V. Guardian

“Ajjraean,” repeated Avenel. “You had a child with an Ajjraean woman.”

Vallus nodded. He didn’t look at her, keeping his eyes instead fixed on the ring in his hand. He remembered giving it to Edith, to give to Deena when the time was right. He had never imagined that it would be Avenel who brought it back to him.

“Vallus,” said Avenel. “That was foolish.”

“I know,” said Vallus, “but Deena isn’t— I mean, you saw her. She’s a child, just a child. She’s harmless.”

“The Council won’t see it that way.”

Vallus looked up. “You aren’t going to tell them, are you?”

“Of course not,” said Avenel, “but you can’t hide her forever.”

“I know. I just—I wanted to protect her. It was the only way I knew how.”

“Did you know that her mother was Ajjraean when you laid with her?”

“I did,” said Vallus. “I know what you and Ephraim always said: ‘Don’t let your feelings cloud your judgement.’ But heavens help me, I…” He sighed. “I would turn back time to be with her again.”

“You loved her,” said Avenel.

Vallus nodded. “With everything I have.”

Avenel looked at him for a moment, then pulled over a chair and sat down. “Tell me about her,” she said. “How did you meet?”

He sighed. Where to begin? “She was a painter,” he said. “Neither of us were Hallowed, then. Every week, she would come to my father’s shop to buy her dyes, and I always made sure that I was the one at the counter.” He smiled. “Later, she told me that some weeks she didn’t even need anything; she just wanted to see me. Well, one thing led to another. We wanted to marry, to start a family, but you remember how things were back then. We were by the border, and a town like ours was always being raided, if not by one side then by the other. We didn’t want to raise our family in that kind of place. So one day, when the Elyrians came, I told them where the merchants liked to hide the best of their goods, in exchange for a better life. I didn’t know it at the time, but the very same night, the Ajjraeans came as well. Their general was Lord Raniith—you remember how his wife was a fan of the arts—and when he saw Fosette in her studio, he offered her a place in his household. She thought the same thing that I did, that she would come back for me once she was Hallowed, but by then we were both already gone. For decades I searched for her, but when I found her, it was on the wrong side of the border.”

“You couldn’t let each other go,” said Avenel.

Vallus nodded. “It was just letters, at first, and the occasional visit when I could manage. When you left and named me your successor, I admit I got a bit bolder. We married. At first I thought perhaps we could go overseas to where no one would know us, but then Fosette became with child. So I found a cottage, a secluded place where she could have the child in secret. She wanted to raise Deena herself, but—” He stopped. Even now his hands shook as he thought of it.

“She didn’t make it, did she?” asked Avenel gently.

He sighed. “I shouldn’t have taken her to that cottage. I should have taken her to a town, with a physician. There was so much blood, I—” He closed his eyes. “The last word she said was Deena’s name.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Avenel.

“Thank you,” said Vallus. “It was Edith who oversaw the burial. She was a maidservant of Lord Raniith’s, Fosette’s friend and a close confidant. She had come to care for Fosette in the last months of her pregnancy, and when she offered to raise Deena as her own, I said yes. I—I tried to be a good father, as much as I could. I made sure they never wanted for anything. I know it wasn’t enough, but gods forgive me, I tried.”

They sat in silence for a moment, until the grandfather clock in the corner chimed the half-hour with a loud bwong.

“I should get ready for supper,” said Avenel, rising.

Vallus nodded. “Are you—are you angry with me?”

“Why should I be?” asked Avenel.

“What I did—It’s tantamount to treason. I’ve betrayed my office. I’ve lied to you and—”

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “People with pure intentions don’t come our department. All that matters to me is what you do now.”

“I—I don’t know,” said Vallus.

“Then think on it,” said Avenel. “Just know that whatever choice you make, you won’t be making it alone.”

Vallus nodded. “Thank you, old friend. Coming from you, that means a great deal.”

It had never occurred to Deena that some people have separate rooms for bathing, but she decided that she rather liked the idea.

The suite of rooms set aside for Deena and Avenel was huge, much larger than her cottage in Taunsgrove. There was an outer room furnished half as a study and half as a sitting room, with a door leading to the equally spacious bedroom, which contained two beds divided by an ornate silk screen. Both rooms featured the same tall windows that had been in Vallus’s study, framed with heavy curtains.

The bath was in a much smaller room that opened from the bedroom. A woman – a servant, Deena guessed – showed Deena how to use the pump to bring the water up from below. There was even a stove in the room so the water could be heated with ease. And of course, there was the tub, permanently affixed in the center of the room and large enough to sleep in. The servant helped Deena fill the tub, but when she made to help Deena undress as well, Deena had to ask her to leave. She hoped she hadn’t offended the woman.

The bathwater was nice and hot as Deena eased herself in, and the room had turned pleasantly foggy. Deena studied the carvings along the rim of the tub as she let her aching muscles relax. Everything in the room was beautifully ornate, from the gilded wall trim to the soap dish. Even the soap itself was pleasantly scented and carved into the shape of a leaf. Deena almost felt almost guilty rubbing it across her body, but it was the only soap she had been given.

She was glad to wash the smell of smoke from her hair.

The servant had laid out a clean linen shift for her, so Deena put it on. There was a hair brush, too, scissors to trim her nails, and even a small bottle of fragrance. She dabbed a bit on her wrist, as the noble ladies in books often did, but perhaps she had put too much because the scent was overpoweringly strong.

When she emerged from the room, she found Avenel lounging fully clothed on one of the beds.

“Oh!” said Deena. “I’m sorry; I’m not dressed.”

“I didn’t expect you to be,” said Avenel. She nodded towards the silk screen that divided the room. “There’s a dress for you on the other bed. Try it on.”

The dress was a beautiful blue, the color of the sky on a sunny day, with white lace on the sleeves and collar. It was finer than anything Deena had ever worn. She ran her hand over the fabric; it slipped like water beneath her fingers. “Whose is it?” she asked.

“Yours, if you want it,” replied Avenel.

“Mine?” asked Deena. “I can’t accept this; it’s too nice.”

“What else are you going to wear to dinner?”

Deena didn’t have an answer. It hadn’t occurred to her that she would have to dress up for dinner, but of course she did—This was a castle, and Avenel was a lord who had come to visit. She had read of fancy dinners in books, but— “I don’t know which fork to use,” she said.

At this, Avenel laughed. The sound surprised Deena; she had hardly seen the woman smile in their days of travel, much less laugh. “Just follow my lead,” said Avenel. “Put on the dress. I’ll help you with the laces after I bathe.”

Deena dressed and observed herself in the mirror. Even without the laces tightened, the dress looked sublime. She had never worn anything so nice before. When Avenel emerged from the bath, she was still in front of the mirror, watching her skirts fan out as she twirled.

“You look lovely,” said Avenel.

Deena blushed. “Sorry,” she said, hurriedly smoothing down the skirt. “You probably think I’m childish.”

“Not at all,” said Avenel. “I confess I’ve done the same.” She disappeared behind the screen that separated the room. Deena could hear her opening the large wardrobe and going through its contents.

“Who lives here normally?” asked Deena. “In this room, I mean.”

“No one; it’s a guest room,” said Avenel. “Charles would have brought my things up from storage once he learned that I was coming.”

“Oh,” said Deena. It seemed a very grand room to be leaving empty. Even the view outside the window was grand, a beautiful vista of blue skies above and verdant forest below.

“Vallus and I spoke,” said Avenel from behind the screen, “and we think it best if no one knows that you’re from Taunsgrove, not until we learn more about the attack. It’s likely that whoever was responsible intended for there to be no survivors.”

“But you said the attack was by the Ajjraeans,” said Deena. “Everyone here is Elyrian.”

“Better paranoid than dead,” said Avenel. “For now, we think it best if you to pretend to be my ward.”

“But that’d be lying,” said Deena.

“It would,” said Avenel. “Is that a problem?”

Deena shook her head, then remembered that Avenel was behind a screen. “No,” she said, “it’s fine.”

A minute later, Avenel emerged, wearing a shimmering silver gown. Tiny gemstones had been stitched into the skirt, denser at the bottom and more sparse up top, in a way that made Deena think of falling stars. There was a necklace in her hand, a large smoky quartz pendant with silver filigree shooting out like sunrays, and she looked in the mirror to put it on.

“Isn’t that heavy?” asked Deena.

“The necklace or the dress?” asked Avenel.

“Both,” said Deena.

“A little,” admitted Avenel. “They were gifts from my wardsister, but it’s been a while since I’ve had cause to wear them.”

“Your wardsister,” said Deena. “That’s… your wardfather’s daughter? Is she an assassin too?”

Avenel laughed. “No; she took after her mother, thankfully.” She turned to Deena. “Let me help you with your laces.”

Deena turned around. Instinctively, she held her breath as Avenel tightened the laces, but Avenel left plenty of room to breathe. Outside, the sky was pink and purple with the sunset, and the forest stretched out to meet it at the horizon. Deena squinted, trying to determine how far away the horizon was. Closer to the Tower, a thin indentation in the endless green gave away the location of some road or river.

“Is that the River Rhiine?” asked Deena. “North of here?”

“No, that’s a tributary,” said Avenel. “The Rhiine isn’t visible from here.”

The stream near Taunsgrove also fed into the Rhiine, or at least that’s what Deena was told. She wondered if this river was the same one. “Do you think the fire was visible from here?”

“Doubtful,” said Avenel. “It’s too far away.”

“Oh,” said Deena. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine how Taunsgrove would look from so far above, but all she saw were cinders.

There was a strange, blubbery sound, and it was a moment before Deena realized that she was crying.

Hurriedly, she wiped at her face with her hands. “I’m s—” she began. She wanted to say that she was sorry, but another sob interrupted her.

Avenel handed her a handkerchief.

Deena pressed the handkerchief to her face, but found that she couldn’t stop crying. Sobs erupted from her mouth, great ugly noises that she couldn’t control. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that they all died. It wasn’t fair that she still lived. She would never see her home again, never see her friends again, never see her mother again. She didn’t want to be here, in this fancy room and this fancy dress. She just wanted to go home, but that wasn’t possible anymore, was it? There was no home to go back to.

She wanted her mother. Instead, all she had was a woman she barely knew, handing her another handkerchief.

Eventually, the sobs gave way to little hiccupy breaths. “I’m s-sorry,” said Deena again, and this time she managed to squeeze out the words. “I didn’t mean to cr-cry.”

Avenel didn’t answer, only handed Deena a cup of water.

Deena drank. “Is my face all red?”

“A little,” said Avenel. “I could have dinner sent up to you, if you’d rather stay in.”

“N-no,” said Deena, wiping her face with the handkerchief. “No, I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

Avenel nodded. She took the empty cup from Deena’s hands and filled it again from the pitcher.

“Thank you,” said Deena. “A-and thank you for taking care of me at the inn, and for the tree you carved, and for helping me b-bury my mother. You didn’t have to do any of that.”

“It was the right thing to do,” said Avenel. She held out her hand. “Are you ready?”

Deena nodded.

Dinner was to take place in the Great Hall, across the courtyard from the tower proper. They met Tatiana in the stairwell, descending from her own room. She was dressed in a beautiful satin gown of deep, inky green, with a plunging neckline that made Deena blush just to look at. They walked the rest of the way together, with Tatiana providing an endless barrage of commentary.

“There’s the archery range over there,” said Tatiana, “and that’s the training area for melee combat. That’s for knife throwing. It’s not used very often, but every now and then someone thinks they’re the next Lord Avenel. There’s a betting pool for who can beat her record, but no one’s even come close. By the way, do you think my lips are too red? I ran out of my usual color, and it’s nearly impossible to get anything here in a timely manner. Oh, that’s Grizzly’s workshop. He’s our weaponsmith. Grizzly isn’t his real name, of course, but he’s very large and hairy. If you see a bear in a suit tonight, that’s probably him. I think his real name is Gunner?”

“Gunther,” corrected Avenel.

“Yes, that’s it,” said Tatiana, “but no one ever calls him that except Lord Vallus and Charles. Have you met Charles? You must have. He seems stern and stuffy, I know, but he’s actually a sweetie at heart. He likes to feed the birds in the garden—you can see it just through that arch—but only when he thinks no one’s looking. Unfortunately for him, he lives in a castle full of trained spies, but no one wants to be the one to tell him that we all know.”

“Gossiping already, Tatiana?” said a male voice behind them. They turned to see Sir Erikr striding towards them, dressed in a fine red tunic and silk capelet. He bowed. “Lord Avenel, you look ravishing, as always. As do young Deena and Tatiana, of course.”

Tatiana blushed prettily as she bowed. “You’re too kind, Sir.”

“Not nearly as kind as you three are beautiful,” said Erikr. “Nor does it compare to your chattiness, it seems. I hope she hasn’t been annoying you, my lord. I did tell her that you tend to prefer quiet, but it seems she doesn’t know the meaning of the word.”

“Not at all,” said Avenel. “If I was hoping to avoid conversation, I wouldn’t have come here at all.”

The Great Hall was easily the largest room that Deena had ever seen, larger even than the massive cavern below. The center of the room was empty, but long tables had been placed on either side. Half the seats had already been filled, and the hall was abuzz with conversation. At the far end of the room was a third, smaller table with seven high-backed chairs, all of which sat empty.

“What’s this empty space in the middle for?” asked Deena.

“It’s for dancing,” said Tatiana.

“There’s going to be dancing?” Deena remembered the dance at Taunsgrove, remembered watching the complex steps from the edge of the room. “Will I have to, um—”

“Only if you want to,” said Tatiana. “I’m afraid I have to leave you now; I’m sitting at the benches.”

“Where do I sit?” asked Deena.

“We’ll be seated at the high table,” said Avenel.

A serving boy was waiting by the dais to show them to their seats. Avenel’s seat was to the right of the large chair in the center, which Deena assumed was for Lord Vallus. Deena herself was seated at Avenel’s right.

Erikr was also at the high table, but seated on the far left, with two empty chairs between him and Vallus. He pouted. “Why am I so far from you two?”

“Because you’re not officially a Master yet,” said a voice behind them.

Deena turned. Two more people were being shown to their seats. One of them, the woman who spoke, sat down on Deena’s right. The other, a dark-skinned man dressed in blue, sat to the left of Vallus’s seat.

The woman had a large scar across her freckled face, and as she adjusted her seat, Deena noticed that her left hand was missing a finger. “Glenna Mor,” she said, extending her other hand for Deena to shake, “but some call me Peggy. I’m the Master of Secrets. That over there is Lord Aldrin, Master of Weapons.”

Deena shook the hand. “I’m Deena Hewe,” she said. “I’m, um, I’m Lord Avenel’s ward.” She tried to bow, but being still seated, managed only an awkward little head bob.

“Ward, is it?” asked Glenna. “I never thought Avenel would take a ward. Well, any friend of Lord Avenel’s is a friend of mine. I owe a lot to her. Her predecessor wanted to throw me out, after my injury, but Lord Avenel fought for me to stay. Got in a right shouting match with Lord Elwin.”

“He wanted to throw you out over a finger?” asked Deena.

Glenna laughed. “Oh, I’m not talking about the finger; that was much later. I guess no one’s told you about me yet, huh? Look down.” Under the table, she lifted up her skirt, just enough to reveal a wooden peg of a leg. “This here is why people call me Peggy. Do you like it?”

“It’s, um, it’s lovely,” said Deena, wondering what else there is to say about a wooden leg.

“Grizzly made it and added some extra features,” said Glenna. She rapped the wood with her knuckles. It sounded hollow. “Of course, once he was done with it, he wouldn’t give me the damned thing unless I agreed to marry him.”

“So what did you do?”

“I married him, of course, and now the fool’s gotta do my repairs for free!” She waved, and across the hall, a large hairy man waved back. “Avenel officiated our wedding, you know.”

“It was a beautiful ceremony,” said Avenel, taking a sip of water from her tankard.

“Bah,” said Glenna with a wave of her hand. “You made Charles put too many flowers. Too pretty a wedding for the two ugliest people in the Tower.”

“You’re not ugly,” said Deena.

Glenna smiled. “Aren’t you sweet? But I know I’m not as pretty as Erikr’s people.”

“Erikr’s people?” asked Deena.

“Erikr’s the acting Master of Persuasion,” said Glenna. “Poor Genevieve—she’s the official Master of Persuasion—is nursing an illness back home. To be honest, none of us are expecting her to come back, so Vallus might just make it official by the end of the year.”

“I see,” said Deena, looking over to where Erikr was engrossed in conversation with Lord Aldrin.

Glenna followed her gaze. “To be honest, I’m surprised those two get along as well as they do, they’re so different. I mean, Aldrin’s a good man—quiet, dependable, has a pet lizard—but he’s not exactly the sort you’d invite for a drink, you know?”

“I am also sitting only three seats away from you, Glenna,” said Aldrin, turning away from his conversation. He had a slight lilting accent and a voice so deep that Deena thought she felt as much as heard it.

“Bah, you know it’s true, Aldrin,” said Glenna, though she grinned sheepishly.

One seat still remained empty, apart from Vallus’s. “Who’s that seat for?” asked Deena.

“That’s for Lord Kamiya, Master of Stealth. Tragic past, poor woman, but one of the nicest people you’re like to meet. Anyway, she won’t be here today, since she’s away on business, but even if she wasn’t, these sorts of dinners aren’t her thing.”

“Why not?” asked Deena.

Glenna hesitated, and it was Avenel who answered. “Kamiya prefers to eat in private,” said Avenel. “Eating is difficult for her as she no longer has a tongue.”

Deena decided that she didn’t want to ask.

Lord Vallus soon joined them, dressed all in black but for a pair of sapphires pinned to his collar. They matched his eyes. The same color adorned the decorative dagger at his hip, a curved thing in a sheath made of filigreed silver.

“I hope you were able to rest after your journey, Deena,” said Vallus.

“Yes, thank you,” said Deena. “A-and thank you for the dress.”

“Think nothing of it,” said Vallus. “Your mother was… was a dear friend of mine. I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances.”

“Oh,” said Deena. She wasn’t sure what to say. “Yes.”

Avenel cleared her throat. “Everyone’s arrived, Vallus. We should begin.”

“Yes,” said Vallus. He rose, tapping his spoon against the side of his goblet, and a hush spread across the hall. “Brothers and sisters of the Silent Tower,” he said, his voice ringing loud and clear through the hall, “we are here today in honor of Lord Avenel, our dear friend and my predecessor as the Head of Covert Affairs. Those of you who joined us after her departure may not have known her in person, but you will still have known her by her reputation. You would be wise to take this time as an opportunity to benefit from her wisdom and experience. She has also brought with her a ward, young Deena, who I hope you will all welcome as someone who will one day join our ranks and become Hallowed. So, in honor of allies past and future, I bid you all to eat, drink, and be merry.” He raised his goblet and drank.

Around the room, everyone followed suit, and servants began to bring out trays piled high with food. Uproarious applause broke out across the room; it was unclear if it was for Vallus’s speech or for the food.

“That was even more pretentious than last time,” said Avenel as Vallus sat down, “but at least it was short.”

“There are expectations for this sort of speech,” said Vallus.

“Yes, expectations that Lord Vallus will try to drain the fun from even dinner,” said Avenel. “You do know that your subordinates used to call you Lord Phallus?”

Vallus chuckled. “Oh, you don’t want to know what they used to call you.”

On Vallus’s other side, Lord Aldrin shook his head. “I had forgotten how much you two banter. I am uncertain that I wanted to remember.”

Courses of delicious food were placed in front of Deena, soups and breads better than any she had ever tasted, followed by chicken, sweet potato, and lamb. There was wine, too, sweet and strong, and no one seemed to mind when Deena drank. Aldrin and Avenel soon began discussing some newfangled weapon from the across the sea, something that shot fire from a barrel. Erikr and Vallus argued the merits of different types of lutes. Glenna preferred to talk about the food itself. “This lamb is good,” she said, “but the best lamb I ever had was twenty years ago, at a roadside inn near Eswick. Grizzly didn’t think much of it—said it didn’t have enough salt—but the salt would’ve covered up the spices.”

The last course was shaved ice topped with fresh berries and drizzled with cream. Deena had read about such frozen desserts before, but had never quite believed them to be real.

“How did you get ice this time of year?” she asked, gawking. “How do you keep it from melting?”

“By being extremely wealthy,” said Avenel, at the same time as Glenna said “With very good cellars.”

“Well,” conceded Glenna, “it did take a lot of money to build the cellars.”

“Money that could have been spent less frivolously,” said Avenel, though she evidently had no problem enjoying the fruits of the expenditure.

“They weren’t frivolous,” said Vallus. “They were built to keep food from spoiling.”

“And yet, you’re using them to make dessert.”

Deena let out a giggle. “Well, if it’s a misuse of funds, it’s a delicious one.”

Glenna and Avenel both laughed, and even Vallus let out a chuckle.

As the last of the dishes were cleared away, people began to drift onto the dance floor. Deena watched as she sipped her wine. The dance here was different from the one at Taunsgrove, men and women twirling in pairs around the floor. More couples joined the dance, skirts and capes swirling in time to the music, the floor becoming a sea of colorful silks. A serving girl came by to refill Deena’s goblet, and she happily took another cup.

Erikr stood. “Would any of you ladies care to dance?” he asked.

“I don’t dance,” said Avenel.

“I do,” said Glenna, “but you’ll have to fight Grizzly for it.”

“Alas, I’m afraid I wouldn’t survive the encounter,” said Erikr. “What about you, Miss Deena? Would you like to dance?”

“No, but thank you,” said Deena.

“Do you not like to dance, Deena?” asked Vallus.

“I don’t know how,” admitted Deena. “I never learned.”

“We could find someone to teach you,” said Vallus. “It isn’t difficult.”

“I-I think I’d rather watch,” said Deena.

“Are you sure?”

“Leave the girl alone, Vallus,” said Avenel. “If she doesn’t want to dance, then she doesn’t want to dance.”

Vallus nodded. “Of course. Let me know if you change your mind.”

Lord Aldrin stood up. “This is the part of the evening where I must bid you goodnight,” he said, bowing to Vallus and Avenel.

“Are you leaving us so soon?” asked Avenel.

“I must make a journey in the morning. Lord Desmina has need of my expertise on her new weapons.”

“Safe travels, then,” said Avenel. “Give Desmina my regards.”

Vallus and Avenel soon fell to talking about work, about the political implications of assassinating a Lord So-and-so of Ajjraea. Deena tried to listen for a while, but the names and places they mentioned were unfamiliar to her. A servant came by to offer her more wine, and she accepted, sipping at it while watching the dancers below.

After some time, Tatiana emerged from the throng, face flushed and smiling from ear to ear. “You’re not dancing tonight, Deena?” she asked.

“I don’t know how,” said Deena.

“Oh, I’ll teach you,” said Tatiana, holding out her hand. “It’s easy; I promise.”

“O-okay,” said Deena, and allowed herself to be lead onto the dance floor.

Once or twice, Deena felt as though she was being watched from the high table, but when she turned to look, Avenel and Vallus were as deep in conversation as ever.

At some point, Erikr made his way to them through the crowd.

“I thought you didn’t dance, Miss Deena,” he said.

“She had some encouragement,” said Tatiana.

“Yes, you’re very persuasive,” said Erikr with a smile. “That must be why Vallus has you working under me.”

“What about you?” asked Tatiana. “Finished with Lyza already? Her heart must be broken.”

“Lyza is my sister, you silly girl.”

“And what girl doesn’t like to dance with her big brother?”

“Is your sister an assassin too?” asked Deena.

“The opposite, actually,” said Erikr. “She’s a physician here.”

“And a very good one,” added Tatiana. “Although, if you ask me, she would have made just as good an assassin.”

“Which is why no one asked you,” said Erikr, taking Tatiana’s hand from Deena’s. “Come now, you can’t monopolize Lord Avenel’s ward all night.”

“I suppose that’s true,” said Tatiana, “but I’ll still have her tomorrow.”

They twirled away, and Deena remained behind, still swaying in time to the music. All around her, people were smiling, laughing, and she couldn’t help but smile herself. Within moments, someone else had come to dance with her, then another, then another. Deena found herself giggling, giddy with music and wine.

“May I cut in?” asked a voice. It was Avenel.

“I thought you didn’t dance,” said Deena, breaking away from her partner.

“It’s been a while,” admitted Avenel, “but I still remember how.”

“Okay,” said Deena and placed her hand in Avenel’s.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” asked Avenel.

“I am!” said Deena, beaming. “Everyone is nice to me. It’s probably because of you, but they’re still nice to me.”

“I’m glad,” said Avenel with a smile.

When they returned to the high table, Deena was flushed and sweaty. Someone had refilled her goblet, so she drank, the cold wine chasing the heat from her face. The dance floor was beginning to thin, the dancers sitting on the sides or trickling out of the hall. A few persistent dancers still remained, among them Grizzly and Glenna, swaying together not quite in time to the music.

Deena yawned.

“Are you tired?” asked Vallus.

Deena nodded.

“Let me walk you to your rooms, then,” said Vallus.

No one seemed to notice as they left the Great Hall. The starlit courtyard was empty, the air pleasantly cool against Deena’s cheeks. She breathed in deep, filling her lungs with the crispness of the night. Their footsteps echoed as they walked.

“Do you know your stars, Deena?” asked Vallus.

“Not really,” said Deena. “Mattieu tried to teach me—he’s my friend back home—but I could never remember. I know that constellation is the Bird, and the bright star is the eye, Oriol.”

“The Bird is there,” corrected Avenel. “You’re pointing to the Six Siblings.”

“Oh,” said Deena. “Then that bright star must be Hilrae. I don’t remember the other five.”

“Thomuu, Benjii, Lyla, Klariel, and Owaan,” said Vallus. “From brightest to dimmest.”

Deena nodded, squinting up at the sky, trying to tell which ones were brighter than which.

“There are records of a seventh sibling, you know,” said Avenel, “in books left behind by the Asterii. It was called Ruuzael, and it was said to be as bright as Hilrae.”

“What happened to it?” asked Deena.

“No one knows,” said Avenel. “By the time of the Asterii records, the details were already lost to history. It must have been tens of thousands of years ago when it disappeared.”

“And it never came back?” asked Deena.

Avenel shook her head.

Deena looked up at the Six Siblings in the sky. “Do you think the other siblings miss it?” she asked.

“They’re stars, Deena,” said Avenel. “They’re just balls of light, burning in the distance.”

“But maybe balls of light have feelings too.”

They were back in the tower now, climbing up that infinite flight of stairs. Deena found herself fighting back her drooping eyelids, struggling to put one foot in front of the other. At some point, Vallus took her hand to guide her, as though she was a small child. She tried to protest, but all that emerged from her mouth was a yawn. She stumbled, leaning against the banister, trying to remember why she was even there. Arms, warm and strong, picked her up and carried her. A woman’s voice drifted towards her, but Deena could not understand the words. A man’s voice answered, his chest vibrating against Deena’s ear. The voices soothed her. The voices would protect her. The voices were an ocean, all around her, a moat that fire could not breach.

She was set down on a surface so soft that it must have been a cloud. She wanted to open her eyes, to thank the voices for bringing her a cloud to sleep on, but her eyelids were made of lead. Well, that was alright. She was sure the voices would understand. A face, scratchy with stubble, leaned in to kiss Deena’s forehead; she squirmed, and the face chuckled, quiet. A second, lighter cloud was pulled over Deena’s body, to keep her safe and warm against the chill of night. The voices sat down beside her and stayed there for a long, long time.

In the morning, Deena remembered nothing after the courtyard full of stars.