I should have known that Elizabeth von Sarmas would not miss one last chance to make her presence known. From Forcing the Spring an upcoming Colplatschki novel.
The next holy day, Pjtor decided to attend worship at St. Donn’s-at-the-Rocks. “It is rather different from the liturgy you are familiar with, Pjtor Adamson,” Geert and Michael Looven had cautioned him. It was also close, small, and favored by many of the journeyman shipbuilders. The sailors and master builders tended to go to St. Issa-by-the-Jetty. Pjtor decided to walk, and Looven came with him. As they approached the grey and cream stone church with its lantern-spire, Pjtor blinked and stopped. Soldiers in the tan and brown of the Sea Republics army watched from the edges of the market square in front of the church, not doing anything but obviously keeping an eye on people. A number of horses and a single mule swished their tails as they stood at one of the hitch-racks by the church. Looven nudged Pjtor, who leaned down. “The rumor may have been true, Pjtor Adamson. See if you can see an ugly woman with light-brown hair inside.”
What rumor, Pjtor wondered. He’d heard plenty, but none about ugly women. He removed his hat and bowed as he entered the church. Michael Looven bent the knee, then nudged Pjtor into one of the benches-with-backs, half-way to the altar. As his eyes adapted, Pjtor stared, then caught himself. Oh, why not, he was not the emperor of NovRodi right now. A statue of a muscular man carrying a shoulder yoke and buckets stood near the altar. That had to be St. Donn, patron of watermen and those charged with bringing fresh water to cities and towns. But where was the grace screen? Where were the other saints? Pjtor peered around and spotted two strange figures beside smaller altars, one a man and the other a woman. At least Godown’s symbol was the same. He smelled incense and stood with the others as a bell rang overhead.
The procession of Writ and Elements was not too different, although the Elements should only process on great feasts or in times of dire need, and he didn’t know of either of those going on right now. Everything else though! Except for the Writ, he could barely believe that he worshipped in a place of the same faith. Women sang in the choir, someone not a priest assisted with the elements, and the incense came at the wrong time. The music was strange to Pjtor’s ears, although the sung responses were not too different. Women sat with men, another strange thing. How could the church have changed so much so quickly? Did they not know the real liturgy and songs?
With some reservations, Pjtor went up for the elements. Those too remained the same, and they eased his mind a little. Perhaps the sea people were not quite as heretical as they seemed. Maybe. Pjtor looked for an ugly woman and spotted two, one in brown and the other a very old fishwife he’d heard two days before lambasting someone who tried to talk her down on some herring.
It was when he went outside that he saw what Looven had meant. The woman in brown stood beside the mule, one hand on the mule’s hindquarters. Her accent made her almost impossible to understand, but her frown and tapping boot he knew: the universal sign of an angry rider. “Fuht a mess. Off kourse you fuhd loose a shoo file I fas furshippink. Yew are sooch a mule!”
The man inspecting the animal’s hoof straightened up and laughed. “Yew ekspekt diverent, your highness?”
As Pjtor stared, one of the soldiers walked up with a smith. The smith soon had the offending shoe replaced, and one of the other men, in dark blue with long grey hair tied back with a dark-blue ribbon, crouched and helped the woman mount the lopsided saddle. She did so with an easy grace. The man smiled at her and said something quiet. She replied and he laughed, shaking his head as he too mounted. They rode like cavalry, and Pjtor wondered. Then he saw the sword strapped to the woman’s odd saddle, and the butt of a hand-gonne by the sword. He watched her more carefully as she rode past, and straightened up, giving her a small salute.
She returned it, tapping her hat brim with an ornate black and silver stick, then rode on. “And that is her imperial highness Princess Elizabeth von Sarmas, commander of the armies of the Eastern Empire, famous for her prowess as a commander and for the mules and horses she raises, and for the pickled shamah meat sold from her flocks.” Michael Looven nodded at the soldiers following the woman and her party. “I’ve seen her husband before, Imperial Colonel Lazlo Destefani, but never her.”
“She’s old and ugly.”
“That she is. And she’s Godown’s gift to the Eastern Empire, probably the only reason we’re not fighting the Frankonians and Turkavi both right now.” Looven led the way back to Pjtor’s inn. “If the stories are true, she’s over fifty years old. Rumor had it her mother died recently in a convent near here, and her highness came in person to thank the sisters for their care. Her husband is her chief aid, commanded the Sea Republic armies at the battle of Boehm, a master of logistics and maneuver in his own right, or so it is said.”
“And her sons?” If they were anything like their parents, Pjtor wanted to hire them for his own army.
“None. No daughters, either, only Godown knows why. I once heard someone from farther east swear that she survived an assassination attempt just after the Battle of Vindobona, thirty-five years ago, but it made her barren.” He shrugged. “Could also be that she rides and fights so much, she can’t carry a child. Or that Godown chose not to bless them, for His own reasons.”
Pjtor wondered. “Does she always ride a mule?”
“Mule or stallion, or so they say. She was called the mule-duchess before her elevation in rank, more for the mules and horses she sells than for her face.”
“I want to meet her.”
Looven looked at him, paused, then said, “As the shipwright’s apprentice, or as the emperor of NovRodi? Because if it is as emperor, well, the apprentice won’t get any peace once word spreads.”
Pjtor started to get mad, then jerked back as something flew out of the open top-half of a doorway, followed by two cats and much commotion, with a few curses as punctuation. One cat grabbed the oblong thing in its jaws and raced off, the second cat chasing it. The top of the door slammed shut and a bolt thumped into place. The men looked at each other and grinned, then shrugged. Bad cats knew no national borders.
(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All rights reserved.