Councilman Riktande silently closed the doors behind him. The drawing room in Lord Thynnos's royal palace was naturally dark, usually lit only by the light of the sun. A thin, smoky haze filled the room from Thynnos's hookah.
Thynnos himself sat in a plush armchair at the other end of the room, staring out the window. A green hookah, a sharp contrast to the darkness, sat on a low table to his left. As Riktande watched, Thynnos slowly brought the pipe up to his mouth and took a long draw, letting the smoke curl lazily into the air and glow gold as it wafted through the ray of sunlight. Riktande could barely make out the massive bookshelves on either side of the room, knowing they were full of ancient tomes of war and politics. He coughed, the sound echoing in the silence. Thynnos let out a slow breath, like a man savoring wine.
"Riktande," he said softly.
"You called me here, milord. I assume you wish to discuss matters of state?"
"In a way. In a way." He took another puff on the pipe. "I wish to discuss with you my plan to eliminate Sosaria."
Riktande jumped slightly. Thynnos was a fool to even consider such a thing! "Sir, if you'll remember, I quite clearly informed you that any military action against Sosaria would be futile."
"Yes...yes, you did. But how can I be sure that you are correct?"
Thynnos closed his eyes lazily. "The last assessment we have of the Sosarian military is years old. Your advice is based upon that assessment. In those years, how do we know that they haven't decreased their fleet size or cut their army in half?"
"Sir, I'm basing my recommendation upon the territory and the battlefield we would use if we were to attack Sosaria. The Morian Channel is far too small for our ships, and the Sosar Islands are riddled with - "
"That is why I have decided to send a ship into Sosaria waters to appraise their fleet preparedness and strength."
Riktande sighed. "Sir, as primary defense council member, I must inform you that such a thing would technically be in violation of naval law in Sosaria and could possibly be taken as prelude to a war."
"I appreciate your input, Riktande. However, it appears that you are less than enthusiastic about this plan. You may leave."
"Yes, sir." Riktande stood, and headed for the door. He paused with his hand on the handle and looked back at Thynnos. "Sir? When, exactly will the ship be sent to Sosaria?"
"Two hours ago."
Riktande sighed again. "Very good, sir." He left.
Manoke yawned mightily and opened her eyes. The sunlight poured in through her window, shining on the clean stone floor. She shifted slightly under her blanket and let the lazy feeling of awakening steal through her.
Suddenly, a large furry lump landed on her legs and padded softly up to her face. Manoke laughed.
"Awake already, Smoke? You're a light sleeper." She sat up in her bed and picked up the blackish-grey cat. Smoke looked up at Manoke with her silver eyes sparkling. Manoke scratched Smoke's ears for a few seconds, then set her on the floor. The young queen got out of her bed and stretched.
The royal bedroom was a massive place. Though windowless, it was filled with haunting portraits of past monarchs, all staring out beyond their frames with piercing eyes. Drapes and banners filled every bit of wall that wasn't covered with a painting. Thick rugs coated the floor, making walking difficult. The bed itself was big enough for three, with a pillow the size of a chair. The fireplace stood right next to the bed, making sleep uncomfortably hot.
Which was why Manoke, after sleeping in that room for three days, decided to move into one of the guest rooms. The royal bedroom, she said, was a monstrous waste of space and horribly overdone. The room she had now was more homely, with a large window on one wall that opened up to the dawn. A much smaller bed was far away from the fireplace, though still close enough to keep it warm in winter. The old royal bedroom had been converted into a storage room. Manoke had nearly given Lummon a fit when she'd told the advisor that the room was too big.
After brushing her hair (it was currently made up in three ponytails) Manoke opened the doors to her wardrobe and peered inside. "Let's see," she said thoughtfully. "I think I'll try this for today." She pulled out a massive red robe trimmed with golden thread. Manoke had a fondness for ostentatious clothes.
She slipped the robe on and let the sleeves hang loosely on her arms. Manoke straightened the silver necklace she wore, a present from her mother. A belt made of golden rings went around her waist. A ruby in a silver chain hung from the center ring. Manoke pulled out a black box from her sidetable and opened it to take out a pair of blue pearl earrings. The golden circlet that marked her as queen went on over her velvet-colored hair. Manoke straightened her robe one last time and walked out the door. After a moment's deliberation, Smoke followed her.
Idle chatter filled the throne room from the mouths of hundreds of courtiers, ambassadors, officials and representatives. Every day they gathered there to greet their queen and pay her homage, though most did it only to gain favor in the palace.
The court of Sosaria, like any other in the world, was full of people either seeking or giving their praise, since praise was how one moved up in the world. Those who seeked it were ruthless, for they had to be ruthless to achieve. Every scrap of gossip could work to their advantage, every person they were introduced to could help them later in life. They would claw and grapple with each other ruthlessly on their quest for reward.
But those who gave their favor were not ruthless, they were simply cruel. A single word from them could build the career of a promising youth, or utterly destroy it. As it was with men who held such power, they had become cruel with power. They would toy with people as a cat toys with a mouse before eating it. On their every whim people could live or die.
The court of a country is the most hostile environment one could be in. Every day, positions changed, whether the people who held those positions knew it or not. Things were constantly in motion, and those who did not move with the court could easily be killed. Those left were tougher and leaner for surviving; they were veterans. Only the most clever and sly succeeded in winning Manoke's favor.
The throne room itself was another massive spectacle of the palace. The architect of the Palace of Sosaria was ordered to make it as imposing as possible, and he succeeded well. The throne room was immensely tall, carved of blocks of solid marble. Set in the walls were windows everywhere, looking out on the world below. Giant chunks of carved and polished crystal hung from the ceiling on golden chains, letting the sunlight split and shatter and spill along the richly carpeted floor. Woven tapestries, depicting scenes from the tulmultuous wars that had engulfed Sosaria, were spaced between the windows. Columns along the side of the wall made the room seem smaller. Above the windows and tapestries was a thin ledge that went all around the room, with hooks to hang the tapestries on.
At the far end of the room was a platform, stepped like a pyramid. On its summit was the golden throne of Sosaria, encrusted with rubies, sapphires, amethysts, and every conceivable jewel. The headboard was carved with the royal seal of the Sosarian crown. Behind the throne was another tapestry. This tapestry was different from the others; it was less a picture than an emotion. Swirls of color, looping around each other and twisting in the most intricate patterns; it almost seemed to be alive. It provoked feelings within every person who saw it, be they good or bad feelings. It was said to be a treasure, made by the Sheikahs and entrusted to Sosaria.
The guard at the other end of the hall banged his spear on the floor three times, his armor jangling from the vibration. All the talk in the hall instantly ceased. The guard roared, "The daughter of King Otair and Queen Polya, jewel of the throne of Sosaria, bearer of the Staff of Lord Khada and ruler of the Land of Sosaria, Queen Manoke!"
The doors slowly rolled open, and there stood Manoke in all her royal glory, draped in the loose-fitting robe, wearing the circlet that shone and glittered on her hair, and carrying a relic from days of yore, the Staff of Lord Khada. Khada was a legendary king of Sosaria, even though he'd been deposed, and his staff was still held by the current ruler as an unnecessary symbol. It was easily as tall as Manoke, made of an oak limb cunningly carved to look like three intertwined branches, and the bottom end flared out in legs so it could stand alone. At the top, a giant silver orb was grasped by the same wood, glowing with an unearthly beauty. All in all, Manoke hated it, but her royal attach, and official guardian Lummon still forced her to carry it.
Slowly, regally, Manoke walked the length of the red carpet and ascended her throne. Smoke stalked up and sat alongside. Manoke almost laughed; it looked as though Smoke were attempting a royal posture as well. Taking the idea of feline politics off her mind, she knocked the end of the staff on the dais, and everyone in the hall bent on one knee. Lummon stepped forward.
"Hear ye, hear ye," he said in a voice that was startlingly loud for such a small man. "Queen Manoke now holds court for the land of Sosaria." He unrolled a scroll of parchment and read off the list of problems before her.
One of the duties of the reigning monarch was to solve disputes, be they between the Lords of the provinces of Sosaria or arguments between the commoners over their pigs and cows. Manoke took it as a personal challenge. Impartial justice was supposed to be the mark of a great monarch, and Manoke did it well.
Lummon cleared his throat. "A dispute between Lord Julmer of Sojug province, and Lady Gherna of Sorud province, over the increased price of minerals from Sojug province and the purchase of said minerals at such prices." Lord Julmer, a fat, balding man with thinning hair, and Lady Gherna, a painfully thin middle-aged woman with far too much makeup, stepped forward from the crowd.
"First off, my Queen, our mines are already working at full speed, but the veins are bearing fewer fruits of late. We require extra capital if we are to continue the production of these much-needed metals." Lord Julmer always sounded like he was talking through cloth, his voice was so thick.
"But we require those metals ourselves. We have begun construction on three more windmills for our grain refinery, and those metals will be forming integral parts of the windmills. If Sorud province is forced to pay extra for the metal, we may find ourselves with too little money to build the windmills at all!" Lady Gherna, on the other hand, sounded like an un-oiled door hinge.
Manoke frowned. "Three more windmills? Your refineries are producing that much grain?"
Gherna shifted on her feet awkwardly. "Well, these are in preparation for the increased harvest when,"
Manoke cut her off. "Increased, my foot. Internecine warfare between the provinces is not a prospect that appeals to me. I would like to settle this as soon and as easily as possible." She leaned back and thought a moment. Her brow furrowed slowly as she weighed the options. Then she sat up and smiled.
"Lady Gherna." The woman looked up expectantly. "Seeing as the harvest is not yet here in full, I do not see the need for three windmills. Therefore, you will halt construction on two of them." Gherna's face fell. Manoke turned to Julmer. "And Lord Julmer, I am fully aware that you have no control over the yield of your mines. However, I ask that you attempt to invigorate your miners somehow. Once you discover a new vein, and I know you will.. you will once again lower the prices of your minerals. At that time, Lady Gherna, you may restart the construction of your other windmills. I have spoken," she said, ending her deliberation.
"The Queen has spoken; justice is served," the court intoned back. Lady Gherna, still crestfallen, and Lord Julmer stepped back.
Yes, justice was what Manoke was good at. The only problem was it got boring quickly, especially on beautiful days like this when she could be outside.
Manoke sighed. When would she get to do something exciting?
"Sompn' off the port bow, cap'n!" The shout came down from the crow's nest, easily heard even over the crashing waves and cries of the gulls. Captain Shullney looked up and signalled the lookout that he had heard. With loud clomps that made the deck vibrate, he stepped down from the stern deck and went to the port side of the ship.
Captain Shullney was a tough man, weathered by the forty years he'd had at sea. His deep blue uniform bore the insignia of the Sosarian Navy, two crossed harpoons over a leaping whale. Below that were the three stripes of a captain, with the name of his command: the Justice. He was second in experience only to Admiral Redune, commander of the fleet, and had been a friend of King Otair. Seventeen years ago, he'd had his right arm clamped in the jaw of an enraged whale. He'd lost blood, had his arm mangled, and nearly drowned. When he got to the mainland, he'd been sent to Evian, the capital, for treatment and bedrest. The first sight he saw when he woke up was a very young Manoke peering into his eyes curiously. He'd laughed, and from then on recovered quickly. Manoke had been almost a second daughter to him, and the prim queen had taken a shine to the hot-tempered seadog.
Shullney stood up against the rail and peered off into the distance. Just visible on the horizon was a dark blob, fairly indistinct. Carle, the first mate, came up and stood next to the captain. Carle was a trim young woman, only a few years older than Manoke was, but a tactical master. Her bright red hair, streaked with gold, was tied back in a tight bun. She wore a uniform similar to Shullney's, and wore the two stripes and star that marked her as first mate.
Shullney said without turning, "What do you think, Carle?"
She looked out and thought a moment. "It's a ship, definently...looks small...maybe a scout ship?"
"Might be...where's the glass?" Shullney reached down and picked up the spyglass from its mount on the deck and held it up to his eye.
Through the glass, the ship was easily visible. The sleek sides, the carved prow, the low-placed sails...
"It's a scout, all right." He lowered the glass and handed it to Carle. "And not just any scout, a Molderanian scout. Trying to come in quick, off that east wind."
"Maybe it's lost," Carle said, her eye to the glass. "You know, there was that galleon of theirs a few months ago that thought it was in Dubatian waters...maybe this is the same sort of thing."
"I don't know...it's moving pretty purposefully. Maybe their captain just wants to rattle our cage a little." Shullney scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Well, there's really nothing we can do. It hasn't done anything really aggressive, nor does it seem to be lost."
"If it's not attacking, and it knows where it's going, then why is it here?"
"I don't know, Carle...I don't know."
This story uses countries and ideas created by that most wonderful author and webmaster, Juliet Singleton. My thanks to her. E-mail me at GlnnMiller@aol.com.
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