Lenona 14, 1013
Once, when Leona was about three, the Queen had given her one of the castle’s puppies to hold. She couldn’t quite remember what the puppy looked like or what happened next, but she remembered how being given that puppy made her feel. It was like a shot of whiskey straight to the head, intoxicating and enervating at the same time. It made her want to jump up and down, screaming. It made her want to do cartwheels. Or explode. Or, since she was in fact three at the time, wet herself.
She’d never admit it in so many words, but finally taking the rowboat and landing on the Big Island of the Twikkii Islands made Leona feel just as drunk and excited as being handed that puppy.
She was keeping control, carefully. Christian was sighing and snorting, stamping the wet sand with salt-crusted boots. David still swayed from side to side, moving with the rhythm of the sea that was now behind them. Leona wasn’t sure if her dizziness and the fact that the land was bouncing up and down was due to her not yet regaining her land legs or if it was due to her excitement, but she was sure that she didn’t want to ask. She did, however, want to ask what all those exotics smells she could just catch hints of were. Were they the famed coconuts? Bananas? And that plume of smoke in the far distance — was that a volcano? And where were the natives? When would Leona get to meet them? Could they go now, or did they really have to unload the ship first? Oh, and was there any chance of her getting rid of this heavy tunic and chain mail? She’d never been so warm in her life.
All she was able to say was, “This is amazing!”
Christian chuckled nervously. “Sure. Ye say that now.”
“What? Are we about to be attacked by cannibalistic natives?” Leona asked. Damn, why had she left her short sword in the rowboat? She ought to–
“Not a chance,” David replied. “The natives around here were never cannibals, I don’t think. It’s the …” He paused, raising an eyebrow at Christian.
Christian winced. “Aye … look, Leona, before we get started, there’s some things ye ought ter know …”
“Why ain’t ye told her yet?” demanded David.
“‘Cause,” Christian replied, “forewarned is forearmed, an’ I ain’t no dummy when it comes to Albionese and the Church. Better not ter arm ’em too far ahead o’ the battle. Look, Leona — have a look around ye. A close look. Not at the volcano — the buildin’.”
Leona looked. One one side of the sheltered beach was … some kind of large building, perhaps a dwelling. On the other was — a church? A church of heavy dark stone. The back face of it was entirely devoid of windows, which struck Leona as odd. Wouldn’t a view of the sea be a perfect way to celebrate the beauty of the Lord’s creation?
“We’ll be stayin’ with the Travellers,” Christian went on. “The Order of the Travellers. They’re the only Wrightian outpost in these islands, an’–oh, bloody hell. Here they come.”
“They” was, in this case, an old nun dressed in a light-blue habit, slightly stopped and carefully picking her way down the sloping sand.
“Look,” Christian murmured, “the Travellers run the islands, aye? We–”
“To–Prince Thomas and I agreed I’d be treating with the natives directly,” Leona interrupted.
“This is why ye didn’t tell her, ain’t it?” David murmured.
“Ye bet. Look–ye can make decisions once ye’ve got the lay o’ the land, but fer now–”
The nun was upon them, and Christian shut up. Leona just hoped that whatever he was about to say wasn’t too important.
Still, if she remembered one thing, it was what she and Tom had agreed upon as the first and foremost principle of her mission: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Leona plastered on her widest grin, and before nun could say anything, asked, “Can we help you?”
Christian said something that started with, “Oh, sh–” and ended with an undignified squawk that may or may not have been related to Leona’s foot coming down hard on his.
The nun froze, seemingly taken aback. She looked from Leona to David to Christian, stopping there. “Captain Love?” She managed to say the name without giggling. They must have known each other a long time. Or else the nun had no sense of humor — either was equally possible with nuns.
“It’s Mother Isabella, now,” the nun interrupted. “Mother Tina was called to her rest three years ago.”
“Me sympathies,” Christian replied.
Leona watched Mother Isabella closely. You could tell a lot about a monk or nun by how they responded to these kinds of polite expressions. Mother Isabella nodded. “Thank you. As joyful as we are for Mother Tina, being called home, she is still much missed here.”
A reply that was equal parts natural and religious. Interesting.
“This,” Christian patted Leona’s shoulder, only to hastily draw his hand back now that they were no longer aboard ship and had to abide by the rules of the land, “is Lady Leona du Lac, daughter o’ Duke Lancelot of Avilion. She’s the personal envoy of King Arthur of Albion.”
“Albion?” asked Mother Isabella. “What on our shores can possibly be of interest to the King of Albion?”
Well, that was better than the response Leona was half-expecting: Albion? Where’s that?
“Well, Baron Ferreira has been trading with you for years, hasn’t he?” Leona asked. “The King was interested in–”
Some sand hit her boot. It wasn’t being tossed by the sea, but instead by David, who was barely noticeably but all the same firmly shaking his head.
“–in setting up a direct treaty with the Islands,” Leona finished. There. She hadn’t said whom they would be treating with on the islands. That ought to be discreet enough, oughtn’t it?
“Ah!” Mother Isabella replied. “Well, I’ll be the one you’ll be treating with, then. However — you’ve had a long journey, and a tiring one. Allow me to show you to our hostel.”
A hostel run by the Church. Leona would have never guessed that she’d find one in the Twikkiis. Still, she and the menfolk followed Mother Isabella up the hill without complaint or protest.
Leona barely had time to gawk around her — at the palm trees, the strange plants, the hulk of the looming church. And the volcano! She wanted to get closer to the volcano! But before she could do more than look around, Mother Isabella shooed them all into the hostel.
At least Leona had time to look around here, since Mother Isabella and Christian were discussing the lodgings for the crew. She could just see a dining hall, a library, and of course a large staircase from where she stood. Just like a hostel back in Wrightendom. The walls were wood-paneled, too, in some of the rooms, and in other places were filled in with plant-like material. But here the wood panels were carved with the figures of strange animals or else painted in bright colors. The plant-material in the dining hall was impossibly green. But all the furniture–
“And of course,” Mother Isabella said, turning to Leona without warning, “you will have a private room, because of your rank and sex.”
“Oh, um–thank you.” Leona wouldn’t mind a common dormitory with other women — she didn’t think — but it wouldn’t pay to be impolite.
Mother Isabella was looking at her strangely, so Leona did her best to smile. “Er — I was just admiring your decorations. I’ve never seen a building like this … at all …”
Mother Isabella sniffed, but she smiled proudly. “They were Mother Tina’s idea. She thought it would be a wonderful idea to try to blend the styles of the natives and our own. After all, unlike her … predecessor, she believed–well, never mind that. You don’t need to hear all of our dirty laundry!” Mother Isabella laughed hollowly.
“Would you like to see our church?” Mother Isabella asked eagerly. “It’s a true blend of the native and Wrightian styles. I think it best exemplifies Mother Tina and my philosophy.”
Leona blinked. She didn’t want to see a church. She wanted to see–
She didn’t want to see the inside of her room, either. Mother Isabella seemed like the type of old woman who would insist that Leona needed to rest. The church was better than that. “Certainly.”
Mother Isabella grinned, nodded to Christian and David — Leona sent them a sheepish, apologetic smile — then led Leona out of the hostel and practically frog-marched into the church. “Ta da!” she called as soon as they were inside.
Er … If this was a marriage of the styles of Wrightendom and the styles of the Twikkiis … Oh, dear.
Most of what Leona saw was what was the same. There was an altar in the front of the church, made of the typical marble. A large sculpture dominated the space behind the altar, which explained why there weren’t any windows there. Two wings split off from the main body, forming the typical cross shape. Leona couldn’t see down them, but she would bet anything that one wing held musical instruments to accompany the service, while the other was a small shrine to some saint or other.
There were some nods to what Leona guessed were native taste: the seashell mosaic on the floor, the paneling on the walls. The blue color did make the church seem more cool and calm, no doubt necessary in the heat. But … really … was this the best they could do?
“Is it not wonderful?” asked Mother Isabella.
Leona swallowed, searching for a distraction. She found one in the arch set up at the front of the church. “Oh — are you expecting a wedding?” she asked.
“What? Oh–that.” Mother Isabella sighed. “That … is …” She sighed and shook her head. “It is meant as an example. And a reminder. Even those natives who have accepted the Word of Wright are … not quite as willing to give up their sinful ways when it comes to the proper relations between the sexes.”
“You see, they don’t believe in marriage,” Mother Isabella went on. “Some children don’t even know who their fathers are — and they see no shame in this! Sometimes, it is true, a couple will come together, live together, try to raise a family … but if they encounter problems, why, most of the time the woman will deposit the man’s things outside the hut! Is that not shameful?”
She didn’t say what she was thinking, which was that living in a culture where an unhappy woman could kick their behinds out of the house probably would have been the saving of Bors and Elyan.
“But we are trying to change that. To fix that. And so the arch is there at all times — to remind our converts that their conversion cannot be complete until they can make a vow before the Lord to cleave to each other, forsaking all others, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in–”
“How many converts do you have?” Leona interrupted. Maybe she could start by talking with the converts, then from them move onto the natives who hadn’t yet converted–
“Well …” Mother Isabella sighed. “The–the Grim Reaper and his false demons are strong here. And there were some … missteps …”
“That’s Church-speak for ‘practically none, and that includes the ones who we held their heads under the water and baptized them without their consent.'”
Leona spun, hand going to where her short sword ought to have been. Mother Isabella shrieked and gasped. “Who — who are you?” she demanded.
Mother Isabella doesn’t know?!?!
“What, you don’t recognize me, Sister Isabella? You saw me every day from when I was … what, three days old, until I was twelve? Wasn’t I one of your earliest converts?”
Mother Isabella tilted her head to one side. “I … we raised many orphans here in years past …”
“Oh, I was never quite an orphan. Unfortunately for me.” The man effected a sigh. “I had a … sire who was quite powerful around these parts, once upon a time.”
Mother Isabella’s eyes widened. “Gino?”
The man bowed. There was more than a hint of mockery in his eyes. “At your service.”
“You’ve — you’ve returned? Praise to the Lord!” Mother Isabella clasped her hands together, eyes shining. “Oh, if your father could see you now!”
“If he could, I wouldn’t be here,” replied Gino.
Mother Isabella’s face fell. “Oh, don’t say things like that. I know your father could be — forceful …”
Gino barked out a laugh.
“Er–perhaps that was not the best way of phrasing things …”
“No, indeed, it wasn’t. And please, Sister–”
“Mother,” Leona interrupted. “It’s Mother Isabella. She’s been Mother around here for three years.”
Gino’s eyebrows rose. “Brother Enguerrand allowed that?”
“Your father was … was not well for a long time, Gino. Since — oh, goodness, since …”
“Since before I was born, I would say,” Gino replied. “Commencing somewhere around … oh, nine months beforehand?”
“Oh, Gino,” sighed Mother Isabella.
“And who is this lovely?” Gino asked, turning to Leona. He grinned at her. “I wasn’t aware that the Travellers were accepting pretty novices.”
“Gino! Watch your tongue!” Mother Isabella scolded. “This is the daughter of the Duke of — of –”
“Avilion,” Leona filled in. “And my name is Leona.”
Recognition flashed into Gino’s eyes. “Avilion? In Albion?”
He’d heard of Avilion? Of Albion? That made two people on the island — two more than Leona had allowed herself to expect! “Aye,” Leona replied. “Why do you ask?”
Gino rubbed his chin. “I have some … friends who settled there.”
Who? Leona wanted to ask. But she needed to keep up a front of having some kind of power, some kind of rank, to Mother Isabella. To betray that there was a better-than-average chance that she might know the names of random inhabitants of her father’s lands — that would not fit with the image she wanted to project.
“But–but Gino! When did you get here? How did you get here?” Mother Isabella gasped. “We see all the ships that come in!”
“Sis–Mother Isabella, think of how often you and the other nuns had to chase me all over the island. I think we both know that there are more coves and harbors than just this one. And there are several islands, you know.”
Mother Isabella paled. “Where–where were you left?”
“Ah, Mother — do you think I would tell you that?”
“Gino! You know what trouble we have with smugglers! You know how sinful it is to keep that information from us!”
“Sinful!” Gino laughed. “Mother, I have been to Glasonland and Reme; I’ve seen the marketplaces of Takemizu, and I’ve traded with the Smoors–”
“Gino! You didn’t!”
“–and I have seen the Church in action on every continent, and do you know what I’ve found out? ‘Sinful’ is just a word for ‘something the Church doesn’t like’!”
“Gino!” Mother Isabella stumbled back, a hand over her heart. “Don’t speak such blasphemy! In the very house of the Lord, too!”
“The Lord can hear what I say, wherever I say it, and he can hear what I think, wherever I think it. If … well, if he’s any kind of Lord,” Gino smirked, “I would like to think that he’d have more appreciation for honest courage, for a desire to bring the fight to him, than he would for sniveling cowardice that is blustery enough in the pub but seems to have misplaced its sword when the army comes calling.”
“Gino! Such wicked blasphemy! The Lord will surely punish you if you continue to say such things about Him!”
“We’ll see,” was all Gino would reply to that. “However, I came here for a reason, Mother Isabella, and that wasn’t to argue theology. I came to see my mother’s people.”
“Oh, Gino, don’t!” Mother Isabella begged. “Your–your grandmother is as obstinate a pagan as ever! And if you come back–that could undo all the good we have done here, since your father, er, became unwell …”
Obstinate pagan? Leona thought. She looked at Gino and wondered …
Gino only shrugged. “Perhaps. But I wanted to tell you that I was here, Mother Isabella. You and the other nuns were always kind. We both know what could result from me speaking again with my grandmother … I’d advise you and your nuns to stay far away from that.”
Mother Isabella’s face fell. “Gino, you’re not thinking of …”
Gino bowed one more time. “Good day, Mother — and to you, my lady.” He winked broadly at Leona. “I do hope we meet again.” Then he pushed past them and headed outside.
Mother Isabella stood still, breathing shallowly. “Here — here Mother, have a seat … catch your breath …” Leona led her to one of the pews. “Do you need something? Water?”
“No–no, child. I just need a moment … please … leave me …”
Excellent. Leona would bring her some water — but in the meantime …
She dashed out of the church. “Hey! Wait up!”
Gino turned around, blinking. “Well …” he murmured as Leona trotted up to him. “Have I made an impression on the heart of a Duke’s daughter so quickly?”
“Shut up,” was Leona’s reply to that. “I don’t fall for lines that would work on the heroines in my mother’s romances. You know the natives?” she asked, jumping right to the point.
Gino still seemed confused by the bit about Guinevere’s romances, but Leona didn’t have time for that. “Well? Do you or don’t you?”
Gino began to survey his nails. “Perhaps …”
“Your grandmother is a native, isn’t she?” Leona pressed.
Gino looked up — practically glaring. “I prefer not to go into my family history with people I’ve only just met.”
“Well, it wasn’t hard to figure out, given what you said to Mother Isabella.” Even though there were many puzzle pieces missing. Still, that wasn’t Leona’s concern at the moment. “I need to contact the natives. And you seem to be a contact …”
“Trust me, princess, you don’t want to use me as a contact,” Gino laughed.
Princess?!? “Are you jesting?” was all Leona would ask.
“There is … a history there that you can’t begin to understand. And danger. There’s a reason I told Sis–Mother Isabella and her nuns to stay away.”
“My King told me to treat with the natives directly. Not with the Church. And I’m a du Lac.” Leona stuck her chin out. “I think I can handle myself in danger, thank you.”
Gino was blinking. “Your — your king doesn’t want you treating with the Church? Why?”
“Let’s just say … he has his reasons.” Starting, Leona like to think, with fairness and a sense of justice. However, she wasn’t stupid enough to imagine the fact that the Order of St. Robert was just a little upset with Albion at the moment didn’t have something to do with it as well.
Gino rubbed his chin. “A king willing to treat directly with the natives … how big is your navy?”
“Er … getting bigger?” Leona replied, trying to grin.
“You know, you could just help me,” Leona replied. “Or you could risk me getting involved in the middle of whatever you planned and messing it all up. That’s been known to happen before, you know.” Leona did her best to bat her eyelashes, a trick she’d never quite been able to master.
Gino laughed. “Ah, princess! If I was a real ass, I’d say right about now that I like a girl with that kind of spirit.” Leona was glad that he wasn’t that kind of ass, because if he did say that, she might just have to punch him. “But you … hmm. Perhaps … perhaps we could make this work. With a king on my side …”
“Is that a deal?” Leona asked, grinning. She stuck her hand out.
Gino met it halfway. “Aye, princess. I think it just might be.”