Chapter 7:

Dinner

The Ringworld Hero


With some time to myself, and my curiosity sated for the moment, I had taken to relaxing in my new quarters. 
The liquor cabinet was quite obviously an object of interest. Inside, I found what seemed to be several bottles of wine and a few bottles of some brown liquid that was some sort of whiskey or bourbon. I poured out a nice bit of one of the nicer smelling bottles into a glass that sat in a small shelf on the inside of the door (after wiping out the dust with the hem of my shirt). It smelled like something adjacent to a bottle of whiskey, so I just took some. Back home, spirits this age would be worth quite a bit of money. Collectors would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for spirits a quarter of this age. Almost felt criminal to drink it, but it was mine so I decided to indulge.
I decided that digging through some books might be a good idea, but my search for something to occupy myself proved fruitless. The books I found all seemed to be in an unreadable script of an unknown type.
On the bottom shelf of one shelf tucked into the corner, a little group of books stood out to me. Lots of little books all with the same design, odd bits of paper sticking out at angles that seemed unnatural for a properly made book. They were numbered in characters I recognised, but the spines were all blank. 
Taking one out, I looked at the front cover as well.
It was also blank.
I flipped through the opening page to find notes that weren't written in whatever local script was used, but in English. 
A knock at the door interrupted my curiosity. Placing the book on the coffee table next to the liquor, I turned to the door.
"Come in." 
The door creaked open and a young looking butler in an immaculate suit walked in. His attire was the same blue as the guards with the cuffs and edges all done in gold thread. It honestly looked to me like a cross between a military dress uniform and a bellboy. "Pardon my intrusion sir, but his majesty the king requests your presence at dinner this evening.
I looked at him, turned back to the liquor, then back to him.
"One second"
Burned like hell, but I didn't even need a whole second. I looked the butler in the eye as the last drop came out of the glass, before placing the glass loudly on the heavy oak table.
His attempts to suppress his confused horror was priceless.
Standing up, I casually wiped my shirt down with my palms. 
"Is the Princess going to be dining with us?"
"Yes sir, I do believe so."
I nodded, shuffling slightly awkwardly. "Guess I am kinda hungry. Ah screw it, I'll come down."
The butler nodded, gesturing stiffly as he turned on his heels the same way as the guards on patrol did. It was unusual, but matched his even and carefully calculated speech. 
'How much stress is this poor bugger hauling around?' was the only thing I could think of at the time.

He led me through the winding halls to another set of grand oaken doors, these one inlaid with gold and blue paint, the center laying out the kingdom’s seal, again within three concentric rings. 
I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d seen that before in some other context, but I’d only ever seen them around the royal seal. The thought stuck in my mind uncomfortably as the butler pushed open the door. Strolling in front of me in what seemed like a stiff and unnatural manner, he bowed toward the other side of the doors.
"Your majesty, I present to you, the Arbiter."
Beyond the doors was a massive oak table, with a maroon and gold cloth with golden tassels along each edge running the length of the table but only covering the center. A set of towering arched windows in ornately carved recesses let the brilliant stars be seen through the window. It was evident from that detail alone the dining hall was on the sunside-facing edge of the castle, not looking toward the city. Pillows in the same colour scheme sat in some of the recesses, alternating between which was a seating area and which was merely for viewing. On the other wall hung beautiful and terrifying weapons, often crossed behind beautiful ornate shields, the whole assembly polished to a mirror shine. It cast the flickers of light from the roaring fire in the giant fireplace at the back of the room around the room in a dazzling manner. It was almost too much to take in at once.
As my eye was drawn to the flames, my eye stuck to the massive figure sitting in the chair in front of it. The massive man with a glorious silver beard flowing all the way to his chest. The light from the candelabras hanging above the table glinted off the jewels on his rings and the stones in his crown. His large clothing seemed to suggest the frame of a fat old man, but I could see quite clearly that it wasn't. The fabrics creased in places that betrayed air pockets, almost as if it were designed to invoke the look of a fat and decadent king, so as not to betray to his enemies what his true personal strength was.
I saw a faint glint in his eye as the butler announced my arrival.
"Welcome, my dear boy! Come have a seat with us." He boomed at me from across the room, faint echoes bouncing off the ornate walls as he gestured to an empty chair on his right hand side. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the butler bow and take his leave.
The king and I were alone.
I made my way over to the chair as casually as I could, trying not to look nervous. I knew the risk of execution was probably pretty slim, but you never knew with monarchs.
Pulling out the chair, I plopped down onto the soft cushion on top of the curved wooden base it was fixed to.
"Thank you sir, you are quite generous to invite me to dinner." I managed to get out, trying not to trip over my own words.
He just boomed another round of laughter into the vaulting ceiling. "It's not trouble, my boy. While you're here in the palace, you may dine with me as often as you wish."
"Th-thank you, sir."
Rolling his eyes slightly, he patted me hard on the shoulder. "My dear boy, there's no need to address me so formally. You can call me Uncle, just when Leena isn't around. She's probably not quite comfortable with the prospect yet, but in due time, she will begin to like you." He chuckled slightly, gazing into the middle distance. "After all, it's been a long time since this land has been ruled by a hero king."
I looked at him in shock. "A hero king? I'm just some random guy who woke up here, I'm not ready to be a hero king, I'm barely a hero as it is! I'll probably be killed in some fight and thrown in a ditch."
His smile faded from his friendly face, but he didn't lose the compassion from his eyes. "My boy, even if you die tomorrow without a single deed to your name, you would be buried as a hero regardless. The fact you are sitting here now is proof enough of your great strength." Turning to face behind him, looking at what seemed to be the edge of the fireplace he began to speak.
"Bring us two large mugs of ale, my good man! We wish to drink before dinner."
Surprisingly, a servant stepped out into the light of the fireplace, dressed in a suit of black, but trimmed with the kingdom's signature blue and gold, he nodded towards us. "Of course, my liege. Would you like the regular or the sparking?"
My eyebrows shot up as I looked at him. "Sparkling ale? You guys have that here?"
The king nodded at the servant. "Two sparking ales in the biggest cold mugs you have."
Hearing the commands of his king, the servant nodded. "At once, my liege."
He turned to me and smirked. "I didn't take you for one to enjoy a brew of that type. It's a beer of Boga'ani origin, coming from the grasslands on the subside of the Dwarven mountains. I've never heard tell of any from your world knowing of it'd existence before their arrival."
I chuckled nervously as I watched the king stroke his beard. "It's a style that came from my homeland in my world. Sparkling ales were popular about 150 years ago, but their popularity died over time. Only one brand still makes beer in that style and I am quite fond of it. Used to buy a big bottle of it on the way home from work."
The servant, who I was now certain was the official waiter of the palace, came back with a round tray with two of the biggest glasses I had ever seen. They reminded me of the glass my dad had taken from his dad after he died, complete with the handle and the look they had spent a weekend in a freezer, except it was fucking massive. It looked as of it was almost four time the size. The waiter placed the two glass tankards (at least I think that's what the name is) in front of us and nodded. 
As I looked at the glass, a sad smile came onto my face."As my dear grandfather would have said, there's too much head on that beer." 
I saw the king chuckle as he picked up the giant mug. It seemed almost normal in his massive hands. He must be at least two meters tall, if not more. I guess that's why Leena is the same size as I am.
"Your grandfather seems like quite the entertaining man, I wish I could've met him someday, but the gap cannot be crossed by any other than you." His eyes went dark as he looked at me. "There is no way of crossing back to where you came from, no arbiter has tried it and lived to tell the tale. Many have tried and at least two drove themselves mad looking for a way. Please don't try something so foolhardy, my dear boy." I could see the sorrow hiding in his eyes, leaking from behind his near-perfect menacing stoicism. 
I simply sighed, lifting the massive glass with two hands abd taking a drink, the foam from the head going all the way up my nose and almost into my eyes. I could've sworn it was almost three kilos in all. Placing it back down with an awkward thud, I wiped my nose with my sleeve out of habit. "Don't worry… uncle. I know it's hopeless to try. Just like trying to bring grandpa back."
He placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. "Good lad, I don't want to lose you on some foolhardy mission to do what cannot be done. Someone has to wear the crown when I'm gone, but my darling niece can't do it on her own."
I looked at him, wiping a tear off my cheek that had slipped out. "What about some nobleman's son? I'm sure they've spilled blood to get you to promise your niece to one of their boys."
I saw his expression harden as he turned away, reaching for his beer and taking another massive swig. "They have. They've done that since the day I announced that she was born. I don't trust any of those bastards to take her hand, the throne would be little more than a stage for their bloody puppet show. I don't trust them even as far as I can throw most of them, but that's a bit of a moot point."
Chuckling, he dismissed his own points and took another drink. I did the same.
"My boy, don't be worried about them. I will take care of the snapping nobles. If any of their spineless sons get anywhere near my dear Leena, you have free reign to punch them. But please don't kill them, that could cause political trouble for you."
It was now my turn to chuckle. The idea of being able to beat the piss outta some snovelly dick bags with royal assent filled me with a sense of impending satisfaction that both disgusted and motivated me. "Of course, I won't do any permanent damage. A few hours with one of those healing things that Leena mentioned the other groups were going to put me in should be sufficient to fix anything I do to them." I lifted the mug to my face and had a long drink, trying to hide the malicious smirk that had crawled out onto it.
As I sat the mug down and thought of something to say, the doors at the far end of the hall opened with a loud creak. Three women stood at the doors, two of which I recognised, the other seemed familiar but it took me a second. It was Leena, her handmaid Gertrude, and her mother who I only saw briefly in the throne room. Her name seemed to escape me for the moment.
Puffing out her chest, Gertrude steeped forward to perform the announcement. "Your majesty, presenting to you, her majesties Princesses Amara and Princess Leena." Whith what seemed to me to be a glint of pride, but could've been a trick of the lighting, Gertrude scuttled off out of the dining hall as fast as she could without making a disturbance, lifting the skirt of her dress as she did so. The doors closed with a dramatic thud as the two ladies approached on the other side of the table.
The one thing that shocked me the most was that Leena was wearing a dress. Not the miniskirt fetish outfit thing she wore casually that looks like some manga artist's wank material, but an honest to god dress. It was done in the same royal blue as the guards uniforms, but of a much finer matte cloth. It was embroidered with gold in floral patterns, shaping her upper body in a way that was quite pleasant to the eye. At the hip, her skirt flowed freely down to her ankles, leaving enough clearance room to walk comfortably. Her neckline was quite shallow, leaving quite a bit more than usual to the imagination; but her gold necklace with the Royal symbol still sat round her neck in the same spot it ever was, only this time backed with the Royal blue colour. 
Her mother, by contrast, wore what appeared to be a tight-fitting and low cut red dress with no sleeves and a low neck, complimented by a pair of red elbow length gloves and a ruby necklace carved into a delicate rendition of the strange bird creature on the royal crest, holding a diamond cut into a fout-pointed star within three concentric rings. The outer rings were not present.
Leena walked ahead of her mother, pulling up her chair and sitting to the king's left.
Directly across from me. 
The king smiled looking at the two of them. "My dears, how nice of you to join us. Danny and I have just been having a friendly chat over a good drink. Care to join us or do you wish to wait for dinner?"
Amara turned toward the hidden door, speaking loudly towards it. "Bring us a bottle of red wine."
The waiter stepped out and bowed towards her. "What vintage does her majesty desire?"
She looked at Leena and then me, before smirking and turning back to the waiter. "Bring out a 1473 vintage, something on the stiffer end."
Leena looked at her mother with a frown. "You don't need to go crazy mum. It's just dinner."
Amara lovingly stroked her head, much to Leena’s annoyance. "Nonsense darling. Tonight is a night of celebration, because bow we have our Arbiter. Besides," She chuckled "this is the first time you've brought a boy home." Amara looked at me with an approving and somewhat uncomfortably seductive look. "And what a handsome boy he is…"
My discomfort disappeared almost instantly as soon as I saw Leena’s face. It was almost as red as her mother's dress. I lifted my beer to cover my smile, taking a large swig in the process. I had to admit, my head was already buzzing. 
"Mum," Lenna went on "I didn't bring him here because I wanted to, I brought him here because uncle Vral told me to. "
I kept my beer exact where it was, still unable to hide my amusement alone. The king didn't bother hiding his.
"Nonsense dear! I told you to bring me back the Arbiter, you brought him specifically."
Leena rolled her eyes and growled. "Because that's what he just happened to be. If I'd found another boy with horrible wounds and on the verge of death, I'd have shoved the core in his guts instead! I might’ve gotten one that was actually good…"
Her glare said it all, as if she was trying to project a mental blowtorch in my direction. But it was all in vain, for the heat of her mental flames were pleasantly warming. 
But something bugged me, digging into the back of my mind and refusing to let go. It didn't sit right…
But before I could assemble my thoughts, the waiter came back in with a bottle and two red wine glasses. The label was brown and faded, cracking at the edges like ancient parchment. For all it looked, it was centuries old. Tonight was turning out to be full of old liquor. The waiter placed each of the items carefully on the table before uncorking the bottle and pouring the glasses rather generously.
"If you would, the wine must sit for a minute or so to breathe."
Amara took the glass nearest her and swished it around under her nose before turning to the waiter. "Leave the bottle, I'll be sure to want a second glass." The waiter nodded and took his leave, but Amars turned to me and I could've sworn she'd winked at me.
I shrugged it off, I didn't have permission to hit on that princess, but she wasn't granting me the same courtesy.
Ignoring her and sipping my beer again, the feeling came back again. As I focused on it, I could feel it drawing my eyes somewhere. At first they settled on Leena’s chest, but that felt like something different, and not as appealing in that dress. My eyes were drawn to a spot on the table, but behind the thick oaken slab was her hip, hidden in the fields of her dress…
Before I could comment, the waiter emerged again, trailed by five chefs. "Dinner is served. Chicken Parmigiana with roast potatoes and steamed vegetables."
I paid no mind to the waiter, focusing on the strange feeling, until I realised what it was.
“Leena, do you have your pistol with you?”
She gave me the stink eye from across the table before starting to eat her meal. It was only then that my plate was placed in front of me, and a wave of emotion washed over me. The treats of home were taunting me, sticking in my mind that I'd never go home again.
No more wandering the streets of the CBD looking for illegal street art and funny nutters. No more stopping off in a little Cafe for lunch because it looks interesting. No more going to the footy between two bar visits with dad. No more sitting on the north bank of the Yarra and watching the world go by around me.
And in front of me sat a great big reminder of that loss. Tentatively, I stuck in my fork and cut off a small bite. No amount of effort could hold back the tears that were soon running down my cheeks.
Lifting up my beer, I took several large gulps, trying to use the glass to hide my tears. 
It only made the situation worse.
Defeated, I set the mug back down and wiped the tears from my face with my forearm. "I'm sorry, I don't know what's come over me."
Amara leaned across the table in a way that made me slightly uncomfortable, her necklace now dangling freely and drawing the eye to her breasts. "It's alright sweetie, you're probably just tired. It can't have been easy to get here."
Leena looked at me differently, a strange mix of disgust and pity. Had I not been crying, I would have tried to punch her. Of course, the table would present a significant obstacle.
"I'm fine, just a bit homesick. This was actually a local favourite in my home city. You could get it at basically every pub or restaurant."
Leena was the one who stood up first. "I'm sorry mother, I can't sit through this mess tonight."
Amara made a grab for her hand to stop her leaving. "No, you will stay here so we can get to know Danny a bit better."
She didn't say a word, pulling away and stomping off. As she made her way behind the chairs and toward the door, she pulled her pistol out of a dress fold and waved it around. "If you need me, I'll be at the firing range!"
The king sighed, turning toward the doorway. "Wrap up her meal and have it taken up to her room. Knowing that girl, she'll be starting by the end of that."
Out of the shadows, the butler stepped toward the now-empty chair. He nodded and took the plate, leaving the wine where it was.
Looking at my dinner, I just couldn't eat it. Pushing the plate into the table, I stood up. "Sorry, I don't think I'm hungry tonight. I'll be in my room if you need me."
The king nodded, not saying a word as I walked toward the door.
As I left, I overheard the two of them talking in hushed whispers, something I shouldn't have been able to make out.
“Vral, please dispense with this nonsense. I know her obsession just as well as you do, but it’s clear she’s disappointed in the boy, let her get over her fantasies so we can have her suitors start back.”
The king gave an exasperated sigh, already affected by the ale he’d been drinking at dinner. “Look Amara, I love her just as much as you, but I think the kid’s alright. If I make them stick together, Leena will arm up to him. I had a chat with the boy in private and once he’s been through a few battles and been made into a proper hero, he’ll make for a great king someday. Let’s not spoil this with suitors just yet.” He went silent for a moment, before his tone changed. “I don’t want to crush the poor dear’s heart with that mess again.”
The door closed behind me with a massive thud, leaning me in the hallway 
Alone.
With a sigh, I walked off toward my room, tears streaming down my cheeks.

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The Ringworld Hero


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