Kiara has been selected to marry the nephew of the Empress of NovRodi. Kiara’s mother has plans…
In a New World
The next weeks passed in a hazy mist of fabric, fussing, and her mother’s hysterics. Kiara began to look forward to going to NovRodi because after she married, her mother could no longer interfere with her every minute. Forgive me, Godown, but I liked it better when she pretended I did not exist.
Kiara leaned into the body brush, giving Woody a thorough cleaning before she allowed the grooms to put the saddle on him. She needed to get out of the manor house for a while, even though the low, dark skies and wind from the sea warned of a little late snow. Woody had already started shedding his heavy winter coat and red-brown hair drifted down around her, settling onto her cloak and split skirt. She did not care in the least. Smelling like horse was preferable to enduring her mother’s vapors. Her father had gone out on a diplomatic visit to Courland, leaving Kiara to her mother’s mercies.
Satisfied that nothing remained on Woody’s back and flanks that might chafe him, Kiara stepped back, shaking hair off her hand. “You may saddle him,” she told the young man standing close by. Then she got out of the way, put the body brush back into its box, and inspected the headstall. The gelding had a sensitive spot on one cheek and Kiara preferred to finish “dressing” him herself. He seemed to stay calmer that way.
Once she and Woody rode out of the gate, the wind cut into her, finding every bit of bare skin. She inhaled deeply of the wet, sea-rich air. She heard the normal sounds of a work day at the manor, of men pounding metal in the small repair-smithy outside the gate, and the creaking complaint of the wood wagon as it brought fuel to replenish what the cooks and others used. Kiara guided Woody well clear of the cart track. He did not like donkeys and reacted vehemently to mules, for reasons no one in the stables could fathom. The few mules he’d gotten close to had complained and sulled up, suggesting that the feeling was mutual. Kiara wanted to ride her father’s big stallion, Seazer, but her mother forbade it and Hans, the riding master, had discouraged her as well.
Kiara and Woody made a few trips around the jump field, then rode along the forest trail down toward the guard post by the secondary harbor. From there she turned inland once more, turning her collar up to try and protect her neck from the wind’s cold touch. The old burn scar remained sensitive to cold. Kara-kaa, kara-kaa a bright blue jay called, then dove off the branch and swept across the trail ahead of her, spooking Woody. The white crest on top of the woods jay always reminded her of the bishop on St. Basil’s Day, with his white hat and stole over blue robes. She sat deeper, calming the gelding. “See, birds do not hurt horses, at least not forest birds.” They walked on until they met the main road leading back to the manor. She did not want to go back, but where else could she go? Ride down to the docks and hide under one of the boats still beached for winter, emerging only when she was supposed to leave for NovRodi? Kiara giggled at the thought. Proper young ladies did not hide under boats.
Four days later hiding under a boat seemed more appealing no matter what propriety demanded. Her father had been delayed and the ship to NovRodi would leave in three more days. Kiara and Goodwife Martina stared at the contents of Kiara’s promise chest, and the older matron covered her mouth with one hand. At least she said, “Blessed Saint Alice, Saint Sabrina, and Saint Gimple, you’d think your lady mother was the one getting married. What are we going to do?”
“Is there nothing left, ma’am?”
“Not a copper coin or a dust kitten, I fear, my lady. I’m sorry. I thought all the comings and goings were for your things as well as your lady mother’s and I did not check.” She shook her head. “Godown have mercy.”
“Selah.” Well, if there’s nothing to be done, there’s nothing to be done. Her imperial majesty did not ask about my dowry, so maybe she will not be unhappy to learn that I have no household goods to show her. Lady Sonja now had a wardrobe suitable for the mother of a princess. Kiara had one new cloak, and heavier underthings, plus skirted breeches to wear on the ship, because she and Goodwife Martina had made those themselves. She’d already hidden Sweetie in the very bottom of the chest, where her mother would never look. “Is Papa going to see my things?”
Martina went pale. “Oh, oh dear St. Alice, I, I do not know. I hope not, my lady. Forgive me, but I hope not.”
Because he will know that Mama spent everything the empress sent on herself and not on me, and the empress may blame him and the Patrician. Oh dear. Kiara sat hard on the edge of her bed. “Well Godown provides,” she said at last.
“Selah. That He does.”
By the time Kiara stepped into the carriage to ride down to board the ship for NovRodi, she’d begun to wonder if perhaps He might provide her with inspiration to use to calm her mother. Perhaps Kiara could find a quiet place on the boat to hide. Her eyes ached because she’d cried half the night after the messenger from her father had delivered his news. The Crown Prince of Polonia had arrived at Courland, and the Patrician would not release him to say farewell to his daughter. Kiara had suddenly realized that she might not see her father again for a very long time. She’d not see her brothers, either, but they’d been fostered for almost ten years now, and she hardly recognized them the few times they met.
Lady Sonja acted as if she were the potential bride, not the mother of the potential bride. That was, when she wasn’t criticizing Kiara’s manners, posture, looks, clothing, and behavior. Kiara stared out the window in the carriage door and watched a bird floating on the wind, not moving much as it looked for something. Kiara needed to be like that bird, she decided, calm and unmoved. Proper young ladies did not get upset. Proper young ladies deferred to their elders and superiors.
The carriage, followed by a wagon carrying Lady Sonja’s possessions and Kiara’s two chests, reached the main harbor without excitement. That was good. Kiara remembered being very small and watching a wagon runaway on an icy slope, getting turned around backwards and dragging the two horses with it until it smashed against the wall of a warehouse. She did not want to be around her mother if anything happened to their baggage. A footman opened the carriage door and handed Lady Sonja out, then went to see about directing the men unloading the bags and other goods, leaving Kiara go get out unassisted. “You are such a graceless child,” her mother sighed, then led the way to a very large ship. Kiara wanted to stop and look at the other ships. She’d never been allowed this close to the docks before. But she followed along, enjoying the warm sun and wrinkling her nose at the smell of overripe fish.
The way between the different ships seemed to be made of stone, but not like the manor house or other stone buildings and roads Kiara knew. Black and smooth but not slippery, the surface had very few cracks. Had it been made of one piece of stone? But how had people moved it? Or was it a bunch of small rocks plastered together? No, that didn’t seem right, and she couldn’t imagine anything melting rock together like the smiths melted metals together. But her father said that sea coal was a form of rock that they burned for heat, so maybe that was how the surface had been made. Her mother came to a stop by the large, fancy ship and Kiara stopped too, eyes down, studying the pier. She dug at it a little with the heel of one shoe. It did not give. She felt heat coming from it, probably the sun just like the outside south wall of the manor got warm in late summer.
“Where is our escort?” her mother demanded, but quietly. Kiara kept her eyes down. She could see the tip of her mother’s toe patting the pier. That meant Lady Sonja was very unhappy.
“No, ye g’rt fool, do not load so. Those to upper hold, not lower. Wat thinks you?” The deep voice had a very strong accent, enough so that Kiara had to listen hard to understand him. “Will be the five-tailed whip for you if you not listen again.” She heard a different, quieter man’s voice, then the loud man said, “Already? Wery well.” She bit the tip of her tongue so she would not giggle.
“Most excellent lady, your servant begs you to come aboard,” the quieter voice invited. Was that for her? Kiara followed her mother up the wooden ramp onto the ship. As she walked, she noticed the waves splashing a little on the black stone of the pier and the dark wood of the ship. Kiara kept her footing on the smooth wood, then stopped at the top of the long ramp. How did she get down?
“Your pardon, young mistress,” a rough, scarred hand missing one finger appeared in her view. Kiara rested her hand on the offered one and looked up a little, enough to see the steep, shallow steps leading down to the deck of the ship. She gathered her skirts in the other hand and with the man’s assistance made it without problems.
“This way, child,” her mother ordered. Kiara followed her mother down another steep set of eight steps, ducking because of the low ceiling. “In here.” The tight words boded ill. “Yes, there, please. Thank you,” the charm and sweetness returned to Lady Sonja’s voice as she directed the men to put one of Kiara’s chests and four of hers, plus two bags, along the wall of the small wooden room. Kiara glanced around, intrigued. Where were the beds? Oh, they have been folded up along the wall to make room. And the table folds too. Are those shelves? Yes, probably, behind those little wooden doors. Why does everything fasten down like that? Because of the water, that’s right, the water moves during storms Papa said.
“Now.” Lady Sonja rested her white hands on her hips. She frowned. “You are never to leave this cabin without me, do you understand?”
“Yes, my lady Mother.” Kiara’s heart sank. She did not want to spend all day in the little space.
“Do not speak to the men. If the captain, the man in charge of the ship, speaks to you, you may reply but keep in mind that you are betrothed to the nephew of the Empress of NovRodi and conduct yourself accordingly.”
“Yes, my lady Mother.”
“We will stop in several ports. Do not leave the cabin, and do not sit where you might be seen by anyone passing outside.”
Kiara looked at the small windows in the end of the room. The glass had waves in it, and the outside world looked like something from a dream. How would anyone know what I look like or what I am doing? “Yes, my lady Mother.”
Three weeks later, Kiara stood on deck, out of the way of the men as the Golden Eagle prepared to enter the harbor of New Dalfa. As the captain’s daughter, she had permission to stand and watch. That had shocked her mother to the point where she’d retired to their cabin and stayed abed for a day and a half. Kiara had taken advantage of her mother’s indisposition to watch and learn and to enjoy being on deck. The men have such odd beliefs, but I suppose I’ll understand why soon. Are all the people of NovRodi like that?
It had begun as soon as they cleared the breakwaters at Hämäl and were well underway. “My ladies, there is a problem,” the captain, a man named Boris Zagrov had informed them. His was the deep voice and funny accent. He rolled when he walked, and his arms seemed too long for his short body.
“How so, Captain?” Lady Sonja had fluttered.
“Women are not permitted to go to sea, out of sight of land, unless they are related to one of the officers of the ship. St. Issa frowns on women sailing.”
Who is their St. Issa? That does not sound like the St. Issa of the chapel at the bottom of the hill at Hämäl.
Lady Sonja’s eyes had gone wide open. before she could speak, the captain raised a hand. “For the duration of the voyage, you are my daughters and will be treated as such by the crew. That means you also have duties on board. In an emergency, you will need to help pump, Godown forbid that it should be needed. You also must learn to use the fire buckets, again Godown forbid that they be needed.”
To Kiara’s amazement, her mother had not argued, had not mentioned rank, and had not protested. Now Kiara knew why—her mother had little tolerance for sailing. Even on the calm waters of the Northern Ocean in early summer, her stomach rebelled, at least for the first week. When Kiara ventured to ask permission to come on deck one day when her mother was ill, Lady Sonja had railed, moaned, and then collapsed. The ship’s churigon had shooed Kiara out of the cabin, leaving her no place to go but onto the upper deck. If she tucked herself against the bulkhead, as she was learning to call the walls, and stayed in the shadows, the men ignored her and she could observe to her heart’s content. Kiara preferred the fresh air and watching the men working, and watching the birds above them, and the different lands passing beside them.
Coming around the coast near Fisherfort and seeing the White Sea for the first time had taken her breath away. It went on forever! The blue water extended so far she could not see anything but sky. It made her a little light-headed and she looked to the east, watching the pale rocks of the shore go past. In the middle of the pale cliffs, a large chunk of dark brown-black loomed out, then the white returned. “That’s Black Point,” Captain Zagrov told her, stopping to stand beside her.
“Why is it like that, sir?”
“No one knows. Some say Godown hit it with flame during the Great Fires. Some say the stones were squeezed out when Godown made Colplatschki. There’s a story that a fisherman insisted on working on fast days, so he could do better than his neighbors. An old man carrying water warned him that he ignored the water saints at his peril, and the fisherman laughed and said they’d not done anything for him so why should he worry?” Kiara stared, horrified. Captain Zagrov nodded. “Story says he went out on St. Issa’s feast. He caught lots of fish, oh a terrible lot of fish, so many the nets almost broke. He was so busy pulling in fish that he did not see a storm building, or he decided to ignore it. A bolt of St. Issa’s fire shot out from the clouds and smashed him and the boat against the headland, charring even the rock.”
He shrugged, or so she guessed. His shoulders almost touched his ears as it was. “Me personally, miss, I don’t think St. Issa did that, but I could be wrong. I’ve never tempted my patron so I do not have to find out.”
She’d nodded. Just like women did not spin on St. Alice’s day, and gave alms and only made things to give away to those in need on the feast of St. Sabrina. The odd man went about his business and Kiara resumed watching and learning. She did not like being down in the bottom hold where the pumps were. She did not like climbing the ropes up to the middle spar of the main mast, but she’d done it once, to prove that she was a captain’s daughter. Unlike Lady Sonja, Kiara adapted quickly to the motion of the ship and she had not become sea sick yet, St. Mischa and St. Issa be praised. She also learned how to use the slop box that hung over the rail of the ship, holding the little canvas tent closed around her for modesty. That had also made her mother grow faint. They did have a nightsoil box for the cabin, if they could not come out for some reason, but Kiara did not want to have to use it or to carry it up the steps to empty it into the slop box.
“You there, redo that!” The assistant captain, M’kail Adamson called up to the men in the rigging, the ropes that kept the sails and masts in place. “You want us to look like Frankonians when the harbormaster sees us?”
Are the Frankonians sloppy? That makes no sense. Kiara filed the thought away, more interested in the port and the ships inside it. The long stone arms that extended into the sea were called a break-water, because waves broke there in storms instead of attacking the ships inside the harbor. Two short towers with glass houses on top of them stood at the ends of the break water. Captain Zagrov said they had lights at night, although only fishermen came and went after dark, unless the moon was full.
They’d pulled in, no, the word was fur-ruled, the sails mostly, so they didn’t go too fast in the crowded waters. Kiara started counting the masts sticking up and lost track at twenty-nine. The ships ranged from a little two-man boat, painted bright red, that looked like a toy to one ship larger than the Golden Eagle. That one had a bunch of little doors in its sides, and three decks. The men on board wore very strange clothes and seemed tan, with tails of hair that they wore on the top of their head, instead of low in the back like women or the men of the Eastern Empire. Kiara wanted to ask who they were, but knew this was not a good time. Coming and going from port was busy, and dangerous. If she distracted someone and the ship hit land, or another ship, she’d be in a great deal of trouble.
As the men pulled on the big ropes, they sang in time, helping them pull. “Pjtor was a mighty man,” the lead man sang, emphasizing every other pulse.
“Heave away for wester,” the others responded, pulling on the strong beats.
“He tamed the sea and broke the land.”
“All away for wester.”
“Pjtor split a rock in two.”
“Heave away for wester.”
“He terrified the mountains, too.”
“All away for wester.”
She wanted to stay a little longer and listen, because when they brought the anchor up or let it out, they sang a long, slow song that made her feel shivery. It went back to the Landers, or so the captain said. “O Shenandoah, I long to see you/ A-a-way you rolling river,” the words went. But she did not want to cause a problem or get scolded too much, so once they got close to where they planned to dock, Kiara went below-decks to her cabin. “There you are! Put on proper clothes at once,” her mother stormed. Kiara changed out of her skirted breeches and put on a proper skirt, but with only one underskirt. Her mother would never notice.
In fact, Lady Sonja seemed very eager to go ashore, far more so than in their last ports of call. “This will be our final stop before we cross the sea, and I need to replace some things we have used. No, you should not come, child. Stay here.”
The next day Kiara found the way to open the glass in the cabin. The latch was very hard to see, and the fit quite snug, but once she undid it, the window opened silently and easily. She got a better view of the pier and the first row of city buildings beyond the street past the port. The buildings in New Dalfa each bore a different color, at least those she could see, some pink, some white, one blue, one green, and two yellow. They seemed very tall but narrow, and all had signs hanging from black poles sticking out of their fronts. Carts and wagons went past, and twice women pushed two-wheeled carts along the street, the older woman screeching, “Herring! Pickled, fried, smoked heeer-ring! Try my herring, two for a copper!” Men in working clothes bought from the little carts. Kiara watched, fascinated. The women wore less fabric than they did in Hämäl’s lands, especially at the top of their bodices. It did not seem that much warmer to Kiara, but perhaps once they moved away from the sea wind it was different.
Late that evening, as Kiara peeped out of the open glass, she saw her mother. At least, it looked like her mother, and she was speaking to a man in very dark clothes, wearing a dark hat. Her mother now carried a basket and an extra bag. Oh dear, Mama does not like to carry her own shopping. I wonder who she is speaking to? he doesn’t look like anyone from the ship. I wonder if he is from Hämäl. But his coat is odd for someone from the north. Maybe he bought it here, and he is paying his respects to Papa through Mama. That had happened once or twice, Kiara knew, and it made sense. Then she remembered that her mother did not know about the glass opening. Kiara pulled the window closed very slowly, so she did not attract attention, and latched it. Then she got out a little book of saints’ lives and pretended to be reading.
Her mother said nothing about the visit to Kiara, and Kiara did not ask. Instead her mother complained about prices, about what the women wore or did not wear, and the smell of fish. “Everywhere fish. No civilized person should live in a place that can’t keep the fishermen away from traders and merchants.”
“Yes, my lady Mother.”
“And such dresses! Child, the women dress no better than common women for hire. Ugh. You should be glad that you were able to stay here and not be forced to endure such things.”
“Yes, my lady Mother.” I think I won’t tell you about the first officer bringing me the little paper of spice nuts, still hot from the bakers. I don’t think you would be happy. Kiara had not meant to eat the entire bag, but the first one had tasted so good, crisp outside and sweet, but fluffy and spicy inside with all kinds of warm flavors, that she’d eaten six of the seven before she realized it. And there wasn’t really a point to keeping the last one, in case they did not taste as good cold. I wonder if the cooks in NovRodi make those.
They put to sea before dawn, riding the outbound tide. Kiara stayed inside the cabin because her mother insisted that they read the entire liturgy of St. Issa, then of St. Sabrina. Kiara had very sore knees before they finished, and her low back hurt, and her stomach grumbled. They’d missed the first meal. The second would not be for several turns of the time glass. Kiara decided to say the bead prayers, but sitting on her bunk, not kneeling. Her mother went to sleep. The rocking of the ship seemed stronger than before, but that may have been Kiara’s mind playing tricks and being excited.
The next few days passed quietly. They sailed west, the bowsprit almost touching the setting sun each evening. “Guide fish!” she heard one afternoon, and hurried out of the cabin and up onto the deck to see.
The large, smooth-skinned fish swam beside the Golden Eagle, skimming just under the top of the dark water. They were the size of a man, with pale blue-grey hide. One rose up, jumping in an arc like a rainbow before diving back down with a little splash. A crewman along the rail had a small cask under one arm, and he tossed silvery fish the size of her hand to the guide fish. They caught the gift in mid air. “Oh!”
“They like silver oilers, miss,” he explained, showing her the inside of the cask. Metal-looking fish had been packed in as tightly as possible, alternating head and tail up. He picked one out by the tail and tossed it to the guide fish. “Some say the guide fish were star sailors who Godown turned into fish for some reason.”
“Really?” she blurted before catching herself. She was not to talk to the men!
Assistant Captain Anderson, standing behind her, clicked his tongue. “So it is said by the foolish. Others say that the Landers brought guide fish because the guides always know when storms are coming, or because they had a way to use guide fish to find good harbors along new coasts. They do keep the big jaw-teeth away from the fishing boats, so we feed them when they visit us.”
“Thank you, sir.” Kiara watched for a while longer after retreating to the shady area by the bulkhead of the sterncastle. The wind seemed to be from behind them, puffing out the big cream colored sails and chasing the ship through the water. It amazed her still that the wind did not go away at night, and so the ship kept moving in the darkness. To travel all day and all night! But then, when Captain Zagrov had told her that it would take at least three weeks to cross the White Sea, she’d been astounded. He’d showed her the map, no, “sea-kart” he called it, of the White Sea and the coasts of her land and NovRodi. Her mind could not understand. To move so fast! Three weeks on land and she’d not even begin to reach the Eastern Empire from Hämäl. “And the Landers crossed it in hours, not weeks,” he’d said. “But Godown withdrew the gift of such speed, at least for now. Maybe when we are ready and use His gifts more humbly, He’ll let us do that again.” Kiara did not want to go that fast. She watched the sails and the men working on the deck, preparing food or mending a spare sail, getting things ready in case they were needed, and sighed happily. She liked the sea.
That night, for some reason Kiara could not sleep even after the long twilight faded into night. She lay in her bunk, staring in the darkness, and heard many feet moving overhead. The light outside seemed brighter, almost too bright, and a funny color. Could light be green and red? Someone tapped on the door. “Come up, daughters,” Captain Zagrov said. “Godown’s Fires are dancing.”
She and her mother dressed as quickly as they could and climbed up. “Blessed St. Sabrina and St. Issa be with us,” her mother gasped, falling to her knees, eyes wide despite the darkness. Kiara just stared. Sweeps of color filled the sky to the north, hiding the stars and shimmering, dancing, shifting from blue to green to bits of red, then back again. She’d seen them a few times in Hämäl, but never in summer and never so close. One of the men cleared his throat, then began to sing, or really to chant. The other men removed any hats or caps they wore and answered back, also chanting. Kiara knew it was a hymn, knew it had to be to Godown and St. Issa and maybe St. Kiara, she of the fires of wisdom, even though she did not understand the words quite. The sound seemed to fill the dark ship and echo in her bones, and the lights wove and danced as if they too praised Godown. Kiara’s eyes filled with tears for the beauty of the night. Bishop Andy had been right. Godown made the world good, and He would never send fires again, not flames that burned. Blessed be Godown who made the stars and worlds between stars, she recited as the men continued to chant. Blessed be Godown who sends fire and water, wind and storm, sun and snow, planting and harvest in their seasons. Blessed be Godown and all His works, for they are good, as Godown is good.
A storm slowed them, terrifying Lady Sonja and confining even Kiara to her bed. She didn’t mind the back and forth, or the little up and down, but the sea had turned into a rolling, chopping, heaving mess and the ship rose, then dropped as it wiggled. Kiara’s stomach did not like that at all. And she had no desire to be out on deck in the wind and spray. Instead the women prayed to St. Issa and Godown, which seemed to be the best thing they could do to help the men. After that experience, and after learning how to help mend sails, Kiara enjoyed the rest of the trip, as much as she could enjoy being with her mother in a cabin that seemed to grow smaller each day.
Kiara said an extra set of bead prayers when the look-out reported seeing land and it proved to be the shore south of New Rodi, or Saint Issaton as one of the men called the city. St. Kiara, searcher for wisdom, please guide me to do what is right, may your flame burn error from my heart. St. Sabrina, patron of women, give me patience and strength, please. St. Alice, guardian of the household, please help me be a good daughter. Lady Sonja had begun fussing over Kiara and she bit her tongue hard to keep from asking if her mother had not outgrown dolls and poppets that she dressed and undressed.
“Your hair,” she sighed, pulling on one of Kiara’s waist-length braids. “I should have cut it off, I know I should have. It is so dark and ugly. You should be wearing a wig, child, not this,” she pulled harder. “Too late. I do not know if I can find a suitable wig to cover this if I cut it off now.”
But mother, only Sisters, and women ill with the spotted fever, and bad girls have short hair, Kiara protested silently. “Yes, my lady Mother.”
“And your clothes. Well, too late. You’d best have a son first, child. Otherwise her imperial majesty may send you away, and no woman as homely as you are ever attracted a second husband.”
The treacherous thought bubbled up that Imperial Princess von Sarmas had been hideous and she found a good husband and high honors, and had been a good woman. Kiara locked her teeth to keep from saying that. Her mother hated any mention of Princess von Sarmas of the Eastern Empire. Her mother’s family had come to the northern coast from Frankonia, and Kiara vaguely recalled reading that Elizabeth von Sarmas had made King Laurence of Frankonia mad. Maybe she’d turned him down after he asked for her hand. Kiara counted backwards from ten, then said in a properly quiet and meek voice, “Yes, my lady Mother.”
Lady Sonja did not permit Kiara to leave the cabin again until they docked. Kiara took a deep breath and followed her mother up the stairs to the main deck, then down the long ramp to where a group of men in fancy coats and furry hats waited. The ground seemed to roll like the water, and she staggered, then caught herself. Kiara could see soldiers on the land, all in blue and brown uniforms. A carriage stood there too, and it seemed to shine gold. The grey man Kiara recalled from a year before, the ambassador, stepped forward and bowed very low. “My Lady Kiara Castello?”
“I am her mother, Lady Sonja. Come, daughter.” Kiara curtsied as low as she could, keeping her eyes down. She wanted to look around, to see what the port looked like, to say good-by to Captain Zagrov and the others, but no, she followed the hem of her mother’s arrival dress, blue with white embroidery. Kiara wore grey with a little black braid on the skirt and cuffs.
She heard a lot of men stamping their feet at once, and her mother stopped. Kiara stopped as well. Her mother reached back, grabbed her hand and pulled her forward, then pinched her shoulder until Kiara whimpered. “Kneel, girl, this is the empress,” her mother hissed. Kiara dropped to her knees so fast that they bruised as a loud man called, “Her most serene and imperial majesty Molly Olga Adam Svendborg, by the grace of Godown Empress of NovRodi, Grand Princess of Muskava, queen of the Sweetwater Sea, Mistress of the Northern Lands, anointed of Godown.”
“Rise, my child, Lady Sonja, and be welcome,” a warm voice ordered, and Kiara got to one knee, then stood, and curtsied. She stood again, keeping her eyes downcast as a heavily embroidered skirt came into view. It looked like thread-of-silver and glinted in the light. “You may look up, child. Modesty is becoming but you are a free woman, not a service-slave or born-slave.” Kiara lifted her eyes and beheld a round woman in a beautiful dress of pale grey, almost white fabric, decorated with silver and black and brilliant blue. Blue fabric filled in the neck of the dress, concealing an ample bosom, and trimmed the cuffs as well. Empress Molly had white hair, or wore a white wig, and carried a black walking stick with a gold knob. A silver knife hung from the white belt on the dress, making Kiara blink. A brilliant blue ribbon crossed the empress’s chest, with a star made of gemstones that rested on her hip opposite the knife. “Come, you are weary, and there is much to be done before your betrothal.” She turned and walked to the carriage, leaning heavily on the walking stick. Kiara followed, and after two footmen helped the old woman into the carriage, they handed Kiara into the lush vehicle as well. Her mother followed and they sat facing the empress and another, younger woman in a plainer but still rich dress.
The vehicle traveled down the port and into a very flat city. Kiara let herself look around, discreetly of course, and the empress seemed not to care to speak. The buildings all spread out along broad streets and canals. As in New Dalfa they had pale colors and white trim under dark roofs, but no saints’ niches in the corners. A lot more men then women walked the streets, and Kiara wondered if it was a special feast, or of there were not so many women as back home. A church with a single, very tall spire rose from inside a high stone wall. Other buildings had odd, brightly-colored round spires that looked like pouches or onions turned upside-down. The air smelled like the sea with more wood smoke. As they passed into the city, fewer and fewer people appeared.
“There will be a proper presentation in two days,” her imperial majesty said. “Today is a fast day of thanks for your safe arrival.”
That seemed to need a response, but before she could speak, Lady Sonja said, “Thank you, imperial majesty, we are most grateful for the prayers.”
One of Empress Molly’s thin, dark eyebrows rose but she continued to smile and nodded graciously. Kiara wondered why they fasted in thanks. The church said you were to fast in petition and rejoice for granted prayers, not the other way around. Perhaps the local saint had a different tradition, or this was a special event.
The carriage turned and the men who had been riding along side it hurried ahead. Kiara heard the sound of metal on stone, and the carriage passed through a gate. It looked very, very fancy with gilded metal and swirling shapes in the little bit she could see. “This is the Pjtor Palace,” Empress Molly announced. “Be welcome.”
She stepped out of the carriage, then called, “Come, child.” Lady Sonja scowled but the younger woman who had sat beside the empress shook her head in warning. Kiara got out of the carriage and two long rows of people all bowed so low that their noses almost touched their knees. A path of carpets had been laid out on the stone of the courtyard. One of the men, wearing a fancy coat and carrying a gold tray stepped forward and bowed, then presented the tray. It held a lump of black that seemed to be bread, and a tiny gold dish with salt in it.
“Be welcome to our miserable hovel, most gracious lady,” he said, or so Kiara thought. The accent!
What do I do? I’m supposed to do something, um, salt and bread, salt and bread, Godown please help me. She took the loaf, broke off a piece, dipped it in the salt, and ate. “I thank you for the most generous hospitality to a poor traveler such as I,” she said, trying to be heard by everyone. The bread was very heavy and sour.
A sigh rose from the servants, and several of them smiled. So did the empress, who also nodded with approval. She’d guessed right. Thank you, Godown.
“Come,” the empress ordered, and Kiara followed the woman across the thick carpets into the building that might, Godown willing, be her new home.
(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.