The door before her was simple yet elegant, its edges sure, the ornamentation carved into the ebon surface maddeningly intricate in a way that even the most prodigious crafter would struggle to emulate. A curve of smooth, polished brass made its handle, matching the hinges and keyhole; mechanisms of such meticulous design that never would they perform their functions to anything less than the peak of their capabilities, a sentiment echoed by the rest of the Moonswath estate. Her father would settle for nothing less than perfection.
It was no wonder, then, that she should feel like a stranger within its walls.
Vekka pushed the nagging thought from her mind. This wasn’t about them, she told herself. Not entirely. This—standing in the guest hall of her parents’ manor at the dead of night, the weight of the Moonswath lineage bearing down on her while she languished like a hesitant spirit before the door—was about her. Them.
Palm sweating, Vekka shifted the candleholder to her other hand. In the flicker of the passing flame, she caught the imperfections in the brass handle: the press of fingers smudged the once-impeccable sheen. However, where others would just see fingerprints, or Gastywain another mess to fuss over, Vekka saw a statement of intent, an act of passionate revolution that dared to strip away the veil of perfection so as to lay bare the imperfect truth beneath.
It was a signature only Ahmelia Valunkroft could leave.
The eyes of her ancestors scrutinized her, their painted judgments lacking for nothing, a trait not lost upon her parents.
What a disappointment you are.
They’d never said as much, of course—not directly, anyhow. Warren and Elenor Moonswath possessed too much etiquette to make such bullish passes at her, whether in-person or to others. They had a reputation to uphold, after all; a grain they would never cut against lest others find reason to look down their noses. Yes, they were craftsmen, builders and land workers, but none could mistake the dirt on their hands for that of the common toiler. The Moonswaths were captains of industry, artisans bred under the mantra of hard work and yoked to the traditional values of family.
Growing up, Vekka had never hidden her love for the rougher ways of life; she preferred muck-boots and leathers to a dress, and while others her age would go into town for dancing and gossip, she could be found in the lumberyard splitting logs, or learning wrestling and swordsmanship from the Watch Captain. And with her father’s blood running strong in her veins, they could hardly argue that she was better suited for daintier pursuits.
Still, they tried to nudge her this way and that: when fancy trappings and arranged courtships failed, passive-aggressive remarks filled the void.
“Think how much prettier you’d look if you wore your hair like the other girls.”
“Don’t you think you’re a little intimidating with all that muscle? You’ll scare away the boys!”
They’d assumed her time at wrestling and blade training was an adolescent phase; they would let her play her little games, certain she’d eventually come around on her own.
To say her parents were shocked when she announced her decision to attend Rullenroot Academy and become a klaeric instead of continuing to apprentice under her father would have been to oversimplify the matter.
As staunch Arkaenites, they could show nothing but pride in her decision—their only daughter committed to the holiest path one of their Order could follow: to enter that pious fraternity of the Klaerichood—even if their Vilanic traditionalism kept them skeptical of the Order’s current course. They’d seen her off with the requisite amount of tears, though Vekka was no fool: she’d sensed the disappointment buried in the gestures, felt it in the clasp of her father’s embrace, mechanical as the miracle-machines in his shop.
They wanted different things for her: to take up the family business; meet a nice man and maybe one day gift them with grandchildren; do her part to carry on the Moonswath legacy. Those were their hopes… hopes whose embers she’d caught still flickering behind their welcoming stares, diminished but by no means forgotten in the five-year span since she’d first left home.
How could she tell them they would never get those things from her? That to even consider them was anathema to her truth?
A truth Ahmelia had helped her inadvertently discover.
I love her.
A thought always, secret and sacred, but one she took out often, like a locket holding a cherished memory. It lent her a security and comfort she wouldn’t have thought possible only a few years ago.
Vekka reached for the door handle, imagining that when she touched its surface, she would feel the fingers that had left the marks. What it would be like for those fingers to leave their marks on her, to cast off the veil and expose the truth locked away in head and heart. How liberating it would be, she thought.
And how utterly terrifying.
She would be stripped, a Vindicator without armor, naked and vulnerable to the barbs of judgment and worse, rejection.
Vekka wanted to believe that Ahmelia knew—she had a heart like no other, piercing and insightful. Surely her secrets read like an open book to her Oath-Sister. And if Ahmelia knew and held her tongue, it was because regardless of her hand in the outcome, she would always cherish Vekka.
What strength she would have then, to confront her parents with a finality she’d always pined for but been too scared to seek. It was why she’d fled to Rullenroot—why face a fear when it could be ignored?
There she’d met Ahmelia, and realized what a coward she was. Here was a girl, raised without the comforts of wealth, orphaned by an unthinkable tragedy and made a ward of the Order, only to be ostracized and bullied by her surrogate family. Sent to fight and die in a dead-end crusade, all because she’d dared to perceive differently.
It should have been an existence defined by misery, yet Ahmelia weathered every hardship with a passion that shamed even the most zealous Arkaenites. Vekka never felt more inspired than in the presence of her Oath-Sister, never more free to be herself. Because she knew Ahmelia understood.
Does she, really?
Vekka frowned. It was Judicator Zhara’s fault, this crippling doubt. She’d left herself unguarded last time, and the barracks commander had struck accordingly.
It’s why they were here in the first place, after all.
Vekka Moonswath stood at attention and tried not to let her anxiety show. The dark walls of Judicator Zhara’s office—a rectangle of aged wood lit by the lavender pulse of a personal matter-lamp—were all-too-familiar by now, but it didn’t stop the rapid pounding of her heart, nor the dead weight in her gut. She resisted the urge to hide her face behind her crown of thick braids.
She fought off a buzz of claustrophobia; the office was cramped. Not for lack of organization—Zhara Kilami kept the space in impeccable order--but rather an absence of consideration regarding planning. The room was most certainly not meant to house an office, but so it was.
Judicator Zhara gave them nary a glance; her spectacled gaze flicked over the scroll tasked to her grip. Her lips were compressed so tight that they hardly registered as more than a lesion above her chin.
Ahmelia, as usual, seemed far from worried by the Judicator’s countenance. The diminutive klaeric twirled a coil of her white hair, brooding with absent-minded impatience.
A spark of frustration took Vekka. How could her Oath-Sister stand there so nonchalantly—where did she find the nerve to look so inconvenienced, knowing what she’d dragged them into?
She nudged Ahmelia, rough enough that it earned her a smack on the arm. Vekka made to cuff her about the head.
“That’s enough,” Zhara snapped.
Vekka ducked her head, as much in apology as it was to hide the scald in her cheeks. “Judicator.”
Ahmelia bowed, but with a huff that made Vekka grind her teeth.
The willowy commander steepled her lengthy fingers, golden eyes flaring like shooting stars. Her usually vibrant skin, the color of fresh sunlight, was soured and stony with exhaustion.
"And to think, the classroom once brought shivers to my bones. Had I foreseen the insurmountable task of reining in the two of you, I'd have sooner kept my post instructing at the Academy." Zhara shook her head. "What am I going to do with you lot?"
“We was just tryin’ to ‘elp,” Ahmelia said, more declaration than peace-offering.
“Is that what you call burning Ghol Lamen to the ground?” With thumb and forefinger, Zhara removed her spectacles and set them atop a stack of dusty tomes. She pinched her narrow nose, the golden skin whitening briefly under the pressure. “How many times have we been here, hm? I mean, Arkaenus be—I see the two of you more than my own children.” A humorless chuckle slipped from her lips. “Now, the High Judiciaries are levying inquiries at me, curious how I allowed such brazen actions to be committed by klaerics under my command.”
“We saved people!” Ahmelia argued.
“You spearheaded an unsanctioned sortie that resulted in several hundred Lamenites being displaced throughout the Frontier,” countered Zhara.
“They would’a died,” protested Ahmelia. “You weren’t there—you can’t say what was right.”
Vekka pivoted, aghast at the audacity. “Ahmelia—!”
The klaeric stamped her foot. “I wun be squallyboxed when I know!”
Zhara shook her head, almost sympathetic. “Ahmelia, we’ve been over this. The rules are very clear…”
“Piss on the rules.” Ahmelia spat on the floor. “Rules dun make right, Zhara—and you dun either.”
Judicator Zhara palmed her desk with such force that the stack of tomes threatened to collapse. “Klaeric Valunkroft, I advise you hold your tongue!”
Vekka flinched. She hadn’t thought the woman capable of such displays of emotion, but the fury that spewed forth was enough to silence even Ahmelia; she shrank away from the enraged Judicator, a blaze swirling into her pearly blue skin.
After a moment’s breath, Zhara’s composure returned. “You are far out of line. And I am far out of patience with your rampant insubordination.”
Vekka looked to her Oath-Sister: she looked fit to cry, her face puffy and flushed. Vekka’s heart twisted in her chest, and her gut bubbled in that peculiar way, as if summoned into action by one of Ahmelia’s invocations: it compelled her to speak, though she would have preferred silence. A reckoning was long overdue for Ahmelia and her brash actions—actions, Vekka reminded herself, that always burned both of them.
Tell Judicator Zhara what happened. Tell her how you tried to stop Ahmelia, how she disappeared from the barracks and you went in search of her. Let her know none of this was your idea, and that Ahmelia acted independently of your wishes!
Vekka sighed inwardly. She never could leave Ahmelia out to dry before.
Now would be no exception.
“Whatever your punishment, Judicator Zhara, I beg you: let me shoulder it, and spare my Oath-Sister. Leaving the barracks was my idea.”
Vekka caught Ahmelia in her peripheral, locked between a state of bewilderment and gratitude that threatened to melt her heart.
Zhara’s eyes hardened, and her lips pursed together in a way that suggested a lack of amusement. Sweat beaded on Vekka’s forehead, and she resisted the urge to wipe it away.
“Klaeric Valunkroft, wait outside.”
Ahmelia’s eyes widened. “But—”
Ahmelia shuffled out of the room.
Judicator Zhara stood up from her desk. There weren’t many to equal Vekka’s height but the Judicator earned a few precious inches over her, enough to undercut the confidence it usually afforded her.
A wry smile rankled Zhara’s soft features. “Do you think me an imbecile, Klaeric Moonswath?”
Vekka forced herself to hold Zhara’s gaze. “No, Judicator.”
“Then why risk my anger with this charade?”
Vekka saw the chance Zhara was offering. She shook her head. “It is no charade.”
Viper-thin eyebrows arched high above her sun-dewed brow. “Why should I believe you? Your record here is impeccable. A top graduate of Rullenroot. High commendations from instructors and peers alike. In fact, the only questionable act you’ve ever taken was choosing Ahmelia as your Oath-Sister.” Zhara switched gears suddenly. Anger became inquisition. Her fingers drummed against her desk. “Why did you choose Ahmelia? The two of you were never particularly close at the Academy.”
“The Belfrost campaign changed that,” Vekka replied.
Zhara shrugged. “That horrid purge changed everyone involved. Yet, you could have chosen anyone else from that expedition. Plenty of experienced soldiers marched that road. Men and women of your caliber.”
My caliber? Vekka seethed. “With all due respect, Judicator Zhara, the oaths were mine to take.” She had to stop from biting off her words. “Ahmelia Valunkroft is a Binder without equal. Furthermore, she is passionate. She believes, in herself and others, regardless of contrary opinion. I adore her deeply—for it,” she hurried to add.
There was silence. Something unreadable flickered in Zhara’s eyes, there and gone. Then: “And do you think she would echo your praises? Your… adoration?”
Vekka opened her mouth to speak, but the words died in her throat. She had never considered such a question—she couldn’t.
Zhara nodded, a simple act that belied the depths of her understanding. Vekka felt terribly known in that moment, and it chilled her; her heart threatened to stop. It was practically a blessing when Ahmelia was called back in and Zhara delivered their sentence.
“I’m putting the both of you on leave, effective immediately. You will not be permitted on barrack grounds until I deem it acceptable.” Zhara shot down Ahmelia’s burgeoning protests with a withering look. “Be thankful for your Oath-Sister: it is by the strength of her reputation alone that I am not cowing to the requests from the High Judiciaries for graver punishments.”
She picked up the scroll she’d been reading earlier—official documentation of their reprimand— and demanded their signatures. It took some persuasion and more threats before Ahmelia finally scribbled down hers. Her hands were shaking.
“But where am I gonna go?” Ahmelia blubbered. “I dun have nowhere else!”
“You should have considered that beforehand,” Zhara said, though not unkindly.
“It will be all right, Ahmelia.” Vekka moved to comfort her, but the Binder turned and fled the room. A stone lodged itself in her chest, rough and sour: there was only one place for them to go, really. They hadn’t the coin to lodge elsewhere.
She hadn’t planned on returning. Not yet.
There’s no choice.
Resigned, Vekka bowed. She was halfway through the door, thoughts mired in the letter she would write her parents, when Zhara spoke again.
“A word, Klaeric Moonswath.”
Vekka turned. “Judicator?”
The barracks commander fixed her with a critical stare.
“Passion illuminates, but it can blind, too.”
Again, that sense of being known, like fingers on an exposed nerve. Vekka lashed out, wounded. “Ahmelia means well.”
“Aye.” Zhara frowned. “She’s a bright spark, I’ll give her that. But, a spark can quickly become a flame; the flame, an inferno. Uncontrollable. And we are naught but kindling in the path of such an all-consuming force. Something to remember.”
Then she turned back to her papers, and Vekka was dismissed.
Zhara’s warning came to her now, an unwelcome companion in the lonesome dark of the hall.
Vekka tried to ignore it, yet was unable to disabuse herself of its presence. The anger she’d felt at the judicator’s accusation returned: that she was blinded by this feeling, this adoration of her Oath-Sister—and to imply that such a passion could be harmful—incensed her.
Are we not made as the Creator willed?
It was the question she’d grappled with since she first began to understand who she really was, beneath the obligations of faith and family. Her time at Rullenroot had revealed to her a realm of possibilities never considered. One where a strange, blue-skinned girl would illuminate the path ahead with the fires of her faith.
Ahmelia was undeterred. Unafraid. Connected to the Creator in a way Vekka’s parents’ belief would not allow, no matter the measure of their generosity.
Vilanic Arkaenism: their faith was the wall that enclosed—a symbol of strength for the community and the convert; a warning to all others. The outsider was a threat, either to be avoided or, if the texts on the Vox-Arkaeni Vilana were true, annihilated. Even the more open variants practiced by most Arkaenites could be viewed as insular, despite the intentions of the Resonants’ missions.
Not Ahmelia’s. Her belief was not some sub-sect to be codified within their history; it required no confirmation nor official categorization. This was spiritualism at its purest: Arkaenism as Gregorin Himself had intended, so Vekka believed. Pure, harmonious with the world around it and all its peoples. Prepared to defend but always willing to accept.
And how badly Vekka yearned to be accepted.
Again, she reached for the door. Her hand wavered, fingertips making hesitant passes at the smudges. She swallowed in a throat gone dry; her chest burned.
All she had to do was step inside and be heard. No more weight. No more obligation. No longer broken. She would be reborn. Rebuilt.
Tears slid down her face. The candle wavered; she trembled, the cold heat roaring behind her ribs turning to lead, where it dropped into her guts. The weight of it nearly dragged her to her knees.
Generations of Moonswaths scowled from their wood-wrought frames along the walls. She imagined her parents among them. Zhara too.
We are naught but kindling…
“Please.” Vekka’s voice shook. “Let me be free.”
The cold brass beckoned. Beyond, Ahmelia waited: a brilliant spark, burning in the darkness.
If only she would step inside, and be consumed.