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CHAPTER 26

"As the gods will, Your Eminence," said Gabriel, bowing his head. "It shall be done." He saw the hand of the High Patriarch shaking; it was not from age. Though his hair was snow-white and his face was deeply lined, Kroelich was not an old man. He was strong: of an age, with the vigor, of Maddox of Yorgren. Yet the jeweled hand trembled like that of an ancient.

A trickle of sweat ran lazily down Gabriel's forehead. It was warm in the palace of the High Patriarch, too warm. Especially in this chamber. He would suffocate in this heat; he must be gone, out where he could breathe, out where he could think. But he did not move.

He could not. He was Defender of the Faithful of Brennor.

He felt a heavy hand on his shoulder; it still shook. "Thank you, my son," whispered Kroelich, and Gabriel raised his head to meet eyes as deep and gray as his own. The normally steely gaze that reflected the will of the High Patriarch, all the power of his office, was gone. Gabriel found himself staring into wounded eyes, suffering eyes, pleading eyes.

He swallowed hard. One word he longed to speak. Why? One question he begged to have answered. Why? His lips, his tongue, fought to speak the word, to ask the question. But he did not.

He could not. He was Defender of the Faithful of Brennor.

He met the eyes. He nodded.

He needed to blink away the sweat; he needed to wipe it from his brow. He felt he would swoon from the heat. He wanted to run from this chamber, to gulp in a great draft of air. He wanted to run from those eyes, to look upon the sky, to see clearly again. But he did not.

He could not. He was Defender of the Faithful of Brennor.

And yet the word, the question, would not leave him; it hounded him. Why? And more. Who was the man he must kill? Where had he come from? Why not bring him back to answer to the Inquisitors, to face the Tribunal? Why must he be hunted down and killed in stealth? Why must the Defender become an assassin: to stalk a man and kill him like a thief in the night in a back alley of Avacar? Gabriel had killed for the Holy Church. But never like this.

His hand trembled. He gripped the hilt of his sword to still it. He said nothing. He asked no questions.

He could not. He was Defender of the Faithful of Brennor. He was Chosen.

Kroelich sighed and gripped Gabriel's shoulder more tightly. "Only one thing more remains, my son." His voice was stronger now. "There is someone I wish to accompany you." The gray eyes were gentle now, calm, and the hand that gestured to the door no longer shook. "Someone who I believe will be of great aid to you in this task."

Gabriel's face was set; his body was controlled. But he wiped the sweat from his brow as he watched the High Patriarch walk to the door.

Kroelich opened it. "Come in, my child," he said gently.

A girl entered. No, she was older, a young woman, but tiny and fresh as a girl. Short, curly brown hair framed a heart-shaped face with a small upturned nose and pink rosebud mouth. Her skin, as fragile, as smooth and white as the petal of an elden flower, colored as she raised her face to Gabriel, as her eyes widened. They were huge, those liquid brown eyes, too big for her face, too vulnerable, but they did not waver. They shone, and Gabriel felt as if a gentle breeze had washed over him.

He drew a quick breath, swallowed, ran his fingers through his hair. Surely this was not who was to accompany him? Yes, she was Chosen; it was she who was to be the Intercessor. But she was so very young, so delicate.

He had never seen such exquisite beauty. He hadn't known it existed. Flawless, perfect, like a fine figurine, was she: only her warm brown eyes, bright with life, seemed real.

Kroelich, grasping the young woman's hand, led her forward, closer. Gabriel caught his breath. She moved with a grace, a silence, that did not seem possible. Her pure white robe stirred not at all. Not one fine curl fell out of place. She glided.

He knew he should step forward to greet her; his legs could not move. He knew he should smile; his mouth was set, if only to keep it from hanging open. He knew he should do something, anything, with his hands; they hung, huge and unwieldy, at his sides. He knew he should lower his eyes; he could not take them off her.

Now they stood before him. Kroelich spoke, but Gabriel did not hear the words he said, save one. "Elienne."

She who was to be the Intercessor, Elienne, smiled up at him and it was as if the sun had broken through the clouds.

Gabriel smiled. It was impossible not to.

She extended a hand, as small as a child's, as warm, as soft, as a kitten.

Gabriel took it; it was lost in his.

"The gods honor me in your presence, Defender of the Faithful." Her voice was high and sweet; it made the words in the holy tongue sound like a song.

Gabriel drew a deep breath. "The gods honor me in your presence, Intercessor." His voice sounded strained to his ears, tight; it cracked.

His heart was pounding in his chest. The sweat had once again broken out on his brow. Now that he had seen her, heard her, touched her, he could not, would not, believe that it was she who was to accompany him. The gods forgive him for blasphemy; the High Patriarch must be mad!

Gabriel blinked and forced himself to look to Kroelich. The gray eyes were steel, the hands steady, the mouth set. His stature dwarfed all about him; his majesty awed. The will, the might, of the gods radiated from him like an aura.

Gabriel bowed his head. "As the gods will. It shall be done."