VII. The Wheel of Fortune

It was evening when Kamiya returned.

Somehow, an argument had started amongst the trainees about whether Avenel or Sir Gavrel was the better archer, and by dinnertime even some of the more senior agents had joined in.

“It’s definitely Sir Gavrel,” insisted a redhaired man. “Sir Gavrel teaches archery. He could shoot a feather as it’s falling.”

“And who do you think taught him?” asked Tatiana. “Lord Avenel is the better shot.”

“Have you ever seen Lord Avenel shoot?”

“I don’t have to. They write songs about Lord Avenel.”

“About her knives, yeah, but no one writes about how good she is with a bow.”

Finally, it was Glenna who goaded Avenel and Gavrel into some sort of competition. Nearly the entire Tower turned out to watch, crowding into the courtyard. Even Vallus came to watch, despite voicing his disapproval at this waste of time.

Shot for shot, Avenel and Gavrel matched each other, backing five more paces away from the archery butts each time. It was only when they were shooting the length of the entire courtyard that someone brought up changing the targets to something moving.

“But that’s not fair!” cried one of the trainees. “It’s nearly dark!”

“That’s what makes it a challenge,” replied another. “They’re not like you, Kev, whining as soon as the sun’s in your eyes.”

Objects of decreasing sizes were strung up on rope, and the competitors asked to fire two arrows in quick succession: one to sever the rope, and one to strike the object as it falls. They started with a block of wood, then a radish, then finally one of last year’s dried cherries still on the stem.

Gavrel missed.

“Looks like I could use more practice,” he said, as the cherry hit the ground unmolested. “Your turn, my lord.

Avenel took the bow from him, leveled it, and fired. The cherry was knocked clean from its stem, but the fruit itself remained unmarked.

“It looks like I’ll need practice, too,” said Avenel.

“Lord Avenel was closer!” came a shout from the crowd. “Pay up, Kev!”

“But it was a tie,” whined the man named Kev. “String up more cherries! We need a rematch.”

The rest of his words were drowned out by the doors of the great lift grinding open, and a group of people in travelling cloaks stepped out. They had barely time to look confusedly around the crowded courtyard before the woman at the front was pulled forward with a shout of “Lord Kamiya is here!” A bow and a pair of arrows were thrust into her hand, and without even bothering to take off her cloak, Kamiya fired.

The first shot severed the rope just above the stem, and the second sliced the fruit clean in two.

A great whoop erupted from the crowd, alongside thunderous applause. Kamiya smiled, handed the bow back, and made a series of rapid gestures with her hands.

“She asks what this is all about,” said Avenel. “Someone explain it to her, and put all this away.”

“But the rematch—” began Kev, but no one paid him any mind as a hundred eager faces swarmed forward to inform Kamiya of her new status as the best archer at the Silent Tower.

Deena ran up to Avenel. “That was amazing!” she said. “I mean, I know you didn’t quite hit that last one, but it was still amazing!”

“I prefer throwing daggers,” said Avenel. “Less range, but more versatile. I’m rather out of practice with archery.”

“Well I think it was impressive,” said Deena. “A-and so does everyone else! How did you learn to do that?”

“Spend three hundred years doing anything, and you’ll become quite good at it,” said Avenel. She reached out to brush Deena’s hair out of her face. “I have to meet with Vallus and Kamiya now, to hear Kamiya’s report. Will you be alright by yourself for the rest of the evening?”

Deena nodded. “I wanted to look around the library some more. There was a book I started reading yesterday, but Sir Moore wouldn’t let me take it out.”

“Tell Sir Moore you have my permission,” said Avenel. “I’ll speak with him later.”

Deena found Sir Moore having supper at his desk, looking just as surly as he had the day before. “H-hello again,” she said. “Remember me?”

Sir Moore scowled. “Of course I remember you. Not many people have the audacity to try to walk out with one of my books.”

“I-I’m sorry,” said Deena. “I wasn’t going far, so I just assumed—”

“Don’t assume,” snapped Sir Moore. He gestured down at the stumps of his legs. “Do I look like I can go chasing all over the Tower for my books?”

“L-lord Avenel said I could take it out today,” said Deena. “I’ll bring it back, I promise.”

“And I’m guessing you didn’t tell her which book you’re after,” said Sir Moore. “Lord Avenel came by shortly after you left and took out that very same book. If you want it, you’ll have to ask her.”

“Oh,” said Deena. “I… guess I’ll go do that then.”

Sir Moore gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s funny,” he said. “That book has been gathering dust on the shelf for decades, and all of sudden I get three people after it in as many days.”

“Who’s the third person?” asked Deena.

“Lord Vallus himself, if you believe it,” said Moore. “I never took him for the type to be interested in old folktales.”

Avenel wasn’t in their room upstairs, not that Deena expected her to be. She was probably still in Lord Vallus’s study. Deena raised her hand to knock, but paused when she heard the voices inside. They were too indistinct to make out full sentences, but here and there were phrases and words.

“…looking for something…”

“…girls…on the tree?”

“The Council…”

“… Lord Loorne…”

“…reopen hostilities…”

Deena decided she didn’t want to hear more, and she turned and walked away.

She found the book on Lord Avenel’s bedside table. As she picked it up, a bookmark began to slide out, though Deena caught it before it slipped out completely. It had been used to mark a page in the glossary, and as she opened the book to replace it, her eyes fell on one of the entries:

“Harbinger: Also known as Herald, Demon-of-the-End-Times, and World-Eater. A recurrent figure in many mythologies around the world, the Harbinger is a demon whose birth is said to herald the end of the world. Most traditions are vague on the origins of this demon, but the people of Drema and Heliike believed that the Harbinger would be born of a mix of Hallowed bloodlines.”

Deena put the bookmark back and flipped back to the story she had been reading the day before.

Graham’s Hallowing ceremony took place in the Great Hall, which sat mostly empty. There was only Tatiana, Deena, Graham’s mother, and a dozen others. Graham looked somewhat crestfallen as he looked out at the empty hall.

“Avenel would have come,” said Deena, trying to be helpful, “but she said she had business with Lord Kamiya.”

“And I’m sure the others are busy as well,” added Tatiana.

“It’s fine,” said Graham. “I understand.”

He was sitting at the high table, wearing a new silk shirt and looking distinctly ill at ease. Beside him sat Sir Renn, drumming her fingers on the table, each nail painted a brilliant red. On the table before them sat pitcher of water, a bejeweled dagger, and a large ornate chalice unlike anything Deena had ever seen, with a myriad of colorful gemstones arranged in geometric patterns all around the cup and base.

Erikr’s sister Lyza stood beside Graham, taking his pulse. “Are you nervous?” she asked.

“No,” said Graham. Then, “A little.”

“That’s a fast heartbeat for ‘a little’,” said Lyza. “Try to calm down; if your heart rate’s too fast we’ll have to reschedule.”

“No!” exclaimed Graham. “No, I’m fine, really.”

“Remember your breathing exercises,” said Sir Renn. “And drink some water.”

Graham nodded.

Tatiana leaned toward Deena. “You’ll want to keep your eye on the cup,” she whispered. “Vallus is going to make things all solemn and pompous, as he does, but the cup is the only part that matters. Everything else is just dressing.”

A few more people trickled in before Vallus arrived. “Is this everyone?” he asked, looking around the room. His eyes lingered a moment on Deena.

“Yes, my lord,” said Sir Renn. “Everyone that matters.”

Vallus nodded, walking to the head table to take his place between Graham and Renn. Renn and Graham both stood. Graham looked as though he might either faint or vomit.

Vallus cleared his throat. “Brothers, Sisters, we are gathered here today to witness the birth of a new son of Elyria. Graham the Ephemeral, are you prepared to be raised to the ranks of the Hallowed, in the sight of the sun, the stars, and all these witnesses here gathered?”

Graham nodded, then remembering his voice: “I am, m’lord.”

“Do you swear to live a life worthy of the blessing you are to receive, no matter how long that life may be?”

“I swear it, m’lord.”

“And you, Sir Renn of the Silent Tower, who have taken this boy to be your ward: Do you vouch for his conviction, his character, and his strength of spirit?”

“I do,” said Sir Renn.

“Do you swear to guide him and protect him as you would your own kin, so long as you both walk this earth?”

“I swear it.”

“Then offer your blood to him, so that he might become one of us.”

Renn held out her arm. She winced as Vallus cut it open with the dagger, letting the blood drip into the chalice.

Graham looked somewhat pale as he held out his own arm, and had to squeeze his eyes shut as Vallus made the cut. Renn had to guide his arm so that the blood dripped into the chalice rather than all over the table.

The rest of the chalice, Vallus filled with water. He swirled the mixture together for a few moments before placing it before Graham.

“Deep breaths, Graham,” said Renn. “Remember, you have to drink all of it.”

Graham nodded, his gaze fixed resolutely on the cup. “I’m ready,” he said.

Renn lifted the chalice to Graham’s lips, and as he drank, Deena was alarmed to see his skin bubble and blister where it met the cup.

“It’s hurting him!” Deena whispered to Tatiana.

“That’s because it’s magic,” Tatiana whispered back. “Only the Hallowed can touch runed metal without getting burned.”

By the time Graham was finished, his mouth was burned so badly that it hurt Deena just to look at. He took a step backward as Renn set down the cup, looking rather unsteady on his feet, then doubled over and fell to the floor.

Lyza rushed forward. Graham’s mother did as well.

“He’ll be alright,” said Tatiana to Deena. “I hope.”

Some of the onlookers had also rushed over to the dais, but Lyza waved them away. “Give him some space,” she said, her fingers on Graham’s pulse. “He’s fine, just give him some space.”

It was a few minutes more before Graham stood back up, supported by his mother on one side and Renn on the other. The blistering around his mouth had receded somewhat, though his lips were still cracked and bleeding.

Vallus picked up the cup and held it out. Graham looked apprehensively at it for a moment before gingerly placing a fingertip on the rim. When nothing happened, he took the cup in both his hands and hoisted it triumphantly into the air.

Despite only coming from a dozen pairs of hands, applause filled the hall. “Forever gone is Graham the Ephemeral,” called Vallus over the din. “We greet you now as Graham of Elyria.”

“Graham of Elyria!” called Tatiana. “You did it!”

“Is that it?” asked Deena, as the crowd began to disperse.

“More or less,” said Tatiana. “He’ll need a couple of days of bedrest while his body adjusts, but he’ll recover soon enough.”

“His mouth is going to get better, right?” asked Deena.

“Of course,” laughed Tatiana. “People would be far less eager to become Hallowed if it left your face disfigured.” She paused. “Oh no, you’re not having second thoughts, are you? I’d never forgive myself if I was the one to scare away Lord Avenel’s ward.”

“Oh, no,” said Deena. She had forgotten that she was supposed to be Avenel’s ward. “I mean it looked really painful, but—How does it work, exactly?”

Tatiana shrugged. “Who knows? The Drema and Heliikians—the ancient Hallowed races that lived in Asterii—they were the ones who made the cups. They were the only people who could use magic, after all. Not much of them was left behind after the Calamity, but we’re lucky that these chalices survived.”

“I see,” said Deena. She watched as Graham left the hall, leaning heavily on Sir Renn but grinning from ear to ear. “I wish they’d come up with some less painful way.”

“It’s not so bad as it looks,” said Vallus, approaching them. “Apologies if I’m interrupting.”

“Not at all, my lord,” said Tatiana, bowing.

“I remember my own Hallowing ceremony,” said Vallus. “It was painful in the moment, but the pain quickly subsides.”

“I’m glad I didn’t have go through it,” said Tatiana, making a face.

“Because your parents were Hallowed?” asked Deena.

“My mother, at least,” said Tatiana. “I never knew my father.”

“I didn’t know my father, either,” said Deena. “My mother never liked to talk about him.”

Vallus cleared his throat. “How is the riding coming along? I believe you have another lesson planned today?”

“We do,” said Tatiana. “Deena’s coming along splendidly; she’ll be riding on her own soon enough.”

“I will?” asked Deena.

“You will,” assured Tatiana. “I’m a very good teacher. Speaking of which, we had best be going. I asked one of the other stablehands to help while Graham is resting. He’ll be waiting for us.”

“Ah, of course,” said Vallus, stepping aside. “I won’t waste any more of your morning.”

Vallus watched them go. He stared after them until the doors had closed behind them, then turned and returned to his study.

Avenel was sitting in his chair, rifling through his mail.

“Again, Avenel?” asked Vallus with a sigh. “I thought I locked the door.”

“You did,” said Avenel, “not that I see the point. Almost everyone in the Tower knows how to pick a lock.” She gestured for him to sit, as though it were still her study instead of his. “Have you decided what to tell the Council?”

Vallus sighed. “What can I tell the Council? If the Ajjraeans were looking for Deena—”

“It hasn’t come to that yet,” said Avenel. “Loorne could have had some other reason.”

“Like what? There’s nothing in Taunsgrove.”

“Perhaps they meant to make an example of Taunsgrove. A demonstration of their strength.”

Vallus thought for a moment, then shook his head. “No, Loorne isn’t the type.”

“Loorne isn’t the type for an unprovoked attack at all,” said Avenel. “Just tell the Council what we know and leave out the speculation. If this means war, Desmina will need to know, and the others as well. I know you worry for Deena, but remember why we do this job.”

“‘We’, Avenel? As I recall, you resigned.”

“You know why I resigned,” said Avenel. She stood. “If Loorne really was there for Deena, if he knew about Deena, others might as well. Ajjraea’s Lords Paramount, or—”

“Or our own Council of Wardens,” finished Vallus. “Deena isn’t the Harbinger. The Harbinger isn’t real.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Avenel. “Deena is real, and the Council won’t take that risk. I only have so much sway with them, Vallus. If they learn about her, they’ll kill her.”

“You’re going to hide her,” said Vallus. “You’re taking her away again.”

“She can’t stay here, Vallus; there are too many eyes. Someone will piece it together.”

Vallus closed his eyes. “Where will you take her?”

“To my wardsister’s. She’s been away from politics for long enough and knows better than to ask any questions. And it’s a pleasant manor house; Deena will like it there.”

“Could I go see her? When—when all this is over?”

“Perhaps once the dust has settled,” said Avenel. “Before we leave, would you like to tell her that you’re her father?”

Vallus shook his head. “No,” he said with a croak. “It’s safer for her if she doesn’t know.”

Avenel nodded.

“Take care of her for me, will you?” asked Vallus. “Keep her safe for me.”

“Of course,” said Avenel. “I’ll protect her as though she was mine.”