“Big Sis too slow!”
I scowled at the bug. The little showoff was flying backwards in front of me, holding her arms as if her elbows were on the ground in front of her, propping her chin up with her tiny fists. I scowled and put a bit more speed in, but she just accelerated to keep pace ahead of me. Still backwards.
The ground was, in point of fact, about five hundred feet below us. We were, at that moment, above the carefully tended fields of Suldor, with little picture-book villages, vineyards and orchards passing beneath us.
As a baby, I had probably been in, or at least over, Suldor. It lay directly between Atius and my birthplace, Tëan Tír. My mother would have carried me through this place when we moved to the capital.
I knew now that she hadn’t gone there to threaten Owen and the Orestanians as I had been taught as a child. She was headed there to rejoin her lover. And, at only six months old, I was headed there as a ‘gift’ from the Fairy King to that same lover, to be wed to his son.
“I am fast enough! This isn’t a race!” I griped back, but Kiki just grinned and did a backflip. While still outpacing me. How the heck did she manage speed like that?
According to the Potomos Lord who was apparently my great-grandfather, this little brat was actually multiple thousands of years old. She had clearly learned a few tricks in her time. There is no way that this was her natural speed while flying backwards. Even forwards, I had my doubts. She was pulling some kind of trick on me. Although I was darned if I could say what it was. Fairy sight was telling me nothing.
With a merry laugh, she answered, “Okay, Big Sis! No more race!”
She went into a loop that looked like a backflip, disappearing from sight, then landed on my back. She had decided to employ me as her flight beast once again.
Why was Kiki with me? After I left my grandmother’s lake and flew a wide arc around Atius, I flew parallel the Hart river, which flows out of Relador, where I was headed. I didn’t follow the river, because I had stupidly called out where I was heading and the river was the natural path to follow. If they were looking for me, they would be patrolling it. But there is a big tributary that joins the Hart from out of the north at Atius, and I had to cross it. As I did, this little bug came flying up at me.
“Found you, Big Sis! Kiki lead to Tëan Tír. Big Brother say!”
I have no idea how she managed to locate me. I would guess she had figured out where I would go, but when I asked how she knew exactly where I would cross that tributary, she just looked at me funny and said…
“Huh? Big Sis here, so Kiki here! That’s all!”
…which of course was both true and explained nothing. But I could never find a way to ask that she would answer with the information I wanted, so eventually I gave up.
It was already getting late in the day. I had been flying for only seven hours, but Grandmother had told me to stop by at the temple in the ruins of old Oste again. She wanted me to gather and bury the remains of the nameless warrior laying at the feet of “Mother’s statue”, which apparently meant the huge statue of Eurybia, the Orestanian goddess of the sea. For some reason, Grandmother seems to think that her mother owns the temple.
So I found a decent patch of ground outside the temple and managed to excavate a shallow grave. I gathered together the bits that were still there and buried them, covering it with a small cairn of stones. It wasn’t much of a grave, and it mostly contained his skull and what little was left of his equipment, but it was something.
Then I spent a couple more hours in the empty sacred pool underground, pulling and circulating Earth and Darkness, the elements which would be difficult to pull during my flight. It would be daytime and I would be hundreds of feet in the air, far from stone or shadow.
It had been a sort of experiment. I wanted to try hanging onto it as long as I could. As long as I had it, I could use it in a fight, and if I couldn’t hang onto it, oh well, too bad. Five hours later, I was still circulating both Earth and Darkness. It’s surprisingly easy to keep a circulation going, I was learning.
Based upon my flight times, my cruising speed is well over a hundred miles per hour. You would think flying through the air at that speed would be freezing, but I don’t actually fly that fast. Instead, I seem to fly at a much lower airspeed, but I move myself and the air around me along with Wind Magic. When I’m at top speed, I’m relying entirely on Wind mana, because I’m no longer beating my wings. I’m holding them fully extended at my wingspan of about three paces and pulling myself along by flowing the manifested mana present in the air. It’s an innate skill, so I don’t really know how I do it. Ask a centipede how they coordinate all those legs. They have no idea, either.
The colored tiles on the roofs of village buildings and thatched-roof farmhouses that I was now flying above reminded me of Mireia. This was her home country. Her pink hair and bouncy accent just dripped of the colorful land beneath our wings. I had never seen it before, except in magic picture books, which was also the only way I had ever seen the land to the south of us, my mother’s territory, the Duchy of Pendor. Neither I nor the original Tiana have ever set foot in either one.
She had studied about it, in detail, though. The Duchy is mostly a warm, flat, alluvial plain covered in cotton fields and grain fields, both wheat and rice. It also has sugar cane and citrus plantations in the southern reaches. It’s an agriculture giant that exports food to every part of the Kingdom, and also a mercantile power due to its many seaports, and its major river access both on the Hart, running northeast to the Great Eastern Sea, and the Tain, running eastward through southern Doria until flowing into the Southern Sea. The toll for the canal that runs between the two rivers is a major source of income for the Duchy. Mother has leveraged its advantages during her tenure to build up the industry and education of its major towns and cities as well. It started with an advantage, and in Mother’s care it is only getting richer.
But Suldor is a scenic land of rolling hills, foothills of the mountains of Relador, many of them terraced into giant staircases. It is so beautiful that I would wonder why Mireia ever left it to become a maid in Parna if I didn’t know that the Suldorian commoners were saddled with an upper class that seems intent on keeping them all in poverty.
Uncle Owen calls the lands between Pendor and Atianus the ‘Rotten Southwest’, the impoverished interior that seems stuck in permanent stagnation while the rest of Orestania prospers. He has tried reforms, but the Southern nobles in the Privy Council oppose him. The margin of counties and duchies directly south of Atianus does okay, and pockets of affluence appear along the Hart river, but beyond those, nothing. Mother has pulled Pendor out of that mire, but her Orestanian neighbors have yet to follow.
I did wonder why Mireia went from impoverished Suldor to even more impoverished Parna, though. Suldorians normally migrate to rich Pendor. Tiana had never visited Parna, and I had flown on the other side of the river to avoid it, so I had nothing to tell me what had attracted her.
By the time Kiki decided to use me as a flight beast, I should have been approaching Relador, about to leave Orestania and enter the land of my birth for the first time in over fifteen years. Despite the crappy situation that had driven me to this journey, I was beginning to get excited over seeing the place.
There would be no ‘Welcome to Scenic Relador!” sign on the side of the highway that I was not traveling. This wasn’t the US. How would I know when I got there?
“Kiki, are we still in Suldor?”
“Yup yup. See the grapes?”
By which, she meant the long rows of vinyard trellises snaking around the hills, outlining them like a topographical map.
“If I see vineyards, it means I’m in Suldor? Is that what you’re saying?”
A masculine voice came into my mind. I do not know all these strange place names. This land has grown foreign to me. But we are nearing the Grand Wall of the Shor Shin.
“The Grand Wall of the Shor Shin?” I echoed, puzzled.
“Nope nope, Big Sis. Shor Shin all gone long time.”
Kiki was responding to me, not the voice in my head. That voice belonged to Durandal, the holy sword currently sheathed in a scabbard on my belt. A very unstylish belt that clashed with this very nice dress my grandmother had given me, but there was no helping that. I had absolutely no other clothing options except nudity. And I’d had enough of that at Grandmother’s place to last me a very long lifetime.
My pixie companion could not hear Durandal’s voice because only I can hear it. Well, my grandmother can, as Durandal’s creator, and she told me that a few others would be able to, such as the mystery beings she called ‘First Ones’. But we had already established that my little pixie guide, despite her rather extreme age, was not able to hear him. That’s how holy swords work, apparently.
I never did find out the why the Shor Shin was or were long gone, nor did I learn why it, he, she or they had a grand wall, because this was the moment at which I first spotted a line of air cavalry on course to meet me from ahead.
It was a long way away, but I was pretty sure I was seeing wyverns, which are popular in mountainous countries like the one I was heading toward.
“Kiki, can you tell what sort of cavalry that is? Are they from Relador?”
“Mmmmm,” she pondered for a long moment, then said. “Dunno. Fairy with ’em, though.”
Come to think of it, would Kiki even know how to tell different soldiers apart?