“Note: while the assertion that one’s friends ‘are an anchor’ held up to examination, said individuals (either dead or alive) seem no more effective in that purpose than a stone anchor of the same weight. The popularity of the saying remains baffling.”
– Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II
With seven expectant gazes remaining peeled on me, I was starting to feel a mite cornered. Just a mite, mind you. I’d gotten out of tighter corners than this through cunning use of diplomacy.
“I was,” I began, “perhaps less than correct.”
Without missing a beat the crowd began to boo me, and that vicious little wretch Robber even threw something at me over the fire. I didn’t quite manage to catch it but it slid into a fold of my cloak and I picked it up there. I blinked, finding a rather fancy glass eye looking back at me. Where had he even – no, I didn’t want to know. It had to be someone of stature, though, part of it was painted but there was also coloured glass and that’d expensive as all… No, if I asked then he won. I’d get Hakram to find out later. Still, I pocketed the eye without any qualms. He could make a tidy little sum from selling that, if he got around to it, so we’d just call this a… pre-emptive fine. Hells, maybe I could get General Abigail to believe I’d had one of those on the whole time.
“Do the apology, at least,” Aisha called out, too well-bred to grin but with suspiciously twitching lips.
“Archer,” I began, ignoring Indrani’s enthusiastic affirmation of ‘that’s me, you know’, “you peerless beauty whose approval I secretly crave, and that’s why I’m so mean to you-”
“That sounds about right,” Hakram gravely agreed.
The filthy traitor. I was surrounded by treachery of the worst tonight.
“- I retract any implication that you are incapable of abstract mathematics,” I valiantly soldiered on. “There. Finished.”
There was a heartbeat of silence. Masego, swaddled in a rather unnecessary amount of blankets, leaned towards Adjutant.
“Is it on purpose that she did not apologize at any point in that sentence?” Zeze asked.
Godsdamnit, now even Masego was getting in on it. The little shit absolutely did know that I’d done it on purpose, I pulled this on him all the – ah, and suddenly his sordid betrayal made a little more sense.
“Ask to be made a countess,” Juniper suggested to Indrani. “Even odds she’d take that over actually saying the word ‘apologize’.”
That was a lie. I wouldn’t go any further up the ladder than baroness to get out of this. Honorary, mind you, not landed. I shuddered to think of what Archer might get up to with regular tax revenue.
“I apologize all the time,” I protested.
I got a few skeptical looks in return.
“Here’s one for the road, then,” I sneered. “I’m sorry you’re all so thin-skinned you need apologies in the first place.”
Alas, the resuming of the loud booing was the herald of diplomacy’s failure. Sometimes, I sadly reflected, the other side simply wasn’t willing to take the very generous and reasonable terms you offered them. That was not on you, it was on them, I reminded myself. Robber once more tossed something at me, though this time I caught it – it was, to my surprise, another glass eye. Just as prettily made, although the heft was lighter and oh Night the iris was brown on this one instead of blue. And angled in the opposite direction, implying my Special Tribune might have murdered not one but two foreign highborn officers just so he could use their glass eye as toy. For once the actual specifics of something he’d done had managed to surprise me, though the spirit of the affair I was painfully familiar with. I pocketed it too, because the little bastard would have hit me with it on the chin if I hadn’t caught it. It was decided by a tribunal of the people that I would have last pick of a cut from the pig that was nearly done roasting, my threats to have them all tried for treason leaving the unruly mob indifferent. Truly, they had gone mad with power.
Juniper insisted on making the cuts herself when shed judged the meat properly roasted, ignoring Indrani’s protests that it should have another quarter hour of being turned with spices sprinkled on the searing fat. I sided with the Hellhound, half out of spite for Indrani knowing all about Stygian abstracts when she’d been raised in the middle of the damned woods and half because I rather did miss the taste of a pig roasted in the College way: mostly unseasoned, and still juicy the way orcs preferred meat to be if it couldn’t be bleeding outright. Adjutant squatted by the fire with plates while Robber was charged with bringing the communal plate of biryani. Aisha was, to my mild amusement, the first to receive a plate and by sheer coincidence got some of the choicest cuts. Masego requested belly meat and the Marshal of Callow allowed him a fat slice, which Robber claimed to be blatant favoritism, and as bickering exploded I reached for my pipe with a smothered smile. Indrani sidled up to me casually, leaning on my shoulder like a pest as I stuffed and lit a packet of wakeleaf.
“We’re missing some people,” Archer said.
Her tone wasn’t quiet, not exactly, but it was pitched not to carry.
“Vivienne will come when she’s done with the Jacks,” I said. “Whenever that happens to be.”
“Not who I meant,” she replied.
I craned back my neck just to glance at her. Indrani looked down at me, eyes serious, though face to face like this I felt the urge to kiss her. I set aside the impulse.
“Akua can’t really be here if Vivienne is,” I murmured. “And if she’s allowed to sit with us just until Vivienne arrives that’s worse than not being invited, I’d wager.”
Not the last because it made plain the tensions between my appointed successor and the monster I’d absurdly enough come to like – and more importantly, rely on. I could expect Akua to take such a situation with a degree of elegance, if not necessarily enthusiasm under the mask, but I doubted Vivienne would be so agreeable.
“I think they’d both surprise you,” Indrani said. “It’s personal, between them, but our little thief also knows a thing or two about sitting around a fire with people you were trying to kill not so long ago. Still, once more not who I was speaking of.”
Ah. Her. I lowered my head and breathed in through the shaft of my pipe, the acrid smoke filling my throat and my lungs. I let the taste and warmth of it stick with me, and only then breathed out a long stream. I should learn to do tricks, I decided. With the smoke.
“I bet Hakram’s been tiptoeing around it all careful-like,” she drawled. “Like he doesn’t want to needle tender skin. But you’re made of rougher stuff than that, aren’t you?”
Tiptoeing wasn’t the right way to put it. A perch had been offered, on occasion, and my refusal to grasp it had seen the matter implicitly closed without it ever being outright put into words.
“You’d know,” I murmured, not wagging my eyebrows but conveying the sentiment by voice. “Although it’s been a while, so maybe you forgot.”
“Godsdamn,” Archer whistled, sounding impressed. “You never get that racy where people might hear. You really don’t want to talk about it, do you?”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” I stiffly said. “She declined twice, I don’t see the need to keep inviting her.”
I wasn’t a bloody widower in desperate need of a second wife, in so dire a bind I’d buy a white stallion and learn to recite Valencian poetry just to impress. Cordial disregard suited me just fine, and to be honest it was probably safer for her. Enemies wouldn’t bother going after a love affair gone cold if trying to get to me, not when there were deeper and more obvious bindings in my life.
“You won’t even say her name,” Indrani grunted, undertone amused. “Yeah, you’re totally over how that went down. How dare I suggest otherwise.”
“Senior Mage Kilian can be fetched, if you require it so deeply,” I replied in a clipped tone. “If she declines, shall I have dragged in chains? She doesn’t fucking want to be here, Indrani.”
“It’s a bad habit, that thing you do,” Archer seriously said. “When if it’s not a blade at your throat, you let relationships stay ambiguous by doing nothing. Bet she might have changer her tune, if you’d let a few more months pass before asking again.”
“It’s been quite a bit longer than that,” I coldly said. “I won’t open up a casket just so you can sate your curiosity, ‘Drani.”
“Oh, that one’s probably cracked beyond mending,” she casually replied. “But it doesn’t have to be that way all around. Send for Akua. And make her stay, even when Vivienne joins.”
My eyes narrowed.
“You don’t give a shit about Kilian, do you?” I said. “You just wanted me to feel raw enough I’d agree to this.”
The ochre-skinned woman grinned, sharp and pale.
“Sure,” Indrani admitted. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
We should have gotten her started on the liquor earlier, I darkly thought. Might have spared me all this. I turned to meet her gaze, unflinching, until our silence was interrupted by Hakram sliding a plate full of pork and biryani on my lap. He glanced at us, dark eyes missing nothing.
“Juniper cracked open a bottle of aragh,” Adjutant said. “Or do you two need to take a walk?”
“Nah,” Indrani smiled. “Aragh sounds good. We’re done here.”
She broke our stare first, strolling away nonchalantly, and Hakram cocked a hairless brow at me in her wake. Underestimating them both, was I? I doubted it, but beyond that assertion I saw a truth she’d not mentioned. If there was going to be strife, when would we next have so relatively safe a moment to handle it? Certainly not in Salia, or up north fighting the dead. Fuck. I really hated it when Indrani pulled the whole incisive insight thing on me, but now that I knew I was taking a greater risk by not handling this now I couldn’t really justify not doing it. Knowing Archer had manoeuvred me didn’t make it any less effective.
“Invite Akua up,” I sighed.
He cocked his head to the side.
“Ought to make for an interesting evening,” he simply said.
Adjutant moved away, boots crinkling against the icing snow, to tread downslope until he’d cross the wards and send one of the legionaries to pass the message along. Ah well, it wasn’t even guaranteed she’d come. I glanced down at my plate and frowned.
“Tenderloin?” I called out at Juniper. “Really, the tenderloin? I should have you hanged.”
I saw Indrani pout and flip Robber a silver as Aisha hid a smile behind her hand.
“Let me go halfsies with Aisha’s cuts,” I wheedled.
Robber cursed in Taghrebi and flipped back the silver to Indrani, who took an overly showy bow. No one seemed particularly inclined to consider my suggestion, the bastards.
“None of you are ever becoming a countess, mark my words,” I bitterly said, and dug into my pork.
Pickler passed me the bottle of aragh, though, so maybe at least one of them would make it to baroness.
My wakeleaf was half-finished by the time Akua glided her way through the raised stones of the Mavian prayer. She’d chosen a rather conservative appearance, by her standards: a high-waisted dress with a long ruffled skirt, in red and yellow touched by eldritch patterns of gold brocade. Given that it was long-sleeved and went up to the beginning of her neck, it was one of the tamer things I’d seen her wear. Still, it was well-fitted and on a woman who looked like Akua Sahelian did that was enough to draw a lingering second look. I puffed out a mouthful of smoke as she approached the fire, bowing slightly towards me as she came to warm hands that needed no warmth against the roaring fire. I nodded back, and both of us pretended not to notice every conversation had died the moment she arrived. I took a moment to study reactions – Indrani was pleased, Hakram pleasant and Masego… staring with fascination at her torso? Must have been an arcane pattern that interested him. Those I’d anticipated rather well, though, so it was the others that got me curious. Robber was grinning, one of those needle-filled offerings that meant amusement so sharp it might as well have been spite. Pickler was indifferent, though the way she’d shuffled on the bench implied surprise and maybe a little curiosity. Aisha had put on the highborn face, a mask of pleasantry so perfect if might as well have been made of marble. Her I wouldn’t get much out of unless I asked. Juniper’s face was disgruntled, and without any hint of the respect I’d expected an orc to bear for someone who’d faced more than half the armies of Praes and Callow on the field without flinching.
Robber would test her, then, which I wasn’t all that worried about. Juniper, though? Contempt might be more dangerous there than antipathy and I suspected that was the way she was leaning.
“Spooky Saddie, sit your ass down,” Archer called out. “You’re not fooling anyone with the warming hands thing, you’re a damned ghost.”
“How have you not run out of those by now?” I said, reluctantly impressed. “Also, shade. Shade is the word you were looking for.”
“What can I say,” Indrani mused, blitherly ignoring my correction, “I’m just a giver at heart.”
“She has a list,” Akua slyly said. “She keeps it in her arrow-bag and her next one is Revenant Rags.”
Archer spluttered out it was lie, Robber cackled loudly before swearing to steal it and just like that the spell of silence was broken. Conversations resumed. Wasteland highborn, huh. I suspected she’d be on decent terms with half the people here before the night was out. She had a knack for charming others, even those who should know better. I let the warm chatter wash over me as I leaned back into my seat and smoked my pipe, following the threads of two different conversations at the same time. Juniper and Pickler had dragged a highly amused Indrani into a debate about whether or not her bow, due to its ridiculous size and the way her arrows were closer to javelins, was still a bow or in fact an exotic siege weapon. Pickler’s insistence that it was a derivative of a ballista by any reasonable set of principles ran into Juniper’s flat reminder that ‘she draws the string, with her arm, because it’s a bow’, while Archer’s insistence that while she was a trebuchet in the sack she was also handy with a string did absolutely nothing to help.
Robber was spinning an elaborate yarn about smuggling an ass – a donkey, not the other kind – in a cadet-captain’s room back his War College days for the benefit of a seemingly amused Akua, with the occasional dry correction by Hakram. Masego and Aisha, significantly more sober than most people around this fire, were discussing whether the old Alamans legends about the morions, barrow and underground-dwelling creatures that had a rapacious hunger for gold, silver and jewels, were an extinct people or simply dwarf-sightings made legend by the passing of time. It seemed the subject was of particular interest to Aisha, because I was bestowed the rare sight of Hierophant knowing visibly less about a subject than his interlocutor. As the one of the few people here who’d actually seen and spoken with dwarves I contributed a few details, though mostly I enjoyed the sensation of closest thing to home I’d felt in a very long time. Still, I was not so much at ease I’d not kept an eye and ear on where the first knife would come from. And as expected, two yarns later Robber turned a sharp grin and sharper words on Akua.
“Mind you, the fun didn’t end when we left Ater,” he drawled. “There was this one time – this was when you were still Governess in Laure, before we murdered your every ally and broke everything you ever strove for – when the Boss sent me south to kill your buddies as they moved west. Would have kept it up for even longer, except I was torturing this guy named Mulin who claimed to be under your protection and-”
Akua’s brow rose.
“Mulin,” she said. “Would you happen to mean Mulade Humin, by any chance?”
“Friend of yours?” Robber grinned.
“No, but the Lady of Salizan sent a cart’s worth of gold ingots with him,” Akua mused. “Never did get these. He was the heir to the holdings, so his mother was rather cross, but I did wonder what had happened to him.”
“Borer slit his throat,” the goblin said. “And I’m not saying we ate him, but Hells we were low on rations and if it’s Wasteland highborn anything goes, right?”
He was, I thought, looking to shock her. To get a reaction out of her. But then Robber had known little of the Empire’s high nobility, save when standing against them on a battlefield. As a student in the War College, he would have been considered under the protection of my father back in the day – who was known to brutally murder any highborn meddling with the College, and quite publicly at that. He believedt he knew what Akua Sahelian would be like, I thought, but he rather didn’t.
“Was he a screamer?” she asked.
“When you tortured him,” Akua clarified, “was he a screamer? Because there’s been these persistent rumours about the Humin-”
“Oh, come off it,” Aisha interrupted. “Even if spice birds did exist, which no one has ever proved-”
“There’s Miezan records, Bishara,” Akua solemnly said.
“By Calavia,” the Taghreb replied, sounding deeply offended. “The same hack who wrote about giant crabs living in the Wasaliti and insisted the Blessed Isle was a nest for crocodiles that spoke riddles in High Tyrian. She wrote to entertain patricians in Mieza, not as true historian.”
“I can’t comment on Calavia’s accuracy in all things,” Akua said, “yet I once shared a table with Mulade Humin when we were nine, and by the noises he made when I ate the last spice cookies you’d think I ate his firstborn using only forks.”
“Is it me, or is it kind of titillating when those two argue about things?” Indrani pensively asked.
Godsdamnit, Archer. If you’re going to say things like that, at least say something I don’t kind of agree with deep down. So both of them were rather good looking, and them getting heated over debate was a good look. It wasn’t my fault I had eyes! Still, best not to say that. Akua hardly needed the encouragement and trying to get Aisha into bed had terrible idea written all over for all sorts of reasons. I set aside the distracting though but focusing on more practical matters. The more the two of them spoke, I saw, the more out of his depth Robber looked. I sympathized, but then trying to take the shade on in courtly games like this was not the wisest choice he’d ever made. I’d seen few people outright chew through Akua when it came to this, Vivienne most vividly coming to mind. Even Black’s attempt to humiliate and terrorize her into doing something unwise by making her nail her own hand to a table had not borne the fruit he’d wanted it to, back in the day, and Akua in those years had been nowhere as smooth as she now was. Without having ever drawn blood as he meant to Robber was turned aside, and the conversations moved on. When lively debate over the kind of riddles in High Tyrian a talking crocodile might have feasibly asked – Archer, the filthy show off, started quoting riddles from ‘Tyrant and the Fool’ in the play’s original tradertalk, a tongue that had common Baalite roots – I found Aisha elegantly sitting at my side.
“My queen,” Staff Tribune Aisha Bishara said.
“I thought I’d trained you out of that,” I sighed.
‘’It’s been some time,” she smiled. “And this is a serious enough affair.”
My brow rose, and I decided to pass the last of the aragh to a distracted Hakram instead of drinking it.
“I’m listening,” I said.
Aisha’s lips thinned, then she leaned forward and lowered her voice.
“Do you mean,” she softly asked, “for Akua Sahelian to be Dread Empress of Praes?”