulder, and the position allowed her to chance a look at the tiny quiet face that peeked through the amethyst wrappings. There was no motion, no exchange of breath, no pulse.
They are empty.
“Identify yourself.” The woman at work with the basin spoke.
Finally, she broke her glamour, let the black slip from her hair, chased the mahogany from her eyes, and tried not to wince in response to the midwife’s gasp. She knelt at the mother’s side and kept her hands to herself. “Did you name her?”
“Y-yes.” The woman choked between her sobs.
“Did she breathe?” Ivuni continued and the woman couldn’t manage a response, simply curled the tiny lifeless body closer to herself. “Did she breathe?” She pressed more urgently.
“Yes.” The midwife responded. “She drew several shallow breaths and then…stopped.”
She didn’t give her actions any further conscious thought. Her fingers drew a short blade from her hip and she cut a thin deep line across her left thumb. Blood seeped forth with little effort and she swiped it across the newborn’s forehead. Leaning forward, she touched her brow to the tiny form’s crown and focused herself.
She fractured her conscious and the world briefly blurred and then sharpened around her, the other side becoming clear and she wasn’t surprised to find a tiny wisp hovering above her. She split herself further and forced her magic into the immaterial realm to reach for the retreating ball of light, curling herself around it over and over, trying to draw it back. An invisible force attempted to counter her and she swallowed in response to the raw power of the Ether attempting to take what it would have claimed in her absence.
Her physical self lifted the blade against the forearm attached to the hand at the infant’s forehead, and split another line through the skin of her wrist, baiting her blood to her bidding. Her magic pressed outward, attempting to push back against the energy that sought to fight her for control of the little wisp. The more firmly she drew against it, the harder it seemed to counter her efforts. The spirit had belonged to it, would have returned to it and been assimilated back into the make-up of the Ether, but she refused to waver. She drew another line against the skin of her arm, deeper, drawing another eruption of warm carmine forward. She pushed outward and threaded further tendrils of her own magic around her quarry until the faintest echo of a pulse rippled across the expanse of the Ether. It thrummed against her skin, reverberated through her bones. She startled when it pushed through her against the threads of her veins, seeking almost in its pace and direction until it centered in her heart and attempted to pace itself to her own beat.
At once, the pulses aligned and she yanked back, drawing the wisp into her grip. She forced herself to realign back inside of her own skin and drew her magic back into the physical world. The transition forced a gasp of air into her body and she fell back away from the mother and onto her side. Every breath burned its way down her throat, seeking to pressurize her lungs as though their function had been suspended.
A firm hand pushed around her ribcage her and another set against her upper arm, dragging her back and upward until she was cradled against a firm body. Still her eyes remained fixed on the woman and the newborn until the tiny body shifted, drew in a breath, and then finally cried. Relief crested over her like a breaking wave and she let herself settle against the firm body at her backside.
“You’ve too generous a heart for the world you were coerced into.” Andruil hummed and it reverberated through her.
“How…” Ivuni sucked another greedy breath inward, “…how did you find me so quickly?”
Andruil snorted a dismissive laugh. “Did you really think you could fashion such a desperate spell with such questionable tactics and I would not have felt it the moment you called your blood forth?”
Blood calls to blood.
“Where is Telahmis?”
“He is outside with Falon’Din and Solas.”
She tried to rally her strength into sitting more upright, only to bite back the urge to turn in on herself to stave off the nausea that threatened to rack her. “What are they doing here?”
“Falon’Din responded to the spirit, Solas responded to your presence stretched between realms.” She sighed.
Fingers slid gently against her scalp and she exhaled, settling back against Andruil. When she looked down at her arm, the deepest line she had cut was already sealed shut. The only evidence of what she had done was the thick coating of blood still drying against her skin.
“I don’t think that’s the best idea.” Falon’Din’s voice preceded his step inside.
When she turned her head to look at him, she watched him move directly towards the mother, offering the woman a cordial greeting before his attention fastened on the tinier body. Solas filled her view next, immediately assessing the small space, accounting for the Wildish before he settled onto her. She held his gaze and she felt the needling of him against her mind, and then she tasted the tang of his surprise and agitation against the back of her throat when he took the state of her bloodied arm into account.
He was clever enough to puzzle it out without her encouragement and she left him to it, putting her eyes elsewhere.
“Let’s get you up and somewhere a little more comfortable.” Andruil spoke against her temple. “I am disappointed to return you to Arlathan without any prize to show for it.”
Ivuni looked once more towards the woman and watched her smile down at the bundle in her arms. “I did not fell a deer, but there was prize enough in the woods.”
Andruil shifted then and she tried to move in tandem with her sister’s motions. Andruil managed to get her to her feet, using her own body as a crutch as her body swayed and her knees shook beneath her weight. A thicker arm slipped against her waist, another against the backs of her knees, hoisting her upward against a solid chest and the overwhelmingly familiar scent of mint and lemon. “Exactly how much blood did you use to cross over?” He asked, his tone tight.
“Enough to accomplish what I set out to do.”
“That does not answer my question.”
“I am not bound by any means to do so.” She scoffed, throwing his words back in his face.
His emotions bristled even as he wrestled them away from her. “Who taught you to use blood magic?”
She sighed when he stepped them out of the tent and into the cleaner air outside, the Wildish lined the path away and she had enough will to glance at a handful of them. Watched them gently press their fists to their lips before dropping the same fists against their chests.
“No one has taught me how to fashion my own magic since the day you said goodbye to me when I left Arlathan behind.”
“Andruil did not sh-”
“No.” She cut him off. “How could she?”
“Who else knows about this?”
“At this point?” She sighed and let her head settle against his shoulder. “As far as I know, Andruil, Ilona, Falon’Din, you.”
“Neither Mythal or Elgar’nan are aware that you are capable of utilizing blood magic?”
“Why would they?” They had sent her away.
His hold on her tightened and she subtly turned her face against his collarbone to quietly inhale. “Close your eyes and hold your breath.” He instructed, his lips against the shell of her ear. When she did so, the fabric of the world bent and twisted around them.
She thought that she had dreamed it.
“What are you making?” She had asked as she crawled up onto a stool next to her mother’s table. When the item threatened to topple sideways beneath her weight and fumbling, she had pushed her hand out, spinning a meager extent of her magic to stabilize herself, finding an approving smile waiting on her mother’s patient face.
“It’s an eluvian, my little love.” Her mother had replied, drawing her hand back to reveal a rose locked in the gold of the frame, beneath it a crescent depiction of one of the moons, and then the tail of a dragon.
“Oh.” She had beamed a smile. “Where is it going to go?”
Mythal stared at her for a long while as the brightness in her eyes dimmed slightly and the smile on her lips slipped to something more contemplative. “Somewhere not yet determined.” She’d confessed as she had reached a hand out to caress the side of her face. “Perhaps someday we will discover the destination together.”
It appeared complete as she looked up at it towering over her. She could not recall the exact steps she had taken to arrive in the seemingly disregarded portion of the estate and she wondered if the eluvian had called to her, beckoned for her attention once more as it had garnered it centuries prior. It was near eight people side to side wide, and eight people on top of each other tall. She had to crane her neck to seek the upper most curve that disappeared into the shadow of the dark ceiling. Blue bellflowers and aster had spilled in through the nearby decrepit window, curled through out the otherwise empty room, and had perked when she had stepped within.
Along the right side of the frame just before her, she noted the roses and ivy fashioned out of gold, the crescent moon that had only been part of a slightly more detailed depiction she had not noticed in her youth, meant to illustrate the phases of waxing and waning. Then the dragon she had only seen the tail of before, how it curled down into a thick body crowned with beautiful wings and horns. Further upward, more vining and arrows, then raised knobs that appeared random until they strung together to create the spear constellation.
The glass was silent and unmoving, not simply sleeping or suspended, but inert, and she wondered if it had ever known a caress of magic. Beneath her seeking fingertips, it rippled ever so subtly in response and she drew her hand back as though it had burned her. Almost immediately, it once more lapsed into utter stillness. She stared at it, waiting for it to flutter once more beneath her gaze by simple will alone as though it could sense her desire to step through to the secrets it kept, but it remained unchanging. Until her curiosity nipped at her fingers and she reached forward enough that it responded to her gentle touch and hummed quietly.
“The slaves have sayings about curiosity killing those who seek to prod incessantly at it.”
It was the term that brought her up short, her inspection stilling while her heart kicked to an angry gallop within her chest. She tried to suppress it and bit her lip until she nearly drew blood before she turned to look at him. “Will I be the next victim, then, brother?”
A smirked tugged at half of his mouth. “I would do all in my power to keep you from its wrath.”
“How honorable of you.”
“There is a part of me that would do anything for you, little sister.”
She tipped her head and fluttered her lashes at him. “Only a part of you?”
He stood at a corner of the overhang, split by a defining line between the waning sunlight and the shadow the darkened chamber cast. “How did you even find this little fractured corner?”
“I’m not sure.” She replied truthfully as she took a step back and glanced up the length of the glass once more. Then she sighed and turned slightly towards her brother until a round divot the size of her fist in the frame, cradled by the dragon’s tail drew her in once more, albeit fleetingly. “I remember mother fashioning this.”
Dirthamen chuckled. “That eluvian goes nowhere.” His steps brought him closer until he stood to her left, then he lifted his hand and stroked his fingertips across the glass, pushing a flush of crackling magic against it, only for it to dissipate against the surface as it remained solid and merely reflective. “It responds to nothing.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Mother claimed it would go somewhere beautiful, but she’s never opened it.”
“Maybe she hasn’t really decided on the destination yet.”
“Or she chooses not to share it with anyone else.”
Ivuni frowned. “Perhaps she hasn’t found it or created it yet.”
He smiled down at her, a tight-lipped sort. “Mother has her secrets, youngest, do not ever doubt that. Secrets she keeps tucked close to herself and shares with very few, if anyone at all.”
She hesitated, simply offered him a glossing smile and the slightest nod of her head to admit her acceptance of such a notion. Every living thing had secrets, they were allowed to have them, they were what set them apart from the incorporeal and formless. Thoughts, emotions, secrets…it was what made them living, the concept simply to possess them.
“Everyone has secrets.” She replied.
“Much like Falon’Din.” He hummed. “When he returned from the solstice hunt, he seemed… preoccupied.” He pursed his lips. “Though, I am not sure if that would be the right description for it, however, he wouldn’t say what it was that had him so engrossed.” He flicked his fingers against the eluvian and a tng sound reverberated back. “Even when I pursued him, he turned to the roads where I am unable to follow.”
He was fishing for some sort of confession and she tilted her head slightly, letting confusion dance across her features. If he was trying to wheedle it out of her, then what he claimed was true. Falon’Din either wasn’t clear on what had happened in the woods, or he had kept it to himself. The latter was an odd notion considering the individual stating he had kept his secrets from him. They shared near everything; plans, feelings, theories, desires, lovers, everything. Still.
“Perhaps it was the presence of Ghilan’nain’s horned ones.” She offered and she purposely let a stroke of anxiety color her emotions. “He said they are…” she swallowed for emphasis, “empty. That they feel nothing.” She turned and gave him her full attention, her teeth nibbling at the inside of her cheek. “No will, no desire, just empty shells that act as instructed.” It wasn’t difficult to pepper herself with the unease the revelation had spurred.
“She calls them Qu’nari.”
Ivuni frowned at the harsh sounding word. “Falon’Din said that everything she creates is empty.”
Dirthamen sighed and glanced once more at the eluvian. “That is not a lie.” He lifted his brows and shoulders in tandem. “Ghilan’nain’s ability is to craft an imitation of life. She could design hundreds of beings, creatures, monsters, as she had thousands of years ago before their number grew out of hand and she was instructed to destroy them.”
“Because they felt nothing.” He looked at her. “The Banished sought to corrupt their forms and having been crafted of Ghilan’nain’s magic, they were somewhat Elvhen in design to an extent.”
“A weakness, then.”
“But…there are serpents in the deep seas.” She could recall that much.
Dirthamen nodded. “It is unclear if it has to do with their size and intricate creation, or their distance from the lands, but they have developed a form of wild consciousness. They have grown beyond her power to control and retreated.” When she readied a question, he lifted a finger to halt her. “That does not mean they are tame or can be. They are wild and destructive things, Ivuni.”
They are empty.
“But…Ghilan’nain created the halla.”
“A creature she has revised a hundred times, always destroying the preceding make-up in favor of the newer iteration.”
“They are alive.” She insisted, because when one looked into their eyes, they were so much like deer, elk, almost as consciously aware of the world as the griffin.
“Only the most recent version that was seized by Andruil before she disappeared to the Wilds with you in tow.” He waved a hand. “Payment she had taken from Ghilan’nain for a slight against Ilona. Andruil is rather taken with the things she loves, however briefly, as she had once been with Ghilan’nain herself.”
She knew the story well enough that she did not need her brother of all people to rehash it for her. As at ease as he could be in detailing their sister’s more intimate endeavors, she preferred each to their own.
“I did not notice your presence at the Solstice Festival.”
She looked up at him again and shook her head dismissively. “I was tired from the hunt.”
His jaw shifted as though an argument was simmering on his tongue, then he pressed his lips together. “Too tired to partake of the hunt you had a hand in?”
Having been spent had not been a lie. When Solas had cleared them of the Wildish camp, he had cocooned them in his magic, scraped the tip of his nose against the shell of her ear, and stepped them right through the world directly into Arlathan. Then he had pushed her into Ethelan’s arms with a direct instruction to see her fed and rested.
And then he had left her.
And it hadn’t been only for moments.
He hadn’t returned at all.
Her fatigue had been both physical and emotional.
“You never used to keep secrets.” When she looked at him, he offered her a kind, semi-nostalgic smile.
And that was how she had left him, with little more than a sliding look as her feet turned her out of the shadowed and reclusive chamber back into the estate proper. Her soles whisper quiet against the onyx that gradually bled into bronze freckled white marble. The notice had brought her only briefly to pause, wondering when and where the transition had taken place; if it had been black in the chamber, or white, and at what point had it faded between each hue. If she backtracked then she-
“So that is your choice?” Andruil’s voice cooed from a bend in the hall.
Relief, warm and settling curled up in her gut in response to her sister’s all too familiar voice. The soothing quality it offered her, the safety she often sought. Andruil was a sliver of home in the glittering abundance of Arlathan. But why couldn’t Arlathan be safe? Why couldn’t Arlathan be familiar?
“What I would choose, does not matter.”
Her feet nearly tripped over themselves as she struggled to bring herself up short.
Solas inhaled and glanced over his shoulder at her, as though he immediately recognized her presence, magical, emotional, exactly her before she even offered her physical self. She sought to hold his gaze and he was the first to break, allowing his eyes to slide to her shoulder, lingering, before shifting back once more to give Andruil his undivided focus.
“You are of status and nature to take what you please.” Andruil teased.
“That could not be further from the truth.”
“I would seek to argue.” Andruil sighed.
He offered a guarded smile that barely brightened his face. “Your attempt is commendable.”
“You are a stubborn fool.”
And she turned into the next corridor, momentarily breaking herself apart to pass through a series of walls until she could no longer keep her breath trapped within her lungs.
“Girl.” A familiar voice reached out.
Her next step faltered, toes and ball against the marble as she hesitated, turning her direction from the empty hall into a sitting room. The doors wrought of silverite, maple, ivy, and clematis sat somewhat ajar. The flora perked for attention at her approach. She slipped through the doorway without stretching it any further open into Elwen’s simple room and the scent of the woman she sought calmed the uneven edges of her emotions.
Elwen sat facing a western window, the curtained boughs of a willow tree brushing gently against the pale pink glass.
“Show me how steady your hand has become.” Elwen called her further into the room.
Her dark hair was drawn back into a single multi-strand braid that rested over her left shoulder. A simple beige thickweave silken shift clung to her form, stretching with each motion as she turned slightly. She held out a fine tip brush in one hand, and dainty pot of what smelled to be ink. When she flicked her eyes up to meet Elwen’s she lingered briefly before her attention was baited by the branches over her brows that appeared paler than they had when she had seen her three days prior.
Ivuni moved to stand before the other woman and assessed the immediate surroundings for a place to sit, considering the short maple table until Elwen hooked her foot around the leg of a tufted stool that had been slotted beneath said table. The seat was moss green linen that pleated out from a center emerald cabochon. There was a darker stripe that slightly marred a single fabric fold and she frowned.
She could remember gasping as she tripped over the corner of the table with a jar of water-paint clutched tightly in her little hands. The majority had splattered across the floor, an easy thing to clean up, but it had scored Elwen’s favorite place for Ivuni to sit while she braided and coifed her hair.
“It is fine, little one.” Elwen had cooed at the threatening onslaught of tears. “It is a simple fix you need not worry over.”
“You still perceive it to be a mar.” The other woman mused, sampling her thoughts.
“You have never fully lifted the paint from the fabric.” Ivuni murmured. “Why?”
Elwen smiled and shook her head. “What is a splatter of silver paint against something as simple as a stool that spends most of its time tucked away?” She softened and tilted her head. “It is a memory, one that I hold dear.”
With a sigh, she sat as instructed, reaching first to take the dainty brush between her fingers. She hesitated when she looked to the waiting pot of ink. “Why don’t you have mother permanently affix it to your skin?”
“Mythal abhors permanent fixtures that would tether a being to her.”
“Is a special case.” Elwen leaned forward and offered the ink to her once more. “He is at your mother’s side far more than any other being, including your father. The permanence of his mark is necessary and instrumental to his position.”
“If she hates it so much then she should do away with it entirely.”
Elwen lifted her free hand, wrapping it around her wrist, her fingers caressing Ivuni’s knuckles as she turned her palm upward and set the little canister in her hand. “That has been attempted before.” Then Elwen sat back in her chair and gestured towards her face. “It is as much about protection anymore as it is about ownership.”
“There is little difference.”
“In your eyes, perhaps.”
Ivuni lifted her gaze again, fixating on the deep green set that stared back. “They are meant to own. If you did not wear my mother’s mark upon your face, you would be taken by one of the others. Marked in order to be owned.”
Elwen smiled wide, enthusiastically. “Unless I cast myself in with the Wildish.”
Ivuni rolled her eyes. “If they would even take you.” A zing of electricity snapped up the length of her spine and she straightened. “See?” She hissed through her teeth. “That sort of retaliation would definitely get you shunned from their clans. And they would shun you the mark on your face.”
“Good thing, then, that it isn’t permanent. Come on.” She beckoned again.
Ivuni sighed and scooted the stool closer as Elwen leaned back to rest her head on the back of the chair. She dipped the tip of the brush into the waiting ink. It appeared black, but the moment she guided it across the mahogany skin before her, it would shift. When she leaned forward to begin, her hand trembled and her emotions clashed hard enough to draw tears to her eyes.
“Calm yourself, little one.” A finger feathered against the inside of her wrist. “I have asked this of you and you do me well by obliging. Now breathe.”
It had once been a simple task, one that she had taken up with determination and challenge, set in crafting smooth and intricate lines. Now the weight of their meaning battered against the heart that thrummed within her ribcage.
“Breathe, girl.” Elwen murmured reassuringly.
She sucked in a deep, chest expanding breath and exhaled through pursed lips, seeking to center herself to the task that waited at hand. The tip of the brush set against skin and the spell within the ink took root. The forehead first and the tree was gradually fleshed out. Quiet encouragement goaded her into moving on to the branches beneath Elwen’s cheeks, and she offered them the same care, tracing already well placed stroked lines, before finishing off with the roots beneath the creamy bronze of Elwen’s lower lip.
“There.” Elwen lifted hand and summoned a reflective surface, inspecting the work performed. “Easy enough.”
Ivuni set the pot and brush down carefully on the table.
“Everyone wears a mask, girl.” Elwen responded to the frayed edges of her thoughts.