Audience With the King
It took another two hours for them to get clear of the hills, and when they did, Kathy stopped dead in her tracks, eyes glued to the city ahead. "Yon lies Celia, capital of Amermidst Kingdom," Daggeuro said, sweeping one hand towards the magnificent metropolis below.
The land swept down abruptly fifty yards on, followed by what Kathy guessed was about five miles of open grassland. It was difficult to gauge distances here in the Ether, she found, due to the clean air. Still, beyond the grasslands sprawled a mighty city, stretching for miles to the east and west, and at least three miles from south to north. The capital had been built abutting a mountain range, allowing for a towering city wall to wrap naturally from west end around to east end on the southern front.
Yet from this great distance, she could see that there was a second wall, within the city itself. It loomed even over the multilevel buildings she assumed were apartment structures. Beyond this inner wall, she could just make out what looked like a small mansion and two or three other buildings.
"It's beautiful," she said.
"It is at that," said Daggeuro. "We should take rest and eat something quickly. We've made better time than I anticipated, and I don't want to lose the extra ground we've covered." He took from his bag several more fruits and what looked like wrapped bowls filled with salted pot roast chunks. Kathy noted that he seemed to have two of everything he needed. "Yes," he replied, "I came prepared for you to agree to accompany me here."
"So besides my Awakening, why else am I being brought to the capital?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean it doesn't all add up," Kathy said, the gears turning in her head.You know what to say, her inner guest said. She was starting to believe this foreign mental voice belonged to the part of her that Daggeuro referred to as Awakened, the part of her soul he claimed allowed her access to magic. Considering its accuracy since first piping up in her mind, this theory made the most sense to her. "You're a very important man to the order of tings in this kingdom of yours, and you were personally sent to retrieve me. You said yourself that there are other Awakened who travel in the Ether, and I suspect that the king doesn't have the time to personally greet them all."
Daggeuro's eyes quickly lowered to his food. She knew what that meant; she was on the right trail, and he didn't want her to see the truth of that in his eyes. You're doing good, keep going.
"You also implied that there are things happening here that have to do with what happened to me. Back at my apartment, before I even packed my bag. Something about this, what did you call it? A wyldfire, that's it." Daggeuro's eyes were beginning to brighten with that orange light. "There's more to this audience with the king than you're telling me."
"Aye, t'is so," he replied in that twin harmony that accompanied the lights. "I cannot say to thee what is entailed, for my first duty as a knight is to mine kingdom, and to its king. He hath forbade me speak on't yet, and I am thusly bound by thy questions. Forgive me, lady Kathy," he said, voice returning to normal, orange lights fading. She made a frustrated noise with her throat.
"Not your fault," she groused, pulling grass from the ground and tossing it aside. "I suppose I'll find out soon enough."
The outer walls of the city had three sets of gates, west, south and east. The southern gates, being the most frequently used, stood wide open to permit them entrance into the city. Kathy saw all manner of strange and exotic peoples, most of whom Daggeuro quickly gave her the names of.
First there were the elves, the most populace peoples of faerie. Humanoid, they stood as tall as she with long, pointed ears, slightly slanted eyes, and universally slender frames. He explained that most elves never got much bigger than high school swimmers from her world. Their garb reminded her of rennaisance fair players dressed as commoners or peasants.
There were then the owl-like humanoids, called nocthoos, and rat-men, called gotrin. The gotrin, Daggeuro explained, were less common in the daylight hours, and most were natural born thieves. There were cat-people, called fellins, and they came in as many tribal varieties as the dog-like kennin did. Bear faeries, lumbering, talking bears who Daggeuro said were among the most skilled water magic wielders. He said they were called ursines.
Then she spotted a stout turtle-like faerie as they approached the inner city wall an hour after arriving within the capital. "What're they called," she asked in a whisper.
"Divars," Daggeuro said, taking Kathy by the arm and whisking her along down a side street.
"Wait a minute, that's part of your title! Santo of divars, right?" Daggeuro nodded as he rushed her along. "What does 'santo' mean?"
"It has two meanings," Daggeuro said. "Saint or savior. I will explain another time," he said, hurrying her along. The city, what little of it she managed to see in their rush towards the inner city wall, made her think of the towns in the role-playing video games she saw her brother play when they were younger, on the Super Nintendo or Playstation.
At last Daggeuro led her down a narrow alley and out onto a broad east-to-west thoroughfare, the immense inner wall before them, broken only by a barbican gate of grated iron. Kathy could just make out a dim, silvery light layered over the iron gate itself, making a faint humming sound. Daggeuro smiled broadly at the gate, finally letting go of Kathy's hand as he approached it, arms held out, palms empty and turned up to the sky. The orange light of the Word of the Knight blazed from his eyes and mouth, wrapping then around his body.
"Behold, brothers! T'is I, Sir Daggeuro, High Knight of Ovin's court! I return to thee in good spirits, with mine charge complete, and the lady Kathy Potts in company! I beseech thee open the gate, and let us through, that she may meet the king, as is his will and his right as monarch of Amermidst Kingdom!" Kathy watched as a creature of living rock came into view atop the wall, a towering golem with two empty sockets for eyes, surrounded by his own aura of orange light. It wore a cloak of the same shade and design as Daggeuro did, but for reasons obvious, it wore no armor. A belt around its midsection hosted a broad-headed warhammer, though.
"Sir Daggeuro, Sir Endridge greets thee," the golem boomed, its voice a rolling thuner. "Thou art seen true, heard true, and is thy right, granted entry into the inner court. Be welcome back with merry heart," he said, reaching down out of sight. Kathy saw him pull something, and the barbican began to rise. As she followed Daggeuro towards the gap appearing there, she noticed several elves and kennin in dark blue suits tht reminded her of cops on old British shows moving to block off their section of the street.
City Watch, keep the riff-raff out, Kathy thought to herself. Her inner guest said nothing, but she felt its agreement with her estimation of things. She and Daggeuro passed through the archway, an the barbican gate shut behind them. Three elven men and a burly black-furred bear faerie, all wearing armor and cloaks like Daggeuro's, met them a few yards along what looked like a cobblestone footpath into a town square of sorts. The bear saluted, the three elves standing stiffly at attention behind him.
"Your lordship, it is well that you are returned to us," said the bear in a soft voice. To Kathy, he sounded like a hippie. "The evening approaches, and the king and queen will soon be at sup. I have no new reports to offer at this time."
"Very good, Sir Beal," Daggeuro said, snapping off a salute so that Beal could lower his hand. "Any grievances from the councilmen while I was away?"
"Only from Tovas Koreem. He sent one of his personal shoppers into market this morning, where it was discovered that Prima Forge is now employing a cyclops." Daggeuro scoffed derisively.
"By the gods, does Koreem not realize that all faerie are equal in the measure of things?"
"Um, are you talking about a real cyclops here," Kathy interrupted, hand raised a little. Beal and Daggeuro chuckled good-naturedly.
"Why yes, of course milady," said Beal. Even the elven knights behind him looked a trifle amused. "They're from a different Ether Plane, mostly, but they're faerie all right." Kathy made a mental note to ask about that some other time. A different Ether Plane, which means there's different Mortal Planes, too. How many worlds are there?
"Sir Beal, are any missives inbound from our dispatched Royal Guard," Daggeuro asked.
"Not as of now, no. Sir Feckley is expected to send a report soon, though, and there's been some ruckus at the main Watch station regarding a letter from one of the southern outbound rangers."
"Hmm. See to it, find out if it's in need of my personal attention," Daggeuro said.
"Aye, my lord," said the bear faerie, heading past them with the elves to the gate. Kathy tapped Daggeuro on the shoulder.
"Yes, they were," said Daggeuro. "Though, you seem confused."
"You didn't address any of them but Beal," Kathy said.
"Ah, the elves. They're trainees, Lady Potts," he said. "I do not address them unless their trainer asks me to personally. Only one of those lads will obtain the position left open by the retirement of one of our members." He began walking up the walkway, Kathy scurrying to catch up. "Since we are now within the inner court, the rules of courtly etiquette apply. I shall call you Lady Potts, for instance, unless you wish otherwise."
"You could just call me Kathy," she murmured.
"Truly?" She gave him a 'no duh' look. "Very well then, Kathy. I propose we make all haste to the king's manor, that we may have audience before he grows tired for the night." The pair walked briskly northwest along the cobblestone lane, until the entered a circular courtyard flanked on the west by an enormous stone building and on the east by what looked like a coliseum.
"What are these buildings," Kathy asked, feeling chatty but nervous. She squinted at the eastern building, spotting a small path through overgrown shrubbery which led back to several houses. On the west, no such path or houses were visible.
"The building to our left is the barracks for the Royal Guard. Most of our members live there full-time. When supplies are required, we send three or four of us off to the outer city markets to make the necessary purchases." Daggeuro pointed then to the more stately building. "And that is the Hall of the High Council. Beyond it lie the houses which are afforded for each councilman to make their own for the duration of their term in office. But all tasks of official business and voting takes place within the Hall."
Daggeuro led Kathy through the courtyard then, into a narrow lane flanked on either side by tall shrubbery. The path twisted and turned several times, until they stood in yet another courtyard, this one layered in stone tiles.
And ringed by some very frightening creatures.
Kathy would have loosed a shout at the sight of the minotaur clomping toward them if not for his armor and cloak, which identified him as Royal guard. Eleven of them total stood about, including two elves, two fellins of a sleek frame, a dwarfish man in heavy black armor (a gnome, she would discover), three kennin with the heads of Dobermans, what looked like a harpy, a reptilian humanoid, and the minotaur.
"Hail, Sir Daggeuro," the minotaur rumbled, bowing low. His horns passed within inches of the High Knight's face. "I, Sir Garus, give thee good welcome and congratulations on the success of thy mission." He stood back to his full height, a whopping eight feet at least. "Sir Barnick has been dispatched inside to tell the king of your imminent arrival."
"Does she have the duty of messenger today," Daggeuro asked.
"She? Didn't he say 'sir' Barnick," Kathy asked quietly.
"All Royal Guard are referred to as 'Sir'," Daggeuro quickly explained.
"She does, lordship," said Garus.
"Very well, then. I bid you all good heart, comrades, but Sir Barnick is fleet of foot, and we mustn't be too far behind. Come, Kathy," he said, taking her by the hand. Together they raced past the guards to the front doors, which were already being pulled open by a pair of subdued elven men in fine servants' attire.
The front entrance chamber of the king's manor epitomized class and wealth, almost to the point of vulgarity. But more than any of the lavish furniture or tapestries, more than the paintings and gold or silver-trimmed décor, what gripped Kathy's attention were the black wooden double doors directly opposite the entryway they stood in. Immense power fairly radiated from beyond them, another Royal Guard standing to either side of the doors. They looked like giant frog-men, and Kathy could detect the bitter scent of vinegar coming from them.
"This power I'm feeling," she rasped. "Is it-"
"Yes, king Ovin," Daggeuro said. He narrowed his eyes, a growl coming low from his throat. "And I smell another, someone I had hoped not to see ever again." Daggeuro let go of Kathy's hand and led her to the doors. He silently looked to each guard, who then reached out and thrust the doors open.
The chamber now before them, Kathy suspected from the décor, had begun life as a forml dining room. Now it served as a throne room, replete with tapesties hung overhead, and two magnificent thrones of bleached white wood at the far end. More Royal Guard stood evenly paced against the walls, silent and at attention. On Kathy's right stood a gotrin in a powdered wig and Victorian butler's garb, his rodent snout aimed slightly upward.
"Announcing Sir Daggeuro, High Knight of the court, and guest," the gotrin called out in a perfectly nasal Englishman's accent. Daggeuro and Kathy strode forth, until Kathy could make out the diminutive monarch clearly. King Ovin, a fairy, was perhaps seven inches tall, with a king's regal attire, plumage and presence. If his face didn't remind her of Gary Oldman, she might have been left speechless. That, and the boundless kindness she felt in his gaze.
On the throne beside his stood an equally elegant fairy woman in a flowing blue dress, the midsection of which bulged largely. She is with child, Kathy thought. Over ten-thousand years old and the king still has some venom in his viper! Way to go, fellah!
Daggeuro dropped slowly to one knee before his king ad queen, and Kathy followed suit, lowering her eyes just as he did. "My liege," he said in a somber voice. "I return with the Lady Kathy Potts, who has requested informality in her address."
"So I see," the king replied, and Kathy felt soothing warmth flow over her with his words. Here was a benevolent ruler, a leader not of the iron fist, but of the open heart. "Rise, High Knight and Miss Kathy, that you may regard us as we regard you." They rose together, and as Kathy looked over at Daggeuro, she caught sight o a shadowy movement against the far wall, a man-like shape in the shadows.
"Um, not to speak out of turn," she said, anxiously watching that shape move closer to the light of the candelabra hanging overhead. "But I think there's an uninvited guest there," she said, pointing at the shadowy figure.
"No, he is invited," said the king. "Baron Dimanche, please come forth." A tall, lanky man of creamy chocolate skin stepped into the light, adorned in a violently bright yellow dinner jacket, no shirt on underneath to cover his midsection. Tattered cut-off capris of beige covered half of his knobby-kneed legs, and a pair of wicker sandals covered feet as wide as the head of an oar. His face was stretched, the flesh taking on the grimace of the skull beneath, with wide, goggling white eyes. A black top hat rested atop his head, and his left wrist was festooned with bracelets and charms. In his right hand he held a cane that looked like a stiffened king cobra.
"Sir Daggeuro, a pleasure to see you again," the tall dark man said, sweeping a bow. He spoke with a heavy bayou patois. "Dis is a great improvement ovah da last time I saw you," he said, leering at the kennin knight as he stood to full height again.
"The Spirit Plane have enough of your nonsense, Baron," Daggeuro asked hotly. "Or did your elder brother chase you off?" Kathy saw the man named Baron Dimanche drop the false smile, now frowning in earnest at Daggeuro. Spirit Plane? So there are three Planes to my world?
"I am indebted to king Ovin's court, as you well know, Sir Daggeuro," Dimanche said evenly. "De king called in his marker, and I, unlike my brudda, always repay my debts." He grinned widely at Daggeuro again. "By de way, how's your tail?" Kathy could tell that Daggeuro was fighting to control his reaction, a battle it appeared for a moment he would lose as his thumbs twitched at the tie-downs on Boon and Bane.
"Baron Dimanche," the king snapped, his power rippling visibly through the air. Kathy no longer felt safe and assured-she felt terrified. If he wanted to, she suspected king Ovin could blast flat half the city and everyone in his path. Even Dimanche seemed properly chastised, shrinking back, clutching his cane in both hands. "You will be respectful in my presence, and make amends to Sir Daggeuro at once."
"Pray give me pardon, Sir Daggeuro," Dimanche said softly, bowing to the kennin.
"So given," Daggeuro replied genially.
"Excellent," said the king, once again giving off a soothing aura. Kathy thought she could detect the hint of cinnamon coming from Dimanche, and something like lavender from the king and queen. It was rather lovely to her. "Now, Miss Kathy, I address all, but speak to you. You are now Awakened, due to the aftereffects of a wave of wyldfire. When your soul came in contact with the residual combination of the wyldfire and a twinning's energy, your powers were given life. But something unexpected and rare occurred as well."
The king let silence fall, and Kathy could see from the attentiveness in Daggeuro and Dimanche's eyes that this was new information to them. The king continued.
"That contact also spawned, in the Ether Plane, a taoman, or shadow, of you in your Awakened state," said the king. Daggeuro and several other Royal Guard gasped, which gave Kathy a bad feeling in her guts. "We have reason to believe that the shade, Luga, made contact with it and returned to his territory with it."
"Damnation," one of the other guards snarled.
"Sir Beleck, please," said the queen gently, her voice melodious. "Husband, please continue."
"For the last week, Luga's minions have been seen throughout the provinces and in neighboring kingdoms, causing trouble as always, but they are believed to be searching for something. I believe I know what, as well."
Daggeuro brought his right hand over his heart, and the king inclined his head toward the kennin. "My liege, do you suspect he's trying to find the fragments of the Great Door?"
"Yes." The room positively filled with hushed conversation, which the king allowed for a minute. He floated on translucent blue wings over his throne then, hands raised outward in a calming motion. "All here within this chamber know where the five fragments were dispersed to. All here also know that the magic of a taomen could be used to fuse them together again and open the way through.
"What must be done now is clear. We know that Luga succeeded already in securing the fragment from Weestin Kingdom, and his men draw close to the one in Lentros. That leaves the three here in Amermidst to protect. One is already here within my manor. One is with the noble Gaedling Goblin. And the last is hidden in the Temple of Korant.
"We know this, but Luga does not. This is our only advantage over him for now," the king said solemnly. "His army is small, but should he ever focus them all into a single body, they could do incalculable damage. We need to either find a way to mislead him, or retake the fragments he has obtained.
"Miss Kathy," said the king, his tone becoming more sympathetic. "So long as Luga has the taomen created from your soul, he has a chance of repairing the Great Door. This is where you come in."
All eyes turned on her at that moment. Kathy could feel multiple regards swarming over her like gnats. "Uh, I don't understand," she said.
"A taomen can only be destroyed by one of two methods," Ovin said. "Either the taomen's source, you, must kill her in combat, or they must be overloaded with pure sacred force until they burst. The latter is nearly an impossibility these last years, since the monastic order of the Sacri disappeared. That leaves us with just you, dear lady.
"You will have to track down and kill the taomen."