Embers Burning in the Night
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For the third free-to-read story of the year, sit back and allow Marie Brennan to tell you a story of the Midnight Queen and the Dawnbringer as if the world depends upon it. ~ Julian and Fran, January 21, 2024
Embers Burning in the Night
by Marie Brennan
Yes, I’ll tell the truth. As best as I can remember it, anyway, and I wasn’t there myself for all of it, so—
Of course you understand that, my lords. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to make you angry. Angrier, I mean.
The beginning? I assume you don’t mean two centuries ago, when the Midnight Queen slaughtered the royal family—no, no, I can’t start with the Dawnbringer. That’s part of the point, that he isn’t the beginning, however much all of you think so. You have to know what came before, if you want to understand what Verhasse’s done.
I promise, my lords, I’ll keep this as brief as I can. I know things are in chaos right now, and you don’t have much time.
Verhasse . . . don’t worry, I won’t tell you her entire history. I assume you’ve heard most of it by now anyway. But she believed in the Embers, in a way most people didn’t. Most of them thought of the name as meaning we were keeping the fire alive until dawn came. To Verhasse, an ember is the thing that might just throw out a spark that burns your damn house down in the middle of the night. She wanted to burn down the Midnight Queen’s house.
No, I—I don’t know if she ever really believed the prophecy. We didn’t talk about things like that, she and I. But I know what she always said, when other people brought it up: She said it didn’t matter whether it was true or not. We had to fight like it wasn’t, like nobody else was ever going to come save us.
Of course, most people didn’t, did they? She hated that, the fear and the apathy . . . but you have to understand, that doesn’t mean she was reckless. Every time she had to stand by while the Midnight Queen’s guards dragged someone out of their house to be flogged or executed, every time she knuckled under and acted like an obedient peasant to keep from drawing their attention—that burned her, deeper than you can know. But she understood that mindless rebellion would only get her killed. Or worse, get other people killed, especially once she moved up in the ranks of the Embers and started knowing more valuable names, ones the Midnight Queen’s torturers would want to extract. So she learned to wait, and she learned to plan.
I promise, Lord Hadgyás, I’m not trying to delay you. Lord Teilze was here for this part, but you weren’t. And since you only came to Lachten after—ah! My lord, there’s no need to strike me; I swear, this part matters.
Thank you, Lord Teilze. I understand now why Verhasse always respected you. Though I didn’t know until after Gontel Bridge that you were the one who’d been helping us in secret; Verhasse always protected information like that very closely, even from her top lieutenants. She didn’t want you to be killed if—when—the Midnight Queen captured and interrogated one of us. It was the right decision, even if it means that only now can I thank you properly.
All right. You want a beginning? It’s Kraufeiz Castle.
Verhasse planned that one for years. She got some men onto the crew of masons that built the castle, that’s how far back it went. Worked people in among the servants, too, arranged for the sabotage of the water pipes, all the steps necessary to bring that place down. When the castle fell to us, it was the perfect realization of everything she believed in: that many people working together, patient enough to do it right, could achieve a real victory. Embers, smoldering away in the ashes, until a breath of air wakes them to flame.
It was supposed to set all Lachten ablaze. When people saw what we’d done—that we’d brought down one of the Midnight Queen’s castles, stormed in through the breach we’d made and taken control and fortified it as our own—they were supposed to rise up. Not all of them, of course; Verhasse was too practical for that much hope. But there were mass rebellions in the past, weren’t there? Especially right after the Midnight Queen took control. The Zerschon River War, and the Ailtricht, and—fine, my lords, you’re proving my point. Even Lord Teilze doesn’t remember those. And neither does anybody else, apparently. Except Verhasse, and those of us who worked alongside her.
Some people joined our cause, it’s true. But not enough. A village here, a town there . . . With numbers that small, uprisings that staggered, they were easy for the Midnight Queen’s guards to crush. And all the rest, all the people who waited for somebody else to make the bold move first? They looked at what happened to the bold ones and decided to stay quiet.
Of course we didn’t just assume the castle would be enough! Didn’t I tell you Verhasse was a planner? She seeded the countryside, too, just like she prepared for the assault. Plenty of people swore on the Nine Stars they would act when the time came. Naive is about the last word I’d use for Verhasse, but I guess she was after all, because she believed that at least some of them would actually follow through.
After we lost the castle, we all went to ground—those of us who’d survived. I wasn’t with Verhasse then, so I don’t know exactly what she was thinking, but it isn’t hard to guess. To work that hard for that long on a plan, to succeed, and then to be let down by the very people she was fighting for . . . Did you know, some of them turned our agents over to the Midnight Queen’s guards? Right away, not even waiting for things to fall apart first. Spineless cowards, the lot of them. More interested in what rewards they could get for themselves than helping anybody else.
I went to Danniert, to the monastery there. That’s where I grew up, though nobody remembered it, so it was a safe place for me to hide. And it’s just a day or two away from the Sztánto Pass, so I was probably one of the first Embers who heard the news of the Dawnbringer. I’m certainly the one who brought it to Verhasse.
She . . . she just sat there. Silent. I don’t remember for how long, but it felt like a year. She did that when she was thinking, closing out everything around her while she rearranged the pieces in her mind, built a new plan. She—
Damn you to a night without dawn! No. No. Verhasse’s care, always, was for Lachten and its people. Not her own pride. Whatever she’s done, how could you possibly believe her first thought would be to—
What? No! No, of course not. I’m not trying to be funny. I spoke out of habit—I won’t curse you that way again. I’m sorry, my lords.
I . . . I’ve lost where I was. Yes, Lord Teilze, thank you—I’d brought the news to Verhasse.
How certain are we? Those were the first words she said, after sitting there in silence. That was how she always spoke: we. Because it was never about any one of us. Not even about the Dawnbringer, not for her. You can see that, can’t you, in how she acted next? Some of the Embers left us as soon as they heard, because they assumed there wasn’t any need for them anymore, now that the Dawnbringer had come. Others just trailed along in his wake, not really doing anything, just wanting to follow him. To be near him. But Verhasse, me, some of the others—we didn’t stop. Because the Midnight Queen was still out there, still in power, and that meant we weren’t done.
You know the next part, I’m sure. The war and everything. Lord Hadgyás, everyone is grateful to you and your soldiers for how you fought. For keeping a hidden branch of the royal family alive all these years. But . . . yes, I’ll admit it, we were a little bitter. Those of us who were still proper Embers, still fighting. We’d struggled for so long, and then in comes this foreign army at the back of our long-lost king. And of course everyone else rises up, all the people who stood by less than a year before as we lost Kraufeiz Castle back to the Midnight Queen. If we’d had even half of them then . . .
But we weren’t bitter at the Dawnbringer. I know you don’t believe me, my lords; you don’t have much reason to believe. I swear it’s true, though. We’d all risked our lives for the freedom of Lachten, time and time again. Do you really believe we’d be petty over seeing the prophecy start to come true?
Whatever else you might say about Verhasse, she was never petty.
She just saw the truth sooner than me or anybody else. The Dawnbringer might be the one prophecy had promised, but he wasn’t leading that rebellion, any more than the mermaid on the prow of a ship is directing where it sails. He . . . I met him, you know, just after his duel with General Ungor. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone more pure of heart. But . . .
Oh, burn it to cinders. I’ve always been prepared to die for Lachten; why shouldn’t I say what I think? I walked away from that conversation thinking, I’ve never met a more noble-minded idiot. Prophecies are dangerous things. They make you feel safe, make you feel invincible, just because two hundred years ago a two-year-old child spoke up in perfect, fluent Old Eihnai and said a forgotten heir would come, born of the lost royal line, to end the reign of the Midnight Queen and thereafter reign as king. That meant he couldn’t fail, right?
But he would have failed. If it weren’t for Verhasse, if it weren’t for what was left of the Embers, the Dawnbringer and his army would have been annihilated at Gontel Bridge. We won that battle for him—or at least, we kept him from losing it. And of course everybody just nods and says, Yes, of course, the prophecy. As if we didn’t make choices, just floated down the stream of fate! As if I didn’t lose six good friends that day, all because the Dawnbringer didn’t listen to Verhasse when she warned him he was walking into a trap. He was so sure he was destined for victory, he could overcome anything.
We’ll never know, will we? That’s what you said afterward, Lord Hadgyás—yes, Verhasse told me. But we know now, don’t we?
You asked me when she got the idea. I can only guess . . . but I think it was after Gontel Bridge. When she saw how close we came to disaster.
She saw other things after that, too. It’s not good for a king to be too nice. Too unwilling to upset anybody, so he says yes to everybody and winds up with chaos. It wouldn’t be the cruelty and malice and immortal enchantments of the Midnight Queen, just sheer purehearted incompetence. But the result would still be a disaster for Lachten. I know that. You know that, Lord Teilze; I overheard you talking about it yesterday. And you, Lord Hadgyás . . . I think you were looking forward to it.
Yes, Verhasse usually had well-laid plans. But she knew that sometimes there was no time to plan—you just had to act.
She killed the Dawnbringer this morning to save the rest of us from his reign. If I’d known what she intended to do, I would have advised her to wait until after his coronation, so everyone wouldn’t be in such a panic now. They could tell themselves, Well, the prophecy didn’t say how long he would reign as king. Maybe an hour was all fate ever promised.But I know exactly why Verhasse didn’t wait.
Because this is the ultimate proof of how the people of this land failed. If the Dawnbringer can die before he’s crowned as king, then the prophecy wasn’t inevitable truth. And if it wasn’t inevitable truth, then we didn’t need him. We could have rid ourselves of the Midnight Queen sooner—maybe even generations ago. If only more people had been willing to try.
Of course it would have gotten some of them killed! Are you telling me nobody died in the Dawnbringer’s war of liberation? Like my friends who saved him from the trap at Gontel Bridge? Or all the bright-eyed believers trailing along in his wake, getting snapped up by the Midnight Queen’s guards and made into very bloody examples? To say nothing of two hundred years of people suffering under her rule, all the torture and the executions and the people who just vanished, silently, and you hoped they were dead because that was better than the alternative. How many lives could have been saved if the people of Lachten had risen up sooner? If they hadn’t sat around telling themselves, No point in trying, because I’m not the Dawnbringer?
What this land needs isn’t dawn. It needs more embers, more people willing to light a fire in the dark. Verhasse always believed that, and she killed and she died to show everyone the truth.
Lord Teilze, don’t let that go to waste. Take the crown, like Verhasse intended. If we’d succeeded with Kraufeiz Castle, if we’d gotten the rebellion we wanted and overthrown the Midnight Queen before the Dawnbringer ever got here, you would have been the obvious choice. You know this land and its people; you know when to compromise and when to stand firm and when to gamble it all.
No, that doesn’t sound good to you at all, Hadgyás, does it? I know what you’ve been hoping to get out of this war, now that the Dawnbringer has slain the Midnight Queen for you. If Verhasse’s accomplished anything by assassinating your prophesied puppet, I hope it’s to disappoint you. Take your foreign army and go home. Lachten will never bend knee to—
Don’t . . . bother . . . Lord Teilze. I’m dying. But I’ve . . . lit the fire. You can stop Hadgyás. I know it. Verhasse knew it. Keep the . . . spark alive.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly leans on her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to The Game of 100 Candles and the short novel Driftwood. She is the author of the Hugo Award–nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, along with several other series, over eighty short stories, several poems, and the New Worlds series of world-building guides. As half of M. A. Carrick, she has written the epic Rook and Rose trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. For more information and social media, visit linktr.ee/swan_tower.
“Embers Burning in the Night,” © Marie Brennan, 2024.
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