The attack came in the next breath.
The bright point of the sword glared in her right eye as it missed and kissed her temple.
She dove flat to the left, stepped on the hem of her skirts as she got up. The silky cloth slipped on the polished floor and she fell.
A booted foot to the gut blew the air out of her lungs and propelled her at least a stride across the hardwood.
Change! She had to change!
She rolled across the floor as she started to grow. Instantly she felt sharp metal bite into her neck all the way around. She gasped and reversed.
Ember reached for it and found no clasp that she could work on the narrow cord underlying the choker. It was made for this purpose.
“‘Betray first,’” the woman called out. “Isn’t that what the Scales say?”
Ember pushed herself up and scrambled backward across the floor, scanning for the woman.
The Lilta woman advanced with slow, graceful strides that rippled her skirts with each step. She had the longsword at the ready in her right hand and a companion dagger in her left. She stopped a short distance away and watched Ember coldly.
Ember looked for a way out, or for a weapon to use.
“‘You are all there is, the only thing you know. All else is illusion.’”
A rack of swords!
“Do you feel as if I am an illusion right now?”
Ember pushed up and back and grabbed a sword, held it at the ready as best she knew.
The woman closed in a blink, caught Ember’s sword with her companion dagger and swatted Ember’s wrist with the flat of her sword.
Ember gasped at the shock and lost her grip on the hilt. With a flick the woman sent Ember’s sword flying across the room. It stuck in a flowerbed.
Ember punched. The woman blocked.
Ember tried to grab the woman and throw her down. She was far stronger than a Lilta. She had the advantage!
Another blow to the gut knocked the wind out of Ember again, and the woman wasn’t there in front of her.
She was behind her!
One of Ember’s arms wrenched up against her back painfully.
“My name is Bethania Tavarin. I am no illusion.”
Suddenly Ember went horizontal, then slammed straight into the rock hard kren floor.
A hand like iron clamped around her throat, cutting off her air.
“‘Those who can take power, deserve to have it.’” Bethania’s soprano whispered in her ear. “‘Power is the only guarantee. Acquire it at all costs.’ ‘When all power is yours, you will fear nothing.’”
The Scales of Nk’drak’sil. She was reciting from the Scales. How did she even know them?
The hand tightened. Ember’s world darkened.
“Do you feel deserving, little Garagran? Do you think you are powerful? Do you believe that freedom from fear will ever be within your grasp?”
Ember struggled. A hand found a pressure point in her pinned arm and agony exploded in her right side.
“Are you listening to me?”
Ember went limp. She nodded.
Bethania moved closer. Her next words came from so close Ember felt lips brush her left ear, yet they were so soft she had to strain to hear.
“You will never have enough power to be free from fear. Live as you have, fight however much you want, you will never be anything but a terrified dead thing waiting to stop moving. Every year that you stretch on, you will be nothing but empty, with the best outcome being that you avoid destroying anyone else before you succumb to the rot within your own soul. You are a slave to yourself, and the illusion that you can fix that for your own good will only lose you what little you have, forever. Trust in your own strength, however great, and you will burn.”
The hand let go. Ember gasped and wept at the same time. She barely felt fingers at the back of her neck undo the horrible necklace and remove it.
Nothing else came after that, and for a long time Ember lay on the floor, tears soaking the wood under her cheek as she struggled to pull herself together and found nothing to do it with. Her body ached all over and each breath shot pain through her bruised midsection.
The earthy smell of mountain daisies and strong hahx wreathed around her, mixed with a bouquet of subtler florals. Her emptiness eased slightly and she lifted her face from the floor.
Bethania was making tea.
She was kneeling at a low table covered with a gold-embroidered red cloth. In front of her was an elaborate silver tea set, including a silver samovar with fluted sides etched with meadow scenes, two different silver brewing pots, several small fluted silver pitchers, a tall silver cup filled with thin silver spoons, a collection of matching silver jars with screw lids, and one large silver jar that probably contained blackened hahx leaves. There was also a glass jar filled with honey and ten white porcelain cups with no handles, decorated with red roses and a ring of metallic gold around the rims.
Ember watched as Bethania measured tiny spoonfuls of herbs from the various jars into each brewing pot with precise motions. She ended with a large dollop of honey in one and an even larger dollop of honey in the other, then filled each with dark steaming liquid from a tap on the samovar and set them to brew. From somewhere under the table she produced a fancy box of cookies, another of cheese rounds and dried meats, and another of fine biscuits. She laid these in the middle of the table, set out a plate for herself and a plate opposite, then filled one cup for herself from one pot, and another which she set next to the plate for her guest.
She then began to sip her tea as if Ember didn’t exist.
Ember watched for a whole three kellas, willing herself not to give in and go over to drink the delightful brew she was smelling. When her resistance gave in it was all she could do to stand up, and her legs wobbled as she did. She checked herself over and found that she was bruised, a little bloody, and… wet… but otherwise without permanent harm. Except for her pride.
She felt utterly shamed.
She considered walking out the door. That woman was still completely in control of things. It was madness to stay.
But she was not dead. Or truly injured. It would be cowardly to leave, and something hinted that a little bravery would have a reward.
Ember approached the table with uneven steps and knelt down on a kneeling cushion that Bethania had laid out in front of the guest setting. Lowering herself almost resulted in a collapse, but she made it to contact successfully. She reached for the steaming cup, then stopped.
Bethania looked at her and raised one fine, eloquent eyebrow.
If Bethania wanted her dead, she would be dead.
Ember lifted the teacup. Before it even reached her mouth, citrus filled her nostrils, mixed with the smoky sweet spice of hahx and the earthiness of mountain daisies. A perfect prescription for exhaustion and stress. Relaxation flowed through her from just the smell and took a little more of the edge off her pain. She drank the sweet heat and detected a distinct medicinal edge to the flavor, yet not an unpleasant one. Before she knew what she was doing she drained the entire cup, despite the heat.
She set the empty cup down and stared at it.
Bethania refilled it.
Ember drank all the liquid a second time. Slower though. With sips.
Bethania refilled the cup again.
Ember left it on the table and looked at the treats, picking out several cookies, a few slices of meat and cheese, and a biscuit. She then alternated between nibbling on treats and sipping from her cup.
The pain faded.
She finished the cup a third time, set it down, and looked at Bethania.
“Why did you attack me?”
Bethania refilled the cup again, emptying the pot out, and began to make another batch.
Ember waited until she was done.
Bethania finally finished and met her gaze. Her brown eyes were much softer than before.
“Why are you asking me a question?” Bethania replied.
Asking questions is like pulling your own scales. The only thing it reveals is your own vulnerability.
She lowered her head.
“Because I cannot hide my weakness from you.”
“Exactly. You are exposed, and you know it. And that means you are ready to listen now.”
Ember saw the answer to her own question, and nodded. She was ready to listen. But what was Bethania going to teach?
“As long as you are betrothed to my grandson and in our care, you are legally a member of this family and a Tavarin daughter.”
Bethania smiled at her obvious confusion.
“Indeed. And as long as you are a Tavarin daughter, every member of this family is obliged to protect you.” She paused.
“Obliged to protect me?” Ember asked.
“Yes. And I will see that they do so.” Bethania said it without a hint of doubt in her voice. “Of course, as a Tavarin daughter, you will learn the things a Tavarin daughter is expected to know. All of them. In detail. And once you know them well enough, you will then choose to live by them. Or leave.” She paused again. “This is not a threat, it is a fact.”
“You will throw me out?”
“No. What you will learn is why we are who we are, and why we do what we do. Once you know it in full, you will either love it or hate it. Thus, you will either love us, or hate us. And if you hate us, then you will surely not want to spend all your time living as part of our family, will you?”
Ember turned the words over in her head, sorting the meaning, then nodded. But what could she possibly learn that would be so polarizing?
“Very good,” Bethania said to Ember’s nod. “From now on you will report to me every morning by the sixth mark. Tell Immilene and she will see that you arrive on time. Can you read?”
“Full Tokarien and Tokal shorthand.”
“Good. Most of the texts I will have you read are available in Tokarien. But you will also learn Hahkaht, our language. The script is entirely phonetic, so this will be new for you. Speak to Trin when you leave and tell her I want you fully equipped with training clothes and personal weapons. Also, take this,” she pulled out a small pad of paper and a fountain pen and calligraphed a beautiful and incomprehensible message onto it, “and give it to Mekel Yanneg. Immilene or Trin will know who.”
She tore off the note and Ember took it and stared at it.
Bethania reached across the table and lifted Ember’s chin with a surprisingly gentle touch, so that Ember was forced to meet her gaze yet again.
“Know that living here with us, and especially training with me, will be hard. It is your decision whether or not you will endure it. You may leave at any time. If you choose to do so, I will see that you are taken over the border of your choice with full provisions.”
“However, I hope that you do not decide to take that offer. You need what we have, and I would not see you leave without it.”