“I wish to God that we were burying my husband instead of your son,” Margaret said.
Setta flinched, finally turning her eyes from the wake bed where three curtains enclosed Joshah’s body. Laid on the thin velvet mattress, he looked so out of place. His hands cupped the hilt of his sword, his elbow covering the unlit candle rested next to his arm.
His battered face blurred again as she sucked in a slow breath and Margaret sat in the chair across from her, reaching for her hand.
“I keep trying to imagine he’s sleeping,” Setta answered, “except he never slept on his back, even as a baby.” Margaret squeezed her hand, and Setta whispered, “We just got back together.”
Margaret smoothed her skirt with her free hand, keeping her eyes downcast as she asked, “You don’t think Galephy had anything to do with it?”
“No,” Setta answered, more firmly than she’d spoken all day. She shook her head to emphasize as she repeated, “Not this time.”
It was Fate, zealous in its quest to protect her youngest son, that had taken the life of her eldest. Her eyes went to the trinity candle, burning in front of her son’s deathbed. When it burned out, the entire board would be lifted, carried down to the grave room, and sealed away forever. She took a breath, reaching for the candle resting near Joshah, then approached the tiny flames. The three tapered candles twisted around each other until the wicks sprang away from each other like a flower in bloom.
Fate protected her youngest, but now Eldon protected her eldest, and Fate couldn’t reach him there. She clenched her teeth, reaching to the middle candle, whispering the traditional prayer.
“May you return to the creator from which you came.”
She inserted the base of Joshah’s candle into the hollow center created by the other three, watching the wax trickle down to meld it into place. Within the hour they would burn down, joining in one bright flame. Her son would be with the creator god and out of the realm of Fate.
She closed her eyes, feeling a helpless tear trickle adding her prayer while Eldon was listening.
If you’re there, know that Fate protects Tehveor, but please, protect Tehveor from Fate.
When she opened her eyes, all four candles caught a draft of air and flickered. She felt the pressure lift from her heart for just long enough to remember what life felt like when she wasn’t terrified. She let out a slow breath, eyeing Joshah’s face, knowing soon she’d never have another chance. But she turned away to sweep the crowds in the room, searching for her two living children.
Ceslaya sat in the corner with Silvah with red eyes but for the moment, she laughed softly at the words of a red-haired soldier who had come to pay tribute to his fallen comrade. The wake was the time to remember Joshah’s life, not dwell upon the separation of his death.
And there was Terrant with Tehveor near the wall, both sober and steely. Tehveor’s eyes flickered from his father’s moving lips to the wall behind the man, and she recognized the stance that warned he would become unresponsive soon if she did not intervene. If Joshah’s spirit was still here, he was probably watching with as much concern.
Her eyes lifted to Margaret as she whispered, “Will you stay with him?”
The woman nodded. “Of course.”
Setta felt tears building again, but she bent to kiss her son’s head, wondering if the flames would unite before she returned. But halfway across the room, she glimpsed Gregorn’s face and turned toward him.
“I’m sorry about your son,” he said.
The sincerity of the apology didn’t soften its blow, and she opened her mouth, then caught harsh words before they cross her lips.
“Thank you,” she amended. “There was no need for you to come all this way.”
He hesitated, fighting to find veiled words which would arouse no suspicion. “I only wish I could have been there to interfere with Joshah’s fate.”
What was he telling her? His eyes held steady when she searched them for answers. The location itself suggested that Joshah had stumbled into Sentarra, but Tehveor had not disclosed any more information.
“I understand that he slipped,” she said.
“He did,” Gregorn answered. “Tehveor tried to pull him to safety, but he told Tehveor to let go, fearing he’d pull him over.”
The back of her hand pressed into her mouth in the reaction she couldn’t hide. This story, even from Gregorn’s mouth, she had no trouble believing.
“I fear had Fate not interfered,” Gregorn said, “You would be burying both boys.”
Fate? Had Fate actually forced their hands apart? It must be so. Tehveor would never let go, even under command.
“If Fate saved one, he could have saved both,” she said.
Gregorn’s eyes fell. “Perhaps under different circumstances, he would have. I fear he was more concerned over Tehveor’s future.”
“Then he was very wrong,” she snapped.
Gregorn swallowed, but pressed forward, “Setta, please let me take him. It’s time. With what happened it would be natural for Tehveor’s grief to drive him away.”
Anger flickered. “You are asking me to use the death of one son to account for the disappearance of the other.” She wrung her hands together. “You are asking me to give up Tehveor the very day I bury Joshah.”
“You’ll still see him,” Gregorn said. “Any time you like. Surely you don’t wish to keep him here where they king may harm him again?”
“And Terrant?” she asked quietly. “He just lost Joshah. Must he lose Tehveor as well?”
“He scarcely knows Tehveor,” Gregorn snapped. “The longer he is here, the harder it will be when that happens – and it will happen.” He touched her arm. “Setta, Fate is not abducting your son. Fate is guiding him to where he needs to be.” He glanced toward Galephy, who watched Tehveor. “Even you know things must change.”
And quickly. Even Terrant was saying as much.
“Setta.” Margaret’s touch made her jolt, but her friend’s voice came as the same relief it had back when they’d saved each other from unwanted suitors. The queen offered a nod toward Gregorn, promptly returning her attention to Setta. “The flames are close to joining.”
Setta nodded, stepping around Gregorn to cross the room, frowning as she approached her husband and son.
“No one is blaming you,” Terrant said. “We simply don’t understand what happened.”
“I told him to stay away!” Tehveor spoke through grit teeth.
“Away from where?”
Tehveor shook his head.
“There is something more!” Terrant pressed. “It’s in your eyes! It was there before Joshah died. Is it Galephy?”
Tehveor wasn’t successful in covering the plea in his eye as she approached, but she’d planned on interrupting anyway. She reached for her husband’s arm.
“The candles are joining,” she said quietly, feeling her stomach tighten at the pain that washed across Terrant’s eyes.
Terrant nodded, then stepped backward to indicate the servant who signaled the solemn ring of the bell. Gregorn had honored her wishes and slipped out quietly, leaving the Erish to bury their own. She reached for Tehveor’s hand, frowning at the trembling.
“This isn’t your fault,” she whispered.
Tehveor let out a slow breath. “I think it is,” he said. “I’ve stayed too long.”
She squeezed his hand tighter as Terrant returned with Ceslaya, joining the others. Her free hand slipped into Terrant’s, and Silvah reached for Tehveor’s. As the bell rang again, she watched the hands join one by one, her family, her countrymen standing together. Even Margaret took the king’s hand without a shudder, but the circle was broken on Galephy’s right by Darshon, who twisted, seeking Kael.
At the third ring, Darshon blinked, taking the man’s hand, unwilling to ruin Joshah’s sending off. The line shuffled again as Remarr left the group, backing slowly up the steps in the most reverent and efficient exit he could manage.
The candles flickered as the wicks grew closer and closer, then merged in a flame that leaped and smoked. In times of old prayers were said, but they’d been forbidden. Setta straightened her chin, holding in breath and tears, for it would grieve Joshah to leave while they mourned.
The smoke continued to rise. She felt the tremble in Terrant’s massive hand on her right and Tehveor’s loose grip on her left. She sniffed, then frowned at the smell of woodsmoke, wondering if her husband still stood too near the fire or if Fate’s scent still lingered on Tehveor from wherever it had separated him from his brother.
The bell continued to ring, and somewhere voices wailed. Perhaps the servants were keeping up the traditions of old to mourn in the only way they were allowed to participate. The flame began to dance and sputter, struggling to stay alive.
Galephy leaned toward Darshon, whispering something that made the boy break the chain, stumbling back like he was hit by an invisible entity. Irreverent even for his standards, his eyes swung to his father before he shouted, “What have you done??”
Faces turned, questions rose, breaking the silence, but Galephy’s mouth lifted as he fixed his son with eyes that gleamed with their combination of merriment and bloodlust.
One of the wails upstairs carried down, sparking a chain of cries, “Fire! Fire!”
Across the circle, Margaret’s eyes widened, standing still as the circle broke apart around her. They met Setta’s for a horrified moment before the woman turned and pounded into the hallway as quickly as any of the soldiers who responded to the cries.
Joshah’s candle sputtered, driving erratically in every direction as people rushed passed as shouts carried louder. Setta stood frozen as the king remained in place across from them, fixing his eyes on Tehveor. He stepped toward Joshah, and Tehveor surged forward, rounding the deathbed and planting himself in front of the trinity candle. The king pulled out an empty vial, holding the crystal sphere to catch the light as his eyes moved past Tehveor to Setta.
“All this time,” he said. “I thought it was Margaret.”
Joshah’s candle sputtered, the wick drooping into a tiny ball of red that curled smoke as it rose. Setta surged forward, grabbing Tehveor’s hand and yanking him toward the steps. When they reached the doorway of the courtyard, people passed buckets down a line that led to a tower. Flames licked from the windows, steam hissed from the base as the water sloshed against it.
Remarr hacked at the door with his sword with a few other men, while a battering ram made a slow progression across the courtyard. Tehveor lifted his face, squinting at the wall until he realized it was Darshon crawling across, far above everyone.
“Kael’s in there,” he whispered.
Margaret’s voice carried from behind, echoing down the hallways, “Give me the key!”
Hearing her call, Terrant unsheathed the ceremonial blade that replaced his battle weapon, sprinting passed them. Cracking timbers resounded across the courtyard. Fire billowed from the windows as timbers inside collapsed. If Kael had been in the top to escape the flames, he’d have fallen. If in the bottom, his body would be crushed.
Even Darshon fell back, sitting on the wall and shielding his face with his arms.
Tehveor dropped Setta’s hand. She ran for a bucket while he sprinted toward the second tower. He had never scaled the walls, certainly not with the agility Darshon had developed during his childhood escapes from Galephy. He crawled on his hands and knees, swallowing when he found nothing to steady himself against. He inched across the narrow wall, reaching to clasp Darshon’s arm pulling him from the heat radiating from the window. “Come down! You can’t reach him this way.”
“I heard him,” Darshon cried before he choked on the smoke. “I heard his voice.”
The door below collapsed in on itself, billowing flames and rising sparks. Darshon kicked the wall with the same animalistic cries that he’d so recently felt. The flames leaped and hissed as several stable boys rushed forward to pull out the burning timbers, their clothing drenched by the water the others thrown into the mouth. Kael would be dead, crushed, suffocated, or burned, but his body must be recovered before the fire could finish its desecration.
But Remarr backed up, his hands going to his head before he sprinted toward the doors of the castle again.
“He’s not in there,” Tehveor said.
“I heard him in there!” Darshon snapped, “I heard him calling for help.”
“They got the door open,” Tehveor said. “Let’s go down.”
Before Darshon’s heart gave out on the wall.
His hands shook as he crawled back to the second tower, hurrying down the spiraling steps before someone set fire to them too.
Boards crisscrossed, charred and broken but the general called, “There’s no one in here! Split up and look everywhere else.”
“He was in there!” Darshon insisted, but no one heeded him in light of the boards that burned lower and lower showing no body. Then Darshon spun to Tehveor. “Where’s mother? That lunatic is going to kill all of us.”
They eyed each other, then raced back to the castle. The great hall was empty now, except for Joshah laying demurely with his sword. He shouldn’t take anything from the dead, but Tehveor pried the hilt from his brother’s hands.
“Stay close,” he whispered to Darshon.
A clash of swords already rang out from the hallway. They followed the sound, congesting at the doorway as Remarr met them.
“Go back! Go back!” he barked. “Get out of here!”
Tehveor glimpsed his father, driving Galephy back three steps before the king retaliated. They’d never see either Father fight, but the brothers made even the most realistic practice sessions between Kael and Darshon look like children. Even Remarr stood with a wide stance, watching intently, though he planted himself next to Darshon, torn between his duty and his friendship.
With Joshah laying behind, Kael at large and no sign of either mother, the battle drove all grief from Tehveor’s heart, coiling into horror. He glanced toward Darshon, who returned the acknowledgment, then back toward their fathers, realizing someone else would to die today.
The fight became disorienting as the brother’s spared their way into the Great Hall, their reflections turning into an entire army in the mirrors.
“Enough!” Galephy called. “Or I’ll call my men!”
Men he had and the threat was enough to end the fight with the swirl of his blade. Terrant danced back but didn’t step forward again, panting as the king bellowed. “If you kill me, none of our sons will become a king!”
Darshon stepped forward, but Remarr grabbed his arm. “It’s true,” he whispered.
“Where’s Kael!” Terrant snapped.
“How should I know?” Galephy threw back. “I’ve been fighting you! Ask Remarr! He’s in charge of him!”
“Terrant!” Setta’s voice carried down the hall before she swung around the doorway faster than was decent for any woman. Still hanging on to the frame with one hand, she cried, “He’s in the wall! He’s alive.”
The wall?
Tehveor nearly dropped Joshah’s sword. In the tower. In the wall. Kael had found a passageway. “Where is he?”
“He’s in the front hall, but he can’t hear us.”
There was a web of passages beneath the outer walls, but even Tehveor had never explored them beyond the passageway that took him to the woods of Sentarra, fearing once in, he would be unable to find his way out.
They left the king, following Setta to the cluster of servants that had begun to follow Kael’s passage. Terrant barked orders to the guards to take up positions at every known entrance, whether it was rumored to be blocked or not. No one was to go in without permission from him.
It was a bold move, but no one protested. Someone had set fire to that tower and locked Kael inside. Someone could reach him in the tunnels before they did.
Tehveor swallowed, then sent a subtle nod toward his mother before he handed the sword to Darshon and left the group, sprinting to the passage they may not know about. Lighting a torch was dangerous inside the passage, but he took one along with a flint and swung the Lastrine over his shoulder.
He followed the familiar route until it split, turning to the left instead of the right, slowing as he put his hands out in front to find his way. It passed through thick webs, but at least he knew no one was ahead of him. If anyone was in the passageway, he was bringing attention to himself by calling out, but he did it anyway, pausing at the break offs to orient himself against the vague outline in his head.
Kael was unarmed out of respect for Joshah’s wake, and his own father’s sword had been ceremonial. Whether this stemmed from the king’s madness or another attempt on Kael’s life, it had been well-timed.
“Tehveor?” Kael’s echo was faint when it carried down the passage to Tehveor’s left.
“Keep coming!” Tehveor shouted. He felt above and to both sides to ensure the passage was large enough to accommodate a torch flame without igniting. Then sparked his torch, watching the path light the stones beneath, beside, and above, braced by wood so rotted it could easily ignite if he didn’t take care with the torch. Beam after beam stretched forward until darkness filled the passage ahead. Tiny skeletons of mice lined the floor, and he grimaced as he realized what he’d stepped on.
“Kael!” He called again.
Kael’s answer came from so close that he jumped as the prince stepped out of a passage to the side that he hadn’t even seen.
“I can’t see a thing,” Kael said.
Tehveor felt his arm, then his shoulder and they embraced. The hilt of the Lastrine dug into his shoulder.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“My arms are burned mostly,” Kael answered. “Someone locked the door and shot an flaming arrow through the window. Are the others alright?”
“As far as I know,” Tehveor said.
“Can you get back?” Kael asked. “Every door I’ve found has been boarded up.”
“I know where one is,” Tehveor said, “If anyone finds us, stay quiet, and I’ll let them think I’m alone.”
Kael asked. “Do you know who it was?”
“I don’t know who shot the arrow,” Tehveor said. “But your father knew it was happening.”
“No,” Kael said. “It wasn’t Father. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Doesn’t it?” Tehveor asked, glaring at his cousin. “He wants us dead, Kael. He wants all of us dead.”