The Huntress Chapter 6
"Fascinating. So how exactly did you travel so far?"
"My ship was fast enough, but it crashed."
"It sank, hmm?"
"Uh... yeah, kind of like that."
"So this man, Ernest, has his own ship somewhere?"
Opera nodded, taking a sip of her drink. She couldn't remember what it was called, but it was apparently the strongest thing the bartender had been able to put together. He'd laughed when she'd asked for it, saying that if she could put it down in one shot, it was free. This was her second, which she'd had to pay for. The bartender was a quick study in alcohol worthiness, that was for sure.
"That's right," she agreed. "So once I find the idiot, I'll be able to get home no problem. I guess I was due for a better ship soon. Mine was getting a little old anyway."
The man she was having a drink with nodded. Raddle, he had introduced himself as. She had run into him while asking around to see if anyone knew where Ernest was. He hadn't a clue about Ernest, but he'd been the last person she'd been able to find, and he seemed like a nice enough person to sit down a shoot a few tales with. Besides, it couldn't hurt to learn a little about the local area while waiting for the ferry to arrive.
"So where are you headed, anyway?" she inquired.
"I'm headed to Herlie."
Opera blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I'm headed to Herlie," Raddle repeated.
"No, you're not."
"That's what a guy said back in Mars. I was a little lost at the time, but he told me to keep heading East and I'd hit Herlie. So I'm heading East."
"Uh huh. You're not going to hit Herlie. Not for a looooong time."
Raddle sighed. "Is it that far?"
"Heading this way? You better believe it's far. Where do you think you just came from?"
"From the dock."
"And where is the dock?"
"It's in... I'm not sure, actually. I was in such a hurry to catch the ferry that I never thought to ask."
Opera slugged back the rest of her drink to keep from saying the first thing that came to mind. Slamming her mug down on the table, "The dock was in Herlie!"
Raddle sighed. "I suppose I will simply have to get on the return ferry then. Thank-you for telling me this."
"Don't mention it. Bartender, gimme another one of these."
It was early afternoon when the ferry arrived in
Hilton. By the time the docks came into view, Opera was more than ready to
depart. She might be on a ship, but it was a far cry from a spaceship. She
wasn't prone to sea-sickness or anything, but was still a pity this planet
probably wouldn't discover inertial dampers for least another 300 years.
And every minute she had to stand around here was another minute that might mean the difference between her missing or finding Ernest. There was no telling where he was at the moment, but she knew he probably wouldn't spend any more time in
populated areas than necessary.
"Curse these military delays."
Opera turned to face the source of the complaint. "What about em?"
"Why do you think we haven't docked yet?" the man replied. "The Lacour military has some business going on. Nobody knows what it is, but it's slowing down every single other ship in the port. Probably something to do with the war."
"Against the demons?" she guessed.
"Who else? It's not as if Cross has much to throw against them. But I'll bet Lacour has a few things to make the demons sorry they ever showed their ugly faces around here. But until then, the military gets priority for everything. Even docking space."
"Sorry about this, folks," the captain apologized from behind them. "But whatever this project is, it's supposed to take a few days. Maybe more. Some military expedition is preparing for a trip. Dunno where, but it must be an important one. Enough to block up the harbor like this. But there's nothing I can do about it, I'm afraid."
"It sucks," Opera agreed. This was certainly familiar territory. She'd been held up at border patrols for days at times, all because some stupid military big-wigs had demanded priority scheduling. The first time it had happened, her diplomatic efforts had gotten some very large disruptor cannons pointed at her and her ship. Fortunately, Ernest had been able to put some of his own (considerably more fine-tuned) diplomacy to use and calm things down again.
Now, she was wiser and (slightly) more patient, which was enough to quickly stifle any thoughts of putting the Kaleidoscope to use right now. With a sigh of resignation, she muttered a few choice oaths and steeled herself to wait until the ship docked. It
seemed that no matter where she went, the omnipresent military head-up-ass syndrome was never far behind.
Several years later, the ship finally docked to
allow the passengers to disembark in the village of Hilton. Actually, it
was probably only an hour or two, but the prospect of spending a few centuries
stranded on the planet had a way of distorting one's
perceptions of time. Regardless, after delaying long enough to make sure a few stray soldiers saw her flipping them the bird, Opera wasted no time in heading towards the best source of travelers and news.
Unfortunately, several attempts at questioning revealed that the men in this bar weren't nearly quite as eager-to-please as most other people were. Then again, maybe they were just a little drunk. Or maybe they weren't sure what to make of a three- eyed woman (Those were somewhat rare around here). Or maybe they were on edge from all the military business in town. Or maybe they were simply a bunch of raging perverts who deserved to have a few gigawatts of disruptor fire up their collective asses.
"Hey honey, have a few drinks with me?"
"Go screw yourself. By the way, I'm looking for a guy named Ernest. He's got three eyes, just like me. You seen anybody like that around here?"
"Aw, forget about him. Have a few drinks, babe!"
Ignoring the first man, Opera turned to a second man. "How bout you? Three eyes, his name is Ernest. Seen anybody like that?"
"Drinks on me. Whadaya say, miss?"
Giving him the same treatment as the first man, Opera surveyed the room before coming to a conclusion. Virtually all the men were giving her the same look. The one that said that she was reaping the rewards of coming into a bar dressed in a low-cut, high-slit, evening gown. The men were probably deciding to overlook the extra eye and the weapon that was longer than she was tall. Judging from the lecherous glances that were rapidly circulating around the room, she wasn't about to get a straight word out of any of them. That meant that it was time for a new approach.
Fortunately, all bars had one place that everybody could see from wherever they were sitting or standing. For business reasons, it was the same place the drinks came from. Taking position, Opera wasted no time in requesting the bar's undivided
"ALRIGHT, YOU SHIT-SQUAD REJECTS!!! LISTEN UP!!!
Approximately 0.000001 seconds later, she had the entire bar's undivided attention.
"Good," she approved. "I'll get to the point. I'm looking for someone. His name is Ernest. Ernest Raviede. He's an archaeologist and an explorer. He's got three eyes, just like I do. Has anyone here seen someone like that?"
Deathly silence echoed throughout the room.
Opera bestowed a triple glare of death upon the group. "Well?"
Slowly, various men began to shake their heads in the negative, the motions rippling through the collective crowd. When all was said and done, it seemed fairly conclusive that Ernest had not come through this particular town.
Every head snapped around to face the source of the voice. It was a fairly average-looking man, when all was said and done. The sword at his side suggested he might be a fighter of some sort, while the smirk on his face suggested that he had
shaken off the stupification affecting the rest of the room.
"Maybe what?" Opera demanded.
He stood up and approached her, the smirk never leaving his face. "Maybe I know something you might be interested in knowing."
She scowled, estimating a 99% chance that this guy was full of shit. But there was that small, minuscule, remote chance... "Any reason you don't feel like sharing this with me?"
"What's it worth to you?"
99.9%. Fortunately, she knew how to deal with guy. And make him sorry for it afterwards. "What do you say to a little contest?"
Opera smirked. "A drinking contest. You loose, you answer my question without any B.S. attached, got it? I loose, well..." she left the answer unsaid.
The gutter-brain seemed to have finished the sentence off himself. "How can I refuse?"
Opera took a seat at the bar. "Pull up a seat or run away while you can, little boy."
The bartender sighed, setting a few bottles on the counter. "Whichever one of you loses is paying for all these drinks."
"What is that stuff?"
"Beer. Cheap draft, why?"
"I don't have all day. Find something that isn't so watered down. Like rubbing alcohol or something. Unless this little boy can't handle the real thing."
"Break out some good scotch and shot glasses," her opponent quickly ordered.
Several minutes later, ten shot-glasses of said scotch were filled, five per contestant. Needless to say, the entire population of the bar was giving the contest their undivided attention.
"Alright," the bartender invited. "Start drinking."
Opera eyed her opponent carefully. His face wasn't the least bit red, and his movements lacked any sort of alcohol induced clumsiness. Which meant that he probably hadn't been drinking much yet. Fortunately, it had been at least four hours since she'd put down the three cocktails on the ferry. So her digestive system had probably dealt with them by now. The only thing that remained was to spite the man a little.
Giving a mental thumbs-up to a mythical Tetragene deity of booze, karaoke, and torture, she sipped the first glass experimentally. Not too bad, really. For beer, anyhow. One glass. Two. Three. Four. Five. "Your turn," she invited with a smile. "You can drink them slowly if you have to."
The man swallowed, even a few spectators began to whisper in hushed tones. But he held his ground, not even hesitating as he acted. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Looking Opera straight in two of her eyes, he never wavered an inch.
"Fill er up bartender." The fact that his voice was now higher than hers somewhat ruined the whole effect.
"Better clear a path to the can, gentleman," Opera suggested loudly. "Somebody might just need it after the next round."
Several men chuckled, but saw the wisdom enough to clear aforementioned path. By this time, all ten glasses were topped up again, while the man was beginning to look a little topped-off. A few more people were trickling into the bar, apparently having caught word of a match involving a three-eyed woman.
"Surrender any time you want," Opera invited. "It's your bar tab."
"Thash what y'think..."
Oh yeah, this contest was over before it had ever begun. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
"Your turn," she invited calmly, noticing that the bartender wasn't even bothering to refill her shot glasses for a third round.
"Don be s'cocky..." the man warned, picking up the first glass. After swallowing once, he downed it, shuddering as it joined the other five. One...
"You've still got two more to go," Opera urged, failing miserably at sounding sincere. "You kissing the floor already?"
The man muttered a few intelligible words as he staggered up onto his stool again, letting his head come to rest on the counter top.
The bartender sighed, edging nearer to the man's prone form. "You okay?"
The man finally managed to find his voice. It still sounded wrong, like his vocal box had suffered exposure to muriatic acid and helium, but the words were understandable enough to the crowd. "I've had enough... (hic)... Can't drink any more!"
Opera nodded in agreement with the spectators, hoping the man wasn't too far gone for questioning. "So! I won that one. Now... please answer the question."
She narrowed her eyes slightly. "You said you would answer any question if I beat you in a drinking bout. So let's have it..."
The man sucked in a gasp of air. "Wha-(hic) Whadaya want to ashk me... hum?"
"Have you ever heard of a man called Ernest? He has three eyes like I do..."
"NEVER... HEARD of him... Three eyes...? I never seen anyone... like that... (hic)"
Still more silence.
"...well, that's that..."
"...he's out like a light..."
"Another dead end," Opera sighed, shouldering the Kaleidoscope and her pack. "Oh well. I didn't really expect anything anyway..."
Deciding that there was no point in wasting any more time, she began pushing her way through the crowd. Fortunately, they were quick enough to part for her as it was. All things considered, they were probably going to be telling this story for a week or two to come. At least they weren't giving any more bad pick-up lines. In the ensuing pathway, something of note came into view.
Blond hair. Somewhat strange clothes. But definitely not Ernest. But she also knew he hadn't been in the bar previously. He'd probably come in on the tail-end of the contest. Which made him fair game for questioning. She made a bee-line for him, even as he realized that she'd spotted him.
"How about you?" she demanded, silently deciding that she was going to point her automatic pistol some place unpleasant and pull the trigger if he tried to pull any crap with her. Her tolerance for such was growing lower by the day, it seemed. And even she had her limits where alcohol was concerned. "Have you seen a three-eyed man anywhere?"
He swallowed. "Why, yes, I have."
Opera sighed, beginning to shove past him. "Oh well... I didn't really expect..."
She stopped. "What?"
She looked back at him. "You HAVE?!?"
He almost backed up a step as he realized that every eye in the bar was now focused completely and exclusively on him alone. Nodding slowly, "I'm almost certain I have."
He didn't seem to be lying. He wasn't looking anywhere except her face. And he looked too young to even be drinking in the first place. Opera was no psychic, but she was fairly talented at detecting B.S. She wasn't detecting any right now. "Where?
"Just awhile ago in town around Cross Castle."
"Cross!" The one place her and Ashton had skipped while heading this way. It would figure, really. It was just as well that Ashton wasn't here to talk about his bad luck. Regardless, that meant that she had some walking to do. Even if she didn't bother to sleep, it would be at least a whole day before she reached the town...
Still, she could at least thank the boy, she finally decided. "But I'm forgetting my manners. How do you do? My name is Opera. Opera Vectra." But that didn't mean she had to actually waste much time doing it.
He nodded slowly. "And I'm Claude. Claude Kenni."
Okay, she'd done her diplomatic deed for the year. Time to move. "Thank-you Claude. I must hurry to Cross. Perhaps we'll meet again!"
She was already out the door before Claude could reply. Something in the back of mind suggested to her that she was missing something important, but she dismissed it in lieu of the more important issue. She had a lead - weak though it might be - and she wasn't going to waste any time following it up. Even if Ernest had only been in Cross briefly, he would have had a reason for it. A little questioning on her part should reveal a destination of some sort.
To her complete lack of surprise, the outgoing ferry was going to be delayed by several hours. Military business, of course. Fortunately, a small cargo ship headed for Herlie was slated to depart in a few minutes. Dipping into her stash of money had been all it took to convince the captain to take her aboard. Five hundred pieces of gold seemed a tad steep, but at least it was a great chance to ditch some weight in the process. Sometimes time really was money.
Half an hour later, the boat was sailing across the open sea.
In the cargo business, a good captain didn't waste
any time getting to his port to deliver his cargo. And the winds had been
better than average. And the handful of sailors managing the boat, although
they'd never seen anyone like Ernest, were both
pleasant and a good source of conversation to pass the few hours it took to complete the trip.
Mere minutes after docking, Opera was already retracing her steps back the way she'd originally come. Almost literally. Presumably on account of the monsters and demons that were apparently raging across the countryside (according to the locals who probably never set foot out of their town), traffic was almost non-existent. All this contributed to her having a clear view of her footprints on the way up. Perhaps the only advantage to walking cross-country wearing stiletto heels. Regardless, by the time she caught up to Ernest, her feet were going to be too sore to properly kick his ass.
At least it would put off her having to tell him how she'd run out of gas and destroyed her ship. And that would give her more time to think up an excuse. If such a monumentally stupid act could even have an excuse in the first place. She'd better get
"I was worried about you," she tried.
No fricking way. Of course, they weren't a romantic couple or anything, but saying something like that would definitely get taken the wrong way. Something more practical...
"We do everything together, right?"
That belonged in some cheesy romance novel. And she'd weld her mouth shut before letting those words pass over her lips. More blunt...
"I figured you'd get yourself killed if I didn't catch up in time."
No good either. That would imply that she had been so worried about his safety that she'd thrown caution to the wind and blazed off after him. Actually that wasn't far from the actual truth, but there was no way in hell she was saying that to his face.
"You're a stupid dipshit who'd be dead a long time ago if I wasn't around."
Perfect, she decided. Aggressive, truthful, and most importantly, there was absolutely no possible way of it being taken romantically.
So why the heck was she so worried about something being taken romantically? After all, it wasn't as if there was any danger of that, right? In the five years they had known each other, had she ever flirted with him? Had she ever once given the impression that she wanted something else? Had she ever once done a single thing to suggest that she was interested in a serious, romantic relationship? Of course not. And Ernest had never once so much as hinted that he might want something beyond the business relationship they had. So why the hell was she so worried about it in the first place?
There was something in the air, she was sure of it. And it was giving her a severe case of stupid-itis or something like that. The sooner she found Ernest and got off the planet, the better. Then things could go back to how they'd always been.
Then again, hadn't Ashton pointed out her seeming dissatisfaction with that arrangement? And if he'd noticed something, it must have been pretty obvious. And he'd also pointed out the fact that she was a steadfast believer in acting to change things that she didn't like. And when all was said and done, she hadn't done a single thing to try and change this particular point in her life.
Well, no more. Now that she'd re-convinced herself of it all, thing were going to change, starting now. Her previous attempt at adapting a new mind-set on the business had failed miserably. But out here in the middle of nowhere, she would have time to
practice before actually trying it out on people.
She took a moment to laugh at herself. This was pathetic. But no more than crashing her ship like she did. And at least no one was around to see...
"I'm looking for Ernest. He's my..."
She paused, trying to think of a good word.
"I'm looking for Ernest. He's my... partner."
"He's my... teammate."
"He's... my... boyfriend."
She took a deep breath. "He's my boyfriend."
Oh yeah, was this ever pathetic.
Cross arrived in the evening. It was exactly as
Opera remembered it from the last leg of her trip. Your typical primitive
castle from your typical primitive civilization. Upon getting to the gates,
she noticed that the stone was rather clean for a castle. No burn patches,
no broken stone, and no blood stains. Obviously this place saw little in
the way of actual combat. This was in keeping with all the gossip that she'd
picked up to date, all which suggested that Lacour was the real place for
fighting. The guard at the gates looked on the verge of falling asleep, probably
a testament to how little action he'd seen lately.
The guard opened an eye. "Wha?"
"I'm looking for someone. His name is Ernest and he has three eyes like I do. You seen him pass through recently?"
The guard gave her the obligatory stupid look. "Three eyes?"
"Just like me, idiot."
The guard gave her the obligatory I must have been drinking WAY too much because I'm seeing things now' look. "Uh... no, never seen that before. I mean, anyone like that..."
Opera was already flagging down the second person. "Hey, you!"
A somewhat rough looking traveler turned to face her. "What do you want?"
He sounded like he was in a bad mood. "I'm looking for someone. His name is Ernest, and he has three eyes like I do."
"So what's a freak like that to you?
"He's my boyfriend," she growled, not without a small amount of pride. She'd actually said it like she meant it! Maybe all that training had paid off!
"Like I even carowOWOWOWOW-"
"I CARE!!!" she yelled, continuing to bend the man's neck back far enough to see his own heels. And after she'd spent all afternoon practicing those lines!
"I'm not the mood for any shit right now, buddy!"
"So have you seen him or not?!!"
Opera eased up on her hold before he passed out. "Have you seen him or not?"
She released him and continued. "There. That wasn't so hard was it?"
One free, the man immediately shifted into a posture that was either a gaudy dance move or a position for starting a heraldic spell. "That's it, you little bitch. I'm going to show you what I do toOWOWOWOWOW..."
Half an hour later, Opera was heading into the castle.
Surprisingly enough, no one had seemed to object to her cutting off the blood
flow to the man's brain long enough for him to pass out, although one person
mentioned something about that being the second time that week. Everyone
else had been very cooperative, especially the men. Probably largely on account
of her clothing again. It was almost flattering, actually. Who said that
beauty wasn't universal?
But a few had actually seen someone fitting Ernest's description, running from the castle at a leisurely pace. He hadn't actually talked to anyone, but many had almost sworn that he'd had three eyes. As far as physical descriptions went, he'd been
described as tall, long blond hair, and wearing a white casual labcoat with black trim. He'd also been smoking.
And he'd claimed that he was quitting. The liar.
Once inside the castle, she was faced with a decision. She could do things the proper way, which involved going to the receptionist and asking for an appointment to see the King. But she knew all about royalty and aristocratic families and the way they ran things. She was from one, after all. The fastest way to find someone was to completely ignore the desk and to go find them yourself. At the worst, it would only take as long as it would have taken had you done it the proper way. A win-tie situation.
She afforded the receptionist a glance as she walked past. "Don't worry. I'll be okay. You just take it easy, okay?"
"I-uh..." Opera was already heading down a flight of steps.
"Yeah, I heard about him. Whole palace was talking
about him for the next few days."
Opera nodded in approval. "Hear anything about what he wanted? I'm trying to find him."
The soldier shrugged. "Nobody really knows the reason. But he talked with the King a little bit, then left again for somewhere."
"Oh well. Thanks anyway."
"Oh shit. Thanks anyway."
Now ignoring the man she had just questioned, Opera continued down the hallway, not really noticing the two old women scramble out of her way like she was on fire. Perhaps they were merely more perceptive than most. Or maybe they could simply hear her swearing under her breath with every step she took.
Opera was getting mildly frustrated. Was it too much to hope that Ernest had actually been civil and talked with someone about what he was doing? Then again, he hadn't ever told her about what he was doing. She would probably be insulted if he'd actually told someone else about it. But one thing was certain from what she'd learned. Ernest had talked with the King. Since getting an audience would probably take days at best, it would be better to find someone else important who would have overheard. A closed door up ahead beckoned.
"Hey! Anybody important in here?" she demanded, throwing the door open in one swift motion. Judging from the gasps of shock, coupled with one dropped teacup, she had managed to surprise the two occupants. But one of them was dressed in a lovely white dress, coupled with an elaborate hairstyle and jewelry. Definitely noble.
"Who are you?" the other woman demanded, cleaning up the dropped teacup.
"Opera Vectra. I'm looking for my boyfriend. He came through here a few days ago, and I want to know where he went."
"Your... boyfriend?" the noble-looking woman hesitantly asked.
"Yeah. He took off on me a little bit ago. So I'm trying to find him before the idiot gets himself killed. You know anything about where he went?"
"Nothing, huh? Oh well. Just thought I'd check."
"I've heard something about what the man talked about with the King."
"I'll just be going now-huh?" Opera stopped to mull the past few sentences over. The noble-lady had said I'm sorry'. But she'd known something. Therefore, the I'm sorry' had meant something different. More specifically, she had actually been
expressing sympathy over her plight...
"You have heard something?" she ventured hopefully.
"My lady-" the other woman protested.
"Leave us," the noble-lady ordered. "I will discuss this issue with our... guest. If the testimony of the previous man is to be believed, she is also from a far-away land. If so, they are to be treated as diplomatic envoys. I would be most honored to assist her if I can. I will summon you later."
"But such a common and unbred-"
"HEY!!!" Opera snapped. "You can stick that up your common and unbred ASS!!! I happen to be important where I come from!"
"Leave us," the noble-lady repeated firmly.
That was obviously not what the second lady wanted to hear, but she didn't argue the point. "Call if you need anything, princess," was the last thing she said before she closed the door behind her.
Opera raised an eyebrow. "Princess?"
"You may call me Rosalia," she replied, dismissing the title with a wave of her hand. "I am the daughter of King Lacour. "But if you are nobility, it behooves us to be friendly, does it not? Are you also a princess?"
Opera waved it aside. "Oh, where I'm from, we don't have a monarchial hierarchy."
"I beg your pardon?"
Yet another possible sign that she had too much Ernest on the brain lately. "No kings or queens. But my parents own a lot of territory, so they're the closest thing there is to nobility."
"Then you would be the closest thing there is to a princess?"
Opera had to laugh at that. "Well... I guess that's one way to look at it. Call me Opera. Anyway, you said you'd heard something about the guy who came by the other day?"
"I do not know all the details, but I heard some of them. Would you care to sit?"
She'd been walking for the entire day. Sitting sounded like a GREAT idea at the moment.
"I am afraid I do not have anything to offer you to drink..." Rosalia began, gesturing helplessly to the empty teapot.
"No prob," Opera assured her, producing two bottles of beer. "Meryti lager. Have one?"
Rosalia smiled, accepting a bottle. "Thank-you."
Opera took a drink from her own bottle. Beer always tasted best when it was shared. Even if it was warm beer.
Rosalia took a sip from the bottle, eyelids rapidly climbing her forehead in shock.
"Oh yeah," Opera remembered. "I think the stuff passes for scotch around here."
"I... will... concur... with that," Rosalia slowly agreed. Nevertheless, she took bigger gulp several seconds later. "So where are you from?"
"Well... it's a place called Tetragene. It's really far away. Nobody around here has ever been there, actually." Hopefully that would suffice for an explanation.
"I see. Then you have certainly traveled far in pursuit of your boyfriend. This man, he also has three eyes?"
"That's right. Blond hair. About a foot taller than I am. Goes by the name of Ernest Raviede."
"That was most certainly him. He gave that exact name, saying that he was an archaeologist. He wanted to explore a set of ruins to the north that we know as the Mountain Palace."
"That sounds like him. He came here to explore in the first place, probably. What did he want here?"
"He desired permission to enter the Mountain Palace. He also asked a few details about it that I do not recall at the time. The king gave him a letter of permission and let him go."
Well, wasn't that just like Ernest? He'd do his best to stay away from the most remote of civilized areas, but would tromp through a capital city just to get permission to enter a set of ruins. "So that's why he came here, huh?"
"It would seem so. I do not know if this is helpful, but..."
"You've been lots of help," Opera assured her. "Now I know where he is. Any idea how to get to this Mountain Palace?"
"I'm afraid that I am not familiar with the local area, since I am from the continent of Lacour... but I am sure I could arrange for you to talk with the king. He could even give you permission to enter the ruins without trouble."
"I don't think I have that much time. I've got to catch up to him before he takes off somewhere else."
"Although I am not yet part of this family, I think I could arrange to give you an audience at once. Certainly your concern is more valid than many others I hear."
Rosalia raised her voice slightly. "Nanny?"
Almost instantly, the woman who had left earlier reappeared in the doorway. "Yes, princess?"
"Eavesdropper," Opera muttered.
"Inform the receptionist that I wish for this lady to be given an audience with the king immediately. We will be down shortly."
This didn't seem to be what the woman wanted to hear either. "I... as you wish."
Once the woman had shut the door behind her, Rosalia turned back to Opera. "All in the name of diplomatic relations, of course."
I was hard to miss the laughter behind the comment. "Thanks a lot."
"It is no trouble. But before we go down, might I ask you about something?"
When a princess you've only met a few minutes ago arranges some royal queue-skipping for you, there was only one correct answer. Opera knew it. "Sure."
Rosalia took another long drink before continuing. "As I mentioned before, I am not from the kingdom of Cross. My father is actually King Lacour. I am to be wed to Prince Cross in several days."
"Well... unfortunately, the Prince does not seem altogether in favor of it. He has been disappearing for long periods lately, although this seems to have been common even before I entered the picture. He seems very against royal life in general, though he does not seem to have any inkling of what he would do otherwise. The general consensus seems to be that he is simply very undisciplined..."
"Sure sounds like it."
"You are presently in pursuit of your own errant partner?"
Things got a little clearer. "Well... I don't know whether you'd call him my partner. Not that kind. He's my... boyfriend. Um... a wedding isn't really in the picture yet..."
"Unfortunately, I face the prospect of a wedding with my partner."
"Well... do you want to marry him?"
Another portion of the bottle vanished. "My father wishes me to, as does the Prince's father. I believe this may be a move on my father's part to protect me from the fighting in Lacour now, but it is good political sense as well. In all honesty, I am not
adverse to the marriage. The Prince is a likeable person, save for his aversion to responsibility..."
"Okay then. So..."
"Do you love your boyfriend?"
Opera recoiled slightly. "L-love him?"
"Well... I mean... I... I'd be a little unhappy if the guy died..."
"But you love him, do you not? You have come so far, all because you wish to protect him."
"Well, actually, it wasn't supposed to be this hard. I crashed my ship, so I've got to find him so that I can get back home on his ship."
"But you have traveled far, nonetheless? I think you have already been through quite an ordeal in your pursuit of him. We received word from Salva that a three-eyed woman slew the dragon plaguing the mines..."
"Yeah, that was me and a guy I ran into at the time," Opera admitted. "But I needed some local cash, and that was the fastest way to get it."
"So you had no trouble at all? I intend no offense, but your appearance suggests otherwise."
Opera glanced briefly at her clothing. Nothing was actually wrecked, but her evening gown would never again be fit to be used for its intended purpose, and even her bulletproof jacket had a few scuffs on it. "Well... I guess I had a little trouble. But
I'm alive, aren't I?"
"So you would have gone through all that for anyone?"
"Well..." Opera tried to picture what the situation would have been if someone else had done what Ernest had done. Say for example, her sister Opal. She would have gone after her, of course. Maybe stopped off at the Varagus Casino along the way for an afternoon of poker. Grabbed a bite to eat. More importantly, filled up on fuel. But she would have arrived eventually. But she wouldn't have run out of gas and she wouldn't have crashed as a result. She would have used her ship's sensors to locate her sister on the planet's surface within an hour, rendezvoused with Opal, given her hell for wasting time and for any money lost at the casino, and that would have been the end of it.
So maybe the fact that it had been Ernest had something to do with her present predicament. "Maybe not anyone."
"And you do not think you love him at all?"
Opera sighed, taking a slug from her bottle. "Look... sure, I... care about him. But it's not like some cheesy romance story love garbage, got it? We've been working together for five years, we've worked hard, we've been through some fairly dangerous stuff, and we've lived to tell about it."
Rosalia smiled. "And love cannot come from that?"
Opera paused in mid-drink, although her brain failed to provide any meaningful speech to formulate a reply.
"Although I very much doubt my life has been anywhere as chaotic as yours, you make me wonder at my own. I have known the prince almost my whole life, as one allied kingdom to another. We have done many things together while growing up. Far from what could be considered a fairy-tale romance, but I wonder if I have not come to care for him in a way. Even now, for all his irresponsibility, I still find myself worried about him..."
"How come?" Opera replied. "I mean, if the guy's such an insensitive jerk that he's just taking off, making you worry over him like this..." She trailed off slowly as she began to get an inkling of where Rosalia was headed.
"I wonder if our situations are really that dissimilar," the princess mused in reply. "Are you certain that you do not, in some fashion, hold some feelings for him?"
"Many a poet has said that love takes strange forms. You seem very protective of him. Could that be your way?"
"I... I don't know, okay? Ernest is a good friend of mine, we've been working together for a long time. Maybe... maybe I care for him some. So I'm going to find the guy and keep him from getting killed. What do you think about that?"
"What should I do?"
After realizing the parallel between herself and Rosalia, the situation immediately fell into focus for Opera. The answer was obvious. "You've got to find that idiot and knock some sense into him, for his own good! He's going to get himself killed otherwise. If he's been pampered all his life, he's not going to have a prayer outside of this castle! Or inside!"
"I think you are right in that respect."
"Can't they find him?"
"Unfortunately, they are trying to keep the Prince's disappearance a secret, so they cannot send out soldiers to search... and few commoners know what the Prince looks like. He is generally absent from social conventions and such, you understand."
"Well... I think you should just screw this whole secrecy business. Do you think he's still in the city?"
"Most likely. He would doubtless be afraid to leave the safety of the walls."
"Then he can't run very far. Just go down there and find him yourself!"
Rosalia recoiled slightly. "Myself? That would be... quite radical. I do not know if it would be safe..."
"Then get a couple soldiers if you have to, but find him and drag him back to his room and don't let him out until he gets a few things straight. He can be a Prince and act like one. Or he can get the hell out of the castle and not be royalty ever again. But make sure he understands that he can't act like a spoiled little brat for the rest of his life! He's got to stop running from reality!"
The princess was beginning to nod slowly between sips of the beer. "Perhaps you are right, Opera. He is to inherit the throne of Cross at some point... if he does not change, it could be disastrous..."
"You've got the idea. Just imagine what the diplomatic relations are going to be like between here and Lacour! He probably won't even show up for half the meetings! He's got to either shape up or get the hell out of the castle before he does some real
Two empty bottles were slammed down. "You're right, Opera. Absolutely right! I must do this not only for this kingdom, but for my own in the future. If it is not fixed now, there could be grave consequences in the future!!! I will take you to the King. And then I will take charge of this embarrassment myself!"
Opera looked over at the other empty bottle. "Whoa. You sure can hold your liquor."
Rosalia smiled as she headed for the doorway, footsteps not wavering in the slightest. "There is a story about when the Lacour army put down a rebellion many years ago. Upon an overwhelming victory, the Lacour soldiers warned that the next
time, they would show no mercy whatsoever. They would send their wives!"
Both of them laughed all the way down to the throne room.
"His Majesty awaits you."
"Thank-you," Rosalia replied. Turning to Opera. "Let us enter."
The throne room looked... like a throne room, Opera supposed. Lots of nice cloth and fine wood, all trimmed with gold and silver. Various officials and soldiers along the sides, with a big chair in the middle. On the chair... the king, naturally. Very royal.
"Rosalia," the king greeted, not the least unkindly.
"Your majesty," she answered. "You may recall several days ago, an individual came to request permission to enter the Mountain Palace."
"I most certainly do remember that. He was a very distinctive individual."
The king finally seemed to notice that the princess had come with someone else. "And I daresay another such individual now graces up with her presence."
In a few more minutes, Opera was either going retch from the sappy talking going on. Or else reluctantly accept a compliment or two. Diplomacy was for the birds.
"Opera," she greeted. "Opera Vectra. It sounds like Ernest came by here a few days ago."
"Yes, an individual by that name came by the other day. You are acquainted with him?"
"He's my boyfriend."
"I see. And what did you wish to know?"
"I'm trying to find the idiot before he gets himself killed."
"I fear that you may be a little late."
Opera blinked several times before managing to reply. "Excuse me? Are you saying that-"
The King chuckled lightly. "No, no, forgive me. No, he was quite healthy the last I saw of him. But he is heading towards the Mountain Palace."
"I heard that. What can you tell me about it?"
"It has been a fief of the King of Cross for as long as anyone can remember, though it has never been used. Nowadays, it is rife with creatures of an... unpleasant nature. I warned him as well, but he seemed adamant that he could not afford to delay. He had a great deal of experience in such matters, he said, so I granted him permission to enter."
Yes, Opera had to agree, Ernest had lots of experience in dangerous situations. But they all involved somebody between him and the dangerous situation - her. "Well, he's full of shit, so I've got to find him as soon as possible. Where's the Mountain Palace?"
"It is to the North. We can provide you a more detailed map if you are determined to follow him."
"I can take of myself. He's the one who going to get himself killed."
The King slowly nodded. "That being the case, I will give you a map and a letter of permission to enter the ruins, that you may follow him without delay. But be wary of the monsters that lurk within..."
"Great," Opera agreed. Now if things would just keep going right a little longer, she might be off this planet within a day or two!
Several minutes later, Opera was at the exit to
the castle, a map and a letter of permission tucked into her pouch. A step
behind her, Rosalia had followed her thus far.
"Thanks," Opera was saying, "for the help."
"It was no trouble. And you have more than repaid my help. You have shown me through example what I must do if I am to salvage this situation. I will waste no time in setting things right in regards to my fiancé! He cannot hide forever!"
"That's the idea," Opera slowly agreed. "Hey... are you sure you're okay? Your face looks a little red..."
"I am quite fine. As a matter of fact, I feel more alive than I have in quite some time."
Translation: Princess Rosalia Lacour was slightly sloshed after finishing an entire bottle of Meryti lager. And the liquid courage was finally beginning to take effect. "Uh huh. Anyway, don't do anything you'll regret later on, right? This prince guy is a jerk, and you might hate his guts, but he's no good to you dead, right?"
Rosalia shook her head. "I wonder..."
"Uh... you're planning on killing him?"
The princess laughed quietly. "I didn't mean it that way. But I wonder if I really do hate him?"
Opera thought back to what they'd talked about. "Maybe things aren't so clear-cut with this kind of stuff, huh?"
"Perhaps not. I will wish you luck in your pursuit, even as I begin my own."
"Don't be too nice to him, got it? It's all for his own good, right?"
"You got the idea."
To say that Opera left the town of Cross in a hurry
might have been an understatement. Not that she had any reason to stick around.
She'd learned what she needed to know. Now all she had to do was get herself
to the Mountain Palace and locate Ernest before he left the area.
And the last she'd seen of Rosalia, the princess had been about to lead two bewildered soldiers around the city proper and improer, making very little secret of the fact that she was looking for a missing prince. She didn't want to be anywhere near the
town when word got back to the king that his daughter-in-law was semi-plastered and on a manhunt for his son. Especially after they found the two empty bottles in the princess' quarters. All in all, it seemed like a great time to be scarce from the vicinity. It would probably be smart to stay away from Lacour too, in case the news traveled that far.
Regardless, she was walking cross-country again. It was apparently going to take a solid day to get to the Mountain Palace by foot, even counting the fact that she could probably manage to put off sleeping in the meantime. More boredom.
That was the worst thing about being stranded like this - there was nothing to keep occupied with. Whether it was because she'd thinned out the population or because word had somehow gotten around, the hostile lifeforms seemed to have stopped
bothering her altogether. She didn't even have Ashton for company now. Even arguing about the existence of luck was better than nothing.
As though she didn't really care that she might yet have to grow old and rot on this planet. As though she wasn't actually worried about Ernest possibly getting himself killed on this planet. As though she had nothing better to do than let her thoughts begin obsessing over Ernest again.
Although it was with no small amount of pride that she recalled the past few hours. She'd actually done it! She'd called Ernest her boyfriend with a straight face and without batting an eyelash in front of other people! Multiple times! Although saying it where it might get back to Ernest was definitely going to be another matter altogether.
But talking with Princess Rosalia had made things so much clearer to her. She wasn't some idiot girl with a mindless obsession over a guy that would inevitably lead to secret love-notes, cheesy stalking, and eventually, restraining orders. She was a thinking, rational woman who cared about someone enough to try and keep him alive, which would lead to... probably nothing. But it sure beat the first possibility. Something else might even come later.
She only needed to keep reminding herself of how things were. Everything she was doing might be on account of love, but the love was 100% free of idiocy and everything associated with romance novels. This kind of love was embodied in
practical action to keep Ernest from getting himself killed. It would then be embodied in a practical ass-kicking to make sure he didn't do it any time in the future. After that, she didn't know what it was going to be embodied in.
In the meantime, things were looking up.
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