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The door, crafted of Arcan valley oak and inlaid with exotic woods imported from warmer lands—some from as far away as Aadi-of- the-Valley—gleamed in the light of Talanda Falkyn’s candle. Though the hour was late, the door was unguarded. After all, these were days of peace and prosperity in the seven realms of Shangril.
A page admitted her into a dimly lit room. She was expected. Taking her candle, the boy departed and closed the door.
Dwyn Gramaret, King of Gramarye, stood at a generous, glass-paned window. The high tower looked out over his castle’s courtyard and walls, over the dark streets of his city to the peaks and vales of his country, and beyond, to the Gods’ star-spattered heavens.
The king turned and smiled a greeting as she entered. He was a tall man, powerfully built, and he wore a plain robe of fine, Gramarye yak wool. The prayer stone of the Chrysocolla, if he wore it, was not visible.
Yolen Barcley, the only other occupant of the room, rose from his seat before the fireplace. Like Talanda, he wore the simple, unbleached robes of a magiel, and his skin shimmered, a blur of time shifts identifying him as a magic weilder. A scarf was wrapped about his neck, for though it was summer, the high mountains were cold at night and the wind poked chill fingers through chinks in the stone.
“Magiel Falkyn,” Barcley acknowledged her. “Please. Come sit by the fire.” He gestured to a deep chair padded with fleece cushions. “King Dwyn and I are most curious to learn more about what brings you all the way from Orumon.”
“Sieur.” She bowed her head in respect and took the seat he’d indicated. Good beeswax candles and crackling spruce firewood scented the air.
“It is not often two magiels of the Great Houses meet face-to-face.” Barcley poured each of them a glass of wine. An old red, likely from Arcan. “At dinner, you mentioned your retinue has been on an extensive journey.”
King Dwyn took up his goblet. “How can we be of help? I gather you do not merely while away the long summer days?”
Barcley set the wine bottle on the table where it caught the glint of the fire’s glow.
“I have a puzzle,” Talanda said. “My king sent me to resolve it. It . . . may be nothing.”
“Not nothing,” King Dwyn reassured her. “Not if it sent you on such a long pilgrimage.”
“I’ve seen an event in my future that disturbs me.” She let the fingers of her left hand slip up to her throat, to touch the death token hidden in her neck band. “I’ve visited all the kingdoms of Shangril, from Teshe to Pagoras. No magiel of any of the Great Houses has seen what I have seen. Though . . . I haven’t told King Artem’s magiel yet.”
King Dwyn peered at her with sharp eyes.
Barcley cradled his goblet in his lap. “Describe what you saw.”
“First, I must tell you what I haven’t seen.” She rubbed at the fabric on the arm of the chair. “I have seen no future beyond . . . I’m guessing, a year, maybe two, from this summer.”
The king shot Barcley a troubled look.
The magiel’s eyes narrowed. “You suspect your untimely death?”
The words, so plainly spoken, sent a wave of agitation through her stomach. “What I have seen is King Artem’s troops outside Castle Archwood’s walls. In siege.”
King Dwyn set his wine glass down. “How many times have you seen this?”
His lips tensed to one side. “The kingdoms of Shangril have been at peace for five hundred years. We are prosperous. There is no reason for King Artem to attack Archwood.”
“I cannot explain it.”
“You’re certain?” Barcley asked. “Glimpses of the future are fleeting, and by their nature difficult to interpret.”
She knew he did not mean to insult her. “There’s no mistake. The future is the future. I stood on Archwood’s battlements watching archers in the king’s colors shoot flaming brands at our walls, as my king ordered our own soldiers to return fire. By my estimation, this event will take place soon.”
“You cannot tell how long into the future your travels take you,” Barcley pointed out.
But in this case, Talanda could. “My king’s daughter was present. She was not more than eight years old.”
“And how do the other magiels of the Great Houses interpret what you have seen?” the king asked.
“None has seen evidence of war.”
“Perhaps your king in Orumon will anger King Artem.”
“My king has no cause to provoke Artem. Doubly none, now. In fact, he would make great concessions to avoid trouble.” Talanda leaned forward, resting her wine glass on the table. “I have reason to think the conflict I witnessed is not confined to Orumon.”
“What proof?” the magiel asked.
“The other magiels I spoke with as I toured Shangril this summer,” she said. “Like me, they witness no future beyond a few short seasons.” Kraae, her lover, father of her three daughters, had remarked as far back as fifteen years ago, that he’d never seen his old age. He’d dismissed the observation at the time, and so had she. Moments of a life lived out of sequence were meaningless . . . until over long life patterns began to emerge. But when Kraae gave her the seed of her second child, his remark came back to her and as precaution, she’d altered her second daughter’s heredity. She’d used her magical ability to chose certain bits of her unborn daughter’s makeup; made her less magiel in appearance. Why? She could not have said. A boding. Five hundred years of peace, but . . . talentless worldlings filled Shangril now, in greater numbers.
Magiel Barcley’s face grew somber in the candlelight.
“Many magiels of the Great Houses are advanced in age,” the king pointed out.
“So . . .” Talanda shook her head in disbelief. “All the magiels of the prayer stones will die? Through natural causes? Within the next year?” She held him in her gaze. “Sire, I’m not yet forty years old.”
“These are times of peace,” the king protested. “What event could be heated enough to throw Shangril into the chaos of war?”
“King Artem Delarcan called upon my services, not four weeks past. Did he not make the same request of each magiel of the Great Houses?”
The two exchanged glances. “No magiel acceded—fully—to his demand.”
“But could his unsavory ambition be related to my riddle?” Ambition. Power. Fear of the strength of magiels.
Talanda had pondered her impetuous choice again, long and hard, when Kraae gave her the germ of her third child. This time . . . she removed all hint of the wavering skin that would mark her youngest, a magiel. And the babe had emerged, to the gasp and consternation of all her midwives, fully worldling. By appearance.
Talanda turned to Magiel Barcley. “Sieur. You have lived no longer than I. Your health is good. What futures have you seen, beyond this year?”
The magiel licked his lips, his nostrils wide as he drew breath, and the tendons stood out on the side of his neck above the collar that held his death token.
The fire snapped.
Meg Falkyn never wore silk again.
She stewed, half-hidden behind a marble pillar, because she’d worn her maroon brocade robe to court twice already. Now Janat, her younger sister, twirled among the glittering dancers on the polished parquet floor in a froth of golden silk, in the fitted and belled style they’d seen in Arcan. Silk, brought by a trader all the way from Aadi-of-the-Valley, a gift from Mama for her fifteenth birthday.
The dance was boring.
The king and queen were deep in conversation with a wealthy merchant and his wife, and old Nanna, their stout, soft nurse, gossiped with a gaggle of servants. Rennika played dolls on the floor with the king’s daughter. Embarrassing. She was eleven. But at least she was well to one side of the dancing.
Meg was sending a silent prayer to Kyaju, Goddess of the Devout, for the tedium to be over, when across the room she saw her mother’s face tighten.
A disheveled courier in mud-splattered wool and leather stood by her, white-faced. A letter trembled in Mama’s hand.
Mama’s ivory robes and shifting complexion stood shockstark against the splintered swirl of dancers. An instant of comprehension—and implication—was etched on her face.
Color and dark. Movement and stillness. Festivity and terror.
The musicians played a flourish and the dancers applauded.
Mama’s gaze leapt over the dance floor, searching. Janat was there, clapping delightedly.
Meg took a half-step forward, pulse ticking, afraid to move through the crowd lest she miss unfolding ramifications.
Muted by the din of the rekindled music, Mama spoke insistently to the courier. He shook his head. She questioned him again, sharply, and again the answer was in the negative. She folded the letter and signaled Nanna.
Mama beckoned Rennika, and the little girl ran to her mother’s
side. Meg shouldered her way through the shifting patterns of
dancers, touched Janat on the elbow and caught her eye. Puzzled,
Mama was bent over, stroking Rennika’s hair and holding her close when Meg came to her side. “Rennikala, you must listen to me.” Mama kissed her daughter’s forehead. “I need you to be very calm.”
“No, Mama! You have to come, too.”
The panic in Meg’s stomach bloomed, prickling her skin from the inside.
“I have duties here. Nanna will be with you.” She looked up at Meg and Janat. “And your sisters.”
This was it. The thing—the unknown. Mama had told her. But Mama had known so little for sure.
Rennika fastened her hands around Mama’s neck, but Mama disengaged her fingers and held them. “You must not make a sound. You must not let anyone know you are going.” The fear in Mama’s eyes stilled the girl’s outburst.
Mama kissed her and thrust her to Meg’s side, then gave Meg and Janat a kiss on the forehead and a quick embrace. “Nanna.”
Nanna nodded and led the way toward the side of the ballroom. Meg guided Rennika, following Nanna through knots of fine ladies and gentlemen gossiping and watching the dance. Behind, she saw Mama speak to the courier. The courier insisted, and Mama, dread and concern in every line of her face, turned and melted into the crowd.
Copyright © 2019 by Susan Forest