Those golden rings of the High Princes pupils sink into her impenetrable features, alert to her words, mannerisms, pose, hue of her tone, language, eyes like a scorpion seeking a hole to slip its sting in but his barb finds no purchase in her inhumane gaze and simply nodding to her demands with an almost approving smile.
“You ask for cattle for your assistance in your precious rose. I know her worth better than that, and I dearly wish you will one day demand more of me and my people than that for otherwise her guardian is truly pandering her off cheap. And nothing so easily gained has worth.”
He straightens his posture and gently spins one of the many fine chains around a slender digit until its terminating peak, a complicated, multidimensional rune lies in his palm and with a smile he speaks to the obedient dark, tender, singing notes between a whistle and a word until a silvery dragonfly of tiny gears and flayed tendons with the thinnest, barely cured skin for wing-membranes unfolds like a flower in his hand, trilling machinery and a soft pulse of light on his palm from its open belly, resting gingerly like a feather on his hand with its tiny scalpel limbs. Another soft murmur of words in his peoples high, refined speech and the little marvel takes to flight and with a buzz, disappears into the twilight of the Iron Court, a messenger of his wish.
There, the gilded gaze flitting back to her mysterious, impregnable eyes, watching her with a light, relaxed smile, genuine, almost, but not a lie either. He lets the thin chain slowly thread back down his plated, bladed dress, now with a singular, barbed rune dangling, jangling from it and then with his quiet eyes lingering on her, the tip of his tongue touches on the small crimson beads on his hand, tasting them away thoughtfully.
“Nothing of worth is easily gained...”
A repeat. A needless lesson, for her, for him or for a nation built on cruelty and excellence through pain and suffering. Gain through trial. Possession through murder. Power through the will and the desire to keep it. Skill through act, not study. A brutal society with savage, bloody lessons and ways.
And the most powerful of them all, the cruelest, coldest, most savage of them all to court the Rose of the Mantis.
There is a grin on his lips at the thought finally as he nods to her and speaks once more.
“The deed is done, the pact complete. You shall have your desire. The Dwarf, unsullied, further at least, the riding beast, and the blade unheld.”
He muses over her requests once more and nods to her lingering words.
And worry not, the Iron Crown does not bribe its desires with mere cloth and fancy stones. She is wholly unique and priceless and none of the other suitors will ever truly understand that significance. But she is not a possession to be traded off with baubles or things. She is... more...”
A thoughtful pause in his soft words and a gentle crease of thought on his brow before he continues.
“I will not treat her cruelly with the trappings of my people. She is different, her world a... not softer... but a different place. And I shall be in her world. And seek to be fit for her company.”
A final nod to mark his words finished and a motion of the hand to offer her the final walk through the fleshy, barbed, dark marvels of the Artificers Court.
A dawning in the mountains, the first sharp rays of the sun, like razors, cutting through the thin clouds of the morning, like a whetstone sharpening the cruel, vicious edges of the city of death, blood, pain and nobility honed in all of them, a unique pride of a unique people. And with that pride, the High Prince faces the suns narrow barbs as they move, silent across the tall city, the very city itself shifting on silent gears and muscles and power to shield its people from the wicked light, like petals of steel and stone of an inverse flower that turns away from the sun, gilded eyes unflinching at the pain boring its way into his skull, sensitive, elven eyes devouring the hurtful light with calm passion, almost blinding even his forcibly accustomed gaze.
He stands there, at the highest platform of the Iron Court, a smooth pane, a sliver of steel sticking out of the keep like a barb on a vicious stem, his face alone of the many gathered there that faces the sun and slowly, finally, he accepts the sounds and scents of his court once more, now on steeds, powerful things, their musky, dry smell that gets wet and meaty in their heavy, slow exhales steaming in the chill of the northern morning, the soft tingle of the hooks and runes of steel and silver gently rocking against smooth armour and scale, entwined in hair and belt with barbed, silvery cord. Dark hues, like reflections on oil, purples, deep reds, glistening greens and blues on display on sashes and thin lines of cloth between dark, jagged armour and ashen skin, lean faces hidden with tall, narrow helms and hoods and veils of chain and cloth, identities erased to all but the most observant.
He doesnt shift on the high saddle at the gentle sound of footsteps, his eyes already facing the new arrivals, the broken husk of a Dwarf, its steps still attempting pride and honour among its captors, like a lame horse still trying to strut in a pack of wolves and the mysterious form of the ambassador, the messenger, guided to the mounted Prince and his guard and a harnessed, saddled wyrm, a scaled monstrosity lurching even now against the hooks embedded into its flesh, its wary keepers keeping distance from its huge face and its exposed teeth, the narrow elven limbs no match to the cutting power of its jaws and only the Princes steed of matching size and ferocity even though its fierceness is not that of a mad beast but that of a cunning predator, its mind a glimmer, a ghost, a reflection of the Great Dragons of days past, subtle, beyond mere animal sense. A mind fit for the Prince to break under his complete will.
His silent, amber eyes linger on her, waiting for her to mount up and admitting to minute curiosity on how she wishes for her new pet to travel or if she perhaps plans to feed the little runt to the grand beast as a show of affection and camaraderie. His gaze on her he motions gently for the second forerunners to take flight, the lithe beasts easily springing from the ledge into the jagged depths of the dark city far below before taking wing on the warm currents of the sun radiating from the dark steel and stone, vast wingpanes unfurling over the cruel terrain once more after Mans mindless butchery, their vast shadows racing across the pale, exposed stone and the dense, dark green of the forests, their riders, glistening on top of them, long, narrow hunting lances and their barbed, guarded tips and their armour catching the morning sun. He smiles to the feel of the thick bunches of muscle writhing beneath his saddle, knowing his mounts minds desire to leap into the void and follow its kin, to challenge and chase them, to taste at their flesh until the skies were empty of naught but it and its lord but a tender application of his spurs into the beasts flesh yields its urge as he waits for her.
-Io arrived upon the platform with the Dwarven man, her posture perfectly straight as she kept her pace slow enough that the Dwarf could keep up easily. His body was broken, but his mind was as whole as any creature's that might have undergone the tortures of the Dark Elves. Their reunion had been short. A simple nod, a greeting, and then she had turned to lead the way onto the platform. The Suns were up already, the first a white-hot ball in the skies, which were violet from the second, smaller sun's purple glare. Wind whipped around her body as she moved towards the restless steed that awaited them. The beast gave a deep snarl as she moved closer, its senses assimilating her scent and causing a wary shiver skittering down its spine beneath smooth, glistening scales. Something about her presence sparked a primitive memory in its brain, causing it to thrash against its keepers' hold. As it twitched, the Dwarf by her side hesitated, cursing foully under his raspy breath. Io simply ignored him and moved to the beasts' side.
The wyrm was a far cry from the original dragons that had once roamed the world. Its physiology was the same, however, a fact which Io had determined in the few moments she had touched the creature the previous time she had been within its presence. Stripping off her gloves, Io tucked them into her belt beneath the robes she wore, the crimson rose with it's blood-tipped thorns glistening cruelly in the sunlight.
Bared hands laid themselves against the smooth hide of the beast's side, feeling the cool life-force beneath her fingertips as the creature shuddered once more. It was then that she lifted her touch and set to work. There was no need for the saddle strapped to the creature's back. She made quick work of the contraption, much to the shock of the Dark Elves as she unbuckled it and lifted the leather item from the creature's back by herself, displaying a lithe strength that caused a murmur among some. It took two Dark Elves to lift the saddle and only one slender female to do that very same task.
Dropping the saddle to the platform at her feet, Io then slid her hands over the wyrm's hide again, fingertips finding and removing the sharp barbs that punctured its body so very cruelly. Elves had never been meant to ride a wyrm's back, and their inability to control the creatures proved that fact clearly. No matter that the wyrms they had created were mere bastardizations of the originals, the creatures deserved a certain amount of respect for what they represented. Metal barbs clattered against the metal platform as she withdrew them from the beast's hide and threw them away. The keepers of the wyrm scattered the moment its restraints were removed, and the creature gave a furious snarl, whirling the moment it was freed from its captivity, razor-sharp teeth glinting in the sunlight as its great maw opened, fully intending to devour the woman who had freed it.
Only cat-like reflexes saved Io's flesh from the creature's snap. The cloak was shrugged from her body in a split second and whirled around to drape over the beast's head, blinding it. That in of itself barely stopped the wyrm until Io's balled fist drew back and with a mighty crack she punched the creature directly between the eyes. The wyrm froze. A violent shudder ran through its entire body, sending its tail into spasms as it simply stood there for a long moment. A long moment later, the beast heaved a great sigh and, with that, collapsed on the platform with a heavy thud.
Regaining her posture, Io lightly smoothed her hands over the silken skin of her waist, the forearm-thick braid of her hair swaying behind her, a cruel crescent blade at its end glimmering with the same lethal intent as the myriad of vicious razored edges scattered throughout the braid. Her outfit was no outfit at all, even by Elvine standards. Two strips of cloth clothed her. The uppermost was only two shades from transparent, three inches in width, and tied behind her while the other was tied at her hip and boasted a full six inches to its width. Her feet were bare. The only familiar thing about her was the macabre domino gracing her features, obscuring her upper face as lush lips appeared to smile faintly. Lithe muscles flexed as she reached towards the Dwarf, who handed her a strange looking jumble of leather strips about two inches wide interspersed with long, wicked looking needles and two metal rings.
Moving to the stunned beast's head, Io pulled the cloak away, revealing the wyrm's glazed eyes. Bending over the beast's head, she untangled the harness and snapped the rings through the sensitive cartilage at each corner of the wyrm's mouth, pulling the attached strips of leather back to rest near the base of its neck. The bit attached to the creature's mouth, Io then moved down its body, fingers skimming down along its spine as she came to a stop next to the folded wings. The wicked needles attached to strips of leather were also untangled, and with an easy and knowing hand, Io slipped the needles between two small scales precisely where the wyrm's wings met its body, pushing the metal needles deep into the meet, between tendons and nerves until its end, with a faint pop pierced the small sac in which both adernaline and pleasure mixed within the creature's body before moving upwards to its brain; the part of its body that made them yearn to fly, for flying was the ultimate pleasure for a wyrm, be it the extinct Great Wyrms or their smaller bastardizations. The needles would be Io's control factor. Wyrms, Great or otherwise were helpless when the needles punctured that sac. If pressure was applied to the needle it released endorphins that gave the creature a buzz. If the needle was moved with a certain amount of delicacy it gave the creature a small surge of adrenaline. The Fey had, eons ago, learned to control the Great Wyrms in a similar manner. It had always been a secondary measure to their main method of Riding, however. Their bond with the creatures had provided the physical methods of their control as much as pleasure for them as it had for the beasts.
Moving, Io inserted the second needle into the exact same spot on the wyrm's other side just as it was coming to, shaking itself out of its daze. It rolled to its feet, shaking its head, wings unfurling as it took stock of its faculties. The moment the creature's wings flexed, it gave a deep, peculiar growl that sounded almost like a purr. Forgotten, it seemed, was the irritable snapping of a few minutes before. Io merely moved to retrieve her cloak, slipping it over her nearly nude body as she moved around in front of the creature, no worries for its enormous teeth as it continued to rumble quietly, flexing its wings in pleasure.
It was then that Io motioned for the Dwarf to mount the beast. He gaped in stupefied awe. "Mistress Io...ye be 'spectin' me ta mount da'der critter? Ye be oot 'o yet bleed'n mind! Nay!" There was absolutely no chance that the Dwarf would climb onto the beast's back. Dawrves were bred for the underground. In the dark, endless mazes of their mountains were where they were at home. Every Dwarf to the very last detested the upland...and not a single Dwarf in known history had flown the skies. Even those Daft Airial Elves and their sky boats were considered ludicrous. No Dwarf, sane or otherwise, would ever take to the skies.
Despite that, Io appeared to have no reaction. She merely shrugged. "Very well, Master Duri. As you do not wish to ride, then you are welcome to continue your stay with your hospitable hosts, the Dark Elves. I am certain that they have enjoyed your stay with them thus far and would be honored to impart upon you more of their charm."
For as calm as her words had been, the Dwarf had no reason to appear so very pale. His visit in the Beast Courts had been nothing but torment. Freedom was a moment's notice away but fleeing right before his eyes as he struggled against his innate terror of heights. Flying or further imprisonment. Io appeared not to notice as she slipped onto the smooth scaled back of the beast, her long legs curling around the front of the beast's wings, thighs pressing down on the needles embedded into the creature's hide as she leaned forward and picked up the strips of leather that would serve as the reigns. Her grip on the creature's back with her legs alone would keep her from slipping off. The pattern of its scales would cling to her flesh as it descended, also preventing her from sliding down over its head as it did so. It was the reason that the Fey had been notorious for wearing so little clothing, if not for the simple reason that they had no need of it for anything other than decoration.
The Dwarf, meanwhile, had come to a painful decision. His crippled body pulled itself towards the gigantic, purring beast. "Ah think Ah've intruded on da Dark Elves' kindness fer too long as t'is. I'll ride da beastie." His gruff demeanor did not make the pale cast of his features go away. Scared stiff, he allowed Io to offer him a hand up. Rather than pull him up behind her and force her off balance, Io drew him before her. He sat there, stiff as a board. Io simply rested her hands on either side of him, the reigns held loosely in her hands as she shifted her weight slightly, the imbeded needles sending a jolt of adrenaline shooting through the wyrm's body, causing it to leap forward, racing towards the edge of the platform and leaping, a loud whoosh of its wings unfurling as the beast took flight was the only sound aside from the whistling wind and the Dwarf's strangled groan that Io heard as they took off.
Three days later found the group circling the jewel of the Forest Nation's empire; The Mantis Court. Below giant Air Ships could be seen, their enormous sails billowing softly in the wind as dozens of Elves moved across the platforms, unloading the ships and moving supplies. Io's beast was the first to dive, making a close pass over the platforms, alerting the Elves to their arrival. Space was cleared for the landing of the Prince and his Court.
Only when he landed would Io and her beast circle one last time and then rise once more into the currents of the world's skies. She left them to get settled in as she took off for the two day's trip to the Black Mountains. She would return just in time to present the Prince before Mura's Court with the other Princes in a week. Until that point it was expected that he would be shown the Capital. His escort, it was explained to the Prince as he and his Court were greeted and taken to the expansive Northern Wing of the gigantic Onyx Palace. He was gently advised not to venture into either the the Eastern Wing or the Southern Wings. His escort would be awaiting him outside of his rooms at dawn the next day if he wished to begin his tour of the City. His guide gave him directions to the Baths and once he was shown his rooms, she slipped away to give his Court their own rooms, but not before informing him that the rest of his Court was expected to arrive in a day or two.
Bright sunlight tinged with faint violet washed the City below its canopy of leaves. A high gale rustled innumerable leaves above, only the trees themselves protecting every elf and building from crashing down to the forest floor miles below. Trees; ranging from the smallest saplings far below to as tall as the Black Mountains themselves.
The youngest trees, those on the outskirts of the Great Forest bore leaves of green and silver. All but those who lived within the Forest Nation and the few visiting dignitaries, aside from the Airial Elves themselves, knew naught of the forest's interior. Within, the elder trees bore leaves of increasing shades of violet, feeding on the second smaller sun's potent rays. Trees even elder than that sprouted leaves of translucent amethyst, their bark the color of aging blood. And it was within the boughs of the oldest tree within the Forest; the Ancient One, that the sprawling Onyx Palace lay. For miles the multi-leveled palace lay, its onyx walls gleaming darkly in the dappled sunlight, its mithril framework glowing in the available light. It lay perched on the summit of the city, only the great Temples reaching higher in stature.
The palace lay wrapped around the Ancient One, the Mantis Court like a gigantic roofless terrace circling the trunk. The Ancient One, in diameter alone, boasted an unheard of three miles across, five at its base. It was believed to be the first tree, the life-giver of the forest, and the Grandmother of all Leshii. When great festivals were held, and the entire City was lit with song and celebration, the Forest Elves could see the near transparent leaves of the Ancient One glow with life and hear the Grandmother's song join with theirs. Grandmother was alive, the elders would tell their children, and her roots tapped the very heart of all the world's magic.
The Mantis Court was divided into segments. Internal Affairs, Laws and Justice, the Council Room, the Artisans Court, Mage Court, and the Court of Majere. Each was seperated from the other with mithril dividers, and arched portal with a thick fringe of amber beads serving as doorways from one into the next.
The Palace itself had five levels. The bottom-most levels of the palace were open to anyone who wished to visit, grand lanes and hanging stairways leading up to the palace's bottom-most level. Indoor gardens, lavish Baths and every luxury that one could think of lay within that first level. The kitchens were near the heart of the palace's first level. Within the second level were the rooms of those who wished to live within the palace's onyx walls. Servants, Council members, Mages, Dignitaries, Artisans and even those of no official rank who simply preferred the rooms within the palace to maintaining their own homes. The third level up was maintained for occasions that visiting royalty should stay for a period time, each wing of the palace's third floor equipped to maintain the comfort of both royalty and that royalty's personal Court. But in cases where there was more royalty than wings to the palace, there was ample space in each wing to house up to two royal Courts without ever fearing that they would encounter one another if they did not wish. The top floor of the palace was reserved solely for the reigning royal family. Being that the entire top floor of the palace was roughly several miles squared, she lived within the Eastern Wing, using only half of its enormous space for her own quarters.
The Prince's guide was awaiting him outside of his chambers, patiently, at sunrise. Long, fine black hair hung freely down to her knees, only tamed by a thin blue blindfold that covered her eyes. She bore no weapons, and her garment proved to be a single length of violet cloth, it's center draped over the nape of her neck, criss-crossing down over her chest to wrap down and around at the small of her back to overlap twice around her hips, the ends pinned with a simple mithril clip at her left hip and the ends falling freely along her slim leg down to her ankles. Her feet were bare and she wore a short cloak that fell to her hips, attached to the garment at the nape of her neck. Slender, pale limbs were without jewelry of any kind, and only one of the famous Majere roses was tucked neatly above her left ear, its amethyst and sapphire petals glowing softly in the light.
When Lykai stepped from his chambers the woman offered the smallest of bows to him. "Greetings, your Highness. I trust that you rested well. I shall serve as your guide during your stay before you are to be formally presented to the Majere Rose." Lips offered a brittle smile, her posture stiff and distant as she turned slightly, offering her arm to him, and only after a few heartbeats, if he failed to accept it, would she explain. "I understand that among your people to touch another outside of family and violence is frowned upon. Yet among us it is expected that a male escort of female in such a manner." Her explanation would be distant, with a faint chill, although offering as much respect as his station accorded him.
Only after he had taken her arm did his guide begin to lead him unerringly through the large onyx corridors, without fail pointing out specific murals or tapestries hanging on the walls and explaining their significance to him. She also gave a description of the palace's lay-out, telling him of its size, of each floor's purpose, and the lore behind the Ancient One's presence.
When they finally arrived at the palace's front gates, his guide paused. Lifting her free hand, she motioned across the expanse of the City, thousands of hanging walkways, buildings, Elves walking to and fro, and up above to the large landing platforms reserved for the Sky Ships of the merchant elves. "There are many places I could take you, your Highness. The Artisans Guilds, Mage Guilds, the Temples of Healing, our Blade Dancer Temples, the Amphitheaters and Crafters' Squares are lovely. If you desire I could also show you the Marketplaces... There are also the Beast Stables, several grand Libraries where our scribes reside... But perhaps the loveliest areas are the Hanging Gardens and Sky Pools, which the Majere Rose herself requested. If you prefer, however, the Armories and Weapon Forges may be available if our Master Blacksmith is feeling kindly today. I fear, however, that he is often surly, as Dwarves can be, and prefers not to be bothered unless Lady Io herself wishes a word with him."
It was the mention of Lady Io that finally caused a faint note of warmth to creep into his guide's voice. "The Queen has sorely missed her during these few weeks. Between the preparations for the arrival of so much royalty, the demands of the Council, and ensuring that everything runs smoothly, the Majere Rose has gotten scant sleep, and her roses are beginning to tell..." Slender fingers lightly reached for the rose nestled against her ear, and sure enough, the edges of its petals appeared faintly wilted, as was the same with the innumerable roses twining around the railings of the walkways, and clustered in out-of-the-way places for as far as the eye could see. "Remember this, your Highness. Wherever a Majere woman goes, her roses follow. They are her heart, breath, soul and emotion. Learn the roses and you will never wonder at her mind and desires. Neither woman or rose is without the other. It is the Majere magic, and it has never failed." Pausing for a moment to allow him to absorb that, his guide then spoke once more. "Now where might your Highness wish to visit this fine day?"
Age was what enveloped the Prince as he stood there, greeting the morning with unflinching eyes, the golden circles alight with the savage, livid suns that burned his tender sight with the fierceness of their glow, their power mightier here, their presence closer, less intimate than oppressive than their kiss high in the distant north. The scents of this world of leaves and flowers and high branches were bewildering in their variety, almost overwhelming to his delicate senses, the pollen so thick in the air as to create visible motes like mist or thin snow in the air, its presence warding the eye from the massive distances filled with details and textures in infinite through the branches and the monstrous trees and colours. There were new sensations to be had at every turn from the soft yield of fabrics and plant matter to the living hardness of wood. The constant rustle of leaves, creak of the trees, the soft elvish voices intermingling so acutely with the sounds of the myriad fauna intermingling with the world dizzying to his ears.
His eyes, his every inhale, his touch, the aura of sound surrounding him, nothing of that compared to the deeper undercurrent that was the impossible age of this demesne, this kingdom of trees, their elven artifice, intricate, alluring, amazing as it was still a mere trinket at the brow of a giant. This singular entity of the tree, its deep, slow thoughts and its endless life echoing in the Princes thoughts as he calmly stands there, marveling in silence again, feeling the antediluvian flow of its sap, the continentally slow shift of its branches and the deep grip of its roots intermingled with the very bones of the world.
His Iron Throne was powerful, it was fast, agile, terrifying in its singular purpose when its tendons and its steel was risen in ire under the intimate control of the Iron Crown, its construct the greatest, most powerful living machine ever known but still a construct of hands and will. A mountain of steel, black stone, fleshy tendon and primordial power, it was still a sapling to the majesty of this singular life-form, a god among trees, a forest to itself, the grandest entity.
Finally, at the arriving presence of one of his silent sentinels, alerting him of the time, he lets go of the pleasant reverie of the grand tree and with solemn steps parting from his chambers to meet his Guide. As the doors part on silent, smooth hinges, he appears like a shadow of woven, sleek fabric of plant matter, its texture coarser than the silk and the leathers his skin was used to, unburdened even by the narrow plate of his armour, his waist empty of blades, the only metal on him the narrow wrist-braces and the ever present jagged janglers dangling in their fine silver chains from his waist and hair with a single chain wrapped around his left wrist and crossing his palm and lingering to his fingers like prayer beads of the southern human tribes.
The golden eyes set deep in the ashen face, alight with the light of the morning smoothly tracing over his Guide, seeing the singular cloth that hides little of her narrow, elven shape, little and damaged, a ruined, slight being but not the first physically broken one his curious gaze had witnessed among this kindred. They coddled their old and their imperfects to their bosoms and granted them tasks to create a purpose for their lessened existences. This one, a blind Guide for a brethren fond of the dark. A fitting jest, surely.
No words were forthcoming as she spoke her greeting, the task of responding to a lesser in words striking false to him as he smoothly moves nearer, the gentle tingle of his spirit hooks making his presence blatant. Just as it makes the stillness of his form naked to the blind when she offers one frail arm to him and only after the pause, her lips already parted to admonish, does the soft warmth of his touch lay on her bare skin, his hand light and dry to her, the contact present but not whole, though her blind eyes would not see the lingering, gentle smile on his face, unchanging, same with the curious, intelligent eyes that move to view the world ushered to him.
He steps with her, walking through the world built around and on the terms of a great being, co-existing, yielding. Either as great, respectful artisans or like cancerous little parasites suckling at the intestines of something mightier than them, huddled in its shadow. So very unlike his kin, the Drow’ayne, who sculpt the world to their own purpose and image, rendering from raw nature and stone what they wish, remaking their environment into an extension of them, not yielding to become an extension of it.
But still, his eyes took in the art, the mastery of this world, so very different, alien almost if every surface and feat did not radiate that most elven quality, dedication to their craft, the ultimate expression instead of the half-cocked meanderings of the brutish lesser races. This world was not of Drow’ayne and to mortal eyes, there was not a single similarity, where the Dark Elves built severe, cruel, here every surface was soft, subtle, smooth and where the Iron Keeps were angles and shadows, sharp and pure, here, all light was diffuse, gentle and powerful, but yet, those gilded orbs saw nothing but familiarity, the extremes that only those nigh eternal lives could conjure, structures that no mere mortar or ingenuity could fashion but where magic was used with equal alacrity.
And then, a decision, his guide, still in contact with him, the nigh revulsion and pain of it kept in check with a mental power schooled in the control of miles of steel and dark stone and the most murderous nation ever devised or dreamed of and his words, after a moments thought, reflected his earlier musings and a newfound curiosity, beyond his earlier desires.
“I would witness... naught but two things... The Tree... and the Roses... For they are the heart and soul of what I am come for. Guide my way so I would witness the roots and the leaves and the peaks of this world and lead me to the thorns and the petals of the soul.”
The moment hesitation at his words were the only sign that his guide was started by his reqest. A softly drawn breath came next, followed by a miniscule quiver of tension skittering beneath her nearly transparent flesh. There was a long period of silence as the slender elfet at his side appeared to consider something of monumental importance. Finally, she spoke, her soft voice as mild as it was musical.
"The Roses are yours to see if you wish, your Highness. They are a treasure among us and can be touched by anyone that has not befallen the ill will of the Majere Rose herself. The Hanging Gardens are perhaps the best place to witness their beauty, as it is a personal sanctuary of the Queen's and open to anyone who should wish to view them. Yet..."
Once more a disquieting silence befell his guide. Only after another moment of careful preparation did she speak again. "Grandmother is a living being, vast and ancient. Her memory of the world is skewed only as the memories of ones such as the Leshii can be. Her birth was at the hands of the Paramentalli themselves, and it is supposed that perhaps she is the last true fragment of Paramentalli magic and life within this world except for the Oceans and Black Mountains. We have come a long way from the days when the Elves were one, living in the shadow of the greater Fey and Wyrms. So little is remembered of either, no matter that the former Majere woman's own mother was born of the bonding between Fey and Wyrm. She bonded to Thaalmat'Majere in good faith and love, only leaving us when the old King succumbed to the madness that the Majere Rose's own father instilled within him.
It is not well known to anyone other than a select few the truth behind the Queen's father's bloodlines. I ought not speak of it except it shall do no harm for you to know and may allow you to understand the way of things. Rumor, father of one Muralasa'Majere, is a deceiver of all, his true flesh not of skin, but of scale and claw. He is Wyrm, but not of this world. It was his seduction of the former Majere Princess that led to the near undoing of our world. His lies and deceit that planted the seed of madness in the old king's mind and caused such strife among all the kingdoms of Celtrillus. His subsequent flight was only due to the arrival of his twin. It was she that ultimately saw to it that the Princess did not destroy herself until she bore a pair of twins herself.
The Majere child was left in the care of her people, and her twin was carried off to a secret place, for the babe was born with all the magic and power of her father and aunt. Perhaps Raven ought to have dethroned the old king then, but there was no cause, for the madness had only just taken root in the scant months that his daughter swelled with the spawn of a Wyrm.
Only when the mad king sent forth our best, to destroy the second child, and only when they found that child and nearly succeeded did the woman Raven return. The story, from there, is written and known to any who care to know it, for it is no secret that she destroyed a nation of elves and summoned the world itself to rebuild it. That she chose to negotiate any contracts...or even negotiate at all, is bewildering." A faint smile touched pale lips. "It is well known how she simply walked through the gates of the deadliest nation of murderers and turned aside your defenses with nary a bat of her eye or a flick of her smallest finger. Meanwhile, I can only imagine the indignation on the part of your people that a slender female of no great stature and resembling with remarkable aclarity the form of Man should do such a thing. No doubt it caused a great deal of worry among you that Man might have come upon a greater magic than your people could dream of until the time that her true origins were revealed." The smiled lingered for a moment longer and then slipped away as his guide continued.
"The underlying reason behind this story is that during the old king's reign of madness and strife, he stole magic from things that he ought never have. Grandmother has her roots buried, it is said, in the very bones of all that is magical within this world. From her he stole that magic, turning many of our people as mad as he in his efforts to claim the world as his own. The result was nearly catastrophic. Grandmother began to wilt, wither, and rot from the abuse. She was dying, a death as painful as any Leshii can die. It was only the destruction of the empire and subsequent rebuilding, along with the tremendous magic and will of Raven that Grandmother healed. But the bond between elf and Leshii had been damaged. Since the crowning of the Majere Rose at the untried age of twleve, there has been a monumental struggle on her part to repair the deep betrayal to Grandmother. The Ancient One is wary. Her slow thoughts have touched upon that betrayal countless times. It matters not that the old king is dead and that all those who committed crimes against Grandmother and the Forest itself have been long destroyed. We elves all appear the same to her reckoning.
Within your blood flows death, your Highness. Countless murders leave your hands stained into eternity with a darkness that could easily be construed as cancerous rot to one such as Grandmother. She only tolerates us now because of Raven, Io, and the constant and tireless reassurances of the Queen that no harm will ever come to Grandmother again. If you are the one that the Majere Rose chooses to bond with, the issue concerning the darkness within you will be dealt with. The request that you do not attempt to see, explore, or communicate with Grandmother would come from the Queen herself. At best, the Ancient One would swallow your mind and seek to destroy you. At worst, we all suffer."
A sudden stir in the air appeared to give the slender elflet pause as the fine, delicate tips of her long ears quivered faintly. "Ahh..." Her voice was filled with a faint hint of distaste. "It would seem that the entirety of your Court has finally arrived, your Highness." A moment later a slender female of obvious rank appeared. Her features were almost ethereal, large eyes a crystaline blue and long lashes of golden blonde framing those eyes as she approached. A slender circlet settled upon her brow proclaimed her an elven princess of some sort. And her features, eyes, and the gauzy, transparent clothing she wore all hinted at her Airial ancestory. Princess of the Airial Elves, one Myraes`Shaji. It was well known that the princess had been friends with the Queen since shortly after Mura had taken the throne.
A short, graceful bow was given to the Drow prince, and a polite smile graced full lips as the princess introduced herself. "Myraes`Shaji, your Highness. Princess of the Airial Elves and sister to Prince Bysaes and Prince Shaeraes`Shol." Straightening, Myraes turned to face his companion, a faint smile flitting around the corners of her lips. "My brother is requesting an audience with the Queen."
The slender guide at the Prince's side slowly raised a single eyebrow from behind the slender blindfold. "He is aware that he is not to be officially announced into her presence until the end of this week?" Myraes snorted, as if she believed the entire event to be overtly rigid and exceptionally silly. "Of course. But given the fact that he has known the Queen since childhood, he is claiming the right to see her as a friend, not a suitor." Amusement lurked in the depths of those clear eyes as the princess waited for a reply. Eventually, voice mild, the slender female spoke. "Very well, Myraes. There is to be a banquet tonight for our guests. The Queen will be in attendence, but apart. He may seek to approach her there. But do not be surprised if she sends your brother back you with his ears burning for his audacity at sending you here to speak to me about this affair now.
The princess smiled, and bowed once more to the prince as she excused herself. Turning, she made to leave them until she appeared to remember something. Turning, Myraes spoke to the Prince. "Forgive me your Highness, but your presence is requested below. Your Court wishes to visit with you for a moment." Inclining her head, she then left, leaving Lykai's guide in a thoughtful sience as she stood by his side, fingertips lightly resting on his wrist.
How she had known that his Court had arrived was a mystery. Why a princess of another nation had come to her about an audience with the Queen was another one. There was silence...until the female finally broke it. "Do you wish to put aside your tour until after you have dealt with your Court, your Highness? The Hanging Gardens are large and diverse, but touring them will hardly prevent you from arriving at the banquet this evening if you wish to go." It was his decision. If he chose to go to his Court, then he would find himself miles below standing on a platform, the procession of his people spread out before him across the Forest floor in an organized chaos, his head spinning with the sudden descent from miles above and nerves tingling from the magic, skittering across his skin, which was used to transport him from the castle gates to the Forest floor in less than a breath's instant.
Magic's broader ranges were something that the Drow had all but lost in their fanatical drive to kill and create life from their precious Ice Gems. But among the Forest Elves, that very same magic thrived.
As the guide speaks, his brows furrow and the golden mirrors of his eyes dull, the set of his noble jaw tightening, the words, the legend, history and through the tale of woe, his gaze, beneath the shadows of his brows lingering past the colour, through the vast culture and at the mother-tree in silent, dark contemplation, gauging it in a way unique to his people, seeing past the world built around it to witness the deeper truth, his sight able to strip away things meaningless to its purpose and somewhere, deep, dark, in the depths that had not been kissed by the suns in millenia, layers more magic and mind than wood, there is a mind, powerful, elemental, mighty, ancient beyond years, a memory, dark, brooding, an entity that could feel his eyes and ignored it in defiance. And deep there, he could taste what he could taste in the blood of his own Drowvayne, murder. This entity wished destruction, a kill, deep within in its core, a wound, a scar wrought by the elven kind and he felt, deep in his bones where he was closest to the grandmother of all trees an anger for her, her wrath finding an easy home in his heart.
In the end all he did in response was to nod to in quiet understanding, her words less meaningful than the brooding agony of the grand tree even as her claims of his hands soiled in blood and death bring a quiet smile to his face as he gazes down where her hand lays on his, touching that limb that had already taken lives, dozens of them with her frail fingers and then moving his eyes to where hers should be in quiet thought. seeing the way she was sacrificing herself for her Queen to be the one chosen for this task of touching murder impersonified, to sully herself like that. And if she did it for honour, for respect or out of love for her mistress, he could not tell. Only the sacrifice was there, her having to touch him and him having to touch her. A cruel fate. And this nation of hers. Cruel also to make her do so. Like a Rose. Beautiful on the outside, its thorns hidden until you reached to touch it. But her warning heeded, understood, appreciated, just as he would not allow the Rose to ever wear the Iron Crown and feel its cruel bite and crueler purpose.
But the moment passes as she shifts and once more bares the pain her duty brings with the passing sneer at her news and before he has chance to speak, another Elven maiden appears, this one washed out, bleached almost, frail, weak, the pressure required to crack her neck and joints the same as those of a birds. In silent passing the Prince wonders if her bone would be equally brittle in a bite, but even so, the silent menace is nonexistent in his gentle bow to her, the mirth in her eyes lingering in his mind as he watches, listens like a subtle, sophisticated predator whose steady gaze lingers until the bird-like elf finally takes her leave.
"I should attend to my... court..."
There is still a smile on his face even when his delicate ears pops and the magics grip finally lessens and bleeds away to the hot scent of his spiritjanglers, each hook and fine rune glowing at their edges, hot enough to burn but cooling rapidly, too fast for metal and as he stands there, cautiously, waiting for them to cool, a shadow of worry and anger crosses his previously amused look, a silent hope that the Queen did not injure herself for grasping and porting someone so shielded as he was, assuming that simply because the Drow`ayne chose a different path from her people that they would have forgotten all about magic, instead they have found its limits and the ways to guard against it, to rob it of its dependency, its reliability for in his peoples eyes it was simply not good enough. And even then he had to admire the elemental power of her strength, the gilded eyes gazing down at the tinkling, creaking hooks for any normal wielder of the force would have been bleeding from most every orifice and screaming
as the hooks took apart their power inside out.
With a final sigh he finally lifts his eyes from the smoldering jangles and faces his Courts arrival, slender, tall Drow`ayne in subtle plate instead of their usual hooked, barbed warsuits, beasts both glorious and terrifying and amongst them, the lithe shapes, both elvish in form and bestial and stranger still, the constructs of his people, the Golems, tall and small, each moving with the same eerie fluidity as their masters and above them all, the dark banners the one place where the edges of his people were on display, angular, shifting sheets of metal and fine, thin chains, woven into miraculous shapes, each a Golem-creation in its own right, alive, fluctuating and a weapon, the sight of such a group, like a dark stain in the colour of this culture that has allowed them in, a viper in the open, a blade exposed and now here, at the heart of the Mantis Court.
He stood there in silent thought, the Queens gambit and play put aside, the thoughts and emotions such games would elicit moot for the task at hand, simply waiting until one of his own Shadow Guard silently stills by his shoulder, her features hidden but for her pale eyes, her expressions and identity subtly erased even here, her skin covered from brow to feet in dark clothes in the Drow`ayne manner, so different from the other elven nations, their flesh sacred, inviolate, acts a greater aphrodisiac than flirtily bare bosoms or flash of thigh, nothing about their ways inviting touch or eye beyond the beautiful textures and fits of their all-encompassing attires that embrace the skin even as it hides it, portraying their tall, strong builds for elves, broad at shoulder and narrow at hips, often appearing taller than the brutish men even as it was a mere illusion of the eye for they always held themselves tall, proud. Finally, with a nod, he lets her loose, her and her other dark kin, tasking them within the others, his golden eyes following as they first delve among his people and then disappear as the scarves and the masks slip and they melt among the Drowvayne, blades within blades, vipers hunting vipers.
And he remained there, higher above his arriving people like a dark beacon for this murderous kindred, inviting them in this world of strange rules and a stranger kin still. Knives had come to the rosegarden.
Murder. Dirty and abominous to their frail southern kin, refined, pure in the hands of the Drow`ayne. That was what had arrived here this day. In numbers unseen after the days of the mad king. And there, elevated, the Prince saw their gloved, and covered hands with the glimmer of the dark, bloody light that the other kingdoms did, tarnished, impure, dangerous. And with a quiet smile, the Prince agreed. It was the elven way to embrace a chosen task with an abandon of what must surely appear madness to outsiders, even those of the other elven kingdoms, perhaps even more so among them, where such different paths had been chosen.
They thought their dark kin savages, perhaps pure, perhaps intelligent even to their level but brutal murderers each and all, animals to be held in check. And he was the leash. Thus the blatant act of sending his own knives into the fold. Bare a secret to hide another. They would see his Black Guard, his very own messengers slip among his own people and they would assume them inquisitors, murderers seeking murderers. They would see nothing but bloody killers where there was so much more. And the Prince allowed them their assumptions.
The act finished, he turned to his guide with a soft smile, empty of pride, the vision of his hard people in this soft place more dreadful than emboldening.
"The Iron Court yields to your hospitality."
No more needs to be said, for them or for his own people, for their submittance to his word stands absolute, the very least in act if not in soul. Every open weapon yielded, the war-golems stilled even with their sinews still tight, their postures remaining in open threat, their aura of pure menace unsubdued, a single Drowvayne staying with each to guard their silence, not for the fear of sabotage but for the safety of anyone too curious or foolish to not give them their berth.
Mura stood at the Dark Prince’s side, the world around her a blank slate of darkness. She had never seen color. Could not visualize the beautiful tones of her world. It had been so since her birth, and it was all she knew. Yet she could move around her kingdom without the aid of another’s gentle guidance. Bare feet stood on a platform, reading the stone and mithril beneath her. Raven had built her kingdom…and by doing so, had given Mura the freedom to move among her people unfettered by her disability. Beneath her feet an intricate design of thing mithril flowed seamlessly within the gleaming onyx. It was a subtle design. Anyone elf walking barefoot would be unlikely to note it…but the designs gilding her kingdom’s floors were her map. Anywhere within her nation that was built by hands and magic was a place where Mura could go without trouble. She knew her kingdom by the soles of her feet. Her memory never failed, and that was how she had learned…until her abilities had flourished, within several years of being crowned by her people.
Her father was the reason behind her blindness. As a Light Wyrm he too had been born blind, but unlike her, his abilities had always been with him. He saw the world in a way none other but Mura herself could witness it. Light was his sight. Colors mean nothing when one can witness the world by the way the light itself moves across objects, people, and anything else it touches. It was nearly impossible for her to explain how she could feel light, how it built for her a vision of her world that was so very exact in its detail within her mind that she could sense a creature’s heartbeat against its flesh. Every individual strand of hair, each minuscule movement of muscle, the depths of deceit and the openness of honesty. Mura could sense everything. It opened her mind to the world itself. Anywhere light touched, she could bring to her mind’s eye and know. It was forever carved in her memory. Frightening. If not for her ability to manage the information eternally reaching for her mind, she would have gone mad many years before. Still, it was tiring, often calling for her to rest in the brightest hours of the day, to shut herself away and allow her mind to relax.
Such was the reason for her habit of holding Court and social events during the evening and night. The darkness aided in easing the sharpness of her mental sight. There was still light, of course, from the magical orbs floating throughout her kingdom to the eternal glow of the moons in the sky filtering through the leafy boughs of the tress. Even so, light and the maps built within her kingdom were not her only guides. Due to the blindness, and perhaps the strength of her Wyrm heritage, her senses were excruciatingly heightened, even among her own people. Breathing, heartbeats, the faintest whisper of clothing, the shifting of skin against skin, murmur of the wind and rustle of the leaves within her forest were constantly bombarding her ears even as the scents and breezes fed her information altogether different. Mura could smell the metal that the elves approaching carried upon their bodies. The latent blood and death clinging to their bodies from their own kingdom despite the hard travel. Elvine sweat, the scent of lovemaking between several of the couples. She could read the path which they had taken to arrive according to the dirt and pollen they carried with them. A countless amount of scents and information. Upon her skin she could feel the heat of their massed numbers, the coolness of the Golems scattered among them.
Even given all of that, her gift reached out, reading them. The ability to read the thoughts of another was something so very rare among the Elves that perhaps one in several million could claim it. Even so, Mura had never encountered one such person who could do so without a great deal of effort and also without the one whose mind they touched unaware of the intrusion. But that was one of the remarkable traits of her Majere blood. Thoughts meandered across the mind without pause, an openness that few every considered shielding. Those before her certainly did not consider the danger of leaving their minds open. And it was without conscious effort that Mura picked up on the general mood of the elves within Lykai’s Court. Many were tired from the weeks of hard travel. Others wished for nothing more than a solid night’s sleep. Nearly all were deeply curious about Mura’s kingdom… A few were thinking of the strange creatures which had been spotted in the depths of her forest, flitting alongside their caravan but vanishing without trace when pursued. Several took note of her presence at their Prince’s side and their indignation and disgust at her presence was clear in their minds. Prey. The mindset was that of predators finding a world of nothing but prey on which to feast upon. The blindfold across her eyes made her especially vulnerable, in their opinions. And they were indignant that not only one such as she be allowed to live, but that she stood at their Prince’s side. They immediately surmised that they were dealing with a nation of people who were incredibly weak, which made them itch to exploit that weakness.
As her gift swept across the elves before her, the information that her abilities afforded her built a spectacular and fascinating picture for her. It unfolded within her mind in no more than mere seconds after her arrival. Suddenly, behind her, her people began to appear. Several adults appeared by themselves, flashing into existence upon the platform in a manner similar in which Mura had brought the Prince to his people. But the rest arrived with children in tow.
The Forest Nation were a people blessed in magic. The children, when they reached the age in which coherent thought and motor functions combined, were blessed with the ability of transporting themselves wherever they might wish to go, if only in somewhat short distances at a time. But more often than not, that ability slowly left them as they reached maturity. Few adults could do so, and not without a bit of effort. Even so, other abilities manifested to replace the childhood magic. Mura suspected that the childhood ability of teleportation was the way in which they learned control, a control which would serve them greatly as stronger, greater magicks flourished.
Someone approached, and she recognized his scent, turning away from the Dark Prince as a female arrives at his side, her body clothed entirely, from the sound and scent of it, her approach seeming as loud as a thrashing Wara in the throes of death. “Uskol`Szelem.” Mura greeted the elf, slipping from the Prince’s side as he drew her away with a light hand on her arm. Moving with him to greet the others, and far enough for a moment of private conversation among them, they conferred. “Their rooms are ready, places in the Stables made ready for their beasts, your Highness.” It was Uskol that spoke, his voice low for her ears only.
And as he spoke, Mura finally become aware of a deep ache in her bones. Her fingers rose to lightly glide over the velvet petals of the rose tucked behind her ear, finding them curled tightly against the pounding ache reverberating through her body, a latent effect from the resistance the Prince’s runes created. It took Mura that long to notice it only because pain was such a commonplace sensation for her. But this was different from the crippling agony her visions often brought her, or the sharp cut of the thorns within her flesh when she drew pain away from another. It was a deep pounding…within the marrow of her bones. And as she become aware of it, it grew until she could feel the rose above her ear shrink into itself, folding tightly into its center. Slightly nauseated, Mura gave no outward indication as she concentrated on the conversation at hand.
“See to it that his Court is made comfortable. The Prince has expressed a desire to see the Hanging Gardens after his people are seen to. He is to be escorted there if he still wishes after their arrival is smoothed over. Speak to him, Uskol. His people are to be disarmed as is our custom. They are dangerous enough without their weapons. Call for Akarat`Pesa. She will ensure that there are no hidden weapons among them, and she can do so diplomatically if they make a fuss. The Golems must also be parted from them. I will not have such things within the terraces of my City if I can absolutely help it. If the Prince objects, then tell him that he may discuss it with me should he choose to visit the Gardens. That is where I will be until further notice. Also, be sure to inform everyone who is to be dealing with the Drow that the reports are indeed correct. No magic of any sort is to be directed at them. I will not have any of my people harmed.”
Uskol murmured agreement for her ears even as she felt his attention turn to her appearance, noting the drawn cast of her features beneath the blindfold and the waning color of the flower at her ear. “My lady, are you well?” His concern was obvious, but Mura brushed it aside with a causal flick of her hand, which only served to send a deeper throbbing throughout her body as she stepped backwards in an attempt to place distance between them. Her movement, however, was circumvented by a thoughtless hand on her wrist. Immediately the both of them froze; Uskol, from the improper touch, whatever concern might have prompted it, and Mura, from the defensive grip that her gift cast upon the elf’s mind. In a flash Mura knew every insincerity, every doubt, concern, moment of pride…every emotion and mistake that Uskol could remember having, every intimate moment and proudest event. She saw into his very soul, unwillingly. And all without his knowledge.
Before it could grow awkward, Mura gently disengaged her wrist from his light grip, her body held proudly and at a mental distance from his, her posture silently admonishing the elf for his forwardness. Turning away, Mura stepped back to stand by the prince’s side, simply standing there for a long moment as the vision of her people faded from her mind’s sight and she struggled to put away from her mind the wealth of information she had gleaned from Uskol’s own. So deep within her own mind she nearly missed the Prince’s movement and his quiet words. It took the barest moment for her to register his words, and then she responded in kind, shifting away to allow for the mannerly bow for offered him as she spoke. “The Mantis Court is honored to provide.”
Stepping back, Mura spread a hand towards the waiting elves. “Lord Uskol`Szelem, at your service, my lord. He will aide your Court in settling in, as well as answer any questions that you might have. If, after you have seen your people settled in, you still wish to visit the Hanging Gardens, you will be escorted, and I shall be there to continue on with your tour if there is time enough between then and the banquet scheduled this eve for the arrival of yourself and the other Princes.” Nodding, Mura stiffly straightened to her full height. The pain in her bones was nagging…the exhaustion from weeks of insomnia sapping at her energy. She could feel her skin pulling tight across her body, the frailty of self-abuse wrapping itself around her like a merciless glove, squeezing tightly.
Behind the silken blindfold her eyes squeezed tightly, but otherwise she gave no sign of her distress, holding her body in rigid control even as she forced herself to stay utterly relaxed. Once more Mura bowed, stepping away as Lord Uskol stepped forward, a miniscule flick of her wrist sending her with less-than-graceful force from the platform into the cool depths of the Hanging Gardens.
Countless roses…perhaps numbering in the billions…made up the intricate area that was referred to as the Hanging Gardens. But it was the large, circular bed of roses that drew the Queen. Standing nearly two feet from the floor, it appeared to be nothing but a decorate display…but for Mura herself it was a piece of heaven.
The velvet crush of innumerable roses beneath her weight as she rolled into the center of the flower bed instantly eased her body. The blindfold was torn off, left to dangle and tangle among the petals and leaves as her cloak was pulled off and over her slender body as she slowly sank into a dreamless oblivion, trusting the roses to heal her as no elvine healer could… leaving her as nothing more than a rose among roses...