The Wall Of Altairis, Yllendyr Crownlands
As she pumped her wings and flew high above the world, watching the land below pass by deceptively slowly, Mara felt her stomach roil with anxiety. It wasn’t fear that had her on edge, but anticipation. She’d first seen the Elves wall almost an hour ago and by now she was above it, watching the enormous edifice pass by with rapt attention. There was no way to say exactly when she’d left the Forest and entered Yllendyr, such things were difficult to deduce from such an altitude, but eventually Mara knew it in her heart. She’d left the forest.
That was terrifying, exhilarating, and a little sad. She knew she hadn’t been sent on this task as a reward, knew that her father had only wanted her somewhere, anywhere, else. So many of the things she knew hurt, but she also knew those things were behind her, fading away into the distance. She’d have to face them again, but not now. For now she was soaring above a land she’d dreamed of visiting, unburdened by any responsibilities but those she’d accepted.
Time passed and she, in the manner of her people, absently memorized the route she took through the sky. Eventually she spotted what she’d been looking for. Far below there was a little clearing in the trees, unremarkable if it were not for the short tower that protruded from it. Perched atop the simple construction was a boulder uniformly painted a bright yellow. It was a sight as confusing to an outsider as it was unmistakable to a Harpy. Her people were down there.
Or, people like her? The idea of Harpies who weren’t her people, who she might not be able to understand, let alone relate to, was a difficult one to parse. Nevertheless, she began a circling descent. It wasn’t the fastest way to get to the little village, but it was the least threatening and the way she’d always been told to enter other tribes communities. Hopefully the Harpies of Yllendyr hadn’t forgotten good manners.
As it happened, and much to Mara’s pleasure, they had not. Her approach had been duly noted and a small group of Harpies had gathered by the time Mara eased herself into a landing near to the village marker. Just a glance told her that this was not the sort of village she was used to. There were a number of wooden houses made from, disturbingly, dead logs. They all faced onto a street paved with stones that seemed to vanish into the distance, cutting through the forest and leading to some distant place under the canopy that had disguised it from the air.
As for those who’d come out to meet her, they were just as peculiar as the village. At their front was an older man dressed in a black overcoat, its sleeves cut so his folded wings hung out of the arms, with an impractical tall hat. Behind him the other men were dressed in simple white shirts, also modified for their wings, and black pants. The women wore a variety of long dresses, some were even rather colourful, but none of the villagers male or female were dressed nearly as well as the man who stood before them to greet Mara. Before she could introduce herself he spoke, voice cautious but filled with curiosity, “Welcome to Teuan, friend. It is not often we have visitors from the other towns, nor ones who arrive with so little warning. May I ask where you hail from, and what your business here is?”
The rest of the villagers all regarded her inquiringly, and for a moment Mara didn’t know why. It only struck her that she was dressed in simple flying clothes when she looked down and saw the unflattering light brown fabric concealing her chest. Suddenly rather self conscious she spoke more softly than she’d intended, “Ah, I’m Mara. I don’t uh, come from around here.”
The older Harpy cocked a brow, “Yes, I figured. Do you mind telling us where you hail from Mara? It’d be helpful to know why you’re here, as well.”
“Oh,” Mara smiled nervously, “I’m from the Old Forest! The consensus sent me to meet the new Emperor, I just thought to… I was told you might have advice for me? The Harpies north of the wall know all about the Emperor right?”
The village chief, or that was what Mara guessed he was, quieted the murmurs that came from the townspeople upon Mara’s admission. He took off his hat and scratched the feathers that composed his ‘hair’ before shaking his head in disbelief, “That’s a rather unbelievable tale, miss. Of course, given your appearance, there's not many with all white feathers left up here, and the fact there’s two Emperors these days… Well, stranger things. I’m Heme, the Village head here.”
Heme paused and returned his hat to his head, “If the forest has truly sent you to meet the Emperor, or at least the one in these parts, I can at least say you cannot turn up to the Imperial residence looking like that. Expected or not the guards would toss you out dressed like a savag-… I mean to say, dressed so simply.”
Mara was naive, but she was not unaware that naivety was among her faults. She heard the near insult and took it for what it was. She was used to those, at least. Her smile weakened, but she managed to reply, “The Dryads gave me money for clothing, Village head Heme. Would you know where I could acquire some? As for guards, I am expected, but some directions to the Emperor's residence in Altairis would be appreciated.”
“Ah,” Heme paused, glanced at the small pouch at Mara’s side and then back at the other villagers before turning his attention to Mara, “The others tend to get their clothing at the common stores and modify it themselves, but I buy mine at a more reputable store in the city; one with its own tailor. If you’re willing to pay for it I could provide you a map of the city. I can point out my preferred clothing store, given they have experience fitting me they should be amenable to any requests you have, and the Emperor's southern residence.”
Mara eyed the Village head suspiciously, but the fact a number of other villagers were rolling their eyes while the rest muttered behind Heme’s back told Mara that this probably wasn’t the first time a traveller hadn’t had the most hospitable reception. Mara deflated a bit, she’d looked forward to meeting the Harpies beyond the wall, but they weren’t so different.
When she replied it was in a mirthless, if polite, tone, “How much?”
Heme had the audacity to smile, “Ah, well given this village is rather remote I imagine a five dacha note would be fair? Don’t you think so?”
In truth, Mara did not think so. Not just because she’d enjoyed speaking to the Yllendyr traders and business folk that came through, but because she just genuinely disliked Heme. From the looks he was getting from a few of his own people, it wasn’t an uncommon sentiment. Still, what choice did she have? Mara, very deliberately, reached into her pouch and produced a rather sizable roll of bills, from which she carefully extracted one before diligently returning the rest to her pouch.
The look on Heme’s face when she handed it to him was enough to restore some of the excitement she’d felt when she’d entered Yllendyr.
Altairis, Olarth’s Capital In The Yllendyr Crownlands
Mara didn’t doubt Heme had ripped her off, but she couldn’t begrudge the mans taste in clothing. She had fawned over nearly every textile and clothing store she’d encountered since entering the city, but the one Heme had directed her to was a cut above the rest. Of course, she’d later discovered it’s price was also a cut above the rest. Still, the azure and purple dress she’d come away with had been worth the four hundred and eight dacha she’d paid, probably. She certainly wouldn’t be flying in it, and it wasn’t particularly comfortable, but she’d gladly claw out the eyes of anyone who called it ugly to spare the world from their awful taste in fashion.
At least she’d had enough dacha left for a nice meal afterwards, the Elves had some truly incredible food. Or maybe it was just good, the fact she was starving from the exertion of flying for the last few days had doubtless made the meal irresistible. In any case by the time she had begun her walk to the Imperial residence she was full and satisfied by the clothing she was wearing, which might have been why she started to notice the looks she was getting from all the Yllendyr. They had to have seen Harpies before? Heme came here for his clothing, and who knew what else.
She shook her head, that was a question for another time. The Imperial residence was at the end of the next street according to the map, and when she turned the corner she knew Heme had been good for his word if not his price. The Imperial residence was an ornate palace with minarets piercing sharply into the sky, dating from the era when rival kingdoms had vied over the Yllendyr crownlands. The palace had not seen a king or emperor in more than three hundred years, until now, when it had become the headquarters of the Emperor Olarth’s court in replacement for the Vermillion Citadel.
To Mara it was, like everything else the Elves had built in this city, alien. Alien, and wonderful in a way that only something totally divorced from any architecture she’d seen before could be. Taking care not to spend too long staring Mara resolved herself and strode towards the gates of the palace with as much poise as she could summon.
The guards challenged her ong before she reached the gates, but as it happened she was expected. There was some confusion over her lack of identifying documents that led to an argument which nearly sapped all the confidence she’d so painstakingly built up from her, but apparently Harpies showing up and proclaiming themselves ambassadors from the Old Forest were uncommon enough for protocol to be relaxed.
Eventually she was allowed in, and a maidservant led her through the palace to Olarth’s war room, where he was presently occupied. A huge map laid on the table in the center. The maid opened the door to allow Mara in, and as she did so she could hear a pitched debate. Olarth was arguing with an old woman, apparently about the way he had handled a battle at some place called Imqua. Upon Mara’s entrance, however, both noted her presence and fell silent. The woman backed away, and after nodding at the new arrival, made her exit through a door on the other side of the room.
“I of course apologize it’s not the Vermillion Citadel, but it’s the best I could do in such a wartime environment. Welcome to my humble court. I’m told your name is Mara?” Olarth smiled warmly at the Harpy which had entered.
Mara did her best impression of a bow, having heard that was customary, before fumbling her first words to one of the most powerful men on the Continent, “It is, my name I mean. Mara.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mara. As you likely already know, my name is Olarth, Emperor of the Yllendyr. Or well, one of them.” He laughed sheepishly.
She blushed with embarrassment and internally cursed herself before speaking again, “Of course, Emperor. I was uh, selected by my tribe to represent the consensus of the Old Forest in your court. It’s an honour to meet you!”
“Likewise, I must say. I haven’t had the opportunity to… well, properly meet a Harpy before, so I’m glad I had the chance. Your people are fairly rare anywhere north of Sundersevain.”
“Oh,” Mara smiled brightly, silently pleased to have been the first Harpy the Emperor had met, “I had heard that there weren’t many of us in the Crownlands, though I did meet some of my people in Sundersevain on my journey. They were… Different from back home, but not terribly so.”
“How are you enjoying Altairis so far? I hope you didn’t have any troubles along the way.”
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Mara answered honestly, “I was born in one of my peoples cities, but our homes are grown from the wood of the forest. We don’t have anything made of stone, or so tall! There are so many shops too! The Weavers, Fellyr, and some of my own people have only a small number of stores merchants from outside the Forest stop at, and certainly none with such variety. Your city is incredible, Emperor.”
“I’m glad you feel that way,” Olarth responded magnanimously. “But perhaps it may not stay my city for long. I suppose that this brings us to the articles of business we must discuss.” His face turned darker.
“The Imperium is at war. My savage brother has likely killed one of my brothers, has definitely killed the other, and is no doubt planning to march on this city and kill me before he starts a massive manhunt for our youngest brother. And once he has done that, he will no doubt bring fire, death and destruction upon the rest of the Imperium that refuses to acknowledge his control. You likely heard his speech, so you should know what kind of a man he is. The only chance we have to stop this is now, while he is still weak and the Crownlands are divided. I hope that the Dominion of the Old Forest can assist in some way.”
Mara’s smile faltered as the discussion turned serious. She’d tried to prepare for the inevitable request, but being there when it was made was something else. She was used to politics, but nobody died at home. Or at least, not to the point of the butchery she’d heard was going on as she explored the city. She had no authority to say yes, she knew that, she’d only been authorized to forward such requests to the consensus once the radio equipment the Weavers were bringing arrived. That didn’t stop her from wanting to. She couldn’t imagine a brother or sister being slaughtered in front of her, or a nation turning on itself. There had never been a civil war in the forest, and in truth she’d had to ask a Dryad to explain the concept to her when she’d questioned why there were two Emperors in the first place.
She made no effort to hide her pained expression, “I can inform the consensus of your hope, Emperor, but I can’t promise you more. I haven’t spoken to any member of the consensus since I departed for Altairis, but having read your brothers speech in the ‘newspaper’ I bought in the city, I don’t know what they will do.”
“I suppose that’s the best I can ask for for now, then. I might ask you to relay a story that may prove persuasive.
I don’t hope to sour you on the Imperium or its people, but my brother is an especially foul specimen, much like our father… it’s hard to believe we are even twins. To preface this, I don’t know if you know, but I had four brothers. Not a single sister. Doesn’t that seem a little improbable to you?”
Mara had a sinking feeling in her stomach, “I… I suppose so.”
“The truth of the matter is, I had nine sisters. None of them survived infancy. My father claimed that daughters were weak, unfit to rule or live in his household, that there was no need for them in the Vyalviur dynasty except to marry off to foreign princes, and there were no longer any foreign princes to marry them off to. So he gave them to my brother to… dispose of. The last seven, that is, after he was older. He had some pet Harpies in a dungeon somewhere he loved to torture and play games with. Harpies he had starved nearly to the point of death, so they would take basically anything you threw to them.
And they did. All seven of them.” Olarth looked incredibly disgusted.
It had been said by many throughout history that Harpies were a feral people, a primitive race whose instincts often controlled their actions and who exercised their higher functions only after doing whatever their natures compelled them to do. Mara had long since dismissed the notion as a racist misconception held by the occasional merchant. Now though, she wondered. The talons that formed her feet clenched and dug little grooves into the Emperors floor, and the amount of effort it took to restrain herself from an outburst both shocked and shamed her.
Sympathy, horror, sorrow, rage, all these emotions swirled in her mind upon hearing Olarths story. The old Emperor, the one who she’d idolized, whose empire she credited with doing so much good, was a monster beyond even the worst of the Dragon Tyrants. Mara could not think straight, and at the least took comfort in understanding that. She had to go before Olarth told her anything else.
“I… See.” Mara paused, a look of furious indignation breaking through the calm she tried to project, “I will inform the consensus, Emperor. At once.”
“Great men often have their dark secrets, Mara. The Vyalviur Dynasty has some of the worst. This is why I hope to put an end to that terrible history, so we can rediscover ourselves and lead the world in a better way. I can see I’ve given you a lot to think about, so we can talk again another time. Elenne will show you to the quarters we’ve prepared for you.” The maidservant who brought her here appeared at the door again, bowing.
Mara bowed to the Emperor as best she could under the circumstances, which essentially amounted to a tense nod, and all but stomped out of the room. The grooves she left in the floor behind her testament to the maelstrom of emotion that raged within her.