A Name in a Book
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Beryl's Storyline.
The low-burning streetlamps cast weak halos in the slow drizzle as Beryl drew up in front of Alessa’s hideout. Distant rolls of thunder foretold of heavier rain to come, yet, despite the threatened downpour, Beryl stood frozen on the doorstep. She hesitated for a moment with her fist in the air, as though waiting for another of Alessa’s precognizant greetings, but this time no voice called out to her before she could knock. She shivered in place, straining her hearing, hoping to hear something, anything, but only the dull patter of the rain broke the nighttime silence. So Beryl fought to hold back a surge of concern as she rapped her cold, numb knuckles against the rain-slicked wooden door.
Again, no voice greeted her. In fact, she heard no response of any kind.
Slowly, nervously, Beryl reached down and tried the knob, which turned smoothly in her hand. The door was unlocked. But, when she tried to open it, it swung only an inch or so before it banged up against some unseen obstacle. Something heavy was leaning against the other side of the door.
Beryl put her shoulder against the door and pushed with all the strength she could summon. Her worn boots had a tough time gaining traction against the wet cobblestones, but, eventually, her effort was rewarded with the sound of wood scraping against stone, and, albeit grudgingly, the door slid open far enough for her to squeeze through it – which she did, before closing it again behind her.
Inside the old workshop, she stood in place for a moment, shivering beneath her sodden clothes as her eye adjusted to the darkness. As the shadow-shrouded outlines of the room took shape around her, she felt her breath grow short, and her pulse quicken.
Earlier that day, Alessa’s room – festooned as it had been with discarded clothing, playing cards, and empty bottles – had looked like the aftermath of a bacchanalian tempest. Now it appeared to be the scene of a much stranger form of destruction. An overturned chest of drawers had been wedged up against the door – that was what had blocked Beryl’s entry. But the chest was empty – the drawers themselves seemed to have vanished into thin air. In the center of the room, an upended wooden table was hovering a few inches above the ground, where it rotated lazily and improbably in a slightly off-kilter way, so that its upward-pointed legs wobbled as they spun. Three overturned wooden chairs lay on the floor in a ring around the spinning table. The dressing mirror had fallen from the wall and lay in a shattered mess on the floor. Water dripped down onto the broken glass from an overturned washbasin. The old horologist’s workbenches along the far wall lay brokenly on their sides – except for one, which appeared to be suspended in mid-air. As Beryl drew closer to it, she realized with a start that the bench wasn’t floating, but rather was somehow stuck inside the stone wall, so that it hung at a cockeyed angle some feet above the floor, half inside the building, and – presumably – half out.
And then there were the playing cards. They were scattered everywhere. They blanketed the ruined furniture like a layer of snow, and they covered the floor like a carpet. Beryl couldn’t fathom where they had come from – all in all, there must have been enough cards to fill a hundred decks. There was something odd about their arrangement, too, and Beryl almost got the sense that, if viewed from above, some sort of pattern might emerge from what looked like pure chaos on the ground. Just thinking about it made Beryl wobble with vertigo, but she tried to shake the feeling off as she crept further into the room. She had to step carefully to avoid treading on cards as she went. But, as she was picking her way across the room, she accidentally put her foot down on one. Reaching down to peel the card off the sole of her wet boot, she was surprised to find herself holding another copy of The Archmage. Fresh boot print aside, the card in her hand exactly matched the one that Nasperge had given her.
If the gravity-defying furniture and explosion of playing cards weren’t enough to put Beryl on her guard, she could also feel the residue of magic all around her. Big magic. It hung in the air like a kind of fog, and it echoed around the room like a faint, barely-audible buzzing. The sensation was deeply odd, deeply unnerving, and either it, or the cold, or some combination of the two made the tiny hairs on the back of Beryl’s neck stand on end. Worry gripped her chest as she tried to make sense of everything she was seeing and feeling. She could imagine several different things which might have happened in the room around her, and none of them were good.
Beryl was just considering some of the more ominous possibilities when the heavy silence in the room was broken by a slurred, drunken voice.
“Why did you have to come back?” it asked morosely.
Beryl spun towards Alessa’s bed, where the voice had come from. Alessa’s pack, stuffed full to bursting, still lay on the bed, but there was no sign of the woman herself. Coming from behind the bed, though, Beryl could just make out a radiant, purplish glow.
Slowly, carefully, Beryl tip-toed across the dark room, walking in the direction of the pulsing, purple light. She moved until she stood at the foot of the bed, then peered behind it. And that was where she found Alessa.
The younger woman was slouched down on the floor in the little gap behind the bed. She had propped herself up against the wall, with her arms wrapped tight around her legs, and her knees tucked beneath her chin. Her cheeks were tear-streaked, and her clothes were disheveled. The top three buttons of her shirt were all in the wrong buttonholes, and a rip had opened across one of the knees of her trousers. The floor all around her was littered with empty glass bottles and wine-stained corks, and her teal eyes – which had been so bright, so quick when Beryl had met her earlier that day – were glassy and dull.
Alessa didn’t even look up at Beryl, didn’t move to acknowledge her presence. Instead, she kept staring at the teardrop-shaped stone which floated in the air in front of her, humming slightly, pulsing with the cold, purple light which colored Alessa’s face with an eerie, ambient glow. It was the same stone which had previously hovered above one of the workbenches, which Alessa had warned Beryl not to touch.
Like Alessa, Beryl stared at the pulsing stone. She could feel the powerful magic contained within it – a raw, primal power lurking just beneath its smooth, crystalline curves. In a terrifying moment of insight, Beryl realized what the stone had to be. That knowledge made her shiver just as much as the cold. More, even.
“I think, maybe, we should put that away,” Beryl said to Alessa, pointing at the oblivion stone as she did.
Alessa shot Beryl a dark look. But then, with clumsy fingers which fumbled just enough to make Beryl uneasy, the teal-eyed woman picked up a sort of leather cylinder which lay on the floor next to her. She opened the cylinder’s top, then held it beneath the floating stone, then slowly raised it up, until the stone disappeared inside it, and only its pulsing, purple glow emanated out from the leather tube’s open top. Then Alessa closed the cylinder’s lid and latched it shut, before placing it down on the ground next to her.
Finally, Alessa looked up at Beryl, her head lolling slightly to one side. A drunken, lopsided grin flashed across her face.
“You look like a drowned rat,” Alessa said. She laughed a short, hollow laugh. Then her eyes grew distant again, and she looked away to stare up at the ceiling.
Beryl took a few final steps so that she stood next to Alessa. She bent over and, after brushing aside some empty bottles to clear a little patch of space on the floor, she sat down next to the other woman. Leaning back against the wall herself, Beryl wiped the wet strands of her long, black hair away from her good, green eye. She turned her head to look at Alessa, who did not look down to meet her gaze.
“What happened in here?” Beryl asked.
After a moment, Alessa winced. “Chaos,” she said. “Chaos happened.” Then, suddenly, her face contorted with pain. Her eyes clenched shut, and she reached up to rub her temples. A low, painful groan escaped her lips.
“I happened,” Alessa whispered under her breath.
Beryl’s expression changed from one of confusion to concern. “You’re in pain,” she said. She could see tears starting to run down Alessa’s cheeks.
“Aren’t you observant?” Alessa said. She opened her eyes again, and looked back at Beryl. “Chaos magic hurts me. It throttles my sight. It’s like these huge hands just pick me up and shake me, until all that’s left inside my head are broken visions.” Alessa held her own hands out in front of her, and shook them up and down, trying to pantomime the sensation. “And, when it’s over, I feel like I’m full of these jagged edges, like every single moment is cutting into me.”
Alessa fished around on the floor, picking up bottles and shaking them, until one of them rewarded her with the sound of sloshing liquid. She put the bottle up to her lips and threw her head back as she drank, so that wine trickled down her chin, the liquid dark and red in the nighttime gloom. Then she wiped her mouth with her sleeve, winced again, and stared at Beryl with her dull, watery eyes.
“You couldn’t possibly imagine how much it hurts,” Alessa said.
Beryl was silent for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was quiet, sympathetic.
“You might be surprised,” she said. “I understand pain.”
Alessa looked at Beryl for a long second, before nodding her head. “Maybe you do,” she said with a sigh. Then she shrugged, tossed the empty bottle carelessly off to one side, and went back to searching for any wine which had somehow survived her earlier attentions.
Beryl slid herself across the floor, so that she was sitting directly in front of Alessa. She reached out and placed a hand, gently, on the other woman’s temple.
“I can help with the pain, if you want,” she said. “I’m not a healer, exactly. But I know a spell or two, and I know some mixtures which will do the trick, too.”
But Beryl felt Alessa squirm beneath her fingers, and the teal-eyed woman gave her head a violent, drunken shake.
“No!” she said sharply, her eyes leery, and there was real fear in the drunken woman’s voice. “No spells, no drugs! Besides, as you can see, I’ve already taken care of it myself.” Alessa gave a nearby bottle a little kick, so that it rolled away across the stone floor. “Fine mess I've made of it, too,” she muttered beneath her breath.
“Okay,” Beryl said. Instead, she reached out and put her other hand on Alessa’s other temple, and she just rubbed Alessa’s forehead. Alessa closed her eyes and sighed a little, and some of the tension seemed to drain out of her.
After a while, Alessa opened her eyes again, and Beryl spoke to her.
“What were you trying to accomplish with chaos magic?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Alessa said. “Or I don’t remember, anyway. That was a lot of drinks ago. I usually won’t touch the stuff – for that matter, I can’t even remember where I got all this.” She gave a little snort, and, for a moment, frustration flashed across her eyes. “Anyway, whatever I was trying to do, it obviously didn’t work, because I’m still here, and you’re still here, too.”
Beryl’s hands stopped moving. “Why are you still here, Alessa?”
Again, Alessa laughed a kind of empty, drunken laugh. “What a good question,” she said. She tried to straighten herself up a little bit, brushing Beryl’s hands away from her face in the process. “Why am I still here? Do you think I haven’t been asking myself that same thing, over and over, since this morning?” Alessa jabbed an accusatory finger into Beryl’s chest. “You did this to me. Why did you do this to me?”
Alessa’s question caught Beryl by surprise. “I don’t understand,” she said. “What did I do to you?”
That earned Beryl another drunken laugh, and another poke.
“You know what you did to me?” Alessa asked, hiccupping a little as she did. “You reminded me of me, that’s what you did.” The teal-eyed woman leaned forward a little bit, but, somehow, her voice grew distant rather than nearer. “You reminded me of me back before I knew any better, back when I still thought that we could make a difference, that all the pain we suffer through mattered.” Alessa gave a contemptuous snort. “Well, I found out that the fates don’t give a damn about any of us, that our sacrifices don’t mean a damn, that the only thing worth caring about is trying to live as much as you possibly can before your future runs out. Because futures do run out. People die. I’ve seen it! I've seen myself die thousands of times! Whole worlds die—” she snapped her fingers in front of Beryl’s face “—just like that! You can’t change it. Nobody can. You can either die with them, or you can live. It’s that simple. It has to be…”
“I don’t believe that,” Beryl said. “I don’t think you really do, either.”
“Then you don’t know me as well as you think you do,” Alessa snapped. Then, suddenly, her face softened, and her tone softened as well. She sniffled a bit, and her eyes grew wet. “There’s so much you don’t know. Look at you – you’re older than me, and you’ve barely lived. So why are you in such a hurry to throw your life away? Why?” Alessa reached out, and she wrapped both of her hands around Beryl’s arm in a vice-like grip. Tears had reappeared in her eyes, and she sniffled a little as she spoke. “Why didn’t you just come with me? Why did you keep me here? Why do you care? Why did you have to try to make me care, too?”
Alessa looked at Beryl, and it was as though her eyes begged for an answer.
Beryl took a deep breath. Then she closed her eye. She thought about her mother. She thought about the Magician. She thought about Aloise.
She thought about kindness, and acceptance, and love.
Then she opened her eye, and she placed her free hand on top of Alessa’s.
“Alessa,” she said, “I care because that’s who I am. That’s the person I’m supposed to be. That’s what’s in my heart.” She gave Alessa’s hand a little squeeze. “And I think you care, too, whether you want to admit it or not. I think that, if you look inside your own heart, you’ll see that’s the sort of person you’re supposed to be, too.”
Alessa looked away. “You don’t know me,” she said again. But she said it with less conviction this time. She didn’t sound angry. She just sounded tired.
“Maybe not,” Beryl said. “But I know you’re still here. And that means something.” She gave Alessa’s hand another squeeze. “That means a lot.”
“I couldn’t let you just die,” Alessa said, and something trembled in her voice as she did. She looked back up at Beryl. “Please don’t throw your life away. Don’t make me go through that.”
“It’s okay,” Beryl said to Alessa. “I’m not going to die. Not with you here to help me.”
“You can’t just say that! You don’t know Her!” Alessa shouted. Her voice grew agitated, and her whole body seemed to pull taut. Beryl could sense the fear ratcheting-up behind Alessa’s words. “You don’t know what she's like, but I do. She’s death, distilled down and poured into a people-shaped vessel. She’s... more than you can possibly imagine. She’d snuff you out like a guttering candle and it wouldn’t even crack her porcelain smile. She’s... she’s so far beyond human she doesn't even understand what a smile means...”
Alessa squeezed her eyes tight, drawing inward once more, and she gave her head a violent shake. “You don’t know Her,” she said again, in a tone that pleaded more than it rebuked.
Beryl listened carefully to everything Alessa said, and Alessa's look of concern was mirrored on her face. But, when Beryl spoke, the determination in her voice didn’t waver.
“That doesn’t change what I have to do,” she said. “And if I don’t know Her, then what that really means is that I need help from someone who does. I need your help, Alessa.” She gave Alessa’s hand another soft squeeze. “Please, help me.”
Alessa seemed to consider that for a moment. Then her resistance just seemed to crumble away, and she seemed to crumble with it. Slowly, she nodded her head.
“I can’t just let you die,” she said softly. “I’ll help, if I can. But, if I can’t, then we’re leaving.” Alessa’s face turned serious, and she tightened her grip on Beryl’s arm. “You have to promise me that. You have to promise me we’ll ‘walk away if we have to.”
“I promise,” Beryl said.
“Swear it!” Alessa said, suddenly more lucid than Beryl had seen her at any point since she had arrived. Her fingernails dug into Beryl’s skin, and her words had a desperate urgency to them. “Swear to me on whatever you believe in that you’ll keep your promise.”
“I swear on my mother’s name, Alessa,” Beryl said. “I won’t die here. Neither will you.”
A long, tense moment passed in silence. Then Alessa nodded once more, and, suddenly, it seemed as though all the energy just drained out of her body. Her head drooped down, and her eyes grew cloudy. She blinked a few times, then held a hand up over her mouth as she yawned.
“You look tired,” Beryl said. Gently, she brushed a stray hair away from Alessa’s bleary eyes.
“I am tired,” Alessa said. “I am so, so tired.” Listening to Alessa’s voice, and looking at Alessa’s eyes, Beryl could tell that tired referred to more than just a lack of sleep.
Beryl yawned herself. “Let’s get you into bed,” she said. “We can figure things out in the morning, when you’re feeling a little better.”
Beryl stood up first and then helped Alessa up to her feet as well. Alessa nearly stepped on a bottle as she rose, and Beryl had to grab her by the shoulders to keep her from toppling over. She supported the other woman’s weight as they took a few shaky, shuffling steps over to the bed, with Alessa holding one arm up against the wall for stability. Beryl picked Alessa’s pack up off of the bed and set it down on the floor, then she picked a pillow up off of the floor and set it down on top of the bed. She straightened the tangled sheets as best she could, then pulled back the corner of the blanket and motioned for Alessa to climb beneath it, which the teal-eyed woman did.
“Sweet dreams,” Beryl said, as she tucked Alessa in. Then she looked down at the stone floor. That would be too hard and too cold to sleep on, so she decided to retrieve one of the wooden chairs from the center of the room. Beryl knew that she could sleep sitting-up. It wouldn’t be a comfortable night, but Beryl was used to being uncomfortable.
She was about to go to fetch the chair when she felt Alessa’s hands tighten their grip around her own.
“Don’t go,” the teal-eyed woman said.
Beryl looked down and, as she met Alessa’s gaze, she saw something in it which took her by surprise. She saw a look on Alessa’s face which was so intimately familiar to Beryl that she couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed it before.
Beryl looked at Alessa, and she saw loneliness.
She’s alone, Beryl realized with a start. She’s alone in the only way that really counts.
Beryl understood loneliness. She understood what it could do to you. How it trapped you inside your own head, with no one to speak to but yourself. How it turned fears into facts, how it tricked you into believing your darkest suspicions about yourself.
“Don’t go,” Alessa said again. “Please?” she added in a small voice, the word breaking apart as tears welled in her eyes. She sniffled once as her fingers grew tight around Beryl’s.
For a moment, Beryl found herself frozen in place, as she tried to decide what to do. Then she climbed up onto the bed next to Alessa.
Deliberately, Beryl did not get beneath the sheets, choosing to lie on top of the blanket instead. But she rolled onto her side, so that she faced towards the other woman, and she held Alessa’s hands in hers.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I won’t leave you alone.”
At that, Alessa seemed to exhale, and she closed her teal eyes.
Beryl looked up at the distant ceiling, and she tried to think back to her childhood. She tried to think back to the nights when her mother would sit by her bedside, and would read to her, until her fears faded away and sleep came to claim her, and she drifted off into the world of dreams. She tried to remember her mother’s voice – always so peaceful, always so soothing – and the stories it would tell.
Beryl could remember her mother’s stories. Even after all these years, she knew them by heart.
She opened her mouth, and she spoke in a quiet, hushed tone.
“It was summer in Lukrin’s village, on the day when the stranger came,” Beryl said, recalling the words from memory. “The sun was high in the sky, the days were warm, and the fields were growing full and green. Lukrin had just shouldered his plow when he saw the man approach…”
Beryl kept telling the story until she could hear that Alessa’s breathing had become quiet and slow with sleep, which did not take long. It was only then that Beryl realized how bone tired she herself was.
How long had it been since she had slept? More than a day, she realized with a start. Days.
So much had happened. So much had changed.
Tomorrow would be no different, she knew. There was much left to do.
But, for now, Beryl closed her own eye, and she allowed herself to drift away into the realm of dreams, where she hoped that – for at least a few hours – the troubles of the waking world would not follow her.
* * *
Beryl didn’t know who she was chasing.
She was in an impossibly-long tunnel. Curving walls, black as obsidian, stretched endlessly out in front of her, and the sloping floor pitched ceaselessly down, vanishing off into a dark and distant nowhere. Somewhere in the distance she could see a circular light of the purest white, so bright that it almost hurt to look at. She felt the dull echoes of her feet more than she actually heard them, and with a start she realized she'd been running towards the light all along.
But, no matter how fast Beryl tried to run, no matter how loudly her frantic, pounding footsteps echoed off the cold stone walls, the light never seemed to grow any closer.
The person she was chasing after was visible only in silhouette – a pitch-black void, haloed on all sides by the piercing light from beyond. Beryl could see that the figure was that of a woman, but it was too far away for her to tell whom the silhouette belonged to.
All she could see was that it was running away from her. And all she knew – without knowing why – was that she had to catch it. So she ran. She ran as if her life depended on it.
Then, suddenly, the figure stopped running. Beryl reflexively slowed as well, then stood stone-still as the distant woman turned, ever so slowly, towards her. Beryl stared at the dark figure, totally transfixed, hardly daring to breathe. But, no matter how much she squinted through her single good eye, she could not make out the figure’s face – the distance was too great, the backlight was too bright.
Wordlessly, the silhouetted woman raised a single hand, and beckoned Beryl forward, beckoning her to come into the light. But, before Beryl could move towards her – before she could even respond – the light flared and shifted, like spears of light seen through the surface of the ocean, changing color from pure white to dark, violent red – the color of blood spilt in anger.
In the distance, the shadowed woman screamed. Beryl wanted to scream, too, but her lips would not move. Her feet would not move, either. She was a prisoner in her own body, and she could do nothing as the light at the end of the tunnel flared again, and then seemed to surge up the black corridor towards her, like a tide of blood, rising up to drown her.
Beryl closed her eye, and waited to be swept away. But the wave never came. Instead, she felt a cool breeze drift across her face, and she heard the song of birds somewhere in the distance.
She opened her eye again, and was shocked to find that the tunnel had vanished, and that she stood in the rotunda of the Hall of the Seven Houses. She had not been in that room since she was a tiny girl, and seeing its soaring marble columns and airy, frescoed dome towering above her brought a surge of memories flooding back. The air was cool and crisp, and she could see the tops of the trees in the Court gardens through the high, arched windows that circled the base of the dome.
From the ceiling hung seven beautiful banners of fine, brightly-colored silk, each embroidered in gold thread with the seal of one of the seven Great Houses. Beryl turned in a slow circle, whispering the names under her breath as she studied each seal: Ferani. Dentevi. Etruchi. Tyrolo. Nichaenei. Lyrestus.
An open eye ringed by starbursts, with a single flame at its center.
As Beryl watched, the flame at the center of the eye changed from gold to red, becoming a real flame. Within a matter of seconds, fire had spread up and down the length of the banner, and was consuming her family seal like a hungry, flaming maw.
Beryl blinked, and the flame leapt to the other six banners, so that fire rained down from the great domed ceiling all around her, and the room began to fill with thick, black, choking smoke. It clogged her nostrils, it stung her eye.
Beryl could feel heat welling in her fingertips, could feel her heart racing, could feel her breath coming quick and shallow.
She opened her mouth to scream, and this time it worked.
Suddenly, she felt a sharp jab in the side of her ribs.
“Damn it, hot stuff, wake up!” a voice called out to her through the haze of smoke and fire.
Beryl’s dream collapsed around her. Her eye shot open, and she gasped for breath. She was covered in a cold, clammy sweat, and, for a moment, she felt a surge of panic, as she struggled to remember where she was, and how she had gotten there. She still smelled smoke, still felt heat radiating out from her fingers.
Then Alessa’s face appeared above her, and Beryl’s fuzzy vision latched on to the woman’s teal eyes as she grappled for a familiar point of reference.
“If you’re cold or something, I know better ways to warm you up,” Alessa said, a wry smile forming on her otherwise groggy face. She pointed down at the bed.
Beryl craned her neck to get a look, and saw that she was gripping Alessa’s sheets in her white-knuckled fists, and that the linen was scorched beneath the tips of her fingers. The thick fabric was still smoldering in her grasp, and the smoke rising up from the dyed cloth had a sickly, acrid sweetness to it.
“Oh, Gods,” Beryl said, scrambling to sit up, and to get her scorching hands away from anything flammable in the process. She quickly wove a protective netting of wards around the bed as she willed the fire inside her back down into a more dormant state. Then, after a moment had passed, she stuck out her tongue and tested the tip of a finger against it, and gave an audible sigh of relief when contact between the two produced no sizzle.
Alessa, tousle-haired and sleepy-eyed, was sitting up on the bed next to her, and trying to blink away the cobwebs from the night before, all while regarding Beryl with a look of open amusement.
“You know, I’d heard stories about that happening to fire mages,” she said. “But I always just assumed it was an exaggeration. Now I’m half-tempted to make a joke…”
Beryl shook her head as she tried to rub the sleep away from her own eye.
“I haven’t burned a bed in years,” she said, with just a hint of embarrassment in her voice. “But, yes, it can happen. Usually if I’m cold, or if I’m upset.” Her voice trailed off for a second. “Or when I dream.” Beryl stared down at the ruined linens. “I am so, so sorry.”
Alessa shrugged and gave her own head a slow, woozy shake. “Yeah, well, I’m sorry, too,” she said, reaching up to knead her temples as she spoke. “This wasn’t exactly how I’d imagined us spending a night together.”
Then Alessa swung her legs over the side of the bed. She leaned forward, cradling her head in her arms for a moment, and she swore. She swore the longest, loudest, vilest, bluest streak of obscenities that Beryl had ever heard in her life, which made the scarred woman blush even more.
“I didn’t even know some of those words,” Beryl said after the echoes had died down.
Alessa stood up and started, gingerly, to stretch herself out, as though checking to make sure that all the parts of her body were still where they were supposed to be. She winced, and it seemed like she found some parts had wandered off in the night.
“Yeah, well, I haven’t been hung over on very many worlds,” she said, “but, when I have, I’ve learned to get very creative with the local tongue.” She bent over to touch her toes, and she let out a long, mournful moan as she did.
“How are you feeling?” Beryl asked as she stood up herself and tried to gather her own bearings.
“Like someone summoned an aetherspout inside my skull,” Alessa grumbled. She threw her arms up above her head and arched her back as she stretched one final time, before tilting her head back and letting loose a fearsome yawn. “I also feel like I may die if I don’t eat my own weight in bacon within the next hour. C’mon, let’s go get some breakfast. My treat, by way of an apology.” She cleared her throat, and, for a moment, she looked away from the scarred woman. “I don’t remember much from last night, but most of what I do remember I’m not super proud of.”
Beryl, who had been using her fingers as a comb to try to untangle her hair, stopped in mid-motion. At the mere mention of food, she felt her stomach rumble and her mouth start to salivate.
“Breakfast?” Beryl asked, sounding more eager than she’d meant to.
“Breakfast,” Alessa said. “I’m starving. You must be, too. When was the last time you ate?”
Beryl tried to remember. Just as she hadn’t slept in days, she was startled to realize that she hadn’t eaten, either.
“A while ago,” she said.
“That’s settled, then,” Alessa said. “We’re going out for some damn breakfast.”
Again, Beryl’s hand froze in the middle of straightening her hair. “Going out? As in, to a restaurant?”
Alessa arched an eyebrow. “I’m starving, and I’m hung over, and I don't have any food here, and I can’t cook worth a damn anyway. So, yes, we’re going to a restaurant, and I will trample anything that gets in our way.”
Beryl felt herself blushing again, and hated how much she seemed to do that in the teal-eyed woman’s presence. “I haven’t been to a restaurant in a long, long time,” she said, feeling slightly embarrassed in spite of herself. Try as she might not to be self-conscious about it, the trappings of poverty still made her anxious.
Alessa shrugged. “Well, I can assure you that the general concept hasn’t changed much. You give them money, they bring you food. I suspect you’ll get the hang of it.”
“You don’t understand,” Beryl said, shaking her head. “Here? In the Market District? They won’t serve me. Not looking like this.” Beryl gestured down at her wrinkled, threadbare clothing.
That prompted a snort from Alessa. “For the right amount of money, even the fanciest establishment would serve a naked orc. That’s the way most worlds work, and yours is certainly no exception to the rule. Hell, it is the rule.”
Nevertheless, Alessa knelt down and picked up her pack from the floor. Setting it on top of the bed, she pulled its drawstrings open, and started pulling out all sorts of mismatched clothing.
“But, since you mentioned it,” she said, “let’s see if we can’t find you something a little less depressing to wear.” She glanced over at Beryl, running her eyes up and down the older woman, and Beryl could feel herself being measured. “I don’t think you’re my size,” Alessa said, “but we should have plenty for you to choose from. You’d be amazed at the things people leave behind.”
Alessa shot Beryl a wolfish grin as she handed the pyromancer a red tunic and some black leggings, which Beryl took with a grateful nod of thanks. Alessa pulled out some clothing for herself, too, and frowned. She snatched up the hem of her shirt and sniffed it.
“I smell like a freaking winery,” Alessa said. She sighed, and embarrassment crept across her face – which was the first time Beryl had seen Alessa look embarrassed about anything. Alessa just shook her head and looked back over at Beryl.
“Okay, let’s get dressed,” Alessa said. “Then we’re going out to eat. And, once there’s a big, heaping plate of food in front of me, you can catch me up on current events, and explain to me just how sorry I’m going to be that I didn’t leave while I still could.”
* * *
Beryl followed Alessa through the rapidly-filling streets of the Market District while the self-proclaimed ne’er-do-well searched for the most lavish-looking inn within walking distance of the hideout. Upon locating a promising candidate – a grand, ivy-covered building with a long, copper-roofed portico and a stately sign proclaiming it to be the Crown & Castle – Alessa coaxed Beryl up the granite steps and in through the filigreed bronze doors.
Once inside, they were approached by the innkeeper, who, having given Beryl and Alessa a quick assessment, opened his mouth and appeared to be about to voice an objection when Alessa cut him off with an obscene gesture. The man was still reeling from the indignity as Alessa produced a stack of gold coins from one of her pockets. Beryl’s mind raced as she tried to estimate the sum in question, but Alessa simply took hold of the innkeeper’s hand and forced the coins into it, accompanied by the demand: “I want a private room, I want two of everything you have on menu, and I want to be left the Hell alone while we eat.”
The innkeeper’s expression morphed from haughty indignation to a greedy smile the instant his fingers closed around the gold. The next thing Beryl knew, she was seated in an ornately-decorated room with dark wooden paneling and heavy velvet drapes and staring at Alessa across a table topped with crisp white linens, cut crystal goblets, and fine silverware. Gauzy morning light streamed in through the rippled glass windows, and it danced across the facets of the fancy stemware. Beryl had barely settled into her chair when a series of waiters in jackets and waistcoats seemed to materialize from the aether, carrying trays of piping-hot breads and delicately-sugared pastries, along with silver carafes of tea and glass carafes of brightly-colored juices.
Alessa waived an arresting hand at the last of the waiters as he was about to depart the room. Between mouthfuls of sweetroll, she asked Beryl: “Do you want anything else?”
Beryl’s mind flashed back to her favorite breakfasts she could recall from her childhood. “Scrambled eggs and buttered toast?” she asked, with a rising inflection which stemmed from the fear that she might be pushing her luck.
But Alessa just nodded her head and turned to the waiter. “Eggs and toast,” she said. “And bacon, too, and lots of it. Not too crispy, either.”
A trace of distaste appeared around the edges of the waiter’s otherwise impassive face. “We don’t usually—” he started to say.
Before he could complete his sentence, though, more gold appeared in Alessa’s hand. And, before Beryl could object, Alessa threw the gold in the direction of the stunned waiter, who chased after the coins as they rolled across the floor.
“Today you do,” she said. “Eggs, toast, bacon.”
The waiter gave his head a crisp nod and vanished.
As soon as he was gone, Beryl caught Alessa’s eyes. “I can’t let you spend that kind of money on me,” she said.
Alessa batted Beryl’s concern away. “It’s just money,” she said.
“It’s more than I used to make in a month,” Beryl said, feeling almost as though she needed to apologize for it.
But Alessa just shrugged. “Money doesn’t keep you warm at night. I’d rather spend it than save it.”
Beryl was quiet for a moment. “Thank you,” she finally said. “I really mean it. You have no idea how much I’ve missed food.”
“I understand what it feels like to miss meals,” Alessa said. She made the remark in a casual tone, but Beryl thought she could sense something painful and real buried beneath the younger woman's words.
Beryl wanted to say something to that, but, before she could figure out what to say or how to say it, another round of silver trays appeared, this time laden with sizzling strips of bacon, steaming heaps of scrambled eggs, and thick slices of generously-buttered toast.
Surveying the feast arrayed in front of her, Beryl tried mightily to maintain some semblance of decorum. But her empty stomach triumphed over her mannered upbringing, and, in about the blink of an eye, her plate was heaped high with eggs and toast, which she shoveled into her mouth with the single-minded urgency of someone who has known real hunger.
Alessa tucked into her own food with a similar degree of enthusiasm, and, for some time, the two of them simply ate together in companionable silence, speaking only in so much as to ask the other to pass a pot of jam or a carafe of juice.
Eventually, Alessa wiped the powdered sugar from around her lips with the edge of the tablecloth and then leaned back in her chair. After a long, satisfied-sounding sigh, she fixed Beryl with her teal eyes.
“Okay,” she said. “You already saw the aftermath of my yesterday. So tell me what you were getting yourself up to while I was busy humiliating myself and conjuring-up the headache-to-end-all-headaches inside my poor, pitiful skull.”
Over the next hour or so, Beryl managed to find time and breath between gulping down hot food and hot tea to fill Alessa in on the basic outlines of what had happened to her between leaving Alessa’s room the morning prior and returning later that night. As Beryl recounted events, Alessa sat quietly and listened intently, maintaining an impressively-neutral card player’s face throughout, with just two exceptions. The first came when Beryl described Astria’s willful choice to serve The Duchess, at the mention of whose name Alessa visibly flinched. The second came when Beryl described the appearance of the Magician, Nasperge, at which point a look of surprise – or was it recognition? – seemed to flash across Alessa’s eyes. But Alessa made no interruption, and so, after a moment’s hesitation, Beryl carried on with her tale, describing her journey to the strange mirrored world beyond the fire bridge, her encounter with her mother’s reflection, and her return to Aliavelli, only to hear the tolling bells that announced the current – or, more accurately, the former – High Sorceress’s death.
At the end of all that, Alessa let out a low whistle.
“So, you had an eventful day, is what you’re saying,” she said.
Beryl nodded. “That’s a fair summary,” she said.
Alessa stared up at the ceiling for a moment, looking thoughtful, before she turned her eyes back down to Beryl.
“Well, other than a strongly-felt desire to meet this sister of yours and shove a pyrite spellbomb up her backside, I confess I’m not sure what your obvious next steps are,” Alessa said.
Beryl wiped her hands on her napkin before closing her eye and rubbing her forehead. “The fact that the High Sorceress is dead – and, Gods help me, I don’t want to know how she died, because I can think of an all-too-possible answer, and it frightens me – more or less forces my hand. The city will observe a day of mourning – today – before the matriarchs of the seven Great Houses meet tomorrow to select the next sorceress to ascend. If Astria really is The Duch—,” Beryl bit off the rest of that word, remembering Alessa’s almost physical reaction to The Duchess’s name, “—what I mean, is, if Astria really is Her tool, then that means that she’ll be the one selected.” Beryl shook her head, and her voice grew firm. “And I can’t let that happen. I can’t let Astria surrender whatever shred she has left of her soul, in exchange for the trappings of power. That’s not what my mother would have wanted. It’s exactly what she didn’t want, what she was ready to die to prevent.”
“Well, you already tried asking nicely, and that didn’t work,” Alessa said, giving her eyes a little roll. “What’s your next step? A strongly-worded letter?”
Beryl had to laugh at that. “Actually, that’s exactly it,” she said. “Before the matriarchs take a vote, they each get to make speeches in support of their preferred candidate. I’m not exactly on the guest list, but I plan to be there tomorrow, and I plan to show them the letter which my mother wrote to Astria. I’m going to expose Astria as Her plaything. I’m going to pull the mask away from Her, to force all the Houses to see the threat that She poses, and to unite against Her. There’s no way that any of the matriarchs would ever trust me. But they will trust my mother. Love her or hate her – and some of the other Houses did hate her, even though she never did anything to deserve it, beyond not being one of them – they all respected her. They knew her to be a sorceress of the first caliber, and a woman of her word. If I show them the letters, they’ll have to listen. They’ll have to.”
Alessa gave Beryl a skeptical look. “And if they don’t want to listen?”
“Then I’ll make them.” Beryl looked down at her hands and, for a moment, her voice wavered. “I don’t want to have to do it. Gods know, I don’t want to have to do it.” She looked back up at Alessa. “But I will. One way or the other.”
“And your sister will be doing, what, during all of this? Sitting on her hands and smiling politely while you denounce her?”
Beryl was silent for a moment. “I didn’t say I was looking forward to any of this.”
Alessa’s face was sympathetic, but she did not let the point drop. “And if she attacks you?”
Again, Beryl was silent. “I can defend myself,” she said.
Alessa persisted. “Just how far are you willing to go?”
Beryl bowed her head. “I don’t want to think about that. I don’t want it to come to that.”
Alessa shook her head. “That’s not an answer, and you know it.”
Beryl had to close her eye, had to remind herself to exhale.
“Then I’ll do what I have to do,” she said.
Alessa gave a small, satisfied nod. But she wasn’t smiling.
“Good,” she said. “Because, if you won’t, then I will. Hell, I might do it anyway – spare you the agony.”
That took Beryl aback. “I wasn’t expecting you to be there,” she said.
That earned a dismissive snort from Alessa. “Please,” she said. “If you think that, after all this, I’m not going to be in the room to watch you pull the rug out from beneath your nasty little aristocracy, then you are sorely mistaken.” She flashed a harsh smile. “Besides, if those pampered aristocrats of yours decide not to play fair, I might have an even nastier trick or two up my sleeve for them as well.”
Beryl held her hands up. “I’m grateful for the support,” she said. “But you have to promise me that you’ll let me handle this on my own. This is something I have to do for myself. No one else can do it for me. And, Gods know why, but I still think Astria can be saved.” Beryl trailed off, then corrected herself: “I still hope she can be saved, anyway.”
“Fine,” Alessa said, putting her own hands up. “I promise I’ll keep my hands off her, unless it looks like you’re in trouble.” Then she pointed a finger at Beryl, and her voice turned grave. “But you made me a promise, too. That’s one of the few things from last night I can remember, and I was dead serious about it. If it looks like things are going pear-shaped, if either of us is in danger, or if it looks like… if I even suspect that… She… might show up?” As ever, The Duchess’s name seemed to catch in Alessa’s throat, and so it went unspoken. “Then we are out of here. We leave as fast as we can, and we don’t look back. So help me, I will drag you out of there by your hair if I have to!”
“That won’t happen,” Beryl said.
Alessa shook her head, and gave the air in front of her an emphatic jab. “Oh no,” she said, her eyes flinty. “You already tried that non-answer once before, and it didn’t get any better this time around.” Her voice rose as she spoke. “You made me a promise, and I expect you to keep it. Because otherwise she’ll kill you, Beryl. She’ll kill you the way you’d swat a fly, only with less remorse. You have to understand that.”
Beryl gestured for Alessa to put her hand down. “I know,” she said. “I gave you my word, Alessa. I swore to you on my mother’s name. I keep my promises.”
A few seconds passed in tense silence before Alessa seemed to relax. Sliding her chair back, Alessa crossed her arms behind her head and propped her feet up on the white tablecloth.
“Alright,” she said. “That settles the agenda for tomorrow. Which just leaves unanswered the question of what we do with today.”
That got Beryl smiling. She leaned forward, and there was a conspiratorial gleam in her eye.
“In my mother’s letter, she said she was accumulating items of power that she needed to fight… Her,” Beryl said. “She said that she had sealed them so that no one else would recognize them, and that she placed the most powerful artifacts in the House Trevanei vault.”
A smile crept across Alessa’s face, too. “I think I know where this is going,” she said.
Beryl nodded. “How would you like to help me break into my family’s vault?” she said.
Alessa smirked. “Look at you!” she joked. “You steal one measly strongbox, and, suddenly, you’ve got a taste for larceny.”
“You must be a bad influence,” Beryl said. “Think maybe you can show me how the professionals do things?”
Alessa made a show of looking indifferent. “It wouldn’t be my first choice for how to spend the night,” she said. “But I could be talked into it.”
“It won’t be easy,” Beryl said. “That’s why I need your help. I can open the vault door – it’s an enchanted lock, and I know Trevanei enchantments better than just about anyone else. But the vault is in the middle of the estate, with enough guards between it and the front door to man a small army. And I’m not exactly welcome inside – especially not now. Astria will have told everyone there to attack me on sight, and I’m not exactly… inconspicuous.” Beryl frowned and, almost reflexively, she reached up to trace a finger across the violent red scar that ringed her blind eye. She gave Alessa an imploring look. “So I was hoping that you might have some ideas in that department.”
“Well, that depends,” Alessa said. “And here I need you to be honest with me – don’t just tell me what you think I want to hear. The question is: How good are you at sneaking around without being seen or heard?”
Beryl sighed. “Not very,” she said. “It’s not really something I’ve ever needed to do.”
Beryl expected Alessa to look disappointed. But, instead, the teal-eyed woman just grinned.
“In that case,” she said, “the next question is: How well do you move in tight clothing?”
Tight, it subsequently transpired, was something of an understatement.
The Neurok stealthsuit which Beryl found herself holding with a mixture of terror and awe was mostly made from a fabric that felt thin as spider silk and light as air. The cloth seemed to shimmer and glisten as it moved, looking and feeling more like rippling water than a woven textile. It stretched beneath Beryl’s fingertips as she gave it an experimental tug, then snapped smartly back down to size as soon as she let go, leaving no visible signs of stress or wear. The suit had some metal components as well: hair-thin copper conduits, woven directly into the material itself, and a dark gray gorget crafted from some ductile alloy which Beryl didn’t recognize. The suit also came with a pair of metallic gauntlets, which housed an elaborate combination of nodes, sigils, and glyphs. The metal appeared to have a kind of magical flexibility to it, though, because it rippled and stretched along with the fabric, as though the two materials were one and the same.
The stealthsuit was a masterwork of both engineering and artifice, and Beryl had to marvel at the brilliance of its craftsmanship.
Beryl couldn’t help but notice that it was also very, very small.
“There used to be a helmet that went with it,” Alessa said, shrugging a little as Beryl inspected the suit. “But it was a weird shape, and it wouldn’t sit on my head right to save my life, so I never bothered with it. The suit works just the same without it, anyway.”
“How exactly does it work?” Beryl asked, still holding the stealthsuit slightly away from her body, as though it might leap up at her.
The teal-eyed woman nodded down at the suit. “Well, the first part is pretty straightforward,” she said, in a tone that teased more than it patronized. “You take off your clothes, then you put the suit on.”
“But how am I supposed to fit into this? I mean, look at it. It’s so…” Beryl rubbed the suit’s fabric between her fingers, feeling the material’s thinness, and her mouth suddenly felt dry. “It’s awfully small.”
Alessa snickered. “Yeah, I know – great, isn't it?” she said with a smile. “Don't worry, it’ll fit. You’re thinner than me, even after that breakfast you just wolfed down. If I can fit, then you’ll be fine.”
“But how do you put it on?” Beryl asked, examining the suit one last time. “It doesn’t have any buttons, or zippers, or anything.”
“I have two words for you,” Alessa said. She fished around inside her pack for a small tin of talcum, which she handed to Beryl with a little quirk of her head. “Powder up.”
Beryl looked down at the stealthsuit in her hand. She looked down at the tin of talcum powder in her other hand. Then she looked anxiously around Alessa’s room, searching for a place in which she could attempt the impossible with a modicum of privacy.
“Is there someplace where I can change?” she asked. “I mean… you know… someplace private?”
“I was thinking that I should really help you out with that,” Alessa said, sounding serious. “Trust me, it will be much, much easier if I lend a hand. Or two.” Then Alessa placed a hand at the base of Beryl’s neck. A wolfish smile formed on her lips, and, for just a second, her teal eyes flashed. “More fun, too.”
Beryl felt all the blood inside her body rush up into her face. Her eye went wide, too, which Alessa must have noticed, because the younger woman laughed. Then, with a sigh, and a shake of her head, Alessa bent down and picked up one of the wooden chairs from the floor. She turned the chair to face away from Beryl, and, after giving a little shrug, she sat down on it.
“For the record,” Alessa teased, “I just want to note how unfair this is. I mean, you’ve seen me naked.” She took a deck of cards out of her pocket, which she started to shuffle with quick, practiced riffles as she waited.
“Just holler if you get stuck,” she said over her shoulder. “Because you may get stuck.”
“Thank you,” Beryl said, feeling mildly embarrassed by her own timidity. Then she slipped out of her borrowed clothing and, after stretching the neck of the stealthsuit as wide as it could be stretched, she sucked in her stomach and started to wriggle her way inside the outfit.
It took a lot of doing, and the process was neither easy nor dignified. But, with the aid of a little contortionism and a lot of talcum powder, she managed, somehow, to squeeze her way into the stealthsuit. Once she was finally inside, and had satisfied herself that everything was properly fitted and positioned, she let out a long, deep sigh.
“That sounded like quite the battle,” Alessa called out over her shoulder. “Who won?”
“Too early to say,” Beryl said. “This is very… form-fitting.” The stealthsuit’s fabric clung to her body like a second skin. Looking down, Beryl could see the clear outline of the raised scar over her heart beneath the thin, dark material. She traced her fingertip across the scar, and it felt unnervingly as though she were touching her own bare skin. “I feel naked. I mean, I basically am naked.”
“Don’t get me started on feeling naked,” Alessa said. The teal-eyed woman was still facing the other way, but Beryl could practically hear her smiling. “I did a job one time where I had to sneak into a museum by posing as a statue, and the statue in question was not exactly known for the modesty of its attire. Spend a whole afternoon in a slow time bubble being ogled by museum patrons, and you’ll find most other forms of exposure feel wonderfully relative after that.” Alessa gave her cards a final, emphatic, one-handed shuffle, then stuck the deck back inside her pocket. “To tell the truth, I actually enjoy how tight the suit is. But, if it helps you to relax, just remember that, once it’s turned on, you’ll be practically invisible.”
Beryl quickly slipped her borrowed clothes back on over top of the stealthsuit. “Alright, show me how it works,” she said.
Alessa glanced over her shoulder and stood back up. She walked over to where Beryl was standing awkwardly and trying to resist the persistent urge to tug and pull at the fabric of the suit. The chronopath motioned for Beryl to hold up her arm, which the pyromancer did.
Alessa pushed Beryl's sleeve up and tapped on a small silver node just below the gauntlet’s elbow. “This is the main breaker,” she said. “When you want to power the suit up, you press here.” She switched the breaker on by way of demonstration. “When you want to power the suit down, just do the opposite.” She returned the switch back to its off position. “The suit draws its power from your mana, so you’ll have to charge it before it will activate. The energy is stored in the capacitors, here,” Alessa said, indicating the glyphs which covered the interior of the gauntlets. “It’s designed to run on blue mana, and you really can’t do a quick charge with anything else. It will accept other kinds of mana, too, but it’s supposed to take a lot longer to power up or down that way. Which means that, when the time comes for us to commit our heinous crimes, you’d better have your game face on, because we’re only going to get one chance at this.”
Beryl nodded. “And what happens when I turn the suit on?”
“You won’t be literally invisible, but it’s the next best thing,” Alessa said. “The suit works by projecting an energy field around your body, which basically curves light around you. So, if someone looks at you from outside the field, they’ll see whatever’s on the other side of you, instead of, well, you.” The teal-eyed woman held one hand up in the air, and swept a pointed finger around it in a semicircle, as a kind of basic illustration of the underlying principle. “Now the effect isn’t perfect,” she cautioned. “If someone stares right at you – and, I mean, really stares – they’ll get the sense that something is a little bit off, kind of the way that straight lines bend when you see them through a glass of water. You’ll look like a trick of the light. But, unless someone is specifically looking for you, you won’t need to worry. Plus, as an added bonus, the energy field offers a pretty robust defense against directed mana, too. Although you shouldn’t need that tonight, assuming all goes as planned.”
Beryl looked down at the suit’s magical bracers, and the thin, flexible wires which ran out from them. “I can see why this would come in handy, in your line of work.”
Alessa grinned. “It’s fantastically useful. I’m really glad it was given to me. Or that I stole it? I’ve never actually been totally clear on that…" For a moment, Alessa chewed her lip, and she looked pensive. Then the younger woman faced Beryl, and her expression turned serious. “Anyway, now that we’ve got you all suited-up, we really ought to walk through the plan for tonight. If we’re going to do this, then I need to know everything that you know about the place we’re breaking into.”
Beryl nodded. “I’ll tell you everything I can,” she said.
The two women righted the overturned table in the middle of Alessa’s room, and Alessa sat backwards in her chair while Beryl found one for herself. Then Alessa pulled some paper from her pack, which she spread out across the table’s surface, and some sketching charcoal, which she tossed to Beryl.
“Draw me a map of this estate of yours,” Alessa said.
Beryl closed her eye and tried to peer back through the years, to reconstruct the walls and doors of the House Trevanei estate inside her mind’s eye. Slowly, she started to draw the charcoal across the paper, sketching the outlines of the various buildings, and the paths across the estate’s vast gardens. Her motions were hesitant at first, as she struggled to dust away the cobwebs from memories which she had not dared to relive for a long, long time. But, gradually, the pictures started to take shape inside her head, growing in clarity and definition, and she drew them onto the paper with a more confident hand.
“The vault is on the lowest floor of the villa, here,” she said, tapping her finger in the center of the largest structure. “We’re going to have to get across the grounds to the villa, first. The main floor is kept open, since the matriarchs are always receiving emissaries there from the Court, the Guild, the other Great Houses. So we don’t have to break in, or anything, which is nice, but it does mean that there will be a lot of people around. Then we’ll have to move through this corridor,” she traced her finger down the indicated place on the map, “and down these flights of stairs. That will get us to the vault.”
Alessa nodded quietly, her eyes focused intently on the map. “What are the chances any of this has changed since the last time you were in there?”
“Probably not much,” Beryl said. She sighed and rubbed her eye. “As a rule, the Great Houses aren’t big believers in change.”
“I wonder why,” Alessa grumbled beneath her breath. She shook her head, then looked up at Beryl, holding the other woman’s gaze. “And you said you can open the door?”
“Yes,” Beryl said. “If I can get my hands on it, I’ll be able to open it.”
For a moment, Alessa appeared skeptical. But, eventually, she shrugged. She looked back down at the table and spent another long minute studying the map, her eyes flitting rapidly back and forth as she committed the diagram to memory. Then she rolled the paper up and handed it to Beryl.
“Take care of that, would you?” Alessa asked.
Beryl nodded. The roll of paper in her hand began to smoke and blacken around the edges, until it burst into flame. Beryl held the map up by a single corner as her fire consumed it, until it flaked away into ashes.
Alessa rolled her eyes. “I just meant put it away,” she said.
“Sorry,” Beryl said, looking sheepish.
“Doesn’t matter.” Alessa’s voice had acquired a hard edge of warning to it, and she fixed Beryl with a professional stare. “Listen, I need you to pay attention, because, what we’re about to do tonight? It’s not a joke. It’s not some sort of adventure. This is serious business – people get killed doing this sort of thing. It’s tricky enough for me to sneak inside a place like this, even though I know what I’m doing. I have all the advantages, and I’ve been doing this a long time. But for me to bring you in with me?” She pointed a finger at Beryl. “That’s adding a whole extra degree of difficulty, even with the suit.”
“I know,” Beryl said. She bowed her head slightly. “I appreciate that you’re even doing this at all. I know you didn’t have to help me.”
“Yeah, well, now’s the part where you have to help me,” Alessa said. “Because I have no intention of getting killed tonight, and I will take it pretty personally if you get killed. That would be a crummy ending to your first foray into larceny, and it would really put a damper on my night – probably all my future nights, too, for that matter. So, while we’re doing this, you have to promise me that you’re going to pay attention, you’re going to listen to what I tell you, and you’re going to do exactly what I say, and when I say it. This is not a dress rehearsal, and it isn’t a debate, either. I need you to follow instructions, no questions asked.” The teal-eyed woman drew herself up close to Beryl, and looked the pyromancer hard in her one green eye. “Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Beryl said.
“Alright then,” Alessa said. “Jump.”
Beryl did as she was told and jumped, only to see Alessa trying – and failing – to suppress a laugh. The teal-eyed woman’s shoulders seemed to relax a little, then, and Beryl felt herself start to relax, too.
“Now, normally, I would never pull a job like this without checking out the place first, getting to know the guard patterns, planning my moves,” Alessa said. “But, given our timetable, and the strained nature of your familial relations, I take it that’s not an option.”
Beryl shook her head vehemently. “It has to be tonight,” she said. “And there’s no way I can take you to the estate before dark. If either of us show our faces around there, we’ll have the whole city down on us like a ton of bricks.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Alessa said. She sighed, then looked back at Beryl. “Well, since that’s not an option, we’re going to have to do this on the fly.” Alessa paused for a second, then arched an eyebrow. ”By the way, you aren't scared of heights, are you?”
Beryl gulped. "You don’t mean we’re really going to fly, right?” She swallowed again. “Do you?"
"No, no,” Alessa said, shaking her head. “Well… probably not. Maybe. Listen – there’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong, so I won’t promise anything.”
Alessa smiled, which Beryl did not find wholly reassuring.
“You should hear about this one time I had to rob a flying castle,” the teal-eyed woman said, looking wistful. Then she tilted her head slightly to one side, and appeared to reconsider. “Or maybe not. That job went spectacularly poorly.”
“What do you mean?” Beryl asked, not really sure she wanted to hear the answer.
“The castle fell.” Alessa shrugged. “But that was definitely not my fault. So don't worry – I’m sure things will go much better tonight.”
* * *
“It’s working, right?” Beryl whispered, looking down at her own body and feeling acutely visible. “You really can’t see me?”
“For the third – and final – time, no, I can’t see you,” Alessa hissed back. “The suit’s working. Now, please, for the love of the Gods, just be quiet.”
The two women were crouched behind a cluster of juniper bushes at the edge of the House Trevanei estate. Beryl was clad in Alessa’s stealthsuit, while Alessa, for her part, had donned a simple black jerkin with matching leggings. As the two of them waited, afternoon had stolen into evening, until the setting sun bathed the estate’s white marble walls in a wash of yellows, oranges, and reds. The estate was not a single structure so much as an entire complex of buildings, interspersed among beautifully-manicured gardens and connected by long, open-air hallways, with tiled mosaics for floors and tall, tapered columns in place of walls. All the buildings were carved from the same lustrous, delicately-swirled marble, and all the roofs were edged with lush hanging gardens, so that the man-made structures and their natural surroundings seemed to blend together in a kind of easy, graceful harmony.
It was a place of genuine beauty, and being so close to her childhood home filled Beryl with a kind of strange, conflicted nostalgia. On the one hand, many of her most treasured memories had taken place within the walls and gardens of House Trevanei, and no passage of time could dull her affection for the home she had shared with her mother. On the other hand, the last time she had been within the estate’s walls had been the day of her eighteenth birthday, when Astria’s men had barged into the tiny room with barred windows where Beryl had spent the entirety of her adolescence, had dragged her bodily off the grounds, and had thrown her out onto the street, where she had been condemned to live a Nameless life, and ordered never to return on pain of death.
Well, Beryl thought grimly to herself, she had returned.
Beryl tore her eye away from looking at her childhood home to look at Alessa instead, who was intently watching the guards as they patrolled the grounds, a look of intense concentration on her face. And yet Beryl knew that Alessa was looking beyond the guards – she was looking into the future as well, watching for their opportunity.
Finally, Alessa turned to face Beryl. She spoke in a quiet but firm whisper.
“Okay,” Alessa said, “here’s how this is going to work. We’re going to cover the distance from here to the vault in short, discrete sections. When I see that we have an opening, I’ll give this sign.” She held up a closed fist. “That means I’m going to move, and I want you to move with me. Stay close to me, but follow at least a step or two behind. If I have to stop short for some reason, I don’t want you running into me, okay?”
Beryl nodded her head. Then, remembering that Alessa couldn’t see her, she whispered: “Okay.”
“Now, if I point, like this,” Alessa said, holding up a single index finger, “that means I want you to move to the spot I’m indicating. Just go where I point, and then wait there, and I’ll catch up with you. Okay?”
Beryl nodded again, before catching herself again and whispering: “Okay.”
“Alright,” Alessa said. “If I hold my hand out to you like this,” she held up an open-palmed hand in a halt gesture, “then that means I need you to freeze wherever you are. Don’t move, don’t look around, and, for the love of the Gods, don’t try to talk to me. The suit makes you basically invisible, but you can still be heard. So save the small talk until after we’re inside the vault.”
“But how will you know where I am?” Beryl whispered.
“Don’t worry,” Alessa said. “I can hear you breathing.” A little smirk appeared on her face. “I’ll get you through tonight, but, a word of advice? Infiltration would be a poor career choice for you.”
“Okay,” Beryl said, feeling grateful that, for once, Alessa couldn’t see her blush.
“Good,” Alessa said, and the teal-eyed woman gave Beryl a wink. “I hope you’re ready, because we’re going on the count of three.”
Alessa held up three fingers – pinky, ring, and middle – which she pulled down, one by one, until her hand was a closed fist. At precisely that moment, the halberd-toting guard closest to where Beryl and Alessa were hiding turned his back to them and started walking off in the opposite direction.
Almost before Beryl could react, Alessa was gone, moving like a flash towards a nearby marble archway. Beryl was momentarily shocked by the confident, almost brazen way that Alessa carried herself, and the fact that she seemed to move absolutely silently while doing so.
After wasting a couple precious seconds marveling at Alessa’s poise, Beryl was jolted back to the task at hand. She tried to follow along behind the teal-eyed woman, but she couldn’t match Alessa’s pace, and, almost before she knew it, she had fallen behind. Even worse, it seemed to Beryl as though each one of her footfalls was impossibly loud, and she feared that each step would be the one that would give her away. Either that, she thought, or the pounding of her heart, whose beats sounded so loud inside her own head that she imagined they must be audible at a hundred paces. But, the more effort she put into trying to step silently, the slower she moved, until she was practically inching towards the marble archway, where Alessa was waiting with an exasperated look on her face.
As Beryl finally drew up next to Alessa, the younger woman literally threw her hands up in the air, before giving her head a frustrated shake. “You don’t have to walk all hunched over,” she whispered curtly. “They can’t see you, remember? Just try to walk normally, and move at your normal pace.” Then her face softened, and she exhaled slowly. “You can do this, Beryl. I know you can do this.” Alessa tapped a finger against her own forehead. “After all, I’m the one telling you, and that’s practically as good as prophecy.”
“I know,” Beryl said, reminding herself to breathe. “I can do this.”
They waited together in the shadow of the arch for a minute or two, with Alessa half watching the guards and half watching the future, while Beryl had to resist the urge to tug at the fabric of the stealthsuit, which had started to ride up in distinctly unpleasant ways. Finally, Alessa held up her fist again, just as the nearest set of guards disappeared around a corner, and again she took off, this time with Beryl following close behind. Alessa led Beryl down an open-air hallway and across a small garden to a cluster of cypress trees, which they crouched behind.
“Better,” Alessa whispered once they were safely ensconced, and Beryl started to relax.
It took them a while to do it, but they covered the rest of the ground in that same manner – dashing from cover to cover, always timing their actions to take advantage of gaps in the patrols. It was like staying dry in a storm by dodging between raindrops, and, amazingly, it worked. Alessa moved with the control and precision of a dancer, and Beryl said a silent prayer of thanks for the teal-eyed woman’s precognition.
Before too long, Beryl found herself crouched in a little alcove at one end of a long marble hallway, with the great, hand-carved door to the Trevanei family vault at the other.
Alessa was crouched down next to her, and she spoke to Beryl in a barely audible whisper.
“We’re about to have a fifty-second window,” she said. “Can you get that door open and get us inside in fifty seconds?”
“Probably,” Beryl said.
“Screw probably,” Alessa said. “I need a yes or a no.”
Beryl took a deep breath, then swallowed.
“Yes,” Beryl said.
“Alright,” Alessa said. “No hesitation. Get ready in three… two… one…”
Just then, a guard poked his head into the hallway from some unseen door, and spoke a few inaudible words to the other guard who had been keeping watch next to the vault. The second guard grumbled something in response, then trudged off to follow after the interlocutor, so that both men momentarily disappeared from view.
“Now,” Alessa said.
Beryl walked down the hallway as fast as she could without running, counting off the seconds in her head as she went, and knowing that Alessa was right on her heels. Her heart was racing as she reached the vault door and put her hands on its ornately-wrought handle, feeling the chill of the cold metal beneath her fingertips.
Seven seconds gone.
Even with her knack for enchantment, this was asking a lot, Beryl knew. Divining the inner workings of a spell often took her minutes – hours, even. But she didn’t have hours, or even minutes.
She had… thirty-nine seconds.
Beryl tried to put all that out of her mind. She tried to trust herself, to believe in herself. But it was difficult. Her pulse was pounding, and she was finding it hard to concentrate. The enchanted door would not speak to her; she could not seem to connect with it.
Fifteen seconds gone.
Beryl closed her eye, took a deep breath, tried to re-center herself.
Twenty seconds gone.
You can do this, she said silently to herself. You can do this. You know you can. Trust yourself. Trust what’s inside you.
Beryl stopped counting. Instead, she focused all of her thoughts on the door beneath her fingertips. She reached out into it with her mind, casting out with her mana, listening with her heart. And, this time, she felt the enchantments inside the door respond. She could see them taking shape inside her head, could see the contours of their design, could feel the texture of their construction. She felt as though she could reach out across centuries, could touch the minds of her ancestors who had first woven the magical locks into the worldly metal of the door. She could hear the enchantresses of old speaking to her, could feel them guiding her mind, until she could see the inner workings of their design, and could lay her astral hands on the key at the heart of the enchanted lock.
With her eye still closed, she turned the incorporeal key. Then, with an almost inaudible hiss, she heard the massive metal door slide open.
Beryl’s eye was barely open when she saw Alessa streak past her through the open door, and she followed on the younger woman’s heels. Once inside, she lay her hands on the door, which started to slide closed again.
The door seemed to move agonizingly slowly. Having given up counting seconds, Beryl had no clue how much time was left before the guard would return. But, based purely on the look of anxiety she saw on Alessa’s face, she assumed that they were cutting it close.
Finally, mercifully, the door locked back into place with the tiniest of clicks. No angry shouts or cries of alarm came from the other side.
Beryl allowed herself to exhale. She could hear Alessa doing the same.
“Well, you definitely used all fifty seconds,” Alessa said. But a smile was forming on her face as she said it. “And that was with me stretching that last second out a bit, too.”
“Showman’s instinct, I guess,” Beryl said, thinking back to what Nasperge had said about her mother.
“Here, why don’t you power the suit down?” Alessa said. “I mean, I’m used to being the one inside it, and – I’ve got to tell you – it’s weirder than I expected, trying to have a conversation with someone who’s just a kind of shimmer in the air.”
“Do me a favor?” Beryl said. “Hand me my clothes?”
Alessa rolled her eyes and sighed an aggrieved sigh, but she fished Beryl’s borrowed tunic and leggings out of the small pack she had brought with her, and she held them out for Beryl. With a grateful word of thanks, Beryl slipped the clothes on over top of the Neurok stealthsuit. Then, after a moment of fumbling around, she found the main breaker on the metallic glove and flipped it off. The suit made a little whirring noise as it powered down, and Beryl returned to visibility.
Beryl gave herself a quick once-over, and satisfied herself that her modesty was intact. The teal-eyed woman tsk’ed at her.
“We are really going to have to do something about your body issues,” Alessa said. “It’s driving me crazy – and not in the good way, either.”
“Let’s save that until after we’re done pilfering my family’s priceless heirlooms,” Beryl said, which prompted a renewed smile from Alessa, much to the scarred woman’s relief.
“One impossible task at a time, right?” Alessa asked.
“Right,” Beryl said, and smiled back.
It was dark enough inside the vault that it was difficult to see, so Beryl raised a hand in the air. Instantly, a long line of glowstones in cut glass wall sconces sprung to life, casting a warm yellow light across the vault and its contents.
As she surveyed the extent of the Trevanei family fortune, Alessa put her hands on her hips, and let out a low whistle. “Well,” she said, “I can see why they didn’t want to let us in.”
Even Beryl herself was taken aback. As a little girl, she had been told about the vault. But she had never actually been allowed inside, and what she saw now amazed her.
The House Trevanei vault was a massive structure. In front of the two women, a wide, marble hallway, long as a city block, stretched out towards a big, high-ceilinged rotunda. From there, arched doorways offered passage to more hallways of a similar size, all arranged around the central, circular room like spokes around a hub. And, everywhere Beryl’s eye looked, the walls were lined from floor to ceiling with long marble shelves overflowing with treasure. She saw golden goblets, jeweled ceremonial shields, bolts of exquisite silk in every imaginable color. She saw delicately-carved ivory figurines, boxes hewn from the darkest mahogany, statues cut from night-black onyx. It seemed like every luxury her mind could imagine was sitting on one of the vault’s shelves, tucked behind two other incomparable treasures and accumulating a fine layer of dust.
“Well, this explains a lot,” Alessa said, her voice rising, acquiring a ruthless edge to it. “When I first got to this world, I couldn’t figure out how it was that part of the city could seem so rich while most of the people seemed so poor. Now it’s starting to make some sense.”
Beryl sighed. “I know,” she said. She took a loud breath and shook her head. “It may not seem like it, but the Great Houses aren’t all bad. There are some good people in them. They just… well, they just don’t know any better.” She waved a hand at the sea of opulence around her. “You grow up surrounded by all this, and it’s a kind of cocoon. You just assume everybody lives this way. Some people spend their whole lives inside the estate. They don’t realize what it’s like for everyone else, for people who don’t have the benefit of the right name.”
Beryl could feel her jaw clench, and she realized that her hands had formed fists.
“Things are going to change,” she said. “I’m going to strip away the gilding, so that everyone can see the rot underneath.”
With that thought in mind, she started to walk down the corridor towards the central rotunda, feeling a sense of purpose which grew with each stride. Alessa followed along beside her, the teal-eyed woman’s head swiveling from side to side as she made a mental catalog of their glittering surroundings.
Beryl glanced over at Alessa. “I know that thieving is just one of your many interests,” she said. “But, just so that we’re clear, I’ve been taking it for granted that you’re going to burgle this place while we’re here, and that’s fine by me. Just do me one favor? Before we leave, let me look inside your pack, so I can see what you’re taking? You’re welcome to fence as much expensive stuff as you can carry, but there are likely to be things in here which have sentimental value to me, and I’d hate to see them traded away in some back-alley deal when there are plenty of useless baubles which would fetch just as high a price.”
Alessa stopped walking and made a show of acting offended. “Relax,” she said. “I do have some standards. You don’t have to worry about me pinching the family silver. Besides, I’m off the clock.” Then an impish smile crossed her lips, and her teal eyes twinkled. “Of course, if you’re still concerned, you could always search me.” Turning her back to Beryl, she placed her hands behind her head, tilted her body at a coquettish angle, and gave her hips a little shake. “I won’t put up too much of a fight.”
Beryl practically tripped over herself. She opened her mouth to speak, only to discover that her voice had gone missing. When she finally discovered it, her words came out as a kind of dry croak.
“I think we ought to focus on the business at hand,” she said.
Turning back around, Alessa gave a little, exasperated sigh. “You know, you’re turning out to be a lot less fun than I’d hoped,” she said. “We’re going to have to do something about that, too, when we get the chance.” She took one more look around, and her eyes turned wistful. “It really is too bad. I think this would be the second most interesting place that I’ve gotten lucky.”
Somehow, Beryl resisted the urge to ask what the most interesting place was.
The two women continued silently into the circular rotunda, which was dominated by an enormous, open book resting on a massive black marble pedestal.
“Oh good,” Alessa said, her lips drawn up in a smirk. “I always like to sign the guest ledger.”
Beryl didn’t respond, or even seem to acknowledge that the other woman had spoken. Instead, she felt herself drawn inexorably towards the massive, open book, like iron to a lodestone.
The tome was immense. Even holding her arms out to each side, Beryl could not grasp both edges of the book’s broad, illuminated leaves, and it took a small, wheeled ladder at the base of the pedestal to permit access to the top of each tall page. The ancient leather bindings appeared carefully preserved, and the ends of numerous silken ribbons hung down from the book’s bottom edge, each bearing a carefully-lettered label marking some place of importance within the tome’s myriad pages.
It was the Lineage. It contained the history of House Trevanei, dating back to the very founding of the seven Great Houses. Recorded on its pages were every birth, every death, every marriage, and every divorce. Written with a careful hand in the deepest black inks were the names of every single man, woman, and child to bear the name Trevanei.
The book was not magical. Not in a literal sense. But it held power. It held power over life and death. It seemed to hold the very essences of the people whose names were written on its pages. The essence of family. The essence of belonging.
Beryl found herself standing at the foot of the book, and staring up at it with her heart in her throat and her feet frozen in place. She suddenly felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the vault, and the only sound she could hear was that of her own heart.
Slowly, with shaking hands that gripped the railing tightly for support, Beryl climbed the ladder’s dozen steps to the top of the open page. It was not hard to find the line that she was searching for. Even from a distance, it stood out like an open wound.
Beryl placed a trembling finger on the textured fabric of the page, and, as she ran her fingertip across its precisely-inked words, she spoke them aloud almost without meaning to.
“Moira Trevanei,” she read, “first daughter of Gabriella Trevanei, greater matriarch.”
She slid her fingertip down to the next line of text.
“Astria Trevanei,” she read, “first daughter of Moira Trevanei, greater matriarch, High Sorceress, Peeress of the Sacred Hearth.”
Then she slid her fingertip down again, only to feel tears welling in her eye.
The line of text below Astria’s name was gone, blotted out beneath a long, violent stroke from a wide-tipped brush. For a moment, Beryl just stared helplessly at the scar of black ink which had unmade her, which had severed her connection to her mother and sister, which had erased her very existence from the pages of her family history.
“Beryl Trevanei,” she whispered to herself, fighting back tears. “Second daughter of Moira Trevanei.”
Her whole body shook, and she had to sit down on the ladder’s top step, for fear of falling off.
“It doesn’t matter, you know,” she heard Alessa say from the floor below. The teal-eyed woman’s voice was quiet, sympathetic. “It’s just a name in a book. It doesn’t make you who you are.”
“I know,” Beryl said. She wiped the tears from her eye with the hem of her shirt. “But it still hurts.” She gave her head a kind of slow, dazed shake. “Somehow, even after living with it for all these years, I hadn’t realized how much actually seeing it would hurt.”
Then she closed her eye, and remembered what her mother’s reflection had told her:
“You are Beryl Trevanei,” she had said. The reflection’s voice had been decisive and firm. “I gave you my name; it is yours to bear.”
Beryl opened her eye, and she felt as though a part of herself which had been missing for a long, long time had finally been restored.
“You’re right,” she said to Alessa. “It doesn’t matter. I’m my mother’s daughter. No one can take that away from me.”
Alessa arched an eyebrow. “Scandal of all scandals! Was that some self-confidence I just heard coming from you?”
“Might have been,” Beryl said.
Alessa rubbed her hands together. “About damn time,” she said. Then she pointed at the Lineage. “Although, if it would make you feel good to do it, we could just write you back in, seeing as we’re here and everything.” Alessa smiled a wicked smile. “Award yourself some titles while you’re at it. Keeper of the Promise. Tease of the First Order. She Who Stokes the Flames.” At that last suggestion, Alessa waggled her eyebrows.
Beryl laughed, but she shook her head. “I appreciate the sentiment,” she said, as she descended the ladder and hopped back down to the ground. “But I’ll settle for getting my mother’s artifacts.” Beryl scanned her eye over the etched-brass legends posted above the various wings of the vault. “Here, they should be this way.”
She led Alessa down one of the long, marble corridors which housed the personal possessions of the most notable members of House Trevanei, keeping tabs on the brass nameplates affixed to the shelves as they went. Finally, near the opposite end of the hallway, Beryl spotted the notation for “Moira Trevanei,” and she drew up short.
Her mother’s possessions occupied the better part of four or five different shelves. They had been packed up into dark wooden chests with brass fittings and thick leather straps.
“What are we looking for, exactly?” Alessa asked as she slid a chest off of its shelf and set it down on the floor with a solid thunk.
“They’d be inside sealed boxes – probably made of metal, with the two halves joined together to look like a single, solid piece. The boxes will be covered with runes, arranged in a kind of vein-like pattern.” Beryl pulled a chest of her own down from a different shelf. “The seals are made using a very old, very powerful kind of magic. You’ll know them when you see them. You may even feel them before you see them.”
Alessa gave her head a quick nod. Then her teal eyes turned distant, and her pupils seemed to flit rapidly from side to side, as though she were studying some intricate but invisible pattern that only existed somewhere else in time. When returned to the present, her face was unreadable, and she avoided Beryl’s eye.
“You have a lot of history to dig through,” she said quietly.
“What about you?” Beryl asked, suddenly confused.
“Me? I’ll be right back.” For a moment, Alessa’s eyes darted from one floor tile to another. “Let’s just say that I saw some things on the way in that I’m interested in not stealing. In the meantime, why don’t you get cracking?”
Beryl wasn’t quite sure what to make of the sudden change in Alessa’s demeanor. But she wanted to trust the other woman, so she knelt down and undid the latch on the first chest even as Alessa wandered back off the way they had just come.
Slowly, methodically, Beryl started opening her mother’s chests and picking through their contents, one-by-one. The trunks contained an amazing variety of objects, from old history books to personal effects to strange, seemingly random bits of ephemera. In one chest, Beryl found what looked like a whole year’s worth of notes from meetings of the Guild’s governing committee. In another she found a set of beautiful alchemical retorts which she would have given her eyeteeth to have in her shop. All the while, as she sifted through the material remains of her mother’s existence, Beryl found it harder and harder to concentrate on her goal. Instead, she felt the overwhelming urge to just cradle her mother’s things in her hands, to feel their solid, tangible presence beneath her fingertips, as though, merely by holding the objects her mother had once possessed, she could hold on to the woman herself, in a kind of embrace across time and death.
It took more strength than Beryl had expected for her to put those thoughts aside, and to refocus herself on the task at hand.
But, as the opened and examined chests began to pile up on the floor, and the remaining ranks of the unexamined trunks grew thinner and thinner, seemingly the only thing Beryl wasn’t finding inside them were any of her mother’s heartsealed boxes.
“I don’t understand,” she said to Alessa, who had sidled back up next to Beryl just as she closed the lid on the next-to-last trunk. “Her letter said they were here, in the vault. They have to be here. They can’t not be here.”
“Could we be looking in the wrong place?” Alessa asked, as she slid the final trunk down onto the floor. “What I mean is… could she have moved them someplace else?”
Beryl shook her head. “She wouldn’t have done that. She wanted me and Astria to find them.”
In the moment that her sister’s name passed her lips, Beryl felt her muscles grow tense, and a horrible thought bubbled up from the back of her mind.
The green-eyed woman opened the lid of the final trunk. Then, for several seconds, she stared mutely down into its interior.
The chest was empty.
Beryl reached inside, and traced a fingertip across a square indentation in the chest’s wooden bottom, marking where some heavy object had lain undisturbed for a long time. She looked at a similar indentation nearby, then another, then another. She could almost sense the faint, magical residue of the heartseal as a kind of quickening in her pulse, a kind of tugging at the corners of her heart.
“She took them,” Beryl said quietly. She sat down on top of a nearby chest, and for a moment she just held her head in her arms. “Astria took them.”
“You told me that your sister couldn’t break your mother’s seals,” Alessa said. “That’s what she needed you for, right?”
“She can’t break the seals,” Beryl said, shaking her head. “Not by herself, anyway. But, a few months ago, she started rounding up the things my mother had sealed, like the fire diamond which she made me open. She must have taken these, too, put them with the rest of the boxes she stole from the Guild. If things hadn’t gone the way they did? If I hadn’t accidentally crossed the planes?” Beryl shuddered. “I’d probably still be opening those boxes for her, and I would never have been the wiser.”
Beryl stared down into the empty chest one more time. Then she looked back up at Alessa, and a look of understanding dawned across her face.
“You knew, didn’t you?” Beryl said, her green eye searching the teal-eyed woman’s expression for confirmation. “That was what you saw, just before we started looking. You saw that the heartsealed boxes weren’t here.”
Alessa looked away for a moment, then she met Beryl’s eye. “Yes,” she said. “I saw. But this seemed like something you needed to see for yourself. I figured this was something you needed to do.”
Beryl’s eye lingered across the myriad trunks filled with what remained of her mother’s worldly possessions, and, again, she felt the powerful pull of the memories contained therein.
“You’re right,” she said eventually. “It’s just, I wish I hadn’t risked our lives with nothing to show for it.”
“Who said we had nothing to show for it?” Alessa said. She gave Beryl a knowing smirk, before taking a few steps off to one side and lifting up the lid of a nearby trunk. “You know, ever since you mentioned this ceremony that’s happening tomorrow, I’ve been thinking.” Turning her back to Beryl, Alessa gathered something up from inside the chest. “I’ve been thinking that, if you’re going to crash your sister’s fancy-pants coronation, then you ought to at least dress for the occasion.”
Alessa turned around and held out her arms, so that Beryl could see what she was holding.
It was a robe. It was cut from white silk that was so fine and so pure that it seemed to flow like wine as Alessa adjusted the fabric, and it gave off a kind of shimmering, opalescent reflection which shifted from snowy blue to pale orange, depending on the angle at which it caught the light from the glowstones. The rich fabric was brocaded along the seams with a graceful, vine-like pattern in fine golden thread, and the Trevanei seal was embroidered on its front in silver and red.
Beryl closed her eye, and, in her mind, she could picture her mother wearing the robe, radiating a kind of confident, serene beauty. She wasn’t sure if the image she saw was from an actual memory, or whether she was simply imagining it. Either way, it left her speechless.
“I can’t,” Beryl said as she reached out and took the robe from Alessa, feeling the slippery-smooth silk between her fingers. For how tightly-woven the fabric was, the gown was startlingly light. She stared down at the robe, feeling almost mesmerized by the way that the light seemed to change color as it played across the robe’s surface. “I just can’t. I mean… just look at it. This is for a High Sorceress, or a great matriarch, or someone like that. I’ve never worn anything like this in my life. It’s…”
Beryl’s voice trailed off for a moment.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“That’s why it shouldn’t be locked away down here,” Alessa said, her voice insistent. “That’s why you ought to wear it.” She waved a hand out in front of her. “Come on, try it on.”
Beryl hesitated for a moment. But then she opened the robe’s front and slipped it over her shoulders, sliding her arms through the sleeves and smoothing-out the embroidered seal over the left side of her chest. She gathered up the ends of the braided gold sash and tied them together, cinching the robe snugly around her waist.
Beryl had no clue how a robe like that was supposed to fit. But, somehow, she just felt like it did.
She held her arms out to her sides, and looked down at herself, feeling almost unsure what to make of the person she saw.
Alessa tilted her head slightly to one side, and gave Beryl a practiced, appraising look. “Normally I don’t like white,” the teal-eyed woman said. “It’s got this virginal, matrimonial vibe that puts me on edge. That, plus it clashes with pale skin. But on you? It works. It really brings out the green in your eye.” Alessa’s eyes danced. “I could just eat you up.”
“How do I look?” Beryl said, turning herself around in a slow circle.
“You look like you were born to wear it,” Alessa said.
Beryl felt her face break out into a big, unguarded smile.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Don’t mention it,” Alessa said. She nodded her head in the direction of the chest which she’d taken the robe out of. “You should take a look in here. There’s some shoes and jewelry, too. Now that you’re dressed to thrill, we might as well complete the ensemble – a lady has to know how to accessorize, after all.”
Beryl walked over to the indicated trunk and peered down. She had just reached inside and started to sift through the chest’s contents when something caught her eye, and her hand froze in place.
It was a necklace. It was a simple, pendant necklace, with a tiny, heart-shaped ornament made from red blown glass hanging from a thin gold chain.
Silently, Beryl closed her hand around the necklace and picked it up. She held it out in front of her and opened her palm, and for a long time she just stared down at the object in her hand, as memories and emotions surged up within her. She touched the little glass heart – it was barely bigger than the tip of her finger.
“What’s that?” Alessa asked, a curious expression on her face.
“It’s something from the past,” Beryl said. “Something I thought had been lost.”
Alessa looked confused. “It’s not magic,” she said.
Beryl shook her head. “No, it’s not magic,” she said. “It’s more powerful than that.” She closed her hand around the necklace. “To me, this is more powerful than a thousand fire diamonds.”
She slipped her hand inside the folds of her robe, and slipped the little glass necklace into her pocket. Then she looked back up at Alessa.
“Let’s go,” Beryl said, and there was a flash of determination in her good, green eye. “I already have what I need to stop Astria.”
* * *
The next day, as morning light broke in through the high, domed skylight of the vault’s rotunda, it set all the gold to glittering, and it illuminated the broad pages of the ancient, imposing Lineage.
As the golden sunshine crept its way through the vault, it cast light upon no trace of the previous night’s intruders, save for one.
At the top of the Lineage’s open page, next to the blacked-out spot where a name had once been stricken from memory, a fresh annotation had been inked in the margin.
“Beryl Trevanei,” it said, written in a firm, defiant hand. “And don’t ever forget it!”
Alessa Rehn and The Duchess are original characters created by Barinellos for the Expanded Multiverse.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.