Tales From the Universe Tree: The Children of War, Part Seven.
(Continued from Part Six)
The rest of the evening was unbelievably formal and boring. Geddoywn insisted on holding a feast in her honor. Well, he had called it a feast, but it was only the three of them, but there was no way for her to refuse him short of rudeness. Risa sat at a table long enough to seat a hundred, grinding her teeth, and doing her best to not seem utterly annoyed. The dining hall was enormous and as tacky as the rest of the house. The marble floor had been freshly polished that day, Risa glanced down at her reflection in the floor and shivered. Thank the Tree I’m not wearing a dress.
The legs of the table were exquisitely carved into the shape of nude winged women that made Risa sick. The Shogun grunted, Elysium, isn’t his obsession with human women bad enough?! He has to degrade the First Children too?! She drew her mouth into a tight line. She wasn’t a religious woman, but this was just obscene. Lord Illwater sat across from her, talking amiably to the Governor at the head of the table, his great girth squishing his flabby form against the table, and setting his chins quivering as he sipped on his wine. Risa took a sip of her own wine and sighed. Shenal held feasts, real feasts with guest lists in the hundreds, just about every night. But Shenal had never held one for Risa specifically. Not that the Queen of Duranna hadn’t tried. She remembered one time in particular after Risa had obtained her rank. Shenal wanted to make a grand event of her ascension and their coming victory in the Civil War. With Parades and tumblers and music blaring in the streets for a week and then crowned by a feast. But Risa had called her crazy. “I can’t just NOT give you the highest rank I can give and not honor you,” Shenal had complained, shaking with incredulity. “It’s just not done, Risa! You are the realms hero!”
Risa smiled. Thank the Tree I talked her out of it. A shuddering moistness blossomed between her legs as the memory rolled over her. Oh Shenal. Her eyelids slid closed to get lost in the memory. I miss you so much…I could use you now, your confidence, your warmth… your…smile...your—
Twilight During a Durannian Summer.
Risa opened her eyes reluctantly. She glanced up slowly. Jessica stood over her, head tilted to one side and blinking as if she had never seen her before. The pitcher in her hands dripped with condensation. The maid had changed into a slightly more ornate crimson dress embroidered around the hem and the sleeves with white lace, and a plunging neckline that made Risa’s cheeks melt right off her face. Risa’s head felt hazy suddenly. The moistness between her legs bit down on her hard. Why was the woman still wearing that bloody perfume?
“Would you like more wine, my lady?” Jessica asked innocently.
Risa blinked “What? Oh. Yes. Th-thank you.”
Jessica’s smile split her face as she glided forward. Risa offered her wine glass and Jessica bent slightly as she poured, giving Risa a sight that most men would envy. Risa glanced down at the floor and then her eyes shot up to the woman’s face and growled low in her throat. Damn you, Geddoywn! The Shogun’s cheeks felt like tiny suns.
The food, when it finally came, was surprisingly good if a little bit salty. Roast Beef with mashed potatoes and an assortment of vegetables cooked in a rich sauce that Risa didn’t recognize. Off in the corner, Galania was playing a very strange stringed instrument. It reminded Risa of a Lute. But it was far too big, a handspan or two above Galania’s waist. And it only had six strings, not fifteen. Galania plucked and strummed the strings, while her other hand danced gracefully around the neck of the thing, making each note sing. It was sweet and sad and as beautiful as twilight during a Durannian Summer. For a moment, Risa could see it, drifting in the spell the instrument cast. Risa leaned her head back and listened. Everything seemed to be washed away. All of her pain, her grief, washed away. Leaving Risa only with a sense of blessed emptiness. If only Shenal could hear this. She thought. If only…
Questions of Cultural Differences.
“Is that right, Shogun?” Geddoywn’s voice toppled drunkenly into the void. Risa exhaled a breath through gritted teeth. Geddoywn eyed her expectantly. Risa spared a quick questioning glance for Lord Illwater. But the older man shrugged apologetically.
Risa took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “Forgive me, Governor.” She said dryly. “But I didn’t catch what you said.”
The Governor nodded jovially, “Nothing to forgive, my lady!” his words tumbled sloppily out of his mouth. His face looked like a ripe apple. “I was only saying that I have always had a great interest in your homeland, but I have never understood why the hair of the peoples of that land hair is blue. I was hoping you would enlighten us on the subject.”
Risa rolled her eyes. Why did everyone and their grandmother ask about that? She shrugged, “Well, not everyone’s does.” She said slowly, she kept her face flat, unreadable. More out of habit than any need to hide her mounting annoyance. “It really isn’t something we think about, Governor. It’s just the way things have always been.”
“I see.” Geddoywn stroked his chin thoughtfully. He took another gulp of wine. How many had he had? “Strange that Rofin is the only land where that color is found.” He waved a hand dismissively. “But no matter. I have another question if you’ll permit. Yes? Well, is it true that your people often…eat each other in some pagan ritual or other?” Risa raised an eyebrow, and Geddoywn quickly added, “Forgive me, my lady, but I read of such a ritual once. Something about funeral practices I believe. I have always wondered if it was true. I did not mean to offend.”
Risa Albus took a deep breath. By the Tree had ANYone ever actually been to her homeland? Did southerns have no wits at all? A small fury smoldered in her belly. The sheer ignorance of the man was disgusting. She took a slow sip of her wine. It tasted like sweet pomegranate. Risa fixed the Governor with a glare that would have melted steel. When she spoke, her voice lashed at this hogs-boiled, mannerless fool. “What by the Tree do you...?” She trailed off suddenly. Geddoywn’s chins shuddered, his fork frozen halfway to his mouth. Galania’s instrument changed to a softer, almost sorrowful tune. Shadows from the tallows waltzed on the walls. A smirk nearly split Risa’s face, but she hid it quickly behind her wine glass. He wanted to know if Rofinians ate their dead, did he? Well, let’s see what he thinks of this. She forced her expression to smoothness as she lowered her glass and cleared her throat. “Well, as to that. I suppose the answer is both yes and no.”
Geddoywn blinked confused. “What do you mean, my lady?”
Risa allowed herself a small smirk. “Well, as I’m sure you know, my homeland is a harsh place. Ferocious and covered in snow all year round. Every day is a battle, every snowflake, and animal an enemy. It’s a war that few survive. I am fortunate that I did.”
“But how is the answer both yes and no?” Geddoywn whined. His mouth was curled into a petulant frown, like the noblemen that spent their time licking Shenal’s feet for scraps. “Forgive me, but I am confused. Is there such a ritual or not?”
“We survive, Governor,” The shogun’s voice took on a low, dark tone. She took a deep breath, “When I was a girl, about two or three winters before I was given to my former husband. I lived with my mother and my father’s entire family-my grandmother and my uncle and their wives and children- in a hovel near the mountains in the north of Rofin. That is the way of things so far north. We live together with our families if we can, with others if we cannot. We were heading to the villages near the southern border for the winter. But we left our farm too late to avoid the first blizzards of the season. So we took what shelter we could find along the way. An abandoned farmhouse, or perhaps ruins safe and intact enough to ward off the storms and the biting cold. Until finally, exhausted and freezing, we came to a small shack about twenty miles south of the Breech.”
Geddoywn raised an eyebrow. “The what?”
“The sight of the Sunless War’s final battle.” Lord Illwater breathed. “To come of age in the sight of a place so holy. I envy you, Shogun.”
Risa suppressed a grimace. Holy? Envy? The man was mad. But she nodded slowly, “On clear days My Lord, you can see it. A hand of rock and snow reaching desperately to the sky, with a hole large enough for the sun to fly through.” Reaching out for deliverance, she added silently, Deliverance from evil.
The First To Leave.
“What is the point of this, Shogun?!” Geddoywn licked his lips irritable. “How does it-“
“One day,” Risa went on as if the Governor had not spoken. “My father and my uncle went out to hunt. They were gone for days, and our stored food was nearing its end. The Blizzards fell on us relentlessly, one after another, bludgeoning us to the ground with the cold. We were entombed before the sun rose on the second day.” Risa chuckled dryly. “You never consider that cold can harm you as a child, I’ve found. You may fall asleep, wake up with ice forming on your cheeks, but they are soon melted. There is always warmth around. Always a fire or another person to wrap you up…That winter gentleman, I was freed from such delusions.”
Risa paused and took a sip of her wine. Something was caught in her throat. “My grandmother…was the first to die. Beaten to death by the cold and hunger. While trying to keep the fire going.” She paused and shut her eyes. The memory swam before her eyelids, the image of her grandmother hunched near the ashes of their fire. Her hazel eyes, once beautiful, now glazed over with the milky shroud of death. The first to leave me. She thought.
She swallowed, something had gotten caught in her throat. “There was no time for burial” she went on softly. “We could not get out, and we were starving. My Mother and Aunt decided quickly. They dragged the body to the corner of the hovel and hung up a sheet so that we could not see and…” She trailed off, there was no reason to say more. Risa reached out and grabbed her wine glass and downed the rest of her wine in one desperate gulp. The Tree shade her but she was thirsty.
Lord Illwater nodded solemnly after a moment. “Yes,” he said thoughtfully. “A hard land. For a hard people.” Risa felt a prick of affection for the old man then. He did not approve, she could tell immediately. But he did not question, nor did he condemn it. He understood.
“My grandmother was not the last.” Risa went on. “Nor was my family the first to do this thing. And it was the smallest of cruelties I had to endure.” Yuska’s scarf suddenly felt very heavy on her neck.
“A very sad tale, Shogun.” Geddoywn grunted. “But it does not answer my question. There was no ceremony in that. It was more like-“
“I don’t know where you first heard of this idiocy about a…ritual.” The word crawled from her mouth like a curse. “But my people do not glorify this act, nor do we condemn it. We do what we have to do. That is all.”
Geddoywn’s chins quivered “But, but that cannot be! The books say…I mean…they said…” the way his words blubbered out of him couldn’t have been more satisfying. An interest in her homeland indeed. And you said I believed in Gilannri Tales. Risa glanced down at her empty wine glass, before putting it back down on the table. “Forgive me, sirs.” She said finally, standing up. “I am suddenly very tired. If you’ll excuse me.”
(Continued in Part Eight).
© 2017 Will English.