Interlude 13 – A Royal Meeting

Tisma Vlahos was having an interesting month. A simple job to investigate a dragon starting shit near the Gorokivan coast turned into her meeting up with two of her best friends in the world and getting directly involved in the new “Stop the Demon Lord” quest. 

Now, that was unexpected, but not too bad. Jobs could go weird. Sometimes clearing rats out of a basement turned into bringing down a corrupt Adventurer’s Guild trafficking demonic weapons. Other times, trying to stop a sun lich warlord from resurrecting their ancient army turned to sitting down and having tea in a pyramid to hash out trade deals. Shit happens. One of her friends getting outright “exiled” from the Light Lands without any warning though…that was a whole other kettle of crap.

Maybe that’s why she didn’t mind having to lug around the literal Pontiff of Light on her shoulder like he was a sack of potatoes. Except somehow lumpier…

Though, considering the looks she was getting as she walked with Douglas through the streets of Stenistrata, Vocula probably looked more like a body in a sack than a sack of potatoes. Which, to be fair, he was; he just was unconscious instead of dead. Hm. Maybe she should learn that “Sleep” thing? Might help with her insomnia…

Still, Tisma kept her composure as Douglas led the way, whistling merrily and occasionally greeting and waving to people when they noticed him. Probably too unsubtle, but Doug never really did know the meaning of the word. Though “Silence” was working pretty well at keeping Vocula from snoring, so maybe she was giving him too little credit.

“You’re awful chatty today,” she eventually commented, glancing around the city streets as she followed him. The towers and walkways added a lot of shadows to the lower streets; so many that more than a few of the vendors had lanterns set up on their shops.

“Oh I’m always chatty when it comes to the markets, to the point that I would likely become more conspicuous here if I were to remain stoically silent, my stoic stalwart.” 

“Hm…and you’re sure this will work, right?” 

“Of course! Fritz and I are close friends, and he got along rather well with Julius, so I’m sure it’ll all go off without any hitches whatsoever, provided one of those cardinals didn’t get here before us anyways.” 

“…I’m dropping the bag on you if they did.” 

“Rude.” 

Continuing to look around, Tisma kept an eye out to see if she noticed anything suspicious. Thankfully, no one seemed to the following them, even from the air. Though the stares were certainly annoying. 

Soon enough, the duo arrived at the castle gates, where the pair of guards by the front door seemed surprised to see Douglas. 

“Douglas? What are you doing back here? Didn’t you go off with the heroes?” Huh. First name privileges for the guards? Actually, that fit pretty well, considering how casual Doug could be.

“Indeed I did! However, some rather important business unexpectedly occurred, so I have come here to ask Fritz to help Tizzy and I for help.” 

“Oh! Lady Vlahos, my apologies for not greeting you!” As the first guard bowed, the second glanced at her, one hand still on her halberd. 

“Well, I’ll be happy to oblige, Douglas, but you know how it is. I need to check that bag Lady Vlahos has. If I may?” 

Hm…Shit. How much of this did Doug actually plan for?

“Actually, it’s a bit of a surprise for Fritz, so we kinda can’t do that, but I most solemnly promise it’s nothing dangerous!” 

The guard sighed, clearly well used to Doug and all his…everything. “Come on, Douglas, I’m just trying to do my job.” 

“Fine, I’ll tell you.” Leaning in close to the guard, Douglas stage whispered. “It’s a dead body.” 

The guard was wearing a full face helmet, but Tisma could still feel the blankness in her stare. “…Very funny. Fine whatever, not like we can stop you two.” 

Standing at attention, the two guards brought their halberds up and slammed their hafts against the ground, signalling the gates to swing on open. “Though I will say it’s a good thing you arrived when you did. King Fritz was about to go on a trip.” 

“Really? Where to?” 

“Not sure. All I know is he’s been preparing gifts for someone.” 

“Is that so…Well, thanks for telling me!” Waving goodbye to the two, Douglas walked straight inside without any pause.

Tisma couldn’t help but huff in amusement at the sight, especially with the goofy grin Doug had going at his plans working, but they were still on a time limit, so she went too. And right as she passed the threshold of the gates, entering into a decent courtyard on the way to the main building, Doug put his hand on the bag. Quirking an eyebrow at the gesture, Tisma stayed silent as they walked away from the guards. 

“Magic dispelling enchantment targets anyone coming through,” Doug said as soon as they were out of earshot. 

“Ahh. I was wondering why you suddenly decided to grab Vocula’s ass.”

“Eugh!” Wow, he stumbled back fast. It took a second, but then Doug was pouting at her again. “Mean. Mean and rude.”

“Heh. So, do we need to worry about any more enchantments? Or disenchantments? Whichever?”

“Ah-Oh, that actually is an interesting question…They are still enchanting the area, so it would count as an enchantment, wouldn’t it? But the purpose is to disenchant others, so-”

“I don’t wanna interrupt your etymology thing, but do we need to worry about anything like that?”

“Not at all, the disenchantment is mostly to catch anyone trying to pull something sneaky like shapeshifting or crafting illusions, or I suppose attempting to bring in some other enchantments, such as empowering themselves or maybe even-”

“Doug.”

“Sorry, I’ll try to stay on topic…Where was I-Oh, yes, no, we don’t need to worry about any more disenchantments. Hm. Disenchanting enchantments?”

“Do we need to worry about anything else?”

“No, not really, aside from the various guards around if we do something wrong, or the protective sylphs guarding the castle, who, now that I think of it, would probably count under the umbrella term ‘guards’, wouldn’t they?”

“Focus.” 

“Right, focusing, sorry again.” 

Doug’s focusing issues aside, they made it into the castle easy enough. Right through the doors and into the heavily decorated main hall. There were plenty of guards patrolling around the large room full of branching paths too, though none of them seemed too put off by their presence.

“So…where do we go?” she asked, glancing around the vaulted room. Lots of archways around and tons of wing designs; some feathery, some leathery. The latter was sort of a surprise, but then again, Tramontans were supposed to be close to dragons…

“Just follow me, his bedroom is this way.” As Douglas walked ahead up a flight of stairs, Tisma quirked an eyebrow. 

“Why are we heading to his room? And why do you know where it is?” 

“Because we need to talk to him now, and because he prefers having tea in his bedroom with his birds.” 

“…Okay then.” Better not to question it. Tisma walked on in silence behind Doug up staircases and through halls until they arrived at a pair of wide and tall doors with a different pair of guards at either side of the fancy white wood, covered in teal designs.

“Hello there, guards! I hope you don’t mind if I talked with Fritz real quick.” While Douglas started convincing them to let him in, Tisma glanced around the halls. Even the armor on display had wings on their helmets, and damn, there were a lot of sky paintings. Plenty of gryphon statues too, like sentries by the ceilings.

As she continued looking, she noted some nearby servants, passing through on some chores or others, were glancing at them. Or, specifically, they were staring at her and the bag she was carrying. Hm. A part of her was annoyed that Doug wasn’t getting the same kind of scrutiny as her, but the other part knew they knew Doug just fine and she was some weird minotaur carrying around a person-sized sack. Well, a “medium” height person. A dwarf or halfling still counted as a person, just-

She felt something land on one of her horns. She wasn’t exactly sure what, but from what she can see from glancing up, it did seem like some kind of bird. 

“Alistair!” shouted one of the guards as they moved toward Tisma, while the other went toward the door handles. 

“Who?” she asked, glancing down at the guard without moving her head, just in case.

“Please don’t move, Lady Vlahos! One of our king’s birds, who’s been missing all day, just landed on your horns. So we need to be care-” 

“ALISTAIR!” shouted the king as he burst through the door, knocking the guard forward into Douglas, and accidentally hitting the other against the wall, “There you are you feckless fowl! What do you think you’re doing, flying from your minders like that?”

Tisma heard a weirdly dismissive hoot from on top her horns, which the king–who was bundled up in vibrant, sky-blue coat with some type of yellow and green fur on it; sorta reminded her of those peacock birds, actually–replied to with an offended scoff. “Oh is that how it is then? Hmph! Charles may be the love of our life but our dove certainly spoils you far too much, you petulant pygmy!”

Tisma was very tempted to ask if the king could actually speak bird, but that probably wouldn’t go over well.

“Ah, Fritz! Pardon the interruption, but-Oh, sorry.” Doug paused mid-sentence and picked the stunned guard off of the barrier he’d conjured, patting them on their slightly dented helmet with a glow of healing green before grinning at the king, who was still frowning at his bird. “Good afternoon, your eminence.”

“Hm? Oh, hello Dougie, you’re back early,” the king replied dismissively, his hands on his hips as he kept frowning. Then he actually paused, glanced at Doug, then looked Tisma in the eyes. “Oh. Oh! You’re new.”

“Yup. Hello, uh, your eminence?” She was pretty sure ‘your majesty’ was the right title, but sure.

“Yes yes, that would indeed be us, and you would be Lady Tisma Vlahos then? My, you’re a tall one, though you would be, wouldn’t you? Might we ask a question of you?”

“…Sure.”

“Would you be the tallest of your heroic group, or would that title instead belong to your goliathan compatriot of our northernest neighbors?”

“…Yeah, Charlie’s taller.”

“Ah, fascinating, we would think but wouldn’t want to presume, you see. Now, come, our wayward pygmy owl appears to have decided your hornage makes for an appealing perch and we would prefer he stick to the places where he belongs instead of flitting hither and thither and every which whither.”

“…Sure.” So. Friedrich was weird. And when she entered the bedroom, she became aware of just how weird he was. 

Now, when Doug said the king had birds in his rooms, Tisma imagined he had a couple of birds. A reasonable amount of birds. She did not expect to walk into an aviary with nearly every type of bird she’d ever heard of before, either roosting on perches around the room or resting in their cages. 

Now, it wasn’t too ridiculous, sure; Friedrich didn’t go all out and have anything gigantic like a full on Roc in his quarters. They were still small birds, with the largest still able to rest on her shoulder, for instance, but damned if there weren’t a lot of them.

It was actually sorta difficult, trying to find a place to sit with how many birds there were around, resting on the furniture and such, so Tisma stayed standing as Friedrich walked back to ‘his dove’.

“Now, may we ask what you need of us?” the king asked as he sat in his “dove’s” lap, which prompted the smiling man who had to be “Charles” to start hugging him close.

“Well, first we should explain why we’re here. Tisma, if you may.” 

Taking the bag off her shoulder, Tisma untied it and held it upside down. There was a vaguely dry noise as Vocula slowly slid from the bag in an admittedly gross looking way, before he landed straight on the floor, face first.

“Oh, you brought us a gift!” The king beamed while his consort blinked and leaned forward a little.

“…Why is there an unconscious Pontiff Vocula on our floor?” 

“Cause we kidnapped him.” 

“…Excuse me?” 

“So, long story short, Julius got exiled for some reason, and when we grilled this guy for info, he started threatening us with the cardinals,” Tisma explained, “So I decided it’d be bad to leave him behind, hence why we had him in a bag.”

“Oh of course, that all sounds perfectly logical and what in the wind’s name are you talking about?” Apparently the king really could get confused.

“Wait, Uncle Julius was exiled?” Uncle? Did Julius have a nephew? She hadn’t heard anything from Elly, so…did Brascul breed??

“Yes, to the Dark Lands to be specific,” Doug chimed in with a smile. He’d actually bothered to sit down, and, as a result, had what she was pretty sure were a tiny phoenix and an equally small thunderbird perched on his head. “So we came to ask for an airship! We’d have just bought one, but we kinda had to leave in a hurry and are low on funds.” 

“Oh, well if that’s all, certainly.” Oh. Well that was easier than she– “Though I do have a few conditions and questions.” And there it was.

“Of course, anything!” Doug, no.

“We’ll do anything we can reasonably do,” she corrected, shooting her friend a look. When he just smiled back, she sighed. “I don’t mean any offense, your eminence. I just don’t know you that well.”

“Well then let’s spend this time getting better acquainted! You see, our esteemed self is King Friedrich Medianu Krieter von Sorafin, and we would very much like to know what we should be doing with the heavy sleeper you have deposited on our floor, along with the possible consequences our kingdom may incur from aiding you both.”

“…Right, uh…” Tisma scratched at the back of her head, then paused when she heard an indignant hoot. Right, that owl was still on her. 

“No need to worry, your esteemed eminence!” Right, Doug apparently had a plan. “I have a plan! Many plans, actually, but to begin with, you asked about the threats we might have to deal with.” He clapped his hands together, startling a few of the birds, then stood and pulled a table over to them, a cheerful grin on his face while a couple jays on it shot him some dirty looks from their perch being moved. “And I have the perfect way to explain!”

Ah dammit, he was waiting for this. Sure enough, Doug reached into the pockets of his robes, though he paused before pulling anything out.

“Ah, so you know, I simply have some normal figurines here, nothing threatening, please don’t have Eckart tackle me.”

The king just smiled, raising one hand and waving it like he was waving off someone. And out of the corner of her eye, Tisma noticed a damn big raven with white feathers on its head–and only its head, making it look like some sorta skeleton in a black cloak–eyeing them. It watched them for a few more seconds, then ruffled its feathers and pretended to look away. Hm. Good to know the king always had a guard around…

Meanwhile, Douglas got his presentation set up and Tisma had to hold back a frown at seeing the four ornate angel figurines he’d set up on the king’s chessboard. “Doug, did you really need to spend our funds on a few toys for a presentation?”

“Tiz, did you really need to spend our funds on double portions whenever we stopped at a restaurant or inn?”

“…You used your own money for them, right?”

“Of course, of course.” He smirked up at her. “And I seem to recall chipping in a few times when you came up short-”

“Yeah yeah, you made your point.” She huffed, then kneeled down by the table so she could actually be at eye level with everyone there.

“Well, while your dynamic is certainly amusing, we believe you had a presentation for us,” the king spoke up, still smiling as he glanced over the figures, “Would these be the threats you’re concerned with?”

“Indeed they are, your eminence! These four figurines represent the most significant threats the nation of Zemava can currently let loose against us.”

“The rest of the nation is not an issue?”

“Not a significant one. While the paladins of Zemava are certainly formidable foes, they won’t be able to access your country without due cause, and while the kidnapping of their Pontiff will certainly make them frantic, they’ll need to spend time to settle their own issues before any action can be taken. In the event of a Pontiff’s sudden disappearance or death, not that we plan to kill this one, an ‘Enforcer of the Divine Light’s Will’ must be chosen as a temporary commander, and the various orders will most certainly get too wrapped up in their own political issues and rivalries to really muster a force or even decide on a course of action for some time. Really, most of them will probably assume their own rivals have something to do with the disappearance and try to take advantage of the chaos.”

“Hm. You have a very low opinion of Zemavan politics, Dougie.”

He shrugged. “They’re a theocracy of self-righteous fanatics. Any stability they have comes from the Triarchs holding them together, hence why they won’t be a problem for quite some time, and you can easily bar them from the country with the justification that you have no treaties allowing their armed forces entrance. The cardinals, on the other hand, present a far more significant threat.”

“Hm.” The king leaned forward, looking over each of the arranged figurines. “You said as such. So we cannot ‘bar’ these beings from entering?”

“Oh, you could, but you would need to gain Kataba’s support in barring them and he’ll hold about as firm as iron in a volcano if it comes to going against his mother.”

“That is our god you’re speaking of, Dougie.”

“Am I wrong?”

The king stared at him for a moment, then chuckled and leaned back. “Very well then. You seem very set on explaining here, so come, tell me of our threats.”

“Yes, your eminence!” He was enjoying this way too much. “Now, the four cardinals are, as far as I know and I have researched the subject a great deal, the only angels of Judgment in existence; while they work directly for the Triarchy, their fundamental nature is intrinsically tied to Iudex and they lack many of the qualities common to angels of light, such as features composed entirely out of white light. Instead, they appear to be formed of marble-”

“Doug, we don’t need every detail,” Tisma cut in. If she let him ramble, they weren’t gonna get anywhere.

“Hmph. Fine, but the point that I was about to make is that each of them, in place of powers of light, though they may still have some access to those, are tied to each of the primary elements, so we’ll have different issues to deal with depending on which ones come after us, and there definitely will be some coming after us, so if I may?”

She shrugged. “Sure.”

“Heh. Now, the four cardinals are Michael, the Cardinal of the North, Cardinal of Flame, and Cardinal of Fortitude-” He tapped the red one, which sparked up with a bit of fire. “-Gabriel, Cardinal of the South, Water, and Prudence-” Blue, made a little splash of water. “-Raphael, Cardinal of the West, Air, and Temperance-” Green, caused a small breeze. “-and finally, Uriel, Cardinal of the East, Earth, and Justice.” Last one was yellow and puffed up with some dust. 

“Altogether, they are a very dangerous set of angels that are at least seraphim level, if not greater due to what I must presume were enhancements to give them those powers, given the fact that Iudex’s nature doesn’t naturally tie itself to any of those elements.” Doug frowned, steepling his fingers. “Of the four, I would hazard a guess that we’ll have the most to fear from Michael, Raphael, and Uriel.”

“And how might that be?” the king asked, actually serious.

“I guarantee, after our abduction of the Pontiff, the cardinals will attempt to cut off our escape routes, which means going to where we are most likely to seek aid. As such, one of them will be going with our students to ensure they don’t try to aid us. In fact, it’s very likely they’ve already put forward an ‘explanation’ that Julius, Tisma, and I all conspired to abduct Vocula, so one of them needs to stay with our students to make sure they won’t contradict any such story. 

“As such, they’ll send Gabriel. Of the four of them, the Second Cardinal was selected to greet us and guide us in Divica, and that fact, along with their ‘prudent’ title, implies they are the best with people, so Gabriel will be the negotiator, going to Luceneva to ensure our students tell King Richard the right story and seeking to enlist the Lucene’s aid in tracking us down and fighting against Valondrac.”

“Hm. And what might the other three be doing then?”

“Likely investigating all possible routes we could be escaping by. Now, Sollamava does have closer ties and treaties with Zemava, so they may simply send willing paladins down to investigate, but it’s equally likely that they’d have one of the cardinals look there first to search faster. Of the three…I would say Raphael is our likely candidate. Justice implies fairness, but also zealotry, so their superiors would want Raphael where they won’t cause any damage.”

“Assuming you’re correct in your assumptions of their attitude.”

“Yes, assuming all assumed assumptions are accurate, that would be the case.” 

Tisma felt her temple throb. “So we have to deal with Mike and Uri then.”

“Oh that’s very likely. The question is, would they come here, or to-”

“Very well, we’ve heard enough.” Tisma blinked as Friedrich stood up, turning and helping Charles out of his seat before turning his gaze to both of them. “The two of you have two upjumped seraphs after you, and they’re very likely to come right here because your only other option would be Orindaco, and their Gabriel could easily cut you off if you chose that way.”

“…Well, yes, though, well, they could go to Ros-”

“Rosiava hates you, Dougie, we all both know that. We’re your only option, aside from possibly going to the Frost Lands which would still involve going through our kingdom and wouldn’t let you aid your friends, so come along now. Put the pontiff back in his sack and let us be off.”

“Off? Off where?”

“Our ship, of course, now come come, we’d best not waste time. Alistair, you stay here, same for the rest of you, no travels this time unless you’re willing to stay in your cages.”

Tisma blinked as an owl abruptly flew off of her head and promptly claimed the king’s chair, hooting imperiously while Friedrich himself was already heading out of the room. “Uh…”

“Do you need help with your bag?” She blinked again and glanced at Charles, who was nudging the unconscious Vocula with his foot, apparently checking he was still asleep. 

“…Uh, no, I got it…The king can move fast when he wants, huh?”

“Yes, he’s quite quick-witted.” Charles chuckled fondly, following after his husband as Douglas let out a little ‘huh’ and finally started brushing the birds off of him.

“…That’s not the word I’d use, but sure.”

One sack-stuffing later, Tisma and Doug headed after the king, who was rapidly giving orders to various people as he walked, not pausing for breath at all and not even looking winded for such a small guy. 

“…So Doug, is he usually like this?”

“Oh, worse, usually, I’m surprised I actually made it halfway through the presentation…”

“Huh…Hey, speaking of, you said that two of the cardinals would come after us, right?”

“Certainly. Michael the bold and Uriel the restrained would make a good pair when it comes to investigating foreign countries, don’t you think? One to push the limits and the other to hold their sibling back.”

“Hm. Yeah, that does make sense…We’ll be pretty fucked if they come after us though. If they’re using fire and air while we’re on a skyship-”

“That’s assuming they think to look to the skyships in time, which isn’t likely if we factor in the quite consistent feeling of danger I’ve been having which I am positive is a result of them attempting to break into my house.”

What. “What?”

“I have a number of protections and wards set around my home to prevent people from vandalizing or breaking into my home, and when they’re attacked, I get an odd sensation in the back of my mind which has been persisting for quite some time now.”

“How long?”

“Hmm…almost a week now, six days.” 

“…Shit, so they’ve been in the country the whole time we were traveling here?”

“Well yes, but it also meant they weren’t in Stenistrata, so I thought it would be fine to head here.”

Tisma paused, thought that over, and then decided to just let it lie. Douglas had his own logic and sometimes it was just best to let him run with it. “Are you worried about your stuff?”

“A tad. I hope they don’t outright burn my home down.” He frowned, actually sounding a little worried. “I know materials are just things, but I’ve put a great deal of time and effort into making my home a place I could be happy with, and my library is full of things I care about; books, notes, research I’ve spent ages on and desperately wouldn’t want to lose…”

“…We could go there. It might throw things off, but we could check and even take those pricks down.”

“No. No, we can’t, the Light Lands need us, Julius needs us.” He glanced up at her with a determined glare. “We’re not stopping now.”

“…” She couldn’t keep from smiling there. “Yeah, we’re not. Come on, let’s see what sorta gaudy boat the king wants us to ride on.”

“Heh. Let’s.”

Well huh. So the skyship turned out to actually be really average looking. Hell, if Tisma didn’t know any better and wasn’t seeing it in the king’s own personal dock, she’d think it was just some random passenger boat. Albeit one that could fly and had balloons instead of sails.

It was pretty cozy though, especially when the four of them got settled in the ship, in some sorta lounge. After tossing Vocula in the storage, of course.

“So why did you have this all set and ready to go anyway?” Tisma asked as she set down her coffee mug on the tea table. They had some weirdly minty drinks in Tramontava, but it wasn’t exactly unpleasant.

“Oh, that’s a very simple question with an equally simple answer, Lady Vlahos,” Friedrich replied, currently laying on a fancy couch with his head in his husband’s lap, all while Charles fed him some green grapes, “Or may we call you Tizzy as Dougie does?”

“…Sure? I don’t mind.”

“Fantastic! Now, as for your question, we were planning to visit our dear friend in both trade and treaty, the Lady Galinori of Ebkai! After all, a child on the way is certainly cause for celebration, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh yeah, def-…” 

Tisma could see the moment it clicked in Doug’s head too. He deliberately didn’t spit his tea out all over the table, but carefully swallowed it and set it back down. He looked at her, she looked at him, and they both nodded, one hundred percent certain their dear friend, Julius Goldforge, had knocked up the Lady of Ebkai.

“…Fucking hell, are all my friends getting laid but me?”

“Tisma??” 

“What!? It’s been a while!”

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