Chapter 13 An Airship and a King
All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name. – Andre Breton
The airship landed just after dawn, outside the town walls, because Benefix thought it best not to attract too much attention. The group had been standing out in a field since before it got light with their packs and baggage ready to go.
“Who do you think will be on the airship?” Nico asked nervously. “The King?”
“Oh, I doubt that!” snorted Serah. “Probably the oldest son. King Chelten has two sons and a daughter. The oldest is Atrig, known as ‘The Warrior’ then there’s Praxis, he hasn’t earned a name yet. Finally there’s Lizab, ‘The Fair’, I think they are referring to her blonde hair more than anything because she is pretty young to have accomplished much; I think she’s three years old. King Chelten’s wife, Prathea died in childbirth with Lizab. They call her ‘The Worthy’ because she gave Chelten two heirs.”
They watched as the shadowy image of the blimp got closer and closer and finally touched down without so much as rustle. A hatch opened and a small beautifully wrought ladder emerged. In the hush of the dawn, with the sun just peeking up over the horizon, they said their good byes to Benefix and approached the blimp. As the day brightened, Nico could see that the blimp was striped in bright red and yellow colors, the same colors worn by the guard that stood at the foot of the ladder ready to help them get on board. Across one broad side was the image of a lion’s head. It’s mouth was wide open in a mighty roar and two claw tipped paws rested under it’s chin.
“Yellow and red, that’s King Chelten, right?” Nico whispered to Serah who nodded. He turned to wave one more time at Benefix, then climbed the ladder to an enclosed gondola that hung beneath the giant balloon. Once inside, they felt much warmer. Red and yellow striped couches lined the walls and there at the very rear was an almost throne-like chair. A young man, also clad in red and yellow, was lounging in it, idly eating pieces of fruit that he plucked from a golden bowl at his elbow. He had long flowing blonde hair that was parted down the middle and went down past his shoulders. It had been brushed so well, it seemed to gleam golden in the morning light. A square face and strong jaw line leant him a certain fierceness but there was petulance in the lines around his eyes. He looked the sort that might take offence at any small thing.
The guard gently directed them towards the rear, bowing the whole way. “They have arrived, your majesty,” he intoned.
“Very well,” the young man said grandly, flipping his hair back and brushing crumbs off his long fingers. “You may introduce them to me!”
Nico’s heart clenched in fear. He was about to be found out in the very first few moments. But then he realized, what the young man actually meant was they he was going to be introduced to them.
“The very majestic Prince Atrig Gudnor, “The Warrior”, de Calynd de Chalise de Chelten,” proclaimed the guard, rolling all the R’s and making much of all the syllables.
Nico was trying to remember what all the names were, recalling one of them must be his mother’s maiden name and one his grandmother’s maiden name, but he would need to see it written down to figure it all out. “Bow,” hissed Serah suiting action to words.
Nico and Jian joined her in a prolonged deep bow, until they heard the Prince clear his throat and say, “You may be seated,” and he waved his hand expansively to the empty couches in the gondola.
Nico wanted to sit as far as possible from the Prince to prevent him from being asked his name, but Jian chose a seat about midway and Serah immediately joined him. Reluctantly Nico sat next to Serah and couldn’t decide where to look. Serah had explained to them that looking directly in the face of someone who was not speaking was unpardonably rude and since no one was speaking just then, Nico did not know where to look. And thus they sat in silence for almost half an hour, looking at the ceiling, at their feet, at the windows and listening to the sound of the Prince eating, not daring to look at him in case he caught their eye.
Finally, the Prince himself broke the silence, “You have heard of me of course,” he said in a slow drawling voice. “My father is a very, very great man.”
Nico had heard of King Chelten, but what he had heard did not lead him to think that he was all that great. Laying siege to the Cathedral to get his way, seemed more like a bully than a leader and not helping all the people who had lost their homes in the floods seemed cruel. Nico realized that once the people lost their home and lands they would become outcasts, like he had been. He wondered if you could lose your name in Jakodan the way Jochim had, but decided it would be better not to ask. In fact, Nico was determined to say as little during the trip as possible to minimize the risk of offending their royal host. Instead he practiced his art of being invisible.
Two-way conversation was clearly not what the Prince was expecting though, as he talked on and on about great war campaigns his father had either won, (gloriously) or lost (due to vile treachery). All the things that King Chelten did, according to his son were for high ideals, the greater good, the glory and honor of the people of Jakodan. His father was well-loved, well-respected, the best at everything. Things in Jakodan were wonderful; they were living in the golden age. He spoke of the wonders of Gudnor Castle, where they lived, and how all the people in Storla adored their kind and loving King. And so the day wore on. About midday the guard returned and brought refreshments for everyone. Nico was mindful of Serah’s instructions not to share food from their plates with each other or to ask for more of anything they had been given.
Eventually it began to get dark again. Nico had been watching their progress out of the glass windows in the gondola, had seen the cities and towns of Validian become fields and villages and finally the vast ocean. He watched with renewed interest as they began to pass over the land of Jakodan. Here there were no fields of orderly crops, but castles with high walls encompassing small villages with moats and scorched earth around in many directions. Nico surmised this must be because of the many wars they fought. He found the sight very disheartening. As they neared the foothills of the Kravik Mountains, Nico saw evidence of the damage the flash floods had done. Villages looked torn apart as if by an angry giant child in a tantrum. Entire slopes of the hills were torn away like the same giant had taken a bite out of them.
Gradually the airship began to lose altitude and floated to gentle stop in a grassy field. Like the others that Nico had seen, this one was not plowed and planted with neat rows of crops but rather torn up and muddy as if a herd of horses and run across it repeatedly. A troop of soldiers rushed out to the field as they settled to lay down wooden planks and a richly decorated carriage pulled up, ready to receive the Prince.
They climbed down the silver ladder after the Prince and waited to see what they were expected to do. After a moment a guard approached them and invited them to sit with the Prince in the carriage. He assured them their bags would be delivered to the castle. So they climbed into the carriage, (which was just a traditional one and not like the coach they rode in Validian), and were swept off to the castle.
“I’m very tired,” admitted Serah in Nico’s ear. “Do you think we will get to go right to bed?”
As if in answer to her question, the Prince said in his drawl, “You know, they are waiting for us to arrive to begin the banquet.” Fixing his attention on Jian he continued, “Of course, you as the ambassador, are aware of the great honor being bestowed upon you. Many nobles long for a chance to sit at Father’s side and have his ear. You are fortunate, because Father is looking forward to hearing your news. I’m sure that Prevost Benefix is quite prepared to deal with that wayward Prevost here.” He sniffed, “It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to find out he’s been fired. I think we should take the Cathedral for ourselves, personally. Why, did you know that currently the Prevost is using it and the grounds to house the homeless? Completely unprofessional of him! It’s outrageous! He claims that because the Cathedral is their home, technically they still have all their rights. Tcha! Why aren’t they out there cleaning this mess up?” He waved his hand airily out the window, “If they really put their backs into it, it could all be put right in a day!” He sniffed again, “Just laziness, I say, and my Father says too. Of course, the Prevost will have to turn all the men over for the Conscription. Even he can’t try to deny the military its due.”
He eyed Jian up and down, “I’m sure you’re here to … regularize the situation.” Something in the way he said it made Nico feel that the Prince thought Jian was going to take some kind of violent action against the Prevost. Looking at Jian again, with his battle axe resting across his lap and his tall stature, though, Nico could see how the Prince might think that.
“I’d like to be able to tell you that you’ll meet the Prevost at the banquet,” Atrig continued, rubbing his fingers again as if to wipe away the crumbs that were the Prevost, “But Prevost Frantip won’t leave the Cathedral.” Rolling his eyes he continued, “He’s holed up there like some giant rat in a hole!”
“And you’re the cat!” thought Nico to himself. Suddenly he began to be a little afraid. If this was just the son, what must the father be like? It was not going to be long before he found out.
“What is the Conscription?” Nico whispered to Serah once Prince Atrig had lost interest in talking to them.
“It’s what they do with nemos, here. Orphans and homeless people are put in the military and then they are made to fight. It’s totally barbaric! Like they are an expendable class or something. They don’t’ want to risk getting a lord or noble injured, so they make the poor fight for them. Isn’t it awful?” she hissed.
Nico was amazed to hear her talk like that. When she had told him about nemos in Marcadia, she had thought their treatment was perfectly normal, but to Nico neither custom seemed very fair to people who really hadn’t done anything wrong. After thinking it over for a bit he decided it all depended on what you were used to. Maybe because he couldn’t remember anything, it all seemed strange to him.
As Nico looked out the window he could see the castle growing closer. They passed through a small village comprised of a few houses, a few shops and a tavern and then they had arrived at the castle gates. A large wooden drawbridge was lowered across a wide moat and the carriage clattered over it. Spiked gates guarded the entrance to the castle courtyard. These were clanged shut as they entered. Inside the courtyard, Nico could see large stables, a blacksmith shop and outbuildings that were used to store foods and goods.
The carriage bounced and clattered on the stone path and finally pulled up to the door of the castle which was made of part stone, part wood and decorated with crossed swords on a shield. Above the shield was the roaring Gudnor lion. As Jian got out, he saw that there was a long receiving line of nobles there to greet him as ambassador, culminating in the King himself. Atrig, acting as if he had just saved the ambassador from a herd of raging wild bogbears, proudly showed him off as they traveled down the line. As adjuncts to the ambassador, Serah and Nico were not exactly ignored, more like tolerated.
Eventually Jian was introduced to the King. Somehow Benefix had managed to string together an impressive combination and Nico almost didn’t know who they were introducing when the guard said, “His royal highness, King Janther Gudnor, the Conqueror de Frieze de Calynd, de Chelten, may I introduce Jian de Talmet, the Peacemaker de Ridder.” Jian bowed respectfully while Nico studied the man he had heard so much about. Before him was a big barrel of a man with the same long flowing hair as Atrig. Nico saw that they also had the same long nose and square chin, but King Chelten’s eyes were cold and calculating. The King inclined his head, then with a sweep of his arm they entered the banquet hall.
Jian was seated next to the King’s right side with Atrig on his other side. Nico noticed the King’s other son, Praxis, seated a little further away on his left side. Of Lizab there was no sign. Serah and Nico were far at the other end of the table which suited Nico just fine.
Course after course of fine meats, exotic fruits and heady wine were served all night long. Nico had never seen so much food. Not asking for more did not seem to be a problem. He was secretly appalled at how much food was left on the plates that were whisked from in front of them and then replaced with even more food. He hoped that someone was eating all the leftovers. From where he sat, he could see that Jian was kept busy, turning to first the King and then the Prince. They were certainly doing a lot of talking. Once Nico noticed that Praxis tried to interject a comment. Both the King and Atrig turned to look at him with such chilly disdain that he instantly lowered his eyes and remained silent the rest of the meal. Nico remembered that Serah had said that he had not yet earned his name. Nico wondered what it must be like to be the King’s son and not have a name. It must also mean that the King did not respect him.
Nearby Nico were some of the lesser nobles chatting among themselves. Nico and Serah overheard some of the most recent gossip. What Nico could get from their talk was that the new homeless were being classified as refugees instead of considering them evacuees, people who would return to their land like those in Marcadia. The King was going to make a land grab for all the property that was now under water or mud. But even worse, the nobles were discussing a plan to have the homeless come work these lands as serfs and pay rent to live in homes that had been theirs before the flood.
Naturally the people were quite upset about this and were not just sheltering in the Cathedral but were huddled in rebellious camps all about the land outside King Chelten’s castle. Nico had seen some as they entered the massive castle gates, but had not realized that’s who they were.
Nico was outraged when he realized that they didn’t see anything wrong with this. But he knew it would be a mistake to say anything, so instead he acted invisible and settled for shooting Serah a look of misery. She frowned back at him and gave his hand a gentle squeeze, but also remained silent.
Eventually the long banquet ended and Jian and Serah and Nico were shown to their rooms. After everything had quieted down, Serah and Nico joined Jian in his room. There was a nice warm fire cheerfully burning and comfortable couches (all done in red and yellow) in addition to an enormous bed. “What did you find out?” Nico asked Jian.
“Well, there’s been a massive amount of casualties recently, not just from the flooding and disasters but from squabbling among all the Kings. It seems they all had the same idea to take advantage of the displaced people to try and grab all the surrounding lands for themselves. More land equals more power and each King would like to gain a little more of that. As it stands, King Chelten is still the leading monarch. I don’t think anyone would dare challenge him. But that’s exactly why he wants to solidify his position with a blessing from the Prevost. Additionally he’s mad as a hornet that the Prevost is sheltering some of the refugees. Of course, he’s planning on doing his fair share of the grabbing too. There are large quantities of people who evacuated from the flooded area who are beginning to get really upset. None of the land is accessible yet, and the people are hoping that when the floods recede they will just be able to go home.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen!” said Nico and told Jian the things they had overheard at the banquet. “It doesn’t sound like King Chelten really rules for the good of the people, I think he just does things for his own selfish ideas.”
“It’s a really bad situation,” admitted Jian. “And not getting any better because it doesn’t look like the floods have stopped.”
The three of them looked at each other. They hoped that it would be just like in Marcadia; the natural disasters would stop when the sanctuary was freed.
Nico sighed, “Well, did you get any clues about where the sanctuary might be or what might be causing the problem?”
“The poem used the word ‘pride’, there’s certainly an awful lot of that around here!” chimed in Serah.
Jian nodded thoughtfully. “If we believe we are looking for a barrow in a valley what we should do is find an excuse to go out by ourselves tomorrow and ride through the valley and look for it. Maybe stop in the town outside the castle gates and see if anyone has heard of a large stone barrow. Unfortunately the poem doesn’t tell us if it’s a rising or setting sun on the right side, but from the tapestry Benefix showed us, I think we should head north and just assume it’s a rising sun. That’s where the mountains are, at any rate.”
“But do you think the King will let you go?” asked Nico.
“Let’s tell him you need to go someplace peaceful so that you can consider your decision. After all, you are ‘The Peacemaker’” giggled Serah.
“True, true,” Jian said rubbing his beard and looking so serious that Serah collapsed in a new fit of giggles. “But it’s a good idea,” agreed Jian finally. “I definitely tried to give him the impression I was going to come down in his favor. I felt that if he thought otherwise, he was going to throw me in the dungeon!”
So they all returned to their rooms for a good night sleep.
Once in his own room, Nico felt like he couldn’t settle down. Maybe it was all the rich food he had eaten, but he felt a burning in his stomach and in his heart. He decided to get up and take another look at the stone he had found where Chrysalis’ cottage had been. After that day in Benefix’s study, Jian had thought that Nico should keep it with him. At the time, it had made Nico feel like Jian had come to accept him as the savior in the prophecy.
Nico pulled out the stone and held it close to the magi-globe in his room. He remembered the courage and strength he had felt when he had been with Chrysalis and how those feelings had left when the cottage burned. He wished he could feel that way again. He turned the stone over in his hand. As he stared down into it, it seemed like he could see an image in it’s polished surface. It was very quiet and he seemed to slip into a daydream. He could hear the voices of people from his past. “He’s just a nemo,” “some dumb nemo they sent,” “a foundling no one wanted, left on the door step.” He felt his heart fill with chagrin. How he wished he had a name. Something he could be proud of. Even Serah had felt it was important for a boy to have a name. And he didn’t. Atrig, as tiresome as he was, had names he could be proud of. Warrior. No one would ever call him that. He had never done anything that he could be proud of. The thing that set him apart from other nemos was that he had been buried in an avalanche. If the Jakodan ever named him, it was more likely to be Ant. He felt worthless, as if his entire life had been without value. And what did the future hold for him? The best thing he could do to help his friends and Benefix was to be invisible? Is that all he was really good for? Deeper and deeper into the shiny stone he seemed to fall, as if it were a dungeon and he would never find his way out. He had to find a way to prove himself, to show that he was worthy of a name, but how?
A log fell in the fireplace grate with a crash and seemed to bring Nico out of his daydream. He gave himself a shake and quickly put the stone down. He continued to look at it without touching it. He remembered how when he had put on Chrysalis’ ring he had felt terrible anger, Chrysalis’ anger he had found out. Maybe the feelings he had just felt were not his own, but belonged to somebody who needed his help to recover their pride. He finally covered himself with the thick woolen blanket Benefix had given him (which still kind of smelled like Bartholomew), and fell asleep.
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