Elinna leaned out the window of her carriage as it drew to a halt in the courtyard and stared up at the double set of doors that marked the entranceway to the House of Lohenrin. A heavy brass knocker, set in the center of the massive expanse of wood, gleamed in the early morning light. Her heart pounding, she stepped down from the carriage and hurried up the steps. Her hand grabbed the ornate knocker, lifted it and brought it banging down.
Would someone come to open the door? This was not a place you approached without an invitation. Her hand tensed on the knocker. Should she bang it again? Indecision knotted her stomach. Her decision to come here today had been a sudden one, made against her father's wishes--she'd come alone. But that was as it should be, for this was a journey only the psiborn could make.
As she lifted the knocker a second time, the rings on her fingers glittered in the sunlight. If she succeeded today, she would have to remove them. Frivolous adornment was forbidden to the adepts of this sacred House. With a quick movement she slipped them off her fingers and into a pocket, then smoothed down the skirt of her dress, an embroidered confection of pale yellow silk. As the moments of waiting stretched on, she pushed back an untidy curl of the honey-brown hair that hung loose around her thin face. Her fingers strayed down to her throat; she could feel her pulse still racing. It was one thing to cherish a lifelong dream and another to face the moment of Judging. For an instant, she considered turning back to the carriage that had brought her. Her father would welcome her return.
No. This might be her only chance.
Stubbornly, Elinna lifted the knocker again, but stopped its downward swing as she heard the clank of a handle turning on the other side of the door. The two halves creaked ponderously as the doorkeeper pulled them apart.
The man who stood before her was dressed in drab gray. He was a servant, not an Initiate or Perceptor or--heaven forbid--a Master. She would face one of them soon enough.
She looked beyond him and saw a huge circular entrance hall. A fountain adorned the center with a great globe of stone floating on the waters. Beyond that, several archways and corridors led off to other sections of the main building.
But this building was only a shell. The House was far more than stone and wood. She could sense a great tide of energy, like a living wall of water, filling the entranceway. She stood for a moment on the threshold, unable to move, tasting that Power, then stepped from warm sunlight into cool darkness and a somber hush.
"What brings you to the House of Lohenrin, Maerra?" the servant asked politely, using a title of respect. A glance at her gown of embroidered silk no doubt was enough to reveal her rank as noble born.
"I am Elinna Serru. I have come for the Judging. I sent word this morning that I would come today." The vast hall seemed to swallow her voice, and she felt small and insignificant as her words vanished into the shadows high above.
He bent his head and moved aside.
Relieved that even here a servant dare not question the high born, Elinna squared her shoulders and strode into the inner hall as he closed the door behind her. But after a few steps, she stopped in hushed awe, her eyes drinking in her surroundings. The entry was high and vaulted. She could sense the massive weight of stone that surrounded her, stone that seemed almost alive with its own aura of Power. And why not? For hundreds upon hundreds of years, these walls had absorbed the energies of countless Perceptors as they explored the infinite potential of khi, the energy interwoven into all-that-is, under the guidance of the S'hazons.
Heavy banners of pure white linen hung on the walls above each archway, their edges stiff with purple and gold embroidery. The center of each glowed with crimson thread stitched into lettering. She stepped closer to the nearest hanging and read a few of the names sewn into the banner. Her skin tingled with anticipation. Would her name one day be added to this illustrious list of Perceptors? Would she too learn to perceive the hidden heart of reality?
Behind her, the doorkeeper coughed discreetly to catch her attention and motioned to a chair. "Would you care to sit? I will tell the Judging Perceptor you're here."
Elinna watched him walk down one of the three long corridors that radiated from the entrance chamber. The pillars beside each doorway were carved with glyphs that shone faintly in the pale light, signets of Power. Her heart soared as she ignored the chair and walked over to one of the archways. With wide eyes, she peered down the hall, picturing the mysteries that waited beyond her sight.
The entrance hall looked exactly as her mother had described it to her so many times. The stone globe balanced a hairsbreadth above the gently cascading waters of the fountain, and seemed to float as if by magic. But she knew it was only the steady force of the water flowing up and filling the fountain that kept the globe afloat and turning, just as Gaea turned each day.
She stared at the colored surface of the rock with unabashed interest. She knew it represented Gaea as seen from high above in astral flight. The continents were etched in faint lines on the surface and her eyes traced the familiar shape of the great island of Atlaua. She could see the way she and her father had come as they traveled to Chitan with other noble families from Ruthher. Some had come from as far as the southern coastlands to travel the road north and east, through Ruthher and the mountains, to the royal city.
Chitan! All of her life she'd heard whispers about the city of a thousand pleasures. Chitan is no place for the young and naive, her father would say whenever she begged to make the journey. But when she reached the marriageable age of eighteen, he could put her off no longer.
They arrived a week ago as guests at the Regen's splendid palace of white stone, its glittering spires crowned with silken banners. The palace sat on a cliff overlooking the bay. Within the walled gardens of fragrant flowers and gently babbling fountains, court ladies in their silks and satins, pearls pulsing at their throats, were courted by dashing men in rich cloaks lined with moon-pale fur. At night, the great halls of polished marble teemed with throngs of people dancing and laughing. A golden light filled the rooms as the radiance of hundreds of candles reflected from flashing mirrors. Rare perfumes hung in the air, and the soft dreaming music of flutes and sweet-stringed harps sang in her ears.
It was the season for Spring Court, her introduction to society and the possibility of a high-born marriage. But that was her father's dream, not hers.
Hers was here in the House of Lohenrin. The House that stood alone, outside the city, isolated on a high peninsula that reached out toward the sea.
Elinna turned to stare in the direction the doorkeeper had taken. That way would be the teaching chambers, the library and the legendary Crystal Chamber. Down the corridor to the right lay the dining halls and kitchens, and beyond that the warren of rooms that housed the Initiates. The corridor to the left led to the rooms of the Perceptors and Masters, but her mother had never gone that way, of course. On those rare occasions when Maerra Saren visited her parents here, they met in this hall and then went out to the gardens.
"Maerra Elinna Serru, daughter of Ashan and Saren?"
The voice was a thin whisper. Elinna turned, startled. A shriveled husk of a man was standing in the center archway, watching her. In his somber black robe he reminded her for a moment of an old night bird, hunched on its perch, feathers drooping. But his eyes glowed with life as they probed her from under white brows. "You wish to enter the House?"
She swallowed with a suddenly dry throat. "Yes."
The man came closer. His face was a map etched with deep gullies. "I am Neyan, the Judging Perceptor. You must face me first."
She lifted her head at the challenge in his words. "That is why I am here."
"Many come, Elinna Serru. It takes more than Power to enter our House. It takes a soul that can bear to be forged on an anvil of fire."
He paused, and she suppressed a shiver. The hall seemed cold and drafty despite the spring day outside. "I wish to enter," she said again.
"You understand what you will face?"
"My mother explained it to me."
"Your mother?" Neyan frowned. "Your mother lacked the courage to face the Judging, as I recall."
"My mother put her duty to me and my father first. But she always encouraged me to enter the House one day." Elinna fought to keep her voice free of the resentment surging up inside her. Her mother deserved more than this abrupt dismissal.
"So now you are here, if somewhat unexpectedly." He smiled for the first time. "Welcome, then. In the Judging, you will be weighed on your merit alone. It is the first of three tests that await you. If you pass it, you will become an Initiate. Each Initiate has up to two years to study our arts. Then each must face a second test, to decide whether he or she is worthy to be called a Perceptor. Only those who pass the second test are taught the deeper mysteries of our House. The S'hazons give the third and final test, but only to those few they judge worthy. Most fail. Those who pass become Masters and learn from the S'hazons themselves."
Elinna nodded. She knew the Judging Perceptor was himself a Master, although he did not say it.
"But today you need only concern yourself with passing the Judging. I will enter your mind to measure your khi. Even though you are psiborn, without sufficient khi force you can never hope to fully realize your talents. Khi bent by the will and focused through the talents is the source of Power. As you are as yet inexperienced in handling your khi, it is possible my probing will trigger an eruption of psi energy in you, energy you might not be able to control."
"I have heard that warning before, almost daily it seems." She kept her tone light, holding her uneasiness at bay.
He took a step closer and lifted a gnarled hand in warning. "It should be heeded. I have seen khi burn through the mind like fire, leaving nothing but ashes. Will you still dare the Judging?"
She met his stare with her own. "I will."
"As you wish." He turned, beckoning her to follow, and led the way down the hall. The walls were unadorned, the slabs on the floor worn smooth by centuries of passing feet. Their footsteps echoed as they walked, disturbing the almost holy silence that seemed to envelop the House. But this silence was not empty. She could feel the air gently trembling with waves of invisible energy.
"There is movement in the khi here," she dared to whisper.
The old man glanced at her in surprise, and she thought she saw a gleam of interest in his eyes. "There is a ceremony under way in the Crystal Chamber. Perhaps someone has traveled too far."
Elinna frowned, puzzled, but he only smiled enigmatically as he shuffled to a halt before a closed door. He fished a tarnished brass key from deep within a hip pocket and slipped it in the lock. Hinges creaked loudly in the silence of the hall as the door reluctantly swung open.
"Enter and be judged." He indicated the dark doorway with a gesture.
Elinna stepped inside. The room was small and dusty, unfurnished except for two chairs that faced each other. A long, narrow window cut into one wall let a few thin rays of sunlight seep into the gloom.
The Judging Perceptor followed her inside and closed the door behind them. "Sit," he said with another gesture and lowered himself into the closest of the chairs.
She sat as commanded, her back stiff, her hands folded in her lap. Perhaps her grandfather and grandmother once sat in this same chair when they faced their Judging. It seemed old enough. And they had passed...
"For two generations I have tested those who desire to enter this House," Neyan began. "It is my particular gift to be able to probe the hearts of others to their innermost depths where soul and spirit join. Two things are required. Your khi must be strong and your spirit must be adaptable. Without both of these traits, you will fail to harness the khi into the discipline of Power."
He shot her a penetrating stare from under his bushy white brows. "No, you only think you understand. You will try to open your being to me, but it will resist. Humans are masters of concealment. It is our nature to hide behind a thousand masks. My task, however, is to know your thoughts. I will use the Power to break down every barrier, every mask, until finally I penetrate to the depths where the khi flows out of your innermost heart. Only then will I know if you are worthy of our great heritage. But if your mind pits its strength against mine, you may lose control of your own khi and suffer permanent damage--damage that not even the S'hazons can heal."
Elinna brushed a strand of hair away from her face. The bare walls of the room pressed closer, making it hard to breathe. She darted a glance out the narrow slit of window. The white towers of Chitan were visible in the distance, promising safety. Her father waited there, doubtless praying even now that she would fail. She straightened her shoulders.
"I believe I have the discipline to submit. Do what you must do."
He nodded. "I will begin, then."
Elinna drew a deep breath as her hands clenched into fists in the shelter of her lap. The old man leaned forward, his gaze narrowing to a look of intense concentration. Suddenly every vestige of age and weakness fell away. Power throbbed in the room, filling the small space with an explosion of dynamic energy. Elinna drew back in her chair, fighting fear, as a sharp, white lance of Power leapt up from the depths of his being. His face was transformed to a mask of fire, his eyes two coals, burning into her. At their touch, a wall of flame scorched against her mind, reading, consuming and tossing away her surface thoughts as so much rubbish before probing deeper, ever deeper.
Time slowed to a halt, suspended. Elinna sat frozen between heartbeats, for a moment, an hour, a day. Such concepts held no meaning now. There was only this probing that went on and on...
Against her will, Elinna found herself battling the relentless probe. Her thoughts darted like a school of frantic fish, seeking a place of shelter for her secrets.
But the Power searching her prevailed; a voice began to speak within her mind, her own voice, whispering aloud her thoughts.
Her frightened mind fled backwards in time to the previous night. She saw again the candlelit hall, crowded with Chitan's greatest beauties. Hasmonea, of course, was lovelier than any of them, a bewitching red-haired temptress with sea-green eyes. As usual when it came to men, Elinna stood in her friend's shadow, watching. But it hardly mattered. As a Perceptor of the House, she would have little time for romance. And she was happy to forget the growing estrangement between her and Hasmonea for a night. It was enough that they had traveled to Chitan together for Spring Court, that they had this one night to enjoy. Tomorrow, Elinna knew, all might change. Hasmonea no longer wanted to enter the House with her.
They flirted with noblemen of the court, laughed and whispered private jokes. When the royal family appeared, she held her breath, hoping Mesor, now the Inheritor, would be among them. But he was not. They said he seldom came to Chitan anymore.
Elinna frowned as she realized that she was not remembering the court dance alone. Another mind watched her thoughts. Why was she even thinking about the dance, about her hopes of meeting Mesor again? She tried to pull her mind away from her feelings about him, but the relentless probing forced her deeper into her memories.
A sunlit day seven summers ago rose to the surface of her mind. The royal couple had visited her father's house, bringing with them Mesor Tethays, their second-born. She cringed and attempted to draw Neyan onward, past those brief few days. He would laugh at her childish infatuation. She had been as awkward as a young colt that summer, all arms and long, skinny legs. Mesor had seized her heart with his quick and bold ways, his smoldering gray eyes and his roguish smile. Looking back, she wondered if his friendliness had come from boredom. As the probing light concentrated, focused, she feared Neyan might laugh at her naïveté.
Against her will, she relived her shyness and fascination with this brash, charming boy. He brimmed with life. The two weeks of his visit shimmered like a pearl in her mind, the memory luminous with enchantment.
Goodbye, Elinna! The echo of his words of long ago. She ached with grief, knowing his thoughts were elsewhere, already traveling the road to his next stop.
Goodbye! she said. Remember me, her heart whispered.
She flinched, wanting to sink into the floor. How could she endure the Judging Perceptor's pity for this lovelorn fantasy? All that childishness was behind her. Would he think she lacked the necessary dedication and deny her entrance?
She wiped sweaty hands against the silk of her gown. The pressure of Neyan's probe continued, sending her mind elsewhere. Her thoughts flowed back into her childhood, back to the beginning of her dream.
Astonished, she listened as her earliest memories came to life. A child was praying to the S'hazons, hoping they might hear. Why is Mother always so sad? Please make her happy again.
The child's pleadings died away. Memories of her mother teaching her the first bits of Power she'd ever learned flooded back. Please let me have enough khi, the child prayed. Please let me enter the House and make my Mother happy again.
She saw herself growing, no longer a child, not yet a woman. Her days became obsessed with learning the Power to please her mother, but her father wanted her to marry, to accept a husband and a family.
No, Father, I will enter the House one day!
Elinna wanted to hide, embarrassed by her anger, but the voice went on, repeating the arguments that had raged between her mother, her father and herself. Were those really her thoughts? Her angry words? Did she sound so self-righteous? She squirmed in the chair, praying again that the Judging was almost over.
Instead, Neyan's Power searched even more deeply through her mind.
Elinna struggled not to resist. It was hard to breathe. More time was passing. That dreaded memory, the one she must keep locked deep within, was rising again--
A vision of her mother's face flashed before her. Horror returned as she looked at the pale skin, the colorless lips, and the limp hands lying on the coverlet. Her mother's eyes opened to stare up at her, empty of comprehension. A death rattle echoed through her mind.
Mother! Darkness engulfed Elinna in a crashing wave, then passed again. Her heart tore open once more, as it had on that day.
All barriers were gone now. Her heart lay exposed. Trembling, she gazed down into a pulsing, shining radiance and knew she was seeing the living khi force within her. It seemed to well up out of her like a pure spring of light. A dayspring. She could see its brightness reflected in Neyan's eyes and knew its depth would determine her future. But the old man's steady gaze revealed nothing.
"Enough," he said at last, and the great lance of white light penetrating her mind withdrew as swiftly as it had come. He leaned back in his chair and heaved a troubled sigh.
Elinna unlocked the fingers that lay clenched in her lap. Her hands ached from the pressure and her palms were marked with deep crescent curves where her nails had dug into her flesh. She felt naked and utterly drained, but she forced herself to lift her head and look into his eyes.
"Have I passed?" To her dismay, she could feel the color mounting in her cheeks.
The bushy brows drew together in a frown. "I will present my findings to the S'hazons. It is for them to decide. You know the custom. If you are chosen, one of them will appear to you on Midsummer's Eve and you will return here before the Harvest Moon to begin your studies. In the meantime, you must go back to Ruthher with your father."
Elinna swallowed her disappointment. She must have failed his Judging to earn this curt dismissal. Her knees threatened to melt away under her but she forced herself to stand straight as she turned toward the door. How had she ever thought she could be a Perceptor? As her hand touched the door handle, the Judging Perceptor spoke again.
"You are young," he said, his voice strengthening with the subtle vibrations of Power, "and the pampered daughter of a nobleman. You are born to a pleasant and easy life."
Elinna lifted her chin. She must have failed, then. "I don't want that life. The Power is like a fire in me, a fire that must burn and grow."
"Yes." His voice softened, filled with his own memories. "I remember my first days here. That blazing flame. It can become a torch to light the way or a funeral pyre. So you burn, do you? Such driving desire is a great blessing, if it is properly controlled. If not, it can consume the unwary. Go back to your home, back to Ruthher and ask yourself if you can endure that fire."
"I will endure," she answered without hesitation. "I wish for this House to become my home."
"Why? Your home is not unhappy."
"No. In fact, I'm often told I'm quite spoiled. But that comfortable life holds nothing for me. Not since--" She stopped and looked down. The probing had revealed her girlish fantasies to this man. She must convince him she was determined to leave them behind. "I will come and open your doors, if that's all I'm worthy to do."
Neyan laughed. "That job is already taken, Maerra Elinna! We have better things for the psiborn to do."
His amusement gave her hope again. "There are better things I want to do. I wish to become a healer and help my people. I trust you saw that I have a gift for it."
His mouth twitched with the beginning of a smile. "Yes, you do. But like everyone else, you must await the verdict of the S'hazons. I communicate my findings to them, but they decide. Now go." He made a dismissing motion with his hand. "Go and wait for the Midsummer moon."
"But Midsummer is three full moon cycles away."
"Learning to wait is the first lesson Initiates must master when they come to this House. Chosen or not, you must adapt yourself to our ways."
"But, but!" He shooed at her with his hands again. "Go down the corridor in that direction and you will find your way out. Mind you do not stray!"
Unwillingly, she turned and walked away. For once she would have welcomed the gift of foretelling. But at least the Judging was behind her at last. The future held the possibility of Power.
Copyright © 2004 by Jeanine Berry