Chapter 22: The Locust King.

  The water striders began to pick up their pace a little as they approached the citadel, small feet skating effortlessly over the surface of the water.
   The citadel was situated almost right over the river, its dull brown timbers looming high over their heads. Long wooden beams stretched out over the water to form piers, and many walkways threaded themselves between them. The water striders glided effortlessly through these unintentional barriers, until they reached a very wide wooden walkway that surrounded the whole of the castle.
   It was next to one of the piers that the water striders paused to allow all three of their passengers to disembark. Taking care not to move very quickly, the three climbed up onto the dock, and Guile inclined his head once to the creature they had been riding. The water striders made no farewell, only paused for a brief moment to regard their odd passengers one last time. Then they skated off quickly back upstream, the way that they had come.
   The wide walkway circled around the citadel, but it did not touch its walls. Instead, Slayd noticed a great drawbridge lowered from the fortress, spanning the distance between the walkway and the citadel. Two tall and lanky soldiers clad in green and yellow were standing at attention on either side of the entrance that the drawbridge made into the citadel, and they nodded briefly to their new visitors.
   Slayd looked over at Guile for some cue as to what to do now, but he ignored him. Instead he marched quickly to meet the soldiers, eyeless sockets firmly fixed ahead of him. Slayd quickly followed, trailed by Jyrr.
   A trumpet blasted fanfare into the air as they approached, making Slayd jump. Another horn joined the first, and the soldiers saluted as they passed into the courtyard of the citadel.
   The courtyard was huge, with closely clipped green grass and neat pebble lined paths which all converged together at the opposite end, where tall grey doors guarded the inner parts of the citadel. Small trees with dark flowers bordered the edge of the courtyard, and huge green and yellow banners hung high on the stone walls. There were quite a few people going about their daily business, but they paused whatever they were doing when the trumpets sounded and gathered along the paths to see their new visitors.
   At the entrance to the courtyard Guile stopped and waited. It didn’t take long for Slayd to see what he was waiting for, because the tall doors on the far end of the courtyard had opened and many green and yellow clad soldiers began to pour out of them, marching in step, and arrayed in neat lines that bordered the main central path. A booming voice called out from one of the citadel’s towers, “Hear ye all, the Heir of Moroloth has returned to Dehalen! He comes to meet the king!”
   More trumpets blasted through the still air, and the last of the soldiers emerged from the great doors. The people that had gathered around had turned into a crowd. They clapped and bowed and cheered, and Slayd’s head began to swim. A part of him wanted to reach up and grab for Guile’s hand but a bigger part of him held back, still wary.
   A man appeared from the same doors that the soldiers had come from, very tall and carrying an air of great importance. He approached the three visitors, nodded at Guile and Jyrr and knelt before Slayd, bowing his head as he did so. “You are most welcome – always - in our kingdom, Heir of Moroloth,” he said as he knelt, saying it with such weight that Slayd felt that the man was trying to address a god. “I am your servant Lieron, grand advisor to the Locust King.”
   There was an edge to his voice that made it seem as if he was very stressed by something, but at the same time he looked pleased. “The king requests that you have an audience with him in the observatory. If you wish it, I shall take you to him.”
   Slayd nodded at the still-kneeling man. “Umm… that would be good, I think. Thank you.”
   Lieron rose, bowed, and turned back to the doors, returning the way he had come. Slayd followed him, shadowed by his two companions.
   The inside of the citadel was brightly lit, with patterned paper lanterns lining tables along the hallways that they passed through, and white orbs floating down from the rafters. Bright green runners of soft velvet ran along every hall, accented on their edges with golden yellow. Slayd seemed to remember seeing this place before, although he couldn’t place the memory. It all seemed so homey and comfortable.
   Lieron led them up a flight of wide, curving stairs and out onto the rooftop of the largest of the citadel’s towers. The floor was painted a brilliant blue, tiny dots of wavering light scattered throughout to mirror the stars in the lightening sky above them. A pavilion decorated with many-colored tassels took up the furthest corner, under which a small gathering of very important-looking people were inspecting complicated scrolls.
   They rose and bowed when Lieron approached them. “Good morning, my lord,” said the nearest man, who was wearing a tall and elaborate hat. “How may we be of service?”
   Lieron appeared stressed. “Why is not the Locust King among you? I was instructed to bring the Heir of Moroloth and his retinue to the observatory for an audience with the king, yet he is not here.”
   The man in the hat sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I am afraid our king left us almost an hour ago.”
   “I will assume he told you nothing?”
   He shook his head. “I apologize, my lord. He was studying the star charts by my side, but…”
   “ – But he suddenly disappeared,” Lieron finished his sentence for him, “and you are not entirely sure when he left or where he went.”
   The other man looked a little helpless, and just shrugged his shoulders.
   Guile snickered next to Slayd. “This happens often.”
   Lieron rubbed at his temples and sniffed. “You are well aware of the Locust King’s eccentricities, guardian.” He turned to Slayd. “I deeply apologize. It appears our king has decided to change the location of your audience. Please, follow me.”
   Slayd followed behind him, looking from Guile to Jyrr and raising a perplexed eyebrow. Jyrr shrugged and cocked half a smile, winking at him. “I remember the Locust King to be a bit… odd,” he murmured, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we search the whole citadel before we find him.”
   And indeed, poor Lieron led them through at least half a dozen rooms and just as many hallways, inquiring from anyone he ran into if they had seen the Locust King. At last he led them into a small room, off to one side of the main hallway they had been following. It was just as merrily lit and decorated as the rest of the citadel, except it felt much more personal and cozy. There were shelves lined all along the walls, filled to their edges with hundreds of creatively arranged trinkets and shiny baubles. A cluttered and messy table sat in the middle of the room, overflowing onto the floor with parchment, more trinkets, scrolls, quill pens, and scraps of crumpled up paper. A few chairs of varying shapes and colors were arranged haphazardly around a table.
   One chair in particular had more stitches and patches than original fabric, with a few persistent holes still managing to leak stuffing in a few places. Sitting in this chair and hunched over a desk sat a tall and willowy man. His attention was focused intensely on a slip of paper he was holding. It was clutched close to his face and bespectacled eyes rapidly moved back and forth, reading whatever text the paper had written on it.
   Lieron cleared his throat twice in a loud “ahem”, and the man sitting at the table looked up at him distractedly.
   “Oh, Lieron. Hm. I needed to see you earlier about something, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Would you tell me when our guests arrive? One of the observers along the river sent word that the water striders were already on their way to…” he looked up then and his words trailed off as he studied the three visitors standing beside his aide.
   Lieron cleared his throat a third time and gave the man a significant and irritated look.
   “Oh!” The man said, “I do apologize, I’m terribly sorry,” he got up from the table quickly, scattering papers and causing a few of the trinkets to clatter to the floor. “Please, come in, come in, sit down.” He made his way around the desk and grasped Slayd’s hand, smiling warmly.
   “Thank you,” Slayd said politely. This man was a little odd, but he liked him already. “Are you the Locust King?” He asked the question tentatively. This man didn’t really fit any idea that he’d ever had of what a king would usually act like, but something in his head made him certain that this was indeed the king they had been looking for. He didn’t seem ruffled by the question at all, just a little distracted.
   ”Oh yes, yes. Are you Slayd? You look a little different, or at least I think you do. I might have forgotten what you looked like… it’s been a while, you know? Hm. I really have been expecting you, but there are so very many diversions and such that take my attention away from the important things that it is so hard to get anything done. I really had intended on welcoming you at the gate myself, but I seem to have misplaced the time. I’m terribly sorry about it…”
   He finally released Slayd’s hand and took up Guile’s next. “Oh hello Guile, it’s so nice to see you again. You were here a few months ago, weren’t you? Or was that a few years… Please, sit. Is there anything I can get you? Tea? Chorn? I know I have a list of whatever the cooks have in stock nowadays… Oh where did I put it…” He turned to the table and shuffled through a few papers, but gave up quickly.
   Guile chuckled to himself. He sat in the nearest of the chairs and smiled briefly at the Locust King. “We have been long on the road, and if you arrange to have a hot meal prepared I am sure the Heir of Moroloth would appreciate your hospitality.”
   The Locust King stared blankly at him for a moment, and then nodded suddenly. “Of course, of course! Lieron, would you see to that? We can just eat it in here, if that’s all right. The dining halls are so very… formal and all. I feel as if I’m eating with my ancestors rather than old friends whenever I’m in there.”
   Lieron nodded stiffly and turned on his heels, shutting the door behind him with what Slayd believed to be a bit of a huff.
   The Locust King started to gather up the clutter that was scattered over the table. “Are you able to stay long? It certainly has been a very long time since the both of you last visited with us here.”
   Guile nodded absently, looking around the room. “We could stay for a few days, I believe. We’ve made far better time than I thought we would, really.”
   Slayd slipped into one of the chairs and studied the little trinkets lined up along the edge of the table that the Locust King had not gotten to yet. Most of them were tiny pieces of colored glass, fashioned to look like little creatures and insects. Slayd had an unexpected recollection that the Locust King made them himself, whenever he was bored with whatever Important Thing he was supposed to be doing. He smiled to himself. Fond memories, he thought, At least, I think so. I seem to be remembering a couple of things about this funny eccentric king.
   The Locust King’s attention was again distracted when Jyrr detached himself from the far wall and slipped into one of the chairs. “Oh,” he said, as if just now realizing that Jyrr was with them in the room, “I do not believe we have met before. Pleased to meet you. Are you with Slayd and Guile?” He beamed and leaned forward over the table, grasping Jyrr’s hand and shaking it enthusiastically.
   “Actually,” Guile interjected, “You have met him before. His name is Jyrr, the adopted son of the Maggot King. You met him a long time ago. He hasn’t made it a habit to visit the Locust Kingdom.”
   The Locust King looked thoughtful. “Ah… so he is. Well, pleased to meet you again, then! What events cause you to join these two on their path?”
   Jyrr looked very uncomfortable, and he squirmed in his seat. “I… It was not favorable circumstances, and I’m not sure I should be talking about it, really.”
   Guile snorted. “It matters not whether the Locust King knows of your vile behavior, Jyrr.” He turned to the willowy man, who looked a bit confused. “Jyrr attempted to seduce and kill Slayd, the same as he did before so many years ago. Do you remember that little… incident? Surely you heard word of the bit of royal turmoil he caused for in the Maggot Kingdom when he attempted to rape and murder the Heir of Moroloth?”
   The Locust King nodded slowly, as if just now he was recalling Jyrr’s face. His eyes hardened as his gaze flicked across Jyrr’s form. “Indeed. It is hard even for me to forget hearing news such as that.”
   Guile smirked. “He is not the kind to learn from his own past mistakes. When he tried it again, I killed him. I carried him inside of me for a time and when we were in the Spider Queen’s realm, I put him back together.”
   The Locust King shuddered a little when the Spider Queen’s name was mentioned, but he still paid close attention to what Guile was still saying. “I offered him to the Spider Queen then, because she holds a great contempt for him. One can see why, he has stolen from her. And she has seen with her strange eyes the way he plots to overthrow his father and usurp his throne.”
   “That is conjecture,” Jyrr snapped, “And I took nothing from her that did not already belong to me. Do not make me out to be some ruffian malcontent.”
   Guile snorted. “No Jyrr, you are a foppish malcontent. You’re a spoiled, cosmopolitan idiot who thinks far too highly of himself.”
   Jyrr opened his mouth to retort, but Guile talked over him. “I offered him to the Spider Queen, but Slayd saved his life.” The sneer on his face turned bitter, and Slayd found the floor to be suddenly very interesting.
   The Locust King nodded again, his gaze never leaving Jyrr’s nervous form. His eyes had softened, but Slayd couldn’t imagine it was out of sympathy. “It is not my place to judge such things, but for his sake I do hope that he behaves himself properly while he is in my kingdom. I would not look kindly upon anyone who would harm our little Slayd, or cause difficulty for the Maggot King. He is very dear to me, after all these years. I would hazard to guess that he would be quite saddened to know what kind of person his beloved son has shown himself to be. He has always loved you so dearly.”
   Jyrr sunk down into his seat and stared at the floor, sullen and abashed. Slayd thought that Jyrr probably wished he could disappear right at that moment (he kind of had the same feeling himself, though he was loath to admit it).
   There was a swift knock on the door and without waiting for an answer Lieron entered, followed by several carts laden with so many steaming food trays Slayd had a hard time imagining how four people were ever going to manage to eat it all, despite how hungry he realized he was. The Locust King beamed at his aide. “Oh, how lovely! What a wonderful breakfast. Thank you, Lieron. You always seem to know what I need before even I do.”
   Slayd could see Lieron visibly hold back a heavy sigh. “I only do my duty, my lord.” He nodded to their three guests and left the room.
   Guile hid a smirk behind a hand and helped himself to the food, followed quickly by Slayd and Jyrr. The conversation wove around randomly until the Locust King’s attention again focused on Slayd.
   “Oh, Slayd,” he said, his face suddenly getting the expression one gets when you remember something really important. “I’ve been meaning to ask you ever since you arrived. How did you come around to getting back? I had heard that you had been lost beyond all hope, past the Temple of Mirrors, more than likely never to return.”
   Slayd did not answer for a moment. He himself couldn’t really answer the question of how he had gotten back, considering he had been so wrapped up in the dream that he had been trapped in (if it really had been a dream, that is). “Well, I’m really not sure. What I can tell you is everything I remember that has happened since then, although I am not sure how helpful that would be.”
   “If you would,” said the Locust King, his bespectacled eyes eager for whatever story Slayd had to tell, “Tell me everything. It has been such a long time since I have heard a good story.”
   And so Slayd told him of everything that had happened to him, from waking up in his own coffin with no eyes, to finding the farmhouse and the upstairs room with the mirror. He told how Guile had first appeared to him, and how he’d been pulled through the mirror and into this world. Guile sat in silence throughout the story, although Slayd could see from his expression there were plenty of things he wanted to say. But he said nothing, and Slayd went on with the trials of crossing the Lake Khorakh and meeting the priest Incavius, who had changed him and given him his heirloom pendant. He told of the tiring trek through the forest and meeting the Watcher, and then he told of the meeting with the Maggot King and the confrontation with Jyrr.
   Here the Locust King’s gaze flicked over to Jyrr, who was trying his very hardest to be invisible. But Slayd breezed as quickly as he could over that part of the story and continued on with their journey into the Spider Queen’s lair. He told of how Jyrr’s life had been saved, and how they had met the Desert Recluse and how the plague of locusts had carried them away from her kingdom. Then Slayd told of how the water striders had given them a ride to his citadel and ended his tale. “That’s where we are right now, I guess. I’m never sure of what’s going to happen next, or where I’ll end up going, but it certainly is an adventure.”
   The Locust King smiled and nodded. “It certainly sounds like it, Slayd. I do not know where your tale will end, but I am certain you still have much to do, and much to tell. When you do finish with your story, I hope I am still around to hear you tell me of it.”
   Guile leaned forward in his chair then, and pointed two slender fingers at the Locust King. “As you know,” he said evenly, “Slayd’s perception is a bit… skewed at the moment, particularly his recollection of what first happened to him in his dreaming. There is much he cannot tell because he truly does not remember, or even know. He still does not remember entirely who and what he is.”
   The Locust King nodded slowly, turning Guile’s words over in his head. “Of course, of course, that does make sense. Would you care to tell how things happened, as you know them? I am always eager to listen to more stories.”
   And so Slayd heard for the first time how he had been rescued.


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