The Somnium Court, just like the whole realm, is very different from the Umbra Court. Lush green hedges surround the castle, spouting with blue and purple flowers. The hedges rise high into the sky, and as we passed through them Ashton reached out to pluck a purple flower. He graciously handed it to Ember, who took it with a smile.
Passing the hedges is a twinkling moat of shining clear water, peering out the window I can see koi fish of every color swarming the bottom. We continue up the cobblestone path, the clacking of horse hooves on the stones almost therapeutic, as we pass more bushes and more gardens.
Gardiners in fine silk gowns tend to them, they wave at our carriage as we pass, I wave back a bit shocked. “It’s very beautiful here,” I said to Ashton who nodded in agreement.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never gotten used to the sights.” Everything is vibrant shades of color, and everyone wears subtle pastels that makes their tan skin seem to glow. So far it seems the only pale one here is River.
The horses pulled to its side, so when more soldiers wearing brown silks opened the door we were looking at the castle’s large entrance.
“Right this way, ladies.” Ashton said, stepping out and extending a hand. One by one we exit the carriage, once I do so I really wished I wasn’t here. Not that it’s unwelcoming, because the warm breeze and the inviting colors are anything except uninviting. But because I’m nervous the King won’t like me, and that maybe they’ll regret picking me to be their weapon.
Birds chirp, and there’s low chatter among the people in the gardens, they all stare at me but try to not make it look obvious. It’s pretty obvious. “Feels like I’m in school again,” I muttered and Ember chuckled lightly.
“They stare because they grew up living in fear of the day Parallax would destroy their portals, and would unleash his weapon on innocents.” River explained, “you were always the heroine in the story. So forgive us if we treat you like a bit of a celebrity.” I mulled that over as we all walked into the large semi-circle door.
Indoors, where the sun isn’t warming our skin, it’s a bit chillier. We walk down a long hallway adorned with light blue tapestries and wide open windows. The rug is a tiffany blue, they remind me almost of Ember’s eyes. Suits of armors post at the side of each window, they all salute as we pass.
Ember and I in our black clothes stand out like a sore thumb, Nova in her sunny silk down looked more at home than we; even as she walked on the fine rug in her bare feet.
White flags with blue trim hang from the ceiling, on it is a crest with a white horse. I’ll ask about those later. My heart begins to thud wildly as we near the end of the hall, closer and closer we get to the mahogany door.
“He’s in there.” I say to absolutely no one, and nobody responds. It’s silly sure, that I’m more afraid to meet King Erran, than I was to meet Parallax. In my defense, one of them wanted to kill me and the other one wanted to thank me. One of them seems a bit easier to handle, for some reason.
“Are we ready?” Ashton asked as we got to the door, I swallowed my churning anxiety and nodded, forcing a tight smile. “If we don’t get a chance to speak again, Astra, I want to formally thank you and your friends for saving our life.” Before I could say that it was no problem, the door swung open and revealed the King’s sitting room.
The room matches the hall completely, just much larger, and at the head of the room are three large chairs. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears chairs, each are a different size, the largest one being where King Erran sits expectantly.
At our entrance the three people at the head of the room rise to their feet and begin clapping, the people standing at their service clap as well, as does Ashton and River. My cheeks grow alarmingly hot at this attention, and as we close the gap between us and the King I take them all in.
King Erran has long dark hair, tucked behind pointed ears. His tan skin glows in his sunny room, and his wide smile gleams with joy. His robes are a sage green, and his crown is large silver adorned with golden stones.
A woman stands to his left, less amused at our appearance I assume, given the way her lip curls slightly. Her gown is also a sage green, and her crown is a beautiful silver wire that wraps her head. Curls white with age tumble to her chin, and her tan skin wrinkles with a forced smile.
The man to their right, makes my breath catch slightly. He’s attractive, obviously so, with blonde hair that curls under a tan chiseled jaw. His blue shirt stretches tightly on his broad shoulders, and it falls open just enough that you can peek at his chest. He smiles, and I trip over my converse in response.
“My lord,” Ember breathed near my ear as I straightened myself up. “Does everyone here look like him?” I snorted, and we finally got close enough to the head of the room that everyone finally stopped clapping. Ashton and River bowed, so the three of us dropped down as well.
“My, my. Last time I saw you, you were a newborn. Look at you, all grown.” King Erran announced, his voice filling the room easily. “I think I speak for my entire court when I say, thank you for your bravery in our opposing lands.” He extended his arms, beckoning the whole room, “We are forever grateful.”
I hadn’t done much, just condensed some souls and ran with them. To them though, it was everything. The room erupted in applause once more, and I just nodded in my understanding.
My mouth refuses to speak, I don’t even know what to say. The blonde to the side of the king smiles at me, which doesn’t help.
“My mother, Margaret, and my son Theodore.” The king said, presumably noticing my staring. It’s hard not to, unfortunately. Theodore, the blonde, stepped down and reached for my hand. I wiped my sweaty palm on my jeans as casually as possible before placing it in his. He kisses the top of my hand with a bow, and I feel my whole body shake at the action.
“It’s an honor to finally meet you, Astra.” Holy shit. I feel like I’m in a fever dream. His eyes are brown and green, like moss on damp bark. For a moment I lose my breath.
“Ditto.” I mumbled, kicking myself in the ass instantly. God, ditto? I’m so stupid, I peered at Ember out of the corner of my eyes. Her own eyes laugh at me, understandably so.
“And who might these lovely ladies be?” He looked to Nova and Ember who flanked my sides, they both shifted like bugs under a microscope.
“This is Ember, a defender. And this is Nova, she healed me and saved my life. They helped me escape the Umbra Realm.” As I said each of their names King Erran bowed his head to them, and Theodore kissed each of their hands.
“I’m sure you’re exhausted from your journey. I’m going to have Phoebe bring you ladies to your sleeping quarters, where you can eat and rest. We can join again in the morning, and talk about future plans?” King Erran said after his son had returned to his seat, and we just nodded tiredly. The idea of a bed has my bones hurting.
“Er, sir? The souls?” I asked, feeling them in my pocket. Am I supposed to hand them over now? The king clapped his hands and smiled at me once more. I feel very small in this big room with these important people. I’m sure Nova feels the same since I can hear her shuffling her feet behind me.
“Ah! Nothing gets by you, so glad we chose you.” That for some reason makes me uncomfortable, his voice while inviting, sets me a bit on edge. “We were hoping you’d join us in a public celebration, a ballroom gala, and there at the feast you will publicly return the souls to us.”
“Ok?” I said, my voice milked with questions. If the guy was so urgent to get these back, that he sent soldiers to drive us here, why wouldn’t he just take them now? I shake my head, I’m truly just being too critical.
“Phoebe? Bring our treasured guests to their rooms. Men, a meeting?” Asher and River nod, stepping forward at the same time a woman with pink hair stepped forward. “Sleep tight, young warriors.” King Erran said, and it was final when he said it. The woman beckoned us to follow her from the room, and we did. Ember grabbed my hand comfortingly, squeezing it just to tell me she’s there.
My head felt heavy with confusion as we walked away. I’d expected something different, I’m not sure what I had expected...but it wasn’t that. We’d traveled all this way to deliver souls, only to be told to sleep and to show up to a dance.
Phoebe, the woman we followed into the hall, was a beautiful woman in a strange way. Her kind eyes that don’t meet ours are a light brown, she smiles lightly with small pink lips. The hands she kept clamped in front of her abdomen were tinted blue, scales covering them until about her elbows. Her gown is sheer, nearly see through, and I can see the light blue scales continuing down to her feet.
“Ma’am, where are we going?” Nova asked, and Phoebe turned back to us with a shocked expression; as if she’d forgotten we were there.
“Your sleeping quarters, I’ll run you all the baths and lay you out sleeping clothes.” What like, a slave?
“I could do that myself?” I offered, but Phoebe just shook her head and took us up some marble stairs. At the top of the stairs she opened a sleek door and stepped to the side for us to step in.
The room is golden hues of yellows and browns and oranges. Large windows shine light into the sitting room, it has large brown fluffy couches in it’s center, and a tea table ready to go.
There are three doors, as though it was designed specifically for our stay. “Each of those leads to a bedroom, one for each of you. Each of them should have your bed, a wardrobe of clothing, and a restroom. Please give me a moment to run the baths.” Phoebe said quietly, her voice low and harmonious. We stand awkwardly in the center of the room, by the couches, shuffling our feet unsure of anything.
Phoebe took off into the first room quickly, startling us with the sudden fast pace. After she left I looked at my two friends and I let my utter shock show on my face.
“Oh my god! You’re like royalty here!” Ember shrieked, jumping up and down on the balls of her feet. “Did you see the way they bowed to us? A king bowed to us!” I laughed, feeling a bit numb inside. She grabbed my arms and shook me, but noticed immediately after the joy I didn’t feel in return.
“Doesn’t this just feel strange to you?” I asked quietly, her and Nova leaning in to hear me better. Ember raised her eyebrows, “I mean, we risked our lives for these souls. Alatar and my uncle are MIA, we all nearly died. Now, they want to make this big spectacle of us returning them. Like, why couldn’t he just take them?” I rambled, knowing I most likely sounded a bit silly.
“Astra, I think they’re just excited to see you succeeding.” Ember reasoned, but it did little to curb my odd feeling. Phoebe left the first room to only rush to the next one in a swirl of pink hair and sheer fabric.
“Yeah, by showing her off like one of their prized ponies.” Nova grumbled and I looked at her in relief, someone understood what I was saying. How strange she must feel, I realized, to be in a place like this. She must feel just as much out of her element as I do.
There were some pastries on the tea table, as confused as I was I couldn’t help but grab one. I feel like, despite the squirrel, that I haven’t eaten in years. It’s delicious, the glazed bread melting sweetly in my mouth.
“Is this how they feed their ponies?” I asked, with a mouth full. Ember laughed, and taking one for herself at the same time I grabbed a second one. As we chew Phoebe sprinted into the last room, it’s almost funny if it wasn’t so sad.
“Is someone gonna tell her that she can slow down?” I murmured, and Nova shrugged.
“She’s made of magic, like me. Given the scales I’d say mermaid, she probably does this to support a family. I say we let her do what she needs to.” Nova whispered back, and my jaw went slack. Mermaid? So is every creature I could think of actually real?
Phoebe met us in the room then, grasping his blue hands in front of her, her head lowered. “I’ve drawn each of you a bath, please enjoy and I’ll see you in the morning.” Then she left, leaving the three of us confused.
“You two can sit here if you’d like, but I’m going to go enjoy the water while it’s still warm.” Ember cooed, wiggling her fingers and heading into one of the rooms.
“I agree that this is strange, Astra. I’m sure Ember is just taking this little bit of joy while she can, everything will work out. Enjoy your bath,” Nova said to me in her dreamy tone before leaving for her room.
I sighed, grabbing one last pastry, and headed to the last room, closing the door behind me. It’s another beautiful room, with a red canopy bed, large mahogany wardrobe, and a large window facing the lake we’d walked by. The walls are a light brown, warm and inviting like the rest of this place. Hanging on the wardrobe was a white nightgown, which must have been left out by Phoebe.
Everything on me is disgusting, my bones ache, and a full body exhaustion hits me once more. I kicked off my shoes and dug my toes into the soft brown carpet, enjoying the joy while I could. Maybe I’ll take a page out of Ember’s book, on this one.
I enter a small door that was on the other side of the bed, and walk into a gold and white marble bathroom. What really drew my attention was the large clawfoot bathtub filled with steaming water.
No matter how confusing this all has been, I am not turning away that bath. I stripped the grimy clothes off of me, and basically threw myself into the water. It’s so hot at first that my breath catches, but I let out a long slow breath and let myself ease into it. On the ceiling is a painting of the stars, the stars that are also in me. I feel once again, like a prized pony.