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Endan stopped me before the door to Aevala’s chamber. “She is in a most delicate state,” he said. “In this condition, we’ve been unable to feed her. We’ve given her water by means of a sponge. She doesn’t choke on it, but I can’t say how much of it she’s really getting. She is wasting away, and the end will be soon if you are unable to help her. In all honesty, I’m not sure why Lord Aryden has not allowed you to see her sooner.”
“I’m seeing her now,” I said, dour.
“Yes. If there are any materials that might aid any working to heal her, I am at your service, of course.”
I pushed open the door, which creaked a warning to those who dared enter. One I ignored.
The inside of the room had been decorated less lavishly than I’d anticipated, bordering on humble and sparse. Aevala lay in an extravagantly-carved canopy bed, but it had been covered in homespun rather than the silks and brocades one might expect of a wealthy noblewoman. A nightstand of simple, rustic design occupied a place next to the bed, one with a single simple drawer and topped by a copy of the Book of the Tree and a candelabra, the candles of which had all long since been melted down to stubs.
A simple wooden rocking chair faced the room’s window, which had been covered with a thick tapestry, leaving it lit only by candles on the walls, these, too, low after burning through most of the day. They were beeswax candles, at least, and burned sweetly and cleanly, leaving the room feeling fresher than might otherwise be the case with the window so thoroughly blocked.
A carving of the Tree hung above a small fireplace opposite Aevala’s bed, where she would have been able to see it had she been able to open her eyes. This and the tapestry over the window provided the only decorations adoring the room’s walls. The only other items in the room were a small stool—a sitting place for servants in attendance and currently occupied by a young woman of Nilma’s age, simply dressed in clean and well-made clothing, and a rug that covered the majority of the floor. That covering had done so for quite some time without being refreshed; gobs of spilt wax intertwined with the decorative threads criss-crossing the fabric to form several tableaus, each a scene from the Book.
To each her own, but this approach to piety never endeared me much. At best, those who tended toward it missed most of the joys The One created for us in this world. At worst, they tried to make everyone else forsake those joys as well. This kind of rejection of the world does little for the soul and less for the world, I think. Except for leaving the rest of us to our fun, maybe.
The handmaid started as I entered the room, settled somewhat by Endan’s appearance behind me. Rather than speak, she elected to return to the stool and determine whether her shoes needed cleaning.
Aevala herself appeared much as she did in the Sea of Dreams, like a forsaken princess doomed by poison in one of those fantastic tales born of some historical event (usually involving the Art) and then exaggerated to unrecognizable proportions. But her face did not bear the expression of sublime and serene slumber one might expect to encounter in the ballads and lays. No, the skin on her face was taut, not fully contorted into the grimace of suffering, but highly suggestive of it.
Her hands had been folded over one another across her chest atop linens that had been pulled tight around her, as it intended to keep her from floating away. She looked as if already dead. This caused me to stop in my tracks a moment and to watch and wait, filled with anticipation, until I became sure that I had seen her chest rise and fall with breath several times in a row.
“Any change since earlier?” Endan asked the handmaid.
“No, sir,” she said in response, not looking up from her shoes.
“Well, what can I tell you, Iaren? Would you like to know the treatments I have attempted?”
“Not yet, doctor,” I assured him, already hunched over and peering at the room’s minutest details, hoping for something that might present a path forward. At length, I pulled back the rug to check the floorboards. Nestled within the troughs of the wood lay flecks of white powder, the detritus of chalk drawings. No shape had been retained by the scattered powder, but I knew its former purpose. Too many times had I swept away a similar coating of pigment in my own humble apartment in the city; even now one could find the same telltale in my own room here at Vaina Castle. The remnants of an arcane circle. Someone had used the Art in this very room.
That explained, perhaps, the obfuscating presence I’d seen surrounding this place, a dark cloud left as a byproduct of the working. But now that I was inside, no such gloom would inhibit my perception.
Without thinking overmuch about it, I employed the Sight. Immediately, the room’s shadows lengthened, began to move apart from the forms demanded by flickering candles. I thought I caught Orren’s spirit in the corner of my eye, but turned to find the space empty save for a startled Endan. There came a whispering, faint and at the edge of perception; whatever Art had been employed in this place had drawn the interest of entities that ought not be enticed. It had been a dark working indeed, and though the ritual itself had taken place far enough in the past that the drawn circle radiated only the faintest light, such that I couldn’t reliably capture the intricacy of its form, enough of the Power remained behind that I could see that it had been.
Through the Sight, Aevala seemed even more cadaverous than before. Black tendrils of wispy shadow extended upward from her, the same as those I’d detected on Orren in our first encounter. The Art that had been employed in this room had bound them together; I inadvertently smiled as the additional complexities of what had happened to the amn Vainas set in.
But the whispering grew louder, and I began to think that the shadows had ceased simply swaying uncannily but were now reaching toward me, and I could endure the Sight no longer. Even though the disturbing details lurking beyond the mundane had vanished, the room felt irrevocably darker, more dangerous.
I stood lost in my own reverie, thinking about how such a powerful theurgic working might have fallen into the hands of Lady Aevala. As he raised his voice to a level uncomfortable to everyone in the room—for decorum’s sake if not for volume—I shook free of myself and turned to look at him. Evidently, he’d been talking to me for some time while I stood dumbfounded.
“Iaren?” he asked again.
“Yes, Endan,” I responded, making every effort not to sound as annoyed as I felt.
“Are you alright?”
Despite myself, I laughed at that. Was I? In the midst of a room filled with the lingering effects of the darker Art? In a castle whose lord neither trusted me nor would appreciate the results of my efforts? To whom my knowledge would be as much danger as relief? In a town that had once already demonstrated its willingness to burn my kind? With a noble scion who wished to kill me, an operative of House Meradhvor who wished to bend me to his purposes, and a fell spirit who would unravel me if given the chance? Sure. Fine.
I said nothing, but turned to leave.
For the next chapter, click here.
For the preface, click here.