Flint encountered Tanis the next morning in the Grand Market; the half-elf stood before a tent with a sign that read, “Lady Kyanna: Seeress of All Planes.” Underneath, a smaller sign read, “Special Rates Available.” The midnight-blue tent was decorated with silver silhouettes of moons and constellations. Several young elves, only a few years out of childhood, and giggling as they fingered their coins, slipped around Tanis and Flint and entered the tent. The scent of incense drifted from the tent as they moved the flap back, and a low voice intoned, “Welcome to a view of your futures, fair elves.”
“Seers,” Flint snorted. “Crooks and charlatans, all of them. Why, did I ever tell you the time I was at the Autumn Festival in Solace? Let’s see, …” the dwarf mused. “It must have been not long after that day I bested those ten highwaymen in the Inn of the Last Home.”
Tanis resisted Flint’s efforts to draw him away from the seer’s tent. “I wouldn’t mind a look into my future,” he said. The dwarf snorted and dragged him down the tiled pathway left open between the tents and stalls. The half-elf seemed suddenly to come to himself. With one last longing gaze at Lady Kyanna’s tent, he looked at Flint with a quirk of his features and prompted, “You were saying?”
“A Solace street wizard tried to sell me an elixir he claimed would make me invisible,” Flint said, allowing the half-elf to draw to a stop before the stall of an elf who sold, of all things, swords. “It looked suspiciously like clear water to my eye, but he said to me, ‘Of course it’s clear. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make you invisible, now would it?’ Well, when I got home with the elixir—”
Tanis turned from stroking the hilt of a sword. “You mean you bought it?” he asked in disbelief.
“Not because I believed a word of the street wizard’s sly talk, mind you,” Flint said testily, his eyes flashing, trying once again to hustle the half-elf away from the sword display. “I knew all along it was a hoax. I just wanted to have some evidence so I could turn him in to the authorities for the charlatan he was.”
“So what happened when you used the elixir?” Tanis asked smoothly, his attention still engaged by the weaponry display. “Those are beautiful swords. I could use—”
“Shoddy workmanship,” Flint interjected, hauling on the half-elf’s arm, ignoring the furious glance of the weapon seller. “You don’t need a sword. Who is there to fight in Qualinost? Anyway, I drank the potion down and thought I could get away with pinching a tankard or two off this snub-nosed innkeeper who had cheated me a few days back, giving me a mug of watered-down ale instead of the good stuff,” Flint said, a wickedly gleeful grin on his face. But then he frowned. “Except that somehow the bouncer—who was sure to be half hobgoblin if he was anything at all—managed to see me and … Hey!” Flint said indignantly, realizing he had told a bit more of the tale than he’d meant to.
“And …?” Tanis asked.
“And keep your nose in your own business!” Flint griped. “Don’t you have other things to be worrying about?”
Slowly, deftly, Flint lured Tanis past the entrancing displays in the Grand Market and back to the dwarf’s shop. They entered silently, Flint trying out various small speeches in his head, but ultimately, wordless, not knowing what to say, Flint stalked over to the table, where something long and slender lay concealed beneath a dark cloth.
“What is it?” Tanis asked, stepping nearer.
“Just something I finished last night,” Flint said, and then he whisked the cloth away.
The sword lay beneath, bright as a bolt of lightning frozen still and solid. Several dozen arrowheads, dull black and wickedly sharp, lay next to the sword.
Tanis’s eyes, of course, went straight to the sword. “Flint, it’s a wonder,” Tanis said softly, reaching out a hand to brush the cool metal.
“Do you like it?” Flint asked, raising his bushy eyebrows. “It’s a gift, you know.”
“For …” The half-elf trailed off, and his face went stony. For a shocked half-moment, the dwarf feared that Tanis didn’t like the sword; then he saw Tanis’s hands clench, and he realized his friend was fighting back some strong emotion. “Oh, I couldn’t take it,” the half-elf said softly at last, gazing at the weapon with covetous eyes.
“Sure you can,” Flint said testily. “You’d better, lad.”
Tanis hesitated a few heartbeats longer, then reached for the sword with a tentative hand. Finally, he grasped the hilt. It was cool and smooth, and somehow it felt right. A shiver ran up his spine. The sword was more than a weapon. It was a thing of cool beauty.
“Thank you, Flint,” he said softly.
The dwarf waved away the half-elf’s words. “Just find a use for the thing, and I’ll be happy,” he said.
“Oh,” said Tanis fervently, “I will.”
Even after all his years amid the elves, Flint still felt awed every time he set foot within the Tower of the Sun, and he never failed to pause for a moment just outside the central chamber’s gilded doors and shut his eyes, paying silent respect to the dwarven craftsmen who had built it so long ago.
The great doors swung open before him this afternoon, their bas-relief cherubs grinning wickedly for a second as they angled away, looking at the dwarf out of the corners of their eyes. Flint shook the notion from his head and stepped inside, being careful not to look all the way up at the six-hundred-foot ceiling.
It’s not that it makes my stomach a bit flopsy to gaze all the way up there, mind you, Flint told himself. I just don’t want to spoil it all by going and looking at it every single time I walk into the room.
Most of the courtiers had arrived, Flint saw, but the Speaker himself was absent, as was Tanis. “Sure as a hammer is heavy, he’ll be late,” Flint grumbled, shaking his head so that his beard wagged back and forth. Figuring he was on his own for a while, he moved away from the gathered elves, leaned against one of the pillars that lined the chamber, and waited for court to begin.
Courtiers, opulently attired in long tunics of green, brown, and russet silk embroidered with silver and gold thread, stood in groups around the hall, their quiet voices echoing in the upper reaches of the Tower. Much of the conversation, Flint realized as he stood by the pillar, centered on the Tower guards’ inability to catch the tylor.
“How difficult can it be to locate one twenty- or thirty-foot monster?” one old elf complained. “In my day, the beast would have been slain days ago.”
The elf’s companion sought to mitigate the elder one’s ire. “The forest is large and magical. The Speaker should form a special troop, with a wizard and the best-trained men, to track, corner, and slay the beast.” The old elf nodded his agreement.
“Everyone’s an expert,” Flint muttered.
Porthios’s friends Ulthen and Selena, the woman’s slender arm entwined around the elven lord’s waist, glided by and took up a position on the other side of the pillar. Selena’s eyes, the dwarf saw, were constantly on, not her companion Ulthen, but Litanas, Lord Xenoth’s new assistant, who stood with the adviser at the foot of the rostrum. Flint moved over a foot or so, hoping they wouldn’t see him. He knew Selena, Litanas, and Ulthen were part of the group of elves that didn’t want outsiders in court, even though the blond Selena rarely failed to gush over Flint’s “wonderful dwarven artistry” when she saw him.
Selena’s cutting voice came clearly to his ears.
“Well, Litanas told me that Tyresian threatened Xenoth if the adviser didn’t stop throwing impediments in his way. But Litanas didn’t know exactly what the argument was about. I think Xenoth hides things from Litanas, which just isn’t fair because Lord Litanas is one of the most intelli—”
Ulthen tried to quiet her. “Selena, your voice …” he said.
“Oh, Ulthen, leave me be. Anyway, Litanas said …”
Ulthen grimaced, and Flint realized that the young lord probably heard “Litanas said” a lot.
“Well, I heard that the Speaker is going to cancel the Kentommen until the tylor is captured.”
Ulthen’s voice was growing impatient. “Oh, Selena, don’t be ridiculous.”
Her voice rocketed to a screech. “Ridiculous! How safe do you think it is, to have people coming in from all over, on the same trails that the tylor has made so dangerous?”
Ulthen—and Flint, on the other side of the pillar—had to admit that Selena had a point. Perhaps that’s what this announcement was all about. It would almost certainly be the first time a Kentommen was canceled; tradition dictated that the ceremony be held on the lord’s ninety-ninth birthday, and quite a crisis would be required to delay one.
Just then the gilded doors swung open, and the Speaker stepped through, followed by Laurana. The reflected sunlight that filled the Tower shimmered off his green-gold robes, and Solostaran walked with regal grace into the chamber. Flint made his way toward his friend.
The Speaker was greeting various courtiers, exchanging pleasantries, but Flint noticed immediately that there was something odd about the Speaker today. If the Speaker of the Sun had changed at all in the twenty years that Flint had known him, then the dwarf was unaware of the differences; the Speaker stood as straight as the Tower itself, his face still as timeless as the marble of the Tower’s inner walls. But today, though his eyes were normally as clear and warm as a midsummer’s day, there was a troubled look in them.
“Master Fireforge,” the Speaker said as he turned to see the dwarf standing patiently beside him, not wishing to interrupt the Speaker’s conversation with the courtiers. “I am glad you could be here.”
“I’ll always come, should you ask it,” Flint said. For the first time, he noticed a faint wrinkle in the Speaker’s smooth brow, beneath his gold circlet of state.
The Speaker smiled at the dwarf, but the expression seemed wan. “Thank you, Flint,” he said, and Flint was slightly surprised. It was the first time he could remember the Speaker calling him by his first name in a formal setting. “I fear I’m going to need a friend such as you today.”
“I don’t understand,” Flint said.
“The bonds of friendship are strong, Flint, but sometimes they can bind too tightly.” The Speaker’s gaze flicked over the crowd, came to rest on Lord Xenoth and Litanas, then moved away.
“Oh, I see,” Flint said gruffly. “I’ll just leave you alone, then.”
“No, Master Fireforge,” the Speaker said then, placing his hands on Flint’s shoulders before the dwarf could walk away. A hint of a smile played across his lips before drifting away again. “I am speaking of a different sort of friendship, that between two houses. While such ties have helped me—and my father before me—in the past, I regret the price I must pay for that friendship now.”
“But what is it?” Flint asked. What could one do for a friend that would be so distasteful?
The Speaker smiled once more as Flint assented, then walked toward the rostrum in the center of the chamber. The Speaker ascended the podium, and the courtiers ended their conversations to turn their attention toward him. Where was Tanis? Flint wondered.
Porthios stood to his father’s left, near Lord Xenoth and Litanas, seemingly trying to appear as regal as the Speaker, but looking to Flint more like a puffed-up young rooster. Porthios’s younger brother, Gilthanas, stood to the right of the rostrum with the rest of the ceremonial guards. The guards wore black leather jerkins, glinting with silver filigree entwined in the symbol of the Sun and the Tree. It was the same symbol that had adorned the flag that Kith-Kanan had borne with him when he had first set foot within the forest of Qualinesti.
Gilthanas had joined the guard not half a year ago. He was still little more than a boy, only slightly older than Laurana, but Flint knew that Porthios had argued long and hard with the captain of the guard to gain the position for Gilthanas. Although Gilthanas did his best to imitate the rigid stance of the other guards, holding his sword before him in the traditional salute, the weapon seemed too heavy for his slight frame. Flint shook his head. He had to give the boy credit for trying so hard to be strong, but Flint wasn’t exactly sure what Gilthanas seemed to be trying to prove.
Just as the Speaker raised his hands in greeting to the entire court, signaling the beginning of the proceedings, Flint was jostled from behind. He spun around, eyes flashing, to give a piece of his mind to the clumsy idiot who hadn’t the sense to watch where he was going.
“Tanis!” he whispered, relieved that his friend was finally here. Tanis was breathing hard, and a sheen of sweat slicked his skin. “What in Reorx’s name are you doing traipsing in here so late?” he whispered hotly.
“Hush, Flint,” Tanis said softly, gesturing toward the rostrum where the Speaker was beginning his address.
“First, however, I must confess to an ulterior motive in inviting you all here.” The Speaker smiled. “You know, of course, that a rapacious beast has been ravaging the countryside around Qualinost. Several people have been lost to the creature, and farmers on the outskirts of the area have reported that increasing numbers of livestock have been missing. My advisers tell me this beast, a tylor, no doubt has built a lair somewhere near one of the trails from Solace. Troops who have been sent out to hunt for the monster have been unable to locate it, but they have seen signs of the beast and believe they have pinned down the general area where the creature …”—he paused— “feeds.”
The Speaker’s features softened as he looked out over the group of courtiers.
“Thus, I am asking for volunteers to join together and seek out the tylor. Because the creature has some magical abilities, Mage Miral has graciously agreed to go along.” Miral, standing by a pillar across from Flint, inclined his head, crossed his arms, and slid them far into his sleeves. “And Lord Tyresian has accepted the position as leader of the hunt.” Tyresian’s tight smile looked more like a grimace than a grin.
“I am hoping that the most skilled of you will consent to accompany this volunteer troop to the area where we believe the tylor’s lair is located. Are there volunteers?”
Porthios was the first to speak. “I will go, of course.”
The Speaker hesitated as he beheld his elder son. Lord Xenoth, silver robe swishing in his agitation, interjected, “Are you sure it is wise for the heir apparent to be exposed to such danger, Speaker?” Porthios tensed and flushed deeply, and sympathy shone on the Speaker’s face.
“My son is about to go through his Kentommen, Lord Xenoth. I believe it would be the gravest of mistakes to refuse him the right to participate with the other men.”
Porthios eased his stance and flashed a look of barely disguised thankfulness at his father and an equally strong glare at the adviser.
Now it was Miral’s turn to interrupt. “With all respect, Speaker,” the mage said, unfolding his arms from his sleeves, “I think the hunt should be restricted to the young and the strong, not the elderly and infirm.”
Flint felt a wave of irritation. As much as he could live without the crotchety, stranger-hating Lord Xenoth, it was unlike the mage to be so cruel in public—especially toward a long-time member of court. Xenoth opened his mouth to protest, but the Speaker silenced his adviser with an imperious look and a quietly spoken, “I will not turn down volunteers, Miral.”
Xenoth stared daggers at the mage, who looked impassively back.
Selena poked Ulthen in the side, and that lord volunteered nervously. That prompted Litanas to speak up as well. Soon a half-dozen other courtiers added their names to the list. Suddenly, Flint felt Tanis stir at his side. “And I, Speaker,” he called.
“Tanis!” protested Laurana.
“Tanis?” echoed Flint, more quietly.
“What better way to try out my new sword and arrowheads?” Tanis whispered to his friend.
Lord Tyresian, coldness emanating from him like a chill from the marble walls, glowered at the half-elf. “It’s bad enough that I must have a useless old man in my troop, but a half-elf?”
That was enough. “And a dwarf, as well, Lord Tyresian,” Flint chimed in.
What happened then might have been funny under other circumstances. The elves between Flint and Tyresian parted and drew back, leaving an unbroken stripe of unoccupied floor between them. Elf lord and dwarf engaged in a brief stare-down, until Solostaran’s resonant voice drew all eyes back to him. “I accept your offers, Master Fireforge, Tanis.” When Tyresian opened his mouth to argue, the Speaker said simply, “I am Speaker still, Lord Tyresian.”
Tyresian was quick to back down. “Very well, Speaker. You know best, of course.”
When no other voices were forthcoming, Tyresian told the volunteers to meet at the palace stable one hour after dawn the next day. Then he turned and faced the Speaker, and the rest of the courtiers followed his lead.
It appeared that the moment had arrived for the major announcement.
“All of you know, of course, my daughter, Lauralanthalasa Kanan,” Solostaran said. “And you know, as well, that the time when she will no longer be a child is not so far off. It is right then, that her future should be made clear, to her and to all of us, and so I’ve chosen this day to make that so.”
He held out his hand, and Laurana stepped to his side, her green dress whispering as she drifted across the floor, her hair shimmering like molten gold in the sunlight as she came to a halt before the rostrum. She curtsied gracefully to her father, and then to the courtiers. Laurana gazed out over the crowd and located the half-elf, a questioning look in her green eyes. Flint felt Tanis shrug beside him, and he wondered what was afoot.
Turning slightly so he could see Tanis’s face, Flint noticed Tanis watching Laurana intently. He looked troubled and fidgeted with some small object in one of his hands, but Flint couldn’t see exactly what it was. Laurana appeared as much in the dark about what exactly was going on as the rest of the courtiers did. Tyresian alone seemed confident; Xenoth’s wrinkled features looked unrelievedly disgruntled.
The Speaker smiled at his daughter, but it seemed a sorrowful expression, then he turned his gaze back toward the courtiers. “It has been the longstanding honor and joy of my family to count among its closest friends the Third House of Qualinost. Indeed, it was the Lord of the Third House who lent me the strength of his hand in the dark years following the upheaval of the Cataclysm, and so helped me assure the continuance of the peace we cherish here in our homeland.” The courtiers nodded; they knew that.
“At that time, the Lord of the Third House—whose name I may hold only in memory, now that he has stepped beyond the edges of this world—had a young son, and in my gratitude to him, I promised a great gift for that son. The son of the Lord of the Third House stands among us today, and you know him now as the lord of that honored house himself: Lord Tyresian.”
The tall, handsome elf lord, resplendent in a tunic the color of dark red wine, bowed deeply to the Speaker. Too deeply, Flint thought to himself, if there could be such a thing. It was only that the gesture had seemed more of a show, rather than an act of sincerity.
“Speaker, I thank you for calling me forward on this joyous day,” Tyresian said. He cast a sideways look at Laurana, but the elf woman seemed hardly to have noticed him. Her eyes were on Tanis.
The Speaker nodded at Tyresian and then lifted his arms, as if he were encompassing both the elf lord and his daughter. “I give to you, then, an occasion for celebration,” he said in a voice as clear as a trumpet’s call. “For on this day, it is my duty and pleasure to announce the great gift that was granted Lord Tyresian long ago. Let all the people of Qualinost know that, from this day forward, the hand of my beloved daughter, Lauralanthalasa, is betrothed to Lord Tyresian of the Third House, until such day as the two be joined as husband and wife.”
A whispered gasp ran about the chamber, followed by scattered applause that gained rapidly in strength and volume. Tyresian seemed to glow before the courtiers, but Flint saw that the Speaker seemed exhausted. Miral had stepped onto the podium—an action against protocol—and he appeared to be surreptitiously supporting the Speaker, preventing him from stumbling. The mage cast a dark glance at Tyresian.
Flint cast a hurried look at Tanis, but the half-elf seemed hardly to be marking the furor around him. He only stared glassily forward, clutching the small object, the one he had been fidgeting with, tightly in one of his fists.
“But …” Laurana said, and stopped. Her need to express herself clearly battled with her deference to court decorum and her love for her father. “Why didn’t you tell …?” She faltered and grew silent. The applause ended abruptly, and a tenseness descended over the Tower.
“I thought …” Laurana tried again and looked desperately toward Tanis. “But we made a promise long ago …”
The courtiers, some looking shocked, others pleased, still others merely fascinated by the turn of events, began to swivel to gaze at the uneasy half-elf.
Tyresian looked annoyed but unworried. Porthios narrowed his eyes and glared at the half-elf. The Speaker’s face held a worried expression; little is as important to an elf as honor. Laurana continued to watch Tanis beseechingly.
Tanis suddenly blinked, as if startled. “Oh, no,” he said, so softly that only Flint could hear.
“Is this so, Tanis?” the Speaker asked. “Are the two of you promised, without my knowledge or approval?”
The half-elf looked around wildly. Only Flint’s eyes held any sympathy. “I …” he said. “Yes, but … It was long ago …”
Flint edged closer and caught his friend’s elbow with one strong hand. “Gather your thoughts, lad,” he hissed. “Or be silent.”
But Tanis stammered, “We were children … not serious. I thought so, anyway.”
Laurana gasped, then slipped quickly from the chamber, not meeting anyone’s eyes, her slippers tapping against the floor. Tyresian followed.
Court, needless to say, quickly came to an end.