Only the purest of fires burned without smoke, without ash, without spark. Vassa Ithrennyn sat with her back against a swaying palm, stomach full for the first time in a long time, resting in the cool comfort of the oasis's shade. The flames danced at her feet as the light of the sun slipped behind the horizon, ghosting across the bare stones, swirling and radiating heat that kept the approaching chill at bay. A desert at night was not as warm as she had once assumed in her own homeland, several years and several thousand miles ago. Nothing stopped the wind except the oases, and those were chilled by the cool waters that she was immensely grateful for.
Were it not for her own talents and Samir's amazing sense of self preservation, she would have died in the desert long ago.
As if sensing her thought towards him, the camel in question huffed and tugged experimentally at his lead. He didn't want to escape, but he did want to savage the dates growing on the palms. Currently he was tied where he could only browse on the grasses and drink the crystalline fresh waters.
"Do not be a glutton," she advised her sole companion in her native tongue, lips tugging into something approaching a smile behind the dark silk that covered the lower half of her face, from the bridge of her nose down. "You would not care for it."
Samir gave her a look that could only be called challenging. In this matter, she knew he had a diametrically opposed opinion. She hadn't decided if she believed that he was truly an intelligent animal, but he was certainly stubborn and expressive, more so than any horse she had ever known. He also possessed a low, yet most impressive cunning. She'd picked up the remains of her knots on his lead more than once, somehow untied so that he could go about his gluttonous work masticating the flora. His main defense when she intercepted was to spit wildly, but he seldom did it directly at her after nearly inciting a wrath worthy of the ancients when he landed a glob all down the front of her shirt on their first day alone in the desert.
Still, for all his annoying qualities, Vassa was pleased to know him. Even the smell had faded, though that was more because her nose had become used to him than anything else. She knew it probably lingered distressingly on herself as well, despite cleaning up as much as she could. What she needed was a proper heated bath with soaps and perfumes. It would never happen, but she could delight in the last vestiges of memories of otherwise forgotten luxuries.
"Would you listen better if I spoke the tongue of the men who raised you?" Vassa said, stirring the fire with a long, delicate finger slowly swirling above it.. The flames flickered and danced, offering up their warmth and threatening their bite. The stripes of burn scars across her knuckles and palms shone in the amber light. These reminders of the abuse no longer troubled her as they once had. That was a violent revulsion and self-loathing reserved for other wounds. It was easier in seclusion to push back her own insecurities, to tend to her damage.
Samir at least didn't care what stones she carried upon her soul, ignorant of the strain of it all, bearing down the weight. The camel cared about almost nothing except where his next meal was coming from. It was a refreshingly pragmatic trait that she found she appreciated more and more as time went by. It made her regret on some level that he would die long before her, if by age if nothing else.
Vassa gave it no thought until she heard the sound of riders. On horseback, even, which meant she was far closer to a settlement than she'd realized. Horses needed water more than camels did, after all.
She smoothed her hand over the low flame. "Sleep," she whispered gently, her touch extinguishing the fire. There was no avoiding the twinge of sorrow in her chest. If a fire was to die, she would have preferred it to be on the fire's own terms. It felt cruel to cut short the life of elemental essence. She glanced up at Samir and said more firmly, "Stay."
The camel didn't resist the order, though she knew he would probably unknot his lead and be ready to run when she returned. He was nothing if not a survivor. Fortunately, they had been together long enough with a decent enough relationship that he wouldn't quite bolt without her. She was his best protection against the denizens of the oases and desert alike.
Vassa wound her way through the trees with all the grace of a hunter, though she raised no weapon to threaten off thieves. The shortsword she wore was elegant and perfectly balanced, light as a feather and keen as a razor. It was elven in design though made by a particularly talented dwarf, a copy of the second blade of a zhendai. Such things were said to be made of moonlight and shadow imbued into living metal. How Durgan had come by the knowledge of their construction was a mystery of the ages, but the mithral and magic in the blade made her feel far more secure.
Any way to safeguard herself instead of using magic was welcome. She was not the best warrior, not among her people, but she had a great deal of practice. Perfection could only be reached through that means. No amount of study would ever supplant experience in practical application, year after year.
She crept closer to the sounds of voices, one hand near her weapon but not on it. Her first search was for lookouts so that there would be no attacks from the rear. She much preferred ambushing to being ambushed. Vassa had not reached her current age by being a fool and she had ample reason not to trust anyone.
Her vantage point came from a cypress tree. In its branches, she was concealed by the brush below and the leaves all around. She made a small window by carefully parting the greenery and listened intently.
Below stood four men, desert-blooded and attired as the followers of an emir, one of the desert princes joined in consecrated brotherhood with the King of Talin. Odd, considering she was fairly certain she was further south than that kingdom of men could normally reach. Not thorn knights, she reflected. Not a hint of green amongst them. The four men were certainly of that blood, though, deep brown skin with dark hair and dark eyes. She had a good opinion of those among their people who she'd met. After all, they were the breed that had raised Samir and she had much gratitude for him.
At their feet knelt a bound and gagged young woman, clearly Eth. Her skin was as dark as charcoal, her curling hair cropped short. She seemed young, barely more than a girl and appeared to pose no threat. She looked up at her captors with frightened eyes, swallowing her fear as much as she could. The tension in her body told Vassa that she was planning to do something, the flick of her gaze hinting at a desire to flee.
And where would you flee to in this vast sea of sand? Vassa wondered silently. Death of thirst and heat far from an oasis is perhaps crueler than a blade.
"We should kill the girl," one of the standing men said, drawing a curved dagger with a wicked edge. "She has nothing. There will be no ransom for her."
Vassa almost laughed. So they were bandits, marvelous. She had that to look forward to. Though if they were truly honorless—what a delightfully ridiculous concept, honor—she could expect a great many evils were they to find her. Mercifully, she knew very well how to hide.
"Shut up," the tallest one barked. He grabbed the young woman's head and wrenched it over, showing his audience something Vassa had initially overlooked. "You know what this mark means!"
Just below the Eth's bottom lip was a twisted sigil surrounded by the elaborate silhouette of a sun, both elements shining gold and catching the glare of the setting sun's last embers. Vassa raised an eyebrow, more interested than she had been before. Surprising that the girl could not save herself, but then again, Vassa saw no sign of a soul jar. What good was a fire-speaker without a djinn? She knew little about that particular tradition of magic. It seemed a weak, fumbling grasp on power. Devastating, of course, but it relied on control that could be all too easily stripped away. Djinn had minds of their own.
She had been hoping to see at least one in the desert.
"It means we should gut her now. Every second we waste, she could be calling one," one of the others hissed.
That piqued Vassa's interest. It made sense, of course. If one's entire tradition of magic depended wholly on piggybacking off the raw power of a sentient magical fire, it would damn well pay to have the ability to at least flag one down.
While she so often erred on the side of allowing events to unfold on others as they would, learning more about Eth magic was a curiosity to indulge in worth intervening. Besides, they would come seeking her when they found her camel, and she was far better as an ambusher if not expected. Fights were never simple when they were many against one.
Vassa hooked her leg around the branch she was sitting on and placed a hand on the main trunk, digging her fingers into the bark. The hard skin of the tree softened slightly, letting her find a firm grip that wouldn't snap. "Let us see how you like a little magic," she whispered. Without need for a clumsy word or a grasping gesture, she touched her soul to the threads of existence, the fabric of reality. For almost all living souls, such a grasp on magic would be utterly beyond reach, but it was, as all things, a matter of perspective. A kernel of power formed at the center of her chest, burning fury hoping so ardently to be granted life. It would really be a shame to deny it the chance to live.
She waited until the split second when the most aggressive of the men raised the knife. Time was different to Vassa than to any of them, the strict passage of hours far less important than the individual moments. She could navigate heartbeats more adroitly than the five below and many others, yet another thing that came with experience.
She exhaled and released her kernel of power out into the threads, accepting the brief drain on her vitality as the price of action. The blade exploded in the man's hand, fragments piercing deep into the four. The one who had been holding it was extinguished by a chunk of the blade ripping open his throat while the others staggered back, bleeding and stunned.
Their leader recovered himself quickly, drawing his scimitar. "That was no djinn!"
Vassa sighed. She'd been hoping for a little more damage. Clearly she was slipping, or perhaps it was because she wanted the Eth in one living piece. She let go of the tree with her hands and uncurled her leg, body tensing to spring. As much as she had no desire to risk harm to herself, there was no way out of it now. She flicked her fingers, fixing not her eyes but her mind on the very first layer of sand on the earth behind the leader.
Distance, like time, was far more fluid than people gave it credit for.
Vassa stepped between the threads of existence like a dancer leaping from pirouette to pirouette. The cypress swayed, but there was no sign of anything in its branches. When the men looked, there was nothing there. Nothing because at the same moment, Vassa stepped from the leader's shadow.
He made a harsh sound in his throat as her blade plunged through his kidney up into his diaphragm, angled hard to do as much damage as possible. Vassa wasn't strong, but with speed and a blade this sharp, she didn't have to be. The blow was carefully placed to be at the angle where his brigantine armor was its weakest.
The others whirled and charged. Vassa's eyes saw where they were headed and her mind knew where they would end. Again she stepped from sunset to shadow, blade glimmering with moonlight. They were only two now, another tick towards even odds.
She appeared beside one of them, slicing just under his chin, allowing his own momentum to drive him further onto her blade. He crashed to the earth across a bloom of crimson, blood soaked hungrily up by the sands.
That left her with one horrified bandit remaining. Instead of swinging for her, he took a step back. "What are y—"
Vassa stepped in, striking the inside of his blade with hers. When he flinched instinctively, parrying as hard as he could, she let her blade flick from his to stab wickedly at the opening she'd just created with her feint on his opposite side. He tried to recover, but he had six inches of steel through his teeth before he could react effectively.
"Your predations have ended," Vassa said as she watched him fall to the earth.
Something hit her in the side of the head with enough force to send her sprawling. Was there another? She blinked to reorient herself when she felt someone step onto her swordhand, holding her blade immobile. Her head hurt, but she was well acquainted with pain.
It was the young woman, the last of her bonds hanging from her wrists. Apparently she'd been more ready to escape than Vassa gave her credit for. "Well done," she said in the Eth's language, that almost-smile forming behind her mask. "I commend you on your initiative, though perhaps not on your sense of self preservation."
"I just wanted to make sure we could talk before you killed me," the Eth young woman said, nerves making her voice high and unsteady. It was still pleasant to hear. Of all the southern languages, Vassa appreciated the Eth tongue the most. It was rich and full of complexity, with many sounds that did not exist in her flowing native tongue. She had yet to ascertain what had made her kin denigrate the 'beast speech' of the southern people.
Vassa relaxed comfortably, even her grip on her blade. If she wanted to kill the young woman, she could even in her current position. After all, the Eth was clearly most worried about the least of her weapons, the blade itself. "How civil. Though perhaps next time you could try asking instead of striking."
The young woman's brow furrowed. "You don't seem worried."
"Perhaps," she said with a shrug. "But I am not your enemy, fire-speaker. Those men would have killed you and then I, the moment they realized I was present in the oasis."
"What are you?" the Eth asked, clearly trying to make out more of Vassa's features only to be thwarted by the hood and mask. "That was not Eth magic."
"No, it was not," Vassa admittedly freely. "I am a traveler, one who knows a few tricks. They certainly worked to your benefit."
"Quite the tricks," she said warily. "So, traveler, can I expect the same from you that they did?"
"You may expect whatever you wish," the masked woman said with an almost carefree patience. "But I will only harm you if you seek to do me harm. Is that acceptable?"
The young woman studied her, then moved her foot so Vassa was no longer pinned against the earth. "It is," she confirmed, holding out her hand to help her rescuer up. "I am Seben Femi and I thank you for saving me. You are?"
"Slightly bruised," she said as she accepted the help up. The Eth were tall as a people, and even on the shorter side, Seben was six feet tall in sandals. "My name is Vassa."
The Eth nodded, though her glance had fallen to Vassa's hand. It was pale in the moonlight. "Where are you from, if I may ask?"
"You may ask," Vassa said. She picked up her blade, prompting Seben to stiffen up. She ignored the young woman, using the body of her nearest fallen foe to clean off her blade before sheathing it. The Eth relaxed once the shortsword was no longer drawn.
Seben seemed to understand that meant she wasn't going to get an answer. "You are quite the warrior."
"Hardly," Vassa said. She didn't think of herself as a warrior, not really. "They were simply not accounting for me." There was only one word she felt described her adequately: exile.
A crash in the brush followed by a distant sneezing noise drew her attention away from the young woman. She was altogether too familiar with that sound: Samir was raiding the dates and knew she would have heard the crash. He was clearly already working up a frightful amount of phlegm.
"What is that horrible noise?" Seben asked with unmistakable concern.
"My very own gluttonous fleabag," Vassa said with a sigh. "I should go wrangle him before he demolishes everything. You are welcome to come."
"Is he dangerous?" the young woman asked warily, following on her heels.
"That depends on the level of peril you assign to a truly infernal amount of camel spit," she muttered.
Seben chuckled. "I have known camels before, their spit is certainly foul, but not surely not infernal."
"I promise that it is malevolence incarnate, in both quantity and quality," Vassa said, stalking towards the camel laying waste to the date palms. "You! Off!"
Samir wheeled around and raised his head. Vassa dove to the side on reflex, leaving a woefully defenseless Seben behind. The gob of mucus and saliva that hit the Eth woman in the chest was about the size of Vassa's hand, spattering down the entire front of her white linen robe. Seben staggered back at the impact, eyes wide as saucers until the smell hit her, which disabled her with retching. Samir's head swiveled, hunting for his next target.
Vassa stepped out of the air beside the beast, catching his halter and forcing his head to point away from her. The spewing of camel snot reached a crescendo in velocity as he tried fervently to force her to let go of him with a combination of head-shaking and copious quantities of ooze. Even used to it, Vassa gagged a little. "Give it up, you ungainly trash-heap of malice," she said. "Any more of this and I will roast you."
Samir grudgingly stopped spitting, glaring at her with one baleful eye. He was waiting for her to relax her grip so he could break away and rampage anew.
"I know your game," she reminded him pointedly. She wasn't particularly strong, but his original owners had taught her how to catch him. "Give it up."
Her camel looked sullen at that, but ceased pulling and allowed her to find his lead. She guided him away from the palms and tied him securely to the sturdy cypress tree.
"Your beast is…" the young woman struggled to say.
"Foul?" Vassa suggested with amusement, lips tugging into a smirk behind her mask. "I did warn you." She patted Samir's side, ignoring the beast's glower but ready to dodge his spit if needed.
"Not warning enough," Seben muttered. She tried not to gag at the smell. "I'm going to see if those bandits had fresh clothes."
"I will be on the other side of the oasis's pond. I have a camp there," Vassa said, amusement still coloring her voice into something warmer than usual. "You may join me if you wish...or flee into the desert."
Seben nodded and headed back towards the horses and bodies of the bandits.
Vassa sighed. She wasn't used to having company who spoke. Samir had been her only true companion since she reached the Sea of Sand. Fortunately, this one would be gone soon enough, likely as soon as they reached civilization. That would be enough time to satisfy her curiosity and then send the young woman on her way before too many questions bubbled up in the fire-speaker.
She returned to her camp, meager as it was. Her bedroll was spread on soft grasses underneath a palm's deepening shade, her fire cold and dead. Vassa set about collecting palm fronds and woody pieces of those trees that had fallen and built a small fire again, igniting it with a flick of her fingers and a brief, tiny pulse of power. The flames bloomed to life and Vassa almost smiled, pleased to greet the element again. She took a seat next to it.
By the time she had finished, Seben emerged from the shadows of the palms as the sun finally made its descent behind the horizon. There was just enough light for Seben to see her path before reaching the firelight.
"Who are you?" Seben asked. The nervous unsteadiness in her voice was better, suppressed in favor of curiosity and boldness.
"I told you," Vassa said as she warmed her hands by the flames. Her rings gleamed in the light, each one intricately engraved with swirling script and sigils. "A traveler."
Seben hesitated, studying the rings. Vassa wore them on her ring fingers and thumbs, with an additional one on the index finger of her left hand. "Are you a Leyan mage? You lack the accent."
The masked woman laughed at that. "Hardly," she said, the eyes that gleamed in the firelight focusing intently on Seben. "These were...payment, for services rendered." She paused a second before shifting topics. "I think you are far more interesting than I, fire-speaker. How did you come to be held by these bandits?"
"I was with a caravan. They grabbed me in the night," Seben said.
Vassa knew when a great many salient details were being omitted. She had spent a long time learning to observe people, even the smallest of their expressions. Seben wasn't lying, but much was unsaid. It only piqued Vassa's curiosity more. "Details, my young friend. Surely my intervention is worth a few of those."
Seben nodded slightly, still watching Vassa intently as she sat down across the fire from the masked traveler. "I was with a caravan, headed to Okena on the coast, towards Sarom. The men you saw grabbed me in the night. It almost sounded like they were working for someone, but that doesn't make any sense."
The young woman frowned. "I'm no one special, just an apprentice from a poor line. No one would pay my ransom. They couldn't."
Vassa cocked her head to the side, evaluating that statement. It was certainly a sign of something going on, though what was a question she wouldn't be able to answer without digging. "Did you tell them that?"
Seben shook her head. "I couldn't, not with the gag."
"Well, fortune certainly smiled on you this evening," Vassa commented. She rose to her feet and fished her spare blanket out of her saddle bag. "I suggest you sleep."
"There is a perfectly fine bedroll here," the masked woman said as she unfolded her blanket. "You are welcome to it."
Seben's brow creased. "What about you?"
Vassa wrapped her blanket around her shoulders and leaned back against the large palm tree. "I will keep watch. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that others might stumble upon the oasis or seek it out with intent. At least one of us should be awake and aware."
"All night?" the young woman said with concern. "That doesn't seem fair. It's hard on you."
Behind her mask, Vassa's lips quirked into a half smile. "I will be fine. You have had a difficult day and need the rest."
Seben seemed uncertain for a long moment before nodding. "Thank you," she said. "I'm not used to—" The young woman stopped herself abruptly, pressing her lips together. After a moment, she repeated, "Thank you."
"You are welcome," Vassa said with a flick of her fingers as she bowed slightly at the waist, still seated. It was an imitation of a deep courtier's bow. "Rest well." She leaned back against the palm and pulled the blanket more tightly around her body, finished with the conversation. It was time to turn it over in her thoughts and pick it apart.
With some hesitance, Seben laid down on Vassa's bedroll and pulled the blanket over herself. It was comfortable and warm, smelling faintly of smoke and the woman herself as well as camel. Between the soothing comfort of the bedroll and the air of safety conferred by Vassa's watchful presence, exhausted, Seben succumbed to sleep quickly.
Vassa shook her head slightly as she looked over at the young woman. "You trust too easily," she whispered to the sleeping Seben. "Have a care, or it will be your end."