Hour by Hour
Fate pooled at high tide around her and brought with it a taste of the future: cold streets, a slanted moon overhead, and a sense of loss, blindness six layers deep.
The priestess paused in mid–step, sucking in a long breath of apple–blossom air to remind herself where she was. Quiramene Telari, now known as Apex of the Hours, was accustomed to such premonitions – they were part of her calling – but never personal ones. She knew what it meant: her time as a priestess was almost at an end.
She fenced with the idea in her mind, but could not defeat it. Troubled, she wandered under the speckled shadows of the garden, rubbing at her face. She had to remain calm. The morning was still young, which meant one of her sisters – Leniya or Camuri, she was not sure of the exact time – could see her if they looked. As translator of the Hours, the Apex could not be seen to falter.
An initiate of Sielyn stood before her in colorless grey robes, fingers nervously twined. She mustered a smile for him. “What is it?”
“The High Canonite summons the Hours to the pearl chamber,” he said. “The king of Alzhara needs a murder investigated.”
Quiramene blinked in surprise. “He didn’t tell the king that we’re not the guard?” That each Hour could see anything that had happened within her time had never been meant as a tool. It took a great deal out of them, and with Sielyn’s sanctuary on the borders of three major kingdoms, there was too much death and mayhem to trace even a fraction of it. She had railed against it, so long ago, but the Hours existed for one purpose: to steady the course of time and keep Fate in its banks. There were still moments when the chaos of possibility exploded, when anything could and did happen, but at least there was a rhythm to the floods.
“The king claims that the matter involves the future stability of his kingdom,” the initiate answered. “And ah, the High Canonite believes that this is important enough to disrupt your devotions.”
It was. Alzhara was on the fringe of the Principality, and it was the only buffer between the loose alliance of nations and the tyranny of the north. If it fell…”I’ll summon them,” she said. “Tell the king we will meet with him at noon.”
The initiate bobbed his head and scurried away. Quiramene set out across the garden, looking for the afternoon Hours first – and Twilight, who could speak to the priestesses of the evening. The young Apex was a small woman, entirely unprepossessing, with tight cinnamon curls and almost no nose. Alone of those who had taken the oath of the Hours, she still spoke a language other than time. Had she removed the silver necklace into earpiece she wore and stepped out of the sanctuary, she might have been mistaken for anyone.
Camuri was performing her devotions in the chamber, and so she informed Leniya first. “Find Dawn,” she said. “See if she can rouse the nights.”
Within twenty minutes, only two of them were missing: one of the evenings who had contracted a cold, and Midnight, who had problems of her own. Quiramene checked the sundial; not a lot of time. After a brief hesitation, she sent Twilight to find the invalid. She went herself for Midnight, without a word to the others. She might not be able to translate the gap between them, but the darkest of the Hours needed a firm hand.
Polite knocking garnered no answer. She turned the handle to find the door locked. More hammering, finally calling her name. Midnight would understand the tone if not the words. Quiramene was about to send for the master key when the lock clicked. Midnight stood there, disheveled, dark blotches painted under her eyes, her hair parted in six different places and wrenched into deliberate knots.
Quiramene mimed, as she had learned to. She wondered how the other Hours endured this, losing their capacity for speech to the flow of time. She, as liaison, kept her own words while still being to talk to the daylight Hours. The lucky one.
Midnight nodded once and started down the hallway, no sign of surprise or curiosity in her manner. Quiramene hurried after her, protesting. She shaped a crown with her hands. Did Midnight understand they were going to confront royalty?
The darkest of the Hours paused and looked at her with flat eyes, no expression. Then she turned and continued up the hall.
Quiramene shook her head, trying not to feel like a lackey. Midnight had been in the sanctuary longer than she, and none of them, not even those Hours who had stepped aside to let others take their places, knew her real name or where she had come from.
Quiramene opened the doors to the pearl chamber and ushered them in, her head buzzing as each spoke. Degrees of separation determined who could understand who, the rest a tumult of words she tried to ignore. The Hours had a complex pecking order amongst themselves, or rather several, one in each bracket of comprehension. These were politics their visitor would never see.
“Send him in,” she said to the herald.
King Yrrain of Alzhara was far from his prime and far from his dotage, a sharp man chiseled in silver hair and copper skin. For this meeting, he had eschewed the symbols of his office save for the single gold chain worn diagonal across his tunic. A man of metals, truly, and hard as that precious ore as he approached and bowed to the perfect circle of women around him.
“Hours of Sielyn,” he said, “thank you for granting me this audience and your all–seeing eyes.”
“Speak to me, your highness,” Quiramene said with a bow of her head. “I must translate for my sisters.” She paused, fumbling in her mind for the right words. Even as liaison, she was no stateswoman. She opted to come straight to the point. “How long ago was this murder?”
Yrrain grinned. It was a fierce expression; it took her a moment to see the amusement in it, as well. “Hasn’t happened yet.”
Quiramene blinked. “There are hundreds of days ahead of us,” she said. “We can’t hunt blindly.”
The mornings and afternoons, who could understand her, studied her quizzically. Feet tapped and bodies tensed, but no one broke the silence.
“I know exactly what day it will happen,” Yrrain said, “A seer told me, but he couldn’t give me any other details.”
He spoke as monarchs did, of the expectation that prophecy should be cut and dried for his convenience. Quiramene contained a sigh. “We can work with that,” she said. “When? And whose murder?”
“The first of summer.” The amusement fled. “The murder is mine.”
Quiramene cried out in surprise, and the Hours jumped to a woman. Leniya leaned over to her, pulling on her sleeve. “What is it?”
“Is it gruesome? What is he asking us to do?” This from one of the afternoons.
Quiramene frowned at the man before him. After a moment, she saw the tides pooling about him. Low tide: he could not change his fate. “He wants us to find out who is going to murder him.”
Her side of the chamber hummed with exclamations; then Twilight and Dawn turned to the nether side to interpret, and soon she had to shout for calm.
Midnight slid out of the passage behind the monarch, her expression still blank. A hardened soldier, he whirled to confront her. He started to sigh in relief when he saw it was one more woman in featureless grey, then stared in consternation at the figure herself.
“Shadows,” he muttered. He turned to face Quiramene. “Is there something wrong with her?”
She suspected he might not have been so blunt had he thought he could be understood. “Do you know how many fearsome acts are committed in the dead of the night, your highness?”
He considered this for a moment. “I would rather not.” He cleared his throat. “Is there anything you need me to do?”
Quiramene hesitated. “You do understand that, even if we discover the killer, that you can’t change your fate?” It was terribly hard to frame the next words. She wished for a more compassionate way to say them, though she had no attachment to him. “The rivers of time run calm in their banks now, and you yourself are at low tide.”
Yrrain chuckled. “I understand that very well. I also understand that, second to the Principality – who have no access to me, thank the guards who have risked their lives! – the most likely people to want me dead are my own heirs. If one of them was responsible, then I have to know that.”
Quiramene found herself admiring the man, who could look his doom in the eye and concentrate on what had to be done. She wished she could be so clear–headed; her own private ending would not leave her be. “It will take some time to review that day,” she said. “Even given a day and a place, there are hundreds of moments and images. Do you want to wait outside?”
It was not a question, but he treated it as such. “That’s perfectly fine,” he said. He folded himself on the ground like a much younger man, heedless of her dismay.
Quiramene swallowed hard, glancing around her. “We must search our memories of Alzhara’s capital, on the first day of this coming summer,” she said. “We look for the murder of king Yrrain.”
Dawn flashed a pearly smile. “This may be surprisingly easy,” she said. “When was the last time we had a living subject in front of us?”
Twilight frowned. “Don’t be too confident. There may be no one simple answer.”
“Let’s hope there is,” Quiramene said. “I’d hate for him to blame a backache on us.” With that, and one last anxious look at the monarch, she closed her eyes and thought of that day. Around her, she could hear Twilight and Dawn directing the other half of the circle.
No one spoke to Midnight. No one ever did.
It started as whispers and murmurs in the back of her mind, fleeting trickles of light with no shape or substance, and the scent of smoke. It was the smoke that carried her, for it was scent that told the age of a thing, more than sight or sound or even touch. Noonday in the capital: a raucous clattering of silverware, the bustling of servants, and everywhere a sweltering heat she could almost feel.
She saw Yrrain conversing with his daughter — Tinhilde, named for her Kalbryde mother — in quips and turns of phrase, sometimes laughing outright as she bested him. His eldest son, an ebon–haired hound, pounding the table and declaring his intention to call some young man out on the honor of his lady love. Everywhere the aroma of exotic Alzhara spice as they reclined on cushions under the every–colored awnings of silk. The heat had not yet driven them inside.
The younger son absent, talked about — burrowed in his books and more wont to spark conversation with his absence than by anything he usually said. This was a family bent to destroy itself? Quiramene could not see it. True, a man nigh on thirty like Yrrain’s elder son might indeed chafe at the bit, but …
News at the table, a servitor pale and grave. The Principality had made a successful incursion on the northern border. The older son who so freely tossed his honor about had not been there to lead his troops.
The daughter on her feet now, making an argument that seemed well–tracked in the dust. She could marry into the first family of the princes, surely win them some time.
“No daughter of mine is meat for their spit,” Yrrain growled.
The elder son pasted a smile onto his harried face. “And where is your chosen son and his pet theories, eh?”
“They should not have risked crossing the border,” the king said, with only a brief, absentminded scowl to his offspring. “Everything I know indicates –”
“I see something,” Twilight said, jarring Quiramene back to the present.
She looked towards Yrrain, but could not tell how much time had passed by him: he looked as comfortable as ever, eyes slightly lidded. At the exclamation, though he could not understand it from a priestess who spoke time and nothing else, his eyes flew open and landed piercing on Quiramene.
She tried to smile, meaning to reassure him, but the expression was faint. “What do you see?”
“The garden. Sunset. Yrrain walking off the effects of the evening meal.” Twilight’s lips twitched with some passing amusement. “The man approaches him on a cross–path. Burly, dark–haired. Some family resemblance. A dagger in his hand. They greet each other, embrace heartily, and the blade goes between his ribs.” Her tone was cool, composed, a recitation without emotion. Her eyes darted up to Quiramene’s. “I don’t think the matter is this simple.”
She was used to Twilight’s pessimism, but she had to be thorough. “What leads you to believe that?”
“Nothing I saw. Instinct.”
Midnight’s eyes flicked up, a sudden guttering of intensity. She seemed about to speak, then looked away.
Quiramene sighed inwardly and turned her attention to the monarch. “I have an answer for you,” she said.
He arched a brow. “That was quick.”
“At sunset on the day you indicated, your elder son –” she chewed on her lip “– puts a blade between your ribs. My sympathies are…” she hastened on.
“Wait!” Leniya cried.
Quiramene turned hastily to face her. “What is it?”
“The younger son, with the weaselly face.” Though she tried to conceal it, Leniya flushed with pleasure at having something to contribute. New to the Hours, this was her first time seeking the future. “He poured something into his morning cup of heira.”
She didn’t want this complication. Perhaps if she just forgot about it…Yrrain wanted his successor to be innocent, but was any royal child? “Are you sure –” she paused, realizing if she did not choose her words carefully, she would give the truth away. “Might it have been meant to help? Sometimes even the most scoring insults can be intended as advice.”
Leniya squinted at her, clearly unsure why the question had been phrased so. “No, it couldn’t be,” she said. “I’m an apothecary’s daughter, and I know what poison looks like.”
Quiramene schooled her features. “I see.”
Yrrain frowned, glancing from one to the other. “What is it, priestess?”
She hesitated. “I… “And prepared or not, she could not lie to him. She sighed low in her throat. “You were also poisoned, your highness. I’m so sorry. It was –”
“Unless you were behind it,” he said sharply, “there’s no need for apologies. My younger son, I’d guess?”
Quiramene bowed her head. “Maybe it doesn’t make a difference?” she offered. “The poison never had a chance to work.”
“You could just as easily argue that my elder son’s attack doesn’t matter, because I was already effectively dead.” Yrrain shook his head. His face was strained, emotion lined deep within it. “At least I still have a daughter.” He closed his eyes, breathing deeply. A man who had been fighting on the fields of both war and politics for decades must have control more than she could possibly imagine, but some things could not be contained. “I love them all, you know.”
“I can only imagine.” Quiramene kept a close rein on a heart that wanted to break for him. Midnight made a sound like a hiss and turned as if to exit the chamber. She was stopped, without a word, by the Hours to either side of her. The gyrations forced the Apex to notice the whispering between the two Hours directly to Midnight’s right. “I can only say –”
“Apex?” Dawn smiled ruefully. “I think there is one final piece in play.”
Quiramene nodded once. “Tell me.” She was somewhat troubled by the behavior of the darkest Hour, but even before her ascendance, Midnight had been surly and restless. Yrrain’s inquiry was more important, even though there could be no good end to it…perhaps because there could be no good end to it.
Dawn spoke to the Hours, humming and smiling with every evidence of encouragement. “They say that in the early hours of the next morning, the raven–haired daughter met with a demon sorcerer from the Principality. She canceled his contract to kill her father.”
Quiramene went white. Betrayed by all his children, the kingdom without a viable heir…it was a terrible choice she had to offer him. “Your highness.”
“Priestess?” He looked at her in confusion that quickly faded to recognition, then resignation. “Tinhilde. No, don’t tell me how. I already know I don’t survive the first two attempts, and I want to remember my…” He held up a defensive hand as he rose. “You’ve answered all my questions more completely than I could have hoped.”
The irony bit deeply. Quiramene rose before she could think about it, hurrying across the floor to him. “Your highness, can you not appoint a trusted general? An advisor?”
He shook his head. “My children were raised at the feet of my most trusted hands. Familiarity breeds contempt. If they could kill me, they would just as readily push us into civil war.”
Quiramene made herself nod. “If there is anything I can do, in the name of Sielyn, please let me know.”
Yrrain sighed in slow steps, the sound slow and controlled. He placed a light hand on her shoulder. “Priestess, you are only the messenger. Is there any chance that the tides might flood and my seer be wrong?”
She shook her head. “Not while the Hours keep Fate in trust, your highness.”
His eyes darkened with weariness. “Then I have my answer.” He reached up to touch her cheek. “Thank you for –”
An unholy screech filled the air, and a dark blur slammed into Yrrain, driving him backwards. Quiramene jumped back with a cry, shouting for the guards even as they broke down the door. Their weapons faltered, however, when they saw that the cause of the disturbance was Midnight, her chest heaving, her eyes staring at the king of Alzhara as she ranted, her voice as loud as a storm at sea now.
The evenings and the nights were on their feet just as quickly, shouting, almost drowning out their sister. Dawn and Twilight stood as well, speaking almost in unison. Quiramene stumbled back to her chair, her mind spinning, while the Alzharan monarch stood back with hands spread in reassuring fashion.
“He dwelt on it. One late night,” Dawn said, her voice a whisper.
“Two,” Twilight continued.
“He found that though he had saved himself from the tides of Fate –”
“– he could not live with the crime he had committed.” Dawn swallowed hard. “Apex, can’t you see –” She swooned back into her chair.
Quiramene saw with terrible clarity. “Sielyn save,” she whispered. “He’s going to kill us.”
They had seen it. His tide was low, the future was clear. Quiramene trembled wildly, realizing the import of her visions. The blindness was not that of retirement. Their deaths would set Fate free like a wild river, and he could change everything.
The guards moved in, the captain reaching for the king’s arm with no gentleness. “The High Canonite will want to speak to you.”
“Enough of this!” Yrrain barked. “Do you really think that I…would…” He looked around him, the words fading away.
“The Principality will win an overwhelming victory.” Twilight spoke alone now. “It will become of paramount importance that the king keep his position or have an heir he can trust. We have left him with neither.” She shot a quick look at Quiramene. “But that does not justify killing us!”
She turned to him. “If it was the only way you could save your kingdom?”
Yrrain was silent for a long time. Then he bowed his head. “A canny man would lie to that. I cannot countenance what that man would be forced to do.”
Could one punish a man for a crime he had not yet committed? There was no question that this course of events would play out exactly as they had seen, but Quiramene could not make herself believe it. There had to be a way she could save her sisters, and keep this brave man on his course…
“Apex,” Leniya said, bright and wondering, “I see you there.”
The pieces fell into place.
“Wait.” Quiramene rose, and was surprised when her soft voice brought the entire chamber to a halt. Even the ineffable Midnight, the raven who had brought this misfortune to light, watched her intently. “Your kingdom needs a strong ruler. What about one who has the blessing of a goddess?”
Yrrain’s brows darted up. He apprehended the situation instantly, not even hesitating for confirmation. “My children were raised in devotion to our gods, it is true. But honestly, I don’t see you as a ruler, whatever your visions have shown you, and whatever diplomacy you’ve had to utter in these halls.”
“That’s fair.” She sucked in a breath. “Marry me to one of your generals, your advisors. My tide is high, your highness. If your fate cannot be changed, mine is very susceptible.”
Dawn straightened, eyes wide. “Surely you can’t be serious, Apex.”
Yrrain took a step back and studied Quiramene skeptically. “You’d be willing to do that? To be a puppet, yet face the heat of Alzhara and the Principality alike?”
It was not a pun, and only the tension of the moment made her want to laugh. “I would, if you can trust me,” she said. “Maybe as new possibilities show themselves, there won’t be any need for this.”
The chamber fell silent, a thing that never happened when so many voices spoke in round. The Hours stopped their whispering and watched.
“Or maybe there will, but I trust your vision more than I trust mine.” Yrrain offered his hand, not as a courtier but a grip strong and firm. “Do you have a name other than Apex?”
“Quiramene Telari, your highness.”
“Of the city–state of Vanhar?” He seemed surprised. “Your bloodlines do you credit.”
Leniya flitted a quick, startled look to Dawn. “She’s a noblewoman?” she squeaked.
“Heir in her own right,” Twilight said with a small smile after one of the afternoons had translated for her. “You’d think she would have told us.” The young Hour looked somewhat nettled.
“Lost in translation,” Dawn said.
Quiramene turned her head then, more by chance than intention, and looked beyond the king of Alzhara to where Midnight stood. For the first time, the darkest of the Hours smiled.
Whatever she saw in the depths of a hundred nights, for once it gave her peace.
LINDSEY DUNCAN is a life-long writer and professional Celtic harp performer, with short fiction and poetry in several speculative fiction publications. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives and performs in Cincinnati, Ohio and is a student at Indiana University, working on a self–designed major focusing on the anthropology of human belief systems. She can be found on the web at www.LindseyDuncan.com/writing.htm
Story © 2007 Lindsey Duncan. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish