Illiom, Daughter of Prophecy (2nd Ed)

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Chapter XXV

Sudra and the Snake

Drawn by the offerings of Her worshippers, Sudra the Benevolent descended to Âtras. This was the Goddess’ first descent.

The Compassionate One materialised in the Garden of the World and, disguised, wandered amongst the mortals. In time it came to pass that a frown began to appear upon Her perfect brow.

The longer She roamed, the deeper Her frown grew.

Eventually the Radiant One came to a grove where She sought to still Her heart and seek the cause of the frown.

In the stillness of the trees She sat, bathing the heart of the wood with Her soft silver light, and it came to Her that the frown was for all the suffering She had seen, for it plagued the lives of mortals and marred the perfection of Ataram’s Garden.

She gave voice to her feelings...

“Why do they walk the Garden with the burden of ignorance weighing so heavily upon them? They, who bestow such offerings onto Me, what can I bestow onto them to ease their suffering?”

The sound of Her voice roused Snake.

Snake had been sleeping on the branch of a nearby tree and now became suddenly wide awake. He lowered himself from branch to branch until he was able to gaze directly into the golden eyes of the Goddess. Intoxicated by Her divine proximity, his voice slurred as he answered Her.

“Their suffering, O Luminous One,” said Snake, remembering the appropriate protocol only at the very last moment, “is caused by the power of the illusion that binds them.”

He swayed gently from side to side as he spoke.

“But in truth, O Divine Goddess, they are not different from Thee. It is just that, unlike Thee, they have forgotten their truth. This is the curse that Irrsche the Malevolent has burdened them with.”

As Snake spoke, he moved imperceptibly closer to Sudra. Even though Her heady scent threatened his balance so much that he feared he would fall from the tree, Snake simply could not let this opportunity pass him by.

“What can I do to aid them on their journey?” asked the Epitome of Patience.

Reeling, Snake hissed his response.

“To help them, you must first understand them,” he said. “To understand them, you must become like them and know what it is like to live and die within the Garden’s Dream.”

Snake had contrived a plan.

For Snake is one of the creatures that travel between the worlds, and is equally at ease with both Light and Dark.

To Snake, Sudra and Irrsche are the same.

He waited, poised within striking distance of Her golden arm.

“And tell me Snake, how do I become like them?” whispered the Golden One. “How do I begin to walk this path of forgetfulness?”

For Sudra had understood Snake’s plan, of course, yet She spoke the words that had to be spoken and voiced the question that had to be asked.

Snake narrowed his eyes and whispered so softly that Sudra had to move closer still. His tongue flickered like flame between his parted lips as the Goddess looked deep into his eyes.

“Allow me to bite you,” he said, close to passing out now. “And the life of the Dream within the Dream will be yours for awhile, O Precious One.”

There was a long silence.

The breeze stirred the highest fronds of the trees.

A shower of leaves cascaded around them like snow.

In the pause between the heartbeats of the world, Sudra the Magnificent spoke the words, “So be it…”

And as Snake reverently pierced Her sacred flesh with his fangs, Sudra fell into sleep.

And the Light was shrouded by the Dark…

…for a time.

This is the 7th Fragment of Sudra’s Lore





THE COLLEGE

Elan had been chiding herself since Menalor’s abrupt departure.

“I cannot believe that I did not recognise the connection between the prophecy and the Orb of the Goddess.”

“It is not as if I did not notice any similarity, I actually did. The very first time I heard the words of the prophecy, ‘seven the stones to find the true souls, seven the souls to unlock the sealed doors...’ I was immediately reminded of it! The only times I have ever heard of seven doors being mentioned anywhere is in the context of accessing Sudra’s Orb, and yet ... I dismissed it as a coincidence.”

Scald shook his head, his expression vacillating between annoyance and incredulity. He was about to voice his thoughts when Azulya raised a hand to forestall him.

“Do not,” she warned, her eyes ablaze with flecks of red and gold. “We are all new at this.”

She turned back to the priestess.

“Let us just take this as a teaching, one that we can all embrace: that we must not take anything for granted. From this moment onwards, no matter how unlikely or farfetched something may seem, if we become aware of it, we should share it.”

Elan nodded, although she continued to look despondent.

Sereth walked over to where the priestess sat and pointed at the white disc in her hand.

“Can I see that?”

Somewhat reluctantly, she yielded the Key to him. He studied it for a while, twirling it in his hands, before passing it to Malco.

Illiom looked at the sky. Azulya’s plea of disclosure had reminded her of the shape she had seen earlier. The cloud cover had thickened, and the air had cooled, but the shape was nowhere in sight. Nevertheless, Illiom realised that this was something she should share with the others.

“Just before Menalor left, I saw something hovering in the sky directly overhead. But I have not seen it since.”

At her words they all looked up, though there was nothing to see but cloud and an occasional patch of blue beyond.

“I saw it too,” offered Grifor. “I think it was the reason for Menalor’s hasty departure. I must say it looked very odd, quite unlike anything I have ever seen.”

“It seemed very high,” Illiom continued. “Must have been an eagle.”

Grifor shook her head.

“That was no eagle,” she countered, as Tarmel passed the Key to Illiom. “It did not have a beak and there was a strange gleam to its body. It was unlike any bird that I have ever seen.”

Illiom pursed her lips quizzically.

“How can you be so sure? It was so high up that it was no more than a speck in the sky, barely discernible.”

“Grifor is blessed with keen eyesight,” Argolan informed her. “I personally would not dismiss any of her observations.”

Illiom reappraised the Rider, marking once again her raptor-like qualities before shifting her attention to the Key in her hand.

It was smooth and cold to the touch, and about as wide as her palm. It was made of pure white marble, with a round, polished black jewel set within its centre. From this gem, seven panels radiated outwards like stylised rays of a sun. Whoever had crafted it had succeeded in creating an illusion of layers; that if these seven ‘rays’ could somehow be removed, one would be left with a perfect stone discus, thick at the centre but tapering off to a fine edge. The ‘rays’ did the opposite; they started with the same thickness near the centre but instead of tapering, they grew thicker as they neared the edge, as if their function was to protect the otherwise fragile edge of the disc.

All the panels were identical, save for one that housed a second and smaller gem. This glistened with violet highlights within the deep purple of its polished surface.

Illiom turned the disc over.

The reverse side was identical in almost every way, save that it had no gems. Instead, a single word was inscribed on the reverse side of the panel embedded with the purple gemstone, and written in a script that Illiom did not recognise.

“Does anyone know what this means?” she asked, as she passed the stone to Azulya.

A few shook their heads in negation while the rest gazed back at her blankly.

“What word?” asked Azulya, taking the Key.

As the Kroeni’s fingers touched the Key, a latticework of amethyst light illumined the pale blue skin of her face and arms, and the front of her dress.

Azulya’s eyes widened.

“Sudra’s tears!” Elan exclaimed.

Everyone crowded around Azulya, craning their necks to better see the display. The Kroeni simply looked down at the Key cradled in her open palm, as slivers of bright light danced over her face and across her eyes. The source of the light was the smaller of the two gems.

“May I?” asked Elan after a while, holding out her open palm.

Azulya surrendered the disc and, as the Key passed into the priestess’ hands, the gem’s light faded and winked out.

It rekindled the moment Elan handed it back. The priestess struggled to conceal her disappointment.

“It looks like it is not yours after all,” Scald remarked.

Elan ignored him.

Azulya held the Key perfectly still, and yet its light danced eerily about, as if in response to some inner movement. The Key changed hands several times until it became indisputable that the gem would light only for Azulya.

Elan shook her head.

“This is almost like the experience with the seeking stone.”

“At least this one did not explode,” Pell commented, looking at his white hand.

“Does anyone know what this word means?” Azulya asked, turning the Key over.

“It looks like the same writing as the prophecy,” Sereth remarked. “Why not take it to the College straight away? If anyone knows, someone there surely will.”


As they neared the palace’s northern gate, Illiom looked out over the plains again. She never tired of this grand, sweeping vista that spread as far as the eye could see. It was like a giant tapestry, patched with dark forest and pale expanses of sweeping grasslands. Far to the north a storm was gathering, with black clouds brooding all along the distant horizon.

They rode through the dark tunnel that linked the north side of the palace to the south and emerged into Coronation Square, to one side of the great stone staircase that led to the main entrance. From there they skirted the perimeter of the fair and made their way down to the College through Old Kuon.

When they reached the great wheel that was the College, they stopped near one of the passages that led to the Grove and dismounted. The Riders remained with the horses while Argolan led the Chosen to the nearest entrance.

They stepped into a spacious foyer and, beyond that, into a hall where a number of students in black robes worked at various tasks. The hall was long, broad, and some three storeys high. The smells of old wood, paper and alchemical concoctions hung heavy in the air.

Wooden ladders and stairs led to higher levels where walkways adorned with carved balustrades gave access to racks of scrolls and towering shelves filled with tomes. It was now dark enough that several students were lighting candles and arranging them onto iron rings, which were then hoisted up on long chains to illuminate the hall.

A man wearing the green of a journeyman approached them.

A dozen or so others, similarly attired, sat hunched around a cluster of tables covered with scrolls in various stages of disintegration.

“May I serve?”

Argolan stepped forward.

“We need some writing translated, a Master of Languages would be best.”

The journeyman hesitated, took in Argolan’s uniform and rank.

“Whom shall I say is seeking advice?”

“Queen Eranel’s Chosen,” she answered, in a tone that brooked no delay. The young man looked them over with renewed interest.

“Very well, I will attend to this directly. Please wait here.”

He indicated a circle of lounging chairs, then whirled on his heels and left the room.

They waited.

Occasionally one of the scribes would cast a quick, curious glance in their direction.

“Maybe most of us should have waited outside,” Sereth remarked.

Azulya smiled.

“We may need to work some things out before we begin to function effectively as a group,” she said.

“Yes, fourteen people traipsing around are hardly unobtrusive,” Scald remarked with a snort. “Might as well hoist a flag and announce to the world who we are and what we are doing.”

Azulya suddenly leaned towards Illiom, holding out her hand, palm down.

“You had better hold on to this, unless we want to explain more than we may wish to.”

The amethyst glow on the floor between them left Illiom with no doubt as to what the Kroeni was giving her. She took the Key and the glow subsided, which was just as well because a moment later the journeyman re-emerged, accompanied by an older man with a thin white beard that grew down to the middle of his chest, and a woman of similar age, wearing a familiar indigo head-wrap. Illiom recognised Sethesta, the scholar who had explained the meaning of the prophecy at the Triune.

The journeyman made the necessary introductions.

“Master Pridd, mistress Sethesta, these are the Queen’s Chosen and their...”

“Yes, yes.” The old man cut him off and peered at the gathering through a pair of thick lenses perched on his large nose. “Chosen, eh? I did look at that box the Queen’s niece found in the ruins. All very interesting, I dare say. And now I understand that you are here to have something else translated?”

Illiom moved forward and proffered the Key.

“Yes, but this time it is just a single word.”

The Master took the disc from her, adjusted his lenses, and peered at it through narrowed eyes.

“Fascinating! What a curious object ... Sethesta, will you look at this thing?”

He stared at Illiom intently as he passed the disc over to his colleague. “Where did you find it?”

“It was given to us,” she replied evasively, resisting an urge to look at the others to see if they approved of her answer. “We are keen to know the meaning of that word, if in fact it is a word.”

Sethesta held the disc up to the light and peered at the word in question.

“It is Dravish, again,” she said, addressing Master Pridd, not looking at the rest of them. She turned the Key over, looking at it from all possible angles.

“It is a variant of the seed word for unity.”

“Unity,” Azulya echoed. “Ah, what do you mean by variant?”

The scholar continued studying the Key and did not look up as she answered.

“Truespeech is a complex language with subtle nuances that are very specific and precise in meaning, more so than any other language known to us. In this case, unity refers to cohesion. A more precise translation would be something like ‘the state of oneness that occurs when differentiation ceases’.”

Sethesta looked up at them for a few moments before continuing.

“In other words, this refers to a state that can only be reached through a significant change in perception, perhaps one where the perceiver is no longer afflicted by a conviction in the appearance of separation.”

Illiom glanced at the others. They too seemed to have little idea of what the scholar was talking about.

“What is Dravish?” Scald asked.

“Dravish is a script, the written form of Truespeech. The same language as the inscription found inside the princess’ box.”

“So you are the one who translated the prophecy,” Sereth asserted.

“I am she,” Sethesta agreed.

“How do you say this word in Truespeech?”

Sethesta frowned as though the question irked her.

“I do not know,” she admitted. “While we can translate the script, we cannot speak it. We have no resources to learn that language’s sonance. As far as I know the Draca are the only ones who still speak it, but they have not been forthcoming in divulging its secrets, least of all to us.”

She finished with an indignant sniff.

“Yes, they do seem to enjoy their mysteries,” agreed Scald.

“Their explanation for refusing to teach us is that even if they tried to, we would be unable to learn it or put it to any use.”

Sereth’s puzzlement mirrored Illiom’s own.

“Why?”

The old scholar indulged herself in a chuckle.

“It would seem that we are not evolved enough.”

As she spoke, the scholar walked slowly past them towards a table where some apprentices were copying the contents of old scrolls onto new ones.

“The Draca claim that the language can only be spoken by those who have outgrown even the possibility of resorting to deceit.”

She shrugged.

“Apparently we do not qualify.”

“But what about the script?” pressed Malco. “If you can read it and translate it, surely you must also be able to write it.”

Sethesta shook her head, humour making her eyes twinkle.

“One would think so. I attempted it many times, when I was ... younger. During my attempts at writing I invariably perceived that my efforts were succeeding.”

The scholar leaned over to examine a young man’s work, pointed at something on his page and then nodded quietly to him before returning her attention to the Chosen.

“However, each time I finished and tried to re-read what I had just written, I found it to be meaningless gibberish. All my efforts remained consistently fruitless. What I can say without any doubt, however, is that this artefact is much older than it appears. It undoubtedly comes from the first age, for nothing could have been written in Dravish since that time...”

“Unless the Draca wrote it,” Scald interjected.

The scholar looked at him for a moment and then blinked. “That is true.”

Elan, who had been quiet since entering the College, spoke then.

“Do you know anything about the Golden Dawn?”

Sethesta’s eyes narrowed.

“Yes, of course. Are you suggesting that this is one of the Orb’s Keys?”

Her eyes suddenly opened wide as though she had just glimpsed an entirely new possibility.

“You are right!” she exclaimed at last. “This must be the last one!”

Azulya looked confused.

“Last one?”

“Yes, I remember them well for the words have haunted me since the first time I read them.”

Her brow furrowed in concentration for a moment.

“It is mentioned at the very end of the Seventy-Third Fragment. ’I see the Door of Separation just ahead. I hold the Key of Union in my hand. I am at peace. My mind is still. My heart is open. I place the key within the lock...’

Her words faded to a whisper. They all wanted to hear more but Sethesta had stopped, becoming aware that they were staring at her.

“That is all. The Fragment ends there.”

“Do you have this Fragment here at the College?” Sereth asked.

Sethesta looked at him with a startled expression that soon changed to laughter.

“You do not know? The Seventy-Third Fragment, unlike all the others, is not written on parchment. It is carved in the living rock within a cave on Mount Shantan, near Calestor.”

The scholar glanced at Elan.

“That is the way of it,” the priestess confirmed.

“But surely there are copies...” Azulya suggested.

Elan shook her head.

“The temple will not allow it.”

“Why not?” Scald asked, looking from one woman to the other.

The scholar shrugged dismissively; Elan took up the answer.

“Because it is forbidden. The temple does not want its followers to misconstrue the Fragment’s significance. The Seventy-Third Fragment is considered a parable, of little actual value. Somewhat of a metaphor for the journey that one must make to return to the source, to Sudra, not something to be taken literally … well, not until now, anyway.”

“Yes, and now you come along, holding the last Key to access the Orb of Full Light! What a wonder. The temple will not like it.”

Sethesta was silent for a moment.

“Or if they do like it, they may want it for their own use. Be wary, Chosen, for you hold a thing of power in your hands. I speak of the power to undermine the temple’s authority. Believe me when I say that for all its purported enlightenment, there are those within the temple’s hierarchy who may not like to have their authority questioned. If I were in your shoes I would be careful who I showed this to.”

Even as Sethesta concluded with her admonition, another group of people entered the room, among them Shrian Olum, the scholar Illiom had recently met in the Grove. Shrian met Illiom’s nod with a lopsided grin. Sethesta dutifully introduced the new arrivals then turned to the Chosen.

“Would you do us the honour of joining us for dinner?”

The invitation was promptly accepted and Argolan organised for the horses to be stabled, and for the Riders to join them for the meal.

The evening meal was served in an enormous space that accommodated dozens of long trestle tables. Hundreds of students, apprentices and journeymen dined in the main section of the hall. The Chosen sat with the masters and the scholars on a mezzanine that overlooked the entire dining hall. The Riders were relegated to a separate table nearby.

The fare was rich and delicious, the College masters clearly appreciative of more than just dusty knowledge. Creamed spinach soup was followed by devilled quail eggs and roast pheasant accompanied by burnished corn and peppers, filled with a spicy concoction of mushrooms and beans. The food was superior even to the palace fare.

The College dean, a copiously endowed man by the name of Prolean Var, laughed with pleasure when Scald made this comparison.

“We may not have all of the palace’s resources, but our cooks are second to none in the whole of the Common Weal,” he boasted, his significant girth attesting to the truth of his words. Illiom was not at all surprised to note that those seated in the hall beneath them feasted on much simpler fare.

After the meal, the group moved from the mezzanine to a more private suite where Shrian Olum sought Illiom and commandeered a seat between her and Tarmel.

They sipped a strong, sweet wine from goblets of glass encased in gold filigree.

“I was surprised that you did not come to the second sitting of the Triune,” the scholar said. “I thought the information passed around that day would have assisted you in your mission.”

Illiom put her goblet down before answering.

“We were told that the matters under discussion would be of no concern to us.”

Shrian looked surprised.

“Really? I would have thought that would have been a matter for the Chosen to decide.”

Illiom found the invitation too blatant to resist.

“What was discussed?” she asked.

“Well, I am sure that you did not miss anything of import. However, Wardmaster Crelor did raise the issue of the authority of your mandate, again.”

“Ah, the Queen’s brother,” groaned Malco, rolling his eyes.

Shrian nodded.

“He is clearly hostile towards you,” she said, including them all in a sweeping glance. “But what really baffles me is that he is also antagonistic towards Her Majesty.”

“It is odd, is it not?” Sethesta piped in. “Until recently I would have described him as the most accommodating of all the Wardmasters. This change troubles me; I do not understand what events could possibly have altered his disposition so radically. How long has he been like this? Farod, do you recall?”

A man seated next to the dean leaned forward in response.

“Oh, for at least two moons, I would say,” he contributed in a deep, resonant voice. He had thick, white eyebrows and a round owlish face.

Sethesta nodded and then hastened to add, “Forgive my rudeness ... this is Farod Pine, master of Alchemistry.”

Illiom nodded at the man before returning her attention to Shrian.

“Did Crelor accomplish anything at this second gathering?”

The astrolomer shook her head.

“Frankly, I cannot comprehend why he even tried; it was a perfectly pointless exercise.”

“Do you think so?” Farod countered. “I fear that he has actually been very successful in marshalling support for his arguments regarding Eranel’s incompetence to rule the kingdom in her current condition.”

Farod turned his moon face towards Illiom.

“He has accomplished this by preying on the weaker and more fearful members of the Triune. He has terrorised them with apocalyptic visions of our realm disintegrating. In recent times I have heard him repeat – more often than I care to recall – that if allowed to continue to rule, Her Majesty could bring about a collapse of government and an inevitable replacement of those in power. In short, he prophesised a popular revolt.”

“Ludicrous drivel,” spat Sethesta. “The man does not know what he is talking about.”

“Oh, but I fear that he does,” continued Farod. “For now he has the ears of all those who fear to lose what they believe is theirs by right.”

The dean was nodding vigorously.

“I agree. There can be no doubt that a change has come over the man. I still remember the devotion that he always held for his sister. Well, that has vanished, just like that!”

His hands mimed something disappearing into thin air.

Sereth broke the brooding silence that followed.

“Any idea what may have caused this change in attitude?”

“Hmm, let me see...” Farod began, only to be interrupted by the dean.

“I first noticed it at that feast ... when was it? Newharvest, I think ... anyway it was when he came back from that fiasco of a military exchange in Lodeh to a celebration held in his honour at the palace.”

“Ah yes, the exchange,” Scald interrupted. “That just keeps popping up ... first Metmus, then Argolan and now you ... it seems that our attention is being called to it time and again. Maybe we should start by summoning the Queen’s brother; ask him what happened in Kroen, and why this exchange appears to be so pivotal to everything else.”

The dean erupted into raucous laughter.

“Now that would be poetic!”

Elan looked at Scald.

“How do you mean, pivotal?”

“Just a feeling … think about it. Kroen instigates this exchange, which turns out to be a complete failure. Instead of strengthening ties it seems to have severed them.”

Scald turned to the Shieldarm.

“You did say that some of our own Blades died in a tavern fight?”

He did not wait for Argolan’s response but pressed right on.

“Crelor was the leader of the exchange, right? When he returns to Kuon, he is a different man, radically changed. Previously accommodating, now antagonistic and belligerent. Then, next thing you know, the Queen falls ill and the whole realm starts to unravel. Come on! Am I really the only one who can see this? Just follow the stink and it will lead you to the obvious truth: something happened in Kroen!”

Scald settled himself back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. He scowled at the entire assembly as if daring anyone to contradict his assessment.

No one did.

Azulya spoke after a prolonged silence.

“Your point is very valid Scald, and I am in complete agreement with you; we should summon Lord Crelor first and foremost. This may also send a strong message to those who are inclined to heed his fearmongering. However, we do need to discuss this further.”

Illiom understood from Azulya’s tone that she thought this conversation should continue in private. Scald looked vaguely taken aback by Azulya’s words, as if he had expected dissent rather than support.

Azulya returned her attention to Shrian.

“What else transpired at this meeting?”

“Of relevance? Well, there was a lengthy revisiting of our trade relations with Kroen, and a fresh report concerning the fires in the Mendrond area. A witness claimed to have seen green fire falling onto our land from across the border, from Kroen. In the end, it was decided that Lord Talamus would summon the Kroeni envoy over this matter as well. We may threaten Kroen with the envoy’s expulsion as well as with a trade embargo unless something is done quickly to curb both the matter of the fires and the mistreatment of our traders.”

“For all the good that will bring!” the dean exclaimed, sipping from his glass. “It may succeed in straining relations with Kroen, but I will wager that nothing will be done to address the actual problems, just like every other time.”

“Well something must be done!” Shrian cut in. “We cannot watch idly while Kroen taunts and assaults our people.”

The dean responded with a dismissive grunt.

Sethesta coughed pointedly.

“Another matter that was broached at the last meeting was the issue of the red star. But I think I should cede to Cassipia to speak of this, since this is her domain.”

Illiom looked at the wispy woman who answered to that name. She had noticed her earlier, for she wore a stunning silk skullcap embroidered with gold thread. Her fine golden hair cascaded from beneath it to cover her shoulders and back. She had not spoken a word until that moment.

Cassipia gave Sethesta a look of recrimination that was quickly replaced by shyness. Her eyes darted nervously over the faces around her.

She wore the purple garb of a College master as well as a yellow sash around her waist that marked her as an astrolomer.

“I scarcely know where to begin,” she began tremulously, taking a deep breath before continuing. “We are on the verge of something that has not been seen before in living memory, something that heralds great change. Six years ago, we saw the brightening of Irrsche, the dark goddess’ red star. At first it was not known what this meant, but now it seems quite clear that the star is brighter because she draws closer to us. She has recently moved from the House of Old Masks to the House of Severed Hands, indicating that what was previously completely disguised is now beginning to show its true colours, its real nature. Her movements are not congruent with any past observations. Master Viragamon, you may be better equipped to explain this.”

The man beside her nodded slowly. Viragamon was a thin, older man with an elongated and somewhat pointed head. His bald pate revealed an elaborate geometric tattoo. His leaden eyes were sunken and dark-rimmed and the downward curve of his mouth lent him the appearance of someone in a permanent state of depression.

“Irrsche has forever been a difficult star to study,” he began, adjusting the thick brass-rimmed lenses perched on his nose.

“Her movement across the heavens has always been more akin to a planet than that of a star. In any case, her normal trajectory had been slowing over some time. Towards the end of 994, her progress came to an almost complete stop, but her brightness simultaneously began to increase. This gave us pause, but now we know without any doubt what it means. It is as Cassipia has stated, the Vengeful One is nearing, much more rapidly than we expected. If our calculations are true she will pass so near to Iod that the two will actually exchange fire.”

Mistress Cassipia thanked him and resumed.

“That news is what has been troubling me the most. This event is unprecedented, and I am deeply concerned as to what may come from it. Irrsche is currently passing through the Sign of the Sleeper. Next moon she will be in the Sign of the Flaming Sword and after that she will enter the House of Bent Stalks, both of which are often associated with intense difficulties. All these omens indicate that the need for subterfuge and hidden actions will diminish. On the surface this can manifest as increased transparency – which is generally regarded as a good thing – although here it may indicate nothing more admirable than a stronger position accompanied by a reduced need for stealth.”

Cassipia gave her audience a disarming look.

“I do not know how to read these signs with any greater degree of accuracy, too much remains hidden; but if nothing else, by the end of the next moon most of the mysteries that plague us now will unravel and reveal themselves, then all should become clear.”

Illiom did not really hear the tail end of Cassipia’s account. Her mind was filled with a vision of Iod and Irrsche.

Exchanging fire?

Though she did not understand what the implications might be, the thought caused her to shudder. Around her, the conversation splintered as several different opinions regarding this news were voiced.

Suddenly fearful, Illiom looked to Tarmel for reassurance, but her Rider was also deeply engrossed in conversation. She fixed her gaze on him, wishing that he would turn to her, and was bewildered when he did just that. Almost as if he had heard her, he turned his face purposefully and met her eyes.

They looked at one another for a long moment.

At last he nodded imperceptibly, and Illiom acknowledged their connection with a small nod of her own before turning away. That look had been enough to lift her spirit.

The evening wore on. Conversations continued in a desultory fashion until tiredness began to claim its first casualties.

It was late when the Chosen and their Riders took their leave from the College. Several of the masters and scholars ventured outside to bid their visitors farewell.

The horses had been brought out and, once astride Calm, Illiom waved to the well-wishers.

Azulya, already mounted, leaned towards her.

“A fruitful day, would you not say?”

Illiom nodded in agreement. It had been fruitful indeed but now she felt tired to her core; undeniably a result of the day’s intense events, probably abetted by the College’s fortified wine.

They rode back towards the palace through dark, empty streets, encountering no one save a solitary patrol of Blades.

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