Stormclouds Over Meridell: Part Three
Relentlessly the storm hammered against the shuttered window, the sound ringing clear through the chamber reminiscent of Kass' wroth shrieks in the halls of the Citadel. Leaning over his desk Lord Quai ignored the sound as he did with Kass, allowing his mind to drift easily through the background din of Meridell Castle before coming full circle to rest upon his elegant hand again, his black quill scratching carefully across the parchment as he prepared his daily report.
His meetings with King Skarl had been proving every bit as pointless as anticipated. Quai could almost feel his tongue falling off with the time spent biting it, taking solace in the safety of the Citadel he secured by keeping quiet. Every arrogant declaration of the fat king made him want to leap across the table and strike him down, imagining the face of a Darigan Eyrie upon the Skeith's body. The two were so alike he could see why Morguss had favoured Kass over the more subtle Quai; the only difference in their personalities was Skarl's more restrained actions. Secretly Quai believed that was only because a rash act would require him stop eating for a moment first. It was hard to believe the lazy fool had ever been a decorated warrior.
A knock on the door sounded above the lashings of rain, pulling him back from his musings about Skarl. 'Enter,' he called, wiping the ink from his quill and returning the feather to its holder.
Serra slipped quickly into the room bearing a tray of food, the familiar smells of Meridellian cuisine filling the air within moments. Quai sighed and moved his report aside for her to place the tray, looking over the latest sample of delicacies with little interest. Berries dominated his evening snack tonight, of more shapes and varieties than the Draik knew even existed, let alone could name. Food fit for a Turmac, he thought irritably, given the visitors as insult, at least to those sharp enough to realise it.
The Cybunny hovered awkwardly before him, her eyes darting from the food to Quai as though awaiting his approval. He looked past her to Kakurain, standing his silent vigil by the door, and waited for a nod from the stoic Aisha to signal they were truly alone.
'Report,' Quai ordered, absent-mindedly sampling a berry shaped like an oversize raindrop. 'Nobody is listening,' he added irritably as she turned to look back toward the door, and sharply spat out a fat stone concealed in the berry.
'Preparations are all in place and ready for tomorrow night, my lord,' Serra reported quickly, snapping back to attention as though it were Kass who had barked at her. 'Every servant in Meridell Castle will be either waiting upon the feast or joining the festivities in town, so we can expect the main storerooms to be empty; before a feast all necessary stores are moved to a small room adjoined to the kitchens for ease of access, although it is rare for the tables to go bare. Interior guards will be focused on the great hall so we should be able to move freely throughout the Castle. From what I can see of our situation, we are perfectly poised. If I may be so blunt, my lord, looking at these fools I wonder how we ever lost a war to them.'
'Because we were overconfident and underestimated them,' Quai supplied coldly. 'You are at risk of doing the same. I trust there was a complication in the form of Sir Jeran?'
'That is correct, Lord Quai,' she resumed, shifting awkwardly under his rebuke. 'Either Sir Jeran or his sister, the Lady Lisha, always appeared to be present. It would appear they suspect us, but evidently have no grounding or they would have reported us to King Skarl.'
'Unless King Skarl gave the order,' Quai interjected. 'Do not tell you me you cannot see it? No fool would willingly walk through a storm like that outside when a carriage is available, and yet when I suggested it to Jeran he did not even contemplate opposing me. Even the most dutiful of knights would have recommended we make haste, as I was expecting of him. Skarl has evidently demanded we be given every courtesy to create an illusion of trust, while having Jeran and his sister keep a close eye on us the whole time. I do not feel Jeran suspects us in any malign way; he is merely following orders. To the letter.'
Serra just stared blankly at him, affirming Quai's belief in her. The girl was skilled in her tasks and always performed admirably, but she never looked beyond her orders. She was his equivalent of Jeran, only without the standing and swordsmanship. He would need to educate her further if she was to remain in his service once this was all over.
'We will need to remove Lisha for the duration of the feast, if not longer,' he said at length, marvelling at how she shuddered. She had spent far too long with Kass. 'Any thoughts?'
'I will see to it before morning,' she replied dutifully. He did not doubt her. 'If I may ask, my lord, what of Sir Jeran? I cannot risk using the same method as for his sister, else it raise undue suspicion.'
Quai leaned back in his chair and pondered the same. He dare not ask her means of dealing with Lisha; ignorance was his only shield should something go awry, but anything that would strike down two pets in one night would undoubtedly cause them problems. They would only have one chance at this, and if they failed the tides of war could turn seriously against them within the opening days. It was not a risk worth bearing. He would have to think of another means of dealing with the troublesome knight.
Suddenly the door swung open, jerking Quai from his musings and onto his feet, one claw already reaching for the sword resting beside his desk. Across the room Kakurain barely flinched at the sudden movements, relaxing instantly as both pets recognised the veiled Aisha from their entourage. Serra tensed further at the sight, however, failing spectacularly in her efforts to conceal a desire to flee. The veiled Aisha turned her unseen eyes toward the steward, her head tilted thoughtfully to one side.
'Leave us,' Quai ordered sharply, sinking back into the relative safety of his seat. Serra almost ran from the room, Kakurain following close behind without question to take up station outside.
The veiled Aisha watched the stoic warrior depart, half-expecting him to turn and glare. A disappointed sigh escaped from her as he shut the door without so much a glance in her direction. She often wondered if he knew more than he let on, although as he rarely let anything show it seemed impossible to think otherwise. If he knew the truth about her, it would serve only to make her task tougher.
'I assume there is a reason for this visit?' Quai asked, pushing aside his dish of berries and returning to his report. 'Unless you felt it more profitable to disturb me with something frivolous?'
With a start, she turned back to Quai, recapturing her composure as she cast Kakurain from her mind again. 'Of course there is a reason,' she replied coldly, 'and I resent the accusation of frivolity. You and I alone know the full magnitude of what we are seeking to achieve here, for good reason, and let us not forget that if we happen to falter it will be my neck on the line.'
'I remain as aware of that as ever, my dear,' Quai retorted without looking up, 'but one cannot help but wonder if you were. Perhaps you should speak of the matter at hand rather than a worthless rebuke?'
The Aisha snorted angrily, biting back a scathing response. Too much time dealing with that imbecile Skarl had merely left him weary, she told herself. Normally he would never dream of speaking to her in such a manner, whether fear or respect demanded it, and she knew well the effect that pompous fool could have on any sane pet.
'My agents have reported back from the border,' she said instead, composing herself once more and sinking into a free chair across the room. 'All communication lines have been disabled, and the roads are now patrolled closely by loyal servants of the realm. Once the attack begins Skarl will find no aid from his brother. Hagan and Brightvale will be left unaware until we see fit to change things.'
'An unnecessary diversion, but still pleasant to hear,' the Draik replied, looking up at her. 'Skarl is too proud to ask Hagan for aid, and would sooner see Meridell fall to Darigan than have to beg to Brightvale. Nonetheless, there are many far wiser pets in his service who may disagree with his sentiments. At least this way we are prepared for any eventuality.'
'Precisely. My other agents are also feigning trouble near our border somewhat more... vociferously than before. I trust Skarl has made some form of pathetic excuse for the actions of his "soldiers", but what of Jeran?'
'Our dear knight is positively distressed by the news, even if he not fully believe it. The slightest chance of one of his knights harassing Darigan citizens when in Meridell is enough to trouble his noble heart. If only we could send him off to deal with them tomorrow night, but unfortunately he will not miss the feast so easily. A shame, as it would be so easy to arrange for an injury while in the field.'
The Aisha laughed at his dilemma, the cold and mirthless sound filling the chamber with a chill draught. 'How infuriating it must be for a man of learning to be so outwitted by a dumb knight,' she taunted. 'You always had such a low view of these warring types. "Barbarians" I believe you used to call them, back at the academy. And yet you have always had one following you around.'
'Every pet has his place,' Quai snarled. 'You would do to remember that.'
He returned to his report, fervently ignoring her continued presence. The sound of his quill scratching against the parchment filled the room, but no words took shape upon the sheaf. Her words had dug deep into his thoughts, worming through his woes and biting at the very core of the problem.
Loath as he was to admit it, she had just given him an idea.
To be continued...