Saturday, 9 March 2019

THE CRYSTAL SEAS... Episode 4: The Palace of Prince Atembe

The Royal and Ancient City of Jehemen.
5th Sositi

The sun rose on a new day. Though the somber mood that had fallen since the death of Burzum still lingered, it was lightened somewhat by the task of naming the party's newly acquired mounts. Analicia grabbed the chestnut mare with the white muzzle, naming her Chà Bông (presumably a name from an ancient language). Despite its great size, the white stallion previously earmarked for Burzum proved a most suitable mount for Horace, and it was decided that he be named Skyler. Horace also named the pack-camel Chanel, owing to her fragrant odour. Ursula was left with the brown colt and the dappled-grey mare. She took the latter as her mount, naming it Nicemare. She also named the colt Knecht.

The party waved a solemn goodbye to the villagers of Kuth and began the long trek back to Jehemen. Unlike the outward trek, the journey home passed without incident... though there seemed to be more travellers than before. Upon arrival at the formidable Eastern Gate our heroes were greeted by a huge crowd, as guards seemed to be paying particularly close attention to those entering and exiting the city. The party approached the gate unperturbed.

Perhaps they should have been perturbed...

Still mounted, the party found themselves surrounded by a platoon of the Prince's guards armed with particularly long spears. It seemed they were on the lookout for a pale-skinned, blue-haired, antler-wearing elf, who apparently had attempted to sneak into the grounds of a noble house, then tried to lasso the guards at the gate...


Initially, Analicia attempted to make a break for it, but she was unable to control Chà Bông, who nearly threw her from the saddle. The guards closed in, speartips glistening in the orange light of the setting sun.

Analicia attempted to bluff her way out of it. Horace looked around for Ursula, but the yellow woman was nowhere to be found. The Captain of the guard was losing his patience. Enter Horace:

"As a cleric - a priest - of the All-Knowing One, the Iridescent Dragon, The Life-Giver, the...."

"Your god has no authority here. What happens within these walls is the responsibility of His Higness Prince Atembe. This is our jurisdiction."

The captain and the dwarf regarded one another for a few moments.

"The Prince is a fair  judge. You have my word your... companion will come to no harm as long as she cooperates."

The dwarf sighed. They were outnumbered nearly ten-to-one, and it seemed that Analicia was not protesting her innocence of the crime, rather that she had some right as a noble elf to be spared the indignity. He place his holy symbol around her neck.

"Take this."

Analicia was confused.

"What the hell am I supposed to do with this? I'm not into your Go-"

A brace of guards closed in on the elf-maid, and secured shackles to her wrists.

"This is an outrage! I should be carried like a princess, not led through the streets like a common criminal! If this was in Freeeport things would be very different! Just you wait until Donna Seraf-"

 Analicia was gagged and led away. The Captain continued to press Horace.

"Where are you staying?"

After some deliberation, it was agreed that Horace would pay a visit to the Shrine of the The Holy Order of the Knights of the Diamond Sigil, taking Burzum with him. He was escorted by a small retinue of guards, though he was not quite sure why. A red-haired man began walking in-step beside him:

"It's me."

The red-haired man had Ursula's voice, and was wearing Ursula's clothing.

"I'm going to follow Analicia and make sure she's okay."

The red-haired man disappeared into the crowd...

Horace, Knecht, Chanel, Skylar, Nicemare and Chà Bông arrived at an unassuming building in the heart of the temple district. They had traversed an area of immense poverty and suffering, where slum hovels rubbed up against the walls of palatial temples, the steps of which were thronged with the diseased and the dying. Horace sighed when he beheld the symbol of the Diamond Sigil - a dragon, wrapped around a gemstone - for though once it had signified focus on hope, he suddenly felt somewhat bereft. His escort of Royal Guards left him alone outside. Entrusting his mounts to the care of some street children, he entered the shrine.

An intimidatingly large woman stood before him. Though enrobed in the clothing of a cleric, she was tall and muscular, with a high forehead. Her cheekbones were sharp and her eyes bright and wide, the colour of amber, but her face was somehow... disturbing. Her teeth appeared to fight with each other for space in her mouth, with her lower canines protruding slightly from her bottom lip, as though she possessed miniature tusks. Horace was not entirely sure what humans were supposed to look like - he had already witnessed such variety- so he could not truly say if she were ugly or not. The woman seemed sure of her opinion concerning the dwarf:

Meerak, half-orc paladin. Original concept art by Justin Sweet, used without permission.
"Hello handsome. What can I do for you?"

The dwarf was unaccustomed to such informality from a fellow of the Order, so he fumbled his words for a minute before explaining he was a Brother Knight, and that he sought her assistance.

"Where's your holy symbol then?"

Horace winced. He had entrusted it to Analicia - for what? Good luck?

Over a cup or two of mint tea Sister Meerak filled Horace in on a little of the background. She explained that were Analicia a prisoner of the Merchants' Guards, she might have been able to assist Horace... but the Prince's own guard company were beyond her influence, fiercely loyal to the city's ruler. When Meerak asked about the status of Horace's "dead friend" she was dismayed to discover that it was Burzum, who had in fact been not only a former comrade-in-arms, but also her lover.

"Before I become a Holy Knight, I was a mercenary: like Burzum, I was a freed slave, repaying the debt of freedom as a soldier of fortune. All members of this order have their pasts, do they not?"

***

Meanwhile, Analicia was granted a tour of a far more salubrious side of the city. Crossing the noble district she had attempted to gatecrash but a few nights before, Analicia found herself being led to the vast gates of a huge palace. White, crimson-veined marble formed a four metre high perimeter fence, heavily manned by guards in polished silver armour, hoplites with horsehair plumes erupting from their silver helms. The gates opened to a huge garden, nestled within which was a white marble palace capped by a golden dome.

Ananlicia's jaw dropped for a moment, before remembering she found such ostentatious displays of wealth to be of poor taste... she would have done things very differently... nonetheless, the elf maid was grateful to be led into a private chamber, beckoned by servants to enjoy her first hot bath in weeks, and was then invited to re-clothe herself in either an elegant, ivory coloured gown, or the fine silk shirt and pants worn by the Prince's guardsman. Surprisingly, she opted for the more feminine of the two outfits, and was paraded into a vast, regal hall. A man sprinted from the far end of the hall, apparently having got out of a huge throne in order to do so, clasping his hands together gleefully.

"Ah ha! An elf!" cried Prince Atembe, gleefully, before becoming slightly downcast. "You.. you are a... female elf?"

"Can you not tell?"

"I don't know... I had heard rumours of these... androgynous elves... I was... curious... no matter!"

"Have you not met an elf before?

"Only one... extraordinarily beautiful, and very clever. An incredibly dangerous combination in anyone, but especially so in a woman..."

As they walked around the gardens, drinking elven wine, Analicia learned much about the eccentric man. Not yet thirty, yet a major political player, he was his father's youngest child, born to his least-favoured wife. When his father died, Atembe had to battle his stepmother, Jalawale, to secure the throne. His first royal decree was to have her beloved Royal Gardens torn up and re-landscaped. He had not exiled her, but wanted her to know he still held power over her.

"I don't even care for gardening. It's just that she loved it so much..."

"What do you love?"

"The sea. I love ships, sailing, strong, young men... but mostly, the sea itself."

The Prince went on to explain how he had served in the Royal Fleet for many years before he assumed the throne, and he missed it terribly. Managing his polity was proving to be more trouble than he had bargained for...

***

Back at the Shrine of the The Holy Order of the Knights of the Diamond Sigil, Horace pondered his next move. Sister Meerak had already sent word of Burzum's death, hinting that maybe she could get a group of her former comrades together and do something about the Analicia situation. But it would not be necessary. The dwarf heard the sound of a horse-drawn carriage pulling up outside.


Ursula's back in yellow!

It was the yellow woman.

"Uh... I was told you'd be here," said Ursula, abrupt as ever, "I sort of ran into one of our bosses..."

A stunning elf maiden, a little shorter than Analicia and with darker skin and hair, but somehow incredibly captivating to look at, strode into the room in a long red and black lace dress. She smiled brightly, fanning herself, as she addressed Horace:

"So: do you have your sword or hammer or shovel or whatever it is your people hit things with to hand?"

Horace stammered. The Lady sighed:

"You wish to help your friend, do you not?"

Horace nodded.

"Likewise. Analicia is very precious to me, both as a clan member and as an... investment. You need to come with me at once."


Rough sketch of Donna Serafina De La Vega


Meerak watched, dumbfounded, as Ursula and Horace filed neatly behind the exotic beauty, the party of three clambering into her carriage. Meerak shook her head, patting Burzum's corpse firmly.

"Well, my old mate, looks like we have a funeral to arrange."

***

Ursula and Horace witnessed the same scenes as Analicia during the approach to the palace: crowded, dusty slums gave way immediately to the palatial residences of Jehemen's upper echelons: wealthy merchants, foreign dignitaries, and the noble Jehemeni families all held not insubstantial parcels of land on the approach to Atembe's seat of power. The streets were paved with stone, and the walls were either brilliantly whitewashed stucco or even more brilliantly white marble. Stately sycamores cast deep, dappled, cool shadows across the streets, softening the albido effect caused by the incredible sun. The huge oaken gates were thrown open, and their carriage trotted up to the palace itself.

They did not have to wait long: barely had they alighted before the Prince and Analicia came into view, arm in arm, giggling wildly.

"But of course, I would have to kill you!"

"Hahahaha!" laughed Analicia..

"Stop laughing, I mean it, I hate sycophants. Who is this... I don't believe it... the woman I warned you about..."

"Darling!"

"Mother!" said Analicia, upon sighting her mentor, Donna Serafina.

"You know each other?"

And so, mounting incredulity gave way to wine and song, as the party was reunited under the eaves of the home of Jehemen's most powerful man. Traditional music was performed by the Prince's court, followed by an enchanting song from Donna Serafina. Ursula mostly sat in silence, as Analicia - and to a certain extent, Horace - charmed their host.

Clarity was provided as to the purpose of their mission. Donna Serafina explained how important the whole of the south was to the north, and how the "historically sensitive" materials , if in the wrong hands, would cause havoc and chaos. The south was once the seat of a powerful empire that dabbled in even more powerful magic, the relics of which were scattered throughout the region.

Donna Serafina elucidated:

"And so we have a convergence of interests: the colleges, the Holy Order, and my own dear family - The Varanesi Elves - are all keen (perhaps for different reasons) that these artifacts are recovered and returned to the north were they can be... studied responsibly."

No-one was really sure what these artifacts were, nor how many of them there were, just that word was out and now there was something of a gold rush afoot. As an aside, Ursula explained that her interests were mainly historical, especially the history of languages, and that she had become a wizard ("Uh, actually I prefer the term magic-user...") almost by accident. She held no interest in arcane mastery, it was just a side effect of uncovering historical data. The Holy Order had offered Horace's services as they were keen that magic use in general not get too out of hand, preferring spellcraft and the like to be performed within a purely religious context, and then, mostly for healing purposes.

"Oh, I was terribly sorry to hear of your dead soldier," said Donna Serafina, "you really should get him replaced." She cast an expectant glance over at the already yawning Prince.

"How many men do you have?" said Horace.

"Well, let me see... we have at least 500 here, right now... not here here, but patrolling the city, manning the walls... of course, I have a garrison either side of the..."

He caught himself for a moment.

"Ha! Of course, I don't need to tell you my entire military structure, do I? If you need help, I can spare you ...." and for the first time, his handsome features contorted into a rather ugly sneer, "...the disgraced one... KAMATE UWALLA! D'GRISHU UNG BAT HUM!"

The Prince clapped his hands together,and an unassuming, if somewhat shamefaced guard presented himself before his Prince.

"Your highness."

"Here," said the Prince, not addressing the soldier directly, "is a man who was once my most trusted guardian. Now, he is disgraced."

Analicia's pointed ears pricked up:

"What's his name?"

"Kuriakos."

The Prince practically spat the four syllables onto the floor.

"That's difficult to say," said Analicia, "can I call him Teddy?"

"He was a great fighter once, but he's no good to me now. Perhaps he can do some good for you."

An awkward silence descended, before the Prince erupted into a fit of laughter:

"In which case, bring him back to me!"

Laughter rang out, but the loudest laugh of all came from the Prince, and long did it echo into the night.


TO BE CONTINUED...

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