Rishne at the Bone Gates
When a warrior princess confronts Death, she must choose between her fallen lover or her own soul…
Commotion fills the Grand Hall after Spiro Rafaelle’s thrilling tale of thievery and bloody debts paid concludes. As many attendees laugh and cheer, Emily Wink reflects. Her mother always says to never trust a guild representative. “Unless you’re already in a guild,” she’s said, “you’re an easy target for their schemes!”
Nevertheless, Emily Wink enjoyed Spiro’s song. From her vantage point, she watches as the Salavaster envoy whispers amongst itself. She wonders if they’ll levy a tariff against the Laspina League in retribution.
“We shall have order! ” The Imperial Bard announces. As the crowd calms, he twists and stabs a finger at Spiro. “And I shall remind our Bards to sing in the order which they were assigned!”
Emily Wink — and everyone else present — flinches at the admonition. If Spiro does, too, she cannot tell.
“Now,” the Imperial Bard continues, “I present to you our next Bard: Aedana Morant, Oblation to the Goddess Polmos and Head Priestess of the Temple at Lake Kine.”
It is as if a dark cold cloud covers the Grand Hall. A silence falls upon everyone.
The Priestess Aedana, tall and somber, steps into view. She wears a heavy purple robe covering every inch of her body. But when she pulls back her hood, she reveals a dark face with close-cropped hair, and lips parted with a single bright blue stripe. Her yellow eyes land heavily on Emily Wink.
Emily Wink can’t help herself: She gasps.
Princess Rishne grew up with the war cries.
She was born in the waning years of the long and grueling war with Mard, though she would not have known it. Night winds carried the shrieks of ambushed soldiers to her crib; artillery punctuated her lessons and sent her tutors scrambling; the moans and wails of legionaries — captured or dying or both — echoed through the streets of Amalcross alongside her footsteps.
The war had consumed three generations of Amal youth and looked to claim more. But in the war’s fourth decade, both sides could sense the turning tide. Amal glimpsed the first light of victory as if a glint from a rusted sword. Mard felt the first prick of defeat like a wayward needle in a velvet shawl. And thus both sides dug in deeper, straining against inverse hopes.
Who could blame Princess Rishne ‘ja Faison, the eldest daughter of Emperor Kaluan ‘ja Faison and claimant to his rule, for taking up arms on her seventh year? How he begged her to join him on his throne, so she would learn to govern rather than to kill. But she always refused. And how he begged her to grow learned in the arts! Kaluan loved singing and dancing, and high drama and low farce. Indeed, it was not a nurse but Kaluan who sang lullabies to Rishne, and then to each of her sisters, night after night to wash the blood from their dreams. The war had made Emperor Kaluan older than the oldest hermit, and the endless slaughter tore at his soul like vultures at a feast. How he grieved for each of his fallen subjects!
But Princess Rishne had a gift for sword and strategy; even Kaluan could not deny it. Each morning, she strapped armor atop her amber tunic and prayed to Quatha, that great goddess of war and strategy; each day, she trained harder than the most hardened soldier; each night, she burned through a dozen candles studying the greatest generals’ tactics. Soon, Rishne was known as the Warrior Princess of Amal, mistress of musket and sword, and it was said even the Mardians heard her name and trembled.
One morning, as Rishne led the men and women of her legion in prayer to steel-shrewd Quatha, the cerulean skies turned gray and black, and a woman — tall and pale and dressed in heavy purple robes, with lips as blue as the bottom of the sea — rose from the earth. “Quatha!” the troops gasped. “She is come to grant us warlust!”
But Princess Rishne saw the grass brown and stiffen, and smelled the perfume of dry earth, and knew the sky above them was a sight from the land of the dead. She felt her own dark skin recoil.
“No,” Rishne said, “this is Polmos, goddess of life and death — come to drive us to her Deathless Fields.”
Her legionaries cried out in anguish: Death, here for them so soon?
Rishne dropped to her knees and pressed her forehead to the ground, awaiting Polmos’s bitter-pleasant sting.
“Rise, Rishne ‘ja Faison,” Polmos said. “You must yet stalk your victory and your throne before you die.”
Rishne brought her eyes to Polmos’s and stood. Though she had never before felt fear of death, now she trembled.
Polmos drew a greatsword from the earth. It hummed like a master bard, the air quivering around it. “This sword to thee I grant,” Polmos said.
Rishne approached Polmos, and the smell of ancient loam overwhelmed her. She took the hilt from Polmos, but the goddess drew her in close.
“None shall stand before you, and you shall rule,” Polmos whispered. She unhanded the sword and dropped to her knees. “But I warn you, Warrior Princess: Only you may choose your realm.” [BR1] And thus, the goddess of life and death was gone, and the grass renewed, and the day turned bright and cheerful.
As those strange words rang in her ears, Rishne saw her legionaries press their heads to the ground around her. “Even the goddess of death bows before our future Empress!” they cheered. “Princess Rishne shall lead us beyond victory!”
Every schoolchild in the Empire knows the feats of Princess Rishne’s legion, as well as the Warrior Princess’s kindness to refugees, orphans and even those made prisoner of war. And all know how she met autumn-haired Willem Qoyle during the Battle of Booley Swamp. But few know that one sultry night Fen — patient god of harvest and fertility — marked them for a summer bounty in his almanac. Even before the battle was won, Emperor Kaluan learned of Rishne’s intention to wed Willem.
What could Kaluan have thought? Surely, his joy at his favored daughter’s betrothal was tempered by her suitor’s ignoble standing. Surely, he knew the Hundred Houses would whisper about a commoner’s betrothal to a princess they already thought brash and uncouth. Yet, Kaluan surely knew his summons to the Deathless Fields drew near as well, for his body grew frailer and his memory ever more clouded, confused, labyrinthine. And watching Rishne lead her once-more victorious legion across the Strait, the citizens cheering his daughter and showering her leafy-haired love with flowers, surely he knew she would make a wise and generous empress.
That night, he gave the royal couple his blessing and announced his intention to endow the throne to Rishne. She and Willem would wed before the Stone of Cogidubnus, upon which all Amal rulers have sat since the stonelaying.
But the eve before the nuptial ceremony, when the sky was so black even the stars were snuffed, a grim platoon of Mardians snuck through Amalcross. Though their aim was for Rishne, it was Willem upon whom they fell. Willem and his mates — exhausted from battle and celebration, heavy with food, loose with beer and spirits — stood no chance. The slaughter was quick and ruthless.
Beholding the scene and Willem’s flayed body, Rishne fell. She crawled across the floor, blind from the steam of hot blood spilled in winter. She dragged herself across the bodies. She shrieked Willem’s name into his tightening lips. She tore her tunic and held him against her breasts. Her sisters tried to calm her, but Rishne’s skin was so slick with gore no grip would hold. She tumbled always down: Back into the cooling arms of her lover; back atop his dashed and knife-torn chest.
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