Chapter 9 - Rivalries

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A picture-painted cupola depicted two warriors who were donned in a thick armor of gold. Swords brandished in silver pointed toward the land. Below that, a crystal chandelier hung. Even the spiral staircase—extending to the second floor and made of veiny marble—almost bewitched Eirek enough to make him forget about the competitors around him: Prince Evber, a large man, a black-skinned man, a woman, and a man with black hair and rich clothes. Besides the black-skinned man, all ignored the estate's beauty, busying themselves with eyeing each other instead; he merely stood with his hand over his head as if he was experiencing a headache. 

 When a man with a receding hairline and glasses spoke, Eirek pulled his attention from the surroundings and focused on him and the row of people behind him.

"Contestants, my name is Colin, Guardian Eska's chief servant. It is a pleasure to be at your—"

"When will we get to see Guardian Eska?" The voice was deep and low, so Eirek assumed it belonged to the large man with russet hair.

If Colin was annoyed about the man's interruption, he did not show it. "I am sure you are all anxious to meet Guardian Eska. However, each of you has had a long day. Introductions will happen tomorrow, once you have had ample time to prepare your manners and your attire." Colin analyzed each of them. "When I call your name, please step forward, and one of us will carry your bags and show you to your room. Now,  Zain Berrese?"

Nothing.

"Zain Berrese?" Colin waited.

Eirek turned back and forth, trying to see who it might be. But no one stepped forward. He noticed the girl shaking the shoulders of the black-skinned man who was still in deep contemplation.

"Okay, if Zain Berrese, is not present, then—"

"Wait. Wait. Sorry."

The man strode forward with blush on his face and a squish in his step, as though he had been soaked in water before boarding the ship. Greeted by a slender woman who probably weighed more in bones than skin, he gave one of his large bags to her, and she buckled underneath the weight. This produced an enormous roar of laughter from the onlookers. Although he felt guilty, Eirek chuckled as well.

"Avery, take the bags for her," Colin said.

A different servant of a stockier frame but just as bald as the old man managed to carry both bags as he led Zain out of the lobby.

Once they were gone, Colin continued, "Cadmar Briggs?"

Eirek couldn't help but stare at the man who came forward. He was as tall as Prince Evber but with another one hundred pounds of muscle and bone, Eirek was sure—a giant. A shield was strapped to his back, but it did little to hide the man's girth. A male servant of dark hair and a heavy beard took both bags with no difficulty and led Cadmar out of the room.

"Cain Evber?"

"Prince Evber, please." The man stood at least a foot taller than Eirek, but compared to Cadmar, he was a twig to his trunk. Fiery hair bounced as the man approached.  

"My apologies, Prince Evber." 

"Apology accepted. Now, my room?"

"Yes, Geoffrey will show you the way."     

An older man of gray hair and drooping back hunched over even more to pick up the bags and then led the prince out of the lobby. Eirek took that opportunity to look at the other two—a female and a male both graced with black hair and fine clothes. Neither looked at him but, rather, kept their arms crossed over their chests and glanced at one another every so often.

"Peter Koluma?"

Eirek looked toward the man with black hair. He didn't move. 

"Peter Koluma?" The butler swept his head from Eirek back to the other man.

He must not have made it. Was he the man we were supposed to pick up in Mistral?

"Okay, if Peter Koluma is not present, then Eirek Mourse?"

Eirek stepped forward and was greeted by a woman shortened by age. Gray curls didn't extend past her neck; she had bushy eyebrows, thick bifocals, and a squished face pressed together by numerous wrinkles. Her eyes reminded him of Sheryin—the same ones that obliged Eirek to do anything she asked. The only thing she asked, however, was for his bags. Eirek followed her to the left and into a hallway but glanced back at the two competitors who still remained nameless to him. I wonder who they are?

Paintings of various strange places adorned the walls. Halfway into the hallway, near a small crevice, stood a statue of a man plated in gold armor—similar to the cupola painting in the lobby.

"Is that a statue of Ancient Lyoen?"

The woman didn't hear him, or ignored him, for she kept walking.

"Excuse me, miss?" he spoke up. 

The woman turned around. "Yes, dear?"

"Is that a statue of Ancient Lyoen?"

The woman seemed taken aback, as though it was unheard of to receive such a question. "Yes, dear, it is. He created—

A man cut her off, "The worlds, the elements, and humans. His brother, Ancient Bane, grew jealous that Lyoen created life, so he established death and equipped us with swords, words of power, and emotions—according to the Old-Way Believers, if you believe such a thing." Eirek turned and saw that it was the man with black hair and fine clothes, who followed a dark-skinned man.

A peculiar scent wafted in the air. It smelled like the sea—an aroma Eirek only experienced faintly as he waited for the transport to pick him up from Domnux Plains. But this scent was overpowering, as if the man who had interrupted came from a place where there was more sea than land.

"Thank you. What's your name?"

"Prince Paen. Do well to remember it."

The dark-skinned man opened a door and stood to the side as the black-haired man picked up his belongings. 

"Aren't you going to ask mine?" Eirek stopped at the threshold of Prince Paen's door.

"No."

"Why not? Common manners says that—"

"Commoners use common manners, but my common sense tells me that in a month your name will not matter to me." Prince Paen closed the door.

Eirek rolled his eyes. Why is royalty always rude? He turned back to the old woman, who remained expressionless.

"Here is your room, Sir Mourse." She unlocked the door and handed the key to Eirek.

"It's Eirek."

"I will do my best to remember, dear. If you need anything, don't be hesitant to ask." She set his bags on the floor and hobbled past him down the hallway.

Before she got too far, Eirek called out, "And for whom do I ask?"

She stopped and turned, a smile on her face. "Dina, dear." She turned back and continued walking.

Eirek smiled, facing his room. The scent of freshly-cooked food drifted through the air, which was filtered by an open window. A rumble occurred in his stomach then—whether from his hunger or his nervousness, Eirek didn't want to know. He gathered his bags and crossed the threshold into the place that would be his new home for the coming month—or longer.

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