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Harvestival


by schefflera

--------

Also by dreagoddess

Authors' note: Takes place during the months between part 8 and part 9 (the epilogue) of "Curses, Inside-Out."

The late-summer dawn was stretching lazily across Meridell's sky as Jeran rose up to the Darigan Citadel, firmly in the grip of a muscular Cyodrake. It made a puzzled noise upon passing through the clouds around the Citadel, but set him down without complaint and looked about interestedly with its one eye. With dusky purple skin and bat-wings, it actually looked surprisingly at home, although it was drawing some curious stares. Or maybe those were for Jeran himself.

     He made his way up to the highest tower and nodded courteously to the guards. "I request entrance and audience with Lord Darigan."

     "We'll ask about that." The Techo left; the Eyrie stayed to regard him curiously. "We were expecting the Aisha sorceress -- your sister, right? But not this early. Is she well?"

     Jeran smiled at that. Lisha had been working with Lord Darigan for some time now in an effort to lift the curses on the Citadel, but he hadn't thought to expect the guards to ask after her. "She's well, thank you, and she'll be along later in the day. I've come on other business, and wanted to catch Lord Darigan before he gets too involved in spellcasting."

     "Ah, that's good," the Eyrie said, then looked over his shoulder at an approaching shadow and bowed low. "Here, he's come in person...."

     "And I consider myself caught," Darigan said, smiling faintly. "Would you prefer to come inside or walk?"

     "Whichever you prefer, though it's a nice day for a walk and I know Lisha keeps you penned up inside quite a bit these days."

     "A walk, then." Darigan stepped outside to join him. "Though not too long. What brings you here?"

     Jeran grinned toothily at him. "I've been assigned diplomatic duties. Be afraid."

     "Oh, really." Darigan raised his eyebrows in amusement. "Is Meridell short of ambassadors?"

     "They said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that there are only two people in Meridell who they're sure can ask without offending you, and Lisha is busy helping you lift curses. So I'm nominated. I'm to invite you -- and your people, of course -- to our Harvestival."

     Darigan blinked. "Your what?"

     "The Harvestival. Meridell's end-of-summer harvest festival."

     "I see." Darigan appeared to give the matter grave consideration, but there was a glint of humor in his eye when he continued, "I'm not sure whether to ask how tactless most of your ambassadors are, or how touchy they all think I am."

     "Hmm." Jeran gave this matter some thought as well before regarding Darigan with twinkling eyes. "I believe I'm forbidden by my honor to tell you which is the case."

     "Hmph." But Darigan was smiling, a little. "Well, can you tell me whether we are actually welcome, or if this is a formality everyone desperately hopes will be refused?"

     "We're hoping you'll come." Jeran chuckled. "Well, I am, and Lisha is, and she'll be the first to tell you no one else really counts." He paused, then grinned more broadly than before. "Though there's a certain young Usul who'd probably be eager to see you as well. Seriously, it would be very awkward having the Harvestival with the Citadel hanging over us but no Darigani there, and I'm not sure how many of your people would be likely to come if you don't."

     "Some might," Darigan said, "but more would be... uneasy about the prospect." He hesitated uncomfortably before adding, not too loudly, "I think, though, that even with the recent improvements to our situation, once arrived there would be many who would find it difficult not to eat a great deal...."

     "Oh no, eating at a harvest festival. The horror." Jeran's voice was very dry. "Eating yourself sick is the main point. I think everyone would be insulted if you arrived and didn't stuff yourselves." He shrugged. "It's been a good year, despite the war. Illusen helped more than she usually does to make up for that, I think. There's plenty to go around."

     Considering Illusen had demonstrated that losing her temper could lead to spontaneous blackberries over the course of several minutes, and what he'd seen when looking down at Meridell or visiting it, Darigan readily believed she had been able to make up for thedamage. "I think we'll be able to do it justice."

     "Excellent." Jeran rubbed his paws together. "And I didn't even have to tell you that Lisha thinks you aren't taking your own advice about getting enough rest. I take it Galgarrath no longer threatens to throw you out of your study?"

     "Galgarrath wants the curses lifted as much as any of the rest of us," Darigan countered, "and I have been resting as much as I need. But you may tell your sister I'll be at the festival." He looked around at the Citadel. "Quite likely most of us will be at the festival."

     -----

     The Meridell Harvestival was invariably a casual, merry affair, but it always started the same way. The king, and the king's top advisors, stood and tried not to look bored on a special dais as a representative from the farmers presented the king with the largest potato of the year, thus officially beginning the celebration. Jeran always remembered standing there proudly with Togran at his first Harvestival, expecting a wondrous ceremony befitting a magical kingdom and instead getting...a potato. Watching Lisha, Kayla, Morris, and Boris go through the same thing would be highly amusing. He'd made a point of keeping all references to the ceremony vague and mysterious.

     Despite the formality of the occasion, there was still a constant murmur of voices from all around, everyone excited to begin the high point of the year. When the murmur suddenly hushed and an odd collection of shadows appeared, Jeran knew to look up towards the Citadel.

     The Citadel was hanging lower than usual, though this hadn't attracted a great deal of attention before. Now an astonishing number of people -- many winged, others carried directly or in what looked rather like hammocks by those who were -- poured down from it. Lord Darigan was fairly distinctive (it was really hard to miss the ears); Jeran did feel a twinge of misgiving at spotting Kass not far behind him, looking like a dark feathery shadow but still rather better than last time Jeran had seen him.

     The farmer representative (whom Jeran had spotted easily by the blanketed wheelbarrow) had just leaned on the handles to start forward. Now he looked up in shock, dropping the wheelbarrow, and ducked.

     The Darigani -- in so much greater numbers than anyone in Meridell had ever seen during the wars that Jeran thought they really must have pretty much emptied the Citadel -- proceeded with moderate if somewhat ragged-winged grace. They headed for one edge of the crowd; the edge edged away, but Lord Darigan landed determinedly near the Meridellians and brought his people down alongside them.

     One small Meridellian Usul in the crowd was jumping vigorously up and down to see. She made a dart in the direction of the new arrivals and then broke the silence with a loud squeak as her father caught her by the tail and then picked her up to hold firmly with a whispered, "Not now!"

     Jeran looked over at the Usul with a mostly-repressed grin, then eyed the king and stepped forward. "Welcome to our Harvestival. Lord Darigan, if you please, we would be honored if you would join us on the dais."

     Darigan's ears flared slightly, betraying his surprise. "We thank you for your welcome," he called back, and he made his way through the border of uncomfortable people where the two crowds met and the rest of the way to the dais -- followed rather insistently by General Galgarrath.

     There was a moment of slight awkwardness, but Jeran smiled at both of them with such determined welcome that at last Skarl had to say, "Welcome, Lord Darigan," and there was a very ragged cheer.

     The two Darigani took places with minimal shuffling, and at last things settled down again, and a trumpet was blown in solemn fanfare.

     As the notes died down, the farmer representative heaved on the handles of his wheelbarrow and trundled up to the dais in silence through the aisle that opened before him.

     Directly up to the king he went, and dropped a deep bow before whisking the blanket off with a flourish to reveal the potato, nicely scrubbed to a dark sheen and resting in a cushy bed of golden hay.

     There was a moment of deep silence.

     "A fine potato!" Skarl proclaimed in a rumbling bellow that carried out to the very edges of the crowds. The Meridellians let out a happy sigh; the Darigani merely looked somewhat confused.

     Then Skarl leaned over the wheelbarrow to whisper to the farmer as he started to get up, and everyone looked confused. This wasn't part of the standard ceremony; it was supposed to be over now. But the farmer shrugged and proceeded to wheel the potato over in front of Darigan, then bow again.

     Darigan regarded the farmer and the giant potato rather helplessly. This was entirely unexpected, but it seemed to be meant as a polite gesture if not a personally friendly one, rather than as an attempt to put him on the spot. Probably.

     After what probably felt like a longer awkward silence than it was, he decided on "A fine potato indeed!" and merely hoped he didn't sound too nonplussed about it.

     Jeran started the applause, but the rest of the crowd quickly picked up on it, breaking out into loud cheering. The Darigani still looked confused, but joined in the applause at least.

     Skarl let the applause build, then held up his hands and (relative) silence fell. He allowed a moment of expectant silence, then bellowed, "Let the Harvestival begin!"

     And begin it did, if with very slightly more reserve than in most years. As soon as Skarl had left the dais (there were eating contests to take part in, after all, and while someone managed to beat him too often for anyone to suggest his competition was holding back out of respect for the crown, he was always a formidable contender), Lisha turned to her brother with her arms folded. "You could have said!" she whispered fiercely.

     "And miss the look on your faces?" Jeran countered with a grin, reaching out to tweak the end of one antenna. "I had to go through it; so do you."

     Lisha tried to glare at him for a moment, then gave up the battle and laughed. "I thought I was going to choke...."

     "At least you didn't find out halfway through that you were supposed to participate," Darigan told her with a grin as they finished clearing the dais.

     "And you did a very good job," Jeran assured him. "I wasn't aware Skarl would get the idea to have you join in either, or I would've warned you."

     A small voice from behind them whispered urgently, "NOW, Daddy?" Jeran and Darigan started to turn, but a small blur crossed the distance in the time it took to start to turn, landing a small Usul in Darigan's arms. "Mr. Scary! You came!"

     And that was, in its glee, loud and shrill enough to be heard across a good slice of the crowd, including a fair number of the Darigani. Darigan chuckled helplessly and hugged the Usul close. "Yes, I did. We all did, in fact. Sir Jeran was kind enough to, ah, present the invitation."

     Sally was, at Darigan's chest, higher up and thus with a better view than she could get almost anywhere else but up a tree. She stretched up with her paws on his shoulder to peer between his wings, and her eyes widened. "Wow." She settled down again, clinging a bit and blinking, then seemed to recover herself. "Well, you've all... er, or a lot of you... got to come try Mummy's potato pie. The big potato's from our village this year, did you know? It made a little hill!"

     "I didn't know it was from your village, no," Darigan said gravely. "I'm sure your potato pie will be the best I've ever had." Not that this would be difficult, as he hadn't had potato pie.

     Sally bounced in his arms. "Come on then! Or, wait, you should tell them first." She peered over his shoulder again. "I think?" she added uncertainly. "Or did you want them all to stay together like that?"

     Darigan turned so he could actually look at his people as well. They looked -- still -- confused, although a few on both sides who had spotted people they remembered trading with between or after the wars were making an effort at conversation. "No. I think everyone's just a bit... unsure right now. Shy."

     "I know why we'd be scared of you," Sally said, somewhat tactlessly. "But why are your people all clumped together mostly?"

     "Yours didn't do so badly," Darigan said ruefully. "But mostly it's... awkward. If you've just had a fight with somebody recently, are you sure right after you've made up that they want you visiting their house?"

     Sally looked perplexed. "Well, yeah, if they ask me to."

     That hadn't helped. "...What if you aren't sure they wanted to make up but their parents said to ask you anyway?" Darigan had the feeling he was digging himself in deeper with the metaphor.

     "Grownups are silly sometimes. But Sir Jeran and King Skarl don't have parents telling them to do anything...." She trailed off, having possibly made the connection. "But everybody wanted to make up and stop getting hurt. I think you should tell them all to come have pie," she finished with a note of triumph, having reached firmer intellectual ground and escaped the quagmire of parents and politics.

     Darigan shifted her to where he could give her a long, thoughtful look. "...Would you like to come tell them yourself? I'll hold you up."

     Sally swallowed, but nodded to accept her role as Ambassador to Darigan (Pie Division). "I can do it."

     "All right, then." Darigan smiled and hoisted her up, exchanging a quick grin with Jeran, who was trying hard not to laugh.

     He took her over to where the crowds were still barely mixing, followed initially by Galgarrath until the orange Grarrl was diverted unexpectedly by a yellow Zafara telling him he looked better.

     Sally put her paws on top of his head as she looked out over all the Darigani, then thought better of it. She gulped a little again as she recognized Kass, though he didn't quite seem to be paying attention. All eyes turned toward their leader and the little Meridellian child he had for some reason carried over.

     "Um," said Sally. Then she raised her voice and said as clearly as she could, "Hi. I -- I'm Sally, and welcome to the Harvestival -- only Sir Jeran said that already -- and, um. My mummy makes really good potato pie and so do lots of other people here, and I think you should all come and have some."

     A few of the gathered Darigani chuckled. Many more grinned. One Lupe called out, "Where do we get some of this pie?"

     "It's over there!" Sally twisted around to point, waving her paw in the right general direction across the milling Meridellians. "On the tables. There's berry ones and things too." She turned back and looked thoughtfully at the Lupe, who must have belonged to the Winged Horde. "You can't miss it if you fly over. 'Most everybody who can fly cheats some that way."

     If Darigan hadn't been holding her up, he would have been tempted to sit down on the grass and laugh.

     "Well, what better invitation could we ask for?" The Lupe grinned toothily and jumped into the air, arriving at the appropriate table with a few wingbeats.

     Darigan set Sally down as several other Darigani started weaving their way into or over the rest of the crowd. (Over was also into, actually; the accuracy of Sally's comment about the fliers couldn't really be questioned.) Sally beamed up at Darigan in relief, then beckoned him to lean down so she could whisper directly into a large ear, "I better go. There was a Whack-a-Kass game set up and I think I better make sure it's not now."

     "A very good idea," he murmured. He set her down with a smile. "Come and find me later, little one."

     Sally beamed at him. "I will!" And then she scampered off, not making quite as swift progress as the fliers but still heading rapidly toward the nearby trees.

     "Meridellians are very...enthusiastic children," Darigan commented to Jeran, who was still trying not to laugh.

     "I think that's just Sally," Jeran replied.

     "Not just her. I have had the chance to watch a few others. Although perhaps she's unique in her targets...." There was a minor scuffle in the vicinity of some of the trees between the crowds and the nearest open space, where Sally had been heading. Darigan glanced in that direction, saw that while his people were beginning to mix into the crowd, none were likely to have observed the provocation closely, and turned back to Jeran. "I think that worked well."

     "I think you startled your people into mingling."

     "That will do. And see, I told you we had Lupes with wings."

     "So you did. And now I've seen one." Jeran craned his neck around to look at his own back, then observed solemnly, "I don't think they'd work on me. They'd cramp under the armor."

     Darigan laughed. "That suit, anyway." He looked around rather pensively. The mingling was going much better. It was actually happening on a large scale, and while there was still a definite nervousness on both sides in the air, it was being slowly diluted into the festival atmosphere. Anxious or forced grins and greetings over the tables became more relaxed and natural as they were returned, and food was served, and no disasters took place.

     Jeran hmphed, though he smiled too as he looked out over the gradually-relaxing crowd. "This armor was a gift. I can hardly give it up for wings, even if I could find a way to get them somehow. Although I wager Psellia might be willing to give me a pair."

     "You could probably have it modified if the question ever came up."

     "I doubt the king would be happy."

     Jeran looked down as Lisha tugged at his arm. "Jeran, they have a Meriball competition! I'm going to go win, okay?" And she scampered off quickly.

     "...I should probably warn the other players."

     "What, Lisha isn't adequate warning on her own?'

     "They might not see her coming until it's too late." Jeran grinned. "Ah well. Come have some potato pie?"

     Darigan chuckled. "I'd probably better make sure I find Sally's mother, too."

     "Oh?"

     "Well, Sally's initial invitation was actually rather specific."

     "Ah. Well, you should certainly try some of her pie before it's gone, then."

     "If I haven't missed it already. This is a little overwhelming."

     "I TOLD you everyone would be eating. See, your people don't even stand out."

     Darigan snorted. "Well, I wouldn't go that far." The purple and wings, even if not universal, were still fairly distinctive.

     "In the most important ways," Jeran corrected, winding his way through the crowd with friendly nods.

     Darigan followed, smiling a little and somewhat amused at himself for actually being pleased when the crowd closed in and he found himself jostled. "...True enough."

     "Will you be joining in any of the competitions today?"

     "Ah... I don't think I'm familiar with any of them. Well, I've played Meriball with your sister, but other than that...."

     "There are plenty that can be picked up quickly." Jeran laughed. "Probably more easily than Meriball with Lisha! There are contests of strength or speed, archery.... I hope your people will participate. It's the best part of the festival, after the food."

     "I take it there's no need to have registered ahead of time?"

     "Not at the Harvestival, no."

     "Then perhaps some of us will. Do you take part in the contests?"

     "I used to." Jeran smiled reminiscently. "They always had berry pies as prizes for the children's contests. But I'm not permitted to anymore."

     "No? Why not?"

     "The Champion is only permitted to compete in the Championship, at Midsummer. By tradition, I would be winning everything here if I competed. Not that I could, but that's the idea."

     Darigan blinked. "Somehow, I suppose I was assuming Champion of Meridell was primarily a martial title."

     "It is. The Championship is a tournament. But the idea is that the Champion is the best at everything in Meridell, and they don't want it proven wrong at any other festivals."

     "Then no one should ever watch you play Lisha at Meriball," Darigan said gravely. "I'm surprised they don't make you approve the giant potato."

     "No, I just get to stand and look impressive and 'protect' the king while HE does it."

     "Just in case the potato attacks," Darigan suggested.

     "No, just in case nefarious enemies of Meridell sneak in and attack the potato." Jeran managed to say this with a completely straight face.

     "Because every land in Neopia must of course be as obsessed with potatoes as Meridell."

     Jeran turned to Darigan with a haughty sniff. "Every civilized land in Neopia."

     "Oh, besides Tyrannia then?"

     "Everywhere that counts."

     Darigan chuckled. "I'm still not sure I'd rule out the potato attacking."

     "That would be a very bad omen, I'm afraid."

     "Hmm. It would seem rather unfortunate."

     "If there's a fault in the potato -- and I think it suddenly deciding to attack would qualify -- the entire festival is ruined," Jeran explained. "And that means it will be a bad winter, with food shortages. A successful Harvestival means a good winter, early spring, and good planting."

     "I see. What's required for a successful one? Besides a faultless potato?"

     "Well, the faultless potato is the most important part, because nothing else will get done if there's a bad potato. But all the food eaten, good performance on the games, and no disasters or fights during the festival itself."

     Darigan was tempted to ask how the previous Harvestival or two had gone, but really, agricultural traditions probably couldn't be expected to account for military attacks. And, for that matter, as Jeran had pointed out, whether by Illusen's intervention or not, Meridell appeared to have had a perfectly good harvest this year anyway.

     As if he'd read Darigan's mind, Jeran said quietly, "Our last Harvestival was...slightly disrupted by the wars. That's why this one is especially important."

     Darigan nodded soberly. "I'd guess, somehow, that eating all the food won't be a problem. And I sincerely hope to avoid disasters or fights."

     "I think between us, we'll be able to prevent that."

     "Yes." Darigan's mouth quirked. "I think even Kass's interest in that has been adequately... chastened."

     "I think ALL of our people have had enough of fighting."

     Darigan looked out over the gathered assemblage. Although the dark purple of the Darigani stood out in clumps, his people were beginning -- slowly, cautiously -- to mix with the Meridellians. There was conversation, laughter...and one little Usul making her way determinedly towards him, a slice of potato pie held carefully before her. Darigan smiled slowly. "I think they have. And may this be the first of many celebrations together to come."

The End

 
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