“Let a single Haidren from each House preside at the arm of Thoarne throughout the generations. By inheritance or election, may these delegates of Bastiion, Boreal, Darakai, and Pilar establish a Quadren of Advisory. For the needs of the unseen are many, and the voices of the seen few; in this way, the concerns of the Ethnicam shall be heard across Orynthia.”
—Orynthian Accords, Spire Age
The shrouded figure watched her from deep within the shadows of the wood. Admired the way her bone-white hair shone in the moonlight, the slight evening breeze whispering through those tresses, waltzing with each tendril to a melody he would never hear. After all these years, even long into her maturity, Alora remained the most beautiful woman he’d ever beheld. Her face was lovely in a way that no amount of time could hope to tarnish, her movements still graceful and refined.
With a sigh, the figure huddled deeper into the folds of dark fabric encompassing him, making certain to keep his monstrous form concealed. He was the very embodiment of irony, yearning for these passing moments between assignments, even as he brewed with anxiety, knowing she’d again be forced to look upon what he’d become. Once assured not an inch of blistered flesh was visible between the weatherworn black gloves and his cloak, he resettled himself into the mist with forced patience.
The man was talking again.
Broad-shouldered and muscular, Orien Darragh boasted a frame of robust fortitude, though it was less apparent in the formal attire that such a celebratory occasion called for. As Alora listened to the words of her brother-in-law, the figure noted the way she tensed, despite Orien’s good humor. She’d always excelled at hiding her inner thoughts from most, but the figure was not most. He was other. And, undeterred by his shame, he was hers.
Orien’s expression turned pensive as he placed his callused hands on the rock ledge encircling the private terrace. It was a discreet spot, built into the short cliffside, abutting the tree line. It had been Alora’s preferred meeting place for many years, hidden as it was from the city of Roüwen below.
“Eoine should have been here today,” Orien said, overlooking their lambent city of wood and stone. “It’s the most joyous day of Luscia’s life—her Ascension to adulthood. Her mother should have been with us.”
Ghostly light from the nearest leaves flickered across Orien’s face as he gazed into Alora’s eyes—her countenance so very much like his Eoine’s—and seemed to imagine the wife he had lost. Nearly a decade had passed since Alora’s sister disappeared into the eerie luster that set Roüwen and the lands of Boreal aglow, but the figure knew that Alora still carried a heavy burden of shame and regret. A tattered strip of bloodied linsilk, found in the undergrowth, was the only token left behind from Eoine’s tragedy, one Alora believed preventable had she advised Orien differently.
The figure caught the glimmer of pain in her expression as Alora shifted away from the luminescent view. “My sister would have sent Luscia on her way with pride,” Alora agreed. “Though I’m not sure how many times it would have taken Eoine to fully let go.”
Orien smiled slightly, evidently lost in the memory of a woman who no longer existed. He failed to notice the strained lines forming at the corners of Alora's mouth. Silence fell between them for a moment as she contemplated her brother-in-law, clearly reluctant to interrupt his bittersweet reminiscing.
“The lumin is unsettled, Orien,” Alora shared hesitantly. “I’ve been watching it in the wind for some time. I didn’t want to alarm you—not until I was sure.”
Orien snapped to attention at her mention of the lumin, threads of the Other invisible to his naked eye, apart from the lustrous hints in the surrounding nature. The figure felt his own otherness daily, enough to believe in the sacred light energy that threaded through every inch of the Boreali highlands. As Haidren to Boreal, Alora saw what no other could, possessing an ancestral ability to interpret the signs and warnings of what might come to pass.
“Alora, you’re the most respected woman in Boreal,” he sputtered. “I hear your concern, but look around you! Luscia has Ascended and will finally take her place by your side as al’Haidren, representing our people beside the throne. The High One is pleased tonight, and so am I. Aren’t you?”
When Alora failed to answer, Orien’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Do you not think she is ready?” Orien asked accusingly. “That your niece isn’t suited to be your successor?”
For a brief moment, Alora pursed her lips, slighted by his suggestion, then gently rested her palm on Orien’s arm. “I meant no such thing, Clann Darragh.”
The figure saw the strong shoulders of Boreal’s leader soften at the formal use of his title while Alora continued, “I have every confidence in Luscia. Beyond her lineage and upbringing, her abilities by blood are manifesting without her full awareness. Honestly, I am trying my best to keep up with her training,” she admitted. “But the fact remains that, for whatever reason, the lumin is not at peace.”
The Clann Darragh wasn’t a foolish man, and it was clear that her warning weighed heavily upon him. Unease tugged his features.
“Do you think it’s the Dönumn?” Orien whispered. “The Najjani guards haven’t reported anything of significance.”
Alora cast her gaze across the living fortress below, illuminated by hazy, twinkling light. She closed her eyes and steadied herself against the echoes of music that rocked the night to sleep after the evening festivities. The figure groaned inwardly at the restlessness she attempted to hide, painfully aware he would add to it once the Clann Darragh finally took his leave.
“I don’t think so. I can’t tell you what is causing the disturbance, only that it is disturbed. I’ve prayed to the High One for clarity, but Aniell’s answers are never straightforward. All I know for certain is that there’s a change in the wind.”
“What of Luscia?” Orien posed. “She’s no longer here in my sphere of protection. How will this affect her position in Bastiion?”
“It won’t concern her for now. Until the next path is made clear, she will proceed as tradition dictates. Prioritizing her safety in light of these revelations is my only suggestion at the present,” Alora said. “It’s why I ordered her party to leave ahead of my own, to give her as much concealment as possible. Any outside forces would assume that she and I would be traveling together, since she is my heir.”
Orien’s eyes widened at the possible danger. His fingers began to comb through his thick beard, the color of silvered birch. As the House of Boreal entered an ominous season of unknowns, his prized and influential daughter was commanded out of reach, away from their refuge.
Alora took his hands, each easily the size of a lycran’s paw. The figure noticed how fragile her pale fingers appeared in the giant’s grasp and welcomed the familiar sting as he remembered what it had been like to hold those hands once, long ago.
“The king is a good man, Orien. But you know as well as I how thoroughly the leaders of the Ethnicam have pushed me out of Korbin’s confidence over the years. The throne may not be our enemy, but the other three seated on his Quadren?” Alora bit her lower lip. “Of that, I'm not convinced. Not anymore. Luscia will proceed as planned, until we know where Boreal stands within the Ethnicam.”
“Then I will trust your wisdom, Ana’Mere,” he said in the steady voice expected of Boreal’s mighty Clann Darragh. Meaning Great Mother, it was a word chosen out of affection, not duty, for his rank did not require he use it.
With that, Orien took his leave, descending the steps that led from the lookout back into the fortress, where Roüwen’s citizens continued to celebrate the Ascension of their new al’Haidren. Alora remained behind, staring out at the city that had been her home since birth. Her long, glittering skirts shuffled against the ground, and a small quirk of her lips was the only proof she’d felt the presence of the cloaked figure.
“You can come out now, if you wish,” Alora said quietly. There was no need for her voice to be louder than a murmur. A trait now shared between them.
She remained stoic as he approached, apart from the tiny grin—a gift he recognized, given for his pleasure. Emerging from the brush, he adjusted the fabric further to hide his gruesome appearance.
He was almost beside her when she gracefully trapped him with those eyes, bright in the darkness as they reflected an unearthly radiance. The left was a shade of sky he could only vaguely recall after so many years sentenced to darkness; the right, grey as the iron he could never touch. A living set of truths that told the story of how far he’d fallen.
“If you insist on hiding from me during our conversations, then I must ask why we continue to have them,” she said grimly to the figure. “The least you can say is hello.”
“Allöh, my lady,” he complied, receiving a cross look in return.
“How are your sores? I have the next vial of elixir. And the fever—has it returned?”
He restrained himself from madly seizing the satchel set upon the ledge. The blisters had worsened, of course, along with the aches, but it would take quite a bit more interrogation on her part to evoke any admittance of it. Especially when those vials came at the expense of a wound, now entirely healed, somewhere along her porcelain skin.
“I bring news from the towns you had me observe. Two of your traders were murdered, brutally, and a Boreali cross-caste child is missing in Port Tadeas,” he said, speaking calmly and succinctly. “You’ll need to stop there on your journey to Bastiion.”
Alora tended to internalize the burdens of her people, so he’d found it best to deliver these reports pragmatically, to help her accept them as impersonally as he did. Despite that, she pressed a hand against her stomach, whether to keep from being sick or to comfort herself, he couldn’t tell.
“We were hunted before the time of Tiergan, in the days of old,” she whispered. “What if the lumin…”
“What would you have me do, my lady?” he asked hurriedly.
Alora’s eyes anchored onto his. Mastering her features to resemble the cool slate they stood upon, she ordered, “Follow Luscia. Remain unseen. Protect her at all costs.”
He studied the planes of her face for the thousandth time, committing them to memory. The figure then gathered up his inky cloak and retreated into the mist of the tree line. He’d taken a mere ten steps before she spoke his name into the night, as was their custom. He stilled with his back to the moonlit woman as she whispered for his ears alone; a promise that betrayed all hope, for it hinged upon the irreparable.
“There is still hope for redemption.”
The figure crushed his lashless eyes shut and carried the sound of her voice into the darkness he now called home.