A Rock And A Hard Place Chapter 9
Fifty five minutes later I stood in the courtyard, carpet floating beside me, flanked by Aaron and Lolani. I crossed my arms and watched as the elven soldiers moved around me, preparing and falling into their ranks. I saw Aaron shake his head and I shot him a look.
“Sometimes you amaze me. That’s all.”
“What in Phyre’s name are you babbling about?”
He gave me that superior smirk and I scowled, only making his smirk widen.
“Nothing at all, I’m sure.”
“Fine, whatever,” I said, dismissing him from my thoughts.
I saw a white stallion with royal grade tack being led out of the stables and sighed. So the King was going to insist on being as flashy as possible. Fine. If he wanted to make himself a bigger target, that was his concern, not mine. I was here to mediate between he and the Duke, not protect them.
Finally, right on time, the King came gliding out of the palace and down the grand stairs with a whole entourage in tow. Oh goodie. Then I looked more closely and suppressed a groan. Here I’d been hoping to avoid Her Royal Unpleasantness altogether, but clearly I wasn’t going to be that lucky.
Her robes were pink and gold and white, her blonde hair piled up on top of her head in some unseemly complicated design complete with sparkling tiara, and she looked haughtily around. She resembled her father, with the same sharp and hard features he had and the same icy blue eyes that seemed to disapprove of everything she saw.
I had never met anyone more unpleasant and whiny and spoiled than Princess Taliya. That included her father.
Aaron raised an eyebrow at me but I ignored him, keeping my gaze on the King and Princess. Apparently the Princess had brought her entourage as well, which meant the King intended to drag her along. I’m sure she was thrilled by that prospect, which would have explained her more-than-usual sullen expression.
The King stopped within speaking distance of me, but still well outside my reach. I smirked.
“Planning on dragging your whole entourage on this journey, are you?”
“What business is that of yours?” he snapped.
Clearly, he was still in a bad mood and pissy at me for having defied and shown him up in front of his men.
“It’s my business if you fall behind,” I replied evenly. “They had better keep up.”
I held out my hand, not looking away from the King, and Aaron gave me a hand up onto the carpet. He and Lolani followed.
“I don’t want to go!” I heard Taliya begin whining.
“Shut your mouth and do as you’re told,” snapped the King.
I hid my smile as I looked back over my shoulder at them.
“Get a move on.... Your Majesties. We’re leaving.”
I only waited long enough for the King to get on his too flashy horse, by which time Taliya was only halfway in her saddle, before I nodded to Aaron.
“To the Duke of Yetts,” he told the carpet.
Then we were off and oh! It felt wonderful to be moving away from the palace. I glanced back to see the soldiers marching below and behind us with the King and Princess and both heavily laden entourages in tow.
“I almost wish we could lose them and go home,” I muttered to myself.
Lolani chuckled and Aaron rolled his eyes, but he was smiling.
“Don’t try acting on that thought,” he warned.
“I know, I know. I have to finish the job one way or another.” I waved a dismissive hand in his face. “Let me have my pleasant daydreams. I’m getting few enough happy thoughts as it is. Don’t spoil the ones that do pop up.”
“Alright,” he said, still smirking as he leaned back on the carpet.
“So... do we actually know where the Duke is?” asked Lolani.
I shrugged and looked at Aaron who returned the gesture.
“I suppose that’s one of the beautiful things about carpets,” Aaron said. “They can find practically anyone. My guess would be that he’s near the border somewhere.”
“I wonder if he was even on his way,” I mused. “If he even bothered leaving his mansion.”
Then I looked at Aaron, a thought suddenly occurring to me.
“You don’t think he was ambushed or something, do you?”
“It’s possible I suppose, but it’s also just as possible that he’s being as hard headed as the KIng is.”
Leaning back, I sighed.
“This is going to be a long journey, isn’t it?”
“That it might be.”
And so it was.
The three of us made our own little camp away from the main entourage. None of us felt particularly inclined to socialize with the soldiers or nobles. We set up as we had on our way to the Elven Kingdoms with a small fire in the middle of our three bed rolls. Then Lolani made us all dinner. Sadly, the peace we had enjoyed on the way here was not to be enjoyed on any of these evenings.
It was Taliya who gave me trouble the first night. She stomped up to me, clearly in a fit. Her gaggle of ladies maids were a babbling flutter behind her and the three guards who accompanied them looked rather exhausted.
“You!” said the Princess, stopping outside our little circle and pointing an imperious finger at me.
I turned slowly to look at her and, just as slowly, raised an eyebrow at her.
“You!” she said again. “You are the reason I was dragged out here into the middle of this godforsaken wilderness! I demand that we return to the palace at once!”
I watched the livid royal a moment longer before taking a slow bite of my food and turning away.
“Don’t you dare ignore me you stupid animal!” she screeched at me. “I cam the Princess of the Royal Clan and I demand you answer me this instant!”
Languidly, I finished the food in my mouth before I turned a little to look at the enraged elf. I smiled at her, my eyes saying ‘make me’. That raised her temper further and she began shaking with indignant fury at being treated with so little respect. Her anger at my defiance left her speechless for a moment and I went back to my food. I heard her ladies clucking around her for a bit before she found her voice again.
“Who are you to defy me?” she demanded.
I burst out laughing.
When I looked over at her finally, the Princess’ jaw dropped and she starred at me in open mouthed astonishment. I let my laughter fade and let any humor at all disappear from my demeanor before I stood, face now deadly serious. With a few quick steps I got right up in her face and smiled dangerously.
“I think,” I said quietly in a low, menacing voice. “The better question... Princess... is who are you to be giving me orders?”
“I am Taliya of the Roanan Clan, daughter of King Malyon,” she said, drawing herself up haughtily.
Clearly she didn’t realize it was a repetitive question. Well, she was as dense as ever, too. A cold smile crept up onto my face.
“And I was sent by NORTH as liaison between your father and the Duke. That means I answer to NORTH, not your father, and certainly not to you.”
She shrank back just a little and I continued.
“And I was not the one who dragged you along. If I had been consulted, as I should have been, you wouldn’t be here at all. It was mere courtesy that I allowed the King a guard and entourage in the first place. Now, unless you have something useful to add to my life, get lost.”
I sat down and went back to my food, once again ignoring the irate whiner. After a few minutes I heard her huff and stomp away finally, unable to come up with a reply. Aaron looked over at me.
“Was she always like that?”
“Yep, and I quite enjoyed telling her off. I’ve always wanted to.”
I shot him a mischievous grin and he chuckled, shaking his head.
The rest of the night went peacefully enough and the next day’s travels as well. It was the second night that the King decided to have his turn to shout at me.
“You dare disrespect my daughter?!”
I sighed and looked at him, not bothering to hide my boredom or annoyance.
“If telling her what exactly her place is in my world and breaking the fragile illusion she lives in that everyone else’s world revolves around her is disrespecting her, then yes. I am more than happy to admit that.”
Clearly not having expected that answer he was at a loss for a moment. To lessen the onslaught, I continued before he could think say anything more.
“I would also like to point out at this juncture that you have no right to be angry about it. You raised a spoiled, selfish brat and I refused to be bullied by her or you.”
“I am the King!” he said indignantly, as though it was the answer that let him do anything.
Sadly, in the Elven Kingdoms it did.
“Yes, King of the Elves,” I replied and then gestured to myself. “Which I am clearly not. Therefore, you have no authority over me. The best you can hope for is me deciding to show you the courtesy your position usually entails and, I can assure you, you are not encouraging that at the moment.”
The King drew himself up haughtily.
Then he stormed off in a huff and I chuckled. Aaron gave me a confused look.
“You can really tell they’re related, he and his daughter.”
Then, blessedly, on the third day the Duke’s entourage came into sight. Aaron landed the Carpet within sight of the company through the trees and then told the elves to stay back. Aaron and I approached the Wizards by ourselves.
Wizards are strange human-esque creatures. They have large pointed ears and more often than not large noses as well. Their skin always has a wrinkled look to it, though rather than making them look old it puts me in mind of an old crumpled piece of paper. They have no irises and it’s their eyes that show their power by the color they have. Normally the men have no hair on their heads and the women have hair that can reach their feet.
It was clear that the Wizards had spotted us earlier since it’s rather easy to spot a flying Carpet in a clear blue sky. They had sent guards to the front to hail us.
“Halt! State your name and purpose!” called one with black eyes.
“I am MAGI Baerandor and this is Liaison Korina from NORTH,” Aaron replied, voice full of authority. “We have brought the Eleven King to meet with the Duke. When we discovered that the Duke had been delayed we realized we couldn’t simply wait for him to show up. Where is he?”
“You will be shown to him,” replied the one with orange eyes. “Follow us.”
We found ourselves surrounded, with two in front of us and two behind. The guards led us through the Duke’s camp, which was full of nobles and soldiers just as King Malyon’s camp was. They had pitched tents all over. The soldiers’ tents were easy to spot because they were in neat rows and much plainer. The tents of the nobles were more elaborate and spaced out every which way, as though the nobles had all pointed to random spots to have their tents set up at.
Now, I had heard of the Duke of Yetts before. Irvan the Clever, or as he was jokingly called behind his back Irvan the Vain, was apparently quite handsome by Wizard standards and was the most powerful Duke to hold the title since Dravan the Languid. Despite his youth and having come into his Dukedom at the still tender age of nineteen, in the six years since he had built himself quite a reputation. The people loved him for his fairness and the nobles apparently never found themselves without amusement thanks to all the festivities he planned to keep them entertained.
We were led to a tent that looked as thought it could have been that of any other noble, and were bid to wait outside. The guard with the black eyes ducked inside and we waited in silence for him to reappear. There were plenty of curious onlookers, but after a quick scan of the crowd I ignored them and let my gaze shift to the surrounding forest. Mostly it was servants and a few lower ranking soldiers. Nothing overly interesting and besides, I was supposed to be haughty Liaison Korina.
The black eyed guard stepped halfway out of the tent and gestured us in. I took a deep breath and followed Aaron.
I took one look at Irvan and realized why he was called “the Vain”. His hairless head was shining to what a Wizard would consider perfection. His bright red eyes were slightly larger than normal, which not only pointed to a more powerful Wizard, but also made the Wizard more attractive to the opposite sex. He wore elaborate silk robes of blue with golden dragons embroidered all over them and it was clear from the manicured hands that he spent far more time on personal grooming than any other man I knew.
He was seated in a simple chair, though the work was fine quality, and we paused a few feet from him at a respectful distance. The Duke leaned back a bit in his chair as I gave him a shallow curtsy and Aaron gave him a brief bow.
“So you are the ones sent from NORTH, are you?” he asked languidly.
“That’s right and we would rather not be delayed any longer.”
Irvan’s eyebrows raised in mild surprise at Aaron’s brusk manner, but he quickly dismissed it and moved on.
“I am all for this messy business to be over with, MAGI. It is for that foolish little King of the Elves to decide when that happens.”
“We’re not getting into your arguments right now,” I cut in. “You will meet us between the two camps at dawn. There will be a place set up for you and the King to talk privately with us so that this dispute may come to an end as quickly as possible.”
He raised his eyebrows at my brusk manner but then nodded.
“Very well, Liaison Korina. I will be there.”
“You may bring two guards with you but they will not be allowed inside,” Aaron added. “I am the only one who will be settling any physical confrontations tomorrow.”
The Duke laughed, though it wasn’t a real laugh, and I hid a frown. Odd.
“As you wish. I’m sure none of my men would like to tangle with a MAGI, but I will tell them regardless.”
“Until tomorrow then.”
I followed Aaron out of the tent and back to our campsite. The guards left us at the edge of the Wizard’s camp, but we continued on and went to see the King.
The Elven camp wasn’t set up yet, but the King still had a shade tent erected and was sitting under it as he watched the servants work. The Princess was with him, looking sour as usual, and both of them were drinking tea out of fine china cups. I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes at the ridiculousness of it.
With a shallow curtsy and brief bow, we paused in front of the royal pair who looked at us with nothing but distain.
“You are to meet with the Duke at dawn between the two camps,” said Aaron, getting straight to the point. “We will be erecting a shelter for the two of you to talk privately in. You may bring two guards, but they will not be allowed inside.”
“And what if he attacks me?” demanded the King, looking offended.
“If that happens, I will be the one to stop it,” growled Aaron.
“As if I would trust you to protect me,” snapped the King.
Aaron’s face darkened and the King blinked in surprised, seeing the change.
“There will be no fights tomorrow,” growled the MAGI, his voice leaving no room for complaints or compromise.
The King sniffed and took a sip of his tea, clearly dismissing us as rudely as he could. So, without a curtsy or a bow, we turned and went back to our own area where Lolani had been unpacking our bedrolls and making a fire.
I smiled at her.
“Of course, Mistress,” she chirped, returning the smile tenfold.
“So,” I said, turning to Aaron. “You mentioned something about a place for them to meet and made it sound like it was going to be a tent or something. What exactly did you have in mind?”
Aaron grinned and I raised an eyebrow at him. He reached into a pocket inside the breast of his jacket and pulled something out, opening the palm of his hand for me to see. I took a couple steps toward him to see better and chuckled when I realize what it was.
“A Sound Bubble? Clever.”
“MAGI always carry them. Just in case.”
I looked up at him curiously.
“In case of what?”
His grin turned mischievous.
“Oh, lots of things. Sound Bubbles come in handy for the oddest situations, you know.”
I frowned and waved a dismissive hand.
“Fine. Be all cryptic about it.”
I went to help Lolani with the food and heard Aaron laughing behind me.