Guard Duty: Part One
So much had changed since the Fall.
Faerieland had once been such a peaceful place. The only sounds in the air had been the gentle breeze and birdsong. Now the sounds of construction were all around, as the population tried to restore the kingdom to a glory that secretly they all knew was lost forever.
Soil, that had been the hardest thing for Captain Smith to adapt to. No more bouncing around on fluffy clouds or sliding across the polished pink and purple rocks... now Faerieland was covered in grass and dirt. He'd had blisters for weeks after he returned to his duty as the Captain of the Faerieland Palace Guards.
But that wasn't the only change the blue Draik had witnessed.
There was a sort of fear in the eyes of the Faeries that Smith served. Somehow, being in the crater made them feel so much more vulnerable to the troubles of Neopia than when they had been drifting high in the sky. They feared getting involved, but knew that after Xandra's rampage, they would surely have to.
Faerie City was another change. Most of it had been ruined in the Fall, and what was left standing was initially uninhabitable. It had taken so long to even get it back to this stage, but Smith still missed some buildings that he knew he would never see again. The architecture of old Faerieland had been a product of the old Faerie mindset – of optimism... and that was a luxury in small supply.
Even the Palace Guard had seen changes. They'd been slowly building up their numbers leading up to the Fall... but the terror of seeing so many Faeries made powerless had sent so many fleeing to the far corners of Neopia. When the Faeries were restored, very few soldiers had returned. Smith now commanded a unit of only six, including himself.
And in a way, the biggest change Smith had seen was a change in himself. Once he had been an almost carefree leader, willing to bend and even break the rules in order to keep peace in Faerieland... but then the Faeries had been petrified. Smith had wanted to stay, to protect his Queen until the end, but when Faerieland began to fall a general evacuation order was given to all non-Faerie inhabitants. As commander of the Palace Guard, he was the one who needed to head the evacuation.
He'd been forced to abandon his home and his duty to the Queen, and he felt like he had fled with his tail between his legs.
Now he swore that such a thing would never happen again. He followed the law to the letter, and no matter what, he would do his duty.
"Captain," the pleasant voice of Fyora roused the Draik from his daydreaming. "Are you even listening?"
"Sorry, ma'am," Smith answered, standing to attention.
"I was saying that we will be receiving an ambassador later this evening," Fyora repeated. "He's arriving from Harkdale. I expect you to treat him with the utmost respect."
"Of course, ma'am," Smith answered, still stood to attention.
"I understand he will have company," Fyora added. "His guests will be lodged as he would. It is vital we make a good impression for the ambassador if we are to press for peace between Harkdale and Meridell."
"I understand the west tower is nearing completion?" Fyora asked.
"Indeed," Smith replied. "We are ahead of schedule. Hopefully we will have it finished by the end of the week, ma'am."
"Good." Fyora nodded. "Is there anything else, Captain?"
"Not that I know, ma'am."
"Then you are dismissed."
Smith saluted, and marched out of the throne room. He made his way down through the bowels of the partially reconstructed castle, towards the guard's room that was just off from the public gardens.
Inside, his small troop was waiting for him.
There were his two Lieutenants, Jones and Habbard. Jones was a green Pteri, and aside from Smith was the longest serving member of the Palace Guards. She was a friendly type of soldier, and as a result had a lot of contacts in the city beyond the palace walls, but the Fall had shaken her confidence badly.
The Faerie Kougra that was Habbard however seemed to have found his calling during the Fall. Once he had been a rival to Smith, but the two had reconciled their differences, and Habbard had thrown himself into the rebuilding effort with vigour that few of the soldiers or Faeries could equal.
Then there were the troops, the few that had returned – Banks, Bane, and Sandra.
Banks was a red Scorchio that many visitors to the castle thought was completely unsuited to the job. He was a frail thing with more allergies than were known to medical science. In anyone else, that would have been an inconvenience. To a Scorchio like Banks, it was dangerous. His sneezes came with a thick stream of flame, and the rebuilding effort had at times been hampered by Banks accidentally melting walls.
Bane, on the other hand, was every part the model soldier. The massive Faerie Grarrl barely fit inside the guard room, and several doors in the castle had been especially widened to allow him access. Bane was not exactly the brightest mote in the box, but his loyalty was unwavering.
And then there was Sandra, who had for the majority of her life considered herself to be a Faerie Kougra, rather than the Fire Faerie she actually was. Her amnesia had eventually been cured and she had recovered her Faerie heritage, but the scars of losing who she was had not entirely healed. It had seemed that she would be the only member of the guard not tainted by the act of disgrace in abandoning Faerieland during the fall, as she had been petrified along with the rest of her sisters. But Sandra still felt a burden. If nothing else, she had grown to dislike her name and its similarity to Xandra, the one who had caused all the destruction.
"Okay, here's the duty rosters for today," Smith announced. "Jones, you're on dungeon duty. Habbard and Bane, you've got reconstruction. Try and get the west tower finished as soon as possible. Banks, you're on patrol. Sandra, you're with me on special duty."
"Special duty?" the Faerie asked.
"There's an ambassador from Harkdale arriving later, we have to welcome him," Smith explained.
"Harkdale, sir?" Habbard questioned in surprise. "The Queen's actually inviting someone from there?"
"Who the Queen invites to the castle is the Queen's business," Smith stated firmly. "Sandra, with me. Everyone else, to your posts."
The guards gradually piled out of the room to tend to their various duties, with Sandra staying behind to wait for Smith.
"Captain, where's Harkdale?" Sandra asked as they walked towards the castle's main entrance. "And why is Habbard so bothered about an ambassador coming?"
"You don't know?" Smith asked. "Harkdale is a small mountain kingdom near Cogham, it directly borders Meridell... and it's been quite aggressive lately, attacking Meridell troops. The whole place is run by the military... from what the Queen understands it's not a great life for regular citizens. Meridell tried a counterattack, but Harkdale is really well positioned in a mountain gully. There's only one way in or out and that forces Meridell troops into a bottleneck."
"And Fyora's welcoming an ambassador from such a place?" Sandra asked.
"She's trying to get a peace treaty between the two lands," Smith told her. "But, like I said to Habbard, what the Queen does in political circles is not our concern."
Sandra nodded in silence.
The two made their way to the castle's main entrance, where the sounds of the construction happening in the city beyond greeted them. A Whinny drawn carriage was already making its way down the haphazardly cobbled main street towards the castle.
"Regardless of what the government this man is representing means, we are to treat him like any other ambassador," Smith instructed. "Understood?"
Again, Sandra nodded.
The carriage came to a stop at the foot of the castle steps, and a footman opened the door for the occupants.
A lavishly dressed blue Zafara was the first to leave the carriage, and Smith rushed forwards to greet him.
"Ambassador Walters?" Smith asked. "I'm Smith, Captain of the Palace guard."
"A pleasure, Captain," the ambassador said, shaking the Draik's hand. "I am eager to speak with Queen Fyora."
"You have been scheduled for a personal audience after dinner, Ambassador," Smith explained. "You are of course invited to dine with Her Majesty."
Aides were already rushing up the steps with the ambassador's belongings as a low cough came from the carriage. Another occupant was disembarking. He was a brown Lutari, but unlike the finery of the Ambassador, the Lutari was dressed in a sharp black military uniform.
"Ah," Walters hesitated at the sound of the cough. "Captain, this is Major Brenham, he has been attached to this visit as a... military advisor."
"You do not speak for the military?" Smith asked.
"Allow me to explain," the Major butted in with a voice that sounded on the verge of a sneer. "I am here to ensure that the Ambassador is protected, in case any Meridell agents attempt to interfere with his visit."
Smith nodded. He understood what Major Brenham really meant. He had been sent to keep an eye on the Ambassador in case he stepped out of line.
Smith bit back the comments he wished to make about such a style of governance, and instead introduced the pair to Sandra.
"We will show you to your rooms," Smith informed them. "I hope you understand that due to the rebuilding effort, they are not quite as grand as they once were, but I think you should find them to your liking."
As Smith led them inside, he knew one thing – their visit was certainly going to be interesting.
To be continued...