Stormclouds Over Meridell: Part Six
Silver flashed in the semi-darkness, moonlight dancing across the crossbow's tip as Quai spun to face the intruder. A playful giggle escaped from the shadows where they waited, where she waited, her own green-eyed stare matching his own. 'Is that any way to treat me?' she asked sweetly, flashing a perfect white-toothed smile at him even through the shadows.
A smile of his own flickered across his face for but a moment as he raised the crossbow. 'My apologies,' he replied smoothly, descending into a flourishing bow, 'I was not aware we had a meeting this evening. Do forgive me, but I must conclude another trifling matter. I shall only be a moment.'
He did not take his eyes from those green points as he waved Kakurain toward a large chest resting beside the bed. Barallus stared wildly over the Aisha's shoulder, panic etched into every line of his yellow face, but Kakurain paid his renewed struggles no heed and dumped him unceremoniously in the waiting chest, casually knocking the lid shut behind him. The chest stood silent, motionless, giving no indication of its contents.
'Do not be alarmed, we made sure there were holes for air,' Quai responded to the reproach in her eyes. 'It did not feel prudent to return without a gift for Master Vex after all.' He motioned to Kakurain once more, and without so much as a glance at the intruder waiting in the shadows he stalked from the room, the sound of his footsteps ringing out as he too returned to his other duties.
Veiled in shadow, the green-eyed intruder giggled again at the stern look on Quai's face, growing harder with each passing moment. 'It seems I have offended you somehow this evening, my lord,' she remarked innocently, an effect ruined by the mischievous smile hanging beneath her eyes. 'Allow me to make it up to you.'
She snapped her fingers and the room suddenly blazed. Quai felt the urge to recoil rise but he fought it back, determined to show no further weakness to this creature before him. She just giggled once more, her melodious voice ringing in his ears. His breath caught in his throat as she rose to her feet, dusting off the folds in her simple red dress. Yet to part of him there was nothing simple in the cascade of that magnificent gown, the luxurious red hues mingling with the sleek red hair that fell past her shoulders, framing the youthful brown Aisha's face. Perfect white teeth were flashed at him beneath those impossibly green eyes, and Quai felt his legs tremble beneath him. His face twitched as he tried to resist, but already he could feel a foolish grin beginning to form.
'That's better,' she whispered softly in his ear, running a hand gently over his horns. 'Do you not agree?'
'No!' he snapped, abruptly pushing her away. For a moment she flickered, smooth brown skin and purple scales fighting across her face, the green of her eyes doused in a flash of red glow, but as soon as he saw it was gone, and the beautiful dancer stood before him again, a single tear running hurtfully down her cheek.
'No!' he repeated, the word barely escaping through barred teeth. Little more than a snarl, it had the desired effect. The beautiful maiden disappeared, replaced by the familiar repugnant scowl of Morguss' daughter.
'Must you ruin my fun?' she hissed angrily back at him, 'not to mention vital preparation?'
'You are prepared enough,' he snarled, dropping all pretence between them. 'If you try that with me again I shall make Kass aware of your prior indiscretions. Something tells me he would not like to know what else you have done under that illusion before now.'
She recoiled, her anger vanishing in the face of icy dread. Not even her mother could shield her from Kass if he learned her secrets.
'Very well,' she replied with newfound meekness. Brushing her skirt aside she fell into Quai's chair and regarded him for a moment before averting her eyes. 'Might I inquire as to why you have kidnapped Skarl's fool?'
'The fool is still on the throne where he has always been,' Quai replied coldly, 'but if you mean Barallus, he was a threat. No fool would sell himself such; it takes a cunning mind to play the fool so well. I believe Barallus has some connection to Fyora, and to allow her to become aware of anything could be dangerous, especially after what happened to Lord Darigan. Master Vex will undoubtedly learn more from him eventually.'
'I could have convinced him otherwise.'
'I fear it would have taken much to break him, and that was not a risk worth indulging. He does not eat or drink anything he has not prepared himself, so would not have partaken of breakfast in the morning. Without the assistance of the potion you may not have been able to ensorcell him like the rest. Another benefit of course, is without Barallus by Skarl's side there is a new opening just waiting for you to fill. You can make everyone forget the fool's existence before they even begin to miss him.'
'Then everything went according to plan?'
'As close as can be expected when everything is falling apart around you. We have been fortunate, dare I even say lucky, to have had as little trouble as we have. By the time we are ready to depart tomorrow almost everybody in the castle will be blinded to your glamour, and ripe for your... entertainment, shall we say?'
A small laugh escaped her, her eyes meeting Quai's glare again. Almost immediately she looked away. 'Very well. I thank you, my lord, for your thoroughness. I must ask, however: need I be concerned you will look through me tomorrow as you have tonight?'
'I shall not have eaten breakfast like the rest, nor be the focus of your attention, so I shall play along for the good of the Citadel. Try anything foolish, though, my dear, and I will not hesitate to throw you on Skarl's mercy, and if the sound of him tonight is anything to go by he will not be feeling particularly merciful in the morning. Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to the feast before my continued absence is noted. Do not be here when I return.'
With a regal flourish of his elaborate jacket, he swept from the room. As the door snapped shut behind him, he heard the soft sound of a relieved sigh, and gave himself a contemptuous smirk. Now if only I could do that to her mother as well, he thought to himself. Suppressing a chuckle lest she hear, he set off back toward the great hall, completely unaware of a new spring in his step.
* * *
Bleary eyed and scowling at anyone with the audacity to speak, King Skarl wished he was still sound asleep in bed and the dreadful morning would just pass him by. What little silence his scowls provided was savoured between mouthfuls, each bite making him long for the chance to have a proper breakfast after the festival. Still, at least the constant hammering of rain against the walls had faded away somewhat this morning; it almost seemed the storm would pass before the day was out. It had been a long few days.
By his side Jeran's seat still stood empty. Though the gallant knight was up and about today after the troubles of the day before, he had not looked well when Skarl laid eyes on him before breakfast, although a part of that may have been Skarl's eyes not feeling well when he saw Jeran. Nonetheless, the Lupe had excused himself to investigate worrying rumours about his soldiers, and would be away from court for a few days. The Skeith wished he was there with him now; when he wanted to, Jeran was very skilled at silencing the chatter of lesser nobles. Still, it could not be helped, but at least while Lisha remained ill he would not stray too far.
'Presenting Lord Quai, seat of the ruling council and honourable ambassador of the Kass Citadel,' the herald began to cry across the room, but a goblet narrowly missed his head and he fell silent after announcing Quai's name. The arrogant Draik swept into the room with his usual grandeur and bowed low before Skarl's seat. Skarl felt his hand start to close around another goblet.
'Your Majesty, I come to bid you farewell,' Quai declared in a soft voice, and Skarl felt his grip ease. 'It has been a great honour to share the comforts of your hearth and the pleasures of your table these past few days, but I must return to report to my Lord Kass about our agreements. I am sure he shall be as humbled as I by your graciousness and magnanimity in the wake of recent events. To show our appreciation, Lord Kass has sent one final gift, to help affirm our new friendship and peace.'
Skarl waved a hand hastily and realised it was once again clutching the golden goblet. As though sensing what had almost happened, Lord Quai bowed deeply once more and stepped aside without another word.
Absolute silence fell throughout the hall, every eye turned toward the newcomer standing in the great doorway beside the gawping herald. Respectfully the brown Aisha dropped into a curtsy for the nobles around her, but Skarl's eyes caught only the cheeky flash of a grin in his direction. Watching her approach he could not stop his mouth falling open into a gormless smile, enraptured by her enchanting green eyed gaze resting upon him.
Suddenly she flourished a tambourine in one hand. The sound of bells rang out clear across the great hall to the accompaniment of her steady beats, each in perfect flow with her body as she stepped into a dance. Fiery red hair swept about her spinning body, the magnificent crimson dress playing about her legs with each stride, all the while she laughed in an impossibly sweet melody. Nothing else mattered except her dancing, her laughing, and the wondrous sound of music filling Skarl's ears.
Quai watched Skarl with rapt attention, how his small yellow eyes followed the Court Dancer's every move, how his ears twitched every time she smiled at him with those full red lips and perfect white teeth, how his inane grin grew wider with each flick of her eyelashes. He was utterly enamoured, and utterly ensorcelled. Utterly defeated.
'Farewell, Your Majesty,' Quai declared softly, safe in the knowledge nobody in the room would even remember he had been there, let alone he had left. The potion soaked deep into every bite of food and every droplet of drink had made sure they would have eyes for none but her.
Turning his back on the pompous oaf one last time, the Draik swept past the transfixed herald and left the great hall behind. Serra and Kakurain stood waiting in the entrance hall, watching the rain fall upon their waiting carriage. Quai could just make out the large wooden chest sitting motionless on the carriage roof, and wondered to himself whether it was waterproof. Such a stray thought, he could not help but laugh, the mirthful sound still an oddity when enveloped in his own voice.
'Something amuse you, Lord Quai?' a familiar voice asked politely by his side. It was Jeran, a bandage around his shoulder but otherwise looking as fresh and fit as ever. 'I could use a good laugh where I am going.'
'I am afraid you would not find it funny, Sir Jeran,' Quai replied honestly, 'for I wonder why even I find it so. Might I inquire where you are heading, so soon after your injury?'
'Merely to hunt down some rumours, my lord,' he answered with the same honesty. 'It should not be too strenuous, so even if I did not feel at my full strength it would be of little concern. I hope to put an end to any stories of Meridellian soldiers harassing the good citizens of the Citadel.'
'In that case, sir, I wish you good hunting.' Quai bowed low to the Lupe, who returned it in kind.
'Safe travels, Lord Quai.'
Boundless cheer filled the Draik as he climbed into the carriage and sank into his seat, waiting for Serra to once more take the one opposite. As always, Kakurain would ride with the driver to be ready in case of bandits. Unable to suppress the smile, he just stared out into the weakening storm and allowed the splendour of the rainfall to fill his thoughts.
'I look forward to getting away from this storm at last,' Serra remarked casually as the carriage set off through the castle gates and onto the road back home.
Quai chuckled at the thought. 'Getting away, you say? Serra, you are mistaken. We are not getting away from anything. The true storm is just about to begin.'
The last gasp of thunder rumbled across the fields of Meridell.