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Neil MeqVren rode with his queen down a dark street in the city of the dead. The tattoo of their horse’s hooves was drowned by hail shattering on lead cobbles. The wind was a dragon heaving its misty coils and lashing its wet tail. Ghosts began to stir, and beneath Neil’s burnished breastplate, beneath his chilled skin and cage of bone, worry clenched.
He did not mind the wind or frozen rain. His homeland was Skern, where the frost and the sea and the clouds were all the same, where ice and pain were the simplest facts of life. The dead did not bother him either.
It was the living he feared, the knives and darts the dark and weather hid from his merely human eyes. It would take so little to kill his queen—the prick of a tiny needle, a hole the size of a little finger in her heart, a sling-flung stone to her temple. How could he protect her? How could he keep safe the only thing he had left?
He glanced at her; she was obscured in a wool weather-cloak, her face shadowed deep in the cowl. A similar cloak covered his own lord’s plate and helm. They might appear to be any two pilgrims, come to see their ancestors—or so he hoped. If those who wanted the queen dead were grains of sand, there would be strand enough to beach a war galley.
They crossed stone bridges over black water canals that caught bits of the fire from their lantern and stirred them into gauzy yellow webs. The houses of the dead huddled between the waterways, peaked roofs shedding the storm, keeping their quiet inhabitants dry if not warm. A few lights moved elsewhere between the lanes—the queen, it seemed, was not the only one undeterred by the weather, determined to seek the company of the dead this night. The dead could be spoken to on any night, of course, but on the last night of Otavmen—Saint Temnosnaht—the dead might speak back.
Up the hill in Eslen-of-the-Quick, they were feasting, and until the storm came, the streets had been filled with dancers in skeleton costume and somber Sverrun priests chanting the forty hymns of Temnos. Skull-masked petitioners went from house to house, begging soulcakes, and bonfires burned in public squares, the largest in the great assembly ground known as the Candle Grove. Now the feasts had gone inside homes and taverns, and the procession that would have wound its way to the Eslen-of-Shadows had shrunk from a river to a brooh in the fierce face of winter’s arrival. The little lamps carved of turnips and apples were all dark, and there would be little in the way of festival here tonight.
Neil kept his hand on the pommel of Crow, and his eyes were restless. He did not watch the moving light of the lanterns, but the darkness that stretched between. If something came for her, it would likely come from there.
The houses grew larger and taller as they passed the third and fourth canals, and then they came to the final circle, walled in granite and iron spears, where the statues of Saint Dun and Saint Under watched over palaces of marble and alabaster. Here, a lantern approached them.
“Keep your cowl drawn, milady,” Neil told the queen.
“It is only one of the scathomen, who guard the tombs,” she answered.
“That may or may not be,” Neil replied.
He trotted Hurricane up a few paces. “Who’s there?” he called.
The lantern lifted, and in its light, an angular, middle-aged face appeared from the shadows of a weather-cloak. Neil’s breath sat a little easier in his lungs, for he knew this man—Sir Len, indeed, one of the scathomen who dedicated their lives to the dead.
Of course, the appearance of a man and what was inside him were two different things, as Neil had learned from bitter experience. So he remained wary.
“I must ask you the same question,” the old knight replied to Neil’s question.
Neil rode nearer. “It is the queen,” he told the man.
“I must see her face,” Sir Len said. “Tonight of all nights, everything must be proper.”
“All shall be proper,” the queen’s voice came as she lifted her lantern and drew back the deep hood of her cloak.
Her face appeared, beautiful and hard as the ice falling from the sky.
“I know you, lady,” Sir Len said. “You may pass. But . . .” His words seemed to go off with the wind.
“Do not question Her Majesty,” Neil cautioned stiffly.
The old knight’s eyes speared at Neil. “I knew your queen when she wore toddling clothes,” he said, “when you were never born nor even thought of.”
“Sir Neil is my knight,” the queen said. “He is my protector.”
“Auy. Then away from here he should take you. You should not come to this place, lady, when the dead speak. No good shall come of it. I have watched here long enough to know that.”
The queen regarded Sir Len for a long moment. “Your advice is well-intended,” she said, “but I will disregard it. Please question me no more.”
Sir Len bowed to his knee. “I shall not, my queen.”
“I am queen no longer,” she said softly. “My husband is dead. There is no queen in Eslen.”
“As you live, lady, there is a queen,” the old knight replied. “In truth, if not in law.”
She nodded her head slightly, and they passed into the houses of the royal dead without another word.
They moved under the wrought-iron pastato of a large house of red marble, where they tethered the horses, and with the turn of an iron key left the freezing rain outside. Within the doors they found a small foyer with an altar and a hall that led into the depths of the building. Someone had lit the hall tapers already, though shadows still clung like cobwebs in the corners.
“What shall I do, lady?” Neil asked.
“Keep guard,” she answered. “That is all.”
She knelt at the altar and lit the candles.
“Fathers and mothers of the house Dare,” she sang, “your adopted daughter is calling, humble before her elders. Honor me, I beg you, this night of all nights.”
Now she lit a small wand of incense, and an aroma like pine and liquidambar seemed to explode in Neil’s nostrils.
Somewhere in the house, something rustled, and a chime sounded.
Muriele rose and removed her weather-cloak. Beneath was a gown of boned black safnite. Her raven hair seemed to blend into it, making an orphan of her face, which appeared almost to float. Neil’s throat caught. The queen was beautiful beyond compare, and age had done little to diminish her beauty, but it was not that which twisted Neil’s heart—rather, it was that for just an instant she resembled someone else.
Neil turned his gaze away, searching the shadows.
The queen started up the corridor.
“If I may, Majesty,” he said quickly. “I would precede you.”
She hesitated. “You are my servant, and my husband’s kin will see you as such. You must walk behind me.”
“Lady, if there is ambush ahead—”
“I will chance it,” she replied.
The moved down a hall paneled in bas-reliefs depicting the deeds of the house Dare. The queen walked with measured step, head bowed, and her footsteps echoed clearly, despite the distant hammering of the storm on the slate roof.
They entered a great chamber with vaulted ceilings where a long table was prepared, thirty places set with crystal goblets. In each, wine as red as blood had been poured. The queen paced by the chairs, searching, until she found the one she sought, and then she sat, staring at the wine.
Outside the wind groaned.
Long moments passed, and then a bell sounded, and another. Twelve in all, and with the midnight stroke, the queen drank from the cup.
Neil felt something pass in the air, a chill, a humming.
Then the queen began to speak, in a voice deeper and huskier than usual. The hairs on Neil’s neck prickled at the sound of it.
“Muriele,” she said. “My queen.”
And then, as if answering herself, she spoke in her more usual tone. “Erren, my friend.”
“Your servant,” the deeper voice replied. “How fare you? Did I fail?”
“I live,” Muriele answered. “Your sacrifice was not in vain.”
“But your daughters are here, in this place of dust.”
Neil’s heartbeat quickened, and he realized he had moved. He was standing near one of the chairs, staring at the wine.
“All of them?”
“No. But Fastia is here, and sweet Elseny. They wear shrouds, Muriele. I failed them—and you.”
“We were betrayed,” Muriele replied. “You did all you could, gave all you could. I cannot blame you. But I must know about Anne.”
“Anne . . .” The voice sighed off. “We forget, Muriele. The dead forget. It is like a cloud, a mist that eats more of us each day. Anne . . .”
“My youngest daughter. Anne. I sent her to the coven of Saint Cer, and no word has come from there. I must know if the assassins found her there.”
“Your husband is dead,” the voice called Erren replied. “He does not sleep here, but calls from far away. His voice is faint, and sad. Lonely. He did love you.”
“William? Can you speak to him?”
“He is too distant. He cannot find his way here. The paths are dark, you know. The whole world is dark, and the wind is strong.”
“But Anne—you cannot hear her whisper?”
“I remember her now,” Erren crooned, in the queen’s voice. “Hair like strawberry. Always trouble. Your favorite.”
“Does she live, Erren? I must know.”
Silence then, and to his surprise Neil found the glass of wine in his hand. It was only distantly that he heard the reply.
“I believe she lives. It is cold here, Muriele.”
More was said, but Neil did not hear it, for he raised the cup before him and drank.
He set the cup on the table as he swallowed the bitter sip he’d taken. He stared into the remaining wine, which calmed and became a red mirror. He saw himself in it; his father’s strong jaw was there, but his blue eyes were black pits and his wheat hair ruddy, as if he examined a portrait painted in blood.
Then someone stood behind him, and a hand fell on his shoulder. “Do not turn,” a feminine voice whispered.
But now he saw her face instead of his mirrored in the wine. He smelled her lavender fragrance.
“I was called that, wasn’t I?” Fastia said. “And you were my love.”
He tried to face her then, but the hand tightened on his shoulder.
“Do not,” she said. “Do not look at me.”
His hand trembled the wineglass, but the image of her in it remained untroubled. She smiled faintly, but her eyes were lamps burning sadness.
“I wish . . . ,” he began, but could not finish.
“Yes,” she said. “So do I. But it could not have been, you know. We were foolish.”
“And I let you die.”
“I don’t remember that. I remember you holding me in your arms. Cradled, like a child. I was happy. That is all I remember, and soon I will not even remember that. But it is enough. It is almost enough.” Fingers traced chills on the back of his neck. “I must know if you loved me,” she whispered.
“I have never loved anyone as I loved you,” Neil said. “I shall never love another.”
“You will,” she said softly. “You must. But do not forget me, for I will forget myself, in time.”
“I would never,” he said, vaguely aware that tears were coursing down his face. A drop fell into the wine, and the shade of Fastia gasped. “That is cold,” she said. “Your tears are cold, Sir Neil.”
“I am sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for everything, milady. I cannot sleep—”
“Hush, love. Quiet, and let me tell you something while I still remember. It’s about Anne.”
“The queen is here, asking about Anne.”
“I know. She speaks to Erren. But there is this, Sir Neil, a thing I have been told. Anne is important. More important than my mother or my brother—or any other. She must not die, or all is lost.”
“The age of Everon is ending,” she said. “Ancient evils and fresh curses speed it. My mother broke the law of death, did you know?”
“The law of death?”
“It is broken,” she affirmed.
“I don’t understand.”
“Nor do I, but it is whispered in the halls of bone. The world is now in motion, rushing toward its end. All who live stand at the edge of night, and if they pass, none shall follow them. No children, no generations to come. Someone is standing there, watching them pass, laughing. Man or woman I do not know, but there is little chance they can be stopped. There is only the smallest opportunity to set things right. But without Anne, even that possibility does not exist.”
“Without you, I do not care. I do not care if the world goes into oblivion.”
The hand came onto his shoulder and stroked across the back of his neck. “You must,” she said. “Think of the generations unborn and think of them as our children, the children we could never have. Think of them as the offspring of our love. Live for them as you would for me.”
“Fastia—” He turned then, unable to bear it any longer, but there was nothing there, and the touch on his shoulder was gone, leaving only a fading tingle.
The queen was still staring at her wine, whispering.
“I miss you, Erren,” she said. “You were my strong right hand, my sister, my friend. Enemies surround me. I don’t have the strength for it.”
“There is no end to your strength,” Erren replied. “You will do what must be done.”
“But what you showed me. The blood. How can I do that?”
“You will make seas of blood in the end,” Erren said. “But it is necessary. You must.”
“I cannot. They would never allow it.”
“When the time comes, they cannot stop you. Now hush, Muriele, and bid me peace, for I must go.”
“Do not. I need you, especially now.”
“Then I’ve failed you twice. I must go.”
And the queen, who these past months might have been forged of steel, put her head down and wept. Neil stood by, his heart savaged by Fastia’s touch, his mind burning with her words.
He wished for the simplicity of battle, where failure meant death rather than torment.
Outside, the sounds of the storm grew stronger as the dead returned to their sleep.
Sleep never came, but morning did. By the sun’s first light the storm was gone, and they began the ascent from Eslen-of-Shadows to Eslen-of-the-Quick. A clean, cold sea wind was blowing, and the bare branches of the oaks lining the path glistened in sheaths of ice.
The queen had been silent all night, but while they were still some distance from the city gates she turned to him.
“Sir Neil, I have a task for you.”
“Majesty, I am yours to command.”
She nodded. “You must find Anne. You must find the only daughter I have left.”
Neil gripped his reins tighter. “That is the one thing I cannot do, Majesty.”
“It is my command.”
“My duty is to Your Majesty. When the king knighted me, I was sworn to stay at your side, to protect you from all danger. I cannot do that if I am traveling afar.”
“The king is dead,” Muriele said, her voice growing a bit harsher. “I command you now. You will do this thing for me, Sir Neil.”
“Majesty, please do not ask this of me. If harm should befall you—”
“You are the only one I can trust,” Muriele interrupted. “Do you think I want to send you from my side? To send away the one person I know will never betray me? But that is why you must go. Those who killed my other daughters now seek Anne—I’m certain of it. She remains alive because I sent her away, and no one at the court knows where she is. If I trust any other than you with her location, I compromise that knowledge and open my daughter to even greater danger. If I tell only you, I know the secret is still safe.”
“If you believe her secure where she is, should you not leave her there?”
“I cannot be sure. Erren intimated that the danger is still great.”
“The danger to Your Majesty is great. Whoever employed the assassins that slew your husband and daughters meant to kill you, as well. They still do, surely.”
“Surely. I am not arguing with you, Sir Neil. But I have given my command. You will make ready for a long journey. You will leave tomorrow. Pick the men who will guard me in your absence—I trust your judgment more than my own in such matters. But for your own task you must travel alone, I fear.”
Neil bowed his head. “Yes, Majesty.”
The queen’s voice softened. “I am sorry, Sir Neil. I truly am. I know how badly your heart has been hurt. I know how keen your sense of duty is and how terribly it was wounded at Cal Azroth. But you must do this thing for me. Please.”
“Majesty, I would beg all day if I thought you would change your mind, but I see that you won’t.”
“You have good vision.”
Neil nodded. “I will do as you command, Majesty. I will be ready by morning.”