The sun had not yet risen as the funeral procession wound its way through the streets of Dawngate. The clouds were painted in strokes of violet and deep rose, and a thin line of red gleamed at the southwestern horizon. Mourners in every manner of black descended the long mile from the duke’s palace to the harbor – nobles in silks and feathers, thanes in dark wools, servants in livery. At each street corner, the silent crowds grew larger. All of Dawngate had turned out to bid farewell to the sons of Duke Rothgar.
Asta kept her head bowed throughout the long descent, her eyes trained not on the twin biers ahead, but on the cobbles underfoot. She heard the approving whispers of spectators; doubtless she made a suitably mournful figure: the duke’s bastard daughter, grieving for her brothers. In truth, she was simply afraid to trip on her too-long gown. Or step in filth. The funeral would drag on the better part of the wake. She had no wish to stand around for hours with horseshit on her shoes.
But she owed her father the appearance of grief, if nothing else.
If she lifted her eyes, she would see him just ahead, leading the procession, stoic in his heartbreak. The broad span of his back hadn’t trembled once since they stepped outside the palace walls. At his side, his duchess was a quivering leaf, despite the weight of her robes anchoring her down.
Asta wished she could walk with her mother. She had never felt quite so alone as she did now, on display before the entire population of Dawngate. But while a ducal bastard was given precedence, the concubine who bore her was not. Lady Aldis was somewhere far behind her, hidden within a flock of ladies-in-waiting.
If Duchess Yvetta had had her way, Asta would be relegated to the rear of the procession as well. For once, Asta wished that Duke Rothgar had listened to his wife. She would have felt safer among her own household. But her father had insisted. She could still hear his angry voice echoing off the walls.
“She’s an Arvaker, isn’t she? She walks with us!”
Rothgar had always acknowledged her as his child. Yet he had never given her his name until her half-brothers were dead. She wondered what that boded for the future.
The Arvakers had ruled over Morn since the realm’s founding. For nineteen generations, the ducal line had continued unbroken. Now, with one careless accident, the house faced extinction.
The journey had been meant as a happy one. At long last, their prince was to wed, and to no less a prize than the daughter of Brythenmar’s primarch. It had long been the tradition for the Arvaker men to collect their brides in person, so Ref had sailed west for Brythenmar aboard the ducal steamship, with gifts for his princess and a new trade pact for his father-in-law.
It had been folly to let the princes sail together, of course. The duchess had argued against it from the start. But young Radulf had only just come of age, and he had begged to be allowed to see something of the world. Duke Rothgar had seen little harm in indulging him. It was only a gentle sail on the Ribbon Sea, and always within sight of land. Besides, Radulf needed a wife too, and what better place to go courting than at a wedding?
Their messages home spoke of the bride’s beauty and the wealth of the White Spire. To his mother’s relief, Radulf came to no worse harm than some heroic gambling debts. The wedding party sailed home in fine autumn seas.
They were in sight of the palace when they were caught in a tidal bore and driven against the rocks that guarded Dawngate’s harbor. For wakes afterwards, bodies washed up on the shore. Ref and his bride had been among the first discovered, but hope had long been held out for Radulf. By the time the waves surrendered his corpse, he’d been so bloated his own parents had been hard-pressed to recognize him.
It was the admiral’s fault, everyone agreed. How could he have so badly misjudged the tides? Why would he try to make landfall just two wakes shy of Highwater, the most dangerous time to be near land? Whispers of conspiracy abounded. The ship had been damaged and the admiral had risked everything on an emergency landfall. Someone had tampered with the tidal gauges. The admiral had gone sun-touched after too long on the Dayside. A witch had whistled up a curse-wind.
No one had the courage to admit the most likely cause, Asta thought. In her mind, there was no doubt: it had been Ref – the stupid, thrill-seeking fool – who had ordered the admiral to race the tides home. Riding the bore right up over the falls and into Heart Harbor: it was just the sort of stunt that would appeal to him.
Asta could not claim to miss her half-brothers. In life, they had been a pair of bullies. She had grown up alongside Radulf; when they were children, he loved to pinch her until she cried. Ref had preferred a defter sort of torment, befitting his greater age and rank.
But at least they were predictable gadflies; known quantities, as her mother liked to say. Now that they were gone, who would take their place? Duke Rothgar had no other sons, only a handful of cousins and a sickly nephew.
The procession slowly skirted the edge of Heart Harbor. The dawning mist slowly rose off the water, and air smelled vaguely of moldy wood. The city was so quiet that Asta could hear the distant rolling of the falls to the north, where the Myrsing River reached the cliff’s edge and tumbled down to the sea.
The water was still as glass. Few ships lay at anchor; most had moved down to Low Harbor with the sea. The tide had been at lowest ebb five wakes past. But now it was steadily rising again, as if trying to race the sunrise. Soon enough the ships would ride the rising tide back into the upper harbor.
The dock came in sight at last. Two miniature drakkars bobbed in the water alongside it. Surrounded by his priests, the Sunspeaker awaited his charges in full regalia. Ref’s bride had already been quietly cremated according to her people’s rites. In time, her ashes would be sent home to Brythenmar, to be enshrined in the tombs of her ancestors. Daysiders liked to keep what was left, once a soul returned to the Light. But Ref and Radulf were sons of Morn, and they would feed fire and sea as good Mornishmen should.
The grieving duchess had walked the mile from the palace in silence, but now a weak moan of horror escaped her, and she faltered in her steps. Rothgar put a hand under her elbow to steady her. It was the most tenderness Asta had ever seen her father show his unwanted wife. But Yvetta snatched her arm away. The time for tenderness was long past.
They followed the arc of the harbor, over the bridge that spanned the Artery, the greatest of Dawngate’s many canals. The pallbearers laboured up the steps to the dock and the waiting boats. The duchess stumbled again – her long robes caught on an errant splinter – but this time Rothgar let her struggle unaided.
The priests stepped forward to relieve the pallbearers of their burden. Asta heard the shuffle of footsteps as the many jarls of the realm moved to their positions, forming a crescent behind the ducal family. She could feel their combined gaze on her. A season ago she had been nothing to them; now they watched her like a brood of owls might watch a mouse in a hacker’s hand, waiting for their cue to feed.
The Sunspeaker stepped forward, spreading his arms wide, so that his voluminous sleeves caught the torchlight. Not for the first time, Asta wondered how Uncle Harek could bear the weight of his robes, sewn as they were of gold and copper threads. His fan-shaped collar rose high behind his bald head: a bronze mirror to distort the mourners’ faces into those of monsters. Deep lines of sorrow were carved into the priest’s face, but his eyes were too bright for a funeral. Asta recognized the gleam of calculation. Were he not in the priesthood, Harek would now be Rothgar’s heir. And he had a son of his own, after all.
“Children of Súnna,” the Sunspeaker intoned. “We are gathered here on this sixth wake of the new solar year, to send the beloved sons of Arvaker to their eternal rest. It is an auspicious time. Súnna stirs from her sleep, and the land shakes off the shackles of darkness. And our beloved dead shake off the shackles of their early forms, their souls returning to Súnna, their bodies to Njord. For as the Earth was born of Sun and Sea, so all early things must return to their origins. The circle is closed.”
“The circle is closed,” the mourners said as one.
“As the sun sets, so shall it rise. One flame dies, another is lit. The shadow falls, yet we kindle our fires to hold back the Night.”
Despite the heat of the torches, Asta fought an instinctive shiver at his words, the solemn pledge of all Mornishmen. Theirs was a land poised on the edge of eternal shadow, and the Night held dangers beyond mere darkness.
The priests laid the bodies in their drakkars, atop beds of kindling. In the half-light of dawn and the torchlight glow, Asta studied her half-brothers one last time. Bound in aromatic linen, their faces hidden behind wax death-masks, they bore little resemblance to living things. She’d heard that the embalmers had slaved for wakes to make the bloated, bloodied corpses presentable for viewing. And now the fire would undo all their work. It was almost morbidly funny. Had she been alone, she might have laughed, were it not for the realization that she would never see them again, save in the crude facsimiles of portraiture. No, she wanted to cry, as she watched her father anoint them both with oil. Not yet. She wasn’t ready to be the duke’s only child.
She and her mother had lived safely enough at the palace, beneath every lord’s notice. The princes had been their shield; with two strapping boys to inherit, no one needed to fret about a mere daughter. Now anything was possible.
The Sunspeaker offered duke and duchess the holy oil. Only Rothgar stepped forward to complete the rite. Yvetta was not a Child of Súnna, and Asta knew she had fought hard for a funeral in her own faith: fire kindled by mirrored sunlight alone, as close to sky as geography would allow. She’d lost that fight, of course, but Rothgar would not deny her a special flourish, after the oil was spread on the princes.
A handmaiden removed the veil and pins from Yvetta’s hair, and two thick braids tumbled down her back. Yvetta wielded the knife herself, to slice the braids free at the scalp. She lay one on either body, a token of that piece of her own soul that had died with them.
She looked so much older without her hair: a withered, trembling shell of a woman, long past her fertile tides. What would become of her now that her boys were gone? They had been her shield as well.
The Sunspeaker stepped forward, torch in hand. He lit Ref’s pyre, then Radulf’s. The heliophants moved swiftly, launching both boats from the dock before the flames could grow too hot. Slowly, the floating pyres drifted towards the center of the harbor, as the Sunspeaker’s voice swelled, joined now by his fellow priests’.
All around the harbor, the mourners stood in silent reverence, watching the fires burn. Asta tried to lose herself in the melody of the Hymn. But her thoughts kept turning to the uncertain future.
“We should leave the city for a while,” her mother had suggested. “Visit your grandmother, perhaps.” As if Rothgar would permit it. As if any amount of distance could make the jarls forget that their duke had a daughter on the cusp of womanhood, the perfect prize for whichever lord won the great race to be named aetheling.
And Morn needed an aetheling, before her enemies seized on her weakness. Duke Rothgar was a great bear of a man, with a sword-arm that would put fear in any berserker. But he was still only one man, and one man could not hope to hold back the Night.
The Hymn was long, and the pyres burned hot. By the time the heliophants reached the end of their song, one boat had already sunk, and the other was burning low to the water, the body inside reduced to a charred shadow in the flames.
“As the sun sets, so shall it rise,” the Sunspeaker repeated solemnly. “The seasons change. The light endures.”
“The light endures,” Asta murmured in time with the crowd.
The duke stepped forward to whisper to his cousin. He murmured something Asta could not quite hear. Rothgar began to turn, and Yvetta’s hand caught his sleeve quick as a snake. It was neatly done, but not neat enough to stifle the murmurs from the jarls.
“Thus it has always been,” the Sunspeaker continued in a loud voice. “Thus it shall always be. As the day follows night. As the thaw follows the frost. It is the way of things. For e’en Súnna herself is laid low every year. Without a dusk, there can be no dawn.”
Again, Rothgar began to turn, and again Yvetta made to stop him. Asta heard the woman’s angry hiss, a whistle through clenched teeth. This time the duke would not be denied.
“It must be done!”
“You cannot. The Thanesmeet must–”
“I must, woman!”
He was too large a man to ever be called nimble, and now he moved with all the grace of a wounded animal. Beneath a ginger-brown beard, his face was red and swollen. His breath wheezed through his chapped lips. His eyes were bloodshot, but inside their depths burned a powerful rage.
He was staring at his daughter. For the first time in her life, Asta was afraid of him.
“My sons are dead!” His anguished cry echoed in the early morning air. “I need no Thanesmeet to tell me my duty! Morn needs an aetheling!”
He advanced on her, his gait growing steadier with each step. Asta did not understand, until the moment he seized her arm and hauled her around to face the crowd. With his free hand, he pulled the feather-trimmed cowl from her hair.
“As the sun sets, so shall it rise. I give you your new aetheling!”
The common folk stared open-mouthed. Half the jarls seemed to shrink under the weight of their robes, while the others held their chins high in defiance. The boldest nobles, the duchess’s own brother among them, looked ready to do murder.
Mother… Asta looked for her among the women of the court. The jarlswives and the duchess’s serving women were all fidgeting and twittering at the dockside like doves in a cage. Aldis alone stood still, head bent and eyes squeezed shut. Her bottom lip was bloodless between her clenched teeth. When at last she found the strength to look at her daughter, her eyes held nothing but naked terror.
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