Strin had traveled the length and breadth of the Horizon in his 28 years.(1)» He had seen its wide plains of grass and groves; he had seen its stiletto forests, like needles of green puncturing the plains; he had seen its lonely houses and its twilight caverns and its huddled villages. He had met its people—the good, honest men and women who lived each day as their morals and traditions had taught them; the crooks, thieves, charlatans, and bandits who lived each day exploiting those morals and traditions; and those who were intolerably stubborn, a category that overran all boundaries and stereotypes, a grouping that included—in one sense or another—the majority of those who lived on the Horizon.
And on the entire Horizon, there was no sanctioned enforcer of the law. Written laws themselves were scarce—there was no need to write a law when everyone assumed the same truths. Children, exempt from knowing these truths, had the truth instilled in them, whether through lectures and lessons, or a belt and sore bottom.
On the Horizon, the whim of a single woman was not a law; it was a hint to her suitors. In any case, there was a general distrust of single females among certain Horizon men.
But even on the Horizon, far from the visible vestings and workings of the Kingdom, the idea of the Empress invoked a sense of awe and power. The legends of the Crystalline Castle held more sway than any decision made in the actual, sparkling thing. The Empress herself was a distant, mythical persona, half-believed in and half-feared, like the stories of dragons in the West. To Horizon folks, the Empress was wise and powerful, terrible and wonderful to behold, the Fist of Justice and the Palm of Care … but somewhere else and not there. But still, this exalted view of the Empress— as more than human, or perhaps, more human than most—Strin expected to see. He wanted to believe she sat in the Aerie even now.
But that Empress did not exist.
Had the Empress ever been as the stories tell? The question drifted about Strin’s mind like rotten wood down a stream, bouncing slowly along the bank, caught for a long while, then set free again.
“All stories, fantastic or otherwise, somewhere deep within them, break down into one of two categories.” The words were those of his master, Leo Deniril, and though he was now dead, Strin often remembered the lessons he used to give. “There are those stories that exaggerate what is great, what is noble, what is true, sometimes even what is evil and twisted; in essence, what is. These hope to expand upon those things which touch and move the listener in order to greater inspire and impact those listening.
“But then there are those other stories, the rarer stories, the most precious ones, which, by their very nature, cannot fully describe their own subject. They try through words to express something larger than the imperfect words they can hold. They try to imitate emotions more expansive than an epic can contain, events more real than our senses can grasp, reality more faceted than we can perceive except in moments of utter, mystifying clarity—things that a second of life can hold, but volumes of books cannot. There are in this world, Strin, things more fantastic and more joyful than any legend could begin to tell.”(2)»
“Like what, Master?” Strin remembered asking.
Leo had smiled inscrutably, as he often had. “If I had words to tell you, I would tell you.”
Years later, Strin began to understand.He had been lounging on a stone wall outside a village they were visiting. He had been watching the people pass. A girl had passed, a few years younger than he. She had been smiling. Her eyes had swept past his—they had met his for a brief moment. She had continued on.
She had been no prettier than any other girl, less so than many, but that moment when their eyes met had been like … it was not romance. It was something deeper, and more universal. There had been as much life in that one girl as in all the world. It was as if the life in her eyes had been the evidence of some deep well, and the joy in her brief smile, springing from that same well, had been reflected endlessly in parallel mirrors, building wave upon wave of life and joy into a grand cascade, all she had been and was and would be existing simultaneously. Strin knew she wasn’t special; she was a regular person. But he had glimpsed unfathomable glory in that instant—the glory of any regular person.(3)»
Strin had never questioned being a hero. He knew he had been born to do what he was now doing. He had never desired anything else. He had never questioned his ability or his right. And now there were people in danger, people he felt responsible for, and he could help them as few others could. He had killed Sertrims before. A selfish whim was not a law.
And if he was wrong, he would be willing to accept the consequences.
* * *
The Knight Place shimmered with an off-white sparkle, as if ever and always a dusty cloud tainted the sunlight reaching it. Its window frames ran imperceptibly downhill, giving studious passersby a perspective headache. The aroma drifting from the kitchen, while enticing, always smelt the same and never drew an envious sniff. The rooms were quaint, which meant they were small.
Only in the Crystalline Castle could such an inn be considered run-down. Advisor Celina Ven passed the inn for the fourth time and continued once again around the block.
Why—O why!—had she come? There would be trouble if she did what she planned, what she had outlined, hastily, in her head. She could be thrown off the Council. Worse, she could be exposed. It was bad enough that Qwom Jelp knew, but he had promised to keep silent out of that misplaced respect that only magicians could give.
She only wanted to be left alone. That was all she had ever wanted. And this plan—outline, really—was the best way to decimate what privacy she had, the privacy she grasped and hoarded. It was her nature to keep to herself. Working to become an Advisor had been a foolish idea, outdone only by actually becoming an Advisor. It was a calling with uncomfortable consequences. How do you advise when you’re afraid of speaking your mind? How do you vote when you’re unsure of your opinions? How do you direct a Kingdom when you can’t even force your feet to enter The Knight Place?
She stood before the inn again. She stopped and studied it, though her mind was elsewhere. She had become an Advisor for reasons so dear to her that she was not sure she understood them. It had been an ideal; now it was a reality.
Not for long, perhaps.
The position was enough of a hassle, wasn’t it? Why complicate things? Her feet itched to move. Why risk everything, risk every last bit of the life she had anxiously constructed for herself for an unnecessary mission? The Trio would adequately handle the Horizon situation. They were experienced, coordinated, well trained, famous—why not them?
Why did she feel—no, believe—that Strin and his apprentice should have received the vote? Why did she believe that the Horizon needed them?
Celina took a deep breath and stepped into the inn. A second later, she stepped out and berated herself in a tense whisper. She entered again.