As Aleen pushed the door open, she was again taken aback at just how opulent everything here was. The doors, on both sides, were carved with relief images of scenes from the country's history. She couldn't place most of them, but then she'd never really paid that much attention in history class.
The floors themselves were a mural of some kind, images of elves doing all sorts of heroic feats, some even fighting dragons. They seemed to go on for most of the entry way, completely covering the floor. There were statues, probably of past Kings and Queens and historical figures covering the walls set into small alcoves, and the roof itself was tall enough that Brumm could probably fit into it full size.
"You know, I've never asked... What do you want me to call you now?"
"I thought Ale would be fitting. I would just like to be you as much as I can, but I suppose you do need a name to call me when you'd like my attention."
"Sounds good to me..." She spent more time admiring the inside of the entryway, though she eventually realized that there was someone else in the room. She tore her attention away from her grand surroundings, realizing an older woman elf in a fancy waistcoat and suit was coughing to try to get her attention. "Sorry! I was just..." She waved her arms in a desperate attempt to put words to what she was feeling, or communicate it somehow, but eventually finishing with a somewhat-lame "It's so beautiful."
The woman offered her a knowing smile, nodding her head from behind the small desk she sat at just inside the door. "That it is. I do have to ask what you're doing inside here, however. The Palace was closed to visitors hours ago."
"Oh!" Aleen dug into her pocket retrieving her writ again. "I was told to give this to a Steward? It's from my Uncle." She stepped toward the older woman and placed the sealed paper, still pristine looking despite all she'd been through to get here, into her hand.
"Good thing I'm a Steward then." She offered Aleen a smile, and then looked to the writ. "Oh... Hm... This is from... Kethvm? You're his neice?" She tilted the seal the right way around. "I haven't seen this seal in years."
Aleen nodded, smiling a bit. "That I am. He sent me here to be his replacement."
The woman looked her over for a moment. "Hm. You don't look like much, but... appearances can be deceiving. Unfortunately the King and his family have already gone to bed. You'll have to wait to see them until morning, after other business is taken care of."
Aleen smiled nervously. "Oh, good. Is there... a place nearby I can get a room? I can..." She fished in the pocket of her backpack... and then remembered she'd been robbed in Bouldershade. "Oh..."
"Oh?" The woman raised a long, delicate eyebrow.
"I was robbed on the way here. I don't have any money."
The Steward laughed, waving a hand dismissively. "You'll be here as a guest of the King for the night. This way, please." She gestured with her other hand, writ still held in it, unopened, for Aleen to follow her as she stepped out from behind her desk.
"Oh! Well... great!" She quickly scurried after the woman, who walked much faster than she looked capable of. "What's your name?"
"I am Steward Unerine. You can just call me Steward Erin if you like."
Aleen nodded a few times, trying not to gawk at the insides of the Palace as they continued to walk through the thoroughly decorated halls. They were in the proper walkways now, with thick carpet underfoot that rendered their steps silent, tapestries of all sorts hung across the walls, and guards stood in nooks along the walls to prevent incursions from intruders or thieves. "What about dinner? Is there somewhere I could get something to eat?" She was starting to realize just how hungry she was, and dug in her pack to find that she was completely out of the food she'd bought way back in Eaglecrest.
"That is where I was going to lead you first, actually. It will take time to get a room ready." She glanced back to Aleen with a smile. "And we'll have to have something arranged for your clothing. You can't meet the King in that."
Aleen frowned a little, looking down at the jacket and pants she'd been given by the soldiers, and the boots she still had from home. "Well... okay. I guess."
"Don't worry, we'll clean those and have them sent back to you."
Aleen went quiet then, following the woman as she was lead through the palace, instead talking to her friend. "Can you believe this?"
"It is certainly more grand than where I visited before. This must be where they take dignitaries and representatives from organizations and countries. The dragons land in a hidden eyrie higher in the Palace, and we have our own meeting room with the King. That's all I've seen aside from a few back hallways."
"What can you tell me about the King?"
"He's a dour-looking old man but don't let that fool you. He's immensely interested in science and magic, and how they work together. He holds several patents for apparatus used in manufacturing. He's very, very smart and always knows more than he lets on."
"Sounds like a nice old guy I suppose..."
They were lead through a door by the Steward, who gestured for them to sit at a table. "A cook will be out soon to take your order, they have a small staff on hand at all hours to care for guards and guests and such that need a meal. I'll return shortly after your room is prepared."
"Thank you!" Aleen smiled and nodded happily as the woman stepped away.
It was then that Aleen learned just how hungry she actually was... and yet another change due to Merging; her appetite.
By the time the Steward returned, several cooks were standing near the table Aleen sat at, in awe at the pile of plates and bowls and all manner of eating implements piled high around Aleen, and even Steward Erin was taken aback at the sheer sight of it.
"I forgot to mention. You'll eat like a dragon now too."
"I'm so hungry! I'm so glad we didn't have to pay for any of this..." She was also glad that she didn't have to move her mouth to talk to Ale, as that meant she could continue shoveling food into it at a pace that would put champion eaters to shame.
Several long minutes later, filled with mutterings of 'where's it all going' 'she's like a bottomless pit' 'I've never seen anyone eat so much' and more, and Aleen was finally satisfied, her head resting gingerly on the table before her.
The Steward gently tapped her on the shoulder, and Aleen sat up with a start. "Sorry! I was... resting."
"Yes, I think anyone would want to rest after that." It wasn't clear whether her expression was disgust or awe, but she gestured for Aleen to follow her. "This way, please."
"Thank you! It was all delicious!" She waved to the stunned waitstaff as she left, leaving them to wave incredulously as she walked through the door after the Steward.
"I should have warned you."
"It's okay, I just... where is it all going."
"I'm still here. Just... inside of you. I have to eat too."
"I thought we shared the same body."
"We do, but I still have to have energy to keep up my part of the spell. That comes from the food you eat."
"Well, I hope the Palace is ready to put up with what we'll be costing them in food..."
"Our abilities for magic and what we can accomplish should more than pay for themselves."
"I sure hope so, or we'll be run out of the Kingdom for eating half of it."
They were brought to their room in short order, and the Steward bowed just outside of it. "I'll have a ... trolley brought up with breakfast for you." She didn't seem to think that would be enough, judging from the tone of her voice. "We'll come collect you when the King is ready to receive you in the morning."
Aleen nodded, and bowed at the waist for the Steward. "Thank you so much for your help. Goodnight!"
"Goodnight." The Steward took her leave, and Aleen stepped into her room.
"Oh wow..." She gawped openly at the room, the huge bed that could fit her whole family, the decorative carpet across the room's floor, and even more tapestries and paintings spread across the walls. "Ale... it's all so beautiful..."
She had to wipe a tear away from her eye, suddenly finding herself overcome with the sniffles.
"I just thought my mom and my Uncle would be so proud to see us now. We made it, we've done what nobody else has, and we're going to meet the King tomorrow..." She wiped tears away again, making her way into the center of the room. "I miss them both so much."
She took some time to spin around and take in all the trappings of the room, the paintings, tapestries, statues and fine furniture that she was provided, even if it was just a guest bedroom for a single night.
"I'm sure more now than ever that you'll see them again. It's just a matter of time. And remember, you have a lot of time."
That brought a smile to her lips, and she was able to get her tears under control. "You're right..." She stepped to the bed, where a long, silken gown lay over the sheets. "What's this?"
"Looks like a nightgown. You're supposed to wear it to bed."
"Oh... I've always just slept in my underwear before." She held it up, feeling how light it was and how soft the fabric felt against her fingers. "It seems like it'd be really comfortable..."
She quickly stripped herself out of her traveling clothes, placing her backpack with her trusty bedroll and waterskin, and the remnants of the wrappers of what was left of her trail food, and slipped into the nightgown. It felt like clouds against her skin, and she couldn't help but dance and twirl around her room for a few minutes to feel how it moved and clung to her skin. "It is really comfortable."
"Try the bed!" Ale seemed excited to experience it for herself too.
Aleen giggled, prancing over to the bed and lept upon it, landing with a muffled 'fwump' as she sunk directly into the sheets and mattress. "Oh wow! It's so soft..." She extended her arms and just relaxed, letting her face stay pressed against the pillowy bed beneath her. "I could get used to this."
She eventually properly situated herself in bed, laying down under the sheets with them pulled up against her chin, eyes closed as she finally settled in for the night. "Ooh... yeah... I can definitely get used to how this feels..."
"It's definitely better than rocks and dirt."
"Soo much better..." She dropped off to sleep within moments of trying, cradled by the exquisitely soft mattress and sheets beneath her.
One of the other Stewards, a man this time, came to collect her in the mid-morning. He'd also come to collect what was left of the food on the trolley that had been delivered to the room earlier in the day, and was completely mortified that not only had Aleen eaten all of it, she was asking for more. He assured her that there would be food in the Viewing Room, where she'd be meeting the King, and waited for her to change into the clothes she'd been brought.
"I look like an old woman!" Aleen protested, as she looked at herself in the mirror. They'd brought her elaborate robes to wear, likely something supposed to represent the position she'd be applying for as Court Mage. The arms of the robe were comically long, hanging well down past Aleen's waist. "How am I supposed to make spellforms in this if I can't even see my hands?" She held them up, and the ends of the sleeves drooped over her hands and fell long past her wrists.
"I think it gives us a nice, mystical look. And, trust me, Aleen, with our chest no one will ever mistake us for an old woman."
"It's true. I mean, look at us!" She turned to the side and stuck her chest out, clearly protruding well out from the rest of her body.
Aleen felt her cheeks coloring, and she quickly regained control of herself to take a more dignified pose. "Stop that!"
"What? I can't want to look good for all the elven ladies?"
Aleen blushed even more, starting to turn bright red, her ears drooping. "Ale!"
"You never did let me answer what sort of people I liked. And I guess you're just lucky that I also like women."
"Oh you're insufferable!" She brought herself back under control again, just in time for the door to open a crack.
"Are you ready? The King is ready in the Viewing Room."
"Oh! Yes!" She looked around the room, making sure that she wasn't forgetting anything, but honestly she didn't have that much to bring. She quickly joined the Steward outside of her room, her robe trailing across the floor. "Is it really supposed to be this big?"
"Well..." The Steward looked her up and down. "The last applicant lasted a few weeks so they had new robes made. He was... a bit taller than you are."
"If you make it more than a few days they'll have new ones made for you."
"Well... that's alright I guess. What happened to him?"
"The stress of the job, I suppose. He left through the front door raving about being overworked."
She pursed her lips a bit, then followed as the Steward led the way down the hall. "What... does the Court Mage do, exactly?"
The Steward glanced back at her with an incredulous look. "You don't know?" He turned back forward, huffing a 'huh' before he continued. "The Court Mage handles all matters magical that the King faces. Designing new apparatus for magical use, testing new spells, solving problems. Your audition will be demonstrating your magical knowledge for the King."
Aleen turned inward as they continued following the Steward down the hall. "Uh... I don't actually know that much magic, Ale."
"We'll think of something, don't worry."
They were led to a large double door, which the steward pushed open. "Presenting Aleen Gelenson, as recommended by Kethvm Gelenson!" He waited only long enough for Aleen to step through before the doors shut with an echoing slam, leaving Aleen alone in the room with a tall, thin man in a white coat, leaning on a golden cane. He wore bright red boots in a marching style, and his thinning hair exposed his pate on top of his head. This was a very old elf indeed. Unsure of what else to do, Aleen simply waited to be given instructions. She also sampled from the promised food tray near the door, though she tried to keep herself to a somewhat dignified pace.
"I feel like I've heard the name Aleen before..." The King's voice was deep and resonated within the room, and when he turned around to stare at her, his bright blue eyes pierced her quite like Ale's had done the first time they met. "Hmm..." He also noticed that she was still shoving her face full of food.
He stepped to his desk, resting his cane against it, and took his seat to begin rifling through his papers. "Here we are..." He held up a paper, a red stamp in the top right corner. "The elf so named Aleen made her way through Dragonward, accompanied by a dragon Brummunn, writ sealed by the Court Mage's official seal. All efforts were made to escort them safely through the city, and they continued on their way without incident."
He lowered the paper, looking down his long nose at her with a frown. "This report was delivered to me several days ago. And now you turn up here with a writ." He held up the note that her Uncle had given her, the seal now broken. "Telling me that you're to replace your Uncle as Court Mage." He stood, taking his cane in hand again, and made his way around the front of his desk to lean against it and watch Aleen appraisingly.
"Now... I know I am getting old, and my eyesight and hearing isn't what it used to be, but I distinctly remember the message mentioning a dragon. None of my staff have reported a dragon. And I don't see a dragon before me." He let his hands rest upon his cane as he leaned forward, watching Aleen very carefully now. "I believe I am owed an explanation as to where this dragon has disappeared to. And given how much food you're shoveling into your mouth, I believe I might just know where said dragon has disappeared to."
Embarrassed, she dropped the biscuit she was about to eat, but before Aleen could speak, she felt her mouth move, and a voice very much not her own answered the King's question. "I am here, my King."
His jaw dropped at that. "No..." He reached behind him, his hand shaking slightly, and grabbed a pair of spectacles from the desk to place upon his nose. He approached with a quickness Aleen hadn't expected from a man his age, quickly circling her and looking her up and down from every angle. "When they told me you ate more than ten men, I didn't believe them. When I was told that you no longer had a dragon accompanying you, I didn't believe them. When I saw you here still eating after demolishing a trolley of food meant for a family, I still didn't want to believe them. But... you've actually done it, haven't you?" He stopped in front of her, gazing into her eyes as if trying to see the dragon within them. "You've Merged."
"Yes... my King." She wasn't sure how else to respond. "Three days before we arrived here in Valhallom." She decided that being completely truthful with him was the only way to continue forward, as she was obviously caught. "I was chosen at my village of Newnham, and I traveled with Brummunn", using their old name as to not confuse the King further, "From there through Eaglecrest and Bouldershade, and down through Dragonward."
"And you managed to give the slip to the Wyrmhunters the whole way." He pursed his lips, thinking of something. "Hmm..." He moved quickly back to his desk, starting to rifle through papers, murmuring to himself. "Let's see..." He held up one paper. "Dragon sighting in Eaglecrest..." Another. "Building burning down in Bouldershade..." He lifted the military missive again. "And all the way to Dragonward..."
He lowered his spectacles so he could look at her. "You managed to cross, all the way from Newnham, through the countryside, burned down a known gang headquarters in Bouldershade, evaded the Wyrmhunters in their very seat of power, and managed to get all the way to Valhallom by yourself. And your dragon friend of course. Is that true?"
"I... didn't know it burned down." She admitted. "They were going to kill me."
"Yes... there were several reports of an elf... " he lifted another paper to read from it. " 'Fleeing the scene of a known gang hideout with a visible gunshot wound.' So it seems you did manage to attract attention on the way here. Were you actually shot?"
"Er... yes." She shuddered slightly at the memory of it and the pain it caused. "With... the dragon's help, I was able to heal myself."
"Hmm... hmm..." He put his hand on his chin. "I see..." He carefully arranged all the papers on his desk back into their proper place. "I can really only see one thing to do you with you. We can't have a Merged pair wandering the country."
Aleen's ears drooped and she felt her heart drop down into her stomach. "I... but..."
"You'll have to stay here as the Court Mage, so we can keep an eye on you and ensure that your power is used properly."
"I... what?" She tilted her head, confused. She'd been expecting to be tossed in jail at the earliest convenience.
"We'll have to take measures to hide what you really are. Which means that you'll have to be brought food in your room so no one sees just how much you eat. Rumor's already starting to spread after your display in the kitchens."
Aleen laughed, embarrassed, then realized what he meant with a quiet "Oh..."
"And you'll be paid, of course. With access to the Mage's Quarters and Library. We'll put you to good use, don't worry. I do have a question, however." He leaned across the desk. "According to your Uncle's writ he trained you, but not that much. What magic do you know?"
"Uh... several spellforms and a few modifiers. And... um... That's kind of all.", she admitted.
"I see. We can't send you off to the Academy, that'd raise too many questions. I'll arrange for a tutor to meet you in your Quarters tomorrow. However," He sat back down in his desk, steepling his hands and watching her. "We will be keeping tabs on you. We expect you two to be on your absolute best behavior. We know exactly how dangerous a Merge can be." He gestured behind him, where the Southern Deserts were just visible in the distance. "I will not allow something like you to run rampant in my Kingdom. Is that understood?"
Aleen gulped heavily at the thinly-veiled threat. "Y-yes sir."
"Good. The Steward will lead you to your room. Dismissed." He waved his hand dismissively and turned his attention to his desk once more. As if on cue, the door behind her opened.
Her heart beating a million miles an hour in her chest, she bowed as she backed out of the room, only straightening as the door was closed again and the same Steward as before gestured for her to follow him. "With me, please."
"Yeah... sure." She let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.
"That could have gone better."
"It also could have gone a lot worse than it did..."
The Mage's Quarters were on the other side of the Palace from the viewing room, requiring a nearly ten-minute walk. The Steward didn't say much while leading Aleen there, leaving the two of them alone to talk amongst themselves.
"I guess we weren't as stealthy as you hoped while making our way here."
"No, I guess not. We weren't ever caught by the Wyrmhunters, though, so I imagine that counts for something."
"I suppose so. But if the King could track us here, I'm sure they could. How long do you think before they realize what we've done?"
"It might take some time. And they wouldn't try anything in the Capital. We'll have to be careful when we leave Valhallom, though. Never know what they might do."
"I was hoping things would be a little less complicated than this."
"We both knew that what we were trying to do could bring us a lot of attention. We'll just have to deal with things as they come."
"Yeah... when are we going to go see your dragon friend?"
"As soon as we get a moment. I haven't mentioned it yet because we haven't really had reign to walk around the Palace. And these robes are heavy, we need to change."
"Hopefully there's clothes in the Mage's Quarters. Speaking of..." She looked up as they approached something that looked quite different from the rest of the Palace. The lights here were magical, not electrical, and rather than all the ornament and glamour of the rest of the castle, this area looked left purposefully bland and clean. The walls seemed to have solemn purpose to them, rather than the rest of the Palace they'd seen that had meant to show off the wealth and status of the Kingdom.
The Steward stopped before a small door in the end of the hallway, gesturing with a hand. "Your Quarters. Touch the knob and they will key to you, and only you will be able to enter."
Aleen nodded, reaching forward to press her hand against the door. She let out a little yelp of pain as the handle zapped her hand, and began to glow a bright blue before the door swung open of it's own accord.
"Enjoy." With that the Steward simply left, leaving Aleen to herself.
She stepped into the Quarters, closing the door behind her, and as she did magical lights sprung to life in every corner, illuminating her surroundings. The Quarters seemed purposefully built to emulate a dark, deep cavern, with lanterns like stalactites hanging down from the ceiling which varied in height, and almost every corner of the room was filled with books and equipment. "Woow...", Aleen breathed, slowly taking in the sight of everything around her.
"There's equipment here I haven't seen before and don't remember. They're either newly made, or very, very old."
She nodded as she made her way around the room, speaking aloud to Ale as they were now alone in the space together. "It's... beautiful. Different than the rest of the palace. Subdued but still grand. It's very clear that whoever designed these Quarters put their heart into them..." She slowly explored, finding a room with a writing desk for writing papers or drawing up blueprints and designs, another room full of shelf upon shelf and drawer upon drawer of metal parts and bits and pieces, probably for prototyping and building magical machines and equipment, drawers upon drawers filled with chalk for drawing spells and rituals in every color imaginable and some that neither of them had a name for, and so many books she wondered how she'd ever read all of them.
Eventually she came upon the bedroom, and unlike the rest of the chambers it was small and simple and cozy, a small bed set into the corner furthest from the door, a wardrobe, a door to what was probably a closet, a smaller desk, and a window that looked out over the city that filled one wall. Aleen gasped as she pulled back the curtain, revealing the vista beyond. They were clearly several stories up, and the window looked out over a bustling square, filled to the brim with people and travelers, Carriages and wagons. "Wow..." She laughed as she leaned onto the windowsill, just... watching. "So many things I've never seen before."
She pulled herself away from the window, finally, moving to the closet door on the other side of the room. She opened it to reveal a large walk-in area, filled with clothes and robes, shoes and pants and skirts and jewelery and every manner of accessory and clothing item that she could think of. "Oh... my... Gods... We're going to spend a lot of time in here."
Aleen walked out a few minutes later, in a sea-green waistcoat, shirt, and skirt, light tan walking boots on her feet. Her purple hair flowed out from her shoulders, loose without a ponytail or braid, as she was overcome with the urge to dance. She felt good, very good, and she could feel that Ale felt the same. They felt as one, for a short moment, as her legs moved and her feet danced. She didn't know who was in control for now, herself or Ale or both of them, and for the first time since they Merged she could feel them moving in unison as they stepped and twirled, spun and danced, their skirt flowing and billowing, waving in the wind as they followed their emotions in the steps of the dance, their hair flying out around them in thick purple waves and tresses. She finally stopped only when she was breathless, sitting herself down upon the edge of the bed.
"What was that?"
"We danced. It just... felt like something we needed to do."
"It did... I couldn't tell which one of us was moving..."
"We both were, I think. We both wanted to dance, and we were in sync."
She smiled brightly, gently stroking a hand over her skirt to smooth it. "That was nice. We should do it more often." She looked up at the ceiling of the room above, trying to recapture the flowing stillness of the moment they're shared when they both simply danced in unison, two minds cooperating perfectly to move the same body.
"It might be a good idea. Anyway, we should go find my friend. I believe I remember the way."
Aleen nodded, letting Ale take over as she headed toward the door of her Quarters. "Lead the way, I'll just watch."
"Can do, me."
She relaxed and let Ale take the reins, resigning herself to watch and observe, let her friend do the moving for them for now. She had a lot to think about.