49- In Which Elena Learns a Little

They didn't discuss sleeping shifts or anything. When people fell asleep, they fell asleep. And when they woke up, they woke up. Everyone was too tired to argue with one another.

Phinn showed signs of waking up, so Quentin gave him another shot before he could. He also gave another one to Sage just in case, because no one really knew how long the pain would last. They figured she didn't have to go through it.

Ryder drank herself into unconsciousness. It wasn't like a party. She stayed quiet and simply kept drinking until she couldn't stay awake anymore. They didn't know how long it would take for the Thar to be killed. After all, they failed to realize Turner's Thar was gone because he didn't have any symptoms so he couldn't notice a difference. But, when Ryder woke up several hours later—extremely hung over and extremely whiny—she said she couldn't see a difference.

"Several days passed for Turner," Quentin concluded. "That night we got drunk together… and you said you actually finally uh—threw it up only a few hours before Hayden was shot, right?"

Turner looked at Quentin confusedly.

"That's what he said," Elena agreed, figuring Turner must have forgotten all about it again.

"How many days was that?" Lawson wondered, counting on his fingers, though he quickly gave up and shook his head.

"Just give it a few days," Quentin advised.

"I'm never drinking again," Ryder complained, putting both her hands on her head as she lied back down.

When Parson was in the distance, they found they didn't even have to land. The Kingdom of Clouds was hovering high above the city and a vessel came out to greet them like they knew perfectly well it needed to be done. There was some quick discussion in the room, trying to determine who should go down to the courtyard.

Elena volunteered since, physically, she felt totally fine. Ryder was too hung over to even bother contributing to the discussion, Lawson of course had his handicap, Cole had his broken rib so, in general, he should just stay put, and Quentin's back was hurting him—

"My back's fine," said Quentin, pushing himself to his feet. "It was just sore."

"I can go by myself," Elena assured him.

"I'll come with you."

So Elena agreed and the two of them ascended the stairs and went to the stairwell in the hallway. "They knew we were coming," Elena said as they emerged from the stairwell and she saw several soldiers climbing out of the large vessel that had landed in the courtyard.

"They know Steinorth's been killed," Quentin replied.


"Steinorth was connected to the Clouds," Quentin said. "Everyone else who is connected can feel it when that connection is destroyed."

The soldiers standing in the courtyard bowed to Quentin, all certainly looking sullen enough to know about Steinorth's death. They also assumed they had the body as well, because two of them were holding a long bed, presumably to carry it back with. The sight of the bed (which was more like a table since there was no concern for a dead person's comfort) nearly brought Elena to tears all over again. Sure, she had just spent eight hours a couple of yards away from Steinorth's body, but somehow that bed to carry him made it seem that much more finite.

The last soldier to exit the vessel was a tall and sturdy man, though he was fairly young and handsome. He was wearing a burgundy uniform that matched the other soldiers, but it had distinctly more black decorating it as well, perhaps to show off his higher rank. His hair was light blond, and he had deep brown eyes and a rather approachable aura about him. Elena could tell he was normally someone who smiled, based solely on the shape of his face, though he did not wear the smile now.

When he exited the vessel, he bowed to Quentin and said, "Lord Quentin. It has come to my understanding that a great tragedy has occurred."

Elena was very glad Quentin had come along now. Otherwise it would have been her job to relay this information.

"Sir Edward Steinorth has been killed," Quentin replied, "by Judge Hunt."

The blond man kept his face straight, though his eyes made it quite clear that he was surprised to hear Hunt's name. After recovering, he asked, "Where is the body?"

Quentin stepped to the side and welcomed the soldiers to enter the Kingdom. When they clamored into the stairwell, carrying the bed in tow, Elena looked up at Quentin. "Who is that?" she whispered as Quentin held the door for her (she figured the man wouldn't hear since he was leading the group).

"He's Alexander Wood," Quentin answered. "He's a very high ranking soldier in the King's army. He works directly under Steinorth's position."

Elena remembered Steinorth mentioning his name in his will. "Will he be promoted to Steinorth's position now?" she asked.

Quentin glanced back at Elena as he closed the door behind him. "There's a chance," he said. "There are two others in the same rank as him called the Executives. I imagine it will be one of the three of them, though I believe he is the youngest."

Steinorth had said specifically that Alexander should not be promoted. Elena would make sure to tell the King directly when she got the chance and hoped that the promotion hadn't already occurred.

The soldiers entered into the dance hall, addressed all the conscious Sons properly, and then Quentin took them over to the sheet. Alexander Wood knelt down beside it and pulled the sheet back a bit, just so he could see Steinorth's face. Elena didn't look.

For a few moments, he only peered at him, and then replaced the sheet, standing up and nodding to the two men with the bed. The soldiers placed the bed down beside the body and began to lift Steinorth up onto it as Wood approached Elena and the Sons.

"Thank you for bringing him back," Wood said. "I take it by the volume of the Others in here that it was quite a battle."

"It was," Quentin remarked.

"I see you all are suffering from your fair share of injuries as well," Wood noticed. "Considering the circumstances, the King has extended an invitation to the seven of you on board the Kingdom of Clouds."

All of those who were conscious looked up in shock at the sound of Wood's words. Even Turner had a genuine look of surprise on his face.

"The Clouds?" Cole questioned. "All of us? Seriously?"

"How does our dad even know the circumstances?" Ryder inquired.

"Sir Steinorth informed me of minimal details when he delivered the Kingdom of Wind with the artifact on board. He instructed me to inform the King if anything drastic happened in his absence. This is a rather drastic turn of events, I'd say, so I told the King what I knew."

"So you knew someone was after us in order to get the Clouds, but you didn't know it was Hunt," Lawson inferred.

"It was very minimal details," Wood reiterated. "I assume part of the reason for this unprecedented congregation is to explore those details more thoroughly."

They had to talk about Hunt and Thars, and all the craziness that had been occurring in the past month. Elena watched the soldiers begin moving up the stairs with the bed, leaving the sheet covering Steinorth's body as it was moved. Wood was noticeably distracted by it as well, and then he turned his attention back to the other soldiers waiting for orders.

"Please remove the restraints from Lord Phinn, and you four retrieve two beds to carry both him and Lady Sage," Wood requested, sounding more like he was asking for a favor rather than giving orders. He faced the rest of the Sons and finished with, "Please accompany me to our vessel, if you will. We will go to the Clouds as soon as Lord Phinn and Lady Sage are with us again."

One of the soldiers knelt down beside Phinn and rolled him over, removing a small tool from his bag and working on the lock, while the remaining four soldiers disappeared up the stairs.

"So they can be more effectively treated, may I ask what the ailments are?" Wood asked.

"Sage is just sedated right now because she has a Thar," said Quentin. "There is an antidote being developed that will slow the effects."

"So I've heard," said Wood. "And Lord Phinn?"

"Syncing," said Ryder, finally sitting up and rubbing her own head.

"Syncing?" Wood repeated quizzically. "What do you mean? Syncing to a Kingdom?"

"That's the theory," Ryder sighed.

Wood looked like he didn't believe them, like they might be making it up just to mess with him. But, he only got serious faces in response, so he nodded and said, "Clearly there is more to be explained than I anticipated."

"Clearly," said Cole, rolling his eyes.

"Please come with me," Wood advised, gesturing towards the stairs as the soldier finished breaking through the locks on the chains that held Phinn for so long. He took out a small roll of bandages and wrapped a few layers around his wrists where they had gotten raw from struggling.

Elena felt weird about leaving Phinn and Sage behind, but Wood assured her that they were in good hands. He quickly noticed Lawson was having a rough time with the stairs and took it upon himself to assist him without even asking if it was required.

When they reached the vessel, the soldiers who had carried Steinorth were standing there waiting for them. Elena was kind of terrified about being in such a tiny space situated so closely to him, but it seemed like that was expected at the moment. Turner climbed in first without having much of an issue. Ryder and Cole were reluctant to comply (also awkward about the suggestion), but they eventually got in as well.

"Elena," Lawson quietly encouraged her as Quentin got inside.

Elena nodded and entered the small vessel, though it was actually much larger on the inside than she thought it would be. And, apparently, it was designed for transporting bodies because there was a separate compartment set aside, all locked up tight—Steinorth must have been inside there.

After Wood got in, everyone remained strangely silent, mostly staring at their own hands so they wouldn't speak to one another. When the rest of the soldiers returned with Phinn and Sage, they all barely fit inside. The vessel lifted off the ground and into the air, sliding towards the Clouds.

Although they were all crammed together in one space, Elena felt terribly alone. She peeked at Wood out of the corner of her eye and tried to picture him as the new Steinorth—it didn't work. He looked too nice and he was definitely too young. She couldn't help but wonder what Steinorth's reasons were for thinking he wasn't ready for the promotion. Simply "looking too nice" wasn't a good enough reason to deny him a promotion, so it was probably his age.

Then again, Hayden was only nineteen when he became Captain of the Guard. And, well, she knew Steinorth had obtained his position shortly before Hunt was supposedly executed, which was about fifteen years ago. She didn't know exactly how old Steinorth was now, but he couldn't be older than thirty-five to forty.

She started to depress herself thinking how he would never get any older so she promptly instructed herself to stop thinking all together.

The vessel eventually came to a stop again. Wood reiterated some orders regarding the care that needed to be taken for the Sons, and it suddenly became very apparent that all of them were going to end up in the hospital. Most of them argued, but Wood insisted. Either their Thars needed to be studied, or fresh wounds examined, or old wounds monitored. For one reason or another, Wood had each of the Sons with various escorts, almost forcibly taken the hospital.

Which left Elena. And now she really was left alone.

Aside from Wood, who watched the Sons to ensure they were out of earshot before he turned to Elena. "Welcome back to the Clouds, Ms Elena," he said welcomingly. "You probably don't remember me the last time you came through here. I saw you walking with Hayden."

"Oh, sorry. No," she answered honestly.

"It's all right," he said, waving his hand. "Though, please forgive me for being frank with you so soon after meeting. But it appears to me as though Sir Steinorth has cast a curse on you."

Elena's head nearly exploded when he said that. "What?" she demanded.

"Don't be alarmed," Wood said calmly. "It's not a bad curse, exactly. My assumption is that moments before his death, you experienced a very strange sensation? He likely spoke with you at length when no one else could hear."

"Yeah," Elena said cautiously. "He said…it was the extension of a second…?"

"Essentially. It's not harmful to you in any way and you won't experience any side effects, Miss, but it's still considered a curse by definition. It's called an Extension Curse."

"How did you know he did it?"

"For nearly a day after the breaking of a curse, the person exudes a distinguishable energy. If you know how to look for it, you can spot it easily. I could also deduce that Lord Lawson was cursed as well, though his was considerably more powerful."

"Are you a magic user too?"

"I am. This curse can be used to disorient an opponent, and it can be used for torture. Though, I doubt Sir Steinorth cast it with those intentions. I trust he said to you his last words. Am I correct?"

Elena nodded.

"Right, then," said Wood with reassuring smile. "I suppose you have some messages to deliver. Allow me to be your escort. Private messages to the family members should wait until the grieving period is over, but I can assume he must have some political messages as well."

"He did. I'll need to talk to the King at some point… and Geneva Carmen. And… Hayden, too." She wasn't sure if she should consider Steinorth's message to Hayden as personal or political. "Is he on board?"

"Yes, he is," said Wood. "I'm afraid the King is busy at the moment, and Geneva Carmen is not presently on board. Let me take you to Hayden. I'm sure his spirits will brighten when he sees your face."

Wood's smile turned warm, which definitely made her feel better. He lightly placed a hand on her back and led the way down the grand hallways of the Kingdom of Clouds. He stepped in massive strides and greeted each person in the halls by name. There was something so friendly about him—maybe Steinorth didn't think the job would suit Wood because they were clearly such different people.

"Sorry…uh…Sir Wood?"

"Please call me Alexander, if you are inclined to do so."

Something about his kindness made her bolder. "Really?" she asked.

"Of course," he said.

"You can call me Elena," she offered.

"Very well. Thank you. You wanted to ask something?"

"I think it might be a little rude. Sorry?"

"Go ahead and ask."

"How old are you?"

He looked at her, his smile still in place. "Oh, that's not a rude question," he said. "It seems random, admittedly. I'm thirty-three."

Elena's eyes widened. "What?" she said (the second time she had reacted like that since their conversation started). "Really? You don't look thirty-three."

"How old do I look?"

"Um… around twenty-five?"

His smile actually widened (she was correct in her original assumption that he smiled a lot). "I'm twenty-three," he said.

"What are you really?"

"Twenty-three. But would you have believed me if I said I simply looked very young for my age?"

"I guess I would. I don't really see why you'd lie."

"Because it was funny to watch your eyes pop out."

He laughed slightly, and Elena did somewhat as well, in spite of herself.

"Ah, there it is," said Wood, pointing at her.

"There what is?"

"Your smile."

Elena felt herself relax as he opened the door to the stairwell and held it for her. She stepped through and appreciatively said, "Thank you. For being so nice, I mean. And holding the door too, I guess."

"The saddest sight in the world is a woman who has lost her smile. Please remember that when you find yourself in a difficult place."

"I will," she said. "I'll try."

"And smile for Hayden," Wood requested. "He's in rather low spirits, as you may suspect. He still can't breathe on his own. Though he's expected to recover, the prognosis for complete recovery is doubtful. One of his lungs was punctured by the bullet. It is unlikely he will be able to maintain his position as Captain of the Guard."

Elena was not terribly surprised with herself when she found Wood's words had made her happy. If Hayden wasn't Captain of the Guard anymore, then he wouldn't have to die in the position, and he could retire like Steinorth wanted him to.

Maybe he could get married and start a family, too (also like Steinorth wanted him to).

Could that be a reason why Steinorth didn't want Wood to get a promotion? Since Wood was clearly a nice guy who would thrive in a family setting rather than taking a job that would doom him to an early death? Because that's what the bodyguard position was: the promise of an early death.

"Alexander?" she asked.


"Do you have a family?"

"A family? In what sense do you mean?"

"Um… do you have a wife?" Elena's eyes widened when she realized it sounded like she was hitting on him so she quickly waved both her arms. "No, no, that came out wrong. I mean, I was just wondering. Because the thing is that Sir Steinorth has a family, and it's very sad—"

"It is sad, Elena. The fact of the matter is that people in positions like mine or Sir Steinorth's have a much higher probably of being killed early. Most of us don't ever have the opportunity to start a family. I don't have a wife, and perhaps I never will. Is that what you're getting at?"

She wondered if she was supposed to keep Steinorth's recommendation of not promoting Wood a secret from him. It would be easier to ask him right out why he thought Steinorth didn't think he'd make a good bodyguard for the King. Otherwise, she'd just end up torturing herself over it.

Wood assessed her demeanor and made an intelligent deduction. "Let me tell you something about Edward," he said, and Elena nodded eagerly. "He was a very closed off man. Emotionally, he was extremely distant. There were few people who could shake him. He made these decisions for himself when he decided he wanted to rise up in the King's army. He also made the decision that he did not want a family. He treated most of the younger recruits, like Hayden and myself, as brothers or, at times, even sons. He often told us we shouldn't choose the life he chose. I would say nearly every day he recommended we quit. Consistently, he made recommendations against my various promotions. Frankly, Elena, I believe he thought I was… well, too transparent with my emotions. Too friendly, or too nice, if it is not conceited to say this."

"It seems about right," Elena said.

"Then he met Katherine," said Wood. "He fell in love. He changed. He was very different around her, and amazing with his children. But I think, in his heart, he felt his love for his wife and concern for his children worsened him as a soldier. And, as much as I hate myself when I say this, part of me must agree. He firmly believed that one could not separate love in a personal life from the ruthlessness one sometimes needs to employ as a soldier. Especially since the birth of his daughter, Edward began to discourage me more and more from accepting promotions. I think he worried I was already weak because of my emotions, and worried I would become weaker if I ever started a family."

"He didn't believe someone could be a soldier and have a family?" Elena questioned.

"That's correct. And I think his failure to uphold his own personal beliefs tortured him somewhat. Truthfully, Edward never thought I could be a soldier, but I did not take offense in that. It seemed more like a compliment to me." He crossed his arms and looked up at the ceiling with only his eyes. "That was part of his message, wasn't it?"

"Wasn't…what?" Elena asked nervously.

"Sir Steinorth's message to the King," said Wood with a nod. "Discouraging a promotion. Am I right?"

Well, he didn't seem mad, so Elena confirmed this.

Wood's smile didn't leave him. "Edward was a very good man, straight until the end," he concluded. "Thinking of someone like me when his death was so near." He nodded approvingly. "He will be sorely missed."