Thanks to Laaren, Jexx and the gang for helping with edits.
Art by Elakan, Snowy and Gummyraptor
The short eternity of the military parade was at an end, only for a longer eternity to begin as they pulled up to a stage in the main street of the Witch-Queen’s capital. Grinning, Her Majesty helped him step down off of his box and patted him on the shoulder.
“Are you ready, ‘Hero?’”
Rowan took a moment to sort himself out, trying to jostle the unfamiliar, gold-trimmed armour and horribly stiff neck-ruff into a slightly more comfortable position. He took a deep breath and tried to match her easy confidence. “Can’t get out of it now, can I?”
The war between Rowan’s country and the Queen’s had been fought by many kinds of men. The men who truly accomplished things, the men who nurtured the country… men who considered themselves the brave faces of Gisland, and Rowan liked to count himself among their number. He hadn’t fought in any wars, nor hefted anything much heavier than a quill or stack of parchment since he was a boy, but every once in a while he imagined himself in a terrifying situation and imagined how he would be able to sort things out, though the most rational part of his brain told him otherwise, of course. Why, he’d nearly been frightened out of his boots when a diplomatic mission he’d been sent on to negotiate with a count on the frontier of Gisland went so poorly he had nearly been executed. At least then the count had taken his paralysed expression of pure terror as steely determination and he’d managed to get a respectable taxation concession by doing nearly nothing.
Still, some deep part of the young-ish diplomat had considered himself a lion at heart until quite recently, when he discovered he was more of a housecat with aspirations. He’d never ridden in a chariot before, so the lurching and bumping made him subtly anxious, especially since he’d been forced to stand on a box to attempt to match the stature of an armoured woman who was near a head taller than him without counting the witch hat/crown combination. Rowan robotically waved at the crowd and tried to keep his politician’s smile on. Being paraded around next to the goat-horned queen of an army of witches that had been at war with his country until a few weeks ago was difficult, but he couldn’t afford any mistakes. The thundering carnyx band resounded behind him in war song revelries and further unsettled him. It would be a stressful situation for even the indefatigable men of action that everyone admired.
Can’t get out of it now, can I? His eye twitched a little as the sentence half exited his mouth, then a full silent panic as his mouth finished the motions for him. There probably should have been a “Your Majesty” somewhere in there. That was far too casual for the situation.
He caught a twinkle in the Queen’s yellow goat-eyes before she turned on her heel and started marching onto the stage. She hummed in a way that was vague enough he wasn’t sure if the lack of respect wasn’t egregious or he was going to be crucified in front of a crowd.
The Queen’s approach was greeted by cheers, while his was followed only by the kind of tense silence he was used to as a diplomat in Gisland’s service. Hundreds of faces stared at him, maybe even thousands. The sharp, distrustful glares of the Queendom of Dunmuir’s battlemages in their pointy hats worried him the most, but there was also that roiling, blinking, unfamiliar sea of civilian eyes. Alien eyes of monsters, of predators, of eyes adapted to darkness or seeing the magic spectrum, in number, coloration, and variety outstripping the busiest ports of Gisland. Eyes topping narrow stalks, pupils bulging wide with stimulation, irises cut sharp like diamonds; the eyes of the audience bore down on Rowan with all their expectations and prejudices. They all knew to at least some degree why their Queen was bringing a foreigner from an enemy country up onto a stage for a proclamation, but for many it was unclear what precisely happened.
The Queen cleared her throat and began speaking to the crowd in a magically-amplified voice.
“Peers, friends, gentlemen and witches, I am your Queen, Luna Evanora Rhiannon IX. From today-” The Queen paused dramatically, waiting for a chilling silence to pass over the crowd, “- Nearly a century of war with Gisland is over!” A triumphant cry came up; the soldiers rattling their weapons in celebratory staccato. Just as suddenly, the crowd calmed down when Rhiannon raised a hand. “And today, you have before you no captive or enemy soldier, no mere envoy, but the man himself! Rowan, the Hero!”
It took Rowan a moment to realise that he was called on, trying to translate the meaning of Queen Rhiannon’s words into his own native Gislandish. The two were closely related, but there were enough differences to cause an awkward moment’s lag before he stepped forward and raised his hand to the crowd. Nobody who could see the stage missed him, not least of all because he was a man in a near-homogenous crowd of women, but he caught a few of the audience close to the stage scoffing at the small faux-pas.
“This man,” Rhiannon continued, “is nearly single-handedly responsible for the end of the war and rooting out the treachery that had festered in my court!”
A political overstatement, if Rowan saw. He was a minor diplomat, at best, from a poor family in what was likely to be voted ‘least remarkable part of Gisland’ for the third straight century. All he did was happen upon a few inconsistencies in diplomatic communication with Rhiannon’s Dunmuir, and he hadn’t even been the one to carry out most of the investigation or present for the arrests. Honestly, the only thing he had done was go on suicide mission to sneak into a siege camp (since it was ‘your find, Rowan, you deal with it.’) Some god of fate must have smiled on him that day, since he’d managed to get an audience with the Queen with an almost laughable amount of ease. As it turned out, the war had spiralled out of control and continued only on account of some of her ministers “rephrasing” diplomatic messages to the Witch-Queen.
Within a week, he was named Gisland’s capital-H Hero of prophecy (a prophecy written very carefully by an “impartial” committee to reflect events regarding Rowan’s life that had already occurred) after which he gained the title of Lord Grand Minister of Gisland-Dunmuir Relations. The post never existed before and conferred absolutely nothing in the way of land, peerage, money, or benefits, but the Archduke insisted it would be “more powerful than the Minister of Diplomacy! Soon! Just that the elections are coming up you see, and the current minister is the nephew of a rather prominent duke…”
It wasn’t long before he was called up to speak, where he read a hastily-written script on behalf of the Archduke on the “brave new world” presented by the development of peace between both nations, followed quickly by some personal remarks to the crowd that he exactingly prepared to be completely inoffensive and unmemorable in every way. Afterwards, it was just a short reception with Rhiannon and her ministers at their castle, then he would be home free and could get back to Gisland where there weren’t a dozen races of witch-hatted mons- he shook his head and corrected the thought quickly- nonhuman peoples who looked like they still were unsure whether they were supposed to kill him or not. Hopefully, there were a few taverns back home in the capital that would be willing to give their “Hero” dinner and a few rounds of drinks…
Rowan found the reception at the castle surprisingly small. “Reception” in the world of Gisland’s diplomacy generally involved at least three days, the Archduke, all thirty seats of the electing nobility, generally another hundred or so extra nobles that managed an invitation, the Archduke’s personal knights, not to mention the non-lordly ministers… When he was brought into a small tower office adjacent to the throne room with only a dozen people other than himself and Queen Rhiannon, he worked to keep his shock in check. When the Queen dropped herself into an overstuffed chair and heaved a long, exasperated sigh, he wondered if he was even supposed to be there. The jaunty look of her horns pushing up the brim of her hat was completely ruined by the headrest of her chair creasing up the back of the brim and giving the tall witch’s hat the effect of a poorly-folded paper boat.
A cat-eared woman stepped forth first, staring at Rhiannon with excited anticipation. “Very well done, Your Highness! A perfect showing!”
“I’m not interested in you acting like sycophants because the Hero is here. Anyone else?”
Rowan’s knees were nearly taken out from beneath him when a man of half his height pushed his way to the forefront of the crowd with the weight of a man heavier than Rowan. A dwarf this far away from their country?
“‘Twas a little forced, Rhinnie, beggin’ your pardon, o’ course. Your man ‘ere,” the dwarf said, pointing his thumb back at Rowan, “weren’t helpin’ much neither, lookin’ like he were about ta wet ‘imself durin’ the parade an’ then fuddlin’ up ‘is speech. No offense, Hero.”
“U-uh… none taken…” Rowan managed to stammer out in surprise.
A deathly silence seized the room before Rhiannon burst out laughing, followed by the rest of the ministers assembled. “He’s right you know! Why don’t you take off that ruff, Mister Rowan? Unless being choked is one of your hobbies…?”
Rowan peeled the uncomfortable, starched fabric off from around his neck and breathed a sigh of relief, laughing a bit at himself. “Oh, thank god! I mean, begging your pardon,” he said, taking a cue from the dwarf, “reading those half-baked speeches in front of a crowd with this on felt like I was in the stocks!”
That got a polite round of laughter from the people assembled and the tense atmosphere dissipated. Rowan was led through a nonstop stream of introductions around the room. Truthfully, he didn’t manage to catch any names, since they all had three, just like the Queen. The best he could do was get a good look at the face, remember their title and pray he didn’t come off as rude later. Everyone assembled was a public minister of some sort at least, so he wouldn’t need to remember a long string of titles.
“…An’ I’m the Minister o’ Infrastructure, lad. Torsten Treasurebane,” the dwarf said, much to Rowan’s relief. That was probably the first name he was going to remember. “An’ no jokes about the name, I’ve heard ‘em all.”
Rhiannon clapped her hands and stood. “Excellent. Now then everyone, I think this is the first time I’ve spoken to you all since the replacements were selected. The older ministers will help coach the new ones through their jobs, since the former occupants of their posts are being dealt with in such a way they won’t be… passing on their knowledge.” They nodded grimly at the mention of the fates of those who prolonged the war against the Queen’s will. “And those of you who are new, let me welcome you as a group. I expect great things from you going forward.”
“Yes Your Majesty!” The catwoman who had stepped forward before offered. Minister of… War? It seemed like an odd choice to Rowan, but…
“Stop. Not only that, but you’re the only one I expect to occupy her post with no fuss.” Rhiannon said a little miffed at the interruption. “Greatness for you will be ensuring that my long-suffering military does precisely nothing but guard the border from now on.”
The minister’s tail drooped. “Yes, Your Majesty…”
“Yes, Your Majesty?” It irked him a little that he ended up using the same line as the overexcited cat, but he hadn’t been able to think of anything to replace it in time.
“I understand you’ve been put in a slightly frustrating position by your Archduke…”
Roan fumbled for words a moment, not expecting her to have heard already. “Er, how do you mean?”
“Well, promotion without pay or power, complete lack of support in any meaningful way… As I understand it, you’re not intended to leave Dunmuir for at least the next ten years or so in the spirit of ‘jolly cooperation,’ as your Archduke put it,” she said with a dismissive wave.
“No, no, I think you’ve made a small mistake,” Rowan began, but a small, niggling thought crossed his mind. The Archduke gave him a letter he was instructed to read after the parade and announcement in Dunmuir. He panicked, feeling around his armour to see where he’d put it.
“Left cuisse,” Rhiannon offered.
Rowan plucked the letter out from the armour and read it with horror. He knew about being a minister with no civil servants, extra pay or privileges of course. He would clearly spend the rest of his life being used as a pawn, but… there it was. Rowan could hear the Archduke’s faux-apologetic tone as he read, honed to perfection over a lifetime in politics. …Ten years. “…How’d you know?”
The Queen leaned back in her chair. “Well, he did have to ask if I’d be willing to host you that long. I will, of course, so don’t worry about that.”
Rowan paced back and forth, reading then re-reading the letter, trying to process the blow. He didn’t particularly have anyone waiting for him at home, but ten years in a different country when he’d never been further than the border, not to mention as part of a Queen’s retinue to act as the kind of person everyone knew wasn’t on their side. He would be needed mostly for appearances and kept like some kind of communal pet for a decade.
“Hrmh?” He responded out of professional habit, only half-conscious he was being addressed. Years of learning the ins and outs of Gisland’s electoral and noble politics, and now…
Had he looked up, he would have seen Rhiannon watching him with all the amused patience of a woman who had all the time in the world (the successful politician’s natural state). “Now I know a man such as yourself would feel awful about not earning your keep, regardless of how often or forcefully I told you it was fine…”
That snapped him out of it. She was right of course, ten years of doing next to nothing would drive him absolutely batty, but he’d never met a noble who could look that pleased when what they were suggesting wasn’t going to benefit them immensely. She’d done it in front of most of the important people in the country too, the clever woman. “Well, of course your majesty, but I’d hate to impose and put you in an awkward position…”
“No, no! In fact, you may have noticed there’s a minister missing, and I’d be interested in you taking the former minister of Diplomacy’s seat.” The ministers of War, Natural Resources and Agriculture gasped a little at that, while Finance looked a little sour and Magic just nodded. “Unlike the rest of my new ministers here, there wasn’t anyone ready to take her place, and I’m sure you can guess my stance on hiring foreign ministers from Torvald here.”
Rowan clenched his jaw, trying to keep a straight face as he put his thoughts in order. He wasn’t power-hungry of course, just a man with career aspirations who’d like a little recognition for once… not what he’d been given by the Archduke, the kind that came with an office and a secretary, some responsibilities that let him feel important and actually meaningful… even if she was just trying to tie him up with work to waste his time and keep an eye on him.
His mind raced, looking for any kind of graceful way to bow out of such a direct request. Foisting it on someone else? Everyone assembled was already a minister, that wouldn’t work… He didn’t have any contacts in the country either, and his old colleagues in Gisland wouldn’t do… Damn. He was being had and there was no way out. “Well, Your Majesty, since I’m not certain I would be able to fill such a critical role, especially considering the talent currently assembled…” He glanced around at the other ministers, finding a few sets of gratified eyes from the comment. “Perhaps it would better suit your purpose for me to be a temporary placement until my performance can be evaluated?”
The Queen set aside her crown and stood, looking half-vexed and half-amused that the foreigner had weaseled his way out of the offer. “Very well then, Mister Rowan. Kneel before me.”
Ah. He’d been briefed on this, but he still trembled when Rhiannon whispered a few words and a sword arcing with magic power appeared in her hand. Calm down. No problem, just like a knighthood ceremony, just with godawful, accursed, foul witchery that did heaven-knows-what, right next to his head. Nearly as soon as he’d knelt, the Queen tapped each of his shoulders with the blade.
Rowan worked up his courage and cleared his throat a little conspicuously, hoping she’d take the hint.
She did, then sighed. “Temporary Minister Rowan, do you swear to uphold the duties of your office and serve me faithfully?”
Well, it was too late to back out now, even if he momentarily fantasised about fleeing the country, taking up a fake name, and living as a hermit farmer somewhere on the coast of Gisland far to the south. “I do.”
“Excellent. Now then, Minister…”
Rowan raised his head, expecting to be told to rise, but the Queen waited for a beat before speaking again, her placid expression broken only by a slight blush and the faintest hint of a grin.
“You may kiss the royal shoe to prove your fealty.”
He heard whispers behind him. So this was part of the game. A little bit of humiliation to put him in his place, eh? Well, unfortunately for her, she clearly didn’t realise what a bottom-rank Gislander diplomat went through. Kissing an attractive woman’s shoe? Pathetic. She hadn’t even told him to strip, the amateur.
The next morning, Rowan was rudely awakened from a rather pleasant dream about a winning negotiation with Gisland’s premiere port duchy (a shame, as he’d gotten them up to a 25% goods tariff on salt because a clumsy servant had dropped a bottle of wine on his foot) when the curtains of his room were rather ruthlessly flung open and he was clapped at like a dog.
“Late riser, minister? This will not look good on your evaluation to her majesty.” Rowan hadn’t quite gotten his eyes open yet, but the voice had a way of saying ‘Her Majesty’ as though it referred to herself and Rhiannon was just some secretary. “Up now, you have a long day ahead of you and I don’t have time to shepherd a child around all day.
He was helped out of bed by a few apologetic-looking palace maids who stripped him out of his clothes. “Ah, I can-”
The woman who spoke whirled around to face him in what looked like a tornado of long, embroidered robes. “Let the maids do their job, temporary minister. Or are you hoping to put even more honest women out of work by being stubborn?” There was more than a hint of venom there, accentuated by a sneer on the woman’s elven features.
“Ah, right. Of course not, it’s just considered a bit abnormal in Gisland, you see. I’ll-”
“Quiet, Gislander. Dress him to go out, girls. Not in the minister’s regalia, he’ll be in town.” A small silence hung in the air that Rowan could tell would have been filled by ‘and I don’t want my regalia to smell like man,’ if she’d thought she could get away with it. The pointed ears were new, but he’d seen this kind of person plenty before. Tight bun, no-nonsense attitude, all the usual formal clothing that Dunmuir offered, sans witch hat, which he could already tell she’d write off as frivolous. “Now then, you’re going to go to a meeting while I do the work your predecessor left me. Questions?”
Rowan bowed his head as earnestly as one can while having your pants put on by two strange women. “Pardon me, madam, but I seem to have done you the disservice of not catching your name…?”
That had caught her out. Her sneer made a quick transition into a smug grin and she turned away, readjusting her robes. “Well, I hadn’t expected someone who might know their place. Miss Greenglass will do for now, minister. I’m the current Deputy Minister of Diplomacy.”
He was well aware that not telling him her full name was a snub, but he was honestly glad not to need to deal with the confusing jumble of first names he’d dealt with last night. He took a moment to ponder the right amount of flattery for the personality type. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet someone who knows the ins and outs of the system, Miss Greenglass, to say nothing of such a remarkable elven beauty… Ah, never mind. Where are we going this morning?” Rowan wasn’t quite sure he saw it right, but he could’ve sworn he saw the elf’s ears wiggle in pleasure at the remark.
“Flattery will get you nowhere, minister,” she said as though she was going to fool anyone, “but to answer your question, you are going to be touring the capital on your own to get used to the culture. Do make sure not to make any foolish mistakes, hmm?”
“Oh, perish the thought,” he said, having a plain brown robe slipped onto his shoulders. “Do you suppose I could ask a few questions before I leave, though?”
That seemed to sober her up a little. The smile faded and her nose turned up again. “I’ve only got time for one inane question before I have to busy myself with being something other than the figurehead. Go on.”
He tried not to let the displeasure show on his face, imagining her as a much more intimidating politician to scare himself into calmness. “Well, thank you for your consideration… Hmm…” Damn, he’d expected at least two. Well, he supposed the most pressing matter was… “Excuse my ignorance, but-” Rowan batted his fingers together. He searched for a diplomatic phrase. “I find your people’s naming conventions, uh… challenging to wrap my own understanding around.” Obvious displeasure mounting on his accoster’s face, he narrowed in on his question. “The meaning of three names eludes me. What do they mean?”
He saw an eye twitch. Ah, so this was a faux-pas she was hoping he’d make.
“It’s just… Well, I’ve been wondering whether I should be calling Her Majesty ‘Luna’ rather than Rhiannon…”
This elicited a cruel chuckle from Ms. Greenglass. “Ha! Unless you’re fucking her, I doubt you’ll ever be intimate enough to call her that.”
“Er… Sorry? I don’t think I quite have a handle on the Dunmuir language yet, and…” Rowan felt a bead of sweat developing on his brow, threatening to melt whatever cool demeanor he aspired to. “…Well, I suppose I’m just wondering what you mean by ‘fucking her,’ exactly.”
“Sticky semen spellcraft. The horizontal tango. The stork’s summoning ritual. Willy witchery. Shall I go on?”
“Ah. No, that’s alright.”
“To answer your question, it’s a matter of politeness. Rhiannon to strangers, Evanora to friends and Luna for the kind of person you’re unlikely to ever become. Now then, you’re expected at the Ministry of Magic by four.”
“Alright. Where is that?”
“I believe I said you had one question, minister. Good day.”
Dun Peak was a beautiful city by anyone’s standards. A tightly-packed, interesting jumble of houses, markets and shops catering to witches’ needs, broken only by the occasional imposing building and towers that challenged the limits of practicality. The whole thing lay between the wide, freshwater sea to the west and a cluster of mountains to the east making up the foundations of the royal palace, with the only access to non-witches being a meandering, near-unassailable set of steps carved into the living rock itself.
Rowan took a deep breath of the thin mountain air, admiring the administrative officials and messengers flying back and forth from the palace like a bustling colony of bees.
He was going to have to walk down, wasn’t he?
He glanced at the guards posted on either side of the gate, each armoured witch giving him a carefully measured blank expression and clearly hoping he’d bloody well get on with it.
A few hundred metres of sheer steps down the mountainside stretch out in front of him. Well, no time like the-
…He was going to have to walk up at the end of the day.
When Rowan reached the bottom, dead exhausted, he took a look around and considered his options before being immediately drawn toward the nearest restaurant for a rest and something to drink. The place looked clean and had a friendly enough atmosphere, displaying a few bits of expensive magical artifice like large, clear sheets of grown crystal working as windows, clearly meant to draw the eye of tired idiots like himself who’d neglected to bring something to fly up to the palace with. He hardly even noticed the sign advertising ‘The Gilded Lily’ before he hurried in, desperate for a seat.
Rowan held his breath a few moments as he cautiously walked in, praying he wasn’t going to be kidnapped or extorted for being a foreigner holding a minister’s position he hadn’t earned. Nobody gave him a second look, so the peasant’s clothes must have been doing their job. Sitting down at the bar, he was taken aback slightly when a man who looked completely human besides a rather catlike and stripy head of hair popped up from below it.
“Oh! Early morning, sir?”
“Ah, yes. Bit of a tiring morning so far, all said, haha…” Rowan muttered, trying to cover up what he was quickly realising was a fairly conspicuous Gisland accent.
“Missus give you the what-for before headin’ out to work and leavin’ you with the shopping list, eh?” The publican nodded sagely. “I know the feelin’.”
“Ah, well… Not too far from the truth aha…”
“Oh! Look at me talkin’ too much! I’m Olin, what can I get for you?”
“A drink to start,” Rowan pondered for a moment. “Maybe some cheese and bread for breakfast?”
“Right away, sir. First wife mostly handles the drinks, we could get her to magic you up some water, do a bit of five-minute fermenting if you fancy some ale-”
“No!” He cringed at the volume he’d spoken at. Magic was… on the fringes of acceptable in Gisland, and where he’d grown up had clearly given him some hangups about it. He’d overreacted. He supposed. Slightly. “Er, no, it’d be a shame to have to call her and whatnot…”
An indecipherable look crossed Olin’s face before he shook his head and offered an amicable smile. “Right you are. I have a few casks of Gisland ale, if you’d like to try something foreign…?”
“Ah, that sounds lovely, thank you.”
Rowan was served a thankfully-mundane mug of his homeland’s ale (it had always been a little watery and off-tasting on the best of days, but you rarely cared by your fourth mug and it was the taste of home, dammit!) as well as some decent-looking breakfast fare before long, and his host got back to work, idly cleaning cups from the night before.
“So, day out on the town, sir?”
“Er, yes. Few errands to run, might take a look around the city a bit…”
The other man had a knowing smile spread across his face. “New in town then, are we?”
Based on what Ms. Greenglass said earlier, he wasn’t supposed to have let that slip. He wasn’t sure if she was out to get him, but since he wasn’t under guard… Maybe a comfortable half-truth would do. “Aaah, well… hadn’t meant to let it slip, but I’m from near the border in the southwest. Pardon me if I come off as a bit of a bumpkin.” Rowan said, carefully neglecting to mention he was from a southwest border march an entire country over.
“Ah, it’s a fine thing to see someone not tainted with capital politics. How is everything down there? I have a cousin near the pass I haven’t heard from in a while…”
“Well… Everyone’s recovering from the war, like you might expect…” He wasn’t sure what it was like on the Dunmuir side, but most of a major city had been magically obliterated in Gisland, which had caused reprisals, of course… “Let’s hope we never see anything like that again…”
Olin nodded sagely. “Aye, here’s to it.”
They chatted a while longer as Rowan finished his breakfast. He found the taste surprisingly good for how simple it was. Rowan asked him where the Ministry of Magic was. It caught the other man off-guard. Apparently it was the ‘big white tower that-a-way, even a blind man couldn’t miss it!’
The tower he was pointed toward was unmistakable in its portentous, impossible silhouette. It was a tall, wispy affair once, but now there were enough additional rooves, jutting additions and architecturally-implausible extra rooms gave the whole thing the look of an evergreen that hadn’t quite gotten the memo about being a recognisable shape.
He walked in the straightest line he could toward it, but unsurprisingly, a city where more than half the population could fly did not give much consideration to sensible, long throughways that lead to major locations. As a result, he was hopelessly lost, though he could still see the major landmarks for the most part, and he was getting quite the eyeful of the city. The first thing he noticed were the people, of course. There was an old legend about the land of Dunmuir being cursed by a god of Change for their sins against nature, with regular humans who stayed long enough, or god forbid, those born there starting to take on the traits of various creatures both mundane and supernatural.
Rowan didn’t know how much was true, but curses were nothing to be trifled with. Somewhere deep inside, he was terrified of becoming one of them, even if he knew that he had to follow through with this for the sake of the two different countries. He looked around the street he happened to be on, wondering what a person might morph into over time. Rowan did not know the specifics, or frankly much at all when it came to the particulars of the biology of these non-humans. Did they think the same? Did they breed the same? Rowan suffocated that thought in the mental cradle with a dismissive wave. On the street, he browsed the city menagerie. Tufts feathers over fur on top of skin and scales, women of all types and shapes shuffled about their business. Men were less common, but some featured the same extra extremities of the womenfolk, keeping just to the periphery of the female-dominated thoroughfare.
Shaking his head, Rowan pressed on, looking for any way out of the maze of more run-down looking buildings than he’d been in a few minutes ago. He was hoping he wasn’t going to stick out too much as he wandered the streets, but well, he was a man who was alone and that stuck out already.
He made the decision to turn back when he walked straight into what he thought was a brick wall. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a rather tall and bulky grey-green woman with teeth that looked like they weren’t quite decided on whether they were going to be tusks or not.
“Ey, ey ladies! This fella nearly took me out, the crazy bastard!” Said the smug not-wall to a number of women behind her, for whom the word ‘disreputable’ was likely a charming compliment.
“Erm,” Rowan managed to get out, calling on years of diplomatic training and an absolute inexperience with muggings.
“Aaaagh, oooooh, that stings…” The woman said, cradling a disconcertingly muscular arm Rowan hadn’t even touched. “Ah, gals, I think I’m gonna hafta go get this checked out, but that doc’s awful expensive.”
“Ah, sorry, I didn’t mean to bump into you!” He squeezed out belatedly, damning his accent again.
“Oooh, boy… Gislander, huh?”
“No! Just… just from out of town, down by-”
“Can it, fucker.” Rowan found himself rather rudely shoved up against a tavern, wondering how much being thrown through a front window would hurt. “I seen your kind before, dirty fuckers all high n’ mighty, callin’ us demons an’ shit behind our backs! Me an’ my girls used ta kill you bastards by the dozen back in the war!”
This was met with a round of general agreement from the ogre’s posse and a few calls for violence. Rowan personally never used the D-word, finding it a bit distasteful even if he had been known to let ‘monster’ slip occasionally (out of pure wartime habit of course). “I, er… I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot, madam, I didn’t mean any-”
“Ha! Madam!” She slammed Rowan against the wall again to punctuate her statement. “Real gentleman here, huh? Well, you can start coughin’ up yer money, an’ maybe we’ll let ya drag your sorry ass back home after we spend a few days teachin’ you a lesson…”
“Um, I-I’d appreciate if…” Rowan had only experienced this kind of gut-wrenching terror as a child when the mists had rolled in with a gang of sea raiders. He’d certainly been the recipient of several very real death threats before, but typically it was the kind of bluster that involved sitting in a prison cell and being told you’d be hung the next morning for weeks on end. Should he fight back? He’d never been in a fight with anything but words before! A sickening pit in the bottom of his stomach made itself known as he shakily drew back a fist.
“Hah? Ya finally grow a spine, ya piece of shit?”
“I-I… wouldn’t go quite that far, but… a-aha… I just thought I might as well try…”
A nasty smile crossed the ogre’s face before she patted her cheek. “Go on then, lil’ guy. I’ll give ya the first hit before we break your kneecaps an’ drag ya off to hell.”
He swung, of course. He was hardly even paying attention, since the unflappable autopilot in his head was crafting a speech thanking the ogre for at least giving him a chance with its right hand, and an apology for turning his head and vomiting, (which, she would understand had not been from stress, and she’d run a wonderfully comfortable and non-stressful mugging, but in fact he’d had a bit of a stomach bug for a while and…) rather than looking her in the eyes as the punch connected.
He heard a shattering of glass, hoping that the palace staff wouldn’t be too mad that the clothes they’d lent him would be torn from being thrown through a window while he was still in them, if he survived. Ms. Greenglass was likely going to be a combination of pleased something awful had happened to him and furious he’d ruined a perfectly good set of clothes. A small reverie comparing her to former employers came to a stuttering halt when he realised he wasn’t feeling the pain traditionally associated with reverse-defenestration. Infenestration? Refenestration? Hmm. Throw through window not hurty Rowan back. Why?
He opened his eyes, ran halfway down the street, and into an alley before his brain completely processed what he’d seen. It had appeared, for all intents and purposes, he’d managed to punch a two-hundred-fifty pound ogress across a broad cobblestone street. He figured he believed it about as much as the ogre’s compatriots, who were standing around in various stages of denial. Well, he thought, there would be time to wonder what happened after he got some distance from them.
“Left in the next alley, then straight on.”
Rowan stutter-stepped then almost careened into a stack of crates. When he turned his head toward the voice he continued to run. There was… nobody? No body. Nothing.
At first, he assumed a scrap of fabric or a particularly large moth sorted itself out into a winged woman about twice the size of his hand, seeming to be having little trouble keeping up with his mad sprint at a rather leisurely float. “W-wh…!?”
“D’you want to get away or not?”
Well, it probably couldn’t get much worse for him at present, so he hastily followed the fairy’s instructions and found himself on a much larger, cleaner and busier street than he had previously. “…Th-haaah… th-thanks… f- wh… guh…” He found himself slightly surprised he could feel like puking again so soon.
The fairy glided lazily by his side. She exuded a mirthful smugness akin to a particularly proud six year old. “You’re welcome. And it’s Tara, if you were asking my name. You’re looking to get to the Ministry of Magic, I trust?”
Rowan weakly nodded, trying to catch a breath he seemed to have left behind with the remains of his breakfast.
“Well, I’m headed that direction m’self, if you’d like to join me…? I wouldn’t mind a lil’ company as payment for that wee spell I cast on ya.”
“I-I’d… nnuh… be delighted, Ms. Tara.” Well, that explained how he managed to punch like a man who lifted houses in his spare time. He shuddered a little bit, trying to put aside any thoughts of gloopy, burning magic flowing through his veins against his will and taking something with it when it left his body.
“So,” Tara said, flitting ahead, “you’re new in town?”
“Well, as a matter of speaking, yes. I’ll guess that was the part of your lovely capital I shouldn’t be coming back to?”
She scoffed with a miniature raised hand over her mouth. “As a matter of speaking, yes. It wasn’t the kind of place a man should be unescorted in normally, and now… Folk are always restless when a war ends, an’ twice more when it ends abruptly. Ah, speaking of, we can cut through this park here.”
The park the fairy referred to was in a untidy state, given what he saw of the rest of the city. A brick retaining wall was mostly in ruins, and a messy dirt path wound its way through a stand of sickly-looking blackthorn trees. They were even singed at the ends on top of having a number of vile slurs and unflattering graffiti carved into their trunks, most of which referred to Gislandish men’s dicks and where to stuff them. Well, he supposed, it wasn’t as though Gisland’s capital didn’t get slummier the further you got from the palace…
“…Mayor’s goin’ to be furious. They’ve made off with the sign again.”
“Sorry, which sign?”
“The main one and a few of the plaq- ah, ‘scuse me for bringin’ you through this part of the city when you’ve only just come. You’re in Traitors’ Grove.”
“Well, it’s nothing compared to being mugged I suppose, eh?” Rowan said, trying to keep a jovial tone, though he felt creeping dread along his spine. Shift to some local stories, maybe? “How’d it get the name?”
“Take a look for yourself.” Tara said, gesturing toward one of the trees that had a little brass plaque at its base.
XXXX XXXXX XXXXX XXXXXXXX
FORMER MINISTER OF WAR
SENTENCED BY H.M. RHIANNON IX
Oh. The name had been scratched off using a similar knife to what had been used to chisel a number of exotic dick-slurs he didn’t even know the full meaning of into the tree. “Well… I, er… suppose it’s a good thing you at least got a park out of it… In Gisland w- I hear they have a lot of problems with graverobbing and defacement…”
“I think you misunderstand,” Tara said landing on his shoulder, “these are the traitors.”
A shiver went down Rowan’s spine and he glanced around at a few other plaques he could see. Minister of Finance. Natural Resources. There were even different Queens’ sentencings here! There was one, though, that his gaze snapped back to every time he tried to pull it away.
IMOGEN XXXXX XXXXX WXCXXON
FORMER MINISTER OF DIPLOMACY
SENTENCED BY H.M. RHIANNON IX
“Ah,” Rowan stammered, “ah.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever done executions. Takes a rare transmutationist to turn a person into a tree and back, and if it’s not the witch who did it in the first place… Well, we could technically take it back.”
“Y-you turn… these are…?” He felt a tumult of disgust, more nausea, and weakness unsettling his knees. This was exactly the kind of horrifying magic he had nightmares about, and worst of all, he knew that it would happen to him if he made a misstep in the little spying game the Archduke had set him to.
The fairy nodded. The auspice of something nearing death deadened her soft features. “Think of it… like the stocks. Worse of course, but at least- you’re looking a bit pale, lad.”
“I… I-I…” He did feel faint, come to think of it. “Well, I suppose there’s that…”
A few minutes of Rowan walking and the fairy hovering over him like a gadfly, they reached what Tara described as the magical corner of the city. There was the Ministry of Magic, Dun Peak’s Magic Institute, as well as its accompanying dormitories, laboratories, student- and researcher-focussed shops, dining halls and other accompanying buildings. They occupied the entire area, overlapping each other. There were buildings stacked on top of buildings in strange orientations, jammed between others and a few in completely architecturally unfeasible positions, glowing dully with magic that looked as though it barely kept them aloft, considering the disconcerting bowing of many of the buildings’ beams.
Rowan’s eye was drawn up in what should have been childlike wonder, but instead worked itself out into a kind of unnerved resolution. He rather finish his business and damn well get out of the part of the city where there was likely a philosophical debate on whether it was better for a one-ton building to fall on you from ten storeys or a ten-ton building fall on you from only one.
“Well,” Rowan stated as briskly as he dared.
“I suppose this is where we part? I’m very grateful for your help, Ms. Tara, but I’d hate to keep you.”
“Oh, I’m actually headin’ up myself. I suppose it’s a fine thing too, half the university offices and a few classrooms are inside and I’d hate for you to be waylaid by a group of rowdy students and need a rescue again,” the fairy said with a theatrical wink so he could see it on a face that was smaller than his thumb.
“Oh! Er, thank you! I, er… I suppose I do stand out, aha…” Where he’d seen a few men walking the regular streets outside, he’d become very sharply aware that even though there were busy crowds, there were nothing but robed women who were starting to stare and whisper amongst each other. “Is… is the Institute a girls’ school?”
“Hmm? Oh no, just that men can’t- well… often aren’t possessed of the particular aptitude required for our particular style of magic, with mana reserve concerns and whatnot…”
Ah. The political answer when one wanted to say ‘men are functionally incapable of magic so we see them to the door when they come.’
“I do hear those gentlemen from Mistheim are quite happy with their own native magic, though!” Tara chirped. It was a hasty swerve away from a prickly subject and Rowan was happy to oblige.
“RIGHT!” Rowan clapped his hands. There was still time to save his ego. He eagerly changed the subject to get the (other) M-word out of his mind. “You were saying the Ministry was in the tower?”
“…That’s right, tenth floor.”
Rowan fortunately managed to keep his complaining about yet more stairs internalised and the pair finally reached the top floor. The fairy turned a corner, tapping a door labelled ‘MINISTER OF MAGIC,’ which swung open at the touch.
“Ah,” Rowan said, “thank you so much, I don’t think I’d have ever-!” On poking his head in, he saw that Tara had already settled into a fairy-sized desk that was sitting on the top of a larger, human-sized one. It was gaudy: a number of multicoloured, pulsating magical stones he was fairly sure did nothing as well as a name plaque as big as she was. “Oh.”
“So, everything alright otherwise, Rowan? Have a seat.”
“Yyyeeees… Er, did you happen to come to the reception, Minister? I’m having a bit of a hard time recalling anyone of your… stature?” He said, trying to conceal that he’d been unaware his rescuer was anybody important.
“Oh, I was your height when we met and I ended up puttin’ the wings away since there was a crowd,” she said, kicking her feet up onto the miniature desk, “too tirin’ to bother with all the time, though.”
“Aaah, that rings a bell now!” He exclaimed a little overly-vigorously as a total of zero bells were rung. “How have you been?”
“Well enough,” she nodded, lighting an impossibly small pipe and beginning to smoke, “well enough. I was expectin’ you some time ago, though.”
“I… sorry? I heard you were hoping to meet at four…”
“…And when did you hear this?”
“When I got up this morning? It was quite early…”
The next sound out of the fairy’s mouth was part sigh and part groan. “I don’t suppose little Willow is the one who sent you off with no escort and a vague statement?”
He had a sneaking suspicion, but he aired it nonetheless. “Ms. Greenglass?”
She nodded. “The secretary. Well, deputy minister, but that’s just the fancy title to tell everyone she’s an important secretary.” She took a long drag of her pipe to match her emphasis. “I was runnin’ a late night, so I suggested a meetin’ right early so I could go to bed in the morning. I suppose you thought she meant the evening?”
Rowan nodded grimly.
“Careful with her. She’s after your position and she’s barely even worried about who knows.”
“Well, I…” Rowan paused for dramatic effect. “I didn’t even really want to be a minister! I’d be perfectly happy to just-”
“Queen’s had her eye on you since you shook things up, so I doubt this ‘temporary’ thing is going to stop her from findin’ a way to make you stay in the position for… ten years, wasn’t it?”
That deflated Rowan by quite a bit.
“…Sorry. Let’s get down to business, I spent most of my sleepin’ time looking for you and I’d like to slip in a nap before my actual afternoon appointment.”
“Right. Of course.”
Tara clenched her pipe between her teeth, gesturing at a few gigantic stacks of paper that began to flicker with a dim purple light before floating over to the desk like a pair of obedient dogs. “There we are. I’d have kept ‘em on the desk, but they’re taller than I am an’ were gettin’ in my damn way.”
Rowan sat up in his chair a little bit trying to get a peek at the papers. “What are these?”
“Wartime internal records,” she said, gesturing broadly to the left stack, then the right, “and the previous Minister’s personal records. Last hundred pages or so are mine, commentary on the old documents, minutes from every meeting since my appointment, as well as an accountin’ of my opinions on what the Institute’s current positions on Dunmuir affairs are.”
“I, er… alright? I feel like I’m a bit confused about why I’m here diplomacy-wise…” He knew they’d likely be a goldmine for information, so he should play the immaculate diplomat so he wasn’t suspected of anything.
The fairy ran her fingers through her hair and leaned her head back. “She didn’t even…? Alright, fine. I know the Greenglasses, all of them. You’ll find you were left a note in what, to outside eyes, will have seemed like an obvious location that your secretary neglected to tell you about.”
“Look, maybe I just got off on the wrong foot with her, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” Rowan said, getting a sinking feeling about the poking in the cuff of his right boot he’d previously assumed was only a sign it didn’t fit him well. Clever girl.
“I’ll just tell you and save you the time an’ tears wasted translating Politicianese.” She waved her hand dismissively. “First point, I’m the only replacement for the old ministry that’s been picked and I could use a hand with a few things I’d normally be reporting to the Queen myself.”
“I see,” Rowan said, a bit guilty that he’d likely managed to get an entire ministry… be-tree-ed. “How many…?”
The smoke of her matchstick pipe followed her knowing exhale. “Hundred n’ fifty or so, but the numbers were a little bloated. Reason I was awake for a meetin’ at four, you understand.”
Rowan’s stomach churned a little. He regretted asking the question.
“Anyway. She’ll want these papers all summarised an’ my interpretation cross-checked, since the Institute’s near an independent country. The whole ministry was in on that little extralegal an’ extraregal war scheme, so everyone over here’s on the big-T Treason watch list. Delicate political an’ diplomatic situation, you’ll agree.”
“Ah, of course!” Rowan said, latching onto ‘delicate political and diplomatic situation’ as the first words out of someone’s mouth in Dunmuir that he was comfortable and familiar with. “It shouldn’t be a problem at all, I certainly owe you for today! It would be good to have a working relationship with my colleagues too.” Rowan’s voice carried an audible tension he attempted to assuage with nervous, if good-spirited chuckling.
“…This is why she’s not lettin’ you out of the Ministry of Diplomacy, you know.” Tara took one last breath in, then set down her pipe. “The other reason’s that Rhiannon was going to send you to spy on me eventually, so we may as well cut out the middleman. The last few pages on the right there are my schedule an’ the names beside hours are people who can confirm it. Speakin’ of, would you mind signin’ for the time we’ve been together?”
“Oh, er, of course…” Rowan picked the top sheet off the pile and looked at the last few lines.
5:00 AM, the Minister of Diplomacy was late, went looking for him.
6:34 AM, cast one (1) body strengthening spell on MoD to assist with mugging in progress, MoD was confused and vomited after punching ringleader ~8.5 ells into ‘Rosemary’s Discount Staves,’ MoM will send compensation.
6:35 AM, MoD began fleeing the scene, assisted in finding his way to…
Rowan felt his face flush a little at the uncomfortable accuracy. “Just, um… just beside what I was present for, then?”
“If you would.”
He managed to calm himself down a little as he signed several columns, finally sinking into his chair as he finished at ‘7:46 AM, meeting w/ MoD.’ “So, is that it for today? I suppose I’ll have to schedule a meeting with Her Majesty to go over this…”
“Hmm… nothin’ I can think of, but you can tell her the usual research updates an’ the Institute grounds’ expansion request’ll be sent out when I get a minute to write ‘em.”
Once he made it back up the stairs to the castle (one of the door guards very noticeably biting her lip in an attempt not to laugh at him as he sprawled out on the landing, trying to catch his breath), he set to work on the papers Tara fortunately delivered to him so he wouldn’t needed to carry them back.
Rowan requested references from a helpful maid and started going through the hundreds upon hundreds of pages using a desk-splitting tome entitled Rockston’s Abridged Compendium of Arcane Terminology. He’d initially decided not to look at Tara’s notes so he could draw his own conclusions, but that mistake was coming back to bite him. The war had been on (then off, then on again, ad nauseam) for nearly eighty years now, and the former Minister of Magic kept very thorough notes. It was, at least, a small blessing that talented magicians tended to live obscenely long so at least he only had to deal with one woman’s notes beside Tara’s.
He was halfway into trying to figure out whether Elemental-state Golemantic Thaumatography was yet another technical term that didn’t matter or code for something he should report to one or both of the monarchs he worked under when Ms. Greenglass made a rather huffy entrance through his bedroom door.
“Why are you here?”
“Hmm?” Play it cool. Assume she possessed the best of intentions, even if she looked shocked and horrified you made it back to the palace, Rowan. “Ah, just working on a few things the Minister of Magic sent along. Dense stuff for the likes of me, but you seemed quite busy this morning,” he said, pointedly not lifting his eyes and pretending he was still searching for the definition of ‘Golemantic’ with his finger.
“…You managed to meet up with her?”
He heard the little twinge of disappointment in her voice and decided to push her a little. “Oh, yes. Ended up meeting her on the street, if you can believe it! We were a little late, but it all worked out in the end.”
“Oh,” Greenglass said, turning up her nose. “Well good. We were running late this morning, so it’s good to see things turned out in your favour.”
Ah, the very careful words of a woman who wanted plausible deniability if he asked her if she’d sabotaged him on purpose. “So, did you need anything, Ms. Greenglass? You seemed in quite a hurry, and I’m hoping to have these old records summarised for the Queen in the next few days…”
“Well- …Did you say records?”
“Apparently. It was news to me, but we’re helping Tara investigate the old ministry and ties to the Institute.”
The elf bit her lip, clearly trying to decide what she should be doing. “…Right. Let’s go to the office. I’m taking at least half of this, and that’s final.”
“Oh, thank you Ms. Greenglass! I hadn’t expected you to have any free time.” Drat. He wouldn’t be able to keep filling out a second copy of things to send back to Gisland in front of her.
“I resent what you’re implying,” she grumbled. “I’ve had internal request upon internal request to sort out, but this is more important to the Queen right now.”
As it turned out, the Ministry of Diplomacy was a surprisingly small place. The tower it was situated in (the wealthy of Dunmuir seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with rigid, uptight stone structures) had only a few scattered desks with clerks who pointedly avoided eye contact with Rowan. It would be awkward to need to show off as the new boss to a room full of women who seemed unsure about him when he had his arms full of paper, anyway.
Well, he thought as he set everything down, he at least had a fairly impressive office. Floor-to-ceiling carved panelling, a massive partners’ desk, as well as a variety of light fixtures that burned with a blue-white flame he associated with torturously burning souls and hoped he was allowed to get rid of.
“So this is…?”
“Ours. Though I’d appreciate it if you didn’t spread out too much, just to make the move-out easy when your temporary term is up.”
“…Of course. Just humouring my host and trying to make myself useful.” He took a seat on one of the chairs at the desk and gestured to the stacks. “So, which half of the war do you want? I don’t have a preference. I think I’m going to look over Tara’s schedule first.”
“The more recent half,” Greenglass said, certain that she was leaving the pointless half to him.
“So, secret codes, contacts at the Institute or outside it, details of plots…”
“You’re not my mother, Mister Rowan. I don’t need reminding when I would know better than you.”
He gave her his best withering look as he picked up a pen and dipped it in a pot of ink. “I was asking if you had any other suggestions for things I should be looking out for, Vice-Minister. As you said, you likely know better than me.”
That had gotten her. She almost went red out to the tips of her ears, not sure whether to be humiliated or flattered. “I- well- um… right. You… you got most of them. Minister.”
Struggling to keep his polite smile from turning smug, Rowan leaned back with the schedule and began to read. “Anything else the Queen usually expects? Annotation style or anything like that?”
“…Nothing in particular, no.”
They worked in a tense silence for a while before Rowan broke it. “So what’s she like?”
“Hm?” Greenglass looked down at her sheets dourly, clearly still annoyed she’d made a fool of herself.
“Her Majesty, I mean. I’ve really only met her twice, and other than ‘warrior Queen cutting a bloody swath every few years,’ I don’t really know much about her personality or how people over here see her.” Rowan readjusted himself in his chair and circled a passage in red ink. “I don’t want to seem ignorant, is all.”
“Well, she’s an excellent general. She hasn’t had time to do much else, though I’m told the army adores her.” Greenglass played with a triangular watch strung around her neck for a moment before continuing, “She’ll be a good Queen, as long as she can get her… desires under control. It’s starting to be well-known, even outside the palace…”
Aha. This is exactly the opening he’d been hoping for. “Oh, those rumors? I think I heard something out on the streets earlier… What’s the truth?”
The elf grimaced. “Damn it… Yes, it’s true she has a taste for men and women.”
Rowan linked fancy unto fancy and clenched his jaw as he asked the horrible question. “Like… their blood…?”
She slapped a hand over her mouth as she tried to stifle an unladylike laugh. “Well, she- pff… she certainly does enjoy certain bodily fluids, I hear.”
His eyes widened in realisation. “Ah. Was ‘fucking’ the word you used before?”
“…Intercourse if you really must.”
“So she… men and women, you said?”
Greenglass heaved a bit of a sigh. “She’s a perfectly fine ruler, you understand. She just has a bit of a problem with not being ready to work unless she’s satisfied. And then of course there’s the problem of her leaving essential staff in a pile on the floor, looking like they’ve lost ten years of their lives.”
Still feeling a little cautious of his country’s greatest single foe since the dethroning of its last Emperor, Rowan hazarded a question, hoping it wouldn’t lead anywhere. “Er, what exactly do you mean?”
She paused and gave him an innocent look. “Oooh. I thought you would have already… I see.”
Pressing her hands together over her lips and leaning in a little conspiratorially, Greenglass began. “Rowan, how long has this Rhiannon led the country?”
“…About eighty years, I think.”
“She’s ruled as long as the common person lives, you’d say?”
“Well yes. Even Gislanders know witches live longer than normal. Didn’t her mother reign for two hundred?”
“Good, good,” she let a pause hang just long enough to be unnerving. “Where do you think those extra years come from?”
Rowan’s throat tightened such that he barely felt able to speak. “She’s siphoning…?”
His Deputy Minister picked up her quill again and got back to work. “Professional advice, Rowan. Stay away from her and just do your job.”
“R-right. Yes.” He grabbed the nearest quill and one of the coloured jars of ink. Dip, dip, dip. Work hard. Aha. Yes, he could do that…
Rowan spent the better part of the next hour working frantically to keep his mind busy. A knock disturbed him, though there was already a tired-looking maid standing in the open doorway. She wasn’t tall, but the softly moving antennae on top of her head made up for their difference in height.
“Minister.” The word hung there for a moment. It was a statement said as though she were telling an inquisitive child what Rowan should be called. “The Queen requests your presence.”
He shook a little as he thought back to what Greenglass told him. Already? Was she going to…? There was nothing for it, so he cleared his throat and stood. “I’ll be right with you. Is there anything I need to bring?” A shield to protect his soul might be nice.
“Nothing of note.”
“Not even my clothes, eh?” The joke was more for himself, in the vain hope that putting on a good show would give him the courage he was pretending to have.
It was met with a distasteful look from Greenglass and a dead-eyed stare from the maid. “Not strictly, Minister. I might wonder about your reputation afterwards, however.”
“Right,” he cleared his throat again, hoping to recover, “I’m a little tense, sorry.”
She struggled for a response. She settled on a face that said something like: ‘I really would struggle, if you’ll pardon the expression, to give less of a shit, sir. Would you kindly fucking get on with it so I can do the part of my job that’s at least slightly less unpleasant, like cleaning latrines?’
“…Very good, Minister,” she mustered.
As soon as he’d gotten to the door, the maid took off at a pace just slightly faster than was comfortable down the cavernous halls, giving him nothing but a view of her delicate, gossamer insect wings. Most of the rooms Rowan had visited had been towers or round rooms, but it seemed that even Dunmuir’s stubborn architects had yet to find a way to make a practical hallway out of circles. In the palace, they seemed to have tried to soften the architectural compromise with barrel-vaulted ceilings. They were even high enough that he was hardly surprised when two messengers on broomstick passed each other in different directions and one flew over the other.
Rowan was shown to a considerably more impressive reception room than he’d met his fellow ministers in, much more like he would’ve expected from a witch-Queen. A precipitously high ceiling, thick drapery in rich patterns and unplaceable, foreign-looking urns dotted the room. As his eyes wandered, he eventually picked out Rhiannon having a conversation with someone below a fireplace decorated with a fresco of a rabbit-eared woman holding a glowing sword aloft.
The maid cleared her throat as they drew closer and rattled off what was becoming an embarrassingly-long string of meaningless titles for a man who’d been born in a bargain inn. “Lord Grand Minister of Gisland-Dunmuir Relations and sitting Temporary Minister of Diplomacy for Dunmuir, Rowan of Waterton, Hero of Gisland.”
His embarrassment turned to horror as Rhiannon’s conversation partner swivelled his head to look toward him. Sir Adalard. He was the head of the knights assigned to guard the Archduke, but it was an open secret among government officials that most of his work was done as Gisland’s spymaster.
And he’d just been told that Rowan had accepted a position to directly aid a foreign government. Rowan was halfway into drafting the admission of guilt they’d probably make him write before he was executed when he realised he was being spoken to.
“Fine thing to see you actually, my lad! I’d been hoping I’d catch you while I was in town, as I was just telling Her Majesty.”
“Right,” Rowan managed.
“Do have a seat, Rowan.” Rhiannon patted a spot beside her on an ornate settee. “I was just telling Sir Adalard about our little deal to keep you busy while you’re under my protection.”
The subtle barb toward his potential executioner made Rowan at least a bit happier to sit beside the woman who would probably only siphon out his life force. He tried to sit down at a comfortable distance away from her, but she had instantly pressed herself against him and thrown her arm around his shoulders in what he assumed was a protective gesture.
Adalard shot Rowan a sly grin before leaning back into his chair. “So, how are we faring, Rowan?”
“Ah, well enough I suppose. It’s certainly an experience being here instead of New Gisdorf.”
“Excellent! Glad to hear it!” The spymaster clapped his hands before rubbing them together conspiratorially. “Now about taking up this work in Her Majesty’s court. I’d like to say on behalf of the Archduke… I love it!”
Rowan let out a breath he didn’t notice he’d been holding. “Ah, thank you. I was hoping I’d made the right choice…”
“Yes, I’d say you have, certainly! No better way to entwine our countries like ivy around an oak! Or a rowan, eh?” He laughed, leaving the question of whether he knew what ivy did to trees unanswered.
“We’re quite glad to have him, of course,” Rhiannon said, laying her spare hand disconcertingly high on Rowan’s thigh, “he might be a bit… inexperienced, but I’ll make sure to train him in proper court manners before long.”
His discomfort doubled when Adalard gave the two of them a wink. “Say no more, Your Majesty. I’m sure the lad will be pleased as punch to spend as much time as he has with such a beautiful… er…”
Rhiannon grinned. “Old goat?”
“Ha! I’d never do you such a disservice, Your Majesty,” he laughed in a desperate bid to cut the tension. “Now I don’t suppose I might borrow your Minister a moment? Mens’ business, you see, personal messages from the Archduke and whatnot.”
Oh, thank god. Any excuse to get away from Rhiannon’s uncomfortably-placed hands was good in his books. Besides, he was used to being talked around but it was a little annoying when he was the subject of the conversation.
Rhiannon squeezed his thigh, stopping him from getting up for a moment. “Hmm… must you, Adalard? I’d just gotten comfortable…”
Rowan cleared his throat, trying to gently disengage himself from the arm around his shoulders. “Well, if it’s all the same to you, Your Majesty, I’d like to pass on a message to my mother that might begin to enter the realm of the embarrassing…”
“Oh, fine.” She removed her hands and folded them in her lap. “I trust you won’t keep a lady waiting?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he said, trying to plan out the concrete details of an escape plan to make the statement technically true.
As soon as they’d been escorted to a private side-room and left alone, Adalard clasped Rowan on the shoulder a little overly jovially. “Well done, Rowan! I couldn’t have dreamed of getting an agent in your position in a hundred years, but here you are! Ha!”
“Well, I don’t think I’ve done anything that special, considering my position.” Rowan puffed out his chest a little proudly. “No restart of the war on our watch, eh?”
“…Yyyyyeeeeeeees. Absolutely, my lad. Just remember, the first rule of spy work is not being taken in by the enemy.”
“So… I am one, then? A spy, that is.”
Adalard nodded solemnly. “You’re doing a service for your country and for the Balance, my boy. Given the stakes, the Archduke has asked me to handle you personally.”
“Right.” A handler! It was a bit strange to remember all those boyhood dreams of being a spy, buried under years of adulthood and stifling work. Was it normal to suddenly feel like such a pawn, though? “Well… it’s an honour, of course.”
The spymaster patted Rowan’s shoulder again before pushing a string of prayer beads into his hands. “Good lad. You’ve done well to get in good with the head witch, but be careful of her. She may try to corrupt your soul with her… tastes.”
Rowan nodded. “I… I’ve heard. When would you like your reports?”
“I’ll be in touch. Just stay wary of the demons and you should be fine. And don’t forget to pray!” Adalard waved his hand dismissively, then headed for the door.
A little eager to head out, Rowan asked to be led back to his room and the maid from before offered nothing in the way of resistance. It was a good thing too, he was too nervous to not say something that might endanger his existence as a not-tree. Trying to calm down, he focussed on what he could control.
He reached his room in a pleasingly round 820 steps, bid the maid goodnight and locked the door behind himself. Sir Adalard had been right, of course. He’d been feeling a little off-balance lately and a lack of prayer had probably been the reason. He strung Adalard’s prayer beads around his hand, admiring the quality of the black and white stones before taking a deep breath and beginning.
“Change. Your blessings are many.” He moved to the next bead. “Order. I pray you bless me tomorrow.” The next. “Change, your blessings are many…”
Both gods were equally important, theoretically. An overhead look at any particular Gislander’s life could be seen from the frequency and style of prayer they used. A man pleased with his life and position would never fail to make a show of being over-blessed by Order while hoping in his heart for nothing but stability. A man ‘thanking’ Change for abundant blessings, however… The denizens of other countries usually shortened those prayers down to short, snappy four-letter words like “damn,” and “shit.”
And Rowan nearly did curse when he reached the end of his prayer. He counted. 44 beads, a completely regular amount. There was always an amount you could split in half so you could start with a prayer to Change and end on one to Order.
And yet he somehow managed to start and end on the exact god he’d been trying to avoid. Had he miscounted? No, he was good with numbers, that wasn’t the kind of mistake he made. He hurriedly re-counted, finding 44 again. No double beads anywhere, not that he thought Sir Adalard was the kind to play pranks.
He went around the beads again, counting in tandem with his prayers. A silly mistake, that was all.
“…Forty-three. Order. I pray you bless me tomorrow. Forty-fou-” Rowan inhaled sharply and set the beads down on his bedside table. Right. Well, that was a sign if he’d ever seen one. He should stop while he was ahead.
He stood and dusted off his pants, looking around the room. Right. The church always suggested doing something Orderly in times like this, and his local priest had always complimented him on his enthusiasm for it. Yes… there were a few things he could tackle.
When Greenglass barged into Rowan’s room the next morning, she stopped dead in her tracks, blinked a few times, then readjusted her spectacles. The bed was perfectly made, the room’s bookshelf had been rearranged into a spectrum by cover colour, and Rowan slept peacefully on the floor in front of the fireplace next to a stack of kindling he arranged into a geometric pile in its holder.
She nearly assumed Rowan was dead, laid out with his feet together and his hands resting on his stomach like he was ready to be buried. It took the elf a moment to notice he was breathing softly and had a gentle smile on his face, as if he was having a pleasant dream.
Not sure whether she should be confused or disgusted, she poked his shoulder with her boot. Without any more prompting, Rowan rose, yawned and stretched out.
“Mmmnh… Ah, good morning, Ms. Greenglass,” Rowan greeted the elf with fresh vim and vigour.
“Er… Yes. Good morning indeed,” she replied, off-balance.
Sensing her eyes wandering, Rowan offered her a sheepish smile. “Ah. Religious practice, nothing bad.”
“Right,” he said, getting to his feet with a smile. “What can I do for you this morning, Ms. Greenglass?”
She hesitated a few moments, still off-balance. She readjusted her robe in a huff and tried to find the mood she was in when she entered. “I’ve spoken with Her Majesty this morning, and I understand you snuck away from a meeting with her last night after promising to return.” She turned up her nose and sneered at Rowan. There it was.
Oh. Rhiannon had said something about not keeping her waiting, hadn’t she.
“Some people might find themselves unburdened by their human forms for less, Temporary Minister.”
Rowan shivered and the smile faded from his face. “Ah. Um, you see I hadn’t exactly thought about…”
“You can make your excuses to Her Majesty over breakfast. And,” Greenglass spun on her heel and made for the door to conceal a pleased grin, “she gave me the authority to have the guards carry you there if you try to sneak off again.”
He was unnerved as he was marched to the dining room, even if Greenglass’ guard rolled her eyes at the idea Rowan could escape and took great pains to look actively bored the whole trip.
The guard halfheartedly announced their presence and ushered them in a set of double doors to the dining room. Before Greenglass could ask her to do anything else, she beat a hasty retreat back down the hall.
Rhiannon waved at them from the middle of the massive circular room, looking almost comically out of place in what had clearly been intended to be a dining hall for at least two hundred, now emptied except for a small table placed in the exact centre.
“There’s my Minister of Diplomacy! I was afraid you’d been whisked off somewhere!”
Greenglass stood expectantly by Rowan’s side, none-too-gently pushing him forward like a pleased housecat presenting a rat. “Not to worry, Your Majesty, tracking down a man would be easy for me, even if he fled to the ends of the earth.”
“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, hmm?” Rhiannon looked expectantly at Rowan with a pleased smile on her face. “Do take a seat, won’t you?”
He smoothed out his hair and took a deep breath. “Of course, Your Majesty.”
“Thank you Willow, you can leave us now. I’m sure you’re a busy woman these days.”
This startled Greenglass, who had been none-too-subtly looking for a third seat at the table that wasn’t there. “B- A-are you sure? I wouldn’t mind…”
The words hung like a veiled threat for a few moments before the elf had regained enough composure to answer.
“Right. Well. I wish you a good morning then, Your Majesty.”
Rhiannon leaned back and let out a soft sigh as she watched the elf leave, only turning to Rowan once the door had been shut. “She’s adorable once you’ve learned how to press her buttons. You couldn’t be blamed for wanting to kiss her when she pouts, just to see her reaction.”
“I… Never thought about it that way, Your Majesty.” Well, he couldn’t say that his (temporary) secretary wasn’t attractive, at least. Expressive eyes, well-kept and shiny hair, certainly flawless skin… You couldn’t quite tell under all the clothes, but there was the promise of an impressive body und-
He cleared his throat in some vain hope that his head would follow.
The Queen smiled, having caught some momentary glitter in Rowan’s eye that told her all she needed to know. “Well, it’s wonderful to find you open-minded enough to think about it now.”
“Your Majesty, I’m not sure I-”
“Rhiannon, if you please. I hear ‘Your Majesty’ so many times in a day I don’t appreciate it any more, though it is a lovely show of submission when we’re not in private.”
“Erm, alright. Rhiannon,” he said, having completely lost his opportunity to deny fantasising about Greenglass.
“I hope a Dunmuir-style breakfast will sit well with you?”
“I’m… not particularly familiar, Y- Rhiannon.”
She clasped her hands together, looking like a little girl who’d managed to catch an ant. “Well, what a wonderful chance to introduce you, then.”
“Your taste is impeccable, I’m sure,” Rowan said, hoping the breakfast wasn’t awful enough to be a punishment in itself before she exacted some kind of awful magical torture on him.
It only took a minute longer for the food to be brought out. The plates were piled with unfamiliar cuisine, but he was surprised that none of it was particularly unappetising. The plate had a number of square-ish slices of meat, a small pile of grilled mushrooms and a bowl of what looked like some kind of porridge.
“Wine, Rowan?” Rhiannon was passed a glass poured by a white-frocked man who looked as though he took his job more seriously than the Queen took hers. “I find this kind does wonders for the whole meal.”.
“Well,” Rowan hazarded, “if the Queen and the chef are in agreement, I suppose I’d be missing out to turn it down, aha.”
The man with the wine bottle dramatically poured Rowan a glass and set it in front of him, chest visibly swelling with pride. “…If you’ll excuse my impertinence, might I get a Gislander’s opinion on my cooking when you are finished, my Lord?”
“Oh, no trouble! I’m sure I’ll have nothing but good things to say.” He smiled at the chef and hoped that he’d manage to get out of the meeting with Rhiannon in a state he could still speak in.
The Queen herself simply fiddled with the tablecloth draped over her lap and took a bite, letting out a sound of pleasure. “Mmmh… Thank you Finan. You may return to your duties.”
The man bowed, then made his exit through a well-concealed service door.
“Absolutely lovely cook. His wife is a lucky woman.” She narrated to nobody in particular.
Rowan barely managed a nod, his mind completely elsewhere as he took a tentative bite of one of the mushrooms. It was surprisingly crispy on the outside, the softer interior giving way to a juicy, savoury flavour with a finish of some unfamiliar herb that… he panicked a little when his tongue suddenly went numb. Poison…? No, it… Hm. He took another bite, just to see what was going on. Then another. It tasted like it was different each time he had one.
“A fan of the mushrooms, I take it?”
“Well… I’ve never had anything with… quite this effect before.”
“Oh, few people have. We did have to wheedle the dwarves quite a bit to even let us buy soul caps.”
“Is… is it true what they say?” What they said, in Gisland at least, was that soul caps were horribly addictive and could lead men to ruin trying to get more. He’d heard tales of a few counts on the marches along the border giving up entire treasuries and killing people who’d eaten their reserves.
Was this his punishment? He trembled at the idea of spending the rest of his life as a slave to his addiction. The Queen likely laughing as she pushed him to lower and lower depravities just to get his fix-
“What do you…?” Rhiannon pondered for a moment, then burst out into a laugh that pushed the boundaries of what could be considered ladylike. “Oh, they’re addictive all right. I had them for breakfast for an entire week before I got sick of them!”
He let go of a breath he’d unconsciously been holding and felt relief wash over him. He continued to enjoy his meal, glad that his beliefs on the topic were misplaced.
She casually swirled her glass of wine in one hand, only speaking up when Rowan had taken a bite of the slices of meat. “I was expecting you to be more suspicious of the griffin sausage, to be honest.”
Rowan nearly choked. The winged women with…? He was almost certain he’d seen one yesterday. Was this cannibalism? They weren’t exactly human, but…
“That’s… er… interesting,” he said, putting down the slice of meat and beginning to halfheartedly pick at the mushrooms again. There had been an occasion where he’d had a severed head thrown at him while he’d been eating due to some slightly tense negotiations on the frontier, but at least he hadn’t been expected to eat it. “It’s… quite well-spiced.”
Rhiannon giggled and took a bite herself. “Oh, of course. That said, even I couldn’t afford to eat this every day. There’s been a hostile nation sinking my merchant ships every time we try to make it to the ocean, you see.”
“I… I see.”
“Well, I expect I’ll send someone to get to that in time, hmm?”
“Actually, if I may…”
She raised an eyebrow at the sudden show of will, but let him continue.
“I would want to see what we can offer to Gisland first, but…” It was time to make his gamble. He’d either please her enough with the offer that he might get out of punishment or remind her that he needed more. “I may be in a position to bargain with the lords who control the strait to arrange-”
His stomach dropped when she held up a hand. “In time. There are a few other things on my mind at the moment, first of which is not ruining a perfectly good meal with talk of work.”
“Ah. Right, sorry.”
They ate the rest of the meal in silence besides the soft sound of Rowan tapping out a familiar pattern on his leg in an attempt to calm himself down. Tap. Taptap. Tap. Taptap. He couldn’t bring himself to eat any more of the meat, though he was disgusted to admit it had tasted like a delightful combination of duck and veal. Was she going to force him? How mad was she that he’d been so bold to suggest something in the middle of a meal?
The Queen was at ease, adjusting the tablecloth and her clothes a few times, but… Was she getting drunk from the wine? Her face was getting a bit flushed and she watched Rowan with an unnervingly judging stare.
“Are… are you feeling alright?”
“Mmm…” She rested her face on her hand and emptied the remnants of her wine glass before setting it back down.
“Are you sure? You seem a little… out of it.”
She gave him another distracted hum and closed her eyes, letting her shoulders slump.
She reached for her wine glass but somehow missed the mark, knocking the glass over. Had the glass not been emptied but a minute before then the maids likely would have had to seriously deep clean these rather expensive-looking tablecloths…. Muttering a curse, Rhiannon quickly snapped to attention and caught the glass before it fell, making no attempt to hide her disappointment that it was empty when she peered into it.
She blinked a few times, then cleared her throat. “Just fine… Is the sausage not to your taste, Rowan? Finian does have a terrible time convincing hunters to go after griffins, so it’s a shame to see it go to waste…”
Tap. Taptap. The little nervous tic wasn’t helping him calm down as much as he’d have liked, but he at least managed to keep his voice steady when he spoke. “Well, er… They… they do seem like they’d be a bit hard to hunt, aha…”
“Oh, you’ve seen one before?”
“I saw one in town yesterday, yes…”
“Are you sure? They’re…” Rhiannon tilted her head a moment, then her eyes lit up and she needed to cover her mouth to stop herself from laughing. “D-did you…? Pfft…”
“I-I don’t understand what you mean.”
“How big was this ‘griffin?’”
“A bit taller than the average woman? It’s hard to tell when there’s so many kinds of…” Rowan trailed off, Rhiannon’s choked laughter getting distracting.
“A… a word to the wise, Rowan. You might not want to go around comparing people to haycart-sized animals if you’re… aha… if you’re looking to make friends in my country.” She was biting her lip and looking away now.
“Do you mean…?”
“I’m not having people served to us. How bad are the rumours about me in Gisland for that to even cross your mind?”
Rowan’s face turned nearly as red as the Queen’s. “I… I don’t know what came over me. It’s just… I mean, I didn’t exactly know that they were real besides the women that look like them…”
“Ahem. Yes, very real, up in the mountains.” Rhiannon watched Rowan finish with an amused smile, resting her hand on her chin until the chef came to take away their dishes. “Now Rowan, I’d like to talk business first.”
“Right, of course!” He felt a little guilty for thinking so poorly of his host so this was his chance to shine. “I’m partway into going through the former Minister of Magic’s notes with Ms. Greenglass, and if I could take the liberty, I’ve already had a look through the current Minister’s schedule,” at this he took out the sheet of paper Tara had given him and set it in front of Rhiannon. “Time on the left, event centre and a corroborating signature if she could find a relevant individual on the right, split into blocks of days. It looks fine to me, but I’m probably the least qualified person to pass judgement on it.”
“…You’re handling your work remarkably efficiently, Rowan.”
“I can’t take any credit for the timetable, actually. Tara anticipated you’d be wanting to know her whereabouts, so she said she’ll be sending them over to me daily to cooperate…”
Rhiannon picked up the sheet and peered at it a little closer. “Good. Yes, good… What are these marks?”
“Ah! Person and place are underlined in green for cross-referencing, terms I couldn’t find in Rockston’s Compendium are in blue boxes.”
“And the red?”
“Time that isn’t accounted for with a signature or might be a little suspicious.”
“Meeting with the Institute council, then the Chancellor… Are these suspicious?”
“I was told you aren’t on particularly good terms with them, so…” He’d probably gone a little overboard, but throwing himself into work was always a little therapeutic and organising the notes was one of the first things he’d done in yesterday’s after-prayer balancing session.
“…Well-done. I’d planned to tell you myself, so I may have to speak with her again about oversharing. Anything else before I move on?”
“She also said a research update and ‘the usual’ request were-”
She waved her hand dismissively, then sighed. “Nothing else remarkable, then. Now, I’ve got some work for you. Low-stakes, though I’d dearly love to see everything go smoothly.”
Rhiannon explained that there had been a surge of banditry with the end of the war, since most of Dunmuir’s military that it had kept for the last 80 years had been disbanded and thousands of career soldiers were out of work. Apparently this had come to its most recent head in a mining town about a day to the southeast, where she’d gotten word of a standoff between the local garrison and a group of former soldiers who had occupied the mine.
“Now I wouldn’t normally send a diplomatic mission to deal with banditry, but they’ve taken the local constable hostage and I happen to know that their leader was a very loyal captain of mine during… You’re looking a little pale, Rowan. Are you worried about the hostage or the banditry?”
He only mustered up a very forced smile in response. “I don’t suppose you’d mind if I picked both? I’ve never had to deal with anything worse than political support being held hostage and I’m not used to dangerous situations…”
A sly look crossed Rhiannon’s face. “Really? You might have fooled me. I was in the middle of laying a perfectly good siege when you managed to sneak in from behind and persuaded your way into my tent.”
“I’m… trying not to make a habit out of that kind of thing.”
“You’ll be fine. I’m only hoping you’ll act as mediator for my garrison commander and my former captain, for the most part. Take Ms. Greenglass with you and ask the commander what her plan is. I’d dearly love to see both sides unharmed, but we can march some troops in to take care of the situation if things break down.”
“…Right. Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, aha…”
Rhiannon resettled herself, took a deep breath and cleared her throat. “Now Rowan, I don’t want you to think I’m sending you somewhere dangerous as a punishment.”
…So she wanted him to know it was a punishment, nothing as petty as suspicion would do. “Oh, of course! I would like to-”
She held up a hand and gave him a sweet smile with an undertone of . “We’ll settle your punishment for not keeping your word later, hmm?”
Damn. Damn damn damn. He’d been so close to getting off. Maybe a show of humility could get him some leniency…? “Yes, um… of course. If you’re considering any action toward the maid who let me out that day, I’d just like to ask you not to punish her. It was completely my idea, I practically forced her to do it, considering my position.”
“Oh, she should have known better. Her punishment is finished now, in any case.” She reached down under the table and patted something. “You can come up now, dear.”
There was a tense pause, then a rustling of skirt and tablecloth as the maid in question slid herself out from under the table with a humiliated expression, a blush extending out to her ears.
“There’s a good girl.” Rhiannon rested an elbow on the table and leaned in, the look on her face Rowan had mistaken for drunkenness now unmistakably arousal now that the secret had been revealed. “What’s the look for, Rowan? A lady’s maid should be attentive to her mistress’ desires, no?”
“Er,” Rowan stuttered, “well.”
There were plenty of wealthy perverts in Gisland, he’d dealt with enough to know that. Some of them were even women, but he’d never been confronted with it before, much less when that poor girl wasn’t just being humiliated, but having her life siphoned out, too.
“Now, I won’t keep you any longer,” she said, idly petting the maid’s hair. “I look forward to your report on the mine issue.”3704 Views