The Crooked Portrait on the Wall
Chapter II: Where it All Begins
"Janus, wait! Stop this foolishness at once!"
The prince stopped in his tracks and turned his head to the side so that there would be no chance of the dignitary behind him misunderstanding his words. "I told you my answer. I do not wish to ascend to the throne of Zeal."
"But Janus, you are Schala's brother. There is no one else to be crowned but you!"
Janus continued walking once more. Just as he reached the door leading into the palace's main hall, the dignitary grabbed his shoulder. Janus stood still for a moment as the dignitary realized his mistake and hesitantly took several steps back. Realizing that he had only one last chance to convince the prince, the old man unleashed his most compelling argument.
"You know Schala would want you to take on the crown!"
Janus turned to face the old administrator and focused his gaze on him as if the two of them were the only people left in the entire universe.
"You know nothing." Janus paused in-between each word. "Nothing. You could not possibly fathom what Schala would have desired for me and nor should you ever try." The prince lifted up his hand so that his palm was facing the dignitary. The old man attempted to take several steps away from Janus before suddenly coming to the realization that he was floating in midair.
"Janus, what is the meaning of this?! Stop! How are you...? You... you... you don't possess this kind of power!"
Although all the windows in the throne room were sealed shut, a mild wind was blowing through the chamber. Janus' plum cape and azure hair swayed in the breeze. Several moments passed before he closed his palm and let his arm hang loosely as his side again. As he did so, the wind stopped and the old man dropped back to the ground.
"Should you ever attempt to place yourself in Schala's mind again, that wind will carry you to your doom. Do you understand?"
The dignitary nodded.
"Very well. I have made my decision. Trouble me with your questions no further."
Janus glared back at the old man.
"If you refuse to claim the crown for yourself, at least name an heir to the throne! Name an heir for the good of Zeal!"
Janus laughed. "I care nothing for Zeal or its people. Schala had two children, did she not?"
"Then why do you continue to trouble me?"
"They are twins! We have no authority to crown one over the other!"
Janus stared off into the distance, seemingly lost in thought. Somewhat pleased to see that the prince would finally answer one of his questions, the dignitary opened his mouth and began to smile. As long as someone could be crowned King or Queen, he cared not whom Janus chose - and in all honesty, he preferred either of Schala's children to her brother. Finally, Janus spoke.
"Sounds like your problem, not mine."
As quickly as the old man's hopes had risen, they were shattered, leaving him to stumble through what remained of his failed attempt to convince the prince. "But... but, you... What will we do? You can't just.... just can't do... are we going? I don't.... No!"
Janus opened the door to the main hall and made his way out of Zeal Palace for the last time.
"Wait!" The dignitary chased after the prince for a few steps before realizing that he had attracted the attention of everyone in the great hall. Powerless to change Janus' mind, the old man re-entered the throne room and threw himself to the ground.
Queen Schala had reigned over Zeal for forty-eight years before passing on at the age of sixty-three, an unusually early age by Zealian standards. The rigors of royalty and the constant handling of issues on which the very fate of the kingdom hinged upon sapped the life from Schala, for she showed signs of aging much earlier in life than most living in the enlightened society did. After Janus left Zeal without a trace, a royal commission was convened to ascertain who had claim to the throne in his absence. Given the small number of viable heirs and the desire to avoid drawing the public's attention, the commission quickly came to the conclusion that one of Schala's children should be crowned the next ruler of Zeal. Unfortunately, since her progeny were twins, neither one could claim a greater right to the throne than the other - and since Janus refused to give his blessing to one of them before his disappearance, the only way a single heir could be chosen was if one yielded the crown.
Hoping for an easy solution, the commission explained the dilemma to both twins in an effort to weed out an unwilling heir, but to no avail. Both of Schala's offspring refused to pass up their rights to the throne. Thus, the commission was left with no other choice but to declare both children co-rulers of Zeal. Had they the power, the royal delegation would have chosen Darius, Schala's male heir. This is not to suggest that the commission had any great love for the prince, for they found many faults in him. Darius was simply more preferable to Berenyi, the contending heiress to the throne.
Despite his flaws, there was much good to be said of the prince. Of the two twins, Darius was preferred by the people for several reasons. For one, he actually tried to win over their hearts. Schala's heir took after his mother in the respect that he took the time to interact with the people of Zeal. Unlike many past royal figures, Darius was a kind, compassionate man who was willing to commune with the people rather than simply lord over them. He was also a very charismatic man, a feature enhanced by his handsome demeanor. Nearly an entire head taller than the average Zealian male, Darius was a physically imposing man. He had broad shoulders, was muscular, and was noted for having very tan skin and rough hands - features acquired while working on the Cardinal, the Blackbird's sister ship, during his youth. Unfortunately, Darius was also given to fits of anger and occasionally lashed out on those undeserving of his wrath. He was also known - like any master of politics - to lie, deceive, and cheat in order to make his will come to fruition. However, as the commission saw it, Darius' greatest flaw was not one of personality, but of idealism.
Towards the very end of her reign, Schala had come to the conclusion that the Kingdom of Magic had already reached its zenith and was already in a state of decline. Although she shared the sentiment with only a select few, her son was among the number who heard the Queen's true feelings.
Our Kingdom is great, indeed! In the time it took prehistoric man to discover the wheel, we have mastered the arcane sciences, defied the laws of nature, constructed architectural and mechanical wonders, and nearly called into submission time itself! Given our accomplishments, it strikes me as tragic that with all our knowledge my generation has made a fatal error. Having ascended to the peak of rationality, we have become enamoured with reason and forgotten that no matter how flawless it is, reason is useless unless applied! We spend all our time dreaming when we should be turning our dreams into reality. We have misused the highest function of humankind, that which distinguishes us from the animals!
Though he was too young to understand fully what his mother meant, young Darius took Schala's musing to heart. As he grew older, his disdain for those who ceased to further Zeal's knowledge turned into distrust for the prior generation. Darius soon came to realize that many others his age shared the same feelings of resentment and began to voice his dislike for those who merely "spent their days dreaming". Before long, he had become the face of a new generation of Zealians, one intensely concerned with progress and a coming "re-enlightenment".
Berenyi, on the other hand, cared little for the ideological debate between the two generations, for she was interested only in one subject; herself. Everything else was only important to her insofar as it made her appear more glorious. From the moment she understood what being of royal blood entailed, Berenyi had desired nothing more than to be crowned Queen of Zeal. In her eyes she was the very centre of the universe, a being deserving of worship, majestic beyond any comparison, the crown jewel resting upon the tiara of creation - and this was evident in every aspect of her behaviour. Unlike her brother, she made no attempt to conceal her imperfections; where Darius was compassionate and humble, Berenyi was stern and narcissistic. The only Zealians who earned her favour were those who spent extensive periods of time flattering her, for Berenyi's desire for adoration was unquenchable.
There were two obvious sources of Berenyi's pride. The first source was her incredible magical aptitude. While all Zealians possessed varying degrees of magical power through the use of the Sun Stone and dreamstones, a few were born with the power to naturally manipulate the elements to their liking. Berenyi was one of these people; a shadow innate, and one particularly gifted among the few to naturally possess the dark power. The second source was her peerless beauty. Berenyi was a notch taller than other women her age, slender, and had a figure to be envied. Her skin was a fairly pale colour, ideal by Zealian standards of beauty - a feature that made the dark shades of makeup she wore more striking. However, of all Berenyi's physical attributes, the one she held the most pride in was her ink-black coloured hair. It was not uncommon for Berenyi to have her maids spend hours styling it into some ornate fashion, though generally she let her hair swoop down in front of one of her eyes and fastened it up in the back with an exquisite hairdress.
Even though it was an unwieldy solution to the problem created by Janus' refusal to name an heir, Zeal managed to continue on without a King or Queen on the throne. All decisions that were previously presented to the monarch for their approval now had to be approved by both Darius and Berenyi before any action could be taken. For certain, Zeal had witnessed more bickering in the two years that the twins had watched over the kingdom than it had in all the years before combined.
Since Schala's death, the throne room had been sealed off to the public and had been reduced to a private lounge where Berenyi spent considerable amounts of time being immortalized by the most talented artists in all of Zeal. Had he wanted, Darius could have easily protested his sister's misuse of the royal chamber, but he found that the more he let Berenyi entertain her delusions of grandeur, the less she would interfere in issues important to the kingdom and the more likely she would be to simply comply with his wishes. Issues worthy of royal attention were now discussed in a room on the left wing of the palace often referred to as the Sagery.
In the early days of Queen Schala's reign, the room had been inhabited by the three Gurus. Those seeking advice were willing to wait hours in queue before finally having a chance to present the sages with their own dilemmas and concerns. After the three Gurus mysteriously vanished from Zeal, the room fell once more into disuse. Needing a private place to discuss matters with his advisors, Darius had the room furnished with a round table made of wood from the Parai trees, a family that grew only in the forest that surrounded the Elemental Palace on the Northeastern Continent. Due to the immense elemental energy nearby, vegetation on the Northeastern Continent grew unnaturally large. The wood of the Parai tree was known for its weight and durability, for even the finest weapons in Zeal had difficulty denting it. At first glance the Sagery appeared to be an open-air room, but upon closer examination, a translucent field of energy closed it off from the outside world. Darius had requested the table be constructed out of Parai wood, for it would absorb light during the day and at night give off a faint glow, illuminating the room so that another source of light was unnecessary.
As planned for the evening, Darius entered the Sagery to find his advisors waiting patiently for him. With the exception of one or two, his advisors were nearly the same age he was, some slightly older, others slightly younger. This was a dramatic change from the way advisors were chosen in the past. During the reigns of Schala and those before her, the position of royal advisor was largely passed on through bloodlines. Many Zealian youths had found this system displeasing, so in an effort to further gain the approval of the younger generation, Darius chose to surround himself with the best and brightest students Zeal had to offer. As he entered the room, his peers stood to their feet.
"Please, please. Be seated. There is no need for formalities in this meeting. I trust you all have had a pleasant evening so far?" Each of the advisors nodded as Darius took his seat.
"Excellent, then. Does anyone have anything they wish to bring up before we move on to business?" Darius met each of his aides in the eyes before moving on. "Very well, I will try to keep this brief. I was finally approached with the results from the study on the Sun Stone today. Although each of the research groups came to their own conclusion on the exact amount of energy the stone has left in it, they all agreed on one thing. Unless a way to quickly recharge the Sun Stone is found in the very near future, it will run out of power within thirty to fifty years."
An advisor piped up. "That's quite a large margin."
"Yes, as I noted there is a good deal of disagreement. I do not believe that seriously hurts our claim that something must be done to alleviate this problem, however. Now that we have some substantive research on the matter, naysayers will be hard-pressed to refute our argument."
"Since we have clearly demonstrated the need for a new source of power, how do we actually go about finding one?"
Darius gazed out into the mountains beyond the Sagery momentarily before recognizing the young man's question. "That, my friend, is our dilemma. And quite honestly, I have no idea where to begin. It has been suggested that we could keep Zeal afloat through the use of dreamstone, but I do not believe there is a sufficient amount available to generate that kind of power. " A moment of silence passed before Darius spoke again. "Any suggestions would be welcome."
One of the advisors, the youngest of the group, coughed before speaking up. "Lord Darius, I believe I may have a lead..."
"Please, go on."
"I was approached by a middle-aged man yesterday who asked if I could arrange a meeting with you. He said it had something to do with the Sun Stone. Originally I brushed him aside, for he seemed a little... well, you get the picture. When I checked up on him however, I found out that the man was actually a well-known scholar during Queen Schala's reign. Apparently he had been investigating some creature and believed it to be a source of near-infinite energy. Schala had him discontinue his research however, for she thought it was too dangerous."
"Interesting." Darius held his fist up to his chin. "Perhaps I should have a talk with this.... what did you say his name was again?"
"His name was Methuselah, Lord Darius."
"Hmm. Can't say I've ever heard of this man. It matters not, however. At the moment we seem to have little choice who it is we seek advice from. I wish to have a meeting arranged with this Methuselah at once."
Four days later, a meeting with Methuselah had been arranged. Much to Darius' dismay, the scholar had requested the presence of both him and Berenyi. Even though any decisions made based on the meeting would have to be approved by the both of them, Darius was hoping to first meet with Methuselah alone.
Having checked his sister's bedroom, Darius made his way to the throne room where several artists were busy at work attempting to placate the heiress. The decorum of the chamber had changed since she had made it her own, the most notable difference being the myriad of roses that were strewn about the room. Berenyi, whose favourite flower was the rose, had decided that the throne room was lacking proper ornamentation. Her solution was to have flowers grown near the Elemental Palace placed in the royal chamber. Like the Parai trees that grew nearby, much of the vegetation found on the Northeastern Continent possessed unusual properties beyond their increased size. One of these flowers, the Vinerosa, was a peculiar cross between a grapevine and a rosebush. Instead of rooting itself in soil, the Vinerosa simply fasted itself to whatever it found nearby and channeled magical energies into grapes that easily grew to the size of a fist. Now, rose blossoms as large as a human torso rested on the angelic wings surrounding the throne, their vines ensnaring the statues below and ultimately winding their way towards the columns that supported the ceiling as smaller rose blossoms and clusters of fruit sprouted every few feet. Darius often harassed his sister for turning Zeal's most exalted room into a greenhouse, but ultimately let the heiress have her way and saw to it that the flowers were taken care of.
Berenyi lay horizontally on the royal chair, deep in slumber, the train of her gown hanging over the side of the throne. Frustrated with his sister's indifference to the crisis at hand, Darius made his way forward trying to think precisely what jarring insults he wanted to throw her way. His concentration was disrupted when one of the artisans whispered his name a few feet before he reached the throne.
"Lord Darius! Please-!"
The heir raised an eyebrow and looked over at the painter who had called out to him. "Yes?"
"Her majesty asked to be left alone."
"Excuse me?" Darius clenched his fists in silent rage. Initially he wanted to grab the artist by the neck and toss him across the room, but he quickly realized that his anger lay not towards the artisan - who was merely following orders - but rather towards his comatose sister that currently lay in a dream world of her own.
The painter coughed. "I mean no disrespect, Lord Darius. Itâ€™s just that we were instructed to allow no one to harass the Lady. We are merely to observe her placid beauty and transpose it into artistic form."
Darius rolled his eyes and cut loose with his frequently used sarcastic tone. "What?! That's the most.... pretentious statement I've heard in months, and given the lips that uttered them, that's really something noteworthy!" The prince glared at his sister, hoping she would wake up due to the intensity of his gaze. Quickly realizing his efforts were futile, he reached aside for a lump of sculpting clay and threw it at Berenyi, arousing her from sleep. The artists strewn about the throne let out a collective gasp and took several steps back, some even retreating towards the room's pillars. Still groggy from her nap, Berenyi touched her cheek and snapped for one of her attendants to wipe away the mud. As she sat up, an aide quickly rushed up the stairs to the throne and cleaned her cheek with their own garment. Berenyi met her brother's gaze momentarily, then looked down at her nails and began tapping them against the side of the royal chair.
"From the fact that everyone else in the room is cowering, I assume it was you who disgraced my lovely visage a moment ago?"
"Save it for later, sister. It was indeed I who woke you and we have important business to conduct. Hurry up and dress yourself appropriately, for we must leave for Kajar shortly."
"I will wear whatever I please and take however long to prepare myself as I so desire." Berenyi slowly stood up and stretched, waiting a moment before motioning for one of her attendants to fetch her another robe, for she was wearing only a nightgown. "Perhaps you should warn me if you have something important to discuss. Next time I might just go back to sleep and leave you to work out your problems alone."
Darius mumbled. "You have no idea how helpful..."
"What did you say?"
"Nothing, sister. Just meet me in the courtyard once you're ready. And do make it quick, for we haven't much time to spare."
The walk to Kajar was uneventful until the twins entered the Commons. Had Darius gone alone the citizens would have bowed their heads upon seeing him and gone on with their business. However, Berenyi's presence required that everyone drop to the ground on their knees and wait in silence until she had passed. The two were making their way through the Kajar Commons without delay when a young girl, no older than the age of ten, dropped a small trinket onto the walkway on which they were passing. Fearing that her toy would be lost, the little girl dove out onto the carpet, bumping right into Berenyi, who was so preoccupied with making sure that everyone was on their knees that she had failed to pay attention to where she was walking. Mortified, the child sat on her behind looking up at the monarch she had just offended. After staring at the child momentarily, the heiress motioned for her to stand up while Darius coughed a few times in an effort to refocus his sister's attention to the task at hand. Berenyi then proceeded to bend over and examine the child. Noticing the trembling mother out of the corner of her eye, she finally spoke in a nonchalant manner.
"I take it this one is yours?"
"Yes! Please don't..." Berenyi glared at the mother, who quickly silenced herself. The Queen-in-waiting laughed and picked up the small toy, which happened to be a cream-coloured orb used to educate young children in the nature of the elements that composed the natural world. As one held it in their hand, the orb would flash and give off a colour of light associated with a particular element and a small essence of the corresponding element would appear. As Berenyi stated into the orb, it began to grow darker until the fire inside was devoured by a vortex of swirling shadow energy. Her attention being refocused on the young girl, the heiress smiled warmly and handed the orb back to the child. Berenyi spoke once more in a cheery tone.
"I would never think to harm such a pretty little girl..." Berenyi's expressions turned harsh as quickly as they had lightened. "... But I would have no qualms punishing her mother's failure to teach her proper manners." The princess paused for a moment as she were preparing to issue judgment upon the condemned. "Since I am such a graceful woman, however, I shall overlook this one incident. Make sure it does not happen again."
Berenyi turned to find her brother a good distance across the Commons. Quickly marching to his side, she began to rant but was overrun by Darius' own commentary.
"Do you think you could try a little harder to make a scene next time?"
"I had to make sure the child would be properly dealt with. We can't tolerate such... such... rudeness in our youth. Imagine what they would grow up to be like without good manners!"
Darius rolled his eyes. "Oh please, you enjoyed watching that poor woman cower at your feet."
Berenyi crossed her arms. "If you would demand the respect that was your birthright, I wouldn't have to command it for the both of us!"
"Well you just keep doing that. I'm sure the people of Zeal adore you for all the hard work you do to make sure our family name commands respect!"
"They do, thank you very much! I don't see people making sculptures of you!"
Berenyi's hands found their way towards the hips they frequently rested upon. "Oh really?"
The twins' argument continued to intensify, despite the crowd of people still kneeling around them. Soon enough, Darius noticed a man dressed in white approaching on the carpet prepared for them. The man, who was obviously a respected scholar as one could tell from his garb, stopped several feet away and dropped to his knees. Fortunately, Berenyi was still consumed with the argument to notice the 'offense'. Turning away from his sister, Darius approached the scholar.
"Are you Methuselah?"
The scholar nodded.
"Please, stand up. I am very sorry to keep you waiting. We... ran into some unexpected trouble." Darius rolled his eyes, for the trouble had not been in the least bit unexpected, at least on his part.
Berenyi marched over, furious that her brother had simply cast her aside to deal with the scientist. "Unexpected trouble indeed! And it seems as if everywhere I look..."
"Sister, this is not the time..."
"Not the time? Its never the time to resolve anything with you! You're always rushing about fixing one problem or another! If I had..."
Unable to take it any longer, Darius grabbed Berenyi by the arms with both his hands and shook her violently. "ENOUGH!" The prince struggled to find the words he wanted to say and after he noticed the crowd surrounding them, quickly regained his sanity and let his sister go. Shocked by her brother's sudden display of anger, Berenyi took a few steps back and crossed her arms once more, but remained absolutely silent. Darius extended his hand in the direction he assumed Methuselah's laboratory was located. "This way, correct?"
"Yes, follow me. I have much to tell you!"
"You'll have to pardon the mess. I have many things I keep stored here, but I have so little space to organize them." Having reached what appeared to be a dead end, the scholar reached for three books lying on a bookcase. Fumbling through the pages, Methuselah mumbled several phrases under his breath before setting them down. Upon being placed on the floor, the books flashed and each projected the image of a particular element just above where they lay. Suddenly, the wall next to the bookshelf began to rumble and it slowly moved aside to reveal another secret passage. Methuselah motioned towards the fissure.
"Please, follow me."
Darius and Berenyi looked at each other and followed the scholar down a flight of stairs into a very dark room in which the only illumination came from several pale blue crystals that lined the handrail on the staircase. Methuselah, who entered in front of them, had already disappeared into the darkness. Darius tried to make out his figure in the dark, but was unsuccessful. Just as he began to question the scholar as to why he kept it so ill-lit, Methuselah pressed a switch that activated several other similar blue lights throughout the room. Able to see once more, Darius and Berenyi's gaze became fixated on a large machine standing approximately eleven to twelve feet tall in the centre of the room. The machine was a smooth, metallic colour black, with odd curves so that it vaguely resembled a human figure.
Darius was the first to speak up. "And this is what you wanted to show us? This is the solution to our problems?"
Methuselah grinned. "In a roundabout way, yes. It is the solution to Zeal's problems. I present to you the result of three generations worth of work! Behold, the Mammon Machine!" The scholar stretched out his hand and the room's lights turned red as the machine slowly began to come to life, pulsating a foreign energy throughout the chamber. In a matter of seconds, Berenyi collapsed to the floor, breathing in and out heavily. Darius turned to the young woman, the concerned look on his face betraying the calm manner in which he spoke.
"Sister, what is the matter?"
Berenyi extended her hand as Darius helped her back to her feet. "I feel as if my lungs were filled with to much air and as if my heart tried to pump too much blood. I feel terribly dizzy, to be honest." The heiress reached back for the stair guardrail and leaned against it. "What is this horrid machine doing, anyway?"
"I suspected some might initially respond to the Mammon Machine this way. I am truly sorry, Lady Berenyi. To answer your question, allow me to ask you a question. Are you familiar with the creature known as Lavos?"
"Not particularly. I seem to remember the name from various myths and legends, but I cannot recall anything of note."
Methuselah glanced at Darius. "And you, my Lord?"
"I am afraid I am no more knowledgeable than my sister."
"Very well, then. Allow me to give you a brief history lesson, one now indisputable with the completion of the Mammon Machine. Eons upon eons ago, before mankind could comprehend the power of magic, a meteorite crashed into the planet, supposedly wiping out a sentient race of reptiles." Methuselah paused. "I suppose every story passed on solely by word of mouth must have its embellishments, for a race of intelligent lizards does sound particularly laughable. Anyhow, those who witnessed the crash called it "Lavos", an archaic word meaning "big fire". However, there was a group of hunters nearby the location when the meteorite fell who quickly made their way to the crash site. What they claimed to have found was much more than a mere crater. When the hunters returned to their village, they claimed to have not only found a gigantic hole in the ground, but another hole within the crater covered by fresh earth. The hunters also claimed to have heard strange burrowing noises coming from underground. Their conclusion was obvious; what had fallen was not a rock from the heavens, but rather a living creature."
Darius nodded. "This sounds vaguely familiar so far. Eventually the hunters convinced the other villagers to investigate the crater for themselves, correct?"
"Yes, you are correct. When the second group arrived at the crash site, they found or heard nothing of the sort and ostracized the dumbfounded hunters for their foolery. However, the hunters knew what they had seen and heard and continued to assert the claim that deep within the planet, some strange creature had made its home. Soon after the Lavos incident, the weather changed and the world became colder and colder. An ice age set in, and eventually humanity was forced underground. I believe at this point, I need not bore you any further with a history lesson. Man continued to evolve, the arcane properties of dreamstone and the Sun Stone were discovered, and the Kingdom of Zeal was born." Methuselah paused once more. "However for as long as we can remember, my family has always remained focused on one subject and one subject alone..."
Berenyi cut Methuselah off. "Please, spare me the theatrics and get to the point. I have other important matters to attend to and this machine of yours is making me nauseous."
The scholar nodded. "Of course, my Lady. This machine taps directly into Lavos and withdraws its energy, which, is the very reason you feel sick. The power of Lavos is far more intense than anything we ever witnessed before. It would take millions of Sun Stones to match the energy Lavos seems to possess."
Darius rubbed his chin as if he were thinking. "To clarify, this Lavos fell from the sky in ages past and it just happens to possess immense energy that you believe can be put to use through this machine?"
"Well, I do not believe Lavos originally contained all of the power it does now. From my research, it appears that it somehow focuses the planet's natural energies into itself."
"Acting as an enormous reservoir for the planet's energy rather than generating its own... incredible." Darius turned to his sister. "What do you have say about this, Berenyi? Even if you reject my claims that the Sun Stone will soon run out of power, surely you recognize the potential in utilizing Lavos' energy, do you not?"
Berenyi moaned. "Ugh, I feel terrible. At the moment I care not what this machine can do."
"Perhaps a demonstration will change your mind?"
The heiress' face turned milky white, even more pale than normal. "Absolutely not. Darius, I need to return to the Palace, now." Darius sighed and looked back at his sister, who was sitting on the steps, her face covered by her hands. Turning back to the scholar, the prince sighed.
"I'm sorry, Methuselah. I really am quite fascinated in what you have to say, but it seems that my sister is not faring too well. I will escort her back to the Palace, but it would be a travesty if this were to be our only meeting. Will you be available later this evening? I would be interested in hearing your research on Lavos and seeing a demonstration of what you believe this Mammon Machine to be capable of."
"Of course, and once more, I am very sorry Lady Berenyi does not seem to be reacting well to the Mammon Machine. Given time I think she would become used to its energies, but for now..."
Her slumber disturbed by a terrible nightmare, Berenyi awoke in a cold sweat and instantly sat up in her bed, breathing in heavily like there were only a few breaths of oxygen left before the world's supply ran out. Terrified for reasons beyond the comprehension of her clouded mind, she began to panic for she could see nothing around her, as if she had been cast into the void or abandoned in a field at night where the stars failed to shine. In the distance, she could hear someone calling her name, a voice that with each pursuing call seemed to be drawing nearer and nearer. Fearing for her life, Berenyi closed her eyes, grabbed her bedsheets, and dove out into the direction from which the utterances seemed to be coming. After flinging herself aimlessly through the air for what seemed like an eternity, she felt a strange, cold pain run through her body and a warm grasp on her shoulders.
"Berenyi! Berenyi, my dear! Are you alright? What happened?!"
The heiress quickly regained her sanity as she realized she was now laying on the marble floor of her bedroom. The pace of her breathing returned to normal as she rolled onto her side and looked into the eyes of Parmalay, her childhood governess and closest personal attendant. Parmalay had been her one of Schala's aides and had been assigned the task of tutoring and mentoring Berenyi. In fact, much of Berenyi's personality and mannerisms came not from her mother, but rather the maid who had raised her. Parmalay, much like the young heiress, was a vainglorious woman who, while she did not quite claim to ascend to the heights Berenyi did, clearly had a superiority complex of her own and somehow had to find it within her tiny heart to tolerate the presence of the common Zealian. She was also gifted with the same two gifts the princess was - arcane aptitude and striking beauty - gifts that had not waned despite her age.
"I'm fine now. I just... just... well, I'm not sure what came over me."
"There, there, my dear. Let's get you back into bed." With one hand in Berenyi's and the other on the heiress' back, Parmalay guided the young woman back into her resting place. Once her pupil was back undercover, the maid opened up the surrounding bedcurtains.
"No, no.... please keep those shut. This light is giving me a headache."
"Terribly sorry, my dear." Parmalay quickly closed the curtains she had pushed aside moments before. Sitting down on the bed next to where Berenyi lay, the maid took the heiress hand into her own once more and stroked it consolingly. "Is the anything I can bring you to make you more comfortable?"
"No, I'm fine."
"Are you certain? Anything at all? A glass of wine or perhaps something to eat?"
"Come to think of it, my brother's ashes in a vase would be wonderful. I suppose a glass of wine will suffice in the meantime.
Parmalay smiled, for though she could not make out Berenyi's face in the dark, she knew that the princess was not in the slightest bit insincere. "You know that I'm saving that for your present on your twenty-fifth birthday. As much pleasure as it would bring me, I simply couldn't give that gift to you any earlier. What greater could I possibly bestow upon you for your coming of age?"
Berenyi smiled back, for she knew that her maid was not insincere in the slightest either. Moments later, Parmalay returned with a glass of wine and opened the bedcurtains just enough to let a tiny slither of light in. Berenyi sat back up in her bed and took several sips of the fermented juice, then handed it back to her maid and threw her arms back against the silken sea of pillows she was laying against. "So this is what its like to be sick?"
"Apparently so. Can't say I've ever had to endure the sort of misery you've had to endure the past two days."
Berenyi stared wide-eyed at her maid. "Two days? Have I been asleep the entire time?"
"In and out of sleep, mostly. You certainly were not sleeping very peacefully, either. You were tossing and turning, throwing cushions about, and even uttering some very strange things."
"Things best not repeated right now. You're stressed enough as is. Perhaps once you've made a full recovery, I'll tell you - if I haven't forgotten them myself by then." Parmalay smirked. "You know how my memory is these days."
"Selective as ever..."
"Indeed. We must have tried every remedy spell held in the annals of Zeal, but nothing seemed to work at all. Do you have any idea where this strange sickness came from?"
Berenyi rolled her eyes and spoke in a sarcastic manner. "Take a guess."
Parmalay immediately knew the answer from the heiress' tone and playfully responded in suit. "Let's see. It couldn't be your oh-so-helpful brother who neglected to mention his part in all of this, could it?"
"Oh never! Why if he had, Darius would be at my right hand, making sure that all my needs were taken care of!" Berenyi extended her right hand, palm up, to where her brother would have been standing and then quickly grabbed a pillow with the other and tossed it in his direction. The two women laughed at their wit momentarily before a knock came at the door. Without waiting for a response, Darius immediately entered the room.
"Sister, are you awake?"
Parmalay stepped out from behind the bedcurtain and glared at the young prince. "Berenyi dear, you wouldn't believe who just decided to bore us with his presence! Do you wish to speak to your wretched brother now or would you rather him come back at another time?"
"It depends what he's here for. If Darius plans to apologize, than I suppose I could find it in my heart to tolerate his voice for a few minutes."
The maid gave Darius a quizzical look. "Well?"
"I'm here for several reasons, one of which... is an apology." Darius stepped forward and attempted to pull back the curtain that surrounded Berenyi's bed, but was quickly stopped by Parmalay's firm grasp on his left wrist. Acting like a mother bear defending her newborn cubs, the maid tossed his arm back and stared deep into Darius' eyes. The heir took several steps back from the bed, for he had always been intimidated by his sister's keeper. Having decided she had made her point clear, Parmalay drew the bedcurtain, revealing Berenyi, who was lying on her right side and for the moment, refusing to look her brother in the face.
"Well, let's hear it." The heiress spoke, her voice muffled due to her position.
"As I was about to say a moment ago..." Darius avoided Parmalay's glare, though he knew the maid's gaze would soon burn a hole in his uniform. "... I am truly sorry I had to continue on without you. I know you must have your reservations about this Mammon Machine after the incident several days ago, but you must believe me when I say that this matter is gravely important to us all. If you feel that you need to meet with Methuselah and have him explain in greater detail its workings, I will be more than happy to arrange another meeting with him, but if my word is eno-"
Berenyi quickly rolled over with a frustrated look on her face. "So do you plan on making an apology or not? I've got better things to do than to listen to your obnoxious voice."
"My voice is hardly obnoxious, sister - and if you were paying attention, I did make an apology."
"You call that an apology?!"
"Darius shrugged his shoulders. "I said sorry. What more do you want me to do? Will a jig satisfy you?"
Berenyi seized a pillow and threw it at the prince, who easily caught it and tossed it back onto his sister's bed.
"You didn't even mention the fact I spent the past couple of days in bed! You didn't express any remorse for the fact that because of you, I've had to suffer from a terrible sickness that probably would have killed off a lesser woman than I! The only bit of sympathy you can express concerns a stupid meeting and a worthless machine you're going to use to keep me holed up here in my bed for the rest of my life so you can run the kingdom as you please! I see precisely what you're trying to pull here and I refuse to stand for it!"
Darius slapped himself in the face. "Sister, this has nothing to do with a plot to do away with you. Will you stop thinking about yourself for five minutes to realize that the very kingdom we preside over is about to fall into ruin?"
Berenyi calmed down and responded flatly, obviously attempting to conceal her frustration. "Darius, there is no crisis. The Sun Stone will not run out of energy in our lifetime or the lifetimes of our children. Get that through your dense skull already."
"Fine, let's say for a minute that you're right and that there is no crisis. Don't you think it would be foolish not to explore the possibilities of a new source of power that could potentially grant each and every Zealian immortality? Wouldn't you rather be Queen for a thousand years than for fifty?"
"If this makes you immortal too, I'm never going to become Queen."
Darius threw his hands into the air and quickly paced about the room before coming to a stop once more.
"Listen sister, I need your consent here more than I ever have before. Without the necessary funding, the Mammon Project cannot be completed."
"I thought that strange man said it was complete?"
"The machine itself is, but there is more to the project than the Mammon Machine. To maximize efficiency and to achieve the highest levels of energy transfer, it must be placed as close to Lavos as possible."
Berenyi lay in silence for several minutes, staring off into space. After giving what he considered ample time to formulate a response, Darius pushed for an answer. "Well?"
"I don't like it."
"You don't like what?"
"Everything; Methuselah, this Mammon Machine, and Lavos - especially Lavos. No one seems to know anything about it other than that it was believed to have fallen from the sky some sixty-five million years ago. Don't you think its just a little dangerous to go harassing some creature you know close to nothing of?"
"Sister, Lavos has shown no signs of activity for eons. If it was here to do something, it would have done it by now."
"Perhaps that's because its been left alone all this time. Remember when mother took us to that disgusting mound of filth the lesser ones live in?"
"You mean Algetty?"
Berenyi motioned her hand flippantly. "Whatever you want to call it. The trip was awful and I don't remember much of anything about it other than that, but one particular moment stands out to this day in my mind. We were walking around when I felt as if something had bit me. When I looked down at my arm, I noticed a small insect resting upon it, slowly having its fill of my blood. For a moment, I was stunned, but quickly I became outraged! Imagine such a small, insignificant creature having the gall to feed itself - to leech upon the life of such a magnificent being like me! I couldn't believe my very eyes! I quickly plucked out the insect by its wings from my arm and was about to squash it when it occurred to me that perhaps one of this tiny insect's kin might be watching. It was then that I realized that to simply crush the wretched creature would not be enough; I had to make an example of it for others observing its fate! With a smile on my face and a hint of laughter on my lips, I lit the tiny insect aflame and scattered its ashes about me! Rest assured that its filthy brothers left me alone!"
Darius rolled his eyes. "A tragic tale. I suppose you want me to make the connection between the fly and what will happen to us if we use the power of Lavos for our own ends?"
"If I were as powerful as you say this Lavos is, I would destroy you in a show so spectacular, the entire universe would stare in awe! Of course that's what I meant to insinuate!'
"Well, fortunately few creatures are as ludicrously vain as you are, sister - and there's nothing to suggest that Lavos will erupt from the ground and rain destruction upon us all. Your fears are entirely unfounded! You're merely afraid that when Lavos' power is made evident, Zeal will hold it in higher regard than yourself! You are green with envy and that's all there is to it!"
Berenyi rolled back onto her other side as she motioned to her keeper. "Parmalay, show my brother the door. His rambling is giving me a headache."
The maid nodded and smiled as she turned to Darius. "You heard your sister. Would you care for me to escort you out of the room or can you leave yourself?"
Darius sighed. "Sister, be reasonable! There's more to this than-"
"Parmalay, please rid me of him! I shall scream if I have to put up with that obnoxious tone of his a second more!"
The maid grabbed the heir by the arm with surprising force, yet as she did so, Darius jerked away and took several steps back. "I'll show myself the door, thank you very much." Darius marched out of the room, stopping at the entrance to look back at his sister once more, but was only met by the solemn stare of her indifferent backside. The prince slammed the doors behind him and stomped off back to the Sagery, shoving to the ground everyone who got in his way.
Two of Darius' aides stood outside the entrance to the Sagery, encircled by a crowd of disturbed Zealians who witnessed the prince's behaviour. Although the palace's main hall was vibrant with routine noise, the onlooking crowd was silent, save for the occasional whispering between the confused citizens. Trying to decide what to do, the two aides stood close together and spoke in hushed tones.
"Well, do you think he's had enough time to cool down?"
"Nearly fifteen minutes have passed since Lord Darius entered the Sagery. I think it should be safe to enter now..."
"One of us should address the crowd - try and calm them down, you know."
"That's probably a good idea. You go speak with the prince, I'll stay out here and manage the crowd."
"H-Hey! I don't want to go in there anymore than you do. W-Why don't you go in there?" The younger aide's tone had a hint of terror to it, for he was afraid to enter the room, and for good reason. Darius was not a man to be trifled with when he was angry.
The two aides stood in silence momentarily, inspecting the crowd around them. Realizing that nothing would get done at the current rate, the elder aide finally ended the debate. "Fine, I'll go speak to Lord Darius. Deal with these people appropriately."
"Understood." The two advisors turned their backs to each other and began to execute the plan. As the elder aide entered the Sagery, the younger began to address the crowd.
"Excuse me! Citizens of Zeal! Please, understand..." The elder advisor heard no more as he quickly entered the room and shut the door behind him. Sitting at the table across the room was the prince, who currently sat with his arms crossed on the table and his head laid upon them. Two chairs and several books were strewn about the Sagery's floor, evidence that Darius had already vented some of his frustration. As the approached the resting heir, he kneeled down to collect a few of the tomes and placed them back on the shelf where the heir had pulled them from moments earlier. Although he had noticed the aide's presence when he first entered the room, Darius finally sat up and acknowledged the still timid advisor.
"I take it I disturbed my fair share of people today?"
"A few seemed curious as to why you stormed through the palace, but for the most part the citizens have gone about their business. They should be dispersed by the time you decide to return to quarters or wherever it is you plan on going next."
Darius nodded. "I see. I will apologize for my behaviour shortly. It was wrong of me to act in such a manner to those who had no connection to the source of my anger. Please see to it that anyone I harmed be gathered for a compensational dinner in the near future."
"Certainly, my Lord. Am I correct in assuming your sister has something to do with your frustration?"
With a fierce growl, Darius slammed his fist against the table, an action that one would have rightly assumed he had done much of in the past few minutes, for his knuckles were bleeding slightly. Quickly regathering his composure, the prince responded.
"Yes, you are correct in your assumption. Once again, Berenyi has succeeded in making a nuisance of herself, but this time may prove to be the last."
"And why is that, my Lord?"
"Because she is refusing to cooperate with me concerning my meeting with Methuselah. She is turning her back on the Mammon Machine and damning us all by doing so."
The aide now understood precisely why the heir was so furious. A brief silence ensued before the advisor spoke his mind. "Why don't you simply go behind her back and continue with the project? What's the worst that could happen?"
"I would be charged with treason."
The aide was shocked. "Treason?! Why... that doesn't make any sense! You're trying to save Zeal, not betray it!"
"Indeed, but when my sister and I were named joint rulers of the kingdom, the Coronation Council decreed that all decisions worthy of royal attention had to be agreed upon. To act without the consent of the other heir is to act against the throne itself. Once Berenyi found out what I did, she would bring it before the appropriate council and would inevitably be crowned Queen. Most likely, I would be executed, the Mammon Machine destroyed, and all would be for naught."
The aide was momentarily silent once more. "If there is no way of acting without her approval, is there any way you can negotiate with her? Is there something your sister desires that you could trade for her acquiescence?"
Darius shook his head. "Her desires are typically not of the nature that would require mutual approval. Berenyi takes delight in the accumulation of trinkets and senseless luxuries. There is nothing I could give her that she could not acquire herself. Furthermore, after the sickness she endured the past few days, I suspect that she would refuse to cooperate regardless what I offered her just so that she could get even."
".... Then it would seem we are at an impasse."
Darius stood up and turned to gaze out upon the scenery behind him. "Hence my anger. I can think of no way to continue with the Mammon Project and save Zeal...." The prince paused for several minutes, something obviously still on the tip of his tongue. The aide attempted to force the tidbit out.
"You can think of no way...?"
"... If my sister cannot be sidestepped or dealt with, the only alternative that remains would be to remove her from the equation."
The advisor's eyes shot wide open, his eyebrows crawling halfway up his forehead. Shocked to hear such a statement, he turned to look behind him and peered around the room, making sure that no one else was present. Thoughts raced through his mind - the terror that perhaps this was a setup by his liege to test his loyalty to the family. After finally deciding to inquire further into the matter, the aide took several steps toward the prince and quietly resumed the conversation.
"Lord Darius, you aren't suggesting..."
"Indeed. I am suggesting that we have my sister.... killed." Darius quickly followed up his affirmation. "But not out of my anger, but for the good of Zeal."
The advisor nodded his head as Darius continued on.
"I will not pretend that this is an entirely novel idea. I have considered this many a time before, but in times past I have always come to the conclusion that it was my own frustration driving me, and not the desire to see the best for Zeal. But now... if we do not take action, there will be no Zeal to see the best for. I would take some pleasure in seeing my sister dead, but I know that any joy I took from it would quickly be swallowed whole by remorse... I would be miserable for the rest of my days, but what are two lives worth in comparison to an entire kingdom! I believe it is a sacrifice I must consider."
"If such an attempt was made, how would you go about doing it? Your sister's extraordinary talents in the mystic arts are well known. Finding someone who could overcome her, or someone willing to try might be difficult."
Darius laughed. "Let me share with you a little-known secret about my sister. Berenyi does possess considerable talent, but what no one realizes is that due to her apathy and her keeper's constant pampering, her arcane endowments have deteriorated to the point where she poses no more a threat than your common citizen - itâ€™s quite laughable, really. To be certain, if she began practicing once more, she would command the extraordinary powers everyone believes she does now very quickly - but what motivation does Berenyi have to actually do something worthwhile?"
"So then having her killed would not be a problem?"
"On the contrary! Even someone with minimal mystic talents can prove to be more dangerous than logic might dictate. If we are to go about such an endevour, we must make sure it does not fail, and not only that - we must make sure that no sign of a struggle can be found, no evidence of who committed the terrible act must be left behind. An assassination attempt leaves too much behind for the wary eye."
The aide scratched the back of his neck. "Then how do you suggest we kill her?"
Darius turned back to his advisor and gazed upon the scenery outside the room. The unbearably loud silence rang for nearly ten minutes before the prince's voice quieted the dead air. "I would prefer to have as little involvement in the matter as possible. Having my sister's blood on my hands is one thing, but being the one to draw it is another. I could not bear to kill another of my mother's seed, no matter how much I hated them. I do not want Berenyi to be murdered. She will die of natural causes.... we will merely expedite the process."
"And your plan is...?"
"I will have her put to sleep, perhaps at a dinner. While she is comatose, her body will be left on the Earthbound Continent where she will most likely freeze to death. An investigation into her disappearance will be commissioned and the skyways shut down as an attempt to keep out any further abductors from below, whom the crime will be blamed upon.â€?
"Sounds like a solid plan. When shall we carry it out?"
Darius turned back to his advisor. "Say nothing of this to anyone for the time being. I am still not certain I wish to undertake this course of action. Give me three days to contemplate my motives and make certain that this is truly what I feel mother would want me to do... I will contact you then with my decision."
The aide bowed his head. "Very well, Lord Darius. Please, for the good of Zeal..."
"Speak no further, my friend. Leave me be." The advisor quickly excused himself from the Sagery, leaving Darius with his thoughts. The young prince sighed to himself as he removed a pendant from his neck and opened it up, revealing a tiny portrait of his mother, the former Queen Schala.
After staring up at the curtains that were draped about her bed for what seemed like hours, Berenyi rolled onto her side to see Parmalay enter the room with the selection of cheeses she had requested nearly fifteen minutes earlier.
"How very unlike you to take your sweet time on an errand."
"Forgive me, my dear. Your brother noticed me and inquired about your health."
"Oh really? That was awfully kind of him." The sarcasm oozing out of Berenyi's voice was practically tangible.
Parmalay made her way to the heiress' bedside and laid down the tray of cheese on a nightstand. "I would join you in your mockery of the young fool, but this time he actually seemed quite sincere. He even extended an invitation to dinner for the both of us this evening."
"Now that's peculiar. Evening dinners are all but sacred to Darius. The palace could be on fire and he would refuse to do anything about it until he had finished his meal. He can't possibly think that a conversation between the two of us would be peaceful enough for mealtime chatter."
"I found it curious as well. Perhaps he really does want to make up to you the sickness he feels responsible for."
"Then you will accept his offer, correct?"
Berenyi sighed and spaced out while staring at the curtains once more.
"I don't know. I don't feel up to dealing with him right now."
Parmalay rolled her eyes. "You don't feel up to doing anything because you've done nothing but lay in bed ever since this terrible malady came over you! If you were to make an effort to be active, I'm sure you would find the energy to remind your brother what an incompetent buffoon he is!"
Berenyi crossed her arms and gave the maid a very indignant glare. "Fine, fine. I'll join him for dinner. But you have to promise me that you will spend the rest of the day preparing me for the misery I'm about to endure!"
"The rest of the day? Its only noon right now!'
"If I'm going to be out in public and seen by my subjects, I want to appear even more striking than usual! There must be nothing said of me looking terrible after this bit of misfortune!"
Parmalay laughed. "Then you have to promise me you'll let me dress you however I see fit!"
"As long as doesn't involve a particularly odious shade of green..."
"Then we have a deal?"
Berenyi and Parmalay stared deep into each others' eyes, both trying to repress laughter while firmly grasping the other's hand. Satisfied, the elder woman sat down at the foot of the bed and moved straight along onto another subject, one she had obviously been curious about for some time.
"Very well. Now why don't you tell me what's been bothering you the past several days."
Berenyi's playful stare quickly grew harsh. "Excuse me?! Did you just miss the part about me being unwell? Perhaps some of my brother's insensitivity has worked its way into your system!"
"How dare you accuse me of such a thing!"
"Then you'd better explain yourself quickly!"
Parmalay frowned, prompting Berenyi to apologize. "Oh, please forgive me! I fear I've been a little too short tempered recently. Do go on."
"I know you haven't been physically well and I realize that also affects your mental health, but I fear that there is something else that has come over you recently. Ever since you and your brother went to Kajar to meet that Methuselah fellow, you haven't quite been yourself. You've got a look on your face I've never seen before. You seem as if you're mired deep in despair."
Berenyi stared off into the distance with the same despairing look the governess had just described. "There! You're doing it now! Berenyi, you know I have never kept a secret from you..."
"Yes, yes... I know. Trust me dear Parmalay, if I knew how to describe why I feel so down, I would. Unfortunately proper words escape me... just..."
The maid sighed deeply. "There, there, don't worry about it now. I'm sorry I upset you. Now come on, let's get you ready for this evening. We have a kingdom to impress, do we not?"
Darius stood outside the palaceâ€™s dining hall, waiting for his sister to arrive. If the prince had his way, he and his advisors would already be inside waiting for the meal to be served; however, his sister was a strict observer of social customs and would have been mortified had she found him eating when she arrived. For the time being, Darius stood in front of the double doors that led to the dining room and his aides stood against the walls facing each other in two single file lines. As one with full knowledge of the scenario that would shortly be played out would expect, there was an unnatural tensity in the air of the room. The prince had decided to go about with his plan to have Berenyi killed and instructed his aides precisely what he wanted done. Once the meal was underway, his sister and her maid would be given glasses of wine that were to be filled with an tasteless, odorless toxin that could easily put the largest of men to sleep in a under a minute. Once the two women were comatose, the advisors would quickly take them to the palace's secret skyway to the Earthbound Continent where they would leave the sleeping ladies and quickly seal off all the passages back to Zeal. If all went as planned, no one would be the wiser when the prince claimed the next day that Berenyi and her handmaid had been kidnapped by disgruntled citizens of the world below.
Although there was still time to call off the plan, Darius already felt remorse for the actions he would momentarily commit. Over and over, he attempted to convince himself that he was indeed acting on behalf of Zeal, but he could not silence the voices in his head that told him he was merely acting on his own selfish desires.
No turning back now.... no turning back now... what's done is done.
Don't lie to yourself. You want her dead!
No! This is for the good of the kingdom! Sometimes sacrifices must be made!
And where does that wretched maid fit in? Why should she die?
I... she mustn't be allowed to inquire into Berenyi's whereabouts! She will... and she must be silenced! If she found out...
What if she found out? Would you silence her then? What if someone else found out? Would you silence them too? Where does this path end?!
No! No one will ever find out! There is no need to consider what must be done otherwise... this begins and ends tonight!
Ha! You fool yourself. This began long ago and will end the day you die!
No.. no, that's not true! If she hadn't...
To Darius' credit, the only signs of the battle within his mind were the occasional drops of sweat that ran down his brow, and those could easily be explained as being a product of the heavy uniform he was wearing. Knowing that his sister would come dressed to the nines and remaining competitive to the end, Darius ordered one of his attendants to find an old uniform worm by the military officers of Zeal. Although the need for armed soldiers had ended once the Zealian Continents had been raised to the sky, palace guards and a royal escort still remained on the offchance that disaster struck. The attendant had been successful in his task, and now Darius stood in front of his peers in the full uniform of what the highest Generals of Zeal once wore. The uniform consisted of three pieces of clothing; an orange-coloured shirt with golden buttons running down the centre, an orange cape with gold-coloured trim, and a black pair of pants with golden studs running down the outsides of the legs. All three articles were devoid of any wrinkles and had been washed and inspected by several parties to ensure that even the most discerning eyes could find no blemishes. All Darius lacked that a General would have worn was a sword and hilt at his side, for the prince did not wish to have in his possession an instrument of death to remind him of the deeds he shortly undertake.
Ten minutes behind schedule, the two women finally entered the room in which Darius and his aides were waiting. Although the men lining the room tried to continue looking into the eyes of their counterpart across the hall, each of them could not help but to stare at Berenyi as she passed by. At any other time, she would have swelled with pride at the attention she was receiving, but at the moment Berenyi was concerned with one person and one person only's reaction, and he was standing in front of the door to the dining hall. After all of both siblings' preparations, the two now stood face to face.
Seeing that he was clearly outclassed, Darius avoided the subject he knew Berenyi wanted to dwell on. "Good evening, sister. I hope you're come ready for a good meal, for I have requested the finest chef in the entire kingdom to prepare for us a culinary treat this evening! Now, why don't we enter the dining room and make ourselves comfortable?" Darius motioned for two of his aides to open the doors behind him, but his sister quickly objected.
"Excuse me?!" Berenyi bowed her arms upon her hips and turned to her governess with a frustrated expression on her face. "See, I told you cutting my hair was a terrible idea! I didn't get any reaction whatsoever from him!"
Parmalay sighed and pointed at Darius, but spoke as if he was not in the room. "Itâ€™s your brother we're talking about! He can't dress himself properly without someone to tell him what matches and what doesn't! He wouldn't know fashionable if fashionable hit him square in the face!"
Darius began to defend himself, but held his tongue and smiled as the two women squabbled. From their argument, he gathered that Berenyi had allowed Parmalay to cut her hair and was not thrilled with the results. For the first time in recent memory, Berenyi's ivory neck was exposed to the sunlight and contrasted sharply with her inky hair, which now hovered several inches above her shoulders. Darius allowed the two prima donnas to finish their debate before throwing them a curveball and finally making his own opinion known.
"Well, I find it quite striking."
"Striking...?" Berenyi turned to her brother and smiled. Out of the corner of her eyes, she stared back at her maid. "See, I told you cutting my hair was a fabulous idea! Even my brother can realize how marvelous it is!"
"But you just complained a moment ago that..." The governess objected, but was quickly cut off. Berenyi's interest was now vested entirely in her brother, who was more than willing to stroke her ego one last time.
"Tell me, don't I look even more beautiful than normal today? And what do you think of my dress? Isn't it simply amazing? I chose it myself! Luckily I decided to go with my own creative tastes this evening. Parmalay wanted me to wear this horrid green dress... believe me, it just wasn't up to par for such an occasion as this!" Berenyi ran her hands down the side of her gown and then held her left hand up in a statuesque pose while her right hand remained firmly on her hip.
Darius fought back the laughter and tried to sound interested in something he cared nothing about. "Its wonderful! The colours match each other nicely!"
At this point, Parmalay had caught on to Darius' game and was now giving the prince what in any other circumstance would have been a terrifying stare, but at the moment Darius was too amused with himself to care. Berenyi had failed to grasp the true intent behind his flattery and was now sashaying about the room, her robes catching air as she spiraled about. Like her brother, the heiress' outfit consisted of three main pieces, three robes worn over each other. The innermost, a tight-fitting white lace gown that extended midway down her legs and was split on one side, was covered by another black gown that had rose flower designs strewn about it. Although both articles of clothing were exquisitely woven, neither could rival the delicacy of the outermost robe. The most visible of the three was a scarlet coloured dress that was drawn in with a gold sash before splitting out from the waist in three separate directions down the heiress' backside, the two outside sections being the same scarlet colour and the middle golden to match the sash. Furthermore, black trim ran around the edges of the gown on which tiny shards of dreamstone had been woven into. To match this gown, Berenyi had also adorned herself in gold jewelry easily worth more than the entire material possessions of the Earthbound society and applied a generous amount of matching scarlet-hued eyeshadow, lipstick, and nail polish. On any other occasion, Darius would have ridiculed his sister for her excessive display of vanity, but now Berenyi's self-indulgence simply confirmed to him that the task at hand needed to be seen to fruition.
Having temporarily satiated his sister's pride, Darius led the dinner party inside the hall as several butlers scurried about the room applying finishing touches, such as making sure that each guest had appropriate eating utensils and that each attendees' favourite wine was waiting for them. The heir and heiress took their places at the ends of the table and each laid down on a mound of cushions while their attendants filled in the space between and sat down on single pillows, with the exception of Parmalay, whom Berenyi insisted was worthy of the comforts generally reserved for royalty.
Much to Darius' surprise, the evening went on without any of the typical problems that arose whenever he shared the same space as his sister. The meal was served and enjoyed without complaint and the desert savored by all. The conversation was relaxed and included everyone, unlike the usual conversations in which Berenyi simply discussed what she wanted to whomever she desired for however long she pleased. The relatively light-hearted atmosphere made it considerably easier for Darius and his company to conceal the trap that was now about to be sprung, for after all the food had been served, there was only one more item that was worthy of the attention of the princess and her governess.
"Well sister, I trust you have enjoyed our time together this evening? I take it the meal was much to your liking."
"Yes, yes! I must say however, I believe the stuffed mushrooms were by far my favourite part. What kind of meat did you say they contained again?"
"Crab, taken from the icy waters of the world below, actually."
Berenyi peered down at her plate with a slightly puzzled look on her face. "Perhaps something good does come from the Earthbound Continent after all! Although, I guess since it came from the ocean that doesn't really count, does it? Surely those unenlightened rabble couldn't have figured out how to prepare such a delicacy as this, even though all the necessary ingredients were right in front of them... except intelligence, that is!"
Everyone at the table smiled in confirmation, save Darius who had turned to motion to a butler behind him.
"Berenyi, please. I have something here I would like you to sample. In fact, I would like Parmalay to sample it as well, if she might. While searching for ingredients for our meal tonight, the chef was peering through the palace cellar when he stumbled upon a bottle of wine that was unlabeled. Curious, he uncorked the bottle and tasted it, only to be entirely baffled as to what year the wine was sealed or even where it was harvested from." As the prince relayed his story, the butler brought to the table two empty wineglasses and the nearly full bottle of the unidentified substance. "I also have sampled the bottle but I too am at a loss as to its identity. Being the connoisseurs of all things refined you ladies are, I figured you might be able to help us identify this wine, for it is undoubtedly some of the best ever to grace my lips and I most know where it came from!"
The two women smiled, both giving themselves a mental pat on the back for being the authorities referred to. "Well, of course Iâ€™d be happy to sample this wine of yours, brother! I'm surprised you didn't say anything earlier. If this is as good as you claim, I would have liked to enjoy it with my meal, regardless of whether I knew its name or not!"
Her chalice now full of the azure coloured drink, Berenyi lifted her glass for a toast and gestured for everyone else to follow suit. "Everyone insists upon toasting to Zeal and that her glory should endure for all time. Personally, I find this dull and rather pointless. Our kingdom's glory will never fade, so why bother toasting to that which has already been determined? Instead, I suggest we toast to something different."
The prince rubbed his chin with one hand, his glass in the other. "Reasonable enough. What shall we toast to, sister?"
Berenyi locked eyes with Darius and smiled. "To us, my dear brother! May immortality find its way into our souls so that we may share in the glory that Zeal has already procured!"
Before Darius had the chance to bask in the irony of the situation, the dinner party accepted the toast and took a deep sip of their respective wines. Within a minute, both Berenyi and Parmalay had slipped into unconsciousness, leaving Darius and his aides with only one more task to complete before the evening's mission was over. Exhaling heavily, the prince stood up and walked over to his sister's limp body, running his fingers down her cheek one last time.
Sorry it had to come to this, sister - but you know as well as I do that we can't keep this up forever. When my time comes, you'll have your chance for revenge in the afterlife, if I'm fortunate enough to awaken on Zurvan's shores.