Empress of All NovRodi
Over the objections of everyone but the army men, Kiara went south just after the Feast of Godown’s Grace. “I need to see the land and I need the people to see me. I am Godown’s shield, empress only so I can protect them. They need to see that.”
“Imperial Majesty, you will be in the way! And you will inspire the Turklavi to fight even more fiercely,” Lord Korbin protested.
General Pushkin, in Muskava for a full imperial council meeting, shook his head. “No she won’t, my lord. They’re already throwing everything they have at us. They have nothing more, not according to my out-watchers. Her majesty’s foresters are tearing them up, winter is ruining their fodder, and they don’t have the will they once did, or so it feels.” He made a complicated gesture with his left hand. “I’m not certain how to describe it, my lords, Imperial Majesty, but they feel different, as if the will is fading. They still fight hard, yes and that damn artillery of there is . . . we need to capture more of it and use it ourselves. But the heart is not what it once was, for lack of a better word. You can feel it,” he repeated with a shrug.
Issa Neelo, the Turklavi-reading clerk, raised one hand hesitating a bit as he did. He’d come to Muskava from New Rodi despite the difficulty the journey caused him. Kiara pointed. “Yes, Master Neelo?”
“Imperial Mistress, my lords, general, it may well be that General Pushkin is correct. Recall that Selkow dictates and orders all things, according to the Turklavi. If they think that she is withholding victory because they have done something wrong, or because the Rajtan has erred, they may well be easing away so they don’t die for a false cause.” He licked his lips. “I hesitate to put thoughts into their heads, and it could be something as simple as they are retreating in order to lure us into a trap, or because they don’t want to camp out in winter, or because the smell of our camp food is chasing them away.”
Everyone laughed at that, including Kiara and the normally dour General Pushkin. Although younger than his brother Andre, Landis Pushkin felt older to Kiara, and had far more grey hair. No, his shows more. And I have a sneaking sense that Andre tints his with a tea rinse to hide the grey. Too bad black dye is so damned obvious. She’d found more silver in her own locks recently. “Thank you, master Neelo. You make an interesting observation and we will keep it in mind. She smiled at him and he flushed and ducked his head. “On a less amusing note, the budget.”
Korbin and Poliko didn’t gloat. That was good. Master Tavner, her accounts keeper, stood and cleared his throat. “Imperial Mistress, my lords, general, there is enough in gold, trade cretits, export balance, and tax income to pay the army and supply it through early next summer, Godown willing. The good harvest has offset the loss of fur and gold revenue, and purchasing so much from the private treasury has spared the public funds. That is the good news.” He waited for the whispers and rustling to stop. “The bad news is there is almost nothing for next year should a disaster strike or Frankonia attack, Godown forbid.”
A voice from the back asked, “What about her majesty’s personal funds?”
Tavner turned to look at Kiara. “Half of my gems have already been spent in the Sea Republics and Thumb. I am also supporting over twenty service-slaves and orphans from the household purse.” What more do you want, bastard? Me to go around naked?
A hand rose and Kiara acknowledged her son. “Imperial Majesty, what of the rumor that the farms will be stripped of seed grain to feed the army?”
Kiara pointed to General Pushkin. “Pure rumor, your highness. We do not need to do so because of the bounty from the north. For reasons only known to Godown, the northern grain farms are yielding twice and more their usual amount of everything. Perhaps the dust from the west helped the soil, because those who plowed after it fell have even better crops. Thanks be to Godown, for what ever reason, we will still be tight and the fasting hard, but no one is claiming seed corn. If they are, I need to know and it will be stopped.” He glowered around. With his mass Kiara wondered how he managed to ride anything besides plow oxen, but he found horses somewhere. His coloring was very much like that of the Turklavi messenger, and Kiara remembered Andre’s comment about a Harrier in the family tree.
So it was that Kiara rode south with General Pushkin as the leaves fell from the trees and the nights turned chilly. It pained her to see so many empty fields and houses, but every man who could be spared had gone south, leaving the women and children to work. For a while it seemed as if they’d needed to commander the farm horses and oxen as well, but beasts captured from the harriers and Turklavi made enough difference that they were spared that. Klarita, the young woman who’d brought the children to safety, rode with Kiara as one of her maids. The children had found homes in Muskava once Kiara promised to pay for education and dowries. Kiara observed the land with eager eyes, amazed at the huge expanse of flat or gently rolling ground still covered with knee-high grass. It reminded her of the sea, endless and unchanging, swept by wind and cloud and rain. Some of the men acted nervous away from the trees, but Kiara savored being able to see for dozens of kilometers at once glance. And at night! The arc of stars seemed to dance, leaving her in awe of Godown’s power and unimaginable grace to have made such an enormous creation and yet to care for such tiny creatures as men and women. She also decided to have the ceiling of Godown of the Stars cleaned to see if it would make the painted stars look better.
She’d left Andre Pushkin in Muskava. If finding a quiet moment challenged them in Muskava and New Rodi, camping on the road? No. Everyone pretended not to notice them so long as they were discreet. Kiara did not intend to give the gossips fodder more than she had to, or to irritate the clergy. She’d already had a shouting match with Archpriest Michael, the new archpriest for the southern lands, over blocking male vocations for the next two years. She needed bodies more than the monasteries did. Healthy men without jobs, farms, or dependents had to serve, period end. She’d stripped the land as it was, and loathed both the rebels and Turklavi even more because of it.
The golden grass waved and danced in the cool wind as they approached the great freshwater lake called the Sweetwater Sea. Kiara saw the clouds over the water long before she saw or smelled the first signs of water. “Is the grass always this lush?”
General Pushkin shook his head. “No, Imperial Majesty. This has been a good year here. Farther east, and west and south it’s been dry. Although we’ve eaten so much that fires won’t be a problem next year.”
“Interesting.” I wonder what that means.
She found out when they reached the walls of Sweet City. “Where are the plants?”
“We ate them, trampled them, or burned them, Imperial majesty,” General Maldovo grunted. He was recovering from a nasty arm injury that almost turned into wound fever. As it was the blow had cut tendons and he could no longer hold anything in his left hand. He’d been lucky to keep the arm. The Turklavi used solid shot, unlike the men of NovRodi. Kiara had seen the results of ball shot once, used on a tree, and did not really want to think about what they did to people. She knew, though, and could smell the miasmas left after battle. They’d buried the bodies but the corruption still seeped into the soil and poisoned the air and water. “The dirt diggers will bring some of them back up,” Maldovo observed.
One body Kiara did want to see, and bared her teeth at. The remains of the false emperor, Alexander Dimitrioff, hung on a tall gibbet near the north gate of Sweet City. Smiths had made a frame to hold the body and the sun-blackened, dried remains swung on the breeze. She’d left his punishment open to the generals, and Pushkin said only, “The punishment fit the crimes, Imperial Majesty.” Kiara did not ask, although she suspected that the five-tailed whip and foot breaker had been only the beginning. She’d left her maids at camp. They had no need to see such barbarity. Once Kiara herself would have been appalled. Now she only nodded. Godown gave and Godown took and Godown knew the fate of the man’s soul. She did not gloat. I am glad to see that you were found and that you answered for your crimes. Would that you had never have taken advantage of the gullible and weak, though, and I hope you are having a taste of what so many others suffered because of you, monster.
Kiara also found the Turklavi cannon fascinating. “So, these are a type of iron?” The black color said that, but instead of the metal rings around them that the bronze cannon had, they were smooth on the outside.
“Yes, Imperial Mistress. It seems, and I cannot say for certain, but seems as if they were cast in one pour, then finished. But the metal is tougher and better quality than true cast iron. I don’t know if there’s a new material in it, or they treated them some way like we oil-quench folded iron, or what they did.” The artillery master looked very much like the cannon—dark skin, hairless head, and stocky. He was also two-thirds deaf and missing two fingers along with his eyebrows, something her aid Capt. Pjtorson had assured her was common among artillery men.
“Thank you,” she said loudly and slowly, making certain he could see her lips. “That is most interesting.”
She did not go as far west as she wanted, because the fighting still raged and the generals did not want the Turklavi to attempt to kill her or worse. She did visit the resting troops and support forces, giving out awards and promotions, thanking the specialists who traveled with the army, and giving special thanks to her foresters.
They’d followed the hills south, staying up in the trees and high country and venturing out to harass the Harriers in particular, as well as the few Turklavi who tried to come that way. They’d found some gold and silver, and the dark blue stones that turned brilliant when polished and shaped, as well as stones the blue of the night sky. And furs, although the southern pelts could not compete with the thick northern versions. Kiara thanked them and gave them rewards, as well as an exemption for the next two years of taxes and duties once they left the army.
Their leader nodded. “Thank you, most gracious and generous imperial mistress. Is it true that the smoke has cleared from the western sky?”
She nodded. “Yes, it is. The plants are not as healthy as they should be, because of the dust, but only a little smoke remains and that not all the time.”
The shaggy man nodded in turn. “Good. The trees are too thin here, and the land too barren. We go north as soon as the snows clear or Godown permits.”
Kiara had agreed to that, and she patted the top of the large basket beside her. It stood about chest high to her, and contained heads and . . . other parts. Maldovo had warned her and she’d eaten only lightly before accepting the gift and looking at the contents. The foresters had legends of the days from the first Harrier attacks, and had decided to get even, or so the regular soldiers swore. She was not going to ask. The stories she knew of were bad enough. And she’d seen the remains of one woman the Turklavi had captured and left as a warning.
Kiara thanked all the men she could reach, promised to keep food and other supplies coming as best Godown permitted, and was happy beyond words to return north. The first snow dusted them before they reached Muskava.
As they reached the gates, a courier on a sweat-streaked horse cantered up to them, calling, “Imperial Mistress! News from the south!”
She turned Blackie and demanded, “What news?”
“Generals Pushkin and Maldovo send greetings. They have the victory!”
She stared at him, jaw agape, blinking. Did he just say, did I hear, was that? “The victory?” She squeaked.
“Yes, Imperial Mistress, Godown has granted your army victory!”
She slid out of the saddle, knelt in the road dust and prayed, “Thank You, holy One, thank You.” Tears ran down her face and she wept for joy.
That night the bells rang with wild joy and Kiara wept again, this time in Andre’s arms. They held each other and cried with joy. “Thanks be to Godown” she whispered again.
“Ameen. Because we can’t last much longer. We’ve used up all our cretits in the Sea Republics as it is.”
She closed her eyes and rested he head on his shoulder. “My lord, I don’t care, not now, not at this instant. We won.”
“Ameen” he repeated, stroking her back and hair.
A thinner and tired Empress Klara Alsice watched the towers of the churches of New Rodi appear over the horizon the next spring. She’d spent the winter in Muskava to be close to the army and to the areas in need of aid. But she wanted to be back in her home. She wanted to ride in the park and to spend the sweet, long summer twilight in her gardens, to dally with Andre in the pavilions and to watch the ships come and go and the sea birds hovering in the soft northern sky.
I’m home. At last I’m home. So many would not be home. Or they had gone to that final home that all sought but none truly wanted to journey to. Kiara glanced over her shoulder at Borissa and Klarita, trying not to act uncomfortable. They did not care for the ship. Poor Klarita had been seasick for half the journey from NewPort. Borissa had fainted when Kiara climbed the rigging to the raven’s loft for a better view. Kiara had been thrilled that she still remembered how and that she wasn’t too old to manage it. Captain Van Deiman had saluted her as “Truly St. Issa’s daughter,” quite a compliment from the taciturn old man.
They docked just before dawn the next day. A double row of soldiers waited and saluted, while nobles and others bowed or knelt. Kiara strode down the long row to the waiting carriage, leaning a little on her gold-headed walking stick. The carriage door opened and her two sons bowed to her. “Most honored and victorious mother,” Boris Pawlson said.
“Rise, my children. The victory belongs to Godown. The empress is only His tool in the world.”
Bells began to ring and Pawl Borisson, now taller than his mother, handed her into the ornate vehicle. As the footman clucked and the horses tugged that gold-trimmed vehicle into motion, those watching from the ships and on the docks cheered.
The Empress of NovRodi had come home.
(C) 2017-18 Alma T. C. Boykin. All Rights Reserved