Hallowed

XIV. The Meridian

Whatever reason Pedro had for trying to hurt Deena, he took it with him to the grave.

“Stupid,” said Avenel quietly as she rolled his body into a hole in the garden. “I should have kept him alive.”

“You did what you had to,” said Olyssa.

Avenel shook her head. “There were a hundred ways I could have stopped him without throwing a dagger at his neck.”

“You stopped him,” said Olyssa. “That’s what matters.”

“What of the other guards? Do they know anything?”

Olyssa shook her head. “They’re just waking from the sedative he put in their dinners. They’re as baffled as I am; Pedro’s been with us for so long. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself.” She turned to looked back at the house. The light was on in Raine’s room; she must have returned from Deena’s. “Avi, I know I shouldn’t ask, but—Who is she? Why did Pedro want to kill her?”

“I don’t know,” said Avenel. “Just the same, I think it’s best if I take Deena with me.”

Olyssa paused for a moment. She looked up again at the light in Raine’s window. “Yes,” she said at last. “I think that would be for the best.”

They left shortly after dawn. Deena was confused about why Avenel had suddenly changed her mind, but happy to be brought along. She packed, ate a hurried breakfast, then headed out to where the horses were saddled and waiting. The sun was the same as it had been when it set, with a piece broken off of the side. Olyssa and Raine came out to see them off. If some of the gravel on the path looked more recent than elsewhere, Deena didn’t notice.

“Take care out there, Deena,” said Olyssa, adjusting Deena’s travelling cloak so as to cover her necklace. “Best keep that out of sight; the roads aren’t as safe these days.”

“Oh,” said Deena. She hadn’t thought of that. “Thank you.”

Raine waited until her mother turned to speak to Avenel, then surreptitiously handed Deena a letter. “It’s for Ellia,” she said. “I—I don’t know if you’ll see her, but if you do…”

“I’ll give it to her,” said Deena.

“Thank you,” said Raine. “Tell her—tell her I wish she’d told me about who she is. About where she’s from.”

“You knew?” asked Deena.

“I guessed,” admitted Raine. “But I’m glad to have met her regardless.”

Somehow, it was good to be on the road again. It wasn’t something Deena ever thought she’d enjoy, with the discomfort of the saddle and the heat of the midday sun. But she liked the fresh air, liked the sense of purpose, and she liked having Avenel beside her.

Once, they encountered a trade caravan going in the opposite direction. One of the guards looked up at her as they passed, his hand resting casually on the hilt of his sword, but then Avenel brought her horse between Deena and the caravan, and the guard looked away.

“They don’t seem bothered by the sun,” said Deena. None of the people they had passed had seemed to care.

“They don’t know what it means,” said Avenel.

“Aren’t they curious?”

“Maybe,” said Avenel, “but their bigger concern is what they’ll have for dinner.”

At night, they pitched their tents in a copse of trees just out of sight of the main road.

“Avenel,” said Deena as she crawled into her bedroll. “Why did you change your mind? About taking me with you?”

“I thought that perhaps you would be happier at my side.”

Deena smiled. “How did you know?” she asked. “I—I wanted to ask you to bring me along, but I thought—I thought you’d say that staying with Olyssa would be safer.”

Avenel smiled back and ran a rand through Deena’s hair. “I’m the Blade of Elyria. I can keep you safe enough.”

Deena nodded. “I wonder why Pedro didn’t come to see us off.”

“I imagine he was busy.”

“I guess so,” said Deena, stifling a yawn.

At night, she dreamt of fire, as she usually did of late. There was smoke and ash and a fiery sun that grew to envelope the world. Everyone burned away to nothing except for her. She was alone in Taunsgrove’s town square, dangling from the great oak tree, and when she opened her mouth she breathed out fire.

She was grateful when the morning came again, but soon came to regret her gratitude when the day proved nearly as hot as the fires her dream. It didn’t rain, either, and the sky remained resolutely clear and free of clouds. By the fourth day, the yellowed grass crunched beneath their hooves, and underneath, the dirt was dry and cracked.

“What if the end of the world means it never rains again?” asked Deena. “The crops would die, then, wouldn’t they? And then there would be a famine.”

“It has to rain somewhere,” said Avenel.

“And if it doesn’t?” asked Deena.

“Then I suppose you would be right.”

Their destination was a place that Avenel called the Meridian. It was a strange name for a castle, but Deena supposed that it was a strange castle. The top half was normal enough, if somewhat ugly: a square tower with a pointed roof surrounded by a crenelated walkway. At the bottom, however, the tower split in two to straddle the river Rhiine, like an armless giant with one foot planted on either side. A gated stone wall surrounded each leg like a shackle, forming a courtyard on either side.

“This is where everyone is meeting?” asked Deena.

Avenel nodded. “It’s the closest thing to neutral ground,” she said. “Neither nation has a claim to it, nor to the monks who live here.”

“I didn’t know there were still monks in Rhiinas,” said Deena. She regarded the structure. “Why did they even build it like this?”

“They didn’t; it was already here before the monks came along.”

As they approached the western gate, a man called down to them from the wall above. “Who goes there?”

“Lord Avenel of Elyria,” replied Avenel, “the former Head of Covert Affairs. I’m accompanied by my ward.”

The man nodded. He gave a signal to someone out of sight then disappeared from view himself as the iron gate lifted open.

A minute later, he re-emerged, this time standing by the gate to greet them. “Welcome to the Meridian,” he said, as Avenel and Deena dismounted. He was dressed in a rough, undyed robe with a simple leather cord for a belt. A string of wooden prayer beads was looped around his wrist. “I am Brother Taiindr,” said the monk. “Please allow Novice Rhammu to take care of your horses and your belongings. If you would follow me, I shall take you to your rooms. You may find them to be less lavish than you are used to, but our beds are clean and fresh.”

“I’m sure they’ll do, Brother,” said Avenel. “Thank you.”

After the lavish interiors of Heyesford Hall and the Silent Tower, the Meridian was startlingly austere. Everything, from the ceiling to the floor to the benches that lined the walls, was made of unadorned grey stone. A narrow slit of a window let in a modicum of light every few feet. In between the windows, plain iron sconces sat along the wall.

They walked up a few flights of stairs then down a short corridor to arrive at a foyer of sorts where a few stiff-backed chairs sat around a fireplace. Three more corridors led away from this room in different directions.

There were two people sitting at the chairs. One was a dark-haired man in a richly embroidered doublet studded with tiny gemstones. The other was a woman, muscular, broad of shoulder, and statuesque. They looked up from their conversation.

“Lord Avenel,” said the man, rising. “We weren’t certain you would come.”

“Of course she came,” said the woman. She stood up to embrace Avenel. “It’s good to see you again, Avenel. I wish it was under better circumstances.”

Avenel returned the embrace. “Likewise,” she said.

“I heard from Aldrin that you’ve taken a ward,” said the woman. “Is this the girl?”

“Yes,” said Avenel. “This is Deena. Deena, this is Lord Desmina, the Crimson Warden. And this is Lord Khassan, the Gold Warden.”

“Charmed,” said Khassan, barely sparing Deena a glance. “It may interest you to know, Lord Avenel, that the Queen’s Bastard has already arrived. He asked for you.”

“‘Prince Garthniiel’, Khassan,” corrected Desmina. “Try to use his proper title while we’re here.”

“He should not be here at all,” said Khassan. “He is neither a Lord Paramount nor a member of their entourages.”

“The royal family is welcome here as well,” said Avenel.

“And yet, my point still stands.”

Desmina sighed. “Khassan, please. This meeting will get nowhere if you start a war before it even begins. Whether he’s related to Toorre by blood is irrelevant.”

Brother Taiindr cleared his throat. “My lords,” he said. “If I might finish showing Lord Avenel and her ward to their rooms?”

“Ah, apologies, Avenel,” said Desmina. “Go and rest. We can speak later.”

Their rooms were down the middle of the three corridors. Compared to her room at Olyssa’s, Deena’s room here was small and utilitarian. There was only a cot, a washbasin, and a writing desk. There was a window, too, albeit a small one, through which Deena could hear the roaring of the Rhiine. She remembered the last time she had heard the river, that night at the ruins of Parvelhaugh.

Avenel’s room was adjacent to Deena’s. It was slightly larger, but not by much. There was a window identical to the one in Deena’s room, and she threw it open to let in the light. Outside, the sun hung high in the sky, shaped like a chipped plate, or a biscuit that had already been bitten.

“I think it’s gotten bigger,” said Deena, as Avenel washed her face in the basin.

“What has?” asked Avenel.

“The—the missing chunk,” said Deena. “In the sun.”

“Don’t look at it,” said Avenel. “It isn’t good for your eyes.”

Deena looked away, but the afterimage lingered. She closed her eyes and sat down on Avenel’s cot. “Who else is going to be here?” she asked. “On the Elyrian side.”

“The Council and whomever they choose to bring.”

“Is Lord Vallus going to be here?”

“Of course. He has to represent the Shadow Warden.”

“Is he going to bring anyone?”

“I doubt it,” said Avenel. She dried her face on a towel. “I should go speak with Desmina and see who else has arrived.”

Deena nodded. “What should I do?”

“Whatever you like,” said Avenel. “There should be a library here. Ask one of the monastics to help you if you get lost.”

“What if I run into one of the Ajjraeans?” asked Deena.

“Then be polite,” said Avenel. “Just don’t say anything more than necessary, and come find me if you feel unsafe.”

In the stairwell, Deena managed to find a woman in the same plain robes as Taiindr and Rhammu. “Um, excuse me,” said Deena. “Sister?”

The woman turned. “Novice, actually,” she said with a smile. “Novice Nemii. How can I help you?”

“I’m looking for the library,” said Deena.

“Oh, it’s this way,” said Nemii. “It’s in the common area, accessible to both delegations, so I’m going to have to ask you to relinquish any weapons.”

“I don’t have any,” said Deena.

“Then come with me,” said Nemii, and lead the way up the stairs. “You’re Lord Avenel’s ward, right? It’s good to see another Ephemeral, like me; most of the monks here are Hallowed.”

“Oh,” said Deena. “Are they Elyrian or Ajjraean?”

“We have both,” said Nemii, “and most of the Hallowed here won’t disclose their bloodline. It’s a part of how we maintain neutrality. Fortunately, we’re a celibate order, or I don’t think either nation would have allowed it.”

“Why not?” asked Deena.

“Well, they want to prevent the Harbinger from being born, don’t they? Which means, you know, there can’t be any relations between Elyrians and Ajjraeans.”

“Oh,” said Deena. She hadn’t thought about it in those terms.

“The library is just down that hall,” said Nemii, “through those large doors at the end. Is there a specific book you’re looking for?”

“No,” said Deena. “I just wanted to look around, if—if that’s okay?”

“Of course,” nodded Nemii. “I’ll leave you to it.”

In terms of physical size, the library wasn’t large, only barely bigger than the one at Olyssa’s. However, it had been crammed full to bursting with shelves, so that Deena had to shimmy sideways to make her way between them. The shelves themselves were packed, too, and tall, requiring stepladders for the uppermost books. Above them, a ring of windows sat high up on the wall to let in the light, which illuminated the motes of dust dancing through the air.

For all its books, the library was in poor condition. There was no librarian, and from the level of dust on the shelves, no one who regularly tended to or even perused the books. And the books were nearly dust themselves, with frayed bindings, crumbling pages, and titles so faded that they could scarcely be read.

Deena pulled out a volume at random, sending a cloud of dust dancing through the air.

There was a sneeze.

“Hello?” asked Deena.

A boy poked his head out from the next aisle over. He looked to be slightly older than Deena, but small of stature, with big doe-like eyes behind a pair of large, round spectacles. “Hello,” he said. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you.”

“No, it’s fine,” said Deena. “Did I make you sneeze? I’m sorry.”

The boy stepped out from behind the shelf. He was wearing a satin tunic with fine embroidery on the sleeves. Not one of the monks, then, but one of the visitors. “I don’t think we’ve met before,” he said. “I’m Morven Zyriky, Lord Desmina’s grandson.”

“I’m Deena Hewe,” said Deena. “I’m Lord Avenel’s ward.”

Morven’s eyes widened. “So Lord Avenel really did take a ward,” he said. He looked her up and down. “You don’t look like much.”

“Neither do you,” said Deena, wondering if she should be offended.

“I’m sorry,” said Morven, shaking his head. “It’s just that—I would have thought Lord Avenel would choose someone more like herself, you know?”

“Yes, well, you don’t look much like your grandmother, either,” said Deena.

“Not physically, no,” admitted Morven. “I’m far too scrawny, and I’m no good with a blade or polearm. But that won’t stop me from following in her footsteps.”

“Follow—Doesn’t she head the Department of Warfare?”

Morven nodded. “But battle is about more than brute strength. It’s about tactics, and I know more about that than most soldiers do. Grandmother always says that the outcome of a battle is decided before the fighting even begins, when there’s a good strategist at the helm, and I intend to be that strategist.”

“I see,” said Deena.

“Did you know Lord Ephraim was Elyria’s chief strategist during the early parts of the Hallowed Revolution?” asked Morven. “It was only afterwards that he took up his post at the Silent Tower.”

“I didn’t know that,” admitted Deena.

“Grandmother studied under him, you know,” said Morven. “He took her here with him, to the first summit.”

“The first summit?”

“You know, between Elyria and Ajjraea, right after the Revolution,” said Morven. “There was talk of merging the two nations, but it fell through.”

“Why?” asked Deena.

Morven shrugged. “There are rumors that a man died, and each side blamed the other. But if you ask me, I think it’s because of the Harbinger. If the two nations combined, there would be a greater chance of the Harbinger being born, wouldn’t there?”

“Hasn’t the Harbinger been born anyway?” asked Deena. “Isn’t that why the sun’s like this?”

“I didn’t say it worked,” said Morven. He scratched his nose. “What were you looking for here, anyway?”

“Oh, just something to read,” said Deena. “I wasn’t sure what else there is to do.”

“You could play chess with me. I brought my set; it’s downstairs.”

“I’m not very good,” said Deena. “I only just learned.”

“Then I could teach you. Grandmother says that teaching something to someone helps you improve the skill yourself.”

Deena hesitated.

“We could also explore. The monks said we could go anywhere we like in this part of the tower, and there are so many unused rooms upstairs. Even the monks themselves don’t have a full inventory of what’s in here. I saw a room earlier with a harpsichord, but no one here seems to know how to play.”

Deena thought for a moment. It wasn’t as though she had anything better to do, and she had never seen a harpsichord before. “Alright,” she said.

“Excellent!” exclaimed Morven, and grabbed her by the wrist to pull her along.

They nearly collided with a woman on their way up the stairs, but luckily she stepped aside in time.

“Pellie!” said Morven. “Hi!”

“Do watch where you’re going, Morven,” said the woman. “Who is this?”

“This is Deena,” said Morven. “She’s Lord Avenel’s ward.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said the woman, extending a hand. “Morven isn’t causing you any trouble, is he?”

“No,” said Deena. “He’s very nice.”

“Good,” said the woman. “I’m Pellena, one of Lord Ildora’s personal aides.”

“She’s also sleeping with my cousin,” added Morven matter-of-factly.

Pellena blushed scarlet. “Morven!”

“But it’s true,” said Morven. “I saw you go into his room.”

Pellena turned even redder. “I—Lothur and I are engaged to be married, Morven! Nevermind, I don’t have time for you right now.”

“Bye Pellie,” waved Morven, as the woman continued down the stairs, still redfaced. “I like Pellie,” he said. “I’m glad she’s marrying Lothur.”

“Lothur is your cousin?” asked Deena.

Morven nodded. “He used to be mean to me, when we were younger, but he’s been much nicer since he met Pellie.” He smiled. “Love is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?”

Avenel’s conversation with Desmina was short, and afterwards, she had one of the Novices send a message to the Ajjraean side of the Meridian. She only had to wait a few minutes for a reply.

She went upstairs. The Novice had told her that there would be plenty of unused rooms there, and indeed, there were more rooms occupied by dust covers than were occupied by people. Some sort of music drifted from one of the rooms, disjointed notes interspersed with fits of sneezing. Avenel looked in through the open door. Deena was there, along with a boy her age who was tinkering with an old harpsicord. Desmina’s grandson, she guessed. The boy seemed harmless enough, so she let them be, and found a different, smaller room.

She waited.

A few minutes later, Garthniiel arrived. She motioned for him to close the door.

“What is that ghastly cacophony?” he asked.

“His name is Morven,” said Avenel. “Desmina’s grandson. A gifted musician, or so I’m told.”

“That was music?” asked Garthniiel.

Avenel suppressed a smile. “That was tuning,” she said. “The music comes later.”

“Oh,” said Garthniiel. He threw the sheet off a chair and sat down.

“I was told you asked for me,” said Avenel. “Have you spoken with your brother?”

Garthniiel shook his head. “He hasn’t arrived yet. I did speak with one of his aides who arrived early, though.”

“And?”

“Loorne never gave the order to attack Taunsgrove. He’s been trying to keep it quiet, but one of his men stole his seal and falsified the order.”

“That’s treason,” said Avenel.

“So is deliberately inciting another war,” said Garthniiel, “which is apparently how Greoore sees it. He’s given Loorne until the end of the month to interrogate the man responsible and figure out why he wants a war so badly.”

“If that was his goal, there are better targets than Taunsgrove. It was entirely self governed, and its residents are all Ephemeral. Elyria barely acknowledged its existence.”

Garthniiel shrugged. “I only know what the aide told me,” he said. “Do you think it’s a coincidence that it happened just before this thing with the sun?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Avenel. She stood and walked to the window. Outside, the sun was beginning to set, still with a piece carved out of its side. “Did you learn any details about the attack? Was Taunsgrove chosen for any particular reason? Were they looking for something, perhaps? Someone?”

“Not that I’ve heard,” said Garthniiel. “Why?”

Through the wall, they could hear the loud twang of a broken harpsichord string, followed by a fit of girlish giggling.

Avenel shook her head. “No reason.”

It was well past midnight when Vallus arrived at the gate.

A woman in a robe squinted down at him from the parapet above the gate. “Who goes there?” she called.

“Lord Vallus Nebeel,” he called back, “Head of Covert Affairs and representative of the Shadow Warden.”

The woman nodded, and a minute later reappeared by the gate as it opened. “I am Sister Farad,” she said. She had a slight lisp. “One of the novices will be along shortly for your horse.”

“Thank you, Sister,” said Vallus. “Have my colleagues arrived?”

“All except the Lords Sylari and Zachariah,” replied Farad. “Shall I show you to your room?”

“Please.”

Inside the tower, their footsteps echoed loudly up the empty stone stairwell. Farad’s lantern swung in her hand as she walked, sending shadows dancing across the wall and stairs in a dizzying pattern. Vallus resisted the urge to rub his eyes. A few more minutes—it would only be a few more minutes before he could rest. He could wait that long.

They arrived at last. “Here is your room,” said Sister Farad. “I’m afraid it isn’t much.”

“I’m sure it’s sufficient, Sister,” said Vallus. “Thank you.”

It was only after he set down his bags did he realize that he had forgotten to ask for water to wash himself after his journey. He longed to just collapse onto the cot, but… With a sigh, he lit a lamp and walked back out into the corridor.

There was an apparition at the end of the hallway, a female figure in a nightdress. A vision, or a memory of one.

His voice came out as a croak. “Fosette?”

The figure turned. “Lord Vallus?” It was Deena’s voice that spoke, and Deena’s face illuminated by the lantern.

Vallus frowned. “Deena? You shouldn’t be here.”

“I know,” said Deena, “but I couldn’t sleep.”

“No, I mean, here at the Meridian.”

“Oh,” said Deena. “Avenel wasn’t going to bring me, at first, but she changed her mind.”

Vallus frowned. “Which door is Avenel’s?”

“This one,” said Deena, pointing. “Um, I should get back to bed. Have a good night, my lord.”

“Goodnight, Deena.”

He watched as she disappeared into her room.

Flickering candlelight seeped out from beneath Avenel’s door. Vallus knocked, quietly, then opened the door.

Avenel was sitting cross-legged on her cot, rearranging her daggers in their sheathes. “Entering my room in the middle of the night?” she asked without looking up. “That’s hardly appropriate, Vallus.”

“Your lamp is still on,” said Vallus. “Either you’re awake, or you fell asleep without putting it out. And if it’s the latter, wouldn’t you rather wake up to me than to a burning bed?”

Avenel gave him a look, but smiled. “Sit,” she said. “When did you arrive?”

“Just now,” said Vallus, taking a seat at the foot of the bed. He picked up one of the daggers, an ornate one with a pair of wings for a crossguard. “You’re thinking of Ephraim.”

“I always am.”

Vallus nodded. “I ran into Deena, out in the hall.”

“I know,” said Avenel. “I heard your voices through the door.”

“Avenel, why?”

Avenel didn’t answer, not immediately. She took her knives out, one by one, arranging them in a fan around her. “There was an attack,” she said. “No one was hurt, but the fact remains that there isn’t anywhere safe, not anymore. With the sun like this, everyone will be searching for the Harbinger. Some may have already started.”

“Deena isn’t the Harbinger.”

“It doesn’t matter if she is or not,” said Avenel. “It’s what the others will see her as. Do you really think anyone here would let her live, just because she’s a child? Would you let her live, if she wasn’t your daughter?”

Vallus paused. “No,” he said at last. “I wouldn’t take the risk.”

“And neither will anyone else. With both Elyria and Ajjraea searching for her, we’d be fools to think that she can simply hide.” Carefully, she picked up one of the knives and began to sharpen it on a small whetstone. “They singled out the girls and young women, at Taunsgrove. Whoever ordered the attack, they were looking for her.”

“So you bring her here?”

Avenel nodded. “Who would suspect Lord Avenel’s ward of being the Harbinger?”

“And if someone does suspect?” asked Vallus. “If someone does try to harm her?”

She spun the knife between her fingers. “Then they answer to me.”

The stranger tore through the woods, ducking under branches and leaping over logs. The disembodied girl, inhabiting the stranger’s body, listened. There was the terrified pounding of the stranger’s heart, her labored breathing, and the furious yapping of the hounds behind her. Her lungs and legs both ached with exhaustion, but still she kept running, running, running until at long last, the dogs were no longer audible through the trees. Only then did the stranger stop, panting, doubled over to catch her breath.

“I think we lost them,” she managed through gasps of air. “What happened? How did they know we would be there?”

She turned to look back at her companion. He was leaning heavily against a tree, clutching his waist, panting just as hard as the stranger herself. “We’ve been betrayed,” he said.

“By whom?” asked the stranger.

“I don’t know,” said her companion.

The stranger pushed back a strand of her hair. “We can try again tonight. I used all my knives, but if we double back then head east—”

Her companion cut her off with a shake of his head. “No. It’s too dangerous. You must return to the Silent Tower and tell Lord Nigel what happened.”

“Me?” asked the stranger. “What about you?”

Slowly, he lifted the hand that had been clutching his side, revealing the red beneath.

“Ephraim, no!” exclaimed the stranger, as her companion sank to the ground. She fell to the ground beside him, putting her hand on his wound as though her hand alone could staunch the blood. “There’s a town to the southeast. We’ll find a physician, we’ll—”

The man shook his head. “The dogs,” he said. “They’ll follow my blood.”

“But—”

“Avenel. Don’t let your feelings cloud your judgement. You can’t escape with me in tow, you know this, and someone must inform Lord Nigel.”

“I don’t care!” cried the stranger. “I won’t abandon you, Ephraim! I won’t—”

“Please,” said Ephraim. His voice was weak, but firm. “I need a soldier right now, not the girl I found at Parvelhaugh.” He coughed. “We haven’t much time before they find us. Avenel, please.” With bloody hands, Ephraim fumbled at his swordbelt to retrieve his dagger from its sheath. It was beautiful, with a twisted handle and a crossguard shaped like wings, and he pressed it into the stranger’s hand. “I need you to kill me.”

The stranger’s heart skipped a beat.

“It’ll be hours before I bleed to death,” said Ephraim. “I know too much. I mustn’t be captured alive.”

“Ephraim, I won’t—”

“You must,” interrupted Ephraim. “They’ll torture me, Avenel. Do you understand? I must not be captured alive.”

“I won’t let them,” said the stranger, her voice thick. “I won’t—”

“Then don’t let them.” He put his hand around hers, wrapping her fingers tight about the dagger’s hilt. “Quick and clean, Avenel, just like I taught you.”

Slowly, Avenel raised the dagger above him. “Ephraim—”

Ephraim smiled. “When you return, tell Lys I love her.”

With a wordless cry, she brought the knife plunging down.