Stormclouds Over Meridell: Part Two
Rain lashed against the Whinny-drawn carriage as it trundled along the mud-splattered roads. In the fields the farmers worked their winter crops, longing for the whisper of spring upon the breeze and its glorious respite from the ravages of the winter storms. It was two days until the official start of spring, and the great festival to celebrate it, but outside the cheerful walls of Meridell Castle the rains continued to fall unperturbed, and all knew winter was not going to leave them any time soon.
'This is why I like being above the clouds,' the Darigan Cybunny remarked irritably, gazing through the carriage window and into the deluge. 'We do not get rain like this.'
Leaning back in his luxurious seat, Lord Quai just laughed, and marvelled at the sound of his own voice. It had been much too long since true laughter had escaped him, even in the relative safety of his chambers. The malignant threat of repercussion from Kass and his minions had been stronger than he believed, and only in this freedom did he realise it. Suddenly he found he was laughing harder, letting his cheerful voice mingle with the downpour berating the roof of their carriage.
Both of his companions looked at him awkwardly, the Cybunny physically recoiling from him deeper into her seat. The sight made him chuckle still more, the grin etched across his snout even as he finally managed to regain self-control.
'Rain is one of the greatest experiences in all Neopia,' he explained, 'and one we should never be glad to miss. Oh, to bathe in the glorious sunshine or frolic in the winter snows is all well and good, but to walk amidst the raindrops is to be a part of nature itself, to integrate yourself in the flow of life around you and be part of a greater cycle. Without the rain nothing would be able to grow or survive, whereas snow and that crisp sunlight are less necessary. Rain is more natural than any other.'
'It does not mean I have to like it,' the Cybunny replied.
'You should learn to, Serra,' Quai said quietly, leaning closer to his steward, 'as it may just save your life one day. Ever since the war, the Citadel has been flying too high, and unless we fall below the clouds soon, we will wind up burning out the engines and then falling from the sky. Perhaps if we get wet every now and then, all of us will live a little longer. Although it will take a greater pet than I to make Kass see that.'
'It would take a greater pet than any of us to make him see that,' his other companion remarked icily. The Darigan Aisha kept her face hidden behind a thick black veil, but the red hair falling down her back had identified her to Quai when he saw her waiting with his entourage. He simply nodded agreement to her words, careful not to say anything more.
Silence filled the carriage for the remainder of their journey, the scenery locked in constant misery of the storm through their windows. Bland fields passed by unnoticed, small villages and homesteads obscured by the deluge, and even as they approached Meridell Castle itself the high turrets were masked amidst the cloying gloom. Only the guards sent out to welcome them were visible beneath their torches. One detached from his colleagues and rode out to greet them, his blue fur saturated with water and forcing his ears flat against his head.
Watching him approach, Lord Quai rapped sharply on the roof of the carriage and brought them to a halt. 'You are not going out there?' Serra exclaimed, receiving only a sharp look in response.
The carriage door was opened by his stoic bodyguard, who had a black and purple hood thrown up to shield him from the storm. On his surcoat was emblazoned the purple Draik of Quai's colours. The Draik had won a minor victory over Kass by replacing his purple Eyrie, stamped so heavily across the Citadel in his efforts to assert his stolen authority. The Aisha stepped back with a bow and allowed Quai out into the storm, his boots sinking deep into the muddy path within an instant as the refreshing feel of the rain striking against his scales made him tingle pleasantly. Motioning the Aisha to follow, he led the way toward the approaching knight, watching him dismount a short way ahead. With the carriage behind him, Quai halted and unfurled his wings, showcasing himself in his full glory to Meridell's finest.
'Lord Quai, welcome to Meridell!' Sir Jeran cried through the din of the storm. 'I apologise conditions are so poor, but it has been a trying winter and we have had no time to maintain the paths. If you would care to return to your carriage, I shall lead you in to Meridell Castle where King Skarl awaits your company.'
'Nonsense, sir, I find the conditions exhilarating!' Quai replied cheerfully, inclining his head politely to the blue Lupe. 'It has been many moons since last I felt the sting of a storm upon my wings, or the flow of mud beneath my feet. If you would accompany me, sir, I would rather walk this last distance and savour at least a part of the journey.'
Jeran shifted his weight uncomfortably for a long moment, trying to remember what his training had taught him for moments like this. 'As you wish, my lord,' he replied slowly, trying to rally himself once more. 'Shall we proceed?'
'Lead on, sir.'
Quai shared a knowing look with his bodyguard as the knight turned to address his company, the Aisha giving him a silent nod in response. Nobody would truly be so mad as to want to walk through this weather.
The other knights spread out around the carriage and wagons behind them as Jeran led Quai up the last path toward Meridell Castle. Through the gloom it appeared as little more than a grim silhouette seen against the night sky, featureless and intimidating before them. Quai had heard the stories of Skarl's domain and the homely hearth one could expect to find within his walls, shielded from the cold and the rain and surrounded by feasts the likes of which no other nation could hope to compare, but he had never actually set foot within its formidable stone keep. Only once before had he met King Skarl, on the night of Lord Darigan's defeat and the destruction of the orb, and the prospect of meeting the fat, pompous fool again was not one Quai relished. He had enough trouble holding his tongue with Kass, and they were supposedly allies. What chance would he hold with Skarl?
Quickening his pace, he stepped up beside Skarl's champion, matching the knight's confident stride. 'What news from the fields, sir knight?' Quai asked politely. 'I am afraid to say I have been hearing rumours of hostility from some of your companies. I do hope these rumours are untrue?'
'I am not at liberty to speak of such things,' Jeran replied dutifully, but Quai could see the troubled look spread across his face at the thought of his knights causing trouble. Honourable to the last.
'Of course, it was foolish of me to ask it of you. I shall await my audience with your liege.'
Nodding politely to Jeran, he fell back into step with his bodyguard and shared another look.
Sodden and soaked the group passed beneath the outer wall of Meridell Castle at last, and Quai swept into the waiting entrance hall before the first carriage had come to a stop. A cluster of servants were waiting for them clutching fresh clothes and cloths to dry off, bowing and curtsying politely as he entered. Warmth immediately washed over him from the perfumed hearths blazing cheerfully on either side of the room, the intoxicating bouquet making him feel light-headed after trudging through the cold and damp. Cheerfully he stripped off his saturated cloak and handed it to an anxiously waiting servant, taking the proffered cloth and wiping his face dry again.
Remembering the existence of his companions he turned to watch as Serra was led inside, but the veiled Aisha was nowhere to be seen. Before he could brood on it however his bodyguard appeared at his side, clad in dry new robes adorned with Quai's crest, clutching dry boots for his lordship. The prospect of dry feet again pushed all thoughts of his other companion from his mind.
'My lord, His Majesty is presently attending court if you would like to present yourself,' a herald declared, the red Ixi bowing low before Quai. 'If you would prefer to freshen up more first, we can arrange for you to be shown to your chambers instead and present during the luncheon meal.'
'It would be imprudent to keep King Skarl waiting needlessly,' Quai replied, motioning the herald to lead on. Quai fell into his casual gait behind the Ixi, daring a glance toward Jeran and finding the knight keeping station with him toward the king, his armour still dripping rainwater.
The stuffy halls of Meridell Castle stood as far from the draughts of the Darigan Citadel as was possible to believe. Even before the war Quai could remember the unnerving echoes that filled every passage of the Citadel through the dead of night, and the bitter chill that haunted his chambers even in the height of summer, and since the devastation the conditions had only deteriorated still further. Yet here the fires danced in their hearths, filling the halls with a heavy, sleepy heat that overwhelmed the Darigan ambassador and left him feeling giddy. Underfoot the thick red carpet muffled the sound of his heavy boots, leaving only the playful laughter of the inhabitants to fill the air with their cries, telling tales of joy and bounty the Citadel had not known for a long while. Deep in his heart it stirred a longing for days forgotten, and rekindled the memories of his youth before ever Lismuth had discovered the orb.
He shook his head sharply, dismissing the hazy recollections of yesteryear. Memories could not help the people of Darigan now.
The gilt double doors opened before them into the great hall. Voices fell silent instantly as the herald stepped forward and bowed low to his king, Quai catching a quick glimpse of a blue Skeith sitting comfortably on a throne three sizes too small for his ample frame. He bit back the desire to smirk, and composed himself as suited a pet of his station.
'Presenting Lord Quai, seat of the ruling council and honourable ambassador of the Kass Citadel,' the herald declared proudly, stepping aside to let Quai sweep majestically into the great hall. He fell into a deep bow before resuming his march across the hall, aware of the stares from lesser Meridellian nobles and hushed muttering from the back of the hall. All the visiting nobles of Meridell had seen fit to be present for his arrival, yearning for a look at one who had opposed them during the war.
Lord Quai only had eyes for King Skarl, however, and once more he bowed low before the fat Skeith upon his throne. Rising, his eyes swept across the raised dais at the back of the hall and paused on the young brown Aisha standing beside Sir Jeran, the knight still dripping water at the foot of the throne. His gaze glanced over Skarl and landed on the short Korbat to his left, garbed in the colourful motley of the jester. A yellow face peered out from amidst the rainbow of colours, his limp wings falling red from his arms.
'Your Majesty, it is an honour to stand before you once again as a friend of Meridell,' Quai declared, turning his attention back to Skarl again. 'In these troublesome times, it is imperative we reaffirm our alliance and maintain the peace our two nations brokered in the wake of the tragedy that befell of our late Lord Darigan, and the atrocities that occurred as a result. I believe you have previously met my bodyguard Kakurain, and this is my steward Serra,' he added, indicating his companions. Lastly he waved a hand over the cluster of other pets who had followed him down the hall, although his eyes noted the lack of a veiled Aisha. 'My other companions, whose names I have not bothered to learn, are but brutes bringing fresh gifts for Your Majesty and your lords. Alas the journey has caused some damage, however, so I must apologise for the delay in presenting them. I shall ensure my kinsmen check and restore everything to perfection before we deign present them to Your Majesty.'
'At least they are now safe from the wind and the rain in Meridell Castle!' Skarl boomed across the hall, Quai resisting the urge to cringe at his pompous tone. 'Lord Quai, I offer you the hospitality of my hearth for the duration of your stay. I look forward to speaking with you further about these troublesome times before the festival, but I think for now you should get some rest. And some clean clothes,' he added as an afterthought, sneering at the damp that still dripped from Quai's elegant attire despite having been shielded by the cloak.
'I thank you, Your Majesty,' Quai replied politely, bowing once again. His face was frozen in a polite smile as he turned from King Skarl, swallowing his desire to wipe the smug smirk off the Skeith's face. It had been a foolish decision to walk the last leg of the journey, more foolish even to forgo the offer of rest before presenting himself to the cretinous monarch and instead show Meridell the face of a weather-worn and beaten Darigan, but it was too late to change things. Perhaps it was better Skarl and Meridell thought so poorly of Darigan, but one glance at Sir Jeran as he appeared to lead Quai to his chambers said the experienced knight had not underestimated him, but quite the opposite.
It was of little comfort.
To be continued...