Steam rose off the bread bowl that Zak set in front of Ember and she breathed deep of the rich smell of beef soup as she eyed the dumplings, vegetables and meat floating in the dark brown broth.
“Thank you,” she said to the pale, gangly, Bortin chef with curly red hair and picked the bowl up to take a big sip and nibble on the edge. From her shoulders Brago stretched out his nose toward the bowl and sniffed. Ember growled at him and he retreated.
Ember swallowed the first mouthful then took another sip and let the flavors linger in her mouth.
Ah yes. Everything was better with soup.
She turned on the swiveling stool attached to one side of Zak’s meal wagon and stared up at the city.
From deep in it’s heart, Sunfire Falls City was even more impressive than it seemed from her normal vantage point up at the Palace. There it just looked impossible, like some mad dream or painting composed of too-tall buildings constructed from thousands of smaller visions. But down inside it, the reality of a forest of wooden, stone, and steel buildings that soared up more than thirty stories on average pressed in, humbling with the stature of a people who not only knew how to make such monsters as a regular action, but who had then taken the time to carve, paint, or otherwise decorate every square strad of every one from top to bottom.
Anywhere Ember looked there was a mosaic, or a relief, or a stained glass mirror, or a fresco, or a sculpture, or a garden, or a fountain. Everything except for the streets themselves was art, and even those had a subtle pattern made in the differing colors of cut stone used in their making.
The first time she had seen it close up it had completely overwhelmed her. After repeat exposure she had realized that the only response was to just drink it in, like a glorious, metropolis-sized bowl of soup. One sip at a time.
Ember took a deep draught of hot meaty broth and chewed on another mouthful of bowl as she contemplated a mirrored depiction of the Great Tree springing from the Stony Heart, set above the swinging glass doors of a hahrax-faced skyscraper across the street. A smile spread across her face at the brilliance of the green leaves in the afternoon light, like hundreds of emerald flames dancing atop a branched torch.
A steamtruck with a high, straight-sided trailer chuffed past, blocking her view for a moment with a large painting of something called a typewriter, and she looked for something else, settling on the sea of bikers and pedestrians streaming by on the broad sidewalks.
A middle-aged Liltan man wearing a blue Salshiran brimcap, soft and round and low up top, tight and close over the ears so it didn’t interfere, and sloped forward into a visor above the eyes for sun and rain, and a gray mepi longcoat with large pockets stuffed with notepads, sat down on the stool next to Ember and ordered a bowl of tilahkko soup. Zak dished it out and the man took it and turned around to watch the crowds like Ember.
Ember glanced up at the second-story ledge of a nearby building and found Miri, who was eyeing the man. She met Ember’s gaze and shrugged, but sent no warning signs. Beyond a cursory glance and sniff Brago didn’t seem to care either, so she relaxed. When she glanced back to him she saw his ears tipping and turning, tracking snippets of conversations in the area.
She decided to ignore him and go back to city watching.
They sat there together in silence for several kellas, until Ember looked over to see that the man had finished his meal. Ember herself had learned once again to eat food with the slow enjoyment that assumed there would be more later, and wondered why he had eaten so quickly. He didn’t appear to be in any hurry to leave.
“Hemil NurGettik, reporter for the Sunfire Daily Bark,” he said in Tokarien while looking straight ahead. “You’re Ember Rehksskari.” He turned his head to her and gave her a half-bow that was more of a nod.
A reporter. Ean had warned her about these, saying they could cause a lot of trouble.
Ember returned his half bow, then gave Miri another glance. Her attention was elsewhere, so Ember turned back.
The man smiled at her.
“I won’t hurt you. I just ask people questions.”
Questions. That he would then write about. Ember hadn’t spent much time reading the newspapers because she couldn’t read Hahkaht, which most of them were printed in, but Bethania had required her to read a few issues from one of the Tokarien secondaries, so she knew what they were about.
Garagrans rarely answered questions except from relations and very close allies. Civilians who might think to cause trouble by talking or writing about them, they usually just set on fire. Certainly they didn’t care about helping their subjects have a solid and informed view about the world around them.
That was not the way of the Tavarins with their citizens, however. And she wasn’t a Garagran anymore.
She shivered at that question and gave the man her full attention.
“May I interview you, Lady Rehsskarri?”
Respectful. Was he here to make trouble, or look for answers?
Easier to just avoid the possibility. But then, he would just say she had refused to talk, which might look worse. The big scary Garagran, unanswerable to anyone but the King.
“Very well,” she said. She finished her soup and began taking the remaining bread in large bites.
While she finished, Hemil took out a notepad and produced a fountain pen with a gold-plated tip and a barrel and cap that looked like swirling blue and black gemstone. He wrote down her name in Hahkaht, she knew what that looked like, and a few other short notes in the condensed version that Ember had seen Ean use when he had to take a great many notes very quickly.
He looked up from his notepad and waited.
She swallowed the last bite of food.
He smiled, then focused on her.
“So, Princess Ember Rehkskarri, is it true that you are now a follower of Yahsaw?”
Why was he asking that? Surely he knew about the big ceremony in the pool. Who could have missed that? There had been photographers there for all the newspapers in the city. No, he knew about that. That wasn’t his question. He wanted to know how serious she was.
“I have made vows. I am his. What he will do with that, I do not know, but I have little doubt that he noticed.”
The man recorded his own question and her words, or it looked like he did, with a few quick strokes in the same, flowing, compressed script.
“That doesn’t make it sound like you trust him very much.”
“Was that a question?”
“I’m sorry. Do you trust him?”
Did she? This sounded more like a question Bethania might ask. What kind of article was he intending to write, starting with this?
No. It was a good question. Perhaps she had been faking. Had she? No. But she was… still… His readers, the people of Salshira, would probably want to know, as much as she, whether she was serious about their Kai. Her Kai, now.
Perhaps knowing would calm them. Or perhaps not.
“What I said is the truth. I made vows. I am… owned. And I am convinced that Yahsaw has received my vows. And I am convinced that he is powerful. Is… what the holy books say he is. But trust has not come easily for me. I trust your prince and a few others. I believe that through them, Kai has acted directly on my behalf. I cannot believe otherwise. But my trust still does not come easily. More as time passes, I suppose. Is that what you were looking for?”
The man nodded.
“That will do. Thank you. Now, no one has seen you flying lately, though I have reports that you have transformed. Can you still fly?”
“No. Not at all.”
“So if more Empire Garagrans come here, will you be able to fight them?”
Ember winced. Right. That’s what he wanted to know.
“I don’t think I would be very much use. I can barely walk anymore when in… when transformed.”
“Are you aware that Empire forces have established large encampments outside all three major passes through the Skyspike mountains into Salshira and have threatened to invade if our country doesn’t turn you over?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Do you think that they will invade?”
“If your country protects me? I know that they tore down Tenkreille, and all our armies, without concern. But I do not know anything about what they will do.”
“I have heard the Empire force could be as large as eighty legions, with as many or more auxiliaries and up to three hundred Garagrans. Do you think Salshira can stand against a force that large?”
Did she? She leaned back on the stool. From what she had seen… but their army was small. Most of their forces were militia. Like the Empire Auxiliaries. Still… she had heard that farmers fighting for their fields rarely gave up easily if they thought they had any chance of winning.
“Your militia is almost as large. And better armed, I believe. But again, I do not know. This is something you should ask your generals.”
“I have. And they don’t always agree.” He gave her a wry smile. “If the Empire does invade, how many casualties do you think there will be?” He waved loosely at the city around them.
Ember looked around at the people on the streets, thought of what had happened in Tenkreille, then felt an emptiness in her gut that displaced the heat and comfort of her meal. She dropped her gaze to the dark basalt of the sidewalk underneath them.
“There would be many. A great many. Tens of thousands, if not more. Perhaps hundreds of thousands.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Hemil note her response down again, then tap the page of his notebook a few times with the top of his fountain pen.
“One more, and that should be it,” he said.
She nodded for him to go ahead.
“Do you think that all those people should have to die for you?”
Oh. Oh natat.
Ember felt sick and fought to keep the sensation from going any further than discomfort as she hunched over. Brago started to kir and she focused on the sound.
Should they have to die for her? How could she answer that?
She heard a thump from the counter and looked over to see Zak’s pale hand flat on the counter of his cart.
“That’s enough, Mister NurGettik. Your interview’s over.”
Ember heard the slap of two military bootsoles striking the pavement at the same time and knew Miri had jumped down and was coming over.
“It’s an important question…” Hemel said.
“And it’s my cart,” Zak said. “And I say that’s enough.”
Ember shook her head.
“It’s alright, Zak. Thank you.” She forced her head up to give Zak a weak smile, then turned to look at Hemel.
“In response to your question, I…”