NINE NATIONS

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VAASA FREEHOLDS
Kinjal Katya, The Ice Cat

          The snow fell gently, with large flakes that swirled interminably before floating softly to the frozen ground.  The White City of Obgorod was fulfilling its name, with the first major snowfall of the winter blanketing the streets and buildings.  The black waves of the Gremyaka Voda, the Water with the Voice that Roars, were tipped with white, and crashed relentlessly into the Obgorod seawall.  The few ships still left at port danced frenetically atop the surf, bobbing like children’s toys in a washtub.  Katya smirked, thinking of the countless conversations going on in taverns at the moment, balancing another day’s loading of cargo bound for points south with the very real possibility of the ships finding their way to the bottom before morning.  Shielding her white eyes against the glare of the snow, Katya could make out a dozen sails disappearing to the east, braving the long run around the Golyi Peninsula on their way to Sylacea or the Randmeer Sea.  None of them would be heading north and then west across the Cold Waters to Llandaff; Ostrik Bay and the sea to the north would be encased in ice in another week.

            Katya nickered to her white mare Konka and nudged her sides with her knees.  It was getting dark, and she wanted to find lodging before the sun had completely set.  She rode down into the city, still busy despite the falling snow and the growing cold.  The people of the Vaasa Freeholds were used to cold.  Obgorod at least had some summer, in contrast to the eternal winter of Iakul and the Beda Wastes, north of the cruel Morogor Mountains.  The Vaasa were hardy stock, who took pleasure in strong drink, good company, and in their hard-earned and jealously guarded independence from the voracious Empire to their south.  Katya was a Kinjal, one of the warriors of the Freeholds charged with safeguarding that independence.  Her long black hair was bound in many dreadlocks in the style of the male Kinjals, although she did not have the long braided moustaches that were a source of much pride to her comrades.  The snarling black bear tattooed around her left eye was her badge of office, and marked her as a freerider, with no allegiance to any Lord or Freehold.

            Katya moved through the snowy streets of Obgorod in the deepening twilight, past squat stone buildings with shuttered windows and street vendors loading their wares into mule-drawn wagons.  The snow seemed to cast a spell of silence on all things, muting the creaking wagon wheels, and discouraging shouts from children hurrying home.  The only noise that paid no heed to this effect was the constant thrum of the Gremyaka Voda surf against the seawall.  Not unknown in this largest of the freeholds, Katya nodded greetings to the occasional passerby, though youngsters tended to be wary of her fearsome appearance.  Eventually, she guided Konka down a familiar rutted lane at the city’s southern edge, coming to a halt next to a large brick house from which a warm glow emanated, carrying with it the cloying scent of whale oil.  Katya dismounted and led Konka to the adjacent stable, yielding her to the care of an open-mouthed stable boy.  Giving the young man a wink, the Kinjal made her way through the wooden door that connected the stable to the main house.  Katya doffed her white furs in the sudden warmth, and handed them to a young female servant who had emerged from the parlor.  The girl resembled the stable boy enough that Katya took them to be brother and sister, and she motioned for the slender child to come nearer.  She did so hesitantly, until Katya produced a small copper coin from within her black chain hauberk.  As the girl took the coin, Katya stripped off the mail, folded it, and tucked it within the furs already in the child’s arms. 

            “I’ll need all of that again when I leave, little one,” whispered Katya, and the girl nodded and disappeared.  Katya knew that armor as finely wrought as hers could at times be mislaid for later sale, but she knew this house, and felt confident that her horse and her mail would be well cared for.  Garbed now in a belted white woolen caftan that extended past the tops of her high riding boots and padded linen breeches tucked into those boots, she wore none of the bangles or bracelets common to Vaasa women, and cared little for silken underthings.  Katya’s single concession to vanity was her brilliantly crimson brocade vest, embroidered with golden thread in the image of a woman slaying a bear on the back.  She retained her long curved sword at her hip.  Katya had as many enemies as friends across the Freeholds, and one never knew who would be at dinner in this house.

            Now the smells of cooking food wafted from the kitchen through the parlor to Katya’s nose.  She was hungry.  Squeezing the moisture from her dreadlocks, she crossed the threshold from the side hall into the parlor.  This was the home of an ancient family, of good name, clinging to the vestiges of past glories and wealth.  The tapestries on the walls were a bit threadbare, and the bronze lamp sconces were greening with age.  There were several horsehair couches arranged about the room, and in these reclined three men, with their feet up on the silver-leafed wooden tables, two pairs in boots similar to hers and one in slippers.  All were smoking trubkas, the long carved whalebone pipes common in Vaasa.  In their other hands were bronze goblets that Katya guessed contained tokaji, the sweet yellow wine of the Blackwater valley.  The first to notice her entry was the slippered man, the owner of this house.  A slim and somewhat stooped man with thin graying hair and a wispy beard, he stood as soon as he saw her, and a broad smile came across his lined face.  Setting down his goblet and pipe, her uncle crossed the room to greet her. 

            “Kitten!” Sacha Grigory shouted as they broke their embrace.  She winced a little at the old endearment.  “It has been too long indeed since your last visit!  I trust you know your fellow Kinjals?”  With that, her attention was turned from her late father’s brother to the two other men in the room, who had also risen from their seats.  Both were Kinjals like herself, with the snarling bear facial tattoos echoing her own.  One she knew, one she did not.  She nodded glacially to Yerik, the ugly and wiry man she had met several times on the road, and had even fought beside when raiders had threatened the freehold at Bor Durbina.  They did not like one another, but were not enemies, and could comfortably share her uncle’s hospitality.  He grunted a response and returned to his seat and his tokaj and tobacco.  The other man she had never laid eyes on before.  He was tall and broad, and almost handsome, with crystal-blue eyes and blond hair that was almost white, and moustaches that reached well past his chin.  He was a Kinjal, a Freerider, he bore the mark, but his clothes were those of a wealthy man, a sumptuously dyed and embroidered blouse under a deep blue vest, and silvery silken breeches.  On his fingers he wore six rings of silver and gold, and another ring hung from his right ear.  When she tried to see if his left ear was also so adorned, she noticed that his dreadlocks only partially concealed that there was no left ear at all.

            “Katya,” he boomed, a little too loudly, and inclined his head.  “You are well known among us, of course.  How many breasted Kinjals can we boast, unless we count Fat Ustin?”  He laughed then, and Katya could not tell if he was mocking her or not.  “I am Kinjal Fyodor, and I am sure you are as pleased to make my acquaintance as I am yours.”  He chuckled again at his own joke, and Katya’s uncle joined in.  A glance at the couch revealed a look of disgust on Yerik’s face, and Katya had to agree with the sour little man.  She found Fyodor repulsive.

            She was rescued from further attempts at society as a skinny, ugly young girl came into the parlor to announce that dinner was ready.  Fyodor let out a yelp of delight and drained his goblet, then seized Sacha by the arm and led him forcefully through the heavy curtains into the dining room.  Yerik caught Katya’s eye and nearly smiled.  He moved closer to her, and opened his mouth as if to speak.  Then he simply shook his head and indicated the curtains as an invitation for her to precede him.  She inclined her head slightly by way of thanks, and parted the curtains.          

            The room was small, dominated by a large wooden table flanked by two long, low benches.  An open fireplace blazed at the far end of the chamber, and another set of curtains led to the kitchen.  The table was piled high with ceramic plates and dishes, all giving off an enticing aroma.  Sacha, as master of the house, sat first, then Katya sat beside him, and the others followed suit on the opposite bench.  All four briefly closed their eyes in silent thanksgiving to the eldest and chief Vaasa deity, which Sacha broke with a murmured “Perun will provide”.  Then the covers of the dishes came off to reveal cabbage rolls, baked scrod, boiled lamb, and poached pastries.  The thin serving girl hovered about the table, filling goblets with tokaji and replacing serving platters when emptied.  Katya’s uncle ate sparingly, and while the others were still at it, he turned his attention to his niece while lighting his trubka.

            “I have missed you, Kitten,” he exhaled with a wreath of smoke.  “You have been too long from my table.”  Katya returned his kind gaze while she deliberately chewed and swallowed. 

            “I have been afield,” she replied simply.  “You know the way of it.”  Sacha nodded.

            “You are the last, you know,” he told her for the hundredth time.  “The last Grigory.  Strictly speaking, I suppose I am the last, since Kinjals leave family names behind with their freehold allegiances.”  There was a hint of old bitterness and hurt in his voice, but Katya refused to be baited into an argument she considered long since settled, so she let the comment sit unanswered.  Undeterred by her sullen silence, he pressed on.

            “Of course, simply because my only brother’s daughter chose to forsake not only her family, but her very female nature, does not mean that my obligations as head of our house are any less.”  Katya set her fork down and raised her black eyes to meet her uncle’s narrow grey ones.  She should not have come here, she realized.  The way the old man was looking at her was unsettling, and she had the feeling that something very unpleasant was about to happen.

            “That is why I have arranged for you to marry,” he uncle said simply.