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Of The Blood [Closed]

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#1
[[OOC: 18th Wintermarch, 9:36, late morning]] Bernie

During the journey to and from Orzammar, Sofia had determined that she was going to acclimatise to Ferelden’s weather. She had finally accepted that this was not going to happen, but she was still taken aback by how bitter it was this morning. If it hadn’t been for the necessity to restock a few of the herbs it was impossible to cultivate herself at this time of year, she would have spent a happy afternoon in the compound library, brushing up on her theory of magical healing while sipping at a warmed glass of wine.

Instead she was wrapped in as many layers as she was capable of wearing at once, her hood pulled up against the biting wind, and she was still cold. She would go about this quickly and then run back to the compound - or at least that was the idea. The streets nearest her favourite apothecary were jammed with people, fighting to get around a cart that had broken an axel after the wheels had got caught in thick mud. She also had Roland on her tail as her companion, and while he was a sweet-natured man he was also not good at negotiating his way through crowds. Twice already she’d heard him call her name and looked back to find him some way behind, and had suffered curses as she had to wait for him and blocked other peoples’ path. Nobody dared shove, though. Even under all her furs, the Warden uniform was unmistakeable.

Then to add insult to injury, the apothecary was closed, and they had to trail halfway across the market district to another one. At least she found what she was looking for there, but on the way back, Roland disappeared into the crowd again. Sofia tried standing on her toes, looking for him, but almost every man in the area was either sporting the same rain-frizzed hair or a hat, and she wasn’t quite tall enough to get a good view. It would be impossible to find him here; better to return to the main square and try and spot him there, or make a quick return to the compound.

To ease her passage, Sofia decided to take a risk and ducked down a side street, not congested with shoppers. The first part of her plan worked beautifully and she would only have to spend a few seconds walking as opposed to minutes fighting her way through the press of bodies. The second - to move quickly before any trouble occurred - did not, and before she took five steps, she heard the sound of clanking armour.

“Halt, mage.”

Sofia turned. The templar was a tall one, manner officious, but there was a cold gleam in his eye that she didn’t like at all. Nonetheless she fell back on her usual response, which was cheerful compliance. “Ah, Ser Templar! The weather is truly horrible today, yes? Apologies for my lack of a companion - I lost him in the crowd. Perhaps you could escort me back to the market square and we could try to find him together?”

“I’m not falling for your wiles.” He stepped closer; his sword had already been drawn before he spoke to her, which suggested he wanted this to turn ugly. “The Warden name only protects you when you follow the rules, and you broke them by going unaccompanied.”

That was a patent lie. The companions rule had been set by Nathaniel, to avoid this very sort of situation. Sofia hid gritted teeth behind a smile. “I think you’ve been misinformed, ser. Wardens are free to go as they please, mage or no; we just chose not to, for the public’s peace of mind.”

“I don’t care if you’re a Warden or not.” The templar’s lips had drawn back from his teeth in an ugly sneer. “Your fancy title can’t protect you here. You’re an apostate, and our rules are pretty clear on what we do with apostates.”

“You give them the chance to surrender peacefully, take them to the Chantry to report them to the local Captain, and then things proceed in a diplomatic fashion from there.”

“Well, yes.” That he’d conceded the point offered Sofia no comfort. “But you already touched your staff.” She’d reached for it on reflex when she knew she wasn’t alone; she’d let go since. “So I can assume you planned to attack me.”

He raised his sword and Sofia felt the pull of mana; she’d suspected that he would turn nasty, she just had hoped it wouldn’t happen quite so fast. On instinct, she summoned a rock from the Fade and shot it in his direction - hopefully the Commander would forgive her for this later - and it hit his midsection, but not before the smite hit her. There was little way to prepare for it, and her knees sagged; she gripped the staff, trying to stay upright as the cursing templar scrambled to his feet. “I’m going to put you in the dirt, mage bitch!”
 

Bernie

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#2
Much of the last ten years had been spent in developing a wide network of informants in and around Denerim. Very little went on in Ferelden’s capitol that Bernie was not at least aware of, but her primary focus was on matters that might affect the Mages’ Collective and the apostates that she sheltered and aided. Consequently, the Chantry received a great deal of attention, and on most days, she could find out what Grand Cleric Elemena had eaten for breakfast, if she were interested.

Most days, she wasn’t.

She was far more interested in the activities and intentions of the templars: any rumors or reports they planned to investigate, patrol schedules and the like. The templars paid little attention to the ones who cleaned their rooms and served their food … and Bernie paid them quite well, though none of them knew where the information they passed on ended up. Only that it would not be used to hurt any templars.

That agreement might end up being broken today.

Word that one or more templars were looking to catch a Warden mage alone had been enough to have her on alert these last few days. She’d heard that the Wardens who had gone to Orzammar had returned, but Sofia had not yet dropped by the Flagon, no doubt reluctant to get too far from a roaring fireplace. But Bernie saw her now, the Warden blues standing out among the crowds that thronged the marketplace, stretching up and peering around with visible impatience.

Where was her escort, damn it? Bernie spotted the brawny young man - Roland - at the head of the block. He was a sweet fellow, and quite dedicated to his duty, so it was unlikely that the separation was due to any shirking on his part; he tended to be reluctant to use his size to his advantage out of combat, so he’d probably been cut off by the bustling shoppers who felt no such compunctions against rudeness. Nevertheless, Sofia plainly could not see him, and after a moment, she turned and made her way into a street that had little to recommend it to shoppers … more of an alley than anything, with no storefronts or homes, only empty crates and barrels stacked beside buildings and warehouses, waiting to be picked up for re-use and often borrowed as temporary shelter for street children and drunks.

A moment later, Bernie saw the templar: a particularly disagreeable specimen named Ser Lorath. He’d quite plainly been shadowing Sofia, waiting for his chance, and despite his armor, he slipped through the crowd with the oily grace of a hunting cat and entered the narrow street on the Warden’s heels.

Tucking the basket containing her morning’s purchases more tightly into the crook of one arm, Bernie wove swiftly through the crowd, soothing any ruffled feathers with a smile and a murmur of apology. She was an accustomed sight in the marketplace, and a friendly one; no one would think it odd that she was here, but rudeness and visible agitation would stand out, be remembered.

She reached the alley, ducked into its shadows, nearly too late. Sofia leaned heavily upon her staff, the power of the smiting still simmering in the air, while Lorath climbed back to his feet with his sword drawn and murder in his eyes.

“I’m going to put you in the dirt, mage bitch!” he promised, his voice too low to carry to the river of humanity that flowed barely half a block away. Even if they saw, they would not interfere, conditioned by the Chantry to obey without question.

The stiletto concealed in the folds of Bernie’s skirt would punch through the armor like a hot knife through butter; the poison on the smaller blade strapped to her arm needed only the smallest cut to kill, but a dead templar would draw too much attention.

Beneath her cloak, she flipped back the stone on the ring that she wore on her right hand, baring the tiny blade concealed by the engraved lapiz. A deft motion pricked the heel of her left hand, releasing a few drops of blood … all that she needed. Ser Lorath felt the surge of power too late; he stiffened, his eyes going wide and his sword dropping from suddenly nerveless fingers as she plunged herself into his mind with practiced efficiency.

She was not gentle.

Speed was of the essence, to conclude this magic before another templar came close enough to sense it. His intentions were writ large in his thoughts: he had fully intended to kill Sofia, claiming that she had attacked him. Wrapping fingers of her will around this and all other recent memories, she ripped them out as though uprooting a noxious weed. His mouth opened in a rictus of fear and agony, but no sound emerged.

Killhimkillhimkillhim.

Demons, drawn as always by the magic, whispered their seductive croon to the rage that simmered in her blood. It would be easy. She could make him fall on his own sword, climb to the top of Fort Drakon and jump, or simply slit his throat where he stood. With a bit more time, she could set up an echo of terror in his thoughts that would have him committing suicide within a week’s time. And she would do any of it without regret.

But the risks of demons had been drilled into her by Cosima from her earliest lessons: the power they offered always came with a price that would be too high, sooner or later. She had resisted them as they had swirled around her in the carnage of her family home, resisted them in the months and years that it took for her to complete her revenge on the one who had sent the assassins, and she resisted them now. A sharp wrench of the grip that she held on Lorath's mind, and he dropped like a marionette whose strings had been severed. He’d be out for several hours, and when he woke, would have no memories of the last few days. There was an off chance that he would awaken a drooling idiot who would have to wear diapers for the rest of his life, but that did not trouble her overly much.

All of this was done in the space of half a dozen heartbeats, and she stepped briskly over his limp form, bending to return his sword to its sheath and bestow her final gift: a tiny pouch of refined lyrium powder that she tucked into the purse on his belt. A shame to waste the precious stuff on the likes of him, but once it was found on his person, his credibility would be all but destroyed, the lapse in his memory chalked up to lyrium abuse. He would be punished, likely deprived of his regular lyrium ration, and would be too busy for a good long while to think about hunting Grey Warden mages.

She straightened, her blue eyes seeking out Sofia’s, the stamp of their respective mothers achingly clear, if one knew what they were looking at. “Come with me,” she instructed the Warden. “We need to talk.” Stepping away from the fallen templar, she led the way out of the narrow street and back to the Flagon. Not downstairs … that secret was not one she would reveal just yet. Upstairs instead, into one of the vacant rooms, closing the door behind them before she spoke to Sofia again. “Are you all right?”
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#3
Maker, give me strength.

The sentence was one Sofia had usually heard uttered in exasperation, over some trivial strain on the nerves. Now it formed a genuine prayer as she used her staff to keep her on her feet. The Maker had not abandoned her yet, although His miracles usually came with a price. She just needed a few more seconds to shake off the weight in her bones and then she could strike. Nothing lethal, just a glyph, to hold him in place while she made her escape. Justice would have to follow after.

Except it was taking longer to gather her will than she hoped, and cold dread filled her heart as the templar prowled towards her.

Then he stopped. His eyes widened, and Sofia felt another stir of the Fade - almost gentle, but powerful nonetheless. His sword dropped to the ground, his face contorted in pain, and then he collapsed, revealing a woman standing behind him. Bernie.

Sofia gained enough strength to step back, and grasped her staff, steeling her mind against assault. The templar had been caught off guard but if the tavern owner tried anything against her, she would find her a much harder target. But Bernie made no move to erase Sofia as a witness - instead, she planted something on the unconscious templar, before speaking.

“Come with me. We need to talk.”

There was no doubt what Bernie had done to the templar, and Sofia hesitated to follow. Blood magic was one of the greatest perversions in Thedas, and practitioners of it were far more open to demonic temptation than most. But if she fought Bernie here, they were close enough to the street that innocents might get involved - or more templars, who on seeing one of their own in the dirt would be unlikely to make the distinction between the one who had put him down and the one who hadn’t.

With that in mind, she needed to get away, and Bernie would know the best route to avoid being spotted. Praying she was not being drawn into a trap, Sofia followed the other woman. Maker, is this your plan? Did you send her to save me?

They reached the Flagon without incident, and Bernie led her up to one of the bedrooms. Only when the door was closed did she speak again. “Are you all right?”

Sofia didn’t answer, at first. She’d enjoyed visiting the Flagon a couple of times before going to Orzammar, and hadn’t had the time to do so since she was back, but she had thought she was getting to know Bernie reasonably well. All people had secrets, but she had staggeringly underestimated the other woman. Eventually, she nodded.

“He didn’t get the chance to hurt me badly.” Then, as though the words were being pulled from her, “Grazie.”

Bernie had gone to lengths to prevent them from being overheard; Sofia added a layer of security of her own, switching to Antivan. “You’re a blood mage. You knew what the likely outcome of saving me would be.” Any good Andrastean would have already fled in the direction of the nearest chantry, if they realised an associate was a maleficar. “Why did you do so?”


Sofia didn’t know what to think. Bernie could have just left her to the nonexistent mercies of the templar and, apart from losing a customer, her life wouldn’t have been impacted in any way. Neither did she appear to intend Sofia any harm. Sofia couldn’t fathom her purpose at all.
 

Bernie

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#4
Bernie knew the chance she was taking. Blood mages were feared and reviled throughout Thedas, except perhaps in Tevinter, and it was entirely possible that Sofia might react to having her life saved by one by heading straight for the Chantry to make a report. It was what a devout Andrastean would do, and she might think that it would reduce tensions between Wardens and templars, as well. Perhaps Bernie should have remained hidden, and had Sofia been any other Grey Warden mage, she likely would have.

But ever since Sofia’s first visit to the Flagon, when Bernie had realized who she was, the old yearnings that she had thought firmly under control had been trying to break free. Family was everything in Antiva, had been everything to her when she was a girl, and her cousins had been only slightly less important to her than her younger sisters; the families ate together at least once a week, often more frequently. She had set those ties aside in her shock after the slaughter of her parents and siblings, then consciously severed them in the all-important quest for revenge at all costs, and when she had left Antiva, she had fully expected that they would remain severed.

But her baby cousin was here, a mage and a Grey Warden, and the bits of information that Bernie had gleaned on Sofia’s visits to the tavern were not enough. She hungered for news of Zio Vincente and Zia Luci, her other cousins, even though she knew that such ties could be exploited by those who sought to manipulate her. The Crows, at least, were smart enough not to attempt it; they might kill her, but not before she had gone through their ranks like a reaper’s scythe. Far safer for them to keep her a willing ally. Others who sought to secure the services of Il Rossa might not be so wise, and while she would kill such fools without hesitation or regret, her family might still come to harm in the process. She would have to be careful, but that was a skill that she had learned well over the last quarter century.

Sofia’s surprised expression as the templar fell shifted to fear as she quickly deduced the reason, then back to bafflement as she caught sight of Bernie, but she did not scream or run, following in stunned silence as the older woman led the way back to the Flagon, not speaking until Bernie asked after her welfare, and then only after a long hesitation during which blue eyes searched her face warily.

“He didn’t get the chance to hurt me badly,” she replied at last, adding, with visible reluctance, “Grazie.”

“Prego,” Bernie replied with a sardonic twist to her lips, wondering if the Warden had really thought that she would bring her here to dispose of her.

“You’re a blood mage,” Sofia went on, continuing in Antivan. “You knew what the likely outcome of saving me would be.” Bernie simply waited, one eyebrow arched expectantly. “Why did you do so?”

She shrugged. “I’d run out of babes to devour, so it seemed as good a way to pass the time as any.” The syllables of her mother tongue were bittersweet on her lips, and she couldn’t quite keep the bitter part from her voice. She brushed past the younger woman and stepped to the window, staring out onto the street below, knowing that any one of the people passing by would be no less fearful. “Most of what the Chantry teaches of it is unadulterated bullshit,” she said bluntly without looking around. “I don’t consort with demons, and I seldom use any blood but my own.

“The Grey Wardens saved Ferelden from the Blight,” she went on. “Many would rather forget that debt; I choose to remember and honor it. I’d have done no less for any Grey Warden mage cornered by one of those bastards.” But she might have taken greater care to remain out of sight, were it another. One finger brushed pensively over the stone of the ring that she wore, feeling the intertwined letters graven into the smooth surface of the lapiz. Turning from the window, she met the eyes of the one who so resembled what Cara or Gina might have looked like, grown into a woman. She could let her reason stand as given, and it was true … but it wasn’t the whole of it by a long shot.

“As to why I let you see me -” She smiled faintly. “You were always fearless as a child, so curious about everything and wanting to see for yourself. I figured that hadn’t changed, and that you might want to hear my story before deciding to turn me in.”
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#5
Bernie’s initial response was as sardonic as any Sofia had heard from the innkeep before now, bitterness adding an icy undercurrent to the jest. Sofia didn’t smile in response. Maleficar eating babies was an old wives tale, even she knew that, but what they had been guilty of in the past was almost as abhorrent. Bernie argued that this was not so - in her own way. “Most of what the Chantry teaches of it is unadulterated bullshit. I don’t consort with demons, and I seldom use any blood but my own.”

Sofia’s mind hung on seldom, but already the first misgivings were entering her thoughts. Unless Bernie’s interests lay in being particularly cruel and she was currently toying with her as a cat played with the mouse under its paw, there was no reason for her to have come to Sofia’s aid. Bernie claimed her choice had been made out of respect for Sofia’s position.

“The Grey Wardens saved Ferelden from the Blight. Many would rather forget that debt; I choose to remember and honor it. I’d have done no less for any Grey Warden mage cornered by one of those bastards.”

That was...altruistic. And more than many would have done. Although she was still surprised that Bernie had revealed herself. Although it was known by some that the Grey Wardens did accept blood mages into their ranks on occasion. Perhaps the other woman had been counting on that. Although now she was giving Sofia a curious, searching look that also contained a faint shadow of pain. Sofia stared back, her guarded expression having given way to open puzzlement.

“As to why I let you see me…” A faint smile turned the corners of her lips up, and there was something familiar enough in it to give Sofia pause. “You were always fearless as a child, so curious about everything and wanting to see for yourself. I figured that hadn’t changed, and that you might want to hear my story before turning me in.”

Sofia had lost her breath almost before Bernie finished speaking, wondering how she hadn’t seen it before. How many red-headed, blue-eyed Antivans were there with so strong a familiar stamp on it? The answer was, of course, that she hadn’t thought to see her again, presuming her long since dead. Still, even though she realised immediately, her voice still came out as a question.

Cugina Bernadette?”

There was no doubt. Who else could it be? In a moment, Sofia’s misgivings fled almost entirely. For better or for worse, her nature allowed for a great deal of forgiveness, and in this instant she was delighted that her beloved cousin had survived. She stepped forward to grasp Bernie’s arms, beaming at her before pulling her into a hug. Then she stepped back, smile fading a little, but voice gentle. “Where in the Maker’s name did you go? I had word from my family that you had died.” Along with the others. Given what little Bernie had given away about her past before, it didn’t sound like the others had also escaped.
 

Bernie

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#6
As a child, Sofia had lived on the very outer surface of her skin, every thought and emotion visible as soon as it landed. Years spent in the Circle had made her more guarded by necessity, but Bernie could still see her suspicion giving way to puzzlement, then curiosity, disbelief and wondering amazement.

Cugina Bernadette?”

Sì. Bernie nodded, her throat unexpectedly tight. It had been more than a decade since she had heard that name from the lips of another; before that, only Cosima had called her by it, and then only when she wanted to ensure that she had her student’s full attention. The Crows had called her by a number of patronizing names: Ucellina, Bella, Carina, until she had earned the sobriquet of Il Rossa through her deeds. She had taken and discarded aliases by the dozen in the years before coming to Ferelden, her true name relegated to dim memory, the girl that it had belonged to as dead as the rest of her family.

Having Sofi here was stirring emotions to life that she had thought dead and gone, but even as a part of her mind was wondering if she had made a mistake, Sofia stepped close, catching her wrists and searching her face for a long moment before throwing arms around her in a crushing hug that she couldn’t help but return.

“Where in the Maker’s name did you go?” Sofia wanted to know as she drew back. “I had word from my family that you had died.”

Assassini. Hate added hard edges to the sibilance of the word. “Sent by a rival of Papa’s. They killed Papa, Mama, Gina, Cara -” Her tongue faltered on the names she had not spoken aloud in decades, catching on grief she had not allowed herself to feel before the cold fury that had sustained her provided an anchor. “I killed them all,” she stated flatly, “and then I left and became someone else.”

She regarded her cousin sadly. “Bernadette Diamante died with her family, Sofi,” she said softly. “My name is Bernie Il Rossa … and I am not a good person.” She regretted nothing, but neither did she flinch from reality. She had let the templar live for expedience, not mercy, and even now, she would kill him without hesitation if she thought that he posed further threat to her cousin, though she would do it in a way to keep suspicion away from Sofia.

She would not harm Sofia, however; nor would she lie to her. Mistake or not, she would live with the consequences of her choice. Her cousin would either keep her secret or she would not; she would regret leaving the Flagon behind, but the Collective would assist her in escaping and starting anew somewhere else.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#7
Sofia’s memories of Bernadette were few, but clear, and she wondered now that she had not made the connection before between the smiling red-haired girl in her mind and the woman standing before her now. Of course, it was because thinking Bernadette dead – along with the rest of her family – meant that she had no reason to assume they were the same person. As she hugged her, she remembered the first conversation they had shared, mentioning a rare fall of snow in Antiva, and realised now that they had been referring to the same event.
How strange it must have been, for Bernadette, to suddenly have her little cousin pop up in the middle of Ferelden, a full-fledged Grey Warden.

It was with that in mind that there was no spice in her voice when she asked where Bernadette had been all this time. She wouldn’t have done it on a whim – there had to be a reason, and judging by the story Bernadette had originally told her, Sofia doubted it was a pleasant tale.

That it started with assassins was perfectly Antivan. Sofia drew in a breath. “Sent by a rival of Papa’s. They killed Papa, Mama, Gina, Cara…” her voice caught, and Sofia reached forward to squeeze her hands. The names had been part of her daily litany since she had received the news, asking the Maker to give them comfort at His right hand. “I killed them all, and then I left and became someone else.”

Mi dispiache.” And she truly was – although a corner of her mind nudged her. How had Bernadette, alone, managed to dispatch all those assassins? Sofia had had no idea her cousin was also a mage, let alone a maleficar, but it seemed unlikely that Bernadette’s powers hadn’t shown through until then. Tio Niccolo, then, must had known as Sofia’s family had done, but instead of sending his daughter away, he’d kept her close. Sofia wasn’t sure if she should be bitter about that or not.

An irrelevant thought, for the moment. Bernadette was regarding her sadly. “Bernadette Diamante died with her family, Sofi. My name is Bernie Il Rossa…and I am not a good person.”

The Maker forgives much of what we do, when we’re in pain.” Sofia doubted that would be particularly comforting, and she met the other woman’s gaze evenly. “And I imagine you were in considerable pain, following that night.”

She let go of Bernadette – Bernie – and sat down on the bed. “How did you come to learn your art?” She wasn’t daft enough to even say the words ‘blood magic’ out loud. Walls had ears – as more than one person she’d known in the Circle had found out the hard way.
 

Bernie

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#8
Sofia had been a sweet - if somewhat pampered - child, but time changed people; Bernie knew that from her own experience, and tales that she had heard of life in the Circle made it clear that it could be very nearly as traumatic as seeing your family slaughtered. Fortunately, her cousin’s experience had not been of that stripe, but the fact that she still honored Chantry teachings could have posed an even thornier problem, considering that Bernie had revealed herself to be the thing that the Chantry reviled the most.

But Sofia did not recoil or flee. She embraced her joyfully, calling her by name, listened as Bernie told what had happened - the first time in over twenty years that she had spoken of that night.

“Mi dispiache.” The soft words of sympathy were more heartening than she would have believed possible. For so many years, sentiment had been a luxury that she could ill afford: a weakness for the Crows to exploit. She had never given any hint that her extended family meant anything to her, never tried to contact or observe them; Cosima had warned her of the danger that such indulgences could place them in.

She might still be placing Sofia in danger; she would have to take care. She could not turn back the clock to become the girl she had once been, nor would she if she could. That girl would never have survived, let alone been able to exact the revenge that had been so richly deserved.

“The Maker forgives much of what we do, when we’re in pain,” Sofia assured her gently. “And I imagine you were in considerable pain, following that night.”

She meant well. “I don’t need His forgiveness,” she said, bluntly though not harshly. “He stood by while my family was murdered and did nothing to the one who sent the assassins.” She had gone to the Chantry faithfully with her family throughout her childhood, sung the words of the Chant, believed what she was told. Perhaps they were true, but she no longer cared, had not for many years.

“How did you come to learn your art?” Sofia asked, stepping back and settling on the edge of the bed. A mage herself, she would know that a first manifestation of power would not have been sufficient to overcome multiple foes.

Bernie pulled the chair away from the desk and seated herself, smoothing her hands over her skirt. “My magic first manifested when I was seven, just like you,” she began, slipping back into Antivan, and not simply to add an additional layer of secrecy to their discussion. “You hadn’t even been born yet, and Barteo,” Sofia’s oldest brother, “pushed Cara down when they were roughhousing and made her cry. I was angry with him … I thought really hard about feeding him to the big cats at the zoo: hard enough to push the images into his mind. He wet himself and started crying.” A child’s quarrel, given a darker edge, but they had made up by the time the visit had ended, neither of them really understanding what hd taken place. “Papa was a devout Andrastean, but -” She shrugged. “I was his heir, and he did not wish to lose me to the Circle. Magda - you remember her? She told my father that her daughter could teach me to use my magic and keep it hidden. That was how I met Cosima.

“She was a blood mage,”
she admitted, “but she had no traffic with demons. She taught me to use only my own blood, and as little of that as possible, to keep from drawing the templars’ attention … and that of demons,” she added after a moment. “They are attracted more by that than to regular magic, but Cosima prepared me to deal with them, told me that they always lied one way or another. I think that Papa planned to have me use my talents to give us an advantage in business.” An aim that would not have been remarkable in Antiva if not for the means. “He worried about me though, and never went through with it. He was good enough to succeed on his own." Her lips thinned. "Good enough for someone to want him out of the way.”

She rose, moved back to the window, aware of her heart speeding up in her chest, her palms growing cool and clammy. “I woke to Mama’s screams,” she said softly. “Before that point, I had only used my own blood in my magic. Cosima had told me that I could use the blood of another only if they were trying to harm me, that to do otherwise was no better than stealing, and that if I wanted the power, I had to pay the price myself. And I had only used a few drops at most. But as soon as I woke, I could feel the blood. So much blood!” She broke off, remembering, mouth dry and heart hammering. She hadn’t let herself get this close to the memories in so very long. She swallowed, working up enough saliva in her mouth to continue. “It felt like standing next to a raging river or a roaring inferno, and when a man entered my room with a knife, I reached out and took hold of it.” She leaned her head against the window pane, the cold glass barely touching the fire of the past. “I controlled him, made him attack the others. I boiled their blood in their veins, visited their minds with their worst terrors, turned them against each other, killed them to a man, but I was too late. They were all dead. Even the servants.

“The demons were there, as well, more than I had ever felt, drawn by the terror and pain, the death and magic. They wanted me, wanted me to let them act through me, wanted to experience it all for themselves. I refused.” She glanced back to her cousin, eyes distant and haunted. “And if I could refuse their offer to bring Cara and Gina back to life, there is nothing more that I could be tempted with.” Even half-mad with magic and grief, she had known it for a lie. If they had made the offer while there were still lives to be saved, she might well have accepted - but they had not.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#9
Sofia knew from the first that Bernie’s story would not make for easy listening. To discover her cousin alive was one shock, that she was a mage, a second – and of course learning she was a maleficar stunned her most. But rising above all that was the fact that while Bernie lived, her immediate family had not, and there had been no word from her in all that time since. Sofia settled on the bed and braced herself.

Tio Niccolo was as devout as Sofia’s own parents had been, but perhaps it was because Bernie had been his heir that he had not chosen the same path as Sofia’s parents. Instead he sought help and found Bernie a tutor, Cosmia.

“She was a blood mage, but she had no traffic with demons. She taught me to use only my own blood-” that was reassuring to hear, at least – “and as little of that as possible, to keep from drawing the templars’ attention…and that of demons.”

It seemed an extraordinary piece of luck that Bernie had a tutor with her head so firmly on her shoulders, let alone one who used blood magic, and amazing that Niccolo had allowed it. Sofia tensed as Bernie gave her theory as to why. “I think Papa planned to have me use my talents to give us an advantage in business.” Then, before Sofia could exclaim over what a bad idea that would have been, “He worried about me though, and never went through with it. He was good enough to succeed on his own.” That might have been a relief, if not for what had followed.

Bernie had woken too late to save her family, or the servants. She had brought down a reckoning on the assassin’s heads that none of them could have prepared for. Sofia spared them not one sorrowful thought. They might not have been the architects of the murder, but they had all been willing to take coin in exchange for killing innocents, and they deserved all they had got from her point of view.

“The demons were there, as well, more than I had ever felt, drawn by the terror and pain, the death and magic. They wanted me, wanted me to let them act through me, wanted to experience it all for themselves. I refused.”

Could a demon feign the haunted look Sofia now saw on her cousin’s face? Most likely, but it still chilled Sofia to the bone. The horror that Bernie had been through was written in every line. “And if I could refuse their offer to bring Cara and Gina back to life, there is nothing more that I could be tempted with.”

Sofia rose. She had taken the measure of the other woman, now, and closed the space between them, drawing her into a hug. She had been steadfast against demons all her life, but while the Maker had been whimsical with the challenges He’d thrown into her path, she could not in all honesty say she would have been able to resist in Bernie’s shoes. She had never known suffering like that, and all she could do was offer condolence.

“You did well.” She stepped back. “I’m sorry. Did you ever find out who sent them?”
 
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