Tales From the Universe Tree: Wolves of Ice and Fire. Part Three: Lovers Quarrel.
How Much Does Dega Believe?
(continued from Part Two)
The next petitioner was over the farming rights of two fiefs in Jontal, but Risa stopped listening. Where had Eric gotten His information? The questions burned her like ice. She would have to order Yalm and the High Questioner to step up on their hunt for spies. Risa’s jaw tightened until she felt it pop. Spies. Those filthy creeping vultures, eating their own kin. She glanced at Shenal and her features softened, she wished that she had her strength. Still, how much do they know? She shuddered. Yesterday morning she had received the newest reports from Rofin, from the Breech. Madness and nightmares given flesh. Reading the report was like looking at the heart of darkness. It all pointed to one possibility, one that should be impossible. She glanced out at the snow and swallowed. Winter comes on wings of Fire…How much does Dega believe?
"They Want An Empire."
“If they know that much already,” Shenal said when she and Risa were alone some hours later. “Then I doubt that they believe a word of it,” They had retired to the Queen’s private sitting room just outside hers and Risa’s bedchambers. A fire blazed merrily on the hearth. Couches encircled a small glass table. Shenal sat beside Risa, rubbing her temples pensively. “Mother Universe, I don’t want to believe it. Dega eyeing my country like a pack of hungry Dire Wolves and the Lifeless Lands stirring. Elysium shine on me, it almost makes me wish Rondilda would rise from the grave and try cut my throat.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Risa adjusted the folds in her Kimono. There was a draft in the room that day. “What scares me more is how they found out about our armies movement in the first place. And what they plan to do with it” The Shogun's face fell into a disapproving grimace.
Shenal’s sigh rattled with irritation. “Don’t start, Risa. I know that look. Our spies are as necessary to us as Dega’s are to them. You know that."
“Doesn’t mean I have to like them. And it doesn’t take a spy’s word to see what Dega plans to do. I take it you know what they're doing in Seifer.”
“I’d be a terrible Queen if I didn’t know.” She sniffed. “And they accuse us of building up arms when they are doing the same thing. And for much longer than we have been.”
“And they are still doing it. I read the last report, their numbers there now are incredible. Over ten thousand men and still growing. They must have been gathering troops all through the winter. What’s more, they won’t say why.”
“No more than we will, Risa.” Shenal replied dryly. “But their silence tells us more than any spy. It’s so obvious it’s insulting. They intend to invade us. Why I cannot guess.” There was only a tinge of anger in her voice, so small that Risa wouldn’t have heard of it if she didn’t know her so well.
“They want an empire,” Risa said grimly. “Like the Gilannri before them.”
Rooting Out Spies.
Shenal nodded slowly, “Perhaps,” The Queen crossed her legs. “I don’t know why they would want such a thing. But I don’t think they will invade us, not yet. Not while they think we are marshaling our strength in response. It will deter them. A single lion won’t fight an entire pride by himself.”
“But Dega isn’t a single lion,” Risa insisted. Shenal’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Risa threw up her hands. “Gah! Alright, let’s say you’re right. Let’s say it does deter them. How long do you think that will last? Do you think they’ll be content with snarling
“So what are suggesting, Risa? That we bite them first?”
“Of course not. We can’t afford to now.” Risa folded her arms across her chest. “At least they don’t seem to know where our forces are marshaling. But if the reports are right, they don’t seem to care either. They’re digging, trying to find a pretense to invade.” The Shogun growled low in her throat. “And that Roots crushed idiot nearly gave it to them! What was Bongal thinking!? Attacking The Ambassador like that?! Is he Mad?!”
“At least he didn’t kill him. That’s the important thing.” Shenal sighed, rubbing her eyes with her thumb and index finger. “And honestly, I don’t think he would’ve harmed him even if I hadn’t stopped him. Bongal isn’t stupid, whatever you may think of him, Risa. Jealous and prone to fits of wrath, perhaps. But not stupid. He knows what will happen if that little leech is killed. Weather under my orders or not, the consequences would be the same. No, more likely Bongal was putting on a show of strength or some other manly nonsense.” Risa ground her teeth. Shenal’s explanation was sensible, probably even true. But it left her smoldering inside all the same.
“I do agree with you one thing,” Shenal said, anger boiling on the edges of her tone. “How did Dega learn about our build up in the first place…?” The Queen’s expression darkened.
Risa let the answer hang between them. She didn’t need to say it. She wondered how many spies had the Inquisition caught in the past few months? Not nearly enough. She thought dryly. Worse, none of them have admitted to taking Degaian coin. Elysium, this is so ridiculous. And it was, trying to pin any spy to any noble was almost futile. Every Noble had its little roaches scuttling about through every mound of rubbish they could find, breeding in every cupboard and bedroom until it was impossible to say where they had come from originally. That was another good thing about Rofin, Risa mused absently. Up north, it never got warm enough for roaches to breed.
More Than A Woman.
Shenal shut her eyes and held her head in her hands, muttering to herself angrily. After a long moment, she looked up at her lover and smiled. “You know, my father didn’t approve of me raising you to Shogun? That was one of the last things he said to me. ‘You can’t raise her, the Jontalians will never accept her!’ ” The Queen chuckled dryly. There was no need to say who her father had wanted her to bestow title too. “And Bongal still insists that I should have given it to him, as if being my husband wasn’t enough.”
“Him? Shogun?” Risa threw her head back and laughed despite herself. “He’s a bigger fool than I thought, he couldn’t lead sheep. And you think he loves you?”
Shenal sighed. “Risa, as smart as you are, you sure are blind sometimes. I’ve seen the boyish looks he constantly gives me, and he all but screamed it when we,” she shrugged. “Well, let’s just say he enjoyed our wedding night more than I did.”
“That just means that he’s not made of ice.”
“You haven’t seen his tender side.”
Risa snorted, “That’s because he doesn’t have one.” The Shogun snapped. “Why do you defend him on everything?” Risa’s glare augured into her lover’s skull.
Shenal grunted, “I don’t, Risa. You know I don’t. Don’t play at being jealous, it doesn’t become you.”
“Do you love him?”
“Now YOU’RE being stupid.”
“If you don’t, then why do you keep him around like he’s your favorite pet? You could send him back to Jontal if you wanted, and no one would care.” The very second the words were out of her mouth she wished she had them back. Shenal had explained it hundreds of times now.
Shenal shot Risa a very dangerous look and muttered something under her breath. “You know the answer to that, Risa.” Her irritation stung. “I would marry you if I could. But I can’t. I need him. The Jontalian nobility would just love nothing more than to restore Bongal's Kingship. The Tree help me, some part of him wants them to do it, whatever his feelings. If I send him home, then who knows what plots they could come up with? He could scheme here too, yes, But I have a better chance of catching it with him under my foot. Besides our children are here. Family is important to Jontalians, Risa. And I hate to say it, but they are better dam against their ambitions than I am.” Risa grunted. Politics. It was a beast that ate everything, even love itself. What made it worse was that she knew that Shenal was right, damn her. A Queen was more than a woman. She was an entire nation, a mother who must put the needs of her people before the needs of herself. But Risa didn’t have to like it.
I Have To Go North.
“What’s gotten into you, anyway?” Shenal went on when Risa didn’t reply. “The way you’re talking, it’s not like you at all. What’s wrong?”
Risa frowned, “I’m sorry. I, I just have a lot on my mind. And Bongal’s stupidity doesn’t help. ” She grimaced. “I wish you would send him away, whatever the consequences. The way he was glaring at me this morning, I thought he was going to skin me alive.”
Shenal chuckled dismissively. “He looks that way at everyone.” She reached out and poured herself a cup of tea from the crystal pitcher on the table, and sipped. The tea smelled like mint and cinnamon. Risa didn’t like the taste, she preferred plain green tea. “Enough about him though. Don’t you have other duties besides keeping me company?” she grinned sweetly, took a sip of her tea. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”
Risa shrugged. “The buildup in Rofin is going so smoothly that they don’t need me looking over their shoulders. Not that there’s much I can do this far south. No, don’t look at me like that, Shenal. Eric was right about that. I have to go north eventually. I’m your Shogun, I have to lead armies into battle. Your armies.”
Seeing Their Children.
Shenal suddenly had the look of a woman who knew that she was about to lose everything. The expression was as good as a knife in Risa’s chest, but there was no sense avoiding reality. Shenal would have to order her north, north to face what was coming. Risa swallowed. I’ve survived worse, she thought. I can survive another nightmare. She had. She was a soldier; she had seen the worst that man and Gilannri had to offer. Shenal nodded slowly, “I will,” she agreed slowly, reluctantly. “But not yet.” She stood up and smoothed her skirts. “I don’t want to talk about it. I want to see Satsuka and Damian. And I suspect that you want to see Yusuka.”
Risa nodded. “I do.” She stood. “I’ll come with you. They’re probably together, anyway. As usual. I was wondering why they weren’t at breakfast this morning”
“I was wondering about that myself, actually,” Shenal said as she glided to the door. “I intend to ask.” her voice said that she would ask many things of her children.
Risa smiled. “To be honest, I wonder how much of Yusuka is actually mine.” She chuckled. “She hardly looks like me at all.” The two women laughed. But it was true, so far as it went. Yusuka had more of her father in her than Risa, save for a bit of nose and the same blue hair that almost everyone from Rofin shared. When she was first came south, people would ask to touch her hair as if she were a rabbit’s foot. She had been told that people with blue hair were good luck. Risa couldn't help but laugh at the irony. Lucky, about as lucky as being in the path of a stampede of mad mammoths.
(Continued in Part Four)
© 2017 Will English.