Summer 1238 - Autumn 1238
“The witches of the East are monstrous creatures who make pacts with the Dark Ones for the purpose of furthering their own power. Their eternal youth and beauty are the effects of a spell most vile; one that makes use of the blood of new born infants and a virgin. Their magic is astoundingly powerful as they are able to accomplish the most arduous of tasks without the use of incantations or focuci. These dangerous and peculiar creatures are often found flocking like a gaggle of geese around the throne of the Queen of Tulsch. These beastly women offer advice to their Queen as though they were profane Wizards. Much like the Druids of Ynys Afallon they do not acknowledge the will of the Father, which is why the laws of Sesslyn are necessary for the sake of all, as such, the magic of Ske’ta is deemed profane. Any who practice such vile arts against our people, or within our boarders will be subject to a death as seen fit by the Lord of the province, or if he is unavailable the nearest Jailor.”
—Williem Aard, 1st Earl of Estores in Sesslyn
Treatise on Law in Sesslyn, 1023 2nd Age
Late Spring 1238
Someone once said, long, long ago that those who don’t travel the world know nothing at all, and those who don’t leave their kingdoms are the happiest of all. Peering out of the open archway which looked out over the whole of the oasis and the sparkling white sand beyond, I was struck by the truth of that ancient maxim. I hadn’t seen beyond these walls since I was four and I was sixteen now. I wanted to seek knowledge—I wanted to see the world. I’d rather be unhappy than ignorant.
I wanted to visit all of the far off reaches of Tulsch and then one day take a boat and break the mists to see Ynys Afallon in the summer. I wanted to dance with the Aes Sidhe in the circle of the Daoine Grove where the gods slumber on their white marble slabs. I wanted to take an Aes Sidhe into my bed as my lover. I wanted to feel the electricity as he bewitched me with his kiss.
It was for all of those reasons that I was happy about being summoned. All of the temple was abuzz with talk of who was going to escort the entourage of the Dulestine to Sesslyn for her first wedding. Most wanted to go because of the new dresses and cloaks, but some wanted to go because it was an occasion which few would be permitted to attend. In reality, as much as I wanted to take an Aes Sidhe lover and travel, winter in Sesslyn was frigidly cold. In the texts we had at the tower they mentioned snow as tall as a horse’s back in some places—I was roughly that tall. And the prospect of snow drifts as tall as sand dunes didn’t warm me either. I also hadn’t yet finished training—mostly because I had put off my final trial. In the back of my mind, something kept screaming that it would be a very bad idea for me to escort the Dulestine across the sands and the sea.
I grew apprehensive as I sat in that plushly cushioned chair in the Sa’Ske’ta’s chamber. The word Sa’Ske’ta was essentially an old tongue variation that literally translated into Great Tower Witch. The word Ske’ta itself came from the old tongue words Sket Atta. The orders of the Ske’ta were as old as language itself—there were drawings on the walls of caves that depicted women in robes of red weaving walls of fire. More of our magic was forgotten than was remembered and practiced.
Waiting in that chair, my legs were still somewhat sore from the climb. The dull ache in my calves and the silence of the room had me on edge. So by the time I heard the door behind me open I had already started nervously chewing on my bottom lip—a nervous habit the instructors had tried to curb.
“Asiliyara Sila.” The Sa’Ske’ta grinned at me. She had a charming look to her as all Ske’ta do. She had large dark eyes, hair as black as soot and sun kissed skin. She was supposedly the most powerful Ske’ta in all of the kingdoms, which was why she was in charge of the training of the girls at Re’Sket. There were other towers which trained other girls into Ske’ta, our abilities and potential were tested at a young age and we were sent to a tower based upon it. There was Re’Sket, Ash’ket, Eb’Sket, Ver’Sket and Az’Sket.
Re’Sket was where the girls who were seen to have the potential to be a problem were placed—problem in that our powers were great. We had morals drilled into us from a young age, and why it was important to practice restraint with our magic. Girls in the other towers were taught to light candles and heat water with their powers when we were taught the histories, and about the lives of powerful Ske’ta. They paid particular attention to the ones who committed atrocities because they wanted a jewel, a kingdom, a woman, or a man and most importantly how they met with their horrible ends.
It was here that the Sa’Ske’ta trained the girls and handpicked the next Dulestine’s or Dulestina’s advisor. The Dulestine was the heir to Tulschian Empire, and the Dulestina was her heir. I didn’t want to be either’s advisor. We did not yet have a Dulestina; but it was not unheard of for an advisor to be picked before the birth of the child. Queen Luciana’s advisor was, Decembra, the woman was twenty years older than the two hundred and seven year old Queen and she had served her since before her birth. I knew Sa’Ske’ta Idira was also almost that old, but you would never guess by looking at her.
“Sa’Idira.” I bowed my head, and ran my fingers through my long dark red hair nervously.
“We could not help but to notice that you did not volunteer to escort the Queen and Dulestine to Sesslyn.” I shifted uneasily and tried to meet her dark gaze with my bright green.
“I…” My eyes darted out to the oasis and sands. I hated looking at people when I spoke to them. “I am not so certain that I’m ready to undertake such an endeavor.”
“Eyes, Asiliyara,” she commanded and I turned my attention back to her, meeting that sable gaze.
“If it is fate that I go, someone would seek me out whether or not my name was on the list. But after reading the books in the library about Sesslyn… aside from the Aes Sidhe, I… am not certain I’m strong enough to last there.”
“Whatever do you mean, Child? Yes, Sesslyn has a great deal of hatred for our kind, but it is jealousy and nothing more.”
“So men rape and kill out of jealousy?” I snapped, my eyes growing wide once I realized I had spoken out of turn. She laughed a bit and her smile widened.
“Yes, and boredom. But good men do exist. They, like women have the potential to be horrible no matter where you go, and it is true that the average Sesslyni has no love for a Tulschi. But the same things can happen if you stay within the empire. I travelled to Sesslyn at the end of the war, and yes, I did suffer some brutality there but…” she sighed, and paused moment. “We are long lived, Child. We are made of tougher stuff than the Tulschi women who live in Sesslyn and throw themselves into the White Sea after such ordeals. We are Ske’ta.”
“Yes, we are Ske’ta. We cannot defend ourselves because we are Ske’ta. And if we do defend ourselves we have to consider everyone else before our own well-being. Do you not see a glaring problem with that?”
“What is the first thing you learn when you sit in a class here for the first time?”
“Having great power is a responsibility like no other, and in having this power we will suffer more than most.” I shifted uneasily.
“Queen Luciana was poisoned, raped and almost killed while we were on campaign in Sesslyn. What did she do? Did she level the palace at Louden? Did she hurl a great fire ball at the armies decimating the forces of the enemy? Did she annihilate all of the Aes Sidhe—which she could have done easily?”
“What did she do instead?”
“She withdrew her forces from Sesslyn and struck an accord with the Sidhe and Ynys Afallon.” I sighed and rolled my eyes a bit crossing my arms.
“Even though it was an arrow of the Aes Sidhe which poisoned her, and the men of the White Stag army who violated her. Why did she simply leave? We could have wiped out all of the Northern Kingdoms and Ynys Afallon. The contingent of Ske’ta had just landed and we had the might to do it… so why didn’t she?”
“Because… the cruelty she suffered at the hands of the Aes Sidhe, was tempered by the single one who risked his life to save her. But if that Aes Sidhe hadn’t have found her in the wood she would have leveled Sesslyn.”
“She was very young, and so caught up in trying to play the conqueror like her mother. She forgot about the lasting effects such things would have on the people who lingered after we withdrew. And so it is that the Sesslyni and the Selisli dislike the Tulschi; but an Aes Sidhe will go out of their way to help us. I think in her delirium she realized what she was doing to not only her people in Tulsch but also those in Sesslyn; the women who would stay behind, the traders who would go with their daughters, and so forth. A great deal of damage was done by that campaign. The monarchs have made up. The King of Sesslyn has invited Queen Luciana to his court for a few months, and she accepted his invitation graciously. This will be her first trip to Sesslyn since she invaded one hundred and fifty years ago. She knows the hatred is still there amongst the people—hatred like that lingers amongst the common folk.” She pursed her lips. “Oh, before I forget myself. You have been picked by the Queen to be the Dulestina’s advisor. You will be accompanying Ru’a to Sesslyn, and until there is a Dulestina, your job will be to see how the relationships are progressing between the Sphel and the Sorceresses. Also, she would like you see if there are any born with our powers in the Northern Kingdoms, we would like you to focus on Selisle particularly. The White Isle has invited us to place a Sket there; but we need to know if there is even a need.” She laughed a bit. “It is rather odd isn’t it? With one breath I speak of war with these people and in another I speak of us placing a tower there.”
I opened my mouth to speak but closed it without a word.
“You’ll leave in four months’ time. The journey will be a long one. Travelling to the capital itself is arduous, but then you’ll have a lengthy sea voyage, as well. I know of your interest in the Aes Sidhe, there are a few who are sailors. Hopefully you’ll be blessed by Fortuna and find yourself on a boat full of lithe, sea worn, ethereal males.” She smirked. “And they will all be enamored by your lovely Tulschi Rose hair. Run along, lovely Rose—greatness awaits you,” she purred with a smile before she rolled a scroll out on her desk, effectively dismissing me from our talk.
As I stared at the parchment for a moment I was marveled by the spell upon it. The writing was all gibberish to me, half signs and obscured symbols my eyes refused to focus on. The letter hummed with power—it was clearly for the Sa’Ske’ta’s eyes only. Sighing, I stood leaving the office of red marble and started to descend the stairs.
Once out of sight of the door, I looked around cautiously before drawing a large circle in front of me. The air sizzled with power, and the path of the circle I traced with my finger was lit with a lovely, golden light. The art of portals was something supposedly long lost, but I had taught myself the intricacies of such spells using a book I had stumbled across in the library. I knew the dangers of using these powers. I knew that it would draw unwanted attention to me—so I hid that I had them. After stepping through that circle of light I found myself in my room. Once out of the portal I closed my hand into a fist and that glowing circle winked away leaving no trace of its existence—not even the slightest residue of a spell performed.
My room was small, but being an adept meant that I no longer had to share it, and I was afforded some amount of luxury. I had a candle, my own small hearth, a table with chairs and a large arching window which looked out over the sparkling blue waters and green trees of the oasis. Laughter filtered in through the archway, it was noon and there was probably a group of girls swimming in the cool waters. I didn’t have time for swimming—I had to prepare for my upcoming trip.
Standing before my small bookshelf filled with old worn tomes on the Aes Sidhe my eyes kept going to the small black book which had its cover obscured by magic. I still felt uneasy with it out in the open; it was a book of lewd poetry about Aes Sidhe taking human lovers. I knew I wasn’t the only one with such a book tucked away amongst their mundanity, but I still felt protective of it.
“So how was it?” I near to jumped out of my skin as my friend Colette sung my name. She was pale with chestnut colored hair and milky hazel eyes—they very epitome of Adlian beauty.
“Oh, it went fine. Apparently… apparently I am to go to Sesslyn with the Queen and the Dulestine.” I wet my lips and turned from the books, smoothing my simple burgundy silk gown.
“You’re too lucky! I’m utterly and completely jealous.” She laughed and leaned against the door.
“Now I know you’re lying. You have a lover—an Aes sidhe no less.”
“For now.” She sighed as though it were nothing. “He’ll have to go back to the Court of the King of Adlia soon enough. He was only here to discuss the possibility of a Ske’ta being sent to advise the next King since he has Queen Luciana’s blood. But talks fell through.” She studied her nails for a time.
“Yes, I heard something of that. But wasn’t it supposed to be this magical concept of being secret?” She shrugged at my words. “I could trade you. You can go to Sesslyn and I’ll take your lover. We would all win, and you’d even have the possibility of getting another Aes Sidhe lover. So it would be win-win for you.”
“No. You need this, Asiliyara. Because you are Tulschi you didn’t get to leave home when you were sent here. You need to travel. You need to fuck foreign men, drink foreign wine and live a bit. You’re so very scholarly… too scholarly. You devote yourself to your studies, the stacks in the library, and your book over there, like they’re your lovers.”
“That’s not it at all.”
“Is it? You used to watch the ports. Have you been watching the ports since you spied that book at market? You’ve missed eight Aes Sidhe passing through Re’Sket. Eight! Some of them were so beautiful a look would melt your insides. There was this Bard a week ago; he wore his hair in many plaits over his shoulder that were decorated with beads of jewels, pretty white feathers and sparkling silver charms. His eyes were almost as green as yours and his skin glowed like none of the other Aes Sidhe I had ever seen. He was the composer of those poems you know”—she nodded towards the book—“And you missed him, but I didn’t. I was able to get him alone, and I rode him long and hard. It was amazing, and though he wasn’t exactly besotted with me. You with your exotic hair and coloring could have bewitched him as much as their flesh does others.”
“It’s their kiss not their flesh,” I added casually as I stared out of the window.
“No, my young friend, it’s most certainly their flesh that is addictive.” She giggled and my face grew hot with embarrassment so I looked away.
“I’m six days younger than you. Six days!”
“And yet you have lived so very little I forget. You have the life of a spinster or a little girl.” She tossed back her head and giggled at me, leaving me to grimace and wet my lips. “You deny yourself everything—I don’t know how you do it. I would have gone mad by now; scratched my eyes out and all of that. When we start having the longing, we’re supposed to go out and do something about it. Remember? It helps us maintain our focus. Besides, our maidenhead isn’t exactly prized. We are Ske’ta, after all. We bathe in virgin’s blood and eat babies fresh from their mothers’ wombs,” she whispered that last bit as though it were some great dark scandal. There was no truth to any of it, but that didn’t stop it from being a rumor spread in every Kingdom outside of Tulsch. Supposedly, Ske’ta ate children and took baths in virgin blood. Those obscene practices were supposedly how we kept our youth in their twisted minds.
Right before the war, there was a well-meaning ambassador who came to Tulsch two hundred or so years ago. He wrote a very long book on Tulsch, and then one on Law in Sesslyn—both tomes mentioned Ske’ta at length. Apparently, the thought of women who weren’t tethered to their hearths disturbed this man so greatly that a simple Right of Passage ceremony became the heart of propaganda against everything Tulschi even before the war. The Rites of Spring are performed by Ske’ta draped in red, our bodies painted with a mixture of goat’s blood, holly and raspberries. Afterwards they wash off the mixture in a substance which flows from what is known as the Royal Fount. It’s a fountain within Re’Sket, which has for the last six hundred years or so flowed with something which is the color and consistency of blood, but floral in scent. Women in other Kingdoms had been murdered because infants died or virgin girls went missing. I forced my lips into a smile.
“I will… think about it.”
“You know, were you not Ske’ta you’d be married and have children by now.”
“I am not you Ettienne. I’d be married to a fisherman, living in a one room shack with a child wailing because I couldn’t feed them—because their father was at sea again or some such. I’m not a refined Lady of a foreign court. I’m a little Tulschi Peasant girl, who comes from a six generation line.”
“With Tulschi Rose red hair, and the prettiest face out of all the girls here. Admittedly, I’d be jealous, but… you don’t do anything with that beauty.”
“I use jet powder around my eyes, and tint my lips at festivals.” I shifted uncomfortably and she shrugged.
“Does it matter? No man ever sees and I know you’re interested in men, or rather Aes Sidhe. You come with us, but you sit in the back in the shadows of the Tavern with your hood pulled over your head.” She pursed her lips thinking. “Come with us tonight. I saw a ship pull in—a ship with the White Stag of the White Isle painted on its sails. That means Aes Sidhe Archers and Blade Dancers to help train the new group of Guardians.”
I pursed my lips and looked up at her, studying her closely. Biting my lip, I canted my head from side to side contemplating her proposal. The prospect was as thrilling as it was frightening. Raking my fingers back through my hair, I knitted those slender digits together behind my neck as my gaze trailed about the room. For a moment, I stared at that book and with a determined nod I decided my fate.
“Yes, okay, yes. And I’ll even wear the dress I wore to Summer Solstice—since you said you were envious of how the bodice fit me.”
“No, you should wear red. You have the coloring for it, and I have the perfect thing… I’ll be back in a few hours. Danika and I will come up and help you get ready. We’ll make certain that tonight you become a woman on your terms.” She started for the door as I sat down on my bed.
“I’ll be here.”
“With your nose in a book!” Ettienne called over her shoulder as the door slowly closed behind her, the faint echo of her footfalls faded as she walked away down the corridor.
Ettienne made good on her word. As the sun started to set she was at my door with Danika. I didn’t care either way for Danika. She was our age and in our class but we weren’t very close. She was tall, with long, straight, blonde hair and brown eyes so pale they looked amber. She was from the northern part of the empire, where it snowed year round and wolves roamed rampantly. She had a sour little mouth and a nose that was perhaps a touch too wide but she wasn’t unpleasant looking. She was pretty in a sullen way, but looked positively plain beside Ettienne and myself. Tonight her face was painted expertly; her lips were almost ruby red, her eyes had a hint of sapphire power glittering on her eyelids, and her cheeks were rouged. She often went with Ettienne to the taverns, where they flirted with the traveling Bards, and Sailors. For the last two years they both had been taking men and Aes Sidhe into their beds at will—and she had supplanted me as Ettienne’s best friend.
“Put this on. We have to hurry! Gretel was at the market when they came in, and she is still talking about them. She said they were handsome and their skin actually glowed—even in the noonday sun,” Ettienne yammered as she shoved the dress at me, it was a shade of red so bright it almost made my hair seem black in contrast.
“She told me that some were scarred though, and that they had hard faces. I haven’t had a warrior yet—I wonder if they’re different. Do you think they’ll be different, Etty?” Danika yapped as she ran her fingers back through her wheat colored hair and smoothed her low-cut, pale blue gown.
Rolling my eyes, I pulled the skirt on and ignored them, but the moment I got a good look at the bodice I almost didn’t put it on.
“Are you certain I should wear this?” I asked as I looked down at the bodice which had a deep plunging neckline and was covered with a long drape of soft, bright red silk which hung from the bottom of it.
“Yes, its color suits you and it brings out everything you’ve been hiding under those robes of yours for the last two years.” Ettienne kept speaking, but I ignored her as I slid the bodice over my head and adjusted the thin gossamer like sleeves over my shoulders. “No, they’re supposed to be loose.” She approached me and pushed the fabric down again. “Yes, like that.” She walked behind me and took hold of the laces and pulled them tight. “And there.” She tied the ribbon in a bow and stood in front of me “I think I’m too good of a friend. You may yet cause problems, dearest Asiliyara.” She giggled. “I’m envious. If I looked like that… I would… I wouldn’t be here that’s for certain.” I sat down and ringed my eyes with jet powder, before staining my lips red using the Aes Sidhe method. I bought the berries from a trader before Summer Festival, and last time I used it my lips were a brilliant shade of crimson for a week.
Once I was finished with painting my face, I grabbed my thin black summer cloak from the wardrobe and headed out into the night with my friends. We walked the same route we always did, winding through the gardens and slipping through a small hole in the hedge maze. On the other side was a back alley which lead to the heart of the market district. Even after dusk the stalls were still buzzing with people trading by fire light. No one seemed to give a second glance to the three hooded girls slipping down the street with their faces hidden in shadow.
The sounds of the tavern echoed as far as the scent of the bay was carried. Tonight was the first night I didn’t have plans to summon a book from my room to my hands the moment my friends had found their conquests. Musical masculine laughter could be heard once we approached the door. The sweet smell of salt and jasmine incents greeted us once it was open—that and an almost deafening wall of noise. The tables and bar were full of—surprisingly enough—Aes Sidhe, and in the corner a bard was playing. There were a few females amongst them but most were males; their tattoos sprawled up their throats, their clothing or lack thereof displayed them proudly. Whores made their way from table to table plying their wares.
The serving girls weaved through the labyrinth of dimly glowing figures. The men’s bodies were all hard with muscle, they had a great deal of scars. Most of those brutal blemishes were simple slim slivers of flesh which were dimmer than the skin around it. Some of them, however, had been horrifically maimed. The remnants of their ordeal was rough, pitted, dull flesh juxtaposed to the smooth and glowing. I tried my hardest not to gawk as I followed Ettienne like a child on her mother’s apron strings. Both she and Danika had already tossed back their hoods, thus much of the male attention was already fixed on to them. Their eyes roved over the crowded tavern like that of hungry epicurean wolves out for only the tastiest of morsels.
Ettienne walked over to a somewhat bulky Aes Sidhe with a thin scar which bisected his markings on his shoulder and sat in his lap without a word. He smiled at her and she giggled, and I was forgotten about. I spied Danika at the bar, whispering to another of the scarred Aes Sidhe. To them, those scars marked them as warriors; but I knew scars came from different things besides war. Also, even if those scars did come from war, it was Tulsch and the Ske’ta whom the Aes Sidhe last waged true war against. Letting my friends have their fun., I slipped back into my old habits. I made my way passed all the tables toward the back of the tavern, ignoring the glances and the bobbing heads of those who tried to look into the shadows of my hood.
My table, or rather what had become my table, was so far back the serving girls forgot to ask me if I wanted drink most of the time. My heart stopped as I reached my secluded corner only to find it occupied. There, in my chair, sat an Aes Sidhe mostly hidden in shadow, taking lazy pulls from a pipe. One large, green eye raised to me, the other, like the other half of his face was hidden by shadows. People often said that my eyes were an envious shade of green; they were shockingly green, unnaturally green—they were like the charged emeralds used in ritual. But his eyes… they were a very natural shade of pure green, like forest moss or the leaves of the ferns in the oasis. I stared at him unable to say anything, and he stared back.
There was a book in front of him. I tilted my head to read the title and he snatched it up. It was the very same one I had hidden on the shelf in my room. There was something in the way he looked at me, hesitation and distrust hid in that glade green gaze. He was older than the smooth planes of his face would suggest. I’d even wager that he had been in the war, and enough had happened that it was still fresh in his mind.
“Yes?” he broke the silence, raising a brow and lowering the pipe from his lips. I opened my mouth to speak and a lively tune started. The Aes Sidhe behind me began clapping and I glanced back toward where my friends had been to find their seats empty. My gaze wandered to that once open space in front of the bard to find them and a few other girls dancing with a handful of the Aes Sidhe. I knew the dance, it was something I had read about in my books; the male’s hands rested on the female’s hips, directing from side to side as they did so now with drunken laughter. For a moment I envisioned being them, and I sighed.
“So is this what the Skets do now? You send us young girls to lay with in reparations for all of which you took from us?” I jumped from that venom in his voice.
“N-n-no, I…” Biting my bottom lip, I turned back toward him.
“You?” He shifted and I finally saw why he was hiding in the back of the room. Why he had kept half of his face to me. On one side, his face was flawless and perfect; a large, wide-set, green eye, well-formed lips with a lovely cupid’s bow, a handsome jawline and high cheek bones. The other half was mostly hidden by an eye patch, and those chestnut tresses. The Aes Sidhe plaited their hair intricately, but never all of it. Those braids seemed to be placed in an utterly random fashion and woven into them were often feathers, beads and charms. He had raven feathers woven into his hair, which was plaited so that it hid half of his face from view. It was gathered in a ponytail whose knot sat at his jaw. It wasn’t very long, and the end of it brushed the top of his linen shirt.
“I usually sit here when my… my friends…” I swallowed and looked back at the group merry making. Ettienne was clearly drunk, locked in a deep kiss with one of the Aes Sidhe already.
“Ah, well in that case, come. Sit and behold the fruits of their poor decision making.” He chuckled and reached for a cup of wine. I sat almost beside him and watched the crowd searching for Danika who was nowhere in sight. “We ugly ones have the best vantage point in the world.” He spoke idly as he set his book down and brought his pipe back to his lips.
“Mm, we get to see the world as it really is.”
“You’re not ugly,” I blurted out. I really didn’t think he was. The half of his face not covered was lovely to look at. Before whatever caused him to hide in the dark and wear the eye patch, I was certain he would easily be the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.
“You have yet to see the worst of it. I would move my hair to the side and lift the eye patch but I would scare off the customers.” He eyed me. “What of you, girl? Have you the face of a Troll hiding under that hood? The problem clearly is not your body.” I blushed at his words, my gaze darting to the side. “Modesty in a Tulschian. Well, now I am thoroughly interested.” He laughed a bit, bleeding some of the venom from his voice. Reaching up, he gave a little tug to my hood when I was turned away from him; it fell easily, the weight of my hair carrying it back. I quickly turned and looked at him startled. “I have never seen someone with so much Aur Sidhe blood before.” My brows furrowed.
“Aur? I don’t know about that. My mother is a Ske’ta and my father a fisherman.” I raked my fingers nervously back through my hair.
“The gold ones. There are only a handful of mentions of them, but they did exist a thousand years ago or more. Supposedly they glowed gold to our Aes Sidhe silver. But something happened and they cut off ties or died out.”
“No, that is impossible.”
“Is it? It would not be the last time such a thing happened. The people of Waes are mostly descended from Dragon Aes Sidhe cast out of Ynys Afallon.” He shrugged and took another long draw from his pipe.
“Were you alive for that?” I raised a brow and then that lively music broke out again. The same tune which my friends had danced to before. The clapping commenced yet again and my attention was drawn back to the open space before the bard. Ettienne was there dancing with her sidhe of choice, her hips rocking against his. Again I wished I were her. I stole a glance to the sidhe beside me and sighed.
“No, but I did my duty and fought for my cause later, and gave more than most.”
“A Tulschi did that to you?” I turned my attention back to him, he nodded. “I would apologize but… it wouldn’t give back what you lost.” My words made his eye narrow and he reached up in a flash, untied the eye patch and pulled his hair back giving me the full view of what remained of the other half of his face.
“Yes, a Tulschian did this to me. I was a scout ambushed by a group of your intelligentia soldiers. One who said I was so pretty he would make certain no one who looked at me again would ever forget my face.” He grabbed my wrist and tilted my hand this way and that. “They took a rope with a knot about the size of your fist in it, and they wrapped it around my head. Then they asked me, ubi sunt signa. The man yelled it while another translated for him. Where are the troops? Every time I did not answer they tightened the knot until my eye popped. I could say the pain was unbearable, but I endured it—I desired death but I endured. I think it was because I had convinced myself I would suffer and die to save my unit, but no, they are not so kind your soldiers. They brought in a Ske’ta who willed me awake while the leader took a knife, and I thought he would slit my throat with it. I wanted him to by then, but no, he took that small knife and he slowly slid it into my flesh here.” I swallowed as he pointed my finger and made me touch the thick scar which ran from almost the corner of his mouth to under his eye. “He cleaned my cheek of fat and flesh, leaving just enough so my mouth could still open properly. There were dogs there, and he made certain I watched as he fed bits of me to his hounds.”
He was trying to get me to run away from him. As I stared at the ruin of the left side of his face and that thin skin which clearly sat over nothing but bone at most places, all I felt was sadness. I had never understood why they hated Tulschi in Sesslyn before. But as he spoke, I understood more and more.
“I still cannot smile properly.” He snorted. “After they discovered that they could not get anything out of me— because I had no information of note— they threw me in a wagon headed for town. When I found my way back to Ynys Afallon, my lover—who I had been handfasted to six months prior— left me because she couldn’t bear to look upon me. So then I became a bandit and did similar things to pretty Tulschian girls like you.”
“You wouldn’t be here if you were a bandit.”
“After a few years I grew tired of it. I took my gold, moved to the White Isle where people mostly avoided me—except when they have need of an archer.”
“So you’re now a hermit turned instructor.” He nodded and reached for his wine, leaving the destroyed half of his face bare. “Don’t you feel a conflict of interests? Seeing as you hate all things Tulschi?”
“Only when I glance my reflection,” he grumbled.
“I don’t understand how you are even here talking to me after enduring all of that.”
“Perhaps I was hoping my grotesque nature would chase you away?”
“No, the hatred of someone who endured the torture you did…that would make itself known more than this.” I glanced up just in time to see Ettienne being taken to a room above in an Aes Sidhe’s arms with her legs wrapped about his waist, two others followed.
“Your friend has been drugged,” he casually asserted. I laughed and shook my head in denial.
“No, Ettienne knows exactly what she’s doing. This isn’t the first time she’s taken a gaggle of men to her bed.”
“And you? Do you know what you are doing?” He leaned his head to the side as he brought his cup up again.
“Yes, I’m talking to a bigoted Aes Sidhe.” I grinned at him. “One who is currently trying his hardest to run me away. Perhaps, so that I don’t point out the contradiction of him being so bigoted, with that book of poems sitting before him. A Book which is all verse about male Aes Sidhe making love to human girls.” I waved my hand over a small spot on the table and drew it upwards, leading with my palm; with minimal effort I conjured a silver goblet of red spiced Aes Sidhe apple wine from Ynys Afallon. It was the first spell I had learned after I studied the Isle. His nose twitched at the scent, I would guess out of familiarity of the sweet aroma of the wine.
“You are a very observant little cardinal.” He sneered at me.
“Perhaps.” I smirked as I sipped the strong wine.
“Though an Aes Sidhe would have to wonder how a girl such as yourself knew such a book by a glance at the title alone.” I blushed, and he laughed at me. And he was right, the corner of his mouth didn’t rise with the other, it moved sluggishly into a smirk. I hid my face in the goblet for a moment, pretending to drink as I just let the cool wine rest against my lips. “Considering the company you keep, I would not think you one for reading about such things. Your friends seem to be far more interested in doing.”
“I…” I started as I set the glass down. “I am interested in all things Aes Sidhe. I have been since I first learned of your kind. I’ve studied the histories extensively, and the culture—it fascinates me.”
“That does not explain why you have been back here all night while your friends have already made merry and departed with their lovers for the evening. I know the ways of you Ske’ta enough to know you are not acting as you are taught to.” I shrugged and continued to stare at him. “Though, I think you are the first person to gaze at me for this long in almost two hundred years without some look of disgust on your face. Were I a stupid Aes Sidhe, I would think you were actually attracted to this mutilated old Stag.” He sucked his teeth, and I glanced at his now empty cup. “But alas, my little cardinal, I am not.” He brought his cup to his lips and a frown took over them as he realized it was now empty. His eye raised to search the still crowded tavern for the serving girl.
Without a word, I leaned toward him and held my hand over his cup and my gaze locked with his. I knew the spell well enough that I didn’t even have to move my hand to conjure him wine. I was almost to the point of not having to even be near the cup, but it always yielded unpredictable results.
“When I was first brought to the tower I was four. I was actually one of the youngest to be assigned to Re’Sket, but my mother was also a Ske’ta of the red and my greatmother as well. When I was six, they brought a girl in whose face had been horribly marked by burns. Some well-meaning peasant in Adlia told a noble girl’s parents they could rid her of her magic. I screamed when I saw her, ran and hid behind one of the instructors. They forced me to play with her every day after that. So, your face isn’t the worst I have seen by far.”
“What happened to the girl?”
“When she was ten she threw herself out of a window in Sa’ske’ta’s quarters.”
“That is understandable. I can well imagine what it is like to be surrounded by beauty when you are so very marred. I suppose she was quietly buried and they never spoke of her again?”
“Oh no, she is upstairs right now with a quarter dozen Aes Sidhe warriors.”
“The dark haired one?” He asked as he reached for his cup peering inside at the cool liquid.
“The fall didn’t kill her. I was the one who found her mangled body in the gardens. She was so broken, it was horrible. I ran and knelt beside her, my will was the only thing that kept her alive and numb from the pain.” I sighed and glanced around. “I think it’s the only reason we’re still friends. We were close as children, but once she was healed and beautiful… we are very different people now. She will make a wondrous Ske’ta, she has a clear head. That is why the behavior is encouraged, it helps you clear your mind easier.”
“What of you, little cardinal?” I shifted and shrugged at his words as he sipped his wine and a slow happy smile spread across his lips. “I have not had this in years, it was my favorite wine once.”
“Once?” I asked elegantly pirouetting around his initial question.
“This vintage is very hard to come by, the apples it was made from only grow on Ynys Afallon; and as you well know, the druids pushed us out. Because you humans ffyc like rabbits, and do not care whose child it is that grows in your belly. So you spread like a plague greedy for land and resources. But, you did not answer my question. Are you as clear headed as your friend?” I blushed and quickly raised my goblet to my lips to hide most of my face. “Ah, that is a resounding no if I have ever seen one. Do they even know?”
“It was the point of tonight, the reason I’m dressed up.” I gestured to the bit of red silk which showed through my black cloak. “They had thought that I would finally… clear my head since there would be so many Aes Sidhe here and my… preference is… not unknown to them.” He reached out and gently lifted my cloak from my shoulder and peered at the dress I wore beneath it.
“Yes, that would certainly help with you getting your head cleared.” He dropped the bit of fabric. “Even in my hatred I can appreciate the female Tulschian form when it is so displayed.” My blushed deepened. “Never blush when a man compliments your body. You are a Ske’ta, little cardinal, not a milk maid. Do you think that girl upstairs blushed? You can be as brazen as a woman who has had a hundred lovers without ever taking one.” He nursed his wine.
“Why do you have the book?”
“How many women do you think will take me to bed, be they Aes Sidhe or Dhaonna, dwarf, gnome or even a troll?” He laughed.
“Oh, you are far too pretty for a troll to take you to bed, but there are always whores.”
“I had a whore give me my money back and tell me to leave before I even took my clothes off—I even had the eye patch on. She walked up to me, brushed back my hair and told me to leave. The Madam—the woman who ran the establishment—told me I would have to pay six times the coin. Even the women hungry for an Aes Sidhe to warm their bed will not have me.”
“I thought it was a kiss.” He laughed at my words and I cast my gaze down.
“Stop that. It was nice to have someone actually look at me for a change. No, it is not a kiss. There is supposedly no better lover than an Aes Sidhe, and I do not mean it in terms of fidelity. We simply love better. We are the passionate race or so they say.” The serving girl approached then, and took one look at his face and drew a breath to scream. I raised my eyes to her and she froze mid-motion. Suddenly she blushed deeply and licked her lips at the scarred sidhe before her, leaning on the side of the table.
“I see you have drink, but if you need anythin’ at all let me know, and I mean anythin’, lovey,” the girl spoke as she turned and sauntered away with hips swaying, but not before giving a long last look at the sidhe beside me.
“That is dangerous magic. In the Northern Kingdoms they would drag you out to the middle of the town square and burn you for that,” he murmured softly into his drink. I looked at him, and extended my will towards him as I had the girl.
Sitting his cup down, he started to lean towards me as though to kiss me with the sweetness of his wine still on his lips. I started to move towards him, and then he broke my spell. I had never had someone’s will match my own before. We were close enough that I could see the startled White Stag in the reflection of his eye, and the smoothness of unmarred flesh of his face.
Though I knew my bewitchment had broken but still he lingered close. I had simply wanted a kiss but he pulled me out of my chair and into his lap. I didn’t get my kiss but I got the warmth of his body and his arm around my waist steadying me across his legs. After a moment, I leaned my head against his neck and stared at the elaborate tattoo which branched up his throat from under his coat. I counted the birds I could see, the leaves on the branches, and the undulations on the clouds which blew through them in green in on his oh so white flesh.
“Should I apologize?” I asked as I held my hand out, my goblet slid across the table to meet my palm.
“No, little cardinal, not at all.” He snickered. “Though, I would think your sort using such powers outside of the Tower would be punishable.”
“It’s not. Re’Sket and all of the towns surrounding the Skets are still considered part of our training grounds.”
“Mm.” The short noise escaped his closed lips as he shifted under me, pressing his hand about my waist tighter. “I will ask that you not do that again. If you wish us to kiss, we will—if that is in the cards for us.”
“Says the bigoted Aes Sidhe to the Tulschi Ske’ta.”
“No, Aes Sidhe to Sidhe.”
“I am not sidhe.”
He nodded a bit. “No your ears are not pointed, and your skin does not glow. But those eyes, there is no way that is anything but a Sidhe color. You are not entirely dhaonna, Little Cardinal.”
“My name is Asiliyara.” I peered up at him with a smirk and he stared down his nose at me in that way which I had dreamed of an Aes sidhe looking at me for years. The heat in his eyes sent a small shiver down my spine.
“áthas orm bualadh leat, Tynan,” Pleasure to meet you, Tynan. I grinned at him and he chuckled a bit in turn.
“Tá do Sidhe-teanga Uafásach.” Your Sidhe-tongue is horrible.
“I… I’m still learning. In truth it was my first time speaking it.”
“If that is the case it was somewhat passable, I suppose.” The serving girl came back then, and I caught her in my spell early. To her, he was the most beautiful creature she had seen. She fawned over him, begging for him to let her bring him something. Instead, he tipped her to stay away. “She did not see you, did she?” he asked after a moment. “No matter how lovely a woman finds a man, few will have the audacity to speak to one in such a way when they have another woman seated comfortably in their lap.”
“I didn’t cloud myself. I simply made her see that both halves of your face were whole.” I shrugged and he nodded.
“Is that what you are doing to yourself? Why you look at me like that?”
“Like what?” I furrowed my brows, and he shook his head. “But no, I’m not doing that. Believe it or not, it’s very hard for me to trick my own mind.”
“Maybe you will get your wish sooner than later, Asiliyara.” He murmured as his attention floated back out over the tavern. He finished his drink and sighed. “I have a room at the tower, we could continue drinking and talking there if you would like to. Most of my men have left so there is no need for me to be here.” He pulled his eye patch back on and his grip on me loosened.
“We… we adepts aren’t supposed to leave the Tower after dark technically. I can’t get back in through the front gate.”
“So you snuck out? I will attempt to keep your secret safe, but I make no promises.”
“I can show you something, but… you have to keep it a secret, just between us.” I whispered into his ear, he twitched slightly and then nodded.
I slid out of his lap and headed out of the door. I didn’t have to look behind to know he followed. I could feel the press of his aura, and smell the scent of blade old, sweat and the sea. It was funny, I had always expected Aes Sidhe to smell like the forest—but I had never smelled a forest before. I turned down an alley way and waited for him to enter. He snickered and smirked at me, and I knew what he was thinking; because I could guess what most males would be thinking if a women they had in their laps a moment before had lead them to a darkened alley way.
“It’s not what you think.”
“I would hope not, seeing as I just rejected your kiss not twenty minutes prior.” I pursed my lips at his words and shook my head. Stretching my shoulder, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I centered myself; I drowned out the sound of the river in the distance, the still buzzing market square and the scent of the sea. I drew a circle in the air with both of my hands and the portal formed with less effort than it usually took. The air cracked and fizzed at the edges of the window which showed my room in the Tower on the other side.
“Hm.” He looked over the portal and I held out my hand.
“You have to hold my hand when you cross over.”
“This magic is supposed to be dead, Asiliyara.”
“Lots of things that are supposed to be one way or another aren’t.”
He shrugged at my words and took my hand. Our fingers laced and I let my thumb trace over his hard gnarled hand before I stepped back into the portal and he followed me.
Once we were both standing in my room the portal winked out of existence. Usually, I had to dismiss them, so the sudden disappearance was somewhat troubling. But as I held his hand and we stood in my room I knew why we were told we should seek sexual comfort far younger than sorceresses. Tension was a distraction, and as my eyes locked with his I had to force myself to let his hand go. His eye went right to the book shelf, and that book there. He snatched it up and smiled down at me.
“Interested in all things Aes Sidhe indeed. Might I add that this is dangerously close to arm’s length from your bed.” I moved to snatch it back but he raised his hand just out of reach and opened the book.
“The witch begged him for a touch. With her eyes alone, she pleaded for his lips. Her delicate white fingertips upon his moonglow chest. The pale Sidhe warrior stood there near to out of arms reach. His own chest heaving as quickly as hers, as he felt his flesh harden in spite of himself. His hatred abated with her hands upon his slender form, as his eyes feasted upon her body. Her shift concealed little and those all devouring eyes could make out the hardened buds of her nipples brushing the shift. Her ripe breasts rose and fell against the thin spider silk gown. Her pulse stirred at her cleft, a thunderous throbbing of need which only matched his own." As he read, I found myself unable to move. Fear and embarrassment over took me as he read aloud the passage which took me shuddering to sleep every evening. “She had called to him with her powers. Sought him out of the forest with her potions and herbs; tinctures and whispered words; and now he was before her in all of his might. This delicate maiden knew not what to do as her skin seemed ablaze with fire; her whole being hummed with a foreign and all-consuming desire."
“Y-y-you can stop now!” I managed to whisper. As I jumped for the book, he raised it a bit more.
He brazenly continued to read, his supple tenor faint and almost inaudible.
“Swiftly, the warrior approached the witch; His hands did he move to cup her full bosom to kiss; Hardened and scarred fingers captured those tiny pebbles at the tops of her downy peaks. Oh, how those fingers twisted so gently those stems of which his mouth did seek; as to make her tremble, to coax from her a cry and his name. Once satisfied his hands slid over her body; exploring the plane of her flat belly; ever seeking that needy wanton, desirous mouth betwixt her thighs. The warrior touched her there, exploring through her cries; the soft, hot, moist bounty which she so offered readily. As their bodies married merrily; he ceased to be he, she ceased to be she; they were then the lovers carved of the oak tree.”
My mouth was dry when he finished and I turned from him, my heart fluttering in my chest. I undid the simple bow which kept the cloak tied about my shoulders and pulled it off.
“You’re very cruel,” I warbled out after I finally found my voice again, hanging the cloak from a peg on the door of my wardrobe. I turned around to find him lounging on my bed. His back against the carved head board, his legs stretched out long in front of him. He cut an impressive form in the summer fire light, the way his head was tilted you couldn’t even see the mutilation. I gawked, and he stared at me with an empty eye, I couldn’t sense or read any emotion from it.
“It is not my intention to be cruel.” His voice was soft, but my heart was still high in my chest and my face still felt hot. His back straightened and he beckoned me to him and I simply stared.
“You have an odd way of showing your intentions, teasing me like that.”
“I acted poorly but I have been in the company of men, and women who might as well be men, for the last month.”
“Is the journey really so long?” I asked as I hesitantly moved towards the bed, he nodded slowly.
“Painfully so, and I almost thought it was not worth it. I am here to train my sworn enemies; time is an odd mistress.”
“So, why come at all?” I moved to the bed and knelt beside him.
“I am doing my duty to my people. I believe this keeps the White Isle free. With Tulsch as an ally, no one will try and force us from it. We fought hard to carve that small space for ourselves.”
“I meant: why if you hate the Tulschi so much are you in my bed, after reading obscene prose.”
“You forgot to add that it was obscene prose from your own collection.”
“That doesn’t answer anything.”
“Does it not?” He smiled at me and skewed his head to the side, his bright verdant eye gazing at me with heaviness. He desired me.
Suddenly, the world was very still and silent. It seemed that all that existed in the world was myself, the flame and this beautiful Aes Sidhe. As I stared at him, I couldn’t help to wonder what he looked like under the jacket he wore. If the torturers had left his body alone. What his marking looked like in full splendor. What every hard ridge of muscle and bone on his body felt like under my fingertips. A hot blush took my cheeks and he smiled at me.
“Do not blush,” he breathed before he closed the distance between us, his mouth brushing against mine. His tongue delicately coaxing my lips apart as his hands slid to my hips and he moved me to straddle his lap. He caressed up my thighs raising my skirt to my hips as he cupped my bottom and continued to kiss me and I let him. I wanted more, but my mouth was captured by his and held hostage. My hands slid to his neck and sought refuge in the heat of his chest under that heavy dark green jacket.
The kiss broke as abruptly as it began, there was a lazy smile on his lips as he let his hands fall from me. Unbuttoning his jacket, he let it fall to the side, exposing his pristine chest; the flat taut planes of his stomach and the sprawling marking at his shoulder. My hands went for the bow of lace tied at the small of my back, and quick as a viper he stopped me, grabbing my wrists.
“No, I would rather not see all that you have to offer.”
I canted my head to the side at his words. “I don’t understand.”
“You are a young maid; I will not take your maiden head on first meeting you.”
I blinked at him in confusion. “I…”
Wetting my lips, I cast my gaze down, and he was there to cup my chin. He smiled at me before he was upon my lips again, kissing and nibbling upon me as he leaned over me, forcing me to lower over his lap. A sharp gasp escaped my lips as I felt that hard heat pressing at me from his leather trousers. He pressed his hips against mine coaxing a moan from my lips which was quickly stifled by his mouth on mine, his hands on my hips guiding me. That warmth and heat came quicker than in the books I had read—quicker than even when I read the books on my own. Reaching my hands up, I clung to him as I trembled above him. His continued nipping at my lips, stifling my cries as he brought me into that searing white hot pleasure. My body quaking above him as a small shudder ran through him, his fingertips pulling me hard against him.
I fell asleep in that fashion. My head rested upon his chest as he idly stroked my hair. I wasn’t stupid enough to think I had an Aes Sidhe lover after that night. But I did think I had made a friend at the very least, a friend who I wanted to see naked, a friend whose touch I lusted after.