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“Veyhi,” she nodded, beaming a glad but dutiful smile his way. “Your leave from us did last longer than anticipated, cousin. Still… I am told it was to our Lady’s benefit… that the entire Maidom owes you and yours a great debt for your work across the Zecktaf’s ridges. ”
“Of that I cannot be certain. Very few of the Deebanaarie clans that far out agreed to meet with us, let alone join us for the sake of a peaceful future for the realms.” For the briefest of moments a shadow seemed to wash over his face, hardening his features as his smile faded. Then he spied Harper’s face, plastered with a grin of her own as she peeked out from behind a nearby bookshelf, her gaze going beyond Arteth to where the footfalls of an all too familiar gait drew ever closer at his back. Turning with a renewed grin of his own he added. “I am however certain Captain V’el will be glad to hear this one cease his constant reminiscence of his favourite palace seamstress.”
Vereena stepped aside as Tobias and Harper approached each other.
“Harper... I mean Ka’eem My Lady…” his smile was one of reverence. It was clear he couldn’t help but allow himself a moment to soak up her presence. “I am so glad to be back!” He had his arms around her before she could get a word out and though eyebrows were raised, none around them spoke.
“Tobias,” Vereena muttered through her smirk, as she put a hand to his shoulder and gently separated the pair. “We are all most pleased to see that you did not perish on the journey.” Grinning from ear to ear he nodded, “Yeah… It’s real fucking good to see you too.”
The slightest giggle of excitement escaped Harper before she regained her composure enough to tear her gaze from his. “The council are convening.” Sandra Harper turned to Vereena, “Your Mai Mai awaits.”
Almost two whole cycles had passed and Crizoleth had changed a great deal since that day they’d reclaimed it in the name of all Azeronians. Yet Tobias knew from his last return to this great palace that for all the changes undergone in recent times the Great Hall itself maintained a distinctly Deebanaarie air about it. The intricately carved, dark rock walls, coupled with the room’s size, forced a lengthy walk from the equally imposing double doors to the oversized throne. Before Leyavanya’s return that walk had almost always been under the scrutiny of other nobles.
Determined to spare visitors such discomfort, and herself the wait, Lilly met many of her guests at the great hall’s entrance - an action unheard of under previous rule.
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Tobias barely noticed the difference, Lilly seemed to have shot up a whole half a foot since he’d last laid eyes on her.
She and the classmates had brought many changes to this world. Most, albeit were unintended; like in the earliest days of Lilly’s reign when local youths attempted to replicate the pink streak already dyed into her hair before arrival in the realm. Lacking anything resembling a cosmetics industry to turn to, or any previous notion of colouring hair on anything besides livestock, all manner of home concocted solutions were devised. Whether that same bubble-gum pink had ever been achieved was debatable, but a variety of other colours were, with varying degrees of success, which ranged from impressive to the outright entertaining. At least Lilly and her friends thought so when talk of the trend inevitably reached the palace.
Lilly even began toying with the idea of trying out some of the solutions as her own pink began to fade. The idea faded far swifter than the streak itself. When it became apparent, as such things often did, that these stories were mostly reaching court and council because older Azeronians were considerably less impressed. Most of the objections were meaningless to Lilly. To her mind Azeronians attached entirely too much significance to hairstyle, and the clans clung to too many rigid stipulations. At first it had seemed she would blithely rebuff any such complaint. She certainly wasn’t willing to make any officially restricting statements based on concerns of distraction and productivity from a hand-full of Shaylars and Shentis.
Two cycles on and any in-depth discussion with Lilly on the topic would reveal her opinions on the rigidity of hairstyles here had barely shifted. However, some of those devised concoctions turned out to be less ingenious than dangerous. With reports trickling in of chemical injury; nothing too major at first: some rashes and burns. Then came suspected poisonings and at least two confirmed cases of blinding and very shortly afterward Lilly had stopped publicly espousing her views on hair colour.
Now much like Arteth and the rest of the troop behind them, Tobias was too busy being struck by the sight of this resplendent woman before him to notice much of anything else.
Everything about Lilly’s presence - her platinum blonde hair braided into an intricate up-do, her form fitting crème coloured gown, long enough to flow down and back to way past where her long legs had ended, her staunch poise and the determined line of her narrow jaw. Every inch of her told the tale of a girl becoming a lady.
Then her face lit up with the brightest of smiles and majestic as she looked, her grin revealed at least a hint of the mischievous charm Tobias had known in her when they’d arrived in Azeron. Leaping forward she wrapped her arms around him.
“Tobias!” she squealed, holding him tight. “Thank Tulavan you’re back safe.”
“As I keep telling you lot,” he beamed. “I can handle myself!”
“Yes, well shlakar or not I still worry letting you out there.”
“Yeah okay,” he joked. “Who else are you going to send off on these fools’ errands...”
“Oh shush!” Lilly punched his arm. “We all know how much you love being out in the thick of things. I mean really... as if you could ever be content again back home.”
“Sure,” he shrugged. “But it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be happy for a few more breaks like this one. Or you know, some kind of air support, maybe with at least the threat of a back-up nuke or three.” Squinting he lowered his voice for dramatic purpose, “better on the road accommodation would be nice too. Those tents they’ve got us sleeping in smell worse than the gilshmoken pens.”
“Well that explains your odour,” smirked Lilly. “I’ll be sure to put someone on it before you head back out.”
“Yeah… I’m a hold you to that Slater,” he grinned, then his face became serious as he asked. “I suppose there’s no word of my brother yet? I know the troop he left with are not due in for…”
Lilly’s entire demeanour changed before his eyes. Reluctance replaced her amusement and Tobias nodded.
“Something happened?” When she swallowed in place of an answer he shook his head “Lilly, where’s Terrence?”
“Tobes, calm down-”
“Don’t tell me to calm down! Where’s my brother?”
“He’s here okay… and safe, I mean I did have to insist the palace healer look him over-”
“The palace healer? Why? What happened?”
“Seems he had a bit of a run in with one of the Siilaenck nobles-”
“What sort of run in? Where is he? I want to see him!”
“S’ret stepped in before anything too major came of it,” Lilly’s hands went up, “honest he’s fine, just chill!” She nodded ever so slightly to the huge doors. “Besides the council are convened. They have expectations.”
“So! I’m just a shlakar! They have Arteth! He leads the troops and has V’el’s report! What can I tell them that he can’t?”
“All I know,” she shrugged. “Is they have questions for the both of you...”
“Right now, Slater? Seriously? I have to see Tez. You tell them I don’t have any answers for them until I’ve seen my brother. No, you know what... On second thoughts,” he shook his head, “I’ll tell them my fucking self.”
“Oh hey… Wait!”
Tobias didn’t. He was past her and the guards before anyone could stop him; pushing open the huge doors to the Great Hall.
Expecting to stomp straight through and on into the council chamber, he burst, in all bluster and was immediately deflated by the sea of smiling faces greeting him. Most were familiar, including the ‘convened’ council dotted about and his grinning friends at the forefront of the crowd. As one, they gave a roar of excitement that was obviously meant to sound something like “SURPRISE!”
Front and centre—not looking the least bit injured—was Terrence, grinning with a level of mirth that only a twin could achieve.
Above their heads hung a cloth banner painted crudely with the words: Walcame Heme! - followed by a bunch of semi familiar Azeronian symbols.
“Aah fuck!” Tobias muttered with obvious relief as Lilly turned back to him with a sheepish grin.
“I tried to tell you he’s fine,” she smirked. “Course I probably should have remembered I’d given my word on keeping this whole surprise party thing quiet, before I opened my mouth about the healer.” Shrugging she said, “But a Queen can’t just go around ignoring popular demand,” then flashing her teeth at him added, “especially when that demand is for celebration!”
A second later Terrence was throwing his arms around his brother, who just about managed to get out a “I see those language classes of yours are going real well…” as he nodded up to the banner before being dragged off into the crowd.
Catching sight of Arteth and the obvious confusion on his face, Lilly put a hand to his shoulder, “seems most of the palace feel your troops deserve some serious recognition for your efforts. You are all heroes to our people cousin... They wanted to celebrate you.”
“We lost many good warriors at the Zecktaf Du’mir my Lady, I see no reason to celebrate... all in all our journey was a-”
“Arteth!” Lilly’s tone was gentle but firm. “Celebrating a safe return is another one of those human customs I am not willing to leave behind,” her eyebrow rose as she poked him repeatedly in the chest adding, “so how’s about you do us all a favour and at least try to loosen up, just this once… have a good time.”
His head began tilting slowly to the left, but seeing her eyebrow on the move again his arm went to his chest and straightening up he nodded, “of course Mai Mai.” Turning back to the handful of his troop who had followed them into the great hall he threw a non-too convinced shrug their way adding, “Cat ya vac...”
For the briefest moment they all stared blankly back at him then he barked “Deng Mei natuii... Cat ya vac inst!” and moving as one, they all shuffled forward, each saluting Lilly in passing.
When they too had disappeared into the crowd, Lilly’s smile returned as she took her cousin’s arm adding, “Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of time for your usual doom and gloom debriefing later. Right now... well... I’m told the people want very much to dance the night away.”
“Dance? Perhaps you are mistaken, our people dance for far fewer reasons than your-”
Before he could finish a small group of Da’ariel and Deebanaarie struck up a beat on crude yet surprisingly well turned out instruments. There were drums and drummers of various sizes, several flautists playing several types of hand-carved flutes and even some sort of huge xylophone with two Da’ariel and one Deebanaarie whacking it with knobbly clubs: to pound out a steady rhythm, which had the floor humming.
Others in the crowd around them began to shake and shimmy while a handful nearest the band bounced around like wild things, a sight which resulted in Arteth’s entire brow rising. “There is indeed something very wrong with this picture.”
“Yeah well, it can’t be as wrong as that sentence sounds coming from your mouth.”
“Have our people forgotten they are Azeronians? Warriors of the-”
“They’re remembering how to enjoy themselves,” she steered him into the thick of the revelry adding, “and I’m ordering you to do the same. Besides, you’ll also be surprised how much our people can forget since Baxter taught them how to brew the drelga ale into a rather convincing liquor.”
Initial resistance to the new laws had at first seen the additional housing clumped together along the outskirts of even this deprived area, but as more Azeronians flocked to the city every day, time, ale and circumstance had mellowed the inhabitants significantly. The Dumiie and Lothael no longer protested every newly erected abode. Instead, the older generations seethed with—mostly quiet—resentment as their new Vaelta and Shukaii neighbours respectfully side-stepped them in the streets. While the youth from both sides, caring less for the old ways, began developing a new found respect for one another’s strengths and tribulations. They would congregate regularly outside of working hours, drinking around forbidden campfires and mingling unreservedly well out of sight of their elders.
Such was the case now, while those highborn nobles in the Palace—obligated to entertain Lilly’s desire for a party—engaged in the stilted revelry of those who would rather not brush shoulders, many of them attempting to dance for the first time in their lives. These lower caste youths had no such qualms. Knocking back ale by the tankard and dancing around their fires with a fervour that was only surpassed by the enthusiasm with which they received Baxter’s newest beverage: the potent liquor he’d distilled from a mixture of his own drelga ales.
Officially their meagre privileges didn’t cover such frivolity. The old laws had been written in such a way that the higher ranks had first pick of everything from necessities to luxuries, the latter of which rarely made it this far down the hierarchy. Unofficially Baxter always brewed more ale than he reported and saw to it a fair portion was smuggled away from the palace long before the Magister in charge of distribution had time to count and consign the casks to the city’s handful of sanctioned dispensaries.
If these young Azeronians knew the efforts he went to they would probably be hailing his name as they downed his latest offering. He was however, more cautious than that, so instead they raised their tankards chanting, “Lek Gaeldren, Lek Cemvar,” in honour of the only two names they knew to thank for the continued bounty always delivered under the cover of darkness.
None among them had ever experienced alcohol like this new batch before. Far removed from the rulocki grog they were once accustomed to, it had a sickly sweet aroma and went down smooth and hot. Despite eliciting coughs and even some gagging the first time the flagons made the rounds, it had a distinct flavour that paired well with their charred pa’lellies and packed a punch they couldn’t have foreseen.
After a couple of hours’ revelry, their tongues were accustomed to the taste but their heads were swimming. Slowly the crowd began to disperse, some wandering away to vomit in the privacy of alleyways, while others, trying to make it home, passed-out in them.
Many remained around the embers of the fires, either because they’d moved onto other drinks or because they were too intoxicated to get up. None among those left could see or walk straight, let alone stand. They certainly weren’t prepared to deal with the liquor’s additional properties, when a forgotten flagon of it was stumbled into and, still sealed, rolled onto the glowing embers. It lay there unnoticed just long enough to heat up far past boiling point, until the pressure inside the container reached critical levels. It exploded with such force, the fire grew tenfold larger than it had originally been; engulfing those nearest in a flash of green flames as the whole district was jarred awake by a tremendous bang.
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