Tales From the Universe Tree: Wolves of Ice and Fire. Part Four: A Mother's Love.
(Continued from Part Three)
Two guards, both Gilannri, flanked the women on either side as they strode down the corridor of the palace. Shenal eyed them with more than a glimmer of annoyance. She always had hated being guarded in her own home. But Risa had been adamant; there had been too many attempts on her life during the rebellion. The Shogun had wanted hundreds, but Shenal had shrieked at the idea. Guards outside doors were one thing, but having them follow you into the privy was another thing entirely. They had argued about it for three days and the servants and guards walked lightly around them for a month. Until the Queen had finally agreed to guards in the throne room and two with them at all times, save for when they needed privacy or inside their bedchamber.
Risa had not let it go at that, but Shenal wouldn’t hear any more of it. Shenal could be more stubborn than her mother had been at times. Why—Risa gave a start when Shenal wrapped her arms around her waist, leaned into her and rested her head against her breasts. Light crimson exploded on Risa's cheeks. Only the guards were close enough to see, but they didn’t seem aware of anything not in front of them, Thank the Tree. Servants scurried about their tasks. None glanced at them but Risa's cheeks still felt as if they were melting. “They’re looking at us.” The Shogun whispered urgently.
Thankfully you don’t smell like one either.
“No they’re not.” Shenal retorted haughtily. “And even if they are, I say let them. Let them see whom I would choose as my true husband.”
Risa blinked. “Husband?” a small amused smile crept across her lips despite herself. “Do I look like a man to you?”
“Hardly,” Shenal chortled. The Queen leaned over and sniffed Risa’s neck. “Thankfully you don’t smell like one either.” Both of the Women broke apart with laughter. Risa felt a burst of love for the other woman then. Her laugh was musical infectious like a bird’s call. With all that had been happening, there had been little laughter in the palace of late. Risa wrapped her arm around the other woman and squeezed lightly. A few of the servants did gaze at them then. But Risa didn’t care, not really. She only had eyes for the flamed haired woman in her arms.
A few moments later, they arrived at one of the palaces many gardens. Risa untangled herself from her lover and took in this little bit of paradise. It was huge. Islands of dark green and light blue flowers decorated either side of the gravel pathways. They were not in bloom, it was still too cold for that yet, but she still smelled the ghost of their aroma floating into her nostrils as if it were saying “Hello”. The blue flowers were Snow Hearts, Shenal’s mothers favorite. A light dusting of snow blanketed the ground and the flowers, giving them an unearthly sheen in the daylight. Risa admired the sight with a passing glance. But she inhaled deeply, letting the smell be absorbed into her lungs. She didn’t know anything about flowers and didn’t want to know. But she liked the Snow Harts. They smelled like Shenal. And Yuska, she reflected. But that’s because of the perfume. Her daughter’s appetite for such frivolities was always madding.
Just ahead, the path bent and lead into a circle, in the center of which stood an enormous fir tree, nearly thirty feet tall and more than a little coated with snow. Risa knew that this was where they would find the children. They were always here when they were trying to slack off from their lessons, as children often did. Risa did not mind though, so long as she was doing well. She was still a child, and children should be allowed to be innocent before the jaws of reality bit down on them. And she was determined that Yuska should have the things that she did not have at her age. She glanced at Shenal and smiled, She made that possible. She turned to kiss the other woman but it was only then she realized that Shenal was a few feet behind her, staring at the bench that encircled the Fir's trunk thoughtfully. Risa followed her gaze. Damian and Satsuka sat there and between them was…
“Why are you here, Bongal?” the Queen asked.
Do I Need A Reason To See My Children?
The First Sword looked up as they approached, his eyes narrowing. “Do I need a reason to see my children, Shenal?” His question was tightly asked as if he expected some undeserved rebuke.
Shenal shook her head, “No,” she said plainly. “No, of course not. I merely didn’t expect to see you. I thought that you had other duties.” Risa nodded but said nothing. He should have other duties. Among other things, he was the Master of Coin and Chief Admiral of the navy. Those positions alone should have had him busy for most of the day. Risa only saw him at court or during war councils or at fests. His children almost never saw him at all, save at festival times and at meals and other special occasions. But other times he might as well be a ghost. Risa pushed the First Sword out of her mind and looked around. Where is Yuska?
The Princess Satsuka, a much smaller and slightly pudgy version of Shenal but with the long ebony hair and sharp nose of her father’s mountain-dwelling kin, smiled widely at her mother and Risa in turn. Her crimson dress was the finest Jontalian silk and was embroidered with cloth of silver twinging up along the sleeves. Her fur-lined cloak lay in a heap beside her. She was a pretty eight year old. “Father was talking to us about his homeland, mother, auntie Risa.” She said cheerily. “It’s most interesting, I hope to see it someday.”
Shenal nodded and returned the smile, “You do, do you?” She leaned in and ruffled the girl’s hair. “Well, you certainly will someday, daughter. I will see to it personally.”
“As will I,” Bongal added quickly.
“Yes,” Shenal agreed mildly. “But not today. You still have not answered me, why are you not at your duties?”
Bongal shrugged. “I had others see too It,” he said with barely contained defenseless. “Really Shenal you’re not being fair. They don’t need me to hound them like lazy dogs. And the Navy seems to hardly need me at all.” He shot Risa a heated glare but it vanished before anyone else noticed. “And you know how little time I have to myself. Why should I not spend it with my family?”
Shenal rolled eyes. “Bongal, do you honestly think I'm that cruel? You're their father, you have every right to see them as I do. I was merely surprised to see you. That is all. Wha—”
Where is my daughter?
“Where is my daughter?” Risa asked suddenly. To the Princess, she asked, “Setsuka where is Yuska? Wasn’t she with you?”
The Princess winced and she suddenly became fascinated by a spot on her lap, refusing to meet the question on the older woman face. Risa felt a small tingle of panic at the base of her spine. Did Satsuka even know where Yuska was? She had too; Yuska and the Princess were as inseparable as sisters. So where was she now? Risa turned her gaze to Bongal.
Bongal eyed Risa with a look of disgust that vanished as soon as Risa saw it. He knuckled his finely pointed mustaches and gave her the iciest smile that she had ever seen. Risa thought that he meant it to be disarming, but it made the tingle in her back itch. “I wished to visit with my children alone, Shogun.” Bongal dryly. “So I sent her—”
“Don’t lie, father!” The Prince shot to his feet and rounded on the older man. His sharp eyes blazing. Damian was the youngest of Shenal’s children, only six years old, and thankfully he took more after his mother than his sibling. He would never be handsome, traces of Bongal clung around his eyes, ears and chin like a cancer, but they were all the more jarring when taken in with his youthful face, immature voice and his short curly flame-colored hair “I saw him,” he blurted out. “He hit her when she wouldn’t leave. She ran crying back into the keep and he…” The Prince faltered under his father’s darkening stare and the last word came out as an inaudible mumble. Risa clutched the sides of her dress, and suddenly it all she could do to keep her hand off the hilt of her short sword. He. HIT. her!? The conviction in Damian’s voice had left no room for doubts. By the Tree, what…
Risa blinked when the Queen’s hand fell on her shoulder, squeezing it as if trying to imprint calm on the other woman. The Queen’s face was as smooth as iron, but her eyes…if Risa had been a lesser woman, she would have shrunk away from the inferno in that gaze. “Husband,” she said deliberately. Risa could hear the knife’s edge in her voice. “Would you care to explain what my ward did to warrant such punishment?”
“The boy exaggerates,” Bongal said levelly. “I did not strike her. I merely told her to be on her way.” He glanced at Setsuka. “Besides, Setsuka spends too much time with the girl as it is, Shenal. I think it’s time we found other children for her to play with,” he looked straight at Risa and added. “I don’t want my daughter to pick up vulgar habits.”
“”Common” habits you mean?” Risa’s voice trembled with the effort to remain calm. Rage boiled in her belly. Her knuckles turned white, then red. “You struck her for something as STUPID as that.”
“I did not s—”
“Do NOT bandy words with me you worm eaten dog!”
“Risa,” Shenal squeezed the Shogun’s shoulder a little harder. “Why don’t you go see if Yuska is alright? You did say that you sent her to chambers, didn’t you Bongal? Yes, yes I thought you did.” Risa whirled on the Queen; Shenal met her gaze with a sympathetic but firm one of her own and whispered low enough so only Risa could hear. “I’ll deal with him.”
Risa looked back at Bongal and then back at the Queen and nodded. “See that you do,” she said loud enough for everyone to hear and strode away, back stiff. She stormed into the keep on the far side of the garden. When she got to the corridor that lead to her daughter’s chambers, she turned down a hallway in the opposite direction. She knew that Yuska wouldn’t be there. She rarely used that room, preferring to spend her nights with the Princess. The Princess did not seem to mind, though, and besides, Risa was certain that Yuska would eventually want more privacy as she grew older and stop the habit on her own. Not for the last time, Risa thanked Mother Universe that her daughter actually had the choice.
She came to the Princesses’ bedchamber a few minutes later. There were no guards posted there, of course. No need for them when the Princess was not there. She knocked on the large iron-bound door, “Yuska,” she called, making her voice as motherly as she could. “Yuska are you in there?” She waited for a moment and when there was no answer, she added. “I’m coming in.” She pushed the opened the door. Her daughter glanced up at her slowly as she came in. She was sitting on the bed; Yuska was cute rather than pretty, her father’s features saw to that. Her hair was straight and as blue as ice. Her dress was a fine jade velvet with white lace frilled at the throat. Risa closed the door behind her and then gasped. Her light blue eyes were slightly swollen and framed by a black and blue splotch. Her cheeks were swollen and glistening with tears.
“M-Mother.” The child spluttered. Risa rushed to her then and swept her up in a gentle hug. Yuska tears soaked her mother’s chest. “I didn’t mean to be a bad girl, honest I didn’t! I’m good, I’m a good girl. Everyone says so! Uncle Bongal—”
“Shh, it’s alright.” Risa smoothed back her daughter’s hair. “Just tell me what happened.”
Yuska looked up at her mother, swallowing another sob. “I, I didn’t do anything,” she said. “I was playing with Damian and Satsuka-chan in the garden when Uncle Bongal showed up and shouted at me to go to my room. I asked why. Politely. I always remember my manners, just like the tutor’s taught me. T-they say I never listen but I do, honest I do. But Uncle Bongal wouldn’t tell m-me. H-he just ordered me to my room. I asked him again but he—”
“I know,” Risa said comfortingly. She had heard enough. She held her daughter, Yuska sobbed into her mother’s Kimono. Risa’s face was comforting, but inside she burned with the desire to plunge her sword into that bastard’s heart. She had merely asked him a question, and Bongal had struck her?!
“Why does Uncle Bongal hate me?!” Yuska shrieked, tears pouring down her chubby cheeks like drops of despair. “I never do anything to him! But he hates me! Every time he sees me—” She buried her face into Risa’s Kimono again.
Risa stroked her daughter’s hair. “He doesn’t hate you,” she said comfortingly, she ground her teeth as soon as she said it. The lie was necessary, she couldn’t let her daughter see the hatred of those she trusted most. Yuska was not like her. She was weak, innocent and seeing that hatred would break her beyond anything she could repair…and knew that in her hearts of hearts that she was failing.
Something He Wants.
“Yes he does,” Yuska sobbed, pushing her mother away, “He thinks am a bad girl. He always tells me so. I’ve seen the way he looks at me, at you, like we’re filth. I’ve…”
Risa hugged her daughter close. “He…” guilt made her close her mouth. I caused this… She thought with sudden horror. His hatred was as strong as the sun. From him, there would never be anything but hatred. But he would not attack her directly. She was too close to the Queen. But he wouldn’t leave her alone either. And besides. I have something he wants…something he'll never have again. She held her daughter tighter to keep her hand off her short sword.
“’He’ what?” Yuska squeaked indignantly, a tinge of anger crept into her sobs. “Don’t tell me that you don’t see it, m-mother! He’s a coward and a liar and a bully…w-why dose Aunt Shenal k-keep him around?! She could force him to leave, couldn’t she?!”
A question that I’ve often asked myself. Risa thought bitterly. She pulled her daughter away and held her by the shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. “Listen to me, Yuska.” She forced her voice to be calm but firm. “We are not like Bongal. He doesn’t understand what it means to be hungry, or cold, or so poor that broken shoes seem like the best thing in the world.”
Yuska fixed her mother with a bewildered look. “What does that—?”
We Threaten Him.
“You wouldn’t remember a time before this,” Risa’s gestured to the room. Yuska knew where they had come from, Risa wouldn’t dare let her forget it. But the girl had been small enough to be stuffed into her old Papoose when they had first arrived in Durranna. And was still in swaddling clothes when she had returned from the Civil War. “In truth, you’re just as much a Princess as Satsuka except for your birth. But that doesn’t mean anything to a man like Bongal. To him, we are invaders, creatures that don’t belong in his world. We threaten him, Yuska.”
“B-But why? Aunt Shenal is rich, and you’re her best friend. She doesn’t feel threatened by you. Does she?”
Risa shook her head, “No. Shenal is…different.” She said thoughtfully. “She understands these things. As much as anyone who has not lived it can, and she doesn’t care. To her we are equals, whether we are rich or poor, powerful or weak. Such thinking is terrifying to Bongal. If those below him have the same respect that he does, then what does his rank mean? What does his power mean? Nothing.”
Yuska blinked back fresh tears, “I don’t understand. What does this has to do with Uncle Bongal h-h-hitting me? You’re acting like he was right.”
“He wasn’t,” Risa said dryly. “But you have to understand, he doesn’t believe that. He never will.” She paused. Was she getting through to her? Did she understand? She glanced into her daughter’s eyes. Black splotches hiding a glistening innocent stare muddled with confusion.
“I, I think I understand.” Yuska swallowed back another sob. “But if hitting me was wrong, then will he be punished?”
Risa hesitated. What could she say? She couldn’t say what Shenal had told her, she really wouldn’t understand that. Finally, after a long moment, she nodded. “Yes.” She muttered softly. “He will be.”
(Continued in Part Five)
© 2017 Will English.