Chapter 33

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            Though Rika had heard the word estate, she hadn’t been prepared for what it meant. Amid a massive lawn of green, the cobbled drive lined with vine covered columns, sat a manor. Three stories tall and stretching out several dozen metres in each direction, the building wasn’t what anyone would call small. Made of a reddish stone, it looked like it was bathing in the light of the sunset, even though it wasn’t yet noon.

            Entering through the ten foot tall double doors of the entrance, Rika couldn’t help but stare at what spread out before her. She’d thought Ahisu’s tower was impressive. This blew it out of the water. Polished marble floors glowed under the light coming in through the windows and out of the candled crystal chandelier hanging over them. Walls of stone were covered in several places by tapestries and what looked like old flags and banners. Rika wanted badly to examine the tapestries, she’d never seen a real one before, but the people standing in the wide hall drew her attention.

            A man in livery of a darker blue than the soldiers’ uniforms nodded at their escort. The men nodded back, most of them turning around and trooping back outside. Four stood to one side, while two moved to flank the door. The liveried man, his white hair swept carefully back, turned his gaze back on them. For a moment, his eyes flickered between Elthia and Rika. “I am to escort the young mistress Rika to see my lord,” he said, his voice one of the fluid, easy to listen to kinds.

            Rika exchanged glances with the others before looking back to the older man. “I think I’d feel better if we all went.”

            “My lord has made it clear he wishes to speak to you, mistress, in private before he meets with your…companions.”

            She considered her options. While part of her really wanted to sit down and refuse to move until this lord agreed to meet with all of them, she had a feeling the guards behind her would haul her in bodily if she tried. And trying to run now wouldn’t only be stupid, it’d be pointless too. The soldiers would ride them down in minutes. Rika sighed. “Alright. But if anything happens to them…”

            The man gave her a nod. “They will be treated with the utmost respect, mistress. If you will follow me?”

            She looked back at her friends, smiling for Damek since he looked about ready to chase after her without a care to the consequences. She saw Ahisu make a tiny flicking gesture with one finger and followed the direction he’d pointed in. Standing beside her, wearing an expression of purest, darkest glee, was Shetton.

            Rika turned her gaze back to Ahisu, eyes wide. He gave her the tiniest of head shakes so that she bit back her protests. She hurried after the servant, some kind of upper one she assumed by his attitude and obvious impatience with her, only looking back to the others once more. Then they were climbing the wide stairs, and soon out of sight of her friends.

            Down one lushly carpeted hallway they went, past an endless seeming series of doors, until they reached the far end. At the last door on Rika’s left, the servant knocked softly on the dark wood and called “I have brought her, my lord.”

            A muffled man’s voice replied “Send her in.”

            The servant opened the door, waving Rika forward. She entered hesitantly, sweeping the room with a glance, taking in wide windows, wood panelling, book shelves, and a fireplace in front of which stood a stranger. He was shorter than she’d expected, just barely taller than her, his blond hair short, even his beard. Brown eyes studied her as she approached. “You are as the descriptions painted you,” he said, inclining his head slightly in her direction. “I am Lord Zobah of Yamkahn.”

            Rika shrugged, assuming the title was supposed to mean something to her. She focused on what he’d said instead. “What descriptions?”

            “As I am sure you have guessed, my agents have been searching for you for some time. When they learned that Lord Atelic had found you first, I feared I would never have the opportunity to speak with you. But you have proved far more resourceful than I thought.”

            She frowned. “You didn’t answer my question.”

            “Didn’t I?”

            Rika thought it over for a few moments. So he’d had people looking for her. They’d probably gone looking for information on her, asking around cities and stuff. They might have even questioned people she’d met. She wondered what the description said about her, but that was a thought for another time. “The other lord said the same thing, that he was looking for me. He just never told me why. He mostly talked about what a horrible person you were.”

            Zobah nodded, his face still set into pleasant lines. “I had expected as much. He desires the crown. One only has to look at this lands and the suffering he has brought to his people through his continued taxation and abuse of noble privileges, to know what kind of ruler he would be. I had hoped that that would come into consideration, but so far, it seems few of the other nobles care. And with the king as sick as he is, he is unable to undertake something as major as choosing his replacement.”

            “I get that you and the other guy are both trying to become king. That makes sense to me, even if being a ruler seems like a thankless, stressful job that I can’t imagine anyone actively seeking out. But what I don’t understand is why both of you have been chasing me this whole time. What do I have to do with either of you being king? It can’t just be that because I’m from another world, I’m seen as the most impartial judge. Because you guys have both dragged me off, kidnapped me, and had me attacked. And all of that hasn’t done anything but piss me off. So why are you really after me?” Rika didn’t realize she’d been shouting until she had to suck in a huge breath, then another, almost panting. Her emotions, so long shoved back or masked with her interest in everything around her, had come bubbling to the surface. She wanted answers. Too long had she been dragged, pushed, and forced into running around. She wasn’t going to put up with it any more.

            For a long minute, Zobah did nothing but look her over, tugging at the end of his beard. Finally, he said “What do you know of the prophecy?”

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