Tachma left Ruby in front of two tall doors at the end of a long hallway. Montrose was already waiting there.
Two pairs of soldiers stood flanking the doors, standing at attention, their eyes fixed and distant, although Ruby caught one of them sneaking a peek at her with veiled surprise.
Montrose glanced down at her. "Nice dress," she said.
"They want me to look like the statue in the park."
"They didn't make you wear a dress."
Montrose wore the same clothes she'd worn on her journey, but they were spotless now, the dust and stains of the trail washed away. She had neither her sword nor her shotgun.
"I doubt it would serve any purpose to dress me up," Montrose said.
"Well, why do they want me to look this way?"
Montrose turned to her. "That's a good question. What purpose does it serve? And whose purpose is it?"
Montrose fixed her eyes on the door once more. "Your face holds significance for these people, Even these soldiers who stand guard for the king cannot help but steal glances at you when they think you're not looking."
Ruby shrank back, uncomfortable.
"I suspect that someone wants to use your position to advance their own aims."
"Stay keen. In time, it will be obvious."
One door opened a fraction. Dar'ja, the short robed man who had welcomed them at the city gate, stepped out. He regarded them both.
"His mightiness, the Gahn Shikvaht King Basha, will see you now," he said. "When you enter the chamber, you will kneel before the steps to his throne, bow your heads, introduce yourselves and state your lineage and your land of origin."
"I bow to no king," Montrose said.
Dar'ja showed no anger. He acted as if he expected this. "Then you will not speak to the king."
They stared at each other. Ruby imagined Montrose was weighing the consequences of defiance over learning the truth. Montrose sighed. "Very well. I'll do this."
"You will be watched. I advise you both not to make any sudden movements. We will not tolerate threats against the king."
"If your Gahn Shikvaht is a god, can he not protect himself?" Montrose asked. "Are we a threat?"
"It is a matter of respect," Dar'ja replied. "We will show you the greatest courtesy during your stay here. King Basha himself demands it. But in this palace, you will follow our protocols or you will face consequences."
Montrose raised an eyebrow. "As you wish."
Ruby stood frozen during this exchange. She noticed that Dar'ja didn't have an earpiece as Tachma had. He understood English without it.
He nodded at the two visitors and stepped aside. "Enter."
Soldiers drew the two doors open. The chamber beyond was cavernous. Marble columns with rich veins of blue and green ringed the room, and soldiers stood in the shadows behind them. At the center of the room, an honor guard stood at attention, swords drawn and held across each man's breastplate. At the far end, a row of broad marble stairs led up to a dais. Upon the throne, a young man sat wearing decorative armor, his arms and midriff bare, a velvet cape hanging over one shoulder. Beside him stood a tall, gaunt faced man in a simple brown robe. A skylight above the throne made the king a shining centerpiece in an otherwise darkened room.
Ruby hesitated in the doorway, but Montrose marched forward. Ruby followed close behind her. As they approached, Ruby stared up at the king. He sat relaxed, his eyes fixed on her with an expression of light amusement. She wondered if it was improper to look him in the eye. Despite her worry, she didn't look away.
At the foot of the steps, Montrose and Ruby knelt and bowed. Montrose spoke first. "Your majesty, I am Lady Devane Montrose, Knight in the Holy Order of Infinite Truth, daughter of Rexler Montrose and Shai Montrose. I come from the City of Light."
Ruby hesitated. After an uncomfortable silence, she said, "I am Ruby Tanner, daughter of Wayne and Maude Tanner. I come from Rapid City, South Dakota."
"You are welcome to my city," said the king. "Rise, both of you."
They stood. The king was high above them. Ruby had to crane her neck. The king leaned forward to regard them. "I am Basha, King of Cavaheim, also called Gahn Shikvaht, the Holy Usurper. I have looked forward to..." He muttered under his breath, then continued. "To meet you. I have anticipated this gathering... (mutter)... for some time."
"You use a translation device to address us," Montrose observed.
"That is so," said the king.
"The little man who brought us in did not."
"That is Dar'ja. Over a lifetime of long travels, he has... developed an ear for languages."
"But you do not share his gift?"
Basha smirked. "You are full of questions."
"Did you not predict that I would be?"
His smile broadened. "You wish to test my limits."
"I wish to understand the truth."
"And you believe you can understand the truth simply by asking questions?"
"Not at all. I learn through all of my senses, through all of your actions, your hesitations, through the briefest facial expressions. I learn not only by your word but by what you do not say. I have trained my whole life to recognize truth, and the first thing I learned is that no one knows the truth, particularly about themselves."
Basha laughed. He turned to the stern faced man beside him and whispered a few words.
Ruby watched Montrose, horrified. The truth knight stood staring up at the king, not a flicker of concern on her face, probing every gesture of the man.
"Who is that man beside you?" Montrose asked.
The king turned back to her. "This? This is Jarrock, head of the Ord guard and my personal advisor."
"Your advisor," Montrose repeated, her voice doubtful.
Basha sighed. "Tell me, Lady Montrose, what have you learned about me so far."
"I fear to say."
"I don't think you fear anything."
"That's not true. I fear what you are capable of if you possess the power your people claim you have."
"And do I have that power?"
"I don't know. Do you?"
His smile fell. A flicker of contempt crossed his brow. "I have power you can't imagine."
She frowned up at him, her face shrewd, as if she were studying an eclipse. "That is only partly a lie. A veiled truth. What are you really?"
"Do you truly believe you can understand?" The king stood up and glowered down at her, his cape falling away. "Do you, a mere mortal, having never left the earthly plane in all your days, think you can fathom the power and mystery that lies beyond this veil? Do you think your mind can contemplate the realm of the gods? You are incapable of understanding truth."
"You're as mortal as me."
"Is that so?"
"It is. But I won't prove it through words alone." She reached inside her jacket and withdrew a handgun.
A cry of indignation rose from the soldiers. Those on the floor rushed forward. From both sides of the dais, soldiers with crossbows appeared, three on each side, all of them leveling their weapons on Montrose before she could take aim.
"Avasht!" The king ordered, raising a hand.
All the soldiers fell silent. The whole room froze.
"You wish to prove a point?" Basha said. "Very well. You have earned the enmity of my guard, and I don't like your chances outside these walls. But I will indulge you. Go ahead, Lady Montrose. Prove your point."
He stood and waited. The room was as still as a tomb. Ruby turned from Montrose to the king and back. As she did, a sickening dread washed over her. It pushed in through her ears, vibrating there and confusing her. Horrible things were about to happen. The despair was like a heavy blanket that weighed her down. Ruby wanted to lie down and cover her head.
This dread seemed to be contagious, because the soldiers now surrounding them appeared to struggle under the weight of it. One man let out a mournful moan.
Montrose seemed more confused than hopeless. She studied the men around her, then looked back at the king. Her eyes strayed to the sides of the dais. On each side, a robed figure now stood, each one with hands raised, their focus on Montrose. Each spoke in whispers. Ruby followed Montrose's attention but did not understand.
Montrose regarded the king. So did Ruby, although it seemed to take all her strength to raise her head. The king remained calm, but a flicker of something else showed on his face. Was he afraid?
The truth knight lowered her gun hand. A soldier behind her wrenched the weapon away.
In an instant, the sense of dread left Ruby. The guards stood upright, the oppressive misery now releasing them. Two of them stepped forward and took Montrose by the arms.
"I was overly hasty back in Holcomb, it seems," she muttered to herself. Only Ruby heard.
The soldiers drew her back and led her out of the room. Montrose did nothing to resist. Ruby watched them, then turned back to the dais. The two robed figures who'd been casting their spell on Montrose were gone.
"Fear not, Lady Montrose," King Basha called as his soldiers drew the truth knight out of the room. "You'll have another opportunity to learn of my power, four nights hence when the fires of Kaj'jic rise."
The doors slammed shut on Montrose. The soldiers and ministers all returned to their original positions. Ruby was alone at the center of the room, afraid to face the king.
Basha returned to his throne. He leaned forward and smiled down at Ruby. "Now, this does make things awkward, doesn't it, Miss Tanner."