“Josu? Josu, I’m here!” Liliana ran breathlessly into the clearing, her eyes scanning the peated and rocky banks for signs of her brother. She lifted her long muslin skirts with one hand and stepped carefully towards the ancient tree that was their designated meeting place. Her white slip caught on a bit of bramble, and she reached out and pressed one hand against the alder’s grizzled, moss-covered trunk to steady herself as she untangled the delicate lace.
Muttering a very unladylike curse she’d heard from the stableboys, Liliana finally freed herself from the shrubbery and leaned back against the old tree as she watched the twilight take the clearing. Wisps of fog drifted out of the cattails and began to creep over the swampier parts of the inlet. The palest pinks and lavenders began to blossom everywhere the dying sun touched the landscape, as if the earth itself blushed for what the night would bring.
Liliana frowned and bit her lip. She knew she was late—that nosy nanny of hers had lingered in the hallway doing Mary-knows-what for what had seemed like ages—but the delay had been unavoidable. There was no way to get to the window that led to the rose trellis except through the upstairs hallway, and that meant escape had to be timed so that Liliana’s personal servants and the top-floor sentries were elsewhere for at least five minutes.
The girl pouted, brushing a stray strand of black hair off her face and tucking it messily into the braid that trailed down her back. She’d done the best she could—she’d never, ever let her brother down if she could help it. Josu had said he had a surprise for her... something wonderful since he’d missed her so much on the last campaign.
He and father had been away in the Sand Lands for months, and according to Josu’s whispered joke when he took her in his arms in the courtyard, it was a dull and ugly place. Liliana had barely been listening; the minute the trumpets had sounded her mind had ceased to function normally. She’d run breakneck, barefoot down the stairs—all seven floors of them—nearly slipping and falling several times. When she’d burst into the courtyard, she shoved rudely through the servants and her relatives and the vanguard, straining her neck and eyes to get a glimpse of her brother.
Finally everyone had noticed it was her barging through the crowd, and the idiots had gotten out of her way. The soldiers even made a little path for her, and then, there he was… Josu sitting tall and proud on a white warhorse, the sun glinting off his golden armor and reflecting in his eyes so they gleamed like sapphires. She’d called his name, hoarsely, voice breaking embarrassingly. But it was worth it—he’d turned his head at the sound of her voice, his black hair lifting in the breeze as a smile just for her changed his features from coldly handsome to that of some kind of dream seraph... Then he’d swept down from his saddle and, without a look for anyone else, had pulled her into his embrace.
The Sand Lands campaign had been the longest separation they’d yet experienced. Josu hadn’t even wanted to go, but father had insisted it was time to start publicly grooming his heir to take over his rule and his commission as General when the time came. By all reports the campaign had been not only successful but wildly lucrative, and the gossip was that Lord Vess would be bestowed with a secret, extreme honor by the King himself, in a special ceremony the following week.
Liliana kicked an unlucky pebble into the swamp, sulking. “What does he think, that I can just waltz out of there whenever I want like he can? Those ninnies have been on me like flies since he left, watching my every move! He just doesn’t understand what’s it’s like to be a girl,” she said petulantly to the alder tree.
A hand clamped over her mouth from behind. Liliana tried to shriek—she hadn’t heard anyone approaching! A strong arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her back into the shadow of the tree trunk. The girl clawed at the fingers stifling her cries, her eyes wide and wild and frantically searching the beautiful sunset for any sign of her brother.
“Do you know how lovely you are like this? Wild and fey, the twilight reflected in your terrified eyes…”
Josu. Damn him. She’d know that deep poetic voice anywhere, even if she was dead and buried and he was just talking over her grave.
“You! You—” She spluttered, floundering for the right insult as he removed his hand from her mouth and laughed fearlessly in the face of her indignant rage. “They should’ve mummified you in the Sand Lands so I wouldn’t have to put up with your practical jokes!” She reached out to punch him in the chest but he was too quick for her, easily snaring her slender wrist in his hand and yanking her into a smothering hug.
“What a horrible little sister I’ve been cursed with. My very first night home from war, and she wishes me dead and tries to make it so! You know, in the Sand Lands the great men keep harems of beautiful, well-behaved women to see to their wishes… Maybe I should ship you off to learn some manners, since it seems nanny and all the rest have utterly failed in taming you and raising a proper noble lady…”
“I’ll never be tamed, and I’ll never be proper,” Liliana shouted, though Josu’s chest mostly muffled her defiant words. She wrinkled her nose at the spicy scent that clung to his shirt—he hadn’t smelled like that when he’d left home.
Josu stroked a hand over her dark hair and down her braid. “No, you won’t, will you?” he said fondly, loosening his grip so the younger girl could turn her head and look up at him, but still he kept her in the protective circle of his arms. Liliana didn’t resist, relaxing against his strong body and smiling sheepishly.
Then she remembered something. “What about my present?” she said haughtily.
Josu laughed. “I’m not sure you deserve it, now.”
“Josu!” Liliana stuck out her lower lip and batted her eyelashes at the same time. It was a mix of childish and vixenlike that was absolutely ridiculous. Josu snorted.
“That is not a good way to get what you want.” He laughed again when she bit her lower lip and tried to push away from him in a tantrum. He held on, and after a few seconds of futile struggling, she raised her violet eyes to his.
“Please, Josu? I’m sorry,” she said meekly. He lowered his face to gently kiss her forehead as he’d done since he was ten and she was seven, a ritual begun on the day their mother died. For a moment, Josu could smell the incense and flowers… garland upon garland of white, a funeral pyre to carry an angel’s soul to Elysium on flumes of sweet-scented smoke. The memory was so clear it seemed it happened only hours ago, but really it had been eight years past. The young man thought it strange that so much, yet so little, had changed with his mother’s death. He let his lips linger on Liliana’s soft skin until the wrenching ache in his heart had subsided.
“Brother?” Liliana whispered, her arms instinctively tightening around him. Josu smiled into her hair. She could always feel his shifting moods, even when he didn’t say a thing.
“I’m fine, Lili.” He released her and lifted her hand to his mouth to give it a mocking courtly kiss. Liliana giggled. “Now, you silly spoiled rotten little mouse, the time for your long-awaited gift is at hand!” Josu spun and picked his way over the peaty ground, headed back to the treeline. Liliana squinted, and saw he’d tied Justice back there in the fog. The huge white gelding whickered as it saw the young warrior approaching.
Liliana, giddy with excitement, flounced over to a log that overlooked the inlet and sat down. “I’ll just wait here to accept my proper tribute, then!” she shouted. She kicked her feet, unable to keep still. Josu always got her the best gifts. One Wintering he gave her a baby owl. When he’d gone to the eastern plains to visit their aunt, he’d brought back a poisonous mushroom suspended in crystal that he said would grant minor curses on her enemies. It was a silly story, of course, but once when Liliana had been really angry with nanny she’d tried it—and the older woman had gotten a bad rash on her bum that lasted a week.
“Alright, milady, close your eyes.” Josu had crossed back over to her with a parcel in his arms. Liliana clapped her hands—something big! She shut her eyes, but the huge grin stayed plastered on her face. Josu shook his head. Girls.
He unceremoniously dumped the package into her outstretched arms and pinched her cheek before he stepped back. She blindly swatted at where his hand had just been, pouting again.
“Josu! Can I open my eyes now?”
“Yes, go on, open it so you can get that cat’s smile of wanton materialism off your face.” Josu chuckled as his sister’s eyes snapped open and she seized upon the wrapping paper like it was an enemy on the battlefield. “Gods, Lili, control yourself—the carnage!” Josu said drily as gold-embossed tissue was mercilessly shredded and ribbons went flying into the heather.
The younger girl ignored him, eyes nearly fuschia with glee, her raven hair flaming with a pink halo from the lowering sun. Josu had the fleeting thought that his baby sister looked very much like the sorceresses depicted in the ancient tapestries down in the temple.
“Oh!” Liliana gasped, lifting something silken and deep blue from the remnants of the wrapping. She stood and pulled the shimmering fabric up with her, successfully disemboweling the package and kicking its cadaver out of the way with a slippered foot.
“Josu, this… this is gorgeous! What…” Liliana trailed off as she examined the dress more closely. It was an intense cerulean blue, the same color as the seas of their kingdom during the summer months. The fabric was slick and finer than any she’d ever seen in the Seven Cities.
Her slender white fingers traced the plunging, deep portrait neckline of the dress. “Josu, I… I can’t wear this, nanny would—”
“Of course you can. Try it on.”
Liliana glanced at her brother in irritation, trying to hide her blush with a glare. “Out here?!”
“What, scared?” Josu rolled his eyes. “Fine, nevermind then, if you’re that terrified of getting in trouble…” He sighed deeply.
“I am not scared!” Liliana snapped. “It’s just not prop—” She stopped, realizing what she was about to say, and caught Josu looking at her with a smug smile and a raised eyebrow.
“I could care less! I just didn’t want you to get in trouble in case anyone caught us,” Liliana raised an eyebrow back, perfectly mirroring Josu’s expression. She undid the clasp of her cloak and let it fall to the ground. Then she yanked down one sleeve of her gray dress so quickly that Josu got more of an eyeful than he bargained for and quickly turned around to face the opposite direction.
“You could have warned me!” he huffed, gaze burning holes into the cattails, as he told himself he wasn’t the one now blushing.
Liliana snickered. “It was your idea.”
Josu heard the gray dress drop down and the blue one come up. Liliana enjoyed the way the silky fabric slid over her body like a second skin. She felt important just putting it on. Sucking in a breath, she tugged the bodice over her hips and settled it around her waist, realizing that Josu must’ve had it made to her old measurements, as those are the ones he would have had when he left on the campaign. Self-consciously Liliana pulled on the skintight sleeves, hoping he wouldn’t notice she’d gained a couple pounds in the months he’d been gone. She glanced down and blushed again. The dress exposed a breadth of collarbone and valley of white skin down to her sternum. Nanny would never approve.
“I, um, need your help with the back,” Liliana mumbled, feeling like a little girl again. Josu turned around warily, but his sister was facing away from him, head demurely bowed, hands clasped and waiting for his assistance. Josu stepped up behind her and deftly did up the back of the dress, pausing slightly at the fastenings below her shoulder blades.
“Did you put on some weight?” he asked innocently.
“No!” Liliana snorted. Josu shrugged, yanking the the rest of the closures shut. Liliana gasped and tried not to look like she was breathing shallowly.
“Turn around,” Josu said. Liliana swallowed and obeyed, eyes closed. When she didn’t hear anything, she opened one squinted eye and peered up at Josu shyly through her lashes.
Josu’s inscrutable expression was one she certainly hadn’t seen before. She’d thought maybe he’d laugh, or maybe be blushing like she herself was. Instead, the older boy’s blue eyes had only widened slightly, and darkened in shade. He looked simultaneously surprised and gratified; pleased and yet melancholy… Liliana couldn’t describe it.
“Josu? Do I look that ridiculous?” she said softly. He shook his head slowly. His hand went to the chest pocket of his vest and slipped inside.
“The dress was really only to be the backdrop for your true gift, but now that I see it on you, the dress might be the greater of the two…”
Liliana blushed deeper at his compliment, breaking his gaze and looking away towards the heather. She felt Josu step close to her again. She peeked at his hand and saw it curled gently around something in his palm.
“May I?” he said. Liliana nodded. “Hold up your hair,” Josu commanded. She did, and heard the zzzz and clink of a chain unraveling. Josu’s hand brushed her earlobe as he bent over her. She felt the cool metal of the chain skim over her exposed collarbone, felt the weight of some kind of pendant slide down and then settle between her breasts, its edges pressing into the bare skin there. Josu’s fingers worked at the nape of her neck, and she heard the click of a clasp.
He stepped back to assess her, and now she saw a recognizable expression. Her brother’s mouth turned up in a satisfied smirk, his eyes twinkled mischievously.
“Ha! I told those farting old hags it would suit you; they tried to tell me pearls and filigree were more suitable when I told them your age. I said ‘you don’t know my sister’—of course the merchant was all too happy to sell this to me, considering the cost. As if I’d ever dress you in girlish baubles.”
Liliana grinned. Now, she knew she was looking at the Josu who would one day rule. He’d be a fine general, a fair governor, loved and admired by men and women alike. His self-assuredness was so appealing, his enthusiasm infectious. Liliana knew for a fact that noblewomen everywhere in all of the Seven Cities were already scheming at getting their daughters engaged to her brother…
“Lili! Stop staring at me—don’t you want to look at it?” Josu’s brow was furled in annoyance. There is nothing more precious in my world that I would care to look at, every moment of every day… Liliana wanted to say, but she only smiled at him.
To appease him, she looked awkwardly down at her own chest—and her excitement at receiving gifts returned tenfold. A huge sapphire set in gold hung from the necklace, the pendant’s edges pressing into the pale flesh of the inner curves of her breasts. The weight of the necklace told its quality; the gold was languidly rich and yellow, lacking the tinny shine of cheaper adornments. The sapphire itself was a strangely proportioned pentagon the color of the deep ocean.
“J-Josu… I—” Liliana began, but couldn’t think of anything to say. The pendant transfixed her, gleaming assuredly in the light of the newly risen moon.
“You’re welcome.” Josu’s smirk was self-satisfied and irritating. Liliana’s grateful gaze turned into a scowl and she tossed her head at her brother.
“Well, it’s only fitting you give me something nice after keeping me waiting so long for you to get back!” she huffed. “I was so bored, Josu! You know I hate being bored.”
Josu just grinned wider. He reached into his vest again and this time withdrew a silver flask. “Now I’m back,” he said, unscrewing the cap. “And things can be fun for my darling little sister again. Let’s start with this. Here.” He thrust the flask toward Liliana.
“What is it? Pagan elixir?” The younger girl leaned forward and sniffed the flask cautiously, screwing up her nose when she got a whiff of the contents. “Ugh! It smells like medicine.” She made a gagging face and backed away.
Josu laughed. “The best kind of medicine.” He raised the flask to his lips and tilted his head back to take a long drink. The moon illuminated his perfect profile. Liliana sat contentedly back down on her log, and mused that at least a dozen higher-born girls from the Cities would kill to be where she was right now: drinking after dark with Josu Vess.
“Here, give me some.” Liliana stretched out her arm toward her brother and flexed her fingers demandingly.
Josu smirked. “Knew you couldn’t resist.”
Liliana stuck out her tongue at him, unscrewing the flask and taking a second sniff. Now she picked out notes of apple and vanilla, and burnt orange. “What is it, really,” she asked, sticking her finger in the top of the flask then popping it in her mouth to get an experimental taste. She tried not to make a face as she felt a burning sensation slide across her tongue. It faded into something warm and not unpleasant.
“Eau de Vie is what the nomads call it,” Josu said. “Water of life, straight from the personal cellars of the rahza of the Sand Lands himself.”
“Did he give you this before or after you won the war?”
“After. I had Lieutenant Dobkins try it first to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.”
Liliana giggled. “Old crick-dick Dobkins! I’m surprised he survived the campaign.” She put the flask to her mouth and, seeing that Josu was watching her carefully, took a long and measured sip without flinching. Josu couldn’t hide the fact that he was impressed, an arch of an eyebrow giving away his surprise.
“You really shouldn’t discuss your elders’ cocks in such a manner. Lili. It isn’t proper. And—excuse me, young lady, do you care to share some of that? You do realize it’s nearly worth its weight in gold.”
The girl laughed mid-gulp, nearly choking herself. She swallowed quickly. “Ah, so that’s why it agrees with me,” Liliana said, licking her lips. She tossed the flask back to her brother, feeling a hot flush spreading up her cheeks and down her neck.
“Impressive,” Josu muttered, looking at her. He took another long, lingering sip himself then stuffed the flask back inside his vest.
Liliana pouted. “I want more.”
“Yes, I think you do,” Josu said. His eyes lingered on her, noticing how her skin was turning pink from the cognac and contrasted the blue of the dress and the sapphire he’d given her. A winter sunrise, over the sea. Josu put his hand to his temple.
“Lili. I think we’d better head back.”
“Josu, no! I was just starting to have fun and it’s your first night home, and—”
“It’s late, Lili.” Josu turned away to look at where he’d tied Justice. “Put on your shawl. I’m tired.”
Josu’s voice had gone all bossy and cold. Liliana couldn’t figure it, staring at him searchingly for several moments and hoping he’d change his mind. When he just kept looking at his horse, she sighed furiously and jumped down from her seat on the fallen log. Sulking, Liliana grabbed her things roughly and stomped over to her brother.
“Fine. Let’s go,” Liliana said tartly. Then she looked down and noticed something. “Oh, but Josu, the lace on my shoe is undone. Would you tie it for me, please?”
Josu rolled his eyes and gave a sigh of his own, but knelt to help his sister with her shoe, his brow furrowed and his lips a firm line of determination as he set his knee in the peat and reached out for the delicate satin ribbon on her slipper.
Liliana jumped on his back.
“Wheeeee! Piggyback ride!” she shouted, bringing the flat of her hand cracking down in a resounding smack against Josu’s buttocks.
“OUCH!” Josu nearly lost his balance, pitching forward then stumbling back as he stood up, trying to grab Liliana’s leg and drag her off. “Liliana, get off of me this instant or I swear I—”
Liliana squealed, evading his grasp as she kicked him with her heels. “Giddyup, brother!” she screeched, laughing hysterically.
Josu cursed, thinking he’d roll over and squash her in the peat—no, that would ruin the dress. And it had cost him thousands. Liliana’s racket could probably be heard all the way back at the keep; apparently she was having a grand time with her little prank. Josu gritted his teeth, thinking the quickest way to shut her up was just to carry her back to Justice. He turned and was about to start trudging through the brush…
She spanked him again.
“LILI!” The future General Vess growled incoherently and, twisting painfully, reached back and snagged the squirming and screaming girl into his arms. He held her in front of him, weathering the assault. Liliana was laughing and berating him and punching him with her little fists in turns, accusing him of spoiling her first good night in months.
Liliana’s eyes shone violet in the moonlight, sparkling with mirth. Her full lips were parted in a huge grin, white teeth flashing with feral energy. “Can’t you ever just shut up,” Josu snapped, tightening his grip as she twisted in his arms.
“Make me,” Liliana taunted, giggling and tossing back her head. The sapphire glittered on the alabaster skin of her bosom. The gleam in her eye was triumphant, free.
Josu leaned down to kiss her.
It was not a brotherly kiss. He felt her fingers clench in the fabric of his shirt. He felt his own fingers curve and tighten around the flesh of her neck. The scent of her hair washed over him in waves of rose and jasmine and salt water. The darkness in the land around them seemed to rustle and ripple, the shadows whispering loudly about what they’d done…
Josu stopped. He looked down. Liliana’s eyes were wide with shock, and fear. He discovered that his lips were but a breath from hers. Perhaps they’d touched, perhaps not. If so, it was but a graze. The calculating part of his mind took over. Nothing had happened. Nothing yet. And suddenly a sharp pain lanced through his entire being, as if someone had just come up and stabbed him in the back, slowly dragging the knife until it maimed every part of him.
“Lili. We should go home now,” he said softly, taking care not to frighten her any more.
Liliana nodded mutely, allowing herself to be set down. She turned away from him and walked obediently through the darkness toward Justice without another word.
It was dawn, and stiflingly hot.
How long have I been lying here? Liliana wondered, rubbing her eyes and trying to get her bearings. A smile came to her face as she remembered—Josu had just returned home from the Sand Lands! And… Another thought came to her, and her smile faded. She pushed it out of her mind and looked out the window. Wait, this isn’t right—Josu came home in early autumn, but it’s clearly mid-winter. If it’s winter, why is it so hot in here? Liliana tore her gaze from the barren trees in the courtyard to survey her room. Ah, that was it—the maids had built up the fire too big again! A huge blaze crackled in the fireplace, warming the manor stone. That made sense… Though Liliana had a fleeting thought that her skin was clammy to the touch, that the heat was more like the heat of a fever dream, than an over-warm room… But just then, trumpets blared, and she had no more time to think. The door to her room burst open and excited maids with arms full of girly things—mountains of petticoats, green silk, lengths of ribbons, baskets of soaps and shampoos, fistfuls of panties and stockings—descended upon her. The one girded with every type of grooming tool imaginable closed the door after them, turned to Liliana, and winked.
When Liliana looked up, she was seated in the stands at Vermillion Fields, the royal sporting center. The site was set up for jousting and duels, and as Liliana looked around her she realized she was sitting in the honor box, Nanny on her left and her father, Lord Vess, on her right. Josu was not with them. Liliana squinted in the bright early light, trying to make out other people she knew in the crowd, but they seemed unfamiliar. The lords and ladies were gossiping and chatting, moving and gesturing rapidly, and blink as Liliana might she could not focus on any one of them long enough to recognize a face.
A great cheer went up, and Liliana turned. King Marco had risen to make an announcement. The handsome king raised his ruby-tipped scepter and the crowd went quiet to hear his words. Liliana strained to listen, but his words were fuzzy and all she could think about was finding Josu. The king’s robes were blue and crimson, edged in gold, the Marco colors. The family crest flew smartly on a rippling flag above the podium; a chimera strutting fiercely across a tower shield, beneath a six-pointed crown.
Liliana looked down at her own attire. Her dress was green silk trimmed with white lace and ivory ribbon, the colors of the Vess lineage and Estgard Keep. She wore a silver signet ring with their crest: the blind angel over a sheaf of wheat. There was clapping, and Liliana moved her hands automatically to join in. She looked up; the king had taken his seat, the knights were emerging to begin the tournament.
There must have been dozens of contests. Liliana wiped sweat from her brow, amazed that she could feel so hot in the middle of winter. No one else seemed to mind. Knights rode, jousted, fell. Knights fenced, hammered, hewed. Liliana clapped. Her father leaned over to tell a joke. She laughed politely. Nanny reprimanded her for tapping her foot. She stopped, and began spinning the ring on her finger. All the while her head began to hurt worse and worse: where was Josu?
A particularly embellished fanfare suddenly cut through the air and Liliana turned her head once again to watch two new knights approach the field. The clapping and the cheers increased as the combatants drew near, and Liliana knew this would be the last fight of the day.
One knight wore silver armor set with so much gold scrollwork he looked like a decorative goblet rather than a knight. Still, he was tall and slender and walked with confidence. When he removed his helm to bow to the king, a flow of prematurely grey hair fell forward onto the gilt armor and Liliana knew this to be Erath, the Crown Prince. King Marco beamed down at his son, his own grey hair steely in the winter sun. The king, however, was muscular and tan while Erath was fair and slim. The rumor was that Erath’s mother carried elven blood, though no one had been able to confirm it before she died during childbirth.
The other knight wore dark silver armor inlaid with platinum and black enamel, and Liliana would know his gait anywhere. Her heart sang as she recognized Josu. Breathing a deep sigh of relief, she raised her arm to wave at her brother, but Nanny’s hand clamped over her wrist and wrenched her arm down like a swamp constrictor. Liliana turned to rebuke the old woman and nearly screamed. Nanny’s eyes were completely black, and she grinned at Liliana with little pointed teeth. The older woman shook her head, and Liliana obediently folded her hands in her lap and went back to watching the duel.
Josu was looking up at the honor box, Liliana could feel it. She also noticed a slight looseness in his walk that usually wasn’t there. He was nearly swaggering, which Liliana felt sure was inappropriate for the occasion. When Josu removed his helm to bow for the king, his luxurious ebony hair fell out onto his shoulders and Liliana was annoyed at the volume of female sighs that rippled through the crowd. Josu turned to give a wave to the spectators, and the winter sun made his eyes shine a heart-stopping blue. Liliana hoped he would look at her so she could give him a sign of her support, but he kept his eyes averted and replaced his helmet almost as if he was purposely ignoring her. Liliana felt her chest tighten painfully. She felt guilty about something, but she couldn’t figure what.
Erath and Josu were center stage now. It was a swordfight. Erath was slightly taller than Josu and reputed to be a master duelist. Josu, however, was reputed to be the most skilled knight in the kingdom. It would be a good fight.
It should have been. Erath was cunning, using his trick of fighting left-handed that he’d developed for the sole purpose of throwing off his opponents. He was also quick, and to Liliana’s expert eye, her brother was sluggish. Still, the match was hotly contested for several minutes. Erath did some fancy footwork, trying to gain an advantage, but Josu seemed to know what he had in mind and danced steps of his own, refusing to give the prince an advantage. Then, a flurry of cuts and strokes from Erath, a moment of minor unbalance for Josu as he sidestepped a half second late. The prince saw his chance and leaped in close to Josu’s off-hand side; a duelist’s trick, not something taught at the Academy. Liliana heard Josu curse and saw Erath switch sword hands mid-swing. Liliana leaped to her feet, ignoring her father. The prince’s blade parted the mail at the seam between Josu’s pauldron and helm, and it was over. Josu was down on one knee, Erath’s sword point at his neck. The crowd exploded in cheers. Liliana felt her heart wrench—not at the thin trickle of blood along Erath’s blade, but at the way Josu’s shoulders sagged beneath the weight of his armor. The sun shone down on him harshly as he supported himself with one hand in the sand, lifting the other in the gesture of yielding.
“Sit down,” Lord Vess hissed at his daughter. Liliana felt Nanny’s hand on her arm and slowly sat, afraid to look at the woman again. But she did, and Nanny’s eyes were normal; faded hazel and careworn, her mouth pursed in tired, but not unkind, disapproval.
“There now, Liliana, your brother’s fine, just fine. See?” Nanny patted Liliana’s hand, gesturing down at the field where Josu was starting to get up. Liliana tried to breathe normally, but she had a heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
It should have been over. Yet, Erath kicked Josu’s sword away. A sign of distrust. The beautiful blade skittered across the sand and stopped askew in the grass. Then Erath lowered his own blade from Josu’s neck, but gave Josu a condescending pat on the cheek. Josu stopped moving, stunned, and the crowd quieted and began to mutter, noticing something was wrong on the battlefield. Erath leaned down and whispered something in Josu’s ear. Liliana, yards away, couldn’t hear, but she felt as if she knew what was being said anyway and flinched.
Josu exploded to his feet, catching Erath by surprise. The prince stumbled back, and Josu had his hands wrapped around Erath’s neck in a death grip. Shouting, the sound of drawn swords. Liliana was on her feet again, looking fearfully around—for what? Help?
A dozen guards had wrenched Josu away from the Crown Prince, and Erath was laughing as he removed his helm, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and shrugging as though he’d done nothing more than overexert himself at a masquerade. Josu, for his part, shouted a curse at the prince and tore himself free of the guards, drawing a long knife from his thigh and daring them to touch him again. Liliana raised her hands as if to soothe her brother. Josu, stop. She felt tears well up in her eyes, and willed him to look at her. Slowly his helmed head turned toward the stands. Josu, please, Liliana thought gently. After a long moment Josu sheathed his knife. He ripped off his helmet with one hand, spat on the nearest guard, and began stalking toward the stands.
The guards halfheartedly moved to stop him, but Erath shook his head and raised his hand, signalling the tourney was over. The crowd dutifully went back to cheering, and King Marco rose once again, to welcome his victorious son to the royal box. Everyone pretended like nothing had happened.
Liliana watched Josu approach. She felt something, and looked down at her hand. Around her engagement finger was another signet ring. A chimera on a tower shield, cast in heavy gold. Liliana’s mouth went dry.
Josu was at the stands. People scattered out of his way, a few nobles tried to give him good words about the fight but were silenced by his cold blue eyes and the twitching of his fingers near his thigh dagger. Ladies who might otherwise be simpering and posing to get his attention were fearfully huddling with their friends and attendants, well out of his path. Josu climbed the stairs to the honor box, his eyes the color of cerulean steel. Now that he was closer Liliana could see the dark circles beneath his eyes, the haggardness of his cheeks. He was still handsome, but whatever strain he was under had stolen all of the lightness and youth from the face Liliana remembered as angelic. The change rendered him predatorial and cold, his features sharpened beneath the weight of a burden.
Lord Vess reached over and shoved Liliana back into a sitting position as Josu reached the box. Shocked by her father’s rough touch, Liliana was even more shocked by the scent of iron, blood, cigars, sweat and brandy that Josu brought with him. It was a hash fragrance, a man’s fragrance. All this time Liliana had thought of her brother still smelling of cotton and heather and sunset. Nanny clamped her hand down over Liliana’s arm again as if to restrain and warn against further movement.
“Well fought, Josu,” Lord Vess said loudly. He nodded once, touching his precisely trimmed black beard to his chest, and both Liliana and Josu knew he was lying. The comment had been for the sake of the eavesdropping nobles all around them.
Josu snorted, a smirk twisting his face. He didn’t seem to care who was listening. “You and I both know that’s a load of horse shit, father. But I couldn’t care less how I performed in this dog show.”
“Josu!” Lord Vess leaned forward threateningly, and Liliana noticed his left hand had begun to shake. It was a slight tremor. She saw Josu looking at it too, his face grim. Lord Vess noticed both of them looking at his hand and slammed it down on the ornate arm of his chair with a growl. He clutched the arm with white knuckles. “Josu, whatever happened out there can be corrected.”
“Your sister needs to go congratulate her betrothed. Take her arm and go present her to King Marco. You can present your apologies to the Crown Prince at the same time.”
“Yes, of course, father. As soon as hell freezes over.”
Liliana watched as her father stood swiftly, his silent rage palpable and terrifying. The two men were now eye to eye. “Josu Vess.” Her father’s hand didn’t shake. In fact, it now rested on his sword hilt. “Josu. You are my firstborn and my only son. You are the scion of the Vess name. But I cannot tolerate one more second of this cur’s farce. Flout my authority again and I will strike you down like any other threat to my house. Now, calm yourself and do your duty. Take your sister’s arm and go to the king. Make your reparations to the crown.”
Josu shook his head, eyes dull with disdain. “So that’s it, father? Marco orders, Vess jumps. Erath gets it all—our fealty, our groveling, the blood of our people, Liliana.”
“That is the nature of duty.”
“I’m sorry, Father. You can’t have all of us whore ourselves out for duty. I’m glad Mother’s dead, she would be disgusted by y—”
Lord Vess’ backhand was swift and brutal. Josu’s head cracked back at an unnatural angle and Liliana screamed, afraid his neck was broken. She jumped up as her brother fell hard to the ground, his head slamming against the top step of the box. He lay still, and Liliana felt a sob form in her throat—then she saw his chest move in erratic breathing. Relief flooded her until she felt faint. When her father grasped her arm firmly and pulled her to her feet, she was on the verge of passing out. Blinking slowly, she nodded when her father told her it was time to go see Erath. She watched as guards hurried over to assist Lord Vess with Josu’s prone form. She stayed silent as she heard her father tell the guards it was but a family matter, that Josu had been enjoying his cognac a little too much as of late. “The soldier’s plague” her father called it, and the guards laughed. Liliana wanted to tell them all what fools they were, that they didn’t know her brother at all. She wanted to slap those grins off their faces. She wanted to tell her father to demand an apology from Erath, that she would never lie down with a man who showed her house so much disrespect.
But she said nothing. She did nothing.
Her father held one of her hands and Nanny the other, and Liliana felt the weight of manacles on her wrists as surely as she saw her brother’s eye flicker open as she walked away, his gaze groggy and devoid of anything she recognized. His eyes were the blue of a dead thing; vacuous, and empty.
The mists parted.
No, it wasn’t mist, it was steam. Liliana started, realizing she was at the hot springs. The slick rocks rose up in front of her, surrounded by the swaying boughs of trees bedecked in new spring foliage. Liliana shook her head—hadn’t she just been at Vermillion Fields? The tournament… Liliana pressed her hand to her forehead as an intense pain blossomed in her skull. It felt pointed and hot, sharpening before subsiding to a tiresome ache near the nape of her neck.
She looked down at her finger. The gold signet ring of Prince Erath Marco still marked her as his betrothed. So the wedding hadn’t happened yet. That’s right, Liliana thought, we were to be married in the summer, after the new campaign. There had been an uprising from the forest-lands; the mysterious tribes there had suddenly turned violent, witches spreading pestilence and shamans leading cannibalistic raids on rural villages. Lord Vess and the king had plans to rout the tribes from their secret dwellings and completely eradicate the threat that was growing insidiously stronger week by week. No one seemed to know why the tribesmen had turned on them, but there were more crows at Estgard Keep than anyone could ever remember seeing in any past year, and King Marco was ill. All the portents were bad, many whispered about familial curses, and everyone was terrified of the bone-adorned cannibals that frequently made the woods glow at night with their torch-lit dances.
“Lili? Is that you?”
Liliana nearly jumped off of her horse with fright as a voice wafted out of the mists. Josu’s voice. Horse? Ah, her horse. Liliana looked down and realized she was seated astride Valkyrie, her favorite. Liliana clucked to the mare, lightly brushing her heels across the grey flanks. There was no response. Liliana frowned. Valkyrie was the most eager riding companion, always willing.
“Val?” Liliana reached forward to give the mare an encouraging pat on the neck. Val’s coat felt sticky. Liliana pulled back her hand. A huge chunk of horseflesh came away with it—the skin was rotted and black, the red flesh dropped with a sickening wet thud to the earth.
“Lili? Is that you?”
“Josu! Josu!” Liliana leapt from Val’s back, trying not to touch any more of the horse than she absolutely had to. She scrambled away from the mare, her feet sinking into the peat with every step. The steam from the hot springs swirled around her, obscuring the path. When she was several feet away Liliana chanced looking back, turning cautiously to look at Val.
There was nothing there.
“Josu!” Liliana cried desperately, stumbling toward the rocks of the hot springs.
Her brother’s voice drifted through the mist. “I’m here, sister. Nothing to fear. Come join me.” Liliana followed the familiar sound, her heart hammering in her chest. She just didn’t want to be alone out here, alone in the mist. She rounded the large boulder that marked the entrance to the springs, nearly panting with fright and exertion though she’d only traversed a few yards. The steam from the springs immediately soaked her dress, weighing it down with moisture until it clung uncomfortably to her body like an ill-fitting skin.
Liliana pushed a damp strand of hair from her face. Her hand shook, and she felt chilled despite the warmth of the springs. “Lili? There now, it’s all right. Come join me.” Josu’s voice. Liliana trudged the rest of the way to the edge of the springs. The rocks rose up on all sides, dark striated granite that ringed the water like massive sage-stones… or grave markers. The water was shadowed, overlaid with steam, and long grasping ferns and roots and vines ringed the pool. A dull light seemed to come from somewhere, but the mist was over her head now and Liliana could no longer see the sky.
“Josu?” Liliana felt her slipper sink into the soggy peat and touch the edge of the springs. There was a ripple, and she looked up to see Josu slowly making his way through the water toward her.
He was naked, at least to the waist, for she couldn’t see below the water that came to just above his hips. Steam beaded and condensed on his skin, making the defined muscles of his body slick and shiny. Liliana blushed and looked away.
“Come, sister, join me,” Josu said gently, his voice warm. Liliana’s heart jumped into her throat. Her hands twisted in the wet fabric of her dress.
“Josu, I… I can’t. It’s—”
“Not proper?” Josu laughed softly. “I feel like we’ve had this discussion before. Since when does the great Liliana Vess care about proper?”
Liliana bit her lip and chanced looking at Josu. He was smiling, his mien jovial and teasing like it hadn’t been in months; the way he always used to be. Steam clung in beads to his hair and brows and lashes, framing his intense blue eyes. He still looked tired—there were vague lines near his mouth and eyes now—but at least he looked content.
Liliana’s hands seemed to go to the top button of her dress of their own accord.
“Ha! I knew my sister wasn’t one to be cowed by silly rules,” Josu crowed, winking at her.
Liliana frowned, hesitating. Josu was staring at her expectantly. “Don’t tell me you’re feeling shy?” he teased. “Come now, we used to do this all the time as children. Would it help if I didn’t look? Here then, I’ll turn away. See? Not looking, m’lady.”
Liliana rolled her eyes. Josu’s back was to her, all of him leanly etched in muscle and his hands on his hips. She felt silly, worrying about modesty, but somehow she couldn’t help it and her heart refused to slow its frantic beating. Still, Liliana pulled the sleeves of her dress down. She shrugged it off her shoulders and rolled it over her hips, the fabric peeling away easily, as easily as if a maid was helping her undress. Something cold brushed against her back and Liliana turned, but there was nothing there.
The dress fell to the peat in a sodden heap. “Are you done yet?” Josu asked with a sigh. “At this rate I’ll be an old man before we get to enjoy our swim.”
Liliana stepped into the pool. Josu turned, surprising her. His eyes raked down her exposed body, but Liliana ignored the urge to cover up and kept her fists stubbornly at her sides. She raised an eyebrow at her brother. “Like when we were kids, huh?” she said tartly, and it seemed to her that her voice sounded much older, a woman’s voice, not a girl’s. Her heart pounded in her chest, like something was trying to get out.
Josu answered her comment with a scowl. Then the smile was back and he held out his hand. “Come, sister. You have nothing to fear from me.”
Liliana wanted to believe him. She took a few steps forward, reached out and put her hand in his. He gently pulled her into the deeper water, until her feet were off the bottom of the pool She panicked, trying to turn back toward shore.
“Josu, stop, I can’t—”
“Sssh, I won’t let you drown,” Josu said, mocking. He gave her arm a yank, forcing her to drift close to him. Liliana tried to keep her eyes on him, treading water to stay afloat. He circled behind her until she couldn’t see him. Then the water rippled, and he was standing behind her, so close that they were touching. Liliana gasped.
“Don’t you trust me?” Josu whispered, running his hands up her arms until he was gripping her below the shoulders, supporting her in the water.
Liliana couldn’t think of a good answer to that. The water was hot. Sweat and condensed steam ran down her brow into her eyes. She blinked to try and clear her vision. She tried to raise her hand to wipe her eyes, but Josu held her arms in place. She felt his lips graze her ear.
“Josu, what did Erath say to you at the tourney?” she blurted, heat throbbing in her temples. Josu stopped abruptly. Liliana thought he wouldn’t answer, but after several moments his voice came, coldly.
“He said, ‘I’m going to be a good husband to your sister. Fuck her till she can’t walk. Fuck her till she screams. Like you always wanted to. Then I’ll take your father’s head, your lands, your title. Fuck all of you like dogs. It’s time for you to feel heartbreak, Vess.’”
Beneath the water, Liliana felt Josu’s hand brush the underside of her breasts. His arm coiled around her waist, pulling her snugly to him. Liliana tossed her head, a deep, horrible, nameless fear threatening to steal her voice.
“Josu—Josu, why would he say that?” she gasped, trying to pull away. Josu’s grip held her fast. He chuckled, his lips stealing moisture from her bare shoulder. His words were muffled, spoken into her skin as though he no longer cared.
“Why? Darling sister, so sheltered, so naive. Don’t you know how we won the Sand Lands campaign?”
Liliana shook her head, unsure of whether her eyes were burning from sweat, or steam, or tears.
Josu chuckled into her neck. “Why, father had me seduce the rahza’s son, of course. Not that it was that objectionable. Well, not until the beheading part,” Josu said with a sigh. Liliana closed her eyes.
“No, dear sister, you know nothing of war. I daresay you know nothing about Father, either. It would have been fine, really, except for one little catch: the rahza’s son had had a lover from our realm already; for years, in fact.”
“Erath.” Liliana whispered.
“Aye. A small detail Father neglected to tell me, and something King Marco thought to have nicely, neatly, conveniently ‘taken care of’ under the cover of the war, no doubt.”
Josu’s hand was curved around her throat tenderly, and he moved against her. Liliana bit her lip.
“So you see, sister, I don’t hate Erath. Erath doesn’t hate me. We are merely puppets. Puppets on strings, dancing when our fathers say ‘dance.’ And our fathers, in turn, are merely beasts trapped in cages of their own making. Our entire world is built on the mummer’s show of slavering beasts thinking only of ensuring their next meal. I don’t belong in this world, Lili. I wish father had killed me that day at the tournament. I would do it myself, only I think Mother would be ashamed of me. Every night I see her, you know, Lili. She walks into my room in the moonlight. She’s sad, so I try to tell her how well we’ve done, how fine we’ve become, you and me. But every night when she goes, I pray, beseeching Mother to come back and take me with her.”
Liliana opened her eyes, looking around in despair. Mad. It’s all driven him mad. She felt tears running down her face, blinding her.
“Lili. Please. I have nothing else.” Josu’s broken words fluttered against her pulse. His hands were on her face now, turning her towards him. “Lili. Please,” he whispered, leaning down to kiss her jawline. Liliana looked up into his shadowed eyes. Night-blue, ravaged, dead. She could stare into those eyes forever, but her brother wouldn’t be coming back.
“Josu, stop.” Liliana ordered, putting as much steel as she could muster into her voice.
A strong hand twisted in her hair. “Why?” Josu whispered. “Is it Erath?” Liliana winced as he pulled her head back.
“Don’t be stupid,” she gasped. “Josu, stop.” Liliana put her hands on his chest and pushed. Josu slapped her hands away, his arms like iron.
“Ah, so you’re glad to marry into the crown. My trinket-loving, merciless little sister. Certain to blossom into a pitiless queen,” Josu said softly. Now his mouth searched for hers, his fingers dug painfully into the flesh of her breast, she felt his body tautly wound against her skin.
Liliana let out a feral scream, twisting her face and body, somehow loosening her arm from his grip. She brought her left hand up and her palm cracked across Josu’s face, scattering drops of water everywhere.
Josu paused but for half a second, then he struck. The first blow knocked the breath from Liliana’s lungs, the second snapped her head to the side and left a stinging red welt across her face from her temple to her chin. Dazed, Liliana went limp in the water. She dully registered Josu’s arm moving beneath her head, supporting her. The water buoyed her body, but her arms felt like leaden things, heavy and unusable.
“They won’t take you from me, Lili.”
Liliana felt herself spinning in the water. Josu was in front of her, her head bumped up a clump of dark roots growing out from shore. Her brother’s silhouette blocked the dim light. Liliana tried to raise her arm, tried to focus on the nagging feeling that she should be able to easily get out of this situation. Her mouth was parched and the chill returned even though the water was still hot. She felt something brush against her inner leg and she froze; whatever it was began to coil around her thighs, pulling them apart beneath the water. She tried to scream but heard only a plaintive whimper escape her lips.
“Josu, please—please don’t do this! I’m begging you,” Liliana’s voice was hoarse, barely audible to her own ears. Josu didn’t answer. She felt his hands lock down over her wrists, felt drops from his hair fall down onto her bare chest. Something rippled in the water beside her and Liliana craned her neck frantically. The hot springs undulated like a live thing. She felt the coils around her legs move up over her hips to her waist, squeezing, tightening. She gasped for breath. Then something broke the surface of the water and Liliana screamed as a viper slithered up and over her breast.
Snakes erupted all around her. The water was a writhing mass that wrapped itself around Liliana’s limbs, scales sliding over skin, pulling her lower into the water inch by inch. Liliana screamed and screamed, unable to think or move. A python slid over her throat, cutting off her air and rendering her unable to even shriek. Josu was poised between her legs, laughing. The skin had sloughed from his face and body, the exposed nerves and muscles twitching and oozing. His eyes were no longer blue but a sickly green.
Josu leaned forward over her body and grasped her jaw in one hand, forcing her mouth to stay open. With his other hand he held a watersnake. Liliana watched, mesmerized by its red eyes and flicking black tongue as her brother brought it right up to her face.
“This’ll shut you up while I do my business,” he sneered, shoving the snake into her mouth and down her throat. Liliana gagged, then began to choke as Josu’s cadaverous hands clamped like vises around her hips, dragging her toward him.
There was a crash from the shore.
Josu’s head whipped toward the sound. Liliana felt the snake disappear from her throat. Oddly, it reappeared in the air above Josu’s head. Exhausted and nauseated, Liliana watched with detached fascination as the snake writhed for a moment in the air, then dropped unceremoniously in a wriggling heap on Josu’s head and shoulders. Her brother yelled in surprise, stumbling back and clawing at the reptile that was just as panicked as he was. Next to go were the snakes binding her body, including the python that had been constricting her neck, and again they reappeared above Josu, who had just succeeded in extricating himself from the watersnake. A huge clump of four dozen or so snakes—including the massive python—fell heavily onto her brother, who disappeared with a string of curses beneath a mound of writhing scales.
Despite the situation, Liliana laughed.
A man emerged from the mist. When she saw him, a sob of relief ripped through her. She had no idea why; she was certain she’d never seen him before in her life. Tall and pale, the man walked with a resigned air and had a permanent worry line between his brows. His foreign garments were mussed and stained with mud in a few places, as though he’d had a bad fall or taken a rough landing. He stopped short of where Josu was struggling with the snakes on the peated bank of the springs. He glanced at Liliana cursorily, but then turned his attention to her brother.
“It’s been a long time, il-Dal. Looks like you’re still prick of the year, though.”
Josu flung the last of the snakes away and turned to the strange man who’d called him by an unfamiliar name Liliana had never heard before. Josu grinned maliciously. Liliana watched in horror as her brother’s body began to smoke away, the flesh turning to yellow vapor. Standing in Josu’s place was a deathly pale mage dressed in black. The top half of the mage’s face swirled in black mist. His grin showed little pointed teeth and he waved a long, claw-tipped finger.
“And you’re still the shiniest toy of the greater powers, aren’t you, Venser? Tell me, how did you figure it out? I thought my disguise was quite convincing!”
Liliana shivered, the mage’s voice was sibilant and bone-chilling. She tried to stay still in the water so they would leave her alone, but the strange man noticed her trembling. He snapped his fingers. Liliana found herself on solid ground. The stranger unclasped his long cloak and threw it over her. She tried to say thank you but her voice wouldn’t obey her. The stranger shook his head slightly and Liliana gave up and huddled down into the cloak, keeping her eyes on the ground.
“Hey! What did you do that for?” Ashiok said irritably. “I wasn’t finished playing with her yet.”
“Look, il-Dal—or do you prefer Ashiok, now? Oh, that’s right, I don’t really care—look, if you can take a break from this sadist ren-faire bullshit, I have a deal for you.”
“I wasn’t aware that toys were in the position to make deals,” Ashiok said skeptically, his glance going longingly toward Liliana. Then his eyes narrowed and his gaze snapped back to Venser. “Wait—how did you get in here anyway? You’re supposed to be frozen in the real world!”
“Just like old times, eh, il-Dal? Alright, stay weaver-king-of-the-assholes, I’m taking my deal elsewhere. See you around.”
“Wait, wait! No need to be so hasty, sojourner. You always were my favorite, you know that.” Ashiok couldn’t help but lick his lips. “What deal is this?”
Venser shrugged. “I finally figured out why all the powers-that-be are after boring old me,” he said.
“Why?” The former Weaver King wrung his hands together in anticipation.
“They think I’m the key to mastering the Time Streams.” Venser laughed bitterly. “Everyone wants a piece of me, so they can rule time and space. If they can just figure me out… then they can jump from one track to another, living and reliving, meddling as they wish. They think it’s the answer to mortality—a way to get back the immortality and omniscience all the planeswalkers lost in the Mending.”
Venser gave Ashiok a sidelong glance. The ghoulish mage was enthralled, his mind turning over the possibilities. He licked his lips again.
“And… are you? The key?” Ashiok hissed.
“Probably,” Venser said in a bored voice.
“What’s the deal?” Ashiok was intellectually salivating.
“I give you first crack at what’s in here.” Venser tapped his own temple. “Willingly. You can do as you wish, use what you find. I guarantee you there won’t be the same shit in there if Bolas has his way with me first. I know Bolas has clockworked before, to a certain extent. Imagine how he’ll make everyone’s life hell if he can do it all the time, on a whim, with greater skill.”
Ashiok recoiled at the thought, grimacing as he nodded. Then he grinned. “What do you ask in return, favorite of favorites?”
Venser cocked an eyebrow and looked down at Liliana. “You let her wake up. And you never bother her again.”
Ashiok chuckled, then laughed, then bellowed. He slapped his leg with mirth, showing all his teeth in a hideous smile. “You’d give up your mind for this slut? Oh, please, Venser—tell me you’re joking. This is too, too, too pathetic, even for you!”
Venser just stared at the top of Liliana’s head. He had no idea if she was listening, or could comprehend what was happening after everything she’d been through. He didn’t really care.
“I owe her.”
Ashiok pranced sideways, looking heavenward and gesturing with a flourish. “Ah, the romance! The melodrama! Poor, dearest Venser… the last time I saw you, you were this bent over that artificing bitch—Jhoira, was it? Yes, the Ghitu runt. Now, years later, you’ve managed to get yourself in another fix, this time sprung on a necromancing whore. May I just comment that you have abominable taste in women? Abominable. Why not a nice crofter’s daughter sometime? Or at the very least someone who deals in white magic—you know, to fix you up after you get into all these scrapes—”
“Do you take the deal or not?” Venser snapped, his teeth clenched. Ashiok tittered.
“Oh, I accept, darling. I. Accept!” He smiled hideously in Venser’s face, spreading his arms wide in a magnanimous gesture. “Care to say goodbye to your paramour, artificer? I promise you you’ll never see her again. You’ll never see anything after I’m finished walking your mind!”
Ashiok levitated and floated a few feet away from Venser and Liliana, humming a tuneless tune as he spun in the air, waiting.
Venser knelt down next to the girl huddled in his cloak. A blue cloak, a gift from the very same girl, in another life. A real life.
“Lil? Shit. Sorry. Excuse me—ah, Liliana?” Venser lifted his hand to touch her shoulder, then thought better of it. “Liliana Vess?” he tried again, softly. The girl slowly swiveled her head around and up to look at him. Her eyes were dark and tired, her ebony hair matted and stuck to her pale cheeks. She looked too young, and haunted, and weak. But deep within her eyes Venser saw a spark, a tiny spark, a single bright mote that told him she was still there. He smiled, briefly. The girl gave him a puzzled look. Venser cleared his throat.
“So, Miss Vess. We’re going to go now—myself and this, uh, esteemed mage—I know you feel awful right now, but you’ll be fine. You’re a very strong… young lady. And, I want you to keep this cloak. Consider it a, um, a meeting and parting gift.” Venser chuckled weakly at his own joke. Liliana’s confused look deepened into a frown. At least some things never change, Venser thought. He focused on his next words, choosing carefully.
“If you get bored… or hungry, look in the pocket of the cloak. There’s food and some items of interest you might find entertaining.” Venser stared into the girl’s face a moment longer, grey eyes searching violet.
“Thank you,” Liliana said, the frown softening just a little. Venser nodded, content.
He stood and turned around, walking over to where the Weaver floated languidly in the air. “Ready when you are, il-Dick.”
“The greatest service I’m going to do for the multiverse when I commandeer your mind is to put an end to your so-called sense of humor,” Ashiok hissed irritatedly. Venser only smirked, spreading his palms.
“Your move,” he said, opening his consciousness to his old nemesis.
Liliana watched the last exchange of words between the two mages; the tall, pale one that gave her his cloak and the ghoulish one with the smoking head. She didn’t recognize either of their names, and she didn’t trust them. Drawing a shuddering breath, she heard her stomach growl. She couldn’t remember when she’d last eaten. At least her headache was gone.
The tall mage had said there was food in the pocket of the cloak. Something throbbed warmly in her mind. “Items of interest” the stranger had said. Something about entertainment. Liliana snorted. How would a total stranger know what she might find entertaining? But the food, that was another matter. She glanced surreptitiously over at the two mages, who seemed to be engaged in some kind of duel or seance. The ghoul-mage had his back to her, his hands pressed to the temples of the taller mage who now knelt before him. Every now and then the tall mage would shudder, but his face was slack and his grey eyes dim. The ghoul-mage seemed to be in a state of some kind of rapture, smoking head tipped up towards the sky, the black mists whirling and intensifying moment to moment, the mage’s pallid toes curling and flexing in the air. If it was some kind of duel, it certainly was a static one. Duel. Liliana patted the cloak, searching for the hidden pocket and trying to order her thoughts. The snakes, Josu… Erath, the duel… Duel. A duel. Why was that so important? Liliana scowled, finally finding the pocket the tall mage had alluded to. Her stomach rumbled again. She thrust her hand into the pocket, hoping for some shortbread or maybe a wedge of goat cheese.
Her fingers touched cold metal, closed around a slender cylindrical object. She pulled it from the pocket, her eyes falling on the tiny clock on one end of the cylinder. On the other end was…
A toothbrush? The clock chimed. Liliana’s fingers spasmed around the metal. She clutched it, white-knuckled, as a blazing stream of energy flowed from her fist through her entire body. Her vision blurred red as memories came searing back, a blazing wave of black rage rising to fill her whole being. A duel. I lost a duel with Ashiok.
When Liliana’s vision cleared, her mouth was set in a grim line and her eyes glittered dangerously bright. She rose, silent as a wraith, and took a step. Her whole body shook but she stayed standing. Two steps. The peat of her remembered homeland stayed loyal and true to its mistress, swallowing the sound of her approach. Three steps. Ashiok was wholly focused on Venser, the Nightmare Weaver’s corporeal body breathing in ecstasy while its owner’s consciousness played elsewhere. Four steps. Liliana squeezed the artifact in her hand. Five steps. Venser screamed, and Ashiok’s hollow, giddy laugh answered.
The mists parted to give Liliana a clear view of her target.
“Get out of my head,” said Liliana. She jammed the toothbrush into Ashiok’s skull.
Ashiok couldn’t believe what had just happened. One moment he’d been happily skipping through dearest old Venser’s head, ferreting out the secrets of time-teleportation, and the next… His physical hands wrestled with something sticking out of his smoking black forehead—what in Urza’s nuts was this thing? The end came off in his hand. A… a toothbrush?! To Ashiok’s chagrin most of the artifact stayed stubbornly lodged in his head, dispensing some kind of mana-suck spell.
The Nightmare Weaver’s shrieks of agony were deafening, for they were standing in the midst of his Creation. The whole world screamed, the sky and earth cracked, and pieces of reality began to rain down as the dream crumbled.
Liliana fell to her knees. The toothbrush was glowing white-hot, and Liliana watched with relief as black smoke poured from Venser’s ears, nose, and mouth as Ashiok’s incorporeal aspect was forcibly drawn back into its host body. The moment Ashiok was back in his own body, Venser collapsed face-first onto the ground. Liliana called to him, but the roar of the disintegrating nightmare was far too loud. The dream was crumbling faster, chunks of white nothingness now speckled the landscape.
Ashiok twisted in the air, his body becoming a whirlwind of smoke and pallor as his limbs wrenched this way and that, his impaled head seizuring erratically. He seemed to be fading from sight, and as he faded the toothbrush glowed brighter and his screams of agony grew louder.
Liliana grinned to herself as she crawled on all fours to Venser’s side. The artificer was out cold, blood running from his nose and mouth. She laid her body over his, and closed her eyes as the nightmare and its master vanished with a roar.
Then there was nothing except the two of them, falling silently through the darkness.
Retribution Interlude IV: The Bluest Light coming soon...
Retribution in Ravnica
an original Magic: The Gathering fan fiction