A Lotus and a Rose

Written with Cowlass

July 20, 2022
The Ursine Bridge

Tvillingblom Palace was a display of arrogance. All the splendor of the Leidensens at their height, placed beyond the sights of Leidenstad and its clamoring demands. Nestled upon an island within an island, guarded throughout history by cold water and colder steel. It stood as the ultimate statement of the Absolute Era - A declaration that the rulers were forever apart from the world in which they ruled, that the Drifting Throne was held not by men and women who could be seen but by abstractions of power free to dictate matters from afar.

The House of Leidensen no longer reigned absolute, but on the cold shores of Lake Lasi their empire of silence yet stood. Ulrika could practically taste it at times - From the too-well-kept gardens to the quiet servants delivering their messages in centuries-old hand signals and faceless priests flitting to and fro. Here every tapestry and turn of the corridor seemed designed to suck the very sound from the air.

If she had studied poetry, she might have said it sucked the soul as well. But the Queen knew her history far better, and as Ulrika found herself increasingly given to morbid thoughts she found herself wondering whether this had been why nobody had heard old Queen Leonora’s screams when she’d been stabbed to death in her own bedchambers.

But as every day atop the Drifting Throne, today was not the day to give voice to such things. It was not often that the Queen entertained visitors, and for a brief time at least there might be some life in Tvillingblom beyond the routine matters of ministers and diplomats, or the ever more fleeting visits of her siblings.

Ulrika had sorely wished that she might have offered the Jarl a welcome equal in grandeur to that placed before the King of Antora. Such things, alas, were reserved for heads of state alone, and Vakrestrender, for all that it might be, was no state of its own. But while the King had been met by the cold splendor of a Cryrian winter, the Jarl instead came to the warmth of summer.

The Ursine Bridge was bathed in rays of gold from on high, and though no Guards company stood to salute Jørgen Bjørn the great marble bears that stood eternal watch reared up in welcome. Pale stone glinted in the sunlight and palace towers reached up to clear blue skies while on the docks below two small river yachts bobbed gently upon sparkling lake waters.

From atop a wall as white as death, Ulrika could see the bridge span the placid lake to the shoreline where it met Sankt Niven’s Way. Even now the Jarl’s motorcade was appearing from the tree-lined road, and blue-coated guards emerged from the final checkpoint. The ceremonial uniforms were belied by the very real rifles, but as ever with visiting dignitaries their examination was a respectful one as bomb-sniffer dogs took a cursory pass by the vehicles before waving them on. Ulrika was struck by the passing thought of that boy she’d met in Sayyed trying to assassinate her in his perpetually-confused sort of way, and very nearly burst into laughter until a polite cough interrupted her musings.

“One Jarl Bjørn has arrived to see Your Grace.”

The Protocol-Captain knew better than to inquire as to the amused smirk on the Queen’s face.

“So he has,” Ulrika straightened her coat - blue again this time, and comfortable enough even in July, provided that it was a Cryrian July.

A few moments later, the palace gates ground open to reveal the Queen flanked by a pair of guardsmen at attention, Camilla hovering behind her shoulder as ever. As the motorcade finally rolled across the bridge and came to a halt, Ulrika crossed her arms and banished any hint that she might be too pleased to see the fellow.

“Jarl Bjørn,” she drawled aloud when the man arrived, “Welcome to this quiet home of mine. I am not so grand as to live in a volcano, you see, but I trust we shall not overly bore you in your stay.”

The young Jarl gave the traditional Akuan bow, his head lowered as his eyes faced the ground. In Akuan culture, it was a sign of significant trust in the other to have one eyes facing away from the other. Behind him is a Ursine that seems to deny the existence of physics due to his large size. The massive bear gave only a head nod, and held his hand to his chest to the Queen of Cryria. His dull color badge still provided a small shine, the letters glamming off it ‘NCIS.’ His eyes only briefly looked at Ulrika, his eyes shifted the crowd around them. Scanning for potential threats to the Jarl.

“You give me a great honor Queen of Cryria, I only wish I am of interest to you as I am interested in your history and castle madam.” He raised his body, to look Ulrika in the eyes. His outfit was designed just for this state visit; over a dozen tailors and artists made their attempts to win the Jarl’s favor interest. Yet only one won out of all of them, with a special design combining Norgsveltian, Valkyr, Akuan and Cryrian designs into the pattern. His jacket is laced with golden thread on the edges, backed by a dark blue with symbology of Akuan patterns in the shape representing the sea, another pattern laying on his shirt showing the imagery of deity creating islands with another pattern beside it of the deity of friendship. Everything about his outfit was over the top, even his thick fur coat had special designs along it showing the constellations seen from the Cryrian view on their main island. Edged with golden thread and the stars made from shiny jewels.

Jørgen would prefer something not as showboaty however, he has an image to keep up for both the Norgsveltian sphere and now the Cryrian sphere of influence. Nothing less than absolute perfection is expected of him, never to fault in front of the public eye. Never to show a sign of weakness, which includes poverty which Akuanists have been normally seen as. As such, he isn’t just acting as the Jarl of Vakrestrender nor as a representative of Norgsveldet but for all Akuanist in the world and he will carry himself as such. Carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders but never showing any signs of struggling. He is required to wear his best smile, his showman smile the one that he has to wear not just for the public, but for all those royals that he hosts in his own castle. The MBE royals, the Norgsveltian royals and everyone in between. It’s a smile he has perfected to an artform. The only thing that isn’t over the top is his long black pants, though his boots cover up to his ankles.

Well, heavens, for a meeting as ad hoc and hastily arranged as this, the Jarl was certainly displaying a level of formality above what she had been expecting. The Foreign Ministry had been ambivalent when the Queen had informed them of her invitation - It was not, after all, a common thing for a monarch to extend such things without warning. But the Foreign Ministry had more serious things to deal with now, the courtesy of one Duchess of Tynam, and as much as some might have found Vakrestrender offensive it was at least also unimportant. A friendly visit then, to be of no substance or story.

Ulrika had the keen feeling of the Protocol-Captain exchanging cynical examinations with the NCIS man from behind her.

“I assure you, Jarl Bjørn, you will always be of interest to me. Beginning with the name of your tailor,” she offered a warmer sort of smile, as if to assure him it was not an insult. She gestured across the gatehouse - It was a flat, barren cobblestoned courtyard surrounded by walls stood in the center. A statue of Queen Evelina on horseback looked down on them from the building’s edifice, one hand on her hip and another clutching the reins, her stone eyes of Tvillingblom’s designer offering an impassive welcome to all those who passed its doors.

“Ah, but you should be more careful, good Jarl. Ask me to speak of history and I fear you’ll hear little else in your stay,” Ulrika said wryly, “Come then, and see my castle, though I hope your companion will watch his head. It would not do for King Segol’s chandeliers to be broken in my reign.”

Jørgen gave a small laugh, following the Cryrian. Taking the Queen’s question of his outfit more of one serious in nature. “Well it was a group effort, around six tailors and two jewelers. As well as assistance from a local university and brewmaster of the isles to assure accuracy of the designs.” Reality is his outfit pulled together almost fifteen people together, if not more so including the students the professors voluntold to assist with the endeavor. Benefits having a surprising number of connections he supposed. “The lead designer was Magnhild Ny’heimdøric. Friendly enough artist though she is a bit peculiar and requires her work to be done in the middle of the ocean.” His Nys’tat’en accent still showed heavily, despite him taking those extra hours with Staynish tutors to suppress it.

His eyes shifted towards the statue looking at curiously, something to ask about sooner than later. “Yuri you heard the Queen, do watch your head and look out for chandeliers and ceiling fans. We wish not for a repeat of your accident like last time.” He joked to his bodyguard who only provided a grunt in response. Lowering his head which did little to hide his massive size but an attempt was made.

“You have certainly kept yourself busy since we last met, Jarl Bjørn. Perhaps I will have to meet Miss Magnhild myself someday,” Ulrika remarked, “Here in Cryria we are always in the middle of the ocean.”

Even as they made their way up a set of marble steps, the two guardsmen remaining behind motioned for the main gates to be sealed. They slowly ground shut, and a familiar peace returned to the courtyard. It was the Protocol-Captain who took the lead, pushing a pair of heavy wooden doors open and then standing aside for the group to pass into Tvillingblom Palace.

Inside was something akin to another time. The pale baroque decor of the Absolute Era was everywhere, the walls draped in blue coverings with the maritime patternings typical of Cryrian artwork. Portraits of heroes and monarchs long past watched them enter, and from above electrified chandeliers did indeed hang down like balls of fire, illuminating the halls and corridors with their bright lighting.

Ulrika proceeded through all these without a second glance, until they emerged through yet another set of doors to the brilliant sight of the Interior Gardens. A large central pool featured a fountain surrounded by the silvery arms of a grasping kraken, while atop some warrior of old raised her spear in statuesque triumph. Sunbeams turned to rainbows on arcs of water, and greenery was all around - from the lawns patterned with roses of a hundred colors, to the carefully sculpted Vihreäätaidetta tigers that stalked the grounds. A lone maidenhair tree’s leaves created a cascading sea of green and a small pavilion had been set beneath its branches, complete with carefully crafted Aikkian chairs and table.

“Now, Jarl Bjørn, I fear that in my haste to welcome you in I have somewhat forgotten my manners!” the Queen exclaimed. She took a seat, and invitingly motioned Jørgen to the other, “Your journey was not too tiresome, I hope? I admit, I have not often traveled, and I am honored that you would come from so far.”

Jørgen took his seat, looking at the curious tree and the garden around him. “The journey was indeed quite long, but it was worth it to see your wonderful garden.” His eyes shifted to the kraken and the ancient hero of the past standing on top of it. Curiously, he titled his head at it, krakens in Akuanism culture tend to be a sign of the deep, the things that sapients shouldn’t interact with rather allowed them to roam as they pleased. Seeing a statue of killing such a mythological creature was, strange to say the least. However when in a strange land, one supposes strange things. “I am honored to be invited to your home.”

Servants in silver-black robes silently placed glasses on the table, and soon filled them with a rich red Quatian wine before placing the flagon on the table and returning with a platter of crackers slathered in golden caviar - A common delicacy for Cryrian appetizers taken before a main course, though a keen eye might guess that these were taken from the albino sturgeons bred in the House of Leidensen’s private fisheries on Talvere.

The Queen noted Jørgen’s interest in the fountain, and she raised her glass towards the woman atop it in a silent toast, “Ah, the good Ezethla,” she said, “A story older than either of our homelands, that one, but I was always quite fond of their legends as a lass, bloody though they often were - What can I say, I was a timid creature, and tales of fearlessness had their appeal,” Ulrika offered a wry smile, “And those of the Warchild at least always offered happy endings.”

She turned back to the Jarl and took a sip of the wine, “But I am sure you must have many such legends yourself in Vakrestrender, so I shall not bore you with recounting mine. I would instead show you something of this Kingdom I call home in my time here. If there is something you feel would be to your taste, I shall be your humble guide,” the Queen grinned, “Else you may put your trust in me, for though none can claim to truly know these Isles in a lifetime, I would hazard to say that I know more than most. But first, eat! I will not have it said that any guest of mine goes hungry.”

Jørgen raised an eyebrow at the wine, before picking it up and taking a small sip of it. The rich texture of the wine isn’t lost in the jarl, taking a moment to swish it in his mouth before swallowing. “Ah, Quatian style wine from Volscina if I’m not mistaken.” He gave a grin taking another sip. He resisted the perfectly natural Akuan urge to dip the appetizer cracks into the wine before eating it. Watching how Ulrika took her bite of the crackers before he did so, a habit he picked after being close call with a poisoning attempt. Not that he was thinking the Queen would poison him after inviting him into her home rather, it’s an unconscious ritual he has. Not registering he was performing such an action.

After seeing Ulrika eat first, he followed after, though only taking a small portion of the first course of the meal. Not wanting to look like a gluttonous man within the first thirty minutes of visiting the strange isolated country.

“You know your wines, Jarl Bjørn,” Ulrika laughed, “But I certainly do not, so I shall take your word for it!”

The Queen glanced at one of the servants as if seeking confirmation, and the man simply bowed his head in agreement, “Quatian, 2016,” he agreed.

“Good year that,” Ulrika said, trying another sip, "I’d have been… twenty. Important birthday if you’re Cryrian, and for me, well, my National Service had just ended and I was going to the University of Leidenstad.”

She paused in consideration, “Well, I suppose it’s a bit silly to call any of that much of an accomplishment, but still, as far as happier times go…”

Ulrika trailed off and frowned at Jørgen’s apparent disinterest in the food, but quickly masked her disappointment. A second course soon appeared. Dyrets hale - The tail of the beast, if one needed a translation. The tale of a great whale from the deeps, briefly seared over an open flame and sliced thin before marinating in vinegar and seasoned with ginger and soy sauce. An old Cryrian delicacy now served in a larger salad. Once, the meat of a blue whale had been prized above all and still served at Tvillingblom even after a wider ban on hunting such creatures, but it had been with no small satisfaction that Ulrika had halted the practice in her reign. Now it was minke whales that graced the Leidensen tables - Less glamorous perhaps, but far less endangered as well.

Jørgen made more of an effort to consume the meal this time. Sensing Ulrika disappointment in him, similar to how a parent sees their child not clearing their dinner plate after spending hours in the kitchen preparing the dish. Focusing on the greenery of the dish first, before starting on the meat itself. He didn’t have the small worry in the back of his mind about being poisoned this time, no matter how silly it was to have it in the first place. Usually when attempts was made on his life by AoP or the anti-Royal terrorist group of the week, they virtually always poisoned the first dish rather than the second dish.

“You say you we’re studying at the University, if I remember right Cryrian History correct? Did you have a specific interest within history? What drove you to pick the subject?” He asked curiously, taking a small bite of the salad.

“North Novaran history, actually, though depending on who you ask that may as well be Cryrian history,” Ulrika felt obligated to raise a hand and say, “That was a joke. But aye, as you can see, it is a somewhat… contentious topic, the past. Here more than anywhere, perhaps. History is an interesting thing in a nation such as mine.”

“Go to Oshombran, the oldest city in the Kingdom,” Ulrika said, “Its Pyramid has stood for over two-thousand years, though it has not been left wholly unchanged by time or mortal hands. No industrial war has ever been waged in these Isles, and the physical reminders of our past stand now as they always have. But the truth is, we were not always so blessed, and while the conflicts of old rarely demolished stone they burned manuscripts and shattered tablets all the same. Today, we can say almost nothing of the people who built the Great Oghatli, nor those who later resided there - These stories are lost to fires or buried in archives long forgotten by the priests or aristocrats who tend to them. This is a sorry tale oft repeated across this Kingdom, and what are monuments without stories save for empty shells? Heavens, thirty years ago we could not even have told you the origin of the word ‘Cryrian.’ Many have considered us to be a nation overly steeped in the past, but if I am to be truthful we have at times been neglectful of it!”

The Queen’s enthusiasm for the topic was clearly genuine now, even as she took care to avoid the more unpleasant details of just how exactly Cryrian history had been so brutally and deliberately ‘lost’ or wholly rewritten. It was not for her to air the nation’s dirty laundry, even as the Jarl’s apparent interest lit a spark in her eyes.

But she reigned herself in, and speared a chunk of meat with a fork as she finished with a wan smile, “Alas, my pursuit of a doctorate has been somewhat… placed on hold,” Ulrika gestured vaguely around with one gloved hand.

“But you, Jarl Bjørn,” she swiftly changed the subject, "You studied the arts, did you not?

He gave a nod, taking a bite of the tasteful whale meat. “I have indeed I have, with a specialty in digital arts, though it was a hard decision to pick which field of art I wanted to go into.” He paused for a moment, taking another bite of the meat. “In full honesty, I picked digital arts because it was easier to carry a drawing tablet around than it was an easel and all my paints with me when I traveled. You never know when inspiration will come to you, be it a sunset over a lake, a busy sidewalk filled with families heading to the shrine during the New Year or resting in a ship and seeing a school of fish swim by your vessel.” He gives a warm smile at the memory, when his father would drag him out of his room to go on a hike to see nature in its purity before it would all be turned to cityscapes and high-rises.

“Two of my pieces even made it to the national art gallery in Norgsveldet for a short time.” He spoke with pride in his voice. “Not completely sure where my pieces went after the gallery, I donated them to a charity for K.G.I.D. research, and some anonymous bidder bought the set.” Taking a sip of the wine, “I hope whoever bought them, is enjoying them rather than letting them sit in a dusty attic somewhere. Art should be seen and heard rather than shoveled away in the dark.”

“It is a rare gift, to be able to create something,” Ulrika said thoughtfully, “I envy you for that, Jarl Bjørn. I will admit that I never had any talent for such things. Still, I hope you might find some small inspiration in your time here - It is said that nothing strikes the imagination like a Cryrian landscape.”

That Ulrika was half-sure she had seen the Jarl’s pieces hanging in Saga Tynam’s private collections, she felt was better left unsaid.

“The ability to create doesn’t only come from artists, no matter how we would disagree on the matter.” He cracks a smile as he jokes. “From my people’s culture, and in the Akuanist belief. The ability to tell a story, both factual and mythologized stories is an artform unto itself. It’s how you tell the story, what information you do or don’t tell and the structure of it all.” He replies in a thoughtful manner, taking a sip of the wine.

“Well said,” Ulrika raised her glass, “Here’s to stories then, may we find happy ones to tell!”

Written with Cowlass

July 21, 2002
Sabilaine House, Cryrian Highlands

“It is a pity you do not come by winter, Jarl Bjørn,” Ulrika said, her breath fogging in the cold air as she spoke. “In but a few months this land would be something to behold!”

It was indeed still the depths of July, but this high up and this far north the mountains were still capped white, and would be so when summer again passed. Even now the gentle highland slopes were blanketed with untouched snow that clung to tree branches and caked itself atop the roof of Sabilaine House.

Their journey from Tvillingblom had been a long one, made shorter by the fast Cryrian railways that took them past the green mountain meadows, ancient forests, and glassy lakes of central Älmark. For all that the world grew frosty as they ascended into the cold Cryrian heart, the cabins were nothing less than warm and comfortable, their wide windows offering panoramic views of the landscapes that hurtled by. The soft rumble of the train filled much of the journey at first, but over cups of steaming tea Ulrika had found herself all too happy to regale the Jarl with the story of any passing stone, village, or mountainside monastery. Jørgen Bjørn had committed the classic blunder of showing some interest in passions which she had long since been forced to set aside, and the Queen, an academic at heart, was all too pleased to find a captive audience.

The train trip for Jørgen was quite inspiring. The land was untouched by industry or the sapient’s desire to consume nature. He was all too happy to listen to the Queen’s passion, occasionally even taking out his sketchbook, Sometimes he sketched the untouched wilds they passed through, detailing it with monasteries from other times, even trying his hand at sketching a portrait of the joyful looking Queen as she gestured to the hills explaining the deep lore of every turnt stone and small village.

He always kept his sketchbook close to his heart, rarely letting others see it. It’s filled with sketches of things he would never paint, half hearted attempts to capture the natural wonders that dotted the Cryrian landscape. His sketchbook was the closest thing he ever had to a camera, it felt more personal to him, more emotion captured from both the subject and the artist poured into the lines forming various subjects he tried to capture even just for a moment.

Kurventis had been their last stop, though not entirely the end of their trip. A waiting convoy had been quick to whisk the royals from the station through the picturesque village which looked like it hadn’t changed in centuries. It was from there only a short journey up the winding mountain roads before the black facade of Sabilaine House appeared overhead. This most isolated of Leidensen residences stood as proud as any grand palace or castle upon the slopes, but Ulrika had not stopped at its door.

“Come, Jarl Bjørn,” she had urged as they entered the surrounding woodlands on foot, “We both hail from adventuring traditions, do we not? Then this should be no great thing for us.”

The young Jarl gave a smile, having his thick warm coat tied around him. Proper coat, one without the various dozens of jewels attached to its back, though still to some degree of a fashionable design. “It’s a long while since I’ve been on a hike, forgive me if I’m slowing you down.” His bodyguard Yuri followed behind carrying the Jarl’s art supplies. It appeared the Ursine was completely unfazed by the extreme cold. The Jarl hoped to reignite his artistic passion while in place covered in such bountiful nature, to listen to the spirits as he painted the colors. This time, without the use of a drawing tablet, and instead with the more traditional art style that he was trained and raised in.

Heavy coats held out the icy winds that flowed through the trees, and the trail seemed to become not a trail at all until they emerged upon a rocky escarpment. From here, one could look south across the sea of mountains, while the skies above displayed their deep blue that spread on into infinity. In the far distance, the outlines of the Lielsta Plateau were visible, and only Sankt Inge seemed to defy them.

“There she is, good Jarl, and tell me that it is not worth a little stroll,” Ulrika laughed, unable to help but feel some pride at the sight as the rolling peaks were bathed in a rich alpenglow.

He held his thumb up to the plateau, tilting his head to the side. The rich white snow flowing through it like a river frozen in place. “If you don’t mind, I would like to try to sketch it. It will just be a few moments.” He planned on two sketches, one just of the Liesta and another for including the Queen beaming with pride at the Plateau.

“I shall most certainly mind not at all, Jarl Bjørn,” Ulrika smiled, evidently pleased that her guest had taken up some of her enthusiasm, “We will wait as long as you need. I’m sure they’ll have something warm waiting for us back at the house.”

The Queen dusted snow off a lonely tree stump by the escarpment’s edge and sat down, wrapping her arms around herself for warmth. The Protocol-Captain was murmuring something into her radio by the treeline, probably communicating their decision to remain in the woods a while longer. For a few moments the only sound was that of Jørgen’s pencil scratching across the page.

“I’ve never been up here in summer, you know,” Ulrika mused, “My mother used to bring us after Ademar’s Mass… the old King did not care for the place.” She glanced at the sunlit vista behind her and squinted through a rising wind, “It is quite different now, on a clear day like this. I did not think the eye could go so far… Look, you can practically see Sankt Inge’s Hermitage!” she pointed excitedly at a distant red smudge on the mountain’s side, “I suppose I should thank you, Jarl Bjørn. You have shown me something new.”

The Queen turned back to the Jarl, and then clicked her tongue, “Though I suppose I should not distract you,” she said to herself. The fellow’s attentiveness to his craft was certainly inspiring.

Without a glance taking away from his work on sketchbook. He did of course reply in his everso polite tone. “I would actually prefer you to express your joy. It promotes a good energy for art and soothes the Skogvættir spirits roaming the forest.” Few moments later, he finishes his sketches, flashing the Cryrian queen a bright smile and saying in a happy tone. “Thank you for waiting.” He closes his sketchbook, then puts it back in his coat’s jacket.

He turns his attention to the far off red spot on the mountain, walking up to her side. “Sankt Inge’s Hermitage?” He tilts his head as he looks at it, “So the mountain bleeds?” He redirects his attention to her, simply looking as if he was wanting for her to tell the story about it with the same charming smile on his face he always wore.

“Not so,” Ulrika said with a short laugh. It was not often that anyone invited her to speak on such things, and it clearly warmed her heart to do so now. The Queen stood and dusted snow off herself, “But aye, there’s been blood spilled aplenty on it. Few knew that better than good Sankt Inge. He was there during the Scouring. Not a soldier, but a barber-surgeon. A chopper of limbs and a cleaner of wounds. One of those lucky few to survive the battle at Karga Kull , the Maskless’ rampage across the coastal plains, Queen Lielsta’s campaign back into these very Highlands. He was there right up until the end.”

Ulrika gestured to the plateau on the horizon, where Lielsta the city stood, “He only drew his blade in anger once, or so the tale is told - On the last day of that last siege, when he slew a man in battle.Something must have broken in him after that, whether it was his own actions or all he had witnessed in thirty years of war. He retreated to the Hermitage to find some peace after a lifetime of war.”

The Queen snorted to herself lightly, “It’s almost funny in a way. Most people today know Inge for his lonely perch on that mountain, but the Church’s records say that he was made a saint for his actions before he vanished up there - treating the injured on the battlefields and in burned-out villages. Those he tended to must have certainly thought him blessed. I cannot say what he would think of being remembered only as the pure and isolated monk standing above the world.”

Ulrika shrugged to herself and started back for the House, “But who am I to speak for dead Saints?”

The sun was beginning to sink, and the tree shadows had grown long. Ulrika seemed unaffected by this, or at least lost in thought, and the trail they had left earlier was easy to follow. Soon, the lights of Sabilaine came into view through the trees, with smoke rising invitingly from its chimney.

Ulrika paused on the porch to kick the snow off her boots, “I hiked up there once, actually,” she grinned, “Just me and my sisters. We camped out for a night, told all the worst ghost stories and nearly froze ourselves to death while we were at it,” the Queen laughed, “Had to go bother the priests for extra blankets. It is not so grand a view as this, not unless you go up to the peak, but it is… old. And a good hike, if you are ever up for it.”

“But come! There are many things that we can do here, and not all of them require listening to me. Tell me, Jarl Bjørn, how well do you ski?”

The young elven Jarl waited until Ulrika casted the snow off her own boots before following suit. He took a moment on the porch to look out towards the forest and listen to the wind speak to him as it blew across the land. “If you suggest it is a good hike with an inspiring view, then I am more than welcoming of it.” The Cryrian Queen’s mention of her siblings having an adventure climbing the mountain did remind him of the times his own brothers dragged him along on their various trips to camp in Norgsveldet or trapping him on a boating trip sailing to the Auroran mainland, in a wooden longboat. Something he at the time hated, far away from technology he was used to, unable to properly paint as the seas shook the boat constantly and drove the would-be Jarl to near insanity. A small tear was driven from his eye down his soft pale cheek. He would do anything to have that trip again, regardless how much he hated that moderately sketchy boat. It was best of times, even when his siblings and him were forced to take buckets to remove the water that filled the water along the bottom. It was the best memories he had with them, the struggle of keeping that idiotic boat afloat and taking turns managing the sails to assure they were heading on the proper course.

The Queen’s gloved hands fumbled with a key.

Helvete ,” Ulrika muttered as she struggled with the frozen lock before it finally turned. Ulrika paused then, seeing the tear sliding down the Jarl’s cheek.

“Are you well, Jarl Bjørn?” She asked quietly. It immediately felt like a silly thing to ask - Of course he was not well. Who would be in his place? But the concern was written clearly across her face all the same.

He took a sleeve to wipe his cheek before turning to Ulrika. “It is the memories of struggling alongside our family that sticks out are they not.” He gives a smirk, “Be it freezing climbing a mountain or doing something foolish like sailing to Aurora with a longboat that is nowhere near safe enough to travel on the water like my brothers and I did.” He held back his tears that demanded to pour, instead forcing his mask of the happy, go-lucky Jarl that never looked down or felt the pressures bearing down on him.

“That they are,” she offered a small smile, “There is no shame in it, Jarl Bjørn. We should all hold those memories dearly.”

He has a warm nod to the Queen, giving a small chuckle desperate to suppress the talk of family long lost to him. “Well, when it comes to Skiing, I am familiar with it. My ex made sure that I knew how to do it.” He gives a chuckle, “Though it has been a long time since I have skied, but I’m confident in my ability. I just hope you don’t try to throw snowballs at me during the process.” He gives another hearty chuckle, a more genuine one this time. “My old boyfriend said it enhanced the challenge of skiing. As it’s not already a bit of a challenge for a first time skier.”

He opened the door of the warm house, “After you.”

Inside, the house was… a house. Sabilaine could not have been further from the baroque opulence of Tvillingblom, but it had a subtle charm of its own. The main living room was open and airy, filled with warm armchairs, thick carpets. A fireplace crackled and danced, but it was the soft hum of the heaters that kept out the mountain cold. Adjoining the living room was a large kitchen with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, though it seemed to be rarely used…

From the walls hung no portraits or tapestries, but instead intricate portrayals of the mountains and valleys. The landscapes were familiar enough, they had both just seen them in reality after all. But in some, those same slopes were vibrant and alive, captured in hues of green and blue while in others they were shrouded in mists. In each case it seemed that the artist had not shied away from expounding on the beauty of the surrounding terrain with bold and confident brushstrokes. The dates displayed showed them to be more recent works, and each corner was signed simply as Mia. Mugs of hot cocoa had been thoughtfully left waiting on the coffee table

“Fear not, good Jarl,” Ulrika laughed, “I think you will find that I have a poor aim. Very well, tomorrow we will see how good you are” She kicked off her boots and hung her coat by the door just as the snow began to melt off. Gesturing vaguely at the paintings, she said, “Lady Tarva’s handiwork. You are not the only one to find some inspiration in the Highlands.”

Jørgen gave a look at the landscape paintings, his mind already scanning for various mistakes and improvements on it. He has always been a critic, though he only criticizes himself openly. The brushwork is more than acceptable, good detailing in the background. All in all, a fairly talented painting by a talented artist. “She’s quite talented.” He gives the compliment in a polite tone. He rested his coat next to Ulrika on the rack, doing the same with his boots after brushing the snow off of them after.

“Perhaps someday we will hang your own beside them if you should do us the honor,” Ulrika grinned, taking a mug and curling up on an armchair by the window.

Mention of creating another artwork made him briefly wince, though he refused to show it. He hasn’t made a painting ever since that fateful day. Not for a lack of trying, he spent long nights trying to create another piece of him, given form on canvas but yet. Nothing ever felt inspired or good enough for him to share with anyone other than the fireplace. Though he still gave a smile, “Perhaps if the inspiration takes hold of me.” His usual goto line, for when Olav or anyone else asks him about creating a new piece of artwork.

“May I see them?” she ventured to ask, “You seem to have been hard at work since we left Tvillingblom.”

Taking his own mug reserved him, sitting on the armchair across from the Queen. He was always cautious about sharing his sketchbook, it was part of him as much as his own beating heart. As such he was incredibly hesitant about it, not even to those he holds dearest to him such as Esta or Olav. A small voice far back in his head however, kept pushing him just to share it. What harm could it bring to share it with her? It was just sketches, some of her and some of the bountiful nature that they have witnessed together.

With a cautious look, he pulls out his sketchbook. One he recently bought just for this trip to capture his experience in Cryria. The book itself was a simplistic design, a bare cover saved his name written along the top of it. He places it on the coffee table in front of them, flipping to his first sketch on the train. It was a sketch of the cabinet the royals were in, Ulrika looking outside of the window towards the forest with a smile on her face that he captured onto the paper. Even small details such as the mug of coffee they had onboard was captured and a servant walking passed them. He gestures to some of the mistakes he made on the page, “This line is far too thick, I should have detailed this far more.” Even if it is just a sketch, he treated it as seriously as one possibly could with their artwork.

“Feel free to look at some of the other pages, though please bear in mind these are only sketches.” He takes a sip from his mug, sliding the sketchbook over towards her further. Sketches he drew lacked the messy lines most artists have, every line he drew on it was prepared already in his mind and executed flawlessly onto the paper. All to a fanatic obsessive degree of perfection, nothing less would have been acceptable to Jørgen.

Ulrika set her mug aside and picked up the sketchbook, flipping through the pages with genuine interest. The Queen recognized all that they’d seen only in a passing fashion all set down in pencil and paper and brought back to life by the Jarl’s own hand.

“These are quite good, Jarl Bjørn,” she said with a smile, “You’ve a real talent for capturing a place.”

She set the sketchbook back down on the table and smirked, “It’s people as well.”

He was taken back by her words, but still gave a warm smile “Your words are far too kind.” He pulled his sketchbook back into his lap before placing it back inside his pocket. In his mind these sketches are nowhere near to meet his impossible standards, but her words seemed genuine and gave him a nice boost to his confidence in his ability to create art. Picking up his mug again, he turns his attention to the fireplace and basked in its warmth.

Written with Cowlass

July 22, 2022
Sabilaine House

“Now, just take a straight shot down the slope towards the first marker,” Ulrika gestured across the pale expanse, “The Protocol-Captain will be waiting for you there.”

“Here, Jarl Bjørn,” Camilla shuffled up through the snow, “This one ought to fit you, though I would mind your ears.” The Protocol-Captain offered him a spare helmet from Sabilaine’s storage closet. Her face had darkened considerably when she’d heard that the Jarl last learned to ski in East Borea. The remainder of that morning had consisted of her checking every piece of equipment before insistently walking Jørgen through the basics of skiing. By the time they arrived at the top of the course, the sun was already high in the sky.

The slope now stretched out before them, a ribbon of white winding its way through the crisp, frosty landscape. Towering pines stood sentinel along the edges, their branches still heavy with snow. There were two routes that came down from Sabilaine, the Queen had explained, of greater and lesser difficulty. Theirs was the easier one, still dotted naturally occurring turns and bumps, but well marked with a clear path. It was a lengthy affair, one which ran all the way back down to Kurventis if one so chose to complete it in its entirety, though each marker represented a convenient point to pause.

“Now good Jarl, as Her Grace says,” Camilla continued, “Do remain on course and steer clear of the treeline. If you lose your way, I recommend staying in place and hoping that we find you before the wolves do.”

Camilla paused, and then pointedly added, “And I will ask that you make sure to stop yourself at the marker before you collide with me.”

Ulrika chuckled nervously, “Ah, yes, that is a good thing to remember…” It had been the hard way to learn that the Protocol-Captain was built like a brick wall, and was about as painful to run into as well.

Camilla offered a salute and kicked off with her poles, carving elegant arcs through the snow as she glided down to the little red pinprick in the distance.

“Well, after you, Jarl Bjørn,” Ulrika grinned, “There is good tea waiting for us in Kurventis, we should not let it grow cold.”

The Jarl’s bodyguard, Yuri, gave a simple grunt. Being a seasoned skier himself, he was more able to control his speed to follow Jørgen at a reasonable distance. He himself double checks his employer’s gear, making sure all the straps to the gear are properly tied including the knee pads which is not normally part of skiing but the massive bodyguard insisted upon it with his usual flavorful speaking pattern of grunts. The elf tried to say that it would be unnecessary for him to wear so much equipment only to be matched by Yuri’s stare.

“If you say so Yuri.” Jørgen gave a defeated sigh. Yuri gave a grunt in confirmation, performing one last check on the elf’s helmet strap. The Jarl lined himself up, on the marker at the top of the snowcap course. He gave a smirk to the Cryrian Queen, “Might I propose a race to the bottom?”

“Oh aye? You may propose,” Ulrika said, adjusting her own helmet. She made an irritated sound and then pulled it off to scratch her head. “These things always make me itchy,” she grumbled before putting it back on.

“Well, Jarl Bjørn, what do I win, when I win?”

Jørgen puts his hand to his chin, thinking for a moment. “Well if you win, I will offer my services as an artist. What do I win, when I win?”

“I would offer you my own services as an artist, but I fear you would find them unimpressive,” Ulrika laughed. The Queen considered matter for a moment. “You’ve a fierce name, Jarl Jørgen Bjørn, though not so fierce a look. We should see this rectified - I’ve no shortage of blades, pick one and it is yours. If you win.”

Without giving him a chance to respond, Ulrika suddenly shot down the slope, leaving a spray of ice behind her.

“That little minx.” He gives a hardy laugh, pushing himself down the slope with his pole sticks. He roughly remembers what Camilla taught him earlier, though he did space out on some parts of her explanation. As well roughly what he learned in his time in Blaskog a decade ago, though most of the information has been unused for quite some time.

The mischievous Queen was leaving him in the dust, this of course could not do. He bent down slightly, trying to hold his balance to build up speed. Much to the panic of his bodyguard who was still a little aways from him, he could feel the panic coming from the Ursine’s gaze at him. Paying no-mind, he went lower a little further almost catching up to her before he lost his balance.

He tumbled down the slope, giving a small yelp as he slammed into the mostly soft snow. Drawing a elf-sized line as he slid down, flat against the snow, facing upwards towards the sky.

Ulrika skidded to a halt by the marker and ripped off her helmet.

“And that, Jarl Bjørn, is how you…” the Queen’s moment of triumph trailed off when the Protocol-Captain started furiously motioning for Jørgen to slow down. A moment later the Jarl suddenly shot past both her and the marker before collapsing down the slope. Ulrika’s face paled and she heard the Protocol-Captain shout something uncouth as Jørgen finished his tumble and lay motionless in the snow. Without a thought, the Queen pushed off again to catch up with him.

“Jarl Bjørn!” Ulrika shouted, a sick feeling settling in her stomach as she crouched down beside the elf, the Protocol-Captain hastening after her on foot.

The elven Jarl bursts out laughing still laying on the ground. He gives a charming smile to Ulrika, “Well I suppose you won the race eh?” He sits up right, looking himself over. “Nothing appears to be broken or in pain. Well, nothing is hurting now at least.” He starts to pull himself up.

The Queen stared at the Jarl, relief and anger warring inside her, “And what have you got to laugh about, Jarl Bjørn?” she demanded, “Sit yourself down! Captain Sylte, call a pickup! And someone to take a look at him!”

Ulrika need not have bothered, as the Protocol-Captain was already chattering into her radio in Cryrian.

Jørgen was taken back, and a little bit intimidated by the Queen. “I don’t think that would be necessary, I assure you that I’m fine.” He gives a forced reassuring smile. He tries to stand up again to prove that he was fine but a firm hand forces him back down. The young Jarl looks up and turns his head behind him to see a very upset looking Yuri.

“Yuri I’m fi-” He was cut off by the bodyguard giving a harsh grunt. He kept his hand on his shoulder, peering over him. Yuri kneed down beside the Jarl, checking him over. “Yuri nothing is broken. I promise you.” The bodyguard looked unconvinced, giving him a harsh look. Padding him down to see if he could get a pain expression from the Jarl. Despite giving him a check over, he looked unconvinced and refused to let Jørgen get back up.

Ulrika kicked off her skis and sat down in the snow beside him with a grimace. The audible sounds of a distant snowmobile soon became apparent. The Queen sighed. For all the initial reaction, she certainly knew there could be no joy in getting sent home after a little tumble. Even the Jarl was looking smothered now. She offered Jørgen an apologetic smile and clapped him on the shoulder, “We’ll get something to drink and try again, yeah?”

He gave a more genuine warm look, “Absolutely. I could use a nice warm drink.” Clapping his hands together joyfully, “Seriously, I am fine.” He says in a soft, polite tone to the Queen. Yuri let go of him, removing his own skis and prepared himself to lift up the Jarl when the snowmobile arrived.

Jørgen looked at the Ursine. Speaking in Norgsveltian to him in a somewhat pleading tone, to which the bodyguard shook his head in disagreement. The Jarl gave another defeated sigh and prepared himself for further embarrassment in front of Ulrika.

Ulrika suppressed a laugh and shook her head. The snowmobile soon pulled up nearby, driven by one of the household staff. Despite their mask and goggles and air of professionalism, some amusement at the early return was palpable as the Protocol-Captain began loading up their mostly-unused equipment.

The Queen just clicked her tongue and pushed herself back to her feet before offering Jørgen a hand up, “Well, come then Jarl Bjørn, on your feet.”

The Elven jarl gave a sigh of relief, unsure if she actually spoke Norgsveltian or she just understood in another way. He took her hand, being helped pulled up. Much to Yuri’s disagreement as he raised an eyebrow. As the pair walked towards the snowmobiles, he spoke in a quiet and soft tone, so his bodyguard wouldn’t hear him. “Thank you.”

Yuri walked closely behind the pair but still kept a respectful distance from them. His eyes watch carefully to see if the Jarl is in pain as he is walking or would stumble again.

(joint post with Norgs)

Yuri finally stopped stalking Jørgen after watching him safely return to the lodge. The massive Ursine stayed outside of the lodge, getting on his phone and texting a report directly to the head of the NCIS agency in Valkyr. While usually the emotionless bodyguard would send such a report to NCIS without even thinking twice, however this report had the massive bodyguard concerned. The Jarl, while he was completely unharmed and safe after his small fall. He couldn’t help feeling responsible and the fear from his fear. He was supposed to keep him safe, he was his bodyguard for over a decade and a half. More than that, he feared the Norgsveltian king’s reaction to it. The report has been sent, all that is left is to wait for the response.

Only a few seconds later, a reply was sent from his supervisor. Simple line could fill him with dread, “The king has been notified.”

Jørgen was inside the lodge for less than three minutes before he received a call on his phone. He gave a small sigh, giving his apologies to the Cryrian queen before giving a bow and leaving to a private corner of the lodge.

Immediately the young jarl’s ear was blasted with the sound of a king’s worries. “Are you okay?!”

“Yes, yes. I’m fine.” Jørgen reassured him, slightly lowering the volume on his phone after Olav’s shouting.

“Are you certain?” Olav said bit calmer this time, though one still filled with concern and worry. “I can get someone to get it if need be, or send the best doctor I can require.”

The elven jarl gave a small laugh, “Yeah, I am 100% certain. It was only a small trip Olav.”

The king let out a sigh of relief before letting out a small chuckle. “Well, good. Had to check on you, I was in a meeting but it could wait.”

The Jarl raised his eyebrow, having a concerned tone for the old man. “You didn’t leave something important because I had a small slip did you?”

“Not at all.” Olav said with full confidence, not wanting to admit he might have left a relatively important diplomatic meeting with a certain angry prime minister. “Anyways, you need to be careful. It might be just a small trip this time, but next time be more serious.”

Jørgen gave a sigh, “It’s just a trip, you don’t need to worry about me.” He follows up with a small chuckle, “That being said, despite being perfectly fine. Queen Ulrika gave me a bit of a dressing down for being slightly reckless while skiing. Even called for medical attention.” He shakes his head, “I thought it would only be you doing that kind of thing.”

“Good. That way I can trust someone to take care of a reckless man like you!” The king let out a hearty chuckle.

He rolled his eyes, “I am like, barely reckless.” He shakes his head, “I swear, there must be a sign of my head saying I’m made out of paper or something.” He thinks for a moment, “You didn’t speak with the good queen that I was in fact made from paper?” He is only partly joking, partly being concern Olav would actually call the Queen about Jørgen’s visit.

“You’re friends with Esta, boy.” Olav said half joking and half serious. “That puts you high up in the reckless scale by association. I think the Queen would get a heart attack if she knew about your friendship with Esta in the same way I know about it.”

Jørgen smiled warmly, “May she never learns about Esta and I midnight runs to get food or the worse stuff.” He leans back against the wall, making a small joke, “Look on the brightside, at least I’m not being held for ransom by the Cryrian government.”

The king’s mood completely changed as he let out a small grunt. “Never joke about that stuff.” His voice was fully serious and deep. “Understood, boy?”

Jarl gave an apologetic tone, “Sorry, bad joke. I understand.” He gave a small sigh, feeling genuinely bad for his poor taste in humor.

Olav let out a sigh. “I do have to get back to that meeting, but if there is anything. Just call me, okay?” His voice has shifted to his typical fatherly warmth.

“It’s nice speaking with you.” Jørgen returned to his usual warm tone, “Again, I want to assure you, that I am completely safe here in Cryria alright? You can call off the strike team.” He tries to crack one last joke in.

“I know, I know. But you can’t blame an old man for worrying.” Olav let out a chuckle. “I’ll speak with you later, my boy.”

“See you later… Old man.” Jørgen hangs up the phone, returning to his main room of the lodge.

(Written with Cowlass)

July 22, 2022
Sabilaine House

Day had turned to night over Sabilaine House, perhaps far sooner than it ought to have. Heavy clouds had covered the skies however. Strong winds screamed over the Highland peaks and slammed against the walls like some great beast seeking entry.

“It will be a storm tonight,” the Protocol-Captain observed. Ulrika watched through one of the windows that would have once given a clear view of Sankt Inge’s peak. Now it was shrouded behind a gray veil as thick as that which might hang over an early morning Leidenstad, and the glass pane rattled frightfully.

The Queen nodded absently in response to the Captain, and then finally said, “It is not the season for it.”

“Seasons are a mortal construct, Your Grace,” the Protocol-Captain said gravely, “Wind and weather care not for them.”

There was an edge to the woman’s voice, one which Ulrika understood well by now. There would be no further misadventures on the slopes today, nor her planned dinnertime excursion down the mountain to Kurventis. Not while visibility remained poor and the roads grew ever more treacherous. There would have been less cause for concern around such things once, when she had been but one heir ahead of three others, and uninvested by all that the Drifting Throne symbolized. Doubtless it was something of what the Jarl felt, and the Queen could not help but pity her Valkyr counterpart after the unfortunate scene on the ski slopes. There was no joy in being treated as some delicate countenance.

The man had since withdrawn for some private discussion, the details of which she knew little and cared about less. Perhaps even now, there were listeners relaying it all to Mejlgård, where every word could be sliced apart in one of those sunless rooms or else perhaps lost in a sea of half-forgotten transcripts and records in some filing cabinet. There was no happiness in that thought though, not for the Queen. Sabilaine had always stood above the world, and in more naive times seemed proof against all troubles. That creatures such as Evert might lurk in her walls even here made Ulrika’s skin crawl.

Footsteps approached, and Ulrika spoke without turning from the window or the sea of pure white that lay beyond.

“Jarl Bjørn. Welcome back.”

“I deeply apologize for my phone call and the accident on the ski.” He gives a half body bow, he moves to take a seat by the fireplace. He turns to face towards the Cryrian Queen, “I fear my knowledge of skiing as long since rusted from my time in Borea.”

He was slightly uncomfortable, though he refused to show it publicly or in this private setting. Keeping the same accursed smile he was raised to always carry on his person. Being treated as if one is made from a thin glass vase rather than a person always leaves an uneasy taste in his mouth. Where he grew just to accept the attempts on his life or accidents such on the ski slope with a cheerful disposition. He accepted the concept of dying, though he never welcomed it.

When he slipped on skis, he only briefly felt the same fear he always felt swirling around him. To him, the feeling of pain or death felt more like an old friend that he wished he never met than genuine concern of the price paid for it. Jørgen simply copes with his own mortality by jokes, which unfortunately no one seems to enjoy.

“It is I who must apologize, I fear,” Ulrika finally turned from the window with a wan smile, “As the Protocol-Captain tells me, we may be somewhat snowed in for the rest of the day. I had hoped to show you Kurventis, but alas,” the Queen offered a half-shrug, “There is no more quintessential Cryrian experience than this, I think.”

Ulrika took a seat of her own, that same overly large leather armchair to which she had grown attached.

“And I will admit, I have always found an odd comfort in weathering out a storm with a warm fire and pleasant company.”

“And hot chocolate?” the Protocol-Captain briefly chimed in as she set out a pair of steaming mugs. That a bodyguard might interject so often in conversation was perhaps unusual, but Camilla at least knew when it was useful to do so.

“And hot chocolate,” the Queen agreed, “So you may also forgive me for indulging in some nostalgia.”

Jørgen gave a flash of a smile and a warmful nod towards the slightly unusual bodyguard. Which made him think, where in the spirits is Yuri? He of course, out of politeness won’t ask or go looking for him. Instead warmful taking a cup of hot cocoa. “I would never shame someone for consuming chocolate.” He sipped his steaming mug, a little too fast and slightly burned his tongue but he held the pain in and settled the mug on the coffee table in front of him.

“While I can’t relate to weathering a snowstorm by a fireplace. I can relate to enjoying a drink among friendly faces.” He speaks in a joyful, down right cheerful tone despite burning his tongue.

Ulrika nodded, and took a cautious sip herself. “So, Jarl Bjørn,” she said wryly, “May I be the latest in a long line to inquire whether you have wholly recovered from that little tumble of yours?”

“No, I am ashamed to say that I have passed on to the spirit realm and only exist in your head to haunt you for your crimes.” He warmly sips his coco, this time making sure to blow it before he takes his sip.

Just in case the good queen was not in the mood for his sense of humor, he spoke again in a more serious tone. “I am fine, I am completely uninjured besides my wounded ego.” He relaxes deeply into the sofa chair. “I suppose you are only the second in line, I am still waiting on around three others and possibly a call from Akua herself to assure my safely.”

“Ah, my crimes, well, I suppose I should have known that those overdue library fines would come back to haunt me,” Ulrika chuckled, “But it is good that you are well, you may give the Lady Akua my regards.”

The Queen nursed her mug for a moment. “I hope you do not find our concern to be too onerous all the same. Though I’ll admit, I can certainly sympathize if you do. It is too much like…” Ulrika grasped for the Staynish translation, “Hanging a painting so it faces the wall, at times. Still, if you are up to it, I should like to invite you for a hike up to the Hermitage if the weather clears by tomorrow.

“It may be, Jarl Bjørn, that you are more suited to going uphill than down,” the Queen added humorously.

“Possibly, I have been known to fall all the way uphill before.” He said in a dry tone. He gives a nod of understanding to Ulrika, Staynish being a cursed language that in reality, made no damn sense to anyone other than the Aurorans. Funny how Staynish became the method of communication between the two royals.

“We shall have to be very careful then,” Ulrika remarked, “It is a long way up to fall.”

“I am of course up to the hike and I of course am more than willing to put your beauty into artwork.” He gives a warm smile, his words meaning nothing to him of course other than a polite complement to the queen. “When can we start when we return from the hermitage if you like or when we return to the castle if you prefer official dress.” Jørgen is already mapping the strokes on the canvas he needs to do without need of his trusted sketchbook.

“I would be honored, though perhaps it is better that we should wait till we return,” the Queen agreed wryly, “I do not think I will be particularly photogenic after that walk. Till tomorrow then, Jarl Bjørn!”

“Until tomorrow then your highness.” He gave an understanding nod. Then returned to drinking his warm beverage.”

1 Like

July 23, 2022
Mount St. Inge

Queen Ulrika had won a throne. After a few moments of gloved hands scrabbling against rough stone, she at last pulled herself up upon her new perch by the trailside and surveyed all that lay before her, as proudly as though it were the Drifting Court itself.

“There, Jarl Bjørn,” she said with a breathless grin, “I give you our Veiled Valley, Veiled no more!”

Jørgen readjusted his backpack and chimed in, “Another mystery solved by the royal detective agency!”

The Queen had claimed that the view would not be quite so grand as the one from Sabilaine House, the unobstructed vista offered from this side of Cryria’s tallest mountain was difficult to surpass when taken by an unbiased eye. Below them stretched the sprawling expanse of Beslöjadalen, adorned with rolling hills, lush forests, and intersecting rivers flowing from the mountains, guarded from the south by the hulking Lielsta Plateau and from the north by old, lonely Sorgborg Castle, its white stones lost to the distance. And all around, Ulrika knew, some two-dozen smaller vales were still hidden from their eyes, nestled within the ranges and connected by mountain paths

The ghosts of old still lay heavy in these lands. Along the path were runes and petroglyphs which still survived both time and human defacement. Time and again, Ulrika had paused to point these out with a keen eye, and with her words she painted as vivid an image as any of the carefully constructed system of trails, rivers, aqueducts, and settlements that ancient Beslöjadalen had been—a colossal mechanism embraced by the surrounding mountains.

Here lay the beating heart of the Highlands, from where the elves had once built an empire.

They had risen early for this sight - Four in the morning, while the world was still dark, just to drive down the mountainside to Kurventis at first light. There, a Royal Flotilla helicopter had been prepositioned for emergency evacuation purposes. Now it would instead bear them in a far more leisurely fashion to Rosholm Station, in Sankt Inge’s shadow. It was perhaps best a testament to both the Protocol-Captain’s planning and the Kingdom’s comparatively sterile security environment that the two heads of state could conduct the impromptu outing on such short notice at all.

An early start had meant empty trails, and unlike Sabilaine and Kurventis the Hermitage fortunately remained beneath the summer snow line. The clear day offered breathtaking visibility, and while the winds still whipped wickedly against the mountainside, they were well-prepared with warm coats borrowed from Sabilaine House. A quick breakfast at Rosholm Station had awoken them before they set off up the winding paths.

To climb the entirety of Sankt Inge from Rosholm would have been as much as a six-hour task, but to reach the Hermitage required less than half that. Ulrika, for her part, had displayed an almost uncharacteristic enthusiasm for traversing the well-worn trails, with the Protocol-Captain close at hand. By noon, the Hermitage itself was in sight, built of red stone into the mountainside, where the trail widened.

“Oh, don’t give up on me yet, good Jarl,” Ulrika called back from her seat, “We are nearly there!”

Now it was not that the Valkyr was unfit, he was quite strong looking, at least aesthetically. But hiking up a large mountain with an extremely excitable queen while carrying several pounds worth of painting equipment tends to wear one out rather quickly. Even so, he kept a smile at all times, kept engaged in every legend of the Cryrian with keen interest. The trails they walked were old ones, with the harsh winds carrying the whispers of the spirits. A land scarred by violence and conflict; habitation and desolation turned into a natural park, open to all. Well not open to all right now, given it currently had a struggling elven jarl and a gleeful human queen climbing up it. He had cracked a joke earlier as they started the hike, that even the birds needed security clearance before they were allowed to flap their wings.

Yuri stayed within running distance of the two, close enough to quickly arrive incase of an emergency but not so close as to disturb the two. He had a ‘polite’ conversation with his majesty and his direct superior, NCIS director Wergland. Wergland was less than pleased being informed that the Jarl might have been endangered for a brief moment. The director was less concerned about Jarl’s personal health, and more of the optics of him getting hurt when there was a NCIS agent so close by. There has been a rule, an official doctrine after the terrorist attack in Vakrestrender that an NCIS agent will always be within close proximity to the last Bjørn, more so than before as well as a flood of other new rules to follow. Some are more odd than the others.

The Jarl spoke up, in his ever-so cheerful tone despite the heavy weight pressing down on his back. “Aye, we are and will you just look at the view, all those beautiful trees climbing to the sky.” He gave her his usual charming smile. He could feel the present of the spirits, swaying around in the skies and earlier in the forests. Akuanists were always a fickle bunch when it came to parks or nature reserves. It didn’t matter how large or small it was, they treated it all the same. Nature is home to the spirits, home that should be respected, take only what is needed from it and don’t move things if you don’t need to. If a log falls on the path, you walk around it less you risk the wrath of the unseen forces.

“They’ve certainly had the time for it, Jarl Bjørn,” Ulrika remarked, “The Shatlo cleared much for their farms, and we Cryrians cleared more still, but among the remaining woods are those older than the Kingdom itself. Had we come in another age these would be wild lands indeed.”

The Queen paused a moment, then laughed, “Ah, but I should like to think there are still some hidden things in these mountains. They say that snow tigers still venture here on occasion, deeply shy creatures though they are. Perhaps we shall get lucky, eh?”

Ulrika finally hopped back off the rock as Jørgen finally caught back up. “And you, may ask me for help with that whenever you like,” she said cheekily, motioning to the Jarl’s backpack.

“I would like to see a snow tiger in its natural habitat, I have only seen them on the screen and in artworks.” He fixes his backpack again, giving a glance towards the birds as they fly by. Almost mistaking them for puffins for a few moments. “If the lords and ladies of the snowy forest decide to keep hidden away, at least we have their court to greet us.”

He takes off his backpack, gesturing for Yuri to take it. “I would not be so crass to ask a queen to carry my luggage.” Yuri took the backpack, holding it with one hand, though he was unable to actually properly put it on for fear of snapping the straps due his size. After the massive bodyguard took the bag, Jørgen returned to his original spot in their march up the mountain. “There, I will better be able to keep up with your highness.”

“The land here reminds me of hiking the trails in Eyjaria around my family’s estate there. Albeit I have yet to see hawks nesting here,” he reminisced.

“Oh, we’ve hawks aplenty on Älmark. But ah, look, you have our very own gyrfalcons there!” Ulrika pointed to the birds Jørgen had spotted, “We are in the midst of their nesting season now, I think. The mated pairs often settle on the cliffs to lay their eggs and rear their young.”

With the Jarl’s luggage handed off, they set forth again, before coming to pause at a rocky spur surrounded by green pines running down the mountain…

“And here,” the Queen announced, “Is where we camped last time, my sisters and I. Quite a lovely place, aye? Well, not so lovely in winter, I’ll tell you,” she laughed, “The wind chill nearly cut us all to death. I had to go up to the Hermitage to trouble the clerics for more blankets. It is not a long walk from here, but you feel every step when it is cold and dark.”

She gestured to the path again, “Come, we’ll return here to eat, but first you should at least see the place.”

Indeed, the Hermitage was not far now, and it was easy to see how the Queen had spotted it even from distant Sabilaine. For although it was only of a modest size, its red stone clashed with the mountain’s surrounding colors, so fiercely that skilled eyes which knew where to look might be able to sight it from afar. These foreign rocks had been brought up by Sankt Inge himself from the valley below as part of his self-imposed penance, or so the legend went. Today the Hermitage was maintained by the clergy of the Cryrian Church, and though it was open for pilgrims, Ulrika had no desire to disturb them for a second time. This visit, she knew, had been timed to coincide with the clergy’s noontime hour of prayers, giving their group free reign of the grounds.

Jørgen gave a laugh at the queen’s story. “Quite a lovely story.” He kept his smile, as he thought back to his own brothers’ misadventures. “If we go sailing when you visit Vakrestrender, I should bring you over to Skjærbø island. It seems lovely at first, but when nightfall water begins to flood it and the nocturnal birds start making an all so awful howl. My brothers and his majesty Olav tried to host a party on it when I was still in high school during the summer. Of course, I was the designated driver like usual, however the rest of them were on the island. I warned my brother, Øyvind about the island but he said it will be fine. Then night started to fall, the tides raised to sweep away their coolers, tipped over their grills and the birds.” He burst out into laughter, “The birds started to swoop at them and steal what was left of the food that could have been saved.”

It was a bittersweet memory of his family, it pained him to think of just happy times with them. Even when in retrospect the memory seemed almost horrid at the time, with the winged monsters attacking everyone in sight in an attempt to steal their food. Then the memory became a sweet one, a joyful story to tell at parties or in dinners to embarrass his brothers and Olav. Now the memory returned to its original form of a tragedy, his view on it changed despite the story never changing itself, he himself changed. His smile dropped for just a few moments, before he forced it back onto his face. “Ah, why do tragedies become comedies, as if memories were grapes becoming a fine wine.”

“Everything becomes an absurdity, with distance,” Ulrika said, as though reciting something. She offered him a smile, “I should very much like to see this Skjærbø island someday, Jarl Bjørn. Perhaps we shall have words with these birds of yours.”

The soft sounds of chanting became audible as they approached the Hermitage. Somewhere within those walls, the masked clerics had begun the Second Prayer, with all the hopes and dreams it carried rising up to the heavens along with puffs of smoke and incense. All told, there may have been three or four voices coming from the blocky red building. The ledge here looked out over the valley once again, and gave a clear view of the same mountain they had come from - Though neither Sabilaine House nor Kurventis were visible from this angle.

The Queen, however, seemed more interested in the Hermitage wall, and she motioned the Jarl over. “Here come see this,” she said in a hushed voice, pointing at stonework so finely fitted together that the pieces seemed to nearly meld into one. “The good Saint did not use mortar in his construction,” she explained, “Every piece was carefully carved to fit together naturally like… Like a Lego set! Each stone had to be moved up here and chiseled by hand, if you can even imagine the effort - And the effort was the point, of course. The Shatlo, the Vhydaszi, the Talveri, all of these used this style of construction for their religious sites, a sort of prayer and display of dedication in itself.” She paused, and for a moment only the chants from within filled the silence. “Most today will agree that despite the legends, Inge almost certainly had help in his endeavor.”

“Kind of ruins the story, eh?” Ulrika said with a lopsided grin, “But I suppose I always did like that idea. That the old man didn’t just spend his days moldering in solitude up here.” She looked back out at the landscape, “It is far too nice a view to enjoy alone.”

The jarl took a long look at the storied wall, “It reminds me of Miyadaiku construction, no glue, mortar nor screws. Only wooden joints to hold the building’s frame together. It’s an old Akuan style but it has many branches. Using nails was considered to be an offense to the spirits, well any metal in general.” He resists the urge to to feel the Hermitage wall, best not accidentally offend the clergy or the queen. “Nowadays, the old art is only used for shrines. There is a large one in the capital in Vakrestrender, however as much as it pains my Valkyr honor, it pales to the shrines in Aikthudr’zhur or in the ancient ones in East Borea.” He takes in the delight of the queen, the once incredibly imposing woman he met at Sayyed, now completely nerding out about her favorite subject, history.

“Ruins of a story are a story of their own, tale in shreds is still a tale.” It was an old Akuan saying, something he heard when he was quite young. Looking towards the view, “This is a breathtaking view, if you would not mind. I would like to take a sketch of you next to the wall, it would be a tragedy in its own right not to capture the beauty of the land and to capture your smile at the legend we have in front of it.” He said in a respectful tone, keeping his volume low so as not to somehow accidentally interrupt the prayers of the monks.

“Attention to a craft,” Ulrika said softly, with one last look at the stones, “I suppose there can be no greater devotion.” She turned back to the Jarl and beamed, straightening up by the wall and clasping her coat together with one hand.

“I should be honored, Jarl Bjørn.”

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July 26, 2022
Tvillingblom Palace

A gentle breeze rustled through the branches of the Maidenhair tree, and a single leaf drifted down to land on Ulrika’s shoulder. The Queen fought the urge to brush it off, as her eyes remained locked on the burbling fountain, where Ezethla remained frozen in her eternal triumph over a thrashing stone kraken.

Beneath the pavilion a short ways off, Jørgen Bjørn was locked in a very different sort of concentration as he continued about his work, with his easel and truly impressive array of paints and brushes arrayed about him.

It had been three days since the two royals had stood together at Sankt Inge’s Hermitage, and now a train from the Highlands had brought them back here to Tvillingblom Palace, where their brief adventure had begun.

The sun was as splendid as it had been on that first day, bathing the gardens in its rays of gold and glittering across the waters of Lake Lasi. And though the same splendid vistas greeted them on every leg of the journey, there ever seemed to be new things for Ulrika to speak of - And as it happened, a new thing for Jørgen to speak of as well. The Queen had been openly delighted when the Jarl had voiced his intention to resume his craft of old, and quietly flattered when Jørgen announced that he had found a suitable subject here, on their short travels together.

Another wind blew through Tvillingblom’s garden, and the edges of her cloak fluttered in response, briefly swelling like a sea-green wave to match the Queen’s ornate dress. It had been with no small enthusiasm that Ulrika had set about piecing together the outfit from the royal collections in Tvillingblom Palace and Leidenstad Castle, until she at last had displayed an authentic early-Absolute Era regalia at the first sitting. It was a far cry from the far more muted styles of modern Cryria, and far more ostentatious than those the Queen herself had preferred. But the exercise had amused her, and it was a fitting look for something she meant to see hang in Tvillingblom for the ages to come - Her own impish smile besides the many grim and dour faces of her ancestors, and a reminder that, for at least a time, she’d had a friend here.

“Well, Jarl Bjørn?” Ulrika asked from the corner of her mouth, “How does she fare?”

Jørgen was shockingly dressed in something that was not worth thousands of krone, instead wearing simple clothes without jewelry - A pair of jeans, a white t-shirt with an egg-shell white overalls splattered in paint. He was completely focused on his efforts, almost not hearing Ulrika’s voice in his concentration. He had already created an agreeable (to his standards) sketch of the Cryrian queen, planned how each stroke of his brush would be, plotted each paint he would use, the color and style of the cans.

“She is almost ready, just needs a few more final touches before she can be shown to the world.” He held a flat tone, unlike his normally cheerful and joyful voice, and his smile had been replaced with a flat line across his lips. Giving a final, final touch to the painting to fully capture the devilish smirk she held, the colors of the traditional garb with all the details attached to it. The hat she wore took the longest time to detail, with its many golden strains of fur.

The elven man stepped back from his work, looking longingly before giving a smile, a real one that didn’t have to be forced. He turned to look at Ulrika with a gleeful look, speaking in a bright tone of voice, “I might not even have this one burned.” He waved his hand for her to come and see it.

Ulrika carefully tucked the feathered hat under her arm as she approached. “Careful now, Jarl Bjørn. Burn it, and I might have to report you for lèse-majesté!” she called out with a wry grin that betrayed the joke. The Cryrian Queen placed her accouterments on the table behind the Jarl’s workstation, and poured out a waiting kettle of tea - A drink, it seemed, that was nigh-omnipresent in Tvillingblom. One cup she took herself, and a second she offered to the Jarl as she returned to him to examine the painting.

There, she squinted at her painted self for a moment, and then declared, “Well, Jarl Bjørn. I may be biased, but I think that’s a perfectly lovely looking young woman there!” Ulrika turned back to Jørgen with a smile. “You are remarkably good at this, you know?” she said more seriously, “I hope you enjoyed it half as much as I did, and if not… I’ll thank you for indulging me all the same.”

He bowed towards her, “I can only thank you for allowing me to craft your form onto a canvas.” Giving a small smirk himself, “While it would be bashful of me to suggest it, I think Læs guided my hand more than my own efforts. However, it was good to return to my old form.” He thinks for a moment, then gives a small chuckle. “I think this was the first piece I’ve done in at least a decade. Well at least the first one shown to anyone other than the fireplace.”

He relaxed in a nearby chair, “I’m glad my art can bring you a form of joy.” He took the cup she offered. Give a nod of thanks, and take a sip of the tea. “Ah, nothing like a good cup of tea after a good day’s work. I hope you didn’t mind standing there for so long, but I find having a model stay still while painting captures the mood more than any sketch or photo.”

“I am the Queen of Cryria, Jarl Bjørn,” Ulrika chuckled, taking a seat across from him. “Sitting there, standing there, it’s just about all I do.” Her laughter weakly faded away into a moment of bleak silence at the admission, and she quietly took a sip of her tea before waving it off. “Ah, it is no matter. I’m sure any fireplace would have been honored to have this, but I think a good wall might do it more justice!”

He chuckles alongside her, “If you ever want to be busy, you could always borrow my family’s name and title for awhile, I am sure you find yourself swarmed with work and troubles.” He falls quiet alongside her listening to her words. “I would like to thank you again for placing your spirit identity onto canvas. If you deem it worthy to place it on the halls of your esteemed palace or any other of your residences. I thank you in advance, it has been a long time since my work has been placed in a place of such high honor.” He gives a small chuckle, “Just promise me you won’t auction it off, I would hate my work of passion to be sold off to the highest bidder again.” He held a joking tone.

The Queen considered the painting again, then nodded, “Aye, I think I should know a perfect place for this,” she mused to herself, before turning back to Jørgen. “Oh, fear not, Jarl Bjørn,” Ulrika said wryly, “We Cryrians have a long and noble history of hoarding our treasures. Someday, I will have to show you the royal collections at Leidenstad Castle… Ah, but you are due to return home soon, are you not?”

It was perhaps a silly question to ask - The Jarl’s visit and departure had been scheduled well in advance. All the same, the week seemed to have flown by remarkably quickly.

“Indeed, the isles of Vakrestrender and business calls for my attention.” He gave a sympathetic look towards her, “This is the longest time I have ever spent in my time as Jarl away from working.” He gave a small chuckle, “And for that I must thank you for being such a pleasant host.” He held a bright and warm tone, resting his hands behind his back.

“The longest? Is that right?” Ulrika asked, “We need to get you out more, Jarl Bjørn! But truly, the pleasure was mine.” The Queen slapped her hand against the table and stood, “Come, I’ve a gift of my own to give you now.”

As if on cue, the Protocol-Captain materialized to place a long, thin case of lacquered wood on the table, and unlatched it to reveal a pair of finely crafted skis - The very same that had taken Jørgen down on his rather brief and tumultuous trip down the mountain.

“Never let it be said that anyone leaves Tvillingblom empty handed,” Ulrika grinned cheekily, “What can I say? You seemed to enjoy rolling downhill, but perhaps next we meet you’ll manage a gentler descent!”

The elven man gave a hearty laugh, clutching his chest. “Spirits be kind to you, your highness. Let it be said you are not without a good sense of humor.” He warmly took the instruments of his downfall. “I promise to better myself at it.” He gives a grin back at her, giving a wave to his bodyguard. Handing them over to Yuri who gave them a suspect look.

“Oh come on Yuri, who hasn’t fallen once or twice.” He held a joking tone, which the massive Ursine did not enjoy in the slightest. He shrugged, “Thank you for the gift, though I suspect some of my friends and staff may be concerned about my newly discovered hobby.” He looked back at the queen. He was mainly speaking about his own king, Olav. The old human was going to grow older by ten years at the elf’s new hobby. He held an extremely cheeky grin.

“Ah, well,” Ulrika chuckled, “If you do fall, be sure to get up again. Now, I think we are well past lunchtime, and I’ll not see you depart anything less than well-fed!”

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