"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Friday, July 13, 2007

Pelean's Jewel, Part VI

Sir Brennan was sitting by the willow where Tallow had left his clothes when the boy stepped out of the water into the last faint light of sunset. He offered a towel.

"I was starting to worry," he said. "You were gone a long time. Did you learn anything?"

"Yes," Tallow said, swiping the towel across himself carelessly and struggling to get his still-damp legs into his trousers. "Lots of things." He looked up at the knight, who frowned at the boy's troubled expression. "I need to speak to the queen. Can you take me to her?"

"Tell me whatever it is, and I will make sure she hears it."

The boy shook his head. "I promised I would tell her myself. Can you help me do that?"

Sir Brennan paused. "Who did you make this promise to, Tallow?"

"To the dragon. I didn't go looking for him!" he added in a rush, before the captain could interrupt. "He found me. And we talked, and all of this has been a terrible mistake, and I have to talk to the queen because I promised and because I don't think anyone else can make it better. Please."

Sir Brennan rubbed a hand across his face. "I'm going to be demoted to stableboy," he muttered to himself. He stood and handed Tallow his shirt. "Get dressed. We might be able to catch her before she retires."

He escorted Tallow through the palace and into the queen's audience chamber. As they crossed that long, elegant room filled with nobles who lifted their brows and wrinkled their perfect noses at the sight of him, Tallow felt very small and scruffy, and very frightened as well.

They stood to one side as an earl gave the queen a long speech about why he thought his lands were being taxed more than his neighbor's. When he was done, the queen's advisors began arguing; half seemed to be for the earl and half against him. Queen Lilias sighed and looked out the window until they were done.

"Lord Jenner," she said when she could be heard, "while it is true that I have never seen your lands, I have more than once dined at your home here in town. And I think that if your lands were half so poor as you make them sound, that home would not be half so grand, or half so lavishly furnished.

"It was, however," she continued dryly, "a valiant attempt to defraud the royal treasury. I admire your courage."

The earl started to object, and she held up a hand to forestall him. "If you are unhappy with the profits your lands yield, I suggest you go oversee them personally. For at least a year," she said mildly.

"But, Your Majesty—" Lord Jenner began.

"I strongly suggest it," she added, not at all mildly. With a great deal of bowing and apologetic muttering, Lord Jenner left the court.

"My word," murmured Sir Brennan, sounding both surprised and approving. The queen's advisors stood there looking stunned and uncomfortable. No one else seemed to want to come forward.

"Our turn, I think," the captain whispered to Tallow, and brought him before the queen. If she was startled to be presented with a slightly damp common child, she was too well bred to show it. Sir Brennan bowed, and Tallow awkwardly imitated him.

"Your Majesty," Sir Brennan said. "This is Tallow. He works here in the palace. He is a shifter, and I asked him to go into the stream as a fish to gather information about the dragon. I had hoped to find a way to reclaim your jewel without anyone being injured," he admitted. "Tallow has learned something which he says he can only tell you."

"Then I must hear it," she agreed, and turned her emerald eyes to the boy and nodded encouragingly. "You may speak."

"Captain Sir Brennan told me not to go near the dragon," Tallow began, quaking in his shoes but determined not to get anyone except himself in trouble. "But while I was in the stream, I heard that the dragon wasn't in his cave. I snuck into it, and the dragon caught me snooping around. There's been a mistake, Your Majesty. He didn't know you had lost the jewel—he thought you dropped it into the stream for him, as a gift. He didn't understand why the knights attacked. They frightened him."

The queen looked at Sir Brennan, and Sir Brennan looked at his shoes. "My fault, I'm afraid," the queen said gently. "I sent them."

Tallow twisted his hands together in front of him. "He gave the jewel to me to bring back to you," he said, his voice hardly above a whisper. "I had it in my hand, but I left it there with him. Now I am the reason you don't have it, and I am the one you must punish for its loss. Not him." Behind him, Sir Brennan closed his eyes in chagrin and began contemplating his probable future as Faerie's oldest and most noble stableboy.

"Why did you let him keep it when he was willing to give it back?" the young queen asked curiously.

He had expected to be instantly taken away for punishment, or perhaps simply tossed out of the kingdom. Surprise make him stumble over his answer.

"I—I thought he deserved it, Your Majesty," he stammered. Her eyebrows rose, but she still seemed more curious than angry.

"And why did you think that?"

So he told her, about the wasps' nests and the trash and the tiny, sparkling fish who could not bear the winter. He spoke of lurking eels and tree limbs fallen in storms and a century of lonely work, for love of a place and a people who ignored him.

"He thought you were giving him the jewel," Tallow repeated at the end. "He did not know you had lost it. He thought you were thanking him. And I…I thought he should be thanked. So I did."

He drew a deep breath and stood up straighter, looking at Sir Brennan to remind himself to be brave. "I should not have thanked him with something that was not mine to give. I did not think of that until afterward, but I was wrong and I will take my punishment, Your Majesty."

Her advisors buzzed around her like wasps, jostling each other in their eagerness to speak, but Queen Lilias did not listen to them. She was thinking of tiny opalescent fish glimmering as they passed through a sunbeam, of clear sweet waters and a hundred years alone. She turned to her personal guard, a craggy-faced troll who spoke rarely and then said only brief and sensible things.

"Get rid of them, Mistral," she said softly. "I am sick to death of their racket. You and Sir Brennan and the boy will stay. The rest must go."

When a large, armed troll wants you to leave, you leave. The advisors and nobles protested loudly, but they went all the same. As Mistral shut the great double doors against the last of them, the queen rose from her throne and stepped down from the dais on which it stood. Tallow felt as if he should bow again when she came closer, so he did.

"If you don't mind, Your Majesty, I'd like to know what my punishment will be," he said. "The waiting is awful."

The queen smiled at him then. "How could I punish you for generosity? And indeed, I am no worse off now than I was an hour ago. Perhaps," she mused, "your kindness has even created an opportunity that was not there before. Tell me about this dragon," she said, drifting toward the windows.

"His name is Pelean, and he was very nice to me. He didn't have to be, either, since I snuck into his home to steal from him."

"The dragon has a name?" she asked, surprised.

"Of course he does. Doesn't everyone?"

She set her fingertips on the windowsill and looked out over the rolling hills of her kingdom. "Does everyone? Do I? Sometimes I forget that I was ever called anything but 'Your Majesty'," she murmured.

Sir Brennan looked at her then, startled, and for the very first time saw not a royal being who formed the epicenter of all his duty, but a real person who might wonder and doubt and struggle as he did. Tallow looked at the floor, ashamed to realize that he did not know her name.

She turned away from the window. "Do you think he might speak to you again, this Pelean?"

Tallow nodded. "Yes, I think so. Actually...he's expecting me."

"Then I will ask a favor of you, Tallow. Will you go to him tomorrow, and ask him to meet me a week from today, at the bridge where I lost the jewel? I will personally guarantee his safety, and I do not expect him to bring the jewel. I only wish to speak with him myself."

Sir Brennan frowned. "Your Majesty, the creature may be dangerous."

"Then you will stand at my right hand, and Mistral will stand at my left," Queen Lilias said, not the least bit troubled by his warning. "But if he will come I will speak with him."

© 2007 by the author. All rights reserved.

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