Three Princesses: Chapter 6

CHAPTER SIX

            “Alves, Bethes, Craedes, Daeades, Eredas, Faedes, and Galmes,” Olinthess recited, counting up the marks she had inscribed upon the lined tablet.

“Seven?” Pearl asked. “That seems… uneven.”

“There is an eighth, silent, but that is years away in the learning.”

“Years?”

Olinthess gave her a stony look. “My Lady, are you certain this is for you? Most girls start learning magic by the age of seven, often younger. Many have mastered spelling earlier than that; mastered, I remind you. They spend seven to nine years on the basic instruments, until it is certain their voice has finished changing, then they begin work on magical voice, while at the same time expanding their instrumental retinue to include two or three specializations. Many such women are accomplished casters at your age. They can calm beasts, bring and repel sleep, make foods safe, salve burns, drive men mad with rage, lighten the dim and darken the day, and cast less potent restoratives like the spell you heard yesterday. And these are considered merely the competent among us. The women you heard yesterday are virtuosos in their field, four of a staggeringly small number that survived your father’s wars. The truly skilled, those who never abandoned their training nor their experimentation, who taught and were taught by other virtuosos, all died in your father’s second march from Tauriconia, thirty-five years ago.”

That hurt, like a rock in her stomach. The greatest were all gone, dead before she was even born. Pearl lied in bed, her eyes wandering to her brother’s map on the wall. In truth, she was not sure if she could do this. It was one thing to work hard, even for years, knowing that one day the reward would be yours. But to labor never knowing if it was even possible, was another matter. Did she truly want to be a magician, or was there just nothing else to do while she lied in bed, waiting for Aivliriai to appear and help her stand at last. To face her father.

“My Lady,” Olinthess repeated.

“Sorry. Yes.”

“Yes? Then repeat the notes to me.”

“Repeat? Oh… Alves…”

“Yes?”

“Beves?”

“Bethes.”

“Yes. Alves, Bethes…” There was a long, painful pause.

“Craedes.”

“Craedes, yes.”

“Craedes is called the Sacred Note, as well as the Center Note and sometimes the Middle Note.”

“Middle? But it’s the third one. Out of seven. Or eight.”

Olinthess took a deep breath. “I never noted such similarities between you and your sister before. My Lady, do you think I am trying to deceive you in some way?”

“No.”

“Do you doubt my expertise? Do you, drawing on your own experience with magic, feel that my knowledge may be insufficient to your needs?”

“No.”

“Then I shall thank you to leave your doubts and suspicions unvoiced. If you learn nothing else, let magic teach you this: the noises you choose to make have consequences, and the more you learn the more you shall find that those consequences cannot be predicted. Every note, every sound, is a risk we choose to take, no matter how expert we become. Consider whether such risk is warranted before you choose to act.”

Pearl thought on that. Thought, before speaking. “Yes. Madam.”

“Good. Now listen with attent. This time.”

Olinthess repeated the notes, and Pearl murmured them to herself, but by the time they reached Eredas, the door opened and Aivliriai stepped inside. She wore a grey gown with a textured, bulky black shawl over it. Her ring and her silver headband were gone. She spoke something to Olinthess in Viisianar, and she responded in kind. Pearl tried not to stare too dully as she strove to divine some meaning from their words. After a brief time, they looked to her. Aivliriai said something more.

“I fear not,” Olinthess answered, in Mornal. “I take it you have found other things with which to occupy yourself during your sister’s lessons in the Viisianari tongue.”

Pearl cleared her throat and tried to disappear into the bed.

“My Lady,” Aiviliria approached, “if you hope to master or even comprehend the depths of magic, you must master the Viisianari language. I have not met a single Mornali that can speak it fluently. Even your brother Igetus, as driven to thought as he is, speaks haltingly, and he claims to have been studying for years. I fear magic may not be for you.” She held up a hand to forestall any objection. “But, this must wait. I believe it is time for you to stand, and therefore time to see your father. Time,” she stopped herself. “Time is the most merciless of gods, but it would seem she has granted the Emperor what he wants.”

Gods forbid, Mornal and Viisianar all, that Emperor Calphus should ever not get what he wanted.

Aivliriai set out her table and box again, prodded Pearl with the silvery instruments, prepared the bitter purple syrup again and poured it down her throat again. Another leacher arrived, this one even younger than herself, and changed out some of the bandages as Aivliriai worked. Pearl was moving her arms and fingers now, and all of her aches had diminished. They began to swell horribly late last night when the magic outside in the hallways finally ceased, but the evening’s sleep did some good. Pearl bit her tongue twice swallowing screams as Aivliriai and the leacher helped her twist and sit up in bed. She sat there for a few minutes gasping, and only then realized that Olinthess had quietly slipped out.

“Well,” she groaned, “the floor isn’t getting any softer.”

With their aid, Pearl slid forward and eased her weight up onto her feet. Her spine and hips wailed in protest, but she managed to keep her own voice still. Aivliriai held her in place as the leacher retrieved a walking stick he had tucked in a corner. It was carved of ebonwood with a head shaped to resemble a rabbit’s. A glittering emerald was in the rabbit’s right eye, but the lefthand gem had been torn out.

Aivliriai spied the walking stick and breathed in sharply. “Where did you get that?” she asked the leacher.

“It was among the Emperor’s things,” the leacher said shyly.

The look she gave him could have curdled unicorn’s milk, but she let it go, and the two of them steadied Pearl as she took her first steps, walking stick in hand. It was slow, agonizing work. Pearl had never appreciated the scope and power of a healthy body before, and she resolved to do so in future, assuming she had the chance. She managed to slightly increase her pace as they wandered down the halls, but confessed herself defeated when they reached the wide stairway leading from the fourth floor to the fifth. The leacher carried her unsteadily upward, groaning in a thoroughly inconsiderate fashion, and the two set her back on her feet as gingerly as they could. For all the crawling and halting, they arrived at her father’s bedchamber far more quickly than she had expected. They stood outside for a bare moment before Aivliriai reached before her and opened the door.

There was nothing left but to go in.

It’s not real. I’m still dreaming. This is all still a dream. That was what she told herself when she laid eyes on the Emperor. He looked like a skeleton wearing the old Emperor’s skin, like a unicorn’s leathery hide draped along a baby’s shoulders. Despite the heat of the season, he was dressed in furs under several blankets. The furs were brown and white. The blankets were, predictably, black and indigo. His arms and shoulders were above the sheets, and Pearl could make out the individual bones of his hands beneath the floppy folds and glowing white skin, shining with sweat. His head looked like an actual skull, his ears were drooping and deep purple bruises surrounded his grey, filmy eyes. His lips had all but vanished, pulled back from his still-white teeth, grinning in death. Ever himself, Calphus the Conqueror was wearing his spiked crown in bed, but it was at a tilted angle, and Pearl could see stubble peppering his head. It was grey.

Not two moons back, this man had ridden a white unicorn across a bridge between his east and western empire, and slung a two-handed cudgel into the river with a single hand. Now, he was shivering beneath the blankets like a child with a chill. He looked over in her direction, but it seemed more to her he was turning toward the noise than looking at her.

“Is that her?” he asked dully. “Is that my daughter?”

Pearl felt a rip, like a barbed whip, lash through her body at those words. Her left eye blurred, her chest contracted, and though she did not stumble, both Aivliriai and the leacher tensed and held her, just in case. Her throat had closed, and it took a moment and a will to speak.

“It’s Pearl,” she said, forcing herself to speak clearly. I will not let him make me weak, she told herself. I will not let pity be the thing that defeats me. “You sent for me, your Excellency?”

“Ay,” he sighed, a sigh that was heavier than any weapon he had ever lifted. His hands were shaking, but he turned one over and moved it in such a way that he seemed to be beckoning her. “Come,” he said. His voice was still strong, despite everything.

She took a step toward the bed, thinking how she would rather be climbing the mossy oak again. “Yes?”

“Dammit,” he grumbled. “have a seat, girl, I didn’t summon you to receive orders.”

She stared at his skeletal hands and, very reluctantly, sat on the side of the bed. He extended his hand to her. She shut her eyes very tightly, just a moment, then opened them and took his hand. It felt warm and damp, almost alive.

“I know I wasn’t a father to you,” he grumbled. She did not deny it. “I wasted my life on Tortorus, and wouldn’t you know it, he got his revenge by turning out just like me. Still, he’ll keep the Empire going.”

And going and going and going, she thought. To what end, who could say?

“I never knew what to do with you girls.” He seemed to be casting about.

“Have you seen Everia’s baby?”

He grunted at that, a bitter half-laugh. “She came. We shared some words. She won’t bring the babe in the room, though. She still thinks I’ve got some fever like to kill the boy. Mad from the labor, I’ll warrant.” He growled at nothing. “She’s named him Calphus.”

Pearl tried not to laugh. “That’s a very… bold name.”

“Bold, yes. Daring. Ambitious, one might say.” The Emperor’s shaking hand pulsed twice, squeezing Pearl’s. “Tortorus loves conquest as much as I do. I’m sure his sons do as well, and they won’t like being sent back to rule any more than I did. Fostus will die in a cell if he’s lucky, and those babes of his were sickly when we left. Their uncle will toss them to the wood wolves if they don’t die of some eastern illness. Fever!” he barked with acidic humor. “What does that leave? Igetus? Maybe, ah, maybe. He’d rule well, but the lords will never let him. You cannot rule if you are not loved.”

That’s true enough, she thought. You certainly never ruled a day in your life.

“Naming that boy may be the cleverest thing your sister’s ever done,” he grunted in pain.

Your sister. All their lives, it was My daughter. Now it was Your sister. She wanted to slap him. Instead, she wiped her eye. “Will that be all, your Excellency?”

“Dammit, come now. I’m trying to make a decent farewell, before the last of my meat rots away and I fall into dust. At least have the decency to meet me halfway.”

She stood at that, releasing his shivering hand. “I have always met you entirely your way, your Excellency.”

“Then it won’t hurt to do it a few minutes longer.”

Her face twisted up so much it hurt. Her legs seized, and she nearly fell over, but Aivliriai held her steady. The leacher had vanished. “What do you want, your Excellency?”

“I want you to call me Father,” he wailed in frail outrage. “Is that too much for your father to ask?”

The world was throbbing around her. “What do you want, Father?” It was not the first time she had said it, but it was the most painful. The most wrong.

“I want you to understand, girl, it’s not my fault. Tortorus, even Fostus. We are what the world made us.”

“So are we all, then. Father.” It was easier to say the second time. Sickeningly easy.

“She stole my crown,” he wailed again. “My own sister. My own blood! She was meant to love me, and she reached out and took my future away!”

The world seemed to be beating like a human heart, throbbing red and black.

“But I took it back.” His withered claw curled in to a shaking fist. “I came to this new world with nothing, and now look. My Empire! Stretching from sea to sea, more than twice the size Mornalith ever was. I lost a kingdom, but I built a world. I’ll spit that in her face when I join her in the Underrealm. She died alone, you know,” he grumbled. She did not know, nor did she have any idea how he knew. No one spoke of modern Mornalith. As far as the Orckid Empire was concerned, Mornal history ended the day Calphus left. “She had no heirs,” he went on, “three husbands, all limp as fish, and facing her who wouldn’t be!? Some duke or other has the throne now, and he’s welcome to it. What’s Mornalith to this empire I built with my own two hands!” He almost roared that, lifting his hands and looking at them. His filmy eyes loosened, and he suddenly looked confused and afraid. “My hands…” he muttered, suddenly lost. “What’s… what’s wrong with my hands?”

“You are dying, your Excellency,” said Aivliriai, without hesitation.

His eyes crinkled at that, so terrified and ashamed, that Pearl had to look away. “Yes,” he said at last, voice thin as a reed. “Yes. Of course. Thank you, Aivliriai. You were… you alone… so many times, I tried… I tried… I tried to bring them to me. I tried to include them in my councils, make them a part of this new world. I didn’t want to destroy you, I wanted everyone. In Mornalith, kings used to adopt heirs. They always chose the most worthy, no matter how high or low his birth. The Viisians could have been a part of this new world, but they wouldn’t… they wouldn’t… all but you, Aivi.”

Aivliriai looked as though she had just sucked on a lemon, but she let it pass. “I had hoped to build a better world with you, Excellency.”

“Ah, yes,” he muttered absently. “Would that we could.”

“We can,” she answered, stepping forward, her decorum giving way to animation. “You promised the slaves liberty. You said if they followed you and fought for you, you would free them. I have the edict. We have a witness,” she bobbed her head at Pearl. “We can make it good.”

He closed his eyes. “They’ll all be as free as me, soon enough.”

“Excellency,” she pressed with frightening intensity. “Do you want to be remembered as a valiant commander who rewarded his loyal soldiers, or as a petty tyrant who broke his word, who stole the crown of liberty from countless thousands?”

“Remember?” he asked absurdly. “What good is memory? Will memory bring me back from the dead? Will it purge this poison from me? Give me another year, another day of life, and I’ll worry about my memory then.”

Aivliriai strode over to her tools and returned with a wooden tablet and coal ink. “I have it here, your Excellency,” she urged. “Put your mark on this edict. I beg you. We have a witness, we have everything needed. For the good you say I have done you, put your mark on this, and be known as Calphus the Great! I will see it done, I swear.”

“No!” he suddenly shouted, like a child defying his father. “You’re trying to take my realm from me. You you, you expect me to mark some spell without reading it?”

“You cannot read, Father,” Pearl said blankly.

“Well then read it… read it to…” he stumbled and stuttered, his shaking hand wavering back and forth between them before finally settling on Pearl. “You there, girl, read it out. Prove it.”

Aviliriai looked into her face, desperate, pleading. She handed over the tablet.

It was written in the Mornal scrawl, but the lettering was ornate and her head was still battering against itself. “Be it hereby decreed by Emperor Calphus the First, the Conqueror, Lord of the Orckid Empire, that all those held in bondage of slavery within the border of the empire are hereby released from durance, and that the vile practice…” She stopped herself.

“What?” muttered the dying man in the bed. “Was that all?”

And that the vile practice of enslavement, slavery, slave trade, and inherited durance are hereby abolished eternally within the borders of Orckid. So shall it be upheld by me and all my heirs and guarantors, from now until the end of time. There was a blank spot in the bottom left corner for the Emperor to make his mark: the shield braced by two spears.

“I took it back,” he muttered. “She stole my crown, and I made a better one. When they take what’s yours, you have to take it back.” His entire body tensed, and for a brief moment his frail fist looked again as though it could crush an enemy’s skull. “You have to take it back!”

“Excellency!” Aivliriai shouted, bulling forward. She knocked Pearl out of the way. Her legs seized and she fell to the floor. She cried out like a child as every muscle in her body screamed, and her legs jarred as though struck by a mallet. Aivliriai continued to press the Emperor. “I can save you, Excellency! Put your mark on this, and we will bring the magicians back. They make you well again. I can make you well again. But mark this, and you will be saved.”

A high, pitiful whine came from his lips. “You’re lying. You’re lying to me. Everyone lies to me. You want to trick me out of what’s mine, when I’d give it freely if you’d only ask.”

“I am asking now, Excellency. Please! Put your mark here.”

“I loved you,” he was weeping openly. “I loved you, and you betrayed me. But I surpassed you.” He sobbed, and Pearl sobbed with him, her arms too sore to press against her agonized legs. “I thought you were my pillar, and you stole…”

“You. Stole.” The voice was so high and horrible, Pearl did not know a person could make such sounds. She was momentarily shocked, then horrified to discover the sounds had come from her.

She was lying on her back, too pained to stand or even sit up. She could not see the collapsed thing that had been the Emperor, lying up on the bed, but that did not matter. He could hear her.

“There is no greater thief than you,” she howled. “Calphus the Criminal. Calphus the Burglar. Your sister took your crown because you were weak, and frightened. You were so frightened you fled to another world, so frightened you stole an entire world.”

It felt good. She could have told him how he had broken her heart every time he patted Everia’s cheek while pearl stood against a wall like an attendant. She could have told him how he groomed Tortorus to rule and taught Fostus to fight whilst Pearl had not even received her own tutor. How Arjallia was given everything she had been denied, even her mother’s name. She could have told him how it ached to see Imrell’s defiance laughed off even when her own desperate bids to help him were scolded and dismissed. She could scream that even Igetus, who was everything a man should not be, was more trusted and respected and relied upon, while Pearl alone was made to haunt the armies of Calphus like the ghost of a stillborn child. She could tell him how Calphus the Great had hurt her every day, deliberately and thoughtlessly, but always carelessly.

But she did not want to. She did not want to share her pain with him. She wanted to give him new pain, all his own.

“You have been running from your sister your entire life,” she howled, rolling on the floor. “Calphus the Conqueror? You lied to slaves, and swindled them, got them to die for you, because you were too afraid to face the weak and timid Viisians by yourself. Because you knew you weren’t good enough! Because you feared slaves! You couldn’t even conquer the harbor that took your miserable hide in until you married into wealth. Calphus the Conqueror!?” She could feel her tender throat tearing again, but she did not care. She laughed, maniacally, writhing on the floor. She saw Aivliriai staring at her as though she were a mad child, but she did not care. “Calphus the Conqueror!? I name you Calphus the Coward! Calphus the Callow! Calphus the Craven! And I will make it my life’s work to have those words echo through the annals of history, from here to magical Vaina and all the way back to Mornalith, so the whole world will know what a poisonous, evil, selfish little monster you are, and how you had to steal the world because you were too weak to work your evil by yourself…”

She had more to say, but she was out of breath. She was gasping, hiccoughing, laughing, screaming, throbbing with the world around her. The world was beating, black and red, black and blue, and all the air was gone. Black and black. Then nothing. Deep in the dark recesses of her mind, she could hear someone shouting, “Excellency. Excellency! Calphus! Please!”

She awoke minutes or hours or years later, gasping as though she had just broken the surface of a river. Life was a pinpoint of light before her face that slowly expanded into a dim orange room. There were strange, beautiful noises floating in the air. A bed was nearby. Stiffness and aches washed over her as though they were as much a part of her life as the air that desperately beat its way into her chest. Her face was wet all over. Madly, it only just occurred to her that she was dressed in little more than linens and bandages, lying on the floor, screaming and sobbing like a spoilt child. Somewhere in that same palace, lying in a Viisianar bed, Calphus the Second was squalling just as madly.

The room reeked of filth and decay and death. The strange noises grew soft, and Pearl’s blurry vision resolved on two tall, slim, beautiful dark shapes that floated before her, like two black pillars on a sandy orange beach in a black storm. She tried to ask where the other six pillars were, but coughed horribly instead. Tiny warm droplets spattered on her check and forehead. She was croaking again when she asked, “Is he dead?”

“He is,” Aivliriai answered without hesitation.

Her head was murdering her, but she could not move her arm to rub it. She wanted to say Good, but really she no longer felt anything. “What… should we… do we call Igetus?”

The two blurs hesitate. They made more noises, speaking in Viisianar. They were whispers, some heated. “My lady,” Olinthess said at last, “how are you feeling?”

“Like an empty tunic,” she groaned, “that’s been dunked in the river and beaten dry against a rock.”

“You hear?” Aivliriai said, “The soul of a poet.”

“A poet in infancy,” Olinthess countered.

“It is the poet we have,” Aivliriai answered.

Olinthess said something more in Viisianar, then moved to the other side of the Emperor’s bed.

“My Lady,” Aivliriai began tentatively, “Why did you climb that tree, four days ago?”

She closed her eyes. “Rogulus was up there. He was too frightened to come down.”

“You did it for your family.”

“I suppose. I don’t really know the boy. I’d like to think I would have done it for any boy up a tree.”

“Indeed. We all wish to see ourselves as virtuous. My Lady,” she began uncertainly, “the Emperor was at last scrawling his mark upon this edict when he passed. Your witnessing was vital in the supporting of this edict, which I have no doubt will prove a controversial one. But you were insensate upon the floor at the moment of signature, and worse…” she struggled here, “the Emperor passed in the act of scrawling his mark. You see.”

The speller held the tablet out for Pearl to observe. There was a mark in the bottom-left corner. That it was a spear, and what looked to be part of the shield that came next to it, Pearl did not doubt. That her father and drawn it there, she doubted heavily.

“Your father changed his mind at the last moment,” Olinthess added, unnecessarily. “Perhaps your words had an effect on him.

I hope they did, she thought. She wondered when she would start to feel again.

“My Lady,” Aivliriai continued, “will you act as witness to the signing of this edict? Your brother is a… calculating man, but I believe he will honor your father’s dying wishes. I am certain he will.

That makes one of us. “If he watched the Emperor sign it, and if Imrell or the Margraves were in the room, then he might.”

Olinthess snapped something in Viisianar, but Aivliriai stopped her. “You think Igetus will doubt its authenticity?”

I think the whole world will. “I think he will choose to doubt its authenticity. Igetus doesn’t care about slavery one way or the other, but he won’t want to offend any powerful lords just now. He’ll need them to help him keep control.”

Her legs felt swollen and sore, like blisters bursting open.

The two women shared a glance across the dead man’s bed, then Aivliriai turned back to Pearl. “My Lady. Will you vouch for the authenticity of this mark?”

“Do you think that will do any good?”

Olinthess said something, again in Viisianar, that made Ailviriai smirk. “To hear your father speak… to hear what he spoke… you and your brother work well together. When one of you has an idea, the other is able to elaborate on it at once. Your father once told me his councils would be more effective if Imrell were the one babysitting Arjallia.”

It was at once gratifying and infuriating to hear that, of course, Calphus could not stand Imrell’s objections. In the end, for all his talk, he was as Mornal as any of them. Perhaps the most Mornal.

Suddenly, Pearl became aware that she was still lying on the floor. She felt ridiculous. She tried to sit up, but abandoned the effort immediately when her neck screamed and the room began to swim again. “I think I may be thirsty.”

The two looked at each other again. “I shall fetch the leacher,” said Olinthess. Aivliriai snapped something at her, in Viisisanar, that prompted a tense glare. Whatever was said, Olinthess seemed to acquiesce, and left the room.

“My Lady, I am sorry to trouble you at this grievous hour—”

“Don’t bother. We both know what I thought of my father.” Half the Palace likely does now.

“Do you remember then, my Lady, what we discussed yesterday, when you first awoke?”

“Unicorns?”

“Yes and no. We spoke also of trying to change people, and through them nations. We spoke—”

“I know what we spoke of,” Pearl interrupted. Aivliriai’s condescension was starting to grate. Olinthess was pompous too, but she was more upfront about it. Even Igetus, for all his ego, did not waste time thinly veiling his insults. “What’s your point?”

“My point, my Lady, is that we seem to have been given an opportunity to try and tame the unicorn. If we can reach them as children, shape them then, perhaps—”

Olinthess bulled back into the room. Her breath suggested she had run. In her hand was a tall clay cup, presumably full of water. She stepped over to Pearl and looked down at her. After a pause, Aivliriai knelt down. “Good to see you,” Pearl remarked caustically.

“May I help you up?”

Such dense questions. “I’d welcome the attempt.”

The speller knelt closer and eased an arm behind Pearl’s neck. She tried not to tense up; she feared she might vomit if she did. Aivliriai eased more of her body down, under, and behind Pearl’s torso as she gently lifted her to a sit. She was as gentle as she had no doubt been with Calphus, who now lay forgotten on the bed. “Here.” She took the water from Olinthess and held it to her lips, but Pearl took it and drank. Here arms felt like needles were in them, but it was better than feeling like an infant.

“So,” she began, “this is more than just saying that Calphus made that mark. Igetus will listen, maybe, and then he’ll do what he wants. You need someone to keep saying this is the Emperor’s mark, as often as it takes, to make sure this edict is enacted. As our great Emperor would have wished.”

“To honor his dying wish.”

“His dying wish.” She wanted to laugh, but she feared she might pass out. “Sounds like I’m the one taking all the risks here.”

“We would of course help you however we can.”

Olinthess said something in Viisianar, and Aivliriai snapped back.

“Enough!” Pearl near-shouted, and sure enough the room throbbed with her. She took a moment to steady herself, finished the water, and dropped the clay cup carelessly on the floor. “You’re having two conversations, and I’m only privy to one of them. Enough.”

“My Lady,” said Aivliriai, “you are surely… aware enough… to understand that we may have some difficulty—”

“Trust,” she interrupted. “This is about trust. Fine. Here’s some trust. I trust that Calphus did not make that mark – that half-mark. I trust that one of you started making it, probably Olinthess, and then the other one stopped her. I trust that while I was passed out from screaming like an idiot, the two of you were arguing about whether you should tell me the Emperor signed it, or try to convince me to sign it instead.”

“You? Why would we do such a thing?” Aivliriai’s shock was admirably feigned, but Olinthess was staring with unguarded apprehension, and perhaps the tiniest pinch of respect.

“Because you want me committed. You don’t want me to just say this is Calphus’ signature and go home, you need a Mornal royal to fight for this, and you think if I sign it myself, I’ll commit. Maybe you were just going to ask me to finish signing it, but whatever it was, you want me to be part of this.”

“And will you be?” Olinthess’ stare was iron.

She wanted to ask what was in it for her, but in truth she could not think of anything she wanted. Was not this what she wanted? To undo a little of Calphus’ work? Soften some of his needless cruelty? And perhaps it might make this world a little safer for Arjallia.

“I need some time to think about this.”

Aivliriai hesitated at that, but Olinthess did not. “We do not have time,” she insisted. “The palace must learn of the Emperor’s death. Igetus has already seized power, and he will act while you are thinking. The more concerned he becomes with consolidating power, the less he will be willing risk. You must come to him. We must come to him, with this, even as we tell him of the Emperor’s death. It must be now.”

This was it. This was Pearl’s one chance at greatness, to be something other than Calphus the Conqueror’s forgotten child, and all she wanted to do was lie down and sleep. She took the tablet from Aivliriai, and the charcoal ink from Olinthess. She finished the mark of the Emperor.

“I guess we’d better get me on my feet, then. What happened to that walking stick?”

The two women looked into a corner of the room. First, they knelt down and each got a shoulder under one of Pearl’s arms. She felt queasy and lightheaded, but she got to her feet. After a moment, Olinthess brought her the walking stick. It had lost its second emerald eye at some point, probably when Pearl dropped it.

Aivliriai was looking at it. “Whose was this?” Pearl asked.

The speller looked at her, ashamed, as though she had been caught stealing sweets at night. “It does not matter.”

“Who’s standing in the way of my learning now?” she asked archly.

Aivliriai stared into her face, and for a brief moment Pearl saw a bloodlust there that would have made the Emperor proud. “It belonged to Erridan Fa Belethenri. He was a distant member of the royal family.” She stepped away and opened the door for Pearl. “He was my husband. He died in the assault on the palace, twenty-three years ago.”

Pearl looked out the door, nowhere else. With Olinthess’ help, she stepped outside, and the three women set out to face Igetus.

Atlan Stories, Stories

Three Princesses: Chapter 5

CHAPTER FIVE

            She smelled flowers long before she could open her eyes. The entire world was throbbing in pain around her, and the light battering against her eyelids was hungry to worsen it. So she let the glue on her eyes keep them firmly shut, focused on breathing, and let the floral scents filter in and out of her. She briefly thought of her first meeting with Margrave Kreokus, and the flower smells that hung about him. These were different, sharper and wilder, but more pleasing, almost sensual as they caressed her nostrils and drifted with casual familiarity into her snubbed nose.

Her nose was one of the few parts of her that did not hurt. Her head felt as though a giant were slamming it against a stone floor. Her entire right arm seemed crafted from stone by a clumsy artisan who was now taking a hammer to his regretted creation. Her left elbow, wrist, and even fingers rang with needles after every heartbeat. Her backbone had a line of fire spiraling up and around it, starting in a molten lake near its base and twining all the way up to a stiff, throbbing knot of agony just below her skull.

Her legs were stiff, aching, twisting, and all the rest, but there was a sweetness in that. From the instant her tail hit the first branch, she had feared breaking her back. Ages ago, when the army was marching on the small town of Carrelasas, having just won a protracted siege against Chuereb. young Lord Cerebdiss was riding his charger about, daring any and all to race him, when he tumbled down a shallow ravine and cracked his spine. He begged to be put out of his misery, begged over and over for someone to put a knife to his throat. A life off a horse was no life for him. A life without conquest was no life for him. His father clung to him greedily, though, and flatly refused to let anyone give the young man what he craved. During the fight against Carrelasas, though, support forces were too light to watch him, and he dragged himself out of his camp bed and found a stray knife. The knife was broken in half, more handle than blade, but he was a driven man, and got what he wanted from it.

Pearl had been about Arjallia’s age then, and had only just started to notice men. She had developed intense and confusing feelings about Cerebdiss, which only made the whole situation more harrowing. For her, at least. She of course never told the young man how she felt. He was at least twenty, and princess or no, she would have meant nothing to a man that age. Older and wiser men were happy to marry girls with property attached to them, but young men’s passions were rarely moved by houses and tracts of land. Pearl wondered briefly if Arjallia had started to notice boys, or girls as some Viisianar women did. It was funny to think that, other than riding her horse, Pearl was unsure what Arjallia really wanted from this life.

She shuddered suddenly, and the entire world ached around her. Where was Arjallia? She tore her eyelids open and beat back the merciless light to examine her surroundings.

She was in a proper bedchamber, though an unfamiliar one. It was twice the size of her own, which itself was nothing to scoff at. Sconces were affixed to the walls every eight feet, glowing with dim orange embers; they looked past time to be rekindled. Between each sconce was a hanging of a single color. Each was different, each a deep, lush, lively hue, but they were otherwise blank and unembellished. There was a large goldenwood cabinet in one corner, holding clothing no doubt. A stone basin held water that was probably tepid by now. She could dearly use a splash on the face, but knew she would not be standing for several hours. Between one pair of sconces was a stretched deer hide on which was scrawled a map of the known world: that is, everything from the Bitter Sea to the boundaries of the newly discovered Kingdom of Vaina, bordered at the south by the mountains and the Cradle of Yaalk, a swelteringly hot kingdom full of farmers that always seemed to evade the Emperor’s notice by dint of his blistering heat. In short, it was a map of everything Calphus the Conqueror called his. Their home, Mornalith, and all its neighbors, the entire western continent, was entirely absent. As though it had never existed. It made Pearl think of the trees of the Tearfall Gardens being ripped from their homes and planted in a strange new land. Did they even know the soil from which they drank was not theirs?

She was unwatched. Were not the sick supposed to have someone looking over them? She tried to shout for help, then she tried to moan for help, then she tried to merely burble. Then she decided she would try again later.

Arjallia swam before her eyes. It was nothing; she had simply run off. The idea of some Viisianar assassin coming to murder the one member of the royal family who looked like them, leaving Pearl to rot in bed, was absurd. That made Pearl wonder briefly what sort of future Arjallia would inherit, looking so much like the people they had conquered. Would they accept her as one of their own, or resent her even more for being half Mornal and half Orckid? Half Orckid. With Calphus’ declaration, that term had lost all meaning.

Her mind wandered, and Pearl imagined an empire with Arjallia at its head. Perpetuating Mornal customs while calling them Orckid, stealing Viisianar customs and calling them Orckid. Looking like an Orckid. Surely they would come to love her. Surely they would come to love their dominators, their murderers, their masters. Pearl tried to figure how many members of her family would have to die for Arjallia to sit the throne, but she could never count past herself.

She tried to move, not even to roll on her side, just to shift her weight slightly. She felt like a god was stomping on her. She wanted to pray for an end to the pain, but could think of no one who would listen.

The Mornal gods had been largely forgotten by Calphus and his men when they crossed the Bitter Sea. She had read of them a little. Pearl had aspirations of becoming a speller when she was young, until Igetus explained to her that spellers were little better than slaves. That did not stop her reading, though. The Mornal gods seemed vague and ill-formed, more a coterie of legendary warriors from times past than any organized hierarchy of creators and rulers. There were older gods before them, gods of storm and drought and beasts, faces that frightened ancients might hang on the elements of nature. Most of the Mornal gods were heroes who fought and bested these older gods. One did not have to think hard to discover the significance of such myths.

The Viisianars worshiped the Sixteen Pillars, gods that represented different virtues and vices, as well as broader fortunes and misfortunes. At present she could only remember Mallidos, the Pillar of Pain. It seemed fitting such a god would have such a Mornal-sounding name.

She tried praying for Mallidos to take her pain away, but producing even the faintest sound wracked her throat with agony. She tried not thinking of all the aches and itches and sores, which of course only made them worse.

In time, she drifted off again. Her dreams were foggy and malformed, mostly, but she could later recall one where she was standing in the middle of a tiny island in a black, raging sea. There were eight pillars erected in the sands, but the storms made them shiver like saplings. She thought at first the pillars were made of ebonwood, but as furious rains washed the very bark from them, leaving them white as willows. Just before she woke, the white too was rinsed off, leaving them translucent as glass. The wind pulled them loose from the sands and they were floating up into the roaring sky as the hungry light of day began to lap at her lids, and she was drawn unwillingly again into the world.

The light did not hurt so much this time, and her aches felt old, familiar, and almost sweet, like honors she had earned. It made her think of Imrell’s boasting of the pains and bruises after a workout with sword and shield: proof you were getting stronger. Pearl did not feel stronger, but the sweet edge of the pain was welcome. The floral scent had a honeyed tinge to it, and the air sounded like…

There were sounds in the air, sounds she felt she had not heard in years. Someone was playing magic. Viisianar magic was playing in the Grand Palace of Calphus the Conqueror.

It sounded like the lyre, yet richer, more complex. As the clear, bright beauty of the tones chased the grogginess from her, she realized it was more than one. Three, maybe four lyres were playing nearby, working in accord with each other, crafting a spell of such sublime, bittersweet, aching beauty that her eyes dampened to hear it. And when she thought it could not grow more powerful, they sang.

Magical voice was a power that escaped the Mornal mind. The magicians of Calphus’ army had tried to lend their lungs to the power of the Mornal drums and horns, to grant vigor to their men in battle even as the drums stoked cowardice in their foes, but the secrets escaped them still. The New Orckid Empire could steal whole-cloth from the Old, take their buildings, their offices, their labor, and their lives, and add to it all their pride and martial fury. Yet without this magic, it seemed to Pearl that the New Empire would never hold a handle to the Old.

The spell was in Viisianar, and Pearl could not pick out one word in five. She always grew bored when Arjallia’s tutors were teaching her their tongue. Just now, it filled her with regret, as though she had wasted her life. Yet the spell comforted her even as it filled her with such longing to know more, such ache and will and lust for living. She wanted to run a mile, to leap from horseback and knock an army down, to climb the walls of Ajman and plant a great standard on its battlements, her standard. It would be blue as her eyes, and on it the Chuerubese and Mornal unicorns would both run free.

When the leacher came in, tears were in his eyes too, but when he saw she was awake, he rubbed them away furiously. He had a flattish head and full, brownish hair flowing down to his shoulders, and his nose was unusually long, but his reddened eyes looked kind enough.

“My Lady,” he said gruffly, “you are awake. This is good. I will fetch some water for you.”

Pearl tried to object, to ask what had happened, how long she had been asleep, if the baby was all right, if Everia, little Rogulus, the Emperor, Arjallia, if Arjallia was all right, but even as he swept out the door her voice croaked, rattling against her throat like rusty scales in a steel gauntlet. Her heart broke at that. The Viisianar spell made her want to sing. More than anything, it made her want to sing.

The leacher returned with the water in a few minutes, accompanied by a Viisianar woman in a white silk robe wrapped in a deep red sash. She wore a thin silver band on her head, which was unusually round for a Viisianar, giving her long neck a bird-like quality. After a moment, Pearl recognized her as the Emperor’s speller. She could not remember her name. She carried a small folding table, which she set up and placed atop it a little lacquered box of brownish red.

“Good afternoon, my Lady,” she said as the leacher approached. He put a hand behind her head and shifted it to receive the water. The instant he touched her, her entire spine seized and throbbed. The magic helped, but only so much. Even so, she choked down the water and felt its cool, refreshing vitality, a magic of its own sort, trickle through her dry body.

“Where…” she croaked between gulps. She was replete, but allowed the leacher to continue pouring the entire pitcher. She held the last gulp in her mouth, swallowing it in tiny trickles to cool her itchy throat.

While she did so, the speller spoke, rummaging through the little box and pulling out tiny vials and little instruments made of silvery wire. “The Emperor still lives, if that was your worry.” It was not, but it did no harm to know it. “Everia’s baby is well. It is a boy. Everia herself is frailer than ever and feverish, but I am confident she will recover.” The speller looked at Pearl out of the corner of her eye. “The boy, Rogulus, broke his shoulder falling after you. Some say you grabbed him as you fell. I was not there of course, and cannot say. What is undisputed is that you cushioned his impact admirably. His arm is in a sling. Hopefully it will teach him something, though that is more disputed.”

“Arj,” she rasped. The leacher was examining various parts of her body, which she only now noticed was more bandage than body. Both her legs had splints on them, and the terror that they might be broken thrummed through her.

“What?”

She was staring at her legs, but still she croaked, “Sis… sister…”

“Your sister? Imrell? She is managing the castle guard, and by extension the city guard. You have been in and out of dreams for nearly three days, my Lady. There was a panic that first day. Your brother and sister feared the Ajmani were revolting against them. There were some minor demonstrations, but once Imrell led the guard back out of the palace, order was restored soon enough. Igetus had objected to it, but she defied him. He is ruling now, my Lady. Igetus. Things are smoothing out well enough, though there is still no word on who actually killed the governor.

At this, the leacher perked up. “It was his slave, wasn’t it? They caught and killed him that day.”

The speller eyed the Mornal leacher with a look suggesting she had said too much. It was too late now, though. “They caught and killed a slave, that is beyond dispute. He is still rotting out there. He died yesterday morning. Whether he killed the governor, I cannot say.”

“Arj…” she croaked again. The leacher excused himself to fetch more water.

“Arjallia?” the speller asked. “Oh. That sister. One of the guards has her, I think. She is well.”

“Where…” Where had she gone? Why did she run away? What was she thinking? Who found her, and what might have happened if they did not? But all Pearl could say was “Where,” and barely that.

“Back at the Old Palace, in her chambers. She has guards about her day and night, Kreokus’ and I believe Palcian’s. She visits every day. She has not been by today yet, so I expect you’ll be happily reunited soon.”

She approached the bed with a small vial, in which sat a purple mixture. “This syrup should help dampen and relax your throat. We have already been giving you honeyed sleep syrup for your pain; any more and I fear it might affect the recovery of your legs. You hear the magicians in the halls, I am sure. They should help as well.” She lifted the vial to Pearl’s lips. Instinctively, she tensed and tried to shrink away, her muscles screaming in protest. “My Lady,” the speller said matter-of-factly. “If I wished you harm, I have had over two days to clap my hand over your nose and mouth and be done with it.” Pearl drank the syrup. It tasted bitter, as though it were burnt, but she could already feel the agony in her throat receding.

There were long and uncomfortable minutes as the speller prodded various parts of Pearl’s legs with her little silvery instruments. After one particular grunt, she prepared more of the purple syrup and fed it to her; more to shut her up than for concern of her wellbeing, Pearl suspected. The leacher returned with another pitcher and poured it down Pearl’s gullet. After he was done he looked to the speller, who dismissed him with a nod, and backed out of the room. It was peculiar seeing a Mornal act so deferential to a Viisianar. She took it as a good sign.

After making sure the door was shut securely, the speller approached her bed, an overt air of apprehension hanging about her. “Can you speak?” she asked.

“I can make some noises,” Pearl rasped out. “Is Arjallia well?”

“She is at home, as I said,” she affirmed. “I am sure any misfortunes would have been communicated to the Emperor.”

“What’s your name again?”

“Aivliriai. I am your father’s speller.”

“It was kind of him to send you to my aid.”

Aivliriai’s apprehension grew sharper. “He wants to see each of his children. Before he goes.”

Pearl tried to nod, but gave it up as a lost cause. “I’m guessing you don’t mean to imply he’s marching to Tauriconia at last,” she said, mumbling more than a little as her voice warmed up.

“I have written spells to send to Tortorus and Fostus, and for Arjallia to read herself when enough time has gone by. He had remarkably little to say to his firstborn son, who guaranteed and now works to expand his empire. But then Calphus spared few enough thoughts for his sisters and father and mother all these years. I suppose Tortorus was made in his own image. As for Fostus, vacuous words of familal unity will have little effect this late in the game.”

“And Arjallia?”

“He was… kind. I did not know the Emperor held such softness in him. Even at his calmest, smallest moments, the bite was always in him. It is was clear he did not know her, but still he had an inkling of what she would want to hear, and what she would need to know, being who she is. What she is.” Aivliriai sighed, deeply. “It is tragic. The most powerful man in the world. So late in his life did he start to appreciate letters, so late in his life. That monster might have earned the soul of a poet, but now it is too late.”

“You keep saying ‘was.’”

Aivliriai shrugged.

“We’ve been here barely longer than a moon’s turn. You seem quite fond of that monster.”

“It is… complicated. I thought I could change him. I thought I could turn the course of history.” She stifled a bitter laugh, gesturing at Pearl. “I suppose I still do, but I fear your brother and sister are sealed against me. Spellers are tools to them, as they were to your father when he first came here. Your father changed, though. However little, he changed.”

Pearl’s eyes narrowed. “Were you lovers?”

Aivliriai’s entire body seemed to react to that, and she looked as though she might vomit. “No,” she said, simply. Definitively.

“Forgive me,” Pearl rasped. “My father had a taste for—”

“A taste?” she asked, more than a little sharply. “What did your father have a taste for?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Esselliyevraa was a Tessendar, a Margrave you might call it. She was the queen of Ajman in all but name, and we were proud to be her subjects. Your father turned her into his concubine. I call that a taste for cruelty. My Lady.”

Pearl took a moment. She had never heard the name before, but she could figure who she was, what her father had done, and what the results had been. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, more sincerely. “I didn’t know.”

“You did not know. You did not know the story of the mother of this sister who seem to cherish so. Did something prevent you from knowing?”

She shook her head slightly, though every motion pained her. “Only myself.”

“Only yourself.” Aivliriai strode over the map that hung on the wall. She pointed to a seemingly insignificant spot, between Barsalam and Shesha but farther south, unmarked. “Have you read Greyannamar’s treatise on the breeding and training of Orckid unicorns against Mornali unicorns?” Pearl did not bother to answer. “It mostly describes the method of raising and conditioning the Orckid unicorns to respond to their riders, to obey, when to be cowed and when to be violent. There is a brief passage at the end where he discusses Mornali unicorns, your white unicorns. He had spent seven years writing this codex, and your father began his invasion in the eighth year.” She turned away from the map. “He says that Mornali unicorns are not worth the effort, because their masters will not start training them until they are of age, and by then the rigors of nature have shaped them to attack and nothing else. He says that those who fool themselves into training such beasts will encounter so much resistance, so much brutality, that they will convince themselves that those rare moments when the creature is tired or docile are signs of improvement, when they are merely the natural fluctuations of the animal’s humor.” She approached Pearl again. “Sometimes I fear I have wasted these weeks trying to train a unicorn.”

“A man is not a unicorn,” Pearl croaked.

“Nor is a woman,” said Aivliriai. “One hopes.” She strode to the door. “You should be able to stand sometime tomorrow. Do not try to do so before I say, or you may damage your legs irreparably. I have orders to bring you to the Emperor as soon as you are able to walk. He is not like to last much longer.” She opened the door again. “Do you require anything? Shall I send the leacher back in?”

“No,” she grunted. “Thank my brother for the use of his room, if you see him.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Is this his room?”

“Blank hangings, a map, a basin, and nothing else? A small, functional bed. Plenty of floor for pacing back and forth. Who else would call this their home?”

“I have known many who would love to call this their home. They lived in this castle, once.” Aivliriai shut the door behind her before Pearl could think of an answer.

It was an hour or so later, when she considered that perhaps an answer was not required.

Atlan Stories, Stories

Three Princesses: Chapter 4

CHAPTER FOUR

            The courtroom was alive with chatter, as it had been for two hours. Pearl and Arjallia enjoyed a place at the front of the balcony, Pearl’s new guards standing beside and behind them, yet the people would press against the guards, and the guards perforce must be pressed against their charges. Pearl knew it was not their fault, but after two hours her knees and spine were aching. “The princess is not a turnip,” she barked to be heard over the din. “Do not allow her to be mashed into paste.”

Arjallia had been fidgeting since about ten minutes in, but Pearl feared to send her home alone, even with a guard alongside. The streets had grown sinister of late.

The steward had been banging his staff on the ground for over a minute now. Stewards were an invention of the Old Empire. Like so many other aspects of the New Orckid Empire, the Mornals had simply taken the office and given it to one of their own. Berlenian was a lord of small account who liked to make loud noises, so it seemed a fitting job for him. Just now, however, his general impotence was on display. All the staff-banging in the world failed to chasten the assembled crowd, and his infamous bellows failed to carry.

The Emperor was sitting in a massive chair of gilded wood, its high back carved into the shape of a round shield braced by two spears. Purple drapes added some cushioning, hanging loose and disordered about it. The oaken governor’s chair sitting empty beside it seemed a child’s toy by contrast. Imrell stood next to the chair, Igetus not far from it. It was unsurprising they both eschewed the seat. Imrell’s armor had been polished that morning that shined like a mirror; Pearl thought for a moment the amethysts in her tusks might have been replaced with rubies. Igetus was wearing black robes of cambric, but his felt had was purple; a nod to the new order. Pearl thought for a second he might have let his hair go stubbled, growing it out again perhaps, but it was hard to tell from this distance.

Calphus the Conqueror looked as loose and disordered as the purple drapes upon which he sat. He must have lost two stone in the last fortnight, and was swimming in the indigo toga he had wrapped around his black leather tassets, allowing his thinning legs to splay out. He was gray as a corpse, with huge black bags under his runny pink eyes, and he seemed to be coughing through every fourth sentence lately. Yet he seemed no weaker in disposition. If anything, the apparent rot of his body had only enlivened his fury. Three times already he had removed his crown, a wide onyx band lined in gold and set with amethysts, and hurled it to the ground, only to be recovered by his menial, a boy named Trellion. Just now he planted two hands, firm if wrinkled, onto the arms of his throne and thrust himself upward.

“Siiiillence!” he roared, loud as a herd of frothing manticores. At last, the hall fell quiet. “Are we an empire?” he demanded, refusing to lower his voice, “or a mob of raving geese?”

“No order, no peace!” shouted one of the assembled lords. The merchants were quick to take up the call. Many of the lords and even some of the margraves joined in.

“I’m making order,” the Emperor called out. “If you want order, shut your jaw, or I’ll rip it off!” Again, the room quieted. “You think I can’t do it? You think because I’m old I can’t still teach any one of you respect? You think a cough has made me too weak to chasten a pack of whining cubs?” He coughed at that and banged his fist upon the throne in frustration. “Fetch my ax, boy. Fetch it! I’m glad I threw my cudgel in the river. No more bruises. It’s time for blood!”

Trellion, Neevius’ grandson and the Emperor’s new menial, was standing near the throne in case his master hurled his crown again. Upon hearing the order, he took an uncertain step away before Igetus put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head. The boy remained in place.

“Your Excellency,” Margrave Fohordum called out from the crowd. “Who will serve as governor in the interim?”

“I will!” he roared in answer. “The Emperor of Orckid is here in Ajman. What’s the governor supposed to do while I’m here, wipe my buttocks? I’ll have a new one picked before I leave, don’t worry your stubbly head over it.”

“Who did it?” a merchant cried out. “Who killed the governor?”

“Some slave.” He waved a handle in dismissal. “He’s been caught, he’s been scourged, he’s been crucified above the city gates. If any of you powdered panders were brave enough to leave your homes you’d see him there.”

“What was he?” the merchant asked.

“A slave! Hair in your ears? I already told you, one of the governor’s slaves.”

“Yes,” Fohordum replied, “but what kind of slave?”

“A bad one,” Calphus growled. “Obviously.”

The merchant refused to take the hint. “Was he a Viisianar?”

“Dammit, Viisians aren’t the only slaves! Look there!” he roared, pointing to one of the Mornal spearmen lined up against the walls. “And there!” He pointed at a Daridan woman holding a pair of tablets, an old Mornal man whispering in her ear. “Who cares what he was? He was a murderer, and now he’s dead. That’s the end of it.”

“How did he do it?” Fohordum asked.

“He pulled a damn knife out and stabbed him. Who cares?”

“How did he get the knife?”

“Was he a Viisianar?”

“Where are the Governor’s children?”

“Dammit all!” he screamed, his voice cracking into more coughs. He slammed his flat palm on the throne again and again as he hacked and barked. A loud snap came from the throne’s arm as he finally seized himself and regained his composure. “I am the Emperor! You answer me, I don’t answer to you.” He heaved and hoisted himself out his throne. It took two efforts, Pearl did not fail to notice. She suspected no one else failed to notice either. “I’ve said more than I care to and more than you deserve. Neevius, Palcian, with me.” He turned to leave, then stopped a moment and grumbled, “Ah, Kreokus as well, yes,” then left through the backway. Imrell was out after him before any of the named lords reached the doorway, followed finally by little Trellion.

At once, the din reignited. Pearl could not hear Igetus’ sigh, but she knew it was there as he sat in the Emperor’s enormous and now broken throne. He pointed to one of the lords, and the interrogations continued.

“I’ve seen enough,” Pearl said.

“Finally!” Arj had seen enough two hours ago.

The six guards provided by Margrave Kreokus were green, but they were no fools. One of them had the slim build and tannish cast of the Talashar, a people who lived around the Talashi Sea west of Tauriconia, whom the Viisianars had conquered and intermarried with nearly two-thousand years ago. Pearl found herself wondering again if the varied peoples of the Orckid Empire would ever become one. Twenty-three years was so little time, though it was longer than Pearl’s entire life.

Four of the guards pressed through the crowd of wives, daughters, spellers, and off-duty soldiers, while the other two walked behind. They passed near the byway to the Tearfall Gardens, and she was sorely tempted to take a detour, but there were more pressing concerns at present.

“Where are we going?” Arjallia asked as they started up the wide stairway to the second floor.

“We’re going to see our father.”

“I don’t think he wants to see us.”

“What the Emperor wants and what the Emperor needs are not often the same.” One of the guards stifled a laugh at that.

In the vast chamber on the second floor, she found the expected company gathered around the plinth again. “What are those statues?” Arj asked. Pearl ignored her.

Palcian and Neevius were standing at corners of the plinth. Imrell leaned against the wall with a line of eight of her men, her fingers dancing lazily along a new sword she had commissioned a week ago. Kreokus, tellingly, was standing a few feet away, next to the boy Trellion. The Emperor was seated, using the plinth as a table to rest his elbows on.

“Ingrates!” he shouted. “I ought to raise another army. I’ll free the damned Viisians, give them all those bastards’ titles, and use them to put their cowardly heads on spikes!”

“You’re half right,” Pearl said by way of greeting.

The Emperor’s eyes narrowed, but whatever objection he had was precluded by another coughing fit.

“Has anyone looked at your cough, Excellency?”

“Hah!” he half choked. “No Emperor’s ever died of a sniffle.”

“Daedarios did,” Arjallia said. “And he was only Igetus’ age. He died four-hundred years ago of a cough, because he wouldn’t visit the temple priests to be purged.”

Calphus looked at Arjallia, and something in him melted, however briefly. “Arjallia. I have not seen you in… in…”

“Six weeks,” Pearl offered. “She has a good tutor, you’ll be happy to hear.” Olinthess had returned the very morning after she had stormed out, acting for all the world as though nothing had happened. Hursta, as far as Pearl knew, had not been found.

“A good tutor…” he said, absently, almost as if he did not know the word, before growling back to himself. “Ah. Perhaps she can spell me a way to silence these cowardly fools.”

“They’re afraid of the slaves, Excellency.”

“And only a coward fears his slaves!” he shouted, not coughing for once. “They’ve served me faithfully for over forty years!”

“They’ve been dying for over forty years,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Every soldier risks death.”

“You promised them their freedom, Excellency,” Igetus chimed in. He had just entered the vast hall, flanked by a pair of spellers that he soon dismissed.. “Half the men you promised it to have already died. Many in battle, and many more from old age.”

Calphus threw his hands up. “The war’s not over, boy.”

“For them it is,” Pearl pressed. “Are you sending them back to the front?”

He stabbed a finger at her, not as meaty as it once was. “Now there’s a plan. Boy, can we round up all these whining peasants and march them back to Bazazanil? Put them in Fostus’ companies, that’ll give him the distraction he craves.”

That gave Igetus some pause. “I’m not sure they’ll go willingly.”

“Let me take them,” Imrell broke in, drawing every eye with her sudden interest. “I’ll take a company back, stiffen it with as many idles as we can. If they show any defiance, my officers will stab them in their sleep.”

Calphus laughed at that. He reared his head back and guffawed, but predictably the guffaws gave way to more coughs. Eventually he countered amiably, “You just want to get back to the fighting, girl. It’s bad enough with Tortorus and the child squabbling with each other. I don’t need a third one troubling the soup.” He jammed a thumb toward Igetus. “Why do you think I made this one come back with us?”

“Petty spite,” she countered. That might have drawn more roars had it come from Igetus, but the Emperor simply laughed at Imrell.

“Excellency,” Kreokus suggested from the shadows, “what do you hope to do about the lords and their fears?”

“Give them footmen pikes. March them back to the front,” he growled. Imrell laughed at that. After a pause, he drummed his fingers on the plinth. “Maybe I ought to free them. Their fighting is done, after all. Just these ones, mind, not the ones out east.”

“But Excellency,” whined Palcian, “Ajman has grown dependent on slavery for its labor. Freedom would upset the entire region’s economy.”

Calphus spat at that. “The economy? Perhaps you should grow your hair out like the boy there.” He waggled his fingers at Igetus, seemingly forgetting that his second son’s head was still shorn. “I’ll dress you up in slips and have you spell for Imrell’s company.”

“I do my own spelling,” Imrell countered.

Palcian’s face grayed with fury, but he managed to keep silent, looking to Neevius.

“Excellency,” Neevius obediently obliged, “The different peoples of Ajman are already at each other’s throats. If you give these continentals the same rights as Mornals, what’s to stop them from filling local offices with their people, from overtaking the markets and buying praetorships, or even bribing the next governor to bend to their will. They could rise up and kill us in our sleep!”

“They are,” Imrell snapped, and for once her golden tusks clicked like her old silver ones did. “They are rising up and killing us in our sleep, Neevius. That’s why we’re here. Sleep with a knife at your bed, if you call yourself a man.”

“Hah!” Calphus clapped his hands like a child at a clowning show. “Lords. Lords have steel. Lords have retainers. Lords have servants. And they fear to sleep in their beds?”

“Your Excellency,” said Kreokus, from the shadows, “Their servants are the ones they fear. Back west, the slaves and peasants are more… more evenly distributed. But here, even in Ajman, when people see a Viisianar they see a slave, regardless of who or what they are. When they see a Mornal, they see a slave master.”

“Then they should have a leacher fix their eyes,” the Emperor growled sinisterly. “There are no more Mornals. There are no Mornals in my empire.”

“Excellency, be reasonable—”

“You don’t tell me what to be!” he exploded, trying and failing to shove himself out of his chair. “Shave your head, you little speller, sitting on your feather cushions in the capitol while the men are out fighting! Reason!” He was on the verge of a tirade, but once again he broke down into coughing. He stabbed his finger out at Kreokus, commanding silence from the room, but his coughing went on and on, forestalling all communication.

Pearl looked around the room. Imrell and Igetus were looking alternately at each other and their father. The guards were all glancing about uncomfortably, as were the lords. All except Palcian, who was still glaring daggers at the Emperor.

“Reason!” he managed to choke out before more coughing overbore him. A full minute had passed before Igetus stepped closer and put a hand on his father’s shoulder, but Calphus shoved him off so violently he slipped from his chair and fell to the floor. Pearl was unsure if the resulting crack came from the chair or his bones, or her own fears.

Either way, the Emperor did not get back up.

Pearl surprised herself by flying around the plinth and kneeling at Calphus’ side. He was still coughing, thrashing about like a squalling baby, batting away the hands of Igetus, Pearl, and Neevius as they tried to right him. Pearl’s stomach twisted to see it. His chokes were interspersed with wordless wails, childlike in his current posture.

Imrell pointed to a line of soldiers. “Get him to his bed. Now!”

“Those are my soldiers,” Palcian said, affronted.

Instantly, Imrell ripped her new sword from its wooden scabbard. “They’re mine now. Get out!” She advanced on Palcian, who backed away wide eyed. Even as she was chasing him off, she shouted, “Get a stretcher for the Emperor! Bring him to his bed. Now!” Soldiers ran out to obey, even as Palcian ran out to escape.

“Fetch…” he managed to choke out. “Fetch the girl…” He was waggling his fingers and Igetus. “Girl… the speller…”

Igetus was transfixed, but after a moment he stirred, and answered, “Aivliriai?”

“Yes, yes…” the Emperor gagged, before sinking into another coughing fit.

Igetus took a step away, his eyes wide, then stopped. He looked around madly and pointed at little Trellion. “You. Run to the spellers’ dormitories and fetch Aivliriai. Bring her to his Excellency’s bedchamber. Now!”

The boy sprung off like a charging horse.

“Who is Aivliriai?” Pearl asked.

“She’s studied medicines,” Igetus answered absently before turning to the remaining lords. “Go. Make a thorough search of the palace and ensure that everyone keeps silent on this. The Emperor is in good spirits and is recovering. Go.”

Neevius looked about to object, but nodded and left. Kreokus offered a vague glance at Pearl before departing as well.

The coughing had finally subsided. Calphus was on the floor, still, breathing heavily and wincing in pain. Only then, at long last, did he look old. Something broke within Pearl at that moment, something she had never known was there, but whatever it was, it was gone now.

Sometime in the chaos, Arjallia had approached and knelt beside Pearl. Imrell had returned from chasing Palcian off and stood over them, her sword still bared in her hand. Igetus stood farther off, but still near.

A grayish sweat covered the Emperor’s face, with what looked to be a pink tinge. The light of the braziers struck this spot poorly; it had to be a trick of the light. His eyes were dark and lusterless, but he was still breathing. Each inhalation seemed to cause him pain, yet he gasped greedily for every gulp of breath, as hungry for the air as he had been for everything else all his life.

Arjallia laid a hand on his jerking chest. “Father?”

The Emperor’s eyes seemed to focus briefly, and a shaking arm rose up, almost connecting with Arjallia’s face. “My daughter…” he half-groaned, half-whispered. The arm collapsed across his stomach as he wondered, almost to himself, “Where… where is my daughter?”

Arj looked as though her father had slapped her. Pearl took her hands in her own and said, “Everia is abed. Her child is due soon, and she is weak.”

Calphus looked as though he did not understand the words. “I need.. I need.. What? No, I need…” Pearl’s chest was aching, as though someone were trying to tear it open. Worse still, she did not understand why she felt this way.

“We’ll move her,” Imrell offered. “We’ll put her in a bed next to yours.”

Calphus smiled at that, sighing. He closed his eyes and seemed to grow calm, but he was still shaking, half-jerking with every breath.

No one knew how long it was before they finally returned with a stretcher. He started heaving and coughing again as they bore him into it, but Igetus gave them firm instructions not to stop until the Emperor was in his bed, and to tear the palace apart if the speller Aivliriai was not yet found.

Pearl was holding Arjallia’s hand as they walked behind the stretcher. She squeezed it every so often, and Arj responded by gripping so tightly Pearl feared her bones might pop. They were walking up a broad spiral stairway to the fifth floor, Pearl again noting how a company of invaders could fight up it with ease, when a woman’s screams began to echo from above.

“Everia!” Pearl turned to Igetus, only to discover he was not there. He and Imrell were both gone. “Where did they go?” she cried to one of the soldiers, but no one had any answers. She rushed up the stairs and down the hall, pulling Arjallia with her.

Everia was on a makeshift stretcher of sheets and blankets, howling unbearably. “Noooo!” she screamed again and again. “Don’t put in me in there! He’ll kill the baby! No!” A speller was running circles around the soldiers that bore her, shouting over and over that they needed a midwife. Finally, she gave up and ran down the stairs.

“She’s broken!” the speller snapped at Pearl as she passed. “The baby’s coming early. Why did they move her!”

“No one defies the Emperor,” Pearl answered, but the speller was already out of earshot.

She ran up to her sister. “Everia,” she said smoothly, laying a hand on her gasping sister’s shoulder. “Do you know what’s happening?”

“They’re killing him,” she rasped, “They’re killing him; they’re killing the baby. They’re going to kill the baby.”

“Everia,” she repeated. “The baby is coming. It’s a little early, but it will be fine.”

“Noooo,” she moaned like a child. “I can’t lose another, I can’t lose another one. Too many, too many…”

A flush ran up Pearl’s neck. She was sure Everia had had miscarriages before, though no one spoke of it. Just how many constituted “too many,” she did not know.

Against her wails of protest, the soldiers carried her into the Emperor’s bedroom. Pearl followed, her sweaty fingers locked around Arjallia’s until she jerked away and yanked her grip loose. She stood outside, enormous leaden eyes staring at nothing, shaking her head over and over.

“Arjallia,” Pearl pleaded, “we have to stay together.”

“I’m not,” Arj whimpered. “No, I can’t, I’m not…”

“We have to…” She looked around the room. The Emperor was in his bed, eight soldiers standing uncertainly around him. Three of them were her own men Kreokus had gifted her. The other three were part of the company carrying Everia. There was no second bed to set her in, so they were standing around looking foolish. A room full of men, waiting for orders.

She almost ordered her men to take Arjallia home to the Old Palace, but she stopped herself. These men were from Tauriconia. They may well have spent their entire lives under the New Empire. Even so, she had known them for only a few days.

“Where is Imrell?” she shouted to anyone. No one answered.

One of the men she did not know looked to her and asked, “What should we do, m’lady? There’s no bed.”

“Take her back,” Pearl half-shouted. “Take her back to her chambers.”

“Yes,” Everia rasped, out of breath. “Yes, take me back, please.”

The man’s face froze. “The prince said it would be our lives if we didn’t lay them together.”

“The prince isn’t here. Put her back!”

The soldiers stared at one another. “The bed’s big enough for two,” one of them finally murmured.

“No, no, no,” Everia gasped. “Please! Don’t put me in bed with him!” Her protest was cut short by a shattering, prolonged scream.

“What is going on here,” asked an authoritative voice. Pearl realized she was standing in the doorway, and stepped aside as she turned. A tall Viisianar woman dressed in an emerald green gown of cambric, covered by a rich yellow shawl, a thin band of silver around her head, strode forcefully into the room. She had a somewhat round face for a Viisianar, making her neck seem even longer and elegant like a heron’s, and her blindingly white hair, which looked to be curly and voluminous normally, was bound in braids around her head to keep it from her face. She wore a single silver ring around the first finger of her left hand, which was delicate as all Viisianar hands, but had the short, stubbed nails of a laborer. She used the hand to point to a soldier. “You. What is the meaning of this?”

He stammered, “They, he, the Prince ordered us to bring her here.”

“No,” she gasped again breathlessly. “They’ll kill the baby, he’s sick, he’s killing the baby…”

“Fetch a midwife at once,” the woman commanded to the room as she approached Everia. She bent over her, felt her belly and her throat, then looked back. “Fetch a midwife. Now!”

“Which, who…”

“Any midwife. All of you at once. Go get one. Now.”

Nearly every soldier bumbled out of the room then. Two remained, both Pearl’s, the Talashi man and a short Mornal with pouchy eyes whom she thought was named Caggus.

“Please,” Everia moaned. “He’ll kill him, please…”

At that, the Emperor stirred, groaning, coughing a single time. The woman moved over to Calphus and felt his throat, then his chest. “Open your eyes, Excellency,” she commanded. The Emperor shifted and groaned some more, but did not open his eyes.

The woman slapped his cheek.

It was light, so light it would not trouble a babe. But Pearl and both the soldiers gasped. Calphus opened his eyes.

“Look at me, Excellency. Good. Open your mouth.”

As soon as he opened his mouth, he began coughing again. The woman turned away, but seemed untroubled by his expectorate. When she stood again, there was spittle on her cheek, and a few drops of blood.

“My Lady,” she said to Everia. “The Emperor is no danger to your child. He has been poisoned.”

The Emperor coughed more at that. Pearl felt a strange weight in her stomach. “Poisoned?” she breathed. “When? By whom?”

“Over time, I would guess,” she answered. “He has been ill for days now. He might have been poisoned all at once. There are slow-acting poisons. But such things are far more common in the southern world. It could have been a spell, but the singer might well have poisoned everyone who heard, and there would be witnesses. Who could have been alone with the Emperor? Who is warming his bed?”

Pearl had no answer to that. “Who are you?”

“Aivliriai. A speller. I have been working for your father since his arrival.”

She did not know why she was so shocked that this person, so seemingly intimate with the Emperor’s life here, should be completely unknown to her. Pearl was not often in her father’s company. Still. “Have you ever been alone with him?”

“I have,” she allowed as she repositioned Everia on the bed, easing her legs apart. “But I would be a fool to tell you how I killed him. Fetch me that footstool.”

Without thinking, Pearl obeyed. The woman, Aivliriai, set the stool by the bed and propped Everia’s feet upon it. “No good. We need more room.” She looked to the soldiers. “You two. Find another bed and bring it here.”

They hesitated, until Pearl shouted, “Do it!” They ran out the room. She covered her face with her sweaty hands. “Who? Who would poison him?”

“That is a long list of people, my Lady. Where is the Emperor’s son? Where is his other daughter? They should be here.”

Pearl shook her head. “I don’t…” Her entire body jerked, and she turned to look out the doorway. Arjallia was gone.

“Where did she go?”

“The girl?” The speller sighed. “I am not sure. She does not live in the palace, does she?”

“No. We’re in the Old Palace.”

“Then your guess is as good as mine, my Lady.”

“I… I have to…” She did not want to leave her father and sister so unattended, but neither could she let Arjallia wander the Grand Palace alone, or worse, leave it. “I have to go.”

“No!” Everia screamed, flinging a hand out toward her. “Pearl, please! Please don’t leave me!” She screamed again.

Pearl dug her hands into her ratty, brown hair and pulled to keep from screaming. “I have to… where are the soldiers? Where is everyone!?” She leaned out the doorway and shouted, “Igetus! Imrell! Arjallia!”

It felt like the world had abandoned her here with these three strangers.

“How far along is she?” asked another strange voice. A middle-aged woman in a rough cloth skirt and blouse bulled into the room. She looked like a Viisianar, though far too voluptuous, and she had the straight black hair of a Daridan.

“Forgive me,” Aivliriai said, “I’ve been distracted. The Emperor is dying.”

Calphus groaned at that.

“I have to…” Pearl started, but Everia screamed again.

The woman, who must have been a midwife, knelt down before Everia, lifted the skirt of her gown, and examined her.

“Is it as I feared?” Aivliriai asked.

The midwife pulled herself out from the skirt. “The child is twisted.”

“I thought so, but I have only delivered two children, and not for many years. I have never dealt with this.”

“I have. Worry about the Emperor.”

“Please!” Everia screamed again.

Pearl stood in the doorway, frozen. The midwife looked at her.

“Some sun tea would relax her muscles, make this easier.”

“Yes,” Aivliriai agreed, then pointed at Pearl. “My Lady, have you been to the Tearfall Gardens?” She nodded. “Excellent. In the gardens, there is a bank of sunburst flowers of many colors. Fetch us two or three of the black ones.”

“No, no!” Everia cried. “That’s poison! You’re killing my baby!”

“It is a relaxant, not a poison,” Aivliriai said firmly. “Fetch the flowers, and if you pass anyone, servant or soldier or the prince himself, tell them to heat a basin of water and bring it here.” She thought a moment, then added. “Also in the Gardens is a bank of tall blue flowers, not ten strides from the sunbursts. Bring us two of these, root and stem. Go!”

Pearl flew out the door. She was already panting ten seconds in, but her heart was racing so fast she did not feel it. Halfway down the first flight of stairs, she slipped and began tumbling, but the stairway was so wide she was able to splay herself out and slide down, coming to a stop even before reaching the fourth floor. She had struck several spots and could already feel bruises forming, but she shoved herself to her feet and ran onward.

The Grand Palace was empty as a tomb. The fourth floor was furnished with statues of ebonwood and onyx, lined and detailed in powdered pearl and silver. Always grouped in eights, the statues were all of beautiful women, dressed in elaborate ceremonial garbs Pearl had never seen, staring down in her. In judgment? She did not have time to look closer, but she was sure it was not in encouragement.

The palace was not called Grand for nothing. She had only been to the fourth floor in passing, once before when she and Kreokus first went to the battlements, and again while following the dying Emperor to his chamber. ‘The dying Emperor’ echoed in her own thoughts. He was her father. Calphus was her father. It was fitting she should feel this way. She ought to be terrified, even weeping openly. This was appropriate. Why, then, did it feel so alien? Like someone else had taken over her body and was using it to grieve for this cruel, selfish stranger she had spent her life with? “Arjallia!” she suddenly cried out, but nobody answered.

She nearly slipped again running down the stairs to the third floor, and kept her head enough to slow down: even if falling did not kill her, it would waste more time than stepping carefully. Finally, she came across four soldiers carrying a small but well cushioned featherbed. She wanted to demand why they had come all the way to the third floor looking for a bed, but instead she pulled one away and commanded the heated water, got directions from another, then continued to the first floor.

The first floor was filled with soldiers.

They were standing in ordered files, spears up, with captains after every twenty men, their swords already out. “What’s going on?” she asked of anyone, but the men may as well have been carved of ebonwood.

She called out Arjallia’s name again and again, her head swinging wildly about. It was only by chance she just spied Imrell stalking around the corner down some hallway she did not know, and sprinted after her.

“Imrell!” she called again and again, but her sister ignored her until she had come upon her, suddenly whirling. Her sword, too, was out, though at least she did not lift it to Pearl’s throat. “Imrell! I was calling you!”

“What!?” she barked. “You look like death. What is it?”

“It’s… it’s…” She wanted to grab her and scream at her, ask why she and Igetus had suddenly abandoned their father, where they had gone, but her breath was suddenly gone, and she doubled over gasping.

“What is it?” Imrell asked again. “We’re in the middle of something, you may have noticed.”

A piercing stitch was throbbing in Pearl’s side, but she managed to choke out, “Arjallia. Where is Arjallia?”

“What? I don’t know. Why isn’t she with you?”

“I need… where…” the walls were going black, and there seemed to be not enough air in the room as she swallowed deeply, greedy for each breath. “Where did you to go? Where is Igetus?”

“The city’s boiling over, in case you forgot. Igetus is marshalling the lords. I’m commanding our security, so unless you have something important to say, go back to Father.”

“Where…” she tried to look around. “Where are… where are the Gardens?”

Imrell looked as though she had slapped her. “The Gardens? I don’t know, ask Everia.”

Before she could tell her about their sister, Imrell was stalking off, her bejeweled sword flashing in the dim light of the braziers. Pearl took a step after her, then pitched to the side, throwing her arm out and catching herself against the wall. She dipped down and fell to her needs. Arjallia, she tried to scream, but her breath was gone.

The room was going dark. The braziers must have been guttering out. She needed a rest. The deep red rug of the hallway caressed and closed around her knees so invitingly, it drew the rest of her down, and in an instant she was lying there. Her lungs seemed to have given up trying, and they too lay still, letting what little air there was filter in at their own discretion.

She lie there as the fires were swallowed up, and the whole world went black.

The air crept into her lungs, achingly slow, as if each puff of wind were exploring new territory, some cavern filled with treasure or dragons or glory or death. With deadly caution, each little breath stalked into her lungs, and her dry throat wheezed like the wind through the trees. All at once, the dried sweat on her face flashed cold, and her eyes cracked open again. “Arj,” she exhaled into the empty hallway.

She felt a thousand years old as she rolled over and creaked to her feet. She started running, more stumbling, unsure of where she was going but knowing the Gardens were on this floor, somewhere. She had told Arjallia how beautiful the Gardens were; perhaps she went to find them. But she had no idea where they were. Of course, it seemed Pearl had no idea either. She wanted to tear her hair out, but did not have the energy.

The Gardens were enormous; they should not be this difficult to find. At last she came across a hall that seemed familiar, but a line of soldiers was trooping down it, spears at the ready. The hallway was wide enough to permit four columns easily, but she still crushed herself against a wall, both to keep away from their spears and to give her a moment to catch her breath. One of the soldiers, with a piebald face and a newly shorn head, turned to see her.

“M’lady!” Corporal Hathmet cried, stepping out of line. “What are you doing here? You should be with the women and the spellers. They’re on the second floor, in the leaching chamber.”

“Back in line!” someone up ahead shouted.

“Have you seen Arjallia?” she asked desperately.

“Who?”

“My sister! A little girl, Viisianar, or she looks it at least. Twelve years old.”

“Back in line! Now!” the voice repeated, closer.

“I think I saw a little girl running about on the third floor. I’m not sure.”

“Corporal!” the voice called. A man stepped up, a Viisianar in black pauldrons and a purple chest plate over a byrnie of black chains. Pearl did a doubletake when she noticed his head was shaved. He had a sword out and put it to Hathmet’s chest. “Last chance, crowsfood! Get in line or get on my sword!”

“Yes, captain!” he bellowed, weaving back into the line of running soldiers. “Third floor!” he called back as he ran, “maybe near the temple!” The Viisianar captain gave her a glare, then turned and ran back into the darkness. Something about him made Pearl’s stomach turn.

She asked the men where the Gardens were, then shouted at them, until finally one pointed back the way she had come. The line had vanished by the time she broke out of the hallway, found another turn, and lumbered down another dark passage.

Why was she doing this? Everia had a midwife and a speller with her. Arjallia had no one. She should be running to the third floor. She resolved to spend one more minute looking for the Gardens, then turn around and head upstairs. She resolved again a minute later, and again a minute after that.

Finally, she stumbled upon the Tearfall Gardens. The sunlight breaking over the walls above ripped stinging tears from her face. She rubbed at her eyes while rushing inward, looking for the sunburst flowers. When her eyes were clear again, her stomach lurched and she came to a stop.

At the foot of the great, mossy oak, whose branches burst out in all directions, Everia’s daughter was weeping. The Daridan woman was standing next to her, looking up in the great branches, distress stamped on her face. Pearl glanced up and saw her nephew, far above, crouched on a single branch, looking down petrified.

“Please,” the caretaker moaned, rushing over to her. “Please! I turned away for just a moment, and he was up the tree like a lemur!”

“So go get him!” Pearl shouted, scanning the area for the sunbursts.

“I…” she stammered. “We should… It’s so high.”

“That’s why you should bring him down.”

“He got up himself.”

“He’s a child!”

“Yes but… we should… we should get a man.”

“So go get one!” she nearly screamed. Her niece wailed at that. Pearl tore freely at her hair as she looked around. The caretaker dashed off. Pearl had no idea if she would return. Pearl would not.

The whole tree thrummed for a moment, and Pearl looked up again. Her nephew was clinging to the branch with all four limbs, gasping.

Pearl looked to her niece. For a mad moment, she forgot her name. “Liniv,” she said at last. “Do you know what sunburst flowers are?” She stared absently for a moment, then nodded her head. “Good. Go find the sunburst flowers and bring me four black ones. Just the black ones, no other color. You understand?” She ran off, and Pearl looked up the tree again.

She seemed to remember trying to climb a tree when she was five. It could have been this very tree. Had she ever been brought to the Gardens when she was little? She did not think so.

This would be easy. The tree was nothing but branches, most of them sturdy. There were handholds everywhere. She reached out and saw her hand was trembling so terribly, she thought surely some invisible force had hold of her arm and was shaking it madly, like some divine child trying to break a toy it had tired of.

She took a breath. Her dry throat wheezed like the wind on exhalation. She reached out again, but her hands were not stop shaking. She wiped the sweat on her skirts and grabbed hold anyway.

Her arms were burning ten seconds in. She quickly realized her skirt would get her killed, but madly she was too fearful of being seen in just her linens. She climbed back down and hoisted the skirt up as best she could and tied it into a great knot that rested between her thighs like a big, bulbous boil, but left her legs bare and moveable. Then she started climbing again.

At least she was not panting anymore. This was simple. Not even as exhausting as she thought, though her limbs continued to burn with the agony of running from floor to floor, and her heart felt like a single, seized organ, like one constant beat, unceasing. She could almost swear she heard her sister screaming far above.

She tried to remember her nephew’s name. The frustration seemed to calm her, and her arms grew steady. Each time she pulled herself higher, she felt as though she were lifting the weight of the world, and was amazed that she could do it. She could not find Arjallia, she could not deliver Everia’s baby, and no force on the earth could prolong the Emperor’s life, but she could climb this tree. She could save this boy.

Right as she thought it, the boy slipped again, dangling from the branch. His arms were wrapped securely around it, but he started crying, “My arms hurt.” So do mine, she wanted to answer, but knew that would do no good. She thought of telling him to be brave like his father, but at his age he might well not even know who his father was. Virogus had been fighting since his son was born.

Rogulus! That was it. “Rogulus!” she called out. “Your mother needs your help! The baby is coming and she needs you to be strong for her. Just keep holding on; I’m almost there.” She briefly wondered what exactly she would do once she reached the boy, but forcefully shoved the useless thought aside. Worrying on that would not help right now.

Until she pulled herself up for what felt the hundredth time, and was on the branch. She straddled it awkwardly, the huge bulge of her tied-up skirt pressing against herself like a lascivious beast. She slowly squirmed out onto the branch, reached down with her still hands, and pulled Rogulus’ legs back up onto the branch.

“All right,” she said as calmly as she could, “we’re going to crawl back to the edge of the branch, and we’ll just keep going from there. All right?”

“I can’t,” he whimpered. “I can’t do it.”

“All right,” she sighed, “come on.” She reached over again and tried to yank the boy up over the branch, instead of hanging from it like a sloth. They both began to shimmy back to the trunk. Rogulus became so eager that he managed to squirm around Pearl and surpass her on the return trip. “Would have been nice if he could have found that courage earlier,” she muttered to no one.

No sooner had the words escaped her lips, than her foot slipped on a patch of moss. She lost her grip entirely, and for a few seconds she was falling, suspended in the world. Too soon, her tail connected with a large branch and sharp pain fired up her spine. She wailed as she rolled over the branch, nearly falling clear, but managed to scramble about and get her hands around another nearby branch before falling again.

Her back felt as though it were twisted in two. “Liniv,” she gasped, and her throat felt as though it were tearing, “Did you get the sunbursts?” Her sweaty hands slipped, tearing the moss up from the branches.

“Rogulus!” she shouted. Pearl remembered thinking how impressive it was, that such a small girl could say such a complicated name. She slipped again, and as she tumbled she managed to spy a single black sunburst in the girl’s hand. She heard a woman’s scream just before everything went black.

Atlan Stories, Stories

Three Princesses: Chapter 3

CHAPTER THREE

The Grand Palace was indefensible, but its battlements were breathtaking. The balconies of the Old Palace, only three floors up, were enough to make her head swim. Each of the five stories of the Grand Palace was nearly twice as tall as a normal building’s, so when Pearl and Kreokus stepped out to get some air, she instinctively grabbed for the wrought iron railing that would have kept Viisianar archers from tipping forward and splattering on the pavement below. She did her best to keep her face still, but there was no question her quick breath was noticeable.

“It is disarming, I am sure,” Kreokus offered as he rested a gloved hand casually upon that same railing. “Still, you were no doubt expecting to meet me before year’s end, regardless, yes? When you returned to Tauriconia?”

In truth, she had rarely spared more than a fleeting thought for her one-day husband over the previous five years. She could not remember ever being naïve enough to dream of marrying for love. Her station and her own reflection had served as twin reminders that, should she ever marry, it would be a purely transactional engagement. The day she learned of her betrothal, Everia had assured her that Margrave Kreokus was a respected and gentle man that would treat her well. It seemed the most she could hope for, so she put off any thought of that distant future, much as one tries not to dwell on the coming winter.

“Of course,” was all she offered in answer.

She glanced sideways at the margrave as she caught her breath. Upon a second look, his dress bore some influence of Viisianar nobility, back when Viisianar nobles existed. If this was the fashion back in Tauriconia, it suggested that the two cultures might indeed be capable of blending, and that Kreokus himself had no objection to it. That boded well. Her eyes flicked up briefly to his stubbled head, and she tried to imagine herself shaving it for him in the morning.

“How many servants do you have, Margrave?” she asked, turning to face him. They both kept one hand on the railing.

He smiled at that. It was surely just the sort of thing a silly girl was meant to wonder about her lord. “I have brought only a bare company with me. Thirty men, twenty retainers and their men, two lieutenants, four spellers… two handmaids for yourself.” He stumbled a bit on this last point. “There will of course be more waiting for you at home. No doubt we can acquire more here, should you have need.”

“I will have no need, Margrave.” Pearl had started dressing herself the day she learned that Imrell had no such ladies fluttering about her. Pearl had briefly dreamed of being a warrior when she was young, until the first time Imrell knocked her down in the training yard. She still heard the laughter some nights. “Two will be sufficient.”

“You are kind, my Lady.” He nodded at his own statement, looking out over the city. “I had heard as much. That you were kind.”

She knew he had heard just that, frequently. If a lady was not beautiful, she was called kind. If she was not kind, she was called intelligent. Pearl wondered briefly what it would be like to be called intelligent before she too looked out over the city.

Ajman had been giant in her memories, but she was only seven when they left. She had expected it to shrink upon returning. The Darida Plains, which had seemed so vast and eternal when she first had seen them, appeared trodden and gray and small when she returned as an adult. They looked mortal. The towns she had seen in childhood had all recovered somewhat from her father’s conquest, yet somehow they had all disappointed. She had hoped for flourishing blossoms in the garden of this new world, this New Orckid. Instead she found various collections of rubble that, even after three or six or twelve years, were still struggling just to clear away the ruins Calphus had created.

But Ajman. Ajman was so much more than she remembered. The sea of people mixed like magic flowing through the veins of the city. Looking out over it from high overhead like a god, there was not one thing that seemed wrong, not one thing out of place. It was the blossoming peach she had been dying to find, ready to burst with life upon the biting.

“Actually, Margrave, forgive me, I am not sure two handmaids will do.”

“Of course,” he nodded at once. It seemed that, whether sergeant or margrave, Mornal men were eager for directives, tasks to complete. “We shall acquire more. Have you grown accustomed to Viisian handmaids? They should be easy to find here.”

She lifted her hand from the railing to forestall him. “You mistake me, Margrave. You said you had brought twenty retainers with you, yes?” Before he could answer, she continued, “I shall require some of them, say six, to attend on me as I am reacclimating myself to Ajman.”

“Soldiers, my Lady?” he asked with admirably feigned amusement. “Do you intend to fight a campaign here?”

“I intend to live in Ajman. I wish to see this city while I am here.”

“Any time you have need of men, simply send word to me, and I shall provide them.”

“That’s so much bother to you,” she countered with a gracious smile. “Besides, what if my need is urgent?”

“What need could be so urgent?”

“Do you not have urgent needs on occasion, Margrave?”

“Yes, of course, but I…” he stopped himself. She stared at him, smiling serenely, for all appearances completely unaware of what he had been about to say. Still, he at least did not say it, and that was something in his favor. “I beg your forgiveness, my Lady. I should have brought more men. I am afraid I have vital need of those I have brought, while we are here, and cannot spare six men for the entirety. Perhaps your father can dispose a company to retain you.”

“Of course,” she echoed. Pearl knew perfectly well what the answer would be, if she asked her father to put six men under the command of a woman who had never touched an ax. Worse, she suspected Kreokus knew what that answer would be as well. Her future husband appeared to be subtler and more manipulative than first blush, but at least he was not an utter fool.

“Fret not,” he offered, needlessly. “We shall not be long delayed. There are a few small storms sweeping up the Whip, but they shall be gone before the week is out, and then we shall begin our journey home.”

At that, Pearl could not suppress her laughter. “I’m afraid you don’t know my father as well as you might think, Margrave. When he starts on something he is impossible to stop, but once he has stopped, starting him again is no mean task. With this renewed talk of a magical kingdom out east, my brother may well be fighting to keep him from turning around and marching straight back to Bazazanil.”

“Yes, well. He is the emperor, ones supposes.” Kreokus was staring out over the tops of the buildings, seemingly at nothing.

Pearl set her hand back on the railing. It was wrought iron, but another look showed her that the design of the grating was coarse, angled, and thoroughly unimaginative. Whoever had placed this railing, had done so after Ajman had already fallen. No Viisianar had designed this.

His cheekbones were pronounced, and his chin reasonably strong. His hands, though enclosed in delicate gloves, were large and appeared powerful. He was not young, but the strength of youth had not yet abandoned him despite his sedentary life in Tauriconia. Her watery eyes nearly bored into him, looking for something that stood out, something by which she might be charmed. His eyes were a bluish green; perhaps he had some Titonic blood and might prove to have some hidden quirks or wildness that could excite or even frighten her. That was not good, especially, but it was something. There had to be something. Better even to despise this man, than to think nothing of him. There was nothing worse than adequacy.

Even as she thought it, the flush crept up the back of her neck again. She remembered the look on his face, when first they spied each other, and realized that these very thoughts must have been tumbling through his head at that moment. He was searching, masking it poorly, but searching for something in her to feel some way about. His behavior now suggested he had not found anything. But then, maybe he was still searching.

Just now, however, he was still staring out over the city.

“Margrave,” she pressed, “did you come here to bring me home to Tauriconia? Now?”

His stillness was more obvious than a shout. “I should have understood. Of course, you would wish to remain here longer. This is your home.”

Her home, as near as she could tell, was the dark fortress at Bazazanil, but she saw no benefit in explaining that to him. “Ajman has changed so much since I left. I wish to understand it better before I leave again.”

“It need not be your last departure,” he shrugged. “Return with me to Tauriconia. After our first son, perhaps the second, you could come back for a longer visit. The trail to Ajman is much shorter on this side of the continent, and more settled. The coastal way is well patrolled, and the forests are practically emptied of ursiks and wolves. Even a small company could bring you back, whenever you like.”

She had trouble hearing him after the mention of children. The morning’s row with Arjallia told her she was unfit to raise a child. Then again, even if only a bastard, she was still a princess, and would likely have very little to do with raising her children.

Everia was involved enough. The wet nurses and handmaids did most of the caring, but she visited her son and daughter every day and seemed elated at her coming childbirth. She had even fought her husband to bring their son back with her, insisting he would not return to the front until he was old enough to swing a sword. He was already toddling about with a stick in his hands.

Empress Taurisa had been quite motherly, as she understood, and played with her children often, Everia especially. That was not a path she desired, however. After the Conquest began, Taurisa seemed to be pushing out a child every other year. She must have been constantly in bed: recovering, screaming in pain, or hopefully screaming in ecstasy every once in a great while. It all ended when Calphus impregnated her immediately after Fostus’ birth, before she had recovered. Imrell’s life had been her death, because Calphus the Conqueror could not wait.

Was Kreokus a man who could wait? She wondered.

“I understand you are taken aback,” he said, but she would not let him continue.

“I understand you as well, Margrave, but sadly understanding and accord are not the same. My father is old,” she added, suddenly inspired. “He seems hale and hearty, but I’m sure you heard him coughing just a moment ago as well. Suppose he were never to leave Ajman. If I left now, it would break my heart. History, moreover, would remember me as a loveless daughter.”

“And not a loveless wife?” he countered, quickly. It was sharp, though not maliciously voiced, so she answered him with a smile.

“I am not your wife yet, Margrave, but I am a daughter. I will remain in Ajman until my father departs for Tauriconia.”

For scarcely an instant, she thought she saw a gray of anger run across his face, but if it was there it vanished immediately. He grinned in defeat, nodding. “You are not yet my wife. Of course.”

“Of course,” she echoed.

“Very well. We shall remain in Ajman. I will speak with the Emperor. Perhaps we may be wed here and return to Tauriconia as man and wife.”

She kept her smile frozen on her face, turning back out over the square. “Perhaps. The Emperor is a stubborn man.”

“Fear not, my Lady. I think I am coming to understand him better.”

Understanding him was never the challenge. Calphus was a remarkably simple man.

“This is all so sudden, Margrave. I had not thought to meet you until year’s end, and perhaps another year after that before I should become your wife. This is a fortune I had not contemplated.”

“Does it not please you?”

That was a critical question. Should she voice her apprehension, or flatter him with the expected niceties? If she were pleasant now, bowed and smiled and told him what he wanted to hear, he would expect it henceforth. No, better to risk understanding one another. If he found her frankness unpleasant, then, they would be equally miserable together.

“Margrave, I met you not thirty minutes ago. You would not expect me to judge a house’s worth in so little time, let alone the man who lives in it.”

“Surely you will not go against the Emperor’s will?”

Surely. Surely no one would do that. No one by Imrell. And Igetus. And Fostus. And sometimes Tortorus.

“Surely. We are betrothed, by the Emperor’s command. But you did not ask me if I would consent to wed you. You asked me if I was pleased, and that is another matter altogether.”

He smiled again. “True enough, sadly.”

His hand was resting on the railing. Fighting the flush against her neck, she reached over and place her hand on his. “Margrave, it is good of you not to stomp and fight me on the matter of returning to Tauriconia. But we both know you had no power there. I am not your wife, and unless my father commands me otherwise, I may stay where I please.” His eyes narrowed at that, confirming her suspicions that he had already brought this up to her father, and had been rebuffed. “You are as new to me as I am to you. I require some token, some proof of your trust, before I can judge the sort of man you are.”

His hand had tensed when she touched it, but he did not pull away. “What assurance do you wish, my Lady?”

She smiled serenely at him. “I require a company of retainers, say six men? To escort me about Ajman.”

That blink of irritation swept past his face again, before another smile appeared, the most genuine she had yet seen. “I must discipline my missives. No one had thought to warn me of your wit, my Lady.”

“If your missives were clever enough to spy my wit, they would be wasted as missives.”

“Four men. I cannot spare six”

“Will you leave me so lightly guarded?”

“Do you have some special need to fear these streets you love so?”

“Ohhh Margrave,” she chuckled, “you are but newly arrived indeed.” But then, so was she.

She could see him thinking of countering with five, but his pride prevented him from haggling so meanly. “Six men. They shall report to your estate at the Old Palace tomorrow morning.”

“Thank you, Margrave.”

“I feel we know each other so much better already, my Lady. Please call me Kreokus.”

“As you wish, Kreokus.” The name sounded awkward in her mouth. Not strong enough to be a true Mornal name, though it absolutely was, nor light enough to float on the tongue as Viisianar names did. Still, it was a name. “You may call me Pearl, if you wish.”

“I thank you, Princess Pearl.”

The first genuine laugh of the day burst from her lips then. “That, you may absolutely not call me, Margrave. Kreokus.” It felt better saying it the second time. That was life, she supposed.

“I understand, my Lady. Pearl.”

They were both smiling lightly when they returned to the vast hall on the second floor. The news had come as a shock, and in truth an unwelcome one, but she knew it could have gone far worse. And if she still felt nothing for this man who would one day share her bed, perhaps that was indeed better than contempt.

Her father was coughing again as they stepped in. “They’re my damned sons,” he was trying to bellow between chokes. “I ought to ride back out there and knock their heads together until they see sense. Tortorus is the oldest, he gives the orders. The end!”

Pelcian stabbed his finger on the table as he said, apparently not for the first time, “You’re already sending troops back to the front. Tell them they are to obey Tortorus only. Simple as that.”

“If men did as they were told, we should not be in this dilemma,” Neevius countered, also seemingly not for the first time.

The Emperor looked for a moment like he might cough again, but instead he brought two massive fists down onto the plinth. “Dammit!” he roared, “I want this settled. Now! Say something new or get out!”

They paused. Both lords looked about to exit. “How old is Tortorus’ daughter?” asked Igetus, who knew perfectly well how old everyone was.

The Emperor pierced him with his eyes. “Same as his third son. Twins,” he spat. Calphus’ twin sister had stolen the crown from him back in Mornalith, nearly fifty years ago. Supposedly.

“Then she would be… ten? Twelve perhaps?”

“Too young.”

“A betrothal is not a marriage,” Igetus said, gesturing at Pearl and Kreokus. “Offer her hand to a Margrave of standing, whoever has the most power. Angulan, I suggest.”

“Why not Gokmian,” Neevius chimed in, eager to seem like he was helping.

Calphus growled at that. “Gokmian is near as old as I am.”

“And famously unmarried by choice,” Igetus added slyly. “Angulan is more junior, but his star is rapidly rising. Most of the more senior lords are already married or betrothed. And Angulan is ambitious. I’d wager he’s largely responsible for Fostus’ recalcitrant attitude. Offer him little Galla, and he’ll fall in line at once.”

Calphus shook his head. “If he’ll have her. And if Tortorus agrees. You don’t make alliances with your own troops. You command them. If they disobey, you cut their heads off.”

“I see,” Igetus nodded. “Perhaps you mean to save Galla for an alliance with this magical kingdom we are about to destroy. Or perhaps you hope to wed her to some Viisianar slave.”

“Don’t counsel me, boy!” Calphus roared at the man who had been counseling him for twenty years. “I was winning wars half a lifetime before I ever spat you into your mother! Brave me like that again and I’ll break your skinny neck in half!”

Igetus stood, and nodded, but did not answer.

“Why not wed her to Vaina?”

Everyone turned to stare at Pearl. Kreokus, unconsciously she hoped, took a step or two away from her.

The Emperor coughed again, then growled, “I want to wipe out the Vainans, not breed more of them.”

“Your Excellency,” she said, “do you know who the Sheshai are?”

He rolled his eyes. “No, I don’t know who the Sheshai are. Why don’t you enlighten us all?”

“They lived on the River Chuer, between here and Bazazanil. Arjallia’s tutor taught us about them.”

The Emperor rolled his entire head this time. “I am not a ten-year-old girl. I have more important things to contemplate.”

Arjallia was twelve, not ten, but Pearl chose not to press this point. “Conquest, yes? The ancient Viisianars conquered the Sheshai around fifteen hundred years ago.”

“And what does that have to do with today, girl? Get to the point.”

“They didn’t conquer them with steel. They conquered them with marriage.” She waited, but when her father at last failed to interrupt her, she continued. “Empress Gilliaan offered her second daughter to the king of the Sheshai to unite their nations. The king allowed her to march her troops through their territory. By the time Gilliaan’s grandson became king, the Orckid Empire surrounded the Sheshai, and their armies were commanded by her own blood. In two more generations, the Sheshai swore fealty to Orckid. Two more after that, and they were intermarrying. Nowadays, all trace of the Sheshai are gone. They are a part of Orckid now.”

The Emperor’s mouth was twitching. He wanted to say something, she knew, he wanted to beat down her idea, but could not think of anything. Finally, he sneered, “You would offer your niece to some dirt-eating savage? To ride her like a horse before she comes of age and eat her in the winter after she’s whelped for him?”

“Your Excellency, please,” Neevius wheedled, “there is a lady in the room.”

“No. No!” he bellowed, happy to have something to yell at. “She wants to make policy, let her make policy.”

It was only then Pearl noticed that Imrell had left, probably bored with the talk of strategy. Sergeant Barim and Corporal Hathmet were still there, staring at her.

“According to your spellers,” she continued, “Vaina is not composed of dirt-eating savages. They are a great kingdom, almost the equal of the empire you have conquered. Almost,” she added. It would not do to make this victory seem greater than his own. “Surely Galla is worthy to wed the prince of a magical kingdom.”

The Emperor hummed for a bit, but the hums soon turned to growls. “That still doesn’t tell me what to do about Fostus.”

Igetus broke in there. “If Tortorus is commanding an alliance, then any advances Fostus orders would be treason. He could have the boy locked up.”

He grunted amusedly. “He’d like that. He’s got three sons of his own, and another on the way. That brother of his is living on borrowed time.” If Igetus had any objection to hearing his younger brother’s death predicted so casually, he did not display it. “Very well,” their father agreed, looking to his second son, “Get some spellers on this. I want to know what sort of people we’re leasing our family out to. And make sure everyone in this room stays silent.”

The Emperor swept away without another word, Palcian and Neevius and their men scurrying off. Igetus favored her with a half-smile and a nod before departing for his own work. Pearl turned to Kreokus and found a renewed estimation sitting baldly on his face. “It is good to meet you, Margrave. Kreokus.”

He swallowed. “And you, Pearl. My Lady.”

Pelcian had taken his men, and consequently Pearl’s escort, back to the Old Palace, so it was agreed that Kreokus would assemble her six men today and have them take her back. In the meantime, she had one of her father’s servants direct her to the famous Tearfall Gardens on the first floor.

Like everything in the Grand Palace, it was enormous. A foundation had been dug twenty feet into the earth, then filled with soil from the fertile lands along the Whip. Tons upon tons upon tons of soil had been hauled centuries ago, then plants from all over the known world had been transported there. Mild, rolling hills were split by a small stream. She could hear the rush of an actual waterfall, but the garden was so enormous she could not see it.

Her eyes fall upon a bank of bleeding heart flowers in pink, red, and blue, opening gorgeously in the springtime air. Her attention was soon drawn upward.

She had heard the wisteria described, but the words had utterly failed. Its dark, twisting branches seemed to dance in on one another, making love beneath the breathtaking canopy of deep purple blossoms, which lhung like vines from the highest branches. The longer she looked, the more the arms resembled people of various shapes, joined, at once ecstatic and at peace. Were she an empress, she would choose such a tree for her throne, her palace, and she would never march out in conquest. Nothing greater could be achieved.

Just beyond the wisteria was a kind of oak tree whose branches burst out in all directions, bright green moss crawling merrily all over. It looked the sort of place children would love to play, climbing and leaping from branch to branch, squealing in delight and wonder.

Beyond that was a small patch of tall, straight trees, whose barks were streaks of a dozen different colors. Past that, a stout maple whose trunks had spun into a low whirl and spread out an enormous fanning canopy, crowned with leaves of pink, peach, fire, frost, emerald, and lily white. The whirl was so broad, someone could sit upon the low slung trunk if they wished.

Everia was sitting there now.

She had not yet noticed Pearl. She was leaning against one of the great whirling branches, her eyes closed, a single hand resting on her great belly. The child would be due soon.

Pearl walked closer, until she feared she might startle her sister, then cleared her throat softly. Everia’s eyes flew open so suddenly, she almost looked as though she had been stabbed. Then their lids softened, she looked around, and her gaze fell on Pearl. “You’ve come,” she smiled warmly. “Is Arjallia here?”

“I’m afraid she’s back at the Old Palace.” Thoughts of the morning’s fight returned unbidden to her mind.

“Another day, perhaps.” She was gently rubbing her belly, looking around at the garden’s splendors. Pearl glanced about and saw a patch of little sunburst flowers, their petals blue, green, white, and black. “Isn’t it lovely?”

“I should have come earlier. Every day.” Words were so powerful. Magic was so powerful. The Viisianars had ruled this continent for a thousand years because of the power of their written spells, the power of recording and describing things, and using those sounds and those symbols to create effects in the real world. Yet how could a spell compare to these lives, these forces, that seemed to grow so effortless out of the ground?

Everia’s smile brightened at that. “They are beautiful, aren’t they.” She gestured fluidly to a fire totem, whose four branches twisted together in a spiral up sixty feet before its willowy branches collapsed all the way back down to the ground, alive with orange and yellow blossoms. “That tree is five-hundred years old. The Viisians dug it up from a place called Yaalk, far to the south. It was enormous, even then, yet hundreds of men worked months to bring it here, to plant it in the soil, in the hopes it would flourish. It the hopes it might someday bring us joy.”

A feeling of cold passed over Pearl’s brow. The morning’s sweat had dried on her face, producing a light chill. She looked around at all the divine plants that defied explanation. “Are any of these native?”

Everia tittered lightly at that. “No, of course not. What would be the point of bringing something in here, when you could just go outside and see it anywhere?” She pointed delicately to the wisteria, which already seemed miles away with the great beauties between it and them. “That one is from Samaya. It’s even farther east that Vaina, a place of swamps and poisonous wyrms and fish with spines on their fins. Even the flowers there can be deadly to touch. But a troop of hundreds of men reached it, pulled it out, and brought it here. It’s over seven-hundred years old.

“I wonder how they feel.”

“They?” she asked, bemused. “I imagine they’re all dead by now, Pearl.”

“Them,” she gestured around them. “Being dug out of their homes and brought here. No one asked them what they wanted. And now they’re here, so we can look at them and say how beautiful they are. I wonder what they would have said, if they’d had a choice.”

Everia laughed demurely at that, her voice like a bell. “Pearl, trees don’t have feelings. They can’t talk.”

“No,” she agreed. “They can’t.” She took a moment to rub at the dried sweat on her face, and her hands came away wet. She touched a finger to her eyelid and realized she was crying.

“Are you all right?”

She nodded again. “How are you feeling? Is the baby well?”

She smiled wide, rubbing her belly again. “Quite well, thank you. It’s a boy, I know it. He may well be an emperor someday.”

There were a lot of other Mornal men whose corpses that child would have to step over before calling himself an emperor.

“How do you like this place. Ajman, I mean.”

She stifled another delicate laugh. “For me, Ajman is here. And the palace, but mostly here. These gardens. Bazazanil was,” she furrowed her brow, “safe. It was good. Always nicer than life on the march. But this. I would dream of these gardens. Every night in Bazazanil, while Virogus was, while my husband was… when we were sleeping, I would dream of these, hoping I might someday return.”

Pearl looked back at the moss-covered oak again. “I’m not sure we’re welcome here.”

“Oh?”

“One of Arjallia’s servants ran away. She said she didn’t want to be an Orckid.”

Everia’s eyebrows fell at that. “I suppose she doesn’t have to be, if she doesn’t want to.”

“She’s a slave. And she ran away. Just because she didn’t want to be called the same thing we’re called.”

Everia considered that a moment, then shrugged. “I suppose there are all sorts of strange people in the world.”

A giggle sounded from a ways away. Everia’s children, a boy and a girl, were being ushered in by a Daridan woman in a long linen shift and purple skirt. The little boy ran over to the oak and started climbing on it. “Be careful now,” Everia called after him. The girl ran up and tried to crawl in her mother’s lap, but settled for sitting next to her and nuzzling under a breast. Everia wrapped an arm around her daughter, the other still on her unborn child.

Pearl glanced briefly at the Daridan servant, who was already backing a respectful distance away. “I guess I wonder if she didn’t have a good point. About the empire.”

Everia laughed again, as beautiful as magic. “How can you think that of the Empire?” she asked incredulously, taking her hand away from her belly and placing it on the trunk of the whirling oak. “Look at the beautiful things we’ve built.”

Atlan Stories, Stories

Three Princesses: Chapter 2

CHAPTER TWO

“All young ladies want to ride their horses,” Olinthess answered patiently, “but all young ladies must also study how to better themselves for the good of the nation.”

“Imrell rides her horse three hours a day,” Arjallia complained, “and she’s got three companies under her command.”

“Oh? Is it your intention to command armies when you grow up?” Olinthess asked, an admirable mockery of surprise on her face at this news. “I had no idea. We should draw up a schedule for military education. I shall speak with Master Birvellion.”

Arj would have stamped her foot if she were not seated in her chair. It was carved of delicate goldenwood, inlaid with white lining that looked like ground pearls. “I only meant, you can ride a horse and still become someone important.”

“Yes, you can ride your horse, after you have finished your studies.” Olinthess tightened her jaw for a moment. “You know, my Lady, many people do not even own horses. I do not own a horse, nor does my daughter, who is about your age. Owning a horse is a rare privilege, a privilege that comes with some cost.”

“So the cost of owning a horse is never getting to ride it?”

“Never? Do you really think the end of your lessons will never come?”

“It certainly feels that way.”

Olinthess took in a great breath. “For once we are in agreement, my Lady. Let us continue.”

Pearl was standing on the balcony, overlooking the Square of Suppliants in Old Center. The Old Palace was once a religious structure for some ancient practices before the Viisianars took it from whoever used to live here. Since then, it served as guest quarters for important dignitaries and visitors. Pearl and Arj had both been given great suites, as had three of the Emperor’s more junior margraves. Most of the party from Bazazanil, along with their sisters and brother, were quartered in the Grand Palace at the northeast section of the city. There, the Emperor and his spellers were fervently pouring over missives from the Eastern Front, which had already begun to march in expansion beyond the Pillar. There was word of a magical kingdom farther east called Vaina, that was supposedly almost as powerful as the Old Empire itself, despite being a vassal to it.

These were matters for Imrell and the men, of course. Everia spent her days walking in the gorgeous Tearfall Gardens, which had an actual waterfall pumped in via hardened ceramic tubing connected to the Whip. The enormous pink wisterias, purple rhododendrons, moss-covered beeches, and fire-orange maples had moved more than one maiden to tears, to hear them tell it. Pearl had not yet bothered to visit, though they had been in residence at Ajman for over two weeks. Indeed, she had not been to the Grand Palace at all.

She was not unwelcome. Everia made it a point to invite them every time she visited the Old Palace, nearly every other day. She had even hinted just yesterday that Pearl’s presence might be requested soon. Being polite, most likely. Pearl could not think of a time when her presence had been requested, except to announce her betrothal to Margrave Kreokus, just after her seventeenth birthday.

Suddenly, Pearl looked up to realize they were alone. Olinthess had left, and Arjallia was staring at her own feet. She was wearing a simple dress of black velvet, white silken sleeves and an open collar that kept her from sweating as badly as Pearl surely was. Her golden hair was back in a sloppy braid, curiously loose and like to fall apart at the slightest agitation.

“What happened?” Arj looked up at her, her eyes leaden and dark-rimmed. “I was… pondering something. What happened?”

Arjallia’s eyes grew damp, but before a tear could fall she tightened her lips and said, “It’s so stupid! I just asked her a question. What good is a tutor if you can’t ask them questions?”

It was a fair point. Tutors in general were known for their patience and objectivity, arithmeticians especially. Olinthess, who had been on the cusp of nobility before Calphus’ Conquest, was an arithmetician, historian, and magician of surpassing accomplishment. “What did you ask her?”

“I just, she…” Arj stared at her feet again.

“What did you ask her?”

“It’s so stupid!” she echoed. “Why is a Viisianar teaching me Mornal history? She’s never been there. How could she know?”

Pearl pursed her lips. She would not bother telling Arj she was being wrong-headed; the girl already knew that. “Can you tell me who Herbulius was?”

“He was our grandfather. He was the king of Mornalith, before our aunt stole the crown from our father.”

“And how do you know that? Have you ever been to Mornalith?”

Arj stood at that. “Then I’ll just read a spell about it! Why do I need someone to recite it to me? I can just read it on my own.”

A flush crept up Pearl’s spine. She had meant to calm her sister, and clever questions usually had that effect. “There is a difference between spelling something and understanding it. It’s different when you’ve lived something, thought about it, experienced it in your head.”

“That too!” Arj pointed at her, almost waggling a finger, and for a brief second she resembled their bombastic father. “Why is Birvellion teaching the boys warcraft? What can a Viisianar possibly now about it? They lost!”

Her eyes widened. This was a side of Arjallia she had not seen before. “Arj. What’s wrong?”

“I just told you!” she nearly shouted, but deflated immediately after, looking down at the floor again.

Pearl stood, and waited, her hands limp against her sides. She was wearing a deep green skirt embellished with white Viisianar whirls and leaves, made of rough wool that felt slightly harsh against her fingers. Her feet were bare, having left her woven sandals at the edge of the balcony, enjoying the cool of the polished marble flooring. She was wearing the same white blouse she had worn into the city a fortnight ago, a simple green vest over it. She felt very green. Briefly, she thought of the hemlock trees, and the moss their father’s unicorn had kicked from the bridge when they first came to Ajman. That bridge had likely already fallen by now, or been disassembled. Perhaps a stone bridge was now being built in its place.

She made a casual gesture at Arj’s head. “Did something happen to your hair?”

At that, a single tear fell from her eye. She wiped it away, furious. “It’s just stupid hair.” Her fury was fading fast, try as she might to stoke it further.

Pearl thought a moment. Which one did her hair in the mornings? “Has something happened to Hursta?”

Arjallia covered her face with her hands, then balled them into fists and nearly clubbed herself in the sides of her head. “It’s not…” she muttered, “it’s not…”

Pearl strode over, the rough skirt almost scratching against her knees. She reached down and took Arjallia’s hands in hers, then drew her sister back down into the chair. Pearl knelt before her. “What happened?”

“She just… she…”

“Who?”

She nodded a few times, unable to say the name.

“Hursta?”

Arjallia hiccoughed sharply, her face in her hands again. “She left.”

Pearl’s entire body thrummed at that, but she resisted the urge to leap to her feet. “She left? You mean she ran away?”

Arj nodded again.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes I’m sure!” she screamed into her fingers, her golden braid loosening greatly. “I said so!”

Pearl reached out and gently took her sister’s hands again, but this time Arjallia shoved her away violently. She reacted so brutally she actually pushed her chair backward, tipping over and nearly falling. Pearl was on her feet in an instant, grabbing the chair before it could fall, and righted it again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have listened to you. Do you know why she left?”

“It’s so…” she stopped herself this time. “She said it was wrong, that she didn’t want to be an Orckid. But she already was an Orckid. She’s been an Orckid all her life. What is she even talking about?”

“Oh.” Pearl moved around behind Arjallia and tried to fix her braid. Whoever had done it was a poor replacement for Hursta, but not so talentless as Pearl was. “Words can change meaning over time,” she said guardedly. “Being an Orckid now isn’t the same as being an Orckid a thousand years ago.” Or twenty-three, she thought.

“But Father said we were all Orckids now,” she insisted. She was angry, but years of habit kept her still when her hair was being done. “He said everyone was the same now, that we were all one people.”

“That is… a lovely sentiment.”

“Why wouldn’t Hursta want us all to be one people? She heard Father’s speech, I know she did.”

Pearl suppressed a scream. Arjallia was almost fourteen; it was long past time she came to understand the world. Pearl never knew what happened to her own mother, but Arjallia’s mother had been cast aside not long after she was born. She was a noblewoman and unaccustomed to nursing a babe, so the babe was given to a wetnurse and the noble was given to some margrave’s son. Igetus once suggested, rather cryptically, that their eldest brother Tortorus had made use of her once or twice before letting her go. Or so she thought. She was only eight at the time, and it was hard then to make sense of Igetus’ riddles.

Someone cleared their throat. Pearl looked to see a young sergeant standing near the entrance to the room. He was a stout, handsome lad, no more than twenty years, his uniform covered by a tabard of black and purple: the new colors of the new Orckid Empire. The iron pin near his left shoulder was wrought in the shape of a manticore, marking him as a sergeant under command of one of her father’s chief margraves. She forgot which one. Grokmium, perhaps.

“Good morning, my Ladies,” he stammered. His eyes were small, but a gorgeous sea green. Igetus said green eyes came from old Titonic blood, and that the Titons were all mad, but anyone who could achieve even sergeantry in the Imperial army must be stable enough. Pearl found the flush on the back of her neck had returned. Not knowing what else to do, she stood.

“Yes?”

The boy’s little eyes widened. Evidently, he had expected a more verbose response. “My Ladies, that is, my Lady, my father has commanded your presence.”

“Oh?” Pearl asked. “And who is he?”

His face went gray. “Your father! The Emperor. My Lady. Excuse me, please. The Emperor your father, Calphus, has commanded your presence.”

“It has been said before that he is three men in one,” Pearl quipped. “Just as well that you should style him thrice.” She was curious and more than a little unbalanced, but inside she welcomed the chance to put off this awkward conversation. “Just me?”

The boy’s jaw had gone slack. Clearly, his instructions did not cover how to deal with there being more than one other person in the room. She was reasonably certain he had no idea how charming his stupidity was.

More to keep herself from grinning like an idiot, Pearl spoke again. “My sister’s attendants are nearby. Please accompany her while I fetch one.”

“Yes, my Lady,” he answered at once, clearly back on solid ground now that orders were being thrown about.

Your lady am I? Are you certain this time?” She offered him a deliberate smile as she walked out, a little salve to his terrified stare.

Arjallia’s six servants, five now she supposed, all lived in a single large antechamber, men and women together, just off the foyer of her chambers. She found two of the serving women there, sitting close and seemingly whispering in each other’s ears. They both bolted to their feet when she entered, and fell over each other agreeing to come fetch their lady. On the way back, Pearl inquired as casually as possible if Hursta had indeed run off, which the women confirmed.

It was an incredible thing. Deserting the army on their journey to Ajman was one thing. Out in the rainforests to the north, a mere hour’s head start could render you unfindable, unless the Emperor turned the entire army after you. Even south, into the savannahs past Barsalam, the lions and leopards and wild unicorns made for unfriendly companions, sure to discourage any search. But to run away within the city walls, surrounded by city guard and nobles wondering where a slave might be headed in such a hurry. To run away was as good as death.

When the three women returned to the classroom, Arjallia had retrieved Pearl’s sandals from the balcony and was smiling as she offered them up. Pearl was curious at this reversal, but decided not to press her good luck. She promised her sister they would speak again that evening, more than half hoping they might both forget those words before the sun died, then followed the sergeant outside.

The miasma of life assaulted Pearl’s senses the instant they left the Old Palace. The Square of Suppliants had not been used as a ritual place since the Conquest at least, meaning it was typically filled with fruit stands, street magicians, and all sorts of people hurrying from one place to another. Indeed, mere seconds after stepping out, Pearl was accosted by a monkey in a little purple vest that danced back and forth in front of her as a Daridan woman sang a spell she claimed would make Pearl fertile. She suspected the spell was meant to dull the senses, as the monkey was very obviously trying to pick her nonexistent pockets. The sergeant gave it a gentle nudge with his foot, and the monkey scampered after other passers.

Pearl was heartened to see a troop of four young corporals approach quickly, dressed in scale byrnies and leather chest plates. It was dangerous for a noblewoman to cross the city with a single guard. Her satisfaction turned to mild amazement when she saw the two mounts prepared for the sergeant and herself.

The first was a tan gelding that she eyed with admiration. A more insecure man might insist on riding a charger or stallion even in the city, cocksure he could control such a beast, but geldings were safer not only for the rider but for the rest of the people as well. More delightful, though, was the creature next to it.

This second horse was even smaller than the gelding, cream and butter colored, with a mane white as a winter sky. Most remarkable was the small bone nub that protruded just above its eyes.

“They call it a Chuerebese unicorn,” said one of the corporals, clearly much more confident than his commanding officer. His piebald white and brown skin marked him as a likely child of the sacking of Ajman. Just like herself.

“Unicorn?” Pearl half laughed. “Their horns normally grow out of their snouts. And they’re usually proper horns. I suppose if this one grew any more, the horn might bunch into its skull.”

“Oh, don’t let the bonehead fool you,” the corporal continued in a friendly jaunt, oblivious to the stares of his more respectful fellows. “Buttercup here’s as sharp as Mornal steel.”

Buttercup. Of course. “I am delighted by this kindness, corporal. What is your name?”

“Hathmet,” he said with a white grin. “M’lady,” he added, belatedly.

Definitely born in Ajman. Pearl still had trouble telling one region’s accent from another, but she remembered more than one Hathmet from her childhood. “Goodman Hathmet, I’m afraid you forget yourself.”

His grin froze and faltered, but only a moment. “Yes, M’lady. It won’t happen again, M’lady.”

“I’m glad to hear you’ve found your courtesies at last, Hathmet, but you mistake me. You should have said ‘as sharp as Orckid steel.’”

It was a full two seconds before the corporal caught on. Wisely, he answered her with a simple, “Yes, M’lady.”

Despite the chastening, Hathmet was still bold enough to offer a leg up onto her mount, though she had mounted horses nearly twice this size without assistance. The splits in her skirt were not made for riding, and the wool made itself known again as she took her seat, the right heft bunching up in her lap as she sat. She was confident she could pick her way to the Grand Palace herself, but allowed the sergeant to lead her on his gelding at an easy pace, the corporals forming a loose square around them on foot.

“Where did you find this unicorn, Sergeant?” she offered lightly.

Hathmet, marching before her on her right, answered her. “She was born here, M’lady. The stables have got all manner of—”

“Are you a sergeant, Corporal Hathmet?”

“No. M’lady.”

Hathmet was a friendly and gregarious fellow, and she found him more than a little disarming. She also suspected his insouciant airs would get him killed before Summer’s end.

“What is your name, Sergeant?” she asked as they neared the end of the Square, heading toward what she thought was the wrong byway.

“Barim, my Lady. Barim Alfas.”

“Barim Alfas? Were you born here in Ajman?” It was a foolish question. The boy was Mornal without question, and too old to have been born here. But in the Orckid Empire, second names were given to the nobility rather than the other way round. In Mornal, peasants and slaves had second names to mark who they were, such as Toggo Bricklayer or Grelta Bedslave. When you were an Emperor, Calphus was all people needed to hear. If Barim Alfas was a sergeant, odds were good he was not a mere peasant.

“No, my Lady. From Ol Ilothrend. That is, from Tauriconia, I mean. My Lady.”

Tauriconia had been Ol Ilothrend before her father took it from the Viisianars. He made it his capitol, resting at the fork of two rivers he called the Crowsfeast and the Crowsfoot, in honor of all the corpses he had made that day. He stayed there for nearly six years, building his armies, conquering towns to the east, putting down rebellions, and siring his third, fourth, and fifth child. His wife Taurisa, for whom he had renamed the city, died giving birth to Imrell. People like to say Imrell killed her mother by tearing her way out, and that was why she was so vicious. Imrell discouraged the rumors, but did not seem especially to dislike them. Calphus marched his armies out of Tauriconia less than a year after the Empress’ death.

“I take it you have not been there for some time,” she ventured. To call it by its old name, at his age, suggested he had never called it home. It also suggested he had more than one friend with Viisianar sympathies, but she let that rest.

“No, my Lady. My father took me to Lurida, when Margrave Pelcian took it.”

Pelcian, that was it. The manticore was Pelcian’s sigil. “You are a military family. You are proud, I hope.”

“My Lady.” Even for him, it was a brief answer.

“Tell me, Sergeant Barim, what did you say to my sister, whilst I was away?”

“Your sister, my Lady?”

“Yes, my sister. The little girl you were watching, whilst I fetched her servants. Not twenty minutes ago. You recall, I’m sure.”

“Oh. Yes, my Lady.”

“Well?”

“Well, my Lady?” She almost screamed, but then he continued. “I told her. I told her not to worry. About her servant.”

“I see.” That hardly sounded convincing enough to have made Arjallia smile. Could this sergeant with the unusually Orckid name have some unique knowledge of Hursta’s whereabouts, or even reason to believe the slaves of Ajman might not fear their masters for long? No, that was madness. Conspiracies and uprisings there likely were, but if Barim Alfas was secretly a rebel agent, a cunning mastermind and informant, then he was also the greatest pretender she had ever met. The Chuerubese unicorn beneath her was likely more full of guile than the sergeant at her side.

They exited the byways into an enormous plaza that put the Square of Suppliants to shame. It had five disproportionate sides, and the far end opened into an enormous road that surely led to the Grand Palace. It was crowded as well, but she also noted much finer clothing here. The peasants were servants, the slaves were in ordered file, and everyone else was clearly someone of importance. A line of corporals stood against the southern edge, staring straight ahead as a much more ebullient sergeant harangued them. An old Mornal man with long gray hair and vibrant blue robes chattered seemingly to no one as he looked up at the light blue sky, all the while a Viisianar woman in a linen shift wrote down what he said, seemingly switching tablets as randomly as he switched subjects. A Viisianar mother in fine clothing and her three children were distributing oranges to beggars. A lord she thought she recognized was holding a map before him, flanked on either side by two women, spellers, each of them dressed better than Pearl was. Tucked in a far corner, Pearl was shocked to see a withered, skinny Mornal man fumbling with a Viisianar lyre, fruitlessly trying to coax some magic from the unnatural instrument.

“Sergeant,” Pearl shouted above the din, “did my father mention why he wanted to see me?”

She thought he said, ‘No, my Lady,’ but it was difficult to parse his mumbles out from the crowd. She gave up trying to make conversation. Men like Barim Alfas were made to be looked at, not spoken with.

The huge byway was relatively sparse, the few stragglers found there quickly vanishing under the gaze of Pearl’s escort. Once they had cleared the crowd, the Grand Palace became unmistakable.

An immense structure of cream-colored stone, it looked to be five stories high, with towers at each of its four corners, and a gigantic drum in the middle, topped with a huge bulb that diminished into a single sharp spike. The windows were large enough to dive out of, and more importantly large enough to climb into, betraying a lack of martial consideration that helped explain Ajman’s fall twenty-three years back. The doors, however, were made of heavy Mornal steel, and looked almost brand new. They were being thrown wide at that moment, and out walked Igetus, flanked by a woman on either side, more spellers by the look of it. Igetus was all in black, which was not unusual, but his new felt cap was resting on a recently shaved head. Pearl could not remember the last time Igetus had shorn himself like a warrior.

“Finally,” he said by way of greeting. “We feared you might not come.” A gaggle of grooms scurried out to take the reigns of their horses. One of them offered a leg, which she ignored as she dismounted.

“I see it hasn’t taken you long to learn our father’s courtesies,” she answered. “He must be proud.”

“Follow me,” he said, turning around at once and reentering. It was a difficult thing to get a rise out of Igetus.

Pearl watched them lead the unicorn away, taking one last moment to appreciate its beauty, then stepped into the enormous palace.

“Brother,” she offered as they tread on lush, thick carpets of Viisianar weave, past great tapestries of Viisianar design, and under sweeping arches of Viisianar construction, “we have not seen one another in two weeks. Are you well?”

“I am,” he answered, proving even more laconic than Sergeant Barim.

“You’ve shaved your head.”

“Most men do.”

“Most men, yes. I’ve never seen you do it.”

“Now you have.”

She was beginning to look forward to her talk with Arjallia that evening, if only to get a complex sentence out of someone. She cursed herself silently for remembering, willing herself to forget again. “These tapestries are breathtaking.”

“Are they?”

“You grew up in this palace, didn’t you, Igetus?”

“I was already a man when we first came here.”

“Eleven? Twelve?”

“Close enough. We were drilling with swords and sergeants at eight years. Tortorus killed his first man when he was eleven. Fostus when he was fourteen.”

“And you?”

He did not bother to answer.

They climbed a great marble staircase up one flight of stairs and into a vast chamber. Pearl was no warrior herself, but she immediately noticed how open and indefensible the interior of the palace was. The stairway was so wide, a full troop of invaders could fight up it. Everything was so exposed. Presumably, the Viisinars had felt that once the palace had been occupied, the fight was as good as over. They had not been wrong.

The chamber walls had standing braziers every eight feet, burning brightly to light the windowless room. An immense red carpet, half the size of the Square of Suppliants, sat unfazed by the burning fires. Bizarrely, a quartet of carved onyx poles sat against one wall, graven into the shape of what she assumed were ancient Viisianar queens, or goddesses. They were beautiful to look upon, but she would have expected her father to crush them when he took the palace fifteen years ago, or Margrave Dodimar to have done the same when he took up residence in the Emperor’s absence. Yet there they stood.

At the far end of the gargantuan chamber was a large square plinth, draped in gold-lined red fabric. Around it stood four men, and around those men stood five more women, each holding several tablets in their arms. Imrell was leaning against a nearby wall, still wearing her armor after two weeks in the city. She looked up as Pearl approached. Pearl had to suppress a gag of laughter. Imrell’s tusks were now of gold, each one sporting a small jewel near their base. Amethyst, she thought.

Her father was coughing into a fist, and still had not looked up, even as the three other men turned to meet them. She thought she recognized Neevius, thoroughly cleaned up and in crimson robes. The other two men were new, or at least unknown.

One was as old as Neevius and her father, almost unnaturally slim for a Mornal, in violet robes, with a large golden manticore stitched over his chest for all to see. Pelcian, then.

The other was younger, but still old. At least forty, older than Igetus even. He wore a sleeved cloak of white wool in spite of the heat, a red tunic and black trousers tucked into dyed-red boots. He wore a woven belt of cloth-of-gold, whose end dangled almost obscenely between his legs. Despite his fine dress, he had allowed his head to grow stubble. Men were known to let their heads grow a bit on a long march or an active siege, but to come before the Emperor with a stubbled head suggested either great pride or great foolishness. When it came to braving Calphus the Conqueror, the two were often one in the same.

Igetus’ spellers flocked over to the others, then lined up against a wall. Pearl’s escort did likewise, with Sergeant Barim standing a few feet from Margrave Pelcian. Silence followed, and the lords at table glanced back and forth between them and the Emperor.

Igetus cleared his throat.

“There you are, there you are,” their father grumbled, coughing again lightly before finally standing up and saying, “Well, there she is. Look all you like.”

Pearl examined the lords again. Neevius, if it was Neevius, was already turning back to the map. Pelcian was looking politely, a bored glaze covering his eyes. Igetus crossed between them back to the map, and as he moved away her eyes fell again on the third lord. There was an anticipation on his narrow face, tinged with something like anxiety. She knew that look well. It was a look she had seen on many men, young and old, when they came to see the Emperor’s daughter. They had expected to find a legendary beauty like Everia, like Arjallia would one day be. Terrified of displaying disappointment, a strange sense of desperate wonder would splash across their faces, hoping beyond hope that Pearl herself would rescue them from this awkward disappointment. She never knew if they expected her to be dull-witted or spoiled, cripplingly shy or obnoxiously affectionate. She only knew that they wanted their disappointment to be justified. When she was still a child, she had ached with the desire to give them that. Anything to end that desperate stare. Now, she pitied them almost as much as she despised them.

“Well?” her father grunted. “What say you?”

The lord was stirred by this and managed to stammer in a manner that one could almost mistake for charm, if one were inexperienced enough. “I am… I am overwhelmed, your Excellency.”

“Are you?” he answered, sounding remarkably like Igetus for once. “Well, say what you wanted to say.”

The lord swept closer, his white cloak billowing like a warhorse’s barding, his cloth-of-gold belt swinging pendulously between his legs, and Pearl was suddenly seized by the urge to fly from the room. A pleasant scent of flowers hung about him, though she could not say exactly which. Her eyes kept fluttering up to his stubbled head, which must surely be the source of her father’s ill humor with him.

There was a second of silence, awkward enough to fill an hour, before Pearl chose to speak first. “Good morning, my Lord.”

His smile was warm, if formal. “Good morning, Princess.”

More silence followed. Instinctively, she glanced over at Sergeant Barim. The handsome young man was watching Pelcian, eager for an order, any order, that he might enact. Pelcian, meanwhile, was grinning at them. “Perhaps you should introduce yourself,” he offered with an amused edge.

There was a brief but heavy hesitation as the man took in breath to speak. “Of course,” he said after another lifelong second. “Where am I today, yes. Princess, it is my honor to meet you at last. My name is Margrave Kreokus. And I have the honor of being your betrothed.”

Atlan Stories, Stories

Three Princesses: Chapter 1

Chapter 1 of a short story based on Atla, the fantasy world setting of The Kennel Master. This tells the story of the New Orckid Empire, taking place about thirteen-hundred years before The Kennel Master.

Three Princesses

CHAPTER ONE

            The waters of the Whip danced by like living diamonds in the dying sunlight. Her horse whickered and shook its head as they stood at its banks. It was supposed to be five fathoms deep at this point, and wild, yet it seemed to leap and flicker by as innocent as a maiden. The Viisianars had called this river Moonstears, and claimed that once a month it shined like a second moon beneath the clear night’s sky. But her father had renamed it the Whip when he conquered the land and took it from the Viisianars, twenty-three years ago.

The advance troops had already erected a sturdy bridge of virgin evergreen. It was solidly built, but the wood was so hastily hewn down that several of the broad planks still had tufts of moss clinging to them. The hempen ropes that had secured the bridge were still in place, despite the huge iron spikes that now held the weight of the beams. They had even taken the time to throw up a pair of arched rails, no doubt with her eldest sister in mind. Everia was seven months along now, and could not ride a horse, but she would want to walk across the Whip as badly as their father would.

She could go. She could kick her heels into her little gelding, ride across the bridge, and off into the sungrave, and they would never catch her. The army traveled slowly. Her father blamed her sister’s pregnancy, but Emperor Calphus the Conqueror had gone to fat in his old age, as did most great warriors who lived that long, and he seemed to be stopping the army every other hour to take a feast or ride about the gorgeous landscape that his thousands of horses had trampled into mud.

She could go, but her father would never let her hear the end of it. It was one thing for a scouting party to cross the Whip first; they were nothing. But if one of his children, and worse a daughter, and worst a bastard, crossed before him, his fury would echo off the sky for weeks.

Still. She could go.

“Pearl!” A melodic voice called her name, and reluctantly she turned her horse around. A slip of a girl on a white gelding was riding toward her, her tiny frame drowning in red and blue silks. “Pearl! It’s amazing!”

Pearl nodded, but could not muster the enthusiasm to speak. Her youngest sister was a bastard too, but while Pearl had been sired on the wife of a middling lieutenant who had conveniently been slain in battle the following week, little Arjallia’s mother was one of the Viisianars, supposedly a queen or woman general of some kind, whom their father had taken as a slave after he first conquered the city of Ajman and renamed its river the Whip. Like most Mornals, Pearl was thickset and round-faced. Her pug nose was a bit on the small side, and her eyes a watery blue, but overall she was a typical specimen of her people. Arjallia took after her mother, though. The Viisianars were tall, slender, and beautiful, with skin the color of the rich soil of the earth. Most of them had hair as white as a Mornal’s buttocks, but some, like Arjallia, had thick golden tresses. Pearl was envious of those tresses, she sometimes had to admit to herself. Her own mop of jagged brown hair often made her think of shaving her head, as Mornal men did, but she knew her father would be furious. She was twenty-two, well into marriageable age, and five years betrothed to Margrave Kreokus back in Tauriconia, where they were headed. It would not do for her to remove one of the symbols of her femininity, lest her marriage price diminish.

Arjallia pulled up her horse next to Pearl’s and stared in wonder across the Whip. “It’s enormous.”

“It is,” Pearl agreed, redundantly. She had not set eyes upon Ajman since she was seven, and none of Calphus’ conquests east of the Whip could compare in size or even splendor, yet all the same it underwhelmed her. It worried her too. Arjallia had grown up within the thick walls of the fortress of Bazazanil, nearly a thousand miles east of here. She was unaccustomed to freedom, as were her keepers. Ajman was supposedly settled by now, its citizens acclimated to life under the New Orckid Empire’s reign. Still, there was no question these former slave-masters would resent being made the vassals of other men, and it would be an easy thing to take their revenge upon an unsuspecting girl. Arjallia was nothing if not unsuspecting.

Arjallia’s attendants were all slaves. An enormous amount of the Mornal army was composed of slaves in fact, all promised their freedom by the Emperor once the war was over. Yet here they were, approaching the end of the Emperor’s life, marching west, back home, and slaves they remained. Back at Bazazanil the war continued, there was that. Still, their fighting was over, and their durance remained. Slaves they might be, and fashioned to servitude, but sooner or later some fellow would be unwise enough to ask when, and things would surely turn ugly.

Pearl’s glance fell upon Arjallia’s glittery gray eyes, staring hungrily at the great city across the bridge. “Don’t cross yet,” she warned her.

“I wasn’t going to,” Arjallia insisted, her thin indignance laced with the hint of laughter. There was magic in that voice, but Pearl ignored it for now.

“If Father sees any of us on the other side of that river, before him…”

“I know, I know,” Arjallia grumbled. She looked back over her shoulder. The army looked half a world away. “We could though,” she said, gray eyes shining. “We could be across and back, and they’d never know.”

Pearl let herself look convinced for a second, just to fool with her, then shook her head. “No. Igetus would winkle it out of us soon or late.”

Arjallia rolled her head. “He has more important things to worry about.

“Ay, but our father will make him worry about it, and then he’ll pry it out of us, and then Father will be bellowing all the way to Tauriconia. ‘I’ll be the first to ride across the Whip,’ our father said, and it’ll be Hursta’s hide if you disobey him.” Hursta was Arjallia’s whipping girl, a slave who took the lashings Arjallia earned. Bastard or no, Arjallia was still a princess, and none could lift a hand to her and live.

That seemed to cow her a moment, but only a moment. “The first to ride across, he said?”

She needed say no more than that. “No,” Pearl answered. “You know what he meant, Arj, do not even think of it.”

“I don’t know what Father meant,” she shrugged, slipping from her white gelding and landing as light as a dewdrop upon the flattened grass. “I only know what he said, and I’m not riding across before him.” She was already running for the bridge by the time Pearl stumbled off her horse.

Arjallia was attired in a great riding gown of blood red, with a deep blue mantle, dyed-blue riding leathers and boots; the Mornal colors. Pearl wore simple black trousers, a white blouse, and a long blue vest to keep the dirt off and the sweat in. Yet all the same, little Arj far outdistanced her, and was already dancing on the other side of the bridge by the time Pearl’s boot struck wood.

“Get back over here right now,” she commanded.

“Why are you so scared?” Arj asked, sticking her tongue out.

“I’m scared for you,” Pearl said, trying not to grin. “Get back over here.”

Arj crossed her arms. “I only obey the Conqueror.”

“I’ll conquer this bridge and then I’ll conquer you, if you don’t get back over here!”

“Try it!” she shouted, and she was off like a hare.

Pearl was panting ten seconds in, her worries dripping off her like the sweat thrown from her brow. Arj’s pace in her gown was uncanny, but she was wise enough to run in circles, never so far that they could not hurry back to the bridge if anyone approached. Circles were wise, and foolish. Thick and slow she might be, but Pearl knew how to angle.

It felt like at least five minutes before Arjallia jinked right instead of left, and Pearl bowled her over, rolling in the grass and torn-up mud like peasants in a pigpen. Arj was giggling maniacally, and Pearl’s grin stretched as wide as the river. “Now,” she grunted between desperate breaths, “will you return?”

“This bridge is unlucky.”

It was a fair, deepish voice, and thoroughly unamused one way or the other. Pearl and Arj were staring at each other’s eyes, knowing before they knew, but still they looked. At the other end of the bridge, still atop his horse, with the others’ reigns in his left hand, was a relatively slender man in black trousers and tunic, his red jacket festooned with little gilded loops, a red cap atop his noticeably unshorn head. His black hair was cropped close, but against his white Mornal face, the hair stood out like a hairy mole. His teeth, when seen, were yellow and crooked, but they were not seen often. He eyed the two darkly from atop his horse.

“Unlucky?” Arjallia asked as they got to their feet.

The man nodded, then gestured with his chin. “The wood.”

Pearl was halfway across the bridge again when she looked down. “Evergreen? I’d think that was lucky if anything.”

“That’s not evergreen. It’s hemlock. Those idiots must have hewn down some hemlock trees from that little forest there.” He pointed south. Pearl could indeed see a modest wood of what looked like evergreens to her, but she could just make out a few trees that seemed a little greener, with perhaps a tinge of yellow to their leaves.

Pearl stood at the middle of the bridge. She suddenly felt as though she could sense the lumber beneath her, slithering like some beast, eager to rear up and strike at her. She shook her head. It was all nonsense. “Wood is wood.”

“Do you think Father will notice?” Arjallia asked.

The man shrugged. “Does he ever? Get back over here.”

Pearl hesitated a moment, then crossed back to her horse. “Come on, Arj.” She remounted her horse and waited. It was another few seconds before her sister looked up from the bridge and hurried back across.

The man handed Arjallia the reigns to her mount. “Is this a new horse?” he asked.

Arjallia grunted. “Hellicus broke a leg outside of Barsalam. The spearmen ate him.”

“I told you never to name your horse,” the man said. “They were born to die.” He allowed his voice to soften as he added, “Still, this is a beautiful creature.”

The glitter came back into Arj’s eyes at that. “I named him Igetus.”

“I’m flattered.”

“Don’t be. He’s a gelding, after all.”

It was another half-hour before the army proper arrived. Igetus never explained what he was doing so far ahead, but Pearl assumed he was keeping an eye on their naïve sister. He should have been keeping an eye on their equally naïve father.

Emperor Calphus the First, the Conqueror, took another ten minutes to ride up on his white Mornal unicorn. They had actually waited another two months to depart from Bazazanil, waiting for the unicorn to be brought from the Imperial stables at Ajman, so Calphus could ride it all the way back to Ajman. Pale as milk, the heavy leathery plates of its hide represented everything Mornal men aspired to be: thick, deadly, and as ill-tempered as it was witless. Calphus had even considered taking the Mornal unicorn as his sigil before settling on the less foreign and less inventive spear and shield. It seemed an odd choice. As far as Pearl knew, her father had never carried a spear or shield in his life. He preferred axes, mauls, or swords if needs be, large enough that even a man of his enormous strength needed two hands to wield them. Mornal steel was the bane of the Viisianars, who still fought with cheap iron, stone, and wood. Even their magics were weak, requiring complicated trills and delicate wooden instruments. Mornal magic required drums, and nothing more.

The unicorn’s horn was immense, shimmering in the dying sun as it lumbered heavily toward the bridge. The beast looked exhausted, but unlike horses unicorns did not lather their saddles, so it was difficult to tell how tired it really was. That was one reason unicorns were not typically ridden into battle, they had a tendency to drop dead without warning. They were also ornery, the Mornal ones especially, difficult to ride, never truly tamed, and it was said they would never let more than one man ride them in their life. Of course, this was exactly what made them prized by powerful and influential men.

Riding atop the white beast was another white beast. Calphus was at least twice the size he had been when they left Ajman fifteen years ago. They had celebrated his sixtieth birthday two years back, yet despite it all he was ravenous to keep marching east, to keep conquering until he reached the eastern sea.

All three of his sons had wanted him to turn back, to make the long journey home to Tauriconia and rule his empire, to grant some stability to this new nation he had created. It had been Igetus, the second born, who finally prevailed upon him. Calphus suspected all three of his sons had wanted to steal his glory, to be the ones to reach the eastern coast instead of him. He was right, of course, and the price of his returning to Tauriconia was that Igetus must return as well, along with the Emperor’s four daughters. Their brothers remained at the fortress of Bazazanil, thoroughly satisfied with how events had ended.

Calphus looked upon the Whip as only an emperor could: pride and lust and greed and even gluttony all mixing together in his sharp smirk. “The Whip,” he said, almost purring, yet loud enough for everyone to hear. Even with one foot in the grave, the Emperor’s voice was a strong as ever. “Where is my daughter?” he suddenly barked. “Must we wait all day?”

Everia was already descending from her palanquin, her hand in Imrell’s gauntleted grip. Unlike Pearl, Imrell had the nerve to actually shave her head. Not only that, she wore a suit of banded steel, enameled blue and red in the Mornal fashion, that she had commissioned from a blacksmith in Ajman sixteen years back. It was still in excellent repair, though not for lack of use. Imrell was the Emperor’s youngest legitimate child, just passed thirty, and she would not allow even the Emperor to tell her what to do. Pearl often wished she was as tall and strong and defiant as Imrell, but then she also wished she was not a bastard. Time spent wishing was time wasted, but Pearl was fond of wasting time.

Everia was garbed in light blue, her thin black hair falling down to her waist. Her silken gown was lined with cloth of gold, with a high collar laced in silvery pearls from the Purple Sea at the edge of the world, and a generous opening in the front that had been embellished with seafoam green velvet. Her great belly extended out of the opening like a second womb, like a ritual willing the child to be born as soon as possible. Everia was nearly forty, and her husband was still at the front with their brothers. She had grown frail during the pregnancy and was constantly under supervision. This was her third child, and no matter how things turned out, it would be her last.

Imrell ground her teeth as Everia smiled at her, and the small telltale clink made itself heard. It was supposedly the fashion back in Mornalith, back across the Bitter Sea, for men to wear metal molds of their lower teeth over their actual teeth, with two artificial fangs crafted to jut upward out of the jaw like boars’ tusks. Imrell, being a princess, had hers made of silver. Igetus had told the girls more than once that such jewelry was the habit of fools who owned more bravado than sense, though he was careful to say so out of Imrell’s hearing. He also told them that their father had owned just such a molding, made of gold, when he was young, before any of them were born.

Everia seemed to float slowly toward their father, who sat atop his unicorn drumming a great cudgel alternately against his thigh and the beast’s thick hide. “Come along, come along,” he muttered for the eighth or ninth time. “There is my angel. Took you long enough, didn’t it?”

It had not been five minutes since Calphus arrived, but Everia was all the grace and patience and polity of the family. “Thank you so much for waiting, Father,” she offered lightly. “I would have cried a week if I had not seen you taking the Whip a second time.”

Their father grumbled something as he grinned out of one side of his mouth. “Very well, very well.” He caressed his firstborn daughter’s cheek, flashed a set of still-white teeth, and turned his mount back toward the bridge. “What’s this?” he barked.

Arjallia had been standing at Pearl’s side the whole time, and before long had started leaning against her, either bored or sleepy as the sun began to die. But at their father’s words, she stood up straight as an arrow. “What’s what?” she asked.

If Calphus heard her, he did not show it. “Boy!” he bellowed, pointing at the bridge. “What is that?”

Igetus did not look at his father. “It’s moss, your Majesty.”

“I know what it is!” he shouted. “Couldn’t be bothered to scrape this stuff off before running off to the whorehouses, could they?”

“I’ll speak with them, your Majesty.”

Calphus waggled a meaty finger at his son before pointing at Imrell. “No. Have her do it,” he grinned. “I want them to suffer.”

Imrell smiled back, and the telltale clink was heard.

By now, nearly the entire army was loosely assembled, looking at their emperor. Mornal lords and margraves sat atop great chargers, two of them daring to ride gray Orckid unicorns, each at the head of dozens of seas of flesh. The cavalries were Mornal as well, but the foot, the spearmen, the archers, the shield carriers, the camp followers and the handful of leachers that remained, they were everyone. Pale Mornals, dark Viisianars, the golden Daridans who were all but extinct, and a dozen other shades of men and women from a dozen peoples that the Viisianars had conquered before them, centuries ago. They all stood at attention, watching her father.

Did any of them still dream of home? Were any of them fool enough to still hope for freedom? Did any of them care what her father had to say, or were they dreaming of bedding down in the shadow of the walls of Ajman, a longed-for respite from the endless marching.

“This empire is called the Orckid Empire,” Calphus began, “and so it shall remain. They call us the Mornals, but the Mornals live back in Mornalith across the sea. What need have we of them? Their ways? Their words?” He grunted and spat upon the trodden grass. “I came to this land to build a new world, and so I have. My sons continue my work at Bazazanil. They tell you I’m done and dead, but I say I’m here to rule this Empire I created.”

He pointed a thick finger at one of his lords, nearly as old as himself. “You came to me a Mornal, Neevius, all those years ago. Cross this river after me, and become an Orckid.” He pointed to one of his footmen. “You were a Viisian. Your people are destroyed and scattered. Cross this river after me, and become an Orckid.” He pointed to a shield bearer. “You were a Daridan, a slave of Viisians for centuries. Cross this river after me, and become an Orckid.”

“Isn’t he a Yaalkian?” Arjallia whispered, “not a Daridan?” Pearl shushed her.

“All of you are tried, and worn,” he bellowed, “but you are still alive. Be born again. Cross the Whip after me, and join the Orckid Empire!”

Calphus turned his unicorn in three circles, a feat more challenging that he made it appear, and charged across the bridge. It creaked and groaned, and Pearl could feel Arjallia tensing next to her, but the bridge held. The Emperor turned back, and with a single heave he threw his cudgel into the river. “Orckid!” he screamed.

“Orckid!” The lords all took up the chanting, and soon enough the cavalry did as well, then the foot, and everyone else.

They were a long time crossing that single bridge. The great wagon that Everia had ridden from Bazazanil, before being transferred to the palanquin near the river, was so huge it had been drawn by four Orckid unicorns, their horns cut off and gilded over. The unicorns were cut loose and made to scatter in their strange new home, and the wagon was left out to be disassembled the next day.

Pearl and Arjallia had crossed the bridge right after their sisters and brother, but they chose to stay nearby and watch the army crossing. Arjallia’s slaves had finally arrived, a quartet of serving women and two Daridan spearmen of spotless loyalty. They stood behind as they watched the army cross. The sun was long dead by now, and the stars glittered like diamonds in the black veil of night.

Pearl wondered if any of them had thought to turn back. They could go. Now more than ever, they could turn and run away. They might be caught, but they might escape. They could go. The brave, the foolish, the lucky. They could go.

Perhaps they already had.

Atlan Stories, Stories

SF Olympians 11: Folk Remix

I’ll soon be taking part in the 11th annual San Francisco Olympians Festival. San Francisco-based playwrights (and a few national playwrights) will be writing new works inspired by mythological figures. This year’s topic is folktales, and I’ll be penning a little ditty on dwarfs.

Playwright, Theater Stuff

Odd’s Bodkins’ Twelfth Night

Odd’s Bodkins presents: Twelfth Night! I’ll be appearing as everyone’s favorite coward: Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Theater Stuff, Twelfth Night

Julius Caesar Unrehearsed

Beware the Ides of September!

JULIUS CAESAR, Unrehearsed
September 16 & 23, 7:30pm
Carbon Arc, 4620 N Lincoln Ave

Pay What You Will

Promotional Art by Kaelea Rovinsky

Theater Stuff, Unrehearsed Shakespeare

Boudicca Returns: August 2020

We’ve got the receipts!

The Passion of Boudicca returns to Chicago in August of 2020!

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Passion of Boudicca, Theater Stuff