VI. First Lesson

Deena’s head roared.

“I am never going to drink again,” she declared, rubbing her temples.

“I said that same thing the first time I was drunk,” said Avenel.

“And?” asked Deena. “Did you drink again?”

“Yes. The very same night, in fact.”

“Oh,” said Deena. “W-well, I won’t.”

“I’m sure,” said Avenel. She handed Deena a cup of water. “Drink this, then go wash and dress. I’ve laid your clothes out for you on that chair.”

Deena examined the clothes. “Are these breeches? I’ve never worn breeches.”

“It’s easier to ride a horse in breeches than in a skirt; believe me.”

“Ride a horse?” asked Deena.

“Tatiana’s agreed to teach you how. You’ll be starting today.”

“Why can’t you teach me?” asked Deena.

“I have some business around the Tower,” said Avenel. “I’ll rejoin you at dinner.”

By the time Deena finished changing, breakfast had been brought up. The tray was laden with all kinds of foods, from eggs to hotcakes to a bowl of berries topped with cream. There was porridge, too, with cinnamon, and even a bit of honey on the comb. “Is all this for us?” asked Deena.

Avenel nodded, biting into a piece of buttered toast.

“But we can’t eat all of this,” said Deena.

“Then just eat what you like,” said Avenel. “The servants will clear away the rest.”

“What do they do with it?”

“Slops for the pigs, I think,” said Avenel. She popped the rest of her toast in her mouth and wiped her hands on her tunic. “Have you seen my bracers and jerkin?”

“They’re still by the tub where you left them,” said Deena.

“You didn’t touch them, did you?”

“No. Why?”

“There are knife sheathes on the inside. I didn’t want you to cut yourself.”

“You hide knives in your clothes?” asked Deena.

“Where else would I keep them?” asked Avenel. She retrieved her bracers and put them on, though she left her jerkin and belt by the foot of her bed. “Are you ready to go? Tatiana is waiting.”

Deena shoved a last spoonful of porridge into her mouth and nodded.

Tatiana had arranged for a horse to be brought up to the courtyard. She was waiting there, along with the stablehand that Deena had almost kicked the day before.

“Lord Avenel,” said Tatiana with a bow. “Have you met Graham? He’s Sir Renn’s ward.”

The stablehand bowed. “M’lord. Miss.”

“Vallus mentioned you, last night,” said Avenel. “I’m surprised Renn still has you helping with the horses.”

“Sir Renn says it builds character, m’lord,” said Graham, shaking his hair from his eyes. “She says I’m to continue until I’m officially Hallowed.”

“Have you chosen a date yet?”

“Yes, m’lord. It’s the day after tomorrow.”

Tatiana gasped. “You didn’t tell me it was so soon! Ooh, I meant to help Lyza with something that day. But nevermind; I’ll make time for you. It’s not every day that a boy you watched grow up becomes Hallowed.”

Graham blushed scarlet. “Actually, Doctor Lyza is meant to be there too, as the attending physician.”

“Then I’ll definitely have to go,” said Tatiana. “You’ll come too, won’t you, Deena?”

Deena turned toward Avenel.

“Go if you like,” said Avenel. “A Hallowing Ceremony isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence; you might find it interesting.”

“Right!” said Tatiana enthusiastically. “It’s probably your only opportunity, until your own Ceremony.”

It took Deena a moment to remember that she was supposed to be Avenel’s ward. “Oh,” she said. “R-right.”

“What about you, my lord?” asked Tatiana.

“I’m afraid I’ll be busy again,” said Avenel, “as I am today. I’ll leave Deena in your hands, Tatiana. See to it that she’s safe.”

“I won’t let any harm befall her,” said Tatiana. “You have my word.”

Riding a horse was more difficult than Avenel had made it look, and the task was made more difficult by the continuation of Deena’s headache. It was a relief when Tatiana declared that they should break for lunch, and Deena tumbled sore and stiff off the horse.

The Great Hall had been returned to its usual configuration, the long benches at the center of the room rather than on the sides. The head table sat empty, and Deena was relieved to learn that she would be sitting at the benches with the others.

“Not even Vallus sits at the head table unless it’s a special occasion,” explained Tatiana, helping herself to the food at the center of the table. “Although, he usually has his lunch in the gardens or his office. He comes down for dinner, though.”

“Does everyone eat in here?” asked Deena.

“Well not the servants, obviously,” said Tatiana, “but most of the trainees, agents, and support staff do. Graham is here because he’s Renn’s ward.”

Graham nodded. “I tried to keep sitting with the servants, at first, but it’s easier to be up here.”

“Why?” asked Deena.

Graham shrugged. “There are people who I thought were my friends, until Sir Renn made me her ward. I thought they’d be happy for me, but they weren’t.”

“They’re just jealous, Graham,” said Tatiana.

“That doesn’t make it easier,” said Graham, He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is my Ma is happy for me, and she’ll be set for life once I’m Hallowed. What about you, Deena? How did your friends and family react?”

She was spared the burden of answering when Tatiana upended a tureen of gravy. “Oh, fiddlesticks!” she cried. “Graham, could you fetch me another napkin?”

To Deena’s relief, her afternoon was not spent in the saddle, but in learning to brush and care for the horse. “A horse is an animal, not a tool,” said Tatiana. “You have to care for one like you would for a friend.”

“She’s right,” said a voice. “A horse moves best when it trusts its rider.”

They turned to see Vallus watching them from a few paces away. “My lord,” said Tatiana, bowing, and Deena hurried to do the same.

“Please, there’s no need for any of that,” said Vallus. “How are your lessons coming along, Deena?”

“I’m trying,” said Deena, “but I don’t think I’m very good.”

“Keep practicing,” said Vallus. “You’ll learn eventually.”

Deena nodded. “I’ll try,” she said. “Um, Lord Avenel isn’t here, if you’re looking for her.”

“I know,” said Vallus. “She’s in Glenna’s laboratory.”

“Oh, working on that new invisible ink?” asked Tatiana. “I’ve been looking forward to trying it.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a bit longer,” said Vallus. “Their attempt this morning ate right through the page. Ciphers are more dependable than these chemical methods.”

A moment later, they saw Erikr approaching them, a pair of practice swords in his hand. “Here already, my lord?” he called. “I have to say, I intend to make up for our lost time earlier this week.”

“Are you sparring again today?” asked Tatiana. “Deena, we should watch. You might learn something.”

Erikr laughed. “Well, my lord?” he asked, holding out one of the swords. “We can’t disappoint the ladies.”

“Yes, that would be terrible for you, wouldn’t it?” replied Vallus, taking the proffered weapon. He removed his pocket watch from his pocket and placed it on a nearby crate. “Shall we begin?”

Erikr lunged, but Vallus sidestepped with ease. Deena had never seen a swordfight before, but it was clear that both men knew their weapons well. They knew each other, too, anticipating one another’s attacks, dancing around each other and moving so fast that each action was hard to follow. Deena couldn’t tell who was winning, but eventually, Vallus’s sword found Erikr’s arm with a loud whack.

“This is sloppy for you,” said Vallus. “Your mind is elsewhere, today.”

“So is yours,” replied Erikr. With a grin, he ducked under Vallus’s sword and used his own to strike his opponent behind the knees.

Vallus’s legs buckled, though he quickly regained his balance. Before he could fully straighten, however, Erikr had already whirled behind him to place his sword at Vallus’s neck.

“I win,” said Erikr, withdrawing his sword, “though I’ll be feeling this bruise for a while.”

“Yes, well fought,” said Vallus. “It seems I need to be more diligent with my practice.”

“By all rights you should both be dead,” said a voice overhead. They looked up to see Avenel sitting on the sill of a second floor window. “I counted at least a dozen times when you were both standing still enough for a clear shot.”

“A sniper is not a part of a fair swordfight, my lord,” called Erikr.

Avenel shrugged. “We’re assassins. We don’t care about fair.”

“Perhaps Lord Avenel will give us a demonstration?” asked Tatiana.

“Now, now,” chided Erikr. “I’m sure Lord Avenel has better things to do than—”

He was interrupted when a dagger flew past his face to bury itself in one of the archery butts behind him.

“My nose!” exclaimed Erikr, covering the appendage protectively. “You almost cut off my nose!”

The slightest hint of a smirk played at the corner of Avenel’s mouth. “If I wanted to disfigure you, Erikr,” she said, “I would have. As it is, you’re more useful intact.” Swinging her legs from the windowsill, she leapt down to the ground.

“We have stairs, you know,” said Vallus.

“This way is faster,” replied Avenel. “There was a message from Kamiya. She expects to be back by tomorrow.”

Vallus frowned. “You read my mail?”

“You were too busy playing with sticks to read it.”

“I have a set time when I read messages, you know that. Where is it now?”

“I had Ulla send it up to your study already. You’ll want to hurry.”

Vallus scowled. “We’ll talk about this later,” he said and set off at a brisk pace towards the tower.

Avenel turned to Deena. “How are your lessons going?”

“Tatiana says I’m doing well, but I’m not so sure,” said Deena. She turned, but Tatiana was busy conversing with Erikr, and Graham had left with the horse. “I’m trying though.”

“Take your time,” said Avenel.

“I feel like I’m imposing on Lord Vallus.”

“You really aren’t,” reassured Avenel. “I’ll see you at dinner. In the meantime, have Tatiana show you around. The library, perhaps, or the gardens.”

Deena nodded.

It was only after Avenel left that Deena noticed Lord Vallus’s watch still sitting on the crate. Curious, she picked it up. She had seen pocket watches before, among Allard’s rarer goods, though none had been as fine as this, with a bejeweled cover and the hands encased in glass.

There were words engraved on the inside of the cover: “To Val, with love. – F”

“Is that Lord Vallus’s watch?” asked Tatiana, having finished her conversation with Erikr. “I guess he forgot it.”

“Should we bring it up to him?” asked Deena.

“And climb all those stairs?” asked Tatiana. “No, just leave it here. He’ll send someone to fetch it when he remembers. Come on, there’s something I want to show you.”

It was with some curiosity that Deena watched Tatiana pick up and light a lantern, but she soon understood. The corridor they headed down burrowed into the mountain, such that there were no windows to let in light. It ended in a set of large double doors, the brass knobs shiny in the lamplight. Above the doors were words carved into the stone: “In darkness, there is rest. In death, there is peace.”

“They only gave me a key because my mother is in there,” said Tatiana, fumbling with the lock. “Normally it’s only open on special days, but I thought you should come and pay your respects, as Lord Avenel’s ward.”

The room inside was surprisingly small, considering the size of the doors, and seemed to be a natural cavern that was mostly untouched. Here and there, small alcoves had been carved out from the stone. Some sat empty, while others held melted candle stubs and puddles of wax. In each of the alcoves where candles had been lit, there was a shiny brass plaque in the back, each with a different name.

“Here’s my mother,” said Tatiana, pointing at one of the alcoves. “I was only a child when she died. They never told me where she died, or how, but it doesn’t really matter. She died in service to Elyria; that’s how she would’ve wanted to go.” There was a crate full of candles by the entrance, and Tatiana lit one and placed it in the alcove.

“My mother died too,” Deena found herself saying.

Tatiana didn’t seem surprised. “I thought it might be something like that,” she said. “I saw your face after Graham asked about your family. I know it doesn’t mean much, but believe me, it does get better.”

Deena nodded. “Are these all the people who… who died in service?” she asked.

“Just the ones whose bodies were never recovered,” said Tatiana. “We keep a tomb of sorts at my uncle’s home, too, just some clothes of hers that we buried, but that always seemed so fake to me. I prefer this one.”

A scene came unbidden to Deena’s mind, as if recalling a memory, but it wasn’t her own. She was a girl of seven, maybe eight, crying while clutching a woman’s blouse to her chest. A man moved forward to comfort her, but she screamed and pushed him away.

“Oh, but I didn’t bring you here to see my mother,” said Tatiana, and the scene in Deena’s head dissolved like smoke. “No, I brought you to pay respect to Lord Avenel’s wardfather, there.”

Deena looked to where Tatiana was pointing. The plaque read simply “Lord Ephraim, Master of Weapons.”

“It looks like Lord Avenel was here this morning,” said Tatiana, examining the molten wax. “I guess she wanted to be alone, or I’m sure she would’ve brought you along.” She handed Deena a candle.

Deena lit the candle and placed it in the alcove. She felt a little bit a pretender, but she hoped that the deceased spirit of Lord Ephraim wouldn’t take offense. For a moment, she and Tatiana stood in silence, watching the two candles burn.

“Tatiana,” said Deena, “why did you want to be an assassin, knowing how your mother died? Aren’t you scared that you’ll die too?”

“Of course I am,” said Tatiana, “but sometimes, you have to overcome your own feelings so you can do what’s necessary.”

“Is killing people really ‘necessary’?”

“Of course it is. Why else would we do it?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Deena. “I’ve never thought about it.”

“None of us like killing,” said Tatiana. “We never take lives unless we have to. When I was a still a recruit, one of the first things we were told was the story of one of Lord Avenel’s students. His name was Symeon, and he was one of the best agents she ever trained, but she still had him kicked from the Tower. Do you know why?”

“Why?” asked Deena.

“They sent him to assassinate an Ajjraean general. The general was quite a warmonger, see, the kind that never chooses diplomacy where brute force will do. Ajjraea’s king had sent him to keep the peace by the border; it would have meant the loss of thousands of lives. And so, Symeon was sent to kill this general.”

“And did he? Kill the general?”

“Of course he did,” said Tatiana. “Only, he did it by setting fire to the entire camp. The general died, but so did hundreds of his soldiers. When Symeon came back, all he had to say was ‘They weren’t our men, so what does it matter?’ But it mattered to Avenel, so she had him kicked out.”

“She did?”

Tatiana nodded. “Not everyone agreed—Symeon was very talented, by all accounts—but Lord Ephraim backed her decision. Lord Avenel said she failed, that she’d taught him how to kill but forgotten to teach him why. Because you see, it’s not about the lives we take, but the ones we save. One life in exchange for thousands, maybe more. Wouldn’t you call that necessary?”

Vallus looked out his window at the courtyard below, but Deena and the others were already gone.

“Erikr and Tatiana seemed close,” said Avenel, sitting at Vallus’s desk.

“Neither of them know, if that’s what you’re wondering,” said Vallus.

“That’s a bit dense on Erikr’s part, isn’t it?” asked Avenel.

“We both know how blind people can be to uncomfortable truths,” said Vallus. “It’s just as well. Sabine didn’t want them to know.”

“What about you?” asked Avenel. “Do you want to tell Deena?”

Vallus took a deep breath and sighed. “Perhaps one day,” he said. “When… when the time is right.”

“And when will that be?”

“I don’t know,” said Vallus, “but it isn’t now. Not when her world was just upended.”

Avenel nodded. “It’s your choice.” She unrolled the note from Kamiya. “She knows Kamiya was sent to Taunsgrove,” she said. “Bette said as much, when we were there.”

“Bette talks too much,” said Vallus.

“She’ll want to know what Kamiya found. She may not ask, but she’ll want to know.”

Vallus nodded and sat down. “What do you suggest we tell her?”

Avenel looked down at the note in her hands. “Vallus, there are only two possibilities. Either this is the start of another war, or—”

“—Or they were there for Deena.”