Entering Eranel’s palace was like walking into a dream.
Illiom was overwhelmed. Tarmel was speaking, but his words fell upon her mind like snowflakes on a lake surface, leaving no impression at all.
The hall that stretched before her was inconceivably vast. Pillars rose like enchanted trees to support a canopy of interlacing vaults. Golden twilight streamed in almost horizontally from the high windows and formed bright pools where it fell. Footfalls and voices boomed and echoed, making it difficult to gauge whether a sound was near or distant. Clusters of shimmering crystal chandeliers hung high above their heads, dispelling all shadow.
It was like the stories of the hall of the gods, that she had heard as a child. She would not have been surprised to see Sudra and Iod seated on their thrones at the far end of this hall.
Tarmel’s words began to filter in.
“…most large gatherings and feasts are held. Of course, there are also other, more private audience chambers, to suit all kinds of occasions.”
Illiom nodded distractedly and followed him in a daze as he crossed the hall and steered a path towards an inconspicuous doorway. Once through, they descended a flight of stairs, walked along a narrow corridor and down two more flights.
Illiom became rapidly disoriented.
“Where are we going?”
“Firstly, I must report to the Wardmaster. After that, I have no idea really.”
He turned and smiled before continuing down yet another passage.
As they progressed deeper into the bowels of the palace, Illiom’s wonder at the magnificence of the great hall began to fade.
The earlier splendour was gradually being replaced by stark functionality. Gone were the carved stone and the rich wooden panelling: the walls here were bare, undressed stone. Here the ceiling was stained with soot from crude iron lamps. Gone was the lustrous marble floor covered with lush carpets and vivid runners. Now rough floorboards, scarred with use, echoed their footsteps.
Illiom felt a foreboding.
It was as though every part of their journey until this moment had been mere pretence; now that she was here, her old life discarded, the ugly face of her real predicament was showing itself at last.
By the time they reached their destination she was on the brink of panic.
A few steps ahead, Tarmel’s pace slowed as he approached a large black door flanked by two Blades.
“Is Menphan in?”
One of the Blades eyed him for a moment.
“Aye, First Rider, he is,” she confirmed. “But be warned, his mood is not for the fainthearted.”
Tarmel dismissed this with a shrug.
“Tell me something new.”
The guard pursed her lips and opened the door for them.
The space they entered was long and stark. There was no furniture whatsoever near the door; instead, it all huddled at the other end of the room between two tall, narrow windows.
A bald, heavy-set man sat hunched over an enormous table strewn with parchments and scrolls. Elbows propped on the table, his hands were pressed to his forehead. He brooded over an open document.
He did not look up as they approached, though he surely must have heard them enter. When Tarmel and Illiom reached the table, the Rider brought a fist up to his breastbone.
“First Rider Tarmel reporting, my Lord,” he said and bowed.
The man did not respond for a few moments, he seemed far more interested in what he was looking at. A map, Illiom realised.
He finally looked up with evident reluctance and frowned.
He looked like a man tormented by lack of sleep.
“So, you are back...?” There was a strange questioning lilt to his words.
The Wardmaster straightened and for a moment Illiom was seized by an irrational fear that he was going to attack them.
Instead, his eyes shifted from the Rider to fix on her. His eyebrows were so fair that they were nearly invisible. His blue eyes pierced her.
“And this young woman is...?”
“I am Illiom,” she said, and her voice sounded like a croak to her own ears. She cleared her throat. The intensity of Menphan’s look was disconcerting, but she did not avert her gaze.
“Someone has spoken when they should not have,” he said mildly, his eyes still locked on hers. Illiom, believing he was speaking about her, blinked and felt the heat rise in her face.
Is he telling me to mark my place?
She was about to ask him what he meant when Menphan continued.
“This was to be a secret mission. Do you understand the meaning of secret? And now it is compromised; the whole Ward is speaking of little else.”
The Wardmaster’s eyes finally left her and moved to Tarmel, stabbing the Rider with their intensity.
“Were you aware of this leak?”
If Menphan’s gaze unsettled him, Tarmel gave no outward sign.
“Only once we had reached Saryam’s Gate, my Lord. Then it was soon clear that the mission had become common knowledge.”
The Wardmaster clasped his hands together, resting his chin on his thumbs.
“And what was your response to this?”
Tarmel’s eyes darted momentarily upwards, recalling the details of what had transpired at the Gate.
“Since everyone seemed to already know what we were doing, I thought that it must have been made public. There seemed little point in pretending it was not.”
“What were your orders, First Rider?”
The Wardmaster’s tone had a sharp edge to it.
“To find the Chosen and bring them safely back to Kuon in all haste and secrecy, my Lord.”
“So what happened to that last part?”
“My Lord, I did not speak to anyone about the mission until I reached the Gate, when the Blades spoke to me about it. Then I assumed that…”
Menphan Tarn was on his feet so fast that Illiom took an instinctive step backwards.
The man was a giant. He stood almost a full head taller than Illiom and she felt intimidated by his height and fury. Though clearly no longer in his prime, his physique exuded the solidity of bedrock.
“You assumed?” He leaned forward and shouted directly into Tarmel’s face. His next words were softly spoken, but they might have dripped venom for the corrosive effect they had on Illiom’s nerves. “And where in your training is there any mention that you have leave to assume anything when following my orders?”
“Nowhere, my Lord.”
In that moment Illiom found herself hating the Wardmaster more than she had hated anyone in a very long time.
“Tarmel did nothing but help…” she started to interject.
Without looking at her, Menphan’s hand came up fast, palm facing her, stopping her words.
“You will report to me later and we will work out the repercussions of these assumptions of yours. Is that understood?”
Before Tarmel could respond, Illiom, her blood aboil with outrage, sidestepped the hand that had silenced her.
“No! Do not treat him like this,” she blurted as her eyes welled with tears. “He does not deserve this. He saved my life! If it had not been for him I would be ... Tarmel saved my life!”
She choked on a strangled sob, but she had gained the Wardmaster’s attention. Menphan turned to look at her and the expression he now wore was completely incomprehensible. His lips were parted in silent laughter and his eyes were filled with amusement.
He is completely insane.
Menphan lowered his hand.
“Well, Tarmel, at least you have succeeded in making an impression, I see.”
The Wardmaster sat and looked at them levelly for a moment before continuing.
“Do tell me, what happened?” he questioned evenly, as if nothing untoward had preceded these words. “Tell me how you saved her life.”
Tarmel responded without hesitation. He told his story as succinctly as was possible, omitting nothing.
“It was sheer good fortune that I was nearby when it happened and I was able to intervene,” he concluded.
Illiom watched as sudden interest awakened in the Wardmaster’s gaze. His eyes narrowed.
“You were followed?”
Even though it was framed as a question, there was a tang of suspicious reproach in his tone. Tarmel shook his head.
“I was not, my Lord. Unless they had some arcane means of hiding their movements, I would have spotted them long before I reached Illiom’s ... abode.”
Menphan nodded but his frown deepened.
Illiom thought it a credit to Tarmel that his last statement had gone unquestioned.
“That is troubling news then...” Menphan said and stood up again.
Turning his back on them, the Wardmaster bridged the distance between his desk and the window and looked out into the darkening world.
After a while he shook his head.
“I just hope the others are as successful in bringing their charges back alive. It appears that I will have to rethink the Chosen’s security arrangements...”
“My Lord, have any of the others experienced similar incidents?” asked Tarmel.
The Wardmaster looked askance at the Rider and then shook his head.
“Not so far. But you are only the third to return. The first two Chosen were already here, in Kuon ... not exactly the easiest place to stage an ambush, if indeed that is what we are looking at here.”
Menphan’s voice trailed off as he shifted his gaze back to Illiom.
“In any case, now is not the time to explore any of these things. You are here and you are safe. That is all that matters. I have arranged for rooms to be allocated to the Chosen ... oh, and incidentally, welcome to Kuon, my Lady.”
His eyes held hers for a moment.
Illiom returned the look, but she felt no warmth towards the man. She did not understand him, but was sure that she did not like him.
Even now she could not tell if he was smiling or smirking at her.
Before anything else could be said, however, a loud voice came from the doorway. They turned just as the door smashed open.
A man burst through.
The newcomer wore a dark red uniform decorated with the gold and blue trimmings of rank. Not as tall as the Wardmaster, he was nevertheless just as stocky, heavy with muscle rather than fat. His short dark hair was silver at the temples, thick black brows sheltered eyes that were dark with rage. His gait was confident and commanding, another wielder of power.
Tarmel took a step sidewise, getting out of the man’s way, but also positioning himself between the new arrival and Illiom.
Menphan Tarn’s expression fell into lines of resignation, as if he had anticipated this arrival but did not relish its timing. He passed a hand over his face and made a show of suppressing a yawn.
“What in Krodh’s name do you think you are doing?” the man spat at Menphan without preamble.
“Lord Crelor,” Menphan acknowledged him with a nod. “You have received my message, I see.”
The intruder stormed past Illiom and her Rider. The two guards posted outside had followed him through the door. One shrugged apologetically at Menphan. The Wardmaster waved them away and turned to meet the intruder’s onslaught.
“What gives you the right to arrest my men?” Crelor shouted, spraying spittle.
Illiom was overwhelmed by the man’s vehemence yet found herself on the verge of smiling. It was almost poetic that Menphan should himself be on the receiving end of a blast similar to the one he had directed at Tarmel.
The Wardmaster looked anything but intimidated by Crelor’s onslaught. He smiled and held up a single finger.
“One, I will arrest anyone who breaches the current curfew, even if that happens to be the Queen’s brother himself.”
He raised an eyebrow and cocked his head slightly to one side.
“Two, your men tried to resist arrest with violence. They should consider themselves fortunate that I did not cast them into the pit and throw away the key. Now get the Hel out of my rooms!”
“By Krodh, you pompous goat!” swore Crelor. “I am not leaving until you release them. If you do not release them immediately, I will have your rank; do you understand me, Wardmaster?”
Menphan’s eyes narrowed. He walked around the table until he stood face to face with the other. When he spoke, he did so with calm but cold enunciation.
“I offer you just one opportunity to leave with your dignity intact. If you do not take it, Queen’s damned brother or not, I will have my guards physically throw you out on your arse. Clear?”
Illiom gaped at this exchange.
Crelor stood with his face just inches from Menphan’s. He was brimming with so much hatred that Illiom felt the intimidation as a physical threat, as though the man had a blade poised at the Wardmaster’s throat. But Menphan held his ground and did not flinch until Crelor whirled away without a word.
As he passed them, Crelor’s eyes connected with Illiom’s and in that instant her world ground to a halt.
Illiom saw a flash of recognition in those cold, dark eyes. Even though she had never seen this man before, she recognised his eyes. The last time she had seen them they were in the face of a man dying from a slashed throat.
The same depth of thwarted hatred was directed at her now. Illiom’s breath became trapped in her throat and, unable to draw air, her heart thrashed in her chest like a caged bird. She tried to look away but her gaze was held, pinned in place by the man’s will.
Time slowed and stopped. All her strength drained from her and her knees started to fold. She made an automatic grab for Tarmel’s arm to stop herself from collapsing.
As the Queen’s brother walked slowly past her, his gaze never shifted from hers.
Then he was gone.
Yet normality did not return for Illiom with the man’s departure.
The Wardmaster and Tarmel looked at her with concern. She saw Menphan’s lips articulate words, but the only sound that reached her ears was an eerie buzzing and then the world faded away.
Hands grabbed her, stopped her from falling. She was eased into a chair, and a glass of water was pressed against her lips.
Then all in a rush sound and vision returned.
“...of course, understandably exhausted,” Menphan was saying. “I will not keep you here. Go and rest, eat. Answers to your questions can wait. Queen Eranel, in her wisdom, has delegated Lord Metmus as the one to brief you. I shall arrange for you to meet him on the morrow, after a good night’s sleep.”
His next words were to the Rider.
“Escort Chosen Illiom to her room in the envoy wing. The seneschal or one of his attendants will show you which one when you get there. As soon as she is settled come back and see me.”
“My Lord,” Tarmel acknowledged, bringing his fist up to his heart.
The Wardmaster dismissed them with the flick of a hand.
As soon as they left his office Tarmel turned to her. “What happened in there?”
Illiom shook her head.
What could she say? What would he say to the truth?
“I do not know, it was just ... that man. He gave me a terrible look. He reminded me of the man who attacked me.”
It was him - it was the same man.
She knew this was impossible and yet she was still convinced of it. But how could she speak it? Tarmel would think her mad. Her attacker was dead, was he not?
Tarmel nodded that he understood.
“Well, that explains it; you looked as if you had seen a ghost. There was something odd about Crelor tonight though. I have never seen the man so belligerent.”
The Rider touched her arm reassuringly.
“But Menphan is right; you need food and sleep to restore you. Let us speak no more of this.”
He dropped the subject and Illiom followed him once again through the daunting maze of the palace.
It seemed a long time before they reached the wing where she was to stay. Illiom’s senses were so overwhelmed by change that she was unable to accommodate any more. She followed her Rider in a dream-like state, watching mindlessly as the palace’s inner landscape transitioned once more into opulence.
“Here we are,” Tarmel announced, as they turned into a broad hallway.
A number of grand doors were arrayed along the left wall, while a corresponding number of more modest ones were on the right. Illiom and Tarmel had barely taken a dozen steps when a thin man of middle years accosted them purposefully.
He bowed slightly to Illiom.
“By your leave, my Lady, I am the butler of this wing. Your room is ready and awaiting your pleasure, if you care to follow me.”
A moment later he opened a door and stepped aside with an elegant gesture of invitation.
“This is to be your room, my Lady, if it meets with your approval.”
Illiom stepped inside.
Like everything else in the palace, the room was vast. There were three big windows, a huge four-poster bed, and a collection of elegant furniture.
“This will do very well,” she said after a cursory glance. She wanted the man gone; she needed to be alone.
The butler’s expression was a blank mask. He withdrew after informing her that she should call if there was anything she needed.
Tarmel intercepted the man at the door.
“I am to stay nearby as well,” he said, then nodded towards the door opposite Illiom’s. “Is that one mine?”
The butler confirmed this and left.
When he was gone, Tarmel stood silently in the doorway for a moment, then called Illiom’s name.
”I should go and report to Menphan now. Will you be alright?”
“As the butler said, if you need anything, just pull this.”
He pointed to a golden cord that hung from the ceiling just inside the door.
He started to leave but then checked himself.
“Do not be shy in asking for help and please, do rest.”
With that, Tarmel closed the door behind him and Illiom stood there, listening to his receding footsteps.
For the first time since he had walked into her life, Illiom felt completely alone again.
It had never occurred to her that Tarmel might have other duties or responsibilities that would take him away from her. She realised how much she had come to depend on the comfort and the feeling of safety that came with his presence.
She walked to the middle window and looked out.
Iod had set and the stars twinkled around Sudra who, swollen in pregnant glory, shone high in the eastern sky. A welt of deep red across the opposite horizon attested to where Iod had fled.
The city lay on display beneath her window. The lights of torches and lamps shimmered everywhere, clusters of jewels that grew brighter as the light receded from the world. The moon’s silky glow defined the edges of buildings, domes, spires and towers, and the haze of a thousand cooking fires wafted over the capital of Albradan like a nimbus of divine blessing.
So many people and yet still so alone.
Illiom pulled away from the window and paced the room. She stopped by the cord that would summon help, touched it to feel its texture, then dropped her hand.
She sank onto the huge bed and let its softness enfold her.
The tears came without effort or warning and flowed as she lay there, curled up in a ball, still fully dressed. She wept until her tears were spent.
She slept then, a deep and dreamless sleep that gifted her with rest, but no comfort.