Cottony clouds parted before the bow of the Cloud Whale as it swam through the skies. Seated high atop the mast of the airship in the crow's nest, I felt a chill breeze part my hair as I swept my gaze across the magnificent sight of the sea of white. No, not a sea. A world unto itself, complete with hills, plateaus and plains. A world unsullied by the eyes of all but the most fortunate of men – or the most powerful.
The sun was an incandescent circle of white at the edge of my vision as it made its tireless way to the zenith. Squinting against its glare reflecting off the puffy columns of cumulus clouds, I watched the wispy strands of cirrus being chased across the sky above us by the wind – a flock of sheep before wolves. The same wind caught our sails, and with a crack like thunder, stretched it taut, pushing us onwards to our destination. Sunlight glinted off silver shark-skin, throwing the elliptical shadow of one of the zeppelins on the billowing canvas and onto the deck. The crew looked like toy figures from my vantage as they bustled about on the deck checking a lashing here and tightening a knot there.
We left a trail behind us – a scar in the cloud layer that was slow to heal, providing a view of the land beneath. Everything seemed tiny from so high above. Matchbox houses surrounded patchwork fields and rivers of liquid light shimmered under the mid-morning sun. My field of view widened as the Cloud Whale emerged out of the bank of clouds.
Winter had set in, golden stretches of wheat transitioning into the light green tint of pea fields. Light brown stretches of raised land sprawled into the plains like the fingers of a giant – converging to the Achkan Plateau that housed the Northern District of the South-Eastern Province. A trail of hills formed the 'wrist' of this giant, the peaks rising higher as I followed them east with my eyes until they merged with a snow-capped mountain range that extended from the frigid wastelands of the Far North to Firang in the south, forming the Eastern border of Regiis: the Glacies.
We were currently flying above hostile territory. Farmlands that had belonged to Regiis just a few days ago, now provided grain for the Empire's enemies. I wondered what the farmers felt about the current state of affairs. Had they protested the change in leadership by throwing down their trowels and leaving their fields uncultivated? Had they been strong-armed into compliance by the soldiers of the Shogunate? Or, was it just another day at the fields for them – unmindful of the politics that was too far removed from their lives?
I favoured the last possibility. After all, to a farmer, who was beholden to naught but the weather, new rulers meant little beyond the vague possibility of increased taxes.
A flash of red and black at the edges of my vision attracted my attention and I narrowed my eyes to focus on it. There, at one edge of a field I could see a thin trail of smoke spiralling up into the sky. Reaching to my side, I took up the collapsible telescope that was kept in the crow's nest for the convenience of the lookout. Drawing it out to its full length, I brought it up to one eye and closing the other, I squinted through it.
The ground leapt up at me, and as I focused the instrument, grew clearer. I could make out tiny figures clustered around the base of the fire carrying flaming torches. What exactly was going on?
Pulling myself away from the telescope, I turned to the deck to find most of the crew had gathered to the side of the ship and were leaning over the railing to get a better look. Some had their personal telescopes out while I saw one wind mage using his mana to lens the air in front of him to magnify the image. They seemed as confused as I felt.
When I brought the telescope back up to my eye, I found that the fire had spread. The torch-bearing mob had radiated outwards, setting the crops on fire as they moved. Reddish orange flames licked against the tender green shoots that had just begun to twine against the wooden supports spread across the field. The fire didn't burn clean, sending tendrils of thick black smoke up to join the broadening column that rose to the sky.
The fire expanded outwards as a flaming orange ring, eating away at the crops like a candle-flame would a parchment, leaving blackened ground and ashes in its wake. The mob raised their torches and seemed to cheer as the green gave way to grey. My eye widened as I realized what was going on. The farmers were setting their crops on fire – burning them to the ground so that the Shogunate wouldn't benefit from them.
A conflicting mix of shame and pride warred within my chest as I looked on at the figures – so tiny in my vision – celebrating the destruction of their means of livelihood and they grew infinitely large in my mind. I felt shame for doubting them, believing for even a moment that a peasant would be less patriotic than a noble, that a mortal could do less to resist foreign invaders than a mage. I was ashamed that those very same nobles who had received the most from the Empire had betrayed it out of their insatiable greed. And I felt pride, pride that I belonged to the same nation as those men and women on the ground who had risked life and limb to show that the folk of Regiis were a hard bone to chew.
The peasants were the floor of our society. They were also the foundation. Without their unceasing toil, without the constant supply of grain and cotton that kept us fed and clothed, we mages would never have enough time to focus on our magic. Even if those at the apex of the pyramid had lowered their heads, it didn't matter as long as the grassroots didn't agree. Regiis wasn't so easy to subjugate.
Tearing my gaze away from the telescope, I saw that my wives had joined the crew on the deck along with the Demigod of the Waves. Isabella's dark blue hair cascaded down her back, gently undulating in the breeze as she gazed down upon the farmers with a solemn cast to her face. Snapping her feet together, she stood at attention and brought her arm up in a military salute and the rest of the crew followed her lead. Putting down the telescope, so did I.
We held the salute, paying silent tribute to the unsung heroes on the ground until we had left the burning fields far behind -- the column of smoke a mere thread of black. I could feel the blood boiling in my veins as I thought about what I had just seen, and my fists clenched. Even when I had participated in the resistance against the Calamity, it was mostly for the sake of protecting my family. My national identity didn't play much of a role. But today, for the very first time, I got an inkling of why wars were fought -- what we were fighting for.
Lowering her hand and clasping it behind her back, Isabella's clear voice reverberated across the deck. "I want us at the Capital in three days. Each day the Shogunate occupies our soil is a day too long. Full speed ahead, men. For the Empire!"
"For the Empire!" echoed the crew with a voice that vibrated the deck.
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