Aerema: Founding of A Kingdom
Author: Artesian Different

Chapter 16
Bamboo Shoots and Golden Fur

After a few weeks in Fiyoara, Sola’s natural curiosity won over her fear of the palace’s strangeness. It was much larger and more interesting than she had originally thought. She quickly discovered the doors to the underground realms of the palace. The vast catacombs contained countless wine cellars full of ancient wines in enormous oaken barrels with names in languages that she couldn’t read. She had a notion that they might have written in Calluma elven runes, but she wasn’t sure. The elves were very kind and more amused than annoyed when she popped up from the catacombs after a few hours underground, completely lost.

Eventually, though, she knew the underground tunnels fairly well. They were extensive, but not as large as the upper halls of the palace. The elven people preferred the taste of wind and rain on their fur to the dank stench of earth. The main entrance hall - an elegant construction of white marble, dark polished wood and silver tracery - had more windows than Sola could count. Indeed, on rainy days it took several hours to close them all, and a half-hour more to mop up all the rain that had sneaked inside in the meantime. Despite the marble and sophistication, she felt as if she was out in the woods again with Salyai.

After a few days of watching affairs in the hall, a kind elven black bear directed her to a gate into the deep regions of the elven palace. Historical records from when the elves originally immigrated to Aerema from Yatara were there, written in a quaint and formal prose. Sola could barely read the characters; they were so stylized and old-fashioned.

In rooms farther on, she found even more ancient scrolls from before the elves had even settled Yatara and Shirranum. These were written in Calluma runes as well. Many had disintegrated into scraps of water-stained papyrus. The more intact scrolls had been set in glass many years ago. On even these well-preserved specimens, the writing was beginning to fade.

The rooms seemingly went on forever. Every time she turned a corner, she discovered a new doorway. Many were shut tightly and locked against her. More than once, she lost her way, but there seemed no end to the records. Many rooms were filled merely with thick dust, the remnants of whatever it had once held before time had taken its charges. The sight and scent of the dead paper made her fur tingle along her back.

After nearly a week of exploring, the black bear stopped her before she entered the catacombs. “The queen would like to see you in the upper branches,” he said in his low and rumbling voice. He handed her a thin scroll, tied with delicate silver thread. “Show this to the staircase guards. They will escort you to her observatory. Go straight away; she does not like to wait.”

“Thank you, sir,” Sola replied, and took the scroll. Her heart beat faster. Finally, she was to meet the Elven Queen after all this time. Why did it take so long? Couldn’t she have talked to me earlier? She might have had the courtesy not to keep me waiting, if she doesn’t like it…Oh, why did she want to meet me?

I’m an ambassador, I have to depict my country the best I can. I have to control my temper. She clutched the scroll tighter, and hurried out of the hall.

It was snowing again, but only lightly. Sola breathed in the crisp winter air and hurried down the white stone walkway towards the beginning of the staircase. She glanced up at the Mayorna’s massive branches. Veiled with fog though they were, they loomed above her. How am I ever going to climb all that way? she wondered. She appraised the long, spiraling staircase. What if I fall off? she thought apprehensively. He vivid imagination toyed with the possibility, before she discarded it. I’ll hold the rail.

“Lady Sola, here to see the Elven Queen. I received a notice this morning,” Sola said to the python coiled up in her path. She extended the small scroll.

The python bobbed his head and snaked out the end of his long body to take the paper. The thin tip wrapped around the scroll perfectly. Sola noted the smooth texture of his scales, so unlike her classmate, Darius.

The snake pulled the letter up to his teeth. With one razor sharp fang, he snipped the silver string and unrolled the scroll. “Hmm, yes, I see.” Surprisingly, the hiss in his voice was barely noticeable. “I will escort you to the observatory immediately.” He uncoiled himself and slithered up the stairs at a surprising speed.

Sola grasped the handrail tightly and began the long climb, counting stairs mechanically as she went. At one hundred thirty-nine, she took a look down at the ground. She was above the other Mayornas’ treetops. Dizzily, she noted a bird’s nest in the Mayorna closest to the main hall. She locked her gaze back on the steps and continued to climb. When she had reached two hundred eighty-seven, the ground had vanished. The thick layer of fog veiled the halls, trunk and roots. When she glanced down the spiral stair over the edge, she found much of it, too, had vanished with the fog.

She gazed up, and was surprised with a glimpse of the lower branches. She could also see the underside of more halls like the lower, grounded rooms. They sparkled with glass that glinted in the weak winter sunflyers’ light. “Almost to the first of the upper palace’s rooms,” her guide informed her, slithering effortlessly up another ten stairs.

The stairwell widened out to become a marble-tiled platform. Miniature trees, potted plants, and vases of flowers lined the windows. The nobles were clustered around a central fountain. Its cool droplets clattered in its polished marble base. A beautiful vixen was playing the harp beside it. Incredibly, the fountain seemed to keep pace with her, generating mist when she played more softly, and great gushes of water when she played louder and deeper notes. Sola stared as long as she could. They crossed the pavilion and curled up a maze-like pathway of staircases, ramps, and courtyards. Music seemed to be coming from everywhere as the elves spoke their native tongue.

Sola noticed the mist was clearing from the air as the pair climbed higher into the tree. Sunlight gleamed through a shifting patchwork of Mayorna leaves, interlaced with the fleeting remnants of mist and breeze. The tree seemed to give off an alluring scent of fresh air and a gentle spice. Sola thought it was faintly like cardamom.

At last, they arrived in the topmost branch. Sola gazed around her in surprise. The marble path had ended; there was nowhere to go but a small rope bridge to a tiny wooden house out on a limb. The python was watching her expectantly.

“Wait, you mean…” Sola said in astonishment, staring at the seemingly rickety rope bridge. “I’m supposed to cross that?” she­ yelped.

“Yes, Ambassador Sola,” the snake said, emphasizing the second word.

Sola opened her mouth and almost refused, before turning back to the thin and wobbly bridge. I can do this. If they can do it, I can do it, she said to herself, and took a few tentative steps onto the bridge. See, it’s not so… bad, she thought, and took a few more pawsteps. The bridge wobbled a bit and she froze and closed her eyes. It’s just a wobbly bridge. Nothing to be afraid of. Her breath came a little faster, but she forced herself to continue her walk across.

Sola focused on not contemplating the very, very long distance to the ground and blindly felt her way across the bridge. Finally, her paws touched sturdy, smooth wood. I did it! I did it! she thought giddily, and opened the door.

The observatory was almost completely covered with windows that sparkled with magic in the winter sunlight. There were skylights, windows on the walls, closed windows, and open windows. A massive cape myrtle wood telescope dominated one wall. It was highly polished and ornamented with silver bands.

“Welcome, Ambassador Sola.” The melodious qualities of the elfish language carried over into the giant panda’s voice. The panda’s white fur gleamed in the sunlight streaming in the glass windows, and her deep green eyes glinted regally from ebony circles around her eyes. A thick silver necklace nestled in her black fur and a silver and emerald crown perched between her two black ears.

“Thank you, your Majesty.” Sola bowed deeply to the beautiful black and white panda. She felt pretty drab in comparison. Her golden coat didn’t match the panda’s ebony and ivory brilliance.

“Come, the fog has cleared and the day is beautiful,” the panda said, gesturing to a chair beside her, level with glass window. Sola crossed the room and sat upon the chair. The queen was gazing out into her realm. The fog had lifted, but snow still covered the ground and weighed down the pine trees’ boughs. Leafless deciduous trees painted a fine tan tracery over the scene, and glistening streams of crystalline ice glittered through the trees. The Mayorna’s leaves framed the stunning picture of her land with emerald elegance.

“It is beautiful, is it not?” the queen murmured, still staring out the window. “Look, you can see Seciov Waterfall’s spray.” She pointed with one elegant finger to a cloud of spray in the distance. Sola felt a pang of homesickness, but thrust it aside.

“Yes, it is beautiful. Your kingdom is a beautiful place,” Sola responded sincerely.

“Thank you. My family, ever since the elves came to this beautiful place of trees and river shine, has labored to make this land healthy, secure, and peaceful,” the panda replied. “And it has been, for many generations. We have built bridges, roads and towns. We have cared for the unintelligent creatures in our forests and raised our trees from small saplings to mighty oaks.”

The queen sighed. “But we have watch with worry the power of other states grow. The Northern Tribes claim they own the Triplet Mountains and demand our tribute. Swampmurd looms in the distant south – their ambition and greed threatens to dominate the entire country. And now, Plainsland and Lakeland merge to become one state: Aerema. Such a massive alliance frightens us. How could we stand against such a massive force?” the queen asked Sola.

“Aerema does not wish to fight you -” Sola interjected.

“Yes, but that is what they all say. No one wishes to fight a battle they can avoid with diplomacy. Earlier this year, two Northern Realms ambassadors visited me. They, too, did not wish to fight us – but their goals, whether we have war or peace, are the same. All around us are nations expecting us to give up our sovereignty and become a mere state of a greater nation. All are sure that it will come to force in the end.”

“Aerema does not expect you to give up your sovereignty. She respects your rights as a honorably established and well-run country,” Sola insisted. “Our intentions are simple. We wish to form an alliance with you against our enemies, the hostile Northern Realms tribes, and the Swampmurd dictatorship. Swampmurd is a thickly-populated country with a strong dictator. If we are forced to fight it, we will lose many beings in the battle. With the Northern Realms subdued and you as an allied nation, Swampmurd would not dare to attack us,” Sola explained.

The queen’s eyes were unreadable. “What do you mean, an allied nation?”

“Technically, you would act as a self-governing territory, free to make your own decisions. But you would pledge not to attack the Kingdom of Aerema, nor to conspire with its enemies. There are a few other points which Ryath herself would negotiate, involving borders and free passage through your state.” Sola clarified. All this information had been included in the scrolls given to her before she was sent off to her new position.

“Interesting offer. But, suppose we refuse to become an allied nation?”

Sola swallowed. “Then prepare for war, unfortunately. Ténebrous would not hesitate to conquer your country by force, though Ryath and Alexandra would be more reluctant.”

“I thought he had been replaced by Alexandra. The Northern Tribes’ ambassadors informed me that he was their new leader, and swore they were not part of Aerema yet.”

“What?” Sola burst out. “No, Alexandra is merely a stand-in. Lord Ténebrous is on a diplomatic mission.”

“Hmm, that’s interesting.” The panda gazed out the window again.

Sola stared at her lap, brow furrowed. “Yes, very interesting.”

“I have made up my mind,” the queen said. “I will send a delegation of elven nobles to Aerema when the gentle mist maidens flee before the sighing mourner,” she said firmly. The silver crown on her head glistened on her forehead. The queen rose and walked elegantly to the door.

Sola hopped off the chair and followed her. “Thank you, Your Majesty. Erm, I don’t mean to be rude, but when is… er…”

“Late February, but the first date is more accurate,” the panda replied graciously.

“Thank you,” Sola repeated, standing as well.

“You will accompany us at that time. In the meantime, one of my nobles, Helena NewLeaves, will show you around the city. I apologize for not sending her sooner,” she finished, showing Sola out the door.

“Thank you, Your Majesty, that is very kind.” Sola walked out a few steps and listened to the door shut behind her. Oh, great. The bridge again.


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