Deep Secrets: Part Six
It was nearing dusk on the first day that King Coltzan stopped walking and gestured for the two Royal Guards following him to halt.
He listened, one ear turned to the wind that blew little mists of sand over their feet. Then he nodded, and took three long, even strides forward.
“Nuria, I come in supplication.”
One moment, nothing but empty desert beyond him—then a Fire Faerie, standing close enough that the heat off her wings made the air waver between them.
Coltzan knelt, sweeping his hat off. The Fire Faerie looked down at him, her mouth stern but for a corner turned up.
“Coltzan. You have something to ask me about?”
“Yes.” Coltzan fumbled with the catch of the pouch, and then with the clasp holding it to his belt. “Here.” He held out the bag.
“No—not here.” Nuria looked past Coltzan for the first time, meeting the guards’ eyes for just a moment as she swept the empty desert with a glance. Osiri and Raen stumbled back, pushed by the heat of her gaze. “Bring your guards if you must. Otherwise, leave them here, and follow me.”
She turned, and vanished. The desert was suddenly dark, and cool.
Coltzan shed his pack. His throat dry, his voice was hoarse when he spoke. “Osiri, Raen. Wait here. I will not be long.”
The Usul and Aisha shifted uncomfortably. Their orders were to follow Coltzan, but if he gave them a counter-order, was that good enough to negate it?
Neither wanted to spend more time near the blazing Faerie. They nodded.
Coltzan hadn’t waited for their reply: he stepped forward. Whatever door Nuria had gone through, she’d left it open. He disappeared in mid-step, and the two Royal Guards were left in the Desert alone.
Nuria’s hall was taller than it was wide: much taller, and that was saying something. Pillars caught up the ceiling around the edges, but in the center it soared up and over.
In the center of the open space, someone had set a long stone table and lined it with intricately carved chairs. In proportion to the hall, it was tiny. As Coltzan approached it, he tried to count the chairs, and failed: every time he counted one, two more seemed to appear from thin air.
It was impossible, he knew, but then that was Faeries for you.
Nuria seated herself at the head of the table, in the grandest chair, and motioned for him to sit at her right hand.
Here, far underground, the stone breathed cool air, and the heat rolling off the Faerie encountered it and fell back. Coltzan took his seat and could move, and breathe, comfortably.
“You have something to show me?”
The Kyrii nodded. He tipped the pouch over the table, spilling the rings out: they fell, and lay quiet.
Nuria looked at them for a long moment, and then put her hand out over them, as if warming it at a fire.
“I can tell you what they are called, and what they do.” She paused, not looking at him. “For a price.”
“Well. What do you want?”
“What do you offer?” the fire Faerie countered.
Coltzan had been expecting something of this sort. He was trying not to be intimidated. It was surprisingly difficult—but then, Faeries were more powerful than kings, and more long-lived. Some said they were immortal.
“Bargaining doesn’t become you,” he said. “You want one of the rings.”
Nuria inclined her head.
“Tell me what they do, and I’ll decide which one is worth more to me.”
“And then you will give the other one to me.” A glimmer of amusement sparked in her eye.
The Kyrii smiled. “No. I give you the one that is more valuable, in trust.”
“When one of my descendants comes here, if their need is great enough, I would request that you offer it to them. It is their choice whether or not to take it. It is your choice whether or not to offer it—but consider my request.”
The Faerie nodded.
“Are we agreed?”
“We are agreed.” She brought a paper out of nowhere and laid it on the table. A line of black ink wriggled across the page, leaving their agreement written out clearly. Coltzan tugged it toward him to scan it.
“It looks well enough.” He pushed it back to Nuria.
“Good.” She pressed her thumb onto the blank space at the bottom of the page. When she took it away, her seal was embedded into the paper: fiery red and gold, a flame whirling up, shedding sparks.
Coltzan felt inside his jacket. “Is there a quill?”
The Faerie handed him a long black feather that glinted orange and yellow in the light of the braziers. The Kyrii signed in a long scrawl.
Nuria tapped the paper, and then picked it up: there was another copy underneath. She handed the first one to Coltzan, who folded it and stowed it away.
“And now.” The Kyrii leaned forward. “The rings.”
She told him what they did.
“You may have as much time as you would like to decide,” she said after she was done.
Coltzan nodded and stood up to pace. It was a long hall, and he’d made fifteen circuits of it before he spoke.
“Even without the ring, I can unite the Desert,” he said. It echoed strangely. He was halfway across the hall from Nuria, but she nodded. She was still sitting at the table. “But Maraqua has been united for decades—centuries—a long time. They have troops. Armies. They’re the clear threat.
“With the Ring of the Deep, I can summon the creatures who lie on the bottom of the ocean floor. If they all rise at once, Maraqua has no chance.”
“You have made your decision, then.” Nuria stood as he approached the table. For a moment his hand hovered over the rings, wavering, and then he closed it on the Ring of the Lost.
“My thanks to you.”
Nuria inclined her head.
“Good luck, King Coltzan. May your days be long and well.” She stooped to kiss him on the forehead. When she straightened, there was a mark like a flame where her lips had touched his fur. “Now go. Your guards await.”
The Kyrii pulled himself together and took a long stride forward. He vanished.
Nuria looked at the Ring of the Deep, and it looked back.
“He’ll do well enough without you,” the Faerie said. It seemed to consider this.
There were corridors stretching off the hall, if you looked the right way. Cradling the Ring of the Deep in the palm of her hand, Nuria went down a long flight of shallow stone steps to her treasure room and set the ring in a place of honor.
“And now,” she told it, “we wait.”
The ring’s inner fire flickered, resigned to centuries of sitting on a pedestal far underground.
King Coltzan strode into camp at daybreak, followed at some distance by Raen and Osiri.
“Rise and shine, rise and shine,” he murmured. Few Royal Guards were up yet: a couple of yawning Ixi walked the beat, and the kitchen tent had been active for half an hour, but the majority of the camp was still sound asleep.
Coltzan went straight to Delia’s tent, and then stood outside, wondering what he would tell Delia, or any of them.
Better that he just keep it a secret for now. Leaving with two magical rings, he’d come back with one—the one less valuable to them.
He’d just have to make something up. He had reasons, but none of them would quite bear up in the bright light of day.
In Nuria’s deep cavern, lit only by a few fiery braziers, they were perfectly plausible. But no, it wouldn’t do to let his Guards knew he was afraid of anything—even a Fire Faerie. He was King, after all.
He wheeled around suddenly, almost knocking into Osiri.
“What are you two still doing? Get some rest,” he said. “I’m going to.” He strode off to his tent.
Raen and Osiri, who had spent the night huddled in the sand jumping at small noises, looked at each other. Osiri opened her mouth to ask if Raen had seen the glint of red and gold on King Coltzan’s hand, and then closed it again.
They stood in uncomfortable silence for a while, and then the Aisha shook her head.
“Well—we should rest.”
Raen glanced at her. “If we’re asleep, they can’t ask us what happened,” the Usul guessed.
Osiri smiled. “Exactly. Hey—”
The Usul looked back. “Yeah?”
“If Doon wakes up, tell him I changed my mind.” Osiri hesitated, but she didn’t really need to say any more. The shadow Kougra took the Royal Guards’ bets on whether or not King Coltzan would last the year.
Raen nodded. “If you run into him first,” the Usul added, “tell him for me.”
The Aisha grinned. “I will.”
To be continued...