Staff & Credits
The mule was almost certainly having a better time than Larsen was having. Almost certainly.
Staring at its casually arrayed long ears, over its head at the ever-more-forbidding Resken Trail, Larsen had been staring at the reddish-brown brushlands for, it felt like, weeks. He rode astride a recalcitrant (and, he thought, sentient) grey mule with what had to be the most expressive face that'd ever existed on man or beast. Larsen looked ahead, down the trail, while the mule clumped along. He rode in the middle of a long train of mules, all led by a hunchbacked fellow on foot. The trail, if one wished to grace it with that title, had the marks of long use, but there wasn't a soul in sight besides themselves. Larsen had seen some peasants driving those long-haired goats they fancied here westward from the last big town, Weston, but that'd been it since then. Nobody really travelled much around here.
The diplomat certainly could see why. He'd seen almost all there was to see of the Eastern Cities, and he'd lived in Priascialla for ten years, but he'd never seen such placid countryside in his life as what existed in the western half of Tergaea. Even that stretch of forest they called the Wilds, out by Eliff, was interesting to ride through, though he hadn't seen all the fuss. But this...
Well, he was still a diplomat, and he sighed and tried not to let it get to him. Long travel times were what one had to endure, outside the capital.
He sipped the cool, clear water the Abbey'd provided from his canteen. Odd sort, those religious folk, he reflected, as the train moved slowly, slowly forward. Entirely too nice. He immediately concluded that they had something to hide. Perhaps he'd find a way to find out what it was.
Ahead, the mountains began to appear on the horizon, as a thin, oily smear above the golden, hazy land. Almost on schedule, the caravan master called for a halt, and people began to slow down.
Priascialla lay far, far to the east. So did almost everything else. Larsen was used to thinking of the capital city as the center of the universe, even if it was, geographically, on the far east end of the continent. Wasn't it the center in every way that counted, though? He'd sighed with regret, just like all his servants had, when they reached the Outboundary and were forced to abandon their traveling-coaches. It seemed almost insulting to a man of his dignity to travel by horseback and carriage, to require animals to sweat for him to get anywhere. But that was the reality of Scialla. He rode because he had a commission to fulfill, and he would do his best to fulfill it. He was a diplomat, his commission granted by the star-haired Empress herself.
The memory of that elegant madness still disturbed his memories. Kira Stardancer was not someone to take lightly. Every aspect of her carriage seemed calculated to best effect. Her indigo eyes glittered and schemed brighter than the blackest beetle's shell, even while she seemed to be happy or at rest. Larsen was accustomed to being a pawn, but not one moved with such calculated recklessness or such insane single-mindedness. He had only met her this one time, despite his station; he had come away from the meeting shaken and relieved that he would not likely encounter her again in his lifetime. He could easily see how she had survived the slaughter of her entire family and the politics of the modern day. She controlled even this westernmost part of her domain with iron will.
At least, that is the image she wished to portray to the world. Larsen would not now be travelling by mule-back if this were totally true. Larsen pushed the image of the pale, white-haired Lady out of his mind, replacing it with that of his voluptuous, merry wife Duena. She was far, far away, in Priascialla, probably wishing she knew how he was doing right now, just like he wondered about her. His letters would now be trickling in to her, he thought. They went as slowly as he did.
Ahead, the mountains were a purple stain rising into the sky.
Larsen awoke in the middle of the night to a monstrous noise, and jerked out of his sleeping roll. He blinked, trying to figure out what'd awakened him. Finally, he realized that people were shouting outside his tent. It sounded very nasty and very violent.
He had been picked for this mission for a reason, and that reason was that he rarely lost his composure. He did not panic, but instead pulled on his boots over his pant-legs, seized his domelike cap and put it on, and went outside. There, he found the caravan master squaring off with a small number of rough-looking sorts. Miners, Larsen surmised. The diplomat stood a moment in his tent-flap door, sizing up the situation. The caravan master looked quite frightened, but was trying to hide it.
There were four miners visible, all standing near each other near one end of the camp, with a couple hiding, probably. All were very tanned, and all bore the features of mixed-breeds -- Bilashan-Sciallans, most likely, if he was any judge of it. They wore leather clothing and bits and snatches of armor, all of it probably stolen, and all of it mismatched and occasionally not fitting well. No weapons were drawn, though all the men wore impressively craggy and ill-used axe and swords, but that'd probably happen soon. A few other of Larsen's party members were scattered around, all wide-eyed.
In the time it took Larsen to make his examination, all eyes swivelled to him. "And who's this eastern posey?" sneered one of the miners. It didn't escape Larsen that the man wore a leather helm embellished with small, pointed horns. Six of them, along the rim. The fellow looked like an upside-down pot.
"I'm Larsen Deniger, a traveller. And you gentlemen would be..?" he asked politely, letting the tentflap close. He walked a few paces toward the miners, his hands carefully kept in view, but didn't let any nervousness show.
"Oh, he's a traveller!" snorted another miner, mimicking Larsen's Priasciallan accent. "I s'pose we'd better get 'im some tea and nibbles!"
Larsen smiled in a friendly way. "It's not quite time for that yet. We always take it at fourths." The miners thought about that, then laughed. Larsen looked around the campsite. "But what can we do for you gentlemen?"
The first miner's laugh was ugly and short. "You're trespassin'. This is Freehold country."
"Oh," said Larsen mildly. "I thought the trail was for anybody's use."
"It isn't! And we demand you pay our fee for using our trail!"
"You mean Jack Red's trail, don't you?" Larsen said it in the same mild tone, and the miner didn't realize what trap lay behind the words. "Isn't that your mayor?"
"Yeah, and we're Jack's men!"
Larsen smiled his biggest, most beatific smile. "Why, that's wonderful! That's exactly who invited me to Freehold."
The miners exchanged glances.
The diplomat was on his own ground now. He approached the first miner and held out his hand to shake. The miner stared at Larsen, then at the proffered hand, and finally shook it. He looked quite confused. His friends exchanged glances with each other. The sullen menace in the air seemed to vanish in chummy chatter. "I'm so glad we ran into you," said Larsen. "We're just a bit late arriving -- got a little lost, you see -- and maybe with your guidance we can reach our appointment with Jack on time."
The miners considered this.
"I'm sure Jack'd appreciate it," trailed Larsen. "After all, he did specifically ask me to visit..."
There were only three miners there now. Larsen admired the fourth for his skill at vanishing. He etched the fellow's face onto his memory for later use. For now, he chattered gaily at the remaining miners, waving a hand at his companions to scoot them along to their beds, and by the time the night was over, the miners were standing guard over the encampment.
Once the diplomat was back into his tent, the flap safely closed behind him, he put a violently-shaking hand to his chest and stood for a while quietly, eyes closed, till he could move without shivering with the after-effects of fear.
Eventually Larsen blew out his candle, plunging his tent into chilly darkness, but he was no idiot. He stood guard on his own, with his antique rapier ready for use. It was a very, very long wait till morning.
The miners were as good as their word. Larsen was a little surprised that nobody'd tried to break into his tent. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, except for his servants, who were a little wild-eyed over the night's excitement. Larsen pish-poshed the whole thing and ate a leisurely breakfast of sausages and strawcake, his favorite breakfast meal, and let them square away his tent and goods on the mule. The "leader" of the little band of miners, whose name Larsen quickly learned was Dog Tom Rulen, was sour as old beer. He pointed up at the mountain that lay more or less in a straight line at the end of the trail. "That's where it is," he said, smiling with pride.
Larsen nodded appreciatively, his eyes following the miner's outstretched hand. The mountain was indeed worthy of pride -- it was huge, and appropriately craggy. Not for the first time did Larsen wish the view was of the elegant, pristine spires of the white palace in Priascialla, not this forbidding, chilly trail and its guardian-mountains. "Are you men going to accompany us?" At the words, the trail leader scowled, which did not escape Larsen's notice.
The miner shook his scruffy head. "We'll go on ahead and tell people you've coming." Larsen accepted this with stoic grace. It was just as well. He watched the miner disappear, with his companions, giving the rough men a friendly wave. The caravaner leader did not wish them good-bye. Long after they were gone, he approached the diplomat and murmurred, "We should be at the ascent soon, sir. Doubt we'll see any more of those sort."
Larsen nodded at this. He had nothing more to add. Ahead of them, the mountain could be seen, its ascent impossible to see clearly yet.
Three days later, they found themselves at the Iron Gate. Larsen already knew this was the gate's name. One could hardly tell it was made of iron, if it was at all. Iron was scarce on Scialla. Metal was scarce everywhere. To make a whole gate of iron was an obscene waste. And yet that was the gate's name, and up here, one might even believe somebody had done such a thing.
The air was thin; Larsen felt his quick breathing, wondered how much air he was getting with all of it. It didn't feel like much. He got off his mule, rubbing briefly at his rear end, under the velvet, fur-lined coat, looking back down the trail they'd come up. He still couldn't believe the ascent had been that steep, that long; the memories of that terrifying ride would be with him always. He could see now why Freehold did not see much interference from the Empire. Even battled-suited Flameholdans might feel trepidation at the idea of scaling these peaks, and he was only a man, even if he was a diplomat.
His people awaited him now, though. He smiled at them gamely as he approached the gate confidently and rapped on it. He couldn't see beyond the doors, and the wall was several stories high, disappearing into the sides of the mountain itself to his left. It curved out of view to the right. He wondered briefly if anybody could hear his knock, and if not, if anybody ever died out here, in this mountain forest. He could well imagine someone dying here. He shivered in his coat.
A small door opened in the main one, at face level. And indeed, a face could be seen behind it, a very unpleasant and cantankerous face. "Yeh?"
Larsen drew himself up proudly and said simply, "Diplomat Larsen Deniger of Priascialla, sent here to speak with Jack Red at his request." He did not attempt to mince words. Appearance was everything.
A pause, and the little door closed. Then the main gates creaked on their hinges. Larsen stood back as the gates opened outward. He tried not to gasp -- the gates did appear to be made of iron! How insane! The metal was old, but still black, without a spot of rust anywhere, and the gates were thicker than he'd ever seen a gate, except maybe those of the Palace itself. Beyond the gate, as it opened, he saw a formation of what he assumed were soldiers, lined up to receive him. He stood back further, as the gates finished opening. And then his world stopped.
If you'd asked Larsen right then who the most beautiful woman in the world was, he'd have answered without hesitation the name "Duena", even though secretly he'd have thought "Kira Stardancer".
The woman who stepped into view then outshone either lady as the sun outshines the moon. For the first time in his life, Larsen could think of absolutely nothing to say.
She was a vision. Tall, willowy, and mysterious, with fathomless dark eyes (not blue, like Kira's, but so dark brown they were black) and hair the color of night, her skin not pale like his wife's or his empress's, but sallow, almost bronze in color (oh, and with a beauty mark near the corner of her full lips, just like Duena liked to wear, but this woman wore hers so much better that now he only felt sorry that Duena had it so wrong), she waited for him near the soldiers. Her hair was piled atop her head, making her much taller than Larsen, and adorned with strings of pearls held in her hair by a silver-and-sapphire butterfly clasp. Little tendrils escaped, curling down her neck, along her perfect shoulders. She wore an extravagant midnight-blue silken gown with a tight, sleeveless bodice, her bosom swelling above it, and a flowing skirt held out by what Larsen knew were hoops -- his wife had a set; they were all the rage in the capital, but he'd not seen them since leaving the boundaries. She wore pure white silk gloves that went past her elbows, and held a fan of white feathers, and a small, leatherbound book. But her appearance was not what made her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He had seen his share of beauties in the Eastern cities, some even more exotic than this woman. He could not tell what made her so enticing.
She waited for him. Clearly, this was his escort to Jack Red, since the soldiers with her wore his emblem, the red wolf, and watched her not out of lust, but as any soldier would keep an eye on his commander for orders.
The city around them was urbane in a barbaric way, but Larsen couldn't see much of it, he was so bemused. He did notice that a street ran up the city, disappearing among buildings, but heading generally to a keep on the mountainside. He saw several carriages standing near the soldiers, all hitched to perfect black and dark-brown horses.
Finally Larsen recovered himself. Knowing his people were just as amazed by the woman, he approached her, and when he got close enough to talk to her, knelt on one knee on the snowy, frigid ground. "My lady, I am Larsen Deniger of Priascialla." She smiled, very slightly. "I am Lady Nomi," she replied. "I am here to escort you to Jack. He awaits your arrival breathlessly." She offered Larsen her hand.
Later he realized that she was offering to help him stand, but he took her hand and kissed it very delicately. She didn't betray any hint of surprise, only motioned to the carriages. "You and your servants are welcome to ride," she said, her voice accented in a way Larsen was having trouble identifying. "My men will gladly bring the mules and gear with them. You are to be housed in the Keep."
Larsen stood up without brushing himself off. He looked back at the teamster, who tore his eyes away from Lady Nomi and trudged off to the mules beyond the gate. The diplomat saw almost none of this. "Thank you, milady," he said, trying to get his bearings. He got his servants situated in carriages, and only then finally climbed into one beside the dark lady. She said a single word, and the three carriages and the soldiers started off down the road.
Now Larsen could look around at the city. What he saw astounded him. Freehold had been founded only a few decades before, by Jack Red. He'd set out to make a haven for miners, a city where a man could relax without nobles all over and without having to kowtow to the Empire. He'd founded his city (and make no mistake -- it was his) on the premise that the law could be carried out logically and rationally without making things un-fun.
The Empire viewed this as a complete breakdown of the social order, but one had to admit that very few felons turned up in Freehold -- or at least got out again. Jack understood at a primal level that existing as a lawless state would get him only the unlovely and thorough attention of the Flameholdan Guard. But it was hard to convince the Empire of this. He operated without Imperial charter, without Imperial attention, without paying Imperial taxes, all because he asked absolutely nothing of the Empire.
As far as the government was (or at least, should have been) concerned, Freehold was not a town -- it was Jack's private residence.
And this Lady Nomi -- what was she to Jack?
Larsen, who had a better-than-average political science background, could easily see that Freehold was not the wretched hive of scum and villainy that it was often painted to be. And now he was sure he was right.
The carriages passed through wide, cobbled roads that weren't too filthy, heading up the mountainside past stone and timber houses, shops, warehouses, and taverns. Past many taverns, actually. The snows were partially melted, making the scene rather grungy, but the good, solid workmanship of the buildings was easily the match of anything in the capital. Windows were generally glazed, and doors generally bore real metal hinges. The people on the streets were generally miners, all dressed in what passed for "dressed-up" to a miner's thinking. Though the clothes were tawdry, the attempt at least had been made.
And now Larsen could think coherently again. He said to the lady, "Jack is expecting us?"
She smiled at him, a very mysterious, fey smile. "Oh, yes," she said with a hint of a purr. "Many days ago we heard that you were coming." She looked outside the open carriage at the streets they rolled along. "Do you like Freehold?"
"Yes, it's quite an accomplishment." He dared to smile at her, and found that it wasn't that hard. "Your accent, my lady. It is most unfamiliar."
"That is not surprising," was all she said. After a few more moments riding, she pointed to a building. "That is the Golden Goblet," she said. "It is considered the best brewhouse in the city. Make sure you visit it."
Larsen looked as the carriage passed the two-story building. It certainly looked opulent. A wooden sign outside it was gilded and shaped, appropriately enough, like a goblet, and bore no printed words.
As the carriages rumbled along, the buildings got bigger and grander in construction, and the slowly the miners faded from view, to be replaced by fops and ladies who might have walked right off a boat from Priascialla. Larsen couldn't help but show his surprise, his utter amazement, as silk-clad lords and ladies sashayed down the streets on errands, some with servants and packages in tow. Most wore dark clothes, and the ladies were arrayed somewhat like Nomi was, with their hair piled up and wearing gowns that looked a little like hers, but not quite as ornate. Hedges, potted plants, wrought-iron and gingerbread decorations, and stained-glass hangers and windows overtook the city, making a very pleasant ride to the Keep.
The Keep itself was quite a sight, ominous, foreboding, and altogether spectacular, with towers, gates, walls, and archers' windows presenting a very smug face to the world. The street ended at the gate to the Keep, which, Larsen noted, was also of iron. What a tremendous waste, he thought, but could say nothing about them -- a diplomat must choose wisely when to be critical.
And the carriage went right toward it.
The dark lady beside him betrayed no emotion as the carriage rolled through the opening iron gate. Inside was a lush courtyard, overgrown with colorful, well-kept flowering shrubs and coniferous trees of varying heights. The effect was of a forest brought into the city. The courtyard lay in the middle of a square-shaped trio of buildings, all made of white stone -- not triamandine, though, Larsen perceived immediately. Their windows were all very tall, oval-shaped, and paned at the edges in rose-colored glass. It was an ephemeral and almost eerie sight.
Lady Nomi waited for the coachman to come to her side of the carriage, then delicately took his hand and alighted from the vehicle as if weightless. Larsen got out of his side, admiring her discreetly.
"Lovely, isn't she?" boomed a voice from the central building. Larsen looked up, startled, to see a large, broad-shouldered man emerging from the building. He was truly the most enormous man Larsen had ever seen -- not just tall, but bulky and muscular in a way Larsen couldn't even begin to think was natural. He was built like a wooden block, with a blocky head and an almost comical handlebar moustache, and a thick head of gunmetal-grey hair. His brown eyes were nearly buried beneath thick brows. He wore a dark red silk shirt (silk!) over tight black silk pants, with a swirling, dark-fur-edged cloak of what looked like dark blue velvet. His boots were knee-high, black, and sturdy. Overall, he was an imposing man.
But his mere imposing frame was enough to shock Larsen back to his senses. "She's lovely... Jack Red, I take it?"
The man laughed, a booming laugh, as he came down the shallow white stairs to the carriage. Lady Nomi held out her hand to Jack and he took it, swirling her to his side, where she watched Larsen with a completely inscrutable expression. She turned her gaze to her companion, then, without another word, went into the house. Larsen found himself watching her go, until the door clicked closed behind her.
"I'm Jack Red indeed," said the newcomer. "And you're that diplomat Kira said she'd send, Deniger, wasn't it?" Larsen found himself slipping into "diplomat" mode now, on easy, familiar ground even in such unfamiliar surroundings.
He nodded and bowed to Jack, a deep bow that left not a single impression of subservience. "I am Larsen Deniger, from Priascialla, the voice of Her Eminence, Kira Stardancer."
Jack reached out a bear's-paw of a hand and shook Larsen's. Larsen took this familiarity with grace, smiling heartily.
"Oho, you're not as stuffy as you look, are you?" laughed Jack. "I must watch you. Come inside, you're probably chilled out here." He turned and escorted Larsen into the house, using the same door Lady Nomi had used.
Larsen noted coolly that Lady Nomi was nowhere in sight. The building inside was as opulent and well-appointed as it had been outside, with very high ceilings, lots of glazed windows, and inlaid wooden furniture and velvet hangings. It was more primal than Priascialla's palace, but in its way, just as arrestingly beautiful. Larsen was aware of many servants scurrying around, cleaning and running errands down the main hall before them, disappearing and re-appearing from the many doors and halls set off of it.
"We'll go to my study," said Jack. "I'm most interested in hearing what you have to say." He led the way down the hall, with Larsen behind him.
Larsen was struck, as they walked, with how egalitarian Jack was. The huge man swept down the hall, clapping servants on the shoulder, smiling greetings to maids and functionaries, and cracking jokes with anybody who'd stand still long enough to hear them. But not everybody did stand still -- many smiled greetings at their leader and scurried along their paths. Nobody bowed. Time did not stand still. It looked nothing like anything Larsen'd ever seen, most especially nothing like what Kira Stardancer's hall looked like, with its air of ceremony so thick you could stand on it. But for all the jocularity, Jack seemed quite genuine; Larsen couldn't see any signs that his host was putting an act on for his guest's benefit.
Jack led him to an ornate wooden door and opened it for him.
The room Larsen entered was quite large, with a slab of a desk and a few tall, leather-upholstered chairs set around. A small table near one of the chairs had a tray set upon it. Larsen noted a nearly-translucent porcelain teapot and some teacups on the tray, along with proper tea-time foods. He took a seat near the desk, eyeing the tray and teapot.
Jack motioned that he should help himself, so Larsen did, pouring a thick-bodied amber brew from the teapot into a teacup, not spilling a drop of the precious fluid. He offered the cup to Jack, who smiled and took it. Tea-time began in this way, the two men chatting amiably. Finally, Larsen said in as friendly a way as he could, "I appreciate your sending someone to greet us." He paused delicately. "Is Lady Nomi your wife?"
Jack laughed merrily. His eyes seemed to penetrate Larsen as he replied evasively, "Lady Nomi belongs to no man. She is my associate here, in my home."
That seemed to end that discussion, but Larsen felt the bottom sink out of his stomach at the mere thought of that woman. He shook himself mentally, just in time for Jack to unsubtly change the subject, asking, "Are you tired? Or is it acceptable to discuss things so soon?"
Larsen was strangely touched by Jack's concern for his physical comfort. He sipped the fragrant tea, gathering his thoughts, then said, "I am authorized to greet you in the Empress' name, and make very preliminary small talk about affairs."
Jack laughed again. "Very delicately said! I imagine you'll be staying a while, am I right?"
Larsen smiled wryly. "You're as direct as a Flameholdan, aren't you? I imagine so, yes, depending on how long the negotiations last."
Jack sat down behind his desk, sipping tea and looking at Larsen in that penetrating way again. "You're brave, to not mind staying someone with the reputation Freehold has."
There wasn't much Larsen could say to that, so he shrugged. "It's my Empress' command."
Jack's voice was steady and confident as he mused, "I must hear more of this amazing woman all you Priasciallans worship. Tell me about her."
Larsen finished his tea and took a golden-colored cookie from the tray, though he didn't eat it, just toyed with it as he considered his words carefully. "She's amazing, yes," he said finally. "She's very interested in reaching an understanding with Freehold." He looked up at Jack.
Jack smiled and shook his head. "Well said," he said, almost to himself. He reached to the wall and tugged on a richly embroidered velvet bellpull. No sound came from the motion, but a moment later, while Larsen finally ate his cookie, a valet came through the door, all smiles.
"This is Larsen, my guest from back East," said Jack easily. "Please escort him to his room and make sure he knows where the baths are."
At the word "baths", Larsen's ears pricked up. He stood and held his hand out to Jack, who shook it heartily. After the usual benedictions, Larsen left, following the valet.
"You're from Priascialla, right?" asked the valet, who was a young and excitable man with orange hair. His uniform looked a little uncomfortable on him, but he was clearly happy with his station in life, Larsen thought.
"Yes, I am," he said, as the valet took him upstairs and down a hall, as opulently appointed as the great hall downstairs.
"How exciting! I'm from Weston, myself," said the young man. Larsen suffered his gushing with good grace, till the valet opened a wooden door and swung it inward to allow Larsen to enter his room.
Larsen entered a very large bedroom with a thickly carpeted floor, artwork all over the walls, and a bed big enough for six. It was easily the equal of anything he'd seen in Priascialla, and actually more than he'd expected. He began to make some slight changes in his assessment of Jack Red as he looked around, smiling a farewell to the valet, who closed the door with a humble bow.
Larsen quickly found the bathtub in a room adjoining the bedroom, washed off the grunge of a few thousand miles, and went to bed, falling asleep even as his head touched the soft feather pillows.
Larsen's entry into Freehold society went predictably well, he thought; Jack introduced him the next day, in a large formal hall, to an assemblage of people Larsen thought looked more or less Priasciallan, except for the exotic touches in their dress and their decidedly non-Noble faces.
These were not Nobles, no -- he saw a lot of half-breed faces. The men were uniformly rough, probably ex-miners, with a good assortment of ages represented. The women, Larsen noted, tended to be either very rough or very ornamental, with few middle-of-the-road types. All of the people presented were well-dressed, most of them in either current Priasciallan fashion or something else entirely.
And though the diplomat would never have admitted it, he noted almost immediately that morning that Lady Nomi was not present in the hall.
Jack had swept into the hall, with Larsen in his wake, through a couple dozen of these peers, to the head of the hall, where was set, upon a dais, a comfortable chair upholstered in greatcat fur. Larsen had noted the fur with a chill; killing those beasts was said to be nearly impossible even for many warriors. Jack sat at this chair, gesturing that Larsen stand nearby, and had announced Larsen's identity and purpose to the assembled courtiers. Then he nodded to Larsen, as if to say Larsen could go on about his business a while, and arranged a meeting with him later that morning. With that, Jack turned to a courtier Larsen thought looked like a chamberlain and began to take care of the day's business.
Larsen waited around near the chair, just listening. Jack was a brilliant politician, he realized almost immediately, with a keen mind for costs versus benefits, and an even keener appreciation of alliances. Jack ran through the thick sheaf of requests with an almost startling speed, all the while dictating a letter to a second courtier and listening to a third. Larsen didn't think he'd ever seen Kira do so much so quickly.
The requests were mostly cases of justice, with courtiers appointed this or that citizen's advocate. The courtiers appeared to be doing their tasks as a favor, perhaps for money. Larsen had never seen such a thing, so he was fascinated.
"Interesting, isn't it?" said a voice to Larsen's side.
Larsen turned to see a smartly-attired man nearby. The man was tall and very dashing, with short auburn hair and a goatee. He had bright, dark eyes and a long face, but the first thing Larsen noticed about him, honestly, were his clothes, which were sumptuous if exotic for Larsen's taste. His new acquaintance appeared to be fairly young, with a rich, cultured, Eastern-accented voice.
"Yes, it is," said Larsen with a smile. "He's very industrious."
The stranger laughed and nodded. "He is. I'm Rob Selvers. Jack asked me to stick near you in case you needed anything."
Larsen took this in, looking quickly at Jack, who was busy and didn't notice him. "Thank you, Lord Selvers."
Faster than Larsen would have expected, the man said, "No, not a lord. We don't do that here. Come, I'll show you the gardens. Most visitors like to see them."
The diplomat didn't want to leave -- he wondered what this stranger had in mind, to get him away from Jack Red -- but he realized it would be rude to decline, so he allowed Rob to escort him out.
The manor was awash in the same servants and functionaries it had been the previous day. Larsen was minded to ask about his entourage, and Rob assured him they were being kept as guests elsewhere in the compound.
Rob left the house by an ornate door, and Larsen immediately felt he was in paradise. He had never seen such a beautiful garden, nor such a large one.
The path he and Rob stood on wound out of sight among a stately, somewhat wild-looking garden full of flowering shrubs, trees, and flowers. Larsen knew that he was high up in the mountains, but this garden looked like the height of summer, and once again he felt that he might not have stepped foot outside Priascialla.
He breathed, "How big is it?"
Rob followed the guest's gaze across the breadth of the garden. "It's big," he said finally. "I'm not sure how large, but it'd take most of a day to walk through it."
Larsen realized that if Kira heard about this place, she'd have to make herself one that was even bigger. The thought made him smile to himself as he looked around. "I didn't realize a mining town would get into this kind of thing."
His host smiled back. "It wasn't entirely Jack's idea, but I have to admit, it's turned out well."
Without realizing he was doing it, Larsen said quickly, "Lady Nomi?"
There was a pregnant pause. Rob looked out across the garden. "You met her already, did you?"
"Yes. Who is she? Nobody wants to tell me."
Rob thought a moment, then grinned. "They can't tell you what they don't know." His eyes were alight with humor. "Are you hungry? I think the kitchen's still open for the morning."
Larsen let Rob take him out of the garden and to a large, well-equipped kitchen, where they sat and ate till Larsen had to meet with Jack Red, but he had not missed Rob's unsubtle attempt to change the subject -- and he felt sure that Rob was capable of far more subtlety than that. It was mysterious, he had to admit, and decided that Lady Nomi was probably some sort of spymaster for Jack.
When Larsen went back into what he could only call the throne room, Jack was almost entirely alone. He saw the diplomat and waved him closer. Larsen saw a tray on the small table beside the ruler, and upon the tray, he saw the remains of a late breakfast. Jack gestured to the nearest chair. Larsen looked around, at the one or two cleaning servants who were about the only people in the room, and took a seat.
"Did you meet Rob?" Jack asked casually, taking a sip from a stein.
"Yes, he's quite courteous," said Larsen carefully.
"He's one of my late wife's nephews," Jack said.
"Late? I'm sorry to hear that."
Jack shrugged. "It's not an easy life, and some people aren't ready for it." He let a moment slide past, then, rubbing his chin, said "Now let us speak frankly."
"I'm authorized to speak about almost anything," said Larsen automatically.
Jack got a piece of paper from the table. "Your Empress has written me saying she'd like me to join her kingdom, is that it?" He looked over the paper speculatively.
Larsen felt many decades of experience flow through him. "Yes," he said. "We've noted Freehold's growth the past ten years and want to offer you the opportunity to join with us."
"Really? And what do I get for doing this?"
"Obviously, the protection of the Empire, including our Flameholdan Army, and other such benefits like public works projects, educational facilities, and inclusion in the Empress' own council."
Larsen felt these were very important benefits to be had, so he was rather surprised to see Jack chuckle. "Is that the best she can do?" he asked. "I don't need her army, and we already pay for our own roads and schools. Besides, she forgets something important -- this isn't a town. It's my house."
"Semantics," said Larsen coolly. "I don't think anybody observing Freehold could think it's just one man's house. You have a town on your hands -- a large and prosperous one, unless I miss my guess."
Jack listened politely. "Semantics are everything," he said. "We're not a town, my friend. I'd never presume to be anything but a gracious host to all of these people."
Larsen thought, Like Lady Nomi? -- but said instead, "Nonetheless, my Empress is impressed and extends her invitation."
His host thought about that. Larsen shifted in his chair slightly. "What if I decline her offer?"
"If you decline," said Larsen evenly, gazing directly at Jack, "it is entirely possible Kira may find you a threat to her rule."
Jack sat back in his chair and set his hands on his knees, looking back at Larsen. "Is that a threat?" he asked, his voice silky.
"Certainly not. She wouldn't be that foolish. But it's still true -- your 'house' has a certain reputation for lawlessness. Who's to say you won't get it in mind to start acting aggressively to the towns nearby that she controls?"
Jack snorted. "Why would I do that? I have everything I need. If I took over a town, I'd be setting myself up as a ruler, and I already told you I don't want to do that."
Larsen wasn't that surprised by Jack's response. "Your 'houseguests' don't seem to be in agreement with that," he replied evenly, and told Jack what had happened to him on the trail.
Jack was quite startled by this news and asked him many questions about it. Larsen was satisfied that Jack had not authorized these miners' foray into extortion, but the question remained -- Jack's home was quite large, and it might well be a threat to Kira.
Jack laughed off all such suggestions. "The men who come here come because the villages don't fulfill their needs," he said seriously. "I give them a home and somewhere to have fun without breaking a lot of laws, and we all make a lot of money at it. Some of them clean up their acts and join my staff, and others just come and go as they choose."
Larsen realized that the conversation was becoming circular, so he said quietly, "You know, just by being in the Kiasse, you're part of the Empire."
"Am I, now?" laughed Jack, his eyes glittering. "Nobody asked me, that I know of. I came here to get away from that."
Larsen gauged Jack to be direct, so he said, "Nonetheless, it's true, and like it or not, you're part of the human race -- and even up here, you may discover that's important."
"Maybe," conceded Jack. "But I like my independence."
Pausing delicately, Larsen offered, "Kira is prepared to offer you certain concessions for becomin a formal part of the Empire."
Jack's eyebrows raised. "Really," he said. "Go on."
Larsen got his notebook out from his pouch and opened it. He read, "She is offering you three years free of paying taxes, along with the promise of non-occupation as long as Freehold doesn't make trouble for any of the other villages."
Jack sat back again, taking all this in. He rubbed his chin and looked down at the table and the letter from Kira on it. When he spoke, it was almost to himself: "That's a lot, but it doesn't seem like enough to convince me I want Freehold to be Imperial." He looked up at Larsen, studying him. "Why is she being so generous?"
Larsen thought, She isn't -- that's pretty standard as an opening gambit. But instead, he said, "She prefers to get right to the point -- and you do too, I think."
The tension broke and Jack laughed. "Well, I'll think about this then," he said. "It may be a few days. Please be my guest until then, and rest assured, I don't hold the messenger at fault for the message."
Larsen thought that was rather delicately put. He got up and bowed to Jack, who fussed and told him not to before hinting that he had other meetings to attend.
Larsen found Rob at the door to the chamber when he'd gotten through it. The rest of the day was a whirlwind of social activity, as Larsen was vetted around the compound and introduced to this or that important person. Rob took his duties as a tour guide seriously, and Larsen could honestly say he was not at all bored that day.
Dinner was a special banquet, an almost atavistic feast lit by torches and served by pre-adolescent boys, all of whom had a certain girlish demeanor and all of whom were almost eager to serve. The food was unfamiliar to Larsen, but delicious. Rob sat next to him the whole time, making small talk and being genial in general. Jack sat at the head of the table, not far away but far enough to discourage Larsen from speaking with him; beyond civil greetings and inquiries, Jack didn't say anything to him about their discussion earlier.
But Larsen was watching Lady Nomi, who sat across the table from him. He had to admit, the moment he'd entered the dining room, he had looked for her first, before locating Jack Red.
She was radiant tonight, her lightly bronzed skin glowing in the firelight. Her dark hair was half caught up on top, leaving the rest of it to flow across her bare shoulders. Her gown tonight was a deep forest green cloth-of-gold, the gold threads giving the fabric a bronze glint that caught the light sometimes. The gown had long sleeves that ended in points over the backs of her hands, and Larsen could now see that her fingernails were perfectly manicured. Her dark eyes held promises he couldn't begin to decipher.
I'm being an infant, he told himself, and forced himself to be civil to Lady Nomi -- civil and nothing more. It didn't escape his attention that Rob was the soul of deference to her.
"Are you enjoying our home?" she asked as the main course was served. Rob lifted slices of steaming meat from a beautifully-arranged platter to her plate, then to Larsen's, then to his own.
"Yes, very much," Larsen replied. "You are all a credit to Tergaea. I'm glad to be here."
She regarded him quizzically. "Surely you miss your wife...?"
Larsen felt like she'd hit him suddenly, but he betrayed nothing. "Oh, I do, but part of my job involves these absences."
She nodded, and Larsen took this opportunity to ask her, "By the way, why do you get called 'Lady'?"
Her eyes met his sharply. After a moment, she smiled. "A fair question, but the only answer is that Jack Red asked me to use it."
That didn't explain much, but Larsen knew when to stop pursuing a subject.
Larsen lay in his bed, awake and staring at the ceiling. The nighttime air was sweet and slightly chill as it blew gently into the opened window, and he heard birds outside singing unfamiliar songs. He rested his head on his hands, thinking. His stomach was still uncomfortably full from how much he'd eaten, and his mind was roiling with questions.
He heard a tap at his door, and, quite curious, he got up to answer it.
On the other side of the door, on the floor, was an empty goblet, set upright on the floor.
He picked it up and looked at it, but there was nothing unusual about it; he had one just like it next to his bed for him to drink water in the night if he needed to. It was plain brass, with a delicate base and stem, nothing at all to it. He looked both ways down the hall, but at this late hour, nobody was there.
He brought the goblet into his room, and got dressed.
Leaving the house wasn't a problem, but leaving stealthily might be, Larsen realized. His training had been in diplomacy, not sneaking around.
But as he looked both ways before turning all corners, and tried to walk as quietly as he could, he realized that this was great fun -- he was enjoying the subterfuge enormously.
He got out of the house without too many problems, even finding a side door into the main compound which took him past the front gates without having to confront the guards. He found himself on the main street leading up to the compound, and looked both ways to orient himself.
He saw a tall man standing nearby wearing a hooded cloak. The man came toward him, casting eerie shadows from the streetlamps. Larsen felt a cold moment of fear before the stranger pushed back his hood to reveal Rob's face.
"Come on," he said quietly, and without any fuss, began walking down the road. Larsen followed him, quite confused now.
Rob led him down some side streets, looking back every so often to ensure Larsen was behind him. Larsen had to hurry to keep up -- he hadn't been so physically active in a while, even on the horrible climb up the mountain to get here. It wasn't easy to follow Rob -- the only light available on the cobbled street was whatever was coming from people's houses; there were no streetlamps on these side roads. The two men moved quietly, not speaking a word.
Eventually Rob went into a fenced-in back courtyard, opening the door and holding it open for Larsen to pass through. Larsen slipped through it, feeling like a ghost, and Rob followed him, closing the door quickly and silently.
Larsen blinked in the dim light thrown off by a garden lamp. He looked around himself. The garden was spacious, with a path leading from the gate he'd just entered to a very large three-story house about thirty feet from the back fence. The air was perfumed with whatever was growing here, some heady sort of flower, he thought, and he could almost see the shapes of pale flowers on dark shrubs.
He was not at all surprised to see Lady Nomi standing by the back door of the house. She wore an elegant gown of embroidered burgundy wool, a far more utilitarian dress than any he'd seen her in so far. Her hair was pulled back into a soft bun low on her neck, and she wore only a dark pendant on a cord. Her eyes betrayed no emotion at all.
When Rob and Larsen got close, she looked up at Rob and smiled at him. "You brought him."
Rob looked down at her, saying in a quiet voice, "I said I would." Larsen saw his face, and realized why Rob had done Lady Nomi this favor. He refused to notice his own heart tearing at just how impossible Rob's feelings were. He'd been around too long for that.
He was positive Lady Nomi also knew what that look on Rob's face meant, but all she said was an almost businesslike "Thank you." She looked across to Larsen. "Come in, quickly, before you two are seen." She held the house door open for them.
Inside, Larsen quickly realized he was inside a bar's kitchen -- it was too large for just a family. There was nobody there now; everything was quiet and calm. It was fairly clean, he noted at a glance, as well as highly organized. He could smell that this kitchen got a lot of use, which he would expect.
Lady Nomi led the two men to a wine-rack stacked with bottles whose vintages Larsen couldn't recognize, where she touched a lever behind the rack. With a groaning noise, the rack opened just enough for the three of them to slip away.
"You move quickly in those clothes," Larsen said to her, as she led them down a passageway lined in pale brick. The light here was very dim, just flickering candles in sconces along the otherwise-bare walls. There were no windows, but he was sure they were moving away from the house, back out to the street he and Rob had used to get here.
She flashed a slight smile at him. "I've learned to."
Larsen would have answered, really would have, but he was knocked against one wall by something. As he collapsed to the ground, he heard Lady Nomi scream and heard someone -- Rob, he hoped -- draw steel.
He got up as quickly as he could, shoving at whatever'd shoved him, then tried to get his bearings. He wore his ancient rapier, he remembered, so he drew it, standing on guard and breathing so fast his lips began to get numb from hyperventilation. Around him, in the hallway, he saw Rob, sword out, fighting amidst much clashing of steel with three of the most evil-looking men Larsen had ever seen. Lady Nomi huddled flat against the corridor wall behind Rob, her hands moving quickly in her pouch as she glared furiously at the strangers.
Larsen couldn't get to the men while Rob was in the way, so he got close enough to take over if Rob needed it -- not that he did. Larsen had never seen a man with such prowess at swordfighting, and this from someone whose own nephews were in the Imperial Academy and who had spent a summer on Flamehold. Rob's blade flashed in the candlelight, and the look on his face was that of a man possessed -- he was terrifying.
Even more terrifying than Rob, however, was Lady Nomi. She'd drawn two small daggers out of her pouch, and with a mathematical precision Larsen would never have thought her capable of, she braced herself in a half-crouch and threw first one, then the other at the attackers. Larsen saw the muscles of her arms and shoulders ripple as she made her throws, then a moment later heard the "thunk" of each hitting home in two of the attackers, blood spurting from the wounds in dark, arcing streams. He stared at her in wonder, his mouth hanging open. Her face held an implacable look of rage; she didn't notice anything except the men who were fighting.
The two men Lady Nomi had hit screamed, each clawing at his neck as he fell amid much blood. Rob's blade stopped for only a moment as he stared at them fall, then glanced back at Lady Nomi. In that moment, the third attacker tried to press his attack. The lady screamed "Look to it, idiot!", and Rob's sword flashed in the candlelight even before he'd looked back to the third man. In that time, he'd managed to impale the man's chest with his weapon. He pulled it out, stepping back to shield Lady Nomi, and the villain slid away, pushing himself up against the other wall.
Larsen didn't think he'd ever forget the look of purest hatred the man directed at -- he was sure -- Lady Nomi. He put his hand on his chest, trying to catch his breath, and sheathed his sword, as the man gasped for breath, sliding to the ground in a puddle of his own blood.
Rob, furious and livid, leaped to the man, sword bloody and ready for action, his face white with rage and shock. "Who sent you?" he demanded.
The man, still glaring at Lady Nomi, looked ever so briefly back at Rob. The slightest hint of a sardonic, weary smile crossed his face, and he died, slumping to the ground.
Larsen felt his knees buckle and he reached to the wall to steady himself. He'd seen men die before, but in these close quarters, in this humid, chilly passageway, it seemed so much more real to him. He gasped raggedly for breath, willing his stomach to settle down.
Rob made sure the man was dead before whirling to Lady Nomi's side. She was still standing where she had been when she threw her knives, but was no longer crouching. She looked to Rob with what Larsen felt was an almost military-style appraisal, looking him up and down for injuries. He began to reassess the beautiful woman as he approached the dead men.
"Lady!" gasped Rob, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Are you all right?"
Behind him, Larsen heard her say, with relief, "I'm fine, but you?"
"It's nothing," Rob said, in that brave way men affect around women they want to impress. Larsen didn't pay much attention. He hadn't seen much blood on Rob. He was far more interested in the attackers.
"That's interesting," he said, bringing all conversation to a halt.
"What is?" he heard them say together.
He looked up at them, noting that Rob was standing very close to her still. He got his pen out of his pouch and used it to delicately lift a pendant away from the corpse's throat. "This is."
It was an obsidian pendant, a plain oval in a bronze setting, on a plain leather cord. Rob and Lady Nomi stared at it.
"It's Bilashan," Larsen explained almost impatiently. He pulled off the pendant and stood up, tucking it into his pouch while Rob cursed. He looked over the rest of the men's clothes, noting their weapons and style they wore. All were fairly scruffy, with the customarily Bilashan sallow skin and dark features, but the weapons concerned him. He didn't dare touch any of them, knowing what he did about poisoning, but he realized, in a flash, that whoever had sent them didn't realize that Bilashans are forbidden to use double-bladed weapons by their religion. He felt a rush of heat in his throat. As a Priasciallan, he knew these sort of details, but out here, such details wouldn't be as common. He wondered why the subterfuge.
But he held the rest of his counsel to himself. "You two, why don't you tell me what this is all about?" he asked, as he straightened and went to them.
Lady Nomi's face was like a fortress, guarded and wary. "We must continue on."
"Into another ambush? No. Tell me what's going on here now, and I'll decide if we go further." Larsen stood his ground, looking from one to the other.
Lady Nomi gazed at him with all the force of a storm, and Larsen interpreted this as a test of wills. He gazed back at her, while Rob looked from one to the other in barely-concealed bafflement.
Finally, she took a breath. "It's about Jack, of course," she said.
"Go on," said Larsen flatly, not taking his eyes from her.
Her temper flared slightly, and he admired how she immediately quenched it to appear serene once more. She thought for a moment. Larsen didn't move, however. Finally she said, "I asked you to come here to discuss the offer you made to Jack earlier. But this isn't the place for it." She glanced discreetly at the dead men.
"It'll do just fine," said Larsen. "Dead men can't talk. What do you want to discuss?"
She looked up at Rob in an almost pleading way, and Rob stepped beside her. "See here, she's just had a terrible shock. We thought this would be a private meeting."
Larsen couldn't believe his ears. He glared at Rob. "She's quite in control of herself." To her, he asked, "Do you want Rob to hear what we have to say?"
She looked from him to Rob again, her eyes searching his, and after a moment she nodded. "I trust him, and if this works, everybody in Freehold will know anyway."
Larsen waited, not speaking. He'd learned the value of not speaking, long ago, when dealing with his insane Empress; now that he faced another woman whose sanity was questionable, he found the tactic useful.
Lady Nomi looked down at the dead men, then said quickly, "Jack wants to join the Empire, but isn't sure how to do it while saving face with his people. He wanted me to arrange it."
Now this is interesting, Larsen thought. "I see," was all he said.
"But my plan has failed -- we were attacked! Someone must know what I'm trying to do."
Larsen stared at her in amazement. "You're surely not that naive, Lady," he said gently. She raised her chin slightly as she looked back at him. "You can't keep secrets at court for long. If two of you knew, it's sure that others may have. We can't let that worry us."
"But what if they try to make trouble?" asked Rob.
"They might, but nobody makes trouble unless there's gain in it for himself. If we make sure there's no gain, there'll be no trouble." His gaze flickered back to Lady Nomi; in the candlelight, he thought he could see dismay on her face. "Now tell me, Lady. What do you have in mind?"
Without raising her voice or betraying any other emotion, she said earnestly, "Jack proposes that you pretend to accept his refusal, then leave. He will change his mind after he sees that you won't pressure him, and then the people will understand he did it of his own free will."
This wasn't anything Larsen hadn't expected. He thought the offer over quietly. "Why couldn't Jack suggest this?"
"He is attended night and day. Only I have the freedom to move around unhindered." Her dark eyes flickered toward the dead men. "Almost unhindered, I mean."
Larsen thought some more. "Is that all? Then where were you going to take me?"
She smiled demurely. "Just a quiet place I knew. I didn't realize you'd want to discuss political machinations in my secret passageway.
"Any port in a storm, Lady," he said. He straightened his coat, deliberately not looking at the blood-covered corpses near his feet. "Then I'm ready to return to Jack's house. I'll let you figure out what to do with these men." He gestured to the bodies, and there really wasn't much else to say.
It was still dark when Rob returned him to his room. Larsen slept with his sword at his side all night -- or, rather, he lay awake thinking over what had happened, his sword at his side. Sleep came eventually, as dawn broke over the rooftops.
The next morning broke, bright and cheerful, and at first Larsen didn't want to wake up. When he finally dragged himself from his bed and got cleaned up and dressed, he knew what he was going to do.
He ate breakfast mechanically, at a small table in his chambers. Though normally quite the gourmand, he did not even notice what was set before him. His greetings to the servants as he passed the halls to Jack's receiving room were perfunctory, almost brisk. He did not look down any of the side corridors, where functionaries and servants scurried this way and that, their days probably already half finished at this early hour.
Before a servant could open the door to the receiving room, Larsen opened it himself. He strode purposefully down the runner-carpet to where Jack sat.
As usual, Jack was surrounded by dignitaries. He looked up with a hearty smile and waved at Larsen. "How'd you sleep?" he asked, his voice almost excessively jovial.
Larsen, affecting nonchalance, said airily, "Don't you already know?"
Jack sobered, studying Larsen. After a moment, he waved the flock of people around him away, and they retreated, each giving Larsen a curious glance in passing. When Jack was more or less alone, Larsen approached more closely.
Larsen met Jack's gaze without flinching at all. He waited, not speaking. He knew Jack could not bear silence.
Finally, Jack said, "Care to explain?"
Larsen made a short, humorless chuckle. "Your leman is clever, but she's never played with the big boys, has she?" he murmurred.
Jack was silent, considering this. "What do you want?" he asked finally.
"Same thing I've always wanted, Jack. I didn't lie to you. I'm here to forge an agreement between Freehold and the Empire. If you can't handle that, fine, but don't try to out-think me." He felt almost angry, in a remote sort of way, but pushed that anger well aside, allowingly only coldness in his voice.
He continued, "And don't think you can trick me into leaving Freehold, even on pretense of 'pretending to accept your refusal'." He snorted. "That was child's play to see through."
Jack watched him with wary eyes. "You can't speak that way to me. I'll have you destroyed before you ever leave my mountain."
Larsen rounded on him, his voice like frosted steel: "Are you out of your mind? Do you honestly know what kind of power the Empire has? Believe me, turning your entire 'manor' into a benighted smudge on this mountain would be child's play for Kira." His voice dropped to a murmur. "She destroys entire planets when she gets angry. Don't imagine she'd stop at destroying you."
Larsen shook his head in disgust, while Jack's eyes widened and he shrank in his chair. "Jack, you really don't know what Kira can do, do you? You've never seen Priascialla. Never seen her. I feel sorry for you."
Jack began to pull his fur cloak closer around himself, staring at Larsen in what Larsen interpreted as wariness.
Larsen took a step back, studying Jack. He thought it was time now. He said, in his flattest, most coldly rational tone, "I'm going to give you one last chance, Jack. Come to terms with me, or yes, I will leave, but I will return at the head of Kira's army of battlesuited Flameholdans. Make your choice now."
Jack sat up straighter, his eyes blazing. Then the defiance leaked out of him. Larsen saw the change, noted it without exultation. At last, Jack said quietly, "Yes, we will speak of this agreement in the next weeks."
Larsen nodded once. "I'll let you start working on your terms," he informed Jack. He turned as if to leave, but then looked back. "Oh, and tell your spymaster not to try to kill me anymore. I don't know where she came up with fake Bilashans, but I didn't appreciate that subterfuge." He left the room without another word.
It was only when the doors to the receiving room that he allowed a smile, slight and faint, to cross his features. For the first time, a wave of homesickness swept over him, and he found he missed his wife so much his bones ached.
Back to Contributions
This page last updated: August 6, 2003
Text copyright Caris of Sciallamud<.php>