Thanks to Laaren, Jexx and the gang for helping with edits.
Art by BWSnowy
Greenglass stared at Rowan counting his prayer beads with the kind of bored ennui travellers get when they’ve long since gotten tired of staring out the window of their carriage. It wasn’t like there was anything to see, anyway. Tree. Rock. Tree. Hill. Bush? No, just a short tree. Attempts at conversation had been made, but they’d run out of things to say a full twelve hours ago and had nothing to do but try to pass the time with what few amusements they could find.
And so Rowan prayed: Change. Order. Change. His eighth go around got him the same strange results as the night before, but he hoped it was for the better. Change the situation. Ha. Greenglass was evidently bored of watching him and started swinging her triangular pendant watch idly back and forth. Maybe she was trying to hypnotise herself into falling asleep until the trip was over.
He put the beads back inside his bag and stretched out the small amount he could. The only thing he could think of was asking the boring question he’d been thinking about the last twenty minutes. “Is that a timepiece?”
“Mhmm,” she halfheartedly answered. Maybe the hypnotism really worked.
“Is it magic?”
“No. You’d have to recast the enchantment every few hours just to keep the parts moving.”
He didn’t expect that to be the answer. Magic wasn’t his forte, but that seemed like the thing an entire nation of witches ought to be able to do. “So how does it move?”
“We commissioned them from one of the dwarven houses.”
God. That meant the little mechanical toy hanging around her neck was probably worth about as much as the mining town they were headed to. It was small, fiddly work made with metallurgy of the kind only a few countries knew how to do. Only the Goldforge clan were masters of that kind of work and they didn’t care to sell it to outsiders without a princely price tag attached to it.
Hearing that she could afford dwarven crafts confirmed his suspicion that she was a rich girl among rich girls. He didn’t often get to see art of its calibre. “It’s beautiful.”
Greenglass perked up and lifted her head in pride. “There’s only three like this in the world. The Greenglass pattern, the makers called it, since all of them were for the family.”
She leaned a little closer and held it out. It was an interesting shade of gold, covered in the kind of looping knotwork motifs Dunmuir was known for. Halfway into admiring the bright white face, set flawlessly in the centre of the triangular body, the carriage jolted to a sudden stop and Greenglass was launched forward, headbutting him in the stomach.
“Guh… A-are you alright…?” Rowan sputtered, trying to convince his lungs to move air again.
“Just fine…” The elf pulled herself out of his lap, looking a little irritated but none the worse for wear.
There was an amused whistle from outside as their driver peered into the window. “We’re here, but I’ll let you two lovebirds finish up first. Good catch, Ms. G.”
Oh. Greenglass was on her knees between his legs, wasn’t she. She stood and turned quickly enough that he barely had time to see her face go beet red. Rowan was surprised he didn’t get a slap across the face before she dashed off to give the driver the tongue-lashing of a lifetime.
After the driver was dealt with to Greenglass’ satisfaction, a guard escorted them into a much more utilitarian compound than Rowan was used to seeing in the capital. Several buildings were built into a cobblestone bailey, and a blocky keep on the other side of the courtyard was the closest thing it had to the round towers of Dun Peak. Rowan didn’t know much about militaries and knew even less about the foreign kind, but the assembled soldiers had the restless atmosphere of dogs that were waiting to be fed. Some sparred halfheartedly or polished their armour and some just milled around, idly playing with the kind of war magic that Gisland’s scant few magicians would pale at. Nearly all of them stared. Rowan couldn’t help but feel the same disapproval he’d gotten at the parade in the capital and his spirits sunk.
They were led into the squat, dingy stone halls of the tower, bereft of any extraneous decoration other than a few mats to stop mud from being tracked inside. They went up a narrow spiral staircase, then to a door that the guardswoman banged on and opened without waiting for a reply.
A redheaded woman slammed the book on her desk shut with a start at the sound of the door and her round, furred ears twitched in indignation at the interruption. There were far too many varieties of animal people for Rowan to really keep track, but she looked like she shared some kind of stock with weasels, at a guess.
Her loose-fitting armour clattered against the desk as she leaned forward. “I told you not to-!”
The guard cleared her throat. “The Queen’s delegation, Commander.”
She rose to her feet with an uneasy expression and shooed the guard out. She gave both of them a clammy handshake with just enough vigour to be uncomfortable. “Sorry! Excuse me. Commander Morna Reid. That’s me.”
She had a long, lanky frame and a weaselly tail that made her appear taller than she was. It was startling when she shook Rowan’s hand and he found she was only his height if you counted her ears.
Greenglass had to conceal a self-satisfied smile. She held a hand over her mouth as though she was rearranging it by hand, only moving the hand away when her face was set in a proud frown. “Sophia Willow Penelope Greenglass, Deputy Minister of Diplomacy.”
Commander Morna blanched a little more with each word, a politely nervous smile spreading across her face. “That’s, er… one of those Greenglasses, as well…?”
The elf glowed in triumph. “Hm? Oh, I suppose I am one of the Duchess’ twins, if that’s what you’re asking, yes.”
Morna offered them seats in a blind panic, fussing with her messy mane of hair in an attempt to smooth it out. “Wine?” She asked, already filling a silver goblet she pulled from a drawer of her cheap, battered desk. The goblet was a strange glimmer of something a commander should be able to afford in a room full of furniture that looked like it was pulled from a scrap heap.
“Certainly, thank you.” Greenglass took a sip and gave a sound of mild approval. “A red Courvin? It tastes like one of the better vintages.”
“…Yes, that’s right,” she nervously answered. She didn’t appear to have a second goblet and sat back down in her seat gracelessly.
Rowan was perfectly happy to be left out of the small talk and sit back in his chair, but it was apparent Greenglass wasn’t done milking the commander for recognition. She took another long sip before swirling the wine around the glass casually. “I’m surprised you haven’t asked about my companion, Commander.”
Morna pressed her hands together as if she was praying, a bead of cold sweat running down her forehead. “Er, should I have? I heard something about a private moment between the two of you, so it isn’t my place to ask if he’s a secretary or…”
The elf’s grip on the stem of the goblet became a stranglehold. She brought her eyes up, but the way she ground her teeth told Rowan she was still trying to convince herself not to dump her wine onto the commander’s head. “I assure you that there’s nothing going on between us that isn’t strictly professional. This is our acting Minister of Diplomacy, Rowan.”
He watched with no small amount of curiosity as Morna managed to change the way she was clasping her hands five times in as many seconds before grimacing, standing, wiping her sweaty palms off on her tunic, then offering Rowan another handshake. “Right! Sorry! Minister! I haven’t- The shake-up in the staff is- was- sorry!”
Rowan tried to grasp her hand with a calming amount of pressure. The last thing he wanted in a tense negotiation was a panicky woman in charge of a few dozen soldiers who could toss fireballs. “No harm, Commander. Take a seat.”
Rowan and Greenglass sat opposite the Commander at the table. Embarrassment and indignation aside, they needed to get down to business before someone else had a chance to set Morna off. That, and Rowan was eager to have this wrapped up as quickly and neatly as possible to avoid upsetting the Queen.
“Now, would you mind telling Ms. Greenglass and I what’s happened, exactly? Her Majesty was… preoccupied.”
“I didn’t expect… well, the thing is that I didn’t expect this to go past the Minister of War, so I didn’t really-”
“Right. Yes. Well. My lancer squadron has been constantly demanding things, and after months of questioning my authority, we had a minor pay dispute and they mutinied!”
That was enough for Greenglass. “Well, why haven’t you marched in and arrested them yet?”
“Right! That’s what I was trying to…! Ahem. Excuse me, Deputy Minister.”
Rowan swiftly followed up as Morna struggled to keep conversation on task. “They captured the local constable, haven’t they? The Queen asked this to end without bloodshed.”
His Deputy pouted, but the Commander found her voice first. “With respect, Minister, we could overwhelm them fast enough it wouldn’t matter! They’d be forced to surrender once they see my loyal troops all come after them!”
He rubbed his chin and let the silence hang in the air for a moment. “Ah. Pardon me, Commander. I don’t think I explained well enough. She doesn’t want anyone hurt on either side, so I’d like to speak with them first.”
Morna argued back and forth with him for a few minutes, wanting to take ‘only’ a dozen of her soldiers with them. He assumed it was nothing but professional bluster, since he pushed to go straight to the mine before the sun set. She clawed at a few desperate reasons to bring her soldiers and save face, ranging from ‘the roads are dangerous this late’ to ‘what if they kidnapped us?’ He was about done with hearing excuses to try and intimidate the rebelling troops when she dropped a nugget of information into his lap in a final bid to win him over. Her rebelling troops were a squadron of Dunmuir’s elite lancers.
In a word, they were madwomen. It took a special kind of Gislander to get on a horse and charge straight into the enemy, but even a Dunmuir witch had to have exceptionally little common sense to want to fly over rows of enemy troops on a terrifyingly high-speed broom to hit important targets like some kind of living ballista bolt. Rumor in Gisland had it that they’d fight until you’d cut off every limb they could hit you with, and then they’d bite you until they bled out.
Their party (including Morna’s dozen soldiers) marched out of the fort, following the poorly-maintained road that petered out into little more than a dirt path with amazing speed. There wasn’t much to see once they’d left the fort behind. The area was empty of farmland or buildings, and the sun hung just low enough over the mountains to the west to wash the grey, knee-high brush of the moorland in a pale gold. The only thing Rowan could amuse himself with was the swishing of robes in the grass and the soft jingle of mail.
It took half an hour for the path to wind its way over less and less gentle hills that heaved themselves into a jutting crag. The only hint of the rock’s significance was the winding track up that some misguided soul had attempted to add fences to, but Rowan could already see that erosion had already done in a few sections.
He really should’ve expected trouble the moment that Commander Morna insisted on bringing troops with them. When they turned up the last switchback on the steep mountain trail and found a ragtag but heavily-armed group blocking their path at the top, his concern turned to dread.
A few were already mounted on their brooms, their lances raised high enough to provide the threat of immediate violence. At their front, a red-haired woman with an eyepatch rested both her hands on a large sword with its point stuck into the ground in defiance. The insurgent’s show of force had its intended effect on Rowan. He paused like a mouse caught in a weasel’s mouth and… wait, a weasel? The rebel leader with her sword in the ground looked an awful lot like Morna.
“I thought I told you to crawl back to your wee little fort, Morna!”
Ah. Sisters. The dread for a difficult job morphed again into a distinct doubt he could prevent the situation from escalating further.
The pair traded insults for a while, covering everything from ‘bodach’ through ‘whore,’ the pair only losing momentum because they were short on colourful vocabulary.
“Well you’re a… traitorous bitch!” Morna yelled, talking over Greenglass trying to get anyone’s attention for the third time.
“Ya done that one already, idiot!”
Morna stewed for a moment as she tried to come up with something better, but Greenglass instantly took advantage of the pause to shout up the hill. “Captain, the Queen orders you to submit yourself to-”
The leader of the lancers spit on the ground. “Shut it, elf!”
“Why, you-!” Greenglass clenched her fists in the kind of impotent rage that told Rowan she was going to say something that would make things worse.
“Now-” His attempt to salvage the situation was cut off when Morna started shouting again.
“She’s the Deputy Minister of Diplomacy, you stupid tart! You’re fucked now!”
“When’re you gonna stop tryin’ to bring your fake officials here, huh? Fuck back off to your wee fort like I told ya!” The captain of the rebelling troops pulled her sword out of the ground and pointed it toward their group.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Rowan realised that she was casting a spell, not just making a threatening gesture. The sword glowed. He tried to turn, but his body couldn’t move nearly as fast as his mind expected. The spell left the blade, a blue ball hurtling toward him. He only had the wherewithal left to clench his jaw and shut his eyes, no time left for a final prayer as-
He suddenly found himself soaking wet, lying in a patch of dirt that had now become a mud hole. The fancy brocade doublet he’d worn was absolutely filthy and he had a sore back, but he was otherwise none the worse for wear.
A few more balls of water were cast toward them as they beat a hasty retreat, Rowan himself was grabbed by the collar and dragged to his feet by one of the friendly witches.
When they got back to the fort, Rowan was offered a washbasin in a warm room by the increasingly frantic Commander Morna, who was: “Very sorry my rude, insolent, stupid, idiot traitor sister has done this!”
He hoped to think over the situation in relative peace, but when someone came to retrieve his dirty clothes, they brought Greenglass with them. She was absolutely livid. Standing on the other side of his hastily-erected privacy screen, she carried on with a tirade that could just as easily have been directed at a wall.
“The audacity! ‘Shut up, elf!’ They should already have been arrested, and now they’ve cast magic at agents of the Queen!”
Fortunately, she wasn’t expecting much other than the occasional noise to prove he was listening. Rowan tried and failed to focus on other things to take a little out of the awkwardness of bathing in the same room as a woman who would feel confident peeking around the corner if it sounded like he wasn’t paying attention.
Morna and her rebelling sister both said some suspicious things, absolutely. Morna obviously wasn’t trusted by her troops, and he wasn’t even sure whether having people impersonate officials was legal or not. She was far more nervous than he could chalk up to an anxious personality,on top of it all. The unwillingness to negotiate was going to be the worst part, though. Her sister obviously had no qualms about breaking the law if she felt she wasn’t getting fair treatment and now they’d both dug in their heels. It was normal to handle this sort of thing in a mediation role, but his Deputy Minister being on the warpath and taking a side was making this a nightmare. Hm. What to do…?
“What I don’t understand is why you didn’t take charge of the situation like you did in the Commander’s office! You’d nearly impressed me and then you turned into some weak-kneed coward!”
Ah, that stung. He knew quite a variety of diplomatic tips and tricks, but… well, he’d never been in charge before. It was a little terrifying knowing that there wasn’t anyone who could actually bail you out if you made too big of a mistake. “Look, I… sorry. I don’t know what I would’ve done besides what you did.” A white lie, though it was far from little. He might’ve at least tried to be, well, diplomatic about things instead of jumping to the demands.
“Well, not much of a big-shot minister then, are you? Negotiations failed, we’ll go and arrest them in the morning, whether they like it or not.”
“Hmm.” He scratched his chin and took a minute to towel himself off. “Would you mind convincing the Commander to part with a bottle of her wine? I think I need to spend some time alone tonight.”
Why did he only realise he was being an idiot when it was too late to do anything about it? Even when Rowan persuaded the front gate guard not to abandon her post and follow him, he was convinced he was onto something good.
He was halfway up the slope to the mine, carrying nothing but a wine bottle and a pair of goblets, shivering in the cold night and wearing borrowed clothes. He felt more than a bit silly. Just go talk to them alone, Rowan! Last time you did that you ended a war! Don’t think about the part where you could’ve been killed half a dozen times over. Idiot. Idiot idiot idiot.
And yet his legs kept moving, his arm waved at the guard at the mouth of the mine automatically, and then his mouth opened unbidden. “Evening! Keeping warm?”
“None of your business. What are you here for, man?”
Charming. “I think we got off on the wrong foot before and I was hoping to make up and talk.” He held out what he hoped was a friendly hand. “I’m Rowan.”
“Yeah, sure you are.” She took his hand and shook it, at least. Progress.
“Do you mind if I spoke to your Captain for a while? I’m trying to find a solution here that doesn’t involve, well…”
“What, you think I’m just going to let you in?”
“Well, I was hoping. I couldn’t beat one of you if I had the sword and you had the wine bottle.”
That won him a little smirk. “And who says you’re not just spying to figure out where we’re set up, huh?”
Hm. He hadn’t even thought of that one, honestly. “Er… blindfold me? You can search me if you want, too.”
There was a short conferral between someone on the other side of the door, a quick pat-down, then Rowan was brought inside the mine with an old rag tied around his eyes. He stumbled a few times on the rough floor on the way over, but the door guard was at least kind enough to stop him from falling flat on his face. He tried in vain to catch any part of a whispered conversation, then a door opened in front of him and he was ushered inside.
The door shut again behind him before a presence in front of him spoke. “You’re ‘Rowan,’ are ya?”
“Well, my mother seems to think so.” He cringed. That had sounded a little friendlier in his head.
She gave a snort, though it was hard to tell if it was from amusement or disdain. “Well, you can ditch the blindfold, either way.”
When he pulled the cloth away from his face, he found himself in a small lamp-lit room carved into the rock of the mine, with little other than a bed, a table, two chairs and the Captain he saw that afternoon.
“Thank you.” There was probably still time for first impressions.
“Don’t mention it. Siddown.”
Rowan set the wine bottle and goblets on the table in what he hoped was a neutral position, then tapped his hand on the table. Tap. Taptap. “Just thought I’d bring a little peace offering after the scuffle today.”
“You drink first. I’m not in the habit of trustin’ Gislanders, real or fake.”
“I resent the fake comment, but if you insist…” Rowan filled his goblet and took a sip.
She peered at him a few moments before she relaxed and filled the other goblet. “Cap’n Gwen Reid. You’re the one I caught with the water ball, aren’t ya?”
He chuckled to himself. “Saw my life flash before my eyes and only figured out what happened after. Nice to meet you properly, Captain R-”
She set the wine bottle down a little too hard and gave him a glare. “Gwen. I don’t wanna have anythin’ to do with my sister.”
“Well Gwen, I was hoping I could get your perspective on what’s happened here. I don’t think I got the whole story from Morna.”
“We ain’t been paid in months, simple as. Anythin’ else she’s told you’s horseshit.”
“Ah… Could you be more specific?”
“She fed us lies about ‘docking pay’ or ‘waiting on things’ over and over again, and now the war’s over, there’s rumors the squadron’s gettin’ disbanded.”
“Hmm…” He leaned back and took a long sip of wine to stall for time.
Pay… Well, that was a bit of a blow. People didn’t usually desert for nothing, but this was something else. He didn’t even know how Dunmuir’s military operated.
“Not to doubt you, of course, but you sure? You’ve confronted her directly?”
Gwen squinted at him, then drained her own goblet and set to refilling it. “‘Course. Always gave us some excuse, then fucked us off.”
“Is there anyone higher up, then?”
“It all goes through her anyway. We’d get court-martialed if we went ‘round the chain of command. Since we’re not on campaign with the Queen, it’d probably be serious instead of just doin’ a couple laps ‘round the camp naked.”
His day would have been much better without that reminder. Between the maid’s punishment and this… He took another drink and tried not to think about what was going to happen to him if he failed the first task Rhiannon gave him.
“Do they… give you equipment? You could hold that until they pay you back…?”
“Look, ‘issue’ ain’t really a thing. Closest thing we have to the army’s stuff is what their armourers sell us at cost.”
“We’re expensive, anyway. With the wages we agreed on, all the equipment’s worth a month of pay, maybe two.” Gwen sneered, continuing to drink. “She owes six.”
Rowan tried to keep up for politeness’ sake, but he noticed that the wine was considerably stronger than he was used to. On the plus side, he stopped tapping his leg with anxiety and the pleasant haze made him feel smarter than he was.
“S’why the mine, Gwen?” If he found the angle, he could push the conversation where he wanted it.
“Ha! Was hopin’ you’d ask that!” She slammed her fist on the table and a rabbit-eared woman stuck her head through the door, looking a little concerned. “We’re negotiatin’! More wine!”
“Er… yes’m.” The second woman withdrew with a puzzled expression.
“Now what I was sayin’ is that we ain’t a buncha Gislanders that’d just mutiny, hang the commander an’ leave to go be bandits in the woods.”
“Hmmn…” He had to admit the peasant army Gisland had to field to fight against Dunmuir’s professionals did tend to get a little… rowdy sometimes. Cleaning up the mess had been part of his old job as an internal diplomat, after all.
Gwen crossed her arms and leaned back, smugly satisfied. “So we seized the only thing worth anythin’ out here. We’re gonna mine out what we’re owed, sell it, then hit the road.”
“…And the constable you kidnapped?”
“Kidnapped? Ha! She’s playin’ cards in the next room over. She just had to try and arrest us so she didn’t get in trouble. She could walk out any time she wanted.”
Gwen turned out to be an excellent conversationalist and surprisingly open to his questions. His actual questions and what they were talking about became less distinct as the night continued, with cup after cup of wine making his head foggy.
Rowan’s first thought on waking up was annoyance that someone had disturbed his sleep with their yelling. This blossomed into panic that he’d fallen asleep, followed by an acute headache that spread from right behind his eyes to his temples. Ah. Wine.
Alright. First thing to do was go toward the yelling. Get up, steady the wobbling… good. Open the door. Sweet Order, were those lamps always so bright? Walk out of the room. The yelling was coming from… the right? Ah, there was the night guard running to the door in more armour than she had before. Follow her. Hurrying… ah, good. She threw open a door and the migraine-inducing pain flowing out of it must have been sunlight. No, wait. That was bad. The yelling was outside.
Rowan lurched through the door, blinking until he could see in the blinding daylight. Gwen was already outside trading threats rather than insults with Commander Morna. Their soldiers were lined up into battle formations with their weapons drawn.
Through his haze, he picked out a dark-skinned elf that pushed her way past the loyalist soldiers. Greenglass was pointing at him, but didn’t manage to get anyone’s attention until she started shouting.
He focussed a little and realised Morna was speaking to him. “…are you alright?! They haven’t hurt you, have they?! You’ve gone too far this time, Gwen! He’s a Minister!”
Grimacing, he held up a hand in the hopes she’d stop yelling so damn loudly. To his surprise, the yelling stopped, as did the thumping of staves and clanging of lances against armour. It was dead quiet.
This was the power he dreamt about when he became a diplomat. It felt… strange. More stifling than he would have thought, like it was a suit of armour that fit too tight. Well, maybe that was just the hangover. “Commander, I’d like you to explain what you’re doing here in as few words as possible.”
“We’re here to rescue you! We’re taking these bandits in for charges of kidnapping and treason!”
Traitors’ Grove sprung into Rowan’s mind and his expression soured further. All those rows of trees who used to be people. He wouldn’t argue that Gwen had done the right thing, but that kind of punishment was… excessive. “…Are you implying I’ve been kidnapped?”
“Captain Gwen,” he rubbed his temples in the vain hope that the headache would somehow soften up and leak out of his ears, “have you given your sister any indication you’ve kidnapped me?”
Sir. Hm. ‘Sir’ was a formality he wasn’t used to. “Well, there we are. No need for a rescue, Commander.”
Morna’s tail bristled and puffed out at the comment. “But-!”
“I was confirming something and it took longer than I had intended.” Ah, good old Diplomat 101. He didn’t wander off into the night with a bottle of wine like an idiot, he was confirming something. Big words meant you weren’t stupid. “I’d hoped to get the two of you together anyway, so this is now a parley. Have your soldiers stand down and disarm themselves, please.”
Silence. The gathered garrisons gawked at each other in a wordless confusion for a tense minute. Then, to Rowan’s surprise, they listened. Gwen and Morna meekly gave the orders and tension sloughed off his back like a horse’s bridle. Both sides laid their weapons in a pile, then stood behind their respective officers.
Rowan cast his gaze around to make sure everyone was set, then nodded to himself. “Good. Gwen, would you mind having someone fetch us a table and a few chairs?”
“Now,” Rowan said, taking his seat now that he was satisfied with the position of the chairs around the table. “Let’s begin. Ms. Greenglass?”
“Yes…?” She said absently. Her dazed response left her plenty of time to process the turn the morning had taken.
“Can I trust you to take the minutes for Her Majesty? She’ll be very interested, I assume.”
“Of course. Yes. Very important, I expect…” Well, she took out a notebook and quill at least, so he could probably trust her.
“Thank you.” He glanced over at Gwen first. She was chomping at the bit to get on with it, her zeal and soldierly demeanor at odds with each other. “Captain, I’d like to begin with the Commander’s gripes about you, if that’s alright.”
She looked a little betrayed, but gritted her teeth and nodded.
“She’s accused you and your troops of insubordination, first and foremost. We discussed this last night to some degree, but I’d like your statement on it for the record.”
“Right. Well, the way the gals and I reckon it, she’s not fit for command. She’s shirking her duties as a commander and not treating her troops right. We tried talking some sense into her, but she’s never listened to me since we were kids-”
“Because you’re just a spoiled brat!” Morna cut in. “You always act like you’re in the right!”
Hushed murmurs from the crowd supported their respective sides. Rowan continued.
“Now, Gwen. You are aware that you’ve broken the law, regardless of whether or not you were justified, correct?”
“We have to speak to the Queen about what she feels is appropriate for the situation. I’m not a judge.” Morna smiled, smugly satisfied for all of a few seconds before Rowan turned to face her. “Ladies, I think acting as a mediator here has shown me that you have a fundamental failure to communicate. Morna, have you properly heard out the problems that your lancers are having with you?”
“Well… It’s not their place to question me!”
“I think that’s a bit telling, wouldn’t you say?” Gwen’s side cheered in vindication as Morna stuttered for a response. He waited for them to quiet down before continuing. “Gwen, have you properly informed your Commander what she’s done to cause your disobedience?”
“She knows what she did!”
“And you made sure of that before you ran off into the night, seized a mine and kidnapped the woman sent to bring you in?”
Even Greenglass sighed at the silence that followed before the crowd roared in response.
Calm down, Rowan. Tap. Taptap. Diplomacy wasn’t done with an audience. He hated audiences. A quiet room filled with only the necessary people was at least half the draw of working as a diplomat in the first place! First the damn parades and now this! Tap. Taptap. What would they do? This could turn sour at any time and even if he survived that he’d have to go back to the capital and-
No. No no no. Everyone was staring at him now. Both crowds and everyone at the table but Greenglass, who was glaring at the loudest groups of soldiers. Morna and Gwen were halfway through apologising to him when he realised what he must look like. The brows knitted in anxiety probably made him seem angry, the nervous tapping on the table marked him as impatient. Ah.
He cleared his throat, hoping his voice wouldn’t betray his emotions. He was the Queen’s Minister. People took him seriously. The weight of expectation was a heavy load, but all he had to do was ask a few more important questions. “Morna, are you aware of what you’ve done to cause this?”
“They’re always complaining about how I run things! How should I know?”
“Right. As I understand it,” he took a deep breath, hoping that things could just be sorted out and everyone could walk away happily, “you’re six months in arrears on their pay.”
Morna’s panic was plain to see. She stood, face flushed and alternating between indignant rage and fear. “I-I can’t believe…! I’m leaving, Minister!”
What he did not expect was her regular troops casting their eyes around and muttering amongst themselves. They grabbed Morna and dragged her back to the table. A catwoman gave him a quick salute before whispering into his ear. “We’re two months behind ourselves Sir, so we’d be happy if you could look into that as well…”
Rowan sagely nodded. “…Commander, I really am going to have to ask why you tried to run.”
“I…!” She scanned the crowd, finding no allies. “…I can’t… There’s no money left…”
Greenglass glowered at Morna like she admitted to eloping with a Gislander.
He cleared his throat to conceal his surprise. “Well… I hope I can invite you two to come to the capital voluntarily.”
Rowan hoped his visit to the throne room would be under different circumstances, but at least it wasn’t him in trouble. Yet.
She adjusted her small tiara, smoothed out an embroidered cape and fussed with a pair of ballooning silk pants in the style of distant Sicorath. Even for a queen, it was an exotic outfit and would’ve cost a fortune to bring in. After a few moments, she was satisfied with the state of her clothes and called out to the guard near the door. “Bring her in.”
The panicked weasel-woman was dragged in by the guards. She was noticeably trembling as she was propped up in front of the Queen.
“Commander Morna Reid.”
“I’m going to make a series of statements. You’re going to answer whether they’re true or false with either a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ No other words are to come out of your mouth unless I prompt you for them. Understand?”
Rhiannon rested her chin on a closed fist and began: “You owe a squadron of lancers under your command six months of payment, starting from before the end of the war and demilitarisation period.”
“Th-!” The Queen squinting in displeasure stopped Morna in her tracks. “Yes…”
“You have neglected to pay a company of regulars for the last two months.”
“Your lancers are responsible for the seizure of a Royal mine that was under your administration.”
“You are responsible for all military personnel you have raised in your capacity as a military commander.”
There was a long, tense pause where Morna looked as though she was ready to faint.
“Must I repeat myself?”
“Which is it? You are responsible for the situation, yes or no?”
Rhiannon closed her eyes and muttered a wordless, faux-exasperated sigh common among the wealthy and those of high birth. “Explain how you’ve managed to spend the budget you were allotted and enough of your personal funds that you’re unable to pay your troops to stop a rebellion.”
“That was a prompt, Morna.”
“It’s just…! T-the bid, then I just thought, b-but then-!”
“You’re beginning to exasperate me. Start from the beginning in a way that everyone here could understand.”
“It’s… T-there’s… what we did, um… There’s a bid process where we estimate how many troops we can raise for an endowment, and I just thought…”
“Overpromising doesn’t cause problems like this, Morna.”
“It’s just…! I thought I could handle it! The looting was working mostly! I-I just needed a good haul and everything would be fine!”
“You sound like a desperate gambler. You could only have handled one group or the other, but let it boil over instead of admitting your mistake. Am I correct?”
“I hope you realise that you’ve left the treasury to fulfil the responsibility for your troops’ missing wages and the rest of their contract. Not to mention a week’s lost revenue from the mine…”
“You also realise I have to punish you now.”
Morna solemnly acquiesced, words not coming out any more.
“Good. First of all, you’re going to be punished for causing a mutiny.” Rhiannon sat up straight, looking down at the Commander. “…Considering that there was nothing more than a loss in productivity thanks to Rowan… I’ll give you two choices. Apologise properly or the stocks.”
“Please… allow me to apologise…”
“Very well. Strip.”
Morna hesitated a few seconds, glancing at the Queen, then Greenglass, to the guard, and finally settling on Rowan, her face a burning red. She haltingly stepped out of her first boot. She let it fall in front of her. She did the same for the second and kicked it with its sibling. Next, her belt and hose slipped to the floor before she pulled her tunic over her head.
Her skin was startlingly pale beneath her oversized clothes. Rowan had her pegged as lanky and awkward, but she was almost charmingly willowy as she tried to cover her shame.
Rowan pulled his eyes away, realising he was staring. His attention flicked over to Rhiannon and Greenglass who were watching closely, though the Queen seemed more amused than anything.
Rhiannon lecherously leered for a few more seconds, letting the tension hang before saying anything. “Excellent. Arlene, if you would.”
Guilt seized Rowan when the maid he’d met before stepped up to Morna and unsheathed a knife from her sash. He knew military discipline was harsh, but scarring went beyond even Gisland’s rigid doctrine.
“Kneel, please.” A flash of pity crossed Arlene’s face as she gathered up Morna’s long, tangled head of hair into a ponytail, then…
Cut her hair?
The girl was briefly catatonic as her now shoulder-length hair settled around her face. The harsh single cut gave it all the measured grace of a magpie’s nest. The maid put away her knife, bowed to the Queen, then returned to her corner throne room. Well, he was glad she hadn’t been killed, at least.
Morna stayed quiet as Rhiannon spoke again. “You’ll be apologising to Captain Reid and the Minister of War first. Bring them in.”
As though it was rehearsed, the large doors to the chamber opened and Captain Gwen strode in beside a reluctant catwoman dressed in armour. The Minister’s tail hung low under her robe and her ears angled downward as she joined Gwen by Morna’s side.
“Cait, this commander is behind the recent trouble at Blackrock Mine and she’d like to apologise to you,” Rhiannon stated with an official simplicity.
Perhaps it was Rowan’s imagination, but Cait’s body language reminded him of a long-suffering alley cat in his hometown. Her ears twitched when Morna knelt down in front of her, then her tail flicked with anxiety as a barely-audible apology tumbled out of Morna’s mouth.
Rhiannon leaned to one side in her throne, trying to get a better view of the prostrated weasel-woman-Commander. “Louder, Commander. We need to hear your apology.”
“P-please forgive me!”
“Good. The Captain next.”
Morna’s next “Please forgive me!” sounded more like she was trying to convince herself than anything else. Not that Gwen noticed, a self-satisfied smile breaking through what she seemed to have hoped was professional detachment.
She turned and directed her next apology toward Rowan and Greenglass, then finally to the Queen, who amused herself with the small bounce Morna’s chest made when she rose between bows.
“I accept your apology. You’re going to be escorted to the south wing and can have your clothes back once the Finance Minister has decided what your punishment for misappropriating funds will be.”
Morna stayed silent as a guard picked up her clothes and she followed dutifully out of the room, not lifting her head.
Rhiannon stood. “Hmmmn… thank you, Cait. I know you don’t care for these trials.”
“…Was it really that bad, Your Majesty…?” The Minister of War scratched one of her ears, grimacing.
“She did cause a mutiny, Cait. You have to put your foot down sometimes.” A self-satisfied Rhiannon regarded Gwen like a sated predator dismissing a helpless rabbit. “No offence intended, Captain.”
The remaining weasel woman crossed her arms and grinned. “None taken.”
“Do you mind waiting a little longer? I’d like to confer with my ministers before we speak.”
“‘Course not, Your Majesty. D’you want all my lasses in here for when you get back?”
“I’d appreciate that, yes.”
Rhiannon led them into a small sitting-room that was connected to the throne room and stretched out her legs. “Aaah, you’d think old rabbit-ears made the throne out of bronze just to spite her successors. I’m starting to wonder if it’d be more comfortable on the floor.”
Cait opened her mouth to speak when a sudden clap made both her and Rowan jump.
“Well, no need to stand on ceremony, everyone!” Rhiannon dropped herself down into the middle of a long settee, letting herself sink in before patting the spots beside her. “Hmm… ministers, I think.”
“Er…?” Rowan clearly missed something. Cait cuddled up to the Queen’s side and Greenglass sat down a safe distance away.
“Come now Rowan, are you scared of me?”
As a matter of principle, she scared him before he knew she possessed the power to turn him into a tree or suck out his soul. Now he filed the Queen’s chaotic aura right between ‘terror-inducing’ and ‘horrifying’ in his mind.
He couldn’t say that, of course, nor could he even react when it took Rhiannon less than ten seconds to sling her arm around him like a lecherous drunkard ambushes a barmaid.
“Well then. How’d I do?” The casual speech caught Rowan off-guard, and doubly so when nobody else reacted.
“Fine, Your Majesty. Though I might’ve suggested something harsher for wasting our time,” the elf offered.
“Hmm.” Rhiannon stroked Cait’s hair idly. “And you?”
The unperturbed catwoman took a moment to answer. “You know I’m not really sure about these punishments, Rhiannon…”
“Would you rather have her beaten or flogged?”
“A little humiliation never killed anyone, and it’s better for morale.” She held an obvious and besmitten expression before kneading plying fingers into Rowan’s shoulder. “Mine, at least.”
Cait gave a polite chuckle, though Greenglass was obviously trying to pretend she was somewhere else with a queen who wasn’t so open about her tastes.
“Rowan? You’ve been awfully quiet.”
“Well, I’ve actually been thinking…” Rowan froze up when Rhiannon faced him, their noses almost touching. He realised he had never truly met her eyes until now and his fascination grew with each new detail he noticed. The rectangular pupil was the most noticeable thing, of course. The way it changed size and made little adjustments was as interesting as it was foreign. Needless to say, pure humans didn’t have such vibrantly yellow irises either. The little striations and subtle variations of colour spread out from the centre like waves turned gold in the setting sun.
By the time his gaze drifted away from her eyes, her mouth curled into a knowing smile.
“And are you still thinking, Rowan?”
His cheeks started to flush as he struggled for words. “I- yes! Sorry, I just…”
“Were you hoping for something?” She asked in a teasing tone. Then, to his and everyone else’s surprise, she closed the distance by pressing their foreheads together.
“Y-yes! I was hoping you could tell me what you think that Finance will do to her, since, well…” He hoped that the change in topic would do well to distract from the rising temperature in his cheeks.
She moved her face away and gave him a look that was hard to read. “I imagine she’ll confiscate enough property to balance out the treasury. Why?”
“Well… what would happen if she didn’t own enough to pay it all back?”
Rhiannon bit her lip. “Hm. I think I see where you’re going with this…”
“If she’s relieved of her command as well, she’ll be a pauper. I think the punishment might’ve been too harsh if that’s what’s going to happen to her. If worst comes to worst, she might even turn against you.”
Rhiannon did not like the sound of that. Her brow furrowed and she held her captive Gislander fast. Rowan felt like a stuffed toy being played with by a contemplative mastiff. After several moments of thought-chewing, she started to speak. “Alright, well… okay, maybe I’ll…. Dammit, no. How about-”
“You can’t go back on it now or you’ll seem like you’re not serious,” Greenglass interjected as though she was scolding a child. Her hands didn’t leave their position in her lap, but her nose wrinkled at the very idea.
Rowan caught Rhiannon gazing toward him in the hope he’d disagree, an uncomfortable look on her face. “Ms. Greenglass is right, I think. Not to mention assigning a minister to give out a punishment, then changing your mind when you don’t like the outcome.”
“So all I can do is let her keep her position…?” She sighed when there were nods all around. “Can I trust you to make that happen, Cait?”
“Of course,” the catwoman exclaimed, regaining a bit of her earlier vigour.
Rhiannon pecked Cait on the cheek before releasing her. Once she left, the Queen hung her head backward. “This is what I was worried about. I was going to let the captain and her troops off the hook.”
Greenglass sneered, her palpable disgust hardly tempered by her usual polite veneer. “They’ve committed treason, whether or not you think they were right. Dura lex, sed lex.”
“I… don’t think they’ve earned that much punishment.” Rowan scratched his chin, hoping to not look nervous at the t-word. “You do need something to make sure this isn’t a common recurrence in the army, but…”
The Queen had a thoughtful glimmer in her eye that slowly turned more mischievous. Rowan jumped when she slapped his thigh in epiphany, then stood and made her way to the door.
“Right. Playing favourites won’t get us anywhere.” The Queen said as she passed them. Greenglass’ expression of surprise developed into realization, then exasperation. Rowan barely made out a muttered ‘for the love of…’ as the elf followed her Queen.
Rowan was caught off-guard when Rhiannon stopped abruptly in the door to the throne room. He managed to shuffle to an awkward stop against her back, Greenglass bumping into his as she did the same.
“Is everything al-?” Rowan peered over the Queen’s shoulder and caught sight of what halted her in her tracks.
Some two dozen women were milling around and chatting to each other, stark naked. Gwen stood closest to the throne and noticed Rhiannon first. “There she is! In ranks, lasses!”
As the soldiers hurried to get in line, Rhiannon’s maid hurried up to her and whispered something into her ear before backing away. The Queen then cleared her throat and walked to the front of the assembled troops. “You know me too well, Captain. I’m ready to accept your squadron’s apology.”
Gwen nodded and called out: “Bow!”
The group all dropped to their knees with astonishing coordination and put their heads to the floor. They paused for a beat before giving a shout of “Forgive us, Your Majesty!” all together.
Rhiannon bit her knuckle and hesitated for a moment before taking a breath and addressing them. “Stay down for now. Ladies, are you aware of what a problem you’ve made for me?”
Rowan followed behind her as she paced around the prostrate group, though he noticed her face flush with the kind of composed arousal he saw at their breakfast together.
“A week of lost revenue from a productive mine, reduced confidence in the executors of my laws…” She made no secret of admiring the rows of backs in a myriad of sizes and colours. She lost her train of thought for a moment as her eyes drifted over the muscles and scars on display, only coming back to it once she’d looked over every soldier from elf to insect. “And that is to say nothing about the fact that you’ve given an example to the rest of my remaining military that I absolutely do not want followed. Captain, did you think about what a problem it could be if every group of my military thought they could negotiate with my agents by seizing royal property?”
“No, Your Majesty.”
“Imagine, if you will, some Sergeant Nobody decides she’s had enough of the military life and can’t stand it anymore, so she occupies a local village until I provide her little section with comfort men. Regardless of how justified you were, you have turned my army onto banditry as a bargaining tactic.” She twirled her hair around a finger and brought her gaze over to Rowan. “In fact, you will be apologising to my Minister of Diplomacy for cleaning up your mess and making a hundred more for him before he’s even occupied the position for a week.”
A more ragged, “Forgive us, Minister!” came up from the crowd and Rhiannon motioned for him to speak.
“Er. Yes. Captain, your failure to communicate nearly caused bloodshed and has caused considerable problems for continued peace inside Dun…muir…” His train of thought screeched to a halt as he watched Rhiannon. The Queen elegantly paced around to the back of the formation and looked both ways before dropping into a squat to ogle the lines of bared lower halves, making vaguely religious gestures in appreciation. He glanced back at his companions to make sure he wasn’t seeing things, finding Cait rocking idly on her heels and Greenglass sitting on the steps up to the throne, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “There’s… er, right. The rest of you, it’s always been your responsibility to make sure your captain is steering you in the right direction, the same way it was hers to make sure that your Commander was doing her job.”
“Exactly!” Rhiannon sprang back up to make sure her voice wasn’t coming from a suspicious direction. “Only your captain may have been here to see it, but Commander Reid has been humiliated and punished severely. I hope you see my only recourse is to do the same to all of you. In fact, I’m half-tempted to have you all spanked senseless before letting Rowan have his way with each of you until he’s satisfied,” she added with a tone that sounded like she was still reserving the option.
Rowan was so busy trying not to look at the naked women around him that Rhiannon’s words didn’t register until he heard Greenglass suddenly choking on her spit. He was about to vehemently refuse when Arlene quickly stepped out and gestured desperately for her to stop, eyes full of panic.
Rhiannon straightened up, taking on the expression of a woman who was considerably more queenly than how she’d been acting. “Rise to face me, Ms. Reid.” The Captain obeyed and knelt in position, meeting Rhiannon’s eyes. “…Now I think we’ll be starting with the pay issue. You’re going to be paying the lost profits from the mine out of your back-pay in lieu of your Commander. In addition, I’m afraid I won’t be able to let any of your squadron here rejoin the military for… shall we say ten years?”
Rowan expected the now-former captain to look shocked, maybe even angry at the dismissal. She didn’t dispute her Queen’s decree and only hung her head, disheartened.
“Yes… I understand, Your Majesty.” Her words carried a cold resignation.
“Former Captain Reid, you’ll be joining my ministers and I for a meeting. Ms. Greenglass?”
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Keep track of how long the troops are kneeling so Ms. Reid can finish her part later.”
Greenglass raised her nose with a satisfied grin and took a look at her watch. “It would be my pleasure.”
Rowan sat down beside the Queen at her bidding again, but he struggled to find somewhere safe to put his eyes. He’d certainly seen naked women before. Even slept with some, but he never met any so casually unconcerned about it. Gwen kept her legs at a comfortable distance apart and the arm thrown over the back of her seat indicated she had no intention of covering herself, either. He tried to keep his eyes fixed on her face, of course. It was hard to focus when what was in front of him was a pair of impressive legs, scarred in ways he was sure she could tell him about. The lean, strong abdomen with a hint of muscle definition, and not to mention her perky chest or the hint of something he’d seen (completely accidentally of course) when he really meant to just appreciate her legs, but his eyes had slipped between, and-
When he pulled his eyes back to her face, she grinned knowingly in his direction. Even worse, his shame boiled over when he noticed the expression was meant for the Queen and Cait as well. “Well, you three are starin’ at me like a juicy piece of meat, eh?”
It was Cait who got the first retort in. “You have an impressive body, Gwen! You should be proud of it.”
“Well thank you, Minister. I try to keep it in good shape.”
“Indeed,” Rhiannon said, making no secret of her hungry staring, “I still am tempted to have Rowan dole out a punishment for you, just to see it in action.”
“Well, his dick’s hard enough.” Gwen laughed. “Little scrawnier than I usually like ‘em, but his face ain’t bad.”
Rowan’s face burned with embarrassment when all eyes landed on him. He stumbled for a response as casual as Cait’s. “I- er, it’s not that… I’d rather, er… consent, you see.” He was gripped with no small amount of fear when he noticed Rhiannon was eyeing the shape that was visible through his pants. “I think… I think we should probably just get on with the meeting.”
Gwen laughed and readjusted her tail. “Well alright, Mr. Minister. Y’know, I didn’t really believe you were the real thing ‘til now.”
Rhiannon idly massaged his shoulder. “That’s part of his charm, isn’t it?”
He did not like being talked around, even if it was well-intentioned. “Thank you for the compliment, Your Majesty. Now on the subject of further punishment for the lancers…”
Gwen and Rhiannon shared an amused look, but allowed him to carry on.
“I don’t think I support it, since you’re discharging them from the military.”
The Queen’s face shifted from amusement to more genuine curiosity. “…Go on.”
“Gwen, how long have you been in the army?”
“Hmm…” She squinted, counting on her fingers for a few moments. “Fifteen years or thereabouts, I think. Siege of Glenkirk? Most of the girls are from around then, maybe a ways before.”
The others seemed to agree with the timeline, so he continued. “Have many of you been apprentices or have much other work experience?”
“Well, er…” Gwen rubbed her thighs in guilt. “Not really, no. Hadn’t expected the war to come to an end in my lifetime.”
Cait leaned over to peer at him, catching Rowan off-guard. “Are you worried about them not having any work?”
“Dad told me about the big problem there was with that back when he was younger, apparently there were a lot of bandits around then…”
Rhiannon winced like a wounded animal, then spoke haltingly. “That’s… you’re not wrong.” She parsed Rowan’s intent as she continued. “It was… I thought I could just end things and I hoped that everything could just go back to the way it was before, but… I forgot how long we fought. Girls grew up, fought for me their entire careers, then I just pulled the rug out from under them. I’ve been trying to… No. I see what you mean, Rowan.”
“I’m not tryin’ to be insulted, but that’s not how me and my girls are. We’ll figure somethin’ out,” Gwen said, crossing her arms.
Rowan’s will escaped his mouth in an exasperated breath as he geared up his argument like a lawyer. “That’s exactly what I was hoping we could talk about, actually,” he rubbed the scruff on his chin and did his best to sell himself as pensive. Hopefully that would make it appear like an off-the-cuff suggestion, though he’d been trying to polish the idea since before they even got back to the capital. “Your Majesty, I know that splitting them up might be tempting, but if I might suggest something…?”
All three women puzzled wordlessly amongst themselves for a few moments, leaving Rowan only the choice between following up or fizzling out with an ‘er, never mind’ that would’ve left him fielding uncomfortable questions and playing the fool.
“I… just happened to have a thought. What if you granted them permission to form a mercenary company?”
The Queen’s eyes narrowed. “…I hope you realise what a hard sell that’s going to be. I have more than enough independent armed groups wandering around my country as it is.”
“Think of it as making an example of them while still having access to their services. Have them swear an oath of fealty, absolutely, but if you don’t need them, they can make their own money.”
Gwen chimed in. “…That ain’t half bad. We’d be happy to take some royal contracts if I could keep the squadron together.”
“My thought is that it would keep them in work they’d know how to do, as well.”
Rhiannon stared at the ceiling for a few long moments in deliberation, her face unreadable. At length, she let out a long breath and leaned over the short table that separated them, shaking the nude weasel-woman’s hand. “I believe we have an agreement then, Ms. Reid. I’ll take your company’s oaths in about an hour to give you all time to decide.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. You won’t regret this.”
“I hope not. Cait, be a dear and make sure the deal is explained correctly, won’t you?”
The catwoman nodded and departed with Gwen, who was eager to return to her troops. A few seconds of tense silence passed when he realised how final the sound of the door shutting felt. He was completely alone with the Queen now.
Before he could even try to excuse himself, Rhiannon’s unreadable expression fell upon him. It made him shiver. “Very clever, Rowan.”
“It was nothing, real…ly…”
She casually tossed her legs over his lap and circled both arms around his neck. “I’m very pleased with you fulfilling my orders so perfectly.”
Years of his life hung in the balance. What if this meant his children would be orphans when he died at 40? Maybe even younger and nobody would be there to take care of his poor mother when she got older? “Er, yes. I thought that I’d hate to disappoint, especially being new to the position.” He let out a nervous laugh as a defense against the quickly escalating tension.
A soft flush spread over Rhiannon’s face as she locked eyes with him again. “I hope you realise why I put my trust in you, hmm? How was Ms. Greenglass for you?”
“Fine! She took excellent notes, as I’m sure you noticed…”
“You know, that’s awfully interesting. I’d expect that she would have jumped to conclusions and immediately taken the Commander’s side. Might have even hoped that she’d be on the carriage back home before the morning.”
“Well… She may have…” Rowan squirmed in an attempt to move away subtly, but might as well have been trying to wiggle out of his skin with how closely the Queen was holding him. “It really wasn’t Ms. Greenglass’ fault though! I mean, who would have imagined that the Commander would, well…”
“Mhmm. Haven’t noticed the desperation to make a show of being better than everyone else yet?”
Rowan stammered, but failed to find verbal purchase.
“She’s a good girl, Rowan. We were practically playmates growing up, but that’s exactly why I know I can’t trust her with a position as a minister. Especially when I have such a brave, humble, cute little Gislander who can do the job so well.”
“Feeling shy, hmm?” He never knew that the simple act of someone laying a hand on his chest could be so startlingly inviting until Rhiannon did it. “I’m sure you’re disappointed I didn’t ‘force’ you to fuck little Gwen senseless, aren’t you?”
“Well actually, um… I believe I had some business with the ministry, you see. I was hoping that I could go handle it…?”
Her expression soured at that. “Get Greenglass to do it.”
“That’s just the thing, actually. We did talk about not trusting her with certain things, so…”
“You little…” Rowan was genuinely surprised when she withdrew her arms and reclined back on a cushion with no further argument. “Fine. Tell them I’ll be out in an hour and that anyone who comes in is going to have to deal with the consequences of their actions.”
He stood and looked down at her sprawling form with a little apprehension. “Um…?”
“Don’t play coy, Rowan.” She frowned and set the tiara she’d been wearing aside. “I’ve been intolerably horny all afternoon and I’m going to take care of it before I say something out-of-character in front of Dunmuir’s newest mercenary company.”
“Oh. Um. Yes, sorry. I’ll make sure to tell them.”
Rowan walked the winding path back to his room, trying to relax after the long day and exhausting exchange with the Queen by appreciating the palace more than he had before. The architecture was foreign to him, but he couldn’t say it wasn’t beautiful. He was so caught up admiring a stone pillar that had been carved with intricate knotwork and wooden inlays that he completely missed a familiar woman addressing him. That was until he felt something grab his sleeve and use it as leverage to push his back against a wall. There was a moment of shock before he recognised the face a few inches from his.
“O-oh! Gwen! Sorry, I didn’t-” He was cut off when she trapped his body against hers and leaned in for a rough kiss.
She wrapped her tongue around his, prodding until he responded in kind by kissing back and wrapping an arm around the small of her back. That earned him a moan of approval, as evidenced by her pressing the attack.
When they parted mouths, panting for air, she laid a finger over his lips. “I’ve gotta go now, but you saved my ass. All our asses. You ever need something from us, we’ll drop whatever we’re doing and come fight for you, no questions asked. Got it?”
Rowan’s mind was so scrambled by the sudden kiss that all he could do was nod.
“See ya later, handsome.”
As she walked away, he could swear she was wiggling her ass and teasing tail at him on purpose. Rowan took a long breath in, trying to calm himself enough to not have an awkward walk past the guards. His exhale of relief almost became a scream when a second man materialised out of the shadow beside him.
He supposed it was what he got for associating with a spymaster when he realised it was Adalard. “Magnificent specimen. Almost makes you wish you could’ve joined the enemy, eh?”
The little jab would’ve sounded friendly from anyone else, but this one had the reek of entrapment. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Sweet though.”
Adalard gave him an enigmatic smile. “Well regardless, the Archduke and I would like to hear about how your first little mission went.”
“Oh, of course. Well first, when I-”
“Not here lad. I’ll be leaving for the next month or so, so you’ll be needing to use a dead drop.”
“A what, sorry?”
“Listen closely. In the east garden tomorrow, there’s going to be a barrel of gardening supplies. Put your report in an envelope with ‘To my darling Lucas’ written on the outside, then drop it in the barrel.”
“Right. Lucas on the envelope, barrel in the east garden. Um, you’re sure that it’s… secure this way?”
“One of our agents will pick it up. Can I trust you with this?”
“Er, yes. Naturally.”
Adalard nodded before projecting his voice and slapping Rowan’s shoulder. “Ha! Well, good luck with the weasel, lad! Don’t get married without me, eh?”
“Right! Well, uh… no promises, aha. Ha.”
Rowan hurried back to his room, sat down and took out an ink pot the moment he got in. Right. Where to start? He supposed they’d probably want it from the beginning. The parade, the contents of the speech, the feeling of the crowd… He hoped he wouldn’t let too much of his apprehension slip into that.
What after… Ah, the meeting. Cait… something? Minister of Finance. Tara… damn. He realised he didn’t actually know all that many peoples’ full names. Well, she was the Minister of Magic, at least. Then Torsten Treasurebane, Infrastructure.
Tara really had saved him, hadn’t she? Not just from the street gang, but tolerating him being late, going out to look for him… she’d even practically done his job for him beforehand. Ah, he’d probably have to head down to meet her tomorrow to get some clarification on some of the old minister’s documents.
What else to say? Ah, fairies could change size and hide their wings. That he was pretty sure they’d be interested in, since Dunmuir would be crazy to not use them as spies.
There was Rhiannon’s apparent lust of course… His quill stopped. Should he include that? They’d probably be asking him to get into her bedroom before long if he did… Right. He could probably leave that out. Wouldn’t hurt, right?
The events of the mine job were easy enough to summarise, at least. Nothing in there that wouldn’t be on the Queen’s report. The last thing of course would be the matter of Gwen’s new mercenary company and her apparent willingness to help him. That could be important, certainly. If war somehow broke out again, he might be able to convince them not to participate. Rhiannon didn’t seem the type to give up on peace, but losing a unit of elite cavalry would make a surprise attack on an unsuspecting village harder if he was wrong.
He signed the bottom with a little flourish, then looked at the finished papers. Hmm… Ah, they’d probably be wanting to know the connections between things, so he drew a few helpful arrows in green before sealing and addressing the envelope. Now it was just the matter of the official report for the Queen and he could be off to bed.2269 Views