Katsa heard Po approach before she saw him, his steps steady and sure. She did not turn around when he drew up behind her, remaining crouched down and focused on stoking the fire before her. They might not rest long in this cave they had come across, but any bit of warmth to leach away the cold would help before they continued their trek.
She was graced with many boons, but not a single one of those advantages prepared her for Po sticking his cold hands down the back of her shirt.
She yelped in surprise. “Are you a child?” she complained.
Laughing, Po leaned down to kiss her cheek and hugged her close. “It’s so cold out, let’s keep warm together,” he suggested wickedly.
She pushed him off, scowling. “Behave yourself,” she told him primly. “We’re in public, it’s not decent.” Katsa had very firm ideas around what was meant for the privacy of their rooms, and she included all physical and emotional displays of affection on that list.
“Nif is scouting ahead,” Po said, “So it’s not like anyone will see.”
“We are here on official business,” Katsa said. “No distractions until we’re done.”
“Am I very distracting?” Po laughed.
“Yes,” Katsa grumped. “Now come down and warm yourself, your hands are too cold.”
Po obeyed, crouching down next to her and holding his hands out. “Nif said she just needed a few minutes to determine the next leg of our trek, but I wonder if it might not be better to wait out the rain.”
Rain was perhaps not the best word for the weather — it was a cross between freezing showers and icy sleet, a persistent annoyance that slowly worked its way past otherwise well-made oilcloth cloaks to soak through your clothes underneath, until even Katsa’s hands and feet were numb with cold. The biting wind did not help, with every gust seeming to cut through to the bone.
“I don’t think the rain will stop,” Katsa predicted, looking out the mouth of the cave. “And we can’t stay here too long — the others are waiting for us.”
The “others” were the other members of the Council, on both sides of the mountain. There were revolutionaries in Estill desperately in need of reinforcements as well as the army on standby in Pikkia. It was up to her, Po and Nif, their Pikkian companion, to find the secret legendary route through the mountains to connect the two before it was too late.
Time was rather of the essence.
“Nif tells me that when she isn’t navigating Pikkian mountains, she works as a guide.”
“That makes sense,” Katsa said, “she knows these mountains very well. I can see why people would pay her for it.”
“Not a mountain guide,” Po corrected. “She guides visitors to her city — showing them what to see, where to eat. She and her family are thinking of selling printed booklets with instructions and recommendations for travelers.”
“Our expedition today would certainly be more efficient if we had better maps and a book,” Katsa offered. “Something to record the route we take today, even.”
Po shook his head. “Maps would be useful, maybe, but secret passages through the mountains are more a matter of espionage and politics. Her book would instead be full of advice if we were to visit her city. A booklet that sets out the nicer inns to stay in, the sights to see, taverns they would recommend for a bite to eat or ones to avoid for the sake of your health, a description of local festivals, and customs, and maybe even helpful phrases for those who don’t know Pikkian.” Po nudged her with his shoulder. “Not everyone travels as a matter of international politics. Some people still travel for fun.”
Fun. There’s a word she hadn’t contemplated in a while. Lately, it felt like she did nothing but work — fighting in Estill, hiking through Pikkian mountains, foiling assassins in the Middluns. To cover up her glum thoughts, Katsa nudged Po’s shoulder in return, if more forcefully, and they started tussling in fun, as they warmed up before the fire and waited for Nif to return.
Later, though, as she trudged knee deep in mud and icy rain, she couldn’t help but cast her mind back to the book that Po had described. Perhaps, once things were more settled in Estill, she and Po might also travel for fun. Who knew what a travel book for the Seven Kingdoms might look like?
King Thigpen may be a tyrant, but there is no denying that he and his people know how best to while away your time. Between their whorehouses (which cater to all interests!) and gambling dens (which allow patrons to bet on anything their hearts desire, for the street toughs will make sure everyone pays what is owed!), Thigpen City is the destination of choice for those looking to have a good time!
Katsa was not having a good time.
Some days, Katsa felt like fighting with someone was a purer and more freeing form of communication than any spoken conversation could be. With Po in particular, whether she was sparring with him or fighting by his side, there were moments when she felt like they were one body, shared one mind, with him reading and anticipating her every move and countering or backing her up as needed. She could leave openings for him to follow through on, trusting in him to have her back. It was as if he were her perfect other half.
This was not one of those days.
“What in the seven hells were you thinking?” Katsa bit out between blows, as Po fought at her back.
“I was thinking that Thigpen’s guard was going to skewer you, and I thought it might be nice if you weren’t skewered!” Po shouted back. She felt him move behind her, and she ducked just as he knocked away an arrow that had been aimed at her head.
“So you decided to get yourself skewered instead?” Katsa demanded, as she sighted the archer and threw a knife at him — bullseye.
“I’m not skewered!” Po said. “Just a little … grazed, is all.”
Katsa resisted the urge to look again at the wound the guardsman had left in Po’s leg. It had been quite deep, and she knew it was still bleeding — she could feel him weakening behind her, his moves slowing down. The fool!
“You know I heal faster than you,” she said, “I would have been fine!” As she spoke, she took the opportunity to take down three more Estillian soldiers in one blow. Behind her, she could feel Po swap his sword to his other hand — he must be tiring even faster than she’d feared.
“You know I won’t see you hurt if I can help it,” Po said. “That’s not something I can change.” Even a tiring Po was still a force to be reckoned with — she could feel him redouble his attack on the opponent nearest him and gain the upper hand.
“And you think I want to see you hurt?” Katsa said desperately, spinning around just in time to block a blow to Po’s back, taking out the second attacker with a well-placed strike to his head.
A beat passed, then another, before Katsa realized that there were no more foes. She and Po were surrounded by fallen enemies in Estillian colors.
“Katsa,” Po said, “I cannot apologize for taking the blow for you. I did not think — it was instinctual — and I will never apologize for protecting you.”
“You make no sense,” Katsa complained, whirling around. “You know my Grace. I’m stronger than you, a better fighter than you, more resilient. It would have been better for me to take the hit! I didn’t need you to protect me!”
They were facing each other now, and Po brought his left hand to her face, stroking her cheek. “If it were a matter of you being the better person to fight him, I would have given way, Katsa, but it was a matter of you taking the blow or me. Just because your body can recover more easily from being skewered than mine doesn’t mean you should be the one to take all those hits. You may recover more quickly — by a little — but you still feel the pain, and I would save you any pain I can.”
Katsa and Po leapt apart at the sound, and turned to see a discomfited Giddon, who was rather awkwardly trying not to stare at them. “If you two are rather done, we’re still in the middle of a revolution and should probably move on to the next phase of the plan.”
Katsa’s cheeks flamed. She more than anyone did not like being caught in moments of intimacy in public. And in front of Giddon, of all people! “Yes. But Po must go see a medic before he continues.”
Po opened his mouth as if to object, caught her eye, and nodded. “You go on,” he said, “I’ll catch up after I see the medic.”
She squeezed his hand, darted a quick look at Giddon (who was still pointedly looking away), and hastened in to give Po a quick embrace before moving on with Giddon.
The Sunder people must surely be some of the most hospitable across the Seven Kingdoms. Perhaps it is because they are simple people at heart, or because it is their ancient tradition of guest-friendship — if you share a drink with a Sunderian host, he is obligated to provide you with food, drink, a bed to sleep in, and a gift when you leave. You aren’t (historically) obligated to pay the host, although it is recommended in modern days!
“I can’t believe you. Bann can’t come post bail for you until morning,” Po said to Katsa through the metal bars separating them.
“You shouldn’t be here at all,” Katsa said sternly. “You are still recovering.” She looked pointedly at his leg, which was wrapped in bandages.
“It’s a flesh wound,” Po dismissed.
“You’re limping,” Katsa said.
“Not important. Anyways, I can’t believe you started a fight in that tavern even though you were the one who said we needed to keep a low profile.”
“He deserved it,” Katsa said. “Anyways, I’ve slept in worse.”
Po looked dubiously behind her, at the dirt floor in the small cell. “If that pickpocket hadn’t taken my money in the to-do, I could have posted your bail,” he said. “And if they weren’t closing soon …”
“It’s alright,” Katsa said again, gently, “I will be fine. You, however, need to go back and get some rest.”
“What if I got myself thrown into jail with you?” Po suggested brightly.
“Don’t even think about it!”
“We’re closing up,” a loud voice barked down the hall. “Hurry up!”
Po grabbed Katsa’s hand through the metal bars. “I'll be back in the morning with Bann to post your bail as soon as they open up again,” he promised. He darted a quick look down the hall, then raised her hand to his lips for a quick kiss.
“Po!” Katsa hissed, snatching her hand back. “We’re in public!”
Po grinned, and winked, before heading down the hallway.
For those looking to admire natural beauty, Lienid is the destination of choice. Between their soaring cliffs, dark forests, quaint little towns and eldritch seascapes, Lienid sometimes feels less like an independent kingdom and more like a collection of breathtaking vistas!
It was an unfortunate bit of timing that by the time their ship reached Lienid, the summer winds had cooled into autumn. And, Katsa realized when the first sailor spotted land, they were on track to make landfall at sunset.
From the moment that first sailor spied land, Po refused to leave his cabin. Katsa tried to coax him out, but she quickly gave up as persuasive words were not her forte.
“You were the one who decided to come,” Katsa said. She did not add that this was despite her objections — she did not need to. They had argued over this too many times; they each knew the other’s lines by now.
Po had decided to come clean to his father and felt it best to do so in person.
Katsa didn’t know how she felt about Po telling his father the truth about his Grace, but she felt quite strongly that any such discussion could wait until Po had fully recovered from the gaping wound he had received in Estill. But since he had already decided to spend his rehabilitation having emotionally fraught conversations, he oughtn’t be so irrational about his homecoming! That last thought she aimed at him, and could see from his smile that he caught it.
“It’s a mere flesh wound, as I have said time and again,” he told her. A blatant lie. “And I recognize that this is irrational, I just can’t face — can’t face seeing Lienid right now but not being able to see it. I just need half a day to prepare myself. It’ll be dark by the time we reach the port, and I’ll be able to face it all in the morning.”
It would be Po’s first time returning to his castle since he had lost his sight. Katsa understood that this was important to him, that Po would experience many emotions on his first homecoming and that it was right and reasonable that he might want to work through them before he gazed upon his home. But it itched at Katsa. It was something she couldn’t fix and she didn’t like that.
“Not everything can be fixed with a sword,” Po said. Something Katsa knew only too well, as much of her life these days was trying to fix things where her swordsmanship was not enough.
And so, as the ship drew close to the cliffs that housed Po’s castle, Katsa stood alone at the ship’s bow. She gazed upon the silver and gold leaves of the po trees that covered the mountains, watched the sunset turn the entire sky and sea into brilliant shades of red and orange, and light up the silver and gold of the trees and the mountains until it seemed the whole world was aflame.
Katsa watched, focused on seeing and absorbing as much of the sights before her as she could — if Po could not see it, then she would see it for him, would appreciate it for him, would love it for him.
She concentrated so intently, she almost didn’t notice Po’s approach, until he had wrapped his arms around her.
“We’re out in public,” she admonished him, but didn’t budge despite her longstanding prohibition of public affection. “I thought you were going to stay inside.”
“How could I?” he said, “when you were out here, looking at my castle for me and loving it for me?”
She had meant for him to feel her love for his land, but still flushed a little at how he must have perceived it, for it to draw him out of his room.
Po pressed his lips to her head. “Thank you, Katsa,” he said. “I may not be able to see the beauty of my land as I once saw it, but it is as if I can see it through your eyes.”
“Then I shall go on seeing it for you,” she said, only the slightest bit self-conscious, and leaned back into him.
Residents across the Seven Kingdoms will tell you that their cuisine is the finest, but we can safely say that no kingdom’s fare is quite the same as Wester’s. Wester cooks have spent centuries cooking the uncookable and their regional delicacies — from sheep’s stomach to raw oyster to roasted silkworm — showcase their talent. No visit to Birn City is complete without a late night snack from the street vendors though!
The less said about that time they spent throwing up all night after sampling some of Wester’s “finest” street food, the better.
Nobody is quite clear on how the Middluns became the fashion capital of the Seven Kingdoms but any noblewoman will tell you that the finest silks, plushest velvets, and warmest furs can be found in the Middluns, as well as the cleverest seamstresses. If you are visiting Randa City, be sure to get some shopping in!
As Katsa teetered down the spiral staircase, she regretted letting her ladyservant — Helda’s self-appointed replacement now that Helda was in Monsea — stuff her into a gown (“It’s the latest fashion, m’lady!” Leesa had chirped) when Katsa had been campaigning to wear pants (“It wouldn’t be proper,” Leesa had countered).
Katsa had the strength of ten men — arguably the strength of twenty, according to some — and yet none of that served her in her battle of wills with Leesa. Despite her protestations, she was making her way down the staircase laced into a scarlet ballgown the color of a Lienid sunset when she would rather be wearing something less eye-catching and easier to fight in.
Granted, fashion aside, she had insisted that her dress permit her to breathe and move freely, and Leesa had taken note of her specifications and altered the dress accordingly. Thus, though she was laced in, she wasn’t laced so tightly as to restrict movement. Further, the dress was cut to allow her to run with minimal impediment, though fighting would still be a challenge. The dress also concealed any number of sheathed daggers and other weapons, whether strapped against her thigh, pinned in her hair, or sewn into her collar.
Leesa had been rather pleased with the outcome, even though Katsa still felt that pants would have been more practical.
Yet Leesa insisted that the dress, and the dancing shoes that peeked out underneath the full skirt, and the hair that had taken two hours to braid into the style that Leesa desired, and the paint on her face, were all necessary for an event this grand. Leesa put so much effort in, Katsa scarce dared to breathe lest she muss Leesa’s hard work.
“It’ll be worth it for the look on your man’s face when he sees you,” Leesa had promised. “He won’t be able to contain himself in awe of your beauty, and I expect you’ll appreciate his appreciation later this evening, if you catch my meaning,” Leesa had winked.
Katsa had flushed in response.
Now, as Katsa caught sight of Po, her lips twisted in a wry smile. He didn’t immediately turn to see her, though he had surely sensed her, carrying on his conversation with Bann. When he did turn — to simulate catching sight of her — and they locked eyes, the look on his face was no different than when she was wearing any other garb. Except that he smirked, and she knew he guessed how much she did not appreciate being forced to wear such finery.
No, Po was not the type to be stunned by her beauty simply because she wore a dress.
As she carefully made her way down the grand staircase, Katsa focused on making it to the bottom without tripping — while her Grace blessed her with balance in most respects, that apparently did not extend to walking down staircases in heeled shoes while constricted by yards of cloth and unreasonable amounts of heavy jewelry. To her relief, she did not fall (which would have been unbearably embarrassing) and by the time she was at the bottom, Po was there to take her arm in his.
“Remind me to tell Raffin that having to wear this dress makes me rue our acquaintance and I regret agreeing to attend his coronation,” she told Po firmly.
“King Raffin, now,” Po corrected, mock-solemnly, and proceeded to escort her into the banquet hall.
The banquet hall was massive, tables filling the entire space, and people starting to file in, dressed in their finest. Katsa and Po were guests of honor, of course, and had seats reserved at the head table, much to Katsa’s distaste. She knew everyone would be staring at her, Randa’s monster that had disappeared for so many years and come back as an honored guest of the new king.
She was sorely tempted to slurp her soup, use the wrong spoon, and chew with her mouth open to spite all of the courtiers, but felt that would be betraying the work Hilda had put into teaching her table manners.
She did project an image of herself doing so to Po, however, and smirked when he choked back a laugh.
Even though she and Po were honored guests, they were still seated so far from Raffin that she had no opportunity to bend his ear as to the unreasonable dress code. Fortunately, Raffin (or, most likely, Raffin’s seneschal) had seen to it that she and Po were seated among friends, and soon between the food (which was quite delicious, for Raffin was no fool and knew to keep his courtiers well-fed) and the company, Katsa was enjoying the banquet despite herself.
Which meant she was a bit miffed when the assassins attacked.
Po was first to react, with Katsa not far behind him. Po was out of his seat in moments, running the length of the table to knock Raffin down even as Katsa ripped at her skirts in one smooth motion (which came away easily, another modification by the forward-thinking Leesa), allowing her to leap onto the table itself and launch herself in the air, just in time to knock aside the arrows that had been aimed at Raffin.
She grabbed a few dinner knives and flung them at the archers she spied in the rafters, striking true for two of the archers but missing the third. By then, more assassins were streaming in through the doors — four, five, six men in black with lethal-looking swords and determined expressions.
By this time, Raffin’s guards had finally caught on, and had surrounded the king in order to protect him. With Po assisting them in guarding him, Katsa could turn her attention to taking down the assassins.
She ripped at the outer layer of her dress, and the furbelows and ribbons she had so objected to came away in one go (“So there aren’t bits of my dress just billowing about for enemies to grab onto in a fight,” she had told Leesa when explaining how she wanted the dress modified), revealing a sword sheathed into the back of the dress (“You’ll have to sit with incredibly good posture,” Leesa had warned, “otherwise it will be very noticeable), which she grabbed in her hand as she started attacking the assassins.
In the end, Katsa made short shrift of the attackers who, despite their fervor, were not quite prepared to meet one as Graced as Katsa. As she stood over their bodies, however (including the body of the third archer, who had leapt on her from above in an attempt to take her down, only for her to use his momentum to throw him into one of the other assassins), Katsa noticed King Raffin had been ushered away by his guard, and most of the other guests and courtiers had been evacuated, or had fled.
Po, however, stood before her and his eyes were shining.
She knew she must look a fright, with her dress quite in tatters, and blood spattering her face, the hair and makeup Leesa had spent so long on no doubt mussed beyond repair, and her shoes long discarded when the heels had broken off.
Instead, Po crooked his mouth in a grin, and took three strides toward her to gather her in his arms. “You, Katsa, are glorious,” he pronounced.
And Katsa could not help but grin back at him.
If you’re looking for somewhere to drink, Nander is the kingdom for you! Perhaps because it is so far north and there is nothing else to do when the weather gets cold, but the Nander people surely have the imbibing of alcohol down to an art! Even the ale they brew up north is an art form and they celebrate the drinking of it every year as the weather turns colder.
The less said about the time they spent throwing up all night after drinking a truly prodigious amount of ale in celebration of a certain someone’s upcoming nuptials, the better.
The last few decades have brought tragedy after tragedy for Monsea, but they are a resilient people, and have found moments to rise above it all. That is why the term for that brief moment of hope amid the despair one might otherwise feel is “a Monsean celebration”.
Katsa doesn’t want children. She has never wanted children. But she cannot deny that despite all that, she thinks of Bitterblue as her child. She watched Bitterblue grow over the years from a frightened young child to a courageous young woman to the strong queen that she is now.
“It feels like only yesterday that I coaxed you out of that tree, and here you are getting married,” Katsa said, feeling herself get surprisingly misty even though she was trying so hard to remain stoic.
“Not just yet,” Bitterblue said, shifting her weight from one leg to the other as she looked in the mirror. “It’s just a dress fitting.” Then, “Ow.”
“Sorry,” Helda said, sounding not at all apologetic. “The pins won’t stick if you stop moving so much.”
Bitterblue held still obediently, shooting Katsa an amused look over Helda’s head.
“Helda used to say that to me, too,” Katsa said, grinning. “As well as something about how-”
“I don’t know how you can hold still when hunting, when fighting, when doing everything, it seems, but getting fitted,” Helda said with her in unison. “You’re next,” she told Katsa, “so don’t be getting ideas.”
“What am I getting fitted for?” Katsa objected. “I’m not the one getting married!”
Helda and Bitterblue exchanged glances.
“What is it?” Katsa asked suspiciously.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask,” Bitterblue said, “and I suppose now is as good a time as any.” She hiked up her skirts and turned around to face Katsa, despite Helda’s hiss of dismay at the change in position.
“Yes?” Katsa said, bracing herself for bad news.
“As you know, part of the Monsean wedding ceremony involves obeisances made to the father and mother of the bride. I was hoping you could stand in as mother of the bride.”
Katsa froze for a moment. “But- shouldn’t it be Queen Zinnober?”
“It can be her,” Bitterblue said, “if you want. She is my second choice. My first choice was you.”
Katsa felt something in her melt. “I would love to,” she said. “I would hug you right now, Bitterblue, only I think Helda might murder me if I mussed up your dress.”
“There’s plenty of time for that after the fitting is over,” Helda said primly.
Bitterblue’s face, meanwhile, had broken into a smile. “I’m so glad,” she said. “Po has already agreed to stand in as father.”
“You asked him first?”
“Well …” Bitterblue looked to Helda.
“Wait,” Katsa said suspiciously, “what was that about a fitting?”
“If you’re participating in a royal wedding, you need a new dress, of course,” Helda said matter-of-factly.
“I have plenty of dresses,” Katsa said, though “plenty” was perhaps a misstatement. She had at least one dress. Probably. She probably had at least one dress.
“This is a state ceremony,” Helda said. “It needs to be an actual dress, not one of those scraps you wear most of the time. Po understands the need for finery when the situation calls for it.”
“You told me last because you wanted to trap me into agreeing to a dress!” Katsa accused.
“I suggested that the Queen approach you with the proposal — and the implication of formalwear — when you might be emotionally compromised,” Helda conceded.
“Are you both ganging up on my Katsa?” a voice asked from behind Katsa.
Katsa whirled to face Po, and stabbed a finger into his chest. “You let them ambush me about wearing a dress!”
Po’s eyes laughed. “Oh, have we gotten to that stage of the conversation?”
“If you think it’s so funny, why don’t you wear a dress!”
“Alternatively,” Po offered up, “I don’t see why Katsa can’t wear pants as long as they’re formal, and cut to match mine.”
“That would be unconventional,” Helda said slowly.
“Katsa and I standing in for parents of the bride is also unconventional,” Po said.
“You could always make them a little more feminine,” Bitterblue offered, “a looser, more elegant version of Po’s, in more feminine colors, but that still allow Katsa freedom of movement.”
Helda thought for a minute, while Katsa waited with bated breath. “Yes, I can see that,” she said finally.
“Thank you, Helda!” Katsa said.
“You’ll still need to be fitted for those,” Helda said firmly.
“I promise to hold still this time,” Katsa said.
“Now, you take our young man outside,” Helda said. “It’s not appropriate for him to be here for the queen’s fitting.”
“I’ll take him outside and be right back,” Katsa said and without another word, tugged Po out the door.
As soon as they were out of earshot, she dragged him into an empty room.
“Did you and Bitterblue plot for her and Helda to ambush me just so you and Bitterblue could counter-ambush Helda on the pants?” she demanded.
“I don’t know what you could be talking about,” Po said innocently, with a smug look.
Katsa laughed, and leaned in for a kiss. “Thank you,” she told him, when she felt her gratitude had been properly conveyed.
Po was flushed at this point. “No need to thank me, it was all Bitterblue’s idea.” His eyes twinkled. “Although maybe you oughtn’t thank her in quite the same way.”
Katsa smacked Po. “I can’t believe she’s getting married, though,” Katsa sighed. “So much time has passed since we first came across her in the woods.”
“And so much has changed, for the better,” Po said. “Think of all we have accomplished, all the Council have accomplished, all Bitterblue has accomplished.”
Katsa leaned back into Po, who wrapped his arms around her. “There’s still more to do … but I think we’ve made good progress.”
“That we have, Katsa, that we have.”
“What is this claptrap?” Bitterblue asked, as she flipped through the leaflet in her hands. “I’ve never heard of ‘a Monsean celebration’ in my life.”
“Majesty, there are varied forms of guide booklets floating around this city, and likely many others in the works, by now. I’d like to talk to you about the potential need for a Ministry of Tourism …”