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More than a Masque

 

                The sun was painting the skies in shades of rose and gold as I stepped out into what had once been the courtyard of my small home in Fell’s Run.  Now it was a garden of night-blooming flowers, heavy oak trees, and wild herbs grown from the seeds I had scattered on rainy days.  That there was any order to the garden’s chaos was a miracle of happenstance, but I liked it that way.  I had a comfortable, if threadbare cotton shift on, and I was barefoot as I padded down onto the cooling earth.  Karone Bjornsen followed me out, watching as I knelt in a patch of Bugloss with an ancient pair of clippers to prune a few petals for my potions.

 

                “Was it necessary to invite the fledgling in?” The Nord assassin groused, but when I looked up she was smiling a secret smile at me that said she knew more about my actions than I sometimes did.  I sucked absent-mindedly on the inside of my lower lip for a moment as I considered the question.  Snip-schnick! I found a sprig of bugloss with holes in the leaves and half-eaten stems where insects had gotten to it.  I tossed that sprig away to nurture the earth.

 

               “In a word, yes.”  Karone frowned at me in the growing gloom.  She stepped out of the circle of light cast by the torch set above the stoop, and found one of the boulders I had placed strategically for sitting.  “…If he weren’t joining the same mercenaries we have, I might not have sought him out—but he has.   I won’t have his silly city practices getting us found out.  He’s not old enough to know yet what bad things can happen to him if his feeding practices begin to raise questions.” I said finally as I found another half-eaten sprig and clipped it away from the whole.  Karone snorted from where she sat—peeling an apple she had brought out with her to eat.

 

                “And so you agreed to teach him the secrets of alchemy?”  Karone teased and I snorted, but the smile making my cheeks dimple was genuine.  I stood up and moved into a patch of columbine.  This plant took care of itself, and I only needed to snip a few buds; all of which were added to a small pouch where it rested against my hip.

 

           “Far be it for me to refuse to teach someone who genuinely seeks to learn, Karone.  How have you enjoyed that book on basic enchanting principles, by the way?” I asked pointedly, though the lightness to my tone softened the barb.  Karone chuckled and shrugged as she watched me wander about the yard from plant to plant.  She made room as I came to tuck myself beside her on the boulder.  It should not have fit us both, but I was small in death as I had been in life.  Of course, if I was small, Karone was a giant compared to me.  Tall with cropped hair the color of chocolate, and eyes the color of a bright blue winter sky.  She saw as well in darkness as me, and that was another reason we got along well enough to be lovers.

 

                “Stuffy mystical sciences.  The book is boring and gives me a headache.  …Do you really have to memorize all those phrases?” She asked, and I laughed a surprised sound that echoed off the stone walls around us.  I turned enough that I could breathe along her neck, taking in her scent as I did.  She might have complained about the rose scented soaps I bought, but it did not seem to stop her using them.

 

            “It isn’t possible to memorize everything,” I said slowly, “no.  Your tone and inflection is more important.  And the power you gather.  If you have no sense of Magicka behind your words, then you won’t be able to complete the enchantment.  You can always have a book at hand from which to cheat, but when you say the words, you have to mean them.”

 

                “I see…” Karone was thoughtful, “you could have simply offered to teach him at the Fort.  I still don’t see why you had to let him stay here.  His fate isn’t tied to yours.”  She deftly changed the topic from herself, back to her original question and I sighed.

 

                “Isn’t it?  I was born during the Second Era, in the year 480, Karone.  It was a relatively boring time, and I was the daughter of horse thieves.  We called ourselves a clan, but only because what one of us stole, the others might have to bear up in stocks if not worse.  I did not make Jorna Shadestep—I would not have, but it does not absolve me of the knowledge that his inexperience could be my downfall too if he missteps.   Think you, if he commits a crime that our employers discover, do you think they won’t be looking at us all?”  I asked the logical question first so that I could try to assemble the deeper answer that I knew Karone wanted.

 

                “Horse thieves?  You’re rather well-spoken for a rover,” Karone said, her tone questioning me gently as we peered up into a sky that was now star strewn.  Secunda and Masser were dark tonight, and I shrugged in the thick shadows enveloping us.  They wrapped the two of us in a comfortable blanket, and I snorted. 

 

                “I’ve had the last eighty or so years to perfect myself, Karone.  I did not spend all my time on roads swindling, or robbing the unwary.  Actually, I didn’t spend any time doing that even when I was with the clan.”  I said finally, my brow furrowing as I dredged up dusty memories that I had been trying unsuccessfully to consign to Oblivion for years.

 

                “You didn’t?” Now I could hear it.  Karone was really curious, and I squirmed as if I had an uncomfortable itch.  I did, and it was a soft spot for my human lover.

 

                “No.  By the time I was born, Silanus had existed as a close knit clan for several decades.  My mother was the head mender and wise woman, and I do believe she expected me to follow in her footsteps.  Hers was a wisdom stepped in dark magic and curses—sophistry to appease an angry husband, and soon followed by vengeance for the equally angry wife.  I made a good start at following her rather arbitrary example, but we had the occasional visitor who would stay for a night or two on our hospitality.  There was a group from the Mages Guild that stopped to take dinner with us one evening, and I plagued the mages so with questions that their leader asked my father’s leave to take me on as an apprentice.” I paused here, remembering that someone living would have needed to take a breath—I needed only to wet my lips so I’d not lose my voice.  I smiled at the distant memory nonetheless, and Karone’s chuckle warmed me a little.

 

                “I assume he allowed it?”

 

                “Oh yes.  Mother disowned me though, and would’ve disowned father—but head of the clan.  That’s rather hard to do without just leaving yourself.  If she’d done that, who would’ve been there to help orchestrate the curses that both bound us and fractured us as a people?”  Bitterness sat on my tongue as sudden as my joy had dispersed, and I squeezed the hand suddenly wrapped around my upper arm.  Karone rested her chin on the top of my head, and I tucked myself more tightly against her warmth.

 

                “You asked why I took Jorna in…you never asked why I turned back in Sentinel.”  I said slowly, referencing recent events that had tripped me and one of Karone’s associates up on a visit back to the desert city.

 

                “…You give new meaning to the term, “thick as thieves”, Viatryx.  I think I understand why you took Jorna in.  …You feel obligated to oversee and guide him, even offer your protection—such as it is.  I didn’t ask about Sentinel, because I have known that answer for some time now.  It’s the same one that drove you to join up with a mercenary company in Bangkorai.”

 

                “Yes?”

 

                “…Humanity…yours is slipping, and you are trying to hold onto what remains.  Even while accepting and admitting you are a monster—only you aren’t as monstrous as you pretend.  I know you followed the Mages Guild for at least a few years before your death as a healer.  … I can do research too, you know.  Your reaction to the events in Sentinel was only natural, and it proves something…” Karone said as I shifted so I could face her, pressing my forehead against hers.  The hunger clenching my gut had nothing to do with feeding, and everything to do with needing to hear her words.  Words that I knew I would take in and wrap my psyche in before I left for the night.

 

                “And what does it prove?”  I demanded as she kissed my lips softly, smiling against my mouth as she sensed the impatience beginning to make my body taunt.

 

                “It proves that your humanity is more than a mere masque…”

 

 

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