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?”
“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.”
“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.”