Stormclouds Over Meridell: Part Five
It rang out through the glowing passages of the castle, echoing across the storm-ridden battlements and into the still darkness of the cellars, bouncing gaily through the balmy air and filling the hearts of those who heard it with joy. Often regarded a rare occurrence at the best of times, in the wake of victory it had become a prominent part of Meridellian life for the castle inhabitants, and once it began there was little that could be done to stop it. Not that many tried very hard.
King Skarl was laughing.
Rumour had reached the ears of Lord Quai before the night's feast, but nothing had prepared him for the boundless exuberance of the Skeith at the height of his merriment. Months of wild cackles and inane, mocking laughter from Kass and his mindless cohorts within the Citadel had left the sound of such mirth alien to his ears, and he could feel them twitching uncomfortably as he approached the gilt double doors into the great hall.
'Presenting Lord Quai, seat of the ruling council and honourable ambassador of the Kass Citadel,' the herald declared as he marched into the main hall, pausing only to sweep a low bow to the other guests. Fresh murmurs flooded the hall with his presence, casting a smirk across Quai's face tilted toward the floor, and as he rose it had vanished completely; it was the first time any had seen the Draik without his Aisha bodyguard a step behind.
Quai swiftly proceeded across the main hall and presented himself before King Skarl, once more bowing low until his nostrils were breathing the dust between the flagstones. His keen eyes hastily scanned across the depleted high table, taking in the notable absences of both Sir Jeran and his sister Lisha. Whatever Serra had done had proven more effective than he had anticipated; she was certainly proving useful.
'Your Majesty, it is an honour to finally have the opportunity to celebrate with you,' he declared in his silken tones. 'Long have I waited for this night to arrive, and seeing the splendour of Meridell at festival I find myself awed; the rumours do you and your people no justice.'
'Rumours never do!' Skarl roared cheerfully. 'Although it seems you have played a part in reducing my table this night?'
'Once again, I offer my most sincere apologies for what happened on the practice ground this morning. I have confined my servant to miss the festivities this evening, and prepare our luggage for the return journey to the Citadel. If I had known for a moment what would happen in his exuberance, I would never have allowed the duel to take place. My steward tells me Sir Jeran is well, but the risk of an infection has left him bedridden for this night. So cruel the fate played him to miss such an evening.'
'Quite right!' Skarl bellowed, blinking stupidly back at him. Quai suppressed a laugh; Skarl was too immersed in the celebrations to have understood a word of what was just said to him. At least one rumour had been almost devastatingly accurate.
Taking his leave of Skarl's fractured attention, Quai settled himself into his seat and assaulted the feast at last. No more of the so-called "delicacies" of Meridellian cuisine would torment him this night, and instead he set to work filling his plate with the richest examples of simple food he could find. Politely he allowed the conversation from the lesser nobles of Meridell to wash over him, finding himself apologising once more for Kakurain's actions in the bailey. The words flowed almost of their own accord over his tongue, repeated ritualistically so often throughout the day. Fresh news of the Lady Lisha's condition slipped into the talk between worries about the brave Sir Jeran, and Quai found himself glad for the food filling his ravenous jaws as it stopped him bursting into laughter; though the worst had supposedly passed during the afternoon, she was still expected to be down for many days yet. When they returned home, he felt Serra deserved a bonus.
As the evening grew darker through the high windows, Skarl's Korbat jester took to the floor and began his first performance. Quai watched without interest, applauding politely with the revels of those around while his mind wandered. Court jesters were like any other circus acts to him: good for the common folk, but too simple for anyone with even a hint of thought in his head. It came as no surprise to find Skarl laughing and cheering louder than the rest of the hall combined.
The Draik found his bored gaze resting upon the jester himself as the Korbat began to juggle dishes from Skarl's table – without the Skeith pausing in his feasting – and broke into a wild song. The words passed Quai's ears unheeded, the astounding feat little more than blur to his eyes, but the yellow faced Korbat in his colourful motley stood out clear and true. Who was this odd little pet in Skarl's midst? A little digging had revealed only he was an orphan taken in by the king years before, raised to spend his life and earn his keep entertaining the once miserable monarch with great success. If the stories could be believed the strange Korbat did all he did for love of the performance, much as a great musician played for the joy of music itself rather than fame and glory. Did that make him a simpleton? No, not a simpleton. He was too skilled and relaxed in what he did, able to balance too much with barely a hint of concentration. A strange pet always by the side of King Skarl, who made the world believe him a simpleton, was suddenly taking shape into something uncomfortable for Quai.
'My Lord Quai,' someone suddenly spoke in his ear, jerking him from his musings. It was Serra. 'I apologise for interrupting you my lord, but there has been an urgent message from the Citadel that requires your attention.'
'I do hope it is nothing serious,' a grey Kyrii by Quai's side remarked casually, the old pet barely looking away from the jester's show.
'I am sure it is nothing, probably just my esteemed Lord Kass remembering he has neglected to mock me yet this day,' Quai replied with a smooth smile. 'Do excuse me.'
Nobody else noticed his departure behind his Cybunny steward, the pair slipping into the corridor and marching swiftly from the boisterous sounds of merry-making; Skarl's laughter chased them every step. Hushed conversation flowed frantically between them as they hastened past the stoic guards, Quai's keen eyes noticing one swaying slightly where he stood as though sleeping, but nobody dared interrupt them or look at them twice on their way to the entrance hall.
Against his better judgement Quai froze at the sight awaiting him through the open doorway: blinding colours of open tents clashed lurid before his eyes in the rain-soaked bailey, surrounding the uproarious festivities of the common folk of Meridell. Even the mad laughter of their fat king was drowned out amidst the celebrations of the local villagers, gathering amidst the servants not waiting upon the great hall to feast and party and forget their troubles, if just for a night. Even the storm was being ignored, much to its displeasure as it struggled to make itself heard above the tumult.
Quai snarled at the sight. Much as he would not begrudge the revels of the common folk, it had put a potential risk into his plan. 'I thought the celebration was in the town,' he breathed to himself.
'Do not worry, my lord, it has been taken care of,' Serra said suddenly by his side. He spun to stare at her, finding her watching the celebrations without interest. 'I took the liberty of spreading a few choice rumours about what would happen to those who strayed too far into the Castle this evening, along with making a few choice... alterations to the outdoor feast. Nobody should be in a position to intrude upon us.'
'I hope you are right, Serra, as this night has already forced an alteration to the strategy. Come, we should not be wasting time. There will be talk if I am away too long.'
Leading the way, he swept from the entrance hall and into the depths of the castle once more. No guards barred their paths any longer; only the King and his vaults were given guards within the castle during festivities, relying instead of keeping foes out rather than finding them once inside. Nonetheless he still headed toward the spiralling staircase climbing the tower where his chambers were situated; if any errant wanderers saw him out of place too soon everything would be lost.
The foot of the staircase stood silent as they arrived, the flickering candles doing little to stop the swathes of cloying darkness from encircling them where they stood. Behind him Quai could feel Serra give a shudder; whether from the grim chill that filled the stairwell or the beckoning shades he could not decide. It was of no consequence.
Suddenly she gave a yelp, heralding Kakurain's arrival. Like a ghost he seemed to materialise from the shifting shadows, dark red eyes staring out from a macabre, emotionless mask.
'I trust nobody saw you?' Quai remarked calmly, barely bothering to look at his loyal bodyguard. The Aisha just shook his head silently. Still wreathed in darkness the effect sent a shudder through even Quai's spine. 'Then let us proceed; we have already wasted too much time.'
'My Lord, if I may,' Serra suddenly interrupted, tearing her anxious gaze from Kakurain. 'Would it not be best if Kakurain and I handled this alone? You said it yourself, there will be talk if you are away too long.'
After the fear brought by Kakurain's surprise appearance, no glare from Quai could make the Cybunny so much as wince. He tried anyway if only for his own satisfaction, and replied icily, 'Too much has already threatened to go wrong this evening without changing the plan now. With some of those fool lords thinking of retiring early to escape Skarl's vociferous revels and the looming threat of a rogue commoner stalking the halls despite your best efforts to name but two, there is also a far greater threat gone unnoticed until this very eve. Changing the plan now, steward, would risk endangering us still further, as well as remove the one chance we may have to remove this threat from our midst. Now, unless you have further objections, I would suggest you remember your place else I will send you to serve Kass upon our return.'
Her head fell, breaking contact with his glare at last. For a fleeting moment he felt a twinge of guilt for threatening her with Kass, knowing all too well what typically happened to his servants, but she had already wasted too much of their precious time. With a detour now in the plan, they had to move quickly.
Without another word he brushed past her and led the way back into the ground floor passages of the castle. Taking a different route deeper into the bright halls the trio passed unnoticed by the other pets still celebrating within the walls, only the echoes of their cheer reminding the Darigan pets they were not alone with the storm hammering persistently against the walls.
Discomfort slipped into Quai's mind as they hurried toward their destination. Unable to resist he found an image of Morguss flashed before his eyes, overshadowed by Kass' manic silhouette, and the storm seemed to press heavier on him. Foolishness, he thought to himself, to believe she would have any part of what was happening here. Kass may want him out of the way, but Morguss would never go to such trouble on his account unless she had personal gain, and he was no trouble to her. Too much time spent around Kass and Skarl had merely addled his mind and left him paranoid. It was just the strains of things already starting to go wrong this evening that was troubling him, nothing more.
New voices reaffirmed his confidence as they drifted through the still air. Resisting an urge to check himself, Quai marched into the waiting chamber to find two guards talking amicably, their halberds leaning against a wall while the pair shared a platter from the feast. For a long moment he just looked between them, one eyebrow raised suspiciously while a playful smirk aligned itself across his face, waiting for them to notice his presence.
Someone cleared their throat loudly behind him. Jumping to their feet the guards just stared blankly for a moment, mouths hanging open stupidly, before frantically trying to stand to attention and failing spectacularly.
'I do apologise, it is so very rude to interrupt during the festival I am told,' Quai said politely, 'but King Skarl graciously offered me access to his cellar as a gift for some of the other nobles in the Citadel and I had completely forgotten. It seems a useful task to entertain my servants this evening. May we pass?'
The guards exchanged unsteady looks. 'Surely my lord does not mean to stop his servants from celebrating the festival?' one asked slowly. 'It is Meridellian tradition.'
'And we are Darigan.'
All joviality was lost from his tone, shifting the unsteady looks of the guards to uneasy. 'Of course, my lord,' the guard mumbled.
'Splendid, now do not allow us to interfere with your own evening,' Quai finished, his cheerful tone restored with a friendly smile. 'We shall not be long.'
He could feel their eyes upon him as he swept past and down the staircase into the storerooms, but dismissed it almost instantly; before this night was through they would be unlikely to remember anything of this. A fresh chill seeped into the air with each descending step, biting harsher through his evening clothes and making him wish he had ordered Kakurain to bring a cloak. Beneath the chill, the air held the faintest odour, discernable only to those who knew it already, and Quai felt a fresh shudder fight to escape from within that had nothing to do with the cold.
Magic at work.
At last his feet found the rough stonework of the storeroom floor, his fanciful shoes sliding upon the slick surface. Immediately Kakurain was by his side to stop his fall, giving the Draik a chance to look to Serra, unperturbed by either chill or ice. It appeared this was but another minor detail she had neglected to mention.
'Let us get on before this chill starts to annoy me,' Quai snapped. 'We are not all dressed for it after all.'
'It would have seemed suspicious were you to walk about the castle in a cloak on a night like this, my lord,' the Cybunny explained calmly as she pulled a number of bottles from pockets sewn carefully into her jacket. Quai could not help but notice the thicker lining she had added for tonight's task. 'I do apologise, but there was no time to change the plan since I discovered about the enchantment.'
Quai took a deep breath at the thought, biting back an irritable retort. It would not do to abandon his composure tonight, not while so much still rested on him. Instead he gave a curt nod to her unseeing back and turned his thoughts instead to the endless rows of shelves reaching back into the wintry depths of the storeroom. Enchanted lanterns burned at intervals with an eerie blue light, bathing Meridell's supplies with their unworldly glow. It was no wonder they had fared so well during the war with such stores, allowing Skarl and his people to keep growing fat while the denizens of the Citadel starved through Lord Darigan's madness. A cycle Kass was doomed to repeat while the contents of this room held. Unless they could break Skarl first.
His eyes fell upon a collection of barrels and casks separate from the rest and closest to the staircase they had just descended. Serra's words rang in his ears from the night before: Only those serving in the great hall work the night of the festival, and few are in any condition to be trusted in the storeroom the following morning, so the stores are moved before the beginning of the festivities. It is the only time everything is kept in one place, so the best chance we will ever have to ensure we get everything that will be on Skarl's table, or anybody else's for that matter. Breakfast for all Meridell Castle, waiting and ready for the cooks' servants in the morning. Or more precisely, ready for the three of them right now.
Serra continued to pull bottles from her concealed pockets until the small table before her was covered but for a small space dividing the two identical sets. She motioned to the larger group and casually remarked, 'Those are for the food, the rest are for the drink. I cannot guarantee their effectivity if reversed, so make sure you use the right solution.'
Taking a bottle, Quai looked at the colourless contents for a moment, almost feeling disappointed at the anticlimax. He had expected so much more from Morguss' concoctions after having witnessed her potions first hand during the war. Still, so long as they achieved results the means was of little importance.
'We must hasten; there is still much to do tonight before anybody remarks on my absence at the feast,' he said firmly.
* * *
The door snapped shut behind him, sealing him away at last from the bustle of castle life. Heaving a deep sigh, Barallus felt all the stress and anxiety of performance ooze out of him and into the waiting emptiness of his humble chambers, dissipating harmlessly before his eyes. Fresh rumbles of thunder enveloped him where he stood, but he paid it no heed. The last few days had worked a miracle to deal with the unease a storm always used to bring to the young Korbat; a half-remembered childhood had left many strange fears loose within his mind. Instead he just proceeded to close the shutters and leave the storm outside where it belonged, while he readied for sleep.
The single table set in the middle of the spacious room bore the usual tray of scraps from the feast with a jug of Skarl's finest; the pompous Skeith was always generous with those who pleased him. Barallus could not help but smile at the blindness of the servants who delivered it each evening, and failed so magnificently to notice it untouched when they collected it the next morning.
Only trust food you have prepared yourself.
He smiled to himself at the thought, before reaching into his wardrobe and producing a slab of hard bread and bottle of crisp, clear water, still sealed. Enjoying his feast he changed into a simple nightshirt and returned the empty bottle to its dark corner, ready for another time. By the feel of things he would have to restock his supplies in a few days or take the risk of what the servants prepared. He saw no reason for Skarl to want to hurt him, but Skarl was the least of his concern.
Unconsciously he fiddled with the ring on one slender finger, the familiar smoothness of the garnet reassuring his worries. Few ever saw it beneath the gloves of his motley, and they believed it a worthless trinket, but to Barallus it was a constant reminder of why he played the fool with Skarl. A symbol of the trust the Queen had placed in him.
'Quite the stone you've got there.'
With a start Barallus spun to face the speaker, but found only the shining point of a crossbow pointed between his eyes. A dark shape was visible beyond, but terror clouded all but that single point staring hungrily at him and closed tight about his throat, stifling the scream that longed to escape.
'It strikes me an odd trinket for a fool,' the speaker continued, the tone of his voice both strange and familiar. 'I would say it is just another strange custom of a backwards land, but something tells me there as is as much to that ring as there is to you, Barallus.'
Darigan. The unfamiliar tones of a Darigan tongue, but familiar from Skarl's table for the past few days. Tearing his eyes from the crossbow tip, the Korbat saw his thoughts confirmed as the shape of Lord Quai took form before him, a self-satisfied smile spread across his scaled face.
'I am just a fool,' Barallus whimpered slowly, turning his eyes back to the crossbow.
'In my experience no fool is really a fool, while their masters tend to be the most foolish of all,' Quai responded calmly. 'I am sure Master Vex will enjoy your company while you decide just how foolish a fool you wish to be. Take him.'
A scaled hand shot across the Korbat's face, and his mouth was filled with the vile taste of a dusty rag. In vain he tried to fight, but his assailant ignored his frail thrashes and proceeded to bind his hands. Quai's smile never flickered while he watched.
Another figure suddenly stepped past him and up to Quai, the Cybunny lightly tossing the garnet ring in her paws. She shot Barallus a smug smirk as she placed it in the Draik's waiting claws. His smile seemed to grow broader at its touch, one claw caressing the delicate item almost reverently.
'A magic ring,' he mused aloud. 'It seems our friend here is touched by a Queen. How intriguing.'
Without another word he dropped it into a pocket of his jacket and motioned to his companions. Barallus felt his feet lift from the ground and caught a fleeting glimpse of the Aisha who now carried him slung over a shoulder like a sack of grain, and with all the difficulty of one. Giving one last muffled sigh, he sagged on Kakurain's shoulder and surrendered.
Triumph flashed over Quai's frozen smile at his prey's defeat, but a fresh cheer from below cut his victory short. The night was still far from over.
'Serra, check ahead and ensure there are no errant wanderers,' he ordered curtly. Obediently the Cybunny hurried into the gloomy corridor leading from the fool's chambers, her soft footfalls drowned by the roar of the storm outside. Peering around the corner ahead she waved back to Quai and Kakurain, disappearing before they could follow. In silence they pursued her through the grim passages of the barely used wing, waiting for the storm to break through the crumbling stone and soak them in its deluge, but by a miracle the old masonry held fast and they were returned to the brightly lit hallways of a castle at festival. Skarl's laughter rang out again for his latest entertainment, and Quai felt a sharp stab of disgust for the wasteful nature of the king. In the Citadel they would have placed repairing this wing ahead of their own entertainment. At least they would under Lord Darigan, if not under Kass.
Not a soul moved beyond the three of them, and as he approached the familiar door to his chambers Quai could feel relief begin to rise in the pit of his stomach. At last everything was back on track. Waving away Serra to her duties, he pushed open the door and stepped back into what small sanctuary he had in this foreign land, already wishing it was tomorrow and time to return home.
'Good evening, Lord Quai,' someone whispered behind him.
To be continued...