The Ringworld Hero
Winding through the halls and chambers of the elven castle, Danny couldn't help but be awestruck. The whole place was exquisite in every detail, a work of art disguised as a residence; lavished with decorative vases, sculptures of all kinds, beautiful paintings of historic scenes, and suits of armour that were probably worn by knights and hero kings centuries ago. The castle itself was probably quite old, as detail mismatches seemed to crop up constantly, no doubt the result of more modern repairs. I made a mental note to ask about it all at a later date.
As Leena led him through the palace, they made their way into one of the upper sections of one wing, with spacious luxury bedchambers, each quite clearly only intended to house no more than two occupants but easily able to accommodate twenty. To a working-class man like myself it just seemed disgustingly overindulgent, but I didn't say a word. She led me to the end of a hallway and up a spiral staircase and to another set of double doors. These were a lot smaller than the other ones, but still rather large.
She pulled one door open and went inside. I hesitated, lingering on the edge of the unknown, before she pulled me across the threshold.
And into her bedroom.
Inside, I expected a blizzard of pink, but the place seemed similar to the rest of the castle, but with less paintings and more cloth draperies. Multiple large bookcases sat against several walls and a desk piled high with books and writing paper. Multiple inkwells sat empty on her desk as well as what looked like dirty dishes that the servants hadn't noticed. Clearly, they were only allowed in at her say-so and as such were unable to clean up.
She walked over to a series of wooden trunks that sat in the middle of the spacious room, not too far from a pair of couches with a coffee table between them. To one side of the room stood a large set of opaque panels, most likely a privacy screen for changing.
"No need to be polite, gods know you've not had any concern about it before."
I walked over sheepishly towards the dusty trunks.
She turned around to face one of the trunks, squatting down to unlatch it. I'm pretty sure she squatted so I couldn't look up her skirt, but you never know with this woman.
Inside the trunk was what appeared to be shirts of some description. Leena opened the other to reveal a collection of different pants.
"I had some men's tunics and pants brought up here. We'll go through and see if we can find some that fit. Some proper clothes can be made for you later."
I walked up to the chest full of tunics and began to dig through it. There were all sorts in there. Formal ones, more casual ones, some really detailed ones, and some plain ones. Eventually, I found a blue short sleeved tunic adorned with a white embroidery depicting a sword with two different points on it. The design reminded me of a game I liked, so I set it aside before heading to the other trunk.
"An interesting choice, Arbiter. I believe that one had some significance." Leena noted, before walking off toward one of the several bookshelves. Running her finger along the collection of leather spines, she landed on one before pulling it out and beginning to skim through it.
I paid no mind as I dug through the different trousers, pulling out a beige pair made of sturdy cloth. They weren't too thick, would let me move, but wouldn't get shredded on a long journey.
"These'll do me for now. I can get some sturdier clothes for travelling later."
She turned from the shelf and looked at me, before pointing at the privacy screen. "You can change over there. I can have your clothes washed, but the bloodstains are dried in, they won't come out."
I looked down at my still crimson shirt and blood-soaked leg. The foam outside my pants was gone completely. Pulling up the leg of my jeans, I saw the foam was completely level with my skin, and the hole was noticeably shrunk.
"I told you it'd grow back." She quipped.
"Doesn't mean it didn't hurt at the time." I shot back as I casually strolled behind the screen. Behind it sat a small wooden stool and a table along the wall to place fresh clothes. Putting my new clothes down and turning around, It was then I saw them.
White lace with solid panels on the lower part, each hole lined with intricate lace. I picked them up without hesitation. They felt smooth in my hand and had a strangely familiar crusty feeling. I gave a cautious sniff.
They fucking stunk.
"Oi, princess!" I shouted, tossing them over the screen. "Put yer fuckin dirty knickers away!"
I heard an embarrassed shriek from behind the panels, followed by a loud thump on the one nearest me
"I'll have you hung for this!"
"I'd like to see you try!"
A servant had walked in with a tea tray and some biscuits to the sight of the Princess holding her dirty panties while yelling at a teenage boy. "My apologies, your majesty, I didn't mean to intrude."
Leena sighed. "It's fine Gertrude, just put the tea on the table."
Still behind the screen, I quickly took off my shirt and pants, pulling my runners with them. Holding the new pants up to my waist, they seemed to be a fit. I put them on with no difficulty. I slipped on the tunic and came out from the screen, dirty clothes in one hand and shoes in the other.
Leena stood quietly talking to the maid, Gertrude. It was the same frumpy maid girl. I noticed now that she was wearing a pair of oversized round glasses with thin steel frames that gave her a slightly owl-like appearance. No elegant princess but certainly bot something to scoff at.
'Better not stay here too long, or I'm gonna start channeling king Henry the 8th'.
She turned to me and nodded politely. "Would you like me to have your clothes taken to the laundry, sir?"
Felt a bit weird for someone to call me sir, but I figured she was just being polite. I held out the bundle of clothes I had arrived on this ring wearing. "If you can, please just have these burned. The bloodstains ain't coming out."
"Very well sir. And those strange boots?" She pointed at my runners, she'd probably never have seen a pair of modern shoes.
"I'll be keeping those, but if it's at all possible I'd like a nice pair of sturdy boots. Just feels wrong to wear these with my new clothes."
"Not a problem, sir. Would you prefer them brought her or to your bedch-"
"Here is fine, Gertrude." Leena interjected, cutting her off.
"Wait, my bedchambers?"
Leena shot an angry glare at Gertrude, who curtsied hurriedly before scurrying off, leaving us alone again.
"Sit down and have some tea, I'll explain and you can ask your questions."
Dropping the shoes next to one of the trunks, I sat on the nearest couch with the tray just to my left. She sat down opposite.
"Most places with a long history have a designated place where the Arbiters have been quartered, often quite comfortably. This place is no different. Not too far from my chambers here is the place the last few Arbiters were set up long-term. It wasn't unusual for them to stay in them for several years, or only a single night, having to move around as needed." She took one of the teacups, holding it by the rim as she placed it on the table. "Your life probably won't differ much in that regard for many years."
"And what about when they got too old?"
"They would usually find a place that was comfortable and just decide to stop. A lot of them would often become kings. A few were Alephi hero kings, marrying into now-dead houses." She snorted while pouring the tea. "You won't though."
"Well why not? I'm going to be a legendary hero after all, I bet I'll have cute princesses throwing themselves at me!" I snarked, reaching for one of the biscuits laid out on a silver platter. I took a small bite of what seemed to be a plain biscuit and a familiar taste almost brought a tear to my eye.
Milk Arrowroots, just like my grandma used to buy for me when I was a kid. It only sealed in the reality I had yet to truly accept. I'd never see my family again.
"Simple maths. The Dwarven clans of Gopniki and Boga'an have elderly kings with adult children who are all married. The nine kingdoms are in a massive state of disarray, being ruled by warlords and not established kings. No other nations exist in the near vicinity that you could get to. Which means there's none on the table for you." Her tone held an unusual smugness, as if she enjoyed crushing my ambition.
Keeping my face neutral, I retorted flatly. "Wrong. That only leaves one."
This one made her actually turn her nose up at me. "I'd sooner wed a boulder than I would you."
"And yet," I chuckled confidently, sipping tea from one of the cups "here I am. Drinking tea in the bedchambers of a princess, with nobody else around."
"On uncle's word. If he hadn't made me babysit you, you'd probably be in the barracks already getting outfitted for the rest of your life.”
I only just managed to hide my annoyance, her remarks seemed to be rather accurate to my (admittedly limited) understanding.
"Why does your uncle want me to take care of you then? You can clearly handle yourself, as my leg would seem to indicate."
She rolled her eyes, slumping back onto the cushions. "Ugh, I know. Uncle has usually been quite lax with me, but it seems like this is something he won't move on. But.." Her tone lightened from resigned annoyance to a slight optimism. "It might be a good opportunity to see the world without constantly being shepherded on guided tours through propaganda events at negotiations and meetings."
"So don't look at it as you having to lug me around, I'm your ticket to freedom." I sipped from the teacup to hide the smug look on my face.
"It's a very steep price, but I'm thinking that Uncle Vral was expecting the ultimate soldier to land in his lap, but ended up with you and didn't want to look like an idiot." She rolled her eyes at me. "Either way, I'm stuck with you, so we are going to lay down some ground rules."
"Ground rules? Seriously?
"What do you think I'm going to do? Try to smooch you in your sleep or steal your dirty underwear? What type of pervert do you take me for?"
"Well, um…" She seemed off her game, almost as if she didn't expect me to throw this back in her face. How she got that idea is beyond me. "I don't want you to do anything perverted behind my back."
I scoffed. I wasn't going to admit to her face she was cute, but it's clear she expects me to be all over her. "This thing shining through my tunic here, this is practically a beacon to any and all women around me that I am a legendary hero that only comes through once in entire centuries. I'll have no need to harass you."
She snorted in amusement. "The children of every arbiter are marked permanently with certain traits and abilities even from the day they are born. If you do anything stupid, every kingdom on the continent will know."
"Oh fuck me…"
"Not on your life, Arbiter."
I coughed to cover up the awkwardness, taking a lengthy sip from the teacup. "This stuff is actually pretty good. Where'd you guys get those biscuits?"
Leena seemed confused. "What do you mean? These are made with an old recipe that has been in this region since the Undead Crises six hundred years ago."
"These are Milk Arrowroots. How the hell did you get your hands on Arrowroot or a biscuit recipe?"
"How would I know something as obscure as that?"
I huffed in annoyance. "Well there's only two places in my world where you can readily get those biscuits. Great Britain and Australia."
"I have no clue what you're on about."
"You said these came to be during a big crisis, right?"
"Yeah, what of it?"
"Who is summoned during a big crisis? One of us. Whoever was summoned during that event was from the same homeland as me. I need to find something from them."
Leena rolled her eyes at me. "Those records are probably so mothballed by now there's no actual records left. Good luck finding more than ghosts and graves."
I took another sip of tea, my hopes of finding a shred of kinship in this crazy world crushed. "So, what was this undead crisis anyways? Sounds kinda stupid."
Her mix of confusion and horror was almost comical as it sat on her face. "The Undead Crises were a series of disasters where a large group of monster cores stumbled across a lot of mass graves and began to puppet them. Each time one body was destroyed, the core would crawl out and attach to a fallen soldier or innocent civilian. It took one of your predecessors and a young knight to slay them all and bring the crises to an end. The stories say that the knight was Sir Reginald Carmayer, the one who started the noble house that bears his name centuries later. His Arbiter friend earned the title 'Arbiter of Death' for his exploits in making sure the dead may eternal lie…"
"Whew." I huffed in exaggerated exhaustion. "That was fuckin heavy."
Glancing around the spacious bedchamber, my eye was drawn back to her desk. "What were you researching over there?"
Her eyes immediately broke my gaze, taking interest in the draperies behind my head. "Just some tutoring studies, nothing too important."
"What kind of studies?" I asked, a smug undertone hidden under half-genuine curiosity.
"I've been studying the effects of economic policy on geopolitical influence over history so I may one day effectively wield it."
I could feel the smarm hidden behind her apprehensive teacup.
"Alright, let's have a look see." I said, pushing my palms into my knees as I stood up.
Slamming the cup back down, Leena scrambled to stand in my way. Before she obscured my view, I caught a glimpse of her work. It wasn't geopolitical or even economic studies, but technical. Diagrams of cores and artifacts as well as a cool but familiar looking sword.
It was then I felt a stinging sensation and my vision blurred.
"OW! THE FUCK, DICKHEAD?"
"Gertrude, take him up to his room."
"Oh princess, there's tea everywhere, let me-"
"Take him, Gertrude. I won't ask again."
"Yes, your highness."