Jason was brought from the platform into the castle itself, a towering structure of hewn stone, shining metal, and swathes of crystalline glass. He could see the ascending towers through windows and skylights, as, of all the building materials, glass appeared the most common. With wondering eyes Jason's gaze was always drawn upward, the seemingly unsupported heights impossible. One of the men escorting him, seeing Jason's permanently gaping jaw, asked if the young man hadn't seen cities before. Jason ignored the question and tried to quit staring.
At last he was brought into what must have been the hall where the king received his visitors, a grandiose chamber lined with thick columns of multicoloured stone, granite or marble. The floor was wooden, but appeared to be of a single piece without any joints or interruptions in the grain.
But that's impossible, Jason thought, not for the first time since waking. This has all the making of a dream. A very stubborn dream you can’t seem to wake up from, but a dream nonetheless.
Further surprise came with the realization that he had yet to see a single guard. The hall was long, however, and Jason could see a loose cluster at the far end. The middle shape, seated on a raised platform and flanked by pillars similar to the outer ones, was surely the king. As Jason drew closer he saw that the flanking pillars were laced with flowering vines. At least four of the six figures on either side of the king appeared to be guards. They wore serious expressions and carried swords in carved scabbards on the left hip, and had a smaller holster on their right. Jason thought it might be a pistol, but then why carry a sword?
The remaining two figures were in stark contrast to both the guards and each other, though the pair stood closest to the king and on his raised dais. One was decorated in a style similar to the men escorting Jason, though the leather of his jacket and boots was polished and emblazoned with crests and symbols. His eyebrows arched high on his forehead and his lips were pursed in a frown. The other man had his face downcast, and wore no leathers over his clothing. His stature gave off an air of smallness, though his frame was strong. Unlike all the other people in the room, this man's hair was shaved to black stubble, revealing dark tan skin beneath.
Jason heard a soft spattering of the earlier gibberish, wresting him from his observations, and the five escorts knelt, heads bowed. Nervous and not wanting to upset the king, Jason knelt as well.
More garbled words echoed in the chamber, this time from either the king or the men beside him, followed by the rustle of fabric and leather as the group stood upright. Jason stood and raised his face to look at the king. From up close he could see that the man sitting on the dais was younger than he expected, though some grey was creeping into his dark reddish hair. There was a silver crown on his head, nestled amongst the curls of his hair. Despite his short and neatly trimmed beard, the king had the appearance of having a mane. His face, like the other men, was certainly leonine enough.
One of the men who had accompanied Jason to the reception hall spoke quietly to the king, though Jason didn't understand a word of it. The king nodded, and then turned a steely gaze to Jason. His eyes might have been blue, but in the relatively dim light of the hall appeared lifelessly grey.
“So, you rode a train into my yard, hmm? Tell me your name, man.” The foreign tones behind his words were the same as with the others, as if his speech had been dubbed.
Jason began to reply, but the king cut him short.
“Stop sputtering nonsense! Answer my question, and speak with the intention of being understood.”
Jason stood open mouthed a few moments, unsure of what the king meant. He had never done well with philosophy.
Banishing the wayward thoughts, Jason tried again. His impatience was rising. “It's Jason. I fell asleep on the train last evening. I woke up at the station, and now just want to head back home.” Silence greeted his response. “Look, I have the fare, there shouldn't be any trouble at all! Maybe you should explain why I'm here, eh?”
One of the men beside Jason slapped him across the cheek, the same spot as the woman had struck earlier. “You are speaking to His Majesty the King. Have respect, man.”
Jason noticed that he growled the word “Man,” as if it were a curse.
The king gave a short laugh. “Please, Dreosef, have a little respect yourself for our guest. He is right to be confused.” The king turned his attention back to Jason. “I do not know how you came here, and I cannot think of how to send you back. For now, you will remain here as a royal guest.”
“Your Majesty, you cannot be serious,” the severe looking man beside the king said, surprised horror etched into his fine features.
“I am,” the king growled back.
"But Majesty, this boy is human. Nothing good will come of-"
"That is quite enough, Aderich," the king interrupted before turning back to Jason. Aderich's lips were pressed in a tight line. "As I said, Jason will remain here in the palace as a guest."
“Uhm, where is here?” Jason asked, and then quickly added, “Your majesty.”
“The royal capital of Domain, man: Auburg! This is the palace and seat of government for the realm.”
Jason considered for a moment. “I can't say I've ever heard of this place, or this country. You're not playing with me, right, your majesty?”
The king laughed heartily before he replied. “No, man, you are not my child to play with. Actually, I would like to ask you your age, if you could be so polite to share.”
“Twenty-two, your majesty.” And why does it matter?
The entire hall erupted in laughter, the noise echoing in the large space. Only the dark man refrained, nervously playing with his hands.
“A pup!” bellowed the king. “You're but a pup, man.” Jason was reminded of one of his older uncles, hollering comments across the table at Christmastime. After glancing back and forth between the serious-looking man and Jason, the king's laughter stopped abruptly. Something about Jason had caught his eye. The hall became quiet once more as the king spoke.
“What's that around your neck?”
Jason nodded his chin down to look at the necklace, and then replied, “Just a necklace. A gift from my girlfriend.”
“No, pup, what is it? What gem is that?” the king asked again, his voice low and serious. His demeanor had shifted entirely from a few moments before. No longer was he the drunken uncle, now the king seemed as a cat poised to pounce.
“Jade, I think.”
There was a sudden noise as breaths were taken in sharply, then held. Some of the people who had escorted Jason in began to whisper amongst themselves.
“It cannot be,” the king said under his breath, awed. “Hold it in your hand, pup. Touch it!”
Intimidated and confused, Jason obeyed the king's order. He clenched the charm in his fist, wondering what to do next.
“Lukesh!” the king snapped. The dark man's head jerked up in response and he stood suddenly straight. “Go hold that bauble.”
The servant's eyes widened, and a look of fear took over his features.
“Go,” the king stated coldly.
Lukesh stepped down from the raised platform and walked up to Jason slowly. The necklace still hung against Jason's chest, and he stood firm as stone when the man approached. Quivering, Lukesh reached out a nervous finger to poke the jade charm.
He withdrew his finger immediately with a shrill squeal and clutched the digit in his other hand.
“I said to hold it, whelp!” the king yelled. “Do as your king commands or suffer death upon the Irontree.”
Tears formed in the servant's eyes, and he lowered his gaze to avoid looking at Jason, who was still transfixed by the odd spectacle unfolding only a breath away. The servant's hand shook terribly as he extended it, and he had to use his other hand to steady the shaking arm.
With a lurching motion Lukesh took the charm in his hand and clenched his fist around it. His scream echoed through the hall for only a few moments before it became a silent gasp, his eyes and mouth wide in agony. Jason shut his own eyes tightly, disturbed by the sight. He could smell flesh burning, hear skin sizzling. The combination made him want to wretch and vomit.
After what seemed like an eternity, Jason heard a thump at his feet. Lukesh had fainted, and his arms lay outstretched on the wood floor. One of his palms still smoked, and was blackened and blistered. Aderich, still as a statue beside the king, give a curt nod to the guards, only his second movement since Jason had arrived.
Two of the guards stepped forward. They picked the fallen servant up by his arms and legs, carrying him between them, and took him away from the hall.
“Don't spare him any medicines,” the king said before they left. “Not only did he resist me, but the poison of the stone will see him dead before morning tomorrow.”
Jason's heart was beating rapidly while his mind raced. That man just died. Or is dying. I did that. I killed someone. But I didn't mean to! Is that manslaughter, or murder? This is a nightmare. This has to be a nightmare. I'm gonna wake up, drenched in sweat and tangled in my sheets. I can't have just killed a guy.
The king's words brought his mind out of the downward spiral.
“See our guest to one of the prison cells, Dreosef. We cannot have this pup walking free in the palace. Not with that jade of his.”
“Shall I confiscate it, your majesty?” the man named Dreosef said.
“And kill yourself in the process?” the king answered with a mocking laugh. “No, he can keep his foul stone for now.”
One of the remaining guards joined Dreosef in flanking him, and Jason was marched from the reception hall.
“Oh, and Dreosef?” the king called after them, prompting the trio to halt. “Make sure his cell has iron bars. For his safety and ours.”