Tales From the Universe Tree: Wolves of Ice and Fire. Part Six: Dinner Conversation.
(Continued from Part Five)
Supper that night was mammoth steak stuffed with garlic and drowning in saffron and horseradish. With a side of mushrooms crowned with melted cheese and rice. Risa sat at the high table next to The Queen and Yuska, with the Prince and Princess on either side of their mother. Yuska cut into her stake awkwardly, holding the fork like a dagger and stabbing it before sawing her knife into it like normal. Risa wasn’t sure where she had gotten the habit, but she was content to let it pass, for now anyway. The Prince and Princess were cutting into their food daintily as if they were afraid of ruining the steak. Satsuka eyed Yuska with an amused smile at her awkwardness.
Sticklers For Their Honor.
Risa had barely touched her food. Even after years of eating at the palace, she still wasn’t used to it. It was too rich, like having a servant clean your teeth. She didn’t know anyone who actually did that, but still. She shook her head inwardly. She eyed the guests of the feast. There were Nobles and members of the court sitting around at several tables, the low hum of their conversations buzzing in Risa’s ears like a thousand flies around shit. Off in the corner, some servants played fiddles and dulcimers and harps. She spotted Yalm off at a table just below the dais where the high table sat. Drinking with his officers—mostly fellow Gilannri—and gossiping. She didn’t hear what about and did not care too.
Yalm was a good soldier but he could be a terrible pervert when he was drunk. Not when it mattered, obviously. He might be captain of the guard but he still answered to her, thank the Tree, and she kept a strict eye on him. She shook her head and then her eyes fell Eric at a table on the far side of the hall. The weasel of a man’s eyes met hers for a moment and he scowled before turning his gaze to the empty chair to the left of Shenal. Risa smiled bemused, though she knew that she shouldn’t have. The Tree alone knew that Degains were sticklers for their honor, and it didn’t take much to insult them.
They Don't Have Queens?
“Why is that man looking at you, mother?” Yuska asked suddenly. Risa glanced at her daughter. Shenal had sent her personal Doctor shortly after her encounter with Bongal, and whatever he had given her had made the bruises begin to fade to a dull yellow color. Risa opened her mouth but it was Satsuka who answered.
“He thinks,” The Princess began primly as if she were lecturing. “That Auntie Risa shouldn’t eat with us at table.”
“Why? We’ve always done this and no one ever says anything about it.”
“Degains are strange, little one,” Shenal answered warmly. “No doubt he believes that my husband should have your mother’s seat. I dare say that he wishes Bongal ruled instead of me.”
Yuska tilted her head and blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“Degains don’t believe that commoners deserve any honor like this.” Risa paused to take a sip of wine. “For that matter, they don’t believe that women should be soldiers either. And I am all three. The Tree only knows what they think of that.”
“Or what they think of a woman ruling a country.” Shenal chuckled and Risa joined her.
Yuska’s eyes widened in shocked incredulity. “You mean…they don’t have Queens?”
Intelligence Not Experience.
“Not in the way we understand them, Yuska.” Damien took a large gulp of tea. Shenal smiled at him proudly. The Prince was as an intelligent boy, devouring knowledge the same way a dog devoured a stake. His intelligence was in books, though, not experience. Risa recalled an incident some years ago when Shenal had asked her to train him to use a sword. He had insisted on sparing with no instruction first, his face beaming with the cockiness of youth. The Prince had chosen a sword without thought, spread his feet shoulder width, clutched one hand behind his back and rocked on the balls of his feet. His other arm was held out, trembling with the effort of holding the heavy wooden long sword in one hand like a dueling blade.
Risa had raised an eyebrow at him, tapping her short sword against her hip impatiently. “What are you doing?” she had asked.
The Prince’s smile wavered for half a second, but it was back on his face in the next instant. “This is how you’re supposed to hold it during a dual. I know, I read about it. This stance, it allows for quick strikes and movements, letting you dance around your opponents.”
Risa had reprimanded him, but the Prince was having none of it. He had charged, stumbled. His strike was clumsy, unfocused. Risa had swatted the blow away and boxed the Prince across the ear with the flat end of her wooden short sword. Risa chuckled to herself. Experience would always be a better teacher than books, but the Prince was improving daily. I don’t think he’ll ever be a master. Risa mused. But he won’t be a slouch either.
“To them,” the Prince continued energetically. “A Queen or Nobel lady is only as powerful as her husband or father. Or their elder brothers if their fathers have passed on. Ridiculous of course, but the point is that women are seen as weak, inferior to men. They aren’t even allowed to enter the army or own land unless it is inherited from their father or husband. And even then, only if there are no living male heirs. How they came to this conclusion, I don’t really understand. But there it is.”
My Father's Country.
“Wasn’t it the same way in father’s country,” Satsuka piped in. “They had a King once, didn’t they? ‘You are the blood of the Manticore, the blood of Kings.’ He’s always saying things like that.” Risa saw Shenal draw her lips into a tight line at that. What did Bongal hope to gain by reminding everyone that he used to be royalty? As if anyone could forget it? Me least of all.
“They did.” Prince Damien said with a nod. “I don’t know much about it. Truth be told, father’s country sounds rather boring. Most of the books only talk about the architecture and how its cities were carved inside the mountains or something like that. Interesting in its own way, of course, but…” he shrugged. “Very little history.”
“That’s because you gloss over it,” Satsuka flashed her brother a toothy grin. “Did you know that in Father’s Country, every boy when he comes of age would be given a spear and sent off to hunt a mountain lion? The idea was to bring back the pelt as a sign of their manhood. There’s even a story of Timothy Bongal, one of their greatest Kings. It says, the story I mean, that he killed an entire pride of mountain lions. They called him, ‘The Lion Manticore,’ for his courage. It’s a fascinating tale.”
“’The Lion Manticore?’ that’s a stupid name.” Yuska paused and screwed up her face for a while before adding. “Actually, what is a Manticore, anyway? Is it that thing that’s on…on your father’s robe?” The hesitation was so small that Risa almost didn’t hear it. She was terrified of the man. Well, Risa and Shenal had put a stop to that.
“It is,” Shenal answered. “The creature is the sigil of the Jontalian Royal family. The beasts aren’t real, though. Thank Elysium”
“But how could he be the ‘Blood of the Manticore’ if they don’t exist? That doesn’t make sense…come to think of it, how could they live inside mountains? How did they build them? And how would they get water and food?”
Towers Growing Out Of Mountains.
“You have a very inquisitive mind when you chose to use it,” Risa chuckled and ruffled her daughter’s blue hair. “Well, I don’t know how it was built. But I do know that the Gilannri built it a long time ago, not The Jontalians. I’ve seen them, and yes, they're incredible, Yuska. Castle and towers hundreds of feet high growing out of the mountainsides like flowers out of the soil. And that’s just the outside, Yuska. On the inside…” She shrugged. “Well, there is a reason why all those books mention the architecture.” She took a sip of wine before adding, “As for your other question, during the war, they had hundreds of massive reservoirs hidden all over the caverns. We destroyed what we could, but I don’t think we found them all.
"As for food, there are some farms near the foot of the mountains. And I think they had terraces for growing food inside the caverns as well, I misremember. As for the whole Manticore nonsense.” She took a sip of wine to gather her thoughts shrugged. “It’s just a symbol, Yuska. Noble Houses use them to proclaim who they are or to instill fear in their enemies or…any number of reasons. But Bongal is no more a Manticore than Shenal is a Wolf.”
The Blue Wolf.
“Neither are you a Wolf, Shogun.” Risa gave a start as the familiar voice spoke. She Looked down at the newcomer and felt her hackles rise. The Ambassador stood a few feet below the high table, his expression blank. Off to the right of and a few feet behind him, stood Bongal, “Isn’t that what they call you,” Eric continued wryly. “The Blue Wolf?”
Risa leaned back in her chair, her hand brushing the hilt of her short sword. Weapons were normally forbidden in the grand dining hall, save for the guards of course. But Shenal had made an exception for Risa. “That is what some call me.” Risa’s voice was dangerously soft. She hated that name. Her men had started to call her that during the Civil War when her reputation as a strategist was proven. The blue came from her hair, obviously. But where under the branches had the ‘Wolf’ come from? She’d heard that it had come from her relationship with the Queen (Princess back then). But that made no sense, and Shenal had never called her that before, not in her hearing anyway. She had tried to stamp out it early on. But she might as well have tried to stop birds from singing.
“Is there something we can help you with, Ambassador?” Shenal asked slowly. Her politeness sounded forced.
The Ambassador turned to the Queen and bowed with a flourish. “Forgive me, your Grace, I forget myself. I was offered a seat at your table by your First Sword, if it please you. I also wish to apologize for my behavior over past few months. I am a guest of your fine country, and you have treated me with more courtesy than I deserve. But in my eagerness to do my duty, I have returned your courtesy with insults and accusations. I truly did not mean to offend. ”
Risa saw immediately that nothing about this situation pleased Shenal. Her eyes blazed white hot for a moment. Risa thought that she could feel the heat of if it on her skin. But to her credit, her smile seemed to be genuine. “All is forgiven, My Lord,” She said, offering him an empty chair on the other side of Satsuka. “And of course, me and mine would be honored to have you join us. Please. ”
The Ambassador bowed in that absurd way of his and took his seat. Bongal moved to join them at the final empty chair at the far end of the table, looking thoughtful at nothing. Risa dismissed the First Sword form her mind and kept her eyes on Eric as he popped a slice of mammoth into his mouth, chewed it greedily. “Excellent,” he exclaimed after the first bite. “You have a marvelous cook, your Grace.”
“I’m glad that my meat is to your satisfactory,” the Queen said mildly. Risa expression darkened. How this fop hoped to flatter his way back into Shenal’s good graces was beyond her. Such rudeness. Interrupting a families meal (that he’d been invited didn’t matter), yelling obnoxiously at table, he would have earned five beatings in a day in Rofin.
“Indeed, your Grace,” Eric’s tone said that there was no other possible outcome. “I must admit, your land has always held a wild fascination for me. Your Kingdom is vast and the landscape is the wildest I have ever seen. And its beauty, why, its beauty is matched only by the beauty of its ruler. But I was especially taken by tales of your Shogun, whose fame is known even to us in the south. I wished to see if the name truly matches the man.” and then with an apologetic nod, he added to Risa. “Forgive me, Shogun. But until I saw you, I believed that you were a man. Such details are often distorted over great distance I’m afraid. It was your First Sword who was kind enough to inform me of my error. I meant no offense.”
The Land Of The Ice Born.
“And now that you’ve seen me?” Risa asked coolly. She didn’t really care what this pompous sot thought of her. She took another long, slow sip of her wine.
The Ambassador hesitated for a moment and pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at imagery spots at the corners of his mouth. “My expectations have been undone, my Lady.” He said slowly. “Even if…” he shrugged. “Well, let’s just say that I now believe that your great country is ruled by two wolves.” He made a flourishing bow in his seat to the Queen. “One of fire.” he then spun and repeated the bow to the Risa, “and one of ice.” He paused and studied Risa frowning thoughtfully. “Is your hair color natural, my lady? Forgive me, but I have never seen a color such as yours.” He then smiled at Yuska. “Nor yours, sweetling.”
Yuska blushed and looked down and started to push some peas around her plate with her fork. Risa’s mouth tightened. Had that been…longing she had seen pass through the Ambassador’s eyes?
Her face darkened, her voice, when she spoke, was steady and cold. “I am Rofinin.” She said simply.
The Ambassador waited for her to elaborate, but when she didn’t he cleared his throat. “’Rofin’” his mouth formed awkwardly around the word. “I am not familiar with that word.”
“Not many foreigners are, my Lord.” Shenal’s voice was still cordial, but her eyes blazed. “To your people, my realm has always been one land, one people. But to us, we are not one people, but many. Each as different as sheep are to Gilannri. Apart and yet united, like three swords striking as one...but I am dancing around your question, good Ambassador. In your understanding, Rofin would be our most northern province.”
“The land of the Ice Born.” The Prince piped in.
Shenal nodded. “Yes,” she agreed. “I do not understand how, but the color of my Shogun’s hair is a common there.”
“Common?” Eric blinked. “You mean everyone has that hair color there?”
“Not all.” Shenal leaned back in her chair, swirling her wine between her fingers. “But many do. I believe that Rondilda, Rofin’s last King, had, what was it, Risa? Black hair.”
Risa shot Shenal a cool glance. And then one at her Daughter. Yuska looked up at her mother nervously. “He might have.” She said finally. “I don’t really remember.”
“Ah, I have heard of this Rondilda, Your grace.” Eric’s face fell abruptly. “A terrible, disgusting little man from what I’ve heard. And his perversion and wrath as big as the Tree itself.”
“That is true enough, My Lord," Shenal nodded. "I did not know him that well, truth be told. I only met him a few times when I was a girl." She shuddered. "Gah, the thought of him makes me feel dirty. Thank the Tree he's dead.”
“And his family as well, yes?” Eric sighed. “I can only feel pity for his children.” He turned to Risa suddenly, “As I recall, the stories say that you slew him, Shogun. And—”
Never A Man.
“I don’t wish to discuss that in front of my daughter!” Risa snarled. “The color of my hair is what it is,” Risa grunted and swallowed the rest of her wine in one loud gulp. It was then that she felt Yuska grip her mother’s leg. Risa glanced down at her daughter, Yuska stared back at her, trembling. Risa reached down and gripped her daughter’s hand and squeezed it comfortingly.
Bongal Sniffed, “Nothing about that country is natural.” He muttered heatedly to himself. Risa was sure that no one else was meant to hear. She wasn’t offended though. She had heard much of the same from him and other Jontalins. So she said nothing about it.
Shenal wasn’t so kind though. “Does Rofin so unman you, husband?” she asked.
Bongal glared beady knives at her. Then he excused himself, stood and stormed away. Risa sniffed. He’s never been a man.
(Continued in Part Seven)
© 2017 Will English.