Tiny sparks of lightning cut across Colette’s papery skin, snapping the crone from her memory of millennia now lost to her. It was an acute manifestation of terror, not her own, but from someone close to her. Her focus shifted from a distant nothing to the tatted-lace hem of a hooded veil cloak. Sister Iriel’s eyes shivered while staring straight ahead. The woman’s knuckles whitened as she pushed herself further into her ornate chair, as if she thought she could become part of the tree it once was if she tried hard enough.
Colette hesitated. She knew what terrified the younger oracle. A ring of blue smoke. Men in black and silver walking through it from the shadows beyond. An abomination on the arms of a soldier prince. She knew what waited in her periphery without looking, without opening herself any further to the emotions of others in the room. Still, when she did finally turn her gaze, the sight of her nemesis sucked the breath from her lungs.
Liasneh Yan-Tay held to the sergeant of her Hand as a maid to a suitor. Long golden hair fell around her arms like a bride’s veil. Eyes blue as the sky sparkled as if studded with diamond. She wore black, same as her men. If not for Colette’s knowledge that her dark counterpart loathed travel, she might have entertained the hope that woman’s intentions were benign.
Four thousand years had passed, yet Liasneh had aged not one day.
As the woman turned her head, casting her icy gaze upon her exalted audience, her birthmark peaked out from behind the collar of her gown. It was the bastardized letter they called ‘Yan-Tay’; it’s only purpose in their language was name her.
A wave of polar water raged under Colette’s skin as Liasneh’s eyes made their second pass across the anxious oracles that formed a wall between the visitor and the king. When they at last locked on Colette, the weight of world settled oppressively on her shoulders.
“Sister Colette.” Her voice was light; her tone polite, but Colette shivered at the sound of it, and the memories it brought to mind. The woman’s cold gaze ticked up, to the king and queen further back on the thrones’ dais. “Eric. Sarana.”
Colette closed her eyes as a wave of heat enveloped her. The king did not like his guest’s audacity one little bit. She prayed silently he’d surprise her and keep quiet until Liasneh left, but the odds weren’t good.
Leaving Anyakar’s side, Liasneh approached a long box that her men had brought with them. So caught in the event, Colette hadn’t seen the box until that moment. It was stained lightly, polished to a high shine, and carved with butterflies that defied natural perfection. The contents could not be heavy, she assumed. It had no handles with which to pick it up.
Liasneh glanced quickly toward a group of dignitaries gathered behind her left shoulder, then back to the king with a malicious grin. “I see Fayal’s here. I hope I wasn’t interrupting.”
Colette tore her gaze from Liasneh to where Kelmarin’s Passage Lord was standing with the Fayal and her daughter. The woman appeared sick as members of the court around her stared with heavy scorn. Lord Dussu took Fayal by the arm and whispered something in her ear that calmed her.
Liasneh smiled, clearly pleased with herself. “Where is Prince Briar?”
“Does your business require his presence?”
“Not at all,” Liasneh purred. “Simply making conversation.”
“What do you want?” the king yelled.
Colette cringed. Her own guardians, waiting just out of sight, outnumbered the Hand, but if it came to a battle, Liasneh’s men would use the court as leverage. If Colette didn’t order her men to stand down, her enemy’s men would turn this room inside out without breaking a sweat. It’s what they did, what she had trained them to do from boyhood. Only the oracles, together, could contain Liasneh’s destructive power, and they were one short. Eric had lost this battle already. Colette could only hope he knew that.
Liasneh pulled Anyakar’s sword from his belt as she made her way back around the box she had brought. As Colette drew a sharp breath, her guardians rushed the throne room, swords drawn, to form a sentry line before her and her oracle sisters. A single sweet clang of steel rang out as all ten points hit the stone floor at once.
Holding her sergeant’s heavy blade carelessly out to the side as if it were a child’s toy, Liasneh grinned and taunted, “This isn’t for them!”
“Sit,” Colette said. Her guardians dropped to their knees and sat upon their heels.
Behind her, she could heard four muffled thuds, then four more. Fingertips, she knew. Eric’s, tapping impatiently on the arm of his throne.
Liasneh gazed coolly up at the king. She placed the tip of the sword on the box and crossed her arms, letting her hands hold to the sculpted crossing. She rested her chin on one hand and tilted her face just slightly in towards the handle. She shifted on one of her feet and then leaned on the weapon.
“What I want, Eric, is to betray Sister Colette’s best kept secret,” Liasneh said. Colette stood up from her chair. Liasneh shifted her stance again, but continued to lean on the blade, “Her birthday is today.”
This time, all of the court turned to Colette, and with good reason. Her birth feast had been celebrated on Winterday for four thousand years, and that day was Summerday. By the time she thought to deny the ridiculous revelation, it was too late.
Liasneh explained to the king, “It is burden to remember the days after hundreds of thousands have passed, but Colette was born to Savien nobility precisely four thousand, six hundred, thirty-one years ago, today.”
Colette choked back tears as the court stared at her in disbelief. Fear was replaced by confusion. Could it be true? They asked themselves, asked each other, asked her with their eyes while pleading for her to deny it. Their confusion became anger; Liasneh was tormenting her, spreading lies, causing havoc. Scorn turned heads her way as some considered the visitor’s claim. It made sense, Colette knew. It was well known that she had angered the gods; her age was proof of that, but people did not know what she had done. Her secrets were not hers alone. They were kept for the Faith and the Kingdoms as well as for herself. The hardening pit in her stomach told her that irreparable damage had just been done.
“Colette, you look ill” Liasneh said with concern that almost sounded genuine. Then the sincerity was gone. “You must put the Ruby String out of your mind, Coleh. It’s wearing on you.”
“I will when you will, Lia!” Colette snapped.
“My Hand is here,” Liasneh told her, glancing a moment at her guardians.
“Now they are.” Colette sang sarcastically. Unwilling to bear the room’s emotion any more, she shut down her senses to the room entirely.
“About face,” Liasneh said casually. The Hand, save Anyakar, crisply turned their backs on the throne in blatant disrespect. “You cannot say the same for…” the woman paused to looking over Colette’s knights, counting them, before continuing matter-of-factly, “…well, I suppose their names are unimportant.”
Colette felt a cold hand grab her heart, fearing for Prince Briar and the knights sent with him days before into the Ruby String. She took one discreet step forward. Colette forced her next question out in a single breath. “You would hold us responsible for the will of the gods?”
Liasneh’s glare turned rock hard. “For your transgressions.” Colette swallowed hard, involuntarily. “But…” Liasneh’s tone brightened again “…your gods do plot repeatedly to destroy me.”
Arms grabbed her from behind just as her knees buckled. She looked over her shoulder to see the face of her king. His anger had given way to concern, but she knew it wouldn’t remain that way. Colette returned her attention to Liasneh, who was now gazing over her head at the man behind her.
“I cannot punish the gods, but I can punish those who obey their will,” Liasneh purred, looked down at the box and smiled maliciously, “with the lives of those they love.”
Briar… The box didn’t just resemble a coffin. It was a coffin.
“When will it end, Liasneh?” Colette cried, praying that the prince was safe. Could she hope that Liasneh had made the effort come here just to torture her?
“Ask your gods.” Liasneh pretended to remember something, “That’s right. They aren’t speaking to you either.”
“We defied their will!” Colette screamed as she shrugged free of the king and took another step forward, only to be restrained by two of her knights. “We’ve given them no choice!”
“You defied them,” Liasneh replied casually. Tears fell from Colette’s eyes. “Happy birthday, dear sister.”
Liasneh raised the sword in both hands and plunged it the top of the box. Holding her arms out, offering it to Colette as a ring of blue smoke began to swirl behind her. The Hand filed through it. Liasneh took Anyakar’s arm once more, and together they turned their backs on the king and walked through the ring.
The room erupted in nervous, indiscriminate chatter as the smoke ring dissipated into the air. Colette pulled against the knights, but they held her tight. The top of the box split, then the walls of the box unfolded and fell to the floor with a series of bangs that silenced the room. Thousands of butterflies fluttered up into the air, revealing Liasneh’s gift as they cleared the space.
Fayal’s daughter, Princess Vanessa let out a blood curdling scream.
A little girl in a white dress, five years old, perhaps six, lay upon a cloud of wild flowers. A lovely burial plan for a soul so young, if not for the massive blade pinning her to the floor.
Colette pushed her guards away and stumbled before falling down beside her. She took up the child’s tiny hand in her own. Dirt was trapped under her fingernails. Crushed bits of leaves clung to her sunset hair. They had found her at play. Parting the child’s eyelids, she found blood pooled around her golden brown iris. Touching the mark on the girl’s neck, the letter Tay, Colette felt warmth.
With a groan of rage, Sister Iriel pulled the sword from the girl’s chest. A ring of white smoke breathed into being between the cordons. The woman tossed the sword as if it were a spear into the ring. She screamed, “Your day is coming, bitch!”
A child-like giggle filled the throne room, followed Liasneh’s haunting reply, “Yes, young one, it is.” The smoke ring broke apart in the air and disappeared.
Colette lifted the girl’s limp body into her arms. Across from her, an orange and black butterfly landed on the outstretched hand of another of her oracle sisters. Studying the insect sadly, Niima whispered, “The circle remains open.”
“I’m sorry,” Colette cried, burying her face in the child’s hair. “I’m so sorry!”