runiclore: (Suikoden - Destroyer (Sarah))
[personal profile] runiclore
Title: Turn Back Time
Author: Myaru
Game: Suikoden III
Characters: Sarah, Luc (sort of), a bunch of OCs
Word count: ~7300
Theme/Inspiration: April 14 - a woman, partly brave and partly good

Notes: Ages ago I wanted to write an AU in which Sarah survived the end of Suikoden III - barely - and inherited the wind rune, which would give her the means to take the fight right to the Circle Temple and the high priest. The end result would eventually be an uprising, during which she would confront him, and... I never did decide how that would work out, but it probably wouldn't end well! It didn't occur to me at the time that her plan was actually very similar to Luc's, and even her motivations - but that's more or less thematically appropriate.

I was kind of getting into this by the end, so who knows, maybe there'll be more - but don't count on it. I started it to give Rey something to read, but have lost my fanfic mojo for the most part.

Also? I am so out of practice with this canon, and I didn't even bother to check my facts. So sorry, Suiko fandom. My bad. I also used the manga version of certain events because I liked it better.

MERRY LATE CHRISTMAS [personal profile] reynardfox. Or is it EARLY?



..........................................................................................

For all the times Sarah swore never to return to Harmonia, never, not even to watch her mentor's back when he decided to risk entering politics, she had grown rather too familiar with the new road that led to the gates of the capitol, and the symbol of the circle inscribed upon every door, carriage - even the paving stones, which surely would have been perfect circles if the shape lent itself to a firm, interlocked surface. The helms and hauberks of the temple guards outside the carriage window announced their allegiance with the same symbol. Her hand itched looking at it. With one flick of her fingers, she could shatter those silver monstrosities and rip their plumes to shreds. She'd done it before so many times, and each break as her rune replaced air with water, splintered steel, bone, Sarah had wanted to let her laughter out for once, open her mouth and taste her own tears. Before she took on her new name, which brought with it this new carriage, the fine dress she wore, the servants and the bows, she did not laugh, and she wasn't allowed to cry. If striking down Harmonian agents was like slapping her childhood keepers, she wasn't allowed to acknowledge it. Luc felt the same; the sparkle was in his eyes when their game was revealed and their allies - hah, allies, as if she'd ever consider a Harmonian to be a friend - recognized them as enemies.

No more pretending, his gaze said. No more.

The back of her right hand burned as ice would burn. Her fingers curled over her knee when the gate commander, the plume of his helm white, rather than blue, turned his head, examined the emblem on her door. If the border was the wrong color, if the lion misshapen-- but neither was the case. Her carriage clattered past them unchallenged. Outside, the footman muttered about shoddy work and and lazier officials, not inspecting their streets, their agents not stopping him to ask for their shiny new credentials, and the driver told him to shut his mouth.

She had been to the gate several times under the protective cloak of an illusion, but until that morning Sarah had never passed within. The shadow of the arch carried a promise of some danger - a runic ward that should detect her, perhaps, or the all-seeing eye of the Circle, which occupied her nightmares whenever Luc left her with Yuber to journey to this place and pretend to be a bishop. Ten years now had passed, yet the same cramps twisted her stomach at the thought. But the eye of the Circle must be closed, he said to her after one of his journeys. He would never allow me to use his name like this, otherwise. I remember him. I know what he is like better than anybody.

Sarah would pray, then, that Luc was correct, or the true rune on the back of her hand would alert her enemy before she could weave her net, and this game too would be lost. She couldn't afford to make the mistakes he made and reveal herself too soon.

Though she called Luc's misfortunes mistakes, she wondered if, in his heart, he wanted the Grassland campaign to end the way it did. Not death-- she knew he wanted to die. But all her life she'd dreamed of seeing the blood of Harmonian priests, and Luc always told her to keep that wish locked away, never to indulge it, that he did the same and it hurt - but it was better than being caught and dragged back to the temple.

Did he let himself slip intentionally, be caught, be killed? That was one way to go about it, arguably faster than their initial plan. But she couldn't slip this time. She wouldn't.

The ride from the north gate to the Mercade estate took nearly an hour, all of it spent in stuffy shadow with the curtain drawn over the window so she wouldn't have to look at the streets, the shops, the people, and by the end her teeth were rattled so hard she could've sworn they'd ground themselves into dust in her mouth. Sweat made her dress sticky and her hair stringy where it slid loose from her combs. They stopped while the gate was still squealing closed behind them, and when the door opened with the footman's if you please, Lady Elsa greeting her from beyond the sudden blast of sunlight, Sarah almost forgot she was supposed to answer to that name instead of her real one. She sat dumbly for a moment, then shook her head and left the carriage. Harmonia's summers were cool; the afternoon breeze tickled her cheeks and had her sighing before she realized.

"Welcome to the main house, Lady Elsa." The voice startled her. She blinked in the sunlight. Her welcoming party was small, all identifiable by their trim and the pins at their throats: the house chamberlain, a tall woman whose golden hair was shot through with white; the housekeeper, and one of the lesser members of the house-- nobody Sarah was required to bend her neck for. They waited in formation before the courtyard fountain, where water tinkled into the wide, shallow pool from the upraised hands of a stone woman.

Pleasantries were exchanged - protestations that they were honored, that she was long awaited, while the footman and her driver unloaded her trunks, each with a grunt. Then they led her inside, where the foyer was dark and almost as hot as the carriage had been. The lady chamberlain dropped her off at her room on the third floor, where it seemed the heat had gathered to defy the cool breeze outside, and left as quickly as possible. Sarah threw the big window open and waited for her luggage.

Considering that her only experience as a guest in Harmonia had involved bars and locks on her door, the backhanded hospitality of the Mercade household wasn't bad. Nor was it any wonder: she was pretending to be a colonial, which meant she was diluted blood - not quite as good as the full-blooded scions of the main House, no matter who she claimed a Mercade woman as her parent. Maybe a better-ranked party would have been too good for her. Maybe - no, it was likely they didn't think "Elsa" worth more than a token effort. That they didn't bother to hide their dismissal-- now that was surprising. Were good manners wasted on family, then, and only exercised for the sake of public image?

As soon as her trunks arrived Sarah changed from her travel-stained dress to a simpler skirt and blouse, the sort of thing she might've worn to one of Harmonia's universities if she had been allowed to attend any of them. A mirror of real glass and polished silver hung over her dressing table, and another one hung on the wall behind her, beside the tall wardrobe, so she could spin around and look at herself from all angles. They reminded her of the chamber of mirrors she found when she was a child - a seemingly abandoned room, which must have been a storeroom, stacked with old, worn furniture, draped with pale linens; propped upon the fixtures, the walls, were a hundred mirrors. Broken mirrors, whole mirrors, glass doors that reflected the halo of light on her blonde head, shards that crunched under her sandals when she opened the door, because someone had bumped into one while moving the latest reject inside and knocked it to the floor. Little bits of glass speckled the wooden floor and caught the light peeking between the big, covered shapes to sparkle like stars.

She remembered sitting before the biggest, fanciest of the mirrors, which had a frame carved out of dark wood (tropical, she knew now, ebony) into flower shapes, lily and hibiscus and wild rose. There she pulled her hair from its messy braid, as she pulled it from the roll on the back of her head now, and combed through it with her fingers, pretending to be a lady. Ladies always had mirrors. Big ones on the wall, small ones in their pockets. The little round ones, Sarah was told once, were worth more than she was.

A voice behind her door came, Miss Elsa, are you ready? and accompanied by a knock. The housekeeper came in when Sarah told her to open the door, and she made a shallow curtsy. "It is four past noon, miss. Lady Justine left instructions to have you shown to the drawing room for your interview at four and a half." Her gaze flicked over Sarah, to the table with her brush and combs, and said, "May I assist? I entered service here as the lady's maid. I know all the proper styles."

Sarah accepted and shrugged to relieve the tension in her shoulders. Her back felt more tightly wound than a rope, and she only realized it when she leaned against the chair back and felt the slats press on the knots. "Something simple will be fine, unless you think she will be impressed by a style you know."

"Lady Justine isn't impressed by much." The answer was almost a grumble, and not at all comforting.

"Not much from the colonies, you mean?"

The housekeeper met her eyes in the mirror for a moment before turning her gaze back to work. "I mean only what I said, miss."

Sarah thought of apologizing and stopped herself. Ladies, even ladies from the colonies, did not bother to apologize to servants. She avoided the other woman's eyes in favor of the window reflected in the mirror, and the shard of blue sky caged behind the frame. "What news is moving about the city this week? We heard of a disturbance in the north at the last waystation, and nothing since then. That report must have been a week old."

According to the housekeeper there was no trouble at all: the expedition sent across the sea to the West had come back half-strong and without its sponsor, but as it turned out - so rumor had it - that was only because he had stayed behind to observe while others returned to report for him. The mariners swore up and down they came into the wrong port because a storm blew them north, that the lookouts claiming to have seen them followed by other ships were lying - yes, that was the 'trouble' rumor made much of as it moved south - and their 'Lord Silverberg' was working on Harmonian interests in that harsh foreign land, very important ones. It'd be worse for the empire if he came back, they said. The housekeep was of the opinion it was just bad manners, and that such poor training could only be blamed on 'Lord Silverberg' being a foreginer. Sarah could practically hear the quotations framing his title every time she spoke it. What can you expect from a foreigner? the woman murmured then, pinning Sarah's hair high on the back of her head. He doesn't observe the proper procedures, he probably doesn't care, thinks he knows better simply because he is a Silverberg-- to my mind, that family has got quite an inflated opinion of itself. Sarah agreed, and she didn't have to pretend. If the Silverberg she spoke of was Albert, that description pegged him right between the eyes.

Sarah finally asked for the woman's name once her hair was done and they'd left her room. Jolenta, was the reply - a colony name.

If a colonial lady was worth as much as a servant in the capitol, what was the worth of a colonial maid? And what was the difference between a colonist and a foreigner? Sarah had never figured that out, but clearly such a distinction existed - that is, unless even the lower classes absorbed and parroted the ideologies of the nobility. The ones she had met before were rebels; not a good indication of a real Harmonian citizen, she supposed. She retrieved a pair of spectacles from a case atop her trunk and followed the maid.

The drawing room was on the first floor, down a hallway that burrowed under the curved stair in the foyer and came out near the back courtyard where another fountain, a small clone of the one out front, added its music to the ambient creaks and noises of the house. Doors made of perfectly square glass panes opened to the tiled yard, let the breeze in, and the scent of orange blossoms. Lady Justine, the head of House Mercade, waited for her in a tall-backed chair turned toward the light, her arms draped over the arms so it appeared she sat on a throne. Her hair was pale and white, her face lined, her hands big-knuckled and dry-looking, like crumbled parchment. Sarah bent her neck and curtsied as soon as she had a good look, and went to the smaller, wooden chair Justine indicated she should sit in with a wave of her hand. The housekeeper left. The hall door creaked and clicked shut. Sarah's legs trembled, but she seated herself with grace.

"The specifics of our foreign houses evade me," Lady Justine said. Her voice didn't belie any weakness; resonant, alto, it might have been strong enough to reach the other side of a parade ground, though she did not raise her volume or appear to project her voice. A teacup and an open folder sat on a small, round table at her elbow; she looked down at the parchment. "Elsa, is it?" She did not pause long enough for Sarah to confirm her assumed name. "Recite your heritage."

Sarah swallowed, and the sound echoed in her ears. "I am descended from the branch led by Florenz Mercade into the wilds of the far north and west of the Nameless Lands. His granddaughter, Adelinda, took me in, and her daughter, Andria, was my..."

"I know my own family history," Justine interrupted. Her fingers curled around the handle of her teacup like claws. "Tell me about your father's heritage."

Ah. Sarah shifted in her seat and let her gaze wander to the folder, to the paper that surely had this information on it already. Or did the houses not keep tabs on each other, as she'd thought they would? "My father was..." She paused, trailed off in a whisper, and hoped her performance made her look uneasy. It would be the truth, if not for the reasons Justine should be assuming. "His name was Severin, and I am told he was descended from the Griselden branch of the Dee family, which was disinherited in 231 for opposing the high priest's orders during the secession crisis. One of his great-grandparents married back into the house, but I am not familiar with the details."

"And your mother?"

"Sent me to Lady Adelinda for reasons I wasn't told. I was five."

Justine flipped through her papers, then turned her aqua gaze upward to pin Sarah. "Your education is not recorded."

That would be because Sarah wasn't really there. She cleared her throat and elaborated with the story Adelinda made her memorize: who her teachers were - all conveniently unavailable - and what her field research was supposed to be. Forgeries of graduation certificates waited at the bottom of her trunk, along with records of birth and other such nonsense, which Justine must have, and yet demanded Sarah recite anyway. Did she suspect "Elsa" was not who she said she was, or did she drill every new member of her household like a criminal?

"What was your rating in Sindarin sciences?"

"Fair."

"Runic proficiency?"

"Greater than my mentors up north could handle."

The statement earned a narrow-eyed glare, which Sarah met calmly. She could demonstrate the truth of it at any time, and she doubted there were many in Harmonia who could match her skill, with the possible exception of Bishop Sasarai - whom she had bested without a true rune during the war ten years ago. Now that True Wind lived on her hand, in her body, he would be no threat.

"You will be tested at the temple two days from now," Justine said before her gaze became truly uncomfortable. But she did not relent, did not look away. Sarah could not either, not without looking weak and shy - though she wondered, when Lady Justine's brow quirked upward, if she was supposed to. "I will leave the assessment of your skill to Elric. Use the interim wisely."

Sarah wasn't sure what to say to that, aside from the proper yes, my lady, after which she cast her gaze aside. Elric, perhaps-- Elric Lovelle, the bishop? She knew the name; he was one of Luc's allies ten years ago, when he sought to enter the ranks of the temple to encourage the resuming of the war in Grassland. The man was young then, perhaps not much older than she had been at the time, and caught up in concerns of social justice and the plight of the people. No doubt he'd outgrown that in the time she'd been away and settled into the privileged complacency of the aristocracy. No one who possessed power would want to give it away once they realized how wonderful their advantages were. No one.

Justine closed her leather folder with a snap and moved it to the far edge of her table. "You will meet with a tutor every morning until your accent is corrected. Do your best not to shame us in the meantime, and use Jolenta to practice if you must. She will serve you for the duration of your stay."

She was dismissed with another wave of Justine's bony hand. Sarah curtsied again and tried not to rush from the woman's gaze, but the tap of her heels on the wooden floor was too quick a staccato, and she nearly caught her skirt in the door on her way out. No comfort awaited her in the hallway but darkness. The housekeep-- no, she must be a maid; the maid was nowhere to be seen, and the narrow, wood-paneled tunnel led to the foyer on one side, where she might run into other denizens of the house, and places unknown at the other. The latter proved more compelling. If only her knees would remain steady enough to carry her there, she might find an empty room and a chair to collapse into, or maybe a servants' stair that would lead her safely back to the third floor.

How did Luc do it? How did he weather their steely gazes, the prejudices, the uncertainty of his disguise? How did he persuade Harmonia to accept his mask - the literal and the metaphorical - with such confidence? Albert once told her that confidence was a weapon in itself, that trust in one's own path inspired the trust of others who were less sure, but how did one find such things? Sarah knew infiltrating the upper ranks of Harmonia's aristocracy and military was possible because Luc did it before her; she knew her own ability to wear a mask because she had been pretending for more than ten years. She began the pretense when Luc bade her to do so, and hadn't stopped since: first she pretended to belong in her rightful place as a Harmonian citizen when she served as his aide, then pretended she did not hate the rune that latched onto her hand when it left his corpse to live on her, then pretended she had a purpose in life, as long as it meant destroying the thing, the person, that destroyed Luc. But Luc-- he destroyed himself. He did not have to die; he wanted to die. And Sarah helped him.

The true rune on her hand was her penance, she told herself often. No, it was an opportunity - a chance to do what they should have done to begin with, and take the fight to the high priest who created Luc the way he was. Yuber had wanted to; Sarah had wanted to. Luc was afraid.

Sarah was not afraid. Not of the high priest.

The hall intersected with another, wider corridor that ran past the kitchen and out to the herb gardens. She wandered past the servants, who ducked their heads as soon as they recognized the make of her clothes - lady, not maid - and found a quiet corner under an arbor canopied by vines of sweet pea, where the shade was green and cool and Sarah was out of sight unless someone decided to look for her.

She sat heavily on the bench, removed her glasses, and let her head sink to her hands. A breeze cooled the back of her neck, set wayward strands of her hair dancing and tickling. The True Wind Rune pulsed, as if recognizing a child of its dominion, and the air swirled about her in a spiral before settling down again, fading away.

She'd grown her hair out, adopted a different mode of dress, the spectacles, the accent. She had a plan, a good one, and the support of the colonial houses and the People's Party. Albert was gone, as promised, and Sasarai was not adept enough to see through her disguise or her concealment of the rune unless he'd improved in leaps and bounds during the ten years since they'd last met, for even Luc could not see through her illusions, and he often knew when she was weaving one. Nobody would recognize her.

Why, then, did she feel eyes on her everywhere she went?


*


"Miss Elsa?"

Sarah lifted her head, for once remembering to answer to her new name. A woman she recognized from the welcome party stood at the edge of the shade cast by the sweet pea arbor, still dressed in formal house colors - burgandy, rose, white - and standing with her hands clasped at her waist, as if she'd been plucked from that moment in front of the house, moved forward in time, and placed again like a chess piece.

"My name is Belinda." Her hair was the perfect shade, just this side of strawberry, and her eyes were the proper aqua blue. The hue of her rose jacket made their color stand out like jewels. "The chamberlain says you came all the way from the Nameless Lands, and I've always wanted to hear about them, if you do not mind? I've heard there is a desert cold as tundra, and that the roses of Jaquar bloom a perfect blue. Is it true?"

Sarah straightened quickly, a cold fist in the pit of her stomach. The blue roses of Jaquar did not exist but for their appearance in her instructions. She made her hands relax in her lap, and forced her mouth to form the proper reply with a smile. "Only in the shadows of the white dunes. I have never seen one."

"It sounds like a fairy tale," Belinda said with a laugh that did not sound at all fake, though she walked stiffly to the bench when she was asked to sit. "My grandmother grew up there under Lady Adelinda's mother, and my own mother did field research in the area, but I was forbidden to go."

She wondered if what Belinda said was true; for it gave her a good reason to support the agenda of those far-flung houses, but Sarah was herself one elaborate lie, so why not this girl too? "There's unrest among the principalities. That's why I was sent here - it only got worse after the war down in the Grasslands."

"Now that sounds like a hellish place-- the Grasslands. All dust and heat. And barbarians."

And never-ending winds. Sarah turned her gaze to the sunlight winking down through the arbor. "It is the most loathsome place on earth."

They talked about largely inconsequential things until Belinda devised a reason for Sarah to follow her to chambers on the second floor, where the walls were solid - Belinda had checked - and the window panes thick enough to muffle the noise outside, on the ground floor, as the kitchen assistants pounded rolls of dough and gossiped about nothing. "Justine will have you watched for a while," she said once they were seated at a table by the hearth, and tea was poured. "I am one of her agents, but I do not know who the other is. I will also be your tutor while you practice proper diction."

Sarah leaned back with the teacup held in both hands, unsure what to say. "I cannot blame her for being wary," she tried.

"I can," the other said. "What happened to that 'family is everything' nonsense? If they actually held to that instead of looking down their noses at their own people-- and all because of where they live, or different manners of speaking." Belinda drank her tea down in one gulp and poured another cup, lips set hard in a frown. "Harmonia wouldn't be an empire without people like Adelinda willing to 'live out in the wilderness' and maintain our claim on the lands we conquer, honestly."

Sarah couldn't help snorting softly. "Harmonia doesn't respect anything-- or anyone."

Belinda dipped her spoon into a bowl of dark honey and twirled it. "So what's your story? Are you a third-class girl?"

"No." Sarah breathed the floral steam and tried to decide what flower had been added to the tea, but couldn't tell. She didn't know what her background was in Harmonian terms, except that she was born in a territory that had never been contested by the empire, because it was at the heart of its ancestral lands. "I am a proper citizen, but the Temple doesn't scruple about who it uses, or how."

Ahhh, her hostess said under her breath, gaze darting up, then back to stirring her tea. "And that makes all the difference, doesn't it? Some of the nobles who join the People's Party say the same thing. Sometimes people disappear inside those doors and never come back out again."

Would Sarah have crossed that threshold again, into freedom, if Luc hadn't saved her? In all her time at the temple, she never saw another soul who was not a servant or an employee. There were no other children. Locked doors were everywhere. She remembered that wing of the temple being cold and blue, though it probably looked like any other building in the complex: gray stone, stained glass windows. "If I am supposed to change that," she said, tasting her tea and then setting the cup on its saucer when the water proved too hot, "I will need your help. Do you have the key to Adelinda's contacts in the city, or is there someone else I should talk to?"

"I have a few names. It'll be fun figuring out how to get you in to meet some of them." Belinda sighed, then elaborated when Sarah tilted her head: "You're going to meet one for your assessment - Elric Lovelle. He was one of the Masked Bishop's supporters, so his status isn't what it used to be. But the others... Liesolette from the Jankova, Haydn from Rosenweit... they don't talk to just anyone, even for Party business."

That sounded so-- Harmonian. Sarah wished she could say so out loud, as she would have with Luc, but kept her lips pressed together for a moment as she silently recalled what she knew of those families: almost nothing. The Jankova patronized art and artists, especially opera, and she was no vocalist.

"What can you do?" Belinda asked. "I might be able to work something out with one of the others."

Sarah gave her the list: runic magic, of course, the study of rune families; chants, which were as close to music as she would ever get. Sindarin fluency earned a low, almost-whistle ("That's rare, extremely rare, Claus will want to meet you for certain."), and her claim to authorship of essays and field research on the Sindarin ruins of Toran - which was true, and Sarah even had some of them with her - earned even more vigorous nodding. Astrology too, though Belinda looked uncertain, chewing her lower lip when she thought about it. Might make a good party entertainment, she said, finally, and Sarah tried not to roll her eyes. Entertainment? Harmonians were as superstitious as anyone else; she'd bet on it. "Will it entertain anyone I have to care about?"

"Don't know," Belinda said, "but I'll find out. The most important thing right now is to impress Bishop Lovelle with your rune casting. If he gives you his favor, then you move up to Lord Sasarai, and if he likes you, everyone else will start to think they should like you too." She swirled her spoon in her tea, though the honey had long since dissolved. "Good luck with that. He doesn't seem to like anyone, lately."

Sarah drank her tea and watched the trees outside cast dancing shadows on the bedroom wall. Sasarai's name brought her last memory of him to mind, and she closed her eyes a moment, as if savoring the taste, the steam, and tried to push the image away. She didn't want to remember him, or to meet him, and had managed to forget until now that one of her tasks was to convert his way of thinking to the advantage of the People's Party. No one knew about the true rune on her hand, but she wondered if that would tug on the strings of destiny and force them to meet, even if she tried to avoid it. He didn't have to know about the thing to be drawn to it. The wind rune's opposite lived on his hand; if he didn't feel drawn to her, something was wrong.

The thought of seeing his face again made her feel sick. But she knew-- when she followed the threads of rumor to Adelinda's agents in the beginning, when she pledged her help to the Party, she knew the plan she proposed would bring her close to him. The possibility had been so distant then, so abstract. It hadn't occurred to her that meeting him, seeing someone else speak with Luc's face and look at her with Luc's eyes, identical and yet so different, might bring her to her knees. But there was no going back - he was too close now, more terrifying than a ghost.

And if he recognized her, the game would be over before she had even begun.


*


If all had gone according to plan, Harmonia would have been their last target, not the first. Sarah had known the moment they met Geddoe face-to-face that his relationship with his true rune was an old one, stronger than Luc's was to his own; time mattered in such a partnership, for the runes extended their influence in their host bodies little by little, year by year, until one became the rune - until one could not survive without it. To pull Lightning from the man's body would be akin to pulling him in twain with one's bare hands. They failed to capture it, as she predicted they would - silently, her misgivings were always silent now - and turned their attention to its companion, Water.

There, she thought they had a chance. All they had to do was kill one man and the rune would be theirs.

I can't believe this! Yuber had sneered. He blended into the dimness of their quarters in Le Buque, all but his golden hair and pasty face shrouded in shadow. He wasn't even wearing the damned thing! All you had to do was suck the air out of his lungs.

And what is your excuse? Sarah asked, twisting to glare over her shoulder. Luc sat behind her on the edge of his bed; his blood was sticky on her fingers, his breath labored in her ear and stirring the hair atop her head. You were defeated by a group of children. I thought you said you'd cover our trail? She would accept her own failure at the water seal; one mortal against seven was hardly fair. But Yuber?

She remembered the miasma of his presence, could never forget it. He was Other, no better than the twisted things she called from the World of Emptiness— only prettier, and more revolting for it. What good was it to work with a demon if the thing couldn't pull its own weight?

I will go to Crystal Valley, Luc said, and when her head snapped back to look at him, he added: when I recover. Lovelle has the forgeries - we'll use them to corner Sasarai.

Sarah hated the way his voice strained. Hairline cuts criss-crossed his body and oozed red, stained his clothes and lent a copper tang to the air. Though she'd once prided herself on her ability to heal, one cut alone was work enough, whether it was shallow or deep; to mend a hundred demanded days, perhaps weeks. She clasped his right hand, remarkably smooth, untouched. We should send Albert, she said, tightening her grip when he shook his head. Teleporting that far will use too much of your reserve.

A scowl; he'd spent much of his power to simply come out of the altercation with Wyatt alive. Then I'll use one the official routes.

They'll be able to trace you back to Lovelle as soon as they know what we've done!

Yuber, then.

Luc

We're running out of time, Sarah!

She remembered choking down her next protest. The glint of Yuber's red eyes in the half-dark made Sarah wonder if a priest wouldn't be safer.


*


Don't tell me you never asked about your supposed parents. Sarah watched from the shadows while Luc paced around Sasarai's chair, hands clenching and unclenching much as his brother's were under the ropes that bound him. Rain drummed on the oiled canvas of the tent which used to belong to Sasarai, and now served as his prison cell while his supposed treachery, revealed by forged documents retrieved from the Temple, was investigated. Have you spoken to anyone who can remember them? Why can't you recall their faces? The mask hid his face still, making his voice a hollow, metallic echo. One lamp gave them light from a camp table on the other side of the room, well out of their prisoner's reach. Have you seen their portraits? Your certificate of birth?

She remembered the flush to the prisoner's face, the high-pitched edge to his replies. The answer was no; it was destroyed in the fire, it was lost in the carriage accident. His non-existent parents lived outside of the capitol, where Sasarai had no contacts, for he didn't think he needed any. Sarah could picture the sneer on Luc's face when he mocked that ignorance, making much of how convenient it all was, that a fire burned the family manor down on the same day the Lord and Lady met their tragic end on the High Road out of Crystal Valley.

Everyone knows it was no accident! Sasarai snapped, his chair jerking forward with the force of his anger. The Party has sabotaged Temple officials before! You have no right— and he stopped when Luc laughed, that sharp whip-snap of his voice warped by his mask. You have no right, he repeated more softly. His hands, tied behind the chair the chair, clenched so hard his knuckles turned visibly white, even in the dimness.

If I didn't know better, Luc said, coming to a stop in front of him, hand sliding back through his hair to - she knew - untie the thong binding the mask to his face, I might feel sorry for you. You're right, of course. I've arranged accidents just like that to get where I am now. Unfortunately… the amusement faded from his voice, though his smile remained when he lowered the mask, and even widened at Sasarai's strangled intake of breath. Your parents, my parents— they're nothing, no one. Living materials suspended in liquid, bound into the shape of a body by the power of a true rune.

He summoned the sphere from its hiding place in their trunks with a localized teleporation spell. Sarah averted her eyes from the revolting contents, for she knew them well enough: organic matter, bits bearing a discomfiting resemblance to the internal organs of animals she had dissected for her studies, suspended in milky white fluid. Luc held it aloft like a victory and she wanted to duck under the tent flap and retch into the mud, let the rain outside wash her clean of her association with the thing - her knowledge of it, of how to make it and how to transform it into the two figures in the tent with her. She didn't hear what Sasarai said, or how he said it; the lamp flame jumped in a draft strong enough to make the tent walls pound against their moorings, sent their shadows lurching, but she didn't listen to Luc's explanation, or even know if he bothered to give one, but recognized the taunting tone to his voice she had always hated. It made her feel transparent, ugly, small, though she couldn't recall a moment it had ever been directed toward her.

The light went out, and the interior flashed turquoise, jerking Sarah's gaze back to her mentor and his prisoner. The True Wind Rune blazed on the back of his right hand. Sarah, he said, the sharpness bleeding out of his voice. Restrain him.

Sasarai's head whipped around, and his eyes reflected the cold light of the rune on her forehead when it came to life. If he had been calm enough to bring the full force of his rune to bear against her net of silence and sleep, he might have fought free. Sweat beaded on his brow, wet tracks down his cheeks proclaimed tears, and she smothered his will easily. Too easily. Everyone, she found herself thinking when Luc began the spell that would capture Sasarai's True Earth Rune, deserved a fighting chance, even if it meant she and Luc might lose.

Especially then.

Sasarai stared at her from beneath his hair, face tightening in pain, unable to cry out under the influence of her spell. Fight harder, she wanted to say, but his gaze faltered, his eyelids slid closed, and it was done.


*


The Wind Rune gave a pale white glow in the moonlight when Sarah raised her hand to look at it, rubbing sleep from the corners of her eyes. Her bed stretched against the wall under the window, and the sill was low enough she could hook her fingers onto the plaster molding and see the shape on her hand distort slightly with the shift of her bones under the skin. Over the mark lay a spell to conceal it, woven close into the webs the rune cast across her body when it possessed her. Like Luc's mask, years ago, it was only a superficial shield meant to deflect eyes, and one wouldn't feel compelled to question what one could not see, so the illusion would save her the trouble of wearing gloves or trying to mount another rune atop the true rune, as its previous bearer had done when he was younger. But the truly sensitive runic users would feel her oddness - the rune's oddness - and wonder.

Confidence; confidence drew the unsure.

Belinda said Bishop Lovelle was unsure. Sarah knew that Sasarai had lost his confidence. How could he not, after learning he was less than human, more a pawn than his colleagues?

Everyone said Sarah had the look of the old houses. When helping Luc infiltrate the Temple's ranks, she had posed as a scion of an old family and encountered no trouble, no disbelief. You are the very image of your great-grandfather one bishop said before she departed for the field ten years ago, wishing her well. Another told her the Dee family's stamp was all over her features - the nose, the shape of her eyes, the color. She wondered sometimes if she was of that lineage in truth, for they laid claim to the northern lands she was born in. Who could say? If there were any records of her genesis they would be locked away somewhere in an archive.

She hoped.

Sarah let her hand fall and shoved it under her pillow where the shape of the rune couldn't taunt her. The window was open a crack to let in a chill breath of air, which carried with it the scent of lavender from the kitchen garden and woodsmoke from the ovens. Salt pork tinged the air. It reminded her of the scent of the plains: yellow grass baked in the sun, the smell of a thousand cook fires, of the bitter coffee from the islands served to the officers, of smoked meat and oat porridge. She remembered her stomach revolting against that diet, accustomed instead to plain rice and gingery dumplings, vegetables in delicate sauces. She missed their flavor, yet tasting it again would remind her of a face and a voice - a scolding to hold her chopsticks correctly - that she could not afford to dwell on when she was so near to meeting its twin:

Sasarai.

She wished their last meeting had not been like that. Luc should have hidden his truth and simply taken the rune, but Sarah was too much a coward to say so. Would that she had been braver then, and less so now.

Confidence. Sarah curled her fingers into the sheet and closed her eyes against the dying moon. One meeting ten years ago was nothing. Sasarai would not know her.

If only she could continue without knowing him.


*
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