There is a woman before the throne, arms bound behind her, guards carrying torches on either side. Pallian enters the chamber without appearing to notice her and approaches the place where his father stands beside the obsidian throne. "Father?"
"Pallian." His father regards him, tall and imposing and still impossibly strong. "You recall your lessons on the passage of arms?"
"And the martial uses of sorcery?"
Pallian nods a second time, his eyes on his father's face, waiting to see where this inquiry is going.
"And combining the two?"
A sudden irritation rises within him, but he keeps his face expressionless. He has studied little else for the past two years, and his father should know it: it was done at his order. He nods, making the gesture a mirror of the previous two.
"Amedin!" His father calls sharply, and the old priest strides forward from a shadowed corner of the room. There are others out there as well; half the court, by the look of it, but only he and his father stand in the shaft of moonlight that falls across the throne. The lone woman is lit by the torches her guards carry. Everyone else, men and women and both and neither, are blanketed by the shadows.
Amedin has served the obsidian throne for six generations, far beyond the span of his mortal life. What remains of his flesh is wound tight around his bones, withered and decayed; and it is said that only the darkest sorceries sustain him. Pallian has never seen him eat or drink, and thinks of him as a sort of horrible doll that his father the wizard-king summons for unpleasant tasks and pronouncements. Perhaps the most horrifying thing about him is that despite his appearance he moves like a young man, swift and sure.
Amedin kneels before the wizard-king, then rises. "Sire?"
"Check him. Is he ready?"
Pallian stifles a visceral disgust and forces himself to remain still and calm as the half-dead priest turns to him. He doesn't know himself whether the night's new initiation will react badly with the ones he's already been given; he only knows that there is no escaping the ancient priest's scrutiny: not here, not now, not with his father watching.
Amedin runs withered hands over his shoulders, then down his arms, muttering incomprehensibly to himself. "Firm," he says, as he touches Pallian's forehead. "Strong, as we planned. Stronger than expected, even, and I think growing stronger."
The wizard-king frowns. "Any concerns there?"
"No, sire. He's everything you wanted, and perhaps a bit more. If he fails here, it will be a matter of skill... or will." A dark, strangled chuckle follows the remark.
Pallian doesn't know whether Amedin has sensed his new initiation and chosen not to remark on it, or whether the withered priest assumes that Pallian's additional strength is an unexpected effect of his own work. It doesn't matter, so long as his secret remains secret. "What is it you want of me, father?"
"You see this woman?"
Pallian turns his head at his father's gesture, regards the bound and guarded prisoner, then makes the same respectful nod that he's made four times in this conversation alone. "I do."
"This is the heir of Edrias," his father says. "She was taken in battle, and has demanded her noble right of fugin ei guer."
Pallian nods once more, this time more slowly. Trial by combat. More precisely, release by combat... one way or another. Freedom or death. He raises his head and takes a long, slow look around the room. It is not just the court of Teregor that has gathered here; he sees representatives from a half-dozen wizard-kings, Edrias among them.
"You understand," his father says, with a sharp nod. "Your time has come, and I give you your chance. Kill her for me, and earn your place."
And Pallian, who has never had a place in his father's court and never been allowed to forget it, nods again.