Finished with the meal and ready to go, Katya found herself following the Fox Spirit back into the city. Khalrai led her through the gates and along the roads they had come down earlier going the other way, until they eventually made it back to the park near the center of town. Deep in the middle of the park, where the trees grew tall and thick and the noise of the populace was no more than a murmur hidden by the chirping of birds and chattering of squirrels there was a high wooden fence and a nearly-overgrown path leading through it to a small isolated log cabin.
The cabin had a neatly maintained yard and a large garden full of beautiful, colorful arrays of flowers. No doubt the house of a Master Gardener. "We're here," Kharlai said. She stepped up to the door of the house and gave a few firm knocks on the thick, heavy wood. Through the walls, the creaking of floorboards could be heard as someone inside got up from whatever they were doing and approached the door from the other side.
A voice called out, "Who's there?" Without waiting for a response, the Master Gardener opened up the door and looked out at the two people on her doorstep. "Who're you and what do you want?"
"My friend and I are two who appreciate the natural beauty of the world very much. I've come to this park for quite some time to meditate and relax. I couldn't help but notice..." Khalrai pointed at a flower, "is that a green pitcher plant? Those are rather rare."
The old woman glanced in the direction Khalrai pointed. "Why, yes, it is. I keep it next to--"
"The Russian Sage," Khalrai interrupted.
"Yes, the Russian Sage, as-"
"Bees would be attracted to them and thus more likely to be caught by the pitcher plant," Khalrai interrupted again.
The Master Gardner smiled. "Yes, exactly! It's been awhile since I've met someone with a botanist's knowledge. Especially since Lord Lanntell... well, why don't you two come in? I was just making some tea."
Khalrai nodded and went inside. She started with Lord Lanntell... maybe her and Katya would be able to get something out of her. It looked hopeful so far.
Katya and Khalrai followed the Master Gardener into her cozy little house. She led them to a sitting room where a modest fire crackled away in the hearth and invited them to sit down and make themselves at home while she went to the kitchen to prepare the tea. Katya found a comfortable looking rocking chair and sat down in it, after putting aside her bardiche and satchel.
Soon the Master Gardener entered the room with a tray, setting it down on a low table. She poured three cups of tea from an ornate hand-painted ceramic teapot. On the tray, along with the teapot and cups, there was a bowl of sugar, a small little pitcher of milk, and a plate with a few small scones.
Katya put copious amounts of sugar into her tea and cooled it down with some milk. Once everyone else had prepared their tea to their preference and was comfortable, Khalrai and Katya introduced themselves to the Master Gardener. Then, Khalrai began to explain why they were here.
Khalrai sipped her tea for a moment before putting it down. She cleared her throat.
"First of all, I would like to thank you for your hospitality, but we did not come here to sip tea and discuss flora."
The Master Gardener nodded for a moment. "I see."
"You mentioned something about the Lord?" Khalrai asked.
"Oh, it's... nothing. He just doesn't appreciate the outdoors much these days. He cuts down forests and disrupts the ecosystem. But he doesn't care to hear me out."
"I am also concerned for Lanntell's actions," Khalrai began. "He has cut down entire forests near my hometown, and I know he has done the same elsewhere. It's extremely disheartening, to say the least."
"I'm aware", the Gardener replied, "I don't like it either. His blatant disregard for it is just horrifying. He feels absolutely no remorse."
"Have you ever told him how you feel?" Khalrai asked.
"No, I have not. I hold my tongue, for I have no doubt in my mind he would have me punished if I were to speak against him."
Khalrai motioned to Katya. "She and I would like to end his deforestation and other activities that interfere with the natural order of things. We were hoping that being the Master Gardener, you would be able to offer advice or information that we could not get anywhere else."
The Master Gardener put down her tea cup. "I see...," and she trailed off in thought. Khalrai eagerly awaited for her to speak again, while Katya seemed content to eat and drink and listen in on the conversation.
"Perhaps the time has come for me to speak up. He may listen if we provide a good enough case for his consideration. We might be able to use the two of you to help convince him. You and the young girl can play yourselves off as two villagers who were forced to relocate due to his orders. An appeal to his emotion may work in this situation."
"And if it doesn't?" Khalrai asked.
She sighed. "If it doesn't then the best we could hope for is he has us forcibly removed from his sight. The worst would be imprisonment... or death."
"Would he really do that?" Khalrai asked, "just for trying to have a conversation with him?"
The Master Gardener nodded. "He is very arrogant and holds himself on a pedestal. He would replace me and make sure you two never existed. It could very well turn into a situation in which we'd have to fight back or be detained."
"That wouldn't be a desirable outcome," Khalrai turned to Katya. "What would you do if diplomacy became conflict? Would you be able to defend yourself, or escape?"
"Hah!" Katya said. She set her teacup down on the table and then jumped out of the rocking chair. She punched out an imaginary adversary and swung her leg in a wide roundhouse kick, almost hitting a decorative wooden china cabinet in the process. "I knock their heads together they dare touch me!"
Khalrai smiled and stifled a laugh. "Now that's the spirit!" She turned to the Gardener. "Now, er..."
"You can call me Edna," she replied.
"Edna, when would it be best to meet him?"
"He's currently out of town, but he is supposed to return early in the evening. We could try to talk to him after he eats, or sometime tomorrow. Do you have a preference?"
"The sooner the better," Khalrai said shortly. "But what shall we do in the meantime?"
"I have to tend to some business in the park, but you and your friend are more than welcome to stay here and make yourselves at home," and she gathered some gardening tools. "I'll be back in a few hours," and she left.
The Master Gardener, Edna, left to do, presumably, some master gardening in the park somewhere, leaving Katya and Khalrai alone in the house to wait until the nefarious Lord Lanntell was back in town. If there was one thing Katya didn't like more than anything else, it was waiting. Suffice it to say, she was anything but a patient girl.
Katya got up from her seat and started pacing. "Sooooo..." she started to say. "What should we do now?"
"Well, we should think about ways to convince the lord to see it our way. I have no doubts that he will be extremely resistant... so we will need to stand strong."
Khalrai paced around the room before stopping in front of a window. Outside she could see a large variety of flora. There were short and bright flowers, trees with droopy leaves, and even a few animals running about in the field. "If only he could see this," she shook her head, "if only Lanntell understood."
She turned around to face Katya. "Child, the chance of this turning into an armed conflict would appear to be high. I don't want you to be harmed. If a fight breaks out then I want you to flee and save yourself."
"Pft!" Katya said dismissively, waving her palm. "They won't be able to harm me! I'm too fast!" Her brow furrowed in thought and she curled up her hand and put it over her mouth. "Unless they got guns...they got guns?" She tapped the side of her face with a finger, adding "I can run if I gotta. I'm pretty good at running."
Khalrai went outside into the garden to meditate and Katya followed her, somewhat restless. Katya walked around for a bit, stopping when she found a tall plum tree. She climbed up into its branches and found a low, sturdy one to sit on. She hung her satchel from another branch, opening it up and removing a red velvet package.
Katya unwrapped the velvet and pulled out the dark wooden form of her gusli. She began to pluck the shiny metal strings, slowly at first but building up quicker and quicker until she had a complex melody going. Then she began to sing, which is something she didn't usually do, an old Russian folk song. "Oy polnym polna mоya korobushka..."
Hours seemed to pass by as minutes, and the next thing Khalrai was aware of was a sound not caused by the animals of the park nor by Katya. She opened one of her eyes and beheld the sight of Edna, the Master Gardener, returning.
Khalrai stood and smiled at her, though her patience had been running out. "Will you be ready soon?" Khalrai glanced at the sky and noted that dusk was swiftly approaching.
"Could I have just a moment to rest and prepare some tea?" Edna asked while removing a dirty pair of gloves from her hands.
"Right, of course," Khalrai responded. She followed Edna back into her hut and looked around for Katya.
When Katya was finished with her song she put the gusli away and plucked a plum from a nearby branch, sticking it in her mouth and jumping down from the tree. Katya wandered around the garden for a bit while she ate the plum and then headed back to the Master Gardener's hut.
Khalrai and Edna were already there waiting for her, the latter sipping a cup of tea. "Privét!" Katya said, saluting. "We all ready to go soon? I get bored of waiting around."
Khalrai waited patiently while Edna prepared her tea and drank it. While she was in a hurry and wished to solve the issue with Lord Lanntell as quickly as possible, she did not want to rush the old woman. Reluctantly, she stood and bid her time.
Katya came into the hut not too long afterwards. She said something in a tongue Khalrai did not understand, and then asked if they were ready to go.
"In a moment, dear," Edna said. "I would like to enjoy this drink before we depart."
Khalrai nodded in agreement, though it was obvious she was getting impatient as well. However, there was nothing they could do other than wait for the next few minutes as the gardener finished.
Once she did, however, Khalrai smiled with content. "May we leave for the castle now?"
Edna put on a light coat and began to walk out of the hut. "Yes. Let's go and see him now."
Katya, Khalrai, and Edna the Master Gardener made their way through the city of Shrewsbury. Against her wishes, Khalrai and Edna managed to appeal to Katya's muddled sense of logic and got her to leave her oversized weapon in the gardener's house. There was no way the guards would let her carry it into the castle, especially not for an audience with Lord Lanntell. In any case, Katya was better with her empty fists and feet anyway.
It was a bit of a walk before they got the the Lord's palace in the heart of the metropolis. They had to go through a few gates and pass by several guards, but with Edna leading them they didn't have any trouble. Once they were inside the palace, Edna requested a private audience with the Lord. It took some convincing, but eventually Lanntell's personal secretary found a small, free space in the Lord's schedule and wrote them in.
They had to wait under guard outside of Lanntell's chambers until he was ready to receive them but soon the time came. Edna took a deep breath and stepped towards the doors.
The doors swung open as Edna stepped through them. Khalrai and Katya followed behind her, and allowed her to take the lead. Upon seeing the guests enter, the Lord stood and acknowledged Edna. Lord Lanntell had greying hair and was dressed in casual clothing, but he still held an air of authority and royalty about him. The room was decorated extravagantly and appeared to be a study of some sort, with doors on either side leading to other rooms. A window overlooked the city below the castle. "Good evening, Edna. Who are your guests that you have brought to my private quarters?"
"Lord Lanntell," she began while giving a short bow, "These two share a concern that I have as well, but have been reluctant to speak to you about. If you would hear them out then I would be ever grateful."
Lanntell groaned and rolled his eyes. "If you must. Make it quick."
Khalrai stepped forward and locked eyes with Lord Lanntell. "What you do to the land is lamentable. I can tell that you have no concern for it just by standing in this room. Your only window opens not to the wilderness, but to your city below. You tear down trees to make way for expansion. You burn trees and minerals and care not for the creatures you harm in the process. Instead of living in harmony with nature, you pave over it and destroy it. It is not right."
"And why should I care?" Was his response.
"Because there is only so much abuse that the environment will take before it and its agents will react."
"It and its agents will react? That sounds like a threat."
"I am merely delivering the message to you. If you continue to decimate the forests and expand your settlements, there will be retribution."
"Retribution by whom?" Lord Lanntell put his palms flat on his desk and leaned forward as he spoke. "By the trees? Will they rise up against me? By the little forest animals? The squirrels, the birds, the foxes? I should think not."
Katya could tell things were getting heated, so she stepped up and tried her best to defuse the situation. She put on her best diplomatic voice, tilted her head down a bit, and said "Sir, certainly we can come to some kind of understanding. The forest provides many valuable services!" Katya struggled to remember everything she knew about trees and the environment. "They make fresh air and...uh, help prevent...erosion? And think of all the cute furry animals! Where are they going to live?"
Lanntell just grunted. "I think I've had just about enough of this. Your concerns have been duly noted, Edna, now please leave my presence. I have important business to attend to."
Khalrai's anger was building up and she was growing tired of the Lord's impudent behavior. It was clear he didn't care and that his mind would not be swayed. Not by her nor Edna's words. Not by diplomacy. Khalrai morphed back into her true form of a Fox Spirit. A shocked expression came across the Lord's face while Khalrai's left claw began to produce a purple glow.
"My patience for you has run out, Lanntell," she snarled. "You will fix the wrongs you have committed or I will turn you to stone and toss your body to be broken on the ground below. The choice is yours'."
At the same moment she finished, the doors to the chamber flew open and armored men began pouring in. "Stand down, Crag Warden," one commanded.
"Run!" Khalrai shouted to Katya. Just one word. Run.
Instead she reached for the bardiche hanging from her back, only to remember it wasn't. Soldiers were pouring into the room and things were getting violent. One of them reached for the seemingly-defenseless Katya, only to find himself flying through the air and landing flat on his back, dazed. Two or three armored men at a time wasn't too much for Katya to handle, but there were more than that and she didn't have her bardiche to help her out. It was time to go.
She knocked out the next two soldiers who tried to take her and then bounded across the room, vaulting herself over Lanntell's desk. She kicked the shocked Lord in the gut, knocking him aside, and grabbed the chair, throwing it through the window. "Do what you gotta!" she shouted to the Fox Spirit. "Maybe we meet again sometime!"
Knowing that the fight was about to escalate to the point where winning would be impossible, Khalrai wished to ensure her companion's safety. "Run!" she shouted while reverting back to her true form. Edna was being carried off by one man while the others surrounded Khalrai. Katya had managed to escape through the window.
Turning back to face the men, she used Doppelgänger and created three copies of herself. "Attack!" She yelled while teleporting behind one of the men. Unfortunately, they seemed to anticipate this and she was hit with a draining spell. She let out a scream as she fell to her knees. With each passing second she felt herself growing weaker and weaker until she slumped onto the floor. Mere seconds passed and then she blacked out.