Bria looked hesitantly at Pell. A bored expression had possessed Pell's face ever since the man had walked out to greet them, and it only grew dryer as he watched him. The pretentious man in white, finished with his speech, bowed deeply with an arm pointed dramatically towards the inside of the palace. Pell gave Bria an abrupt jerk of a nod and strode fiercely up the wide steps, passing the man without a second glance. She tried her best to mimic Pell's manner and hurried up the steps as well.
Her soft slippers soaked up immediate warmth as Bria stepped past the doors onto a long burgundy carpet. She only had time to take in the white marble floor and richly colored tapestries adorning the walls before Bran swept past her. Both he and Pell were headed for an immense stone staircase which led to the open balcony above. A thunderous sound behind her announced the closing of the grand doors. She looked back only to see that the man in white had vanished. Bria raced after them as fast as her slippered feet would carry her.
The luxurious carpet ended at the foot of the gently arched stairwell, and Bria quickly wished it hadn't; the smooth steps were as cold as frost through her thin slippers. She gripped the wide banister, hoping beyond hope that her balance wouldn't fail her halfway up. It wasn't until they reached mercifully level ground that Bria looked back to discover the elaborate bas relief carved into the marble balustrade. She stared at the swirling shape of the Portal entombed in stone, surrounded by frozen rays of light. Oddly curled shapes embellished the image. The echo of Pell's and Bran's boots growing distant brought her back to the present, and Bria lifted her skirts above her ankles in an effort to catch up. The Emperor was obviously not one to be kept waiting.
The stairs spilled onto a wide hallway of gleaming mahogany floorboards and cream-colored walls, lit by leaden glass skylights high above. Bria walked hastily down the hallway past amply spaced wood-framed doors as she tried to catch up with them, the blue fabric of her dress trailing heavily behind her. She was so engrossed in her haste that she hardly noticed when she walked past the occasional modestly robed servant.
The broad hallway opened up into an airy chamber, tan and black-streaked gray marble covering every surface. It was a vast, circular room with early morning light flowing to the center like a spotlight. Doors lined the walls on either side of the hallway entrance. Directly across the room, another opening revealed a continuation of the same hall. Tall fluted columns rounded the outer circle of the light to support the heavy awning-like ceiling. Pell led them forward so Bria could look up at the source of the light. She gasped. They were at the bottom of a small tower. Five balconies were visible above them, supported by the same arrangement of fluted columns, finally ending in a sparkling glass dome, through which the golden sky was clearly visible.
Pell tugged her sleeve lightly. "Come on, Bria, we can give you a tour later; the Emperor told us to be there at dawn, and-" He looked up at the dome. "-it looks like dawn. Come on, it's just through here." With that, Pell veered to the right and chose the door perpendicular to the hall, standing in front of it. There was something strange about the door, but she couldn't place it. Curious as to what he was waiting for, Bria inched closer to stand beside him. He was pressing his hands against the wooden panels, every few seconds moving one hand or the other to a different part of the door.
"What are you doing?" she asked. He shushed her. A bit miffed, Bria glared at the door. It was only then that she noticed what was so peculiar about it: there was no handle or knob of any sort.
"Ahah!" Pell grinned triumphantly, although by all rights, Bria thought she was the one who ought to be grinning. Pell was bent over in a comical position, one hand pressed against the left bottommost panel, and the other stretching to barely touch the highest plate at the right. A metallic click reverberated through the door, and Pell stood up with a groan. "He always changes the passcode without telling us. One of these days, we are going to have to come up with a way to communicate better." At once, as if an invisible force were pushing it, the door slid backward a small ways, and then swept to the left through a space in the wall, leaving an opening where the door had just been.
Bria stood before the gap, still a bit shocked that the door had opened on its own, until Pell marched right in. She followed, less confidently. However, whatever trepidation she might have felt was instantly drained as she looked about the room they found themselves in.
Two stories of beautiful walnut walls greeted them. Magnificent windows facing the north made up the third and fourth stories to let in streaming light. Lining the walls were shelves upon shelves of leather bound books, rolling ladders neatly stacked in one corner for easy access. Square wooden pillars provided the reinforcement for delicate arches darting across the ceiling, and three glittering chandeliers formed a triangle of light among the shadowed curves. A number of shorter shelves ran the length of the room to the left, with glass doors closed protectively around their contents. They appeared to contain aged rolls of paper, labeled in the same curly figures that had embroidered the carving on the stone banister. Bria realized they must be written in the Arenthian language. Regardless, the strange letters were not fascinating enough to keep her attention for long.
Opposite the low shelves holding the scrolls, two long tables filled the right side of the room. Oil lamps were placed at intervals along the tables, still glowing, although the sunlight was already more than bright enough to see everything. Pell directed Bria over to a collection of cozy leather couches, and she chose the one which was not lined by fragrant pillows; they looked just snug enough to summon back the sleep she had lost earlier. Pell looked amused by her choice, and took a seat casually at her left. Bran sat more stiffly to her right, still flicking his hair in agitation.
"If it bothers you that much, why did you untie it?"
He looked at her with a wry grin, giving off the impression that he was trying more to convince himself of the humor than Bria. "The Emperor is picky about certain things. I've been told that when he was a child, he refused to cut off his hair, and as punishment, his mother never allowed him to tie it back, so that it was always in his face when he studied and practiced the sword. He finally gave in and cut it off, but I believe he's been bitter about it ever since. No man may enter his presence with his hair tied, unless they wish him to cut it off personally by the point of his sword." Bria stared at him skeptically. 'Picky?'
She started at the echo of a gentle laugh from a far corner of the library. Pell and Bran stood up at once, both grabbing one of Bria's arms to yank her up as well. She had been fully prepared to yell at them both for it, and that she was fully capable of standing up on her own, but the sight of the man walking towards them with a slight limp stifled her words.
A tall man, only slightly shorter than Pell, stood proudly before them. His head was completely bald except for the short pointed beard beneath his thin lips and his long brown eyebrows. Compared to Pell and Bran, Bria decided he was somewhat younger than Pell, if his appearance held any truth to it. He was draped in a flowing fabric the color of the sun, making his white skin seem even paler. Bria noticed that he bore no visible mark of his station other than his clothes and his bearing.
He smiled and inclined his head slightly. Pell and Bran murmured their greetings and bowed with practiced grace, both trying to catch Bria's eye to convince her to do the same. She tried not to laugh at their odd twitching winks as she bent low in an attempt to perform a curtsy. She had never before imagined that it would be quite as difficult as it was, with the poorly distributed weight of her dress threatening to tip her over.
"You may rise," said the Emperor in a soft, but carrying voice. Bria saw Pell beginning to straighten out of the corner of her eye and snatched at one of his hands to help drag herself upright. She found her balance again just in time to watch the Emperor's small smile turn from the stern gaze of Bran to focus on her. He held out his hands, surprising her enough that she looked at them blankly before remembering how to shake them both in the Arenthian fashion. "You, of course, must be Bria. Arenthia's…savior, I believe?" Bria wondered if there was an Anti-Bran cult in Arenthia as a sidelong glance at Bran showed his lips thinning into a severe line.
The word 'savior' being used to describe Bria still caused knots to form in her stomach, so she merely nodded as politely as she could. "Yes, my name is Bria, your…highness?"
The Emperor smiled with a dry glance at Pell, whose lips crooked up only slightly, though his eyes laughed. "You may call me Fredrin. I only reserve formalities for those I consider unwelcome." He pointed one arm in the direction of the two long tables. "I would prefer to sit."
Although the leather-backed chairs at the table were less comfortable than the couch had been, Bria found that the many folds of her dress were much less difficult to manage when she was seated, so she was grateful of his offer. When they were all sitting as relaxed as their company allowed, Emperor Fredrin leaned forward, his chin resting on his clasped hands, and carefully appraised them before speaking again.
He tilted his head to Pell. "It is obvious why you have come, considering your newest companion. I must say, I am impressed you were able to find her at all, and bringing her here…" He was positively beaming. "You will have to explain to me how you managed to bypass the Portal's link."
Pell bowed his head respectfully as a grin played across his face. "Your Grace, the same way we are continually able to get in here when you fail to tell us the passcode. We found a way."
Fredrin's eyes narrowed thoughtfully at Pell's words. "I see…yes, I suppose there are other things to discuss." His pleasant smile faded as he fixed Pell with an iron gaze. "But you will tell me later." Pell's grin did not falter at the Emperor's firm command. It seemed that it would take more than an Emperor to unsettle the man. "Very well. Then I suggest we begin, as I have other matters that need attending to." He trained his eyes on Bria. "You must be wondering why you have been brought here?"
Bria allowed his offer of answers to filter through thoughts before replying. She traced the bold rings of whatever wood had been used to carve the table. "Yes and no. Pell and Bran have already explained a considerable amount to me, so I know how they found me, and I know why they were looking for me, but…" She frowned. "Why did you tell them it had to be someone who could only be reached by Traveling, if you of all people knew that only Arenthians could use the Portal safely?"
Fredrin studied her face and broke into a small grin worthy of Pell. "I told them to find someone who could only be reached by Traveling. It was never said that that person couldn't be an Arenthian. The fact that the Portal took Bran to you, of all people, of all worlds, tells me that you are indeed the one we sought."
Bria's frown deepened, and her hand began to trace the grain with increased vigor. "But how did you know? How did you know it had to be somebody from a different world, and not someone in Arenthia?"
He thought for a brief while, watching the occasional shadow of a bird as it flew by the windows. "Not everyone in Arenthia is gifted with the same amount of information. Those who are poor and live meagerly have little power, and therefore, little knowledge. On the other hand, those who have greater wealth and power have more knowledge at their disposal. I am the Emperor of Arenthia, and with that title came certain privileges, as well as responsibilities." His features hardened gravely. "First and foremost, it is my job to protect Arenthia and her people. When the safety of my people became jeopardized, I had to seek out a way to save them." After giving Bria a moment to digest his words, he gestured around the library. "This is where the bulk of my knowledge comes from."
"So…you read in a book that you had to find me?"
Fredrin waved away her suggestion like a fowl wind. "No, no!" he laughed. "I read in a book that I had to summon a very special Portal. Only the Emperor can use it, because the only guide is stored in this library—my library."
"What is so special about it?" asked Bria, a little irritated by his determination to avoid answering her question.
"It is special, because unlike the normal Portal, which transports us to other worlds and peoples, this Portal brought something to me: a sequence of images and emotions which translated into what you now know."
Bria looked up from tracing the lines to stare at him, trying to disguise her incredulity as surprise. "The Portal showed you?" she said flatly.
"And through me, it has told you as well," Fredrin confirmed tolerantly. Bria smiled; the man was already growing on her. "What else did you want to ask me?" His eyes, a cloudy blue, she realized, held her own in an intense gaze.
She hesitated, unsure how polite it would be considered to test the knowledge of Arenthia's Emperor.
He seemed to sense her indecision. "Arenthia is my home, Bria. Anything I can do to help, I will, as I'm sure will Sir Pellion and Bran. Please ask."
Resolve solidifying at his words, Bria returned his intent look. "What is my purpose in helping Arenthia?"
The Emperor leaned back in his chair, slumping in a defeated kind of way. Midmorning light crowned his head with a sorrowful radiance as it stretched his shadow across the table. "He told me they always ask the one question you don't have an answer for," Fredrin muttered with a sigh, more to himself than to Bria. "I'm sorry Bria. The Portal told me only to find you, not what you would do for us, although my assumption remains that there is something within you that can save us from Crumai."
Bria masked her disappointment easily, as her hopes for the answer had not been terribly high, even from the Emperor himself. "Thank you. I know you would have told me if you'd known. In that case, for the moment, I have only one more question."
She toyed in her head the best way to form the question to a problem that had been bothering her since she had met Bran. "How is it that so many of you speak English?"
"Ah…" The Emperor shared in unreadable glance with Pell and Bran. They all turned to look at her. "Why are you under the impression we speak English?"
This time, Bria could not cover up her disbelief. "Well, I had pretty solid evidence, considering that English is the only language I speak, and I can understand all of you perfectly." She crossed her arms and waited for his response.
The Emperor's face lit up with wonder. A few of the distorted words escaped his lips before he spoke to her. "That explains it!" Fredrin exclaimed, smacking a hand on the desk. She jumped, but not before he rushed on. "I can't believe none of our researchers ever realized it." He gave Bran an amazingly dirty look as he scrutinized him. Bran stared at the table, shamefully, his hair shielding his face from the Emperor's gaze. "There is no universal language, as we have believed for so long." He looked back to Bria in excitement. "This explains why our world is the only one where Arenthian is not the only language spoken! The first non-native Arenthian thinks we speak her language just as we think she speaks ours!" Bria, finally understanding what he was getting at, simply nodded and waited for him to continue. "Ever since we began to Travel, we have noticed small inconsistencies in the language. Curses, for example! People from different cultures attribute different things to what is valued as a curse, so this often resulted in our not being able to understand. But of course, we simply thought it was a word we didn't know. This explains it! I can't wait to tell the scholars." He grinned at Bria in unadorned excitement. "I am not speaking English, Bria. Nor are you speaking Arenthian. This is the work of the Portal, something we were not even aware it could do." He sighed again, this time to relieve his burst of energy.
Silence filled the room the way it did after a plate was dropped. Bria could not think of anything else to ask him, although she wondered who Fredrin had meant when he mentioned ''he' told me'… A smell she hadn't noticed earlier drifted past her nose. It smelled like sausage and eggs, although strangely spicy. 'Overcooked eggs', Bria mused with a smile. The kitchen was beneath the library. The Emperor craned his neck to get a glimpse of the windows and, with a startling exclamation, he leapt to his feet so quickly that his chair toppled onto its back in a clattering heap.
"I am terribly sorry, my friends," he called as he limped speedily to the door. "It seems I am late for an appointment already. No doubt my guests have been waiting for a while; for years, people have been under the impression that I am not a man to be kept waiting. It is, of course, true—I'm quite busy—but this also results in my guests arriving early, when I always arrive late. We must talk more at a later date." Just as he was about to disappear through the door, Pell shouted for him to wait a moment and marched over to him without delay.
They quietly exchanged clipped words, and after a curt nod from Pell, the Emperor swept domineeringly from his library, his flowing robes flying behind him like rays of the sun. Pell stood patiently by the door until the last echo of Fredrin's boots faded from the room. As soon as it was silent, he waved to Bria and Bran furiously, and they hurried over to him.
"What was that about?" Bria couldn't help but ask.
Pell was quick to answer, but his voice remained soft. "I told the Emperor about the assassins. He wanted to assign a guard to us, but I told him that would make us stand out even more than the Crumaiats."
Bria sighed in exasperation. "So how does that put us any more ahead of the killers than we were before?"
Pell lifted an eyebrow. "He's not assigning a guard to us. That is a good thing. Instead, I've convinced him to send out any of his soldiers who can identify a Crumaiat. He should be deploying them as we speak. If we're lucky, there will be an armored guard in every section of Emperor's Gate, searching for them."
"What will they do when they find them?"
Pell's head snapped to face her. "They are trying to kill the only person who has a chance at saving Arenthia. I have no choice but to assume they will be executed for fear that they'd have a chance to report back otherwise." Bria's eyes widened, and he softened his expression. "Nobody ever said you were the only one who might die, Bria," he said gently.
She wasn't sure what the emotion was that floated inside her heart, so she instead asked another question. "So what should we do, now?"
Bran answered this time, seeming happy for an excuse to stop swatting at his hair. "We should return to Madam Bulareih's inn and lay low for a day or so, at least until the Emperor sends word to us that it is safe to move openly."
Pell nodded in accordance. "I'm afraid we'll have to postpone the tour, Bria. Another day, I promise." Bria bowed her head in understanding, trying to shake off the feeling of nervousness that was lurking between her shoulder blades.
"How will we not look as conspicuous as the Crumaiats in these clothes?" She shook the loose fabric of her sleeve at Pell.
"You have an excellent point. Unfortunately, we will have to make do with these until we get back to the inn." He pulled all three of their cloaks from beneath his vest. Bria stared; she would never have known he had been hiding anything beneath it. "I was concerned that the assassins might follow anyone who appeared to be traveling that had business with the Emperor, and so took it upon myself to pack the cloaks, just in case. It is time for us to be going."
They each threw on a cloak and, after Bran hastily tied his hair back, left the library as calmly as they could manage.
The trip to the outside of the palace seemed much longer than the trip to the library had been. Bria couldn't resist glancing behind them every so often to make sure none of the servants was watching them, and she fingered her hood incessantly until Pell pointed it out to her.
Finally, they stood impatiently on the burgundy carpet, waiting for the doorman to swing open the doors. He did so with an unnatural ease and bowed them outside.
As they walked leisurely down the steps—Pell didn't want to give anyone the impression that they were in a hurry—Bria noticed three of the earlier ten soldiers guarding the front doors were missing. It seemed Emperor Fredrin was as good as his word.
The streets were much busier now, well past midmorning, and carriages drawn by as many as eight horses urged their ways through the crowd. The opulent shops had thrown their shutters open to let in the light and show off their wares. Most sold lavish dresses and suits, while still others advertised fine cutlery and spices. A few stalls that hadn't been there during the rain or in the early morning were swarmed by customers waving parasols against the bright light. Pell herded them along the street before Bria could get a glimpse of what they were selling, but a sweet, slightly piquant scent reached her nose before they were too far past the throng.
"What was that?" she asked Pell as softly as her curiosity would allow.
"It's a piece of thin bread, stuffed with peppers and sprinkled with cinnamon after it's been baked. Everyone here seems to love it, although I haven't had the inclination to try it yet. Maybe if our unwelcome friends are found before too long, we can try one."
Bria nodded, glad that they were acting as if there was no immediate danger, because she was already frightened enough without those two becoming scared as well. For a few minutes, they walked past the busy people in their colorful dresses and elaborate suits as though they were simply enjoying the clear day. However, that feeling of security evaporated when Pell turned down a street they hadn't taken before. It was lined by large houses on the right, and majestically fanning oak trees to the left, providing what would have been a pleasant shade had they been in any other situation.
Walking a little faster, Bria poked Pell where she thought his lower ribs must be. "What's going on?" she demanded in barely more than a whisper.
Pell looked down at her with a smile and patted her condescendingly on the head, resting his hand on her hood. Smiling through his teeth, he told her, "Don't look back. Somebody is following us."
A.N. In honor of A-wolf-called-Skya, the only message I have this time is: Woohoo! Another chapter! Hope you liked it as much as I enjoyed writing it! By the way, if you review, you'll get a cookie, guaranteed. I know I'm not the only one who likes those. : )