“The ship is docking, King Dail!”
King Dail. He was still getting used to that title. For as long as he could remember, it was Prince Dail. It was what the castle staff called him, it was what his subjects called him, it was what the other Kingdoms called him. He had always been Prince Dail, to everyone, to himself. Of course, he had always known that there would come a day when that title would change, that he would become King Dail of Shuigang, “Mighty and Beloved Ruler of the Water City” as he had once heard it put. Perhaps Dail had just figured that day wouldn’t have come so soon. Then, he had always imagined that his father would be there for the coronation.
“I’ll be there in just a moment!” he called. He knew that he couldn’t be too long, but he needed another moment to collect himself.
In the mirror, Dail stared himself in the eyes. No matter how many times he fixed his hair or straightened out his robes, he still looked like a mess. Or at least, he thought so. Maybe it was just the nerves getting to him, he couldn’t really be sure. But he was certain that he felt like a mess. The title of King hadn’t brought him might or love. All it had brought him was responsibility. Ever since he was coronated, Dail was swamped with work. Repairs from the invasion, peace treaties with the other Kingdoms, and hardly a single break. As King, he ate, slept, and breathed work, and it felt like it would never end.
Though he knew that he was still technically here on a work trip, Dail couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. For the first time as King, he was away from the castle, away from Shuigang. Away from paperwork and royal decrees. Even though he was only going to be here for a couple of days, he wanted to take what opportunity he could to relax. Perhaps, even, while he was here, though this may have been wishful thinking… he could discover something new.
As pleased as he was going to be with his appearance, he placed his hand on the door handle. He hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath.
“Here we go.”
At the gates of Shang Tu Palace, at the end of many lines of guards, stood the Magister and his associates, patiently awaiting the arrival of Shuigang’s leader. Then again, “patiently” may not have been the best choice of words.
“What the heck is taking so long?!” Carol groaned, slouching lazily. “The ship has been here for like half an hour.”
“It has not been half an hour,” said Lilac. “Stand up.”
Carol grumpily did as she was told. “It still feels like we’ve been here forever…”
A staff was pounded on the ground beside Carol, and she flinched back, eyes darting up. “You would be wise to watch your tongue, Carol.” Neera addressed her with stern eyes, and Carol narrowed her own. “Regardless of how much you’re enjoying this, the fact of the matter is that this is important. Perhaps you could learn something from Milla’s example.”
Carol looked to Milla, who was stood as straight as possible, arms pinned to her sides. Her brow was furrowed in concentration, and despite the relative lack of heat, sweat poured down her forehead. Carol looked back up at Neera skeptically. “She looks constipated.” Lilac suppressed a chuckle.
Neera, with a roll of her eyes, explained pointedly, “Milla is making an effort to keep up an acceptable appearance. Not only is this the first Tri-Kingdom conference since the invasion, it’s also your first appearance as representatives of Shang Tu. You should be taking this seriously. Isn’t that right, General?”
Apparently, at some point while they were standing here, General Gong had dozed off, because he was now snoring loudly and drooling down the front of himself. Carol smirked at Neera, who pressed a palm against her forehead. With a flick of her spear, she fired a small but very cold blast of ice at Gong. It whacked him upside the head. “Gah! The monster has growing pains!” Gong, startled awake, quickly glanced around. Met by Neera’s icy stare, he nervously straightened himself out and cleared his throat. “Uh, yes. I agree with… whatever Neera said.” Lilac and Carol giggled.
While Gong tugged anxiously at his collar and Carol waved a hand in front of Milla’s face, Neera approached the Magister. “Your Excellency,” she began, “forgive me for interrupting your thoughts, but I was hoping to ask—”
“About the job I’ve given you?” the Magister cut her off.
Neera blinked. “Um. Yes.” She scratched her head, then readjusted herself. “It’s just… Wouldn’t it be better left to the children? It would be a fine addition to their training, and—”
“I have my reasons for selecting you, Neera,” the Magister interrupted coolly. “I understand that it isn’t the kind of work you are used to, but rest assured that this will be a good experience for you.” As Neera lifted an index finger in preparation to protest, the Magister added, “A better experience for you than it would be for the dragonblood and her friends.”
Neera lowered her hand defeatedly. “I… understand, Your Excellency. I won’t speak of it any further.”
“Good,” said the Magister quaintly. “Now then, I believe we have a foreign dignitary to greet.”
“Announcing King Dail of Shuigang!”