A note to the readers: Though this may seem a work of originality (to a degree, all fanfiction is), it is a honorary compelation of all the great novelits I have adored, and draws ideas from all of them. I hope you enjoy. Pardon the editing, I'll get around to making it look pretty some other time.
had long been the home of those considered unholy, meaning more
correctly those who did not live within the bounds of society.
Nestled against the eastern coast of the Upper Bands, it was shelter
and sanctuary to those exiled few who caused and were "trouble"
in the sanctified Lower Bands. Usiida meant "troubled shore" in
the Lore Tongue, from whence most names of the Mages, the Condemned,
and the True derived. The language was as dead now as the founders
who had caste the cultures of the Bands into their roles, except for
those few personal and appropriate names.
Arres of Trueth was Usiida. She had been born of the line of Founders of Usiida, though they now formally called themselves Princes, as did the rulers of all but the orders of the Mages and the True—the Condemned, as the title suggested, were more secular than sacred—and counted their highborn leaders among the royalty of both Bands. Arres was the youngest child of Bartov Usiidan, current dynastic head, and had deigned the use of her formal name for years, taking the title of her home city.
Arres, long gone from Trueth and Usiida both to study with the True—and order of Seers who in old times had been known as "gypsies", who had elevated themselves to Ordered status who knew how long ago—had for some time been able to put her name and her heritage behind her, and blend well within the confines of the school. Located in the Lower Bands, as far south as one could go, she had been an odd sight to the fair, pale, and exceedingly long-limbed natives. Usiidans were bronze skinned and dark of hair, possessing startling shades of green and grey eyes, said to be the blessing of the oceans which were their home as much as the land they walked upon. Upon arrival, everyone had known where Arres had come from, and it was not long before they knew exactly who she was.
It was uncommon for any native of Usiida to carry any of the three gifts which divided the Bands into their strict castes and borders, but her father Bartov had wooed a lesser disciple of the Condemned, the Order for those with gifts who could or would not live within the bounds of the Mages or the True, and Arres had inherited the gift of Touch.
An imprecise gift at best, Touch was the most feared and sacred of the gifts that divided the Orders. The Touch was feared because it was unpredictable. It could show the future, or the past, or the most frightening truth of the person Touched; one was never able, however, to know which would come from contact with the flesh of another. And so, by unspoken rule, the True were chaste—more by force, than choice. Her mother's potential, never fully nourished by the True and hampered by the Condemned's obsession with political power, had allowed her trysts of the flesh. Her father's bed had been where she had found her place. As it turned out, not only had Arres inherited the gift, she had inherited the mind to manipulate and control it—from her mother, it was said, though Arres could not know, for she had died when Arres was born—who, if not for her father's interference, would have risen to the status of Consul for the ruling family of the land the Condemned inhabited. And had Arres' mother been brave, foolish, or clever enough, perhaps overthrown that ruling family to establish a dynasty of her own; such was the way of the Condemned and their rulers, which even for the loathed Usiida, was frowned upon.
Arres was now on her way home. Cast from the Order of the True—as many predicted she would be, as her mother had been—for thinking thoughts unapproved by her Elders, among other things considered unholy. She could turn west, and join the Condemned, and fight and claw her way to some marginal position of "honor", hoping the next knife whistling in the air was not aimed for her back, or she could go home, and serve her own.
Though a decade gone from Trueth and even the scarcest border cities of her homeland in the northeast, her blood sang in homecoming when the molted and patched shrubbery and scrub faded into the lush, sinfully green haven of her early childhood. And though the years separated her, she felt the inbred loyalty that all natives and most of the immigrants of the land shared for their special haven, where those with no place in the rigid societies of the Lower Bands could come and be free; though the irony was, of course, freedom within bounds. Though the inland was full and green and heavy with the bulk of midsummer, the coast would, as it always was, be serenely cool and softly breezy, full of fresh salt air and the cry of seabirds.
Despite being raised a princess, and aware in some deep pocket of her mind always of her royal blood, Arres was at her most natural when as she was now: free, traveling in open land with the clean, hard muscles of her stallion Salle rolling beneath her, and perfectly content to be alone. She dreaded somewhat, in that degree, her homecoming; Usiida may be the sanctuary of the world, but its laws were as tight and binding as in any other Band, and she would soon have to conform to the standards of her father's palace. For now, however, she was many days' ride from her father's house, and in the lesser villages her distinctive eyes—the color of foam on the tops of green waves, a pearlescent and shifting green—went unrecognized as the trademark of Usiidan royalty.
Twisting her long braid against the nape of her neck to try and relieve a twinge more of the crushing heat as she rode a steady pace, she was surprised to catch the strong tang of death in the air; old death, rotten and dry, but the stench was still strong. Her knowledge of geography—pounded into the head of every Tru'en, who were often sent traveling the Bands—reminded her of the nestled town some three measures up, where she had planned to lodge for the night. Sharp eyes narrowed, taking in the surroundings for signs of danger. Not surprising, she saw nothing, or nothing fresh enough to warn her of a possible attack. Nonetheless, she eased her short sword an inch from its scabbard, thumb poised to release the blade completely and be swept into her right hand in an instant should need arise. You were not the princess-daughter of Usiida unless you could use a blade, and use it well. War could come any time in a land where so many "trouble-makers" lavished.
Kicking Salle into a gallop, she covered the measures to the village, called Sida, in short time, reigning to a halt at the center of the little hamlet. What remained disturbed her, for as she knew, no army from Goddessend, home of the True, or Thiolkos, home of the Condemned, threatened her borders. She would have known if the former were waging a campaign to reclaim their lost and attempt another Reformation; the latter, she was uncertain. The Condemned and their ruling families were notoriously fickle and single-minded; it was not hard to imagine that they might launch a somewhat unexpected attack for their own obscure reasons. But why such a random hovel, far enough from the border to be inconvenient for a raid, and removed enough from the capital of Trueth to pose a threat the leading powers there?
Sida lay in ruins, all that remained of what had once been a small but prosperous trading town were thin husks of log homes and crumbling foundations to the temples of the Goddess and Thiolk the Earth God. Wilderness was already creeping to reclaim the minimal space the hamlet had consumed, small trees and wild grasses overrunning once spotless trails and roadways; even in the brilliant light of the day, clearer than most in the heavy heat which usually brought rain, the shadow of the horror of raging fire and torture clung to every stubborn brick and copper doorknob.
The Tru'en-trained instinct to know, the power of the Touch, trembled inside of her and recoiled at the images that threatened to overcome her: the onslaught was sudden and consuming when Salle halted at her signal, a sign that though the carnage was old, it had been done well, with the intent to leave the maker's mark on the remains. Arres clutched at her mount's reigns and shook as the hamlet's soul screamed at her senses, throwing images of blood and gore, of crucifixion and disembowelment; of rape and the twisted joy of triumph at the corruption of innocence—
"Stop!" she cried into the air, forcing her powers back into the locked chest of her mind; shoving the images away with a mental thrust, back to the tortured spirit of earth that clung there. They had taught her well, the Elders of the True; too well, they had decided, for she could now control that which in most others was random and uncontrollable. Hers was a formidable mind. She sealed her gift away, tightly enough that only the afterimage of blood, a halo around her vision, remained with her as she continued to study the land.
There was something too odd about this. Too odd about the manner of death and destruction that spoke of something far worse than a gallivanting battalion of a Condemned general looking for entertainment or the firm, demanding, and sometimes violent persuasion of the Reforming Tru'en.
Arres looked to the north. To the north, where no natural creature of the Goddess or Thiolk lived and roamed. There, in the north, was Evil. The Evil. The thing, or force, or perhaps even creature that had taken root there, feeding on the corruption of man and seeking endlessly to embellish upon man's sins and worse natures. The Evil that sought to shatter their existence once; causing the Destruction, the near-elimination of all that man had once been, until the Orders had been formed and the caste established to force order. Until the Goddess and Thiolk had splintered the world in order to keep the Evil confined, so that their creations might thrive and develop, and not fall prey to the Evil and become something … inhuman.
As the light of day dwindled, the sudden chill that swept the forest as it always did with the setting of the sun and the quick release of warm air from the earth, wrapped Arres in mute fear and she shuddered.
so many generations—endless generations, it seemed; so many now
that no one really remembered what the beginning of the Peace had
been like, after the end of the Destruction—could it be that the
Evil had stirred anew, and found a new escape from its island
Arres dared not think; dared not focus on what might be, for fear of the Touch of her mind to the spirit of the planet, that might show her what she was most afraid of. Kicking Salle into a run, she raged for the capital. Was it really possible there might be something worse than she, to threaten the peace?
Arres had long been the most loathed of her father's children. She had not only been the last sired on her Condemned mother, Marran, but the one that had killed her. Bartov, her father, had held it against her from her birth, but had not had the heart to kill her, either; for she, of all his children, was the only to inherit his image in a stunning female form. Perhaps that, she mused, was what had kept her alive. If he had not burdened Marran with his fleshly lust and her belly hadn't swollen this last time (the seventh pregnancy in eight years), she might still be alive. That the spawn that had caused her death was his feminine double must be a constant reminder of guilt. Arres had always delighted in the subtle torture she inflicted upon her father while in his presence.
Like all southerners, and especially all True, Marran had been fair, but fairer than most of her kind atop that. A shock of white curls had framed a face holding eyes so pale a blue as to be nearly white, like purest water slated in ice, with the shimmering sun slanted through it. Her skin had been the sweetest shade of honey, and every feature had been smooth, long, and perfectly flawless. She had been the beauty of her time. And she had wed the brute warrior-prince of Usiida. From that union had come four sons and at the end, four daughters. None had appeared to be Bartov's children in the flesh, except for the inheritance of the Usiidan eyes in all varying degrees of green, and in all degrees of his fiery nature, seeming to dwindle in intensity with each new child. Her eldest brother, Baston, and heir to the throne, was as fierce and bellowing aggressive as their father; by the time the temper and the rage had reached Arres, there was not left for appearance's sake. But the rage, the easy ability to hate, was there in his last daughter, in a way that spoke of her mother more than any other aspect of her character. Hers was a silent rage, quiet and contemplative, that simmered and mused in the planes of her mind. Her rage, never one to flare, was released in subtle ways.
Arres had once taken offense of one of her tutors; an ancient crag of a man, who had taught her father and all his offspring after him, who had assumed incorrectly that Arres quietude was the result of stupidity. Arres had refused to answer a question about the Evil, about exactly what she thought the Evil was. It had not been that she lacked an answer, simply that when he had spoken the name of the power or creature that had tormented their world before the Orders had come, she had felt a thrill of excitement and strange longing. At ten years of age, it was not yet known if she would possess the gift than none of the other children had taken from their mother. When the Evil had been spoken of, she had been so stunned by her reaction to the name—as if it were a trigger for the power locked away in her mind—she could not answer her tutor at all. He had hit her then, for her prolonged silence; a common occurrence enough when the youngest daughter with seven aggressive siblings bigger and older than she.
She had hit him back, for the first time, knocking the lanky creature for a native Usiidan, sinking her fist in his wiry stomach. As he doubled over, she had clamped her hands on his face, curling her nails into the flesh behind his ears, thumbs stroking his cheeks in mock-affection.
"You have made a grave mistake, scholar," she murmured. It did not strike her until some years later that the voice that had spoken had not been her own; she knew now why the look of surprised terror had flashed across the tutor's face before her Touch had killed him. She had laughed then; the only clear part of the memory. Laughed, and the power of the Touch had surged through her; the power of her mind to unravel that of another's, to know all secrets and truths inside of another's soul. Occasionally, one might even see the person's past or future—so long as the intent was not to kill. This time, she saw his life; all of its glories and horrors and all of his perceived sins and grievances and guilt; the bearing of it nearly knocked her from her hold on him, which was essential to the process. She struggled on, sinking to the floor with him, as his soul's life was bled from beneath her fingertips. When it was done—when she had taken too much, taken the small part of him that would have allowed him to live, the tether of his soul to his flesh—she shuddered in utter ecstasy and rolled unconscious away from him.
Even now, as her poor horse led her into her father's palace, she gurgled with muffled laughter into his mane, barely clinging to him after four days hard ride to report the massacre of Sida. The thrill of that first kill with her touch had poisoned her completely. She had killed many times in that same manner; the knowledge of the soul, of the lives of others, had corrupted her powers. Now, it was what she craved most, even if she did not give the killing blow. The Elders of the Tru'en had not seen it in her in time. For pared with her corruption was an agile and brilliant mind, whose cunning was outshined perhaps only by her father's.
Grooms rushed to her, recognizing her only for the royal insignia emblazoned on her dirt-streaked tunic. They had had word of her coming, but would not have expected her to arrive almost a week early. The signs of wear on her horse spoke to them enough of her arduous journey. They helped her to rooms that had been hers since birth—her mother's, before then—and left her to her maids. She was still laughing as exhaustion sunk her into the oblivion of sleep, unaware that it was not her voice that slithered from her throat.
Arres woke, removed from her sweat- and dirt-caked clothes, but filthy to the core. She stretched and made deliberate noises from her feathered bed, and heard to her satisfaction the two ladies' maids rushing about to ready a bath. She took her time in rising and undressing from her simple gown. Arrogance, despite her love of death and manipulation, was not one of her traits, and she smiled kindly enough to the two women and thanked them graciously for their attendance on her. It did not do to alienate one's help, as far as she was concerned.
"How long have I slept, Riallva?" She asked of the girl who was her own age, who had been her companion in youth and was now her personal servant; hers, and hers alone.
"For two days and one half, Lady Arres," she replied with appropriately bowed head and down-cast eyes.
"Hmm. And Prince Bartov, how has he reacted to my return?" Arres asked, in a succinct voice that was lost on the dull-witted girl, as she slid into the sanctuary of scalding water. She sunk her head back as the girl replied, listening with a curling lip.
"He says that he welcomes the return of his youngest and most lovely daughter, and that he is eager to see you at your leisure." She paused, a frown turning the plain face even duller. "I would have to say that, personally, my lady, he seems more uncertain that you are here again than not."
"I see. I thought as much. Leave me now, please. I shall dress myself."
Riallva curtsied and left the bedchamber, awaiting summons if needed in the first of two antechambers. Arres moved over to the bed where her gown had been laid out. It was white, which suited her coloring better than any other colors besides black and the peculiar green of her eyes. The cut was of a modern style, and one that she had brought with her from Goddessend. Her shoulders were left to be exposed, the fine silk sleeves starting at the curve of her bosom and clinging to every petite curve of her flesh until just below the waist where it flared subtly into layers of shimmering pearl fabric to drape the floor. Sleeves tied to the gown just below the shoulders and belled around the hands, leaving only her delicate fingers to be exposed.
In her coloring she was indeed her father's daughter; the ink-black hair gleamed down her back, and she regretted the necessity of veiling it. At least she didn't need to pull it up and hide it completely; being a princess had some advantages. She slid the length of white silk with pins into her hair, and smoothed invisible lines from the stretch of her gown. Slipping on simple white slippers, she left her chambers with Riallva in tow.
The palace was a magnificent structure of gray marble with green veins. Gold and grey, the national colors shimmered in the soft silks and velvets that made the upholstery and curtains. The entire place was warm and glowing soft in candlelight, all smooth lines and gentle curves, much like the people who lived there: they, too, were curvaceous and some downright fat due to lack of any threat to the nation in some years. She smiled at the thought; they were as unsuspecting of her as they could be. The Touch might pose some problems early on, but she was certain that her will would shortly go unquestioned in the palace.
Brimming with confidence that she would soon rule Usiida at her father's side—or rather, through him—Arres went to meet her father.
"Shall we begin?" Edel grinned, brandishing his heavy sword towards his student. Edel had made Mage two years hence; since that time he had not only traveled as emissary to the Guardian Mage, traveling the Bands on his behalf dispensing the particular justice that the Mages were granted. Seekers of truth the Tru'en may be, with the Touch and the Sight, but it was the Mage that confirmed the truth through the spells, and did the killing—or the healing, as was most often the case—as was needed. It was the Mage, through Thiolk of the Earth, Father Earth, that grounded and made tangible the mysteries and sanctities of the Goddess and her scions.
Brawny and pale-haired as the winter sun, Edel wore the green of spring grass in his eyes and the kiss of the Father on his summer skin, which would put any cocoa-colored Usiidan to shame. He had spent most of his life on the road and in the open, and it showed in his scant thirty-two years; fine lines fanned from joyful eyes and a mouth more inclined to smile than frown. For all his roots from the long-limbed of Goddessend, he had truly become an impressive figure, towering some three hands above most average men, with a thick but cut figure that did much to solidify his height.
Such as Edel was, most of his students were not, not at first, but became so after careful and relentless training from the Master of Arms. So proficient was he in the weaponry of their world that at a scant thirty years, before even being graced the title of Mage from Journeyman, he had been given the position of Master of Arms. He had trained several nearly his equal in talent to continue lessons for the younger apprentices when he was away on this errand or that, but nothing compared to his direct tutelage.
"Shall we begin?" He repeated, balancing the two fine, copper blades in his palms, eyeing his student from across the practice ring. The boy looked nervous, fingers clenched around his practice daggers in an agony of uncertainty, feet scuffling this way and that. As he poised for the offensive strike, his name being hollered from across the training fields caught him up short; nervous but perceptive, his student lunged and landed a square blow to the gut with the tip of his blade. Stumbling back a few surprised feet, thankful for the thick leather jerkin that protected his hide and proud of the boy's strength, Edel burst into an infectious grin.
"Why, Shandon! That was impressive! Your aim was horrible, however; I've a mind to stick you with Master Trillard for boxing, with a blow like that!" Edel grinned at the blush of satisfaction on the boy's face, though he watched with worried eyes as Sennchel approached, looking flushed.
"Come quickly, Del. Guardian Belveaux is calling for you," Sennchel huffed, his considerable bulk much softer than Edel's; he eyed the student closely. "And you, off to your next lesson then, yes? I regret that Master Edel shall no longer be attending to your training himself." With a dutiful if disappointed nod, the boy scurried off.
"Senn, what's this about? Interrupting a lesson—"
"I know, is tantamount to declaring war on your person. I understand your enthusiasm, but there are greater things at play in the world, Edel, and unfortunately for you, you are too strong a Mage to ignore those things, as you have tried to do." Sennchel eyed him scornfully; the scholar disdaining the warrior as he did any and all who did not prefer books over steel. When next he spoke, ushering Edel across the grounds towards the Keep, his voice was grave and quiet. "Del, the Council has been called."
"What?" He nearly jumped from his skin, shuddering with sudden disdain. "You're kidding me? It's been over five hundred years since the last Council of Destruction. What in the world is threatening us that is so disastrous and why haven't I noticed?"
"Firstly, I certainly would not kid you on such a topic. Secondly, you know the threat. We have all known, those of us that are vigilant enough to remember. Thirdly, you have noticed the destruction; all the little anonymous pockmarks on the land, on all the Bands. Villages destroyed and their occupants massacred; half of Enron's fleet of merchant ships, lost in the most favorable waters imaginable, and only the wreckage to tell the tale. The random disappearance of our powerful and influential, though for what reason, I can't imagine. If what is coming has full grasp of its power once more, then it won't matter one whit how strong any of us are."
He turned his eyes away from the yellow glare of Senn's own, unable to hold them as they paced towards the Keep. He was a warrior, yes; but as many before him as Mage and Master and simply Man, true war had long been unseen. Minor skirmishes between Princes soon settled by Mages, wars within the Tru'en where Mages had no dominion but might be leased for a price. The never-ending campaign in varying degrees through the years against and for the Condemned, to bring them home or destroy them utterly. These were his wars, not the all-out, full-fledged battle for life as they knew it that would be their sure destruction, again, if they lost. If it were allowed to try a second time.
Why in all of Hell were the Mother and Father letting their only child loose into the world again?
"Who is to say?" Senn murmured as they entered the Keep's main hall, as if reading his expression. "Now you see the need for the Council? We must stop it."
He noticed that Sennchel was as unwilling as he to put name to the child of earth and sky, light and dark. Originally spawned, so the legends say, to bring balance, the only offspring of their deity's had fallen off the worst side of a perilous line. He sighed, striding quietly into Belveaux's study, startled by the sudden wash of power that greeted him. He recognized easily those of his own kind, the Mages. Belveaux in all of his glorious passion, a flood of strength and fire; Master of Spells, Valdaera, all soft subtle strength. Their green robes brilliant and pristine for such a meeting. There were others, whose faces he knew from broadsheets than meeting. It was not often that the heads of the Orders ever met together; there had been entire lifetimes where the leader of one and of the other would not know their counterparts from a baker.
Chancellor Luccrecia of the Tru'en, the epitome of all that Goddessend stood for: endlessly long limbs and staggering height, flawless alabaster skin and heavy locks of shimmering snowy hair, forcing her lips into a shade of red that was sinful to look upon, like the ripest apple on the tree. Her eyes—Father, but her eyes were frighteningly clear, her purity of spirit and purpose showing through irises hardly tinted by a shadow of violet. Everything about her was cool and cold-looking, right down to her flawless white ropes, but the warmth and compassion that was her power flowed from her in rivers, momentarily stunning him.
Superior Nollin of the Condemned, once a Tru'en, now flowed with as much strength as his True counterpart, but the flavor of the power was decidedly different; not corrupt, but darker—flawed, as all who left the Orders were, for using their power only for their own good. He was resplendent in violet, black hair curling tightly around a perfect and arrogant face, eyes a penetratingly dark green; so dark as to be nearly black, though his frame was as lean as Luccrecia's; his fair skin spoke of his origins of a rebellious Tru'en and an Usiidan nobleman. His arrogance, too, was palpable.
Lastly, tucked between Belveaux and Valdaera, was Princess Arres of Trueth, a powerful rebel Tru'en, who held no title beyond that granted by her birth. The fact that she was here spoke of her power, if not her limited influence—she had not left Usiidan's borders for nearly ten years as far as anyone else knew. Edel studied her with some indifference, though her looks were stunning, if not her tangible strength. Sea-green eyes, lit from within by glimmers of pearl, studied him with perfect neutrality as he studied her; black hair so thick and straight he wondered how her head stayed up reached to her waist, faultless skin of cocoa and crème. She was short, barely reaching his shoulder, but her small stature had no bearing on her impression on him; her light black gown was a blight on the riot of pleasing color around him, and he could not understand what about her unnerved him, until he realized the difference between she and the others. It was her power. Concealed, coveted, and painstakingly controlled, it swirled within her, giving her a quiet and unmistakable allure that drew all eyes without suspicion.
"I'm wondering how you assembled everyone in such quietude, Guardian Belveaux," Nollin was saying as Senn closed the door behind them, Edel's observations taking only a few quick moments. "And why in Hell in such a place as this." His voice was gruff and boomingly deep, energy rippling with every movement.
The Guardian smiled a small, tolerant smile, gray eyes gleaming softly with restrained malice. "It is easy enough when the proper spells are in place, to distract and mislead. And here, because it is the safest of our strongholds. Yours, Nollin, is in hostile territory. Lucreccia's is no place for a meeting such as this, it would disturb the delicate peace she has established there. As for Usiida …" He shrugged eloquently, turning his gaze to the slight figure beside him.
"Forgive me, but Usiida would perhaps allow you all liberties with each other you keep from expressing across more hostile borders. Usiida is, after all, more liberal with her laws than are the other Bands, yes?" Arres flashed a brief, if winning smile, disarming the underlying hostility some with an easy charm. "My Lord Guardian believes, and correctly so, that only death would come from a Council in my territory, leaving nothing accomplished."
Her light-hearted tone inspired smiles all around; even Edel was inclined to smile some, though her easy manipulation of the Bands leaders unnerved him. Her eyes met his briefly, exposing nothing of her inner thoughts. He shivered at the mind that could so conceal her Truth while forcing the will of others with such a casual hand. Did the others not see it?
"And what can a Council really do?" Edel stated, meeting each pair of eyes in turn. "How is talking about what we already know going to solve our problem any faster or easier? Surely six of us could defeat, perhaps simply bind, the Father's son back into his lands."
"His reach is far, Edel of Thiolkos Minor. His anger great, his desire greater. Vengeance, lust, need—these things drive the Father's son." Nollin spoke, in a far-off voice, dark eyes briefly glazed; they sharpened again quickly enough. The Superior possessed the Sight, as did the current Chancellor; he realized that was primarily why Arres of Trueth was here. She alone held the Touch of the six of them, and she was the only alive capable enough of using it to full potential. "I have Seen him, and felt his hunger, blessed be the Mother in her mercy for showing us. Would you have us charge blindly towards a caged animal—for he is that, for now, still caged—with no idea of his real strength? I understand your warrior's lust, young Edel, but a war of might will not work here."
"No," Seconded the Chancellor, clear eyes sweeping them all; lingering briefly on Arres. "It will be a battle of wits, and might. Not all of us may go against him. Too many, and we will leave the people defenseless when we fall. Too few, and we will fail utterly. Two," she breathed, either hand lifting to point a sure finger, "two of you shall go, and only two. A third will come, a cursed thing of blood. But two will leave these lands and to the north will travel." She paused, nodding her certainty, though she touched eyes with Nollin briefly, who nodded his assent; he had seen it, too. "Arres of Trueth with the Touch, with the mind, and Edel of Thiolkos, with the Healer's heart and steel. No others. Only the two."
"You must be mistaken," Edel breathed to her, though his eyes were on Arres, who as of yet had shown no reaction. "Two against the ultimate antithesis of good? That's hardly a feasible thought, let alone a tangible quest, a reality with some chance of success."
"Do you doubt yourself so greatly, Mage?" Arres asked, the hint of mockery in the curve of her supple mouth. "Evil is only a matter of perspective. The son of the Father and Mother feels wronged in his imprisonment, and seeks release. This may make him evil to us, but for himself the reasons are justified."
"The killing of those villagers in Sida, your own country, were justified to you?" Edel shot back, fast and hard as steel.
Her mirth died, though her expression of neutrality settled back into place. "Not to me, but to him. This is what you must understand, Mage Edel. He sees the deaths and the ruination of our lands justice for his "wrongful" imprisonment, which our Founding ancestors helped to insure. Think of the power he has had the time to cultivate. Think of the plans he has had time to lay. I would not be so quick to judge." A brief look of puzzlement settled across her face. "I had nearly forgotten about Sida. I found it, weeks after it had happened."
"You did not report this to your father, the prince?" Murmured Lucreccia, brilliant eyes dimming.
"I had other plans to make, my lady. Things more important to me than a massacred village. Things my mother started, Aunt, that you would not approve of." Green eyes gleamed with triumph at seeing the woman blanch, though there was sadness in them. "My father has not been the one ruling, not it quite some time. Call him a figurehead, if you will."
Fury scorched red streaks across the Chancellor's flawless cheeks, her power cascading against the walls of Arres' perfect defense, gliding off as water on glass. "And when your brother Barton comes into power?"
"Then it will be a sad day for Usiida, for never has it flourished as it has under my rule." Snapped the niece, her veneer shimmering in the face of her aunt's scorn. "I see you have not had enough of a problem with the knowledge before. Why should it bother you so, that a rebellious Tru'en rules a country where your kind would die? Nollin is no better than I, is he? Or is he better because he still shares your bed?"
It stung; oh, it stung the proud Chancellor and Superior badly that this young upstart, with such pretty control of herself, should be able to tickle their emotions for results that amused her. Edel cleared his throat, dismayed and yet impossibly fascinated by this woman; who could restrain any inappropriate emotion herself, yet control those around her so effortlessly to pleasing results. He was amazed; did they not see it?
"If I may suggest we all adjourn for the day? The majority of us have traveled long roads the past few days to arrive here. Let us disperse to our suites. Dinner is typically served at seven; I believe we should dine separately today and return tomorrow to finish this debate." Edel shot a sharp glance at Belveaux; the man had no tact for diplomacy, and it irked Edel to no end that his nonchalant manner would have allowed the family squabbling to go on.
Belveaux was not stupid, even if he was tactless, and as reward for Edel's undermining of his authority replied, "Then you and Lady Arres of Trueth are to be endless companions until your departure. That much has been decided. The rest may be worked out tomorrow. I shall prepare adjoining suites, yes? You will be together a very long time, I think."
Arres remained implacable, only a twitching of a brow to indicate her displeasure, and Edel wisely kept his mouth shut. The others dispersed—Nollin and Lucreccia together, confirmation of the little-known fact—until it was only the two of them, Mage and Touched.
"No." She murmured. "Do not speak your doubts of me yet, Edel. I see your uncertainty in your eyes." She slumped down into a lounge, weariness a look of grief tightening briefly across her face. "You grew up in grass and water, and I in the marble deception of a palace. Please do not judge me yet. I do what I must to get the results I need."
He settled into a chair across from her, his green gaze stern and unwavering. "Even making a fool of your Aunt?"
"Indeed. Now I am certain she will send me off with all haste and all help; simply because I have disgraced her, she will want me away. She is human, and so she is fickle to the whims of emotion. I am her little sister's daughter, nonetheless, and she will see me well provisioned. She wants my brother to rule to have all Tru'en power out of Usiida. The Condemned in Piaia are bad enough. She needs not another dynasty of renegades." She laughed bitterly. "She seems to forget that I shall never bear a line of sons."
"Why—" He nearly slipped, until he remembered; those with the Touch could not mate or experience the power of ecstasy because the abandon of pleasure would release their power into their partner. While not fatal—most of the time, few wished to have their souls bared to any other, and to themselves. Truth was a hard lesson seldom learned and often denied. "Ah. So we have her support, and her power now, if we need it."
"Some power. I want her lumber, more than anything else. The forests of Goddessend will make splendid ships for my harbors."
"Ships?" He was utterly baffled; politics were beyond his scope, and she was far too cryptic for his own tastes.
Her gaze, such a foreign shade of green to his own, sharpened on him, and she nearly looked angry that she must explain her thinking. "We are going to war. We will not leave our people, any of us, defenseless. I certainly will not leave my country in the hands of my stupid brother with no plans laid to protect our border, closest to the North. I need lumber to plumb our old fleet back up, and merchant's ships will not do."
He eased back and shook his head, a smile a appreciation on his face. What a horrible pity that such beautiful flesh should be wasted, even if it held a mind like hers. His brilliance lay elsewhere, and so her churlish tone did not phase him as it might a man of lesser strengths. He grew serious then, sharp features hardened into stone once more.
"Arres, of their visions. They say only two; but they did not say it would be us. They assumed. Is it wise to follow them blindly in this?"
"In matters of power I tend not to question. My own is finicky at best and took me thirty years to master as well as I have, though they saw my potential and feared it long before now. Lucreccia's visions, cryptic most of the time, have been all but faultless when interpreted correctly. Nollin is no less blessed. They have seen similar things. My Aunt was right, however. There must be a balance of powers and minds on this trip. Physically I hold nothing to your glorious flesh and obvious mastery of weapon—I watched as Master Sennshel went for you. Your wits are those of a warrior, bred and trained, and of the land, of which I know little. We will encounter no deception in our quest where my Touch may go, and I am capable of noticing other flaws in the human character, as well as enticing them to show. As you saw with my Aunt."
"I disapprove of your ways," He muttered, and looked away.
"The scholar was right. You would bludgeon the truth from a man before you used your magic to spell it out of him. Do you consider that more merciful?"
"No. More natural. More human."
"Ah." She smiled softly, nodding slightly. "Yes, Thiolk to balance the Goddess. The Chancellor and Superior are right. Wouldn't you agree?"
He stared in comprehension, before a smile broke his lips apart, cheer returning to a face not made for discomfort. "She seems to have the right of it. You'd magic your way across the Bands, leaving a trail of semi-mindless and comatose bodies in your way."
"That I would. Perhaps your charm and good looks will prove themselves useful, indeed." She fell suddenly silent, and blushing brightly beneath the dusky tan of her cheeks, standing and moving swiftly to the window.
He was silenced, a broad smile flushing him with pleased contentment; she found him attractive. This dark, exotic, unearthly creature, picture of the Goddess in the flesh, was infatuated with Thiolk's son. He nearly laughed, but caught himself at it; it would not do. Not simply because she was a proud and highborn woman, but because of her … limitations. What a waste of those sweet curves and hungry mouth, indeed!
"Perhaps. Come, let us see if Belveaux has those rooms ready. I'm sure you'd appreciate time to rest before your meal is brought to you."
"To us, you mean. We must start acclimating ourselves. I have a feeling from this day on, we will be seeing no shortage of each other."
He held the door as she exited, watching the ripple of silk against the young and supple flesh beneath, and mourned ruefully for her loss, and his.
They left for Usiida three weeks later, after negotiating the defense of the country should the Father's son decide to launch a true war against them. Timber had been given freely from Goddessend to Usiida for ships of war, magnificent things built for offense, and whose plans had to be dug from the Archives at Trueth for their construction. The last of the great beasts had rotted three hundred years earlier, and there had been no reason to replace it.
Nollin had the superior army, always ready for another attack from Goddessend or the Mages to destroy or conform his Condemned. He agreed to lease his best generals to train the standing militia—farmers, some old warriors, boys eager for what they didn't understand—in Thiolkos and Goddessend. Usiida declined joining the central army, at Arres' command, insisting it would be the first defense against any attack from the North. Edel had been impressed.
"Nollin may have the best standing army, but only Usiida possesses the mercenaries and assassins and ninjas; only Usiida possesses the renegade True and Mage—and yes, Condemned, Superior Nollin—who are without inhibition and will use their powers for both offense, and defense. All of the rest of your skilled gifted, I am afraid, are too self-righteous to be of any use."
"That's not the case, not of my Condemned." Nollin had fumed, rage clear in his eyes at her mockery of his rebel group.
She had only smiled a small, tight smile; triumphant, as Edel knew now from so many weeks with her, and dismayed, that she had dug beneath his skin so easily. "Is it not? When was the last condemned to march into battle and use whatever power he or she had to the defense of their own kind, hm? Not since my mother, Nollin, and she chose to breed in hopes of procuring a new breed of Gifted. She succeeded only in me. Why else have we the powers? Why else were we simple mortals elevated just that bit more, to possess these gifts? They are the gifts of the Mother and Father, to protect ourselves. Against their own children. Against ourselves."
Nothing more had been said on the subject; it was understood that all Gifted would be informed that in the case of war, they may needs use their power in offense, though Lucreccia was adamant against it and had left not two days later, without a yes or no.
Now they were in their first week of travel back to a land that Edel held in his mind with great suspicion, with a woman who was too cunning for his comfort. Too powerful for his peace of mind, and to damned lovely to be cursed with the Touch. Father, it irked him to no end. He was perpetually fascinated with her and found that he was insatiably in need of her company. When he was away, hunting for their meals—she preferred to stay off of main roads, which baffled him, though she had refused to explain until they were nearer to Usiida and nearer to their journey north—he found his mind wandering to imaginings of the most lustful sort. Certainly, she was a beauty, but he had seen comparable ones, and more beautiful women than she in his wanderings. He supposed it was her infinite control, that perfection of self-possession that just perplexed him. Why had she spent so long disciplining herself, in a country where very little discipline existed, and in a world where there was sometimes too much, as her mother had clearly believed? A woman did not flee from the Tru'en to the Condemned and into the bed of a unruly and temper-ridden prince if she was a fan a discipline. How had the daughter come to be so strict with herself?
On the last night of their trek before crossing into Usiida, he forced her to sit at the fire and speak to him, of her land of her thoughts on their impending quest. It was not going to be easy; he wasn't even sure how they would prepare to enter a land no one had ever seen, or if they could even get there. She seemed unnervingly confident.
She had laughed at him, a genuinely surprised sound, and it's golden ring did things to his heart he could not explain. "Confident? I'm terrified. There is a part of my soul, the part that is Usiidan—not belonging to Goddessend, where I was reared in the ways of the Tru'en. Not belonging to Thiolk, who gave me life. Not belonging to the Mother who gave me my strength of spirit, that is terrified beyond all comprehension. As if … as if my old blood were warning me." She shook her head and smiled apologetically and continued, "My family is Usiida. We were the Founders, those who nursed the land back to health after the Destruction. We have never been Gifted by the Goddess, as the rest of the lands have been, because we are too near her Son that she locked away in the North. His corruption touches us only on superficial levels—thievery, treachery, corruption of the flesh, sometimes of the soul, often of the mind. Do you understand? He taints us in the eyes of other society, and it is not something we understand. The Father, while present, gifts us with beautiful earth and kind seas, and the Goddess with ideal weather to feed the rest of the Bands. But of the Gifts, none of us have them, Edel." Here she paused, and leveled him with a glare so intense in its meaning, he nearly shuddered. "Do you understand? None of us."
"Yet here you are. With a magnificent Gift." He murmured it almost too faintly, the crackle of the fire nearly drowning out his trembling voice.
"Here I am. I do not know, nor does my father claim to know—though a Touch would solve that, I am not so cruel as to do that to my sire—what possessed my mother to flee to his realm, and to his bed. Though other Mages and Tru'en have settled in Usiida, all are barren in our lands. If they bring gifted children into our borders, they die. Unquestionably. Anyone else born gifted dies. My mother was not meant to have children, she had the Touch. Yet there were eight of us; only I was gifted. Like my mother was trying for me." She paused, clearly baffled and troubled by her own existence.
"I should be dead; yet here I am, Master Edel. The exception: the youngest girl-child of a semi-gifted Tru'en with the Touch, a rare but not uncommon gift, of the Prince of Usiida, the North's guardian country!" She shook with the intensity of her incomprehension, with her frustration. "I realized, at about twelve years of age, it was unlikely I would return home. But I am Usiidan, and the land calls to us in a way it does not those of the Gifted Bands, where all possess a Gift on one level or another, where magic is as common as croplands or cows to us.
"I could not stay away. I came to realize also, through my own means, why no Gifted were born to our lands. I knew that I must be utterly in control of myself and my powers—which are different aspects of the whole of me, Master Edel, which few people realize about themselves—in order to return to my land. And so I took control of every aspect of my mind.
"And here I am now, a foreign creature not only to the Lower Bands, but to most other humans. Unable to procreate, or even experience physical pleasure, for fear of releasing my Touch and potentially killing the soul I am coupling with. I cannot bear children, for inevitably, even if the seed of a man were to fill me before my power killed him, I am likely barren. Lucreccia is barren; so is Nollin. With great power, we loose the ability to create." She smiled sadly, pearl-green eyes wet with repressed grief and mourning. She met his eyes briefly, and he could not imagine what she must see for her future. "The power that is in me, is susceptible to the Father's Son. His tendrils reach across the land but do not pollute those Gifted most often because the Goddess's protection is great there. I have had to build my own protection, and still I have fallen prey to him."
She stopped, startling him out of his revere of her words, her blatant honesty which he could not help but be startled by; even the most noble and moral of Tru'en had secrets, as he had found out with spells he often wished were not in his repertoire. "How?" He heard himself ask, before he could stop. He winced as her openness faded, and the concealing mask of perfection returned.
"I have much to do before reentering my borders. I have been too long in the Goddess's realm, and have grown used to her protective embrace. He will be looking for me, as he has in the past. I do not wish for him to know me or my whereabouts." She rose, and brushed ash from the knees of her robe. "Master Edel, there is a reason I exist. I dread what that reason is. In this quest, I will spare you and all the rest any grief, even if it cost my own soul. You must trust me, and not question me or my actions in my land until we are again away from it." She hesitated, and met his eyes, and he saw the fear behind the mask. "And I must trust you, which is nothing easy for a Usiidan princess. There are few I have trusted, and they I have known my life through. It is much for me to tell you these things."
"Yes. Yes, it is."
His guilt was ridiculous; she had not revealed all her secrets, so why yet should he? There was no place for his secret in their relationship or quest now. Perhaps there would not be, and he could go on without worrying over it, once it was done. It would not do for this strange and Gifted girl to know, that he, Edel of Thiolkos Minor, was not just a simple Mage.
He, too, was the Father's Son.
"Good meditating, Lady Arres." He whispered, though she had long disappeared into the darkness and her own thoughts. "What are you to be to me, that I am so consumed by you? You are only mortal."
He amended that, having seen her strength and control, and the mysteriousness of her mother's capitulation to her father's bed, to,
After all, was he not proof that the Gods had a taste for human flesh? He rose, and left their small fire for the stream some few yards away. There were no dangers here, in Thiolkos, even along Usiida's questionable border. He stripped to his under shorts; it wouldn't do for her to come upon him naked. There was something about his flesh when fully exposed to a woman's eyes that revealed his truth to them; something too perfect in the entirety of his form for human eyes to believe he was just mortal. He plunked ungracefully into the water, and stretched out in the thin flow on his back. Though wide, the water was shallow, and soaked only halfway up his flesh; and though he felt the coolness against his skin and knew that winter was coming early—too early, would they sail in time?—he had never known "cold", as others described it.
With the nearness of uncertainty, he followed his thoughts to the past of his life and smiled with remembered warmth. It had a good life, overall; no real hardships, beyond the loss of wife and two daughters to Plague decades ago, but he recalled them fondly. There were no images of painful death there to disturb him; he had been away, Healing others, when the news had reached him. They had died young, and returned to the Father's embrace. He could not mourn them for missing what might be just around the corner.
After the Plague, he had settled at the Mage's Keep in the heart of Thiolkos, not far from where he had been a boy generations before. It was not hard to change and invent new identities every so many decades. He had grown used to disappearing or relocating far enough away when the time came for him to "die", so as not to draw attention to himself. He had been a "Mage" three or four times now; always, while he had risen to positions of prominence, it was never his wish to be so prominent that no matter where he went, he would be recognized. It meant usually two generations, if not three, obscured in some hovel of a village, illusioned as a crone before he could return to society.
With a sigh of regret for times he was relatively sure he would not know again, and a prayer of thanks to his infamously lusty Father of fathers, he bathed quickly in the sweet water and redressed. His long hair would take all night to dry, even by the fire; it was a curse, he swore, that the honeyed wheat of his locks was so damnably thick, and that he preferred it to be an intolerably long length.
When he returned to the fire, he saw that Arres had tidied the small camp; the pot and tin traveling dishes had been washed and stowed away once more; his bedroll was drawn out across a softer patch of earth nearer the fire than he would have chosen, but her consideration for his comfort was heartening. The fire had been banked to comfortable embers, and she sat on her own pallet across from him, braiding equally long tresses, invisible in the near-darkness except for the flash of her nails as she worked. He felt rather than saw her smile, though he caught a brief shine of her eyes reflected in dwindling moonlight.
"Did you enjoy your bath, Master Edel?" She quipped with a hint of humor.
"Indeed. But winter approaches, can you feel it? Only six, maybe eight weeks. Usually it is a full season away yet." He sat on his pallet cross-legged, positioning a blanket about his shoulders.
He had the distinct impression of her shaking her head. "No. I had not noticed, but I am blind to these things. Until the gales rage against the palace at Trueth, I do not know the difference between summer and fall, and winter besides. Take me to the sea, and I can read you a lifetime of meaning in a single swell. On land, I am inept."
"Do you fear for our voyage?"
"No. We will not be taking one of the warships across the straits; it is unnecessary and might send too much of a warning to our enemy. We will take a vassal suited for the journey and nothing more. If we leave within a short month, we shall be safe from the storms. If winter is as early as you predict." She sounded somewhat incredulous that he should be able to tell this soon, but made no other objection. "Does this calm your nerves?"
"Not one whit." He countered, with a cheerful tone.
"That's a pity. There are more dangerous things than snow and gales coming, Master Edel. I would seek peace of mind now and relish it. Good night."
He did not bother to respond; she was like to have the last word in any conversation, and he couldn't imagine living as she did: one step ahead, one more step into a darkness seen but not yet encountered. He was nervous, but that was all he needed to start with. He was certain his half-brother, the Father's son on the Mother, and not a mortal woman like his own, would soon have more than enough for him.
After she had settled, he eased to the ground and rested softly, falling quickly to sleep.
They paused in their decent into Usiida; directly above the border, looking down into the countryside from their hilly rise, Edel was reminded of a child's drawing with colored chalk; the border was clear and distinct, as if the young hand had swept across the dry summer plains of Thiolkos with a bright green stripe. The damp and raucous forests of green wilderness that were the hallmark of southern Usiida sprung up spontaneously from the dry, crackling grasses of Upper Thiolkos. One could literally have one foot in the plains and the other in the jungle.
Arres smiled, as genuine an expression of pleasure as he had yet seen on her stoic face, and he nodded approval. So the girl could feel genuine emotion. Her mask was so well polished, he sometimes wondered.
"Now," She murmured, turning to eye him thoughtfully for a moment. "You will not pass in Usiida very well, Master Edel. You are too clearly a Mage in your green clothing and bearing. You are loyal yet to your kind and the standards of your Order, so I would highly suggest you don clothing less conspicuous.
"Secondly, you must hide your hair. It is improper to have it free for any resident of Usiida in the city of Trueth. The legend says that the father's Son is attracted to unruly locks, and yours are quite a shade to be desired. Braid it up and tie it beneath a kerchief, if you must. We will find you a hat in Babyles, the first village on the route we will follow. For now, however, it will be alright. The worst of the sun is past, though the heat will trample on for some time, once we cross into the forest.
"Also, you will be known as my escort in this land; this is a title usually given a man who is or is attempting to become betrothed to a woman. While it is known that I am possessed of the Touch, the caliber of the gift is not known by any in my Princedom. It is probable in their minds that I am like my mother and may some day bear children. So it will not be so strange that you would court me; it is also unseemly for a woman and man to be seen together in a personal way here. Unless they are to be married. You and I will need time alone, to plan; we will be as we have been for a midmonth—nearly inseparable." She paused, a frown tugging the pleasure from her face, her shoulders twitching. "I am sorry if this causes you any discomfort or unease. You may be questioned about our … relationship. But it is the only safe way for you to exist in Usiida for the time we are there. Were any of the rebellious and gifted know who or what you are, you would be in danger. And we will be in enough of that soon."
He sat mute and expressionless through her tirade; it bemused him that she recalled his Order, but forgot what it was a Mage was capable of. He turned from her strange, powerful eyes—nearly as clear as colored crystal in the dying light—and drew a had across his face, down his chest, and across the vibrant green saddle blanket. When next he looked at her, smiling sheepishly, his leaf-green eyes were a moot gray and his face lined with age. The green in his clothing and accessories was now a subtle blue.
She scrutinized him coldly, clearly not liking being out-thought. "Unfortunately, it is only illusion. Some have the skill to see through that."
He laughed at her quick judgment of his skill, shaking his now-graying blonde head. "The thing is, Lady Arres, that it is not illusion. What you see here has been changed. You don't seem to fully understand the caliber of Mage you deal with. If the object is there, we can change it and manipulate it. It is harder yet to create out of separate elements. But it is possible, with enough practice. I suspect even you could manage it, with enough dedication and practice." He paused intentionally, before smiling broadly. "Though you are correct. The lines on my face and white in my hair are indeed illusion; and only for these outer villages of yours. It could be said I'm an Uncle from Goddessend come to visit you and the princedom, if you care. I'd rather restrain from playing escort as long as possible. You are not an easy woman to charm."
"Have you been trying?" She snapped, ruffled from his counter-wit and intelligence. Clearly, she was not used to being bested.
"More than you know, princess," He chuckled, and followed swiftly as she kicked her stallion into a trot.
When they reached the border proper, stepping into the fringes of the jungle, she reigned in, a look of befuddled pain on her suddenly girlish face. She stared at him, her voice tremulous and soft, and he was taken back by the sadness in her eyes.
"Master Edel, why would you do such a thing to yourself, and to me? I am Touched and thus untouchable. You should not even joke of it."
"How do you expect to play a betrothed lady, when you cannot even imagine being mine?" He replied, snatching up her hand, and landing a playful kiss on her wrist.
"Who said I could not?" She breathed, color rising to her cheeks, before she snatched her hand from his grasp, and veiled her hair and face to hide her discomfort. "Please do not do that again, Master Edel." Her composure had returned to all but her eyes, and those she kept away from him for the rest of the ride to Gantry.