“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!”
His title rang across the kingdom as Dail made his way down from the airship. He couldn’t have expected to drop the formalities immediately (this was royal business, after all), but he could have done without the uncomfortable amount of guards crowding him. Though he couldn’t blame them for being protective, all things considered.
When Dail reached the end of the catwalk, he stood before the Royal Magister. They bowed to one another.
“Greetings, King Dail,” the Magister welcomed. “Thank you for being here today.”
“Thank you for having me,” Dail replied, putting on a pleasant smile and discreetly shoving away a guard who was standing a bit too close. He glanced around, then inquired, “Is Mayor Zao here yet?”
“Mayor Zao has been kind enough to inform me that he will not be joining us until the first conversation tomorrow morning,” said the Magister. “On the bright side, it seems we’ll have some peace and quiet today.”
Dail stared blankly up at him for a moment before realizing that was probably supposed to be a joke.”Oh, haha! Yeah, right…” He scratched his head awkwardly. “Well, you know. I’m sure we’ll make do without him, for now…”
“Indeed,” the Magister concurred. “Now then, if you’ll familiarize yourself with my associates…” He indicated the girls behind him, and Dail raised an eyebrow questioningly. “These are our new apprentices, Lilac, Carol, and Milla.”
“Oh,” said Dail. “Yes, I know them.”
Lilac and Milla bowed, Milla doing so stiffly, then Lilac elbowed Carol in the ribs and she bowed too.
“It’s wonderful to see you again, Your Excellency,” said Lilac as the three of them rose.
“Please, just Dail is fine,” said Dail with a nonchalant wave of his hand.
Lilac nodded. “Then it’s wonderful to see you again, Dail.”
“Yeah, especially since you’re not trying to kill us this time!” Carol exclaimed peppily, a bright grin adorning her face. When Dail averted his gaze and Lilac turned a glare on her, her smile faltered. “What, too soon?”
“Don’t mind them,” came Gong, who patted Carol on the head and shoved her aside. “They’re, uh, in training.” He bowed. “General Gong of Shang Tu, Your Excellency.”
“Ah, of course!” Dail’s smile returned. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“And I trust that you’re already acquainted with my advisor?” spoke the Magister.
Dail blinked curiously, turning to face the last of the Magister’s companions. He gave a small gasp when he saw who it was.
Neera! Of course he was already acquainted with her, she used to be Shuigang’s Priestess! Granted they never spoke to each other much (she had dedicated most of her time to his father), but he was very familiar with her nonetheless. After the King’s death, she just kind of disappeared. Dail hadn’t known that she was the Magister’s new advisor…
Dail snapped back into reality to find Neera addressing him with judging eyes. He coughed, cheeks becoming slightly pink, and waved a hand. “Oh, um, yes. Hello!” He grinned nervously, and Neera shifted her brow.
“Miss Neera shall be your guide during your stay in our palace, King Dail,” the Magister explained. “If at any time you need anything or have any questions, she will make herself available for your assistance. Isn’t that right, Neera?”
Neera remained silent for a moment, during which Dail bit his lip. Then she nodded. “Of course, Your Excellency.”
“Very good,” said the Magister. “Now then, why don’t you show our visitor to his room?”
“…Right.” Neera looked back at Dail, whose expression was entirely vacant, and averted her gaze shortly after. “Come along, then.”
Neera started inside, and Dail stared after her. Lilac and Carol looked to him questioningly. Then something clicked, and he jumped in realization, scrambling after his designated guide, the Shuigang guards not far behind.
Lilac and Carol chuckled to each other once the scene had passed, then turned their attention to the still stiff Milla. “Alright, Milla, they’re gone,” said Lilac. “You can stop now.” Milla gave no response. Lilac frowned. “Milla?” Still nothing. Lilac scratched her head questioningly. Then, before she could say anything else, Carol gave Milla a good shove, and she flopped to the ground with a small thud. Carol snickered, then burst out laughing, and Lilac heaved a sigh.
As Neera led him down the palace halls, Dail fidgeted with his robes. His eyes remained on the floor, though occasionally he glanced up to make sure Neera was still in front of him. He felt bad for not listening, but he was having trouble paying attention.
It was so weird to see Neera working for another kingdom, dressed in colors other than green. For as long as Dail had known her, Neera had been “that pretty priestess girl who hangs out with dad sometimes.” Though he hadn’t known her very well, he knew her to be extremely loyal. Granted, the conditions in Shuigang hadn’t exactly been the best since the King’s death, but Dail had figured that Neera would have been able to tough it out. She was so strong, so stern…
Awoken from his daydreaming, Dail blinked his eyes focused. Apparently his lack of attention had led him to walk directly into the stopped Neera, who was now narrowing her eyes at him. With a squeak, he quickly removed himself from her, dusting himself off and blushing furiously.
“Oh, I’m, s-s-s—”
“I take it you weren’t listening.”
Dail froze. Then he shook his head. “Um, n-no. Sorry.”
Neera sighed, turning back around. “Alright. Do try to pay attention this time, would you?”
Dail nodded meekly. Even if she was working for another Kingdom now, Neera wasn’t much different than he remembered her being.
“Our guest bedrooms are at the far end of the palace,” Neera said as she led Dail and his guards down the halls, “but they aren’t so far off that you can’t comfortably find your way around. The Magister has requested that I tell you, if you ever find yourself lost, simply ask the nearest person for directions. Chances are, they’ll know the way.”
“Alright.” Dail nodded to confirm that he was indeed listening this time.
When they reached the hall with the guest bedrooms, Neera stopped in front of a specially marked door. “For your comfort, you’ll be provided with one of our luxury chambers.”
“Oh, well thank you,” said Dail. “That’s very kind of you.”
Neera pushed the door open. Both stepped inside, and suddenly, Dail felt very, very small. “Oh,” he gawked. “Yes, that is, um, quite luxurious.”
Not only was the ceiling in the room just as high as it was in the hall, the room was nearly just as wide. The ridiculously enormous room was filled with closets and dressers, among other varieties of places to store the luggage that Dail hadn’t brought. All of it dwarfed Dail in size. As the icing on the cake, there was a lovely king sized bed, draped with blue curtains and looking a bit roomy for just one person.
“Is something wrong?”
“Huh? Oh, no!” Dail waved his hands frantically. “It’s just, uh, well, you know, I… I wasn’t expecting something… nicer than my room at home.”
“You’re welcome to stay somewhere else if you’d prefer.”
Dail jumped. “Oh, n-no! This is fine, really!” He wandered stiffly over to the bed and plopped down on it, fluffing one of the pillows. “It’s, it’s really quite nice.”
Neera shrugged. “That’s good.” The room was filled with awkward silence for a time, during which Dail coughed. It ended when Neera cleared her throat and spoke again. “Well then, if you’re satisfied… then I suppose I will be on my way.”
Dail deflated slightly. “Oh. You’re leaving?”
“I have business to attend to,” Neera declared, lifting her head pointedly. Then she caught herself, blushing in embarrassment, and started backpedaling. “Well, um, that is, unless you needed me for something else…”
“No! Oh, no.” Dail shook his head, clenching his teeth so hard they nearly shattered. “No, it’s fine. I understand, that you have things, to do, and stuff…”
“Yes.” Neera nodded. “I do. Have things to do. So… goodbye.”
“Uh, right,” said Dail. “Goodbye, then.”
Neera turned back to the doorway, said “Excuse me,” to the guards blocking the doorway, then continued out. Dail stared at the doorway for a moment after she left. He then noticed all of the guards staring at him. He looked down at his feet, cheeks pink, kicking his legs out one at a time. Then he looked back to the doorway.
In a green flash, he rocketed away.
Dail pressed himself against the hallway wall, peeking around the corner to see Neera strolling into the distance. His brow furrowed. When he looked up, he found that all of his guards were peeking around the corner as well. They looked to him expectantly. He smiled weakly, giving a dry chuckle.
“Uh… Think you could find out where she’s going?”