Illiom reached across the table and Metmus handed her the scroll.
She read the words and then read them again, wanting to commit the Prophecy to memory.
“Can I keep this?”
“It is yours. I have several copies, one for each Chosen.”
She did not look up from the elegant script.
“Chosen...” Illiom echoed the word.
“Does the Prophecy mean anything to you?”
She took a long deep breath and shook her head.
She re-examined the original inscription inside the chest.
“Was Celest the one to open the box?”
“No one was able to, at first. The Queen was informed of its existence, of course, but it was deemed safer that someone other than Her Majesty be the first to try. After all, it was conceivably an object of power and might well be a danger to whoever opened it. But in the end, when the scholars’ attempts continued to fail, Queen Eranel demanded it be brought to her.”
He paused to pour a small amount of ruby red liquid from a silver decanter, sipped from it appreciatively, then peered at them over the rim of his eyeglasses.
“If memory serves, it happened early one evening on the ninth day of the Blossoming Moon. After all the failed attempts, we did not expect anything to happen, but as soon as the Queen touched the chest, it sprang open. It was a momentous event and we gathered around Her Majesty to see what it contained. Besides the inscription, it held seven crystals which were inspected by all present, but no one could glean their purpose.
“There was wonder and speculation, but no understanding whatsoever; at least not until Sethesta produced a translation a quart moon later. Although the words did not mean much to anyone, there was general agreement that it was some kind of prophecy. Yes, the way it had been delivered into our hands was unsettling, but to the best of our knowledge, none of the ominous things foretold in the verses had come to pass.”
“What about the symbol on the cover of the box?” Tarmel asked. “Is that Truespeech also? Did the scholars work out its meaning?”
“No, I am afraid that symbol remains unexplained. Sethesta insists that it is not Dravish. She has sent copies of it to the colleges in Evárudas and Iol, but so far there has been no response.”
“When did the Seeking Stones begin to glow?” Illiom asked, frowning at the glyph.
“Less than a moon ago. I do not know exactly when because they were in the Queen’s possession at the time. From the very start she had taken to them with a consuming fascination and would not allow anyone else near them. It was she who eventually informed us that a change had come over them, that they were glowing.”
Illiom touched the glyph with her fingertips.
The symbol’s lines made her want to tilt her face to one side, as if the design was intentionally lopsided. Though it did not resemble any of the letters in the Albradani alphabet, it was reminiscent of some. Yet its meaning remained hidden.
“The prophecy speaks of certain portents. Have any of them materialised since then?”
“They have indeed.”
Metmus’ brows knotted; his tone became regretful.
“The Queen was taken ill on the thirteenth day of Newharvest, almost six moons after the finding of the chest and a full three moons after it had been opened by the Queen. There had been a celebration in honour of Eranel’s brother, Wardmaster Crelor, who had returned with his delegation from Kroen. The Queen complained of dizziness and nausea, which her physician attributed to something disagreeable she had eaten at the feast.”
The Lord looked at Illiom intently for a moment, and then shot Tarmel a glance.
He seemed to reach a decision.
“Farant – the Queen’s physician – had been wrong. It was not something amiss with the food. Eranel ... the Queen is still ill, and her condition has worsened.”
Metmus suddenly looked lost and old beyond his years. His voice trembled slightly as he looked down at his hands.
“Eranel is dying.”
Silence as solid as a wall descended upon them.
When he spoke again, his voice was heavy with sorrow.
“We have secretly sought the help of physicians and healers from within Albradan and later from beyond our borders. None has so far been able to aid the Queen or even speculate on what has befallen her. She grows thin and weak and is clearly languishing, fading from the world. She already looks more wraith than human...”
“No. That cannot be ... I saw her!” Tarmel protested, and stood so abruptly that the chair behind him crashed to the ground. “I saw her at the mid-summer celebrations. She did not look ill!”
“That was not the Queen,” Lord Metmus explained softly, placing a gnarled hand over Tarmel’s clenched fingers. “Eranel has not attended a single public gathering since the onset of her illness. What you saw was her double...”
Tarmel stared at the Lord in disbelief.
“But why not at least inform the Black Ward? How can we serve and protect the palace if we do not know what is happening within its walls?”
There was no trace of apology in Metmus’ shrug, only a hint of annoyance as he countered.
“You might ask your Wardmaster then, for he knew from the start what was afoot.” The Lord’s tone softened. “But you must understand, Tarmel, it is Eranel’s own wish that her condition remain secret.”
Metmus lifted his hand to forestall any objections.
“Let me explain. There is strong evidence that the Queen’s disease is in fact not a disease at all ... that its origins are not natural. The healers who have attended the Queen concur without exception that whatever ails her is more akin to a power than an illness, and that this power is distinctly malevolent. But there is more. Within a week of the Queen falling ill, Farant disclosed something very disturbing; a mark had appeared on the Queen’s chest, precisely over her heart; a geometric sign somewhat like this one, only smaller.”
Metmus pushed a piece of parchment towards them.
On it was depicted the shape of a new moon balanced on the tip of a dagger-like wedge.
“What does it mean?”
“At first, no one knew. But its meaning becomes clear enough when you compare it to how it looks now, for the mark has changed...”
“I do not understand,” Illiom said.
Metmus pushed another piece of parchment towards her. The same crescent was depicted; only now the wedge had pushed up, penetrating halfway into the crescent.
“Oh no!” The words escaped from her mouth almost of their own volition.
Metmus nodded gravely.
“Given Eranel’s current condition, some have speculated that when the wedge penetrates the crescent fully, the Queen will die.”
He looked tired.
“If the people find out, it will not take them long to link this illness with magic. Especially bearing in mind that they are prone to seeing magic afoot whenever anything goes awry.”
A finger of ice ran the length of Illiom’s spine.
Metmus was silent for a moment before resuming.
“Magic has never been popular in our realm. If rumour of the Queen’s condition were to get out it would not take long for accusations to start flying. And who do you think these accusations would be levelled at?”
Metmus had directed his question at Tarmel, but it was Illiom who answered.
“Precisely. There is no doubt that the desert kingdom would receive the brunt of our people’s fear and hatred. And if Queen Eranel died of her condition, how do you think our people would react? I will tell you how: they would retaliate, lashing out with devastating consequences for the relations between our two realms. It could lead to war.”
Metmus took a deep breath.
“The very last thing Eranel wants is to destabilise the Common Weal.”
Illiom shook her head.
“But why not simply say that the Queen is ill, omitting the mysterious nature of her illness? Is it not easier to tell part of the truth than to try to conceal everything?”
Metmus nodded as she spoke.
“Maybe so, but it is still the Queen’s wish that this remain secret – and so it is. We will withhold all knowledge of this until the true cause of her illness has been determined or rectified.”
A pained expression passed like a cloud across his face.
“We must do everything in our power to respect Her Majesty’s wishes and forestall any deterioration of the stability of the Common Weal. The hope is that you, the Chosen, will be the key to unravelling this mystery as well.”
Illiom covered her face with her hands. When she removed them she felt almost as though she was taking off a mask.
“What power do I have that can be of any use to the Queen?” she implored. “I do not hold the reins of my own life, so how can I hope to solve the problems of a realm? I really do not know why I have been Chosen, nor to what end! I just do not understand what all of this has to do with me.”
“Without disrespect, my Lady, nor do I. And I do not refer to you alone when I say this, for you are the third Chosen with whom I have spoken and – so far - it is entirely beyond me how any of you can assist either the Queen or Albradan. Yet...”
He searched her eyes.
“Your very admission of helplessness inspires my trust. And you are the Chosen, delivered to our very doorstep by irrefutable power.”
Metmus’ voice echoed with the strength of his conviction.
“Therefore I, for one, choose to align my faith and trust with that of Her Majesty: that you are indeed here to deliver us from these dark tidings, somehow. If understanding eludes us, then it falls upon us to ferret it out. If you are here to help us then your role will surely become clear, given time.”
Metmus’ gaze fixed upon Illiom until she had to turn away.
She looked at Tarmel as a pretext to avoid seeing the hope in the old man’s eyes, but what she saw in Tarmel was just as disconcerting. He looked at her with a thoughtful, prescient look, as if he too could see something about her that she could not.
Not able to meet either man’s eyes, Illiom fumbled for more questions.
“What did you say was the time span between the opening of the chest and the onset of the Queen’s illness?”
“About three moons.”
Metmus massaged his chin between finger and thumb.
“I know what you are thinking. There was some speculation as to whether the two events were related.”
“That would shine an ominous light upon us Chosen, would it not?”
“It would,” the Lord conceded. “And that speculation has been raised before, but it never took hold. Too much time passed between these events and, in any case, Eranel would not hear of it.”
Metmus released a weary sigh.
“There is more,” he warned.
Tarmel raised his eyebrows.
“The unthinkable happened. Prince Vardail, the Queen’s son and only eligible heir to the throne of Albradan, has vanished.”
Illiom stared at the Lord. She had not heard of the Prince before this day.
Tarmel nodded at Metmus’ words.
“That explains the mess of rumours that have been sweeping through the Ward. Almost everyone is aware that something concerning the Prince happened in the last quart of the Firemoon. The Blades on watch outside the Prince’s rooms at that time were all summoned and questioned, repeatedly. They emerged from Menphan’s quarters confused, subdued, and tight-lipped. Everyone knew that something had happened, yet no one knew what it was.”
Metmus looked askance at Tarmel but did not address the Rider’s comments. Instead, he turned to Illiom.
“Eranel’s condition alone was not enough for her to act on, even when it became obvious that something dark was at its roots. It took her son’s disappearance to convince her to use the Seeking Stones. The lines from the prophecy ‘the high one shall wane then, without reason or grace, and her fruit vanish, like a thief in the night’ suddenly made dreadful sense and brought our attention out of the theoretical. The prophecy no longer spoke of a past or a future; it spoke of events in the here and now.
“So, this is what lies at the core of your summons. Queen Eranel wants you and the other Chosen to find Vardail and restore him to the palace. If you do nothing else, she will reward you for doing this one thing. Personally, I do not see that this begins to even scratch the surface of the prophecy. Nevertheless, it is Her Majesty’s wish and it is my task to impress it upon you.”
“Very well, so what happened to Vardail?”
Metmus shook his head.
“I wish we knew. The last time he was seen was on the evening of the twenty-first day of Firemoon, about a full moon after the Queen was taken ill. Menphan Tarn quietly turned the palace inside out in an attempt to find him. Yet after three days his efforts yielded no result. It was then that Queen Eranel decided to use the Seeking Stones.”
“How could the Prince vanish without anyone noticing?” Tarmel questioned.
Metmus shrugged helplessly.
“It is beyond me. Ask your Wardmaster, for he personally interrogated all those involved. In any case, the long and the short of it is that the following morning the Prince did not emerge from his rooms. The Blades on watch during that night swear by all that is holy that Vardail did not leave during their watch. They did see him once, when he asked for food to be sent up for himself and and his friend, a lad named Fallel, but they swear that that was the only time they saw him. Everyone is still looking for Fallel, with no success.
“It was a Blade by the name of Phurl Igell who raised the alarm the next morning. Vardail usually leaves his rooms no later than the fifth hour and he had not emerged by the end of her watch. She and the Blade who relieved her tried to rouse him, to no avail. The doors were finally forced open, but his rooms were empty. What is more, none of the guards in the palace had seen him pass through any of the exits, which are all under constant watch. The Prince had indeed vanished like a thief in the night. His rooms were searched, of course. There were no signs to indicate that he had left against his will. The windows were open, but that is to be expected at this time of the year. In any case it is not possible to leave or enter that way unless one is endowed with wings.”
Illiom glanced at Tarmel. The Rider returned her look with a little, exasperated shake of his head.
“Portents indeed ... is there more?”
Metmus nodded slowly.
“Yes, but first I would ask you to go down to the Prince’s rooms, to see what was found there. I will not speak of it now, because I do not want to influence your observations. When you are ready, my attendant Maele will escort you there and will be on hand to answer any questions you might have.”
Metmus poured himself some water. He closed his eyes for a moment to gather his thoughts.
“On the first day of this moon, three days after the Riders were despatched to find the Chosen, three bodies were discovered just outside of Kuon. They had been hastily buried in a shallow grave. There can be no doubt that the three were murdered.”
The old Lord shook his head.
“When this news reached me I immediately assumed the worst, but I am glad to say that the Prince was not among them. This was not immediately obvious, for the bodies had been beheaded and stripped. Two male and one female. Their heads have not yet been found and their identities remain a mystery. Farant claims that, given the condition they were in and the time of the year, they could not have been dead for more than a day. When he inspected the bodies, Farant noticed that two, the younger male and the female, exhibited a small, identical black mark over their breast bone. The mark was unusual enough to warrant further investigation. To cut a long story short, the palace surgeons found that these two bodies were both missing their heart.”
Illiom was not sure that she had heard correctly.
“No hearts?” asked Tarmel in disbelief.
“No hearts. The astonishing thing is that there was no mark on either of them to show how their hearts might have been removed: no incisions, cuts, or scars. The skin was whole and intact, except for that one small surface wound over the breast-bone and the blackened circle of skin that surrounded it.”
Tarmel shook his head slowly.
“Headless and heartless...” he mused.
Metmus made a speculative sound.
“What an interesting way of putting it.”
“What of the third body?” Illiom asked.
“The older male? Aside from the decapitation and the wounds that had caused his death, his heart was where one might expect it to be.”
Illiom glanced away into the distance, at the haze that blurred the distinction between land and sky in the south.
She was exhausted by these stories loaded with grim and dreadful portents. Why had she been drawn away from her life and her mountains? For this? Is this what Sudra had in store for her?
When she spoke, she did so without looking at the old Lord, or editing what she truly felt.
“It seems to me that you are speaking to the wrong person. I have listened to your stories and I have not the slightest idea what to make of them. The more I learn the worse I feel.”
She turned to look at him.
“My Lord, I do believe I must be here by mistake.”
Metmus waved a weathered hand.
“Would you heed my counsel?”
“Of course,” she sighed.
“Do nothing, for nothing is expected of you right now. Wait until all the others are here and then see what - if anything - transpires. In the meantime, acquaint yourself with the palace and the city. Make use of Tarmel here, who in any case must escort you everywhere you go. Avail yourself of his knowledge. After the Chosen are all gathered and the Triune Counsel has met, a pathway may well present itself, preferably one that will lead us all out of this mire.
“Also, be sure not to miss the fair, and resist the temptation to take the weight of the realm upon your shoulders. Trust that all things will reveal themselves in due course, and if you gain clarity about any of this, please be sure to let me know.”
Metmus glanced at Tarmel then turned to Illiom.
“I have spoken to you about the most significant events that have transpired since Celest’s encounter in the ruins. Now all that is left for you to do is to go and see what was found in Vardail’s rooms. By the look of you, however, I would say that you have probably had more than enough for one day. Go when you feel rested, but do go before the gathering of the Triune.”
Illiom nodded, sensing the dismissal in the Lord’s tone.
Metmus looked older and much more tired now than when she had first seen him. She wondered at the wisdom of allocating such a task to one as old as he.
They took their leave and began the long descent to her room. Illiom paused at her door.
“I need to get outside and breathe some fresh air. Can we do that?”
“We can do whatsoever you wish. Where would you like to go?”
“Ride or walk?”
She did not have to think about that.