The great doors of the banqueting hall were opened by the courteous hand of her benevolent host. "After you," he muttered with a bow.
The door had opened to reveal a bright room bustling with life. The pleasant sounds of laughter and friendly chatter echoed throughout the spacious hall. There were grand staircases which curved and ascended either wall, leading up to a magnificent balcony overlooking the glorious sight from the far side of the room. The table was set with baskets of fruits and beads and meats stylishly arranged.
There were a handful of people standing around the table engaging in conversations of various kinds. Each seemed quite caught up in his or her topic and company with regular interaction between groups and friendly banter or the occasional teasing comment echoing throughout the relatively empty room.
There was, also, a man in an apron off to their right, and Avera supposed that he had been the one to prepare the day's meal. He was standing with a petite woman in an ordinary dress. The woman's skin was a dark tan. Her hair was short, stylish, and feminine, curving in slightly above her thin shoulders.
Avera walked self-consciously through the door which Benjamin held for her, and the man in the apron let out a thunderous belly laugh at some clever and boisterous quip directed at one of his fellows, the conversation continuing unimpeded. He was a large man in every way, towering over his fellows. His skin was a deep olive complexion and complemented well with his thick hair, dark grey in color with streaks of lighter grey towards the sides, which he wore wrapped down around his ears. The woman's dark eyes reflected the light as she spoke to him, her pupils expressive and wide. The man put a hand gently on the lady's delicate form, and his palm swallowed up her shoulder entirely. She spoke again, and the man nodded, glancing over in the direction of the entry. He smiled, catching sight of Avera and Benjamin as they came humbly through the doorway.
"Ellis," Benjamin said with a grin.
"Benji!" the man exclaimed with a roar of enthusiasm before rushing over and wrapping his arms around him without any thought of hesitation. Benjamin was quickly picked up off the ground and dangling in the air, supported only by Ellis's huge forearms. "How are you today, my lad?" he asked, lowering the young man back to the ground again.
"Quite well, my friend. I thank you," Benjamin graciously responded, straightening his glasses. "I've brought company today," he added, looking to Avera with a smile.
The man's face broke into an ear splitting grin. "Well, hello there! Miss... Avera? Ben here mentioned ya to me," he said with the same happy enthusiasm he had shown Benjamin. He put a hand out for her to shake it, and as she did, his hand swallowed hers up completely.
"Avera, this is-" Benjamin began by way of introduction, being quickly cut off by the jolly giant.
"Ellis, Ellis Wells!" the man informed her, shaking her hand up and down like a water pump. "My wife Mira and I run the kitchens here, and it's a joy of ours to have a fine guest such as yourself!"
Benjamin grinned, his face alight with amused merriment. "You will find Mr.. Wells quite amiable, I'm sure," he told her pleasantly.
"Amiable?" Ellis said as if in shock. "A man such as myself? Never!" he jested, exaggerating the backwards sentiment.
Benjamin held up a hand as if to ask him to stop while failing to hold back laughter.
Avera looked as another man came to greet them. He was lean, his skin tight and ruddy, and he wore garments which resembled armor made of cloth, a white tunic with layers of ceremonial garb and a crimson sash tied about his waist. He was lanky, yet lusty and quite robust. His dark hair bore a reddish tint, and he wore a long goat beard on his bronzed countenance. He seemed to glide across the stone floor of the dining hall, making his way towards them with swift, calculated steps and an even stride.
"So this is the girl!" the man exclaimed, the comment seemingly directed at Benjamin.
Benjamin stopped his laughter, recollecting himself, and eyes shot over to meet the voice of the man who had spoken. He opened his mouth to speak, a look of dubious surprise in his amber brown eyes, but he was quickly overtaken in his hesitation by the booming voice of Ellis.
"A fine specimen we have here, Justice!" Ellis proclaimed, giving Avera a mighty pat on the back which pushed her slightly forward.
She smiled, almost laughing as she regained her balance. 'At least I know he likes me.'
"Justice, I..." Benjamin said softly, as if unsure how to continue the sentence, his voice revealing his inner concern.
"I'm not a fool, Ben," the man replied, his voice pointed and factual. "I know how to conduct myself among strangers and around guests." His cold blue eyes shifted to Avera. "My lady," he said with a bow as he respectfully approached her. "My name is Justice Atticus. I am the king's servant, and it is my great pleasure to meet you and to serve you so long as you are here."
"Yes, thank you," Avera replied simply, as she assessed the man who had spoken of her with such skepticism. She glanced over to Benjamin, who wore an unreadable expression. "It's a pleasure," she added with a smile, extending a hand of greeting.
Justice took her hand and kissed it, then proceeded to position himself upright yet again. "Will you be staying with us long?" he asked her.
"I may, but then I may not. I'm afraid, I haven't made up my mind yet," she answered honestly.
Justice nodded. "You may find that the answers you seek are closer than you realize them to be," he cryptically informed her. "I believe it would be best for you to stay, at least for a short while, until you have reached a decision."
"Indeed," Benjamin agreed, limiting the expression in his voice while maintaining his perfect composure.
"I might," she said, offering a passing smile.
"That's all well," Mira said, her voice light and delicate, "but for now, we should all sit and eat." She had on her face a warm, motherly smile, and Avera felt a relief to the tension within her body as she began to relax among strangers.
The seven of them gathered around the table together, there being two other men besides, Alexander Kypher and Joseph Vanguard by name, to whom she was briefly introduced. Benjamin called for her to sit beside him, taking a place towards the center of the spread.
"You want me here?" she asked him, thankful for the kind invitation.
"Of course!" he said, smiling as he patted the empty space beside him on the bench. "You are our guest, after all," he pleasantly reminded her.
She smiled. 'Maybe I do have a place in the world, then, after all.'
He glanced over at her as if she had said something, and his eyes turned thoughtfully upward, glinting with consideration.
'Oh, not this again!' She grinned with anticipation of his remarkable thought reading.
He leaned towards her, bringing his mouth to her ear, and whispered, "There is a place for you here, if you'd like, so long as you desire it."
Kypher abruptly smacked his hand against the table. "By golly, Ben, would you bless us? That meeting kept us up so late I'm starving!"
"Alright, alright," Benjamin replied, laughing. "Just a moment, and I'll save you from hunger."
Vanguard looked to the left and right of him, inspecting those present at the table. "Ben?" he said, muttering as if in some small state of confusion. "Why, yes... I suppose, given the apparent circumstances, it would come to Ben, then."
"Stop looking, Vanguard. They aren't here. They've gone out," Justice told him pointedly.
"Out?" Vanguard asked, as if seeking some explanation.
"Out," Justice repeated.
"Last minute communication from Carder," Benjamin clarified, offering Vanguard a reassuring smile. "All's well, though."
"Yes, of course. All's always well and all, but... how about breakfast?" Kypher quickly commented.
"Ah, Carder," Vanguard replied, looking to Benjamin thankfully. "Shame, though," he added, turning his attentions to Avera. "They were looking forward to meeting you."
"Were they really?" she asked softly, turning to Benjamin.
"They were," he said, smiling, and his eyes softened. "Yes, Mr.. Waverley, I think, especially, but certainly Dorothy was, as well," he added thoughtfully.
'Ah, yes... Waverley, my distinguished hoot owl.' She smiled, remembering his impassioned speech. 'How could I have forgotten him?'
"Did they say when we should expect them back?" Vanguard inquired.
"They had some business to attend to," Benjamin expounded. "I expect them back later this afternoon, certainly before nightfall."
"Good," Vanguard replied happily, turning his attentions to Avera once again. "You should meet them, then... provided you stay. I'm sure you'd like them. They're a different sort of people, but good." He paused, his eyes turned thoughtfully upward. "And friendly," he added with a nod, "very friendly."
"Perhaps you'll have time for tea," Justice suggested.
"Tea?" Avera smiled, clarifying.
"Yes, it's a favorite of theirs," Justice replied without much feeling. "Delphians and their tea, you know? Well, Waverley is, at any rate. I think Dorothy has more grown accustomed to it."
"I'm sure it could be readily arranged," Benjamin assured her, his words soft and considerate.
She nodded. "I'd like that," she told him, her voice soft and unassuming.
"Great! We'll have tea then!" Kypher triumphantly announced. "Now, if we could eat!" he added hopefully, his eyes wide as he considered the bread in the basket in front of him.
Benjamin grinned, holding himself back from laughing. "Of course, Kypher," he told him kindly, and he blessed them before the meal.