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 Eyera Province. The rest was in chaos, 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 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 Eyera alone, especially if they were unfamiliar with its roads.
Nobody except Egil.
He was heading north from Alfheim, and going around Eyera would’ve taken time he didn’t care to waste. He needed a good fight, anyway, and Eyera seemed just the place for it.
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 Eyera with the understanding that Unity hadn’t yet stepped in to make peace. His understanding had been right – just his luck, he’d arrived in the province right alongside Unity’s Enforcers.
He and the Enforcers didn’t get along well. He was lucky to have escaped with his life.
But 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 must have been due to its location – as far from the empire as possible, nearly on the Troas border – and the other strange rumors Egil had heard about the city.
Egil didn’t like quiet. His thoughts were too loud to be able to stand quiet spaces and 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 licentious end of town, where people stranger than himself roamed the streets and the growing dark did nothing for the activity all around – nothing except, perhaps, encourage it. He rented a room at a noisy, run-down tavern and immediately retreated upstairs to tend his wounds, only venturing down to the common room again when he was hungry and could no longer bear to be alone.
In the hour he’d been upstairs, the place had filled out. The entire common room was tinted gold, the furniture all made from a vibrant light oak and the lanterns casting warmth across the faces of people all around.
There were groups of people scattered about, sitting around uneven tables shoved together for convenience. The biggest group was gathered at the bar, where a man sat talking animatedly – sharing local gossip, from what Egil could hear.
The man was older, with the build of a laborer and covered in scars. Egil was eyeing the group when someone beside the man looked his way. She was slender, wrapped in scarlet fabrics. When their gazes met, Egil felt a cold trill jolt down his spine.
He looked away quickly, instead finding an out-of-the-way table for himself and waving one of the servers over.
Half-listening to the gossip at the bar, he pondered the strange rumors he’d heard about Damael.
Apparently, the city had an oracle. Not a fortune teller, not some rosanin with an unusual knack. A true oracle, ordained by the church and consulted on the future 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.
Someone all but fell into the seat across from Egil, making him jolt to attention. 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, Egil 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 about as old as he did. That didn’t mean much to him, and he imagined it didn’t with her, either – she seemed to be nympherai. She had that feeling of other that they all gave off. Most likely fae, Egil guessed, but likely with some dryad blood.
She had stark-white hair twisted into a heavy braid 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 that obvious?”
“I’d remember a face like yours,” the woman said, predictably. She flashed a shy smile, tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear, which had heavy jewelry hanging from it.
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. “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. “You came to this tavern 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; this woman was good, but it was still acting.
“Why do you think that?” she asked.
“You clearly had no interest in what the man at the bar was saying, earlier – either you were beside him because you knew him personally or because listening gave you an excuse to sit 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.”
“Perhaps that’s because I 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 harsh 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.”
“Someone like me?”
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 that…you must be stupid, confident, or very determined, and I don’t believe you’re stupid.
“What’s more, you weren’t really surprised when I said my name; you knew who I was before you even asked.”
There was a moment of hesitation, as if Devikra might deny it. Then, she pulled herself upright, tall, proud, and completely sober. “You’re good. You should work for me.”
A furrow appeared between Egil’s brows as he considered this. “You’re not an Enforcer?”
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. Her earlier slur must have been to hide her accent. Egil couldn’t place it, but it was old, precise.
He grinned, lifting both hands above the table and holding them up so Devikra could see them empty. He felt more relaxed, now that the games were over. “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 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 frowned. He’d been “of use” to people before. “No,” he said, easily.
“I’m in the business of collecting knowledge; procuring answers is my specialty. You have questions you’re seeking answers to, don’t you? I can help.”
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. “Unity, right? I’m not them. I won’t promise I can deliver, but I can try. In the meantime, dear, I have no intention of possessing or controlling you. You have my word.”
Egil studied Devikra’s hand on his own. Warmth seemed to flow from the point of contact, just as it did from her voice. 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, though he didn’t understand why – nor did he understand why it comforted him, rather than pushed him away.
And there was something so very familiar about her.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll hear you out, at least.”
Devikra smiled, and stroked the back of his hand with her thumb once, twice. “Come back to my headquarters with me. We can speak more comfortably there.”
Devikra led Egil out of the derelict 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.
“How did you know?” Egil asked as they walked. “About my questions, my past.”
“I told you, I’m in the business of collecting knowledge, and I’ve collected all that I can about you. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a very long time.”
“Are we just meeting now?” Egil murmured. “You seem very familiar to me.”
Devikra looked at him, surprised, her dark eyes wide. “And you to me. I can promise we’ve never met, however.”
Eventually Devikra turned down a quiet side street near the upper market, then down a darkened staircase, finally stopping at a heavy iron door.
She knocked, and the door swung open only seconds after, opened by an alfar woman, young and delicate. Her carefully-coiffed hair was braided up into a bun, showing off the long, pointed ears that marked her race. She stood outlined against a warm glow and tipped her head to one side, gaze flicking curiously over Egil before she dropped into a curtsy. Her hands tugged nervously 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 more lively 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, dropping her voice low. Egil looked away, not sure if he was supposed to hear.
The room they were in was wide and open, lit dimly by a smattering of candles spaced throughout. There were 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 the air was heavy with some sort of perfume.
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 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 it was a sketchbook covered in heavy charcoal.
“What are you drawing?” Egil asked.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Do you mind me watching?”
Wilhara glanced up at him, surprised. She bit her lip, 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 was content to just watch in silence, enjoying the 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 back among the cushions to study Egil.
“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 business. If the general populace knew, they might think me…well, not false, but perhaps disingenuous. 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, and 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’s knowledge, I’ve learned, that is 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.
“No, I imagine you’ve had enough of that. I wasn’t asking you to be.”
“Then what do you want from me?”
“If I can understand and interpret a vision quickly enough, I can prevent it from coming to pass. Say I see a war break out in the north — I can go and stop it before it even happens.”
“Uh huh,” Egil said, sitting back. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I’m getting there,” Devikra snapped, 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 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 very dear to me.”
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 familiar. “Fine. I’m in.”