The huge stone face gritted his boulder-like teeth. DG glanced at Cain, who had tensed his muscles, ready to spring. On her other side, Kaliko looked resigned. Betsy sprang up from the bench and bowed deeply, flaunting her leg to the giant face. "King Roquat, I presume? An honor to meet you. Captain Betsy Bobbins of the You and What Navy?, at your service."
"Honor, bah; a funeral is more accurate," Kaliko muttered.
Betsy gave no sign that she heard him behind her. "Your General was gracious enough to entertain us while we waited for an audience with your Majesty."
Curiosity replaced some of the anger on Roquat's face. "A Topsider wants an audience with me?" His eyes narrowed. "For what purpose?"
"Obviously, I want a boon only the Nome King can grant." She plopped her hat back on her brown wavy hair. "So do we conduct the audience here or do you have a throne room for that sort of thing?"
The thick stone lips sneered. "And what realm do you rule to consider yourself worthy of an audience with Roquat?"
Betsy's hand fluttered to her chest, a move at odds with the sword and grenadoes strapped around her waist. "Rule? Me?" DG wondered if Betsy batted her eyelashes along with her tone. "I'm just a humble ship's captain. My tailor calls me Queen of the Sea, but I attribute that to his flair for dramatic advertising."
"And you presume to disturb me, Roquat the Ruby , the ruler of everything underground. I have made rulers of Topsider empires tremble in fear, and you think you are worthy to ask for a boon?" His chuckle held menace rather than mirth and DG bit her lip again.
"Where I come from, there is no harm in asking. You may not like the answer you get, but asking is polite." Betsy smiled, "Don't you want to know what only the Nome King can do for a Topsider ship's captain, your Majesty?"
The flames in Roquat's pupils died. "A Topsider who is not afraid of the power I wield? What manner of human are you?"
"I'm no different than any other, except for possessing a stubborn streak and lacking qualms against violence." Betsy tucked her thumbs into her belt like Cain would. "But why start off so hostile and uncivilized?"
"Because Topsiders don't know any other way of behaving!" Roquat's voice shook the room again, but Betsy didn't flinch. "I must suffer your entreaties because you want to prove you are different? Better? More foolish?" His teeth crashed together. "Arrogant female!" His expression suddenly went wary, and flames flared in his pupils. "Where are you from, Captain Betsy Bobbins?"
"Didn't realize there was an interview process." Betsy tilted her head. "The closest city to a home port the You and What Navy? has is Mount Cove, the part of your dominion you left attached to the mainland."
"You were born on a ship?"
"Depends on your point of view. It's the only home I can count on."
"You have never crossed the Deadly Desert?" Something about Roquat's sly expression reminded DG of someone else.
Betsy threw back her head and laughed. "What the hell can I do in a landlocked country like the Outer Zone? My ship can't cross sand." She wiped under her eyes. "No tricks, Your Majesty. It's an honest boon."
Roquat studied Betsy. "Bring them to the throne room, Kaliko." His face retreated. The eyes closed, the nose disappeared, but his mouth opened wider until it became a doorway through the stone.
Kaliko heaved his body off the bench. "Well, you received what you wanted, Captain. It was a pleasure meeting you Topsiders."
"Have a little faith, General."
"I have seen this scenario far too many times."
The humans followed Kaliko and his troop followed them into another cavern as large as the Hall. The left wall held the windows. In the center was a craggy throne carved from a solid grey-brown boulder. Its surface glittered with the rubies, diamonds, and emeralds. The gnome sitting on it had shrank to Cain's height, but fatter. His skin and robe matched the color of the throne's stone, as well as the solid beard and hair carved to look bushy. The only thing on him not grey-brown was a gold belt covered with gemstones wrapped around his waist.
A knot formed in DG's stomach. The Nome King reminded her of the Royal Alchemist. She didn't trust him and she doubted they should trust Roquat. Hell, his own general didn't trust the Nome King. She reached for Cain's hand. He squeezed hers.
Roquat pulled a stone pipe from the throne's armrest. He started it smoking before focusing on Betsy. "Does this throne room suit your discussion of boons, Captain Betsy Bobbins?"
She smirked as she turned and looked at the cavern. "I admire your use of natural resources. Curious about what you do after the suns set, but that's not important." She faced Roquat again. "My boon: there are two in your collection captured from a Topsider expedition last annual I would like freed." Roquat's expression froze. "I have found evidence and believe they were left to be blamed and punished for the invasion."
"That does not make sense, Topsider." He inhaled through the pipe. "You imply that I acted because I was furious over the attack. Topsiders always attack, and the latest attackers were swiftly dealt justice."
"Not the one who actually planned it. He brought your Steward's only son and granddaughter here. He gave the orders to blow up parts of your mountain. He escaped to continue building up the Navy, to oppress the Topsiders of the islands, and to impress the Steward as the only candidate to take the position. Only he will not be Steward, he will declare himself a king and start conquering."
Roquat puffed out smoke. "Conjecture."
"Not!" Sprite stomped forward, and would have continued to the throne, but Betsy pulled her back. "I felt Slate. All true!"
"What is that?" He pointed to Sprite.
"Sprite is a type of Topsider called a Viewer. They can read people's hearts, so you can't lie to them." Betsy pushed Sprite behind her. "For the Steward's son and granddaughter, I will give you Thomas Slate for your justice, your Majesty."
He puffed on his pipe for a few minutes. "Topsiders do not act so altruistically. What do you get, Captain Betsy Bobbins? "
"I'm not altruistic. Keeping Slate out of power maintains my way of life." Betsy crossed her arms.
"No, no," he chuckled. "There are ways to remove the threat he represents without involving my collection." He pinned Betsy with a glare, while his lips within the carved beard smiled. "You have proof that you are correct, so why come here at all?"
"The Topsiders must have a Steward."
"They will find a new champion. They always do."
DG curled her free hand into a fist. The Nome King was forcing Betsy to admit the personal stake she had. If there was one lesson DG learned at court, it was to never show the personal stake. She had shown how she needed Cain and Glitch, and they had been jerked away from her. And her mother was benevolent, while no one had the illusion that Roquat was too.
Betsy matched Roquat's glare. "The ones I seek are my husband and child. And if Slate in exchange isn't enough compensation, I'm willing to play your game."
Roquat's eyes crinkled with glee. "The heart bonds of a Topsider female, there is supposedly no other force on the world to match it." He puffed on his pipe and continued to stare at the tense woman. "You want to release two, three guesses are fair. Choose the ornament you think is one of them and say the land where they are from. If all three guesses are wrong, the one playing joins my collection. Are those terms agreeable, Captain Betsy Bobbins?"
"I can agree to that." Betsy pressed her lips together.
"Splendid. Who goes first?" Roquat rubbed his hands together.
Betsy shook her head. "No, this is between you and me. My men are free to leave."
"All play or none. It is your choice, Captain."
"That's not fair," Sprite said.
"Quiet, he might try to sell us something." Betsy turned herself and Sprite to face their group, keeping her hands on the Viewer child's shoulders. "Thoughts?"
Drake's graying goatee bristled. "You said you left your daughter on the Archipelago."
"Geographically speaking, Rock Fort is part of the Archipelago," Betsy shrugged. "You lot aren't exactly family men, Drake. And I didn't have time to get a new crew together."
"But you are going to compensate us for our troubles?" Morgan frowned.
"Have you ever not gotten paid? Orkland does not count."
"Well," Morgan drawled, "as long as we're heftily rewarded for rescuing, I'll take a go at guessing."
"What the hell, I've had a long life," Drake said. "'Course, I'm expecting you to get it right and spare us our turn."
"Fair enough," Betsy said. "Thank you."
Sprite tilted her head back. "I play too. Mean rock king should let Captain's family go."
"Sprite, you do understand what will happen if you get it wrong?" Betsy winced. "I promised to keep you safe."
"And I not leave my Captain. Settled."
Spencer crossed his arms. "Don't argue with me. You have a chance to get your family back, more than I will ever have." Betsy shook her head. Spencer continued, "And don't start with any rubbish like my responsibilities. None of it's true if we don't succeed." Betsy nodded with rapid blinking.
Cain sighed, "We'll see this through to the end." DG squeezed his arm as she nodded.
Dani squawked, "We should've listened to the General. Too late now."
Betsy released Sprite with a pat on her shoulders and turned back to the throne. "All right, I'm going first."
Roquat's smile was nasty. "Let us see if you know those you are bonded to as well as you think you do." He waved his left hand, and the rock wall to the right of the throne split until it formed an archway leading into darkness. "The collection room is through there." Betsy walked through it with a measured clip. The wall slid back into place with a grinding smash; no one could follow her.
Kaliko looked at the wall the longest, but DG couldn't read his expression. The crew's long faces of doubtful hope were all too easy to read. Sprite hugged DG around the waist. She soothed the Viewer's shaggy hair.
Dani rocked side to side by picking up each foot, and DG was glad her jacket was between her skin and the talons. "I probably should've gone with her. I could solve this much quicker than you humans."
"Let it be," Cain muttered. Dani only squawked in response.
A deep clang of a bell echoed up from far below their feet. They all looked up, and the wall opened into the archway again. But no one exited. DG's gaze flew to Kaliko's closed eyes first before turning to the throne.
Roquat grinned, showing all his stone teeth. "Who goes next?"