Despite a talent for magic, words are the preferred weapon of Eloise De Sardet, and she wields them as deftly as any blade. Both arms and armor, they can shield and deflect, soothe and wound. Her penchant for verbosity can be tiring at times, but Vasco can’t argue with the results. Sweet as honeyed wine or sharp as the crack of a pistol, the legate’s words rarely miss their mark.
The first time Vasco sees her flounder, he is stunned to realize he is the cause.
He has no gift for words, but he’s not too proud to use another’s. They feel clumsy and stilted on his tongue, drowned beneath the booming thud of his own heartbeat echoing in his ears. Eloise goes still, and even with his borrowed words, Vasco suddenly feels very foolish. He neither dwells nor hesitates, however; he can’t turn back now if he wanted to. The question leaves him in a jumbled rush.
Her lips part to allow a tremulous inhale that matches his own, and then she smiles. Not the polite facade she so often hides behind, but wide and warm. It crinkles the corners of her eyes and softens their green to the clear jade of calm waters as Eloise takes his hand and leads him up the stairs to her chamber.
Her pulse flutters against his lips as Vasco presses a kiss beneath her jaw. He places another along the column of her throat, and another lower still at the hollow of her collar bone. Again, her words leave her, replaced by soft moans and shaky sighs. It’s a heady feeling to discover he holds such power; the breathless thrill of sailing through a gale, the giddy lurch of his stomach as his ship surges beneath his feet against the crashing waves.
Odd, then, how he’s utterly at her mercy.
She’s the calm before the storm, the chaos it wreaks, the still silence left in its wake.
Tonight, at least.
If morning comes and he finds the winds are no longer in his favor, Vasco knows he’ll have no regrets. She’s given him another memory, priceless as the one he shared with her, and imprinted as deeply as any of his tattoos.
Dawn breaks, and her smile is back, tempered by the vestiges of sleep, but no less welcoming. Vasco knows she was plenty of words of her own, but this time, she answers the poem he recites in kind. It means more than he can say, more than a few borrowed lines can express. Eloise seems to understand. She reads others as effortlessly as he reads the stars. Perhaps that’s where her greatest skill lies.
They are both navigators, of a sort, but neither is prepared for the wreck of horrors they encounter at Dr. Asili’s lab. It’s the second time Vasco finds Eloise at a loss for words, though instead of flushed with passion, her face is white with fury. Her hands are clenched into tight, trembling fists, and her tongue trips and stutters with the force of her anger.
After a moment, she gives up on speech altogether and her fist crashes into the doctor’s mouth with a meaty thunk that would make any common brawler proud. Blood dribbles down her knuckles in a crimson splash but it goes ignored as Eloise takes deep, shuddering breaths. Shadows gather around her hands, the spark of magical energy crackling between her fingertips. Vasco thinks she’ll kill the doctor then and there, and he can’t bring himself to stop her. Not with the stench of burning bodies clinging to his coat and the sickly sweet pungence of the malichor thick in the air.
Somehow, Eloise holds back. Slowly, deliberately, she flexes her fingers. The magic dissipates, the shadows recede. Her complexion is still ashen. The only color on her face is high on her cheeks, two spots as bright as her fiery hair. Her eyes glint hard and cold as gems when she finally finds her voice and promises the doctor he will face justice for the crimes committed in the lab.
She keeps that promise, but justice won’t resurrect the corpses still moldering in the pit outside Asili’s manor, and it won’t save her cousin, poisoned in the name of science. Vasco supposes she might gain some satisfaction in watching the doctor’s head roll across the gallows, but when she returns to him that night, her eyes are missing their usual emerald fire. They glimmer with the sheen of unshed tears, but she doesn’t cry. Her words are back, once more the empty, conciliatory tools of a diplomat as she tries to convince him all is well.
Vasco thinks he might prefer the silence. Heavy as it was, it carried the weight of truth.
He gets his wish, the third time words fail her. Pleas fall from her lips with all the fervor of a zealot at prayer, but Constantin has descended too far into madness to be swayed. Guilt twists his stomach into knots when he finds her, her face wet with tears and her hands still slick with her cousin’s blood. He never should have left her to face such a task alone, but they needed every man they had to keep the creatures under Constantin’s influence at bay. Vasco knows that, no matter how his heart insists otherwise.
He takes her from the cave but can’t ignore the feeling that she left some part of herself behind in its depths. The bonds of family run deeper than blood. Vasco knows that better than most, just as he knows this loss has cut Eloise to her very soul. The void left by the man who was friend, brother, and charge can’t be filled, though he hopes time might ease its ache.
With every week that passes, his hope fades a little more.
Eloise’s grief is a terrible thing, and Vasco fears she will be swept away in the crushing tide of it all. She eats little, and speaks less. She has no smiles for him, but he never finds her door locked. If she finds his constant presence bothersome, she’ll have to break her silence and tell him so. She never does, so he never leaves. Not even when he’s offered the rank of commander.
Once, it had been his greatest desire, the climax of a story writ across his very flesh. Now, it means nothing. He’s aware of the honor, certainly; one few as young as he can claim, but titles lost their luster when his tempest lost the light in her eyes, and a ship is just a ship without her sailing at his side.
The others come around every so often to check on her, especially her master of arms. Kurt reminds Eloise that there was no saving Constantin, but Vasco doubts whether either of them truly believe that to be the case. Both harbor regrets, and he sees the unspoken questions on their faces.
Could they have done more?
Siora visits when she can, but her duties in Vedrhais keep her occupied much of the time. Aphra coaxes what food she can into Eloise for the first few weeks, along with a steady stream of potions and tonics to keep up her strength, but eventually returns to her work at Hikmet. Petrus prays, though he’s wise enough to know better than to expect Eloise to join him. Even before she succumbed to sorrow, Eloise never struck Vasco as one for prayer. After a time, the visits become less and less frequent as their former companions return to their lives.
Vasco doesn’t blame them. Life goes on, and while the factions of Teer Fradee coexist in relative peace, it’s new and fragile. The islanders are still recovering from the wounds dealt by fanaticism and greed, and building trust where there was none is a slow and arduous process.
Time ticks by in a blur of day and night Vasco is starting to fear will never end. He brings Eloise her meals when the servants leave them by her door. He spends the long hours talking to her, though he’s long since given up hope of hearing a response. Sometimes, he scours the bookshelves in the parlor for new poems to recite for her. He never was very good with words, but he will beg, borrow, or steal entire tomes of them if that’s what it takes to reach his tempest.
The change is so subtle that at first Vasco does not dare trust his eyes. The trays he returns to the kitchen are lighter, and Eloise’s cheeks look a little less wan. When she looks at him instead of through him, he finally allows himself to hope. A few days later, she smiles, and it’s Vasco’s turn to be speechless.
It’s a ghost of what it was, almost uncertain, but he sees a spark of the old fire flickering in the mossy depths of her gaze. Her voice is weak, hoarse from disuse.
“I’m sorry, Vasco. I haven’t been myself lately.”
He drops to his knees in front of her and wraps his fingers around hers.
Her smile grows watery. He can smell salt as she gently presses her lips to his lined cheek then tilts her head towards his ear and breathes two words he’s never heard her say before.