Hallowed

XI. Hearth

Avenel didn’t say much all morning, though her quiet was more than made up for by the sound of Garthniiel’s off-key singing. A farmhand glared at him as they passed by. Around noon, they stopped for lunch, though there were no wells or streams nearby to fill their flasks.

“Well, we’ll make do,” said Garthniiel. “It isn’t much longer until your wardsister’s, is it?”

Avenel looked up from brushing her horse. “We should be there in a few hours.”

“Good,” said Garthniiel. “Not that I don’t enjoy your company, but I suspect Frost will murder someone if we don’t get home soon.”

“It’ll take at least another day to make those passage papers, once we’re there.”

“Oh,” said Garthniiel. “In that case, I’ll try to make sure she keeps the murdering to a minimum.” He smiled at Frost, who scowled.

“Are you sure your wardsister won’t mind us intruding?” asked Flame.

“Olyssa always liked company,” said Avenel. “Perhaps not Ajjraean company, but…”

“We’ll be careful not to let it slip,” said Garthniiel. “I’ll use a fake name, and Flame and Frost can use their birth names.”

“Do we have to?” asked Frost.

“It’ll be fine, Sister,” said Flame.

They arrived just as the sun began to dip toward the horizon.

Heyesford Hall had once been a castle, but the outer wall had been partially torn down, and the inner keep had so much glass that it would be more a liability than a protection in a siege. Throughout the years, solars and additional wings had been added to the Hall so that what had once been an imposing fortification now looked like several different buildings smashed together.

“Your wardsister’s house is a castle?” asked Deena, awed and somewhat blinded by the myriad glass windows and greenhouses.

Frost gave her a look. “Her wardsister was the only child of two lords. Did you expect her to live in a shack?”

“I knew her father was Lord Ephraim,” said Deena. “I didn’t know her mother was a lord, too.”

“Her mother was Lord Lys,” said Avenel. “She was the Verdant Warden, until she passed.”

“Which one of them had the, uh, haphazard taste in architecture?” asked Garthniiel.

Avenel smiled. “Both, unfortunately.”

“Wait,” said Deena, looking back the way they had come. “These fields, do they belong to your wardsister?”

Avenel nodded. “Since about halfway back to Emdenshire, yes.”

At the foot of what had once been the outer wall, they were stopped by a man in a leather helm and doublet. “Halt,” he said, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “State your business.”

“Lord Avenel and companions,” asked Avenel, dismounting. “Olyssa should be expecting me.”

“Ah, welcome, my lord,” said the man, immediately bowing. “I’m Pedro, one of Lady Olyssa’s household guards. Forgive me for the rudeness; we’ve had some issues with bandits lately.”

“Do we look like bandits?” asked Garthniiel. “Ah, don’t answer that.” He dismounted. “It’s nothing serious, I hope.”

“Not at all,” said Pedro. “They’re usually just parties of two or three, easy enough to scare off. Come, I’ll take you to my lady.”

The space between the outer wall and the house itself had once been some sort of courtyard, but now it had been converted into a neatly manicured lawn. In the shade of a large crabapple tree, a woman sat sketching, her long brown hair pinned away from her face by a pair of brass clips. She looked up as the group approached.

“Lord Avenel,” said Pedro, “may I present Raine, my lady’s daughter. Lady Raine, Lord Avenel and her friends have arrived.”

Raine smiled and extended her hand, but did not rise to greet them, and it was only a moment later that Deena noticed the wheels on her chair, hidden behind her skirts. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Aunt Avenel,” said Raine. “May I call you that? Mother’s spoken so much about you that I feel I already know you.”

“Of course you may,” said Avenel, taking the outstretched hand. “I’m sorry we haven’t met sooner.”

“It’s alright,” said Raine. “Who are your friends? Your letter said you were only bringing the one.”

Avenel turned to look at Garthniiel. “A chance encounter on the road. They happened to be travelling in the same direction.”

“I’m Galen,” said Garthniiel, taking Raine’s hand and pressing it briefly to his lips. “My companions are Ellia and Ennir. I hope you and your mother will forgive our imposition.”

“You’re not imposing at all,” said Raine. “Stay as long as you like. Mother loves company, though we don’t get it often. Pedro, could you take the horses? And tell the servants to have extra rooms prepared.” She turned to Deena. “This must be the new ward. Deena, was it?”

“Yes,” said Deena. “That’s me.” She stepped forward to take the hand that Raine offered, noticing as she did so how thin and fragile the woman looked. Her arms were more bone than flesh, and Deena guessed that her legs were in a similar condition beneath her skirt.

“Mother will be inside,” said Raine. “Beth, could you—Oh, where did she go? She usually pushes my chair, but she does tend to wander off sometimes.”

“I’ll push you,” offered Avenel, putting her hands on the back of Raine’s chair. “You said your mother’s inside?”

“Yes,” said Raine. “She’s probably in the solar at this hour, which is just down the—Oh, but you probably know this house better than I do.”

“I remember where it is, yes,” said Avenel.

They walked down the paved path toward the main building of the castle. To either side, parts of the lawn had been allowed to grow wild, albeit in a deliberate sort of way such that they were dotted with pretty wildflowers but few other weeds. A ramp had been constructed over the stairs that lead to the imposing double doors, each set with an ornate brass knocker.

They hadn’t yet reached the ramp when one of the doors swung open to reveal a woman with a short, plump figure and copper curls.

There was a moment of silence as her gaze met Avenel’s.

“Hello, Olyssa,” said Avenel stiffly. “You’re looking well.”

Olyssa stared back at her, then tore across the lawn to wrap her arms around Avenel. “Avi!” she cried. “Why? Why haven’t you been back since Father died?”

Dinner was a distinctly awkward affair.

Olyssa had quickly retreated after her initial outburst, and they did not see her until dinnertime. Instead, it was Raine who showed them to their rooms, after summoning a servant to operate the lift inside.

“Mother’s kept your room exactly as you left it, Aunt Avenel,” said Raine, as Avenel opened the door. “Your workshop, too, but she had to move some of it to storage.”

“I see,” said Avenel, opening the wardrobe in the corner. She fingered the faded sleeve of a gown.

“I’m afraid not all of it could be saved from the moths,” said Raine. She turned to Deena. “We have some clothes for you, too.”

“You do?” asked Deena.

Raine nodded. “They’re just some of my old things, but I think they should fit you alright, with some alterations. They’re in your room, just next door. We’ll get some new things made for you once we’ve had a chance to take your measurements.”

“Oh,” said Deena, unsure of what else to say. “That’s—I got some clothes from the Silent Tower already.”

“Then you’ll have more,” said Raine. “You can’t have fit much in your saddlebags.” She turned to the Ajjraeans. “We’ll have those rooms across the hall prepared for you. They’ll be ready after dinner. In the meantime, if you’d like to wash up, Ennir and Galen can use Telrin’s room, and Ellia, you can use mine.”

“Who’s Telrin?” asked Flame.

“My wardbrother,” said Raine. “He happens to be home right now, so he’ll be joining you at dinner.”

“Are you not joining us?” asked Avenel.

Raine shook her head. “I usually eat alone.”

Deena found her bags already waiting for her in her room, doubtless brought up by a servant. A bath had been drawn up, too, still perfectly warm, with a bowl of fresh flower petals by the tub. Deena scattered a few in the water as she submerged herself. They smelled amazing.

She had just put on a shift and was brushing her hair when there was a knock on the door.

“I—I’m not dressed yet,” called Deena.

“It’s only me,” replied Avenel.

Deena opened the door.

“How do you like your room?” asked Avenel.

“It’s nice,” said Deena.

“It’s going to be your home for the next while.”

“Oh,” said Deena. She looked around at the four-poster bed, the ornate wardrobe, the embroidered silk screen that hid the tub from view. It was hard to imagine ever feeling at home here. “For how long?”

“As long as you like,” said Avenel.

“What about you?”

Avenel hesitated.

“Did something happen? Between you and Olyssa?”

“Not exactly, no,” said Avenel, “but you needn’t concern yourself with that. She’ll treat you well.”

“But what about you?” asked Deena. “Can’t you stay too?”

Avenel looked at her for a moment. “We can discuss it later,” she said. “Come on, it’s time for dinner.”

Reluctantly, Deena nodded.

They gathered the Ajjraeans on their way down to the dining hall. Olyssa was already there, waiting for them by the door, and apart from a slight puffiness about her eyes, she was all smiles and radiance. “It’s good to meet you, Deena,” she exclaimed, pulling Deena into a suffocating embrace. She reminded Deena a little of Mrs Sandler’s hugs, with her plump figure and ample bosom.

Telrin, too, was already there, a tall and thin man in a tweed waistcoat. Unlike his wardmother, he only nodded stiffly to them as they entered.

“Telrin,” said Olyssa, “I’d like you to meet your Aunt—”

“We’ve met,” said Telrin.

“—to meet your Aunt Avenel’s friends,” finished Olyssa. “I know you’ve met your Aunt Avi through work. And you can at least say hello instead of standing there like a lump.”

Telrin bowed. “Lord Avenel.”

Aunt Avenel,” corrected Olyssa. “I know we don’t see each other much, but she’s still family.”

“It’s alright,” said Avenel. “Telrin, how has work been? I’m surprised Syncrest gave you time off.”

“Just a fortnight,” said Olyssa, before Telrin could answer for himself. “He was supposed to have gone back yesterday, but when we heard you were coming, he wrote to Syncrest straight away, asking to extend his leave.”

“Olyssa insisted,” said Telrin. “I told her that I was needed back at work.”

“You’re a historian, Telrin,” said Olyssa. “Those books have been there for hundreds of years; a few more days hardly matters. Besides, Syncrest agreed to extend your leave.”

“Lord Syncrest is one of the Council of Wardens, is he not?” asked Garthniiel.

“Yes, he’s the Amber Warden,” said Olyssa. “He and Avi used to work together, before she stepped down.”

“I wouldn’t say we worked together,” said Avenel. “We only really saw each other at Council meetings.”

“Council meetings?” asked Deena.

“You know, the Council of Wardens,” said Olyssa. “The ruling body of Elyria? The Shadow Warden’s identity is kept secret, so as the Head of Covert Affairs, it was Avi’s job to represent him.”

“And it’s a wonder that she found the time to do so,” said Telrin, “especially since she’s so busy that she couldn’t find the time to visit us even after her abdication.”

Olyssa shot him a look. “Telrin!” she said. “Apologise!”

“It’s alright,” said Avenel.

The meal proceeded mostly in silence, punctuated by minor pleasantries about the food. The food was delicious—there was no doubt about it—but it was hard to enjoy a meal when each clink of cutlery rang out like a church bell. Once or twice, Deena saw Olyssa look up at Avenel, but Avenel kept her eyes on her plate.

It was only when the final course had been cleared away that Olyssa spoke again. “Your rooms should be ready by now,” she said to Garthniiel and the siblings. “I’ll have someone take you to them. As for the rest of us, what should we do this evening? We have the greenhouses, a conservatory—”

“I have some work to do,” said Avenel. “You’ll have to entertain yourselves without me.”

“Oh!” said Olyssa. “But surely you can stay with us and chat, just for an evening.”

“Perhaps some other time,” said Avenel. “Is the old workshop still in tact?”

“Yes, of course,” said Olyssa. “I didn’t think you would need it, though. If you wait until tomorrow, I can have someone in to dust—”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” said Avenel.

“I have work to do too,” announced Telrin, rising. “I’ll be in the library if anyone needs me.”

“Take Deena with you!” said Olyssa. “You like to read, don’t you, Deena? Pedro told me you had quite a few books with you.”

“Oh, um, yes, I do,” said Deena. “But if—if Mr Telrin is busy, I can go some other time.”

“Nonsense,” said Olyssa. “Telrin will be more than happy to show you the way.”

Telrin himself did not look happy, but gestured for Deena to follow.

“Go if you like,” said Avenel, when Deena glanced her way.

“Okay,” said Deena. “I, um, I’ll see you all tomorrow morning.”

Telrin opened the door to the corridor. “After you.”

The library was located in one of the towers of the castle, up a winding flight of stairs. It wasn’t nearly as large as the one at the Silent Tower, but still quite formidable for a private collection. The room was almost as large as her cottage back in Taunsgrove, with shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. There were piles of books on the floor, too, where there was no more space on the shelves. At the center of the room, several oversized armchairs sat around a low table. A single large window provided a view of the grounds, as well as the last dim dregs of dusk.

“How does Raine get up here?” asked Deena.

“She doesn’t,” replied Telrin. “She’ll send a servant if she needs something.” He picked up a lamp sitting by the door and lit it. “Well?” he asked. “What would you like to read?”

“Oh,” said Deena. “I—I could look for myself.”

“Please don’t,” said Telrin. “There’s an order to these shelves.”

“Oh, well. I like stories. Fictional ones, but real ones too.”

“Hm,” said Telrin. “We don’t have much in the way of fiction. No, don’t touch those,” he added, when Deena bent to examine a pile of books on the ground. “Those are for my work.”

“Sorry,” said Deena, pulling away. “Um, what are you working on? Can I ask?”

“Of course you can,” said Telrin. “This isn’t like Avenel’s Tower, where everything must be shrouded in secrecy.” He picked up a book from a different pile. “Here.”

Deena took it and read the title. “You’re researching the Calamity?” she asked. “The one that destroyed Asterii?”

Telrin nodded. “You know a bit of ancient history, I see.”

“Only a bit,” said Deena. “Taun—um, the town where I grew up didn’t have many books. I read what I could.”

“Feel free to read that one, then,” said Telrin. “I’m finished with it already.”

Deena turned the book over in her hand, then curled up in one of the armchairs and began to read.

Little is known of Drema and Heliike, the twin Hallowed races which inhabited the Asterii Archipelago, save for their fate…

A little while later, when Telrin looked up from his work, it was to see that the girl had fallen asleep, the book still open on her lap.

Once more, she had no substance, no form, no body of her own. Once more, she saw the world through a stranger’s eyes.

The stranger was a girl, no older than the disembodied girl herself, curled in a chair by the window. A book was open in her lap, but her gaze was out the window.

“Focus, please,” said the voice of her tutor.

The stranger didn’t listen. She was watching a rider approach from the distance, and as the rider neared, the stranger leapt off her chair and ran down the stairs.

She greeted the rider at the door. It was a woman, tall, with long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. “Avi!” exclaimed the girl, wrapping her arms tightly about the woman. “You’re home!”

The rider patted her on the head. “Hello, Olyssa,” she said.

“Where’s father?” asked the girl. “Is he coming home too?”

The rider hesitated. “He’s—”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” interrupted a voice, and they looked up to see a woman standing at the top of the stairs, her knuckes white on the banister.

The rider lowered her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Lord Lys.”

The girl pulled away. “Father’s dead?”

The rider nodded. “Lord Ephraim has passed away in service to Elyria.”

“No,” spat the woman at the top of the stairs. “He died in service to you.”

“It was an Ajjraean ambush—”

“Then why didn’t you die too?!”

The words hung in the air, echoing off the old stone walls. The girl looked to the rider, then at the woman on the stairs, then back at the rider again.

“Tell me I’m wrong,” said the woman. “Tell me he didn’t die for you.”

The rider said nothing.

“Get out of my home,” said the woman.

“Mother!” exclaimed the girl. “This is her home too!”

But the rider had already turned to leave. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, and the doors banged shut behind her.

The book on Deena’s lap fell to the floor.

“S-sorry!” said Deena, jerking awake and hurrying to pick it up. She looked around to find that she was still in the library, and that Telrin was looking at her, his pen paused over the page.

“Awake again, are you?” asked Telrin.

Deena nodded. “Sorry,” she said again. “Um, was I asleep long?”

“No,” said Telrin. “An hour, at most.”

“Oh,” said Deena. “Okay.” She looked out the window, but there was nothing to see but her own reflection and the dark beyond. “Um, Telrin,” she said. “Do you know how Lord Ephraim died?”

“Avenel hasn’t told you?”

“I- I don’t think she likes to talk about it,” said Deena.

Telrin frowned. “I suppose you’ll find out sooner or later; it isn’t exactly a secret. He and Lord Avenel—though she wasn’t yet a lord, then—were sent to assassinate someone in Ajjraea. I don’t know the details, but it was someone important. Somehow, the Ajjraean spymaster at the time—Lord Jaliin— learned of their plans and set an ambush. Lord Avenel survived; Lord Ephraim did not. The rumor is that it was Symeon, Avenel’s former student, who sold the information to the Ajjraeans. Some sort of revenge, I suppose, for when Avenel had him removed from the Silent Tower.”

“Oh,” said Deena. “That’s not really Avenel’s fault, then. She couldn’t have known what Symeon would do.”

“Of course not,” said Telrin. “No one blamed Avenel, aside from Lord Lys, and from what I gather, she had never much liked Lord Avenel to begin with.”

“Oh,” said Deena. “I guess that would explain why Avenel never came back here.”

“Hardly,” said Telrin. “Lord Lys passed away only a few years after Lord Ephraim. If Lord Avenel wanted to come back, she’s had ample opportunity. Gods know Olyssa’s written to her about it often enough, but she always had some excuse.”

“Oh,” said Deena again. She looked down at the book in her hands. “I should be getting to bed. Can I take this book with me? I’ll bring it back when I’m done.”

“Of course,” said Telrin. “Do you need help finding your way back?”

“No, I think I can find my way.”

She was wrong, and a few minutes later when a rogue draft blew out her lamp, she found herself alone in the dark, in unfamiliar, twisting corridors, unsure of which way to go. Slowly, she continued down the hall, one hand on the wall, hoping to at least run into a servant or guard. She rounded a corner, and there was light up ahead, seeping out from beneath a door.

She knocked, and to her relief, it was Avenel who opened it.

“Deena?” asked Avenel. “What are you doing here?”

“I got lost, and my lamp blew out,” said Deena. “I saw light in here, so I knocked. Am I bothering you?”

“No, it’s alright,” said Avenel. “Would you like me to light your lamp?”

“Actually, could I sit with you for a while?”

“Of course,” said Avenel, and stepped aside to let her in.

It was clear that the room inside hadn’t been used in quite some time. Cobwebs lined the ceiling, and most of the furniture was covered in dusty sheets. A large workbench dominated the center of the room, a variety of tools and papers scattered about its surface.

“What are you working on?” asked Deena.

“I’m making a forgery of Vallus’s seal,” said Avenel, picking up a small, half-carved piece of soapstone.

“Why?”

“For the passage papers for Garthniiel,” said Avenel. “I know his seal better better than I know any of the Council’s. It’s easier to carve from memory.”

“Won’t he be mad that you’re doing that?”

“He’d understand,” said Avenel.

Deena nodded and looked around the room as Avenel returned to her carving. There was a particularly oddly-shaped something beneath one of the sheets, and she peeled it back to reveal a wooden training dummy so riddled stab holes that he had he been real, he would have died a hundred times over.

“I see you’ve met Sir Stabalot,” said Avenel, glancing up from her work.

“You named the dummy?” asked Deena.

“Olyssa did,” said Avenel. “She used to come and watch us work sometimes, when she was little.”

“You two were close, huh?”

“When Ephraim and I were around, yes. We tried to spend at least a few weeks here each year, but even when we were apart, she would always write to me at the Tower.”

Deena nodded. “I—I fell asleep in the library. I saw what happened after Lord Ephraim died.”

Avenel’s hands paused. “What do you mean?”

“I mean after you returned here, when you told them he was gone. I saw what Lys said to you.”

“I see,” said Avenel, her hands resuming their work. “You shouldn’t look in people’s memories. It’s going to get you killed.”

“I’m not trying to look; it just happens.”

“All the same, you should keep it to yourself.”

“I know,” said Deena. “That’s why I’m only telling you.” She paused. “Avenel, if you hadn’t been looking for somewhere to take me, would you have come back at all?”

Avenel didn’t answer. She looked down at the soapstone in her hand, then set it down on the bench. “It’s getting late,” she said, standing up. “Let me take you up to bed.”

Morning did nothing to improve Frost’s mood.

“We shouldn’t be staying here,” she said, as she walked down to breakfast with Flame and Garthniiel. “It isn’t safe.”

“Safe?” asked Garthniiel, laughing. “Which one are you scared of: the widow, the cripple, or the historian?”

“I’m scared of the assassin,” said Frost in a low hiss. “Or did you forget that Avenel killed your uncle?”

“I didn’t,” said Garth. “But if Avenel meant to harm us, she wouldn’t have needed to bring us here, of all places.”

“What if someone figures out who we are?”

“They won’t. Who in their right mind would suspect Lord Avenel’s companions of being Ajjraean royalty?”

“Look,” said Flame. “We’re here whether we like it or not, at least until Avenel finishes with our papers. These grounds are beautiful and the weather is lovely, so we may as well enjoy ourselves.”

Frost scowled.

“Oh, don’t make that face, Frost,” said Garthniiel. “It’ll set that way.”

Frost did not stop scowling. She continued to scowl throughout breakfast, where they were treated to Olyssa’s overly saccharine demeanor and Telrin’s equally cold one. She was still scowling after breakfast when she grabbed Flame’s bow and announced that she was going to go shoot something.

“That’s the spirit!” said Garthniiel. “Go enjoy yourself!” Then, as an aside to Flame, “I hope she doesn’t shoot at something alive.”

“Something alive” was exactly what Frost wanted to shoot at, but there were no woods nearby, nowhere suited for hunting, so she settled for shooting at the crabapple tree on the lawn. She shot the arrows down the tree so that they were standing in a row, like soldiers at attention.

“Oh, Ellia!”

Oh, Ellia, you’re so beautiful. Oh, Ellia, you fucking whore.

Her arrow flew off past the tree into a thicket.

She turned. Raine was there, pushed by a bored-looking woman with mousey brown hair. “I’m sorry,” said Raine. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just surprised to see you here.”

“It’s fine,” said Frost. “I can leave if you want.”

“No, please don’t!” said Raine. “I’d like to watch. That is, if it’s alright with you?”

Frost shrugged. She supposed she ought to say something. “Thanks for letting me use your room to bathe, yesterday.”

“Oh, it’s not a problem,” said Raine. “It makes me feel useful, even if I didn’t actually do anything.”

“Well, thanks anyway,” said Frost. She wiped her palm on the side of her tunic before taking another arrow from her quiver. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Raine picked up a stub of charcoal from a tray by her chair.

She was very pretty in the sunlight.

Frost scowled again and continued to shoot.

When her quiver was empty, she had formed three rows of arrows on the tree. She turned to look at Raine. Raine looked back at her and smiled.

“You stopped drawing,” said Frost.

“So did you,” said Raine.

Frost stared.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Raine. “That wasn’t a very good joke.”

“No,” said Frost, suddenly understanding. “I mean, no, no the joke was fine.” She felt her face flushing. “Um, do you shoot?”

Raine looked down at herself, at her arms as thin as sticks.

“Sorry,” said Frost, feeling her face turn even redder. “Stupid question.”

“It’s alright,” said Raine. “You know, I’m envious of people like you.”

“People like me?”

“People who can do whatever they like.”

“I can’t do whatever I like,” said Frost.

“Compared to me, you can. I can’t even get around my own home without help.” She shook her head. “You’ve probably never known what it’s like to feel trapped by your own body.”

You bitch. I paid good money for your body, and I’ll use it how I want.

Instinctively, she tugged at where her hair used to be, before she shaved it off, only to grab a fistful of air. She cleared her throat. “What, um, what would you like to do? If you could?”

Raine sat pensieve for a moment. “Ride a horse,” she said. “Travel. See the world.”

“I’ve never seen the world. Just—” She was going to say “just Ajjraea,” but caught herself in time. “Just Rhiinas.”

“Really?” asked Raine. “You’re not curious what it’s like elsewhere?”

Frost had never given much thought to other places. “What’s there to be curious about?”

“Everything,” said Raine. “The people, the geography, even the food. It’s all different.” She sighed. “I’ll never get to see any of it. I read about it, but it’s not the same.”

Frost stared at her, at the wistful expression on her face as she gazed in the direction of the road. “You could,” she said. “Maybe not the same way as everyone else, but you could.”

“Do you really think so?”

Oh, Ellia, do you really think you’ll ever be anything but a whore?

Frost shrugged. “It’s worth a try, isn’t it? And—and you could shoot a crossbow.”

“What?”

“You could shoot a crossbow,” repeated Frost. “It’s not hard. We could get you something to help you hold it up.”

“Do you think so?” asked Raine.

Frost nodded. “It’s not the same, but you could try it, if you want.”

“Oh, Ellia, that would be wonderful!”

Raine’s smile was infectious. “Stay there,” said Frost. “I’ll go get my crossbow. And after that, if you want, we could ride a horse.”

The passage papers looked almost real. Garthniiel squinted at it, turned it this way and that in the sunlight, but could find no fault. Even the watermark had been recreated in the paper.

“Is it to your satisfaction, your highness?” asked Avenel.

“It is!” said Garthniiel. “How did you even do this? And so quickly!”

“Trade secrets,” said Avenel with a smile. “I’ll ask Olyssa to prepare some provisions. You can leave after lunch.”

“You’re kicking us out?”

Avenel looked at him. “I thought you wanted to get home.”

“Eventually, yes, but…” He looked down at the papers in his hand. “How does that saying go, again? Home is where the ale is? And I must say, your wardsister keeps a fine cellar.”

“That isn’t how the saying goes,” said Avenel, “but if you’d like to stay a while longer, I’m sure Olyssa would have no objections.”

“You aren’t beginning to enjoy my company, are you?”

“Hardly,” said Avenel. “I’m only hoping to satiate your curiosity about Elyrian ale so you don’t try this stunt again.”

“Ah, well, I can’t say the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. Although, if you really want me to stay away, there is one more thing I’d like to do while I’m in Elyria.”

“What is it?”

“Spar with you. I’ve always wanted to test my skill against the fabled Blade of Elyria.”

Avenel thought for a moment. “Perhaps in the evening,” she said, “when it’s cooler.”

“Evening it is! In the meantime, I suppose I should inform Flame and Frost.” He picked up the passage papers. “Thank you again, for these,” he said. “I promise I’ll find out about Taunsgrove as soon as I can.”

“See that you do,” said Avenel. “Oh, and one more thing, Prince Garthniiel.”

“Yes?”

“I didn’t kill Jaliin.”

Garthniiel paused. “I believe you,” he said. “And please, call me Garth.”

Avenel watched him go. There was an hour left until lunch. She still had to destroy the false seal she had made, along with the papers on which she had tested it, but perhaps that could wait. She stood up and left the workshop, taking care to lock the door behind her.

Heyesford Hall hadn’t changed much since last she was there. The corridors were still the same, and even most of the rooms, but solar was different. It was Olyssa’s solar now, not Lord Lys’s, and though she sat there reading just like Lys used to do, Olyssa was nothing like her mother.

Avenel knocked.

Olyssa looked up. “Avi,” she said. “Did you need something?”

“I was wondering if I could interest you in a game of chess.”

Olyssa beamed and closed her book. “Always.”