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.”
“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 son, 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 night encroached. 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.