A Travel Tale: Leda’s Journey

on March 19, 2009 in Other Tales

There were parts of the world that were civilized, where the maps had been filled in, where people—humans, mostly—had cut down the great forests and filled in the swamps and built roads through the mountains and over the deserts… places where the power of magic had been harnessed to light up the darkness, push out the monsters, and hold back the chaos.

Then there were the wild places.

Past the easternmost boundaries of the Mother Empire was one such land, Khazarus… a place so vast that it encompassed within it nearly every sort of terrain and every climate known to the world. It had some scattered human habitations, though it has never been brought under the control of any of the great human nations. It had never been mapped or surveyed in full. Some said that it was not entirely a part of the same world as the lands that surround it, and there was a kind of truth to this… it was a shifting place, where multiple worlds touched and overlapped.

Travelers from the west, in fact, knew the region as the Shift. They preferred that designation to its proper name, which they avoided for linguistic and theological reasons. A Metropolitan envoy sent to establish trade with some of the westernmost settlements within the Shift was reported to have said “it is a mad land, peopled by mad folk, ruled by mad kings and watched over by mad gods; it would take a mad emperor to wish to rule it.” These words were prophetic; the desperate compulsion to be the man who conquered the Shift and brought it to heel has destroyed more than one would-be world conqueror seemingly at the height of his power.

Traveling within the Shift was like stepping backwards through history, to a time two centuries or more before, when most people lived their whole lives within a few miles of the spot where they were born… when magic was a frightening and wondrous thing, embodied by strange beings or possessed by warlocks and witches who had to be treated with the utmost courtesy at all times, lest they blight the crops or bring some other misfortune. In the more hospitable south and west portions of Khazarus, there were towns and roads and some semblance of law and order enforced by the Khazar, a self-appointed divine emperor. Deeper in, human villages relied on the protection of local warlords or other powerful beings, or else they depended on their remoteness and lack of enviable resources to help them escape notice.

Three such villages stood on the shores of Mariinksy Lake… protectorates of the kingdom which the lake comprised. When orc warbands or wandering monsters threatened them, the villagers would pile into boats and make for the island of reeds in the center of the lake. Orcs knew better than to enter the waters, and most fell beasts instinctively drew back, as well, but the real protection was more than that.

The true kingdom of Mariinsky Lake lay on the other side of the reeds… on another side of the world, in fact, and the island on that side was large enough to house the inhabitants of all three villages, at least for short periods of time.

In exchange for this protection, the villagers provided the castle’s inhabitants with food grown in their fields, and with labor as it was needed. They also provided husbands… the swan maidens who ruled over the castle were misnamed only in the sense that they weren’t all maidens; they were indeed, however, all women… and according to the usual measurements of such things, very lovely ones.

Leda, the daughter of the ruling queen, did not expect to marry a boy from the villages. Royalty customarily waited for a mighty warrior or brave hero to come wandering through. This happened more regularly than might have been expected, if only because a certain amount of mightiness and bravery were required to wander through the Deeper Shift.

Rarely did a queen or queen-to-be remain single for more than half a century, though there were exceptions. Leda’s own mother loved to tell the story of how she’d waited for seven decades before Leda’s father came along, though the girl couldn’t help thinking that it hadn’t taken her that long to replace him

Leda was not that patient, though. She might therefore have seen an opportunity in what she thought of as her exile, but that was a charitable interpretation of events and Leda didn’t feel charitable.

The golden coach flew through the air, pulled by a V of geese with golden strings around their long necks. She sat alone inside it, a tall, slender woman with a mane of silver feathers spilling down the back of her neck and a build like a dancer. As the fabulous vehicle traversed the Northern Ice Reach , crossing the point at which north ceased to be, its occupant marked the crossing only by pulling the fur-lined mantle more tightly around her.

It wasn’t cold inside the coach, and she was not aware that it should have been, had not powerful magic been shielding her from the elements. The gesture was psychological, like a child hiding behind a blanket. She was insulating herself from the crushing boredom of a journey over lands that weren’t interesting to her, and the unrelenting injustice of being sent away from the only place in the world that mattered.

Mariinsky Lake… the center of the universe. Her kingdom. She’d never been so far beyond its borders as to be out of sight of the shore, and now it was so far away it might as well have been the moon.

And why?

Because of that man. The king. Her stepfather.

“Your mother and I have been thinking about your education.”

That was a joke, though she couldn’t bring herself to laugh at it. Leda’s mother had never shown any dissatisfaction with her troupe of tutors, most of whom Leda’d had properly cowed for years now. Why start all over again with a new bunch at this late point, especially when she was on the verge of being too old to throw a proper tantrum?

They’re sending me away to get rid of me, she thought, and then pushed that thought aside. Of course they weren’t. Why should they? She was beautiful and she was the crown princess, the heiress apparent. Even if her ugly, buffoonish stepfather didn’t like her all that much, he had to love her, the same as everybody else did.

“My human father could not have been as ugly as he was,” she said aloud. “If he had been, I would be as ugly as the baby is.”

She made a face, remembering her mother’s assertion that she had been that ugly as a baby. Clearly it was a bald-faced lie to spare the feelings of the babe and her father, but knowing that did not make it any less hurtful. It was just another example of the horrible favoritism that had invaded her beloved castle, destroying any sense of fairness or justice or equality. The baby was a princess, but she, Leda, was older, more beautiful, and in line for the throne.

I must have done something. Something bad. Something wrong. Something horrible. Unforgivable.

That was impossible.

Unless she knows about the boys in the rushes.

“It’s a plot,” she decided out loud. Her voice sounded huge in the small space, huge enough to drown out the one in her head. “A plot to get rid of me and put the ugly baby in charge of everything. All of that nonsense about poise and manners and language… just nonsense. I have fucking poise. I can dance on the water better than anybody. I have courtly manners. I know how to get along with everybody important. And language. This ugly thing they call Pax? What is it good for? The Khazar’s empire never reached Mariinsky. This new one won’t, either. It’s all a… a ruse.”

Having decided that her mother’s new husband meant to get rid of her permanently so that his own issue could be installed on the throne that was rightfully hers, Leda felt immediately better. She’d made sense of things. The unaccountable ill treatment she’d received from her mother and everybody involved in packing her up and shipping her off could now be accounted for.

She relaxed.

The world made sense again.

“Still the princess,” she murmured to herself. “Always the princess. Princess of the lake.”

Leda’s first glimpse of the far side of the world that wasn’t an endless expanse of snow didn’t come until much later, when the coach circled the town of Enwich, coming in for a landing outside… the geese knew better than to fly over the town’s walls. As bored as Leda had been on the long journey, she hadn’t been bored enough to find the world spread out below her interesting.

After a single hour of polar flight she’d made up her mind that the ice reach was representative of lands outside of Khazarus, and so she was surprised to find herself in a pleasant, sunlit place with rolling green plains and a glittering blue river stretching out below.

It might have been a pleasant surprise, had Leda been in a mood for feeling pleasant.

She spotted a reservoir upriver from the town. There were some houses—large, compared to the human huts she knew, but austere looking by her own standards—built up around it, and a few small pleasurecrafts plying its waters.

It looked so cramped to her, so forced and artificial. Looking up and down the river’s length, she could see standing pools of water in low-lying places alongside it, but she could see nothing that approached the size and beauty of Mariinsky.

Don’t these awful barbarians even have lakes?

The land around the town was hilly. The plains were bounded to the north, west, and south by forests. The sight of all those trees made her shudder. This was clearly a dangerous and wild place. There were probably orc attacks every week, if not more often.

The coach was met by some local dignitaries and a human man with a Khazarian accent… an old man, wrinkly and white-haired like humans got when they were used up. She thought brown hair was ugly, but somehow seeing a human with proper silver-white hair was even worse. Fortunately not many people lived to old age where she came from, but from the looks of the townsfolk who greeted her it seemed like things were different in Magisteria.

How horrible it must be, she thought, to be mortal and not die young. She felt moved to pity for them and gave them a sad smile, for which they seemed ridiculously appreciative. The Khazarian man… a professor somebody or other, she hadn’t been paying attention… was thanking the other men for coming out, and leading her towards a coach. It was black, but sleek and glossy, not terribly ugly.

“This will take us to the university grounds,” the professor said. “Coaches like this will be available for your use in the day and early evening, your highness. They will take you into and back.”

Leda liked the sound of that… not just the royal style, but the freedom of movement that was being proffered to her. Her mother had never liked the way Leda came and went, especially when she suspected she was going to the shore.

“Whenever I want?” she asked.

“They operate on a fixed schedule,” the professor said. “Every fifteen to thirty minutes, depending on the time of day, to accommodate the greatest number of students.”

So it wasn’t just her that received this treatment. That was disappointing.

“Are… are all the students princesses?” she asked.

The professor stared at her, and then laughed.

“I thought much the same thing when I first came to this land,” he said. “The buildings are all so big, and magical conveniences are so commonplace… even the poorest beggar can get healed of life-threatening injuries. This land officially has no distinction between peasants and nobles, but the poorest citizen of it lives better than most nobles in the Khaz.”

Leda did not ask any more questions on the way to the university. When they arrived, the professor helped her down out of the coach and led her on a path of smooth stone past a low, broad building.

“That is the student union hall,” he said. “There are many services for students available within.”

“We have servants?”

“No… not as such. They are employees of the university, paid to provide a specific function. You will have to remember when speaking to them that they are your equals,” he said.

Not likely, Leda thought. I doubt they can dance on water.

“I suspect you will enjoy the dining hall, though,” the professor said. “The food is of a greater variety and quantity than you would have eaten, even in your mother’s castle. Most children of the Imperium take it for granted, even complain about the supposed poor quality and the ‘meager’ portions of meat, never realizing that in much of the world a family might not see so much meat in a week as they eat in a day. We are blessed,” he said, and he sounded genuinely proud, “to come from a harsh and meager place, that we can better appreciate the wonderful bounty enjoyed by those of the westering lands.”

He was mad, Leda decided… he sounded so deliriously happy to declare their entire homeland, the fabulous kingdom of Mariinsky Lake included, a harsh and impoverished place compared to this horrible land that had no peasants and condemned its citizens to the indignities of old age.

They passed by a fountain, an elaborate statue of three dragon heads spouting fire and water. Such artistry and enchantment… it would not have been out of place in the courtyard of Mariinsky Castle, and here it was standing out in the open for everybody to see, put there no doubt for the amusement of beggars and urchins. She saw other people… students, no doubt… walking past it without even noticing it.

It was like the Khazarian professor had said: the most wretched citizen of this hellish place was more accustomed to such wonders than she, the crown princess, was.

When the professor showed her to an immense building, several stories tall and attached to two other large wings, and told her that it was her residence hall, she only had a momentary flutter of excitement before she realized that what he probably meant was that it was the hall she would be sharing with other students, commoners who would show her none of the courtesy she was due and who probably thought nothing of living in a building this size.

She had only just arrived, and she was already starting to get used to it.

What a horrible thought.

“Well, Princess Leda,” the professor said, giving her a little bow and then spreading his arms out wide, a ridiculous grin on his face, “welcome to Magisterius University!”

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3 Responses to “A Travel Tale: Leda’s Journey”

  1. Christy says:

    Dang, if royalty in Leda’s palace gets what we would call ‘meager’ meals, how do the beggars survive at all?

    Current score: 0
  2. pedestrian says:

    They don’t. problem solved.

    Current score: 6
  3. zeel says:

    Wow, somehow I completely forgot about this chapter. I feel like I never read it before.

    Current score: 0