THE VANISHED PRINCE
The Chosen immersed themselves in their tasks all through the following day.
With the cleansing of Kuon now complete, they began in earnest to interview the relatives of the tainted, focusing mainly on mothers and spouses, since these would be the most likely to notice small changes.
“Small changes? Just ’bout as subtle as a tree fallin’on yer ’ouse!” one mother remonstrated wretchedly. “She was nev’r one to brood or to keep ’er mouth shut, that ’un. She ’ad an opinion ‘bout everythin’ en wouldn’t shut up to save ’er own life.”
Tears streamed down her lined cheeks.
“En she made me laugh. Always a jokin’ she was, until suddenly she stopped even smilin’. En she looked at me like she’d eat me liver as soon as talk to me...”
Many of their stories fell along similar lines; changes in temperament, mood, and disposition were a common theme.
They worked through the extensive list of names that Menphan had provided and, slowly but surely, a pattern began to emerge.
Most of those interviewed had noticed the changes only recently, but a few spoke of signs dating back as far as the fifth moon.
Illiom and Sereth interviewed Tagnard, the wife of a young man by the name of Tancreed, one of the Blades who had been killed during the palace cleansing. She came to them the afternoon after Kassargan had regained consciousness.
Sadness saturated Tagnard in the way that water bloats a drowned corpse.
She sat steeped in sorrow, looking more like a lost child than the wife of a Blade.
“Did you notice any changes in your husband before his death?” Illiom asked.
The young woman nodded miserably.
“When did you first notice them?”
“The moment he came back from Kroen.”
“Do you remember the date?”
She responded with a quick nod.
“Yes, I cannot forget it; it was the ninth day of Newharvest,” she said, her eyes brimming with unshed tears. “It was the worst day of my life.”
This was the oldest account they had received up to now.
“What happened?” Sereth prompted.
Tagnard looked at him without really seeing him.
“When they returned from Kroen I ... went to see him arrive.”
She opened her mouth and gasped for air.
“I loved him so much, and I had missed him so. The moment he came out of the palace, I flew into his arms. And in that moment I knew that something terrible had happened, for he just stood there, as if he did not know what to do. He looked at me with this look of ... as if he did not know me, as though I meant nothing.”
Choked with grief, she struggled for breath.
“We had only been married two moons when he left for Kroen. He did not want to go; he did not want to leave me.” She blinked rapidly, looking lost.
“My Tancreed went to Kroen, but he never came back. Whatever it was that returned from that place wore his face, but was not him.”
Illiom gently asked her to explain.
Tagnard closed her eyes for a moment.
“In so many big and small ways, it is difficult to say. For a time, I think, he tried to be as I remembered him: kind, loving, attentive. But it was as if he was always just pretending. I never felt him behind his words or his gestures.
Then ... then he just stopped trying altogether.”
Illiom knew there was more, for she could see it written in the lines of torment that marred the young woman’s face.
Sereth prompted her as gently as he could.
“What happened, Tagnard?”
She lowered her head, hiding her eyes from them.
“He started to hurt me.” The words came unwillingly.
“When we ... I cannot call it making love because it was not love.”
She looked up, allowing them to see the endless depth of her pain and the bleak emptiness of her life.
“When he made hate to me, that is when he started to hurt me. He had grown his fingernails into short talons and he raked my back with them until I would scream…” A shudder coursed through her small frame. “Those were the only times I saw any real emotion in him, and that emotion was hate, the kind of hate that wants to hurt and to kill.”
She stood up and turned her back on them.
Illiom thought she was about to walk out but, instead, she let her shift fall open and bared her back.
There, ugly half-healed welts and scars revealed the truth of her words. As they gaped in horror at her disfigurement, her body convulsed, wracked by tremors of hurt and loss.
Pell jumped up and covered the ruin of her naked back. The giant Rider held her gently, like a child, until she quietened.
Illiom rose and approached the girl.
“You must trust your knowing, Tagnard,” she said softly.
“It was not your Tancreed who came back to you, it was just his form. I am so sorry, but you must hear this: something terrible was done to him. Someone took his heart from his body. The man who came back to you had been damaged beyond belief. Your Tancreed would never, ever, have hurt you so ... you must know this.”
It was a very small consolation, but an important one nevertheless. She had the right to know that her husband had not been responsible for what had happened to her; that he too had been a victim of the same evil that had harmed her.
After summoning Tagnard, Illiom lost the will to listen to any more stories; she had heard enough.
That evening the Chosen paid Kassargan another visit and were startled to find the descrier on her feet. She turned towards them as they entered the infirmary.
“You are here!” she exclaimed, her blind eyes upon them.
“I am so glad! I have much to tell you, to show you! Look…”
Without hesitation, or the tentative movements of one who has recently become blind, she walked unerringly and confidently into their midst. Then, stopping a yard or so from Argolan, she reached towards the Shieldarm’s face and brushed her cheek with the backs of her fingers.
“You ... can see?” Malco’s voice was filled with incredulity.
“Yes, though not with these...” she pointed to her eyes and smiled, delighted by their confusion.
“I am scrying! I told you that I needed to experiment and, believe me, I have been doing precious little else since last I saw you.”
She continued to demonstrate her new abilities as she talked and walked amongst them as though her eyes were whole.
“Another boon is that I find this hardly taxing at all. I did it all day yesterday and, by the day’s end, I must admit I felt a little tired, but nothing that a good night’s sleep could not restore. This morning I woke up feeling like a new woman.”
She then described the looks on their faces, the clothes they wore, and anything else that took her fancy. She was like a child who has learnt a new thing and cannot contain her delight.
Illiom beamed at seeing the descrier so happy.
“I should have known it was going to be like this! It is so simple: this does not drain me because I am simply scrying my immediate surroundings,” she explained, “the here and the now. I have never tried anything like this before. No reason to scry for what is right in front of you ... unless you are blind!”
The glow had returned to the descrier’s face; and though her eyes were no longer the jewels they once were, the reddening around them had lessened and the despair had vanished.
“Ah ... when do you think you will be able to scry again?” Scald asked, a trace of hesitation in his voice.
“I want to start scrying as soon as possible, perhaps even now.”
“I am so pleased to hear that!” Scald turned to the others. “Now we can find out what became of the Prince and...”
“No, no. No! Absolutely not,” Elan exploded, her face flushed, her eyes pinpoints of fury.
Scald recoiled as though the priestess had physically pounced on him.
“She has just been blinded, because of us; and now you ask her to scry again?”
“No, no,” the descrier cut in quickly. “It is what I want. I do not want to waste another moment. My spirit is hale and I yearn to continue with my work.”
Scald cocked his head at the priestess. His eyes widened questioningly.
“And I suppose you would rather procrastinate?”
The priestess shook her head in exasperation but, before she could reply, Azulya spoke up.
“Kassargan, I urge you to reconsider. I think there is wisdom in what Elan says. It is commendable that you want to return to your craft so soon, but a little more rest will not harm you. Give yourself at least one more day. Nothing will be lost if we postpone the scrying till the morning.”
The descrier considered this for a moment and then nodded.
“You are right, in the morning I will be refreshed. Very well then, I will come to you by the fourth hour.”
The descrier was true to her word: the bell that tolled the fourth hour had not yet rung when she arrived at their door alone, a leather bag slung over one shoulder, and her scrying shield in her hands.
She requested a small table and a pail of drinking water, which Argolan directed Mist and Angar to fetch for her.
The Prince’s shield sat upon the main table and Kassargan inspected it while she waited for the Riders to return.
Using a metal contraption from her bag, she unscrewed the shield’s central compartment that had been hidden beneath the scrying waters. From it she pulled out several objects: a small blackened stone, strands of hair, a gold ring, nail clippings, and a folded scroll.
“Ruined,” she declared with satisfaction as she rubbed at the charred stone. “One less piece of Lumen Stone in the world.”
The other items, Kassargan explained, were objects that Vardail must have used to aid his scrying. With no need to look at what she was doing, the white orbs of her eyes gazed straight ahead while her hands moved purposefully and unerringly.
She unfolded the scroll.
“Whose writing is this?” she asked.
Argolan leaned over to look. “Queen Eranel’s.”
“And I assume that these are also hers?”
Argolan studied the rest of the items.
“Probably,” she concluded. “Nothing about them would indicate otherwise.”
The Shieldarm picked up the ring and twirled it in her fingers.
“This does have the Royal emblem engraved on the inside. I could have it checked...”
The Iolan shook her head.
“Not really necessary. The lingering impression is quite strong. The Prince was seeking answers regarding his mother’s illness.”
“And the shield showed him Lodeh?” Elan asked. “Does this mean that an answer can be found in Kroen’s capital?”
Scald made an exasperated sound.
“Have you not been listening to anything I have been saying? Kroen is at the root of all this; am I the only one who can see this?”
“I also see,” Undina said softly.
All eyes turned to the quiet Pelonui girl. “I think we must there go, yes?”
Scald gaped at her.
“Well, I am glad you agree with me, little one. But if you want to go to Kroen, you will be doing it without me.”
“What makes you say so, Undina?” Azulya asked her.
“Taint from there is, fire from there, all trouble from Kroen, maybe Vardail Prince there also is?”
“Well, let us find out, shall we?” said Kassargan, her impatience to scry apparent to all.
When Angar and Mist returned, Kassargan placed her shield on the table and asked Mist to fill it with water to the level she directed.
The Iolan’s instrument was clearly in a different league to Vardail’s. Made of finely wrought copper and brass, and inlaid with silver and pearl, it was a work of art. Swirls of turquoise and coral adorned its convex side and its rim was a circle of solid gold.
It made the Prince’s shield look like a pauper’s.
Kassargan retrieved a taper and a small brazier, into which she set a lump of resinous substance. Lighting the taper from a wall lamp, she set fire to the resin and held the brazier over her scrying shield. Soon, thick green smoke overflowed like sluggish fluid from the brazier into her shield.
When the shield was full to the brim with smoke, Kassargan put the brazier to one side.
“I do this for you, not for me,” she informed them, “so that you too may see what emerges from this scrying, without depending on my interpretation.”
The smoke slowly dissipated and when it was gone the descrier unstoppered a small amphora that shimmered like mother of pearl. From this she added a single drop of dark liquid to the water and this spread quickly, turning the waters milky white.
“Please extinguish all the lamps,” Kassargan requested. “It will help you to see.”
The Riders complied until the only light that streamed into the hall came from the dome above. The hall’s floor was a pool of shadows.
“What do you wish to scry?”
Silence greeted her words.
“Shall we start with Vardail as he is, here and now?” Sereth suggested.
“Simple then,” Kassargan murmured. “First I need to link with Vardail.”
She walked to the main table and placed both hands upon the Prince’s shield.
She held herself very still for a time and then returned to her own shield.
She beckoned them closer. The Chosen formed a ring around the shield and the Riders created an outer circle, craning their necks to peer between their charges.
Illiom looked down at the water but saw only the upside-down reflections of Scald and Sereth standing opposite her. The light from the dome haloed them, making it difficult to see anything else.
Then, with a suddenness that took Illiom by surprise, the still surface fogged up just like a mirror does when one breathes upon it. The fog spread from the centre outward, until the whole surface became opaque, no longer reflecting anything at all.
Kassargan took a few deep breaths and began to mutter softly. Her words, if that was what they were, held no meaning for Illiom. They ran into one another and even when she inhaled, the stream of words became aspirated but did not cease.
Her voice grew steadily stronger and more commanding. A light erupted in the centre of the shield, spreading a ring of fire to the very edges of the instrument. It lit them all with its spectral glow and gave them the momentary appearance of dark conjurers gathering for an unholy ritual.
The light slowly dimmed and in its place a shadowed room came into view.
A Kroeni man rummaged through a scroll rack. Another sat at a table strewn with strange equipment. The seated man held his head in his hands as if he was in pain, and stared down at a map that had seen better days. A third man – clearly not a Kroeni – lay slumped back in a carved chair at the head of the same table, his head thrown back to expose his throat, his arms hanging limp at his sides.
He looked more unconscious than asleep.
Slowly, the view shifted.
Like she had the first time, Illiom lost all awareness of the fact that she was looking into a scrying shield. Instead, she felt as though she was actually in the room, moving within it to seek different perspectives. It felt so real; she was astonished that her presence remained unnoticed.
Her point of view shifted to the man slumped in the chair, moving to one side of him and then behind.
A mess of blood, bone and brain gaped from a dreadful wound in the back of the man’s head. Blood, dark and glistening, had pooled on the floor beneath him.
Illiom recoiled in horror.
She quickly shifted to focus upon the man’s features, realising with a sigh of relief that this could not be the Prince, for he was clearly much older.
The view closed in upon the Kroeni men.
The one rummaging through the scrolls muttered to himself, while the other remained silent.
Azulya translated the man’s words for them.
“He said, ‘I cannot find it’.”
The image moved to the centre of the room and from there rose towards the ceiling. From there, looking down, it began rotating slowly, offering a gradual sweep of the entire room.
Something had blasted a hole in the far wall, obliterating most of a narrow window there, leaving the room exposed to the elements. Scrolls and books were strewn on the floor. Those near the rent in the wall were sodden; elsewhere, white pages flapped like the wings of dying seagulls.
Outside, beyond the opening, Illiom saw the flank of a densely-wooded slope and above that a leaden sky, pressing heavily down on the grim landscape. Winds gusted in, splattering the floor near the opening with fresh rain. The men’s cloaks stirred and billowed at its sporadic touch.
The man at the table finally spoke, looking up briefly. “Do you even know what you are looking for?”
The other’s response came after a moment.
“He wrote to me, saying that he would keep it here where it would be safe.”
The other looked around the room with a disconsolate expression.
“You call this safe?”
There was no reply, just a muttering that sounded like an imprecation.
“I thought we were looking for Vardail,” Scald commented.
“We are. According to the scry he is here, in this room. If he was elsewhere it would not show us this room.”
“Well, where is he? I cannot see him.”
Kassargan did not answer immediately.
“There is mystery here,” she offered at last. “The scrying is focused on Vardail. I do not understand why we cannot see him ... but there must be an explanation.”
The view in the shield panned the room once more, moving slowly and thoroughly.
“Well, there are only three men here. Two are Kroeni and one is dead. None of them is Vardail,” he concluded.
“Can we go back to the time just before his disappearance? To his rooms?” asked Azulya.
“Certainly,” Kassargan said, as the image in the shield began to fade. “When was that?”
“On the night of the twenty-sixth day of Firemoon,” Argolan filled in.
The scene of the devastated room faded, to be replaced by the familiar lay of the Prince’s study.
A young man stood by the desk, busily wrapping parcels of food and placing them into a travelling bag. Lamps were lit at the walls and on the desk. The windows were in darkness.
“Is this him?” asked Kassargan.
“It is not,” Argolan informed her. “I have no idea who that is; I have not seen him before.”
“What if this is that other lad, the one no one could find?” Scald suggested.
Argolan stared at the lad in the image and frowned. “You mean Fallel?”
“Yes, could that not be the Prince in some disguise?”
“That is not the Prince; no disguise could change him that much. Everything about him is different: height, face, hair ... everything.” Argolan’s words carried finality.
“This eludes all sense,” Kassargan offered with a shake of her head.
“Again, I am scrying for Vardail and, again, you say that is not him?”
“Can you take the scrying back a little earlier?” Azulya asked.
They waited while she scried.
“This is a full hour earlier.”
Within the shield, two young men argued.
“...kind of a friend are you, anyway? You know she is dying!”
“Now that is Vardail,” Argolan exclaimed. “And the other lad is his friend, Merredin.”
“Have you gone mad?” Merredin was saying, agitated and upset. “If I help you, there will be no end of trouble for me. I mean, you will just get a light rap on the knuckles, as usual. But I could find myself hanging from the end of a rope, for treason, damn you! It is not that I am not interested; you know that I am! But I cannot help you, not this time, and not this way.”
Vardail leapt to his feet.
“Well, in that case just go! Go home, but promise first that you will not betray me, that you will tell no one what I have told you.”
Merredin directed a hurt look at the Prince. He stood up reluctantly. “Of course not! What do you take me for?”
Vardail watched him walk to the door.
Merredin turned on the threshold.
“See you tomorrow?”
“I doubt it,” was Vardail’s non-committal answer.
Once his friend was gone and the door had closed, Vardail picked up a small wooden box from his desk and walked to his garderobe.
Invisible, fourteen sets of eyes followed his movements as Kassargan steered the scrying deftly after him.
Once inside, he made for the left-hand wall and, parting the clothes there, dropped to his knees and reached for something. The view was obstructed by his body but they all knew that he was opening the small chest that lay half-concealed there. He stood up, transferred the contents of a bottle into the box, placed the empty bottle in the chest and returned to his study where he opened the box and sniffed at its contents. He pulled away from it with an expression of disgust.
The Prince of Albradan then retrieved an ornate flask from a cabinet and poured a rich, red liquid into a crystal glass. Taking a pinch of fine powder from the box, he dropped it into the liquid and swirled the contents around.
When that was done he hesitated, watching dubiously as the potion in his glass turned from red to a murky brown and then jet black. It was obvious that he was having second thoughts, but his resolve returned and he gulped the liquid down in a single swallow.
Vardail then sat down heavily on one of the padded chairs near the wall, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.
Illiom glanced around at the others.
They were all so absorbed by the image in the shield that only Sereth caught her look and smiled.Illiom flashed a quick smile in response and turned back to study the scene.
Azulya’s hand upon her shoulder suddenly tightened.
Vardail looked ... very odd.
Something about him had changed in the few moments she had glanced away. His hair was lighter and the face seemed somehow longer. Illiom stared at him so fixedly that her eyes began to water. She blinked rapidly, even as the Prince underwent yet another shift.
His hair was not only blonder than it had been; it was also longer. His shoulders looked broad and hunched, like a fighter braced against sudden attack.
In a short time the young man who sat in the Prince’s place bore no resemblance whatsoever to Vardail. Scald had been right all along - the Prince and Fallel were one and the same.
“Did I not tell you?” came the inevitable smug response.
The scene began to lose definition and the surface of the water began to fog over.
“I am so sorry, but I cannot sustain this,” whispered Kassargan, and in the next moment they found themselves looking at nothing but their own reflections in the water.
They had become so caught up with the scrying that they had forgotten the descrier’s recent ordeal. Her face drawn and pale, she looked completely exhausted.
Pell supported her as she groped for a seat.
Utterly depleted, Kassargan was unable to even scry the present.
Scald, as insensitive as always, began to question her, but Azulya cut him off.
“Do not answer, Kassargan. You should rest now; there will be plenty of time to talk when you are recovered.”
Argolan accompanied the descrier to her chamber while the rest of them made their way back to their hall.
“What a fantastic instrument,” Sereth exclaimed. “I am hooked ... I cannot wait to scry again! There is so much we can learn.”
“Indeed,” said Scald. “We now know that Vardail is in possession of something, a substance that can alter his appearance. So consider this: he orchestrates to leave the palace undetected, by shaping himself into another’s form. How does he get to Kroen? Well, he has a powerful disguise at his disposal, does he not? So he becomes indistinguishable from any other Kroeni and enters that realm under that guise, unchallenged.”
Scald looked around to take in the effect of his words.
“Are you saying that Vardail was one of the two Kroeni in Kassargan’s first scry?” Sereth asked.
“Exactly,” pronounced Scald.
“Does he speak Kroeni?” asked Azulya.
No one knew whether or not he did.
“Fluently,” confirmed Argolan as she rejoined them. “The Prince was taught the language when he was very young. He has travelled to Kroen on a number of occasions.”
Suddenly all seemed clear, and there was much excitement at the unravelling of that mystery. Scald positively beamed as he soaked up praise like a sea sponge. Illiom, recognising his need for approval, was glad to see him honoured for once.
The man alienated himself from others with his attitude and his temper, but he had been a useful member of the Chosen, proving the merit of his insights on more than one occasion.
Still, if the latest scry had answered some questions, it had also raised several new ones.
Which of the two Kroeni was Vardail and who was the other? Who was the dead man slumped in the chair? What were they doing in that room? What had happened there? Where exactly were they?
They looked at what had been revealed from many different angles, deep into the night. Finally, totally spent, they retired to their beds.