Gods, the wealth of this country. I leaned against the prow of my ship and stared at the manor homes thronging the river edge. They stood side by side, crowded in closer than fleas on a rat, each more ornate than the last, as if they were stuck in an eternal war of one-upmanship. Marble decks jutted out from them, filled with furniture and potted plants, their railings covered in climbing vines so dense, I smelled the sickly-sweet fragrance of their flowers from here.
I leaned forward and spat into the water. It was ostentatious, flagrant. Borderline heretical. The gods didn’t like us humans to get too proud, and this peacocking would surely draw their notice. A humble man was a wise man. A man who might live long enough to die old and happy, surrounded by his brethren. Braggarts and showboats never lasted long, the gods always finding ways to humble them.
My eyes landed on a towering chateau painted in flaming pink, and I wondered how the people of Tisalt had so far escaped such a fate. Had their king bargained with their god? Or did all this wealth mean their annual tithes to Myrodis were rich enough to bribe him into complacency? My upper lip curled in distaste. If that were the case, Myrodis was softer than the god my people served. Ocanic would never allow such hubris from his subjects. The ocean god was as greedy and petty as they came, regularly sinking ships if they carried too much wealth. It’s why my island nation had to be cautious about how we sent and received goods with the few allies I’d managed to scrape together since conquering it.
A hint of jealousy snuck in to color my distaste green. While the nobles of this country sat and suntanned on their balconies, my people struggled and starved.
I rubbed a hand over my face and straightened, reminding myself that my upcoming marriage was meant to fix that. Tisalt was a large, relatively flat country with wide, slow rivers and a temperate climate. Spread out behind the towering river homes, fields of wheat stretched all the way to the distant hills. They were so vast that they looked like an inland ocean of gold, gentle waves spreading over them with every gust of wind. Tisalt was the continent’s bread basket, providing 70% of the wheat consumed by its populations. Its monarchy was the richest in the land, and its king and queen had 12 daughters, all of whom came with staggering dowries.
The moment I’d secured my hold on the throne, I’d written to the king of Tisalt, seeking out the hand of his youngest, Brianne, who was rumored to be godblessed by Ocanic. Her gifts were wasted this far inland but would be a great boon to my people, and she would have the notoriety and fame of being the first queen of Ocane. I made a point to go on and on about that last part in my letters to her father, appealing to his vanity. It was still a long shot for an upstart like me, and I was shocked when I got a response that said King Davied had favorably received my petition and we might begin negotiations.
I drummed my fingers over the railing, my eyes unseeing as we floated past the densely-populated shoreline. Why had King Davied agreed so readily? There had to be more to his acceptance than the esteem Brianne’s new title would bring to Davied’s household. Hells, his eldest daughter would inherit his throne when he passed, and he had another one who would be queen of a nation almost as wealthy as Tisalt, married to their crown prince. Was this all a trap? Did Davied have designs on my country? Think Brianne might act as his spy and send him critical information about the state of our standing army and defenses? I’d have to watch her closely because, despite what we’d told the outside world, both were in shambles. We’d lost too many men and women in the brief but bloody war that brought me to the throne, and would be easy prey to someone looking to turn us into a principality.
I grinned. Or so it would seem to most. The waters around our shores were treacherous, and only skilled seafarers used to navigating them had a chance at making a successful landing. Anyone thinking of taking Ocane by force would have to find some way to land troops there first, and between our reefs and shoals and the wrath of the god our island was named after, it would be near impossible.
Unless they had an Ocanic godblessed to help them, a dark voice muttered in the back of my mind.
My grin soured into a frown. Yes, there was that. And Brianne was one, after all, which was why I intended to watch her like a shark once I had her within my grasp. She would go nowhere without me knowing it. All of her mail would be read before it was received or sent. I had a codebreaker on hand just in case she and her father tried to communicate through some elaborate scheme that might not be readily apparent to untrained eyes.
Sure, there were risks with this marriage, but the rewards were more than worth it. With Brianne’s dowry, I could help my people. The gold alone would feed us for years, but alongside that dowry came foodstuffs, seeds, wine, farm animals, and more. I planned to put it all to good use, remind my country that we were people of both land and sea. We relied too heavily on the ocean for sustenance, and the two bad years of catches that led to our warring were proof of that. We needed more farms and stretches of wheat like these. We weren’t a large country, but we had rich, fertile soil, and our people were used to hard work. If we split our efforts between field and sea, we would survive the slim fishing years. We wouldn’t have famine. I wouldn’t have to see skeletal children picking at trash as they looked for something to eat.
I shook my head to clear the memories of those brutal years and brought my gaze back to the here and now. Sandrig, a gruff old man who’d been a warrior longer than I’d been alive, came limping up the prow. He dotted a cloth over his sweating forehead and cursed when he reached my side.
“This place is hotter than Eranis’s sweaty balls,” he grumbled.
I glanced skyward, hoping the sun god wouldn’t take offense to his blasphemy. “Be thankful you’re balder than a newborn, you old bastard. Those of us still with hair are suffering even more than you.”
Sandrig cracked a grin, revealing a mouth only half full of teeth. He slapped at his sunburnt scalp and bumped his shoulder into mine. “Ah, but the ladies like my hairless pate. If I oil it, they can see their reflection when I go down on –”
A gagging sound cut him off, and I turned to see Zarin pretending to throw up overboard. She shot Sandrig a glare when she straightened. “No one wants to hear about your exploits, you daft old skank.”
More laughter erupted from the rest of the crew, but Sandrig ignored it, fixing his gaze on the younger woman. “You’re just jealous because no one wants to risk their cock freezing off if they try to put it in your icy hole.”
Zarin snarled and lunged at him.
I closed my eyes and prayed for patience as they went rolling across the deck, punching, scratching, and biting like a pair of rabid foxes. Around me, people started placing bets on the fight. I should probably wade in and break it up, but I could just see the towers of the capital rising around the bend in the river, and it was better if they got this out of their system now instead of in a ballroom. Our nation was already considered barbaric and backward; there was no need to confirm everyone’s beliefs.
Two hours later, we sailed into a wide river harbor. I stared up at the towering crenelations of the city with a mixture of wonder and horror. How were they staying upright on their own? The tallest spire must be over a hundred feet high. Didn’t these people worry about it crashing onto their heads whenever the wind blew?
I scratched the back of my neck and pulled my gaze away from it, feeling unnerved. We had nothing like this on Ocane. Nothing even close. Most of our buildings were built from wood and shale. Only our shrines to Ocanic rose more than two stories, and even then, they were more like bunkers than houses of worship, the walls thick enough to stand against the gale force winds that regularly battered our shores.
A woman almost as tall and broad as I was appeared at my side. Her fingers curled over the deck railing and squeezed until her knuckles turned white. “How the fuck did we pull this off?”
I turned to regard Lagi, the head of my army and my closest friend. She was also my cousin and had supported my rise to the throne with the kind of brutal loyalty that made others watch their tongues when she was in my presence. Most people looked at us and thought we were fraternal twins. We shared the same salt-licked locks and sun-darkened skin. Like mine, her hair was shaved at the sides, the rest tied in intricate braids that clung close to her scalp. She’d helped me draft that first letter to King Davied, was integral in the negotiation process. This victory was as much hers as it was mine.
I shifted my gaze back to the white-washed city, nearly blinded by its brilliance. “I have no fucking idea how we pulled this off, but I’m beginning to think it’s too good to be true.”
She nodded in my periphery. “I go with you everywhere for whatever meetings you need to attend. The crew stays together. No one breaks formation for them to pick off. We don’t even leave anyone behind to watch the ship. Everything valuable comes with us.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Let the others know.”
She turned from me to follow the order, clasping my shoulder as she passed. I should have put my foot down and forced her to stay behind when she demanded to come on this journey. I trusted her more than anyone, even my younger brother, whom I’d left in charge in my brief absence. It’s not that I thought he would spring a coup while we were gone, just that if I were to die on this trip, no one but Lagi stood a chance at keeping our fledgling nation together instead of splitting back into the clans we were used to and returning to endlessly warring with each other over the best land and fishing spots.
A few minutes later, our boat bumped against the quay, the crew leaping over the rails to secure ropes and tie us in. I left Lagi to bark out orders, my focus instead on the small crowd that gathered at the head of the dock. Judging by the opulence of their clothes and the jewels adorning them, this was the royal welcoming committee. At their center stood a man of medium height. He looked to be in his seventies, with white hair and heavy lines marking his face, but he stood ramrod straight like a much younger man, and something about the set of his mouth and the line of his shoulders spoke of confidence and command. This man was used to issuing orders and knowing they’d be followed without question.
Seeing how easily he wore the mantle of monarch made me realize how tenuous my grip on my throne still was and how much I needed his allyship. I wasn’t just getting Brianne’s godblessed power and dowry with this marriage, but a trade alliance along with it. Our fishermen hauled in delicacies from the ocean that these spoiled nobles paid ungodly amounts of gold for, and our craggy coasts were one of the few places in the world where you could find black sea pearls. When the pearls were crushed into a fine powder and turned to ink, they created the strongest spells and wards known to man. I would know since every tattoo crawling over my skin was made from it.
With all the unrest on Ocane lately, our shipments of seafood and pearls had ground to a halt, and Tisalt and its neighboring countries were desperate for those shipments to resume. If my plans worked and we returned to farming along with fishing, we could dedicate more ocean-going time to hunting out delicacies and pearls, which would bring even more wealth to our country, cementing our ties to this wheat-rich kingdom and likely prompting other nations to look for alliances with us as well.
Gods, I need this plan to work.
With that thought in mind, I placed a hand on the railing and vaulted over the side, sailing across the gap between the boat and the quay. The deck rattled beneath my feet when I landed, and only when I rose did I realize how small these people were. The tallest would barely reach my chin. I glanced over them, looking for my bride, but I saw no one who fit her description. Strawberry blonde hair would have been hard to miss.
My mood soured even further. Brianne didn’t come to greet her future husband? It was a massive insult amongst my people, but before anger could overtake me, I reminded myself that our customs were different, and she might not even be aware of the slight.
Patience, Aldo, my eldest advisor, had cautioned before we left. Your quick temper has served you well these past several years, but now is a time for tolerance and diplomacy.
I let out a breath and strode forward to be welcomed into Tisalt.
“King Malcolm,” the man I assumed was Davied called, his voice lower than I expected. The smile he wore seemed genuine as he stepped forward.
“Davied.” I reached out with my left hand to greet him, thinking we would clasp elbows, but he took both my hands in his, and with a tug, he urged me to bend down. He wanted me to bow to him? There was no way in the five hells I would concede to –
He rose just enough to kiss each of my cheeks, and though I hadn’t blushed since I was a boy, I felt heat rise to my face. Right. We definitely didn’t share the same customs.
“Be welcome to our fields,” he said, releasing me.
It sounded like a formal greeting, and I had no idea what the correct response was. When in doubt, I fell back on bullshit, so I spun it for him now, making up an official-sounding reply. “May your nets be ever full, King Davied.”
A snort came from one of my soldiers, but luckily, they held their laughter in, and Davied looked well-pleased with my response.
He turned to the side and gestured for me to walk with him. “I’m sure you must be tired from your journey. We have rooms prepared for you and your retinue.”
I glanced behind us to see my crew laden with chests and trunks, armor and weapons slung over their shoulders. They’d followed Lagi’s orders, bringing everything with them.
“We’ll only require a single room,” I told Davied.
The man must have had the manners of a blessed priest because he didn’t balk at the oddness, merely nodded as we started walking. “It will be done.”
A woman dressed in livery took off from our small crowd at a sprint, no doubt to see his promise would be met by the time we reached the castle.
“Princess Brianne didn’t come to greet me?” I asked.
At this, his façade finally cracked, and the mask of monarch slipped to reveal a harried-looking father. “No, and I apologize if her absence has given any offense. She said she wanted to make a grand entrance, and standing sweaty on a dock in the sun would ruin her image.”
I frowned. Ruin her image?
He must have seen my confusion because he deigned to elaborate. “I love Brianne very much, but she can be particular, and you should know that about her before you are wed.”
By particular, did he mean flighty and vapid? Because that was the impression his words left. And really, I’d expected to be saddled with a spoiled brat for a wife. How could I not when this was where she was raised? In the lap of luxury, safe, coddled. It almost made me feel guilty for dragging her away from it all and thrusting her into the dark, salty heart of a nation far less civilized than her own, but it couldn’t be helped, and my guilt wouldn’t do anything to make it better for her. She would adapt, or she wouldn’t.
I’d worry about her later. Right now, I needed to ingratiate myself with her father, remind him of all he had to gain by honoring the alliance he promised. “I heard you enjoy lobster.”
Davied’s bright blue eyes snapped to mine, sparking with interest and maybe even a flash of hope. “It is one of my favorite foods, but I can’t recall the last time I was lucky enough to have one.”
I turned and called Zarin forward. She joined us, carrying a metal chest. I flicked it open to reveal ten large lobsters packed in ice.
Davied sucked in a breath and placed a hand on my arm, slowing to a stop. “Oh, you wonderful man.”
I frowned, surprised by how unguarded he seemed for someone in his position. Did I trust it? Trust that I was seeing a real person and not some carefully crafted persona he wanted to feed me? No, not really, but then I trusted almost nothing after the life I’d led, and I’d take this façade of a doddering old man over a combative and standoffish one any day.
Zarin closed the lid and retreated, and we began walking again.
Davied shot a look at her over his shoulder and glanced up at me. “Did you encounter any trouble on your journey?”
I started to wonder why he would ask such a thing, but then I recalled that Zarin’s face had bruises and cuts from her scrap with Sandrig. I was so used to seeing my warriors like that it didn’t even stand out anymore, but obviously, things were different here, and I doubted this poised man would appreciate the truth. “She fell during a squall that sprang up midway through our crossing.”
Zarin hissed behind us, no doubt deeply insulted. Only green sailors fell on deck; I’d just implied she was one with my words. I’d have to find some way to apologize to her later, but it was better King Davied thought she couldn’t find her footing than learn my crew was prone to brawling at the slightest provocation. He might think twice about handing Brianne over if he thought she could get caught up in one. It would happen over my dead body. I needed her alive and hale, and I would flay anyone who so much as bumped into her.
“I hope the storm wasn’t too bad,” Davied said.
“It wasn’t. Just caught us off guard. Do you get many storms this far inland?” I asked, eyeing the crenelations that towered over us.
“Very few, and we have lightning rods attached to the highest peaks to funnel the danger away safely.”
I frowned as I searched the spires for some sign of what he spoke of. Lightning rods? Was that some kind of magical shielding? As far as I knew, humans couldn’t wield or work with lightning. It was the power of the gods alone. Had his people come up with some ingenious way to deflect it? I’d have to ask him about it later. We lost buildings every year to fires started by strikes, and if there were some way to avoid that, I’d gladly pay for it. But for now, my thoughts and words needed to be dedicated to our alliance. My wedding would take place tomorrow, and we still had details to finalize and trade routes to confirm.
“Have you thought more about the landing harbor for our ships?” I asked.
His eyes brightened at this. “I have, and I think one of my advisors has found the perfect solution to our dilemma. Once you’re settled in your rooms and have had time to bathe and eat, we’ll call the meeting and hammer out the details.
I nodded. Two days on a ship, and I was more salt grime than man. It would be nice to take a bath and get clean.
Copyright © 2023 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.