“Or what?” she asked, pointedly sitting on the narrow bunk. “Will you flog me? Bend me to your will with cruel torment?”
She smiled and I turned away, going to a small map table set into the woodwork below the porthole. “There are a dozen men on this ship who will happily mete out all the correction you require,” I said, reaching into my bag and extracting the first scroll to hand.
“I’ve no doubt,” she agreed. “Will you watch? My dear husband liked to watch when the slave girls were whipped. He’d often pleasure himself at the sight. Will you do the same, my lord?”
I sighed, biting down a response and unfurling the scroll. An Illustrated Catalogue of Volarian Ceramics, Brother Harlick’s precise but overly florid letters provoking me to an amused grunt. Even the man’s script is pompous. Although I couldn’t pretend any liking for the brother, I had to concede Harlick’s draughtsmanship was excellent, the illustrations possessed of a flawless exactitude, the first depicting a hunting scene from a vase dating back some fifteen hundred years, naked spearmen pursuing a stag through pine forest.
“Ceramics,” Fornella said, peering over my shoulder. “You think the Ally’s origins lurk in pots, my lord?”
I didn’t look up from the scroll. “When studying an age often bereft of writing, decorative illustration can be highly informative. If you can enlighten me as to another course, I would be grateful.”
“How grateful?” she asked, leaning close, breath soft on my ear.
I merely shook my head and returned to the scroll as she laughed and moved away. “You really have no interest in women at all, do you?”
“My interest in women varies according to the woman in question.” I unfurled the scroll further, finding more hunting scenes, some images of ritual worship, various gods, and creatures of bizarre design.
“I can help,” she said. “I . . . would like to.”
I turned, finding her expression cautious but earnest. “Why?”
“We have a long voyage ahead. And whatever you may suspect of my motives, I am keen to see this mission succeed.”
I looked again at the image on the scroll, naked revellers frolicking before a great ape-like creature, mouth agape and vomiting fire. Kethian jug fragment, read the inscription below the image. Pre-Imperial.
“When exactly,” I asked her, “did the Volarians give up their gods?”
• • •
“It was all long before my birth,” she said, “long before my mother’s birth in fact. But she was ever a studious woman and keen for me to learn the history of our most glorious empire.”
We had repaired to the deck, sitting near the prow as she spoke and I scribbled my notes. The captain had growled something at our appearance but made no protest and the crew seemed happy to ignore us, bar a few hostile glances at Fornella.
“The empire may speak with one tongue now,” she went on, “and follow the Council’s edicts be they denizens of the greatest city or the foulest swamp. But it was not always so.”
“I know your empire was forged in war,” I said. “Many wars in fact, lasting some three centuries.”
“Quite so, but whilst the Forging Age left us with an empire, true unity eluded us for centuries to come. There were too many different coins with too many different values. Too many languages spoken by too many tongues. And far too many gods. My mother used to say that men would fight and kill for money, but they would only die for their gods. For the empire to endure we required that kind of loyalty, untainted by any divine distraction. And so there were more wars, called the Wars of Persecution by some, but Imperial historians refer to the entire period as the Great Cleansing, a sixty-year trial of blood and torture. Whole provinces were laid waste and entire peoples took flight, some to the northern hills, others across the sea to found new nations free of Volarian persecution. But, for all we lost, it was this that truly birthed the empire, for this is when we became a nation of slavers.
“There had always been slaves, of course, mostly in the Volarian heartland, but now there were more, conquered for refusing to give up their gods, beaten, cowed and bred so successive generations forgot them altogether. To marshal such a resource requires two things: great organisation and vast cruelty. I often think it was these particular traits the Ally found so alluring. After all, we must have been chosen for a reason.”
“Do you know when he made himself known?”
“I know not whether the Ally is male, or even truly human. My mother told of a time, near four centuries’ years ago, when the empire was strong in its unity. War with the Alpirans was nothing new but it took on a new intensity, the battles grew in size, the campaigns lasted years instead of months, though victory still eluded us. Eventually the Alpirans became tired of our endless attacks and launched one of their own, overrunning the southern provinces in a matter of months. Crisis has a tendency to reveal noteworthy talent and thus it was that a young general from the southern city of Mirtesk rose to prominence, a general with a revolutionary notion, and the means to make it happen. If our slaves could build our cities and work our fields, why not also fight our wars? And so, via his new-found knowledge, we created the Varitai and Kuritai. Through tactical genius and prodigious use of his slave soldiers, our new general won eternal fame by driving the Alpirans back. He was lauded the length and breadth of the empire, statues were raised in his honour, epics composed by our finest scholars to document his wondrous life.”
Fornella paused, her lips forming a wry smile, though her eyes betrayed a sadness I hadn’t seen before. “But it was not a normal life. For our young general stayed young, whilst his fellow officers grew old and withered around him, he stayed young.”
“He was the first,” I said.
“Indeed. The first Volarian blessed by the Ally’s voice, or, I assume, the first he sent one of his creatures to seduce. But his gifts didn’t end with the secret of binding slaves so completely they would fight and die at their masters’ command. No, he had more to offer, the greatest gift of all. It was from him the Council learned the secret of endless life, at the Ally’s behest of course. And, over time, they all made themselves its creatures. The general became the Ally’s voice on the Council, speaking softly at first, guiding rather than commanding, hinting at the great task it had chosen for the empire. Although, as the years passed, the general’s behaviour became ever more erratic.
“My mother said she met him once, at a feast held in his honour. My family is, as you may understand, vastly wealthy and has held a Council Seat since the empire’s earliest days. I asked my mother what he was like and she laughed, ‘Quite dreadfully mad,’ she said, ‘though I hear his daughter is worse.’”
“His daughter?” I asked.
Fornella pulled her woollen shawl tighter about her shoulders, the sadness fading into fearful remembrance. “Yes, a daughter. I met her too, once. One meeting was more than sufficient.”
“Are they like you? The general and his daughter, do they still live?”
“The general’s madness grew with the centuries, his hunger for victory over the Alpirans becoming a madman’s obsession, birthing a calamitous defeat. The Council, by now all recipients of the Blessing and advised by the Ally’s other lieutenants that the general’s glorious career should reach a conclusion, employed their chief assassin to provide one. If what the queen says is true, however, she may well have met her end alongside King Malcius.”
“The general’s daughter? She killed her own father?”
“She’s taken countless lives the breadth of this world, my lord. If we’re fortunate, she’ll plague us no more. But I increasingly find fortune to be a rare commodity.”
“Does your mother still live? Did she also take the Ally’s Blessing?”
She shook her head, raising her gaze to meet mine, smiling fondly. “No. She grew old and she died, though I begged her to join me in this new age of limitless life. She alone knew the true nature of the bargain we had struck, though none would listen to her. She knew what drew the Ally, if not what had birthed it.”
“And what is it? What draws it?”
“Power. That’s how the first were chosen, not those with the greatest wealth, but those with the most influence, the greatest sway in Council. Because it happened over decades rather than years, only one being chosen to receive his bounteous gift in every dozen years, it seemed the choosing was random, the whim of a being as close to a god as any could be. But my mother lived long enough to see the pattern. Every bargain struck increased its hold on us, every gift bestowed made us more its servants.
“She said just one word the last time I was permitted near her, before she ordered me barred from her house. She was nearly ninety years in age, just a tiny collection of bone and skin in a very large bed. But her mind had never faded and her eyes were so very bright, and though she could only speak in whispers, I heard it, clear and true, though at the time I thought it just the final croak of a bitter old woman.”
She fell silent, gazing off towards the southern horizon where a heavy cloud bank could be seen, signalling an uncomfortable night, not that I expected to sleep much lying by her side. There was more grey in her hair now, I saw, watching it swirl in the wind.