The ambassador and the queen
The queen of Terandabar watched the hazy city rocking in the distance; though in truth it wasn't the landmass, but the ship tipping beneath her feet. The Carcharodon was one of Terandabar's fastest vessels, lithe and narrow with great yellow sails catching the strong Meltemi and converting it into velocity. Queen Sarentona stood steady on the prow, clutching the Titanium railing with anticipation, her free-falling raven hair fluttering in the wind like a banner. To the fish and sea elves who looked up at her through the waves, she seemed to be perched on the head of the great sea-lizard which served as the ship's figurehead, its tusks spearing foremost through the salty air. The queen knew the other rulers would send ambassadors to Eralda on Lealia, the wealthiest and most powerful of all the nations both since they feared the might of High King Angarian and because they couldn't face the terrible truth of the situation without some diplomat to soften the blow for them. Sarentona though came herself, an act of boldness that some would consider to be downright reckless. Or so it seemed.
The southernmost of the great nations of the Lawrian Continent, Terandabar, lay so close to the planet's equator that the skins of its residents had darkened like burnt wood. They shone with the dimness of the night and knew the mysteries of the planet Ebraa. Mysteries, which would baffle even the Lealians. For there, in the heat of the double sun, the ether between worlds was at its thinnest - resilient enough to still be a barrier, but delicate enough for whispers to travel. The queen of this strange land heard things in her high mountain palace, these whispers rising up into their world and echoing through her stone halls.
At first she had thought them to be the voices of the dead, screaming and laughing and singing from the Yonder Dimensions, but as she listened more closely, the cool breaths of sound took shape. Others could hear the whispers, too, though they were never presented sensibly to them. They only spoke to Sarentona, telling her of the Outer Universes, realms beyond the Seven Cosmoses. Dimensions about which even Orinian and Angarian only had a vague idea.
The voices told about a longing, an intense yearning, a desire to drink of the vibrant energies that made up the Seven Cosmoses. To sample the magic and the electricity, to digest the radiation and most of all to drink the souls of the ones living here. Sarentona knew things, not in the way mathematicians knew things through logic and probability, nor sighters through divination. The queen of Terandabar knew things that no one should know. There were things out there, which one day might come through. Things they needed to defend themselves against. But the Queen didn't know how at this time.
Sarentona had earned a reputation for rushing headfirst into hazard, thrilling at the unknown with a childlike disregard for death, and emerging victorious from impossible situations. She had cleaved the head from a charging Manticore while prostrate in the desert dust with two broken legs. She had charmed the very sirens off their island and convinced two of them to drown each other. Still perhaps the most impressive and inconceivable of all, she had convinced King Angarian to help her substantiate her theory that it was possible to bind a soul to a machine. Thus Kelmar, her own walking talking super-computer had been born. After him emerged several others of the race they called Cyborgs. These days Angarian even kept some of them within his army.
The scents of peach and citrus were already carried over to her nostrils by the warm summer breeze, mixing with the ever-present ship aromas of oil, rust and brine. The suns made their lazy way overhead, shining down on the sparkling water and warming the dolphins as they slaughtered their fish. The seagulls would swoop in to pick off the missed bites, only to be occasionally picked off by the dolphins themselves. One brave bird made a daring plunge, only to be swallowed whole by one of the largest dolphins Sarentona had ever seen.
"We're passing by the United Ocean Republic, then?" she asked the captain, a lean and lined old man, with the salt of the sea forever embedded in the wrinkles of his black face.
"We should be passing well north of it, My Queen, but sometimes hunting parties will travel this far up."
"I can deal with President Chairethan just fine, but out here on a little boat in the middle of his vast sea, I wouldn't tempt it."
"We aren't at war with the UOR, ma'am," replied the captain, who knew much about sailing and little of politics. When Sarentona stayed silent he continued. "I mean, we're going to be allies. If there is a war to come, we've all got to be allies."
"Just speed up, I'll converge with the sea president's envoy on dry land. Thus we may cross the Portal together with the other diplomats to Eralda."
The sea between the Lawrian Continent and the much smaller Tirsh was narrow and calm, but still took over three hours to cross, even with Terandabar's fastest ships. Sarentona knew that she could send President Chairethan to his knees on land but she also knew he could sink her ship and drag her down to the ocean's depths, so the queen was relieved when they finally entered into the port of Tirsh. Not for the first time did she repine the fact that the only Portal on Ebraa was located on the small continent in the south. But such was the composition of the large landmass in the north that its very rock interfered with the dynamics of Portal magic, making it impossible to open up a stable entry point to any of the supplementary universes. The magnetism of the iron in the ground obstructed the magic needed.
She knew though that it was worse in other places. On Earth for instance the only possible location for portals were either in orbit or in impossibly thick lead structures – so durable was the magnetic field on that planet. Once had Sarentona visited Earth, and she had been nauseous all the time, the magnetism doing weird things with her perception.
The ship pulled up gently to a sturdy dock, where a tall man waited, silhouetted by the dual suns, a wide-brimmed gray hat shadowing his face. He abandoned his restful stance and posed himself more or less at attention while the gangplank lowered and the queen began to descend like a diva. Right behind her followed the trio of men who made up her bodyguard, hands near the guns in their belts as their ever vigilant senses alertly scanned the area for anything that might threaten their employer.
"Tilathian," Sarentona crooned, "how are you, baby?"
Those serious gray eyes almost surrendered to a moment of mirth when Sarentona sauntered up to him, swaying her wide hips dramatically, her ginger dress flouting around her like wild fire, the beads adorning her hair gleaning in the strong sun light.
"You're like my sisters, you know, always having to make an entrance," Tilathian laughed. As his mellow tenor rung out he was showing off a brilliant set of snow white teeth, with the sharp pointed carnivorous fangs prominent even for an Ebraan, his bronzed skin still unwrinkled in spite of his almost five hundred years of age, his ears pointy the way they tended to be in the Southern Territories. "But it's my younger brother you should save your hip shaking for. I'm afraid its charms are almost lost on me."
"You don't fool me for a second. Come here," Sarentona pulled Tilathian's wiry body into a hug. "Cheer up, babe. Don't you know I'm here to save you?"
That time she did get a smile. Yet Tilathian was quick to withdraw, as he knew that time was dire. He then reached inside of the inner pocket of his jacket and produced a folded together digital screen.
"Here is all the information I've been able to gather about the believed threat. King Angarian has been unusually forthcoming; it seems that he's more worried about what happened the other week than keen on withholding information against his old rival for the leadership of the realms. And that worries me."
Sarentona took the offered plastic square and folded it open, then she quickly thumbed it through, just to get a brief impression of the amount of stored content.
"Good work, ambassador. As usual you manage to impress me with your skill to dig up information. I shall go over this as soon as I get a moment for myself, but I can already now presage the seriousness of the situation. I hope this extra gathering of the Council will be focused on result rather than drama this time."
"Believe me, it will," Tilathian assured her. "Even Jareth will drag his lazy legs up from his green world."
"Jareth huh," Sarentona huffed. "Well, in his case I believe it's rather about the upcoming Hallow Eve Fiesta, which will so conveniently collide with this extra gathering."
"Yes indeed," Tilathian's voice was sombre. "Perhaps the coincidence with the seasonal turn will calm most people, making them believe it's all about coming together to drink and to gossip."
"Do you really think so?"
"I hope so at least. Otherwise we might have a panic at hand, my Queen. Come on now, our ride is waiting!" Tilathian almost smiled before he led them across the loud planks to an awaiting carriage pulled by two proud percherons. One turned her big grey head and snorted at the nearest bodyguard, who hissed like a cobra in reply.
"It's just a horse," murmured Sarentona, not wanting to start an argument this soon in the meeting. She climbed into the carriage and, once Tilathian and the bodyguards had joined her, she snapped the thick door shut, closing them off from the fog and the curious eyes of the people at the shoreline. These people did not yet know the gravity of what had befallen their world. All they had heard were rumors that the Intercosmic Council was holding an extra meeting, something which hadn't happen in decades. For the Council to hold and aseasonal meeting, something extraordinary must have occurred, but what they did not know. So the speculations concerned another war or another plague or something which was horrid indeed, but still possible to handle.
"The lid is on, outside the innermost circle," the ambassador went on as the carriage jerked to a start.
"Understandable," Sarentona replied. "Since we cannot afford a panic."
"Who's driving us?" barked one of the bodyguards suddenly, glaring through the curtained window suspiciously. "I didn't see anyone get on."
"The horses know the way," drawled Tilathian, calmly.
"A couple of nags are leading us!" the bulky man exclaimed, frowning his broad forehead.
Sarentona glared at the man, a wordless warning.
"They're quite intelligent," the ambassador pointed out in a patient voice. "Not like the steads on the main continent. The foals of Tirsh are partly Lealian, and thus bestowed with brains unlike regular horses."
"Freaks, you mean," the man murmured, silent enough to serve as a worded thought but loud enough for the queen to hear and she made an intake of breath.
"Keep your prejudices to yourself, or I'll have to dismiss you from this mission. You'll be asked to return to Terandabar with the Carcharodon and as a result I'll end up one man short in Eralda. Which will not only mean I'll endanger myself, but also that you will most probably not see your contract renewed at the end of the season."
With some amusement the Queen observed how the young man turned morosely back to the window, neither of them paying much attention to Tilathian as he prattled on about horses, not that he exactly expected them to.
When Tilathian later mentioned something about Voidwalkers, Sarentona felt herself go rigid with attention.
"Sorry, what did you just say?" the queen asked softly.
"The High King is bringing in Voidwalkers," clarified the diplomat.
"Really? Who told you so?"
"Chervin of Alozzia told me about them, because even my other informers are too afraid to talk about them. The face-less, they're called," he smirked at Sarentona's obvious annoyance. "My dear queen, you may know more about the Spirit World than any other here on Ebraa, yet you aren't the only one who knows about its secrets. Not even you were forewarned that a break in the time-space fabric was about to happen."
"No, but I heard of it as it transpired," the queen replied somberly. "Something coming through, and rests of what might have been an extremely ancient soul left in its wake. A horrible abomination, ending up right in the middle of the realm of Orinian. If it could get inside that hard old universe, then our own, much softer and younger might be in tremendous peril. Naturally the spirits of harmony are distraught. They aren't making much sense right now, I'm afraid."
The carriage tilted backward as the path began to wind up the steep slope to the structure in which the Portal was housed. The passengers completed the rest of the trip in silence, not saying a word until they heard the gravel crunching beneath the carriage wheels. Tilathian became the first to exit the coach, stepping out into the bright sunlight, speckled under the overhanging oak branches. Turning around he held out his hand, politely letting the queen down from the vehicle. More a gesture of protocol than anything else, as Queen Sarentona was agility herself.
Tilathian handed a few coins to the livery-clad boy waiting in a bit away, ordering him to disconnect the horses, feed them and give them boxes in the stable. The boy bowed deeply for the queen and her entourage before proceeding with his duty, and the ambassador lead the way up the granite stairs to the old, red-bricked two-story building that contained the Portal.
Crossing a Portal between universes was not something people normally did, as a matter of fact 95% of the population of the Seven Cosmoses lived out their whole lives without even doing it once. But for heads of state and their aids, frequent travels were part of the work description. After a dozen or so of trips you tended to count it off as nothing special. No matter that the regular population was prone to believe all kinds of stories about portal travelling, including ideas that you lost small parts of your soul every time you stepped through to another universe. Other things said were that too many portals and too much usage of them was slowly ripping the universes apart. Destroying them.
But nothing of that was true. As a matter of fact a Portal was simply an opening in the structure which made up a universe, an absence of atoms across a smaller area. A controlled fistula that made it possible for bodies and additional objects to pass through and reach a set numbers of hypercoordinates in the destination universe. True was that it took a lot of energy to manage a Portal, so it was generally kept shut down when it was not needed. Since it took about an hour to start up, Tilathian had called ahead in good time, to have them avoid waiting.
Sarentona and her entourage was met by a voluptuous, fair-skinned woman with a round and merry face, who greeted them with a short summary of the status of the Portal.
"It was already open, your majesty, when Mr. Tilathian called us," she small talked as she led the way through a set of double doors and into a large two-floor chamber which occupied most of the building's space. There in the middle of the hall, on a small platform and surrounded by what to an untrained eye appeared as a jumble of instruments, stood the Portal. It was circular in shape; a torus of enforced Titanium held up by strong abutments and also fastened in the ceiling with thick chains. In the middle of the Portal shimmered and rippled a turquoise field, looking a bit like a horizontally aligned well of water lit from behind.
"It was open?" Surprised, the Queen raised a brow. "Who used it earlier?"
"President Chairethan," the orderly said as she stopped in her tracks, turning slightly to meet the dark eyes of the Queen. "He and his wife Ennoea left earlier today bound for Eralda on Lealia. That's where your majesty is going too, Mr. Tilathian told me, so I don't even have to re-set the hypercoordinates.
"No, that's quite right," the Queen said absent-mindedly. So the president of UOR had also gone to Lealia. Now, that was most probably NOT a coincidence. Since she was the elected Council member of her realm, she wondered what it might mean that the President had travelled to Lealia too. Was he up to something? In his case it couldn't just be about visiting the Hallow Eve Fiesta. That simply was not him.
Just the slightest shake of her head, but the ever vigilant Tilathian had observed it and he raised a brow at her small gesture. A quick exchange of barely notable communication as they threaded the platform. The orderly made a minor adjustment of some levers on one of her consoles and then she saluted the group, telling them it was all clear to pass. So with two of the body-guards leading the way the small group passed through the sea-like force field – and stepped out at what at first glance appeared as the same place. Their entry-point was through a portal in a very similar-looking building to the one they just left.
Yet Sarentona quickly noted the minor difference, old habits had taught her that. The air felt a bit thinner and with a damp chilliness to its quality and the gravity was higher, making her walking feel flimsy. Another orderly managed this portal. A young man in a toppy uniform cap who bowed politely at them before they all stepped through the front door and out in the milky light of Lealia's single sun.
"So here we are now in Eralda," said Tilathian and tipped his hat. "Oh what a joy."
"Indeed," Sarentona replied as she heard that slight sarcasm that spiced her diplomat's voice. "I wonder what beast is the worst, the Alien that apparently came through to Lord Orinian's world. Or one of the women and men we are here to meet. I am so not looking forward to it."