The Last Lantern
Chapter 30 - Dead and Buried
@copyright Jean G Hontz 2010
Phillip wasn’t quite certain how he got through breakfast. However he’d managed it, it seemed he hadn't embarrassed himself at least. No food stained his clothing, he could raise his mug to his lips without spilling the sweet tea it held. He could even swallow. Still, his mind was blank. He couldn’t think, couldn’t put two thoughts together. All he could do was stare at the head table.
The man who’d spoken to him, the Head, sat there in discussion with several others. One older woman presented him papers he perused. Twice the Head’s working breakfast was interrupted by men dressed much as Vaal tended to dress. Black fighting leathers, swords at their hip. Each spoke urgently and quietly to the Head, then turned on a heel and rushed out the way they'd come.
Phillip noted movement out the window next to him and saw black birds taking flight. Messenger birds, without a doubt. He’d seen the black birds and been taught what they represented. The Black Brothers were the only ones who used black birds as their usual means of communication. They’d come to the Septs of the Mother and the Father, to the seats of government, to certain powerful and wealthy families, sometimes. Never to the Manners, so far as he knew. Although perhaps to Lord Rosslyn.
When Phillip looked away from the window he realized the raised head table was empty. Looking round at the tables near him he saw that most of the brothers and sisters of the order had left as well, apparently the decrease in noise having not registered with him. The room was nearly empty and silent. He took a breath and then pushed his plate of congealed food away. Food was the last thing he needed right now.
Brother Rhen, who’d been sitting with him, stood and bowed to him. “I’m sorry you are so distracted. You can rest in a little while, taking time to... adjust. But first, if you’ll be so good as to come with me, the Head wishes to speak to you privately.”
Phillip nodded. He felt numb still as he rose and followed Rhen out of the dining room and down the hallway. Rhen passed many doors, some of which were open, most closed. Phillip, although he looked, really saw nothing. Finally Rhen stopped at a door and knocked. A voice called to them to ‘Come.”
“I’ll wait out here,” Rhen commented and opened the door for Phillip. “I’ll take you to your room when your interview is over.”
“Thank you,” Phillip managed to say. Rhen laid a hand on Phillip’s shoulder. The touch felt kind, somehow. Feeling as if he were in some sort of waking dream, he stepped forward, through the doorway and into a room.
The room was spacious and sunny at the moment. The walls were lined with more books than Phillip had ever seen all together in one place. A fire burned in a stone fireplace. The Head sat behind a blackwood desk covered with papers and open books. He saw even a few scrolls written by the Ancients left casually amidst the organized chaos. He walked up to the desk and stood there stared down at this man who was, so he was told, the head of House Hawk.
“Please sit, Phillip. It is good to see you,” the man said, as if he felt no surprise to see Phillip way up here in the North. “You are so much taller than I expected. You’ll tower over your father when you’re done growing. And you look more like your mother, now. How is she?”
Phillip stared. the words were so .. ordinary. “Uncle... I don’t understand...” Phillip whispered, sinking down into the chair, his knees a bit weak. “You ... You died! I saw you buried!”
“True. But then, you see, all of us here were dead. At least once. Well, except for you.”
Phillip felt the color drain from his face. He swallowed. “But..”
His uncle sat back in his chair more comfortably, as if he had nothing but time for his nephew. “Some people, when they die, are offered a chance to serve the Guardian. So it was for me, and for Quintilla, your father’s sister as well. She’s well, by the way. You’ll see her if you travel to the capital. She’ll be delighted to know you’ve left home. She never could stand your father.”
“How can she be well? Or you. You’re dead!” Phillip, to his mortification, heard his voice crack.
The Head pursed his lips and regarded his sister’s youngest child steadily. He steepled his hands in front of him and answered, “Well, there is some disagreement and confusion as regards to that. We have heartbeats, you see. We require sustenance. We bleed. Some of us have even died a second time and returned, although that appears to be rare.”
“And Brother Vaal?” Phillip asked, his eyes wide with his shock.
“He too. He died many years ago, fighting for a good cause. A hopeless, reckless one, but he’d had good intentions, or so I’m told by the Guardian.”
“I don't understand,” Phillip said, shaking his head as he tried to make his mind, which seemed to be full of mush, think.
The Head grinned. “Nor do we. We just accept. Can you just accept?”
Phillip forced himself not to pinch his arm, to test if he were awake. Or perhaps to test to see if HE were alive. “Am I dead? Do I just think...”
“Oh, my dear boy. Of course you’re alive. Although it was a bit touch and go there with the poison. You’re definitely alive and I sincerely hope you will stay that way.” The Head rose and poured what looked like sherry into a small glass. He walked round and handed the glass to Phillip. He stepped back to rest his buttocks against the edge of his desk. He smelled as he always had, Phillip thought. Of books, of cigars and of learning.
“You always did think too much, Phillip. You’d be far better off if you just would take what you find in stride and move on.”
Phillip swallowed the drink then snorted at his uncle. This, at least, was a familiar argument. It gave him a moment to find his balance. “This from the scholar of the family, the one who used to drill me in history, heraldry and politics.”
The Head grinned. “Yes. And I see you still hate the subjects. The Guardian tells me you abhor the political aspects of the world. A shame. I thought perhaps you could guide your family out of the darkness of prejudice and into the light of reason.”
“I’ve tried to avoid politics, at least, like the plague,” Phillip admitted. “I ... Politics, or perhaps the pursuit of power, seems to blind men. They choose a side and do the same rotten things they denounce their enemies for doing, but justify themselves and their actions as somehow purer. So yes, I hate politics.” He hesitated, then added, “You've only been dead a year. How is it you’ve risen to be... In charge of all this so quickly?”
His uncle laughed. He’d always had a rich laugh which he used often. “Because I have the skills the Guardian needed. When you’re appointed by a God, not too many men or women object.”
“Handy” Phillip replied, finally beginning to relax a little.
He finally could actually look at his uncle and consider the man he saw sitting on the edge of his desk within easy reach. It astonished him that this was his Uncle Markham, and even moreso how much his uncle had changed. He looked much younger, more as he had when Phillip was just a small boy, before he’d begun to fade and weaken from some odd illness no one understood. He was a handsome and robust man, now. He still did not have the body of a warrior, true. Even so, he looked far like a man of action rather than a man of thought. Or a Monk, for that matter. In short, for a dead man, the scholar looked damn good.
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