“Alright!” He called. He looked at his reflection in the full length mirror beside the door. He was wearing the traditional garb of Kyelian royalty. The red and bronze jacket reached halfway down his thighs and buttoned up to his neck. His trousers were black and loose with the bottoms of it tucked into tight, bronze-colored leather boots. He barely recognized himself from the street rat he had been only an hour before.
He grimaced at the image before him, thinking about how he had wound up here, in the Keep. He was about to have dinner with the King and one of the three lords. Six hours ago he was lying in a hammock deep within the sewers planning where he would get his next meal. He couldn't help thinking about the gang of kids that were still down in the sewers, waiting for him and Sophie to return with dinner.
Shaking his head, he turned to the door and left the steaming room behind him. Waiting in the middle of the hall was the steward, looking impatient and ill-tempered. He scowled at Jacen and nodded in what seemed to be approval.
“We are waiting for your companion before I lead you to the dining hall.” He explained, his high-pitched voice still seemed comical to Jacen and made him want to laugh.
Jacen nodded and looked at the door opposite of the one he had just came from. They did not wait long, within minutes the door swung open and a thin mist emerged, a silhouette of a girl emerged.
Jacen felt his jaw drop and closed it as the girl stepped out of the mist and into the light. She was unrecognizable from the girl that Jacen had grown up with. She wore a gown of red, trimmed with bronze. The dress was very flattering to Sophie's naturally slender figure. Her hair hung in loose ringlets down to her shoulders and shone in the lamp-light.
Sophie was grimacing self-consciously as she watched Jacen admire her new look. “Do I look okay?” She asked suddenly, her voice barely a whisper.
“Y-yes. You look great.” He stammered, trying to sound casual. He turned to the steward and nodded. “I believe we are ready to go to the dining hall.”
“Yes, right this way.” The steward said, turning on his heel and leading them in the opposite direction. Jacen and Sophie exchanged a glance and followed the stout man down the corridor.
The steward led them down the same passages they had gone down earlier. But this time, Jacen took note of the decorations. Most of the walls were decorated with tapestries of the kingdom's colors red and bronze. There were a few portraits on the walls. Most of them were of the previous kings, including Kyle Arton himself. His portrait was the largest and the most ornate of them all.
Jacen followed the steward around a corner and stopped short, staring at a large portrait that was far different from the others he had seen. This one was a landscape size, featuring nine men instead of one. Each was dressed similarly, they wore chain-mail with a black tunic over the torso. On the tunics were several white, interlocking rings.
In the center of the men was who must have been the leader. He wore armor similar to the other eight men, but he wore a long white cloak over it. Instead of a helmet, he wore a garland made of what looked to be an olive branch.
“Who are they?” Jacen pondered aloud. He looked down the passage in the direction they had headed and realized that the others were gone, he was left alone in the abandoned corridor.
“The Knights of Order.” Said a deep voice from behind him. Jacen nearly jumped out of his skin and turned. King Keil was standing there, also admiring the portrait.
Jacen placed a hand over his heart to try to calm it. “Have you been following us?” Jacen asked, fear seeping into his words unintentionally.
“No,” the King responded, “My chambers are located in the tallest tower and the entrance is at the far end of the passage. I noticed you looking and came to find your interest in it.”
Jacen's heartbeat returned to normal and he looked back up at the painting. “It is an interesting painting to say the least, what did you say they were called?”
The King smiled. “The Knights of Order.” He repeated kindly. “They were a noble group of men centuries ago. The order was formed by my Ancestor, he chose its members from his closest and most trusted friends.”
“But why are the called the 'Knights of Order?' Seems like an odd name to call an order of knights.” Jacen pointed out.
“They were not ordinary knights. They were formed to help King Arton to restore the Empire. Needless to say, they failed miserably.” The King chuckled.
“Are you talking about Kyle Arton, the first King?” Jacen asked, comparing the leader of the knights to the portrait he had seen earlier.
“No, I am not. Kyle Arton was part of the reason behind the Artonian Empire splitting. No, I am talking about his son, Ethan. He was originally a Kyelian Knight of the Bronze Fountain before he became king.”
“Ethan?” Jacen tried to remember the captions below the various portraits he had passed, none of them had the name “Ethan Arton” below them. “I am not familiar with him. Where is his portrait?”
King Keil sighed. “Unfortunately, his only portrait was lost when central Artonia was swallowed by the desert. I wish we had a picture of him. He was the greatest king in the history of this kingdom.” Keil looked back down the passage, away from Jacen.
“What happened to the knights?” Jacen tried to steer the conversation back to the portrait. He wanted to know everything he could about this group, completely forgetting about the dinner that awaited them in the dining hall.
Keil turned back to him. “They waged war against our brother kingdom, Ciel. It was a short-lived war. Ciel had just come off of a civil war not long before this one, and was still recovering. Matthew Arton, reaching his elder years, signed a treaty agreeing that the kingdom's land will be contributed to the Empire. Once more the land was complete under Arton rule once more.
“Surely you know the rest of the story?” Keil asked. Jacen nodded, and Keil sighed.
“Your majesty?” Jacen said uncertainly. “May I ask you something?”
The King smiled warmly at him again. “Of course.”
“Why did you pardon me this morning, and invite me to dinner like a guest?” He asked.
Keil's smile faltered, but never left his face. “Is there a reason why I shouldn't have?”
Jacen gaped at him, not able to understand what he was hearing. “I am a street rat, sir. Sophie and I both, we are nothing special. We are not royalty.” He tried to explain.
“Of course you are not royalty, my boy.” He said, placing a hand upon Jacen's shoulder. “But have you ever heard of the phrase 'a diamond in the rough?'”
“I believe there is more to you than you know.” He said, the smile regaining its former glory.
“How can I not know something about myself?” He asked, puzzled by the comment.
King Keil closed his eyes. “I believe that that is a question to be answered at a later time. Now, I fear we must not keep our dear Lord waiting much longer to feast.”
Jacen wanted to hear more of the tale, he opened his mouth to protest, but Keil beat him to it.
“We will speak more tonight. After dinner, agreed?” He offered.
Jacen nodded. “Agreed.”
“Then let us go to dinner, you do look good in my old clothes by the way.” He commented. “They suit you, perhaps there is royal blood in you after all.” Keil laughed as some private joke and began to walk.
“These were your clothes, sir?” Jacen asked, looking down at the suit.
“Aye, a long time ago.”
Jacen dropped it and followed the king in silence for a while, weaving there way through the maze of passageways and corridors until the finally reached the entrance hall. Keil opened a pair of large doors to the right of the grand staircase and beckoned Jacen inside.
Within the hall was the largest table Jacen had ever seen. It seated at least thirty people, rather large for the five that would be in attendance. Only one end of the table was set. The tablecloth was a the same as the decorations and the outfits of the guests, Red with Bronze trimming. A large, ornate chandelier hung over the table, each of the candles lit and doused every inch of the hall with light. A large turkey and an even larger ham sat on two platters in the center of the plates. Both were sliced partially. Roasted potatoes and fresh corn and several other dishes were set up between the platters.
The steward was in the corner, eying Jacen in a way he was used to, like he was a troublemaker. Sophie grinned in relief when she saw him. Princess Rona was sitting on a bench against the wall farthest from the door. When Jacen entered, she had eyed him with what had seemed to him like curiosity.
Lord Reaton was standing behind a chair which Jacen presumed was going to be where he sat. He had a calm, calculating look on his face. When Jacen and the King entered, Reaton had turned his head toward them. In the light, Jacen could see a sheen of sweat across his face.
Jacen walked over to where Sophie was standing. He was vaguely aware of her talking to him, saying something about how she had turned around and he was gone and how worried she had been. He didn't hear much of what she was saying, he was eying the Lord, trying to figure out what was behind the suspicious behavior. From what he had heard about Reaton, this kind of action was unusual for him.
Kiel reached the head of the table and addressed everyone. “I apologize for our lateness, this young lad here had to come a retrieve me from my private garden where I was having the most amusing daydream.” Kiel laughed and Reaton joined him nervously. Out of the corner of his eye, Jacen could have sworn that he had seen the King wink at him.
“Now that we are all here, however, we may begin this special dinner. It is not often that we here at the castle have three special guests in one night if it is not a festival of some sort.”
Jacen saw Sophie go beet red when she realized that she was one of the “Special Guests.”
“Yes, if we will all take our seats and enjoy this delicious looking meal that our cook has kindly prepared for us.”
Five chairs moved at once. They all sat and began to help themselves to food. Jacen and Sophie began piling their plates high (much to the amusement of the King). It had been so long since they had had a full meal. They were so used to going hungry or eating stale bread that they had found on sale at the bakery.
For a long time, the only sound in the hall was that of knives and forks hitting plates. After a while, Kiel spoke again.
“Reaton, how are things out in Joran City since we last spoke?”
Reaton swallowed a mouthful of turkey and answered. “Everything is fine, the economy is booming at the moment. Everyone wants to see the grand tournament that's coming up.”
“Ah, the tournament. You must send me the date of that, I really desire to see this years. I hear tell that the Joran Champion is the best that they have had in years. But, of course, he will not stand up to the Citadel Champion, we will hold the title once again.” Keil half-bragged.
“Of course, Grant is not getting any younger, if you plan on using him again, that will surely be a mistake.” Reaton said with a sly grin.
“Grant retired after last years tournament, unfortunately. But my royal trainer has been working hard with our new champion. He will never match up to Grant's standards, but beggars can't be choosers I suppose.” Keil stabbed a piece of ham with a bit more force than was necessary.
“You seem rather tense, mi'lord.” Reaton stated, the grin on his face growing wider.
“Not at all,” the King said calmly, stuffing the piece of ham in his mouth. When he swallowed he gestured toward Jacen. “I don't believe that you have met Master Sorn yet? Reaton, this is Jacen Sorn. He lives down in the slums district.”
Jacen was ready to reach across the table to shake the Lord's hand, but the man did not make a move. He eyed Jacen with interest before saying, “Sorn, you say?” His eyebrow arched.
“Yes, Jacen Sorn.” Jacen repeated for Keil.
Reaton grunted and sat back in his chair. “I fought alongside your father in the Lysem uprising.”
“I don't like to talk about that event.” Jacen stated firmly.
Reaton made that sly grin, Jacen was now finding it to cause him a bit of unease. “And why not? Your father was a great and fierce warrior in that battle, you should be proud.”
“That battle also claimed my father's life.” Jacen growled.
“He died with honor, something that you would know nothing about.” Reaton pried.
“You were the one who forced him to go into that battle, how can you speak about him in a casual way when you are responsible for his death?” Jacen stated, trying not to take the Lord's bait.
“Many men died in that battle, your father just happened to be one of the few that I knew well.” He said casually, as if he was talking about the weather. “I do not regret sending many men into that battle, it was necessary.”
At this, Jacen gripped his knife as if ready to throw it if Reaton said one more word about his father. “My father was not a statistic.” He growled fiercely.
“Of course he was-”
“Jacen, NO!” Sophie grabbed the knife and pried it from his fingers as he cocked his arm back. The next words she spoke were a hiss.“You have already been in the dungeons once today and I don't think that his majesty will bail you out of a murder charge.”
“Really, Reaton! This is not like you at all. Has the long journey effected you? Perhaps I can get my steward to show you to your room?” Keil suggested, trying to keep his voice calm.
“No, I am fine.” He said kindly to the King.
“You are sweating, are you warm?” Keil asked.
“No, I am fine.” Reaton repeated mechanically.
The King signaled to the steward. The stout man swiftly fled from the room through a small door behind Reaton. Ten minutes later he returned with a cart with two large, covered plates. He placed the remains of dinner on the cart and replaced them with the new plates he had just brought out.
“Dessert, anyone?” Keil asked. “And then I believe it is time to retire for the night.”
The King looked meaningfully at Jacen, who nodded slightly. Dessert was eaten in silence. Rona left without anything, saying that she was tired. She left the room as if fleeing from danger. Reaton was the next to leave, the steward followed him under the king's orders in case Reaton could not find his quarters.
Keil then turned to Sophie and smiled.
“Have you had enough to eat, my dear?” He asked.
Sophie smiled warmly. “Yes, thank you, sir.” She bowed her head in respect and gratitude.
“I believe that you will find one of Rona's handmaidens outside in the entrance hall, if you would ask her to show you your quarters for the night.”
“Thank you, sir.” She said, uncertainly. “Sir, we really must be getting back to the city, the children...”
“They are being provided food and protection for the night as we speak, thanks to my lovely head of the guard, Louse.” Keil said. “Now, if you will leave us please. I wish to have a private word with Master Sorn.” He said formally.
Sophie curtseyed and walked out of the room. She stood in the doorway for a moment, uncertainly looking back at the two remaining occupants of the hall, and finally left.
When the door finally closed, the King stood and walked over to a portrait on the wall.
“You asked me earlier, why I pardoned you this morning, did you not?” He asked suddenly. “Why I have treated you like a royal guest here at the Keep?”
“Yes, sir.” Jacen replied quickly.
The King sighed. “These are dark times we live in Jacen, very dark times indeed. Ciel's army is rising by the month, it looks as if another war will soon be upon us.”
“The god's are angry with us, with the way that the kingdom of Artonia has gone. This was not the way that it was meant to end up, it was meant to remain whole. My Great-great-grandfather, he ruined the kingdom.”
“Sir, what has this to do with me?” Jacen asked.
Keil looked up at him.
“Ever since I found out your name, Jacen, I have been searching for you. Did you see the knight standing on the right-hand side of the king in the portrait?”
Jacen tried to remember. “He looked the same as the others, did he not?”
The King nodded. “Yes, it is a very poor rendering of the man, he was a great knight as well. He was the king's second. He was the leader of them all when the King was disposed. He took over command after the King died. He put up the biggest fight when the new king ordered for their execution.”
“He was an honorable man...” Jacen said uncertainly.
“Yes, but most importantly Jacen...”
But the king was cut short by the sound of the doors banging open at the other end of the hall.