“Very well,” said Elymas. “You know my opinion, but you are sovereign. Tell me, though, what if none of the acolytes pass into the Deep? Do we investigate the prediction of the earth child, even though my Sacred Servants have searched diligently or do we pursue the likelihood of treason?”

“Ah, the red-robes,” muttered Vue, under his breath.

“Treason is a strong word, as there has been no action, overt or otherwise, against the King,” reminded Ondred.

Elymas conceded with a nod of his head. “Insurrection then. Insurrection begins with an idea.”

William looked at Oren and let forth a heavy sigh. Clearly, he didn’t wish to pursue this route; clearly, he was backed in a corner. With the Blood Wars only a few years behind them, any errors in the Shautu’s message would be suspect. Elymas had targeted the only issue that would alarm the populace. “In that case, the possibility of deception would be investigated.”

“At the very least,” interjected Sarris.

“Enough. The truth will come out in the testing of the acolytes and that is . . . ” William looked at Elymas for confirmation.

“Fourteen days and one morning hence,” finished the Earth Skyll. “One morning past the fourteenth day of Open Court. It has always been the custom that on the afternoon of the fifteenth day, the first acolyte enters the Journey Room.”

“Forgive me, Highness,” said Oren. “But the Shautu was most insistent that we not delay. Not only for danger’s sake, but for practical reasons. In two weeks, the snows will start in the mountains and our way will become impassable.”

“But Oren . . . may I call you Oren?” Elymas’s voice was soft again, a low tone usually reserved for those confined to small, secret cells. “You yourself agreed that the child might not yet be born. If that is the case, must we rip it from its mother’s womb to satisfy your sense of urgency?”

Oren, abashed, looked at the King. “Sire, I was no way suggesting such extreme measures.”

“Ignore him,” said A’Sing. “The birth of a new earth child is, for the moment, neither here nor there. It is the matter of the third stripe, the one called Axis, that can, and will, be settled first.”

“True enough,” said the King. “The matter of the babe can wait; the matter of the Third Stripe doesn’t have to. As for the fourteen days, my judgement is this: custom may be binding but no King is bound to custom.” William allowed the spasm in his cheek to play out before resuming again. “Elymas, begin the testing of the acolytes in the morning.”

“What?” Elymas made no attempt to hide his fury. “I will not do it!”