by Usagi Anami (兎あなみ)
(Takes place in the same world as “Jhaellyn’s Bargain”)
Faerith, goddess of subtlety, forethought, and tactics, betrayed her lover Jhaellyn during his 20- year absence in Gaaresh’s service. She maintained that Jhaellyn had abandoned the elven race, even going so far as to claim he had sided with Gaaresh against the elves. She was quickly appointed to lead the elves for her great wisdom and intellect.
She encouraged the elves to develop their martial and magical skills over poetry, song, artisan crafts, and the natural and spiritual philosophies. The majority of the race developed into a crude and warlike people only slightly more sophisticated than their orc foes. Those that lacked cruelty, questioned Faerith’s leadership, or doubted Jhaellyn’s betrayal were quickly and quietly disposed of.
It is important to note that at this point the race of dark elves did not exist. Faerith was the only elf, deity or otherwise, who had dark skin. She had no children with Jhaellyn during their courtship. The race of “light elves” we know today were born from Jhaellyn’s tears and blood — yet they committed atrocities under Faerith’s rulership no better than the dark elves of later memory.
A few years before the century-long civil war upon Jhaellyn’s return, Faerith launched an assault on the Yechsfegig, the first layer of hell. After defeating the Demon Queen Xul’arel in single combat, Faerith cut out and devoured her opponent’s heart, infusing her body with demonic strength. She then seduced Xul’arel’s eight demon prince lovers, and from those unions the race of dark elves was born.
–Elven History: An Introduction by Marius Mandrake
The riding crop struck Jhanli’s shoulders, her sides, and the small of her back. She was on her knees, topless, head down, and hands bracing the floor. The silk gauze blindfold wrapped around her head didn’t impede her vision as much as her long black hair drawn over her face
“Not so loud,” Valira whispered. “Mother hasn’t left yet.”
Valira’s long, manicured fingernails gently trailed over the welts on Jhanli’s back. She shivered, her flesh made sensitive from the influx of blood. Valira’s fingernails dug into a swollen bruise. One of Jhanli’s hands curled in on itself, but she made no sound.
“You know you scream like a boy, right?”
A real woman wouldn’t make a sound; she’d never show her pain. Only a weak man would whimper at every little thing. Jhanli’s dusky complexion darkened in embarrassment.
The crop cracked across her back again, striking the same spots until Jhanli’s back felt like a furnace. A heat was building in her stomach as well, melting down between her legs. When Jhanli unclenched her hand, her fingernails were tipped with blood.
Valira was fifteen, Jhanli fourteen.
Jhanli was nine years old her when her sister Xul’in tried to kill her. Jhanli was sitting in her room, facing away from the door, although she had been told a thousand times never to do this that. She was at her desk, reading a book she had stolen from her Father’s study, a treatise on demon summoning. Xul’in was thirteen, stocky and tall for her age. Four years of strength seemed impossible to overcome when those fingers clamped around her neck and locked across her throat.
Xul’in lifted her up, cursing with the effort of it. Jhanli dangled in the air, mouth caught in a mute scream. Her skinny legs kicked her chair over and thudded against her sister’s stomach. She felt her face swell and her vision ran black and red.
“Stop struggling, you little bitch,” Xul’in hissed into her ear.
Those were her final words.
Xul’in’s grip went slack, dumping Jhanli on the floor. Her pink eyes were wide as she fell forward, revealing Valira standing behind her. A bone dagger handle stuck out of Xul’in’s back, just below her left shoulder blade.
Valira was smiling. She was ten, but acted old enough to have kids like Xul’in as playmates. Her eyes were a light blue Jhanli would later think of as cerulean.
“I told her I’d keep a lookout for her,” she said, reaching down and plucking the dagger out, “the big dummy.”
The blade was curved like a talon and serrated, and Valira looked at the blood coating it so intently Jhanli thought she would lick it off. Instead she produced a silk cloth and wiped the weapon clean. A bright pool of blood was spreading on the floor.
“Why did she want to kill me?” Jhanli slowly sat up. Valira’s dagger disappeared somewhere in her clothes.
“Well,” Valira smirked and raised an eyebrow, “what’s it worth to you?”
Jhanli shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, she’s dead now.”
They stepped back towards the door to avoid the spreading pool of blood.
Valira frowned. “You’re no fun. Anyway, she thought you were going to kill her so you could enter the priesthood”
“I must have said a hundred times I don’t want to be a priestess.”
“You mean you were telling her the truth?”
“Yes,” Jhanli said through clenched teeth.
“You don’t? Why not?”
The girls fell silent as the door opened and a human slave entered the room. He surveyed the mess and the girls without blinking.
That night, Jhanli was brought before Adinryn the Second, Matron of the House Amerim. Jhanli knelt before her, eyes on the floor since eye contact would be disrespectful. The Matron sat in a chair made of the glossy black bones of demons. Her hair was pulled into a tight ponytail that trailed down from the top of her head. Jhanli saw no expression on the Matron’s face as she explained how she had stabbed her sister in a fit of rage.
“What did my daughter do,” the Matron asked, lips barely moving, “to make you so angry?”
“Most Honored Matron, she taunted me with the fact that I could not enter the priesthood, because she was born before me.”
That much was true. Xul’in had stopped shortly afterward when she failed to elicit any kind of response. Jhanli was grateful she did not have to look her mother in the face.
“So her death would make you the next in line, yes?”
She paused long enough to feel her heart constrict.
“Most Honored Matron, with your consent, it would.”
Jhanli’s stomach twisted painfully. The Matron was smirking.
“I was beginning to think you lacked proper ambition, my daughter. Praise to The Heart Eater.”
“Praise to The Heart Eater.” Jhanli felt the words stick to the back of her throat, like bile.
Tthe Church had decreed only eight months ago that only one woman from each generation of a noble family could be a member of the priesthood of Faerith. The new law was a divine revelation from an avatar of Faerith that had visited the High Priestess Waeronia in her sleep. Since many siblings already shared membership, including the High Priestess, a conflict later dubbed the Night of Red Walls had ensued.
It was estimated that the priesthood shrank forty percent in size. Two months after the Night of Red Walls, Jhanli’s fourteen year old sister, Adinryn the Third, had fallen to her death off a balcony.
Valira spent the night as she occasionally did, this time in Jhanli’s room instead of Xul’in’s. By bedtime, her room was clean of any sign of struggle. Xul’in’s body had been cleared away, the blood magically pulled from the plush carpet. The stolen book from her Father’s study had also vanished, to Jhanli’s irritation.
“You still owe me, you know,” Valira whispered, jabbing Jhanli’s side.
Jhanli’s bed was big enough for them to sleep at either end without touching, but Valira insisted on sleeping with only a hair’s width between them.
“For saving me?”
Valira growled and pinched Jhanli’s side hard.
“Look, I didn’t save you. You were just lucky that I didn’t like her.”
“Then what do I owe you for?”
“For telling you the reason she wanted you dead, dummy. That was privileged information,” she answered, lingering over the word ‘privileged’.
Jhanli rolled over and their noses touched. Valira’s hair was wavy and so black it seemed blue. Her chin was sharp and her ears pulled away from the face, reminding Jhanli of a bat. Valira’s mouth opened and moved, but Jhanli didn’t hear a sound.
Jhanli heard something this time, like the idea of a whisper, but no more. When Jhanli asked Valira to repeat herself again Valira punched her in the stomach. The distance between them wasn’t enough for the blow to do any damage.
“You are as deaf as a worm.” Valira spoke at normal volume, her tone venomous. “I said ‘Kiss me'”
Jhanli tilted her head up and pulled Valira’s face to hers. Their lips brushed for a moment, and then Valira rolled on to her stomach and closed her eyes.
They could have passed two hours or two minutes awake, still, and silent. Convinced by the way Valira breathed that she was only feigning sleep, Jhanli spoke.
“You’re lucky, Valira. You don’t have any sisters.”
Valira didn’t open her eyes or turn her head to face Jhanli. She spoke into the pillow, her voice muffled.
“You don’t either, not anymore.”
“Why do you want to be a wizard?” Valira asked, crinkling her nose.
Three years had passed since Xul’in’s death. In that time one of Valira’s younger brothers had been sacrificed, and Jhanli’s father had been elected as a chairman in the Jhaltym Arcane Academy.
They were alone, sitting side to side in the House Amerim library. Orisons of the Damned sat open on the library table, full of devotions to Faerith and woodcuts of torture, child sacrifice, and other activities pleasing unto her.
They were supposed to be studying for the priesthood exams. It was rumored the Church would be making the tests more difficult to weed out the weak and unworthy.
“What’s wrong with it?” Jhanli’s fingers gently outlined the silver-and-gold inlay on her father’s spell book.
The pattern was a diamond within a diamond within a diamond, vanishing in the middle of the cover. An artistic rending of infinity. She slid the book back into her satchel in case a more intelligent slave or her parents walked in.
The lock on the spell book had been easy enough to disarm, a variation of the “poison needle” trap Jhanli had read about in Moongild’s Thieves Grimoire. The magic ward alerting her father that someone other than him had touched it was trickier. She had bribed a slave going shopping to pick up a dispelling stone to negate the magical alarm. The bribe cost double the dispelling stone.
Not to mention having to cuff the slave hard enough to make him understand what would happen to him if her money was spent elsewhere or disappeared.
“It’s boy stuff, Jhanli. Why learn sorcery when you can wield the power of Faerith?”
Jhanli ran her tongue over her lips. Her eyes closed and her mind quickly shifted through her favorite authors on the subject.
“Because ‘Magic is far older than the gods, the raw essence that birthed the world…'”
“So what? Mother says a faithful prayer can do anything a wizard’s spell can, and better.”
“Only women are worthy of the Faerith’s power, stupid. Anybody could be a wizard.”
Normally Jhanli would go mute when Valira started relying on the word stupid to drive home the finer points of an argument. But feeling the spellbook’s spine in her hand quickened something small and sharp inside her.
“No, not just anybody. You have to be smart. Besides, sorcery will be my own power. You don’t have to borrow it from a god. You don’t have to grovel and scrape and–”
You don’t have to kill people, she thought, but swallowed the words.
“I don’t want my power to depend on someone else. If I can be a wizard I can do what I want, and no one can take my power away from me. That way I can’t be controlled.”
Valira laughed. Jhanli’s chair jerked backwards and she tumbled onto the floor. Valira was on top of her instantly, thigh to thigh, mouth to mouth, fingers knotting together with Jhanli’s.
“You’re so stupid, Jhan,” she said, still chuckling. “You always do what I tell you to do.”
Her teeth sank into Jhanli’s throat playfully, nibbling up her neck and the shell of her ear. Elf ears were sensitive and Jhanli was no exception. She squirmed as Valira’s teeth grazed her tender skin. Valira teeth bit lightly into Jhanli’s lower lip before pulling it into her mouth. Jhanli’s heart, among other vital areas, throbbed.
“I could always tell your mother you’ve stolen your father’s spell book”
Valira’s pupils shrunk to pinpricks, making her eyes look like a blind smear of blue. She cupped Jhanli’s budding breasts through her shirt. The silk of Jhanli’s shirt made her touch cold and smooth.
“Show me what you’re willing to do to keep me from ratting you out.” Valira’s smile made Jhanli think of cat toying with a mouse.
“Could we…at least go to my room first?”
Valira rolled off, grinning. She quickly adjusted her hair and clothes before offering Jhanli a hand up.
The dark elves are a truly a wretched and cursed race, with the blood of demons tainting their hearts. They were driven from the first layer of hell by more powerful demons of the lower hells many a thousand years ago and are kept from returning the surface world by their light-skinned cousins and all other friends of holy purpose. They scrape out a meager existence in the subterranean darkness between earth and the twelve hells, forever coveting the rewards experienced by servants of good.
–Foes of the Light by His Radiance Lorin Fastdon
The inability to lie convincingly was a sign of poor upbringing and oftentimes a fatal flaw. Dark elf parents lied to their children frequently about anything from monsters in their rooms to where they came from, in order to instill in them a healthy sense of distrust. Jhanli still wasn’t sure when her birthday was.
Then again, her people made such a habit of misdirection that it could be safe to tell the truth. No one would believe her anyway.
“I love you.”
Jhanli lay on her side on Valira’s bed, knees drawn up to her chest, toes still curling from post-climax shivers. Valira’s right hand was wet, fluid dangling between her spread fingers like spider’s silk.
Valira’s mouth straightened into a hard line. She stared at Jhanli, blinking twice before she lay on her stomach and pulled a blanket over her head. Jhanli heard her breathing into the pillow.
Jhanli had figured Valira would question her sincerity. Reduce the words down to madness from a moment of carnal bliss. She would laugh. Call her stupid or weak like she always did. At very least she would scoff. Valira’s silence frightened her and drained the heat from between her legs.
She moved to the other side of the bed, their bodies several feet away from touching, and tried to sleep. Noise drifted up to Valira’s reinforced barred window. Bells rang and the scream of a sacrifice pierced the air. Uncountable prayers and chants to Faerith merged into one discordant voice. Tomorrow was the sixth anniversary of the Night of Red Walls, called the Red Night for short, and the whole city trembled in anticipation.
Faerith has taken mortal lovers from time to time. All embraced by her died of exhaustion save for Drazen. His great love for her transcended the limits of his body and gave him the strength to endure the trails of her bedchamber.
“I will only die if it pleases you,” he told her.
She decided it would and tore him apart. She was impressed by the ecstasy he experienced rather than the pleading for mercy or stoic acceptance to which she was accustomed. So rather than letting him die she imparted to him the tiniest spark of her divine essence, raising him to demi-divinity. Religious iconography represents him groveling at the seat of Faerith’s throne, covered in death wounds and sweating blood.
His worship is primarily encouraged in slaves, so they abandon all hope of rescue and escape and instead find salvation in service to their masters. But that does not mean his devotion is not to be emulated, when it comes to our reverence for The Heart Eater. Drazen’s love was so strong he could endure, and even delight in, the torments of Faerith. Total acceptance and complete trust in Faerith will give us the power to delight in her trails as well.
–The Apotheses, 14th Edition
Jhanli couldn’t remember at what point Valira stopped needing excuses for them to play. She could only recall that Valira had not claimed to do any favors for her the night she tied Jhanli’s wrists to a new hook in her ceiling. The space between the floor and her feet was about an inch too wide. Jhanli had to stand on her toes like a dancer to keep the bonds from cutting off her circulation.
“I can’t believe you sometimes,” Valira sighed as she tied the blindfold into a snug knot.
She pulled Jhanli’s hair into a ponytail and pushed it down her left shoulder, leaving her back exposed.
The cold flat of a knife pressed into her back.
“You’re leaving yourself completely open, stupid. You don’t even have any of your magic wards up, I bet.”
Valira was right, of course. Valira dragged the blade up Jhanli’s spine, slowly turning it until the tip pressed between her shoulder blades.
“I could drug you. Then I could take you to the slave market and sell you to some merchant.”
The edge ghosted over Jhanli’s arms and shoulders, coming to a rest against her jugular. Her pulse quickened and brushed against the sharp metal with every beat.
“Or I could just kill you.”
“So be it if it pleases you.”
The blade vanished and Jhanli heard her growl. The lash felt so hard Jhanli had to bite her tongue to keep from howling. The blows fell erratically, stopping and starting without pace or rhythm.
“Would you stop being so weird?”
It was first day of the priesthood entry exams, testing those who thought themselves worthy to become an Initiate of the Church of Faerith. Valira and Jhanli sat far apart and ignored each other as they gathered for group prayer. If they acted too friendly in front of the priestesses, it was likely they would form part of each other’s tests.
To ensure auspicious circumstances for the students, the High Priestess Waeronia performed a sacrifice of a surface elf. Although a woman would have been more pleasing, the offering was a man. Jhanli had never seen an elf from above before except in books. The man’s white skin and light hair made him look drained and lifeless, a ghost of an elf. His eyes were blue, Valira’s eyes.
The students watched as he was dragged and bound to the altar, begging in a tongue abandoned by the dark elves thousands of years ago. Their own language was a dialect of Yechgigal, one of the languages of demons. Jhanli recognized snippets, having some education in the language, but the order of the words made no sense to her. The language must have changed — it was a very old textbook.
High Priestess Waeronia was known as an artisan of torture, her offerings to Faerith often part of the city’s entertainment. It was not uncommon for her sacrifices to take days to die. But today the students did not have time to watch a spectacle. She slit his throat with the passionless efficiently of a butcher. Blood bubbled down his chest and drained into the sinkholes of the altar for later collection and use.
“Praise to the Heart Eater!” The High Priestess shouted as the body cooled.
“Praise to the Heart Eater!” the students answered as one.
Jhanli only mouthed the words. She watched the elf’s lifeless eyes, imagining Valira’s blood pouring out and feeding the altar. No sacrifice was sweeter to Faerith than her own daughters.
The students were led into individual rooms. After being frisked for any memory aids in her clothes or on her skin, Jhanli accepted the paper test and quill from the priestess with a sigh of relief. She began scribbling out answers before the priestess left the room. She knew how many she would have to answer wrong to fail the test.
She also knew her mother would have her flogged forty-eight times for eight days if she failed. Valira had allowed her to discover that a lash could bring her pleasure, but only if that lash was in Valira’s hands. Her mother’s punishments brought only anger and pain. If she failed a second time her mother would look for a more acceptable heir to House Amerim, and begin by disposing of Jhanli.
The desk she was given faced the wall, away from the door. When she turned the desk around to face the door, she thought she heard a hundred other girls doing the same in other rooms. She forced herself to slow down in answering the questions, to linger over the mysteries and scriptures that she learned through rote memorization.
She did not look up when she heard the door open. Instead she stuck the tip of her tongue out thoughtfully. She let her eyes glaze over as she focused on a set of intricate and interconnected symbols on the test. The footsteps she heard were not especially soft. She let out a frustrated sigh and took the tip of the bone writing-stylus in her mouth.
If the other person knew Jhanli had noticed her, she might lose confidence or rush the task. Then the aegis of retribution she prepared that morning would probably be wasted on a flesh wound. She wanted her attacker to take her time and hit a vital on the first swing.
The girl behind her was breathing hard. Jhanli heard the dagger whisper as it was unsheathed.
Don’t do it yet, Jhanli thought, you’re too nervous, slow down. As if she heard Jhanli’s coaching, the girl took a deep breath, held it, and exhaled.
Jhanli did not feel the blow, but saw the normally invisible aegis flicker with blue energy and evaporate. Sparks of magical residue floated in the air and winked out, like the embers of a fire. The girl fell forward onto Jhanli’s back, and she pushed the corpse onto the floor. Her hair was so black it was almost blue, and Jhanli thought for a moment that Valira had died by her own hand.
No, the corpse’s eyes were maroon, her ears normal. In the back of her head she heard Valira calling her stupid for mistaking anyone else for her, for thinking Jhanli could kill her.
She finished the test quickly, not bothering to pause between questions. As an afterthought she took out her own knife, a demon bone straightedge, and carved a symbol of Faerith on the dead girl’s forehead. It was one of the basic ones, a stylized heart with curved lines above and below it to represent teeth.
Istnma Amerim sat in his study, legs crossed and lips clenched. His waist-length hair was more brown than black and done up in a tight braid. He held the tip of the braid in his hand, idly pulling on it as he read over some documents at his desk.
Jhanli cleared her throat. Her father didn’t look up, twisting the braid in his hand. This was the third time he had summoned her, and she had finally deigned to respond.
“Yes, Father?” she said after an uncomfortable amount of silence.
When he lifted his head, he dared to make eye contact with her for a moment. She let it slide, provided he didn’t repeat the breach of protocol. It irked her to know he would have kept his eyes downcast for her mother.
He had always been arrogant for a man, going so far as running away to avoid marrying her mother. Mother still liked to talk about how the hunters caught him in a brothel and the punishments for his insolence. She assured anyone who would listen that he still had scars from their wedding night. Now they slept in separate quarters, much to her father’s relief.
“You’ve been copying out of my spell book,” he stated flatly.
“For many years now. Did you just find out?”
“I had my suspicions.” He shifted, rearranging his legs. ” I had hoped it was just a passing fancy of yours. One you would tire of as you focused on your priesthood exams.”
“I will keep this brief. Stop now, give me the book you’ve been copying spells into, and I will not tell your mother you’ve been meddling in men’s affairs.”
He dropped the braid, letting it rest in his lap. His eyes turned back to his papers, fingers creeping along some important word or phrase.
Jhanli grabbed the thick coils of his hair and pulled, snapping his head back. He did not resist, letting his hands fall to his side. She was pleased to see his eyes closed when she leaned down and faced him. His brow furrowed and the veins in his neck squirmed.
“Father, I will also be brief. You will give me free access to your spell book and study and the resources of the academy, or I will tell mother about your affairs with the house slaves.”
“You can’t prove anything.”
A sharp tug on the braid made him flinch.
“I can’t. But she’ll enjoy wrangling the truth out of you once accusations have been made, won’t she?”
He bit his lip hard and closed his eyes. She let go of his hair and turned to leave. When she was at the door he spoke, his voice softer than she had ever heard it.
“You have no idea how fortunate you are, Jhanli. You have no idea what I would give to be in your position, to have the power you are being offered and scoff at.”
“All right, open your eyes now,” Valira said, closing the door behind her.
On Valira’s bed a collection of leather straps sat with a leather phallus at the end. It was seven inches in length and curved up like a scimitar. Jhanli paled. Somehow her skin managed to feel hot and cold at the same time.
Next to the phallus was a pile of white gauze, the kind that would be used in making a tourniquet. For once Valira’s grin put Jhanli ill at ease.
“Put it on.”
“But it’s a…”
“A what?” Valira turned her head to the side and gazed at Jhanli inquiringly.
“Don’t ask this of me, Valira.” Jhanli started pacing, her hands twitching. “I know I’m not much a woman sometimes, but I still have my pride.”
Valira’s eyes went soft. She took Jhanli’s nervous hands in hers, bending her head down and kissing them. She dragged her fingers along Jhanli’s jaw, lifting her chin and looking her straight in the eyes. Jhanli’s stomach squirmed as she watched Valira’s pupils shrink.
When Valira kissed her, it was soft and slow and demanded nothing. When she drew Jhanli’s tongue in her mouth after several minutes, the sudden tenderness of it sent Jhanli floating. Then Valira took the muscle in her teeth and bit down hard.
Jhanli reeled back, tongue swelling and tasting of blood.
“I didn’t ask you,” Valira shoved her onto the bed, “I told you to do it, and you will.”
Jhanli closed her eyes and undressed. It took her a moment to figure out the arrangements of straps and loops, tightening it so the base of the cock was flush against her skin. Valira sat behind her and watched her progress with incurious eyes. When Jhanli looked down and saw it bobbing with her breath and curving toward her stomach, she felt her legs go weak.
“Yes, I think that suits you quite well,” Valira murmured as she wrapped the first layer of gauze over Jhanli’s breasts, crushing them against her chest.
Jhanli flushed so hard she felt her face and chest throb. She wanted to turn herself into a mouse or snake and flee. She knew how, but Valira’s hands paralyzed her, stripped the words from her mind. Her swollen tongue would have made the syllables difficult. Perhaps that had been part of Valira’s plan when she bit her. Jhanli should have realized sooner she wasn’t the only one getting smarter.
Years ago, when she realized just how powerful a wizard her father was, she had wondered how he let himself be controlled. But now she began to understand how her mother could control her father without resorting to divine magic.
Valira finished the binding, leaving Jhanli’s chest flat. The pressure felt strange, like hands restraining her. Next Valira ran a comb through her hair, and Jhanli realized with mounting dread her hair was going to be braided. Valira hummed as she combed, fifty times on each side, pausing to pull out loose hairs or snarls.
Jhnali’s hair reached just above the small of her back. Valira pulled it into three strands and slowly wove them together. Jhanli wondered absent-mindedly how she had learned to braid. She forgot the question entirely when Valira tied off the end and gave it a soft yank.
“Stand up and turn around so I can see you.”
The cock bobbed when she stood up. Its jerky movement seemed to pull her forward as she walked. She tried not to look at it, but it had its own hideous gravity, pulling her reluctant eyes towards it again and again. Centipedes rampaged over her skin whenever she saw it, dark as her skin. A thin sheen of sweat covered her face as she straightened her back and faced Valira.
Valira rested her chin in her hand and looked. Her expression was not one of approval or disapproval, merely curiosity. Jhanli withered under Valira’s stare. She knew she looked ridiculous, an obscene parody of a boy.
“My, what a handsome man!” Valira exclaimed a moment after inspecting her, face breaking out into a friendly smile. Her voice became lower and rougher, her eyes half-closed. “Well, what is your name?”
“My…name?” One of Jhanli’s eyebrows arched and Valira looked annoyed.
Valira stood up and slapped her when Jhanli brought her confused eyes up to hers. The left side of her face stung and her eyes watered.
“You’re cute, boy, but don’t forget your place. Now what is your name?”
Jhanli lowered her eyes and swallowed, embarrassed by how long it took her to figure it out.
“Jhan… Jhanlim. My name is Jhanlim.”
“Get on the bed, Jhanlim.”
Jhanli sat on the edge of the bed, facing Valira. She kept her eyes on Valira’s breasts and stomach to avoid looking her in the eyes. She watched Valira’s shirt come unlaced, freeing her breasts. She wanted to help Valira undress, cup her breasts and suckle her. But her hands lay limp at her sides, awaiting Valira’s instructions. She heard Valira’s pants rustle and fall around her ankles.
“Lie on your back, Jhanlim.”
She nodded and obeyed. Valira climbed onto the bed, the triangle of hair between her legs already slick. The heat under Jhanli’s skin didn’t entirely stem from humiliation when Valira straddled her, her fake member brushing against Valira’s damp thighs. Valira grabbed the base, pushing the bulbous head to her entrance.
Jhanli felt her own wetness grow under the harness as Valira impaled herself on her. She grunted as she rode Jhanli, breasts bouncing as she dropped herself down. Jhanli’s fingers itched to touch her, to rub her clit and play with her nipples. As a woman she never hesitated to anticipate Valira’s desires, even if she never initiated their lovemaking.
Now the harness and the bindings and the braid stayed her muscles and will. They left her helpless to do anything but watch herself enter Valira again and again, her member glossy with Valira’s fluids. Her insides twitched from listening to Valira writhe. Her nipples hardened, straining against the gauze wrappings.
When Valira came she collapsed on top of Jhanli, shivering, member still inside her. Jhanli imagined Valira’s muscles squeezing down on it, her excitement oozing out. The thought brought her arousal to a painful peak. When Valira’s breathing returned to normal, she slid off and rolled onto her stomach.
Jhanli folded her tongue and scraped her tongue over her teeth. The swelling had gone down, and it would be easier to speak.
“Valira, can I…”
Valira’s long nails buried themselves in the back of Jhanli’s thigh, in the skin just below her buttocks.
“Do not speak unless spoken to,” she whispered, her voice was already slipping into sleep.
Jhanli took the toy off after a few minutes but didn’t dare removing the rest. It wasn’t until morning that Jhanli was allowed to unbraid her hair and unbind her chest.
Several weeks later, the Matron of House Amerim opened Jhanli’s door. It was unlocked.
It was late at night, but Jhanli sat awake at her desk. The Matron of House Amerim was dressed in her husband’s nightshirt. Her heavy breasts strained against the fabric. She walked hesitantly, as if she was afraid to move. She looked somewhere between confused, panicked, and elated. She didn’t so much breathe as gulp air.
“Most Honored Matron, what brings you here at these hours?” Jhanli asked, keeping her eyes downcast but unable to hide her smile.
“What have you done?” she shrieked, gesturing wildly to her face, hair, breasts, and hips.
“Most Honored Matron, please forgive my impudence, but I feel you would be best advised to inspect your bedroom.”
When the flicker of confusion cleared away, the Matron of House Amerim grinned. She kissed Jhanli on the forehead and quickly left. Jhanli could hear her mother and father shouting, guards called, a vase breaking.
In the morning Ishnma Amerim was executed for adultery and heresy after a brief trial. Prior to the sentence being carried out, the Matron took a special delight in flogging her husband until he bled.
“What happens now?” the Matron asked her as they waited for their afternoon tea to cool.
Their tea sat on the table. Her mother’s cup was new, carved from the skull of her treacherous husband. Jhanli watched the white lines of steam from the teacups converge and split.
“You could remarry, if you feel up to it right now. But you aren’t a priestess, and you’re never going to be, I’m afraid.” Jhanli sighed.” However, you should be able to fake it easily enough with your spells and some magical items ”
“But…she couldn’t call on Faerith’s power with her body in my shape…”
Jhanli rolled her eyes and lifted her hand for silence. For someone so smart, her “mother” could be dumb sometimes. She leaned back in her chair and rested her chin in her hand.
“Most Honored Matron, I’ve researched this extensively,” she began, mixing more honey into her tea with a spoon. It rattled against the delicate carved bone.
“Male wizards in the past who have transformed themselves into women could not become priestesses. History has shown this again and again. The Journeys of Kalim is an epic about a priestess who is cursed to be male and loses Faerith’s divine patronage. She had to rely on her own skills and wits to survive as she tried to overcome the curse. At the end it is revealed Faerith was testing her and she was returned to her former shape for living without Faerith’s help.”
The Matron nodded and sipped at her tea, running her hand along the teacup’s polished grey bone.
“I see. Faerith doesn’t mind using an excuse like sex to strip someone of power, but granting it on the grounds of it is a different creature entirely.”
Jhanli nodded. “A double standard, like everything else in our society.”
The Matron smiled. For the first time Jhanli could remember, her mother’s smile held no malice.
The spell Albino’s Strength made Valira so weak that she trembled with the effort of standing. When her head tilted down, the rest of her body followed. She crashed face first onto the floor, not even able lift her arms up to brace her fall. Jhanli had just enough time to tie her wrists to the hook in her ceiling and bind her feet together before the spell wore off.
“What in the twelve hells are you doing, Jhan?”
Valira looked absurd as she struggled to get out of her bonds, wriggling her legs and chest. It made Jhanli think of a worm dancing on a hook. In reply, Jhanli sat on Valira’s bed and pulled a small leather pouch. She hefted it in her palm. The bag weighed more than its contents.
“I’m going to ask you a question, Valira. If you answer me, I’ll untie you. You can punish me for this later, if you like.”
“This is so stupid, just let me go!”
Jhanli sucked in her cheeks and took a deep breath.
“I am not stupid, Valira. I never have been. Using ‘stupid’ as an adjective for almost everything is pretty stupid, in my opinion.”
Jhanli stood up and faced her captive.
“Do you love me?”
Valira balked. “You cast a damn spell on me and tied me up to ask me if I love you? That’s so–”
Jhanli slapped her. The fact that Jhanli slapped her seemed to shut Valira up more than any actual pain.
“All I need is a yes or no. Do you love me?”
When Valira’s mouth stayed shut and her eyes went hard, Jhanli sighed and counted to one hundred silently. At one hundred she reached for the bag and carefully poured out a pale blue dust.
The powder extracted from liarsbane flower floated in the air in front of Valira’s face, entering her nose and mouth as she breathed. By the time she realized what was happening and tried to hold her breath, the drug was already working in her system. Valira’s eyes watered and she sucked in her cheeks.
“I love you,” Valira said after a few minutes, her voice halting. “I’ve always been afraid of losing you. You always did what I wanted, you never fought me, like a damn boy. I was so sure you wouldn’t be able to survive the tests. On some nights I prayed for it.”
Her breathing evened out.
“I kept hoping if I treated you badly enough you would leave, and I could stop loving you.”
“Valira, I did what you wanted because I wanted to, because I liked it, because I loved you. You never truly forced me, not even on the night you made me be your boy.”
“I should have let her kill you, you damn fool,” Valira choked, tears threatening to spill over onto her face. “Don’t you understand the priesthood will demand that you take my life or that I take yours?”
“Good.” Jhanli reached up and worked to undo the knot that held Valira’s hands together. “I think we’re getting somewhere, don’t you?”
Valira hung her head, with nothing more to say. She dropped to the floor when Jhanli let her down. Jhanli sat next to her, sitting Valira up. She felt Valira’s hands shaking when she started rubbing her wrists. When she kissed Valira she smelled the salt of tears on her cheek.
Valira quivered, breaking off the kiss and resting her head on Jhanli’s shoulder. Her tears fell silently, soaking through Jhanli’s shirt and making her skin itch. Jhanli wrapped in her arms and did not let go for a long time.
Jhanli cupped Valira’s face and kissed her eyelids softly, feeling the fragile skin tremble under her lips.
“What are we going to do?” Valira asked finally, her voice childlike.
One look at Valira’s eyes and Jhanli could see that the drug had almost worked itself out of her system. She stretched out her hands, pressing them to Valira’s so that the palms were touching. The tip of her fingernails reached Valira’s second knuckle.
“I’ve got some connections to the priesthood now,” Jhanli murmured into her ear, folding her fingers into Valira’s until the bones of her knuckles popped out. “If you ever decide you want my heart bleeding in your hand, it is yours. But I promise you it will not be because some priestess told you to make an offering of it.”
The eighth Red Night was in full swing. Forty-four human slaves dressed in cheap mock-ups of priestesses’ vestments wandered the streets. There were forty-four because that was the number of priestess killed on the Night of the Red Walls. Their faces were smeared with black face-paint and their eyes were blank from magical compulsions or drugs. That was supposedly representative of the uselessness of weak priestesses, but everyone knew it was just easier and less messy this way.
Every dark elf, regardless of rank or sex, was encouraged to participate in the mock priestess hunt and slaughter. Any left alive at the end of the night foretold hard times until the next Red Night.
Valira had just hit a new personal record – twelve so far, with six being her past personal best. Normally, she only put a marginal effort in the festivities. Red Night was a boring holiday. Where was the fun in offing a bunch of dazed humans who couldn’t even defend themselves?
This year, however, she lingered over every blow. Her strikes were imprecise, inflicting pain rather than a quick death. When she hit a gusher vein in one human’s thigh, she saw his eyes light up with awareness and terror. Too bad it was already too late.
She needed something to let her vent after Jhanli had vanished four months ago. Her disappearance took place shortly after she had drugged the truth out of Valira.
Public suspicion fell on Valira and the Matron of House Amerim. The Matron’s husband’s treachery may have caused her to distrust other members of her family. If that was the case, why no spectacle in the execution when she had killed her husband? What of House Amerim’s heir?
Valira was a much bigger suspect. Jhanli was nothing to Valira but a rival Initiate in the Church. They were neighbors and acquaintances, so Valira would know more about her than any other rivals, making it easier for her to trick and kill Jhanli.
Valira’s mother assured her that murdering a rival in such a discreet fashion, with no body to be found, would affect the results for her test as an Acolyte next year. Valira didn’t know how to look for Jhanli without arousing suspicion. She kept silent as to whether or not she was responsible. She didn’t want to think about what would happen if she claimed to have killed her and Jhanli made a sudden reappearance.
A dark elf man passed her, dressed in the robes of a student wizard at the Jhaltym Academy. Valira sensed something familar in the way he walked and decided to follow him. After ten mintues he turned down a halfway, glancing at her, and then disappeared. Altough the man had vanished, she heard loud footsteps and saw the dust on the ground kicked up.
“Twelve hells,” Valira said to herself when she had a glimpse of the man’s face.
Valira retrieved three small throwing daggers from inside her sleeve, and gave chase. Two of the blades she wedged between her knuckles and one she held between her thumb and forefinger. She watched and listened for signs of her target: labored breathing, panicked footsteps, dust and gravel flying, and the subtle shift in the air that accompanied the movement of invisible creatures.
The first dagger flashed and bounced off the ground. Valira cursed and ran faster. The second one vanished and reappeared buried in Valira’s left shoulder an instant later. An aura of blue light flashed and faded, and Jhanli – or a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to Jhanli – appeared.
Shrugging off the pain in her shoulder, Valira charged. The wizard was slammed into a wall, Valira’s dagger tucked under his ear.
“No more running, all right?” Valira panted.
Those same dark, pondering eyes. Those same sharp cheekbones and thin lips. The same skinny neck, now with a bulge in the throat. The same frame, if diminished of curves and hips and a few inches taller. Valira’s shoulder ached and her eyes stung.
The dagger disappeared. Valira grabbed a fistful of Jhanli’s hair and bashed her face against the wall twice. Jhanli did not resist, though her nose burst with blood from the first blow. Valira heard Jhanli’s skull crack across the mortar the second time it connected with the wall.
“Why did you do this to me?”
“For you,” Jhanli whispered, her voice several pitches lower, “and for myself, but I don’t think you’re much concerned with that at the moment.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? You have no idea–”
“It was too dangerous.” Jhanli wiped the blood covering her mouth off on her sleeve. “Just trust me when I say it was for the best for both of us.”
Valira resisted the urge to kick Jhanli’s legs out from under her, straddle her, and pound her face in with whatever heavy object happened to be handy.
“Trust?” Valira spat, “You vanish for almost half a year and expect me to trust you? I swear to the Heart Eater, I’ll go straight to Church about this unless you tell me why you did this and what is going on”
“Oh yes, we’re back to that again.”
“So the only way you could attend the Academy is to become someone else, since your real mother would never let you. Your ‘mother’ has to act in character or people would become suspicious and guess what happened.”
Jhanli nodded. They were in a tiny, uncomfortable room in an inn on the seediest side of town. They sat on the damp straw bed since there were no tables or chairs.
“He also did it make me understand who was in control, but that’s basically it.”
Jhanli held Valira’s hand. Valira wriggled her fingers free and rested her hand in her chin. Her other hand reached over and touched Jhanli’s face softly.
“Just one thing I don’t get. Why didn’t he make you look like someone else?”
Jhanli clicked her tongue and shook her head.
“Look, the spell can’t just make you look like anyone. It makes you assume the shape of someone you know, someone that you have a strong memory of. Father chose himself when he was my age since anyone else would be problematic.
“I’m one of his bastards, which wasn’t hard to believe. They welcomed me with open arms since he was one of their chairmen and an amazing wizard.”
Jhanli’s arms stretched over her head, popping her shoulders. She stood up, head down.
“We can’t meet like this ever again. It would be suspicious with me disappearing and you suddenly spending time with this boy.”
Valira opened her mouth to speak, but Jhanli raised a hand to silence her.
“I can’t meet you again until I’ve learned everything the Academy can teach me. Then I’ll undo the spell and we can leave this place.”
Valira made a fist, stared at the ground. Jhanli cupped Valira’s chin, and after some resistance, Jhanli forced her face up. Her mouth was stiff and closed when Jhanli kissed her.
“Don’t make me leave like this, Valira.”
“You’re the one that’s leaving,” Valira said in a grating whisper. Her face was wet with tears.
“Don’t be like this. It will be shorter than you–”
Valira’s arm flew. Jhanli braced herself for the blow, but it never arrived. Valira’s hand stopped one inch from Jhanli’s face, her arm tense. She stood up, grabbed the back of Jhanli’s head, and kissed her.
The bell that sounded out signaled the end of the Red Night. One bell would ring for each mock priestess slain. They didn’t stop kissing until the bell rang for the forty-fourth time.
Cheers and drunken roars echoed throughout the city. The Heart Eater would smile down on them.