Illiom, Daughter of Prophecy (2nd Ed)

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Chapter XXI

THE DELVE

She had anticipated grandeur and opulence; she found instead a cavernous vastness.

Immediately beyond the entrance, a staircase descended steeply towards a dais whose floor seemed at least four levels lower. Flaming vats were arranged symmetrically around it to illumine its perimeter. High up, set into the ceiling directly overhead, a magnificent dome of stained glass captured the rays of the dying sun-god through a blood-drenched representation of Albradan’s royal seal, setting the entire Delve ablaze with scarlet and indigo hues. Three other flights of stairs - identical to the one she was descending - climbed from the dais towards other entrances spaced evenly around the enormous hall. Between the stairs lay tier upon curved tier of stone seats, waiting to be filled.

Those who built this hall had clearly designed it to accommodate several thousand souls; yet now, less than a hundred sat clustered around the central platform, dwarfed by the height and breadth of the space around them.

A tall, lanky man of aging years, with a sallow face, and wearing a golden skullcap, greeted them as they reached the bottom of the stairs.

“Welcome, Chosen,” he intoned in a pleasant voice. “I am Teidus, ceremonial master of this Triune. Please follow steward Opprala; she will guide you to your seats.”

He beckoned towards a strong-looking woman in her late twenties, who now hurried over to them.

Scores of elegant seats were clustered around the dais. One, a magnificent throne of carved marble, dominated all the others, in position as well as elevation. Opprala escorted them to a row of seven chairs made of dark wood and padded with crimson velvet. The chairs, the only ones to be arranged on the dais itself, faced the rest of the assembly so that their occupants could be easily viewed by all those gathered there. Argolan and the Riders were ushered to the first tier of seats, directly behind the Chosen.

Once they were seated, the steward left and a grim-faced older woman with raven-black hair approached them.

“I am Elisiel,” she announced with a tight smile. “I am here to attend to you and guide you in matters of protocol, should there be a need.”

She positioned herself behind them.

Illiom scanned the rows of Lords and Ladies seated before them.

She immediately recognised the old Lord, Metmus. He sat in the second tier on a seat adjacent to one of the flights of stairs. Illiom, remembering the Lord’s aversion to walking, wondered briefly how he had managed the long descent. Then she noticed the empty portable chair nearby.

A few tiers further up sat the brooding Wardmaster of the Black, Menphan Tarn, his chin resting upon the back of his clasped hands.

“Are we ready to begin, Teidus?”

A man in a heavily decorated uniform had voiced the question.

Illiom did not remember his name but recognised him as the man whose presence had so disturbed her in Menphan Tarn’s office upon her arrival in Kuon.

He sat carelessly now, elbow resting upon his armrest, his hand curled over his mouth.

“We are, my Lord,” confirmed Master Teidus without a glance in his direction.

“The one who just addressed the Master is Lord Crelor, Queen Eranel’s brother,” Elisiel informed them softly from behind, her voice pitched so that only the Chosen could hear her words. “He is one of the twelve Wardmasters of the Golden Ward.”

Three others seated nearby, two men and a woman, wore uniforms identical to his.

“Are the doors sealed?” asked Teidus in a loud voice.

“They are, my Lord,” answered a voice from the top of the stairs.

The Master held out a hand into which an attendant promptly placed a ceremonial staff. This stood taller than the Master himself and was crafted from dark wood with metal ends that gleamed golden in the fire-light.

“Then I convene this Vatic Meet of the Triune and declare all proceedings open,” he announced. He struck the staff heavily against the stone floor three times. The noise resounded like thunder through the Delve.

“My Lord Chancellor, Lords and Ladies of the Triune, scholars, guild masters, esteemed guests, I welcome you to this gathering, one and all.”

His address was directed to the entire assembly. He turned towards the dais.

“In particular I welcome the seven Chosen of Prophecy.”

His words echoed through the chamber.

“On behalf of Her Majesty, I thank you for answering her summons. The purpose of this Triune relates primarily to your persons and to the events intertwined with the said prophecy. Our intent is to ensure that you, the Chosen, are fully informed as to what our Queen and her domain face, and to allow the members of this Triune a chance to meet and question you to their satisfaction.”

Illiom studied the faces turned towards them, trying to divine their disposition.

“My Lord Chancellor, I present you the Chosen of Prophecy and Mystery.”

The Master proceeded then to name them, one by one, and to describe where each had been found.

A tall, austere-looking man in a grey robe stood in response to the Master’s words.

“The Lord Chancellor Vell, Keeper of the Queen’s Royal Seals,” the voice informed them from behind.

The Chancellor’s solemn face was framed by hair so black that Illiom wondered if he used a dye to darken it. He was clearly a man past his prime and yet there was about him a sense of limitless energy, a vitality that belied his years.

An attendant brought him the staff.

“Thank you, Master Teidus,” said Chancellor Vell, taking the staff into his hands.

“As Chancellor of this Triune, I also extend my welcome to you. I regret if your wait today has been excessive. We have endeavoured to dispense with all issues not requiring your presence, before inviting you into the Delve. This consideration should at least spare you from a needlessly tedious session.”

The Chancellor’s smile flickered briefly in their direction. His next words, however, followed with unhesitant directness.

“Your prophesied role and the means of your summoning are far beyond our comprehension and have been the cause of much speculation and concern. You come from different locations. Your backgrounds are as dissimilar as can be imagined. I am amazed by the diversity that you represent, and in fact it is easier to mark the differences between you than any similarities.”

He paused, allowing the silence to mount before continuing.

“What do you share in common?”

Once again, he allowed the question to hang before answering it.

“As far as I can see, only this: a prophecy and seven crystal shards. Or, as the prophecy would have it, seven Seeking Stones. Seven objects imbued with a power that has drawn you from your separate and seemingly unconnected existences to gather here, in Kuon, in answer to Her Majesty’s need. Seven stones that have marked you all as Chosen.”

He took a few steps towards them.

“But the question still remains ... who are you?”

The Chancellor enunciated his words carefully, allowing the question to hover until its last echoes faded into the gloom that reached deep into the Delve’s shadowed perimeter.

“You are mystery.”

His voice was as soft as a whisper yet it carried like a shout.

“A prophecy written in the Tongue of the Lost, a dead language that - according to myth - is capable of uttering no lie, has predicted your arrival amidst a spate of crises, the likes of which this realm has not witnessed in more than one thousand years, not since before the inception of the Common Weal.

“This prophecy predicts your role as being the one hope for the realm. Yet where does the prophecy itself come from? Who wrote it? What did they know? What did they intend to warn us about? Were it not written in Truespeech, it would bear very little weight. As it is, however, we cannot ignore it, even though it raises many more questions than it answers.”

He turned to face the Triune.

“To complicate things further, everything about the prophecy, and about this summons, is laced with the markings of power and with - dare I mention the word even here - magic. The method of the prophecy’s delivery to us through Princess Celest, the chest’s refusal to open until touched by Her Majesty’s hand, the Seeking Stones that led us to you by means no one in this hall understands; all these things are far beyond our understanding. And all of this is happening in a land whose population has shunned the arcane for millennia.”

He paused, walking slowly towards the Chosen.

“What do we know for certain?”

His appeal was rhetorical, for in the next breath he proceeded to address it.

“We know that our beloved Queen Eranel is dying. We know that it is no common illness that afflicts her. We know that her son, and only heir, has vanished. We know that these and other portents mentioned in the prophecy have already come to pass.”

His footfalls resounded in the silence that ensued.

“As this Triune pondered upon the web of mystery that surrounds the prophecy, your summons, and all these recent events, something else became clear.”

He stepped onto the dais and began pacing its perimeter in measured steps.

“We have a crisis, we have a prophecy that speaks vaguely of its unfolding, and now we have you, the Chosen. Yet in all of this, one thing is glaringly missing.”

Chancellor Vell stopped in the very centre of the dais and with a long, sweeping glance, seemed to appeal to everyone in the Delve.

He opened one hand in a gesture that seemed to invite transparency.

“We have no opponent. There is no enemy. No one has been named or revealed as the perpetrator of our misfortunes. Without an enemy, how can we protect ourselves? Who do we seek to answer for Her Majesty’s condition? Who do we blame for the scourge of Moonwine or for the blood so recently spilled, here, in Kuon?”

His look was haunted, his tone almost pleading.

“Let us re-examine the prophecy itself. Mistress Sethesta, would you kindly refresh our memory by reciting your translation. Would you also explain to us those elements that are now more clearly understood.”

At the Chancellor’s invitation a woman seated in the third tier stood. Like several others around her, she wore a purple head wrap and a robe of deep indigo. Her advanced years showed in the lines of her face and in her slightly stooped posture.

“Mistress Sethesta, scholar from Kuon’s Royal College,” Elisiel’s voice informed them.

Sethesta waited for the staff to be delivered to her.

Once she held it she cleared her throat and, without referring to any written text, intoned in a surprisingly clear and melodious voice:

“Ere the covenant has endured but a thousand year

And all memory of destruction has faded to nought

From lands forbidden a fell hand shall near

And poison weak minds with deceptive thought.”

The scholar scanned her audience.

“By ‘covenant’ the prophecy undoubtedly refers to the forging of the Common Weal which, in just two years from now, will be one thousand years old. The ‘memory of destruction’ probably refers to the cataclysm of the Great Devastation. The last two lines are not as yet understood, although in Iol the lands of their western desert are often referred to as ‘forbidden lands’.”

Sethesta continued with the next verse.

“The high one shall wane then, without reason or grace

And her fruit vanish, like a thief in the night

As fell deeds befall the realm’s high place

And rumours of ill fires sow confusion and fright.”

“It is clear to all that the first two lines refer to both the Queen’s illness and the Prince’s disappearance. The ‘fell deeds’ might be the recent spate of murders and maybe even the proliferation of Moonwine here in Varadon’s Keep, the ‘realm’s high place’. All of these are events that have unfolded since the chest came into the possession of the palace. We also understand that the last line speaks of the mysterious fires reported to be burning in the Upper Mendrond region, near the border with Kroen.”

At this, Illiom glanced around at the others but saw only the same confusion mirrored in their faces. Sethesta pressed on.

“Nigh the doom of the land shall grow

When rekindled shall be the Illstar’s glow

Dread venom shall seep into Nostum Wood

Till charred stumps rise where proud trees stood.”

The scholar cleared her throat again.

“Of this stanza only the second line is clearly understood. However, I must elaborate and explain something here. The Illstar is one of the names for the red star of Irrsche, the Goddess of Dark. Her light has been waxing steadily for a number of years now, as everyone must surely know.”

Illiom, remembering the red star burning bright in the southern skies, shuddered at this revelation.

Sethesta looked down at her hands.

“Our astrolomers tell us that a very interesting event is due to culminate at the turn of the first millennium of Theregon, at the end of next year. They claim that Krodh, the Dark Moon, will come into a rare alignment with both Iod and Sudra. For a span lasting about one hour the Dark Moon will eclipse both the sun and the moon, and the world will be pitched in darkness. During this time the brightest light in the sky will be that of Irrsche.”

A murmur arose then and Sethesta waited until it subsided before continuing.

“This is one of the direst predictions in astrolomy. For this kind of configuration, this double eclipse coinciding with the Red Star’s closest passing, is said to happen exactly once every 2012 years. The last time it occurred seems to coincide with another significant event in our history, the Great Devastation.”

There was an eruption of of arguments, accusations, and even derision. Illiom felt one thing underlying all the commotion - fear – the same fear she now felt rising within her.

The cacophony finally died down and Sethesta continued.

“The rest has not yet happened, but is clearly a prediction concerning an assault on, and even the possible destruction of, Nostum Wood, near Uma’s Lake. The next three stanzas begin by revealing the purpose of the Seeking Stones and the finding of the Chosen. I will recite them in succession since their meaning is still open to speculation; nothing firm can be stated about them as yet.”

Sethesta straightened her posture and began.

“Be aware when the Seeking Stones glow and burn bright

For they lead to the Chosen, out from shadow into light

To ancient riddles unravel, to find the icon of grace

To turn at last and meet with corruption, face to face

Seven the stones to find the true souls

Seven the souls to unlock the sealed doors

Seven the doors to free the lost Lords

Seven the Lords to face the dark foes

Yet one alone the truth that may open the heart

And one only the power that can banish the dark

The seven turned one the hand must reach

The seven turned one the hand must teach.”

Chancellor Vell rose to his feet in the silence that followed Sethesta’s recitation.

He bowed deeply to the scholar who, after surrendering the staff, resumed her seat. Illiom saw her hand tremble as she reached to grip her armrest.

Chancellor Vell walked slowly down and onto the dais again.

He approached the Chosen until he stood directly before them.

“Seven the stones to find the true souls, seven the souls to unlock the sealed doors, seven the doors to free the lost Lords, seven the Lords to face the dark foes.”

Illiom was suddenly very conscious that the Chancellor had chosen to focus on the very same lines that Shrian Olum had confronted her with, in the College Grove. As he quoted the passage he walked slowly past, peering into each of their faces. His dark eyes bore into Illiom as though he might be able to extract an answer directly from her. The moment passed and he moved on.

“I shall be candid with you. I am at a loss as to how to proceed from here. There was some hope that once you came together and met, your role would become clearer and your proximity to each other might precipitate something – I know not what. But apparently this has not yet happened.”

He turned, took a few slow steps back towards Illiom.

“You are offered to us as tools of aid at a time of crisis and yet there is no indication as to how you can serve as such.”

The Chancellor stopped short before Azulya and looked into her eyes.

“And you, my dear, are the most striking part of this puzzle. Please, do not misunderstand me; it is not my wish to offend. I do not question your status as a Chosen. Yet I must confess that I cannot see why a woman from Kroen would be amongst those chosen to solve the problems of this land.”

He held Azulya’s eyes for a moment longer, and then included them all in his gaze.

“In fact, I do not really understand what any of you have been Chosen for.”

He was about to turn away, but Azulya stopped him by standing up.

“My Lord Chancellor,” she said. “I understand the predicament of this Triune. The incidents that have placed the security and stability of the realm in jeopardy demand address. You seek answers and solutions, as indeed you must.”

Azulya, standing, was actually taller than the Chancellor. She looked beyond him, including the whole of the Triune with her words.

“May I remind you that we, the so-called Chosen, have only come together for the first time late yesterday.”

She paused to let that fact sink in.

“Like everyone else present here, we too have been plunged into a situation not of our choosing. We have come to this Triune of our own free will to answer our Queen’s call. We have come blindly, with no clear explanation of the situation at hand or our role in it. We too cannot yet see how we can assist in unravelling the maze of riddles of which Lord Metmus has informed us. We need time ... to acquaint ourselves with one another and to determine what, if anything, we can do. So our first request of this Triune must be to ask for just that - time. Time to explore and to discover anything we may about each other, about what links us. We also need time to address each facet of this crisis.”

Chancellor Vell looked steadily at Azulya as she spoke and bowed fractionally when she had finished.

“I commend you on your insight and clarity, Chosen Azulya. I recognise the truth and correctness in what you say. You do need time.”

He turned to face the rest of the Delve.

“And yet time is the one luxury that eludes us all. Our task on this night is to decide how to proceed in this matter, even in the face of insufficient knowledge and insight. Surely we all understand that things must run their course and unfold in their own time, and so it will be with this prophecy as well. Nevertheless, it is the mandate of this Triune to foresee as best it can the pathways we must travel to resolve any crisis; to define to the best of our ability any ramifications and complications that might arise and, if at all possible, to circumvent them.”

The Chancellor moved away and Azulya sat down.

Illiom caught her eye in an attempt to convey her admiration. Azulya responded with a slight smile and took a deep breath before returning her attention to the retreating form of Lord Vell.

“Master Teidus, the floor is yours,” the Chancellor said, passing the staff back to the man and returning to his seat.

The Master stood and proclaimed, “Before we open the Triune to general questions, we will resume and complete this session’s agenda.”

He glanced at a scroll held open on the table beside him.

“Having dealt with all matters pertaining to the Public Purse and the Queen’s Treasury as presented by Lady Sennat and Lord Storth, with the reports from Wardlord Kallein, Lord Eongren and Lady Ember, we shall now deal with the issues remaining before us. The first of these is the matter of Prince Vardail’s disappearance. Wardmaster?”

Menphan Tarn covered the short distance between them and took the staff from the Master.

“We have made no progress in discovering what has happened to our Prince,” Menphan stated bluntly, eliciting a disappointed, critical murmur from the assembly. His next words were pitched louder to make himself heard over the rumblings.

“There have been some developments, however. We are still focussing our investigations on the span between the last sighting of the Prince and the discovery of his disappearance. To reiterate as briefly as possible, there are four watches posted every day at the Prince’s doors, each of four hours’ duration. We have interviewed all the Blades on watch for the three days before Vardail’s disappearance and have verified his movements with accuracy. In the end we singled out the last three watches – a span of twelve hours – for they are the only ones relevant to this investigation. I will now retrace, for everyone’s benefit, what has emerged, for more has transpired than was immediately apparent.”

Menphan Tarn scanned the assembly in a slow, deliberate movement.

“On the morning of the twenty-sixth day of Firemoon, Vardail arose and left his rooms by the fifth hour, as is customary on the days when he attends the college. That was one hour after the start of that day’s second watch. He returned briefly at the seventh hour but left soon after and was not seen again by the Blades on duty there. The third watch started at the eighth hour, at midday. Those Blades report that they did not see the Prince until his return from the college at the eleventh hour. He was accompanied by Merredin, one of the Prince’s closest friends. The Blades concur that neither had left the Prince’s rooms by the end of their watch. So now we come to the fourth watch, which commences at the twelfth hour.

“The Blades on that watch reported hearing heated discussion coming from Vardail’s chambers a short while after their arrival. Soon thereafter Merredin left the rooms, clearly distraught. The Blades then reported hearing the occasional muffled sounds of conversation issuing from the Prince’s doors. This indicated to them that the Prince was not alone. Eventually Vardail emerged briefly to request that food be sent up for himself and his friend, one whom he named Fallel. One of the guards left to comply and returned after a time with two servants bearing the meals.”

Menphan took a step forward.

“The servants entered the rooms, delivered the food, and then departed. It was close to the fourteenth hour, two hours before midnight, when the guards heard Vardail bid Fallel goodnight and instruct his friend to close the door behind him as he left. Fallel, a youth neither Blade had ever seen before, emerged and departed. All was quiet for the remainder of that watch and the next, the first watch of the twenty seventh day of Firemoon. It fell on the Blades of the second watch to raise the alarm when the Prince failed to emerge after the fifth hour had passed. So, at some time between Fallel leaving and the fifth hour the next morning, Prince Vardail vanished from his room, from the palace and, as far as we can tell, from Kuon itself.”

Angry, concerned voices arose around the Wardmaster.

Menphan raised his hand for silence and hammered the staff down onto the stone floor.

“I am not finished,” he said, glaring at the assembly.

“Before you launch into your inevitable questions, allow me to summarise. The main mystery revolves around the Prince’s visitor, this mysterious Fallel. I have personally questioned Merredin and others and they state that they have never heard of anyone by that name. Furthermore, Merredin is quite adamant that he was alone with the Prince at all times. The servants who bore the food after Merredin’s departure, however, report that upon entering the Prince’s rooms they saw only a youth who told them that the Prince was in the privy, and directed them where to leave the trays of food. Their description of this youth matches that of the guards’. Prince Vardail was last seen in public at the college in the afternoon, sometime after the tenth hour. So, as far as I can tell, someone, perhaps several people involved in this affair, must be lying; but so far we have been unsuccessful in extracting any information from anyone, let alone a confession.”

Menphan Tarn scowled at his audience.

“All the Blades, the servants who delivered the food, and Vardail’s friend, Merredin, are being held until the matter is resolved. If one or more of them is lying, we have not yet been able to discern who. The youth Fallel, however, continues to elude us; in fact no one even knows of anyone by that name.”

He looked around at the faces turned towards him.

“That is all,” he concluded. “You may ask your questions now.”

A barrage of them followed.

Could this Fallel be one of the men recently found murdered? What was the Prince wearing when he was last seen? Had any progress been made in determining what the Iolan scrying shield was doing in Vardail’s quarters?

Menphan Tarn addressed their queries with barely concealed impatience. Illiom had the impression that the Wardmaster had been asked the same questions several times before.

“I have a question,” Scald declared, leaning towards Elisiel.

She gestured for him to wait, then spoke up when the first lull in the Triune made it possible.

“Chosen Scald wishes to speak,” she announced.

“Speak freely,” she added, after a nod from master Teidus.

“Wardmaster, am I correct in concluding that this lad, Fallel, was never seen stepping into the Prince’s rooms?”

“That is as the Blades have reported.”

Scald nodded.

“And that the Prince was not seen leaving his rooms after he ordered the food?”

Menphan Tarn frowned at Scald.

“That is the way of it.”

A smirk crept onto Scald’s lips.

“Or to put it another way, aside from Merredin’s comings and goings, only Vardail was seen entering his rooms and only the youth Fallel was seen leaving them?”

“That is another way of saying the same thing,” agreed the Wardmaster with a hint of annoyance.

Scald stood silent for a moment, his eyes locked upon the leader of the Black Ward.

“Then I put it to you,” resumed Scald mildly, “that if anyone is lying, it may well be the Prince himself.”

Anger and outrage followed Scald’s accusation. The rest of the Chosen gaped at him, appalled by what he had just said.

When a modicum of silence was restored, Menphan Tarn spoke into it with a voice at once calm and dangerous.

“Explain that statement.”

Scald looked mildly at the Wardmaster of the Black.

“I feel that your mystery simply lies in figuring out how the Prince managed to leave his rooms in the guise of this ... Fallel fellow.”

A stunned look replaced the Wardmaster’s vexed countenance.

“What makes you say that?”

“Nothing else makes any sense, my Lord,” Scald said smoothly. “I have never placed much credence in the inexplicable. This seems to me to be the only plausible explanation. The facts, as you have stated them, are that the Prince returned to his rooms alone with his friend, Merredin. No one, at any point, sees the Prince and Fallel together. The Prince’s own friend, Merredin, swears that he was alone with the Prince and that no one else was present. The guards hear a muffled conversation between the Prince and Fallel, but they do not see the pair together. The later guards on watch see the youth Fallel leave. He does so alone, unchallenged and unobstructed. He leaves the palace and vanishes without a trace into Kuon or somewhere into the world beyond.

“Do you see what I mean? No one sees Fallel arrive. No one sees the Prince leave, yet somehow during this time he vanishes. There are only two possible explanations. As you have suggested, a whole lot of people are lying or – much more credible to my mind – the Prince is more enterprising than any of you supposed, for he has somehow engineered a scheme that has deceived you all. The fact that no one in Kuon seems to know this Fallel chap corroborates my conclusion: the Prince is Fallel.”

This time the Triune’s response was both excited and angry.

Scald’s smugness grew in proportion to the uproar.

Illiom was grateful that she was not the recipient of the look that Menphan Tarn currently fixed upon Scald.

“Chosen Scald, are you saying that Vardail has intentionally duped the entire palace, including his dying mother, for a prank?”

“Oh, I doubt that he did it merely for a prank, but otherwise, yes; that is exactly what I am saying.”

“How do you substantiate this claim?” a voice from the tiers yelled out.

“I cannot. But can anyone put forward a more plausible explanation?”

Silence reigned.

“I thought as much,” Scald said complacently, resuming his seat.

Master Teidus reclaimed the staff from the Wardmaster and stemmed the various conversations that had flowered in response to Scald’s claim.

“Thank you, Chosen Scald, for your insights and disarming frankness. We will take your suggestion into serious consideration, for it has merit, even if the method by which Vardail might have implemented such a scheme eludes us.”

He asked if anyone else had anything to add to the matter. No one did and the Triune continued to progress laboriously through its agenda.

Outside, night had long since laid its claim upon the world, and the fire that had burnt brightly in the dome overhead had quelled. The braziers alone illumined the dais and the faces of those gathered around it, but the empty tiers and staircases that surrounded the gathering had receded into complete darkness, giving the impression that the Delve had become a much more intimate space.

Speaker after speaker addressed the gathering.

The topics ranged from the Queen’s ill-health and Draca Menalor’s persistent absence, to the abuses suffered by traders and merchants in Kroeni territories.

Master Teidus continued to restore order deftly by repeatedly bringing everyone back into focus. One by one, he raised the remaining topics and the proceedings continued into the night.

Illiom, whose attention had been flagging as she succumbed to tiredness, became alert again when a Wardmaster by the name of Sigur was called to report on the fires that had been burning near the northern border with Kroen.

“The fires have caused no actual damage so far, but they are a mystery and a source of agitation for everyone who has seen them, including my troops.”

Sigur was a serious-looking man in his mid-thirties. He had light-blond hair and a ruddy complexion, and looked at the world through eyes that shone like pools of aquamarine. He frowned as he spoke.

“The fires are quite unnatural: they burn green, with flames that cling to whatever they touch. The first one I saw with my own eyes consumed an entire tree; there was no smoke that I could see, and the flames continued to burn long after the tree had been reduced to a charred ruin.”

He ended by shaking his head as if to shake off the memory.

The gathering was quiet, waiting for the speaker to go on.

“The most recent instance I have witnessed was in swampland. It had rained, so everything was wet, yet there was nothing in a tract of three hundred spans that was not on fire. Even the pools of water were aflame.”

He resumed his seat and at last the Triune’s agenda was complete.

The floor was now opened to questions which began in earnest.

They were many and varied and most were directed to the seven seated on the dais. How would the Chosen proceed to address the various crises that faced the realm? Why did they think they were singled out to be Chosen? What did they have to offer that others did not?

Very few of the questions were answered to anyone’s satisfaction.

Just when Illiom began to feel that these proceedings were a complete waste of time, a man from one of the guild factions, whom Elisiel identified as Master Glurick of the Daghar Guild, stood and calmly faced the dais.

“I am glimpsing a very different perspective in all of this.”

Something about his self-assured manner and the careless look he cast over the assembly made Illiom instantly attentive.

“Who is to say that these ones gathered before us tonight, these so-called Chosen, have been sent to deliver our realm from danger? What proof do we have? Apart f,,,.,,,,rom, that is, some scribbles inside a chest whose origins remain a mystery. For the sake of argument let us look at this another way: what if these people have been sent not by benign powers, but by those working even now towards our destruction? What if their true mission is to distract us from the problems at hand with unhinged prophecies and a smatter of vague promises of salvation?”

The silence in the Delve was so complete that Illiom held her breath, as though the simple act of breathing would draw unwanted attention upon herself.

“What if they are in fact here to unravel the last of our resolve, the last of our defences, and to deliver us into the very mouth of chaos? Who can say beyond any doubt that these have not been the ones chosen to bring about the next Devastation?”

The Delve was suddenly in uproar again. There was barely anyone left seated.

Illiom, riven by the injustice of the accusation, looked aghast as the Delve descended into chaos. In the midst of all this she saw one man who sat quietly within the mayhem. It was Wardmaster Crelor, and he seemed to be looking directly at her, his expression a sneer.

Master Teidus hammered his staff repeatedly but ineffectually, only adding to the chaos that now reigned over the Triune. It took time for the proceedings to be brought back into something resembling order.

“Your deportment does not bring honour to this office!” Master Teidus shouted, chiding the gathering, anger flushing his face scarlet. “May I remind you that we have the protocol of Varadon’s Staff to observe and respect!”

Slowly, reluctantly, order was re-established.

Master Glurick surveyed the disarray in the Delve.

“I do not mean to accuse the Chosen of being the willing agents of a malevolent power. How could that be? They appear to know ... absolutely nothing of our problems or how to address them. They offer no solutions and no answers. They seem completely powerless and yet have been delivered to our very door by powers and portents beyond our comprehension. An ironic thing in itself, would you not say?”

Before anyone could answer his rhetoric, he continued.

“So no, I do not accuse them. It seems to me that they may be nothing more than unwitting puppets, manipulated by unseen powers.”

He paused.

“Then again, who is to say that, when the time is right, when we are at our weakest, they do not suddenly awaken to a true and darker purpose...?”

Once again he let the question hang before continuing.

“But whatever the truth of the matter, it is not their innocence or their culpability that concerns me, nor should it concern this Triune. It is the safety of Her Majesty and of the realm that should take absolute precedence in our minds.

“So, in light of this, I deem these Chosen to be a danger and a threat to the sovereignty of Albradan and I hereby cast my vote of no confidence in them. Moreover, I veto them from playing any further role in any of the matters presently before this Triune.”

The murmur that washed through the Delve was not entirely unsupportive of Master Glurick’s stance.

A lone woman rose and spoke, without requesting the staff.

“It seems to me that Master Glurick is conveniently ignoring some important facts regarding these Chosen.”

Her strong voice projected easily over the hum of conversation, ending it abruptly.

“Must I remind you too about protocol, scholar?”

Teidus’ irritated retort gave the woman pause until an attendant brought her the staff.

Illiom peered at the woman but it was Elisiel who identified her before recognition came. It was Shrian Olum, the woman Illiom and Tarmel had stumbled upon in the College Grove.

She apologised to Master Teidus then continued.

“Master Glurick’s most obvious omission is that the prophecy is written in Dravish, a script that admits no falsehood...”

Her words were interrupted by a few derisive cries and snorts of disbelief. The scholar pressed on amidst the Master’s renewed call for order.

“...and there is also the fact that two of them were ambushed on their way here. If they are puppets and decoys, as Master Glurick seems to insinuate, who is trying to kill them? And why?”

The Queen’s brother, Crelor, stood and signalled his intention to speak.

Shrian Olum shrunk into her seat and the staff changed hands.

“I am very surprised that Scholar Olum seems to have forgotten the most fundamental tenets of her own discipline. Claims about Truespeech are nothing more than unsubstantiated myth and the fact of the matter is that, regardless of any attacks on their persons, the Chosen are all here, healthy, hale, and very much alive. What better way to give decoys credibility than with a mocked-up attempt on their lives?”

A hiss escaped from Illiom’s lips.

Wardmaster Crelor scowled furiously at his audience.

“Revered assembly, the truth is that Master Glurick of Daghar makes a controversial but valid point. I too find it intensely disturbing that while my dear sister lies in her rooms dying, victim of some arcane power, these people should come before us, delivered by the very powers that we abhor!”

He shouted the last word and it received the accolade he had obviously expected.

“This does not inspire my confidence in their role and therefore I join my vote to Master Glurick’s.”

A few others immediately signalled their support for Lord Crelor’s position, but most of the Triune looked either doubtful or perplexed.

Master Teidus reclaimed the staff.

“Master Glurick and Wardmaster Crelor, I am afraid that your vote is quite inadmissible in this context. Lord Metmus, would you please take the staff and explain the Queen’s edict, as you understand it.”

The old Lord stood and waited for the staff to reach him. When it did, he leaned against it for support as he spoke.

“Our Queen, Eranel of Albradan, has charged me with the delivery of her edict to this revered assembly.”

Metmus unrolled a scroll and proceeded to read. After a string of preambles that meant little to Illiom, he finally began to reach something of substance.

“...thereby I charge the seven Chosen of Prophecy to do their utmost to address the needs of the realm. First and foremost I call upon them to find and return my son, Prince Vardail, to the palace. As an aid in their pursuit of this goal, I therefore bestow upon them by power of the great seal of Albradan, the Irrefutable Power of Summons, to be effective...”

Metmus’ voice was drowned out by numerous shouts of inchoate outrage.

The staff rose and fell and the old Lord’s voice rose but was still barely audible over the fracas.

“...to be effective immediately upon the delivery of this edict to the Triune.”

Illiom looked around incredulously at the discord that tore through the Delve.

It was Chancellor Vell who stood then, reclaimed the staff, and hammered it on the floor until quiet was restored.

“Does anyone here have an issue with Her Majesty’s decree?” he spat. The threat and anger in his voice made it boom throughout the hall.

“I do,” Crelor shouted, leaping to his feet.

Several others followed suit, in clear support of the Queen’s brother. Not bothering with the staff, still in Lord Vell’s hands, Crelor continued to speak, his words now angry shouts.

“Chancellor, the edict is preposterous! By law, only a peer can be given the Power of Summons. I mean no offence but just look at these people; they are not nobles. They are commoners, all of them. To grant them the Irrefutable Power of Summons is synonymous with subverting the law of Albradan.”

Wardmaster Crelor descended to the dais in a few strides.

“My poor sister, the Queen, is ill,” he continued, his mouth twisted in a pained snarl. “Her fever has clearly impaired her judgement, but I will not allow her to bring disaster into our midst by undermining our judicial system and the very laws that protect us! Can you not see that she is not herself! She has taken leave of her senses. I will not put up with this nonsense. There is enough of it in the Triune these days without adding ridiculous complications such as prophecies, at a time when we should be addressing our problems with clear minds and strong fists.”

With these last words Crelor brought his own fist smashing down into a waiting palm. His face was red with rage, and his eyes flashed around the assembly.

“I claim here and now my right to veto any attempt to degrade this Triune and our law any further.”

A soft voice spoke calmly in the silence that followed.

“You will do no such thing, brother.”

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