Tales From The Universe Tree: Wolves of Ice and Fire. Part Two: The Ambassador.
Three Kingdoms Under One Banner.
(Continued from Part One)
That was the height of understatement. After breaking their fast on eggs and warm crusty bread, The Queen of Durranna and her Shogun were escorted to the throne room by a tail of guards. Risa paused in the doorway and took a moment to admire it. She had seen the throne room many times before, but it never failed to impress her. It was a grand sight. The stone walls and columns were adorned with massive banners like grand mosaics. Risa only recognized three of them immediately though. The Red Wolf of Tallmin, the banner of the Royal Family, lorded prominently above the throne. Below that was the Manticore House Bongal, The Banner of the High Lords of Jontal, and to the right of that, was the Saber Cat of House Quinton, The house that had been raised to the High Lords of Rofin after the war.
Three Kingdoms under one banner. Risa thought. It was a simple symbol, but effective. The sliding paper doors that lined the walls all stood open. Their screens, masterfully painted lacquered things depicting exotic birds and mammoths and other animals, were pushed back to allow the cooling cross breeze. It had snowed again last night, Risa mused, half an inch but that was normal this time of year. Durranna was warmer than Rofin, and winter was only just beginning to loosen its grip on the land. Sunlight glistened on the snow, making the morning as bright as noonday. The massive hall was stuffed. Nobles and commoners milled around in a lake of silk and rough wool. A low hum of conversation hung heavily over the air. Risa studied them all for a moment. Nobles clustered around each other, eyeing the commoners with haughty expressions laced with disgust. Most of the commoners kept their heads down, not meeting their betters’ stares, while others eyed the silk clad monstrosities disdainfully. Risa sniffed as if she could smell the rank distrust. And then gave a start when Shenal put a hand on her Shogun’s shoulder.
“It’s just the way things are,” The Queen whispered with a comforting smile that didn’t touch her eyes. She looked radiant and at the same time...powerful was the only word that Risa could ever fit to the Queen of the United Kingdom of Durranna. Shenal Tallmin was a Queen in all of her glory now; her presence was like a hunting wolf. And her fangs are bared. “Becoming angry about it will not change anything.” She didn’t sound any happier about it that Risa felt. But Shenal is right, she admitted to herself bitterly.
“Your majesty,” Said a soft voice to their right. The two women regarded him stolidly. The guard was a young Gilannri, about the size of a grown man, with yellow scales and with a fat red line running along his bare arms and down his thick powerful tail. His breeches were plain brown leather, but his feet were bare. The sword at his belt was a longer twin to Risa’s short sword. The Gilannri scratched absently at the red wool jerkin with a clawed finger. His monstrous reptilian scaly head ended in a snout lined with tiny shiny slender daggers. Gilannri had little use for armor (or even clothes for that matter). Their scales were almost as good as plate mail. Risa smiled at him ruefully and silently thanked the Tree that the young half-dragon/half-human’s tail was free of the dorsal scales that were so common with his kin. Gilannri were a common sight all over the realm. Some were exiles from the south, their missing tails marking them for what they were. Most, however, were decedents of Gilannri peasantry that didn’t answer the call to return to their homeland in Dega to fight in the Second Exodus more than a century ago. Risa had lived alongside them all of her life, all as good a farmer, craftsman, warriors and friends as any man, better in some cases.
The Jade Throne.
Shenal nodded at the guard. “Yes, I know.” her face became hard once again. “Tell the Seneschal to announce us.” The Young Gilannri put his hand to this heart and bowed, before going on ahead.
A moment later the Seneschal, a graying man in his middle years wearing a flowing white robe and a fat pug of a nose, knocked the butt of his long staff against the marble floor, silencing the talk, and announced in a grand voice that sang with well-rehearsed ceremony, “Her royal majesty, Queen Shenal Tallmin XXX: the Tree’s chosen and blessed ruler of the United Kingdoms and defender of Mother Universe’s children. Shall now hear the grievances and concerns of her subjects and honored guests of the court.” The Seneschal took a rolled piece of parchment from the Page that presented it to him and gestured to the gathering “please present your petitions to the Jade Throne when I call your name.”
Risa and Shenal entered before the Seneschal began speaking again, trailed by their guards. The throne stood a raised dais at the far end of the hall. The Jade Throne itself was a monstrous thing. It had been carved from a single bolder of jade into the shape of three swords, a scimitar and a curved sword like the short sword Risa wore, crossed into an ‘X’ with a broad straight sword thrust through the middle. The seat was lined with red silk cushions and fringe, the back was soft velvet. To either side of it were simpler chairs for key members of the court. All of the court was there, of course. Risa nodded amiably to Yalm, the gaudy colored Gilannri exile, and captain of the royal guard, the Gilannri grinned toothily and nodded back, his too human eyes hazy with a lack of sleep. And then her eyes fell on Shenal’s husband hunched in his chair on the left side of the throne.
The First Sword.
Igilancia Bongal saw her and greeted her with a contemptuous nod. He was not a handsome man, nor was he particularly tall, only as tall as most women, with a mustache that hung down past his chin and oiled into sharp points like hairy worms. His mustache was crowned by a narrow beak of a nose and bulging brown beads for eyes. He wore a sensible green doublet and a black sleeveless jacket with wide shoulders and the emblem of his house-a Manticore clutching a Scimitar in its primary mouth-was emblazoned on the back. His pants looked like a dress. A Scimitar hung in a jewel-encrusted scabbard at his waist.
He was The First Sword of Duranna and the High Lord of Jontal, and was a distant second to the Queen in power. At least officially. Shenal’s marriage had been her father’s final gift to his daughter. He had needed some way to pacify the Jontalian lords, and Bongal’s family had been Kings of that Mountain Kingdom, so the choice seemed obvious. Risa nodded back at him, politely, but Bongal snarled at her like a hungry bear. Risa’s nostrils flared. She was not afraid of the man. She was by far the better swordswoman, and she could best even the strongest men with her fist. She shivered in rage. He knew about her and Shenal of course, the entire court did. But Bongal was the only one who had ever expressed any feelings over it. Truth be told, his displeasure would’ve been comical if it wasn’t so vehemently hostile. She was not sure how such things were viewed in Jontal.
“All I can say,” Shenal had told her one night after their nightly collisions. “Is thank the Tree that we were not born in Jontal.”
“Why does he hate me?” Risa had asked, stroking the flamed haired woman’s head gently. “He has everything he wanted, right?”
Shenal had giggled, “Hardly.” She snuggled closer to her, resting her head on the blue-haired woman’s breasts. “He doesn’t have me. Oh, I gave him heirs and a royal title but little else. I do think that, despite everything that has happened, he does love me. A little anyway.”
Risa almost laughed raucously as she settled into the chair on the right hand of the Jade Throne. If Bongal loved anyone, it was himself. For all that he was Shenal’s husband, he had never shown the slightest bit interest that Risa had seen. To him, Shenal was like a dirty shirt. One to be washed and worn from time to time but never loved. Risa shook her head, Bongal wasn’t important now. By then the first petitioner had come up to the dais, and Risa sighed with barely concealed boredom. The Tree give me strength let this be quick.
The First Petitioner
The first petitioner was a farmer and a fat country noblemen in jarring purple silks. The farmer claimed that he had filled an order of some twenty sheep for the nobleman’s son birthday feast and he had not been paid what was agreed. The Noblemen bristled, chins quivering, and denied all of it indignantly, of course. Risa fixed the noblemen with a sour look and growled low in her throat.
The Nobility were a greedy lot, she mused. Never a care for who they hurt so long as their own station was untouched. When they want to advance their own power it’s even worse. She sniffed. Killing people, using people like stones on a Go board, thieving, blackmailing. She shuddered with rage. Elysium, the more I learn about politics the more I hate it.
Risa glanced over at Shenal, the Queen leaned back in the throne, rested her chin in her hand and fixed the arguing pair with a measuring look. She’s different. Risa smiled. Shenal never saw her people as pawns, not even those grubby nobles under her. She was fair when she needed to be and harsh when fairness was too soft. Finally, the Queen’s full arm slap on the armrest of the Jade Throne squashed their argument into blessed silence. The entire hall stared at the throne, dumbstruck. The Peasant and the Nobleman were gaping. Shenal surveyed the room, waiting for complete silence, before fixing the two petitioners with a flat stare. “What’s clear is that both of you should still be at your mother’s teat.” The Queen’s voice was calm, but it burned everyone it touched. “The Jade Throne deals with grown men, not sniveling boys.” She grunted, and then her feature’s softened. “But I am not without compassion. Seneschal, see that the good farmer receives recompense for his sheep and send a clerk with to investigate this matter further.”
The Peasant and the Nobleman were gaping. Shenal surveyed the room, waiting for complete silence, before fixing the two petitioners with a flat stare. “What’s clear is that both of you should still be at your mother’s teat.” The Queen’s voice was calm, but it burned everyone it touched. “The Jade Throne deals with grown men, not sniveling boys.” She grunted, and then her feature’s softened. “But I am not without compassion. Seneschal, see that the good farmer receives recompense for his sheep and send a clerk to investigate this matter further.”
The Nobleman’s face drained of all color suddenly, “but my Queen, I—” the Nobleman shut his mouth with a click abruptly as if he realized that he had just spoken aloud. Shenal fixed him with an icy stare. The pig lowered his gaze, his cheeks heating, he wiped his brow on the back of his silk sleeve. Risa smiled at the man’s obvious discomfort. She felt no pity for the thief. The Nobleman bowed, “I, I accept the Throne’s judgment.” He looked up and spread his hand casually. “I have nothing to hide.” He chuckled, his chins quivering.
Shenal nodded. “Good.”
As Handsome As An Auroch.
The next petitioners were two nobles who were having some disagreement over some stretch of land that one’s thirteen times great grandfather had claimed and the other had tried to buy it. But when the fist refused to sell, the second had called their banners. At least that is what first had claimed. Risa didn’t understand a word of it. Why did nobility fight over the dumbest things? It was one thing if some actual theft or wrongdoing had been involved. But this was just childish. In Rofin, their mothers would have stripped them naked and dunked them in icy water till they stopped acting like blockheads. Risa suppressed an amused smile despite her disgust. Shenal ordered the offending noble to back down or face the wrath of the Jade Throne. That seemed to do it.
“A little harsh don’t you think?” Risa whispered to her Queen with a low chuckle.
Shenal leaned in close and smiled, “Not harsh enough by half.” Suddenly her face fell when the Seneschal called the next petitioner’s name. “Oh no.”
Risa followed her gaze and echoed her grown. To the right of her, Yalm let out a low throaty snarl. And Risa didn’t blame him. The next petitioner was Eric, The Ambassador from the Kingdom of Dega. He was a tall man, dressed in a fine blue velvet doublet and finely combed hair and a clean-shaven handsome face. If an Auroch could be called handsome.
Risa’s eyes narrowed, The Ambassador was a gnat buzzing in the ear of the court. He had arrived three months ago, with all of his Kings well wishes and amiable wooden smiles. Risa frowned. She thought they must paint those damnable smiles on their faces like a woman’s masks of vanity. She did not like him. Eric approached the dais slowly. His eyes shifting around the room and his face twisted into a snarl of contempt whenever his gaze passed over a Gilannri. When his eyes fell on Yalm, he looked ready to spit. Risa glanced at her Gilannrian friend. Yalm’s claws tightened on his chair till the tendons in his hands were straining. Risa reached over and put a hand on her friend’s arm, his scales felt smooth like tiny pebbles of obsidian. Yalm looked at her and Risa gave him a comforting look. The Gilannri’s snout fell into a sour grimace. Risa saw Eric staring at them in pure disgust, but she didn’t care. Let the bastard think what he wants.
Suddenly the Ambassador was all amiable smiles and bows again. “Your grace,” his voice held a friendly musical quality to it. “I…”
A Question Repeated.
“I know who you are,” Shenal pushed herself up from the throne and stood at her full height. “And I grow tired of seeing you. How many times must I answer the same question?” There was no heat in her voice, no anger, no annoyance. But her voice sounded like what she was, a Queen in the prime of her power. Few men would still have the strength to stand after being buried under that voice.
Eric lifted his head slowly and swallowed. He glanced at the Queen from under his puny rodent eyes and he flashed his most wooden smile. “Your grace,” he said patiently. “I beg you look at this matter from my king’s eyes. For months now our…” he faltered. His bit his lip pensively, his too handsome broad brow furrowed.
Spies. Risa's face twisted into a scowl before she could rein it in. Eric didn't seem to see it though.
“Informers,” The Ambassador went on after a long moment. “Have told us of your kingdom’s build of arms. But we don’t understand or even guess why. Your country has not faced a threat so grave to warrant such an army for over a decade. Surely it is not against Jorna?” He chuckled to show what he thought of that. “They are heretics and fools to be sure, but they pose no threat to you, your Grace.” Eric glanced sideways at the crowd watching him. Risa couldn’t read his face. What was he thinking? Did he have allies planted among the nobility? Or worse? She swallowed, stiffened, ready to spring forth.
“Please, Your Grace.” A small ripple of fear was in Eric’s voice now. “We only wish to know your intentions. We care nothing for your secrets, so long as they do involve us, of course. Will you not tell us?”
A Crown's Secrets.
Shenal’s face was carved from stone. Her eyes studied him like a horse. Finally, her nostrils flared, “very well,” she let out a long patient sigh. “As I have told you before. I have ordered my armies to gather and fight in a mock war to train them. Your King can appreciate that.”
Eric swallowed, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly, thoughtfully. Risa straightened in her chair and narrowed her gaze on him. What was he planning? Eric cleared his throat. “Your Grace, tourneys are meant to train fighting men, but what you gather is invading army. Else why would you also gather your navy in the ports if you are meaning to train land forces?”
Risa quaked with the effort to keep her expression blank. Elysium, how did they know that? Were the Crown's secrets so poorly guarded?! What did…She took a deep breath, damming the panic that threatened to drown her. No, she let the breath out slowly through her nose. No, he doesn’t know everything, he can’t.
Shenal’s expression never changed. “Even sailors must train for war, my lord.” The way she said it made his question seem foolish. “Perhaps more so than footmen or Calvary.”
“But if that is true, your Grace.” Eric jabbed a finger at Risa. “Why is your Shogun here? Doesn’t she lead your armies? Shouldn’t she be out there guiding this, what did you call it, this “Mock War”?”
“My Shogun has other duties that demand her attention. And those we appointed are more than capable of leading this exercise in her absence.” She sighed. “Ambassador, I don’t understand this. I have given you this same answer time and time again. And STILL you persist in this, this interrogation. What else would have me say?”
A Man's Pride.
“Your Grace,” Eric tried to make his voice sound reasonable, but the pompousness shone through anyway. Sweat beaded on his forehead despite the chill in the air. “With all due respect, you cannot expect me or my King to believe this story. It is too unbelievable. I beg you, please. Tell us your intent—”
“Intentions,” the sound of steel rasping on leather resounded around the hall like thunder. Bongal was on his feet, his scimitar was in his fist, quivering with rage. “You dare come into our hall, and accuse my Wife of lying!”
Eric threw up his hands as if to fend off Bongal, his eyes bulged out of his head. He fell to this knees and scrambled back. “My lord, Please! I made no accusation, I only do my duty! My Lord please, I meant no insult! Pla—”
“Only your duty?” Bongal growled. He took a sept down from the Dias “Your duty? Your duty ended the first day you asked! And yet, here you linger like a Fly around dung! Asking that same question day after day,” he stopped in front of The Ambassador. The blade of his scimitar glinted dully in the sunlight. “You name us lairs with your actions alone,” He raised his Scimitar over his head. “I will not—“
“ENOUGH!” Shenal hissed. Bongal whirled to face His Queen. Shenal stabbed her husband with an icy glare that would have snuffed out a fire. Her voice stung with command. Bongal looked at his Queen and then shifted his gaze to Risa, as if his wife calling him down were her fault. Risa had leapt to her feet before the first words were out of Bongal’s mouth. Her short sword was half drawn, her eyes narrowed into spear points. Besides her, a guttural growled rumbled from Yalm’s throat, a small avalanche tumbling down a mountain. The Gilannri flexed his claws unconcernedly, they popped audibly. The First Sword’s gaze sweapt from them to the guards on either side of Dias and in-between the columns all the walls.
Stand down you hot-blooded idiot. Risa tried to impress on him. She couldn’t say that his outrage was wrong, but right or wrong, killing The Ambassador would be an act of war. He had to see that. Finally, Bongal growled and slammed his scimitar back into its sheath and stalked back to his chair, scowling. And only then did Risa relax and let out a breath she had not realize she’d been holding. Shenal kept her glare fixed on him, a look that promised a talking to later. To Eric she said, “My Lord, I have given you your answer. I will not give it again. Take it and be content.”
“Your King Is A Fool.”
“But your Grace,” The Ambassador shot to his feet. Risa quaked with incredulity. Such arrogance. Who did he think he was? “My King only—”
“Your King is a fool.” The Queen retorted irritably. her voice was unchanged, but it was so sharp that it silenced the hall as well as if she had shouted. Eric stumbled, gaping. His rodent eyes blazed with pure fury. Risa grinned at the little man’s obvious discomfort. “This business is finished. Do not ask again.”
Risa watched The Ambassador warily. He seemed unarmed, but ‘seemed’ and ‘certainly” were two very different things. He could be hiding any number of knives up the sleeves of that ugly coat of his. She doubted it though; this mouse didn’t have the stones to attack a monarch openly, not on his own. He was a follower who took his bravery from others. Still, she shifted in her chair; her hand resting casually on the hilt of her short sword, ready to spring forth at a moment’s noticed. She didn’t fully relax until The Ambassador lowered his eyes, bowed and faded back into the other petitioners. Silently, Shenal glided back to her throne, her face a thunderhead.
(Continued in Part Three)
© 2017 Will English.