30 Storis, 1138
I should have known. The bridgekeeper hesitated when I asked directions.
I tried to convince myself that I only smelled a hearth, that the rutted road wasn’t from water tanks and pump carts, that if a building had burned, it wasn’t Rien’s, but I’m not that good a liar. No red Advocate’s door showed on the block, but there was a blackened pit.
“No. No, no,” I muttered, running forward with Bellacosa’s reins over my arm. “Where is she?” I demanded of the closest person, an Archilian priestess covered in wet soot.
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, sir. You can’t be here.”
“Where’s the Advocate?”
“Sir, if you’ll — “
Another priestess, equally dirty, wiped her hands and rose from her knees. “I’ll take care of this, Getha.” She pulled me away from the scene. “You don’t remember me,” she said, “but I’d know you even if you didn’t look like Rien. My brother was at school with you and we met at your Elevation. I’m Celadane sator Archilia, formerly Pronatia diat Alvard. Come sit.”
I resisted her gentle hand on my arm. “Where’s my cousin?”
She bit her blackened lip, but her eyes never left mine. “Come sit.”
I knew. The small pile she knelt over was as black as everything else, but nothing else would be prayed over. I started for it, disbelieving. “No.”
Her hand shouldn’t have stopped me, but it did. “Your Valor, I’m sorry.”
The next hour didn’t stay in my mind. A mercy, maybe. I’ve only flashes of horror and disbelief, of standing over bone fragments, of hearing that the fire was uncontrollable before anyone noticed. Of Celadane forcing hot, sweet fondal down me, and holding my wrist. Vague, sickening numbness, bewilderment, soggy black ruins and Archilian Morians singing to the souls in the Afterworld.
The music tipped me into a momentary madness that is paradoxically clearer than everything else. I believed in Archilia whole-heartedly — so I could hate her. “You bookish bitch,” I screamed at the sky that wept cold grey tears — just like her eyes, damn it — “How could you steal her? She’s all I have left! Couldn’t you let her live? Hasn’t she suffered enough?”
“That’s why she was taken,” the first priestess said, her sanctimonious blather flaying my soul like a barbed whip. I whirled to give her a tongue lashing she might not survive and just managed to bite it back. The girl — she couldn’t be more than sixteen — had a nakedly sincere face and her tears had cleaned tracks through the soot.
Her nonsense snapped the world back into sharp focus for me. The silly bint believed herself. More fool her.
“Getha, Darav’s nearly finished. Please assist him and tell him I’m done, too. The ashes are ready. There’s a girl.” Celadane turned back to me. “She’s young and has a child’s faith. Thank you for your forbearance.”
“I want to see Rien’s bones.” I started for them.
She stopped me. “Not today,” she said firmly. “I will not allow you to risk your life and health now. However, I’ll accompany the urns south. You may join me. When this is… less raw — “
That might happen when the sun stopped rising. “Why you? Don’t damned Lethian vultures normally descend on a death?”
“No Lethians in Celestan. They dislike competition,” she said. “When the town elders knew the fire was… bad, they sent for us. Some of them know your cousin had taken her novica’s vow.”
I couldn’t think, but if I left silence, I’d feel idiotic when I thought of the questions I should have asked, so I said the first thing my seizing mind spat out. “Why are you taking Rien’s ashes south?”
“Accompanying, not taking. The Razin’s riders will arrive in four days.”
“Like the bleeding hells. What’s taking him so long? I’ll take them so I know they arrive.”
Celadane almost smiled. “We’ll leave in the morning, then.”
I managed to see her through my grief and saw mine mirrored on her face. “Do Archilians have special death escorts?”
“No,” she sighed. “I was Rien’s friend.”
I snorted. “Rien couldn’t have friends.”
She nodded, her dark scarf slipping off her hair. “Agreed,” she said ruefully, “but Darav and I are as close as she had, save you and Avah. I might ask the same question. Rien would have mentioned a visit — she anticipated Midwinter. Command One’s beyond a morning’s ride.”
I barely remembered why I’d come, then realized I couldn’t say. Motivating Rien to civil war was treason, and her death didn’t make it less incriminating. Celadane might be both Archilian and Alvard, so Royalist if not Radical, but I saw no sense in being stupid. “I had an unexpected leave. The border’s not ideal for holidays.”
She nodded, tactfully not noting that my timing could have been better. If the scheduling clerk had given me one earlier day… Cold suspicion seized me. “Was this fire… set?” I didn’t want the answer. Rien’s last letters hadn’t read like a suicide message, but —
She looked dismayed. “Not here.”
“Was it?” I insisted.
“The fire burned hot, given conditions, but we’ve found no clear evidence of arson.”
“We’ve had rain for two tendays and ice yesterday. I’m no expert but a spark shouldn’t have ignited the shingles. Come with me.” She led me, and Bellacosa, down the street and into normality. “Very few people knew that Rien Peregath was born to the House of Galene. She concealed it and called you her brother. People will assume.”
I nodded, and handed Bellacosa’s reins to the livery boy, not bothering to check their stalls. Bellacosa wouldn’t founder, starve or be mounted in an hour. Next door, the small cook-shop’s steamy windows and baking aroma promised warmth.
So did the honey-brandy laced fondal the matron gave us. “I’d know you even if you didn’t look heart-struck,” she said gently. “I liked your sister. A good woman. Didn’t fuss. She’ll be missed. Sator Cel’s already got our moria gift, but she won’t need it. Archilia’s already given her the sunniest spot in the library.”
“Thank you, Mistress,” I said numbly. Rien’s idea of hell. What use a woman who burnt under moonlight had for a sunny library I couldn’t imagine, but the sentiment was genuine. I half-drained the pot before Celadane finished half her cup. I wanted brandy’s solace as I took part of Rien’s spirit — when endangered, she grew coldly rational. That made her death real as nothing else had. One of us must think, and she never will again. “Tell me about the fire.”
“It burned hot and fast,” she said. Tears dripped into my cup. Her hand on mine was cool, but calming. She waited until I looked up. “The engineer across the street noticed first. He sent his son for the fire brigade and tried to help, but he couldn’t reach the office.”
“You talked to him?”
She nodded. “It was fully engulfed when he saw it. He thinks it started on the roof, but we Archilians have some experience with fire. We suspect the main room.”
Rien had described her office; I knew where hers had been. “Which side?”
“We can’t tell. The fire brigade had to let it burn out.”
That was normal. “Is it a quick death?”
She nodded. “Very. Smoke kills quickly. They probably never knew.”
That should be comforting. Nyuh. “How’d you know Rien?”
“She was our Advocate and my patient.”
“You’re a Healer?”
“She came to me for her shoulder. She’d been… badly beaten, but never told me who or why. Did you know?”
I looked away, ashamed. I should have convinced her to prosecute Savrin instead of saving me. She’d be alive. “Yes. I won’t tell you either.”
“I didn’t ask.” She studied her filthy hands around her cup in silence. “Rien was the most intensely private person I’ve ever met — “
“Did she set the fire?” I blurted.
“No,” she said firmly. “Rien couldn’t commit suicide, nor harm Avah. And Avah was devoted to Rien. She wouldn’t have set it, either.” She hesitated.
She shook her head. “It’s the heat. A drenched building doesn’t reduce a body to ash and bone fragments without help. We normally need a second pyre. Getha has a point — she believes Archilia’s Holy Fire took Rien. She fit the qualifications — in Holy Orders, very wise, and devoted to the principle.”
I snorted. “Not my brat. I, in my apostasy, am the only greater heretic I know.”
“Rien wasn’t heretical by our definition. She didn’t believe in an omniscient, eternal sky-woman who lives in an infinite library and records our every unkind thought, but that’s a supper story we tell children who need to personify a principle. Faith in abstraction is difficult. Rien wouldn’t have been permitted to take her third vow had she so immature an understanding of the faith. It sets us in opposition to the other faiths. We never doubted Rien’s faith in the principle of Wisdom.”
I shrugged. Theology isn’t my subject and Archilian esoterica is beyond me. I’m simple — point me at a problem and I’ll hack it to death. “What does Holy Fire mean?”
“It’s a manifestation of the principle — when Wisdom so fills the body, the fire escapes the mortal shell. The fire must burn itself out. It can’t be extinguished. It virtually assures that Rien will be nominated for the Dominatum.”
I choked on my fondal. “Rien? A holy enlightened one in the Afterworld, one of Archilia’s named scholars? Are you Archilians insane? With her sense of irony, you’ll encourage people to seek her intervention? Dear Ancestors, assume you’re right! Do you hate your laity?”
Celadane winced. “Good thing it’s not my decision. If it happened. I’m outside my knowledge. The Archilian Council — the Rose, the Branch, the Star, the Lily, the Rock and the Blade — has a battalion of scholars who will investigate Rien’s death most carefully before they make that determination. Probably better than the Metropolita. Certainly better than the Celestan Guard.”
That’s good news. Savrin can’t obfuscate what happened here. “What’s the alternative?”
She didn’t quite shrug. “A candle fell. A lamp exploded. A spark. A thousand possibilities. Buildings burn.” She hesitated again, but spoke her mind. “Did anyone wish Rien harm?”
Only a double score of people. At least. “Did you see something that makes you think so?”
“No,” she said slowly, “I just find it… oddly convenient for the Razin and the Reformists that their opponents keep dying.” She shrugged. “I’m our resident skeptic — and misanthrope.” She rolled her cup on its base. “When we enter a Conversatory, we give up name and rank, but not our families. Mine writes often so I hear more about the Prava and the Curia than most. My opinion of the Curia could be higher.”
Perhaps I could tell her. She seemed both sympathetic and sensible. My coldly political part sighed. She wasn’t unattractive, under the soot. Pretty amber eyes in light olive skin, on a solid frame neither too tall nor too thin. Archilian clergy can marry laity or even nonbelievers. Would she consider an apostate, turnabout, tolerant husband? She’d be good for Galantier, though she’d have to renounce her vows. I must marry now, and my Prazia can’t be dedicated to a single goddess. Too bad.
The brandy was making my mind wander. Marriage sounded no better than the awful reality eating holes in the world. Rien can’t be dead.
“I felt her when she entered the world,” I muttered. So why do I still feel her?
Celadane must have heard the question I didn’t say. “It doesn’t work that way,” she said sadly. “Would that it did. It might be easier to say goodbye.”
“You liked her very much,” I said, surprised. Rien kept people away — too often, Curiars had offered false friendship, seeking preferment. She learned that lesson early and chose loneliness over betrayal. That anyone had seen past her battlements… made me hope she’d looked back.
“Oi, she’s prickly and could be both brutally blunt and cutting, sometimes in the same sentence, but she was genuinely good hearted and devoted to us.” Cel looked ashamed. “Being freeborn or not shouldn’t matter in the Conversatory, but… sometimes Rien and Avah and I seemed like refugees from the same exasperating country. I don’t know if you realize how difficult educated women find the Curia.”
“Rien informed me.” Frequently, and at great length. I’d miss her remonstrances about excess and vicious gossip, the disregard for others. Every Curiar served Galantier for at least two years to earn their places in the Curia, but most Curiars considered it an archaic remnant that interfered with mating, gaming, wenching and frivolity. Rien found them disenchanting at best.
I tried to consider Avah, and I knew I’d mourn her eventually, but now, I had no room in my heart. “Were they happy here?”
“I’ve no comparison,” Cel said thoughtfully, “but I think so. As happy as possible. Avah missed her family, and worried about Rien, but she was content enough. Rien obviously grieved and her… altered circumstances overwhelmed her initially. Someone… hurt her. Beyond that beating. She wouldn’t talk to our Mind-Healers.”
“We can’t,” I said. “She knew state secrets. Mind-Healers are Perceptives and Impaths.”
“Of course,” she agreed. “She wouldn’t risk Galantier for her own peace.” She fiddled with the cup again. “Duty never left her. She spent tendays researching and writing something. I never pried, but it seemed political.”
The assessment she sent me. “You saw her?”
“You know about it?”
“She sent me a copy.” Possibly the only one. She might have only memorized it; if it wasn’t in her rooms, it was gone. I’d have to check. We don’t keep journals, but though we couldn’t perpetrate treason now didn’t mean I couldn’t hang for it. “What was your impression of her while she wrote it?”
Cel shook her head in incomprehension.
Rien wouldn’t lie to me, but a lawyer must be able to select sources to support her case. If she had, the assessment in my pocket might be her suicide message. “Did she expect the answers she got?”
She nodded, understanding. “Just the opposite. She… Tried to conceal her despair, but I learned to recognize it. When she finished that monograph, I’d never seen her more disappointed. When next I saw her, she seemed a bit better. I asked, one scholar to another. She said, ‘It’s not what I wanted, but it’s right. I’d be no scholastic if I only sought the wisdom I wanted to find.'”
Cel cocked her head, thinking. “Rien wasn’t exactly peaceful, but she found some. The finding wasn’t pleasant, but worth the journey.”
Probably not suicide. That should have been comforting, too, but wasn’t. Some things I didn’t want to know as her brother, but needed to know as her survivor. “Had she a sweetheart?”
Her startled laugh answered me. “You might hear such a rumor, but it was a ruse. She’d never let someone that close.”
Another knife in the heart, but I’d known. “Avah?”
“I’ve told her lover. I introduced them.” She pressed her kerchief to her brimming eyes. “Are you better — for now?”
“No,” I said honestly. “I’ll never be better again. So… yes, for now.”
She reached for her flat purse, but I dropped a half-royal on the table. It was probably orders of magnitude above the price, but generosity was the only gratitude for the matron’s kindness I could risk without tears.
Rien couldn’t be dead. Not murdered, not accidentally burnt. Just not dead. Her presence in the world was so strong I could taste her on the air.
Maybe that’s just the smoke.