Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Stagnation - Part Seven
Gary had stopped at the barracks just long enough to give himself a quick scrub and change out of his uniform. He was worried about Ayame, but didn't think she was in any immediate danger. There was no need to subject her to his company when he stank of sweat and hot metal.
It was with some relief that he slipped a loose cotton tunic on- he still wasn't accustomed to the way heavy chain mail sat on the top of his wings. He wondered if he'd ever get entirely used to these new appendages. At least he'd mastered getting his wings through the new slits in his clothing without hurting his back.
Clean and presentable, he made his way to the quarters where visiting nobles were housed. He knew the palace like the back of his hand, having spent years running errands throughout its halls as a page and squire. He had walked into the hallway of the guest suites when it occurred to him that he didn't actually know which one Ayame was housed in- and that, for all her friendliness, she might not appreciate his accosting her in her room after the way he'd brushed her off before.
He lingered in the hallway, unsure of himself, when he heard a soft cough behind him.
"Looking for me, Garrett?"
The Bori whipped around, startled, to find that Ayame was standing in the stairwell at the end of the hall. Her expression was tired, but bemused.
"Ah, forgive me, m'lady," he said sheepishly. "Master Valrigard told me what happened with his majesty today, and I was worried. 'Sides, you never did tell me what you wanted to talk about yesterday..."
"Aw, you really do care," she teased, and Gary flushed. "I just wanted a friendly ear yesterday, that's all. I'm fine, Garrett. Well... I'll live anyway. I suppose it's hard to say I'm 'fine' when I have to carry disappointment back to my people."
She walked around Gary, beckoning for him to follow her. He did so, looking down at his hands ruefully. "I reckoned I knew what poverty looked like. My da, he was a brickmaker. We were never swimming in neopoints, and I think he about keeled over with relief when I got sponsored to be a page and he didn't have to pay for my keep anymore. But... what I saw in Abyssal Acres was worse, way worse. Scary like. I dunno how people can live like that."
"One cold, wet, miserable day at a time," Ayame responded grimly, opening the door to her suite and lighting the lantern inside. She sat in an armchair with a weary sigh, gesturing for Gary to take a seat on a stool nearby. He did so gingerly. He'd come to check up on her, but now that he was here the Bori wasn't sure what he should actually do.
And that's why in a tight spot you always use yourself as a decoy and send for help, he thought grimly. You got no sense of how to fix problems your own self. Use your noggin, it ain't for decoration.
"What got the king's tail in a twist anyway?" he asked. "M'lord said it was somethin' to do with some history records, but he was too keyed up to give much detail."
Ayame crossed her arms. "I can't really say myself. Apparently there was something that happened back when Abyssal Acres was first added to the kingdom that King Talren doesn't want anyone knowing about. I can't imagine what- if it's that his ancestor conquered the land in a battle, that would hardly be a surprise. It's usually how such things are done. Much though the royals of Brightvale would love to maintain their illusion of being peaceful philosophers, I doubt if there's anyone who would believe them if they claimed these lands all submitted to Brightvale rule willingly."
Gary flicked his ears. There was sense in that, and intelligent as Talren was he should certainly have realized it too. But what was he trying to hide then?
"Why d'you wanna see the records anyway?" he asked. Ayame shrugged.
"I don't. Skarl was the one doing the research. He was trying to find out how long this curse of rain and infertility has been in place, from what I could gather. He got as far back as close to when the fief was incorporated into the kingdom, but couldn't find any more references. He tried to look in the royal archives, but only the king and his heir are allowed in."
The mention of the archives made Gary wince- if that Ogrin was anything like her apprentice, it made sense she'd be as difficult as possible if the king bade it.
But if the king was desperate enough to hide this secret that he would call guards out on Duke Valrigard, it had to be a game changer. Something that would put him in a position he didn't want to be in.
That, or the king had lost his mind. Neither explanation was a comforting one.
The squire rubbed his arm where Valrigard had struck it. There was a bruise developing, he could feel it, though his tunic sleeve and the fur on his arm hid it from view. What if the king angered more nobles like that? Most wouldn't share his master's temperamental reaction, but none would take it well. Having grown up as a castle page, spending most of his childhood an unseen presence in the court, he knew how touchy nobles could be about their reputations. Even hearing that the duke of Pyrfell Bay had been so disrespected was liable to outrage the touchier ones.
Ayame cleared her throat, and Gary realized the silence between them had stretched too long. "Ah, sorry, m'lady, I was thinking."
"I gathered," Ayame replied. "I hope you don't mind if I trade some questions of my own for yours though- for example, why are you interested in this? You haven't shown much personal concern for the diplomatic discussions up until now."
"Well, there wasn't much I could do," Gary pointed out. "I'm just a squire, I got no means to sway the likes of the king. I'm not very smart either, I don't know matters of money. 'Sides that I was... distracted. Too busy thinking about my own stupid problems. But I do know nobles. I know that it's bad when the king is willing to ignore a bunch of bandits attacking one of his fiefs, then point a spear at a high ranking landowner. There'll be some angry over it. Others scared."
The Kougra nodded. "Astutely observed. I am not ranked high enough that such an insult to me is likely to even cause a ripple in the national rumormill, but Sir Valrigard... he is another matter. There will be repercussions, unless the king can be made to back down."
"And my master's smack in the middle of it," Gary said bleakly. "So it seems to me I'd best take an interest. I ain't a page scuttling around the castle invisible anymore. I can't just keep my head down and wait for things to blow over."
He blushed suddenly, looking away and rubbing the back of his neck. "'Sides, m'lady Illusen had me promise to keep an eye on you. She didn't want ill coming to you."
That startled a laugh from the Kougra. "Did she? Figures. Well I'm not so overburdened with allies that I can turn down willing help. But I honestly don't see how we can proceed from here. The king has put an end to our meetings with him, and it's only a matter of time before I must go home to my people."
She tugged on the hem of her sleeve, her eyes saddening. "Besides, you have a endured a very great deal already. You shouldn't make yourself feel responsible for my problems too."
"Like I said, lady, they became my problems when my knight-master got involved," Gary reminded her. "Besides, what kind of knight would I be if I didn't try to help them people in Abyssal Acres? It's not right, that they should suffer so."
He smiled shyly. "If you, who got no weapons training, can face down a monster for those people, the least I can do is keep you in one piece."
Ayame laughed. "I'm not entirely helpless, you know," she pointed out, making a bit of black fire dance around her fingers. "But thank you. Valrigard was right about you, I think- you'd never be satisfied with less than knighthood."
* * * * *
The following afternoon, as Gary headed out for riding practice, he was surprised to find that Ayame was waiting for him at the castle gate. After a moment, he realized that with her meetings with the king cancelled, likely she had nothing else to do with herself. Further research was impossible, and until she or one of her allies could come up with some new strategy for confronting the king there was little else to do.
He hoped she wasn't planning to try to talk to him- he needed all of his concentration if he was going to make it through the paces Ohu set him. But to his relief she only smiled, and leaned against the fence to watch. Noticing her presence as he approached, the Uni snorted softly.
"Made a conquest, have you?" he asked with a nasty smile. Gary rolled his eyes, tossing the saddle blanket over his mount's back.
"Yeah sure. I think she's just lonely here. Not many folk she knows, ye kin?"
"'You know', not 'ye kin'," Ohu corrected. "But I suppose you have a point. And it's probably wiser of her to stick close to a known ally then to linger in a potentially hostile castle by herself. I would wager throwing yourself in the path of a Werelupe's teeth to protect her is confirmation enough of your loyalties."
"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" the Bori asked irritably as he pulled the saddle girth tight around Ohu's belly. The Uni grinned again.
As he climbed up into the saddle, the Bori sighed. His training session with Valrigard that morning had been a rigorous one- it was clear the Draik's ruffled temper had not been soothed much. But at least the knight had taken care not to hurt his squire again. Between the Draik and the Uni, Gary wondered if he'd even survive his squirehood. At least Ohu had stopped trying to convince him to quit.
Ayame's presence at the fence did nothing to soften Ohu's usual treatment of him. The Kougra seemed to understand, because after a brief chat with him as they walked back to the castle, she left him alone to soak away his aches in the barracks.
Chances were, she had only tried to befriend him because he was someone in the castle close to her own age. She'd told him at one point during the conversation she was nineteen- only two years older than him. That, and Ohu's remark about his allegiances, was a good enough justification for Gary as to why this strange, painfully blunt noble was so receptive of his company. He wondered if things would have been different if there were other girls here her own age.
Not that it mattered a great deal- his duty was to protect her. He'd do that duty, regardless of if she liked him or not. Her willingly staying close to him just made it easier.
Duty... his duty was to serve and obey his king too. When he became a knight, he would take an oath of fealty to Talren. What would he do if it came to choosing between the King and Lady Ayame?
He wasn't sure, and this thought did not sit well with him.
As he emerged into the hallway for dinner, his hair still somewhat wet, he was surprised to hear a soft noise; footsteps, coming in his direction down the hallway. At this time of the night almost all the soldiers would be heading towards the mess hall- had one of the pages forgotten something in their cot?
Then a figure emerged from around the corner, and Gary had to fight back a scowl. It was no page- it was Xee again. The Lupe spotted him, and a momentary flash of panic flared into his eyes, but the boy smothered it quickly. Adopting an air of cool confidence, he strode towards the squire.
"I had hoped to leave this for you to find," he said grimly. "But I suppose giving it to you directly is just as well."
Gary raised an eyebrow inquiringly as the apprentice offered a small envelope. Opening it, the Bori found a note inside, in a scholar's neat, precise hand. A written apology for disrespect, from the young Lupe.
Oh, right, Gary realized. My Lord Valrigard said he was going to recommend that the kid get extra lessons in manners. Guess he wasn't bluffing.
"Thank you," Gary replied, though he couldn't really put much sincerity into his voice. Still, he'd gotten etiquette lessons drummed into his head as a page, and there was no other response he could make without being disrespectful.
The boy looked deeply uncomfortable. Remembering their last encounter, Gary couldn't help but ask, "Why were you crying?"
The young Lupe's shoulders hitched up, and he glowered. "Who was crying?"
"You were," Gary replied, folding his arms. "And you don't seem the type to get all in a twist because someone yelled at you, so it can't be because of what I said."
"I came to apologize, and now you're cross-examining me?" Xee demanded.
The Bori closed his eyes, unsure himself of why he was asking. His stomach was reminding him rather painfully of how long it had been since his last meal, and he wanted nothing more than to escape the brat's company and get some food.
But something nagged at him. After a moment, he realized what it was; guilt.
"I don't know what I said or did," he said slowly. "But it hit you hard. I don't like feeling like a bully. It goes against everything I've been taught about chivalry and how a knight is supposed to be. I just don't want to step on anyone's toes like that again."
Xee looked unimpressed by this answer. "You were yelling at me, and you think that was knightly?"
"You'd invaded my privacy and were spying on a personal conversation," Gary retorted, crossing his arms. "If you were a knight or squire I could've had a glove to your cheek for it."
The Lupe flushed, looking down. "I... I hate it. I hate looking at the earth magic that hangs over you like a blinding emerald cocoon, knowing you could probably grow a tree to full size from a seedling in a few minutes if you wanted to. I hate that you have all that power, but you won't use it or even acknowledge it."
He clenched his fists, his eyes glittering in the light from a nearby torch on the wall. "I... hate that someone who doesn't want magic has it, when I'd sell my soul for a quarter of the power you have. But all I can do, all I'll ever be able to do, is see pretty lights."
Gary's mouth fell open in surprise. This was certainly not the answer he had been expecting. The boy was jealous of him?
"I can see magic," Xee went on bitterly. "I can't turn off my Sight. It's always there, like fireworks surrounding certain people and objects. I see the magic, but I can't touch it. I can't mold or shape it, use it to change the world around me. All I can do is watch other people cast their spells and hope maybe someday just knowing what certain spells look like when they're being cast will be useful to somebody."
The squire looked down at his hands; his body still tingled with that bizarre energy. It hadn't lessened one iota since his conversation with Illusen- he'd just gotten better at ignoring it.
"So... that's why you were spying on me with Master Valrigard," Gary said. "And why you followed Lady Ayame. You wanted to see if we'd do any magic."
The boy shrugged, his expression tired. "It's not the same as doing it myself. But it's as close as I can get."
Gary was still annoyed with the boy for his actions, but he couldn't help feeling a rough sort of empathy. He knew what it was to see something, and want it, but for it to be beyond your power to attain. After all, hadn't he watched knights coming and going from the castle for years, desperately hoping one of them would take him as a squire? Hadn't he nearly killed himself trying to prove his worth, going against every bit of common sense in his head in his desperation?
Oh, he could understand the boy's frustration perfectly.
"But," he said suddenly, "surely your power can't be all that bad. If the royal historian thinks it makes you worth having as an apprentice-"
Xee barked a laugh. "She took me as her apprentice because I had the top marks in my writing class, and because I have a photographic memory for things I read in books. The only time my power ever gets used is when the library gets a new shipment of books, and then they just have me glance at them to make sure none of them are cursed. And they really don't even need me for that, they have a mage on staff who can check for spells, it's just easier and faster for me to do it."
He shook his head, his eyes hard. "I took this post because it would have been stupid to turn down an offer like this. Apprenticed to a member of the king's personal court? The son of a border lord's falconer couldn't have dared to hope for so much. But it isn't what I wanted, to be shuffling papers and researching this that or the other all day. I wanted to do something that actually means something to someone. That's what they kept telling me back home when they saw how smart I was, that I'd go to the academy and do great things for Brightvale. Except I'm just one more smart kid in a country full of smart people."
The Bori's mind was racing, but somehow around the yammering of his furious thoughts he managed to ask, "What if I told you that your place in the archives puts in you the perfect position to do something that might could save hundreds of lives?"
To be continued...