Hallowed

XXVI. Temperance

On a balcony of broken stone, between the snow and sky, a man gazed intently at the horizon, at the coming pink of dawn. Beside him, a woman leaned languidly against the parapet, her back to the rising sun.

“I suppose, dear heart,” said the woman, “that I should thank your little pet for letting her go. Tell me, how do you plan to punish him for his transgression?”

“Don’t pretend to care,” said the man. “I know your methods; the games you play are far more cruel than mine.”

“They made their choice,” said the woman, “as we made ours. You should have killed her when you had the chance.”

“Perhaps,” admitted the man. “It matters not. My plan is still sound.”

“You underestimate her,” said the woman. “She’ll do what’s needed, in the end.”

“What’s needed?” asked the man. “What’s needed is for this world to end, as all things must.”

Her smile was as bright as the sun. “It hasn’t ended yet, has it?”

Deena’s voice came out as a squeak. “I’m meant to what?”

“Save the world,” said Izra.

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” asked Avenel.

“Would you have believed me?” asked Izra.

“How are we supposed to believe you if everyone keeps lying?” snapped Frost.

Flame put a hand on her arm. “Sister, let them speak.”

Izra sighed. “Asterii legend says that we were born from the sun. That when she created the world, she chose her favorite of her children—Drema and Heliike—and gave them each a drop of her own divinity, that their descendants may live forever and never age.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” asked Frost.

“The one who attacked at the Meridian, the one who took Avenel—We called him Noriiel, the Evening Star.”

“It’s been millennia since Noriiel was last seen in the sky,” interrupted Nicholas. “When did you have an interest in astronomy?”

“I don’t,” said Izra. “There was a sect of the priesthood—not well known—dedicated to the Harbinger myths. They realized that the reason Noriiel vanished from the sky was because he died, and what’s left of him alighted on our world to ensure that our sun does the same.”

“But why?” asked Flame.

Izra shrugged. “Who can say? Spite? Jealousy? Madness?”

“So the stars are—they’re alive?” asked Garthniiel.

“In a sense,” said Izra.

Nicholas shook his head. “Izi, if what you’re saying is true, then we’re facing against a god.”

“The ghost of a god,” corrected Izra. “He can’t touch us, not directly. It’s why he needed an army.”

“He’s still a god,” said Nicholas. “How do you even know this? You’ve never liked the priests.”

“It wasn’t the priests who told me,” said Izra. “Soon after Noriiel came to this world, another came as well: Ruuzael. She’s the one known as the angel—a messenger from the heavens. When Asterii fell, she came to me and told me everything. With the priests gone, their burden became my own.”

“Why?” asked Nicholas. “Why you and not me?”

Izra paused. “I don’t know.”

“What about Inoor?” asked Avenel.

“She couldn’t have asked Inoor,” said Nicholas. “Inoor had already passed away.”

Avenel shook her head. “That isn’t what I meant. I saw her.”

“You—you saw her?”

“She was there where Noriiel took me. She was the one who brought me back.”

“That can’t be,” said Nicholas. “We buried her.” He turned to Izra. “Didn’t we?”

Izra didn’t answer.

“Izi, we buried her! We went to that field and we buried her!”

“We buried an empty casket,” said Izra quietly. “You wanted to move on, so I gave that to you.”

Smack!

Nicholas’s red handprint bloomed on Izra’s cheek, but she didn’t react.

“I had her somewhere safe,” said Izra, her face still turned away from him. “I didn’t think— But he stole her. He needed a planewalker for his army.”

“So is she—Is she still alive, then?” asked Garthniiel.

Izra shook her head. “But he’s found a way for her to move again, like a marionette.”

“You should have told me,” said Nicholas.

“I didn’t think you would want to know.”

“She was my wife!”

Izra turned to look at him. “You didn’t deserve her.”

Nicholas looked about to hit her again, but he turned and walked away. “Seven hundred years, Izra. All I wanted was for her to rest.”

Avenel returned to bed after eating, and Izra made her a sleeping draught. Deena chose to stay by her bedside. She tried to read, but her mind kept wandering as she stared at words, and eventually she gave up on the book. At noon there was a knock on the cottage door, and Izra entered holding a bowl of stew and a roasted rabbit leg. “It’s lunchtime,” she said.

“Thank you,” said Deena, taking the food. “Should we wake Avenel?”

“No, let her sleep,” said Izra.

Deena nodded. “How’s, um, how’s your face?”

Izra put a hand to her cheek. “It’s not the hardest I’ve been slapped. Are you going to tell me I deserve it?”

“Why would I do that?” said Deena. “But, um, if Noriiel’s controlling Inoor’s—Inoor’s body, is that how he’s controlling the rest of his army?”

“It seems so,” said Izra.

“Where did he find so many corpses?” asked Deena, then shuddered. “I guess that’s better than having a lot of real people who want me dead.” She took a bite of the rabbit. “The man who I, um, killed. The one who attacked me. Was he already dead too?”

“It’s possible,” said Izra.

Deena nodded. There was some relief in that, at least. She ate her food and watched as Izra checked Avenel’s bandages. “Izra,” she said, “when you said that I’m meant to save the world: What is it that I’m actually supposed to do?”

“That’s for you to find out,” said Izra. “Once we’ve arrived at the North, your path will become clear to you.”

“What’s up there?” asked Deena. “Have you been?”

Izra turned to look at her. “Have I been to the edge of the world?”

Her tone sounded like Deena may as well have asked if she’d been to the moon. “Right,” said Deena. “I guess that’s silly question.”

She was surprised when Izra answered. “I have been,” said Izra, “but it was a long time ago. Things have changed. I’m not sure what we’ll find there.”

“A-and the star, Ruuzael. She didn’t tell you?”

“She never tells more than she needs to,” said Izra.

“Can I speak to her?”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“I just want to know why me. My parents can’t be the only couple who—I mean Nicholas and your sister were married. Why couldn’t it have been them?”

“Because they never had children,” said Izra. “Like it or not, you’re the Harbinger. The burden is yours alone.”

Deena bit her lip. “It isn’t fair,” she said at last.

“Life rarely is,” said Izra, “but for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” She adjusted Avenel’s covers, then stood and walked to the door. “It’s a beautiful day today,” she said. “You should come outside, enjoy it while you can.”

Flame wasn’t surprised to find his sister with the horses. “You’ve been spending more time with them than with the rest of us combined,” he said.

Frost didn’t look up. Her horse’s coat was already gleaming, but still she methodically continued to brush. “What are we doing here, Ennir?” she asked.

Flame looked at her. “You haven’t called me by that name in years.”

Frost shrugged. “It’s still your name, isn’t it?”

“I guess it is,” said Flame. He picked up a brush of his own and began to brush.

It was awhile before Frost spoke again. “What are we doing here?” she asked. “All this talk of the Harbinger and stars and the end of the world—It’s like something out of a story to scare children. People like us, we—we shouldn’t be here.”

“People like us?” asked Flame.

“You know what I mean,” said Frost. “We’re not like them, like Avenel or Izra or even Garthniiel. How did we get caught up in the fate of the world when we’re just—” She gestured at the air, at a loss for words.

“—when we’re just a pair of orphans from the slums of Selkie’s Shore,” finished Flame.

Frost nodded.

Flame sighed. “Sister, it’s been decades. When will you let the past go? What does it matter where we came from? All that matters is who we are now.”

“And who are we now?” asked Frost. “Royal guards? Hired muscle?”

“You can’t mean that, Sister. Garth sees us as family.”

“Does he?” asked Frost. “If we were really family, would he be so quick to risk our lives?”

“He’s risking his life, too. They all are.”

Frost threw down her brush. “Because it’s his life to risk! What right does he have to risk our lives—your life—without even asking?”

“You would’ve said yes anyway, wouldn’t you?”

“He still should have asked!” She turned away. Slowly she sank down on a nearby rock and buried her face in her hands. “All my life, all I’ve ever wanted was to keep you safe.”

Flame sighed. “Sister, I’m a grown man,” he said. “I’m not a boy anymore. And I mean this in the best way, but I don’t need your protection.” He took a seat beside her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “I want to do this, and I want you by my side, but if you want to leave—Garth will understand. They all will. No one is forcing us to stay.”

For a while, Frost didn’t speak. One of the horses gave a restless stamp of its hooves. A bird sang, somewhere nearby, and another one answered from somewhere deeper in the woods. It was a long while before Frost finally raised her head.

“We’ll stay,” she said, wiping her face with her sleeve. “But when this is over—When this is over, we’ll go somewhere else, just the two of us.”

Avenel slept. When she woke again, bleary afternoon sunlight filtered in through the shuttered window.

“Good morning,” said Nicholas. “Well, afternoon.”

“Where’s Deena?” asked Avenel.

“Outside, helping Izra sort some herbs,” said Nicholas. “Izi’s eyesight isn’t good. How do you feel?”

Groggy, was the answer. “Fine,” she said. Her stomach growled. “Is there lunch left?”

“Ah, right,” said Nicholas, getting to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”

A few minutes later he returned, holding a bowl of cold stew. Fat had congealed at the top, and he skimmed it away with a spoon before handing it to her.

“I could rekindle the fire, heat it up again,” he said.

Avenel shook her head. “This is fine.”

They sat in silence as she ate. Nicholas had picked up the book that Deena had left by the bed, but she could tell by his eyes he wasn’t reading. Surreptitiously, his eyes darted up at her as he turned the page, then just as quickly glanced away again.

She set down the bowl when she was done. “I’m sorry about Inoor,” she said. “It was wrong of Izra to keep that from you.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“Will you tell me about her? About—about your wife?”

“I’m not sure what there is to tell.”

Avenel looked at him for a moment. “You don’t want to talk about her with me.”

“No,” said Nicholas. “No, it isn’t—I’m just not sure how to explain.”

“Hm,” said Avenel. She smoothed out the wrinkles on her blanket. “I was told—and perhaps this may sound farfetched—but I was told that my soul was once Inoor’s.”

At this, Nicholas looked up. “Who told you that?”

“Is it true?”

He didn’t answer right away, but at last he nodded.

“I see,” said Avenel.

“I’m sorry,” said Nicholas. “If it makes any difference, I did care about you—do care about you—even once I realized you weren’t her. I just… couldn’t in the way you wanted.”

“How long did it take you to realize?”

“Too long,” said Nicholas. “Izra could see right away you were a different person, but I…” he trailed off.

“You saw what you wanted to see,” finished Avenel.

Nicholas nodded. “By the time I finally accepted that you weren’t her, it was already too late, and I felt—I don’t know. It was my fault that you were in love with me. I felt that I couldn’t leave.”

“Then why Katrina?” she asked. “If you didn’t want to hurt me—”

Nicholas shook his head. “I thought—I thought perhaps if you hated me, it would be easier to leave.”

Avenel looked at him. “You’re a coward, Nicholas.”

He looked down to avoid her gaze. “I know. Believe me, if I could take back what I did—”

“You can’t,” interrupted Avenel. “Neither of us can.”

They were silent a while. Outside, one of the horses snorted and stamped its feet. She studied him: the shape of his cheekbones, the nape of his neck, the golden curl of his hair. Every inch of him was familiar to her—even now she could remember the scent of his sweat and the texture of his skin. His was the shape that had filled her dreams, once, and her memories of youthful pleasures. Just the merest glimpse of him had been enough to make her smile.

But now?

“I never knew you, did I?” she asked. “Everything you told me was a lie. You’re like a stranger.”

“So are you,” said Nicholas. “You’ve had a lifetime without me; you’ve changed.”

“I suppose I have,” said Avenel. She looked down at his hands, at his long tapered fingers. How often had those fingers been entwined in her own? She thought of holding them now, but the thought felt strange and foreign. “If we’re strangers,” she said, “perhaps we could start anew. In time, we might even be friends.”

At this, he looked up at her, surprised. “I’d like that,” he said, a smile blooming on his face. Once, that smile had been enough to light up her world.

She smiled back, but it was someone else’s smile she thought of.

She slept again soon after, a dreamless sleep brought on by one of Izra’s sleeping draughts. This time, when she woke again, it was a slow and gradual sort of awakening. It was dark out, and a lantern flickered weakly by the foot of her bed. Garthniiel sat beside her, but he had dozed off with his head in his hands. She watched him for a moment, the lanternlight dancing over his thick lashes and bronzed skin. Then a breeze blew through, banging open the shutters and extinguishing the lantern’s flame.

Garthniiel started awake.

“Hello,” said Avenel.

Garthniiel rubbed his eyes. “You’re awake,” he said. Starlight streamed in through the open window, illuminating the shape of his jawline, his nose, his shoulders.

“You didn’t have to sit up with me,” said Avenel. “I’m fine.”

“You were half dead just a day ago,” said Garthniiel. “I was—We were worried.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Avenel. She began to push herself up into a sitting position, but pain shot through her arms. She winced.

“Let me help,” said Garthniiel, reaching forward to catch her weight, and as he did so, Avenel found herself leaning into the crook of his shoulder. It was warm there, and surprisingly comfortable, as though his shoulder had been moulded for her cheek. “Do you want more of the pain medicine?” he asked. His voice rumbled like distant thunder through his chest.

“No,” said Avenel.

“Some food, then? Or I could wake Izra, if you’re not feeling well.”

“I’m fine,” said Avenel.

Garthniiel nodded. He began to pull away, but she put her hand over his arm to stop him.

“Wait,” she said. “Stay.”

She could hear his heartbeat through his chest, hear his pulse quicken, but he stayed. Slowly, like a hunter afraid to startle a deer, he eased himseif into a more comfortable position with his arm wrapped about her shoulder to carry her weight.

“Thank you,” said Avenel.

This heart gave a quick thu-thump. “For what?” he asked.

“For not leaving,” said Avenel. “I lied to you about Deena, and you’re still here.”

“You were trying to protect her,” said Garthniiel. “I understand.”

She nodded. She had forgotten how nice it felt to be held, of feeling the body heat of another around her. How long had it been? She thought of Nicholas, asleep just outside. All she had to do was call for him, and he would come and hold her, like he had so often when she was young.

But she was no longer young, no longer the Kassandra of yesteryear. It wasn’t Nicholas who held her now, and it wasn’t Nicholas she wanted.

“Will you tell me something, Garth?”

“Yes?”

“Do you care for me?”

His heart gave another thu-thump. “Are you asking me to leave?”

She was surprised by that. “Why would I ask you to leave?”

“Because my feelings are a burden,” said Garthniiel. “A distraction. It’s no secret that you’ve never had a lover in three hundred years. Not to mention you’re Elyrian, and I’m Ajjraean, and with the end of the world—”

She held up a hand to stop him. “I don’t care about any of that,” she said. “And I’ve never had a lover because I was afraid of being hurt. When Nicholas—” She paused. “Suffice to say it cut deep.”

“What did he do?” asked Garthniiel.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Avenel. “What matters is how I responded. But seeing him again—talking to him again—I’ve begun to think that I shouldn’t let who I was get in the way of who I am.”

“What do you mean?”

She paused to consider her words. “It’s been a long time since I’ve… since I’ve been with someone. You’re right that we’ve more pressing concerns, with the end of the world and this business with the stars. But I’m tired, Garthniiel. I’m tired of carrying this pain and of being afraid of heartbreak.”

“I would never hurt you,” said Garthniiel. “I promise—”

Avenel shook her head. “Words are meaningless, Garth. Anyone can lie. But with time, I may learn to take that risk again.”

“Then I’ll wait for you,” said Garthniiel. “However long it takes, I’ll wait.”

She thought for a moment and pulled away to look at him. He looked back at her, his expression a convoluted mix of hope and trepidation, desire and doubt. Moonlight illuminated the angles of his face, and she wondered what it would be like to wake up to that face in the mornings.

She shook her head. “I’m tired of waiting,” she said, and she pressed her mouth to his.

Crack! went the whip against Tuule’s back, and his skin split open beneath the leather. Fresh blood poured out, crimson red, running over the crusted blood that had dried there before. Tuule barely reacted, just a low grunt and a rattling of chains.

Lord Loorne held up his hand. “Stop,” he said. “Keep him awake.”

The prison guard threw a bucket of water at Tuule’s face. He coughed and sputtered, then his eyes slowly opened.

Loorne looked at him, at this man he had once considered kin. They had dined together, drank together, rode together, and more, but now Tuule hung upside down in a prison cell while Loorne sat in a plush chair and watched.

“Why?” asked Loorne for what felt like the thousandth time.

Tuule said nothing, just stared back with dull eyes that seemed more dead than alive. Loorne gave a gesture, then turned away as the whip came down.

“Why?” he asked again.

Again, Tuule said nothing.

“Dammit, Tuule, I asked you WHY?!” A servant had brought Loorne a cup of tea, but it had grown cold in the hours since. He sent it flying as he rose from the chair, then crossed the breadth of the cell in two quick steps. He knelt down in the blood and spit that had pooled beneath Tuule’s head to take the other man’s face in his hands. “Just answer me, please. Did I not treat you well enough? Did I not care for you enough? What did I do wrong?!”

Tuule’s swollen lips moved as if to answer.

Loorne gestured at the guard. “Release him, quickly.”

The guard pulled the lever that loosened the chains, and Tuule fell into Loorne’s arms. Loorne leaned down, putting his ear beside his old friend’s lips.

“It wasn’t you,” said Tuule. “You could never do wrong by me.”

“Then why?” asked Loorne. “Why steal my seal? Why forge my orders? Why attack Taunsgrove?”

“I had to,” said Tuule. “She asked me to.”

“Who? Who asked you?”

Tuule laughed, a watery, shaky laugh that dissolved quickly into a fit of coughing. Blood dribbled from his lips, and Loorne was quick to mop it up with his sleeve. “It doesn’t matter,” said Tuule. “I failed her.”

“But who?” asked Loorne. “For the love I bear you, Tuule, you must have a reason. Tell me, and I may be able to plead for mercy with the Prince.”

Tuule shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand, old friend. You weren’t there. If you had been, if you had seen her, you would know.”

“But who is she?” asked Loorne. “Tell me, please. Who is this woman that you would commit treason for her?”

Tuule’s laugh was that of a dead man, a ghastly rattle in his chest. “Not a woman,” he said, smiling. “An angel.”