A Gentle Winter
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“The Root will be here soon, my Branch.” The messenger said.

“Good.” The Branch of the River responded, “the preparations are complete, we will welcome him as if he were King Stone himself.” The Branch’s dark green body seemed to match the River Palace. The moss-covered cobblestone walls supported a low ceiling. Even with torches lit the hall felt dark and grim. The sounds of rushing water could faintly be heard.

The Ambassador had grown used to this. He learned to ignore the storm that seemed to surround him, those who had lived in the palace for their entire lives hardly knew it was there. The Hills were far away from any rivers. In the mountains it was simply rock and birds. The Ambassador had the pinkish flesh and arms of one from the Hill Province, he towered over the inhabitants of the river, most only half his height. The Ambassador of the Fire Province was the only one he never had to bend over to talk to. While those of the Hill had their arms, those of Fire had their thick flesh and spikes.

The Branch of the River sat in his moss covered throne, to the left was his head servant. To the right was the empty seat intended for the Root.

The Ambassador had never met King Stone’s Root, but he had heard tales. Root Snowflake was not his King. He remembered when the Branch of the River had first sent his threats to the Hill. The Branch of the River would not budge, and neither would the Hill. King Stone the stubborn, they called him, he would not even touch the issue until now. I should be grateful. The last time a King came to the City on the River to resolve an issue…

“Remember, don’t drown the Root this time!” The servant joked to his Branch.

The Branch of the River gave him a cold look. King Shield was reasonable, and drowned both Branch and Ambassador, King Stone is stubborn…

He remembered the war that followed, he was only a budling back then, but he heard how The Betrayed was beaten to death by his own soldiers. The Hunted made sure not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor, and instead died by a bear in the forest. That was fifteen winters ago, the orphaned cub King Stone and The Hunted found was said to be reaching the end in the City Under the Sun.

King Stone made sure the new Branch of the Hill was obedient, but not soft. But neither was the River and now the Root was coming to settle things.

“May I announce Root Snowflake of the Plant Kingdom. May the sun shine on him.”

Those from the Province under the Sun were taller than any of the others. Their bluish-green flesh made them look like larger clones of those of the River Province, but both came from separate trees.

“You must be the Branch of the River, I am honored to meet you.”

“The Honor is mine, my Root, I have reserved a seat and a cup of rainwater just for you.”

The Root said his thanks and took his place to the right of the Branch. The Ambassador of the Hill was seated below, next to the Ambassador of Fire, at the end of the row the Ambassador under the Sun sat. As they drank a bard began to play his songs. Beginning with a usual Song of the Sun. He wants to impress the root, but it won’t change his river water to rainwater.

“Great shining sun.”
“Nothing can outshine you.”
“Nothing can outglow you.”
“Not all the stars.”
“Not all the gold.”
“Not all the flames in the world.”

“Great shining sun.”
“Thank you for your light.”
“Thank you for your warmth.”
“Thank you for your life.”

“Great shining sun.”
“Nothing can outshine you.”
“Nothing can outglow you.”
“Not all the stars.”
“Not all the gold.”
“Not all the flames in the world.”

They sipped their water through their stems silently as the Bard began his second act.

“I am the fire.”
“The King of Fire said…”

This can’t be…

“I will not burn.”
“I will turn not to ashes but to flame…”

The Shield of the Kingdom? A bold move… maybe too bold.

“Brighter than the sun and hot to melt stone.”
“I will not burn.”
“Yet now his ashes feed the grass.”

The Ambassador of the Fire Province remained silent. Now comes the part that may get us killed.

“I am the River.”
“The Branch of the River said.”
“I am the Hill.”
“The King of the Hill said.”
“United we are Kings.”
“And United we will rise.”
“The Iron heard them say.”
“The River reached out and the Iron was no more.”
“But the Stone it heard.”
“The Stone it told the Sun.”
“And the river ran dry.”

The Ambassador studied the Root as he watched. Root Snowflake swayed slightly with the music as if oblivious to it’s meaning.

“This Branch is soft.”
“The King of the Hill said.”
“The sun had cracked it.”
“And I will break it.”
“We will be the hardest Hills.”
“And bow not to none.”
“The winters they came.”
“Under the sun they cracked.”
“In a cave he was betrayed.”
“And the sun shined on the Hills.”

“I love music, do you not?” The Root said, “I wished to be a bard when I was a budling, but as I found politics suited me better.” The Branch said nothing back.

Celebration continued, the bard sang of the near uprising of the Fire Province only a few winters past. Root Snowflake listened with interest, waiting for the song to be done before speaking, “I do regret the management of that situation, but the Kingdom learned much.”

“You did,” The Branch agreed.

You, not us.

“I do not blame our King for that, we all do what we must do to keep our Kingdoms stable.”

They say the King watched as he burned.

The bard bowed, “And for my final act, I will preform a song I wrote myself, just for the arrival of our Root.”

“The tree it sways.”
“The tree of the Kingdom.”
“The King stands top.”
“As the sun shines upon.”
“Yet who keeps it up?”

“I am the Root beneath the ground.”
“I am the Root that keeps you up.”
“I work in the dark.”
“So you may shine in the light.”

“I have no songs.”
“I have no glory.”
“I have no light.”
“I have no love.”

“Yet I work in the dark.”
“So you may shine in the light.”

“And I will work.”
“As long as the sun shines bright.”

The Root stood and bowed, “That was beautiful! Thank you. The Root finally has a song to call his own.”

Celebration continued for awhile longer, leaders talked, about everything except the situation. After awhile passed The Ambassador looked back to the Root, who was now chatting with two servants. Both seemed comfortable with each other already, and occasionally laughed. The Branch of the River sat outside the group, looking in. He’s being alienated, for the sake of the sun stop talking to those worthless servants and be a Root.

Finally, the Ambassador stood up, “Root Snowflake! Apologies for my interruption but I do believe there are some matters we need to discuss!”

All faces were on him, he knew, he didn’t care.

“I do believe you’re right, would you like to discuss them now?”

The Branch stood up, “I believe my quarters will suffice, if you two would join me.”

The Branch’s quarters were as damp as the rest of the castle. Through the window the sun was descending, hanging on the wall was an artifact of The First.

The three found seats and sat all at once. The Root spoke first, “Your servants are very friendly, Branch.”

It’s you who’s too friendly.

Root Snowflake continued, “Both have aspirations of leadership, forgive me if I believe they are overqualified for their position.”

Is he mad or stupid?

The Branch showed no change in tone, “You seem to like each other, and I suppose servants are easy to come by, I might just send them back with you to the City Under the Sun.”

“Why that would be lovely for all of us.”

The Ambassador broke in, “Root, Branch…”

“Oh, yes,” The Root said, “your ‘disagreement.’”

“There is no disagreement,” The Branch said, “The Hill is refusing to listen to reason-”

“In The Hill we have a saying: ‘Slash you, scar you, break you, kill you.’”

“There is need for none of that!” The Root said, “You are not enemies, your predecessors joined together once, and they almost overthrew a King.”

Your King, and all three of our predecessors died at each other’s hands, you won’t drown us, the King might, but you don’t have the strength!”

“King Stone fights with order, The Hill fights with maces, The River fights with deception, I do not fight at all. And that is why I can solve any problem before it begins,” he leaned back in his chair, “now describe to me what the problem is.”

The Ambassador went first, “The river originates somewhere far away, but it flows through the Hill before the River Province, through land that is rightfully ours. Whatever is in it is rightfully ours.”

The Branch was angered by that, “The river is more than a province, the river brings riches and trade, we have lived off it for more winters than you can count, through right or fight it will be ours.”

“You threatened you would invade-”

“Do you remember the last war?” The Root asked, out of nowhere, “I don’t, I don’t think either of you do either, but there are those who do, those who came back without stems, ripped flesh, crippled bodies. You are willing to subject your provinces to that again?”

The Branch stayed silent a moment, then spoke, “If need be, yes, our river is ours, you only want it now because of what you’ve found.”

“First artifacts are washed downriver often, if the sun wills them to stop in our province then who are you to defy the sun?”

“I think it is your right,” the Root said, “It is your province, your riches, yet it is their river. I propose a declaration that may benefit both parties. The Hill may have access to their portion of the river, but they may not preform any actions that may affect those downstream.”

“And we will have rights to anything below the mountain?”

“Of course.”

Ambassador and branch looked to each other, then back.

“We may have somewhat of an understanding.” The Branch said.

“We do.” The Ambassador agreed, "yet I will need to send a message to my own Branch first.”

Root Snowflake stood and bowed, “I look forward to it, in the meantime I will wait.”

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