Chapter 3

The talk in the Counsel Chamber was whispered and anxious. The Counsellors, sat around the massive marble table, comparing points of view and exchanging opinions, in hushed tones, after recovering from their shock and amazement.

Without looking round, the Emperor gestured to the guard stood behind him, pointing to the doors where the other two guards stood, securing entry to the Counsel Chamber.

The guard, in turn, signalled to another, who left the room for a moment and then returned with the old woman, Beatrice.

The Emperor raised his hand and the room promptly felt silent.

“This morning,” began the Emperor, “It was necessary to end the life of a priest who had been arrested for treason by Laar Dreadmont and his people.”

Queen Kenitra flinched, inwardly, at the use of the word “Laar”, meaning “esteemed” in the old tongue. In her opinion, Dreadmont was a long way from ever deserving the title “Laar”.

“I have learned that the priest was promised a last-minute pardon in return for his co-operation.” The Emperor’s face took on a troubled look, “I had no idea.”

The Wise Elder closest to Callibus looked to the Emperor and placed his index finger on the middle of his bottom lip. The Emperor granted his request to speak by clenching his lips with his teeth.

“What kind of treason, your Excellency?”, asked the old man.

“Plotting with the rebels who attacked the palace two months ago.”

“The rebels were taken by surprise”

“Yes.” replied the Emperor.

“They were taken by surprise in the temple.”

“Yes.”  replied the Emperor.

“The priest would have known about…” the old man hesitated, “About the….”

Callibus cleared his throat theatrically. The old man closed his mouth.

“The priest,” said Callibus, “Could have taken steps that would have ensured that the rebels were not discovered.”

“Indeed,” the Wise Elder confirmed, “That was precisely my meaning.”

Callibus gave the Elder an amiable smile.

The female Wise Elder spoke: “If the priest were assisting the rebels, he appears to have made sure that they were caught.”

The Emperor, Callibus and the two Wise Elders exchanged meaningful glances, but, by common consent, left the words they were all thinking unspoken.

Unbidden, the words in question flashed through Kenitra’s head: “Then why did Dreadmont want him dead?”

As children, Kenitra, Zarr and Yant had played in the secret tunnels that ran through the walls, ceilings and floors of the temple and the palace, learning how to escape and hide if the buildings were ever attacked and taken. Their parents had drilled into them that this was vital to know because – at all costs - they were to avoid ever being captured and held for ransom.

Kenitra looked up to where the rafters under the roof met the tops of the walls. She could see the tiny slits and holes where somebody could secretly look down. As children, they would pretend to be firing poisoned darts on the people below, slaying them while remaining invisible and undetected.

 The male Wise Elder cleared his throat and Kenitra’s attention flew back to the room.

Pronouncing the word ‘Laar’ as if it were poisonous, the elder asked: “Where is… Laar… Dreadmont?”.

Before she even realised that she had spoken, Kenitra said: “His name is Carl Dreadmont, Wise One.”

The merest hint of a smile danced for a second on the Emperor’s lips.

The Wise Elder bowed graciously to the Queen and said: “Your Highness.”

The Queen bowed back, an extremely rare and hugely significant gesture for a Queen Consort, which caused Callibus to stiffen.

“Laar Heek.” She replied, using the old tongue for “Esteemed and revered”.

Callibus sat bolt upright as if he had been pricked by a pin.

The Wise Elders looked at one another for a long moment. Then both Wise Elders looked at the Emperor for a long moment. The Emperor’s expression remained completely impassive. The Emperor looked over at his daughter. To anybody else, his eyes were expressionless, but to Kenitra they shone with immense pride. Immense pride in her.

Zarr and Yant, from their distant end of the table looked wistfully at their father. Without a word being spoken each knew what the other was thinking. They would give anything for their father to ever look at them like he was looking at their sister.

At that precise moment, a long mournful note from a horn began to sound. It was like the cry of a lonely wolf. It seemed to hang in the air for a long time.

The Emperor waited for the note to fade and then said: “Dreadmont is no more.”

Kenitra watched the Counsellors exchange nervous glances. Those who had been closest to Dreadmont looked the most uneasy. Rebel attacks in the Capital City were not commonplace, but few felt entirely relaxed. Treachery by one within the Palace, as highly placed as Dreadmont, was shocking and disturbing.

Dreadmont had been responsible for safeguarding the peace of the Palace, in particular, and of the Capital City in general. His ruthlessness had made him feared, but he had failed to keep good relations with several important people and this had proved fatally unwise.

Kenitra mused that, had Dreadmont been in the habit of killing less people, he would have made more friends and fewer enemies. He had, however, enjoyed being feared and killing had become almost a hobby to him.

“We live in dangerous times,” said Callibus, solemnly.

“…And,” replied the Emperor, “The danger isn’t getting any less.”

Callibus followed the direction of the Emperor’s eyes and found them to resting on the woman, Beatrice, who had remained silent throughout. The Emperor met Callibus’ gaze and gave him a very discrete nod.

“Gentlemen of the Counsel. Ladies of the Counsel. Wise Elders.” Callibus began, “Before us is a woman who has travelled here from the West…..”

He scanned the faces of those gathered, noting that while most looked only slightly disapproving, a couple were unable to hide a sneer.

“…..As far West as you can go.” He added.

Callibus noted, with satisfaction, the sudden jolt of electricity that instantly travelled around the room and the look of surprise on their faces.

“Dreadmont,” Callibus told them, “During his last hour of existence, shared information – after skilled persuasion - that he had previously withheld.”

Everybody looked intently at Callibus.

“We, in Oydrae, know of the lands that lay at our borders, from the South East, all the way around to the North West. These lands pay us taxes. They raise troops for us. We protect them from hostile neighbours. They deliver us tribute every five years. To the West, however, things are different. The further we go, the more the lands become inhospitable. Eventually, things are so hazardous that our presence and our influence peters out.”

“This lady,” said Callibus, pointing to Beatrice, “Comes to us from the furthest West. She knows what lays beyond the ape men, beyond the wizards and witches and beyond those horrible, nightmare creatures.”

Callibus touched two fingers to his forehead, as he looked at Beatrice, and the rest of those present did the same, some looking slightly puzzled. When the Emperor made the same gesture, any puzzlement was replaced by astonishment.

“This lady is Beatrice,” Callibus announced, “And she is fluent in the High Speech of the Ancients. The Emperor receives her as one of noble birth. Her news is of such importance that you have been urgently called to hear it personally.”

Beatrice bowed and cut the air to the Emperor, to the Queen, to Callibus, then to both Wise Elders in the traditional sign of deference and submission, then looked directly at Zarr and Yant, at the other end of the table, and touched her forehead with two fingers to show respect.

Zarr and Yant barely managed to hide their surprise. They were not regarded as High People in the Capital City. They were brothers of the Queen Consort and sons of the Emperor. Yet, this visitor, had singled them out with a meaningful gesture.

Beatrice reached behind her head and tugged at something. Both of Emperor’s Guards, who were stood nearby, put their hands - lightening quick - to the grip of their swords and bared the first couple of inches of steel, ready to draw at any hint of need. Beatrice appeared to hear the sound but did not flinch. She continued to pull at the thing behind her neck and, as she did so, a thin rope began to surface from under her top.

Kenitra glanced at Callibus, as he gazed, entranced, at the scene that was unfolding. Subconsciously, Callibus’ own hand went to the nape of his neck where, less than an hour ago, he had worn the blue rope of a messenger. Suddenly, Callibus’ eyes widened, like saucers. At that precise moment, from the corner of her eye, she saw the two Emperor’s Guards drop to one knee. Kenitra looked quickly back to the old woman and her jaw fell open.

 Zarr and Yant leapt to their feet simultaneously, both slowly and deliberately cutting the air, horizontally, with the palm of an upturned hand.

 The Queen Consort looked at her father and her heart melted as she caught the almost indiscernible look of pride in his eyes as he regarded her two brothers.

 Her tall brothers grew taller.

The rope around the old woman’s neck had risen steadily up until it was around her throat. She wore not the blue rope of a messenger, but the ceremonial purple rope of a Senior High Envoy sent by a king, a queen, an empress or an emperor!

 The shock in the chamber was unmistakable.