Duplicity: Part One
Jeran sat slumped over the throne.
Before him, Meridellians and Darigans commemorated the fifth year of peace since the war, a peace that would last a thousand years. They spoke and danced under azure faerie light, alongside the finest music Meridell had to offer. Odors of baked goods, exotic fruits, and well-done meats saturated the air.
Though most felt at ease, some cynically counted down the years until this “peace” would inevitably prove false and break out into war. They smiled, made introductions, and indulged in food like anybody else, but when they had time alone to themselves, they cast a sidelong glance at the “other side,” warily appraising their character.
Lord Darigan was a recipient of much such suspicion, but it didn’t seem to bother him all that much. Not that one could tell, anyway; the permanent scowl affixed to his face did not leave even as he made vain attempts to smile. Occasionally, his Grarrl advisor, Galgarroth, would catch someone staring, and wordlessly chastise them with a glare.
Some did not detect this tension at all, or did detect it, but chose to ignore it anyway. Illusen, Meridell’s resident earth faerie, popped up every now and then with a practical joke to break some vilifying silence. The captain of the guard, a certain Danner Toron, teamed up with his Darigan counterpart in their pursuit of normalcy, using his position to casually force merriment where there was none.
It was a respectable effort, in some respects, and a miserable affair in others. The most miserable of all present was Prince-Regent Jeran Borodere, whose mind was wandering elsewhere, leaving a certain hollowness in his eyes. It fixated on images of the sick, emaciated King Skarl, the promise Jeran had made to himself to keep everything as-is for Skarl’s return. Waiting for the illness to pass, waiting on political issues he knew better than to ignore.
In Jeran’s mind, if he made any sort of change, it would cascade to permanence. Permanence meant permanent rule, and permanent rule meant Skarl would be permanently gone.
“Jeran!” Danner’s voice jolted him from his thoughts. Accompanying the blue Wocky was Lady Lisha Borodere, a short, yellow Aisha whose expression was blank under her thick spectacles.
Jeran sighed. “What do you want?”
“You look awful,” said Danner. “Absolutely terrible. Never thought I’d see anyone manage to be more of a grump than King Skarl. Maybe you need a new court jester.”
The Meridellian court jester was currently speaking with a few nobles, no doubt cracking a joke at Jeran’s expense. He had a great sense of humor, just not one Jeran particularly appreciated.
“Let me guess, you have some recommendations.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered,” replied Danner. “I have friends in high and low places. I’m sure we could find a court jester that doesn’t constantly bully you in front of the court.”
Lisha smacked Danner on the back of his neck. She smiled sweetly at Danner’s sudden exclamation of pain. “What he means to say is, you’ve been pretty inactive lately. Maybe you could join us in the festivities. It is supposed to be a celebration.”
“I’ll pass,” said Jeran. “I don’t like balls all that much. Or dancing. Besides—the floor is packed.”
“So you’re going to wait and see until it empties up a little?” Danner emphasized the words “wait and see” slowly, meaning to reference Jeran’s nickname, Prince Wait-and-See.
“You’re trying too hard.” Jeran suppressed a yawn, rubbing his temples to get rid of this blasting headache that had come to him as a result of skimping out on sleep. “That was pretty bad. Well, at least I know one person I’m not getting as a jester.”
Danner agreed, but excused his poor attempt at humor: “Not on my job description.”
“As much as I hate to say it, people really aren’t saying good things about you,” said Lisha. “At the very least, trying to look ‘in it’ and more lively tonight would make you not fit their notions too much. And, I mean, you’re not doing much by just sitting there. Who knows? You might even enjoy the ball if you try hard enough.”
Jeran supposed his sister had a point; wallowing in his own concocted misery was pointless, and being on the rear end of Danner’s jabs for the entire night didn’t seem like such an appealing proposition. Of course, that was the entire purpose of Danner’s incessant pressure, to make him cave in and act against it. A small part of him didn’t want to “lose” to Danner by following Lisha’s advice, but on the whole, he had to admit that it was for the best.
“If that’s what you want so much, fine,” declared Jeran, rising from the throne and pushing Danner aside. “I’ll try to be sociable, away from you. I just need some time alone.”
Danner had the perfect opportunity to quip that Jeran was going out to talk with people, and therefore wasn’t going to be alone, but he decided against it, content to watch Jeran at least put on an artificial smile as he walked away. Lisha gave him a hard look.
“You know, when I said ‘let’s try to encourage Jeran to enjoy the ball,’ your borderline stupid approach wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” she told him. “I wanted to bring Jeran up, not push him down. Jeran already has enough people ripping into him.”
“None of those people are his best friends; he’s not going to listen to them. I know what I’m doing.”
“That’s only going to help him so much,” replied Lisha. “You can’t provoke him into doing everything.”
“It’s a start,” said Danner. He looked over to the platter of pastries a cook was in the process of replacing. “Anyway, I’m hungry, maybe—”
A spring propelled the platter toward Danner the moment the cook let go of the platter. Three pastries hit his face, splattering strawberry jam all over it. The cook covered her mouth at the sight, inching away from the scene.
“She’s right, you know,” came the musical voice of Illusen, who had put herself between Danner and Lisha. Her emerald lips were curled into a smile.
Danner wiped off some jam from his face. He didn’t look too displeased, not that he could really say or do anything in response to a powerful faerie. Lisha chuckled.
“Doesn’t feel too good being on the other side of a joke, does it?” she said.
“Not when the joke is made of delicious strawberry jam,” said Illusen, patting Danner a few times on the back before whispering, “Try it, very tasty,” and leaving.
Danner flicked a few specks of jam from his paw. “I can appreciate a good joke, Lisha. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll disappear for a few minutes.”
“Have fun,” said Lisha as Danner made his way away from the ball. It wasn’t even a few moments later that she began to feel a little bored; her friends, Boris, Morris, and Kayla, were out for the ball, and she didn’t particularly like anyone here.
She couldn’t just up and leave. Lisha had told Jeran herself to enjoy the festivities, advice that would lose a considerable amount of power if she herself was unable to enjoy them.
Lisha recognized a few of the present Neopians, stuffy nobles with shiny and important names she couldn’t care less about. Duke Garrington, a brown Xweetok, was engaged in conversation with Duke Jormund, Duke Regin, and Duchess Valeria. The princes and princesses of Meridell—and Brightvale—were scattered among the guests.
Actually, it was rather interesting to see just how many Brightvalian crests were visible. In some respects, that wasn’t quite surprising. A relatively short time had passed since the two kingdoms had separated, in the grand scheme of things; and many Brightvalians still had familial ties with Meridellians.
That explained most of the guests. What it didn’t explain were the strange abundance of Neopians in the thick, decorative green-and-gold robes of Brightvale University scholars. Stranger still was the fact that one of them, a blue Aisha with familiar soft features, was conversing with the Darigan captain of the guard, Gvoran.
And Lisha had just found something to do. She weaved her way around the dance floor until reaching the other end of the hall, where she “incidentally” spotted Gvoran and greeted him.
“Lady Lisha, a pleasure to meet you, as always,” the Darigan Kougra said with a smile. He bowed and gestured to the Brightvalian Aisha. “Might I introduce you to my companion? Her name is Lissandre.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Lisha, extending a hand to Lissandre.
Lissandre stared at Lisha for a few moments before shaking her hand. Her eyes remained narrow and distant. “Lisha, I must say, it is certainly . . . strange to meet a heroine like yourself in person, especially here. Didn’t you foil the court dancer in this very location five years ago?”
“Oh . . . that—that was really nothing,” Lisha replied. “Just . . . just a simple revealing spell, really, did the trick.”
“Humility from a Meridellian, that’s a first,” said Lissandre, “and, in this situation, unwarranted. You basically turned the tides of the war.”
“I’m sure anybody would have done the same in my situation.”
“That I doubt.” Lissandre smiled. “Even so, they say the court dancer’s spell was so powerful, even the royal ‘sorcerers’ were mesmerized by it. Now, I’m not sure that’s saying much, seeing as how the royal sorcerers are still Meridellian . . .”
One could always depend on Brightvalians being uptight snobs that had to affirm the superiority of their kingdom at any turn. For sure, Lissandre had no ties to Meridell; she was a typical snooty scholar.
“. . . but clearly, something was special about specifically you. You’re clearly a very astute and powerful sorceress. Say, you even attend the university, do you not?”
Lisha frequently studied in Brightvale, and she spent more and more of her time there as the years went on. A lot of people attended Brightvale University; it was not inconceivable that Lisha must have seen Lissandre there once or twice, especially if she was a full-blown scholar. Yes, that must have been it.
“Thanks,” said Lisha. “What I’m wondering is why you would even be in stogy old Meridell when you could spend time basking in the endless knowledge of Brightvale.”
“Trust me, I wouldn’t want to be here without a good reason,” replied Lissandre. “The others and I are conducting research on time rifts, and it just so happens that Meridell has a lot of them.”
That . . . was legitimately interesting research, on a topic a little close to Lisha’s heart, no less. She’d arrived in Meridell from sometime in the future via a seemingly-random time portal, a future which she remembered less about with each passing day.
“Who are you collaborating with?” asked Lisha.
Lissandre happily gave a long list of scholars, some of whom Lisha recognized as quite prominent in many different fields of magic. “I would say that I’m so humbled to be working with them, but really, I think I fit right in,” she said, eyes glowing with enthusiasm, proceeding then to tell Lisha of many different resources on the topic, all of which could be “easily found” in “our great royal library in Brightvale, though I’m sure some can be found here as well.”
The excessive praising of Brightvale aside, Lissandre proved to be quite helpful, at least as far as babbling on about her research. Seeing as how she would be otherwise stuck making awkward small talk with nobles, Lisha was all too happy to listen to her. “I’ll be sure to look for them.”
Gvoran, politely silent all this time, saw an opportunity to interrupt the conversation: “Indeed, I imagine you’ve given Lady Lisha something to do, Lissandre.”
Before Lisha could even open her mouth, Gvoran took Lissandre’s hand. “Speaking of doing things, I’m bored of standing around, and it looks like the floor is thinning,” he said. “Would you like a dance or two?”
“I’m not exactly dressed for dancing,” replied Lissandre.
Gvoran knocked on his own shoulder plate. “You’re dressed more appropriately than I. Full clad armor is more difficult than your ugly robes.”
“Come on, it’ll be fun.” This childish justification told Lisha exactly why Gvoran was good friends with Danner. “Please?”
Pause. “Fine.” At these words, Gvoran pulled Lissandre away. She hastily waved goodbye to Lisha, assuring her they’d meet again.
Lisha searched for Jeran, who was currently speaking to a Kyrii Prince Rafael. He wore a ghost of a smile on his face, nodding and shrugging every once in a while. For a few moments, Jeran’s eyes met hers, his face suddenly taking on its familiar gloom. Lisha could only smile weakly to cheer him on.
Silently, she retreated to a nearby courtyard, which was deserted save for the buzzing of Bumbluzes. Lightmites floated steadily above, adding much-needed light to this starless night. Not even Kreludor showed up in the sky.
She took a seat on a bench, careful not to let her dress drag in the mud. Recent rainfall had cleansed the air. Roses and their vines covered each stone wall. Blossoms and bluebells blended in the darkness, visible only through their thin, green magical auras.
For those who knew how to see them, everything enchanted by magic exhibited a certain aura. Certain plants in Meridell castle were enchanted by Illusen when she had first moved to Meridell, as demonstration showing why having a local earth faerie living here was useful. Apparently, she never took the spell away, not even after an odd century of residence.
Not that Lisha minded that. She took a few deep breaths, listening to the soft hum of magic around her, which slowly began to sound like an otherworldly serenade, a carefully-constructed musical piece. Lisha even preferred it over what the musicians were playing inside, with their metallic string instruments and flutes.
A gleam of silver flashed into her eye. Lisha found herself squinting at it before making out the sharp edge of a blade—one that was spinning toward her.
To be continued…