Rune Breaker: Chapter 22 – Grace From Outside

This entry is part 10 of 15 in the series Lighter Days, Darker Nights (Rune Breaker, #2)

Taylin grunted painfully and her back hit the edge of the bed. Her vision blurred temporarily from the sudden movement more than the discomfort. She wasn’t happy at all with this. Part of her, the part that danced when battle came and willed the scales and claw to come howled at the idea of putting her back to anyone like this on purpose.

“Does it have to be so tight?” She pleaded.

“You don’t have enough hair for braids.” Brin clucked. She was sitting on the bed in Taylin’s wagon while Taylin herself was on the floor in order to give Brin free access to her hair. “So I’m giving you buns like the women wear in Mindeforme.”

“It’s a wonder women have scalps in Mindeforme.” Rai commented from her place sitting atop the chest at the foot of the bed. “Why your peoples came up with all this bother is a mystery. Hair is hair. You wash it, you brush it and that’s it. It’s dead. Teaching it tricks after the fact seems a cruelty.”

“Cruelty is having this done to you.” Taylin muttered.

“I hate doing this too.” Said Brin.

“Then why are you?” Rai’s frustration with outsider traditions had been pushed to their limit earlier that day when she learned that Solgrum’s ball didn’t allow children in attendance only after volunteering to take Grandfather’s place in the dignitary party the caravan was sending. “Is this mental shortcoming natural, or does it come from being raised by tall folk mothers?”

Brin’s eyes glittered in a way that only seemed to be summoned by avarice. “Because this is a royal ball. No matter how weak or fragile Solgrum is, the wealthy families and merchants from all the towns and enclaves for miles will be represented here. And those types of people are always in need of a contractor or two to guard, procure or destroy something that strikes their fancy. It’s always nice to ingratiate yourself.”

“That makes sense for you.” Taylin guessed, “But I’m no contractor, I’m nir-lumos, I don’t intend to leave the caravans for a very long time. Why do I need to be prodded and adjusted like this?”

“Because you’re mad if you think I’m going to suffer all this alone.” Brin smiled as she pinned the last bun in place with a pair of copper pins. “Done.” She declared. “Now stand up, lets have a look at you.”

Taylin was just happy her ordeal was over with. Very carefully, she got to her feet, careful not to muss her clothing, or open her wings too far and jostle the others.

As a hailene, it was literally impossible for her the dress in the eastern Nov traditional formal dress of an ankle length gown with a heavy, ornamented coat hanging off the shoulders. Instead, she wore a sleeveless white blouse with a copper embossed starburst over her ribs on the left side. This buttoned up in the back, conveniently making room for her wings. Her skirt was flowing, coming down to her calf. Nearly as deep-red as her wings, it was edged in white lace and the fabric itself bore an embroidered pattern reminiscent of the waving sea of grass out on the savannahs to the south and west of Daire. Brin also added a red, silk scarf that hung freely from her shoulders.

Her hair was pulled back into a pair of tight buns on the back of her head, bound by, again, copper. Brin seemed to feel that the color of her wings and hair needed to be reflected in every ounce of metal on her person.

She felt odd in the dress. On the ships and in the mines, breeches were the only option and it was a near thing if they fit properly. And yet, it felt somehow familiar…

Of course, the more disturbing feeling was the lack of Dottir Logi’s weight on her back. Weapons outside of uniform swords for Solgrum’s army officials were strictly prohibited. That was why Issacor politely refused the invitation she extended him (on Brin’s insistence) to join them at the ball: He and Faith-be-Forgiven were a matched set and not even the will of a king could make him break that bond.

While Taylin situated herself, Brin went and got the wash basin off the table and set it on the chest of drawers. It already had water in it, lightly perfumed by an infusion of flower petals. The scent that now filled the wagon was easily the best part of the whole thing to Taylin.

Once the basin was in place, Brin murmured a few words to the reliquary around her neck and Reflair made her presence known by flowing into the water as a barely perceptible mist. Moments later, the liquid rose from the basin, flattening and stretching until it formed an oblong monolith with a surface that reflected like a polished mirror.

Taylin goggled at the sight. She was only used to seeing partial reflections in water. The last time she’d looked into a real mirror was during the cascade of memories she accidentally gleaned from Ru and then it had been his face, not hers. Before that had been at a very young age and somehow, she expected herself to look like that still.

The dress and other accoutrements might as well have been bales of raw cotton for all she noticed them. Mostly she saw the eyes. They were hers, the eyes she remembered. And yet the face was different. It might have been the coming of her maturity or the weeks of caravan living, but the sunken eyes and hollow cheeks of the frightened girl, fresh from the mines and bound for the ships were gone. She was healthy now, and the fear was gone.

She didn’t find herself beautiful. In truth, she didn’t know what made a hailene beautiful aside from how red wings and hair made her automatically abominable. But she did find that she liked that other woman. Seeing her and pondering if others found her beautiful made things stir inside her. Pride? Vanity? She had no idea.

Before she could start to sort it out, a jolt hit her spine from the hard ball of consciousness that was Ru. In the same instant, the nearly forgotten gray tomcat that had been sleeping soundly on the window sill went from asleep to frenetic.

He leapt into the open space between window and door and promptly resumed his human form. Whatever nightmare roused him from his nap, it drove him to action hard enough that he only did a minimal job there; his beard was unkempt, his hair wild and his clothing consisting of the simple black robe he first appeared in.

It took him a confused moment before he registered that, contrary to its state when he fell asleep, the wagon was now occupied. His eyes slowly focused. His hair tied itself back away from his face and his beard evened itself out even as the robe gained more complex folds and simple embroidery.

For a moment more, his yellow eyes scanned over Brin and then Taylin in their party finery. An alien feeling flitted briefly in the link and finally, he nodded. “Heh. Solgrum’s ball, yes.” His eyes strayed to something beyond the wagon’s walls, causing Taylin to wonder just what the city looked like to the sixth sense for magic he possessed.

“Unless you require me further today, I will be in the city, Miss Taylin.” He said absently.

Is everything alright? She asked through the link. Aloud, she said. “I don’t think I will, thank you.” It was customary between them now. The link required him to ask, so she accepted it, but was always quick to thank him so he knew that if it were up to her, he would have a choice not to ask permission.

“Thank you, Miss Taylin.” Normally, that part was full of sneering condescension for her compassion. This time it was simply a hollow expression, said by rote.

I cannot tell yet. He informed her. Though he muffled it, Taylin could feel apprehension from him. That in itself was concerning, given how little care he gave most things.

“You’re not going to the ball?” Rai asked. Normally it would have been Brin, but the blonde made it a point to pay as little attention to Ru as possible.

Ru raised an eyebrow, surprised she even cared. “This affair is for the caravan, plus whatever monied individuals typically earn invitations from royalty and their guests. I am none of those things.” There was no bitterness or hurt feeling in his words, only statement of fact. And all the while he stole glances in the same direction he’d looked before.

“Someone like you, I figured wouldn’t care if they were invited or not.” observed the halfling.

“Someone like me doesn’t care if they attend parties or not.” Ru turned to the door and in doing so began to change. His hair became short and wispy, giving up its color until it was steely gray. His beard disappeared entirely, replaced by the wrinkles and crags of old age. The yellow eyes they were familiar with became a washed out blue, set above a hawkish nose.

By the time he actually opened the door, he resembled one of the stately town elders of Daire; no one in particular, but certainly the type who freely wandered the city, offering advice and correction unbidden, as was tradition in that part of Novrom.

When the door closed, the other two women looked to Taylin for explanation.

“I have no idea.” She said honestly.

***

Hours later, Ru found himself prowling the so called Militia Quarter of Daire. Solgrum kept his warriors close; inside a barracks he’d had constructed just outside his palace gates, but for decades, his predecessors sheltered them in three smaller barracks around the western gates, where their enemies were most likely to strike.

As a result, the Militia Quarter was home to all the comforts a soldier could afford on their salary and everything they needed to survive. Alehouses and brothels, dojos and sword schools, smiths, tanners and boywers, lesser temples to Pandemos that functioned solely as gambling dens and the same for Hessa serving as hospices. All of those could be found in other places in Daire, but here they were provided on the cheap and with haste to fit the life of fighting men and women.

This day Solgrum was trying to hide that. Canvas panels painted with scenes from classic tales and songs were stretched out in front of the shops to hide the worn and plain buildings and their vulgar signage. Bards were stationed on the street corners, spinning tales or singing to cover the sounds of drunken rollicking, and highly paid servants of Sylph patrolled the streets with bags of seed, growing ordered lines of fragrant flowers to cover the smell of beer and bodily functions.

The reason was clear: the Murderyard was on the western plain and any of Solgrum’s guests inside the city would have to pass through the Quarter to reach it. So Solgrum was draining his coffers to make the place as invisible to them as possible.

Ru ignored it all. He was, for lack of a better term, on the scent. Powerful magic were being employed somewhere and he intended to investigate.

The problem was that middling magic was worked all the time in a city the size of Daire, in addition to thousands of instances of minor magic. Tracing the one truly impressive act through the background noise that was Daire’s day to day workings was rather like finding a roaring lion in a stadium of a thousand screaming humans. His sense led him west, but he was having difficulty pinpointing it.

The sun grew low in the sky and more and more richly dressed folk passed in on the street, on their way to Solgrum’s ball. Though dedicated to sifting through the mystic static and finding what he sought after, Ru watched them.

Thousands of years didn’t change some things. The rich and powerful were still obsessed with peacockery; dressing in their finest to show off to one another. The styles and customs had changed; none of the women wore masks or hoods to hide their eyes during revelry and none of the men wove gloves, but the concept hadn’t advanced.

He remembered the gloves. White and stiff to wear, but silken to the touch. He’d worn them with a long, divided coat that slipped over his head and tied at the sides. Gloryfall wore a dress of green satin and an onyx mask that covered only her eyes and required the application of some sickly sweet smelling concoction to keep it in place.

One night. That last night, when they danced to Gand’s dream coming one step closer to reality. To the lie they both believed. Equity.

Praetor Joquien had been one of those peacocks; dressed in cloth of gold, his coat open to show that he also had a vest and shirt of the same and a sash of blood silk from distant lands. The man smiled at them, called Gloryfall lovely. But he must have known what was in the works; what would happen two days later.

His couldn’t have known Ru’s response.

The first time his world ended, it had been metaphorical. For the most part.

Later, the world really had ended, though not by his hand as they all feared. Maybe if it hadn’t, mankind would have moved away from such vulgar displays. Maybe the world would have been how Taylin and Kaiel liked to pretend it was.

“Heh.” He interrupted his own thoughts, speaking aloud just to counter his thoughts. “Thinking of what could have been is as stupid as thinking that you can improve things. No matter how powerful you are, you can change nothing about universal truths. Thought begets self-preservation, begets self-interest, begets betrayal. As it always has been, as it always will be.”

A few passers by looked at him strangely, but it did the trick of clearing his mind. Besides, there was something interesting going on and he wanted to be privy to it. He rather enjoyed the company of the local wizards; at least those serious about the craft. They argued and compared notes, then argued about the results, exactly as it should be.

Now something large scale was happening. He could feel the energies being moved; earth, void and both sides of anima. Golems required those elements, all types of animated stone or mud did, but there was so much being moved in so many directions he hoped it would be something more creative or ambitious.

And yet…

More bad memories. That combination playing in his senses however faint that they were to him at the time, had thrown him into a nightmare memory.

The sense of smell triggered memories for some, but hardly ever for him. But the feel of spellcraft; that did the trick. And for that combination, the memories dragged up were of wild cackling n the base do his skull, of the hot blood of innocents streaming down his arms, of the link delivering swift and brutal punishment again and again.

He had had one hundred and seven masters before Taylin, but her immediate predecessor had been the worst experience of his immortal life. For five thousand years, he soldiered through the orders, abuse and liberties taken of the only people truly dark of heart enough to actually seek out the Rune Breaker. Only once had he wished to die.

And that previous master had help getting to that point.

Ru stopped at an intersection. There was another bard there, in the middle of some tale Ru never heard before about Pandemos and Hessa taking mortal form so that they could find each other and fall in love anew. Her voice was too shrill for the work, and it was likely that she knew it because she had a clarinet close at hand to play instead. The passion she put behind it explained why she was attempting it at all.

He hadn’t stopped for her, but for a procession of ceratos crossing ahead of him on the way to the western gate. The animals were as big as the battle spiders and plodded along on four flat feet. Their skin was coarse and gray, sporting stiff hairs like a rhinoceros’s, but their mouth was a heavy beak like a turtle’s and their thick tails were like no mammal’s.

Series Navigation<< Rune Breaker: Chapter 21 – Sparring SessionsRune Breaker: Chapter 23 – Old Soldier >>

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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