Trial by Fire

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Royalty at Last

Poppy and Xilo were thirty minutes early to see Princess Tulip. Their metaled boots click-clacked on the polished grey stone as they walked through the quiet halls of Kilo Castle. In the middle of the hallway were huge pillars that supported two thousand vertical feet of stone. In true Erodesean fashion, Kilo was massive, grand, and imposing. Stone sewn together with metal by shapers long lost to history, it dominated the landscape creating an air of authority and status over any resident who lived in its shadow. To the two anxious thick thighed Erodeseans, it was a little frightening, but not because of the architecture.

There are all manner of things that go on in Kilo. Some are mundane such as the records department, superior court, Great Library, courthouse garden, and King Thorik’s Dining Hall. Though, there are more mysterious areas, some confirmed, others just rumored. One of the most infamous are the secret torture chambers where the nation’s greatest criminals are held in perpetual hell until they are disassembled.

With all of this in mind, the pair were not exactly thrilled to be there. Stopping just outside Princess Tulip’s quarters the two scout enforcers peered out a stone window looking like hawks at the great vampiric nation that so many of their kind called home.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Xilo said.

Poppy nodded her head. Slowly she scanned their surroundings, then pointed in the direction of Glyph.

“There. That’s where those zombies keep going.” she sighed, her eyes going blue. “And they just keep coming.”

Xilo, seeing her partner deflated, went to comfort her. “I know. I know, I know, I know. We are the Vanguard right? The tip of the spear, the left hand of the royalty. Who are we to be sent on guard duty and cooped up in Kilo?”

Poppy’s eyes turned orange as the little balls of energy swooped up in annoyance.

“I know what you are going to say.”

Xilo let a sharp screeching laugh go.

“And? Am I wrong? I’m agreeing with you! Lately, Tulip’s been playing her hand close and the most action we’ve had is running away or lopping the heads off of hired thugs.”

Poppy smiled. “Yea… stop agreeing with me.”

With pursed lips and hands on her hips Xilo took a step towards Poppy. “And? What will you do about it hmm?”

Poppy’s eyes went pink as she playfully slapped Xilo in the face. “Punish yo-”

Both their eyes went stark white as they noticed the wild yellow eyes of Tulip bearing down on them from behind.

“Uh-ah! Princess! We were just loo-” Poppy was cut off by Tulip’s stare alone.

“You were just going to lie to my face were you not? Surprising from members of the vanguard.” Tulip motioned to the two guards who stood by her door. “And what do I tell them, that Borick and Lance can go off and have a sapling while on duty? What example do you set for the rest of Kilo?”

Xilo and Poppy remained completely silent.

Tulip jokingly laughed. She had not gone back into her presentation form and instead opted to show her true skin. Her emaciated figure beckoned the two to come into her quarters as she gently glided into the room, its doors held open by blank faced guards.

There was nothing in Tulip’s quarters but one chair facing two. The intimacy of the encounter made both Xilo and Poppy uneasy. Though, they were trained to keep their composure in the face of royalty and this wasn’t the first time they had such an encounter with Tulip.

As they sat in unison, Tulip’s chair creaked ever so slightly. Tulip put a long taloned hand to her mouth and said “Excuse my handiwork.”

Xilo was trying her hardest not to laugh. It wasn’t enough. She burst out laughing while in her seat. Immediately both guards burst into Tulip’s room with Borick stating: “My lady is-”

Tulip waved him off. “No further interruptions, please.”

“As she wishes.” Both Borick and Lance stated.

Poppy’s mouth was agape as she looked at Xilo who was currently trying to make herself the smallest person in the room. Tulip’s yellow eyes narrowed as she said “You truly are barbaric, you know that?”

No answer, once again.

“Do you know why you are here?” Tulip inquired.

“Punishment, Princess?” As Xilo answered, Poppy thought to herself: why do royals always ask questions like this?

Tulip ignored Xilo and instead met Poppy’s eyes.

“Do you mean why are we so pretentious? I will speak for myself first: I’m an academic. People who lack the opportunity or choose not to go through the rigor of the academic system are viewed as lower thinkers. Is there truth to that statement? It depends on who you ask, but there is certainly a pathology that taints academia. It reeks deeply of nepotism and privilege. As a royal? We just think we are better than you. That our birth status supersedes your lowly incarnations of The Great Cycle. We truly feel in all of our rotten, ugly sap hearts that you are beneath us. Below proper respect.”

Tulips stare was intense. It was as if she were giving one of her lectures as Poppy listened intently. After a few seconds, Poppy spoke.

“With all due re-”

“The pretentious royal academic knows what you will say before you say it. Perhaps listen to what she has to say for a moment? Let us put petty squabbles aside.”

Tulip slightly smiled then began.

“I had not known you two to be lovers? That is quite interesting.”

Xilo’s eyes went purple as she blurted out the next words. “But Princess, what does this have to do with our official duties?”

Tulip rested one leg over the other then put both hands on her knee.

“Imagine that. An Enforcer of the scout regiment, no less, courting another member in the same squad? Amazing. Having been hiding it for years, lying to their brothers and sisters in arms who are separated from their wood kin for what could be a half year at a time… I wonder what is worse? The loss of reputation and status, or the punishment?”

Poppy and Xilo’s eyes turned fiery red.

“You cannot prove anything you have said! You’re framing us!” Poppy got out of her seat as she yelled.

“No? Wouldn’t it be my word above yours? I know you’re an enforcer but you cannot be that naïve. You see first hand how unfair this world is. The lives you have snuffed out, the villages you have helped burn, the chi-”

Poppy was so angry she ended up biting her tongue as hot sap trickled down her chin. “Those were Lunu! They are the enemy. We have no choice, it is us or them. The sap Xilo and I have spilled for this nation, you cannot conceive of that. We earned our place, we have no birth-right. The decades of training. The grind. The scars. Who are you to take that away from us? Is this the equality you preach of as you bellow speeches from your grand porch? Strike me down here and now, bury my name later, Princess.”

Xilo’s eyes blazed as she nodded in affirmation.

Tulip’s eyes went a deep black and the two enforcers realized that those last words might have just been their last. Then, all of a sudden, Tulip stood up and clapped.

“By the Grand Tree. Look at you two. So passionate, so fiery. You will work perfectly.”

Poppy, who stood dumbfounded, said “Work?”

“Yes, work. You’re hereby dismissed as a Vanguard and you will no longer be part of the scout regiment. Guards! Send in scribe Denisun!”

A pompous elegantly carved man came walking into the open doorway. Poppy and Xilo’s chair suddenly vanished before them, sending Xilo crashing to the floor. As she recovered, Denisun with a heaving sigh stated:

“As decried by Princess Tulip, I, scribe Denisun hereby grant both commoners Xilo of chapter seventy-four, and Poppy of chapter six-six, as Royal Guardians of Nike of Glyph and Onyx of Glyph.”

Once Denisun finished he looked at the two newly minted royals in their awestruck faces with the most emotionless gaze he could conjure.

“Congratulations. Welcome to royalty. Follow me, I will lead you to Grundere, head of assignment detail for… lower royalty.”

Still shocked, Poppy and Xilo ignored the shade that was thrown their way. The two Enforcers were just a second ago bracing for certain death. Now, royalty?

As they left the room, Xilo couldn’t help but notice something as Tulip gingerly whisked them out the door. Underneath one of her needle-like talons was blood.

Human blood.

Xilo had no time to properly think about this as they were both suddenly thrown raiments.

“Thank you Borick, Lance.” Denisun nodded to the two guards. Facing Xilo and Poppy he said “You two, here are your complementary uniforms, wear these when on castle grounds. Running around with nothing but boots is for the common-folk.”

Poppy and Xilo sighed as they fitted on their new uniforms. Their metaled boots clanked on the hallway floor as they changed. Denisun looked on with a critical eye.

“We will have to adjust the uniforms for your frames. Most who reside in Kilo mimic the Princess, you two might do well to be shaped for the same.”

Poppy shook her head.

“Dennysin, we don’t want to be anything but ourselves. If we can keep it that way. Besides, you can do with a trim yourself.”

Denisun almost cracked a smile as he turned his back. “It is ‘Den-e-sun.’, you will do well to remember that.”

Poppy rolled her green eyes as she and Xilo followed the scribe deeper into the castle.

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