THE ROYAL CITY
Guards stood at the gate and were perched on the ramparts above it like black crows. The severity of their expressions and the gleam of their weapons and armour gave Illiom pause and rekindled her misgivings.
“Hey, Tarmel is back!”a voice bellowed.
“That will be First Rider Tarmel to you, Hindor. Have you nothing better to do than gossip about the comings and goings at the Gate?” said the Rider, his mouth a line carved in granite.
A soldier with straw-coloured hair stepped towards them. There was familiarity and humour in his eyes. Hindor gave Tarmel a mocking bow.
“The injustice of it all,” he smirked. “I wish I had the luxury of riding around the countryside with such a fine-looking lass.”
The man bowed deeper and smiled at Illiom.
“Mind your tongue!” Tarmel snapped, but his tone was playful. “Lady Illiom, permit me to introduce you to this wretched acquaintance of mine, Blade Hindor.”
Illiom gave the man a brief smile.
As they stepped into the darkness of the Gate a female voice addressed the Rider.
“Welcome back, Tarmel.”
Dressed in garb similar to Hindor’s, the woman was slightly taller than Illiom, with fair hair and a pleasant oval face. The smile she gave the Rider held more than a little warmth.
“Undrel, it is good to see you. This is Illiom.”
Undrel cast an appraising glance in Illiom’s direction and nodded.
She cocked her head at the Rider.
“Do you know you are only the third to have returned?”
Tarmel frowned and shook his head.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, of the seven that were sent out ... the first two did not have to go very far at all; their charges were already here, under their noses.” Her voice, like her smile, was warm.
“What, here in Kuon?”
Tarmel worried his bottom lip between thumb and forefinger.
“Who were the lucky sods?”
“Mist and Grifor, but wait for it! Grifor’s catch is actually a Blade. One of our own! Can you believe that?”
Tarmel’s surprise showed in his eyes.
“A Blade? Now that is something. Do I know her?”
Illiom stepped aside as a man with three cows ambled past.
“Him, and the name is Malco. I have seen him here and there but do not know him personally. He is usually on sentry duty at the armoury.”
“Well, how about that! And the other, Mist’s charge?”
“A priestess. He found her at Sudra’s temple.”
“Mind you, Mist went all the way down the Serp first,” Hindor interjected.
“He made a complete circuit of the Keep before it dawned on him that his Chosen had been up here all along.”
The Blade laughed.
“That would have vexed him.” Tarmel shook his head in wonder. “But tell me something, how is it that you lot are talking about this as if it is common knowledge? Who told you about it?”
Some of Undrel’s mirth subsided at Tarmel’s question.
“Why, it is the talk of the Ward,” she said, her expression cautious.
Tarmel stared at her intently for a moment and then nodded.
Illiom barely noticed this exchange because the mention of a priestess had caught her attention.
“A Daughter of Sudra?” she asked quietly.
All three turned to look at her.
“Yes,” Undrel answered. “Do you have an interest in the Daughters?”
“I was a novice myself, at one time.”
They waited for her to continue but she did not know what more she could add.
How could she explain to them the relief and comfort she felt at knowing that one of the seven was a Daughter? Even though she had yet to meet her, Illiom already felt a bond connecting her with the priestess; the Order was the closest thing to family that she had ever had. Her mothers and sisters were the Daughters of Sudra, her fathers and brothers the Brotherhood of Iod.
“It was many years ago, but I am pleased there is to be a Daughter amongst our number.”
As if her words were a signal, Tarmel stirred. He made a comment about needing to report to Menphan Tarn then turned his horse and the pair continued through the Gate.
Tarmel spoke as soon as they were out of earshot.
“So much for secrecy, someone’s tongue has been wagging.”
Illiom turned and glanced back. Silhouetted against the Gate’s entrance, Undrel was watching them leave, her expression hidden in shadow.
“I think she likes you,” said Illiom, in an offhand way.
Tarmel’s head snapped around.
Illiom, climbing back into the saddle, nodded in Undrel’s direction.
“She likes you,” she repeated.
“Undrel?” he asked, incredulous. Then he shook his head but despite his protest threw a furtive glance behind him.
Illiom’s eyes had become so adjusted to the subdued light within the Gate that she was dazzled when they emerged into daylight once more. They were spilled from the shadows into a busy, dusty road, flanked by poplars that stood on either side like sentinels.
Black crows greeted them with loud, derisive caws as they rode between the trees. The black birds’ cries faded behind them as the road descended into a vale to weave a path between a ploughed field and an apple orchard. Up ahead, it rose again to disappear into a copse of oaks that crowned the crest of a rise.
Here, just before they reached the oaks, another road intersected theirs. Unlike the one they travelled on, this road seemed almost free of traffic.
“Garrison Road,” Tarmel announced, nodding towards a couple of soldiers sitting at a small table under a wooden shelter. They were entirely absorbed in the serious business of rolling dice.
“It is meant for the Black Ward’s exclusive use, hence its name. Those two loafers are supposed to be watching out for any strays who might try to take a shortcut. It happens sometimes, especially at busy times of the year such as this.”
They travelled the shadowed world of the oaks for a time and emerged on the far side to encounter a view that took Illiom’s breath away.
The Keep’s daunting exterior had led her to expect much the same upon its summit, so she was quite unprepared for the vast expanse of green that spread into the distance.
Directly ahead, a great forest of giant trees stretched to the south and west as far as she could see. Beyond the trees, the distant peaks that crowned the far rim of the plateau reached towards the sky like protecting guardian spirits.
Just before the expanse of forest, a deep blue lake glistened in the sun like polished lapis. Closer at hand, field upon field of tilled land accompanied the road, each plot painted with the hues of a different crop. Farmhouses with their outbuildings were clustered in small communities, dotting the landscape.
The road descended for a time and then veered, first to the east and then sharply to the north-east. There, bathed by the rays of the sungod, the capital of Albradan awaited them like a city of fable.
It overlooked the vast bowl of Varadon’s Keep from the vantage of a single, gently sloped hill. The late afternoon light lit the walls of a thousand edifices with an amber glow and sparkled on russet roofs of baked clay. Here and there, golden domes caught Iod’s light and glistened with glory. The city shimmered against the backdrop of a dark and jagged stone tier that rose into the sky behind her.
One great building with crenulated walls and imposing red towers rose and stretched to embrace the city with its protective wings.
From the tallest spires, pennants of crimson, emerald and gold flowed like long languid plumes of coloured smoke in the lazy afternoon breeze.
Illiom could not understand why tears welled in her eyes; she found the beauty of Kuon unbearable. Tarmel pulled on the reins and brought them to a halt. They sat in silence for a time, captivated by the splendour they beheld.
“So beautiful...” she breathed, the words emerging as though they were squeezed directly from her soul. “I would never have imagined it to be so beautiful.”
Tarmel’s grin held both amusement and pride.
“Aye, that she is,” he agreed. “And her magnificence is never twice the same. Every time I see her she is different, and always a sight to behold, regardless of the season or the weather.”
Almost reluctantly, they resumed their ride.
As they drew closer, Illiom was able to pick out more detail. The city walls, despite their imposing size, had not been noticeable at first because they fell short of enclosing the entire city. She now followed their outline as they effectively separated the city into two areas, with most of the houses appearing to stand outside of them.
“What is that great big building there?” she asked, pointing. She did not have to elaborate, as there could be no mistaking what she was referring to.
“That is the palace. That is where we are heading right now.”
“And that tower?” she asked, indicating a slim needle of stone that rose high above the rooftops, unrivalled in height by any other structure. A single red pennant fluttered from its spire.
“That is the College Tower – grand, extravagant, and probably quite unnecessary, but it does make a great landmark. No one can stay lost in Kuon for very long with that tower visible from virtually everywhere.”
Just ahead, a crossroad spliced the road into three. Tarmel gestured towards the right-hand fork.
“That goes to East Kuon and the Merchant Quarter. The other goes to Squatters’ End or The Squat, as most people call it.”
He nodded directly ahead.
“This is King’s Parade. It will take us to the very heart of Old Kuon, to Coronation Square and to the palace itself.”
King’s Parade was paved with wide, smooth flagstones and lined with graceful elms whose leaves were already splashed with the first gold and vermillion hues of autumn. The road gradually widened as it approached the first buildings: an inn, a farrier’s workshop, and a dairy. Almost all the traffic headed into the city; only the occasional passer-by headed in the opposite direction.
The road soon became flanked by elegant mansions, inns, residences and shops, but as she peered down side streets, Illiom noticed that the quality and opulence of the buildings to the right of King’s Parade only improved, while the opposite was true of those on the left. Here the lanes rapidly became narrow alleyways that separated old and dilapidated structures, some of them little better than hovels.
Ahead, the wall that separated the old city from the new loomed, an impressive expanse of stone even more imposing than it had seemed from afar.
She wondered at the mind that had conceived the need for such a line of defence, even up here, on this already impregnable plateau.
They made for the only entrance within sight, a large arched gate flanked by towers. A throng of people milled there, seeking admission into the city’s heart. Only one of the gate’s two massive doors was open.
The clamour of voices grew louder as they approached and merged with the crowd that was gradually trickling through.
“This is odd,” Tarmel said with a frown. “Maybe we should have taken Garrison Road after all.”
Several Blades in their black uniforms oversaw the comings and goings, confronting all who approached.
When it was finally their turn, two sentries closed in on them.
Tarmel ignored them.
One, a freckled young lad with hair the colour of ripe cobs, gave him an annoyed look and made a grab for the stallion’s bit.
“State your business.”
Tarmel turned a cold stare upon him.
“I will state my business to Menphan Tarn when I see him, boy.” Tarmel’s tone was as sharp as a knife’s edge. “Do you not recognise horses from the Queen’s stables when you see them?”
The lad frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but his partner answered first.
“Of course, we can see the Queen’s brand on your horse, but we have been instructed to let no one past without papers.”
“We are just following orders,” the younger one stammered nervously.
“First Rider Tarmel Claw returning from an errand for Her Majesty under the authority of Lord Talamus.” He nodded towards Illiom. “And Lady Illiom here is my charge.”
As he spoke, Tarmel twirled the silver band of a ring on his left hand and exposed its sigil for their benefit. Illiom, who had not noticed it before, wondered if the Rider had only just put it on.
It was clearly more than adequate, for the two men’s posture straightened and each brought his left fist to rest over his breastplate.
“At ease,” Tarmel said, still not entirely appeased. “What has happened to warrant all this? I cannot remember the last time people were stopped from entering the old Lady.”
The two blades exchanged a glance.
“Bloody murder is what,” offered the older. “Three dead in a field just outside the city.”
Tarmel was silent for a moment.
“Who were they?”
“They could not be identified on account of their missing heads,” answered the youth with a smirk.
Tarmel paid him no heed.
“Watch and ward,” he muttered distractedly as he spurred his horse forward.
Illiom came abreast with the Rider.
“What was that about murder?” Illiom asked in a small voice.
The Rider scowled and shook his head.
“I do not know, but I have a feeling I am about to find out.”
Old Kuon was stately, imposing and, strangely enough, did not look that old. The streets were clean, the layout geometric. Unlike the buildings that were scattered haphazardly outside the walls, here they were organised in orderly groups. The height of the windows that looked out onto the streets indicated that the rooms within were high-ceilinged and stately. The stonework surrounding the doors and windows was decorated in painstakingly chiselled detail. Captivating friezes drew the eye to heroic scenes of deeds and events of which Illiom knew nothing.
Statues, something Illiom had never seen before, dominated intersections. Men and women, standing or on horseback, gazed with eyes of stone into the distance.
They passed people who, it seemed to her, must be affluent nobles. There were so many that she asked Tarmel about them and he barked a laugh.
“They are not nobles, Illiom, they are actually servants. You will note that many wear identical clothes and hair styles; not because these are fashionable, but because they are like uniforms which identify their role at a glance.”
He singled out a man wearing a sleeveless doublet of scarlet and gold over a bright, frilly linen shirt. Loose pantaloons covered his legs. His silver hair fell in ringlets over his shoulders.
“You will see many clothed like him inside the palace. He works for the seneschal, looking after domestic matters.”
He pointed out another, a young woman wearing a dark blue outfit with silver buttons and trimmings and identified her as a messenger.
True as an arrow, King’s Parade shot straight towards the palace. Just before the white expanse of that building’s facade however, the road spilled them into a broad open space.
“Coronation Square,” Tarmel announced. “This is where the Harvest Moon Fair will be held four days from now.”
It bore no resemblance to any other square that Illiom had seen. In fact, a large village could easily have been accommodated within. It incorporated several pools and small lakes, beds of bright flowers, small copses of trees, and gentle grassy mounds.
There were signs of much activity, for everywhere Illiom looked she saw half-finished structures, wooden enclosures, and the skeletal frameworks of pavilions and stalls.
They finally reached a broad stairway of stone that led up to the palace’s entrance and, even as they neared it, two young lads came running out towards them. Tarmel dismounted and Illiom followed suit. The Rider gave the boys instructions regarding the saddlebags and they surrendered all the horses into the lads’ care.
Illiom looked apprehensive.
“Will I see Calm again?”
“If you have a will to ride then you certainly shall,” Tarmel pronounced.
When they reached the top of the stairs, he turned to face her. Illiom looked at him expectantly, but he just pointed past her, back to where they had come from.
Illiom turned to look.
The whole of Kuon lay sprawled at her feet.
Caught in the magical light of dusk, the city was embossed in golden glory.
Whilst riding she had not paid attention to the gradient they had climbed, but it must have been significant, for the throng of buildings and towers, the mazes of streets, lanes and alleys, all sprawled far below them now.
“I could have taken Garrison Road back when we left Saryam’s Gate. It would have been less crowded and faster, but I would have robbed you of this spectacle.”
Illiom beamed at the Rider.
She took delight in his love for his city, and as she looked out upon it now she thought that love well deserved.
Illiom looked beyond Kuon, at where the plateau extended towards the west. There, Iod was descending towards the murkiness of the plains. Past the lake and beyond the woods, she thought she saw the faint outline of several buildings.
“Is that another town, way over there?”
She pointed into the distance.
Tarmel shook his head.
“No, those are the ruins of Akta.”
They gazed at them in silence until the Rider spoke again.
“Come, let us go inside.”
He turned towards doors so big that they had smaller doors built into them for everyday use.
Illiom gazed at the ruins a moment longer, then followed the Rider into Queen Eranel’s palace.