Miral stood stock-still as the gray-robed figure entered the Tower. The murmuring that had begun among the onlookers quieted, and they watched expectantly as Gilthanas passed along the inner edge of the Tower.
But Gilthanas is dead! the mage screamed to himself.
There was something different about Gilthanas, though, he thought. The youth appeared larger; the robe was stretched taut across his shoulders. The figure in the robe was more like Tanis than Gilthanas.
But Tanis was dead, too.
Miral’s gaze followed the gray robe as it moved gracefully to the appointed portal and waited.
Solostaran, dressed in his golden-green robes of state, entered from an anteroom and crossed to the rostrum. Solemnly, he mounted the steps to the platform and turned to face the crowd with the small speech that every noble parent had delivered upon a child’s Kentommen for two thousand years.
“This day is one of sorrow for me,” he said simply in the old elven tongue. “I have lost a child.”
In the balcony, Miral suddenly caught the humor of that statement. He rocked with silent laughter. Little did Solostaran know, he thought. The mage decided to allow the charade to continue a bit longer. Who knew what other tidbits of unwitting mirth the Speaker might come forth with?
His hawklike features somber, Solostaran continued, “I have lost a child to the Grove. Thus, I have no heir. Can anyone offer comfort?”
One drum roll boomed from the first balcony, below Miral. He heard a door open far below, and three elves, dressed in black silk leggings and capes, with masks and gloves of black leather, stepped into view. The Ulathi.
“We have found a child,” said the first.
“He is pure of heart,” added the second.
“This child is an empty vessel waiting to be filled,” said the third.
They all intoned, “We have found a child who will be made your heir, your blood.”
The gong sounded. Gilthanas swung the door open and passed within. The door closed.
Tanis, entering from the blazing light of the Tower, blinked at the sudden near-darkness. He could see the candle flame flickering, but the figure of Porthios was only a dim shape in the darkness. The medallion that Flint had made mirrored the candle’s glow.
He had to draw Porthios nearer. What had Gilthanas said the words were? He dredged his memory.
“I am your childhood” he recited, trying to lighten his voice to sound more like Gilthanas. “Leave me behind. The mists are past—” That didn’t sound right, but he was doing the best he could—“Go to your future.”
“Gilthanas!” came Porthios’s horrified whisper. “Say the right words—and in the old tongue!”
“Don’t you remember them?” Porthios hissed. “Listen.” The Speaker’s son repeated the correct words in the ancient tongue. “Say them.”
Still Tanis hesitated. Porthios stepped closer, as Tanis had wished.
For a heartbeat, Tanis considered merely using his superior strength to overpower his cousin. He had punched Porthios in the face once before, long ago in the courtyard of the palace. That had started the only physical altercation the two cousins had ever had. And it had earned him Porthios’s enmity for years afterward.
“Porthios,” he said in his own voice. “Listen to me. Don’t go out that door.”
“Tanthalas!” Porthios’s face showed shock. “Where is Gilthanas? What have you—?”
“Listen!” Tanis hissed. “If you gained anything at all in your vigil in the Grove, listen to me now.”
His cousin stepped back, seemed to force a calm mien to descend over his features. He inhaled deeply, then exhaled. “What, Tanis?” he asked in his normal tones.
“There is a conspiracy to kill you and the Speaker.”
“The Speaker? Is he all right?”
“He’s fine. I am here to stop the killer.”
“You?” Porthios laughed shortly, but his face was surprisingly kind. “Tanis, you’re only a child …”
Tanis spoke hastily, aware that the onlookers would be getting uneasy outside the door. The worst thing that could happen now would be for someone to open that door and look inside. “Porthios, the same one who killed Xenoth and Eld Ailea is after you and the Speaker, and Laurana. I know this.”
“How do you know it?”
Tanis considered. He was running out of time for persuasion. He could resolve this situation by physical force, but his elven blood shuddered at the prospect of knocking out a youth during his own Kentommen, for whatever reason.
But he could lie.
“Porthios,” Tanis said, “Gilthanas is dead.”
There was a pause; Porthios’s features never changed.
“The murderer slew him, too. Porthios, if you and Laurana and the Speaker are killed, it will throw the kingdom into chaos.”
Porthios seemed to be struggling to digest all he’d heard. Tanis’s heart ached for him, for the half-elf’s part in causing that pain. “I have a plan, Porthios.”
The answer came calmly. “What is it?”
“Listen,” Tanis said. “I am expendable …”
Flint peered into the gap in the side of the oak tree that had saved his life months earlier. The tree had opened again in the interim, to the dwarf’s relief. He entered the hollowness, Fleetfoot hard on his heels. Flint paid her no attention.
“How did I get through before? What did I do?” he muttered, ankle-deep in dry forest litter, holding a burning brand over his head. “The rune.” He looked down. “The floor of the tree caught fire. Maybe that’s it.” He considered. “Well, if I’m wrong, I’ll merely burn to death.”
“Ah, well,” he said, and touched torch to debris.
Miral raced along the second balcony, his goal the spiral stairs to the main level. Gilthanas had spent far too much time in the corridor. Something was not going according to the mage’s plan. He raged with the injustice.
As he reached the door to the stairwell, he heard expressions of horror ripple through the onlookers, and he turned back.
“Porthios enters armed!”
“The Kentommen youth is never armed!”
Solostaran was pallid as he gazed at the figure he believed was his son and heir, but his self-possession never faltered. “Porthios,” he ordered. “Tell me what this means.”
“There is a murderer in the Tower,” Tanis cried, sweeping the hood back from his face.
More expressions of shock burst from the nobles as the crowd involuntarily parted and Tanis bounded through, his sword at the ready. With one leap, he was upon the rostrum, standing before Solostaran.
“Tanthalas!” Miral exclaimed from above. “But you’re dead!”
The youth whirled to face the mage. Tanis’s gaze caught Miral’s, and the mage saw pain flare within the youth. “How do you know, mage?” he demanded.
“Guards!” Tyresian thundered.
Tanis held up his sword, Elansa’s amulet glittering like a small sun. “The mage has twice killed, and he seeks to slay still more today.” He pointed the sword at Miral.
Miral fought back a laugh at the chaos below him. What better time to unleash his final spell? He began to chant.
“By the gods,” Tyresian barked. “The half-elf has lost his mind. And so has the mage. Guards!”
“Tanis, where is Porthios?” came Laurana’s shrill cry. “And Gilthanas?”
Tanis had no time to reply. He was dashing through the nobles to the stairwell. Black-garbed ceremonial guards poured into the Tower but didn’t immediately realize that the half-elf was the one Tyresian wanted them to capture. Tanis slipped through, threw open the door to the stairway, and took the steps three at a time.
As though the words pounded in his brain, Tanis could hear Miral continue his chanting. Above, the top of the Tower creaked.
Suddenly, Eld Ailea appeared before him on the stairs.
Tanis spun to a halt against the wall of the first landing. “Ailea!” he cried. “You’re not dead.” She looked down at him and smiled.
Xenoth turned into a middle-aged elf man with a slender face and eyes of purest blue. His arm supported a pallid woman with long, curly hair the color of wheat and eyes as brown as the earth. She looked at Tanis, raised one weak hand, and whispered, “Tanthalas, my son.”
Tanis stood motionless, feeling his heart thunder. The agony of the moment tore into him. Then he wrenched away, shouted, “This is magic!” and the two figures vanished into shimmering air.
He pushed through the spot where they had stood; cold fingers of air brushed against his arm as he pounded past.
“Miral!” he cried, bursting onto the second balcony.
Three chunks of tile burst from the mosaic and plummeted into the teeming mass of elves. A thin crack rent the top of the Tower.
At that moment, with a crash of thunder, Flint and Fleetfoot appeared on the rostrum.
“Arelas!” the dwarf called. His voice reverberated. “Arelas Kanan!” He pointed his hammer at the mage.
Miral’s chant slowed and stopped. Hands above his head, sweat starting from his palms, he held the spell and looked down at Flint. Suddenly, there was no noise in the Tower but tiny “pings” as bits of tile showered down from the double mosaic. The smell of rock and plaster was in the air.
“Arelas?” Solostaran said tentatively. “My brother?”
“Your brother never died, Speaker,” Flint said. “Not Arelas. He came to you as Miral.”
The mule brayed, breaking Flint’s spell, and Miral resumed his chant. A groan sounding like agony came from the division between the mosaic of day and the mosaic of night, at the top of the Tower.
“He slew Lord Xenoth for discovering who he really was,” Flint cried, his voice trembling with anger. “He killed Eld Ailea for the same reason. And now he wants to slay you and your children!”
Looking down at them, Miral felt the rage he’d been carrying for nearly two hundred years. He lowered his arms and ceased his chant. “They sent me away, Solostaran!” he shouted. “They sent me from Qualinost!”
“You were dying, Arelas,” Solostaran replied. “Or so we thought.”
“I was ever the more talented, Solostaran,” Arelas shouted. “I should have been Speaker. I will be Speaker! And I will keep Qualinesti for the pure elves. Now that I have the power of the Gray—”
A portion of a marble column that supported the first balcony burst, weakened by Arelas’s magic, and sent shards of rock spewing into the chamber. The nobles scattered. Arelas grimaced and threw his hands out, sending a burst of lightning toward the rostrum. Flint hurtled toward Solostaran, knocking the Speaker off the platform. Tyresian threw himself at Laurana, sending her spinning toward the relative safety of the balcony overhang. A block of marble crashed down upon the elf lord, and Laurana screamed.
Porthios burst from the Yathen-ilara.
“Arelas!” Tanis shouted again, and raised his sword.
But the mage laughed. “It won’t work, Tanthalas! The sword will not work against me.” He threw his arms wide and danced a few steps of glee. “I enchanted it, you see, at the same time I enchanted those arrowheads that you used so well against the tylor and Lord Xenoth.” The laughter turned into a coughing spell, and Tanis saw his chance. He sprang at Arelas, slashing with his sword.
But the sword clanged off something in the air and passed harmlessly over the mage’s head. Arelas raised his arms, pointedly turned his back on the half-elf, and continued chanting. Another patch of mosaic tile came down.
Arelas leaned over the balcony, one arm drawn back as if to throw another bolt of mage fire at the onlookers.
Tanis tried again. “Miral! Arelas! Gilthanas lives.”
Below, off to Tanis’s left, he could see Porthios’s head snap around, his face ablaze with hope as he learned that his younger brother had not died. Arelas turned, his face terrible, all color gone from his irises.
“He lives?” the mage demanded.
Even though the sword appeared useless against Arelas, Tanis kept it poised before him. “Gilthanas is above you in ascendancy, Arelas,” the half-elf shouted. “You will not be Speaker no matter what you do here today.”
Arelas quivered, as if he teetered at the edge of the Abyss. Then one arm shot forward, and lightning hurtled toward the half-elf.
Acting purely on instinct, Tanis raised his sword. The mage’s bolt struck Elansa’s pendant, melting it into drops of steel; a new burst of lightning arced from the sword back to the mage, who screamed with the blow and hurtled from the balcony.
His body burst into flame before it struck the floor of the Tower.