Chapter 4:

The King

The Ringworld Hero


The castle loomed  large as it towered over us, seeming almost comically large to the point where it was on the smaller side of crazy. As we ascended the steps, the darkened wood doors made me feel like an insect in a titans realm, both of the doors bore scars that seemed to be the gouges of swords and the dents of maces. All over its surface, tell-tale cracks showed where splinters had been reattached after being ripped out by vicious axes. In the center, I could've sworn there was the imprint of a Battering Ram, the imprint of its horns almost becoming a faded secondary crest behind the Royal insignia and seemingly ever present three concentric rings.
Leena didn't seem too worried by the absolute shitload of guards leading up the path and over the extravagant bridge to the castle itself. Just like at the city gates, these men wore the same crest inside three rings, but their uniforms were more flashy. Each carried a pistol on their hip just like the Princess, but also appeared to have a spear and a weird handle thing on their waist I assumed was a sword. On their wrist, each had several straps holding in place a strange rectangular device with three protruding bumps along it. I had no clue what it was, but I could hazard a guess. As for the outfits themselves, they were a brilliant blue with gold trim. Each wore something akin to a beret and their boots were a shining white, adorned with the same golden trim. Each one of them could've kicked my arse bare handed, but they each looked away from me when our eyes met. Half seemed out of respect, the rest out of fear…
What the ever loving fuck had I gotten into this time? 
As the doors parted, the full opulence of the castle was laid out before me. Banners in gold trim and every colour of royal power adorned the walls, beautiful stonework columns and arches poking out between. Ornate chandeliers lit the entrance, with golden candelabras standing near supporting columns. More guards stood at key places inside, lining the red carpeted hallway up to what I presume was the throne room about another 50 or so meters further in, obscured from view by an even more opulent wooden door. The soldiers saw the Princess approach, slamming the haft of their spears onto the stone in unison and shouting.
A young woman who appeared to be no more than twenty approached us. She had dark hair and wore what appeared to be a stereotypical maid outfit, it's apron embroidered with the same royal crest. With a polite curtsey she began to speak.
"Welcome home, your majesty. His majesty, the king awaits your arrival in the throne room. Her majesty, Princess Amara is also present."
Her movements, though clearly well-practiced, seem to lack the grace of the Princess. Bunching up her skirt, the frumpy maid began to walk toward the ornate doors. 
Each step brought more dread into the back of my mind. What would they do to me? If I make one false move, the king might try to have my head. I pushed those thoughts down and swallowed my fear. If they were anything close to Leena, I'd be completely fine.
Two guards in full plate armour with the same blue surcoats embroidered in gold with the Royal crest. They stood still as statues in front of each door, palms resting on the hilt of ornate claymores that looked so large as to be impractical. These monstrous men probably had no trouble wielding such ornate blades. In unison, they lifted one hand from their blades and pushed open the doors.
"The king will see you now." One of the suits echoed in a deep voice. 
Leena seemed completely unfazed by all this, but I was shitting myself. I'd never been in a place this fancy, or absolutely fucking terrifying.
The maid bowed before dashing off in what seemed to me like terror. It was hard to tell.
As the doors parted before us, a golden light flooded out, making it hard to see for a second. Leena strode confidently inside, I followed a few steps behind her. In the light, I could see a large throne draped in red and gold cloths, a slightly smaller throne to the left. Two more figures stood to the left of the throne, seemingly not important enough to deserve a chair. We stepped into the grand chamber. After passing some sort of invisible threshold, the door slammed shut behind me. 
There was no way out now.
I approached the raised platform, stopping about a meter from the three steps up to the raised platform. One of the standing advisors gave me what seemed like a heavily disguised version of the stink eye. I paid it no mind, nodding toward the king in acknowledgement.
"Bow before the king, peasant." Came a demanding yet somewhat weasley man's voice. It was from the more fancily dressed of the two advisors, the same who had given him the look.
"I humble myself before people who have proved to be worthy of it. The King has not done so yet and you have just disproved yourself." I was oh so tempted to puff out my chest in pride at that statement, but I didn't. 
"You insolent boy! I will have you head for this!" He tried to reply. "You will rod in the du-"
"Silence." A commanding voice boomed from the throne itself. Cloaked in shadow, it was hard to make out a face, but I could see the outline of a massive beard and a broadsword poking over his right shoulder. I don't know too much about swords, but it seemed to be either a broadsword or a mini bastard, designed for one hand but usable by two. It wasn't lavished in jewels or golden trim, but rather seemed to be a more soldierly blade built for practicality.
"It is fine that he does not bow, Wilhelm, he is going to be the one that saves us after all." The king leaned forward into the light, revealing the contours of his face. His eyes were the same piercing blue that Leena had, which commanded the attention of whoever met his gaze. They were sunken into their sockets, his skin wrinkled and bronzed as if he had spent decades working in the sun. It seemed odd for a king. 
"So, Arbiter. Introduce yourself." Boomed the king.
"My name is Danny. A pleasure to make your acquaintance." Usually, I'd hold out for a handshake and begun to make the gesture, before snapping my hand back down before anyone could notice.
"Ha ha ha. This one has a sense of humour. " He turned to his advisors and addressed them, glinting briefly at the guards. "Leave us."
Obediently and in unison, the advisors and guards nodded in unison. Wilhelm lagged behind slightly but enough to notice. The advisors filed out of a side door and the guards through the main ones. 
With the thudding of the giant main doors, the king sighed with relief, chuckling heartily to himself. 
"Leena my dear! Come give me a hug!" He shouted, his booming voice echoing in the large throne room. 
"Uncle Vral!"
Dropping all semblance of royal decorum, she ran into his arms and buried her face in his bushy silver beard.
The woman next to him stood up and came into the light, revealing herself for the first time. To me, she looked like an exact duplicate of Leena, but aged up about twenty-five years. Her dress was less showy and quite a bit more elegant, more befitting of a princess.
"Are you just going to not hug your mother?"
Wordlessly, she let go of the king and strode over to her mother. 
"Sorry mum, I just got a bit over excited."
She lovingly stroked Leena’s hair. "It's alright dear, I'm just glad to see you back safe. Was that pistol from the armoury really enough for you? Are you sure you didn't need a guard contingent?"
She pulled away in annoyed disgust. "Ugh, I'm fine mum, stop worrying about me!"
"I can't." She replied sternly. "You are my daughter and I will always worry about you. Furthermore, you are the Princess and in line for the throne. Your personal security is a matter of national security. By all right I should have sent Captain Church and a dozen of his best men equipped in full battle gear as your escorts!"
The king gestured to her. "Amara, that's enough. She's fine and that's all that matters. As of from now on, we shan't worry about security, as her new bodyguard has just arrived."
"WHAT?" They both shouted in unison.
"No uncle, I'm not going around with this idiot!" She tried to protest.
"Leena, this is what you wanted to do. You agreed to this and you best stick to it. A king who goes back on his promises is one whose reign is short. You would do best to remember that." The king’s expression had hardened, it was clear that he wasn't going to let her rescind her promise. "Take him to get some new clothes and show him around. You will be accompanying him from now on."
"But uncle…" She began to protest before trailing off. She knew that it'd get her nowhere. "Yes, your highness."
I was really confused at this sudden change in address, but then I thought about it. Here the kings word was probably law. "Sir, I don't think you und-"
"Nonsense my boy! She will be a perfect companion on your travels. She's a bright girl and can handle herself in a fight, and her word to the layman carries the weight of my authority." His voice slipped from a jovial tone to a more sedate and somewhat serious one. "Now my dear, take him off to get some new clothes. I'll have someone sent to fetch you later. We have much to discuss, but this is not the time nor is it the place." 
"Whar are we supposed to do in the meantime?" I asked,  not even sure what there was to do in a castle like this except go exploring, which felt like a very bad idea right now.
"Leena will lead you around, she knows every nook and cranny of this place. Do whatever you want, but no funny business." He gave me a knowing look while saying that. I quickly glanced at Leena, her cheeks and the tips of her ears visibly red, just like I'd imagined. My eyes snapped to the king, his left eyebrow raised suggestively.
"Wouldn't dream of it sir." I replied, gulping loudly without realising until his expression broke and the echoes of laughter boomed all around.
"Good! Very good! I'll see you tonight at dinner. There won't be any ministers or anyone else present, just a quiet dinner to get to know each other."
Leena and Amara stood off to the side, seemingly at a loss for words. Their expressions were so similar as to be almost perfect copies of one another. I had to stifle a chuckle, contorting my face to keep it straight. I casually strolled up to her and smiled.
"Shall we go?"

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