Rowan stretched out under the covers of his bed and yawned, turning his eyes away from the bright light streaming from the window.
“Good morning,” he ventured, not wanting Greenglass or some less overbearing woman like a maid to think they caught him off-guard. He had an extremely incriminating report under his pillow, after all.
He was answered by the sound of… nothing? Not a voice, the shuffle of footsteps or even the sound of the curtains settling into place. After he coaxed his unwilling eyelids open, Rowan realised he was alone in the room. Judging from the late-morning sunlight filtering in from outside, he forgot to close the curtains last night.
A few minutes later, he made his own bed and set out his clothes for the day. He was pleased to not have female servants dressing him, but he noticed the pale blue doublet from home did stand out quite a bit from what the other people around the city wore. Hm. He wondered what he’d do about his wardrobe as he pulled on the jacket and hung his prayer beads off his belt. And his hair, ugh. It was getting long enough that he had to tie it into a ponytail just to keep it out of his face.
That was enough fussing. The first order of business was dropping off the report he wrote for Adalard. It was fortunate he walked past the garden the dead drop was in once or twice already, so it was only a few minutes’ work to make his way over.
Then walk right past it as if he was actually in quite a rush to be somewhere else entirely and was not to be disturbed. In the courtyard, two noblewomen were taking turns shooting sarcastic barbs at one another while making gestures with their fans that almost certainly meant something rude. The object of their debate stood between them: a man with sheep horns who was visibly worrying if he was going to be torn in half if they both tugged an arm at the same time. Was this the Lucas that the letter was addressed to? He didn’t seem like a spy, but that was probably the point. The final nail in the coffin of Rowan’s plan came when an amused guard gave him a grin before turning back to watch the spectacle.
That wouldn’t do. Maybe night would be better. Cloak-and-dagger and all that. At least he could drop off the Queen’s version of the report.
The guard at the throne room rattled off a line about Rhiannon not holding court on holidays in the kind of measured cadence that told him the words had lost meaning to her long ago. She pointed him in the right direction before a pained look crossed her face. Several people were lined up behind Rowan to ask her what was almost certainly the same question.
“Have you, er… considered a sign?”
“When was the last time you saw people that read those?”
As a condolence, she told him that Rhiannon was in the Royal Suite. It felt a little strange being important enough to walk right past the guards in that area of the palace, but he didn’t even get any acknowledgement other than a steely nod from one of the armoured veterans. She wordlessly banged on the door heavily enough that Rowan was a little concerned for the well-being of the intricately carved timbers and bronze knocker.
There was a long, awkward pause before the door creaked open and he could appreciate how much it obscured what was happening behind it. Greenglass’ words of warning about the Queen’s interest in sex echoed in his head when Arlene stepped out, the sound of moaning and reek of arousal following behind her.
She was sweaty and tired enough that he wondered how long they had already been at it. He was shocked to find the uptight maid dressed in a startlingly daring set of lingerie. Was she being forced to wear it? The delicate lace of the bra and panties contrasted with the scanty ribbons that just barely covered the important parts, artfully drawing his gaze up and down her body. Actually, he thought he could see a little hair sticking out of-
Arlene let out a loud, dramatic sigh that snapped him out of his stupor. A hint of blush coloured her cheeks, but her expression was staunchly locked in polite disappointment. “Good morning, Minister.”
“I… er, good morning?” He stammered, reeling from being caught staring.
“I trust you need something?” Arlene asked impatiently.
“What? I… oh. I was just coming to deliver a report on the mine, but…”
“I’ll give it to the Queen when she’s done. She’s declared a holiday so I doubt she’s going to be stop-” She winced when Rhiannon’s voice drifted out of the room.
“Arleeeeeeeneeeee~! You were supposed to be counting~! Who are you talking to?”
She snatched the papers out of Rowan’s hands and spun back to the room. “Just a messenger.”
“Is she busy?”
“Yes,” Arlene glanced back at Rowan and handed him a sack. “This is a bonus for the Minister of Diplomacy. Get it to him, will you?”
Should he try to answer in a woman’s voice to add to the believability? He wasn’t confident in his falsetto, but Rhiannon wouldn’t hear clearly, so he could-
Arlene glowered at Rowan when he cleared his throat in the highest-pitch voice he could manage, so he made the sensible decision to shut his mouth.
“You’re sure it’s a messenger? Would you tell her to bring him here? I want to see the look on his face when-”
Arlene raised an eyebrow as if to pose the question again. Fortunately, she took the hint when Rowan shook his head desperately. “He’s busy all day.”
“Sorry,” he whispered.
“Enjoy your day off.” Was she bitter? She sounded a little bitter. He took the sack out of her hand with an apologetic grimace and slunk away. The least he could do was get out of her hair and not suffer the same misfortune she had.
Rowan wasn’t so boorish as to count his money in front of people, but it weighed on his mind as he went to find a private spot where he could see what this ‘bonus’ was. The bag was certainly impressive, at least. If it didn’t jingle, he would think it was filled with sand as some kind of joke. After a minute of walking around, he found an out-of-the-way alcove and set the bag down on a decorative table like he was afraid it would explode. It wasn’t as though Rowan hated being paid, but having exorbitant amounts of money thrown his way wasn’t something he was used to. He braced himself to see more silver than he ever had before and gingerly opened the bag.
The thought to count was yet to cross his mind, but given the weight and what he saw at the top, this was well over six months’ pay as a junior diplomat in Gisland. His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when he saw a few of Dunmuir’s most valuable coins in the jumble. The Rhin was the kind of coin that was worth so much that only serious bulk traders or the nobility could pay in them. He heard tell of a few in circulation in Gisland as collectors’ pieces, but here they were— four of them. He held one up to the light to appreciate the disc of blue spinel set in the middle of the gold ring that surrounded it, glinting and refracting the sun in ways that made him want to keep them on his desk as an art installation instead of spending them.
Frankly, it was nerve-wracking to have this much money. What would he do with it all? Where would he keep it? He’d have to open up a bank account at least, but… Was it even his? Poor Arlene probably had a hard enough time dealing with the Queen as it was, she might’ve mixed up the purses to hand off to people. Ah, there was a note at the bottom so you could sort between them. He would find who this was for, go back to the maid this evening and clear it all up. He opened the note and read the crisp, curling handwriting inside.
Yes Rowan, I’m serious. It may not have seemed like it, but I’m absolutely delighted with your solution to the problem with Ms. Reid. You’re one of my ministers now and I’d be particularly pleased if you went out and bought something nice for yourself. Enjoy the holiday.
Your Witch-Queen, L.E.R. IX.
Rowan couldn’t decide whether it was embarrassing or distressing that Rhiannon could already read his personality so well. The ‘kisses’ line was probably meant to be quaint, but knowing what she was up to that very moment, it felt more like a threat or a demand. At least he avoided anything more than the most casual of sexual harassment so far, so he supposed he was in luck.
If all this money really was his, he certainly had the resources to buy himself some new clothes now. Going into town would be a good way to kill some more time while he waited for his dead drop to be empty, anyway.
The stairs were going to be the death of him. He had to drag himself all the way down from the top of the mountain with his legs aching from the day before. Thinking about other things didn’t even work. How would he spend his money? In town. At the bottom of the mountain. The one he had to climb back up at the end of the day. Would he get new clothes? His were soaked in sweat. Sweat from going down the stairs. The easy direction. When he finally reached the bottom, nobody looked at him strangely when he sat down on the edge of a fountain with an agonised groan.
At least, not any more strangely than usual. Rowan stood out horribly. It was probably glaringly obvious who he was, even if they didn’t see his face at Rhiannon’s parade. He felt exposed, but that was nothing new in the witches’ country. Everything from his carefully learned Gislandic capital dialect to his intentionally plain clothes was like a glowing sign exposing him to the crowd. Everyone here stood out and he was the one who looked strange for trying to blend in, especially when he was blending into the wrong country. Men and women alike were wearing long tunics and coats with more emphasis on embroidery and woven applique than the fine fabrics and printing he was used to. Dressing like a witch would get you called effeminate in Gisland, but he could work with it. Probably.
Recognition was something he fought for all his life, but now that he had it, the whole experience was uncomfortable. The stares and sour expressions from guards and noble people would be withering to his self-esteem even if he wasn’t terrified of being outed as a spy. How did important people do this all the time? It was exhausting.
He finally caught his breath and took stock of his surroundings. What stretched out before him was a broad main street by the standards Dun Peak set for itself. You might just barely be able to squeeze three carts past each other as long as there were no pedestrians on the winding cobblestone road. There were vendors, a monumental temple, a bank, street stalls and crowds as far as the eye could see. He decided the street was a good enough place to start searching for somewhere he could buy clothes for himself.
Rowan studied the storefronts as he walked down the street. An apothecary that looked like a countryside barn, a building that looked like a firewood merchant advertising ‘high-quality wands and staves!’ and a stunningly mundane shop for kitchenwares. There was a tailor too, judging from the displays in the window. It was a small building in comparison to its neighbours, having the look of something more like a cottage that wandered into a neighbourhood of commercial buildings. But no, it certainly belonged in the affluent area near the palace. Its windows were filled with mannequins dressed in the local style, though the tunics and pants were invariably made of draping silks, dyed in expensive ultramarine or trimmed in glittering gold thread. Even the sign was gilt. All it showed was a pair of scissors and a needle, as if anyone that belonged there already knew the shop’s name and address.
He turned on his heel and made up his mind to get further away from the palace and into an area that had tailors that mortals like himself could afford, but stopped mid-step. The heavy bag of coins on his belt hit his leg almost painfully hard at the sudden stop. This was the first time in his life that Rowan could really afford something expensive. Or several somethings, really. There wasn’t any harm in popping in for a second, seeing what their prices were like and maybe getting a thing or two if they weren’t ridiculous for his budget.
His critical mistake was knocking at the door to get the shop owner’s attention before stepping in. Without that habitual courtesy, he could have just closed the door, walked away and found somewhere else to go.
As it was, he attracted the attention of the shopkeeper as well as a familiar dark-skinned elven woman who shot him an icy stare.
“If it isn’t the temporary Minister. Do come in.”
A little on edge about the spy report tucked into his boot, he shot back with a barb of his own. “Ah, my Deputy Minister! Good morning, Ms. Greenglass.”
It was said that rats could sense danger. That was certainly true for the short mouse girl at the shop’s counter at least. “Just a moment, please!” She squeaked out before excusing herself.
Greenglass hardly took any notice, glaring at him as if he was some particularly disgusting insect crawling into a soup she was enjoying. “I wouldn’t have imagined seeing a Gislander in a high-class seamstress’ store when I woke up this morning.” She certainly looked the part, wearing the kind of white dress and robe ensemble that would quickly become a nightmare to keep clean without a legion of servants, an excessive amount of money or both.
“Well, I was caught on my back foot when I was asked to stay in the Witch-Queen’s realm and I find my wardrobe sorely lacking any clothes appropriate for the country or my new position, you see.”
“Finally changing out of that embarrassingly slim-fitting outfit, are we? I felt like a tour guide on our little expedition, but I suppose I should be thankful you weren’t wearing those tights your country’s men insist on. The young women around here are quite fond of them, though.”
It took a great deal of control to swallow his pride and play things off as though he wasn’t feeling very defensive about his clothes. “I suppose a lady with such refined tastes might be able to give me a few hints, if she’s so confident. Would you recommend this store?” He noticed the mousewoman had returned with a plumper, older relative who had a tape measure strung around her neck.
“Yes, as it happens. I imagine you’ll be wanting me to pick your clothes for you as well, hmm?” Greenglass took a step forward and proudly stuck out her chest as if to challenge him.
Rowan stepped forward to match her, putting them eye-to-eye. “If your preferences are so impeccable, I’m sure you’d have no problem picking out some clothes I could wear that wouldn’t embarrass you.”
She broke eye contact and gritted her teeth. He wasn’t being subtle about playing her for a fool, but she still weighed her options with distant eyes before her ego won out. “I suppose I could indulge you, since you asked.”
The older mousewoman advanced, wringing her hands nervously. “Erm, not to disturb, Lady Greenglass, but would you like the measurements taken or…?”
“Your apprentice can keep measuring me, but the Minister finds himself in need of a wardrobe that doesn’t make him look ridiculous. I trust you can bring out a few samples for him to try on?”
“As you wish.” She disappeared into the back of the shop with a bow.
Greenglass was provided a chair and the younger mouse began taking some obscure measurements of her head while she sat in silence.
Rowan broke first, hoping to patch up the mood a little after making a fool of her. “So… what are you having made?”
“This outfit and the traditional hat, since Her Majesty insists I have one for major functions.” She grudgingly raised an arm so her shoulder could be measured.
“You’re not seeing a hatmaker?”
“A haberdasher will handle the felt, but the ladies here do the final assembly, since I’m ordering a matching set.” She frowned. “They’re overly complicated. Lining, facing, band, not to mention metal fittings, if you’re the type.”
The older tailor returned to the showroom from the back of the store, or at least Rowan assumed it was her. He couldn’t see much more than a stack of clothes and fabrics hovering out of the door.
“This should be everything, Lady Greenglass,” the stack said before depositing itself on the shop counter and revealing the woman behind it.
“Ah, good. Well Rowan, what are you doing still standing there in your clothes? There aren’t any maids to undress you here.”
“Here? This is a public shop!”
The shopkeeper spoke up before Greenglass could defend herself. “Not to interrupt, my lord, but we shut temporarily for customers like yourself…”
It was still a little off-putting to disrobe in front of three women, especially when he had been dressing himself completely unaided until the last few days, but he resigned himself to it after a few moments and stripped himself down to his undershirt and pants. The boots made him nervous, but he at least had the foresight to stick his report under the inner sole, so he would be fine unless they started really digging for whatever reason. It wouldn’t be a problem, he told himself. Hopefully.
Greenglass showed no interest in his trepidation. “Sweet Maiden above, the shirts too? Edna, start drawing up a list for your aunt,” she instructed the younger woman. “Quality undershirts, something without that foppish collar. Does three sound right, Minister?”
“I… I suppose?”
“Note that down then, dear. Now then…”
Rowan was taken through a whirlwind of different colours and fabrics, dressed and redressed in styles of tunics, pants and robes he didn’t even know existed. Greenglass was stunningly thorough, making the two ladies running the shop dash back and forth with a constant stream of ‘that’s not quite right’, ‘yes, but what if it were…’, ‘no, wrong colour’ and ‘give me an idea of your fabrics.’ By the time she started slowing down, it looked as though the shop was attacked by a mob sponsored by the local weavers’ and tailors’ guilds.
“Hmm… now that robe there,” the elf mumbled. She gestured toward one with gold-braided embroidery she had him try on with nearly every tunic in the shop.
He slipped it on again with a bit of a sigh, though Greenglass seemed intrigued. She circled him once, then twice. She squatted down to scrutinise at him from a lower angle, stood back up, then gestured to the chair.
It was far too late to complain about being treated like a dog, though he strongly considered it when she posed him to her liking. She stood back with the shop attendants and bit her finger with a faint blush.
“Well, I… I’d say he looks much more presentable now.” She hesitated a moment as if she realised what she had said. “Looks.”
This prompted some nodding from the shop attendants. “Very handsome, Minister. I’ll bring the mirror.”
When the full-length mirror was set in front of Rowan, even he couldn’t help but be a little impressed. The braiding on the red robe tied together with the tunic in a surprisingly pleasing way, all the little metal details matching perfectly. “I’m impressed. I don’t think I’ve ever been this put-together.”
Greenglass turned up her nose to conceal a gratified smile. “Of course you would be, I picked it, after all. Now then, that set with the robe a touch shorter…” She gestured at a few more pieces on the counter, “That in the blue that matches his eyes, this should have a third clasp, and these were… ah, right. That braid instead so it isn’t so military.”
“Of course, Lady Greenglass.” The shopkeeper started folding up the worst of the mess. “Now that we’re done, will you be paying for your gentleman’s…?”
“Ah, pardon me, I misspoke. Will you or the gentleman be paying?” She asked with a practiced customer service voice that dazzled even her apprentice.
“I will be, thank you,” Rowan cut in before the situation could get much worse. He hesitated a moment, getting out of the store’s clothes and pulling on his own shirt before he asked the question he was dreading. “How much do I owe you…?”
The dread sharpened when he realised that the shopkeeper was writing down the price. It was that kind of shop. Old habits flared up as he did the mental arithmetic of how many months he would have to go without eating to afford all of it on his old salary. …But no, this was less than half of a bonus he got outside of his regular pay. Rowan cinched the last of his old clothes up and counted out the sum.
The elder mousewoman bowed once he handed over the coins. “We’ll have your clothes ready by week’s end, Minister. Would you like them delivered to you, or…?”
“In a week, sorry? I’m fine waiting longer, you don’t need to work yourselves to death!”
That prompted a radiantly proud smile. “Week’s end, my lord. Five days should be sufficient with our methods.”
“They’re magicians, Minister. The price covers the aptitude for spells that hurry things along,” Greenglass lectured.
“Right. Of course, right. Well, wonderful! I look forward to seeing your work.” He nodded respectfully to the seamstress and then to Greenglass. “I really do want to thank you. Would you like-”
She peevishly waved her hand. “I have more to do here, Minister. I trust you can make your way around the city on your own, now.”
Rowan felt high on the excitement of having so much money at his disposal. He was wealthy! He would probably send a bit back to his mother, just to help a little with the inn. That said, he was intending to head over to the Ministry of Magic but the looks of a little hole-in-the-wall bookbinder’s shop pulled him in. He couldn’t help but make a purchase there and concealed his excitement until he was back out in the street.
He turned the little journal over in his hands, admiring its delightfully complex cover. It had all the knotwork, vines and triskelion motifs one expected from the Dunmuir style of art, but what had drawn him to this particular tooled leather cover was the frankly magnificent rendering of a rowan tree as a centrepiece. Even the leaves were stunningly detailed and the berries were gilt to catch your eye.
He meant to get something to write down all the little things he was supposed to keep track of since his first day, but with the kind of detail the Archduke and Adalard were probably expecting, it was critical now. What especially shocked him was the price, though. The work on the cover was still a bit steep, but the sheer volume of paper in the book would have been four times as much in Gisland. The Guild of Paperers in Dunmuir was famous, but he didn’t know they managed to work miracles.
He made it to the tower of the magical institute with surprisingly little fuss this time, avoiding the dangerous part of town without much trouble. The street layout made about as much sense as a drunk rabbit’s trail, but if you got in the right mindset, it wasn’t too bad.
The Institute was the same busy, cluttered mess he saw the first time, perhaps even more so. He wound his way through a crowd of young witches, only looking up when he realised they were all staring at the same thing. A team of women wearing steel witch hats for protection were casting a spell as a group to lift an entire small room into the air and slot it into a precarious position on the stacked outbuildings around the main tower. Rowan slipped through the crowd and into the tower before he had the chance to be crushed by a building with an embarrassing name like ‘The Flouncing Fireball Sorority.’
The tower was nice, at least. Or so he convinced himself as he climbed the excessively long stairs up to the ministry on the top floor, passing strangely placed doors on the stairwell with bizarre room plaques on them like:
ROOM 6½01 A&B
DR. L.M.K. BLACKWHEEL (A) &
LEPIDOPTEROMANCY LAB (B)
Lep. lab moved to 8¾04ᚠ
There was shining marble as far as the eye could see, decorated with images from what he assumed were magical history. Humans were scarce in the reliefs that ranged from battle to the discovery of new spells to scenes that seemed mundane to his untrained eye, though he saw almost every variation of beast and insect people that he knew of. What impressed him the most was the use of metal inlays to emphasise the magic being depicted. Flashy fireballs were rendered in mottled red copper, ice in hammered silver and lightning flowed from the subjects’ hands in beautifully case-hardened steel.
Finally reaching the top, he tapped on Tara’s door and announced himself. “Minister? It’s me, Rowan.”
The door glowed, then flew open and banged against the wall, but the fairy didn’t move her eyes from the work on her desk. She was barely even visible behind several piles of paperwork taller than she was. “Sorry. Busy. What is it?”
He took a few steps into the office to see the small woman a little better. “I was hoping to talk to you about some questions I had about those records from the war, but you look a little… well…”
She raised her head to face him, seeming even worse for wear now that he could see the dark circles under her eyes. “I’m still a one-woman show, but I won’t chase ya off. What’d you need?”
“I… I’m actually free at the moment, do you need a little help…?”
“Sweet, sultry Maiden, yes. I’ve got a little beaker going over in the corner, would you put out the flame and bring it over?” She went back to studying her papers and a quill floated over to sign a human-size document in front of her.
Rowan found the little concoction being warmed over a candle, only noticing how bad it smelled when he picked it up. Sharp and tangy like some kind of strange fruit, but subtly wrong, not to mention the aggressive bubbling even when it was off of the heat, like some kind of unwholesome beer.
He set it on the desk in front of her and she heaved a sigh as she built up the courage to drink it. After a beat, she tipped the beaker just enough that she could get a sip from the side. “Feel free to have some if you’re feeling tired, it’s some new vigour restorative one of the alchemy professors dreamt up.”
“I’m… I’m alright, thanks.”
“You’re serious about the helpin’, though?”
“I mean, you did really help me out last time…”
“Alright, can you- aw, shite. Actually, would you go down to room 306 and take a look at a grant proposal for me? I’m late.”
“Am I qualified for that? I’m not sure if I’d know what would-”
Tara waved her hand. “Just write down what happens, if anythin’. You’ll be fine.”
Another leg-torturing walk down the stairs got him to the third floor in at least fairly short order. 306 was an experimental hall of some sort, cluttered with wands, glowing minerals and strange mechanisms. It was built into an awkward crescent-moon shape that reminded Rowan of its precarious position as a wooden adjunct hugging the side of the Institute’s tower. A brown-haired elf with a pale complexion whirled around to face him from some sort of sled that was holding a wand in precise position.
“Ah! Mini… ster?”
“Oh, you knew I was coming?” That saved him a bit of time. “I’ve come to see your demonstration for your grant application.”
“Yes…” She dragged out the single syllable and stood on her toes, not particularly subtle in her attempts to peer behind him. “You’re Minister…?”
“Rowan, sorry. I know how hard it can be to catch names around here, aha.”
“They’ve um… they’ve replaced Tara? I really thought she would stick…”
Oh. OH. “No, no! I’m Diplomacy, Tara’s just busy with some other things and I’m giving her a hand.”
“Aaaaah. Wickton’s gone?”
Where had he heard that name before? Oh right, the nightmares. “Yes, I’m the new Minister. She’s… among the trees, if you catch my meaning.”
“Oh. She was one of those Johnny-come-lately Gislanders that are usually up to something. Good riddance, I say.” She adjusted her glasses smartly before pondering a moment, then an expression of abject horror crossed her face. “D-did you happen to say Rowan was your name, Minister? As in…?”
He couldn’t even blame her for mistrusting Gislanders, considering he was up to something, too. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Now, er… That wasn’t exactly- that is to say that was really meant as more of a joke, actually. Aha. We’ve just had a bit of a problem with…” She cracked under her own pressure, put on a nervous smile and very cautiously pretended that Rowan had just walked in. “Ah, Minister Rowan! I’m Dr. Halske, the one who was applying for the grant.”
He took her proffered hand with amusement and shook it. “Well Dr. Halske, would you mind showing me what you’ve got?”
“Right! Now, first of all.” She clasped her hands and led him over to a table with a pile of strangely-shaped copper rods on it. “You’re aware of my contributions to the war effort, I’m sure.”
“I was an internal diplomat, actually. You’ll have to refresh me.”
She clapped her hands with delight and slid a quill and pot of ink toward him expectantly. “Right, well, first of all, watch this!”
Halske set the long, straight pole upright first. After she pulled an orb from a purse on her belt, (“black quartz, of course,”) she touched it to the top of the rod and it startled him by letting out strange fibres like a ball of hair.
“Completely, Minister! Now the last part…” she stood on the table to attach the last piece of the tall assembly. It was shaped like a cross between an “M” and some obscure dwarven letter, surmounted by what looked to be a bar to hang a banner. Halkse fiddled with the position until it latched into a spot in the air above the quartz ball, then waved it experimentally. There was a small puff of dust when she poked the ceiling with the staff that was now twice the height of the tallest man he ever met. “This little baby can shoot communication nearly a league and a half with only some minor degradation in quality!”
“Interesting.” Rowan noted it in his journal, hoping it might be big news. Well, even Gisland’s army already had mages that could manage to perform communications on the scale of countries, but… “How does it work?”
“I was hoping you’d ask that! You see, I’ve got a theory that I’m hoping the grant can help me with, regarding waves in the thaumostatic field—TF we call it—so I can explore it a little more. So what the QWGPS— the quarter wave ground plane staff does is let us pick at the strings of the OFG—objective field grid, sorry—to transmit amplitude modulated signals such as my Halske code into a carrier wave so that we can encode letters. Ah, AM is how you’d usually see that. Are you with me so far?”
Rowan retried spelling ‘thaumostatic’ for a third time to mixed success before he decided to move on. “Mhmm.”
“Alright, now the odd thing I’ve been noticing is that an OFG string pluck shouldn’t really have much interaction with the physical world, but during the war I observed that I could get from the one-league to one-and-one-half league range by concentrating and directing the signal (‘shot,’ as it were,) at a cloud in the direction I intend to transmit the encoded signal. My thoughts so far are that this probably has something to do with the lightning element, as OFG plucks create a much more substantial waveform when using that particular kind of magic, something along the lines of one Megahalske as compared to a much lower number.”
“Fascinating,” Rowan said, knowing better than to interrupt an excited academic. She was at the point that she was vigorously making quotes and parentheticals with her hands, so trying to stop her was as possible as holding back waves from coming ashore.
“Right?! So practically speaking, if I could draw your attention to our next diorama, here…” Dr. Halske moved over to a small box with a wand handle sticking out of it. “So! What we have here is what I’ve been calling the Halske-pattern resonation chamber. Consider an enemy soldier, right?” She hefted a raw steak off a table and held it up. “What are they really? Just a piece of meat, some bones, a protective layer of whatsits and so on, right?”
“Right, so, let’s test this by slapping some armour on…” She covered it with a metal plate and placed it in the box. “What I’ve discovered is that with my own current abilities, if I pour enough energy into creating a wave here…”
A horrible humming sound emanated from the wand and an equally unpleasant glow slipped through the cracks in the box.
“Now this will be my first armoured test, so I hope you’re taking-!” Halkse was cut off when the humming turned into crackling and finally a pop as the lid flew off of the enclosure, one side on fire. “Aha-aaaah!” the elf waved her hand in pain, the wand she was holding smouldering for a moment before also sprouting flames.
“Are you alright, doctor?”
“Fine! Fantastic! I’ve never gotten a reaction this energetic before!”
“No, I meant your-”
Halske burnt her hand again trying to get the meat out of the experimental setup and threw it on the table. “So! Let’s take off the plate and see our damage!” Her face dropped when it was still raw, and doubly so when they took turns poking it, finding it stone-cold.
“Right! W-well, what an exciting experimental outcome! Aha! I, um… I actually have one more thing!” Halske dropped an orb of magical water on the problem far less subtly than she intended before returning to the fixed wand position she was initially tinkering with. “Right! Erm, this one’s pretty interesting, actually!”
“…What’s it do?” He asked, still a little on edge from the explosion.
“Alright, watch this!” She touched the wand and a ball of light formed at the tip. She grabbed a piece of paper with a pair of holes in it and moved it back and forth in front of the light. “So?”
Rowan caught himself reaching for the prayer beads on his belt. “So?”
“Look at the pattern!”
There was a shifting pattern of bars of light, moving back and forth on the wall behind the paper. “Oh. That’s interesting. What’s going on?”
She proudly put her hands on her hips and smiled. “No idea! Odd though, right? I plan on using some of the grant money to make a bigger screen to see what happens.”
“Er… right. Thank you for your presentation, I’ll report this back to Tara and see what she thinks.” Rowan was already halfway out the door by the time he finished the sentence, leaving her to wild speculation on whether a fifteen-ell screen made of gold would have the same effect.
“So…” Rowan wondered aloud, turning his head to see the fairy perched on his shoulder. “She was… interesting. Are they all like that?”
Rowan was nearly as exhausted as Tara was, working with her on the backlog until sunset. He didn’t expect to be at the Ministry of Magic as long as he was, but at least she offered him dinner as thanks for spending his day helping. “How long has she been at it? Dr. Halske, that is.”
“Hm… about ten years since she finished her doctorate, so a touch before that.”
“I wouldn’t feel too bad, she’s probably got a century left in her.”
“Hmm.” The silence hung in the air a while as he trudged through the streets. It might’ve been the start of summer, but the chill night air in the mountains felt like winter in his thin doublet. The long robes nearly everyone wore made a little more sense now.
Tara must have noticed him shiver and cleared her throat. “Sorry I can’t cast anythin’ to keep us warm, I’m flat out of juice from all the castin’ I’ve been doing the last few days.”
“It’s my own fault for not dressing right. Are you okay? You’re not wearing much”
“Pff, what’re you going to do about it? Shove me down the front of your jacket?”
“I mean, it’s not what I would’ve thought I’d be doing this morning, but…”
“I’ll be fine a little longer, just keep walkin’.” She hesitated a moment. “Thanks, though.”
“Where is it we’re going exactly?”
“Gilded Lily, I reckon. Olin runs a good pub.”
“Is that the one right below the palace?”
“Ah, you’ve been?”
“Just once. I was desperate for breakfast and a drink.”
Tara chuckled. “He’s got his location figured out, alright. Seems like more’n half the palace stops by every so often.”
“Well, good to know.” Avoid the place like the plague if he was ever up to something suspicious. Got it.
Come to think of it, he never did pose the question he came to ask in the first place. Though if she felt like she owed him now, he might be able to get a more frank answer from the Minister of Magic. “So about those records that you gave me from the war…” Rowan began.
“Ah, lord. I forgot about that. What’d you want to know?”
“I’m about done, but was I getting the right impression when it felt like she was talking about assassinations? I thought that this was sort of a passive thing.”
“As far as we can tell, yeah. She never talks about ‘em directly, but those offhand references match up to some people who went missin’ or had accidents.”
Rowan gathered up his courage to ask what he was really considering. “Do you think they had something to do with Rhiannon VIII? She was assassinated and the war started because of that.”
“Hm.” Tara scratched her chin. “We’ve got damn good evidence it was a Gislander. Even found the body, so I don’t know.”
“Well, I just wondered if Gisland would actually gain anything from doing that.”
“Ha! We’ve been scrappin’ with each other for more than a thousand years, Rowan. If Gisland didn’t want to conquer more territory, what are they doin’ with that little plain they took from Tredour?”
Rowan’s eyes shifted to the right as though to avoid the jab. It was an embarrassment to Gisland. They did not belong in Tredour, but the kingdom was falling apart and they snapped up little bits of territory like a vulture. He grew up next to the border, so it stung that Gisland betrayed that trust. “…I guess.”
“Ah, cheer up. I’m not blamin’ you personally an’ the people that did it are long gone now.”
It wasn’t much further before the sound of merriment and coloured light filtering through the windows let him know that he was on the right track. Soon enough, he was close enough to read the sign that announced the little pub as ‘The Gilded Lily.’ They hurried inside, eager to be out of the cold evening air.
The fairy shivered before gazing through the crowd. “Oh, d’you mind headin’ to the bar? I think I see Torsten over there.”
There was a dwarf sitting by himself over by the back of the room. Rowan made his way through the numerous populated tables, filled with a surprising amount of staff from the palace, now that he was paying attention. The throne room guard from that morning even nodded to him from her table of friends.
“Evenin’, Torsten,” Tara hopped off Rowan’s shoulder and landed beside a pewter tankard barely shorter than she was. “How are we?”
“Fair enough, fair enough.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “And ye brought the new lad with ye. Rowan, wasn’t it?”
“That’s me. Do you mind if I sit here?” Rowan grabbed the back of the chair.
“‘Course not, be my guest. ‘Ey, Olin!”
“Coming!” The man who’d served him breakfast on his first day in town hurried over from behind the counter and smiled at their group. “Ah, Ms. Merrywing! Would you like a table?”
Tara nodded. “Please.”
Olin set out a fairy-sized chair and table on the bar, then clasped his hands together. “Now then, I assume you and Mr. Rowan would like something to drink?”
“Sorry, um… you know my name?” Rowan asked.
“Oh, yes sir. Pays to be in the know about who’s up in the palace, considering how often they come down to my little pub. Would you like the Gisland ale again, or…?”
Could everyone in Dunmuir read people disconcertingly well, or was he just unlucky? “That sounds gr-”
Torsten shook his head. “Yer missin’ out if ya haven’t tried the cider, lad.”
The publican tapped the side of his nose. “Traditionally brewed for the depth of flavour, sir.”
“Oh!” Rowan said, desperate not to come off as strange in front of his new colleagues. “Well if that’s the case I’d be a fool not to!”
“Would ya mind gettin’ me a glass and a piece of straw too, Olin?” Tara added as she shifted her table around to face Rowan and Torsten.
The drinks were quickly set out and Rowan noted with some amusement that Tara’s glass came up to her knee, forcing her to use a piece of ryegrass to sip out of it without having to heft it.
The cider was clear and possessed the kind of crisp freshness he didn’t expect from alcohol. Not only that, but the bubbles brought out the unexpected taste better. It was good enough that Tara caught him partway through his third sip.
“So how’s diplomacy been treating you, Rowan? I heard you got sent on some wee mission and brought back a military company for trial.”
“Mmh-” He swallowed hastily. “It’s been… interesting. It ended up just being a pay dispute, but both sides were just at each others’ throats so much they nearly killed each other.”
Torsten emptied the last of his tankard quite quickly. “Ah, I’ve been tellin’ Rhinnie for years she’s been too hands-off. Good job she sent ya.”
“She did seem a little unsure about what to do besides the punishment… No offense meant to Her Majesty, of course,” hoping words could be used as a charm to ward off bad luck or accusations that might find him growing leaves by the end of the week.
“Ha! You’ve noticed, eh? She’s got a lot of growin’ up t’do as Queen, and I’m sayin’ this as someone ‘alf her age. What’s she been up to?”
Tara excitedly slammed her fist on her table and cut in. “Hang on, Rowan. I’ve got one Rhin on her stripping them naked before she even knew what the rest of the punishment was going to be. You in, Torsten?”
The dwarf snorted. “I’m not throwing my money away. I’ll do one on the second thing bein’ making her walk around with a sign around her neck, though.”
“Deal. I say she did spanking.”
They paused for a moment, then laughed together. Torsten banged his fist on the bar and grinned. “Well? Who won?”
So this was the opinion of the Queen? Rowan went for a sip of his cider, finding it shockingly empty. “She… well, she actually had the commander’s hair cut.” Torsten covered his mouth and Tara wheezed so hard in laughter that she nearly fell out of her chair. “Is it bad? It did seem kind of ceremonial.”
“That’s not even…! Gahaha…!”
Tara managed to get out a coherent reply first. “I mean… Pff… They’ve no’ done that since the dynasty changed when Rhiannon VI died, but…” She broke up into a few more giggles, “Nine’s… sorry, our Rhiannon’s always… ha… she said she thought it was hot how humiliating that seemed. I can’t believe…!”
Torsten wiped some tears from his eyes and called for refills on their drinks. “Ooh, lordy. Short hair’s even popular now!”
Rowan was happy he didn’t tell them about his morning so they didn’t laugh themselves to death. They drank together in silence a while longer and ordered dinner. It was a nice place, to be honest. The atmosphere was cozy enough that you didn’t even notice what a high-class place it was unless you paid attention. Really, the worst part was that their bartender was rather keen to refill their tankards every time Torsten called for a new round. He eventually stopped asking altogether, just topping them up whenever he walked by, though the pub was getting busy enough to give you the illusion you might be able to finish your drink before he got back.
Torsten slammed down yet another empty cup. “Y’know, I’m sick o’ sufferin’ in silence. You two gettin’ annoyed with that Greenglass woman? She was breathin’ down my neck all day yesterday.”
Wobbling in his seat, Rowan looked up from yet another filled tankard of cider. “Oh, you too?”
“She’s already got ya? Good lord, she just can’t leave well enough alone.”
“I mean… she’s been… like, you know?” He said, the words not quite coming out right.
“Aye, aye. Pointy-eared wench is always lordin’ over me like she knows a damn thing about cobble maintenance or pipin’ the aqueduct system.”
Tara laughed wildly and kicked her feet. Pound for pound, she had the most alcohol in her by far. “Ha! I mightae gott’n th’ wors’ job in th’ insa… institute, bu’ a leas’ I dinny haftae deal wi’ bullshit wee supervisors ‘cept th’ Queen, eh?”
“Did… did you catch that?” Rowan asked Torsten.
“Not a damn bit, lad. Only a bunch o’ familiar sounds.” He laughed loudly enough that Rowan and even Tara herself felt obliged to join in.
“I think I heard somethin’ about the Queen in there, though. How’s she been treatin’ you?”
“Is she always s’horny?”
This got another peal of tipsy laughter from the dwarf. “Runs in the family. She tried to drag you off to bed yet?”
“Mmnah. She’s been… y’know. Comin’ on to me, but she hasn’t done anything but sorta be weird and feel me up a little…”
“Ah, she’ll probably be gettin’ to ye eventually.”
“Aha… am I safe with other girls? I mean, I got one hell of a kiss from that lancer captain when we all finished up, s-” Rowan grunted as Torsten slapped his back.
“There’s a lad! How was she?
“Aha… well, good. I mean… I was trying not to stare at her when she had to strip, but…”
The intoxicated fairy flashed Rowan a thumbs-up and muttered something that was completely inaudible since she was resting her face on her small table.
“Ah, I wish I could get that drunk with half a cup. But no, lad. Worst Rhinnie’s going to ask is to watch. It’s surprisin’ how sensitive she is to not messin’ up relationships, considerin’ how many people she goes through.”
“Have you ever…?”
“Ha! We’re not each others’ types and it’d feel off regardless. You’re her taste though.”
“Ugh…” Rowan paused, his head in his hands. “I think I shuh… should probably get going now, I’ve got something to deliver…”
“Aye, I should be off too. I’ll take the little lady back home, so don’t you worry about that.” He delicately picked up the fairy who was snoring at a surprising volume for her size.
They said their goodbyes, paid the publican and wandered off into the night. It would probably be the perfect time to drop off that report, given the late hour, but Rowan didn’t count on how difficult it was to stand, much less keep balanced and move forward. His drunken mind didn’t even consider the stairs until he tripped on the first step and nearly cracked his face on the third.
It was a nightmare. He guessed he struggled with the first staircase for about ten minutes. No, this was fine. It was still less arduous than dealing with the Queen or Ms. Greenglass, and he was in a rhythm now. Left. Right. Left. Right. Which one came next? Oh. Losing track of what foot he was using rewarded him with a pain in his forehead and a time-worn slate step pressing against his nose.
Why did he decide to drink with a dwarf? This was exactly the kind of thing they made cautionary sayings about. The kind that pushed the boundaries of rhyme and annoyed you enough that they were more memorable than ones where they found something better than ‘norf’ to rhyme with ‘dwarf.’
Well, walking was out. Best forget about it anyway. One of those falls was bound to send him rolling back down to the bottom and he’d have to pretend that he was crying because it hurt instead of drunken frustration. He would crawl. Even babies could do that, right? He felt about as coordinated as one, that much was certain.
Time was a flat circle, now that he thought about it. Left foot, right foot, on and on forever. Wait, no. The circle wasn’t flat, it was one of those optical illusions where the stairs just go up forever. At least the forever stairs had landings. He was certain he fell asleep briefly on the last one, but here he was on the next, the stone pleasantly cool against his sweaty body.
His next impromptu nap was cut short when a blurry figure poked him with the butt of her spear-staff. “Are you alright, Minister?”
“Drunk,” he slurred in response. Ah. He was at the top of the stairs.
The gate guard grinned and handed a coin to her compatriot before squatting down to patronise him from closer up. “And do we need to be carried to bed this evening?”
He would have been happy to swallow his pride, normally. That was diplomat 101. Don’t wrap up your ego in something when someone’s offered you a good deal. The damn letter in his boot had to be delivered, though. Shit. “…’sfine.”
Right. Minister of the Queen. Strong front, stiff upper lip, try not to groan too much as you stand… Nonono, don’t tip backwards and break your neck falling down the stairs. There it was. Ah, they might be laughing, but he’d be laughing when… Oh, forget it. East garden. Which way was east?
The way over to the garden was thankfully uncomplicated and the flat floor ensured he only tripped occasionally. Someone was even so kind as to build a wall he could use as a handrail so he didn’t embarrass himself in front of the night staff.
The garden was a lovely, flowery thing, not that he was particularly in the mood to appreciate it, since stepping out into the small courtyard and into the cold night again was more than a bit unpleasant. Ah, and there was the barrel. He wobbled over to it and struggled to get his boot off, resorting to sitting on the ground and shaking it until the envelope fell out. He reached up, then saw the only thing he was more worried about than witnesses.
There were two barrels.
Adalard had said something about gardening supplies, hadn’t he? This one had a few tools, but… the other one was full of seeds. Dammit.
He spent the better part of twenty minutes crawling back and forth on the ground between the two. He tried to scrape a coherent thought together, but it just wasn’t taking. Trowel. Lily seeds. Broom. Did brooms count as gardening tools? You could sweep dirt. Some kind of seed he’d never seen before. Stringy liney thingy. More weird seeds. Metal stick. Plant babies. More metal stick but a different shape this time.
It was pointless. Whatever. How did anyone expect an innkeeper’s son who moved to the city to fill out paperwork to even know what half of this stuff was? He could barely keep his eyes open any more. It was probably the one with the tools. Maybe. He dropped it in and went to stand but found his legs unwilling.
It couldn’t hurt to rest for just a minute, right?1727 Views