How to Start a War
In a little less than an hour of entering the city, they met the emperor. Gemjo attempted several escapes before the meeting, asking to meet with the Professor, deciding on scenic routes, and even feigning a trip to restroom, only to have all her attempts met with the same laugh and taunting permission. Mor’de had not once denied her from leaving, whatever the demand. He just had a look that said it all. He would find her.
All plans ended abruptly when they entered the ornate halls. It made Tig recall the empty confines of Franco’s estate. Rows of pillars shrank into the distance. A long velvet rug continued below. Banners, which hung from each side column, had tapestries of dogs dressed in red fabrics. Yet it wasn’t the intricate works of red fabrics gilded in gold, nor the tapestries, nor the chandeliers made in the shape of paper lanterns that made its distinction. It was the people.
Retainers glided across the polished granite floors. The palace was awash with their silent movement. Some gathered in groups gesturing at each other in hand signs, others bowed to the newcomers. Each retainer had painted white faces, large black straw hats, and long silken red robes that hid their turns. While they varied in height and build, they lacked anything that identified them as man or woman. They were androgynous and they spoke not a word.
That was the rule of the palace as Mor’de briefly explained before entering. Only the emperor could speak freely inside and any else who wished to speak could only do so at that ruler’s behest.
Those more zealous and respecting of tradition, namely his retainers, chose to hide their identities as well, for to speak was with more than just words. Tig knew them by the way they glanced away when his company neared. From how they scurried and hid their faces and tried laboriously avoid the slightest presence of outsiders. These few, these stubborn devouts constituted the majority of retainers closest to what Tig assumed the Emperor’s chambers, so by the time hey neared those gilded halls, they were all but alone.
Their steps seemed louder in the uncanny silence and when the beat of them stopped, a golden door stood ahead of them. Curved at the top, there were designs of animals carved all along the arch of the tower high barrier. Some were blocky representations, others more obscure. Tig paused on the last these depictions as the high doors groaned open. If it was not the Long ears and rounded back that gave it away, it was most certainly the teeth. Tig glanced at where the Professor should have been. A rabbit.
A pair of guards hidden under black straw hats led them in. Beyond the door lay another hall, this one shorter with the end clearly marked with a high backed throne. Gas lamp chandeliers the shape of lanterns buzzed and their buzzes echoed. The banners that had followed them through each and every pillar culminated here in a well-tailored finale, the largest of them hanging near the gold throne, two on either side and marked with caricatures of crowned dogs. That was his first hint.
The emperor, the one who reigned over an entire sky whale city and her citizens sat on a cushion with three dozen of his closest retainers prostrating themselves in his presence. And yet Tig felt no such need to lower himself, instead choosing to cover his mouth as they marched ever closer.
It was his best attempt at concealing his rude astonishment, for the emperor was a dog. A very small dog with sandy fur. He thought it was a mistake. He thought perhaps the real emperor had left his dog on the throne in some show of absolute power.
Mor’de lowered his head when they had come an earshot from the kingly canine. Tig knew then that it was no mistake. Of course the Admiral failed to mention that.
The emperor cocked his furry head, his little dog ears flopping as he did so, “Mor’de. What manner of pigs do you bring before me?”
Mor’de kept quiet.
The dog smiled with his black lips, “Speak,” he yipped slowly.
“Guests, ya eminence.”
The dog-king sounded just as Tig imagined a small talking dog to speak. Shrill, loud, and strangely disapproving, the ruler of Jing Mon Ceros spoke in the manner of the rich.
“Radiance,” corrected the dog, “I am as the sun, my fur gold and bristly. Have you considered my previous proposal?”
“Only if you allow consent fa an attack, ya Radiance.”
The dog waved his paw, “A show of power is enough, lest we start a war. And you know of all pigs, how delicately you must conduct yourself in these lands. We are a conserved people, admiral, and I trust your understanding of our culture will further our relations in the future, something your Empress will no doubt commend you on.”
Mor’de smiled dumbly, “Ya Radiance, I--”
“Good Hours is that a dog?”
The voice was neither the admiral’s nor the dog, but Tig knew it all too well. Tig’s desperately surpassed astonishment bumbled out dumbly in a dropped iron chin. Even Mor’de seemed taken aback.
“Mates, there’s a dog on the throne! What’s that about?” A bronze hand tapped rusted stubble. “Well I suppose all the rulers of cloud whales are dogs.”
“WE are not dogs,” barked the emperor, “WE are the descendants of Lion.”
The Professor, with foreign bottle in hand, tipped forwards as he failed to make the connection, “Is that not a tail I see? Little dogs ears? Black nose, lips? Mate, don’t know what your mother told you but you’re a dog.”
“WE are lion…” the emperor trailed, “dogs…”
“Dogs. Small dogs.”
“Enough. The remainder of my kind’s name is irrelevant. Mor’de,” he said turning abruptly to the admiral, “I thought of you better than to drag dirt onto my carpet. What have you to say of this drunk? This… this fool. This ill-conceived mongrel of a turn who dare mocks me in my own palace?”
“Apologies, ya Radiance. I had not instructed dis man of ya customs as I had not expected him sa soon.”
The emperor scrunched a brow and licked his nose, “Very well, then I shall excuse your absence of judgement if you make amends here and now. Execute him. In whatever way, I do not care, just do it quickly.”
The Professor, quite dumbly, pointed at himself, “Hold off. You want me dead, mate?”
The Emperor frowned, growing ever impatient at why the was still alive and, worse, talking to him, “Want? I’ve given the command. You are already dead. Mor’de, what are you waiting for?”
The admiral’s face had gone tense. He had shuffled to the Professor’s direction and his hands had balled into fists. Slowly, surely, he reached for a pistol, hidden in his coat.
Tig watched with terrible silence as the admiral drew it. The gun swerved to the Professor. Tig started. No, not here. Tig sidestepped Mor’de only to realise he was not alone. He had bumped shoulders with Remy. He caught a determined look from her. She had the same idea.
Then the pistol lowered. Mor’de gaze was fixated but not upon the man he had intended to shoot nor the two half turns who sought to protect him. Tig followed his sights and stopped. In the heat of the moment he had missed the ruffling of silk.
“What is the meaning of this, Rajlu?”
There in the middle of the group of now astonished retainers, most half prostrated in wanes attempts to hold down their friend, one among them had stood straight up.
“Your Radiance,” bowed the man, “If it is the life of that man you want, take mine in his stead.”
The natural silence of the place filled in after momentary gasps. The emperor fell back in thought and Mor’de as if to rush the proceeding, shifted his pistol to Rajlu.
“Wait!” cried the Emperor. “Do not shoot. Do. Not. Shoot. Lower your gun admiral.” The Emperor took a sigh. “I shall… overlook this one contrivance,” the Emperor shifted to Rajlu as the gun was stowed away. “Would you tell me why, Rajlu, that one of my most trusted retainers of that of my own and my mother should risk his life for a stranger? And a foreigner at that?”
Rajlu’s black straw hat dipped low, and he made a gesture with his hand.
The emperor nodded, “come then.”
The other retainers cleared a path as Rajlu made to his Radiance. Once there, the dog-emperor raised his paw and said, “We require silence. Bupal?”
From the front row a retainer stood and took out a scroll from their sleeve.
The moment that parchment unfurled, a dome formed around the Emperor and Rajlu and the space there darkened. Low muted sounds burst from the bubble and Tig saw the slow scene of Rajlu whispering to the emperor.
He realised the sounds were words, but he could not make sense of any of them. Though he had seen enough that same darkness to know what it was. Chronodynamics. Instantly, he knew what would come next.
The bubble popped. Air, light, sounds rushed in every direction. Tig covered his eyes. He heard quick unknowable whispers and at last peace.
Rajlu, still at the throne’s side, bowed deeply and made his way down.
“I see,” said the emperor at last, “then it is wise you acted in my stead. I apologise for my foolishness. Mor’de,” he readdressed his guest. “A week ago, a foreign Admiral arrived at my doorstep claiming to offer succor to my ill-begotten streets. We appreciated your aid of course in putting down the protests, but it was only a matter before we would handle it ourselves. I wondered then why you arrived. And, assuming I knew your reason, what exactly you had to bargain with.” He smiled devilishly, “I know now. I have come to the understanding that you bear with you a… resource of much potential. Care you to share this resource?”
“Not currently, ya radiance, no. But in due time, should ya allegiances be suitable, I may considah it.”
The Emperor puffed, eyeing his other guests curiously, “and do you bear any other resources?”
Mor’de smiled devilishly, “As it happen I might, but dun be tinking I be sharing all my plans sa easily. What happens, happens, ya radiance. One must only prepare.”
“And how would you advise me in this matter of preparation?”
“A compromise,” suggested the Admiral. “As ya say, da culture here demands a delicate approach, sa I won’t attack… yet. But I would ask ya allocate mo houses fa da remainder of my fleet.”
The emperor dipped his head, “I take great risk in doing this, Mor’de,” he said without raising his head.
“If any should ask, you are simply relying on my aide as allies ta handle a common threat. Noting mo.”
The Emperor nodded, “Then I trust as allies we shall move forward. Two more warehouses it is, Yanpreet, make the arrangements.”
A retainer in the far back stood and bowed and shuffled away.
Mor’de bowed, “Much obliged, ya Radiance.”
Afterwards the guests made out the throne room and into the longs halls where Mor’de led them to a side wing and down three continuously narrowing halls.
“Dis will do,” said the Admiral with a stop. “We speak here. Tank ya by da way,” he aid turning to Remy, “Didn’t know who ya be mo loyal to till I saw how ya tried ta jump in front of my pistol. Now I know.”
Remy narrowed her brows, “Loyalty?” she paused with that word still lingering in her mouth. Her brows dipped, and the edges of her mouth made a snarl. “Loyalty. You don’t mean to… Hours you’re mad!”
“Mad, huh? Madness changes da world, girl. One needs only look to da tinker who dey say lives on da furdest side of it ta know dat. Aye, I may be mad, but only fa a time befa my madness pays.” He looked each one in the eye before continuing in a significantly quieter tone. “I mean ta rise against da Empress.”
There was a delay, the static before the spark, and the shock kicked in. His words were heavier than the air he shaped them in, and it reflected in the faces of minute audience. Open mouths and wide eyes abounded.
His earlier gesture of meeting each of their eyes made sense. Mor’de had been judging their reactions.
Franco slumped against the nearest wall at a loss for words, while Tig had far too many of them.
“What?” said Tig. “What!? You’re insane! You’ve a deathwish! How would you… Why would you…?”
“I thought you were in love with her?” said Gemjo calmly.
The Admiral swept his arm apart and laughed triumphantly, “Ah, of course da shrewd one discerns da heart of it. Aye, I am and it is out of dat love I strike. She has taken no husband, no lovah, not even has she become da passing interest of rumahs. She is unassailable, unflinching. Da very picture of perfection. Not one has caught her eye and I know why. Dey are not strong enough. Any undah her will be kept dat way in powah. Sa I wish ta do what dey cannot. I wish ta surpass dem.”
“By going against them,” said Franco at last. “You wish to fight all the navy and the army, all for the chance to woo a woman?”
Franco smiled, “Then,” he said pointing at his chest in a fit of bonhomie, “You’ve need only defeat the army! Leave the navy to me.”
“You idiot,” scorned Gemjo.
“Sa you would join me den?” said Mor’de with orange eyes scanning all his guests.
That gave them pause. By her glare alone, Tig knew Remy’s answer. Gemjo would remain uninterested, the Professor to, but Franco… there was a genuine flame in the man’s eyes. To topple the navy was all he ever wanted and now he had the prime opportunity to do so. Every journey started with a departure, and as Franco made between him and Mor’de, Tig found himself locked on the man’s back, seemingly distancing even then.
Franco bowed, “Apologies, but I cannot. I made promiseto help these few on their endeavour, and, as a Cantinio, I keep my word.”
Tig sniffed a bit, “Franco…”
“But even so,” continued Franco, “I would know of you and your men as allies should you follow this course.”
“And I would inform dem of ya friendship. Shame dough, I really tought ya lot be helping me on dis, but one must move on. I will have my men fly you back on our next trip down.”
Gemjo blinked as steadied herself, “Wait, that’s it? That’s all you brought as here for? An invitation to your rebellion?”
Mor’de smiled slightly and shrugged, “Ya could say dat.”
Gemjo continued, “You’re not holding us then? We’re free to go? Do as we like? Should we start a war tomorrow you would not interfere?”
“We would cover it up most like, but as ya are my guests I would pay fa any inn ya wish to stay in.”
That piqued the seawolf’s interest. Her tail flicked momentarily, “I’m listening.”
Mor’de explained the extent of his courtesy without any indication to the cogs he would spend. Tig saw Gemjo smile slyly as the admiral left that part out. Perhaps unwanting of the admiral to prescribe those limits, the seawolf quickly departed when she could, prompting Franco and the Professor to follow. Tig stayed behind to the Admiral’s behest along with Remy who stalled for some other course.
“Sa ya used witch doctor magic?”
Tig flinched, “You heard?”
“Da prisonahs spoke. Salamon heard and anyting Salamon hears I’ll know shortly.”
Remy stared at him, making him edge from her piercing goggles.
“It’s true,” said Tig. “I did but only for a spell.”
Mor’de smiled, “Tell me, Trimbly, how exactly did ya learn it?”
“No I…” Tig thought back, remembering the slaver’s ship with a newfound clarity. He thought of the embers, how the witch doctor made certain that Tig of all turns saw what he did. “You. It was you!”
“Ah, and sa he remembahs. Good. It was partly on da spur of da moment. Curiosity mayhap. A gamble. I wanted ta know if you could do it, and, well, I am most pleased. Shall I show you anudda spell?”
Tig shook his head vigorously, “I cannot… I will not. The cost of it…” he said feeling his arm. “It’s not something I’d rely on.”
Mor’de puffed, unimpressed, but accepted his answer all the same, “A fair choice, den I will not press ya. Ha. Seems noting but rejection from ya lot. Go den. I won’t hold ya.”
Tig nodded slowly and left. Stopping if only briefly to glance at Remy. He wondered why she waited, but it seemed she would not answer that with him there. She was intent to stay and so she would.
Tig turned the corner.