First Encounter

Quellen would never forget his first view of the Great Throne Room. It was dim, at startling variance with the sunny, autumn day outside, and oddly chilled, like a closed cellar. Sunlight had become nearly unbearable to the ailing king, and though William wasn’t present, Elymas hadn’t rolled up the tapestries to relieve the gloom.

Torchlights, fat with rushes, flickered at intervals along the walls. One scone was so fat, it broke apart, the fallen half left to burn on the floor.

A Sacred Servant, the one they’d come to know as Strout, had pushed them forward. They’d stumbled down the aisle like children come in from the cold.

Elymas had stood in the middle of the dais, clad in a magnificent scarlet robe, a scarlet deeper than he’d allowed his servants, its silk overlay creating a rippling effect even as he stood still. A flat gold medallion hung around his neck.

Quellen had heard of the medallion from Sartone, a middle-aged man who in his youth had also been chosen by Jessum to try his luck in the Journey Room. Sartone had failed, but what made him different from the majority of other failures was that he’d returned home; the others had been afflicted with wanderlust. In Larnes he’d eked out a meager living on a tumbledown farm and once a month, while in his cups at the local tavern, would hold forth on the dangers of city life.

As soon as Quellen had been chosen by Jessum, Sartone had taken him aside to give him advice.

“Pack your coins between the soles of your shoes.”

Quellen had stared pointedly at his bare feet.

“Sew a double lining in your pocket, then. Anything to protect yourself from the thieves. They’re thick as fleas along Market Road.”

Sartone went on to describe the city in ways that Quellen had heard a hundred times before, though only then had it become real: Castle Ursaulis, Tree and Garden Hill, the Warrior King and his dark crow of a councilor, Ondred, the city itself teeming with every tribe in the land. But overshadowing them all was Elymas.

The more Sartone talked about the Earth Skyll, the more Quellen’s mind had fastened on physical details: the color of his robe (in Sartone’s day always green, although now it was scarlet), the drag of his thickened sole, the ice blue eyes that cut through all expectations, and of course, the medallion. Sartone had been careful to impress him with that.

“It’s made of pure gold,” he said, adding, “only brighter. I could look at the sun longer, I think.”

There were two stories concerning the origin of the medallion; Elymas had never bothered to confirm either. The first held that the medallion had been a gift from King Revel, father of the first King William and the one responsible for raising Castle Ursaulis. There’d been a problem with the building plan, though no one knew exactly what it was, and Elymas had solved it, though no one knew what he had done. Not so, others argued, the medallion was all that was left of Sarr, its chain found about a twisted bone at the base of the tree. The disc was old and powerful and the light caught below its surface glowed not from the sun but from the strength of the wearer.

No one had ever doubted Elymas was strong.

Bunched with the rest in the Throne Room, Quellen had allowed himself a furtive appraisal of the medallion before glancing down.

“You are here because you’ve been chosen.” Not a booming voice but one that left no room for another. Quellen could feel the bench vibrating beneath him, could see the knees of his fellow acolytes shaking beneath their robes. He’d willed one hand into rigidity, digging with his other for the rulla dice.

“But chosen by whom? A cursory test involving weights or running? A stinking village shaman perhaps?” Elymas turned his head and coughed. The cough was contrived, of course. Every acolyte knew he was turning away because he was already sickened by the sight of them.

“Am I speaking to emptiness? Am I alone in this room?” He focused on a boy in the front row. “You there! Answer me!”

“I am from the village of Irwallis,” the quivering voice began.

“I didn’t ask where you came from? I ask how you got here!”

A paused and then the shaking voice began again. “The rock, sir. I found the painted rock in the forest.”

That was a test?” Elymas laughed and kept on laughing, hard, short barks of contempt that might have gone on indefinitely had not the unthinkable happened. An acolyte two seats away from Quellen began to laugh, too. Then, another and another and soon the room was filled with snickering young men. The idiots, Quellen fumed, couldn’t they see he was making fools of them? Suddenly the pale blue eyes were focused on him with an intensity that told Quellen he’d been the target all along.

“You on the end. Speak!”