I. - The Imperial Capitol
Written by Ræl H. Bishop
Winter wraps the Crownlands like a blanket. Snow falls on and off for days at a time, never giving way to the sun long enough to melt anything. Trees and towers are the only things standing tall in this white world.
Winters like these are rare, especially in this usually warm country. Locals quickly learn to loathe the snow, seeing it as a burden. But such winters breed innovation. The landscape lets strange new ideas emerge from the depths of one's mind, like bears from hibernation, waiting to maul unsuspecting social orders and conventions.
Coming over a hill, a horse and its rider trudge their way through the snow, past the skeletal forest and the buried cottages. They glide past frozen farms, winds nipping at their noses.
They resemble the opposite of a shooting star, a black blur moving across a white-on-white sky. And as every comet makes its rendezvous with the sun, so too does this pair reach its destination; a striking stone citadel, hidden comfortably inside a valley.
Slowing down, the rider approaches the main gate, an imposing steel edifice manned by two guards. They accost the rider and his plain cloak, but back off once he flashes an amulet at them. After convening, the two motion to open the gates and let the rider through.
They tread gently through the cobblestone plazas of the citadel, garnering looks from some passers-by. High priests and higher-brow traders walk past corridors where blacksmiths, butchers, and professional backstabbers reside. This is the Imperial Capitol, after all; only the best of the best walk these streets. Even the beggars here have silver bowls and bronze peg-legs.
Past the statues of the Twelve, past the musk and manure of the market place, past the theatres and poorly disguised brothels, the rider disembarks at the gates of the castle in the citadel's center. He approaches a second set of guards and, once more, flashes his amulet - some strange disc of gold and green, with a flower of ruby in the middle.
More guard smalltalk, more explanations, more guards running back-and-forth.
After some time, the guards oblige and let the cloaked figure in. He disrobes, revealing a heavyset, bronzed figure nearly seven feet in height, wearing the plain yellow tunic of a Notte sailor. A pack is all he carries with him.
After minutes of navigating through torch-lit regal corridors, he is taken to a lavishly decorated throne room. Stained glass windows depicting the Goddess Albmi and her Six Forms line the sides, as do countless statuettes of various saints and djinn.
Sitting opposite him is the Empress, dressed equally lavishly with a familiar olive complexion - a stark contrast from the paler tones of the rest of the Capitol's denizens. She stares impassively at the domineering figure across the hall.
"Greetings, your Highness," he says, prostrating.
The Empress raises her left hand, with the thumb, index and middle fingers upwards - a gesture of acknowledgement. "State your business."
He reaches into his pack and pulls out the amulet from before. Her eyes widen.
"Ireneo Giustiniano? The sailor from Ragu?"
"In the flesh, your ladyship." His voice bellows like thunder across the throne room.
"How did you-" she coughs and composes herself. "What brings you here?"
"I require your assistance, your excellency," he says shuffling through his pack, "for a voyage I am to chart."
He pulls a map out of his pack and approaches the queen. "This is the known world, as we in the Central Sea have charted it. Your new kingdom, as it were. As you can see, the northernmost and southermost portions are terra incognita.“
"Yes, what about them?"
He resumes. ”As you know, trade is crucial to the health of any good empire. There have been, for many reasons, obstacles in promoting trade across this wide and glorious continent.
"I propose, to bypass the pirates of the east and the impassable mountains in-between coasts," he says motioning on the map, "we instead sail around the continent."
She looks at him skeptically.
"Take the snow covered landscape here." He motions towards the window. "Now, it is the dead of winter. You can't easily tell apart land from frozen river. But in the spring, the sun comes to melt all the ice and snow. The land and the sea become two again.
"I've come to believe our world sits as a large island inside a great ocean. I believe the top and bottom of the world is just water. And when summer comes to greet the world, when the ices of the world melt, these frozen tops and bottoms melt.
"Ergo," he says, "if one plans their trade routes right, they could sail around the continent, saving tons of time and manpower. And if it freezes up again, we can use alchemist's fire to clear the ice sheets as needed."
He divulges a detailed dossier of the cities and provinces he plans to visit, as well as the unusual parameters of his fleet, the surveying they will do on the way, the goods they will trade, and calculations of how long it will all take.
"In total, we will depart from Notte heading southward - it should be summer by then. We then go around the bottom of the continent and head northward."
She interrupts. "You are aware of the problem of crossing hemispheres, yes? With the seasons?"
"It'll be summer up here and down there. We should be fine."
She stares at him blankly.
After some time, Ireneo concludes his presentation. "Well," he says confidently, "what are your thoughts on it, your ladyship?"
She closes her eyes for a moment and carefully constructs a response in her mind, slabbing words together like tiles in a mosaic.
The rejection goes on for about ten minutes.
"So," he sheepishly responds, "I'll take that as a 'maybe?'"
"Did you hear a word I said? The answer is no! It's impossible, preposterous, and a waste of resources."
"Neodoric would have approved it."
Her face sours. "Don't bring him up."
"He would have, Lucia."
She gasps in disgust. "Do not address me as such!"
"But that is your name."
"That does not matter! I am the Empress now, and you are my subject. You cannot address me in such a manner."
He sighs, droops his head, and puts his hands in the air. "You are right, your most opulent. I apologize for such uncourteous behavior."
He raises his head. "But I must ask you one thing, your highness."
She remains silent.
"How could you have let your heart turn to stone? Do you not remember your younger days in Theoxenia, when you and Neo would entertain anyone who requested you? When you lived with the people, lived as one of them, before being hidden away in this stone citadel?"
She stares off to the side, dismay turning into brooding.
"What happened to that down-on-her-luck actress that wandered the streets not so long ago?"
She continues staring.
"Listen, I know you're still that rational person inside." He chuckles. "You've spent a good deal of time tearing down my idea because of it.
"And, I have to agree. This idea is bold, ridiculous-"
"...a little flawed. But aren't all new ideas that way? Would you have this throne if some deranged aristocrats didn't get bored one day?”
"I do not ask for much, your excellency. I do not need generous funding, nor do I request your fleets or crew. For I can muster all of those in the Notte Republic.
He genuflects. "I humbly request but one thing of you."
She nods begrudgingly. "That being?"
"A decree of sorts. A document I can carry with and my crew, granting us safe passage to ports across the empire."
She sits for some time in contemplative silence.
“Do you not remember the promise, great empress?”
She ruminates further, now visbily distressed.
The multitudinous eyes of stone and glass surrounding her seem to burn holes into her very being.
The sailor seems unfazed by them.
Lucia closes her eyes and sighs deeply.
"Very well." She motions for a scribe to approach and mutters something to them in a heraldic tongue. “But, I must make a few changes…”