In a land with nothing but snow and stone and sky, the crater was a scar. Where a tall stone spire had once proudly stood, there was only rubble and ruin.
The man was a dark speck against the field of white. In silence, he approached the great doors of the tower. He looked, for a moment, at the weather-worn carvings on the stone, at the hinges long turned to rust. He pushed, and the doors crashed to the marble floor, sending swirls of snow through the air.
When the snow settled, a woman stood on the other side. “You never could resist the dramatic, could you?” she asked.
The man was not surprised to see her. “Make it quick,” he said. “I have work to do.”
“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” asked the woman.
“You know full well the answer to that,” said the man. He moved past her and proceeded up the stairs, unimpeded by the broken rail and shattered steps.
The stairs ended in void, the rest of the tower smashed to pieces on the ground. The woman was there and waiting for him, reclining on a broken wall that had become a parapet of sorts. “Give it up, dear heart,” she said. “Don’t you tire of this game?”
“I do,” said the man. “It is high time for this world to end.”
The woman smiled. “Is it?”
Part 1 - Chapter 1 - The Fool
Sic transit gloria mundi. – Thus passes the glory of the world.
Chapter 1 - The Fool
Taunsgrove; 20 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
“Once upon a time, the kings of Rhiinas were mortal.”
Old Man Teller was telling his story again, the same one that he been telling ever since Deena could remember. It had become a sort of tradition, every year on the Day of Spring, for Teller to sit down in the town square with his favorite chair and pipe. Children would gather around him, listening with rapt attention, from young ones still unsteady on their feet to boys old enough that their voices cracked. The more nimble of the children would climb up onto the giant oak that dominated the town square, legs dangling over the heads of their less agile peers. Others brought their own chairs, or sat on the stoops of nearby shops. Even the women at the well paused their washing to listen.
“That’s right,” continued Teller. “They were folks like us, folks who grew old and died with the passage of time, as in the natural course of things. Not like these new lords–these Hallowed–who live forever and never age.”
Deena had never heard the story from start to finish. Her mother had never allowed it. When she was younger, she would try to dawdle as they passed through the square, but her mother always tugged her away. “Listen to him,” Mrs Hewe would mutter under her breath, “going on and on like he was there. Nevermind that the Hallowed Revolution was over three hundred years ago. Even among the Hallowed, it’s only a handful who live to be that age.”
“I though they were immortal,” said Deena once.
“Immortal,” scoffed Mrs Hewe. “Don’t you listen to Teller like he knows what’s what. Is Lord Nash still alive? Lord Ajjra? They don’t grow old, is all; disease and injury can still claim them like anyone else.”
She was right, of course, but that didn’t stop Deena from trying to listen, especially once she was old enough to run errands on her own. Sure, Old Man Teller may not be the most reliable authority on history, but it was just a story. Certainly no one else seemed to see the harm in it, including the baker, in whose shop Deena loitered, peering out the open window.
“It’s hard to imagine now,” said Teller, “but there was a time when the Hallowed were thought to be mere legend. Old wives’ tales, they said. Tales to scare children at night. Men and women who could live forever and never grow old? Why, the very idea would’ve seemed laughable. But it weren’t no laughing matter when we learned that the Hallowed had been hiding amongst us all along, biding their time. No, no one was laughing when they finally decided to strike.”
The baker’s wife cleared her throat. “Deena, dear. Your bread’s still on the counter.”
Deena started. “Sorry, Mrs Sandler. I was just, y’know, listening.”
Mrs Sandler smiled. “I’d say that you’re welcome to stay and listen as you like, but I suspect your mother would want this bread to still be fresh when you got home.”
“You’re right,” said Deena, placing the loaf in her basket. She counted out her coins and placed them on the counter. “Happy Day of Spring!”
“You too, dear,” said Mrs Sandler. “Oh, and if you haven’t seen him yet, Joel arrived late last night. You might want to stop by on your way home.”
“Oh, I didn’t see him,” said Deena. “Thanks!”
Outside, Old Man Teller was still talking. “They call themselves the Hallowed–‘blessed’, it means. Blessed by demons, more like. Their ‘revolution’ was little more than an excuse to act like brigands, looting their way across the land and burning what they couldn’t take. Honest folk–folk like us–were slaughtered in their rampage. Those that weren’t killed were driven from their homes or pressed into servitude to work for the fiends.”
Joel Allard was a travelling merchant, and the only one to regularly stop by Taunsgrove. About twice a year, he and his mule would pull a wagon into town, laden with an assortment of goods. As usual, he had hitched his wagon past the outskirts of the square, by the grove of trees behind the carpenter’s shop. A mishmash of goods had been laid out on a tablecloth on the ground. Nearby, the man himself sat reclined against a tree, a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his face and covering his salt-and-pepper hair.
“Mr Allard!” called Deena as she approached.
Mr Allard pushed back his hat, and Deena noticed that he had a grown a heavy mustache since she saw him last. “Well if it isn’t our little blonde bumble-Dee,” he said. “Still buzzing around, I see. Have you gotten taller?”
“A bit,” admitted Deena, “but I think I’m done growing now.”
“Ah, there’s still a chance for one more growth spurt,” said Allard. “Sixteen is when some girls grow the most, you know.”
“I hope not,” said Deena. “I’m already a full head taller than my mother.”
“And speaking of your mother, how is she?”
“She’s fine, mostly. Actually, she twisted her ankle last week, but Mr Wilmot says it’ll heal in no time.”
“I hope it does,” said Mr Allard. He flipped through his ledger. “Let’s see… Ah, your mother wanted some new embroidery needles, last time.” He got to his feet. “Give me a moment and I’ll fetch it for you.”
Deena waited as Mr Allard disappeared into his wagon. There was a stack of books laid out among the goods on the ground, and Deena bent down to look through them. She picked one off the top and ran a finger along the faded title embossed on the spine: “The Blade of Elyria”.
“Oho, interested in that one, are you?” asked Allard, emerging from his wagon. “Not very accurate, I’m afraid. All very sensationalized.”
“Have you read it?” asked Deena.
“I’ve skimmed it,” said Allard. “It’s not the first time someone’s tried to write a biography about her, and they’ve all been entertaining to read, if you don’t care for facts.”
Deena flipped to the first page. “Since its founding, the Republic of Elyria has had no shortage of assassins and spies, but few have been as feared–or as revered–as Lord Avenel.” It took Deena a moment to remember that women could also be styled as “Lord” in Elyria. “I’ve never heard of her,” said Deena.
“I suspect you wouldn’t, growing up in Taunsgrove,” said Allard. He bent down to pick through the pile of books. “Here,” he said. “You might like this one better. It’s a collection of folktales from Osgola in the East. Seems like the type of thing you would like, if I remember right.”
Deena took the book and flipped through it. She didn’t know much about Osgola, but the stories seemed a good length for reading out loud while her mother did her embroidery. “How much is it?” she asked.
“Five coppers, and the needles will be a silver.” He tipped his hat as Deena handed him the coins. “Thank you for your custom,” he said, “and tell your mother to get better soon.”
“I will,” said Deena, stuffing her purchase into to her basket waving goodbye.
Back in the square, Old Man Teller was still talking. “One by one, the lords of Rhiinas fell, their castles captured by the Hallowed. Even King Trenton, the last king of Rhiinas, was forced to flee, until he was brought back in chains and executed in the very city where he once ruled. We thought the fighting was over, that we could finally have peace. We were wrong.”
Deena’s last stop of the afternoon was the cheesemonger’s, a thin, narrow house squished between the town hall and the town tavern. It was only after pushing futily at the door that Deena noticed the sign: “Back in a few minutes.” Well, that was fine. She wasn’t in a hurry, and anyway, now she had an excuse to listen to more of Teller’s story.
“Their revolution won, the two Hallowed factions fell to squabbling amongst themselves and split the kingdom in two: Ajjraea to the north and Elyria in the south, with the River Rhiine between them. The two nations wasted no time in declaring war on each other. Like oil and water, or maybe violence is just in their blood. Whatever the reason, the fighting continued, and without a thought for all us normal folk whose lives their war had ruined. Well, something had to be done, didn’t it, but what can we do against the might of the Hallowed? It was a man named Taun who had the idea to just leave, to find a forgotten pocket of the continent where we wouldn’t be bothered by either nation. Our forefathers journeyed far and wide to find such a place, but finally they came here, to the base of the mountains near the springwaters of the Rhiine, and made this place our home. And so, Taunsgrove was born.”
Teller looked like he was about to say more, but the town square broke into applause. Deena raised her hands to join in, but the feeling of being watched made her stop. She looked around. There was a woman standing by the doorway of the tavern. A stranger. A visitor, then, from out of town.
Deena looked at her, but the stranger did not look away.
“Um, can I help you?” asked Deena uncertainly.
The stranger shook her head. “I apologize if I made you uneasy,” she said.
“Oh,” said Deena. “No, it’s okay.” Taunsgrove didn’t get many visitors; she supposed she ought to show a bit of hospitality. “Um, what brings you to our town?”
“Merely passing through,” said the stranger. She nodded in the direction of Old Man Teller. “Does he do this every day?”
“No,” said Deena. “Only on the Day of Spring.”
The stranger nodded. “I hadn’t realized it was the Day of Spring,” she said. “One loses time on the road.”
A pair of young women walked past them. One of them glanced at the stranger, nudged the other, and the two of them hurried away.
“Your town distrusts outsiders,” said the stranger.
“S-sorry,” said Deena. “We don’t get many visitors here. Not to mention…” she gestured mutely at the stranger’s outfit, at her leather jerkin, her breeches, and the sword and dagger hanging from her hip.
The stranger looked down at herself. “You really mustn’t get many visitors if travel attire is seen as strange,” she said. She looked back at Deena. “You don’t seem wary of me.”
“My mother was from outside,” explained Deena. “She came here with me when I was a baby.”
“I see,” said the stranger.
There was a tap on Deena’s shoulder, and she turned to see Phea, the cheesemonger’s niece, standing behind her with a large parcel clutched to her chest. “Hi Deena,” she said. “I haven’t kept you waiting long, have I?”
“Forever,” teased Deena. “I’ve died of old age.”
Phea rolled her eyes. “Hold this so I can unlock the door,” she said, shoving her parcel into Deena’s arm. She lowered her voice. “Who, um, who was that you were talking to?”
Deena glanced behind her, but the stranger was already gone. “A traveler,” said Deena. “She said she was passing through.”
“Passing through to where?” asked Phea. “There’s nothing past here but mountains.”
Deena shrugged. “I didn’t ask.” She handed the package back to Phea. “What’s in this, anyway?”
“My dress for the dance tonight,” said Phea. “You won’t tell my uncle that I locked up shop for this, will you?”
“I thought you were going to wear the same dress as last year,” said Deena.
“Oh,” said Phea, blushing. “I was, but the bodice doesn’t really fit anymore on account of–well, you know, my bosom.”
Deena tried to stifle her laugh, but it turned into an indecent sort of snort instead.
“Oh stop that,” said Phea, still crimson. “I tried to make the adjustments myself, but I couldn’t get it to look right. Can you believe how much we’ve grown in a year?”
“How much you’ve grown, you mean,” corrected Deena.
“You’ve grown too,” protested Phea.
“Only length-wise,” said Deena. “I’m a beanpole compared to you.”
“At least you can reach tall shelves,” said Phea, fetching Deena’s usual order from behind the counter. “Anyway, are you coming to the dance this year?”
“You already know the answer. We never go.”
“I know your mother never goes,” said Phea, “but I thought one of the boys might have asked you, now that we’re old enough.”
Now it was Deena’s turn to blush, heat spreading from the tips of her ears. “No,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant. “No, no one’s asked.”
“Really? No one?” Phea frowned. “I was going to go with–but nevermind. We can go together if you like; we’ll be each others’ escorts.”
Deena shook her head. “No, you have fun without me. Besides, I don’t have a dress.”
“You could borrow my old one. We’d have to let it out at the hem, but–”
“It’s fine, Phea. Really.” She took the the wrapped cheese from Phea’s hands. “I’ll stop by tomorrow; you can tell me about it then.”
Outside, Old Man Teller had finished his story and the crowd was quickly dispersing. The women at the well were returning to their work, and a few of the children chased each other around the square before running back to their respective homes. It was time for Deena to be getting home, too, and she readjusted the contents of her basket before heading down the side street that lead to home.
The house she shared with her mother was on the far outskirts of town, where the edges of their garden blended into the forest, and the forest soon turned to mountain. They’d had a few neighbors, when Deena was younger, but Taunsgrove had been shrinking, and now their little cottage had only abandoned shacks for company. Deena’s mother didn’t mind. “It isn’t as though they ever welcomed my presence,” she would say. “If they want nothing to do with me, then fine. I want nothing to do with them.”
“You don’t have to be so contrary, Mama,” Deena had said once. “You’ve lived here long enough.”
“That’s exactly the problem,” said Mrs Hewe. “Sixteen years we’ve lived here, and still they treat me like a stranger.”
Even just outside of town, the trees were tall and dense. A small footpath wound its way through the woods, connecting the cottage to the rest of Taunsgrove. Some early wildflowers had already begun to bloom, dotting the spaces between the trees, specks of color in the undergrowth. Deena let her footsteps slow, to drink in the first warm day of spring. The sounds of the town disappeared, leaving only birdsong and the occasional rustle of leaves. There was the scent of the soil and the grass, there was a gentle breeze caressing her skin, and there was the afternoon sun, shining down through the leaves, casting everything in a dappled green light.
Such peace and serenity was rare in the world, if Old Man Teller was to be believed. Maybe Taunsgrove really was a sanctuary in a land ravaged by war. Deena wouldn’t know; she had only been a few weeks old when she arrived with her mother and had never set a foot outside ever since. There was a time when she used to pester her mother for stories of her life before Taunsgrove, but it was futile effort. Whatever had happened, whatever had driven them to Taunsgrove, it was not something that her mother was willing to discuss.
Inside the cottage, Mrs Hewe sat in her usual chair, working on a piece of embroidery. “Don’t let the door bang shut,” she said without looking up.
It was too late, and the door slammed itself shut with enough force to scare the chickens outside. “Sorry, Mama,” said Deena. “And sorry, Chickens,” she called. “Mr Allard is back, by the way. I brought you your needles, and he says hello.”
“Thank the stars,” said Mrs Hewe. “I wasn’t sure how I’d finish this piece with my old ones.”
“Is that the wedding veil for Tansy?”
“Yes, and her father is paying good money for it, so I want it done right. It’s not every day that a young woman is a bride, you know.”
“What was your wedding veil like? When you married my father?”
Mrs Hewe’s needle paused. “It was plainer,” she said. “We weren’t wealthy.”
“Couldn’t you have made something for yourself?”
“I didn’t have the time. Or the thread. Go set the table for dinner.”
Deena obliged, taking the bread and cheese from her basket and setting out the plates. “There was a notice on the town bulletin,” she said. “Apparently sheep have been going missing.”
“Probably just some boys playing a prank,” said Mrs Hewe. “They’ll bring them back soon enough, once they’ve had a scolding from their parents.”
“Mr Richardson thinks it’s wolves. He thinks something’s been driving them down from the mountains.”
“If that was the case, they’d take our chickens first.” The kettle in the fireplace began to whistle, and Mrs Hewe made to rise to get it.
“No, I’ll get it,” said Deena. “Mr Wilmot said your ankle still needs to rest.”
“Oh, but there’s hardly any swelling left.”
“No, Mama,” said Deena firmly. “I’ll get the kettle.”
Mrs Hewe sat back down with a sigh. “Who knew that being an invalid would be so tiring?”
“It’ll heal faster if you let it rest,” said Deena, lifting the kettle off the hook. “That reminds me, I forgot to stop by and get more of that salve.”
“You can go after dinner.”
“No, Mattieu said they’re closing early today, to go to the dance. I’ll just run down now. You can eat without me.”
“No, the stew can stand to simmer some more,” said Mrs Hewe. “Just don’t dawdle while you’re there. I don’t want another complaint from Wilmot about your loitering.”
Deena made a face. “Mama, that was one time.” She grabbed her basket from the table. “I’ll be back soon, I promise.”
The town square had emptied dramatically, now that Teller’s story was over. Most people would be at home now, preparing an early supper before heading to the dance. She passed by Allard’s cart on her way to the apothecary, but he wasn’t there. At this hour, he had probably gone to the tavern for a bite of food and a drink.
Inside the apothecary, it was just as empty as outside, though that was no surprise. Mr Wilmot himself wasn’t even there, leaving only his apprentice, Mattieu, bent over a book with his hand propping up his chin. He looked up when Deena entered. “I knew you’d remember eventually,” he said with a cheeky grin. Reaching behind the counter, he pulled out a paper parcel tied with twine. “Wilmot wanted to close up already, but I said I’d wait.”
“Sorry,” said Deena, flushing slightly. “I don’t mean to be a bother.”
“It’s fine,” said Mattieu, waving his hand. “It’s nice to have some time alone, without the old man.”
“He doesn’t give you much time off, does he?” asked Deena, taking the package and handing over the money. “Remember when we were younger, and we’d spend whole afternoons by the lake?”
Mattieu grinned. “Yeah, I remember, and I remember you being scared of the water. You still don’t know how to swim, do you?”
Deena made a face. “And you can’t climb trees.”
“Fair point,” conceded Mattieu. He walked with Deena to the door, taking care to lock it behind them. “Hey, are you coming to the dance?”
“O-oh,” said Deena. The question surprised her, and she found her palms were suddenly sweaty. “I don’t–I can’t leave my mother alone at home, not with her ankle.”
“Then tell her to come along too. She doesn’t have to dance; lots of the older folks don’t dance.”
“No, you know she doesn’t like going into town. The way people always talk when she passes by, she doesn’t like it.”
“They only talk because she’s a recluse.”
“You know what I mean,” said Mattieu. “It’s just odd how she always keeps to herself like that. And no one knows anything about her from before Taunsgrove, and–”
“What?” interrupted Deena. “That isn’t anyone else’s business! If she doesn’t want to talk about her past, she shouldn’t have to!”
“I know that,” said Mattieu. “I’m not saying that I think she’s a weirdo, just that everyone else-- Deena, wait, no, that came out wrong–”
“It better have, Mattieu Mason,” snapped Deena, shoving the package into her basket with a bit more ferocity than perhaps was wise. “Have fun at your stupid dance.”
She stomped more than walked all the way home, and the slamming of the door scared the chickens for a second time.
“Oh dear,” tutted her mother, looking up from her needlework. “What is it now?”
“Mattieu’s a jerk,” said Deena, dropping her basket onto the table. “He called you a recluse and–and a weirdo.”
“Is that all?” asked Mrs Hewe. “I’ve been called worse.”
“He shouldn’t have called you anything! He’s my friend!”
“He’s also Roberta’s son. Children repeat the things their parents say, that’s all.”
“He’s not a child; he’s seventeen.”
“Seventeen is still a child, as are you. Or are you saying an adult would throw a tantrum the way you’re doing now? And over some silly words, of all things?”
Deena frowned. “Why did you even come here, just to have people talk behind your back for sixteen years?”
“Because it was the best place for us, at the time. And to be honest, I wasn’t expecting the people here to be quite so nosy or narrowminded.”
“Then why didn’t we leave?”
“Because–” Mrs Hewe sighed. “One day, when you’re older, you’ll understand. There are worse things than looks and whispers.” She set down her embroidery. “Come on, you’ll feel better after dinner.”
Dinner was an uninteresting stew of potatoes and leek, paired with the bread and cheese, but Deena did feel a bit better afterwards. After she had gathered up the dirty plates, she helped her mother apply the salve to her injured ankle.
“Deena,” said Mrs Hewe, “are you happy here?”
Deena looked up. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you like it here? Are you content? If one day you have to leave Taunsgrove behind, will you miss it?”
“Why would I have to leave?”
“It’s just a question, Deena.”
Deena thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “I’d like to see the world, just to see what it’s like, but I think I’d like to come back.”
“What if you couldn’t?” asked Mrs Hewe. “Would you miss it here?”
“Of course,” said Deena. “I know the people aren’t always the nicest, but it’s still home. I don’t know anywhere else. And besides, I’d miss Phea and Mattieu.” She stood up and wiped her hands on her apron. “All done. Do you want me to read to you while you work on Tansy’s veil?”
“No,” said Mrs Hewe. “I think you should go to the dance.”
“The dance?” asked Deena, confused. “But we never go.”
“You’re sixteen, Deena. You don’t need me to take you.”
“But I–Your ankle–”
“I’ll manage for an evening,” said Mrs Hewe, smiling. “You’re only young once, Deena. You should be having fun with your friends while you can.”
“But I don’t have a dress.”
Mrs Hewe laughed. “Deena, it’s a town dance, not a ball. Just go and emjoy yourself. And if it’s not to your liking, you can come straight home.”
“Go on already,” said Mrs Hewe. “You’ve only been begging me to take you since you could walk.”
Deena grinned. “I promise not to stay out too late,” she said. She leaned forward to kiss her mother on the cheek, then bounded out the door, scaring the chickens on her way.
Outside, the last dregs of sunlight were fast disappearing through the trees, and a few stars winked into existence in the east. Deena found herself grinning like an idiot as she walked. Wouldn’t Phea and Mattieu be surprised to see her? She imagined dancing with them, laughing. Maybe they’d even sneak a bit of ale when no one was watching.
The dance was already well underway. Though technically hosted at the town hall, the festivities had spilled out to fill the rest of the square. Tables had been brought out and pieced together into a single long bench, at the end of which Mr Richardson had placed a great many casks of ale. A group of people, mostly older folks, sat around the table chatting. There was a gale of laughter as Mr Richardson finished some joke or anecdote, then a great cheer as they all clanged their flagons together. Old Man Teller had already fallen asleep, sitting in his favorite chair, his pipe dangling from his lips.
None of them noticed Deena until she was almost right next to them, and then Mr Wilmot looked up to see her.
“Well well well,” said Wilmot. “If it isn’t Edith Hewe’s girl. Come to loiter around with my Mattieu again?”
“S-sorry,” said Deena instinctively.
“Well, better here than in my shop,” said Wilmot. “Go on, then. He’s inside, last I saw.”
The air outside was cool, but inside the town hall it was steaming with the heat of moving bodies. The entire center of the room was dominated by a ring of dancers, young and not-so-young alike, now arms linked together and now dancing in pairs. They jumped and spun in the time to the music, provided by Mr Sandler on his fiddle, his wife clapping along on a tambourine beside him.
Deena lingered a moment in the doorway. She couldn’t see Phea or Mattieu anywhere, but it was hard to find anyone in this crowd, with everyone moving about.
“Is that you, Deena?”
Deena turned to see the tavernkeeper’s daughter striding toward her. “Hi Nelle,” she said. “Did you just arrive too?”
Nelle nodded. “My mother wouldn’t let me leave, not while we still had a guest under our roof. Thankfully she just left for a stroll, so here I am.”
“Do you mean the woman with the sword?” asked Deena.
“Oh, you saw her, did you?” asked Nelle. She looked as though about to say more when she caught sight of something inside. “Is that Penny Hayes dancing with Lance? My Lance?” And before Deena had time to even turn, Nelle had pushed her aside and was striding across the dance floor towards the offending couple.
Deena skirted around the edge of the crowd, still trying to find Phea and Mattieu. The dance broke off for a moment while Nelle dragged Lance off by the ear, but quickly resumed, with Penny Hayes now dancing with one of the Tanner boys. The dancing couples spun each other, then stepped away, so that all the women linked arms with each other while the men did the same. The two lines moved in time to the music, then linked to form a circle, which broke apart again back into the spinning couples. Deena wondered how they knew where to go and how to move; no one told her there would be steps to the dance.
“Are you just going to stand and watch, or are you going to join in?” asked a voice.
Deena turned, startled. “Mr Allard!” she said. “I didn’t think you would be here.”
“Neither did I,” said Allard, “but the ale was here.”
“The tavern has ale too,” said Deena.
“Ah,” said Allard with a wink, “but the ale here is free.” He raised his flagon to her and drank. “So, are you going to join the dance?”
“I don’t know the steps,” said Deena.
“That’s a shame,” said Allard. “At your age, dances are only fun if you actually dance.”
“I’m mostly just looking for Mattieu and Phea,” said Deena. “Have you seen them?”
“Who? Oh, right, the boy who works at the apothecary and the cheesemonger’s girl, right?”
“Yes, have you seen them?”
Allard smirked into his drink. “I wouldn’t go looking for them if I were you. I saw them sneaking off a little while ago, and I suspect they’ll be wanting some privacy.”
It took Deena a moment to realize what Mr Allard meant. “Oh,” said Deena, her ears and cheeks flushing.
Allard patted her on the shoulder. “I’m going to head back to my wagon. Enjoy the dance, Deena.”
Deena nodded. “Have a good night,” she said.
She watched the dancers for a few minutes more, then wondered if there was any point in staying longer. She had thought that Mattieu and Phea wanted her there, that they were going to enjoy the festivities together, but perhaps they were only being nice. If they had each other, what use did they have for her? No, that wasn’t true. They were her friends, they–
There was a lull in the music, and Mrs Mason’s voice carried clear through the hall: “–and look at her just standing there like a little fool. If Edith Hewe thinks that anyone wants her here–” and then the music started up again.
The room had suddenly become too hot to bear, and Deena turned to hurry out the door. She shouldn’t have come; she didn’t belong there. Why had she come at all? To watch other people enjoy themselves, dancing to a dance she did not know? To be watched and judged by people like Mrs Mason? To wait for Phea and Mattieu, standing around indefinitely while they were off together without a thought for her? How long had they been seeing each other? Why hadn’t they told her? Perhaps they didn’t want to be friends–had never been her friends; after all, she was the daughter of the town recluse, the one no one liked or wanted. She no longer wanted to be at the dance–why had she ever wanted it at all?–with the heat and the music and the people who did not like her.
Outside, it had grown rather chilly. The group of drinkers in the square had gone back inside, their table now sitting abandoned, along with the empty casks of ale. On the second floor of the cheesemonger’s, a light was on in Phea’s room, the flicker of a candle in the window. For a moment, Deena considered throwing a rock at the window to get their attention, but then she would just be inserting herself where she wasn’t wanted. Let them have a good night. At least someone would. She didn’t want to go home, either. Her mother would want to know what was wrong, why she had come home so early, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to explain.
This time of night, and with everyone at the dance, the streets of Taunsgrove were deserted. Deena let her feet carry her where they would, and soon found herself at the edge of town. Not near her home, but the opposite side, behind where Mr Allard liked to hitch his wagon. She kept going, following a familiar footpath as it wound its way through the woods, climbing gradually uphill, until the town behind her had been swallowed by the trees. She could no longer see the houses or the lights, could no longer hear the music or the laughter. The only lights were the stars and moon overhead, and the only sounds were the rustle of the leaves.
She sat on a flat rock and pulled her knees up to her chin. She would wait awhile, maybe another half of an hour, and then she would head back home.
She must have dozed off because when she woke, her legs felt horribly cramped.
“Joel,” said a woman’s voice in the dark.
There was a rustle and a thud. “Stars above!” exclaimed the voice of Mr Allard. “Are you trying to scare me half to death?”
“You would have noticed me if you were less drunk. Or have you just forgotten everything I taught you?”
“Leave me be. I’m a merchant now; I sell things. I don’t have to answer to you anymore.”
The woman gave quiet chuckle. “Oh, you really are drunk to speak to me like that.”
Allard’s reply dripped with sarcasm. “Sorry, your lordship. Can I ask why you’re following me, your lordship?”
“Why are you avoiding me?”
“I’m not avoiding you; I’m trying to take a piss.”
“This far from your cart?”
“I like to be alone when I piss!”
“In that case, you may want to reconsider your location. You have company, twenty paces up the path.”
There was a rustle, and a moment later, Mr Allard emerged from behind a clump of bushes. “Deena!” he said, hurriedly fixing his trousers. “What, uh, what are you doing out here?”
“I was just going for a walk,” said Deena, trying to rub the cramp from her legs, “but I think I fell asleep.” She looked around. “Who were you talking to?”
“Me,” said the woman’s voice. “Up here.”
Deena looked up. It was the stranger from earlier that day, the one by the tavern. She was sitting, or rather lounging, in the branches of a tree. “Oh, hello,” said Deena. “What, uh, what are you doing up there?”
“I enjoy the vantage,” said the stranger. She turned to Allard. “Aren’t you glad I stopped you before you finished unfastening your trousers?”
Allard scowled but otherwise ignored her. “You shouldn’t be out so far by yourself, Deena,” he said instead. “Why aren’t you at the dance?”
“I just wanted to go for a walk,” said Deena. “Um, if I’m interrupting, I could go.”
“Not interrupting,” said Allard. “Not interrupting at all. Come on, let me walk you back to town.”
“Joel,” said the woman again.
“What now?” snapped Mr Allard, then froze. “Oh,” he said. With a rapidity that surprised Deena, he clambered up a nearby tree. At the top, he let out a quiet string of expletives.
“What is it?” asked Deena.
Neither of the others answered, but Allard extended a hand to help Deena up the tree. There, to the south, was an orange glow, and for a single confused moment Deena thought it was sun.
Taunsgrove. Taunsgrove was on fire.
Chapter 2 - Ashes to Ashes
Taunsgrove; 20 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Edith Hewe had left the shutters of her cottage open. It was starting to grow chilly outside, but she wanted to be able to hear when Deena returned. Hobbling on her one good foot, she limped over to the hearth to stoke the fire.
She hoped Deena was having fun. The girl may not be of her loins, but she was of her heart; after all, it would take someone truly heartless to raise a child from infancy and feel nothing. One day, perhaps sooner than Edith would like, the girl would have to leave. Until then, it would be good for Deena to spend an evening with her friends, to make one more precious memory while she still could.
Edith sat back down in her chair and picked up her work. The wedding veil was coming along beautifully: a pair of birds in flight, their long tail feathers intertwined. When Deena got married – if Deena got married – Edith hoped that she would still be around to see it.
The sound of footsteps and voices caused Edith’s needle to pause. It was rare for anyone to pass by her cottage, least of all this time of night. The voices were strange, not ones she recognized.
“…some sort of celebration?” asked a man.
“Yeah,” replied another. “In a building by the square. Town hall, I reckon.”
“And they’ll all be there?”
A scoff, made by yet another man. “Town this size? Of course they’ll all be there.”
“You sure? Loorne’s man will have questions if–”
“Hey. There’s a light on in that house.”
Edith froze. Where had she heard the name Loorne before? It was too late now to put out the fireplace, not with the flames burning so merrily in the grate. Running wouldn’t do her any good, not with her foot. Perhaps if she handed over her valuables they would just go away, but–
The twenty-year-old memory came back to her in a flash. Loorne. She was bringing drinks to Lord Raniith’s solar. “Ah, here is the wine now,” said Raniith. “You must try some, Lord Loorne; it is a most delightful vintage.”
Loorne is Ajjraean, realized Edith. She reached for the ring she wore on a chain around her neck and yanked, tugging it free, and flung it chain and all into the flames.
Just in time, too. A moment later her front door burst open.
The men on the other side looked more like brigands than soldiers, but sometimes it was hard to tell the two apart. “On your feet!” one of them shouted, and Edith complied, but evidently not quick enough, as he stepped forward to grab her by the arm and pull her roughly towards him.
“Is it her?” asked one of the others.
The man who had grabbed Edith pulled her to the window, tilting her head to better see her face in the moonlight. “Too old,” he said, shaking his head. “Loorne’s man said she’d be young.”
“Then what do we do with her?”
The man pulled a dagger from his hip and put it to her throat. “You heard the orders. No survivors.”
“Please,” began Edith, but whatever else she could have said was drowned in blood.
Taunsgrove Outskirts; 20 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
For a moment, Deena forgot how to breathe. The world disappeared around her; there was only the rough bark of the tree beneath her fingers and the fire in the distance, the hideous orange glow and the roiling plumes of smoke. Time was frozen, or maybe it was only her, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, could only stare transfixed at the flames.
An eternity later, it was the stranger’s voice that returned her to the world of motion. “Joel,” she said, for the third time that evening. “Let’s go.”
The stranger leapt down from her tree and landed with a quiet thud. Mr Allard did the same.
“W-wait,” said Deena, clambering down as quickly as she could.
“No,” said Allard sharply. “Stay here.”
“Let her come if she wants,” said the stranger.
“She’s a child!” protested Allard.
“They might come this way,” replied the stranger.
Deena didn’t know what was meant by “they”, but Allard seemed to understand. “Stay close,” he said to Deena.
They headed in the direction of town, not running, but walking at as brisk a pace as they could in the dark.
The fire was more smoke than flame by now; it filled the woods, stinging their eyes and nostrils long before they could see the town. There was something else, too, a strange tangy scent that Deena couldn’t place and wasn’t sure she wanted to.
They heard Allard’s mule before they could see her through the smoke. Someone had ransacked the wagon but left the animal alone; the beast was braying, terrified, stamping at a few cinders that had floated her way. Allard ran over to calm her, whispering, until she quieted enough to no longer be tugging at her leash.
“Aren’t you going to check your wagon?” asked Deena.
“That can wait,” said Allard.
They passed collapsed roofs and walls scorched black with soot. Fires still burned, here and there, loose planks that had fallen from who-knows-where. There was a smoldering pile of wood that Deena was sure had once been the greengrocer’s cart, and at the center of the square–
Allard clamped his hand quickly over Deena’s eyes, but it was too late. She had already seen it, barely visible through the smoke, silhouetted by flames. Bodies, dangling from the branches of the great oak tree.
Deena pushed the hand away. “Who–” she began, then wished she hadn’t, because there was a pile next to the tree, with limbs sticking out at all angles, and as a gust of wind blew the smoke her way–
Deena bent over and retched. She emptied her stomach of what felt like everything she had ever eaten, but it was no good. The smell still lingered, permeating her nose, permeating everything. She would never be rid of that smell.
“Deena,” said Allard urgently. “Was your mother here?”
Deena shook her head. No, her mother never goes to the dance. Her mother was still at–
Deena ran. Allard called after her, and maybe the stranger too, but Deena could only think of her mother. She ran down the familiar streets, past the familiar houses, until the familiar sight of her cottage emerged through the smoke.
It hadn’t been burnt, but the garden had been trampled, and the door was hanging from its hinges.
Allard grabbed her by the arm and clamped his hand over her mouth. “They could still be here,” he hissed.
Who? Deena wanted to ask, but Allard’s hand was clamped down tight.
“Stay here with the girl,” said the stranger. “Stay in the shadows.”
The stranger disappeared into Deena’s home while Allard pulled Deena away. In the stillness, Deena listened to the crackle of the flames in the distance, the pounding of blood in her ears.
It was a long while before the stranger emerged, carrying a figure in a bloodstained sheet.
Allard’s grip on Deena’s arm slackened. “Oh gods,” he said. “Oh gods, Deena, I’m so sorry.”
The stranger set the bloodied figure on the ground, and Deena ran to it, falling to her knees. Her hand hovered over the figure, but she could not bring herself to touch he sheet.
“Do you want to see her?” asked the stranger.
The stranger peeled back the sheet, just enough to reveal the face, folding the fabric neatly below the chin. Edith Hewe was paler than usual, or perhaps that was the moonlight. Her hair was tousled, the usual pins pulled free from her greying hair, but other than that she could for all the world have been asleep.
“Mama?” said Deena.
Mrs Hewe didn’t respond.
The stranger put a hand on Deena’s shoulder. “Where do you want to bury her?”
“Bury her?” asked Allard. “We don’t have time to bury her.”
“We do,” said the stranger.
“The Ajjraeans could come back, if it is the Ajjraeans, and–”
“We’re burying her,” said the stranger, and Mr Allard fell silent.
Deena didn’t want to bury her either. Her mother wasn’t dead, couldn’t be. Yet she found herself raising a hand to point to the patch of flowers by the side of the house. “She liked the flowers,” she said. “The big ones that look like daisies.” They weren’t in bloom yet, but they would be soon, and her mother would want to see them.
The stranger picked up the shovel and tossed it to Allard. “Start digging,” she said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Where are you going?” asked Allard.
“To get my belongings.”
Deena sat beside her mother while Mr Allard dug the hole. She supposed that she should help, but she couldn’t bear to leave. She had to stay, to keep her mother company.
The stranger had returned by the time Allard was done, and it was she who carried Mrs Hewe to her final resting place. “Would you like to say a few words?” she asked.
Deena stared down into the makeshift grave. It was just a hole in the dirt, barely three feet deep, with a bloodstained sheet for a funeral shroud. Her mother deserved better. “I’ll come back,” said Deena. “I’ll come back, I promise, and do this properly.”
They waited for her to say more, but Deena had nothing more to say. She took the shovel from Mr Allard’s hands and began to fill in the hole.
“Let me,” said the stranger, and Deena obliged. She watched the dirt rain down on her mother until she was covered, sheet and all.
Deena went inside. Her house and belongings hadn’t been touched, and somehow this made Deena angry, that the aggressors would go after her mother’s life but not her possessions. That there was nothing worth taking–that the killers knew there was nothing worth taking–but they took her mother’s life anyway.
Mr Allard joined her, after a moment. “Are you alright?” he asked.
Alright? Of course she was alright. It was the world that was wrong. What kind of world would take away her everything in a single night? Her mother, her friends, her town? There was no question of if anyone survived; they hadn’t seen a single soul on the entire trek through town. Mrs Sandler, Mr Richardson, and even mean old Mrs Mason: they were all gone. Killed or burned or–Deena didn’t want to know. They were all gone now, all gone up in flames, and Deena was the only one who was still alive, but why? Only her and Allard and the stranger in the woods.
Her mother’s embroidery lay discarded on the floor. Instinctively, Deena picked it up. It was the last thing her mother worked on. She remembered how pretty it was as she watched her mother draw up the pattern in chalk, and it was still pretty, even half finished, even with the birds’ tails not yet filled in with colorful thread.
She went outside. There was nothing to use for a grave marker, so she placed the embroidery on the fresh dirt, hoop and all.
“The wind’ll carry that away,” said Mr Allard, but Deena didn’t respond. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
“Come,” said the stranger. “It’s time to go.”
Deena didn’t remember gathering her belongings into a knapsack, but she must have, because a little while later she found herself sitting in the back of Allard’s wagon, clutching her knapsack to her chest. The stranger was sitting beside her, sorting through what little of Allard’s goods that hadn’t been broken or tossed aside.
“You have a book about me, Joel?”
“Of course I have a book about you,” said Mr Allard. “They were selling like hotcakes in Rook’s Town, and Emdenshire, too.”
“What book?” Deena found herself asking.
Allard looked up from where he was hitching his mule to the wagon. “I didn’t get a chance to introduce you two, did I? My lord, this is Deena. Deena, meet Lord Avenel, the fabled Blade of Elyria.”
The name was supposed to mean something, but Deena couldn’t remember what. “Hello,” she said simply.
Allard hoisted himself onto the driver’s seat and gave the reins a flick. Obediently, the mule began to trot, pulling the wagon behind her. Deena watched as what was left of Taunsgrove receded into the distance. She watched until they turned at a bend in the road, and the town was swallowed by the trees.
Far, far above, the stars blinked on through the smoke.
Chapter 3 - Memories of a Father
The Silent Tower; 21 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Lord Vallus Nebeel had been the Head of Covert Affairs for the Republic of Elyria ever since Avenel had abdicated to go frolic in the woods. As much as he respected her and her command, Vallus had always felt his own brand of leadership to be the more efficient. Efficiency was based on structure, and Vallus was fond of structure.
At exactly 8:05 each morning, he rose from bed, having slept for exactly eight hours, the requisite time for someone of his health and vitality. Allowing for some time to clean his teeth and dress, he had breakfast sent up to his chambers at exactly 8:15. Breakfast took twenty minutes. Avenel used to read her mail while eating, but that made for poor digestion, so Vallus had the mail sent up separately, at exactly 8:35. He gave himself twenty minutes for reading, responding to, and acting upon the mail. The last five minutes of the hour, as with the last five minutes of every hour until he went to bed, were reserved for acting upon any emergency missives which may have arrived in the past fifty-five minutes. If there were none, he would simply rest. Rest was important for productivity.
The Silent Tower had room to house exactly 165 operational agents at any given time. Avenel had believed there was only room for 150, but there had been a miscount in the audit. Vallus had fired the offending parties, then counted the dormitories himself. He had informed Avenel of this once, on one of her sporadic visits, but she had only remarked that the exact number was irrelevant when the Tower only employed about a hundred operatives at any time. Vallus didn’t mention that he planned to expand.
In addition to these dormitories, there was also a guest suite next door to Vallus’s own, usually reserved for when one of the Council of Wardens came to visit. One floor below sat the rooms of other key personnel. Further down in the tower, there was a second, smaller set of dormitories for those agents still in training. It seemed foolish to Vallus for the sleeping quarters of everyone critical to the department to be located in the same building, especially when that building was carved into the side of a cliff. As unlikely as it was for a geological disaster to occur, one must always make plans against the worst. He had considered switching the operatives’ quarters with the servants’ elsewhere in the keep, but that would put the servants too far from the kitchens. Instead, he had decided to excavate room for a new set of dormitories, further inside the mountain. They would be windowless, of course, but concessions must be made somewhere. He spent the remainder of his morning with the architect that Lord Zachariah had sent to help oversee the project.
At half past noon, Vallus took his midday meal in the gardens. Spending time with flora helped clear the mind and maintain one’s spirits, and fresh air and sunlight were good for the constitution. After lunch, he would continue to sit in the gardens and read until 2 o’clock, when he would commence his daily training. He must lead by example, when it came maintaining his skills of combat, and besides, physical exercise was beneficial for both mind and body.
On this day, however, he was interrupted at 1:47.
“M’lord Vallus?” asked the servant, approaching him with a note in her hand. A new girl, as he recalled, the niece of one of the kitchen staff.
Vallus checked his pocketwatch. “There’s eight minutes until the time I usually take my messages,” he said. “Is something on fire?”
“N-no, m’lord,” said the girl, looking slightly bewildered. “Only, Ms Ulla wasn’t there, when the bird came, and she said red ribbons mean urgent, so I thought—”
“So you thought you would bring it to me yourself,” finished Vallus. He snapped his watch closed. “Very well. Your initiative is commendable, if nothing else. Don’t do it again.”
The girl blushed scarlet and practically threw the message at him before bowing and running off.
Vallus sighed. Now the girl was scared of him; that won’t do. He would have to speak to his steward about how the new servants were being trained.
The outside of the scroll was marked with the initials of an agent he had left with Lord Loorne, but Loorne’s stronghold was too far away to send notes by bird. Frowning, he unrolled the note and felt his heart plummet to the bowels of the Earth.
“Taunsgrove sacked. No survivors.”
Wilderness; 21 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Deena awoke to the sound of whispered arguing.
“You must have known, Joel.”
“Known? No. Guessed? Maybe. He asked me to look in on her from time to time, so I did, but I know better than to dig into his private affairs.”
A sigh. “We’ll speak of this later. She’s awake.”
Deena took that as her cue to open her eyes.
She was greeted by the ripped canvas awning of Allard’s wagon, surrounded by crates packed with straw and miscellaneous goods. There were birds singing outside, and footsteps, and a moment later there was Mr Allard, poking his head into the wagon. “Good morning, Deena,” he said. “Do you want some breakfast?”
Deena sat up. Allard looked different than he had the night before. “Your mustache,” she said.
“Ah, yes,” said Allard, rubbing his smooth face. “It was itchy. And fake.”
“Oh,” said Deena. His wrinkles were gone, too, and the white hair at his temples. He looked younger than he had in years. “You’re Hallowed?”
“Ah,” said Allard with a sigh. “Yeah. Yeah I am. I washed all that stuff out this morning. Didn’t think there was any point in keeping it from you any longer.”
Deena nodded. She supposed she should be surprised, but she didn’t feel much of anything. “What time is it?” she asked.
“Mid-morning,” said Allard. “There’s a stream over there, if you want to wash up.”
Outside the wagon, the stranger Avenel was kneeling by a fire, cooking fish in an iron pan.
“Good morning,” said Deena, trying to be polite.
The woman only nodded.
“Um, alright,” said Deena, and walked into the trees in search of the stream.
Avenel watched her go.
Joel took a seat beside her. “I think you scared her,” he said.
“How?” asked Avenel. “I’ve done nothing.”
“It’s just the way you are,” said Joel. He stabbed at one of the fish with a fork. “You know, she’s taking it all better than I would’ve thought. I thought she’d be bawling her eyes out by now.”
“I suspect it simply hasn’t sunk in yet,” replied Avenel. “Give her time.”
“Are you going to take her to the Tower?” asked Joel. “I’d go with you, but this wagon is about to fall apart.”
Avenel nodded. She reached into her pocket and took out the ring she had found in the ashes the night before. She ran a thumb over the engraving on the metal, the ornate V crowned by thorns. “If our assumptions are correct, he’s the only family she has left.”
“And if we’re wrong? If he isn’t her father?”
“Then I would very much like to know how a ring with Vallus’s sigil wound up in a dead woman’s hearth.”
The Silent Tower; 21 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Vallus read the note again. And again. And again.
“Taunsgrove sacked. No survivors.”
When he was certain that his eyes had not made some horrible mistake, he sat down, then stood back up, then sat down again. He crumpled the note in his fist.
Taunsgrove was supposed to be safe. Secluded. Harmless. What had happened to bring Lord Loorne’s ire down onto the town?
He would have to find out. He would find Loorne, find the man who lead the attack, and the man who struck the final blow. He would have their heads.
The message had been sent by bird. The nearest place to Taunsgrove where a bird could be sent would be the Fork. It would have taken hours for the bird to make its way to the Tower, and a full night’s ride from Taunsgrove to the Fork. Last night, then. The raid would have happened last night.
There hadn’t been a raid within Elyria’s borders in decades, and to strike so close to the Tower was beyond bold. Was a it a message? Had someone found out? Did someone discover that Lord Vallus of Elyria had hidden his daughter there? Or perhaps…
Perhaps it had been a mistake to bring the girl into the world at all, if it had only been for this. No. No, he would not think that way. There might yet be survivors; there sometimes were, on occasion, the one or two stragglers who had escaped the slaughter. Perhaps his daughter was among them. Perhaps, but Vallus found himself too much a man of numbers to believe in so slim a possibility. But he would send his men. He would find out.
And, he supposed, if this really was a reopening of hostilities, it would be his job to inform the Council.
He did not want to think of that. He wanted his daughter.
Vallus looked up to see Erikr standing at the gate to the garden, a pair of practice swords in his hand. “What is it?” asked Vallus, trying not to snap.
“We’re supposed to train together today.”
“A change of plans,” said Vallus, rising from his seat. “There is urgent business I must attend to. I’m not to be disturbed for the remainder of the day.”
“Of course,” said Erikr, bowing. “I’ll leave you to it, my lord.”
In his office, Vallus sat down with the bottle of rum he kept in his desk. It was a silly habit, imprudent and wasteful, but there were days when all his thoughts were of love and loss, and only the rum was enough to drown them.
I need to write to the Council, he thought. I need to send someone to Taunsgrove, retrieve her body at least. But who did he trust enough to send? Would it be more dangerous now to send someone and all but admit that she was his daughter? Would there be anything left to find?
How do you grieve for a daughter you did not know? He had only known her for three days before he had her sent away into hiding, three days in which he had been so blinded by grief that he scarce could bear to look at her. She had just been a bundle of swaddling clothes, a squalling reminder of his loss, and he had sent her away as soon as he could. She was his daughter, yes, but he had been far from a father. He did not deserve to grieve for her.
Sometime in the evening, the sun low in the sky, there was a knock on his door.
“I asked not to be disturbed,” he called through the door.
“Apologies, my lord,” came the low, slow voice of the steward. “You were missed at supper.”
Was it already so late? “Sorry, Charles. I was absorbed in… in matters.” Hurriedly, he placed the rum back in its habitual drawer. “Come in.”
Charles came in with a tray laden with mutton and carrots, along with a flagon of ale.
“You could have just sent a servant,” said Vallus.
“I thought it best to come myself,” said Charles. “This behavior is most unlike you.”
“I was busy,” said Vallus. “Apologies if I’ve worried you.”
Charles nodded. “I’ll leave you to your work, then.”
“Yes, my lord?”
He should have his mourning clothes brought up. It would only be proper, and the least he could do as a father. Instead, he smoothed out the note on his desk. “Fetch Lord Kamiya for me, if you please,” he said. “I have a job for her and her men.”
If he could not care for her in life, he would at least avenge her death.
Wilderness; 21 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Avenel was sharpening her sword.
It had been midday before Deena remembered where she had heard the name, and she had immediately gone and found Allard’s copy of the biography, tucked between a larger tome and a candlestick. Bouncing along in the back of a wagon was hardly the best place to read, but Deena managed, or she would have if she hadn’t been distracted by the menacing sound of blade on whetstone.
“For the last time,” said the woman, as Deena inched toward the far corner of the wagon, “you have no reason to be afraid of me.”
“You’re an assassin,” said Deena.
“Yes, and do you really think you’re important enough to merit assassination?”
Deena supposed that she was not.
When the sun began to dip below the treeline, Allard pulled the wagon to a stop. “That’s it,” he said. “Mule’s too tired to go on.”
“Are you sure?” asked Deena. “Shouldn’t we put more distance between us and the—the Ajjraeans?”
“If they were coming this way,” said Avenel, “we would have encountered them already.” She hopped off the wagon. “Are we still along the stream, Joel? I’m going to catch some more fish.”
“With what?” asked Deena. She didn’t see any fishing rods.
By way of answer, Avenel waved her sword.
“She’s going to fish with a sword?” asked Deena.
Allard looked up from tying the mule. “Oh, yeah. She does that. I tried it myself, once. Didn’t work.”
The sun had set by the time they finished their meal. The campfire was impossible to read by — it was far too dim and flickery — so Deena laid back to look at the stars. Thin wisps of cloud obscured them, here and there, but otherwise the sky was clear.
Maybe it was just her imagination, but the woods already seemed different than the ones around Taunsgrove, the landscape unfamiliar. The stars must still be the same, but Deena had never studied the stars. Mattieu did, though. Mattieu knew the names of what seemed like every constellation, but Deena could never find them, even when he pointed them out.
She sat up. Mr Allard was off watering the mule by the stream. Avenel was sitting against a rock, witling at a piece of wood with a dagger.
“That’s a pretty dagger,” said Deena, by way of conversation. It really was, with an ornate hilt and a crossguard shaped like wings.
“Thank you,” said Avenel. “It belonged to my wardfather.”
“Wardfather?” asked Deena.
“The man who made me Hallowed.”
“Made? I thought Hallowed were born that way.”
“Some are,” said Avenel. “If either parent is Hallowed, then the child would be too. For those of us who aren’t so fortunate, it’s still possible to become Hallowed, provided there is someone Hallowed willing to take us as their ward.”
“And for you, that was the man who gave you that knife?”
Avenel nodded. “He was a second father to me. He took me in and made me a part of his family.”
“What about your real family?” asked Deena.
“They had all died by then.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” said Avenel. “It was long ago.” She slid the dagger back into its sheath. “You should get some sleep. We’ll want to wake early tomorrow, to make the most of the light.”
It was only as Deena was falling asleep that she realized how Avenel had used the past tense to describe her wardfather. That’s so sad, thought Deena, as she drifted off to sleep. She lost her family twice.
She didn’t remember her dream that night, but when she woke, her mouth tasted of smoke and ash.
Chapter 4 - The Splintered Tree
The Forked Inn; 23 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The road out from Taunsgrove was narrow, unpaved, and winding, but it was the only road that Deena had ever known. It widened slightly as they traveled, but even then it was only wide enough for two wagons side-by-side. When they came upon the main road, Deena gaped at the sight. It was large enough to fit a house, if a house had wheels and was pulled by horses. It was large enough even for several houses. And it was paved, too, with large flat stones pressed into earth, though many were cracked or hidden beneath a layer of dirt and mud.
There was an inn at the fork. Not a particularly large one, according to Avenel and Mr Allard, but it was the first building that Deena had seen since leaving Taunsgrove. The stream they had been following ran past the inn, where a mill had been installed to harness the water. Out front, closer to the road than the inn itself, was a large and twisted elm, split in half by some lightning strike of decades past. There was a small stable, too, and a fenced area with a dozen clucking chickens.
“Here we are,” said Mr Allard, pulling up to the inn. “And just in time for supper, from the smell.”
The faded sign above the door read “The Forked Inn” and featured a fork with its tines split apart. The door swung open, and a portly woman stepped out to greet them. Deena couldn’t help but notice the scar on her arm as she wiped her hands on her apron.
“Joel,” said the innkeeper. “And Lord Avenel, too.” She bowed. “I’m relieved to see you two are safe.”
“You’ve heard what happned, then?” asked Avenel.
The woman nodded. “One of ours came by to send a bird to the Silent Tower. Lord Kamiya came by too. Sent to see what’s left, I suppose.”
“It’s not your job to speculate, Bette,” said Avenel. “Is Kamiya still here?”
Bette shook her head. “You just missed her. She went by foot or I’m sure you would’ve passed her on the road.”
“Are there any other guests?”
“None but you.”
Avenel nodded. “We’ll need room and board for the night, and I’ll need to send a bird to Vallus.”
“Of course, m’lord. Tals’ll get you set up.” She glanced curiously at Deena, but when neither Avenel nor Mr Allard made any move to introduce her, she disappeared through a door into what Deena assumed was the kitchen.
Dinner wasn’t much, a stew of chicken and carrots and peas, but it was better fare than they’d had on the road, and Deena devoured her bowl.
“Would you like another?” asked Avenel.
“No,” said Deena. “But thank you.”
Avenel nodded and rose from her seat. “I’ll send that bird now,” she said. “Time to put Vallus out of his misery.”
“Who’s Vallus?” asked Deena, as she walked away.
“A, uh, a friend,” said Allard. “Avenel’s going to take you to go see him.”
Deena turned to look at him. “What about you?”
Allard shook his head. “The Ajjraeans did a number to my cart. I’m surprised it’s lasted this long. No, I need to get it fixed, sooner rather than later, so I’ll be heading for Emdenshire in the morning.”
“Can’t I go with you?”
“Ah, that.” He scraped his spoon across the bottom of his bowl. “Look, your mother would’ve wanted you to go to Vallus.”
“Why? Did my mother know him?”
“Sure,” said Allard. “He’s, um, he’s a friend. From before Taunsgrove.”
“My mother’s never mentioned a Vallus.”
“Has your mother mentioned anything from before Taunsgrove?”
That, Deena supposed, was a fair point.
“Look,” said Allard. “Lord Avenel, she’s not good with people, exactly. I don’t think she even remembers how to talk to someone who isn’t a soldier. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t a good person. You’ll be fine with her, really.”
“She kills people for a living.”
“Killed,” corrected Allard. “She left service decades ago. Retired, I suppose you could call it. The only things she’s killed lately have been elk and fish. And probably some rabbits.”
“What does she do now?” asked Deena.
Allard shrugged. “How should I know? Cataloguing birds, if the rumors are true.”
“Oh. I thought you two were friends.”
Allard scoffed. “She trained me, is all, before I decided that killing wasn’t in my blood. I hadn’t seen her in decades, until I spotted her at Taunsgrove’s tavern.”
“She trained you?” asked Deena. “To be— to be an assassin?”
“Aye, but that was a lifetime ago, and she was secretive even back then. There were rumors, when I was a recruit, that she lost her entire family in the Revolution, but that’s all anyone knew about her. Well, that and the fact that she despises tardiness.”
“Only when my trainees have been drinking the night before,” said Avenel, returning. “You deserved the extra laps you got.”
“You knew about that?” asked Allard.
Avenel gave him a look. “I could see you from my window. Honestly, Joel, it’s a wonder you ever thought you would make a good spy.”
Tals was the innkeeper’s husband, and he showed them to their rooms. Deena’s had a window that overlooked the chickens. The clucking reminded her of her chickens at home. She wondered what happened to them. Maybe she should have taken them with her, but it was too late now.
The room was plain, with just a washbasin and a small cot, but it was luxury compared to the back of Allard’s wagon. Deena collapsed onto the bed and wondered, briefly, if she could ask to draw a bath, but then her eyes slid closed and she fell asleep.
She dreamt of the tree, the cleft elm in front of the inn, but when the lightning struck it caught on fire. She ran inside the inn to tell someone, but there was no one around. Her mother wasn’t there, but then she remembered that of course—her mother was in the garden. Her mother was with the chickens. But when she ran outside to find her there was only a hole in the ground.
And then she turned back to the tree and there were bodies hanging from it, Mattieu and Phea and Mrs Sandler. Their eyes stared blankly at her until they melted from their sockets.
Someone was holding her hand. Someone said something to her, and wiped the soot away from her face. Deena was crying, or trying to cry, but her tears evaporated in the flames.
The sun was high in the sky when she woke. Someone had taken off her shoes and placed them neatly by the foot of the bed. She sat up, and a damp towel fell from her forehead.
The inn was quiet. She used the washbasin to splash her face and clean her teeth, then emerged from her room. The innkeeper, Bette, was sitting at a table, darning an old sock.
She looked up as Deena entered. “Lord Avenel is out back,” she said.
“Where’s Mr Allard?” asked Deena.
“He left at first light,” said Bette. “You had a bit of fever this morning, so we didn’t wake you.”
“Oh,” said Deena. “Well, thank you for the towel.”
“Wasn’t me,” said Bette. “That was Lord Avenel.”
Deena found Avenel outside, as Bette had said, sitting on top of the chicken coop, still witling that piece of wood. The woman didn’t look much like an assassin, apart from her unusual choice of perch, though Deena supposed she had no idea what an assassin might look like. Her frame was slim, but tall, with hair that fell nearly to her waist, even when tied back. She was pretty, too, with high cheekbones and a smooth complexion, and when she looked up, her gaze was piercing.
“Here,” said Avenel, tossing the bit of wood she had been witling.
Deena caught it. It had been carved into the shape of a tree, detailed down to the leaves. “It’s an oak,” she said.
Avenel nodded. “I took the wood from that tree in your town square. I thought you might like it as a keepsake.”
Deena turned the wooden tree over in her hand. “Thank you,” she said. “It’s pretty.”
Avenel nodded again and leapt down from the roof of the coop. “Have you eaten yet?”
“No,” said Deena.
“I’ll have Bette feed you something, and then we’ll be going.”
Wherever this Vallus lived, it was apparently in the mountains, because they started down a narrow footpath rather than follow the main road. Avenel walked ahead and Deena followed, but as the path grew steeper, Deena found it increasingly difficult to keep pace.
“Are you alright?” asked Avenel, turning around.
“Fine,” replied Deena, panting. “Just out of breath.”
Avenel turned toward the sun. It was already starting to set. “There’s a larger road, too, but it takes twice as long, so I thought—”
“It’s fine,” said Deena. “I’m fine.”
Avenel looked at her for a moment. “Let’s make camp for the night.”
There was no stream this time, but there were rabbits, though Deena wasn’t quite sure how Avenel had taken one down with just a sword and a dagger. Deena had always been too squeamish to skin a rabbit, so Avenel did it, and told Deena to make the fire. Deena piled the branches together, but when she picked up the flint and steel, her hands shook too much to light anything. Avenel took over making the fire, while Deena could only sit and watch.
Allard had taken the pots and pans with him, so they cooked the rabbit like a spit roast. There was some bread, too, that they’d brought from the inn, and a bit of hard cheese. They ate in silence, and afterward, Avenel put out the fire.
They had no tent, and the ground was hard and bumpy. Avenel laid out her cloak to sleep on and used her knapsack as a pillow, so Deena did the same. The forest canopy was thick, too thick to see the stars, but some moonlight still made its way to the forest floor.
Deena turned the wooden tree over again in her hand. In the dark, the leaves almost looked liked they were moving, as though they were rustling in the wind. “Um, Lord Avenel,” said Deena.
“Just Avenel will do,” said Avenel.
“A-Avenel, then. Mr Allard said you lost your family in the Revolution? Were they—were they killed by the Hallowed? Was it a raid, like—” She wanted to say “like mine,” but the words wouldn’t come out.
There was a moment of silence, then: “It was a fire.”
“Oh,” said Deena. She remembered the bodies at Taunsgrove, silhouetted by the dying flames.
“Get some rest,” said Avenel. “You’ll need your energy.”
They woke at dawn, and for a moment Deena thought there was a fire in the distance before she recognized the orange glow of the rising sun. They broke their fast on more of the bread and cheese, then resumed their upward trek.
“We should arrive by sundown,” said Avenel. “Later than I expected, but…” she trailed off.
At midmorning they came across a stream, where they stopped for a rest and to fill their flasks. Deena watched as Avenel mixed drops of purple iodine with the water, to make it safe to drink. They stopped again at noon, to eat what was left of the bread and cheese, then headed off again before Deena felt she was fully rested.
“We should meet with the road soon,” said Avenel. “It’ll be less of an incline.”
“O-okay,” panted Deena.
“You can see our destination now, through the trees.”
Deena followed Avenel’s gaze. High up on the mountainside, a single tower stood tall and proud, with crenelated walls running alongside it. The castle was large, larger than any building that Deena had ever seen, larger even than Taunsgrove’s town square, and more besides. “That’s where we’re going?” she asked.
Avenel nodded. “That’s the Silent Tower.”
Deena turned to look at Avenel. “That’s where they train the assassins. Like you.”
Avenel nodded again. “Lord Vallus is the current Head of Covert Affairs,” she said. “I passed the role to him when I left.”
“How did my mother know someone like him?”
It wasn’t long before their path met the road, but “road” was a generous descriptor. It was more of a goat path, rocky and uneven, and barely wide enough for two horses side-by-side. However, the incline was far gentler than that of the footpath they had been on, a relief to Deena’s aching lungs and legs.
The sun was nearly to the horizon when they heard the clipclopping of hooves. A rider came around a bend in the road, leading a second horse behind him. He was an attractive man, with a head of golden curls and silk tunic that did nothing to conceal his lean and muscular physique.
The man dismounted. “Lord Avenel,” he said, dropping a low, sweeping bow. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, as always.” His teeth shone white as snow when he smiled.
“Erikr,” said Avenel with a slight nod of her head. “I don’t recall requesting an escort.”
“You didn’t,” said Erikr, “but as it was nearing sundown and you still hadn’t arrived, I thought I’d come and meet you part way.”
“That was considerate,” said Avenel.
“Who’s your young friend?” asked Erikr.
“Her name is Deena. Deena, this is Sir Erikr of the Silent Tower.”
“Hello,” said Deena. After a momentary hesitation, she bowed as she had seen Bette do at the inn.
“Charmed,” said Erikr. He handed the reins of the second horse to Avenel. “Shall I accompany you the rest of the way, my lord?”
“No,” said Avenel. “Ride ahead and let Vallus know we’ve arrived.”
“As my lord commands,” said Erikr, bowing once more before mounting his horse and returning the way he came.
Deena patted the horse of the nose. “I’ve never ridden a horse before,” she said.
“Just sit and don’t fall off,” said Avenel, fastening their bags to the horse. She swung herself up into the saddle, then reached down to help Deena up behind her. “Here, put your arms around me.”
Deena hesitated a moment, then complied.
They arrived at a giant iron gate embedded into the side of the mountain. The gate was larger than any Deena had ever seen, large enough to fit a house through, perhaps. A man on the parapet above shouted something indistinct, and a moment later, the great gate slowly lifted with a groaning of metal chains. Deena couldn’t help but be uneasy as they passed underneath, but the chains held, and they passed safely to the other side.
It was dark inside, but once Deena’s eyes had adjusted, she found herself in a massive cave at least the size of Taunsgrove’s town square. Braziers the size of wagons hung from the cavern roof. Underneath, there was a stable, a kennel, and crates piled high along the walls. Corridors branched away on either side, and there was a deep recess on the far wall.
A stablehand, not much older than Deena, came forward for their horse. Deena dismounted, rather clumsily, nearly kicking the boy in the face.
“S-sorry,” said Deena. “Um, what about our bags?”
“The servants will get them,” said Avenel.
The recess in the wall, it turned out, was actually a shaft that extended well past the roof of the cave. A large metal cage, almost as wide as the gate, descended slowly from the shaft. When it arrived at the cavern floor, the front of the cage folded open.
“Is that safe?” asked Deena, when Avenel motioned for her to step inside.
“If you’d rather take the stairs,” said Avenel, “it’s a thousand steps to the top.”
Deena stepped inside the lift.
There was a girl running toward them from across the cave. “Wait!” she called. “Wait for me!” It was only when she neared that Deena saw that the girl was actually a grown woman, albeit a petite one. She ran into the lift, panting, hair disheveled with a smudge of dirt on her cheek. “Thank you,” she said. She looked up. “Oh! You must be Lord Avenel! Did Sir Erikr already go back up?”
Avenel regarded her. “He did,” she said. “You’re Sabine’s daughter.”
“I am,” said the petite woman, “and I’ve been told I’m her spitting image.” She bowed. “I’m Tatiana. Tatiana Vettel; I use my uncle’s surname.”
“And now you’re working under Erikr,” said Avenel. “From what Vallus tells me, your mother would be proud.”
Tatiana beamed, and fetching dimples formed on her cheeks. “My lord is too kind.”
The lift began to move with a great grinding of gears and chains. The floor shuddered and shook, but both Avenel and Tatiana seemed unfazed.
Tatiana seemed to sense Deena’s unease. “Is this your first time in the lift?” she asked.
“It made me nervous, too, when I first arrived. Perhaps you’ll feel more at ease if you saw the mechanisms. I have some time tomorrow; I could show you around, if Lord Avenel permits it.”
“I don’t see the harm,” said Avenel.
“Tomorrow, then, I’ll give the grand tour,” said Tatiana. “Oh, but I don’t believe I caught your name.”
“It’s Deena,” said Deena, and bowed.
Tatiana laughed. “Oh, you don’t have to bow to me; I’m not a sir just yet. Just Tatiana is fine.”
The lift slowed as it emerged into a courtyard lit by the setting sun. Deena blinked and squinted as the door of the lift creaked open.
“I have to run,” said Tatiana, stepping out from the lift. “It was lovely to meet you, Lord Avenel, and you too, Deena. I’ll see you both at dinner.”
The courtyard was full of people, men and women bustling about their business, busier even than Taunsgrove on market days. Some of the people wore expensive silks and jewels, while others were dressed in plainer garb. Two men were carrying a large crate across the courtyard. To the right, there was a group at sword practice, their weapons glinting in the sun. Somewhere out of sight, the sound of a blacksmith’s hammer rang out across the yard. Almost all of the people looked young.
“Are they all Hallowed?” asked Deena.
“Most,” replied Avenel.
They crossed the courtyard and entered the large tower that looked to be the main structure of the keep. Up close, it was even larger than it had appeared from afar, easily the width of four or five of Taunsgrove’s cottages. The exterior stones looked old, weathered and smooth, but the doors and windows seemed to be of newer construction.
A man stood waiting for them by the door, dressed in a crisp silk shirt, his bald head reflecting the sunset.
He bowed. “Lord Avenel,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to welcome you back to the Silent Tower.”
“Charles,” said Avenel with a nod. “Deena, this is Charles, the steward here.”
“Hello,” said Deena, unsure of whether to bow.
Charles bowed, putting an end to Deena’s dilemma. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Deena,” he said. “Come, Lord Vallus is waiting for you.”
They passed a few people on their way up the tower, many of whom bowed to Avenel and looked curiously at Deena. The number of floors they passed made Deena almost wish for a second lift, until at last they arrived at the top.
There were only three doors on this floor, each one large and imposing. Charles knocked on the middle of the three. “My Lord,” he called. “Lord Avenel and young Deena have arrived.”
“Come in,” called the voice from within, and Charles opened the door.
The room inside was large and brightly lit by a number of floor-length glass windows. Bookshelves filled the spaces between the windows, topped with marble busts. There was a fireplace on one of the walls, as tall as a door, and accompanied by a small trestle table and a quartet of matching armchairs. The center of the room was dominated by a large and ornate desk of dark mahogany, piled high with papers and books. Sitting at the desk was a man who Deena assumed to be Lord Vallus, who looked at them over spectacles perched on a long, thin nose. The rest of his face was long and sharp too, with high cheekbones and hard, square jaw.
He brushed back his hair. “Lord Avenel,” he said, rising. “And—”
Avenel interrupted him. “Charles,” she said, “I’ll need a word with Lord Vallus in private.”
“Of course,” said Charles. “Shall I show Miss Deena to your quarters?”
“Please,” said Avenel. “I’m sure she is tired and will want a bath.”
Charles nodded. “This way, Miss.”
“O-oh, okay,” said Deena. She glanced back at Avenel for a moment then turned to follow Charles out of the room.
Avenel waited until the door had swung shut behind them before retrieving the ring from her pocket. She crossed the room in three quick strides and slammed it on Vallus’s desk. “Explain.”
Vallus picked up the ring and ran his thumb over his sigil. “Did Edith give this to you?”
“No. She was dead.”
Vallus closed his eyes. “Ah.”
“Is the girl your daughter?”
Vallus didn’t answer. His eyes remained closed. After a long silence, he sighed. “Yes.”
“She’s lucky to be alive. If Joel and I hadn’t been there—”
“I know,” said Vallus. “Taunsgrove was supposed to be safe.”
“Safe?” asked Avenel.
“I know,” said Vallus, holding up his hands, “but there hadn’t been an attack like that in decades. If I had known—”
“I’m not talking about the attack,” interrupted Avenel. “I’m talking about Taunsgrove. You know full well how towns like that can be, how much they resent Hallowed rule. You know what happened to Kamiya—”
“It isn’t like with Kamiya! Edith knew what she was—who I was—and once Deena came of age we would have told her.”
“So why send them away at all? You would hardly be the first man to keep a paramour or a bastard child.”
“That isn’t what— it isn’t how you think,” said Vallus. “Believe me, I had my reasons for—”
“What reasons could you possibly have for abandoning your own daughter?”
The look Vallus gave her was that of a wounded deer. “I—I didn’t,” he said quietly. “Avenel, I—I didn’t know what else to do.”
Avenel regarded him for a moment. “Then talk to me. Tell me what your reasons are.”
Vallus hesitated. “Promise me you won’t tell a soul. And—and that you won’t hurt her.”
“Why would I hurt her?”
“Edith isn’t Deena’s mother, not by blood.”
“Then who is?”
Vallus sighed. “Her name was Fosette. She was Ajjraean.”
Chapter 5 - Guardian
The Silent Tower; 25 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
“Ajjraean,” repeated Avenel. “You had a child with an Ajjraean woman.”
Vallus nodded. He didn’t look at her, keeping his eyes instead fixed on the ring in his hand. He remembered giving it to Edith, to give to Deena when the time was right. He had never imagined that it would be Avenel who brought it back to him.
“Vallus,” said Avenel. “That was foolish.”
“I know,” said Vallus, “but Deena isn’t— I mean, you saw her. She’s a child, just a child. She’s harmless.”
“The Council won’t see it that way.”
Vallus looked up. “You aren’t going to tell them, are you?”
“Of course not,” said Avenel, “but you can’t hide her forever.”
“I know. I just—I wanted to protect her. It was the only way I knew how.”
“Did you know that her mother was Ajjraean when you laid with her?”
“I did,” said Vallus. “I know what you and Ephraim always said: ‘Don’t let your feelings cloud your judgement.’ But heavens help me, I…” He sighed. “I would turn back time to be with her again.”
“You loved her,” said Avenel.
Vallus nodded. “With everything I have.”
Avenel looked at him for a moment, then pulled over a chair and sat down. “Tell me about her,” she said. “How did you meet?”
He sighed. Where to begin? “She was a painter,” he said. “Neither of us were Hallowed, then. Every week, she would come to my father’s shop to buy her dyes, and I always made sure that I was the one at the counter.” He smiled. “Later, she told me that some weeks she didn’t even need anything; she just wanted to see me. Well, one thing led to another. We wanted to marry, to start a family, but you remember how things were back then. We were by the border, and a town like ours was always being raided, if not by one side then by the other. We didn’t want to raise our family in that kind of place. So one day, when the Elyrians came, I told them where the merchants liked to hide the best of their goods, in exchange for a better life. I didn’t know it at the time, but the very same night, the Ajjraeans came as well. Their general was Lord Raniith—you remember how his wife was a fan of the arts—and when he saw Fosette in her studio, he offered her a place in his household. She thought the same thing that I did, that she would come back for me once she was Hallowed, but by then we were both already gone. For decades I searched for her, but when I found her, it was on the wrong side of the border.”
“You couldn’t let each other go,” said Avenel.
Vallus nodded. “It was just letters, at first, and the occasional visit when I could manage. When you left and named me your successor, I admit I got a bit bolder. We married. At first I thought perhaps we could go overseas to where no one would know us, but then Fosette became with child. So I found a cottage, a secluded place where she could have the child in secret. She wanted to raise Deena herself, but—” He stopped. Even now his hands shook as he thought of it.
“She didn’t make it, did she?” asked Avenel gently.
He sighed. “I shouldn’t have taken her to that cottage. I should have taken her to a town, with a physician. There was so much blood, I—” He closed his eyes. “The last word she said was Deena’s name.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Avenel.
“Thank you,” said Vallus. “It was Edith who oversaw the burial. She was a maidservant of Lord Raniith’s, Fosette’s friend and a close confidant. She had come to care for Fosette in the last months of her pregnancy, and when she offered to raise Deena as her own, I said yes. I—I tried to be a good father, as much as I could. I made sure they never wanted for anything. I know it wasn’t enough, but gods forgive me, I tried.”
They sat in silence for a moment, until the grandfather clock in the corner chimed the half-hour with a loud bwong.
“I should get ready for supper,” said Avenel, rising.
Vallus nodded. “Are you—are you angry with me?”
“Why should I be?” asked Avenel.
“What I did—It’s tantamount to treason. I’ve betrayed my office. I’ve lied to you and—”
She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “People with pure intentions don’t come our department. All that matters to me is what you do now.”
“I—I don’t know,” said Vallus.
“Then think on it,” said Avenel. “Just know that whatever choice you make, you won’t be making it alone.”
Vallus nodded. “Thank you, old friend. Coming from you, that means a great deal.”
The Silent Tower; 25 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It had never occurred to Deena that some people have separate rooms for bathing, but she decided that she rather liked the idea.
The suite of rooms set aside for Deena and Avenel was huge, much larger than her cottage in Taunsgrove. There was an outer room furnished half as a study and half as a sitting room, with a door leading to the equally spacious bedroom, which contained two beds divided by an ornate silk screen. Both rooms featured the same tall windows that had been in Vallus’s study, framed with heavy curtains.
The bath was in a much smaller room that opened from the bedroom. A woman – a servant, Deena guessed – showed Deena how to use the pump to bring the water up from below. There was even a stove in the room so the water could be heated with ease. And of course, there was the tub, permanently affixed in the center of the room and large enough to sleep in. The servant helped Deena fill the tub, but when she made to help Deena undress as well, Deena had to ask her to leave. She hoped she hadn’t offended the woman.
The bathwater was nice and hot as Deena eased herself in, and the room had turned pleasantly foggy. Deena studied the carvings along the rim of the tub as she let her aching muscles relax. Everything in the room was beautifully ornate, from the gilded wall trim to the soap dish. Even the soap itself was pleasantly scented and carved into the shape of a leaf. Deena almost felt almost guilty rubbing it across her body, but it was the only soap she had been given.
She was glad to wash the smell of smoke from her hair.
The servant had laid out a clean linen shift for her, so Deena put it on. There was a hair brush, too, scissors to trim her nails, and even a small bottle of fragrance. She dabbed a bit on her wrist, as the noble ladies in books often did, but perhaps she had put too much because the scent was overpoweringly strong.
When she emerged from the room, she found Avenel lounging fully clothed on one of the beds.
“Oh!” said Deena. “I’m sorry; I’m not dressed.”
“I didn’t expect you to be,” said Avenel. She nodded towards the silk screen that divided the room. “There’s a dress for you on the other bed. Try it on.”
The dress was a beautiful blue, the color of the sky on a sunny day, with white lace on the sleeves and collar. It was finer than anything Deena had ever worn. She ran her hand over the fabric; it slipped like water beneath her fingers. “Whose is it?” she asked.
“Yours, if you want it,” replied Avenel.
“Mine?” asked Deena. “I can’t accept this; it’s too nice.”
“What else are you going to wear to dinner?”
Deena didn’t have an answer. It hadn’t occurred to her that she would have to dress up for dinner, but of course she did—This was a castle, and Avenel was a lord who had come to visit. She had read of fancy dinners in books, but— “I don’t know which fork to use,” she said.
At this, Avenel laughed. The sound surprised Deena; she had hardly seen the woman smile in their days of travel, much less laugh. “Just follow my lead,” said Avenel. “Put on the dress. I’ll help you with the laces after I bathe.”
Deena dressed and observed herself in the mirror. Even without the laces tightened, the dress looked sublime. She had never worn anything so nice before. When Avenel emerged from the bath, she was still in front of the mirror, watching her skirts fan out as she twirled.
“You look lovely,” said Avenel.
Deena blushed. “Sorry,” she said, hurriedly smoothing down the skirt. “You probably think I’m childish.”
“Not at all,” said Avenel. “I confess I’ve done the same.” She disappeared behind the screen that separated the room. Deena could hear her opening the large wardrobe and going through its contents.
“Who lives here normally?” asked Deena. “In this room, I mean.”
“No one; it’s a guest room,” said Avenel. “Charles would have brought my things up from storage once he learned that I was coming.”
“Oh,” said Deena. It seemed a very grand room to be leaving empty. Even the view outside the window was grand, a beautiful vista of blue skies above and verdant forest below.
“Vallus and I spoke,” said Avenel from behind the screen, “and we think it best if no one knows that you’re from Taunsgrove, not until we learn more about the attack. It’s likely that whoever was responsible intended for there to be no survivors.”
“But you said the attack was by the Ajjraeans,” said Deena. “Everyone here is Elyrian.”
“Better paranoid than dead,” said Avenel. “For now, we think it best if you to pretend to be my ward.”
“But that’d be lying,” said Deena.
“It would,” said Avenel. “Is that a problem?”
Deena shook her head, then remembered that Avenel was behind a screen. “No,” she said, “it’s fine.”
A minute later, Avenel emerged, wearing a shimmering silver gown. Tiny gemstones had been stitched into the skirt, denser at the bottom and more sparse up top, in a way that made Deena think of falling stars. There was a necklace in her hand, a large smoky quartz pendant with silver filigree shooting out like sunrays, and she looked in the mirror to put it on.
“Isn’t that heavy?” asked Deena.
“The necklace or the dress?” asked Avenel.
“Both,” said Deena.
“A little,” admitted Avenel. “They were gifts from my wardsister, but it’s been a while since I’ve had cause to wear them.”
“Your wardsister,” said Deena. “That’s… your wardfather’s daughter? Is she an assassin too?”
Avenel laughed. “No; she took after her mother, thankfully.” She turned to Deena. “Let me help you with your laces.”
Deena turned around. Instinctively, she held her breath as Avenel tightened the laces, but Avenel left plenty of room to breathe. Outside, the sky was pink and purple with the sunset, and the forest stretched out to meet it at the horizon. Deena squinted, trying to determine how far away the horizon was. Closer to the Tower, a thin indentation in the endless green gave away the location of some road or river.
“Is that the River Rhiine?” asked Deena. “North of here?”
“No, that’s a tributary,” said Avenel. “The Rhiine isn’t visible from here.”
The stream near Taunsgrove also fed into the Rhiine, or at least that’s what Deena was told. She wondered if this river was the same one. “Do you think the fire was visible from here?”
“Doubtful,” said Avenel. “It’s too far away.”
“Oh,” said Deena. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine how Taunsgrove would look from so far above, but all she saw were cinders.
There was a strange, blubbery sound, and it was a moment before Deena realized that she was crying.
Hurriedly, she wiped at her face with her hands. “I’m s—” she began. She wanted to say that she was sorry, but another sob interrupted her.
Avenel handed her a handkerchief.
Deena pressed the handkerchief to her face, but found that she couldn’t stop crying. Sobs erupted from her mouth, great ugly noises that she couldn’t control. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that they all died. It wasn’t fair that she still lived. She would never see her home again, never see her friends again, never see her mother again. She didn’t want to be here, in this fancy room and this fancy dress. She just wanted to go home, but that wasn’t possible anymore, was it? There was no home to go back to.
She wanted her mother. Instead, all she had was a woman she barely knew, handing her another handkerchief.
Eventually, the sobs gave way to little hiccupy breaths. “I’m s-sorry,” said Deena again, and this time she managed to squeeze out the words. “I didn’t mean to cr-cry.”
Avenel didn’t answer, only handed Deena a cup of water.
Deena drank. “Is my face all red?”
“A little,” said Avenel. “I could have dinner sent up to you, if you’d rather stay in.”
“N-no,” said Deena, wiping her face with the handkerchief. “No, I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
Avenel nodded. She took the empty cup from Deena’s hands and filled it again from the pitcher.
“Thank you,” said Deena. “A-and thank you for taking care of me at the inn, and for the tree you carved, and for helping me b-bury my mother. You didn’t have to do any of that.”
“It was the right thing to do,” said Avenel. She held out her hand. “Are you ready?”
Dinner was to take place in the Great Hall, across the courtyard from the tower proper. They met Tatiana in the stairwell, descending from her own room. She was dressed in a beautiful satin gown of deep, inky green, with a plunging neckline that made Deena blush just to look at. They walked the rest of the way together, with Tatiana providing an endless barrage of commentary.
“There’s the archery range over there,” said Tatiana, “and that’s the training area for melee combat. That’s for knife throwing. It’s not used very often, but every now and then someone thinks they’re the next Lord Avenel. There’s a betting pool for who can beat her record, but no one’s even come close. By the way, do you think my lips are too red? I ran out of my usual color, and it’s nearly impossible to get anything here in a timely manner. Oh, that’s Grizzly’s workshop. He’s our weaponsmith. Grizzly isn’t his real name, of course, but he’s very large and hairy. If you see a bear in a suit tonight, that’s probably him. I think his real name is Gunner?”
“Gunther,” corrected Avenel.
“Yes, that’s it,” said Tatiana, “but no one ever calls him that except Lord Vallus and Charles. Have you met Charles? You must have. He seems stern and stuffy, I know, but he’s actually a sweetie at heart. He likes to feed the birds in the garden—you can see it just through that arch—but only when he thinks no one’s looking. Unfortunately for him, he lives in a castle full of trained spies, but no one wants to be the one to tell him that we all know.”
“Gossiping already, Tatiana?” said a male voice behind them. They turned to see Sir Erikr striding towards them, dressed in a fine red tunic and silk capelet. He bowed. “Lord Avenel, you look ravishing, as always. As do young Deena and Tatiana, of course.”
Tatiana blushed prettily as she bowed. “You’re too kind, Sir.”
“Not nearly as kind as you three are beautiful,” said Erikr. “Nor does it compare to your chattiness, it seems. I hope she hasn’t been annoying you, my lord. I did tell her that you tend to prefer quiet, but it seems she doesn’t know the meaning of the word.”
“Not at all,” said Avenel. “If I was hoping to avoid conversation, I wouldn’t have come here at all.”
The Great Hall was easily the largest room that Deena had ever seen, larger even than the massive cavern below. The center of the room was empty, but long tables had been placed on either side. Half the seats had already been filled, and the hall was abuzz with conversation. At the far end of the room was a third, smaller table with seven high-backed chairs, all of which sat empty.
“What’s this empty space in the middle for?” asked Deena.
“It’s for dancing,” said Tatiana.
“There’s going to be dancing?” Deena remembered the dance at Taunsgrove, remembered watching the complex steps from the edge of the room. “Will I have to, um—”
“Only if you want to,” said Tatiana. “I’m afraid I have to leave you now; I’m sitting at the benches.”
“Where do I sit?” asked Deena.
“We’ll be seated at the high table,” said Avenel.
A serving boy was waiting by the dais to show them to their seats. Avenel’s seat was to the right of the large chair in the center, which Deena assumed was for Lord Vallus. Deena herself was seated at Avenel’s right.
Erikr was also at the high table, but seated on the far left, with two empty chairs between him and Vallus. He pouted. “Why am I so far from you two?”
“Because you’re not officially a Master yet,” said a voice behind them.
Deena turned. Two more people were being shown to their seats. One of them, the woman who spoke, sat down on Deena’s right. The other, a dark-skinned man dressed in blue, sat to the left of Vallus’s seat.
The woman had a large scar across her freckled face, and as she adjusted her seat, Deena noticed that her left hand was missing a finger. “Glenna Mor,” she said, extending her other hand for Deena to shake, “but some call me Peggy. I’m the Master of Secrets. That over there is Lord Aldrin, Master of Weapons.”
Deena shook the hand. “I’m Deena Hewe,” she said. “I’m, um, I’m Lord Avenel’s ward.” She tried to bow, but being still seated, managed only an awkward little head bob.
“Ward, is it?” asked Glenna. “I never thought Avenel would take a ward. Well, any friend of Lord Avenel’s is a friend of mine. I owe a lot to her. Her predecessor wanted to throw me out, after my injury, but Lord Avenel fought for me to stay. Got in a right shouting match with Lord Elwin.”
“He wanted to throw you out over a finger?” asked Deena.
Glenna laughed. “Oh, I’m not talking about the finger; that was much later. I guess no one’s told you about me yet, huh? Look down.” Under the table, she lifted up her skirt, just enough to reveal a wooden peg of a leg. “This here is why people call me Peggy. Do you like it?”
“It’s, um, it’s lovely,” said Deena, wondering what else there is to say about a wooden leg.
“Grizzly made it and added some extra features,” said Glenna. She rapped the wood with her knuckles. It sounded hollow. “Of course, once he was done with it, he wouldn’t give me the damned thing unless I agreed to marry him.”
“So what did you do?”
“I married him, of course, and now the fool’s gotta do my repairs for free!” She waved, and across the hall, a large hairy man waved back. “Avenel officiated our wedding, you know.”
“It was a beautiful ceremony,” said Avenel, taking a sip of water from her tankard.
“Bah,” said Glenna with a wave of her hand. “You made Charles put too many flowers. Too pretty a wedding for the two ugliest people in the Tower.”
“You’re not ugly,” said Deena.
Glenna smiled. “Aren’t you sweet? But I know I’m not as pretty as Erikr’s people.”
“Erikr’s people?” asked Deena.
“Erikr’s the acting Master of Persuasion,” said Glenna. “Poor Genevieve—she’s the official Master of Persuasion—is nursing an illness back home. To be honest, none of us are expecting her to come back, so Vallus might just make it official by the end of the year.”
“I see,” said Deena, looking over to where Erikr was engrossed in conversation with Lord Aldrin.
Glenna followed her gaze. “To be honest, I’m surprised those two get along as well as they do, they’re so different. I mean, Aldrin’s a good man—quiet, dependable, has a pet lizard—but he’s not exactly the sort you’d invite for a drink, you know?”
“I am also sitting only three seats away from you, Glenna,” said Aldrin, turning away from his conversation. He had a slight lilting accent and a voice so deep that Deena thought she felt as much as heard it.
“Bah, you know it’s true, Aldrin,” said Glenna, though she grinned sheepishly.
One seat still remained empty, apart from Vallus’s. “Who’s that seat for?” asked Deena.
“That’s for Lord Kamiya, Master of Stealth. Tragic past, poor woman, but one of the nicest people you’re like to meet. Anyway, she won’t be here today, since she’s away on business, but even if she wasn’t, these sorts of dinners aren’t her thing.”
“Why not?” asked Deena.
Glenna hesitated, and it was Avenel who answered. “Kamiya prefers to eat in private,” said Avenel. “Eating is difficult for her as she no longer has a tongue.”
Deena decided that she didn’t want to ask.
Lord Vallus soon joined them, dressed all in black but for a pair of sapphires pinned to his collar. They matched his eyes. The same color adorned the decorative dagger at his hip, a curved thing in a sheath made of filigreed silver.
“I hope you were able to rest after your journey, Deena,” said Vallus.
“Yes, thank you,” said Deena. “A-and thank you for the dress.”
“Think nothing of it,” said Vallus. “Your mother was… was a dear friend of mine. I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances.”
“Oh,” said Deena. She wasn’t sure what to say. “Yes.”
Avenel cleared her throat. “Everyone’s arrived, Vallus. We should begin.”
“Yes,” said Vallus. He rose, tapping his spoon against the side of his goblet, and a hush spread across the hall. “Brothers and sisters of the Silent Tower,” he said, his voice ringing loud and clear through the hall, “we are here today in honor of Lord Avenel, our dear friend and my predecessor as the Head of Covert Affairs. Those of you who joined us after her departure may not have known her in person, but you will still have known her by her reputation. You would be wise to take this time as an opportunity to benefit from her wisdom and experience. She has also brought with her a ward, young Deena, who I hope you will all welcome as someone who will one day join our ranks and become Hallowed. So, in honor of allies past and future, I bid you all to eat, drink, and be merry.” He raised his goblet and drank.
Around the room, everyone followed suit, and servants began to bring out trays piled high with food. Uproarious applause broke out across the room; it was unclear if it was for Vallus’s speech or for the food.
“That was even more pretentious than last time,” said Avenel as Vallus sat down, “but at least it was short.”
“There are expectations for this sort of speech,” said Vallus.
“Yes, expectations that Lord Vallus will try to drain the fun from even dinner,” said Avenel. “You do know that your subordinates used to call you Lord Phallus?”
Vallus chuckled. “Oh, you don’t want to know what they used to call you.”
On Vallus’s other side, Lord Aldrin shook his head. “I had forgotten how much you two banter. I am uncertain that I wanted to remember.”
Courses of delicious food were placed in front of Deena, soups and breads better than any she had ever tasted, followed by chicken, sweet potato, and lamb. There was wine, too, sweet and strong, and no one seemed to mind when Deena drank. Aldrin and Avenel soon began discussing some newfangled weapon from the across the sea, something that shot fire from a barrel. Erikr and Vallus argued the merits of different types of lutes. Glenna preferred to talk about the food itself. “This lamb is good,” she said, “but the best lamb I ever had was twenty years ago, at a roadside inn near Eswick. Grizzly didn’t think much of it—said it didn’t have enough salt—but the salt would’ve covered up the spices.”
The last course was shaved ice topped with fresh berries and drizzled with cream. Deena had read about such frozen desserts before, but had never quite believed them to be real.
“How did you get ice this time of year?” she asked, gawking. “How do you keep it from melting?”
“By being extremely wealthy,” said Avenel, at the same time as Glenna said “With very good cellars.”
“Well,” conceded Glenna, “it did take a lot of money to build the cellars.”
“Money that could have been spent less frivolously,” said Avenel, though she evidently had no problem enjoying the fruits of the expenditure.
“They weren’t frivolous,” said Vallus. “They were built to keep food from spoiling.”
“And yet, you’re using them to make dessert.”
Deena let out a giggle. “Well, if it’s a misuse of funds, it’s a delicious one.”
Glenna and Avenel both laughed, and even Vallus let out a chuckle.
As the last of the dishes were cleared away, people began to drift onto the dance floor. Deena watched as she sipped her wine. The dance here was different from the one at Taunsgrove, men and women twirling in pairs around the floor. More couples joined the dance, skirts and capes swirling in time to the music, the floor becoming a sea of colorful silks. A serving girl came by to refill Deena’s goblet, and she happily took another cup.
Erikr stood. “Would any of you ladies care to dance?” he asked.
“I don’t dance,” said Avenel.
“I do,” said Glenna, “but you’ll have to fight Grizzly for it.”
“Alas, I’m afraid I wouldn’t survive the encounter,” said Erikr. “What about you, Miss Deena? Would you like to dance?”
“No, but thank you,” said Deena.
“Do you not like to dance, Deena?” asked Vallus.
“I don’t know how,” admitted Deena. “I never learned.”
“We could find someone to teach you,” said Vallus. “It isn’t difficult.”
“I-I think I’d rather watch,” said Deena.
“Are you sure?”
“Leave the girl alone, Vallus,” said Avenel. “If she doesn’t want to dance, then she doesn’t want to dance.”
Vallus nodded. “Of course. Let me know if you change your mind.”
Lord Aldrin stood up. “This is the part of the evening where I must bid you goodnight,” he said, bowing to Vallus and Avenel.
“Are you leaving us so soon?” asked Avenel.
“I must make a journey in the morning. Lord Desmina has need of my expertise on her new weapons.”
“Safe travels, then,” said Avenel. “Give Desmina my regards.”
Vallus and Avenel soon fell to talking about work, about the political implications of assassinating a Lord So-and-so of Ajjraea. Deena tried to listen for a while, but the names and places they mentioned were unfamiliar to her. A servant came by to offer her more wine, and she accepted, sipping at it while watching the dancers below.
After some time, Tatiana emerged from the throng, face flushed and smiling from ear to ear. “You’re not dancing tonight, Deena?” she asked.
“I don’t know how,” said Deena.
“Oh, I’ll teach you,” said Tatiana, holding out her hand. “It’s easy; I promise.”
“O-okay,” said Deena, and allowed herself to be lead onto the dance floor.
Once or twice, Deena felt as though she was being watched from the high table, but when she turned to look, Avenel and Vallus were as deep in conversation as ever.
At some point, Erikr made his way to them through the crowd.
“I thought you didn’t dance, Miss Deena,” he said.
“She had some encouragement,” said Tatiana.
“Yes, you’re very persuasive,” said Erikr with a smile. “That must be why Vallus has you working under me.”
“What about you?” asked Tatiana. “Finished with Lyza already? Her heart must be broken.”
“Lyza is my sister, you silly girl.”
“And what girl doesn’t like to dance with her big brother?”
“Is your sister an assassin too?” asked Deena.
“The opposite, actually,” said Erikr. “She’s a physician here.”
“And a very good one,” added Tatiana. “Although, if you ask me, she would have made just as good an assassin.”
“Which is why no one asked you,” said Erikr, taking Tatiana’s hand from Deena’s. “Come now, you can’t monopolize Lord Avenel’s ward all night.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said Tatiana, “but I’ll still have her tomorrow.”
They twirled away, and Deena remained behind, still swaying in time to the music. All around her, people were smiling, laughing, and she couldn’t help but smile herself. Within moments, someone else had come to dance with her, then another, then another. Deena found herself giggling, giddy with music and wine.
“May I cut in?” asked a voice. It was Avenel.
“I thought you didn’t dance,” said Deena, breaking away from her partner.
“It’s been a while,” admitted Avenel, “but I still remember how.”
“Okay,” said Deena and placed her hand in Avenel’s.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” asked Avenel.
“I am!” said Deena, beaming. “Everyone is nice to me. It’s probably because of you, but they’re still nice to me.”
“I’m glad,” said Avenel with a smile.
When they returned to the high table, Deena was flushed and sweaty. Someone had refilled her goblet, so she drank, the cold wine chasing the heat from her face. The dance floor was beginning to thin, the dancers sitting on the sides or trickling out of the hall. A few persistent dancers still remained, among them Grizzly and Glenna, swaying together not quite in time to the music.
“Are you tired?” asked Vallus.
“Let me walk you to your rooms, then,” said Vallus.
No one seemed to notice as they left the Great Hall. The starlit courtyard was empty, the air pleasantly cool against Deena’s cheeks. She breathed in deep, filling her lungs with the crispness of the night. Their footsteps echoed as they walked.
“Do you know your stars, Deena?” asked Vallus.
“Not really,” said Deena. “Mattieu tried to teach me—he’s my friend back home—but I could never remember. I know that constellation is the Bird, and the bright star is the eye, Oriol.”
“The Bird is there,” corrected Avenel. “You’re pointing to the Six Siblings.”
“Oh,” said Deena. “Then that bright star must be Hilrae. I don’t remember the other five.”
“Thomuu, Benjii, Lyla, Klariel, and Owaan,” said Vallus. “From brightest to dimmest.”
Deena nodded, squinting up at the sky, trying to tell which ones were brighter than which.
“There are records of a seventh sibling, you know,” said Avenel, “in books left behind by the Asterii. It was called Ruuzael, and it was said to be as bright as Hilrae.”
“What happened to it?” asked Deena.
“No one knows,” said Avenel. “By the time of the Asterii records, the details were already lost to history. It must have been tens of thousands of years ago when it disappeared.”
“And it never came back?” asked Deena.
Avenel shook her head.
Deena looked up at the Six Siblings in the sky. “Do you think the other siblings miss it?” she asked.
“They’re stars, Deena,” said Avenel. “They’re just balls of light, burning in the distance.”
“But maybe balls of light have feelings too.”
They were back in the tower now, climbing up that infinite flight of stairs. Deena found herself fighting back her drooping eyelids, struggling to put one foot in front of the other. At some point, Vallus took her hand to guide her, as though she was a small child. She tried to protest, but all that emerged from her mouth was a yawn. She stumbled, leaning against the banister, trying to remember why she was even there. Arms, warm and strong, picked her up and carried her. A woman’s voice drifted towards her, but Deena could not understand the words. A man’s voice answered, his chest vibrating against Deena’s ear. The voices soothed her. The voices would protect her. The voices were an ocean, all around her, a moat that fire could not breach.
She was set down on a surface so soft that it must have been a cloud. She wanted to open her eyes, to thank the voices for bringing her a cloud to sleep on, but her eyelids were made of lead. Well, that was alright. She was sure the voices would understand. A face, scratchy with stubble, leaned in to kiss Deena’s forehead; she squirmed, and the face chuckled, quiet. A second, lighter cloud was pulled over Deena’s body, to keep her safe and warm against the chill of night. The voices sat down beside her and stayed there for a long, long time.
In the morning, Deena remembered nothing after the courtyard full of stars.
Chapter 6 - First Lesson
The Silent Tower; 26 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Deena’s head roared.
“I am never going to drink again,” she declared, rubbing her temples.
“I said that same thing the first time I was drunk,” said Avenel.
“And?” asked Deena. “Did you drink again?”
“Yes. The very same night, in fact.”
“Oh,” said Deena. “W-well, I won’t.”
“I’m sure,” said Avenel. She handed Deena a cup of water. “Drink this, then go wash and dress. I’ve laid your clothes out for you on that chair.”
Deena examined the clothes. “Are these breeches? I’ve never worn breeches.”
“It’s easier to ride a horse in breeches than in a skirt; believe me.”
“Ride a horse?” asked Deena.
“Tatiana’s agreed to teach you how. You’ll be starting today.”
“Why can’t you teach me?” asked Deena.
“I have some business around the Tower,” said Avenel. “I’ll rejoin you at dinner.”
By the time Deena finished changing, breakfast had been brought up. The tray was laden with all kinds of foods, from eggs to hotcakes to a bowl of berries topped with cream. There was porridge, too, with cinnamon, and even a bit of honey on the comb. “Is all this for us?” asked Deena.
Avenel nodded, biting into a piece of buttered toast.
“But we can’t eat all of this,” said Deena.
“Then just eat what you like,” said Avenel. “The servants will clear away the rest.”
“What do they do with it?”
“Slops for the pigs, I think,” said Avenel. She popped the rest of her toast in her mouth and wiped her hands on her tunic. “Have you seen my bracers and jerkin?”
“They’re still by the tub where you left them,” said Deena.
“You didn’t touch them, did you?”
“There are knife sheathes on the inside. I didn’t want you to cut yourself.”
“You hide knives in your clothes?” asked Deena.
“Where else would I keep them?” asked Avenel. She retrieved her bracers and put them on, though she left her jerkin and belt by the foot of her bed. “Are you ready to go? Tatiana is waiting.”
Deena shoved a last spoonful of porridge into her mouth and nodded.
Tatiana had arranged for a horse to be brought up to the courtyard. She was waiting there, along with the stablehand that Deena had almost kicked the day before.
“Lord Avenel,” said Tatiana with a bow. “Have you met Graham? He’s Sir Renn’s ward.”
The stablehand bowed. “M’lord. Miss.”
“Vallus mentioned you, last night,” said Avenel. “I’m surprised Renn still has you helping with the horses.”
“Sir Renn says it builds character, m’lord,” said Graham, shaking his hair from his eyes. “She says I’m to continue until I’m officially Hallowed.”
“Have you chosen a date yet?”
“Yes, m’lord. It’s the day after tomorrow.”
Tatiana gasped. “You didn’t tell me it was so soon! Ooh, I meant to help Lyza with something that day. But nevermind; I’ll make time for you. It’s not every day that a boy you watched grow up becomes Hallowed.”
Graham blushed scarlet. “Actually, Doctor Lyza is meant to be there too, as the attending physician.”
“Then I’ll definitely have to go,” said Tatiana. “You’ll come too, won’t you, Deena?”
Deena turned toward Avenel.
“Go if you like,” said Avenel. “A Hallowing Ceremony isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence; you might find it interesting.”
“Right!” said Tatiana enthusiastically. “It’s probably your only opportunity, until your own Ceremony.”
It took Deena a moment to remember that she was supposed to be Avenel’s ward. “Oh,” she said. “R-right.”
“What about you, my lord?” asked Tatiana.
“I’m afraid I’ll be busy again,” said Avenel, “as I am today. I’ll leave Deena in your hands, Tatiana. See to it that she’s safe.”
“I won’t let any harm befall her,” said Tatiana. “You have my word.”
Riding a horse was more difficult than Avenel had made it look, and the task was made more difficult by the continuation of Deena’s headache. It was a relief when Tatiana declared that they should break for lunch, and Deena tumbled sore and stiff off the horse.
The Great Hall had been returned to its usual configuration, the long benches at the center of the room rather than on the sides. The head table sat empty, and Deena was relieved to learn that she would be sitting at the benches with the others.
“Not even Vallus sits at the head table unless it’s a special occasion,” explained Tatiana, helping herself to the food at the center of the table. “Although, he usually has his lunch in the gardens or his office. He comes down for dinner, though.”
“Does everyone eat in here?” asked Deena.
“Well not the servants, obviously,” said Tatiana, “but most of the trainees, agents, and support staff do. Graham is here because he’s Renn’s ward.”
Graham nodded. “I tried to keep sitting with the servants, at first, but it’s easier to be up here.”
“Why?” asked Deena.
Graham shrugged. “There are people who I thought were my friends, until Sir Renn made me her ward. I thought they’d be happy for me, but they weren’t.”
“They’re just jealous, Graham,” said Tatiana.
“That doesn’t make it easier,” said Graham, He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is my Ma is happy for me, and she’ll be set for life once I’m Hallowed. What about you, Deena? How did your friends and family react?”
She was spared the burden of answering when Tatiana upended a tureen of gravy. “Oh, fiddlesticks!” she cried. “Graham, could you fetch me another napkin?”
To Deena’s relief, her afternoon was not spent in the saddle, but in learning to brush and care for the horse. “A horse is an animal, not a tool,” said Tatiana. “You have to care for one like you would for a friend.”
“She’s right,” said a voice. “A horse moves best when it trusts its rider.”
They turned to see Vallus watching them from a few paces away. “My lord,” said Tatiana, bowing, and Deena hurried to do the same.
“Please, there’s no need for any of that,” said Vallus. “How are your lessons coming along, Deena?”
“I’m trying,” said Deena, “but I don’t think I’m very good.”
“Keep practicing,” said Vallus. “You’ll learn eventually.”
Deena nodded. “I’ll try,” she said. “Um, Lord Avenel isn’t here, if you’re looking for her.”
“I know,” said Vallus. “She’s in Glenna’s laboratory.”
“Oh, working on that new invisible ink?” asked Tatiana. “I’ve been looking forward to trying it.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a bit longer,” said Vallus. “Their attempt this morning ate right through the page. Ciphers are more dependable than these chemical methods.”
A moment later, they saw Erikr approaching them, a pair of practice swords in his hand. “Here already, my lord?” he called. “I have to say, I intend to make up for our lost time earlier this week.”
“Are you sparring again today?” asked Tatiana. “Deena, we should watch. You might learn something.”
Erikr laughed. “Well, my lord?” he asked, holding out one of the swords. “We can’t disappoint the ladies.”
“Yes, that would be terrible for you, wouldn’t it?” replied Vallus, taking the proffered weapon. He removed his pocket watch from his pocket and placed it on a nearby crate. “Shall we begin?”
Erikr lunged, but Vallus sidestepped with ease. Deena had never seen a swordfight before, but it was clear that both men knew their weapons well. They knew each other, too, anticipating one another’s attacks, dancing around each other and moving so fast that each action was hard to follow. Deena couldn’t tell who was winning, but eventually, Vallus’s sword found Erikr’s arm with a loud whack.
“This is sloppy for you,” said Vallus. “Your mind is elsewhere, today.”
“So is yours,” replied Erikr. With a grin, he ducked under Vallus’s sword and used his own to strike his opponent behind the knees.
Vallus’s legs buckled, though he quickly regained his balance. Before he could fully straighten, however, Erikr had already whirled behind him to place his sword at Vallus’s neck.
“I win,” said Erikr, withdrawing his sword, “though I’ll be feeling this bruise for a while.”
“Yes, well fought,” said Vallus. “It seems I need to be more diligent with my practice.”
“By all rights you should both be dead,” said a voice overhead. They looked up to see Avenel sitting on the sill of a second floor window. “I counted at least a dozen times when you were both standing still enough for a clear shot.”
“A sniper is not a part of a fair swordfight, my lord,” called Erikr.
Avenel shrugged. “We’re assassins. We don’t care about fair.”
“Perhaps Lord Avenel will give us a demonstration?” asked Tatiana.
“Now, now,” chided Erikr. “I’m sure Lord Avenel has better things to do than—”
He was interrupted when a dagger flew past his face to bury itself in one of the archery butts behind him.
“My nose!” exclaimed Erikr, covering the appendage protectively. “You almost cut off my nose!”
The slightest hint of a smirk played at the corner of Avenel’s mouth. “If I wanted to disfigure you, Erikr,” she said, “I would have. As it is, you’re more useful in tact.” Swinging her legs from the windowsill, she leapt down to the ground.
“We have stairs, you know,” said Vallus.
“This way is faster,” replied Avenel. “There was a message from Kamiya. She expects to be back by tomorrow.”
Vallus frowned. “You read my mail?”
“You were too busy playing with sticks to read it.”
“I have a set time when I read messages, you know that. Where is it now?”
“I had Ulla send it up to your study already. You’ll want to hurry.”
Vallus scowled. “We’ll talk about this later,” he said and set off at a brisk pace towards the tower.
Avenel turned to Deena. “How are your lessons going?”
“Tatiana says I’m doing well, but I’m not so sure,” said Deena. She turned, but Tatiana was busy conversing with Erikr, and Graham had left with the horse. “I’m trying though.”
“Take your time,” said Avenel.
“I feel like I’m imposing on Lord Vallus.”
“You really aren’t,” reassured Avenel. “I’ll see you at dinner. In the meantime, have Tatiana show you around. The library, perhaps, or the gardens.”
It was only after Avenel left that Deena noticed Lord Vallus’s watch still sitting on the crate. Curious, she picked it up. She had seen pocket watches before, among Allard’s rarer goods, though none had been as fine as this, with a bejeweled cover and the hands encased in glass.
There were words engraved on the inside of the cover: “To Val, with love. – F”
“Is that Lord Vallus’s watch?” asked Tatiana, having finished her conversation with Erikr. “I guess he forgot it.”
“Should we bring it up to him?” asked Deena.
“And climb all those stairs?” asked Tatiana. “No, just leave it here. He’ll send someone to fetch it when he remembers. Come on, there’s something I want to show you.”
It was with some curiosity that Deena watched Tatiana pick up and light a lantern, but she soon understood. The corridor they headed down burrowed into the mountain, such that there were no windows to let in light. It ended in a set of large double doors, the brass knobs shiny in the lamplight. Above the doors were words carved into the stone: “In darkness, there is rest. In death, there is peace.”
“They only gave me a key because my mother is in there,” said Tatiana, fumbling with the lock. “Normally it’s only open on special days, but I thought you should come and pay your respects, as Lord Avenel’s ward.”
The room inside was surprisingly small, considering the size of the doors, and seemed to be a natural cavern that was mostly untouched. Here and there, small alcoves had been carved out from the stone. Some sat empty, while others held melted candle stubs and puddles of wax. In each of the alcoves where candles had been lit, there was a shiny brass plaque in the back, each with a different name.
“Here’s my mother,” said Tatiana, pointing at one of the alcoves. “I was only a child when she died. They never told me where she died, or how, but it doesn’t really matter. She died in service to Elyria; that’s how she would’ve wanted to go.” There was a crate full of candles by the entrance, and Tatiana lit one and placed it in the alcove.
“My mother died too,” Deena found herself saying.
Tatiana didn’t seem surprised. “I thought it might be something like that,” she said. “I saw your face after Graham asked about your family. I know it doesn’t mean much, but believe me, it does get better.”
Deena nodded. “Are these all the people who… who died in service?” she asked.
“Just the ones whose bodies were never recovered,” said Tatiana. “We keep a tomb of sorts at my uncle’s home, too, just some clothes of hers that we buried, but that always seemed so fake to me. I prefer this one.”
A scene came unbidden to Deena’s mind, as if recalling a memory, but it wasn’t her own. She was a girl of seven, maybe eight, crying while clutching a woman’s blouse to her chest. A man moved forward to comfort her, but she screamed and pushed him away.
“Oh, but I didn’t bring you here to see my mother,” said Tatiana, and the scene in Deena’s head dissolved like smoke. “No, I brought you to pay respect to Lord Avenel’s wardfather, there.”
Deena looked to where Tatiana was pointing. The plaque read simply “Lord Ephraim, Master of Weapons.”
“It looks like Lord Avenel was here this morning,” said Tatiana, examining the molten wax. “I guess she wanted to be alone, or I’m sure she would’ve brought you along.” She handed Deena a candle.
Deena lit the candle and placed it in the alcove. She felt a little bit a pretender, but she hoped that the deceased spirit of Lord Ephraim wouldn’t take offense. For a moment, she and Tatiana stood in silence, watching the two candles burn.
“Tatiana,” said Deena, “why did you want to be an assassin, knowing how your mother died? Aren’t you scared that you’ll die too?”
“Of course I am,” said Tatiana, “but sometimes, you have to overcome your own feelings so you can do what’s necessary.”
“Is killing people really ‘necessary’?”
“Of course it is. Why else would we do it?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Deena. “I’ve never thought about it.”
“None of us like killing,” said Tatiana. “We never take lives unless we have to. When I was a still a recruit, one of the first things we were told was the story of one of Lord Avenel’s students. His name was Symeon, and he was one of the best agents she ever trained, but she still had him kicked from the Tower. Do you know why?”
“Why?” asked Deena.
“They sent him to assassinate an Ajjraean general. The general was quite a warmonger, see, the kind that never chooses diplomacy where brute force will do. Ajjraea’s king had sent him to keep the peace by the border; it would have meant the loss of thousands of lives. And so, Symeon was sent to kill this general.”
“And did he? Kill the general?”
“Of course he did,” said Tatiana. “Only, he did it by setting fire to the entire camp. The general died, but so did hundreds of his soldiers. When Symeon came back, all he had to say was ‘They weren’t our men, so what does it matter?’ But it mattered to Avenel, so she had him kicked out.”
Tatiana nodded. “Not everyone agreed—Symeon was very talented, by all accounts—but Lord Ephraim backed her decision. Lord Avenel said she failed, that she’d taught him how to kill but forgotten to teach him why. Because you see, it’s not about the lives we take, but the ones we save. One life in exchange for thousands, maybe more. Wouldn’t you call that necessary?”
The Silent Tower; 26 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Vallus looked out his window at the courtyard below, but Deena and the others were already gone.
“Erikr and Tatiana seemed close,” said Avenel, sitting at Vallus’s desk.
“Neither of them know, if that’s what you’re wondering,” said Vallus.
“That’s a bit dense on Erikr’s part, isn’t it?” asked Avenel.
“We both know how blind people can be to uncomfortable truths,” said Vallus. “It’s just as well. Sabine didn’t want them to know.”
“What about you?” asked Avenel. “Do you want to tell Deena?”
Vallus took a deep breath and sighed. “Perhaps one day,” he said. “When… when the time is right.”
“And when will that be?”
“I don’t know,” said Vallus, “but it isn’t now. Not when her world was just upended.”
Avenel nodded. “It’s your choice.” She unrolled the note from Kamiya. “She knows Kamiya was sent to Taunsgrove,” she said. “Bette said as much, when we were there.”
“Bette talks too much,” said Vallus.
“She’ll want to know what Kamiya found. She may not ask, but she’ll want to know.”
Vallus nodded and sat down. “What do you suggest we tell her?”
Avenel looked down at the note in her hands. “Vallus, there are only two possibilities. Either this is the start of another war, or—”
“—Or they were there for Deena.”
Chapter 7 - The Wheel of Fortune
The Silent Tower; 27 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It was evening when Kamiya returned.
Somehow, an argument had started amongst the trainees about whether Avenel or Sir Gavrel was the better archer, and by dinnertime even some of the more senior agents had joined in.
“It’s definitely Sir Gavrel,” insisted a redhaired man. “Sir Gavrel teaches archery. He could shoot a feather as it’s falling.”
“And who do you think taught him?” asked Tatiana. “Lord Avenel is the better shot.”
“Have you ever seen Lord Avenel shoot?”
“I don’t have to. They write songs about Lord Avenel.”
“About her knives, yeah, but no one writes about how good she is with a bow.”
Finally, it was Glenna who goaded Avenel and Gavrel into some sort of competition. Nearly the entire Tower turned out to watch, crowding into the courtyard. Even Vallus came to watch, despite voicing his disapproval at this waste of time.
Shot for shot, Avenel and Gavrel matched each other, backing five more paces away from the archery butts each time. It was only when they were shooting the length of the entire courtyard that someone brought up changing the targets to something moving.
“But that’s not fair!” cried one of the trainees. “It’s nearly dark!”
“That’s what makes it a challenge,” replied another. “They’re not like you, Kev, whining as soon as the sun’s in your eyes.”
Objects of decreasing sizes were strung up on rope, and the competitors asked to fire two arrows in quick succession: one to sever the rope, and one to strike the object as it falls. They started with a block of wood, then a radish, then finally one of last year’s dried cherries still on the stem.
“Looks like I could use more practice,” he said, as the cherry hit the ground unmolested. “Your turn, my lord.
Avenel took the bow from him, leveled it, and fired. The cherry was knocked clean from its stem, but the fruit itself remained unmarked.
“It looks like I’ll need practice, too,” said Avenel.
“Lord Avenel was closer!” came a shout from the crowd. “Pay up, Kev!”
“But it was a tie,” whined the man named Kev. “String up more cherries! We need a rematch.”
The rest of his words were drowned out by the doors of the great lift grinding open, and a group of people in travelling cloaks stepped out. They had barely time to look confusedly around the crowded courtyard before the woman at the front was pulled forward with a shout of “Lord Kamiya is here!” A bow and a pair of arrows were thrust into her hand, and without even bothering to take off her cloak, Kamiya fired.
The first shot severed the rope just above the stem, and the second sliced the fruit clean in two.
A great whoop erupted from the crowd, alongside thunderous applause. Kamiya smiled, handed the bow back, and made a series of rapid gestures with her hands.
“She asks what this is all about,” said Avenel. “Someone explain it to her, and put all this away.”
“But the rematch—” began Kev, but no one paid him any mind as a hundred eager faces swarmed forward to inform Kamiya of her new status as the best archer at the Silent Tower.
Deena ran up to Avenel. “That was amazing!” she said. “I mean, I know you didn’t quite hit that last one, but it was still amazing!”
“I prefer throwing daggers,” said Avenel. “Less range, but more versatile. I’m rather out of practice with archery.”
“Well I think it was impressive,” said Deena. “A-and so does everyone else! How did you learn to do that?”
“Spend three hundred years doing anything, and you’ll become quite good at it,” said Avenel. She reached out to brush Deena’s hair out of her face. “I have to meet with Vallus and Kamiya now, to hear Kamiya’s report. Will you be alright by yourself for the rest of the evening?”
Deena nodded. “I wanted to look around the library some more. There was a book I started reading yesterday, but Sir Moore wouldn’t let me take it out.”
“Tell Sir Moore you have my permission,” said Avenel. “I’ll speak with him later.”
Deena found Sir Moore having supper at his desk, looking just as surly as he had the day before. “H-hello again,” she said. “Remember me?”
Sir Moore scowled. “Of course I remember you. Not many people have the audacity to try to walk out with one of my books.”
“I-I’m sorry,” said Deena. “I wasn’t going far, so I just assumed—”
“Don’t assume,” snapped Sir Moore. He gestured down at the stumps of his legs. “Do I look like I can go chasing all over the Tower for my books?”
“L-lord Avenel said I could take it out today,” said Deena. “I’ll bring it back, I promise.”
“And I’m guessing you didn’t tell her which book you’re after,” said Sir Moore. “Lord Avenel came by shortly after you left and took out that very same book. If you want it, you’ll have to ask her.”
“Oh,” said Deena. “I… guess I’ll go do that then.”
Sir Moore gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s funny,” he said. “That book has been gathering dust on the shelf for decades, and all of sudden I get three people after it in as many days.”
“Who’s the third person?” asked Deena.
“Lord Vallus himself, if you believe it,” said Moore. “I never took him for the type to be interested in old folktales.”
Avenel wasn’t in their room upstairs, not that Deena expected her to be. She was probably still in Lord Vallus’s study. Deena raised her hand to knock, but paused when she heard the voices inside. They were too indistinct to make out full sentences, but here and there were phrases and words.
“…looking for something…”
“…girls…on the tree?”
“… Lord Loorne…”
Deena decided she didn’t want to hear more, and she turned and walked away.
She found the book on Lord Avenel’s bedside table. As she picked it up, a bookmark began to slide out, though Deena caught it before it slipped out completely. It had been used to mark a page in the glossary, and as she opened the book to replace it, her eyes fell on one of the entries:
“Harbinger: Also known as Herald, Demon-of-the-End-Times, and World-Eater. A recurrent figure in many mythologies around the world, the Harbinger is a demon whose birth is said to herald the end of the world. Most traditions are vague on the origins of this demon, but the people of Drema and Heliike believed that the Harbinger would be born of a mix of Hallowed bloodlines.”
Deena put the bookmark back and flipped back to the story she had been reading the day before.
The Silent Tower; 28 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Graham’s Hallowing ceremony took place in the Great Hall, which sat mostly empty. There was only Tatiana, Deena, Graham’s mother, and a dozen others. Graham looked somewhat crestfallen as he looked out at the empty hall.
“Avenel would have come,” said Deena, trying to be helpful, “but she said she had business with Lord Kamiya.”
“And I’m sure the others are busy as well,” added Tatiana.
“It’s fine,” said Graham. “I understand.”
He was sitting at the high table, wearing a new silk shirt and looking distinctly ill at ease. Beside him sat Sir Renn, drumming her fingers on the table, each nail painted a brilliant red. On the table before them sat pitcher of water, a bejeweled dagger, and a large ornate chalice unlike anything Deena had ever seen, with a myriad of colorful gemstones arranged in geometric patterns all around the cup and base.
Erikr’s sister Lyza stood beside Graham, taking his pulse. “Are you nervous?” she asked.
“No,” said Graham. Then, “A little.”
“That’s a fast heartbeat for ‘a little’,” said Lyza. “Try to calm down; if your heart rate’s too fast we’ll have to reschedule.”
“No!” exclaimed Graham. “No, I’m fine, really.”
“Remember your breathing exercises,” said Sir Renn. “And drink some water.”
Tatiana leaned toward Deena. “You’ll want to keep your eye on the cup,” she whispered. “Vallus is going to make things all solemn and pompous, as he does, but the cup is the only part that matters. Everything else is just dressing.”
A few more people trickled in before Vallus arrived. “Is this everyone?” he asked, looking around the room. His eyes lingered a moment on Deena.
“Yes, my lord,” said Sir Renn. “Everyone that matters.”
Vallus nodded, walking to the head table to take his place between Graham and Renn. Renn and Graham both stood. Graham looked as though he might either faint or vomit.
Vallus cleared his throat. “Brothers, Sisters, we are gathered here today to witness the birth of a new son of Elyria. Graham the Ephemeral, are you prepared to be raised to the ranks of the Hallowed, in the sight of the sun, the stars, and all these witnesses here gathered?”
Graham nodded, then remembering his voice: “I am, m’lord.”
“Do you swear to live a life worthy of the blessing you are to receive, no matter how long that life may be?”
“I swear it, m’lord.”
“And you, Sir Renn of the Silent Tower, who have taken this boy to be your ward: Do you vouch for his conviction, his character, and his strength of spirit?”
“I do,” said Sir Renn.
“Do you swear to guide him and protect him as you would your own kin, so long as you both walk this earth?”
“I swear it.”
“Then offer your blood to him, so that he might become one of us.”
Renn held out her arm. She winced as Vallus cut it open with the dagger, letting the blood drip into the chalice.
Graham looked somewhat pale as he held out his own arm, and had to squeeze his eyes shut as Vallus made the cut. Renn had to guide his arm so that the blood dripped into the chalice rather than all over the table.
The rest of the chalice, Vallus filled with water. He swirled the mixture together for a few moments before placing it before Graham.
“Deep breaths, Graham,” said Renn. “Remember, you have to drink all of it.”
Graham nodded, his gaze fixed resolutely on the cup. “I’m ready,” he said.
Renn lifted the chalice to Graham’s lips, and as he drank, Deena was alarmed to see his skin bubble and blister where it met the cup.
“It’s hurting him!” Deena whispered to Tatiana.
“That’s because it’s magic,” Tatiana whispered back. “Only the Hallowed can touch runed metal without getting burned.”
By the time Graham was finished, his mouth was burned so badly that it hurt Deena just to look at. He took a step backward as Renn set down the cup, looking rather unsteady on his feet, then doubled over and fell to the floor.
Lyza rushed forward. Graham’s mother did as well.
“He’ll be alright,” said Tatiana to Deena. “I hope.”
Some of the onlookers had also rushed over to the dais, but Lyza waved them away. “Give him some space,” she said, her fingers on Graham’s pulse. “He’s fine, just give him some space.”
It was a few minutes more before Graham stood back up, supported by his mother on one side and Renn on the other. The blistering around his mouth had receded somewhat, though his lips were still cracked and bleeding.
Vallus picked up the cup and held it out. Graham looked apprehensively at it for a moment before gingerly placing a fingertip on the rim. When nothing happened, he took the cup in both his hands and hoisted it triumphantly into the air.
Despite only coming from a dozen pairs of hands, applause filled the hall. “Forever gone is Graham the Ephemeral,” called Vallus over the din. “We greet you now as Graham of Elyria.”
“Graham of Elyria!” called Tatiana. “You did it!”
“Is that it?” asked Deena, as the crowd began to disperse.
“More or less,” said Tatiana. “He’ll need a couple of days of bedrest while his body adjusts, but he’ll recover soon enough.”
“His mouth is going to get better, right?” asked Deena.
“Of course,” laughed Tatiana. “People would be far less eager to become Hallowed if it left your face disfigured.” She paused. “Oh no, you’re not having second thoughts, are you? I’d never forgive myself if I was the one to scare away Lord Avenel’s ward.”
“Oh, no,” said Deena. She had forgotten that she was supposed to be Avenel’s ward. “I mean it looked really painful, but—How does it work, exactly?”
Tatiana shrugged. “Who knows? The Drema and Heliikians—the ancient Hallowed races that lived in Asterii—they were the ones who made the cups. They were the only people who could use magic, after all. Not much of them was left behind after the Calamity, but we’re lucky that these chalices survived.”
“I see,” said Deena. She watched as Graham left the hall, leaning heavily on Sir Renn but grinning from ear to ear. “I wish they’d come up with some less painful way.”
“It’s not so bad as it looks,” said Vallus, approaching them. “Apologies if I’m interrupting.”
“Not at all, my lord,” said Tatiana, bowing.
“I remember my own Hallowing ceremony,” said Vallus. “It was painful in the moment, but the pain quickly subsides.”
“I’m glad I didn’t have go through it,” said Tatiana, making a face.
“Because your parents were Hallowed?” asked Deena.
“My mother, at least,” said Tatiana. “I never knew my father.”
“I didn’t know my father, either,” said Deena. “My mother never liked to talk about him.”
Vallus cleared his throat. “How is the riding coming along? I believe you have another lesson planned today?”
“We do,” said Tatiana. “Deena’s coming along splendidly; she’ll be riding on her own soon enough.”
“I will?” asked Deena.
“You will,” assured Tatiana. “I’m a very good teacher. Speaking of which, we had best be going. I asked one of the other stablehands to help while Graham is resting. He’ll be waiting for us.”
“Ah, of course,” said Vallus, stepping aside. “I won’t waste any more of your morning.”
Vallus watched them go. He stared after them until the doors had closed behind them, then turned and returned to his study.
Avenel was sitting in his chair, rifling through his mail.
“Again, Avenel?” asked Vallus with a sigh. “I thought I locked the door.”
“You did,” said Avenel, “not that I see the point. Almost everyone in the Tower knows how to pick a lock.” She gestured for him to sit, as though it were still her study instead of his. “Have you decided what to tell the Council?”
Vallus sighed. “What can I tell the Council? If the Ajjraeans were looking for Deena—”
“It hasn’t come to that yet,” said Avenel. “Loorne could have had some other reason.”
“Like what? There’s nothing in Taunsgrove.”
“Perhaps they meant to make an example of Taunsgrove. A demonstration of their strength.”
Vallus thought for a moment, then shook his head. “No, Loorne isn’t the type.”
“Loorne isn’t the type for an unprovoked attack at all,” said Avenel. “Just tell the Council what we know and leave out the speculation. If this means war, Desmina will need to know, and the others as well. I know you worry for Deena, but remember why we do this job.”
“‘We’, Avenel? As I recall, you resigned.”
“You know why I resigned,” said Avenel. She stood. “If Loorne really was there for Deena, if he knew about Deena, others might as well. Ajjraea’s Lords Paramount, or—”
“Or our own Council of Wardens,” finished Vallus. “Deena isn’t the Harbinger. The Harbinger isn’t real.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Avenel. “Deena is real, and the Council won’t take that risk. I only have so much sway with them, Vallus. If they learn about her, they’ll kill her.”
“You’re going to hide her,” said Vallus. “You’re taking her away again.”
“She can’t stay here, Vallus; there are too many eyes. Someone will piece it together.”
Vallus closed his eyes. “Where will you take her?”
“To my wardsister’s. She’s been away from politics for long enough and knows better than to ask any questions. And it’s a pleasant manor house; Deena will like it there.”
“Could I go see her? When—when all this is over?”
“Perhaps once the dust has settled,” said Avenel. “Before we leave, would you like to tell her that you’re her father?”
Vallus shook his head. “No,” he said with a croak. “It’s safer for her if she doesn’t know.”
“Take care of her for me, will you?” asked Vallus. “Keep her safe for me.”
“Of course,” said Avenel. “I’ll protect her as though she was mine.”
Chapter 8 - Shadows on the Wall
The Silent Tower; 31 March, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Early mornings were often dark in the Silent Tower, as the mountains to the east blocked out the dawn. The light in Avenel’s room was bleary and grey when Vallus entered. “I thought she might like these, too,” he said, adding three more books to the stack on the dresser.
“That’s enough, Vallus,” said Avenel, looking up from her packing. “You’ll weigh the horses down.”
“But she likes to read,” said Vallus.
“She’ll have plenty to read once we’re there,” said Avenel. “We’re going to my wardsister’s, not the middle of nowhere.”
“Your wardsister’s is in the middle of nowhere,” said Vallus. “Besides, she might want something to read on the road.”
“Then have her pick out one or two, not the whole stack.” She closed her saddlebag. “I’m going to go dress. Deena should be back soon.”
“Where did she go?”
“To return a book to Sir Moore.”
“A servant could have done that for her.”
“That’s what I said,” said Avenel, “but coming from Taunsgrove, she isn’t used to having servants hand and foot. I don’t think she exactly likes it.”
Avenel was still changing in the inner room when Deena returned. “O-oh, Lord Vallus,” she said when she saw him. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Good morning, Deena,” said Vallus. “Are you ready for your journey?”
“I think so,” said Deena. “Everything’s packed—thank you for the clothes, by the way—and I’ve put the room back to how it was as best I can.”
“Did you have breakfast?” asked Vallus.
“Oh, no, I guess I haven’t,” said Deena. She examined the breakfast tray and picked out a piece of toast.
Vallus watched her as she drizzled honey over the toast. He wanted to say something her, but what was there to say? Nearly a week under his roof, but he was still barely more than a stranger to her.
He wanted to tell her that she meant the world to him. He wanted to tell her he was sorry.
It was Deena who broke the silence. “Lord Vallus, um, why are all these books here?”
“Oh,” said Vallus. “Yes.” He pulled out a volume near the bottom of the stack. “This is for you,” he said. “It’s a collection of maps. I thought you might like to know more about where you’re going and the route you’ll be taking. There are maps of other regions, too.”
“Aren’t maps very valuable? Shouldn’t this stay here?”
“This is from my personal collection,” said Vallus. “The Tower has its own copy.”
Deena opened it. He watched as she ran her hand across the page, her fingers tracing the blue ink of the river Rhiine. “Oh wow,” she said. “It’s beautiful.” She looked up. “But I don’t think I can accept this.”
“Please, I insist,” said Vallus. “I—your mother was a good friend. This is the least I can do.”
“You never mentioned how you knew my mother,” said Deena.
“It was before you were born,” said Vallus. “She—She helped someone very dear to me.”
“Did you know my father, too?”
Vallus paused. “No. No I didn’t.”
“Oh,” said Deena. She seemed disappointed. “What about these other books? What are they?”
“Just some that I thought you might like.” He had consulted with Sir Moore about which books she had been reading. “Take whichever ones catch your fancy.”
“Are you sure? Won’t they be missed?”
“Hardly,” said Vallus. “Most of these haven’t been touched in years.”
He watched as Deena perused the books, trying to memorize the shape of her. He looked for himself in her, and found it in the color of her eyes and the shape of her nose. He found Fosette in the color of her hair, the slight slouch in her shoulders, the way she rubbed the corner of each page as she turned it. He wanted to burn the image of her into his mind forever.
“I have something else for you,” said Vallus, retrieving a small box from his pocket. “I’ve been meaning to find the right time to give it to you. It—it belonged to your mother.”
Deena took the box and opened it to reveal the sapphire pendant inside, hanging from a thin silver chain. “This was my mother’s?” asked Deena.
“Yes,” said Vallus. “She—she left it with me for safekeeping, before she left for Taunsgrove. I think she would like you to have it.”
Deena examined the pendant, lifting it up to see it catch the light. “But she said that she and my father didn’t have a lot of money.” She looked up. “Did you know my mother very well, Lord Vallus?”
“Well enough,” said Vallus.
“What was she like? She never really talked about her life before Taunsgrove.”
Vallus hesitated. “I’m sure your mother had her reasons for not telling you.” He gestured to the necklace. “Shall I help you put it on?”
“Oh, okay,” said Deena, turning around.
Vallus’s fingers fumbled for a moment. He remembered the countless, countless times he had put that same necklace on Fosette. “There,” he said.
Deena turned back around. “How does it look?”
Vallus smiled. “You look lovely.”
By the time Avenel was dressed, a servant had come up to inform them that the horses were ready. Deena slid two of the books into her bag before handing it to the servant, and they walked down to the courtyard together.
A small group of people had gathered to say goodbye, waiting by the gates of the lift. Kamiya, Glenna, and Erikr were all there, along with Tatiana and Charles. Even Graham had made his way over, though he still looked rather pale and wan.
Tatiana pressed a paper package into Deena’s hands. “We made you a gift,” she said. “Well, Grizzly made it, but it was Glenna’s idea, and I drew the design.”
“Thank you,” said Deena, opening it. Inside was a small dagger in a leather sheath, an ornate D engraved on the pommel.
“Perhaps Lord Avenel could show you how to use it,” said Erikr.
“Or you could just use it as a fruit knife,” said Tatiana, rolling her eyes. “Not everyone needs to learn to kill.”
Kamiya pulled Avenel into a warm embrace, then gestured with her hands, too fast for Vallus to read. While they were occupied, he turned to Deena.
“Will you be alright?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Deena. “I’ll have Avenel.”
“Of course,” he said, nodding. “But if you ever need anything—if anything should happen where you need my help—please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Deena nodded. “Thank you, my lord.”
“A-and write to us once you’re settled there. Or to Tatiana if you prefer.”
“Okay,” said Deena. “I will.”
The others stayed upstairs, but Vallus and Charles accompanied Deena and Avenel down in the lift. The horses were already packed and ready, a handsome bay stallion and a grey gelding. Deena struggled a little to mount her horse, and Vallus almost reached out to help her before she managed it on her own.
“All the usual provisions are here, my lord,” said Charles to Avenel, gesturing at the packs on the horses. “It should see you as far as Emdenshire.”
“Thank you, Charles,” said Avenel. She swung herself up onto the saddle. “Vallus, it’s been good to see you again.”
“You as well,” said Vallus. “And Deena—” He paused. He wanted nothing more than to hold her, to tell her how much he loved her, to apologize for not being more of a father, but instead all he could do was give her an awkward pat on the knee. “—It’s been a pleasure to meet you,” he finished.
The portcullis lifted open with a great groaning of the chains. Vallus watched as Deena and Avenel rode off, out of the cave and into the bright sunlight outside. He watched them riding away into the trees, then the path bent, and they were gone.
Like her mother before her, all he had left was his memory of her.
Wilderness; 1 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Deena woke to the soft pattering of rain on the tent. The oiled canvas kept the water out, but her back was damp with sweat. Her mouth, on the other hand, was dry as bone, and tasted faintly of ash.
“Bad dreams?” asked Avenel.
Deena nodded. Her back ached abominably from sleeping on the ground after a week in a feather bed. “Did I wake you?”
“No, I’m an early riser on the road,” said Avenel. She lifted the flap of the tent. “I hope this rain doesn’t continue.”
“It’s good for the crops,” said Deena.
“Good for the crops, yes, but bad for travel. Once we arrive at Olyssa’s, it can rain as much as it likes.”
“What’s she like, your wardsister? Are you close?”
“We were, when she was a child, but it’s been a while since I saw her last.”
To Avenel’s visible displeasure, the rain did continue, albeit in an on-again-off-again sort of way. Thankfully, Charles had hooded raincloaks packed for them, so they were only slightly wet as they rode. The horses still struggled, though, hooves squelching in the mud with every step. Around noon, they stopped for lunch, seeking shelter beneath a large tree.
Avenel broke off a piece of cheese and handed it to Deena. “You never asked what Kamiya found at Taunsgrove,” she said.
“Oh,” said Deena. “I—I wasn’t sure that you would tell me.”
“She didn’t find much,” said Avenel, “only confirmed what we already know.”
“So, it really was an attack by the Ajjraeans?”
“But why? We don’t—we didn’t do anything.”
“We don’t know yet,” said Avenel. “Vallus is looking into it, but it may be a while before we know.”
“Is it another war, then?”
“We don’t know yet,” said Avenel again. “Even if it is war, it’ll be safe at Olyssa’s.”
“It was supposed to be safe at Taunsgrove,” said Deena. “My mother always said so.”
Avenel didn’t answer.
A full day of riding had left Deena feeling sore and stiff, and she didn’t much relish the idea of another day on the road. Her horse didn’t seem too happy about it either, giving a sigh-like snort as Deena mounted. “Sorry,” said Deena, patting the horse on the neck, “but Avenel says it’ll be at least two more days to Emdenshire, and then another three to her wardsister’s.”
The road they were on followed the River Rhiine, though it wove through the woods so that they only caught glimpses of the river itself. Each time they caught sight of it, it seemed to Deena to be a little wider and deeper than it had before, and a little louder as well. By the time the sun started to set, the Rhiine was a series of raging rapids at the bottom of a canyon.
They turned off the main road and onto a much smaller one, overgrown and nearly impossible to spot, though Avenel navigated it with ease. Ahead, something dark and oblong peeked out over the tops of the trees.
“What is that?” asked Deena, squinting through the rain.
“Some old ruins,” said Avenel. “It’ll make better shelter than our tent.”
The ruins turned out to be that of some ancient castle, though most of it had long since been reclaimed by the forest. The oblong structure they had seen before had once been a tower, and one of the few places where the masonry remained intact. Even here, the walls were covered by moss and ivy, behind which Deena could just barely make out the black of soot.
“Was there a fire here?” asked Deena.
The door of the tower had long since rotted away, but the inside was large and still blessedly dry. With relief, Deena peeled off her wet boots and breeches and laid them by the wall to dry.
“Aren’t you going to undress?” asked Deena, when Avenel only took off her cloak and boots.
“No,” said Avenel, lighting a lantern. “They’re only a little damp.”
Dinner was dried beef and cheese and the remainder of the bread. They considered starting a fire, to turn the beef into some sort of stew, but there was no chimney in the tower and no dry wood. Instead, there was only the lantern to see by as they ate, and Avenel extinguished it when they crawled into their bedrolls.
Sleep would not come. Deena listened to the rain pattering outside, the occasional snort or stomp of the horses. She listened to the roar of the Rhiine, somewhere to their east, as its waters raced northwest to the sea. She could hear Avenel, too, relighting the lantern and walking to the doorway to gaze out into the rain. Her sword was in her hand, and the ruby in the pommel shimmered as though the stone was on fire.
“Where are you going?” asked Deena.
“Nowhere,” said Avenel. “It’s raining.”
Deena sat up. “I couldn’t sleep either.”
Avenel didn’t answer.
“Did this place have a name?” asked Deena.
“Yes. It was called Parvelhaugh.”
“What did it look like? Do you know?”
Avenel was silent a moment. “It was large,” she said. “There were towers. This one—the one we’re in now—was one of the shorter ones. The tallest one was over there, right on the edge of the cliff. You could see for miles from that tower. But it’s fallen into the river, along with half the cliff.”
“Was that before or after the fire?”
“After. Long, long after.” She turned to look at Deena. “You should try to sleep. We have a long day of travelling tomorrow.”
Deena nodded and laid back down. “Avenel,” she said, “did you know the people who lived here?”
“Yes,” said Avenel, after a brief pause, “but that was a lifetime ago.”
???; ???, Year ??? of ???
She had no body, no features, no self. She was disconnected from her surroundings. A castle, a cliff, a river—but she could not have said where she was, or who, or even when.
She saw the world through a stranger’s eyes. The stranger was standing by a window, high up in a tower, gazing out at the fields and forests below. Somewhere out of sight, a river roared.
There was an army in the distance, a formidable host of hundreds, perhaps thousands. There were flags and horses and men clad in armor, all inching inexorably closer. The stranger watched them, and her heart beat quick.
A girl stood beside her, fifteen, maybe sixteen, clinging tightly to the stranger’s arm. “Kassie—” she began.
The stranger reached out and brushed a rogue strand of hair from the girl’s face. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I’m here.”
A knock on the door. “Lady Kassandra? Lady Katrina?”
The stranger turned. “Yes?”
A guardsman stood at the door. “My ladies, it’s time to go. There’s a safe room prepared for you in the cellar; your father has ordered for you to be taken there.”
The stranger nodded. “Take my sister,” she said. “I need to gather some things.”
“My lady, there isn’t time—”
“I need to gather some things,” said the stranger again, more forcefully. “Mother’s urn, at least.”
The guard bowed. “Very well, my lady,” he said. “Lady Katrina, if you’ll follow me.”
The girl released her grip on the stranger’s arm. She turned to look at the stranger, then followed the guard out of the room.
“Go,” said the stranger. “I’ll be right behind you.”
The castle was filled with people busy with the preparations of war, none of whom paid the stranger any mind beyond a cursory bow or curtsy. From the mantle above an ornate fireplace, the stranger took the urn and clutched it to her chest. She made way back through courtyard and down the steps that led to the cellar.
Her sister was at the bottom of the stairs, locked in a passionate kiss with a blond-haired man. So engrossed were they in each other that neither noticed the stranger’s approach.
The stranger’s heart stuttered, and the urn fell to the ground and shattered.
At the sound, the couple broke apart. “Kassie!” exclaimed the girl, quickly putting a hand to her mouth. “Kassie, I can explain.” She reached out for the stranger’s hand, but the stranger jerked away. “Kassie, we—I’m sorry, we should have told you sooner, but—”
“Was this Father’s idea?” asked the stranger.
The stranger turned and ran. The girl and her golden-haired lover called after her, but she did not stop.
“My lady?” asked a passing maid. “My lady, what’s the matter?”
“Where is my father?” asked the stranger.
“In the workshop, preparing the oil for the murderholes. What—”
But the stranger didn’t wait for her to finish. She ran, pushing aside servants and soldiers alike.
The workshop was dark, lit only by a series of braziers along the wall. Men labored between large wooden casks, overseen by a stooped, balding man in a velvet doublet.
“Father,” said the stranger.
The old man didn’t even look up. “Not now, Kassandra. I’m busy, or have you not noticed the invaders to the west?”
“Father, I will speak with you now.”
The man looked up. “From the tone of your voice and the look on your face, I see you’ve found Nicholas with your sister.”
“Nicholas is mine! He loves me!”
“Love is for fools and commoners,” said the man. “I should not need to remind you that you are my eldest. As the gods have seen fit to deny me sons, whatever man you marry must be my heir. Nicholas is a bard, unfit to be the Lord of Parvelhaugh, and if marrying him to Katrina is the only way to end your foolish tryst, then so be it.”
The stranger shook her head. “He’ll never agree to it. He loves me.”
“Evidently not enough,” said the man. “They’ve already been wed and consummated.”
The stranger pushed, shoving the man with all her strength. He stumbled backwards, breaking the cask behind him and knocking over others. She ran, and several workers gave chase at the man’s command, but she knocked over the braziers to slow their pursuit. There was yelling behind her as the spilt oil caught fire, but she did not stop, only pausing to grab a sword from the rack along the wall. Servants tried to stop her or slow her as she ran, but she brandished the blade at them to keep them away.
Katrina found her in the corridor. “Kassie! Kassie, stop!”
“Where’s Nicholas?” asked the stranger.
“Looking for you,” said Katrina. “Kassie, please, you have to understand—Nicholas and I, we love each other!”
“Nicholas loves me!” She slashed, the tip of the sword grazing her sister’s face. The girl screamed, covering her face with her hands. For a moment, the stranger paused, taking half a step forward toward her sister, but then she dropped the sword and ran.
The fire was quicker than her, and by the time the stranger arrived at the courtyard, half the stables were already aflame. The stablehands were busy trying to extinguish the flames, so she ignored them, and retrieved a warhorse from the part still untouched.
She rode bareback to the gate. “Raise the gate,” she said.
The guard looked at her, confused. “My lady? There’s an army approaching, and the fire—”
“I will meet with their general,” said the stranger. “Raise the gate.”
The guard obeyed.
She rode, the flames at her back and the sunset in her eyes, until she could see the invading soldiers, staring up at the smoke.
“Who leads this army?” she asked.
A mounted knight stepped forward. “I do,” he said, and removed his helm. “I am Lord Ephraim of Elyria. Who might you be?”
“I am the Lord of Parvelhaugh,” said the stranger.
The knight glanced back at his companions. “We were under the impression that Parvelhaugh is held by a Lord Kenneth Avenel.”
“Lord Kenneth was my father,” said the stranger. “As his firstborn and heir, I am the new Lord Avenel, and I surrender unconditionally to Elyria.”
In the shiny reflection of the knight’s polished armor, the disembodied girl saw the stranger’s face.
Parvelhaugh Ruins; 2 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Deena woke herself with her scream.
“Deena?” asked Avenel. “Are you alright?”
“N-no! No, don’t touch me, don’t touch me!”
Avenel drew back. “Deena, what’s the matter?”
“It was you! You started the fire!”
“The fire?” asked Avenel. “Deena—”
“It was you!” cried Deena again. “You started the fire here, at Parvelhaugh! You were the one who killed your family!”
Chapter 9 - Regret
Eswick Jailhouse; 2 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
Chester Carr yawned. His shift was only halfway done, but he was already dreaming of crawling back into his warm bed in the barracks. He hadn’t slept well at all, having been intermittently woken by the carousing of his fellow guards outside, before dragging himself out of bed for the second night shift.
He glanced towards the open window to his left. It was still dark outside, but perhaps not as dark as the last time he’d checked.
Three more hours, he thought. Three more hours, and I’ll get to go back to bed.
He yawned again. Just as well that he got the night shift, really. It had been stupidly warm out, considering the season. Gods only knew how hot it would be once the sun was up. Both the door and window were open to let in a breeze, but there was none to be found.
His family had tried to dissuade him from taking this job, and some days he almost agreed with them. “But you’ll be with criminals all day,” his sister had said. “What if they get violent?” As it turned out, she hardly need have worried. He was more in danger of being bored to death than attacked by any of the petty thieves, drunkards, and gamblers in his cells. Still, the pay was good, and it was better than the alternative of working at his brother’s market stall. If he had to say “Welcome to Carr’s Carpet Cart” one more time, he would have killed himself.
Chester drummed his fingers on the old wooden desk. Perhaps he should walk around and glower at the inmates some more. Yes, there was the new inmate who’d been brought in the day before. Big fellow, but seemed meek enough. Hardly a word of complaint when he was tossed into the cell, only a stupid grin on his face. A drunkard, most like, but by now he would be awake and sober.
He stood up.
“Excuse me,” said a voice. “Are you the guard on duty?”
Chester turned. A man was standing in the doorway, sporting a long ponytail the color of Aunt Jacinda’s carrots. A bow was slung across his back, and a quiver of arrows hung from his belt.
“You can’t bring weapons in here,” said Chester. “And anyway, visiting hours aren’t until noon.”
“Oh, I’m not here to visit someone,” said the man with a smile. “I’m here to break him out.”
Chester had never been the quickest guard at the jailhouse. Before he could react, a woman, her head shaved bald, leaned in through the open window to put a dagger at his throat.
“Please sit back down,” said the redheaded man. “And stay quiet. We would really rather no one got hurt.”
The man tied him to the chair and stuffed a rag in his mouth. “It isn’t too tight, is it?” he asked “I’ve never had to do this before.”
“Would it kill you to talk less?” asked the woman, climbing in through the window.
“I’m only being polite, Sister,” said the man. “He’ll probably lose his job for this; no need to make his day worse.”
The woman scowled. “Let’s just get this over with.” She flipped through the ledger on Chester’s desk. “Yep, here he is. Arrested for fisticuffs, public drunkenness, and damage to public property. Come on.”
The redheaded man nodded, taking the keyring from its hook. He turned to Chester. “I hope you don’t actually lose you job for this,” he said, then ran down the hall after his sister.
Most of the prisoners were sleeping, but a few stirred at the sound of footsteps.
“Yer not a guard,” slurred one of them, sounding more asleep than awake.
“Observant,” said the red-haired man.
The bald woman glanced down at the prisoner. “Don’t talk to them, Flame.”
“I’m sure they’re harmless, Sister,” said the man, but nonetheless ran a few steps to catch up with her.
“Flame?” called a voice from down the corridor. “Frost? Is that you?”
“That depends,” replied Flame. “Will we have to break you out of jail again any time soon?”
“Yes, yes, I’ve learned my lesson,” said the voice. A face appeared at the bars: dark, handsome, and with a comically exaggerated frown. “I promise, I’m the epitome of contrition.”
Flame unlocked the cell door. “Out you go, your contriteness,” he said. “Try to be more careful next time.”
Chester glowered at them all as they passed by again on their way out. The dark-skinned man—the one who had been a prisoner until thirty seconds ago—gave a mocking bow. “Thank you for your hospitality, good sir,” he said, “but I’m afraid I must depart.”
“Garth, let’s go,” hissed Frost.
“Of course,” said the man called Garth, and with a wink back at Chester, exited with his companions.
Outside, the city was asleep, the streets empty, and a round moon hung bright in the sky. Garthniiel stretched, enjoying his newly regained freedom.
“You’re lucky they didn’t figure out who you are,” said Frost.
“How could they have known?” asked Garth. “I’ve been careful.”
“You were arrested.”
“I escaped, didn’t I? With help, of course.” He paused. “But you’re right. Perhaps we’ve overstayed our welcome here in Elyria. I think it’s time we returned home to Ajjraea.”
“Finally,” sighed Frost.
“… just as soon as I figure out how.”
Wilderness; 2 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The two horses clip clopped along the road. Deena stared resolutely ahead as she rode. Not that there was much to look at; just trees, trees, and more trees.
“If you have something to say to me,” said Avenel, “then say it.”
“Why would I have anything to say to you?” asked Deena.
“Because you’re still here,” said Avenel. “You haven’t tried to run off.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go, remember? Everyone I know is gone, and from a fire that I didn’t set.”
Avenel looked at her. “You’re upset.”
“I’m—Of course I’m upset!” exclaimed Deena. “You’re a murder! A-a murderer and an arsonist!”
“You already knew that I’ve killed in the past.”
“Yes, when it was your job. Not when—when—whatever it was I saw.”
“So you saw me?” asked Avenel. “In this dream?”
“It wasn’t a dream!” said Deena. It had felt too real to be a dream. “And I didn’t see you, exactly. I saw… through you? Like it was your memory.”
“How do you know it was me?”
“Because I saw your reflection,” said Deena. “And because you didn’t deny it. You’d deny it if it wasn’t you, wouldn’t you?”
Avenel didn’t answer.
“You don’t have to believe me,” said Deena. “I know how it sounds.”
“And yet, there you are, in possession of knowledge that no one else has.”
Deena looked at her. “Are you saying no one knows this? What about Lord Vallus? Or your wardsister?”
“Officially, the fire was an accident. Only Ephraim knew the truth.”
“O-oh,” said Deena. It made sense, but somehow it still surprised her.
By noon, the forest had given way to plains, vast stretches of wild grass as tall as the horses’ knees. Here and there, a lone cottage or tree broke up the monotony in the distance.
They stopped by a pond, and the horses drank greedily, having been sweating beneath the sun all day. Avenel took out the cheese and cut a piece for Deena.
“No thank you,” said Deena coolly.
Avenel sighed and set down the cheese. “Would you like to talk about it?”
“No,” said Deena.
“Fine,” said Avenel, getting to her feet. “I’m going to fill our flasks.”
Deena eyed the cheese where it sat in its wax paper wrapper. She tried to ignore it, but a short while later, when her stomach began to growl, picked it up and devoured it in three quick bites.
It was mid-afternoon when they passed through a farming settlement, just a cluster of houses that called itself a village. One of the houses was an inn, so Avenel suggested that they stay there for the night. Deena had no objections; anything was better than the ground.
“It will be better to use a false name,” said Avenel. “It’s safer, on the road.”
“What are you afraid of?” asked Deena. “Other murderers?”
“Mostly bandits and thieves, actually,” said Avenel.
“Couldn’t you—” began Deena.
“Kill them?” asked Avenel. “Yes, I could.”
The inn was empty but for a young man in the corner who looked them up and down as they entered. The innkeeper was quick to arrive, however, and showed them to a pair of rooms upstairs.
“Would you like to draw a bath?” asked the innkeep.
“Please,” said Avenel, “for the both of us.”
The innkeeper nodded. “Dinner will be downstairs in an hour, if you want it.”
Avenel wasn’t in her room when Deena finished her bath, so she went downstairs, but Avenel wasn’t there either. Once again, the room was empty but for the young man in the corner. Deena took a seat as far from him as possible.
Much to her unease, he got up and walked to her.
“Um, can I help you?” asked Deena.
“No,” said the man. “My father’s the magister, you know.”
“Oh. That’s nice,” said Deena, wondering why a village this size even needed a magister. She wanted to get up and leave, but the way he was standing blocked her path. “I—I should go find my friend—”
The man didn’t move. “She’s in the stables,” he said. “I saw her leave.” He took another step forward. “I like your hair.”
“Um,” said Deena.
He reached for her arm, but a dagger whizzed past his head, knicking his ear before embedding itself in the far wall.
“Step away from my ward,” said Avenel from the door, “or the next one goes through your eye.”
The man touched the cut on his ear. “My father—”
“—would undoubtedly prefer his son in tact rather than in pieces,” finished Avenel. “Leave.”
The man scowled and took off.
“Let me know if he bothers you again,” said Avenel, retrieving her dagger. “I should find the innkeeper and pay for this hole in his wall.”
“A—aren’t you having dinner?” asked Deena.
“I’ll eat in my room,” said Avenel.
It was early enough that there was still some sunlight after dinner. Deena returned to her room and tried to read, for a bit, but found that she couldn’t focus. The room felt strangely empty. She thought of the dream she had had, the fire at Parvelhaugh, and then the fire at Taunsgrove. Somehow, the fire in her dream—in Avenel’s memory—felt more real.
She went out into the hall and knocked on Avenel’s door.
“Yes?” asked Avenel, as she opened the door.
“Why did you get us separate rooms?” asked Deena. “Why not share one, like we did at the Silent Tower?”
“I thought I would give you some space.”
“Oh,” said Deena. She felt she should say something else, but wasn’t sure what to say. After a moment, Avenel stepped aside to let Deena in.
Avenel’s sword was leaning against the bed, its ruby pommel bright as blood. “He was wearing that sword on his hip,” said Deena. “The blond man—Nicholas. I saw it.”
“You saw him?” asked Avenel.
Deena nodded. “He was—he shouldn’t have done that. Hurt you like that.”
“Yes,” said Avenel.
“But he didn’t deserve to die, not like that. She didn’t either. None of them did.”
“No,” agreed Avenel.
“I thought you were like me,” said Deena, “that your family died like mine, but—” She bit her lip. “—But it really isn’t the same, is it?”
“I suppose not,” said Avenel.
“Did you mean to kill them? When you set that fire?”
“Does it matter?” asked Avenel. “Either way, they died.”
“Do you regret it, then?” asked Deena.
“Of course,” said Avenel, “but regret won’t change the past. What’s done is done.”
Deena nodded. “I’m sorry I was rude today.”
Deena shook her head. “No. You’ve been nothing but nice to me, ever since—since what happened at Taunsgrove. It—It shouldn’t matter to me what you did in the past. People change, and right now you’re—you’re all I’ve got.”
Avenel looked at her for a moment. “If you’d like to stay, I could ask the innkeeper to add a cot.”
Deena nodded. “Yes, please. I—I don’t want to be alone.”
That night, Deena’s sleep was blessedly devoid of strange dreams.
It was only half a day more to Emdenshire, so they took their time in the morning. Breakfast was flatbread, eggs, and juicy strips of bacon. The magister’s son didn’t appear again.
The sun was already high in the sky when they retrieved their horses and set off. The houses dotting the farmland increased in frequency as they rode. They encountered other travelers, too, people heading to and from the city: lone riders and mule carts and travelers walking on foot.
“Mr Allard was going to Emdenshire, wasn’t he?” asked Deena. “To fix his cart.”
Avenel nodded. “It was the nearest city, but he’ll have moved on to Glennark or Eswick, by now.”
“I think he’s in Rook’s Town a lot,” said Deena. “He mentions it a lot, anyway.”
“He lives there,” said Avenel. “It’s where his wife and children are.”
For some reason, Deena had never considered what Allard’s life was like when he wasn’t on the road. It made sense, of course, that he would have a family, but she had never given it any thought. “Do you have a home?” asked Deena. “Somewhere you go when you aren’t travelling?”
Avenel shook her head. “Just the Tower,” she said.
It was afternoon when they reached the city proper. Deena had always imagined cities to be just like Taunsgrove, only larger. She was wrong. Emdenshire was bigger than Taunsgrove, yes, but it was also much louder, filthier, and more crowded. Pedestrians jostled each other in the streets, and at every corner was some vendor hawking their wares. Beggars held out chipped bowls to ask for spare coppers, only to be ignored or pushed aside. Barefoot urchins ran, laughing and shouting, bumping into aproned matrons who swore after them. Shops lined the streets on either side, offering all manner of goods, and above them towered multiple stories of living quarters. Laundry hung from lines strung between the upper story windows, waving like mismatched pennants in the wind. It was a wonder they weren’t dirty again by the time they dried when the air was so thick with the smell of dead rats, rotten vegetables, and human waste.
“How can anyone live like this?” asked Deena, wrinkling her nose.
“One gets used to it,” said Avenel.
“I don’t think I could ever get used to this,” said Deena.
“You would be surprised what a person can get used to.”
The crowd was forced to step aside to allow their horses through, which they did begrudgingly and with many loud and rude protestations. Deena shrank a little from all the dirty looks, but Avenel seemed unfazed, as did the horses.
The area where they stopped was a little nicer, with cobbled streets instead of dirt and larger, more inviting shopfronts. The smell, however, remained the same, as did the crowds. The inn Avenel chose was tucked away down a side street, with a stable out front that looked as though it had been squashed into the neighboring building. A sign outside read “The Manticore.” It was with some reluctance that the stableboy tore himself away from a game of ball with his friends, at least until Avenel tossed a few coins his way.
The inside of the inn was larger than the narrow front would suggest, with the room being longer than it was wide. A dozen patrons sat eating or drinking, most of them alone or in pairs. There was a bearded man behind the bar, polishing the counter, and he looked up as they entered.
“What can I get you?” he asked.
“A double room, please,” said Avenel. “Just for tonight.”
The man retrieved a thick ledger from beneath the counter. “Your names?” he asked.
“Azalea,” said Avenel. “Azalea Mills.”
The man nodded as he wrote. “And you?” he asked Deena.
“Um, Hyacinth,” said Deena, then immediately mentally smacked herself.
The man didn’t react as he wrote it down. “Second floor, third room on the left,” he said as he handed them the key.
“I can’t believe I said ‘Hyacinth’,” said Deena as they went up the stairs. “Who would name their child ‘Hyacinth’?”
“It could be worse,” said Avenel. “You could have said ‘Butterwort’.”
Deena made a face.
The room was neither large nor elaborate, but it was clean, with two beds, two chairs, and a wooden screen. In between was a large window that overlooked a back alley. Deena threw it open to let in the afternoon breeze, then realized too late that she had also let in the stench. She slammed it shut again.
Avenel took off her boots to sit cross-legged on the bed. “We have a few hours until suppertime,” she said. “Is there anything you would like to do?”
“I don’t know what there is to do,” said Deena.
“It’s been a while since I was last here,” said Avenel. “We could go to the market; I need to pick up some supplies. There are also some shops that sell things you might like, and sometimes there are performers by the square. Jugglers, puppets, that sort of thing.”
Deena thought for a moment. “Performers might be fun,” she said. Travelling performers came to Taunsgrove sometimes, but not very often. “Is it far?”
“Not very,” said Avenel, “and we can visit some shops on the way.”
Emdenshire was not a large city, according to Avenel, but it still boasted a variety of shops and craftspeople. Every object in existence seemed to have its own specialty shop. There were glassblowers and milliners and jewelers and bookbinders, alongside the more commonplace businesses like butchers and carpenters. There was even a shop dedicated entirely to different pens and inks, where Avenel spent what felt like an eternity picking out a gift for her wardsister.
“There’s a shop just for sweets?” asked Deena, staring in awe through the shop window. “Who eats this many sweets?”
“No one, I hope,” said Avenel. “Would you like some?”
“I wouldn’t know what to get,” said Deena. The delicious aroma of sugar and fruit wafted tantalizingly through the open door, and inside, the shop was filled with shelves and shelves of sweets. There were licorice and caramelized nuts like Mrs Sandler used to make, but most were things that Deena had never seen before.
“First time in the city?” asked the confectioner when they entered. “If you don’t know what you like, you could try a piece.”
Deena’s eyes widened. “I—I don’t even know what to try.”
The confectioner chuckled. “Why not a piece of everything, then? Here, start with this.”
In the end, they bought candied lemons, dried dates, and two different kinds of toffee, all wrapped in neat paper packages. There were also strawberries on a stick dipped in some sort of sugary syrup, which they ate as they watched a troupe of performers in the square. There was a sword swallower, a contortionist, and a blindfolded knife thrower who cleanly sliced through the crabapple placed atop his assistant’s head.
“How did he do that?” asked Deena, jaw dropped. “He couldn’t even see where she was!”
“He can,” said Avenel. “That blindfold isn’t nearly thick enough.”
The leader of the troupe stepped before the crowd. “Duncan the Unerring, ladies and gentlemen!” he called, as a stagehand set up a wooden target behind him. “Does anyone wish to challenge him?”
A hand shot up from the crowd, holding a silver coin. “I do!”
“Then step right up,” said the troupe leader, taking the coin from the young man’s hand.
Duncan went first. With an almost careless flick of his wrist, he sent his dagger flying straight into the center of the target. The young man’s dagger missed the target altogether, landing in the haystack behind it.
“Bad luck, I’m afraid,” said the troupe leader, pocketing the young man’s coin. “Looks like you lost this wager.”
The crowd laughed. The young man, looking dejected, slinked into the back.
“It’s rigged,” said Avenel quietly to Deena. “The knife they gave him isn’t balanced; it’s designed to curve in the air.”
“But that isn’t fair,” said Deena. “They tricked him!”
“I know,” said Avenel. She took a gold coin from her purse and held it up. “A gold piece,” she called, “but I get three tries.”
The troupe leader hesitated, but the allure of the gold was too much. “Step right up,” he said, taking the gold from her hand and biting it to ensure it was real.
Avenel took the dagger from the assistant’s hand. She tossed it between her hands, as though feeling for the weight and balance, then stepped forward to the line on the ground. “After you, Mr Duncan,” she said.
Duncan nodded. Once again, his knife hit the center of the target.
“Your turn, ma’am,” called the troupe leader. He was playing with the gold coin, flipping it between his fingers. “As promised, you get three tries.”
Avenel threw the dagger. As with the young man from before, it went wide. The crowd laughed, but Avenel only smiled. “Good thing I have two more tries,” she said.
The assistant brough the dagger back to her, and as soon as she was clear, Avenel threw it. This time, it hit the target in the dead center, so close to Duncan’s that the two formed a single hole.
“W-well,” said the troupe leader as the crowd all cheered. “Looks like you won.”
“I still have another try, don’t I?” asked Avenel.
“Yes?” said troupe leader uncertainly.
“Good,” said Avenel and held out her hand for the knife.
The troupe leader watched her uncertainly, still flipping that gold coin between his fingers. Once more, Avenel threw the knife, but this time it hit the coin in the troupe leader’s hand, sending it flying.
The troupe leader scrambled to run after it. The crowd laughed. Even some of the stagehands chuckled.
“Looks like I missed,” said Avenel. “Keep the coin.”
The crowd was quick to disperse as the assistants and stagehands began to walk around with their bowls of clinking coin. Avenel was talking to Duncan, who had lifted up his blindfold. Deena ran forward to join her, but a man with long red hair bumped into her shoulder, causing her to drop her packages on the ground. “Ah, I’m terribly sorry,” said the man. “Let me help you with that.”
“It’s alright,” said Deena, but the man had already picked up the packages and placed them in her arms.
“Your friend is quite the knife thrower,” said the man.
“Yeah, it’s her specialty,” said Deena, examining the packages. They appeared unharmed from the fall. “Thanks.”
“No, it was my fault,” said the man and hurried off after his companions.
Avenel was just finishing her conversation with Duncan, demonstrating some sort of wrist flick. “Try it a few times,” she was saying. “You’ll get more accuracy at a longer range.” On Deena’s approach, she turned. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “It’s nearly suppertime.”
Deena nodded. “I’m famished.”
“Let’s head back, then,” said Avenel.
The Manticore was apparently a popular spot for dinner, because all the tables were occupied when Deena and Avenel returned. Fortunately, a couple in the corner had just finished their meal, and Deena and Avenel sat down as a serving girl cleared the plates. Deena’s stomach growled, and she contemplated the package of toffee for a moment before deciding to wait until after dinner. Thankfully, their order came quick.
“I’m glad the sweets didn’t spoil your appetite,” said Avenel, as Deena devoured her bowl of stew.
“I guess I didn’t eat much yesterday,” said Deena. She paused. “I’m—I’m sorry again for being rude.”
“It’s alright,” said Avenel. “When we arrive at Olyssa’s, I’d understand if you preferred that I leave.”
Deena shook her head. “I—I feel better when you’re around,” she said. “I meant what I said: you’re all I have.”
Half an hour later, Deena had polished off a plate of peas, two buttered rolls, and half a large sausage in addition to her stew. The room had emptied considerably. Apart from the innkeeper, there was a man dining alone, a couple enjoying a game of chess with their dessert, and a trio of people in travelling cloaks drinking at a table by the door. Deena unwrapped her toffee and broke off a piece. Across the room, one of the chessplayers gave a loud cheer as he gleefully knocked over his opponent’s king.
“He could have won ten turns earlier, if he hadn’t been so careless with his rook,” said Avenel, watching them.
“Do you play?” asked Deena.
“I did,” said Avenel. “Ephraim used it as a tool for teaching strategy.”
“I never learned,” said Deena. “Mr Allard offered to teach us, once, but my friends weren’t very interested.”
“Perhaps Olyssa could teach you. She was quite a good player, even as a child.”
Deena nodded absently. There was something about the trio in the travelling cloaks. “Avenel,” she said, “I think saw those people at the square, after the show.”
Avenel followed her gaze. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, or at least that tall man with the orange hair. He bumped into me.”
Avenel frowned. “I’m sure it’s a coincidence,” she said. “We aren’t far from the square. It wouldn’t be odd for them to come here for dinner afterwards.”
“You’re probably right,” said Deena.
“Are you still hungry?” asked Avenel. “We could order more food, if you like.”
“No, I’m full,” said Deena. “But not too full for toffee,” she added, breaking off another piece. “Would you like some?”
Avenel shook her head. “Take our packages up to our room. I’ll head up after I pay.”
Avenel watched her go. The trio in the travelling cloaks made no move to follow Deena up the stairs, or even seem to notice Deena’s leaving. They did not have the look of soldiers or spies about them, but they were armed. There was a broadsword in its sheath leaning against their table, alongside a bow, and there was a crossbow sitting on an empty chair beside them.
Avenel made a show of getting up, stretching, and walking to the counter. One of the trio, a man with broad shoulders and dark hair twisted into ropes, glanced her way.
“You could have paid tomorrow when you pay for your room,” said the innkeeper.
“I know,” said Avenel. She counted out her coins. “Those three in the corner, are they staying here?”
The innkeeper looked over, less surreptitiously than Avenel would have liked. “No,” he said. “They’re just here for food and drink.”
Avenel nodded and handed over the money. Twice more now, she had caught one or another of the trio looking her way. “Thank you,” she said to the innkeeper, and with a feigned casualness, strode out of the inn’s front door.
She shouldn’t have done that at the square, with the knife thrower. It drew too much attention. It was possible that these three were only interested in her wealth, but… Her hand went to Ephraim’s dagger at her belt, the comforting cold of the hilt. It was little secret that Lord Avenel was fond of throwing knives; could they have figured out who she was from that alone?
Outside, it was already dark, and an overcast sky obscured the moon. She climbed up onto the roof of the stables, laying belly-down so she could not be seen from below. Within moments, the door of the inn opened again, and the trio stepped out.
“Did you see where she went?” asked one of them, the tall one with the broad shoulders and dark skin.
“No,” said one of the others, a tall thin man with long red hair.
“Are you sure it was her?” asked the third, a bald woman with a small, slim stature. She had grabbed the crossbow on her way out, but the other two had left their weapons behind.
“I’m positive,” replied the man with the broad shoulders.
“She’ll be back,” said the red-haired man. “The girl went upstairs; they must be staying here.”
The bald woman shook her head. “This is a bad idea, Garth. She’s too dangerous.”
“She won’t kill me, Frost,” said the broad-shouldered man. “I’m too valuable to kill.”
“She doesn’t have to kill you,” replied the woman. “Maybe we could get the girl, while she’s gone.”
“I’m not sure I condone kidnapping children, Sister,” said the redhead.
“I’m not saying to hurt her,” said the woman. “I’m just saying we could use her as leverage.”
Avenel reached for one of her daggers. It would be easy to take out the one with the crossbow before she had time to react, and the other two would never reach their weapons in time. But then she would have three bodies on her hands, three bodies to explain, which meant revealing her identity and her presence to the city’s guards. Besides, these three didn’t seem like common bandits; their clothes were plain enough, but the fine construction and tailored fit gave them away. Not brigands, then, and not soldiers or spies, so what did they want from her?
The easiest thing to do would be to ask. She could kill them later if she had to.
She stood up and stepped forward, letting the light from the inn’s windows illuminate her. “Looking for me?” she asked.
The trio looked up. The dark-skinned man was the first to recover from his surprise. “Lord Avenel of Elyria,” he said with a smile. He bowed, deep enough that it was almost mocking. “A pleasure to see you again.”
“Have we met?” asked Avenel.
“You killed my favorite uncle.”
Avenel paused. She had killed many people in her past, but… “You’re the Queen’s Bastard,” she said.
“I prefer Prince Garthniiel,” said the man.
“Are you looking for revenge?” asked Avenel.
“Hardly,” said Garthniiel. “I’m not stupid, contrary to popular belief. If I tried to kill you, I’m sure you would kill me first, and I would really prefer to not die.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Would you believe me if I said we were sightseeing?” asked Garthniiel. “See, the pubs and taverns in Ajjraea are all alike, and it was beginning to grow stale. We simply wanted to see what Elyria has to offer.”
Avenel raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure you aren’t stupid?”
“Nobody’s perfect,” said Garthniiel with a shrug. “Unfortunately the false identity we used to enter your country has been compromised by a, ah, incident at Eswick. We feel that we’ve overstayed our welcome, but I doubt your border guards will allow us to leave without the proper papers, and on our own side, we’d rather no one knew of our little excursion.”
“So you were hoping I could provide you with the papers,” said Avenel. She considered a moment. He did not appear to be lying, and his story certainly aligned with his reputation. The common consensus was that the prince was harmless, with little power at court and little interest in it, but he was still a prince. “I no longer have the authority to grant papers of passage,” said Avenel, “but for the right price, and if you’re willing to wait a little, I could make a forgery.”
“I suppose we don’t have a choice. How long will it take?”
“A few days. My first priority is to continue on to my wardsister’s. Once there, I’ll make your papers.”
“And we’re supposed to just wait here?” asked the bald woman. “How do we even know you’ll come back?”
“Now Frost,” said the prince. “Beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m sure Lord Avenel is a woman of her word.”
“She murdered your uncle Jaliin!”
Avenel studied them for a moment. “You could travel with me, if you like,” she said. “It would save me the trouble of returning. Just be aware that if you harm so much as a hair on my ward or wardsister—”
“—then I’m sure you’ll have all manner painful deaths prepared,” finished Garthniiel. “Again, I would really prefer not to die. You and yours are safe, you have my word.”
Avenel nodded. “We leave in the morning,” she said. “You understand of course, that this won’t be free.”
“Of course,” said Garthniiel. “So how much will you be wanting? I have some gold with me, but if it isn’t enough—”
“Do I look like the type the broker in gold?” asked Avenel.
“I suppose not,” said Garthniiel uncertainly. “So what, ah, what will you be wanting as payment?”
“Information,” said Avenel. “Tell me, have you heard of a town called Taunsgrove?”