In a land with nothing but snow and stone and sky, a man and a woman gazed upon the sunlit ruins of a temple.
“And so the girl’s life becomes fuel for the sun,” said the man, “and the cycle begins anew.”
“I told you this world wouldn’t end,” said the woman.
“Not yet,” said the man, “but in time, all things must end.”
“So you’ve always said, dear heart,” said the woman.
For a while they stood in silence, watching the sun above and the world below. At last, it was the man who turned to go.
“So soon?” asked the woman. “Couldn’t we rest a moment longer?”
“You know the answer,” said the man. “There are preparations to be made.”
The woman sighed. “So be it,” she said. “For however long you wish to play this game, I will join you until the end.”
“If you must,” said the man. “Goodbye, Ruuzael.”
“Goodbye, Noriiel,” replied the woman. “I’ll see you again when the next Harbinger is born.”
Thank you for joining me on this journey. This story has been near and dear to my heart for a while, and I'm glad it's finally out in the world in its entirety. The overall outline was formed many many years ago, when I was a very different person, so while I do intend to someday return to this world, for now it's time to move on.
Some stories, I might post here. Others, I might not. If you think you might be interested, you can always follow me on Twitter at @ByAnyOtherName_ or @YRLiuWrites if you just want the writing related news.
Thanks again for reading. <3
Chapter 34 - The World
The Ruined Temple; 18 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
When Izra woke, Avenel was waiting for her, sitting at the foot of her bed.
“You knew,” said Avenel, looking straight ahead at the wall.
Izra didn’t need to ask what she meant. “Yes,” she said, “but she needed to see it for herself. My word alone wouldn’t have been enough.”
“You knew, and you lead us here.”
“I lead you to the means of saving the world.”
“At the cost of Deena’s life?” asked Avenel. “What sort of world is bought with the life of a child?”
Izra didn’t answer.
“How long do we have?” asked Avenel. “Until—until she has to decide?”
“Just until the sun disappears,” said Izra. She stood and walked out into the corridor, where they could see the sun through the broken ceiling. It was just a crescent, hairline thin, barely visible but for the light. “Once it’s fully extinguished, nothing can bring it back.”
Avenel shook her head. “She’s a child.”
“She’s one child,” said Izra. “Do you know how many children are in this world?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Avenel. “I made a promise to keep her safe.”
“You didn’t yet know what you were promising.”
“I won’t let her die!”
Izra watched her for a moment, then leaned back and closed her eyes. “If that’s truly your choice—and hers—then so be it. My part here is done.”
The Silent Tower; 18 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
In the tower of a castle carved from a mountain, Lord Vallus Nebeel gazed out the window. The sun was nearly invisible but for its light, a fiery halo in the sky.
All night, he could not sleep, only tossed and turned between fitful half-dreams. He remembered Fosette dying, blood on the sheets, remembered the sound of Deena crying.
Was it true? Was his daughter the Harbinger, destined to destroy the world? Was the world truly doomed to end unless his daughter died?
No, he would not believe it. Fosette had traded her life for Deena. He would not believe that they had brought her into the world only for this.
There was a knock on his door. “Yes?” he asked.
“It’s me, my lord,” came the voice of Charles.
“Ah,” said Vallus, quickly straightening and sitting down at his desk. “Come in. What do you need?”
Charles looked at him, surprised. “You asked to see me,” he said. “About the new sleeping quarters.”
“Ah, yes,” said Vallus, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “My apologies.”
Charles frowned. “With all due respect, my lord, you haven’t been yourself of late. Ever since you returned from your urgent journey to the Meridian—”
“It’s nothing,” said Vallus. “Just—I’ve been feeling slightly unwell, is all.”
“Shall I send for one of the physicians?” asked Charles.
“No,” said Vallus. “I don’t think this is something a physician could fix. It will pass.” He glanced at the window behind him. “One way or another, it will pass.”
Hayesford Hall; 18 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It was raining over Hayesford Hall, and Raine sat reading by the window. Despite the weather, her mother was out in the gardens, tending to the little patch of flowers that they had taken to calling “Deena’s corner”.
Olyssa was soaked when she came back in. A servant was quick to come and help her out of her cloak. “I cut some of the gerbera daisies,” said Olyssa, putting the flowers in nearby vase. “It seemed a shame to leave them out to be battered by the wind and rain.”
“I think they’d still prefer to be in the ground than cut,” replied Raine.
“Oh, stop it,” said Olyssa, flapping her hand. “They’re just flowers.”
Raine smiled. “I’m teasing, mother. They look lovely.”
Olyssa sighed as she wrung out her hair and took a seat opposite her daughter. “I wish the skies would clear,” she said. “I miss the sun.”
“So do I,” said Raine. “Do you suppose it’s sunnier where Aunt Avenel and Deena are?”
Olyssa hesitated. “They—they’re off doing very important things, Raine.”
“Mother, I’m not a child,” said Raine.
“I know, dear,” said Olyssa. “Truthfully, I don’t know what they’re doing. Something about this end of the world thing, I suppose.”
“Do you really think the world will end?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Olyssa.
Raine turned to gaze out the window. “I hope it doesn’t,” she said. “I would have liked to see the world before it ends.”
The Meridian; 18 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
“Itiina?” called Prince Greoore from his bed. “Itiina, are you there?”
It was a moment before his door opened and Itiina entered. “You should be resting,” she said. “It was kind of the monks to let us stay here until you’ve healed, but you’d heal faster if you stayed put as the doctor asked.”
“What’s the point?” asked Greoore, gesturing at the stump that had once been his leg. “I’ll never heal.”
“Your leg isn’t what makes you a prince and a Lord Paramount,” said Itiina. “Plenty of men with lost limbs have gone on to become kings, but no dead man ever has.”
Greoore sighed. “Help me stand,” he said. “I want to go to the window.”
“What for?” asked Itiina.
“Just help me walk there,” said Greoore.
Itiina complied, letting Greoore put his arm around her shoulders and use her as a crutch.
At the window, Greoore put out his arms to steady himself against the sill. He looked out at the sun, its thin crescent shape and the halo around it. “Do you think Garthniiel’s alright?” he asked.
“You shouldn’t worry about him so much,” said Itiina. “People will talk.”
“He’s my brother,” said Greoore.
“That’s exactly the problem,” said Itiina.
Greoore sighed. “I agreed with you that I need to distance myself in public, but in private—can’t a man worry for his little brother? He’s out there, fighting against the end of the world, fighting for all of our lives, and I’m—” he gestured down at his leg “—useless.”
Itiina put her hand on his arm. “You’re aren’t,” she said. “You raised him.”
He looked at her, surprised. “I didn’t think you liked him,” he said.
“I’ve never disliked him,” said Itiina, “only what he does to your image. Sometimes sacrifices must be made.”
“But is it worth it?” asked Greoore.
Itiina sighed. “You’re being sentimental,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “Come back to bed. We’ve already done all we could.”
The Ruined Temple; 18 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Flame examined the clay pot. “If this is over a thousand years old,” he said, “is it right to be cooking with it?”
“It’s a pot,” said Frost. “Isn’t that what they’re for?”
Garthniiel turned to Nicholas. “It was your people who left this behind. Do you think they would mind?”
“Hm?” asked Nicholas, turning away from the window. “No, no I don’t think they would care. Besides, we still have to eat.”
“That’s true enough,” said Flame, scooping a handful of snow into the pot. “Nicholas, do you mind?”
Wordless, Nicholas waved his hand and lit a fire beneath the pot.
The salted jerky softened nicely in the boiling water. Frost put her feet next to the fire to warm them. Flame took a look at what food they had left then crumbled a piece of hardtack into the water.
“How long do you think we’ll be here for?” asked Frost, leaning back in her chair.
“Until Deena decides what to do, I guess,” said Flame. He glanced at the window. “She’ll have to choose soon.”
Frost raised an eyebrow. “We’re leaving it to a child to choose? It’s the fate of the world.”
“What else can we do?” asked Garthniiel. “It’s her life.”
Frost sighed and shook her head. “Seems like an awfully large burden to put on a sixteen-year-old.”
“You were making hard decisions at sixteen, too, Sister,” said Flame. “Before that, even.”
“But not about the fate of the world,” said Frost. “I just had to worry about you.”
They sat in silence as the soup cooked. Garthniiel unwrapped a wheel of cheese and cut it in half. “We should save some for Avenel,” he said.
“Have you spoken with her at all?” asked Flame.
Garthniiel shook his head. “I think she has enough on her mind. The best thing I can do for her is leave her alone.”
“Where is she, anyway?” asked Frost.
“She said she wanted to speak with Izra,” said Garthniiel.
“Still asleep, I think,” said Garthniiel. “Her fever’s gone down, at least.”
“Has Izra taken a look at her?” asked Flame.
“What for?” asked Frost. “She’s going to die soon anyway.”
Frost shrugged. “We were all thinking it,” said Frost. “If the choice is between Deena and the rest of the world, then there isn’t really a choice, is there?”
“Of course there is,” said Flame, “and it’s her choice to make. We’re not—we can’t take that away from her.”
“I just wish there was something we could do for her,” said Garthniiel.
“What about her father?” asked Flame. “How—How is Avenel going to tell him?”
No one answered.
Garthniiel stood. “There has to be another way. The cost of saving the world—it can’t be murdering a child.”
“It isn’t murder,” said Flame. “She’d be choosing to sacrifice herself.”
“That’s semantics, and you know it,” said Garthniiel. He shook his head. “I can’t believe those are the only choices.”
“I can,” said Nicholas. “That’s how the world works, isn’t it? Sometimes there’s only bad choices.”
The Ruined Temple; 19 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
In Deena’s dream, Taunsgrove was on fire. All around her were orange tongues of flame, licking at the sky. She screamed, but there was no one around to hear her, and her voice was drowned out by the roar and crackle of the flames.
Then she looked again. They weren’t flames, but autumn leaves, drifting lazily down from the top of the great oak tree. Mattieu laughed as he leapt out from behind a pile of leaves, then he and Phea grabbed her by the hand to pull her down into the pile with them, sending swirls of orange and gold into the sky.
“You’re making a mess,” chided Avenel, raking the leaves back into a pile. “If you aren’t going help, at least stop making things worse.”
“Oh, let them have their fun, Avi,” said Olyssa. “They won’t be children forever.”
“No, I’ll help clean up,” said Deena, getting to her feet. “Sorry.”
“Good,” said Avenel. “Your father will be here soon.”
There was the clip-clop of hooves behind her, and Deena turned to see Lord Vallus dismounting. “What are you doing here?” asked Deena before remembering that of course he lived there.
“I’m sorry I’ve been away,” he said. “Work has kept me busy.” He reached into his cloak and produced a doll, with button eyes and pigtails made of yarn. “Here, I brought you a present.”
Deena stomped her foot. “I’m not a child anymore, Papa! I’m too old for dolls!”
Vallus chuckled. “Of course you are,” he said, and bent down to scoop her up in his arms.
Inside their cottage, Deena’s mother was sitting by the fireplace. When she saw them enter, she stood. “Everyone’s here,” she said.
“Shall we begin?” asked Avenel.
Vallus looked down at the baby in his arms. “Must we?” he asked. “She’s so young.”
“It’s what she was born to do,” said Avenel.
Around the room, the others nodded their assent. “It’s what she was born to do,” they murmured, and with a sigh, Vallus pushed her into the flames.
She woke to a cold and empty room. “Avenel?” she called, but there was no answer. A bowl of stew had been left for her by the bed, but it had already grown cold.
She stood and walked to the window. Perhaps it was her imagination, but the light already felt dim and dusk-like. She told herself it was only the time of day—it was sunset—but of course the sun didn’t set this far North.
Soon. She would have to decide soon.
If she died, the sun would recover. Life would go on, but she would not be there to see it. She imagined the world with its myriad lives and loves and losses—they would all continue as before. But if she chose to live, if it were instead the sun that died, all of that would soon cease forever.
But, for a time, she would live. In the sunless cold and dark, yes, but she would live.
The ruins were silent as Deena crept through the halls. The courtyard was empty and still. The ground was covered in a layer of fresh fallen snow, bathed gold by the light of the sun. Inside the throne room, the snow was enough to cover the blood stains on the floor.
She walked up the dais to the obsidian throne. Behind her, she heard the door to the throne room creak open.
Deena turned. It was Avenel, entering the room and closing the door behind her. The stained glass windows cast strange and colorful shadows across her face.
“I’m here,” called Deena.
“How are you feeling?” asked Avenel.
Deena didn’t have an answer.
She watched as Avenel crossed the room and walked up the dais to join her. Wordless, she let Avenel take her hands and pull her into an embrace.
“What—What happens now?” asked Deena, her words muffled against Avenel’s shoulder.
“What would you like to happen?” asked Avenel.
“I don’t know,” said Deena. She took a deep breath. Avenel’s shoulder smelled of leather and steel. “I… I want to live. I don’t want to die.”
“Okay,” said Avenel, stroking Deena’s hair. “Where would you like to go?”
“I don’t know,” said Deena again. “I don’t care, as long as you’re with me.”
“Then we’ll find a cottage in the woods,” said Avenel. “Somewhere secluded where no one can find us, surrounded by trees and birdsong.”
Deena smiled and closed her eyes, imagining the scene. “Will we have a garden?”
“Of course,” said Avenel. “There’ll be flowers in the spring and vegetables in the fall. And just outside, there’ll be pond behind the cottage with berry bushes on the banks.”
“And I could keep some chickens?”
“Whatever you like,” replied Avenel. “We’ll collect the eggs for breakfast every morning, and in the evenings, we can sit by the fire and read. We’ll have a room full of books—shelves and shelves—every story and subject you could imagine. We could spend our whole life there—years and decades and centuries—and no one will ever hurt you again.”
For a long time they stood there, Deena’s cheek against Avenel’s shoulder, Avenel’s arms around Deena’s body. Avenel’s breath frosted in the northern air, and fat flakes of snow began to drift down to melt in her hair and lashes.
It was a long while before she pulled the dagger from Deena’s back, blood pouring from the wound and onto the throne. She stood there, holding the dead girl’s body until it had cooled, and overhead, the sun was bright and round as a disk.
Chapter 33 - Midnight Sun
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
They took inventory of their injuries. Frost’s was the worst, a cut on her arm deep enough that they could see the bone. Flame swore as made a tourniquet with a strip torn from his cloak. “Dammit, Sister, you shouldn’t have done that.”
“It was going to hit you,” said Frost. “I had to block it.”
“With your arm?” asked Flame. “I don’t want you to die for me.”
Frost shrugged and immediately winced. “You’d do the same for me.”
Garthniiel had a cut across his cheek from where he hadn’t quite been fast enough to dodge the blade. It wasn’t deep, but the blood ran down his face and dripped from his chin. He wiped it away. He looked to Avenel, kneeling by the body of Ephraim. From behind, he couldn’t tell if she was crying.
Deena descended down the stairs from the balcony. She reached out a hand for Avenel’s shoulder, then seemed to think better of it and pulled away.
“Are you hurt?” asked Avenel without looking up.
Deena shook her head. “No, I’m fine.” She hesitated. “Iz—Izra’s upstairs, Frost, if you want to…” she trailed off.
Frost looked at her arm. “Might be good for her to take a look at it, yeah,” she said.
“I’ll come with you,” said Flame. “Garth?”
Garthniiel touched his cheek. “Yeah. I should go too.”
Deena waited until they were gone. “Um, Avenel, there something—There’s something you should know. Izra was—She was the one who made these soldiers, who brought them back. She was experimenting on them to try to bring back Inoor.”
“Did she know about Ephraim?” asked Avenel.
“No. She didn’t know it was him.”
“I see,” said Avenel. “Thank you for telling me.” She stood. “Excuse me. I need to bury Ephraim’s body.”
It wasn’t long before Garthniiel and Flame returned, Garthniiel with a bandage on his cheek. Nicholas and Inoor soon found them as well. “What happened?” asked Nicholas, looking around at the bodies that littered the ground. “Who’s that Kassie’s burying? Where’s Izra?”
“Frost and Izra are upstairs,” said Flame. “Frost got a nasty cut. Izra’s helping her. And Avenel’s burying, uh—”
“It’s her wardfather,” said Deena. “Noriiel was using him as—as a vessel.”
“So she killed him?” asked Nicholas. “This Noriiel?”
Deena shook her head. “Just cut his connection to his army.”
Flame nudged one of the bodies with his foot. “What do we do with them? They’re still breathing.”
Nicholas bent down to examine the closest one. “That doesn’t mean they’re alive,” he said. “The best thing we can do is put them to rest.”
“You mean kill them?” asked Garthniiel.
“They’re already dead,” said Nicholas.
Flame nodded and drew an arrow from his quiver. “Deena, why don’t you wait outside?”
It was hours before Avenel had dug a hole deep enough in the frozen earth. By then, the others had piled the remaining bodies into a funeral pyre on the other side of the courtyard. Deena left before the smell could reach her, wandering through the temple’s ruins. She looked at the carvings on the wall, at the books and scrolls and shards of pottery, at the strange symbols and foreign glyphs she couldn’t read.
If the throne room was at the center of this temple, and the throne had been meant for her, then had this temple also been built for her, thousands of years in the past, in anticipation of her birth? If there hadn’t been an earthquake, if the priests of Asterii were still alive, would they greet her now as their savior and expect her to fix the sun?
She thought of Noriiel’s question, when he asked her why she wanted to save the world. She didn’t understand. Of course she wanted to save the world; she lived in it. It was her home. If she could go back in time and save Taunsgrove, of course she would do it.
She found a windowed room on an upper story that overlooked the courtyard. Through the broken glass, she watched the plumes of smoke rising from the funeral pyre.
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Izra sat alone in the dark. Healing Frost’s arm had taken too much out of her, so soon after snapping the soldier’s bones, but the alternative was letting the woman bleed. While the others worked to give the dead soldiers a proper rest, she had found an intact room—the cell of one of the priests—and retired to a rest of her own.
She still wasn’t sure what Deena had seen. The others had made no mention of it; perhaps Deena hadn’t told them. Perhaps she had been wrong, and it would’ve been fine to trust the girl with the truth from the beginning, but—No, Ruuzael had said that she must not tell her, that it was something she must discover for herself.
And so, she sat in the dark, waiting and racked with guilt, but guilt was a feeling she knew well.
She didn’t know how much time had passed. An hour or two, perhaps more. Perhaps she dozed off, but in the dark and alone, it was difficult to tell. All she knew was that it was a long while before she heard footsteps in the corridor outside, and then her door was flung open by Nicholas.
“There you are,” said Nicholas. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
He was angry. It wasn’t often that he was angry, but lately it felt like he was always angry with her. There was a small black object in his hands, and he held it up for her to see.
“You found it,” said Izra, rising to her feet.
“Is it mine?” asked Nicholas.
Izra nodded. She was too tired to lie, and tired of lying.
“So you tampered with my mind,” said Nicholas, closing his fist around the stone. “My mind, Izi.”
His voice shook as he spoke. No, he wasn’t angry. He was livid.
He held out the stone. “Put it back,” he said.
Izra looked at it. “I can’t.”
“What do you mean you can’t?” asked Nicholas. “I know you can put back the memories you take; I’ve seen it.”
Izra shook her head. “That’s not what I mean.”
“At least tell me what you took,” said Nicholas.
Izra sighed. He was still angry. She wanted him to leave. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“I don’t—Of course I don’t!” exclaimed Nicholas. “I don’t know what you took! I don’t know what’s in here! I don’t know what’s missing from my own mind! My own past!”
“Perhaps that’s a blessing,” said Izra. She was so tired of lying, of carrying the truth alone, of his accusatory gaze for something she did not do.
“A blessing?” asked Nicholas. “Even if that’s true, you have no right to make that decision for me! To—to tamper with my mind and hide it from me! To refuse to even tell me—”
“I did it,” snapped Izra, “because you begged me to!”
“What?” asked Nicholas. “Why would I—?”
“Because you’re a coward!” shouted Izra. “You hated what you knew! What we knew! When Inoor died—when Asterii died—and the burden of knowing fell on just the two of us, you begged me to take that away from you! You begged until I relented, knowing full well it would mean that I would have bear it alone!” She snatched the stone from his hand. “Centuries, Nicholas!” she shouted, flinging the stone against the wall. “Centuries, you’ve made me carry this weight alone!”
Nicholas turned to see where the stone had fallen, unharmed, to the ground. “Then why—” he began, then seemed to realize the inanity of his own question. Then why did you agree to do it?
She answered it anyway. “Because you were all I had left.”
He picked up the stone. “What—What was so terrible that I had to forget?”
Izra looked away. “It was never supposed to be only me,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You, me, and Inoor. There are things we’ve done, things we promised to do. Coming to this temple, bringing Deena here—it was supposed to be the three of us.”
“Why would that be so terrible?” asked Nicholas.
“Because,” said Izra, “of what she has to do next.”
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It was night, or whatever night meant so far north. The sun skimmed the horizon behind what remained of the funeral pyre. Avenel had stacked a few rocks over Ephraim’s grave in a makeshift cairn, but there was nothing for the charred bones and ashes of the nameless others.
When the last of the fire had died away, Avenel found Deena by the window overlooking the courtyard. For a while they stood in silence, looking out at Ephraim’s cairn, at the ruined spire of the throne room, at the sunlight painting the clouds a fiery gold. Wind blew in through the broken glass, carrying with it a few flakes of snow.
“Are you cold?” asked Avenel, her breath clouding in the northern air.
Deena shook her head. “How’s Frost’s arm?”
“Izra closed the wound and stopped the bleeding,” said Avenel. “She’ll be fine.”
They stood there a few minutes longer, then Avenel put a hand on Deena’s shoulder. “It’s time,” she said, and Deena didn’t need to ask what she meant.
They walked together back through the ruins, their footsteps echoing off the ancient walls.
At the door leading out to the courtyard, Deena stopped.
“What’s wrong?” asked Avenel.
“I—I’m scared,” admitted Deena.
Avenel took her by the hand. “Whatever happens, I’ll be right there beside you.”
Deena nodded. She wondered if Noriiel was still here somewhere, watching her. She wondered if Ruuzael was too.
Blood stained the snow within the throne room, or perhaps it was only the red of the stained glass windows. Otherwise, there was no longer any evidence of a fight. The others were all there, all of them except Izra.
“She’s sleeping,” said Nicholas, when Deena looked around for her. “She didn’t sleep much last night, and fixing Frost’s arm took a lot out of her.”
Deena nodded. She looked around at the room, at the pile of rubble that had once been the roof, at the broken statues that lined the walls. The throne sat at the far end of the room, atop a dais as tall as a house. She could feel the others watching her expectantly as she and Avenel made their way across the hall and up the crumbling steps of the dais. At the top, she turned to look at Avenel. “Do I—Do I just sit?” she asked.
“That’s what Izra said,” said Avenel.
Deena looked at the throne again. It did not look much like how Deena expected a throne to look. Rather, it looked like a jagged black rock that had always been there, that had been roughly shaped into the facsimile of a chair, with the room and temple built up around it. She put a hand on one of the arms, and to her surprise, it was warm.
“Go on,” called Flame from across the room. He meant it to be encouraging, she was sure, but she did not feel encouraged.
“Whenever you’re ready,” said Avenel.
Deena nodded. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. What am I afraid of? she wondered. All I have to do is sit.
For a moment nothing happened, and her head was filled with thoughts of how this was it, that they had come all this way for nothing, that at any moment the expectant gaze of the others would turn to disappointment.
“I’m sor—” she began, then felt herself fall.
Memories flooded her, memories that were not her own. They were men, women, children who lived hundreds of years ago, thousands, millennia and eons ago. In a flash she saw their lives, felt their joys and sorrows, further and further and further back until—
Until she was the earth. She was heat and darkness and unspeakable pressure, matter newly formed from stardust. The light of the sun was a gentle caress upon her skin, and as her rivers of magma cooled to stone, she understood.
This was her fate. From the beginning, it had been written into the fabric of the world. As Harbinger, her soul was tied to the sun’s.
Avenel caught her she fell. “Deena?” she asked, her voice tinged with worry. She put a hand to Deena’s forehead. “You’re burning.”
Deena shook her head. “This isn’t a throne,” she said.
“What?” asked Avenel.
“This isn’t a throne,” repeated Deena. “It’s a sacrificial altar. To save the world, I have to die.”
Chapter 32 - The Star
The Bay of Lights; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
In Deena’s dream, she walked out of the cave of ice. She stood on the surface of the ocean, gazing out toward the horizon, toward the sun. She reached for it, and the sun reached back, pulling her up and up into the sky.
She turned to look the way she had come. There was Rhiinas— the snowy peaks in the north, the winding coastline in the west, the verdant forests and fields, and the river that split the land in two. Taunsgrove was somewhere there, and south of that, there were the highlands that ended in cliffs that fell into the ocean. And past that, the ocean itself where Asterii had once stood proud.
She looked to the west, to the lands across the sea, then east across the mountains. She looked to Osgola, to Neben, to all the places she had never been but might someday like to see. She looked in on the people there, into their huts built in the tops of trees or carved from the red clay canyon. She watched them with their friends and families, the children dressed in robes or skirts or sometimes not at all. Some of them sang. Some of them fought. But all of them—all of them were alive.
She flew higher, and the world shrank away into nothing more than a little blue sphere. All of the richness of the world—all of the people, the places, the mountains and the rivers—could fit into the palm of her hand. A stabbing sensation in her palm brought her back down to earth, and she was in the North, standing before an enormous black spire. There was blood on her hand where she had felt the stab, and when she looked up, the tip of the spire gleamed red.
She woke to the sound of whispered arguing. “What do you mean you let her go by herself?” asked Avenel. “You could have woken us—any one of us—to go with her.”
“She insisted on going herself,” said Nicholas. “You don’t know her; there’s no changing her mind when she gets like this.”
“You could still have woken us,” said Avenel.
Deena rubbed her eyes. “What happened?” she asked.
“Izra’s missing,” said Flame. “She thought the archers who attacked us might have been on top of this ice, so she went to take a look.”
“By herself?” asked Deena.
“How long ago did she leave?” asked Garthniiel.
“I don’t know,” said Nicholas. He gestured helplessly at the sun. “I don’t know how to tell time in a place like this.”
“Nevermind,” said Avenel. “Find me another rope. I’m going after her.”
“There’s no need,” said a voice. “I’m back.”
They turned. Izra stood at the mouth of their little cave, covered in snow, but no worse for wear. And behind her, standing half a pace back and still holding her hand—
“I found Inoor,” said Izra.
Deena had expected Izra’s twin to look like her, but she didn’t. They had the same browbone, nose, and mouth, it was true, but Inoor’s skin was a burnished gold to Izra’s ashen white, and her hair was black as night. It hung in a loose braid down her back, and when the wind blew the loose strands across her face, she made no move to brush them away.
Nicholas took a step toward her. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out, just a choked sort of whimper. He cupped her face in his hands, brushed his thumb across her cheek, but when she turned toward him, she looked through him into the distance, not a trace of recognition in her eyes.
“She isn’t there,” said Izra. “It’s just her body.”
“But she looks just like her,” said Nicholas. Then, dropping his hands and turning away, “Of course she does.”
Izra didn’t answer.
“Can you undo it?” asked Nicholas. “Whatever it is he did to her?”
“The only way would be to kill her again,” said Izra. “A knife through the heart would end her like it would end anyone else, but…”
“But we need her to get off this ice,” finished Nicholas. “We need to use her, like he did.”
Izra closed her eyes. “She’s… weaker in her current state, without her soul, but with Avenel here, it should be enough to take us all to where we need to go.”
Avenel took a step toward them. She was looking at Inoor, her brow slightly furrowed. “That man, the one with the strange eyes. He told me to focus on where I want to go.”
“There’s a throne room of sorts,” said Izra. “It’ll be difficult, with so many of us, but with you here she’ll be able to do it.”
“What about their army?” asked Garthniiel. “They had enough men to set our ship on fire, and it can’t be an accident that you found her.”
“It isn’t,” said Izra, “but if you can hold them off for just a few minutes, it’ll be enough time for Deena to do what she needs to do.”
“W-what do I need to do?” asked Deena.
“It’s a throne,” said Izra. “You sit.”
“That’s it?” asked Deena.
“No,” said Izra. “The rest you’ll know when the time comes, but… it won’t take long.”
Deena swallowed. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, I think I can do that.”
Avenel turned to look at her, then at the crescent sun hanging low in the cerulean sky. The wind had died down, and the ocean was as calm and clear as a mirror. “Then let’s not wait any longer,” she said and held out her hand to pull Deena to her feet.
They stood in a circle: Avenel with her sword and Ephraim’s dagger at her hip, Izra holding Inoor’s hand with Nicholas on her other side, Garthniiel with his greatsword slung across his back, Flame and Frost with their bows and quivers at their sides. Deena stood next to Avenel, and the woman squeezed her fingers tight. They all linked hands, Avenel holding Garthniiel’s holding Flame’s and on and on until Izra reached around to take Deena’s other hand. The wind whipped around them—not cold, but warm like a summer breeze—and the ground dissolved beneath them.
They were spinning. They were falling. They were doing both, spiraling like a leaf caught in a gale. Deena’s hand began to sweat—her fingers slipped from Avenel’s—and she cried out but the wind tore the sound from her lips. Something cold and hard slammed into her shoulder, and it was only as the world stopped spinning that she realized it was the ground. There was a clatter as of many small somethings scattering across a marble floor and a thump of something larger.
Deena rose unsteadily to her feet. There was a ringing in her head loud as a storm. “Avenel?” she called. “Avenel?”
Avenel wasn’t there. There was only Izra, pushing herself up with one arm and clutching her ankle with her other.
“My—My bracelet,” said Izra. “It broke.”
“Where are the others?” asked Deena.
“I don’t know,” said Izra. She tried to stand but winced and sat back down. “My hand slipped.”
“Mine too,” said Deena. She looked around. They were in what had once been a stone corridor, but the walls were cracked or collapsed altogether. Rubble blocked them in on one side, and half the ceiling had caved in to let in the light. “What happened here?” asked Deena.
Half a dozen voices answered her question. “An earthquake, long ago,” they said in unison, and Deena whipped around to see the soldiers emerge from the shadows, from behind the piles of rubble, or descending from the hole in the ceiling. All had the same glazed look in their eyes as Inoor.
“Wh-who are you?” asked Deena.
In unison, the soldiers laughed, a cold, dead sound that set Deena’s hairs on end. “You know who I am,” they said. “You know these are merely my mouthpieces.”
“Noriiel,” said Deena. “You’re Noriiel.”
“Yes,” said a voice—not one of the soldiers—and Deena turned to see the speaker. He was tall and slim, his hands open in welcome, his features lit by a fire that did not exist. “I am the star who wishes to end this world. At last we meet, Harbinger.”
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The ground materialized beneath Avenel’s feet, and she stumbled as the rest of the world came into being. The others looked just as disoriented as she was—Garthniiel, Flame, and Frost—and they found their footing and looked around.
“Where’s Deena?” asked Avenel.
“I thought you were holding her hand,” said Flame.
“I was,” said Avenel. “Something went wrong. We aren’t where we meant to go.”
“Izra and Nicholas are missing too,” said Garthniiel. “And Inoor. Well, Inoor’s, uh, body, I guess.”
“And where are the soldiers?” asked Frost. She already had her crossbow in her hand and loaded. “I thought we would be swarmed.”
“So did I,” said Flame.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Avenel. “We look for Deena.”
The room they were in was small and strangely empty, lit only by a crack that ran the length of the wall. Garthniiel gave it a push, then jerked back as a piece of masonry fell from the ceiling to crash at his feet.
“Maybe don’t do that before you bring the roof down,” said Frost.
Avenel put her ear against the only door in the room, an old wooden one that looked like it might turn to splinters at the slightest touch. When she heard nothing on the other side, she pulled it open to reveal a darkened corridor on the other side.
“Did anyone think to bring a torch?” asked Garthniiel.
Flame shook his head. “It was light out, and Nicholas was with us.”
“And Inoor,” added Avenel.
“Perhaps we should split up,” said Garthniiel. “We’ll find them faster that way.”
Avenel shook her head. “It’s more dangerous to be separated.” She hoped that Izra, on Deena’s other side, had still been holding Deena’s hand. She drew her sword. “Stay close. We’ll follow the wall.”
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It had been a long time since Nicholas had been transported anywhere with magic. He had forgotten how it felt. The disorientation as he got to his feet was almost nostalgic; Inoor had always teased him for it.
She didn’t now. She didn’t say anything, only look at him with eyes so empty that they may as well have been made of glass.
“Where is everyone?” asked Nicholas, but of course Inoor didn’t answer. He was in a room—a library, from the fallen shelves and scrolls scattered across the floor. He picked one up, crumbling and faded as it was, and was greeted by the language of his people. Thoughts of home, unbidden and unwanted, flooded his mind.
“Do you remember the library we had at home, Inoor?” he asked. “You wanted to sort our books and scrolls by subject, but I wanted them by author. You won that fight, you know. For months, I couldn’t find anything that I was looking for, but eventually I figured it out.” He sighed and set the scroll back down. “We should find the others.”
He clambered over the broken shelves and between the piles of rubble to search for the door. It was strange, after so many centuries, to be confronted with the architecture of Asterii. He had grown so used to the rough-hewn stones of Rhiinas that the carvings on the walls with its familiar patterns felt like walking through a dream. Even broken and ruined, he could recognize the motifs in the carvings, the color palette, the texture of the stone.
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” he asked Inoor. “A temple all the way up here, and we never knew of it.” He ran a finger along the wall, chasing its geometric lines, remnants of the paint flaking away beneath his hand. “It looks like home, doesn’t it?”
He found the door obscured by a broken shelf, which in turn was half buried by fallen pieces of ceiling. He pushed, but when the shelf seemed more likely to fall on him than to move aside, he had no choice but to first clear away the rubble. “Help me,” he said, and Inoor obeyed, using her magic to move the broken stones aside, piece by piece.
At long last, they finished. Nicholas pushed at the shelf, straining until it fell and crashed to the ground in a shower of splintered wood. He sighed. “This way,” he said to Inoor and opened the door, only to be confronted by a solid wall of rubble.
“Dammit!” swore Nicholas, punching at the stone. “Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!” With a sigh he leaned back against the wall and slid down onto the floor.
Inoor looked down at him, expressionless.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Nicholas. “You were always the one to—to tell me, when you were alive. After you died, with the fall of Asterii, with Izra losing her mind trying to bring you back—So many times I wanted to ask you what to do, but you weren’t there. You—I was so lost without you. I needed you—still need you—but you were gone.” He put a hand over his face. “You don’t know what I’m saying, do you? Like Izra said, you aren’t really here, and this—for all that it looks like Asterii—isn’t home.”
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The corridor was eerily quiet, magnifying the sound of each footstep, each rattle of Garthniiel’s sword belt or Flame’s arrows in their quiver. Yet for all the noise they were making, no one came for them. There were no footsteps but their own, no sudden strike from the dark. Avenel ran her hand along the wall—there were carvings in the stone, a decorative pattern, its angles worn smooth by time.
She stopped. Garthniiel bumped into her, and Flame and Frost into him.
“Why did we stop?” whispered Frost.
“The pattern,” said Avenel. “It’s different here.” She stepped aside for the others to feel it too. Where they had been following a tessellation of something abstract and geometric, here was giant sunburst, large enough that she could not reach the top. She tried to feel for the other side, but as she walked, her foot bumped into something large. She bent down to feel what it was, and her fingers met broken stone. Rubble. “The way ahead is collapsed,” she said.
“Do we turn back?” asked Garthniiel.
Avenel didn’t answer. She was still feeling the rubble, trying to find its edges. Something crunched beneath her foot, and when she reached down to see what it was, she found the splintered bones of a hand. She dropped it at once.
“I found something,” said Flame, somewhere to her right. “The corridor, it turns here. I think I see a light.”
Avenel followed his voice, reaching out her hands until it met the other wall. She followed it around the bend, and there at the other end was indeed a light, but so faint that she may well have imagined it. “Let’s go,” she said.
The wall carvings here were shaped like arrowheads, all pointing toward the light. It grew brighter as they walked, and soon, there was enough illumination to see by.
The corridor was curved—gradual enough that they hadn’t realized it in the dark, but now with the light from up ahead, they could see it clearly. A few steps more and they could see the source of the light, a giant hole overhead where the ceiling had fallen in to reveal the blue skies above.
The corridor ended in a doorway, though its door sat in splintered pieces on the ground. There was a snow-covered courtyard on the other side, and looking around, theirs wasn’t the only corridor that ended at this courtyard. At the center of the courtyard, pieces lying broken and buried by the snow, stood what looked to be remains of a spire.
The base of the spire was still tact. The large double doors, each made of solid stone and as tall as castle gate, stood ajar.
“I think that’s it,” said Avenel. “That’s the throne room.”
“Do you think the others are already there?” asked Flame.
“I don’t know,” said Avenel. She drew a dagger from beneath her jerkin, and behind her, she could hear Frost notch her crossbow. The openness of the courtyard made her uneasy—anyone could see them as they ran across—but there was no other way to the broken spire in the center. From where she stood inside the door, she could see nothing to suggest the presence of soldiers, no strange shadows or cleverly concealed alcoves, but then again, she could see very little at all from where she stood.
Perhaps they were wrong. Perhaps there weren’t so many soldiers after all. Or perhaps—Perhaps they had already found Deena.
“On the count of three,” she said to the others. “One—Two—”
They ran out on three, half expecting arrows to rain down from above, but there was nothing. There was only the unevenness of the snow and rubble beneath their feet. The doors of the spire were open just enough for them to slip through, and they did, and found themselves in the ornate hall within.
It must have been beautiful, once. Tall windows of colored glass lined the walls, bathing the rubble below in yellows and reds. There were the remains of statues, each larger than life, broken hands and faces lying half-covered by the snow. Sunbursts adorned the pillars that had once held up the roof, the beams inlaid with copper and gold. A pair of staircases lead up to the balcony that ringed the room, and at the other end of the hall, atop a dais ten feet tall, was a chair of jagged black stone.
“I’ve been here before,” said Avenel, surprised. “I—No, it’s Inoor who’s been here before.”
“That makes sense,” said Frost. “She was working for Noriiel.”
“No,” said Avenel, shaking her head. “I meant before, when she was alive.” She walked forward to the center of the room, to where broken masonry covered the floor. A scrap of faded cloth peeked out between the stones, and she reached down to pull it free.
She heard it before her fingers met the cloth: the telltale thrum of a bowstring. Instinctively, she ducked, and the arrow flew over her head. Too late, she saw them: figures hidden in the stone trusses beneath the balcony, obscured by the shadows and the strange red light from the windows.
“How many?” asked Frost as the soldiers descended from their hiding spots.
Avenel didn’t answer. Too many, she thought, enough that the number doesn’t matter, but there was no time for words.
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Izra took a limping step forward, but two of the soldiers were quick to grab her by the arms.
“Don’t hurt her!” exclaimed Deena.
“I have no need to,” said Noriiel. “I only wish to speak with you without her interruption.”
“Don’t listen to him—” began Izra, but one of the soldiers clamped his hand over her mouth.
Noriiel continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “I am a man of my word, Harbinger. Answer my one question, and I will let her go. I will even direct you to your other friends.”
“Wh-what do you want?” asked Deena.
“Why do you wish to save the world?”
“Because I’m the Harbinger,” said Deena. “I have to. Izra said so.”
Noriiel smiled. “That isn’t an answer.”
There was a muffled sound of protest from Izra, then the sickening crack of bone. She had put her hands on the arms of the soldiers holding her, and those arms now fell away, limp. “Did you forget that I’m blood mage?” asked Izra, wiping a trickle of blood from her nose.
“How could I?” asked Noriiel. “After all you’ve done for me?”
“Done for you?” asked Deena. “What do you mean—?”
“Don’t listen to him,” said Izra. “He—” But more soldiers came to hold her back, three this time, pinning her arms behind her back.
Noriiel returned his attention to Deena. “Why do you wish to save the world?” he asked again. “Is it simply because you’ve been told to, and by a woman who lies, no less?”
Deena shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean.”
The soldier nearest Noriiel stooped and picked up one of the beads from Izra’s broken bracelet. “Do you know what these are?” asked Noriiel.
Deena looked at it. She remembered reaching for Izra’s bracelet at the inn, remembered the visions she had seen. “No,” she said.
“These are memories,” said Noriiel. “As a blood mage, Izra can manipulate the mind where it exists in flesh. When Ruuzael sent her to meet you, she took her own memories from her mind so you would not see them in your dreams. What is it, I wonder, that she so desperately wished to hide? Even now, with the fate of the world in the balance, what is it that she does not want you to know?”
Deena took a step back. “I—if it was important for me to know, I’m sure she would have told me.”
“Would she?” asked Noriiel. “She allowed you to believe that you were chasing the Harbinger, that the Harbinger would be responsible for destroying the world. What other truths has she withheld?”
“I do not ask you to take my word,” said Noriiel, and beside him the soldier took a step forward and held out the bead. “You are the Harbinger,” said Noriiel. “Memories are your birthright. You need only take it and see for yourself.”
Izra strained against her bonds. For half a second, she shook free of the hand over her mouth. “Don’t!” she called. “Deena, don’t—”
Deena looked at her. “That night at the inn,” she said, “when I touched your bracelet. Is this why you didn’t want me to tell anyone about what I saw?”
The hand was back over Izra’s mouth, and she shook her head as violently as she could, but it was no good. Three feet away, Deena reached out and took the memory from the soldier’s open hand.
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
For a while, Nicholas sat crying. It had been a long time since he cried—since the day Asterii fell, when he awoke to find himself the sole survivor of his race. He did not much remember the details of the days that followed, only the overwhelming feelings of grief and shock that someone he so loved could commit such an atrocity.
He stood and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “I don’t suppose you know another way to where I need to go?” he asked.
To his surprise, Inoor turned and began to walk away.
“Where are you going?” asked Nicholas.
Inoor didn’t answer, only kept on walking, moving between the shelves and broken stone.
Nicholas followed. On the other side of the room, Inoor put her hand on the wall—there was a low rumbling—and one of the wall shelves swung open to reveal a secret corridor.
“Am I—am I supposed to go in there?” asked Nicholas.
Inoor didn’t answer. Nicholas took that as a yes.
The corridor was small and narrow, barely big enough for a single person to pass through. Nicholas lit a fire in his palm to light his way. Fortunately, the corridor was short, and on the other side was a small room, sparsely furnished, but what furniture it did have were clearly of much newer construction than whatever had befallen the temple.
“Is this—is this where he kept you?” asked Nicholas, looking at a cot in the corner. Beside the cot, there was also a desk, a washbasin, and a lantern on the hook by the entrance. There were papers on the desk, but the handwriting was not one that he knew, and a small wooden box with ornate carvings on the lid.
“Wait a minute,” said Nicholas, picking up the box. “I’ve seen this before. Izra had this.” He turned it over in his hand. “How did it get here?” He looked up. Inoor had followed him inside. “Did Noriiel take this when he took you?” He walked over to the lantern and lit it, then placed it on the desk to free his hand. The clasp on the box had rusted shut, but a little tug and the box was open.
Inside, the box was lined with a rich yellow silk, and nestled in the folds was a piece of obsidian painstakingly shaped into a bird.
Nicholas picked it up. “This is a memory,” he said. “Whose?”
For the first time in centuries, Inoor spoke: “Yours.”
???; ???, Year ??? of ???
Like last time, the memories cut at her like red hot daggers, but this time Deena braced herself against the blow.
She was bound, hand and foot, in chains etched with runes. The light from the windows was blindingly bright, and she kept her eyes lowered to the ground. Around her, a ring of figures in crimson robes passed their judgement. “For the crimes of treason and blood magic, we sentence you, Izra Grey, to die.”
She didn’t move. Didn’t react.
The executioner, in his robe of black, stepped forward. “May your soul find mercy among the stars,” he said, and offered her the goblet of poison.
She took it, and in that same moment, the ground shook.
“No!” shouted a voice, and all eyes turned to the golden-haired man rising from his seat in the audience. Guards moved forward to restrain him, but he pushed past them, extending his hand over the barrier that separated him from her. “Izra, Izra don’t—”
She turned toward him. “Nicholas,” she said.
Cracks ran up the walls as the ground shook more violently. The guards struggled to stay on their feet as they moved forward to restrain her. It was too late. She reached for Nicholas—their fingers met—and all at once, the ground exploded beneath their feet.
The scene changed, and now she stood by a river on a moonless night, the stars obscured by the clouds.
All the stars but one.
He stood behind her, his bare feet not quite touching the grass, his face strangely illuminated. “Do we have a deal?” he asked.
She looked down at the dying man at her feet. He clung to her ankle, his breath a wet rattle, staring at her with one good eye and one a bleeding socket.
“What happened to him?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” asked the star. “You can find him another eye, if you wish.”
“And if I agree, there’ll be more like this?”
“An endless number of them, enough for all the experiments your heart desires.”
“That won’t be necessary,” she said. “I only need enough to bring back Inoor.”
“So do we have a deal?” asked the star.
“Yes,” she said and bent down to rip out the dying man’s soul.
Once more the scene changed, and she found herself descending the stairs to her laboratory. Three fresh bodies lay waiting on her table, the blood from their wounds still wet.
“I thought the war was over,” she said. “They won their revolution.”
In answer, the star gestured toward the bodies. “You needed more,” he said.
She didn’t ask for elaboration, and instead went to the bodies to examine their wounds. “What do you do with them,” she asked, “when I’m done with them?”
“I’m building an army,” replied the star.
She looked at him, then back at the bodies on her table. “I see,” she said and resumed her work.
The scene shifted again. In a rage, she flung her instruments off her table, glass shattering against the wall.
“Doctor Grey,” said her assistant, “you’re bleeding.”
Impatiently, she wiped the blood from her nose. “I was close this time, I know it. I just need to push further.”
“You’re hurting yourself.”
“There’s something stopping me,” she said. “No matter how many of the dead and dying he brings me, there’s something holding me back.”
“Your conscience, perhaps?” ventured the assistant.
She glanced down at the corpse on the table, at the neat stitches where she had mended the flesh. “Then I’ll need to cut it away,” she said.
“What?” asked the assistant.
“I’m a surgeon and a blood mage,” she said. “If there’s some part of me that’s preventing me from bringing back Inoor, I’ll reach into my mind and cut it away.”
Once again, the scene changed.
“Only one this time?” she asked as she looked down at the dead man on her table.
“This one is special,” said the star. “This one will be my vessel, the flesh and blood through which the others will be controlled.”
“Why this one?”
“I have my reasons,” said the star. “Will you do it?”
She nodded. “Anything,” she said, “so long as you help me bring back Inoor.”
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
“No!” screamed Deena, and the beads fell from her open hand. “No you can’t—”
“I can explain,” said Izra. “Whatever you saw—”
“No!” cried Deena again, stepping back from her. Noriiel was gone, but his soldiers—soldiers that Izra had created—remained. One of them grabbed her by the wrist, but she managed to pull away. She ran, leaving Izra shouting for her behind her. She didn’t know if the soldiers were chasing after her, but it didn’t matter. The sounds of fighting echoed up from somewhere below, the clang of metal on metal, and she ran toward it as fast as she could. The twists and turns of the corridor confused her, but she had to get there, had to get to Avenel and warn her before—
She ran out onto a balcony. The fight was below. She could see Avenel alongside the others, holding back the tide of the corpses turned soliders, but it was too late. The body from the memory—the one Noriiel had chosen to be his vessel, the commander of the others—was already there, and over the din of the fight he called out Avenel’s name.
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Someone called Avenel’s name. She turned, and her dagger slipped from her fingers.
“Ephraim?” she asked.
Ephraim smiled, his arms open in welcome. “Avenel,” he said. “My ward and pride. Have you missed me?”
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
“No!” shouted Deena from the balcony. “It isn’t him! It isn’t him!”
But she was too far. Avenel couldn’t hear her, couldn’t see the blade hidden behind Ephraim’s back as she began to make her way toward him.
The Ruined Temple; 17 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The dropped dagger lay forgotten at Avenel’s feet. She took a step forward. “How?” she asked. “I looked for you. I went back for you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Ephraim. “I’m here now.”
“I remember what you taught me,” said Avenel, taking another step forward. “I’ve always kept it with me.”
“I know,” said Ephraim. “You’ve done well.”
She smiled. “Don’t let your feelings cloud your judgement,” she said and ran her sword through his chest.
All around the room, like marionettes with the strings cut loose, the soldiers crumpled and fell.
Chapter 31 - Saltwater
Ocean; 16 June, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
This far north, the sun didn’t quite set. It merely grazed the horizon before reascending into the sky.
“It’s not right,” said Frost, squinting at it through the fog. “An hour to midnight, and there’s a bloody sun in the sky. Well, a sliver of one, anyway.”
“Cook says it’s because it’s summer,” said Deena, standing beside her. “In the winter, he says the sun doesn’t come up at all.”
“So like what’ll happen if we fail this saving the world thing,” said Frost.
Deena didn’t answer. Through the fog, she could just make out the shape of an ice floe, far to the right. It was strange to see a chunk of ice the size of land, like an island floating in the sea.
“Let’s go back down,” said Frost. “It’s freezing up here.”
Below deck, the others stood around a roughly drawn map that Izra had made. Deena walked to Avenel and peered over her shoulder at the jagged shape. “Is that where we’re going?” she asked, pointing at the large X Izra had drawn in the center.
Izra nodded. “It’s all ice,” she said. “It doesn’t melt, this far north, but parts tend to break off, especially in spring. It’s making our progress slower than I expected.”
“Will we still make it in time?” asked Deena, alarmed.
“That’s what we’re discussing,” said Flame. “The only way seems to be if we cut across the ice instead of going around.”
“Cut across?” asked Frost.
“Baal’s agreed to have his men row us to the ice,” said Avenel. “From there, we’ll make our way on foot.”
“He thinks we’re crazy, by the way,” added Nicholas. “I think I might agree.”
Avenel turned to peer through the porthole. “Ideally we would disembark tomorrow, but with this fog—”
She was interrupted by an ugly scraping sound and the ship lurching to a halt. Deena pitched backwards, but Avenel caught her before she fell.
“Is everyone alright?” asked Flame.
“I think I sprained my wrist,” said Nicholas, cradling it as he got to his feet.
“Let me see that,” said Izra.
“What happened?” asked Garthniiel.
“It sounded like we hit something,” replied Avenel. “I’ll go look.”
Deena followed her. Above deck, a giant mountain of ice loomed over the ship. Captain Baal spotted them over the commotion of the crew and hurried over. “I have the boys checking for damage,” he said. “It’s this blasted fog; it’s a wonder the crew can see anything.”
“Are they alright?” asked Avenel.
Baal nodded. “Aye. One of the men fell overboard, but we threw him a rope.”
There was a shout. Something bright arced toward them through the fog. It tore through the sail, and fire bloomed where it had struck. Avenel pushed Deena down as another flaming arrow sailed overhead; behind them someone screamed.
Baal ran for the man who had been hit, grabbing him and throwing them both overboard to put out the flames. He shouted for a rope, but more arrows rained down. One struck a barrel of rum, and it exploded, sending liquid fire running down the length of the deck. Urii was yelling for it to be put out, but there was fire everywhere, running up the ropes, the mast, the sails—
This is a nightmare, thought Deena. This is just another bad dream.
Avenel pulled at her arm, and Deena stumbled after her. The mast gave a creak and a groan and fell, sending up a shower of cinders and splintered wood. Amid smoke and screams, Deena tumbled down the trapdoor into the cabin below and was surprised to find herself ankle-deep in water.
“The hull’s cracked,” said Flame. “What’s happening?”
“We’re under attack,” replied Avenel. “Watch Deena,” she said and sloshed toward the door to the cargo hold.
“Where are you going?” asked Garthniiel.
“Looking for rope,” said Avenel. “We’ll need to abandon ship.”
There was a loud crack from elsewhere in the ship.
“I—I need to get our supplies,” said Izra. “Nicholas—”
“Our supplies? At a time like this?” asked Nicholas.
“There’s no point surviving today if we die of exposure tomorrow,” snapped Izra. “Are you coming or not?”
“Fine,” said Nicholas, and they both disappeared into the hold.
The water was up to their knees, now. There was another loud crack, and icy wind blew into the cabin, bringing with it smoke and the smell of burning. Deena screamed, screwing shut her eyes and covering her ears—anything to block out the world crumbling to ash around her—but even through her eyelids she could see the glow of the fire, feel the heat of the flames.
Someone shook her roughly by the shoulders. It was Avenel, a length of rope coiled around her arm. “Look at me!” she was shouting over the din of the crumbling ship. “Look at me, Deena—Look at me!”
“We need to go,” said Avenel. “You’re going to be fine; I’m right here with you.”
“We’ll have to jump,” said Garthniiel. The wall of the cabin had splintered away, and thick black smoke rushed in through the hole. “We can’t reach the rowboats.”
“Nicholas and Izra are still in the cargo hold,” said Flame, coughing.
“They’ll be fine,” said Avenel. She tossed one end of the rope to Flame. “We’re right behind you.”
Deena watched as Flame jumped through hole where the side of the ship had once been. “I-I can’t swim,” she said.
“I’ll carry you,” said Avenel.
The ship lurched. Deena stumbled, but Avenel was quick to catch her, and together they made their way to where the splintered floorboards gave way to void.
Through the smoke, they could just barely see Flame, Frost, and Garthniiel bobbing in the water below.
The smoke stung their eyes, and Deena took a half step back. “I—I can’t.”
“You’ll be fine,” said Avenel. “I’ll be there.”
“N-no, no I can’t—”
“We’ll do it together, on the count of three.”
Behind them, the fire was rapidly encroaching, eating its way across the ship. Before her was the yawning chasm, the smoke, the icy sea. Surely, if she jumped, she would falling to her doom. But if she didn’t jump—
“One,” counted Avenel. “Two.”
Deena jumped before three. Her heart lurched into her throat as she fell through the air, surely the last thing she would ever do. The ocean rushed up to meet her, to smash her to bits or to drown her, then—
Silence. The water closed over her head, shutting out the roar of the flames and the groaning of the ship. Cold saltwater entered her mouth, and she panicked, but which way was up? Arms wrapped around her, pulling her, then she broke through the surface again, coughing and gulping down the cold, smokey air. Someone pushed an empty barrel beneath her arms, and she clung to it, digging her fingers under the metal band.
“Are you alright?” asked Avenel, handing her a length of rope to hold so she wouldn’t float away.
Deena nodded, her teeth chattering.
Above them, the ship was an inferno. In a corner where the fire had yet to catch, Izra threw everything into a crate. Beads of sweat rolled down her face, leaving streaks of soot on her skin.
“Hurry up, Izi,” said Nicholas, coughing. “We need to go.”
“I know we have more furs than this,” said Izra. “Is this enough?”
“It’ll have to be,” said Nicholas. “Come on.”
“Wait, we need—we need to tie something to it to help it float.” Looking around, she rolled over a barrel and emptied the contents.
“That won’t be enough,” said Nicholas and poured out the contents of a second barrel.
He was halfway through tying it when he realized their mistake.
“Izi,” he said. “Izi, I think that was rum.”
“So?” she began, then her eyes widened as she realized what he’d said.
A burning beam collapsed between, and between Izra and the exit. The rum on the floor caught alight, and she leapt back from the flames. She couldn’t see, but could hear Nicholas calling her name on the other side. “Izra?” he called. “Izra!”
“I’m fine,” she called back. “Is the crate—?”
“I threw it in the water,” said Nicholas. “Where are you? I can’t see—”
“Forget about me,” said Izra. “Go!”
“I’m not leaving without you!”
“You have to!” shouted Izra. She coughed; there was so much smoke. “Without me—without me, it has to be you.”
“What are you saying?”
“No,” said Izra. She coughed again. “You have to—you have to remember—”
“Remember what?” asked Nicholas.
There was no answer.
Somewhere out of sight, another beam splintered with a crack.
“Damnit, Izra, I’m not letting you die!”
Nicholas extended his hands. To cool a flame was a feat he had never been able to do, but desperation fueled him now. He breathed in deep, despite the smoke, and pulled the fire’s heat into his chest. The flames directly before him flickered and dimmed to nearly nothing, but still he had to fight to hold back the fires around him. He could see behind the fallen beam, see Izra slumped against a crate, and with a cry he mustered up the magic to shove the beam aside. The heat of the flames he had absorbed burned like hot coals in his chest, but he held it in as walked to Izra and scooped her up into his arms. Only when they were at the edge of the ship did he release the heat like a great exhale and jump into the icy sea.
The cold jolted Izra awake. She sputtered, flailing in confusion for a moment before Nicholas shoved a broken plank under her arms.
“You saved me?” asked Izra, confused.
“Of course,” said Nicholas.
The ship was little more than a burning wreck now as the waves scattered the survivors. The seven of them clung to the rope that kept them together, teeth chattering in the cold. Through the fog, they could just make out the shape of a dinghy, but the deckhands aboard were too far away to see them, and they were too tired to call out.
“They’re more worried about their own people, anyway,” said Frost.
“Will they be okay?” asked Deena.
No one answered.
They swam for the iceberg that had forced their ship to a halt; it wasn’t far. Even up close it looked like a mountain, the sheer cliff face looming over them forebodingly. Nicholas used his fire to melt an alcove into the side, and gratefully they all clambered in.
“Good thinking with the supplies,” said Garthniiel, as they all changed into dryer clothes and wrapped themselves in furs.
“So what now?” asked Frost. “How do we get off this ice?”
“Let’s get some rest, first,” said Avenel. “We can worry about it in the morning.”
The wind whistled outside their alcove, but inside they were dry—even warm, once Nicholas started a fire with the remnants of a barrel. Most of them had sustained minor burns or scrapes, and Izra set about treating their wounds. One by one, they nodded off, until only Izra and Nicholas were awake.
“You should get some sleep, too,” whispered Nicholas, as Izra bandaged his wrist.
“Don’t worry about me,” replied Izra. “Nicholas, why did you save me?”
“Did you expect me to leave you?” asked Nicholas.
“Yes,” said Izra. “You should have.”
“Probably,” said Nicholas, “but I didn’t.”
“But why?” asked Izra.
“I don’t know,” admitted Nicholas. “I guess, at the end of it of all, you’re still family.”
“You should have left to die,” said Izra. “I would’ve deserved it.”
Nicholas didn’t answer.
She sat back and looked up at the ceiling of their cave. “They might still be up there, you know, the archers who set the ship on fire.”
“Where?” asked Nicholas. “On this iceberg?”
“There’s nowhere else they could have been,” said Izra. She looked at the others, fast asleep in a heap of furs. “Watch the others. I’m going to take a look.”
“Now?” asked Nicholas. “How are you going to get up there?”
“Are you insane?”
“Maybe,” said Izra. She stood. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“No!” He grabbed her by the wrist. “If anyone should go, it’s me. I can fly up there.”
“Not with this wind,” said Izra, shaking him off, “and not with your wrist in a bandage.”
“Then wait until morning,” said Nicholas. “I could carve a path for you in the ice, once I’ve rested.”
Izra shook her head. “Save your strength. This is—I need to do this alone.” She walked to the crate and retrieved a pickaxe to which she attached a long coil of rope. “If you want to help, you can help me bury this at the top of the ice.”
Nicholas stood. From the lip of the alcove he could just barely see the top. It wasn’t far—the height of four or five stories, at most—but it was far enough. If he strained, his magic could just about reach the top. He took the pickaxe from Izra’s hands, heated it over the fire, then threw it upwards with his magic as far as he could and sank it into the ice.
Izra held the other end of the rope. She tugged it.
“I buried it as deep as I could,” said Nicholas. “Will it hold?”
“It’ll have to,” said Izra. She hesitated. “If—if I don’t come back—”
“You had better,” said Nicholas. “I don’t want to have saved you for nothing.”
She climbed. Each gust of wind sent the rope swinging, and it was all she could do to cling tight and not look down. She tried not to look anywhere. The white of the ice was blinding to her, and it was easier, after a while, to close her eyes and go by feel.
Nicholas was watching her from below, she knew, but there was nothing he could do. If she fell, he would not be able to catch her.
One step, and then another—she inched her way up, bracing her feet against the ice and pulling herself forward. One step, and then another—she had to be almost there now, but she was too scared to look. Even through her gloves her fingers had begun to grow numb, and she wondered if she could use her magic to force the warmth into her extremities. Nicholas shouted something at her from down below, but she couldn’t hear him over the wind, and—
And she felt the ice crack.
Someone grabbed her by the arm. Blinded by the ice and sun, she couldn’t see who it was, just a silhouette reaching down over the top of the ice. She grabbed their arm, and together, they pulled her up onto the top of the ice.
Panting, she sank to her knees in the snow.
“Hello, Mother,” said the silhouette.
Izra closed her eyes. “You,” she said. She could imagine him looking at her with his mismatched eyes. “I told you: I’m not your mother.”
“You returned me from the dead,” said the man. “You gave me life. Is that not what a mother does?”
“I’ve told you before,” said Izra. “You were just a test. An experiment.”
Something cold and sharp pressed against Izra’s throat. “Have you ever considered, Dr Grey, the cost of your blind drive to bring back Inoor?”
“Of course I have,” said Izra.
“Liar,” said the man.
Izra didn’t answer. She waited for the blade to go deeper, to bite into her neck and spill her blood. Instead, it withdrew and fell to the ground with a clatter.
She opened her eyes. The man was already walking away, and she scrambled to her feet to grab him by the arm. “Wait!”
He turned to look at her. “I’m letting you go, Doctor Grey.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Do I need a reason?” asked the man.
“You hate me; I know you do.”
He was silent a moment, and his eyes seemed to be searching for something in hers. “The opposite,” said the man. “I love you.”
Her grip on his arm slackened. “What?”
“You know better than I what you’ve done,” said the man, “all the lives lost to your obsession. Decades I followed you, hoping you’ll see your folly, and in all that time, you never once even asked for my name. But for all that you’ve done—to me, to others—you gave me life. And a child has no choice but to love his mother.”
Izra shook her head. “No. No, if you loved me, you wouldn’t be helping him. You wouldn’t have helped him steal Inoor.”
“That’s precisely why I helped him,” said the man. “I had hoped, without her, you might have clarity.”
“No,” said Izra. “I will never give up on Inoor.”
The man closed his eyes. “I know,” he said. “Ruuzael promised you Inoor, didn’t she? Promised that when you saved the world, she would return what Noriiel stole?”
“She did,” said Izra.
“Then what will you do when you no longer need her promise?”
He beckoned, and from out of the blinding white of the ice and fog came Inoor.
No – Inoor’s body. It was only her body, reanimated.
Izra shook her head. “He knows,” she said. “He has to know you took her.”
“Of course he does,” said the man, “but I think he’s curious, just as I am, what you’ll do now.”
“What about you?” asked Izra. “If I take her, if we leave, you’ll be stranded here.”
The man turned away. “I’ve served my purpose. As you said, I was only ever just a test.”
She watched as he walked away and disappeared into the fog. Inoor’s body did not follow him but stood beside her, waiting. When she could no longer see him, Izra turned away. It wasn’t until the first tears froze on her cheeks that she realized she was crying.
Chapter 30 - Reprieve
Ocean; 26 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The sun rose early, this far north.
Avenel sat on a crate near the stern of the ship, watching the sun rise on the starboard side. A cloak was draped about her shoulders to ward off the early morning chill. Nearby, the crew busied themselves with whatever it was they had to do. A serving boy ran up to her to ask if she wanted something to eat or drink, but Avenel only shook her head.
She remembered the first time she had sailed over open seas. She had been chasing Symeon’s shadow, her own guilt and grief. That passage had felt like limbo, as though the time between boarding and landing wasn’t real, as though that time was a stolen reprieve.
It was similar now. For the first time since the sun first showed its missing piece, Avenel felt she could breathe.
She looked up. Garthniiel, wearing little more than a pair of faded trousers, approached her perch. “Aren’t you cold?” she asked.
Garthniiel shrugged, the chiseled shape of his shoulders sliding beneath his skin. “Aren’t you?”
She looked down. Her cloak had fallen slightly open, to reveal the thin tunic underneath. She adjusted it. “I didn’t intend to stay here long,” she replied.
Garthniiel nodded. “How are you feeling? Your injuries, I mean. I was so worried about Frost that I forgot to ask.”
“They’re healing,” said Avenel. She flexed her fingers. They still felt sluggish and slow to respond to her movements, but Izra had assured her that they would recover with time.
“I could train with you, if you think it would help,” said Garthniiel.
Avenel smiled. “Are you looking for a rematch of the last time we sparred?”
“Maybe,” admitted Garthniiel, grinning.
“Perhaps later,” said Avenel. She slid down from her perch. The way their heights lined up, she could lean her head into the crook of his shoulder if she wanted. Instead, she took a step back. “Garth, there’s something I’ve been wondering.”
“What is it?” asked Garthniiel.
“Why haven’t you asked me how Jaliin died?”
“Because I thought that if you wanted me to know, you would’ve told me already.”
“Is that all?”
“What else does there need to be?” asked Garthniiel. “I won’t deny that I want to know, but I’ve lived this long without knowing. I can live a while longer, until you’re ready to tell me.”
“What if that’s never?”
Garthniiel shrugged. “Then I still know you didn’t do it. That’s enough for me.”
Avenel shook her head. “No. You deserve to know the truth.” She reached for his hand, threading her fingers between his. “When all this is over, I’ll tell you everything.”
He closed his fingers around her hand. “I’d like that.”
For a few minutes they stood there, hand in hand, watching the sun rise over the sea.
Ocean; 26 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
When Flame woke, Frost was already up. He found her in the sitting area between their rooms, her feet propped up on the table.
“You’re up,” she said.
Flame nodded and took a seat across from her. “How did you sleep?”
Frost shrugged. “I hate this rocking.”
“Me too,” said Flame. He yawned. “Have you seen Garth?”
“He’s up on the deck, talking with Avenel,” said Frost. She turned to look out the porthole. “I should probably go thank her.”
“I think she knows,” said Flame.
“Yeah, well,” said Frost. “Was it her idea, having you two at the execution to fool Matiias?”
“It fooled me, too,” admitted Frost.
“What did you think was going to happen?”
Frost shrugged. “I didn’t know what to think.”
“Did you think we were just going to stand and watch?” asked Flame.
“Maybe,” said Frost.
“Sister, we’d die before we let that happen.”
“Don’t,” said Frost.
“Don’t what?” asked Flame.
“Don’t die,” said Frost. “When I was up there, when I thought I was going to die, I realized it was worth it if it meant you were alive.”
“Sister,” began Flame.
Frost shook her head. “I mean it. If I had to kill Da again, if I had to do it in front of Matiias and the entire city guard, I would.”
“I know you would,” said Flame. “But Sister, you’ve given too much for me already. Don’t give your life, too.”
“I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you,” said Frost.
Flame sighed and took his sister’s hands in his. “I’m a grown man, Sister. You need to stop living for others—for me, for Greoore, for Garth—and start living for yourself.”
“I don’t live for others,” said Frost.
“Don’t you?” asked Flame. “When was the last time your pursued something for no other reason than because you wanted to?”
Frost was silent for a moment. “What if I don’t know what I want?” she asked.
“All the more reason to find it. I know you said you wanted to leave when this is over, just the two of us, but I think—I think you should consider what you really want.”
Ocean; 26 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
There was a knock on Izra’s door, and hurriedly she shoved the bloodstained hankerchief under her covers. “Come in,” she called.
It was Nicholas who opened the door, carrying a tray of toast and fruit. “We missed you at breakfast,” he said.
“I wasn’t hungry,” said Izra.
Nicholas gave her a look. “Izi, it’s me. Who are you trying to fool?” He set the tray down on the little table by her bed. “Saving Kassie’s life nearly killed you, and to use your magic again so soon—” Izra had covered her nose with her hand, and he grabbed her wrist to pull it away. “See, you’re bleeding.”
“I’m fine,” said Izra, using her other hand to wipe the blood. “I’ve bled before.”
“And I’ve had a broken arm before,” said Nicholas. “Doesn’t mean I want it now.” He sighed and picked up a piece of toast. “At least eat something. Come on, I buttered it for you.”
Izra took the toast. In silence she ate it, then the second piece, while Nicholas watched her.
“I’ve missed you, you know,” said Nicholas.
Izra gave him a look. “You see me every day. You were in a cage on my desk for three hundred years.”
“Not that,” said Nicholas. “I mean the old you. You changed when Inoor fell sick.”
Izra looked away. “So did you.”
“Maybe,” said Nicholas. “I missed Inoor, too, toward the end. You were both so far away, in a world I couldn’t understand, and I just felt so helpless.”
“We were trying to end the plague,” said Izra.
“I know,” said Nicholas. “And after all the years you sacrificed, all the sweat and tears—they were going to sentence you to die.”
He looked at her, and in his eyes was that mixture of hate and hurt she had seen so much from him. “You didn’t deserve it,” he said. “It isn’t your fault you’re a blood mage. But Izi, they didn’t deserve it either.”
“You didn’t have to do it, Izi. You didn’t have to sink Asterii.”
Ocean; 26 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Deena had never prayed. She had seen the monks do it at the Meridian, but it hadn’t occurred to her then to try it herself. After all, she hadn’t had anything to pray for or anyone to pray to. But now, on this ship on the ocean, she had both.
She felt a bit silly, on her knees by the cot and speaking to herself, and she kept her voice to a murmur in case anyone heard her through the door. “Ruuzael,” she said. “Izra said you want to help us save the world, so are you watching? Are you listening?”
Her only answer was the creaking of the ship on the waves.
Days on the ship passed in a blur. Izra gave her some herbs for the seasickness and nausea, but it made her sleepy more often than not, so she spent most of her time in her cabin. Sometimes, in the afternoon, she would climb up to the deck for a breath of fresh air. Sometimes the others would join her, or members of the ship’s crew.
The first mate—a tall woman named Urii—and the ship’s cook—known only as Cook—took an interest in Deena as soon as they saw her books. Urii had never learned to read but liked to collect the ones she thought looked nice, and many afternoons she would bring one to Deena to read aloud. Cook, on the other hand, preferred to do the telling. He seemed an infinite fountain of tales from far off lands.
“In Neben,” said Cook in a conspiratorial whisper, “they eat rats.”
“They do not!” exclaimed the cabin boy. “Do they?”
“They eat snakes in Plithia,” said a deckhand. “We’ve been there.”
“But rats?” asked the cabin boy.
Cook winked. “You’ll have to go to Neben to find out, won’t you?”
Sometimes, Garthniiel and Avenel would spar on the deck, and the crew would gather to watch. Deena liked watching too. It made her feel better to see Avenel’s movements return to their usual grace and speed. Once in a while, when Avenel moved her arm in a certain way or Garthniiel landed a blow in a certain place, the slightest shadow of a wince would cross her face. When Deena saw it, guilt would make her look away.
She didn’t mention it to Avenel. She didn’t want to burden her more.
She did mention it to Izra, once. “She’s still hurting,” said Deena. “Isn’t there some way to make her better?”
“There is,” said Izra. “It’s called time.”
In the evenings, Deena would look for Avenel in her room, and they would curl up next to each other, each with a book in hand. Sometimes, Avenel would ask what Deena was reading, but usually they would simply sit in a comfortable silence. It reminded Deena, a little, of evenings at home, of reading while her mother sewed.
But the days were growing longer. Every waking moment, the sun hung low in the sky. And try as she might to ignore it, Deena could not. It was the first thing she saw in the mornings, and the last thing before her eyes slid shut. “I have to save you,” she whispered, standing on the deck one day. “I have to save the world, but I don’t know how.”
If the sun heard her, if it was alive as Izra implied, it gave no acknowledgement of her words.
And every day, its crescent grew a little bit thinner.
Chapter 29 - A Last Look
Selkie’s Shore; 25 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Frost woke to the clatter of a food tray being dropped unceremoniously into her cell.
“Eat up,” said the guard. “Could be your last meal, if your trial today goes south.”
Frost picked up the spoon, bent and dinted as it was, and poked at the unidentifiable sludge in the tray. “What is this?” she asked.
The guard shrugged. “Don’t eat it if you don’t like it.”
Frost took a tentative nibble. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, either, but Frost had lived off worse. She finished her plate, her heavy handcuffs jangling as she ate.
The woman who shared her cell chuckled from her corner. “You must be hungry, if you’re eating that rot.”
“I’m not a picky eater,” said Frost.
“Then have mine, too,” said the woman. “Better to hang with a full belly, eh?”
“I’m not going to hang,” said Frost.
The woman cackled. “Keep telling yourself that,” she said. “Might be you start to believe it.”
Frost leaned back against the wall. Flame and Garthniiel would get her out; she knew it. They had never let her down before. Then again, they had never had more to worry about than each other. Now, with the fate of the world at stake, what would they choose?
No. No, she couldn’t die in this city; she couldn’t. Not after all she had done to escape it. There was still the trial, after all, and what evidence of her crime could they possibly have after so many decades had passed? She would lie. She had spent all this time lying about what had happened to her father and why she had left Selkie’s Shore. What was one lie more?
“So who d’you kill?” asked the woman. “A guard? A shopkeep? A suitor who won’t hear ‘no’?”
“How do you know I killed someone?”
The woman shrugged. “They don’t hang you if it ain’t murder. Thieves like me just get left to rot in here, nevermind that I only stole to feed my boys. You should count yourself lucky; one way or the other, you’ll be out of here soon.”
“How long have you been here?” asked Frost.
“Who knows?” said the woman. “It makes no matter; I ain’t never getting out. One of these winters, they’ll have to carry my frozen corpse out that door.” She shifted her weight, and her chains rattled as she did so. “I hope it’s soon.”
Frost turned to look at her, at her long, matted hair that covered half her face and body. “They say the world might end soon,” said Frost.
“Yeah?” asked the woman. “I’d say ‘good’, but…”
“But I ain’t ready for my boys to go.”
It wasn’t long before the guard returned. “It’s time,” he said, unlocking the door to Frost’s cell.
“For what?” asked Frost.
“For your trial,” said the guard, and grabbed her unceremoniously by the arm.
Frost turned to look at her cellmate. “Go on, then,” said the woman. “Think of me when you’re out there, swinging in the wind.”
Her chains rattled against the ground as she followed the guard down the corridor. A hood was pulled over her head, and she was loaded into a wooden cage of a wagon. For a long time she waited, long enough that she almost wanted to ask what they were waiting for, then others were loaded into the wagon with her. None of them spoke as the wagon rolled through the streets.
She remembered what the hangings had been like in her youth, and it would seem not much had changed. Execution days had been like holidays, with young and old alike gathered in the square. She could tell they were nearing the square by the increasingly loud and riotous voices outside, throwing insults, expletives, and rotten fish at the wagon. We haven’t even been tried yet, thought Frost, and a moment later she felt the wet squelch and rancid smell of fecal matter hitting her arm.
At last the wagon stopped, and the hood was pulled from Frost’s eyes. She blinked, blinded by the sunlight. Here, at least, there was some reprieve from the crowd, as she and her fellow prisoners stood behind the raised platform on which the gallows and noose had been erected.
She looked up at the magister’s dais, a wooden box overlooking the crowd and the gallows. Lord Matiias was already there, reclined in an ornate chair, a pair of guards behind him. As though feeling her gaze, he looked down at her, and Frost flinched and looked away. Stupid, she thought. An innocent person would have no reason to flinch. Now he’ll know you’re lying.
She wondered where her brother and Garthniiel were. On a ship, on their way to save the world? Had they really left her behind?
“Stop fidgeting,” said the guard beside her. It was a different guard from the one who had loaded her onto the wagon. This one was shorter, his face obscured by a helmet, one hand on Frost’s arm and the other on the sword at his hip. If I try to run now, thought Frost, would he cut me down?
There were two other prisoners beside her, a balding man with sagging cheeks and a boy scarcely Deena’s age. The balding man went first, half dragged up to the platform by the guards.
There was a herald in the box next to Matiias, and the crowd quieted as he cleared his throat. “Iliias Eln,” called the herald, “for the gruesome rape and murder of a child.”
The crowd roared in anger and indignation, pelting the hapless Iliias with fishbones, produce, and worse. He took a half-step back, but a guard forced his head into the noose.
“Wait,” said Frost. “What about the trial?”
“What trial?” asked the guard beside her.
“His trial. He hasn’t been tried yet.”
The guard turned to look at her. “Of course he has,” he said. “The trials happened this morning.”
Panic rose like bile in Frost’s throat as she glanced up at the midday sun. It was already noon. The hangings always happened at noon, she remembered, but why hadn’t she had a trial? “I—I didn’t have one,” she said. “There’s been a mistake. I didn’t—”
The guard’s grip tightened on her arm. “Of course you did,” he said. “Lord Matiias saw to your case himself.”
The executioner pulled the lever, and the trapdoor opened under Iliias’s feet. His neck snapped as he dropped, and the crowd cheered their approval. In desperation, Frost looked toward Lord Matiias on his dais, but he was no longer looking her way.
The boy was next, and he obediently walked up the steps to the noose. “Barra the Simple,” announced the herald, “for putting rat poison into the food of his master’s son, causing death.”
“I didn’t mean to,” shouted the boy, and his voice gave away he was even younger than he looked. “I didn’t know it was poison, I swear!”
The crowd didn’t care, and whatever else Barra might have said was lost to their jeers and insults. He was still trying to shout over the crowd as the executioner placed the noose around his neck. Unlike Ilias, the boy wasn’t heavy enough to break his neck, and for several long minutes, he dangled kicking and twitching, until at last he grew purple and still.
Now it was Frost’s turn. She watched as the guards cleared away Barra’s body, then the executioner turned to beckon her forward. Her own heartbeat thudded loudly in her ears as she walked up the steps, and then—
And then she saw them. Her brother, his hair bright as a beacon, and Garthniiel standing beside him. What were they doing there? If they hadn’t left with the ship, then—then why hadn’t they tried to save her? Above her, the herald read her name and crime, but she heard none of it as she looked at them, at Garthniiel and at her brother most of all. He was standing on tip-toe, looking intently at her as though trying to convey something with his eyes alone, but she could not understand what it was.
Perhaps this was for the best. She had, after all, committed the crime for which she was to hang. Perhaps this was only justice. The executioner placed the noose around her neck then stepped aside, and for the first time that day, Frost noticed the beautiful blue infinity of the sky.
The woman in the cell had said she’d be swinging in the wind, but she was wrong. There was no wind today.
There was a shout from the magistrate’s box—gasps from the crowd. The wood of the box was on fire, the guards rushing to pull Matiias away from the flames. The herald shrieked, and in a panic, the crowd began to scatter, shoving into one another in their haste. Something—an arrow?—flew past Frost’s head, severing the noose overhead, then the trapdoor beneath her opened and she fell through. Someone caught her and, setting her on the ground, quickly set about unlocking her manacles.
It was the guard from before, the one who had been at her side as she stood awaiting her death.
“Who are you?” asked Frost. “What’s happening?”
The guard took off his helmet, and Frost was surprised to see it was a woman underneath. “I’m Garthniiel’s Aunt Welsiica,” said the woman. “Perhaps he’s spoken of me.”
Selkie’s Shore; 25 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
“Barra the Simple,” announced the herald, “for putting rat poison into the food of his master’s son, causing death.”
Lord Matiias scanned the crowd. He could see the Queen’s Bastard and his redhead friend near the front, but they were simply standing there, not even attempting to save the woman Ellia. They hadn’t even brought their weapons with them; not a sword or bow was in sight.
He gave a wave of his hand, a signal for the executioner, and the trapdoor beneath the boy swung open. Oh, how he hated when they twitched and squirmed as they dangled; watching a slow death was never pleasant, regardless of person’s crimes. He returned his gaze to the Queen’s Bastard. The false prince had recoiled slightly at the boy’s death throes, but other than that, neither he nor his companion had budged. Matiias frowned. Had he misjudged the situation? Were the three of them not so close after all? No, the prince had sought him out, had practically begged for the woman’s release. And the redhead—he was her brother, was he not? They would not simply stand there and watch her die. It was a ruse; it had to be. They were waiting for her to step onto the platform, that was all, and when they made their move, so would he.
He kept his eyes on them as he gestured for the next prisoner to be brought forward. This was the one, the bastard’s friend, yet still he made no move toward her. What was he waiting for? If he did not act now, the noose would soon be around her neck, and then—
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a golden bird flit past, and then half the floor was ablaze.
Chaos. One of his guards yanked him away from the fire while another tried vainly to smother the flames with his cloak. The herald had pressed himself against the corner, shrieking incoherently. The crowd below was screaming too, as the guards yelled for order, but no one was listening to a thing that anyone else was saying as all descended into madness.
Matiias scrambled to his feet, but smoke obscured his vision. “The woman,” he began, but the smoke stung his throat and he broke into a fit of coughing.
Why was there a fire in his box? How was there a fire in his box? It didn’t matter; what mattered was when. His guards tried to usher him toward the stairs, but impatiently, he waved them away. Could they not see what was happening? This was a distraction, nothing more, and by the time the smoke cleared and order had returned, the woman would be long gone.
He had not expected the false prince to be so clever, but he would not be made a fool of by a bastard.
“Find them,” croaked Matiias in between a fit of coughs.
“I’m sorry, my lord?” asked the guard.
“Find them,” repeated Matiias. “Find the Queen’s Bastard and his whore, and bring me her head.”
Selkie’s Shore; 25 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Welsiica had stripped off her armor and given it to Frost, and it was this guise Frost wore as she made her way to the docks. When she was almost there, a bird alighted on her shoulder, and it took her a moment to recognize Nicholas.
“Down that alley,” said Nicholas. “There’s a sack with some clothes for you.”
She was about to ask, then realized that of course she couldn’t board the ship dressed as a city guard. Nicholas turned away as she changed.
“Did you set the fire?” asked Frost.
“Who else?” asked Nicholas, puffing out his chest feathers. “I had to hide in the rafters all morning. Chased away three seagulls.”
“Who cut the rope?”
“I did,” said a voice, and Frost looked up to see Avenel drop down from the rooftop, Flame’s bow strapped to her back.
“I thought you all left,” said Frost.
“Not without you,” said Avenel.
Deena was waiting for them at the docks. When she saw them, she ran forward to throw her arms around Frost. “You’re alive!” she exclaimed. “I was so worried!”
“Uh, thanks,” said Frost awkwardly. “Where’s Flame and Garth?”
“They’re not back yet,” said Deena.
“They should be soon,” said Avenel. She handed the bow to Frost. “Nicholas and I will wait for them. Deena, take Frost below deck, out of sight of the guards.”
Frost didn’t argue. Taking Flame’s bow, she turned and followed Deena onto the ship.
Nicholas took a perch by Avenel’s shoulder. “They should’ve come back before us,” he said.
“I know,” said Avenel.
It was a while before Flame returned. On seeing Avenel, he ran the last few steps. “Where is she?” he asked.
“On the ship,” said Avenel. “She’s safe.”
Flame nodded and moved to hurry past her, but Avenel caught him by the arm. “Wait. Where’s Garthniiel?”
At this, Flame looked surprised. “He isn’t back yet?”
“No,” said Avenel. “He isn’t with you?”
“We were followed,” said Flame. “We separated to lose them more easily, but he should be back by now; I took the long route.” He turned to look the way he had come. “The guards must’ve caught up with him. Do you think they—”
“No,” said Avenel quickly. “Matiias is one thing, but the city guard wouldn’t dare touch him if they knew who he was.” She turned to look at the ship. “Go join the others,” she said. “We’ll leave as soon as he returns.”
Nicholas waited until he was out of earshot. “You’re worried,” he said.
“I don’t like waiting,” replied Avenel. “The longer we’re here, the greater the risk of Frost being discovered.” She paused. “If he isn’t back in an hour, tell Captain Baal to set sail.”
“You want to leave without him?” asked Nicholas.
“His life isn’t in danger. Matiias won’t kill him without cause.”
“You’re still abandoning him.”
Avenel turned away to walk back to the ship. “I’m doing what I have to.”
Selkie’s Shore; 25 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
There was a merchant sitting at the side of the street, selling dolls made of colored clay. Garthniiel stopped and bent down, pretending to examine his wares.
“A bauble for your son or daughter?” asked the merchant. “Handcrafted and brought all the way from the distant shores of Monlai.”
“I see,” said Garthniiel. Surreptitiously, he glanced back at the quartet of guards behind him. As at the last few market stalls that he had stopped at, they stood watching him, hands never far from their swords.
They had approached him shortly after he and Flame had separated. “Prince Garthniiel,” their leader had said. “Lord Matiias humbly requests your presence.”
“Now?” Garthniiel had asked. “I’m, ah, rather occupied at present. Could it wait?”
“Of course,” said the guard. “His Lordship awaits you at his residence, at your earliest convenience.”
That was easy, Garthniiel had thought, but then the guard continued.
“Until then, we’re to accompany you for your protection.”
And so the guards had followed him as he meandered through the market, pausing at every stall in an attempt to buy time. Avenel would have left them behind long ago, he was sure; he wished she were here now to tell him what to do.
Think, Garthniiel! he chided himself. Use that brain of yours, for once in your life. It was growing increasingly obvious that he wasn’t shopping but simply stalling for time, yet what else was there to do? He didn’t dare go closer to the docks lest the guards realize where Frost was hidden, yet he wanted to make sure that when he did lose the guards, he wouldn’t have far to run.
He looked around. Here and there were some small alleyways branching off from the street, and he wondered if he could simply outrun the guards. No, if he tried that, he would surely get lost in the twists and turns. Further down, the market was so crowded that the shoppers were nearly shoulder to shoulder, but with his height and stature, even that wouldn’t be enough to lose the guards. There was a bard on a street corner he could pretend to watch, but that would only serve to buy more time.
The doll-seller was beginning to grow impatient. “Are you going to buy one or not?”
Garthniiel set down the doll. “Just looking, sorry.”
Across the street, a tavernkeeper sweeping his front stoop looked curiously at Garthniiel and his entourage of guards.
Garthniiel turned to the guards. “Would any of you gentlemen care for a drink?”
The head guard shook his head. “Not while on duty, your highness, but we’ll gladly accompany you inside.”
“Suit yourself,” shrugged Garthniiel, and strode toward the tavern. “Excuse me, sir,” he said to the tavernkeeper. “I’d like a cup of your finest ale, please.”
“We aren’t open yet,” said the tavernkeeper, glancing between Garthniiel and the guards. “It’s barely past noon.”
“Ah, but what if I were to tell you that I’m a prince?” asked Garthniiel. He nudged the head guard with his elbow. “Tell him.”
“You are standing in the presence of His Highness, Prince Garthniiel of Ajjraea,” said the guard.
“Oh, you mean the Queen’s Bas—” began the tavernkeeper, then dropped his broom in his haste to cover his mouth. “I—I’m so sorry, your princeliness, I didn’t mean—”
He was about to throw himself on the ground, but Garthniiel caught him by the arm. “It’s—it’s alright,” said Garthniiel awkwardly. He hadn’t quite expected that reaction. “I could go elsewhere for a drink, if—”
“No no, please, stay!” exclaimed the tavernkeeper. “Sit where you like! Our finest ale, on the house!”
“In that case, I thank you,” said Garthniiel and chose a seat in the center of the tavern. The guards chose to stand.
The ale soon arrived, and Garthniiel feigned an air of nonchalance as best he could as he sipped at the drink. He waited until he was halfway through before he stood again.
“Excuse me, sir,” he called to the tavernkeeper. “I was wondering if I might possibly use your outhouse?”
“Of course,” said the tavernkeeper at once. “Does—does the ale not agree with you, your princeliness?”
“No no, the ale is fine,” said Garthniiel. “Very enjoyable. But, you know, nature calls.”
“Of course,” said the tavernkeeper again and lead them through the back door and into the courtyard. “It’s just through this door here.” He glanced at the guards. “It—it only has space enough for one person, though.”
“That won’t be a problem,” said Garthniiel, “unless these gentlemen feel the need to hold my hand while I defecate?”
The guards, at least, had the decency to turn red. Their leader shuffled nervously on his feet for a moment, then: “W-we’ll just wait outside, your highness.”
“Good,” said Garthniiel and stepped inside the outhouse, latching the door firmly behind him.
There was a small window for ventilation high up in the wall, a common feature for an outhouse. Quietly thankful for his height, Garthniiel pulled himself up and out through the window. On the other side was the alley that ran behind the tavern. A pile of rubbish cushioned his fall, and after dusting himself off, he hurried in the direction of the docks.
He hadn’t gone far before a familiar bird swooped down onto his hand. “There you are,” panted Nicholas, breathless.
“What are you doing here?” asked Garthniiel. “Is Frost—?”
“She’s on the ship,” said Nicholas, “but you have to hurry!”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“It’s Matiias. He’s sealed the port and ordered the ships searched one by one.”
Selkie’s Shore; 25 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
From the deck of the ship, Avenel watched as the guards began their search. They had started at the south end of the docks, and it was fortunate that Captain Baal had chosen to dock his boat at the northern end. That would buy them some time, but time for what? The entire area had been surrounded by guards; it would be impossible to smuggle Frost off the ship again.
To seal the port of Selkie’s Shore, even for an afternoon, was insane. The economic consequences alone would cause most men to think thrice. And to then search the ships—Already, they could hear the indignant protests of merchants and captains as the guards pried open barrels and stabbed their swords into sacks.
“Bad day to be carrying cargo,” said Captain Baal. “Don’t you wish we’d left yesterday, instead?”
“In hindsight, yes,” said Avenel.
“What do you think they’re looking for?”
“Contraband, perhaps,” replied Avenel.
The captain gave a snort. “That’d be a first for Selkie’s Shore. The guards never care so long as they get their cut.”
“I see,” said Avenel. “Excuse me a moment,” she added, and ducked down the hatch into the cabin below.
“What’s happening out there?” asked Flame as she descended. “Are they really searching the ships?”
Avenel nodded. “They’re asking all the passengers to line up on the deck. Where’s Frost?”
“We hid her in a crate,” said Deena, “in the storage hold.”
“That’s going to get her killed,” said Avenel. She looked around. There was nowhere to hide in the cabin, no lofty rafters, no windows. Frost was too short to be convincingly disguised as a man, but perhaps—
There was a commotion above. “Wait here,” she said to the others, and climbed back up to the deck.
Garthniiel had shouldered his way past the guards, Nicholas—in human form again—at his heels. One of the guards ran to catch them, putting his sword across their path. “By order of Lord Matiias of Selkie’s Shore—” began the guard.
“And by order of Prince Garthniiel,” said Nicholas, “stand down.”
The guard blinked. “The Queen’s Bastard is here?” he asked.
“That’s ‘His Highness’ to you,” snapped Nicholas. “Why aren’t you all kneeling?”
“That’s enough, Nicholas,” said Garthniiel. “Sirs, I ask only for safe passage for my vessel.”
The guard continued to stare for a moment, then remembering himself, hastily sheathed his sword. “A-apologies, your highness,” he said, bowing. “I didn’t recognize you. You and your ship are of course free to leave once we’ve searched it.”
“And if we’re in a hurry?” asked Nicholas.
“Then we’ll search it at once,” said the guard, and gestured to his fellows.
From the horrified look on Nicholas’s face, this wasn’t the response he expected.
Avenel stepped forward to block their way. “May I ask what it is you’re searching for, sirs?”
The guard hesitated a moment as though trying to discern if she was someone he could risk offending. “With all due respect, ma’am, we aren’t at liberty to say.”
“I see,” said Avenel. “So this is how Selkie’s Shore treats royalty: a sudden search without even the courtesy of an explanation. I’ll be sure His Majesty is made aware of this.”
The guard dropped to his knee. “We’re only following orders, ma’am—milady. If you take offense, you’re welcome to address it with Lord Matiias. In the meantime—”
“Let them search,” came Izra’s voice, and Avenel turned to see her climbing up from below deck. “Captain Baal?”
The captain shrugged. “I’ve nothing to hide,” he said.
The guard got to his feet. “Thank you for understanding,” he began, but Izra put up a hand to stop him.
“On one condition,” said Izra. “Only one of you goes in the prince’s quarters. I won’t have common soldiers invade his highness’s privacy like it’s nothing.”
The guard hesitated a moment, then nodded. Gesturing for his men to begin the search elsewhere, he followed Izra down into the cabin.
Avenel turned to look at Garthniiel. The same concern and confusion she felt was written plain across his face, and she had to give him a surreptitious tilt of the head to remind him to hide his expression.
It was a while before Izra and the guard returned. “Nothing down below,” called the guard to his fellows. “Come on, we have other ships to search.”
“Does this mean my companions and I can leave?” asked Garthniiel.
“What?” asked the guard. “O-oh, uh, of course, your highness. Apologies for the inconvenience, and safe voyage.” He gestured to his men, and they filed off the gangplank, already on their way to the next ship.
Avenel turned to Baal. “Shall we, Captain?”
Captain Baal nodded. “Aye.” He clapped his hands together for his crew. “You heard her, boys. Hop to it!”
In his haste, Garthniiel more fell than climbed down the ladder into the cabin. Deena was there, and Flame, and Frost sitting between them. Wordless, Garthniiel ran up to her and pulled her into an embrace.
Frost patted him on the arm. “You’re choking me, Garth.”
Garthniiel relaxed his arms, but not quite enough to let her go. “How?” he asked. “How did you hide from the guard?”
Frost shrugged. “I don’t know. He saw me, but… it was like he didn’t.”
“As long as you’re safe,” said Garthniiel, and squeezed her tight once more.
On the deck, Izra stood by the railing, the wind whipping through her snow-white hair. Nicholas stood beside her, his hand on her arm. “Izi,” he said. “What did you to that guard?”
“I took his memory of who he was looking for,” said Izra. In her hand was a small glowing orb the color of molten rock. As it cooled, it congealed into a black stone, its surface as smooth as glass.
“You tampered with his mind?” asked Nicholas. “You said you’d never do that again.”
“I did what I had to,” said Izra and hurled the stone into the sea.
All around them, the crew bustled to and fro, shouting to each other as they worked. Behind them, Selkie’s Shore receded into a mere rock, then speck, then finally nothing at all. There was only the horizon, an unmarred expanse of sea. And in the west, at the prow of the ship, the sun was a white crescent, blindingly bright.
Chapter 28 - Old Guilt
Selkie’s Shore; 24 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Flame sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “And what did you say she did?” he asked.
“Public drunkenness and fisticuffs,” said the guard, looking down at his ledger. “Sound like your gal?”
“Yeah, that sounds like her,” said Flame.
The guard nodded and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Go on and see her while I start the paperwork. Between you and me, no one minds terribly much that she beat up those three, but maybe talk some sense into her before she gets herself hurt.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Flame.
Frost was in the cell furthest from the door, lying on a straw pallet and staring up at the ceiling. There was a small cut on her cheek and a bruise on her jaw, but otherwise, she seemed fine.
“Getting into fights without me, Sister?” asked Flame.
Frost lifted her head slightly to look at him. “Just get me out of here.”
“Do you remember when we used to come here to bail out Da?”
Frost scowled. “Don’t compare me to Da.”
Flame put up his hands in resignation. “Fine. I won’t. But just so you know, you’ve had us running around all morning, looking for you. Garth was afraid you’d been kidnapped.”
“Huh. I thought they would’ve just left me.”
Flame sighed. “They wouldn’t. We can talk about it once you’re out of here.”
“About that,” said the guard, approaching them. There was another guard behind him, a more senior one, judging by his uniform.
“Is there a problem, sirs?” asked Flame.
It was the more senior guard who answered. “When a particularly egregious crime occurs in the city, a record of it is kept in perpetuity.”
Flame shook his head. “It was a drunken streetfight. Surely that can’t be considered egregious.”
“Not that,” said the guard. “A different crime. Ellia of Selkie’s Shore, you are hereby arrested on the charge of patricide.”
Selkie’s Shore; 24 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
At the inn, Garthniiel paced the length of the room, not that it was long enough to do much pacing. A single step took him to where Deena and Avenel sat on one of the beds, and another step took him back to Flame and Izra sitting on the other bed.
“This is ridiculous,” said Garthniiel. “If you knew this could happen, why didn’t you say something before?”
“Our father was a common drunkard,” said Flame. “I didn’t think anyone would care.”
“They don’t,” said Avenel. “They care about Frost, and her connection to Garthniiel.”
Garthniiel turned. “Are you saying they arrested Frost to get to me?”
“Not necessarily, but someone wanted this. How else could they have found the file so quickly?”
Flame ran a hand over his face. “I should’ve given them a false name.”
“You didn’t have the papers,” said Avenel. “That might have made them more suspicious.”
There was a knock on the door. “It’s me,” called Nicholas’s voice, and Deena stood to let him in. “I spoke to the ship’s captain,” he said. “He’s willing to wait another day, but for a price.” He closed the door behind him. “Any news?”
Avenel shook her head. “We tried talking to the guards: threats, bribery—Nothing’s worked. We don’t even know where they’ve moved her.”
“Aren’t you a prince?” asked Nicholas, turning toward Garthniiel.
“Only in name,” said Garthniiel. “I don’t have any political clout.”
“What about Greeore?” asked Flame. “Or the king? Could we write to them?”
Garthniiel shook his head. “It would take too long for a letter to reach them, and that’s if they’re even still at the Meridian.” He stood. “I’m going to go talk to the magistrate. Maybe he’s friends with Greoore.”
“He isn’t,” said Avenel.
“Do you know him?” asked Garthniiel.
“Only by reputation,” replied Avenel. “His name is Lord Matiias. I should warn you: He’s known for holding a grudge against you.”
“Against me? What did I do?”
“Exist,” said Avenel. “There was a time when he was one of the king’s most trusted advisors, but after you were born, he insisted that Toorre acknowledge your bastardy, even after Toorre continually refused to do so. They nearly came to blows over it, and for decades he was banished from court. He’s hated you ever since.”
Garthniiel took a deep breath and sighed. “He’s not even going to listen to me, then, is he?”
Flame reached out to grab Garthniiel’s hand. “Garth, we have to try. Please. If we don’t—”
“I know,” said Garthniiel. “I know.”
It was after Flame and Garthniiel had left the room that Izra stood and walked to the window. The sun was hidden behind a heavy bank of cloud, but she gazed toward it anyway. “We don’t have time for this,” she said.
“If we leave her, she dies,” said Avenel. “She’ll be hanged.”
“And if we stay?” asked Izra. “If we fail to make it to our destination in time?”
“It may not come to that,” said Avenel. “We still have time.”
“For now,” said Izra.
“You’re not—you’re not thinking of leaving Frost behind?” asked Deena. “She—We can’t! We can’t just let her die!”
“Would you rather we end the world?” asked Izra. “That’s the choice: one life or the world.”
Avenel put a hand on Deena’s shoulder. “It won’t come to that,” she said. “We’ll get Frost out; don’t worry.”
Selkie’s Shore; 24 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It was afternoon by the time Garthniiel managed to get an audience with Matiias. A doorman showed him to an ornate sitting room. High on the wall, a portrait of King Toorre stared disapprovingly down. In silence, Garthniiel waited, wearing a groove in the floor as he paced, until at long last the double doors at the other end of the room swung open.
Lord Matiias was a large man, round of face and gut. Though only a magistrate, he stepped through with his head held as high as a king’s. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” said Matiias, adjusting the lace cuff of his sleeve. “How might I help you, your highness?”
Garthniiel bowed. “It’s an honor to meet you, my lord.”
“The honor is mine,” said Matiias. He took a seat in one of the armchairs by the fireplace and gestured for Garthniiel to take the other.
Garthniiel sat. “I’m not sure if it’s come to your attention yet,” he said, “but your city’s fine guards made an arrest this morning.”
“My city guards arrest many people,” said Matiias. “We’re a busy port. I can hardly be expected to know of every gambler or vagrant.”
“Of course not,” said Garthniiel, putting on his winningest smile. “You’re a busy man, after all, and I thank you on the king’s behalf. But for crimes of a more significant nature—”
Matiias held up a hand. “You need not say more; I know the case of which you speak. When my men saw they had arrested a known companion of a prince, they brought it to my attention immediately. It’s a heavy charge, patricide. You must be devastated by her deception.”
“No, you misunderstand, my lord,” said Garthniiel. “Frost—Ellia—is innocent. What’s more, the alleged crime happened over a century ago; I doubt there’s anyone alive who could say what truly happened.”
“Do you have proof of her innocence?”
“Well, no, but I can give you my word that—”
“With all due respect, your highness, the word of a liar means nothing.”
Garthniiel’s smile faltered. “Liar?”
“Let us be frank,” said Matiias. “You and I both know what you are, yet you came to me today as a prince. Does that not make you a liar?”
Garthniiel stared. He wanted to answer, to make some rebuttal or at least a witty quip, but no words sprung to his aid.
Matiias stood. “If there’s nothing else, your highness, I’m quite busy. There’s an execution to prepare for. Oh, and the trial, of course.”
“And—and when would that be?” asked Garthniiel.
“Tomorrow morning,” was the reply.
Garthniiel’s world spun. It was only when Matiias was at the door that he caught himself. “W-wait,” he croaked.
“Yes, your highness?” asked Matiias.
“Can I at least be allowed to see her?”
Matiias smiled. “Of course,” he said. “All are welcome to witness the hanging.”
Outside Matiias’s residence, Flame was waiting by the gate. “How did—” he began, but stopped when Garthniiel walked past him and onto the street.
It was nearing suppertime, but the streets were still filled with people. A greengrocer swore at Garthniiel as he nearly bowled into her, but he ignored her and continued on. He walked past the shops and the shoppers, the myriad of people with their own lives and loves and worries. They were all chatting, bartering, squabbling over trivials as though not a thing was wrong.
Vaguely, he was aware of Flame following behind him, and vaguely he was aware of walking faster and faster as he wove through the crowd. Flame called after him, but he couldn’t stop—wouldn’t stop. If he did, Flame would catch up to him, would ask how it went. And how could he possibly look him in the eye—his friend, his companion, his closer-than-brother—and tell him that his sister would die?
He was running now, sidestepping a pair of stray dogs tugging at a bone to disappear into a narrow alleyway. He ran past boarded windows, upturned crates, lines of laundry, and piles of waste until—
Until a wall loomed in front of him. A dead end.
A hand landed on his shoulder, and he spun around. “What?!”
Flame pulled back his hand. “Are you crying?”
“No,” said Garthniiel, wiping at his eyes with the heel of his palm. “Yes. Shouldn’t I be?”
“What happened?” asked Flame.
“What happened is that Frost is going to die and it’s my fault.”
“So it didn’t go well, then,” said Flame.
Garthniiel gave a bark of laughter. “Well? Avenel was right; he hates me! All I’ve done is show him that hanging her would hurt me, and now he’s going to do exactly that!”
“I see,” said Flame. He reached for the wall for support. “When?”
Flame closed his eyes.
“Punch me,” said Garthniiel.
“Punch me,” repeated Garthniiel. “This is my fault.”
“How is it—”
“If I hadn’t dragged you back to this city—If you’d never met me—If I hadn’t been born—” He smacked himself across the face. “Why was I born? Why couldn’t I have died in the womb?”
Flame grabbed his wrist before he could hit himself a second time. “Stop this.”
“Why?” asked Garthniiel. “You’re supposed to hate me.”
“I don’t.” said Flame. “None of this—none of what’s happened—has been your fault.”
“But if it wasn’t for me—”
Flame shook his head. “You didn’t ask to be born. You didn’t ask to be you.”
“But Frost is going to be hanged.”
“So help me get her back,” said Flame. He put his hands on Gartniiel’s face. “Please, Garth. I need you. You and Frost—you’re all I have.”
Slowly, Garthniiel nodded. “We’ll get her back, I promise. Whatever it takes, we’ll get her back.”
“Thank you,” said Flame, and wrapped his arms around Garthniiel.
Garthniiel hugged him back. For a while, the two simply stood there in each other’s arms until the first fat drops of rain fell from the sky.
It was Flame who pulled away, holding out his hand to feel the rain. “Did you bring a cloak?” he asked.
“No, I hadn’t thought to,” said Garthniiel. At the mouth of the alley, he could see the shoppers all scattering as the rain began to pour. They were far enough from the inn that a walk back in the downpour would be unpleasant, but that at least was a problem he could solve. “Come on,” he said. “We’ll find a rickshaw.”
Despite the rickshaw, they were soaking wet by the time they returned. The dining room was packed—doubtless with people looking to escape the rain—but Avenel had claimed a seat near the fire and waved them over.
“He’s planning to hang her tomorrow,” said Garthniiel in a low voice as he wrung the water from his shirt. “He said there’ll be a trial, but—”
“—but he made it clear it’ll be a sham?” asked Avenel.
“I see,” said Avenel. “I was afraid of that.”
“Can we pressure him in some way?” asked Flame. “Blackmail? Bribery?”
Avenel shook her head. “He’s notoriously difficult. As far as I know, he has no lovers, no vice, and doesn’t even drink.”
“Who doesn’t drink?” asked Garthniiel.
“Your Aunt Welsiica didn’t,” said Avenel. “Regardless, I doubt any of the usual tricks could have persuaded him.”
“So what do we do?” asked Garthniiel. “We don’t even know where she is.”
“We know one place where she will be,” said Avenel.
“The trial,” said Flame.
“And the execution,” added Avenel. “I have an idea, but…” she trailed off.
“But?” prompted Garthniiel.
“But you two can’t be involved.”
“What? Why?” exclaimed Garthniiel.
“Because it’s a trap. Matiias wants you to help her escape. That’s why he made it so clear he planned to hang her—to goad you into action.”
“Because there’s only one thing Toorre values more than his pride. If it became known that you were colluding with a murderer and in fact tried to help her escape, he would have no choice but to denounce you to protect his and Greoore’s political positions.”
“And Matiias would be vindicated,” finished Flame.
Avenel nodded. “And if you were to be killed in the escape attempt, even better.”
“If it saves Frost’s life—” began Garthniiel.
“It won’t,” said Avenel. “Matiias will be watching you; you’ll never reach her in time. Our only advantage is that he’ll wait for you to implicate yourselves before he acts. The best thing you can do is to go to that execution and do nothing. Make sure he sees you. And hopefully, that’ll keep him distracted from the rest of us for long enough to get her out.”
Garthniiel and Flame glanced at each other. “I can’t just sit by and do nothing,” said Garthniiel.
“But you must,” said Avenel. “Do you trust me?”
Garthniiel turned to Flame. “I—I can’t make that decision.”
Flame sighed. “We don’t have a choice.” He reached across the table to clasp Avenel’s hand in his. “Just bring her home. Please.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Avenel.
Flame nodded. “That’s all I can ask.”
They went upstairs to change out of their wet clothes, after that, then back down for an early dinner. The others came down too, though none of them spoke very much. Avenel was the first to leave the table, rising after just a few hasty bites. “I have some preparations to make,” she said. “Don’t expect me until morning.”
“What about me?” asked Deena.
“Stay with Izra,” said Avenel. “Don’t leave the inn.”
Long after the others had finished their meal and departed, Garthniiel and Flame still sat in the emptying dining room. The innkeeper’s children had long since cleared the table, and even the embers in the fireplace were dying.
“We should get some sleep, too, Garth,” said Flame, breaking the silence.
Garthniiel nodded. “You go on ahead.”
Flame nodded and began to rise, then paused. “Garth, there’s something you should know.”
“What is it?” asked Garthniiel.
“The—the thing that Frost’s accused of, she really did do it. I thought it would only be fair if you knew.”
“Oh,” said Garthniiel.
“Does this change anything?” asked Flame.
Garthniiel shook his head. “I just wish she had told me.”
???; ???, Year ??? of ???
It was raining. The disembodied girl felt the fat raindrops soak through the stranger’s cloak and into her clothes and hair. She was perched on a narrow ledge outside an upper story window, pressed tight against the wall, waiting in the dark.
Down below, a night watchman walked past on his patrol, but he did not look up.
The window was closed, but the crack in the shutters was wide enough for the stranger to peer inside. It was a dining room, the table set for three. At the head of the table was a dark-haired man with hooded eyes. A woman stood beside him, filling his goblet with wine, her other hand resting lightly on his shoulder. The third person was obscured by the shutters, only his hands visible as they rested on the table.
“I’ve dismissed all the servants for the night,” said the said the dark haired man, “so we may speak more freely. None know you are here.”
“Discrete as always, my lord,” said the man obscured by the shutters. “But will you not drink with us, my lady?”
“You’ll have to forgive my wife,” said the dark-haired man. “She never drinks with her meals.”
“A pity,” said the obscured man. “This is certainly a fine vintage you’ve uncasked.”
“Have as much as you like,” said the dark-haired man. “This dinner is in your honor, after all.”
“Then I thank you,” said the obscured man, lifting his goblet in a toast.
“It’s my wife you should thank,” said the dark-haired man. He looked to the woman and smiled. “It was she who convinced me to accept your offer.”
“Of course,” said the obscured man, tilting his goblet in the woman’s direction. “I assume it was useful, the information I provided?”
“You tease, sir,” said the woman. “I’m sure you’ve already heard the news.”
The obscured man laughed. “You’ve seen right through me, my lady. Lord Ephraim’s death should be quite a feather in your husband’s cap.”
The woman studied him for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “That Lord Ephraim was there was certainly an unexpected windfall.”
“I’m happy to have been of service,” said the obscured man. “Now, what of my end of the bargain? Surely I’ve proven my value to Ajjraea?”
For just a moment, the dark-haired man and his wife glanced at one another. “There will be plenty of time to discuss that,” said the man. “Today, we celebrate our victory.” He raised his goblet. “To Symeon.”
“To Symeon,” said his wife, following suit.
The obsured man raised his glass as well. “May this be the beginning of a fruitful relationship.”
They drank. The dark-haired man drained his cup, and the obscured man must have as well. He reached for the pitcher to refill his cup, but the woman was quick to grab it first. “Please, allow me,” she said.
The obscured man chuckled. “Afraid I’ll poison your husband?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” asked the woman.
“Let us drop the charade now, my lady,” said the obscured man. “I know you have no intention of keeping me around; you’re far too clever to trust a traitor.”
“Then why are you here?” asked the woman, but a moment later she had her answer. Her husband doubled over in pain, one hand clutching at his stomach, one hand reaching for his wife.
“Welsiica—” began her husband, then toppled from his chair onto the floor.
For the first time that evening, the obscured man stepped into view, smiling from ear to ear. “You were so vigilant in guarding your husband’s cup,” he said, “that you didn’t notice what I slipped into mine.” From his pocket, he produced a tiny glass vial, half-filled with a murky liquid. “The antidote,” he explained. “You yourself served the poison to your husband; I merely poisoned the cask.”
The woman shouted something, but the stranger didn’t hear as the shutters burst open. A moment later, Symeon leapt out the window and onto the ledge. He did not seem surprised to see the stranger there, but rather smiled. “Good to see you again, my teacher,” he said, and leapt from the ledge onto the roof of the house next door.
The stranger gave chase. They leapt from rooftop to balcony to rooftop again, then along a courtyard wall and down onto the rainslicked cobble streets. She chased him through the alleys and around corner after corner until finally he ran down a boardwalk that ended at the edge of the water. He looked down at the water, at the inky depths below, then turned to face the stranger.
Smiling, he pulled the little vial of antidote from his pocket. “Time to choose, my teacher,” he called and tossed the glittering glass vial into the air. “Your revenge or his life?”
For half a heartbeat, the stranger hesitated. Then she dove for the vial, catching it just before it hit the ground. By the time she got to her feet again, Symeon was gone, with not even a ripple in the water.
The window was still open when the stranger returned. Inside, Welsiica sat on the floor, her husband’s head cradled in her lap. She didn’t look up as the stranger entered, but said, “You’re too late. He’s gone.”
“I’m sorry,” said the stranger. She took the antidote from her pocket and placed it on the table.
“I’d like you to leave, please,” said Welsiica.
The stranger nodded. For a moment she hesitated, as though wanting to say something more, but in the end she only said “I’m sorry” once more.
“Just leave,” said Welsiica, clutching Jaliin’s body to her chest.
The stranger turned to go. As she did so, her eyes fell on the door. It was ajar, and in the crack between the door and its frame was the small, frightened face of a child.
Selkie’s Shore; 24 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The city had changed since last she was here, but then again, it had been awhile. There was a clocktower now at the highest point of the hill, and Avenel made her way there. She made short work of lock on the door then climbed the many flights of stairs to the top. Just beneath the enormous bronze bell, she found a perch and sat. She could see the whole city from here.
It reminded her, a little, of her favorite spot in Parvelhaugh, that windowsill in the tallest watchtower where she had spent countless hours looking out at the fields below. From there, she would watch the farmhands at work, and from here, she could see the cityfolk; it was not so different. There was a late ship pulling into port, the night shift dockhands scrambling to unload her wares. There was a pair of giggling lovers in an alley, meeting in secret by the cover of night. Somewhere to the west was the inn, where Deena lay sleeping and Garthniiel doubtless lay restless. And there, in the square outside the courthouse, was the gallows, the empty noose swaying in the wind.
For all the reassurances she had given to Deena and Garthniiel, the truth was that she hadn’t even an inkling of a plan. There hadn’t been time to gather the information she would need: How many guards would there be? How much time between Frost’s head being put in the noose and when the platform beneath her would open? Most importantly, did Matiias know about herself and the others, or was he only aware of Garthniiel and Flame?
And even if she had all that information, she had only herself; neither Nicholas nor Izra were fighters. Even without her injuries, she was just one person. To steal Frost away from under the watchful eyes of Matiias, his guards, and the public of Selkie’s Shore—How could she hope to do that alone?
Footsteps echoed up the stairwell. Avenel reached for her knives, and a moment later a beggar woman in a ratty old cloak emerged from below.
The beggar outside the bank, Avenel realized, and in a flash her dagger was at the woman’s throat. “Who are you?” she asked.
The woman wasn’t frightened or even alarmed. “It must be a good disguise to have you fooled,” she said, and wiped the dirt from her face with her sleeve.
Avenel lowered her knife. “Lady Welsiica,” she said.
“Not anymore,” said Welsiica. “These days I seem to take a different name each week.”
“Have you stayed here all this time? In Selkie’s Shore?”
Welsiica shook her head. “I searched for Symeon for a while, as you did, but you know how that turned out.” She took a seat on the windowsill. “Don’t worry; I’ve no intention of informing Matiias that you’re here. When the bank clerk told him of a woman in Garthniiel’s company, he assumed it was Frost.”
“But you recognized me at once,” said Avenel.
“I did,” said Welsiica. “It was Garthniiel who I failed to recognize.” She turned to gaze out at the square. “Jaliin loved the boy, you know. I should have done better by him.”
“You were grieving,” said Avenel.
“So was he,” said Welsiica, “and still I sent him back to court to live with his mother and Toorre.”
She turned to Avenel as if looking for a response, but Avenel had none to give. Somewhere in the distance, a seagull squawked.
“I haven’t told him,” said Avenel at last. “I haven’t told him what happened that night.”
“Do you think he would blame you?” asked Welsiica.
Avenel shook her head. “The problem is that I know he wouldn’t.”
“Just as you know he would forgive you for failing to save Frost.”
“Yes,” said Avenel.
“But you wouldn’t forgive yourself.”
Avenel didn’t answer.
Welsiica took a deep breath and turned to look out at the square again. “I don’t want to fail him again, either.”
Chapter 27 - Red Hands
???; ???, Year ??? of ???
Her hands were red. Her arms, all the way up to her elbows, were covered in blood and viscera. Before her, a mutilated corpse of a man blinked twice and sat up. Fresh stitches ran down his bare chest, a ragged red line that stretched from collar to groin.
She put a hand to his neck and found his pulse to be strong and steady. “Good,” she muttered. “And breathing and movement seem normal too.” She cleared her throat. “What’s your name?”
The man turned to stare blankly at her, not a trace of comprehension on his face.
“Your name. Do you know it?”
The man continued to stare.
She frowned. “Hit yourself,” she said, and without any hesitation, the man smacked himself across the face.
She screamed, a wordless sound of frustration and rage, as she flung everything off her desk. Scissors and syringes were sent skittering across the floor, and still the man on the table barely blinked.
A man with mismatched eyes came running into the room. “Doctor Grey?” he asked. “Is everything alright?”
“No,” she replied. She gestured toward the man on the table. “I was certain it would work this time.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the man with the mismatched eyes.
She slammed her fist on the table. “What am I doing wrong? The brain is intact, the heart, the lungs—Why are they always missing their minds?”
“Perhaps—Perhaps it just isn’t possible. Perhaps the soul is required to bring someone back fully.”
She shook her head and ran a hand down her face. “No. No it can’t be. Otherwise—Otherwise this is all for nothing.”
“But you saved me. You could save others.”
“But not Inoor,” she replied. “Nothing matters without Inoor.”
Village Ruins; 15 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The smell of blood lingered as Deena woke, but the dream was already beginning to fade. What had it been about? She tried to cling to the few details she could recall—red hands, silver instruments—but it was no good. Her mind was like a sieve, and soon only the vague feeling of frustration remained. By the time she emerged from her tent, she barely remembered she’d dreamt at all.
Avenel was impatient to be back on the road, as she made amply clear when Izra came to check her wounds. “It doesn’t matter how well I’m healing,” she said. “We’ve wasted enough time here.”
“It matters if you die,” snapped Izra. “I didn’t spend four days dragging you back from the brink of death for you to throw it away.”
“The end of the world is more important than—”
“The world can wait another day. Now hold still; I can’t check your stitches while you’re squirming.”
In the end, the compromise was to leave after lunch and to take ample breaks as they rode. Even so, by the time they stopped to set up camp, several of Avenel’s cuts had reopened, and blood had soaked through to her tunic.
“You need more rest,” insisted Garthniiel, not for the first time that day. “Your bones—You didn’t see how mangled you were when Deena found you.”
Avenel waved him away, even as she nearly fell out of her saddle. “I’m fine,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
“You really aren’t,” said Nicholas. “Look at you, you’re sweating. Your fever’s back, isn’t it?”
“I said I’m fine,” said Avenel.
“Because no one ever lies about how well they’re feeling,” said Izra. “That’s one thing you and Inoor have in common.” She sighed and looked to the sky, where the sun was beginning to dip below the treeline. “I don’t like it, but I have to agree with you. At this speed, we’ll have to press on.”
Progress was slow. They rode only a few hours each day, stopping often for Izra to check Avenel’s wounds. Nicholas chose to don his bird form to scout on ahead, circling back to join them in the evenings. The rest of them continued down the main road as it followed the river Rhiine. Gradually, the canyon became wider and shallower, though the water’s ferocity didn’t change.
It took a week to reach Selkie’s Shore. All that week, there was only one dream that Deena remembered. She was staring at a vast emptiness where something ought to be—where it had been just a moment before—while someone beside her shook her by the shoulders and begged for her to stop.
Selkie’s Shore had once been a nameless fishing village, perched on the shore where the Rhiine concluded its journey and met the ocean. Over time, as the river widened and deepened, its waters washed away the soft earth around the town, leaving it an island in the middle of the delta. The town itself grew alongside the river, from a fishing village to a small trade town to a bustling port city that—according to Garthniiel—handled the majority of Ajjraea’s trade. Limited by the size of the island, the city spilt out onto the surrounding water as it grew, buildings rising out of the river on stilts of wood and stone.
There were buildings on the mainland, too, satellite villages that only existed to service travelers to and from the city. It was there that they found a stable to lodge their horses and a ferry to take them to the city proper. The waves were choppy where the river’s freshwater rushed out to meet the salty sea, and it was all Deena could do to hang on to the railing as she leaned over the side of the boat to be sick. When they finally arrived, an eternity later, Flame had to carry her off the boat.
“Savior of the world, ladies and gentleman,” said Nicholas flippantly, perched as a bird on Izra’s shoulder. “We’re doomed.”
“Don’t say that,” said Izra. “You used to get seasick too.”
“I did?” asked Nicholas. “I don’t remember this.”
“It was a long time ago,” said Izra. “We were barely older than Deena.”
Nicholas rolled his shoulders in a way that vaguely resembled a shrug. “I’m going to fly on ahead to the docks, to find us some lodgings and hopefully a ship.”
“Ship?” asked Deena. Just thinking about it made her feel sick again.
“Don’t worry,” said Nicholas as he took off. “I’ll find a steady one.”
Compared to Emdenshire, Selkie’s Shore was even more small and cramped. The houses were tall and thin, often several stories high, with the upper stories looking like they had been haphazardly stacked atop the houses that were already there. What structures could not be squeezed onto the island proper were instead erected on the wooden boardwalk that ringed the island’s edge. It was a minor marvel that the whole city had yet to collapse in on itself. The streets were narrower than Emdenshire’s too, and correspondingly more crowded, with children weaving between the feet of street vendors, housewives, and more. Avenel took Deena’s hand as they squeezed through the crowd, her other hand resting on the hilt of her sword.
“It’s messier than I remember,” said Flame, carefully sidestepping a puddle of unidentifiable sludge.
“It was always like this,” said Frost. A man pulling a cart of fruit bumped into her and swore at her in an unknown tongue. “Welcome home.”
“I don’t remember much about the city,” admitted Garthniiel. “Too young, I suppose.”
“I don’t recognize anything either,” said Flame. “I’m not even sure where we are.”
“Shale district, just south of Bells Street,” said Frost. She pointed at a bookshop down the street. “That used to be a fabric shop. Aunt Ranna took us there once. You probably don’t remember.”
Flame squinted at the shop. “No, I do remember,” he said. “We came here for mother’s shroud.” He paused. “I think I’d like to look around a bit, see what else has changed.”
“Go ahead,” said Garthniiel. “We’ll see you this evening.”
“Sister?” asked Flame. “Will you come with me?”
Frost shrugged. “Sure.”
The rest of them continued toward the docks, and soon even Deena could tell they were close. Seagulls screeched incessantly overhead, louder even than the cacophony of people below, while the scent of salt and fish soon overpowered the other smells of the city. A small boy with a basket nearly collided with her as she rounded a corner, but before she could react, he had already moved on, yelling something about clams for sale.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she nearly jumped out of her skin before she turned and realized it was only Nicholas, dressed in nothing but an oversized tunic and a pair of sandals. “Sorry,” he said, holding up his hands. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s okay,” squeaked Deena.
“Where did you find clothes?” asked Izra. “I don’t remember burdening you with any money.”
“It got blown off a laundry line,” said Nicholas.
“There’s no wind.”
“Fine, I stole it off a laundry line,” said Nicholas. “Would you rather I walk around naked? I’m sure the ladies would love it, but—”
“I would rather you also stole some trousers,” said Izra.
“Did you find a ship?” asked Avenel.
Nicholas shook his head. “Apparently, the Bay of Lights is difficult to traverse this time of year. I’m sure we’ll find a captain adventurous enough, but it won’t be cheap.”
“Offer however much you need,” said Garthniiel. “I have a letter of credit from my father, and a city this size must have a bank.”
“Ah, the perks of travelling with royalty,” sighed Nicholas. “If you’d reminded me earlier, I would’ve gotten us better lodgings.”
The lodgings that Nicholas did find—an establishment called the Beached Whale—was pleasant enough, run by a matronly woman and her veritable gaggle of children. The ground floor was dry and cozy, with large windows that let in as much light as the neighboring buildings would allow. The scent of fresh bread wafted in from the kitchens, mixing with the salt smell of the sea in a way that was not unpleasant. The rooms upstairs, too, were brightly lit and comfortable, with beds that were—while not quite soft—still a vast improvement over a bedroll spread on the ground. There was a tub, too, behind a wooden screen, and even a small desk by the window.
Nicholas and Garthniiel soon left for the docks to find a captain willing to take them north. Avenel wanted to go with them, but in the end was convinced to lie down and rest a while. Izra came to check on her wounds and, after pondering for a moment, decided that they had healed enough that the stitches could be removed. “Go ask them to boil some water and bring it up,” she said to Deena. “And some clean linens, if they have it.”
The front counter was manned by a boy about Deena’s age, the innkeeper herself having gone back to the kitchens. He was bent over a small sheet of paper, lips moving quietly with the words. Absentmindedly, he shook his hair out of his eyes in a way that almost reminded Deena of Mattieu.
“Excuse me,” said Deena.
The boy looked up. “What can I do for you, miss?”
“I need some boiled water, please. And some linens, if you have them.”
“Of course,” said the boy. He looked to where one of his younger sisters sat loitering by a window. “Evette!” he called. “Hot water and fresh linens!”
Evette, after blowing a quick raspberry at her brother, got up and ran to the kitchen.
“She’ll bring it up to your room,” said the boy.
“Thank you,” said Deena. She glanced down at the paper in his hand. “What are you reading?”
The boy slid it across the counter to her. It was a small pamphlet, only a single page long, with large text at the top proclaiming “Beware the End of Days!”
“Where did you get this?” asked Deena.
“Some nutbar was passing them out by the square,” said the boy. “Took some to use as tinder, but figured I’d have Ess practice her reading first. Can you believe someone actually paid to have these printed? Who would even believe this rubbish?”
“You don’t?” asked Deena.
“Of course not,” said the boy. “If the world ended every time some lunatic said so, we’d be dead a hundred times over. That whole thing with the sun—It’s just some sort of eclipse; everyone says so.” He paused. “You don’t believe this stuff, do you?”
“Of course not,” said Deena hurriedly. “But, um, do you mind if I take this?”
“Help yourself,” said the boy. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I grabbed a whole stack.”
Deena took it. She skimmed it as she made her way back upstairs, but there was nothing in there about her, or the stars, or anything. She handed it to Avenel and sat down on the edge of the bed. “The boy downstairs,” she said, “he said someone was handing these out by the square.”
Izra glanced at it over Avenel’s shoulder. “I doubt it’s anything,” she said. “With the sun like this, people are bound to talk, and even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
“Just the same,” said Avenel, “I’d like to take a look and verify that for myself.”
“I’m sure you would,” said Izra, “but it’ll be after I remove your stitches.”
By the time Izra was finished, both Nicholas and Garthniiel had returned. Nicholas looked downright cheery as he entered the room. “Ladies, we’ve found ourselves a ship,” he announced. “And one willing to leave tomorrow, to boot.”
“He’s charging an arm and a leg for it, too,” complained Garthniiel.
“You did tell me to offer however much I needed,” said Nicholas.
“I thought you would at least negotiate.”
“How?” asked Nicholas. “I’ve been a bird for three hundred years; I’ve no idea how much things cost.”
“How much is your letter of credit worth?” asked Avenel. “If it isn’t enough—”
Garthniiel shook his head. “It’ll be enough. I asked the innkeeper; she said the bank’s not far from here.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Avenel. “I want to see who’s handing out these pamphlets.” She glanced at Deena. “Deena—”
“She’ll be fine,” said Izra. “He’s not likely to try anything in a city this size.”
“I’ll stay with her just the same,” said Nicholas. “If anyone gives us trouble, I’ll set them on fire.”
Avenel nodded. “I won’t be long,” she said to Deena. “I’ll see you at supper.”
They were soon gone, and Izra soon left too, muttering something about needing to find an apothecary. Nicholas sat with Deena for a time, gazing out at the limited view afforded by the window, then stood up. “Let’s visit the docks and market,” he said. “The others are enjoying the city; we should too.”
“Shouldn’t we stay here?” asked Deena.
“We’ll be safe in the city; Izi said so. And you’ve never been to the sea before, right? Don’t you want to see what it looks like?”
Deena hesitated. She supposed that Avenel hadn’t said to not leave the inn, and she really did want to see the ocean. “Alright,” she said, “but let’s not stay out too long.”
The docks were only a short walk away from the inn, and Deena gaped as they came into view. She had read about ships before, of course, but hadn’t ever quite grasped how large they were. Some were so big they rivaled castles for size, but even the smallest ones were as big as houses. It was a wonder that something so large could float so effortlessly upon the water, or perhaps it was only because of its size that it could avoid being smashed by the waves. To the west, a ship was just coming into port, her sails still unfurled, large white sheets that blotted out the sky. As it docked, the gangplank was lowered, and sailors hurried up and down to unload the cargo, yelling at each other in a tongue that Deena had never heard. There were passengers, too, looking somewhat haggard as they disembarked after months at sea, while a different ship was just leaving, its passengers crowding on the prow to wave at their loved ones on the pier.
And then there was the sea itself, vast and endless, stretching out as far as the eye could see and so blue it hurt to look at.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” asked Nicholas.
Deena nodded, but she could not stop staring. People bustled past her—some just normal-looking folks, but others wore strange outfits, exotic hairstyles, or with patterns inked on their arms and faces. There was a man with earlobes stretched to the size of disks, a woman with jewelry on her nose and eyebrows, and a man whose hat had a feather the length of Deena’s arm. “What size bird—” she began.
Nicholas laughed. “You haven’t seen much of the world, have you?”
Deena shook her head. “Only in books,” she said.
“Maybe you should see the real thing, when this is over. If you save the world, you should at least go see it.”
“O-oh,” said Deena. She had forgotten, for a moment, why they were there. It had been one thing to think about it in the woods, when all the world seemed distant. Here, amidst the throng of people and sights and sounds, it was the end of the world that seemed distant.
There was an argument on one of the docks, a pair of captains engaged in a fierce debate with each side using a different language. One of the captains gestured angrily with his hands, but then a second later it seemed a compromise was reached because both men laughed and clapped each other amiably on the arm.
“That one’s ours,” said Nicholas, pointing. “The one on the left with the bushy red beard.” The man seemed to notice Nicholas and gave a friendly wave before returning to his ship to bark orders at a mop-wielding deckhand. “He goes by Captain Baal.”
“What was that language he was speaking?” asked Deena.
“I have no idea,” said Nicholas. “Don’t worry; he speaks the language of Rhiinas too.” He looked about to say something more, but a street vendor caught his eye. “Is that fried cuttlefish?”
“A what fish?” asked Deena.
“Cuttlefish,” said Nicholas. “It used to be my favorite, when I was a boy.” He handed a coin to the vendor and took two of the so-called cuttlefish, each on a wooden skewer. “Here, try it.”
Deena took one. The creature on the stick looked nothing like any fish she had ever seen, nor did it taste like one, all gummy and chewy as it was. “Where are the bones?” she asked.
Nicholas laughed. “It doesn’t have any. Lots of animals in the sea don’t have bones.”
Deena tried to think of land animals that don’t have bones, but apart from earthworms and the like, could think of none. “Did you grow up by the ocean?” she asked.
Nicholas nodded. “In a city much like this one, in fact. Warmer, though, since Asterii’s in the south and all.”
“Do you miss it?”
“The city? No. I don’t have many good memories of it. But Asterii in general? Yes. It’s… not easy losing your home.”
Deena nodded. “Sometimes—Sometimes I forget that Taunsgrove is gone. Sometimes I like to pretend it’s still there, and that one day I’ll go back.”
“Me too,” admitted Nicholas. “I just wish I didn’t dream about the day it fell.”
“Fell?” asked Deena.
“When Asterii fell into the ocean.” For a moment, something hard and sharp flickered across his expression. Then the moment passed, and he was all smiles again. “Come on,” he said with a wink. “I stole some of Izra’s money. Let’s see the look on her face when we spend it all on sweets.”
Selkie’s Shore; 23 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Though only a stone’s throw from the docks, it was clear that the shops by the square catered to a more affluent clientel. There were more jewelers and haberdasheries here than fishmongers or greengrocers, and the shoppers were well-dressed men and women with servants trailing behind them. Even so, there was an old beggar woman sitting by the steps of the bank, wrapped in a ratty old cloak with the hood pulled low over her face.
“I don’t see anyone handing out leaflets,” said Garthniiel, surveying the square. “They must have left already.”
Avenel nodded. Her eyes had fallen on the raised wooden platform at the center of the square. High above the crowd, it was the perfect place for proselytizing. “Maybe someone saw something,” she said.
“Maybe—” began Garthniiel, but the rest of his sentence was lost as the bell tower above them tolled the hour. He made an impatient face as he waited for the sound to finish, then resumed: “I said, maybe we can look for whoever printed the leaflets.”
Avenel thought for a moment. “No, there isn’t time,” she said.
The bank wasn’t the most impressive of buildings, dwarfed as it was by the courthouse next door. The inside was as large and crowded as a marketplace, with merchants and ship’s captains making deposits, withdrawals, and exchanging their foreign currencies for the local one. One foreign merchant had taken to swearing at a bewildered clerk in the language of Osgola across the Sea, while the clerk, oblivious to the insults, continued to try to explain the mathematics of compound interest. “No, you see,” said the clerk, “we compound the interest at the end of every month, and it’s been eighteen months since your loan, so you actually owe us—Yes, I know it’s confusing, sir, but if you look at this abacus—”
Avenel decided to cut in. “He knows how much he owes,” she said to the clerk. “He’s just been calling your mother a whore for the past two minutes.”
“O-oh,” said the clerk, turning an indignant crimson. “Then sir, I must ask you to take that language outside.”
The Osgolan merchant scowled and dropped one last string of expletives before storming out the door.
The clerk sighed. “Who’s next?” he asked.
“I believe that would be us,” said Avenel. “Garth?”
“Right,” said Garthniiel, stepping forward. From his pocket, he produced the folded letter of credit. “I need to withdraw some money.”
The clerk unfolded the paper, and his eyes widend when he saw the name on the letter. “Prince Garthniiel?” he exclaimed. “You’re—?”
“In the flesh,” said Garthniiel. “That isn’t a problem, is it?”
“Not at all,” said the clerk, standing up so quickly that his chair was sent flying. “It’s just—To have kept you here waiting alongside the common merchants—” The clerk bowed and was about to get on his knees before Garthniiel caught him by the arm.
“Please don’t,” said Garthniiel awkwardly. “And we didn’t wait long. It’s alright, really.”
“It’s unconscionable,” insisted the clerk. “Mr Saerjjon—that is, the chief of this bank—will want to serve you personally, and—”
Garthniiel glanced at Avenel. “We’re actually rather in a hurry, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh,” said the clerk. “Then—then I’ll run down to the vault straight away. Please, um, please wait here, your highness.”
“Of course,” began Garthniiel, but the man was already gone. He frowned. “I was hoping he’d still offer us a place to sit,”
“Are you princely legs getting tired, your highness?” asked Avenel.
“Oh come on, I’ve scarcely had a moment to breathe since we entered this city,” complained Garthniiel. “I’m allowed to be tired, aren’t I?”
“Of course,” said Avenel, “but don’t forget we still have supplies to buy after this.”
Garthniiel groaned. “And I suppose I’m the one who’ll be carrying our purchases back to the inn?”
“I’m injured,” said Avenel with a smirk.
Garthniiel groaned again. He paused. “You know, we haven’t had a chance to talk about—about us.”
“Us?” asked Avenel.
“Well, that night. Did it—Did it mean anything, or was it just comfort?”
“I don’t know,” said Avenel honestly. “Would you like it to mean something?”
Garthniiel blushed. “Well I—I wouldn’t not like it to,” he admitted. “I know our statuses complicate things, but we could always just live in the woods. You could hunt, and I’ll take up gardening. Deena could come with us.”
“Have you ever gardened?” asked Avenel.
“I could learn,” said Garthniiel. “Plants grow by themselves all the time, don’t they? How hard could it be?”
“Harder than you would think,” said Avenel, smiling. “Besides, hiding in the woods wouldn’t change anything. We would still have our—our histories.”
Garthniiel frowned. “If this is about Jaliin, I’ve already said that I believe you.”
Avenel looked at him for a moment. “Why?”
“Why do you believe me so readily?”
Garthniiel shrugged. “Because I’ve no reason not to.”
Selkie’s Shore; 23 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Flame supposed that that’s what Selkie’s Shore was, to him and Frost, but there was no feeling of homecoming. Here and there he caught a glimpse of something almost familiar—a memory he couldn’t quite recall—but for the most part, the streets were strange. He took Frost’s hand, and they wandered through the twisting streets and alleys until he was certain they were lost.
“There’s suppose to be a street here,” said Frost, facing a bookshop. “This shouldn’t be here.”
“Maybe we should ask for directions,” said Flame. He stepped into the shop. “Excuse me,” he said. “Could you tell us how to get to the cemetery?”
The shopkeeper looked up from her bookkeeping. “Which one?” she asked. “There’s two around here.”
Flame wracked his brain, trying to remember the name. “Merrow’s End?”
“Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while,” said the shopkeeper. “It’s called the Northside, now. You’ll want to head west until you get to the broken statue, you can’t miss it, then go north from there until the street ends. The cemetery’s around there somewhere. The gate’s always overgrown these days, so it may be hard to spot, but it’s there.”
“Thank you,” said Flame.
“Not a problem,” replied the shopkeeper, already returning to her ledger.
They set off as the woman instructed, but halfway down the street, Frost stopped. “Wait,” she said, gazing down an alley. “I think home is that way.”
“Are you sure?” asked Flame. Nothing about the alley seemed familiar.
Frost nodded. “Don’t look at the houses; those are all different. Look at the view of the bell tower.”
Flame looked. In the sliver of sky between two buildings, the distant bell tower protruded into the blue. He wasn’t sure how the tower looked different from here than from any other point in the city, but—“Let’s go take a look,” he said.
He tried to remember how home looked. In his mind’s eye, he could picture the thatched roof, the weathered walls, the door that never sat quite right on its hinges. The walls in this alley were much the same, dirt-streaked stone with cracks in the mortar, but the buildings themselves were taller. These were looming multi-story constructions with clotheslines stretched across the the upper windows, not the simple row of dilapidated huts from his memory. It was as though the buildings themselves were children and had grown taller with the passage of time.
They stopped part-way down the alley. “Here,” said Frost. “The door was here.”
Flame looked around. The walls on either side were blank and nondescript, with no hint of a doorway that may have been there decades ago. He looked at his sister staring intently at the wall, as though she could somehow see through time to the past, to when their house was still standing, to when their parents were still alive. Perhaps she was thinking of a happier time, of when they were children, but—
“I’m glad they got rid of it,” said Frost, and she tore her gaze away. “Come on. The cemetery should be this way.”
As the bookseller had warned, the gate to the cemetery was hidden behind weeds and bramble. Vines had wrapped themselves around the latch such that Flame had to take out a knife to cut it free, and the rusted hinges creaked in protestation as he forced open the gate. The inside was not much better. Half the headstones were obscured by weeds, while many of the rest had been worn smooth by time. Flame bent down to examine one of the newer ones; the name was not one he knew, and the date was long after he and Frost had left the city.
He found their parents in the third row, headstones so close together that they may as well have been conjoined. “Sister,” he called. “I found them.” He pushed away the weeds that had accumulated on the stones. “I found Ma and Da.”
“Why did they bury him with her?” asked Frost.
“They were married,” said Flame.
“So? It’s not enough that she was stuck with him in life? He has to follow her in death, too?”
Flame had no response.
Frost knelt down on the ground, amidst the wild grass and dandelions, the thistle and the thorns. For a while she simply knelt there, with Flame standing watch beside her, then she slammed her fist into their father’s headstone.
“Sister!” exclaimed Flame.
“I’m fine,” said Frost, turning away. “Come on, we should head back to the others.”
Flame nodded, but he saw the red scrapes on her hand.
One final injury from their father, from beyond the grave.
Selkie’s Shore; 23 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The dinner table was laden with all kinds of things that Deena had never seen before: clam chowder and kelp salad and some sort of sauce made from roe. Deena tried a bit of everything, even the shrimp, even though they looked like bugs.
Nicholas seemed to be enjoying himself more than anyone. “I missed real food,” he sighed. “I’ve forgotten how nice it is to sit down at a table like this.” He grabbed a crab cake from the plate and stuffed it whole into his mouth. “I hope the food on the ship is as good as this.”
Izra looked at him in disgust. “Did you forget how to use a fork?” she asked.
“Is there anything else you miss?” asked Flame. “It’s our last night on land, after all.”
Nicholas thought for a moment. “I’d like a drink,” he said. “They serve drinks here, don’t they?”
“If you’re going to drink, do it properly,” said Frost. “There’s a tavern down the street.”
“I wouldn’t mind a drink either,” said Garthniiel. He turned to Avenel. “How about it? Shall we visit the tavern after dinner?”
Avenel shook her head. “I shouldn’t, not with my injuries still healing, but you go ahead. Just try to stay out of trouble.”
“I always try,” said Garthniiel. “Just, to varying levels of success.”
Avenel smiled and rolled her eyes.
“What about you, Izra?” asked Flame. “Will you join us?”
“Izi doesn’t drink,” interjected Nicholas before Izra could answer. “It’ll just be the four of us, I’m afraid.”
“Four is still plenty,” said Garthniiel. He clapped Nicholas on the shoulder. “Come on, we’d better get a move on if you want to make up for lost time.”
As it turned out, it didn’t take much at all to make up for lost time. Scarcely an hour later, they were back, an incoherent Nicholas in tow.
“Two drinks,” said Garthniiel, holding up two fingers. “Two drinks, and he was gone. I guess it figures that three hundred years as a bird would make him a lightweight.”
“Don’t blame it on that,” said Izra. “He’s always been a lightweight.”
“Are you going back out once you’ve put him to bed?” asked Avenel.
Garthniiel shook his head. “It kind of put a damper on the evening once he started crying about his dead wife. Anyway, Frost isn’t doing much better.”
“I heard my name,” called Frost from somewhere down the hall. “Is it—is it another round?”
“I think you’ve had enough,” said Flame. “What were you thinking, chugging six drinks in a row?”
“Six?” asked Frost. “I can drink waaaaay more than—” The rest of her sentence was muffled by the floorboards as she fell face-first onto the floor.
Flame sighed and picked her up. Her head lolled against his shoulder, and a soft snore emanated from her throat.
“Unbelievable,” sighed Izra, shaking her head. “I’m going back to my room. Let me know if either of them stops breathing.”
Avenel and Garthniiel each took one of Nicholas’s arms to help him up the stairs. “He was the one who taught me to drink, you know,” said Avenel, “and even then I always outlasted him. I suppose there’s something to be said for efficiency versus endurance.”
“Would you like to test my efficiency versus endurance?” asked Garthniiel, wagging an eyebrow.
Avenel laughed. “Some other time, perhaps,” she said.
???; ???, Year ??? of ???
The boy knelt on the dirt floor, scrubbing dishes by a wooden tub. The pots and plates were dented and chipped, and he winced as he cut his finger on a sharp edge.
Behind him, a door slammed open with a bang.
The boy turned to looked up at the disheveled man that entered. “You’re home!” he exclaimed, hurrying to his feet. “I—”
He was sent sprawling to the ground again when the man smacked him with the back of his hand. “What did I say about washing the dishes, boy?” asked the man. “Do you want the neighbors to laugh at me? That my son does a woman’s work?”
The boy put a hand to his cheek. He tasted blood. “No, Da,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
The man regarded him for a moment, then threw himself into a chair. “Where’s your sister?”
“She’s at work,” said the boy.
The man gave a grunt. “Work. Whoring is what she’s doing.”
“She does it to put food on the table, Da.”
The man rose from his chair. The boy took a step back, but the man reached out and grabbed him by the neck. “Are you saying I’m a bad father, boy?” asked the man. His breath reeked of drink. “A bad provider? That it’s my fault that Ellia’s a whore?”
“N-no,” said the boy.
“Are you laughing at me too?”
“No, never.” Tears burned at his eyes, and he struggled to keep them back. “Please, Da, I’m sor—”
The man flung him bodily across the room. The boy’s head slammed into something hard, and through the fog of pain, he was vaguely aware of the man approaching him, towering over him. He raised his arms over his face, and as he did so, the man kicked him in the gut, over and over until vomit mixed with blood on the floor.
“Get up and fight me, boy!” roared the man. “Are you a man or not? Fight back!”
The boy didn’t answer—couldn’t. There was blood in his mouth, in his nose, and it was all he could do to keep from choking. He tried to crawl, to get away, but the man dragged him back by his ankle and—
There was a dull, wet thud, and the barrage of blows stopped. There was a moment of silence, then the man fell to the floor, his eyes wide open and empty.
The boy looked up. There, with the light from the open door illuminating her like a halo, stood his sister, a bloodstained brick in her hand.
“Grab your things, Ennir,” said his sister. “We’re leaving.”
Selkie’s Shore; 24 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It was still dark when Frost woke. From the moonlight that shone in through the open window, she could see her brother fast asleep in the other bed. He was curled on his side with the blankets wrapped tight around him, his hair tangled before his face.
As quietly as she could manage, Frost crept out of bed. Her head was still buzzing, the drink not quite having left her body, and she stumbled a few steps before finding her balance. There was a pitcher of water by her bed, and she drank from it directly, ignoring the cups that sat beside it.
The door creaked as she opened and closed it again, as did the stairs as she descended, but otherwise, all was silent. One of the innkeeper’s daughters was asleep at the counter, face buried in her arms, oblivious as Frost slipped out of the door and into the night.
She didn’t intend to go anywhere. She had just wanted to get some air. But once she was outside, under the moon and the stars, she found herself walking toward the docks. The boardwalk was nearly empty this time of night, even the streetwalkers having gone home to bed, but that was fine by Frost. She wished she’d brought something to ward against the chill that blew in from the sea, but instead she shivered and wrapped her arms about her waist.
At some point she left the boardwalk, and without quite realizing it, her feet took her back toward old haunts. The apothecary where she’d bought her pennyroyal, the tavern where she’d worked the beds. Both establishments were gone now, replaced by a haberdashery and a butcher shop. In the alley by the market, a pair of cats yowled as they fought for scraps, only to both scatter as Frost approached. She turned left, then right, then left again, until she was no longer sure of the way back to the inn, but that was alright. She just wanted to keep walking.
“Hey,” called a voice a behind her. Gruff, male, and unfamiliar. She ignored it. “Hey, I’m talking to you!”
Now she was aware of what she had previously missed: three pairs of footsteps, following her. She stopped and turned. “What do you want?” she asked.
The men leered at her. They were the usual kind of city scum, the kind that crawled out of the woodwork at night looking for easy pickings. Their leader, the man who had spoken, let his gaze linger on her hips. “You looking for a good time, poppet?”
“No,” said Frost.
“I think you are, isn’t that right, boys? Pretty thing wandering the streets at this hour?” He laughed. “Come on, poppet. I know your type.”
Frost scowled. Without thinking, she formed her hand into a fist and swung.
Part III - Chapter 26 - Temperance
In inceptum finis est. – In the beginning is found the end.
Chapter 26 - Temperance
???; 13 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
On a balcony of broken stone, between the snow and sky, a man gazed intently at the horizon, at the coming pink of dawn. Beside him, a woman leaned languidly against the parapet, her back to the rising sun.
“I suppose, dear heart,” said the woman, “that I should thank your little pet for letting her go. Tell me, how do you plan to punish him for his transgression?”
“Don’t pretend to care,” said the man. “I know your methods; the games you play are far more cruel than mine.”
“They made their choice,” said the woman, “as we made ours. You should have killed her when you had the chance.”
“Perhaps,” admitted the man. “It matters not. My plan is still sound.”
“You underestimate her,” said the woman. “She’ll do what’s needed, in the end.”
“What’s needed?” asked the man. “What’s needed is for this world to end, as all things must.”
Her smile was as bright as the sun. “It hasn’t ended yet, has it?”
Village Ruins; 13 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Deena’s voice came out as a squeak. “I’m meant to what?”
“Save the world,” said Izra.
“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” asked Avenel.
“Would you have believed me?” asked Izra.
“How are we supposed to believe you if everyone keeps lying?” snapped Frost.
Flame put a hand on her arm. “Sister, let them speak.”
Izra sighed. “Asterii legend says that we were born from the sun. That when she created the world, she chose her favorite of her children—Drema and Heliike—and gave them each a drop of her own divinity, that their descendants may live forever and never age.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” asked Frost.
“The one who attacked at the Meridian, the one who took Avenel—We called him Noriiel, the Evening Star.”
“It’s been millennia since Noriiel was last seen in the sky,” interrupted Nicholas. “When did you have an interest in astronomy?”
“I don’t,” said Izra. “There was a sect of the priesthood—not well known—dedicated to the Harbinger myths. They realized that the reason Noriiel vanished from the sky was because he died, and what’s left of him alighted on our world to ensure that our sun does the same.”
“But why?” asked Flame.
Izra shrugged. “Who can say? Spite? Jealousy? Madness?”
“So the stars are—they’re alive?” asked Garthniiel.
“In a sense,” said Izra.
Nicholas shook his head. “Izi, if what you’re saying is true, then we’re facing against a god.”
“The ghost of a god,” corrected Izra. “He can’t touch us, not directly. It’s why he needed an army.”
“He’s still a god,” said Nicholas. “How do you even know this? You’ve never liked the priests.”
“It wasn’t the priests who told me,” said Izra. “Soon after Noriiel came to this world, another came as well: Ruuzael. She’s the one known as the angel—a messenger from the heavens. When Asterii fell, she came to me and told me everything. With the priests gone, their burden became my own.”
“Why?” asked Nicholas. “Why you and not me?”
Izra paused. “I don’t know.”
“What about Inoor?” asked Avenel.
“She couldn’t have asked Inoor,” said Nicholas. “Inoor had already passed away.”
Avenel shook her head. “That isn’t what I meant. I saw her.”
“You—you saw her?”
“She was there where Noriiel took me. She was the one who brought me back.”
“That can’t be,” said Nicholas. “We buried her.” He turned to Izra. “Didn’t we?”
Izra didn’t answer.
“Izi, we buried her! We went to that field and we buried her!”
“We buried an empty casket,” said Izra quietly. “You wanted to move on, so I gave that to you.”
Nicholas’s red handprint bloomed on Izra’s cheek, but she didn’t react.
“I had her somewhere safe,” said Izra, her face still turned away from him. “I didn’t think— But he stole her. He needed a planewalker for his army.”
“So is she—Is she still alive, then?” asked Garthniiel.
Izra shook her head. “But he’s found a way for her to move again, like a marionette.”
“You should have told me,” said Nicholas.
“I didn’t think you would want to know.”
“She was my wife!”
Izra turned to look at him. “You didn’t deserve her.”
Nicholas looked about to hit her again, but he turned and walked away. “Seven hundred years, Izra. All I wanted was for her to rest.”
Village Ruins; 13 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Avenel returned to bed after eating, and Izra made her a sleeping draught. Deena chose to stay by her bedside. She tried to read, but her mind kept wandering as she stared at words, and eventually she gave up on the book. At noon there was a knock on the cottage door, and Izra entered holding a bowl of stew and a roasted rabbit leg. “It’s lunchtime,” she said.
“Thank you,” said Deena, taking the food. “Should we wake Avenel?”
“No, let her sleep,” said Izra.
Deena nodded. “How’s, um, how’s your face?”
Izra put a hand to her cheek. “It’s not the hardest I’ve been slapped. Are you going to tell me I deserve it?”
“Why would I do that?” said Deena. “But, um, if Noriiel’s controlling Inoor’s—Inoor’s body, is that how he’s controlling the rest of his army?”
“It seems so,” said Izra.
“Where did he find so many corpses?” asked Deena, then shuddered. “I guess that’s better than having a lot of real people who want me dead.” She took a bite of the rabbit. “The man who I, um, killed. The one who attacked me. Was he already dead too?”
“It’s possible,” said Izra.
Deena nodded. There was some relief in that, at least. She ate her food and watched as Izra checked Avenel’s bandages. “Izra,” she said, “when you said that I’m meant to save the world: What is it that I’m actually supposed to do?”
“That’s for you to find out,” said Izra. “Once we’ve arrived at the North, your path will become clear to you.”
“What’s up there?” asked Deena. “Have you been?”
Izra turned to look at her. “Have I been to the edge of the world?”
Her tone sounded like Deena may as well have asked if she’d been to the moon. “Right,” said Deena. “I guess that’s silly question.”
She was surprised when Izra answered. “I have been,” said Izra, “but it was a long time ago. Things have changed. I’m not sure what we’ll find there.”
“A-and the star, Ruuzael. She didn’t tell you?”
“She never tells more than she needs to,” said Izra.
“Can I speak to her?”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“I just want to know why me. My parents can’t be the only couple who—I mean Nicholas and your sister were married. Why couldn’t it have been them?”
“Because they never had children,” said Izra. “Like it or not, you’re the Harbinger. The burden is yours alone.”
Deena bit her lip. “It isn’t fair,” she said at last.
“Life rarely is,” said Izra, “but for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” She adjusted Avenel’s covers, then stood and walked to the door. “It’s a beautiful day today,” she said. “You should come outside, enjoy it while you can.”
Village Ruins; 13 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Flame wasn’t surprised to find his sister with the horses. “You’ve been spending more time with them than with the rest of us combined,” he said.
Frost didn’t look up. Her horse’s coat was already gleaming, but still she methodically continued to brush. “What are we doing here, Ennir?” she asked.
Flame looked at her. “You haven’t called me by that name in years.”
Frost shrugged. “It’s still your name, isn’t it?”
“I guess it is,” said Flame. He picked up a brush of his own and began to brush.
It was awhile before Frost spoke again. “What are we doing here?” she asked. “All this talk of the Harbinger and stars and the end of the world—It’s like something out of a story to scare children. People like us, we—we shouldn’t be here.”
“People like us?” asked Flame.
“You know what I mean,” said Frost. “We’re not like them, like Avenel or Izra or even Garthniiel. How did we get caught up in the fate of the world when we’re just—” She gestured at the air, at a loss for words.
“—when we’re just a pair of orphans from the slums of Selkie’s Shore,” finished Flame.
Flame sighed. “Sister, it’s been decades. When will you let the past go? What does it matter where we came from? All that matters is who we are now.”
“And who are we now?” asked Frost. “Royal guards? Hired muscle?”
“You can’t mean that, Sister. Garth sees us as family.”
“Does he?” asked Frost. “If we were really family, would he be so quick to risk our lives?”
“He’s risking his life, too. They all are.”
Frost threw down her brush. “Because it’s his life to risk! What right does he have to risk our lives—your life—without even asking?”
“You would’ve said yes anyway, wouldn’t you?”
“He still should have asked!” She turned away. Slowly she sank down on a nearby rock and buried her face in her hands. “All my life, all I’ve ever wanted was to keep you safe.”
Flame sighed. “Sister, I’m a grown man,” he said. “I’m not a boy anymore. And I mean this in the best way, but I don’t need your protection.” He took a seat beside her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “I want to do this, and I want you by my side, but if you want to leave—Garth will understand. They all will. No one is forcing us to stay.”
For a while, Frost didn’t speak. One of the horses gave a restless stamp of its hooves. A bird sang, somewhere nearby, and another one answered from somewhere deeper in the woods. It was a long while before Frost finally raised her head.
“We’ll stay,” she said, wiping her face with her sleeve. “But when this is over—When this is over, we’ll go somewhere else, just the two of us.”
Village Ruins; 13 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Avenel slept. When she woke again, bleary afternoon sunlight filtered in through the shuttered window.
“Good morning,” said Nicholas. “Well, afternoon.”
“Where’s Deena?” asked Avenel.
“Outside, helping Izra sort some herbs,” said Nicholas. “Izi’s eyesight isn’t good. How do you feel?”
Groggy, was the answer. “Fine,” she said. Her stomach growled. “Is there lunch left?”
“Ah, right,” said Nicholas, getting to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later he returned, holding a bowl of cold stew. Fat had congealed at the top, and he skimmed it away with a spoon before handing it to her.
“I could rekindle the fire, heat it up again,” he said.
Avenel shook her head. “This is fine.”
They sat in silence as she ate. Nicholas had picked up the book that Deena had left by the bed, but she could tell by his eyes he wasn’t reading. Surreptitiously, his eyes darted up at her as he turned the page, then just as quickly glanced away again.
She set down the bowl when she was done. “I’m sorry about Inoor,” she said. “It was wrong of Izra to keep that from you.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“Will you tell me about her? About—about your wife?”
“I’m not sure what there is to tell.”
Avenel looked at him for a moment. “You don’t want to talk about her with me.”
“No,” said Nicholas. “No, it isn’t—I’m just not sure how to explain.”
“Hm,” said Avenel. She smoothed out the wrinkles on her blanket. “I was told—and perhaps this may sound farfetched—but I was told that my soul was once Inoor’s.”
At this, Nicholas looked up. “Who told you that?”
“Is it true?”
He didn’t answer right away, but at last he nodded.
“I see,” said Avenel.
“I’m sorry,” said Nicholas. “If it makes any difference, I did care about you—do care about you—even once I realized you weren’t her. I just… couldn’t in the way you wanted.”
“How long did it take you to realize?”
“Too long,” said Nicholas. “Izra could see right away you were a different person, but I…” he trailed off.
“You saw what you wanted to see,” finished Avenel.
Nicholas nodded. “By the time I finally accepted that you weren’t her, it was already too late, and I felt—I don’t know. It was my fault that you were in love with me. I felt that I couldn’t leave.”
“Then why Katrina?” she asked. “If you didn’t want to hurt me—”
Nicholas shook his head. “I thought—I thought perhaps if you hated me, it would be easier to leave.”
Avenel looked at him. “You’re a coward, Nicholas.”
He looked down to avoid her gaze. “I know. Believe me, if I could take back what I did—”
“You can’t,” interrupted Avenel. “Neither of us can.”
They were silent a while. Outside, one of the horses snorted and stamped its feet. She studied him: the shape of his cheekbones, the nape of his neck, the golden curl of his hair. Every inch of him was familiar to her—even now she could remember the scent of his sweat and the texture of his skin. His was the shape that had filled her dreams, once, and her memories of youthful pleasures. Just the merest glimpse of him had been enough to make her smile.
“I never knew you, did I?” she asked. “Everything you told me was a lie. You’re like a stranger.”
“So are you,” said Nicholas. “You’ve had a lifetime without me; you’ve changed.”
“I suppose I have,” said Avenel. She looked down at his hands, at his long tapered fingers. How often had those fingers been entwined in her own? She thought of holding them now, but the thought felt strange and foreign. “If we’re strangers,” she said, “perhaps we could start anew. In time, we might even be friends.”
At this, he looked up at her, surprised. “I’d like that,” he said, a smile blooming on his face. Once, that smile had been enough to light up her world.
She smiled back, but it was someone else’s smile she thought of.
She slept again soon after, a dreamless sleep brought on by one of Izra’s sleeping draughts. This time, when she woke again, it was a slow and gradual sort of awakening. It was dark out, and a lantern flickered weakly by the foot of her bed. Garthniiel sat beside her, but he had dozed off with his head in his hands. She watched him for a moment, the lanternlight dancing over his thick lashes and bronzed skin. Then a breeze blew through, banging open the shutters and extinguishing the lantern’s flame.
Garthniiel started awake.
“Hello,” said Avenel.
Garthniiel rubbed his eyes. “You’re awake,” he said. Starlight streamed in through the open window, illuminating the shape of his jawline, his nose, his shoulders.
“You didn’t have to sit up with me,” said Avenel. “I’m fine.”
“You were half dead just a day ago,” said Garthniiel. “I was—We were worried.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Avenel. She began to push herself up into a sitting position, but pain shot through her arms. She winced.
“Let me help,” said Garthniiel, reaching forward to catch her weight, and as he did so, Avenel found herself leaning into the crook of his shoulder. It was warm there, and surprisingly comfortable, as though his shoulder had been moulded for her cheek. “Do you want more of the pain medicine?” he asked. His voice rumbled like distant thunder through his chest.
“No,” said Avenel.
“Some food, then? Or I could wake Izra, if you’re not feeling well.”
“I’m fine,” said Avenel.
Garthniiel nodded. He began to pull away, but she put her hand over his arm to stop him.
“Wait,” she said. “Stay.”
She could hear his heartbeat through his chest, hear his pulse quicken, but he stayed. Slowly, like a hunter afraid to startle a deer, he eased himseif into a more comfortable position with his arm wrapped about her shoulder to carry her weight.
“Thank you,” said Avenel.
This heart gave a quick thu-thump. “For what?” he asked.
“For not leaving,” said Avenel. “I lied to you about Deena, and you’re still here.”
“You were trying to protect her,” said Garthniiel. “I understand.”
She nodded. She had forgotten how nice it felt to be held, of feeling the body heat of another around her. How long had it been? She thought of Nicholas, asleep just outside. All she had to do was call for him, and he would come and hold her, like he had so often when she was young.
But she was no longer young, no longer the Kassandra of yesteryear. It wasn’t Nicholas who held her now, and it wasn’t Nicholas she wanted.
“Will you tell me something, Garth?”
“Do you care for me?”
His heart gave another thu-thump. “Are you asking me to leave?”
She was surprised by that. “Why would I ask you to leave?”
“Because my feelings are a burden,” said Garthniiel. “A distraction. It’s no secret that you’ve never had a lover in three hundred years. Not to mention you’re Elyrian, and I’m Ajjraean, and with the end of the world—”
She held up a hand to stop him. “I don’t care about any of that,” she said. “And I’ve never had a lover because I was afraid of being hurt. When Nicholas—” She paused. “Suffice to say it cut deep.”
“What did he do?” asked Garthniiel.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Avenel. “What matters is how I responded. But seeing him again—talking to him again—I’ve begun to think that I shouldn’t let who I was get in the way of who I am.”
“What do you mean?”
She paused to consider her words. “It’s been a long time since I’ve… since I’ve been with someone. You’re right that we’ve more pressing concerns, with the end of the world and this business with the stars. But I’m tired, Garthniiel. I’m tired of carrying this pain and of being afraid of heartbreak.”
“I would never hurt you,” said Garthniiel. “I promise—”
Avenel shook her head. “Words are meaningless, Garth. Anyone can lie. But with time, I may learn to take that risk again.”
“Then I’ll wait for you,” said Garthniiel. “However long it takes, I’ll wait.”
She thought for a moment and pulled away to look at him. He looked back at her, his expression a convoluted mix of hope and trepidation, desire and doubt. Moonlight illuminated the angles of his face, and she wondered what it would be like to wake up to that face in the mornings.
She shook her head. “I’m tired of waiting,” she said, and she pressed her mouth to his.
Loorne’s Stronghold; 13 May, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Crack! went the whip against Tuule’s back, and his skin split open beneath the leather. Fresh blood poured out, crimson red, running over the crusted blood that had dried there before. Tuule barely reacted, just a low grunt and a rattling of chains.
Lord Loorne held up his hand. “Stop,” he said. “Keep him awake.”
The prison guard threw a bucket of water at Tuule’s face. He coughed and sputtered, then his eyes slowly opened.
Loorne looked at him, at this man he had once considered kin. They had dined together, drank together, rode together, and more, but now Tuule hung upside down in a prison cell while Loorne sat in a plush chair and watched.
“Why?” asked Loorne for what felt like the thousandth time.
Tuule said nothing, just stared back with dull eyes that seemed more dead than alive. Loorne gave a gesture, then turned away as the whip came down.
“Why?” he asked again.
Again, Tuule said nothing.
“Dammit, Tuule, I asked you WHY?!” A servant had brought Loorne a cup of tea, but it had grown cold in the hours since. He sent it flying as he rose from the chair, then crossed the breadth of the cell in two quick steps. He knelt down in the blood and spit that had pooled beneath Tuule’s head to take the other man’s face in his hands. “Just answer me, please. Did I not treat you well enough? Did I not care for you enough? What did I do wrong?!”
Tuule’s swollen lips moved as if to answer.
Loorne gestured at the guard. “Release him, quickly.”
The guard pulled the lever that loosened the chains, and Tuule fell into Loorne’s arms. Loorne leaned down, putting his ear beside his old friend’s lips.
“It wasn’t you,” said Tuule. “You could never do wrong by me.”
“Then why?” asked Loorne. “Why steal my seal? Why forge my orders? Why attack Taunsgrove?”
“I had to,” said Tuule. “She asked me to.”
“Who? Who asked you?”
Tuule laughed, a watery, shaky laugh that dissolved quickly into a fit of coughing. Blood dribbled from his lips, and Loorne was quick to mop it up with his sleeve. “It doesn’t matter,” said Tuule. “I failed her.”
“But who?” asked Loorne. “For the love I bear you, Tuule, you must have a reason. Tell me, and I may be able to plead for mercy with the Prince.”
Tuule shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand, old friend. You weren’t there. If you had been, if you had seen her, you would know.”
“But who is she?” asked Loorne. “Tell me, please. Who is this woman that you would commit treason for her?”
Tuule’s laugh was that of a dead man, a ghastly rattle in his chest. “Not a woman,” he said, smiling. “An angel.”