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!”