Chapter 7: Enemies, Near and Far
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
Another blizzard rolled in off the Ocean of Light the day after Jonar's visit to the library of the truthseekers. This pleased the young man to no end as it gave him the opportunity to read his way through the palace library, or at least try. That was where he spent nearly all of his free time in the two weeks before Lord Lailar informed them that he was heading up to the Empire of the Gnath. The Queen had given him leave and Lord Xavear volunteered to accompany them. Jonar was surprised to hear that Princess Alyssa had tried to do so as well but the Queen and Princess Issabella refused to permit her for safety reasons. Lailar watched Myka's face the entire time he recounted the events in the Queen's private council chambers, looking for any hint at what she might do or say.
Myka noticed this, already knew what he was looking for, and was perfectly willing to let him have it. "I will go with you and Jonar," she pronounced, pleased at the smile that flashed over Lailar's face before he bowed and straightened his expression. Then she noticed the look of disappointment on Jonar's face and scowled at the young man. "Do you not want to go back to your home and confront those who perpetrated a malfeasance upon you?"
Jonar shrugged. "It was four years ago. I have a new home now," he replied placidly, his face the usual blank wall of stone that was his normal expression.
Xavear was chuckling. "He just wants to finish reading the palace library. If I remember my wandering days correctly, the southern and western reaches of the Empire of the Gnath are every bit as ... ah, how shall I say this? ... rustic as your kin often think of us Gnathar as being. I doubt there were more than twenty different books in all of the Telanaria district." Myka then realized that the Lord of House Losh'Varrii said "Telanaria" with a certain malice and venom in his tone.
"Never mind, Jonar," Lailar interrupted. "If you like, I will buy you several books before we leave. You do not have so many possessions that they will overburden Gnusyl. Now, the Queen has ordered a banquet in our honor tonight. We are to be escorted to the banquet hall in high honor at dusk."
Myka's eyes shone. "Will there be dancing?"
The gnath lord shrugged. "I don't dance so I did not think to ask."
"Knowing the Queen as I do, Lady Myka, there will be," Lord Xavear answered with a smile. "I have not met a person with Ce'al blood who will pass up an opportunity to have music and dance included in on an occasion."
Myka turned on Jonar. "Do you know how to dance?"
The towering cordach nodded tentatively. "Probably not like you think, though. I was the most proficient of my peers in the sword dances and chant jigs," he mumbled, hoping the two older men would not hear.
But Lord Xavear chuckled, his eyes shining with mischief. "You would be surprised, Lady Myka. If you have never seen a man dance the mnykari rhythm dance with a full-length blade, you have not yet seen the height of grace and suppleness of movement. It is a most beautiful sight when done properly."
"I meant proper dances!" she growled, stomping out of her sitting room.
Jonar shrugged apologetically and quickly pursued his irritated mistress. Myka headed for the library, surprisingly. She had begun to snap at Jonar and his excursions to the book-lined room. When they entered, they found that it was not empty as it usually was. Two finely dressed Ce'al noblewomen, one about Myka's age and the other presumably her mother, stood near the librarian's desk with a half dozen red liveried Meikari guards.
The older Ce'al smiled and nudged the younger when she saw Myka with Jonar. "Well, if it isn't Lady Myka, Matriarch of the House of Junia, and her oaf of a servant boy," the noble purred in Ce'alian, her eyes hard as she flicked meaningful glances at the Meikari guards. "What do you suppose, daughter, a barbarian-lover like this Junia is doing in a place like this?"
The young noblewoman shrugged. "I don't know, matriarch," she confessed with mock regret in the same language, her face sad. Then she brightened. "Perhaps she is trying to teach to the beast to read," she suggested brightly.
Myka's face hardened immediately upon seeing the group and she stopped Jonar right inside the library. A lazy smile slid into place on the young girl's face. "Why, I do believe it is Matriarch Ozzya of the House of Xia and her daughter Ulyanna," Myka indentified the mocking females, her own tone purring. "You know, Jonar, I think this is the first time I have ever seen a Xia anywhere near a book. I didn't think they knew what reading was."
As far as Jonar knew, it was the first time his mistress had ever seen a Xia and this encounter was making him very nervous. The Meikari guards of the elder matriarch were fingering their weapons and looking at him speculatively. Out of years of habit, Jonar never went anywhere without at least a sword. Since he had sold the Dei-Xhan axe, however, he never went anywhere without all of the new weapons he bought with the money. He had a new sword belted at his hip and a nice battle-axe strapped to his back as well as several daggers hidden about his body. He was wishing he had gotten in the habit of wearing the new mail shirt he had acquired from the palace armorer as well as he watched the Xia matriarch's face turn red with anger.
"How dare you ... you ... you Gnathar-lover!" Ozzya screamed.
She looked like she was going to continue but Jonar decided to take the initiative. He stepped in front of his smirking mistress and drew his sword, aiming its shiny point at the Ce'al noblewoman's throat. "If you do not contain yourself and leave with your men, I will make sure the House of Xia will be looking for a new matriarch," he promised in a grumble of a bass which rooted the Meikari to the spot, her face deathly pale. His eyes flicked threateningly over to the younger Xia. "And your daughter will not be around to claim the position. That I can guarantee."
It was a long moment before the façade of the matriarch began to crumble. Just as she was about to begin begging for her life at this giant barbarian's feet, Princess Alyssa sauntered out from one of the aisles at the back of the library with an open book in her hand. "Ah, there you are, Jonar," she drawled, looking at the Xia's predicament with a broad smile. "I was wondering where you were. I thought I might find you here."
The princess slowly walked over to Ozzya and put a fingertip on Jonar's sword, running her finger down the flat. She looked at the desperate matriarch and her whimpering daughter with a faint smile. Then she walked around the stock-still Xia guards and shook her head, a look of disappointment on her face as she sauntered over to stand beside Myka.
"Ozzya, have you not learned better than this in your four decades of life in Hynost-Qaanzyr? If I were the older women of your House, I would be thinking seriously of finding a new matriarch about now. One who knows better than to go after someone guarded by a giant who stands nearly seven feet tall and does not know the niceties surrounding the title of matriarch," Alyssa mocked the sweating woman whose eyes were locked on the shining tip of the huge sword leveled unwaveringly at her throat. "Your feud with House Junia has been going on nearly as long as Meikar has been in existence and this is the best ploy you could come up with to end it in Junia's time of vulnerability. I think she should go back to that quaint little house she has in the city and rethink things, don't you, Lord Lailar?"
Lailar strode out from the same aisle Alyssa had emerged from and stood beside Jonar, looking down at the noblewoman. "Perhaps. Maybe we can discuss it with her after we are done talking with Jonar and Lady Myka," he suggested with a straight face.
Jonar slowly lowered his sword, glad for the respite as the weapon was getting very heavy. "As you wish, Lord Lailar. I am at your service," he replied, playing along with them.
As soon as he turned from the two Ce'al women, they and their guards fled for the other entrance to the library. "You have just made your first Ce'al enemy, Jonar. Congratulations!" Princess Alyssa said joyfully, her eyes shining up at him warmly.
Lailar's face darkened. "Not the first. The first are in Port Meikari. And don't forget the Gnathar enemies he has up in Telanaria," he told her somberly, looking at the young Gnathar. "That was why I came to see you. Just after you two left, one of my people came with a report I have been waiting for. It seems that one of the many reasons your family was on the outs in your village was that they were fairly wealthy members of the Cult of Sol. About five years ago, the governor of the province realized how powerful the Cult was getting and ordered a discreet and wholly unauthorized repression. That is one of the reasons artisans and caste leaders began dying, as the Imperial Ambassador reported."
Jonar's eyes grew flinty. "And what happened to this governor?"
Lailar sighed. "He was promoted a few years ago to the post of Secretary of Provincial Relations and last year, after the mysterious death of the First Secretary, he was promoted again," he reported glumly. "He is now the chief advisor of the Emperor and unassailable."
It was a lousy time to travel, as Jonar well knew, and he had a feeling that his mistress had never before done so. Add to that fact that they were tramping across half of Titia-Lohr through areas which were not only rugged, but dangerous as well, and the journey to Telanaria would be a rough one. It was going to be two months just from Hynost-Qaanzyr to the beginning of the Dorkan Imperial Highway in Dorkan City. Two months to finish barely a quarter of the journey. By the time they reached the little village on the frontiers of the Empire of the Gnath, winter would be returning again.
Which probably explains why Lord Lailar decided to ride past Port Meikari late one afternoon nearly a month after the royal send-off Queen Leina and King Voendur gave the five of them, Major Brandar Brandarsson having volunteered to make the journey with them. Jonar kept replaying that scene over and over in his mind on the long days and lonely nights of their trek back across eastern Meikar. The single most vivid of his memories was the fact that Alyssa, Princess Alyssa, looked longingly at his face through the entire thing. She looked stunning in the olive and yellow gown which somehow accented her small but nicely shaped breasts. It was all Jonar could do to keep his eyes where they belonged the entire time. When she descended the dais where she and her family had stood through all the flowery speeches, the young Gnathar nearly went into a panic for lack of a proper place to put his eyes. He finally focused on the disapproving frowns of Queen Leina and King Voendur. Alyssa had smothered him with a clinging hug and soundly kissed him on the mouth, leaving him flushed and disoriented. Enough so that Myka and Lailar had to guide him out of the throne room behind a silently chuckling Xavear.
But that was more than a month ago in a beautiful city located in a lovely little harbor. Now they were all lying beneath the stars, back in the mountains Jonar so trusted to keep him alive in the four years since he was last in his home. And they were going back. He was ambivalent about that return. He was never one to give much credence to the Gods since the Gods seemed to have left him out of their grand schemes, but as he lay under the tent canvas they brought to keep the weather off of them at night, the young cordach kind of wished he had a God to pray to. He had a bad feeling that he was going to need one. One doesn't get thrown out of a village and simply decide to return. Those doing the throwing often have objections, or so he figured. He knew he wasn't the smartest member of their little group but he knew when he was headed for trouble.
Such things kept him up until it was his turn at watch. He never could figure out why Lord Lailar demanded they be awake for such duties. Couldn't they sleep in such a way as to rouse at the slightest irregularity in the night's sounds? He always waited for whoever he relieved to fall asleep and then curled up with Gnusyl. The Gnath would know of danger long before him anyway.
And of course Gnusyl roused him when it was the next person's turn at watch. Such was the tedium of life on the road. Nothing happened between the Meikari capital and the border of the Dorkan Empire nearly two months later except a minor blizzard a couple of days into the Ythol Mountains east of Port Meikari. And not far from the ruins of Mynar.
Since the beginning of their nation as a small cluster of fishing villages and commercial towns on the coast, the Gnathar who dominate the Dorkan Empire have been obsessive about their borders. The largest single force in their army was the fifty legions charged with patrolling the borders at all times. Fifty thousand Gnathar warriors prowling the borderlands make for a very good deterrent to the Dorkans' neighbors thinking about war or raiding. Smuggling is also not a very good idea, which is why anyone entering the Dorkan Empire goes through the guarded border crossings instead of crossing wherever they happen to be. The legions of Dorkan are notorious for assuming that if you are coming across at a remote site, you must be a smuggler.
They were crossing the border in the foothills of the Ythol Mountains where foresters had denuded a hundred yard swath of the woods on either side of the border. Jonar and his companions waited behind a string of ten elphs being thoroughly inspected by the score of border guards. It was snowing lightly again and the sky was dark and lead gray despite it being nearly noon on a very cold mid-winter day. The merchants in charge of the elphs sat on three more elphs beside the large garrison where the finely dressed customs official stood under an awning speaking amiably with the three Gnathar.
"How long will this take?" Myka demanded peevishly from her place on Gnusyl behind Jonar. "You would think they were looking for the crown jewels in those packs."
Lailar laughed. "You are not far off, my Lady. The Gnomes and Ce'al have a bad habit of trying to sneak jewels and other taxable items past these border inspections. The Dorkans make a lot of money on the customs duties such inspections bring. So far, I would say those merchants will be forking over at least ten imperial kaspars."
"Fifteen," Xavear disagreed. "They just found the sneaks' jewel cache."
True enough, the soldiers were grinning and patting a young Gnathar on the back as they went to report to the official. The merchants tried to hide their chagrin as they forked over nearly a score of gold Dorkan coins. The official waved to two men at the simple pole gate blocking the way into the Dorkan Empire and they allowed the merchants to get their train in motion.
"Anything to declare?" a soldier suddenly demanded from below Jonar.
The gray haired Gnathar scowled up at him and turned to Myka. "Do you have anything to declare, Lady?"
"I don't think so," Myka said, uncertain. She looked to Lord Lailar but he was busy speaking with the customs official.
"Please dismount and open all of your packs," the soldier ordered suspiciously.
Jonar shrugged and slid down from Gnusyl. He caught Myka as she tried to dismount herself for the first time. He then took down his only pack. Myka began untying her belongings from the leather harness.
"Sergeant! Let them go. They have nothing to declare," the official yelled from the barracks.
Myka looked at Jonar, surprised, as she retied her bags and tried to climb back up. A gentle shove on her foot got her back up and Jonar was settling himself into place in front of her even as Gnusyl lumbered into motion. The four Gnaths paced by the shocked faces of the border guards and into the Dorkan Empire.