by Haitoku no Honou (背徳の炎)
illustrated by neomeruru
“Look, Briggs,” Shihaya says from inside the bridge, “I’m not asking for much.”
Kayla slows her steps, stopping just before the open door. With Romeo and the others away on their latest mission to acquire goddess-knows-what, they’ve been anchored two hundred feet up with nothing to do for three days. The prospect of anything’s happening, even if it’s Shihaya complaining, is too attractive to pass up.
“I mean, he says he loves me,” Shihaya says. “He says we’re destined to be together. And then he leaves me behind at every opportunity!” Her voice rises into a nasal whine. “‘Oh, Shnookums, you can come next time.’ But it never happens!”
“He’s always telling me he’ll buy me that new bow, but what does he come back from every town with?” She doesn’t really pause for an answer. “A new sword! And not only is it not really better than whatever sword he had before, but they all clash horribly with what he thinks is fashionable that week! And how am I supposed to be effective in a fight if my bow is bad and I’m shooting tiny splinters?”
Briggs makes a non-committal noise, and Shihaya sucks in an aggrieved breath. “And he says he’s going to save the kingdom but he just flies us around in circles doing nothing and coming back with useless things and if he calls me ‘shnookums’ one more time–”
Kayla takes a step around the corner and into the doorway. She doesn’t know Shihaya that well, but every word out of her mouth is something that Kayla’s thought herself over the last few weeks. Maybe they’re not so different after all.
In the bridge, Shihaya’s out of her chair, half-turned towards the doorway. She’s portrait-perfect as always, dress laced tight around her chest and falling in a wave to the floor, hair pulled back from her face in two braids and the rest spilling past her shoulders.
To the side, Briggs is half-hidden in the pilot’s chair, slouched down with his feet on the console and his hat pulled low over his face.
All of a sudden, Kayla’s unsure of her welcome. Shihaya’s been on the ship for much longer than she has; maybe she’s intruding.
She pushes a wobbly smile onto her face. “He keeps calling me ‘babycakes’,” she volunteers, and Shihaya’s suddenly in motion, stabbing a finger towards her, lace around her wrist shaking.
“See?” she says. “I’m not the only one!”
“He’s been telling me he’ll buy me an upgraded mage focus since I came onboard,” Kayla says. “But every time–”
“Sword,” Shihaya says, snapping her fingers. “Did you see the green and pink one?”
“Yes–” Kayla says, and then her smile feels real, and Shihaya is smiling back. She feels brave, suddenly, bold. “I thought the one with the orange hilt went really well with his purple doublet,” she says, and Shihaya lets out a peal of laughter.
“Tell you a secret,” she says, leaning in conspiratorially, and Kayla leans in without thinking. “I threw that purple doublet overboard,” she whispers, and Kayla giggles in spite of herself.
“I was wondering what happened to that,” she says. “I thought he must have just finally realised it wasn’t his colour.”
Shihaya snorts. “I think he’s colourblind,” she says.
“He’s more than that,” Kayla says. “I think he’s stupid, to leave us here. I mean, not that I have anything against the others–”
Shihaya’s nodding along. “But I’m the best archer he’ll ever see, and I assume you’re equally skilled in the magic arts, and he’s just overlooking us–”
“Because we’re girls,” Kayla finishes, and makes an exaggerated face. “Even that last quest, you know, the one with the dragon–”
“Right, yes,” Shihaya says, “the one where ranged support would have made everything so much easier–”
“Exactly!” Kayla says. “‘But babycakes, you might get hurt.’ Would it kill him to let us make a decision now and again?”
“I think it might,” Shihaya mock-whispers, and Kayla snorts.
“To hell with him,” she says. “We could do so much better on our own.” She flops down into Shihaya’s vacated chair, tilting her head back to look at the ceiling. “Go pick up your new bow, grab my mage focus – and actually go and get something done.”
She’s expecting Shihaya to chime in, more of the easy back-and-forth they’d fallen into, and instead there’s nothing but silence.
She tilts her head back down, uneasy suddenly – has she offended her? – to see Shihaya staring at her. Her expression is different, too – all amusement gone, and in its place something far more measuring.
Shihaya nods once, slowly. “Yes,” she says. “We could.”
Kayla sits bolt upright. “I was just–” she says. “You want–” Words are tangling on her tongue, and she shakes her head sharply, trying to form the shape of what she wants to say. Instead, what comes out is, “But you’re engaged!”
It’s Shihaya’s turn to snort, and she waves a hand in the air. “Claiming we’re destined to be together just because I happen to fit the vague shape of his nursery rhymes is charming for a while,” she says. “And I am fond of him. But-” She sighs. “He wants to roll me in blankets and put me in a glass tower, protect me from the world. He wants a delicate princess to protect, a flower in a glasshouse, or a dove in a gilded cage.”
She turns her head, staring straight at Kayla. She feels pinned, Shihaya’s gaze like the point of a sword. “I’m not a flower,” Shihaya says. “I don’t need protecting. And hell if I’m going to stay caged up on his say-so.” She pauses for a moment, and then breaks into a smile suddenly, and it’s as though the sun has come out – just like that, the tension is gone. “Especially not when I don’t have to be alone in doing it.”
Kayla lets out a breath. She doesn’t know what to think – she’d just been complaining, not really serious, but for all that this has been spur-of-the-moment, Shihaya seems to have put a lot of thought into things. “I don’t know what to think,” she says. “I mean – we’d be stranding him.”
Shihaya just smirks. “If she were his ship,” she says, “I might feel a bit sorry for him.”
Kayla blinks. “It’s not?” she says. “But he–” She breaks off, looking down; now she feels embarrassed, to have been taken in. Would Shihaya think less of her, for wanting to believe the best in people?
“It’s okay,” Shihaya says, and Kayla dares to lift her head to see that her smirk has softened into a gentle smile. “He can be dashing when he wants to be, speaking half-truths and charming his way into things.”
“Whose ship is it, then?” Kayla asks, feeling a little less embarrassed – after all, Shihaya must have been taken in too, for her to have been here even despite the engagement.
Shihaya’s smile widens, and she turns to the pilot’s chair. “Briggs,” she says, and Kayla nearly starts as she remembers that all this time, someone else has been in the room.
“Yes milady,” Briggs says, far more formal than Kayla has ever heard him speak before. At some point during the previous conversation, he’d taken his feet off the console and straightened his hat, the very image of a reputable airship pilot.
“Weigh anchor,” Shihaya says. “Set a course for Waystone City.”
“Yes milady,” Briggs says, and there’s a shudder under their feet as the airship hums awake.
Shihaya turns to Kayla, a proud smile on her face. “The Light of Dawn is mine,” she says. “And I may fly her wherever I wish.”
She holds out a hand. “Kayla,” she says, “will you fly with me?”
She’d taken a chance with Romeo – she’d gambled and she’d lost. Shihaya is offering her another chance, only this time, she knows what she’s in for. She hopes. At the very least, whatever it is, she knows it won’t be boring.
She reaches out and clasps Shihaya’s hand. “I will,” she says, and Shihaya beams and with a grip like iron, levers her out of the chair.
“You won’t regret it,” she says, and with her smile lighting up the room, Kayla can believe it.
They come into Waystone City just as the sun is setting. Kayla’s at the bow for the final approach – she’s heard about Waystone City, certainly: that it’s the main trading hub of the Empire, that in Waystone City you can find anything and everything you want – for a price – but it’s further north than she’s ever been before, and she wants to see as much as she can.
The lowering sun casts everything in an orange glow, the tall spires of the docking station shining in the light, stretching long dappled shadows across the city streets. In comparison to the greens of the forest they’ve been flying over, Waystone City is a shock, forest breaking abruptly against the bounds of the city and then fading into the distance. The buildings sparkle in the light, reflections off windows and metal accents that make the whole city shine.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Kayla turns her head in time to see Shihaya take the last step to the rail beside her. The sunset light casts halos in her hair and a gentle shine on her dress. Against the backdrop of the glowing city, she looks every inch like she belongs.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Kayla says, and turns her head back to the city before her, breathing it in.
“We’ll dock just before nightfall,” Shihaya says, “head down in the morning. We should be able to find everything we need and be off again before the day is out.”
“Why not head down tonight?” Kayla asks.
“That’s … not a good idea,” Shihaya says, and when Kayla glances over, she’s looking down, staring out over the city. When she continues, her voice is quiet. “Waystone City is beautiful, yes, but it has a darker side too. We’re best served by staying on the ship tonight.”
Kayla frowns, looking back down. The sky has darkened, and the light from the lowering sun has changed in turn, a colour more red than orange painted across the city streets. She’s not normally one to believe in omens, but she feels cold, a strange chill shivering down her spine.
“You would know best,” she says, voice quiet in return.
They stand in silence for long moments, the Light of Dawn turning in a slow arc to line up with the docking station. When she glances back at Shihaya, she’s still staring at the city below, dress washed in red light. She seems – Kayla’s not sure, exactly, because sometimes Shihaya’s face is so expressive and sometimes it’s just not, and this is one of these times – but if she had to guess, she’d guess sad.
She swallows. She and Shihaya are in this together, now – surely there’s no harm in asking. “Are you … okay?” she asks, her voice coming out so quiet she can barely hear it over the thrum of her own heartbeat.
Shihaya blinks, turning toward her, and for just a moment Kayla’s not sure what to make of her expression. And then she smiles, and it’s not at all like her smiles earlier; it’s small, and sad. “The last time I was in Waystone City,” she says, “I buried my brother.”
“Oh,” Kayla says, the exclamation almost shocked out of her. She has a sister back home; she can’t imagine what it would be like to lose her.
“It’s okay,” Shihaya says, her voice still quiet and steady. Kayla can only imagine how many layers of iron control lie hidden underneath. “It was a long time ago. I just haven’t been back since then.”
“I’m sorry,” Kayla says, and it sounds inane, but she’s not very good at expressing herself sometimes, and she doesn’t know what else to say. “If there’s anything I can do–”
“I’ll be okay,” Shihaya says, and turns back to the city below them. While they’ve been talking, the sun has lowered further still; as Kayla watches, the last sliver of light shimmers below the horizon. Without the sun, the city streets are much darker; from this high, the street lamps and lights from windows seem dim, tiny points of light nearly swallowed by the darkness that surrounds them. “But I would prefer not to be alone.”
“Okay,” Kayla says, and takes a half step down the rail; in response, Shihaya shifts in a rustle of fabric until they’re shoulder to shoulder, arm to arm.
“Thank you,” she says, and they stand and watch the city drift by together.
Waystone City in daylight is busy. Aside from the thrum of machinery, the lift down from the spire they’ve docked at is quiet; by contrast, when they finally step out onto the street Kayla feels almost assaulted by noise.
The streets are full, people and hawkstriders and carts mingling all together in no discernable order – although they all seem to be in a terrible hurry. And everyone seems to be shouting; about how fast other people are going, about various sellers and markets they should visit – Kayla doesn’t know what to listen to or where to turn.
Shihaya gets two steps ahead before she turns around. Amongst the chaos around them, it’s as though a sphere of calm exists around her – as usual, she looks to the inch the perfect lady, not a hair out of place and unlike last night, completely unruffled.
“Ah,” she says immediately, coming over to her. “It’s very loud, isn’t it?”
“Sorry,” Kayla says, face heating, but Shihaya is already waving a hand.
“No, no need to apologise, I should have thought,” she says, and reaches out, taking Kayla’s hand. “Can you manage for just a little bit?”
Kayla takes a deep breath. Shihaya’s hand is warm under hers, and she won’t be alone in the crowd; Shihaya will be with her.
“Yes,” she says, and Shihaya smiles one of her bright smiles and tows her into the street.
She’s no stranger to a city; she studied, after all, at the University. But that was a city founded around learning, and this is … overwhelming. She focuses on Shihaya in front of her and holds on.
After a few turns (and one near-miss with a hawkstrider pulling a cart of cabbages; Shihaya might look delicate, but she’s made of iron when she wants to move in a hurry), Shihaya guides her off the street and up a step onto a raised wooden platform.
“Here we are,” she says, and gives Kayla’s fingers a squeeze.
After a minute, a yellow hawkstrider pulling a hansom cab dashes up to the platform. “You ladies in need of a ride?” the driver asks, tipping his hat. “Edge of the Yellow Cab Company at your service.”
“Yes, thank you,” Shihaya says, and steps into the cab without letting go of Kayla’s hand.
Kayla steadies herself on the edge of the cab and steps in after her, and they settle on the seat with their clasped hand between them.
“The Academy first,” Shihaya says. “We’ll retain your services for much of the day, if you are agreeable?”
“Anything for ladies such as yourself!” Edge says, and clucks the hawkstrider into motion.
It’s a relief not to be directly in the streets. Kayla lets out a deep breath, relaxing into the seat.
“Thank you,” she says, and Shihaya squeezes her hand, smiling.
“I forgot how overpowering it can be, on your first time,” she says. “It’s like the chaos in the heat of battle; to the untrained it seems disordered and random. But as you learn, you can discern patterns of movement and intention; and then instead of chaos everything falls into its place.”
“I must confess,” Kayla says, “I have no wish to learn more about the streets of Waystone City–” and breaks off as Shihaya giggles.
“You find it terrible, don’t you,” Shihaya says, and Kayla can’t help but smile back, drawn in.
“It’s not completely terrible,” she says, and tightens her fingers.
Shihaya takes a breath – and then the hansom cab slows, and Edge taps on the roof. “Ladies, the Academy.”
Shihaya glances around, and Kayla feels all of a sudden like a pressure has lifted from her shoulders. She looks around herself; the hawkstrider is pulling them into a small courtyard, and the sign above the wood and wrought iron door is painted with two crossed arrows.
“Is this where you studied?” Kayla asks.
Shihaya smiles. “Not in Waystone City,” she says. “The Academy has many faces. But I did study with them for a time.”
The cab pulls up against a low platform, and they alight. Shihaya gives her fingers one last squeeze before she pulls away, rummaging in her purse and passing a coin or two to Edge. Kayla flexes her hand and tries not to think about how Shihaya’s skin felt.
“Thank you,” Shihaya says. “We will return shortly.”
Edge tips his hat, tucking the coins away, and they turn toward the Academy. There’s a short flight of stairs from the platform to the door, and there’s no hesitation as Shihaya reaches out, curls her fingers around the handle, and pulls the door open.
The entrance hall is small – a counter across the back, doors on either side and behind the counter, and a few bows and sets of arrows displayed on the walls to each side. There’s only one man behind the counter, short fuzz of hair on his head and a close-cropped beard to match. There are several arrows in various stages of completion strewn across the countertop in front of him, and a pile of feathers at his elbow. There’s a faint hum of magic about him: nothing to indicate he’s skilled himself, but if she had to guess, she’d say one or two tattoos, and those likely to be protection.
“Welcome to the Academy!” he booms, and then glances up and fumbles the arrow he’s holding. “Shihaya?”
“Good morning to you too,” Shihaya says, and sketches a shallow bow. “Are you well?”
“Yes, yes, of course I am,” the man says, and carefully sets the arrow to one side. “I just wasn’t expecting to see you. Last I heard you were gallivanting across the Empire with that… man.” He makes a face, like saying Romeo’s name is too distasteful. “If I didn’t know better I’d have said you were ensorcelled.”
Shihaya waves a hand. “It’s over,” she says, “and I’m here to collect my bow.”
The man snorts. “Of course you are,” he says. “Well, come on then.”
Shihaya glances back at Kayla, gestures for her to follow, and heads for the counter.
The man lifts a section of the counter for them to pass, bellows “Gil! Watch the front!” in one direction, and then leads them in the other.
“Weren’t sure we’d be seeing you again,” he says conversationally as they walk down the corridor.
Shihaya snorts in a very unladylike fashion. “You know better,” she says, and the man nods.
“I do,” he says. “Couple of the other lads wanted your bow for themselves.”
Shihaya laughs. “And how did they find her?”
The man stops at a door, pausing as he turns back. The smile on his face is wolfish. “She wasn’t to their liking.”
He pushes the door open and steps away from the doorframe. “I’ve kept her oiled and in good condition for you. Use her well.”
Shihaya steps through the doorway, and Kayla follows her. There’s a hum of magic from in here too, much stronger than from the man, and she lets her eyes follow the pull to the centre.
There’s a stand: simple, wooden, unadorned. On it rests a bow, unstrung. Kayla doesn’t know much about bows, beyond the basics; it’s a recurve, carved out of something pale she can’t identify, with a simple worn leather grip.
Shihaya makes a deep bow, hair falling about her face, stays there for one beat, two, before rising. “Starseeker,” she breathes, “I have returned. Will you consent for me to bear you one more time?”
There’s a swirl of magic, a rising chorus of voices, pealing in harmony, and Kayla freezes in shock, pressure suddenly rising about her – and then with a shimmer of light over the bow, it’s gone, back to that hum.
“You have my gratitude,” Shihaya says, and using both hands, gently lifts the bow from the stand.
After that first abrupt wave of magic, Kayla is braced for more, something, anything – so it’s almost a disappointment when nothing else happens. Shihaya turns to her with the bow held casually in one hand and a breathtaking smile on her face.
“I have all I need,” she says. “Shall we go?”
Kayla blinks, glancing over Shihaya’s clothing. She’s seen archers before – most of them with arm guards and gloves, and all of them with arrows. “Don’t you need–” she starts, and somehow, Shihaya’s smile widens.
“No,” she says, and then leans in a little, dropping her voice. “You’ll see.”
Edge is waiting for them at the platform when they come down the stairs, and he hastens to his station as they step into the cab, taking their seats, Shihaya with Starseeker tucked securely into one arm.
“Where to next, ladies?” he asks.
Shihaya glances at Kayla, and she takes a deep breath, curling her fingers around the edge of her knee. “The University compound,” she says.
There’s a jolt as they start moving, and then the hawkstrider turns around the courtyard and out the gate and they’re back into the noise of the streets. Kayla sinks back into the seat, closing her eyes, and when cool fingers touch the back of her hand, slide to interlock with hers, she tips her head back and breathes.
She feels the University compound before they get there.
The city has an underlying resonance, of course; that many lives, interwoven and sunk deep into the land for years – that leaves a mark all by itself. Then there’s the magic they carry, all the tattoos and charms of protection, of luck, of fortune. It runs under everything, a resonance she can feel, like a buzz deep under her skin, running over her bones.
The University compound changes that.
It’s subtle, at first, but stronger as they get closer; a single clear note emerging from the underlying hum. As they turn into the final street, other notes join in; first the third, then the fifth, then more, echoes upon echoes that ring and ring, all the way through her.
“Kayla,” Shihaya says, and there’s worry in her voice, fingers tight against her knee. “Kayla, we’re here.”
“I know,” she says, takes a deep breath, and hauls her senses into order. It’s nothing like the University proper, back home; this is far stronger, and she doesn’t know why a single compound, an outpost of the whole, would have such complex harmony. She could stay there forever, until her whole body sung in tune with the harmony and she became a part of it – but she doesn’t have that luxury. She’s in control of her magic, not the other way around, and she has promises to keep.
She opens her eyes.
Shihaya’s hovering in her vision, worry creasing her brow. “Kayla,” she says, relief in her tone.
“I’m okay,” Kayla says, although that’s not quite true; she still feels shaky, a bit out of control. Her fingers tighten against Shihaya’s as she stands and steps out of the cab onto the platform. The University compound is unassuming from the outside; simple stairs to the door and a roughly lettered plaque hanging above.
Shihaya hands Edge another coin and hastens after her, Starseeker tucked in close.
“What kind of mage focus will you get?” she asks. “There are a fair number, are there not?”
Kayla nods. “There are,” she says, and bites her lip, looking sideways at Shihaya. “I can’t tell you any more. I’m sorry.”
Shihaya nods soberly. “I understand,” she says, and smiles. “I will wait wherever is appropriate, until you return.”
Kayla pulls the door open and steps through. Inside, the hum drops in volume, fading from the bright chorus outside into a barely-there whisper that dances around her, soft and caressing.
Against the quiet background, the notes of individuals stood out. “Sister,” a man says from the side, and she turns her head, unsurprised; she had felt him approach.
“Brother,” she says, and they bow to each other.
“Please, wait here,” the man says, bowing slightly shallower to Shihaya. She returns it precisely to the same degree, smiles at Kayla, and strolls casually over to a chair near the wall.
The man leads her through a door and into the compound. “Will you be wanting the Artist?” he asks, and she nods.
After two more simple corridors, he gestures to a door, bows, and leaves her.
She reaches out, places a hand on the latch, and pushes the door open.
The rush of voices is nearly overwhelming: the singing chorus she’d felt outside, but much purer.
“Kayla,” a woman’s voice whispers, “come inside.”
She takes a step forward, drawn in, and the door whispers closed behind her.
“What do you have?” the woman whispers, and she feels a pull, words nearly dragged out of her.
“Fire,” she says, the chorus reacting and changing as she speaks. “Lightning. Ice. Wind.”
There’s a hum from the chorus, and the chord changes. “What do you need?” the woman whispers, words echoing across the music.
“Water. Earth,” she says, and her words are echoing now too. “Gravity. Dark.”
The chorus softens. “Why?” the woman whispers.
Hanging suspended in the midst of harmony, she struggles to find words. But she’s doing this for a reason, after all. Because she promised. Because she can. Because of Shihaya’s smile. “Because there is a need.”
The woman hums, for a moment in tune with the harmony. “You wish for a storm,” she whispers finally. “But can you control it?”
The chorus rises, sharp, and then magic swirls tight around her, jagged lances like needles against her back. She breathes with it, lets the pain move through her, and twists her energy up a semitone into harmony with the chorus.
“You have learned well,” the woman whispers, and the harmonies start to ebb. “Now focus.”
She might have screamed; she’s not sure, because pain rips through her as the harmonies shatter and the chorus shrieks into discord. It feels like her mind has shattered along with the harmony, like she has scattered to the four winds and will never be whole. Focus.
Focus is hard, but she can breathe: in sobbing gasps, at first, but soon she’s breathing in a rhythm. Gradually her senses come back under her control, tinged with the elements she knows, and the elements she’s learned. Water is cool, refreshing; earth is warm, and tastes of life. Gravity is strong, a constant pull against her; and dark is a smear of darkness against the others, a void defined by its lack.
“Carry it well,” the woman whispers. “Storm Warning.”
The magic starts to fade; the chorus subsides, harmonies blending together until the last, a single long note that softens into a gentle hum.
She opens her eyes; she’s standing in a bare room, alone.
“Thank you,” she says, and makes a deep bow. Her back pulls a little uncomfortably, but it’s nothing she can’t handle.
She turns, opens the door, and steps out into the corridor. The man from earlier is waiting for her; he hands her a new necklace and starts walking back the way they’d come. She gives it a cursory glance – beaded chain, centre gem, doesn’t clash hideously with anything she’s already wearing – and slings it over her head to join the rest.
She has the power, now; all she needs is the control and focus to use it.
Shihaya’s looking in her direction already as she rounds the last corner.
“Get what you needed?” she asks, giving her a quick once-over, her eyes lingering on the new necklace.
“Yes,” Kayla says, “I did.”
Shihaya stands gracefully, giving Starseeker a little twirl before tucking it away under her arm. “Shall we return to the Light of Dawn?” she asks. “Or do you need anything else?”
Kayla thinks about the crush of streets outside, the throbbing in her back, and the quiet peace of the airship. “I don’t need anything else that badly!” she says, and Shihaya laughs.
“Very well,” she says, and they go out the door.
“Get down!” Shihaya shrieks, and Kayla drops flat just in time; a gout of flame streaks through the space she’d just been occupying, rush of heat over her back.
She rolls over, takes a breath, and throws ice as a distraction, pushing back up to her feet. She takes a deep breath in to focus, blows it out to centre, then flings up her hand and calls; a moment later lightning crackles down out of the sky and slams into the thing. It lifts its head and bellows, scraping its front legs against the ground as though about to charge. It looks more annoyed than hurt.
She pushes her hands forward, stretches her mind out underneath the creature, and thinks: focus. She closes her eyes; in the distance, the creature starts to charge, shaking the ground with every step; she hears Shihaya, screaming her name; and she thinks: gravity.
The creature’s front legs collapse first, knees buckling as the force of her magic takes effect. Then its body slams into the ground as it starts to slide, force of its charge too strong to stop it completely. She calls wind, a familiar element, and leaps into the air, letting the currents sail her clean over the creature to land gently on the ground.
The creature has four legs and two arms, and seems to be some kind of horrible mix of machinery and creature, with a long tail and a mane of tentacles. Before they’d gotten to it, it’d razed two towns to the ground, and nearly wiped a third off the map. There had been some survivors, from the last – and they’d told them where it was headed. They just hadn’t expected to come across it so suddenly.
Shihaya screams something inarticulate, and she whips around. The area’s resonance is twisted and distorted by the creature, a horrific abomination that shouldn’t ever have existed, no matter how supreme a weapon it’s supposed to be, but she can feel a surge of magic from her vicinity, and then Starseeker shimmers. Wings extend from each side of the bow, arm guards appear on Shihaya’s forearms, and as she takes hold of empty air in front of her a bowstring and arrow appear. She draws back, elbow straight and fletching to her cheek, holds for a moment, and looses the arrow.
There’s another twist of magic, subtle, as the arrow soars through the air, and then it slams into one of the creature’s eyes.
It bellows another roar at it staggers to its feet, turns it head, and breathes fire.
“Shihaya!” she screams, reaching with her hand and her magic at the same time. Shihaya’s moving, dropping into a roll, but it’s not going to be fast enough; Kayla’s not sure what element she’s called, but something is streaking to answer.
The flame smashes through the water and ice that appear in front of it, slowing a fraction – it’s enough time for Shihaya to be a little further out of the way when the flame reaches her, although it still has enough force to singe a line up her dress.
Kayla’s already in motion; she’s probably stupid to get closer, but her elemental magic is mostly just making it angry. Shihaya’s taken out one of its eyes. If she can just get close enough–
The creature rears up and slams its front legs back down, and Kayla can feel that twisted note, a rumble through the ground that erupts into a localised earthquake. She reaches for earth, but not fast enough; the ground bucks under her and she’s tossed into the dirt. It knocks the breath out of her for a moment, and she has to struggle to get back to her feet.
“Fine,” she mutters, and takes a deep breath. This time, she calls dark.
The light around her dims. Off to the side, Shihaya’s back on her feet too, sending arrow after arrow at the creature; Kayla reaches a hand, and the next arrow Shihaya nocks has tendrils of darkness floating off it.
She pauses for just a moment longer at the draw, holding steady, and Kayla can feel the hum from Starseeker, pulsing for just a moment – and then Shihaya looses the arrow and it streaks away. It hits the creature in the eye, the same one Shihaya wounded moments before, and there’s another pulse of magic. Kayla stretches out her focus, darkness singing her own note, a counterpoint harmony, and the creature staggers.
Shihaya puts three more arrows into the creature’s eye, and Kayla reaches again, this time for earth and gravity combined.
When the creature crashes to the ground again, it doesn’t get up.
Kayla pulls in a shaky breath, but the second catches in her throat as she sees Shihaya sink slowly to one knee.
“Shihaya!” she calls, staggering over, and Shihaya limply waves her free hand.
“Kayla,” she says, and lifts her head. She’s smiling, even with scratches and dirt across her face and burns down her dress, and Kayla feels lighter all of a sudden. “We defeated the creature.”
“We did,” Kayla says, and clasps Shihaya’s wrist to pull her to her feet. She feels jittery, anxious and with a thrum under her skin that has nothing to do with magic. “Are you injured?”
“I may have some burns,” Shihaya says. “I do not have any charms of protection.”
Kayla frowns. Shihaya is more than capable of taking care of herself in a physical confrontation, but against magic she was vulnerable. If her roll had been a second slower, if Kayla hadn’t intercepted it with water and ice – she can’t think about what might have happened, but she’s definitely not going to give it a chance to happen again. “Then I will have to make you one,” she says.
“There’s no need–” Shihaya starts, and Kayla shakes her head, feeling brave, that thrum under her skin urging her on, and puts a hand over Shihaya’s heart, the end of the charred line. Shihaya’s warm under her hand, heart beating out of time, and just as fast as her own.
“There is a need,” Kayla says. “I will not see you hurt, not when I can prevent it.”
Shihaya takes an unsteady breath. “Kayla–” she whispers, and takes a step forward. They’re very nearly chest to chest, Kayla’s hand pressed between them. “Do you – are you–”
“Yes,” Kayla whispers, and then Shihaya is closing the last gap between them, curling a hand around her neck and drawing her in.
Shihaya’s lips are soft, gentle kisses with a little flick against her lips on each one. She sucks in an unsteady breath, tight feeling low in her stomach and that damned thrum driving her. Shihaya pulls her back in, hand like iron on the back of her neck, her lips still parted when they kiss. Her tongue grazes Shihaya’s, and it’s like a bolt of lightning – she makes a muffled noise, clutching against Shihaya, and Shihaya’s mouth curves against her own as she does it again.
“Shi-Shihaya,” Kayla says while she still has some presence of mind left, using the hand still pressed between them to lever some distance. “Shihaya.”
“Mm?” Shihaya lifts her head lazily to look her in the eyes. Her lips are red, and Kayla jerks her gaze back up.
“I am not,” she says, taking an unsteady breath, “doing this, right next to the corpse of a creature we just stopped from slaughtering another town.”
“Spoilsport,” Shihaya says, pouting, and Kayla can’t help the way her eyes flick down.
Shihaya’s free hand slides around Kayla’s neck and down her throat, stopping in the hollow of her collarbones. Kayla’s next breath is unsteady, and she can feel Shihaya’s fingers against her neck as she speaks. “I don’t really want to just leave it here, but it’s far too big to carry with us.”
Shihaya shrugs a shoulder carelessly. “Burn it,” she says, “I don’t really care,” and slides her hand down, teasing at the top of Kayla’s blouse.
Kayla squeezes her eyes closed, desperately grasping for focus. Shihaya’s heartbeat, strong against her fingers; Shihaya’s hand, sliding under the line of her shirt; not relevant to what she’s about to do. She reaches out blindly with a hand, in the general direction of the creature, and thinks of fire.
“Lovely,” Shihaya murmurs a moment later, and slides her hand under the curve of Kayla’s breast.
Kayla’s eyes fly back open, and Shihaya deliberately stares at her, corner of her mouth turned up, as she runs her fingers across her nipple. It’s more than a bolt of lightning; it’s heat, gathering low in her stomach and between her legs.
“Shi-Shihaya,” Kayla says, and swallows. “Airship. Please.”
Shihaya sighs, carefully pulling her hand back out of Kayla’s blouse. “Very well,” she says. “But Kayla–”
She steps forward again, leaning in and pressing her lips to the edge of Kayla’s ear. “I will have you,” she says, and Kayla shivers all the way to her toes.
“I have no objections,” she says shakily, and Shihaya’s laughter rings out around them.
It’s a very long walk back to the cutter.
It’s not that far in terms of distance, but it feels long, Kayla constantly glancing at Shihaya out of the corner of her eye, catching Shihaya doing the same thing. The way they start off walking with a careful foot of distance between them, and end up brushing shoulders, and the way every time Shihaya has to sidestep an obstacle her hips sway into Kayla’s – even the slide of the ruffled fabric of Shihaya’s dress against her leg a torment.
It’s almost a relief when they reach the cutter, still anchored where they’d left it, bobbing against their tow line. Shihaya goes up the ladder first while Kayla picks at the knot in the tow line, tugging it free. She coils it with one hand as she goes up the ladder herself, dropping the coiled rope over its pin and pulling the ladder up after her.
Shihaya is already below deck; Kayla steps through the hatch and climbs down the internal ladder into the tiny cockpit. Shihaya is over to one side, checking something on the wall; Kayla settles into the co-pilot’s chair with a sigh, leather creaking underneath her. She tips her head back, closes her eyes, and lets out a breath. They did it; they defeated the monster, this ‘supreme weapon’, and they did it with just the two of them.
Shihaya moves away from the wall, soft clip of her footsteps and swish of her dress loud in the small room, and then there’s suddenly a weight across her lap as Shihaya settles herself down, straddling her lap with her knees each side of her hips. Her eyes snap open in surprise; Shihaya looks terribly pleased with herself, smile playing at the corners of her mouth as she leans in close.
“I know you wanted the Light of Dawn,” Shihaya says, breath puffing over Kayla’s skin as she ghosts her mouth up the line of her jaw, “but I just couldn’t wait.”
Kayla lifts a hand, threading her fingers into Shihaya’s hair and pulling her down. “We’re not outside anymore, at least,” she says, “I suppose that will have to–” and then Shihaya’s mouth is on hers, demanding, and she can’t finish her sentence.
Shihaya doesn’t wait, this time, doesn’t start slow; she presses her advantage, tongue curling around Kayla’s. It’s hot, and wet, and she feels almost overwhelmed, the feel and taste and smell of Shihaya surrounding her.
She doesn’t pay much attention to Shihaya’s hands creeping up her sides, which turns out to be a mistake – while she’s gasping into Shihaya’s mouth, Shihaya’s hands sweep up and over the edge of her blouse, dragging it down underneath her breasts.
Kayla’s next breath comes in sharp, sensitive skin suddenly in much colder air. Shihaya pulls away from the kiss, glancing down at her handiwork, and strokes her hands along the curve under Kayla’s breasts.
The sudden change of pace is jarring; she’s thrumming under her skin, and she doesn’t want slow. Shihaya can’t wait, won’t wait – well, neither will she.
“I thought you were going to have me,” Kayla says, pulls her hand away from the back of Shihaya’s neck, and puts both hands on Shihaya’s knees. She holds Shihaya’s gaze and deliberately slides her fingers higher, running up Shihaya’s thighs and pushing up her dress.
Shihaya’s next breath sings out of her. “I am,” she says, and doesn’t break eye contact, inhaling sharply when Kayla’s hands reach the creases at the top of her thighs. “Kayla.”
She slides her finger sideways, under a scrap of fabric and into soft curls. Shihaya’s damp here already, legs quivering against her with the effort of staying still as she runs her fingers down.
Shihaya gasps, whole body shaking at the first touch, and she almost topples forward, back gracefully arching as her forehead gently smacks into Kayla’s shoulder. “Kayla–” she says again, then her back arches more as she slides her tongue in a line down Kayla’s chest, fastening her teeth on her breast.
It is a bolt of lightning, straight from her breast to between her legs, and her next breath comes in a strangled gasp, hand pressing a little harder than she intends into Shihaya. But that seems to be okay, if Shihaya’s moan is any indication, and she does it again just to hear her make that sound – to hear her make that sound because of her.
Shihaya closes her teeth around her again, pulsing them in a rhythm, and slides her other hand up to do the same to her other breast, only with her fingernails. Each press sparks the growing fire between her legs, and she squirms in the chair, Shihaya’s knees keeping her legs pressed firmly together.
She slides her free hand up, over the folds in Shihaya’s dress, and tucks it inside her bodice; it’s a tight fit, but she can just wriggle her fingers in enough to get some payback of her own. The first time she squeezes with one hand and presses with the other, Shihaya keens, tearing her mouth away from Kayla’s breast and gasping for air, breath tingling over her sensitive skin.
Now she has the advantage; she does it again, and again, falling into a rhythm. Shihaya’s back gradually straightens, then arches in the other direction, her hips rocking forward with each press of Kayla’s hands.
Kayla leans forward as much as she can, lifting her head. “Shihaya,” she says, and Shihaya’s eyes crack open.
“Kayla–” she moans, undone, and Kayla smiles.
“Yes, you will have me,” she says. “But I will have you as well,” and presses in harder, twisting her other wrist. She presses in, and in– and then Shihaya’s back arches even more, somehow, and she shudders all over, suddenly slicker against Kayla’s fingers.
Kayla gentles her hands, slowing her movements, and Shihaya’s breathing gradually evens out. She straightens her back, opening her eyes, a pink flush to her cheeks. “Kayla,” she says, and her voice is low and rough, scraping down Kayla’s spine.
She’s suddenly breathless, and Shihaya leans forward with a creak of leather, pushing her arm away and capturing her mouth. Somewhere in the middle of a series of kisses, she wriggles back, lifting one knee out of the way and nudging Kayla’s legs apart. Her hand slides down, over Kayla’s bare stomach and under the waistband of her pants. When she finally brushes fingers between Kayla’s legs it’s like the lightning has centred itself; she throws her head back against the chair, gasping for air, as Shihaya’s fingers move in tiny circles.
“Kayla–” Shihaya hums, and her other hand settles again on Kayla’s breast, flicking her nipple back into hardness. “Kayla.”
The thrum under her skin increases, Shihaya’s fingers turning her higher and higher. It’s not unlike the feeling she gets, focusing as she builds power for some or other strike: the slow gathering of something under her skin, in her centre, tingling over her skin and every now and then, jolts that leave her shaken and breathless.
“Shi–” she gasps, “Shi–” because her problem is that when she builds power, she can’t let go – any strike, any elemental call is directed, focused – under her control. To do otherwise – an unfocussed elemental release, in any possible direction – would be nothing but chaos, and unthinkable. But this isn’t that, it isn’t, and yet she’s still holding on so tightly, riding the edge but never letting herself fall.
“Kayla,” Shihaya hums, the sharp point of her teeth grazing her ear, scratching across her jawline, scraping against her throat. Her breath hovers, warm, over her collarbone. “Kayla, let go.”
She tosses her head, frustration leaking in to her voice as she groans with Shihaya’s next motion. She’s so close, nearly there, but all of her damn control is getting in the way.
“Kayla, look at me–” Shihaya says, and Kayla levers her eyes open – when had they fallen closed? – and tilts her chin down, Shihaya’s face coming into view. She’s pink and flushed and her hair is a bit everywhere, and she’s smiling like Kayla’s the only thing in the world. “Kayla,” she breathes, and it’s like sunrise and the swell of magic all at once, radiant. “I have you,” she says, “I have you. Let go–” and staring into her eyes, without any sort of conscious thought, Kayla feels herself fall.
It’s absolutely overwhelming, like a much happier chaos on the streets on Waystone City only ten times stronger, a hundred times stronger. Like the feeling at the University compound, when the Artist’s magic gripped her, only more sensual, more physical. Lighting shivers its way through her system, and she can hear her voice in her ears, gasping for air. She reaches out, grasping at something to hold onto, and suddenly the underlying resonance of the area is humming in her ears, point and counterpoint notes shimmering through it in reaction to her magic.
Gradually, her shivers ease, leaving her feeling wrung out but strangely enough, renewed at the same time. She becomes aware of Shihaya, holding her close and humming nonsense in her ear, rocking gently back and forth.
“Shihaya,” she says, and her voice comes out a rasp, barely more than a whisper.
“Kayla,” Shihaya says, voice also quiet, and draws back enough to see her face. “Are you well?”
She looks … open, is her first thought, as though in this moment, she’s unguarded.
Kayla swallows, trying to clear her throat. “That was–” She doesn’t have the words to describe it, that feeling of falling. She doesn’t even know how she’d managed it, how Shihaya had managed it. “I am well,” she says instead, and lifts a hand to place it over Shihaya’s heart. “I am well.”
“I am glad to hear it,” Shihaya says, and some kind of tension in her eases, although Kayla can’t for the life of her identify what or why. She leans in closer, until Kayla’s eyes cross trying to focus, until their noses touch. “I am also well, and satisfied – for now. But when we get back to the Light of Dawn, I wish to undress you, piece by piece, and lay you across my sheets, and–”
“Shihaya–” Kayla says, because Shihaya’s still rocking her, knee pressed up between her legs, and she can feel the lightning stirring under her skin, eager to run her hands over Shihaya’s skin unbounded by clothes, and be touched in turn. “Shihaya, I beg of you. Fly us back to the ship, and stop talking–” and Shihaya’s laughter lights up the cockpit.
It takes her three days to make the protection talisman for Shihaya. For another brother or sister, she would get out her needles and inks and work it directly into their skin. But Shihaya is not her sister, is not privy to their secrets, so instead she must work indirectly, through a channel.
She has four strands from Shihaya’s head – far more than enough for a simple talisman, but she’s not going for simple. She wants something that will protect Shihaya, absolutely and completely, because anything less is too much of a risk. She picks the most elegant of her collection of jewellery, a brooch that Shihaya might conceivably wear of her own choosing.
She takes hours to design the tattoo, slight adjustments to the angle of each line until she’s satisfied that the energy will flow, always flow, through and around and back out without putting too much pressure anywhere else, until there are no weak points, no places where the design could shatter and fail. She uses her finest set of needles to inscribe the design into the back of the gem, calling for earth to help smooth out the lines, remove any imperfections.
It’s sometime on the second day when she’s happy with the gem, and sets it aside to lay out Shihaya’s strands of hair. They need equal concentrations of opposing elements, and the focus required will be like nothing she’s ever done. She pulls in a breath and lets herself focus on everything and nothing, every fraction of power she allows under her precise control.
The first hair she imbues with fire and ice, and that’s the easiest, both elements she learned early and used for years, second nature by now. The second she imbues with lightning and water, and that’s more difficult; lightning she knows, the second element she ever mastered, but her affinity with water is very recent, and it’s much slower. The third is wind and earth, and that’s the same; she’s confident with wind, but she’s unused to the solidity of earth, and keeping an even flow takes her time.
Finally she’s at the last hair, and this is the most difficult, for this is gravity and darkness, both recent elements, and also the most opposed – gravity a pull, a weight, and darkness the complete absence of that, of anything – a void. Getting the concentrations even requires her absolute focus, or one will overwhelm the other and she’ll have to begin again.
It’s well past dawn on the third day when she’s satisfied. The hairs are glowing lines in front of her, and she carefully lifts the jewel in deliberately steady hands and touches it to each in turn, the tattoo glowing stronger and brighter with each strand of power it absorbs.
She places the jewel back in the brooch, using a touch of earth to close the setting around it, careful not to disrupt the delicate balance of power swirling in it. Once it is attuned, it will be safe; for now, any disruption and she will have to begin again, all her work for nothing.
She wanders the airship in a daze, both hands in front of her cradling the brooch; Shihaya is not on the bridge, or in her rooms, or in the galley. She finally finds her at the prow, wind lifting the hair from her neck and ruffling the feathers over her shoulders.
“Shihaya,” she says, and there’s a resonance to her words that she doesn’t intend. Shihaya stiffens, and turns slowly, expressionless.
“Kayla,” she says, and then she sees the brooch cupped in her hands and her mouth forms a perfect O.
“Shihaya,” she says again, and lifts her hands. “For your protection, I give this freely.”
Shihaya takes a step forward, and uses both hands to lift the brooch, the smallest shake in her fingers as she does so. “I thank you,” she says formally, but her voice is quiet, unsteady. She presses the brooch to her hip, where her dress gathers, and slides the pin home.
She marshals her focus, reaching out; the brooch sounds a clear note, like the peal of a bell, echoing back on itself in harmony, and Shihaya also has a resonance, the background hum lighter as it passes her. She takes the two, and weaves them together – there’s a surge of magic and a flare of light from the brooch, and Shihaya inhales sharply, choking off a noise in her throat.
When it fades, Shihaya is doing more than just influencing the resonance around her; she has her own note, clear and bright like her smile, and the gem in the brooch is dark.
“It is done,” she says, and then the world blurs around her as she falls into Shihaya’s arms.
The protection talisman performs perfectly during its first real test. They’re fighting a band of mercenaries, supposedly just lawless brigands, but their information says different. They’re well-trained, and organised, and they have two users of magic in there somewhere, both tattooed for several elements each. Shihaya is in her element, Starseeker blazing as she takes down mercenary after mercenary while Kayla holds off the mages.
In the end, Shihaya takes a bolt of lightning head on without blinking while Kayla’s tied up dealing with a blizzard and a firestorm, and follows it up by putting an arrow through the mage’s throat. It’s perfect, except for the moment of terror she’d felt at seeing the lightning arc down and knowing there was nothing she could do to prevent it hitting; knowing that if she hadn’t been perfect, if there is even one tiny error, that bolt of lightning will strike down, and Shihaya will be–
And afterward, when they’re tangled together in Shihaya’s bed, triumphant and mussed and sweaty, Kayla can’t help but think that they’re tangled in more than just the physical. She’s given pieces of herself to Shihaya that she’s never given anyone else. It should be terrifying, and it is, at those moments when they’re in danger, when Shihaya’s life is on the line; but for the rest of the time, she doesn’t feel anxious.
She feels at peace, but it’s more than that, too.
For the first time since venturing out to see the world, she feels like she’s home.
“To your left!” Shihaya calls, and Kayla swings around, still running, and calls fire without looking, lash of flame whipping out and searing across the two dark-clad figures attempting to flank them. They’re in the thick of things now; this was supposed to be an easy quest, in and out with no-one the wiser, but here they are assaulted at every turn.
They’re getting closer; every quest gets them more answers, and they’re slowly putting together the pieces of what’s going on. There’s something happening in the Empire, some underlying scheme to topple the current structure and do … something, Kayla’s not yet certain. The crucial piece of information they’re missing is who, because when they have that they know where to strike.
A note of magic swells ahead, and Kayla twists without thinking, wind rising around her and throwing the person backwards. A moment later Starseeker sings out beside her and the figure falls.
They crash through the final doors side by side, Shihaya with Starseeker half-drawn and ready, and Kayla with her hands up and focussed.
The priest is kneeling, head bent in prayer, as a man dressed in black lifts a sword above him in both hands–
Kayla pushes forward, wind again, and blows the man backwards into the wall.
“Are you all right?” she asks, hurrying forward, and kneels beside the priest. “Are we in time?”
He lifts his head and smiles, calm. “All things happen in their own time,” he says, and lifts a hand.
His palm is empty, and then it isn’t; on it lies a simple scrap of paper. But that’s not the remarkable thing; the paper is inscribed with the whirling loops of a tattoo that she’s not seen before, but that feels familiar, right down to the soft note that’s singing from it.
“Do you know who’s behind this?” she asks. “And what is that?”
The priest extends his hand towards her. “The Emperor,” he says. “And his family.”
“The Emperor?” Kayla says, and from somewhere behind her Shihaya sucks in a sharp breath. “But he’s already Emperor. What does he gain, attacking his own kingdom?” She’d expected a power-hungry subordinate, or a non-Empire citizen, or perhaps a neighbouring kingdom; anything but the ruler himself.
“He has misused the elements,” the priest says. “You cannot sow discord and expect harmony in turn.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Kayla says as Shihaya steps up to her side.
“Well,” the priest says, “perhaps you can, at that. The harmony will correct itself, in time.”
Shihaya reaches out and takes the paper from his hand. “And this?” she asks.
The priest’s smile is gentle. “You know what it is, princess.”
Kayla blinks. “Princess?” she asks, turning to look at Shihaya–
There’s a burst of pain as something strikes her on the temple–
“Don’t you dare,” Shihaya says, and she sounds furious.
“What do you mean, ‘don’t you dare’?” a male voice says. “You’re the one who’s been working against us all this time.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing,” Shihaya snaps, “you complete imbecile. You would have killed that priest for nothing, and then the symbol would have been lost.”
“You don’t have to be cruel, Shihaya,” the voice whines. “I didn’t know he had it.”
“And that would have stood you in good stead when we faced Father again, wouldn’t it?” Shihaya snarls. Someone heaves a deep sigh. “She’s waking up,” Shihaya says, suddenly not sounding angry at all, and another sunburst of pain–
When she wakes, she’s alone, and her head aches.
Kayla opens her eyes, and the roof of the room swims into view, thick wooden beams deep in shadow. She blinks once, twice, and focuses as best she can, but the resonance of the room is low, muted; for now at least, she’s alone.
She rolls over carefully, pushes herself up to hands and knees, and rests back on her heels, looking around. The priest is lying still a few feet away. His hands are crossed over his chest and he has no visible wounds, but a trail of blood is seeping from underneath. His face looks peaceful, and Kayla has to wonder whether he knew the hour of his death. All things happen in their own time.
The symbol is gone, as is the man she’d struck with wind.
And, of course, there’s no sign of Shihaya.
She can feel her focus slipping and rigidly hauls it back into line. So Shihaya is a princess: the Emperor’s daughter, even. And the man her brother, perhaps? She’d said she’d buried her brother at Waystone City, but she’d also heard the Emperor had several sons, so perhaps he was one of several.
Of course, perhaps she had not buried a brother at all. Perhaps everything she’s ever said has been lies.
So Shihaya has been working for the Emperor all along. But what is the Emperor trying to obtain?
She closes her eyes, trying to pull up the image of the tattoo in her mind’s eye, but each time it dissolves into scribbles. It felt familiar, yes, sang a note that she has definitely heard before. If she’d had more time, or had the tattoo in front of her once again–
Regardless of the specifics, the tattoo was certainly complex and powerful. She can’t imagine what he wants it for, not without knowing what it actually does, but if he’s been working against the Empire all this time, if he’s been – what had the priest said, sowing discord? – then it can’t be for anything good.
And now Shihaya and her probably-brother have the tattoo, and are probably already on their way to deliver it to the Emperor. She wonders if they’re on the Light of Dawn, if Shihaya is, even now, laughing about her with her probably-brother, or throwing her things overboard like she did Romeo’s stupid doublet.
Had she ever cared? Or was that, too, a lie?
She spends a moment clearing her mind. Most strong emotions are disruptive, discordant; they blocked harmony and dulled resonance, and now more than ever, she has to rely on herself and her abilities. She has no-one left to turn to.
She breathes in, holds for a moment, and breathes out, sending her emotions with it. She has control, and focus, and power; and she has all those because there was a need. That hasn’t changed just because she’s alone; the Artist wove her a new tattoo for her additional power, and she has a responsibility to–
She blinks, and then sags down, concentrating. She can’t see her own back, of course, but she’s intimately familiar with the shape her own power takes, and the lines and whorls that generate it.
She calls fire to the end of her finger, sinks into her own mind, and starts tracing lines.
When she’s finished tracing the last loop, the smell of burnt wood in her nose, she opens her eyes.
The tattoo burned into the floorboards isn’t a perfect reproduction of the one on the paper (the one Shihaya took), but it’s definitely pretty close.
She’d wished for a storm, and the Artist had given her Storm Warning. Had Shihaya known? Had Shihaya known that the symbol she was searching for, the symbol that her father wanted, was nearly the same one that Kayla had been wearing all this time?
She doesn’t know what kind of storm the Emperor wishes to obtain, but if he is after discord then she can’t let him continue to twist the elements out of harmony, and she definitely can’t let him apply and attune the tattoo.
She smears the tattoo into illegibility and pushes to her feet, rubbing at her temple. She will see if the cutter is still where they’d left it, however long ago that was, or obtain other transport if not. And then–
The capital. And the Emperor. And Shihaya.
She’s been counting on the Emperor, and instead, of course, she’s gotten Shihaya. Well, she’s been practicing on the way, and it’s the work of moments to focus and sweep her emotions away.
“Hello,” she says, and turns.
Shihaya looks just like when she’d last seen her, right down to Starseeker in a casual grip down in one hand. She’s not expressionless, even if it’s fairly close – if Kayla had to guess, she’d say solemn.
“Why are you here?” Shihaya asks, and Kayla has to shake her head in amazement.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know, princess,” she says calmly, and Shihaya winces. “I’m here for the Emperor.”
“I’m sorry,” Shihaya says. “I can’t let you through.”
Kayla nods. “Very well,” she says. She lifts her hands up into a guard, feeling the resonance of the room. Shihaya’s note is clear from the other side of the room; there are no other hidden notes, no traps. Just her, and Shihaya standing in her way. It’s more difficult to keep her control when Shihaya is right there in front of her.
She starts with wind, a quick burst that tears across the room and dissipates across the far wall without lifting a hair on Shihaya’s head.
Kayla blinks, and then her eye is drawn to Shihaya’s hip and the gleam of the protection talisman, and her heart sinks. Of course she’s wearing it. She must have known that she was coming, and Shihaya is anything but stupid. She wouldn’t come to fight a mage without some form of protection from magic.
She feels the swell in magic a split second before Shihaya moves, Starseeker coming up fast, and she dives to the side, an arrow slamming into the floor a moment later.
“Why are you fighting?” Shihaya asks, another arrow half-drawn as Kayla rolls up to her feet. “The priest’s scroll was most enlightening. Father is having the symbol inscribed now.”
She goes for fire next; she can’t affect Shihaya directly, but surely she can do so indirectly. When she calls, fire answers, leaping from her hands and towards Shihaya. The wave parts around her as the protection absorbs it, but it does sear into the floorboards, and Shihaya takes a quick half step to the side to clear the affected area, bringing Starseeker up.
Kayla’s a little slow in dodging this time; Shihaya is fast. The arrow tears across the top of her arm, just under the sleeve of her blouse. Pain blooms in her upper arm as slick blood runs down her skin; she counters by bring her other hand up and calling earth, lifting the floorboards underneath her and throwing Shihaya backwards.
Shihaya makes a pained noise as she hits the floor, somewhat awkwardly, but she’s back on her feet with Starseeker out moments later.
“What happened to you?” Shihaya says, carefully circling around. “You’re not normally this silent.”
“Emotions are discordant,” Kayla says, and starts gathering magic. “I should have realised it would turn out like this.”
Shihaya winces again. “I’m sorry that it came to this,” she says.
“So am I,” Kayla says, and lashes out, this time with earth and gravity. The combination is much stronger than her first blow, and Shihaya is thrown clear across the room to slam into the wall.
“Stand aside,” she says. “I do not want to hurt you, but I must stop the Emperor.”
Shihaya peels herself up off the wall, raising Starseeker. “I do not wish to hurt you,” she says. “But I will if you continue.”
Kayla lets her magic build, unmoving, then pushes forward, again with earth and gravity, but Shihaya’s faster – she still goes sailing across the room, but Kayla’s too close to get out of the way, and another arrow tears past, her other arm this time. The force of the arrow spins her half around, and it hurts, trickle of blood slowly running down past her elbow.
Shihaya’s aim is perfect. So why is she only grazing her? Why isn’t she shooting to kill, or at least injure?
Shihaya’s note chimes, moving fast, and Kayla turns but she’s not fast enough – Shihaya is right there in her face, and then a leg snakes in between hers and she shoves, and Kayla hits the ground, wind knocked out of her for a moment. Shihaya follows her down, pressed together like a mockery of what they used to mean to each other.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, and whips Starseeker around in a pale blur to slam into her temple.
It’s not enough to knock her out this time, but it is enough to stun, and for long moments, as Shihaya presses a kiss to her forehead and stands, it’s all she can do to lie there and breathe.
Shihaya’s back down a moment later, and when she slides something cold and sharp up her neck Kayla’s certain this is the moment where everything ends. But she doesn’t cut in; she hooks the blade underneath the chains of her necklaces instead, snapping it out. Beads scatter across the floor in a waterfall of tiny clicks, and Shihaya stands again, footsteps moving away.
“I have disarmed her,” she says. “Bring her.”
Kayla lets herself remain limp as hands snake under her shoulders and knees and she’s awkwardly lifted. It’s ungainly, and she has to fight to remain limp and not shift her weight to assist.
She’s eventually deposited none-too-gently on another cold floor and breathes in, assessing the room. The resonance is – wrong, somehow; Shihaya’s note is clean, and there are several other clean hums or notes near her, but there’s one other note in front of her, a discordant wail that casts the resonance into disharmony.
Has she finally reached the Emperor?
“I see you, little mage,” a low voice says, and even his voice sounds wrong, harsh and flat. “You are not fooling anyone.”
She uncurls from where she’d been dropped, pushing herself to her feet. Her arms are throbbing, and the lines of blood feel tacky on her skin.
She lifts her chin, and there before her is the Emperor. For someone so discordant, he’s very unassuming, short hair, no shirt, and there in dark lines on his stomach the tattoo from the priest’s paper.
It looks … wrong, somehow, different, and she tries to trace as many lines as possible as quickly as she can, trying to work out what’s changed.
“Little mage,” the Emperor says, interrupting her concentration. “Why are you here?”
“You sow discord and attack your own people,” Kayla says. “And for what, a new tattoo?”
“This?” the Emperor asks, touching his fingertips to the edge of the design. The skin framing the lines is still red, as though he’d just stepped out as they were applying it. “This is but a means to an end, little mage. I’d thought my daughter would have taught you that.”
Kayla flinches, the Emperor’s words hitting a little closer to home than she’s comfortable with. Does Shihaya consider her only a means to an end? She steadies her breathing; now is not the time to think on it. The Emperor is here, and she needs to stop him.
“Do you think you can still defeat me?” the Emperor asks. “You have just fought my daughter, and she was victorious; how do you expect to defeat me?”
Kayla clenches her fists, and slowly pools her magic. “The same way I would any opponent,” she says, and throws fire.
The Emperor drowns it in water without moving and counters with ice, hail flying down towards her. She blocks with fire and sends forward a great gout of flame in the same motion, and this time the Emperor does move, taking two steps to the side and guiding the flame past himself.
She frowns, focusing, and strikes again – this time fire and earth from below, and lightning from above.
The crash of the lighting echoes across the room as the ground shakes, swirl of fire blocking her view of the Emperor. A discordant wail cuts across the resonance of the room, and then the Emperor strides through the flames, tattoo on his stomach with just the hint of a glow.
“You cannot touch me, little mage,” the Emperor says. “Every time you attack, I grow stronger.”
The glow of his tattoo deepens, and Kayla takes a step back almost involuntarily as another discord cuts through the background harmony.
“You have yet to touch me,” Kayla says, regaining her ground. “What makes you think you can?”
The Emperor smiles. “I do not have to touch you,” he says. “The Storm will do everything for me.”
The discord strengthens again, a second hum that clashes with the first, a creeping disharmony that builds and swells. It shivers over Kayla’s skin like a series of unpleasant needles, and she shudders.
So the Emperor has wished for a Storm of discord? Well, Kayla has been marked with Storm Warning.
She takes a breath, centres herself, and focuses.
It’s a slow build, and the strength of the Emperor’s disharmony is jarring, painful. His storm grows, spilling over into the physical world, a dark swirl around him starting to fade into being.
She throws her caution to the wind; she cannot let him summon his storm. She pours everything she has through her tattoo, lines on her back flashing to life, and a harmonious wind starts to rise around her, catching at the corners of her clothing.
“Wind will not help you, little mage,” the Emperor says. “This is but the first; the next storm will be a hundredfold larger–”
“No,” Kayla says, cutting him off. She’s calm, and focused, standing in the eye of her storm. There’s wind around her, true, but the other elements are there too, straining against her control. If he can’t feel them, all the better. “Harmony will always correct itself,” she says, lifts her hands, and lets everything go.
Everything happens at once; the Emperor’s tattoo flares with an ugly light, a scream of discord. The dark energy swirling around him reaches out tendrils towards her; and a gleaming arrow whistles over her shoulder and buries itself right in the centre of the Emperor’s tattoo.
There’s a beat as the dark energy freezes; then everything collapses in and her storm thunders down.
It’s a rising chorus all around her, a hundred voices singing in harmony over and around her, a mix of all of the elements. It’s the crash of lightning and the roar of flame; the clatter of hail and the hiss of rain, and underpinning everything, the deep hum of gravity.
The storm spirals away from her, and she breathes it in, lets the harmonies wash away the discord.
“Kayla!” Shihaya screams in her ear, and she startles, opening her eyes; with the chorus of the storm singing in her ears she hadn’t heard or felt her approach. “Kayla, enough! It’s over!”
It would be so easy to give over everything. In the centre of the storm, nothing matters, not even herself; she’s nothing but a note in a chorus of harmony.
“Kayla!” Shihaya says, urgent, and her hands close over her arms, shaking. “Kayla, snap out of it, please-”
“You left,” Kayla says, prying her eyes open again; for once Shihaya is an open book, emotions chasing themselves around her face for all to see. “Why should I care?”
“I was a reason once,” Shihaya says. “Is that still enough?”
It’s enough for her control to slip, the storm slowing just a fraction. “You were a reason once,” Kayla whispers. “And then you betrayed me.”
Shihaya looks down. It’s the first time Kayla’s seen her uncertain. “I knew Father would not rest until he had attained the Storm,” she says. “I also knew that he would want to use it, immediately, and the best chance for both of us to be there without exhausting ourselves fighting through his army would be for him to think me on his side, and you unable to harm him. When I saw my brother already there – I was taken by surprise.”
“So you knocked me out and left me?” Kayla asks, sharp, and the wind howls along with her. “You could not have told me your plan?” She turns her head away. “I would be a fool to believe you again. How am I to know what is true?”
“Please, Kayla, rein in the storm–” Shihaya says urgently. “We can talk all you wish afterward, but right now you need to focus–”
The chorus of the storm is strong around her, and she reaches out – You wish for a storm, the Artist whispers in her mind, but can you control it? – and grasps the edges, channelling the swell of magic back through her tattoo. The storm weakens, funnelling itself back into her, and she’s shaking by the end, Shihaya’s grip on her arms the only thing keeping her grounded.
“Are you satisfied?” Kayla asks, opening her eyes.
The room around her is absolutely wrecked. The windows are blown out, floor boards ripped up and stones in the walls cracked and scorched. Whatever furnishings used to be in here are long gone, reduced to splinters and kindling. On the other side of the room, the Emperor lies still, Shihaya’s arrow still buried in the centre of his discordant tattoo.
Shihaya is looking at the destruction around them with a tiny smile on her face. “Yes,” says, “I am.”
Kayla flexes her arms under Shihaya’s fingers, and her attention snaps right back to her instantly.
“Shihaya,” she says. “Who are you?”
Shihaya nods. “I am the only daughter of the late Emperor,” she says, “and I couldn’t stand his discord. He was harming the Empire, and I made a vow that I would stop him.”
“You couldn’t stand his discord?” Kayla asks. “You can feel harmony?”
Shihaya’s eyes cut to the side, and the corner of her mouth turns up. “Yes,” she says, and then looks her straight in the eye. “And from the first, your harmony has been so clear, so bright – I wrapped my notes around yours and sang counterpoint to your melody from the very beginning.” No wonder they’d fallen in together so fast, with Shihaya deliberately singing in tune with her; no wonder she’d felt so bereft when she’d left.
“And what will you do now?” Kayla asks. The energy she’d gathered for the storm is draining away; she sways on her feet, Shihaya bracing her. She’s so tired; she just wants to be able to trust again, wants to be able to close her eyes and know that Shihaya will still be there when she wakes.
“Decide whether I want the throne,” Shihaya says. “None of my brothers will oppose me if I want it, after tonight.”
“Do you?” Kayla asks.
Shihaya sighs. “I can’t deny it has its attractions,” she says. “But I’ve never enjoyed being in a cage.”
She holds out a hand in the small space between them, palm up and open. “Kayla,” she says, “will you fly with me?”
“If you ever,” Kayla says, “do anything like that again–” and the corner of Shihaya’s mouth turns up, probably reading the answer out of the resonance of the room already, before she can even voice it. Because she’d been happy like she’s never been before, flying with Shihaya in the Light of Dawn, and she wants nothing more than to return to that time, just the two of them.
“Goddess help me,” she says, “I will fly with you,” and Shihaya breaks out into a radiant smile, harmony rising around them in a chorus.
“Welcome home,” she says.