Chapter 30
Converging on the Tower

Flint released the rope when he bounced off a pair of aspens, then slid to a stop on mud and moss. Fleetfoot ran a few more steps, then stopped to glare back at him. Flint shook a fist. “You … you mule!” he cried.

He looked back at the crack in the rock, tempted to mark the place so that someday he could return to examine it more closely. He decided then that the secrets of the past—and the shadows that lurked there—were better left alone. Still, he wondered.

Far below him, in the cool depths of the earth, silence had cast its heavy mantle again over the empty halls and corridors. In the darkness, the shadows waited, as they had for centuries.

Flint heard the drums and trumpets blare in the distance. Another memory popped to mind: the sight of the mage shoving a sleeve above his elbow as he showed the dwarf how to empty the wondrous bathtub at the palace. The dwarf had seen a small, star-shaped scar on Miral’s forearm.

Finally, the dwarf remembered Ailea in her kitchen, the first time he’d taken Tanis to see her. She’d recounted tales of some of the births she’d attended, and she’d mentioned one that went awry, leaving the tiny infant with a star-shaped scar.

Soon, Flint knew, Miral would unleash the fury he had built in decades of resentment. The Speaker and his three children—assuming Gilthanas wasn’t dead already—would die. Flint had no doubt that the portion of Miral that was still sane, the part that had lived on the surface for years, befriending dwarf and half-elf alike, would call, “I’m sorry,” as he slew them.

“Weak mage, indeed,” he said, and grimaced. Deep lines of worry had etched themselves into his face.

Even on a mule, he’d never get to Qualinost in time. For that matter, he had no idea where in Qualinesti he had emerged—just that he was somewhere across the ravine, west of Qualinost. The area looked slightly familiar. He gazed around, trying to get his bearings. Fleetfoot edged closer to Flint, but the dwarf ignored her. He squinted and racked his brain. The Speaker’s life hung in the balance.

There was no way he could get back in time—unless he found a shortcut.

Like the oak sla-mori!

He closed his eyes and tried to recall it all—the panic, the pursuit by the tylor, Fleetfoot’s pounding hooves. He opened his eyes and examined the mule with more interest. She yanked a mouthful of grass and gazed back.

He turned. He was pretty sure the area where he met the lizard beast was southwest of here. If he just struck out that way, something might strike him—or the mule—as familiar. Mules were known for their sense of direction, if not for their intelligence, sweet breath, or tractable nature. He took a step and waved to Fleetfoot.

“Come on, sweetheart,” he crooned.

The mule continued to chew, a suspicious look in her eyes.

He plucked a handful of grass and held it out. “Have a snack?” he asked.

A spark of interest stirred in the creature’s face.

“Ah, well,” he said with an elaborate sigh, and turned away, casually flopping the morsel of grass across his un-wounded shoulder. “I guess my poor old heart will break.” He feigned a sob.

A slippery muzzle caught him at the back of the neck, wrenched the grass out of his hand. He turned and let an expression of joy fill his face. “Fleetfoot!” He threw his arms around her neck, reasoning that he could always bathe later, and swung himself up on her back.

Seconds later, they were trotting off to the southwest.

The guards at the city edge of the western bridge waved as Tanis ran by in Gilthanas’s gray robe. “You’re late, Gilthanas!” one shouted. Tanis kept a tight hand on his hood, fearing that his momentum would send the headpiece flying and reveal his identity.

If so, the guards certainly would arrest him.

Tanis ran on through the tiled streets.

Miral stood gravely at the edge of the central area of the Tower of the Sun. The double mosaics soared six hundred feet above him, marble walls gleaming in the light of four hundred torches and the sunlight reflected by countless mirrors, fitted right into the wall. Already the hall was filling with nobles. Lord Litanas stood at the base of the rostrum. Lady Selena, whose hair looked distinctly blonder than the last time the mage had seen her, gazed at the new adviser with violet-eyed fondness from her position near the entry hall. She spared no glance for Ulthen, who sulked near the back.

Lord Tyresian obviously had found someone to repair the ceremonial sword he now wore at his side, as he stood next to Laurana, near the rostrum. Paying no attention to Tyresian, Laurana appeared nervous, continually looking around her.

As a coordinator of the Kentommen, Miral had been able to tell the nobles where to stand, implying that he was merely passing along the Speaker’s will. Laurana’s position would put her near Porthios and Solostaran when Miral released his magic, he mused.

It was a shame that Lauralanthalasa had refused his marriage offer. He would have changed so many of his plans for her. In fact, he’d delayed them for years, waiting for the day he could declare himself to her and receive her love. He would have given up the Speakership for Laurana; he wondered if he should have told her that. Women adored feeling that their suitors would give up the world for them. In Laurana’s case, that was close to true; he might have.

“Weak mage,” he said hoarsely to himself, and laughed. He had been strong since he was a child—since he’d met the Graystone of Gargath in the caverns.

Miral moved toward the right of the rostrum, edging toward the stairs that spiraled upward between the marble inner wall and the gold outer wall of the Tower. Anyone who saw him would assume that the elf who was helping to coordinate Porthios’s Kentommen was trying to get a better view of the proceedings from the second balcony, one level above the musicians. The crowd, however, wouldn’t be able to see him when he released the magic that would open the top of the Tower and rain fire from above. And if someone saw him, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

No one would be left alive to tell.

He stepped slowly up the steps, pausing to catch his breath. He’d become weaker of late. Like it or not, Xenoth’s death by magic had drained him. But the tylor hunt had been such a splendid opportunity, once the adviser threatened to reveal what he’d learned about Miral. It had been so easy to buy a few extra days of silence, promising many more riches to come. Nosy old coot, Miral thought; the midwife, too, though he’d genuinely regretted ending her life. The mage had hoped the nobles would blame Xenoth’s death on the tylor’s magic, but then Miral had seen Tanis aiming the second arrow—fitted with the arrowhead the mage had enchanted when he slipped into Flint’s shop late one night. And the mage had seized his chance to confound them all. It had been a small matter to order the enchanted arrow to fly into the dead adviser’s chest.

What a shame that the nobles gathering in the Tower would not live to know his brilliance, Miral thought.

Leaves and branches swatted Flint in the face as he urged Fleetfoot through the forest. They’d been traveling for half an hour, and while the dwarf had experienced fleeting moments of recognition—that particular juxtaposition of boulder and bur oak, for example—he still could not say for sure where he was.

Fleetfoot, though, appeared to have a goal, and while Flint wasn’t too happy about trusting the situation to a bone-brained, lovesick mule, it was the best choice he had right now.

The killer must be Tyresian, Tanis thought as he ran. The half-elf no longer made any attempt to hide the slapping of his sword between his robe and his leggings. The elves in the street, acting in accordance with Kentommen strictures, carefully averted their eyes as he passed. Just in case, he continued to hold the hood before his face, however.

Perhaps it was Litanas, Tanis added to himself. The young elf lord, who had completed his own Kentommen only a year earlier, had gained considerably from Xenoth’s death; Litanas had succeeded the old adviser and won the wealthy Lady Selena. And perhaps Ailea had found a way to link Litanas with Xenoth’s death.

This was discouraging and frightening. Tanis didn’t have enough information to know who had masterminded Ailea’s and Xenoth’s deaths and attempted two more—Gilthanas’s and Tanis’s own. All he knew was that the attempt on Gilthanas had meant Flint was right: Porthios, the Speaker, and Laurana were in terrible danger.

Ignoring his aching lungs, he ran on.

It was the same clearing, Flint was sure. The same huge boulder, the same stand of spruce. Trees still lay in splinters on the ground, and a path had been crushed through the understory of trees. Trees and stone alike showed slash marks.

He had found the clearing where the tylor had first attacked him.

From here, he hoped, he could find the sla-mori.

If he could just get there in time.

If he could just remember everything he had done to open the sla-mori the first time.

Miral looked down at the assemblage from the deserted second balcony. His clear eyes glinted.

He saw Laurana’s golden hair glittering in the torchlight, and for a moment, he felt sadness—over what he had to do, over what he’d done, over what the Graystone had ordered him to do. The killing had started with the death of Kethrenan Kanan, the Speaker’s brother, fifty years earlier. Miral had commanded, through magic, the human brigands who had attacked Kethrenan and his wife, Elansa, and while Miral had not wielded the swords that had struck Kethrenan down, it was his deed, born of jealousy.

That had been the first time he had sought to influence humans. And the last. They’d been too unpredictable to suit him. Originally, he had told them to slay Elansa as well. Instead, he had arrived in time to see her lying unconscious in the road as the brigands argued over who would get to murder her. Caught by a sudden upsurge of feeling that had taken him by surprise, he had ordered them to return Elansa’s steel pendant to her neck and to leave her.

He knew, of course, all about the Graystone, that it was capable of great good—and great evil. Since his childhood, he had felt the same pendulumlike swing within himself. Within one body was the person who could order the death of one elf, then befriend the child of that elf’s ravaged wife. Then kill that child when he grew up.

Movement below caught his eye, and he leaned over the bannister. The drums roared and the trumpets sang; it was the time in the ceremony when Gilthanas, garbed in his traditional gray robe, should have stepped through the entry hall of the Tower of the Sun, circled around to a small door at the back of the Tower, and gone through the door to find Porthios waiting for him at the end of the Yathen-ilara, the Pathway to Illumination.

Ah, how tired Miral was of infernal elven tradition. They kept the most trivial traditions, while the important one, the one that made Qualinesti uniquely pure, they threatened to let go. He would … Miral shook away the thought and sought to return his focus to the Yathen-ilara.

Today’s celebration would stop there, for Gilthanas was dead.

It would be his, Miral’s, joke on the nobles, on Porthios, on Solostaran especially. One last jest before they died. The mage imagined them all standing there waiting in their gold-threaded finery, secure in their wealth, in their status, in their belief that somehow they deserved all this. They would wonder where Gilthanas was. Eventually, they would grow restless, begin to murmur, look around.

Had things gone as normal, Gilthanas would have waited by the small door. Thus would have begun the Kentommen proper, where Solostaran would address the onlookers in an ancient prescribed speech, explaining that he had lost a child in the Grove and that he now had no heir. The three Ulathi would have stepped forward, still masked, to proclaim their lines. The gong would have sent Gilthanas into the corridor, from which he would have sent Porthios forth into adulthood. Porthios would have received from the Speaker a goblet of deep red wine, symbolizing Solostaran’s bloodline—and his formal selection as heir. And Porthios, from that moment, would forever be considered adult.

Miral laughed. Instead of all the folderol that the elves liked so well, Miral would stand forward, call Porthios forth from the sacred corridor to join the others, then utter the words that would seal all the doorways. The ceremony would be over.

As would their lives. And when the dying ceased, he would be Speaker.

The drums boomed again. Miral leaned forward to chant. Then he stopped, speechless.

Gilthanas had entered the Tower.

Kindred Spirits