Tales From the Universe Tree: The Children of War, Part One.
(continued from Tales From The Universe Tree: Wolves of Ice and Fire.)
The Durrannian Man-o-War’s massive anchor slapped the ocean surface about a mile out from the Merchant City of Seifer in northern Dega. A column of spray shot proudly well above the bow. Droplets of salt water landed playfully on the deck like a light rain. Risa felt some of them dive headlong into her short, Ice Blue hair but she ignored them. Her sharp eyes were transfixed at the sprawl that awaited her on the shore. A horde of people had gathered around the dock. Rough bronzed skinned sailors and equally rough unwashed women jostled richly dressed, pale skinned merchants (at least Risa assumed they were merchants) to catch a bewildered glimpse at the floating behemoth that had crushed the cities dull normality. And more were becoming ensnared by the second. Risa took a deep breath, let it out hurriedly. Too much attention too quickly. Just like I said there would be. She thought bitterly.
That Commanding Tone That Only A Queen Could Muster.
Shenal, I told you a warship was too much. I’m a soldier, not a Queen. Risa grimaced, the argument had been a short but heated one. Risa should have known better to try though. Her future wife and sovereign had mastered the Queenly art of the argument long before she had ever dreamed of naming Risa Shogun. But her reasoning was sheer madness. A warship, let alone one of Durranna’s Man-o-War, when they could spare none was to take her South? Why? Why had Shenal insisted on weakening Durranna’s navy just to send her here? Every ship would be needed to fight what was coming down on Durranna. Even a temporary gap in that defense could spell disaster for the Realm, or, Elysium help her, the whole world. Shenal knew that. “Nothing else will do, Risa!” Shenal had snapped in that commanding tone that only a Queen could muster. “You are my Shogun, not my stable boy. I will NOT have you skulk into Dega like a rat. You’ll never see the King or the Universes Wife like that. And you must see them! You know how important your mission is!!”
Risa lifted her gaze to the city beyond and spat over the side in consternation. Well, maybe they had arrived two days early, but her points still stood. She sighed, sniffing at the hot salty air. Her stomach churned with a sickly sense of nostalgia, it was this hot the first time I came here too. She was not sure how many years ago that had been now, but she and Shenal had been invited to attend the coronation of the King. It had not been a pleasant trip. The King was clear in her mind, though. A handsome in the middle of his thirties, with a sharp face and a rugged beard that she suspected some women would find attractive, but only made him seem colder to her. He had all the courtesy of a stone and his eyes were always….searching, especially when they fell on Shenal. Risa resisted the sudden urge to scratch herself. Even if it wasn’t part of my duty, meeting Dega’s King once was enough. She knew there was no avoiding it, though.
As Man Was Meant to Live.
“How could anyone not melt in this Tree cursed heat?” she mumbled gloomily as she loosened the red scarf that was wrapped around her neck. The crowd on the dock had grown thicker. It undulated like a living thing. Risa wondered just how much of the city was in that snake. How many had never seen a warship before? She knew how unlikely that was. It was hardly a secret that more than half of the warships in the Degian navy were built here, there was really no other choice. Seifer had larger dry docks than Bablelanta, Dega’s capital city, and aside from Fodoma-the underground capital of the Gilannri Empire- on its southern border, all of Dega’s potential enemies would come from the north, across the sea. Risa understood the reasons behind it, but it seemed like the height of arrogance. Warships were not arrows, they couldn’t be built in a day. Anyone who wanted too could just sack the city head on. And it would probably work.
That much was probably true. If their spies were to be believed, Seifer, for all of its wealth, was poorly defended (at least to when compared to Bablelanta) and most of the warships built here were sent south to the capital or ordered to patrol the continent’s coastlines. Risa glanced down at the deck and sighed irritably. She looked back at the city. Warehouses fenced the city like small mountains, sterile in their uniformity. But the city glimmered like gems in the late afternoon sun. Seifer’s architecture was legendarily beautiful. Even in the most desolate parts of Rofin, stories about the city were in abundance. “The golden city is the home of gods, sweet child” Her mother had told her when she was five years old. “And these gods are kind. No one is left wanting, and no one goes hungry. They live in harmony, and in peace, as man was meant to live.” As a girl, Risa had devoured the stories, everyone she had known back then had. Just as everyone had dreamed of leaving Rofin and traveling to this golden heaven. How many of them had actually made it here, She wondered. Would she recognize anyone here in this city of gods? Or are these towers the gods?
When Summer Finally Comes, Then I’ll Find A Father For Yuska.
Even the most outlandish of the stories had not done justice the city’s Towers. Risa stared at them for a long time. They were miles high statues of steel and stone twisted and arched into gigantic forms painted with gems and glass. Most of the ones that caught her were in the shape of prancing animals, a deer, a rabbit, one even took the form of a squirrel scrambling up a tree. Several were shaped like flocks of birds of every color and size that seemed to move with the sunset. At least two gave her pause. The first tower was monstrously reptilian in its design. It stood upright like a Gilannri but its head was too rounded, its jaw too square, its mouth was a pit of crooked spiked teeth. Uncountable spines as large as a Man-O-War ran along the length of its back. Its skin glinted a dull green, veined with glowing blood red glass. The creature’s mouth was open, wide and unhinged like a snake. And the inside glowed a light purple. The tower across from the creature was carved into the shape of a man, strong of features and muscles like boulders. It plunged a sword into the creature’s neck. The man seemed to glow like the sun. Risa frowned, shaking her head, Why are Degains always so gaudy. Her mother had told her many stories of the city, but Risa shook the memory away. She tried to not think of home so much these days. Her hand clutched at her scarf. It had been a gift, she remembered, from Princess Satsuka and--she blinked suddenly. Some saltwater had gotten in her eyes.”…Yuska.”
It had only been three months since her daughter’s murder at the hands of Igilanca Bongal, former first sword of Durranna and the former High Lord of Jontal and Shenal’s ex-husband. He had stormed into the bedchamber that the Princess and Yuska shared and had cut her daughter down in a jealous rage before coming after Shenal and herself. Risa had managed to beat him back. But despite that, he had escaped a week later.
“When summer finally comes, then I’ll find a father for Yuska.” She whispered, biting back tears that she thought had dried up months ago. “Well, mother, here I am. In a Kingdom of endless summer. But Yuska can never have a father…” She swallowed, wiped her eyes on the back of her hand. “She had everything you ever wanted for her, Risa” Shenal’s voice whispered in the back of her mind, but she ignored it. She glanced up at the city, her other hand gripped the hilt of the slightly curved short sword that dangled at her waist until her knuckles turned white. I will find you Bongal. I will make you suffer.
Quite The Welcome They Give Us?
“My Shogun?” asked a voice thick with an accent of the Rofin.
Risa turned to the voice’s owner and sighed dejectedly. The ship’s captain was a tall, burly man with a long, greying beard and mustache that looked too much like a Bear’s back for her liking. She wondered how he could speak without swallowing it. His sterile uniform was the color of the sea, save for the gold and silver triangle embedded in both sleeves to distinguish his rank. Behind them, the crew scuttled about the deck. They were a mismatched bunch of men, women and a small number Gilannri. The humans were all well-trimmed with muscles and short hair, with loose fitting clothes, usually overlaid with a light vest. Not exactly what a crew in the Durrannian Navy was supposed to wear, but regulations like that meant little to those in the field. She spotted an officer striding briskly among the men in his uniform, a twin to what the captain wore. She thought it odd that such a puffed up, clean officer should be so proud of himself in his sterile, delicate uniform. While his men’s clothes were a small step above peasants’ rags. Risa glanced down at own clothes and frowned, they were sparsely any better. An ornate but functional blue travel vest that brushed the backs of her calves, with the emblazoned image of a wolf’s head on the back. Her silk shirt covered some light chainmail and black leather trousers and boots. A pair of matching studded leather gauntlets enclosed her wrists. Yuska would ask, why I’m not as well dressed as the captain. She grimaced.
“Are you all right, my Shogun?” The Captain asked with a raised eyebrow? “You went deathly pale all of a sudden, are you ill?”
Risa blinked, some sea water had blown into her eyes. “I’m fine, Captain Mikali.” She glanced back to the city. “Quite the welcome they give us, isn’t it?” she gestured to the throng on the dock.
Mikali nodded. “Yes.” He agreed.
“Are we ready to disembark?”
“My men are seeing to it now” Mikali’s voice was tight. “Five more minutes ought to do it” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. His sharp eyes were transfixed on the throng.
Risa followed his gaze. A carriage was bumbling through the undulating mass of humanity, the driver shouting and cracking the whip at those who didn’t move fast enough. Coming in behind it were four mounted men in full plate armor that glinted so brightly that it made Risa squint even from this far away. The banners that were tied to end of their lances rippled unceasingly in the salty air. She sniffed derisively, what a waste of good armor. “Make it four minutes.” She commanded curtly. “I want this farce over with as soon as possible.”
“As you wish.”
Risa clasped her hands behind her back and looked at him sideways with annoyance. “If you have something to say, then say it, Captain.”
The Captain’s face grew dark suddenly as if he sensed enemies all around him. “It’s not my place to question the orders of my Queen. But I don’t like it.”
“Don’t like what, exactly?”
“All of this Tree rotten business.” The Captain turned to face her. “We are to deliver you to them, alone. And then stay in port until you return. How long will that be? A month? A year?”
“As long as it needs to be, Captain.” Risa’s nostrils flared. “And not alone, four of your men are to follow me, remember?
“Only after you go off with them.” Mikali retorted. “That is what I don’t understand, my Shogun, why are we to follow after you? We should be going with you!”
Risa gave Mikali a dangerous look. “I’m not so helpless that I need constant minding.”
“No one doubts your strength, my Shogun. But this is not our mother’s house. You’ll need someone to watch your back.” He paused and took a deep breath through his nose. “And if I am honest, I don’t trust these shorthorns and their hospitality. It’s because of them that that pig kissing murderer was able to escape, wasn’t it?”
Risa nodded slowly, “That is what we suspect, yes.”
“Then why trust them?”
“What choice do we have, Mikali?” Risa’s voice was quiet, but the edge was sharp with command. “We can’t afford to provoke Dega, you know that.” She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and gazed up sharply into his eyes. “And to make matters worse, the Universes Wife has come out into the world. I have to speak to her, and that means coming here.”
“That is all the more reasons for my men to come with you.” Mikali empathized his point by stabbing his finger into his palm. “What if that is a trick, my Shogun? False news meant to lead you off the trail, so they can kill you. As strong as you are, not even yo—.”
Risa’s face darkened, “Then I’ll be the biggest fool under the branches.”
“You’ll be dead more likely! We’re at war, Shogun, though the Queen doesn’t know it yet. Dega is not to be trusted. They are worse than scum, worse than Winter Spawn. Give me leave and I will give you over a hundred men to keep you safe. Aye, give me leave to sail home and I will return with—“
Risa’s full-armed slap on the deck railing cut him off better than a sword. “Enough, Captain!” she snarled.
The Captain stiffened as if he had been goosed, but his expression was unchanged. After a long moment, he threw a hand over his heart and bowed “Forgive me, my Shogun. I forgot myself.”
I'm Going Ashore.
Risa’s nostrils flared. Forgot himself indeed, the idiot of a man boarded on insubordination. If she was home she would have him lashed until he howled. I don’t have time for that now. She thought bitterly. On the dock, the carriage and its honor guard had, at last, shoved its way through the throng and someone spilled out of the carriage. She couldn’t see who it was. Risa took a moment to thank The Tree that Shenal’s message had arrived ahead of her. At least something has gone right. To the Captain, she barked. “Never mind. See to your men, I’m going ashore.”
(continued in Part Two)
© 2017 Will English.