Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Stagnation - Part Five
The royal library of the Brightvale Castle was well renowned worldwide for its size and selection. Some liked to boast that it held every book ever written, though Ayame privately doubted that. Certainly there were small time authors whose works no one in Brightvale had ever heard of, much less thought to acquire for the library.
However, this did nothing to negate the inherent impressiveness of the place. An entire wing of the castle was devoted to the library, and it had a small army staffing it to keep the books in order. There were even wizards who worked exclusively for the library, casting spells on the manuscripts to repel damage from water, fire, and clumsy hands.
Ayame couldn't help but wonder how much the lives of her people could be improved if even a quarter of the money expended on the upkeep of these books went towards Abyssal Acres...
The Kougra shook her head- this wasn't why she was here. If King Talren was going to continue to be stubborn and stonewall any diplomatic progress, he would find his stewardess more than willing to take matters into her own hands.
Ayame had come to the library to look up weather magic.
She didn't know much about it- there weren't mages in Abyssal Acres. Generally anyone with magic went off to the capitol to learn how to use it, and once they adjusted to the luxuries of the academy they never wanted to return to the land of mud and famine. What little she had been able to glean came from her childhood friendship with Illusen. According to the earth faerie, weather magic was the domain of air elementals, and a very delicate art. But she'd been able to provide little insight beyond that.
Ayame found it hard to imagine that Talren's librarians could know something Illusen didn't. But if Brightvale had the audacity to boast that they had every book ever written surely they'd have at least something on weather magic. It would probably be the work of a few days to find sources with the information she wanted, but the Kougra knew she had the time. Talren was in no hurry to cave to her demands.
However, as she walked past the circulation desk, Ayame was astonished to see a familiar royal Skeith emerge from the rows of shelves. The king noticed her almost as soon as she noticed him, and he quirked an eyebrow.
"Well, well, I didn't imagine I'd see you here," he remarked softly. "Looking for some nightcap reading material, Lady Ayame?"
The Kougra had to suppress a wince; she really didn't want to have a chat with the king right now. With patently false cheer, she replied, "No sire. I'm researching weather magic. I figure if I can save your mages some time, they might be more willing to offer their assistance to my fief."
"Ah," the Skeith said. "My Lady, if you would accompany me but a moment? There is something I'd like to discuss."
Aya's wings shuffled, betraying her unease. "I'd rather not take up too much of your time, my liege. After all, we spend hours cloistered in the council room with the prince and Duke Valrigard..."
"That is precisely why I wish to speak with you now," Talren said smoothly. "There are some things that are easier to say with fewer voices competing to be heard."
Meaning you want to bully and cow me without my high-ranking allies to call you out for it, Ayame thought waspishly. But there was little else she could say that would not be unforgivably rude. The Kougra felt a pang of homesickness- her own attendants and staff back in Abyssal Acres were like an extended family, and she could always speak her mind around them.
Bowing her head to the Skeith, Ayame followed as he led the way through the maze-like corridors of the library. The Kougra made a mental note to ask someone for a map of the place once she got to her private studying. She was liable to get hopelessly lost otherwise.
Finally Talren stopped, and very delicately pulled a small, worn down book with frayed green binding. "Do you know what this is, my Lady?"
Restraining herself from giving a cheeky answer, Ayame said, "No, your majesty."
"It is one of the very first books I was given to read, nearly forty years ago when I began my training as the future king. The same book I gave my elder son, Hagan, to read when he began his royal education. A book which, alas, my younger son Skarl has not read."
The king opened the book, a nostalgic smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. "It is, you see, a book of economics. Very dull, from the standpoint of someone looking to read for pleasure. But very informative, from the standpoint of a future ruler."
He snapped the book closed with a sigh. "Something few seem to realize is that I cannot simply generate money from nowhere. The neopoints in my treasury come from taxes. If I am to offer a relief effort to your people, I must increase the taxes elsewhere. You are unhappy with me, Lady Ayame, and I respect that. But if I levy taxes on the fiefs which actually produce goods and services the kingdom uses, they will become unhappy with me. A king who seeks to please everyone will in the end please no one."
"In economics, this is a simple but pivotal concept- the paradox of the finite resource. You only have so much to go around. Ultimately to give something to one person, you deprive someone else of it."
"Sir, I understand that," Ayame said, trying to keep her frustration in check. She was a landowner, she knew how economics worked. Talren was lecturing her as if she were a five year old. "But the lives of your people are the most precious, and most finite resource you have. They should be preserved at all costs."
"Yes, so Skarl keeps telling me," the royal Skeith said, gently setting his book back on the shelf. "I must inform you though, his opinion is a rather biased and uninformed one. I wasn't joking before, when I said that he abandons a problem once he deems it fixed- whether or not the solution actually resolves the problem. He is passionate, but he is also lazy. More than once his failure to grasp the finite nature of our lives has caused him to leave behind a greater mess then the one he was trying to mend."
"Perhaps if you worked in accord with him, a compromise might be found," the Kougra suggested.
"There is little I can do for Skarl at this point," Talren admitted. "He has already decided not to respect my opinions, and nothing I say or do will dissuade him. But keep close your watch, and be wary of how much trust you put in my son. It may take years, but in the end he will disappoint you. This is a certainty."
With that remark, Talren seemed to feel as if he had said enough. The Skeith put a hand on Ayame's shoulder in a companionable manner, and then walked back towards the exit of the library. The Kougra shook her head, dismissing his words. He only wanted to drive a wedge between her and her allies, so that their petition would ultimately be dropped. A cheap trick.
* * * * *
Four days had passed since their arrival at the capitol, and Gary's life had fallen back into the comforting rhythm of a regular schedule. He woke in the mornings and discussed military strategy, tactics, and the geography of Brightvale with his master for a few hours, tended to Valrigard's gear and his own, then trained in combat. In the afternoons Valrigard had to attend the diplomatic discussions regarding Abyssal Acres, so his squire spent that time practicing riding with Ohu and working on his grammar. He was determined to do everything in his power to prove that the lord of Pyrfell had made the right decision taking him on as a squire.
The squire was somewhat surprised that Lady Ayame had made a habit of coming to the military mess and sharing dinner with them, rather than having it delivered to her rooms in the guest quarters. She and Valrigard pointedly did not discuss their meetings with the king, instead preferring to stay on lighter topics.
Gary couldn't help but feel uneasy about that. Illusen's words kept echoing in the back of his mind. As far as he could see there was nothing out of the ordinary in the castle but... well he wasn't exactly permitted to attend the meetings with the king. Who knew what sort of tensions were building behind closed doors.
"Even if you're right, there isn't much you can do about," Ohu pointed out when the squire broached these concerns with him. "Until you are knighted you're still just a commoner, and even if you were a knight you still have no political influence. And this is a battlefield of wits and words, not swords and shields."
The Bori sighed, rubbing his face as he leaned against a tall oak tree in the military Uni's training field. "I know you're right, but that don't make it-"
"Doesn't," Ohu corrected automatically.
"That doesn't make it any easier," the Bori finished. "I almost wish Illusen hadn't said anything to me. I'm wound tighter'n- then- a spring waiting for something to go wrong."
The Uni pawed at the earth, his expression pensive. "Look kid, far be it for me to question a faerie, but I think Illusen might have been putting a bit more on your shoulders then you're ready for. You have courage in plenty, but that only goes so far. Recognizing a threat requires knowing what signs to look for, and that requires having seen those signs before. Experience- something that you don't have. By all means keep your eyes open, but don't be put out if trouble catches you unawares." In a more mocking tone he added, "Everyone is a greenhorn at some point."
"Gee, thanks," Gary muttered darkly. "If you're so cursed clever, why don't you tell me what I should look for?"
"Because that's Val's job," Ohu said cheerfully. "Ask him."
Gary winced. He hated asking Valrigard questions; it always felt like he was revealing new depths of ignorance that a squire his age should be well beyond.
"Ask his grace what, exactly?" a new voice inquired.
Gary jolted upright, his head swiveling around to see that Ayame was leaning against the fence around the training field.
"M-m'lady, when did you get here?" he stammered, embarrassed at the thought that she might have heard them discussing Illusen's request that he look out for her.
"Just a second ago," she replied. "The king dismissed our talks early today, on account of some presentation he is supposed to attend at the academy. Might I borrow you for a while, Squire Garrett? I want a word."
The Bori glanced at Ohu, who tossed his head. "Get on. We can skip the grammar practice for today, I'm not going anywhere."
Permission given, Gary walked over to the fence where Ayame was waiting and quickly hopped over the side. She chuckled softly as they began to talk back towards the city walls.
"Showing off your athleticism for my benefit, Sir Squire?"
The Bori felt his face flush, and he shook his head, "N-nah, just seemed faster, y'know? I didn't wanna- want to- keep you waiting by going around to the gate."
The Kougra chuckled, her whiskers crinkling with amusement. "I'm only teasing you. You needn't be so formal all the time you know. I've seen you when you speak with Ohu or that Aisha friend of yours, and you seem a good deal more relaxed."
Gary was surprised by the remark, wondering what might have prompted her to say that. What did it matter to her if he addressed her formally? Why would she want him to be casual with her when her rank far outstripped his? He had protected her, sure, but that was his duty. Any knight or squire would have done the same.
Though to be fair, most nobles wouldn't have walked with him into a cave that they knew was full of monsters...
"I... I just have a hard time knowing how to be," he said finally. "Sure, I josh around with Rue, on account of it being impossible not to with him forever making a spectacle of himself. And I tried to be polite with Ohu, but he kept passin' judgements that were too irksome to turn a blind eye to when I was with him so much. But..."
"It's different with me because I'm a noble?" the Kougra guessed shrewdly. At Gary's nod, she sighed. "Garrett, you helped save my people, very nearly at the expense of your own life. I owe you a debt. Even were that not the case, a stewardess barely rates as a real noble. Talren has certainly been reminding me of that often enough over the last few days! Once you become a knight, you will be almost equal to me in rank."
"But I ain't a knight yet!" Gary bleated. In a lower voice he added, "'Sides you might not mind, but who's to say what other folks might think? I already got a sour reputation on account of going so long without a master! My page sponsor only put me here out of pity, not because I was good at it, and then he just forgot I existed!"
He gritted his teeth. "I spent years just tryin' to get one knight to look at me, for just five bleedin' minutes! But common squires got no clout to make 'em worth picking up, so I always got passed over. For the past three years I never put a toe outta line 'cause I knew if I did that was one more strike against me when the knights came in!"
The words were tumbling out of Gary's mouth like a flash flood, years of frustration and bitterness overwhelming the Bori and making it impossible for him to keep his accent in check.
"I just... I don't wanna give Master Valrigard a reason t' go back on his choosin' me," the squire finished. "I don't wanna seem like I don't know my place. Everything I got, I had to work cursed hard for. If I lost it all now, now that I finally got picked up by a knight, I... I just..."
To his surprise, the Kougra put a hand on his shoulder. "Enough. I think I understand what you're trying to say. Forgive me, Garrett- I never realized that this game of politics we nobles live and breathe would extend even to something like the training of our military. I should have, so many knights being the children of lords, but I didn't."
She smiled, lifting an eyebrow. "All the same, I don't think so simple a matter as you addressing with informally will make his grace repudiate you. At most you'd receive a gentle chastisement, but even that I doubt is likely."
The Bori's shoulders were quivering with emotion, and shame at his helplessness to contain that emotion.
"Sorry, m'lady. I... I know it's stupid, gettin' so worked up over it. And there's even little things that set me on edge, like this academy kid who was makin' me look like an idiot in front of Master Valrigard..."
"Garrett, I really don't think you need to be so worried about this," Ayame said firmly. "You had to be on your best behavior at all times in order to get a knight master, but you have one now. It's alright to relax a little, and be happy. It's alright to move on."
"An' in my defense, you don't need my help to look like an idiot," drawled a high, young voice. At the sound of that voice, Gary felt like someone had dumped ice down his back. He and and Ayame turned to see a familiar starry Lupe emerge from behind one of the houses that served the military Unis as a barracks.
"Were... were you spyin' on me?" Gary demanded, his fur bristling with indignation. The boy winced, shaking his head.
"No. I noticed the lady leaving the castle, and I was curious if she was going to do any magic. I wanted to watch."
Ayame recoiled sharply. The fact that she was a mage was supposed to be a secret- Gary and Ohu knew, because she'd used her abilities when the three of them were fleeing from the Werelupes, but the Kougra had sworn them both to secrecy.
"Who are you, kid?" she demanded. "Who told you I have magic?"
Xee rolled his eyes. "No one told me. I have Second Sight, I can see it. It's dark magic- not a lot, but it's there. Don't have a canary, I won't tell anybody. I know the idiots at the academy don't trust dark magic users."
"So let me get this straight," Ayame said. "You followed me out of the castle all the way out to the field and listened in on a private conversation, just on the off chance I might have decided to use some magic? Do you realize how incredibly rude that is?"
The Lupe's ears flattened, and he turned away sheepishly. "I've never seen dark magic being used before. I just wanted to see."
"Look, you need t' get lost," Gary snapped, his tail lashing with anger. "Neither of us is your personal science experiment."
"Well, excuuuuuse me for trying to tell you about insanely strong magical powers you didn't know you had," Xee retorted, clenching his fists. "That's the sort of thing I'd really appreciate someone informing me about!"
Ayame looked at Gary questioningly, and he shook his head; he'd have to tell her about his earlier altercation with the Lupe later. Right now he was too keyed up from his outburst earlier, and finding out that the little brat had been listening in when he lost his iron-wrought self control made the Bori want to hit something.
"Just. Go. Away," he snarled.
Xee gave the Bori one last defiant glare, and then turned away. As he stomped off towards the city gates, Gary heard the Lupe make soft, strangled noise... Was he crying?
To be continued...