April 19th, 2018

Berserker

Chapter Three

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Chapter 3: Beside the Black Lake

The passing sun cast shadows through the intricate screens that shaped the large hall into smaller, more intimate spaces.  The light dappled on the floor and walls in patterns of color and shape, and Umvara watched his shadow pass over it all as he made his way down the wide stair and to the shining floor of his great hall.  This alone was a fit place to welcome the daughter of the Vovikar returned at last from her alien refuge.  He was nervous at the prospect of meeting her, and of facing more of the Earthmen.  These would not be like the ones he was accustomed to; they would be fresh from their world, filled with the light and strength of their kind.

His robe swept behind him, billowing with each step, and he gestured to the servants who began to shape the hall into a more open space.  They easily shifted the screens into a pattern that reminded him of the twenty-fifth mode of the tenth dynasty – when the Vovikar had first taken power.  He hoped it would prove an auspicious welcome.

The throne was covered with a white drape of silk, every fold of it carefully considered for connotation and overtone.  The flowers were freshly induced into bloom, and the carefully placed lamps would keep them open far past sunset.  He wore the metal caps on the last two joints of his left hand, and he tapped them together as he paused and looked at the chamber, weighing every detail.

He felt the footfalls through the floor and turned to see his honor guard enter the room.  He supposed it might be taken amiss that he allowed the kur mercenaries in here, rather than using his own household men, but it was the one concession he would not make.  The High Martians were far better fighters, and he wanted them here when the British came thundering in with their soldiers.

Turyan came in at the head of her men, and he felt the same mixture of unease and admiration for her he always carried.  The wild kur were taller than red men, and their skin was as pale as new ice.  She wore her robe loosely over her black armor, mask dangling unused at her side.  In here, within the domes part of the palace, supplemental air was unneeded, especially for one who had been born to the hard, lightless deserts above.

She stalked like a predator, and it always gave him a secret thrill to watch her.  Her eyes were wide and black, her hair gathered into three braids and knotted together at the back of her head.  She walked with hand on the hilt of her sword, and she never seemed to look directly at anyone.

Turyan inclined her head and made a gesture of obedient greeting which was almost charming in its crudeness.  She nodded to her men and the entire rend took their positions around the room.  “My overlord,” she said by way of greeting.  It was rude, but certain rudenesses were expected from the highlanders, and tolerated.

“You have worn your finest robe,” he said, looking to make sure the guards were evenly spaced.  “You are eager to meet this girl.”

“I stand ready to meet the next Empress,” she said somewhat stiffly.  “It is a moment of importance.”

“It is,” he said.  He often found it easy to speak to her, because she would never think less of him for it.  She was outside the systems of caste and rank.  Her people were strange to him, but unlike many of his peers he found them interesting.  “We shall see what kind of girl she has grown into.”

“Her mother was a great ruler,” Turyan said, and he almost laughed.  He could not tell if she was being serious or not.  The kur were not known for their sense of humor, and it would be unlike her to joke.

“She was assassinated,” Umvara said.  “I would say that alone denotes a ruler who has failed in some essential capacity.”

Turyan stiffened and then he saw her force herself to relax.  He wondered at that.  It was not like her to be emotional.  He decided to let it pass.  Her feelings were not his concern, only her efficacy.  “Have you seen Earthmen before?  Their soldiers?”

“I have not,” she said.  “Not closely.  I confess I am curious.”

“They are strong as vulo,” he said.  “Stronger, in fact.  They tread heavily and speak loudly and they will find it too dark in here for their tastes.”  He sniffed.  “They have an odor.  And do not be alarmed by their gesturing and waving of arms.  They are a barbaric people and gesticulate wildly when they speak.”  He looked at her sidelong to see if that barb touched her, but she seemed not to notice.  He repressed a shrug.  It was often his curse to interact with people who possessed no subtlety.  Umvara paused and felt the shudder of many feet through the floor, a particularly heavy tread.  “Here they come now.”
o0o

Anya held herself rigid, her back straight and her pace measured.  The interior of the palace was so achingly familiar, overflowing with things she had not known she remembered.  The low light was welcome to her eyes, and she found herself able to see the faint glow of the Earthmen around her, as she did when it was dark on Earth.  It seemed brighter here, doubtless because of the cold.  The colors of the walls and floor were muted yet complex, shimmering with little traces of silver and gold.

The soldiers around her marched as one, stepping so carefully, and yet still several times one of them overbalanced and fell.  Sir James was close beside her, and he seemed to be more at ease, though she was amused to see Sir Wallingstone having more difficulty.  They passed through a doubled door, and then the atmosphere was thicker and richer, and they all breathed more easily.  Parts of the great homes were always walled off within glass domes to provide a refuge of luxury like this – thick air and a welcome humidity.

Now the halls were lined with cultivated plants and strung with vines studded with glowing flowers.  Some of the plants shifted as they walked past, reaching toward their warmth and breath, and the soldiers obviously found it unnerving.  Anya quickened her stride a little to draw ahead.  She wanted to be first into the great hall, quick on the heels of the servants who led the way.

She went down a wide, shallow stair, the steps rounded and smooth, as if they had been grown rather than shaped.  The hall opened out into a wide, high-ceilinged room lined with slender pillars that were far too delicate to support anything.  On Mars there was little need for such flourishes, and in the light gravity architecture was often soaring and fanciful to an eye used to Earth.

The floor was polished and intertwined with deeper colors in patterns like knots, like a map of coiling rivers in red and copper and skeins of silver.  At the far end was a throne draped in white cloth, and behind it was a wall that shimmered, and it was a moment before she realized it was a cascade – a thin fall of water flowing eternally down the wall, in this place an unthinkable display of opulence.

The man who came toward her was tall, and he looked taller because of the elaborate wirework headdress he wore, his hair worked meticulously in and around the gold and copper frame.  He had the long face and deep red skin of a Martian, and she was surprised by how strange he looked to her.  She had become so accustomed to Earthmen that her own kind appeared alien to her.

His wide, heavy robe swept the floor as he came to meet her, the sleeves rolled and rolled until they looked as thick as blankets.  Jewels and gilded designs glimmered on his ceremonial breastplate, and there were small stones glued to his brow in imitation of the horns that only her line truly carried.  He approached with hands outstretched, and then he inclined his head and made several small, deliberate gestures that she half-remembered the meanings of.

She had to resist the urge to bow in answer, or even nod.  Here she was claiming the title of Empress, and she had to hold to that as strongly as she could in word and deed.  Here no sovereign ever bowed or acknowledged such gestures.  It was considered a fundamental mark of status that she hold herself above all such things, and so she held herself stiff, hands folded and back straight, neck stretched and her chin slightly elevated.  She remembered how her mother used to stand, and she tried to emulate it.

“Anavasavsta, Shrad of Vul, Scion of the Most Ancient House of Vovikar,” he said, his face held in an expressionless reserve.  “It is an honor for me to welcome you, once more, to your home.  My house is yours, my strength is yours.”

Now came the moment to speak, and she caught her breath, worried that her tongue would fail her.  It had been so long since she had spoken the language of her people aloud that she worried she would sound foolish, or her accent would be strange.  She knew there were proper gestures to make, and she only remembered such as a child had known.  In her nervousness, she held herself even more rigidly upright, and she made a small sign of acknowledgment.  “Umvara, Shrad of Shal, Blood of My Ancestors.  I greet you in this appointed hour.”

“I am small before you,” he said.  “May I never tread upon your shadow.  May I hallow the promises made by my forebears to uphold the lineage of Vovikar.”  He made another series of signs and she resisted the urge to nod in answer when he inclined his head again.

Sir Wallingstone stepped forward and to her left.  “Greetings, my Lord Umvara.  I am Sir Henry Wallingstone, the leader of this delegation from Her Imperial Highness, Victoria of England.  I am pleased to have escorted Her Highness, Princess Anastasia, on this momentous occasion.”

A silence fell after this, and Anya felt a moment of worry that Umvara had not understood and would be offended – for her own part she found Wallingstone’s intrusion set her teeth on edge – but he only smiled.  Martians did not tend to show their teeth when they smiled, and so there was a certain sly quality to it.

“Of course, my good friend Sir Henry,” Umvara said in accented but clear English.  “It is good to meet you eye to eye, after such a long correspondence of letters.  We have both worked hard for this day to occur, and I am pleased that it has arrived.”

Wallingstone puffed up a little.  “Please, let me present the commanding officer of the regiment we have brought with us.  This is Sir William James, Colonel of the First Martian Rifles.”

He beckoned and Sir James came forward, stepping with care and holding himself with military stiffness.  He sketched a rigid little bow.  “My lord,” he said.  He did not look right at Umvara, and Anya approved.  She knew it was considered insulting for those of lower position and status to look their betters in the eye – and on Mars all soldiers were socially inferior.  Sir James had been to Mars before, and he knew this well enough.

“Excellent,” Umvara said.  “May I introduce my own military adviser and chief of my honor guard.”  He held up a hand and made a small beckoning gesture.  “Turyan.”

One of the pale High Martian guards detached from the wall and came to stand just behind Umvara.  Anya was surprised to see it was a woman, very tall, so that she would be eye to eye even with Sir James.  As a native of the dust-clouded deserts she was white as milk, with her dark eyes lending her an unnatural appearance.  Her hair was gathered in braids that hugged close to her head and were knotted together in a kind of topknot.  She wore a black robe that was small for her size – almost more of a wrap without sleeves or sash, and Anya recognized it was meant to be discarded in case of violence.

She wore armor made of the polished and treated black wood harvested from the mushroom trees, and a straight, slim Martian sword on her left hip and a pistol on her right.  She looked them all over with a cold detachment, though Anya felt her gaze linger longest on her.  It made her nervous.  She remembered the High Martians – the kur – employed as mercenaries and bodyguards.  But she also remembered the wild stories of their savagery and violence – the stories that they wore flayed skins and ate the flesh of their enemies.

For his part, Wallingford seemed discomfited that she was a woman.  He coughed.  “So this . . . this woman will be commanding your forces?”  He tried to sound unsurprised, but his tone was easy to read.  Anya wondered if the Martians could tell.  They did not use the same kinds of obvious intonations in their own speech.

“The time for that will be soon,” Umvara said.  “But tonight you have traveled far and there is much to be done before steps can be taken.”  He tapped his foot on the floor and servants appeared, stood waiting in even rows.  “You will need to billet your soldiers, unload their equipment, and see to their comforts.  I have had rooms prepared for all of you, and will give no cause to doubt my hospitality.”  He bowed again to Anya.  “All honor to you,” he said, reverting to Martian.  “Turyan, my constant sword, will escort you to your chambers, and see to your safety.”

“Thank you, Blood of My Ancestors,” Anya said.  She turned to face the lean mercenary commander, who bowed to her and stared resolutely past her shoulder.

“This way,” Turyan said.  “I will guide you.”
o0o

Anya felt strange leaving with the guards, but then she heard heavier footfalls and saw that Colonel James was following with six men.  She was surprised by what a relief she found this, and intentionally slowed her pace.  Turyan and her ten men had to slow as well, and so the Earthmen were able to catch up.  Colonel James fell in beside her with a quick smile.  “Can’t very well let you go off alone, Your Highness,” he said.

“Indeed, Colonel,” she said.  “I am eased by your accompaniment.”  She saw Turyan watching them, and from her expression it seemed she did not understand English.  Anya resolved to remember this detail, as it might become useful.  The warrior woman unnerved her, and she was glad not to be alone with her in a strange place.

They proceeded up a wide stair, and again Anya was given to marvel at the complex colors in the walls and the slim pillars.  She knew much of this was made from the wood of fungi and vines.  It was induced to grow together in patterns, and then it was bonded with a resin and cut and polished into shape.  Dried and sealed, the wood-like material was tremendously light and strong.

They reached an upper level, and were gifted with a panoramic view of the city and the shimmering darkness of the lake.  Luminescent creatures swam in the black waters, swirling and coiling.  Anya knew the Martians had a great fear and reverence for the water, last memory of the great seas that had dried up before the rise of human civilization on Earth.  Sea creatures were almost divine, and yet so strange they were feared.  She knew few Martians could swim, or dared to.

Another staircase, and they were on the highest levels of the palace.  The hallway extended outward from the main structure, with a dizzying fall to either side through the glass windows that stood taller than any of them.  At the end was a door, and Turyan opened the door and led her inside, ordering her men to wait.

Colonel James made to follow, and the warrior woman turned and faced him, blocking his path with her hand on her sword.  “You will not be permitted in the private rooms of the Empress,” she said, her voice low and dangerous.

He spoke in perfectly understandable Martian, and Anya saw she was surprised.  “You have your duty, and I have my own.  I will not allow her to remain here unless I have personally checked that these rooms are secure.”  He gestured behind him.  “And I will have men here to guard her as well.”

Turyan stiffened.  “I will not be insulted.”

Anya resisted the urge to touch her arm, knowing Martians did not casually touch one another.  “It will be permitted,” she said.  “I have trust in the Colonel, and he is sworn to me.”

Turyan stood almost nose to nose with Sir James for a long moment, and then she stepped back.  “It will be as you command,” she said.

Sir James nodded and moved gingerly past her.  He paced through the high, spacious apartment.  Martians did not tend to divide their rooms up, so there was only one large, open area with some screens to divide it as wanted.  The windows were wide and high, though the Martian glass was stronger than what was made on Earth.  They were high off the ground, the apartment supported by a single slender column that was as smooth as glass.  Such chambers were all but impossible to infiltrate.

He nodded.  “Good.”  He bowed to Anya.  “I believe you will be safe enough here, Highness.”  He smiled a bit and took a breath from his mask.  He hesitated for a moment, but then made his leave.  Turyan watched him every moment, her eyes intent and depthlessly black.  In the dim light Martian pupils expanded and almost seemed to fill the whole eye.  Anya knew her own eyes were likely doing it as well.

Turyan faced her and bowed rigidly.  “I myself will guard your sleep tonight.  I will leave no one else to do so.  I will trade my life for yours, if it is called for.”  She seemed about to speak again, but then she simply left, and Anya was left alone with unasked questions, and the brooding quiet of a city older than the mind of man.

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