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PostPosted: Mon May 18, 2015 1:10 pm 
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Complications
by OrcishLibrarian
Status: Public :diamond:

Beryl's search for help was unexpectedly short.


She had been prepared for a long, difficult process when she started to make inquiries – discretely, this time, she hoped. Fisco’s admonishment was still fresh in her mind, as was the painful outcome of her last attempt to find someone who didn’t want to be found.


Only it seemed like the thief didn’t particularly care about being found or not.


Beryl hadn't been sure where to start, so she followed the only lead she could think of, making small inquiries in taverns and gambling dens in the area around where the incident had occurred, and she was only on her third stop when she came across a host who recognized the description which she had pieced together from notices on the City Watch boards. A strange, almost wistful look had formed on his face, and he had sighed a little sigh. Then he had given the scarred woman directions to where the person she was looking for was staying.


Which was why, as Beryl stood outside the door to the shuttered horologist’s workshop in an out-of-favor section of the Market District, she couldn’t quite shake the notion that it had all been too easy.


Then again, she had been getting that feeling a lot as of late. There were many things which were happening around her – to her – which she couldn’t figure out. Too many.


Maybe the thief could help her get some answers.


The hour was early enough that Beryl mostly had the street to herself; a slight chill from the previous night had obviously discouraged people from venturing out any earlier than absolutely necessary. On top of that, the light of the early dawn was still struggling to rise above even the low roofs of this district. The horologist’s workshop was unusual for its neighborhood: a tall, stone building with long, frosted-glass windows running the length of its walls just below the eaves. The windows were too far above the street to see in or out of, so Beryl assumed that their sole purpose was to allow light into the workspace. A differently-colored patch of stone above the shop’s vaulted wooden door marked where the previous occupant’s sign had been removed.


A printed notice tacked to the front of the door informed any passersby that the property had been seized by the Bank of House Dentevi for non-payment of rent. Seeing the jeweled bird of House Dentevi on the notice only deepened Beryl’s anxiety.


Still, she was not about to turn back. She raised up her hand, made a fist – and was interrupted before she could even knock.


“The door’s unlocked,” a woman’s voice echoed from within. “You'll catch a cold if you keep standing out there.”


Beryl frowned, feeling strangely out of sorts as she put her hand on the door’s heavy knob. Sure enough, it turned easily in her grasp. She closed her eye and took a long, calming breath to prepare herself for whatever might be waiting on the other side. Then she opened her eye, opened the door, and stepped inside.


The space inside was open, airy, and basically empty. Morning light filtered in through the high windows and cast long shadows across a few pieces of furniture clustered haphazardly around the room. Along the far wall there were a number of what looked like worktables, likely leftover from whenever the bank had closed the shop down. Instead of gears and cogs, though, they were stacked with other, more esoteric devices – including magical artifacts, Beryl realized with a start, and powerful ones at that.


There was a round wooden table in the center of the room with three chairs grouped around it, one of which lay on its side on the cool stone floor. The surface of the table was covered with playing cards – or, at least, that was what Beryl assumed they were. The cards were the right shape and size for it, but their ranks and suits were unlike any Beryl had ever seen. In fact, the cards were numerous enough for Beryl to realize that they might even belong to more than one deck. Empty green glass bottles were scattered on the floor at the base of two of the three chairs, along with various bits of men’s and women’s clothing. A solitary suede loafer and a man’s braided leather belt were beneath the table, as though someone had kicked them there. A silk blouse lay bunched-up on the table, and what looked very much like a ribbed corset hung by one of its strings from the corner of a chair. Beryl felt less than shocked when yet another corset caught her eye. This one was dangling from the rafters far above, and she just stood and stared at it for several seconds as she tried to imagine how it had gotten up there.


Apart from the tables, a sleigh bed was tucked into a different corner of the room, although it appeared to be in a similar state of disarray. Its sheets were a tangled mess, and there seemed to be more pillows on the floor than on the bed itself. Yet more clothing was scattered across the bed’s surface and on the ground around it. A canvas pack hung from the headboard.


Beryl had to pause for a moment to take the whole scene in. It looked as though a small tornado had blown through the room. A fun tornado, apparently. But a tornado nonetheless.


Feeling a bit at a loss amid the surrounding mayhem, Beryl wandered over to the nearest of the aged worktables. A dark, teardrop-shaped stone floated miraculously above the surface. Even as she watched, the stone pulsed with an inner violet light and a dark, powerful energy.


“I wouldn't touch that,” the voice from before said.


Beryl jumped in surprise and spun to her blind side. There she saw a woman standing in front of a small, mirrored dressing table with a washbasin on its top. The woman had short, dark hair which fell just about to her chin. The angular, slightly-asymmetrical cut of her hair complimented the soft features of her narrow face. In the mirror, her mouth was drawn up into an amused smirk, and her bright, teal-colored eyes regarded Beryl with unconcealed interest as she finished wiping her forehead with a damp cloth, which she dropped back into the washbasin with a splash.


The woman’s skin was pale; that was easy for Beryl to notice because, except for a small, owl-shaped pendant which she wore around her neck on a simple silver chain, the woman was completely naked.


Beryl’s mouth dropped slightly open, and her cheeks flushed red. Realizing that she was staring, she quickly looked down at her own feet.


She heard the woman laugh.


“Oh, come on,” the woman said, her tone of voice teasing. “Don’t act so shocked. It’s not like I’ve got anything you haven’t got.” The woman snickered again. “Except maybe some freckles in interesting places, but I’d have to get a much closer look at you to know for sure.”


“I’m sorry,” Beryl said to the tops of her hobnail boots. “I thought I heard you say to come in.”


“Oh, there's nothing wrong with your ears,” the woman said. “I invited you in.”


Beryl heard the woman’s bare feet walking quietly across the floor in the direction of the bed. Then she heard sheets rustling as the other woman presumably searched around for some clothes.


“I was surprised at how easy you were to find,” Beryl said, scrambling for something to talk about while she waited for the other woman to dress. “And you leave your door unlocked? What if I had been the City Watch?”


The woman made a dismissive noise. “My door was unlocked because I unlocked it once I knew you were coming,” she said.


Beryl ventured a quick glance up. The woman had pulled on a sleeveless purple top and was hopping a bit on one foot as she slipped into a pair of leather trousers.


“Besides, as dumb as your City Watch is – and, believe me, they are plenty dumb – I doubt they’ll find me. Especially after what happened the last time they found me,” the woman said. An edge had appeared in her voice. “I’m not hiding from them. If anything, they ought to be hiding from me.”


The woman looked down at herself and frowned. The pants she had put on were much too big around the waist, and their cuffs were bunched up on the floor around her feet.


“Well, that’s not right.” Holding the pants up with her hands, she turned to face Beryl. “Do me a favor, would you?” she asked. “Do you see a pair of women’s pants over where you are? Or, barring that, a man’s belt?”


Beryl remembered the belt she had seen under the table. As she bent down to pick it up, though, she noticed another pair of leather trousers tangled up in the legs of the overturned chair. After untangling them, she held the pants up in the air.


“Those would be the ones,” the woman said. “Toss them here, would you?”


Beryl tossed the pants over to the other woman.


“Would you mind if I sat down?” Beryl asked. So far, things had not gone as she had imagined. For that matter, nothing about this woman matched what she was expecting.


“Feel free,” the woman said as she let the ill-fitting pants fall to the floor and put on the pair which Beryl had retrieved.


Beryl picked up the toppled chair from the floor, righted it, and sat down on it. Moments later, the other woman sat down across the table from her. Beryl could feel the woman’s bright teal eyes assessing her; she tried to sit still and look relaxed, despite feeling anything but.


After a second which felt like a minute, the woman nodded. A smile formed around the corners of her lips, and she brushed a renegade strand of hair away from her eyes.


“Since we’ve been introduced, after a fashion, I suppose we should make it official. My name’s Alessa,” she said. “What’s yours?”


“Beryl,” Beryl said.


Alessa nodded in acknowledgement. Then, for a moment, she simply studied Beryl's face, curiosity plain on her features. Finally, she held her hand up in front of her own forehead, and she waved it vaguely around her eye.


“So, how did all that happen?”


Beryl flinched slightly, jarred from her own thoughts. The question took her by surprise.


“Most people don’t ask me that,” she said.


Alessa shrugged. “They don’t ask,” she said, “but everyone wants to. So they make up their own stories instead of just asking.” Alessa rolled her eyes and snorted. “In my book, that’s worse. You don’t have to tell me, if you don't want to, but I’m curious. I like scars.”


Beryl was quiet for a moment. “I know,” she said. “I see how people look at me. I can feel them staring at me when they think I won't notice.” She closed her good eye as she thought about how to explain. “When I was young, I made a mistake,” she said. “I cast a spell that I didn't mean to. I hurt someone, and I burned myself.” There was another moment of silence, before Beryl opened her eye again and cleared her throat. “But don’t you want to know why I came to see you?”


That question drew a smirk from Alessa. “I already know why you came to see me,” she said. She started to pick up the playing cards from the table and stack them together into their respective decks. Once she was finished, she gave one of them a deft, practiced shuffle before placing it back down on the table.


Beryl regarded the other woman with renewed curiosity, tinged with a little caution. “How do you know? Can you read minds?”


The other woman leaned back in her chair and shook her head. “Not really,” she said. “Right neighborhood, wrong address. But that’s not why you’re interested in me, is it?”


“No,” Beryl said.


“Why are you interested in me, then?”


“I’m interested in you because you’re a thief,” Beryl said.


“I prefer the term ‘ne’er-do-well.’ It’s more fun,” Alessa said. “But, yes, I’m a thief, though that’s not my only talent. What about you, though? You still haven’t actually said what you want.”


“But I thought you said you already knew?” Beryl asked. She frowned a little as she regarded the other woman.


“Sort of, but it’s complicated,” Alessa said as she rolled her eyes, though her lips were still drawn up in a smile. “Besides, I’d rather hear it from you. Humor me?”


Beryl looked across the table at Alessa, who stared back at her with a bemused look on her face, and she knew that a moment of decision had arrived. She had to make a choice about whether or not to trust the teal-eyed woman. Her record on those sorts of decisions was patchy at best, especially of late.


Nevertheless, after a moment’s consideration, Beryl decided to trust her instincts one more time, and to place her bet on the woman across the table.


Beryl stood up, swung her pack off of her back, and set it down on the table. Then she undid the pack’s buckles, opened its top, and pulled out an enameled-silver strongbox in the shape of a seven-pointed star, which she placed down on the table in front of the self-proclaimed ne’er-do-well.


Alessa picked the box up and held it in her hands, like an appraiser assessing its value.


“Pretty,” she said. “I take it for granted that it isn’t yours?”


Beryl shook her head. “Can you open it?” she asked.


Alessa set the box back down. “Without even breaking a sweat,” she said. “But you hardly need me for that. There must be a dozen people within shouting distance of here who could do it. Hell, there’s a locksmith just a few doors down. I’m sure he’d help if you asked nicely.” She winked at Beryl. “So, why come to me?”


“Because I can’t trust anyone in this city,” Beryl said. She sighed, and she rubbed at her good eye. “I’ve managed to make some very powerful people very angry. The people who own this building you’re squatting in, for starters. And now my sister, too.”


“Okay, first, I'm not squatting. I am discreetly renting – strictly off the books.”


Beryl wasn’t sure how much of a distinction that was, but she didn’t want to press the point.


"Second,” Alessa continued, nodding at the strongbox, “I’m assuming this belongs to your sister?”


With a sigh, Beryl nodded back. “Astria has a network of spies and informers all over the city. Even if I found someone who was willing to help me, I couldn’t trust that they wouldn’t turn me in to my sister. But you? You’re obviously not from around here. And that means that there’s no chance my sister has her claws in you.” Beryl fell silent for a moment. “Well, almost no chance, anyway. That’s why I need you to help me. You’re practically my only hope.”


Alessa’s eyes narrowed to slits and a suspicious expression marred her face. Again, Beryl felt herself being examined.


“What makes you so sure I’m not from around here?” Alessa asked. The question was not hostile, but Beryl could detect a distinctly cautious tone in the other woman’s voice.


For the first time since entering the abandoned workshop, Beryl smiled.


“Well, for starters,” she said, “no one who grew up here would have been crazy enough to steal what you stole. Robbing the High Sorceress’s Gallery? I doubt you could get the seven Great Houses to agree on anything, but you managed to get all of them angry at you. Not to mention the Guild, or the Court, or the City Watch.” Beryl laughed a little bit. “I mean, I know you can look out for yourself – clearly, you can look out for yourself. But, still, only someone who didn’t understand how power works in this city would have done that. Either that,” Beryl said, “or someone who knew that they could leave if they wanted to. Leave and just ‘walk away.”


Alessa shrugged.


“I wondered if that was what you meant,” she said, and Beryl saw a flash of recognition in her teal eyes. “But then, I suppose it takes one to know one, doesn’t it?”


Slowly, Beryl nodded back.


Alessa looked Beryl up and down for just long enough to make the scarred woman feel uncomfortable. Then she tapped a finger on the top of Astria’s strongbox. “Well, now that we have that out of the way, maybe you’ll tell me why you’re so eager to peek inside your sister’s things.”


“Supposedly, there’s a letter inside that box,” Beryl said. “A letter which my mother wrote me, and which my sister was supposed to give to me, except that she didn’t.” Beryl could hear her voice turn pleading as she tried to explain to the other woman what she barely understood herself. “Something is happening on this world. Something big, and something very dangerous, and somehow my sister is involved. I don’t know what she’s mixed-up in, but I do know that I have to stop it. Supposedly, the letter will help me to know what to do.”


Alessa looked skeptical. “There was a whole lot of ‘supposedly’ in that sentence,” she said.


“I know,” Beryl said. “Believe me, I know how crazy this all sounds. Maybe it is crazy. But I have to find out. If my mother really left me a letter, then I have to see it. I just have to.” Beryl’s eye turned up towards the ceiling. “I wish I knew how to make you understand. I wish I could explain how much this matters, and why. But I can’t.” She looked back down at Alessa, trying to convey the importance of her request in her voice. “All I can do is ask you to help me. Beg you, even, if that’s what it takes.”


Alessa seemed to consider that for a moment before she spoke.


“So, if I do you this favor,” she asked, cocking her head slightly to one side as she spoke, “what’s in it for me?”


Beryl felt her heart sink. That was a question she’d heard a lot recently, and it wasn’t getting any easier to answer.


“My sister keeps some of her most valuable possessions in that strongbox,” she said. “Things that hold great power, things which have been in my family for generations. If you open the box for me, I’ll give you whatever you want from inside.”


Alessa arched an eyebrow. “For someone who’s so concerned about family history, you’re awfully eager to give away your heirlooms.”


Beryl was silent for a moment. She looked down at her hands. “I don’t have any choice,” she said. “I have to see that letter, but I don’t have anything of my own to offer you.”


Alessa gave her head a quick, sharp shake. “I don’t work on spec,” she said. “Besides, possessions aren't something I have any trouble laying my hands on. Come on, get creative. Everyone has something.”


Beryl closed her eye. Her head drooped down, and she covered her mouth with one hand. The only thing she had was herself, and she had already promised herself to Fisco Vane in exchange for his help. That arrangement had left her feeling uneasy enough. Could she really give another stranger that kind of power over her, the right to claim a little bit of her soul?


Beryl’s hand fell away from her mouth and her head rose back up. She opened her eye. She had known the answer to her own question before she had even asked it.


She looked the other woman in her bright teal eyes, and she said:


“Name your price. Anything you want, you can have. Anything you want me to do, I’ll do it.” Her voice was quiet, but determined. “I’ll do anything.”


The other woman regarded Beryl with curiosity.


“I think you actually mean that,” she said. “I mean, I hear that sort of thing a lot – a lot – and most of the people who say it, they don’t really mean it.” She leaned towards the scarred woman, never breaking eye contact. “But I almost think you do.”


Beryl nodded her head.


“This is really that important, is it? To you, anyway?”


Beryl nodded her head again. “Yes. It is.”


Beryl saw a smile form around the corners of Alessa’s mouth, as the other woman seemed to make up her mind about something.


“A kiss,” Alessa said.


Beryl felt herself straighten up slightly, and her eye widened a bit. “I’m sorry?” she said, confused.


“You said you’d do anything,” Alessa said, an impish smile forming on her lips as she stood up and stepped around the table, so that the two women stood only a short pace apart. “You said name my price. Well, that’s my price: a kiss. For starters, at least.”


There was a twinkle in her eyes as she spoke. It had a mischievous quality to it, but that wasn’t its only component. There was more than just mischief in those teal eyes.


“Give me a kiss, and I’ll open your box for you.” Alessa leaned in close and placed a soft hand at the base of Beryl’s neck. “What do you say?”


Beryl suddenly felt as though all the blood in her body had rushed up into her face. Her cheeks burned, and she realized that she was holding her breath. She had to force herself to exhale.


“I… I…” she said. She had to look away from the other woman before her voice would function. “I mean, if that’s what you want?”


“Well, something else, some other time, maybe. But for now? A kiss is what I want,” Alessa said. Her hand slid up to rest behind Beryl’s head. Their faces were just inches apart. “The question is, is it what you want?”


Beryl opened her mouth to speak, but her tongue was incapable of forming words. So she gave up on trying to talk.


Instead, she leaned forward and kissed the other woman.


Beryl’s movements were quick and awkward – she brushed her own lips briefly against Alessa’s, holding the position just long enough to register the warmth of the other woman’s skin against hers, to feel a single exhalation of the other woman’s breath, before she drew back and immediately cast her own eye down to the ground. Her head felt like it was swimming, and her knees felt weak.


When she finally looked back up, she saw Alessa staring back at her with her arms crossed in front of her chest and an incredulous expression on her face.


“I’m trying hard not to be insulted right now,” the teal-eyed woman said, giving her head a little shake. “But it’s tough.”


Beryl felt a surge of panic shoot through her body. “I’m sorry,” she stammered. “It’s just that, well, I’ve never done that before.”


“What, you’ve never kissed another girl before?” Alessa gave Beryl a put-upon look. “I thought people on this plane were less hung up about that sort of thing.”


“No, it’s not that,” Beryl said. She could feel herself blushing so intensely that she worried it must be making her look absurd. “I mean, I’ve never kissed anyone before.”


Alessa’s expression changed to one of surprise and disbelief. “You’ve never kissed anyone?”


Beryl shook her head.


“No one at all?”


Beryl shook her head again.


“You’re pulling my leg.”


Beryl shook her head one more time. “I was locked up when I was very small,” she said. Her voice had grown small and timorous as a wave of bad memories came flooding back. “I was locked up for a very long time. And, even once I got out, I was Nameless. That makes me virtually untouchable as far as most of the people in this city are concerned. That, plus I look like this.” She ran a finger across the raised, red skin of the scar around her blind eye. “So, people haven’t exactly been lining-up outside my door to kiss me.”


As Beryl spoke, she saw the look on Alessa’s face soften. Beryl suddenly felt as though the other woman was looking at her differently, and as though she herself were doing the same. In that moment, Beryl stopped seeing Alessa as a means to an end. Instead, she saw her as a woman. A beautiful, vivacious woman. A woman who was full of life.


“If this is going to be your first kiss,” Alessa sighed, “it ought to be a good one.”


This time it was Alessa who leaned forward and kissed Beryl. She again placed a hand on the back of Beryl’s head, and she gently guided Beryl to her as their faces drew together. And this time, when Beryl felt the warmth of the other woman’s lips press up against her own, she didn’t pull away. Instead, she allowed herself to relax, to be present in the moment, and she was rewarded with a kind of electrical desire which seemed to start in the center of her chest and then expand outward until her whole body was tingling with it. The closeness of the other woman made her feel breathless. She could feel Alessa’s warmth, hear the sound of her breathing, see the look of excitement in her eyes. It was intoxicating. Then the other woman tilted her head slightly to one side, and Beryl felt Alessa’s tongue brush up against her lips. After a moment’s uncertainty, she closed her eye and opened her mouth slightly, allowing the teal-eyed woman’s tongue to glide in and come to rest against her own. And, for a few seconds, the two of them simply remained like that, joined together in a kind of embrace which Beryl did not have the right words to describe.


After what felt like the longest single moment of Beryl’s life, the other woman relaxed her grip on the back of Beryl’s head, and their lips slowly drew apart. But their heads were still close together when Beryl opened her eye. This time she was greeted by a knowing smile on the other woman’s face.


“There. That was much better,” Alessa said, her eyes still intense as they held Beryl’s gaze. “Wasn’t it?”


The best Beryl could manage was a wordless nod. Her heart was pounding so hard inside her chest that she wondered if the other woman could hear its beating. From the smug grin on Alessa’s face, it seemed as though she might.


“We don’t have to stop there, you know?” Alessa said. As she spoke, she traced the tip of a finger along the curve of Beryl’s cheek, and Beryl could hear the invitation in her voice. “That letter of yours isn’t going anywhere. Besides, I can see the future, you know? And, you and me? We could have some very, very interesting futures.”


Beryl swallowed. Her mouth had suddenly gone bone dry. She could feel that her body wanted one thing, but she knew that her heart wanted something else.


Something different. Something more.


After a second which felt like an eternity, she shook her head.


“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said, avoiding eye contact as she did. “Please don’t misunderstand – I’m flattered. Believe me, you have no idea how flattered I am. It’s just… Well, I mean, it’s just that I…” Her voice trailed away.


Alessa tsk’ed and shook her head. “You’re a horrible tease, you know?” For a moment, she fixed Beryl with an amused, if disappointed, look. But then, with a little smile, she shrugged. Turning away, she walked across the room to where her canvas pack hung from the bed. After rummaging through it for a second, tossing pieces of clothing and some magical bits and bobs to the floor as she went, she eventually emerged with a long, slender key made from some silvery metal. It had a wide, oval-shaped handle, with what looked like a cameo of some sort set into it. Then she walked back to the table and sat down in the chair in front of Astria’s strongbox, which she picked up and turned onto its side in order to get a better look at the keyhole.


“Who is she, then?” Alessa asked as she peered into the lock.


“Who’s who?” Beryl asked.


Alessa looked up from the strongbox, and she raised an eyebrow as she glanced across the table at Beryl.


“It is a she, right? Not that I judge either way, mind you. It’s just that I can usually tell.” Alessa’s expression turned thoughtful, and, for just a second, a frown pulled at the corners of her lips. “I’d hate to think I was losing my touch.” Alessa’s eyes lingered on Beryl for a moment before she turned her attention back to the locked box.


Somehow, impossibly, Beryl realized she was blushing again. For a second her mouth hung slightly open, and she just stared at the teal-eyed woman. Then, finally, she nodded her head.


Alessa snickered. “You’re so easy to read, it almost feels like cheating. Do me a favor – never play cards. Unless it’s with me, I mean. Fair warning, though – when clothes are on the line, I play for keeps.” She winked as she flipped the box over again, tracing a finger along its hinges. “When you turned me down just now, it wasn’t because you didn’t want to.” Alessa’s mouth curled into a smile. “I could tell you wanted to. No, it was because you thought about someone else. So, tell me, who is she? Because she must really be something.”


“It’s not that,” Beryl said. She sat down on the chair next to Alessa’s. Putting her elbows on the table, she let her head rest on her hands. “I mean, it’s not just that.” Beryl shook her head. “Why is this all so complicated?”


“Sages on every world ask that question. But it doesn’t have to be, you know,” Alessa said. She was feeling all along the box’s lid with the tips of her fingers, pressing down on various locations and judging the metal’s response. “People make these things so much more complicated than they need to be. Either she makes you feel good – you know, the way you felt when you kissed me, even if you didn’t quite want to admit it to yourself? Or she doesn’t. That’s not very complicated.”


Beryl shook her head. “It’s not just that she’s beautiful – although she is. It’s more than that.” She looked up at the ceiling, trying to figure out how to put what she was feeling into words. “She saved my life. Not just in the sense that she kept me from dying, although she probably did. I mean, she saved my life in the sense that she kept me from turning into the sort of person that I never wanted to become, the sort of person I’ve always been afraid of being.” Beryl kneaded her forehead as she tried to explain. “It’s like, I look at her, and I see everything that’s good about the world.”


Then Beryl’s voice grew distant, and it fell almost to a whisper.


“I look at her, and I see all that goodness which I wish I saw in myself.”


She looked over at Alessa, as though willing the other woman to understand.


Alessa glanced up from her work for a second. Her expression was inscrutable, but bemused.


“If she’s all those things,” she said, as she slid the slender key into the lock and began to slowly probe around with its tip, “then explain to me why you’ve never been kissed before.”


Beryl blushed. Again. “I don’t think she knows how I feel,” she said. “Even if she did, I don’t know if she would feel the same.”


Alessa shot Beryl a sardonic glance. “And whose fault is that?”


“It’s not that simple,” Beryl said. “It’s complicated.”


“There’s that word again,” Alessa said. She flinched in response to some unseen prompt, and slid the key back out from the lock. “It’s only complicated inside your head.”


“You don’t understand,” Beryl said. “I’m dangerous. I’m dangerous to everyone around me, but I’m especially dangerous to the people I love, the people who love me.” She could feel a tear forming in her eye, and her voice broke as she spoke. “The people who love me end up dead. I don’t know if she would ever love me. But, if she did, it wouldn’t scare her, because nothing scares her. But it scares me. I scare me. I know I shouldn’t but I do.” Beryl wiped the tear away on the edge of her sleeve. “She’s better off not knowing. She’s better off without me. So are you, for that matter. I’m damaged. I’m damaged in more ways than just scars.”


Alessa sighed an exasperated sigh. She put down the strongbox and focused her attention on Beryl.


“You know, for all you talk yourself down, that martyrdom complex of yours is the only unattractive thing about you.” She pointed the key in her hand at the scarred woman. “Life’s been unfair, sure. Guess what? Life is unfair. You’re not perfect. So what? None of us are perfect. So your childhood was tragic? Join the **** club!” She growled momentarily and then sighed, visibly locking something away inside her own head and measuring her breathing. When she resumed speaking, her voice was softer and more sympathetic. “You can wrap yourself up in all that self-pity if you want, but all it does is keep you from enjoying yourself now and then. Or you could actually try living a little bit, letting yourself have a little fun, letting yourself go a little wild every once in a while. See what happens.”


Beryl smiled a wry smile. “I don’t think you want to see me when I go a little wild. It’s not pretty.”


Alessa smiled a wicked grin of her own. “You keep forgetting,” she said. “I’ve seen a hell of a lot already.” She leaned forward across the table. “My offer still stands, you know? I can show you things which I know you’re going to like. It’d be good for you – get a little practice in, so that you know what you’re doing when you’re ready to tell the truth to this woman of your dreams.”


Again, Beryl felt herself pulled in conflicting directions. But, again, she gave her head a small shake.


“I mean it,” she said, “I’m grateful for the offer. You have no idea. I just,” she sighed. “My life has already changed enough in the past few days. I don’t think I can handle any more—”


“You were going to say ‘complications,’ weren’t you?” Alessa said, pointing the key at Beryl with that same sardonic grin on her face again.


Beryl looked sheepish. “I was, yes.”


Alessa shrugged. “Oh well,” she said. “Can’t blame a girl for trying.”


She picked the strongbox back up and tapped a finger on its lid, blowing out a breath and shaking her head as she did.


“Goddamn, but your sister is not a very trusting person,” she said. “Based on what I saw happen if I picked the lock the wrong way, I gather she really doesn’t want anyone peeking inside this thing.”


Beryl sighed. “Astria is not a big believer in trust,” she said.


“That’s apparently an understatement,” Alessa said. She pointed in the direction of her pack. “Can you dig around in there and find a little metal rod with a little hook at the end? Barring that, there’s also a phial of quicksilver. Just grab whichever you find first.”


Beryl walked across the room and knelt down next to Alessa’s bag. She started to sift through its contents.


From over her shoulder, she heard Alessa ask: “I’m guessing your sister was the one who had you locked up, huh?”


“She was,” Beryl said.


Alessa made a little growling noise. “You should have led with that. I’d have been happier to help if I’d known that was why she had it coming.”


Beryl’s mouth opened, and she was about to say that things were more complicated than that, but she caught herself. Instead, she focused on searching through Alessa’s pack. Nestled in amongst the clothing and other bits of travel paraphernalia, she came across all sorts of magical odds and ends. There was a small, blue figurine of a grinning monster. There was a lotus-shaped bloom gilded in pure gold – Beryl had to shake her head upon finding that. And there was a pair of sleek black gloves with faintly-pulsing blue runes stitched into their material. Sparing a moment to examine the runes, Beryl had to admire their craftsmanship.


“Check down along the bottom,” Alessa suggested. “Sometimes the tools slip down there.”


Beryl ran her fingers along the bag’s bottom and found the bit of metal which Alessa had asked for tucked into a crease in the fabric. She pulled it out and brought it over to the other woman, who accepted it with a nod of thanks.


A look of concentration formed on Alessa’s face as she slipped the long silver key back into the strongbox’s lock. Then she inserted the thin metal hook alongside it. Then, taking the hook in one hand while holding the key in the other, she turned the first tool clockwise, and the second counterclockwise. The lock made a loud, decisive clicking noise, and the strongbox’s lid popped open.


Beryl realized she had been biting her tongue. She swallowed and cleared her throat.


The teal-eyed woman reached inside the box and extracted a little metal cylinder with a series of springs and pins protruding from its top. She carried it across the room and, holding it out at arm’s length, dropped it into the washbasin. As it hit the water with a splash, there was a loud snapping noise, and a cloud of noxious vapors bubbled-up from the basin and rose to the ceiling.


Concern and curiosity were mixed on Beryl’s face as the other woman walked back over to the table.


“Acid trap,” Alessa said. Her manner was nonchalant, but there was a hard edge in her voice. “Not enough to kill, mind you. Just enough to ruin your eyes, if you happen to be looking down when you open the lid.”


Beryl shuddered involuntarily, and Alessa’s face softened.


“Sorry,” she said.


Beryl shook her head. “It’s okay,” she said. She pointed to the open strongbox, and tried to keep her hopes in check. “Is there a letter inside?” She couldn’t bear to look herself.


The expression on Alessa’s face was difficult to read as she sifted through the box’s contents. Finally, she extracted a sealed envelope and handed it to Beryl.


Beryl’s fingers felt numb as she held the envelope in her hands. The flap was sealed with an impression of the House Trevanei seal in bright red wax. On the other side, her name – Beryl Trevanei – was written in her mother’s hand.


Seeing her full name like that caused a tightness in Beryl’s chest. It was a silly thing, really, but... well, it had been a long, long time since she had seen those two names placed together.


“Do you think my sister knows what it says?” Beryl asked, her own words sounding strange and distant.


“I’m guessing she does,” Alessa said. The teal-eyed woman held up a second envelope. This one was addressed to Astria Trevanei, and the wax seal on its flap was broken. “So I’m thinking it’s past time you opened yours.”


Beryl nodded her head. Then, with shaking hands, she slid her finger under the envelope’s flap, doing her best to peel away the wax seal without breaking it. Her mother’s hand had made the seal, and, silly as it was, she hated the thought of destroying it. Fortunately, the old wax released cleanly from the paper, and Beryl set it gently down on the table. Then she opened the envelope’s flap and extracted two folded sheets from inside.


She unfolded the first sheet. At the sight of her mother’s handwriting, her eye began to cloud with tears, but she read on anyway.


Quote:
My Darling Beryl,

It is my hope that you will never read this letter. It is my hope that you need never learn of the truth contained herein, or, that if the time comes when you must, that I will tell you myself, so that I may offer you a better explanation.

But my life is now in danger, and I cannot risk this secret dying with me. And if you are reading this, then that means that the worst has come to pass.

If that is the case, then know that I am sorry. The mistakes of the mother should not be visited on the child, and I would not offer you this burden to bear, if I felt I had any other choice.

When I sought to become High Sorceress, please know that I did so with only the best of intentions. I had hoped that I could use the influence of my office to do good – not just for you and your sister, but for our House, and for our city. I thought that mine would be a position of authority and influence.

I was wrong.

High Sorceress is not the position of power which it appears to be. In fact, no position of power in this city is what it appears to be. I have discovered that real power in our world resides elsewhere. In truth, it does not even reside on this world.

You will have learned by now about the people known as planeswalkers: powerful mages who can pierce the veil between worlds as easily as you or I would cross from one room into another. The Guild Scribes believe that no such people have been to our world for generations.

They are wrong.

I have met them, the planeswalkers. I have met the woman in whose hands real power lies, and my mind still recoils in terror at the thought of her.

Everything you see around you, everything you know about our world, is the work of her hand. It was she who shaped the rise of the Great Houses, she who guided the development of the Guild, she who laid the foundation for the cruel facsimile of order which governs our whole world today. She has lulled us all to sleep, trapped us all within a kind of stasis which seems so comfortable and so natural that we do not realize we are all but puppets on a string. I am ashamed to admit that even I was blind to the pain and injustice which are the very threads of this tapestry of deceit until the artifice of its pattern was made plain to my eyes.

I did not ascend to become High Sorceress on my merits alone. I ascended because she wanted me to ascend.

She thought that she could control me. She thought that she could bend me to her will.

She was wrong.

I will not be her puppet. I will be a pawn in her game no longer.

I have resolved to fight. I have resolved to lay bare her manipulations to any who will listen. She is powerful, yes. Frightfully so. But her attention is not solely focused on our world. It is my hope that, if I can gather the Houses together, if we can stand as one to oppose her, even she may blink in the face of our combined resolve.

The time has not yet come for me to act. But I have begun to make preparations. I have worked discreetly through the Guild to procure certain objects of power which will be needed should my plan come to fruition. Many I am keeping in my official quarters, but the most critical I have placed in the House vault.

I have sealed them away to prevent their discovery, in the event that I do not live to put them to use. But your skill for enchantment is unlike any I have ever seen – even at your young age, it surpasses my own. So you will know my work when you lay your hands on it, and you will know how it may be unmade.

Given what I mean to do, I am in grave danger. It is possible that I will not live to see you grow to womanhood, that I will not get to share in the joys and triumphs which I know your life will bring. This knowledge pains me as nothing else could. Many are the nights I have wished that I could simply turn a blind eye to the invisible horrors around me, that I could be restored to a state of blissful ignorance.

But I cannot. I cannot condemn you and your sister and everyone else who inhabits this world to an eternity of servitude. So I will do what I must, no matter how great the cost.

Should the cost prove to be my life, then I pray that you and your sister will find the strength to do what I could not. It breaks my heart to ask this of you. Know that, should you wish to simply live your life in peace, I will neither fault you for it, nor judge you for it.

But if you choose to fight, then I believe in my heart that you will succeed. Because I know your heart, Beryl. It is strong, and fierce, and good. You have only to listen to it. Never doubt it, for it is your greatest strength.

Please know always that I love you, and that I am proud of you. Nothing can change that. Not even death.

All my love,
-Moira

As Beryl folded the sheet of paper and slipped it into her pocket, she found that the hair on her arms was standing on end, and she felt a chill which seemed to reach deep down into her bones. It was pleasantly warm inside Alessa’s room, yet Beryl found herself shivering.


Slowly, she unfolded the second sheet of paper.


There was only a small bit of writing at the top of the page, again in her mother’s hand.


Quote:
I do not know the name of the woman who controls us from beyond the veil. As far as I know, she has no name. But this crest belongs to her, or at least to those who follow her. If you see it, beware.

Below the writing, there was a drawing.


The image her mother had sketched reminded Beryl of a family crest, except that it belonged to no noble House of Aliavelli. The crest was in the shape of a large, six-pointed sun, and the sun's rays were joined – or bound, even – by what looked like coiling chains. The chains skipped over each adjacent ray, so that they seemed to form a star, and the way they encircled the tips of the sunrays made it almost look as though they were splaying the sunburst open. A slender crescent moon was curled inside the lower half of the sun's interior, whereas the remainder of the solar disc was dominated by a single, large symbol made from gracefully-looping brushstrokes. At first, Beryl thought the symbol was simply a geometric design. But, as she stared at it, she began to realize that it was something else – it was an arcane letter or glyph, written in a language she did not know.


Beryl looked up from the paper to see Alessa staring across the table at her, a strange look on her face. She looked worried, and for the first time since Beryl arrived, she looked... confused.


“Did you get the answers you were looking for?” the teal-eyed woman asked. Her voice was strange as well, like she was reciting a line which had been written for her, but the part was not one she wanted to play.


Beryl had to clear her throat twice before she could speak.


“I’m not sure,” she said. “Have you ever seen this marking before?”


She turned the piece of paper over, and held it out so that Alessa could see the drawing on it.


The instant Alessa saw the crest – no, the instant before she saw it, even – all the color drained from her face. Beryl watched in horror as Alessa’s teal eyes shot wide with fear. The woman’s whole body seemed to recoil physically, and the look on her face was one of pure, unmitigated terror. Her mouth fell open, and a strangled, wordless gasp escaped from her lips, followed by another, and then another. Her chest heaved, and her breathing grew faster and faster, until it acquired a desperate, wheezing quality which reminded Beryl of nothing quite so much as the whistle of a punctured bellows. With each frantic attempt to fill her lungs, the panic on Alessa’s face deepened, and just watching her made Beryl’s blood run cold.


Suddenly, a terrible, animalistic whine escaped from between Alessa’s lips, and, in spite of herself, Beryl flinched.


Then, before Beryl could react, Alessa shot to her feet, trying to back away from the image which Beryl still held in her hand. That sent her chair tumbling backwards and skidding across the floor. Alessa’s hands shot up to cover her temples, her fingertips white from the force with which she pressed them against her own skin. She managed to take a few, staggering steps backward. Then her knees seemed to buckle beneath her, and she collapsed on the spot, as though all of her strength had fled her body in the span of a single heartbeat.


Beryl stood up as fast as she could. She dropped the sheet of paper on the table, and then, as what was happening dawned on her, she flipped the paper over, so that her mother’s drawing faced downward and was no longer visible. Then she took a couple quick steps over to where Alessa was curling in on herself, and she wrapped her arms around the other woman, and stroked the back of her head with one hand as she tried to hold her upright with the other. She could feel Alessa’s heart racing like it was ready to burst, could feel her pulse pounding away through her entire body. Alessa was still gasping for breath, and her eyes stared unblinkingly at the empty patch of space where the paper had been, tears streaming down her cheeks.


“It’s okay, Alessa,” Beryl whispered into Alessa’s ear. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” She patted the terrified woman on the back, stroked her hair, tried to make soothing noises – she did anything she could think of that might possibly calm the other woman down. But Alessa’s whole body just shook in her arms, like a leaf caught up in a whirlwind.


“It’s okay,” Beryl said again. “It’s all okay.”


She didn’t know what else to say, so she just repeated it again and again, over and over.


Slowly, her whole body still heaving, Alessa peeled her hands away from her face, and her fingers gripped tightly onto Beryl’s sleeves. Her head swiveled to face Beryl, and she stammered as she tried desperately to form words in between her gasping breaths.


“Cards,” she finally managed to say. She pointed to the deck of cards on the table with a shaking hand. “I need my cards!”


Beryl nodded. She started to draw her arms away from Alessa, doing it slowly so that she could disentangle herself from Alessa’s grip. When it became clear that she couldn’t just pull away, Beryl helped to guide Alessa gently back down to the ground, where she pulled her knees up beneath her chin and rocked slightly back and forth. Then Beryl rushed back over to the table, where she picked up a deck of cards and brought them back over to Alessa. She dropped down to one knee herself and took Alessa’s wrist, pressing the cards into Alessa’s outstretched hand.


The moment the teal-eyed woman’s fingers closed around the cards, her hands seemed to steady, even as the rest of her continued to shake. She stretched her legs out slightly, then held the cards out in front of herself and started to shuffle them. At first, there was a slow, stuttering quality to her movements. But, with each shuffle, she seemed to grow a little bit steadier, a little bit smoother. As she shuffled and shuffled, traces of color started to return to her cheeks, and her wide-eyed panic started to drain away into an expression which was still one of terror, but terror of a more manageable sort. She pressed her eyes shut tightly and her breathing deepened, and came further and further apart as the heaving of her chest started to subside.


Beryl reached out and laid the back of her hand across the teal-eyed woman’s brow. A cold, clammy sweat had formed on Alessa’s skin, but Beryl could feel that her pulse had slowed, and was returning to something resembling normal. Then she moved her hand to give the other woman’s hair a few final strokes, and she leaned in close to the other woman’s ear. One final time, she said: “It’s okay.”


Then, for a long time, everything in the room was silent except for the periodic loud riffle of cards being shuffled.


At long last, Alessa stopped shuffling and placed the cards onto the floor. She opened her eyes and turned to look directly at Beryl. She spoke, and her voice was a hoarse, hollow imitation of itself.


“I’m leaving,” she said. “As soon as I can get up, I’m leaving, and I’m getting away from here, as far as I can go, and if you know what’s good for you, then you will, too.”


Beryl shook her head. She tried to look the other woman in the eyes, but Alessa would not meet her gaze.


“Alessa, I don’t understand,” she said, and she was worried to hear a hint of panic in her own voice. “What just happened? What’s the matter?”


Alessa shook her head frantically, and her teal eyes flashed with fear.


“It’s her,” she said, still stammering as she spoke. “That’s her mark. If her mark is here, she’s here. And if she’s here, I’m leaving.”


Beryl shook her head again. “Whose mark? Who is she?”


“The Duchess.” Alessa barely whispered the name.


“Who’s the Duchess?” Beryl asked.


Finally, Alessa looked back up at Beryl, and her two teal eyes met Beryl’s green eye. In a halting voice, she said:


“A nightmare, and, if you’re smart, you’ll get out before you find out any more.”



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