“If the Shautu is correct, either the earth child is newly born or still in the womb. As for the Axis, well, it is a Winnowing Year and all the acolytes are gathered to try their luck in the Journey Room. Perhaps one of these novices will touch the Deep.”
“Now I know your wits have deserted you, A’Sing,” retorted Elymas. “For a sorrier lot of prospects I have yet to see.”
“Even so, they must be allowed to try,” said the King. “A’Sing’s suggestion is the most plausible yet. If one of these novices penetrates the third level, then we will know to wait for the child. The Shautu’s interpretation was two-fold, and it’s doubtful that one would ring true and the other be false.”
“Very well, Highness,” said Elymas. “You know my opinion of this, but as you said, you are the King. Tell me, though, what if none of these novices earns the Third Stripe and passes into the Deep, thus nullifying the prediction? Wouldn’t it be fair to investigate the other side?”
“What side is that?” asked the King.
“The side of treason, Sire.”
“Treason?” spoke Calibran, genuinely puzzled. Pulled out of his habitual moodiness, he had been following the conversation closely. “On what grounds?”
“What if there proves to be no Earth Skyll nor a Third Stripe?” Elymas focused on Hulse and Calibran, his voice low and compelling. As he spoke, Hulse began to nod. “What if the Whitehair before us has his own agenda? One hidden even from the Shautu?” He paused dramatically, attempting to draw them into his suspicions with outstretched arms and a look of concern. “What if he has come of his own volition?”
If Elymas had sought to bait Oren into an outburst, it didn’t work. The Hunter continued to stand silently, his jaw set.
“A bizarre thought,” said Calibran. “I fail to see . . .”
“But it is not impossible!” Elymas faced the throne. “Majesty, you listened to A’Sing’s conjectures, I ask that you hear me out.”
“Very well,” sighed William, then began to cough. He motioned for Ondred and, after a whispered conversation, Ondred left the room.
“Proceed,” said William to Elymas.
“With the throne’s permission, I’d like to direct a few question to our guest.”
William drew forth the blue feather from his vest pocket and ruffled it with his thumb. “If he consents,” he said finally.
“I do,” Oren replied.
“Excellent.” Elymas cleared his throat and began limping to and fro before the throne. Suddenly he stopped, focusing on Oren with his pale blue eyes. Other men had grown faint from this look. Oren merely stared back. “You are, by your own admission, a hunter for the Pentacacus tribe.”
“The chief hunter?”
“Yes, the chief hunter of many hunters. I am called the Protectra among my people. I don’t hunt alone. That would be impossible, considering the largeness of our tribe.”
“How does this position distinguish you from the rest?”
“I have the ear of El Rushnarra, whom you call the Elyon, concerning the needs of my people. The forest yields up game so there is no need for spurious or accidental killings. Without me, the tribe would not starve, but some years would be difficult and lean. The spirit of the forest, decreed by El Rushnarra, descend on me when I was a boy. I have always known who I was.”