Illiom returned to her room for an hour’s rest, yet even with the windows closed, sleep was made impossible by the noise of hammers and saws adding final touches to the pavilions in the square below.
How she missed the silence of the mountains. She longed for the murmuring wind and the quiet, still blanket of snow that had muffled even the most violent of storms outside her shelter.
She was dozing fitfully when there was a knock and the door was pushed open a little way.
“Illiom, the sixth hour is upon us,” Tarmel said.
She splashed her face and changed into fresh clothes before they made their way to meet the others.
The square was transformed into a festive village. The wooden stalls and shops that lined its orderly streets were interspersed with tents, pavilions and animal pens. Copses of trees were adorned with countless paper lanterns that glowed warm in the light of dusk.
The earlier bedlam of preparation was now replaced by the hum of voices of the human tide that poured into the square to wash up against the barriers set up by the Ward.
Scores of Blades formed a semicircle at the base of the staircase, separating the common folk from the group of nobles, Chosen and their Riders who were already assembled there. Illiom felt odd rubbing shoulders with nobles and officials; she would have been more comfortable across the barrier, with the people of Kuon.
Between them and the Blades, three great pyres of timber stood, each twice the height of a man. Illiom doubted that even ten men with arms outstretched could encircle each.
The sun-god, Iod, was setting beyond the western peaks of the Keep. His brightness washed across the horizon, rimming it with bloodied gold.
On the eastern horizon another light shone, surrounded by a silver nimbus. The bright orb of Sudra was rising to behold her companion, descending opposite her.
The Harvest Moon had risen.
The high vantage of Varadon’s Keep, and the lay of the city and its buildings, made it possible to see both at once as the gods shone their blessing upon Albradan.
Trumpets blared over the heads of tens of thousands of inhabitants and visitors alike. Anticipation built up like the tension that precedes a thunderstorm.
The crowd suddenly surged forward with a roar, pressing against the Blades who contained them, as a noble assembly emerged from the Palace entrance to stand on the landing at the top of the stairs. Queen Eranel, the focus of the crowd’s elation, stood there, flanked by her entourage.
Rose petals were showered down from the balconies overlooking the entrance, as the one impersonating the Queen smiled and waved to her subjects. Borne on the breeze, the fragrant petals drifted softly down to settle like red snow upon the pavement and the stairway’s marble steps.
Simultaneously, from other balconies, hundreds of white doves were released into the darkening sky.
The crowd pressed against the Blades, who were unyielding.
The Queen’s double now descended the stairway. She accepted a flaming brand offered to her and cast it into the heart of the central pyre.
A dozen pages ran up to light their torches from the newborn flames, then raced on to light the two remaining bonfires, as well as other smaller pyres hidden in the shadows.
In this way, two arms of fire spread outwards from the palace to embrace the entire square in living flame.
A troupe of acrobats entertained the crowd, twirling long slender poles with flaming ends in a dizzying display of skill, speed and grace.
Sparks streamed high into the twilit sky, dancing like frenzied spirits over the festive square, until Iod set and the large orb of Sudra hung unchallenged in the east.
Queen Eranel’s double had vanished, and those who had accompanied her descended to join the Chosen and the rest of the nobles.
Servants appeared amongst them bearing trays of food and drink and soon Illiom held a slender crystal goblet that caught the blaze of the fires in its rich red liquid. She sipped it and the delicious taste of spiced apples, cloves and honey flowered in her mouth.
So began the Fair of the Harvest Moon.
Despite her tiredness, the celebration captivated Illiom. She moved through the crowd as in a dream. Only occasionally was she aware that Tarmel discreetly shadowed her every move, his eyes vigilantly scrutinising the faces around them.
Illiom lost track of time. She felt seduced and intoxicated. When her glass became empty it was instantly refilled.
A boldness claimed her, replacing her previous feelings of exhaustion and discomfort. The honeyed drink in her hand had fuelled a recklessness in her and she found herself trying to shake off her Rider and claim some time alone. On one occasion, she thought she had succeeded, only to find him still present, directly behind her.
“Are you enjoying this?”
Illiom turned and found herself under the intense scrutiny of the Kroeni woman.
“You do not seem very comfortable with crowds,” Azulya said.
It was not a question and there was no request for confirmation.
“You are right, I am uncomfortable. Too many years alone, I suppose.”
“What about you? Are you at ease with all of this? After all you have been in the mountains far longer than I. You have also mingled with a very different kind of people.”
“I had my fair share of civilised living before the mountains, Illiom. Here in Kuon, as a matter of fact.”
Illiom’s confused frown must have been eloquent enough, for she elaborated.
“I was thirteen when I fled from my father’s home in Lodeh. I disguised myself as a boy and worked as a cook’s assistant on a trading caravan. Eventually I made my way here and found employment within the Ufel, the Merchant Guild. During the ten years that I lived and worked here I became - how can I put it – heavily embroiled in Kuon’s social life.”
“You are from Lodeh? That is the city in the Prince’s shield. How did you feel when you saw it there?”
Azulya’s eyes narrowed. Illiom could not read her expression. Did she take insult at the question?
“How should I feel? I loathed Lodeh. My memories of the place are steeped in cold, violent brutality. If the earth opened and swallowed it, I would not shed a tear.”
“Your childhood must have been difficult.”
Azulya smiled tightly.
“Thank you for your concern, but maybe we should not venture into that. The past is the past and I prefer not to bestir what has long lain buried. Suffice it to say that I am familiar with Lodeh and it would not surprise me in the least to discover that it was somehow involved in the dark tidings that...”
A flash of brilliant light, followed by a loud retort, claimed their attention. Overhead, a thousand embers descended from the sky.
Illiom cried out and instinctively cowered.
Tarmel’s hands were suddenly on her shoulders, bracing her.
“Nothing to fear, Illiom,” he said. “It is only fireworks.”
The embers dissolved harmlessly in the air as new displays rose on pillars of smoke to erupt in brilliant arrangements over the city. Illiom’s attention was distracted by the pressure of the hands that now held her.
When their grip was finally released, she regretted their loss.
Around them, thousands of people stood with their faces raised to the display of lights.
A sense of unity and connection washed over Illiom. Why had she spent all that time in solitude? All those years of avoiding contact with her fellow humans.
For a moment she could only sense what she had missed. But what followed unexpectedly was gratitude; for being back in the world, for having been plucked from the brink of the wretched fate of her own creation.
Her eyes filled with tears and she was glad for the bright distraction that commanded the attention of her companions.
The roar and surge of the crowd made it impossible to talk.
She caught Azulya’s resigned grin. Her mouth silently voiced the word ‘later’ and the Kroeni was gone.
The celebrations continued but soon dispersed into a variety of smaller performances. Jugglers sent torches spinning into the night. Musicians enticed people into dancing and the evening took on a festive atmosphere, the likes of which Illiom had never experienced before.
She shook her head as a servant attempted to refill her goblet.
The rest of their party headed for the newly opened streets of the fair. Illiom and Tarmel joined them and together they ambled through the crowd.
Jesters, clowns, singers and acrobats all vied for attention and, like bees in a field of countless flowers, the group wandered from one to the next.
It was well past the midnight hour when they ventured back to the palace, bade each other good night and retreated to their respective rooms.
The next morning, Illiom and Tarmel arrived in the great hall before anyone else. Relieved to have a little respite from the constant stream of interactions, Illiom eased into her seat and waited for her breakfast.
Her solitude did not last. Even before the food arrived, a large, raucous group of young nobles entered and planted themselves far closer than she liked. Their excitement and loud laughter echoed through the empty hall.
Tarmel smiled in sympathy as she cringed.
“Not the best welcome after a late night. Perhaps we should have asked for food to be sent up.”
Illiom shrugged, rubbing at her temples.
A sudden hush had come over the revellers and Illiom looked up to see that their attention was riveted upon Azulya as the Kroeni and Argolan headed towards them.
Azulya wore a tribal shift dyed bright red, golden yellow and turquoise. Impossible to disguise her obvious differences, the Kroeni chose to highlight them instead. She was a strong, bold woman and Illiom struggled a little between admiration and envy.
“Recovered from last night?” Azulya asked with a smile, her eyebrows arched in question.
Illiom wondered if there was anything that ever got past those unsettling eyes.
“I ... that sweet wine was very strong,” she stammered. “I did have only two glasses.”
Tarmel grinned at her.
“Honeyed wine can be like that. I abstained. If I had not, you might have succeeded in losing me.”
Illiom felt the heat rise in her face. She had not realised that he had noted her foolishness.
“So, tomorrow we come before the Triune,” Azulya said. “How do you feel about it?”
Illiom leaned back as a server placed a platter before her.
“More than a little nervous,” she admitted. “I have no idea what they will expect from us...”
She left the sentence unfinished.
“If this is anything like the Kuon I knew,” Azulya commented, “there will be many agendas regarding us; few will have anything to do with either Her Majesty, Prince Vardail, or the Seeking Stones and the prophecy. I assure you that we are already being weighed for our value as pawns in the private power plays of people we have not yet met.”
Argolan looked up in sudden interest.
“Undoubtedly you are correct, but I am surprised that you think in this way and ... that you speak so openly. What about the Black Ward? If what you say is true, are we not also pawns and earpieces of the power players?”
Azulya laughed, a sound like frozen flowers tinkling in the icy northern winds.
“You are the Black Ward! Your agenda is legendary: to protect and to serve the Queen and palace, the capital and Varadon’s Keep, in that order.”
Azulya’s voice had taken on a singsong quality, as if she was reciting a nursery rhyme.
“Of all in the palace, you are the most candid,” she continued, “which is why you are trustworthy. Your aims and objectives are no mystery and are no threat. The Ward is renowned for its incorruptibility.”
Argolan nodded pensively.
“I hope you are right,” she replied, and Illiom could not tell if her response was guarded, ominous, or both.
Azulya pressed on.
“Of course, here in Kuon, the court is not as overtly contemptible as it is in Lodeh. Nevertheless, it is the nature of courts anywhere to fester with subterfuges. Whether these are shamelessly apparent, or veiled behind the powdered faces of nobles, this remains a reality.”
Illiom looked up, puzzled by the assuredness of her words.
“You have lived for twenty years among the Roonhian’ka; how can you make an assertion like that after all this time?”
The Kroeni smiled.
“Dear Illiom, change comes slowly to people’s minds and hearts, but nowhere as slowly as in the courts of power. Ambition ensures it is so.”
Illiom followed the thread of her thinking and asked the question it led to.
“And you did not find this to be so amongst the Roonhian’ka? What of their leaders and their councils?”
Azulya’s reply came without hesitation.
“There is nowhere to hide within the tribal ‘court’. Everyone knows everyone. If you have a flaw everyone knows it. If you have a hunger it does not remain secret for long. You see, the main difference between the two is that the tribe is like a wolf pack. It is a tightly-knit family. Whereas in the royal courts of Theregon the lords and ladies are strangers to each other who act as if they are family, but they are not, nor will they ever be. To be fair, the Roonhian’ka are blessed with the council of grandmothers who monitor all the leaders’ decisions. They are old women who have seen enough of life to see through most subterfuges and agendas. Even the strongest and bravest of the leaders and warriors quail before the judgement of the grandmothers, for no one wishes to be exposed before their own family. They learn early to harbour nothing that can be exposed; it is the only guarantee of safety from the scrutiny of the elder women.”
She laughed, revelling in the recollection of her adopted people.
“Azulya does not sound like a Kroeni name to me,” Tarmel commented unexpectedly.
She turned to him.
“It is not. It is my given name, given when I was taken in and adopted by the Roonhian’ka. It means ‘blue face’.”
They were still chuckling when Undina and Malco and their Riders joined them.
Moments later Elan and Mist appeared, accompanied by two strangers. Illiom watched their approach with curiosity.
The sixth Chosen wore an unseasonal cowl that shadowed most of his face. He walked with a marked limp that favoured his left leg. The Rider with him, however, stole Illiom’s attention. Her skin was a pale alabaster, tinged with a faintest blush of rose. The delicate blue lines of her veins showed on her bare arms as if they had been subtly tattooed onto her skin. The Rider’s nose and lips might have been shaped from fine porcelain. Her hair was snow-white, her eyes aquamarine. She was breathtakingly beautiful and the most ethereal woman Illiom had ever seen.
When the pair reached the table, it was she who spoke first.
“I am Wind. This is Scald,” she said in a no-nonsense tone that seemed at odds with her appearance. “We arrived late, but we are here at last.”
Illiom hardly listened to the introductions that followed, so captivated was she by Wind’s appearance.
Mist, coming around to sit beside Tarmel, slapped Illiom’s Rider companionably between the shoulder blades. Azulya stood and embraced Undina warmly.
Scald and Wind seated themselves across the table. Trays of food were passed around. The newcomers filled their plates with food and their goblets with sweet cider.
Illiom could barely see Scald’s face. She caught a glimpse of grey eyes, a strong, slightly hooked nose, and thin red lips.
Azulya addressed the sixth Chosen.
“Welcome to Kuon, Scald; I hope that you are rested after your journey?”
He replied with a bow and a subtle lowering of his eyelids.
“Indeed, my lady. It has been a challenging few days, but I feel that I have succeeded in discharging most of my obligations honourably enough, for the now. That is why it took us so long to get here.”
“Where do you live?” Illiom asked.
“Oh, it is not so much a case of where I live – for I live where my trade takes me – which is often the length and breadth of southern Theregon: Evárudas, Iol, and of course Albradan. However, I was in Healung Harbour when this remarkable creature walked into my life...”
He looked at Wind as if she was an ornament he was fond of displaying. There was annoyance and resignation in the beautiful Rider’s sigh; clearly it was not the first time that Scald had drawn attention to Wind’s appearance.
“What is your trade?” Illiom asked.
“I am an artist: a sculptor and a painter sanctioned, of course, by the Aer Guild. My commissions regrettably cause me to live a nomadic lifestyle. I find that the older I get the more luxury I require to offset the hardships of being a constant traveller. The things we do in pursuit of our calling...”
He raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and sighed.
Illiom found herself frowning, quite unable to tell whether the man was jesting or displaying affectation.
When he turned his attention back to Illiom he seemed irritated.
“And what, may I ask, is your trade?”
She stared at him. Though his words were mild enough, there was something in the emphasis he placed on the word ‘your’. She looked at him, unsmiling, and shook her head.
“I have no trade. I just breathe in and I breathe out,” she snapped, and cringed at her reaction to this stranger.
It so happened that in that moment the table fell silent and her words resounded, antagonistic and jarring, even to her own ears. However, having started, she felt that she could not change course.
“The gods seem to endorse me by allowing me to live. But I am certain that none of your guilds would be interested in sanctioning me.”
Scald studied her for a few moments, biting at his lower lip. He lifted the cowl away from his face and let it fall upon his shoulders.
Illiom was certain that this gesture had been timely executed. There was certainly much more to it than the simple physical act.
The entire left side of the man’s head was scarred with burns; even the ear looked fused to the side of his head. Scald was completely bald. Whether because his burns were so severe that no hair could grow there, or whether he meant to emphasise his injuries by exposing them completely, Illiom could not tell.
What she was sure of, however, was that he was marshalling sympathy, and without saying a word, had managed to make her appear as taking advantage of someone less fortunate than herself.
Yet she found it impossible to apologise.
A smile crept across Scald’s lips, though his eyes remained cold.
“So, like me, you are also a survivor!? I think you are too modest. I am sure that you have many skills that allow you to survive admirably.”
His gaze flitted briefly down to Illiom’s breasts.
Just as quickly he raised his eyes to hers, his lips twisted in a satisfied smirk as he feasted on her reaction.
Having ascertained that his jab had hit its mark, he languidly turned his attention elsewhere.
Illiom felt a flush rise in her cheeks as she struggled to contain a sudden rage.
How dare he?
She felt her fire start to gather inside her, preparing to erupt. She forced herself to close her eyes, to steady her breath and bring herself under control.
She was stunned by the way Scald had managed to bring her blood to the boil so quickly. Without saying anything to insult or demean her, he had left her feeling exactly that. However, deep inside, Illiom’s true shame and embarrassment was at her own childish reaction to the man’s affectation. What had possessed her?
Conversation around the table had resumed and everyone’s attention had moved on. Only Azulya, even whilst listening to Undina, flashed Illiom a look. The Kroeni, at least, had noticed something.
After breakfast, Argolan got to her feet and summoned their attention.
“Most of you have expressed a desire to attend today’s fair but, as you know, we are still waiting for one more Chosen to join us. So, Riders, listen well.
“Keep an eye on the College Tower. If Pell returns, the banner of the Black will be unfurled there and that will be your signal to head back to the palace immediately. Aside from that, the day is yours to enjoy.”