Announcement:

“Shut the door,” ordered Laveth.

Mirella continued to stand in the doorway, unheeding.

Nan Mara moved across the room and did what the girl could not, brushing her with her sleeve. The touch jolted Mirella into action, and she stumbled forward into a curtsy. The Queen’s expression softened. The girl was months away from the barbaric Shivilite community, but this was her worst curtsy yet.

“Open Court is at an end?” Laveth attempted a smile. “Well, never mind about being late. I know how peasants can ramble once they begin. Let us proceed to the banquet.”

“You can’t!” Mirella blurted. “The King is with Oren Whitehair and the Council of Skylls in the Great Throne Room. He says he will get to the bottom of Oren’s message if it takes the next session of Open Court. Oh, my Queen, disaster has fallen upon us and it is all because of the Shautu!”

The girl covered her face with her hands and began to weep.

“It is a night for tears,” remarked Laveth, but the old nurse clucked disapprovingly at her remark.

“Something is very amiss here,” Nan Mara whispered. “Quickly, find out.”

Then, she went to the bed and gathered the sleeping prince in her arms, slipping back into the shadowed corner.

The girl sat on the edge of the thick mattress, hardly making a dent. She was swallowing her sobs, but the shaking grew worse. Laveth was reminded of the King, chilled and tremor. Uneasily, she noted the rest of Mirella’s appearance. Her hair was in complete disarray, not damp with dainty beads of perspiration produced by a tete-a-tete, but clumped in wet strands by exertion . . . or fear. Yes, Laveth smelled fear. Also, an earring had been lost, and there were tears in her gown. Maneuvering through a crowded rom might account for lost earrings and perhaps some of the tears, but what was this?

A wet, slimy stain covered her hemline several inches high all the way round.Most of the wetness was still shiny, but the parts that were drying showed a deep yellow stain. Her shoes looked the same. Laveth narrowed her eyes; the color was like none other she’d ever seen.

The Queen lifted Mirella’s skirt, tentatively putting out a hand.

“NO”” Mirella came quickly to her senses and jerked the flounce away. “My Queen, you must not touch that”

“What is–“

“It’s slime, I think. It erupted from the horrible pool of light that comes from under the Earth Skyll’s hidden room. I have to pass it when I use the secret staircase. The steps are horrid, but once you get used to them, it’s much faster. I have become too skilled for accidents.”

Laveth shook her head. “I know of no such place.” She paused. “But that’s not what has upset you.”

“No,” Mirella admitted. Her crying was past but her face was streaked with tears which she wiped away with the back of her hand. Too late to offer a handkerchief. Mirella had the least vanity of any young girl she’d ever known.

“Mirella, whatever the news, fair or foul, I command you to tell me.”

“It’s the hunter, Oren Hunter from the Pentacacus tribe. He’s fierce, M’Lady, and trust past the guards just as Open Court was ending.”

“What is it about his presence that upsets you so?”

“Elymas tried to turn him away, but there is no turning Oren. Besides, the King wouldn’t allow it. Oren gave him a feather.”

“I know, child, go on.”

“That’s when Lord Alexy Ondred said he would show him to his quarters, but Oren said there was more, a message from the Shautu.”

“Ohh!” A moan came from the shadows where Nan Mara began rocking the prince. “I was a fool not to have foreseen this.”

“The Shautu?” Laveth furrowed her brow. “Are you referring to that old man in the Fell Forest who wears the same robe?”

“The Eld Forest, Laveth, and he is more than an old man,” Nan Mara replied. “The Shautu is a Seer, Sikestran of the Eld forest, and Keeper of the Blue Stones.”

“He knows everything and he sent Oren,” Mirella’s used the hunter’s name with care, color rising in her cheeks. “Everyone know of Oren Hunter back in the Shivelite camp.

“He had different names, of course,” she continued. “Oren Whitehair, the Warrior and the Watcher when he stood guard on the Jutting Rock during their spring calling of spirits. When I spied out, I was more afraid of being caught by him than of the entities. He’s completely white-headed, Highness, and huge.”

Mirella’s eyes were wide, but the smile the Queen ordinarily have bestowed on such obvious admiration was forgotten in the present anxiety.

“What was the Shautu’s message?”

“Oh, M’Lady, it was awful.” For a moment, it seemed Mirella might again burst into tears. ‘The Shautu reads the heavens and knows that a new earth child has been born. He sent Oren Hunter to fetch him.”

“The Shautu knows from the stars,” Nan Mara’s words ran together in a moan of despair. She could not stop rocking the boy. “All things are foretold from the sky.”