These were old, very old. They sparkled in my hand when I held them to the light. Green and bluish, amber with deep brown veins. Undoubtedly made of stone but also undoubtedly alive. Embryos, frozen in some kind of stasis, but with an indescribable sense to them that, given the right circumstances, they would resume the growth that was arrested millennia past.
Worçik wanted to see them. I heaved myself up from the pit and handed them to my uncle, gently, though of course they were durable. Leaning on my shovel, I hung the lamp from the overhead hook so that he could see. He held the sapphire embryo to it, clicked his tongue in amazement. At a glance it looked like little more than a round stone – if a beautiful one, full of flaws but the kind that made it more visually entrancing – but up close, the indentation in one side and the tiny body, the size and shape of two grains of coarse sand lain side by side, marked its purpose. Worçik held a lens to his eye to look closer, and this time he whistled.
“What will they be?” he asked.
He handed them back and I returned them to the velvet-padded case I had dug out of the hole.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think anyone does, not anyone who’s been alive in the last thousand years. Besides that they will be kings.”
The case came with me, wrapped in a now dusty blanket and tucked under my arm, while Worçik handled the lamp and shovel. We wound our way back through the mine shaft to emerge in wan moonlight. Any brighter, and I would have seen the man waiting for us before he saw us.
“What do you have?” he demanded. He leaned on a sword, a long and recurved one like the bishop’s elite carried. Cruel hook at the tip, sharp on both sides. Dull, unreflective bronze.
“Forgive us,” I raised my free hand in peace. “We only snuck in with the hopes that the old mine still held jewels. All I have is a blanket for my uncle’s knees.”
The soldier stepped forward, into the lantern’s range. He was rough-faced, middle-aged and heavyset, with drooping mustaches. His gaze told me he knew exactly what I had.
“We will split the sale with you,” I offered.
“Give it to me,” he hefted the sword. While he was no young man, he still wielded it expertly. “Then kneel, with your hands on the earth.”
For the moment we could only oblige. The soldier took the case in his offhand and inspected its contents, with strangely sad recognition.
“Where did you learn of these?” he barked.
“From a combination of various maps and storybooks. You know the Kings of Precious Stone, who emerged once from the earth to rule – this was the site from which they emerged. I suspect they buried their heirs, but they were enchanted not to be born. I planned to bring them to a sorceress who would pay grandly for the chance to quicken them.”
“You’re a fool. And what drove you to these maps? Nobody comes to these mines anymore.”
“I spoke to a forespector.”
Worçik didn’t know that. His brow swelled with consternated wrinkles. My uncle was an old-fashioned and sometimes cruel man: one went to a forespector only when one could not see one’s proper path ahead, and only the morally infirm could not see their own path clearly at all times.
“Then give me the forespector’s name,” the soldier said.
While I hesitated, Worçik bellowed. The shovel was still in front of him, he took it up and turned it and lunged all in one motion, and struck the soldier of the bishop’s elite in the chin. The soldier’s sword came up, but he was wobbly from the impact, so I had time to grab and cling to his elbow until my uncle brought the shovel around to strike again, its broad side against the heavy man’s crown. The two of us then stood quietly, over the body – dead or unconscious, either way inert – of a man many stations above us.
Worçik glanced at me but said nothing, until:
“Why was he here?”
“He knew about them,” I had to guess. “And someone else knew, to order him here. We will have to be quick, and then be out of town.”
Worçik shrugged and led on.
That I had a buyer was not a lie, but she was no mere sorceress. The high priestess and augur of the imperial temple met us in the back room of the very forespector’s shop in which I had learned of this chance to move my life forward. She wore a traveler’s cloak, hooded so that the divine fire in her eyes would not give her away. Had only one attendant, a young servant wearing a bird mask to indicate he was not to be bothered by anyone but his master. He stood behind her, shortbow at the ready.
The priestess took the case with reverence, a serious set to her teeth that suggested she had not expected us to really bring her what she wanted until she saw it. Which would not have been unfair to worry. The jewels inside, with their not-yet-fetal Heirs of Precious Stone attached, she stroked gently – carefully, in a way that made me worry for how rough I had been with them – and whispered sacred words over.
“This is all there were?” she asked. “Only three?”
“There could have been another case,” I suggested.
“You can’t ask any more of my niece,” Worçik leveled a glower at the priestess, her high, high station notwithstanding. “The bishop has his elite guarding the site.”
“There was only one case,” the luminous woman took the emerald embryo in her hands. “I am prepared to reward you.”
She raised her eyes, and we both knew to meet them. She did not release us for several seconds.
“I unbind you from this country,” she said.
It was the greatest gift she could have bestowed. We nodded, I with excitement and my uncle gravely.
“How do you quicken them?” I ventured to ask.
As an answer, the priestess cupped the emerald in her hands and blew a long breath on it.
“The Kings of Precious Stone,” she said, in awe. “They will rule again.”
She set the embryo on the table, but her face darkened. I leaned in – improperly, before such a vaunted being – and saw what distressed her.
The embryo was shrinking. Ever so slowly, the emerald king’s body was losing definition, being drawn back in to the bulb.
“Oh, no,” I said aloud.
None of us, not even the priest, had factored in a key element of the story of our ancient kings: that they aged in reverse. It was not the next generation that had been buried and frozen, it was the kings themselves, after receding beyond childhood, beyond infancy, beyond birth, buried so they may emerge in the past when it was time.
Worçik rubbed his temples. He squeezed my arm under the table, a clear sign: we should flee, before the priestess, her mission so scuttled, decided to bind us again.