Born of no mortal parent;
She is the daughter
Of three houses and of none.
The wind howled through the streets to pound on doors and scream at windows. Rhysa flinched at a particularly loud ripping crack of thunder, the air sizzling in the wake of lightning’s passage. The brief, blue-white glare through the windows at the top of the walls revealed a dark shape ahead of her: the guard in front of the door she had to get through.
She touched her sword and dagger, but decided against it. A collapsed guard was very conspicuous to any patrol that might happen by--a dead one even more so. The problem was that the door he guarded was probably locked; she’d need several seconds in order to get through it. She crouched in the shadows several feet away, brushed cloud-white hair from her face, and bit her lip.
Invisibility was out. It wouldn’t stop the sound of the lock clicking. Besides, the guards in this place were probably given enchantments that would see through any kind of invisibility spell. Disguise spells were also out since she didn’t know if the guard would permit anyone unquestioned entry.
Rhysa smiled and reached with her mind. While his eyes might see her, and his ears might hear her, the recognition portion of his brain would only register what he was seeing at the time she set up the looped visual--nothing. She set it to fade in two minutes.
Moving through the shadows in case there were other observers around, she walked to the door and crouched in front of it. From an arm sheath she took her lock-pick set. A minute later, the lock clicked. She opened the door, slipped inside, and relocked the door--no alarm sounded.
She tapped a little more of her personal energy and removed the visual loop from the guard outside. The chance of someone coming by in the remaining forty-five seconds or so was small, but the consequences were unacceptable.
She crouched in the doorway at one end of a hall faintly lit by small candles flanking a door twenty-five feet away. The wide hall had a door on either wall besides the door at the end of the passage, and the one she’d just come through. The one on her right was about ten feet away. The one on the left was five feet further along.
Rhysa crept down the hall, fighting impatience and ignoring the voice inside her that screamed at her to go faster before someone caught her. At the first door, she crouched and listened. Voices spoke in low tones--no words understandable. Satisfied by the relaxed tones, she moved to the second doorway.
She heard voices through this door, too. The character of these voices was slightly agitated. She frowned. This could present some problems. There was a fairly good chance someone would leave the room and possibly stumble upon her.
As she pondered what to do, one of the voices grow louder quickly--someone was about to come through that door. She crouched against the wall next to the doorway and prayed action would not be necessary.
“Not this time!” The voice about to come through the door was angry. A man stepped out into the hall and slammed the door behind him. Without looking around, he turned and stalked to the door at the end of the hall. He opened the door, and the candles on either side flickered. He stepped through, closing the door after him.
Rhysa didn’t dare wait to see if the slamming door brought attention from the door she’d already cleared. She ran silently to the door at the end of the hall and slipped through, hoping the man wasn’t nearby to notice the door open.
He stood at a table, his back to the door, looking down at something on the table. As she moved to crouch in a corner, he reached for something, then hesitated and withdrew. He muttered something to himself; it sounded like, “I hope it works.” He spun and left the room.
As soon as he moved away, she saw a scintillating sphere about 12 inches in diameter. This was it. This was her target. When the door shut behind the man, Rhysa crossed to the House Orb on silent feet. She was just reaching for it when she heard the catch of the door being tripped. She spun and ran to stand next to the doorway where she would be shielded from sight by the door. Even as she ran, she knew she wouldn’t make it. Everything started moving in slow motion.
The door swung open, and she dropped her secondary objective. The man’s eyes widened and his mouth opened. She threw an envelope of silence around them.
Rhysa grabbed the startled man, and hauled him inside before he could react. She kicked the door closed, and spun him so his back was to her; she wrapped an arm around his neck. Even as he pulled at her arm to get air, she drew her dagger and plunged it into his solar plexus, angling to pierce his heart.
He stiffened then went limp. She let him slip to the floor, and checked to be sure no blood had spattered her. Satisfied, she dropped her silence envelope. With a dead body, she no longer had to hide the fact someone had been here.
She grabbed the orb, intending to run back the way she’d come. Her hand touched the orb--and a bolt of electricity shot from the orb, numbing her arm and causing her vision to dim briefly. She cursed in the depths of her mind.
Lights flared and her owners stepped through the back wall of the room. Lady Kasteryn narrowed her eyes. Lord Hermestus shook his head. Lord Amonteus looked grim.
“You’re dead.” Lady Kasteryn’s voice was quiet and resonant.
Rhysa sighed and nodded.
Lord Amonteus raised an eyebrow. “No excuses? No denials?”
Rhysa shook her head. “No. I was too impatient at the end. I should have taken his earlier agitation into account and guessed that he would return.”
Lord Amonteus smiled. “Good.”
Lord Hermestus spoke up. “Do you think you made any other mistakes?”
Rhysa thought back through the exercise. “The only other thing that could have been better was at the second hall door. I was very lucky he didn’t look around.”
Lord Hermestus nodded.
“Anything else?” Lady Kasteryn’s voice had returned to normal.
“The trap at the end. I should have realized no one would leave a House Orb completely undefended.”
Lady Kasteryn raised her eyebrows. “Close. But not quite.” She stepped to a side wall and pressed a loose stone. A secret door opened slightly. She pulled it all the way open revealing an orb the twin of the one on the desk. “The orb on the desk didn’t have a trap. It was the trap.”
Rhysa snorted and shook her head self-deprecatingly. “Clever.”
“Come. Let’s go review your performance someplace comfortable.” Lady Kasteryn gestured at the body on the floor. “I’ll send someone to deal with the automata."
Lady Kasteryn led them through the illusory wall at the back of the room. Rhysa stepped through, and saw they were next to the training hall exit. The wind and flashes of lightning told Rhysa the storm was still going strong. She drew some energy from the overlay and created a shell around herself before stepping outside. From the way they stayed dry, her teachers had done the same thing. The four walked to the house and entered through a side door.
Lady Kasteryn led them to her workroom where she’d set up a large scrying mirror on one wall. They each placed a chair in front of it. The setup briefly reminded Rhysa of a similar gathering just after she’d been bought. Only then it was Bryn Hermestus explaining why Rhysa couldn’t remember anything prior to her capture. Someone had placed walls between Rhysa’s conscious mind and her memories. As new experiences paralleled hidden memories, pieces of the wall would crack and break, releaseing the original memory. The only words she remembered from that meeting were: “I can only assume Lord Amilar is interested because of something related to those memories.” That statement had come from Jayse Amonteus. Shaking off the reminiscence, Rhysa took her seat.
Lady Kasteryn stood. “Let’s begin.” She waved her hand at the mirror, calling forth images. Having started the images moving, Lady Kasteryn sat to watch. Rhysa watched herself crouch in the shadows to observe the first guard. As she watched the exercise progress, she marveled at how far she’d come in the past few years. The woman in the mirror bore little resemblance to the young woman who’d been bought one midnight several years ago.
They watched silently through the whole exercise. Then Lady Kasteryn started it over; Lord Amonteus paused the motion and spoke. “This first thing was interesting. Why didn’t you just put him to sleep?”
“The secondary goal was to leave absolutely no trace. If he’d found himself lying on the ground, he’d have known something was wrong.”
Lord Amonteus nodded his approval and Lord Hermestus spoke up. “What exactly did you do? I could tell it had something to do with the senses, but not what.”
“I blocked the bridge from his eyes and ears to the part of his brain that recognizes what is seen or heard. Kind of like using a tilted mirror to give the illusion of an empty box.”
Lord Hermestus nodded and let the images resume motion. When they saw Rhysa open the door behind the first guard, Lord Amonteus murmured approvingly.
Event by event, they went over her performance. Pointing out things well done, making suggestions on alternatives that might provide opportunities. When they reached the point where Rhysa was about to take the orb, she was amazed the whole episode, from the first click of the latch to the releasing of the envelope of silence, took less than five seconds--her movements fast, smooth, controlled.
Lady Kasteryn said nothing, only smiled and gave a slight nod; Rhysa had impressed her teacher. Normally, Lady Kasteryn would point out a couple of things that could have been better, but it appeared she didn’t see anything needing correcting.
When the review finished, Lady Kasteryn stood and deactivated the mirror. “On the whole, a satisfactory performance. That last trick we pulled on you is the kind of thing only caution gained from experience would let you pass. You’ve seen it in a controlled condition; you’ll be aware of it in the field. This was the most difficult infiltration simulation we’ve put you through, and your only major mistake was falling for the decoy.” Lord Amonteus and Lord Hermestus nodded their agreement.
Lady Kasteryn briefly met the eyes of the two lords, then returned her attention to Rhysa. “You’ve just about finished your training. Your skills in physical combat are above average, you can take care of many medical issues including battlefield medicine, you’re very good at infiltration, and your grasp of, and strength in, magic is--impressive. It’s time for you to start thinking what you want to do with these skills. During your years with us, you’ve more than repaid our hopes for you. We’re more than willing to keep you on in a different capacity, but there are other options available.”
Lord Amonteus stood and addressed Rhysa. “In classical terms, you’re entering your journeyman period. With your skills, you could find employment with any noble house in the city. With recommendations from the three of us, you might even be able to get a job with the Royals.”
“She may not even need the recommendation,” murmured Lord Hermestus. “The prince has consistently shown interest in her progress.”
“True enough,” Lord Amonteus agreed. “You could also join the army, or a mercenary group. They’re always looking for skilled people. Your combination of skills would guarantee a very nice contract.”
“You could, of course, become a professional bodyguard, like your friend Elise, but it would be a waste of your talents.” Lady Kasteryn’s expression made her thoughts even clearer than her words.
“The other common choice for new journeymen is to wander from place to place, looking for ways to exercise their training.”
“You don’t have to decide right now,” said Lord Hermestus. “We just want you to start thinking over your options.”
Realizing she’d just been dismissed, Rhysa stood and nodded to each of them before leaving the room. She made her way to her room among the slaves, moving silently by habit. She no longer had to think to move silently and leave little trace of her passing.
When she reached her room, she grabbed her toiletries and went to bathe. She wished Elise were still around. She could use a good massage right now. Tathan was still around, though she was still nervous around men--even those who preferred other men. For a moment, she was back at the beginning of the riot two years ago. She shook off the memory before it could get started.
She thought about what her mentors had said about moving on. It had been an astonishingly short apprenticeship, especially considering how much she’d learned. As Lord Hermestus had said at the beginning, something in a lesson might trigger a memory, or at the least an instinctive grasp of a particular skill or piece of knowledge. It had certainly helped her with the magic portions of her training. She’d picked up magic the way a towel picks up water. Those memories even helped her a bit with the herbs and potion-making portions of Lord Hermestus’ lessons.
Most of her memories were still lost to her. The bits and pieces she’d re-discovered only dealt directly with the task at hand. She never remembered who else was present, or even where they were. The closest she ever came to knowing who else was in the memories was the feeling of a large presence--but whether physically large or simply a large personality, she couldn’t say.
No memories had surfaced at all in her combat and infiltration lessons. It was her natural grace and hidden physical strength that helped. Lady Kasteryn and Lord Amonteus were more impressed with how easily these lessons came to her than they were about the magic. Lady Kasteryn had told her why a couple months ago.
“Magic is in your blood,” Lady Kasteryn had said. “There is no part of you not infused by magic. Even if it weren’t being trained, you would still use it, though wildly and without consistency. You have faerie blood in your veins, and a recent generation at that. Maybe even one of your parents. None of us are sure which contributed that heritage, though Bryn thinks it was probably your mother.
“That was one reason we were so anxious to keep you away from Lord Amilar. There are some odd rumors floating around about him. Some of those rumors involve non-humans. I suspect the prince had a similar motivation.”
That, of course, had given Rhysa the idea Lord Amilar might be her father. The others had denied it was even a possibility, but were unable to provide sufficient proof to satisfy Rhysa. Now that her journeyman period was about to start, she had the opportunity to investigate.
She’d already done some investigating, mostly hunting out the rumors Lady Kasteryn had mentioned. Several were bizarre--grotesque, even. A few were contradictory. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a solid starting point to filter the rumors. Nevertheless, she’d collected every single one she could find. Even the most unlikely ones.
By the time she finished her bath, she had begun to narrow down the possibilities. She wouldn’t join the army, for instance. The army offered no reasonable path for her investigations. She stood in front of her mirror, let her towel fall, and scrutinized her naked body, trying to imagine how she would appear in each of the remaining possibilities.
The tattoos on her arms caught her attention. She traced the snake-entwined blade on the left arm with her right hand. She traced around the slave collar, the path completely enclosing the blade entwined with snakes. Then she traced over the crossed arrows that proclaimed her free through involuntary manumission. That had been a bad day. Again she stopped the memory before it had a chance to start.
“I don’t have to decide tonight,” she told her reflection, “or even tomorrow. Within reason, I can probably take as long as I want to decide.”
Satisfied, she climbed into bed and thickened the air around the candles to snuff them out. She pillowed her head on her arms, closed her eyes, and willingly lost herself in dreams.
The chamber was large and well lit. The walls of carved stone were softened with tapestries, paintings, and an occasional statue or sculpture. In the center of the roughly circular chamber was a pool of water. It was a perfect circle six feet across and only a few inches deep. Rhysa lay by the edge, dabbling her fingers in the crystal water. The ripples entranced, and the patterns made when one set of ripples collided with a reflected set mesmerized. A soft splash of a small waterfall in the next room, and the deep throaty laughter echoing from further away, comforted. Rhysa smiled her contentment.
Later, Rhysa stood across the pool from her teacher. She couldn’t quite see his features, nor could she make out what he was saying. Rhysa felt and saw herself do something in response to something the teacher had said, but couldn’t quite make out what it was. Rhysa’s teacher said something else, and she heard the voice was deep and had a thrumming quality to it.
Abruptly, Rhysa found herself running through carved rock tunnels. Her heart raced against her feet. Even as she ran for her life, the sounds of titanic struggle behind echoed through the tunnels. She ran blindly, trusting her feet to know the way out. The rock under her feet trembled, and her ears cringed at the roar of some creature or monster turning his pain into anger to be unleashed on those intent on killing him. Dodging falling rocks dislodged from the ceiling, she caromed around a corner. Even as she spotted the exit, the earth shook as if some gargantuan object had crashed to the floor as dead weight. The impact and reverberation sent ripples throughout the dwelling, and even as she reached the exit, the ceiling came down and all was darkness.
Rhysa’s eyes snapped open, but she held herself still out of trained habit. Her pulse slowed as the knowledge of where she was returned. She hadn’t had that dream since her capture by the slavers who sold her to the Trio: Lady Amelia Kasteryn, Lord Bryn Hermestus, and Lord Jayse Amonteus.
She focused on slowing her breathing, letting the dream disappear wherever dreams go. In a few minutes, Rhysa was asleep once more.