A Rock And A Hard Place Chapter 3
Tying the two amulets up around my neck, I checked my appearance in the mirror. Well, at least the gray amulet was working. My pointed ears were gone, my hair was black, and my eyes were brown. My face was completely different.
I had made sure to turn the amulets so that the painted sides was sitting against my neck. That way it would be less likely someone would suspect something by seeing them. I pulled my now-black hair back from my face and braided it quickly so it was out of the way.
Lolani handed me one of my bags and picked up the other two she had packed, one more for me and the other for her. She followed me as I headed downstairs and I hid a grin as Aaron gave a start at seeing me.
“No, the Fairy Princess and her entourage,” I shot back with a smirk. “Of course it’s me.”
“You didn’t seriously think I was going to go into the heart of the Elven Kingdoms with my own face on, did you?
“I suppose not, but then what are you?”
“A wolf-girl.” I tapped the black amulet. “And this one is in case anyone questions that.”
He nodded and I glanced at the clock.
“Eleven thirty. What do you know. I’m ready early. So how are we traveling?”
Aaron shot me a momentary glare but quickly dropped it for a more professional attitude.
“Carpet seemed the best method.”
“I’m afraid NORTH is spread rather thin at the moment. All the portals are tied up and there wasn’t time to wait for one.”
“I wouldn’t mind waiting,” I muttered, then sighed. “Well, I suppose it’s better than horseback at least. Let’s go.”
Aaron led the way out of the house as I gave Hewney a quick hug.
“Don’t get into any trouble while we’re gone. I expect both you and the house to be in one piece when I get back.”
“Right!” he said with a grin.
I followed Lolani out the door to find Aaron already on the hovering Carpet. Securing my bag around me, I climbed up next to him and the Bird followed suit. Aaron gave her a strange look then turned to me.
“She’s not going to fly?”
“Energy conservation. Why fly when the Carpet will do it for her?”
“Ah. Carpet, to Teranan in the Elven Kingdoms.”
The Carpet ascended gracefully until it was above the height of the three story house and then took off smoothly, accelerating quickly.
“I’ve been thinking,” I began.
I frowned at the MAGI next to me and he sighed.
“What happened with the liaison who was supposed to be going?”
“Well, nothing. That we know of.”
“That you know of?” I repeated, glaring suspiciously at him.
“Yes. As far as we know, he ran away.” He shrugged. “He was supposed to meet me this morning and never showed up. I called NORTH and they checked up on him, but couldn’t find him. He wasn’t at his home and none of his neighbors had seen or heard anything suspicious. The guy just up and left. NORTH doesn’t know what to make of it and frankly neither do I.”
I crossed my arms, frowning.
“Great. So I’m not the only one who didn’t want to go on this mission. Maybe you should have tried blackmailing him instead.”
“I’m not blackmailing you. I’m calling in a favor. They are two completely different things.”
“Funny. They feel awfully similar.”
Itzel chuckled and Aaron shot us both a look.
“Call it what you will, you’re not backing out now.”
“Never said I was. I just fine it rather suspicious that the day before this mission your liaison decides to run. That’s a bit worrisome for the person acting in his place, don’t you think?”
He nodded thoughtfully.
“That’s true, but it’s also what I’m here for.”
The MAGI looked down at me, face serious and sincere. I blinked in surprise.
“I’m here to protect you. It doesn’t matter how much we dislike each other, I will lay my life on the line to ensure that nothing happens to you.”
I blinked at him a couple more times and put a hand to my heart.
“Why, Aaron,” I said, only a bit sarcastically. “I’m touched.”
His face went from sincere to annoyed once more and I smirked. He looked away grumpily.
“Fine. Be like that then,” he muttered.
We were silent for a moment before I patted his shoulder.
“If it makes you feel any better, I honestly do appreciate it.”
He glanced back at me, saw that I was being sincere, and nodded.
“So, do you have any idea what they need a liaison for anyway?”
“No idea. It was the liaison who had all the information. All NORTH told me was to accompany him and protect him.”
“Oh goodie,” I muttered.
The trip was long and silent. I watched the lands below roll away beneath us. They were lands I had traveled years ago to get where I was today. They were lands I had never thought to make a return journey through. By the time darkness fell we were still a long way from the first of the Elven cities we would pass.
We landed to sleep for the night and eat some of the supplies Aaron had brought. In the morning, we packed everything up and continued on. It took two days to reach the first city and two more days followed after that before we sighted Teranan. On foot the trip would have taken a week.
Landing outside the city on my insistence, I changed out of sight of Aaron, into some of my more formal robes. They were floor length orange and gold silks with stunningly intricate patterns of birds in flight covering them. I also had matching silk slippers and Lolani gave me a hand putting my hair up in a complex weave of braids and gold pins.
When I stepped out and made my way back to the Carpet, I could tell Aaron was surprised by the change from the way he starred. I gave him a haughty glare.
“What? Didn’t think I could look this good?”
He shook his head.
“No. Just a bit taken back. I’ve never seen you like this before.”
“Technically, you aren’t seeing me. You’re seeing Liaison Korina.”
“Yes and if you call me by any other name while we’re here I will gut you.”
I glared and pointed a threatening finger at him to emphasize my point and he nodded.
“Fine, fine. Let’s just go.”
I seated myself on the Carpet once more and then had the strangest sensation that I was being watched. I glanced around but neither Lolani or Aaron were looking at me and the forest around us was quiet. With a frown I turned front again as we rose, shaking off the feeling. How odd.
We flew into the Capital, staying well above the streets, and I watched the white stone buildings pass below us. The place really hadn’t changed at all. Everything was still too uniform, too pristine, too perfect. A place where a mutt could never fit in.
Looking ahead to the Palace, I sighed heavily at the familiar sight.
I glanced over at Lolani and gave her a slightly forced smile.
“I’m fine. Just looking forward to getting this over with already.”
She gave me an encouraging smile.
“I’m here for whatever you need, Mistress.”
I couldn’t help but smile in return. Lolani had also changed into nicer robes, knowing without me telling her that it would be important in order to play her role as the Liaison’s servant. Servants of important people were never poorly dressed. If they were it reflected on the Master poorly. Her robes were simple, but good quality, and black.
“Are you ready?” asked Aaron as we neared the courtyard where we would land.
I sighed and squared my shoulders.
“As I’ll ever be.”
He nodded and a moment later we descended. I schooled my features into aloofness and waited for him to get off and offer me a hand down before I alighted. After all, I was supposed to be the important one and he was supposed to be my guard. If he hadn’t offered me a hand, it would have reflected poorly in the watchers’ eyes and would have started us off on the wrong foot.
Inwardly, I cringed. The Elves, especially those of noble birth, were all about customs and rules and who should defer to whom. I had always hated that part of Elvish society and now I was back in the thick of it. Wonderful. It only made me want to get this over with that much quicker.
Feigning haughtiness, I waited with my head held high, looking over the tops of the gawkers heads. It was mostly servants anyway and the few nobles who were there quickly snapped at them to get back to work.
We didn’t have long to wait before an escort arrived with some pompous looking noble of some family or other. He had light brown hair and blue eyes and wore robes of good enough quality and craftsmanship to place him as perhaps a third son of a lesser noble.
He gave us a polite semi-bow.
“May I inquire, good travelers, who you are and what brings you to our fair Teranan?”
I turned up my nose a bit at him and refused to answer, so after a moment, Aaron was the one who replied, also turning his nose up at the elf a bit.
“I am MAGI Baerandor and this is Liaison Korina. We are here on official business from NORTH to see your King and the Duke of Yetts.”
“My apologies, MAGI Baerandor, but we were told the liaison was to be a man.”
“Orders were changed. NORTH does not need to relay all it’s decisions to you, do they?”
Aaron drew himself up to his full height and looked down at the elf darkly. The elf visibly swallowed.
“No, of course not Your Lordship. Please, allow me to escort you and the Lady inside.”
The MAGI nodded and we followed the intimidated official up the grand stairs and into the Palace. The place was as monstrous as it looked from the outside and just as breathtaking as I remembered.
The whole palace was white stone. The ceilings arched high above our heads and the floors were covered by lush carpets in reads and greens and purples. The walls had intricate murals of precious stones covering them that sparkled in the soft lighting coming from the lanterns high above our heads. The lanterns themselves were each a unique piece of art, made of colored paper and painted or cut to depict a scene. There were no two alike in the whole palace, which was truly an awe inspiring thought.
I made sure not to gawk, keeping my haughty expression in place. There was no need to stare at the beauty that the elves lived in as though it were the most natural thing in the world. I had seen all this before. It hadn’t changed at all in the years I had been gone and it probably wouldn’t change even centuries after we were dead.
I knew Lolani would be looking around wide eyed, trying to take it all in. After all, she had never been here before and a bird is always attracted to shiny objects. It was a good thing that as a servant, she had every reason to be gawking.
Next to me, Aaron walked stone faced and intimidating. For a fleeting moment I was glad to have him along and on my side, but then I remembered that if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here in the first place and the moment was gone.
Many halls and staircases later we were brought to the waiting hall outside the King’s audience chamber. The minor official asked us politely to wait there and disappeared off through a side door, most likely to have our names told to his superiors who would decide when the King would see us. That meant waiting, and probably plenty of it.
I sat as a proper lady would and let my gaze wander off disinterestedly, mostly to hide my growing unease. A knot had begun forming in my stomach when the city came into view and it had only been growing the closer we got to the King.
Normally at a time like this, I would have had Itzel to joke with and help distract me, but I had told her when the city came into view to go invisible. She was far too memorable and should avoid being seen. It wasn’t as though Aether Spirits were common to begin with and the more I kept hidden about my true identity, the less likely it was that something would come back to bite me.
I felt a gentle presence touch my shoulder, though there was nothing there, and I closed my eyes for a moment, silently thanking the Spirit. She knew me better than anyone and over the years had become like an extension of myself. She knew how nervous I was and how terrified of being discovered so, even though she couldn’t say anything, she was reminding me that she was still there no matter what.
With a quiet sigh, I opened my eyes and shot Aaron a bored and slightly annoyed look, as though getting impatient with how long the wait was taking. He gave me a small shrug, like he was saying he was sorry but there was nothing he could do about it.
Lolani had taken up an unobtrusive position to the left of where I was sitting and a little behind me. The poor bird had been forced to carry all the bags from the Carpet because it wouldn’t have looked right if either Aaron or I had taken any of them. She had gratefully dropped them at her feet when we had come to a halt and I didn’t blame her in the least.
Suddenly, another official appeared through the same side door that the first had disappeared through. I gave him a once over, dismissive look and went back to starring elsewhere. This official was blonde and he gave a more respectful half bow than the first official had given. Apparently they had decided that we were worth a decent measure of respect.
“MAGI Baerandor and Liaison Korina, my apologies for making you wait. The King will see you now. Please, right this way.”
He gestured to the double doors at the other end of the waiting hall and I couldn’t help the sudden terrified intake of breath. I turned it into a sniff of distain and a tortured sigh as I held a hand out to Aaron. He took it and helped me up, even though it clearly wasn’t necessary and was obviously just the Liaison showing off a bit.
The official led us toward the doors, signaling the guards to open them, and I had to force my breathing to steady.
I was about to become reacquainted with a powerful man, who absolutely loathed my existence.