The group celebrated their impending commercial success late into the night, and Ronnella outlined for Hilde how she planned on running the trade operation. The baroness was going to set up a full-blown mercantile in the former dwarven outpost in the underdark. Stockpiles would be kept there, and sold to the drow. The profits from this enterprise is what she would split with Hilde. Likewise, everything coming up from the drow city would be bought and then resold on the surface. Every time Ronnella and her designated agents made a purchase, the prices would be hiked up to allow for a tidy profit. In addition to this, the outside sellers would be responsible for paying the applicable taxes. Trangdor had been instrumental in structuring the final deal, but the attorney working for the interests of the dark elves had helped, too. His loyalty wasn’t so much to the dark elves, as it was to one specific house, and that wasn’t as important as his allegiance to Slothjemia. There would be a lot of money made, and everyone involved would benefit by this happy windfall.
The next morning, Hilde and her friends got on another coach, and headed out of Romilmark. The weather was unsettled, but there was no storm to slow down their progress. There was a brief stop in Garvin’s Gap, and then the coach trundled on to Summit Village. It did rain overnight, but it wasn’t cold enough to freeze. A lot of the snow in the low-lying areas of the mountains ran off and a good deal of the road was turned to mud, but they resumed their travels and after a brief rest in Four Corners, the intrepid Shar Eigenblade and her retinue made it to Jordrakenschloss late in the third day of their trip. Rather than hassle with trying to get settled into the palace, they took a room in one of the midrange inns of the capital, a quiet yet spacious place called the Harpy Nest.
The inn sat up against the northeast wall of the city, and the upper floors gave a stunning view of the alps. Their room had three beds, and the room itself had a massive window but no balcony. Nobody felt much like doing anything other than sleeping, even though there was still much to be talked about. Hilde fell asleep first, and while Belynda tried to stay awake to chat with Trangdor, Cinder’s soft little snores next to her lulled the xvart into a restful slumber. Trangdor did what he could to stay awake to do some writing, but soon he was asleep, too.
Hilde had paid in advance for several days, and with no pressing need to get up and get moving, the gang just lounged around the next morning. The only one that left the room for any notable length of time was Belynda, and that was because Hilde sent her to the palace to let somebody in the Office of the Chamberlain know that Hilde had answered the Queen’s summons and was in the capital. Trangdor had gone to fetch breakfast, and then lunch, but other than that he had stayed on his bed, going over his transcripts. Hilde didn’t even bother brushing out her hair, and it sat like a tangled mess on the top and back of her head.
The mood shifted from drowsy inactivity to frenzied chaos when Belynda returned from the palace to announce in her childlike little voice, “The Empress wants you to show up this evening for a personal audience!” The xvart was almost completely out of breath, as she continued, “You need to get a bath, and I have to get your dress ready!”
Hilde screamed, and Trangdor started laughing nervously. Belynda glared at him, and said, “You have got to get ready too, mister! We are all supposed to be there!”
Pandemonium ensued. Hilde headed off to bathe in the inn’s only tub, and Belynda took care of pouring the water for her mistress. Trangdor went out to find a good barber, insisting that his beard needed to be trimmed. A valet from the palace, a middle-aged human who announced his name was Herbert, arrived four hours later to find the entire crew in the final stages of getting dressed, and while Hilde was far more presentable now than she was before Belynda went off to the palace, she wasn’t exactly ready for action. Trangdor had gotten a haircut, too, and was feeling quite refreshed. He was wearing the same black doublet with gold trim and black cape that he had worn the last time he had been invited to the palace. Hilde was fighting to get into a light grey dress with a deep blue corseted top, the latter being laced up within an inch of Hilde’s life by poor Belynda, who was using all of her strength to get everything cinched into place. Belynda herself was wearing the fur-trimmed white dress that she saved for special occasions. Cinder would sit in a small matching white pouch that hung off of the xvart’s hip. Placed side by side, the group looked surprisingly coordinated. The valet was pleased, and despite his initial misgivings, he thought they looked quite exceptional.
Once they had all gotten themselves presentable, they followed Herbert to the palace. The sun was just beginning to settle down behind the western alps, and the high clouds in the sky were splashed with fiery red and orange. Along the way, Hilde asked Herbert, “What exactly are we doing today? Is this a dinner, or a royal party thing, or what?”
The valet smiled, and replied, “My understanding is that this is a private audience. Her Majesty wanted to have a conversation with you.”
Belynda whispered to Trangdor, “This seems like a great deal of fuss for a chat.” The dwarf chuckled, and nodded in agreement.
Once inside the palace proper, the valet led the group through the maze of hallways and corridors, up staircases and into more hallways and chambers. Hilde thought it must take half of a lifetime to learn one’s way around this incomprehensibly designed labyrinth. They ended their journey at a pair of double doors, painted a bright green with yellow trim. On either side of the doors were two warriors in shiny, jet-black plate armor. Around their necks hung the medallions of the Phantom Legion, the personal bodyguard of the Royal Family. Herbert opened the doors, and bowed as he motioned for Hilde and her friends to enter.
They stepped into the room, and found themselves in a small study, with half a dozen large, overstuffed chairs surrounding a low, round table. In one of the chairs sat Her Majesty, Queen Reichsha, Empress of Slothjemia. Behind her chair stood the Herzgraf, Archibald Speedblade II. He smiled as they entered, and he motioned for them to sit.
The Queen smiled, and said, “Welcome, Shar Eigenblade. Please, you and your companions sit, and make yourselves comfortable.” The queen had strikingly gorgeous jorish features. Trangdor tried to avert his eyes from her, embarrassed by how lovely she was.
After they had settled in to their chairs, the Herzgraf took a seat, as well. He sat like a proper gentleman, his dashing human features every bit as handsome as his wife was beautiful. He looked at her, and then back at the group. Cinder sat in Belynda’s lap, and stared at the Queen as she spoke.
“We have heard some amazing things about you, Shar Eigenblade. We are extraordinarily impressed with your discovery of the shortcut to the drow city of Kaht-Medinhk. This is the first truly revolutionary exploration of the Underdark that any Slothjemian has undertaken in over one hundred years. And are we to understand that there is more yet to be explored?” The Queen paused, and she smiled at Hilde, awaiting her response.
Hilde wasn’t sure what to say, really, but she decided to go ahead and be bold. She did her best to sound calm, and said, “My dear friend Trangdor, and my squire, Belynda, have reason to believe that there is a route to a Svirfneblin colony. It is something we intend to look into.” She met the Queen’s gaze, and returned her smile.
The Queen and her husband looked at each other, and then the Monarch looked back at Hilde. Still smiling, she said, “You inherited your father’s spirit of adventure, didn’t you?”
Hilde chuckled sadly, and her smile faded. “Lord, I certainly hope not.”
An uneasy quiet settled onto the room. The Herzgraf raised an eyebrow, and put his hand up to the side of his face to hide a smile that threatened to race across his face.
“Would you care to explain that reaction, Shar Eigenblade?” asked the Queen, her smile somewhat guarded now.
“No.” replied Hilde firmly.
Reichsha laughed, a ringing kind of laugh that took everyone by surprise, even her husband. “I am most eagerly excited to see what other discoveries you will make, my dear. In the meantime, I should like to invite you to join the Royal Society for Exploration.” The Queen placed a small wooden box on the table, and slid it with her hand towards Hilde.
Hilde picked up the box, and opened it. Inside was a dazzling medallion; a third-tier knighthood, with an elegant black, white, and blue ribbon. As far as knighthoods went, this placed Hilde above her father in rank. She looked at the Queen with delighted surprise, and said, “Your Majesty! This is such an honor! Thank you!”
The Herzgraf smiled, and said, “Traditionally, this title comes with a bit of land from areas newly discovered. Is there some portion of the Underdark that you found, that you would like to lay personal claim to?
Hilde and Trangdor looked at each other, and they both smiled broadly. Hilde said to the Herzgraf, “Well, no. But there is actually a property that I’ve had my eye on for quite some time. It isn’t claimed by anyone, or should I say, it isn’t occupied by anyone. I’d like to place a claim on that, if it pleases your majesties.”
“And where would that be?” inquired the Queen.
Even though he hadn’t been asked, Trangdor replied in unison with Hilde and they said with grins in place, “Balthor’s Peak!”
Everyone laughed, and it was evident that these two had discussed this at great length. After the jocularity subsided, Reichsha wiped her eye, and asked, “Where is this place? Why is it not claimed already?”
Still snickering, Hilde answered, “It is among the tallest peaks midway between the Karpa and Keder passes, my Queen. “It was where we encountered the Rock Spine tribe of orcs, and defeated their leaders in battle.”
The Herzgraf nodded his head, and added, “They are the orcs that rebuilt Dregladorf, my dear. I believe that Balthor was their chieftain, killed in combat by the Governor-General. It is literally right on the border with Romillia.”
The Queen seemed to contemplate this information, and after a bit asked her husband, “Who are the nobles in charge of the most mountainous areas of Romilmark?”
Her husband shrugged, and said, “There could be several, I’m not sure how many estates run up to the peaks of the alpine range. I’ll send an inquiry to the Office of the Chancellery.”
Reichsha waved her hand and laughed. “We’ll look into it, Shar Eigenblade. Your request, much like your adventures in the deep of the earth, intrigues me. I shall give it due consideration. I should like you to remain in the capital for the time being, as there are other things that I might want to discuss with you.”
The Queen stood up, and everyone did likewise. “In the meantime, I should like to thank you again for your contributions to our national commerce. Going forward, you can be sure that we will be watching your progress closely.”
Hilde bowed before her queen, and her friends did as well. Hilde smiled at her sovereign, and said, “Thank you, Countess. We will be here in the city for as long as you like. There is much to do before we head back to Brakoff, regardless. Thank you again for your generosity.” Hilde clutched the little box with her new knighthood inside to her chest, and together the three friends walked out of the little sitting room.
Herbert the valet smiled as they rejoined him in the corridor. “Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked.
Hilde thought for a moment, and then said, “Yes, there is. Can you take us to the Army High Command? I’d like to see a Lieutenant Colonel there, an Oskar von Vorkel. Can you do that?”
The valet nodded, his facial expression mildly perplexed. “Follow me, please. It isn’t far. Do you think he will be in his office at this hour?”
Hilde smirked. “I don’t know what to expect, Herbert. I just don’t know.”