DOUBTS AND FEARS
They remained in the palace all the next day.
Although the idea of losing herself in the bustle of the fair was appealing, Illiom could not bring herself to repeat yesterday’s ordeal. She was aware of an undercurrent of restlessness that hammered at her, demanding her attention.
“You are fretting about tonight,” Tarmel commented after breakfast.
He was right. The forthcoming meeting with the Triune was weighing heavily upon her.
During breakfast, Argolan had briefed them on some matters of protocol. The issue of leadership raised its head again when she explained that the Triune would expect them to elect a representative to speak for the entire group. Scald offered his services, but his suggestion was met with either silence or groans of protest. His enthusiasm dampened, he fell into a sulk, contributing little to the dialogue for the rest of the meal.
Though Argolan’s brief was informative, she confessed that she had only ever attended the one Triune, where Wardlord Kallein and Menphan Tarn had officially endorsed her status as a Shieldarm. Even then, her role had been a largely passive one, punctuated by heavily rehearsed responses to ritual questions regarding fealty to liege and realm.
She attempted to provide them with as much information as she could on who she thought might attend this particular Triune and what might happen, but all too soon Illiom felt overwhelmed.
She was unable to absorb all the names of those who would be present, let alone recall the questions that might be asked and the answers that protocol demanded. Far easier, it seemed to her, to simply resort to candour and acknowledge ignorance.
Yet a feeling of dread crept over her, regardless of how many times she reassured herself that all would be well.
They adjourned to the Lesser Hall after breakfast.
The discussion continued with the matter of electing a representative to address the Triune, and here they came to their first major rift. Azulya, Undina, Sereth, and Illiom were opposed to the idea; Scald, Malco, and Elan were in favour.
Scald shook his head at the outcome.
“So here we are: if we decide to go with the notion of majority-rule, you have already won and this discussion could be laid to rest. On the other hand, if we choose consensus we will probably spend the rest of the day trying to convince each other - with no guarantee of success, I might add - to subscribe to one particular viewpoint.”
He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.
“Obviously we will first have to decide how we reach decisions from now on.”
Everyone agreed and the ensuing discussion took up most of the morning.
By the time they had reached their first consensus their stomachs were rumbling again.
Decisions would be made according to their urgency. If an issue was not urgent, consensus would be sought. If pressing, a majority vote would stand. If the matter was one of safety, then they would defer to Argolan for direction.
They finished lunch and reached their second consensus; they would all benefit from a rest before the Triune rather than waste the afternoon discussing the nomination of a representative. They had taken a vote on this and respected the decision of the majority: that they would not elect a representative to speak on their behalf at the Triune, they would meet with the Lords as a united group, as the Chosen.
Having decided thus, they retired to their respective rooms.
Illiom dozed fitfully through the afternoon, unable to find rest. She was relieved when the call finally came for the Chosen and their Riders to make their way to the Delve.
As they walked the length of a long, brightly lit corridor, the sounds of merriment that rose up from the square outside seemed incongruous.
Illiom caught sight of the setting sun as she passed a row of windows. To her frayed senses it looked like a scene of slaughter and the clouds on the distant horizon seemed to be sodden with blood.
Illiom’s throat was dry. She tried to swallow but tasted only the acrid tang of bile.
They finally arrived at a crowded vestibule. Blades milled about everywhere, a handful of them guarding a set of heavy timber doors, and all who would enter the hall were made to surrender their weapons here.
Illiom had assumed that Tarmel had been unarmed since their arrival at the palace. But, from the folds of his shirt, he produced no less than three throwing blades, and a slender dagger which was hidden in his boot.
Even then, the entrance remained barred to them.
“You will be summoned when the Triune is ready to receive you,” a Blade at the door informed them.
The wait did nothing to soothe Illiom; she paced the length and breadth of the vestibule.
“You are like a caged mountain cat!” commented Azulya.
“I do feel trapped.”
Illiom yearned to say more, to mention the fear and doubt that gnawed at her gut, but she could not. The fear of appearing weak prevented her.
Azulya looked at her with her startling eyes and, despite the Kroeni’s alien appearance, Illiom felt compassion wash over her in warm, tangible waves.
Azulya leaned close and spoke in a half-whisper.
“Sometimes the most terrifying things are the ones that offer us the most exhilarating possibilities of redemption.”
Illiom glanced at her sharply.
“Redemption? What do you mean? Redemption from what?”
Azulya’s eyebrows shot up.
“We are all of us after some sort of redemption, are we not?”
She smiled sadly and left Illiom with the echo of her words.
The wait stretched interminably.
Illiom spent her time alternately worrying about what was forthcoming and brooding over Azulya’s words, which had both reassured and irked her. She was not sure that she understood their meaning, but felt that Azulya had dislodged an old discomfort and stirred forgotten feelings into unpleasant wakefulness.
Or perhaps the Kroeni had done no such thing; perhaps it was this Triune that had stirred things up.
She cast her mind back across the past, as she had done a thousand times before in the solitude of the mountains. She found the usual fare, mostly failure, recurring in different guises. Failure to make the monks of Iod keep her in their midst, to fit in at Gallid, to walk the path as a novice of Sudra to its completion, and finally, failure even as a hermit. Was this a new failure that was looming now? What were they going to ask of her? What did she have to offer?
With a sudden pang, Illiom remembered another failing - her poor owl.
Where are you?
I miss you so much...
Amidst so many souls and so much activity, she felt completely alone.
Distressing thoughts agitated her mind, all of them laced with the bitter taste of stale fear.
She had always failed, she was now convinced of that. She had probably even failed to make her parents love her. Why else would they abandon her, leaving her to die on that mountain pass where Grael Munn had found her by no more than sheer, miraculous coincidence?
The monk’s words now returned to haunt her.
There are forces at work around you Illiom, my dear child. My finding you was no accident, no coincidence. The hands of the gods played a larger part in that event than you may imagine.
But he had been wrong. There were no divine hands cradling her now.
All her new-found confidence, all the self-assurance she had felt since leaving her hermitage and coming to this palace, was now dissolving as she revisited the sad truth of her life.
“Illiom, Tarmel, come. We are summoned.”
Argolan’s voice pulled her out of her reverie.
At once grateful for the reprieve from her self-castigation, and dreading the unknown that loomed beyond those solid doors, she fell in with the others and stepped across the threshold.