Masaharta spread his hands expressively. "I have no proof," he said with a shrug. "Nor will I obtain any in the near future, with Userkare barring me from the Ashen Tower and its oracles from my company."
Seben tried to sit tall across the chessboard from him. The firelight flickered low in the study between the different oil lamps, casting flickering shadows that made her already strained nerves even more frayed. She knew Vassa was behind her without having to look, the masked woman's fingertips just brushing against her shoulder. "Why did you look for me, then? If you aren't sure I'm his daughter and you aren't sure I have the Blessing, why are you helping me?"
There was no sign of Masaharta's easy grin now, replaced by a somber expression. "I am Keeper of the Seal. The preservation of the Sunblessed is my sacred duty. I do not know how Userkare is interacting with the powers bestowed by Sol without it, but he is a fool if he thinks he can tamper with divinity and not have it bring down a terrible wrath on all of Ethilir." He cleared his throat before continuing. "I was fully aware that Prince Sanakht had a habit of playing common soldier and venturing into brothels, particularly in Losena. Cleaning up the royal heir's mess was something of my unofficial job description. Plenty of children are born of such encounters."
The young woman furrowed her brow as she considered that. "But you found me in particular."
"Before he was struck down by a poisoned blade, the late prince confided in me that he had learned of a girl that he believed was his child, a commoner who had been taken under a fire-speaker's wing. When I asked him if he had arranged such a thing, he denied it vehemently, but spoke with pride of it. I asked him if he had seen her, and he said yes. One evening in Losena he had neared where she was training with a tame djinn one day and said of her, I knew that spark." Masaharta shrugged. "It was enough to send me to an oracle, who to my mind confirmed it."
"Spark?" Seben asked quietly.
"I don't know how true it is, but some say the Sunblessed can see the potential for another of the blood to carry it. Supposedly that is how legitimate heirs are recognized," their host explained. "I had always assumed it was metaphorical. Regarding Sanakht's heir, the oracle insisted when I argued with him that the next Sunblessed would be a phoenix rising from the ashes, renewal and rebirth rather than a simple continuation."
Vassa was quiet still, considering what all this meant. That sickening feeling she'd experienced in Userkare's presence was still eating away at her peace of mind. It had stirred to life the shadows in her own heart and now, as their claws were subtly sinking in, she found it difficult to focus long on Seben's predicament beyond it. "King Userkare is not manipulating your royal powers on his own," she said finally, breaking the quiet that had descended.
Masaharta steepled his fingers and leaned back slightly, regarding the pair before him. "Oh?"
"This is not some enchanted bauble that one can toy with as a mundane," Vassa said bluntly. "The number of things that can exert influence on the powers of a god are almost nonexistent. It would require ancient and incredible power to deceive the handiwork of Sol."
"Such as?" the nobleman said.
"A Leyan mage with sufficient stolen life-force could perhaps achieve it, though that sheer volume of power required would make that an unsustainable control. More effective would be use of a First World relic," Vassa said. She knew better than to make reference to her own people. It was a box of elemental wickedness she was not willing to unleash on the minds of Ethilir.
"We were suspecting sorcery," Masaharta admitted.
Vassa shook her head. "Magic and sorcery cannot coexist. They will battle for dominance and utterly destroy each other in the process, the victor obliterating even traces of the defeated. Were that the case, there would be a crater of glass where once proud Ethilir stood. What you are looking for is a magic feeding upon your magic, a parasite sucking sustenance and power from it while granting control to its master. It hides itself, masks, conceals, and from that obscurity does its wicked work."
Masaharta's dark eyes gave Vassa their undivided attention. "Would you be able to locate it? You appear the most knowledgeable about the Art of everyone in this room, perhaps everyone I associate with."
"I want no part of it," Vassa said, voice hard as diamond with certainty in every syllable.
"Vassa, we need your help," Seben pleaded. "No one else knows how to find it, let alone fight it.".
The masked woman shook her head, that sickening feeling returning at the thought of confronting such magic and its source. She had endured so much already and the thought of more was pure torture. What could she say to make Seben and Masaharta understand? As much as Seben's plea stirred at her heart, memories of Lysaerys's love could not be so easily brushed aside, nor all the promises she had made to herself after her banishment.
Seben reached out, fingertips brushing against Vassa's arm. "Please," she said.
Vassa was careful not to look at the young woman as she made her decision. Learning more of fire-speaking was not worth the danger of staying in Seben's company and joining some dire conspiracy. She had endured enough plots and their inevitable fallout over the course of her long life. This magic was a problem for Ethilir, a land far from her home, far from connection to her.
She would leave, and that would be the end of it.
Vassa turned on her heel and strode out of the study, ignoring the shock it left in her wake. She took a deep breath, reaching through the threads of existence towards her room, creating a link as she stepped through. The crack of sound at the movement was barely audible, muted by her training as a zhendai. It took her only moments to throw everything in her bag and shoulder it. Another far-step took her back to the main hall, to the front doors.
Her thoughts tormented her as she moved out into the streets of the Crown Ward. There was no escaping that she was leaving Seben defenseless, Well, not entirely, given Masaharta was there, but he was not the kind of man Vassa would place her faith in. Besides, he couldn't be what Seben clearly wanted: a friend, a confidante, someone she could trust.
Vassa was certainly not that.
She closed her eyes as she stopped on a street corner, leaning back against stone chilled by the night air. A vision of the past flashed into being. Cruelty becomes you, Lysaerys's voice purred in her ear. She looked down to see her hands slick with crimson blood. The vivid image vanished on the next blink.
Vassa hated it. Even banished from Lysaerys's side, the game went on. The scars ran far deeper than the skin.
What do you fear most, Vassa? Sethon's voice murmured against her ear, even the barest suggestion of his breath scorching. Her skin crawled even at the memory. Her demons were at their strength tonight, carrying out the past's wicked work. She knew it was the after-effect of seeing such magic again.
It was a good question. The magic plaguing the Sunlit Throne was certainly a terror, but she didn't know if that was what she feared most. She took a moment to sort through her conflicted feelings before settling on an answer that she did not at all care for.
Seben. She was afraid of Seben. Maybe not of what the young woman was, but what she could easily become.
"Vassa!" Seben called into the night air a little ways down the street.
The masked woman looked over to see the young woman looking around. Unfortunately for Seben, Vassa long ago learned to conceal herself even in plain sight. She simply leaned back more against the stone, into the shadows cast by lamplight. It gave her an opportunity to study Seben without fear of being noticed. Concern and hurt shared the young woman's features.
Seben then said something quietly enough that Vassa barely caught it. "I just want to say goodbye."
Those words hurt, twisting the guilt that was already forming in the pit of her stomach. Seben was prepared to let her leave without a trick, without a hook, without pain. It was a reminder that this was Vassa's present, not her past. That was the difficulty with living a long life: it made it easy to be caged by history.
Vassa stepped out into the lamplight and approached. "Seben," she said quietly. "It is dangerous for you to be in the street without an escort."
"I know," Seben said. She swallowed hard, taking a moment to find her words. "I understand that this is a lot. I won't make you stay. I wish I could go with you, but...if what Lord Osei says is true, something terrible could happen. I just want…" She took a deep breath. "I want to thank you."
Vassa's lips tugged into a wry smile behind her mask. "I did not act in expectation of gratitude."
Seben almost tackled her into a hug, wrapping her arms tightly about the masked woman's shoulders. "No one has ever looked out for me the way you did. You're a good friend, I don't care what you think."
It took everything Vassa had to not go rigid at the touch, even knowing all that Seben offered was warmth and trust. "So you are inclined to pursue this?" the masked woman said. "Not ready, necessarily, but willing to step into the light of leadership?"
"I won't let Ethilir be destroyed because I did nothing," Seben said as she pulled back, reluctant to let go of her traveling companion. "Maybe there's another Sun—" She stopped when Vassa's finger pressed over her lips.
"Be careful what you say in the open, Seben," the masked woman warned softly. "Even at this hour, even in this place." She sighed, trying to release some of the tension of her emotions. "This will cost you more than you know. I know what paths to power look like. Many are littered with bodies of the nearest and dearest to those who walk them."
"I'm not going to pretend I know," Seben said with firmness. "But I'm not going to hurt you if you stay."
Vassa could still remember with crystal clarity the agony of being shackled to that ward, her very vitality siphoned away to break the barrier. She was not alive because she was spared by a loving hand: the ritual completed without utilizing her entire essence. "Do not promise me such a thing," Vassa murmured. "Oaths are only empty air."
"Will you stay and let me prove it to you?" the apprentice fire-speaker asked. She hesitated before continuing, "You don't have to. I just…"
"I was right," Vassa said quietly, disentangling herself from the last of the young woman's embrace. "You are quite difficult to be rid of."
"Does that mean you'll stay?" Seben said, trying not to smile.
"I need something before I agree to remain," the masked woman said solemnly. She held out a hand palm up, reluctance in every motion. "If this magic is of the nature I think, it will corrupt anything that approaches. Even you, Seben. I can offer you my protection only through a vestali."
"What's that?" Seben asked.
"It is a...connection, forged by bonding threads of existence. There are many such things in magic, but this in particular is ancient. It has many uses." Knowing what she did of Seben's aura, there was an incredible danger that the sleeping power within the young woman might take exception to the touch of Vassa's magic or that consequences unintended would wreak havoc on her. However, Vassa could use such a bond far more deftly than Seben would ever be able to and that granted the masked woman a distinct advantage if they ever came to blows.
Vassa didn't want control, but she did want to protect herself against the possible future of betrayal.
"Will it hurt?" Seben asked with concern.
"It does not have to," Vassa said, though her only experience with it had been agony. The masked woman promised herself that whatever her intentions were, she would use far more care with Seben than Lysaerys had ever used with her. "A vestali will allow me to know where you are at a thought and allow me to extend my protection to you against magic, if in a reduced fashion. Those who share the Gift can communicate with them, even share their perception or experiences, but you lack the training and ability to do so."
Seben wished she could see Vassa's face and read an expression. Instead, there was just darkness and the hint of eyes beneath her hood. "Is it permanent?"
"The one who forged the binding can undo it, but a piece will always remain. Like a scar." Even as Vassa spoke, the center of her chest ached with a phantom pain. Lysaerys had placed their bond on her breastbone, a faint trace of dark magic still tangled with her heart. "If you do not wish it, I understand. It is not a small thing."
Seben took a deep breath and placed her hand on Vassa's. "I trust you," the young woman said, honesty easily readable to the masked woman's keen eyes.
The guilt twisted in Vassa's stomach. If she would ever make a vestali of her own, the better part of her demanded that it not be with selfish motives. To do anything of the sort was Lysaerys's influence speaking and it had nearly led her down a dark path. No matter how terrifying, betrayal had to be better than becoming the thing that had destroyed her, thrown her away. She let go of Seben's hand and sighed. "You should not," she said, relaxing slightly. "I apologize. I should not have spoken as I did, nor leapt so quickly to such a route. Magic of that nature is powerful and never to be used lightly. Besides, we do not know what your aura would make of it."
"Are you certain?" Seben said. "If it will help…."
Vassa shook her head. "We do not need it, at least for now. Should a need arise and intent be what it should be, we can revisit it."
Seben gave the masked woman a second, unexpected hug. "You can tell me things, you know," she said gently. "I'm your friend too."
It was difficult, but Vassa fought her urge to shove Seben away. It wasn't the young woman's fault that even a simple comfort could feel so fraught and she had no wish to hurt Seben's feelings. She'd done that enough for one day. "I will keep that in mind," she said as Seben released her. The sudden touch of the night air instead of Seben's warmth was both soothing and slightly disappointing. After so long starved of connection, having it for a moment ignited a terrible wish for more. Vassa knew what came of indulging such wishes. "We should return to the house."
To her credit, the young woman sensed the importance of the subject change. "Lord Osei said he was retiring after you left," Seben said as they walked the short distance back. "I'm not sure what the plan will be in the morning."
"Gaining access to the Ashen Tower is something of a priority now," Vassa said once they were safely back inside Masaharta's manor, turning over the matter in her mind. "That is the only way we will have the benefit of an oracle. However, we can assume that the King has far easier access to them and will seek their wisdom himself."
"Will they help him?"
"He is the King," Vassa said, adjusting the way her bag hung from her shoulder as Seben led the way back into their rooms. "Whether they believe he holds sway legitimately or not, he can have their heads cut off at a whim. For any resistance against such power to thrive, it must be subtle. Perhaps they will tell him the truth, perhaps they will give him misinformation. We have no way of knowing. I find it much wiser to assume that he will learn everything about you swiftly. Either we are correct and prepared or pleasantly surprised."
Seben rubbed at one eye, fatigue clearly setting in full force now that the potential crisis of Vassa's departure was over. "Why can't it be simple?" she asked. "Couldn't we just break the spell that he's using and then everyone would know?"
Vassa smiled faintly behind her mask, but there was an element of gravity from experience that stopped the expression from spreading. "Have a care, Seben," she said as she sobered. "Such an event might be one to rue for the rest of your days. The older a magic is, the deeper it runs through the threads, the more dangerous it becomes when severed."
"I think I prefer djinn," Seben murmured, sitting down on one of the couches. "At least you know what you're getting."
The smile returned, more genuine this time. "That is one of the reasons I most enjoy elemental magic," she said. "There is a certain purity of intent that one does not necessarily find with manipulation magic. Fire wishes to thrive, water wishes to flow, wind wishes to blow, earth wishes to last."
"The only mage I ever met before you was a Leyan battlemage," Seben admitted. "They said he could conjure fires large enough to destroy a formation."
"Perhaps he could, but at a terrible cost," Vassa said. She leaned back, tilting her head up to look at the ceiling. "Magic is inextricably tied to life. It cannot exist without it and every use of it siphons away vitality. Leyan mages pay in blood to do what they do, whether theirs or someone else's."
Seben studied her friend. "Does yours use blood too?"
"If your concern is that I will draw upon your vitality, you may comfort yourself in the knowledge that I will never do so," Vassa said. "The gods do not permit those of my tradition to do such a thing." It was a way of dancing around the admission that she was not able to bend magic to feed upon others rather than herself. Study in Leus had taught her much of how they handled magic, but she could not access it the way a blood mage could. She'd learned to augment her reserves using her rings, but even that was only accomplished by storing her own energy for future use.
"I wasn't worried about that," Seben said. "More worried about you."
"You will find me surprisingly durable when it comes to the Art," Vassa said dismissively. "Practice and training have opened many doors to me that others cannot even think of."
"Like your tricks."
Vassa laughed, the sound brief in the air but heartfelt. She felt more at ease talking about this, less weighted. Seben's good-humored curiosity reminded her of her favorite parts of being in Leus. "Like my tricks," she confirmed. "I will do what I can with what I know, Seben. The rest is up to you."
"I think we'll be alright," Seben said, smiling at the sound of Vassa's laugh. "I mean, we only have a Master of Malice, an ancient curse, and a very angry King to worry about."
"There are worse things than all of those," Vassa said, closing her eyes again.
"You're so cheerful, Vassa," the young woman said, but it was more of a tease than a snipe.
"Merely observant." Vassa stifled a yawn. The day was catching up with her as well. "Rest, Seben. I will retire as well. There has been more than enough excitement for one day and I suspect we are approaching dawn faster than I would like."
"Will you be here in the morning?" Seben asked seriously.
The masked woman opened her eyes and looked over, meeting the young woman's gaze. "I will be here in the morning," she promised.