The Fallen Diadem
“You look like an idiot. You know what, wait, actually, you look more like a slave now than when you had a collar on your throat. I mean look at this thing. Is this lace? You’ve got a lace collar on,” Charlie said, tugging at my exposed undershirt.
Claire had dressed me like a butler or some other kind of Druscan servant. I had an undershirt, a button down shirt over that, and a black sport coat over top of that. The only color on me was in my cheeks. “Don’t be jealous just because I’m going and you’re not.”
That was able to put some color in his cheeks. I at least looked dignified when embarrassed, since she had forced me to get my hair cut and a clean shave. “Oh, is that your way of saying you’re excited to be serving the Lady West?”
I crossed my arms. “We’ve been serving her for nearly a month. What difference is it just because we aren’t sweating in a pit? Do you think I’m going on vacation or something?”
“Don’t use words I don’t understand to distract from the fact you weaseled your way into this with both Claire and Neeka you greedy bastard.”
“Oh, so you’re just outright saying you’re jealous?”
Xon cleared his throat and sat down on the horse hitching fence. “Charlie, aren’t you working for Sister Evey? Treatment plus teaching?”
I sneered back at the now bashful Charlie. “Milking your injury a bit, aren’t you? I bet you’ve learned a lot from the priestess.”
His snarl was back in an instant. “Well then, if you think I’m all healed up, then surely you’d be good to have another duel and settle things. You’ve been practicing without me and gotten cocky. I guess it’s time for the master to show the pupil their place.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Xon’s head roll up to stare at the sky. He was as tired of it as the horses were. It gave me just enough self-awareness that I didn’t move my hand to my sword. It would have been nice to beat Charlie in a duel, but there was no point until he healed up. Thankfully, I didn’t have to be the bigger man.
Neeka interrupted us. “What are you two at each other’s throats for?” She looked like someone’s idea of a princess doll. It was a servant’s dress surely, but to accommodate her tail, the hem of the dress barely covered half her thighs and was poofed up with layers of lace beneath. I was reasonably certain that the dress, even without including the gloves and stockings, actually covered more of her skin than usual. And yet, there was something about seeing her in city clothes rather than dirty travelling armor.
“You took time to braid your hair?” Xon asked.
I blinked and had to reassess her to even notice that rather than her frazzled ponytail, she had cleaned up and interlaced her locks into a french braid. She slid it around her shoulder and played with the end, pouting a bit as she said, “Claire practically held me down to do it. She treated me like a dress up toy.”
Claire had remarkably good taste. I cleared my throat and stepped away from Charlie. “You’ve got all your stuff on the carriage already?”
“You should have seen the driver when I walked up with the spear. All of Claire’s-”
“We have to call her Lady West,” I interrupted.
Neeka rolled her eyes and planted her other hand on her hip. “All of Lady West’s knightly gear was already on and he didn’t believe me when I said the spear was mine. This is insulting.”
Charlie looked her up and down again. “That means your disguise is good. Nobody will realize you’re all feral.”
“I wasn’t feral until you humans attacked,” she said, and reminded us of how similar her fingernails were to claws.
“Oh, so now you’re lumping all humans together because of Piedtri? Did you forget that humans have multiple kingdoms instead of just tribes?”
I backed away from the two of them. Charlie had just dug his own grave and I didn’t even smell brandy on his breath.
Claire put an end to it by arriving. The fact that she was nobility was indisputable. I had assumed she would be in something like officer’s fatigues, and in a sense she was. She had on trousers and boots, they were just beneath a riding skirt that seemed to be purely decorative and to match the vest she had tightly buttoned across her chest. Something told me she had put on a bit of mass since the last time she had worn the outfit, probably in her back muscles. “Mark, Neeka, have you two ever rode in a carriage before?”
“No,” I answered, technically speaking. Neeka nodded though.
“Well then, if you start getting sick, just tell me. It’s an all day trip to Port Pelagus. We’ll most likely arrive at night,” she said, and marched over to the carriage driver to speak with him.
The four of us pulled in closer, a little shuffle here or a step there. “Well then…” I said.
“This will be the first time,” Charlie said.
Neeka nodded. “Yeah.”
“That we’ve been really separated as a group,” he finished.
Xon shook his head. “Won’t be long”
“Yeah,” I said. “This will only take a few days and then we’re back here to finish things with Amaranth. Charlie, you better be ready to get your father’s sword back, so rest up.”
“Sure sure,” he said and clasped his hand onto my shoulder. “While you’re off stuck in a carriage, I’ll be sure to get my own set of fancy armor like you.”
Xon laughed. “Too bad the army already raided the castle armory.”
“And while I was still recovering! Like they don’t care at all about the man who charged the king of Vichtstein!” he declared, throwing his good arm up to the sky. “Ungrateful, the lot of them. I’m the reason Amaranth had the opportunity to kill it and he lightning bolted me to say thanks!”
Neeka quietly took hold of his left hand, the one held in a sling to appease Sister Evey. “We will be back, so don’t leave town without us, okay?”
That hit me like a lightning bolt to the heart, or the ego, hard to tell the difference sometimes. I had known she had a thing for Charlie, it was obvious regardless of the fighting. The kiss the other night had just been excitement. It still hurt though.
Eventually, the three of us got on the carriage and headed off. Claire sat on the bench across from Neeka and me, her nose in some novel. I couldn’t see what she was reading from my angle, and her serious expression told me to not ask her questions about it. That would have been fine if I had been able to speak with Neeka; but, after situating the poof of her skirt, she had laid her head against the wall and nodded off.
I was effectively by myself in the carriage. Every rut and rock in the road jostled me till the thin cushion felt as hard as the wood beneath it. Every little spot of itchiness in my new clothes made itself known, one by one, as the hours passed. Because the sun didn’t move, I didn’t even have shadows to watch. We just rolled past dry pastures with distant animal herds. When there were farms, I tried to see what was being grown, but for all my botanical knowledge, it just looked like rows of grain surrounding cottages.
A few hours later, we had only traveled a few dozen miles. My sanity seemed to be on the breaking point when Claire finally closed her book with a smile. “I’d say it’s about lunch time then? My dear valet, why don’t you get us something prepared?” she asked with a ladylike smile, looking at me.
I was so bored, I didn’t even protest and climbed out along the side of the carriage. The driver slowed our pace just a bit, and I was able to get some fresh air as I fetched the provisions. The smell of salted dragonmeat sandwiches roused Neeka from her sleep and she had to wipe drool off her chin before I could hand her one. “Could you tell me what the city is like?” I asked after handing Claire hers. It was almost physically painful to hold my tongue beyond that.
“It’s the main trading hub with Dalvurnia. Connects to the Crystal Sea and beyond. I’ve only visited a few times before I joined the Order. I didn’t much care for the parties but the chocolate shops are the best I’ve ever found. It’s sort of like the getaway shadow town of the capital; the city next door to venture off to. Little dry isn’t it?” she responded.
“Doesn’t sound dry. Sounds like a place to lose your money quicker than you realize though.”
She swallowed. “I meant the food.”
“Oh well… I didn’t see any mustard or anything in here. They’re basically rations,” I said, looking back down at the box of foodstuffs that had been prepared for the trip.
“She means you didn’t get the wine out,” Neeka whispered.
I looked back at Claire’s smirk. She really was going to use the situation like that. When I got her the wine, her response was, “what a lovely servant you’d be if you weren’t so busy trying to be a knight.”
“Clai-... Lady West, you are a knight yourself. Shouldn’t you be offering to make him your squire instead of your servant?” Neeka asked, leaning against the carriage wall and nibbling her food.
“That would imply I was teaching him how to fight and as much as I’m ashamed to say it, I don’t actually know the Druscan style. My training came from Throne when I decided to be a runaway to the military academy,” Claire said.
“Your style did seem somewhat basic when we sparred,” I said, and filled my mouth while she spoke.
“The official style is designed for mass instruction and mass implementation. The way you fight in a formation, not in a duel. You’d have to learn dueling techniques on the side because the academy only cares about reliability. It’s very good for fighting creatures like the fallen. Incidentally, Sir Brekhart is known for the Raven Strike school. I suggest you ask for a first-blood duel rather than to the death.”
“I assumed it would be to defeat or something. Amaranth doesn’t strike me as someone who would want his useful soldiers killed over a duel,” I said.
Neeka’s hair bristled. “Maybe he wouldn’t have liars working for him if he did.”
“Dueling to the death means triumph of the violent, not triumph of the righteous. You might not win either. Picking up one end of the stick means picking up the whole stick. Don’t get me wrong, I’m rooting for you, mostly because I’ll get a huge leap in prestige if you knock Brekhart down, but I have to be realistic in your chances.”
“First blood, defeat, death, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll beat him,” I said, and after that the conversation turned to lighter topics, things more easily discussed for hours at a time. We covered cooking and world travel, and what the Order had been doing before arriving at Vichtstein.
We arrived at Port Pelagus just before night, and I was able to see the water. It was like the ocean had invaded land; a huge swath of water as far out as I could see and yet I could see both sides of the shore. They were a bit hazy in the dwindling light, but I could make out where villages and farms were all along the edge. The city sat at the peak of it, as though the sea were an enormous shadow cast out from the walls. It was a real, vibrant city with thousands of people within it.
Somewhere in there was Sir Brekhart, and hopefully, proof that he stole the other half of the money.