[Author’s Note: This is the last chapter that came out before the six month hiatus of The Solune Prince. After this, the writing gets a lot…well, a bit smoother.]
Natasha approached the elevated thrones, moving past where she had stood before, and positioned herself where Chloe had been.
“I can now answer any questions about the expedition.”
A hand went up.
“What is it, Siren?”
“The state.” Natasha said. “Since he has some experience handling expeditions, Astore will maintain an account and manage wages. Perhaps he can explain for me.”
“Sure,” Astore began, “Any residence or food will be supplied. I am unsure of the exact numbers at the moment. I will maintain communications with the treasury via a messenger while we are down there, but we will be travelling with a large sum of gold. Assume that wages will be modest though, as a lot of what we will take will account for room and board.”
Natasha said, “That was actually a good question. Likely, as a royal envoy group, you will be provided something reasonable, and if more payment is needed, we can negotiate government to government through letters.”
The King and his wife entered quietly; politely. They joined the group and stood near the centre.
The King announced, “The arena is being assembled. There is a field we keep cleared outside the wall, in front of the castle, for arenas and other similar events. Tomorrow it will be finished. The event, we have decided, will be advertised in the city today, and proceeds used to fund a portion of your expedition.”
Siren looked up.
Lilllith said, “Truly? You believe your men can assemble this in one day?”
Chloe smiled with the pride of her city.
The King said, “Yes, it is a little modest, but it’s finished.”
“Colour me impressed; though in disbelief. Never have I encountered such an expedient group of contractors.”
The King said, “They are not contractors. We have contractors in this city, but as you suppose, they are slower workers. Contracting assumes a certain lack of trust—it’s why they have their name: they must be held to their work by contract.”
“I am aware, King.”
“The guard has developed more networked trust, and so I have sent them to build. They are trained in such things, of course. We had to do something to compete with the image the East had set forth.”
“If the guard is building your arena outside of the walls, then who is keeping the peace within?”
“Higher ranking individuals in key roles. Such people can do the work of many; it is why they have been their positions. The Captain of the castle guard is here watching to door, I am sure you have seen him.”
“Yes, I had assumed that your men were simply all so well trained.”
The King laughed, then his wife, and then certain other members of the room. “Not so much well trained, but I suppose you could call it that.” The King continued, “When citizens encounter a guard from the upper ranks knocking on their door, inviting them to the arena, if it is within their schedules, they—”
“They feel the presence of force within the city.”
“…Something of this sort. Of course we are aware that most people are very dutiful, or busy, and will therefore be unable to make it, or simply uninterested. But, as you say, the point is made; the presence is felt.
“Further, should anything go wrong, the ranks within should be able to manage. If not, it is not as if the guard has been commanded to a battlefield. They are right here, outside the wall, waiting to be alerted.”
“How interesting. You must understand that such expedience is highly abnormal where I come from. It takes a certain massive amount of energy to rile a crowd, even of workers, to get a job done. I am sceptical, but I will be interested in seeing if your empty field will have an arena in it—a modest arena as you said, on the morrow.”
The King acknowledged her and then announced, “Everyone who has arrived and volunteered your time, I hope you have a sufficient grasp on the situation. Please come to the arena tomorrow at the same time, noon.”
Chloe, feeling a certain obligation to end the discussion she had started, stood up and addressed the room. She closed the discussion and invited further questions to be directed to her father or to Natasha. She concluded with, “As I am aware that some of you are…busy in the mornings, I believe that it would be fair for you to be accommodated with a meal before the arena event begins…yes?”
She looked to her father, who nodded. “This is within our power. Any of you may come to the basement of the castle tomorrow morning. I will have someone inform the staff of your names.”
He looked to Natasha, who nodded.
The session ended and the non-royalty among them, along with Natasha, exited; leaving the King, his wife, and Chloe behind to discuss.
Lilllith, having inquired, moved ahead of the rest and exited the castle to watch the assembling of the arena-in-progress, and perhaps make some suggestions or modifications of her own.
Alexandre and Siren exited shortly after, but quickly went their separate ways, leaving Astore and Natasha in the noise of the foyer.
Natasha said, “Keep an eye on the Lussa woman. She…” Natasha considered her words carefully. She reminds me a little of my mother. Instead, she said, “Not too close an eye. She is a guest, and yet…”
“She is still and outsider.”
Natasha frowned, and then her face hardened. “We do not speak of our guests in this way. She is from outside the city, outside the Kingdom. Yet, she is a guest.” She sighed. “Watch yourself, especially as you exit the city and become the only uniformed ambassador of the Solune Agents.”
Natasha looked at him with severity, and then left him to himself, standing in the foyer. The noise of the crowd, of the little Solune square, opened up around him.
It flowed from the hole in her arm. not pink this time. Red—It was serious.
It was serious, but not that serious. She might die, but either way she would live. —— “funny,” she thought (and also said).
“Ah, the King is awake.”
There was someone else there, she heard him. Someone she did not know. Someone she immediately disliked. She said “Fuck.”
The voice touched her ears, exercising her nervous system, and permeating her brain. but only the outer layer, she thought. (But did not say out loud.)
She looked around and saw the person, a blue, glowing blur. She couldn’t see properly. She was tethered to the land, not vicariously, but rather, quite directly.—The clay and sand, a place where an old tree had fallen and died and another had sprung up to take its place: A new tree—a new branch from the new tree had invaded her new arm. I am very new. I am only a youth. yet I am an adult, and the garden has shown its teeth. the branch is not truly new anyway; it’s near the bottom.
The pit she was in, where was her family? Where were they? Would they ever return for her? Or was she in God’s hands now.
[Author’s Note (added months later): The whole thing with Siren’s name really being something else; that likely will not make it into the final draft. I’m leaving it in here because…it’s here, but if it never comes up again, this is why. Also, his “real name” was going to be Anselm. Maybe it can be his last name. We’ll see. Either way; enjoy.]
Natasha did not wait for anyone to introduce themselves, rather, she began for them. “Astore, here on the wing. Something of a reliable man. Want is your name and station?”
Astore straightened. “Astore Reginal. I am an ex-guard and current rank three Solune Agent.”
As he spoke, Natasha wrote.
“Next, you.” Natasha looked ahead to Alexandre. “Dirge.”
“Yes, um, yes.” Alexandre was tense. She breathed. “I am Alexandre Dirge. I have a degree in Kemia, and I am between semesters for my masters in Kemia.” Natasha wrote, andw hen she had finished, she looked up at Alexandre and frowned. She hoped that by doing this, she could compel Alexandre to continue.
Alexandre did continue, though nervously. “I am also an ex-gang leader, and an ex-convict, and umm…it was only for a few months.”
“Yes.” Natasha nodded. “Next, to the Lussa guest, Lilllith.”
Lilllith spoke, composed. “I am Lilllith of the Lussa City, though I am known to some as Lilllith of the East.” She paused for a moment, possibly omitting something, and then continued. “Though I retired from the Lussa guard, I am still technically satellite member, and am often called to serve the crown. Before I had the honor of serving the royal guard, I was in the police for a period of fifteen years. I was part of the force during the time of the brief military operation that occurred a few years ago.”
Natasha nodded again and wrote.
Chloe squinted at the ceiling in order to avoid eye contact with anyone in particular while she thought about what she had just heard. So Lilllith has always been a woman of combat. And; she is rather aged after all, isn’t she. How strange…
“Next, Kent Rhye.”
Kent stopped whispering to Senica when he heard his name. “What?”
Natasha sighed visibly. “State your name and station so that the rest of your travelling party knows who you are and has an idea of what you may be capable of.”
“Oh, we’re doing like a roll call. Okay.” Kent straightened, deigning for once to look like a dignified part of the royalty. “I’ve done a whole lot of work studying the Sol-Metch in the south. They have some interesting but dangerous methods for creating energy. Nuclear. In the past, I also served as a judge, although that was under a different law system, and it was a long time ago, so I’m not sure if I could do that again.”
Natasha frowned. She wrote documents like this in point form, so she had to translate his words to fit. “Fine. Next, your woman.”
Senica, not realizing that she had been so rudely addressed, said, “I am Senica Eir-Aeur…for now anyway.” She smiled and looked around, bashful. “I work as an anthropological researcher from the Djeb, although like Kent said we also work in the south. While I was in academia, I…worked part time. Due to the nature of that work, I was trained in unarmed fighting.”
“Fine.” She finished writing, then said, “And you…the man who would hide his given name.”
The blonde-haired man mumbled to himself from the corner before speaking up. He said, “Siren.”
“Sure.” Natasha wrote. Chloe peered down the steps and over Natasha’s shoulder at her papers, something she would not have been able to do if not for her elevation, as her sister was even taller than she was. She saw that Natasha had written down a different name, quite likely the young man’s real name.
“And?” Natasha continued.
“I study biology and the liberal arts. I can play certain stringed instruments.” He scratched his stubble. “That’s it I guess.”
“So, ah, that is everyone?” Chloe asked.
Natasha said, “No, there is one final person.”
“Ah, yes, me! Ah—”
Natasha unclipped the sheets she had been writing on, put away her clipboard and stepped forward so that the stood with the rest, facing Chloe.
Chloe looked around at her audience. She was more alarmed than nervous. She started and then stopped a few times, failing to speak. She realized that she had accidentally begun engaging in one of her greatest fears: speaking to a crowd. She gazed around, dazed and frightened. She found confidence in her sister, Natasha, likely the oldest person in the room.
“I am Chloe Rhye, fifth Prince of the Solune. I have spent most of my life studying. I dabbled in tutoring. I can play keyboard instruments like the harpsichord…sort of. I know a bit about everything, and a lot about certain things.
“My father trained me in the royal weapon, the two handed sword. I am also versed in other forms of martial and offensive fighting, thanks to my mother. And, umm, that is all. Thank you.”
Chloe then sat down in her mother’s throne, exhausted by her effort.
Jagged Assembly, true to its name, is fairly jagged in its construction. During the writing of these three chapters, I was going through some personal troubles, and the plot itself was giving me issues. Hopefully it is entertaining enough.]
Three members of the Rhye family deemed it necessary to wash before continuing to the throne room. Chloe finished first (by a large margin), and headed down to the throne room.
“Come now, your rudeness, are you to be on Chloe’s expedition team then? Is that why you are here this morning?” Lilllith’s smile was wide, her eyes approaching feral.
I’ve killed more depraved looking people by accident. I’ll not fear her. That Alex had to remind herself of this disturbed her, but she spoke regardless.
“Yes; I believe I’m the first to join.”
“Of course you were.” Lilllith’s expression, despite her words, softened. “I am very interested in your manner. Likely you, you appear to care nothing for status. Is that not so? Is it that you believe everyone to be equal?”
“One of these dissident, ‘respect the janitor as we respect the ruler’ types, then?”
“I have a hierarchy. Even criminals rank higher than the lazy.”
“So what’s a janitor on such a scale as yours?”
“Well, obviously above a criminal, if they’re law-fearing.”
Lilllith gave Alexandre a strange look, a look of disbelief; as if she couldn’t understand how the woman had come to such a conclusion.
“You, of all people, teeth of silver, smooth skin around your eyes, the lips and—”
Her words stopped. She didn’t understand why, but she felt the need to speak no more. Alexandre stared, her grey eyes piercing Lilllith’s.
“Perhaps you are correct, and I am not law fearing. I fear he who creates the laws,” Alexandre said. She maintained the stare, blinking passively. Lilllith had the strange feeling that even this statement wasn’t entirely true.
There was the crack of iron on stone, as if someone very powerful had tried to open the door without turning the latch.
Lilllith, intimidated, jumped a little at the sudden noise, and froze. Astore (who had been nervously observing the two women) also jumped, though far more visibly. The handle turned.
“Ah!” Said a small voice.
“Who? Oh, Chloe it is you.” Lilllith composed herself. “Prince Chloe,” she corrected.
The surprised young women mumbled into the room and closed the door behind her “Ah ha, yes, it is me…”
Lilllith regarded her. Chloe had cheery, worried eyes. She noticed that when Chloe saw who was (or perhaps wasn’t) in the room, she became openly worried.
This, she who will not even hide her expression, is to be the ambassador of the Solune Royalty? Surely, she thought, this was the same nervous woman from last night. Chloe was dressed in loose clothes, though not in the same robe-like sheets as she wore during the supper. Instead, loose pants accompanied her shirt. Her hair curled softly down her back and chest, ending only past the waist save for the eye-level bangs in the front. Chloe blinked with weak eyes.
“Where is my father and mother? Or—” She finally caught herself, “Is anyone here who has authority or royal direction?”
Chloe looked to Astore, but she could tell by his expression that he too was uninformed. She began to gather her existence, but was interrupted by two more visitors.
Kent and Senica entered quietly, breaking her flow. She asked them, “Is Natasha coming? Or father?”
Kent shrugged for the two of them. Chloe was on her own. She rubbed her forehead with both hands, and then walked up the three steps, standing between the two thrones to address the room.
Lilllith stared her down, and Chloe noticed. As royalty, she wasn’t used to such looks, but she had in her life certainly encountered enough that it did not cause her to falter.
“I suppose that we must wait for everyone to arrive before—” Chloe started, and then immediately rephrased. “We shouldn’t, ah, get too specific before everyone is here, so, as we have yet perhaps half a sixth, I mean an hour, since we have some time yet, I suppose that I will explain in broad strokes what I believe will be happening?”
Alexandre nodded, and Chloe gave her audience a slight smile, continuing. “Although ultimately we are the party offering and sending aid, Lilllith is the only person from the Underside—” She thought of Ammelia and repositioned, “—the only person from the Underside who has come to help us, and therefore I believe that her wish to test the knowledge or strength or…whatever criteria she as chosen… I believe that such a notion is ultimately appropriate.”
Chloe looked around the room. She was unsure of what else there was to say.
Lilllith said, “Well, I suppose I should be glad to have garnered your approval, although, is not the arena being assembled already?”
“Ah, yes. I suppose it is nearly finished, though I am not sure of the details. Natasha would know. Where is she?”
Astore said, “She can be extremely punctual at times. I think that, as you said this was a noontime meeting and it’s still a few minutes to noon, she’s not here yet.”
“Just as the sun is not here yet.” Chloe nodded, and then looked up at the ceiling. The throne room was two stories high, unlike the rest of the first floor, and there was a hexagonal hole in its ceiling.
“How is it that you keep time in this city?” Lilllith asked.
Chloe replied, “There is the belltower, but even that is tuned to high noon using” she pointed at the hexagonal hole, “noon-poles. They only shine when light filters down the entire tube.”
Lilllith followed Chloe’s finger and saw the hole, between the thrones and the hanging lantern. It was filled with glass, a sure feat of pure craftsmanship. It made perfect sense. “So, when this illuminates, we should expect Natasha?”
“Ah, I suppose.”
Alexandre looked up. She hadn’t noticed it before, but the hole explained how there could be any sort of ambient light in the throne room when the lamps were unlit.
As high-noon hit the castle, the glass embedded in the ceiling acted as a lens, brightening the entire throne room three or four times as much as the lantern had.
Natasha arrived as the light began to dim, opening up the door and ushering in a fairly shabby looking blonde man.
“I believe with this one, we have everyone.” She led the man into the room physically, grabbing his blue-grey coat by the shoulder and gently but firmly pushing him into the room ahead of her. She entered behind him and let the door close itself behind her.
To Chloe, the man looked rather dishevelled, but she couldn’t tell if it was because of being somewhat rudely handled by her sister, or if he was like that in general. He seemed young, his hair was shaggy and lightly coloured, and he had a lazily stubbled face.
“Ah…” Chloe surveyed her audience, getting a good look at them before the noon’s light left the chamber and they were returned to less organic light. “Ah…”
Natasha noticed that Chloe was a little lost, so she stepped past the rest of the group towards the throne, stopping at the bottom of the steps, and to Chloe’s left, as not to obstruct line of sight to her.
“You have a somewhat small party. It is fitting, I suppose, that it is to be a small group of supposed elites.” Natasha spoke, echoing the words of her father many months ago. “Let us introduce ourselves while we wait for the King and his Wife.”
“That sounds good.” Chloe nodded a little frantically.
Natasha took a clipboard from her satchel, and took the clasp from the bottom out. She brandished a fountain pen.