“Surely we’ll reach Otomeia today,” Chie Harada said, struggling with the ends of her cloak to wrap it more securely around her. She shivered, even with the cloth enclosing her. “This country’s climate is intolerable.”
“Piss’ll freeze before it’s even hit the ground in this place,” came the sneering comment from her side. The speaker, Nao Yuuki, gritted her teeth after speaking and scowled, bright green eyes narrowing with irritation. She brought a hand up to rub her ear.
“My ears are about to fall off,” she complained.
“I think one of mine already did, a few hours ago,” Chie replied. “Either that or I’m just so numb I can’t feel it anymore.”
The woman on the horse ahead of them laughed and slowed her steed to fall in between theirs.
“Perhaps the two of you should stay in the carriage,” she offered. “It is unnecessary for you both to be out here.”
Nao bared her teeth in a grimacing smile.
“That’s easy enough to say, Fujino-san,” she said. “But when even the taichou stays out with the soldiers on the march, it’d be poor of a simple centurion not to ride next to her just because the weather’s colder than Armitage’s heart.”
“Ara,” the other replied, unable to help smiling. “You should not speak of Haruka-san in such a manner. And there is truly no need for you to brave the cold for my sake―after all, Nao-han is not just a ‘simple centurion,’ but a primipilus, and my chief one, too,” she added, to soften the admonition. “Surely a little comfort is only deserved by such a soldier.”
The primipilus snorted.
“You don’t have to flatter me, taichou. It won’t work, I’m staying right here.” Nao gave another sharp grin and continued: “Besides, I’ll be damned if the soldiers tell of the day I couldn’t stand a little ice up my ass, when a patrician senator and a letter writer could.”
The other two laughed, the sound hollow in the dead winter air. The “letter writer” grabbed a handful of snow from a tree they were passing and threw it at Nao, who dodged it with a cackle.
“Scribe, Yuuki, personal scribe and legate,” Chie said, after chuckling. “That’s the title, not ‘letter writer.’ Oh, and since you seem to be forgetting it, I’m a senator too.”
“And this scribe’s been in as many campaigns as you have, so shut your mouth.”
Nao smirked at her. “Well, I don’t see the other senator complaining.”
“Shizuru-san’s too well-bred for that.”
“Which means you’re not.”
Chie laughed and cursed her. This set them off on another round of friendly bicker as they plodded along, some of the marching soldiers next to them joining in every now and then. After a while of this, a galloping rider came over to them from the front. He drew the horse up before the three women and saluted.
“General, legate, centurion,” he said, addressing each of them by their titles. “We’ve entered the outskirts of Otomeia. The city walls are up ahead.”
“How far, scout?” asked the centurion, squinting against the rising wind.
“Just past this valley, hidden by the bend, ma’am,” he answered. “The other scouts we sent up to clear the tops said there were some archers on the promontories, but they were Otomeians. Lookouts.”
“That’s expected. Tell them to look alive. You can’t be too sure with these barbarian places if you’ve missed something or not.”
“Yes ma’am.” He saluted again and rode off. Nao spurred her horse as well and said that she would speak to the other centurions to tell the legionaries they were near their destination. The other two waved her off and kept their pace, staying close to the carriages.
“Finally,” Chie said. “Let’s hope these ones are a little more civilized than the last ‘allies’ we had.”
“Do you think the Mentulae know yet?” She turned her head towards her friend as they rode side by side. “That we’re here to stop their expansion?”
“I think they may suspect it by now.”
“How come they haven’t even tried to get in touch with us? No attacks, even, and we’re not carrying as many troops as I’d like. There are hordes of them, so I’ve heard.”
They were speaking in low voices, their beasts close as they leaned towards each other.
“Certainly it is a curious thing,” the general replied. “I would have expected an envoy from them, at the very least, to probe for information as to exactly what our purposes are, here. But at least we shall not have to engage in combat prematurely.”
“You’re uneasy about it because of how… outnumbered we are right now?”
“Not at all,” was the reply, given with a small smile. “Even when we do reach our allies at Otomeia, we shall very likely remain heavily outnumbered even with the Otomeian military filling our ranks. No, I would simply prefer to minimize any possible losses. Whatever the case, I am entirely sure we would win.”
Chie smiled to herself as they rode on.
That’s the good thing about being with Shizuru Fujino, she thought to herself. If her friend said they would win, they would. In all their years together, the general―even when she was not yet a general, and even when she was not in a military arena―had never been anything less than brilliant. Which was probably… or rather, surely why she was a Senator at such a young age. And head of a decury too, something Chie had never been, for all that she was the elder of the two of them. Not that it pricked her pride in any way, of course. She had grown too used to her friend for that. The younger woman would always stand out and well above the crowd.
In fact, she should be standing well above the crowd back home right now, Chie thought. If she hadn’t spent so much time winning campaigns abroad, she would probably have already been a consul too. She had been expected to run for praetor this year, then go on to the next rung up the ladder that was known as the Cursus Honorum, which was the consulship. By all rights that was what should have happened this year in Hime… had not been for this campaign. But that would change after this. Chie was sure of it.
We’ll finish this thing wreathed in glory,she nodded to herself, the confident thought bringing a momentary flush of warmth to her chest. We’ll beat back those dogs, the Mentulae, all the way to their borders.
Yes, they would do that. Never mind that they were outnumbered. Never mind the dratted chill nipping at her ears yet again. They would finish this campaign and show up those jealous dogs in the Senate that all their schemes were for nothing! And perhaps, she would even manage to show up that snobbish old father of Aoi’s…
I hope I’m not being too optimistic, she told herself. But then again, being optimistic at the outset of a journey never heralded bad luck. So surely there was no harm in being sanguine even in light of such conditions, as it could not hurt. Besides which, she had one of the best talismans of good luck at her side, did she not?
She smiled, watching as the talisman herself edged close to the walking soldiers and chatted casually with them, their tired expressions falling away as they laughed at her jests. She knew her friend did this every time they went on campaign, mingling with the army on the march to keep their spirits up. Remarkable. This was something no other general did, because it was considered unnecessary as well as uncomfortable, when it was possible to merely wait out the journey in a carriage. Shizuru, on the other hand, usually walked with the soldiers too. But this time the army, through the centurions, managed to convince her to use her horse during the last stretch of their trail. They were concerned that the general would be overtired, especially in the brutal climate. She capitulated only when the soldiers themselves made direct pleas to her, saying that it would set their minds more at ease.
She’s the only taichou I’d ever follow, thought Chie. True, there were some other good ones back in Hime, but as far as she was concerned, none of them could even begin to hold a candle to her friend.The red-eyed woman simply dwarfed all of the rest. All of the soldiers, Chie knew, would follow such a general to the death… because, who would not?
She turned her head to her general, who had cantered back to her side.
“We are almost there. Can you bear the cold a little longer, or would you like to go to the carriage for a quick warm-up?”
She smiled. “I’ll stay where you are, Shizuru-san. Where my general goes, there I go.”
“Ah,” was the only response, and a smile.
A while later, they heard the ripples of speech coming from the leading soldiers that told them the ones in front were in sight of the city walls. It was not long before they themselves could see it as well, silhouetted against the sinking sun. The sky, formerly a grayish blue, had now melted into a soft orange towards the centre of the dying light. The snow covering the trees and the land reflected the colours and bathed everything in the warm shades, softening the earlier harshness of the landscape’s cool monotone.
“For all its inhospitability of weather, this land is very beautiful,” the general remarked, gazing at the sight.
Chie made a sound of agreement, busy trying to imprint the sight into her memory. She intended to make an illustration of it when she had the time. As they approached, however, she furrowed her brows and squinted at the outline of the city.
“Shizuru-san,” she said. “Don’t they seem seem a little… crooked to you? The walls?”
It was a while before Shizuru replied.
“Ara,” she said. “You’re right. The line does seem highly irregular at the top.”
“Does this mean they can’t even build even walls?” the other said in dismay.
“Perhaps there is more to it than that,” said Shizuru, her tone holding a touch of excitement. “Come, Chie-han, let us go to the front. I wish to see it.”
They galloped forward, their horses complying eagerly with the release from the monotonous pace. When they were close enough to make out the sentries on the tops of the walls, they realized why the walls looked so odd.
“By the gods,” Chie exclaimed. “This is amazing.”
Shizuru laughed, delighted at the discovery. “Extraordinary. You should make a note of it in the record you send to the Senate.”
“Oh, you can be sure I will.”
“Hey,” said a voice. “Crazy, isn’t it?”
“What do you think of it, Nao-han?” asked Shizuru.
Nao brought her horse in line with the other women’s. She looked up at the walls they were approaching.
“Well, it’s unusual, all right,” she said. “But it’s perfect for defense. Those sections look like they’d be impossible to breach with normal artillery. A catapult wouldn’t even make a dent in that part.”
“I’ve never seen such a thing,” Chie said. “What are they?”
“I do not know,” Shizuru said, eyeing the entire structure.
Imposing, she thought. And the primipilus was correct: it would be difficult to breach, if not for the sections of the wall that were actually man-made―although she could not be too sure that those other cliff-like sections were not man-made, even if they do not seem like it. What were they?
They seemed to be sheer slabs of rock that rose from the ground at an almost perfectly vertical angle, jutting out and ending in sharp peaks about forty or so meters from the earth, Shizuru estimated. The rock appeared smooth, and there were hardly any crags or projections that a climber could use for purchase. The narrowest wedge appeared to be at least a hundred meters wide, and there were around ten of them that she could see from the side they were approaching.
The walls of Otomeia were made up of these slabs, with the more standard brick and stone sections built into the spaces between them. These were of an even height, about thirty meters tall. The irregularities of the city’s silhouette were caused by the stone wedges rising from the regular height of the brick and stone sections.
Soon the party was entering these walls, having sent envoys ahead to tell the Otomeians to open the gates. These gates, too, were quite formidable as they appeared to be made entirely of metal. Due to the weight, they also took a little longer to open and shut than others―or so Shizuru thought.
When the portals were finally open, Shizuru rode forward with Nao and Chie at either side, her other legates leading the other cohorts. Accompanying the general’s party were two of their interpreters, who were familiar with the Otomeian dialect. The army filed in after them, settling into ranks as they reached the central square. They gazed around.
Seen from within, the stone slabs were also flat on this side. Shizuru and the centurions, who had been taking note of the thickness of the walls as they passed through them, knew that they had to be at least ten meters thick.
How impressive, the general thought, drinking in the sights with a calm eye that masked her excitement. I really must ask about them, these walls. And the charming buildings!Undoubtedly foreign in design, yet she found them wonderfully aesthetic. Even their clothes appeared far more cultured than she had expected, and her expectations had not even been poor, by all means. She wondered, idly, who the king was among the people standing before them―why, they all looked so richly adorned they could all have been royalty!
Well, now, she berated herself. Don’t just stand here, go forward and get the initial diplomacies over with. The sooner you do, the sooner your people can rest and get warm.
She dismounted and walked forward, her attendants and centurions doing the same. Several persons from the Otomeian line in front of them came up to meet her. They met in the centre of the square, bowing to each other.
“I believe I have the honour of addressing the general Shizuru Fujino?” inquired the man who was standing foremost, facing Shizuru. His eyes widened slightly as he met her eyes, and she smiled, used to the reaction. She took the opportunity to study him.
He was extremely pale, as all the Otomeans appeared to be, and had long, lank hair that went past his shoulders. There were several thin braids in the hanging mane, adorned with minute golden clasps and beads. His eyes were heavily outlined in black―stibium, Shizuru presumed―and his garb was entirely white, with trimmings of gold and brown. Like most of the other Otomean leaders before them, he was wearing a long robe-like garment that reached his feet, instead of trousers.
The appraisal took only an infinitesimal moment. She nodded afterwards, surprised that he was speaking in the Himean tongue, and asked if the king was in present company. She doubted it, but preferred to be sure all the same.
“I am afraid not,” he replied, courteously putting on a regretful expression. “We apologize for this, but our king has been feeling poor of late, Fujino-san. He regrets that he cannot come to greet you outside, as the present weather is contrary to his health. If you would be so kind as to follow us, we shall escort you to him. As for your army, we shall be glad to take care of their needs, if you wish. We have already prepared lodging for them―and all our interpreters are at the ready, although I doubt you shall have need of them very often.”
“I am grateful for such thoughtfulness,” she replied. “Please lead the way.”
“Of course, Fujino-san. I am Hyodo, by the way.”
Accompanied by Chie, Nao, the interpreters, and a century of soldiers for protection, they followed the Otomeian representatives through the city, leaving the other officers with the carriages and the soldiers. As they passed through the streets, Otomeians thronged by the road to watch the foreigners being taken to their king. Some of them even cheered at the sight of the Himeans, awed by their appearances. This prompted a low chuckle from the general’s personal scribe.
“Nice to be welcomed, all right,” she said to her companions, with a wink for the primipilus. “What do you think?”
“Hm. They don’t look as uncivilized as the Scurrae,” Nao muttered quietly, referring to the allies they had worked with during their last campaign. “But I’ll be damned if they don’t look decadent.”
“I know,” Chie replied from Shizuru’s other side. “Look at all the gold. Dear me!”
“Filthy rich bastards. I bet the king’s a greedy old fart.”
The general interrupted silently by sending a humorous warning look at her chief primipilus, earning a grin.
“Right,” said Nao, sighing. “I know―be diplomatic.”
“Maybe we should’ve brought two centuries,” Nao muttered. “I’d feel better with two hundred for a bodyguard instead of one.”
“Do you suspect something, Yuuki-han?”
“If you’re asking me if I feel they’re going to try anything funny, no,” the redhead replied. “But I always suspect something.”
Shizuru chuckled and told her to relax.
“I’m quite sure they shall not try anything,” she said, looking at the buildings they were passing. “Enjoy the tour. Look at Chie.”
The person in question laughed.
“Guilty,” she said to them. “Look at their culture, the structures. Fascinating.”
“Is it just me or is it warmer inside their walls?” Nao asked.
“It is warmer. Amazing, isn’t it? Probably since there’s a denser concentration of people, and the walls pretty much stifle the wind.”
“Well, I don’t care why, so long as it keeps my ears stuck to my head.”
They entered a compound and came up to the palace, a striking edifice that appeared to be made almost entirely out of painted stone from the outside. They entered and found that the inside was even more noteworthy, done with elaborate murals and brightly tiled floors.
Making their way through the rooms, they noticed the heat and made comments to that effect. One of Otomeian representatives explained that the palace was kept heated by continuous fires burning on every floor.
“Now that I think of it,” Chie said, shedding her cloak. “I did see a fireplace in every room we passed. And there are all these small lamp-like ones, too.”
“Feels nice and toasty,” Nao commented as they entered the great hall, which was lit by several fires inside, giving a warm glow to the area. There were already a lot of people―judging from their clothes, mostly more representatives―waiting for them there. All were seated on cushions on the floor, at low tables that the Himeans found amusing. The tables were laden with a veritable feast, ostensibly for the newcomers.
In the middle of the rows of tables and cushions was a clear path leading towards a longer table set on a raised platform. The Himeans were led through this path as the seated people stood up in respect and made bows to them. At the end of the path by the platform was another group of Otomeians, who bowed slightly as Shizuru and her party came near. A tall man with white hair and a long beard braided with ornaments stepped forward, his manner―and the white ribbon of the diadem tied around his brow―indicating his identity.
“General Shizuru Fujino,” he said, addressing her in faultless Himean. “I am Kruger the Third of Otomeia. We are honoured by your presence.”
Shizuru bowed as he did. “We are honoured by your having us as well, king.”
“Please, address me as Kruger, Fujino-san. Even we, far as we are from Hime, hear tell of your greatness. I would be ashamed to put on airs before the Red-eyed Conqueror,” he intoned, pronouncing one of Shizuru’s titles with almost comical gravity.
“Ara, please do not say such things―I am but a servant of Hime,” Shizuru said with her customary diplomacy. “As you insist, I shall address you as Kruger-han, good king. Is that satisfactory?”
“It is satisfactory, Fujino-san.” He clapped his hands and the people at the other tables seated themselves. Some of the Himeans looked around curiously.
“It is customary among us to indulge in a feast for any important gathering,” the king explained. “Will you do us the honour of gracing our banquet with your presence, Fujino-san? Your entourage is included, of course.”
Shizuru inclined her head. “As you wish, Kruger-han. It is good to have a rest before more pressing matters are discussed.”
“Then, please join me at the table.” He made a motion to Hyodo, who stepped forward. “Please direct Fujino-san’s escort to a table. I am afraid they cannot all fit at my table.”
After they were seated―an affair which made the Himeans pause, since they were unused to sitting on the floor with rugs and cushions―the feast began and conversation resumed in the hall. All of the Otomeian representatives seated with the Himean officers spoke the Himean language, although with varying degrees of proficiency. As for the king, Shizuru found that he spoke it flawlessly, with no trace of an accent at all. She commented on it, and he smiled with pleasure.
“My pedagogue was a Himean philosopher, when I was a child,” he explained. “So naturally, he taught me the language as he spoke it in his hometown. Besides, our dynastic line has long been a client of Hime.”
“Indeed, we have a long history of alliance,” Shizuru agreed. “Although relations between our countries have thus far been sparse, unfortunately. How came so many to speak our language here, aside from you, Kruger-han? I understand that it is indeed a well-known language, but I had no idea it was so common in these parts.”
“It is considered the language of civilized peoples, so it well befits us to learn it. It is taught to the upper-class families, and is a requirement for gaining a position in our government,” he explained, after a swig of wine from his goblet. “The lower classes speak very little of it, although most of them understand it quite well.”
“Now then, let us have some entertainment,” he said, signalling to one of the attendants behind him. Several musicians took up positions near the platform their table was on, and some people clad in colourful costumes began to dance in the empty space before the platform. Some of the diners clapped and cheered as one of the dancers, in a particularly smooth movement, flipped and twirled in the air.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” Chie said to Shizuru, who nodded.
As everyone was watching the performers and falling to the repast, Shizuru let her eyes wander throughout the hall as she ate, noting the differences in dress among the Otomeians. Some wore trousers, some wore dresses, and still more wore the long cloaks that Hyodo and the king were wearing―all in white. All of them had long hair that hung loose, with those fine, distinctive braids and the golden accessories on them that made their hair sparkle when light shone upon it. They had rimmed their eyes with stibium and with their pale skin, it made them look all the more exotic to her. On the whole, she found them quite fine-looking.
She was about to put a piece of bread in her mouth when something caught the corner of her eye, and she turned, looking past the king. There, leaning against the far wall, was a female figure that did not appear to be Himean yet was not wearing white. She seemed to be in dark clothes of some kind, which Shizuru could not see perfectly because of the flickering light of the torches. What she could see perfectly was the figure’s face, illuminated in such a way that made her appear to be glowing.
Shizuru paused with her hand halfway to her mouth.
“Fujino-san?” inquired the king, who had noticed her odd pose.
Shizuru looked at him and smiled apologetically.
“Forgive me, Kruger-han,” she said. “I was just thinking of something.”
“Perhaps you are anxious to begin our talks already?”
“It would be appreciated if we could do so.”
“Then, if you have finished with your repast, would you like to join me in the council room? Or would you prefer to wait until the feast is over?”
Shizuru glanced at the wall and found that the person was gone.
“Indeed,” she said. “It would be best if we could cover some of the ground now and adjourn to another room, Kruger-han.”
“Of course, Fujino-san. Your attendants?”
A while later, Shizuru and a few of her officers were speaking with the king and two of his counselors in the Otomeian council room. There were two interpreters from the Himean side as a precaution, although the speech being used was already Himean. Guards were posted outside the room as they held the conference, as was to be expected.
“So he has not yet stepped into your territories?” Shizuru was asking the Otomeians. “Or tried?”
“He has not,” the female Otomeian counsellor said. “But he is getting closer and closer. Even now, he is making movements that tell us he plans to besiege Argentum, and that is already a Himean client-state, as well as an ally of ours.”
“We shall have to engage him soon,” Shizuru said meditatively. She looked up. “Your forces?”
“Quite good,” said the other counsellor, a man. “Although we are nowhere near his numbers, ours are better-trained, I think. We have two legions of horse, three legions foot, and about one legion of archers―although the Lupine division’s units are crack shots with arrows as well as spears.”
“The Lupine division?” asked Nao.
“Our elite unit, the first cavalry division. They are comprised of about seven hundred warriors―all of whom can use nearly any weapon with remarkable skill. Sending them out often decides the course of our battles, so fearsome are they.”
“How interesting,” Shizuru said, lifting her brows. “An elite cavalry squadron? I daresay that would be most useful.”
“I’d like to see this Lupine division,” her chief primipilus added, eyes lighting up.
“Why, one of them is just outside the door,” Kruger exclaimed, clapping his hands. The door opened and he called for someone. “Here she is.”
As the person entered, Shizuru felt herself freeze again. It was the figure she had been looking at in the great hall.
The king beckoned to her and said something in the Otomeian tongue. She then stepped forward, bowing to the Himeans. As her hair fell forward, Shizuru realized why her face had seemed so much paler than the rest of the Otomeians’, even at a distance: her hair was dark as night. The little ornamented braids in it, relatively fewer compared to the others, looked like stars.
“This is Natsuki,” the king explained. “She is captain of the Lupine division, as well as one of my personal attendants. She is one of my most trustworthy subjects.”
The Himeans took in the young woman, appraising her quietly. The general replied to Kruger’s statement.
“I see,” she said, a little more softly than she had intended. “We are pleased to be working with you in the coming months… Natsuki.”
The woman merely bowed and retreated to one corner of the room, saying nothing as she assumed her watch over the Otomeian regent. The rest continued their conversation, speaking for a good while. Every now and then, however, Shizuru would flick her eyes surreptitiously to the figure standing in the dark.
“Now, I believe we have covered everything,” the king said, at length. “The rest needs to be planned in detail, and perhaps it would be best to get some rest before that―I am sure you are very tired, Fujino-san.”
“The idea is rather appealing,” she said, with a wry smile. “How nice it would be to actually sleep in a room, after having spent so many nights sleeping in the open. Why, I am almost afraid I would fail to fall asleep if I do not see stars above me.”
“We shall paint them on the ceiling of your quarters if need be,” the king laughed, the white bristles of his beard waving. “I shall have someone take you to your rooms, honoured guests. We have rooms enough for each one of you to sleep in peace, as well as comfort.”
Nao gave a small start, which made the others turn towards her. Shizuru understood and shook her head.
“I’m sorry, taichou,” Nao said, setting her face into its most pugnacious lines. “But I think I’d better stay with you, just in case.”
“Ara, you need not worry so much, Yuuki-han.”
Looking from one woman to the other, the king’s face seemed to show comprehension gradually. He gently interrupted the conversation.
“Fujino-san,” he said. “Perhaps I can help set the centurion’s mind at ease. Would you be willing to accept Natsuki as your personal bodyguard while you are our guest? It would set my mind at ease as well, for she is the best warrior we have, as well as the most reliable one. I myself feel exceeding calm when she is near.”
It was clear that Nao found this intelligence even more cause to be suspicious, and she was about to protest when Shizuru cut her off.
“I would be happy to have her as my guard,” she said clearly, eliciting a curious look from Chie and a confused one from Nao. “Would she be willing, Kruger-han?”
“She will do as I tell her.”
“I would prefer to hear it from her, I am afraid, to be sure it is no imposition.”
The king made a vague nod and called the young woman over from the shadows. She stepped close to them, her face shining in the yellow light.
“I want you to be Fujino-san’s personal attendant, Natsuki. For as long as she is a guest of our country, guard her with your life.”
Her eyes, which she had kept lowered all the while, flicked up to meet Shizuru’s. They were a startling shade of green and the general, seeing the woman’s eyes properly for the first time, had the impression of a glittering forest after rain.
“There,” the king said, pleased. “You have a bodyguard, Fujino-san.”
Nao and Chie turned to look at Shizuru, still wearing bemused expressions on their faces. There was good reason for their confusion. Their young friend had never accepted any offers of personal bodyguards before, and they wondered why she would do so now. Certainly both thought the young woman – this “Natsuki” – cut an enigmatic figure… but why should that make a difference to the general?
The general, for her part, was still locked in a staring battle with her new bodyguard. Her eyes twinkled mischievously as she realised that the young woman was not about to cave in to her stare, something rather unusual. This was the first time anyone had even dared to take her on, she thought with amusement.
A smile slowly formed on her lips, and she was even more amused to see that spots of colour had appeared on the young woman’s cheeks.
“Yes,” Shizuru said, still keeping her eyes on the woman. “I have a bodyguard.”