XIII. The Broken Sun

In a land with nothing but snow and stone and sky, a man stood staring at the sun.

A woman stood beside him. “Tell me, dear heart,” she said, “why are you so determined to see this world end?”

“Why are you so determined to see it live?” asked the man.

“You know my reasons,” said the woman.

“And you know mine.”

The woman sighed. “How much longer must we fight?”

“Not long now,” said the man. “Look, it’s already the beginning of the end.”

The afternoon sun was unseasonably hot, beating down on the travellers’ backs as they journeyed east. When they came upon a pond and stopped for a rest, all three of them had soaked through their shirts.

“We could be somewhere cool, you know,” said Flame, pulling off his boots to dip his feet in the pond. “A tavern maybe, with a nice mug of ale.”

“We can cool off later,” said Garthniiel. “Preferably while sitting across from someone who knows something about Loorne and Taunsgrove.”

“Why are we even doing this?” asked Frost. “We asked around already; no one knows anything. Do we really need to go to all this trouble?”

“A deal is a deal,” said Garthniiel. “I promised Avenel I would look into it, and I will.”

Frost gave him a look. “Do you really want to be helping the woman who killed your uncle?”

“She said she didn’t do it,” said Garthniiel.

“And you believe her?”

Garthniiel shrugged. “I don’t see why not. It never made sense, anyway. If she already poisoned him, why would she still be standing over the body?”

“Maybe she wanted to watch. To make sure he died.”

Garthniiel shook his head. “She’s an assassin, Frost. Not a sadist.”

“I still don’t trust her,” said Frost. “Assassin is just a fancy word for murderer.”

“But you trust that niece of hers,” said Flame, wagging his eyebrows. “You and Raine spent a lot of time together, considering she’s related to a murderer.”

“And descended from one,” added Garth. “Don’t forget she’s Lord Ephraim’s granddaughter.”

Frost scowled. “I’m going for a swim,” she said and submerged herself in the water.

It was only when she emerged again that she noticed something was wrong.

“Garth,” she said. “Garth, look at the sun.”

“I would rather not be blind, thanks,” said Garthniiel.

“No, Garth, look. A chunk of it is missing.”

Garthniiel looked. He swore.

Flame looked up from where he had been poking about a berry bush. “Does it mean something?”

“According to Greoore,” said Garthniiel, “it means the end of the world.”

“The end of the world?” asked Frost. “Are you serious?”

“As serious as I ever am,” said Garthniiel. He got to his feet. “We’ll have to head back.”

“Back?” asked Frost. “Why?”

“Because, unfortunately, I’m a prince of Ajjraea. Come on, I’ll explain on the way.”

Erikr opened the door of his study to find his little sister on the other side, hand poised to knock. “Lyza,” he said. “You never come to see me. What’s the occasion?”

“Oh, you have the gall to ask,” said Lyza. “Did you really think I wouldn’t find out?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Erikr.

“Don’t play coy! You know perfectly well that you aren’t allowed to have relations with a subordinate! Do you want to lose your job?”

“It’s not a relation,” said Erikr. “It’s a flirtation, at best.”

“And how long will that last?” asked Lyza. “I won’t have you breaking the heart of another one of my friends!”

Erikr sighed. “Can we discuss this later? I have a meeting now, and you know how Vallus abhors tardiness.”

“Fine,” said Lyza. “But we will be talking about it.”

“Of course, of course,” said Erikr, ruffling her hair. “In the meantime, I know I can trust on your discretion, Little Sister.”

She swatted his hand aside. “I hate keeping your secrets,” she said, then stomped off down the hall.

When Erikr arrived at the meeting room, Glenna was already there. She was standing at the window, so engrossed in the view that when Erikr cleared his throat, she actually jumped.

“Oh stars above!” she exclaimed. “Don’t do that, Erikr, you’re likely to give someone a heart attack.”

“My apologies,” said Erikr. “What are you looking at?”

“The sun,” said Glenna. “Look at it.”

Erikr looked. “Oh. An eclipse?”

Glenna shook her head. “I checked the charts. It’s supposed to be years until the next eclipse.”

“Perhaps the charts are wrong.”

“Have you ever known Lord Ildora’s people to be wrong?”

“True,” admitted Erikr. He turned at the sound of footsteps. “Ah, Charles! What brings you here?”

“Lord Vallus has sent me to inform you that the meeting is cancelled,” said Charles. “He has just departed on an urgent journey.”

“He’s gone?” asked Erikr. “For how long?”

“He didn’t say,” said Charles. “If you’ll excuse me, there are others I need to inform.”

“Yes, of course,” said Erikr. He turned to look out at the sun again. Something tugged at his memory, a snatch of overheard conversation. It was dark, and he and Sabine were in the gardens in search of privacy when— He shook his head, and the memory slipped away like smoke through his fingers.

“That’s not like Vallus, to leave in a hurry like that,” said Glenna. “It must be something serious.”

“It must be,” agreed Erikr, and he told himself that was the only reason for the ominous feeling settling over his heart.

Avenel didn’t join them at dinner. She said something about making preparations for a trip, and without any further explanation, disappeared.

“Is the food not to your liking, dear?” asked Olyssa. The fat had begun to congeal on Deena’s chicken, and all the girl had done was poke it full of holes.

Deena looked down at her plate. “No, it’s delicious,” she said, and half-heartedly shoved a piece of carrot in her mouth.

Olyssa sighed. “You’re worried about the sun, aren’t you? I shouldn’t have said that, not in front of you.”

“No, it’s—” The girl paused and bit her lip. “Is it really the end of the world?”

“I don’t know,” said Olyssa truthfully. She wished she had a better answer, but she didn’t know much more herself. “I wasn’t supposed to know about it at all, I don’t think, but my mother kept a diary, and I read through it after she’d passed. Even there, she only ever mentioned it obliquely.”

“Mentioned what?” asked Deena.

Olyssa hesitated. “I don’t know if Avenel would appreciate me telling you, but… Well, have you ever heard of the Harbinger?”

Deena nodded. “It’s—it’s the demon that’s supposedly going to end the world, right?”

“That’s right,” said Olyssa. “The Council of Wardens believed that the—the crescent sun would be a sign of the Harbinger’s arrival.”

“And that means the end of the world,” said Deena.

“Well, yes,” said Olyssa. “Assuming the legends are true.”

“That doesn’t explain why Avenel has to leave,” said Deena.

“Mother said that the leaders of Elyria and Ajjraea had agreed to meet if ever this should happen. I suppose, as the former Head of Covert Affairs, Avenel feels she needs to be there.”

“What are they meeting about?” asked Deena.

“To find a way to stop the Harbinger.”

“He can be stopped?”

“I’m not sure,” said Olyssa, “but I suppose they have to try.”

Deena nodded.

After dinner, the girl retreated to the library, as she had taken to doing most evenings. Olyssa watched her go, then headed upstairs to Avenel’s room.

She knocked.

“Yes?” came Avenel’s voice.

“Avi, it’s me,” said Olyssa. “Can I come in?”

Footsteps, then the door swung open. “You never used to ask,” said Avenel. “You used to just barge in.”

“I was a child,” said Olyssa. She glanced at the half-packed saddlebags on Avenel’s bed, the contents spilling out onto the sheets. “So you’re really leaving.”

Avenel followed her gaze. “I have to.”

“I know,” said Olyssa. She remembered being a child, watching Avenel pack to leave, not knowing when she’d be back. And once she was older and understood the nature of her father and Avenel’s work, she remembered wondering whether they’d come back at all. She remembered crying. “She wants to go with you,” said Olyssa.

“Who?” asked Avenel. “Deena?”

Olyssa nodded. “She hasn’t said it, but she does.”

“It’s better if she stays.”

“At least say a proper goodbye, before you go. And promise to come back.”

“I will,” said Avenel.

“Promise to her. Avi, you’re all she has left; you can’t leave her too.”

“I won’t,” said Avenel, “but she’s safer here with you.”

“Is anywhere safe?” asked Olyssa. She sat down at the edge of the bed. “Avi, I’m scared. What does the end of the world even mean?”

“I don’t know,” said Avenel. She sat down beside Olyssa. “I’m not sure anyone does.”

“You’ll try to stop it, won’t you? Whatever it is?”

“Of course,” said Avenel.

Olyssa nodded. There was a time when Avenel’s reassurance would have meant everything to her, when she thought Avenel could hold up the sky. “I’m afraid for Raine,” she said.

Avenel didn’t answer. Perhaps she didn’t have one.

She watched as Avenel finished packing and hoisted the saddlebags over her shoulder. “You’re leaving now?” asked Olyssa. “It’s nearly dark.”

“I’ll make better time if I set off now,” replied Avenel.

“But you’ll say goodbye?”

Avenel nodded. “Is she in the library?”

“Yes,” said Olyssa. “I’ll have Pedro saddle your horse.”

Scarce half an hour later, Avenel was gone. They saw her off by the gate, and as soon as she was out of sight, Deena had returned wordlessly to her room.

“I’ll go talk to her,” offered Raine. “Make sure she’s alright.”

Olyssa nodded.

She decided to walk around the garden. It was something she often did when she wanted to clear her head. Clouds obscured the moon and stars, making it a darker night than usual, but otherwise, the evening was lovely. There was a breeze, pleasant after the heat of the day, carrying with it the gentle fragrance of the magnolia trees. Soon, the gardenias would bloom, and the tea roses, and then the hibiscus plants in the greenhouse would follow. The cherry tree wasn’t faring so well this year, but the plum and apricot trees had never been better. They would be laden with fruit soon enough, and the pear tree too, assuming it had recovered enough from the blight of the previous year. When Raine was small, before Telrin had left to work for Syncrest, he would sometimes climb as high as he could up into the tree, the branches swaying dangerously under his weight, just to pick the biggest and plumpest of the plums to give to Raine. She had been so small then that she could scarcely grasp the fruit with both her hands. But that was before Raine’s father had passed, before they had learned of her illness.

She looked up at the house. The light was still on in Deena’s window. She wished she could do more, but Avenel had been so vague about the girl’s origins that Olyssa knew better than to ask.

It was only when she had circled all the way around that Olyssa thought to return inside. She looked down the road in the direction where Avenel had gone, but of course the road was empty. There was only Pedro, walking towards the house from the guards’ barracks.

“Do you need something, Pedro?” asked Olyssa. It wasn’t unusual for Pedro to seek her out in the evenings, to discuss any matters that may have arisen during the day.

“No, my lady,” said Pedro. “I was hoping to speak with Miss Deena. Have you seen her?”

“Yes, she’s—” She’s in her room, but the sentence died as Olyssa’s eyes fell on the unsheathed sword in Pedro’s hand. “Pedro, why are you holding that?”

“Please step aside, my lady,” said Pedro. “I’m only looking for Miss Deena.”

“But why are you holding that?”

Pedro raised the sword. “I don’t want to hurt you, my lady,” he said, “but I will get to Miss Deena.”

Raine is in there, screamed every voice in Olyssa’s mind, and she planted herself more firmly between Pedro and the door. “Put that down,” she said. “Now.”

“You cannot stop me, my lady,” said Pedro. “I’ve drugged the other guards to make them sleep, and we both known you aren’t a fighter.”

“No,” conceded Olyssa, “but I’m still Lord Ephraim’s daughter.”

She ran at him then, taking him by surprise and sending them both tumbling into the grass. The sword flew from his hand to land a few feet away, but before she could reach for it, he had grabbed her by the wrist to pin her down. She kicked at him, and as he made to avoid her, his grip slackened just enough for her to break free and scramble to her feet. As she did so, Pedro regained control over the sword and placed it to her neck, pushing her slowly back toward the house.

“Why are you doing this?” asked Olyssa. “I treat you well, don’t I?”

“I’m sorry,” said Pedro. “I really am.”

She thought he was going to kill her, but instead he shoved her roughly aside and ran for the door.

“Olyssa!” There was a pounding of hooves, and then Avenel was there, riding hard through the gate and leaping off the horse’s back.

“Avi, stop him!” cried Olyssa. “He’s after Deena!”

There was a flash of silver. Pedro scarcely had time to turn before the dagger found its way into his neck. For a moment, his mouth opened and closed wordlessly as he stared at them both, then he tumbled down the steps to collapse twitching on the gravel path, his blood soaking into the ground.

Avenel reached down to help Olyssa to her feet. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” said Olyssa. She straightened her dress. “How did you know to come back?”

“I didn’t,” said Avenel, her brows furrowed. “I came back because my bridle broke.”

The little stone cottage sat deep in the woods, nestled beside a babbling brook. Just outside the door, there stood a woman with paper pale skin and a silver braid. Her eyes were the color of violets, and she shielded them as she regarded the sun.

“So,” said the woman. “It’s finally happened.”

Inside the cottage, there was a cage with a single yellow canary. “What’s happened?” asked the canary. “What are you looking at?”

“None of your business,” replied the woman. She returned inside and began to bustle about, stuffing various items into a knapsack.

The bird watched her pack. “Are you going into town again?” he asked.

“No,” said the woman. “This will be a longer journey.”

“Oh. Then when will you be back?”

“With luck? Never.”

The bird made a face like a frown. “That isn’t funny, Izra.”

“It isn’t meant to be,” said the woman, throwing on her cloak. “I really am leaving.”

If the bird could turn pale, he would have. “Then—then you’ll set me free before you go?” he asked.

The woman paused as though to think. “No,” she said at last. “After all you’ve done, you deserve to starve in that cage.”

“What?” asked the bird. “You can’t mean that, Izra.”

The woman didn’t answer. She walked to the cage, and for just a moment, the bird thought that she might open the latch. Instead, all she did was reach inside to puck a single golden feather from his tail.

“Please, Izi,” said the bird. “After all we’ve been through?”

The woman smiled. “Goodbye, Nicholas. I’ll see you in hell.”