Heather Blackthorne woke screaming, in luxury.
Daylight cast a gentle blue-gray glow across her bed sheets as Heather clutched her covers to her face. A sob tore through her, scorching the fine cloth beneath her eyes. Her mind floated above her emotions as her body caved in to terror.
Eight screams, this morning, she thought to herself. Terror shouldn’t have a routine, Saints damn it. Center yourself. Remember the changes, memorize them. The faceless man, and his crimson cloak. That didn’t change. But he was strangling me with the locket chain, this time. And Neela and Roland were there, waiting to be butchered, too.
Another shuddering howl tore through her, and she felt the fabric around the tips of her fingers briefly ignite as her horror overwhelmed her control once again. A few frantic slaps put out the flames. She frowned, looking at the scorch marks on the bedding.
That shouldn’t be possible. But there isn’t a single quelling rune in this room, she realized. As she opened her senses, searching for the fire suppression rune that the room ought to have, it felt as if her body swelled to fill all the room, and beyond. No fire suppression in the room at all. All-stone construction around us, and we’re in the heart of Alektos’s vigilance, so I don’t think a fire of any kind could do real damage, but still. Smoke-sensing runes, though. Blood-sensing. Runes in the taps for water, hot and pure. Most of the usual runes you’d find in any building. But nothing for suppression of magic. That’s very weird.
Heather pulled her head up from her smoking sheets, and wiped away the last of the soot-stained tears from her cheeks. For a room in the heart of the Cathedral District, there’s an awful lack of magic, here.
She swung her feet off the bed, and paused at the unfamiliar, but welcome, shift of the locket against her chest. Her right hand closed around it, and she closed her eyes for one long moment, picturing her family. They died. And he might kill them again and again, every night in my head. But they died. They’re dead, and gone to their next lives.
Gratitude swelled in her, as she felt the weight and reality of the locket in her hand. It was reminder enough. He might kill them in my dreams, but he can’t hurt them anymore.
Heather dressed and let herself out of the room, every motion shifting the locket against her skin, making her conscious of its presence. On her way out, she paused by her bag, to rummage for the small cloth bag of sunflower seeds Ooluk’s people had once given her. They’d been intended for planting on the graves of children, and she’d carried them with her ever since.
Maybe I’ll plant one for Anthony, she thought.
As soon as she opened the door, she noticed a young boy no older than ten sitting on a bench at the end of the hallway. He was dressed in the plain smock of a novice, but a thin white silk ribbon bracelet wrapped around his left wrist. The boy looked up from his scripture-book in his lap and smiled winsomely at her. Heather waved at him, and he beamed.
“Missus Blackthorne?” the boy called. “Going for a walk?”
“For some breakfast, first,” she replied. “Are you my Circle minder, today?”
The boy favored her with a cheeky grin. “Sister Neela says grown-ups only get minders if they need them. Do you need a minder?”
Heather put her hands on her hips, and laughed. “I do not, kiddo. If I get lost, I’ll ask for a guide back here.” She approached the boy, and gestured to the ribbon on his wrist. “Does that ribbon mean you’re with the Inner Circle too, then?”
The boy gently closed the scripture-book in his lap, and then inclined his head. He held her gaze as he spoke, with a warm confidence in his voice well beyond his years. “Yes. Novices of our order wear one.”
“How come Sister Nalee still wears one, then?” Heather asked.
The boy shook his head, and favored Heather with a kind smile. “She wears two. Circle members can’t marry, but we can love.”
“So, Roland and Neela, then…?”
The boy solemnly took her hand in his, and gave it a momentary, kindly squeeze, as he searched her gaze. “They love. Each other, you, me, everyone. Like breathing. Be kind to them?”
Heather blinked, and then returned the squeeze. The thought of someone being unkind to them felt too strange to contemplate, but it stirred some anger on their behalf deep in her belly. “I will,” she promised. “I mean, I’m new at this, and…”
She trailed off, realizing she had no idea how to explain herself to a boy of his age. But he just nodded in understanding at her awkward silence, gave her hand one more lingering squeeze, and then let go.
“If you decide you need someone along with you, Missus Blackthorne, just send word. We’re here for you, as long as you need.”
“So I’m told,” Heather said softly. “Thanks.”
He bid her a good day, and Heather retraced the path she’d taken the prior morning, out of the peace and calm of the Circle quarters and back into the bright, busy noise of the main Cathedral. Walking through the building brought with it a whole-body satisfaction as her senses brushed every ward and spell in passing.
I swear to the Saints, every time I walk through these halls, I know I’ve had massages that didn’t feel this good, she thought. A mirror on a wall caught her smiling, and the sheer unfamiliarity of the expression on her face brought her up short.
The north, and grief, had weathered her face in the four years since Steven and Anthony had been murdered. The hollow hunger of her eyes was familiar, as were the red-rimmed lower lids of the crying that followed every morning’s awakening nightmare. Her short-cropped black hair stuck up in messy spikes around her head, kept short by habit. Haven’t worn a helmet in years, but I wasn’t about to give some bastard a grip on my skull then or now. Steven liked it cut this way, he said prickly suited me.
Thoughts of her husband stirred old feelings inside her. But the silver locket on her breast was new, and it looked right, sitting above her heart. Heather walked on from the mirror, stomach urging her towards the Knight’s mess-hall and breakfast.
The mess hall was enormous, built to serve nearly two thousand knights in the less peaceful history of the Church of the Saints. Some sections of stone bore scars of magic and metal, left over from clashes and invasions from once-competing sects and churches. But these days, the mess hall was a cheery place, its tall windows high off the ground streaming in light, bouncing off of white marble and bleached tabards of fallen heroes.
The runes in the mess hall were different than the rest of the Cathedral, but no less invigorating. As Heather joined one of the eight lines marching past the food tables, she smiled over her tray, feeling the throbbing, vital pulse of the mess hall’s magic.
Blood loss prevention, healing, easier breathing, better digestion. Everything in our bodies works just a little bit better, while we’re here. We all stand a little bit straighter, move a little more confidently. Her eyes swept over the tabards that hung on the wall, all of them damaged, some scorched, othered tattered, many stained by blood centuries old. At the worst heretical assaults, this was our last fallback. While war alchemists cooked food and healed wounded with every last bit of magic they had left to spare for us, we fought back the evil and the faithless. Like dad said, the kitchen is where lives and history are made.
She looked fondly towards the cooks, and smiled when she made eye contact with a woman hurrying up with a tray of loaves. The woman smiled back, before scurrying off for the next of countless trays streaming from the kitchens.
An old man in a nondescript Knight’s tabard sidled into line alongside her. “You look like you’re having a pretty good morning!” he said.
Heather froze. I recognize that voice, she thought, turning to squint at the man. His incurious eyes met hers, and he lifted his eyebrows. But I don’t recognize this old man’s face. Where do I remember that voice?
“I’m sorry,” Heather said, in a cautious tone. “Have we met?”
The man nodded. “Just once, some years back. Don’t imagine you’d have reason to remember me. I was a debrief officer when you helped us out with a troublesome case. Mind some company over breakfast?”
Heather shrugged her shoulders. “Suit yourself, sir.”
He made small talk with her about the spring weather, and the expected height of the seasonal flooding of the four rivers that fed through Bastia. Heather listened absently, as she loaded oatmeal and bacon onto her plate, and a double handful of strawberries onto her tray. The old man took his oatmeal plain, with a single slice of cheese alongside, and ignored the fruit altogether.
The old man gestured to a quiet corner of the mess hall, reserved for officers, and Heather followed him obligingly. As soon as she sat at the table, a ward carved into the furniture came to life, muting the noise of the mess hall around them. A few of the other officer’s tables had similar privacy runes dampening the air. As he sat, the old man loosened his tabard buttons, revealing a jacket altogether too familiar to Heather.
Heather’s mouth went dry. Major Weathers wore a jacket like that, before he died. Captain Pramath inherited it, if you can call it that.
The old man noticed her stare. “Not a chance meeting, I’m afraid.”
“You’re Gr-” as Heather went so say his name, the rune planted in her tongue by Ramdas, years ago, made her tongue cramp and seize. “Auw!” she exclaimed, holding a hand up to her mouth, frowning at him.
“I am. Sorry,” the man said, and he even sounded faintly apologetic. “This isn’t nearly secure enough an environment to mention how we last met.”
If you can call it that, Heather thought sourly. You blinded me before you even stepped into Pramath’s office.
Heather grimaced, working out the cramp in her tongue. “So what do you want? Is this about them, again?”
“Actually, it’s about you,” Greyson said, as he stirred his oatmeal. “And if you want another crack at the ones responsible. We have other detectives we can brief on what you’ve been through. Actually, we have other detectives working other angles on that case, already. But as Brother Rolente and Sister Neela made abundantly clear to me, I owe you the chance to say no, and to pass the work off to others.”
Heather leaned forward, locking her eyes on Greyson. “Not a damn chance, sir. I’m in.”
Greyson smiled. “See? That’s what I told them you’d say. But they said I should ask anyway.”
Heather fiddled with her breakfast. “Well, they were right. There’s a difference between following orders and choosing.”
“That there is,” Greyson said, his expression softening. “I want to be clear, Blackthorne, not least of all because I’ll never hear the end of it from Brother Rolente if I didn’t: You are to take all the time you need with the Circle. We need you at your best, and we both know how far away from your best you’ve been. And some of that is my fault.”
“Funny, I don’t remember you apologizing about that before,” Heather said.
“And you won’t now. You already know my reasons, and the math. Lives saved. That’s how this job works, Blackthorne. The Knights save lives. The Circle salvages them. Then we leave salvation to the priests and Divine.”
Heather began to eat, nodding along. “And which of those three branches did you say you worked for, exactly?”
Greyson cocked an eyebrow. “I didn’t. And I can’t tell you more until after you’re finished with your time at the Circle. If and when you decide you’re ready, you’ll be issued a jacket, and all of the duties and compulsions that come with it. Your security clearances will be upgraded, and I’m afraid you’re going to be able to talk about much less of your work than you could before. If you still want the job, then.”
“I will,” Heather said, firmly. She held up the locket around her neck, and opened it, so Greyson could see the drawings inside. “I’m in this for life, sir. For them. For me.”
“Good,” Greyson said, his eyes studying the locket, and then returning to meet Heather’s gaze. “I want you to bear in mind, while you’re with the Circle, that you’re only going to have this chance. Once the jacket goes on, there’s a lot of things you’ll never be able to talk to anyone else about, ever again. Not unless they share your clearances. That will not include Brother Rolente and Sister Neela. A lot of what we face would break their hearts. I think you’ve already got an idea of how sensitive those two are, emotionally.”
Heather drew in a breath, thinking of the mercurial, expressive eyes both Roland and Neela bore, and the way they wore their hearts on their sleeves. “I think I do. But I get the feeling they’re strong enough to handle it, too.”
“I have no doubt they are,” Greyson said dryly. “But just because someone can bear something, doesn’t mean we should make them do so. I’m quoting Sister Neela there, actually.” He settled back in his chair, studying her. “Once the jacket goes on, your lips get sealed. So, make your time with the Circle count, Blackthorne. Anything you hold back, you might never get a chance to say again.”
Heather thought about that. “I trust them, sir. I don’t plan on holding back, now.”
“I trust them too,” Greyson said, eyebrows rising in emphasis. “And in my line of work, you cannot imagine how rare that is.”
After Greyson finished his breakfast and excused himself from the table, Heather sat in the mess hall, listening to the noise and activity around her, savoring the taste of strawberries.
I miss Ooluk, she realized. Barely two days away and I miss the boy. I keep looking around here and wondering what he’d make of it. Her hand closed slowly around her locket. And I miss my son. He never got to see this part of the cathedral district. He’d have been so wide-eyed at a room this size, bigger than an airship hangar, all the echoes and movement and runes. He’d be here poaching half my strawberries, when he wasn’t gawking at everything.
Heather savored the tart sweetness of the berry, imagining her son alongside her, and then her husband. The locket’s weight in her hand was an anchor in bittersweet reality. They’re not here, though. They died. And if they’d lived I’d still be a good detective, working the streets of Bastia. Anthony would be almost eight years old and in school. Saints willing, he’d have a sibling or two. Steven would be a Sergeant or better by now in the city guard. Safely behind a desk, with any luck.
She reflexively wiped at her cheeks and was surprised when her hand came away dry.
I’m sad, but it’s a different kind of sad, right now, she thought. This is just my world, now.
Heather rose from her seat, and passed her tray off to a passing volunteer, letting her feet lead her out of the mess hall and back into the central cathedral. Mind buzzing with her thoughts, coupled with a confused swirl of worry over Greyson’s understated urgency. Occasional flickers of flame and sparks sprang from her fingertips as she walked without a conscious destination in mind.
She considered laying her hands on one of Alektos’s stone columns as she passed, but her emotions and magic felt too conflicted, too confused, to imagine offering up to their patron spirit. So she passed on, and took the first door she found that led outside, into one of the Circle gardens.
The door shut behind her, and she paused to take in the beauty of the little courtyard. A cherry tree, in full spring bloom, rained bits of pink and red down on the grass. A tall stand of fireweed, each plant identical to the strand she’d been presented with the other day, attracted a murmuration of content bumblebees, bowing the stalks as they landed to inspect the blossoms.
Alone in the garden, Heather hesitated, and then took off her boots and socks. The soft grass just off the path was a toe-wriggling pleasure. It’s been a few years since I could feel grass underneath me, she thought, smiling. Frostmoor had nothing but rocks and lichens. Saints, how weird is it to realize I missed grass?
She hugged herself as she walked. I feel like every step I want to laugh and cry, she thought. Her mind, ordinarily floating clear-headed above her emotions, seemed unable to find that distance today. I’m so used to holding all these feelings away. I feel so… broken.
An airship passed high overhead, and the dazzle of the morning sunlight through its sails and propellers made her throat catch.
My boy never got to fly, she thought, and somehow the injustice of that made her burst into tears. I can’t go anywhere nice without spoiling it for myself. I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t save them. I can save a hundred lives, but I couldn’t save my husband or my son.
She walked blind, scrubbing tear from her cheeks. A change in texture under her bare feet caught her attention, and Heather glanced down. Under her foot, a small marble slab had been laid flush with the ground. It read:
George Declan Giorgi Born and died 829 Alektos guide and Divine renew.
Heather sunk to her knees, and then sat in the grass, staring at the stone. This garden, is this is where they bury foundling infants, she wondered. Or stillbirths?
Her fingers wrung together, sparks and fire spitting from between her palms, sending a blossom of anguished flame up into the air above them.
Sunflowers, she thought to herself. There should be sunflowers here. Like up north. Ooluk’s people planted sunflowers. The biggest, brightest flower they could find, and they knew one would never survive to bloom before the frost took it again.
She knew, because they’d asked her to plant them at their children’s graves, in Frostmoor. And she had. I wish I’d never had a reason to know why they planted them, or what it meant, she thought.
Tears took her anew, and she laid her forehead on her knees, and sobbed.
Heather was still sobbing when the smell of vanilla and persimmon announced Neela’s arrival. The scent was followed by Neela sitting down in the grass alongside her, and leaning just enough to touch her shoulder against hers. Heather looked up from her tears, and Neela’s green eyes met her own, wet, open, and unashamed.
Neela bit her lip, and passed Heather a handkerchief. Together, they said nothing to spoil the silence, and they wept.
It took Heather a few more minutes to compose herself. “You saw me from the window?” she asked.
Neela nodded. “My office looks out over this garden,” she said softly, and then gestured to the grave marker. “I… get called to the hospital, sometimes. For parents.”
Heather stared at the grave marker. “He’d be two years younger than my boy,” she whispered. “And there was an airship before and I started to cry and…” she stopped, grimacing.
I sound like a blithering idiot, she thought.
But Neela held out her hand, palm up, for Heather’s hand. “Tell me about the airship,” she said.
Heather hesitated, then recalled Greyson’s advice. Make it count. Okay. I’ll try,
Okay. I’ll try, she thought, and slipped her hand into Neela’s.
“There was an airship, going south. And the sun was on it–” Heather’s voice cracked, and she smiled painfully. “– and it was beautiful to look at, Neela, and it made me remember how excited Anthony would be when he saw one. My little Tony. He would always point at them, and he never flew. He never had the chance.”
Heather looked down at the grass again. “And it’s dumb and it’s stupid and selfish but it just… it isn’t fair. It isn’t right. And it’s such a small thing, but it’s bothering me and I can’t shake it. I’m so good at keeping my head, no matter how I feel. I have to be. And today I just can’t.”
“It’s not dumb, Heather,” Neela said, her voice very soft. “Feelings aren’t something you have to justify, least of all to someone else. You’re allowed to feel however you need to feel. Please give yourself that permission. When you’re working, you need a clear head. But you’re not working right now. So let yourself feel.”
Heather swallowed, and scrubbed her face with the handkerchief. “I’m afraid to, Neela. I’m afraid it will be like being back in the widow’s cell all over again. All that fire, all that heat I made. I can’t just let all those feelings go, or go throwing fireballs into the air all day long like some child’s tantrum.”
“I didn’t say let your feelings go. I said let yourself feel them. You don’t have to throw your feelings away through magic. They’re your feelings. They’re worth more than just fodder for another spell.” Neela drew a breath, and offered Heather’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “We can’t always control what we feel, Heather, but we always have a choice in what we do with our feelings. What do you usually do, when you feel this way?”
“I don’t know,” Heather replied honestly, sniffling. “I’ve never felt this way before, I don’t think. I guess, the same thing everyone does when they feel this bad. Go pour it all into some magic for a while, until I’m too drained to feel it anymore.”
Neela simply nodded, the corners of her eyes crinkling in sorrow. “And how do you feel, in this moment?”
Heather hiccoughed into the handkerchief. “I feel confused. Sad. Like I want to plant every sunflower seed I have, in here, even though it’s du–” she paused, and corrected herself. “– won’t change what happened. I feel like, like I have all these feelings all of a sudden, Neela, and they don’t make sense. How can I be so happy about how good grass feels, and then a second later be sobbing because an airship flew by.”
“Because you’re daring to feel again, Heather. You’ve spent a long time avoiding that. Pushing it away, pushing it out in your magic. And because you’re out of practice, your balance is rusty. But it will come back. Look to the words of the Saints on this. They teach us to take all our feelings, and make something of them. Like the prayers for grief say: Make of my grief a seed.”
Heather drew a long breath, and her free hand dug into the pocket on the hip of her dress. She pulled out the cloth bag of sunflower seeds. “That’s what I was thinking,” Heather said, holding out the cloth bag to Neela. “Here. This never went in my reports, because… well. It was personal, I guess. Look inside.”
Neela released her hand, and accepted the small cloth bag with both hands, and solemnly opened the drawstring. “Sunflower seeds,” she said. “From your mother’s ranch?”
Heather winced, thinking of the gulf of four years of silence that lay between her and her mother. “No, but that’s not a bad idea in the future.” She drew a long breath, and took seven sunflower seeds out of the bag in Neela’s hand, one at a time. “Up north, in Frostmoor, they plant sunflowers on children’s graves, knowing they’ll be killed off by the early autumn frosts. They never get a chance to bloom.”
One by one, Heather put the seeds back in the bag, naming them off as she counted. “Anthony Blackthorne. Collette DuMaurier, she was the infant we found in Saint-Cielle. Samantha Eau-Claire, the nine-year-old girl murdered in Saint-Cielle. I had to put my mace through her undead chest. Maulin Dupleiss, a two-year-old boy, killed when the Sending Gate was bombed. I found his foot.” She drew a shaky breath and counted out the last three: “Enzo, Simon, and Chloé Lazine. Killed when Victor LaPaix shelled Frostmoor. They were… nine, seven, and three.”
Heather looked away, and began to cry again. “Their mother died with them when the shell hit their home, and all I could think was, thank the Saints. It’s awful, but thank the Saints and Divine that she didn’t live. She died with her family.”
“You wished you died with yours,” Neela said, and carefully replaced the seeds back into the bag, handing it back to Heather with solemn care. “For a long time, you wished you had.”
Heather sobbed into the handkerchief and nodded.
“But you know, in your heart, that it would have been wrong to take your own life. Like you imagine Mrs. Lazine would have, if she’d survived.”
Heather swallowed a sob. “I had promises to keep.”
Neela wrapped her arms around Heather, embracing the woman in a careful, kind hug. “You chose to keep those promises, Heather. That’s what people do, with promises. They aren’t some magic, rune-bound oath. People choose to keep them. You chose life. And you’ve hurt so much for it, and you still choose it every day. That’s why you know it’s awful, to thank the Saints that Mrs. Lazine died. Because you would want her to choose life too. You have some good days, Heather. I’ve seen you smile. You write and say such kind things about your friend Ooluk, and the knights who fought alongside you in Frostmoor. You bear the weight of all of those terrible memories.” Neela exhaled a long breath, ripe with the scent of oranges and honey. “I’ve learned a long time ago that everyone can rebuild a life. Not the same life. Never the same life. Usually very different. Quieter. Sadder. But even those lives have happiness in them, Heather.”
“Tell that to Mrs. Lazine,” Heather said, and then gestured to the little grave marker at their feet. “Tell that to his mother.”
Neela met Heather’s gaze, her tear-reddened eyes steady and kind. “I would. Like I’m telling you, now. That how you feel matters. That your pain is real, and it’s worth feeling. Not ignoring it behind work or throwing your emotions away in magic. It’s your pain, and you’re allowed to feel it, as deep as you need. And you’re allowed to let it heal, Heather. One day at a time, one heartbeat at a time, one breath at a time. That’s how we choose.”
She rose to her feet, and offered Heather a hand, helping pull her to her feet. “And that’s how we keep our promises.”
Heather dropped her eyes to the bag of sunflower seeds in her hand. She nervously shuffled the seeds between her fingers, through the cloth of the bag. “Would it be alright if I planted one here, for my boy?” she tried to ask. The question came out in a whisper.
“Yes, of course. But please, plant another at your son’s grave, when you visit.”
Heather froze, staring at the bag in her hands. When I visit, she thought. The thought had once filled her with terror. Now, even with the locket around her throat and the seeds in her hand, saying when still frightened her. But she swallowed, and nodded.
“When I visit,” she agreed.
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