CHAPTER 28: Meetings with King, Cu, and Greatestness
The two Highest Princes saluting the flying guards, and then landing politely at the gates of Darrex Palace, were models of no-colour. Their black may have had an element of excellence about it, but they could hardly be blamed for that. Nor could they be blamed for the fact that their funny southern accents made their shouted greetings sound like, ‘Trump the Cause!’
They praised the quality of the halberds of the guards at the gate, announced themselves as Highest Princes Deng and Dew from the far south, and said that they hoped they had been right in assuming that it would have been an improper show of pride to have brought a large retinue each.
Highly impressed, the guards waved them through towards the main doorway, while one tooted unmusically on a bugle of some kind. This resulted in a guard escort emerging from the palace to guide them in, the captain of whom was given their credentials.
‘All the Highest Princes have been summoned to the chambers of His Highest Majesty, so you are just in time, your Highestnesses,’ he announced over his shoulder as they flew to an area of the palace boasting particularly fine stonework which a leaden colour could not conceal. The towers here did not show any balconies suited to flying visits, though, and they were conducted to an imposing doorway at ground level. Then the captain went in to announce them.
He came out again with the red-faced look of someone who has been shouted at. ‘You are to go straight through,’ he said, and added almost under his breath, ‘Everyone seems to be in a bit of a flap.’
Hugh and Dengana found a number of corridors leading off from a vast entrance hall. ‘The “straight through” we must take literally?’ Dengana said, and they both shrugged and went down the wide one directly ahead of them. It had a number of doorways on either side, but they kept going until they reached a closed double door facing them in a T-junction at the end.
They were wondering whether to open the door, or to look for one which was open along the passages going left or right, when both doors swung inward to show a number of Highest Princes seated, or seating themselves, at a long table with a single chair at the head and twenty chairs on either side. Behind some of them crouched or sat enormous wolfhounds, like Cudarp that they had met so briefly. As soon as the two of them were inside, the doors closed themselves behind them.
The hounds reminded Hugh of Darp with a sudden shock. If he was among those present he might well recognise them, even in their changed forms. He gave a sigh of relief when he could see no sign of him in the room. Then he had to give a shove to Dengana, who was regarding the cu with a mixture of amazement and fright.
Apart from the hound in his background, there was nothing remarkable about the Darxd seated at the head of the table. Not at first, anyway. His ‘Triumph the Cause’ was uttered in quiet tones, and they responded promptly and with care not to make their ‘trump’ too obvious. ‘Welcome, Deng and Dew,’ he said. ‘I cannot say I have heard of your palaces?’
Hugh found his heart sinking. There was something he could feel in the speaker which reminded him strongly of Aiennea – a sort of repressed vibrancy and a sense of great power; even the slightest glance from his piercing eyes had a disturbing quality. It was becoming clear that fears he had entertained but tried not to admit to himself, that he and Dengana would find themselves way out of their league, had indeed been justified.
Mentally shrugging, he came back with, ‘I am glad of that, your Highest Majesty. It will show that we have managed to preserve the sort of modesty which is demanded of all true followers of The Cause. And, of course, our homes are in areas far beyond the Rift.’
Darrex gestured towards a part with some empty chairs. ‘Be seated over there next to Dorge. You passed by the Rift?’ There was a worrying amount of interest and intensity in this question.
‘We pause to inspect,’ Dengana said, as he and Hugh sat down after having dodged round a wolfhound sitting close enough to block the way. ‘Higher Prince Dennet he is most impressive leader and crecords like ones of Prince Dore they well-trained.’
‘Did you hear anything about the magical disturbance there?’ Darrex asked.
‘Indeed; and we even went to experience some of that old magic’s effects,’ Hugh put in. ‘Horrifying. We understood that one of the men from your Darx Artz Magicians’ Guild would be arriving to eliminate it.’
‘You went near enough to feel it?’ Cudarrex (as the companion of Darrex was undoubtedly named) said from behind - or, rather, way over the top of - Darrex.
‘We were within sight of the other branch of the tunnel it comes from,’ nodded Hugh.
‘That strange magic is one of the reasons for this meeting,’ Darrex said. ‘The Guild has just notified me that Drek, the senior magician who was sent to solve the problem, has failed. It killed him. In fact, “swallowed up” are the words used to describe what happened to him by one of the sentry squad who witnessed his attempt.’
‘A foolish mistake,’ sneered a prince sitting near Darrex – Hugh thought it was the one who had gate-crashed by flying over a gate. ‘Send some more to rectify it.’
‘It is not that easy. The Guild confess that they are completely at a loss. The solution Drek was trying is the only one they could come up with. Worst of all, His Greatestness and I cannot find anything in the Pattern to account for it. In fact, the Pattern itself appears to be obscured in some strange way. I wondered if this might not be some mischief from Aiennea … that is … the person who calls herself Supreme Queen in Breena. There were clear signs, borne out by our spy reports, that she was initiating some action and we were well geared to deal with it until this weird interference came about. At least we have those more normal means to assure us that the set of difficulties which the Pattern indicated were arising from Terra are still bottled up at Aiennea Palace.’
‘It is surely not possible for her to be interfering,’ another said, sitting nearest to Darrex at the end of the row to his right and shaking his head. ‘Your powers are naturally greater than hers.’
‘There are differences in them, Derag,’ Darrex responded, ‘and it can be that she is exploiting one such. Part of the reason for bringing together, as a unified force, some former queens - which we now call Paramount Princesses - was to combat such possibility.’
‘Paramount Princesses; tshah!’ said Derag contemptuously.
Darrex ignored this. ‘One thing we did determine before this … this mist … came over the Pattern, was that key elements were coming from the south.’ His glance shot to Hugh and Dengana. ‘I had hopes that Deng and Dew might be the explanation for this, but in view of their extreme youth it cannot be. Still, I do sense in them abilities well beyond their appearances.’
Derag could now be heard muttering something about, ‘Making this into a playground for little kiddies …’
‘Anyway,’ Darrex said, ‘the main purpose of this meeting was to get your suggestions about the Rift problem before I go and confer with His Greatestness about it.’
Considerable waffling followed in which several of the cu joined, but no actual suggestions came out of it.
Darrex finally lost patience. ‘We will meet again in a few hours if His Greatestness gives me anything to convey. In the meantime, anything else?’
Of course, Derag had to stick an oar in again. ‘What is the latest on that suddenly-silent army of - what was his name? - Delk or something?’
Hugh decided that with somebody like Darrex around, utter boldness was probably the safest course to prevent rats from being smelt if something awkward came to light. ‘Oh, you mean Dolk?’ he butted in casually. ’I can tell you where he is. Probably still on his way to meet Dennet and learn how an army should be run. On foot, unless his wing has healed.’
‘His army it now in Darx Desert, where we send them’ Dengana offered equally casually. ‘Maybe when they finish there they know not good to lose all rhaxen and all drogres in simple attack, and maybe all of them they learn to follow The Cause better.’
Darrex glanced at Derag. ‘Kiddies?’ he said mildly; and then to Hugh and Dengana, ‘Tell us about it.’
Hugh and Dengana were shown by equal-but-servant Darxds to a suite of comfortable and spacious rooms each, adjoining one another in the same part of the palace buildings as the meeting room, but much higher up. A wide shaft in the centre of the vast tower provided the only route between floors. It was clear that this was a wingless-unfriendly part of the building.
Servants of both sexes were tripping over one another to be of service, and kept appearing to ask if they wanted refreshments or any other help. This made it difficult to discuss anything in private, and they were reluctant to put any magic wards in place in case this might look suspicious.
‘There nothing to talk about now, anyway,’ Dengana said during a brief break from being attended. ‘We must wait; see.’
It wasn’t even possible to do much exploring, as Darrex had asked everyone to remain within close call in case his meeting after their meeting meant the need for another meeting. All they could do was avail themselves of the food and drink on offer, and to try and overhear anything from anyone which might fill any of the myriads of holes in their understanding of all that was going on. Unfortunately, all they learnt would not even have filled a pinprick.
Then there was - for Hugh, at least - a welcome break. A Darxd servant popped in to announce that they had Cudorge as a visitor. Dengana immediately went into a state of alarm.
The wolfhound looked down at them in friendly fashion, and didn’t bother with any Crow greetings so neither did they. Instead he was straight to the point. ‘I have come to invite you to meet some of my younger fellow cu in the palace grounds. It won’t take long, and my sprite will call us if we are needed.’
A Pip-like fur-blob settled on the back of a chair and said, ‘Yip.’ Hugh and Dengana looked at one another and didn’t need to say anything. Each knew that the other was thinking about Tye, what she was up to, and where they could even begin to look for her.
Then their minds returned to wondering what this was all about. With Dengana looking highly nervous even though they were going lower, they followed the huge dog down the shaft and out of the main door into the garden. He led straight to where a group of young giant wolfhounds were romping with one another on a wide lawn. It looked like a bunch of elephants playing, except that elephants don’t generally manage to scamper about. As soon as the dogs saw the approach they stopped, sat down in a group, and stared at the two closely.
‘We are cu; how do you do,’ came from one of them; it was hard to tell which.
Then, disconcertingly, they began chatting among themselves as if inspecting something on a shelf. ‘Not bad,’ grinned one with a permanently mischievous expression. ‘There might be some potential, here. Say something about yourselves, Darxem.’
‘Dogs big-big-big give me fright,’ Dengana said, which apparently amused them greatly.
‘Don’t encourage me,’ Hugh smiled. ‘That is a subject I am expert on, and I can go on for ages about it.’ This also went down well.
After some more banter, the dogs came one by one to sniff at them. It made Dengana extremely uncomfortable, but Hugh took the opportunity to study each of them. Most, like ‘Mischief’, had colours which he translated as being like the grey with whitish muzzle which he had seen on wolfhounds back home. A merry one was a sort of tan colour. A sad one, a bit older , larger and fluffier than the rest, had a striking black colour. Yet another was almost white, as far as this could be possible in Darx, and had a particularly proud and aloof bearing.
Not long after the sniffing ritual had finished, Cudorge said politely, ‘You’ll want to be getting back, now. Thank you so much for coming to meet the youngsters.’
‘We are dismissed,’ laughed Hugh. ‘Goodbye, for now.’
‘What all that all about?’ wondered Dengana as they flew back.
‘My guess would be that they were checking for suitable Highest Princes as companions,’ Hugh replied. ‘It looks as if we both failed the test.’
It was only about an hour later when they were again summoned to the meeting room. As they drew near the doors they could see other Darxem crossing from one side or another, often close to the doorway, but the doors remained firmly closed until a Highest Prince ahead of them got near, when they opened wide.
‘Magic it must be set for Highest, only,’ Dengana remarked as they approached and were admitted in turn.
Darrex was standing behind his chair, so everyone arriving stood behind theirs. When ten Highest Princes were inside, the king nodded and said, ‘These are all for this meeting.’ Hugh noticed that not only were there no cu present, but Dorge was one of those missing from the group.
Derag looked about him and said indignantly, ’Many of the more senior ones have been left out, and why are they here?’ glaring at Hugh and Dengana. He was still smarting about the ‘kiddies’ incident.
‘At the behest of His Greatestness,’ responded the king in the mild tone he used to pick up emphasis on put-downs. ‘He has asked by name that I bring all of you now present to him.’
There were cries of surprise from other princes, and it was clear that this was a rare occurrence.
Hugh and Dengana both developed sinking feelings a submarine would have envied. The idea of meeting with a person who could boss Darrex around did not appeal to them. Also, the fact that they had been singled out as part of this party was ominous. Before they could decide whether to make a run for it, however, they found themselves in a herd heading for the flying-shaft, and then a flock going down to the lowest level. There, a doorway led to an actual flight of stairs spiralling down, and with no space for flying. In single file, they all followed the king down and down, round and round, until they became dizzy.
Eventually the stairs ended at another door, and this opened into a sort of hallway, obviously underground, with passages leading off. The one Darrex led them along ended in a ‘T’, at the apex of which was a doorway to a set of rooms of a size to dwarf their own accommodation. These looked even larger than they really were, because the lighting was pathetic. Everything, without exception, showed dimly in only blacks or greys.
One room, with an open, arched entrance, was like a fair-sized library with various tomes and manuscripts filling rows of shelves, but Hugh wondered how even the titles could be read in such gloom. Another near it was appointed as a sitting room. In this, not only the sitting fittings were luxurious. So was the ornamentation, even though obscured by gloom.
Then they came to a closed door which stopped being closed as they approached. The room they trooped into was vast and empty save for a sort of elaborately-carved or -sculpted (it was hard to see if it was wood or stone) throne.
Seated on it was a man more of elfin size and appearance than Darxd, but not easy to make out. It wasn’t only the light. There was a strange quality about the sight of him, and an even stranger quality about the feel of him. He radiated power at a wattage which made even Darrex dim by comparison. When he spoke, the strangeness increased. His voice had a permanent echo-effect, and gave the impression of resonating in one’s mind rather than giving off sound.
‘This is the mix of strength we need,’ he began without any form of greeting. ‘Now, four of you have never been here before; nor do you know anything about me other than that I am the greatest of all, and that I guide and advise the Highest King.’
There was a long pause before he went on. ’It is necessary for your minds to be uncluttered by any questions or uncertainties in readiness for what is to come, so I choose to reveal more about myself. You will have realised, by the use of simple logic, that actually I rule this world, and I will soon rule all the rest.
’I am not a god, but I may be regarded as such.
’I am qualified to rule by virtue of being the oldest being alive, and the fact that during my long life I have never ceased seeking and gathering truth and knowledge. I have exercised immense power in the past, but retired from the affairs of these worlds to increase my understanding even more.
’Now I have come back to control the destiny of all for the good of all.
‘I am therefore entitled to, and expect, unquestioning obedience from everyone from the Highest King down to the meanest pixie. Are there any questions?’
Hugh decided that there was a choice: to be overawed by the immense power he could sense in His Greatestness, or to counter that feeling with levity. He decided to go with a conclusion that however impressive the power might be, the carrier of it was still a pompous old twit.
‘Yes; was that a trick question?’ he asked brightly.
Darrex and the others went into shock.
‘It was not intended as such,’ came back, with a trace of irritation. (Good, thought Hugh old Greatest-mess still has emotions.) ‘If I give orders I expect them to be carried out, but that is not to say I do not want replies to questions I pose, nor the offering of information or suggestions.’
Dengana joined the party. ‘You not equal; we not equal;’ he said. ‘Why we tell everyone all equal?’
Now there was definite annoyance. ‘You here present, and I, may question the equality; for anyone else to do so is treason. We are wasting time. Let me look into the Pattern again, now, to know its present form. Then we shall see whether further clarity will be found when more of us than Darrex and I merge to study it.’
For some time they all stood round like statues while one sat like a statue. The seated one gave the impression of shimmering and of going transparent, at times.
Meanwhile, Hugh and Dengana were both on the verge of throwing panic attacks. This merger sounded as if it meant one of minds, and they would certainly mind if what was in their minds emerged to the shareholders.
Once again, the only alternative to fleeing at speed was to wait and see, and deal with emergencies as they arose. They waited to see, but not happily.
The sitting statue gave a sigh and unfroze. ‘The obscurities have, if anything, increased,’ he said, ‘Very well now, all of you, clear your minds to focus on the pattern as represented by the design above my head, and I will then gather you in to join with me in contemplation of The Pattern itself.’
Despite themselves, Hugh and Dengana found themselves staring fixedly at the dimly-seen pattern on the high back of the seat above His Greatestness. It became less dim, and more elaborate. Then it gave a dissolving impression before they found their ‘vision’ transported to something strange beyond description. Later, in trying to reconstruct what they had seen, they agreed that there had been some elements of a pattern in it, with impressions of a collage of threads and weaves and colours and pictures, and affecting the senses of hearing, taste and smell also.
They knew that they were observers only, being taken in one direction or another, but as each point was reached they could feel the efforts of everyone to probe its mysteries, together with a compulsion to join in that probe. Pictures of past and future swirled, and then the focus was brought down to Darrex Palace as the place and the near-present as the time. At once, it could be sensed that there was a kind of fuzziness at edges which shouldn’t be edges. The focus narrowed further, to one edge in particular, and there they all gave a full combined effort.
Images of all of them, from His Greatestness and Darrex to Derag and both Hugh and Dengana, plus many others, danced and spiralled, and a final thrust brought into greater focus something still unclear - but unmistakably female - before the advance was repulsed.
Then they could feel His Greatestness withdrawing, and in the instant of the merge coming to an end Hugh felt a sharp and entirely unexpected probe into his own mind. Strangely, the image the probe brought to light was of a sad expression in a long, black face, which lightened up as it stared back at him.
Some minutes of silence followed while each gathered some widely scattered thoughts and searched for lost ones. Then His Greatestness sighed and said, ‘That was useful, indeed. The type of interference is as I had feared, and the solution will be to fight fire with fire. We must bring in these,’ and great distaste entered his tone, ‘Paramount Princesses. The only thing is that they must be totally, utterly compliant.’
‘If we have any reason to suspect that they may not be completely compliant, by their very natures?’ Darrex asked.
‘Then they must be made so, by whatever means necessary,’ His Greatestness said coldly. ‘You may go, to make suitable arrangements. I now need to rest, so we will resolve matters tomorrow morning.’
He looked at Hugh. ‘I expect that you will soon have a cu companion.’
To Dengana he said, ‘You suffer from a quite irrational fear of cu.’