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 the only stable point in the entire Eyera Province. The rest was chaotic and disorganized, reeling from the recent dissolution of an empire that had ruled since the Great War. The dying remains of this autocratic empire were making last-ditch attempts to regain control, establishing new outposts in major cities and quelling rebellions where they could.
Unity hadn’t stepped in to make peace yet, so the people fought back.
This, of course, made travelling in Eyera risky. There was always a skirmish 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 Eyera alone, especially if they were unfamiliar with its roads.
Nobody except Egil.
He’d needed to get away from Alfheim and pass through Eyera to get north. He’d also needed a good fight.
He’d found his fight and— as always seemed to be the case, for him— more than he’d bargained for. He’d been under the impression that Unity hadn’t stepped in to make peace yet and he’d been right. In fact, he’d arrived in Eyera alongside Unity’s Enforcers.
He and the Enforcers didn’t get along well. He’d been lucky to have escaped with his life.
That’s why his first steps into Damael were slow and staggering, why a bruise blossomed along his jaw and a hastily-wrapped tourniquet was tied tightly around his thigh, stopping the blood flowing from a deep gash there.
Damael, Egil quickly found, was a quiet city. It was surprising, given the state of the rest of the province, but Damael was as far from the Empire as possible, almost at the Troas border. And according to the rumors, the city was under…unusual leadership.
Egil didn’t like quiet; when things were quiet, when things were civilized, it was harder to hide the unusual. He gravitated naturally to disorder, so he quickly found it in Damael. He found a bawdy inn, disreputable enough that no one would question his current state, and retreated quickly to his room to tend his wounds. Only when he needed food and could no longer stand his own presence did he venture downstairs.
He settled at a table in the back of the common room so he could watch the people here. Most of the patrons seemed to be regulars, and all acquainted with each other at that. That was unfortunate— it would make him stand out.
The common room was tinted gold, the furniture all made from the same light oak and the glow of the candles casting warmth across the faces of the people here. A group of youths sat near the door, talking and laughing, already well past drunk. There were a couple other small groups scattered across the place, but most of the crowd was gathered at the bar, where a man sat telling stories— just local gossip, from what Egil could hear.
The man was older, with the build of a laborer and marred with scars. A slender woman wrapped in scarlet fabrics sat beside him, listening eagerly to his story. As if she could sense Egil’s eyes on her, she turned and looked his way.
When their gazes met, Egil felt a strange jolt trill down his spine. He quickly averted his gaze, just in time for the waitress to place a plate of food in front of him.
He quickly forgot about the woman. He had too many thoughts in his head, most of which he fought to avoid: the Enforcers, the things he left in Alfheim, what waited for him Troas, after all this time. He let himself think about one thing: the strange rumors he’d heard about Damael.
Apparently, Damael had an oracle. Not some roadside fortune teller, not a rosanin with an unusual knack. A true oracle, ordained by the church and consulted about the future by both Empire and rebellion alike. The oracle ruled the city, no matter what happened in the rest of the province.
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, hand moving to the knife he wore strapped to his thigh. It was halfway out of its sheath before he recognized the crimson fabric.
The woman laughed breathlessly, either at herself or Egil’s sudden tension, Egil wasn’t sure.
Now that she sat before him, Egil was surprised at her age. She’d seemed somehow older before, but now he saw she looked about as old as he did. Not that that meant much— especially because this woman was nympherai. She had that feeling of other that they all gave off. Most likely fae, Egil guessed, but likely with some dryad blood.
A faintly glittering pattern twisted across her skin. It was neither the feathery texture of a marionite’s skin nor the 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 said. There was a soft slur to her voice and she draped herself across the table as she spoke.
“Is it that obvious?”
The woman responded with a shy smile, tucking a stray lock of shock-white hair behind her ear, which had heavy jewelry hanging off it. The rest of her hair was pulled into a large braid, draped over her shoulder. “I’d remember a face like yours.”
Egil felt a twinge of annoyance. He was tired, sore, frustrated. He hadn’t intended to spend his night talking to a drunk stranger…and yet. Some company could be nice. Conversation, even trite conversation with a drunk stranger, can help chase away the loneliness and things best not thought about. “It’s best if you don’t.”
The woman’s smile grew sweeter. She leaned in, the adornments on her clothes jingling with the movement. “Why not? Will you give me your name?”
“It’s polite to give your own first.”
The woman surprised Egil by actually answering. Usually, this was a much longer game with fae. “Call me Devikra.”
The woman gasped, her eyes widening. Even her eyelashes were white. “The Egil?” She surprised Egil again by laughing. “I don’t believe you. Prove it.”
Egil’s hand still rested on his knife. “How could I?”
“I don’t know, use your magic. You do have magic, don’t you? The stories say you do.”
Egil smiled at Devikra. “I don’t really have magic, no.”
“Shame. 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.”
“Tonight? Hopefully neither.” Changing the subject, Egil asked, “Are you fae?”
The woman smiled, bright and guileless. Egil felt himself smiling back. “I get that question a lot.”
“How about a harder one, then: you came here for me, didn’t you? Why? How did you know to expect me?”
Surprise flashed across Devikra’s face— Egil thought it might be the first real emotion he’d seen from her. He could tell good acting from bad, and this woman was good. But she was still acting.
“What makes you think that?” she asked.
“You chose a spot close to the door so you could watch people come in. You lost all interest in whatever’s happening at the bar when you saw me, then waited just long enough to come over so that you didn’t seem eager.”
“Maybe I just find you attractive,” the woman said with one of her cloying smiles. There was an edge to it, now.
Egil studied Devikra. She was clean, pristine, well-dressed. He’d known she hadn’t belonged in this part of town since he’d first laid eyes on her. “I’m covered in dirt and blood. My clothing is torn, worn from travel. 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 in this state.
“What’s more, you weren’t really surprised when I gave my name; you knew who I was before I even said it. I also haven’t seen you with a single drink all night— not when I first came in, and not when I came back downstairs.”
There was a moment of hesitation, as if Devikra might deny it. Then, she pulled herself upright, tall, proud, and sober. She smiled; this one was less flirtatious, less friendly. “Huh,” she said, “You’re good. You should work for me.”
Egil realized when she spoke that her earlier slur was to hide an accent. He couldn’t place it, but it was old, precise.
Devikra continued without waiting for a response from Egil. “If you can figure out who I am, you’ll know the answer to your third question.”
Realization hit Egil at the hint. “You’re the Oracle.”
“Keep it down, won’t you?” Devikra asked mildly, looking around the common room. It had gotten louder, more crowded, and no one was paying them any attention. Her expression was haughty, now; Egil thought it suited her better. “I’m in the business of uncovering secrets, Egil— uncovering and keeping. Maybe you’re not suited for my employ after all.”
“You sound so sure I’m interested. Did you see that in a vision?”
“That’s not how they work,“ Devikra said with a wry smile. “I don’t need visions to tell me we could be of use to each other.”
Egil frowned. He’d been “of use” to people before, and he was done with it. “No,” he said, easily.
“You have questions you’re seeking answers to, don’t you? Procuring answers is my specialty.”
If possible, Egil’s frown deepened. “Someone else made me that same offer, once. They weren’t able to follow through.”
Egil sat back and said nothing.
“I’m not like them. I won’t promise I can deliver, but I can try. In the meantime, I have no intention of possessing or controlling you. We still both have something to gain from working together. Will you hear my proposition?”
Egil considered her. There was something familiar about her— it set him on edge as much as it made him inexplicably trust her. “Fine.”
“Come back to my headquarters with me. We can speak more comfortably there.”
Devikra led Egil out of the dingy corner of Damael he’d settled into, instead taking him deeper and deeper into the city. They turned down a quiet side street near the upper market, small shops lining either side. Down a darkened staircase, then Devikra stopped at a heavy iron door.
The door swung open only seconds after she knocked. An alfar girl stood in the doorway, short for her race, with dark skin and soft brown hair. She stood outlined against a warm glow coming from behind her and tipped her head to the side, regarding Egil only briefly before dropping into a curtsy.
“My handmaiden, Wilhara,” Devikra told Egil, when the girl stepped aside to let them in. “It would be much more lively in here, were it not so late. Did anything happen while I was gone, Wil?”
Wilhara answered with another curtsy. “All was quiet.”
Inside, things were more comfortable than Egil expected. The space was wide and open , a comfortable living space abutted against an open floored kitchen. It was surprisingly warm here, the air heavy with some sort of perfume.
Wilhara dismissed them entirely once they were inside and the door was shut. She dropped down gracefully among the cushioned seats of the living space and pulled some kind of large book into her look. She didn’t so much as glance up at them again.
“I’ll be right back,” Devikra told Egil. “Please, have a seat.”
With that, she disappeared behind past a bearded curtain into an adjacent room. Egil wandered over to where Wilhara sat, taking one of the cushions across from her. The movement jostled the stitches he’d put into his own leg and he cringed.
“You’re hurt,” Wilhara said— like she was telling him, not making an observation. “You got in a fight on the road with Unity.”
Egil blinked. “How’d you know about that?” he asked, subconsciously matching Wilhara’s soft tone. She seem to relax at the sound, meeting Egil’s eye instead of speaking at his shoulder.
“The Oracle saw it. Unity will reinstate the Empire tomorrow. I’m sorry; you didn’t stop them.”
Egil let out a harsh breath. He’d expected as much, really. At that, Wilhara dropped her gaze again. From his new spot, Egil could see the book was a sketchbook covered in heavy charcoal.
“What are you drawing?” Egil asked her.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Right,” Egil said. “Do you mind me watching?”
Wilhara glanced up at him, surprised, then shook her head. When she got back to drawing, she got a faraway look in her eyes. Egil watched quietly, the tension of the last few weeks easing out of him.
It returned with Devikra.
Devikra had removed her jewelry and her heavy wrap, leaving her much more simply dressed in wide, loose trousers and a shirt that exposed the planes of her stomach. She sat beside Wilhara, across from Egil, and lounged back among the cushions to study him.
“So,” Egil began, “Your proposal?”
Devikra nodded, pursed her lips. “How to put this…if people knew the full nature of my business, they might accuse me of being false,” she began. “My visions are true, that’s no lie. I see the future— snapshots of it, always without context. I have no control over what I see or when— you can imagine how inconvenient that is, seeing glimpses of such a great world.”
“There’s more to what I do than see the future. 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.
“But knowledge, I’ve come to learn, is the 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. That understanding can— and has— saved lives, prevented disasters.”
“So you see a war break out in the north— if you can get there in time, you can prevent it.”
Devikra shook her head; Wilhara stopped drawing to glance at her.
“My visions can’t be changed, only mitigated. The war still starts, but I might be able to end it faster.”
“And where do I come in?”
“I’m gathering a network. I’ve got people across the continent who supply me with information, information that puts my visions into context. But I’m only one woman; I have too many visions to be able to do something about all of them. I need someone who’ll be able to go out and help— to stop that northern war, if you will.”
“I’ve been hearing stories about you for a while now, Egil. I know who you were. What you did. 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 I used to love, so I trust you.”
Wilhara looked up, clearly curious. 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 for a long moment. She met his gaze evenly, matched the small smile on his own face. She really did seem strangely familiar. “Fine. I’m in.”