I was recently sent on a diplomatic mission to settle some matters in the countryside and ended up acquainting myself with a witch named Dr. Stowell. She has big plans for the future of her farm and is in need of some unconventional packaging. I’d like this to act as her letter of introduction and let the woman explain herself, as this could be very profitable.
All the best,
He set his pen down, then meticulously folded and sealed the letter. A dog-eared maid who volunteered her time that morning took it, bowed and hurried off to deliver it. Come to think of it, several maids smiled at him or treated him more politely than usual. Rowan never expected his little gift to the palace staff to go over that well. He understood the pain of working around nobility and being constantly forgotten about, of course. A mumbled acknowledgement was usually all that small folk could expect to get, even if things would fall apart without them. At least he had the advantage of being an educated diplomat, so there was only the occasional pushy duke or proud duchess eager to remind him that he was a commoner. The maids had to clean, cook, deliver messages, dress the nobles and complete all sorts of menial labour while watching out for an unpredictable Queen who might drag them off to the bedroom. They deserved something nice.
The maid wasn’t gone long when Greenglass came through the door, determined to prove her natural state was the huff. He was yet to see her today, so he prepared himself for an earful.
“Oh, good morning, Temporary Minister. Have fun on your little jaunt away from the office?” She snapped.
Oh, she was giving him a chance to speak. “Well, it was productive. Is something wrong?”
“We’re days behind on paperwork, the King of Mistheim is on his deathbed and their visit is being delayed,” she said, flopping herself down into her seat. “Worst of all, we have a group of those backward… swineherds from Giria coming around as our first ‘formal’ post-war delegation.”
“I… see. Have you eaten yet?”
“NO!” She crossed her arms and scowled at him. “I don’t have-”
Rowan was planning on eating it for lunch, but he slid across the remains of his bread-and-sausage breakfast as an investment into the quality of the rest of his day.
The elf considered the food for a moment before she wordlessly took a few bites. “An’ the Gifflanderf finiffed-” she swallowed her mouthful, “their stupid little popularity contest for Archduke.”
“It was about that time. The end of the war delayed things for a while.”
“This is why you mob-rule countries are insufferable. We’d just gotten used to the last one and now they’ve replaced him with some nobody who’s been talking about ‘reparations owed’ and not being decided on who was responsible for the war!”
The comment took Rowan aback. “Hold on. They replaced Duke Lambert? I expected he would win the rest of his life, even if that would only be another election or two.”
“Yes! It’s some provincial named Franck on your throne or whatever it is. I expect your orders to kill the Queen in her sleep will come any day now.”
Hm. He would never, but that did make him think. It was more than a little surprising the assembled nobility of Gisland decided not to re-elect the archduke who ended the war. Lambert didn’t do any of the work personally, but he was more than happy to wrap things up and send Rowan off to secure the peace.
“I don’t think it should be that bad. Everyone’s war-weary, right?”
Greenglass gave him a foul look but offered no response, so he slid over the makeshift box of Stowell’s wine grapes.
“I picked these up on my trip out with the Minister of Magic, if you’d like to give them a try. The Queen seems to like them quite a bit.”
“Are these those undead plants the initial report was on?” She asked with narrowed eyes.
“They are, but I promise it’s not as bad as it sounds. The maids enjoyed the share I gave them as well.” They probably didn’t have access to the report on where the grapes came from, though.
“I’ll have you know that poisoning a duchess’ daughter is a very serious crime, Rowan.”
Why did she have to act like this? He had an easier time negotiating with a group of ex-military bandits compared to giving his own deputy a gift. “Look, I was only trying to be nice. You don’t have to.”
She didn’t bother answering. Fine. There was a petition for post-war aid to work on anyway. Just a minor little thing that probably wouldn’t take him more than twenty minutes before he could send it off to Finance for approval or modification. That said, enough of these little requests crossed he and Greenglass’ desk that he was of half a mind to suggest an aid department to the Qu-
Rowan’s train of thought was interrupted when Greenglass let out an uncharacteristically feminine moan after popping a grape into her mouth. She swished it around, aerating her taste buds like one would for a fine wine before realising just how much she let her enjoyment show.
“I take it the grapes are to your liking?” Rowan folded his hands over his lap, pleased with himself.
This was as close to a ‘thank you’ as he would get from her and he answered as though it was. “I’m glad you enjoy them. Just remember we’re meeting with the Girian ambassadors.”
“I do have a modicum of self-control. I’ll pass most of these around the ministry, unless you’ve already given them some.”
Oh. He felt guilty that he didn’t even consider that the diplomats who worked under him might be interested. Greenglass ran things so independently of him that he barely registered their existence. “Er, no. If you could…”
The lecture was cut off before it started when a maid poked her head into the room. “Minister, Deputy Minister, if you would please be ready to join the Queen in the next hour?”
“Yes, of course.” Rowan braced himself against the table and lifted himself up. Best to get up and out so the conversation could end on a high note. “Thank you for taking care of things, Ms. Greenglass. I’ll see you there?”
“I’ve been left with little choice.” The comment was bitter, but she capped it off with a polite wave. “Go ahead, I’ll be along soon enough.”
Rhiannon was obviously wearing her finest, a black silk robe draped over a dress dyed in a deep purple that would cost more to colour than most people would see in a lifetime. There were even gemstones that floated gently above the intricate, knotted filigree of her circlet.
She must have noticed him staring, since she gave him a coy, sidelong look as he approached. “I didn’t know you’d bought something so tasteful to wear, Rowan. I half-expected you to be wearing that stuffy neck ruff again.”
It was his first outing in the outfit Greenglass was so keen on having him wear in the shop. With his fine blue tunic, scarlet robe and gold braiding, he actually fit in with the ladies’ intricate formalwear for once. “Well, I noticed I was sticking out and happened to meet Ms. Greenglass at the seamstress’ shop…”
“My.” Rhiannon inspected him up and down. “That does seem like your taste, Sophia.”
Greenglass stuck out her chest proudly. “I’m not having a man hanging around the ministry looking like a lost foreigner.”
“I see,” she began with an impish expression, “very kind of you to make sure he’s handsome enough for your standards. Sweet, even.”
The elf cringed at every word as if each one was a progressively more vile curse, sputtering out a jumbled string of defences as the hint of a blush coloured her tan face. “That is not-!”
“Anyway, Rowan. I heard you got quite the gift the other day. Personalised stationery, was it?”
“Er-” He was suddenly quite aware that he had no good reason for getting a large present from the Paperer’s guild. How long did Greenglass wait to rat him out? She didn’t even confront him about it, so did she realise it was suspicious? A grain of truth had to go in, since he didn’t make a secret of who the letter was from. “Yes. I actually had a chat with Guildmistress Cavallari the other day and we managed to get along fairly well. I assume she’s just trying to have me buy more of her products, though!”
“Got along, did you? Is there anything I should know about?”
At least he could rely on the Queen to assume the course of events involved sex. Being vague and letting them make their own conclusions was the best course of action by far. “A gentleman shouldn’t kiss and tell, I’m sure you know.”
“He does when I’ve told him to write reports on the kissing.” She didn’t change her expression or her tone of voice, but the pressure was immense. Her eyes narrowed in a half-smile to him and said all he needed to know. Even if she was friendly and talkative, she was still his queen and he would follow her orders to the letter—especially in front of people of lower status than his own.
Only a beat passed, but her intentional silence felt like a lifetime. This wasn’t the woman who occasionally had too much wine or ogled naked women at the first chance she got. This was the same General Rhiannon IX he met on campaign and she could crush him at a whim if he failed to heed her words. The sheer regal might overwhelmed him and he buckled. “I… Of course I owe you that much, but I believe that correspondence should be private, Your Majesty.”
Rhiannon smiled and her menacing aura evaporated as though it was never there in the first place. The playful lecher who was the target of gossip returned with a pat of his shoulder. “I look forward to it then. You managed to make even the stuffy reports on those documents from Tara interesting, after all.”
“Thank you, I’ll do my best.” This would need to be good. But… ‘Dear Ms. Cavallari, I seem to have gotten myself into a pickle. I hope it’s not too forward to ask if I can write a piece of fiction where I have sex with you, since-’ He could picture the letter and its following conversation already. It was a nightmare.
Rhiannon led them through the front doors of the palace and clapped her hands. “Guardswomen, I’ll trust you to handle yourselves. Are you two ready?”
Since Greenglass was still pouting from Rhiannon’s earlier teasing, he decided to answer for the both of them. “Yes?”
A blue glow formed in the tips of the Queen’s fingers as she stretched them out. “Down we go.”
A hot pins-and-needles sensation started in Rowan’s feet, made its way up his legs and then through his body. Before he could even ask what magic was being cast on them, their feet left the ground. The women seemed calm, but this was so much worse than a broom. There was absolutely nothing underneath him or even anything to hold onto. The magic felt like an itch all over his body, as though he was being lifted up by his skin and his insides were only following because they had to.
The unassisted flight was over mercifully quickly as Rhiannon landed them on the ground at the bottom of the stairs. Couldn’t they have just let him walk? The trip wasn’t even that torturous after weeks of going up and down them daily and making it to the bottom took him less than fifteen minutes, now.
The group watched the Girian assembly march in with their backs to the ornate fountain in the centre of the square. The elves were an odd sight, with a hundred or so motley woodsmen and huntresses leading docile boars the size of mules. Rowan had some academic knowledge about the elven tribes using them as beasts of burden, but seeing them in person was something else. The only horse was ridden sidesaddle by a woman in a blue dress that left her legs bare, standing out from the crowd of her fellow pale-skinned elves wearing shades of green and brown.
“You’re letting them bring their pigs into the city?” Greenglass scoffed.
Rhiannon gave her an icy glare. “They’re no worse than horses. Now keep your nasty remarks to yourself or I’ll make sure you can’t comment at all.”
She bit her lip and pinned her gaze on the ground without offering a retort. Rowan couldn’t blame her for instantly conceding when the Queen was known to actually follow up on humiliating threats.
The long procession came to an end a few paces in front of them and the elf in blue dismounted her horse, then bowed. Rowan was aware of the basics of how the Girians dressed, but her clothing was more impressive than he expected from a nomadic group. Her knee-length dress in the regional style had wide openings on either side that showed what was frankly the vast majority of her thighs. The fabric was fine and the woven trim was dyed in a brilliant ultramarine that matched her shoes.
Even if she was flaunting her wealth with her clothing, everything else about her told a different story; wavy brown hair cut pragmatically short, thick legs well used to walking and a few nicks and calluses on her hands. The leader of the delegation wasn’t just some nobleman’s pretty daughter.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty.”
The Queen gave a slow, majestic nod when she was done inspecting the girl. “And you as well, Diana. You’re just as beautiful as your great-grandmother told me.”
“She didn’t do you justice, Your Majesty.”
“Are you trying to seduce me, young lady? That dress is awfully revealing, now that I look at it.”
Diana hiked up the front flap of her skirt with a coy grin. “Is it working?”
Rhiannon laughed and turned to her companions. “We can handle the formal introductions somewhere more private, but these are my Minister of Diplomacy Rowan and his Deputy.”
“The Hero?” She scanned his clothes and his face before she stepped forward and shook his hand.
He was glad that heroes were supposed to be humble and uncomfortable with accolades. Answering naturally wouldn’t lose him any points. “I don’t use the title, but I suppose it was given to me.” Rowan returned the enthusiastic handshake and made a mental note of her excitement. If she was this starstruck, even his presence at the negotiating table would be a point of leverage.
“You’ve done a great thing for us, ending the war. Gisland is a… difficult trading partner sometimes.”
Magic, elves and giant boars may have been unfamiliar to him, but Rowan recognised the opening volley in a trade negotiation anywhere. Apologising or promising anything now would hamstring him down the line. “I hope we can come to an agreement that works for both of us, then.” He politely tilted his head and acceded to nothing.
“You’re sure your people don’t need better lodgings, Diana? I do feel bad about having guests sleep in a park,” Rhiannon mentioned.
“I can’t convince many of them to live in buildings at home, so they weren’t interested in inns. Besides, the pigs get lonely without their herders.”
“If you’re certain. How are you with flying?”
“I’ve seen witches do it before…”
“You may want to hold onto someone then.” A glimmer of mischievousness flickered over the Queen’s face before she regained her regal expression. “May I suggest Rowan? I’m finding him very dependable, lately.”
At least guests were given warning. Any mental complaining was dispelled when Diana wrapped herself around his arm, very intentionally sandwiching it between her breasts. He appreciated the spirited attempt, but it was an amateur’s work. She was too obvious and too excited for even a layman to have doubts about what she was doing.
“He does feel very steady. Such a strong forearm, I can feel it…”
The battle to not cackle at the remark was a difficult one, but Rowan won out and kept a straight face. A baroness in Gisland who very transparently murdered her husband said almost those exact words to him when she tried to convince him that it wasn’t her. Even then, he was very aware that his thin body lacked much muscle to speak of. “I’m sure you’d be interested in the palace guards, then. They’re far more impressive than I am.”
Diana’s teasing squeeze turned into a deathgrip when Rhiannon’s magic lifted them all up again and left him with that strange, tingling feeling. At least Rowan had proof that he wasn’t insane for being afraid of flying.
“This is amazing, you can see so far! Do you fly like this all the time?”
Or not. “I’ve only done it a few times. It gets a little boring on long trips though,” he added, trying to appear more accomplished than he was.
It took a few minutes to float their way back up to the top of the palace grounds. Taking the stairs down wasn’t awful, but he did appreciate being saved from the more strenuous part of the trip. They moved faster than a walk, but Rhiannon took longer than he expected to set the group down in front of the palace gate. Was she just showing off or struggling? Everyone else used a broom and never seemed to have more than one passenger.
Whatever the answer, the Queen adjusted her tiara and spared a glance for her entourage. “The East Garden of the palace is prepared to receive us, if you don’t have any objections.”
Rowan felt a pang of dread that even he knew was meaningless. Nobody knew he delivered anything there and it was just a pleasant garden to everyone else. It made perfect sense to hold things outside so they didn’t overwhelm the poor girl.
Diana jerked him to one side when she attempted to bow without letting go of his arm. “Of course not, Your Majesty! You didn’t have to pay me that much consideration.”
“Nonsense. You’ll be cooped up in a negotiation room for most of your time here and I thought I might let you enjoy the summer weather.”
Arlene waited patiently beside a metal table and chairs when they arrived at their venue. Her usual black maid’s uniform was missing its apron and capped off by a narrow purple sash with gold tassels tied around her waist. She curtsied to the group, then elegantly guided them to their seats.
The table itself was stunning. The octagonal shape was novel, of course, but the real draw was the metalwork. He lowered his head to get a better look, and… yes. It had all the hallmarks of a saw that was used to cut out the voids and sculpt the band of geometric knotwork that formed the rim of the table. If the shape hadn’t convinced him, the exactingly measured straight lines and lack of curves in the decoration made it as clear as day that it was dwarven work. There were a fair few examples in Gisland from a small renaissance of interest in dwarven crafts about ten years back. Personally, he guessed this was work from the north of Graniteslate, considering the lack of foreign influ-
“I was just… er, taken with the craftsmanship. Is it dwarven?”
“You have a good eye. The previous queen commissioned the set.”
Diana eagerly took Rowan’s lead and tapped the table in disbelief. “The absolute amount of metal here! And it’s so…!”
Rowan didn’t intend to point out as many details as he did. All he wanted to do was make sure that Diana knew that this was a beautiful artistic piece and not just a lump of metal that could be turned into saws or axes if need be. Nobody bothered stopping him and the mood seemed right since Arlene leaned in for a closer look when he pointed out a few notable details. The lecture was just about to hit on a little bit of art history when Greenglass’ throat-clearing became progressively louder.
“But, er, that’s the gist of it. Sorry that ran on so long.”
His deputy snuck in a shot at him. “I’m starting to believe you should have been an antiquarian or a museum curator, Minister. It seems to suit you better.”
“I found his enthusiasm infectious.” Rhiannon folded her hands on the table. “But shall we open things up? I don’t know that you’ve been properly introduced to everyone, Diana.”
“Oh!” The elf scrambled to her feet and dipped into a bow. “My name is Diana. I’m the daughter of the current Chief of Forest’s Edge.”
Greenglass gave a sniff of only partially concealed contempt.
“I expect my representatives to give you the same respect they would give any princess. Am I clear?” Rhiannon stared at Greenglass out of the side of her eye.
“…Perfectly. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Princess.”
Diana waved her hands in front of her as if to ward off the thought. “No, no! We’re just a little tribe, Your Majesty! Barely over two thousand if you count the children! I-!”
“Nonsense. My own country is tiny in the scheme of things, but I’m still a Queen, am I not?”
The verbal arm-twist struck the elf hard enough that she had nothing to say for a few moments before she sat down. “I… well, yes. Could I ask to only be addressed by my name?”
“Gladly. Now, to my right is Mr. Rowan, who you seemed familiar with. On my left is Sophia Willow Penelope Greenglass. She’s the daughter of a Duchess from Sicorath, my Deputy Minister of Diplomacy and an old friend.”
“Really? It’s an honour to meet you, your ladyship!” She took Greenglass’ hand against her will and shook it vigorously in her excitement. “I understand- Well, no. I think it’s believed our peoples are related, but it’s really exciting to meet someone from practically across the world!”
“Quite,” Greenglass grumbled. She pressed her lips together as she transparently struggled to decide whether to be disgusted at the contact or flattered by Diana’s manners.
“I don’t want to spoil the mood with business,” Rhiannon began, “but what’s on the agenda for your visit? Your chief’s letter mentioned something about buying some goods, sending us congratulations in person and so forth.”
“Mother mostly wants to open a trade route. We’d like to deepen our ties, since we had a profitable partnership all those generations ago.”
“Ah, excellent. I remember some trade occurring when I was younger, but my predecessor was running the country at the time and I have no idea what the agreement was besides buying wood. Couldn’t even tell you where the route was, to be honest.”
Rhiannon laughed as though nothing was wrong, but Rowan’s stomach dropped. Did she really need to give that away? It weakened what could have been a strong position into a level playing field and the fact of the matter was that a diplomat’s job was to never play fair. He cut in to do some damage control. “It’s been long enough that I’m sure we would be renegotiating everything, anyway. What are you hoping to get out of it, generally?”
“We’re mostly looking for trade goods, since money is heavy and we don’t have access to the kinds of resources you do. Gold isn’t much good once you’re outside civilisation.”
Rhiannon clapped her hands and smiled. “Lovely. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Girian lumber and expanding trade has been on my post-war list. That said, I’ll be leaving most of the work to my experts here.”
“I’m not opposed to that at all, Your Majesty.” Diana beamed in their direction. Whether it was genuine or not, she was working hard to make a good impression.
“Excellent. Rowan, Sophia, I won’t keep you from your work any longer. I hope I’ll see you at this evening’s party?” It definitively wasn’t a question, so they both said their goodbyes and went on their way. “Now one of my subjects happened to send these grapes as a gift. Quite the treat, since they’re filled with wine…”
It always felt good to be helpful. Rowan learned that helping his mother run their inn in Waterton. When serving drinks and tidying bedrooms lost its lustre, he moved on to the big city where he could help even more people. In fact, it was probably this little itch that made him wonder if there was something wrong with Dunmuir’s correspondence even when it wasn’t his department. His direct superior asked him to cap it all off by telling the Queen of an enemy country that there was actually a small mistake about all this war business and he couldn’t say no. Of course, a lifetime of little compliments on his helpfulness adding up to international recognition went a long way to encouraging his behaviour.
It only took a few hours for Greenglass to announce they were done working for the day and he was left with nothing to do. It was probably that niggling urge to ingratiate himself with everyone that made him notice the situation in the rest of the palace. The servants scrambled up and down the halls in a panic, and when one of them was kind enough to explain there was going to be a feast in the Girian camp at the bottom of the stairs, he asked if he could help.
Unsurprisingly, he enjoyed about an hour of assisting regular people for once before he began to regret his decision.
He wasn’t nearly a good enough chef to help with preparations in a palace’s kitchen and had to ask around elsewhere. Fortunately, dozens of people needed messages passed along in addition to help carrying assorted things around. It wasn’t bad at first. ‘Minister, would you tell the kitchen we’ve managed to buy eight dozen more eggs from town?’ ‘My lord, I’m sorry to ask this, but could you tell the stores department that they can start delivering the seating?’ ‘Ms. Arlene is baking in the kitchen, could you ask if she needs more sugar for the cakes?’ and ‘the Finance Ministry is closed at the moment, but would you mind putting this invoice in their mailbox?’
The requests started getting more difficult, of course. The first time down and back up the stairs was remarkably trivial for him, physically speaking. The mission was to ask the owner of the Gilded Lily for use of his facilities—Olin agreed and it was no problem at all. Rowan did all of ten minutes of running around in the palace before he was sent down again. The kitchen heard that the Girians planned on slaughtering some of their boars for the occasion and needed a plan. How many, how much meat and whether they required condiments were amongst other questions on a small list he was handed. Downhill wasn’t horrible, but going back up a second time took more time and energy than it should have.
Fortunately, there wasn’t much else to do after that and Rowan took the opportunity to sit down and rest. He was soaked with sweat, exhausted and about ready for bed. Now that he thought about it, there wasn’t much reason for him to come to a feast. It was unlikely there would be any major plays and he could just pretend that he was busy. Greenglass could handle entertaining them and just being present, right?
…Probably not. She made it very obvious she was going to be difficult and didn’t even pretend to care for the forest elves at all. At least the Queen’s minor diplomatic stumbles were accidental.
Rowan’s head drooped dangerously close to the ground when a pair of immaculately maintained leather loafers stopped about a pace in front of him. He slowly dragged his gaze back upward. A gold-trimmed skirt in fine black wool, a maid’s apron draped over one arm, a purple sash… ah, it was Arlene.
“Are you alright, Minister?”
“Just…” Rowan stifled a yawn. “Just a little tired is all. I’ve been helping with the dinner preparations.”
“The girls could have handled it, you know. I hope they didn’t ask someone of your stature-”
“No, no! I had nothing to do, so I asked. It’s my own fault I ran myself a little ragged.” He wasn’t sure what her position was in the hierarchy, but she had remarkably high expectations for the servants.
“Oh. Well, thank you for your help then.” She glanced away as though she was trying to find the devil on her shoulder that suggested she jump to conclusions. “I was sent to tell you that the Queen wants you in the Girian camp in a little over an hour.”
His diaphragm betrayed him and pushed out a groan that rattled in his dry throat.
“…That tired?” She asked.
“I was hoping I could get out of it, to be honest.”
“I’m afraid not, since you’re going to be the star of the show tonight.” Arlene leaned forward and delicately sniffed his robe. “I think you might need a clean-up, though. There are precious few people in the palace who would enjoy the sweat.”
“Who-? Right. Um, thank you for warning me, Arlene. I’ll go find a bucket,” he said, dragging himself back to his feet.
He was caught off guard when she grabbed his sleeve. “I can handle that for you if you’d like.”
“I… No, no. I wouldn’t want to make you do something like that!” He tried not to imagine the maid leading him to his room, stripping him down and sponging him off. The attempts at clearing his mind became desperate when he wondered if she would take off her own clothes to stop them from getting wet. She was a very service-oriented woman with very skilled han-
No. Really, she already did plenty for him. There wasn’t any need for him to be bathed by someone else. Even the maids that dressed him didn’t bother with anything that intimate.
“Minister, I think you’re blowing things out of proportion. It would save enough time that I could have one of the girls brew some tea with a few drops of an energising potion in it before you left.”
Rowan’s mind struggled with a maelstrom of emotions and personal pride. He certainly did need the energy to tackle the night. She didn’t seem to think it would be a big deal, but he didn’t want it to be some kind of obligation for her. Agh, forget it. He could turn her down if it came to that and get in the right mindset to do his job.
“I would appreciate the tea. Don’t feel like you-”
Arlene put a hand on his chest and whispered something before a dull tingling ran through his body. He felt… clean. Not in the satisfying way one would get from warm water, but just that his sweat was there one moment and gone the next. His clothes no longer stuck to him, either. Not warm, softer or scented, merely capital-C clean with a definitive period after it. Nothing else.
“There you are, Minister. Ah, your hair’s a mess.”
“I said your hair’s a bit messy, let me fix it for you.” Arlene slipped a small comb out of her apron and untied his loose ponytail with a flick of her wrist.
Rowan was still a bit stunned. “Was that, um…?”
“Cleaning magic, yes.” She stopped for a beat with the comb poised for action above his head. “Oh. Were you expecting something else?”
“No, no! I’ve just never had that done before! It caught me off-guard.”
“I see. Would you sit down and close your eyes, actually? I’d like to put a little water in your hair.”
Rowan squeezed his eyes shut expecting a downpour, but he was pleasantly surprised when a light, refreshing mist surrounded his head and wetted it just enough to loosen his hair for the comb.
Arlene began brushing his hair into place like nobody had since he was a child, but the level of intimacy was completely different than when his mother did it for him. Her breath and the teeth of the comb running over his scalp tickled his senses and sent a delightful thrill through his spine. Since her chest was a hand’s breadth from his nose, Rowan decided to make some conversation before she thought he was staring. “…Do you normally just carry a comb around?”
“Yes. The Queen likes her hair smooth, but she has a terrible habit of getting it tangled like an excited child.”
“I’m glad that doesn’t come across in public,” he chuckled. “You’re the one that keeps her looking put-together?”
“She doesn’t trust anyone else to. It’s good to know there’s someone who knows that ‘effortlessly beautiful silken-haired Queen’ doesn’t happen by itself.” She let out a quiet exhale that Rowan wouldn’t have noticed if she wasn’t practically straddling him. She worked quietly for another few moments, then delicately re-tied his hair with the ribbon. “Would you like the tea in your room or your office?”
“I… Um, my room should be fine.”
Once Rowan made it to the Gilded Lily and the elven camp, it wasn’t long before Rhiannon floated down from the palace. She made a grander entrance than before: a pair of carnyx-players trumpeted a royal fanfare as she approached the crowd and she was flanked by at least a dozen guards on brooms. All eyes were on her before the guard even announced:
“Her Majesty, Witch-Queen Luna Evanora Rhiannon IX!”
Rhiannon took Diana’s hand and flew a few feet into the air to address the crowd with her. “Lords and ladies, both of us would like to welcome you to the first meeting of our two countries in my reign. To celebrate the arrival of our honoured guests, I’d like to offer you all as much food, drink and hospitality as I can offer. My capital is open to you and I would welcome you exploring and enjoying it to the utmost.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Diana interjected. “We too would like to offer you gifts for the enjoyment of yourself and your people. I’d like to slaughter our finest pig and-”
At a wave from Diana, two of the elves in her entourage threw the covering off of a cart between the Queen and the crowd. At first glance, Rowan wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or horrified. The last rays of the sunset played over a monument of bone the likes of which he could barely understand. It was a skull, that much was certain. There was a separate jawbone and rows upon terrible rows of teeth which jutted out at angles that looked like some hideous mockery of a saw. Above it sat a smooth protrusion of bone halfway between a wolf’s muzzle and a ship’s prow and lacked any suitable arrangement for eyes. He wouldn’t even want to see it with its skin on, much less try to fight the thing.
“My first trophy of a deep-forest beast. I led the party that killed it and thought its skull was the most appropriate gift our humble tribe could provide.”
“Amazing…” Rhiannon drifted closer, inspecting it as though she planned to hunt one herself in the near future. “What was it?”
“No idea,” the elf responded proudly. “It was something like a worm with two legs. No eyes, I’m sure you can tell.”
“My. Thank you, I’m sure it will fascinate for years to come.” She paused for a moment, then addressed the crowd again. “Now then, let the festivities begin!”
The Queen lowered them to the ground and wove her way through the surprisingly large crowd that gathered around the pair. She possessed enough political awareness to give wry smiles to guild leaders, members of the clergy and the elves of the delegation before she arrived at Rowan’s group. Greenglass, a few scattered diplomats and Arlene were close enough to his vicinity that he assumed they were using him as a landmark.
“How’d I do?” Rhiannon’s businesslike smile melted in relief when she reached the familiar faces.
“Fine enough, considering the company. You didn’t need to do anything particularly special.” Greenglass kept her arms firmly crossed and her nose high.
“Passable,” Arlene agreed.
“And you, Rowan?” The Queen glanced toward him.
“I wouldn’t want to criticise.” He felt evasive now that all three women were staring at him.
“Nonsense, I asked for it. I’ve only given a few speeches that weren’t about winning a battle and this is the first trade delegation I’ve welcomed since I was fifteen.”
“I suppose my only real suggestion is that you might want to be seen inspecting your gift a while longer.”
“Hm. Was I too offhand?” Rhiannon frowned and curled a lock of hair around her finger.
“I think hurried might be a better word. People do expect speeches of a certain length for events like this.”
“Alright. I’d like an entourage with me while I speak to the restaurant owner before I let you go.”
The cobbled area of the square was full of tables and chairs set up for the feast in a sort of organised chaos. There was a distinct dias with a high table set for the most important figures at the party, but the tables further away devolved into impromptu clusters as close to the centre as they could get. Rowan couldn’t blame people for wanting to steer clear of the tents and animal pens set up in the long green between the buildings of the city and the slope leading up to the palace. The area still smelled of pig, but at least the boars seemed content lazing beneath the ancient, gnarled oaks that decorated the promenade. They were more well-behaved than he would have imagined and the few elves that were still with them stroked and fed them carrots like horses.
A number of individual preparation tables and grills from inside the Gilded Lily were in the process of being set up outside. Managing several helpers more than usual kept Olin too busy to even notice their group approach.
“Set it up- ah, there’s fine. Honey, could you get started on the chickens with Mrs. Byzanti? I’m going to-” His eyes drifted up to Rhiannon as she approached and he did a double-take. “Y… Your Majesty!”
He shook the shoulders of a fox woman and a cat woman, then dove into a bow with them at Rhiannon’s feet.
“Olin, was it?” The Queen asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty! Selma and Samantha are my wives.”
“I see. Odd for a family of your means to have more than one partner.”
“We knew it would make us look poorer, but we’ve loved each other since we were children, Your Majesty.”
She let out an approving hum and put her hands on her hips. “This country needs more people with open-minded attitudes like yours. Please, stand.”
They only took a moment to scramble to their feet with heads respectfully lowered.
“The servants and ministers in my palace have had nothing but good things to say about your establishment, you three. I’m grateful for your cooperation.”
Olin glanced up at Rowan with a smile before snapping his eyes back down. “It’s our privilege to be able to serve this many important guests.”
“You’re very lucky ladies to have such a polite husband,” Rhiannon said to the women at Olin’s side. “Someone will be around tomorrow morning with a small reward for you.”
“Please don’t feel obl-!”
“Nonsense, Olin. The palace was greatly improved when your daughters started their tutelage as maids. It’s my pleasure.”
Rowan had to admit the giant boar was delicious. They likely gave him one of the finer cuts, but when he sat down with the various dishes that were prepared for the impromptu festival the well-marbled slab pulled it all together for him. After they finished eating, the Queen, Diana and the others seated at the high table wandered off to mingle. He was left to enjoy his second helping with only the company of an elven man who introduced himself as their chief lumberjack.
As they chatted over dinner, Rowan realised how much he missed non-threatening male company. The conversation flowed from one topic to the next without threats, flirting or even politicking, refreshingly enough. He fielded an excited barrage of questions from the elf on everything from life in cities to agricultural practices. They were apparently all startlingly impressed by the fresh bread and uncommon vegetables they were offered since their tribe were nomadic hunters and woodsmen like most in Giria. Finally, they arrived at the topic he danced around since the start of the chat.
“So… it’s all women in this country?”
Rowan felt at ease. In control, even. Playing up his machismo a little bit in front of these men even felt natural now that he was halfway through a mug of ale. “It feels like that in the palace! But no, there’s just more women than men.”
“Ah. Right! Right…” The elf took another gulp of his drink. “I’ve heard rumours about… polygamy.”
He caught Rowan off-guard with the question. It was just common sense in Gisland that witches shared men when they weren’t… doing what Rhiannon was. Women sleeping with women wasn’t a done thing back home, unless the woman was rich or magically talented enough that everyone turned a blind eye. The Church of Balance didn’t allow groups to marry, at least. “It’s mostly for poorer women, I’ve heard. But yes, our bartender has two wives, for example.”
The lumberjack’s ears perked up and he started scanning the crowd like… Rhiannon, actually. It was off-putting.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to try, though.” He leaned in, grimly meeting his eyes. “Is it really worth your future?”
“What do you mean?”
“My deputy is a witch herself and she was good enough to tell me how this all works.” He tensed his fingers against his mug. He was used to his daily life, but he was still walking a razor’s edge. In fact, he wasn’t even sure he was supposed to know this information, given what a secret it was. “They pull out years of your life when they sleep with you. It’s how they live so long.”
“…All of them? I’ve never heard about anything like that.”
“That’s the way I understand it. I won’t stop you, but it’s food for thought.”
“Maybe I’ll just go warn a few of my men, then. It’s been excellent speaking with you, My Lord.”
Rowan sat a while longer and sipped at his drink. He hoped the elves wouldn’t do anything foolish, but nobody could say he hadn’t warned them. Maybe if he was lucky, whatever women they found would realise that they shouldn’t be doing any life-draining on foreign dignitaries.
Wait. Could the witches choose not to do that? Hm. If it was just magic, they could choose not to cast it, surely. The specifics of how magic even worked evaded him, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask if he ended up sleeping with a witch like Rhiannon wanted him to.
He was still pondering his circumstances when Diana wandered over. She was attractive, he would give her that. The hip-swinging, feminine walk was a tad exaggerated, but it certainly did give him a pleasing view of her generous thighs. Subtlety was out the window when she rubbed a bare leg on his arm as she greeted him. No doubt she hoped that the only thing on his mind was finding out what was underneath her dress.
“Your Queen is quite the host, Mr. Rowan. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten this much bread and cake in a sitting before. And the plants!” She gazed up the steep slope the palace sat on as though it was the most breathtaking thing she had ever seen.
That did explain why some bright soul decided to plant a mixture of wheat and einkorn along the side of the street as though they were flowers. He was fairly sure the wild oats growing in the scree were weeds that were there before, though.
“I’m glad we’ve impressed you. The Queen does take pride in her palace and possessions.”
She smiled at him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Speaking of, would you mind accompanying me for the first dance of the night? Her Majesty offered, but I’m more comfortable with men.”
“Of course, I’d be happy to.” He wouldn’t dare disparage his monarch to her face, but Rhiannon drinking a bit much and getting touchy wouldn’t go over well. The stereotype that witches were all centenarian lesbians was because Dunmuir’s neighbours had stricter views on love and marriage, after all.
“Thank you!” Diana grabbed his hand before he had a chance to react and pulled him toward the fountain in the centre of the venue. Several pairs of dancers were already standing on the flagstones and waiting for the evening’s music to start.
“Would you like to lead or should I?” He asked mostly as a courtesy, pressured by the musicians experimentally plucking their instruments.
“I don’t know any dances where the woman leads, so I’d appreciate it.”
Rowan was starting to get used to Dunmuir’s music. The collection of droning pipes and strings punctuated by sharp drums didn’t strike him as beautiful exactly, but he could pick up the beat well enough and the time signature was familiar. His first time dancing to it would have to retrofit the dancing that he knew.
To her credit, Diana was a patient partner and followed along admirably even as he worked to find his pace. Of course, he had no intention of embarrassing her in front of the crowd and assisted her through the first few moves. A few slow spins to give her the idea… perfect. All eyes would be on them with Rhiannon sitting out.
Diana didn’t speak again until they worked through a few quicker chassés and she caught on to the general rhythm. “You’re a surprisingly passionate dancer, Minister.”
He didn’t have the heart to tell her that he couldn’t stand dancing and considered himself to have two left feet outside a very specific set of movements. The dance teacher who was assigned to help train up-and-coming diplomats spent years beating this particular sequence into his head. ‘Adequate’ was the word she used to describe his final outcome. “It’s just practice, really.”
“Is that so?” She moved her hand from his back down to his hip. Precisely the kind of touch that laid her painfully standard plan bare. There would be a charm offensive, she would have him sleep with her as a way of getting in his good graces, then she would pretend to be pregnant as a way of wringing more concessions out of him later. He would even have ranked the performance as the work of an educated amateur if she didn’t get overambitious with her finishing line. “Is there anything else you’re well-practised at?”
“Hmm.” It would be trivial to lead her on enough that she would make mistakes here. If even one or two influential people from each side of the negotiation saw that she was unsubtly pestering him for sex, the balance of power would be flipped on its head.
The spin that turned her eyes away from him was so well-timed that it felt like a tell that he was thinking. Diana was put off her balance regardless, likely not expecting to be twirled about in lieu of an answer.
Unfortunately, this was the part of negotiations Rowan never cared for. He considered himself to be far from anything like a gentleman, but bringing sex or romance into business felt far dirtier than blackmail or veiled threats. That little weakness was why he ended up letting that countess walk all over him for a month, in retrospect. Worst of all was his execution of the unfamiliar techniques. Remembering the lines and ‘moves’ that he flubbed in the past caused him enough anguish he nearly trod on Diana’s foot.
“Negotiations, mostly.” He could settle for that in good faith. The closest he felt like getting to reciprocating was shifting his hand to a position on her hip that wouldn’t turn any heads. Even if he was uncomfortable, making the leader of the negotiations feel awkward was an awful way to start.
Six, seven, dip the girl, one, two-
Ah, she seemed to take that combination of words and the dip the wrong way. A blush spread out on her face and her grin became nervous, wobbly even. Did he catch her off-guard? There wasn’t any conscious thought behind it, that was just what his dance teacher had always made him do next. Sure, the music was different, but he could almost hear the creaky fiddle song he always practiced to with his fellow diplomats.
“I look forward to… negotiations, then.”
The music stopping halfway through her sentence felt like sprinting straight into a brick wall. “I… yes, of course. I hope things will be as pleasant as they have been tonight.”
“Likewise,” she giggled.
Diana pulled herself away and he stretched out. He expected people to be watching, but everyone seemed to be staring at him. Rowan shot out a few polite smiles as a defence mechanism before hurrying over to Rhiannon’s table. He didn’t do anything strange, did he? Diana wanted to be led, so he couldn’t have broken some taboo.
The only person he found at the head table was a very tipsy Greenglass. Her position probably started out with a proud posture, but now that her fist slipped out from under her chin she merely sprawled over the table and glared at the crowd.
She sat up with a violent start and clutched her drink as if he was going to take it away from her.
“Sorry, I was just wondering where the Queen was.”
“I’unno. Wandered off to… prob’ly flirt with some girl. Said she’d be back.”
“I, er… I see.” Sweet Order, she was drunk. “Thank you anyway. If you see her-”
“Siddown.” She slapped the back of the chair beside her like it was an old friend that owed her money.
“You’re not gonna… If ya wait here, she’ll be back, you… stupid.”
Rowan was given little choice but to sit before her insistent pounding on the seat broke it to pieces. There was some consolation in the location, though. The table had a commanding view of the entire party, from the fountain and dancers to the tables filled with feasting and chatting groups enjoying the atmosphere.
Greenglass withdrew her arm from around the back of his chair and set it back in her lap. It was only a moment before she found something else to talk about, though. “She’s an absolute… damn… er… pain in th’ rear end, you know?”
“Rhiannon! I’ve known her since…” She gave up counting on her fingers after a few seconds, despite the fact she was likely seeing twice as many as usual. “Since she was just a snot-nosed liddl- little princess. N’ you know what? She’s still annoying as hell!”
If this was going to be his fate, he might as well lean into it. If he was lucky, Rowan might even get a little more respect out of her. “How so?”
“She’s just…” The elf waved her hands in a vague, meaningless way. “Y’know?”
“I don’t think I do. Is there something she’s done lately that’s bothering you?”
“Yes! S’ many damned things just tonight! First of all, she’s faaaaaaaar more irrespn… she’s less responsible th’n you!” She jabbed his chest with an accusing finger and took another sip of wine. “You jus’ know she’s goin’ to make an ass of herself tonight.”
“Well, that is the kind of thing you should be careful about when you’re at an event with alcohol. That’s why I try not to drink much at these things.” Hopefully Greenglass would catch on and see that she was at risk of exactly the same ignominy as the Queen was.
“Good. She has the wine fortified an’ it’s easy to have too much. If we gave y’enough liquor, you’d tell the Queen herself that you’re probably a spy, an assuh… dammit, an assassin! Nobody’s got the proof, but if we got you like that, ha!”
If she didn’t have any proof, this was probably just one of the simmering reasons she didn’t trust him. It certainly didn’t take a genius to suspect him of anything, but even the mention made his stomach do flips. At least drunks were easy to redirect. “You were talking about things that the Queen does?”
“Right! I’ll bet half this ‘party’ knowzzat she’s goin’ to have her hands down some Girian’s panties in the next twenty minutes, you know that? Plus it’s obvious she doesn’t wanna do any ruling. All she does is have sex n’ tease me about… everythin’.”
“She hasn’t occupied the throne long, in her defence. There were all those ministers doing whatever they wanted behind her back.”
“I know that. Nearly anyone could know ‘historic’l facts.’” She emphasised the quotes with her fingers. “What nobody’s planning on tell’n you is that Big Queen Rhiannon was happy t’ see other people handle the daily work. She’s lazy. I was even there f’r some of her statesm’nship lessons, an’ you know what she did?”
“I’ll assume she didn’t get much out of it?”
“She fucked the teacher! While I was there!”
…Nobody in their right mind could blame Greenglass for being frustrated, then. “They didn’t even go to another room?”
“No! She’s m’ best friend an’ knows everything about me, right? She just sex’ally harrasses me all the damn time! Just rolls out garbage like ‘oh, Sophia, you could come n’ join us if y’want, teeheehee~’”
“Ah. That sounds pretty bad.”
“It is! Constantly bringin’ up the time we kissed—once—when we were kids like that means anythin’! I’m straighter than all these… lesbians around here. Queen a’ the lesbians most of all.” She crossed her arms with a pouty finality.
Now that was an interesting tidbit, to be sure. Rowan didn’t know that Rhiannon even had confidants other than Arlene, much less ones who would consider her a friend. “I don’t want to tell you what to do, but have you told her it bothers you? Maybe she just doesn’t know.”
“Look… you.” She roughly jabbed her finger into his chest to punctuate each of her words. “That’s just… ‘s how it is, alright? You don’t need t’ presume a thing about our relationship. I like ‘er and she likes me even if she drives me up the fffffffuckin’ wall.”
“Just a suggestion, sorry. It seemed like you’re having quite a time dealing with her.” Her eyes went glassy and she struggled to hold up her head as Rowan took a turn speaking. The silence stretched out and it dipped low enough that he was concerned that she was going to fall asleep on his chest. “Er, Ms. Greenglass?”
The elf jolted and sat back up without any acknowledgement he spoke at all. “Did I tell you what she said to me? She said ‘if y’say you hate these Girians s’much, I bet you’re gonna kiss one with that attitude a’ yours!’ Like she knows me!”
Whether she was right was one thing, but it sounded like Rhiannon very much did know Greenglass. “You do seem a little too on edge around them for that, I’d say.”
“Right?! After all this time, it’s like she f’rgets about what they did to me!”
“I don’t want to bring up any bad memories, but do you want to talk about it?” He felt slimy even asking the question. It was phrased amicably and spoken like he was legitimately trying to be supportive, but it was entirely the idea of the efficient little diplomat in his head. The one that passed little notes to his mouth like ‘Ask what they did. It’s easy leverage or even blackmail material if we’re lucky.’ or ‘Find out what’s wrong with Greenglass. If we know her hangups, we could manipulate her into liking us.’ Intellectually, he knew that friendships were give-and-take, so normal people did these things without the word ‘manipulate’ even entering their minds. He did want to know more about her. Thinking the way he did was just a framework for how to understand his job and he would really love to turn it off, if only he could.
“I s’pose you at least know who I am?”
At least the half of his mind that was home to the shark-eyed diplomat gave him an excellent memory for little details like this. “A duchess’ daughter? I heard something about Sicorath earlier.”
“Mother nearly had the throne we deserv’d, but we were run outta the country at the last minute. We were thinkin’ fellow elves’d keep us safe, but ooooh no. They wasted our time f’r weeks with negoshanatin’ ‘til the assassins caught up with us. They never bother thinkin’ ‘bout anyone outside and nearly got us killed. We jus’ got lucky the last Queen took us in n’ honoured our rank.”
Then she wasn’t just a Duchess’ daughter with an ego, she was a full-blown princess in exile. That went a long way to explain her attitude if she viewed herself as equal to royalty. “That must have been quite some time ago, though. I doubt anyone who turned you away is still with us here.”
“I’m well-aware that I’d be dead fr’m old age without being tutored in magic here, thank you. They’re still a meaningless cluster of backward barbarians who sleep with pigs and wander around the forest living in tents.”
Rowan wanted to shield his eyes in the hope nobody in earshot would notice who he was. Greenglass was too far gone to control her volume, not that she would care, clearly. “I don’t know if that’s fair, but I understand your opinion. Do you just want me to handle most of the negotiating then? I have the time.”
To his relief, she was caught off-guard and shut her mouth to consider what he said. That took the immediate pressure off, but he would have to get her to agree and just shut up for both their sakes.
“All you would have to do is chime in if I miss anything, I wouldn’t want to put you in an awkward situation.”
“Why…” She squinted as she tried to formulate a complete sentence. Any train of thought wouldn’t be easy to drag through the absolute bog of liquor fogging her judgement. “Why the hell aren’t y’ this thoughtful normally? If y’ just shut up and listened t’ me you’d actually be cute instead of annoyin’!”
“Yes, I’ll take yer offer. I’m not exchangin’ a single word with buncha people who’re sleepin’ with their pigs tonight. Both ways, prob’ly.”
“Hmnh?” Greenglass made no indication that she noticed how hard the Queen was squeezing her shoulder. “Was Rowan who asked. We’re done now.”
“I hope you were being a good girl for him?”
“He was bein’ a good boy f’r me, actually.”
Rhiannon let out a loud laugh that hinted she was closer to Greenglass’ level of sobriety than she let on. “Good! I expect your office to reek of sex tomorrow.”
“Well Minister Good Boy, I’ll have to commend you as well.” The Queen dropped herself into Greenglass’ lap and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. The elf didn’t even react when she patted her cheek, so was this normal for them? “I hung around that skull a while longer like you said and people were looking at me like I was a proper Queen.”
“It’s just the polite way to express your gratitude, Your Majesty. Speaking of actually, would you like to take this next dance with me? It would seem a little odd for you not to take the floor.”
Rhiannon tossed one suede-booted foot onto his lap. “Aaah, Rowan. So polite. Unfortunately I’m drunk enough that I can’t walk straight, much less dance.”
“F’r the better,” Greenglass interjected. “You’d be unlikely to do much beside feelin’ him up in front of everyone.”
“Sssh. You’re just upset he’s not feeling you up right now. Ah! Over here, Arlene!”
The maid made her way over to their table and set a cup in front of the Queen. “Your water, Your Majesty.”
“Sophia can have it, she’s on the verge of passing out. Now Arlene dear?” Rhiannon gave the girl a saccharine smile. “I told you to have a little fun this evening, didn’t I?”
She was unimpressed, judging by the droop in her antennae. “You did, yes. You’ve also sent me out to do something for you three times now.”
Was Rhiannon too deep in her cups to notice the backtalk she was getting or did she legitimately allow her retainers to speak to her this way? Even harmless old Archduke Lambert would have pointed out the lack of respect. “As a friend, Arlene. You could’ve delegated at any time. This is the first thing I’d like that actually requires you and it should be fun!”
The sigh she let out was telling. “Who?”
“No, no. I’d like you to dance with him on my behalf, that’s all.”
“Oh. That’s it?”
“Your Majesty,” Rowan interrupted, “if she’s not interested, I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“I insist.” The polite tone carried the force of a tidal wave. She was a queen, they knew she was a queen, and the mere act of stating what she wanted meant they were obliged to make it happen.
Arlene bowed, dragged him to the dancefloor and arranged his hands into the right positions on her body. When the music started, Rowan began to lead her through the same mindless routine as before. “I’m sorry I got you wrapped up in something again.”
“It’s part of the job description.” Arlene followed his dancing flawlessly, staring neutrally at his chest as she moved. “Dancing is far from the worst thing that could have happened.”
“To be candid, I would rather go behind the pub with you if it got me out of Greenglass’ bellyaching. The dancing is fine, Minister.”
“I… I see.” The music in the background only served to highlight his awkward response with an enforced joviality.
Arlene glanced up at him with a raised eyebrow. “You’re not going to survive long around the Queen if you can’t recognise a dirty joke, you know. Unless you were planning on taking me up on it?”
“You seem like you could use a break from all that.”
“I hope you’re saving some of that gentlemanly spirit for the crowd.”
She was right. Diana and Rhiannon were the stars of the show, but even with Arlene people were staring. It all clicked when he noticed several of the elves and Dunmuirians following his lead with their own partners.
“Am I sticking out?”
“Well, I doubt anyone but our assassins and spies have seen a Gislander dance in eighty years.”
“Ah.” That explained it. If it was just novelty, he could stop-
Arlene picked things up quickly. Too quickly. He already danced with one partner, but she was following his steps by heart and she sent him a strong message with her wording. It wasn’t a threat per se, just a shrewd suggestion that let him draw his own conclusions. Though after dealing with the Paperers, it felt… trite.
Of course, there were a half-dozen people who could have him killed at a whim. What was one more? Even a fool would know that Rhiannon had ways to make him disappear without a trial, but he would follow up to be polite. Arlene would be embarrassed if he left things at ‘hm’ and failed to set her up for whatever variation of ‘how dangerous I am depends on you’ she had planned.
“Should I be worried about you then?”
“Are you going to keep trying to get on my good side?”
Blackmail. She didn’t strike him as the type, but it was a classic. Of course, you could fill a large book with counter-strategies. Specifically the book titled A Beginner’s Guide to the Fine Arts of Blackmail and Threats Vol. II: On Avoidance. He read the book cover to cover several times as part of his tutelage as a diplomat and a copy belonging to him was sitting in his family home, somewhere. “You didn’t need to be an assassin to warrant a gift or two already. Maids deserve a treat now and then to make their duties easier.” Subtly guilt her, then imply that the best she was going to get out of him was snacks.
“I suppose I could tell you my dance teacher was in her two hundreds, then. This is the end of the song, so you’ll want to do the dip now.” The hint of a self-satisfied smile crept into Arlene’s face as they finished off the dance. Compared to her usual purposefully neutral expression, even the tiny gesture was captivating. “I’m sure the Queen will be pleased enough with that. I’ll leave you to your adoring public now.”
Arlene was gone long before the polite stampede of women asking him for a dance arrived.
Rowan leaned against a convenient punchbowl table to rest his aching feet. He attended his fair share of balls, but never had he been asked to dance with so many people back-to-back. Maybe it was time to call it a night with dancing. Right. He resolved to turn down the next person who-
“My my, I didn’t expect to see you here,” came a teasing voice to his left. “Why don’t we have ourselves a dance? It’s been a while since we last spoke.”
The colour drained from Rowan’s face as he saw who it was. Out of all the guests, he got the one woman he would be hesitant to deny.
“Ms. Cavallari! I’d be delighted.” A bead of sweat ran down his forehead, though it wasn’t certain if it was from exertion, fear or the dread at the conversation he was about to have. Despite his trepidation, he had to admit she was stunning in her emerald dress. It was far more conservative than Diana’s, but the open shoulders exposed just enough of her skin to be fashionably daring. He expected more jewellery, but her necklace and signet ring were ornate enough that they invited further inspection. It was an undeniable shame that he would never get the chance, since he was unwilling to stare at her chest for an extended period of time, regardless of the explanation.
Cavallari smiled as she noticed Rowan drinking her outfit in. “I wouldn’t dream of missing the first Girian delegation in decades. Truth be told, I’ve anticipated this for quite some time.”
“Lumber, I assume?”
“Precisely. Not just any lumber, though. This deal will be very important for the guild moving forward.” She took Rowan’s hand and allowed him to bring her to the dance floor. He was about to take the lead again when Cavallari reinforced her grip and pulled them closer together. “Please, allow me.”
Rowan was relieved to not be the centre of attention anymore and let Cavallari lead them into a forgettable dance that helped them blend in with the rest of the crowd. As they settled into a rhythm, he decided to push the conversation along and get the inevitable over with. “So, what is it about Girian wood that makes it that special for your business?”
“Oh, I’m sure you know the price alone is worth the trouble. Of course, our research team has their hearts set on a specific type of wood from the region.” She rested her head against Rowan’s shoulder and closed her eyes.
“I see. Stronger paper?”
“I would have to kill you if you found out the specifics. You have my respect, but I don’t give out business secrets to gang leaders, no matter how dashing they are.”
“Aha…” Rowan would have found the cliche line more amusing if it didn’t come from her mouth. There was no telling if she was serious or not. “I’ll try and get us a good deal on everything, then. Did you get my letter about Dr. Stowell?”
“As I was sitting down for lunch. Are you sure about her?”
“I think the product has potential and paper turned out quite well for packaging.”
“That’s not what I mean. As long as she pays up, I don’t care whether she makes money or not.” She swung them through an unfamiliar step and he nearly tripped over her feet. “…I’m talking about her character.”
“Well… she’s a bit disorganised but I really do think she’s on to something, though. Her operation is going to be a research centre so someone is bound to make sure payment arrives on time. I wasn’t just suggesting it to fix her problem with the Institute and the local noble.”
“Interesting. Are you expecting a referral fee from me?”
Rowan glanced down and found her examining his face with a sharp eye. It was really all part of the game, wasn’t it? She would turn him down if he just said ‘oh nothing’ because that meant he was going to use this moment as leverage against her. “I don’t want anything from you but a favour when the time comes. You’re a powerful ally, after all.”
“You’re asking for something worth more than a pile of coins, then. Bold of you.”
“If this all works out. I wouldn’t want to sour our relationship over a failed business deal.”
“Hm. I’ll reserve the right to decline if it doesn’t suit me, you know.”
No surprise, considering what a savvy businesswoman she was. There would be no promises before the deal was absolutely solid. “I’d only ask for something that would benefit both of us, anyway. Your guild might have a chance to expand into new markets.”
“You’ve whispered enough honeyed words to me, Rowan. I’ll only promise to consider your offer when the time comes.”
“I’m glad you’ll go that far for me.” It was time to ask the question. He racked his brain for the most diplomatic way to put ‘the Queen thinks I had sex with you’ to a crime lord. “Could I ask an expert her opinion?” She raised her eyebrow but let him continue. “I find myself in need of an alibi for my colleagues in the palace.”
“The best bet would have been to make sure they never suspected you, you know.”
“That’s a little difficult, considering where I come from.”
“Fair. Go on.”
“The Queen and my Deputy are quite suspicious of what I did to deserve a gift from you. Her Majesty is quite happy to write it off as a romantic encounter but she’s told me I need to give her specifics.” His tight throat finally relaxed now that the hard part was done. “I was planning on telling her that I spent the evening flirting with you but it didn’t go anywhere.”
“I would tell her you slept with me to get on my good side, personally.”
“I- er… really? I didn’t want to implicate you in anything like that.”
“It makes sense from an outside perspective. If I didn’t understand what you were like at my negotiating table, I would assume that you were nothing but a weak man out of his depth and desperate to please. Do they know anything about your real personality or activities?”
“No, I don’t think so.” She was complimenting him, but it felt like a hammer blow to his heart. Was that what she thought he was when he wasn’t playing the tough guy?
“Go ahead, then. It makes sense for the simpering diplomat to drag himself to the most powerful guild in the city, let the guildmistress walk all over him, then hope he’s secured something valuable for Gisland.”
The word ‘simpering’ was going to be lodged in his ego like a splinter for the rest of his life. She was right, though. Having paper flood into Gisland without paying exorbitant smugglers’ fees was on his list of things he wanted to accomplish. “Right. That makes perfect sense to me, then. I’ll try not to say anything too strange about you.”
The merciful winding down of the music heralded the end of his torture at long last. Even scoring two wins with Cavallari was second on his mind after sitting down and having something to drink. He thanked her again and took his leave to finally rest.
Arlene apparently managed to succeed in sneaking off somewhere since Rowan found Rhiannon unaccompanied at the table. Unfortunately, she didn’t stop drinking and was noticeably wobbling as she toyed with an empty wine glass.
“Your Majesty?” He ventured.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m recalling why my mother hated trade negotiations, at least,” Rhiannon twirled the stem of her glass between her fingers to occupy herself. “I’ve spoken with what feels like every guildmistress in the city and more than half of the elves while you’ve been off dancing.”
“People value keeping up appearances. Dancing is really just an excuse to show off to the crowd while you have a conversation.”
“I am aware of that much, but nobody ever told me that running a country at peace would be this boring. I’ve won battles in less time than we’ve scheduled to have dinner and sit about listening to music.” She swayed precariously to one side but righted herself before Rowan made an attempt to catch her. “They’re lovely people, but it’s exhausting. You know?”
“Of course. We all have our roles to play, even if I have to dance for hours and some poor lumberjack has to politely introduce himself to a queen who’s crossed swords with more people than he’s ever met.”
“If Sophia and I had your patience, I would be the empress of the world.” She chuckled to herself. “Or I’d hear fewer complaints, at least.”
Greenglass stumbled out from behind a nearby tree and made her way toward them, though her high-heeled boots did her no favours on the uneven ground.
“A-are we…” She balled up her fists and grimaced at Rhiannon. “Must I do this in front of him?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” The Queen tapped her fingers on the table. “Actually, do you know what? I’ve changed my mind. He can have them.”
“What?! I-!” It was difficult to see on her tanned skin, but Greenglass’ cheeks were redder than usual.
“Give me what, sorry?” Rowan asked.
She grabbed his hand and pushed something into it without meeting his eye. “Just… just shut up.”
The Queen watched over his shoulder as he opened his hand. The crumpled fabric unfolded into a pair of white lace panties with a rose motif that matched the rest of Greenglass’ outfit.
“Of course not! You’re the one always threatening to check if they match! Don’t think I’ve forgotten about what you did when we were teenagers.”
Rhiannon let out an unladylike snort. “What an interesting series of facts Rowan knows now. Wouldn’t you say, Rowan?”
“I, er… I think matching all her clothes makes sense. She’s a very fashionable lady after all.” He stumbled for an answer that wouldn’t humiliate her any further. It was just difficult when he was trying to avoid picturing the paired underwear for each outfit she wore to the office while simultaneously worrying about how he was supposed to be holding a warm pair of panties.
“Well, she can have them back tomorrow, since she ignored my very specific request to keep her distaste for our new trading partners to herself.”
Rowan froze up. Was this really going to happen on his first trade negotiation in the country? Right. Drinking too much and making mistakes wasn’t uncommon in noble circles and Rhiannon knew it was Greenglass who’d done it. Even if the negotiation fell through, he probably wouldn’t be blamed. Maybe there was even the chance for some goodwill here.
“Do I need to smooth things out? I’ve been too busy to drink, so I should be-”
The Queen wrapped her arm around his shoulders and patted his chest. “He’s even willing to clean up your messes, Sophia. He really is a good boy.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty, but do I-”
“Shh.” She mashed a finger against his lips with much less grace than she intended. “I think you deserve a reward.”
“I don’ fink tha’s really necessary.” Rowan spoke through gritted teeth since there was a real concern Rhiannon would stick her finger inside, intentionally or not.
“Nonsense.” He was startled when she hiked up her dress and climbed up onto the table. She took a deep breath in and shouted loudly enough that even the musicians stopped playing to listen to her. “Would everyone gather around me here? I have an announcement to make!”
Rowan fumbled to shove Greenglass’ underwear into a decorative pouch on his belt as people started crowding toward the Queen at her request. He could see Diana at the front, of course. Cavallari seemed to be among her fellow guild leaders and Arlene was hiding off to one side, though she was tensed up and ready to hurry in.
“Thank you for coming, everyone. As many of you know, I appointed Rowan my minister a short time ago. Since then, I’ve found him exceptionally reliable.”
The crowd began to chatter. Diana was keen to voice her approval, but the real honour was Cavallari quietly nodding. Rhiannon let them continue on until the droning developed a tone of endorsement. Even if it was just to placate her, this was now a Good Thing in the eyes of the audience.
“That is the reason that I am absolutely pleased at this point in our relationship to publicly acknowledge his efforts. Come up here, won’t you?”
“On the table?”
“Where else?” She held out a hand and yanked him up.
The sheer number of eyes on him made his stomach bunch up, especially when the crowd clapped for him as though he was a much-anticipated circus animal.
“And on your knees, please.” She stroked his hair fondly as she continued speaking. “We owe him a debt of gratitude for ending the war and being the person who first discovered the plot against the crown and people of this country. Since then, he’s bloodlessly solved a conflict among the military, assisted one of his fellow ministers in solving a difficult magical situation, provided me with excellent advice and I have every expectation that he’ll wrap up the coming trade negotiations to everyone’s satisfaction. Isn’t that right?”
“Thank you for your confidence, Your Majesty.” Gratitude wasn’t exactly the first thing on his mind, given the now-crushing weight of expectation made it feel like his lungs were giving out.
“A good boy indeed, as your deputy so helpfully pointed out.” Rhiannon seemed to be in a world of her own, wobbling back and forth in a haze. Panic set in when she casually brushed over his lips with her thumb and giggled to herself. There was no way, right? There was a crowd! In the worst-case scenario, he was prepared to do what she asked of him in the bedroom, but that was privately. If he was forced to do it in front of all these people, his life was as good as over, never mind the negotiations.
She snickered at his rapidly-shifting eyes and reached one hand to the sky in anticipation. At first, the flash of light flying to her hand looked like a lightning bolt. The Queen’s weapon was a famous one, but the rumours of ‘glowing blue magic sword’ didn’t do it justice. It was an ancient design with a curling pommel and a long blade in bronze that shone like gold where it wasn’t decorated with fine silver wirework. Most strikingly, a blue fire covered it, flickering and spitting like the sword was coated in pitch.
Rhiannon wheeled the sword expertly, despite her intoxication. If this wasn’t an execution… Wait, was he being knighted? He had no idea or interest in fighting, to say nothing of the ability to cast the magic that was expected of the witches with the title in Dunmuir. Nobles occasionally knighted each other as a mark of respect, but they were already expected to fight in wars. Would he need to arm troops? He couldn’t fight against Gisland in good faith and didn’t even-
The ‘yes’ caught in his throat and all that escaped was a cross between a cough and a ‘hm.’
The horrible reek of burning hair and the pain he expected to follow were mysteriously absent when the blue flames of the sword touched his shoulder. That was a relief at least.
“Do you swear to live with the vigour and dogged loyalty of youth?”
…Not bad so far. That was an oath he wouldn’t mind swearing, especially since it was pleasantly non-specific and he could writhe his way out of it with the right words. “I do.”
She tapped the sword on his other shoulder. “Do you swear to be as a m- father to your people and protect them from harm?”
A tap on the first shoulder again. “Do you swear to live wisely, to be shrewd and kind in equal measure like our honoured grandmothers? …And grandfathers as well.”
“Then let these be the first blows you take for our people and the only ones to go unanswered. Rise, Sir Rowan.” When he stood, she laid an amicable hand on his shoulder and turned him to face the crowd. “Everyone, I’d like you to meet the Knight-Commander of the new Order of the Iron Wand. I’ll leave it to all of you to call him ‘sir’ and find out which wand turns to iron.”
She burst out laughing and a few people in the crowd chuckled once they caught the joke. Rowan could believe that Rhiannon would drunkenly knight someone as an elaborate sex joke, absolutely. The disappointment really came more from the fact that he took her absolutely seriously until the punchline and put in the intellectual work of thinking about what his future would be if he became a knight. It would probably be embarrassing to introduce himself to people and have them respond with ‘oh, from the order of the twitching wood or whatever it was?’ On the bright side, maybe that would stop people like Diana from calling him ‘Hero.’
Clumsy from all the wine and excitement, the Queen would have face-planted onto the cobbles if Arlene didn’t dive in to catch her when she tried to step off the table. “Your Majesty, I think you really ought to take your leave now. You’re well into being obnoxiously drunk.”
“Do you know what?” Rhiannon clumsily rubbed her cheek and nearly put out her eye with a thumb. “You’re right. Hold this, won’t you?”
Arlene gritted her teeth and strained not to curse when the Queen took off her tiara and handed it to her. Apparently devoid of magic now, the previously floating gems dropped to the ground and ricocheted off the flagstones. She dove for the large ruby bound in gold wire first, then scrambled to pick up the rest of the rainbow of stones before anyone developed ideas about their value.
“Alright everyone, I hope to see you all in the near future. Have a lovely night!” To say Rhiannon flew away would be akin to saying that racehorses could move at a bit of a jog. Even the word sailed would require a well-rigged ship going fifteen knots with a tailwind. Rocketed was perhaps the most apt. She zoomed back toward the palace at incredible speed and was out of view almost instantly.
…Did he see a dust cloud from one of the towers?1738 Views