Thursday, August 20, 2015

Into the Land of the Elves: Talking Way Too Much About Katie

The Diary of Miss Aidyn Hall; don’t call me human
August 12
2:04 PM

Talking Way Too Much About Katie

            Katie showed up the moment I was about to head out into the Greenwood. I had finished my lunch and finished packing up my writing materials. Apple Blossom was no longer confined to the palace and I knew that she would have me running around for most of the day, but still I knew that I would find a convenient time to write. Writing in the Greenwood was the only way that I could get any writing done anymore. Apple Blossom’s interest was part of the reason for that, but the other part was the Greenwood itself. There was no better place for the imagination than a place like the Greenwood, where elves lived and fairies played and the waters rang like bells.
            But then Katie came along. I swore under my breath when I saw her coming up to the door. It’s gotten so that I genuinely cannot stand the woman anymore. I answered the door before she could ring the bell. “What do you want, Katie?” I asked in an admittedly snappish tone.
            “What’s with the ice?” she asked as she attempted to invite herself in. Her entitled self was just so shocked when I blocked her way. “I just have a few questions about that stone,” she said. In one cupped hand, she held the tag.
            “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?” I asked her.
            “I’m on my lunch break,” she answered. “I ate my lunch in the car on the way here, so I have time.”
            “I won’t be able to answer everything,” I said with a sigh. “But go ahead, shoot. I have somewhere to be.”
            “Can I come in?” Katie asked, and I moved aside to allow her to. She sat down on the arm of the sofa.  “Make this quick,” I told her.
            “Do you have one of these too?” Katie asked. I responded by slipping my tag out of my pants pocket and handing it to her. “Yours has a different marking,” she observed. “Do you know why that is?”
            “Mine is the symbol for the number five,” I said. “Yours is the number six. It means that we’re the fifth and sixth humans to come by that particular Greenwood.”
            “What happened to numbers one through four?” Katie asked.
            “They weren’t able to get in,” I said, “and you won’t be able to get in either. Only I was able to get in.”
            “What, are you part of an exclusive club?” Katie asked standoffishly, crossing her arms. “No,” I said, “I’m personal friends with the princess. Do you remember her? She’s that little girl you terrified.”
            “Oh.” Katie guiltily looked down at the floor. “Did I really terrify her?”
            “You did,” I said. “I mean, she was hiding.” 
            “Can I go back and tell her that I’m sorry?” Katie asked without looking up.
            “No, you can’t go back!” I said. “That will terrify her even more! Not only that, but it will cause one heck of a commotion among all the other elves! They really, really don’t like humans at the best of times, Katie! If you’re really sorry, then I’ll tell her that for you. I really ought to get going now.” I took my tag from her and slipped it into my pocket. “If you have anymore questions, just text them to me and I’ll answer them when I can.”
            “I guess I’ve got to get back to work,” said Katie. “But Aidyn, I have to say that I’m sorry I didn’t….well, I said that there weren’t any elves, and I acted like you were telling a kids’ story when you were telling me about all of this elf business. But now I’m starting to realize that you were telling the truth the whole time. And if you were, well…who knew, right?”
            “Of course I was telling the truth,” I said. Somehow, her little “who knew” irritated me.
            “Well, I’m sorry I doubted you,” Katie said, “and I’m sorry for being such a jerk about it.”
            “I appreciate the apology,” I said, and I have to admit that I was still rather cold about it. I wasn’t in the mood to be friendly to her yet. I saw her to the door and to her car, and as I waited for her car to completely disappear from view, I sat down on the curb to write all of this down. I guess I had a lot more to say about it than I thought, because she took off ages ago and I’m still sitting here. Oh well, Apple Blossom will understand.

7:00 PM

            Apple Blossom was waiting for me at the bridge, entirely untroubled by the delay. “Good afternoon, friend,” I said cordially, and I gave her a little hug, which she returned.
            “What happened to that woman who came by yesterday?” she asked.
            “You mean Katie?” I said. “Oh, I don’t think you’ll be seeing her again.”
            “She’s not coming back?” Apple Blossom asked with widening eyes. “Why isn’t she coming back?”
            I raised a brow. “You don’t want her to come back, do you?” I asked incredulously.
            “I do!” she cried. “I do want her to come back! She’s a friend of yours, isn’t she?”
            “Well, not really. Not anymore,” I said begrudgingly. I had enough of Katie, and now that I had finally gotten away from her, I didn’t want to talk about her. Unfortunately, Apple Blossom did not feel the same. “You aren’t friends anymore?” she asked. “Is it because of what happened yesterday?”
            “It absolutely is,” I assured her. Then, to change the subject, I said, “I have more to read today. Do you remember when you took a peek at that lacy book on your mother’s desk?”
            “I remember,” she said. “But why are you mad at your friend when you’re the one who attacked her?”
            “I didn’t attack her!” I insisted. “I had to get her to go away! I couldn’t just let her in, could I?”
            “I wouldn’t have minded that,” said Apple Blossom. “I would have liked to meet a friend of yours.”
            “But you were afraid of her!” I said. “You hid from her, and then you cried!”
            “I was only afraid of her until I found out she was your friend, Aidyn!” Apple Blossom said with a hint of exasperation. “And then I was afraid because you were fighting!”
            Ow, did that ever hurt. Up until then, I hadn’t acknowledged my own culpability in her terror, and even then I wasn’t exactly ready to, so I just dodged the subject for the time being. “Your parents would be absolutely livid,” I reminded her, “if I started bringing even more humans in here.”
            “She wouldn’t have to come past the bridge,” said Apple Blossom. “I just would have liked to talk with her.”
            I could hardly believe what I was hearing. “I can’t guarantee that she would want to talk with you, Apple Blossom,” I told her. “I mean, she didn’t even think you were real, even when she was looking right at you. Besides, it’s way too much of a risk. Katie isn’t concerned with protecting this place. She sees it—and you—as a point of interest, nothing more. And once humans start finding points of interest, they start wanting to find out more about them. And when they want that, they’ll do anything it takes to get any information they can, with no regard for whether or not it will cause trouble or even whether or not they have a right to it.”
            “You didn’t do that,” said Apple Blossom. “And I don’t think any friend of yours would do that either.”
            “I don’t want to discuss this any further, Apple Blossom,” I said firmly, and the matter finally dropped. The day continued perfectly pleasantly, so long as we didn’t have to talk about Katie. We did our reading on the banks of the mermaid pool, and after that we got to go for a sail on Apple Blossom’s oak log raft. The mermaids were just as receptive to the both of us as they had been on the day of our swim a while back. Just how many new friends am I going to make in the Greenwood? I realize more than ever that each and every one of them is superior to Katie in each and every way.
            And yet, as Apple Blossom was walking me back to the bridge at the end of the day, she lightly tugged at my hand and asked, “Is it okay to talk about Katie now?”
            “I’d rather we didn’t,” I said. “I still don’t like her very much right now.”
            “Well, do you think that the next time you come here, you can bring Katie with you?” Apple Blossom looked up at me with hopeful eyes. “She doesn’t have to follow us over the bridge, Aidyn. I just really want to meet a friend of…I mean, somebody you know, just once.”
            I heaved a sigh. “I’ll think about it,” I told her. “But I am not going to promise you anything.”
              Unfortunately, I’m still thinking about it.


Friday, August 7, 2015

The Knights of the Jewel: The Knighting

The Jewel spoke in a voice that was not heard by the ears, but by the mind. The effect was very much like the recollection of a good dream or a pleasant memory. It was not a sound, but a feeling that began deep in the recesses of the mind and pushed itself to the surface in order to fill the thinker with the safety and comfort of a meeting with good friends or the arms of a loving mother. The voice was not male or female, and there was nothing about it that could be called human. Perhaps it was what a dream would sound like if a dream could speak to you in its own voice. “My dear friends,” it said, and the eight felt as if this being truly considered them to be dear friends, “I extend my deepest gratitude to all of you for answering my call, and while I am thankful, I expected and anticipated that you would answer. My knights are chosen for loyalty and duty, amongst a league of other fine qualities that I saw within all of you even before you presented yourselves to me. The princess fretted over your lack of appearance, but I was not concerned. I trusted you.”
            “But how could you have known us?” Rodin spoke up.
            “There is so much that I know, Rodin,” the Jewel said good-naturedly. “When Harkinian made his declaration, I knew that the Knights of Rasta alone would not be enough. Though they are unmatched in strength and dexterity, my land of Rasta needs everything that they have to offer right now, and I cannot risk taking away from that for my own protection. I must have my own army, made up of companions that I may trust with my life. To find these companions, I utilized my own magic, searching the other realms for the signs that would point me in the direction of my knights. And your images came to me as an epiphany. I learned your names, your lands, and the nature of who you are. The magic deep inside of me told me everything that I needed to know, and I determined that it was correct, and that I had found my knights.
            “Now you are here, and I need each and every one of you to confirm that you are up for the task. Though it was written in the cosmos, I am well aware that it cannot be forced. It will be perilous, and upon your agreement, you will give your lives to Rasta and to me. But you must make the decision for yourselves, and not for me.”
            “I accept the position,” Ion said without hesitation, removing his helmet and bowing his head. “I cannot return to Lamorak, for there I have been dishonored. My name and my legacy as Mighty Ion of Lamorak have been stripped away from me in the midst of my shameful defeat. Here in Rasta, I shall create a new name, a new legacy. I accept my place as your knight, oh Jewel, and if it is permissible I will take up arms at the front lines.” His dramatic gesture earned a “tch” from Morgana, and Alicia had to stifle a giggle, but Ion ignored both.
            “Come to me, Sir Ion,” the Jewel said, and Ion immediately obeyed. As he made his way to the dais where the Jewel resided, his legs seemed to turn numb, and he stumbled in spite of himself. The eight colors appeared to shift and blend, yet never once did they manage to outshine one-another, and Ion had to close his eyes to block out the disorientation that this caused. He felt as small and weak as a baby boy, and he was sure that he had never felt this way before. He was ashamed and humiliated by his defeat in the joust, but subconsciously he knew that a single defeat at a ceremonial joust did not really change who he was. It did not cancel out all of the years of victory, all of the opponents he had defeated, all of the monsters he had slain that had earned him his title as well as the respect and adoration of the kingdom. It had not rendered him as small and helpless as standing on the dais beside the Jewel had. This was a being of unbelievable strength and superiority that no knight, he knew, could ever match.  
            But if the Jewel could sense his feelings of insignificance, it did not let on. In the way that a mother gently instructs her child, it said, “Hold out your hand, Sir Ion.” Ion knew that this was a being to be obeyed without hesitation. He felt something appear in his palm that was hard and smooth like a beach pebble, and he opened his eyes to see what it was. There in the palm of his hand was a ruby, perfectly rounded and cut into facets that expertly caught the light that filtered through the chamber. It was the same shade of sunset crimson that appeared among the Jewel’s eight hues. As Ion closed his fist around the gem, he felt a familiar surge of energy course through his veins: the energy of battle. It was the adrenaline that rose in him when he charged into the front lines, the thrill that struck him when his sword struck the opponent’s, the power that he felt as he brought down his enemies one by one. He was no longer the helpless child that he had become beside the Jewel, but he was no longer Mighty Ion of Lamorak either. The power that he received from that pebble-sized stone was shaping him into something more than he had ever been.
            The Jewel spoke again, and this time Ion was able to look straight into its crimson hue without hurting his eyes. “Sir Ion Halbreck,” it said, its otherwordly voice rising to an imposing boom, “Rasta’s Knight of the Ruby, you may step down.”
            Ion obeyed, and stepped down from the dais to return to his seven companions. He held his head high, his body tall, and he did not stumble even once.

            Ion’s seven companions had beheld the unusual knighting ceremony with the awe of a master mystic’s audience. With his back to them, his emotions had been unreadable, and none of them could imagine the expression on his face. They saw that he stumbled on his way up to the dais, and that his body had tensed and he had gone completely still as he received a message from the Jewel that was meant for him alone. Now, he was as proud and tall as they had come to know him, and his fist was closed around something that gave off a red glint. Though the others had leagues of questions to ask, they knew that they would all be answered soon enough.
            One by one, the Jewel commanded the seven of them to the dais. One by one, they approached the Jewel and, overwhelmed by the power it exerted, were stunned to silence. One by one, they were burned to insignificance up against this being of incredible power, strength, magic, kindness, intelligence, and ability. They felt the disconcerting sensation of being torn away from everything that made them who they were, reduced to the level of a newborn child with nothing to know and everything to learn. Then they were given a smooth, round stone, each one a color reflected in the Jewel’s eight hues, and the sense of who they were returned to them with something more. As Sanjaia looked into the center of the bright orange citrine, he was soothed by the pleasant chords of his many melodies as they echoed through his mind. The chords were familiar, and he was certain that they were his, but at the same time he was aware that they were not the same songs that he had played at parties and at weddings and to entertain his friends. These songs were charged with energy, and they weren’t only meant to be played, but used. Sanjaia stepped off of the dais with an understanding that he must determine how to use them. Morgana, on the other hand, received power from her amethyst that she knew very well how to use—it was the same kind of power, in fact, that she had been seeking when she had crossed over into Rasta. She was a being of magic, and now she had been awarded an entire menagerie of mixed magics that would have earned her the respect and adoration of a queen back in Arganell. As she stepped off of the dais, she grinned gleefully as her awareness of her newfound power began to sink in.
            Like Ion, the seven returned to their places with their heads held high, standing tall and confident. They had been blessed, and they were driven to giddiness by the feeling that it gave them. Several sighed, others laughed with no reasoning behind it, and Rodin kissed his shining blue stone over and over again like it was his newest and dearest friend. But when the Jewel spoke again, they all immediately silenced to heed its words. “Now, my knights,” the Jewel said, “you have been sworn in, and you have each received an ability stone. These stones will enhance your pre-existing abilities and strengths, which I was able to pick up on through a very careful assessment of each one of you. You must hold tight to your stones, for there will be many, many times when you will need to make use of them. Now you must meet with the princess in the atrium. She will set your stones into chains of white gold, so that you may always hold them close to you. Tomorrow morning, she will take you to the palace of Rasta, where you will be welcomed and celebrated.”

            Rodin took hold of the white gold chain to look once more upon the little sapphire that he loved so much. All of his life, he had longed for such blessings as had been granted him through that little sapphire. As he and his company were escorted from the isolated Palace of the Jewel into Rasta’s capital city, he looked around him and he saw the little signs that he knew had been there all along: the faintest glimmer of dust in the dewdrops that clung to the grass, the glimpse of fluttering wings that disappeared as quickly as they were sighted, the shimmering rainbows that appeared in puddles left behind by recent rains. He stopped to peer into a patch of vetches on the side of the road, and was delighted to spot the tiny winged forms curled up in their stamens. He looked to the sky, which was alive with hidden creatures that he always knew existed, but was never able to see no matter how hard he looked. Now, not only could he see them, but he could feel a real sense of kinship with them. Back in Shalorre, there were plenty of people who claimed kinship with the fairies. Rodin himself had made plenty of attempts to determine if he had any fairy blood, no matter how small the drop. He had never been able to find out, but it didn’t matter now. He had been granted a connection to the fairy realms that ran deeper than blood ever could. The thought of communicating with them, befriending them, and entering their worlds for the very first time filled him with joy that sent him bouncing on his heels as he kept up with his comrades.
            The moment that Rodin had stepped down from the Jewel’s dais with his sapphire in hand, he was aware that his life was going to change. When Cordelia had smiled at him and said, “Hail to Rasta’s Knight of the Sapphire!” as she slipped the chain around his neck, he knew that the change would be a pleasant one. Now, he was on his way to be received in a real palace, dressed in the finest clothes he had ever laid eyes on, let alone worn. He had chosen a two-piece velvet suit the same blue color as the sapphire. He was bathed in rosy oils and his hair was combed and tied back in a gold grosgrain ribbon. I could pass for a nobleman, Rodin thought, or even a prince. What would the guys think if they saw me? He entertained himself with a fantasy of meeting up with his friends from Shalorre at the gates of Rasta’s capital. They marveled at his companions, who all appeared to be visiting royals from faraway lands. Then they saw Rodin among this fine crowd, and they did not recognize him at first, until he cast a familiar glance in their direction and their jaws dropped wide open. They could only gawk as he passed by.
            The white stone path they had been following ended at an extravagantly-painted metal sign. “WELCOME TO RASTA CITY” dazzled in golden lettering decorated with bright roses and stars. The city was overwhelming after the secluded woodlands and quiet dirt roads that had surrounded the Palace of the Jewel. Multi-leveled white buildings reached the sky, illuminated with colored lights at every level. Clanking metal carriages passed by at speeds too quick for the horse-drawn carriages that Ion and Alicia knew, but too slow for the cars that Troy and Rodin were familiar with. Black steel stairways and ramps extended the city into the space above their heads, with skyways for maneuvering around the upper levels. The city was unbelievably clean for a city so populated, and the knights soon found out that this was on account of several rattling mechanical workers that made their way up and down the roads and stairways with an array of intricate automated tools. There was far too much for two eyes to take in.
            As they passed by, the citizens turned to look at them. Several merely gawked, others whispered or murmured or muttered to themselves, and some shouted to them in greeting—“The Knights of the Jewel!” “Hail to the Knights!” “Ah, you’re finally here!” “Is it really them?” It was clear enough that the knights had been expected, but the reception was going to be mixed. There was no time to make small talk, but the knights were sure to acknowledge their greeters with a glance, a nod, or a greeting in return. Finally, they arrived at a well lit station where several large, multi-leveled vehicles were docked in neat rows—larger and more spacious versions of the metal carriages that had made their way in and out of the streets. Lovisa noted their similarities to the streetcars that occasionally made their way in and out of the village whenever someone had a need to use one to go into the city. To Rodin and Troy, they were reminiscent of big city shuttle buses. And Eluani was reminded of the scholars’ trolleys, which made their way up and down the roads transporting students to and from the local priories.
            Cordelia approached the station master, who nodded with proper cordiality. “Good morning to you, Princess.” He looked past her then, and his eyes were fixed on the eight knights, who regarded him with everything from pleasant grins to uncomfortable shifts of the feet. “Are these…” he began, but he found himself unable to complete the sentence.
“Yes,” said Cordelia, “these are the Jewel’s chosen knights, and I will be taking them into the palace this morning. I will need…”
“Carriage 1-A, of course,” the station master finished with familiarity. Ion was appalled by the audacity of a man who spoke over his princess, and astonished by the fact that this sort of behavior appeared to be the norm. “I will have it ready for you in just a few moments,” the station master continued. “And welcome, Knights, to Rasta! I hope you’ll find your experiences in our lovely land to be enjoyable. The people of Rasta will always be at the service of the sworn protectors of its Jewel.” He nodded then, just as he had for the princess, and took off to the back of the station. The princess led them to a seat under a glass pavilion to the right of the station entrance.
“So we’re going to be treated like royalty,” said Morgana. “I could easily get used to that.” Her disdain for royalty would not extend to herself if she were to come into it.
“You will be respected as long as you are respectable,” Cordelia told her. “If you carry yourselves in the way that knights ought to, and you show Rasta that the Jewel has chosen wisely, then you will be properly rewarded.”  
“Back in Lamorak,” Ion said, “I managed to carry myself in the way of a knight every day. To do the same for Rasta will require no effort.” He neglected to mention that he was often criticized for his impulsive actions, unorthodox maneuvers, and his insatiable lust for the fight. They did not seem worth mentioning; he was Mighty Ion either way, and he had many more admirers than he had critics. Now that he would be making a new start in Rasta, he hoped that he would manage to acquire only admirers.
Lovisa could only imagine what sort of carriage required so much preparation to be fit for them to ride. When the station master finally returned with two silk-clad valets beside him, and instructed the princess and knights to follow them to Carriage 1-A, she knew already that it would be nothing like the little wooden carriages she was used to riding in. Excitement gripped her as she and her companions were escorted past more of the shining metal carriages that they had seen on the roads, along with the multi-level vehicles and much smaller carriages that looked like painted metal boxes. Signs hung up above the rows of vehicles identified them with seemingly arbitrary letters and numbers: “400-B to 420-B, “C-30 to C-40.” Carriage 1-A, as it turned out, was at the very back of the station, and Lovisa was not the only one to let out a gasp when they reached it. The carriage’s stark white color reminded her of the Arabian horses that she spent her autumn days riding across the fields of Eridell. It was accented by painted images of kings and queens up against backgrounds of dragons, castles, fairies, forests, colorful fields, and more besides. “RASTA CITY MAIN STATION-CARRIAGE 1-A” was painted in golden lettering near the roof, and in silver script below that, “Carriage of Rasta’s Royal Family.” It was all too much for Lovisa, who approached the station master shyly and asked, “Are you sure it’s all right for us to ride in this?”
            “This is the only one that’s fit for you, Lady,” the station master said with a grin. Beside her, Lovisa could see that Rodin was shedding a tear, and she was about ready to cry herself. She reached for his hand and squeezed it, and he smiled at her as he wiped a tear with his free hand. They boarded the carriage and were led by the valets to a spacious, rose-colored suite. The sunny yellow plush carpeting was a relief to their feet, which were still sore and tired from yesterday’s walk. Round windows positioned behind the suede sofas provided a view of the road from several different angles. “Here are your accommodations,” said one of the valets with a grand gesture towards the room. “If you need anything, you may send for one of us by pressing the blue button next to the door. The princess has roomed here often enough, so I’m sure that she’ll be able to show you where everything is. Am I right, Princess?”
            “Of course,” said Cordelia, and she reached into the pocket of her gown for three gold pieces to hand to each valet. Lovisa wished that she had something to tip, and she made a mental note to find a small gift to thank them for their service. The other knights were already taking places on the sofas, stretching themselves out on the carpet, and settling down on the large silken cushions that were tucked into corners. Lovisa took a spot by a window and watched the colors of the electronically-lit roads and buildings blur as they passed her by.
            This is not a palace, Morgana thought. I have no idea what the hell this is. To Morgana, a palace was a lofty complex with gilded towers that looked down on everybody just like the people in them. Ugly statues of ugly figures looked out at you from ugly courtyards behind ugly gates. Servants dressed in finer attire than servants should ever be turned up their noses at you as if they themselves were royalty. And of course, the king and queen sat their gilded bottoms in gilded thrones designed specifically for making sure they were positioned several feet above the rest of the world.
            The palace of Rasta had no towers. It was a multi-level compound that managed to hold all of its many inhabitants at a reasonable altitude. Its gate was made of a glassy material that was too thick to be actual glass, guarded by uniformed men who sat in booths set up at both sides. There was no courtyard and there were no statues, only a single paved roadway that led straight up to the palace and branched off when it reached the front entryway. As their carriage made its way up this road, they were not approached by nosy servants who wondered what business these eight outsiders had in the carriage of the royal family. In fact, they were not approached by anyone at all. Morgana sighed contentedly as the carriage made its way to the docking station, approving of such a system that was so different from the presumptuous palaces she had known back in Arganell.
            They exited the carriage (reluctantly in some cases) and were greeted by a young servant girl. She squealed happily and embraced the princess, and the two carried on chattering as if they were sisters. Then the girl laid eyes on the eight knights, and she gasped. “Oh my goodness!” she said breathlessly. “Do my eyes deceive me, or are these really our awaited Knights of the Jewel?”
            That’s us,” was Morgana’s prideful reply.
            “Oh my goodness,” the girl cried again. “How wonderful it is to finally be able to welcome you to the palace of Rasta! My name is Bryn, and I serve Princess Cordelia. For the time being, it is my pleasure to serve you all too!”
            “We don’t need much serving,” Lovisa modestly assured her, and Morgana shot her a glare. If this girl wanted to serve them, then by all means let her do it! “Come on, follow us,” Bryn said, taking the princess’ hand. “The others are waiting for you!”
            “Who are the others?” Morgana asked.
            “Why, it’s everybody!” Bryn answered. “It’s the king, the knights of Rasta, the priests from the chapel, the noblemen and women, the advisors, the courtiers and the other servants, the…
            “We get it,” said Morgana, and her ever-increasing ego swelled up like a balloon. Now she was in a palace, filled to the brim with nobles and royals and others of high renown, each one set and ready to kiss the ground she walked on. The new enchantments that the Jewel had granted her through her amethyst were only a piece of the power that she had in this new land. She would have the entire country eating out of her hands in no time, and then the possibilities were limitless. And just wait until they saw that she was a fairy!
            Like most palaces, the palace of Rasta had a great hall; a spacious atrium where visitors to the palace—usually of a noble nature—were met and entertained by the royal family or the palace officials. Bryn led the princess and the knights into this great hall and reached for a massive bell hanging from the wall to call attention to the chattering crowd. “Announcing the arrival of our beloved Princess Cordelia…and the Knights of the Jewel!” the girl bellowed in a surprisingly loud, shrill voice for someone of her size. It was more effective at silencing the crowd than the gongs of the bell.
            And so the crowd of nobles, courtiers, servants, knights, officials, priests, bards, clerics, mages, and entertainers turned to behold those they had gathered here to wait for. Morgana knew immediately that she was going to enjoy her time here as they all approached, bowed, curtsied, and made dramatic and flowery comments on their beauty and their grace. She reveled in the admiration from noblemen and women fascinated with her midnight-colored hair and her completely smooth, completely clean smoky grey skin. She twirled before a team of squealing girls who marveled at the luminous aura that cloaked her. If anybody wanted to touch her gown, she let them, and if they wanted to kiss her hand, she held it out for them, and she flashed smile after smile at gawkers who paid her compliment after compliment. She allowed herself to be led through the crowd, soaking up their adoration the whole time, until she and the others were called out of the receiving line by Cordelia. Morgana was not the only one disappointed by this interruption; all eight of them felt as though they could have spent the rest of their lives floating through that hall and basking in the pleasantries of the crowd. Sanjaia had particularly enjoyed the company of the other bards, who had enthusiastically played along with the chords he strummed out on his harp, and Lovisa had been kissed and patted and called so many different variations of so many lovely names that she felt as though she had ceased to be an ordinary girl and had become a sort of human rose. Cordelia smiled prettily at them and said, “Now you will meet my father, King Lawrence. Follow me, please.”
            If I can make that trumpery lot bow at my heels, Morgana thought, it shouldn’t be too difficult to enchant the king in the same way. She followed after the princess with more eagerness than she had displayed at all since her arrival in Rasta. Rodin took note of her peppier steps, her head held proudly high, and the smile on her face that he got to see for the very first time. When she was being agreeable, the fairy was the picture of beauty.
            Presently, a ripple of activity passed through the crowd. The cheery cacophony was silenced down to hushed tones, and they all began to move aside as if to let somebody pass. In stepped the king, announced by a black-suited servant at his side—“King Lawrence the Second, our gracious king of Rasta!” His long, auburn hair was an exact copy of his daughter’s, as were the pleasant grey eyes that passed over his people with an air of familiarity rather than loftiness. Upon his entrance, the silence of the crowd was broken just as easily as it had begun, as they erupted into raucous cheers and applause for their beloved king. The princess led the knights to him and took her place by his side, and he rumpled her hair affectionately as if she were a little girl.
            “They are here, Father!” Cordelia said excitably, turning to her eight guests with a smile that seemed to glow. “These are the Jewel’s chosen knights, eight knights for the eight colors. Their names are Ion, Alicia, Lovisa, Rodin, Morgana, Sanjaia, Eluani, and Troy.”
            The king looked upon the eight of them with a sort of thoughtful interest, and Morgana shot him a glare. The way he looked at them reminded her of the way that a young boy might examine frogs he had collected in a box, and she would not abide being looked at in such a way, especially not by royalty. But his pensive expression gave way to one of warmth and reception, and he said, “So you have arrived at last, and I can already see that the Jewel has chosen well—not that I would ever doubt the Jewel. Welcome! Everyone has gathered here in anticipation of your arrival. Now that you are here, our hope and our gratitude know no bounds, and you will be honored with a celebration like Rasta has never seen before! Such a celebration is just what Rasta needs to inspire the spirit to face the impending conflict with Aldine. You’ve brought so much more than the gifts that the Jewel has identified in you…you’ve brought hope and inspiration to us all at a time when we will need it the most!” 
             Oh, wonderful, Morgana thought with a roll of her eyes, a king who puts on airs, talks far too much, and places grand expectations upon us the moment we walk in the door.