Tales From the Universe Tree: The Children of War, Part Six.
Why Are You Here?
(Continued from Part Five).
He led her to a small library near the back of the mansion. A single room crammed with books on every wall. Twilight flittered through a single window as tall as she was. A thin stream of smoke drifted up from an intricately carved pipe that rested on a single table with two chairs on either side. A thick book, ‘The Way of Kings’, rested on beside the pipe. Motes of dust tickled over Risa’s nose. She sneezed. It reminded Risa of an inn she had stayed in during the Civil War, although nowhere near as stuffy.
Fat Tallow Candles hung in iron cups as big of her head upon the walls. Shadows writhed on the book covers. The lock clunked ominously behind them as if locking them in another world. A world of knowledge and dust. Risa shivered. I don't belong here. The thought crashed over her. I'm a soldier, not a schooler. She took a small breath. But they're the same thing now, aren't they? Yes. Yes, they were. This is a battlefield. Just a battle. And a Battle I can win.
“We shouldn’t be bothered here.” Illwater strode to one of the chairs, “please, sit.” Risa nodded and sat down in the chair opposite him. Illwater examined her, gauging her. Risa knew that look well, every nobleman in Durranna gave it to her, trying to read her. She allowed it, though. Finally, Lord Illwater leaned back, “Now then, perhaps you could tell me why you’re here, Shogun.”
Being the Wolf.
First blood is yours. “You already know the answer to that, My Lord.” She said testily. She was not going to play at politics. “Or you would not be.”
Lord Illwater’s face fell, his expression took on a sympathetic cast, “Yes…I am sorry for your loss, Shogun. It pained my King to hear of it.”
Risa swallowed and resisted the sudden urge to touch her scarf again. “Thank you.”
“There is little to thank me for, Shogun.” his eyes glided closed for a moment.
“What do you mean? Say it plainly, I won’t play games with you My Lord.” She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “Why are you here? Really? It can’t just to offer me condolences.” It was too much of a coincidence. Risa’s rank, though equal to Shenal’s in her own land, was barely near Illwater’s elsewhere, if that. Although her title was respected, she would never receive the same honors as a man of equal rank here. Greeting her was beneath someone like Lord Illwater. Save when Shenal was with her, and even that would have been done grudgingly. All because of whats between my legs. Why-No, don't think about that now. Fight the battles you can win. You have to be the Blue Wolf now.
Lord Illwater sighed. “Officially that is the reason. But I don't wish to play games either. I was not lying when I said that the news of your daughter’s murder pained my King. Our nations may not be friends, but my King is not unfeeling. No parent should go through what you did.” His voice trembled so slightly that Risa would not have noticed it if she had been so intent on him. “But” he went on “if you came here hoping for the crowns help in finding her killer. Then I am sorry to disappoint you.”
“You don’t seem surprised by that.” Lord Illwater said.
“I’m not,” Risa said solemnly, her face betrayed no emotion. “The truth is, I expected it.” And I’m more than thankful for it. “The right of justice is mine my Lord, no one else’s,” she growled low in her throat. The right of Justice, indeed. You need Bongal alive, remember?
“Even so, I wish to help you. Even if my King will not.” Lord Illwater stapled his hands thoughtfully. “But first, tell me. What has Geddowyn let slip about the invasion?”
“Nothing,” Risa said honestly. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
Why Deny What You Already Know?
Lord Illwater shook his head, “No. Believe it or not, I have not been spying on you.”
“There was nothing he could have told me that I didn’t know at any rate.” Risa leaned back in her chair and folded her arms beneath her breasts. “Other than why King William needs to gather such a force, though I doubt he knows that.”
“Yes,” Lord Illwater said thoughtfully. “Well, you did give my King reason. Durranna marshaling its strength without saying why nor where nor against who. And none but Dega are strong enough to oppose you. What are we supposed to think, Shogun? Seeing that, you can understand why our invasion force seemed necessary”
“You don’t even have the stones to deny that it is an invasion.”
“Why deny what you already know? Even now, My King continues to gather his strength outside the city, with more men arriving every day. It’s only by the grace of Universes Wife and the First Children's return that we have not sailed already. That and The First Swords crimes.”
“Is he here then?”
Lord Illwater nodded “Not in Seifer, of course. He's in the capital, in the royal palace.”
“When did he arrive?”
“Three or four months ago. Eric presented The First Sword to the King and the Circle of the Twelve. He told us what happened, a version of it anyway." Lord Illwater chuckled dryly. "He said that the Queen had ordered his head on a platter, for what he wouldn't say, only that he had no choice but to flee and seek asylum here." he steepled his fingers and his chin on his hands. "I don't think anyone actually believed him, but we saw no reason to deny him either. And he offered information besides. And then a few weeks behind him, Your Queen’s message arrived.”
“And now the information he gave you is suspect.” Risa guessed.
“Some of it,” Lord Illwater agreed. “But even so, we cannot afford to lose him. he’s too valuable. And besides…” he trailed off and glanced down at the book on the table thoughtfully as if he did not know what to say.
“What?” Risa urged.
“There is more going on here than you know, Shogun.”
“I can guess it already.” Risa coughed, by the Tree, the dust was heavy in here. “Geddowyn let slip that there was a rebellion, or there soon will be. Led by the Princess…Catherine is her name, isn’t it?” Lord Illwater didn’t reply at first, he looked at her with a hard yet thoughtful expression. Risa leaned in, "find a weakness enemy's lines," A voice from her past rung. "and then in crush it!" “You and Geddowyn are part of it, aren’t you?”
Lord Illwater nodded reluctantly. “I am.” He breathed. “But he is not. He must have his own network of eyes and ears. ”
“If that’s true, then why hasn’t he acted on it?”
Watch And Wait.
Lord Illwater shrugged. “Who knows? I can only guess that he’s sniffing around for proof that Durranna's is involved.”
“And why would he think that we were?”
“I don’t know,” Illwater said. “Geddoywn is a good administrator, for whatever that's worth, but he's not very bright. His imagination far outpaces his ambition. He…well, I suppose it doesn’t it matter.”
“But why are you involved with it at all?” Risa leaned back in her chair, she had to hammer at this weakness. “Why do you want Catherine on the Throne?” She chuckled dryly. “Perhaps you realize that a Queen would be good for this country.”
“Perhaps,” Lord Illwater’s expression darkened. “And perhaps one day we will, but not today. And definitely not her.” His voice seemed to shudder. “You don’t know her as I do. I want to stop her, not help her. The jealousy that drives her will only be quenched by blood, and that I cannot allow. The realm-no- the world will bleed if she takes the throne, Shogun. There will be no stopping her.”
“Surely you exaggerate, My Lord.”
“I can assure you I do not.”
Risa said nothing at first. Lord Illwater's words whirled in her head, drowning her. Was he telling the truth? Was the Princess planning to rebel? Why had their spies not uncovered this? I smashed his weak point only to be hit by his reserves. She thought. Even the smallest of skirmishes could turn into a disaster without enough information. She knew that, and now she felt as helpless as a newborn wolf pup. There isn't anything I can do about it now. she snarled at herself. I'm surrounded and I have to break out. Her brow furrowed. If this rebellion was real, could she somehow use it? Even if Catherine was as terrible as the Lord Illwater claimed, could she do her duty without her help? She shivered. If she took the throne with Durranna's help. The thought echoed in her head. we’d have all the allies we’d ever need against... She barely suppressed a shudder. “Nightmares given flesh.” Shenal's voice whispered in her head.
She swallowed to work moisture back into her throat. By the Tree, how she wished Shenal was there now. She felt naked without her now. She would know what to do. she- Risa blinked and cursed silently. No, I don't need her. I'm a soldier, this is a battle. Be patient, watch and wait. Look for an opening.
“But,” Lord Illwater went on after a long moment. “There’s another problem.”
Risa kept her face smooth, thankful that he didn’t seem to guess what she was thinking. “You mean the Gilannri?”
He shook his head. “No, not them. Though The Tree knows we don’t need much reason to fight them.” He sighed wearily, he seemed to sag a little into his chair now. His wrinkles deepened as if his proper age were melting into him like wax. “You don’t know how many times I’ve had to talk my King away from starting another war without cause.”
“What do you mean by…” she trailed off and blinked. “Wait, are you saying that this isn’t the first time your King has planned to…”
“Don’t play dumb, Shogun.” Lord Illwater stood and strode over to the window and poured himself a glass of brandy from a pitcher that rested on the Window Sill. He took a sip, staring out the window. “Surely you knew.”
Risa shot up and spun to the older man. “We knew of contingency plans. Court gossip, rumors dating back to the previous King’s grandfather. Talk and Gilannri tales, that’s is all it ever turned out to be. Why would we ever suspect?”
Illwater glanced back at her over his shoulder and smiled. “Then I did my job well.” He said.
“So what made this time so different?”
“As I told you before. You did.” Lord Illwater took another sip of his brandy. Twilight had slipped into darkness. The candles dripped silently in their cups. “Your nation gathered its strength without warning and all but sealed off your borders. We couldn’t get word out of your country for months. My King was already itching for a war, and your actions dropped the justification in front of him like dessert at a dinner feast!”
“Then why hasn’t it happened yet?” Risa demanded coldly. Her eyes narrowed, like a wolf ready to bite. “The Universes’ Wife coming to the capital couldn’t have been the only reason. And you probably have more than enough troops waiting outside the city for a first wave, maybe enough to get through the navy and onto our beaches at any rate.”
Lord Illwater took another sip of his brandy and took a deep breath. “As to that, I had a little something to do with that, yes. But as influential as I am, I am only one man. Thankfully, I am not the only one who doesn’t want war. Between Lord Tolvein and myself, we’ve been able to convince the King to wait, to recruit and train as many men as we could gather in the next five months.”
Don't Name Me A Murderer.
“THAT butcher?! The leader of the Circle of the Twelve?! HE, of all people, doesn’t want war?!”
Lord Illwater nodded, “The very same.” He said, taking another sip of brandy. “His reputation is…exaggerated at little.”
“Exaggerated!?” Risa exclaimed, shocked. “He led four legions to their deaths just to take back one fort during the last Gilannri War, and slaughtered an entire Gilannri settlement; women, and children all! What else would you call that besides butchery?!”
Lord Illwater sighed “It was war, Shogun. Surely you above all people can understand the difficult decisions we who lead must often make. Or did Rofins King and its Prince kill themselves in their last stand?”
“I never killed women and children,” Risa growled.
“Oh?” Lord Illwater turned to her and took another sip of brandy. “Then tell me, Shogun, who killed Rofin’s Queen and her youngest son?”
Risa suppressed a wince. “I don’t know, my Lord.”
“Oh, but you do.” Lord Illwater’s voice was impassive, almost bland as if he was giving a lecture. “You may not have wield the sword, but you did lead the assault. You gave the order. You killed them as good as if you had done it by your own hand.”
“No!” Risa roared. Her arms shook with the effort to keep her hands off her short sword. “I will suffer any insult, endure any torture for my Queen. But I will NOT suffer being named a murderer, My Lord! Do you understand me?!!”
Lord Illwater nodded apologetically. “Forgive me, Shogun. Lord Tolvein is a very dear friend of mine. I could not help but defend him. Despite his reputation, he is a good man, and trustworthy, undeserving of the slander that is often forced upon him.”
Risa’s icy glare augured into him for a long moment. Finally, she sighed, pushing her anger down into her feet. And took a deep breath. “You are forgiven.” She said. “I must apologize as well. I am a guest in your country and I behaved like a child.” Lord Illwater said nothing but he nodded in acceptance. Risa took a deep breath, Elysium, what is wrong with me? Calm down, you can't win a battle while blinded by anger. Be calm. be calm. “But tell me, My Lord.” Risa strode up next to the Degian noblemen. “Is Lord Tolvein part of the Princesses conspiracy too?”
Lord Illwater shook his head, “I doubt that he is even aware of it. He is a good man, as I’ve said, but his loyalty to the crown often borders on stupidity. This kind of thing is beyond him.”
“Why tell me though?” Risa crossed her arms beneath her breasts, looking up at him with an icy look. “Why betray your Princess and your King? If what you say is true, then you just committed high treason. Why take the risk?”
Lord Illwater poured himself another glass of brandy. “I trust to your honor.” His voice was grim. “And I’m loathed to admit it, but I need your help.”
“Why?” Risa demanded. “Can’t you and Lord Tolvein convince your king out of this farce as you did before?”
Lord Illwater took a sip of brandy. “Can you to stop a mad dog from biting you by shouting at him?”
“You mean to use me as a quarterstaff then?”
“That is one way to look at it, I suppose.” He chuckled dryly.
So that’s what he wants. Risa thought bitterly. Still, she had to give him credit. Lord Illwater had been smart and had trapped her. He had told her everything honestly, or honest enough to be dangerous. If word of this conversation reached the wrong ears…Risa took a deep breath. I’ll just have to be more careful than I have been. She thought.
“Say it plain my lord,” she sniffed vexedly. “What would you have of me, excatly?”
I Need Your Help.
“Come to Babelanta with me.” Lord Illwater’s voice was soft, but it was strong and it allowed for no argument. “Tell my King, on your Queen’s behalf, that Durrunna poses no threat to Dega. Help me convince him.”
“And you believe he’ll listen?” She was tired of these games now. “You told me that he wants to destroy my nation. And you want me, the head of his enemies’ armies, to walk up to his throne and tell him that my country poses no threat to him? You honestly think he will believe that?”
Lord Illwater shook his head. “No.” he agreed. “Not on your word alone. But between you, Lord Tolvein, myself and what allies we can gather, we can convince him. We can stop it.”
“And assuming he does listen,” Risa eyes never left his face. Lord Illwater’s expression hadn’t changed, but the lines of age seemed to be smoothed away. She knew that look. To him, this was a battle too. But which one of us is winning? “You think he’ll keep his word and call off the invasion?”
Lord Illwater took another sip of brandy and nodded. “I will make sure of it, you have my word.” Risa studied him for a moment. She didn’t doubt that he would at least try to hold the King to his word. He was an honest man. But could he really do it? Even with her help, could he do it? Roots crush me, but I doubt it. What will he do the second we aren’t looking? When I’ve returned home? She shook her head. But even if he can’t stop him, can I afford to not take the risk? She shivered, North of Rofin, at the ends of the world…could Durranna fight what was coming, AND Dega?
“And in return, my lord?” she asked tightly.
Lord Illwater contemplated his glass for a moment, “And in return…I will give the First Sword to you. Or, if he has fled the capital by the time we arrive, I will help you find him.”
“What do you mean? I thought you said he was in the capital?”
“He was when I departed the city. But that was weeks ago.” He downed the rest of his brandy in one gulp. Paused to pour himself more. “I won’t lie to you, Shogun. Lord Bongal knows that we don’t trust him as we once did. And if he learns of your coming before we arrive, he'll most likely try to flee. He’s not a prisoner, he’s free to come and go as he pleases. But he has few allies in this kingdom.”
“Then why are you worried about him running? Where would he go?”
He shrugged. “Eric has a Manse in Babelanta, seems the obvious choice. Though I have heard that Eric has many country estates, or he could have made other allies by now. I don’t know. But I will keep my word. I will help you.”
An Agreement Made.
Risa frowned. His proposal sounded was a good one, perfect in fact. As perfect as putting the knife in my back right now. But if she didn’t agree to it, would she ever get another chance? The moon had risen to its zenith, bathing the mansion in a snow white glow. Risa smiled inwardly despite herself. It reminded her of home. Yuska would love this scene. She thought. The tail of her scarf brushed the back of her hand. Slowly she glanced down at her hands “It’s so pretty, mother!” Yuska’s voice chortled in her head. She began to tremble. She took a deep breath. Her eyes stung. Be honest with yourself. Can you really afford to refuse him? Now? With so much at stake? And what about her own mission? Could she refuse him and still complete it...Could she refuse him and still find Justice?
“Please my love,” Shenals voice was as clear in her mind as if she was standing next to her. “You saved my life and my kingdom more times than I can count. Now I need you to save the world. Please.”
“Please mother.” That last was Yuska’s voice.
Finally, she said. “Alright. I’ll help you, my lord. But I can’t make any promises.”
Lord Illwater smiled victoriously and then nodded. “Thank you, Shogun. I would expect nothing less.”
Risa's eyes augered into his head. She growled low in her throat. This isn't the only fight I've ever lost, my lord. She grabbed the other glass on the window sill and poured herself a glass of brandy. And all but inhaled it in one gulp. And I will not lose the war.
(Continued in Part Seven).
© 2017 Will English.