Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Stagnation - Part Four
Ayame wasn't sure what she should make of King Talren. She knew he was a Skeith- all the monarchs of Brightvale were, and had been for generations. But given his reputation for being scholarly, and Skarl's reputation for being the fat family glutton, she had expected the king to look rather bookish and slender.
Instead the white and gold royalboy Skeith was every bit as big around as his younger son. Ayame couldn't help but feel a twinge of resentment when she thought of her own thin frame, and the starving citizens of Abyssal Acres.
"Well, he sits around all day reading books and doesn't exercise," Valrigard had pointed out when she spoke with him after her initial audience with the king. "He doesn't eat as much as the prince, but he's still the king and he still eats a good deal more than most people. And unlike the active knights, he never works it off."
Gary's reaction to his master's flagrant disregard for the king had been amusing, to say the least. Though he said nothing out loud, it had been fairly obvious from his expression and body language that he wanted to hush Valrigard up.
The Kougra had to suppress a sigh. She would much rather be back with the Draik and his shy, eager to please squire then where she was now.
"So let us see if we understand this properly, Lady Ayame," the king said, speaking in the royal plural. "The crown effectively supports the entire Abyssal Acres holding throughout the year, because it cannot support itself. Now you want even more money from us."
"We don't necessarily need money, per se," she replied evenly. "A regular shipment of grain would be enormously helpful on it's own."
"Whether we send you food directly or provide coin so that you may purchase it yourself, it amounts to the same thing," Talren pointed out. "We expend resources and get nothing back. The crown supports the fiefs and offers them it's protection in exchange for certain services it gets out of them. Drackon Ridge mines iron ore, Market Town acts as a trade hub, Pyrfell Bay produces seafood and fish oil, and so on. The only thing Abyssal Acres provides are occasional shipments of moldy potatoes."
"Father, there is an obvious solution to that problem," Skarl put in. "We put the mages at the academy to working out the cause of the incessant storms that plague Abyssal Acres. Frankly I'm astonished it was never addressed before. I couldn't find anything in the records to indicate that the fief was ever not a floodplain, and I must have gone back a good two hundred years."
"Son," the royal Skeith replied testily, "We can't help but notice a certain trend of yours. You go out into the city, or the countryside, and get yourself attached to some poor unfortunate. Then you make it a personal project to get that unfortunate out of their situation and into one you perceive as better. Yet you never look in on these projects afterwards. Once they seem solved you forget about them, as if they never existed."
"Are you going somewhere with this?" the blue Skeith asked, his eyebrow rising. Talren looked as if he would have liked to slap his son.
"Our point is that you have a remarkably short-sighted viewpoint on the world. Never actually checking to see if your methods yield fruit, if the expense of time and resources actually paid off. You are like an artist, who creates a beautiful tapestry that is admired by hundreds, but would throw the whole thing into a fire because of one spot where the paint is too thick. However, there are times that one needs to learn to let go of the ideal of perfection, and make sacrifices for the benefit of the whole."
"Clearly you and I are discussing different subjects," Skarl said. "I refuse to believe that you are comparing a flooded, starving fief to a thick spot of paint."
Ayame coughed, interrupting the Skeiths before the argument could escalate any further. The thread of the conversation was rapidly getting lost in the process of king and son posturing. She needed Skarl's support, but she hoped he wouldn't keep antagonizing his father. The two royals dredging up old grievances wasn't going to help her people.
"Your majesty, with all due respect the prince is right. Abyssal Acres would be only too happy to contribute to the wealth of Brightvale, where such within our power. However first we would need a relief effort to get us through the winter, now that those bandits have cleaned out our food stores."
Focus on one problem at a time. If she could break the ice even just a little, get Talren to bend even a bit, it would be an opening.
She just hoped he wasn't as inflexible as his reputation implied.
* * * * *
Gary stared at his reflection in the metal armor sitting on a rack in the corner of the practice yard. Once again the squire was exercising his new wings. He'd figured out the night before that he could fold them against his back, which was a distinct relief since it kept them out of the way when he was walking around. But he still hadn't really gotten the hang of moving them at will, especially without being able to look in a mirror so he could see what muscle movements produced what results.
The Bori was somewhat irked by the fact that the bizarre tingling sensation of Illusen's magic had not yet dissipated. He wished he had asked the faerie how long it would take when he had the chance.
When he heard footsteps in the hall outside, the Bori settled his wings and quickly moved to stand at attention. This was to be his first real training session with Lord Valrigard. The Draik hadn't ever really seen Gary fight, except for one practice duel with Rue. He was determined to make a good impression.
"Already here?" Valrigard remarked upon walking into the room. "Well, you're certainly punctual."
This was the first time Gary actually got to see Valrigard with his combat gear. Squires were required to wear chain mail and forego plate armor as part of their uniform, but it seemed that the knight hadn't bothered to upgrade to the heavier equipment when he was promoted. Though, Gary reflected, that was probably because of his wings. Wings of any sort made wearing a cuirass awkward, and the weight of plate armor was impossible to fly with.
"For today I'll just be testing your abilities. Since you're not fresh from page training I'm not entirely sure how much you can and can't do. I need to know where you stand in your training before I can decide on a curriculum."
Gary nodded; that made sense. "What first, sir?"
"We'll start with the simple things, then work our way up," the Draik replied. He picked up a wooden practice version of the standard two-handed longsword from the weapons wrack "First, I want you to use your sword and shield to block me. That's your only objective for the time being, is to not get hit."
"Aye sir," Gary replied. He lifted his own sword- a standard arming sword, much shorter at only thirty inches long than his master's fifty-one inch weapon. However, its lack of reach was a necessary tradeoff for the weapon's lightness. Unlike the longsword, it could be wielded in one-hand, which mean Gary's other arm was free to carry a shield.
From pure defense Valrigard moved Gary on to pure offense, having the Bori attack while Valrigard only defended himself. They repeated this process with axes, spears, and staffs, before moving on to full on practice duels, with both sides attacking and defending in equal measure.
The Bori was no fool. He knew that no matter what he did, it wasn't going to be particularly impressive. His skill with weapons work was hard won, through years of practice. He had none of the natural talent which would elevate a "proficient" swordsman to a "good" one.
But he did have his determination. No, these things didn't come easily, but they did come. It just took time and persistence. And lots, and lots of practice.
"Hold!" the Draik called, and Gary skipped backwards, allowing his muscles to relax. He was tired, sore, and covered in sweat, but there was a look of satisfaction on his knight master's face that made the Bori's heart rise despite his weariness.
"Certainly not as bad as I'd have expected, given the large gap in your education," Valrigard remarked. "It seems the man-at-arms had done well keeping you in trim, and progressing your education despite his duties to the pages. It isn't as far along as one would normally like for a squire your age, but not so much behind that I think your knighthood will be postponed more than a year or two."
The Draik set down his practice sword and pulled off his helmet. "Go back to the barracks and wash up, then I want you to head down to the meadow and practice riding with Ohu for the rest of the afternoon. I have to attend a discussion between the prince, Lady Ayame, and his majesty, but I trust an experienced campaigner like Ohu to manage without my help. Tomorrow morning you'll meet me at the library. We're going to test your knowledge of geography, supply and tactics next, which given your lack of practical experience is likely to suffer the worst deficit for your delayed-"
"Hey!" a young voice interrupted, startling the two warriors. "Aren't you going to test his skill with magic?"
Gary turned around to see who was talking, and to his astonishment he saw a young starry Lupe standing in the entrance to the practice courts. It was the apprentice of the historian from the day before, his expression as coldly calculating as ever.
"Oh, hello there, young Master... Hawkins, was it?" Valrigard said, his expression carefully neutral.
The Lupe ran his fingers through his deep navy hair, his expression twisting into a scowl. With a touch of arrogance in his voice he said, "Call me Xee. Xeln Hawkins is my dad's name, and it's weird when people call me that. I've always just been Xee."
"Very well, Master Xee," the Draik said, slowly pulling off the pieces of his armor as he spoke. "You may refer to me as Duke Valrigard. Now would you care to explain why you are here, and why you saw fit to interrupt my conversation with my squire?"
The Lupe's eyes widened, and his demeanor became noticeably less assertive. Gary couldn't blame the kid- when someone saw a knight practicing their combat skills in the training yard, it was easy to forget that the person under that armor could be and often was a very influential nobleman. Most knights were either a lord's younger children or a commoner who got lucky enough to be sponsored, but it wasn't unheard of for a Lord's heir to seek training as a knight, and that title was retained even after they ascended to lordship themselves.
Knights were a noble class in and of themselves- the only noble class a peasant could hope to break into. However, a knight with no land of their own was often seen as little more than a glorified militiaman, and treated as such by the intellectual elite of Brightvale. The rank of duke, on the other hand, was the highest non-royal position of nobility.
Until now the Draik had not insisted upon his formal title- going simply by "Lord" which could easily have stood in for any non-royal, land owning noble. That he emphasized it now made it clear that the man was unamused by Xee's attitude.
"Your grace, you were getting your squire to show you his practical combat abilities," the Lupe said in response to Valrigard's question, his tail swishing uneasily. "But you didn't ask to see his magic."
The Draik glanced at Gary, his expression questioning. The Bori shrugged. "I don't got a clue what he's talking about, m'lord."
"Don't lie!" Xee said hotly. "Your entire body is wreathed in so much earth magic it's a wonder you're not leaving flowers behind with every step you take!"
"Oh!" Gary said, realizing what the Lupe was talking about- Illusen's magic. But... "How'd you know that?"
Xee folded his arms smugly. "See? He knows. I have Second Sight, Squire. I can see magic in people and objects, and I can tell what kind it is. And you're full of more earth magic then I've ever seen in anybody."
The Bori winced. "Listen, you're right, there is magic on me, but it ain't mine. Remember what I told your teacher last night? Illusen saved m' life with her magic, but accidentally used too much. What you see is the leftover magic from what she did to me."
"You're wrong," Xee retorted, his nose rising into the air. "Magic bespelling people and magic coming from their own bodies look different in my Sight. The magic in you is coming from you."
The Bori shook his head, "Master Xee, all the pages was tested for signs of magic talent in their third year. If they had any they got took away to get special training as knight mages. The tester didn't find none in me."
"Then he was blind," Xee snorted. "And it's pretty stupid of you to be so stubborn about this. I know what I'm talking about, and I'm willing to bet you don't. You're obviously from the lowest class in the city, based on your accent, and I would guess the army didn't give you much scholastic education. That can't be helped, but you needn't make your incompetence so blatant by refusing to listen when someone who knows better tells you something."
Gary's mouth snapped shut at the Lupe's words, and his ears flattened. His entire face was burning with so much anger and humiliation that the Bori wouldn't have been surprised if the flush was visible even through his fur.
"That's enough," Valrigard said sharply. "An insult to my personal squire is an insult to me. You are not a knight or squire so I cannot ask satisfaction of you, though I would not in any case given the fact that you are still a child. However, I will be putting in a recommendation with your instructors that you receive remedial etiquette lessons. Any the academy already provided you clearly did not sink in. Now be gone from my sight, boy."
The Lupe recoiled sharply, his expression making it clear he'd forgotten Valrigard was even in the room. He opened his mouth as if to protest, his expression full of affront, but seemed to think better of it. Xee backed out of the doorway and took off down the hall, the rapid tapping of his paws on the flagstones echoing as he departed.
Gary kept his gaze fixed on his feet, trying his best to throttle down his anger. Never, in all his time as a page and an squire, had anyone talked to him like that. Sure he'd gotten jabs for his common background from the other trainees, but that was to be expected. But that arrogant, snot nosed little...
"Sir," Gary said, his voice thick with anger, "I reck- I think when I'm working with Ohu in the afternoons I also wanna- want to- work with him on my grammar."
The Draik sighed, the frill on the side of his head puffed up with annoyance. "Don't take the brat too personally, Garrett. All the fine, bright young starlets the academy spits out are like that. I've been hard pressed not to take off my gloves to a few of them."
Valrigard shook his head. "Still, I can understand how you'd want to minimize such nonsense where you can. Ohu seemed interested in you improving your grammar, so I'm sure he'd be willing to help. Give my girl Corey a rubdown while you're there; I don't think I'll have time for it between these meetings and your training."
"Yessir," Gary replied. He saluted Valrigard, then headed off towards the barracks. Hopefully a hot soak would ease his wounded ego as well as his aching muscles.
To be continued...