The Summer Heroes

Session 12.5

In which Jason produces a most excellent accounting of off screen events

The guest rooms of the Margravine’s sprawling residence in Ystria were rambling and well-appointed, but the weak light of the autumn sun was blocked by the heavy drapes that Mina and Abajeet had drawn over the watery glass of their room’s windows. A sharp rap on the door pierced their respective slumbers and Mina shot a bleary glance across the room, met with an equally bleary look from Abajeet.

A second rap at the door, just as sharp and insistent as the first. Mina swung her feet off the bed and staggered across the room. She pulled the heavy wooden door open and light from the garishly painted hallway spilled in.

“Good morning!” said Darion, brightly. Mina scowled and grumbled a bit to express her displeasure.

“Breakfast has been prepared for you and is waiting in the sitting room across the hall,” he continued, ignoring her obvious unhappiness with being roused after such a long night of partying.

The human rogue unsuccessfully attempted to stifle a yawn, costly (and excellent) liquor still on her breath. “Breakfast? Need more sleep. Come back at lunch.”
Darion put his arm out and gently pressed on the door as she began to close it. “It is lunchtime,” he said, “but I thought you and Abajeet might be more amenable to breakfast, so I had them prepare that for you instead. Our meeting at the Palace is this afternoon; I must insist you join us.”

Mina appeared torn between suggesting a bodily storage facility for the Curator’s meeting at the Palace and acquiescing in the face of both the time of day and Darion’s small, unexpected kindness. (She did, after all, prefer breakfast.) “Alright, alright,” she conceded. She turned to face back into the room, where a fluttering of wings and soft snoring indicated Abajeet’s resumed disposition. She wandered over to the alchemist’s bed to rouse the latter, while Darion stood in the doorway, waiting.

*

The sitting room near the suite of guest rooms was generally overtaken by a mass of pink and purple pillows—the term sitting room having been taken very literally by the Margravine, in this instance—though when guests took meals in it a circle was cleared away in the center of the room and replaced with a proper table and chairs. The rest of the Summer Heroes were already seated—Talerion masticating loudly—when Darion swept in the room, Mina and Abajeet in tow. He ushered the two to their seats and then took his own.

Mina eyed a dark green liquid concoction in a slender crystal glass before her on the table. “I was promised breakfast,” she said, clearly displeased. Abajeet nodded in vexed agreement.

“It is being sent over from the kitchen right now,” Darion said. “This is… well, I don’t remember what they call it, exactly. I believe the term is a ‘hangover cure’.”
Abajeet brightened, but Mina eyed Darion with skepticism. “A ‘hangover cure’? Why don’t they have these in Brightwater? And why didn’t we get these yesterday, or the day before?”

Darion shrugged. “There’s a considerable amount of partying in the city; I’m surprised there isn’t a remedy available more widely. Apparently it’s a concoction from within the Magravine’s own House.” He paused, then continued. “I’m told it’s best to swallow it in one gulp, and that the hangover disappears within a minute or so.”

Abajeet and Mina gave each other significant glances, then picked up the glasses, tinked them together, and downed the drinks. Shortly after setting the glasses back on the table, they both grimaced in pain. “Aww, whaaaatttttt… is…. Arrrrrghhhhh,” Abajeet said. She twisted her face in pain and shot Darion what was ostensibly a dirty look while her head pounded exquisitely.

“I’m told there is some initial discomfort while the elixir does its work,” Darion said drily, “which appears to be the primary impediment to widespread production and sale…”

Mina’s eyes shut in a perpetual wince of pain and she balled her fists up. “I swear to the gods, Darion,” she said, “I am going to punch you in—” she stopped, as the pain abruptly vanished and left her feeling renewed and clear-headed. She looked over at Abajeet, whose expression changed, too, after a few more seconds. Servants put plates of artfully arranged food in front of them, quietly whisking away the empty glasses and fading then from the room.

Bemused looks from the other members of the company indicated that at least some of them had undergone the same treatment. “Our meeting with Their Majesties is at four bells today,” the oracle began. “It is currently noon, which gives us four hours. It will take us about half an hour to cross the city to get to the Palace, and we have been instructed to arrive an hour and a half early to allow time for protocol instruction and additional transit within the Palace complex.

“This leaves two hours for personal preparation. I have selected and laid out clothes for you all in the Green Room, across the hall, and—”

“Why aren’t you eating?” Mina asked, in between bites of an unfamiliar but nevertheless delicious Ystrian dish, gesturing at the lack of food in front of the Curator.

Darion’s eyes flicked down to the empty space before him and then back up, to Mina. “Today’s meeting is with very important people,” he said, “and I would much prefer not to get sick all over the king and queen of Ystria.”
Abajeet raised a curious eyebrow at the half-elf, wondering if this was an actual admission of weakness. Who was this, and what had he done with Darion? “Besides,” he continued, “one does not keep a silver tongue by tarnishing it with vomit.” Oh, there he was.

“As I was saying, outfits have been selected for all of you and are laid out in the Green Room. The Margravine is very kindly lending us some of her stylists to assist in our preparation.” At this information, most of the table lobbed skeptical glances at Darion, though Mina and Erlindar seemed comfortable with the notion.

“There are also matters of protocol to consider,” he explained, his continuance effectively bowling over the possibility of objection, “which I will briefly outline. We will be given instruction in the Palace itself; anything I say that is contrary to instructions we are given there should be disregarded, of course.

“You are not to speak unless spoken to. You are not to show your back to Their Majesties. You are not permitted to bring weapons into the Palace.”

Thalion raised his voice to object, but Darion forestalled him with a look. “The Margravine’s attendants will look after our equipment here. Members of the Dragon Watch are permitted to bring their sword inside the Palace, but a court wizard will place an enchantment upon it to prevent you from drawing the sword on the Palace grounds.”

The Curator’s tone took on a hard, steely edge that brooked no disagreement—a tone he used very rarely, though Erlindar, at least, could recall a handful of occasions, “I will speak for us. If you are directly asked a question, please defer it to me, if possible. Do not dissemble; King Dandolo is notorious for his dislike of people who obfuscate the truth, and of idle flatterers. The King and Queen are to be referred to as ‘Your Majesty’ or ‘Your Serene Majesty’.

“However else things may go elsewhere, this is my arena and you all are out of your depth here. If I ask you to do something, you will do it. You will not disagree with me, or speak out of turn.” Talerion gritted his teeth, but said nothing, a clear indication he and his younger brother had already fought this verbal battle, and that he had lost. Darion’s expression softened a little. “At the very least, we are being given an opportunity to go into the Lido Palace, which ought to be very interesting. And, if I’m the only one doing the talking, I won’t be able to shift the blame onto anyone else if it goes poorly…”

*

“Is all of this really necessary?” Talerion asked, while an outrageously made-up stylist from the House of Gaga applied delicate tracery in paint to various areas of his face. “We’re from Brightwater,” he grumbled.

Darion rolled his eyes. “Yes, we are, which is why our appearances are so much more muted than they’d be otherwise. It would be a great social scandal if an Ystrian noble were to dress like this, but allowances are made for nobles from other cities. Certain compromises are necessary, however, and these small details are the largest indicators of one’s social rank and status, which is why we are so grateful to the Margravine for her assistance in this manner,” he said, inclining his head to the stylist in acknowledgment.

“This all just seems vain to me,” Talerion mumbled in reply, gesturing down at his outfit. Forbidden from wearing a suit of armor into the Palace, Darion had instead chosen for him an ensemble that included a deep-v neckline and other features that accentuated Talerion’s build. The stylist tensed up a little at the insult, but continued anyway.

“All people are vain,” Darion replied, voice tinged with annoyance. “The fashions of Brightwater are just as costly as the ones here, which you would know if you spent any time in the city, but are deliberately reflective of the cultural atmosphere whence they come. Jewelry is heavily emphasized in our city because of the silver mines; the silk markets here lend themselves to fashion expressed through fabric. And,” he added, “you are the eldest, unmarried son of a House of Major Nobility in Brightwater. Some expression of your…” he looked vaguely uncomfortable saying this to his older brother, “…virility… is expected.”

Erlindar, having quietly stationed himself in the doorway to listen in on the conversation, snorted with laughter. Cover blown, he walked in. Talerion glowered at the elf wizard, “Last time I checked, you were unmarried too,” he said. Erlindar’s visage darkened briefly at the allusion to his erstwhile marriage proposal from the lunatic Corinthia of House Irian.

Darion strode over to the wizard and gave him a once-over. “Did you… did you let your stylist assist with this?” he asked, the skepticism in his voice plain. Erlindar frowned down at his friend, “What? No, she… she was getting… hands-y.”

“What—hands-y? Erlindar, they’re supposed to help with your outfit, that is what they do,” came the exasperated reply. Darion circled around behind Erlindar and brusquely pulled at some fabric; the wizard’s robe pulled in at various spots, and soon he no longer seemed quite as lost in the garment.

“I was going to do that,” Erlindar muttered, in a tone absent of real conviction. Darion circled back around and pulled out a golden, seven-pointed sun that he pinned to the other’s chest; he raised his eyebrows in bemused disagreement with the protestation.

“What is that?” Talerion asked, from across the room.

“I had a goldsmith make our Partnership’s symbol,” Darion replied.

“I thought we were going to have tabards,” Talerion said, a note of indignation in his voice.

“Tabards?” Darion asked, feigning surprise and innocence. “What, and cover up your stunning physique with a bunch of bulky fabric? What a crime that would be for the fair citizens of Ystria, to deny them such a sight!” He placed a hand to his forehead in mock illness and took a seat nearby. “Oh, woe betide any who would suffer such an injustice!”

“I’m—I’m gonna go… check on Thalion,” Erlindar said quietly and slipped out of the room as the brothers once again clashed over a minor issue that was obviously serving as a stand-in for broader disagreements about their group’s leadership dynamics.

*

The Summer Heroes arrived at the eastern gate of the Lido Palace, an elaborate structure flanked by guardhouses; the decorative iron portcullis was down, but pedestrian traffic continued in the smaller doors to its right and left. Behind the gate itself was a large bridge that spanned the water between the island containing the gate and the palace complex.

Darion took stock of the group: The weather was mercifully pleasant, and the group’s respective outfits had survived the relatively short transit from the wealthy island quadrant of the city to the palace, near the old city center. Each of them bore the newly-crafted golden pins that signified their affiliation with the Summer Heroes, save Pirro, whose monastic training eschewed such decoration; instead, a white swatch of fabric wrapped itself around his left bicep, seven-pointed sun stitched at the fore.

The group had attracted a little attention on the way over, but for the most part they made little impression on the cityscape, which was a large mish-mash of buildings sporting a variety of color, sculptures, towers, and glass. It was, in its way, a stark juxtaposition to the decorative uniformity Queen Auria had imposed on Brightwater, but the anarchic competition of beauty across the city was lovely in its own—sometimes garish—way.

Darion eyed the Heroes with satisfaction; they seemed to be striking the right balance between “fashionable” and “powerful”, and all of them had cleaned up fairly well. Mina’s transformation had been the most significant—the subdued blacks and browns of her armor were gone, replaced by a sleeveless, figure-hugging silk gown, in dusky green hues. Her hair had been swept up and back, pleated into a circular braid and held in place by several hummingbird-shaped pins.

After they had begun their walk to the Palace, Abajeet had drily remarked on Mina’s appearance and noted that Darion was no longer the prettiest member of the Heroes, a comment Darion felt had earned an unkind amount of laughter.

Some dust, acquired in the venture over from the noble quarter, clung to Pirro’s shoulder; Darion gently brushed it away, noting with silent concern the monk’s flinty, emotionless gaze. In a swift, fluid motion, Pirro shifted into a defensive stance and deftly stepped around and in front of the oracle. Darion looked momentarily puzzled, before turning and peering out from behind the human’s much larger build.

“Oh, that will be Alejandro, the Margravine’s primary attendant,” Darion said, brightly, indicating the figure hurrying towards them. Pirro relaxed a little, though he still remained tense and vigilant.

“Is he… glistening?” Mina asked, warily. “He looks as though someone has oiled up his chest.” Darion peered out from behind Pirro again. “I… think so?” he replied. “I think that’s a Margravine-thing, though, not an Ystria-thing.”

“It was very thoughtful of the Margravine to send him prepped and ready for you,” Talerion quipped.

Darion shot a withering glance at his brother. “Don’t be vulgar, Tal,” he replied. “Vulgar isn’t the same thing as funny.”

*

“You’re late,” Alejandro said when he arrived. Darion’s face crinkled into a mixture of annoyance and disagreement, which the Margravine’s attendant clearly noticed. “Not late,” he said, “not really. The Palace has moved your engagement forward, and so you are late for the new time.”

He hurried them along and bustled them through the outer ring of security while he explained, “There was a cancellation, which moved the timetable forward. The Duke of Zara Isle apparently had a very good night, which has resulted in a very bad morning, and—well, anyway, when a Royal engagement gets moved forward, you are expected to accommodate it.”

Erlindar protested at the obvious injustice, “How were we supposed to have known this?”
Alejandro shook his head. “You weren’t, really. You aren’t expected to show up at the new time; if you show up on time when an engagement has been moved forward, it’s understood you aren’t important enough to have anywhere to be. If you show up too late, it’s taken to mean either that you have deliberately disrespected Their Majesties or you’re not important enough to be informed of schedule alterations.”

“So when in the Fourteen Hells are we supposed to get there?” Thalion blurted out.

“I suggest fifteen minutes after the new time,” Alejandro offered.

He escorted them through a dizzying array of hallways and passages, over bridges and through grand foyers; it was easy to see why one could get lost in the Palace, and clear that it lacked the pre-planned construction of the Silver Palace, and was instead more of an accretion of buildings and rooms over time. Their revised timetable left little time to gawk, however, until their arrival in the Room of Protocol.

The Protocol Room was a wonder in itself, despite being largely devoid of the heavy decoration that characterized most of the other chambers of the Palace. There were no golden vines tracing the ceiling here, nor stylized frescoes from Ystrian history, nor cavorting nymphs and dryads. Instead, the floor was a simple, bare flagstone, the walls of a similar color, though a different cut. Delicately carved chairs and benches were scattered around the room in clusters, grouped around tables with cut flowers and adorned with a variety of plush pillows and cushions.

The real spectacle of the Room was in the enormous hourglasses that lined the walls, however. A third of the way down the chamber, on either side, were tall, delicate hourglass-shaped pillars. Sand poured down and collected at the bottom; after sixty seconds of sand had gathered, the bottom of the glass went transparent and the sand collapsed downward, instantly re-appearing at the top of the pillar and repeating the process.

Two-thirds down the chamber was the second pair of hourglasses—similar in form to the first, but filled with onyx and white marble spheres instead of sand. Each time the first pair of columns emptied and re-started, a marble would drop from the top of the pillar to the bottom. When sixty had been accumulated, they would be recycled in the same manner.

In the two far corners of the room stood the final set of hourglass-pillars, though this contained only twelve stones, and these larger and in various colors, in glittering octagonal cuts. Above the elaborate double-doors on the far side of the room was an enormous wooden carving of the sun and moon and stars, on which was overlaid the date: 7 Arah Anu. For all the magic in the room, this, at least, appeared to be entirely non-magical.

Erlindar marveled at the precision and synchronicity of the room’s setup. “It would be so useful to have miniature versions of these for experiments,” he said, muttering almost to himself. “This must be fantastically expensive to maintain, though…”

Alejandro pushed them along through the chamber towards the far end and the elaborate wooden pedestal that stood ten feet before the doorway. A beautiful humanoid stood at the pedestal, draped in an exquisite pink dress, with feathers and ribbons woven into her scarlet hair. The white horns that curled gracefully up from her head were scarcely visible, though they did not seem to be hidden.

“Alejandro!” she said, with a bubbly ebullience. “And these must be the Summer Heroes! I’m ever so pleased to meet you.” She scratched a quick note on the parchment in front of her before laying her quill down, and her enthusiasm seemed sincere. “I do love meeting to new people, but in this case we must hurry, because Their Majesties have elected to take their afternoon refreshment early.”

“What, in the Receiving Hall?” Alejandro asked, puzzled.

The Mistress of the Royal Schedule tittered with laughter. “Oh, Alejandro, you are so silly. Of course not! That would be ridiculous. They are in the Yellow Room. And so is your audience!” she said, turning back to the Summer Heroes. “Come now, we must hurry. This is such a privilege!” She leaned in closer to the group. “You all must be very important,” she whispered, with a congenially conspiratorial tone. “Hardly anyone ever gets to go to the Yellow Room.”

She waved for them to follow, and Alejandro stayed put. “Good luck!” he said. The satyr Scheduler clopped forward, leading the Summer Heroes down a side hallway they had not noticed before. Darion turned and waved a silent ‘thank you’ to the Margravine’s attendant as they hurried away.

The satyr—Likenga, as she cheerfully informed the group while they walked—had lived in Ystria her entire life and seemed to have been hired by the Palace owing to her apparently unceasingly happy nature, obsessive attention to the detail of protocol, and (it seemed to some of the group, at least) her ability to tell said entire life story in the span of a few minutes.

“We’re here!” she said abruptly, as they reached the end of a long hallway, painted with scenes from the sun god Tohilai’s life. Two guards shimmered into view at her announcement, apparently dispelling invisibility spells that had been cloaking them before.

“Vezen will meet you in the antechamber!” she exclaimed, brightly, before turning and whisking herself away. “It was very nice to meet you all!” she said, her words echoing as she clip-clopped away from the group. The guards opened a set of doors that had been artfully inset into the walls, and the Summer Heroes stepped through.

*

Vezen—a human this time, with dusky skin and eyes the color of amber—had a disposition that was brusque and authoritarian where Likenga’s was infectiously charming. His protocol briefing was crisp, concise, and effective (and plainly one he’d given many times before). Before long, he ushered the group into the room beyond the antechamber.
The Yellow Room was a light and airy construction of glass and arches, with a far wall composed seemingly entirely of glass with doors that opened out into the elaborately sculpted Gardens of Desire. The term “Yellow Room” seemed a misnomer, though, as the walls were painted gold, and gold leaf seemed to caress the arms and legs of every piece of furniture in the room, while the cushions, curtains, and other decorative appointments were of a similar golden hue.

The overall effect was simultaneously stunning but muted (and so seemed almost out of place with the rest of the Palace) and was enough to give even Darion a bit of pause when the group entered. Their attention was swiftly redirected to Their Most Serene Majesties: Dandolo XXIV, King of Ystria, Friend of the Centaur, and Protector of Pleasure; and his wife, Bakwa of House Eraclea, Queen-Consort of Ystria.

Dandolo was handsome and well-possessed of a regal bearing, but he was eclipsed by Bakwa, despite his fine garments and glittering military accoutrements. The Queen-Consort was arrayed in a simple gown of a deep, burnt orange, overlaid with layers of delicate, sheer Ystrian lace. Dozens of pearls were wrapped around her neck and looped down over the front of chest, while she sported earrings that lined her ears with the same. The contrast between the pearls and the deep ebony of her skin was stark, and her black hair was looped and braided up into a cone, interspersed with here and there with pearls and tiny, glittering orange gems.

After the customary protocols and introductions had been made, Vezen disappeared quietly from the room, while unseen guards shut the doors to the Yellow Room after him. Erlindar made a mental note as he scanned the chamber, looking for subtle distortions that might give away guards under guises of invisibility; he counted at least five, but was certain there were many more.

Their Majesties greeted the Summer Heroes with a diplomatic warmth tempered by diplomatic reserve that was clearly the product of years of similar engagements, though Pirro sensed a slight edge of keenness or curiosity that he suspected was not usually present in these sorts of tête-à-têtes.

The Summer Heroes were seated at the far end of a rectangular table, across from Their Majesties, and plates of small, artfully arranged foods were placed here and there in no discernible pattern (except, perhaps, to Likenga, who might’ve gone on at length about it, had she been present and asked…). The others picked politely at cucumber sandwiches and similar fare, though Darion was perched on his seat, hands clasped in his lap and posture as straight as an arrow, patiently waiting for Dandolo or Bakwa to speak to them.

Eventually, the King and Queen finished their conversation, and Bakwa cast her gaze down towards the Curator. “Thank you for accommodating the alteration to Our schedule,” she said, politely, a comment that invited reply and lifted the ban of silence imposed on the guests thereby.

“We are all pleased to be given this audience with Your Majesties,” Darion replied in a smooth tone, “and are grateful to have the opportunity, regardless of location.”

Dandolo took a pull of scarlet wine from a goblet—an airy confection of gold and glass—while he assessed the group at the end of the table. After he set it back on the table, he spoke, “We are told you all are responsible for averting the Margravine’s death, and perhaps for ending the plague that is affecting Our river. Ystria owes you a debt, if this is true.”

“Your Majesty is well-informed,” Darion replied, simply.

The barest of smiles tugged at Dandolo’s mouth, though it was barely visible to the group because of the distance between them. The king seemed to re-assess Darion in light of his reply. “Deftly answered,” Bakwa conceded. The royal couples’ eyes both sparkled with intelligence, but Bakwa’s bright green eyes seemed more piercing and direct, while the watery blue of Dandolo’s seemed more to conceal and cloud.

His Serene Majesty slouched back into his chair, adopting a more relaxed position. “We hear your group slew the infamous ‘pirate king’ and his lieutenant.” It was a statement, not a question; Darion waited for Dandolo to continue, “Did he mark you when he took you?” Dandolo looked pointedly at the Curator. “We expect the ribbon-lattices on your arms aren’t there without reason; they went out of fashion six winters ago,” he said, clearly referencing the decorations Darion was employing to hide the rune Elegabalor had carved into his wrist.

“May We see it?” Dandolo asked. “Remove the ribbons, please.”

Darions hands continued to rest in his lap. “Your Majesty, I shudder to think what a breach in etiquette it would be for me to undress in Your presence.”

Dandolo smiled with an expression that plainly said, ‘Nice try.’ “We are sure We can dispense such rules, if it pleases Us to do so.”

The Curator’s hands remained firmly in his lap, and the gazes of his compatriots remained just as firmly fixed on him. Abajeet held a tiny sandwich in front of her mouth, clearly distracted by the exchange.

“Your Majesty, though I am not of Your fair city, I cannot think of any part of the Ampiolegge that would compel one of Your subjects to remove clothing before you,” Darion replied. Bakwa’s eyebrows shot up in bemused approval. “And,” Darion continued, “I am sure that Your Majesty is aware that, even if such a provision did exist, I am subject to the Crown of Brightwater, but not to the Lido Palace…”

Bakwa laughed. “Oh, We like this one.” She turned to Dandolo. “See? The Margravine never sends Us anyone boring.”

“The Flagellant—what was his name? Stephen, or Stephanus, or something—he was boring.”

“Oh, Flagellants are never boring,” she shot back. “And anyway, he was right, wasn’t he?”

Dandolo shrugged. “Mostly right, but we haven’t seen the eagle again yet.” He turned his attention back to the Summer Heroes. “Why are you here?” he asked, bluntly. “Our advisors could not agree on an answer. A plurality of them thought you were coming to ask for a reward for undoing the plague, but We disagree.”

“I have… a cautionary tale for you,” Darion said, picking his words, as if through a patch of briars.

“From your sister, the Lady-in-Waiting Estrildis?” Dandolo asked. “Or is this a message from the Silver Palace, by way of the Lord Commodore Merrick?” The king let a little amusement show through his countenance to remove the sting his remark might’ve otherwise had. “Or are you an envoy from the Curators, come to prophesy for Us?”

“My message is my own,” Darion replied. “I am not here on behalf of a House, my own or otherwise, and any prophecies are similarly mine, and do not come from Tintern.”

“Are you the only one here with a message?” Bakwa interjected, motioning at the rest of the Summer Heroes seated at the table. “Is this not their message, too? Or are you not here as a Summer Hero, either?”

“All of them know some of the message,” Darion responded, “and some of them know all of the message.”

Abajeet leaned towards Mina and whispered, “Do you have any idea what he’s talking about?” Mina gave a small shake of her head in response.

“I am concerned about Brightwater’s future,” the oracle said, “and our cities are too closely linked for either to survive without the other.” Dandolo and Bakwa were more serious, their expressions impassive. The king made a small motion with his hand, as if to say, ‘Go on’.

“I have seen evidence firsthand that there are forces at work attempting to undermine Brightwater from within, to divide and distract it,” the Curator continued. “Divided kingdoms can fall to outside invaders—just as Liria did, of old, and Brightwater will need a strong leader and a unified kingdom to weather the storm I have seen on the horizon.

“There were forces fomenting war in the North, and in the south there are pirates flying flags from Brightwater, Saltstone, and Ystria to force conflict between the cities.”

“Our cities have withstood many storms, together and apart,” Dandolo replied, “Why should this be different? You have evidence to present to Us?”

“None safe to bring here, but—”

“Though we have long been friends and allies, Brightwater’s internal politics are not Ystria’s business,” Bakwa interrupted, looking pointedly at Talerion. “Our concern is for the safety and peace of Our city and Our people. Prince Oswiu has been nothing but a friend to Ystria since his accession.”

“I still have no idea what’s going on,” Mina whispered to Abajeet, who responded by popping another tiny sandwich into her mouth.

“There was an orc,” Erlindar blurted out, “An orc in the North. At the Presidential Palace. Under a disguise. Heavy magic…” his words stumbled a little when he noticed he’d attracted the intense and unflinching gazes of Their Majesties.

“Is this true?” Dandolo asked Darion. The Curator nodded affirmatively and Dandolo and Bakwa exchanged a brief, significant glance.

*

The rest of the audience passed without incident, and the conversation was quickly—albeit politely—steered away from politics for the few minutes remaining before Their Majesties had to depart for another engagement. The Summer Heroes were bustled out of the Yellow Room amid pleasantries and well-wishes, and met—and escorted—by a still-talkative Likenga, who spirited them back to the Room of Protocol.

Dandolo and Bakwa kept a quiet counsel with each other as they watched the Summer Heroes depart. “He has promise,” Dandolo said.

“The younger Albion?”

“No,” Dandolo replied, shaking his head. “Perhaps, yes, as an oracle. He is said to be very skilled. I meant the elder brother.”

“They all have promise,” Bakwa countered. “We know what the older brother wants. The Curator may not share his ambitions.”

“By all reports, he is, at least, sincere.”

“Yes. But too much sincerity can be as dangerous as too little.”

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