The clock tower’s mournful echoes slid across the silence of night. Alistair Bumbury was going to be late. An icy wind brushed up behind him, chilling his neck beneath the collar of his overcoat. He hunched his shoulders, pressing forward into the misty gloom of evening. Why did it have to be tonight of all nights? He was caught in a puzzle of possibilities, and no solution seemed remotely viable. And yet, here he was. The sole remaining scholar in Westinster and, if the Duchess had her way, he was likely to be the last.
The lauded Duchess Juliet de Barbarac had been ruling Westinster for as long as Alistair could remember. While she was as eternal as the moss on the cobblestones, her subjects were decidedly finite. And Alistair had never felt his mortality more keenly than he did on this night.
His destination, the Palace de Barbarac, loomed ahead, partially hidden amongst the moonlit shadows. The gray stone walls and spiraling turrets were surprisingly old-fashioned for such modern times. Yet, this was where generations of de Barbaracs had made their home, and the Duchess was no exception. Alistair took a deep breath and approached the stone steps. A fully outfitted guard eyed him from the threshold.
“State your business.” The guard's voice was cold and gravely, like footsteps on a frozen path.
“I’m here to see the Duchess.” Alistair clasped his hands behind his back, trying to hide his discomfort. “I was summoned.”
The guard nodded and stepped aside. Alistair climbed the stairs. Inside, the air was cool and damp. It smelled of soot and stone and slime. Alistair shivered. It felt even colder inside the palace than it was outside. His footsteps echoed ominously as he clomped down the baronial hallway. Tapestries lined the walls, illuminated by the pulsing glow of a hundred flickering torches. Empty suits of armor stood at attention, the firelight causing sadistic smiles to glisten beneath their hollow eyes.
He had proceeded only a few steps when a set of oaken double doors seemed to materialize at the end of the hall. Two guards brandishing axes and wearing the blue checkered seal of the Duchess stood at attention on either side of the doors. If the stories were true, this was the entrance to the throne room. This was where Alistair needed to go.
He walked closer, gathering his thoughts, rallying his courage.
“My name is Alistair Bumbury,” he practiced. “I await your Ladyship’s command.”
He attempted a bow, but nearly tripped over his pent-up nerves. Ignoring his racing heart, the tightness in his chest, Alistair approached the doors, nodding for the guards to lift their axes and allow him entrance.
She sat as he imagined she would, elevated above the rest of the chamber, hands folded delicately at her waist. Her hair was twisted in a tower of tumultuous gray, attached in place by a pin of sparkling diamonds. Strands of loose hair fell in wispy curls beside her once attractive face. There was an intensity to her blue eyes that Alistair couldn’t abide. A razor sharp edge that he knew would cut him down as easily as one might slice a fig.
“Alistair Bumbury? Scholar of Westinster?” her voice was almost as sharp as her eyes.
Alistair jumped out of his musings, his respectful bow completely lost in his confusion.
“Yes, your Ladyship?”
Alistair did as he was bade.
“I have summoned you with a request.” She laced her fingers, pressing the ends of her thumbs together.
Alistair caught his breath. A request. Everyone knew what that meant. Fail to produce results, fail to see the next day. Alistair thought of the four colleagues he had already lost to the whims of the Duchess. He bowed carefully.
“I am at your Ladyship’s service.”
“I am told you are a scholar.”
“I am told you are a man of great wisdom.”
Alistair paused, uncertain how to answer. At last, he nodded. “Some may say so…yes.”
“There is a dream I wish for you to interpret.”
“Very well, my Lady.”
Alistair felt his tense muscles relax. Dreams he could do. Besides being knowledgeable in philosophy, history, and mathematics, he was an expert at stars and signs, messages and omens. Dreams were just part of the job description.
“Every night for a month, I have had the same dream. Once the dream comes to me, I can no longer sleep. I lie awake for hours running it over and over again in my head.” The Duchess rose from her throne and, much to Alistair’s surprise, started descending the stairs at the side, drawing closer to him. “I know already it is a dream of great importance. Along with complete candor, you must also swear absolute secrecy. Do you understand?
She stood a few feet above him, just enough to keep the height advantage.
“I humbly swear, your Ladyship,” Alistair said.
She nodded, accepting his oath. The guards at either side of the throne vanished into the shadows until it was just the two of them, Duchess and Scholar, alone in the throne room.
The Duchess began, “In my dream, there are five orbs of light. They are the brightest and most beautiful of all the others. Smaller lights flock to them, making them even brighter.” The eyes of the Duchess grew narrow as she described the next part of the sequence. “Then, from nowhere a dark entity, a being of pride and power, comes and swallows the lights, one by one. Finally, only one light remains. It quakes in fear and just as it is about to be swallowed, the light fights back and overcomes the darkness. Everything turns light. The darkness is gone.” The Duchess stares at Alistair intently. Those piercing eyes, slicing deep into his consciousness. “I want you to tell me, Alistair Bumbury, exactly what this dream means. I expect nothing but the truth.”
Alistair found it difficult to breathe. There was a choice before him, held loosely in his unassuming hands, and it was not a choice he wanted to make.
“Well, I…uh…” Alistair stumbled over the words.
The Duchess’s blue eyes snapped in his direction. She was losing patience. He saw her hand reaching toward her hair, sliding the diamond studded pin from the tightly wound ringlets.
“The…uh, bright light is you, your Ladyship,” Alistair hurried to speak, his heart pounding, stomach twisting in fear. “It’s you who bring light and good to this land. The end of the dream is when you conquer your enemies...”
Alistair’s hands were clammy with sweat. He felt he was going to be sick. He had to keep his cool. He had to be convincing. “This is a dream of exceedingly good tidings,” he continued with what he hoped was an upbeat tone. “I see many more years of your Ladyship’s prosperous reign.”
The Duchess stood directly in front of him now, her eyes boring into his own. There was a curious expression on her face, not so distant from a smile, but darker, more sinister. And that’s when Alistair knew. She saw right through him. She knew he was lying.
The next instant, the Duchess’s hand was at his throat. Alistair caught a glimpse of the diamond hair pin. The end was filed razor sharp and colored a vivid red. The tip was poisoned—he was certain of it. The Duchess pressed the pin closer, the sparkle of diamonds caught the light overhead, dazzling his eyes, filling him with acute terror. Was this his end? He had less than a second to act.
In a flash of movement, he closed his hand around her wrist, twisting her hand backward so that the pin tinkled like a bell to the floor. The Duchess shrieked in annoyance. Lunging to the side, she tore herself free of Alistair’s grip. He had foolishly let her escape.
“Guards! Guards, arrest him!” the Duchess shouted, her words echoing through the throne room.
The curtains in the back rustled slightly, but no one came. The room remained eerily quiet.
Alistair saw his chance. He crouched, snatching the pin from the floor as quickly as he could. He then stood to his full height. “You want to know the meaning of your dream, Duchess de Barbarac?”
The Duchess’s ice blue eyes now blazed white hot. She wanted to know, more than anything, she wanted to know.
“The scholars, those who question, who seek knowledge, who study and learn and fight to make the world better, myself, the four you killed—we are the lights! It’s you and your reign of fear that is the darkness. You might try to extinguish my light, but you can never, ever succeed.”
The Duchess glowered at Alistair, her eyes cruel and mocking. “You don’t know what you’re talking about—foolish hopes of a foolish man! You think you’re the fifth light?”
Alistair felt the cool of the diamond hair pin resting in his palm. He knew exactly what he needed to do. He took a step closer.
“No, your Ladyship, I don’t think I’m the fifth light.”
He raised the pin above his head, the diamonds catching the light overhead, spiraling a thousand colorful patterns across the ceiling and walls of the throne room.
“I know I am.”
This time when the Duchess lunged, Alistair was ready.