Silira Mór lay her quill down reverently and flexed her aching fingers. She felt stiff and hunched after hours of painstakingly copying the decrepit historical manuscript that lay open on her ink-stained desk—a relic of the Archive of the Dome, whose high stone stacks surrounded her on every side. Beside the old tome sat the transcription she’d just completed, daubs of wet ink still glistening on its final words.
Lira held her chocolate-colored curls back, leaned over the book, and blew carefully on the ink, watching as the last droplets dried on the parchment. She gave the page a final once-over before gingerly closing the cover. The scent of the fresh parchment and newly-bound leather ignited memories of her first clumsy attempts at transcription.
As an adolescent apprentice, she’d had a habit of smearing the ink with her quill hand as she clumsily copied each line. Her master, Lord Irem Énna--the elderly Defender of Histories—was patient with her, providing endless sheets of clean parchment for her to practice her calligraphy. But her friend and sworn rival, Aidryn Tarlach, teased her relentlessly about the ink stains that perpetually marred the entire side of her right hand. Even now, ink constantly adorned both of her hands, but it was no use scrubbing them raw every night.
She glanced to her left, where Aidryn was hunched over his own transcription. For a moment, she watched him work; his dark hair fell into his eyes as he scratched his quill deftly across the page. His usually close-trimmed beard looked more unkempt than usual, and he chewed the inside of his cheek as he wrote.
Lira waited until he paused to dip his quill into the inkpot on the corner of his desk, then rose. She stretched, rolling her stiff neck before hefting the heavy volume with an unladylike grunt and another glance in Aidryn’s direction. As she sidled past his desk, she whispered, “Finished,” with a satisfied smirk. Her dark brown eyes twinkled mischievously.
Aidryn cursed under his breath, momentarily flustered. “I suppose I can’t win every round.”
“You don’t,” she laughed, heading toward the stacks.
“Three out of the last four,” he muttered, not bothering to hide his smile before returning to his work.
She moved between the rows of desks where the other archivists worked, crafting scrolls and tomes with cautious hands, steady gazes, and shoulders as stiff and rounded as hers. Six apprentices filled the desks, all focused solely on the tasks set before them. Lira often wondered if, like her, they preferred to perform such isolating work in the quiet company of others.
Lira padded across the ornate floor, a mosaic of bloodstone and onyx tiles, as she made her way to one of the many towering shelves that lined the circular perimeter of the archive. She placed the new book on the stone shelf, running her fingers down its spine one last time before she returned to fetch the original from her desk. It was an economic history of her city, Iathium—the capital of Rodhlan.
Springtime’s relentless rain showers had saturated the earth above them, bringing a dampness to the archive that was so thick, Lira could taste it. The wide, open stairwell that led to the Dome’s main floor usually kept the air in the archive fresh, but today the space smelled musty and stale. She paused by a burner in the center of the archive to light fresh incense, carefully placing it inside the burner—a bronze miniature of the great Dome in the heart of Iathium.
Lira relished fitting pieces of Iathium’s history together like a puzzle—working each new bit of information into the whole, connecting catalysts and events across families and centuries. More than any of her peers, Lira understood why and how each law, each war, each ruler, and each structure had come to be.
Though she’d always been fascinated by stories of the past, Lira’s father had turned her history lessons into a game of strategy when she was a child—a game she’d never tired of, and never stopped longing to revisit. Even now, scouring books and scrolls for missing pieces of truth felt less like work, and more like reliving a happy memory.
After five years of working as an apprentice, then being promoted to full-fledged historian, Lira still marveled at the intricate stonework surrounding her. She had never seen anything else like it: a massive cavern that had been fashioned into the stacks, chambers, and nooks where she spent most of her hours reading, researching, and transcribing. The craftsmanship was so skillful that she had to look twice the first time she learned that the handiwork was solid, unbroken stone.
As she rounded the side of her desk to reach for the book, Aidryn leaned toward her and swiped his quill across her forearm, leaving a spit of thick ink on her pale skin.
“What was that for?” she hissed, putting the book down to rub furiously at the ink—but succeeding only in smearing it all over her palm and her arm.
“What did you do to cross Lord Irem?” he murmured, raising a dark eyebrow. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“Why did you—” she huffed, using her linen apron to scrub at her palm, cringing as the ink began to stain the clean cloth. “What do you mean, what did I do? I never cross him.”
Aidryn tilted his head, leaning sideways to glimpse the book that rested on her desk. Lira moved to hide the book’s title, but it was too late.
“Economics of Ancient Iathium,” he mused, brushing strands of brown hair away from his eyes—a striking blue in contrast. He ran his fingertips over his beard in mock deliberation. “If I were the one assigning manuscripts—” he pointed with his quill— “I’d say you were being punished.”
Lira raised her chin. “Well, I’m not. Besides, it was stimulating.”
Aidryn leaned forward conspiratorially. “Since when did you like economics?”
Lira wouldn’t openly complain to him about the bore of a book; Aidryn enjoyed baiting her too much to give him the satisfaction. But she did wonder—just for a moment—why the Lord wouldn’t have given a book like this to one of the apprentices; after all, their sole task was copying the texts, not memorizing them.
“I’m no economist,” she replied, “But clearly, the Defender trusts me with the most challenging titles.”
“I don’t know about that,” he whispered with a wicked grin, closing his manuscript to reveal its title: Rowan’s Mathematical Anthology, Vol. 2.
Lira muttered an insult under her breath as she snatched her book from her desk. Aidryn chuckled, turning back to his work.
She made her way across the archive toward the inner chamber. The smaller, circular room within the archive was reserved only for Lord Irem, Lira, and Aidryn—the only historians in residence.
Rare, first-edition manuscripts were stored in the chamber, as well as tomes and scrolls that had been removed from public access long before the rest of the archive was sealed. Lira longed to get her hands on the records that had been locked away for centuries. There were precious few scholars who could read and write in Athi, the common tongue, and even fewer who could even identify the four clans’ indigenous, written languages—if any at all. She wasn’t sure any records in the lost tongues even existed.
Certainly, Irem knew something of the ancient languages, and he would pass that knowledge down…but not to her. At twenty years old—one year her senior—Aidryn had already been chosen as Irem’s successor. There were records Lord Irem and his heir had access to that no one else would ever see. It pained Lira to know she would always be left wanting for knowledge. And though Aidryn was worthy—and though she tried not to dwell on it often—she couldn’t help feeling envious of him.
When she reached the chamber, its massive wooden door was closed, so she rang the tiny bell that hung beside it. Its tinkling echoed through the wide, open archive; several of the apprentices glanced behind them before turning back to their books.
A friendly, wizened voice called from inside: “Enter.”
She pushed the door open and stepped inside, shutting it behind her. Irem was hunched over his desk, quill scratching feverishly. The mingling smoke and incense—more pungent than the sweet-smelling kind she’d lit in the archive—were more overwhelming than usual, so she took a moment to collect herself before speaking.
The chamber also contained stone stacks from floor to ceiling. Its floor was covered in the same tiles of bloodstone and onyx that swirled and twirled into a tight central spiral, dulled from years of neglect, in contrast to the mirror-bright floor in the open archive. Glass lanterns adorned the walls, their flames flickering, and an iron chandelier was suspended in the center of the chamber, filled with burning candles of varying sizes. Wax accumulated on each candle holder and overflowed from some, as evidenced by the blots that had dripped onto the floor below and hardened there.
“Good afternoon, Lord Irem,” Lira said, bowing her head.
The brown-skinned man looked up from his work, squinting at her through his spectacles. Lira knew the expression well, for she wore it often; hours of staring at manuscripts made it difficult for her eyes to adjust when she was ready to focus on a person, an object, or another task besides reading and writing.
“Ah, Silira,” he said. “Impeccable timing.” His dark eyes twinkled, the laugh lines that framed them deepening.
“Impeccable?” she asked teasingly, hefting the book onto a stack of originals at the end of Irem’s desk. “The illustrations took longer than I expected, but I still have time to work on the scrolls you mentioned.”
“No need,” he said, waving her off. “We have more pressing matters.” He glanced at the timepiece on his desk—a small, delicate gold pendulum that looked as if it had been quietly ticking since the days of Riku, the benevolent Rí who founded ancient Iathium.
“Yes, sir,” she said, tapping her fingers on the stack of manuscripts. “What—”
“We are expecting a visitor,” he said. “Come, help me stand.”
Lira braced Irem’s elbow as he struggled to rise from his stool. She reached for his cane, passing it to him. The old lord steadied himself, raising his chin to glance back toward the door. “Lock us in.”
She crossed the room hastily to engage the lock. “But I thought—”
Tapping—from beneath the floor at the center of the chamber—silenced her. She whirled, eyes widening. “What’s that?”
“Our visitor,” Irem chuckled, hobbling toward the source of the noise. He used his cane to tap a pattern into the tiles, the sound billowing into what seemed like a booming echo. Lira couldn’t say whether the sound was truly that loud, or she was merely nervous.
Irem stepped back as the center of the spiral opened with a groan, revealing a stone staircase. The flickering of a lantern made its way upward, cresting the edge of the floor and flaring as its bearer entered the chamber.
Lira gaped at Iathium’s supreme ruler as he lowered his lantern. Rí Eremon’s long, black hair was tied at the nape of his neck. The eye-popping azure, gold, and violet of his silken robe caught her eye, its rich fabric shimmering in the candlelight. He flashed her a wide smile, as if he’d known her for years.
“Good afternoon, Silira,” he said, in a voice as rich as the blueberry-filled chocolate candies Lira hoarded on holy days.
She opened her mouth to speak, but her lips and tongue had turned to sandpaper. Instead, she blinked once. Twice.
At nineteen, Eremon was the youngest ruler Iathium had seen in two centuries—the same age as Lira—
“Well, aren’t you going to say something, Silira?” Irem chuckled.
Lira didn’t realize she’d been moving backward until she bumped into Irem’s desk and crashed down onto his stool. Her backside throbbed as she averted her eyes and dropped haphazardly to one knee, the hard tiles sending a painful shock up through her leg. She tried to hide her cringe, her face burning.
“I beg your pardon, my Rí,” she murmured, trembling.
“Eremon,” he said, offering his hand to her. She took it awkwardly, letting him pull her to her feet.
Eremon was far more handsome than she remembered from her few brief, distant glimpses of him at the few feasts and ceremonies her father, Arlen, had allowed her to attend as a child; she tried to be subtle as she noted his high cheekbones, full lips, and eyes the shape of the almonds Irem always kept in a dish on his work table. Today, he was disarmingly casual. The wide sleeves of his thigh-length robe were rolled up to his forearms, and he had replaced his usual black trousers and boots with loose-fitting pants and sandals.
“I’m honored, Eremon,” Lira echoed.
His name rolled off her tongue with ease; she had never spoken it aloud—had never been permitted to before. The word sounded foreign to her ear, yet it felt familiar to say. It was becoming quite a challenge to hide her surprise at the entire situation—his nearness, the fact that he was speaking to her, and that he’d just asked her to call him by his given name. She knew she was gaping at him, and though she was horrified at herself for doing it, she couldn’t seem to stop.
The Rí smiled briefly, but shifted his gaze toward Irem, as if deferring to the older man. Lira took a step back, putting a more appropriate distance between herself and the young ruler.
“I apologize for shocking you, Silira,” Irem said as he moved to clasp Eremon’s hand in greeting. “Eremon asked to see you on quite short notice.”
In that moment, the Rí seemed more like one of the elderly man’s charges than his highest authority. “He couldn’t refuse,” he quipped. “Besides, he’s been telling me for years that I should meet you face-to-face. I’m glad I finally listened.”
“Years? I—I beg your pardon?” Lira sputtered.
“You’re an incredibly talented historian,” Eremon began as he crossed the chamber, setting his lantern beside Lira. She held her breath as he leaned casually against the desk, inches away from her. “I’ve observed your work for some time, and I wanted a proper introduction. Besides, the three of us have something important to discuss.”
“Thank you,” she said, lowering her gaze again, “but why?”
The young man brushed his fingertips across book bindings on the stacks next to him. “Your passion for our histories is unparalleled. Inborn instinct like that is rare.” He turned to her again. “Why wouldn’t I want to meet someone like you—someone who would preserve the histories of my city with such care?”
His ash-gray eyes bored into hers with an intensity that made Lira’s stomach twist into a bundle of nerves. She waited expectantly to hear what he had to say next, suddenly unsure of what to do with her hands—or the rest of herself, for that matter. She shifted her gaze from her mentor to the Rí, then back again. Clearly, Irem expected her to speak for herself; she worked her jaw uncertainly.
“I can’t truly say, my Rí—”
“Eremon.” He dismissed her use of his title again. “Lord Irem says no one else in the archives understands or retains these histories like you,” the Rí continued. “You commit every detail to memory like your life depends on it.”
“Th-thank you,” she stammered. “I have loved our histories since I was a child; my Da and Lord Irem taught me well.”
He nodded. “I used to beg my father to let me abdicate when I was a boy. I wanted to be apprenticed here instead.”
Lira’s eyes widened; for a moment, she imagined a younger Eremon occupying a work space next to her in the archive—two apprentices studying together under Irem’s tutelage. She wondered what it might have been like if Rí Corlan had allowed his son to give up the throne, and how Eremon would have gotten on with her friends.
The thought of Eremon’s father brought memories of her own Da rushing back—images of the grim-faced Sentries who brought the news of Arlen’s death to her threshold seven years prior. Rí Corlan had been aboard the same ship as Arlen, sailing for Iteloria on a mission whose purpose had never been disclosed. The late Rí’s body had been returned for burial, but Arlen’s wasn’t recovered.
“I’m sorry you weren’t able to join us here,” Lira said, shoving down thoughts of her father. “I would have enjoyed studying alongside you.”
“As would I,” Eremon replied.
Irem cut in. “But private lessons in the chamber are the next best thing, are they not?”
Eremon smiled warmly. “Yes, sir—after hours, as we do.”
“I’ve never seen you here after hours,” she blurted.
“Because you haven’t been permitted in the chamber after hours,” Irem gently scolded.
Lira’s cheeks heated, but she tried to laugh off her embarrassment at missing the obvious. “That’s true, unfortunately.”
The Rí clasped his hands behind his back. “Let’s get right to business, Silira—you’re familiar with the spoken histories of our clans, are you not?”
“Yes,” she hedged, heart pounding. She resisted the urge to drag her sweaty palms down her apron, suddenly too aware of the mess of ink all over her hands and the arm Aidryn had marked. “My grandmother, Skelly, told me the old legends when I was a child, but I’ve focused my studies here on recorded histories alone—not folklore.”
Eremon crossed the room again to stand before her; Lira shrank at his proximity and heat rose to her cheeks. She wasn’t used to feeling enamored around anyone; it was normal for her to interact with members of court and the nobility from day to day at the Dome. Lord Irem was like a grandfather to her, and the only other people in her inner circle were her younger brother—Talfryn—and the Tarlach family, who were considered working nobility. Aidryn’s sister, Caitir, was Lira’s best friend. Lira and Talfryn had spent more time at the Tarlachs’ home than their own over the past three years. The siblings had been living by themselves in Iathium since their mother, Iva, remarried and left the city for neighboring Clan Beran.
Beyond the upper crust in Iathium, Lira had plenty of experience dealing with clan leaders and people deemed important outside the city. Her paternal uncle, Gerallt, was master of Clan Mór. And Iva’s new husband was Clan Beran’s overlord—Artur, the mighty Arthmael. Even still, Lira was hard-pressed to feel intimidated by the unnerving cultural practices Beran had cultivated to make outsiders feel unwelcome.
But standing this close to Eremon, she could barely utter a coherent sentence.
“Do you remember Skelly’s stories?” he asked, breaking through her thoughts.
Memories from her last trip into the eastern mountain range flooded her mind; it had been seven years since she’d seen Skelly. Her throat bobbed. “I do.”
Eremon crossed his arms. “And you think of them as lore?”
“Of course.” A little laugh escaped her lips. “What else would they be?”
“Histories—silenced and long-forgotten. There are few people in Rodhlan who remember them.” Eremon sat on one of the stools by the desk. “Lira, Irem tells me you’re a most trustworthy historian—that you have a willing mind and open heart to receive what I’m about to tell you.”
Lira’s pulse quickened; what could he possibly know that she hadn’t already studied, beyond the restricted knowledge she’d craved for so long?
“I’m willing,” she said quietly.
Eremon’s attention snagged on Irem’s timepiece, and he watched its pendulum tick for a long moment before he spoke again.
“Few ancient records exist in the common tongue. And as you know, we’ve kept no tomes in the clans’ languages here in the archive for centuries—or on the continent, for that matter.”
Lira couldn’t help feeling a bit frustrated; she wanted to tell the Rí that she knew all these things, but she held her tongue and let him continue.
“Have you ever wondered why we have so little information about the years before Rí Nami’s reign—about Iathium’s early days? Or about why my forefathers chose to restrict reading to historians alone?”
Coming from Eremon, these facts sounded horribly oppressive—and Lira had never thought of Iathium or its leaders as anything but benevolent and nurturing. She’d always understood the city-state to be a place of prosperity and diversity, where clanspeople and city-dwellers alike could share space.
Lira felt ashamed to answer, “I really haven’t questioned any of it deeply.”
She’d often secretly wondered why the ability to read wasn’t open to everyone, but Iathium’s people were known for their oral histories—proud of them, in fact. Illiteracy had been en vogue in the city for years and, while it had never truly made sense to her, it was just how things were. Dread stirred deep in her belly; trying to understand what Eremon was saying to her felt like deciphering a faded manuscript page.
“But everything I’ve studied—” Lira continued, her thoughts growing foggy—“Nothing seems to have been left out…”
“A lie, sprinkled with a little bit of truth, is more believable.” Irem regarded them both. “All of the city’s histories contain just enough truth to go unquestioned.”
“You’re telling me that our histories are lies,” she said flatly.
She’d meant for it to come out more like a polite question, but she couldn’t produce the right inflection. The thought that her beloved father’s stories and games could have meant nothing—she felt herself breathing rapidly. Her father’s lessons and the histories she’d refined here meant everything. Da had taught her the foundational truths that helped her excel in the archive.
“I’m sorry, my girl,” Irem said, as if reading her racing thoughts.
“We know this isn’t easy to hear,” Eremon added gently.
Lira stilled, her shoulders straining beneath the tension between her truth and what she was hearing. She tried again to grasp what the men were telling her but failed. Frustration replaced her confusion as she met her Rí’s gaze, her eyes flashing. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because the time to reveal the true histories is near,” Eremon answered, unbothered by her sudden boldness. “And we need your help to do it.”
“What true histories?” Lira huffed a disbelieving laugh and shook her head. “Iathium is truth, and truth is freedom,” she recited—but saying the familiar phrase felt more like a deflective tactic than fact. She tried to ignore the pang in her stomach.
“A mantra repeated to cover the lies,” Eremon said earnestly—almost pleadingly. He leaned toward her slightly, as if he wanted to give her a glimpse of his emotion; as if, somehow, sharing it would negate the dread coiling in her belly.
Lira straightened, raising her chin. “That’s not possible. It can’t be.”
“It is,” Irem said. “But we didn’t have the proof until recently.”
The Defender gestured behind him. Two new bookcases sat in a dark alcove, each shelf covered by iron bars and padlocked for safekeeping. Rows of unfamiliar manuscripts—at least one hundred—filled the cases. Some were crumbling like the book she’d transcribed today; others were beautifully bound in emerald, blue, and crimson leather, stamped with bronze and silver filigree.
“Where did these come from?” Lira breathed.
“Iteloria,” Eremon answered carefully, studying her expression. “Our fathers were trying to retrieve them when they were killed.”
The words seemed to flow from his mouth at an excruciatingly slow pace—yet they slammed into her chest like a bludgeon, knocking her breath out in a ragged rush. She wrapped an arm around her middle, the other hand rising to her mouth as tears clouded her vision.
“It has taken seven years and many failed attempts to get them to Rodhlan,” she heard him continue, “but they’re finally here, and now we have evidence.”
Lira bit the insides of her lips, willing herself into some semblance of composure. Eremon tried to say something else, but she held up a hand and whispered, “I need a moment, please. I’m sorry.”
She ducked her head and hugged herself tightly, rushing past the two men to stand nearer to the unfamiliar books. Curling her fingers around the bars that separated the tomes from the outside world, she squeezed her eyes shut and took several shuddering breaths.
Arlen had been Lira’s most ardent supporter when she began her apprenticeship at the archive. He had been the one to kindle her love for Iathium’s history, and the most vocal detractor of Skelly’s stories.
“It doesn’t make sense,” she whispered thickly, afraid to raise her voice any louder for fear of sobbing in front of the Rí.
“But it does.” She jumped, startled; Eremon had moved quietly to her side. “It makes sense because your father was loyal to Iathium. So, when the crown had need of his help, Arlen was willing to serve—even if he didn’t fully understand.”
He lay a tentative hand on Lira’s shoulder and continued, “Just like his daughter, I hope.”
Lira didn’t want to meet his eyes, but she forced herself to look at him. “I can’t imagine Da dying to dismantle Iathium’s histories.” She hoped her tone hadn’t betrayed her anger.
“Not to dismantle, but to rebuild,” Eremon said softly.
Now, she looked to Irem, her eyes pleading. She felt helpless; if anyone else had challenged the histories as Eremon was right now, she would have set them straight. But standing before the highest authorities in the city, she could barely formulate an appropriate reply. “Please, help me understand what you’re trying to say.”
“For now, I will say that your father was made privy to information that changed his mind about a great many things,” Irem said, his expression full of pity. “I’m sorry he was never able to tell you himself.”
“So, something changed his mind,” Lira mirrored, grasping for words. “But why would the late Rí have wanted an armorer’s help retrieving books from across the sea? Da was no archivist, and he was no seafarer, either.”
The disparate pieces of the story still didn’t fit together. She had always imagined that her father had been killed in some secret effort to gather secrets of the Itelorians’ armor, weaponry, and battle tactics. As Rí Corlan’s head armorer, Arlen had designed and crafted the Sentries’ chain mail, plate, and weaponry. Logic had led her to the conclusion that his death had been associated with his work.
“I can,” Eremon answered, “because as our fathers, they found they had shared interests.”
Lira was taken aback. “What—”
“Simple commonality,” Irem interrupted. “They were equally invested in your futures—and if that meant clarifying the existing histories, they were willing to risk their lives to do so.”
The Rí pressed his lips together and nodded in agreement. He looked conflicted for a brief moment before he spoke again. “If it isn’t too odd for me to say …” He traced the delicate wrought iron on the shelf before continuing. “I recall seeing you briefly, the day we buried my father. I thought of you as a strange sort of friend who knew how I was feeling, though we’d never met.”
Lira remembered being acknowledged by the head Sentry at Rí Corlan’s burial, but the Raní and her son had remained stoic and silent, making eye contact with no one. At the time, she’d imagined some unspoken bond of shared grief between herself and Eremon, though it had been years since she’d spent time thinking about it.
Apparently, Eremon felt the same.
She swallowed the lump in her throat, turning her attention back to the litany of questions crowding her mind. “Who recorded these? How did they escape discovery?”
“A small band of scholars who left Rodhlan to preserve these old volumes a thousand years ago, far from the city’s reach. They also managed to secure a number of Itelorian records and religious texts documenting Rodhlan’s history from their point of view.”
“Who here can translate records from the peninsula?” she asked, her eyes widening in awe.
“I can,” Eremon answered.
Lira sized him up with renewed curiosity, but looked back to Irem. “What about the others? The clans’ languages are banned; who here can still speak or write in them?”
“All in good time, Silira,” Irem soothed.
“Forgive me, my lord, but is there time?” she asked, hastening across the room to stand before her mentor. “You’re saying that our histories are lies. Yet we’re going to leave the apprentices in the dark? And what about Aidryn? Shouldn’t he be here? He is my superior, and—”
“Aidryn is older than you, Silira,” Irem replied, “but he is not your superior. And he has given his notice. He will not be pursuing a position as my heir; therefore, he need not be here for these meetings.”
Lira felt like she’d been slapped. Aidryn had always been with her here; how could he give up inheriting Irem’s title? How could he abandon her? “Why would he do that?”
“He has agreed to gather oral histories from his own clan,” Irem answered, “which will require extensive travel. In addition, he will assist his father’s diplomatic outreach to Iteloria.
“Please keep this discussion within these walls for the time being. You may ask him about his plans for the journey, but everything else…” The old man shrugged.
Lira almost choked on her own words as she managed to say, “I see.”
Once again, Eremon had followed her across the room; Lira knew he was carefully reading her responses, her body language. She had long since lost the ability to mask her expression.
Irem grasped her shoulder firmly. “Don’t look so downtrodden. He isn’t leaving for good.”
Lira shook her head. “I can’t help it; there has been so much, all at once.”
Eremon’s body shifted ever so slightly in her direction, as if he wanted to offer her some kind of comfort. After a moment, he stilled, his face the picture of impassive restraint.
He kept his voice calm and even as he said, “None of this is easy to hear. I imagine someone who loves Iathium as much as you do would be just as heartbroken. And equally heartbroken to know a friend won’t be shouldering the burden alongside you—at least not, perhaps, as you’d hoped.”
She tried to let his words comfort her, but she didn’t reply. Her throat was still too tight, her shoulders too tense. A painful knot had long since formed deep in her belly—the place where she always held her anxiety and grief. Grief. She swallowed hard.
Irem rested heavily on his cane. “Eremon, perhaps you could tell Lira what role she will play in all of this,” he said gently.
Lira wanted to thank him for taking charge of the discussion—for recognizing that she couldn’t speak. Instead, she remained immobilized.
Eremon nodded once at Irem, then turned his focus back to Lira. “I would like you to record your grandmother’s stories in Athi,” he said. “As the next Defender of Histories, it will give you a start on writing your own historical records.”
“The next Defender?” Lira whispered.
Of course; if Aidryn was giving up the post, she’d be next in line. The realization numbed her senses. She fumbled through her next words. “If what you’ve told me is true, and I don’t really know our histories, then I have much to learn before I could truly be your Defender.”
“I think you’ll find the true histories much easier to grasp than you realize,” Eremon replied gently. “Besides, no one else in Lord Irem’s charge knows the old tales from Clan Mór. Those stories are a critical part of this endeavor.”
Lira stared at her hands. It was hard to believe that Irem and Eremon regarded those ancient clan stories as viable parts of history—the stories she’d long since discarded, though each had impressed itself upon her memory anyway. She fumbled behind her for the stool she’d stumbled into moments earlier, when her most pressing concern had been how to conduct herself in the Rí’s presence.
"I don’t know what to make of this,” she said. “It’s too much. And—pardon my candor, Eremon—but if the rulers have been lying for this long, how do I know you won’t lie to me?”
Irem looked shocked, but Eremon took her jab gracefully. Mostly, he looked pleased that she’d allowed herself to say his name again. Lira didn’t know what frustrated her more.
“I understand why you feel that way,” Eremon said. “Imagine how Irem felt, after so many years of teaching false histories to countless apprentices.”
The Rí moved closer to her and reached for her hands. His soft touch jolted her skin, and heat crept up her neck. He continued quietly, imploringly. “Imagine how I felt, as your ruler. I have failed my people; but no more.
“Now is the time. Irem has earned the clans’ trust; I believe they will also come to trust you.”
He didn’t release his grip on her hands. Both men regarded Lira expectantly. She glanced from one to the other, the wild cyclone of panic fading into a steady thrum. Irem had never given Lira a reason not to trust him. And here was the supreme ruler, standing alongside the elderly lord in solidarity.
For a moment, Lira felt ashamed of lashing out. She sighed, feeling some of the tightness melt from her shoulders with the release.
“After everything you’ve told me, I don’t think I can refuse,” she said.
“Of course, you can refuse,” Eremon said, squeezing her hands lightly. “But I know your love for Iathium. I’ve never known of anyone as dedicated to this place as you are, with no ulterior motive. And I believe you have an important role to play in the future of Rodhlan.
“Silira,” he urged, “allow me the honor of anointing you as the next Defender. Take up your quill and help us give the truth back to our people.”
Lira tried to hold his gaze without wavering. The Rí was one breath short of begging; she suppressed the uncharacteristic urge to rest her hand on his shoulder. Instead, she asked tentatively, “Why me? Why do you need my help to right wrongs that I had no part in?”
“Because you play a unique role here,” Eremon said. “You—”
“There is no time to explain it all tonight,” Irem interrupted kindly. “Eremon is expected at council. But for my part, Silira, I know you to be empathic and diplomatic. You perform well under pressure. And when the time comes, you’ll be able to lead our apprentices and our people to the true histories in the gentlest way possible.”
The elderly man’s eyes shone as he added, “You have a heart, Silira. That is, perhaps, the most important reason of all.”
Part of her wanted to flee; but another, more insistent, part demanded that she negotiate her terms. If she was going to learn the truth, she wanted to have a say in how it happened.
“If I agree to this,” she hedged, “I want to learn as much as I can, as quickly as possible. I don’t want to be left in the dark about any of it—not any longer.”
“Agreed,” Eremon said hastily, before Irem could counter. “As quickly as possible.” “Within reason,” Irem added.
Eremon stood before Lira; he had never let go of her hands. She was unnerved by how comfortable it felt to touch him.
“Please, Lira,” he breathed. “Help us.”
She looked into his eyes again, searching for any shred of deceit; but she could find none. Every word he spoke rang as true and sincere as she’d hoped it would. He truly seemed to be the ruler she’d always believed him to be.
“I can find no lie in you,” she began, taking a deep breath, “so I agree. I’ll help you. And you’ll share what you know.” The last words came in a rush; if she’d let herself pause again, they might not have come at all.
Eremon nodded, looking relieved.
“I’ll perform the rites,” Irem said, nodding to the Rí. “There’s no time to waste.”
“Let me, Lord Irem,” Eremon said, releasing Lira to withdraw an amber vial from his robe pocket before meeting her eyes again. “I would like the honor of anointing you, if you please.”
Irem deferred, his gaze sliding to Lira. “If Silira wishes it, then the task is yours.”
“Of course,” Lira agreed.
Lira stood before Eremon now as he uncorked the familiar vial.
“This is the oil I was anointed with when I ascended the throne seven years ago,” Eremon murmured. “I want you to know that I don’t take your agreement to help us lightly.”
“Neither do I,” Lira whispered. The whole scene felt both surreal and too ordinary, all at once. “What do I do for the rites?”
“First, kneel,” he answered.
Lira obeyed. The Rí locked eyes with her; her breath hitched when he lowered himself to the floor before her. “Allow me to treat you as an equal,” he whispered, turning her trembling palms upward as he placed a drop of oil in the center of each one. “One historian to another.”
He anointed the crown of her head with a smile. The oil was fragrant and earthy; it smelled like incense wafting through the clean, verdant air of her childhood mountains. A tear slipped down her cheek, unchecked.
“Close your eyes,” Eremon murmured, tipping the vial against his fingertips. He carefully anointed her forehead and eyelids, his touch barely a flutter on her skin.
“All right,” he whispered, pocketing the vial again.
Lira opened her eyes; Eremon was so close to her that she could feel his breath on her face. She gasped lightly at his nearness, praying he couldn’t hear her heartbeat pounding.
“Repeat after me,” he murmured, cupping her cheek. He brushed the tear away with his thumb. “I, Silira Mór—”
She blinked hard, struggling to steady her voice, but she did not shrink. “I, Silira Mór—”
“Upon my master’s death or departure—”
“Upon my master’s death or departure—” She could hardly make herself repeat it.
“Do hereby assume the anointed title Defender of Histories, and solemnly swear to uphold the truths of Rodhlan.”
Lira took a deep breath, suppressing her tears again. She repeated the rest of the vow slowly, careful not to stammer.
Eremon fixed a steely gaze on her. “This must remain secret for now, Lira. I know you understand.”
Lira nodded numbly. She bit her lip, sinking back on her heels. “What happens now?”
“You will continue your usual duties, with additional training morning and night,” he answered. “First, we’ll teach you what we’ve learned. Then, the three of us will work together to record and translate what we can.”
Irem clasped her shoulder, squeezing it lightly. “I’m proud of you, my girl. I know we’ve left you with more questions than answers, but let’s take one day at a time.”
The Rí stood, then reached for Lira. She wasn’t sure her legs would hold her up, but she let him clasp her hands and pull her to her feet.
Eremon’s smile nearly sent her crashing to the floor again. “It was an honor, Lira,” he said. “I’ll see you soon.”
With that, he picked up his lantern and descended the staircase. Lira stared after him until the flickering light faded and the tiles closed around the entrance.