The duo was escorted to the parlor by smartly-dressed guards in cream livery slashed with crimson on the sleeves. The room was tastefully done in panels of mahogany; the floor was put in large, hexagonal tiles of honey granite. Wide chairs, their arms and seats upholstered in plain white silk, squatted on one side, surrounding a table that appeared to be carved from a solid piece of albino oak. On the other, a fireplace of chocolate marble blazed merrily, warming the room, as a tall cabinet made of the same wood as the table positioned itself on a corner.
As they came in, they were followed by several maids dressed in starched linens that crackled with every movement. One opened the cabinet to pull out a folded tablecloth that she draped over the table, showing an extremely lacy design of crocheted roses and tulips. Another reached up inside, pulled out plump pillows of brown linen, and placed them against the seats. Three more maids opened the cabinet’s drawers to take out plates of exceptionally thin porcelain.
“I must say,” Helen said as they sat down, “whoever decorated this room is a marvel.” She gently patted the pillow, finding it was stuffed with goose down.
“The princess is too kind,” one of the passing maids said in a soft voice, giving her a quick curtsy, the linens rustling like leaves being crushed.
“Please bear with us,” another maid said just as softly, curtsying. “His majesty, the prince, has been wounded in a fight a few days ago, and the kings are looking after him for a moment.
“What?” Helen said, rising up. “How did it happen?”
“Hush, sister,” Edward said, grabbing her arm and gently pulling her down. “I know you must be worried about this, but we have to obey protocol.”
Helen sighed and nodded. “I know, brother. It is just that I did not know of this happening. The king should have been told.”
“Hello? Hello there?”
The maids parted before the figure at the door. Helen looked at the person. He? She? was hunched over and dressed in deep grey, a cloak of pale grey tossed carelessly over her shoulders. The hair was pure white and looking like a cloud; the face was plainly fashioned. In fact, Helen thought, she was reminded of the earth elemental.
“I am Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor,” the being said, the name sounding like winds through the trees. “I am what you would call a tempest, though I have been also been called—”
“An air elemental,” Edward said, smiling. He rose from his seat and bowed slightly. Helen did the same. “We met one of your cousins back home earlier today.”
“Really now?” the being said, walking swiftly to them that it appeared to be floating. “I would not be surprised to find them over there. Especially with what has been happening.”
“We just heard about my betrothed,” Helen started, but the elemental shook its head as it positioned itself into the chair between the two.
“No, highness.” Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor looked around the room, but the maids already left. The elemental leaned closer anyway. “I hear there have been battles up in the northern regions. War has been declared among the giant tribes.” Dawn purple eyes narrowed as Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor looked at Helen. “I am sure you know the reason why.”
The elemental nodded slowly and solemnly. “The moment your betrothed took it from the grasp of the earth, it was felt by all of my kindred. We scoured the land, looking for the earth’s offering, and we found it here.”
“The clayfolk we met earlier said something to that effect, also,” Edward said. “That is why we are here, to take it and to give it back to you.”
Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor nodded. “A wise choice.”
There was a knock on the doorway, and a large maid of generous proportions wheeled in a tea trolley filled with a steaming pot of tea, a small cream pitcher, and a small bowl filled with pink and white sugar cubes.
“Pardon my ignorance,” Helen said as the maid poured the tea into delicate cups painted with gold and red fish, “but what is a tempest?”
Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor smiled briefly, a quick curving of lips. “We are storm elementals.” The elemental raised a hand to prevent the maid from handing over a cup. “We represent disturbances in the air: gales and gusts mostly, but we have tornados and hurricanes as well.”
“How interesting,” Edward said, eyeing the maid as she placed a triple-tiered tower of cookies and cakes next to the teapot. “We do not get that many of your kind, or the other three in fact, in our kingdom,” he said apologetically. “So excuse me for asking if you act as personifications of those winds or if you are actually them.”
“We are both,” Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor said. “We represent them as well as be them. If I was a calmer wind, I would demonstrate, but this,” the elemental waved a hand over its body, “is concentrated storm wind. If I were to dissipate, I would likely to create a mess.”
Helen nodded, reaching over to add cream and a sugar cube to her cup. She gently stirred the two around the tea, then helped herself to the cookie tray. “According to my natural studies teacher, your kind generally ignores our activities.”
Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor frowned slightly. “ ‘Generally’ covers it for the most part.” The elemental placed its arms on the table and looked at the princess over laced fingers. “It is rare that an elemental places attention to a specific event or object the Provinces or the other creatures do or find, but we are willing to make exceptions.”
“Like what is going on right now?”
“Indeed.” Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor eyed the maid standing discreetly against the wall. “Please inform the king that the guests would like to see him at his earliest convenience.”
The maid curtsied and walked out of the room.
“That is to prevent anyone from listening in. But to help with the matter…” The elemental removed the cloak from its shoulder and flung the cloth to the doorway.
The cloak unfolded, straightening up into a rectangular plane the length and width of the door, and floated itself to the doorway, wedging itself into the stones.
“What just happened?” Helen asked, eyeing the grey, hovering shape with raised eyebrows.
“Just giving us a bit of privacy,” Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor said. “Now we can talk about the stone.” The being sighed. “You have no idea what trouble your betrothed has put himself into.”
“As Heg’ort’ugbent must have told you, the stone can only be used safely by our kind. By us, the tempests, to be specific.” Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor paused. “Do you know how stormstone is created?”
Helen and Edward shook their heads.
“Earth and air are antagonists, true, but you only need to look around the world to see that we do not battle against each other. We instead use our opposition to create. Of course, that does not excuse the destruction we both can do. But that is besides the point.
“At the depth of our apotheosis, we join our powers to create stormstone, an admixture of strong wind and weather enmeshed in crystal. What is more, the stone is living.”
“What?” Helen asked.
“We do not mean breathing, thinking living,” the elemental cautioned. “It needs a soul, a conscience before it can gain that level of awareness. But that is the same for all of the elemental stones.”
“So, you are saying,” Edward said as he helped himself to another cup of tea, “that the stone knows what it needs?”
“No.” Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor reached over to the cookie tray to take an airy meringue, and it nibbled lightly at the edges. “Stormstones could be considered leeches. They grab and do not let go until they are fully satisfied. What they will leech off is the life and soul of the user. Any user.”
There was a muffled knock on the entrance, and the fabric fell to the ground, revealing a slender man in a richly black robe, reminding Helen of a fresh patch of tar. He is mostly bald, with a ring of curly sun-blonde curls around the lower head. His handsome face was marred by a wide scar that cut through the left side. He stood on a plain, wooden cane tipped with silver.
“Minister,” Edward said, raising from the chair. Helen stood up also. “What a pleasure to find you well.”
“Indeed,” the officer said in a deep baritone. “A pleasure to find you and your sister well.”
Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor finished nibbling the cookie and rose. “I must leave you now, Princess, Prince, Minister.” The elemental bowed deeply. “We might meet again, if it pleases you, Highnesses.”
“I do not mind another talk about your kind, elemental,” Helen said, returning the bow with a curtsey. “May the Maker see you well.”
“As to you,” Et’uro’tha’ul’ulor replied as the being slowly turned transparent, then to nothing.
The minister cleared his throat. “The King regrets not greeting you in person. We have been slack in our security, and someone tried to assassinate the Prince-Betrothed.”
Helen sat down in shock, her usual tanned skin paling into dark parchment.
“He survives,” the minister continued, “but I regret to inform you that the stone he found is no longer here.