The Meridian; 25 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The morning sun was quick to chase Deena’s dreams away, and she was grateful. She did not want to spend time considering which were nightmares and which the memories of others. She was glad to see Avenel—alive and smiling—at breakfast, and afterwards, she and Morven returned to the higher floors of the Meridian while the adults all busied themselves with whatever it is that diplomats do. Morven wanted to continue the task of repairing the broken harpsichord, and Deena was happy to come along, so long as she could bring a book.
Around noon, there was a knock on the door, and Deena was surprised to see Flame standing there, holding a plate of sandwiches.
“Flame!” said Deena. “What are you doing here?”
“Bringing you lunch,” said Flame. “Garth sent me. Or rather, Avenel did, through Garth. She thought you two might be hungry.”
Deena took one of the sandwiches. “How did you know where to find us?”
“Garth said to follow the sound of the earsplitting racket. His words, not mine.”
“It isn’t my fault,” said Morven. “It’s not easy fixing an instrument that’s been in disuse so long.”
“Oh,” said Deena, “I should introduce you. Morven, this is Flame. He’s one of Prince Garthniiel’s, um, companions.”
“Technically I’m his guard,” said Flame, “at least while we’re here. A prince is expected to have some personal guards.”
“I’ve never met an Ajjraean,” said Morven, studying him. “Do you all wear your hair this long?”
“Some do,” said Flame, “but not many.”
Flame stayed to share their lunch, during which Morven was delighted to discover that Flame also held an interest in music. After their meal, when Morven returned to his task of tuning the harpsichord, he found Flame to be a much better assistant than Deena. Deena, for her part, was perfectly happy to leave them to it, turning her attention to her book.
The door opened and Frost came in. Her hair had grown out a bit since Deena had seen her last, and was now a golden halo of dandelion fuzz. “There you are, Flame,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Bringing lunch to Deena and her friend Morven,” said Flame. “What are you doing here?”
“Avoiding Greoore,” said Frost. “He just got here.”
“Why are you avoiding Greoore?” asked Flame.
“He brought Itiina with him.”
“Is that unusual?” asked Morven. “She’s his wife.”
“Yeah,” said Frost, “and she’s a b—”
“Frost doesn’t like her very much,” interrupted Flame.
“She doesn’t like me,” corrected Frost. She fluttered her eyelashes and put on a mocking, saccharine voice. “‘Oh, Garthniiel, you should really reconsider the company you keep. Try to remember that your choice of companions may reflect poorly on your breeding.’”
“That’s not a nice thing to say,” said Morven, “and I don’t think it’s her business who Prince Garthniiel spends his time with.”
Frost looked at him appraisingly. “Morven, was it?” She took out a flask and held it out to him. “I like you. Have some mead.”
“Sister!” exclaimed Flame.
“What?” asked Frost. “You drank when you were his age; don’t think I didn’t know.”
“Avenel lets me drink,” said Deena. “Well, she did once, anyway, at the Silent Tower.”
“See?” said Frost. “But if you’re so against drinking, Flame, you don’t have to have any.”
“I didn’t say that,” said Flame, snatching the flask from her hand.
Deena giggled. “Oh! I almost forgot!” She reached into her pocket and took out Raine’s letter. “This is for you. It’s from Raine.”
“Oh,” said Frost, taking the letter. “I, uh, thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” said Deena.
Morven had returned his attention to the harpsichord. Half his torso was inside the instrument as he adjusted the strings. “It’s in surprisingly good condition, considering its age,” said Morven, his voice echoing oddly through the box. “It might have been decades since anyone last played it, but look, almost none of the strings have deteriorated past the point of repair.” He plucked one of the strings at the end. It gave a discordant twang. “Well, maybe this one, but no one uses this note.”
“Could you play something?” asked Deena.
“I could try,” said Morven. “What song would you like to hear?”
“Oh, um.” She didn’t know many songs by name. “There’s one my mother used to hum, but I don’t remember how it goes.”
Before she could recall the melody, the door swung open again, and Garthniiel stepped through. “You two have been negligent in your duties,” he said to Flame and Frost. “You’re supposed to be guarding me from harm, and I’ll have you know that I had to endure extreme amounts of mental anguish just now in Itiina’s presence.”
“Sincerest apologies, your highness,” said Flame with an exaggerated bow. “We’ll be more diligent in the future. Right, Sister?”
Frost looked distractedly up from her letter. “Hm? Oh, yeah, what he said.”
“And you’re drinking without me, too?” asked Garthniiel, seeing the flask in Flame’s hand. “Give it here. I need it more than you.” He turned to Deena and Morven. “Don’t tell Avenel or Lord Desmina; I know I’m setting a bad example.”
“Avenel drinks too,” Deena pointed out.
“And Grandmother says that there’s nothing wrong with it as long as it’s done sparingly,” said Morven.
“Sure,” said Garthniiel. “I always do it sparingly.”
Flame rolled his eyes.
There was a knock on the door, and it swung open for the third time that hour. On the other side was a man that Deena didn’t recognize, tall and strikingly handsome.
Flame and Frost rose immediately to their feet. Deena and Morven glanced at each other before following suit.
“I hope you aren’t trying to avoid me, Little Brother,” said the newcomer.
“Only a little,” admitted Garthniiel.
The man—who could only be Prince Greoore—laughed and clapped Garthniiel on the shoulder. “Come, now. I haven’t even had a chance to greet you properly.” He pulled his brother into a hug. “And you two,” he said, turning to Flame and Frost, “I trust you’ve been keeping my brother out of trouble?”
“Well, out of any serious trouble,” said Flame.
Greoore laughed again. “I suppose that’s good enough,” he said. “Who are your young friends?”
“This is Deena, Lord Avenel’s ward,” said Garthniiel. “And this is Morven, Lord Desmina’s grandson.”
“Morven Zyriky,” added Morven, bowing. “It’s an honor to meet you, your highness.”
“There’s no need for any of that,” said Greoore. “We’ll all be allies soon enough. Please, sit.” He gestured to the harpsichord. “Were you about to play something?”
Morven nodded. “But we haven’t decided what to play.”
“How about The Song of Spring?” suggested Greoore. “It’s seasonally appropriate. Do you know it?”
“I do,” nodded Morven. His hands paused for a moment above the keys, then he began to play. Deena marveled at how quickly his fingers seemed to move, flittering like a hummingbird over the keys. The melody itself was hauntingly beautiful, unlike anything Deena had heard before, and just a little melancholic. Greoore nodded along to the music, and the three Ajjraean men passed the flask of mead between them as they listened.
They were interrupted by the door opening yet another time.
“Itiina,” said Greoore, looking up at the woman who stood there. “I thought you were resting.”
“I was,” said Itiina. She glanced around the room, her gaze lingering on Garthniiel and the mead still in his hand.
Garthniiel rose to his feet. “Sister,” he said, smiling. “Would you like to join us?”
“No thank you,” said Itiina, sounding as though Garthniiel had instead invited her to roll in the mud. She turned to Greoore. “Lord Thanriiel wanted to speak with us, or have you forgotten?”
“Apologies, my love,” sighed Greoore, rising to his feet. “I must have lost track of the time. It was lovely to meet you Morven, Deena,” he said, then turned to follow his wife out the door.
Itiina’s voice was still audible as they walked off down the corridor. “You should know better, Greoore,” said Itiina. “Spending time with him? Here? If the other Lords Paramount even began to think that you’re actually fond of him…”
Garthniiel slammed the door shut. “Well,” he said, taking a swig of the mead. “Even when the world is ending, some things stay the same.”
“You were right,” said Morven to Frost. “She is a bitch.”
The Meridian; 26 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
The last of the Wardens to arrive were the lords Sylari and Zachariah. They arrived together late in the morning, in a large carriage that required four horses to pull. From a window overlooking the gate, Deena and Morven watched as they descended from their carriage.
“Sylari still looks rather pale,” remarked Vallus, looking over their shoulders. “I’d hoped she would have recovered by now.”
“Was she ill?” asked Deena.
“If giving birth to twins can be considered being ill,” said Avenel. “The boys are healthy, but they took a toll on their mother.”
Deena watched as Zachariah lent his arm to Sylari for balance. “Are they married? Her and Zachariah, I mean.”
“Not officially,” said Morven. “They lived together for a while, but Grandmother says they’re living apart again.”
“They decided they’re better off as friends than as lovers,” said Avenel, “but they’re still raising their children together.”
A few minutes later, the pair arrived in the common area, led by Brother Taiindr. Sylari had a willowy figure and an easy smile, her thin frame draped in colorful, billowing silks. Zachariah, on the other hand, looked and acted like a granite brick attending a funeral. It was a wonder that they had ever been together, much less sired offspring.
“Avenel, darling,” said Sylari in a wispy sort of voice. “I wasn’t sure I’d see you here.”
“Hello, Sylari,” said Avenel, taking her hand. “It’s good to see you on your feet. And you, Zachariah.”
“And Vallus, dear,” continued Sylari. “How are things at your mountain fortress?”
“You make it sound cold and foreboding,” said Vallus.
“It was cold, last I visited.”
Vallus smiled. “It was winter when you visited.”
“Then I’ll make a point to visit during the summer,” said Sylari. “And Morven! My, how you’ve grown.”
Morven bowed. “I haven’t, but thank you, my lord.”
“And who is this beautiful child?”
Avenel put a hand on Deena’s shoulder. “This is my ward, Deena. Deena, this is Lord Sylari Arendse, the Verdant Warden, and Lord Zachariah Brynt, the Stone Warden.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Deena, bowing.
“A ward?” asked Sylari. “You, Avenel? My, it really must be the end of the world.”
“It looks like there may be some maternal instinct in there after all,” said Zachariah, expressionless. “At least, once you get past the killer instinct.”
Sylari laughed, but swatted Zachariah’s arm. “Please excuse his attempt at humor,” she said to the others. “It isn’t his strong suit.”
A short while later, a Sister came to announce that now that all the lords from both sides had arrived, the meeting would commence that afternoon. There was a meeting room specially prepared near the top of the tower, and the monks would come to fetch the attendees once everything was ready.
After lunch, Deena sat cross-legged on Avenel’s cot, watching as she polished her sword.
“I thought that you aren’t allowed to take weapons to the meeting room,” said Deena.
“We aren’t,” said Avenel.
“Are you planning to bring one anyway?”
“No,” said Avenel. She set down the sword. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in your room, getting dressed?”
“Oh,” said Deena. “Am I supposed to be there too?”
“If you’d like,” said Avenel. “Morven will be there.”
“Oh. I thought it would just be the Wardens and the Lords Paramount.”
“No. If you’re here, then you’re welcome to attend and listen.”
Deena nodded. “Were you here at the first meeting? Morven said that Lord Ephraim was here; did you come with him?”
Avenel shook her head. “No, I—it was too soon, after Parvelhaugh.”
“Oh,” said Deena. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”
An hour later, a novice came to show them the way. The tower narrowed as they ascended, and by the time they arrived at the top, it was only wide enough for the meeting room itself and a small landing at the top of the stairs. A pair of Brothers stood on either side of the large double doors. Inside, a large stone table dominated the center of the room, inlaid with gold and mother of pearl in intricate, geometric patterns. To the left were seven seats for the Elyrian Council of Wardens, and to the right were six seats for the Ajjraean Lords Paramount and the king and queen. In one corner was a small scribe’s desk, at which one of the monastics was already sitting, preparing his pen and ink.
Behind the large table, on either side of the room, were rows of chairs. A few of the seats were already occupied. Garthniiel, sitting by Flame and Frost, gave a nod as Deena and Avenel walked in. All three of them were wearing nicer clothes than Deena had ever seen them in. Garthniiel even had some jewelry.
Deena and Avenel took a seat beside Morven, who had with him a stack of paper and a shiny fountain pen.
“Are you taking notes?” asked Pellena, walking in and seating herself on Morven’s other side.
“Yes,” said Morven. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Lord Desmina told you to observe,” said Pellena. “How can you do that if you’re scribbling away the whole time?”
“But you have a pen and paper too,” protested Morven.
“Because that’s my job,” said Pellena. “I’m not here to learn how meetings work.”
Only when the seats on the side had mostly filled in did the key attendees arrive. One of the Brothers at the door announced them as they each walked in, calling in a loud, brassy voice that carried easily over the murmur of conversation in the room.
“Lord Khassan of Elyria, the Gold Warden.” Khassan walked in wearing a jewel-studded doublet and what appeared to be an entire jewelry store worth of rings. Deena caught a whiff of cloyingly sweet perfume as he walked past. Morven sneezed. Khassan pretended not to notice.
“Lord Abel Syncrest of Elyria, the Amber Warden.” Syncrest entered holding a teetering stack of books topped with several rolls of paper. He didn’t exactly cut an intimidating figure, with disheveled brown hair and a small, stooped stature. Upon sitting down, he fumbled while retrieving a pen from his pocket, knocking over one of his books and sending his notes flying. His assistant, who had filed in behind him, was quick to set down her own load of books so as to help him gather the pages.
The assistant sat down next to Pellena. “Share your notes with me, Pellie?” she asked in a quiet whisper. “You’d be saving my hide; you know I write slow.”
“I also know that you won’t even try, if I say yes,” said Pellena. “Doesn’t Rowan usually take the notes for Syncrest?”
“He’s sick,” said the assistant. “The poor fool’s been hacking his lungs out all morning.” She sniffed. “I hope it isn’t contagious.”
Pellena sighed. “Fine,” she said, “but just this once.”
“Lord Hiikov of Ajjraea,” called the Brother at the door, “Lord Paramount of the Woodlands.”
“That’s the eastern quarter of Ajjraea, right?” asked Deena, turning to Avenel. She had been studying the maps that Lord Vallus had given her. Avenel nodded.
Lord Hiikov was painfully fat and panting from the climb up the stairs. He smiled genially around the room before allowing his son to help him into his seat. The chair had to be pulled a good distance back from the table to accommodate his massive gut. Rolls of buttock fat spilled over the edges of the chair, squeezed into the space between arm and seat. Deena wondered if he required his son’s help for all his daily tasks.
“Lord Zachariah Brynt of Elyria, the Stone Warden, and Lord Sylari Arendse of Elyria, the Verdant Warden.” The pair walked in, Sylari leaning on Zachariah’s arm for support. Though the room wasn’t cold, she tugged her shawl tighter about her shoulders. Zachariah helped her into her seat before taking his own.
“Lord Roniin of Ajjraea, Lord Paramount of the Shore.” Roniin was almost as large as Hiikov, but all muscle to Hiikov’s fat. He was blind in one eye, but his other eye appeared to be extra sharp, as though to make up for its milky counterpart.
“Prince Greoore of Ajjraea, Lord Paramount of the Plains and son of the King.” Greoore walked in with Itiina on his arm, looking like a prince and princess straight from a storybook. Deena might have thought them beautiful, if she hadn’t already met them the day before. Garthniiel straightened slightly, as if hoping to catch his brother’s eye, but neither the prince nor his wife looked his way.
“Lord Desmina Zyriky of Elyria, the Crimson Warden.” Desmina entered, wearing a severe black dress with a ruby brooch. The sleeves of her dress were so tight that every movement of her muscles was visible beneath the fabric. She gave Morven a quick pat on the head as she passed by, to which Morven made no protest, though Pellena had to stifle a laugh.
“Queen Oliina of Ajjraea, the King’s wife.” The queen seemed to glide rather than walk into the room, the beads on her skirt rattling as she moved. She held her head up high, imperiously avoiding eye contact with everyone, including her own children. She had lined her almond eyes dramatically with kohl, intensifying the untouchable and otherworldly air that she projected.
“Lord Thanriiel of Ajjraea, Lord Paramount of the Mountains.” Lord Thanriiel was very short, possibly as short as Tatiana, though he walked with a self-assuredness that made him seem taller than he really was. He gave a nod to the other Lords Paramount as he sat, but barely spared a glance at the Elyrian side of the table.
“Lord Ildora of Elyria, the Ivory Warden.” With her short hair and slight slouch, Ildora looked like a bespectacled and female version of Lord Syncrest. However, she carried herself with a bit more poise, and at least did not drop her books as she set them down on the table. Her husband, following her in, sat down quietly next to Avenel.
“Terrn,” said Avenel with a nod.
“Lord Avenel,” said Ildora’s husband, nodding back.
“King Toorre of Ajjraea, the Nomad King,” announced the Brother, and everyone on the Ajjraean side of the room rose to their feet. The king was by no means a small man, but more than that, his presence was large. The room fell silent as he entered. A pair of guards followed him in, to stand at attention at the back of the room with the guards who were already there. The king himself settled into his chair beside his wife and looked across the table at the one Elyrian seat which still sat empty.
“A member of your delegation is not being punctual,” he said quietly.
“I’m always punctual,” said Vallus, entering.
“Lord Vallus Nebeel of Elyria,” said the Brother at the door, “representing the Shadow Warden.”
Vallus made to sit down at that last chair, but Toorre interrupted. “A representative?” he asked. “We thought it had been agreed that meetings at the Meridian would always be attended in person. Is the Warden bedridden, or is he overseas?”
“Neither,” said Desmina. “It is our custom, as you know, for the Shadow Warden’s identity to be kept secret. Lord Vallus is the one who fulfills the duties typical of the office.”
“Unacceptable,” said King Toorre, and his voice, though quiet, seemed to boom through the room. “We do not usually care about your customs, but this summit is not ‘usually’. We will not treat with a mere representative.”
“But the rest of us are all present,” said Lord Sylari. “Surely that’s sufficient, your majesty.”
“It is not,” replied Toorre. “All of our Lords Paramount are present, as requested, yet you withhold one of your own from us? This is a slight.”
“Slight?” asked Khassan. “You attacked a settlement within our border barely a month ago!”
“That matter is being dealt with,” said Greoore. “I assure you that it was not on the orders of any of us present.”
“And it has nothing to do with the absence of your Shadow Warden,” added Toorre. “This summit is to be with the entirety of the Council of Wardens, and we will not accept a representative.”
“Oh for goodness—We’re facing the end of the world,” said Ildora, “and you care about a formality?”
The Nomad King looked at her, then stood up. “We will meet with all of you, or not at all. Send for your Shadow Warden. We will reconvene once he has arrived.”
Khassan slammed his hands on the table. “Now look here—”
It was Avenel who had shouted the word. There was silence in the room as all eyes turned to look at her.
She stood, and from around her neck, she produced a shiny black pendant on a leather string, a thin sliver of onyx with ornate designs etched into the surface. “There is no need to send for the Shadow Warden,” she said, “because she is already here.”
Prince Greoore squinted at the necklace. “Is that—?”
“You are looking,” said Avenel, “at the badge of office of the Shadow Warden, the seventh Warden of Elyria.”
Around the table, the other Wardens produced their own pendants, ruby and peridot and every other color. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the pendants clicked together to form a single seven-pointed star.
Toorre smiled triumphantly. “Lord Avenel,” he said. “We should have known. Well met, Shadow Warden.”
Avenel took her seat at the table, the last empty seat remaining. “If we’re all finished with our grandstanding,” she said, “shall we begin?”