Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Stagnation - Part Nine
As Gary walked into the mess hall for breakfast, he was surprised to see a pair of serving men chattering animatedly with each other across the serving window. Not that this sight was in and of itself unusual, but as he walked towards them, he could see them casting furtive glances at the coat of arms on his tabard.
The arms of the Pyrfell Bay duchy. Gary didn't need to hear their words to guess what they were discussing. Which was just as well, since they fell silent as soon as he passed them.
When he was still a page, the servants wouldn't have bothered censoring themselves in his presence. Perhaps they might have ignored him now, were he still wearing the uniform that marked him as an unattached squire in palace service. But no one wanted Valrigard's personal squire overhearing them discussing the Draik's public shaming.
The Bori heaved an internal sigh. This could only mean trouble later. No doubt his master would be in a towering temper all through the day, with people so obviously whispering about him.
Sure enough, when he reached the table where Valrigard was sitting he could see a scowl fixed upon his master's face. The Draik looked up when Gary approached, nodded once curtly, and then went back to pounding his eggs into a pile of unidentifiable up mush.
The Bori took a bite of apple pensively. He hoped that whatever Ayame worked out with the prince would help ease the tension building in the castle somewhat. Surely Talren couldn't be that stubborn, to fail to see the trap he was luring himself into by alienating Duke Valrigard... could he?
"Erm... Master?" he ventured tentatively. The Draik looked up at him, and the Bori went on, "I wanted to ask something. When young Master Hawkins spoke to us, you said something about the royal academy turning out people 'like that.' What did you mean, exactly?"
The Draik waved a hand vaguely. "You know; haughty. Condescending. Thoroughly convinced of their own superiority over everyone else, and determined to disassociate themselves as much as possible with the rest of us lowly Neopians."
The Bori frowned. "Disassociate, sir? Then why'd Master Hawkins seek me out?"
And why did he have such a moral viewpoint on the role of Royal Historian?
The Draik shrugged. "He's young. Can't have been a student at the academy for more than a year or two at this point. A lot of the newest students are more social, and actually want to use what they learn to help others. But it doesn't last long, sadly. The academy beats it out of them, in the end. Turns them into cynics, stark intellectuals who don't care about anything but their own experiments and luxuries."
Gary took another bite of his apple, processing this. "But if it's so bad to be smart, to get educated, why's everyone look up to Brightvale for its wisdom? If the academy makes kings like Talren..."
Valrigard smiled wryly. "Don't get the wrong idea, squire. Being intelligent is not in and of itself a bad thing. You have to be intelligent to get accepted into the academy in the first place, and I already told you the younger students are decent sorts. No, it's the way the academy goes about those lessons. They get the pupils young, when they're still impressionable, and separate them from their families. The kids live in dorms at the academy, interacting only with their instructors and other students. Over time the instructors mold them into tiny copies of themselves. Then those poor, brainwashed kids end up taking over as instructors eventually, and the cycle perpetuates."
"Don't... don't we do the same thing with the pages?" Gary asked, remembering with a shiver the way he'd been so caught up in his military education that he'd ignored the country's political turmoil until now.
The Draik smiled ruefully. "You are absolutely correct; on some level the training of the pages is as much about brainwashing them to the ideas of chivalry and honor as the academy lessons are about making the students into hard, self-absorbed intellectuals with raisins for hearts. But that's where the squire step of the training comes in. My job, ultimately, is to arm you with real world experience. To show you how chivalry applies to the land as a whole so that you might learn to think for yourself, and decide on your own if you really agree with the principles of knighthood or not."
The Bori frowned. He wasn't certainly he liked the idea of his having been "brainwashed." Certainly he understood ideas like duty and honor, and felt them as integrally a part of himself as his own heartbeat. But would he still, if he hadn't been brought up with them from the time he was ten? And was it just that sort of thing that gave kings like Talren the support they needed to stay in power?
"Are... are we really any better than the academy, though?" he asked.
Valrigard seemed to consider this question carefully. Gary was grateful for that. He wasn't sure he would have trusted an immediate, unthinking reassurance.
"I think in the end, that is something we have to decide for ourselves. But do think on this- when Abyssal Acres called for help, the knights went to their aid within a few days. Nearly a month has passed since that original plea, and none of the mages nor any of the scholars in the court have so much as stirred from their solars. Maybe the military instructors mold the young pages in the same way the academy molds the young students, but pages grow up to be knights. Students grow up to be hermits."
Gary mulled this over in silence. As he thought over what Valrigard had said, both the squire and the knight finished their meals and returned the dishes to the servers. Mostly on autopilot now, the Bori followed Valrigard through the hallways towards the practice court for their morning training session.
Then, he heard a wild cry of dismay, and the unmistakable sound of someone being cuffed.
"What the-" Valrigard muttered, turning towards the noise with Gary hot on his heels. They rounded the corner to see a pair of guards half carrying, half dragging a short figure between them; one Gary immediately recognized.
"Master Hawkins!" he yelped. The Lupe shot him a look filled with terror, and then he was gone, dragged through a large double doorway by his armed escorts.
"What in Fyora's name was that about?" Valrigard demanded, his frill fanning against the sides of his head with unease. "That was the historian's apprentice, wasn't it? Why are they manhandling him like that? What could he have done?"
Gary had his suspicions. Without a word to his master, he followed the guards, and with a startled exclamation Valrigard trotted after him.
Not very far along down the hall, Gary could hear shouting.
"Would have expected such treachery from you," came the unmistakable booming voice of the king. "But that you corrupt my son as well-"
"I haven't corrupted anyone, or betrayed you," Ayame's voice replied. "I only sought the information for the sake of the people that your ancestors put mine in charge of!"
"And now you make blatant your insolence by interrupting me," Talren snarled. "Ah, here's the little rat."
Gary came around the corner just in time to see the guards dragging Xee into what he could only assume was one of the court's meeting rooms.
"I know I left Ethel explicit instructions not to allow anyone into the records," the king growled.
"And I know she was not here at the palace last night. This means only one could have gotten these two traitors access."
"I... I don't..." Xee squeaked, the fear in his voice stifling any words he might have been trying to utter.
Skarl's voice rose over Xee's. "Father, stop this! Can't you see the child is terrified?"
"The guiltless have no need for fear," Talren retorted.
"They do when guardsmen drag them through the palace and up before the King!" the prince snapped.
"Skarl, you lost your right to speak when you made it clear to me that you broke the laws of this land. I cannot- will not- make exception for you because you are my son. Now hold your tongue!"
There was a stunned silence, broken only by Xee's ragged breathing.
"Garrett, what is going on?" Valrigard hissed, having caught up to his squire while the king was talking.
"I could tell you, but you wouldn't like the answer, m'lord," he said grimly. Ayame couldn't have spoken to Skarl about the records more than an hour ago. How did the king already know? It was obvious Xee hadn't betrayed them, or he wouldn't have been yanked out of his classes and frightened half to death. Had Ayame and the prince really just waltzed up to him with the information?
Talren was talking again, addressing the historian's apprentice once more.
"Speak, whelp, or my mages will have the truth out of you by means of their magic," the king snapped.
Gary squared his jaw; he couldn't just walk away from this. He couldn't let Xee take the fall, not when the Lupe never would have gotten involved if the squire hadn't asked it of him. Ignoring his master's sharp cry of protest, he walked into view of the doorway.
"Your majesty," he said crisply, looking at Xee with what he hoped was an expression of disdain. "You got the wrong person. This brat hates Lady Ayame, and he'd no more help her then he'd eat a live worm."
The king looked up, startled. "The devil are you? Who let you in here?"
"Garrett!" Valrigard hissed, but Gary paid him no heed. He could see Ayame looking at him in surprise out of the corner of his eye, and Skarl doing likewise. He wondered idly, bitterly, if the prince even recognized him from Abyssal Acres the week before. But that wasn't important now.
"I know what this is about," the squire said. "I knew as soon as I saw your guards had the kid. I know, because I was involved in it. The kid didn't break into the records for Lady Ayame. I did."
The king stared at him in shock, but his expression was quickly turning ugly. "Who are you, brat, to speak so insolently to your king? I see you wear the arms of Pyrfell Bay, but you are not a member of Duke Valrigard's family."
Gary was shaking under the weight of that gaze, but he tried not to let it enter his voice. He had just thrown away everything he'd worked for the past seven years. The pain, the sacrifice, the triumphs. He'd surrendered any chance of ever being knighted.
But that was alright, he realized. He didn't think he wanted to be a knight, not if it meant serving a king who brought up young boys on charges of treason without any evidence. A king who held spears up to high ranking nobles because they spoke their minds. A king who allowed an entire fief to labor under endless rainstorms and refused to do anything about it.
"My name is Garrett Diamonte," he said. "Squire Garrette Diamonte. And by the laws of chivalry, I couldn't just watch while the people in Abyssal Acres starved. So I broke into the records, and I broke the magic seal on them."
The boy concentrated hard on the tingling that surrounded his body, and within seconds he had again called a blob of green light into his palm; sufficient proof, he hoped, that he could have done such a thing. He could hear a sharp intake of breath from outside the room; it was the first time Valrigard witnessed him using magic.
"And that same code of chivalry won't let me watch you throw an innocent boy in jail for something I've done," Gary went on.
Ayame was staring at the squire, mouthing the word "no!" over and over again. Skarl just looked at him in disbelief, as if he wasn't sure whether or not to believe him. Xee seemed to have lost his capacity for coherent thought. His weight was being entirely supported by the two guards as he sagged between them, shivering and weeping with abject terror.
Gary felt a presence come up behind him, and glanced around to see that it was Valrigard. He raised an eyebrow at the Bori, but when he spoke it was at the king. "He wears my arms because he is my squire," the knight put in helpfully. "Though I confess I had no knowledge of his apparent nocturnal activities. Or the unusual powers he displays."
Gary had to suppress a wince. There was no reading the tone of the knight's voice, but surely he had to be disappointed, outraged even. Already he was disgraced by the king's actions against him. Now his squire had confessed to breaking the law.
The king sneered. "As wise in your choice of squire as you are in your choice of causes to support, it seems, your grace." Turning back to Gary, he snorted. "By your own lips you are condemned, boy. And by their possession of the knowledge you stole Lady Ayame and Prince Skarl are condemned as well, as your accomplices. Therefore, I, Talren, King of Brightvale, do henceforth-"
"If my squire is to be arrested," Valrigard put in suddenly, "Then you must arrest me as well. As his knight-master I am obligated to take responsibility for his misconduct. Surely your majesty has not forgotten?"
Gary looked at his master, his expression a mixture of confusion and horror. Valrigard couldn't do this! If he allowed himself to be arrested for something he'd not been the least involved with it would be a scandal-
It would be a scandal, and Talren knew that. Their king had already made Valrigard's friends among the nobles angry by publicly shaming the duke. If the king were so stupid as to arrest him, this nobles would become the king's enemies.
Valrigard wasn't throwing himself into the fire along with his squire, he was protecting him. But why? Gary had just admitted to breaking the law. He'd disgraced himself in front of the king of Brightvale.
After a long silence, Talren snarled. "This is a dangerous stand to make, Valrigard. Are you really that certain of your footing?"
The Draik was all smiles. "I've no idea what you mean, my liege. I only uphold my obligation as a noble and a knight."
The king turned to his son, the look on his face oddly reminiscent of someone who'd just taken a bite of something extremely sour. "You want soldiers for Abyssal Acres so badly? So be it. You are a knight, despite your profound lack of fitness. His grace is a knight. This lawbreaker is a squire. You three will return to Abyssal Acres with Lady Ayame, within the hour. You will remain there, until such time that I decide this smirch upon your collective honor has been redeemed, if I ever do."
His grin was nasty. "But you three will be the holding's only warriors, so take care not to shirk your duties. Should word reach me that you are found away from the fief, I cannot promise that I will be so merciful in my judgement. Now the lot of you, get out."
The Bori was cold. Skarl looked as if he'd been slapped. Gary felt a hand grip his shoulder, and allowed his master to steer him out of the room.
Exiled. All of them had been exiled to Abyssal Acres. Not just Gary, but Valrigard and Prince Skarl too.
"Why did you do that?" Gary demanded as soon as they were away from the room "Why did you hang yourself out to dry right along with me?"
"I could ask you the same question," Valrigard pointed out mildly. "But I'm not an idiot, and I'm pretty sure I can surmise the answer. You had something to do with whatever that Lupe was in trouble for- not everything like you claimed, but something. And you felt honor bound to protect him. Well, you are my squire, and I am similarly honor bound to protect you. Besides, I've been wanting to put one in Talren's eye since that stunt he pulled the other day."
The Draik tilted his head. "Once we are out of the city and away from prying ears, I suppose you can tell me exactly what all that was about. For now, however, I will assume you had good reason for doing what you did. Besides, it gives me a certain grim pleasure to put on in Talren's eye after what he did to me the other day. No one has stood up to him and gotten off more or less scot free in ages. Helping lessen your sentence will go a long way towards showing the rest of the kingdom that our great king is not so almighty as they might assume. He didn't dare humiliate me further, so what else is there that he is unwilling to do, that might be used to gain leverage for improvements in the country?"
He shrugged. "Don't get the wrong idea, Garrett. What you pulled in that room was incredibly rash and ill-considered. And that's the third time I've known you to pull that particular stunt. There is a difference between being willing to make sacrifices when it is necessary, and arbitrarily throwing your life away because you can't think of a good way to handle a difficult situation. I could not take back what you'd said after the fact, so I made the best of it I could. But this little habit of yours has to broken."
The Bori looked down, shamefaced. The Draik was right. And what was more, Ohu had called him out over just that more than once. But... he couldn't bring himself to regret his actions. He just couldn't. The squire didn't care if he lost his honor, if honor meant serving a king like Talren.
His only regret was that now his knight-master had been dragged into this was well.
Valrigard sighed. "Go pack, Squire. We have an hour to be out of the city. If Abyssal Acres is as bad as it seemed when we were there last, your education is about to expand by leaps and bounds."
* * * * *
As Gary headed out to the stables, he realized that it wasn't just he and Valrigard who were exiled; their Unis were, by extension. Oh, they didn't have to go, but they almost certainly would. The bond between a knight and his partner was a strong one, forged over a lifetime of battling side by side. Gary doubted Ohu would mind overmuch; Abyssal Acres was his home fief, after all. But Valrigard and Skarl's partners...
In a moment of chivalrous passion, Gary had destroyed all of their lives.
The Bori was startled out of his melancholic thoughts. He looked around for a moment, before spotting a starry Lupe standing in the doorway to the stable.
"Master Hawkins!" he hissed. "What are you doing here? If anyone sees you with me you'll be under suspicion again!"
Xee glared up at him, the boy's mouth set on a grim line. "Why?"
"Why what?" Gary asked.
"Why did you help me? Yeah, you were involved in raiding the records too, but you said I wasn't! You lied to cover for me! And even if you admitted I was right about you having magic, I know you still don't like me very much. So why?"
Gary's first impulse was to say he'd acted on instinct, out of basic decency, but he knew Xee wouldn't accept such an answer. He rubbed the scar on his cheek thoughtfully, shifting his weight between his feet. Then, he got an idea.
"I'm not worth much," he said slowly. "I'm just a common born squire. I'm a mediocre swordsman, I have magic but I don't know how to use it, and as you saw in there I'm not too bright either. But you... you'll be a member of the king's court someday. You said the other night that as the royal historian, your job is to act as the advisor for the king. But I think we can both agree that King Talren isn't going to listen to anyone's advice if it runs contrary to what he thinks."
"No arguments there," Xee said dryly. "So?"
"So," Gary said, "It's pretty obvious that as long as Talren is king, things aren't going to change. But he won't be king forever. Hagan is well on his way to becoming just like his dad, if the rumors are anything to go on, but he's still young. He could be... well... turned around."
Xee's eyes widened; he could see where this was going. "You... you want me to... I'm an apprentice! I'm thirteen! Hagan's young by his dad's standards, but he's still in his mid twenties! He won't even so much as look at me, much less listen to me if I try to lecture him on how to run a country."
"So don't lecture?" Gary said. "You're smart, how would you want to hear advice?"
"I wouldn't," he said. "Unless I knew the other person knew what they were talking about. Or they were my friend."
Gary shrugged. "So don't come at him like you're trying to lecture. Make friends. M'lord Valrigard said that the academy has a way of turning people nasty. Making them isolated, so they don't care about anything except their studies. Try to be friends with the prince, son he'll have someone he cares about besides his schoolwork."
And so will you, Gary thought, though he didn't say it out loud. The boy seemed to mull this over, running a hand through his dark navy hair. Finally, he nodded.
"I don't know if this will work, but... I'll try. At least it's better than doing nothing. But," he added, drawing himself up. "You helped me. I won't forget that. I'll find a way to pay you back, I promise. And I really am sorry about before."
Before Gary had a chance to respond to this, the boy darted around him and back down the path to the city. He shook his head, walking into the stables to get Ohu's tack.
"Garrett?" a soft voice murmured. The Bori turned in surprise to see that Ayame was coming up behind him, her mouth turned downwards in a frown. "What you said to that boy... is that really how you feel? Do you actually think you have so little worth that your only usefulness is in boosting up other people?"
The Bori started to answer, but he found the words dying in his throat before he could utter them. When he'd spoken to Xee, he knew that he'd meant every word of what he was saying. He'd felt that conviction utterly when he stood up to the king. But now, with the noblewoman calling it into question, he found he wasn't certain.
He didn't regret his actions; given the chance, he'd have done the same thing a second time. But Gary couldn't help remembering his earlier conversation with Valrigard in the mess hall. Did he only think this way because, like Talren had been warped by the academy, he had been warped by his military training?
"I don't know," he finally admitted. "I'm finding myself saying that a lot lately. I don't know what I want, or how to help anyone, or even what I'm supposed to think or feel. These past few years I've been so obsessed with getting a knight-master, I ain't had time to ponder anything bigger. But I got a knight master now and... and I don't know."
He folded his arms, leaning sideways against the wall of the stables. "In the heat of the moment, like back there with the king, or with them Werelupes, I don't think; I always just go with my gut. And my gut instinct is usually to put myself between whatever's going wrong and the people who could get hurt by it. But is that really me, or is it 'cause that's how I was trained to react as a page? And if things had turned out a little different these past few weeks, would I have been willing to throw myself away to protect the king? I don't know."
To Gary's surprise, it was not Ayame who answered him then- it was Ohu, who'd been observing silently the entire time.
"When I tried to get you to quit being a squire you told me that you couldn't. That you had no choice. What did you mean by that, exactly?"
Gary's tail swished with unease. "It's a long story. And I don't really feel like telling it right now. Short version is that I had to burn a lot of bridges to accept my sponsorship as a page, and I don't really have a home to go back to now. My only friends are among the squires and knights."
"And now you're not sure anymore if being a knight is what you really want, because that means serving a liege half mad with paranoia who lives in a reality entirely divorced from the rest of the world," Ohu concluded, his expression grave. "Which you already knew was the case, but you were too young to really understand it as a page and too laser focused on getting a knight-master as a squire to think about the implications."
The Uni's remarks were aimed so accurately that Gary couldn't really think of anything to say in response. Correctly interpreting his silence, Ohu sighed. "Boy, why do you think I tried to retire after losing my first partner? Being a soldier is simple enough- you obey orders from your commanding officer, and play the role of one small part of a greater whole. But a knight- that's a different matter entirely. Thought knights occasionally act as soldiers, most of the time they work alone, patrolling their fief and fighting off what the militia can't handle. Knights aren't supposed to blindly follow orders because more often than not there is no one about to give them orders. Knights, boy, are expected to think."
The Uni shook his head. "But thinking means understanding the repercussions of your choices. It means knowing that sometimes there isn't a right choice, and no matter what you do it's going to bite you one way or another. Just a matter of how hard. Understanding that and knowing how to cope with it is what you're supposed to learn as a squire. All that chivalry and honor tripe they pounded into your head when you were a page? That wasn't brainwashing kid, it was laying the foundation. They impress all that garbage on the pages so they have foundation in basic moral decency to work off of when they become squires. You can't run before you walk, and you can't make sound moral choices without knowing how morality works.".
The squire considered the Uni's words; they made sense, though it didn't comfort him much. After a moment, he sighed. "I'm still not sure how I should feel about all this."
"Of course not- weren't you listening to what I said a few days ago?" Ohu demanded tartly. "You have no real world experience to work with. Give it time. Work with Valrigard, see the world outside Brightvale Castle, learn what being a knight really entails. It won't happen tomorrow, or next week, or even next year. But you'll figure yourself out one way or another, given time. You're not stupid boy, or Valrigard wouldn't have thrown down his honor to defend you. He sees what you can become. You're just too impulsive."
"And you're a judgemental jerk," he retorted to the crotchety Uni, who smirked in reply.
Ayame finally spoke up again, a small smile on her muzzle. "Well on account of your exile, for the time being your liege lord is not King Talren- it's me. And since you and your master are the only trained warriors in service at Abyssal Acres, you are certainly not expendable. You are both vital resources, integral to the survival of the fief."
She waltzed up to the startled squire and poked him in the chest with a finger. "That being the case, as your liege I henceforth forbid you from casually trying to throw your life away every time there's a spot of conflict. There is too much responsibility on your shoulders for you to behave so."
Gary, who stood a full head and a half taller than the woman sternly ordering him around, was so startled that he had to laugh. "You know, I think Master Valrigard might be a bit miffed if you start bossing him around like that, royal decree or no."
"I think taking orders will be good for him," Ohu put in cheerfully. "Cool that hot head of his, teach him some humility."
"That, or he gets in a temper and takes it out on me again," the Bori said. Turning back to Ayame he found himself actually smiling. Maybe this business of being in exile wouldn't be so horrible. Certainly the Kougra was far more worthy of his allegiance then King Talren. What was more, he liked her- she made it a point to seek out his company even though she had no incentive to do any such thing, and seemed genuinely concerned about his wellbeing when it was of no relevance to her. She had courage enough to be a knight herself, and unlike the mad king she cared about the people of her lands.
He saluted her, just as he had weeks ago when she insisted on personally accompanying them into the Werelupe den. There would be more hardships and uncertainty in the future, of that there could be no question. But for now, there was work to be done.
"I am at my ladyship's service."