Things Best Remembered: Part Seven
After the town meeting, Ria headed back to the palace to discuss matters with the Council. Only Gareth came with her; Janice was supplying the knights with swords and Atlanta was, of course, not allowed to be seen by the Council.
Celia was the first to arrive. She gave Ria an annoying, self-satisfied smile which Ria tried to ignore and took her seat. It was a while before the other Council members arrived. Not one apologized for being late, but that was to be expected.
Malcolm raised his eyebrows in askance. "Empress, what is the purpose of this meeting? Unless you enjoy wasting our valuable time, we needn't be here."
Ria took a deep breath. She would not be belittled by the Council. She would keep her temper in check, and she would preserve her patience. For the good of Calladamos – and her sanity – she would not let herself be baited into their exchange of insults. Not today.
Her voice, when she spoke, was almost amiable. "Sir Malcolm, we are here to discuss important matters relating to Calladamos and, thus, relating to you. If you do not wish to waste your 'valuable time', you may leave and use it to do something productive. But as long as you are here, you will not complain. Am I clear?"
Ria smiled, savoring the look of shocked annoyance on his face. "Yes," Malcolm said, scowling.
"Good. Anyone else who wishes to leave is free to do so. I will not hold you here."
No one left; a few shifted in their seats, but nobody stood up.
"Now, the war," Ria said. "We do not want to be on the defense, but the offense. I would prefer keeping the fighting in the forests rather than the city; we will keep the non-fighting citizens out of this as much as possible. All in favor?"
Gareth raised his paw, and Ria raised her hand, and so did eight other members of the Council. They had suggested the war, after all, so they had no choice but to vote so they could win it.
Claudia, one of the only members who hadn't voted for keeping the war to the forests, smirked at her, and Ria tried to ignore the instant desire to wipe that sneer off of her pink smug face. "Ria, darling," she began.
"It is Empress Ria, darling, to you," Ria interrupted.
Claudia waved her hand dismissively. "Whatever you say. Now, Empress Ria--"
"Has what you are about to say have anything to do with the well-being of Calladamos during this war?"
Claudia faltered, but quickly regained her composure. "Yes. I must say, Ria, that your strategic skills are simply awful."
"And that," Ria said, "is why the ten of you – and Gareth – are here to help me. Not to insult me."
"I am simply saying, darling, that we cannot win this war with you as our head. I am not insulting you, merely stating the truth."
"And you can do better, Lady Claudia?"
"Without a doubt, Empress. But perhaps I shouldn't call you that?"
Ria stood up and walked over to Claudia, slowly, menacingly. She looked down at her and smiled. Her voice was soft, but her words hit hard: "I do hope that you aren't questioning my authority, Lady Claudia. But if you are, it is not justified. I don't suppose that you could lead well, either, with cynical idiots such as yourself criticizing your every move!"
She straightened and glared at the other members of the Council. Every one of them, excepting Celia, flinched at her gaze. "Meeting adjourned."
Nobody moved. Ria found her voice increasing in volume. "Meeting adjourned!" she repeated. Still nobody moved from their seats.
She raised her staff. "I will personally blast each of you out of your chairs if you do not get out. Now."
Reluctantly, they left. Ria sat back down in her seat, realizing, suddenly, that she had just used threat of force to get others to do what she wanted. So much for keeping her temper in check.
Even worse, she wanted to do the same to Gareth, to get him to leave. She felt like being alone.
She looked at the red Lupe beside her, her best friend. She knew him so well, almost better than she did Atlanta. Ria made a silent resolution to spend more time with her if they both got out of this war unscathed.
Gareth hadn't said a word during the meeting, which wasn't unusual, but he seemed quieter than normal. Not just today, but recently. Ria wondered what he was thinking about.
"Gareth?" she said.
"Gareth," she started again, and stopped. She was worried that he would offend her somehow and she'd end up using magic on him. She felt rather jumpy.
"Ria," he mimicked. She smiled, then finally asked, "Gareth, what's wrong?"
He raised an eyebrow. "You're one to talk; you just threatened to use offensive magic on the Council. What's wrong with you?"
"I asked first."
Gareth sighed and sat down in the chair beside her. He began, "Remember when the Guardians came asking for a truce, a few weeks ago?"
He didn't wait for her to answer, but went on about what had been happening the past few weeks as a result. He suspected – he hated to, but he did – that Janice could have been working with the Guardians. They couldn't lie, after all.
Ria sat in silence. So that was why Janice had been alternating between coldly polite and weepy around everyone, and why Gareth had been so quiet and watchful lately. Ria decided that she had to try to put an end to this argument, before it got out of hand.
She said, "Gareth, you are my best friend, and whatever you do, I'll support you. If 'whatever you do' includes being wary of Janice, then so be it."
She held up a finger to keep him from talking; he looked as if he were about to say something. "But, as well as being your friend, Gareth, I am also the Empress of Calladamos, and you are a knight under my command. I can order you to trust her."
"And yet," Ria found herself sighing, "although I can tell you to trust her, I cannot make you trust her. I can, however, give you advice. Or, rather, ask you a question: If you cannot trust Janice, the Protector, then who can you trust?"
She sighed again. "Speaking of knights, you should be preparing with the rest of them," she told him. "We're going to invade the Forests in an hour. Think this through, Gareth. But if you end up apologizing," she added, managing a smile, "don't feel bad if she does not accept your apology. The Protector can hold a grudge rather well."
Janice stared at the mass of Guardians in front of her and willed herself not to throw up.
It wasn't that they were a terribly stomach-turning sight; on the contrary, the Guardians had made full use of their ability to appear as, well, anything. Janice could see a handful of Ria-impersonations, Malcolm-impersonations, and, of course, she could see herself repeated over and over. She felt now that Gareth's plan for Atlanta moonlighting as the Protector was worse than useless. It would only add to the general confusion of having a whole league of Eternal Gardeners. How foolish they had been for not factoring this in.
Ria, from beside her, made a weak attempt to smile reassuringly. It ended up as a grimace, but she said as encouragingly as she could, "We shall be fine, Janice. This war will be over before we know it, and Calladamos will be back to normal. Or at least as normal as it gets."
Janice fought back the urge to roll her eyes. She knew Ria was only trying to comfort her. "Yep," she said, pretending to be cheery. "Back to falling asleep in the library." How strange it was that her only problems a month ago were tidying up dusty scrolls. "Ria, I'm not sure if I can do this."
"Of course you can," Ria soothed. "Just take a deep breath – in, out, in, out."
With that, Ria turned back to the Guardians and glared at them. Her voice was commandeering and fierce and, strangely, almost confident when she cried, "Calladamiens, to arms!" Then, they charged.
The first thing that Janice did was shoot into the air. Most of the Janice-impersonations, complete with grey, lifeless eyes and dark green faux spirit glows, followed suit.
Janice was not expecting this. She had originally planned to dive-bomb all the other mirror-images of herself, because she knew that she at least was real. From this high up, she couldn't tell the Guardian versions of anyone from the real ones, and she wouldn't risk attacking any of the Calladamiens.
But her plans had been thrown out the window. At least now she had most of the Janice-impersonations in one place. She flew higher, higher; all of them followed, but slowly, as they weren't used to going so high up.
Then, when Janice was high enough for the air to be so thin it made even her feel a little light-headed, she attacked. Once again, she felt the exhilaration that she had experienced when defeating the Guardians in front of the palace.
This time, though, it was different. On the down side, it was around twenty-five to one. On the plus side: most of the twenty-five were dizzy from lack of air, and she had not only the Rod of Mysti, but she also had her sword.
The impersonations didn't stand a chance. Within a few minutes (though it felt like hours) of sword-slashing and magic-flinging, they were reduced to nothing but smoke in the breeze. Janice tucked in her wings and spiraled back down to earth.
Janice stopped several yards above the battle. It was not going as well on solid ground as it had been for Janice in the air.
First of all, the Calladamiens were worried about attacking one of their own. Second of all, the Guardians kept on shape-shifting. It was a disorienting sight, and disoriented the army became. So far, Janice thought that no one had been Forsaken – they weren't confused enough not to know that swords swinging towards their heads were best dodged – but she couldn't be sure. But she did know one thing: she had to do something.
Janice remembered the spell for reveal, and wondered if it would work on such a large scale. Then she shook her head. Such magic would knock her out, and she was no use to anyone unconscious. But... but maybe she could just use it on a quarter of the Guardians?
It was worth a try. She swooped north, south, east, west – after all, this wasn't an individual, or a few beings, this was many Guardians, and a little flick of the wrist was not going to do much – and shouted it out: "Revunelled!"
Immediately, she felt as though she had come down from an adrenaline rush; she felt herself falling as her wings lost the energy to work. Janice screamed; she had never once in her life felt so helpless in the air. No! was the only coherent thought that ran through her head, bringing with it a whole herd of frantic, panicky feelings. Wind whistled in her ears as she plummeted towards earth. Her wings, when working, gave her more flying power, but when they weren't – they simply dragged her down quicker.
Irony was certainly cruel, for as the ground grew closer and closer, Janice, she who loved to fly, could do nothing to stop her fall.
To be continued...