Kyse Firdsen was anxious. Naturally, he was always anxious, but today he was extra anxious. Today the Master was meeting with three kings. He wasn’t sure why the Master wanted him of all people, to attend the meeting. He wasn’t a member of the Apothecary. He wasn’t even a scholar. But what the Master wanted, the Master got. Kyse waited in the large, unnaturally smooth corridor outside the Master’s quarters, fidgeting with his hands and trying to look everywhere at once, without meeting anyone’s eyes. The corridor wasn’t busy. Occasionally men and women in the crimson robes of the Apothecary would pass him. Mostly they ignored a large man in leather armor, but a few cast him suspicious looks. One woman even seemed envious. The Master didn’t entertain visitors in his personal quarters. I’m not a visitor, he thought at her. I’m just a guard. The Master’s door opened and Kyse bowed deeply at the waist.
“Easy, Kyse,” The Master said. He had a pleasant voice, almost melodic, and he spoke in an even manner. “You’ll fall over if you bow any further.”
“Yes, Master,” Kyse said, wincing at the audible tremble in his own voice. He fell in step beside the Master. Kyse was head and shoulders taller, and more than half-again as broad as the other man. The Master seemed to drown in his own voluminous robes. They hid his hands and feet; the deep hood shadowed his face. Kyse didn’t mind that. His job was to accompany and protect the Master, not stare at him.
They made their way from the Master’s quarters, near the top of the Apothecary Tower, to the ground level, winding down several sets of stairs where robed men and women stopped and bowed as the Master passed them. Kyse wasn’t certain how they knew who it was, as the Master’s robes didn’t look any different than a hundred others. He didn’t have any extra embroidery, no sigil of rank or name. His robes weren’t even finer than most. Some of the higher ranked wore robes of silk, while the Master himself wore only fine wool. Yet they all knew him, simply by sight. The Master would nod to each as they bowed but kept moving. He had an appointment to keep.
Kyse led the way out of the Apothecary Tower, through a huge set of doors that was typically opened to all. They were closed now against the unnatural cold that was sweeping down from the north. The massive plaza just outside was actually covered in a thin dusting of snow. Snow! In Srecar, of all places, just after the onset of autumn. The plaza was a flat, paved square, dotted with statues, benches and fountains. It was often crowded with studious people, visitors to the city, and petitioners hoping to see a member of the Apothecary for cures to their ailments. Today it was all but empty. Kyse breathed in the sharp, cold air and looked out over the city. Srecar was the largest in the Three Kingdoms. It was built into a mountainside, on an island, in the center of Lake Heldrach, surrounded by five smaller landmasses, each with its own village. Huge, stone bridges soared over the open lake from each village into the city itself. The height was dizzying, as the Apothecary Tower occupied one of the highest tiers in the city. Below, in progressively larger steppes, the city sprawled out over the island.
The Master took the lead, walking with measured pace toward the palace. It was up one more level, at the highest point in the city. The mountain’s summit rose another hundred or more feet above, but Summit Keep’s tallest towers rivaled it. Mighty Stol, Mountain Lord, keep us safe from harm, Kyse prayed. Uthinar, keep the wind from blowing us away. He paused. Goddess Kina, keep the snow from burying the world. The Master chuckled beside him.
“Praying again, Kyse?” He asked in that sweet voice.
“Yes, Master,” Kyse said. “How did you know?”
“Your lips were moving,” the Master replied. “Did you mean them to be private prayers? I did not intend to intrude.”
“No, Master,” Kyse said. “I, well, didn’t realize I was moving my mouth.” The Master nodded sagely but said nothing. He merely led the way up the sidewalk toward the keep. Kyse shivered. His bare arms were broken out in goosebumps from the cold and his breath came in vaporous gulps of frigid air. Should have worn a coat, he thought. Foolish to think he would have such foresight. He’d only found out an hour or so past that he was accompanying the Master at all. The work of walking up one level would have to keep him from freezing for now. The sidewalk was carved out of the street like stairs, one set on either side of a wide, steep lane that led down from the summit into the rest of the city. Very little traffic passed this way, as only those with specific invitations were ever allowed into Summit Keep.
Kyse was huffing from the exertion when they reached the top of the stairs, but the Master didn’t even seem winded. He just continued along at the same pace, arm folded, exuding an air of mystery. Kyse hurried to stay at his side, broadsword thumping against one thigh. Two guards in the tri-colored livery of the Three Kingdoms allowed them to pass the towering front doors that led into the keep. Inside, warmth flowed back into Kyse’s body, tingling in his extremities. The halls were large and quiet, carpeted in the rich scarlet and gold of Srecar. The high ceilings were painted with murals, depictions of ages past and battles won. Stained glass windows let in streams of multi-colored light from above. The doors were adorned with stylized griffons, the sigil of Srecar and its ruling House Alethrandir. The Master walked straight toward the throne room. Kyse could hear him being announced as they grew close. How did they know to announce him? We haven’t seen anyone except the guards at the door. The Master was full of mystery. Even outside the tower.
At the end of a hall, two dark-stained doors opened and let Kyse and the Master into the throne room. It was a spacious chamber, lit by chandeliers and torches on the walls. The keep’s carpet was replaced here by polished marble in the scarlet, emerald, and sapphire of the Three Kingdoms. The tiles were patterned so no color repeated more than the others. They blended together until the very end of the room, where each color had its own section as a sort of buffer. Three identical thrones occupied the far wall, surrounded by their individual colors. The Master reached the center of the room and went to one knee. Kyse followed, bending the knee slightly behind the Master and bowing his head. This room was identical to the throne rooms in Naltar and Endulin, or so he’d heard. Ordinarily, only the King of Srecar would be here. Today, all three monarchs were in attendance. Two queens flanked the king in the center. Queen Linas Pareth of Naltar and Queen Brinyen Elith of Endulin. The King, Tenarin Alethrandir, stood and bowed to the Master.
“Remove that hood,” Queen Pareth said. She was a handsome woman in her middle years. All three monarchs were within a year or two of each other. They had the same proud bone structure, high-cheeks and blunted chin. The three ruling families were distant cousins, according to tradition. They still intermarried to keep the peace between them and to keep their bloodlines intact. Queen Pareth wore a gown of dark green, not quite the emerald of her realm, but close enough for propriety. It was in the Shandaran fashion, tight across the bust and the hips, but flowing elsewhere. Her graying black hair was tied up in a neat bun, fastened by golden clips. “Let us see your face, my dear.”
The Master removed his hood. Beneath was the fresh face of a boy, sixteen at the oldest. He was fair-skinned, with dark red hair and delicate features. His hands, exposed now from the depths of his sleeves, were thin and long-fingered. He wore three golden rings on each hand, a ruby, emerald, or sapphire was fixed in each of them. He smiled at the monarchs as he rose to his feet, bright blue eyes flashing. Kyse stiffened despite himself. He knew what the Master looked like, but it never failed to unnerve him.
“E’eldr Tethraad,” King Alethrandir said. The Master’s true name. “You know why we have summoned you?”
“Of course,” the Master said. “Word of the snow in the north preceded its appearance here, but I deduced that you would call for me when I saw my ladies’ carriages arrive.”
“And what can you tell us?” The king asked. He was a well-built man, though smaller than Kyse in height and muscle. His black hair, streaked through with silver, was tied back in a single, neat braid and his beard was forked into two, thinner braids that fell to his chest. The king turned his attention to Kyse. “Is this a bodyguard?”
The Master shook his head, grinning. “Never in your presence, my lord,” he said. “Kyse Firdsen is, perhaps the most superstitious man I have ever met. His expertise will be of much use to us here today.” Kyse gaped, heedless of how foolish he must look. The Master gestured to him and stepped backward.
“Master?” Kyse managed, weakly.
“Kyse, you must be wondering why I brought you along,” the Master said. “Did you think it odd that I asked a guardsman to accompany me?” Kyse worked his throat to reply but the Master continued speaking. “Of course you did. You find everything odd. You see, I know about your silent praying and your lucky charms, the rituals you conduct yourself every morning and evening. I know how you’ve read almost everything in the section of my library, the one you’re supposed to be guarding.”
“Gods above,” Kyse said. “Master, I am—”
“An expert,” the Master said. “Please, tell the Triumvirate what significance this winter could have for us.”
Winter? Kyse couldn’t think of any significance to early winter. Nothing specifically from the library. He flushed as the three rulers turned their attention to him. The Master watched with those too-young eyes. Why didn’t you bring one o...