King of the Land of the Sun: Part One
The Darkest Faerie, once called Melanthe by those who knew her, stepped out of the middle of the flames in the dark space. "Why, hello, Altador."
King Altador tried to draw his sword, but he was frozen. Only his eyes could move – he looked down at himself, and saw that he was stone.
She walked closer. "I saved your life – and you had me turned to stone and sunk beneath the sea. And when I finally broke loose, you and that light mage turned me to stone again and gave me as a gift to Fyora. I think it's time to even the score a bit."
Altador couldn't move – couldn't do anything but watch her get closer...
"Hey! Give that back!"
He woke with a start. He was in his own bed, in his own palace, he was not stone, and Melanthe was...
Well, not here. Wherever she was after Faerieland fell, and whether or not she was still stone, at least she wasn't here.
"It's mine, you dummy!"
"No it's not! It's mine!"
Altador's bedroom window looked out on one of the palace gardens. He leaned out over the sill – there were two boys, neither more than five or six years old, each gripping one end of a wooden sword. He called down to them, "Go find a stick! If one of you uses the stick and one uses the sword, both of you can play and you can take turns with the real sword."
They both stood still in awe. Altador looked beside his bed. He'd been reading reports before he slept – no wonder he'd had nightmares – and he'd had a bowl of dates to eat as he did. He called to the boys, "Catch!" and threw them each one of the sweet, sticky dried fruits.
"Thank you, sir!"
"Thank you, sir!"
He sat on the edge of his bed and smiled. Nothing like a few children to chase away the edges of a nightmare. He'd had them too often since last year, when Faerieland had crashed, he'd been briefly turned to stone, and Melanthe's statue had vanished in the ensuing chaos.
And remembering last year reminded him that King Jazan of Qasala was arriving today, along with his cousin by marriage, Princess Amira of Sakhmet, in order to complete the talks about a treaty between Altador and the two greatest desert city-states. He looked outside again at the sundial – he couldn't believe that he'd slept so late. He would have enough time to get to the Council Hall without being unduly rushed, but only just, and the leftover dates would have to be his breakfast.
He thought briefly about wearing his armor, as probably most befitted a warrior-king, but then decided against it. His hair and beard had silvered early, and he was younger than he looked, but not so young that he wanted to bear the weight of armor when it wasn't absolutely necessary. Instead he took one of his nicer sets of robes and thought about what was to come as he bound the belt about his waist. This was supposed to be simple enough – he was fairly friendly with King Jazan, though he'd never met Amira, but he doubted that either of them wished to take advantage of Altador, just as Altador didn't want to take advantage of either of their cities.
Of course, thinking that something was going to be simple was as guaranteed a way to ensure disaster as any that the old soldier had ever found, so Altador tried to think through any potential problems. While not lethal to the treaty, King Jazan's personality conflict with the vast majority of Neopia would probably lead to shouting at least once. Altador actually hoped it would – little problems like that often seemed to ward away the bigger ones.
There was knocking at the door to his rooms. "Altador! Altador, are you ready?"
It was Sasha. The blue Cybunny dancer was often considered by some – though not by Altador – as one of the sillier of the Council, but between her and Fauna the other nine remaining council members had more mothering than they could stand. He called, "I'm coming!"
"You need to be! Jerdana, Florin, Torakor, Marak, Fauna, and Gordos are all waiting!"
Altador frowned. He'd known that Siyana and Psellia would be gone, since they were in Fyora's trust as well as his own, and both had been called abroad by the Faerie Queen. "Where's Kelland?"
Who indeed. Kelland was of that particular rare breed of honorable thief, but thief he was, with a thief's friends and habits. There was no telling what business he might be on, or what made him consider it more important than this treaty, but whatever it was, Altador was certain that the Techo meant well. His heart was in the right place, even if his hands were often in someone else's pockets.
He and Sasha left the long, low building where his rooms were, and headed toward the Hall of Heroes with the council chamber above, and its towers for scholars and astronomers – it was the tallest building in all of Altador by far. In the morning sunlight, Sasha twirled and leapt, her skirts swirling around her. It seemed to Altador that he could almost hear the music that she was dancing to in her own mind, so clearly did she express it.
Jerdana was waiting in the Hall of Heroes itself, sitting in the center of the circle of statues with her eyes closed. She often sat there when she was letting her mind wander through the present and future of their city. Sasha shuddered. "I don't know how she sits there." She wasn't the only one who didn't like the statues of themselves, here for posterity – Altador personally didn't mind them, but he never went out of his way to spend time here as the little blue Aisha mage did.
She opened her eyes at their approach and jumped to her feet. Altador asked, "Did you see anything we ought to know about?"
Her face was slightly troubled, but she shook her head. "Some strange things – nothing I can make a good deal of sense of. There's no point in worrying about it until I can put the pieces together."
Altador offered one arm to her and one arm to Sasha, and they both took them. They were both short compared to him, but Jerdana was especially tiny – she hardly came up to his waist. While he had no magic of his own, he was sensitive to it in others, and when she laid her hand on his arm, he could feel the power within her, glowing bright and warm.
They passed the orange Yurble janitor as they went to the staircase – he scowled at them. Altador liked that in the man. He would scowl at the lowliest peasant child or the Faerie Queen in the exact same fashion – it was a reminder that fundamentally, no one was better than anyone else.
Though perhaps the visiting dignitaries might not see it that way. Altador noted that they needed to avoid the janitor if given a tour.
When they emerged into the council chamber, Florin, Fauna, Torakor, Marak, and Gordos had all taken their seats. When Altador, Sasha, and Jerdana took theirs, that left four open – Siyana, Psellia, and Kelland, and the one originally left for Melanthe, which remained vacant as a reminder of the breaking of their fellowship.
The good thing about one of the visiting rulers being a mage was that there was no need to worry about travel or meeting them at the gates. Jazan could bring all those coming right to the throne room. As Altador finished adjusting his robe, the sundial chimed, and dust – desert sand – began to swirl in the middle of the council chamber. When it disappeared again, gone back to whence it came, six people stood there. In addition to Jazan, whom he knew, and Amira, whom he recognized from descriptions, there were four others – two in the armor of generals and two others in the robes of advisors. All of their names would be given in time. But first, Altador got up and extended his hand. "Princess Amira, King Jazan, welcome to Altador."
He bowed over Amira's hand first, as was only polite. She responded, "It's good to meet you at last, King Altador." Next he shook Jazan's hand. Jazan merely nodded once in response. Altador could feel the power within the Kyrii king as well. While Jerdana's was sweet and strong as sunlight, Jazan's power, just as intense, was darker – a crackling blaze that, if it were allowed to go uncontrolled, would present a danger to friend and foe alike.
The introductions whirled around the room – Altador noted the names of the four that had come with Amira and Jazan, but he knew that, with so few people present, they were mainly there to keep it from looking completely informal. Amira and Jazan both wanted to keep this friendly – they didn't bring the amount of bureaucrats that would be necessary to obfuscate or insult.
Then Flora gestured to a table that had been set up near the door, and curtseyed low to their visitors. The sweet yellow Acara – she had a Vaeolus on her shoulder, she was never without some Petpet at her side – said, "We have provided refreshments and food. I hope you will enjoy the bounty of Altador's fields and groves." Florin bowed alongside her. Altador headed straight to the table as his Council began breaking into groups and talking with the visitors – dates by themselves weren't a filling breakfast, and he saw pitas and fresh honey waiting for him.
Amira and Jazan were already there – Amira asked Jazan, "Did Nabile send you with any pictures of the children?"
Jazan sighed as he smiled slightly. "I told her nobody would be interested – it appears I'll be admitting that she was right once again. Of course she did."
Altador moved so that he could see over Jazan's shoulder as he pulled the picture out of a pocket in his robe. It was a fairly informal one – Jazan and his wife Nabile were sitting on a bench, each holding an infant Desert Ixi swaddled in a blanket. One of the children was sleeping, and the other looked as though he or she had been squalling.
Fauna and Sasha both walked over, and Sasha squealed with delight when she saw the image. Jazan grimaced self-consciously as she said, "Oh, they're precious! What are their names?"
The Kyrii replied, "Caspar and Esmeralda."
Amira added, every inch the proud relative, "Caspar is named after Nabile's father, and Queen Esmeralda was Jazan's mother."
Fauna nodded. "I like that! So if you have another boy, King Jazan, will you name him after your father?"
Altador winced – he noticed that the rest of the desert delegation had done the same. While Altador hadn't known Jazan personally for that long, you got to know a lot about someone else when you fought wraiths alongside them for days on end. Poor sweet Fauna's innocent question couldn't have offended Jazan more if she'd tried. His eyes had gone completely ruby-red – he looked a good deal like a villain out of a story book. He said shortly, "No."
Fauna frowned sympathetically – Altador didn't get the chance to stop her before she continued, "Why wouldn't you? Is something wrong?"
It was time to intervene. Altador shifted his body so he was between the desert king and the Petpet herder. "Fauna, I don't think we have any pear juice. Would you get some? I think our desert friends would like to try it."
Her eyes lit up – she wasn't stupid, not in the slightest, but she attributed to people the same goodness that she saw in all Petpets, and she hadn't realized how close she'd gotten to being turned into some desert creature. "Oh, that's a good idea! I think there's fresh, too. I'll go fetch it – I'll be right back!"
The conversation started again, and Jazan took a deep breath – his eyes had changed to gold again. He sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, King Altador. I almost let my temper get the better of me."
The apology was slightly stiff, but it was still well-meant. "No harm done, Jazan. Here. Try some olives."
Amira muttered, "If you turn any of Altador's Council into anything else, I'm telling Nabile."
Jazan glared at her, but this time his eyes remained the same.
And that was when there was a tug on his sleeve – he turned to see Kelland standing there. The Techo's eyes were wide. "Altador, I need to talk to you. Now."
To be continued...
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