Hallowed

XXVIII. Old Guilt

Flame sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “And what did you say she did?” he asked.

“Public drunkenness and fisticuffs,” said the guard, looking down at his ledger. “Sound like your gal?”

“Yeah, that sounds like her,” said Flame.

The guard nodded and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Go on and see her while I start the paperwork. Between you and me, no one minds terribly much that she beat up those three, but maybe talk some sense into her before she gets herself hurt.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Flame.

Frost was in the cell furthest from the door, lying on a straw pallet and staring up at the ceiling. There was a small cut on her cheek and a bruise on her jaw, but otherwise, she seemed fine.

“Getting into fights without me, Sister?” asked Flame.

Frost lifted her head slightly to look at him. “Just get me out of here.”

“Do you remember when we used to come here to bail out Da?”

Frost scowled. “Don’t compare me to Da.”

Flame put up his hands in resignation. “Fine. I won’t. But just so you know, you’ve had us running around all morning, looking for you. Garth was afraid you’d been kidnapped.”

“Huh. I thought they would’ve just left me.”

Flame sighed. “They wouldn’t. We can talk about it once you’re out of here.”

“About that,” said the guard, approaching them. There was another guard behind him, a more senior one, judging by his uniform.

“Is there a problem, sirs?” asked Flame.

It was the more senior guard who answered. “When a particularly egregious crime occurs in the city, a record of it is kept in perpetuity.”

Flame shook his head. “It was a drunken streetfight. Surely that can’t be considered egregious.”

“Not that,” said the guard. “A different crime. Ellia of Selkie’s Shore, you are hereby arrested on the charge of patricide.”

At the inn, Garthniiel paced the length of the room, not that it was long enough to do much pacing. A single step took him to where Deena and Avenel sat on one of the beds, and another step took him back to Flame and Izra sitting on the other bed.

“This is ridiculous,” said Garthniiel. “If you knew this could happen, why didn’t you say something before?”

“Our father was a common drunkard,” said Flame. “I didn’t think anyone would care.”

“They don’t,” said Avenel. “They care about Frost, and her connection to Garthniiel.”

Garthniiel turned. “Are you saying they arrested Frost to get to me?”

“Not necessarily, but someone wanted this. How else could they have found the file so quickly?”

Flame ran a hand over his face. “I should’ve given them a false name.”

“You didn’t have the papers,” said Avenel. “That might have made them more suspicious.”

There was a knock on the door. “It’s me,” called Nicholas’s voice, and Deena stood to let him in. “I spoke to the ship’s captain,” he said. “He’s willing to wait another day, but for a price.” He closed the door behind him. “Any news?”

Avenel shook her head. “We tried talking to the guards: threats, bribery—Nothing’s worked. We don’t even know where they’ve moved her.”

“Aren’t you a prince?” asked Nicholas, turning toward Garthniiel.

“Only in name,” said Garthniiel. “I don’t have any political clout.”

“What about Greeore?” asked Flame. “Or the king? Could we write to them?”

Garthniiel shook his head. “It would take too long for a letter to reach them, and that’s if they’re even still at the Meridian.” He stood. “I’m going to go talk to the magistrate. Maybe he’s friends with Greoore.”

“He isn’t,” said Avenel.

“Do you know him?” asked Garthniiel.

“Only by reputation,” replied Avenel. “His name is Lord Matiias. I should warn you: He’s known for holding a grudge against you.”

“Against me? What did I do?”

“Exist,” said Avenel. “There was a time when he was one of the king’s most trusted advisors, but after you were born, he insisted that Toorre acknowledge your bastardy, even after Toorre continually refused to do so. They nearly came to blows over it, and for decades he was banished from court. He’s hated you ever since.”

Garthniiel took a deep breath and sighed. “He’s not even going to listen to me, then, is he?”

Flame reached out to grab Garthniiel’s hand. “Garth, we have to try. Please. If we don’t—”

“I know,” said Garthniiel. “I know.”

It was after Flame and Garthniiel had left the room that Izra stood and walked to the window. The sun was hidden behind a heavy bank of cloud, but she gazed toward it anyway. “We don’t have time for this,” she said.

“If we leave her, she dies,” said Avenel. “She’ll be hanged.”

“And if we stay?” asked Izra. “If we fail to make it to our destination in time?”

“It may not come to that,” said Avenel. “We still have time.”

“For now,” said Izra.

“You’re not—you’re not thinking of leaving Frost behind?” asked Deena. “She—We can’t! We can’t just let her die!”

“Would you rather we end the world?” asked Izra. “That’s the choice: one life or the world.”

“But—”

Avenel put a hand on Deena’s shoulder. “It won’t come to that,” she said. “We’ll get Frost out; don’t worry.”

It was afternoon by the time Garthniiel managed to get an audience with Matiias. A doorman showed him to an ornate sitting room. High on the wall, a portrait of King Toorre stared disapprovingly down. In silence, Garthniiel waited, wearing a groove in the floor as he paced, until at long last the double doors at the other end of the room swung open.

Lord Matiias was a large man, round of face and gut. Though only a magistrate, he stepped through with his head held as high as a king’s. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” said Matiias, adjusting the lace cuff of his sleeve. “How might I help you, your highness?”

Garthniiel bowed. “It’s an honor to meet you, my lord.”

“The honor is mine,” said Matiias. He took a seat in one of the armchairs by the fireplace and gestured for Garthniiel to take the other.

Garthniiel sat. “I’m not sure if it’s come to your attention yet,” he said, “but your city’s fine guards made an arrest this morning.”

“My city guards arrest many people,” said Matiias. “We’re a busy port. I can hardly be expected to know of every gambler or vagrant.”

“Of course not,” said Garthniiel, putting on his winningest smile. “You’re a busy man, after all, and I thank you on the king’s behalf. But for crimes of a more significant nature—”

Matiias held up a hand. “You need not say more; I know the case of which you speak. When my men saw they had arrested a known companion of a prince, they brought it to my attention immediately. It’s a heavy charge, patricide. You must be devastated by her deception.”

“No, you misunderstand, my lord,” said Garthniiel. “Frost—Ellia—is innocent. What’s more, the alleged crime happened over a century ago; I doubt there’s anyone alive who could say what truly happened.”

“Do you have proof of her innocence?”

“Well, no, but I can give you my word that—”

“With all due respect, your highness, the word of a liar means nothing.”

Garthniiel’s smile faltered. “Liar?”

“Let us be frank,” said Matiias. “You and I both know what you are, yet you came to me today as a prince. Does that not make you a liar?”

Garthniiel stared. He wanted to answer, to make some rebuttal or at least a witty quip, but no words sprung to his aid.

Matiias stood. “If there’s nothing else, your highness, I’m quite busy. There’s an execution to prepare for. Oh, and the trial, of course.”

“And—and when would that be?” asked Garthniiel.

“Tomorrow morning,” was the reply.

Garthniiel’s world spun. It was only when Matiias was at the door that he caught himself. “W-wait,” he croaked.

“Yes, your highness?” asked Matiias.

“Can I at least be allowed to see her?”

Matiias smiled. “Of course,” he said. “All are welcome to witness the hanging.”

Outside Matiias’s residence, Flame was waiting by the gate. “How did—” he began, but stopped when Garthniiel walked past him and onto the street.

It was nearing suppertime, but the streets were still filled with people. A greengrocer swore at Garthniiel as he nearly bowled into her, but he ignored her and continued on. He walked past the shops and the shoppers, the myriad of people with their own lives and loves and worries. They were all chatting, bartering, squabbling over trivials as though not a thing was wrong.

“Garth!”

Vaguely, he was aware of Flame following behind him, and vaguely he was aware of walking faster and faster as he wove through the crowd. Flame called after him, but he couldn’t stop—wouldn’t stop. If he did, Flame would catch up to him, would ask how it went. And how could he possibly look him in the eye—his friend, his companion, his closer-than-brother—and tell him that his sister would die?

“Garth, wait!”

He was running now, sidestepping a pair of stray dogs tugging at a bone to disappear into a narrow alleyway. He ran past boarded windows, upturned crates, lines of laundry, and piles of waste until—

“Garthniiel!”

Until a wall loomed in front of him. A dead end.

A hand landed on his shoulder, and he spun around. “What?!”

Flame pulled back his hand. “Are you crying?”

“No,” said Garthniiel, wiping at his eyes with the heel of his palm. “Yes. Shouldn’t I be?”

“What happened?” asked Flame.

“What happened is that Frost is going to die and it’s my fault.”

“So it didn’t go well, then,” said Flame.

Garthniiel gave a bark of laughter. “Well? Avenel was right; he hates me! All I’ve done is show him that hanging her would hurt me, and now he’s going to do exactly that!”

“I see,” said Flame. He reached for the wall for support. “When?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

Flame closed his eyes.

“Punch me,” said Garthniiel.

“What?”

“Punch me,” repeated Garthniiel. “This is my fault.”

“How is it—”

“If I hadn’t dragged you back to this city—If you’d never met me—If I hadn’t been born—” He smacked himself across the face. “Why was I born? Why couldn’t I have died in the womb?”

Flame grabbed his wrist before he could hit himself a second time. “Stop this.”

“Why?” asked Garthniiel. “You’re supposed to hate me.”

“I don’t.” said Flame. “None of this—none of what’s happened—has been your fault.”

“But if it wasn’t for me—”

Flame shook his head. “You didn’t ask to be born. You didn’t ask to be you.”

“But Frost is going to be hanged.”

“So help me get her back,” said Flame. He put his hands on Gartniiel’s face. “Please, Garth. I need you. You and Frost—you’re all I have.”

Slowly, Garthniiel nodded. “We’ll get her back, I promise. Whatever it takes, we’ll get her back.”

“Thank you,” said Flame, and wrapped his arms around Garthniiel.

Garthniiel hugged him back. For a while, the two simply stood there in each other’s arms until the first fat drops of rain fell from the sky.

It was Flame who pulled away, holding out his hand to feel the rain. “Did you bring a cloak?” he asked.

“No, I hadn’t thought to,” said Garthniiel. At the mouth of the alley, he could see the shoppers all scattering as the rain began to pour. They were far enough from the inn that a walk back in the downpour would be unpleasant, but that at least was a problem he could solve. “Come on,” he said. “We’ll find a rickshaw.”

Despite the rickshaw, they were soaking wet by the time they returned. The dining room was packed—doubtless with people looking to escape the rain—but Avenel had claimed a seat near the fire and waved them over.

“He’s planning to hang her tomorrow,” said Garthniiel in a low voice as he wrung the water from his shirt. “He said there’ll be a trial, but—”

“—but he made it clear it’ll be a sham?” asked Avenel.

Garthniiel nodded.

“I see,” said Avenel. “I was afraid of that.”

“Can we pressure him in some way?” asked Flame. “Blackmail? Bribery?”

Avenel shook her head. “He’s notoriously difficult. As far as I know, he has no lovers, no vice, and doesn’t even drink.”

“Who doesn’t drink?” asked Garthniiel.

“Your Aunt Welsiica didn’t,” said Avenel. “Regardless, I doubt any of the usual tricks could have persuaded him.”

“So what do we do?” asked Garthniiel. “We don’t even know where she is.”

“We know one place where she will be,” said Avenel.

“The trial,” said Flame.

“And the execution,” added Avenel. “I have an idea, but…” she trailed off.

“But?” prompted Garthniiel.

“But you two can’t be involved.”

“What? Why?” exclaimed Garthniiel.

“Because it’s a trap. Matiias wants you to help her escape. That’s why he made it so clear he planned to hang her—to goad you into action.”

“But why?”

“Because there’s only one thing Toorre values more than his pride. If it became known that you were colluding with a murderer and in fact tried to help her escape, he would have no choice but to denounce you to protect his and Greoore’s political positions.”

“And Matiias would be vindicated,” finished Flame.

Avenel nodded. “And if you were to be killed in the escape attempt, even better.”

“If it saves Frost’s life—” began Garthniiel.

“It won’t,” said Avenel. “Matiias will be watching you; you’ll never reach her in time. Our only advantage is that he’ll wait for you to implicate yourselves before he acts. The best thing you can do is to go to that execution and do nothing. Make sure he sees you. And hopefully, that’ll keep him distracted from the rest of us for long enough to get her out.”

Garthniiel and Flame glanced at each other. “I can’t just sit by and do nothing,” said Garthniiel.

“But you must,” said Avenel. “Do you trust me?”

Garthniiel turned to Flame. “I—I can’t make that decision.”

Flame sighed. “We don’t have a choice.” He reached across the table to clasp Avenel’s hand in his. “Just bring her home. Please.”

“I’ll do my best,” said Avenel.

Flame nodded. “That’s all I can ask.”

They went upstairs to change out of their wet clothes, after that, then back down for an early dinner. The others came down too, though none of them spoke very much. Avenel was the first to leave the table, rising after just a few hasty bites. “I have some preparations to make,” she said. “Don’t expect me until morning.”

“What about me?” asked Deena.

“Stay with Izra,” said Avenel. “Don’t leave the inn.”

Long after the others had finished their meal and departed, Garthniiel and Flame still sat in the emptying dining room. The innkeeper’s children had long since cleared the table, and even the embers in the fireplace were dying.

“We should get some sleep, too, Garth,” said Flame, breaking the silence.

Garthniiel nodded. “You go on ahead.”

Flame nodded and began to rise, then paused. “Garth, there’s something you should know.”

“What is it?” asked Garthniiel.

“The—the thing that Frost’s accused of, she really did do it. I thought it would only be fair if you knew.”

“Oh,” said Garthniiel.

“Does this change anything?” asked Flame.

Garthniiel shook his head. “I just wish she had told me.”

It was raining. The disembodied girl felt the fat raindrops soak through the stranger’s cloak and into her clothes and hair. She was perched on a narrow ledge outside an upper story window, pressed tight against the wall, waiting in the dark.

Down below, a night watchman walked past on his patrol, but he did not look up.

The window was closed, but the crack in the shutters was wide enough for the stranger to peer inside. It was a dining room, the table set for three. At the head of the table was a dark-haired man with hooded eyes. A woman stood beside him, filling his goblet with wine, her other hand resting lightly on his shoulder. The third person was obscured by the shutters, only his hands visible as they rested on the table.

“I’ve dismissed all the servants for the night,” said the said the dark haired man, “so we may speak more freely. None know you are here.”

“Discrete as always, my lord,” said the man obscured by the shutters. “But will you not drink with us, my lady?”

“You’ll have to forgive my wife,” said the dark-haired man. “She never drinks with her meals.”

“A pity,” said the obscured man. “This is certainly a fine vintage you’ve uncasked.”

“Have as much as you like,” said the dark-haired man. “This dinner is in your honor, after all.”

“Then I thank you,” said the obscured man, lifting his goblet in a toast.

“It’s my wife you should thank,” said the dark-haired man. He looked to the woman and smiled. “It was she who convinced me to accept your offer.”

“Of course,” said the obscured man, tilting his goblet in the woman’s direction. “I assume it was useful, the information I provided?”

“You tease, sir,” said the woman. “I’m sure you’ve already heard the news.”

The obscured man laughed. “You’ve seen right through me, my lady. Lord Ephraim’s death should be quite a feather in your husband’s cap.”

The woman studied him for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “That Lord Ephraim was there was certainly an unexpected windfall.”

“I’m happy to have been of service,” said the obscured man. “Now, what of my end of the bargain? Surely I’ve proven my value to Ajjraea?”

For just a moment, the dark-haired man and his wife glanced at one another. “There will be plenty of time to discuss that,” said the man. “Today, we celebrate our victory.” He raised his goblet. “To Symeon.”

“To Symeon,” said his wife, following suit.

The obsured man raised his glass as well. “May this be the beginning of a fruitful relationship.”

They drank. The dark-haired man drained his cup, and the obscured man must have as well. He reached for the pitcher to refill his cup, but the woman was quick to grab it first. “Please, allow me,” she said.

The obscured man chuckled. “Afraid I’ll poison your husband?” he asked.

“Excuse me?” asked the woman.

“Let us drop the charade now, my lady,” said the obscured man. “I know you have no intention of keeping me around; you’re far too clever to trust a traitor.”

“Then why are you here?” asked the woman, but a moment later she had her answer. Her husband doubled over in pain, one hand clutching at his stomach, one hand reaching for his wife.

“Welsiica—” began her husband, then toppled from his chair onto the floor.

For the first time that evening, the obscured man stepped into view, smiling from ear to ear. “You were so vigilant in guarding your husband’s cup,” he said, “that you didn’t notice what I slipped into mine.” From his pocket, he produced a tiny glass vial, half-filled with a murky liquid. “The antidote,” he explained. “You yourself served the poison to your husband; I merely poisoned the cask.”

The woman shouted something, but the stranger didn’t hear as the shutters burst open. A moment later, Symeon leapt out the window and onto the ledge. He did not seem surprised to see the stranger there, but rather smiled. “Good to see you again, my teacher,” he said, and leapt from the ledge onto the roof of the house next door.

The stranger gave chase. They leapt from rooftop to balcony to rooftop again, then along a courtyard wall and down onto the rainslicked cobble streets. She chased him through the alleys and around corner after corner until finally he ran down a boardwalk that ended at the edge of the water. He looked down at the water, at the inky depths below, then turned to face the stranger.

Smiling, he pulled the little vial of antidote from his pocket. “Time to choose, my teacher,” he called and tossed the glittering glass vial into the air. “Your revenge or his life?”

For half a heartbeat, the stranger hesitated. Then she dove for the vial, catching it just before it hit the ground. By the time she got to her feet again, Symeon was gone, with not even a ripple in the water.

The window was still open when the stranger returned. Inside, Welsiica sat on the floor, her husband’s head cradled in her lap. She didn’t look up as the stranger entered, but said, “You’re too late. He’s gone.”

“I’m sorry,” said the stranger. She took the antidote from her pocket and placed it on the table.

“I’d like you to leave, please,” said Welsiica.

The stranger nodded. For a moment she hesitated, as though wanting to say something more, but in the end she only said “I’m sorry” once more.

“Just leave,” said Welsiica, clutching Jaliin’s body to her chest.

The stranger turned to go. As she did so, her eyes fell on the door. It was ajar, and in the crack between the door and its frame was the small, frightened face of a child.

The city had changed since last she was here, but then again, it had been awhile. There was a clocktower now at the highest point of the hill, and Avenel made her way there. She made short work of lock on the door then climbed the many flights of stairs to the top. Just beneath the enormous bronze bell, she found a perch and sat. She could see the whole city from here.

It reminded her, a little, of her favorite spot in Parvelhaugh, that windowsill in the tallest watchtower where she had spent countless hours looking out at the fields below. From there, she would watch the farmhands at work, and from here, she could see the cityfolk; it was not so different. There was a late ship pulling into port, the night shift dockhands scrambling to unload her wares. There was a pair of giggling lovers in an alley, meeting in secret by the cover of night. Somewhere to the west was the inn, where Deena lay sleeping and Garthniiel doubtless lay restless. And there, in the square outside the courthouse, was the gallows, the empty noose swaying in the wind.

For all the reassurances she had given to Deena and Garthniiel, the truth was that she hadn’t even an inkling of a plan. There hadn’t been time to gather the information she would need: How many guards would there be? How much time between Frost’s head being put in the noose and when the platform beneath her would open? Most importantly, did Matiias know about herself and the others, or was he only aware of Garthniiel and Flame?

And even if she had all that information, she had only herself; neither Nicholas nor Izra were fighters. Even without her injuries, she was just one person. To steal Frost away from under the watchful eyes of Matiias, his guards, and the public of Selkie’s Shore—How could she hope to do that alone?

Footsteps echoed up the stairwell. Avenel reached for her knives, and a moment later a beggar woman in a ratty old cloak emerged from below.

The beggar outside the bank, Avenel realized, and in a flash her dagger was at the woman’s throat. “Who are you?” she asked.

The woman wasn’t frightened or even alarmed. “It must be a good disguise to have you fooled,” she said, and wiped the dirt from her face with her sleeve.

Avenel lowered her knife. “Lady Welsiica,” she said.

“Not anymore,” said Welsiica. “These days I seem to take a different name each week.”

“Have you stayed here all this time? In Selkie’s Shore?”

Welsiica shook her head. “I searched for Symeon for a while, as you did, but you know how that turned out.” She took a seat on the windowsill. “Don’t worry; I’ve no intention of informing Matiias that you’re here. When the bank clerk told him of a woman in Garthniiel’s company, he assumed it was Frost.”

“But you recognized me at once,” said Avenel.

“I did,” said Welsiica. “It was Garthniiel who I failed to recognize.” She turned to gaze out at the square. “Jaliin loved the boy, you know. I should have done better by him.”

“You were grieving,” said Avenel.

“So was he,” said Welsiica, “and still I sent him back to court to live with his mother and Toorre.”

She turned to Avenel as if looking for a response, but Avenel had none to give. Somewhere in the distance, a seagull squawked.

“I haven’t told him,” said Avenel at last. “I haven’t told him what happened that night.”

“Do you think he would blame you?” asked Welsiica.

Avenel shook her head. “The problem is that I know he wouldn’t.”

“Just as you know he would forgive you for failing to save Frost.”

“Yes,” said Avenel.

“But you wouldn’t forgive yourself.”

Avenel didn’t answer.

Welsiica took a deep breath and turned to look out at the square again. “I don’t want to fail him again, either.”