The Night of the Feast
Jocthreal was, perhaps, the greatest of all the countries of Lairannare, for it was ruled by the greatest of all the people in the Realm of Earth–Queen Provenna, the Greater Power. Of all the cities of Jocthreal Leilaora was the greatest, for it had beauty such as no other city could rival. It was the City of a Hundred Temples, and the golden towers and spires rose high into the sky and shone gloriously in the light of the sun. To the north and east, a large forest grew. At one time it had been a distance from the city, but over the centuries it had grown closer and closer until now it reached the very walls of the city. During the summer it was a sight to behold–the trees reached tall and proudly toward the sky, their branches, covered with lush, green leaves, waving softly in the wind. As it was, however, they had yet to regain their verdant crowns.
A broad road led up to the gates of the city. The forest grew thick on its eastern edge, but on the other side it thinned out very quickly so that, on the western side of Leilaora, there was a large open plain broken only by a few small hills and a couple of trees. Nearly a mile away the forest began again, stretching both to the north and to the south; if one traveled but a few miles in either direction, one would find it eventually curved and joined with the forest on the other side of the road.
Upon the road could be seen the most joyous of processions. It was a large group of elven-folk all dressed in the most festive of clothing. At its head rode King Tnaka upon a milky white horse. For an elf he was tall–almost five and a half feet. He had a very handsome face which some would say had grown more distinguished with the passing of years. His hair, which was blonde, like the hair of many elves, fell only to his shoulders, which was unusually short for the style of the day, but it suited him well. His gray eyes, at that moment filled with laughter, revealed great intelligence. If one had seen him without knowing who he was, one would have thought him far too good-natured to be a Power.
To his right rode his wife, Queen Eagle, upon a gray palfrey. She neither spoke nor laughed but was an attentive spectator of all that went on about her. To the elven king’s left, mounted upon a large brown horse, rode the only human in that company of elves. He was a lad of no more than sixteen years, with long brown hair and bright green eyes. His face bore a mixture of expectation, awe and anxiety which only intensified as they drew close to Leilaora.
At the gate of the city a small group of people, also mounted upon horses, stood waiting to greet the arriving procession. Foremost among these was Queen Provenna herself. She was a beautiful woman with large, flashing green eyes and soft, white skin. Entwined within her long, red tresses were scores of milky pearls, and upon her head sat a delicate and beautiful crown of gold. Her dress was made of the finest purple and gold silks, and, while it was modest, it failed not to remind all who looked upon her that she was a woman. Her face was alive with an excitement and anticipation which only grew as the procession drew closer, until, by the time they reached her, she was fairly glowing with joy.
"Tnaka, my friend," said she, "welcome once more to Leilaora. Long have I awaited this day."
"You have not waited in vain," answered Tnaka, with a smile. "Receive the son for whom you’ve so long waited"
"Hello, Mother," said the brown-haired youth softly and rather shyly.
"Aeneas," breathed Provenna. Such was her joy, she could say no more.
"I pray you’re pleased with him," said Tnaka.
"Need you even ask? I gave you a boy and have received back a man." She took Aeneas' hand in her own. "Welcome home, Son. Long have we in Leilaora desired your return."
"And long have I desired to return home, Mother," answered Aeneas with a small smile. "Hardly a day went by in which my thoughts did not turn to this city. When I left it I thought it was beautiful, but now that I return I find it ten times so."
Provenna laughed. "If you think it beautiful now, wait until you stand upon the walls of the palace and look upon its full extent."
"That is a pleasure I eagerly anticipate."
"If you are ever to have the chance we must first return to the palace." Turning to all those assembled there, she said, "Come, my friends. Tonight we shall feast in celebration of the return of the prince."
With Aeneas upon her left hand, Tnaka and Eagle upon her right, and the whole elven procession behind her, the ruler of Jocthreal rode through the golden gates and into the beautiful city. The streets were lined with people straining to see the four royal personages who led the grand procession through the glittering city to the palace. As they rode, the queen could talk to none save her son; she wanted to know every detail of his life and training under Tnaka. Aeneas, though in awe of all which was happening to him, answered all his mother asked.
Tnaka, for his part, was smiling–perhaps even more than Provenna herself. His gaze passed back and forth between the overjoyed mother and his own young wife, who remained a silent, though not uninterested, spectator of the whole scene.
As they reached the outer gates of the palace, Provenna turned to Tnaka. "You have taught Aeneas well, and I doubt that I’ll ever be able to convey the depth of my gratitude. This truly is a time for rejoicing."
"Your approval is payment enough," replied Tnaka. “And as to this being a time of rejoicing, all I can say is I couldn’t agree more heartily.”
Provenna laughed. "Tnaka, methinks that I, who am the mother receiving back her son, should be the most joyful of all gathered here, yet you bear a smile upon your face such as few could match."
"We all have something which makes us joyful."
"And what is it that raises your spirits so?"
"Seven months hence I shall be the father of a child."
Provenna's face became alive with excitement. "Tnaka, that is wonderful!" Then, turning to Eagle, she said conspiratorially, "Tell me he is not lying."
"What my lord speaks is true," answered the elven queen.
"Then this is a day of double rejoicing," declared Provenna. "Tonight we shall feast not only in honor of my son but also in honor of Tnaka's child!"
With that, the procession made its way into the marble palace of Queen Provenna.
The banquet hall of Provenna's palace was truly a sight to behold. Its walls were decorated with the most beautiful and exotic of tapestries, and the wide, open hall was filled with long, exquisitely carved wooden tables piled high with foods of staggering variety. The smell of veal, boar, bread, and a score of other foods wafted through the room. It was alive with hundreds of guests, the sound of their laughter and conversation filling the air as the merry music of the minstrels rose to mix with it. Between the tables many servants made their way, refilling wine goblets, replenishing the platters of food, and ensuring that all ran smoothly and no one lacked for anything.
Upon a dais at the head of the hall stood the table at which those who were most noble of rank sat. At the middle of this was Provenna, with Aeneas at her right hand and Tnaka and Eagle to her left. The queen and her son had not ceased conversing since the beginning of the feast. The elven king and his wife, however, had remained rather quiet–more because of Eagle than Tnaka. Provenna, however, was too overcome with joy at the return of her son to notice how silent her friend and his wife were.
With a laugh, she raised her goblet and cried, "A toast! A toast!" Everyone became silent and waited for the queen to speak.
"A toast to..." began Provenna, but, even as the words were leaving her lips, the guards in the corridor began to cry out. All eyes turned as the doors to the banquet hall were thrown open, and murmurs of surprise escaped the lips of everyone as their gaze fell upon King Kozan. A dusty cape was thrown over his shoulders, and his hair was disheveled from a journey of hard riding. His cold brown eyes flashed with scorn and hatred as he marched up through the hall to the dais. He crossed his arms, planted his feet, and glowered at Provenna. For a long moment, Provenna could only stare back at him.
"What are you doing here?" she finally asked, her voice trembling with rage.
"That," said Kozan with a loud voice as he mounted the dais, "is not the question." He took Provenna's goblet from her hand and, after drinking, looked out over the hall and continued. "This is a marvelous feast. You know I’ve always loved feasts." He turned back to the queen. "Why did you not invite me?"
Her green eyes flashed with anger as she looked up at him and said softly, but dangerously, "I commanded you never to show your face in Jocthreal again. Why then have you come?"
"To see my son of course!" cried Kozan, slamming his goblet down so hard that a few drops of red wine flew from it and fell upon Provenna's dress.
Kozan turned to Aeneas and looked him over.
"You’ve grown much," he said after a moment. "I would scarcely have recognized you." He tilted his head to Provenna and added, "Though that’s no fault of my own; your mother’s kept me away from you for so long."
Aeneas, his face pale, looked up at Kozan. When no one else spoke, he said nervously, "I hope you’re pleased with me."
"Well, you certainly are better than Provenna's other son–devil that he is–but I’ll not be fully pleased unless you can handle a sword well."
"Are you finished?" Provenna asked coldly.
"No!" cried Kozan as he turned to face her. "I am not finished!" His voice became softer as he continued. "Since the day of his birth, I’ve seen Aeneas but once; I hardly think that fair. Now that he’s returned from training under Tnaka–" he gave the elven king an ugly look–"you should send him to Nolhol to learn the art of war from one who can truly teach it."
"Who? The Dark Sorcerer?"
Kozan's eyes flashed at her insult, but Provenna ignored his reaction and continued, "Aeneas will never journey to Nolhol; I will never allow you to take him from me. I had two sons once, but one left me. Aeneas is all I have left. You, on the other hand, have dozens of children, and, if you find their number lacking, I am certain Mystia can provide you with more."
Kozan's cold brown eyes sparked with rage as he growled, "I do not love Shalleans." With that he turned and stormed from the banquet hall, leaving all to stare in surprise after him.
"What?" said Provenna, clearly confused. For a moment, she looked blankly at the doors through which Kozan had disappeared–and suddenly realized what Kozan meant.
"Mystia is a Shallean?" she exclaimed in amazement.
"Apparently," answered Tnaka as he too gazed after Kozan.
The throne room of Provenna’s palace was wide and open and filled with light. The walls and pillars and large tiles of the floor were made entirely of fine, white marble. Along the walls were beautiful stained-glass windows, each depicting a hero of the golden days of old. The warriors, savage and impassive, gazed down from their pictures, silent spectators of all which went on in that great room.
Provenna and Tnaka were the only two to fall beneath the gaze of those ancient warriors that night. The queen sat upon her beautiful crystal throne, and the elf stood before her.
"Provenna," he said gravely, "you must do something about Kozan. He grows more insubordinate by the day."
"And what would you have me do?" demanded the queen. "This problem is unlike anything any other Power has ever faced. Never before has a Lesser Power been at such odds with a Greater Power. If I kill him our strength will be cut off with his death, and punishing him in some other way will only serve to anger him more."
"But something must be done. You know as well as I that Kozan seeks to set himself up as the Greater Power. If I hadn’t warned you, this would already have taken place; Aeneas serves as a constant reminder of that."
At Tnaka's words, Provenna's countenance grew dark. "The pig deserves to die. You know it. I know it. The whole of the Realm knows it. Yet fate has made it so I can’t destroy him without destroying myself." In frustration she slammed her fist down upon the arm of her throne.
For a long moment she was silent. When she finally spoke, her voice was filled with hopelessness. "The burden of ruling this land is all but unbearable. At times I feel as though I were not even meant to be the Greater Power. ‘Tis almost as though at some time in the past the true Greater Power died, and I was set up in his place." She laughed bitterly, "But that’s mere wishful thinking. How I wish there were someone else to carry this load, but it’s for me and me alone to bear. I am the Greater Power and have always been the Greater Power, and ever shall I be so."
Tnaka gazed at the queen in silence for a moment.
"Provenna," he said at length, "I know not what to say, or what to do. You know I provide you with all the advice and support I can, but I can only help you so far as the tangible is concerned. When you enter in to the realm of the mind and the will I cannot help you. That’s an inner struggle which only you can overcome.
"However, though this will give you little comfort, I must say that I think you rule well."
Provenna gave a small, though sad, smile. "Thank you, Tnaka. That does give me comfort.
"But please go now,” she added, glancing away, “for I have much to consider and would be left alone to think in peace."
"Very well," said Tnaka, inclining his head respectfully.
He turned and walked silently away, leaving the queen alone beneath the gaze of the impassive, stained-glass warriors.
* * *
Eagle stood outside Aeneas' chambers and knocked upon his door. It was quickly opened by a slave, and the young queen was permitted to enter. Aeneas stood in the middle of the room and looked darkly at her. Eagle turned to the slaves, motioning for them to leave. When they had done so, she turned to the young prince and said, "This has been a rather interesting day."
"'Rather interesting'?" Aeneas repeated. He stared at Eagle for a moment then burst out, "This day has gone from being the most anxiety-ridden, to the most happy, to the most disgusting, worthless day of my life, and the only words you can find to describe it are 'rather interesting'?" He became calmer and said, more to himself than to Eagle, "At least 'twas only my father who showed up and not my brother as well. Joretham, it would have been decidedly worse had I had to contend with him also.”
He shook his head. "But I’m forgetting my manners." He led her to a chair. "Please, sit down. Would you care for some wine?"
Aeneas walked over to a small table upon which stood a carafe of wine.
"Aeneas," said Eagle, as the young prince poured the wine, "this is the second time this night I have heard mention of your brother. In the past also I heard of Provenna's other son, but I never learned more than that he simply existed."
Aeneas gave a bitter laugh. "If you want to learn of my brother I would suggest you talk to one of the slave-girls. Certes they know more of him than does anyone else." He walked over to Eagle, handed her a goblet, and added rather bitterly, "He’s a painful memory, and we speak little of him."
"I’m sorry," said Eagle. "I meant not to pry."
"No, no. 'Twas not improper. 'Tis quite understandable you would be curious.” He looked down at the wine in his goblet. "There is a reason that little’s known about my brother. When he was ten years of age he, like I, went to Kerril to learn under Tnaka, and he didn’t return until six years later. He remained in Jocthreal for only one more year before he ran away–no doubt, to seek adventure."
"Certainly you must know more than simply that. He was your brother."
"You wish to know more?" Aeneas’ voice rose, and the bitterness and anger in it were unmistakable. "Very well. My brother was a wicked, cruel thief who gave not a second thought to killing his fellow man. He was a terrifying, savage barbarian who treated everyone around him as though they were his slaves. That is what I know of my brother."
"Certes he could not have been as bad as that."
"He was worse than that, Eagle," answered Aeneas. "He had not a shred of conscience within him." His voice became soft once again, yet the bitterness lingered. "But despite all of that, my mother still loved him best. You can’t imagine how happy I was when he finally left. And, by Joretham, if he ever returns I swear I will kill him."
* * *
The sky was black, and the moon shone over the dark and grim city of Nolhol. Orion stood upon a hill and looked down upon the city. He was dressed in the armor of the Delovachian he had killed back in Shem-Joloch, and in his hands the large battle-axe glinted in the light of the silver moon. His blue eyes sparked with anger, and he whispered with fury, "Kozan, dog, you’ll pay for your folly." With that deadly promise, he made his way toward the dark city, leaving Nightfall to stare after him through the darkness.