This fairy-tale castle was definitely built for an eye for aesthetics more than for an intent to keep away hordes of barbarians or invading armies. While the outer wall should indeed provide an obstacle to troublemakers, and the gates look quite sturdy, the castle itself is tall and willowy in proportions, with spires that stretch up, parapets topped with cones flying colorful banners at the tips. One might think it a "small" castle, compared to the better known keeps to be found on Sinai, but it would probably be a lovely place to live nonetheless. It overlooks a cluster of town buildings and cottages that radiate outward from its walls. Farmlands spread out even further, bordered by wooded ridges and a winding river.
In a large antechamber decorated with porcelain vases and busts of noble-looking Cervanis, and with a portrait of a stern-looking Cervani king hanging over a fireplace, Willow and her companions are seated in overly soft chairs that one might sink into if one is not careful, round about a tea table. Everyone has a cup of tea and a saucer.
"More biscuits?" offers a grandmotherly Cervani matron. In addition to Willow and her companions, there is the elder Cervani Mother Diamante, she is called as well as a couple of regal-looking visitors: Prince Urban, and Prince Darklight.
Prince Urban, an off-white furred Skeek, is decked out in puffy-looking multi-colored attire that seems designed more in an attempt to make himself look larger than he really is, than for any other concern such as comfort or ease of movement.
Prince Darklight, the larger of the two noble visitors by far, is a patchy-furred Jupani who looks to be of Himarian stock, save for a shock of head-hair.
In fact, it looks like all the sapient species in this region sport human-like hair. It also looks as if they gravitate closer to "human standard" in proportions and size Prince Urban is a bit large for a Skeek, and not quite as plump as most, for instance.
"If I have another, I might pop, Madame Diamante, but I thank you all the same." Willow looks down at her plain clothing and then at the three nobles. "I wish I wasn't so plainly dressed. I feel like a tattered cabin-girl around all of this finery." She sips from her teacup as cleanly as she can.
"Oh! Well … maybe I could find you something to wear to dinner," offers the matron.
Prince Urban says, "You know, they serve biscuits at my castle, too."
Prince Darklight guffaws, "I don't suppose they'll be serving venison at tonight's supper, will they? Haw!"
"You needn't trouble yourself, really. I'm so scrawny, I'd probably not fit anything you might have." Willow smiles at Prince Urban and manages to control a grimace at the Jupani's comment. All three of them might make good folks to trade with, after all. "Where is your castle, Prince Urban?"
"It's at Urban Keep, of course. Oh, did I show you my new painting?" asks the Skeek prince.
Mother Diamante smiles. "Oh, why, no, I don't think you've shown us a new painting, Prince Urban, dear."
The Skreek takes another sip of tea and looks to see how the other three are faring at the treatment. Something tells her that Burr is probably squirming on the inside right now; he's good at lifting boxes, bashing folks, and chasing after his son… but how does he manage at small-talk over tea and biscuits? "Ahem… no, Prince Urban, I've not seen it."
Burr looks quite silly, actually … a really big cheetah scrunched over in a soft cushy chair that sinks so low that his knees are almost up to his chin. He has his teacup held in the whole of his hand, rather than just holding the handle. Hammerhead's predicament is much the same.
Prince Urban smiles brightly, and claps his hands. A couple of Skeek servants shuffle over, bringing a covered easel. They pull a sheet off of it, revealing a painting.
The rat squints her eyes as she focuses on the easel.
The painting looks like an exact copy of Kame Ikata's "Gigis at Sunset" (from his pre-Asylum period), only that mice have been substituted for the golden surfer cats. "I call it … Skeeks at Sunrise," proudly announces the prince.
"Oh! That's very good, dear," says the matron Cervani, in between sips of tea. "You did that all yourself?"
"Yes!" says the prince, puffing up his chest. "I bought this print in Rephidim … and then I cut the Skeeks out of another print, and pasted them here. And I changed it from a sunset to a sunrise."
Mother Diamante adjusts her spectacles. "Very good! I would have never guessed."
( At least he's honest about it. ) "Interesting." Willow glances over at the Jupani. "Prince Darklight? And where are your lands?"
"To the south," barks the Jupani. "We serve lots of "
The Skeek cuts in, "My castle is to the east. Not to the south. And I have lots more paintings."
Mother Diamante nods, still smiling. She turns back to Willow. "You're certain you wouldn't want to try something on?"
Prince Urban loudly sighs. "I hope I'm not being ignored."
Prince Darklight looks suddenly very concerned. "Now, look! You've gone and hurt Prince Urban's feelings!"
Mother Diamante sighs as she asks, "Wherever is Prince Diamante? We've got guests, and he's nowhere to be found! I don't know what gets into that boy."
"Of course not." Willow looks down at her clothing again and then back up to the Matron. "I… er… To be honest, Mother Diamante, I'd probably spoil any clothing you put on me. I've never so much as worn a nice suit in my life. As long as my present clothes don't offend you, it would probably be best if I stayed as I am."
"Oh, please," protests Mother Diamante, shifting gears yet again, and effectively ignoring the two princes who continue to vie for attention in the background. "I'd simply love to drag you off to show you the wardrobe. It would be such a pity, though, that these darling princes wouldn't be able to come with us. I'm sure they can entertain themselves, though, don't you think?"
There's a shout from down a corridor. "Mother!" calls out a Cervani voice. "We'll be having more guests for supper tonight! Can I have the chef prepare more places at the table?"
Mother Diamante sighs, breaking off from her conversation with Willow to call back, "Yes, dear! Whatever you please! And that is 'May I' … not 'Can I'. And please do come and entertain your other guests eventually, hmm?" Then she returns her attentions to Willow. "That's my son. He's such a darling. But he's in such poor health. I never let him out of the castle."
The Skreek suddenly brightens a great deal and stands up from her seat. "I have learned to never turn down the matron of a beautiful castle three times in a row, lest I make a bad impression. Although you're going to have quite a time trying to find something for me."
"Oh dear!" exclaims Mother Diamante. "You don't mean that we might be tied up all the way until supper, now do you? Well, we'd best be off right away, then." She gets up with the help of a cane, and shuffles out of the room, ignoring the open sobbing of Prince Urban and the "tut-tutting" and "there-theres" of Prince Darklight.
Burr looks after Willow with a "help?" expression on his face.
"Come on, Burr. We'll need someone to hold up the dresses so I can pick properly." Willow looks back at the cheetah with her 'you owe me another one' look.
"Oh, and Mother … do you have any extra dresses?" calls the Cervani from the corridor again. "We have a visiting lady who had some trouble on an airship that crashed nearby… "
"Yes, yes, dearie … send her along!" Mother Diamante calls back, shuffling determinedly along.
Burr almost dashes after Willow, but remembers himself, and restrains himself to merely a quick shuffle until he catches up with Willow and Mother Diamante.
"Over here, Misty!" Willow calls out, grinning and following after the Matron.
Morning-Mist comes down a side corridor, her ears a rosy blush. "Willow! I just met the nicest fellow. And he's a … " She stoops down and whispers loudly, "He's a prince!"
"You'll have to introduce me when you get the chance," the Skreek whispers back. "Did everything go all right back at the ship?"
"Yes, this really nice huntsman came up," Morning-Mist relates, "and he was such a gentleman as well. You know … I never even got his name. But he looks an awful lot like the prince, now that I think about it… "
"Oh?" responds Mother Diamante, pausing and turning around. "I've never met our huntsman myself. Always off in the woods, fighting monsters and saving people and all that. He'll get himself killed one of these days, I just know it."
"Good thing that my son, Ral, stays in the castle where it's nice and safe," the elder Cervani concludes, as she continues down the hall.
"Well, I owe this huntsman my life." Willow grins. "Considering the attitudes I've seen in so many other places I've been, it warms me deeply to know that this huntsman cares enough about his land to protect it so, even to save the life of a Skreek."
"Well, you know," says the elder Cervani, "this land used to be ruled by Skreeks, long ago. They had an underground empire that stretched as far as the borders of present-day Kroz. The tunnels still exist today, here and there … though long abandoned. The tunnels are called 'Moltpaa'."
"Really? What happened to them?" The rat glances back over her shoulder at the conversation she's thankfully leaving behind. "I saw a statue of a Skreek in the trees, but it was half overgrown and eroded."
Willow can see Hammerhead looking quite put-upon, and Testament-Blaze doing some vain finger-wiggling that is being totally ignored, but it looks like the conversation has been escaped for now.
( They survived Gallis, Testy survived getting tortured… I'm sure they'll hold out until dinner. ) The Skreek smiles inwardly and gives Burr a light poke in the ribs.
Mother Diamante stops at a pair of large double doors, trimmed in woodwork that suggests roses and vines radiating out from the center. (There are no thorns, though, unlike the decor of, say, the Champion of Roses.) "Could you help me with this, dearie?" she asks of Burr. "Ah … well, you see, nobody is quite certain. It's a matter of debate, really. And it all happened long, long ago. Everyone figures a war was involved. And magic, too."
"So are there any Skreeks left here? I… um… don't want to be a bad omen or anything like that." Willow nudges Burr towards the door.
Burr carefully opens the door, as if afraid he'll damage the woodwork by touching it.
The doors slide open with a bit of a creak, revealing a grandly decorated bedroom with a great wardrobe that looks large enough to play a game of cards in on one side … and a four poster bed, and a dresser with a silver-backed mirror … not jewel-studded or gilded, but having an aged elegance that is only somewhat diminished by the years yet given a new charm by its obvious antiquity.
Mother Diamante slowly makes her way over to the wardrobe, passing a three-part wooden screen that has woodwork echoing the design on the door. "Why, yes, there are still Skreeks. Prince Cobalt is a Skreek. Just to the east … right next to Prince Urban. They never get along. Never have them both over at the same time, you know. Simply ruins dinner."
Morning-Mist asks, "If all the rulers are princes here … who is the king?"
The rat stares wide-eyed into the bedroom for a bit, until Mother Diamante's words jolt her out of her revere. "Er… a Skreek prince? I'd never heard of rat royalty before." She tiptoes into the room as though she were afraid her very feet might soil the floor or stale the air.
"Now, now! Don't use the term 'rat' around here," chides Mother Diamante mildly. "Prince Urban always uses that word, and that just sets off Prince Cobalt like … " She tries to snap her fingers. It doesn't work. "Well, it simply ruins dinner, as I said. 'Skreek' is the term to use."
"Now, about princes," answers Mother Diamante, "you see, a long time ago, Kroz had a king. Nobody's quite sure if it was before or after the fall of Moltpaa. Prince Cobalt, of course, says before, since that would make the king a Skreek. The others say after. Ah … where was I?"
Willow shakes her head. "But it … nevermind." She slowly sinks down until she's standing on her whole foot and not just the toes. "Does anyone remember the King's name?"
Mother Diamante says, "Oh! Right. Well, no. Or, that is, yes, but it depends on who you ask. With so many people claiming they remember, and so many different stories, obviously, somebody hasn't the correct story."
"Now then," continues Mother Diamante, as she opens the wardrobe and starts going through the dresses, "you see, the legends tell that the king had several sons, and, three of them were triplets. Now, rather than dividing up the kingdom just between three and leaving the rest out … or just picking one and leaving the others out arbitrarily … he divided up the whole kingdom between them all."
The rat smirks a little. "What's the name you remember? Heh … I suppose that Prince Cobalt claims the king's name was King Cobalt, right?"
"Oh, no, actually, he doesn't," answers Mother Diamante, shaking her head. "Oh, almost lost my place again. Now, you see, each prince was given his own domain to rule. And when he had a son, that son became the new heir to that land … and he was called a prince, in turn. Somewhere along the way, power must have shifted hands, because, well, we couldn't all very well be from the same family, now could we?"
"Um… Burr, I trust you with my life, but you'll have to wait outside for this one. Otherwise you might be leaving here in a frilly dress yourself." Willow winks at the slave and makes shooing motions at him.
Burr bows his head and backs out of the chamber, softly closing the double doors behind him as he leaves.
The Skreek nods. "My apologies. Anyhow, no… I suppose you couldn't all be related."
Mother Diamante pulls out a dress. "Oh! I think this would look lovely on you … I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name? Mist?"
"Morning-Mist, your Highness," replies Morning-Mist, as she curtseys. Her eyes go wide at the pearl-white dress.
"It'll look beautiful on you, Misty." Willow looks down at her broken arm. "I might be a bit more difficult to fit, and this won't be prettied up much by a few bows or anything like that."
"Oh yes. Morning-Mist. That's such a poetic name, really," comments Mother Diamante, as she hands the dress over. "I wore this one at a ball with Prince Tal … that is, my husband. Ral's father, of course. I think the ball was … oh … no, I can't remember how many years ago that was."
"Will Prince Cobalt be joining us for dinner, or will he have the continued company of… er… " The Skreek glances back in the direction of the door.
"Oh? Well … hmm … Yes, that can be a difficulty. Have you considered seeing a Life Mage about that? I do wish we could afford one more often to help me with my legs. Now then … hmm … you can do wonders with a drape arranged just so." She pulls out a large drape of dark blue and holds it up next to the Skreek. "I say … black hair, gray fur … what color would go best with that, I wonder?"
"Oh! No … No, sorry, Prince Cobalt won't be here tonight. Simply wouldn't mix well with Prince Urban, you know," says Mother Diamante, tut-tutting lightly.
"I'm just a ship ra er… Skreek, ma'am, life mages are way out of my price range. But I can do some doctoring on my own. Maybe I can offer something to help you with your legs." Willow straightens herself out for the fitting, "So what does Prince Cobalt say the name of the King was?"
Mother Diamante brightens at the mention of the 'something'. "Oh, mightn't you? That would be simply lovely. I'd be willing to try anything. It's going to be winter, soon, and that's when the aches get worst. Now, about the king… Ah … Here, could you try moving your arm a little like so? If that doesn't hurt you. Hmm. Maybe a slightly bolder shade of blue, for better contrast against your fur."
Diamante Dining Hall
Tall windows with cut-class designs that suggest a number of flowers native to the region rise up toward the peaked ceiling, offering a glimpse of the stars scattered against a velvet sky. The dining hall itself is fairly simple in architecture, most of the detail described by the veins of color running through the polished marble blocks. A long banquet table runs down the length of the hall, guarded on each side by suits of chitin and leather armor standing in alcoves, bearing the coats of arms of each of the principalities of Kroz. Two crystal chandeliers hang down from the ceiling, though only the outer ring of candles have been lit on each, giving the room a soft glow.
The guests comprise a most unusual mix … for Prince Urban looks more than a little uncomfortable, being squeezed in between a couple of airshipman horses who really should have spent a little more time washing up before the meal. Somehow, the entire crew of the Merryweather has been seated … but that's as much a testament to the number of losses suffered as the size of the table.
Prince Diamante, who looks strikingly like the huntsman only with his raven long hair back in a braid, and dressed up like a prince instead of a woodsman (and minus those camouflage wrappings on his face) sits at the head of the table, with Mother Diamante on his left, and a frequently blushing Morning-Mist on his right. Morning-Mist looks fabulous in a pearlescent white evening gown, a veil-like shawl draped fashionably over her shoulders, with elbow-length white gloves carefully folded beside her place setting.
Mother Diamante moves toward her chair, whispering to Prince Diamante, "Lady Willow should be coming in right behind me. I think she's a bit shy."
Slowly, Willow makes her entrance. Her face is a mix of discomfort and fear as she hesitantly steps into the dining hall. She opted for the simplest dress she could find, and made sure that it had a high neckline and not too many frills. Still, it hugs her frame in a way that her work clothes never did, and despite her being too thin in a few places and too muscular in others, there's no doubting her gender now. A dark blue shawl hides her broken arm and a couple of stripes of black that can be seen on the fur of her shoulder. She looks at the surrounding group of crewmembers, manages a smile and then looks for a place to sit… preferably away from a certain one-eyed Skreek.
Barnacle looks like he's freshly preened, and wearing his best uniform the one with the least patches. He's wearing a monocle for fashion's sake … but it drops as soon as he sees Willow enter the room. Fortunately, it's attached to a chain … which it dangles from. "My word!" caws the Korv quietly.
Whitehead, however, is far less subdued. He hops up onto his chair, puts his fingers to his mouth, and makes a loud Skreek-whistle.
Prince Urban fans himself. "Oh my. I didn't know there would be so many Skreeks here for dinner!"
Mother Diamante's ears flick at the whistle, but she smiles over to Willow. "Please, dearie, I have an empty spot right here for you." She pats the chair beside her. It happens to be well away from Whitehead.
Willow makes a strangled noise and covers her face in her hand. She jams herself next to Mother Diamante and shrinks down a little bit. "Sorry, Ma'am. Some of them have been up in the air for a little too long."
Mother Diamante smiles. "That's all right. If you ignore them, sometimes they go away."
Servants a mix of Cervani, Kattha (the digitigrade sort), Jupani (ditto), Kavi and Rath'ani come into the room, bringing the food on trays.
The room is soon filled with the aroma of nuts, berries, juice … and, even though it's a Cervani household, roasted meat as well for the guests.
"Not if you live on an airship where everyone's jammed together in an enclosed deck for months on end and I apologize in advance for the table manners of some." Willow twiddles her fingers a bit as she tries to change the subject. "Um… anyways… about this king?"
There's a sound of a spoon being rapped on a glass. It's Whitehead. He stands in his seat. "I … would like to propose a toast!"
Willow sinks even farther down in her chair…
Mother Diamante smiles. "Willow, dearie … if your friend there is embarrassing you, could I have him put in stocks until dinner is over?"
"No no no. We take care of our own in the airship business. It's all right." The fancied up Skreek pulls herself back up and takes her wineglass.
Whitehead's toast is cut short, as he loses his balance and falls backwards with his chair. Some servants hurry over to clean up the mess.
Testament-Blaze clasps his hands together, bowing his head over his plate, and then he quickly signs a blessing, finishing up with the sign of the Star over his chest.
Mother Diamante says, "Oh dearie me! I almost forgot. Ral, would you do the honors?"
Down the table, most of the crew is already tucking into the food.
Willow sets her glass down and looks confused at the Cervani Matron.
"Ah yes, Mother," replies Ral, as he clasps his hands in a way similar to the cheetah. "Almighty One, we thank You for Your many blessings upon our household, and for granting us the privilege of having so many friends visiting and joining us at our table. Please bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies, please bless the hands that prepared it, and please bless us to Your service. Amen." Then he and his mother open their eyes at the same time, and reach for their utensils.
Morning-Mist looks slightly confused, but she smiles at Ral.
"Go ahead! Dig on in! Wouldn't want you to still be eating with everyone else staring at you because they started first," encourages Mother Diamante. "I highly recommend the pasta. It's my favorite dish."
"I know this is going to make me sound as though I've been living in a hole all my life, Mother Diamante, but who was it you were praying to?" Obligingly, the Skreek spoons out a portion of pasta onto her plate and nibbles absently. She's in one of her "I'm not really feeling all that hungry" moods again.
Mother Diamante says, "Oh! The Creator. The Almighty One. Ah … " She searches Willow's eyes. "Our deity, that is."
"It doesn't have a name?" Willow's head tilts sideways a little.
"Oh, well, yes. Oh, you mean like a given name? Well, plenty, really. But we only believe in one Deity. So it's not exactly like you have to tell one Deity from the next, if there's only one, now do you?" Mother Diamante looks concerned. "I do hope we don't offend. I mean, I realize, many others worship the First Ones … and the Olympians have a whole … what is the word? Pantheon of gods and goddesses. But this is what we believe here."
"No… not offended at all." The Skreek points to the Savanite priest. "He's a priest of the Star, and I've been reading a little bit about his religion. Just when you go to so many countries, you hear about so many."
"Oh! The Star … Yes, that's one of the names, too. The Bright and Morning Star," says Mother Diamante, smiling as she nods.
"Heh, maybe you could trade religious books with him sometime, although be lost all but one of his books in Gallis," Willow comments.
Prince Diamante leans forward. "Pardon my interruption … but I don't believe we were ever properly introduced? I am Prince Ral Diamante … and this is my mother, Lela. And your name is … ?"
The Skreek clears her throat and smiles at the prince. "I'm Willow-the-Wisp, or just 'Willow' for short. My friends all call me Foxfire. Just don't call me Will."
"Ah. I see." The prince furrows his brow for some reason. "Are you originally from Kroz, by any chance?"
"I'm from Himar… or at least Himar's where I remember running around as a gru er… as a child." Willow pokes at her plate, doing an impressive job at moving the food around. "Why do you ask?"
Prince Diamante waves it off, smiling awkwardly. "I'm sorry. Something about you looked vaguely familiar, that's all. Thought I might have met some of your kinfolk. But I don't know anyone from Himar."
Prince Urban daintily sips from his wineglass, occasionally asking of the Rhians next to him questions like, "Are either of you artists, by any chance?" and then following up with things like, regardless of the answer, "I'm an artist, you know. I do paintings."
"Maybe you do. I've not the foggiest where Mum or Dad are." The Skreek picks up her own wineglass and sips from it a little bit. "You remember their names?"
Prince Diamante shakes his head, looking embarrassed. "I'm quite sorry. No names come to mind. I … " He glances sideways to his mother. "I really don't get out of the castle as much as I'd like to."
Mother Diamante pats her son's hand. "There, there, Ral."
"Well, what did they look like? I don't suppose it was anything as silly as a pair of Skreeks looking for their long lost daughter or anything like that." Willow looks down into the red liquid of her glass.
"No … I don't think it was anything like that," says the prince. "It really was just this vague notion that popped into my head. What is it … the Gallisian term? Deja vu?"
The gray Skreek nods. "Lots of our kind in the world. I probably have family all over the place… just never met any of them. I was raised in an orphanage after I was fished off of the street." She makes a waving motion with her hand and then remembers something. She fishes around under the shawl over her shoulder and pulls out a pouch of herbs which she places next to the Matron. "Here. I'll need to scrounge for a few more supplies, but this is an herbal tea that should take the edge out of the pain in your legs. It's not much, but consider it to be my thanks to you for all this hospitality."
"Oh! Well, that is so kind of you! That would be most welcome, with winter setting in," says Mother Diamante with a smile.
"Noches?" says the prince to no one in particular, shakes a notionout of his head, and then he turns his attentions back to Morning-Mist. It sounds like they're discussing the flora in the area. Funny that a prince cooped up in a castle would know so much about mushrooms and trees and wildflowers.
Testament-Blaze's ears wiggle, when a servant sets dessert before him (as he's already cleared his plate). It looks like some sort of pudding-cake concoction with whipped cream on top. One could gain several pounds just by looking at it. Testament-Blaze has room to spare, though.
"I'll show you how to make it yourself if I have some time between fixing the ship and handling merchant dealings. It's not that hard, and you can tweak it a bit to your needs… Just don't put sugar in it, even though it tastes a bit bitter." Willow smirks at the cheetah priest, glad to see him getting a full belly for once.
Morning-Mist giggles at some little joke the prince makes. Across the table, Barnacle's jokes are a bit more off-color, however, and the crew members laugh loudly, in far better spirits now.
"Madame, I thank you for all the hospitality and for giving our crew a chance to lighten their spirits after their past hardships." The Skreek pulls herself from her seat. "But I should probably retire for now. I'm still a bit achy from that forest attack and I've not had a good night's sleep in a long time, so I think I'll put your dress back and try to find a place to sleep." She bows and quietly leaves the dining hall, heading back to the Mother's room to pick up her clothes. ( It wasn't as bad as I thought… although my backside itches something terrible! Augh! )