THROUGH THE SCRYING SHIELD
They got back at the palace at dusk. Illiom, having decided to postpone her visit to Prince Vardail’s rooms to the following day, shared a meal with Tarmel and retired early.
She was up and dressed when Tarmel arrived in the morning, accompanied by a servant bearing their breakfast.
They ate by the window and Tarmel pointed out different landmarks around the city: the open dome of Iod’s temple, the imposing Palace of Justice, and the twin rival towers of Scoil and Daghar, the two scholarly Guilds who tirelessly competed with one another for status and supremacy.
Unchallenged, the College tower rose above all, the crimson pennant of summons hanging undisturbed in the still morning air. Illiom noticed that nothing at all could be seen of the Grove enclosed by the College walls.
Tarmel had organised for Metmus’ attendant, a woman called Maele, to meet them outside the Prince’s rooms. She would be there when they arrived at mid-morn.
The Blades posted outside the elegant doors saluted Tarmel.
“Maele is inside, with the others,” one informed them.
Illiom glanced questioningly at Tarmel. The Rider seemed more aloof and taciturn when there were other members of the Black Ward about.
They stepped into the Prince’s chambers.
She had expected even greater opulence here than elsewhere in the palace. Instead, although spacious, the room was comfortably and simply furnished. The walls were panelled with golden cedar and the polished wood floors were covered with vibrantly coloured rugs. The opposite wall featured a broad fireplace. Divans and clusters of chairs were placed around low tables of dark walnut and the windows were draped with thick curtains that glowed like amber in the sunlight.
A woman, a man, and a young girl stood in the centre of the room.
The man was easily identified by his uniform, a Rider. The others looked as if they had materialised from entirely different worlds.
The older was tall, of middle years and elegantly dressed in what Illiom had come to recognise as palace garb. She gestured expansively as she spoke, her melodious and confident voice carrying easily across the room.
The other was short by comparison and very young; Illiom doubted that she was even fourteen. She had the tanned look of someone who spends most of her time in the sun. Her dark hair was braided in a single tail that reached down towards the small of her back. The most incongruous thing about her was the clothing she wore: a roughly homespun sleeveless vest hung over a tattered skirt the colour of seaweed. Her feet were bare.
As Illiom and Tarmel approached, all three turned to look.
“Ah, here she is!” the older woman exclaimed warmly.
Illiom felt as if she was being addressed by someone who knew her intimately, although she had never seen her before.
“I am Maele,” she announced, and with an elegant gesture introduced the girl beside her.
“And this delightful young lady is Undina.”
Illiom nodded in greeting. The girl glanced up at her, smiled shyly, and then quickly dropped her gaze.
A tribal, she realised with interest. The middle of the girl’s forehead was adorned with a design of delicate blue lines and dots.
“Just like you, Undina here is also a Chosen.”
She had not known what to expect of the other Chosen, but she most certainly had not expected to find either a tribal or a child. She could not tell which tribe the girl belonged to, only that she was not a Roonhian’ka. During her four years of isolation Illiom had had two encounters with Roonhian’ka hunters, both of which had been memorable.
Undina was a striking girl. Her eyes, set wide in the broad oval of her face, shone with alert intelligence. Her cheekbones were high and prominent in the way of many of Albradan’s tribal people and her lips were full and beautiful. Her bright green eyes darted between those present in a way that reminded Illiom of a deer: poised, present and on the brink of flight.
Illiom glanced at the necklace of iridescent shells that adorned her, and then impulsively raised her right hand in the way of the mountain tribe.
Undina’s response was instant as she raised her own to meet Illiom’s.
“Sh’e kinnarit thuck su’n ma,” Illiom said.
This one is honoured by this meeting.
Undina’s smile lit her face with delighted surprise.
“Tcha ki-rill Roonhian’ka?” Undina asked.
Illiom shook her head.
“Only a few words, I fear. I lived in the White Cloud Mountains,” she explained, resorting to the tribal name for the Sevrocks. “I have had a few dealings with the Roonhian’ka and I still remember how to say hello. Which tribe are you from?”
“I am Pelonui,” Undina replied, with a proud lift of her chin. “My home Sunstone Cliffs is. Near coast south from Klah and north from Arit.”
Illiom nodded, pleased to hear the girl’s strong accent.
“It must be very beautiful.”
“And these are the Riders Angar and Tarmel,” Maele cut in smoothly, bringing the introductions to completion.
Undina’s Rider, already engrossed in an exchange with Tarmel, paused and turned towards Illiom with an easy smile and a nod of acknowledgement. He was a big, solid man with red hair and bright blue eyes. A few of his upper front teeth were missing. His fair skin made Undina’s complexion appear even darker.
“I thought to combine your visits since you made yourselves available on the same day,” explained Maele, ushering them skilfully out of the sitting room and into the quarters beyond.
“What Metmus wants you to see lies through here.”
The next room was a sizeable dining hall dominated by an enormous table. Three doorways opened onto other rooms and Maele steered them through one and into the Prince’s study.
A large ornate desk sat in the centre of the room. The surrounding walls were fitted with alcoves and shelves housing dozens of scrolls and tomes and gleaming instruments.
Maele headed towards the large bronze bowl that sat at the far end of the desk.
“This is what has intrigued many.”
It was a strange vessel, wide rather than deep and filled with what might have been water. Whatever the liquid, it looked oddly darker in the middle than around the edges, as if someone had poured ink into it, and the ink had pooled there.
Maele closed the curtains.
“It can take a little while for the eyes to adjust.”
These cryptic words were followed by silence. Clearly, she wanted them to see whatever it was for themselves.
Illiom suddenly realised that something was floating on the surface.
A sudden gasp from Undina made Illiom look even deeper into the bowl.
She saw something shift and recoiled.
“Krodh’s damned horns!” Angar swore.
“Please, do not be alarmed. Take your time,” encouraged Maele.
In the next moment the room and everyone in it winked completely out of existence.
Illiom found herself soaring high above a city, as though she were looking down through a hole in the clouds. The city sat at the base of a mountain, huddled around the shores of a dark blue lake.
So clear, so real, and so sharp was the experience that Illiom feared she would fall.
How is this possible? How can I be seeing this?
“Allow yourself to explore what you see. If you notice anything that you would like to see more clearly, simply focus on it and will it to become clearer.”
The sound of Maele’s disembodied voice filtered through Illiom’s experience.
Amidst the maze of roads, streets and alleys beneath her, one seemed to be the main artery into the city. Where it reached the lake, it became a bridge that crossed over the waters and led into a cavernous entrance carved into the face of a cliff.
Illiom chose the bridge as her focal point and in doing so immediately fell towards it with breath-taking speed. She gasped at the rush of movement. As she came closer she slowed down and came to a stop.
It was then that she realised that there were people on the bridge, going about their business, apparently unaware of her presence above them.
Amazed and exhilarated, she descended further and willed herself to move slowly along the length of the bridge, towards the entrance in the mountain.
Here, a group of soldiers stood guard and Illiom gawked at them.
They were Kroeni.
The blue tinge of their skin and the slanted opal of their eyes could not be mistaken. They did not challenge her for the obvious reason that they could not see her. She willed herself even closer, to peer closely into one guard’s eyes. She realised that she could go anywhere she wanted, see anything that took her fancy, and no one would be any wiser.
Illiom was intoxicated by the experience and amazed by how quickly she had adapted to it.
Dizzy and breathless, she pulled physically back. The world within the bowl winked out and she was instantly back in the room with the others.
“What in the world is it?” she asked, looking for an answer among the faces of those gathered alongside her.
Maele gazed at her sympathetically.
“It is a scrying shield. It comes from Iol.”
If her expression was anything to go by, Maele seemed to be having reservations about both the shield and its origins.
“Prince Vardail has for some time now held an unfortunate obsession with the mysteries of that land. He has travelled there often enough and has been Draca Provan’s guest on several occasions. Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course. Draca Provan is well liked by Her Majesty, and is after all, a Draca. What has been of concern to the palace however, is the young Prince’s preoccupation with magic. It is deemed unseemly for the future king of Albradan to take an interest in such things...”
“But what is this image?” Illiom cut in impatiently.
“It is the city of Lodeh, the capital of Kroen,” Maele replied.
Undina was still absorbed by the image and Maele laid a hand on the girl’s arm to draw her attention back.
“The extraordinary thing is that the image appears to be a living image of that city, meaning that it is seen as it is now, in this very moment: smoke billows from chimneys, the landscape darkens at dusk and the lights of torches and lamps twinkle and shimmer throughout the night. One can see birds flying and people moving about their business. Some mornings it is entirely shrouded in mist.”
She waved a hand over the shield.
“As you might have discovered you can magnify any portion of the city simply by focusing on it, so that different aspects, even people, can be studied in detail. But the truly unsettling thing is that many people can do so at the same time and the shield will show each exactly what they wish to see. Metmus believes that the shield somehow interacts with every mind in its own unique way.”
Angar looked sceptical.
“But are we not all seeing the same image?” he asked.
“Yes, but from that one common starting point the view can change in as many ways as there are people viewing it. Please do not ask me to explain how it works because I cannot. No one here can. It is for this reason that a swallow was despatched to Iol with a request for help. We received an answer five days ago confirming that Draca
Provan has already despatched a descrier to Kuon.”
The term was unfamiliar to Illiom.
“What is a descrier?”
“I am not entirely sure. Metmus says they are some sort of priest.
Whatever they are, I hope he can help us with this.”
Undina looked up hesitantly.
“She,” the Pelonui said, then noting the confusion her interruption had created she elaborated. “Only women can descriers be. They past and present see. Also, many futures they can tell. They much respected in Iol are.”
They stared at the girl.
Angar gave an amused snort.
“What is so unusual about seeing the present? I do that all the time.”
His sarcasm was rewarded with a vexed look from Undina.
“Can you what is happening down in square see?” she asked, pointedly. “Or in own room now see?”
Angar opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and closed it again. He smiled and nodded at his charge.
Tarmel shook his head.
“What I do not understand is that we can use this shield at all. We are not descriers.”
“That is another one of the mysteries that I hope the Iolan will address when he ... when she gets here,” answered Maele, her eyes wide with uncertainty. “In the meantime, there is one more thing I need to show you.”
She walked back out of the study and they followed her through Vardail’s bedroom and into his wardrobe, a chamber almost as big as the bedroom itself. Here, contained within a fine gilded frame, hung the largest mirror-glass Illiom had ever seen. Its unblemished surface gave the illusion that the space was larger than it truly was.
The walls on either side of the mirror were lined with rows of clothes. Formal panoply bursting with sequins and lace mingled with shirts of bright linen. Leather vests and hemp riding pants hung next to robes and hardy hunting gear.
Maele walked purposefully to the back of the room, to a narrow space between the mirror-glass and the robes. There, half-concealed by the Prince’s clothes, was a plain wooden chest.
Metmus’ assistant knelt before it and lifted the lid.
The objects inside the chest would have looked more at home in the apothecary of an alchemist than in the wardrobe of a Prince. Lining the back section was a row of delicate vials and stoppered bottles containing fluids or powders. The front compartment held a scattering of trinkets.
Maele stood up and moved away to offer the rest of them access.
“All of these items have one thing in common: they are all from Iol,” she proclaimed with her sing-song voice. “As a result, most of them are imbued with magical qualities. As I already said, the Prince’s partiality for magic is no secret. But for some time now it was widely believed – and I must say that the Prince went to some lengths to sustain this impression – that he had outgrown this interest, that he had put it aside in favour of pursuits more seemly for a Prince of Albradan. We know now that he was merely becoming more secretive.”
“How old Prince is?” asked Undina, nimbly squatting in a most unladylike way before the open chest.
“When last time he to Iol went?”
Maele’s brow wrinkled in thought.
“One year ago,” she said. “Almost to the day.”
Illiom leaned forward and picked up a bottle, the only one that was both unstoppered and empty.
She sniffed at it and pulled a face at the mouldy smell.
She replaced the vial, careful to put it back just as she had found it. “I do not suppose anyone knows what was inside that one?”
Maele admitted that she did not.
“Something else for this descrier to assist us with, perhaps?”
And with that their visit to Vardail’s rooms was concluded.
“I feel I know just as much as I did before,” Illiom commented to Tarmel as the Chosen headed back to their rooms, accompanied by their Riders.
With their tour of Vardail’s rooms they had completed all that was required of them before the Triune gathering.
Undina suddenly stopped short. The girl looked pale and her breathing was laboured.
“Undina! Are you unwell?” Illiom asked with concern.
The girl gave a quick shake of her head, blinked rapidly, and swallowed hard before she could speak.
“I just ... must outside go. Fresh air need, sun, water need.”
Illiom reached for the girl with a steadying hand.
“Why, of course Undina,” she said and turned to the Riders. “We can do that, can we not?”
Soon they were outdoors, at the top of the stairs that led down from the palace entrance. Undina closed her eyes and turned her face towards Iod.
She rubbed her hands up and down her bare arms.
“Sun and breeze so sweet to feel, to open sky see...”
She opened her eyes and leaned in towards Illiom’s ear.
“I here do not like,” she whispered.
Illiom felt a tug of sympathy. Impulsively she took the girl’s hand.
“Then come, let us get away for a while. I am sure we will not be missed.”
The girl responded with the warmest smile and for a moment Illiom felt like a child herself, leading her newfound friend away from the palace.
Angar and Tarmel, already engrossed in conversation, followed at a discreet distance. Soon Illiom forgot they were even there.
They circumvented the bustle at the centre of the square by following its perimeter along the palace wall.
“How is it that you know about descriers? I had never heard of them until this day.”
“I in Calestor live, for full year with woman who descrier was.”
“You lived with a descrier? How did that come about?”
A distant look came into Undina’s eyes, like a cloud blocking Iod’s light.
“With boy from Calestor I in love fall. He leave, to Iol I follow.”
She checked Illiom’s expression with a sidewise glance.
“Yes. Word foolish many, many times I hear.”
“But how old are you, Undina?”
Illiom looked at her with incredulity. The girl rolled her eyes.
“I know, younger than truth I look. They say this for me good is ... one day.”
They rounded the corner of Coronation Square and walked alongside the row of austere buildings that shaped its western edge. They soon left the square behind, but a bustle of activity followed them. Kuon was abuzz with people coming and going from the square. The Chosen repeatedly stepped aside to make way for wains drawn by great horned buffalos, their loads of timbers, poles, canvas, and bundles of rope swaying precariously as they rumbled past. Troops of workers filed behind them, bearing shovels and hammers, carting barrows of soil or sand.
The four of them veered past this human flow and soon found themselves in front of one of Kuon’s gates.
“Holler’s Gate,” Tarmel informed them. “If you want to go to The Squat, this is the way to get there.”
It was much narrower than the gate they had entered when she had first arrived. As they walked through it, a strong smell assaulted them and the Pelonui girl almost gagged.
“Urine,” announced Tarmel, nonchalant.
When they were past the gate, Angar could not resist a chuckle.
“After a few crossings of Holler, you learn to hold your breath.”
“You might have warned us,” Illiom chided him.
“My apologies, I did not think to,” Angar replied, but his smile deepened. The three missing teeth made his grin seem mischievous.
With that unsavoury introduction, they entered the miasma that was Squatters’ End. It soon became impossible to converse as they struggled through the crowd that had coalesced around them.
Soon it seemed to her that it was only thanks to the Riders’ presence that the crowd parted for them at all. The two had dropped their earlier banter and eyed the throng ahead with a quiet alertness that Illiom found reassuring, but also a little disquieting.
The road skirted the periphery of The Squat. To their left countless alleys and a few minor roads vanished into a throng of ramshackle buildings. Most of these were two-storied and the alleys that separated them were so narrow that one could easily touch both walls at once.
“Where does this road lead?” Illiom asked.
“This will eventually reach the open fields and join up with Trade Road,” Tarmel said.
She gestured towards one of the alleys on their left.
“Would one of those be more interesting?”
“Undoubtedly, but it would also mean ploughing through one of the most unsavoury parts of the city. May I suggest that we wait until we reach Old Market Road? Not much further now.”
The Rider’s prediction came true soon enough and they turned into a negligibly wider road. Narrow, crowded, it travelled straight enough for a distance. Small, dark shops held their doors open to passing trade. Shop owners sat outside on rickety chairs amidst their wares, swatting at the flies that seemed to favour this side of town. The traffic was not just human either: dogs, goats, and even the occasional cow, added to the chaos. Their dung littered the street, claiming a great proportion of the party’s attention as they walked.
People stared at them with unabashed curiosity and made not the slightest attempt to disguise their interest in this strange party who intruded upon their world.
Everyone they passed seemed intent on some errand or other. There was a lot of pushing, shoving, and swearing.
Undina gawked at a scrawny man who carried a large wooden crate balanced precariously upon his head, a small round cushion the only barrier between the wood and his skull. Street urchins ran through the crowd attracting a volley of curses in their wake.
“Many people!” the tribal girl remarked.
“This is nothing,” laughed Angar. “You should try coming here on market day. This same journey would easily take us four times as long.”
“Remind me to choose a different route if we ever come here on market day,” Illiom commented.
The road eventually spilled them into the market place, a horseshoe-shaped clearing that seemed incredibly spacious after what they had just come through.
Ahead, Illiom saw something that immediately drew her attention: a young man was dancing through the crowd with his eyes closed, a beatific smile frozen on his face, lost in ecstatic rapture. She turned to watch. Many in the crowd slowed down, but all shied from his touch.
Illiom suddenly felt a hand descend gently upon her shoulder. She turned in surprise to see Tarmel.
“Do not go near him, Illiom.”
“He is lost to Moonwine,” Angar said and spat. The Rider scowled in disgust.
“He is as good as dead,” Tarmel added as he steered Illiom away from the entranced man. “He just does not know it.”
She could not shake the feeling of unease that the encounter had awakened. She caught a glance from Undina and saw some of her feelings mirrored in the tribal’s eyes.
The image of the man’s entranced expression haunted her as they made their way through the market space.
Beyond the square the road gave up and disintegrated into a warren of alleys. Here the Riders’ guidance seemed entirely random and they meandered almost haphazardly for a time until Tarmel pointed to a narrow passage on their right. They followed it as it tunnelled right into and through a crumbling brick building. On the other side it snaked around clusters of hovels.
Old men with dark, wrinkled faces watched their passing with narrowed eyes. One old crone gaped, her lips pulled back over a toothless grin. Others stood or sat in doorways, drinking from clay mugs or smoking long-stemmed pipes. Illiom caught glimpses of women looking down at them from behind window panes in tired resignation.
Thus they worked their way slowly but surely right through Squatters’ End until, as abruptly as it had begun, the narrow, crowded, and smelly alley they had jostled along spat them out onto the flawless pavers of King’s Parade.
Illiom felt as if she had just awakened from a disturbing dream.
She looked at her companions. Tarmel and Angar regarded their Chosen with eloquent “we tried to warn you” expressions.
Undina’s eyes were wide and still haunted by the experience.
“To be inside palace easier now will be,” she said, and burst into nervous laughter.
They stopped at a street vendor’s stall, drawn by the smell of frying pastries. Illiom sipped on sweet spiced tea after Tarmel insisted that she taste what he considered to be a real cup of tea.
They spent the rest of the afternoon quietly walking, talking, and laughing at the Riders’ antics. Their time was blissfully uneventful and devoid of the weight of secret happenings and ambiguous prophecies. Illiom and Undina, reluctant to hasten back to the palace, revelled in their momentary freedom.
When the shadows lengthened and Iod disappeared behind the rooftops, they ate at a stately tavern, a short distance into the Merchant Quarter.
Wine helped them to distance themselves from the events that had led them here, and masked the weight of the many unanswered questions that were piling up at the doors of their awareness.
It was completely dark when they slowly made their way back.
They parted with a promise to meet the next morning, and this time to go even farther afield. They planned to ride away from the city and to explore what else Varadon’s Keep might have on offer.