(Click here for Act 2)

Act 3

The sun rose, bathing Last Dawn Keep with warm, orange light. Elinor watched the sunrise from her window. She had been up for hours, last night’s events weighing heavily on her mind.

The familiar sound of metal on stone rang across the ravine. Con, it seemed, was wasting no time getting things going. There would be no sleeping in for anyone in Last Dawn Keep.

Elinor dressed quickly. She washed her face in a basin of cold water, then left her chamber, walking down the halls with a quick step.

She found Con at the base of the tallest tower, overseeing the work. Teams of laborers worked to erect wooden towers and scaffolds. Across the way, engineers were securing heavy rope lines into pulleys they had fastened to the valley wall. To Elinor, it looked as if a massive spider had begun to cocoon the keep in a dun-colored web of ropes and pulleys.

Con nodded as Elinor approached. “I’ve got everyone working double time,” he said. “With everything that’s happened, I thought we may want to get this done as quickly as possible.”

Elinor frowned at that. “Everything that’s happened?”

Con gave a few more commands to his aide, Petnar, then sent the small, bald man off. Con lowered his voice. “Tae spoke to me last night about what happened with her father and the Lady.”

Frustration brought heat to her cheeks and Elinor gritted her teeth. “She did what? Of all the irresponsible—” she caught herself before her voice rose louder. “I told them to leave it. If someone had overheard, she could’ve gotten herself killed. Or you, for that matter.”

Con held up a hand. “Give me some credit, Elinor. I made sure it was discreet.”

“This is serious, Con. Whatever foolishness they have in their minds, they will bring the wrath of Piersym’s entire entourage down upon everyone in this village.”

“I’m well aware. I’ve looked at Ephed’s eyes. That man is aching for any excuse to get his blade red.”

“Exactly,” Elinor said. “Then why the hell would she get you involved?”

Con puffed out his chest. “Haven’t you heard? I’m rather famous. I’ve killed rendworms, you know.” Her frown grew even deeper and Con’s face lost its mirth. “Tae knows who you are,” he said. “She pieced it together after your run in with Ephed. She was very young, but she was at Aegis while you were making waves at the Academy. She knows all the stories. It’s why they went to you. Why they trusted you with their secret.”

“And when she came to you, what did you tell her?”

“The truth,” Con said. “That I have never known you to be wrong. That I trust you with my life to do what’s right. And that, however hard, they too should trust in what you tell them.”

Her shoulders slumping, Elinor blew out a breath that steamed in the morning chill. “To do what’s right? You sound like you’re still an academy cadet, Con,” she said quietly.

“And what’s wrong with that?”

Elinor was quiet for a moment, her eyes taking in the web of ropes that draped from the keep. “You’ve been in Resa all this time, Con. Out here, it’s different. If Piersym and Ephed are responsible for the murder of Lady Lliane and her First Blade, then the damage has already been done. Even if Tae and Aebelm wanted to make their case before the warden, they would not live long enough to make their testimony. Timberline was doomed the moment Piersym decided he wanted it.” She felt cold and hollow as she said the words.

Elinor felt a hand rest briefly on her shoulder. “It isn’t any different in Resa either,” Con said. “It’s why I left. And I didn’t come out to the marches because I thought it would be better. I came because I knew you would be.” He squeezed her shoulder once and dropped his hand away. “I know it’s never been a fair or easy road for you. I was there through the heart of it. But I can tell from the look in your eyes, you believe their story. These people need your help, Elinor.”

In the two years since she had seen him, Elinor had forgotten how damned perceptive he could be. “They said Tae’s father and Lady Lliane were married in the old way. Even if I could verify that, and even if I could somehow keep them alive long enough to make my claim to the warden, it would only put their necks under the blade, Con. They could never rest. Never hide. And even if they win this battle, then there’ll be another and another until Tae, Aebelm, and everyone they care for end up as dead as Tae’s father.”

Con stared at her and Elinor felt the weight of his gaze like a stone around her neck. In his eyes, she saw the depth of his emotion. At first, she took it for disappointment, but then she realized what it truly was. Pity.

He gave a slow nod. “If you say we stay our hand, then we stay. I trust you.” He lowered his brow, seeking her focus with his large brown eyes. “But Tae will not stand by and do nothing. You know that as well as I do. She has lost too much, and the men responsible for that loss are here within reach. She feels like she has nothing to lose, Elinor. What do you think she’s going to do?”

This time, it was Elinor who was quiet.

“If you are sure there is nothing to be done, then you must talk to her again and be sure to stop whatever she has planned. You are the only one she’ll listen to.”

“Why?” Elinor asked. “Because she admires me?”

“No,” Con said. “Because she is you. Or, the you I remember from that first day in the drowning grass. You are asking her to let this go. Ask yourself, Elinor. Could you?”

***

As Elinor came out onto the parapet, she saw Tae staring off into the distance, her slender silhouette standing out against the gray sky. A small storm lantern was at her side, a single candle burning inside the glass cage.

“You sit the Long Vigil for your father,” Elinor said.

Tae turned. “You know of it?”

She felt old memories grip her heart. “I sat the Long Vigil for someone once. Her name was Lida,” Elinor said quietly.

Tae’s eyes widened. “I know the story, and what came after, of what you did. It’s why I told my grandfather about you. It’s why we believed in you.” She had turned more fully toward Elinor, and she held the storm lantern against her chest as if she could protect the small flame burning inside even more than the lantern’s glass.

Elinor met her gaze. “I know what you asked of me, but it cannot be. And if you will listen to me, I will explain to you why. Will you listen?”

Slowly, Tae nodded.

Elinor closed her eyes for a moment. “My first days at the Academy were hard. I entered with visions of glory and honor, fixated on the great deeds I would accomplish there. But the Academy I had sought to join was merely a storyteller’s echo. The reality was the Academy had become the last refuge for the spoiled children of nobility, for those unable to become Razors and without the skills to succeed in the Collegium. They were dumped and forgotten there by their disappointed parents, and they used that as their excuse for cruelty.

“I tried to keep my head down and out of their way, but I was an orphan. I was a reminder that this was the best they could achieve, that even a nameless orphan could join them there.

“But then I met Lida. She believed in what the Academy had once been. She believed in what an officer could be. Was supposed to be. She was noble-born like most of the other cadets, but she offered me friendship.” Elinor crossed her arms against a chill in the air. “Other cadets warned her not to, but she didn’t back down. I was proud to call her my friend.

“But her actions drew attention from the worst of the cadets. I was an enemy to these people, but Lida? She was a traitor. Their hatred for her eclipsed even their feelings for me. There were threats to her, and her family got involved. Eventually, even I begged her to stay away.” The burning in her throat and the stinging wetness of her eyes made it hard to speak, but Elinor continued on.

“One morning, she fell from a tower.” Elinor said simply, her voice hollow. “It was said she jumped, but there was no investigation, no consequences. Even worse, word spread quickly who had truly been responsible. They wanted others to know they had done it, you see. To know what would happen to those who defied their power.”

Tae nodded. “That’s when you began to fight back. That’s what made you go out and face the rendworms, and what drove you to defeat the Gauntlet. Even at Aegis, we heard about that. It was Lida’s death that inspired you to such great acts.”

“Yes,” Elinor said, her heart like a leaden weight in her chest. “And when I graduated from the Academy and earned my commission, I learned exactly what all those great acts had achieved. What Lida’s death had earned for me.”

“What?” asked Tae, leaning closer.

“Nothing,” Elinor said.

Tae sat back as if Elinor had physically struck her.

“I know how you feel, Tae. Believe me, I have been where you are,” she said, her eyes looking down to the small flame in the lantern. “I’ve felt the anger, the rage at such callous injustice. But as time has gone on, I have learned a harsh lesson.” The words slipped from her mouth, tasting like dust and old blood. “Lida died for nothing. She died for a dream, for something that isn’t real. After everything I did in the Academy, it didn’t make a damn difference. Nothing’s changed. Behind an Ephed or Piersym is another Ephed or Piersym, and behind them, another and another.”

Elinor sought the girl’s eyes, boring into her with icy blue intensity. “This is not a battle that can be won, Tae. Pursuing it will only bring misery or death. And not only to you, but to those you care for and love. I know it’s hard, but you just have to accept it and move on.”

Tae did not respond. The only sound the wind rushing through the valley. Finally, with tears standing in her eyes, Tae shook her head. “I can’t. I can’t just accept this.”

“I am sorry, Tae.”

“You don’t understand, Elinor. But you will, if you will just come with me to the Stone Altar. It is where my father and the Lady Lliane were killed. Come there and see, and then you will understand.”

“Tae—”

The girl gripped Elinor’s hand, holding it tightly. “Please, Elinor. Just come and see. I promise you, it will change everything.”

Before Elinor could answer, the sound of boots on stone caused her to turn around.

Ephed walked toward them.

“Lord Piersym demands your presence, Reaper,” he said, accentuating the title.

Elinor feared they had been overheard, but she put a smile on her face. “Find your grandfather, Tae. We’ll have a chance to share more stories later,” she said. She smiled broadly, but her eyes warned Tae to leave. The girl bowed and backed away.

Ephed turned back toward the keep.

Gritting her teeth, Elinor fell into step beside him.

(Click here for Act 4)