Polychrome – Chapter 28

Chapter 28.

“So, Lord Erik, we head for the Nome King’s domain once we have landed?”

I turned and smiled at Zenga. She was easy to smile at, having the dark-coffee skin of most of Pingaree’s people combined with the sharper-cut features of her mother to produce a girl of striking beauty. “Yes and no, Princess.”

“You are far too young to speak in riddles,” she retorted, leaning on the rail next to me. “That is the province of wizened old wizards and priests.”

She was dressed in an outfit that I, being totally unversed in the ways of clothing, couldn’t give a name to, but it was some sort of protective clothing that was meant to allow someone free movement… and apparently to still be properly stylish as well. As she came from and was used to a very warm climate, it also wasn’t particularly modest, which did put some slight demands on my eyeball control. Fortunately, I’d had a great deal of practice with that around Poly.

“Old as your father looks, at least. Old enough so that I could have had daughters of my own who had children by now.” I couldn’t use the line that first occurred to me, which was “old enough to be your father”, since the way time flowed and the slightly-faerie humanity of these realms aged, she was still probably as old or older than me in actual years. “Still, it’s not exactly a riddle. Eventually I have to get to the Nome King, but first I have to find the key that unlocks his door.”

“And you know where to find this… key?” She studied me curiously. “I have no doubt there are a number of people that would like to find such a thing.”

I don’t doubt it. “I know, I think, how to go about finding it, even though I don’t know exactly where it is.”

She nodded, though undoubtedly that didn’t really explain much to her. “So first we are heading…?”

“… to the border between Gilgad and the Nome King’s lands. That’s the best region to search.” I glanced into the sky, noting that this time there wasn’t a sign of cloud; so far it seemed that our adversaries weren’t going to attempt another ambush at sea. “I don’t think I’ll say anything more until we’re on our way there.”

She blinked, then looked around the ship. “You … suspect a spy on the Pearl of Gilgad?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” I answered with a chuckle. “However, even an overheard word can turn out to be a danger under some circumstances, and in this case since you’re going to be following me regardless – you made that clear enough – I have no reason to take any risks in that area until we’re somewhere that makes it necessary that you understand what’s going on.”

Her head tilted and she gazed at me speculatively, curiously. “And yet certain things you have made no secret of. I’m not sure how to read you, Lord Erik.”

“Good.” I said, in a voice deliberately deeper with a slight higher-pitched secondary tone which I was pleased to note came out well; my Vorlon imitation was always a tough one.

Zenga blinked in confusion, and I laughed. “The point being that if people traveling with me can’t figure me out easily, then hopefully neither can my adversaries.”

“That makes sense.” She bit her lip – in what was I thought a clearly deliberate affectation that made her look younger and more innocent. “Could… I ask you another question, Lord Erik?”

“As I always say, you can ask any time; whether you get any answers, that’s a different matter.”

She made a very disrespectful face, which of course just made me grin wider. “Why did you let me come along? It was clear to me that you could have said no, and my father would in many ways have preferred it so.”

“Yes, that was fairly clear.” King Inga’s face had shown how worried he was, even if somehow his wife and daughter had argued him into it, and when it had become clear that she was, in fact, going, he’d taken Zenga aside and had a talk with her well out of earshot and mostly out of sight to everyone else.

Some of my reasons I wasn’t going to tell her yet, but there were others I could. “Well, the Prophecy said I had to pick up companions on my way, so I was expecting actually to get one at Pingaree. I suppose I’d originally expected Prince Inga – the books kinda get stuck in your head when you’ve read them so many times as a kid, and I hadn’t thought much about him growing up. Your brother didn’t seem at all interested in coming, either.”

“Nikki?” she said, using the diminuitive of Prince Nikkikut’s name. “No, Nikki’s into the books and studies. It’s all that Father can do to get him out of the library and into the sunlight most of the time. Except for fishing – he’s one of the best pearl-fishers his age.”

“And it was pretty clear to me that you weren’t unable to take care of yourself.”

She patted the hilts of the twin swords that hung near her hips, somehow staying in the inverted sheaths that crossed her back, the tips projecting over her shoulders. “My swordmasters say I’m one of the best. Father did have me trained from the time I was little; I think he was still remembering the time he had to survive the attack on his own.”

“So,” I continued, “I figured that I had good reason to have you along based on the Prophecy. Second, you’re a Princess of Pingaree; even though Pingaree is known to have only a small navy and no army to speak of, its defeat and eventual consolidation of Regos and Coregos gives your country a powerful reputation. King Inga, by sending his eldest child, is sending a message that he has chosen to cast his lot with me and the Rainbow Lord. This is a very significant political signal, and one that I hope will be useful.”

She glanced over my shoulder; I reached up, curious as to what she was looking at, and my fingers found the empty scabbard that was just visible to her. “You didn’t feel you needed protection?”

I laughed. “Not in that sense, Princess –”

“– please, call me Zenga.”

“Okay. Not in that sense, Zenga. Truth be told, I’d forgotten I lost the sword.” I’d lost it, of course, when I’d fallen five hundred feet into the sea. “And honestly speaking, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I keep breaking the swords. I’m surprised I haven’t broken my armor yet.”

She looked at me with an expression of wary suspicion, clearly trying to figure out if I was putting her on. “You do not look so… mighty as that makes you sound, if you will forgive me for saying so, Lord –”

“– Erik, if you’re insisting on ‘Zenga’.”

“Thank you. Then, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, you don’t appear so mighty as to have to worry about shattering your weapons and armor, Erik.”

That got a grin. “No doubt. And I’m not so much mighty as just different. But that’s one of the reasons I need to find the Nome King. He can almost certainly make weapons and armor that will survive my use.”

That was one aspect I’d thought about quite a bit. The sky fairies like those in the Rainbow Kingdom hardly ever touched mundane materials. The Nomes, on the other hand, had to tunnel through rock, work iron and brass and stone and so on. Even though a lot of what they dealt with was, of course, also magical, I was pretty sure that if they understood what I needed they could probably make me stuff that I couldn’t break no matter how hard I used it.

I could see she wasn’t quite clear on why I found my current material so fragile – obviously she wouldn’t be able to break my armor if I handed it to her and let her beat on it all day – but my matter-of-fact delivery seemed to convince her that I wasn’t just bragging. “And you think you can convince King Kaliko to help you, when he’s refused to take sides at all for centuries?”

I shrugged, but then nodded. “I can’t be sure… but yes, if I can find my key and get in front of him, I think I’ve got a good shot at it. He has to know that – like everyone else – in the end Ugu and Amanita are going to come for him. They’ll have to, to secure their realm permanently. He’s too powerful to take a chance on.”

“And you’re not telling me any more.”

“Nope. Not right now. Once we’re alone in the wilds, yes.”

“Well, then, I look forward to being alone with you.”

What? Was that a wink? I found myself staring, momentarily very discomfited, as Zenga swayed across the deck to where a practice area had been set up, drew her swords, and began warming up.

Inkarbleu came up next to me as I watched her practicing. “A man of deep policy is King Inga… or perhaps his Queen.”

“Huh?” I admit this wasn’t perhaps the most witty rejoinder. “How so?”

“A Queen is unlikely to encourage, nor a King agree to, the sending of their only daughter on such a dangerous expedition unless they foresee a potential for vast benefit in it.”

“Well, yeah. They want Ugu defeated and they understand I have to have political backing besides just the Rainbow Lord.”

Inkarbleu looked at me with an expression that made me feel like an idiot. “Hmmm… perhaps you are as naïve as you sound. How … refreshing, in a way. That political backing could have been achieved in a number of other ways, none of which would require risking his eldest and most beloved child.”

“I… suppose. But then what’s the point of sending her?”

Inkarbleu blinked, then smiled. “Perhaps… perhaps none at all, my Lord Erik.” He walked away, shaking his head and chuckling.

What the hell was so funny?