146 Years Ago
Year of Unity 1724
Egil’s first visit to Damael was anything but glamorous. He entered the city with the setting sun, fighting against the steady stream of farmers and villagers leaving after a long day at market. He moved slowly, favoring his left side, flinching away whenever anyone brushed too close. His clothing was caked in mud and— hidden carefully beneath his cloak— blood.
The city of Damael was currently the only stable point in the Ejera province. The rest lay in chaos, reeling from the recent dissolution of an empire than had ruled since the Great War. The dying remains of this autocratic empire were making last-ditch attempts to regain control, establishing outposts in major cities and quelling rebellions where they could.
Unity had done nothing to enforce peace, so the people fought back.
This, of course, made traveling in Ejera risky. There were always skirmishes between the empire soldiers and the rebels happening somewhere, and the roads were dangerous— deserters and opportunity-seekers took advantage of the lawlessness of the country to steal and fight and extort. Nowadays, nobody was foolish enough to travel Ejera alone, especially if they were unfamiliar with its roads.
Nobody except Egil.
He traveled north from Alfheim and going around Ejera would’ve taken time he didn’t care to waste. He’d wanted to see for himself what was happening here, anyway, and entered the province with the determination of someone walking into a fight.
He’d found his fight and, as always seemed to be the case for him, more than he’d bargained for. He’d only entered Ejera with the understanding that Unity had no involvement in the conflict. He’d been wrong, a fact he’d learned when he ran into Unity Enforcers on the road.
Egil and the Enforcers didn’t get along well. He was lucky to have escaped with his life.
But that was why his first steps into Damael were slow and staggering, why a bruise blossomed along his jaw and a hastily-wrapped tourniquet tied tightly around his thigh, stopping the blood flowing from a deep gash there.
Damael, Egil quickly found, was a quiet city. It surprised him, given the state of the rest of the province, but it must have been due to its location – as far from the empire as possible, nearly on the border of Troas – and the other strange rumors Egil had heard about the city.
Egil didn’t like quiet. His thoughts were too loud for him to bear quiet spaces. Even worse, the unusual stands out when things are quiet. Egil was many things, unusual definitely one of them, and he couldn’t afford to stand out here. Not with the Enforcers on his trail, not with the injuries he’d sustained fighting them.
He wandered Damael until he found the tawdry end of town, where people more conspicuous than himself roamed the streets, where strains of music and sweet perfume drifted out from various questionable establishments, the patrons of those establishments loitering in the streets or hanging off balconies, calling drunkenly into the night. The growing dark did nothing for the life of the neighborhood— nothing, perhaps, except encourage it.
Egil rented a room at a well-populated, nondescript tavern and immediately retreated upstairs to tend to his wounds, only venturing back down again when he was hungry and could no longer bear the company of his own thoughts.
In the hour he’d been upstairs, the common room had filled out. The whole room was tinted gold, the furniture all made from a vibrant light oak and the lanterns that lined the room casting warmth across the faces of people all around. The smell of bread and garlic hangs in the air, and Egil feels some of the tension lift from his shoulders.
Various groups sat scattered about, circled around uneven tables shoved together for convenience. The biggest group gathered at the bar, where a man sat talking animatedly – sharing local gossip, from what Egil could hear. He was older, with the build of a laborer and covered in scars. While Egil eyed the group, a woman at the center looked his way. She was slender, wrapped in scarlet fabrics, and when their gazes met, Egil felt a cold trill jolt down his spine.
He looked away, focusing on finding a secluded table for himself and waving over one of the servers. When finally settled in, still half-listening to the gossip at the bar, he pondered the strange rumors he’d heard of Damael.
They said Damael had an oracle. Not a fortune teller, not some rosanin with an unusual knack. A true oracle, ordained by the church and consulted on by Empire, rebellion, and Unity alike. The Oracle of Damael was said to control this city like a puppet-master guides his puppets.
Now that Egil was here, he couldn’t not investigate.
He jolted to attention when someone all but fell into the seat across from him. His hand moved automatically to the knife he wore strapped to his thigh; it was halfway out of its sheath before he recognized the crimson fabric of the woman from the bar.
She laughed breathlessly, either at herself or Egil’s sudden tension, he wasn’t sure.
Now that she sat before him, Egil was surprised at her age. She’d seemed somehow older at the bar, but really, she looked as old as Egil did. Not that that meant much to him, and he imagined it didn’t to her, either – she was clearly nympherai. She had that feeling of other they all gave off. Most likely fae, Egil guessed, but possibly with some dryad blood.
Her stark-white hair twisted into a heavy braid and draped over her shoulder, and a faintly glittering pattern twisted across her bronze skin. It was neither the feathery texture of a marionite’s skin nor the careful, tattoo-like birthmarks of an orinian. It resembled flame dancing across her skin.
Her black eyes almost made Egil’s seem warm and inviting.
“You’re new here,” she slurred, draping herself over the table.
“Is it obvious?”
“I’d remember a face like yours,” the woman said, predictably. She flashed a shy smile and tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear, the heavy jewelry she had hanging from it swaying with the movement.
Pushing away whatever twinge of annoyance he felt at the intrusion, Egil smiled back. It could be nice to have company – even trite conversation with an inebriated stranger can distract from loneliness and errant thoughts. “It’s best if you don’t.”
“What, remember your face? I’m not sure how much I’ll be remembering by morning, anyhow,” the woman said with a self-conscious laugh. She leaned in, the adornments on her clothes jingling with the movement. “Will you tell me your name?”
“If you tell me yours first. It’s only polite.”
“Call me Devikra,” she said. The answer surprised Egil – usually, this was a much longer game with the fae.
Devikra’s eyes widened. Even her eyelashes were white. “The Egil? I don’t believe you. Prove it.”
Egil ran his thumb idly along the leather handle of his knife, under the table, and studied Devikra. “How could I?”
“I don’t know, use your magic! You do have magic, don’t you? The stories all say you do.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear in stories.”
“Is that a no, then? Shame,” Devikra said, pouting. “I would have liked to see magic. So, are you Egil the Hero or Egil the Hunter? There are so many versions of you, I want to know I’ve stumbled across one of the good ones.”
“I’m in no mood for games, is what I am,” Egil said. “Enough. I know you came here looking for me. Who are you? How did you know to expect me?”
Surprise flickered across Devikra’s face – Egil thought it might be the first real emotion he’d seen from her. He knew good acting from bad; this woman was good, but it was still acting.
“Why do you think that?” she asked.
“You had no interest in what the man at the bar was saying— either you sat beside him because you knew him personally or because listening gave you an excuse to be near the door, where you could watch people come in. You gave up all pretense of listening when you saw me, then waited just long enough to come over so you wouldn’t seem eager.”
“Maybe I just find you attractive,” Devikra said, reaching across the table to cover Egil’s hand with her own. He pulled his back before she could, letting out a short laugh.
“I’m covered in dirt and blood. My clothing is torn. I haven’t slept under a roof in a week, and I’m sure it shows. I’m not so vain to believe someone like you would be interested in me like this. I also know for a fact I’m being actively hunted, so forgive me for being cautious.”
Devikra considered him. “Someone like me?” she asked.
Egil gestured at her clothes, fine and pristine. “I knew from the moment I saw you that you weren’t from this part of town.” He tipped his head to one side. “To come here at night, unarmed, wearing such rich clothing…you must be stupid, confident, or very determined, and I don’t believe you’re stupid.
“What’s more, you weren’t actually surprised when I said my name; you knew who I was before you even asked, didn’t you?”
There was a moment of hesitation, as if Devikra might deny it. Then, she pouted. “Oh, very well. You’re as good as they say. You should work for me.”
A furrow appeared between Egil’s brows as he considered this. “You’re not an Enforcer, then?”
Devikra snorted. “No. I don’t work for Unity and I’m not here to hurt you, so you can let go of that knife,” she said, suddenly sober. Her earlier slur must have been to hide her accent. Egil couldn’t place it, but it was old.
He grinned, lifting both hands above the table and holding them up so Devikra could see them empty. “Who are you really, then?” he asked.
“Surely, you could hazard a guess.”
“I could,” Egil agreed. “You’re Damael’s so-called Oracle. Am I wrong?”
“So-called?” Devikra asked, raising an eyebrow.
“When it comes to impossible things, I like to see them before I believe them.”
“This coming from Calaidia’s favorite impossible thing. I hope you do come to believe, if you’re going to work for me.”
Egil laughed. “You sound so sure I’m interested. Did you see that in a vision?”
“That’s not how they work,” Devikra said, “But I don’t need visions to know we could be of use to each other.”
Egil’s smile fell. He’d been “of use” to people before.
“At least hear me out. I’m in the business of collecting knowledge, and you have questions you’re seeking answers to.”
“What makes you think that?”
Devikra covered a laugh with her hand. “I just told you; procuring answers is my specialty; and yours is hardly a great one. Egil, I can help. As an exchange.”
“An exchange?” If possible, Egil’s frown deepened. “Someone else made me that same offer, once. They weren’t able to follow through.”
Devikra’s expression softened into something like sorrow. When she spoke, her voice was heavy, and when she again reached across the table to touch Egil’s hand, he let her. “I am not Unity. I won’t promise I can deliver, but you have a better chance with me than with anyone else. And I will try my best. In the meantime, I have no intention of possessing or controlling you. You have my word.”
Egil studied Devikra’s hand on his own. Warmth flowed from the point of contact, as well as from Devikra’s voice, low and soothing. He felt strangely subdued by it – by the emotion, the touch. It had been a long time since he’d been touched so gently.
He found he wanted to trust her, if only to have someone to trust. There was regret in her voice, pity on her face. He believed that it was genuine, even if he didn’t understand why.
And there was something so very familiar about her.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll hear you out.”
Devikra smiled, and stroked the back of his hand with her thumb once, twice. “Come back to my quarters. We can speak more comfortably there.”
Devikra led Egil out of the corner of Damael he’d settled into, instead taking him deeper and deeper into the city. No one came near them, but those still out and about paused to watch the duo pass – Devikra, with her rich clothes, white hair, and proud bearing inspiring awe while Egil’s weapons, bloodied clothes, and sharp gaze kept them back.
“You already know so much about me,” Egil mused as they walked. “It’s like you’ve been watching.”
“Of course I have. I’d be a fool not to watch you, not when I make it my business to collect important knowledge,” Devikra said, then flashing him a smile. “Besides, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for such a long time.”
Egil only frowned back, something niggling at the back of his mind again. “This may sound strange,” he started, “But you already feel familiar to me.”
“And you to me,” Devikra said. “Strange, isn’t it? If we’ve met, I can guarantee it wasn’t in this life.”
Eventually, Devikra turned down a quiet side street near the upper market, then down a darkened staircase, finally stopping at a heavy iron door. When she knocked, the door swung open almost immediately, opened by a young, delicate alfar. Her carefully-coiffed hair was braided up into a bun, showing off the long, pointed ears that marked her alfar blood. Her silhouette outlined against a warm glow, she tipped her head to one side, gaze flicking curiously over Egil before she dropped into a curtsy. Her hands tugged at the skirts of her dress.
“My handmaiden, Wilhara,” Devikra told Egil when the alfar stepped aside to let them in. “I apologize for the quiet; it would be livelier here were it not so late. Did anyone come by while I was gone, Wil?”
Wilhara answered with another curtsy. “All was quiet.”
“Thank you for staying here, darling. I know you don’t like being left alone,” Devikra said to the girl, dropping her voice low. Egil looked away, not sure he was supposed to hear.
Inside was wide and open, lit dimly by a smattering of candles spaced throughout. Several sofas turned to face each other, all covered in pillows of varying sizes. It was surprisingly warm, Egil noted, despite there being no fireplace, and some sort of perfume hung heavy in the air.
Once they were inside and the door was bolted shut, Wilhara seemed to dismiss the two of them entirely. She headed over to the sofas, ignoring them in favor of sitting on a pillow on the floor. She pulled some sort of large book into her lap and didn’t so much as glance up at Egil or Devikra again.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” Devikra told Egil, already heading toward a hallway in the back, hidden partially behind a folding screen. “Please make yourself comfortable.”
When she was gone, Egil moved to the sofa across from Wilhara, foregoing it at the last moment to join her on the ground. The movement jostled the stitches he’d put into his own leg earlier that night and he cringed.
Wilhara looked up at him, watching his mouth, not his eyes. “You’re hurt,” she said, like she was telling him, not making an observation. “You got in a fight with Unity, then stitched yourself up, even though you don’t like stitches.”
Egil stared at her. “How do you know that?”
Wilhara looked down. “The Oracle saw it.”
“And she told you?” Egil asked, subconsciously lowering his voice to match Wilhara’s soft tone. She seemed to relax at that, looking back up at him.
“Dev tells me everything.”
Suddenly, from somewhere above, a series of bells started tolling. Seeing’s Egil’s surprised glance upward, Wilhara explained, “It’s only the bell tower. We’re under the church. During the day, people come to visit Devikra up there.”
Wilhara nodded, her hands again tugging at the fabrics of her skirt. The movement jostled the book on her lap enough that Egil could see the pages of a sketchbook covered in heavy charcoal.
“What are you drawing?” Egil asked.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Do you mind me watching?”
Wilhara bit her lip, wide eyes surprised, then shook her head. After that she stared at her sketchbook for a while, her eyes glazing over when she finally continued drawing. Her hand seemed to move across the page without her even realizing it.
Egil felt content to just watch in silence, enjoying the rare peace of the moment. The longer they sat, the more tension eased out of him.
It all returned with Devikra.
“She must like you,” Devikra said, rejoining them. “She never works with other people present.”
“Works?” Egil asked.
Devikra didn’t answer, instead sitting on the sofa behind Wilhara, who didn’t glance up or stop drawing for even a moment. Devikra lounged among the cushions, one hand idly caressing Wilhara’s hair.
“So,” Egil began, when she didn’t speak, “Your proposal?”
Devikra nodded, pursed her lips. “I’m trying to think of how best to explain my visions. If the general populace knew what I do with them, they might think me…well, not false, but perhaps disingenuous. My visions are true, that much is no lie. I see the future— snapshots of it, always without context. I have no control over what I see or when. I’m sure you can imagine how inconvenient that is, seeing fleeting glimpses of such a great world.”
“For a long time, I struggled with what to do with this gift. I’d see terrible things I didn’t know enough to understand— not until after they came to pass, at least. It is knowledge, I’ve learned, that’s key. The more I know of the world and what’s happening in it, the better I can understand my visions before they’re fulfilled.
“So I created a…business centered around my visions. I have employees everywhere, listening to the happenings of the world and reporting them back to me.”
“I won’t be a spy,” Egil interrupted, “If that’s what you’re asking.”
“No, I imagine you’ve had enough of that. I wasn’t asking you to be.”
“Then what do you want from me?”
“Once seen, my visions cannot be changed. But if I can understand and interpret them quickly enough, I can soften the damages. Say I see a war break out in the north — I can go and stop it before the rest of the world even catches up to what’s happening.”
“Uh huh,” Egil said, sitting back. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I’m getting there,” Devikra scolded, making a smile tug at the corners of Egil’s lips. “I’m only one woman; I have too many visions to be able to act on all of them. I need help. Someone to stop that northern war, if you will.”
“I know you want to make up for it. I want to make the world better, Egil, and I want to entrust my visions to someone who shares my values. From what I’ve seen and heard, that’s you.”
Devikra smiled, sharp and wide. “I could also give the calculating answer, say that having you on my side would be gaining a powerful ally. The truth is, though, that it’s a little of both, and that you remind me of someone very dear to me.”
Wilhara looked up. She stared at Egil a long moment before something like realization crossed her face. When Egil caught her looking, she ducked her head.
Devikra ignored the short exchange, instead saying, “What do you say? You’ll be able to help countless innocent people, working for me. Maybe you’ll finally be able to atone.”
“You mentioned getting me answers,” Egil said.
“Get them for me, and I’ll work for you.”
“Work for me, and then I’ll start looking for them.”
Egil considered Devikra. She met his gaze evenly, matched the small smile on his own face. “Fine. I’m in.”