So Tobimar and Poplock had been looking to arrange a meeting...
"Well?" Poplock asked. "Any luck?"
Tobimar grinned, accompanying the smile with a gesture as though handing something to Poplock that meant things had gone well. "We'll be talking to the Adjudicator and Marshal of Hosts T'Oroning'Oltharamnon hGHEK R'arshe Ness by the end of the day. And maybe, if we're lucky, the King himself."
Poplock bounced onto Tobimar's shoulder, which sported solid guards excellent for a Toad his size to perch on. "If you manage his name that well when we meet, he'll probably be impressed. Humans usually don't do that well."
Tobimar nodded. "It's not easy. Some of those sounds aren't meant to be pronounced by our voiceboxes, you know." He shook his head with a wry smile. "The Lord of Waters – my mother – was very, very emphatic about getting those sorts of things right, though. I remember when my brother Terimur tried to use an EXHALED cough for the hGHEK sound… oh, the Waters were troubled THAT day. A dry day for Terimur."
"Don't suppose you speak much Toad."
Tobimar snorted. "I know enough to know I'd look like a fool trying. Your language includes little hops and face-shapes for the nuances, and some of the sounds! I don't have an air-bladder for a mouth."
"True, you poor humans are crippled that way," Poplock agreed equably. "But I'll give you credit for knowing your limits. And you do seem to have learned something about our language, which is more than most of you bipeds bother with. I guess being a prince makes you learn stuff."
"If you're a Silverun of Skysand? Learn or get no water past your ration, that's the way of things." Tobimar emerged from the carved-stone doorway of the Winnower of Speech, the office devoted to ensuring that proper petitioners had their opportunity to speak even with the highest in the land, and looked to his left and up.
The towers of the Palace loomed up nearby, the highest reaching more than half a mile into the sky, and it sent a small chill of awe down his back to think that soon he would walk through those gates and speak with one of the Ancient Saurans who might have actually walked his ancestral lands. It was of course too much to hope that he would remember the information Tobimar sought; the damage the unleashed energies of a Chaoswar did to even deific memories left only legends and vague senses of continuity usually. But there was no doubt he stood closer to the past in this place than anywhere else in the world – save, possibly, the peak of Mount Scimitar itself, or the rumored Fortress of the Wanderer.
"By the Rainbow Mountain, that's a big building. Gets me every time I see it this close."
"I don't think you're alone there. Sand and Stone, I think the central tower could hold most of Skysand's entire palace, maybe all of it, the Seven as well as the One."
"What's the meaning of that?" Poplock punctuated his question with a whipcrack of his tongue that snagged a passing beetle. "The Seven and One thing. That was in your story, that poem, too."
"Oh, that." Tobimar saw a flamespice vendor and handed him a pair of silver Glints for a couple of skewers of the seasoned, fire-cooked meat. "It all has to do with Terian." He explained the tradition of his family's connection with the Mortal God. "Eight is his number, but it's also crossed over with Seven – Terian's one of the few gods that is respected in the Empire of the Mountain because somehow the numbers Seven and One are sacred to the God-Emperor himself, or so they say."
"So is there… um, well, a Seven and a One?"
"The Seven Stars and the Single Sun?" Tobimar frowned in thought, taking a bite of the first skewer. "Well… there should be. 'Seven Stars and a Single Sun hold the Starlight that I do own'. Terian is sort of a derived name – it's from T'Tera a Mion, Greatest Lord of the Stars."
A bounce-nod. "Isn't it Terian Nomicon?"
"You're joking." A glance showed otherwise. "Oh. Well, no, Nomicon is… um… something like giver or creator or source of good power… it's a title for any of the great gods of nobility and good."
"Oh. I thought it meant that Elbon Nomicon and Terian Nomicon were related."
Tobimar burst out laughing, then apologized. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. But the thought of the Father of Dragons being related to the Mortal God… might as well ask if they were related to your god with the silly name –"
A kick to his ear stung. "Bah. It's you human and lizardy types that have gods with silly names. OUR god's name means something, and not in a language everyone else can't speak either; Blackwart the Great, and you will know him if you meet him, by that name alone."
Tobimar rubbed his ear gingerly and accepted the justified rebuke. "Anyway… where was I? Oh. Anyway, it's said that the Seven Stars are talismans Terian made that, combined with the Sun of Infinity, become something tremendously powerful."
"Infinity – that's the other name for Terian," Poplock said, pointing at the golden sigil clasping Tobimar's cloak.
"Indirectly, from the Seven Sacred Scrolls which tell parts of his tale, yes, as he is always referred to the same way throughout, as in that verse we were discussing."
"I did wonder," Poplock said, crawling with casual quickness over Tobimar's head to the other shoulder, "why it was that you didn't try that verse. Your mentor said it would be a weapon, right?"
"When nothing else would serve, yes, I guess. Though Khoros' words were never all that simple to interpret. And the power of Terian is really strongest against things of spiritual darkness – much worse than mazakh. If they'd summoned one of the Mazolishta, well then I might have tried it. But magic isn't really my strong suit."
He saw a towering shadow in the smaller castle doorway (a doorway still large enough for four men to walk through side-by-side) resolve itself into the massive figure of the Marshal of Hosts, accompanied by two human women who, while shorter by far than the immense Sauran, were clearly quite tall themselves. The first was an older woman with hair that had once been black, and still had streaks of midnight within the silver here and there; the other was much younger, maybe his own age, but with hair of mountain-sky blue, tipped it seemed with gold, and a brilliant flash of pure white in the center of her forehead. He'd noticed there was a lot of hair-coloring, skin-tinting, and feature-shaping in Zarathanton. The amount of casual magic, in fact, was staggering.
He stood to see if they would be next, but the Marshal leaned down to the Winnower and said something as the two women continued down the Road past Tobimar; the Winnower nodded and the Marshal disappeared back into the Castle, presumably to take care of some errand. Several other groups in Petitioner's Square, the area of the Great Road that was in front of the castle, had been doing the same thing.
"Where are we in line?" Poplock asked, showing he'd been thinking along the same lines.
"I think there's only one more group ahead of us, from what the Winnower said. If they don't take too much time, we'll be in pretty soon." He gestured at a small knot of five very young people standing near the Winnower's doorway, as though afraid to lose their place in line. "Still, 'pretty soon' could be an hour or so," he said. "So let's take a look at what's around the Palace Square. Lots of stores and booths here meant to take advantage of this big flow of petitioners, you know."
"Should we just wander around like that?" Poplock asked, looking back at the gate they were planning on eventually entering.
"Don't worry about losing our place," he said, and held up the carved crystal callstone. "The callstone will let us know when it's our time."
Poplock looked at it suspiciously. "How sure are you that it'll work no matter where we go?"
Tobimar laughed. "Very sure. This is very similar design to ones I've seen in Skysand, and I can't think of any time one failed, unless someone hit it with a negation –and that would be sand-blasted obvious since the crystal would stop glowing. And they'll work for at least a mile and a half."
"But that would take us a long time to get back from."
"True," Tobimar acknowledged, "and while they would be able to tell from the stone that we were responding, they wouldn't want to waste the time waiting, and neither would we. So that's why we'll stay here in the Square. Only a few minutes to cross even from the far side."
Satisfied, Poplock settled back down on Tobimar's shoulder, and Tobimar walked idly around the perimeter, examining cloth, buying a small crystallized sweetsap treat (and getting a bag of crickets for Poplock), and generally surveying the immense variety of goods to be found here in front of the Castle.
A display of goblets, trays, and other eating utensils caught his eye and he strolled over to the vendor. "Unusual to see a Child of Odin dealing in these wares."
"Hah!" Very humanlike but both too wide and too short for normal humanity, the Odinsyrnen vendor looked up with a smile on her broad-featured face. "You mean us dwarves deal more in the military workings. You'd be surprised indeed. But not so surprised, at that. Similar skills, and both requiring a heart for beauty in shaping, even if the one is for killing or preventing killing, while mine is – I like to think – far more practical application for everyday beauty." She watched him as he carefully picked up various pieces and examined them. "You have an eye for symmetry, I see."
"Symmetry is often a foundation for beauty," Tobimar agreed. "This one…" he held up a long serving platter, half of a silvery-blue metal, the other side of gold or a heavily gold alloy, the two halves separated by a filigreed border bar of silver or platinum, "… an excellent Ya-Shi-Naiga serving dish."
"Correct – but how do you know? After all, the matebond dishes for mazakh bonding feasts are very similar."
"Well, first, I think the mazakh bond-dishes have two pairs of handles, one pair near each end; they're carried to the table by the bonding couple, facing each other and moving sideways, if I rember right. This tray has two handles only, one large one on each end. Second," he pointed to the handles, "the blue end's handle has what looks to be an eight to ten carat Ymir's Blood set in the center, while the gold end sports a Fire Ruby of about the same size."
Poplock hopped onto his hand and poked at the Ymir's Blood, a gem the impossible pure blue of a glacier's heart. "Chilly. Oh, I get it!"
"You are quite correct, young human. The virtues of those stones now fill their respective portions of this dish, so that the hot-and-cold dishes favored in Artanian Ya-Shi-Naiga maintain their temperature and freshness during one of their interminable ceremonies. If you were able to identify those gems so certainly, however, you must either be far more perceptive, or perhaps more educated, than many."
Tobimar grinned. "It was the gems that caught my eye, actually." He noticed the Marshal now emerging from the main castle gate, then striding over to the Winnower; a few moments later the group of five young people followed the Marshal inside. Almost there. "I'm Tobimar Silverun."
"Silverun…" she said, seeming to roll the word around in her mouth as though sampling it. Then her eyes lit up with understanding. "Ah, now, of THE Silverun family? From Skysand itself? That would indeed make sense. Many gems from your country's mines have I used over the years; their magic is powerful and fresh. Well worth the premium." She leaned forward. "You wouldn't happen to have any… trading supplies, would you?"
Tobimar smiled back. "I'm not a miner or a vendor, but I have been carrying some… reserves with me."
"Any you care to sell? I'm looking for materials now as it is."
Tobimar brought out the small pouch he kept hidden in his clothing and handed it to the merchant. She carefully opened it and poured the contents unobtrusively into a nearby table, set slightly below the level of the display stands, with a low ridge running around the outside to prevent anything on it from rolling or falling off.
"Not a bad collection…" the Child of Odin began. "Let's see, now…"
After some considerable haggling (with occasional interjections and heckling by Poplock), Tobimar and Kalma Odinforged arrived at agreement, and she gave over a bag with a satisfying heft of assorted gold and silver coinage in exchange for two Suncores and a decent-sized Vor-Nahal whose deep sapphire color echoed the power in it; it caught at the winds and nearly levitated itself through its own magic, even though it had not yet even been cut.
"You aren't working for the money, I see." Poplock said as they walked away.
"Not entirely, no – though I really prefer not to dip into that reserve very often. I just have a feeling I might need a lot of ready money soon, depending on what we find out today. And she'll make good use of the stones. " As he spoke, he saw the five young people leaving the castle gate, talking animatedly among themselves.
"Ooo. We should be up next then," said Poplock, following his gaze. "Good timing; you've got your reserve, and we'll be in soon."
"I don't see the Marshal yet, though. He – no, wait, there he is."
The Marshal now emerged from the second door and spoke to the Winnower; they exchanged a few comments, the Winnower shrugged, and suddenly the callstone in Tobimar's left pocket vibrated and gave off a crystalline chime. "That's us!"
He hurried up to the Winnower's doorway and presented the callstone, which now also flickered with a leaf-green light. "Tobimar Silverun and Poplock Duckweed," he announced.
"Very good. The Marshal will speak with you now, and you have also been granted an audience with the His Majesty." The Ancient Sauran Marshal took the callstone, which changed to a clear white light in his scaled hand, and turned to face Tobimar.
Tobimar bowed, one leg extended, and managed a swept-pivot to the full rear-facing position before turning back around, The Marshal returned the gesture, his motion far more impressive than Tobimar's given that the great Sauran stood over eight feet high and massed… well, more than Tobimar wanted to guess. "Tobimar of the Silverun, welcome. And to you, Poplock Duckweed … of Pondsparkle, I would presume?" The deep voice was full of subtle humor, and Tobimar liked it immediately.
"Good presumption. Left home about four years ago though," the Toad answered.
"I thank you for your welcome, T'Oroning'Oltharamnon hGHEK R'arshe Ness." He was actually quite pleased by the way he managed the inhaled-choking sound in the middle.
A deep rumble of an approving chuckle rolled out from the Marshal. "I appreciate your kindness in attempting my name – and in truth, you do wonderfully well with it for a human. But please, call me Toron, as my human friends have. Follow me."
"Thank you… Toron."
This time they were taken in through the main gate, and Tobimar could see just how immense the interior construction was. It was not merely some sort of overly-ostentatious entrance hall; instead, the corridor continued, for a good fraction of a mile north it appeared, with a height of four hundred feet and a width of nearly three, ending in a set of doors of pearl-white and jet-black, set with the lightning sunburst of the Dragon King in the center of the double doors.
"No need for thanks; the summary of the intelligence you bring to us was… quite interesting. Indeed, his Majesty was most insistent on speaking with you directly once we understood the nature of your interest."
"Does he… know something, then?"
A snort of deep draconic amusement. "He knows many things. About your quest, perhaps not, but then again, perhaps yes. It is your friend's story which we both find of more import – and the possible connection to it which you have discovered within our own city. But we will not ignore your own request, I assure you; Skysand is far away, but a good ally to have in the north of the world." The deep-set black eyes, with a visible faint red glow deep within, shifted to Poplock. "Your news is four years old, as I understand it? How is it that you did not bring it to our attention before?"
Poplock shifted uncomfortably, and Tobimar felt some sympathy, having discussed the issue with him before. "Well… at first it just seemed more our problem. And the problem was over when everything went boom, so no reason to worry any more. But a while ago I started thinking it was maybe not quite over, since old bugface had made a bunch of threats, and I tried to get an audience a couple of times, but the Winnower… well, I didn't know how to put it, exactly, and he didn't seem to take me seriously."
The frown of an Ancient Sauran could be pretty intimidating, and Tobimar was relieved when Toron spoke again. "I am afraid that was a failure on our part. Even careful checks of one's moral outlook and diligence will not reveal so subtle a bias as simply not taking Toads seriously… not when this is a widespread attitude. Fortunately we replaced that Winnower recently."
"And I met Tobimar who seems to know how to talk to people like that and get their attention."
"Fortunate, that. But unfortunate that your own mistake and our failure have combined to keep such a potentially dangerous situation from our attention. We will of course discuss all of this in detail in the Throne Room."
They were now approaching the black and white double doors, and Tobimar could now see that Elbon Nomicon's symbol apeared to have been carved from a set of impossibly huge diamonds, single crystals fifty to a hundred feet or more in length. "Where in the world did they find such gems to carve?"
"Ah, that would be a question to occur to a Skysand, to one of the sands and mines. No ordinary crystal, that, for it was carven entire from a single one of the Dragon King's scales."
Tobimar did not quite catch the next few words, as his mind was suddenly overwhelmed by imagining the size of a Dragon which could have a single scale so huge that it would have clearly served to cover most, if not all, of that entire door. "I beg your pardon?" he said, realizing that he had just been asked a question.
"I said, do you understand the etiquette of the Throne?"
"I've been told it once, but I wouldn't mind you reviewing it."
"It is fairly simple. You will enter, I will announce you to the King. You will then advance near to the base of the throne – about ten human paces back – and perform the Armed Bow. Make sure your weapons are more visible, your cloak hid one of them when you did it for me. It is imperative your weapons be very clearly visible; it is a grave insult for there to be appearance of an unarmed guest or petitioner in the presence of the King.
"When you have finished the full turn, the King will rise, advance to the base of the Throne, and return the bow. He will then speak to you to begin the audience, and the rest will go as conversation takes it. When you are dismissed, you must perform the Armed Bow once more and leave the room. The doors will close for a moment, you will wait, then I will emerge after having performed my own bow, and I will lead you back outside." Toron looked at both of them. "Are there any questions?"
"No," Tobimar said, "that seems fairly straightforward." Poplock bounced agreement.
Toron nodded, then raised the callstone in his hand; the doors echoed the light, and swung smoothly and with startling silence inward.
Before them was the Throne of Dragons. It dominated even the immense, egg-shaped room it was in, facing the doors from the far end of the room. It sat upon a circular layered dias of seventeen pure glittering crystal slabs, different colors alternating until the pure diamond at the very top, which seemed to be a single piece with the throne itself a polychromatic jewel carved by a master sculptor. There was no ordinary stone on the throne or its supporting dias. Eight pillars, each of a single massive glittering crystal, supported the room in a pair of long opposed arcs, with the path to the Throne leading between them. In many ways it was impressive in stark simplicity; the floor and walls were pure polished stone, granite or so it appeared, unadorned, unmarked by symbol or painting.
In the throne sat the Sauran King, his dark form shadow-silhouetted against the transparent brilliance of the throne which, along with the dias, seemed filled with light that brought vision to every part of the throneroom. He looked even larger than Toron, and his head was lowered as though gazing down on those entering his domain.
"Your Majesty!" Toron's voice was powerful and formal now. "I present to you Tobimar Silverun of Skysand, Seventh of Seven, Seeker of his people; and with him Poplock Duckweed of Pondsparkle."
Tobimar took a deep breath and advanced steadily forward. The Sauran King. The most powerful ruler in the entire world – save, possibly, the God-King of the Mountain – and the holder of the throne which had seen all the history of Zarathan unfold since the very beginning. He hoped he wouldn't screw this up.
When he'd reached what he guessed to be ten paces, he stopped, whipped his cloak off (almost upsetting Poplock, but the little Toad was very nimble) to expose his twin blades' scabbards, and bowed low, extending his foot as far behind as he could. A moment later he completed the ritual pirouette and stood, looking upward.
A moment passed. Two. Still the King did not move.
Toron moved up to them, puzzlement clear on his face. "Majesty?"
There was still no response, and now a deep forboding came over Tobimar's heart. Something's badly wrong.
Toron apparently felt the same way, for suddenly he was moving briskly up the Hundred And One Steps towards his King. Poplock had bounded from Tobimar's shoulder and was hopping his way up faster, outpacing the massive Sauran. Tobimar ran after both.
"Stay back, both of you!" Toron bellowed, and even the little Toad stopped dead in his tracks. Toron reached the top and advanced carefully to stand before the King. A few moments passed, and then he whirled suddenly and gave a roar that was amplified to deafening intensity by the empty vastness of the Throne Room.
A glow of light materialized before Toron and he began speaking quickly into it, mostly in the tongue of his people. Tobimar cautiously advanced to where Poplock stood, on the Hundredth Step, and picked up his friend.
From this range, he was only about twenty feet from the Throne, and he could see the King, head bowed almost to his chest.
And in the chest, showing dark-red against dark gray-green, four perfect holes in a curving line.
The Sauran King was dead.