The man is a vortex of black wind, but only Janus seems to notice. Almost everyone else is awed, deferential. Ever since the prophet's predictions prevented a collapse that would have set the Ocean Palace's construction back by weeks, Mother has doted on him like a favorite Nu.
Dalton hates him. Usually Janus appreciates anything that makes Dalton unhappy, but in this case, there is no joy in spite.
"Where do you think he came from?" asks Schala, brushing her hair out for the night. She can feel misfortune swirling, too, but she always says that a bright enough light can banish any shadow. "What kind of magic shows him the future so clearly?"
Janus scowls and scuffs his shoe against the floor. "I don't care. I hate him."
Her reflection gives him a weary look. She is always weary, lately. "I pity him. There must be great sorrow in his gift."
"His gift is making everything worse." Janus's nails bite into his palms. "Mother's getting worse."
His sister's shadow covers him before her arms do. "It's going to be all right, Janus," she whispers. "Melchior has a plan."
The black wind is everywhere, on every breath; it's never going to be all right. But Schala needs comfort, too, so he nods into the crook of her shoulder and pretends to be soothed.
When Melchior disappears, Janus wishes he could be surprised. He has never been able to trust adults to keep their promises.
The residents of the palace have spent so long ignoring Janus that he finds it easy to be underfoot. With Alfador for company, he curls up under a desk and waits until everyone has forgotten him. Out of sight, out of mind. Schala says that the Ocean Palace would never be completed if people had to watch it being built.
Alfador has fallen asleep in his lap before the rambling discussion turns to Melchior: "Bit harsh, don't you think?"
A throat clears. "We ought not to second-guess her majesty, especially when she employs such a fine prophet. Today the Guru of Life complains; tomorrow, perhaps he attempts a coup."
"I cannot imagine that Melchior would prove a traitor," says a quiet voice.
"Nor can you see the future with clarity. If he were not destined to be a traitor, he would not suffer a traitor's fate."
From there the conversation descends into abstractions, which Janus endures until departing footsteps alert him to a chance to sneak away. Traitors go to the Mountain of Woe. He knows all about what happens to traitors; he's heard more than enough whispers suggesting that failing to be born magical is a betrayal of his blood.
Schala is horrified when he tells her, but what can she do? Mother's demands on her increase every day; she is too exhausted to lie awake scheming. And how can anyone plot against a power that watches plans unfold before they are formed?
If there are to have any hope at all, they must hope that the future is unwritten and the prophet is a fraud.
Janus learned how to stalk from Alfador. His footfalls are silent even on tiles, and he is patient enough to hide all afternoon in a shadow. Still, he has trouble tracking the prophet; the man seems to know where Janus lies in wait and alters his routes accordingly.
But there is only one path in and out of the throne room, and Mother—the queen requires his presence several times a day. Janus hides behind a Nu in the hallway until the prophet emerges, with Schala walking before him.
These days, Schala seldom has time even to sleep. Her eyes are ringed with shadows, her pale skin has taken on a gray cast, and she scarcely seems to notice her surroundings. When she passes her brother's hiding place, she stumbles.
The prophet catches her arm before Janus can think to move. Schala gasps and blinks as she turns to see who has stopped her from falling. For a moment she is frozen; then her entire body shudders, and she pulls roughly away to run down the hall.
Janus's blood seethes. The man has no right to touch her. No one has any right to look at his sister like that. He bites his lip until it bleeds to keep himself from pouncing on the prophet like a wildcat.
Rage makes him clumsy, but the prophet seems distracted, too. Janus shadows him down increasingly narrow corridors, into the dark rooms under the palace. The prophet may have the ear of the queen, but he has the quarters of a servant.
Taking advantage of the low light, Janus sneaks ahead and darts out in front of the prophet to block his way. The prophet halts, staring down impassively.
Janus has no plan, only anger. "I know who you really are," he bluffs. "Get out of Zeal by sundown, or I'll tell everyone."
The prophet's teeth gleam in shadow of his hood. "Foolish boy. Stay out of my way."
Janus plants his feet and crosses his arms.
Energy crackles around the prophet's gloves for only an instant before Janus is launched backwards against the wall. His muscles spasm as he crumples to the floor. Deep inside him, a force tries to bubble up in retaliation, but Janus beats it frantically back.
The prophet looms over him, voice edging into a growl: "Stay out of my way, or you will become me."
As threats go, this is the strangest Janus has ever heard. He opens his mouth but has no idea what to say. Even breathing hurts.
The prophet passes him without another glance; a few moments later, a door clicks shut. Janus rolls onto his back, wheezing. Alfador pads over from the shadows to nuzzle his cheek.
Become me. Become a vortex of misfortune, dragging down everything it touches.
The black wind rides in on every labored breath, and he cannot breathe it back out. Why did he ever let himself believe in an unwritten future? The future has written itself all around him, in indelible spirals.
When he creeps into Schala's room, she is already sound asleep, and he doesn't have the heart to wake her. Instead he curls up beside her on her bed, as he used to do when nightmares drove him from his, and pretends he isn't crying.