Rosaline smiled as she removed her gloves. Most of her life had been relatively calm and predictable, and she had grown to believe that it should stay that way. However, having gotten to leave three times in the last year, the druid was finding that leaving wasn’t quite as uncomfortable as she had remembered it on previous occasions.
Perhaps I am seeing things differently because of Ignacio. He is more talkative and engaged with me when we go out. No one else has ever treated me like that. Then again, everyone else is so much older than I am that they may view me as a child as well. The idea that she and Ignacio had something in common had never struck her before, but Rosaline found that the idea was not distasteful.
She snuck a look at the two assassins as they talked about something that had happened a few months ago. Orion looked as pleasant as ever, his perfect facial features reminding her very much of her father. At least with the druids, Orion always seemed more like a father figure than an assassin. Rosaline herself had certainly looked at him that way after her own father had died. He appeared to have a particularly proud look in his eye as he watched Ignacio, though.
Ignacio was nothing like the other assassins, at least not when he was visiting. He was lively and his emotions did not seem to be calculated, but more genuine. The way he treated everyone was far less flirtatious or muted, and when he was around, Rosaline felt that the world took on a slightly different appearance. Of course, he was considerably younger than her, too. She might be one of the youngest druids, but he was the youngest assassin—and given his age, he really should have still been in training. But Rosaline had seen him, had monitored him as he progressed through the training, and no one could disagree that his skills and assessments were anything less than masterful. When he was away for long stretches of time, she began to forget about the more endearing side of him because he was a completely different creature when passing judgment. Then he would come home, and she would find herself looking for him to experience more of his unique perspective. She had expected being an assassin to change him—it had changed so many others, she had heard. But at least when he was here, Rosaline could still see the same young cub who was eager to experience life.
And a small part of her was jealous.
Rosaline realized that she was staring at Ignacio as a cold voice called out to them. “Orion. Ignacio. Glad to see you made it back alright. I hear it didn’t go quite as smoothly as expected.” The voice did not convey the emotions it claimed to feel, but no one expected Darius to express any emotions. He was there, somewhere, in the shadows where no one else could see him, not without the ability to see into the darkness.
With a smile, Rosaline turned to head to her chambers. For someone who almost never left, Darius managed to know almost as much about what occurred in the outside world as the most accomplished assassins. She had no idea how he knew, though. No one expected an assassin to be an open book, but Darius was more like a bound and locked book. Rosaline had never seen him before, and didn't know many people who had. For an assassin, he was incredibly unusual. All of the rest of them were more than happy to go out and complete tasks, and they tended to be the center of attention with their lively personalities. Darius was something else entirely. Still, his presence in their home made everyone feel more at ease. The idea of him leaving would probably make a lot of the druids revolt.
Rosaline couldn’t help but laugh a little at the idea because it was so outrageous.
“Rosaline,” a voice called out from behind her.
She turned, her expression changing from one of amusement to one of surprise. “Yes, Ignacio?”
“You did great out there. I dare say you didn’t need us at all.”
Orion’s eyebrows went up and his eyes shifted to a corner of the room, no doubt where Darius was. Rosaline gave them a couple of seconds to respond before she said, “Of course I needed you for that trip.” Her smile widened, “It seems strange that you wouldn't notice that I got lost anytime I was left alone for a few seconds.”
Ignacio’s smile slipped a little, “That was totally my fault. I shouldn’t have left you.”
Orion stepped between them, “Just say thank you, Ignacio.” His eyes were on his strange weapon as he cleaned it.
The cold voice from the shadows spoke up, “Very kind of you to say, Rosaline, but your attempts are pointless at the moment. If you will please excuse us.”
The sound of footsteps walking away was the only indication that he was leaving—and Rosaline knew that Darius was intentionally allowing his footsteps to echo to indicate his departure. No assassin was as undetectable in the place as he was, so anytime he could be heard, it was because he wanted to be heard. As Darius moved further away, Orion slid his weapon into a sheath on his back and followed, not once turning to look at her. Ignacio gave her a shy smile, “Thank you, Rosaline.” With that, he hurried after the other two assassins.
Rosaline smiled after them, “It was my pleasure.” With a quick intake of breath, she was about to head toward her chambers when something about the encounter struck her as being wrong.
Why didn’t they just leave in the first place? Darius was going to talk about the mission until Ignacio called out to me. That seems odd.
Her beautiful brow creased into a few worry lines under her light arctic-blue hair. Rosaline brushed her bangs out of her face and pushed the strands behind her ear. She had her hair styled into a pixie cut, thinking that a change would be nice, but it had proven to be far more annoying than she had expected. At least with long hair, she could pull it out of her face with relative ease. Her long fingers scratched the back of her head as she pondered whether she should get back to work in her room or if she should give in to her curiosity. Being exposed to the outside world was definitely dangerous for someone like her. Rosaline was a priestess who had taken the vows that would prepare her for becoming a high priestess. Her mother had always pushed her in that direction, wanting her daughter to succeed where she had not. A part of Rosaline had always been apprehensive about the idea—it had been her mother’s dream, not her own. Her mother had lacked the intellect and talent to accomplish anything more than the priestess role, so she had desperately wanted her daughter to attain the level of a high priestess. There was certainly a need for new blood among the high priestesses. Rosaline had loved her mother, but the idea of reaching the upper echelons had never really appealed to her. Everyone else seemed to think it was perfect for her, though. By the time she had matured, no one had shown any interest in her at all as a material creature, not even Caspian, which had stung. Not that she would admit it.
Rosaline could still remember the discussion she had with the assassin when she was less certain of her path. She had pulled him aside a few months before she was to take her vows, perhaps hoping that he would talk her out of it. Or maybe he would show her another way.
“Caspian, do you think that I… will become a high priestess?” The doubts raged in her mind as Rosaline looked into the eyes of the famous assassin. She had heard how he never missed an opportunity to explore a woman who presented herself so willingly.
His startling green eyes had not even flinched as she looked down, and he placed his hands on her shoulders and murmured, “I could not imagine a better path for you.”
She could not see any desire in his eyes or any doubt about what he was saying. Any tension or hope that the encounter might turn into something more were dashed, and she looked down at the ground, not wanting him to see how unhappy those words made her.
His voice was gentle as he asked, “Was that not the right thing to say?”
Her head shot up, the smile firmly fixed on her face, the smile that had gotten her through so much. “Of course it was. It was exactly what I should have expected you to say. Thank you, Caspian.” She picked his hands up from her shoulders and pushed them back to his chest. “Probably best not to have you touching me. As slim as the chance may be, someone could get the wrong idea. Wish me luck.” With that, she turned and quickly walked away.
“I wish you the best, Rosaline. May it bring you the happiness you seek.” Caspian’s voice sounded a little off, but Rosaline wasn’t going to turn and look. This was her path, everyone seemed to believe it. Caspian had seduced almost every other druid she had known, slept with nearly every magic-using mark he met, and flirted with everyone else.
Clearly there is something lacking in me. No one can look at me and see anything but a high priestess who gives herself to the needs of the many at the cost of herself. There is something wrong with me that I don’t see it. It doesn’t matter if I have doubts, no one else does. I need to set the doubts aside and work toward the goals I’m given.
Rosaline never cursed the path that she had walked, she just never felt the calling the way her mother had. Was following through with someone else’s dream enough? The last time she had seen her mother was the day Rosaline had taken her vows. Since then, access to her was restricted, and only the druids who were in either political or spiritual power could talk with her. Rosaline had missed her mother, but not as much as she had expected. What bothered Rosaline was the lingering doubt.
Could adding someone so full of uncertainty help establish the balance that was needed? Several of the high priestesses were too old to continue—they should have faded long ago. There just weren’t enough women to replace them. No one else had been willing and qualified in a long time. Rosaline was one of the few in the last 500 years who had shown promise of making it beyond being a priestess, so it seemed like the logical thing to do. But she was so much younger than the others, and she had far less life experience, having been prepared for the path almost since she had shown a superior intellect and unique abilities.
Standing in the hall and listening to the silence after the assassins had left, Rosaline couldn’t stop herself from questioning where her life was headed. But does that make it the right thing? Do I actually want to spend my life that way? Locked in a room forever keeping the balance? I am not certain that my actions were even right for this mission. At some point I was not even in control of myself. Could that possibly be good for a high priestess? To know that she cannot always control herself?
Over the years that uncertainty had been far less pronounced, but it was still there in the back of her mind. As she stood there, considering how Darius had taken the other two assassins away in such a bizarre manner, Rosaline found herself unable to stave off her own curiosity. Looking in the direction of her chamber, she shook her head, then quickly moved in the opposite direction.
Rosaline held her head up, ensuring that she looked like she was going somewhere with a purpose. To her relief, the assassins had gone into a small courtyard area for guests near a reading room. Picking a book up from the shelf, she sat down in a chair near the window so that she could hear what they were saying.
“Look, Ignacio, you have been doing more than just what was required, but I am not certain that going to Ishtar is a good idea. That would be dangerous even for Orion to do right now.” The voice was Darius’s, and his tone had emotion in it.
Uncertainty and concern. Can he feel emotions? Rosaline found herself analyzing everything as her eyes skimmed over the page. She immediately pushed that idea to the back of her mind because there was something far more important going on outside the walls.
“I’m not sure that it is a good time for you to be heading to that country. Even you must be aware of what is happening in Ishtar now.” Orion spoke next, and there was no doubt from the way that he spoke that he had expected something like this.
“Of course I have heard. No matter how much you try to keep me in the dark, I am aware of what is happening in Ishtar.”
“I don’t think you are aware.” Darius sounded more like himself, and his reply was almost biting. Rosaline smiled. It was a good thing that Darius was there—he would never let Ignacio go to Ishtar. The idea of anyone going into that gods forsaken country was monstrous. Ever since the champions started to distance themselves from Ishtar, the druids and assassins had made a point to avoid the country as much as possible, with only the rare judgment being made for magic users who had gone too far. That had proven to be even more distressing as it quickly became obvious that the majority of the seers over the last few years were either being influenced by the Unwashed or were completely under their control.
Nearly everyone in Marlyon knew that the Unwashed had taken it over. Not Ignacio, though. He would be completely unprepared, and at his age, it could have cost him his life. As the only new assassin in several hundred years, he wasn’t someone that they could afford to lose.
“I am neither a child nor a fool, Darius. Everyone may be keeping secrets about what is going on, but I no longer have to rely on druids or assassins for information.”
Rosaline was startled by a familiar, surprisingly contagious laugh. Once he was able to speak, Orion said, “I seriously doubt anyone would take you for a fool, Ignacio. Just a little naïve.” The druid felt her stomach drop as she realized that the conversation was not going to go the way she had believed. Darius may be present, but even his opinion would be swayed if Orion thought that Ignacio could handle himself in Ishtar. After all, Orion had been Ignacio’s primary mentor, and whatever he decided would be taken as the best assessment of Ignacio’s abilities. “As long as you promise to exercise as much caution as you did on this last trip, I see no reason you shouldn’t be allowed to go to Ishtar.”
Rosaline fought the urge to stand up and argue with them. Darius was her last hope, but she didn’t hold out much now.
A few seconds of silence met Orion’s words, but it went exactly as she had expected. Darius sounded almost indifferent as he responded, “If Orion thinks you will be alright, then I see no reason to keep you here longer. As long as you are back within…”
Rosaline tuned out of the conversation as her mind began to reel from the news. Ignacio was beginning to be treated more like a full-fledged assassin. Well, he was. But the idea of him being in the kind of danger that had already taken so many lives almost terrified her. He was too young. Too inexperienced. Before Ignacio, Orion had been the best pupil the assassins had ever had, and he was almost twice Ignacio’s age when he was allowed to leave on his own without directives.
Suddenly Rosaline was brought back into the present when she heard something like a chuckle from Darius, a sound that was as beautiful as it seemed improbable. “I understand, Ignacio. Dulce has always been important to you. Orion, I believe you have heard the latest on her current position—”
“As have you, Darius.”
“Of course, but you can actually take him part of the way there. Give him some guidance, then make sure he remembers that he isn’t to go doing anything reckless while he is visiting the illustrious, crumbling dystopia.”
Ignacio cut in, “I am standing right here and can hear every word you guys are saying.”
Whatever else Ignacio said was muffled as Orion replied to Darius, “I will make sure to remind him of his training, but you know as well as I that there is nothing that can be done for the heart. We are both all too aware why he is going to Dulce, and I think that it will be for the best. I know that all of the champions are concerned about her, but the fact that they haven’t done anything suggests that perhaps they need some outside motivation. The lad is quite right to be concerned, but he doesn’t even know why. It goes to show just how good his instincts are.”
Orion must have released Ignacio as the young assassin asked, “What are you talking about? What has happened to her? What aren’t you guys telling me?”
Darius spoke over him, “I agree, it will certainly be for the best if he were to convince her somehow that she needs to get out of there, even if it means doing something foolish. Just not lethally foolish.”
“Hey!” Ignacio sounded offended, but neither of the assassins paid him any attention.
Rosaline was shocked at how humorous both of the experienced assassins were being. Going to Ishtar was basically a death sentence for a magic user, and they were picking on Ignacio about it. But why is he concerned about someone in Ishtar? I don’t remember him killing anyone there. She snapped back to the present as the older assassins talked.
“By the way, Orion,” Darius continued, “I believe that some of the priestesses were looking for you. Not only because they wanted your report, either.”
There was a loud sigh that Rosaline recognized. The priestesses were always so inquisitive when it came to missions, and the assassins avoided them as much as possible. They weren’t required to talk to the priestesses, but they rarely refused when asked. The priestesses tended to disapprove of the way assassins conducted themselves, and assassins tended to be very dismissive of the way priestesses thought. Both sides understood that the other was necessary, but that didn’t mean they had to like each other. Darius was the only assassin that talked to them on a regular basis, but he didn’t seem to mind, as far as Rosaline could tell. He just didn’t present himself the way others did, always sticking to the shadows and meeting only those who required his attention. Rosaline couldn’t help but feel sorry for Orion, though, as his relationship with them was a bit more strained than most.
Orion’s voice skillfully masked the emotions he had just expressed, though. “I will make sure to talk with them, although honestly I think my account will pale in comparison to Rosaline’s. She was there for everything. She was the one who took down the majority of the Unwashed and freed the captive magic users. Her abilities are really far beyond what even I had expected. It’s a shame that she has chosen the—”
“Orion.” Darius’s voice cut him off before Orion could finish that thought. “You forget your place.”
“Wrong, Darius. I know exactly what my place is, and I still believe that I am right about what is going on there. If something isn’t done soon…” his voice trailed off.
Rosaline stared at her book, not even trying to look like she was reading anymore. She had never been very close to any of the assassins; high priestesses never dealt with them. On those rare occasions where she was able to talk with them, most assassins had seemed to view her as a high priestess, talking only as much as was required. Darius, Orion, and Ignacio seemed to be the only exceptions, and now she was about to lose two of them to missions so soon after returning. A part of her wanted to go back out into the world too, but that was not something she would acknowledge, let alone say out loud.
Most of her life had been so sheltered, the confines of a large residence being almost her entire world. Her magic had been explored, but never mastered because high priestesses used their magic differently. Then a few years ago she had been asked to undertake a mission because she was the only one who could prevent a mystic being found in Sumaria. Orion and Seneca had been sent with her as support. When they had reached their destination, it was too late to save the humans. The girl’s fathers had died, but that did not mean that attention would have to be brought to the girl. The killers planned to go to the home of the apothecaries and steal what they could. If the timeline remained as it was, the young girl would be found out as a mystic and would become a prisoner of the Unwashed. At the time, Rosaline had no idea what that would mean, but she did not like the idea of a young magic user being a prisoner to humans, even if the magic user was a mystic. Unable to save the humans, Rosaline ensured that the manner of death that the men had brought on the mystic’s fathers would be tied to their own fates. Druids and assassins were almost exact opposites, with druids working with life, and assassins with death. But Rosaline was able to tie life and death together. The druids and assassins decided that simply judging the bandits was not enough—humans needed to be reminded that this was the wrong path. Rosaline’s magic worked in a way that reflected the horrific nature of their crimes back on themselves, creating a warning to other humans not to follow the same path. Someone had once called it karma magic, but she had never been told what that meant.
Nor did Rosaline have any idea what had become of the girl afterward, but the men who had caused her pain had died in ways designed to make them regret what they had done. It was something that humans who knew them would talk about for generations. The deaths of the bandits would serve as an unforgettable lesson, and it gave Rosaline a sense of satisfaction that she knew she would never get from being a high priestess.
The point isn’t about my personal glory but rather what is best for everyone. I don’t have to understand it now for it to be the right path.
The words were like a mantra that she had become accustomed to thinking whenever doubt crept into her mind. This time was different, though. The doubt was not just her own. It was coming from one of the most well-respected assassins who had ever lived. A shifter whose life had been extended as far into the future as was possible. Only one other assassin had been given that gift, though he had learned to view it as a curse.
By the time Rosaline was done reflecting, she became aware that the assassins were no longer nearby and the sky had begun to get dark. Realizing that she should have already reported to the druids, Rosaline quickly stood up and strode out of the room.
Almost colliding with a shadow, she gasped and placed a hand on her chest to steady her heart.
A familiar face appeared out of the shadows, the concern obvious in his eyes. “I am so sorry, Rosaline. I didn’t realize anyone was in there.” Ignacio’s voice was much softer than when he had been talking with his brethren.
“Oh, I just, um…” She remembered that she had been eavesdropping and knew that she couldn’t say that was why she had entered the room. Hoping that enough time had passed so that it didn’t appear suspicious, she held up the book she had taken from the shelf, “I just needed to get a book to illustrate some of what I did to the Unwashed. A kind of, um, life loop where they will either learn from their mistakes or die.”
“You can do that?” His eyes were wide, and for a moment she feared that he was about to ask her a lot more questions that she would not want to answer. The memories were far too fresh and the horror on the men’s faces too clear.
“Not to all of them, just the ones who didn’t die in the initial time push.”
Ignacio gave a small laugh and tilted his head to the side. Running his hands through his luscious-looking hair, he bit his lip. “I still have so much to learn about druids. Although, I guess what you do isn’t, um, it’s not exactly… normal?”
“Well, it’s just—” She could feel a blush on her face. It was something she had heard so many times in her life, and so many people had been unsure how to react to what she could do. The looks on the men’s faces as they had been sealed in the time loop was enough to remind her just how terrible her powers were.
She felt a warm hand on hers, and Rosaline realized that she had been picking at her lip, a nervous habit that she had. “I think it is really amazing, but I’m sure you hear that a lot, too.” Ignacio’s eyes were such a lovely shade of green. As Rosaline looked into them she forgot about how ashamed she was of what she could do and listened to him. He pulled a black cloth from his pocket and dabbed her lip. When he pulled it away, he looked at it, then looked at her. “Are you nervous about talking to the priestesses?”
“What? Why would I be nervous?” She looked at him, wondering if he had read her thoughts.
“From the sound of it, the memories have left you unsettled. Your demeanor may not give much away, but blood doesn’t lie.” He gave her a meek smile and held up the cloth. There was a little bit of silver on the cloth, and Rosaline knew that it was her blood.
“Oh, um,” she gave a small nod, “yes, I am a little nervous. That was a first for me, and I guess I’m still a little…” Her voice trailed off.
“A little in shock?” he asked.
She looked down and nodded again.
His grip on her hand changed. “Come on. Why don’t you practice what you are going to say on me? That way you will be a little more relaxed later.”
Without another word, he gently pulled her down the hall and outside.