“Well, Your Majesty?” Count Wallenberg asked, tapping his silver cane on the ground. “What will it be? Are you going to come quietly, or are my men going to have to get quite uncivilised?”
A storm raged in Sara's heart, which didn't even have to do with the revelation that Oleg was the tsar of Baikalia; in hindsight, she could've guessed that. The knowledge that the overly fancy man with his oddly white hair was responsible for her mother's death and the recent attack on Sylene that had almost desecrated Zemyna's temple was what set her ablaze. “You killed my mother, syknaskyle!” she shouted, running towards him. “I will rip-”
“Be quiet, girl,” Wallenberg snapped, stepping towards his great, white horse. “If you come any closer, I will simply ride off and give my men the order to attack.”
Sara stopped reluctantly, trying to kill the count with her eyes instead.
Wallenberg twirled his silver cane around. “Well, Your Majesty?”
Oleg glowered at him. “What will you do if I surrender? Hold Baikalia hostage using me? Kill me and engineer a succession crisis? Sell me to whichever country bids the most?”
Wallenberg smiled. “All I can tell you at the moment is that you won't be harmed. We shall discuss the rest drinking wine together in a more appropriate setting rather than shouting at each other in some pagan peasant's mudfields.”
“No,” Oleg said, “we shan't. I don't know who you are or what you're a count of, but let me tell you who I am. I am Oleg Grigorovitch Ramutsov. My grandfather single-handedly dragged Baikalia out of its civil war and destroyed the occupying Polgarian armies when he was but a teenager. My father kept the peace when unrest in the church threatened to tear the empire apart. I attacked the Rumiyan Sultanate itself and wrested control of our coasts from them. Do you really think I would surrender to you?”
“You would if you were wise.”
“Wise? Ha! I will not surrender myself to let you do with Baikalia what you wish. I will die like a Ramutsov. But, should I survive, you will face the wrath of the tsar!”
“So uncivilised,” Wallenberg said, mounting his horse. “This is your last warning. Come with me, or my men will kill-”
“They'll kill no-one,” Sara said. “We will defend ourse-”
“Be quiet when your betters are talking!” Wallenberg snapped.
Oleg laughed. “Betters? You? In the few hours since I've met this girl, she has demonstrated more courage and compassion than I would wager your entire house has displayed since the Dark Age!”
“Good,” Wallenberg said, coldly, “she'll need that courage, if that's your choice.”
“In that case, I'll try to have you captured alive, but I can't make any guarantees.”
“Then I will be proud to die fighting alongside worthy warriors!”
Wallenberg scoffed. “Three peasants; one of them an old man, one a young boy, and the third a girl. If these pass for warriors in Baikalia, I don't expect your empire to survive you very long.”
Sara's father spoke for the first time. “Please, sir. Leave my children out of this. I-”
“Be quiet. Good day, my men attack in a few minutes.”
“Yeah,” Sara shouted after him as he rode away, over the hill, “I'll bet it'll be just your men attacking, kiaule! Don't want to risk getting blood on your own fancy coat, do you?! And if-”
Her father put a hand on her shoulder. “Sara. Nothing we can do about him. We'd better get out of here, if we still can.”
“Mr. Zukas,” Oleg said, “do you have any weapons at your farm?”
“Only dad's old spear from the battle of Vinda, Your Majesty,” Sara said.
“Do not call me 'Your Majesty',” Oleg said, as they ran back to the farmhouse. “'Oleg' will do.”
“Uh, wwwell, it feels very weird to address the tsar of Baikalia by his first name.” Of course, it felt very weird to be talking to the tsar of Baikalia in the first place.
“Then you will have to get used to it.”
Sara and Karolis ran into the stables, quickly saddling and leading the exhausted horses out once more. They sniffed and neighed angrily. “Don't be like that,” Sara said, “I'm tired too, but we'll have to pull through a little longer.”
“Sara,” Karolis asked, “what in the name of all the stars is going on?”
“No time to explain,” Sara said, starting to feel guilt gnawing at her for raising this much trouble by helping Oleg as she realised she'd put them all, not just herself, in danger. If her father or brother died because of her sticking her nose in other people's business...
They led the horses outside just as almost a dozen raiders rode over the hill. Sara's father, armed with his old spear, mounted one of the horses and told Karolis to sit behind him. Sara mounted the other one, grabbing a loose plank from the stable wall as a makeshift weapon and sharing the horse with Oleg. “You ride, and I'll beat their heads in, Your Ma- er, Oleg!”
“Right!” Gunshots echoed loudly through the small valley and splinters rained from Sara's plank as one of them tore through the old wood. They tried to flee at first, but the exhausted and overloaded horse wasn't moving nearly as fast as the raiders, who caught up quickly. They hadn't gone far when Oleg suddenly turned the horse around sharply, letting Sara surprise a raider with a swing of her plank that knocked him straight off his horse and into the dirt.
Another raider just about collided with them, briefly crushing Sara's leg between the two horses as he wildly stabbed his blade at the beast instead of its riders, cutting a deep red wound into its shoulder. The horse neighed, its eyes rolling in panic and pain, and reared up, throwing Sara and Oleg off as it limped away, leaving a trail of blood.
Sara dived between a forest of horse legs as the raider tried to trample her, a fire ablaze in her mind, and grabbed the backsword of the raider she'd knocked down earlier, swinging it at the first human leg she saw. There was a yell of pain as she began to attack the raider who'd taken them down and was currently trying to kill Oleg. She wielded the blade above her with both hands, bracing against the powerful impacts of the raider's sword. “You-” she growled, crossing blades with the man again and again, “hurt – my – hor- Aargh!”
The swords slid over each other's length with a metal scrape, the raider's blade finding Sara's hilt, barely bumping over the guard, and cleft into Sara's knuckles. She gritted her teeth, swinging the blade again with only her right hand to the raider's surprise, and hit him in the arm, which made him drop his blade. The raider made his horse dash forward, and Sara only barely avoided getting trampled by the beast, but was still knocked down by its great impact.
The raider fell off his horse, stone dead, and landed on the ground next to Sara as a dozen gunshots sounded. Another raider shouted a command, and the forest of horse legs around her galloped away. Now Sara could see why they fled: a larger group of riders had come over the hill, pursuing them. She stood up, her bones creaking and her hand bleeding, but still alive, and quickly thanked Zemyna for her survival. Her father and Karolis were unharmed, safe on their horse, and decided to follow Sara's wounded horse after making sure she was alright.
A bearded horseman trailed behind the others and stopped before Oleg, who was only a little worse for wear. “Thank heavens you're alright, Your Majesty, we've searched for you all day.”
The Baikalian stood up straight to his great length, an impassive, statuesque look on his face. “The tsar thanks you for your aid. He is unharmed. Where is Admiral Fyodorovitch?”
“I saw his carriage on the road behind this hill, Your Majesty.”
“Thank you. Continue your pursuit.”
As the rider left, Oleg visibly relaxed and immediately looked far more human. He walked towards Sara, who was wrapping a piece of cloth around her hand. “And for the second time this day, you fight for me. You truly are a fierce warrior.”
“Stop saying that, Oleg,” Sara said, still feeling ashamed to address the tsar like that.
Oleg smiled. “I will stop.”
“Come along,” he said, “I want to introduce you to some friends of mine.”
“Friends of yours?” Sara stiffened. “I don't know if that's such a good idea...”
Oleg grinned. “Do not worry; they are not the kind of people you might think. I am sure they'll like you.”
“Alright...” Sara said, starting to feel quite nervous. She tried to take her mind off the prospect of appearing before some kind of nobles. “Oleg? Why were you walking alone on the road? You being a tsar and all.”
Oleg shrugged. “I wanted to see if the people here were any different than in Baikalia. I'm travelling to learn from other nations, and while I'm just passing through Pagania, I still wanted to have a look around. And how right I was! I've already seen things no-one in Baikalia has!”
Sara raised her eyebrows. “You mean wheelbarrows.”
Oleg clapped his hands enthusiastically. “Yes, yes! What a remarkable invention! But there is also you. No woman in Baikalia would be like you.”
Sara rolled her eyes. “Really now?”
Oleg nodded. “In Baikalia, women do not fight, nor are they supposed to even speak to men, other than their husbands and fathers. According to our customs – well, our church, really - women are weak, stupid, childlike, and wicked, and should be protected from themselves. A woman's job is to have a lot of children and do whatever her father or husband commands her to. If possible, she shouldn't even be allowed to leave her home.”
Oleg nodded. “It's something I have been trying to change. My mother, you see, grew up in the household of a Fontouran trader. I knew already from her that matters are very different in the South, and probably rightly so. Still, to be rescued by a woman a mere day past our own borders was... unexpected.”
Sara sniffed. “Well, if things are that different in Baikalia, you should prepare for a lot of surprises.”
“Things need to modernise, but-”
“And this church,” Sara said, “do you think its teachings are correct?”
Oleg shrugged. “Certainly not all of them. But yes, I am a believer.”
“What does that mean?” Sara asked. “Do you or don't you follow your god?”
“Well, does your own religion have no aspects you disagree with, or that you think should change?”
Sara frowned. “Of course not, the gods are good and wise, and it's not my place to question them.”
“You don't disagree with anything they teach?”
“Nothing,” Sara said. “I am but a mortal; I couldn't disagree with the gods.”
Oleg shrugged. “Perhaps.”
They walked in silence for a little while before Sara began to wonder about something else. “Why didn't you say who you were? We could probably have arranged for the king to provide some sort of escort for you.”
Oleg grinned. “And then I'd have to visit every single noble on the way south. And every one of them would treat me like the tsar, and I would have to act like him.”
“Buuuut... You are the tsar.”
“Yes, but that doesn't mean I want to have to act like it every day of my life. If people know you're the tsar, they make you go through all kinds of ceremonies, and you always have to be formal and serious. It's no fun, and it'd also mean I'd never see any commoners. And it's the commoners who build the ships, fight the wars, and construct the cities, isn't it? I can't learn much if I'm cooped up with nobles all the time.”
“I suppose that makes sense. I'd never thought of kings and stuff getting bored with everyone treating them like, wwwell, a king.”
Oleg chuckled. “It's dreary.”
Sara smiled. “It can't be that bad. What about the cake?”
“You get a lot less cake than you might expect when you're tsar.”
Sara smiled as she saw her father slowly ride towards them. “Sara, Your Majesty, are you alright?”
“Ah, mr. Zukas, another brave comrade in arms! How is your horse?”
Sara's father kept his eyes off the tsar nervously. “My son's taking care of her, Your Majesty. We think she will recover.”
“I believe my men shot one of the raiders, so why don't you keep his horse as a token of my gratitude?”
Sara's father almost fell off his horse. “Oh, that's a great idea, sir!” Sara rolled her eyes, seeing the look on her father's face; the look usually associated with a lot of money. “Oh, I'm sorry, I should dismount and let you ride, sir!”
Oleg chuckled. “Not at all, not at all. Believe me, I have ridden enough for today.”
Her father dismounted anyway, leading the tired horse on by hand. They reached the edge of their fields, near the place where Sara had been ploughing that morning. On the road ahead, at the forest's edge, a large, brown carriage with six horses stood still. As Oleg approached, its ornate door opened and a girl in a magnificent, flowing, white dress stepped out.
Sara couldn't help feeling a distinct pang of jealousy, despite Zemyna's teachings, as she compared the brilliant, silky white gown with her own brown, sowed-together patchwork of a leather outfit. To make things worse, it clung to the girl's figure, showing off the curve of her full hips, where Sara's eyes lingered with annoyance as her hand almost automatically shot to her belt, feeling her own bony hips – or rather the lack of them. The dress was topped with a massive, fluffy, white fur collar, which in turn framed a head of long, curly, black hair. In between, it was easy to miss the triangular face of a young woman. Between her somewhat pointy face, her curved eyebrows, and asymmetric smirk, she had a sly look about her that Sara found very unpleasant.
Sara had never seen a garment so immaculately white, and it quickly became obvious to her the girl had never worked a day in her life to get it dirty. Her pale skin and thin, muscle-less body were further evidence. Sara reminded herself Zemyna had made every human unique and perfect in their own role, and that she should feel neither inferior nor superior to this girl, who was just as perfect for her role as Sara was for hers... but she couldn't help it. She just found something about the girl despicable.
It was only then that she realised the girl was scrutinising her the same way. She briefly made eye contact and found her own dislike mirrored in large, green eyes in a pointy, sly face. “Oleg!” the girl said. “We thought we'd lost you.”
Oleg made a faux apologetic bow. “I decided to explore this land.”
The girl gave an asymmetric smirk, her full lips pulling to the left side only. “Aww, you should've told me, I would've loved to come. But at least, I see you've brought the local wildlife for me to study.” She suddenly darted forward, grabbing Sara by the shoulders and looking at her face from as close as she could get, short as she was, her eyes huge and wide. “It seems to be an old serf and his walking scarecrow!”
“Scarecrow?!” Sara snapped, as she grabbed the girl's hands, finding them delicate and white, Sara's own calloused hands probably the roughest things she'd ever touched.
“And it talks too!” she said, giggling. “The South really is a place full of wondrous technology! Can it do any tricks?”
“I'll show you a trick,” Sara growled, barely restraining herself from hitting Cristina.
“Now, now, Cristina,” Oleg said, stifling his laughter, “do not be so rude to my new friend. I wouldn't have been here without her, you know.”
“My apologies,” Cristina said, offering her hand to Sara with that stupid, asymmetric smirk on her face. Sara took the pale, cold hand, squeezing it quite a bit harder than necessary, “just a joke. I'm Cristina Fontana, the tsar's old friend and scientific advisor.”
Sara forced her mouth into a smile, even as her frown stayed in place. “Sara Zukaite.”
“Nice to meet you, Sara Zukaite.” The girl turned her back on Sara and walked back to the carriage, her hips swinging in a way Sara was completely certain was intentional and meant to add insult to insult. She was beginning to doubt whether Zemyna could really have created such an unspeakably vile person, or if Cristina had perhaps stepped out of a bewitched dung heap fully formed one black day. The girl shook her head, her curls gleaming elegantly in the light as they shifted their position, and Sara blew a strand of her own tangled, blonde hair out of her face with annoyance.
Only then did she realise a second person had stepped out of the carriage; a fairly young man in clothes with overly bright colours that clashed unpleasantly with each other. His hair, oddly, was grey despite his age, and very long and curly. It seemed to be growing out of his scalp at a slight angle too. He gave Sara a curt nod. “Admiral Fyodorovitch. Did you say you wouldn't be here without this girl, Oleg?”
“Indeed not! I was attacked by bandits this morning, and she came to my aid,” Oleg said, quickly explaining the day's events to his friends. Cristina's curved eyebrows rose in an expression Sara would like to think was both jealous and impressed. Fyodorovitch, on the other hand, frowned more and more. He scratched his head. Sara could almost swear his entire haircut moved as he did so. Maybe Baikalian hair worked differently? Oleg's seemed normal enough, but maybe she just hadn't noticed yet. “This could be very bad news, Oleg. If this Wallenberg is hunting for you, you could be in great danger.”
“Nonsense,” Oleg said.
“Oleg, all of Baikalia would be in great danger if you were captured or killed.”
“Um, I agree with the admiral,” Sara said, feeling a blush come to her cheeks to be intruding in a conversation between such important people. “Count Wallenberg could very well try again, if your men don't catch him.”
The admiral nodded, and once again Sara was almost sure his whole haircut moved. “The girl is right, Oleg. Maybe we should go back and take an escort with us? Baikalia is only a day away.”
“No,” Oleg said. “There are two hundred of us, and Wallenberg only has a dozen men or so.”
“Two hundred?” Sara asked. “Where are they?”
Cristina rolled her eyes. “We don't all travel in a single column, we're not an army. We'll see everyone again in Polwa.”
“Well, then they're not going to do you much good, are they?”
“It will be fine,” Oleg said. “Enough travel with us to keep me safe. Besides, now I have you to protect me as well.”
It took Sara a second to realise whom he was talking about. “Wait, me?!”
“Ah, sorry, I forgot to ask you. Sara, would you like to travel south with us?”
“Oleg,” Admiral Fyodorovitch said with surprising urgency, “don't you think you're being rash? You've known this girl less than a day.”
“Ah, but she has already demonstrated more valour and loyalty than a lot of my own subjects!”
“Yeah,” Cristina said, “but it's still only one day. She could be a spy, for all you know.”
“She is not,” Oleg said, “and I may know her only one day, but that's all the more reason for her to join us. It will allow me more time to befriend her.”
“This is the tsar's will,” Oleg said calmly.
“Of course, Oleg,” Fyodorovitch said.
Oleg turned back to Sara, who'd been frozen in place. “Well? Would you like to join us?”
“Wwwell, um, this is my home... I don't think I-”
“Sorry, sirs, madam,” Sara's father interrupted her. “Would you mind if I had a quick chat with my daughter?”
“Of course not,” Oleg said.
Her father led her a small distance away from the Baikalians. “Were you going to say no?”
“Wwwell, yes,” Sara said. “You know I can't go with him, dad.”
“And why not?”
“Because I belong here. You need me on the farm.”
“We can do without you, Sara. Don't worry about us. That horse is going to sell for a lot of money, you know. That should help.”
Sara sighed. “I still belong here.”
He placed his hands on her shoulders. “Sara, you've just been given a huge opportunity. That's the tsar of Baikalia, and he likes you. Becoming his friend, or more, could turn out very well for you. He might make you a noblewoman, or rich at the very least. And if he doesn't do it, plenty of people would be willing to pay handsomely to have the ear of the tsar through you.”
Sara rolled her eyes. “You think about money far too much, dad.”
“I just want you to have a good life, Sara. This could be your chance to escape a life of backbreaking work and poverty. If my little girl becomes a rich, pampered noble lady, that would fulfil all my dreams.”
Sara had to suppress a shudder at the thought of becoming like Cristina. “Dad... I'm a farmer. Zemyna creates us all to play a certain role in the world. We can't change who we are. And that's alright, being a farmer is a good life.”
Her father smiled wistfully. “You sound just like your mother. She too was far too fond of Zemyna's teachings. Don't forget there are four other gods looking over us, Sara. Dievas helps those who help themselves. Perkunas teaches us we can become whatever we want to. We're not bound to the role we're born in.”
Sara sniffed. “You can't build a house on stars and air. Give me the solid support of the Earth any day.”
He sighed. “Some day, you'll learn that too much faith in Zemyna can be stifling. It's your life, not a house. Change brings opportunities, not just dangers.”
“Sara, I want you to go with the tsar.”
Sara's breathing quickened as she pictured the idea of leaving everything she knew behind. “But dad... I don't want to go. This is my home, there's nothing for me in the south, nor in Baikalia... I've got everything I want right here, in Pagania: home, the farm, you...”
He gave her a hug, his bald head only reaching up to her nose. “I know, Sara. Leaving home is never easy, and I'll miss you too. When I was summoned to fight the Rumiyans, I didn't want to go either. In fact, I was horrified, I begged my father to please help me get out of my duty somehow.”
“Yes. But I had no choice; it was my duty, and so I went. And I would never have met your mother if I'd backed out.”
“You might've died just as easily,” Sara muttered.
“I know. But think about what you've been given. A chance to become a friend of a tsar, maybe even his wi-”
Sara pulled her nose up. “I'm not going to court him, dad. I'm not interested.”
“Then just be his friend, alright? This is not a chance many get. I want you to take it.”
Sara sighed, staring at the precious earth of their farm that she'd soon have to leave behind, probably forever. “Then I will do as you ask...”
Her father gave her an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “Listen, Sara, I'm just looking out for your own best interests. I really want you to give this a try. But if you really don't want to keep going, you don't have to follow him to the ends of the Earth. That girl said they were going to Polwa. Why don't you go that far at least?”
Sara drew a sharp breath, an idea coming to her that dispelled her fear. “Do you think the tsar will meet King Tiberius?”
“I don't know, but if he's not planning to, you could convince him.”
“If Oleg told the king about Wallenberg's raiders,” Sara said, “I bet he would do something about them!”
“Precisely! The king probably doesn't even know about them in the first place. We're so far from Polwa here.”
Sara felt a fire rising through her veins. “Then I'll make sure he finds out! I'll make sure he finds out all they did, and makes them face justice! That, at least, is a worthy reason to leave.”
Her father smiled. “That's my girl.”
The fire in her veins quickly made space for ice as she realised she'd actually have to do this, actually have to say goodbye to everything soon. “I-I'm just not sure, if-”
“Sara, give it a try. Please. You will regret it eventually if you don't grasp this chance, believe me. I want you to promise me you won't return unless the tsar tells you to or you really think it's the right choice.”
Sara nodded tremulously. Cold sweat was pouring down her back and her scalp tingled as her hair tried to stand on end, but her father was so sure of this, looking at her so expectantly. She didn't dare tell him how terrified she was, didn't want to let him down. She took a deep breath. “I promise. I'll make you proud, dad, and I'll make sure Count Wallenberg pays for what he did to mum...”