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27 | F E M A L E | A U T H O R / E D I T O R | L & S F A B L E S





| P U B L I S H E D W O R K S |


Vassal (Call of Calamity Book I) Liv Savell and Sterling D’Este
Goddess (Call of Calamity Book II) Liv Savell and Sterling D’Este
Shepherd of Souls (Shepherd of Souls Book I) Liv Savell and Sterling D’Este
Death Seeker (Shepherd of Souls Book II) Liv Savell and Sterling D’Este
The Thistle Queen’s Thorns (Kindle Vella) Liv Savell and Sterling D’Este
The Last Contender (Song of the Lost Book I) Coming November 30, 2022

❖ Co-Author: @Sterling

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Cradle of the World 1x1 with @KaiserFranz
Black Lace: A Cyberpunk Rp 1x1 with @Shu
Shades of Sulfur Script 1x1 with @Penny
Shattered 1x1 with @Shift
Oriflamme hosted by @Force and Fury
The Sunday Group hosted by @Penny
A Thousand Legends hosted by @Shu

| O T H E R |


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|D U E L I N G T S I O B U|

with @Shu


Tsio Bu moved in the direction of the great stairs, steering away from the scattered fighting and dodging those who ran past him. As he neared the first stone step he looked to his right and found himself facing an armored woman bearing a great sword and wearing the frightful visage of an Oni - a half-mask. At her feet lay three dead Folk, all brethren of Tsio Bu. The long-haired swordsman grimaced and took a firm hold of his blade with both hands. The woman’s sword was easily twice the size of his own but Tsio Bu had fought larger still. The red armor she wore was resemblant to that of the Imperial Guard, but this woman was no guardswoman. A blade for hire? A brigand? Or just someone with a weapon that decided to interfere?

Regardless of her motives, the dead brothers at her feet made it clear enough that this woman was the enemy, and like all his other enemies this night, Tsio Bu would kill this one all the same.

The mask hid her expression, but Tsio Bu cared not for that. He merely took a fighting stance and waited for the woman to attack or address him either. His blade glimmered in the light of the surrounding inferno, and his empty, solemn face and posture were that of a calm and ready fighter.

Up close, he could see that she looked unwell. Sweat beaded at her temples, a tiny rivulet of it running down to pool, briefly, on the lip of her mask. Her red-brown eyes were wild, and her chest heaved. “Why have you come?” she asked, and she did not move to attack.

“To free the world.”

Tsio Bu said nothing more, for he did not need to. In a few moments, this woman would be dead, and her soul returned to the heavens as all the others fell this night would be. They would all understand soon enough as they stood before Qunyi and the rest of the gods to be judged. Tsio Bu eyed the woman up and down, wiggling his toes against the bottom of his shoes with anticipation. The metallic smell of blood made his own heart beat faster, and his hair stand on end. He ignored the darting shadows and shapes around him and drowned the clang of metal and cries of agony from his mind.

Focus.

With a sharp snort Tsio Bu lunged forward, blade raised. With any luck, he could land a quick fatal blow or at least knock the woman off balance for a quick end to this bout. It took five long strides for Tsio Bu to close the gap between he and the armored woman, and with a sharp thrust, he aimed his blade tip right for her lower stomach just above the groin.

The woman attempted to dodge, but Tsio Bu managed to land a mark - albeit barely. The tip of his Honfo blade cut into her thigh enough to draw blood that began to stream down. This did little and, if anything, would only spur his opponent to a vengeful counter. Tsio Bu recoiled and took up a defensive position, preparing to block the incoming counter in response to his first strike.

Instead, she laughed, a bewildering, head-thrown-back cry like the short, sharp crack of a mag dog. And then her sword did move, faster than he could fix his stance or change his block, and the sharp tip slid into his skin.

Tsio Bu could not suppress the outcry that burst from between his teeth and thin lips. A red-hot flash erupted through his core as searing pain raced down the bloody wound that now reached down his left arm. The woman’s massive sword had cut his entire sleeve off at the shoulder, and a deep red slash reached from the side of his upper left arm down to his elbow. Blood poured down his corded forearm and dribbled from his fingertips. It took all of Tsio Bu’s will not to drop his blade from the pounding pain, and he was forced to grip his weapon in one hand.

His opponent lunged forth, hoping to press her advantage against her staggered foe. Reminding himself he had been wounded worse and shaking off the pain, Tsio Bu quickly deflected a thrust aimed at his core then made a sharp inward cut at her neck. The masked woman ducked quickly and scurried back - Tsio Bu acting on the drive of instinct as he took a sharp inward step and swung again, this time down at her pricked thigh in hopes of bringing her to her knees this time.

Tsio Bu hissed in anger as his strike was ricocheted aside, just barely at that - the tip of his foe’s blade striking against the side of his own and sending it away. His foe immediately tried her advantage, making a hard two-handed arcing cut towards his midsection, Tsio Bu twisting around, narrowly avoiding the blade’s edge. He retaliated with his own strike immediately, not surprised as it was like the first block. The swordsman took a deep breath and a step back, steadying himself as he readied himself for an attack, planning for a quick dodge or parry and then an easy counter hit. This time. he thought to himself.

Her sword came, and Tsio Bu leaped past the arc of the blade, a glint in his eye as he saw his opening.

But no, not this time either.

The woman in the demon mask blocked Tsio Bu's blow with the easy counter of someone who had done little but wield their weapon for years and years. It was like an extra limb, and she seemed to move it without conscious thought. All reaction and flashing red-brown eyes, her dark hair loose and wild around her shoulders. She didn't look quite human in the light of fireworks exploding against the roofs above their heads, the palace steps lined with the bodies of the fallen.

Their sword blades met again in a series of sharp, short metallic clangs. He attacked. She blocked. She swung. He dodged. It was a mad dance of flashing steel that she seemed to be reveling in. Sweat beaded at his temples, and she darted forward again, his sidestep a little too late, his sword arm slow to block. The cutting edge of her two-handed sword nicked his uninjured arm, and then he shoved it away, darting in to lay another cut on her thigh, a vibrant, bleeding X against milk-pale skin.

The demon woman grinned as he dodged her counter. "That'll be fun to show off. Why don't you leave behind attacking innocents and take up dueling? I could get you in with a decent sponsor."

Tsio Bu did not try to explain his calling to this cackling mad woman but dashed in to land a blow that fell only on empty, ash-ridden air. Before he could turn, find her, attack, anything, she was there again, one pale, blood-spattered hand closing around his injured forearm, the pain a short, bright fire-burst shock. She yanked him forward, stumbling and lightheaded, and then pain lanced his back, blood splattering against the stones below him.

"Nevermind... you spend too much time standing still."

The world was awash with inarticulate sound, a vicious wave roar that blocked out anything but the disparate drops of crimson on stone. Tsio Bu was panting now, his teeth gritted against the pain. What was pain, really? Nothing but a byproduct of his mortal form. He was greater than it, stronger-willed. Tsio Bu launched himself forward again, forcing his arms to follow the forms he had studied so carefully.

The woman slipped easily aside, laughing, her form swimming before him. She attacked in a blur. He couldn't track her. And then her great, two-handed Miao Dau was slicing through his guard, and viscous red spurted from a crimson slash across his chest.

Tsio Bu fell backward - arms up, sword hold slipping through his fingers. His body came down hard on the bloody stones of the ancient square. The blow against his back caused pain to ring through his entire form, and yet another scream tore through his lips. The black and orange sky above was hazy, and Tsio Bu’s vision was blurred. Just before him, he could see the towering shape of the masked woman who had so easily reduced him to the fallen blood-soaked wretch he now was. His shirt was shredded, his hair matted and haggard, and his arms, chest, and back stained crimson. His head pounded and grew light at the same time, the loss of so much blood threatening him with unconsciousness. If this warrioress bled him anymore it could mean death.

No - it would mean death. He would lay here amid the corpses around him for the rest of the night, no doubt. His heart would give out and his soul would peel itself from his body as it was thrown into some waste pit or a pyre. And then he would stand to be judged in Aniyat, the world beyond - reward or punishment awaiting him when next he came to this world. This troubled, forsaken, empty world of mortals.

If I am to die I will do it on my feet, not wallowing like a beaten child.

Tsio Bu strained to rise up, his savaged body protesting, his head beating like a drum. He found himself gasping through the pain, knees shaking as his arms and shoulders trembled. His only driving force his labored resolve and the last strength he had to give. He unsteadily reached for his sword and took it within his right hand, the woman before him making no move to stop him. She did not need to, after all, Tsio Bu was all but beaten, and one final strike across his frail form would surely finish him. It will be an honor to die standing fighting for my god than let myself be sapped away lying on the ground.

Tsio Bu raised his blade up and took one forward stride through the pain and blurriness as he swung at his opponent. She blocked it easily, slashed toward him again, and Tsio Bu only barely got his sword up to stop the sweep that ought to have decapitated him. He was panting, his limbs growing cold in the awful, seeping heat of blood against his torso. He lashed out with desperate, stumbling force that she turned away, but the woman wasn’t smiling anymore. If anything, she looked tired and sick.

“Remember that you chose this,” she said and slid her blade through his heart.




Bashira let the man slide off her blade and wiped it clean on what little unblooded fabric there was left on him. Around her, the square was still in chaos, fireworks bursting against the roofs of the palace and surrounding buildings, people dying on the streets. Bashira sheathed Bad Luck and turned her back on all of it to climb the palace stairs.

The doors were blown open, the palace open and vulnerable before the onslaught. A few knots of desperate guards fought savage attackers, and somewhere, the great edifice was burning. Bashira took a deep breath and crossed her arms to hide her tremors before shouldering her way inside.


E S C A P E F R O M M E L D H E I M





A S I E R


With a brisk pace down the catacombs, Asier finally found his way along the path set by Osanna. The smell was musty and thick with charred remains of incense used in the frequent burial rites. The collapse of the ceiling brought the dust up as it billowed throughout the chambers, each breathtaking in hundreds of years of Eskand’s long-dead ancestors as the fog obscured the exit.

Osanna was currently set over his shoulder. Her wounds were patched up in a quick and simple manner that only the situation and timing could afford. He could save her life, the rest would simply be a bonus. Snorri followed behind the both of them, carrying Asier’s spoil-filled burlap sack for him, not making any efforts to escape the situation or too frightened that came along cowed. It wasn’t long till they made it to the fateful ladder which went up into the back alley, and Osanna was starting to come around.

“The timing cannot be better, champion.” Asier smiled widely as he placed the box by the wall. Allowing the illusion of respect without the potential embarrassment of her awareness of having been carried.

Asier looked over towards the boy, who appeared to be keeping a distance. “Not going to hurt you, son,” though clumsily translated in simple terms into the Eskand tongue, “Ingen Skade - No Damage,” which did not reflect reality.

The sound of chaos was definitely rung overhead as there was screaming, shouting, and loud footfalls. From what he could make out, there were cries of fire, and this was an omen for distraction. He moved to find the ladders stored away as she brought them to the opening for their escape.

Osanna’s breaths were loud and labored in the catacomb gloom, but she gestured up at the latched exit. Asier had to help her out, but Snorri scrambled up with all the ease and energy that a nine-year-old could muster. The city around them was chaos, smoke hanging over the heads of screaming, fleeing people as their world tumbled around them. The streets were a flood of soldiers and commoners. The sky was a thick and miasmic gray. “The harbor,” Osanna panted and turned in that direction, reaching out a hand to Snorri. He took it, wide-eyed, but didn’t cry or shrink back. His eyes seemed to be trying to swallow everything he saw.

Later, Asier would remember little of that desperate flight down the curving roads that lead out of the city and down to the far embankments where their escape lay waiting. It was like a fever dream. All sweat and stench. People are running with buckets and using what meager magical abilities they had to start drenching their homes in water. A more organized effort looked at tearing down homes, to the cries of protest and anguish. Meldhiem was on fire as thick smoke rising from the Gromtemple signaled the end times of the Eskandr gods. Not even the capital of the Eskandr Empire was free from the touch of war.

Then, like a sunrise after a long night, the harbor materialized out of smoke and fog and there, waiting at the end of its long, ragged docks, were three familiar craft.




O S A N N A


“Hurry! Get on board!”

Osanna stumbled down the docks, the wood seeming to sway and shift beneath her with each slap of waves against its thin, age-nibbled planks. Every movement hurt. Her skin was awash with fire, tight against the right side of her skull where hair had once been and now showed only blistered skin. She could see it on the backs of her hands too. The undersides of her forearms. Her side and right thigh. At least one of her ribs was broken. Maybe two. And still, she struggled on, heart and breaths and wind loud in her ears as the screams of the city had been.

They reached the boats, and she pushed Snorri in front of them and got him safely to the hands of waiting allies before allowing herself to be bundled aboard to cries of “Maud! She needs aid!” and “What the hell did you try to fight, girl? A bonfire?” Like they hadn’t seen mage wounds before.

Osanna found herself lying near the bow, not far from Asier and Snorri, the mage-girl Maud leaning over her to inspect her injuries. The binding didn’t hurt, didn’t feel like anything but the slow cessation of pain. Almost like numbness, the occasional prod of Maud’s fingertips as distant as Parrence’s friendly shores.

She began to feel drowsy, lulled by the stamping of booted feet, and yells as they prepared to make way. Osanna didn’t see if any other allies made it aboard, but in the last moments before her eyes sank closed and she drifted back into unconsciousness, she felt the knarr begin to move. Headed away from enemy shores. Headed home.



M E L D H E I M C A T A C O M B C H A S E





A S I E R


Ási continued to make his rounds around the palace on the first day of the job. Everyone tended to keep to themselves, simply giving each other knowing glances and exchanges. There was a clear hierarchy as certain areas were patrolled by the house guard, a station above his own, and these tended to patrol the most important regions of the throne.

After going around once, he proceeded to start doing specific paths as he tried to find a suitable path toward the royal treasury. Through the different corners, he started to place small seashells as they formed a route, rather like bread crumbs. Piece by piece, he mapped out the most suitable route, then left a little pile of the shells opposite the door. The guards stationed outside peered at him piercingly, so he continued to pass them into the hall.

The hall, on the other hand, was almost perpetually populated by one person or another, other than for a brief occasion during meal time and the changing of the guard. It is on this occasion he managed to enter the majestic place as he bore witness to the throne. It was difficult to understand where the throne ended, and the tree began. The tree was positioned perfectly as if sculpted to have a throne shape as opposed to one being cut within it. He had overheard the guards discuss that each fruit represented the prosperity of the Ekandr people, and the more it grew, the more prosperous they would be. Ási approached as he drew his axe to use the fine edge to slice the fruit and nuts from it, giving it a healthy trim. There was not much fruit to be had, but a bad omen might cause a few of their true believers to panic. He couldn’t resist the urge to find a suitable spot to leave a marking of his own upon its sacred bark, “Asier était ici”.

As the signal arrived as intended, he made his way out of the hall, nodding towards the guards as they came onto shift, making his way over into the kitchens to complete the rest of the task ahead.




O S A N N A


When the signal came, Osanna was standing in the center of what she had come to think of as her classroom. Her palms were pressed flat to the smooth wood grain of the table, cool and impersonal against her skin. Her eyes were closed. Pain prickled behind them in little lighting flashes that echoed into the bones of her skull.

She had found the hidden sea entrances to the catacombs and nearly gotten lost on the way back, but they were open and a single carefully half-shuttered lantern sat in each. She had let in her ally. She had prepared her plans for escape.

Osanna had not slept more than an hour or two in four days.

When she felt the tug on her ear, she was half-sure it was hallucination, but Osanna had never had delusions before. She was sane of mind and strong of body. She would not imagine a false signal.

“Ositha?”

Osanna straightened at once, taking in the sight of her two royal charges framed in a doorway surrounded on all sides by a fortune in paper and wood and leather and horse-hoof glue. She smiled. “Today, we’re going to do something a little bit different.”

On the way down to the kitchens, Osanna began her prepared speech on the importance of the language they would use at state dinners with dignitaries from foreign nations. She explained how the wrong turn of phrase might give offense or destroy a previously hoped-for alliance and how their actions—good or bad— would reflect on their family.

It filled up the whole walk—Osanna standing between the two to keep them from fighting when they got bored— and soon, they were standing in the warmth and bustle of the kitchen near the pantry that held her precious escape. She put them through their paces, asking for translations at a break-neck speed to keep them from getting off-topic, laughing when she stumbled over the words. Echeran keep her, the world was starting to blur on the edges, and her heart was beating a rapid, strangled tattoo in its anxiety. When would the news come? Were her comrades able to complete their part of this plan? Would they get away safe?

It seemed to take hours, but the news finally did come. It arrived in the form of a breathless messenger, having run straight down after telling the nobles (nobility always did underestimate the knowledge of their help). Chaos had erupted in the city.

Osanna looked at Snorri and Inga and let her fear show on her face. Where was Asier? She needed to get him out too.“We need to get you to safety,” she said. “Have you heard of the Catacombs beneath the palace?”

“Those are just old stories!” declared Inga.

“Every story comes from a truth,” retorted Snorri. “Magister Hostein used to say it.”

“Not every one,” Inga replied. “Even if they were real,” she continued, perhaps a little bit intrigued now, “how would we find them?”

“What if I told you I knew how to get inside?” Asier stepped into the kitchen, and Osanna immediately relaxed. He had made it. They were going to get out of here. “Are you two up for an adventure?”




D I E T R I E C H


Suspicion had been building in his brain ever since the last meeting with that teacher. He had thought of how he might act on it without jeopardizing his mission or endangering his station at the palace. It was one thing to know something, it was another to convince others of it, and he could not imagine the royal would take well to him arresting a member of her employee on a whim. Perhaps it was good fortune then that when he was at the apex of these thoughts, that there was chaos in the castle, and Meldheim was under attack. He wasted no time and rallied two of his most trusted men, seasoned Sturmknecht, and set out to save the children from the likely agent.

First, Dietrich ran to the classrooms. Perhaps they were still there from the chaos. The children could be obstinate, but no. There was no trace. It was a given they wouldn’t be in the throne room, so he decided to search around other likely locations. That brought him upon the kitchen and from there into the pantry, where he heard stifled voices that sounded all too familiar. He burst in with his guard taking the lead. He feared the worst and gave a whispered order to the sturmknecht, who shouted at Osanna, “Stopp akkurat der kriminelt avskum!”

Ositha paused at the top of the ladder, looking up towards Dietrich and his guards. The children must have been below. Her shoulders relaxed, and she let out a sigh, lips twitching upwards in a tremulous smile. She entirely ignored the accusation from his guards, as though she didn't understand it. "Lord Dietrich! Something has gone horribly wrong in Meldheim and the children are going to hide in case of a breach. Will you help us protect them?"

Dietrich walked forward tentatively, his guard still posted in front, before looking down at 'Ositha'. He observed with every ounce of his being, his heart beating fast from the adrenaline of the situation, for were something to happen to those kids, there would be more trouble than a mere beast assaulting the capital. He sensed this agent was much more malicious, for she had far more intent and purpose behind her actions. He would act now, or perhaps two very valuable hostages would be seized by foreign raiders. A terrifying proposal.

"You might have fooled the queen and the other members of this court, but not me. Be still, and I may stop the Eskandr from nailing you to the front of a longship." He spoke with authority in a language he detested, Parrench, as he pointed his scepter at the woman and switched to Drudgunzean."Seize her. If she resists, slit her throat."

Ositha dropped into the dark and disappeared, no trace of her face or hands, not a wisp of dark hair or swish of cloak. From that depth, darts came flying, striking the guards with portentous whomps. “Run!!” she yelled. “We’ll get no help here!”

Dietrich was not as surprised as his soldiers at the sudden assault. A quick draw of the kinetic force of the darts heading his way caused them to drop to the floor, and he gazed into the darkness, frustrated at the circumstances. "Nach ihr!" he bellowed as he used his gift to attempt to sense the energies of Osanna and begin to draw. As quick as she might be, she was no noble, and he was betting that she did not have a strong enough gift to resist an offensive draw, moving closer to the darkness and awaiting his men to take the lead, not wanting to jump into the jaws of an assassin without backup.

The guard, known as Ási, was rebuffed as the woman disappeared into the darkness. "Dritt!" he cursed under his breath as he tried to look around for her unsuccessfully. The children started to become confused and frightened. He approached them and looked over them protectively as he had his back towards them, preparing to place himself between them and the intruder.

Dietrich, seeing that the draw was effective and that this infiltrator was on her last legs, descended, using a little kinetic energy to dampen any fall he might have taken. Nodding to the guard that was already there to handle the matter of the children, he redirected his gaze toward the false tutor. He still had plenty of juice from the draw and was ready to unleash it upon the would-be assassin, no mercy in his eyes as he spoke his spell into existence. "Iram patris!" before a stream of crackling lightning came from the ivory scepter, making its way toward Osanna. After this was dealt with, he would see to the children's safety.

Only, he couldn’t quite see her. Where the woman had been leaning against the wall there was only shadow, and there came no scream of pain or thud of a body hitting the floor. The guards stumbled away from the latter, and suddenly there she was again, turning away from what ought to have been a killing blow by one of the guards. They exchanged a couple blows, but no party made headway.

Ási heard the children as they panicked and cried, the fresh sounds of battle rung around them. He kneels down as he placates them with reassuring hushes. He used his skills as a parent as he brought them in close and gave them a light hug to settle them. After he took a hold of their hands, he started to gently back away slowly out of the combat area. Dietrich glanced in his direction, he gave him a knowing nod, those unspoken words of I’ll take care of them; you have got this. He gestured towards the children “Gå, Gå".

​​Dietrich, surprised that the blow did not finish the assassin, was surprised at her ability to tangle with two fully armoured Sturmknecht after the fact. He felt no pity, but he did feel a manner of respect for her warrior spirit. Still, something made his brain tingle. Why was she content to stay and fight here instead of running? There must have been something else afoot. He had little time to waste on this affair if this were to be the case, so he would once again attempt to finish it. Drawing from the kinetic energy of the clashing of steel, and converting it to thunder, he prepared a lance of lightning to fire straight for the assassin's center of mass. Once again, she disappeared, but he could smell burning. She had not completely escaped him.

The fighting continued, and the ferocity increased. The children appeared to be too scared to move or too enthralled with the display, irrespective of their safety. Ási acted stronger in his encouragement, shouting towards them, "Gå! Gå!". He started to push the children deeper into the catacombs and further from the fighting, covering the retreat to prevent any bad from happening to either of them. The erupts continued around him, the ceiling starting to crumble as stone gave way; he couldn’t keep at this slow pace longer. He grabbed the children under his arms, carrying them down the corridor with great haste and hopefully out of the catacombs. He tried to recall Ositha’s directions in his mind, attempting to choose the right plans out of here.

Inga protested immediately. "I'm not a lil' kid! I'm almost twelve! Put me down, and I'll just use magic, you big dumb ox!" Snorri was more circumspect in his approach, merely frowning and accepting his lot in life... for now.

Ási dropped her down next to him, taking her hand as he tugged her along. ”løpe”. As he tried to pull her along, Snorri started to whine, slowing them down, pulling on his leg to go back to help Ositha. “I can use the Gift too, and they’re going to kill each other! For Father’s sake!”




O S A N N A


Osanna felt herself relax, and the shadows melted her form into obscurity once more. She gave the guards a cursory blow that they defended well enough and sank into her easy darkness. This didn't matter. Not anymore. Asier was getting away. He would find the Parrench or his sea people, and she would have fulfilled her duty, done as her God and her church had instructed. All she had to do now was live long enough for this to work.

She almost didn’t manage that. The damned lightning mage unleashed another burst of ferocious power, light searing her eyes and heat searing great swaths of her skin. Her cloak had all but burnt away. Her cheeks were rough with blisters, and her nose was full of the rancid smell of burning hair. She called the shadows again, an act that usually felt like slipping into cool water and now was more like trying to cover herself beneath tons of dirt. She hurt. Her breaths were coming too fast, too painful.

In the aftermath of her second near-death of the night, Osanna used the cover of darkness to turn on the guards. The one nearest her was a brute of a man—a full head taller and dark-haired. He swung at the shadow of what might have been her or a dream or his own paranoid imaginings, and in that second of unbalance, she sliced open his throat and stole his sword. Echeran keep her, it felt amazing to have a sword in hand. It was too heavy and too short, but it was an actual blade! No more butcher’s weapons. She turned immediately to the second guard and thrust, but her magic had failed her again, and the blade hardly nicked him.

Osanna had to dodge another funerary strike, and she growled, turning on Dietrich like a feral animal. She struck out with her new blade and tore into his arm, feeling the delicious resistance, the spill of hot blood on the floor. She couldn’t tell if he looked surprised or afraid.

"Du wirst nicht alleine sterben, Freund,” Dietrich said.

Osanna was shaking. Fever from the burns she had received raked her limbs. Adrenaline and exhaustion fought for prominence in her shredded mind. She hoped she'd done her duty. She hoped her people would survive this war. She was glad she’d served her God well.

“I am never alone,” she said, and the next blast of lightning hit her and flung her back hard against the tunnel wall.

For a time there was nothing. Pain. Light. The smell of flaming hair and skin and fabric like burning feathers and cooking meat and a wildfire all at once. There wasn’t enough air, or else her lungs couldn’t find it. A woman dying of dehydration steps from clean water.

Osanna groaned. She hurt everywhere. Light danced in from the opening overhead, spilling dustmotes, spinning across her vision like the turning of stars multiplied by about a million. She couldn't hear anything at first, but the thrumming of the tunnel crystalized into boot falls on stone, and she rolled away just as a sword tip dropped down to skewer her. Osanna kicked at the knees of her attacker, and he fell onto her stolen blade with a wet sound like meat hitting a stone counter. She struggled to her feet.

Osanna was done. There was nothing more she could do here, burned and broken and shaking. She asked shadows to cover her once more and limped into the darkness.




A S I E R


Asier had grown impatient with his charges. “Avancez”, he cursed under his breath. This was the wrong remark, as this outed him as a Parrenchman and not one of the house guards. Inga broke away, kicking viciously at his shin and shouting as she ran down back to where the fighting was going on. “Non non…”, he chased after the girl. That necessitated releasing the boy, and he broke away too.

Voices echoed down the darkened corridor in languages that the plainsman didn’t understand, and he raced toward them, fearing that it was all undone, all for naught. He passed Snorri and tried to hold the child back. “She there,” the boy said in quiet broken Parrench, gesturing, and Asier didn’t have enough time to make sense of where his younger charge stood. There was something subtle just ahead, though: a shadow that didn’t fall quite right in the near dark, but Inga had reached Dietrich now and her silhouette was frantically pulling on his sleeve, her words quick and animated, lost to the Tourrare.

“Snorri!” She shouted urgently, “Skynde sig! Løb hen til mig!” Her head turned to Dietrich, but his eyes were fixed on the moving shadow. He had spotted Osanna, and Asier realised that by going back for her - not his original intent - he had just jeopardised the entire mission.

The Drudgunzean stalked forward, and Asier ran that way, drawing whatever scant energies he could in this Oraphe-forsaken place and hoping to get there first. “Snorri,” Inga cried, “kom. her.

“Jeg kan ikke!” the boy replied. “Undskyld.”

Asier reached Osana just as her cloak of shadows evaporated, dissipating into the dim, musty air. He looked up, prepared to shield his ally behind his body and use the energy he’d gathered to fight if need be, but his would-be opponent seemed too slow, to draw up short.

“Kujon!” Inga screamed, pounding ineffectually at Dietrich’s side.

Asier could feel her drawing, and the girl was much stronger in the Gift than he’d imagined. Snorri hesitated and began walking towards her, arms spread. “Søster, gør det ikke!”

The Tourrare made his move just as Dietrich seemed to have recovered his nerve. He threw everything into the ceiling of the tunnel between where they stood, rushing forward and grabbing Snorri by the only thing that he could get ahold of: the boy’s collar.

Chunks fell, and the ceiling rippled back further than any had anticipated. Inga’s eyes widened in fear, and she turned to run, but she was too slow. Then, there was a small burst of magic as she glanced back over her shoulder, and the siblings locked eyes, but it was Snorri’s instead of hers, and it was not directed at Asier. Instead, Inga was shoved backward out of the way of the falling stones.

Then, the tunnel collapsed, and dust billowed up in a massive wave. Asier coughed. There was no seeing through to the other side. Snorri stood there, shielding his small face with one arm. “Jeg er ked af det, Inga,” he said solemnly. “Pas godt på dig selv. Vær glad.” He glanced at Osanna, unconscious, and stepped over to place a pair of fingers upon her neck. “She okay,” he said in broken Parrench. He spared a long glance back at the collapse behind them and then looked up at Asier. “You hold she.” He gestured in Osana’s direction. “We need go.”
Bashira needed a drink.

She leaned against the smooth wood of a creaking mid-city home, the alleyway around her dark and empty. Everything was so loud in this withdrawal confusion. The Emperor’s voice seemed to boom above the crowd gathered to hear him, screaming into the night, the people screaming back in cheers or anger, she couldn’t tell. It reverberated around her skull the same way a blow to the temple did. To say it hurt would have been an understatement—Bashira’s head was an agony of splintering bone-chip explosions.

The guards were probably still looking for her, but she’d lost them back in the southern quarter, not far from the platform where Long Hiuping’s death had been arranged. They’d never find her in this press—not with so many people and costumes and visitors. Even her unusual height would fail to give her away next to the towering forms of Mokeu and Zauri festival-goers. She was safe. But only for this one precious night.

One night to find the General and clear her name.

And her body was shaking, trembling against the wall she was half-using to hold herself up. Gods, she knew it wasn’t that cold, but her teeth were shaking, her hands numb at the tips of her unsteady fingers. Bashira had to clutch her hilt to keep her hands still, had to clench her teeth to keep them from chattering. She had already emptied the contents of her stomach in a similarly queasy dark alley.

Come on!

Bashira pushed herself up from the wall and jumped at the sound of her decorative pauldrons scraping against the side. She was all razor knife-shard edges, a volatile collection of open nerves. Fuck, she just needed something to blunt this barrage, to deaden the pain and the impossible whetted points of the world around her. But if she did, if she turned from her quest to save herself this pain, then she would never complete it. She’d be lulled into comfort or misplace time, and her opportunity would be lost.

She shivered and shook her head, forcing herself to breathe, to stop panting like a goddamn dog on the palace steps. Fuck! She didn’t want to have to do this! Why did the General have to intervene? Why did that idiot noble boy have to die?! She swallowed down a sob and shook the tears out of her eyes and berated herself for being such a goddamn child. She wasn’t her father. She could do this.

Bashira plunged into the crowd, flinching at every accidental touch from a raving stranger or every glance of a uniformed guard. She had let down her dark mass of black hair and hung her demon half-mask from her belt, but she still felt too fucking recognizable in this awful red and black dueling costume with all its ribbons and silk and gold-colored edges. And she was so cold—must have been blue-lipped by then— and why was she doing this anyway? What use would finding the General even be? He had wanted this to happen. He had promised something would, that if she stepped on that platform again she would never duel again. He’d gotten what he wanted. He’d not clear her name.

She ought to have just run, gotten out of the city, made herself a name in some other place with some other ring of fighters. She’d cut her hair short. Change her name. She just needed a drink first, something to cut down all this fucking noise, and she’d be able to get herself free.

But the crowd changed. Arrows zipped like bees overhead, screams rending the air from the direction Bashira had been heading in, the direction of the emperor and the general and all the nobles and officials who’d gathered close to hear the speech. A bolt skittered off her left pauldron and sunk deep into the meat of a young boy’s back, his yell choked off in an unceremonious gurgle. It bobbed, that bolt, a dancing, feathered end blooming red around the shaft in widening concentric circles. The woman next to him keened, low and horribly animal, and she scrambled at his shoulders, his arms, trying to hold him close but losing the battle against his rapidly sinking weight.

The crowd devolved into chaos, frightened spooked-horse-eyed people screaming names, running in different directions. They buffeted Bashira like debris in a riptide, and she stood in the center of it all, trying not to shake, trying not to let her teeth chatter. Was this real? Had the world sloughed off all its rules like dead skin, or would she wake again, reach for the bottle, shatter it into a gray-lit room?

There was a flash of weapons. A man rushed Bashira, and she moved off instinct, off the muscle memory of a decade of professional swordplay and the long years before that of agonizing practice. She unsheathed her sword. “I don’t want to kill anyone!”

The man smiled, mouth too wide beneath eyes of serpentine green. His voice came like a symphony of hisses, and he moved like the weighted end of a whip. “Then die!”

Bashira flipped her sword from its guard position and let him run himself into the point. His body made it heavy, blood slick. It was too loud to hear the dripping. She stumbled forward, and the crowd surged, and this time, Bashira was caught within it, borne along in this writhing wave.

More fighters came at her, people in peasant dress that hung ill-fitting from wiry frames. Bashira killed them, too, because she still didn’t want to die. She craved a less permanent annihilation—only half out of her body—and her city had lost so much definition to smoke and flame and darting blade that none of this felt quite real. These people—were they people?—weren’t trying to kill her, weren’t dying. Any moment she would wake, and it’d be exhibition day with its forms and procedures, comforting even in its decline.

The palace steps rose up before Bashira without her entirely knowing how she had reached them. She was shaking more now, less from cold and more from hypersensitive adrenaline that had never touched her fights before. She was bleeding—was she?—down her left thigh.

And where they came for her—did they?—they died.
“That’s what I always say, isn’t it, Debbie? Rough times and rough people.” Liam Peterson fumbled for something in his pockets, pulling out a lighter and a crumpled cigarette. “No, wait, is it rough times make tough people? Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter.”

He tried to light it several times to no avail and then put the single cig back into his pocket. Jaelle missed smoking even though, evidently, people had realized it was bad for you now. They’d probably poisoned it with over-manufacturing the way they had chocolate and soap.

Or that’s what she’d read, anyway. It was hard to know for certain when you couldn’t try things out yourself.

Mrs. Peterson had trained her eyes on the wreck of the gas station, the wafting smoke, a few fires still burning half-heartedly within an explosion of candy-colored heart attacks. It smelled horrible. Like melting plastic or burning hair. “You said you didn’t see Carol? How could she have gotten out?”

“She probably ran into the woods, same as we did,” Liam said and shuffled. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.

“But how would she have gotten out? They were blocking the front door?”

Jaelle was pretty sure that if someone didn’t think of something to say soon, Debbie was going to turn hysterical. She glanced at Mal, wondering if he had anything to add to the unknown fate of the woman who’d been tending the counter, but thankfully, Liam noticed his wife’s distress and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

“You know Carol! That fiery girl knows how to take care of herself. She’s probably hiking over to the old Broussard property behind us.”

Jaelle was about to volunteer to go check when Eleanor’s car pulled into the gas station parking lot, looking a little worse for wear but still functional. She relaxed considerably, and because she didn’t want to deal with the trials of being incorporeal in a moving vehicle, she volunteered to look anyway.

“I’ll see if I can’t find Carol,” Jaelle said cheerfully. “Someone needs to catch up with emergency services when they get here anyway.”

And she really would look in the few moments she had before slipping invisibly back into the red world of Mal’s scepter for the ride back to headquarters.
Bashira called her sword Bad Luck because it was the only thing she believed in. It was in every face she met, every turn of fate. More prevalent than the touch of any god’s hand.

But men like the one climbing the opposite side, well, they believed in a little bit of everything. Mercy. Benevolence. Self Control. Another half-dozen fancy words for slaughter. He was lily-pale and dark-haired, tall and swaying as bamboo. If he was here for anything, it was on a dare—strings pulled, coins in the right pockets. He probably called his sword Stiff or Blade-Up-My-Ass, and dreamed of building a collection of heads.

Well, he could try those dreams against the Demon of Bianwei if he wanted, but she wouldn’t have bet his blue-silk robes on them. Noble men often stepped onto the platform against her, and few of them left with anything to show for it.

Around the platform stood stands of wood draped in vibrant red and purple pendants. It was late afternoon and a festival day, so they were packed, the air thick with eager bystanders and the scents of fried dough and bean paste. More people stood at the edges of the platform, their eyes wide, round faces upturned, so many that they could not have possibly all been from Bianwei. The city was swollen, bloated—overflowing with the empire’s folk fluid. More even. There were tribespeople and Mokeu and Hofo among them as well.

Bashira’s opponent waved and bowed to the crowd, his face split with a beatific smile, but Bashira made no move to acknowledge anyone at all, her eyes forward, on this man and the space between them. She stopped five paces from the edge of the rectangular platform and stilled. Her heel hurt. Her stomach still gurgled in unhappy complaint from the alcohol she’d consumed the night before. Still, she felt strong, limber, ready. Just as she had before every other fight for the last decade.

She was half-suspecting that the general would show and find some way to stop this. It was impossible to say how he’d reached that position, how he’d dragged himself up from the mire of self-pity and senseless aggression, but the knots on his well-fitted dress uniform didn’t lie. Somehow, her father had acquired the resources to stop her, even if she didn’t quite want to believe it.

An announcer stepped onto the stage waving a bright festival banner, and the crowd quieted as much as any group that size could quiet, an ocean murmur rather than a roar. Bashira took a deep breath. Anticipation was stirring in her belly, spit pooling beneath her tongue. She was ready to move, to test her strength against this stranger’s, to cheat the kiss of a well-sharpened blade. The press of her demon half-mask was hot and damp, her breath caught by hardened leather smelling slightly of sour wine.

Still no army.

“Long Hiuping against Shinxi Bashira, The Demon of Bianwei!” The announcer’s shout faded into the screams of the crowd, their cheers, their disgust. These days, they liked to support Bashira’s opponents, the young golden boys against the older demon woman. Fuck them and their characterizations and whoever had decided this was about more than simple swordplay.

The general was out of time.

Hiuping bowed and drew his sword; Bashira did neither. In the space of quiet left by the crowd’s surprise, she flung her head back and shrieked, the sound a rough harpy wail that tore the edges of her throat and shot through the arena like a flight of arrows. When she was young and new and more full of herself, great swaths of the crowd had screamed with her, a chilling echo. Not anymore! Technically, the match had already begun, but Hiuping didn’t attack while her neck was bare to him. None of them ever did.

A pity, really. Lost opportunities.

Then, a series of exchanges. Hiuping charged first, but Basira had her sword unsheathed before he reached her, shifting with a careful economy of movement—only enough energy to be in the right place, at the right time, at the right speed. Charge. Thrust. Parry. The swords didn’t so much slice through the air as flicker, flashes of silver light.

Official matches went only until the first glistening red smear of blood down a long silver blade, a cut on the arm, a scratch of the thigh. The first person to land a blow took the winnings. Noble, they said. Civilized! It was still just two bodies, each striving to come out on top.

Hiuping’s body was a gallery of openings, his sword forms big and showy. Every move telegraphed in his elbow or shoulder. She side-stepped his thrusts, parried his slashes, tore long rents in his flowing sleeves. And her heart was singing. This was where she belonged. The only place in all creation where she knew precisely what to do.

They had moved around the ring, sliding, light-footed like dancers. Hiuping was fast for all his flashiness, and sweat pooled beneath the tight wrap around Bashira’s chest. Hiuping’s hair had fallen forward, a dark strand cutting the center of his forehead, flying back as he struck at Bashira’s calves. She leaped over his blade, panting, her stomach in gurgling knots. Perhaps the alcohol was getting to her after all.

Bashira rushed him, sliding her blade down the length of his to cut his hands or collar or gain control of his throat. He side-stepped the move, breaking away and turning to face her. She turned as well, their positions reversed again, and the piercing shine of the sun’s fading light caught Bashira’s eyes. She shook her head, eyes squinting. She wasn’t stupid enough to look away.

There was a flash of silver, a falling half-moon, and Bashira reacted on instinct, her heart pounding in sudden fear.

She didn’t want to die.

Blood sprayed her face, warm and sticky. No longer could Bashira smell the must of last night’s wine. Just sweat and salt and iron. She’d killed him. No. She couldn’t have, couldn’t have killed him, so why was his head lying gurgling at her feet, blood pooling around her sandals? She hadn’t felt the resistance, the subtle push-back of bone against a highly sharpened blade. Her sword wasn’t bloody, was it? No. No, look. Just spatter, just the spray, smeared by movement.

“Look,” she turned to a truly silent crowd. She wanted to tell them to look, to see that she hadn’t done it, that she hadn’t killed him, but their eyes were on her anyway. For a second, she saw herself through their eyes, the demon they had made her, the demon she had pretended to be, that they had rallied behind at first and then grew more and more wary of through the years, watching the fall, watching, expecting her to break.

City guards shoved past them, pushing towards the stage, and Bashira knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that she couldn’t go with them, couldn’t, or she would be guilty even though she hadn’t done this at all. It had been a setup. Hadn’t her father warned her? That coward. She had to find him first, force him to admit to doing this to her. She wasn’t guilty. They would have to see.

Before the guard reached her, Bashira leaped from the platform and into the crowd, heading towards the palace. No one stood in her way.
“You smell like death.”

Jaelle stood above Mal, half-impaled by a steel rod she couldn’t feel and framed by a halo of fallen insulation. She wrinkled her nose at him, at once relieved and remarkably irritated. He’d basically gotten himself killed, and if the aura pouring off him was anything to judge by, clawed his way back into the mortal plane and his body. The lucky bastard. She was so glad he hadn’t left her behind.

“I think that was the worst idea you’ve had in a while,” she said, crossing her arms. “Just wait until you have to fill out the report.”

He looked surprisingly whole, considering that he’d just about left earth forever, his nice suit tattered but miraculously still hanging onto him. When Mal suggested they hop right back over to headquarters, she stared at him like he’d grown two heads. Of course, to be fair, he had just dealt with a rather forced out-of-body experience—even if he’d done it to himself. Jaelle supposed that could be the sort of thing that might make someone completely forget why they’d gone somewhere in the first place.

“And leave the Petersons stranded in the woods to get offed by the next bunch of creepy magic-resistant weirdos? Come on, Mal. Call Eleanor and get someone to pick us up the mundane way unless you want to file more reports about moving normal people through the folds of inter-dimensional space.”

She knew that probably wasn’t the word Mal would have used for his portals, but she liked it. It had a nice ring.

While he secured their transport, Jaelle trudged back out to her witnesses. Both Liam and Debbie Peterson were still crouched against the ground, huddled together and looking a little worse for wear. Liam’s face was smeared with dirt, and Debbie had a twig in her hair.

“It’s alright,” she told them. “There wasn’t a bomb. I think a stray bullet hit one of the pumps, and there was an explosion. My partner made it, but at least one of the attackers did not.”

“What about Carol?” Mrs. Peterson looked horrified, and Jaelle blanked for a long moment before she remembered the woman that had been standing behind the counter when she came in, the one with curly hair pulled severely back. Her heart sunk.

“I’m not sure,” she admitted, hoping that the woman had managed to run or take cover. “Please come with me. We’re arranging to have you transported somewhere safe.”


M E L D H E I M


Interacting with Dietrich, Inga, and Snorri @Suicharte @Force and Fury





Of all the roles Osanna had played, teacher had never been one of them. Mercenary, guard, cook, lady’s maid, servant more times than she could count. Never had anyone put her in charge of children. Osanna had been a strange child herself and largely alone in the halls of the convent where she had grown up, so children were new and strange to her now, but she’d be lying if she didn’t admit to feeling some empathy for them both.

Osanna had wanted more than anything to be a Red Sister before she was given to the Black Order. Inga’s idolization of her people’s warriors reminded her of her own obsession with the red-cloaked women in their convent. As for Snorri, well, hadn’t Osanna called herself a strange child too? She didn’t think she was as clever as the Eskandr prince, but she certainly knew what it felt like to be other.

This empathy wouldn’t get in the way of her duty, of course. As much as Osanna liked people in general, the word of her god would always be a stronger pull.

In the end, Osanna had to ask a servant for directions to the children’s study— the keep was a large one and she had not yet walked its halls long enough to get a feel for the layout. She took a deep breath at the door, pinpointing the nerves in her belly, and stepped through. Osanna could admit that teaching frightened her a little—the discomfort of the unknown. There was so much riding on her doing this well, and she had no idea where to begin.

Osanna pushed open the door. Neither Inga nor Snorri were in yet, but the room had the open, well-aired feeling of a space often used. Books and scrolls filled shelves around the edges, and a wide, circular table took up most of the space in the middle. A game set had been left unfinished in its center, along with a haphazard pile of books, and two of the chairs had fallen over as though the children had run past them. She leaned down to pick them up and cleared away the things left on the table just as the door opened.

Snorri was ushered in by a nanny, and an idle-faced guard could be seen just outside the door. Inga followed, rolling her eyes at something but allowing it to fade from the fore. “So, what are we going to learn first?” the boy prodded, “Avincian or Parrench?”

Inga crossed her arms. “Why should we have to learn either? If I am ever alone with a Parrench, then she is my enemy. Why would I want to speak with her? If we are not alone, then there will be translators.”

“It’s a good thing you will never be queen,” Snorri grumbled, sliding into a seat.

“Just as you will never be king,” she chirped, pulling her chair out in such a way that its legs groaned and squeaked across the wooden planks of the floor. She plopped herself into it. Both children looked towards ‘Ositha’ with different flavors of expectation.

Osanna looked between the two of them for a moment and took a deep breath. “The Avincian language existed before Parrench, and your enemies borrowed heavily from it. Best to learn the original language first. Besides, Drudgunzean nobles and people of means will also likely speak it, so it will be useful in speaking to potential allies as well.”

Not to mention, Osanna’s native ease with Parrench might bring up more questions that she didn’t want to answer. She’d be long gone before the children mastered Avincian well enough to move on. Hopefully, with them in tow.

She walked to one of the bookshelves and removed a couple of titles in the language, taking her time. Among dusty historical, political, and clerical tomes, there were a few more manageable. She picked up a treatise of Avincian swordplay and a collection of parables meant to teach the young to lead.

“To start, though, I need to know how much you know.” That’s how her weapons master had started more than a decade ago, after all. And she liked to think of swordplay as a language of sorts. “Can you greet me in Avincian? Do you know their letters?”

“Salve!” they shouted near simultaneously.

“And that would be ‘salvete’ for a group,” added Inga primly.

“But ‘ave’ is just as common,” corrected Snorri.

“A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X,” Inga recited rapid-fire. Snorri looked like he was going to interject, but he merely suppressed a grin and held back, bouncing up and down a couple of times in his seat. “Is my sister correct, magister?” he inquired sweetly.

The honorific surprised Osanna, but she didn’t let it show. Instead, she grinned at him. “The Avincian Alphabet has gone through several incarnations since its inception, and that was once in use. Now though, it's a little different. Care to tell me how, Snorri?”

The boy shot a superior look at his older sister. “They added Y and Z from the Thalaks once they conquered them.”

“The Avincians didn’t conquer Thalakos!” Inga protested. “It was Iona of Epharos! Then, she joined the Avincians freely, from a place of strength.”

“Whatever,” the younger sibling replied dismissively. “The alphabet got Y and Z.”

“That it did,” Osanna said, struggling to remember her history lessons on the topic and coming up woefully blank. Speaking the language was far more useful in her day-to-day life than knowing why or how it had ended up the way it was. “I’m sure you have teachers for the history of the nations, so I’m going to focus on practical vocabulary.”

“Ulf should be here,” huffed Inga.

“Ulf is out playing soldier,” Snorri reminded her.

“Yes, but language is important,” she insisted, and Osanna couldn’t quite tell whether she was being ironic or not.




D I E T R I C H


Dietrich whistled to himself as he walked down a corridor. The halls of the Kongesalan had let him hear much of the class that had taken place, and he had wanted to see how the young royals were coming along, so he decided he’d stop by for a visit, only to find them bickering. It made him smile to himself, but he wiped it off his face as he walked into the room and interrupted the argument. ”Language is important, but so is live combat experience. I’m sure he had the same classes as you when he was your age.” he mused as he cut in between the two youths. He’d gotten lost in the memories of his youth. Sibling rivalry brought back both fun and sad memories, but he couldn’t help his interjecture here.

“That being said, you were both right and wrong on the matter of Iona. Make sure you read up on that before you have your history classes; details are very important in matters of state. Apologies for the interruption, Ositha. Please continue.”

“Thank you, sir.” The new tutor looked a little out of her depth, but she seemed to draw herself up readily enough. “How about we play a game? I’ll point to an object, and you give me Avincian words to describe it—name, color, size, shape, use… Anything you can think of. Are you ready?”

She looked at the two children, and seemingly happy with their attention, and tapped the table. “We’ll start with this.”

“Mensa!”

“Plana!”

“Magnum!”

“Vetus!” The first few came out in a flurried exchange.

Snorri furrowed his brow. “...ligneus?” he tried.

Inga blinked. “Ah! Brunus!”

They’d slowed down now. Snorri took his time. “Comedere,” he ventured. “Somnum?” Inga added uncertainly, but her brother snorted and shook his head. “You don’t sleep on a table.”

“A raised bed is very much like a table,” she retorted defensively, “and Ositha didn’t say ‘no’, now did she?”

“Regardless, your vocabulary is certainly impressive. I believe, if I’ve counted right, that came out fairly even.” Ositha tapped her chin as if thinking. “Let’s make it a little harder. This time, give me your answers in sentences. Mensa est brunneis.”

She looked to Dietrich, still watching the proceedings, and gave him a somewhat shy smile. “Perhaps you’d like to pick the next object, sir…” He hadn’t given her his name.

Dietrich gave a curious look at Ositha before involving himself once more. Something about these lessons struck him as unfamiliar. He knew she wasn’t a formally trained teacher, but it was a far cry from the lessons he’d had as a child. These kids were particularly rowdy as well, so he figured he’d cut her some slack in that regard.

”Quic hoc est?” he announced with more authority as he pointed at a chair that was unoccupied. He looked at Snorri, then at Inga, and then at Ositha, expecting answers from all three.

Ositha grinned at him, evidently delighted by his use of Avincian. She didn’t answer his question, but this did seem to be an exercise in testing their knowledge. “Gratias tibi! Inga? Snorri?”

“Sella parva est,” replied Inga, the glance that she’d saved for her brother a polite but challenging one.

“Sella… angusta est pro Inga.” Snorri grinned wickedly, and his sister shot him a dirty look. Even if she didn’t know the word, she could piece it together. “Inga nimis crassus est!” he giggled.

Ositha froze for a long moment, standing still at the other side of the table. She might have been testing the royal children, but it seemed as though they were determined to test her as well. Finally, she raised an eyebrow. “It seems negotiations have broken down, Prince Snorri. However, will you secure Princess Inga’s allegiance?”

“The loyalty of some must be earned,” the boy replied, “but it should be a given for family. I shall treat her how I, myself am treated.”

“You always treat Ulf better,” Inga complained.

“That is because he will one day be king.”

“A king or queen still must earn respect through great exploits, as mother and father do.”

“Is that not what Ulf seeks to do right now? Attacking the pirates that Uncle Vali suspects are in Rigevand?”

Inga scrunched up her nose. “He is going about it all wrong. He should not be skulking about behind mother’s back. He should…” It may have occurred to the girl that she had overspoken, for her eyes turned uneasily to Ositha and Dietrich, who both were adults and consulted with her mother. “What would you do?” she put to them, and, for once, Snorri nodded, either agreeing with his sister or hoping to deflect.

“I would complete my mission to the best of my abilities,” Ositha said easily, the truth quick to her lips. “As E— as the Father bids us all.”

She… fumbled. She hadn’t been about to say the Father at all, though Dietrich had watched her spit on the symbol of the Quentic faith. As he watched, Ositha paled as though realizing her mistake had been seen.

“Do forgive me,” she said finally, “I was forced to pretend to act as a Quentic for years before they found that my people kept the true Gods.”

“And in what city did they find you, Ositha” Dietrich asked in Drudgunzean, switching seamlessly from the Avincean he’d spoken earlier. There was something terribly wrong. He had to be sure before he acted, though.

“Meckelen, my lord. Though my mother was a convert, and we traveled often. Both my parents were merchants.”

”And who is the liege lord of Meckelen, Ositha? A daughter of merchants of stature enough to know good Avincean would have certainly met him once or twice.”

“I think you may be overestimating my reach, my lord. My father only wanted me to know the language so that we could trade outside of our homeland. I know only what I’ve heard from rumor, and that’s quite old now. Is it still Lord Apsel Derichs?

That was the moment Dietrich was certain. His suspicion was first pricked by her accent, which was not a fluent one from Lindermetz. The second had been her near referencing of Echeran, and the third had been her not knowing her liege lord's name. He thought for a moment that he might be crazy, or exaggerating, or that he might need more proof, but he was certain that he wouldn’t make a mistake like this. He was him, after all. When had he ever made a crucial error, one of this magnitude? As his mind raced, he looked at the kids. He couldn’t cause a scene here. Should he get them to safety? No. He would just hold his suspicion until after. There, she could better be dealt with. Here, there were vulnerabilities. He forced his face to move to a friendly smile and spoke once more.

“Not anymore. Forgive my intrusion; I’ve not been gone for long, but I miss my homeland, and I find all of it beautiful, even if Lindermetz is particularly infested with Quentics.”he laughed slightly and smiled as friendly as he could fake, switching back to Eskandish as he addressed the kids once more.

”Adults must carve their own path, Inga. You cannot stay under your mother's wing forever and report to her every movement that you make, especially someone who will one day rule this vast empire. But you should treat each other better. Family is the only people who you can always count on to have your back. You are bound by blood. Don’t let it fall apart because of silly squabbles.” he reminisced about his brothers, sisters, father, and mother. If he was right, then they would need each other more than ever soon. He would stay with them for now and make sure they were safe, and then he would make his move.






O S A N N A


The first thing any decent sneak does in a new environment isn’t to spy or kill or steal. That all comes quite a bit later, after a tedious amount of planning or else a decent dose of good luck. And one can’t even begin planning until establishing one’s cover and creating what necessary relationships one might require.

No. The first thing any decent sneak does is find a way out.

Osanna waited until the keep was silent before rising from her bed. At this hour, even the servants would be sleeping, and if a guard happened to wander through the halls, well, they wouldn’t see Osanna. She needed to be doubly careful, though. That lordling who had interrupted her teaching earlier was onto her, thanks to a spectacularly novice slip-up. Osanna cursed to herself. She was an assassin, not a godsdamned kidnapper!

She half wanted to run now, to disappear down the nearest bolt hole and head back to Parrence, but she had been ordered by her faith to do what she could for this cause, and Svend had risked much to get her in.

If nothing else, she would have to see it through for now.

Osanna pulled on the pair of trousers she’d worn under her dress that first day, as well as a dark green blouse and boots. She didn’t have her sword, but she slipped a dagger into her waistband and covered herself with her cloak. It would be easier to hide magically if she was already difficult to see in the dark.

The secret tunnel Osanna had sensed earlier that day lay in the kitchens, hidden in the far back of one of the keep’s tremendous pantries. She found her way down to it easily, despite the dark of the halls. Moonlight pierced the gloom at regular intervals, and the long wait in her rooms had accustomed her eyes to the lack of light.

Besides, this was what she’d been made for.

Osanna cloaked herself in shadow as she stepped into the kitchen just in case there were prying eyes about, up for a late-night morsel or prowling the halls. It was strange to see the cavernous room so empty—during the day, it was so filled with cooks and servants that there never seemed to be enough room. Now, hanging vegetables threw strange shadows, lit slightly by the fire’s low embers. In a keep of this size, the kitchen’s heart never quite went out.

A young boy slept near the hearth, his mouth slightly open and his young face slack. He must be one of the servant’s get, but he didn’t worry Osanna. He was still young and untroubled enough for the deep, limp sleep of a child. She stepped past and into the pantries, leaving him to his dreams. The servant boy was the same age as Snorri, but somehow she didn’t think the prince would lie so easy, and they would not have much in common in play.

The hidden door was made of stone, inlaid so perfectly within the floor as to be invisible to the naked eye. It was half-covered with storage crates that Osanna moved, careful not to disturb their layer of dust.

It took too long—and a small amount of borrowed lard— to get the hinges moving, but really, that was perfectly fine with Osanna. It meant that this particular entrance hadn’t been used in some time. Beneath the cover, a rickety wooden ladder fell away into darkness so thick not even the assassin’s sharp eyes could pierce the mire.

For a moment, Osanna just listened, breathing softly through her mouth until she could make out the gentle snores and occasional pop of coals from the kitchen. From below, she heard nothing. It smelled dry despite the wetness of this damnable climate. The air that filtered up was cold.

Osanna reached for her reserves of power, calling on Arcane to give her sight in this darkness. It was not a spell she used often since it was inefficient to use it and her cloaking spell at the same time, but she doubted she would need shadow in the pit that awaited her. With Arcane strengthening her sight, the ladder lit up beneath her, thick with empty spiderwebs and dust. Osanna pushed past them, closing the door over her head and descending until stone reached her feet once more. Around her, the narrow stone passages branched off in either direction, and she padded off to explore the near-endless stretch.




In the morning, Osanna woke to an insistent knock on her door. It was early, the light coming through her window pale and wan, and her head pounded from too little sleep and water. She had only returned to her bed a few hours ago. The tunnels beneath Meldheim were more extensive than she could have possibly imagined.

Osanna dragged herself out of bed, splashed her face with water, and pulled a dress over her head before answering the door. Two maids stood there, similar enough to be sisters. Both towered over her, and one wore an unpleasant frown. “Did you think you were going to sleep all day? Got the cushy tutor job, so you don’t have to do any real work?”

Osanna started, shocked by the early morning assault. “No, of course not! Whatever you need done!”

The other servant, a thinner girl with big eyes, smiled. Her name was Ada, if Osanna remembered correctly. “See! I told you she would. I knew she was a good sort when we talked yesterday.”

The first woman sniffed. “Lina is sick today, so you’ll take her chores.”

Two hours later, Osanna pushed herself up from a hearth on the second highest floor of the keep. Her back ached. She was coated in ash up to her elbows and more dusted the front of her gown. There were probably streaks across her face and in her hair. Osanna rarely, if ever, regretted a late night, but this was starting to look like one of those times.

She pushed herself to her feet like an old woman and hefted her bucket of ash. She could carry another fireplace load, easy. And there were only two more on this floor as far as she could tell.

The hallway outside was just as empty as it had been all morning, aside from the occasional guard passing by, and Osanna was careful to wipe off her hands before reaching for the next door handle. It didn’t budge.

Osanna went still. There was still no one in the hallway around her. There hadn’t been for some time. There were a few pins in her hair, keeping the black mass out of her face as she worked. If she got caught picking the lock, she was dead. It was a long way down to the secret passage she’d discovered the night before. On the other hand, the Eskandr had something in here that they didn’t want people stumbling in and finding, something that might aid her people. The archbishop’s words came back to her. She was to treat this mission like it had come from the highest echelons of her church.

Osanna pulled the pins from her hair and inserted them into the lock, feeling for the mechanisms that would allow her to click open the door. Seconds passed. The tumblers began to fall into place. Boots sounded on the stair.

When the door swung open, Osanna slipped inside and closed it behind her, greeted by a sudden rush of animal smells. It was damp and hot inside, dark except for the light of a smoldering fire still going in the hearth. Tables lay strewn with strange tools, the walls draped in thick, dark wool, unpatterned and stained by soot. Outside, the soldiers on watch tramped by, and Osanna cloaked herself more out of habit than need. Her heart was pounding.

That had been too close.

On the mantle above the fire sat rich boxes of fine, oiled wood. Osanna set down her ash bucket and opened the nearest one, only to hold her breath in wonder. Inside, swaddled in thick velvet wrappings, sat two gleaming eggs. She opened the next box and the next, each holding a different collection of strangely-colored embryonic creatures. Most of the eggs were quite large, but there were a few that might fit comfortably in her bucket.

Osanna closed all the boxes from the first and lifted the two melon-sized eggs it held carefully into her bucket, burying them in warm ash. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with them—not yet— but if the Eskandr royals kept them so carefully then they must be of some use.

When the room was put back in order, Osanna eased the door closed behind her and slipped off with her prize.

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