“I wanted to apologise,” she remarked, raising her knife. “But then I thought that it wouldn’t really mean much, would it?”
The girl watched, unmoving, as the blade lashed towards her chest.
* * *
“And this is the Velar Halls,” their guide narrated. “An educational establishment for young aristocrats, similar to your own academies…”
Yuothos flicked her delicate pink wings irritably, in the hopes that the verbose woman would take the hint. I’m not Fantinos. You silly little hussy. Out loud she said, “Inspired by the Church Estalier’s academies would be closer to the truth, I’d say.”
The guide just offered a glazed smile to that remark and carried on. Yuothos scowled and shook out her long black hair irritably. She closed her eyes and listened to something pointless about founding years and competition for places as they walked down another corridor. She only opened them when Yvalé kicked her on the shin. Looking that way, she saw a pretty girl of perhaps twelve, sitting on the steps in front of them with her head in her hands. But her posture radiated hostility, not sadness. Completely ignoring the guide, Yuothos walked towards her.
“Who are you?” Yuothos asked, kneeling down to come face to face with the girl.
“Go away!” the girl ordered fiercely.
“Look at me,” Yuothos ordered, even more forcefully.
The girl looked at her, eyes widening. She was pretty. Yuothos, with the advantage of three years, was beautiful. Her skin was pale, her eyes dark, her attire mannish but her features womanly. She dressed in black, with the matching cloak held in place by a silver broach, clasping an amber jewel.
“You have golden eyes,” Yuothos noted.
“We were taught the Fantinos women weren’t allowed to dress like that,” the girl said.
“I’m not a Fantinos,” Yuothos said, though that was hardly an answer. Somewhere behind her Yvalé was probably holding off a confused tour guide. Thank the gods for her.
“You have wings,” the girl said. Whatever her misery was, it was certainly dispelled for now.
“I have wings,” Yuothos agreed. “I’m a Feyrie.”
“They’re all dead,” the girl said callously.
“Evidently I survived. What’s your name?”
“Moirae,” the girl said. “Who are you?”
“I haven’t heard of you.” It sounded like an accusation.
“Then you don’t listen very hard.”
“Except you’re a diplomat and we have to be polite and not disturb you,” Moirae continued.
“That’s boring,” Yuothos said.
“Everything’s boring around here,” Moirae said. “And it didn’t work, either. That’s not fair.” Suddenly she reached out and touched the jewel-broach Yuothos wore. “What’s that?”
Her eyes widened for a moment, then Yuothos snatched her hand away. “Don’t touch that,” she said.
“What is it?”
“It’s called the Eye of Gehath,” Yuothos said.
“I saw pictures…” the girl muttered.
“I’m a beautiful, mysterious stranger,” Yuothos said. “Didn’t they teach you not to talk to strangers?”
“What is it?” Moirae demanded impatiently.
“Nothing you need to know about,” Yuothos retorted. She managed to deter the girl again before probing hands reached the knife at her belt. Now that would endanger the little Gordi. “And keep your hands to yourself.”
“Boring,” Moirae complained, stretching impatiently. “Nothing exiting ever happens here, ever. I hate it here.”
“We should go,” Yvalé advised.
Yuothos was surprised to hear a slight apprehension in her bodyguard’s voice. I thought I’d pulled the superstition out of her. Ignoring the comment, she shrugged. “When life is boring, you have to make it interesting. That’s what I do. Work out what you want, and get it.”
“I don’t want anything this place has,” the girl said sourly. “Relieve the daily tedium around here and they make you suffer for it.”
“You’re a petulant one, aren’t you,” Yuothos observed. “I thought all Gordi were dour and unsmiling, if you’ll excuse the racism.”
“I was referring to them, not the girl,” Yvalé said.
Yuothos span her head and stared.
“That’s the problem,” Moirae said impatiently. “It means nothing interesting ever happens.”
She was interrupted by the sound of a dozen rifles being cocked.
Yuothos looked the battle machines up and down- grey metal-clad figures that could pass for battlesuits if it wasn’t for the fact that there was no human under there. Ansible Soldiers. “Can we help you?” she asked. But she drew her knife anyway. It seemed a ridiculous little toy to set against the rifles of her apparent enemy. Yvalé, deciding the range was too short for her bow, drew a thin sword made of the same black metal as the knife. Moirae just gaped as the sides faced off, then the remotely operated soldiers opened fire. For a hideous moment, she watched as the two girls were brutally cut down. But then the slain ones faded, illusion blurring their unharmed lightning advance.
Yvalé struck first, shots slashing into her doubles while the real her was untouched, her blade slashing into a soldier’s neck. To Moirae’s surprise, the sword slashed clean through without even slowing down, decapitating and blinding the machine. Yuothos’ knife lacked the same length but seemed just as deadly- and her one outstretched arm was the source of the mind-bending images that masked the two fighters. She slashed one open at the neck, then tore the cabling at its elbow, before lashing past and slicing the antenna off another’s back, instantly felling the remote machine. But it was Yvalé who did most of the brutal work, cutting clean through enemies with dazzlingly fast motions. By the time the soldiers had orientated themselves to the illusions most were dead- and the two teenage girls came at the rest with deadly assurance, hacking them apart in a few heartbeats.
“Damn,” Yuothos said, breathing heavily. She sheathed her knife as Yvalé pulled the sword free with an idle tug. “Less than ideal.”
“We’d better get out of here,” her bodyguard replied. “They’ll probably be booting up secondary suits now.”
“Did they really think they could kill me with a dozen grunts?” Yuothos asked. She glanced at the cowering guide, then darted forwards and punched her in the face, knocking the woman unconscious. “Oh, I enjoyed doing that.”
“We are not always apparent, are we? I’m not sure whether those we live rounds, either.” Yvalé said, still holding her sword. “Nonetheless, we should go.”
“I know.” Yuothos said, walking towards her.
That was when Moirae found her tongue. She ran towards Yuothos, grabbing her arm weakly. “I have to come with you,” she said.
“No,” Yuothos said firmly. “I am in danger and will deal with it as I always do. I’m not going to be slowed down by anyone.”
“But that’s it,” the girl said. “They aren’t after you. They’re after me.”
Yuothos blinked. “How do you know?”
“I just do,” the girl said. “Please, please, you must protect me! I just know they want me dead!” All the earlier petulance and anger was replaced by a very real-sounding fear.
“That makes no sense,” Yuothos said slowly.
“Them trying to assassinate you doesn’t make much more sense,” Yvalé said. Seeing the girl’s head was safely buried in Yuothos’ chest, she indicated her eyes.
Yuothos nodded slightly. With one hand cradling Moirae, the other found the Eye of Gehath. A few second’s echoing silence… “Okay, let’s go.”
“I know the way to the hangers from here,” Yvalé said, hurriedly leading the way. “We cut down anything that crosses our path.”
“How does the sword work?” Moirae asked.
Yuothos scowled. Evidently that damned curiosity was resurfacing. “Magic,” she said. “That also explains why I can make people see things that aren’t there and hide things that are there. I’ll give you a better explanation for both later. Or you can pretend it’s a monofilament blade, which is another useful lie.”
“What’s a monofilament blade?”
“Rytha help me,” Yuothos said. “Look, the sword can cut through anything because.”
“Is it to do with Unreality?” Moirae asked.
Yuothos blinked. “Yes, actually. Just a little, it’s not a demonsword or anything.”
If anything, Moirae looked disappointed at that.
They’d got a fair way through the citadel without encountering anything more than bemused functionaries and Yuothos was just daring to think that they’d make it all the way when they were intercepted by Reparan, the Gordi diplomat. “Lady Adrevini,” he said. “Please, I cannot apologise enough. There has been a terrible mistake!”
“You failed to kill me, you mean,” Yuothos said, in full glacial princess mode.
“Those soldiers were not tasked to kill you,” Reparan said, talking fast. “They were sent to seize that girl, that is all. I swear it. The runners were ignorant and overzealous, and will be executed for their crimes. If there is anything else we can do, anything at all…”
Yuothos considered this. “You abandon your claim on the girl’s life,” she said.
Reparan hesitated for a moment, then remembered the alternative. “Of course,” he said.
“And don’t execute the runners, either,” she said. “There wouldn’t be much point.”
“You are merciful,” Reparan mumbled.
“For now I chose to be!” Yuothos said. “I won’t be so kind next time.”
“And Her?” Yvalé asked.
“I think she’ll have to come with us,” Yuothos said.
* * *
“Ayla, Meri,” Yuothos said, waving in greeting.
“Ayla, my lady,” the woman said enthusiastically. “Come in. Wine?”
“No thanks,” Yuothos said. “You know I value a clear head.”
“You can’t be weaker headed than most Fantinos,” Meri said. “And they down it like water, the strange children. We completed that dress you ordered.”
“I received it at the Duke’s, yes,” Yuothos said. “Excellent work, as ever.”
“The Duke is well?” Meri asked politely.
“Of course,” Yuothos said. “He’ll be leaving for the frontlines soon, which is a shame at his age. But you know him and duty.”
“You should dissuade him,” the woman said.
“I’ve tried,” Yuothos admitted. “But he is firm at unexpected moments. In any case, the bridge of a battleship is safe enough.”
“I hope so,” Mari said.
“Now, this is Moirae,” Yuothos said, shepherding the girl forwards. “Somewhat under my wing at the moment.”
Mari examined the child with the air of one deciding whether to buy a horse, but seemed to approve. “I see. If Gyverus continues like this, you’ll have adopted an army.”
“Just me and now her,” Yuothos said testily. “I don’t think it should be so novel. In any case, I want her out of these rags and into something civilised. Money is, as ever, no object.”
“You are a woman of good taste,” Mari flattered. “We’ll attend to it at once.” She gestured for an aide to flutter off and summon some of the tailors, then lead them into one of the spacious fitting rooms. She looked at Moirae again, this time with the air of an artist.
“You’re a Libran,” the girl said, staring back.
“The dresscodes can be damned as well,” Yuothos said. “She isn’t a dress girl either.”
“Quite,” Mali said. “And she has those so very unusual eyes.”
“One mention of old legends…” Yuothos warned with a smile.
“I don’t believe in old legends,” Mali said. “But I believe in the belief of others, yes? In any case; a Gordi girl amongst the Fantinos aristocracy, protégé of the infamous and enigmatic Yuothos Adrevini and marked by golden eyes? It is already a beautiful picture. We merely have to play that mystique up.”
“Can we talk as if I’m here?” Moirae asked.
Mali walked behind her and touched her hair. “And we cut that back to the neck, I think. She suits a stern projection.”
“I like my hair long!”
“You’re far too sarcastic to have long hair,” Yuothos chided.
“That makes no sense,” Moirae complained.
“It’s a matter of style,” Yuothos said. She turned to Mali again. “Now, we’ll need something interesting but hard-wearing for everyday. A Kirun look, as with me, I think. Several of those outfits. And something else for formal occasions, but I can’t see her in a dress or gown even then…”
“Don’t worry,” Mali said. “I know just the designs. We can go through some basic forms while my subordinates get the measurement done.”
“This is not fair!” But Yuothos had already walked off, and she didn’t get much further into her complaints before being accosted by tape measures. Yvalé just waved and followed her mistress.
* * *
“Ravel made those gloves,” Yuothos said, passing them over to Moirae.
“I don’t understand the man,” Yvalé said. “He’s the supreme leader but he still finds time to make this stuff in under two hours?”
“Must be the Artificer in him,” Yuothos said. “I think he finds it a pleasant distraction from his usual work, provided the project is unusual enough.”
Moirae put them on, clenching her fists experimentally. “How does it work?”
“The metal shards worked into the leather are thought resonant,” Yuothos said. “They expand slightly and meet each other to form a smooth hard surface when needed- magic again, really. That said, I’ve no idea why you’ll ever need that. And the metal is horribly expensive and rare- but this is Ravel we’re talking about, so that’s not an issue.”
“I don’t know,” Moirae said. “It just… came to me.”
“I don’t trust that kind of thing,” Yuothos said. “Sounds destined. But if nothing else, the gloves go well with your new clothes.”
Moirae just pouted. But she had to admit, looking in the mirror, that she looked a lot more formidable now. Someone you could take seriously, age regardless. “Did you have to cut my hair?”
“It looks better short,” Yuothos said. “Once I’ve taught you to fake being sweet and innocent, then we can see.”
“You make no sense at all sometimes,” Moirae complained.
“All the time, I should hope. In any case, I’m going to do some reading in the Recondite Archive,” Yuothos said. “You can do what you please.”
“I’ll come with you,” Moirae said.
Yuothos cocked her head. “It takes a certain kind of person to be interested by the Archive,” she warned.
“There’s something I want to try and find,” Moirae said innocently.
* * *
The personal library of the Novas family, the Archive was vast. But Yuothos moved through it easily, apparently at home amongst the towering shelves and ancient books. To have access to this place at all- that was another riddle in the conundrum that was Yuothos Adrevini. In any case, she stopped somewhere in the centre of the maze-like structure, running her hands over various books, before selecting a few. Moirae craned to see some of the titles, but most were in languages that she didn’t understand- certainly not Fantinian. A green-bound book marked with nothing but a golden circle, another with no marks at all, and a third with a long title in what looked a little like Libran. Yuothos sat at a table, placing them before her. “These books contain, if not actual forbidden knowledge, highly restricted knowledge. You can read some if you like, but bear in mind both that trying to execute any of these texts is strictly forbidden and that you probably won’t be able to read them.”
Moirae, staring at the books, felt mixed emotions. Yuothos had taken her exactly where she’d wanted to go- of that, she was sure. Unfortunately, now she was here, she couldn’t make anything of it. She ground her teeth in frustration. “Can you read the books?” she asked.
“Of course,” Yuothos said. “I speak, write and read in fifteen languages fluently. These are no challenge.” Another of her quirks.
“Then can I borrow the Eye?” Moirae asked.
Yuothos looked at her sharply.
“Just to read,” the girl said. “That’s all, I swear. It can do that, can’t it?”
“Of course,” Yuothos said. She appeared to be in two minds about it. “Very well. Be excessively careful and use it for nothing other than understanding the words on the page. Remember it is dangerous.” She unbuckled her cloak and passed it over to Moirae.
Amazed that she’d succeeded, Moirae put it on, and stared at the books with new-found comprehension. Insofar as she could sense the muted sentience of the jewel, it was annoyed at being used for such a trivial purpose- but Yuothos had plainly blocked out its more spectacular capabilities.
She selected a book titled Sourcery of Unreality, and settled down to read. It spoke to her, and the simple words whispered to her very soul. Oh, yes.
Unreality is the ultimate firmament, the final source of infinity. From its chaos, all things have come, and to its pyre of souls all things will return. Gods and men alike begin here. Gods and men alike end here. It is the finality that underpins all things, and by its very boundless nature it can create or destroy in equal measure. However, it is a plane of intentions and forces far beyond mortality, a boundless force that not even the gods can control. But it is still possible for mortals to reach out to this power, and it accepts all in its way. This is written by one with no birthright, one blessed by no god, no avatar and no ancient prophecy. There is no power that offers more to anyone who dares to seek, and no power that takes more away…
Moirae didn’t feel, exactly, like she was learning something knew. It was as if she’d learned all this long ago, but had forgotten it, and that this was jogging her memory. She had an irrational sensation, as well, that some of the facts described were wrong, and that she knew the truth. It was a ridiculous thought, but one she couldn’t quite shake off… even back then, and then it had nearly killed her. This was a dangerous path. But she couldn’t not walk it.