King Lawrence had not been exaggerating when he said that the celebration held in honor of the Knights of the Jewel was one like Rasta had never seen before. The event managed to surpass the coronation celebrations of Lawrence and all other monarchs before him that the current citizens were able to remember the coronation celebrations for, as well as the birth announcements of each heir to the throne that had been born in their lifetimes. A feast and ball held in the palace and attended by the country’s nobility, clergy, and those who had personal dealings with the royal family was only the beginning, and only a fraction of the festivities that spanned the course of three days. The eight knights were seated at the table of the king and the princess, and Ion took note that the knights of Rasta were seated at the table directly beside them. He would have liked to trade places with Eluani, so that he might be seated where he would be more easily able to speak with them. What he would have given to tell them of his many feats back in Lamorak! But his rigid politeness in the company of royalty did not allow him to ask to move.
Eluani herself could not have cared less where she sat. The great dining hall with its shining silver chairs and carved crystal dishes, the heaps upon heaps of abundantly flavorful food cooked to perfection in various herbs, spices, and marinades, the silk and velvet that she was clad in, and the company of nobles and kings were all much too extravagant for her. It seemed so unnecessary to surround them with such finery; knights or not, most of them were only ordinary people. Just two days ago, Eluani had been a simple seer from the House of Sight, and though the seers were much respected members of Calner’s citizenry, it would have been unthinkable to shower them in extravagance such as this. Even the aristocracy did not hold parties of this caliber, and the seers did not attend the ones they did hold. As the jovial conversations carried on around her and the knights were continuously toasted and complimented, Eluani only spoke when she was prompted and said little. As her companions enthusiastically sampled just about everything out on the table in front of them, Eluani only touched her food—which was just a bit too flavorful—out of the obligation to be polite. She knew that her life was in for a drastic change, and she had even been able to anticipate exactly what sort of changes would come about. But now they had arrived, and she was experiencing them all at once, and the effect was overwhelming. Her only solace was in the quiet company of the priests and mages, many of whom wished to keep to themselves as much as she did.
The night after that first day of celebrating, when the knights had been thoroughly worn out with dancing and feasting and conversation, they learned that their quarters were set up at the Palace of the Jewel. Eluani could breathe easy then; the Palace of the Jewel was haven of solitude, free from the hustle and bustle of this big city that towered into the sky. It would be an ideal location to practice her craft, which had been newly refined by the pink stone that the Jewel had given her. After saying goodbye to the king and the princess and the guests that they had come to enjoy the company of, the knights were shuttled out to the palace via Carriage 1-A. Though she was exhausted by the day’s events, Lovisa remembered the tip that she had promised to find for the valets, and they were rewarded for their services with the two red roses that she had been given by a flighty young earl. “There will be much more than that,” Lovisa promised sleepily, “as long as you continue to treat us with such kindness.”
The Palace of the Jewel was unchanged from when they had left it that morning, and it was rather awkward to be there without the princess, who knew the Jewel more intimately than they were sure they ever would. Even so, Sanjaia, Lovisa, Alicia, and Rodin took the mind to stop by its chamber to wish it goodnight and thank it for all of the wonderful things that had happened to them upon their arrival. The Jewel did not respond to this. It was one to speak when it had the mind to, not when spoken to. The three of them were overcome with a pleasant, homey feeling as they exited the chamber, as if something unusually comforting had just taken place. They made their way to their quarters, which turned out to be quite easy to find. Were these rooms made especially for us, Lovisa pondered as she changed from her creamy gown into a hyacinth-colored night shift, or have they ever been used before?
“As nice as all of this celebrating is,” Troy said the next morning at breakfast, “we really ought to focus more on training and less on partying.”
The knights were seated around a silver table very like the one they had feasted at in the palace of Rasta, though of course much smaller and simpler. Servants from the palace had brought in a hot morning buffet and told them that they were expected back in Rasta City; there they would be taken through the streets by a show coach, allowing the common citizens to behold the Knights of the Jewel for the first time. “I get that we’re a big deal,” Troy went on, “but knights are soldiers, and they’re treating us like showpieces. How are we supposed to find time to prepare for the fight if they’re going to take out whole days for partying and showing us around?”
“It’s to boost our morale,” said Alicia. “It isn’t only Rasta’s spirits that they’re trying to keep up, but ours too. After so much celebration, we’ll feel more ready for the fight than ever!”
“I feel ready for the fight anyhow!” Ion said energetically. “I should have thought to ask the princess where our weapons are located, but I was so swept up in the revelry that it slipped my mind.”
“They’re locked up somewhere here in the palace,” speculated Alicia. “We didn’t get a chance to see where everything is.”
“Well, we should have time to find them and to at least learn a little bit of how to use them,” Troy said. So after breakfast, the knights took the time to explore. The Palace of the Jewel was a small palace that was unused to accommodating guests, and yet it still had many more rooms, hallways, and chambers than the knights had expected to find. There was a stable outside, should any of them choose to keep a horse (Ion and Lovisa, who had already made plans to find good horses, were delighted by this discovery). There was a tiny kitchen attached to the dining hall that must have been meant for servants, but the knights planned to use it themselves as much as possible—except for Morgana, they didn’t feel very comfortable with allowing servants to wait on them all the time. The front courtyard was narrow, but very organized and decorated on both sides with boxy rosebushes and showy petunias and verbenas. A wide, barren cellar was discovered through a back door at the end of the main hallway. There were a few empty chambers that seemed to have no real purpose at all. But a weapons hold was not to be found.
“They are here, though,” Eluani mused, rubbing her temples with the tips of her fingers. “They are behind one of those closed doors, and they will not be revealed to us until after today’s celebration is over. So I suppose we’ll have to just get through that, and hopefully we’ll still have time for training.”
“If you knew that,” Morgana snapped, “then why didn’t you tell us before we spent all of this time searching, Miss Future Sight?”
“Because it didn’t actually come to me until a few moments ago,” Eluani retorted. “Besides, it’s beneficial for us to get acquainted with our surroundings anyhow.”
“Maybe we could just ask for them,” Alicia said, “and we could request a break from the festivities to do a bit of training.”
“I doubt it,” said Morgana. “I’ve found that it’s pretty futile to ask for anything from anyone in a palace.”
“Stop generalizing,” Alicia said. “I’m sure if we were to ask Cordelia, she would think of something. She’s already done so much for us. And I really want to see my weapons!”
It was Cordelia herself who arrived at the Palace of the Jewel that afternoon to lead the knights into Rasta City. She had expected them to be dressed in more silks, brocades, and tassels to be shown around the streets of Rasta, and was quite taken aback when she found them in plain shirts, jackets, trousers, belts, and mail. “Why aren’t you dressed yet?” she asked.
“We’re dressed for training,” Alicia told her. “Cordelia, as much as we really do appreciate all of these celebrations held in our honor—and we are very much honored!—we think that it would be beneficial if we had more time to train. You must understand this, as you know that so many of us will be engaging in combat for the very first time. We would like to get properly acquainted with the abilities that the Jewel has granted us, as well as ensure that we have enough time to adequately learn to use our weapons. Will you and your people allow us that?”
“I understand,” Cordelia said with a nod, “and you’re right. I will ensure that there will be time for training. But for now, the coach is waiting to take you around. The citizens have waited so long to see you, and you will allow them that, won’t you?”
“Of course,” said Alicia. “Thank you, Cordelia. Your kindness knows no bounds.”
There was no time to change into finery. “It’s better this way,” said Troy. “The citizens need to see us as the soldiers that we are, and it’s hard to do that if we’re all dressed up like dolls.” Their gems, resting in white gold filigree, were already fine enough for anything. Once again, they were led through the pristine bottom level of the towering city, and it all seemed much less imposing than it had the day before. The citizens were ready to welcome them with open arms, shouting, “Hey, knights!” as they passed by. The knights returned their greetings in the best ways that they knew how.
The coach, which was waiting for them outside of the glassy gate of the palace, was a splendid white double-decker vehicle with shining metal balconies built along the top layer. The wide, square-shaped windows had no glass to obscure the wind or the eyes of curious onlookers. The vehicle was hung with red and silver banners, and the largest of them bore golden threads which read “RASTA’S KNIGHTS OF THE JEWEL.” One by one, beginning with Alicia, they were escorted up the sunken metal stairway leading into the vehicle, past a vestibule where the driver sat in the solitude that they would not be awarded this time around. Morgana had already made plans to curl up on the floor and refuse to come up until she was good and ready, and Eluani decided that she would feel more comfortable if she did not have to actually look at the crowd as she passed them by. Sanjaia, on the other hand, ecstatically made his way up to the topmost balconies, overcome by the thrill of an opportunity to perform for the largest audience that he was likely to ever be faced with.
The knights took their places, Cordelia took hers on the balcony at the head of the coach, and they were ferried through the streets of Rasta City. The crowds gathered in huddles on all sides of the roads seemed more fitting for a royal procession or a parade than the mere introduction of eight knights. Those who had not been fortunate enough to find a spot outside pressed their faces to the windows and congregated near the doorways, and the coachman pressed a button that bathed the carriage in lights that matched the eight colors of the Jewel, ensuring that it would not be missed even by those forced to remain inside. In the upper layers of the city, people peered over the railings and found places to stand on the stairwells. Children were hoisted up onto the shoulders of adults so that they may behold the knights for themselves. Sanjaia despaired of losing his ultimate audience as the sounds of his harp were quickly drowned out by shouts, whistles, and applause.
Time passed by, and the single-coach procession showed no sign of drawing to a close. At around two in the afternoon, the coachman announced through a loudspeaker that there would be an intermission so that the knights may be served their lunch. We don’t need an intermission, Troy thought in dismay, we need to finish this up so we can get to our freaking training! The lights were turned off, the coach was pulled into a carriage station, and they were driven to the very back so that they were properly secluded from the crowds. Troy confronted Cordelia on the steps down from the topmost layer of the coach. “How much longer is this going to be?” he asked irritably, and felt immediate remorse for speaking so harshly to a princess. “I mean, I know you want us to see all of your people, and that’s really very nice of you. But you said you’d make sure we had time to train, and quite frankly, that’s much more important.”
“And who’s to say that this isn’t part of your training?” Cordelia asked with a conspiratorial smile. Troy thought that she would have made more sense if she had told him that she was an alien. In fact, it would have explained a lot. “It isn’t,” he insisted. “What kind of combat experience are we getting from being paraded around the city?”
“Do you think that combat experience is the only part of training?” Cordelia asked.
“No,” said Troy, “of course not. But I don’t see how grand processions through the streets are any part of it.”
“Troy,” said Cordelia, “the Jewel isn’t all that you will fight for. The Jewel is the guardian of Rasta, and so any enemy that threatens it threatens Rasta as a whole. If the Jewel were to go down, or if it were taken away from us, the entire kingdom would suffer. Each and every one of the people that you saw in the crowds today—the children, the mothers, the scholars, the shopkeepers, all of them—would suffer. Now that you’ve seen what you must fight for, does it not inspire you to give all that you have to the fight? Will you not fight for their smiling faces, their joyous cries, their spirits full of faith in the knights they are counting on to defend them?”
“Of course I’ll fight for them,” said Troy. “It’s what we’re here for.” In the Arcadian military, training consisted of long hours and long days getting to know the battlefield in its entirety. There was the firing of rifles against target after target, the dispatching of swords against one thickly-constructed training dummy after another. There was the rehearsal of protocols and the familiarization of defensive maneuvers down to the letter, repeated until the procedures became as natural as breath and sleep. There were seemingly endless drills out in the hot sun that very often took up entire days. Troy knew his rifle as if it was an extension of his own body. The Arcadian combat maneuvers and defensive tactics had been ingrained in his mind to the point where it seemed as though there never had been a time when they were unknown to him. Of course, his fight was powered by love for his beloved Arcadia. It was love for his country that had inspired him to enlist in the first place.
But there was love for one’s country, and love for one’s people. The Arcadian military had motivated Troy to fight for a faceless entity that he loved, but did not truly know. Now, as Rasta’s Knight of the Onyx, he was not only trained fight and protect, but to know the people that he must fight for. A country’s strongest connection was, of course, through its capital city. The Arcadian military would have seen such a thing as an unnecessary frivolity in the way of preparing for war. But as Troy remembered the hopeful smiles, the energetic cheers, and the eyes full of faith, hope, and support for the new knights, he realized that they had been preparing for war this entire time. And as the princess had expected, he was more inspired than ever to fight for each and every single one of those faces, and all of the rest that he had not gotten a chance to see.
The procession ended at dinnertime, and the princess accompanied the knights’ return to the Palace of the Jewel. The enjoyed a hearty meal in the palace’s comfortable solitude, but the day’s excitement had not worn off.
“I must say,” Lovisa said between bites of spice cake, “Rasta is one of the very nicest countries I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. Then again, I’ve never been to any place outside of Eridell. But even if I had, I’m sure that Rasta would be one of the nicest.”
“It’s certainly the showiest,” said Sanjaia. “Two eyes and two ears are simply not enough in a place where the city lights up and touches the sky!”
“I’m happy to hear it,” Cordelia said warmly. “But there’s so much more to Rasta than its capital city, and I hope that someday you will get to see it all. It’s my good luck that someday I will be queen of a country as lovely as my Rasta. But, you know, a good amount of that loveliness is on account of the Jewel.”
“The Jewel is a true wonder,” Rodin said rapturously. “I’ll do all that I can to protect it, even if it means I must give my own life.” Back in Shalorre, where his biggest daily threat was the horseflies that bit at his face and arms in the fields, he would have never thought to say a thing like that. But now it seemed all right, and even natural.
“So you are all ready to fight,” Cordelia said, and it was not a question. “I was always ready to fight,” was Ion’s response, “but I never thought that I could be even more ready, until I saw Rasta’s capital for what it was.”
Cordelia rose from her seat. “Come with me, then,” she said, “and I will show you to your weapons.”
“We spent all morning looking for them,” Troy told her, “and never found them.”
“Well, allow me to show you where you ought to have looked,” said Cordelia. The knights followed her in an orderly fashion as she led them through the halls of the palace, and out of an unimportant-looking side door that Rodin had discovered and immediately forgotten about during their search that morning. The grassy walk that this door opened out on led them to a rusty brown door that Cordelia inserted a key to open.
“Your weapons,” Cordelia told them, “were crafted by the same weaponsmiths that constructed those of our own knights, as well as the master mages, the most adept bards, and the finest artisans and craftsmen in Rasta. Without the Jewel’s blessing they would be quite ordinary weapons, but with the Jewel’s blessing they will synchronize with the abilities granted to you by your stones. Each weapon possesses a core, and each core responds to a corresponding stone.” She pushed open the door and they entered a wide, circular chamber laid out with cases, racks, and mounts of all kinds. There were swords of all sizes bedecked with odd buttons and switches on metal hilts, which contained glimmering stones in their centers. There were massive shields painted with intricate patterns, which seemed much more for decoration than for actual use. There were cases full of glittering rings and necklaces set with polished stones. Staves mounted on the wall were carved with forest scenes, airy cloudlands, and ravens with glassy dark eyes, all set around glimmering stone cores.
Ion shook his head. “These weapons cannot be for battle,” he said. “They are much too extravagant, too showy and unwieldy.”
“Why don’t you test one out for yourself?” Cordelia suggested.
Ion approached the array of swords mounted along the right wall. He was not sure of which one was meant for him, until he caught the gleam of a ruby-red stone emanating from the hilt of a massive broadsword. Gingerly, he removed the weapon from its mount. The sword was much heavier than any he had ever wielded, and he had to quickly grasp it with both hands to keep it from toppling to the floor. And yet, he felt a surge of sudden confidence in this sword. He had been drawn to it, and as he held it in his hands and looked into the center of that bright red stone, he knew for sure that it had been made for him and that despite its elaborate appearance, it was meant for him to use. “It’s a peculiar sword, that’s for certain,” Ion said to Cordelia, his voice strained slightly by the weight of the sword. “But I’m certain that I can learn to wield it. I declare that this will be my starting weapon! Where must I go to begin my training? Will we be going back into the city?”
Cordelia shook her head. “You’ll be training out here, in the fields nearby the palace.”
“And who will we be training under?” Ion asked. “Will it be under the commander of the knights of Rasta?”
“No,” Cordelia said. “You will be training under me.”
Cordelia had selected a meager training foil, which had been situated on a much smaller rack in a corner of the weapons holds. It was not too different from the training foils used by the knights of Lamorak, and Ion questioned the sense of using it against his own enormous broadsword. Cordelia stood six paces away from him, and the others, waiting patiently with their own weapons, watched from the sides.
“Firmly grasp the hilt,” Cordelia instructed, “and enter the basic stance. It looks like this.” She demonstrated with her own training foil, which was needless; Ion already knew the basic stance for a broadsword and she could not adequately copy it with her training rapier. Ion tightened his grip around the hilt and began to lift, only to be startled into nearly dropping it entirely. Cordelia’s rapier had changed right before his eyes. The blade had extended, widened, and sharpened, and the hilt now shifted and unwound to accommodate the new shape. Cordelia switched her stance from a poor imitation to a flawless execution of the real basic broadsword stance. Her feet shifted until they reached the correct position.
“How did you manage that?” Ion asked in bewilderment.
“It’s a simple press of a button,” Cordelia said. “Now go ahead and match my stance.” With a conspiratorial smile, she added, “I know that you know how.”
Does my own weapon allow for such transformations? Ion wondered as he eyed the many switches on the hilt. The possibility of many weapons in one, he mused, to change as circumstances may demand…why, there is nothing that could catch me off guard! I would be an unstoppable force! Of course, such affairs would be better addressed when it was less of a struggle for him to hold up a sword that touched the sky.