Beneath the city, on the underside of the Crystalline Castle, lie the inverted structures of buildings and silos. The fundamental workings of the city take place there: food storage, limited power generation, policy-making, and transportation. The function of these last two resides in the most noticeable buildings—the Council Chambers and the Linking Generator. The Aerie’s lift descended toward the hanging hallway that connects these two.
“Where’s the news from, Advisor?” Strin asked. “The Horizon’s a big place.”
“Up north, near a village named Amara. They ran some of those renji hard for three days to get to Governor Bulbatrano’s residence. The messenger arrived there this morning.”
“They’re lucky to find a renj at all.” The felines were fast, certainly, but taming one took patience and a high tolerance for pain. “Not that the Governor’s place is very deep in the Horizon.”
“The chain of government has not been tested in a long time, Strin.” Telmion’s voice was weary. “Peace reigns, and it has for centuries. It might cost us more now than we paid for it in the beginning. But if I have any say in the matter, and I do, your Governor Bulbatrano will not remain as such much longer. He returned to the Horizon last night, then linked back today. He walked through, dropped the engineer a letter, and returned to the Horizon. I think he was trying to avoid us.” The lift glided to a halt. “The Linking Generator hasn’t had that much load in years.” Telmion chuckled grimly. As the Governor was a rather large man, Telmion’s statement carried extra weight.(1)» “This way.”
Telmion turned right and led Strin down a window-lined hallway. The River Bann dashed beneath them in rippling reflections of sunlight. The hallway ended with a large, semi-circular door made of the same glass as the Aerie. Two soldiers stood at the doorway. Their armor was so polished as to appear white, and they shone like the river below. One opened the door silently as they approached.
The Council Chamber was an expanse of light and glass. Sculptures and graceful forms rose from the floor and populated the room like spirits — visible, but seeming to take no space. The sides were windows without frames, meticulously spotless, so there seemed to be no barrier between the landscape and the room. Great sheets of glass paved the floor, like rugs laid in an indiscernible pattern, and these were visions down upon a world brighter than, but not as pristine as, the Council Chamber. A single table, formed from the glass of the Aerie but colored the black of rejected light, stood like the foundation of the world, drawing eyes and feet irresistibly to its heavy reality among the dreams and visions of light and lightness.(2)»
The table was a semi-circle. Nine high-backed chairs, of the same material as the table, were posted like sentries along the circular edge. Eight were filled with Advisors who turned as Telmion and Strin entered. A semi-circular hole gouged the flat side, and there sat a grand chair of black cushion. This was the Empress’s place.
“The Empress?” one Advisor asked anxiously.
“She has been informed, Advisor Owa,” Telmion said. “She will be here presently.”
“And who is this interesting-looking chap?” The questioner’s eyes blinked curiously behind his thick spectacles.
“Advisor Preitru, this is Strin Telnok. You will remember he saved Governor Bulbatrano yesterday. He is a hero of that area.”
“Ah, yes!” Preitru said excitedly. “I do remember hearing such a thing sometime or another. How do you do?”(3)»
“Better, if I could get some information on the situation. Horizon folks don’t ask for help normally, especially from the Empress. I’m concerned.”
“Of course, of course, young man! I would be, too, I suppose. Sit—just push Owa there out of the way,”—Owa did not protest; he simply jumped out of his chair like a frightened bird— “and we’ll get started.” Strin sat.
Just then, the doors to the Council Chamber swung open, and Strin looked to see three figures outlined in a still shot of intense action. A large, noble, powerful man stood in the act of opening the door, his legs spread wide in a stance of readiness, one arm around the woman beside him. The woman was paused on the edge of motion—of dancing, of fighting, of laughing, of killing. On her shoulder, vines hung frozen in an intricate design, roots wrapped tenderly and firmly about the woman’s shoulder, tendrils and flowers arranged in the imitation of a fine vest, sat a plant.
For a long, spiritual second the pose held—majestic and lively, stately, surprising. Then time began again and the three strolled into the room.
“What is all this about?” Owa said tensely. “Where are the guards?”
“Dear me!” Preitru said. “Is that one of the Rare Talking Plants of Ragnannan?” The other Advisors stood and spoke as one person but with nine separate agendas. Strin watched silently. A Rare Talking Plant of Ragnannan? He would be delighted to meet the creature if that was what it was.
“My friends, my friends!” the noble man said. “You know us. We are the Warriors of Justice … ”
“ … the Guardians of Peace … ,” the woman sang.
“ … and the Seekers of Truth!” the plant whistled cheerfully.
This, Strin was surprised to note, the Advisors greeted with much approval and joy.
“The Empress summoned us, and so we have come,” the man continued. “And yes, Webi here is a Talking Plant of Ragnannan.” He placed a palm on the smooth tabletop and leaned confidently against it.
“Just the help we need!” Owa said. He hopped a little on the balls of his feet, unable to contain his excitement.
“Really? How fascinating!” Preitru said simultaneously, referring to Webi.
Strin turned to Telmion. “Who are they?” The three looked like professional heroes. The two had found a Talking Plant of Ragnannan, after all. Strin imagined the Council found them far more reassuring than himself, the local celebrity of a backwater section of the Kingdom. The man carried a large sword with the ease of bulging muscles; the woman flourished her whip coolly, hand on her hip; Webi skated along the tabletop. Strin could learn from them, perhaps.
“The man’s name is Keck Truenight. The woman’s is Harmony Everpeace. They’re married. The plant is Webi, as they mentioned. They’re the famous Trio of Wubbatub.”
“Wubbatub?” Strin asked. He’d never heard of such a place.
“I couldn’t tell you, Strin. I’ve never heard of such a place.” (4)»
Strin rose from his chair and approached the man. “Keck Truenight, I’m Strin Telnok. I’m from the Horizon, same as the trouble we’re facing. I don’t know what’s happened yet, but any help will be more than welcomed.” Behind Keck, Strin saw two others framed in the doorway. “And this is my apprentice, Fred Milish. Fred, this is—”
“We’ve met,” Fred said coldly. He came to stand beside Strin, and the Cria in the doorway left. Fred’s eyes focused on Keck, and they seemed to be trying to knock the large man unconscious.
“Hello again, kid.” Harmony tussled Fred’s hair.
“No hard feelin’s, right, buddy?” Webi whistled shrilly, tapping Fred on the shoulder. Fred flinched and absently rubbed his neck.
“Um … hi,” Fred replied, uncharacteristically speechless. He tugged on Strin’s arm and whispered, “Come! Over here!”
Strin excused himself from the Trio and let Fred drag him behind a pillar of glass. “Those three! They’re monsters! They nearly killed me, and that plant, he—”
“Fred,” Strin said calmly. “As far as I can tell, something happened between you and the Trio, but I know you better than I know them, and I’m willing to bet it’s your fault. No.” Strin interrupted Fred before he could list seven reasons why it was not. “We’ll discuss this later, if you wish. There are more important matters now. There’s been some sort of incident on the Horizon.”
“Where?” Fred asked, concerned.
“Up north. Near your village. Now, if you’d stop talking, we could get more information.”
Fred nodded, but as they emerged from behind the pillar, the melodic voices of the Cria filled the room with the vocal flourish that indicated the approach of the Empress.