“I trust you’ll be able to take care of this little … problem, Speaker,” Tyresian said smoothly. He calmly refilled his wine glass from a crystal decanter and smiled absently. He swirled the ruby-clear liquid around so that it glowed like a dark gem in the light of the sunset that spilled through the glass walls of the Speaker’s private office.
The Speaker nodded wearily. “Of course, Tyresian. Indeed, there is no problem.” The Speaker’s own glass stood untouched on the table before him, but though his face seemed haggard, his green eyes were as clear as ever, his shoulders as straight and square.
Tanis watched anxiously from a position as near the door as he could get without looking as if he were about to flee. After the chaos following Laurana’s outburst had subsided—due largely to Xenoth’s good sense in herding the agitated courtiers from the Tower—the Speaker had bid a private meeting be held in the palace. Only a scant few had been called to attend: Tyresian, of course, since the matter directly concerned him; Miral and Porthios, standing beside the Speaker; and, lastly, Tanis. Solostaran had ordered a servant to fetch Laurana, but the Speaker’s daughter was nowhere to be found, the servant reported.
Laurana’s actions left Tanis as confused as anybody—probably more so. He sighed and tried not to fidget with the ring concealed in his pocket. It felt as if it were glowing white-hot, about to burn a hole in the cloth of his breeches and fall shimmering to the floor, betraying its presence to everyone.
He desperately wished Flint were here. Flint would have had some gruff words that would make things all right, but the dwarf had not been invited.
“Remember, she is little more than a child, Tyresian,” the Speaker went on.
“True. But sometimes childish infatuations are those that linger most strongly, especially when they are denied.” Tyresian cast a glance back at Tanis. The half-elf expected a look of malice in the elf lord’s eyes, but there was no such darkness in Tyresian’s expression, only a look of mild curiosity. That was all, as if somehow he found it puzzling and almost amusing to find Tanis playing the part of a rival—unwilling or no—in all of this.
“Tyresian,” the Speaker said then, standing up. “Long ago an agreement was made between our two houses.” He moved to the windows and gazed for a moment out into the myriad colors of the dwindling sunset before turning his attention back to the elf lord. The Speaker seemed very much in control now, despite his weariness.
“The word of my house is held important above all else, for without honesty, there is nothing. And in honesty, I must tell you that I would rather my daughter did not have to think of her future while still so young. I would rather she might know the joy of wedding one who has courted her and won her heart rather than one who was chosen for her by two old men before she was born, her betrothed little more than a child himself. Now, I do not mean to belittle what your father did for me—the Lord of the Third House was too great a friend for that—but still, I wish one thing to be clear: There is little in this world that means more to me than my daughter. And while her hand will be yours, her blood will always be mine. Do not forget this. And treat her accordingly.”
Tyresian stared for a long moment at the Speaker. A bit of the overbearing pride seemed to have been washed out of him. “Of course, Speaker,” he said finally, his voice subdued. “I should not have doubted, but I thank you for your assurances all the same.” With a stiff half-bow, the elf lord stepped away from the Speaker, then brushed past Tanis and left the chamber.
“Was that the right thing to do?” the Speaker asked after Tyresian had gone. He seemed to be addressing no one in particular, but Porthios stepped to his side.
“Of course it was, Father,” he said earnestly. “You have kept your word. Beyond that, what else is of importance?”
“Yes,” the Speaker said, though it was apparent this was not what he had implied.
“You’ve assured Tyresian of what he wants, if that’s what you mean,” Miral said. There was a hardness to his voice that Tanis had never heard before. “He stands closer on the line of ascendancy now.”
The Speaker waved his hand, dismissing the statement. “Only through marriage. That matters little. There are those who stand before him.” He glanced at Porthios.
“Of course,” Miral said, but the Speaker’s words hardly seemed to have assuaged his troubles.
“I think I would like to be alone for a time,” the Speaker said, and Tanis breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Miral nodded, then he and Porthios joined Tanis at the door, leaving the Speaker to gaze out the windows and into the twilight.
“Tanthalas,” the Speaker said softly then, halting Tanis in his tracks. “I’ll wish to speak to you before the hunt tomorrow morning.” Tanis waited a long heartbeat, but no more words came, and he followed Miral and Porthios, shutting the door behind him.
Miral was already disappearing down the corridor, his stride quick and purposeful, but Porthios was waiting outside the door for Tanis.
“This is all your fault, you know,” Porthios said. Shadows darkened his deep-set eyes, and the muscles about his jaw were clenched.
“I didn’t know, Porthios,” Tanis managed to say, though his tongue felt as stiff as dried leather. “How could I know what Laurana would do?”
Porthios seemed hardly to have heard him. “The Speaker’s pain is on your hands, Tanis. Don’t forget that. I certainly won’t.” He spoke the words so sharply they might have been knives cast, one by one, into Tanis’s heart. “I will not allow you to hurt him with your childish games with Laurana.” With that, he turned on a heel and walked swiftly down the corridor.
Tanis shook his head. Why was everyone blaming him for something Laurana had done? He didn’t want this to happen any more than anyone else did. He sighed, clutching the smooth, delicate ring in his pocket. For a moment, he had the impulse to throw it as hard as he could down the marble corridor, but then the feeling faded, and he shoved it deeper in his pocket as he started down the lonely hallway, wondering where Flint was.
Working at the forge that evening did little to lift the worry that nibbled at Flint’s thoughts.
He kept his hands busy, as if he could beat the memories of the day’s troubling events from his mind with the ring of his hammer. It was to no avail, however, and he found himself wondering where Tanis was, and how the half-elf was faring.
Ah, things’ll settle down soon enough, you worry-wart, Flint told himself. They’ll all forget Laurana’s outburst, and then folks’ll leave Tanis alone. But deep down, he sensed the untruth of those words. Something was changing here in the peaceful elven city where nothing had changed in years and years. Briefly he wondered if the Speaker had erred in allowing trade with outsiders—including Flint himself. Already the dwarf had affected the practices of the elven smiths, who were adopting some of the techniques that Flint had learned from his father. Perhaps there were other, more important, changes that could be traced to his presence.
He hoped Tanis would stop by.
The central wing of the palace was the largest of the three wings. The wings focused around the courtyard in the back, with the gardens behind that. In the middle of the central wing, the corridor widened into the palace’s Great Hall, and here the ceiling was vaulted in a series of arches. The hall’s periphery was lined with smooth stone columns, skillfully carved to resemble trunks of trees, and leaves of silver and gold shimmered in the dimness on the ends of their marble branches. The tree-columns supported a promenade that encircled the Great Hall, and it was here that the nobles of the court stood to watch elaborate ceremonies take place below them: funerals, coronations, or weddings.
In the center of the ceiling was a great stained-glass skylight. It glowed, its colored patterns mysterious. Solinari must be rising, Tanis realized as he stopped to gaze at the skylight for a time. The moon’s beams filtered through the sunburst-shaped skylight. He found himself wondering how Laurana was. An image of the bright-haired elf flickered through his mind. Tanis shook his head. This was something that was going to take him a long time to figure out—if he ever would at all. Perhaps the fresh air of the garden would clear his thoughts.
Although it was spring, there was a coolness to the air that reminded Tanis more of the dark months of deep winter, and he wrapped his gray cloak tightly about his shoulders as he walked to the garden.
The twilight sky was clear, but on the western horizon, just above the tops of the trees, he thought he saw the first iron-gray wisps of clouds gathering. But if it was a storm brewing there, far to the west, over the jagged peaks of the Kharolis Mountains, it would be a long while before it reached Qualinesti.
He wandered along the stone pathways through the great courtyard nestled between the palace’s wings. The crocus and jonquils had already faded, and now the lilies were beginning to bloom, their pale, slender flowers swaying with the breeze, seeming to nod like faces as Tanis passed by.
He made his way past the gate that marked the entrance to a twisting topiary maze and rounded a corner, coming into a small grotto. Suddenly he stopped.
He heard a gasp, and a fair head turned as his moccasins crunched on the gravel. It was Laurana. She stood, a lily clutched in one of her small hands. When he drew near he could see, by the puffiness of her smooth face in Solinari’s reflected light, that she had been weeping.
But she had her emotions under control now, and in her self-possession, Tanis could see that Laurana truly was the daughter of the Speaker of the Sun. Even in sorrow and anger, she had grace.
“Hello,” she said, her light voice low.
He surveyed her quietly for a short time. Off in the distance, as if in a dream, he could hear the roar of the water in the ravines that protected Qualinost. Nearby, the leaves rustled in the evening breeze.
If anything, her exotic elven features were more arresting in the half-light. “I am sorry about today,” Laurana said, twisting the lily. “I spoke without thinking, and now you’re in trouble. But I cannot marry Lord Tyresian. He’s …” She trailed off. “I’ll just have to explain that to my father.”
“It’s all right,” Tanis said, for want of anything else to say to ease her troubles, but this seemed enough, for she smiled at him then and took his hand.
“Laurana, I—” Tanis began, but his words faltered. He wanted to tell her that she was wrong, that the Speaker would never go back on his word, that it was best for her to stop playing these silly games with him. Their vows to marry had been children’s promises, and they weren’t children anymore. At any rate, if the Speaker of the Sun ordered her to marry Tyresian to uphold the honor of the house, she was going to have to wed the elven lord, unless she were willing to destroy her father politically.
Laurana continued relentlessly, “My father has to listen to me.” And Tanis realized that at this moment, despite her exterior calm, she was very close to panic.
He should give her the ring back, he thought. But somehow, in the state she was in, he knew that would break her heart, and so all he said was, “I’m sure you’re right. The Speaker has to listen.”
He winced at the lie, but there was nothing else he could say. It seemed to ease Laurana’s torment at any rate, for her coral lips curved and she began to talk of other matters as they walked through the garden. The paths were silvery in the growing moonlight, and even though little detail could be seen in the gardens, the two could inhale the heady scent of roses.
They reached the end of the path closest to the palace. Laurana hesitated. “We should go in separately,” she said.
Tanis agreed. It wasn’t a time to be spotted sneaking into the palace together.
“I’ll see you soon, love,” she whispered to him, and, standing on tiptoe, kissed his cheek. She slipped away then, through the garden, leaving Tanis, slightly dazed, to continue alone.
“It didn’t take you long, did it?” a voice said sharply, and Tanis spun around. He sucked in a sharp breath of air. Porthios stood near one of the pear trees, so straight as to appear one himself. “She’s been betrothed for mere hours, and already you’re sneaking around in the dark with her.”
The young elf lord watched him warily as Tanis stared in shock. How much had Porthios seen?
“It’s not what you think,” Tanis began hurriedly, but Porthios only scowled at him.
“It never is, is it, Tanis?” he said. He moved, as if to turn away, but then he stopped, regarding the half-elf intently. “Why are you doing this, Tanis? Just once, couldn’t you try to behave like a true elf? Must you always be different?”
Miral knew the upheaval of the day would give him nightmares. He struggled to stave off the demons of his dreams. Sitting at the desk in his dim room, surrounded by spellcasting materials, he forced his weak eyes to gaze into the flame of a candle until the tears streamed.
Yet in the end, his efforts proved futile. He finally had to wrench his pained gaze from the candle fire and close his eyes, and in the moment it took his lids to touch, sleep claimed him. His head fell forward on his crossed arms.
He was in the cavern again. As always in his dreams, he was a child again. Light, with the power of ten thousand torches, drilled into his young eyes and he cried until he was hoarse. The light pulsed, pounding into him until he shook in its grip. He feared the light.
Yet he feared the dark as well. For at the fringes of the light waited the evil creatures of every child’s dreams—dragons and ogres and trolls, all hungry and mean and willing to wait forever to get at him. The child Miral gazed from light to dark and tried to choose, but he was little and afraid.
Then warmth suffused him like a pleasant bath. He heard a simple childhood tune, played on a lute. The scent of his mama’s perfume—crushed rose petals—filled his nostrils, and he knew she’d be there soon to save him from the light, give him dinner, and put him to bed with a story. That’s what mamas were for, after all. He waited eagerly.
But she didn’t come, and he grew impatient, then afraid that this meant she never would come.
He heard the sound of footsteps. And he knew instinctively that, not only were the steps not from his mama, but that they were made by someone his mama would want him to stay away from.
He began to cry and clenched his tiny hands into fists.
The hands of the sleeping mage also clenched and relaxed, clenched and relaxed, in growing fear.