CHAPTER 9: Getting Ready, a Banquet, and an Attack
Clearly, sets of rooms at the tops of towers were considered proper accommodation for visiting princes and princesses. The greeter and another from the meeter group flew ahead to lead Hugh to his, while two more princesses-in-waiting each attached themselves to the others and took them to theirs.
‘I see local residents with wings treat balconies as entrance porches,’ Hugh observed with amusement. Entering from the one where they had landed, he found himself in a wonderfully decorated sitting room. ‘Let us show you round, Your Highestness,’ the greeter said.
‘Thanks. My name is Hugh,’ he responded. ‘What may I call you two?’
‘I am Tertia, and this is my younger sister Quinnie, Your Hi… er, Hugh,’ she said. They both gave him little curtseys and lovely smiles. There was something about the two of them which set them apart somehow, but Hugh couldn’t quite make out what it was.
Astonishingly, even though the towers looked so slim and graceful the space inside appeared enormous. Tertia led him through several more formal rooms, and then into one which was filled with things designed for one to make noises by fingering at keyboards, plucking or bowing at strings, blowing into or across their holes, or banging or shaking them. She and her sister plinked, plonked, squeaked, tooted and rapped their way from one to another as they showed him round.
‘And this is the playing-room,’ said Quinnie eagerly, taking him into one which had things in it obviously intended for various games, including a set of hoops hanging from the high ceiling. There was a sort of enormous billiard table but with a number of pockets on all sides, and something like table tennis but with the table formed into an ‘S’ shape. Quinnie gleefully swatted a ball which bounced faithfully round all the curves and over the net before zooming off the other end at a sudden wild angle. ‘I’m quite good at Ping-ping-ping Pong,’ she told him shyly.
He had no idea how she had done that, and couldn’t even begin to guess how most of the other games were played.
What Tertia announced as the bathroom contained no bath, but many growing things were set around a large pool dotted with water lilies. ‘You bath in cold water?’ Hugh asked doubtfully.
‘Nay, nay, silly,’ said Quinnie and added, ignoring a glare her sister gave her, ‘If you set it too hot, though, you need to remember to leave cooler spots round the plants. They mostly don’t mind warm, but one of mine sulks if I don’t make it stay cold round her.’
The bedroom was also huge, with its own balcony and a large circular bed in the middle which had a perimeter of pillows and a round eiderdown. There were several dressing tables and any number of comfortable chairs. Part of one wall became a doorway to a walk-in wardrobe if you walked into it. ‘I hope for the sake of my nose that it doesn’t have a power-failure while I’m here,’ he joked, but the two looked at him in a puzzled way.
‘How could that possibly happen?’ Tertia asked. ‘The spell is permanent. Anyway, it is time to get ready. This rack has the occasion-suits. You can choose the ones you like best.’
‘Why don’t I just fancy my own suit up a bit by magic?’ Hugh asked.
The two looked quite put out. ‘Oh, no,’ Quinnie said, ‘that wouldn’t do at all. It is an Occasion, you see, so you must have an occasion suit to be properly fitted out.’
‘Without doubt it would waste far too much magic to change that outfit to one of these outfits, and to keep it that way,’ Tertia added.
The two began moving out, and Hugh looked down at his own clothes. ‘Wait a minute,’ he called out, ‘How do I get out of this outfit I’m in?’ He fingered one of the wonderfully elaborate-looking suits, which was obviously fully done-up but had no buttons or zippers or strings that he could see. ‘Or, indeed, work out how to try out one of these?’
Quinnie laughed out loud, and Tertia said, ‘Of course; we forgot you’re from Outside where things work out in such a difficult way. You just do this …’ She walked up to him casually and ran a finger from his neck across his shoulder and down his arm. That whole side flapped loose. ‘… and this.’ She did the same on the other side, and the top fell off him in two halves.
Before he could do more than give a strangled, ‘Urk!’ Quinnie had come up behind him to run her finger down the insides of the legs of the pants and then up to the waist, and they fell off too leaving a lot of Hugh and nothing else. The footwear came off too, as an extension of the pants. ‘See? Easy,’ she said casually. Then she flipped the bits onto a hanger, where they reformed themselves, and she hung the hanger on the rail. ‘It’ll have cleaned itself by the time you put it on again tomorrow,’ she mentioned, and giggled at Hugh’s look of what she thought was amazement, but was mainly shocked embarrassment.
‘We’d better stay to help you dress, but you’ll want a bath first,’ Tertia observed. ’We may as well have one here too, or it’ll make us late, and that would never do.’
Quinnie nodded, and in a blink – or a lot of blinks, which is what Hugh was doing – the two had done some finger running on themselves, and were dressed in the same nothing as he was. Then they raced one another to the bathroom, giggling.
Hugh shrugged helplessly, and followed them. He was just about to dive in – he could see that the water was quite deep enough for that – when a chorus of, ‘Wings, silly!’ came from the two heads poking out of the water.
’Wha...? said Hugh.
Tertia climbed out next to him. ‘Fin your wings, like mine,’ she explained, pointing behind her. Hugh could see that her beautiful wings had reduced to much smaller, fin-like appendages.
‘How do …’ he began, but as soon as he thought about doing it, he found he could. His wings now in swimming mode, he dived into the water. It was cold, but not unpleasantly so. He found it to be great fun zooming up and down the pool using the fins. After splashing about for a while, he asked, ‘How does one warm it, and what about soap?’
‘Oh; warmer,’ said Quinnie, and it was.
They didn’t know what he was on about with ‘soap’, and he had to explain. ‘Don’t need that, here,’ Tertia said. ‘The water does it all.’
While Hugh was selecting an outfit and being shown how ridiculously easy it was to open and reseal each part of it, he tried a bit of probing, ‘How much do you know about our visit, and what we’re here for?’ he asked.
‘Well,’ said Tertia, everyone knows that some more humans who can Adapt have been found, and that they have been invited to visit us because they may be able to help us in some way.’
‘We don’t know that yet, which is strange because it is not the custom of Daoine to keep secrets. Still, we guess it has something to do with how peculiarly Darxem have been acting of late.’
‘Acting how?’ Hugh said, admiring in a mirror the wonderful dark jacket he had chosen to go with the slim trousers and impressive boots. The clothes were all truly princely, and there was a wide selection available in a variety of colours, many of which had tempted him. However, in spite of strong opposition from the sisters he had rejected the bright colours, or the ones that couldn’t make up their minds, in favour of the amazingly fascinating dark ones. He had been overruled when objecting to a coronet, though, as apparently such headgear was expected to be worn on all formal occasions, and not only at coronations. There was only one for a Highest Prince, which adjusted itself to the proper size and was surprisingly comfortable in spite of having many large jewels plus a single arch. It did tone itself down a bit to match his costume after he put it on, though.
‘First King Darrex started being increasingly bossy towards the Rings, and trying to tell us what to do, and when our queens got a bit fed up with it he became … really difficult,’ Tertia responded. ‘That was when a lot of Darxem left right away, and the ones left – I mean the ones still right here who haven’t left, of course – aren’t normal any more in the way they have been behaving. For example, it wasn’t right the unreasonable way Darp acted and the rude way he left.’
‘I suppose that was probably a reaction to the shock and grief of losing his companion,’ Quinnie put in. ‘That must have been truly awful for him.’
‘Maybe,’ Tertia said absently, adding in a rush, ‘You look ever so fine, Hugh, and now-if-we-don’t-go-and-change-ourselves-and-see-if-the-others-need-help-with-the-Queen-we’ll-be-in-trouble!’ The sisters flew, in both senses.
Referring to the banquet as a grand occasion would be like saying Beethoven wrote rather nice numbers. The Great Hall where it was held was enormous, and it was filled with light and pleasant sound and fairy folk whose chattering at times almost drowned out the music. Two semi-circular stages jutted out at either side, with an orchestra on the left and dancers and performers appearing in constant succession on the one to the right. Elaborately-set narrow tables dotted the area in between and around them, with all seating facing, or sideways-on, to the far end of the hall.
That far end was banked up in a series of stages in steps, where the tables were increasingly more elaborate until they built up to the highest one at the far end. There, the single long table faced the other way overlooking the whole hall, and it had a most magnificent seat in the centre. This was occupied, of course, by Higher Queen Glorianne, and with some embarrassment Hugh and Tye found themselves conducted to the seats immediately to right and left of her respectively. Felin sat with Tye, and Avinia next to Hugh. All others at that table were Glows, with a fairly – or fairy-ly – even spread of male and female.
At the next level down were mainly elves, with a sprinkling of glows and a couple of nervous-looking shiners. Even these wore tiaras, male and female alike.
Hugh and Tye could tell, in fact, that all seating was strictly according to rank and status, with the lowliest ordinary shiners, goblins, pixies, nixies, gnomes, cobleys and imps nearest to the imposing arched entrance.
Dress of those lowliest was amazingly impressive, and it was graded up from there to that of the Queen herself. Hers was almost too dazzling to look at. Her crown looked incredibly heavy, and Hugh was sure some sort of magic supported it or it would have forced her head to go down through her neck. She kept looking thoughtfully at the downplayed costumes of Hugh and Tye – Tye had, independently, adopted a full-length gown version of a costume remarkably like that of Hugh. It was hard to tell whether those looks were approving or disapproving.
Avinia was looking rather like an exotic parrot – the colours were vivid, and the whole effect was feathery. Felin had chosen a suit with a most striking tortoiseshell colouring, and his coronet somehow gave a cat-ear effect.
The first courses were delightful tiny berries or fruits. There were also tiny portions of familiar fruits like oranges or apples, but they were rather startling in the coarser texture the larger relative size gave. Then came a starter, and Hugh ventured to ask a serving goblin what it was. ‘Gurdins blended with slow-roasted flenders, Your Highestness,’ was the reply, which didn’t help. He tasted it, and it was delicious. Every dish of the nearly unending succession of them tasted better than the last, in fact, so he gave up worrying about what they were. He asked for fruit juice rather than risk the nectar wine again, but nectaries filled with nectar were the main dessert course, and he enjoyed those.
The Queen made entertainingly good small-talk about the food and general matters, but didn’t touch on the subject of Darp or anything of real interest. She did, at short intervals, ask numbers of probing questions about himself, though. A natural reticence made him answer as briefly as politeness would demand. Finally, during a brief lull in music and stage performances, he plucked up courage and said, ‘If I may be permitted to ask, Your Higher Majesty, do you know what help we may be able to give here?’
‘Even one of your rank is not normally permitted to speak to me unless spoken to,’ she replied. ‘However, it pleases me to reply. I do know, of course, as second only to Her Highest Majesty, but it is for her to tell you.’
‘Is it connected with the Darx situation?’ Hugh persisted.
‘You were not listening to what I said, were you?’ Her voice held only mild reproof, but it was enough to tell Hugh when to shut up. She made up for it, though, by letting her guard down enough to say with sincerity, ‘I know that you are going to be most useful to us.’
Then she devoted all her attention to Tye. He could not quite make out all they were talking about, but from the sound of it Queen Glorianne had quite captivated the girl, who was prattling away merrily whether spoken to or not – and getting away with it.
’I didn’t even know Tye could do merrily,’ he told himself, shaking his head, ‘but she’s managing pretty well. Pip got bored, though.’ The sprite had gorged himself on delicacies and was now fast asleep on her lap.
Hugh had no idea how late – or early in the morning – it was when the Queen finally rose to her feet, whereupon everybody else did the same. As soon as she had walked out, everybody did the same as that, too – one gathered that only performers flew in the Great Hall. After flying to his tower he wished he had someone to chat to about everything before going to sleep, but decided sleep was the important thing. In fact almost as soon as he had undressed and found something to serve as sleep shorts, climbed into the nearest part of the bed, and let his head touch the pillow, he was achieving it.
Not for long, though.
He came instantly and fully awake when it was still totally dark. Strongly, he had the same feeling as he had experienced in Rhino Valley – of something familiar but repulsive. He knew that whatever caused it was coming to do harm, and decided that it would do no harm if he were to do the harm first.
He went out onto the balcony and his senses led him to look towards the balcony on the twin of his tower. As he had noticed underground, his eyesight in the dark had become amazingly good, and he could make out some furtive movements there. Immediately he took off and flew in that direction. Drawing closer, he could tell that what was giving him the unpleasant feeling was a shadowy man-like sprite of a singularly ugly appearance. It was staring intently through the glass, or whatever the panes were made out of – and as he watched it opened the door and slipped through.
Quickly but silently he flew to land on the balcony and peered through the now slightly open door. As he had suspected, this was Tye’s bedroom, and he could see her fast asleep with Pip lying on the pillow beside her head, also dead to the world.
Apparently, though, the creature creeping towards them from the near side of the bed, still oblivious of Hugh’s arrival, intended them to be dead full stop. It was carrying a wicked little dagger.
The thought came to Hugh in a flash that such a small blade would hardly be enough to harm Tye, and in the same instant he realised that she was not the target. Pip was. As the creature gave a wings-assisted leap, knife upraised, so Hugh yelled out wordlessly and did a leap of his own. The imp turned towards him with a snarl, but a sweeping blow from Hugh’s hand knocked it off the bed to the floor. Before it could rise, Hugh lifted himself into the air with two flaps of his wings, and then came down on the imp really hard feet-first. The creature lay still. ‘Ouch!’ the boy exclaimed. The more solid bits of the sprite had hurt his bare soles.
The commotion woke Tye and Pip up instantly, and they stared at Hugh in bewilderment, and then in even more bewilderment at what he pointed to on the floor.
‘What … why …’ she exclaimed, and then Pip yipped at her and she stared at the body – they could tell it was one of those now, because it was beginning to Fade – in some horror. ‘Pip says it is a bog… a boggart?’ She looked enquiringly at the sprite, and he gave another yip, of agreement. ‘It is another of the really bad Darxen creatures, apparently. What was it trying to do?’
‘Kill Pip, is what it looked like to me,’ Hugh said. He explained quickly all that he had felt and that had happened since he had woken up. Then they tried to make any sort of sense of it, and couldn’t.
‘According to Pip,’ Tye said, ‘He has done nothing he knew of to upset boggarts, but in general the only good ones of those are faded ones.’
‘Anyway,’ said Hugh, picking up the horrible-looking little knife, which was now all that was left of the boggart, and putting it on a dressing-table, ‘I think I’d better stay the night in case any more come along.’
‘I don’t need any protection,’ Tye snapped, but it was a half-hearted snap.
‘Yip!’ said Pip in the same instant, and Hugh could detect the first approval he had ever noticed receiving from the sprite.
Without further ado, Hugh claimed the other side of the bed. Tye and Pip settled back into their half, and all three fell asleep again almost immediately.