Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Stagnation - Part Eight
"I'm not sure about this," Ayame said dubiously as she followed Gary through the twists and turns of the royal library. "Can we really trust this child after what he's shown that he's not above sneaking around and spying on people for his own entertainment?"
The Bori flicked his ears. It was two nights past when he'd had his conversation with Xee in the barracks, and he'd just gotten word via one of the castle pages that the Lupe was calling for him. Gary had decided to bring Ayame along, since the research in question was directly pertinent to her and without much experience in diplomacy he was liable to overlook a crucial detail that she'd immediately notice.
He couldn't blame her for the mistrust. The squire had to admit he was still irritated with the young Lupe and didn't really want anything to do with him. But empathy for the boy's circumstances and the desperation of the situation with Abyssal Acres overruled Gary's common sense.
"We're not really in a good spot," he pointed out. "You said it yourself, any help's better'n none at this point. When they train the pages, one of the first things we learn is that while some weapons are more suited to a knight- like the sword, lance, or ax- we never know what sorta situation we'll end up in. We need to use whatever's on hand. So we practice with other things; staff, spear, pike, knife, so on. Strictly speaking a knight isn't supposed to use such things. Spears and pikes are weapons for general infantry, and a staff or knife is a common street thug's tool. But in a battlefield beggars can't be choosers."
The Kougra chuckled. "I admit that I'm not very learned in the arts of warfare, but frankly I don't think Abyssal Acres could turn down a half-trained page with a kitchen knife at this point, we're that desperate for a little protection. Your point is duly noted, Garrett."
Feeling greatly daring, the Bori said, "Just Gary, M'lady. Garrett is what the training masters called me when I was gonna get a lecture."
She laughed outright at this. "If I'm to be informal, then you should be too, don't you think?"
The squire winced. She had a point, but he didn't think he'd be dropping the honorifics from her address any time soon. It just felt too much like insubordination.
Finally, after what he hoped was a winding enough route to shake (or at least bore) anyone that might be following them, he turned down the row of shelves that led to the archival office of the royal historian. When he got there, he found the door just slightly ajar, though there were no lanterns lit within. That made sense; you wouldn't want an open flame around old, dry documents. As they entered the room, Ayame flicked her wrist, calling a small, dark purple magelight into existence. It didn't give off much illumination- dark magic tended not to be great at even the most basic light calling spell- but it was enough to see by.
There was Xee, perched on the edge of a desk at the front of the room. He sprang up, gesturing quickly at the two of them to be silent. Then he led the way deep into the archive room, up several flights of stairs to a small work table in an out of the way corner.
"All the sealed records are magicked," he explained softly. "You have to be given the keys to them to get them open- not physical keys, there's a keying spell that you have to be added to."
"I presume you have one of these keys?" Ayame asked. The Lupe rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, sure, they'd totally trust an apprentice of not even a year with the key to classified records. No, only Mistress Ethel, the king, and the crown prince have the keys. But the thing about spells like this is they're actually really easy to get around, if you know who's got the key."
He held out a small tuft of pink fur- pink the same shade as a striped Ogrin's mane. Gary realized what he was doing just a few seconds before he dropped the tuft on a worn, battered book sitting on the table. Nothing visible happened, but the Lupe clucked his tongue, a satisfied look on his face. Evidently he'd seen the spell lift, because he reached down and casually pulled the book open.
"Here's your history, ladies and gents," he said briskly. "We need to make this quick though, Mistress Ethel is out for the night getting supplies but if she comes back early we are all in very deep trouble. Abyssal Acres was added to the kingdom approximately four hundred years ago- at that time, it wasn't called Abyssal Acres. It was called Meri Acres. At least the outlying lands where. The place where the lady's castle is now was the capital of a vast, powerful empire known as Meridell. Back then the lands were very lush and fertile, and the kingdom was consequently quite rich."
Ayame and Gary exchanged startled looks. Gary could see she wasn't any more familiar with this story then he was. The Bori had studied history as a page, and he was certain a big empire right on the Brightvale border should have been brought up at some point... but as far as he could remember, it hadn't.
"So I guess Brightvale attacked and took the land?" Ayame asked. The Lupe shook his head.
"Nah, not according to this. Apparently Meridell attacked Brightvale."
"What would they have wanted with us?" Gary asked. "Seems to me there ain't much here worth having that they shouldn't have already had."
The Lupe shot Gary his best "don't you know anything?" glare. "According to the record, Meridell was very greedy. The country swallowed up all of its near neighbors, even if there was nothing in particular to be gained by it. But there was something to gain from Brightvale; our skills with sorcery. Even way back then this was one of the most learned lands in Neopia, and only Faerieland was really stronger magically. Well, Faerieland and the ancient kingdom of Altador, but by that point Altador had been destroyed for six hundred years so it doesn't count."
Altador... Gary could vaguely remember learning about that country. A land that made the foolish decision to trust a dark Faerie, and ultimately paid the price for it. Though his instructor had presented the lesson as being one of myth, not of history. Fyora insisted the place had been real, but repeated expeditions had been made and nothing had ever been discovered to provide evidence of the advanced architecture and magical prowess Altador had been said to wield. The lack of evidence lead some scholars to dismiss the story of it's rise and fall as nothing more than a cautionary tale spread by the faerie queen to warn against putting too much trust in dark faeries.
Why had he been taught of a thousand year old legend and not about a much more recent, confirmed to have really existed empire?
"So Brightvale must have fought them off," Ayame pressed, trying to read over the Lupe's shoulder, but getting shooed away by the impatient child.
"Oh, they did, but not with force. The land of books and stained glass wasn't particularly known for its military prowess, though since then it's made a point to improve apparently." The Lupe nodded to Gary with a sort of mocking gleam in his eyes. "I have a feeling neither of you are going to like this particularly; see they defeated Meridell with magic. Specifically, a curse."
Gary's ears shot upwards, and the Kougra's wings mantled furiously. She growled softly, "You mean to tell me that my people suffer for the lingering effects of a war four-hundred years old?"
"Yup," the Lupe confirmed. "Oh, it was a brilliant tactical move. In a straight up war Brightvale would have gotten crushed like a petpetpet. Robbing Meridell of the resources that made them so wealthy and powerful by cursing them with never ending rain definitely evened the odds, and no one was really going to take the sorcerers of Brightvale to task for it since Meridell was so thrice-cursed determined to gobble up all the land it could."
"So they had to beggar themselves, then?" Gary asked. "Ask charity of the same folks that ruined their lives in the first place?"
"So the record says," Xee replied. "And the queen of the time agreed- but only on the condition that Meridell's lands would be absorbed into Brightvale, and the empire would cease to exist."
Ayame scowled. "So if Meridell agreed to those terms, why was the curse not lifted? Why has it still not been lifted more than four-hundred years later, when the systematic removal of all references to Abyssal Acres origin has eradicated Meridell from living memory?"
Gary, who had been trained in tactics and strategy as a final year page, was pretty sure he knew the answer. "Brightvale was scared," he said softly. "If Meridell is really so powerful as all that, and so rich in fertile land, it would have been nothing for them to rise again once they had food enough to go around. And... and the kings of Brightvale are readers. They don't live in our world, they live in books. So in their mind, Abyssal Acres is still the leftovers of a powerful enemy that'll be a threat again as soon as you take the boot from on its neck."
A thought occurred to the Bori, and he glanced at Ayame with a shiver. "Wait, if Meridell was a kingdom, and you're in charge of what's left of it, does that make you-"
"No," Ayame replied sharply, then she winced. "No. I'm not some heretofore unknown descendant of the ancient kings of a dead land." She glanced at the purple magelight bitterly. "I know exactly what my heritage is, and it's not nearly so glamorous."
Pointedly looking away from the squire, she asked, "Is there anything else?"
"Nothing particularly relevant," Xee replied. "The ban on Abyssal Acres having any sort of armed guard also stems from this era, for reasons I'm sure are obvious. The old queen was definitely a thorough woman."
Ayame's voice was chilly as she remarked. "You approve of all this."
Xee rolled his eyes. "I don't think it's in any way necessary, moral, or politically smart to have left these things in place this long. No one even remembers Meridell existed, so the chances of Abyssal Acres rising to restore their former glory are nil. But I'm not a knight nor a noble, bound by the laws of honor and chivalry. I'm a common born scholar, and I look at things a lot more pragmatically. From a purely strategic standpoint, the curse and the ban on arms were good cautionary measures at the time they were instated. Moral, no, but no leader is always going to be able to make the most moral decisions. It's usually not about right and wrong for monarchs, but rather about weighing cost and benefit."
In a soft voice, Gary asked, "So how d'you benefit from helping us."
The Lupe opened his mouth, then closed it again without a sound. After a moment he looked away, his face likely reddening under his fur if his expression was anything to go by.
"I like feeling useful," he said. "You said helping you with this was useful."
"But it ain't smart," the squire pointed out. He swallowed roughly, forcing himself to go on. "If we get caught, it's all our hides. Likely it'd mean prison for snooping in forbidden records."
Xeln gritted his teeth. "Yeah. You're right. But the job of the royal historian is to know what happened in the past and keep history from repeating itself. Meridell was destroyed because it was ruled by a tyrant who claimed lands he had no right to. If Talren keeps things up as he has been, Brightvale will fall because the king is a tyrant who ignores the plight of his own people. My career and future, or a revolution? Sometimes you have to accept personal costs to benefit the bigger picture."
Ayame looked at Gary in surprise, but the squire didn't find Xee's answer so unexpected. He could see now why the boy had gotten into the academy. He was a prickly, arrogant little snot, but he was also fiercely intelligent. Unlike Gary he was acutely aware of what was going on in the kingdom, but he had felt himself helpless to do anything about it until someone offered him a way to help. And despite the boy's claims to the contrary, he also obviously had a moral code. One that was different from, but not incompatible with, Gary's.
The Bori looked down at his hands for a few seconds, then he closed his eyes. He could feel it; Illusen's power, swathed around his body like a cloak of pure energy. He furrowed his brows, concentrating on the sensation of it all around him, trying to mentally pull it into his cupped hands.
He heard Xee gasp softly, and guessed the boy could see what Gary was trying to do. A few seconds later, Ayame squeaked in similar surprise, and the squire opened his eyes. There, between his fingers, was a magelight. His magelight. Unlike Ayame's, which was a perfectly formed sphere that gave off consistent, if dim, light, Gary's was an amorphous mass that dimmed and brightened at irregular intervals. And unlike the faint purple light of Ayame's magic, Gary's was brilliant emerald, flecked with gold.
The squire's concentration slipped, and the light instantly winked out. He could feel sweat beading on his forehead, and there was a faint ache in the back of his skull. But when he looked up at Xee, his expression was set in a smile.
"Guess you were right after all," he said sheepishly. "I think I'll take you more seriously from here on out, Master Hawkins."
The boy swiped his hand across his nose, looking satisfied but also embarrassed. "You're terrible at that. About as much finesse as a sledgehammer, and you pulled on way more power than you needed to."
"Never done it before," Gary pointed out. "And I wasn't really sure how. You've been spying on the mages at the university though, I know you have. Maybe you could give me some pointers, if you're so much smarter."
Xee smirked. "Maybe."
Ayame coughed. "I hate to interrupt, boys, but there are other things to be discussed right now. For example, what to do with this information? Obviously knowing this could change the entire tone of my appeal to the king, but then he'll want to know how I got the information. There's no way I could have just acquired it from thin air."
The Lupe grunted. "Prince Skarl was the one who wanted the information to begin with, wasn't he? Go talk to him about it. He's the most likely to know what to do with it, and the least likely to suffer drastic repercussions from King Talren for knowing this stuff. I don't see the king doing anything overtly horrible to his own son."
The Kougra folded her arms, pondering this. Her expression was full of uncertainty, making Gary wonder just what had passed between Skarl and Talren behind closed doors during those meetings. Not that the squire could have offered much insight even if he knew. In this, he was entirely out of his depth.
"I suppose that's probably the most viable course of action," she said finally. "I owe you my gratitude, Master Hawkins. Though I still don't think I like you very much."
The boy snorted, folding his arms. "I'm used to that. The small minded will ever be jealous of those who outstrip them in intelligence."
There was a twinkle of humor in his yellow eyes, though it was impossible to tell if he was laughing at Ayame's "small mind" or simply fooling around. Gary sighed inwardly. Between Zerue, Ohu, and now this boy, he seemed to be a magnet for jerks.
* * * * *
It was early the next morning when Ayame tentatively knocked on the door to Skarl's personal chambers. So much hinged on what happened in the next few hours. Gary had done his part, helping her isolate the problem just as he'd done when they discovered the Werelupes during the bandit raid. But this time he could not come with her into the warzone. This was not a battlefield where his sword would be of any use, and given how stiff and formal as he still was around her, even if they brought him along to see the king he'd likely freeze entirely.
Skarl opened his door, peering at her in surprise. "Lady Ayame? To what do I owe the pleasure? Come in, come in, my manservant has just brought in a tray for breakfast."
The Kougra followed, doing her best not to show any emotion at the "tray" laid out on Skarl's table. His breakfast could have easily fed three people to satisfaction, more if the individuals were willing to skimp. She wondered if the prince realized that, as he dug into his bacon and eggs.
"My prince," she said softly, "there's something important I have to say. I... I found out what's in the records your father is keeping from you."
The Skeith's head snapped up, a bit of yolk dribbling down his chin as he gaped at her. Realizing, he swallowed and dabbed his face with a napkin before speaking.
"You did? By Fyora's Crown, how did you manage that? I can't even get father to stand still long enough to wave to him, let alone talk about the records again."
The Kougra shook her head firmly. She'd already decided that she wasn't going to implicate either Xee or Gary with involvement in this. They were both sticking their necks out for her, but that didn't mean she had to put the blade to their waiting throats.
"I can't really explain, sire. Trust me, it's better if you don't know."
The Skeith stared at her doubtfully, but finally nodded, indicating she should continue. The Kougra quickly outlined what she and Gary had learned from the records, watching as Skarl's expression turned from suspicion to surprise, and then to utter disbelief.
"You must be joking," he said flatly. "My father is propagating a superstition that no one outside the chosen monarchs even remembers, and using that as his excuse to keep the people of Abyssal Acres trapped in abject poverty, starvation, and disease? That's... that's just ludicrous."
"Ludicrous it may be, my prince, but that's what the record states," Ayame replied, her tail-tip flicking. It hadn't occurred to her that Prince Skarl might not believe her, but it probably should have. They were talking about his father, and for all that Skarl knew what Talren was like, the blue Skeith still defended his father when complaints were raised.
"Think for a moment," she added. "The king shamed Valrigard before the entire castle. When I see the duke at supper, I can tell he is still fuming over the matter. No doubt whispers of it already spread, though the servants are too canny to speak of such in my presence, seeing as I'm a noble. Talren is intelligent, but anyone can be driven to act without reason if they're afraid."
Skarl's fists clenched on the table, and his mouth set on a grim line. He said nothing for a time, his dark eyes clouded. Finally, he sighed.
"I don't want to believe you, but... I can see the horrible sense this explanation makes. I have long known my father was disconnected from the world at large, but to this degree..."
Ayame felt a twinge of sympathy for the prince, but she said nothing. Now wasn't the time to waver.
"Very well," Skarl said, pushing his chair out with a scowl. "I will speak to my father. I will force him to hear me out. This situation cannot be allowed to persist. Four hundred years- it's a wonder anything viable still grows in Abyssal Acres. I can only guess Illusen has something to do with that."
He stood, striding out of the room. Ayame gaped at him. Talk to the king? Just like that? What did Skarl think that was going to accomplish?
"Your majesty, I don't think this is a good idea," she said as she struggled to keep up with him. They were the same height, but her long skirts tripped her and made it hard to keep stride. "Your father isn't likely to react well if we simply approach him with this information. If he is that paranoid to believe Abyssal Acres is still a threat, and desperate enough to embarrass a powerful noble-"
"Enough," the prince said sternly, turning to face Ayame. "I understand that my father is not perfect. He is a blind idiot sometimes, there's no getting around that. But he is still the king, and without his cooperation there is little we can do with this information. We must speak with him. He won't do anything untoward to me, I am his son. Whatever animosity there may be between us, I will always be his son. He will be angry, and he will rage, but when he calms he will listen to reason."
Alarmed, but at the mercy of the prince's whims, Ayame had no choice but to follow.
To be continued...