Cain stepped in front of DG when the spears were leveled at them. Morgan and Drake moved closer. Spencer changed his grip on his portable lamp to swing. Betsy swept her foot back and her hat off as she dropped into a deep bow.
"Greetings and salutations." She straightened. "I am Captain Betsy Bobbins of the You and What Navy?. Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?"
Cain blinked. She sounded as polished as a courtier.
The gnome who had raised his arm stepped forward. The jewels on his suit of armor had a deep red-brown color. "I am General Kaliko. Are you Topsiders?" There was awe in his gravelly voice. "Do you live under the light of the double suns?"
Betsy glanced at her group before answering. "Aye, I guess that makes us Topsiders."
Kaliko nodded. "If you value your lives, you must return to your ship and leave."
"But we just got here."
"You cannot stay." Kaliko signaled his troop and they pulled up their spears against their shoulders. "We value the peace between the Topsiders and the gnomes. Leave before it is broken."
Betsy's back stiffened. "We cannot leave without seeing your King."
Their military precision broke. Heads turned as the troop muttered in grating voices.
"Don't they know what the King does to Topsiders?"
"How many annuals has it been?"
"All that light drives them mad."
"Remember how soil that had touched the sky tasted?"
"Do they want to start another war?"
"Maybe the King was right to take us away."
"We're a part of the world too. Why can't we interact with Topsiders?"
"I wonder what has changed."
Kaliko silenced the chatter from his troop with another gesture. "You are better off not meeting the King, Captain. Roquat does not like to be disturbed, especially by Topsiders."
"I'm afraid my business concerns him. I don't want to break the peace," Betsy spread her hands, "but I can't promise that what happens in the Topsiders' countries won't affect your realm."
"We have survived separate this long," Kaliko answered. "I will not risk the King's wrath."
"Maybe he doesn't have to know?" DG licked her lips before continuing. "You guys want news, the Captain wants to finish her quest. So we handle business without King Roquat?"
"Are you accustomed to such misdirection, Topsider?"
She smiled. "Sometimes it's the only way to get anything done."
"It's not breaking the rules, just bending them a little," Betsy added. "A military leader can appreciate knowing what's happening outside his mountain. Knowing is half the battle."
Kaliko's grey features frowned. "I have no wish to battle with Topsiders."
"And we have no wish to battle with gnomes. So why don't we sit for a neighborly chat instead?"
The General looked at Betsy's smile with narrowed eyes. "Yes, I am sure all you want is a chat." He turned to his troop. "These Topsiders are honored guests. Make the way to the Hall."
Betsy whirled and glowered. "Best behavior out of everyone. Don't embarrass me." They all nodded except Sprite, who saluted.
The gnome troop marched to the tunnel wall. Their bodies--armor and all--melded with the stone, leaving a new opening. Kaliko led the humans into the new tunnel that corkscrewed around a man-thick crystal shard conducting light underground. The stone closed behind Morgan and Drake. Cain frowned as he examined at the wall beside them. Faces skittered over the surface. He reared back and DG caught his arm. "Don't see that everyday, do you?" Her eyes danced again.
"Wasn't expecting that. Or for you to get a kick out of it."
"Usually you're reassuring me that the weird thing is perfectly normal. So yeah, I'm enjoying this." She squeezed his hand. "I won't tell anyone."
The wall ahead opened into an immense cavern, larger than the Grand Hall of the Northern Palace. Gemstone windowpanes dotted the curved wall on the far right and crystal stalagmites hanging from the ceiling maybe half-a-span above brought light beams to all corners of the cavern. The gnome troop reformed around them as the wall returned to a solid state.
Long tables and benches grew out of the floor in the center of the cavern. Kaliko led them to the table on a raised platform of stone in front of the other two. "You have a tradition of eating with diplomacy, yes?"
"Breaking bread is what we say." Betsy watched the gnomes pull free from the stone walls. These were smaller, fatter, or thinner than the shape of a soldier gnome. They set out dishes recreating a rainbow on the tables, and Cain raised his scarred eyebrow at the wealth. The dishes weren't made of colored glass and the utensils looked like an alloy of gold and silver. Betsy shook her head. "Do you even eat the same food that we do?"
All gnomes stopped and stared wide-eyed at the high table. Cain had seen criminals look less guilty over worse. He unslung the pack off his back. "Don't worry, we have food." He unpacked the items that didn't need cooking, careful to keep the eggs hidden. The gnomes whisked the stuff away as soon as he put it on the table.
Kaliko gestured at the high table and bench. "Please be seated."
DG hesitated. "We won't be sitting on anyone, will we?"
"No," Kaliko's stony face broke into a smile. "They are permanent to the Hall."
The gnomes chattered in a singsong language Cain didn't recognize as they sat at the other tables or served others. DG sat next to Cain. "It's like 'Be Our Guest' only with rocks," she muttered. He looked at her puzzled. "I'll explain later."
He nodded and glanced down the table. Kaliko sat between DG and Betsy, who stared at DG.
Betsy noticed Cain's observation and turned back to Kaliko. "It's kind of you to go to this much trouble."
"It is no trouble. We would have done the same for the Topsiders an annual ago had they behaved in a civilized fashion." Kaliko's goblet was filled with a molten silver substance, which he sipped before continuing. "You are following them."
Cain passed the water canteen to one of the serving gnomes. "This is what Topsiders drink." He only saw the top of the bobbing head above the table, but they wouldn't have to wash down bread and meat with metal.
Betsy admired the fork of her place setting. "We are. How much Topsider politics do you know?" She set the fork back on the table to focus on Kaliko.
"I have not met with Topsiders since King Roquat separated our dominions from the mainland, so I'm afraid it is outdated."
The Captain nodded, making the trinkets on her hat jiggle. "The Great Upheaval scattered islands between Rock Fort and the mainland. Topsiders moved with them, and created alliances with the Steward of the Nome King."
Kaliko's brow lifted. "I had forgotten about that position. Other Topsider kingdoms never approached him as they were supposed to do."
Cain's history lessons didn't include that. "The Nome King had human subjects?"
"The Land of Ev always disputed who was truly in charge of them." Kaliko laughed, which sounded like two rocks grinding together. "I suppose when the King dragged us all out to sea settled that."
"I doubt that was his intention," Cain replied.
"It was not." The General turned to Betsy with a somber expression. "King Roquat will not care that he still has Topsider subjects if you want him to intervene in affairs upside."
"The current Steward's only son led the Topsiders here last annual." Betsy inhaled. "He never returned. We must rescue him to prevent a warmonger from gaining the Steward's position and claiming all islands as his."
"And you believe he would dare conquer our mountain? No, fear of the King keeps all away."
Betsy toyed with the bread on her ruby plate. "He has no fear of the King to make him to quake. He left the Steward's son and granddaughter here while he escaped to complete his plans. He'll surround Rock Fort with ships and send a barrage of cannonballs into it."
Kaliko frowned. "So they deliberately antagonized King Roquat."
The other gnomes mirrored Kaliko's grave distress with their chatter, though one young voice rose above the rest. "But I don't want to move the mountain for cycles again!"
The General gulped the contents of his goblet. "The King will never release the Steward's son and grandchild. Their group entered with explosives and blew a path into the collection room. Many in the collection died, so the King ensorcelled the invaders, adding them to it. Only two Topsiders escaped of the ones who entered."
DG chewed on her bottom lip before asking, "How does he collect people?"
"Roquat turns them into ornaments that represent who they were." Kaliko shrugged at her dismayed expression. "Yes, it's horrific but they do not suffer as they would if they were merely imprisoned. However, that is why your quest must end here. The King wants replacements."
"But not badly enough to come out of hiding," Betsy observed.
"I think that's a good thing," Cain said.
Betsy clenched her fist. "People have been rescued from the Nome King's collection before. There are stories. So what did they do?"
Kaliko shook his head. "Captain, there must be a better way to expend your life than taking a chance in Roquat's game."
"When the King was more receptive to Topsiders, he would give them so many chances to guess the identity of the ornament. If all the guesses were wrong, the Topsider would join the collection."
"Bad odds," Sprite said as she peered around Betsy.
Cain agreed with the Viewer child. "How many have won this game?"
The gnomes all stopped moving and gazed at the high table. "Only two have beaten Roquat ever," Kaliko said in an awed voice. "The girl with the silver shoes."
"Silver shoes," every gnome echoed. DG tensed beside Cain, and he wrapped his arm around her back.
"And the chicken." Kaliko shuddered. The other gnomes moaned, filling the entire cavern. DG shrank closer to Cain.
"Glad I look different," Dani whispered between their heads. "But it was said that colors are key for the game."
Kaliko steepled his fingers together. "Sail away from this, Captain. There is no hope for what you wish for."
"General Kaliko, you can't get rid of me that easily. Maybe you don't remember how stubborn Topsiders can be, but I'm more stubborn than most."
The rocks on the wall behind their backs made a grinding sound. All the gnomes except for Kaliko's soldiers melted through the floor. Cain pivoted along with the rest of the crew and saw the stone shifting into a giant, craggy face. Flames danced inside the pupils of the eyes. "What is the meaning of this!" Its voice boomed into the Hall, sending vibrations through the stone and crystal.