Part 6

by Shane Carlson

Author’s Note: Sorry so much time between postings. Please bear with me as I figure out how to put this story together. A map of Velledore and Background Notes have been posted at

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


    Copyright © 2003 by Shane Carlson ( This story is posted for the enjoyment of readers of the Nifty Archive. You are free to make a personal, non-commercial copy; all other rights reserved by the author.

    This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to persons living or dead is coincidental.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~



    Havym’s eyes went to the small cup in his opponent’s hand, which shot forward and spilled its contents on the ground. The dice rolled to a stop, and—damnation! Deep fog.

    They were playing Winter Fog, an easy game using two dice: one with seven faces and the other with eight. Deep fog was a throw of two sevens. The only better throw was the name of the game itself, Winter Fog, a throw of seven and eight. Havym picked up the dice and shook them in his hand, ignoring the small cup. As he shook, he got that feeling again, a sudden slight dizziness and swirliness in his vision. Fighting back a small surge in his stomach, he rolled the dice.

    Even before they stopped, he knew. The small crowd around him gasped, and his opponent hissed, then threw some coins at Havym and strode away, muttering.

    In a daze, Havym gathered them up, missing a couple, and stuffed them in his pockets. As he did so, he noticed all his pockets seemed to be bulging. He patted one of them, and they clinked. Havym shook his head. Was that money? Where had it come from?

    Distractedly, he felt for his dice pouch, and felt a clinking bulge there as well. There didn’t seem to be any dice, though. He rubbed his eyes, and tried to think—something about forgetting his dice. But that hadn’t stopped him from dicing, of course.

    He wasn’t quite sure what had happened. One game had followed another, one face after another, one crowd after another, and all had resulted in showers of coins. A couple of times here and there, he had felt a nagging sensation, as if he were forgetting something, especially when he had looked up at one point and noticed that it had started raining. But then he had heard that sound. Rattle. And his mind went blank. How could he think of anything else when there was a game at hand? And anyway, why should he bothered about a little rain?

    With the rain, the crowds of onlookers had grown less and less. Now, as Havym looked around him, he realized everybody was gone, and it was pouring.

    He looked around in distraction. Where was everybody? There was still plenty of time for another game!

    As if in answer, he heard a voice say, “A bit wet for a game, don’t you think?”

    Havym looked around, but didn’t see anybody. He was in a narrow alley. Already dim, the alley was made dimmer by the solid grey sky from which torrents of rain cascaded down. The alley reminded him of something but conscious recognition squirmed away like a slippery fish. Had he been in an alley before? Crates and barrels... Sailors...

    He shook his head as the thought slipped away. It seemed awfully dark. He shivered because it had become awfully cold, too. He experienced a moment of vague doubt—something about the time. Was it late? It was impossible to tell with the cloud cover. Why was that important, anyway?

    Not sure if he should be irritated about it, he realized he couldn’t remember. The coins in his bulging pockets clinked as he turned one way and the other. Had someone spoken?

    The voice, now laughing, said, “But not too wet, I shouldn’t think.”

    Feeling confused, Havym looked around again and still saw no solid form to attach to the voice. He looked up into the rain and saw water pouring from the sky—water and more water like a million tears. He couldn’t help but smile to himself at the thought of the Grey Girl being spanked. She must have been especially naughty to be crying such a deluge.

    He looked down and the man was in front of him.

    Havym gave a start at the little fellow’s sudden appearance, backing away a step as coin-laden pockets clinked wetly in his sodden cloak.

    The man smiled broadly and gave an extravagant bow, saying, “A pleasant afternoon to you, my young sir.”

    Havym stared dumbfounded at his new companion. Considering the downpour, the queer little fellow seemed curiously dry. He was about as nondescript a man as Havym could imagine: so unremarkable that, even as he looked at him, Havym practically forgot what he looked like. Dressed in a plain brown cloak, he was short in stature and somewhere between plump and fat, his receding hairline the only indication of age in an unlined face. His dark eyes were shifty, just short of beady, and focused somewhere to the left of Havym’s ear.

    In his strange, sidelong manner, the man looked at Havym, and said, “It would appear the weather has driven off your unworthy opponents, sir. I see before me a most hardy young gentleman, to continue his quest in such inhospitable conditions.”

    Havym stared. What was he talking about? “My... quest?” he asked.

    Laughing, the man responded, “Of course your quest! You are obviously a gentleman undeterred by such silly things as a bit of cold and wet when there are games at hand! Chances to be taken! Riches to be won! And dice to roll!”

    Havym shifted in his dripping cloak, and felt his weight of coins tinkle gently, “But, I have no dice.”

    Eyes twinkling, the man reached into his cloak and withdrew a pouch of grey suede, saying, “Ah! But I do.” He nodded thoughtfully as he opened the pouch, “At least, I have one die, which I believe is sufficient for a game. With a small wager, of course.”

   The man pulled out a small, shining object which he placed in the center of his palm and displayed to Havym, who stared in awe.

   About the size of a thumb, the object was indeed a seven-sided die, nearly proportional and marked on each face by symbols of each Daughter, although, since there were only seven sides, the Eighth Daughter probably was left out. Most dice were carved from wood or stone, and sometimes marble, but the die before him gleamed like a jewel. It seemed a pearl, but was translucent and filled with grey mists. Staring into it, those mists swirled and sparkles of color were revealed. Havym was transfixed by those sparkly whorls, gazing on them as the colors swelled inside.

    His trance was broken when the man closed his fist around the glimmering object. Havym shook his head as he saw after-images of color dance about him for a moment. Trying to think, he considered that the object must be a blessed die. Sometimes also called divine dice, these tools of gambling were cut from precious stones and always had eight faces, each bearing a symbol of the goddesses. They supposedly were blessed by a member of the Grey Clergy and were used by the rich for games of high stakes. The die he had just seen, however, was wrong. Havym could think of no precious stone of such a unique color of grey. The color was reminiscent of a pearl, but no pearl could be so large. Havym frowned as he realized that no pearl could allow light to travel through it as this one did. And he had certainly never heard of a pearl being cut into a die—although he knew he was hardly an expert on precious gems.

    It was more than just its color, however. Havym had seen so many dice in his short life that he could immediately determine how many faces any one of them had, and he was sure the enticing object still covered by the man’s hand had only seven sides. Blessed dice always had eight sides, one for each Daughter. It would be blasphemous to leave one of the Daughters out. Worse, it would be unlucky.

    Looking at the tricky character in front of him, Havym doubted that blasphemy was a concern for the man, although he was sure luck must be. Why had the die only seven sides?

    The man winked at him, and said, “You’ve a quick eye, my boy, although you would do well to make its contents less obvious!”

    Havym frowned at the perceived slight, and the man chuckled as he said, “I see you like my pretty die, and yet you wonder at its blasphemy?” He opened his fingers a bit, revealing a tantalizing glimpse of opalescent shimmering. “Ah, this is a special piece, and rare.” He opened his hand fully, and Havym felt dazed at the shining glory before him. “Here, I will show you it is not entirely blasphemous,” the man continued, smirking, “Naughty, certainly, but not blasphemous.”

    He turned the die over until the first face was revealed, the side on which the Eye of the Good Mother was etched. This face was usually the winning throw, but, depending on the game, could also be a loser. To Havym’s surprise, inside the Eye was etched a small octagon. The maker of this piece had placed both the First and Eighth symbols on one face!

    Tearing his eyes away from the gleaming jewel, Havym looked curiously at the little man, “Naughty, indeed! What sort of game do you play with this?”

    The man laughed in glee, “Aha! Many games can you play with this piece, dear sir! Simple or complex, lengthy or quick, it all depends!”

    “Depends on what?” Havym asked.

    Suddenly, the man stopped laughing. He ceased his sidelong glancing at a spot an inch past Havym’s ear and faced the young man fully and square. Havym took a step back at the abrupt intensity of the man’s stare directly into his eyes.

    The man replied, “It all depends on the wager.”

    Feeling wary at the change of mood, Havym said nothing as the man continued, “I see you have been most lucky today, young man. Very, very lucky. Why look at those bulging pockets full of coin!”

    Havym pulled his cloak about him in sudden fear, but the man went from serious to jolly in a flash, laughing as he said, “Oh, don’t worry! I won’t steal your coin.” He smirked, “Unless you make a foolish wager, of course.”

    Giving the man a narrow look, Havym asked, “What wager do you propose?”

    Deep-set eyes gazed beadily at him as the man changed his mood yet again, from jollity to pensive contemplation. “Although, in your present condition, I am unsure of the wisdom in betting against you.”

    Havym could only stare at the strange character before him. Tiring of the man’s mercurial shifts of mood and roundabout manner of conversation, Havym nearly decided to leave and find an inn or stable—anyplace out of the rain—that would find people, coin, and, preferably, dice. He felt his luck seething within him; the back of his head throbbed and he saw strange shadows in his vision. A churning sensation in his stomach made him fear he would sick up if he didn’t find release soon—release that could only be found in the rattle of dice.

    And yet... just forward of the throb in his head, he still saw the glimmer of the fabulous object now covered by the man’s smooth, pale hand. That brief glimpse had burned into his mind, blunting the edge of his luck-induced fever, as if the jewel sought to contain his luck, or give it new definition. He felt the glowing shimmer of the die grow within him, encompassing his luck as if it were a cup from which he could drink. Whatever the wager, Havym wanted the opportunity to look at the jewel again and, better yet, to hold it in his hand.

    Havym’s eyes trailed from the man’s closed fist to his beady, dark eyes. “I ask you again, sir,” Havym said, “what wager do you propose?”

    The man’s thin lips smiled crookedly. “Ah! A simple wager, to be sure, but one that I must ensure you fully understand. You could even call it an opportunity.”

    The man paused yet again, as if he expected Havym to respond to his words of mystery, but the boy simply stood there, impatience and irritation plain on his face. The man took note of this, finally, and continued, “It is an opportunity offered to few, for few have the ability or inclination to take advantage of it. Usually, it is offered in less,” the man glanced about the rain-soaked alley, “spontaneous conditions. But, ability such as yours is not to be missed. It is why I have come to you today, for today your luck has shone like a star, your path among these harbor streets a glowing trail of opportunity. Long has it lurked within you, offering glimpses of itself every now and then, but not until today has it gleamed so brightly. Long have we kept an eye on you, wondering if you had the gift, and today you have confirmed our suspicions.”

    Havym stared at the man in confusion. “What are you talking about?” he asked.

    “I am talking about your innate power, boy. You have been blessed...” The man stopped for a moment and looked at Havym curiously. “Yes, blessed, certainly, although I am still unsure by whom. Tell me, has a major change occurred in your life of late? Fallen in love? Inherited a fortune? Somebody died?”

    At the last, Havym reacted involuntarily, his eyes widening slightly, and the man nodded his head, “Hmm, yes, a death—that would make sense. Important changes in a person’s life can tend to uncover previously hidden abilities, particularly abilities bestowed by the Goddesses. This unveiling of potential is actually a gift by my Mistress to mankind, although her Sisters tend to pooh-pooh this fact.”

    Havym stared at the man in shock as understanding came to him, “You’re a Grey Priest!”

    The man frowned, “Mm, well, priest is too formal a word for our loose association, but, yes, I am a Child of the Grey. I believe I would like to offer you the opportunity to become the same, although I must confess I am not entirely sure about you...”

    Havym gaped, “A Grey Priest! I can be a Grey Priest? How can this be?”

    Still frowning as he looked at the youth before him, the man said, “I am not entirely sure you can be. You have before, from time to time, exhibited signs of uncommon luck—signs that have caught the attention of my siblings. Not until today has it flared like the sun, most likely in response to the death of an important person in your life. Such life-changing events can open up previously hidden paths of opportunity, wherein your life might experience great change, should you choose to embrace it. Hours ago, one of my sisters noted you at the Tavern of the Sunken Anchor and not until now did I catch up with you.”

    Havym blinked at the name of the tavern—had he been in such a place? The last hours were a blur in his memory; there had been only the game, the rattle and throw, and the hunt for the next game. He had wandered about in a gambling fever, oblivious to all else. He still felt that fever within him, but now the temperature had finally lowered a bit. He looked around him with new eyes, the haze of luck finally dissipating. Where was he? How had he come here? He was forgetting something important—he knew he was.

    But the man continued speaking, “And now that I have you here in front of me, I can see that you have the Gift—or, I should say, you have a Gift. But which one, I wonder. You shine brightly, yet it is without focus. Dispersed, or maybe blunted.” The man’s beady eyes became like augers, boring into Havym. “You say someone died? Who?”

    Feeling the weight of that significant stare, Havym replied, “My da—he died last night.”

    The man slowly nodded to himself, “Last night? Then the Black Priests have already claimed the body?”

    “Yes, I just came from the Black Temple.”

    Although he had said it without thinking, as soon as those words left his mouth, the haze of forgetfulness hanging over Havym disappeared, and everything returned to him in a blinding flash.

    The Black Temple!


    and... The Queensguard!

    He gasped and jerked his head up to look at the grey sky, the sudden motion causing his weighted cloak to thump against him.

    The man looked at him in concern, saying, “What is wrong, boy?”

    Havym turned to the Grey Priest in a panic. “I’m late! What time is it? What happened? How could I have forgotten?”

    The man raised an eyebrow. “Of those questions, I can answer only one: the sun will set in less than two hours.”

    Havym’s mind reeled in shock. Two hours until sundown! He realized with dismay that he had been gambling for better than seven hours. He cursed his foolishness. He had been caught in the fever before, but never for so long and never with such important tasks ahead. How could he have forgotten Olwyn and the Queensguard? Bloody hell!

    He noticed the man looking at him in mild amusement and realized that he must have spoken that last aloud. He scowled and looked around anxiously at the cloudy sky. It was still light out, even if it was grey and wet. If he ran like the wind, he might be able to make it.

    Almost poised to dash away, he said, “I must leave! My friend awaits me.”

    “Hold, boy! What urgent matter requires this sudden attention?”

    “I’m to join the Queensguard and I must get there before sundown!”

    For the first time, the man looked surprised. “The Queensguard! Who convinced you to join the Queensguard?”

    “Nobody convinced me! I decided myself! I want to join the Queensguard, and I’m late!”

    Havym started to run away, but abruptly realized that he could not move. He looked in astonishment at his motionless legs, his astonishment becoming fury when it came to him that the priest must have bewitched him. He glared at the little man still standing in front of him.

    The man glared back. “I said ‘hold,’ boy. I am not finished with you yet. It is an hour’s walk to the Guardhouse from the harbor. You have time yet.”

    “No, I do not! I must gather my Declarant and then to the Guardhouse. Release me!”

    Havym felt fury build within him at being unfairly trapped by the magic of the priest, especially when the man made no sign or motion that he was even using magic. At any other time, he would have been in awe of the holy man, and done whatever he said, but at that moment he was angry—especially at himself. Olwyn was waiting for him and he had to join the Queensguard!

    In the heat of his anger, he looked down at his legs and, to his surprise, saw strange shimmers and sparkles hovering around them. He blinked in confusion. Then he focused on those sparkles. As he narrowed his eyes, a twinkling band of translucent grey fabric resolved itself, all around his legs from thigh to shank. He realized the other man was still talking, but he could think of nothing except his desperate need to be off. He cast one quick look at the priest, and shouted, “Release me, I say!”

    The priest cut off, scowling at the interruption. Havym focused once again on that nearly invisible band of grey around his legs. He thought about his need to be gone, and, not knowing what else to do, used his hand to make a cutting motion through the grey. He felt the band bend with the motion, but it did not break.

    At the same time, the priest gasped and stepped back, as if struck. He glared at Havym, beady eyes flashing, and made a sweeping motion with his arm, muttering in a strange tongue. Havym thought he understood the word, “Minsya,” and saw a swirling maelstrom of sparkles cast off the man’s sweeping arm. Then, he became aware that he could not move any part of his body, except his eyes. His anger quickly became fear, and all the sparkles faded to nothingness, even as he remained motionless. All he could do was look at the little man gazing at him in fury.

    “How dare you!” the priest said, his voice ominous, “I will brook no such presumption. You are no priest yet, and I will choose the game we play. When I give leave, you may go.”

    His bonds disappeared, and Havym could move again; but, after that demonstration of power, he knew better than to try to leave. Still, his sharp eyes had detected something in the priest’s flashing gaze besides anger. He could not say what it was, but sudden intuition told him the Child of the Grey was, at the least, surprised at Havym’s unexpected trick.

    As for that “trick,” Havym had no idea what he had done. He had been desperate to leave; he had seen the band of sparkles; he had moved to cut it off—it had seemed purely a matter of necessity requiring no conscious thought. Was this the Gift that the Grey Child had referred to?

    Thinking this, Havym looked at the priest. The man’s anger had apparently faded away, for now he gave a knowing smirk to Havym as he pulled the crystal die out of its pouch of grey suede. Holding it up, he said, “Besides, boy. You can’t leave until we’ve each had a toss of the die. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

    Havym found himself nodding as he stared at the die in shock. Iridescent, it shimmered as it had before, but now Havym recognized those sparkles. They were the same as the ones that had surrounded his leg.

    The man still smiled at him. “Yes, my boy,” he said, “You are indeed blessed. And not a little precocious, I might add.” He placed the die back in its pouch. “But before we begin our game, I would know a few things. You say you have been to the Black Temple. It wasn’t the main temple here on Velleya, was it?”

    Havym nodded his head.

    The man frowned, “You weren’t given any sort of token, were you—an octagonal disk about the size of your palm?”

    Havym nodded. “Yes, I thought it was a gate ticket.”

    The priest harrumphed. “A ticket! What notions they put in young minds these days! That was no ticket. No ticket is ever necessary for any temple—all children are free and welcome within the holy walls of any of the Eight. No, that disk was a Black tool of Assessment. Where did you keep it on your person?”

    Havym fumbled in his cloak to the inside pocket he had sewn below his breast in which to keep his dice pouch. Currently, it jingled with the heavy weight of wet coin. “Here,” he said.

    The Grey Child mumbled something and cast his hand over Havym’s breast. Havym suspected that more grey sparkles were being created, but that he was unable to see them, being neither distracted nor angry.

    The priest frowned as he looked at Havym’s breast. “Yes, you have been marked for Assessment by the Black.” He made an indelicate sound. “Apparently, they found you before we did. They do, of course, have an unfair advantage with being the first to meet the bereaved who, having suffered such a major loss—and major change—start showing signs of the Gift. Ah well, it is clear you are not suitable for the Black.”

    He cocked his head as he looked at Havym, “At least, it is fairly clear. So difficult to say with you...” His eyes trailed down to Havym’s palm, which he seized and held before his face, inspecting it closely. “Yes, you have definitely been marked. Did you use this hand to stroke the disk?”

    Havym nodded, recalling his earlier vexation that the token had somehow taken the place of his personal dice.

    The priest continued, “They enchant their tokens to encourage skin contact. It registers their... oh, what do they call it? Some imprint or something. Typical Black foolishness, making something as simple as Assessment so complicated.” The man looked closely at Havym’s hand, muttering under his breath.

    “Assessment?” Havym asked.

    The man looked up, “Surely, you know what Assessment is, boy.”

    “Yes...” Havym said. And he did know what Assessment was; everybody did. It was simply seeing if somebody was suitable for a clergy. “I mean, I didn’t know how,” he clarified.

    “Mmph,” the priest replied as he muttered some more, changing his glances between Havym’s hand, which he still held, and the boy’s breast. “Each Clergy has their own way of assessing somebody’s skills, boy. The Black do their silly, overly complicated, but I’m sure very impressive disk over which they cast spells and burn in what is surely an impressive ceremony. The Red do their best to kill you, but if you survive, why, then you get to be a Red Guard! If you’re a good kisser, you can probably join the Yellow. Blue is boring. Green is pathetic.” The man cut off and mumbled some more.

    “And what of White, Brown and Grey?” Havym prompted.

    “I am not privy to the secrets of the White. The Brown Assessment, considering their reputation, is quite odd. And as for the Grey, you shall know soon enough. Just give me a moment.”

    The priest let go his hand and stood back, looking intently at Havym. He spoke a language both strange and strangely familiar, as in a song where vowels are stretched to fit the words to a tune. The priest gestured while he spoke in that sing-song voice, and Havym felt a curious tingle, like goosebumps, but all inside. The priest stretched out his hand, and those tingles moved forward through his body, until they collected in a buzz at his breast and in his palm, where he felt a sudden and dire itching. Havym gasped at that intense sensation and spread out his hand in front of him, whereupon the priest cried out a ringing tone and made a grabbing motion. The man closed his fist, and the tingling was gone.

    The Grey Child nodded in satisfaction. “Well, now they won’t be able to find you.”

    Havym’s eyes widened. “Find me!”

    “Of course. If the Black Priests like what they see, they want to be able to find their new candidate. The aura usually passes away in a few days, but I have removed it from you. I do not believe you suitable for the Black, but they may deem otherwise, and they can be... persuasive in their recruitment efforts—a trial I would just as soon have you avoid, at this point.”

    The man looked around him, as if searching for something, and Havym could only watch in confusion. After a moment, the priest directed his gaze toward the back of the alley, and said, “Ah, yes. You’ll do—come here, little one. Come along, now.”

    A small form emerged from the dimness between the buildings, and Havym saw that it was a rat, creeping up timidly toward the little man. The priest winked at Havym and smiled crookedly as he said, “They would become suspicious if the aura suddenly winked out of existence, and so I decided to have a little fun with them.”

    The rat came to a stop in front of the Grey Child and sat on its haunches, whiskers twitching. The man held his closed fist over the animal, and muttered some more words of that musical tongue, then opened his hand. The rat’s tail flipped back and forth, and its nose twitched violently. The priest made a shooing motion, and said, “Off you go.”

    The rat scampered away until it disappeared in the shadows. The man giggled as he said, “I trust the Black will find their new candidate suitable.”

    The priest then fixed an inquisitive eye on the boy, looking him up and down. “Hmm, yes, much better. The residual aura of the Black token is no longer blunting your potential. Although... You do not shine as you did before. I suppose the shock of these events has put a cramp on your lucky streak, eh?”

    Although it was true that Havym no longer felt his luck, the events of the past few moments were too extraordinary to allow him to respond, and he could only look at the Grey Child. Despite the possibilities that this meeting seemed to promise, Havym still felt a strong urge to leave. He noticed the steadily darkening sky above, even if the rain had let off, and knew that time was running out. Olwyn was waiting for him, probably vexed that he had not showed up yet, and he felt in his heart that he wanted to join the Queensguard.

    Noting the conflicted expression on Havym’s face, the priest said, “Have no fear, my boy. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I feel our meeting drawing to a close, and I believe a man of your wealth can find rapid transport about the city.”

    Havym shook his head at the priest’s words. “What...” he started to say.

    The priest cut him off. “But first things first. What is this about the Queensguard?”

    Havym looked at the priest defiantly. “I want to join the Queensguard!”

    The priest raised an eyebrow. “Do you now? And what brought this decision about?”

    Havym opened his mouth to answer, but realized he did not know why he wanted to join the Queensguard. At least, he didn’t know a specific reason. It was more a feeling for him. A feeling that felt right, as if the joining the Queensguard were the right thing to do. The priest looked at him expectantly, and Havym felt his face flush. “Because...” he began, “because they are noble... and... they are honorable... and they fight for the good of the Queen and her nation!”

    The priest regarded him with a cool expression. “Indeed. That is why they are called the Queensguard, my boy.” The man saw Havym’s lips tighten with indignation at his dismissive attitude and softened his tone. “Yes, they are truly honorable and Velledore is a better and brighter place for their work. But, my boy, they are mere soldiers—if very talented soldiers. They know only their swords. I can offer you something different—something better.”

    He reached for the pouch of grey suede and once again produced the die of translucent grey crystal. Holding it in front of Havym’s eyes, he said, “You are meant for greater things than the sword! The goddesses have blessed you with a Gift that sings across the land. The power of opportunity glows within you. You can achieve great things with this power—should you choose to embrace it.”

    As the priest said these words, Havym watched the crystal, transfixed by its softly glowing beauty. The grey light emanating from it was like sunlight appearing after the storm. That light glowed with possibility; it contained a thousand sparkles of light, and each of those sparkles contained thousands more, in an endless sea of glowing possibility—and possibilities within possibilities. They reached down forever, and Havym saw them all within his grasp. He reached for the crystal.

    The man passed his hand between the crystal and the boy’s gaze, making Havym blink. “Yes, your Gift sings, my boy,” he said. “You must join us.”

    Havym shook his head as spots of color danced about him. He forced himself to ignore the jewel, and focused on the man’s unremarkable face. “Join who?” he asked. “The Grey Clergy?”

    The priest gave him a level look. “Your Gift sings of opportunity, boy—it cries of the need for change. The Grey can help you realize that calling. Only the Grey can give you the tools to achieve that potential.”

    Havym narrowed his eyes, considering that the priest had said nothing about his Gift except that it glowed with “opportunity” and “change,” which were both hallmarks of the Grey Sister. Were there any other aspects to his budding power of which the priest was not speaking—other abilities or inclinations which might be suited to another Clergy? Havym looked at the little man. “You said earlier that you could not say where my Gift came from. I do not have to choose the Grey, do I?”

    The priest’s eyebrows drew together in the beginning of a frown, then quickly became smooth again. “It is true that no clergyperson can force you to join their tribe, but I speak truly when I say only the Children of the Grey Sister can teach you how to use your Gift to make great things happen in the world. Only the Grey Clergy believes in the power of change.”

    “Yes, but does my Gift speak of anything else? Does it sing only of change? I like gold—why should I not become a Child of the Brown? I like art and music, too, so why not the Green? Why not another clergy?”

    The man grimaced, saying, “How about the Blue Clergy, with that overly inquisitive mind of yours!” He took a breath and smoothed his features, then continued, “Ability such as yours would best be used in pursuit of the improvement of humanity. Gold and art and love are all very well, but it is only the gift of the Grey Daughter that allows change to occur.”

    That did not sound right to Havym, who said, “All of the Goddesses create change in the world.”

    The priest sneered. “Pah! Amalya would have everyone kissy kissy and playing in the pretty flowers. Shaya would have everyone reading books until their eyes fell out. Fernya doesn’t want anything to change, unless it’s a chord progression for a harp. Tardya only likes the change in her pocket. Orenya,” the man grimaced, “is the antithesis of change. And Skarvya—well, she hardly bears thinking about. No, my boy, Minsya’s gift is what keeps the world in motion. Without change—without opportunity—life would be very boring, indeed.”

    Havym’s mind reeled with the naming of all the Sisters, one after the other like one blow following the next, and he glanced anxiously about him before he was able to consider what the priest had said. He realized that the man still had said nothing about his Gift being suited for another Goddess, and he suspected that, for whatever reason, the priest would not be forthcoming on the subject. Still, it was worth one more try. “And what of your Gift? Is it only suited to the Grey?”

    The priest glared at him, “Don’t be cagey with me, boy. I was tricking acorns from squirrels before you were a gleam in your mother’s eye. It is your Gift that you must decide to embrace. And, how you embrace it is your decision. If you choose the Queensguard or another Clergy, I believe you will be unable to embrace it to its full potential.”

    Havym nodded to himself, for he had begun to piece together what the priest had left unspoken. The Grey Child wanted him to join the Grey Clergy, and would only frame the conversation in terms that would encourage such a choice. Havym began to understand that he must have other facets to his skill, of which the Grey was loath to speak, that would make him suitable to the Clergy of another Goddess. The priest had admitted as much earlier when speaking of a lack of “focus” in his Gift.

    Upon learning that he had been as good as tricked by Devyrra and her talk of “everyone in the city, rich or poor,” all while she had only lured him to observe him and get his token, Havym had felt disgust and a little anger at the duplicity of the Black Clergy. Now he began to understand that the Children of the Black Sister were not the only ones to engage in not entirely forthcoming activities. He hesitated to call it outright deception, but at the least it was a lack of disclosure.

    The Grey Child in front of him was certainly more forthcoming than the Black had been, but still was hedging his bets so as to lead Havym where the priest wanted him to go. Havym wondered if all the Clergies engaged in these tiresome games, bullying when they could not inveigle. Thinking back to his limited dealings with Clergypeople throughout his life, he suspected that, to some degree or another, they all did.

    All his life, Havym had been teased and bullied, and he now understood what it was about the Queensguard that appealed to him. It was their very honor and nobility that called to him. The Queensguard were always up front and to the point, and did not hedge their bets or talk out of the side of their mouth. On top of that—the Queensguard were loved by all. From Havym’s observation, Clergypeople were always respected but rarely loved.

    Feeling a certain contentment with this knowledge, Havym turned his attention to the Grey Child still standing in front of him. The man regarded him thoughtfully, then sighed. “But, enough of this twaddle,” the priest said. “I did not come here to discuss philosophy with you. I came here to Assess you. All of this conversation may have been meaningless if you are not truly suitable.”

    Havym gaped. “Then why did we have this conversation?”

    “Because it is important that you understand the nature and potential of your Gift before you are Assessed. I believe that now to be the case. Come! We have a game to play.”

    The priest moved over to a doorway with two shallow wooden steps leading up to it. Havym saw that the rain had stopped and the clouds were beginning to break, showing traces of a quickly darkening sky peeking through the cover. Water dripping from the eaves landed in a wet puddle on the bottom step by which the priest stood. He examined it for a moment, nodding to himself, then crouched. “This will do,” he said, casting his hand over the step. With that motion, all of the water on it swept to the side in a small wave, and the drip from above stopped—or at least moved over a foot so as not to disturb the game.

    Motioning for Havym to crouch beside him, the Grey Child placed the crystal die in the center of the step, the side with the seven-sided Star of Minsya facing up. “This will be a simple game,” the man said. “One toss each. Velya and Skarvya always lose. The highest toss wins, with Minsya winning all.”

    “And what of the wager?” Havym asked.

    The man glanced at him from the side of his eye. “As I said, a simple wager. I am not of the Black, or the Red, or even the Blue—all of whom show little hesitation in exerting great... pressure on their potential candidates. If I win, then you must agree to meet with me further, and to learn more of your Gift and the potential it holds. That is all.”

    “That is all!”

    “Yes. But our next meeting will be in the Grey Hall, and you will be a formal candidate. There will be other Children of the Grey and you will find us much more forthcoming about your Gift and what we can do for each other.”

    Havym nodded, slowly, then asked, “And if I win?”

    The priest’s expression did not change as he replied, “Then you are not suitable for the Grey, and we will part ways. I would warn you, however, that representatives from other Clergies would most assuredly be contacting you. With the Black undoubtedly having already Assessed you, it may be that they will do so in any case.”

    The gambler in Havym rebelled at those terms. If he won, he didn’t win anything! All he got was a promise of more harassment from some other meddling priests! “That is no wager,” he said. “I gain nothing by it!”

    The priest’s voice became cool. “Most would jump at a chance to join a Clergy, boy. Besides, this is not some dicing game on the street. This is Assessment.”

    Havym was incredulous. “I didn’t ask to join any Clergy,” he said. He gestured around the alley. “And, this is a dicing game on the street, even if it is with a pretty die. I won’t play a game where I don’t win anything. What would be the point?”

    The man chuckled thinly. “Spoken like a true gambler, my boy. What wager would you propose?”

    “If I win, I take the die.”

    The priest whirled to face Havym, saying, “You do not know of what you speak. This is no die—it is a Divine Crystal, blessed of Minsya, and of use only by the Grey. It is not something you can take.”

    Havym eyed the shining jewel. “It looks like a die to me,” he said, quietly, as he watched with longing the sparkles and shimmers swell inside. He briefly considered his feelings about the Queensguard, and, being the inveterate gambler that he was, turned to the priest, and said, “Then I will up the wager. If I lose, I promise to join the Grey Clergy, by the final embrace of my mother!”

    The priest shook his head, in what Havym hoped was surprise at the strength of his oath, but was disappointed when the man replied, “It is not something I can give.”

    But Havym noted hesitation in the priest’s voice, and doubt in his visage. The man looked up into the sky, marked by steadily thinning clouds gently drifting below the dying light of the day. “Danger approaches,” he said in a soft voice, as if to himself. “Change, too. What place shall they hold?”

    “Who?” asked Havym.

    The man cast a cursory glance at Havym. “Why, the Queensguard, of course. The question is—do I consider flaunting tradition because of the strength of his gift? Or, do I break with tradition to effect this change I purportedly desire?” The man looked up once more. At that moment, a single drop of water fell from the eaves onto his forehead. The drop ran between his eyes and down his cheek, like a tear.

    Still looking up, the man said, “I accept your wager.”

    He turned to the step and picked up the die, saying, “I will roll first. We must finish this quickly.”

    Havym wondered at the man’s sudden urgency, but said nothing as the priest flicked his wrist and cast the die on the wooden step. It quickly rolled to a stop, and Havym looked with trepidation at the six-pointed star facing up. Orenya.

    There was only one face that could beat it but five that could lose to it. Briefly, Havym wondered what would happen if he also rolled the Star of Orenya. The priest had not mentioned the possibility of a tie. Would they roll again?

    “Quickly,” the priest said. “We haven’t much time.”

    If there was any time Havym wished he was feeling his luck, it was right then. But he felt as normal as if he were pulling a baking tray from the oven. He thought about his desire to join the Queensguard, and, oddly, of how proud he knew Berta would be if he did so.

    He rolled the die. It gently clattered on the recently dry wood and came to a stop. Havym looked on in a mixture of disbelief and relief. The priest said nothing.

    The Star of Minsya shone her seven points at them.

    The Child of the Grey Daughter nodded his head, once. “So be it,” he said. He produced the grey suede pouch that had held the crystal and handed it to Havym, saying, “Keep the die in this pouch, and only in this pouch. Do not show the die to anyone, unless you must. And—this is very important—never use the die for common gambling! Minsya would be most displeased if you did.”

    Havym could detect the man’s urgency. “But,” he said, “what can I use it for?”

    The priest cast a glance over his shoulder, as if he were expecting somebody, then looked Havym squarely in the eye. “When need is true,” he said, “clasp the crystal to your heart, and speak Her name.”

    “‘When need is true’?”

    “We have no more time. They are nearly here. I advise you to keep that crystal next to your heart for the next little while, and to be ready to speak the name of the Seventh Daughter!”

    “Who is nearly here?”

    The priest looked at him, a wry smile on his lips. “The assassins, of course!”

    “What!” Havym cried.

    “Run, boy!” the priest said.

    Havym suddenly felt his legs moving, and found himself forced to accommodate their motion or end up flat on his face.

    “Go join the Queensguard!” the priest called after him.

    Havym left the alley onto a small side street of the harbor district where he suddenly regained control of his legs. He came to a stop and looked behind him into the alley.

    It was empty.

    He looked around the narrow, curvy street that was more a path than a street, being barely wider than the alley from which he had just emerged. There was not a soul in sight, and he realized he had no idea where he was. He looked up at the strip of sky between the eaves of the three and four-story buildings surrounding him. A wind had picked up and the clouds were breaking up quickly; they scudded across that narrow strip, the darkness of impending dusk behind them, but Havym could not tell from which direction the sun was setting. He stood in a moment of indecision. How much time did he have? Which way was Harbor Road?

    But, behind those thoughts was another: Where were the assassins? and... Assassins?

    The curving street looked the same in both directions, so Havym turned to have the wind generally at his back, thinking vaguely that winter winds blew from the north and the harbor must be to the south. He had taken only a few steps when the figure appeared, about ten paces in front of him. Havym gasped, and turned the other way, but saw that another figure was ten paces behind him, as well.

    They were both dressed in black.

    In a rising panic, he looked at the doors and windows around him, but they all seemed to be dark. He noticed another alley up ahead, but it was nearly next to the assassin, who was walking slowly toward him. He looked the other way and saw the other assassin also slowly approaching; both seemed to have all the time in the world. He grasped the crystal die to his breast, nearly ready to cry out Minsya’s name.

    Suddenly, there was a blinding flash of light accompanied by a sound like a thunderclap. Havym closed his eyes, but heard a ringing voice in his head: Run, boy! He opened his eyes and saw that the way was clear behind him. He immediately took off in that direction, nearly stumbling when he saw the prostrate, but still moving, form of the assassin. He leapt past and streaked down the curves of the small street, his weighted cloak jingling madly. He realized he was in a warren of side streets and alleys off the main harbor streets. Too panicked to think clearly, he took turns at random, hoping to evade his pursuers. After a few moments, he began to despair that he would find his way onto a main street. He took one more random turn, and came to a stop.

    The alley in which he had turned was a dead end; he was looking at a brick wall. He turned around to leave, but a black-clad form filled the entryway. Havym backed up, step by step, watching in horror as the assassin approached and pulled out a knife, brandishing it threateningly. Havym moved his eyes around, and saw that a few loose pieces of brick littered the end of the alley. With the brick wall nearly at his back and the assassin nearly on him, Havym grasped the crystal tightly against his chest, and cried, “Minsya!”

    The assassin stopped and suddenly fumbled with his knife, as if it were a slippery fish. Like some grotesque imitation of a mummers’ show, Havym watched the cursing figure try to hold on to the weapon—and fail—as it spun wildly out of his grasp and clattered on the ground. From behind his mask, the assassin looked at the knife in disbelief, even as he clutched his hand against his side, apparently in pain.

    Havym immediately leaned down and snatched up a bit of brick, which he flung at the figure’s face. The distracted assassin took the blow directly on the cheek, crying out and stumbling. Havym kicked at the man, making him fall to his side. Havym leapt over the prone figure and took off down the streets again, cloak jingling all the while.

    After a few turns, he burst onto a wide street. A number of people glanced at his abrupt entrance, and Havym stopped, breathing heavily. He looked around and saw the street end in the sweeping expanse of the harbor, not 300 paces away. Feeling a huge sense of relief, he made for the harbor.

    Suddenly, a black-clad figure burst out into the street behind him. He immediately sighted Havym and held up a knife to fling at the boy. People gasped all around, some shouting, as they stepped away from the murderous figure. Havym clutched the crystal, bringing it to his heart, but he saw the assassin’s hand snap back and start to move forward, releasing the knife.

    Knowing he was too late, Havym fumbled with the crystal and had half of the Goddess’s name out of his mouth before he realized that he had not been impaled by a knife. He looked up and saw an astonishing sight. The assassin stood there like a statue, poised to fling the knife, but it still clung to his hand. Havym idly noted a drop of blood falling down onto the cobbled street from a cut in the upraised hand. The man quivered with effort, showing he was not frozen in time, but that some foreign force was holding him there.

    “Hold!” a sonorous voice cried. Two Red Guards marched up to the motionless assassin, their crimson cloaks sweeping behind them, exposing their red-lacquered armor and giving flashes of the Red Star maces at their sides. Grabbing the knife, they twisted the man’s arms behind him, making him grunt. One of the Guards declared, “In the name of Orenya, and by the power of the Eight, I arrest you for deeds unconscionable and behavior unseeming in the light of the Good Mother and Her Seven Daughters!”

    Havym used the opportunity to step to the side, out of the direct line of the poised knife, hoping that the Red Guards would not notice it was toward him that the knife had been aimed.

    One Guard pulled the masked hood off the assassin’s head, revealing an unremarkable brown-haired man with wings of grey at his temples and a nasty bruise on his cheek. Even if middle-aged, the assassin was lean and fit. “What deeds do you perform here, fiend?” the Red Guard demanded, waggling the knife. “At what—or whom—do you throw this weapon?”

    The assassin said nothing but glared directly at Havym, who edged a few more steps away, hoping his movement would go unremarked in the generally widening circle around the Red Guards and their captive. He stepped slowly away and to the side until he stood next to a horse with sacks laid across its back.

    The Red Guard followed the assassin’s gaze, but, seeing that the man was looking at a horse, directed his steely gaze back to his captive, “Your silence has been noted, and will stand as proof of your guilt when you are brought before a Magistrate.”

    The other Red Guard, a woman, still followed the direction of the assassin’s gaze, looking carefully in the vicinity of the horse. She raised her head, as if sensing something, and Havym realized he still held the divine crystal in his hand. Suddenly, it felt very hot and he quickly retrieved the suede pouch, shoving the crystal inside and pulling the drawstring tight. The Guard frowned behind her faceplate, then gave her head a small shake, making the red plume flutter on top of her helmet. She turned her attention back to her partner and their prisoner.

    The Guards tied the assassin’s hands behind his back with a thin, red cord which Havym knew was enchanted to be much stronger than it appeared. The Guards searched the assassin, removing knives, a sword and other items. A crowd had gathered around the spectacle, maintaining a respectful distance, and Havym kept behind the horse’s breast as its owner watched the proceedings with interest. Several times the Guards asked questions of their prisoner, but he remained silent and sullen, the effect of his haughty sneer lessened by the growing purple bruise under his eye. At last one of the Guards retrieved a hood of red cloth which she placed over the head of the assassin while the other Red Guard took a length of that silken-looking red cord and tied it around the assassin’s middle. Then they hauled him off toward the harbor, Havym edging around the horse to keep out of their sight as they passed.

    As their forms dwindled down the street, Havym took a deep breath and looked around. The owner of the horse, a common laborer from the look of him, in plain wool and with a serviceable cloak, was giving Havym a queer look, and Havym realized he was clutching at the breast of the man’s horse. Havym muttered an apology and stepped away.

    The fellow seemed friendly enough, though, for he nodded to Havym and said, “Now, there’s somethin’ you don’t see every day! I wonder what that nasty fellow was all about?”

    Havym mumbled that he was sure he had no idea.

    “Well,” the plain-faced man continued, “now I’ve got a story for the missus! Won’t she be surprised! And speakin’ of her, I’d best be off. She’s a-waitin’ for me.” He nodded to Havym and gathered the reins of the bow-backed, if good-natured, animal, and slowly ambled off.

    Activity in the street returned to normal, the traffic a mixture of pedestrians and carts pushed along by people or drawn by horse. Havym took a moment to collect himself and looked eastward, to where the bottom of a pale yellow sun was preparing to touch the horizon. Clouds still obscured most of the sun, but he guessed that he had somewhere over an hour before it disappeared behind the horizon, and his chance to join the Queensguard would be lost. He could not explain why, but he knew that today would be his one and only chance to join their ranks, for he feared that the Black Clergy—and very likely other Clergies as well—would set upon him and deny him his chance to achieve honor, respect and love.

    He experienced a moment of despair, for he knew there was no possible way he could run all the way to Queensbridge and back to the Queen’s Guardhouse in an hour. His despair turned to anger and he shook his fist at that offending orb in the sky, earning a few worried glances from passersby. But as he shook his fist, he heard a sound that he had forgotten about or ignored in the recent excitement.

    The sound clinked.

    Havym gasped, and began feeling all over his damp cloak. Every pocket he came across bulged with coin. The words of the Grey Child came to his mind: I believe a man of your wealth can find rapid transport about the city. He dimly recalled his earlier daze as he stumbled from game to game in a gambling fever, his luck burning his senses like a fire, and amassing new stacks of coin wherever he went. It all seemed a dream now, except that he had bulging pockets as evidence of his recent exploits. He had no idea how much money he had, but decided that it would have to be enough to obtain a quicker form of transport than that provided by his feet.

    Except that he had never really used anything besides his feet to take him anyplace. He saw a matched pair of well-bred horses go by, drawing a fine black carriage lacquered to a brilliant gleam, its shiny door painted with a bird’s wing against a field of wavy lines—obviously the transportation of a noble. Then he noted a rough cart stacked high with sacks of grain, drawn by three tired-looking men. Neither of those forms of transportation would do for his purpose; one was obviously too rich and the other too poor—not to mention slow.  He looked ahead to the laborer trudging along with his laden horse, the beast he had taken refuge behind when avoiding the notice of the Red Guards, and a plan formed in his mind.

    He went near a building, so as to be out of the middle of the street, and grabbed coins from his pockets. Most were copper, but a fair amount were bronze, and he even saw a few silver pieces. There was no gold, but that would have been too much to ask for. Confident that he must have enough money to achieve his purpose, he trotted up until he walked besides the laborer, who looked the father of a grown child, if not yet old enough to have grandchildren. Not knowing how to go about the business of buying a horse, he blurted out, “I’ve need of your horse, good sir. Would you be willing to sell it to me?”

    The man stopped and looked at Havym in astonishment. “Sell old Nera!” he said. “I can’t sell m’horse! How’m I to carry m’bags home? Come here all the way to the Great Harbor to get these wax cylinders, I did. Can’t get no finer quality than Hosduin beeswax and can’t get it nowhere except direct from the ship without paying too dear a price! No, son, I need old Nera to carry it home. I’ve a long journey to Cashyndell and I can’t carry the load by m’self.” The man looked Havym up and down, and narrowed his eyes. “What’re you wantin’ to buy m’horse fer, anyway?”

    Havym thought quickly. The last thing he wanted was undue attention placed on him so soon after the incident with the Red Guards. He knew Cashyndell was a town a league or so up the road from the Samoryn Gate, and, eyeing the bags on the horse’s back, knew it would be silly to offer to buy them as well. He decided he would have to make it worth the gentleman’s while. “I offer you four silvers for your steed, sir,” Havym said. That would be enough, hopefully, to enable the man to find another way to get his bags home.

    The man goggled, his eyes and mouth opening wide. He sputtered for a second, unable to get anything coherent out, then looked at Havym as one would look at a crazy person. “Four silvers!” he exclaimed, a little too loudly. He leaned toward Havym. “Do you got four silvers?”

    Havym dug in his pockets and produced the coin, while the man stared in shock.

    “We’hell, sonny m’boy,” the man said, after a moment. “Looky like you got yerself a horse!”

~           ~           ~           ~

    The sun was halfway behind the horizon as Havym clattered into the stable of the Inn of the Laughing Queen. And clattered was the word, for Havym had pushed old Nera as hard as he dared, at least without endangering his none too steady perch upon her heaving back. Besides almost trampling several pedestrians, he had nearly fallen off ten times on the journey from the harbor to the inn, clinging desperately to her mane as she rolled her eyes in irritation at her inexperienced rider. Still, she was a good, solid horse, if worn around the edges, and Havym’s luck had probably been at work when he finagled her from the candle-maker—although, at four silvers, it was questionable as to who had finagled whom. Luck, however, was far from his mind as he tried to ignore his raw rump and aching legs when he dismounted her, if his collapse from her back could be called a “dismount.”

    Havym was glad to see Joss was working the stable instead of the inn’s other stable hands, Kallyna and Bryn. Old Joss cared little for anything except his beloved horses and paid no mind to the comings and goings of men, besides taking and handing the reins to their steeds. Kallyna and Bryn, on the other hand, were bright, inquisitive lasses who, while adept and sure with horseflesh, would surely have delayed him, Kallyna talking his head off and Bryn making fun of his poor riding skills.

    “Keep her ready to ride, Joss,” Havym said. “I’m coming right out.”

    “Very good, sir,” Joss replied blandly, nodding his head.

    Havym walked carefully away, minding not to rub his chafed inner thighs and wondering if his bow-legged walk was obvious. He looked askance at the balding, prune-faced man as the stabler patted Nera’s nose and led her away. Had the man been smiling? He shook his head and walked carefully to the entrance. As he prepared to enter the inn, a score of wonderful aromas assaulted his nose, and he realized it was supper time. He also realized that he had eaten absolutely nothing all day long and he was starving. He pouted for a moment, because he truly had no time for anything except to grab Olwyn by the scruff of his neck and drag him to the Guardhouse. Then, he hesitated, considering that, since it was meal time, the inn was sure to be busy and full. Which meant that Berta and her staff would be swarming over the common room he was about to enter. He needed to get in there, grab Olwyn, and get out. He feared that Berta, in her earnest yet indomitable way, would delay him with her good intentions.

    He turned on his heel to make way for the back entrance. Olwyn’s room was closer to that door, anyway.

    Havym successfully made it to Olwyn’s door without being seen by anybody who would delay him. He knocked once and barged in, finding Olwyn sitting on the rug with his back against the side of his bed. In his lap was Trinket, one of the inn’s cats, and at his stocking feet was Borster, his bull terrier. Olwyn turned his head in surprise while Havym marveled, not for the first time, how Olwyn got those two vicious beasts to behave themselves around one another.

    “Where have you been!” Olwyn exclaimed, getting up and dislodging cat and dog, much to the obvious displeasure of both.

    “I was delayed. I’ll tell you all about it, but we have to go now!” Havym answered.

    Olwyn looked Havym up and down and shook his head. “You look frightful, Havym!” he said. “What happened to you?”

    “I’m almost out of time. We have to go! I’ll explain to you on the way!”

    Olwyn shook his head again. “You can’t apply for the Queensguard looking like that!” he said. “At least put on a fresh cloak!” Olwyn opened Havym’s current cloak in an attempt to see the condition of the clothing underneath, but the motion caused the numerous coins in his pockets to clink loudly. “What is that?” Olwyn asked. Then his eyes narrowed and he looked at Havym suspiciously, crying, “Havym Ollyns! Have you been gambling!”

    Havym shook his head, “You don’t understand, Olwyn. We don’t have time—please let me explain...”

    Olwyn would not be put off, and interrupted, “You are unbelievable. Here I am waiting for you all day and you’ve been lollygagging about, having your fun after you told me how important it was for you to join the Queensguard! Now you want me to hurry up because you’re in a rush! I don’t think so!”

    Havym looked in misery at the flushed face of his friend. He knew Olwyn had every right to be angry, but he also knew he was running out of time. “I’m sorry, Olwyn, but I really can explain. Please come with me and I’ll tell you on the way to the Guardhouse. Please...”

    Olwyn glared at him for a moment longer, then conceded, “Oh, very well! But, really, Havym, you can’t go looking like you’ve been dragged behind a cart! At least change your cloak.”

    Havym nodded his head and started to undo the clasp at his breast when he heard a motion behind him.

    “Havym Ollyns!”

    Havym’s heart sunk as he turned around and saw the round form of Berta filling the doorway he had left open.

    She looked at him with wide eyes, exclaiming, “Where have you been? Olwyn has been waiting for you...” she stopped and looked at his ragged appearance in concern. “Why Havym! Whatever has come over you? You look as though you’ve had a fright! Have you taken ill, dear? Come here.” She ignored her own command and came to him instead, reaching up to place her warm hand on his forehead. “Hmm, a bit warm, but nothing untoward, I shouldn’t think. Why, you’re all damp. Were you out in that awful rain earlier? Oh, your cloak is soaked, Havym!”

    Havym stepped away before she could notice that his cloak was soaked with coin as well as water. Berta knew of his gambling—she called it “that activity”—and he had neither the time nor the inclination to endure one of her speeches. Nervously, he looked behind her to see if Minny had followed, for she would undoubtedly try to stuff his face—although he did have to admit he was hungry enough to eat a cow—or she would nag him for a loop at his condition. Or both. If Berta was a mothering hen, then Minny was the hen’s farmer, ready to use grain or axe to get her chicks into line.

    He nearly breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Minny wasn’t there. Quickly, before Berta could get her hands on it, he undid the clasp and took off his cloak, handling it carefully to avoid jingling. “I was delayed something awful at the Black Temple, Berta, ma’am,” he said. “It’s been rough for me today.” He hung his head down, hoping he could play on her pity to avoid any sort of confrontation.

    The ploy worked, for Berta clasped her hands to her bosom and cried, “Oh, you poor dear!”

    Havym pointedly ignored the cool look Olwyn was giving him and continued speaking before Berta could work herself up into a motherly tizzy, “It’s all done and everything’s fine, but Olwyn and I must be off to the Guardhouse now.”

    Berta looked him up and down and shook her head just as her grandson had done a few moments before. “But your clothing is dirty and rumpled, Havym,” she said. “You need a bath and a dinner, and a good night’s rest. The Guardhouse will be there tomorrow...” she paused, realizing that tomorrow was Eightday. “And the day after.”

    Havym shook his head, “But I must apply today. It’s very important! I... I can’t explain right now—I promise that I will, but right now we have to go!”

    His words had started out pleading, but emotion came over him and made the last sound rough and demanding. Berta raised her eyebrows and took a step back, looking at him in a mixture of surprise and concern . “Very well...” she said. She looked to Olwyn, who shrugged his shoulders. She sighed, and said, “The sun will be gone in half an hour. Olwyn, take yourself and Havym on Halfstar—he’ll get you there on time.”

    Filled with relief, Havym dashed to Berta and hugged her. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for everything.”

    She hugged him back, “You’re welcome, dear. Do come back to the inn tonight—you’re welcome to stay here again.”

    Olwyn went to his wardrobe and pulled out his plainest cloak, which he reckoned wouldn’t stand in too much contrast to Havym’s rough, and dirty, woolen trousers and tunic. Havym swept it on. It was, of course, too short, and tight around the chest besides, but it was far superior to the nearly ruined other, and they could pretend it was a slightly too-long half-cloak.

    Olwyn stamped on his boots and they all left his room, shooing out cat and dog. Then the boys took off. Berta watched them leave, concern painted on her face. She stared at the closed back door for a moment, then sighed and bustled off to the front of her inn to attend to its business.

~           ~           ~           ~

    A brisk breeze pushed thinning clouds across a darkening sky wherein small twinkles of stars began to appear. Of the winter sun there was no sign, but Havym knew the last glimmering arc of that pale orb was still visible—just hidden behind the imposing grey walls rearing up next to them as he and Olwyn came up to the gate of the Queen’s Guard House. Perched behind Olwyn on the inn’s piebald gelding, Halfstar, Havym sat tensely, gripping his friend’s slim waist as he peered anxiously ahead to the entrance, noting that its huge wood and iron doors yet stood open. He knew the sun had not set—officially—but it certainly would in a matter of minutes, and he hoped that he would be allowed to apply.

    In the center of Tama Island rose a large, rocky hill on which was built the home of the Queen and the heart of Velledore: the Citadel. Consisting of the Royal Palace and a complex of grand structures, the Citadel was ringed by a grey stone wall fifty paces high and connected by eight round watch towers. Strategically built where the slope of the original hill leveled off, the tops of the Citadel walls were better than a hundred paces from the street where Havym and Olwyn trotted on Halfstar. At the bottom of the Citadel’s hill and hugging its northeast corner was the Queen’s Guard House, a smaller fortress, if no less impenetrable, with its own wall twenty paces high. Havym had heard that tunnels had been dug into the hill from the Guardhouse, to allow the Queen’s Guardsmen access to and from the Citadel.

    Havym looked at the curving expanse of the Guardhouse wall. Behind it were the buildings of the Guardhouse and behind them loomed the hill and impossibly high walls of the Citadel. One Guardhouse structure towered above the wall in front of him, a grey castle that seemed to grow out of the hillside. On the hill above and behind that stony castle was one of the eight watchtowers of the Citadel. Havym had never been in the Citadel, but had heard that it was a fantasy of lacy towers, marble galleries, gushing fountains and statuary. The tops of many of those fabled towers were visible above that high wall even as he looked above him. Bringing his attention to the fortress right in front of him, he saw that the Guardhouse stood in firm contrast to the gleaming spires high above. The Guardhouse was built of grey stone that stood strong and unmovable, cold and imposing.

    The boys approached the open doors of the Guardhouse gate as the cold breeze fluttered pennants along the walls and left the boys’ cloaks flowing out gently behind them. Three of those fluttering pennants hung above the gate. One bore a shining diamond—the Light of Velya—over a woman’s outstretched hand on a field of gold and was the flag of Velledore. On another quartered in blue and gold spread a Blue Hawk clutching a diamond in one claw and a purple rose in the other—the flag of House Samoryn, ruler of Velledore. On the final pennant spread the same Blue Hawk, if a bit smaller, on a field of blue clutching a diamond in one claw and a curved saber in the other.

    As he passed under those fluttering pieces of cloth, Havym eyed the third pennant in an uneasy mixture of excitement and apprehension. It was the flag of the Royal Queen’s Guard, founded by House Samoryn over a hundred years ago and faithful to it since. Feeling a butterfly in his empty stomach, he unconsciously gripped Olwyn’s waist tighter.

    Two Guards with tasseled spears stood on either side of the gate and one of them raised his spear up, saying, “Hold, good citizens. What business with the Queensguard?”

    Havym knew that any commoner could apply for the Queensguard, but knew nothing of the protocol, beyond showing up at the gate. Feeling nervous, he didn’t immediately answer, but Olwyn came to his rescue, saying, “An Applicant, good Guardsman, and I his Declarant. Havym Ollyns comes to you this day to join the Queensguard, if the Eight be willing, and I, Olwyn Feyrdon, to declare for him under the Light of the Good Mother and Her Seven Daughters.

    Havym couldn’t help but smile at his friend’s educated words, giving Olwyn a quick squeeze of appreciation.

    The other Guard frowned and looked at the darkening sky. “It is too late, boy,” he began, but the first Guard thumped his spear on the ground, making the tassel bounce at its top.

    “From the sun’s rising to its setting, all citizens may apply,” he said, making it sound as if he were reciting a rule.

    The other frowned more deeply, but said nothing.

    The first Guard continued, “The gates stand open, Applicant and Declarant. You may pass.”

    He used his spear to point across the courtyard, indicating the largest building of the complex, an imposing castle of stone built into the hill. Instead of a doorway, another gate led into a large, open gallery, like a wide tunnel into that castle. “There stands the Hall,” he said. “Tie your steed to a hitching ring near the entrance, and go into the gallery, where another Guard will take you to the Master of Recruits.” He looked up at the sky, nearly as dark as night, and added. “Go with haste—the sun sets as we speak.” He thumped the spear again and motioned for them to pass.

    Olwyn nodded politely to the helpful Guardsman and quickly trotted to the side of the Hall gate, where they dismounted and tied Halfstar’s reins to a post there. They walked quickly to the gate, which stood open like its counterpart across the courtyard. There they met two more Guards, explaining their purpose. Both of the Guards seemed as helpful as the first they had met, and a Guardswoman quickly led them into the gallery, taking them to a broad door.

    The Guardswoman paused, looking thoughtfully at the door. “Within sits the Master of Recruits,” she said. She cast a quick glance at the boys, and leaned toward them. “Although it is true that it is late,” she said in a lowered voice, “the sun yet rests above the horizon. Knock on the door and state your purpose. If the Master turns you away, say to him, ‘By the Queen’s writ, I come to join the Queensguard.’ I will leave you here.” She turned and stepped away briskly, with no explanation as to her suggestion.

    Havym and Olwyn cast each other a curious glance, then Havym, deciding he had better start showing some backbone if he was to do this, knocked firmly on the door.

    “Come!” said a voice from the other side.

    They opened the door to a surprisingly small office, candle-lit and spartan with a single table fronted by a group of chairs and a bookshelf. A balding man sat behind the table, attending to scroll work. He looked at the boys and frowned, “What is it?” he asked.

    “I’ve come to apply for the Queensguard, sir,” Havym said.

    The man looked at him in surprise and irritation. “What!” he said. “It is too late, boy. Come back tomorrow.”

    Havym wasn’t sure if he should remind the Master that tomorrow was Eightday, but thinking on the advice of the Guardswoman, he said, “By the Queen’s writ, I come to join the Queensguard!”

    The man put down the scroll he had been reading, and fixed Havym with a glare. “I can see that meddlesome Guardswoman has been at you. There will be no more tests today. Get out.”

    Havym and Olwyn stared at the sour-faced man in shock. “But...” Havym began.

    The man stood up, his face furious. “Get out!” he cried. “If you don’t leave this moment, you shall never be tested!”

    Havym gaped, his mouth opening and closing, but Olwyn grabbed his cloak and pulled him out, shutting the door behind them. They both stared at each other in disbelief, Havym somewhere between fury and despondence.

    Olwyn raised his eyebrows at the door, and said, “What a disagreeable man. Are you sure you want to join the Queensguard, Havym?”

    Havym couldn’t answer, still feeling shock, confusion and disbelief at the man’s behavior. He shook his head. After all he had been through today, it had come to this? In one fell swoop, the man’s words and actions had disabused him of his romantic notions of the Queensguard. He almost felt as if he could cry. He felt the grey suede pouch in his pocket and thought about the shining crystal inside. Could he go back to the Grey Clergy? Of all the clergies, he thought he might like the Grey best. But, he had won the game—and lost the chance to join with them. At least he thought so. He took the pouch out and looked at it. Would the other Clergies come after him? Did he really want to join the Queensguard, now?

    A long, slow bell sounded, off in the distance: the even toll. Havym knew that sound meant that the sun had set behind the horizon and the day was over. He had been fearing that he would hear it before he got to the Guardhouse.

    He cupped the pouch in his hand. It was all over, now. He sighed with disappointment, tossing the pouch up in the air and catching it as it fell. He had gambled and lost.

    “You there! Boy!”

    Havym looked up in surprise and saw three figures marching toward him. Suddenly remembering the priest’s admonition to keep the pouch hidden, he shoved it back in his pocket.

    Two men and a woman came to a stop in front of Havym and Olwyn. Havym couldn’t help but notice that both of the men were handsome, one exceptionally so, and that the woman was beautiful as well. All of them looked the paragons of Guardsmen—what he imagined the Queensguard should look like. The men were big and well-muscled. The woman was slight but walked like a cat. Even with her arm held up in a sling, she radiated confidence and assurance. She and one of the men were blond and the other Guardsman was brunette. All three had blue eyes, but where the gaze of the two blondes was like the reflection off an icy lake, the brunette’s eyes were as deep as if that lake had warmed up for spring. The brown-haired man had a triangular section of his hair, like an arrowhead, behind his ear that was entirely white, and which only added, Havym thought, to his distinguished—and gorgeous—appearance.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Havym noticed Olwyn look admiringly at the two men as well. But, in addition to his look of admiration, Olwyn was gazing at them with something else. Havym thought it might be recognition, but the exceptionally good-looking brown-haired Guardsman fixed his deep blue eyes on Havym, and said, “That thing you just tossed in the air—what was it?”

    Havym felt transfixed by that intense blue gaze, and stuttered, “That? Oh! It’s nothing—it’s just...”

    “Come, boy!” the man said. “I just saw you toss something up. Show me what it is. I promise I won’t take it from you.”

    Havym felt the pouch in his pocket, but remembered the advice of the priest. He considered his recent revelation that not every Queen’s Guardsman was noble, even if the three before him appeared to be, and said, “It’s really nothing—just my good luck charm.”

    The man gave him a narrow look. “Well and fine, boy,” he said, “but I ask you to display it for me—for just a moment.”

    Havym looked at the man’s serious—and earnest—face and decided it wouldn’t hurt just to display the pouch. He withdrew it from his pocket and held it up.

    A look passed between the blond man and the brown-haired one while the blond woman frowned in confusion. The handsome brunette turned to Havym and said, “Thank you, boy. Put it away, now—and I might add that you keep it out of sight as a general rule.” He leaned forward as Havym hurriedly put the suede pouch back into his pocket. “There are those who know of such things,” he continued, practically whispering in Havym’s ear, “and who covet such things. It would do you well to keep it secret.”

    Havym, not knowing how to react, said meekly, “Yes, sir.”

    The brunette stood straight again, and said in a normal tone, “I see you before the door of the Master of Recruits. Have you come to join the Queensguard this day?”

    Havym nodded, his expression downcast, unable to say anything. Olwyn, who was less upset about the whole affair than was Havym, piped up, “Yes! But the Master turned us away!”

    A look passed between the three Guardsmen, and the blond woman said, “Did he now? But the even toll has sounded, and the day is ended.”

    Olwyn looked at her defiantly, “Yes, but we came to the Master before the bell sounded and he still turned us away! And in a most unseemly manner, I might add!”

    The blond Guardsman cast a cool look at Olwyn. “Do you apply, boy?” he asked.

    Olwyn raised his chin at the Guard, “No, I declare for the applicant here before me.”

    The cool-eyed Guard nodded his head as he said, “Ah. That is probably for the best, then.”

    Olwyn frowned, unsure of the man’s meaning and wondering if he had been slighted, but the brown-haired Guard turned toward the Master of Recruit’s door, blue eyes flashing. Lips tight, he opened the door without knocking and stormed in.

    The man behind the desk looked up in surprise. “What is this?...” he began, then fixed his eyes on the tall Guardsman who strode across the small room to stand in front of the desk. Giving the taller man a cold stare, the balding man said, “What is the meaning of this, Tovasyn?”

    The brown-haired man looked sternly at the Master of Recruits and said, “What did you say, Lieutenant-Captain Goskyth?”

    The Master narrowed his eyes and very nearly sneered as he said, “Your pardon, Captain Tovasyn. I congratulate you on your recent promotion.”

    Ignoring the man’s insolent tone, Tovasyn replied, “And I congratulate you on your recent appointment as Master of Recruits, Lieutenant-Captain.” He nodded to the two boys who had followed him into the room, along with the two other Guardsmen. “It has come to my attention that this boy and his Declarant were refused testing...”

    Goskyth snapped, “The day is ended! The bell has sounded! There will be no more testing today.”

    Tovasyn maintained his stern expression as he said, “...were refused testing before the even bell sounded. Is this true, Master of Recruits?”

    If possible, the man’s eyes narrowed even more, but he replied, “Of course not, Captain. I heard the bell, then these two ragamuffins stormed in on me.”

    Almost at the same time, Havym and Olwyn cried, “That’s not true! We came before the bell!”

    Goskyth roared, “Silence! Speak not in the presence of your betters!”

    Havym quieted, but Olwyn—who would be the first to admit that he had problems with authority—puffed up like an adder ready to spit venom on the spider in front of him. Before he could erupt, Tovasyn reached over and placed a calming hand on his shoulder. Olwyn’s grey eyes flashed, but he said nothing.

    Tovasyn looked at the blond Guardsman, and said, “Kalder, who is on duty at the Hall Gate?”

    Kalder replied, “Ronal and Horstyn.”

    Tovasyn turned back to the Master of Recruits. “It is unlikely,” he said, “that a Hall Sentry would bring an Applicant after the even bell has tolled, Lieutenant-Captain Goskyth. Perhaps we should go ask them?”

    Goskyth’s raised his hand. “No, no,” he said, “That won’t be necessary.” He pointedly ignored the boys as he continued, “There seems to have been a misunderstanding, Captain. It is a simple thing. I must have thought I heard the bell. It has been a long day and I have much yet to do, but if the boys are convinced they arrived before the even toll, then I would be happy to give them the benefit of the doubt and give them their testing.”

    Tovasyn stared at the man behind the desk for a moment, his face unreadable; then he said, “I have a better idea, Goskyth. Since you believe yourself to be hearing things, apparently you suffer under the rigors of your post. I will do you a favor this evening and test this young man myself so that you can rest your weary mind. No, no...” he said as Goskyth emitted a strangled sound, “You need not thank me. I am only too pleased to assist the Master of Recruits when he is feeling unwell. You may be assured that I will appraise the Commander of your disposition and condition of mind. You may leave now, Lieutenant-Captain Goskyth.”

    Goskyth finally managed to exclaim, “This is outrageous!”

    Tovasyn barked, “Outrageous? Your insolence knows no bounds, Goskyth. You flout the Rules of Acceptance by turning away those who come to apply. You accept into our ranks those who are clearly unqualified—”

    “You are not the Master of Recruits, Tovasyn! Commander du Balry appointed me to this position.”

    Tovasyn’s face was implacable as he replied, “And, as senior officer here, I am relieving you of your duties for the day. You are dismissed, Goskyth. Any further words from you will be counted as insubordination.”

    Goskyth, his face burning, glared hatefully at Tovasyn, then fixed that glare on everyone else in the room. He opened his mouth, then closed it, apparently thinking better of risking Tovasyn’s wrath. He stood up and saluted, fist to heart, sneering all the while, then swept past and exited the office.

    Havym, feeling far out of his depth at witnessing that tension-filled exchange, watched the blond man, Kalder, look meaningfully at Tovasyn, who nodded. Kalder then turned toward the petite woman with her arm in a sling. “Camylla,” he said. “I believe you should go to Marian and appraise her of these events. We may be assured that Goskyth makes straight for the Commander’s office as we speak.”

    Tovasyn added, “I would have Kalder do it, so that you could do the Fleet Test with the boy, but...” he looked at her bandaged arm.

    Camylla grimaced, then nodded. “I would that this week were finished, so that I could be whole again!” she muttered, glancing irritably at the sling. Then she bowed slightly to all in the room, and departed.

    Tovasyn turned to the boys and said, “I apologize for the confusion of these past moments. The Master of Recruits is but recently appointed to the position and would appear to be still mastering some of its smaller details.” He placed his fist over his heart and bowed formally to the boys. “I am Vanderas Tovasyn of Jouedyla,” he said, “a Captain of the Royal Queen’s Guard, and this is Kalderon Shanday of Vel Tama, Lieutenant-Captain of the Guard.” The blond man bowed formally as well.

    Olwyn, well-educated that he was, bowed formally and said, “And I am Olwyn Feyrdon of Vel Tama, Declarant today for Havym Ollyns, also of Vel Tama, who comes to you to join the Queensguard, the Eight be willing.” Olwyn glanced at Havym, who hurriedly bowed, remembering belatedly to place his fist over his heart.

    Vander nodded politely to the boys. Looking at Havym, he said, “I shall test you today, Master Ollyns, with the assistance of the Lieutenant-Captain. We shall determine your suitability for the Queensguard in three areas: Dexterity, Faith and Knowledge. Be warned that less than one in one hundred applicants are accepted into the Queensguard, and that, should you be turned away today, you should not let it rest heavy on your heart, for only the very few are chosen to serve the Queen in her Guard.”

    Havym nodded his head, feeling that butterfly kick up its wings in his stomach again.

    Vander turned to Olwyn, saying, “And you, Master Feyrdon; as this man’s Declarant, you shall aver as to his character, uprightness and decency under the Light of the Eight.”

    Olwyn nodded his head.

    “Come with me and we shall begin the tests,” finished the captain. He started toward the door while Kalder went to the bookshelf and withdrew from it a thin piece of wood. Havym saw that it was a wooden slate, with etchings on it, probably of letters and words.

    Kalder spoke to the captain, “This is the last testing board. Apparently the Master of Recruits was expecting no more recruits.”

    Vander grimaced, and said, “Well, at least we have the last one.”

    He led the way, walking down the gallery and across the courtyard to a large, open structure that looked nothing so much as like a huge barn without its walls, although one long side of the unadorned structure was built against the hill. A well-trodden rectangle of flat earth lay beneath its peaked roof and extended again as long as the building past its front, where the open area was marked off by posts. A lamplighter stood in that area right next the barn, using a long pole with a covered flame to light a lamp pole. He was successful at his first attempt and moved away to the pole’s twin at the other end of the yard.

    “Here is the practice yard, where most of your tests will be performed,” Vander said. He walked into the open area and Havym looked into the practice barn to its single wall of smoothed rock. Along that stretch of wall were rows upon rows of different sorts of weapons—most of which were covered by slats of wood or wrapped in cloths. Havym suspected these weapons were for training purposes and had their sharp edges and points covered to reduce injury. He also saw a few large barrels stuffed with swords, spears, javelins and other long weapons—all made entirely of wood.

    “Can you do your letters?” Kalder asked, out of the blue.

    Havym paused, and could not resist a guilty glance at Olwyn, who gave him a wry look. “Um... I can read and write my name—and a few other words. I can do some numbers,” he said. Olwyn had tried to teach Havym how to read and write, but Havym, for the most part, could not be bothered with it, seeing no use for the skills beyond impressing a snooty merchant’s son he had once fancied.

    Kalder nodded his head in a pleased manner. “That is very good,” he said. “Most citizens have not even that level of skill—I know I didn’t when I stood in your place.” He used an iron stylus to make etchings into the wooden slate he carried.

    Vander pointed to the watchtower directly above the Hall of the Guardhouse, although to Havym the stone building seemed more a castle than a hall. “Look under the watchtower to where the rock face of the hill begins,” he said. “There is something there. Can you tell me what it is?”

    Havym looked up into the gloom under the watchtower but could only see the grey and brown rock of the hillside. The last glimmer of twilight was quickly fading; it was nearly as dark as night here on the east side of the Citadel’s hill. He wondered what sort of test this was; did they expect him to see in the dark? Olwyn also looked up and, after a moment, gave a start of surprise. He turned to Havym in excitement, but a stern glance from the two Guardsmen kept him silent. Havym frowned as he focused harder on the point where the smooth grey stone of the watchtower melted into the rough grey surface of the rocky hillside. There was something there, obviously, and Olwyn had seen it. Havym forced himself not to pout, but he knew Olwyn had the eyes of a cat and he hardly considered it fair that his friend could so easily see something that he could not.

    He looked harder, straining his eyes. He wished he had paid more attention to the walls of the Citadel when he had passed by them in the daylight, although he knew that, if anyone looked at the Citadel, the gleaming spires and towers above those walls captured one’s attention far more than the boring grey walls themselves, no matter how tall they were. He squinted his eyes as he scanned the murky area where watchtower became hillside. There seemed to be a strangely shaped rock there, sticking out just under the last brick of the watchtower. He focused on the rock, and realized that it was more than a rock.

    “There’s some sort of statue there,” he said.

    Vander nodded. “Good,” he said. “Can you tell me what the statue is?”

    Havym focused once again on that blurry, rocky statue. Sweet Daughter, he was hungry! He couldn’t believe the last thing he had eaten were the two honeycakes last night. He almost felt lightheaded. He hoped he would be able to do all the tests he feared they were going to give him. After a long moment of straining his eyes near unto a headache, he thought he might see what form the statue took.

    “It’s a bird,” he said. “Like an eagle—or maybe a hawk.”

    “Excellent!” Vander said as Kalder etched away in the slate. “That is a statue—rather a small one, I might add—of the Blue-Tailed Mountain Hawk, the sigil of Samoryn, ruling house of Velledore. Come with me and we shall perform the next test.”

    Havym sighed with relief. He seemed to have passed the first test. He hoped he would fare as well with the others.

    Vander and Kalder spent the next hour or so barraging Havym with the tests, although Havym wondered how some of the strange things they had him do or say could be considered a “test.” Many of things he did seemed obvious, such as using one of the wooden swords to clumsily fend off an attack, or stating the name of the Queen, or seeing how fast he could run or how high he could jump. Others seemed peculiar to him—if understandable—such as spreading his arms out and bringing his forefingers to touch his nose—with his eyes closed. They had him juggle some colored balls, and seemed pleased that he could do three, although four was a disaster. They asked all about his family, which he guessed they should know about, although he didn’t think it should be so important.

    But a large number of the tests were just strange and lacked any sense whatsoever. Most of these were questions they asked him, such as what his favorite color was (gold), or having him tell them a funny joke (he had to think a moment to recall one that wasn’t naughty), or to listen to a random assortment of words and repeat them forward and backward. Some of the seemingly senseless tests were physical, as well. They asked him to dance, of all things! They had him do a game of hopscotch, as if he were a six-year old!

    The tests occurred in no logical sequence. He climbed as high as he could up a sheer section of the hillside, then was asked to guess how many stones were in the wall around the Citadel. He clumsily fired an arrow, completely missing the target, then had to run and retrieve the stray bolt and stick it with his hands into the center of the target! Physical tests followed mental tests followed each other and some at the same time. At first he was exhausted by the effort of it all, but after a while he found himself gathering a second wind and rising up to meet the challenges the two Guardsmen laid before him, one after the other.

    Occasionally, they would fire off a question at a surprised Olwyn. Most of the questions were obvious: Describe a noble thing your friend has done. But some were odd: If he were in the Queen’s Plaza and wanted to go to the Samoryn Gate, which route do you think he would take? Havym had nodded approvingly when Olwyn mused that he would probably go over the Queen’s Bridge and take Queensbridge Road and other streets instead of the obvious route of Samoryn Way, which was surely the most clogged thoroughfare in the city. All during the tests, Kalder madly etched away in the wooden slate.

    At last the two Guardsmen led the exhausted boys back to the office of the Master of Recruits, where they were finally allowed to sit and rest. The captain and Kalder stayed outside the room, probably discussing the tests and going over the tally Kalder had put on the slate. Havym and Olwyn waited for them, saying nothing. Havym noticed that Olwyn seemed tense, and thought it strange that he did not. He felt the opposite of tense, in fact, very nearly relaxed. He knew he had given his best at each and every test—no matter how strange—and that, if they found him acceptable, they would tell him so. If not—well, he knew he had the Clergies to fall back on. Or, if worse came to worst, he always had his da’s little oven.

    After a while, the two men came into the office and sat across the table from the boys. Finally feeling a bit nervous, Havym looked at the faces of the Guardsmen, but could read nothing in their expressionless gazes.

    Vander looked at Havym and said, “Well, Master Ollyns, you’re smart, cocky and not a little bit arrogant.”

    Kalder directed a cool gaze at Olwyn. “Although not half as cocky as your friend here,” he said, making Olwyn stare in indignation.

    “Which is a good thing,” Vander continued. “Too cocky can be problematic.”

    Olwyn, not seeming to realize he was living up to the blond guardsman’s assessment, demanded, “Well—did he pass?”

    Kalder raised an eloquent eyebrow and said to Vander, “Definitely too cocky.”

    Vander grinned but quickly smoothed his features. “A good thing our red-headed harper is not applying,” he said.

    Olwyn gasped and seemed about to say something, but Vander raised a hand and the boy fell silent, although his eyes burned with the desire to speak.

    With a face of stone Vander turned to Havym and asked, “Do you want to be a Royal Queen’s Guardsman?”

    Feeling a sudden, inexplicable thrill, Havym cried, “Yes!”

    Kalder turned an equally stony expression upon Olwyn. “Do you declare as to Havym Ollyn’s faith and devotion to his Queen and nation under the Light of the Good Mother and Her Seven Daughters?”

    Olwyn said, simply, “I do so declare.”

    Vander stood up and offered his hand to Havym. “You successfully passed a quorum of the tests, Master Ollyns. By the Queen’s Law, I, Vanderas Corbyn Tovasyn, Captain of the Royal Queen’s Guard, do offer you, Havym Ollyns of Vel Tama, the rank of Fifth Sword in the Guard, on this seventeenth day of Heavensmonth, in the six hundred and thirty-first year of our nation of Velledore.”

    Feeling the thrill grow within him, and at the same time feeling as if a great weight had been cast off his soul, Havym stood up and clasped the captain’s hand. “I accept your offer,” he said.

    He had gambled—and won. Havym was in the Queensguard.