THE REGENT MOTHER
Mehrak was already at the communal room table when Sammy was unceremoniously plonked down opposite him. She made eye contact, shook her head once and placed her face in her hands. Her posture said it all. She hadn’t found the answer she’d been looking for. It cut him up to see her this way. If only he could’ve done more. He’d tried his best, but it hadn’t been enough.
Hami stood behind him, casting a shadow over both of them.
“You’ve been a silly girl this afternoon,” Hami said to Sammy. “I’ve called in a lot of favours to provide the level of security we need to get you to New Ecbatana safely.”
“I just wanted –”
“A man has lost his life protecting you and you run away, leaving him to burn to death? His children have been left fatherless.”
Sammy looked up. “It wasn’t like that.”
“And you.” Hami turned on Mehrak. “You made it clear from the start you have no respect for the magi, but I didn’t think you’d jeopardise Sammy’s life because of it. I’d have thought you’d learned your lesson when your recklessness cost you your wife.”
Mehrak felt his face flush, but said nothing.
“As you’ve shown yourselves to be untrustworthy, I’m forced to have you both confined to the palace until we leave tomorrow.”
Mehrak turned to Hami. “We’re prisoners?”
Hami stared back. His silence said more than words could convey. Black pupils like windows into an abyss. A calm façade concealing a burning rage simmering beneath.
“Please try not to disappoint me further,” he said. He hacked up a black lump of phlegm and spat it on the floor. “Have your possessions ready for our departure tomorrow morning.” Then he left.
Sammy returned her head to her hands, which Mehrak was thankful for because he couldn’t look her in the eye. He’d failed her again. He couldn’t stand up to Hami physically, but he should’ve at least said something to defend her. He was a coward and hated himself for it.
Was Hami right, though? Had he been reckless? He’d brought Gisouie on his irresponsible quest. Was he risking Sammy’s life in the same way? The magi might actually be doing the right thing. Hami was a violent thug, but he’d saved their lives, and he was only following orders, orders that came direct from the magi council and government.
Sammy lifted her head. “Do you think Louis is okay?” she asked. “He’s probably wondering where we are.”
“I called down to him,” Mehrak said. “The guards that caught me were kind enough to take me to the lift site so I could shout down.”
“How do you know if he heard you?”
“Do you listen to anything I tell you?”
“Great hearing. Yeah, I remember.” Sammy hid her face in the fold of her arm.
And now he’d snapped at her. Add that to his list of failings, along with not sticking up for her and endangering her life. He’d mucked everything up and now they were trapped. He stared at the wall and the bright, colourful landscape paintings that hung there. They must have been several hundred years old, before the Assault on Aratta. Bright scenes that were so alien to him, yet must be commonplace to Sammy, and were all she’d ever known until she arrived in Perseopia. He had to help her. Had to come up with a plan.
“We should have a look in the palace library,” Mehrak whispered over the table. He tried his best to smile and look optimistic. “There might be a book in there that has information on routes to the Mother World.”
Sammy lifted her head from the table. “Will they let us use the library?”
“I wondered that,” he said, and then he lowered his voice further. “The guards will have orders to keep us in the palace, but I bet the servants don’t know anything about what’s going on. They won’t be deemed important enough.”
When the next servant came in, Mehrak asked if they could use the library.
“I’m afraid only His Excellency, the Regent, can grant permission to enter the royal library,” he said. “Not even Principal Hootan is allowed in without the consent of a royal.” Then he turned on his heel to leave.
“Well, that’s that,” Mehrak said. “Hami will have told the Regent to keep the library out of bounds.”
Sammy perked up, eyes wide. “Zara said her sister got a job in the library, because of her friendship … Wait!” she called to the servant.
The servant stopped at the door. “Yes?”
“Can we see the Regent Mother?”
“She’s in no condition to receive guests. She has a fever.”
“Could you pass on a message instead then, please?”
The servant paused by the door and considered the request. “I’m sure that would be permitted,” he said.
“Great. Can you tell her that her old friend Esther made it to her destination?” She smiled smugly at Mehrak. “And that I’ve spoken to her recently.”
Sammy waited with Mehrak and the servant outside the Regent Mother’s bedroom door.
“And you thought your trip to the market had been wasted,” Mehrak said, grinning broadly. “Now we’re back on the trail!” He rubbed his hands together. At least Mehrak was optimistic, but would the Regent Mother be able to tell them anything?
The door opened from the inside and a hunched man with a bald head and puckered mouth appeared. He motioned them inside and dismissed the servant. Three feeble candles created a pocket of light in the centre of the room. It highlighted a single bed, two maids standing by the bedside and three tables covered in books. The room was pitch black outside the light and it was impossible to gauge how big it was.
A small, skeletal figure lay under the bedcovers, forming a ridge up the centre to where a head was propped up on a pillow.
The bald man led them through the tables to the bed.
The Regent Mother had flowing silver hair splayed out on the pillow, framing a serene and noble face. She opened her eyes as they approached and smiled; until she saw Mehrak.
“Goodness me!” she said. She moved like she was trying to sit up, and the servants rushed to stop her. “Is it really …? Sirtl?”
Mehrak paused. “Sirtl was my grandfather,” he said. “How…?”
The Regent Mother relaxed. “I thought the fever had spread to my brain.” She coughed feebly. One of the maids stepped forward again, but got waved away. “You look so alike,” she said. “We were close friends, you know, your grandfather and I. He would often visit the palace. He never mentioned me?”
Mehrak looked awkward. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” he said. “He died when I was young. He didn’t spend much time at home. He was always away, travelling mostly. My grandmother used to say she became a widow long before he passed away.”
“I didn’t realise he’d died so long ago.” The Regent Mother became distant. Sammy thought she saw a tear in her eye, but then she smiled at Sammy. “You have news of Esther, young lady?” she asked.
Sammy explained how she’d met Esther, had acquired the bracelet, arrived in Perseopia, and about their journey so far. The Regent Mother listened patiently without interrupting.
“She really made it?” she said when Sammy had finished. “I spent all those hours helping her find the books she needed in the library, but I never thought she’d actually get to the Mother World. I assume she figured out how the Temple of Paths worked?”
“The Temple of Paths?” Mehrak asked.
“The temple that the pearls of portal paths are kept in.”
Mehrak grabbed Sammy’s hand and gripped it. “She knew where it was?”
Sammy’s heart leapt, rising in her throat.
“She was a magus,” the Regent Mother said. “All magi know where the temple is. She learned of the location from the magi network.”
Sammy’s heart flopped over and sank. Hami had lied to her. He knew there was a way back to the Mother World and he’d kept it from her.
“The magi know where it is?” Mehrak looked knowingly at Sammy.
“They do,” the Regent Mother said. “But they don’t know how to use it to get to the Mother World. That was the problem. They know where some of the portal pearls take you, but not all of them. Not the one that leads to the Mother World. Esther had to figure that out herself.” The Regent Mother chuckled. “And I still can’t believe she did it.”
“She didn’t tell you which pearl takes you to the Mother World?” Mehrak asked.
“No.” The Regent Mother cleared her throat. “She didn’t tell me where the Temple of Paths was either. Magi code and all that. Besides, her mission was confidential.”
Sammy’s heart plummeted into the pit of her stomach. Then she latched onto a word. “Mission?” she asked. “What mission?
Her sister told me she’d already left the magi when she took the job here.”
“I don’t know what that was either, I’m afraid. Like I said, it was confidential. All I know is that she had to go to the Mother World to find someone important.”
“She told me she’d been looking for me to help her return home,” Sammy said. “She didn’t mention anyone else. Esther said she was the chosen one.”
“Esther never said anything about being a chosen one to me,” the Regent Mother said. “Although she was a supremely powerful magus, so it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Mehrak scratched his head. “What was the point in her going to the Mother World in the first place if she was already the chosen one?”
“She never said,” Sammy replied.
“Maybe she was going to before you used the Midnight Emerald Dial by yourself.”
“Okay. Give it a rest.”
The Regent Mother frowned, “I can only assume Esther found out she was the chosen one by going to the Mother World. We were best friends, she’d have told me if she’d known.”
“Unless that information was confidential too,” Mehrak said. “Or it might be that she needed to bring Sammy back with her, because she’s also important.” He turned to Sammy. “Hami said you’re special. That’s why you’re going to New Ecbatana and why he lied to you about there being no way back to the Mother World.”
“You think he needs my help?” Sammy asked. “I suppose that makes sense.”
“I’d say you’re useful to him. Don’t forget he lied to you. He could be putting you in danger.”
“I don’t think he would. He’s just putting the realm first. He wouldn’t endanger me. He saved us from that manticore, and he
protected Honton Keep last night. And Louis. I should at least see what I’m needed for before I leave.”
“But why the lies? Couldn’t he tell you the truth instead of forcing you to go with him? He’s doing something underhanded.”
“Your grandfather didn’t care for the magi either.” The Regent Mother chuckled. “Which reminds me; I have something for you.”
She nodded for a maid to come close and whispered something in her ear. The girl went to one of the tables, slid out a drawer and took out a book, which she then handed to the Regent Mother. The Regent Mother passed it to Mehrak.
“Your grandfather left me this book,” she said. “At one time it was his most prized possession.”
Mehrak gently took the book from her. The cover was badly worn and the spine cracked. He opened it to the first page. “Stay safe at home in my heart,” he read out aloud. “Did my grandfather write that to you?” he asked, his eyes wide. “Were you two …?”
“I think a previous owner wrote that,” the Regent Mother said. Her eyes were sad. “If your grandfather had written that, it wouldn’t have been for me.” She took a deep breath. “He told me to look after the book and to give it to you when you came looking. He knew you’d come here. He wanted you to know that the Rule Book’s final resting place is written somewhere within those pages.”
“He never told me about this book.” Mehrak’s hands were shaking. “Did he figure out the final resting place?”
“No,” the Regent Mother said. “He spent years poring over the book, but it never revealed its secrets. He tormented himself over it. I didn’t want to pass the curse of its infernal riddle on to you too, but he made me promise. After years of frustration, he left the book with me and returned to Dungalore, never to visit or read the book again.”
The room fell silent. Mehrak stared down at the battered hardback.
The Regent Mother held out her hand to Mehrak. He took it and she closed her eyes and smiled. “He was a good man, your
grandfather,” she said. “Had such a temper, though.” She chuckled again, but half-heartedly, and then seemed sad.
Sammy nudged Mehrak. He looked up, lost for a moment, then said, “I don’t suppose you have the library books Esther read before she left?”
“I don’t,” the Regent Mother said. “But they’ll be logged in the library records. Books aren’t allowed out of the library, but each time one is taken from the shelf, it’s recorded in the logbook. We’ll have the books you need.”
“We’re not allowed in the library, though,” Mehrak said.
“Because only the Regent can grant us permission. And he hasn’t given it.”
“That’s not entirely true,” the Regent Mother said. “He isn’t the only person that can grant you permission.”