“Well,” the king said, turning to his wife, “what do you make of this?”
The queen glanced at the head and shuddered. “Please, good sir, hide it again from our gaze.”
Antony nodded and quickly bundled the head back into its wrapping.
“Do we know of anyone in the northern regions capable of such magic?” she continued.
“No one that our kingdom is aware of, Majesty,” Antony said as he finished tying the bundle. “We must take into consideration that the giants know how to use stormstone and might use it to destroy the closer regions.” He turned to look at the royalty in front of him. “I volunteer myself to look into the issue and to see exactly where we stand in the issue.”
“No, betrothed,” Helen said. “The giants are a violent race. They might kill you. I will not let that happen.”
Antony smiled, patting her hand sympathetically. “It will only a scouting, betrothed,” he said. “I will not land anywhere.”
“How do your parents stand with this?” the king said
“Naturally, they are against it,” Antony responded. “But I feel that I will be alright.”
The king sighed. “We cannot stop you, but if ever you need our help, we will assist.” He rose from his seat. “Now, I call this morning session finished. One hour break until the afternoon session.”
The assembly broke up. The daughters stood up, and with the queen walking behind them, walked out of the room.
Helen looked at the packages and shuddered. “What will happen to them?”
“Honestly, I do not know,” Antony said. He gestured for the guard to come to him, and he gave the head to him. “This needs to be given to Murice.” He turned to Helen. “That is the name for the Natural Studies teacher, isn’t it?”
Helen nodded, and Antony turned back. “Yes, give it to Murice for their examinations, please.”
“Yes sir,” the guard shot back, saluting. He grabbed the bag and walked out of the room.
“And the stormstone?” Helen asked.
“That still needs to be looked into.” He looked at the person coming into the room and nodded. “I think we found who can take care of it for the moment.”
Helen turned to see Sage coming up to them, her face pale, shocked, and distracted. “Teacher, what are you doing here?”
“I felt its arrival a few minutes ago,” Sage said, eyeing the remaining package. “What is it?”
Sage thrust her hand at it and made a warding gesture – her left ring and index fingers touching the thumb, the other two fingers standing up straight. “How did you get it?”
“I found it in a scouting mission in the Ponhill Wastes in Sankarn,” Antony said. “I thought that it would be best not to have others find it, so I brought to my castle. My parents thought it best to let my betrothed family know as well.”
Sage put down her arm, but did not release the gesture. “It must be destroyed. A stone this size would cause mischief all across the Kingdoms.”
“We don’t know how,” Antony said. “Personally, I thought of handing it over to you for the moment while I discuss the matter with the King.”
Impossible as it seemed, Sage’s face grew paler. “I-I cannot.” She took a step back. “The temptation to use it would be too great.”
Helen nodded and gently patted her teacher’s shoulder. “It is okay. It was only a question.”
“There was another item?” Sage inquired.
“A giant’s head,” Helen said. She said it in tones of wonder. “It was so big.”
“I sent it to Murice for his studies.”
Sage nodded, finally relaxing. “Yes, they would be thrilled at examining such a thing.”
A muffled gong rang through the hallway and the room.
“Lunch,” Antony said. He went over to the package and picked it up.
“Are you sure you can carry it, Prince?” Sage said, worry showing in her eyes.
“Do not worry, Teacher,” Antony said. “Sevilind’s grace protects me.”
The trio walked silently down the halls and passed through a heavily carved archway of green-banded stone. Panels of dark wood covered the walls of the room beyond. A simply carved banquet table with matching chairs, enough to seat eight, positioned themselves at the far right of the room while at the other side, a more elaborate table covered with a brightly striped cloth sat. There, several steaming trays of various foodstuffs and glistening silver pitchers waited to be served. Servants stood at a respectable distance in the middle of the room.
Helen noticed that the king and queen were sitting alone at the other table. She called out to them. “Father, where are Clarissa and Rubella?”
“They are taking their meals in their rooms,” the queen said. “They claim the sight of the decapitated head turned their delicate stomachs.” She sniffed sharply, showing how little she approved of the act.
Antony placed the package on a side table next to the doorway and followed Helen to the table. He turned around to see Sage standing next to the stone, eyeing the package with distaste.
“I cannot stay,” she said. Antony noticed her hand was still locked in gesture. “I will not stay.” She turned and walked, almost ran, out of the room and down the hall.
Helen and Antony exchanged glances, and he shrugged slightly. He walked over to Helen’s chair and gently pushed it back, letting her sit before he did.
One of the servers left the line to grab cups while another took the pitchers. The cupbearer placed them, finely blown glass goblets of blue and green, at each of the left side of the seaters. The other poured chilled wine into the glasses, red for the males and white for the ladies. After putting the pitchers in the middle of the table, the two quietly went back in line. Another two placed linen napkins before the family and placed elegantly wrought silverware about it.
Antony took his glass and raised it slightly to the King as the helpers bustled about. “A toast to the Crown of Gaynesford,” he intoned gravely. “May the Crown never fall.”
King Ephraim nodded and took up his own glass. “May the Crown never fall.”
All four took small sips from their glasses.
The king gestured and four servers left their places to take the first steaming tray to the table. One placed the tray on the table and removed the chased copper top to reveal four portions of food on faultless white bowls: Wide translucent noodles, sauced spicy red, piled into a nest shape while a small, poached egg sat in the depression. Small leaves garnished the dishes.
“Glass noodles?” Antony asked. “It looks delicious.” He nodded thanks to the server who adroitly placed the plate in front of him and took up his fork. After piercing the egg, he took a small bit of the noodles and placed it in his mouth. “Mmm.”
Helen smiled a bit before digging into her plate. The heat from the sauce delicately tickled her tongue. “The chef has outdone himself.” Antony nodded as he sipped from his glass.
The king cleared his throat. “Prince, if I may inquire as to your thoughts on the stone.”
Antony swallowed another forkful of egg and noodles before answering. “I cannot say. We have our vault, but I cannot make the guarantee that it will be safe. If there is any sign of its appearance, anyone with any magical prowess will be able to feel it. Like Helen’s potion teacher did.”
“I was wondering why she was here,” the queen said. “It is not like her to come to the throne room.”
“She was shocked when she found out what the package was,” Helen said. She sipped some of the wine, her mouth flooding the sweet-tart flavor of ripe plums. “After that, she didn’t want to be around it.”
“I thought I would give it to her for safekeeping,” Antony said. “Guess that suggestion went poorly.”
One of the servants whisked away the plates and the tray while another placed a deep tray, almost a casserole pan, in front of them and removed the cover, showing four thick slabs of white flesh, browned to a wonderful tan, resting on a bed of purple rice and surrounded by small tomatoes and onions. A third one took up a broad spatula and carefully placed each steak on plates, giving hearty portions of the rice and vegetables on the side.
“How is your son?” Anton continued, digging into his plate.
“Tytus is doing well enough,” the king said. “Currently on a diplomatic mission with Bridgewell about the possibility of the orcs invading their province.”
“I do not know which is worse,” the queen said, “either orcs or the stormstone.”
“Let us be thankful that orcs cannot use that sort of magic,” Helen said, slicing a chunk of her steak and placing it in her mouth.
Antony nodded. “Indeed, betrothed.” He drained his cup only to have one of the servants magically appear and fill it back up. “I am also glad the gnolls do not know either.”
The king rolled his eyes heavenwards and uttered a prayer to the gods above.
A few minutes later, the servants removed the empty dishes and the tray. The last tray was presented to the four, an assortment of small pastry tarts, cakes, and cookies in elegant paper trays inside.
Helen smiled in delight and picked out a tempting cherry tart partially dipped in chocolate. The king passed a hazelnut cake to the queen and chose a small pecan pie. Antony selected a dark fudge brownie studded with nuts.
The servants went around, removing the wine glasses. One last attendant placed before them a porcelain tea set and poured out a mahogany brew in striped teacups. She passed them down and placed bowls of sugar and cream near the cookie tray.
The king gestured again, and the line of servants bowed and curtsied before leaving the room.