By the time they had arrived at the King’s Palace there was already a long lineup outside. It reminded Ryan of lineups he had seen and even waited in while standing in line at a night club in Vancouver or Victoria. The skinny, pompous looking man wearing what for all intents and purposes appeared to be a Swiss Guard uniform with a strange marshmallow-like hat held a strip of rolled-up parchment. It was almost a close parallel to a bouncer with a clipboard.
It hadn’t taken the line very long to move, however, and before long, Ryan and the others were in a large room with high ceilings. Fancy granite pillars and marble columns held the ceiling up, while the polished stone floor was adorned with carpets, fine furniture and a large table that held food and drink for guests. At one end of the room a grand staircase spiraled up to a balcony that looked out over the hall. The other end of the room opened up into a large patio with stone benches and flower beds that leaned out over the city. The view of the lake was breathtaking, reflecting the near-half Dream.
As was the selection of the finer sex. Ryan found himself dumbstruck by the parading beauties. Strangely enough, each of them seemed to be latched on to an older man, often balding, never pretty. If the Halish court was anything like parties among the wealthy on Earth, they were trophy wives and high-priced escorts.
The party-goers were polite enough, giving Ryan a thoughtful nod and slight bow as they walked by. Ryan returned in kind, but he caught their eyes flash toward Cale and Terra, obviously intrigued at their style of dress.
Ryan made a beeline for the punch bowl. At least, he assumed it was punch. He picked up a cup adorned with jewels and made with polished stone and filled it up. He could smell the alcohol in it. It had been years since he last drank, but he decided to have a cup anyway.
The bitter taste of alcohol greeted him. During his teenage years, most of his time was spent out in the bush with a beer in his hand and a joint in the other. Almost as soon as he graduated, he started on the straight-and-narrow.
But, hey. When in Halen…
“Take care how much you drink,” Nalya said. “It’s strong, and the last we need is another drunken fool wandering about.”
“It’s fine,” Ryan said. “I know my limit.”
“You also haven’t drank in like four years,” Terra reminded him. “Your limit may not be what you remember.”
“I’ll be fine!” Ryan said, rolling his eyes. He scanned the floor, his eyes sliding past each and every person present. There had to be seventy people, if not more. “Hey, where’s the King?” Ryan asked.
“He hasn’t arrived. The royal family traditionally makes a late entrance. They’ll be along shortly, I imagine,” Nalya replied.
“Of course,” a man said, coming up from Ryan’s left. “The sons of Hillbreaker always like to make a memorable entrance.”
“Corpus!” Nalya exclaimed. She rounded the table and threw her arms around the newcomer. Ryan almost had to leap out of the way. When Nalya finally released her grip on the man, Ryan got a good look at him.
He stood at around six foot, had platinum blond, near-white hair and was wearing what reminded Ryan of a Navy Admiral’s uniform, except without medals or ranks. Gold trim hung off his shoulders, and it had a high collar.
“Nalya, it’s been so long,” Corpus said, flashing a smile that Ryan would have thought impossible in a land without toothpaste. “I’ve heard of the ordeal with your family. Lies, if I’ve ever heard one. How have you been?”
“Well,” Nalya said. “I’ve petitioned the King for a title.”
“So I’ve heard. Many among the societies have been buzzing about it. If it helps, you have my family’s support,” he said.
Ryan chose that moment to clear his throat, catching both Nalya and Corpus’ attention.
“I don’t believe I’ve met your friend, Nalya,” Corpus said, flashing another smile.
“Of course!” Nalya said. “Corpus, I’d like you to meet Ryan Stills. His story is a little complicated, I’m afraid.”
“I could tell,” Corpus said. “I’m very honored to meet you, Ryan Stills. My name is Corpus Indetae. Eldest son of Ianto Indetae.” He offered his hand.
Ryan took Corpus’ hand and gave it a firm shake. “Nice to meet you. You’re a noble, I take it?”
Corpus laughed. “No, no. I’m afraid that nobility has never interested me or my family. We’re merchants. I must say you’re wearing some very interesting fashions. Where is it you’re from?”
“Dunsmith,” Ryan said. “In the Disputed Lands.”
Corpus blinked in surprise, obviously taken aback. “Indeed?” he said. “I’ve heard a little of this place. My cousin told me of a man who played a strange instrument claiming to be from a town called Dunsmith in Arronay. Could this have been you?”
Ryan nodded. “That’s me,” he said.
“Then, it’s true then?” Corpus asked. “You’re truly not from the Pactlands?”
“It’s true, Corpus,” Nalya interjected. “I saw their town. I’ve been there. Nothing like it exists anywhere in the Pactlands.”
“Absolutely amazing,” Corpus said. “I’d wager you’re here for more reasons than just to see the sights, then.”
Ryan nodded. “We’re going to try and petition the King to help us out. Vector’s messing around down there.”
Corpus nodded darkly. “I see,” he said. “If it helps, I will pledge my family’s support to this cause. The Indetae family claims much influence within the Halish nobility.”
“Thank you, Corpus,” Nalya said. “We shall remain grateful.”
“It’s nothing,” Corpus said. “Not for an old friend.”
“So do you two know each other well?” Terra asked, speaking up.
Corpus looked over and regarded Terra for a moment, then flashed his smile. “I should say so,” he said. “Nalya and I graduated together from the Academies.”
“He went to school with Keltz and I,” Nalya said. “Between the three of us, I’m not sure how we ever graduated.”
Corpus laughed. “Ahh, indeed. If we had been caught for even half of our antics, I doubt any of us would have walked up the Golden Aisle. Speaking of Wicket, how is he? I’ve heard he went south with you into the Disputed Lands.”
Nalya nodded. “He’s well. He’s in Dunsmith now, helping them prepare for the fight against Vector.”
“Sorry to interrupt,” Cale said, breaking into the conversation. “But isn’t that our friend from Arronay?” Ryan followed Cale’s finger and saw who he was talking about. Walking into the room from outside was none other than Izon Dueck.
“Dueck,” Corpus said, grunting to himself. “He’s a rough sort, he is. If you’ve met with him already, then no doubt you’re aware he’s not to be trusted. He’d as likely have your throat slit that give you the time of day.”
“I don’t get it,” Ryan said. “He’s dirty, right? If everyone knows it, why is he allowed free reign?”
“Just because he’s loyal to the Council does not make him a criminal,” Corpus said. “You cannot simply accuse him of wrongdoing without proof. Without proof, it would simply be slander against his character, to which he would demand his accuser be arrested and put to death, as is his right as a nobleman.”
The group watched Izon for a few moments as he mixed into the crowd, greeting and embracing a variety of people.
Their attention was finally broken by a loud trumpeting from the stairway at the end of the room. Two men, heralds no doubt, stood at the top of the stairs and blew into a pair of horns. All eyes in the room were cast towards them. A third man stood at the top of the stairs and regarded the room for a moment.
“My friends and foreigners, noblemen and women of the Halish Court, honored guests of the Crown,” he began, speaking loud enough for his voice to carry across the hall. “His royal highness, King Nadus Hillbreaker the Twenty-Third, Ruler of all Halen bids you welcome to his Palace! He bids you eat, drink and celebrate the coming of the Solstice!”
A moment later, a man walked out from behind him. He wore a thin crown on his head, more in the style of the ancient Greeks than Feudal era Europe. He was a heavier man, and dressed himself in fine purple robes. He walked to the top of the stairway.
All around Ryan, people were bowing their heads. He got the hint quickly and did the same.
“My subjects!” Nadus exclaimed from the top of the stairs. “Bow not your heads to me, but to the Sun, whose bountiful rays shall feed our crops! To the Azure Dream, whose gentle light shall fuel our harvest! To every man, woman and child in all of the Pactlands, without whom our lands would surely fall!” He threw his arms into the air.
The entire room erupted in applause. Ryan played along and clapped heartily. After a moment, it died down, and the King wandered down the stairs and into the crowd. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Izon Dueck heading straight towards the King.
Ryan furrowed his brow. “What’s he up to?” Ryan asked nobody in particular.
“No idea,” Cale replied, answering him. “But I think it’s in our best interest to find out.” He started walking in the general direction of the crowd that was now massing around Nadus.
Ryan looked back and forth between Cale and Corpus, who was again chatting with Nalya. Terra stood leaning against a wall, a bored look on her face.
After a sigh, he poured himself another cup of the funny-tasting punch, and then set out to mingle.
The sun started to fall behind the western horizon in full view from the King’s Palace. Many of the attendants of the Ball had gathered outside to watch it, and Terra did much the same. She had never felt right at parties, even though she was always excited to attend. Even in Dunsmith, she just didn’t feel right among mixed company unless she was stoned. The eternal wallflower, Terra just chalked it up to social anxiety.
She had come outside to catch a breath of fresh air while inside, scores of men crowded around the King, hoping to catch his ear for a moment.
When the party goers on the large patio started to thin out a little, Terra took a pre-rolled joint from her purse and lit it. She caught a few people looking over toward her with a curious looks, talking to each other in hushed tones about the strange outlander with the sweetflower. From the corner of her eye, she saw a tall shape approaching her. A woman wearing a long-flowing white dress that hugged her curves, adorned in silver and gold jewelry, approached. It reminded her of Nalya’s dress, except the material was much finer. It seemed to glow in the Dreamlight.
“Leave it to men to turn a celebration into a political event,” the woman said. She smiled warmly at Terra. “The drink only serves to heighten their opinions, don’t you think?”
Terra regarded the woman for a moment, thought of Ryan for a moment, and then returned her smile. “It’s the one universal constant, I think. Men just can’t handle the drink,” she said.
The woman laughed. “I don’t think I’ve met you, Lady. Which house do you hail from?”
Terra looked almost ashamed. “I’m not a Lady,” she said, waving her hands in front of her. “I’m from Dunsmith.”
“Oh?” the woman replied. “Dunsmith, could this be the city born in the Disputed Lands I’ve heard much of?”
Terra nodded. “That’d be us,” she said. “I can’t imagine you’ve heard very much about us.”
“No, I confess I’ve heard very little, in fact. But what I have heard stirs my interest. Is it true you are otherworlders?”
“Yes,” Terra said. “We’ve come to speak to the King to request assistance. There’s a large Vectoran Army somewhere to the south, and we’re afraid the town will get overrun.”
The woman regarded her silently for a moment, and then nodded. “Yes, Tammil Cuerian covets those lands. May I know your name?”
“Terra,” she replied. “Terra Murphy.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Terra Murphy. I am Arquina.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Terra said, nodding. “Arquina.”
Arquina cocked her head to one side and regarded Terra for a moment. “Your fashion is so different from our own,” she said. “I like how the bright colors contrast against the black. It’s beautiful, if you don’t mind me saying.”
Terra nodded. “Yeah, we’ve got some pretty varied senses of style.” She turned back and saw Ryan speaking excitedly to a group of noblemen. She could tell from his gestures that he was trying to explain to them how to play pool. Terra noticed that he seemed a little loose. His gestures were wild and he was constantly sipping from his cup. Ryan was getting drunk. She turned back to Arquina.
“So are you from Cilasia?” she asked.
Arquina wore a brief look of confusion, and then warmth spread over her features again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I had thought you knew.”
“Nadus Hillbreaker is my husband. I am the Queen of Halen.”
Terra’s eyes popped open. She tried to stammer out a word of apology, but Arquina merely put her hand up.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I take no offense. I would not have known you to be an otherworlder unless you had told me.”
Terra calmed herself a bit, and then took another nervous toke of her joint. She coughed.
“I’m sorry,” Terra said. “I’m just.. I don’t… I’ve never met a Queen before.”
“How fortunate,” Arquina said. “I’ve never met an Otherworlder.” She smiled. “May I sit?” she asked.
Terra shoved over on the stone bench, making room for the Queen. She smiled and put out her doobie. She was nice and stoned– sufficiently so, in fact. When the Queen sat down, she looked out over the waters of the lake.
“Such a beautiful night,” Arquina said. “It’s a shame you come under such dire circumstances. Cilasia really is a beautiful place, but I imagine its beauty is the least of your worries.”
Terra shrugged. “It is beautiful here,” she said. “Some of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen have been here in Halen, but you’re right. We came here with an ulterior motive. We need to speak with the King.”
Arquina nodded and turned back. “I’m not sure even I would have priority to speak with him until the end of the night, but I imagine word of your home will spread to his ears before then. He’s been wanting to have words with the Lady Ruus since he’d heard she returned early from the Disputed Lands. I would imagine you had much to do with that.”
Terra nodded. “Nalya promised to help us,” she said. “We’d be lost if it wasn’t for her.”
“She’s had a hard life thus far,” Arquina said. “Between her father and her feud with the rest of her family, she’s been doing the best she can. When we received word of her return, I admit we were confused, but the pieces are beginning to fall into place. She is a Lady of honor, and she’s proved that she’s a Lady of heart as well.”
“Then you’ll give her a title?” Terra asked.
“It’s not as simple as that, I’m afraid. Were it up to Nadus or I, we would grant it. But the Lady must perform a valuable service to Halen before such a title can be bestowed.”
“Oh,” Terra said.
“Don’t worry,” Arquina said, putting her hand on Terra’s back. “I will speak to Nadus myself, tonight, after the party. I will make sure you and your friends will be able to trade words with him in private.”
Terra looked back at Arquina and smiled. “Thank you,” she said.
“Pah,” Arquina waved her hand. “It’s no trouble. He’s my husband, after all.” She smiled, then stood up. “Come, then. I shall introduce you to the Ladies. I’m sure many of them will have questions for you.”
Terra reluctantly allowed herself to be pulled to her feet by the Queen, and followed her meekly back into the Hall.
It hadn’t taken Izon Dueck long to make his way to the King. Cale tried his best to remain incognito, but it was hard when you were wearing a loud red serge. Still, Dueck hadn’t spent more than a moment regarding the Mountie, and had been making his way through the crowd quickly. He stopped to whisper a few words in the ears of various nobles, men whose faces were quickly forgotten from Cale’s memory as he snaked his way through the crowd.
Izon had stayed and chatted with the King for several minutes before Nadus’ attention was drawn elsewhere. Cale couldn’t quite get close enough to hear, but he never lost track of Dueck, even two hours into the party.
Finally, Dueck stood and spoke with another nobleman, a fat, bearded man, and the two walked out onto the large patio. Cale stood nearby, sipping on his drink and looking for all the world as though he were simply enjoying the view. A large hedge stood between him and the two men, but it did little to quiet their conversation. Cale perked his ears up to listen closely.
“– the Council. You’ve spoken with the Psimagi, then?” the fat man said.
“Yes,” Dueck replied. “I’ve received the Council’s orders.”
“And our company is far too mixed here for us to speak openly of such things,” he said. “That buffoon in the red suit has been trailing me all night. I’ve half a mind to report him to the guards.”
“There’s little point to that,” the other man said. “The old fool will have him free again by morning. You know our hold here in Halen isn’t as strong as we’d like.”
“True,” he said. “And it won’t matter much past tonight.”
“What happens tonight?”
He could hear the two men walking away, their voices lost in the din of the party. Cale furrowed his brow. Dueck was up to something, he could feel it. Cale suddenly felt exposed. He looked back to the party. Ryan had long since become drunk, and was busy regaling the younger noblemen and women with stories about Dunsmith, which so far had been the talk of the party. Even Terra had gotten into the swing, just as Nalya had wanted. Most, if not every person present had at least heard the name of Dunsmith, if not the details of its arrival, then the wonders of its technology. A few men had even recognized Ryan from the Duke’s Chalice.
Cale poked his head around the hedge he’d chosen for camouflage and watched Dueck and the fat man out of the corner of his eye. It was obvious they were searching for a quiet location. Dueck pointed towards a stairwell that led up to a higher level. Cale looked up. The next level appeared to be deserted, for the most part. The perfect place for the privacy Dueck sought.
As the two men started to walk up the stairs, Cale hurried and stealthily followed them, making sure none of the two men could see him. When he reached the top of the stairs, he saw them disappear around a corner. As he approached, their voices drifted past. He stopped, waited, and listened.
“–swear, Izon! This is a delicate matter, I don’t think you should just–”
“Don’t presume to lecture me, Sorana!” Dueck spat. “These orders come from the High Council. I take no pleasure in it.”
“Other than what the Council provides for your continued loyalty, of course?” Sorana asked.
“Bah,” Izon grumbled. “For the trouble I’ve gone through thus far, I expect to be rewarded handsomely.”
“So, tonight is it?” Sorana asked.
“Yes. It’s to look like a cutpurse attacked them,” Dueck said. “The men will be killed, but the bloodhead is to be taken.”
Cale’s heart jumped. The bloodhead? That was most certainly Terra. If that was the case, then he had a sneaking suspicion who the men Izon and his cohort were talking about were. He flipped open the latch on his holster and pulled out his Glock. He’d just overheard Dueck planning their murder, but could he simply just tell someone? Hadn’t that Corpus fellow mentioned something about proof? Just because Cale had overheard it didn’t make it stick. Not like it would have back at home, anyway. He needed to–
Something moved behind him. Cale barely had time to turn before the source of the noise was on top of him. Cale swung his gun around, and managed to let off a single shot before he was struck on the head and collapsed into a sea of stars.
The noise rang through the hall loudly, echoing off the walls. Almost every head turned towards the source, but only three people present knew what the sound was. Ryan excused himself from the group of people he had been speaking to and ran over to Nalya and Corpus. Terra followed closely behind.
“That was a gun,” Ryan said, slurring his words slightly. “Where’s Cale?”
Nalya looked around. “Last I saw him was on the patio. It sounded like that’s where it came from.”
Ryan nodded and ran out to the patio, looking around. After a moment, he heard loud yelling coming from the top of the stairs.
“Assassin!” the voice exclaimed. “Cutthroat! Guards! Come quickly!”
Ryan looked up the stairs towards the source of the voice. Something about it rang with familiarity. A moment later, Izon Dueck appeared from around the corner, waving his arms wildly. Ryan narrowed his eyes.
A number of guards came running out onto the patio, and quickly attended to Izon Dueck as he screamed bloody murder.
“He came at me with his magick iron!” Dueck exclaimed. “If not for Sorana, he might’ve found his mark!”
Ryan ran up the stairs just behind the guards and got to the top. Once there, he could see Cale collapsed into a heap on the floor, his gun laying on the ground three feet away. A guard rushed over and picked it up.
“Whoa, whoa,” Ryan said. “The hell? What’s going on?”
“You!” Dueck exclaimed, jabbing a finger towards Ryan. “You’re behind this! I’ll have both of your heads for this!”
“Come now,” another voice called from behind Ryan. “What’s this, then?”
Ryan turned to see King Nadus climbing the steps.
“Highness! An assassin!” Dueck exclaimed. “He stole upon me whilst I was having a private word!”
“Hold on, Cale’s a cop! He’s not an assassin!”
“It’s true,” Nalya said, coming from behind him. “He’s a Lawkeeper. He wouldn’t–”
“And how well do you truly know these men, Lady?” Dueck asked. “He came upon me! If it weren’t for Sorana, I might be dead now!”
“He’s lying!” Ryan exclaimed.
“You dare?!” Dueck exclaimed. “You dare besmirch my name?”
“Enough!” Nadus exclaimed. He regarded the unconscious Cale for a moment, then looked to his guards. “Take him, put him in irons,” he said.
“What?!” Ryan exclaimed. “He didn’t do anything, he–” he felt Nalya grab his shoulder firmly. He turned to see her sharply shaking her head.
Nadus regarded Nalya for a moment. “He is your guest, is this true?” Nadus asked.
Nalya nodded. “He is,” she said.
“See! She admits to it!” Dueck exclaimed. “I demand he be put to the blade immediately!” He looked to Ryan and grabbed him roughly by the sleeve. “This one too!” Ryan jerked free immediately.
“Silence!” Nadus demanded. “None shall be put to death this night.” He regarded Ryan for a moment. “And this one was within my sight when the event occurred. He is innocent.”
“Your highness, you can’t kill Cale. He’d never have done that, he’s a police officer!”
“Regardless,” Nadus said. “He has been accused by a Lord.” He waved his hands. “Unless you can prove his innocence, he shall be put to death the next time the sun rises to its peak.”
Corpus was the next person to climb the stairs, he looked around for a moment and regarded the unconscious form of Cale, who was being hoisted to his feet by a couple of guards. He walked over and examined his head.
“He was struck with a blunt instrument,” Corpus said. He stooped over and picked up the gun and examined it for a moment. “Was it this?”
“No,” Ryan said. “That’s what would have made the noise. Cale would have been holding it when it went off.”
Corpus regarded Dueck and Sorana for a moment. “How did you fight back against him?” he asked.
“I struck him on the head,” Sorana said. “He was about to strike with his magick iron, if I had not acted when I did–”
“What did you hit him with?” Corpus demanded. “Your fist? I doubt your fat fingers would have done much good!”
“Corpus!” Nadus exclaimed. “Enough! I will have no feuding in my Palace!”
Corpus nodded to the King respectfully, and then pulled Ryan and Nalya to one side.
“There’s not much we can do now,” Corpus said. “Dueck’s words outweigh ours.” He looked back at Dueck and sneered.
“We can’t let them execute him,” Ryan said. Terra nodded in concert. “There’s no way he would have pulled that thing out unless he was trying to defend himself. That’s how he was trained!”
“I believe you,” Corpus said. “But there’s little choice right now. We cannot go against the King’s word.”
“But they’re going to execute him!” Ryan exclaimed.
“Yes, they will,” Corpus replied. “Unless we can prove his innocence.” He took another look around the area, letting his eyes slide up the side of the wall, and down past the balcony’s edge. “And I don’t think Lord Dueck’s story will hold up against fast logic.”
Ryan threw his arms in the air and was about to raise a further stink before he was jabbed in the back by Terra. Terra only shook her head at him, and he deflated.
“Highness, my guest apologizes for his outburst,” Nalya said. “He will abide by Halen’s laws.”
Nadus regarded Ryan and nodded. “Very well,” he said. “I think it best that he leave for now.” He turned to Nalya and Corpus. “But you two, I shall have words with.”
Moments later, Ryan descended the stairs and watched as they pulled an unconscious Cale in through a doorway. Ryan could only watch, and worry.
“You two should head back to the House,” Nalya said. “Corpus and I will try to clear this up.”
Ryan only stared back at her, a look of anger on his face, but he relented, and then backed off. “Fine,” he said. He looked to Terra. “You ready?”
Terra only nodded.
“This is bullshit,” Ryan exclaimed. “Total bullshit, Cale wouldn’t do something like that!”
“Do you think he heard something he wasn’t supposed to?” Terra asked.
The two of them were walking along the lakeside towards the House of Roses. In the twisting streets of Cilasia, finding your bearings during the day was difficult enough. During the night, it was nearly impossible. Still, Terra had a great sense of direction, and she was consistently pointing them the right way. Ryan, drunk and angry, could only swear and complain.
“Who knows? All I know is that he wouldn’t have drawn his gun unless he had to,” he grumbled.
The two walked along the carved-out stone road that ran alongside the lake. Up the road, a single form could be seen walking the street ahead of them. Whoever it was had stopped on the opposite side of a large bridge that spanned the gap between one side of a wide river and the other. The distinctly female form looked out over the water, but neither Ryan nor Terra paid any attention to her.
As they walked on to the bridge, Ryan swore at the top of his lungs.
“You should keep it down,” Terra warned. “There might be noise bylaws or something, and I don’t need you getting arrested too.”
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Ryan said. He looked up across the bridge and saw the woman for the first time. She was walking slowly along the edge of the bridge towards the two of them. “And I’m pissed off ’cause there’s nothing I can do about it.” He paused in mid-step, regarding the woman walking towards them.
“What is it?” Terra asked.
“Isn’t that Henna?” he barely had time to get the words out before the woman had crossed the distance between the two of them. He felt a sharp pressure in his ribs. His legs started to tremble and grow weak. Henna only smiled at him and pushed him against the railing of the bridge.
He barely had time to hear Terra’s frantic scream as the world tumbled away, and he fell into the water below the bridge with a loud, cold splash.