“Ressa, how do you suppose an evil tyrant laughs?”
“I have no idea, milady.”
Magnolia frowned mildly as she sat on her pink couch, nibbling at a jam tart.
“It’s just that I’d like to be as authentic as possible. If I’m truly a—what did that girl call me? A ‘cold-hearted tyrannical bitch’, I might as well enjoy myself.”
“As opposed to how you loathe existence in general?”
Ressa stood behind Magnolia, hands calmly folded, watching her mistress snack. Magnolia smiled.
“Yes, well, I imagine tyrants enjoy excess to the fullest. One would hope that a tyranny allows for such indulgences. But enough about the children from another world. If they’re alive, they can stay that way. They may return to one of my holdings—if they can conduct themselves properly around my servants, that is. Servants are not slaves, Ressa. They are not expected to fawn over adolescent children as if they were royalty. I would remind them of that.”
“I shall make a note. Putting aside children for now, Lady Reinhart—we have received a quick response from all the nobles you have selected for Emperor Godart’s gathering in a week’s time.”
“Ah, yes, that.”
Magnolia paused in eating her tarts and a sour expression crossed her face. She half-turned in her seat to the second [Maid] standing behind her.
“Sacra, tell me. Do you think Laken Godart will refuse the invitation outright, or play along?”
“I can only speculate, Lady Reinhart.”
Sacra, clothed and looking like a perfect [Maid], bowed her head. She was not wearing her adventurer’s guise or holding the mace she preferred to use in combat, but Magnolia was quite sure she could use a vase or something similar to cause quite a bit of damage. Magnolia Reinhart smiled at her. The right [Maid] for the right job was something her grandmother had always said. As Magnolia recalled, her grandmother used to employ Selphid [Assassins] and had at least one Minotaur [Butler].
“Speculate away, Sacra. You have met the man in person. What was your impression?”
Sacra was silent for a moment. Magnolia saw her eyes flicker as Sacra recalled her time undercover, posing as the Silver-rank adventurer known as Odveig. She had many identities. It was a shame that Odveig had been outed as a spy, but such was the cost of her work. At last Sacra nodded.
“Laken Godart. He is quite intelligent and cautious. He is aware of far more than his blindness would indicate and he is willing to listen to others’ opinions. If he has a flaw, it is his inexperience.”
“As would befit someone coming from another world. If that is his identity. Go on.”
“I believe he would entertain the gathering simply to avoid offending so many noble families. However…he might be swayed if one of his advisors objected strenuously.”
“And of those advisors he has…a former [Farmer], a [Witch], and Lady Rie Valerund.”
Ressa grimaced lightly.
“It would be Lady Rie who would object. She was quite opposed to your presence when you two met, Lady Magnolia.”
Magnolia raised her eyebrows.
“You saw that too, Ressa? She hid it well, but she quite hates me, doesn’t she? Hates and fears—an unfortunate combination. However, she seems to have flocked to Emperor Godart’s camp so I doubt she would sabotage him quite so easily.”
“It might be for the best. Her aiding him is a part of your plan, isn’t it?”
Ressa stared at her mistress. Magnolia nibbled another tart and nodded absently.
“It is. Lady Rie is at least adept enough to know that cancelling the gathering outright is a bad move. She will undoubtedly attempt to help Emperor Laken deal with the situation. And therein lies the test.”
In some ways Ressa knew Magnolia quite well, having grown up around her all her life. But where the two differed were their skillsets. Ressa was good at serving tea, managing a household full of servants, and cutting throats. Magnolia was, when you got down to it, a people person. She played political games like she ate tarts—often, and with quite a bit of expertise. She could see how events would play together where Ressa could not.
Magnolia smiled as she turned to look at her [Head Maid].
“Of course. It’s all a test. Lady Rie will help Laken to spite me—or to curry herself favor. It doesn’t matter. She will do her utmost to prepare carefully for my trap. She will be quite poisonous to our good [Emperor], I think.”
“How? Did you threaten her? Manipulate her with a Skill?”
“I didn’t have to. It’s simple, Ressa. Lady Rie will cause more harm than good just by being as helpful as possible. The key is whether or not Laken Godart notices this, and how he represents himself at the party. That is why Sacra is going, and Lady Bethal and Thomast as well.”
“To evaluate him if he fails.”
“Or if he does too well. There is more than one way to fail a test. With that said—Sacra.”
Sacra stepped forwards as Magnolia gently pried a ring off her middle finger. She handed it to Sacra and Ressa eyed the ring with serious misgivings. Sacra, noticing, accepted the ring very gingerly.
“I’m giving you this ring in case all else fails. Twist it and aim, Sacra. It’s not hard—just aim at a target and ah, don’t stand too close.”
“Magnolia, that ring could destroy—”
“Ah! It’s just in case.”
Magnolia raised a finger as Sacra held the ring away from herself and looked at Ressa. The older [Maid] made a note to tell Sacra exactly what it did. She prayed no one would recognize it—Magnolia’s wearing it was an open display of power and a threat. Sacra wearing it would be a declaration of war.
Bringing a ring like that into another noble’s home was tantamount to bringing an elite [Assassin] in with you—worse, since all you had to do was point the ring and wait for it to destroy half the building you were standing in.
“Just in case. Worst comes to worse and all that. Either Laken Godart proves himself, or…”
Magnolia left it at that. Ressa nodded to Sacra and the other [Maid] edged out the door. Magnolia sighed as she hunted for another cherry tart on the tray filled with snacks. She mumbled to herself as she did, a sign of stress. She’d lost weight over the last few days with the Goblin Lord’s army on the march, despite her stress snacking.
“The Goblin Lord is headed straight for the Great Chieftain of the Goblins. If he joins his forces with this—this Tremborag, his army might grow strong enough to destroy major cities. You know this, Tyrion. Why are you hesitating to attack? This isn’t like you. What is your plan?”
“He might be building his army further, waiting for the opportune moment—”
“Tyrion? Nonsense! He has an army. Why grow it unless he intends to completely crush the Goblin Lord’s army without a hint of a struggle? He could already win. And this [Emperor]—”
Magnolia broke off, sighed, and shook her head. She looked up at Ressa.
“I’m tired of dancing to other people’s tunes, Ressa. Truly tired of it. Laken Godart has one chance to prove he’s worthy of his class. If not I’ll destroy him and his empire where it stands.”
“Is that wise?”
Magnolia paused, a cherry tart halfway towards her mouth.
“I’d like to think so, Ressa. But we’ll just wait and see, won’t we? How long did I give him?”
“Is it time yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?”
“I think we’re early. We—”
I wake up with a start. For a second, the voices keep going in my head, but they grow distant and I can’t recall what was spoken as I open my eyes and look around. That dream. I know it was important, but I still can’t recall what was said. And now I’m not going to. I sit up a bit and realize I was slumped over in my throne, dozing.
“I’m sorry, Wiskeria. What were you saying?”
Wiskeria smiles ruefully and adjusts her pointed hat. It’s late. I rub at my head and sit up straighter, although I’m not in the public eye for the moment. The ‘throne room’ I’m sitting in is empty save for Wiskeria, Prost, and Lady Rie. We’ve been discussing Magnolia Reinhart’s sudden invitation—well, demands, really—all day. For a little bit I’d hoped this was just a threat or trick of some kind. But apparently, Magnolia Reinhart means everything she says. This gathering is going to happen, whether I like it or not.
“How many letters have we received today, Lady Rie? Seventeen?”
“Twenty three. That would account for almost all the nobles attending—there are a few families—and I believe the rest will arrive tomorrow via City Runner at the latest.”
Lady Rie’s voice is strained from talking into the night, but she sounds far more elegant and composed than I feel. I turn my head towards where I sense Prost standing.
“So that’s where we are. Mister Prost, we have a small army of the local nobility descending on Riverfarm in a week’s time. They will be expecting a banquet and perhaps lodgings for the night. It’s a social gathering, which means they’re coming here to appraise me and my empire. All of this is taking place at Lady Magnolia’s request. Lady Rie believes it’s a trap or a trick of some kind meant to embarrass me. Your thoughts?”
I hear Prost gulp. It’s an unfair question to ask him, really. He might be a [Steward] but he was a [Farmer] all his life. Still, he rises to the challenge with awkward pride in his rustic voice.
“Trap or not, it seems you have little choice, your majesty. I’m not expert as to the games that nobles play, but Lady Reinhart is a powerful woman. If she wants a gathering, well, why not entertain them nobles and show them as much hospitality as they like?”
“The problem isn’t the gathering. It’s what Magnolia Reinhart has planned. She might be trying to embarrass Emperor Laken, or force an incident at the banquet. It’s risky, and I have no idea what she wants out of this!”
Rie cuts in, her voice frustrated. She’s been explaining this all night, ever since we got the letters. I sense Wiskeria shift and look towards her.
“We don’t know what Magnolia Reinhart desires. But we’ve debated for hours about the same thing. We can either accept the invitation—not that we have a choice—or cancel the gathering.”
“Which will cause trouble.”
I don’t bother to turn my head as I sense Lady Rie nodding. Wiskeria nods as well.
“In that case, what choice is there? As Mister Prost says, we must entertain the nobles.”
“Not as easily said as done.”
Lady Rie sighs. I nod, but Wiskeria’s summed the matter up nicely. I clear my throat softly and all heads turn towards me.
“I agree, but we have no choice in the matter, Lady Rie. The nobles are coming in a week’s time and I for one don’t see the merits in debating why Magnolia Reinhart has done this any longer, or what she has planned. For now we must ready Riverfarm. Can it be done?”
I have no idea. But Lady Rie nods decisively as all heads turn towards her. I wish I could make out all the details of her face with my not-sight. But I can hear the determination in her voice.
“It can. It will be difficult, but I am a [Lady] of the realm and I have hosted a few small gatherings at my estate and attended larger ones. I will begin advising your majesty on preparations for the gathering at once. I realize it will be an imposition, but there is much work to be done.”
“Ah, of course. Food to be prepared, entertainment, and so on. Not to mention—houses for the nobles? I suppose we could move people out or try and build a few in the week we have left.”
I grimace as I think of all that we’ll have to do. Not for the first time I find myself grateful that Lady Rie’s helping. I sense the woman shift and after a pause she speaks.
“Yes, your majesty. But not just that. I fear that Mister Prost will have to devote all of his workers to building a reception hall at the very least. This ah, throne room is all very well for audiences with other towns and cities, but we will need a building four times as large to hold a proper banquet.”
I hear Prost draw in a breath sharply and I sit up on my throne. Wiskeria mutters what sounds like a curse word. I turn my head towards Lady Rie.
“Are you serious?”
“I think we’re early. We shouldn’t be here!”
She was serious. As soon as I rise with odd voices bouncing around my head, it’s all business. I find Lady Rie already coordinating people in the center of Riverfarm by the time Durene, Gamel and I reach the village square.
“We’ll need to clear a wide space for the banquet hall. It should be built out of the highest-quality lumber available. And furnishings—I will put in an order to Invrisil as I doubt any of the local cities will have the quality required for such an order.”
Lady Rie is talking to Prost, and from the way his shoulders are tensed I can already see that there’s a lot to do and not enough time to do it in. Both turn and bow as I approach.
“Do you truly believe we can build a banquet hall in seven days, Lady Rie? Let alone furnish it?”
I sense her pursing her lips.
“It’s not a question of ‘if’, but must, your majesty. Hosting a dinner outdoors would certainly be acceptable, but not if the implication is that it is due to lack of an appropriate facility to begin with. Not to mention, we must impress the nobles coming here. I am afraid an outdoor event with a village in view would not be…”
“To say the least.”
Lady Rie nods and I sense Durene shift by my side. I haven’t really asked Durene about Lady Rie—they haven’t talked that much as far as I know. Of course, Lady Rie is a [Lady] and Durene is often helping out around the village. Right now Lady Rie is too busy to speak with anyone but me and Prost hurries away to get her ambitious project underway.
“Speaking of decorations, Emperor Laken, I’m afraid we must consider a large investment in goods from Invrisil. Ordering so much so quickly will be costly, but I am told you have connections in the Merchant’s Guild that might be willing to offer you a discount?”
How does she know that? I nod, trying to keep up. It’s not an hour past dawn yet and my head feels stuffed!
“I do. But what will we be buying? Chairs? Cushions? Drapes? We have [Carpenters]—”
“—Who make chairs adequate for sitting, but not dining, your majesty. At the very least we should add cushions. The necessary goods will be everything from decorations to silverware, I fear. I did not bring more than a few sets of silverware from my mansion before it was destroyed, and there is nothing worse than a mismatched set so we shall have to order enough for all the guests—”
I turn my head blankly towards Lady Rie. I sense her nodding.
“Of course, your majesty. Have you—have you not attended a banquet before in your homeland?”
I haven’t. Obviously not. And while I know that Durene knows the truth, I don’t feel like spreading the fact that I’m from another world. So I lie.
“I’m afraid that my memory of dining and so on is limited, Lady Rie. What I experience is ah, very little compared to others owing to my blindness.”
I gesture towards my face. Lady Rie starts.
“Oh! I most humbly beg your pardon, your majesty. I—I hadn’t considered.”
“No, no. Please don’t worry. But I lacked any sort of vision growing up, and my ah, ability to sense my surroundings did not manifest itself until this year, so…”
“I see. Please excuse me, your majesty. Well, I will gratefully fill in any—gaps in your understanding. You see, cutlery…”
Flustered, Lady Rie stumbles over her words and I breathe an internal sigh of relief. It’s not good to lie, but people do get uncomfortable when I bring up being blind for fear they might offend me. Good to know I can use that as an excuse for not being up to date with all the conventions of my rank.
However, as Lady Rie goes on I realize that there’s a lot I don’t know. Not just about the social dictates of hosting nobility, but everything from how many forks someone needs to eat a salad to how many waiting staff we’ll need to serve food—and how they should be dressed. I nod along desperately as Lady Rie goes on and on.
And now I find myself stuck. For the first time, I have no idea what to do. It’s like I’ve suddenly run up against a brick wall in my head. Because for all I’m an [Emperor], for all I have Skills and come from another world and want the best for Riverfarm and my people and so on, I’m lost. Because I have no idea how to host a party. Or a gathering. Or any kind of social event at all.
Let’s be clear: hosting soirees is not a skill most blind people acquire. Having a friend over? I can get snacks out, or make sure there’s a meal ready. I could host someone for a day or two. But this?
“Forks, Lady Rie? What’s wrong with the forks we have?”
“They are not what I would give a [Lord] to eat with, your majesty. We have a lack of good cutlery in general. I believe we’ll be able to get by with some well-honed knives for serving, but we simply must have appropriate utensils for our guests.”
“I understand it’s not elegant, but what’s the difference?”
Lady Rie pauses.
“…I believe it would be easier to show you in person, your majesty.”
She takes me to her home and brings out some of her silver cutlery while Durene gets some of the village’s utensils. I find myself holding a wooden fork, which is more of two long prongs, a metal fork more like the ones back home, and a delicate silver one engraved with detail.
“Damnit. I had no idea—I completely forgot about forks!”
It’s not like I have a habit of touching forks, after all! And while the difference in quality might be obvious to someone with eyes, it’s only the weight of the fork and the shaping of the metal that speaks to my fingertips. Lady Rie’s fork does feel far more expensive, but again, I can’t do anything but compare the metalwork of the forks with my fingers. I can’t see silver and appreciate how much better it is than pot metal!
Frustrated, I run my fingers along the fork, feeling the difference with my fingertips. And yet, when I compare the two in my mind with my [Emperor]’s senses, they’re almost indistinguishable. One works as well as the other, but it’s this kind of detail that I lack.
“It seems as though my lack of sight is a hindrance here, Lady Rie.”
“Only slightly, your majesty. But if you would advise me on your nation’s culture of dining and etiquette, I might adjust the banquet to suit your tastes.”
I pause and bite the inside of my lip. My culture? Back home I’d rather just microwave something than eat expensively. I choose my words carefully as I reply, handing the silver fork to Durene who takes it gingerly in her hands.
“The nation that was my home…honestly, Lady Rie, my nation was so different from this one that you would find it very alien. It is impossible to compare the things to which I was accustomed to here—especially because I was blind. Riverfarm meets all of my needs quite well, and I am content with that. However, if you think more needs to be done, I am willing to listen, although my input will be shallow.”
“I see. In that case, I would be delighted to go over my list of preparations with you.”
Lady Rie puts a soft hand on my arm. I sense Durene stirring and nod.
“Thank you. I hope we have the coin for all of this?”
“We may have to borrow, Emperor Laken. Or perhaps not. It depends on how many things can be done without. Tables for instance—I had a thought. If your [Carpenters] can design a long table and it can be engraved and polished in a week’s time, it might well serve in place of a purchased one.”
“No doubt. Can we do the same for chairs?”
“I will make inquiries at once.”
Lady Rie rises and leaves her cottage. I ball my fists up in frustration. Lady Magnolia Reinhart. If there was ever a good way to frustrate me, planning an elegant banquet I can’t see would be a good start.
I turn as Durene gently puts the fork on the table. My half-Troll lover looks at me. I try to put a smile on my face.
“Durene? I’m sorry. I know you probably want to help out around the village. I’ll coordinate things with Lady Rie.”
“Well…I could stay with you today.”
“Just for today. You know. While you’re with her.”
There’s a possessive note in Durene’s voice that reminds me of when she met Ryoka. I pause.
“Durene, Lady Rie is—a subject.”
“And a [Lady]. Laken, she’s flirting with you!”
I did wonder. It’s hard to tell. Someone touching me on the arm isn’t unusual, but Lady Rie did act unusual around me. But then, I’m not used to flirting in general. Back on Earth, the people I knew weren’t exactly adept enough to flirt. It was more straightforward. But Durene clearly thinks Rie’s flirting and isn’t exactly keen to let me stay with her.
“Durene, I’ll be fine. I’ll talk with Lady Rie, but it doesn’t matter.”
“Because I’m with you, remember?”
I hold her hand. Embarrassed, Durene squeezes my hand gently and flees. I stand up as Lady Rie comes back with a group of [Carpenters] only too willing to make however many tables I need. They just need, oh, instructions on what the tables should look like, how long they should be, how tall, what kind of wood they need to use, and so on. I sigh and get to work with Lady Rie. She doesn’t flirt. But she does touch my arm twice more throughout the day.
“We’ll get in trouble!”
“Let’s go, hurry!”
Who’s in trouble? Why are they hurrying? Away? I open my eyes, annoyed that I can’t understand. I get out of bed with Durene, walk down into the village to see what’s happening, and immediately sense a problem.
Over the last day, the giant banquet hall that Lady Rie envisioned has been going up. Quite quickly too—they laid the foundations in one day and began dragging freshly-cut parts over to create a scaffold. That was how it was when I went to sleep, and there was a night team working on it. Only, during the night the scaffolding for the building has collapsed and I can already here shouting going on around Prost. He hurries over to me the instant he sees me.
“There’s trouble, your majesty.”
“An accident at the site. Two of the night workers—a [Builder] and [Carpenter], were working on adding a section and it collapsed. Neither one was hurt, but they both claim it was the other’s fault.”
I rub at my hair, groaning internally.
“One says it was an unsteady section that wasn’t checked properly. The other says that everything tore loose because the first fellow wasn’t paying attention. They both blame each other and got into it.”
“Can you tell who’s right?”
I hear Prost’s grimace.
“No, your majesty. I’ve told both of the men to take a break and let tempers cool. They’re both good workers and they’re both furious over the delay—it’s not so much the time lost as the fact that it could have been avoided. I’ll get everyone back to work, unless you’d like to judge the situation yourself?”
And do what? I have no idea who’s right and I’m no building expert. I had no idea what the difference between screws and nails were until I was fifteen, because my parents were too afraid that I’d hurt myself touching them! I shake my head.
“I trust your judgment, Mister Prost.”
He nods and hurries off. I sigh. I’ve been doing a lot of trusting of judgment recently. I don’t have a choice, but it means that I can’t do my one job—namely, deciding things as [Emperor].
Case in point. Later that day I find Prost and Lady Rie coming up to me with another problem, this one directly related to the nobles attending the gathering.
“A lot of the families are worried about having their daughters serve at the banquet, your majesty. They’re afraid that they might be asked to bed the [Lords] attending or be carried off.”
I turn to Lady Rie. Her tone is acerbic.
“And I told Mister Prost and the other families that was nonsense, your majesty. They need not fear for their daughter’s chastity—”
“Chastity’s the least of it! What’s to stop one of the young lordlings attending the ball from carrying a young girl off—or a [Lady] doing the same to a young lad and having him murdered to hide the evidence?”
“Mister Prost! Those are rumors—”
“I know a village not two miles from here that had that happen to the [Headman]’s son—”
The two begin arguing and I have to raise my voice to get them to quiet down and explain what they’re arguing about. When they come out and say it at last I get a bad feeling in my stomach.
[Lords] carrying off village girls who catch their eyes. [Ladies] finding young men to have an affair with and killing them to hide the evidence. Apparently it’s happened in the past. I recall something similar from my world. Droit du seigneur in French, or the medieval ‘right to a first night’ practiced among the nobility. Apparently that law doesn’t exist in Izril, and Lady Rie is insistent that nothing else happens either.
“Your majesty, I understand Mister Prost’s worries, but they are groundless. Such events never happen—and if they did, it was one or two truly depraved individuals from decades past—and it would not occur on your lands, not when these nobles are coming to visit you! They wouldn’t dare offend you!”
“No? And what about if they used their privilege and station to force a girl into saying yes?”
Prost folds his arm as he glares at Lady Rie. For the first time he and she seem to be at odds, and Lady Rie seems exasperated by the argument.
“Any girl may refuse, of course—those rights are sacred, and these nobles live next to Lady Magnolia Reinhart herself! She does not stand for any coercion of the young or unwilling. That is one of the few things she does well. The Reinharts have always maintained order among the aristocracy and meted out justice.”
“Too little too late. That won’t save a broken-hearted girl and her love.”
“She can say no—”
“To a [Lord]? Without bringing down wrath on her family?”
I have to hold up my hands to stem the argument again. When Prost and Rie are quiet, I look at Lady Rie.
“Lady Rie, can you assure me that the things Mister Prost is describing would never take place?”
She hesitates as Prost folds his arms.
“Well—I cannot pretend that some instances of this behavior never occurred, but at this gathering I am sure any young woman would be safe—”
“Mister Prost. How often is it that this sort of thing occurs? Are there truly that many instances of it, or are all these rumors just that—rumors of someone in a village being carried off by a noble?”
“Well, sire…I never did hear the village’s name.”
Rie sounds exasperated. Prost flares up again.
“Just because it never happened in recent years, doesn’t mean it won’t at this gathering! There are young men among the nobles attending, and the families here are worried, your majesty. And with good cause!”
What a mess. And again, I don’t know what the best solution is. I turn to Lady Rie.
“Could we address the issue? Tell the nobles attending that the serving staff are off-limits for…everything?”
Rie inhales sharply.
“Simply mentioning that would cause great offense, your majesty! I can assure you it will not occur, and I would stake my reputation on that fact.”
“But the people are worried. There’ll be more than one family that hides their daughters on the day, and I’ll stake my class on that fact too.”
Prost turns to glare at Lady Rie and I try not to clutch at my head. What am I supposed to do? Both are looking towards me.
“Emperor Laken, your decision?”
“Your majesty? What should I tell the families?”
I don’t know. I bite my tongue on the words again. In the end I tell Prost that the serving women won’t be touched and Lady Rie agrees to have older people wait the tables. It’s not a good compromise and I worry that more than one family might try and hide their sons or daughters on the day. If only that was the least of my worries.
As night falls I sense a fight breaking out between a group of men. I send Durene to break it up and sit up anxiously in the cottage, sensing Prost hurrying to the scene, Durene holding one man by the leg and gently slapping another man off his feet.
“Shh! We’re not supposed to be heard!”
Wait? Why wait? Why aren’t they supposed to be heard? Today I get up with a full migraine. It gets worse as I go about my day.
“The fight last night, Emperor Laken? It was between the two men who quarreled over the collapsed scaffolding yesterday. Never mind that we repaired the damage yesterday.”
Prost comes up to me with a sour tone in his voice. I shake my head.
“That was more than two men brawling, Prost. There were at least eight of them and more joining in before Durene got there.”
“Ah. Those would be the friends and other workers. They’ve started taking sides. You see, one fellow, Mister Horst, is a [Carpenter] from Windrest, and the other’s a [Builder]. Mister Wellim comes from Tunslaven. Since they’re quarrelling, folks have begun taking sides—”
“And now it’s a feud. I understand. Wonderful. Mister Prost, what do you suggest I do?”
I rub at my head as the man thinks, chewing at his lip.
“I’ll separate the building teams today—put Horst and his lot to building the tables and chairs with your permission. That’ll keep arguments to a minimum, but I’d better have some lads making sure there’s no fighting after work’s over. Or Durene. No one’s likely to throw a punch with her watching.”
“Good. Do that. I have to talk to Lady Rie about…everything.”
Prost hurries away and I find Lady Rie speaking with Durene of all people. They’re arguing too. I draw closer, listening. For once the two women are so heated that they don’t notice my presence. Durene’s voice is loud as she snaps at Lady Rie.
“I don’t see why I need to stand during the banquet! Why can’t I eat when everyone else is eating?”
Her voice echoes off the houses nearby and I sense heads turning. Lady Rie’s voice is much quieter, but waspish as she replies.
“You are neither nobility nor formally engaged to Emperor Laken. It would be an indiscretion of the highest order to seat you at the head table, and nowhere less would do! You have no manners—”
“I have plenty, thank you very much!”
I sense Rie rolling her eyes.
“—No manners suitable for formal dining and you are supposed to be a [Paladin], a defender of his majesty, aren’t you? You should stand in attendance! You wouldn’t want to embarrass Emperor Laken, wouldn’t you?”
I open my mouth and hesitate. Durene would never embarrass me, but I can imagine her struggling if she were sitting with me and chatting with other nobles. And yet—she is Durene. But Lady Rie knows this social world best and so I hesitate. Durene herself deflates at Rie’s word. She gulps.
“No. I wouldn’t want to embarrass him. But—”
“Good. Then it’s settled. We’ll see if Master Helm can put you in armor. Otherwise…we might find a [Tailor] able to sew quickly. But armor would be more impressive, I think. A [Paladin] would be quite impressive to our guests.”
Lady Rie claps her hands and turns brusquely away from Durene. She and Durene both jump when they see me standing behind them. I cough.
“You’re sure that would be the best fit, Lady Rie?”
“Emperor Laken! I do believe so. I am not familiar with the [Paladin] class, but it is impressive—as is Miss Durene herself. Having her stand at attendance at your side while a list of her achievements is read out would be most impressive. Don’t you agree?”
I turn my head towards her. Durene smiles—she knows I can sense when she does it—and only hesitates for a second.
“I—yeah. I could stand next to you, right Laken? I’d be imposing and impress all those nobles. That’s the best way to do it, right?”
I pause. And perhaps it’s just as well that another argument breaks out—this time between a whole group of angry workers clustered around the banquet hall. Rie sighs distractedly.
“We’re far behind on the building without this sort of distraction! Emperor Laken, by your permission I’ll sort it out.”
She converged on the arguing workers at the same time Prost and Wiskeria do. I see Wiskeria break up the prelude to a fight with a burst of magic. Durene turns.
“I should go over too. Just in case. I’ll uh, see if I can get Mister Helm to make me some armor. You said I should have some anyways, right Laken?”
She hurries away. I stare at her back. The words in my mouth die unspoken. But I’d like Durene to sit with me. She belongs there. But what if it causes trouble? What’s the protocol? If I let her sit with me, what happens?
I don’t know. Wiskeria breaks up the fight and cools down everyone—literally, by shooting sprays of water everywhere. She’s declined to weigh in on all the preparations, claiming ignorance as a [Witch]. I wish I could do the same. I don’t know what to do. And the words keep repeating themselves as I go to sleep, dreading the half-formed dreams, hating my indecision, my inability to figure this out!
I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know—
I can feel my teeth grinding together as I toss and turn that night. I don’t know! And I’m afraid to tell Lady Rie she’s wrong, but something’s wrong! I can feel it.
It’s not right! This gathering is—flawed, somehow! It’s going to go wrong.
Damn Magnolia Reinhart. What did she do?
“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring—”
Blank words in my head. Missing pieces of a puzzle. I get up blearily, eat, walk into Riverfarm with Durene, and listen to the day’s issues. Everything’s behind. Lady Rie frets while Prost talks the situation over. Wiskeria listens quietly.
“The arguments over the building are costing us precious hours, Mister Prost!”
“I know. But I can’t help that! We’re already rushing as it is—we’ll try to get a roof up the day after tomorrow, but every mistake sets us back—”
“We can hardly afford to wait until the day after tomorrow! The decorations are arriving and we must set to work making the inside presentable quickly!”
“We can sand and polish everything quick once it’s up. The tables and chairs look good at least—”
“Those are the least of my concerns. If another brawl breaks out, simply arrest everyone involved.”
“All forty of them?”
“If necessary! This petty feud between the two craftsmen must be resolved, Mister Prost.”
Prost shakes his head.
“Perhaps Emperor Laken could speak to the two men. They’ve been clamoring for a ruling, and both sides want to hear his opinion—”
I raise my voice. Both Rie and Prost fall silent. I look up, my head aching. I try to keep the annoyance out of my voice but I can’t. Not today.
“I’ve listened to the arguments, Mister Prost. Neither man can prove the other caused the problem and it’s far beyond that now. Both sides want me to punish someone, which I can’t do without proof.”
“And truth spells don’t work if both sides think they’re right. Or if they don’t know to begin with who’s wrong. Not that anyone can cast [Detect Lies] here anyways.”
Wiskeria looks up as she fiddles with a pouch full of ingredients. She’s been riding patrols with Beniar, escorting City Runners arriving here with bags of holding full of purchased goods. She meets Prost and Rie’s annoyed looks calmly. Then she turns towards me.
“Emperor Laken, I’ll watch the building today and stop arguments from breaking out. That will let Mister Prost handle the rest of the village.”
“That might work. We’re baking and preparing as much food as we can, but it’s not enough, according to Lady Rie.”
Lady Rie sighs.
“Hardly. There’s a [Chef] I’ve been speaking to who could prepare all of the finer dishes we need to present, but he lives thirty miles north of here and is reluctant to make the commute. And I don’t wish to empty the treasury to purchase her services. But we must have a suitable meal ready. And then there’s the issue of gifts…”
I raise my head.
“Gifts? Don’t tell me we have to give our guests—”
“Oh no! That’s not the custom at all. Quite the reverse!”
Rie smiles slightly, the first smile I’ve sensed all day.
“It’s a custom for visitors to offer a present to those hosting such gatherings. Especially those of high-rank. I imagine an [Emperor] would merit quite a large present, but no one knows what might suit you, Emperor Laken. You recall the gift I gave to you? Well, we’ve received a few tokens like that, but there have been a number of discreet inquiries as to what you might enjoy.”
“What I might enjoy? I get to ask for my gifts?”
The notion sounds ridiculous to me, but Rie nods seriously.
“Indeed. I was rather hoping for this, actually. In fact, this is how Magnolia Reinhart can claim she’s doing you a favor. If we approach the nobles the right way, we might come away with more than we spent to host the gathering.”
“I don’t follow. You mean…ask them for money?”
“A…monetary contribution. Or something similar. Minor artifacts, perhaps much-needed supplies…it all comes down to the phrasing and way the invitations are couched. I would like to speak with you regarding some of the ideas I had in that regard later. If you are willing?”
It’s wrong. My head throbs.
I lie to Rie and sense her smiling. Prost stands up wearily.
“I’ll get back to work. There’s a few of our [Mages] and [Hedge Mages] willing to try and put on a show—that is, the first stage of entertainments. I’ll see to them.”
“And I will see to the attire.”
Lady Rie sweeps off. I sit on my throne, massaging my head. I sense Wiskeria getting up.
“Your majesty? Everything well?”
“Not really, Wiskeria. I’m not sure how well this party—gathering—whatever, will go.”
“Lady Rie’s doing her best. But this was forced on her early.”
“It was. By that damn—do you think we’ll make it?”
“I’m not sure. But I worry that making it or not making it isn’t the problem, your majesty?”
Wiskeria tilts her head, her voice thoughtful.
“I don’t know. But I don’t think how we impress the nobility is the point. Otherwise, wouldn’t Magnolia Reinhart have made the gathering a few days away and not given us enough time? No, I think it’s something else she’s after. I just don’t know what.”
I turn my head towards her. She’s right. There is something else. But what? What? After a while, Wiskeria gets up. And I, lost and confused, go after Lady Rie. I find her with Durene, consulting with Master Helm.
“This armor’s too tight! And it’s not real armor, it’s far too thin!”
Durene complains as she models the new armor that Mister Helm, the [Blacksmith], has forged. It was a collaborative work given Durene’s size, and several other [Blacksmiths] are standing around her and consulting with Lady Rie. The noblewoman smiles and claps her hands together.
“Functional armor is not the point, Miss Durene. The armor looks quite good on you, although I see some parts that could be—ah, well, it will do. It only remains for us to forge you a suitable shield to go with your sword. And polish the sword, I think. Could it be plated, Mister Helm? With something akin to gold leaf? Silver? And I think…yes, I think we could add one more thing.”
She regards Durene thoughtfully as the half-Troll girl catches sight of me. She tries to wave, but the stiff armor doesn’t let her. Durene speaks distractedly.
“What else? I can barely move in this as it is.”
Rie’s voice is soft and thoughtful as she speaks out loud.
“A helmet, perhaps? Yes. That would be quite impressive. A helmet would be just the thing.”
Durene half-turns to look at Lady Rie. The [Blacksmiths] around her fall silent. My heart sinks when I realize where she’s going with this. Rie nods.
“Yes…with a visor? Can such a thing be done, Master Helm? It would be a grand spectacle, to see Miss Durene armored like a [Knight].”
She looks around brightly at the men and two women around her. Durene goes very quiet. I stand there, my heart suddenly beating very quiet. A helmet? A helmet with a visor. There’s only one reason why Rie wants that.
To cover her face. But no one says it. I sense Durene hesitate, her face grow angry—and then twist into uncertainty. She hesitates, and I see her look at me, and then at Lady Rie. She’s supposed to be quite beautiful. Lady Rie, that is. I’ve never heard Durene talk about what she looks like. She’s too afraid to tell me.
In the end, Durene’s voice is very quiet.
“I…guess so. I could wear a helmet.”
“Wonderful! There are quite a number of designs that might work. Mister Helm, I’ll sketch a few, shall I? You can tell me what would be easiest.”
“Ah. Yes, Lady Rie. We’ll do our best.”
Mister Helm’s voice is quiet as he turns towards Lady Rie. I sense him looking back at me. Durene’s staring at her feet. I take a step forwards and feel a hand on my arm. Lady Rie’s touch.
“Emperor Laken? What do you think? I imagine Durene in full armor would be quite a sight to see—ah, begging your pardon. Quite a spectacle, and certainly impressive, wouldn’t you agree?”
No. I open my mouth. Hesitate. I can tell that Mister Helm is looking at me. So is Lady Rie. She’s gripping my arm with her hand, trying to tell me not to object. She’s right. She knows how the other [Lords] and [Ladies] would react. I close my mouth.
To hide Durene behind a helmet. To not let her eat with me. To do things as they should be. Because a half-Troll doesn’t belong with Humans.
Things crystalize in that moment. I feel the same flash of heat I felt once before, listening to an angry [Farmer] shout the same thing. Not in the same way, not in the same words, but the same thing. And I think about a banquet, about entertaining nobles, about doing things just so.
And I realize what the trap is. I jerk my arm free of Lady Rie and open my mouth.
The word cuts through the air, blissfully free. Lady Rie pauses. I sense Durene look up as every head turns to me. Rie’s voice is low as she speaks to me, too close to my ear.
“Emperor Laken, I don’t mean to gainsay your opinions, but I truly think—”
“I said, no, Lady Rie. No helmet. The armor can stay. But make it real armor. And Durene doesn’t need the armor for the banquet. She’ll be sitting with me at the head table. Give her a dress instead.”
Silence. My heart is pounding, my head feels clearer. Lady Rie draws in her breath sharply.
“Emperor Laken? I really don’t—”
I snap the word and Rie’s mouth closes in an instant. I look around. Durene is staring at me. The [Blacksmiths] are staring at me. I stand taller. When did I start hunching my shoulders? I point.
“Yes? Your Majesty?”
“Thank you for Durene’s armor. It’s quite, well, I can tell it’s quite impressive. A showman’s piece, no doubt. But let’s aim for functional armor when it comes to that.”
“Of course, Emperor Laken. We’ll get right to work—”
I hold up my hand.
“Not necessary. There are more important things that we need for now. Nails, for one. Hinges—there’s a lot of metal that goes into houses. Let’s get our [Blacksmiths] back to work on those houses, shall we? Don’t worry about the banquet. Durene? Follow me. Someone get me Prost. And Wiskeria.”
I stride off and sense Durene shrugging out of her armor. Still muted, Rie follows. I can sense her eyes on my back and feel Prost and Wiskeria hurrying towards me.
“Yes, Emperor Laken? I heard you had the [Blacksmiths] working on construction materials for the houses. Should I—?”
“Get your workers back to building houses. We’ll keep a smaller team on the hall, but take it slower, Mister Prost. We won’t be using it for the gathering.”
I feel the electric shock go through the people around me. Durene exclaims.
“We won’t? But I thought—”
“Would we have gotten it ready in time? And would you trust the building not to collapse on us, Mister Prost?”
I nod at the half-finished building. Prost grimaces.
“It’d be close and that’s without furnishings, sire. But what did you have in mind if not that gathering hall?”
“Easy. Get the tables and chairs done. Then put them in a meadow. That one just past the new farmland sounds good. Clear us a wide space—we have plenty of folk who can do that and it won’t take us a day. We’ll serve our guests there.”
This last bit is too much for Lady Rie and she manages to speak despite my order. She turns to me, aghast.
“Emperor Laken, it’s not proper. Your guests will be expecting the highest honors. They’re nobility, and if Magnolia Reinhart was hosting—”
“She’s not. I am. Be silent, Lady Rie. Thank you.”
I cut her off again. Lady Rie falls silent and I can sense her lips quivering as I turn my head. I can sense them there. Durene, Wiskeria, Prost, and Lady Rie. I sigh.
“I’ve made a mistake. Lady Magnolia Reinhart invited the nobility here, which forced my hand. But my error, the trick she forced me into was playing her game. I don’t think she expected me to put on a formal display for the nobles. Nor should I.”
“But that’s what they’re expecting.”
Durene sounds confused. I smile slightly.
“Yes, they are. That’s what’s traditional. But I’m an [Emperor], Durene. Why should I do things their way?”
“Um…I don’t know.”
I nod, almost laughing as I sense Rie’s dumfounded look. I look at Prost.
“Don’t worry about [Chefs], Mister Prost. Tell our [Cooks] to make the kind of food they know everyone will enjoy. As much as they can get ready beforehand and we’ll do a lot of cooking the day of. Now, I want you to have our [Carpenters] make more tables as quick as they can and lay them out in the village square. We’ll feed our people at the same time as the nobility.”
“With chairs and so forth, your majesty? That would take a lot more work.”
“Do we need them? No—in fact, have only a few chairs brought to the gathering place. We’ll have people stand and eat. They can socialize while we put on a display. We’ll have the trebuchets do some test firing—maybe let the nobles try them themselves. As for the issue of young women and men serving—”
I can sense Lady Rie shutting her eyes tightly. I look at Prost.
“Have we parchment? Large sheets we can use as signs?”
“I could have some. Are you planning on making a declaration, sire?”
“Just something posted on the main roads. Have it read as follows: ‘I, Emperor Laken, declare that anyone taking advantage of another person upon my lands without consent will be summarily shot and executed, regardless of their rank or gender.’ Or something to that effect.”
Wiskeria draws in a sharp breath. I see Prost shoot a glance at Lady Rie. Funny, he seems uncertain.
“That’s a bold statement, sire.”
“I’d think it would be the least of what you’d expect from me. Have the posters put along the main roads—on those handy totem poles Jelov keeps carving, for instance. Make sure all of my guests see them. Just in case. Oh, and Prost? Add some images.”
I’m enjoying myself now. I gesture.
“Images. You know, illustrations! A bloody headsman’s axe and a few heads lying on the ground, or a body feathered with arrows for emphasis. Be creative. You can have some of the children decorate them if you like. Now. Wiskeria.”
She’s smiling at me, I can tell. Wiskeria tugs at her pointed hat as I point towards the meeting hall and my throne room.
“Those two men who keep starting fights. Find them and put them in my throne room to wait for me. Tell them that if they start a fight before I arrive…well, just warn them what might happen.”
“Now. Lady Rie.”
She’s practically vibrating. When I speak her name she waits a beat as if she didn’t want to cut in and shout at me this entire time.
“I take it you object to most of what I’ve just said?”
“Why, what gave you that idea, sire?”
Her voice is sweet. Too sweet. I turn to face her.
“I don’t disagree with your choices, Lady Rie. By all means, decorate and find proper utensils to serve our guests. But if we serve them, it will be my way. Riverfarm’s way.”
“And if the nobility take offense?”
“Let them. This gathering wasn’t my idea. It was Magnolia Reinhart’s. If it doesn’t have the amenities they’re used to, they can take it up with her. Speaking of which, I’ve decided what they should give me.”
Lady Rie pauses.
“What would that be, your majesty?”
“Food. They can bring food. Tell them I would like for them to bring as many delicacies as they can carry—not just for themselves, but for my people. They’ll be feeding all of us, so advise them that a pack horse or wagon might be in order.”
I grin at Lady Rie and wonder if her face has gone pale. Durene laughs out loud in delight.
“Emperor Laken, are you quite sure? That would hardly be what they expect—although I’m beginning to realize that is quite the point.”
“Indeed. I don’t want money. I don’t need their charity. That isn’t what an [Emperor] needs. Perhaps a [Lord] might ask for such gifts, but all I need is something to amuse my people. Yes, food—and entertainment. Do they have [Jugglers]? [Bards]? Are there such things as [Actors] in this world or…or [Players]? Tell them to bring those too. And—”
Memory flares. A bit of a dream. I stop.
“Yes—pudding. Tell them I’m fond of sweet foods. Have them bring as much of those as possible. And while we’re at it, Durene?”
“Why don’t we take a break for a bit? Let’s go for a walk in the woods. I’ll be back in an hour, Lady Rie. Let me know if the sky’s fallen when I return.”
I take Durene’s arm and smiling, walk away. Lady Rie just stares at my back. I walk off with Durene and laugh for the first time all week. She’s smiling too.
“Wow. What happened to you, Laken?”
“I stopped worrying about what other people might say, Durene. Remember? That’s the point. Lady Rie had her heart in the right place, but she did what people wanted her to do. What Magnolia Reinhart wanted to her to do. I’m doing what I want to do. Which is walking with you.”
“Oh. Right! Hey Laken?”
She gives me a quick kiss as a reply.
It was a nice walk and we stretched it out to two hours. The two hours came from me sitting down to rest my aching feet while Durene offered to carry me. In the end we just sat and talked, which was wonderful. So wonderful that I forgot that the two men were waiting for me in the throne room. When I finally got back and walked in, they jumped. They hadn’t been sitting, but standing at opposite sides of the room. I felt slightly bad that I didn’t think to give them chairs, but only slightly.
“Mister Horst. Mister Wellim.”
I look at both of them. They open their mouths, uncertain, and I walk past them to sit on my throne. I sit, and the two men shuffle forwards. They wait for me to speak.
I don’t. The uncomfortable silence stretches out as the two men shift uneasily. Actually, I don’t feel uncomfortable at all. I just sit, sensing them grow more and more nervous with each passing second. At last, one of them musters the courage to open his mouth. Quick as a snake, I raise a finger and he freezes.
I wait until he closes his mouth and keep sitting there. The two men stand in place, sweating. I can practically hear their hearts pounding. And I just sit. When I finally open my mouth, I think both of them nearly have heart attacks.
“Gentlemen. Why are you here?”
They stir. And look at each other. I sit there, a young man on a throne. Blind, probably half the age of either of the men in front of me. But it’s they who can’t meet my eyes figuratively or literally. I am blind. And young. But I am an [Emperor].
“Emperor Laken, about our uh—our—our quarrel.”
One of the men, Mister Horst, begins hoarsely. Again I cut him off.
“Quarrel, is it? A quarrel is two men fighting. It gets broken up and both men need a day to heal their bruises. The worst is a broken bone. This is a feud, gentlemen.”
Silence. I look from man to man, opening my eyes briefly for effect.
“Both of you claim the other made a mistake which caused the scaffolding to break. What was it, three days ago? Now there are brawls of thirty people or more. What, exactly, is the point?”
They don’t have an answer. I go on, speaking calmly, shifting my attention to the man on the left.
“Mister Wellim, I know of you as a [Builder] who made or repaired half the homes in your village. You’re a community figure and a father of three.”
He starts. Yes, I asked Prost about all that before walking in here. But it still works. I shift my attention to the man on the right.
“And you, Mister Horst, are a [Carpenter] respected by everyone I’ve talked to. You’ve been running your own business for twenty years.”
He hangs his head at this detail, a representation of his hard work over the years. I turn my head to each man.
“Why are we here? If you, Mister Wellim, were dealing with a fight between two of your apprentices, how would you handle it? By smacking a few heads together? Separating the two? What if they kept fighting? What about you, Mister Horst? Would doing any of that do any good? Why are two of your best workers fighting, anyways? What is the point?”
I slap the armrest of my throne. Both men jump. After a moment I sigh.
“No one can rule who caused the problem. Both of you were there, and both of you claim the opposite thing happened. You come to me as if expecting me to know the truth. Well, I wasn’t there and I’m no god. But again, I have to ask, why do I need to be here? Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t we be building houses right now?”
Neither man speaks, but I get the slightest nod from Horst. I go on.
“Construction is dangerous. Or so I’ve heard. If there’s an issue of one person not paying attention, that’s a problem. If it happens again and there are witnesses, there may be need for punishment—or maybe not. Accidents happen. But this feud has already seen violence. If someone dies from all this hatred and anger, who will be to blame? You, Mister Horst? Or you, Mister Wellim? If someone dies, I rather think it would be my fault.”
They both look up sharply. I nod.
“I am an [Emperor]. This is my domain. Shouldn’t the blame fall to me? If things get worse—only they won’t get worse. Because we will sort this out. One of you made a mistake, or neither of you did. Either way, it’s a matter between you two, not two villages. We are working together here, all of us. We are all part of this—this nation. And I expect you to remember it.”
A beat. For a second I open my eyes again and hold their gazes. Then I close my eyes. It’s hard not to blink. I should probably exercise my eyelids, but what’s the point?
“You’re not children. If you want to hold a grudge, hold it. If you know you’re right, watch the other man until he makes a mistake again and point it out for all to see. But the feuding ends now, as does the gossiping and sabotaging each other. You don’t have to like one another. In fact, if you want to start a fight, now would be a good time. I’ll turn my head if you don’t want me to watch.”
I smile at that and turn my head sideways. I can sense the two men looking at each other. Then one of them clears his throat.
Fifteen minutes later I walk out of the throne room as Horst and Wellim walk out. They’re not holding hands, but they’re talking to each other like people, even managing to smile. I find Prost waiting for me.
“I think we’ve come to an understanding, Mister Prost.”
“Good, Emperor Laken. Whose fault was it?”
“Rot in the timber, perhaps. A bad nail. Bad lighting. I think we’ll stop building at night. It’s efficient, but both Mister Horst and Wellim agree that night work leads to mistakes.”
“Very good, your majesty.”
Prost eyes the two men walking off. He looks at me and I sense a knowingness in his gaze.
“Did they brawl?”
“Not as such. They might throw a punch at each other while working, but I expect that will only be if one drops a piece of timber on the other man’s toe. They’re not friends, but they’re quite reasonable people when they get down to it.”
My [Steward] nods and I nod too.
“Only, you knew that, didn’t you Mister Prost? All of the times you broke the fights up and told them to work it out—or hinted to me that I should intervene—was to get me to do what I just did, wasn’t it?”
“Why would you say that, Emperor Laken?”
Prost bashfully looks the other way. I smile.
“A [Farmer] probably learns more than one or two tricks over the course of his life. A father likewise. Tell me, why didn’t you deal with it yourself?”
“I couldn’t do it, your majesty. Both men, well, they’re proud men and not keen to listen to a new [Steward]. An [Emperor] on the other hand…”
“Young as I am?”
“You saved their villages and drove the Goblins off. I don’t think either of them thought of your age while you were sitting on that throne, sire.”
I shake my head.
“All I did was ask them to settle things like adults, Mister Prost. It could have backfired or not worked at all. I didn’t know if what I was doing was the right thing. I just guessed.”
“But it did work, your majesty?”
I nod. Prost smiles.
“Then it was the right thing to do.”
“Yes, but what if it’s the wrong thing next time?”
He just shrugs at me. Prost speculatively looks across the village as the sun begins to set in the sky.
“Maybe it wouldn’t work any other day, and maybe it won’t work again. But it did work this time and that means what you did was the right thing, even if you didn’t know it was the right thing you were doing. And most of all, because it was you, Emperor Laken who did it, it was the right thing to do. Because [Emperors] don’t make mistakes.”
“Because they’re [Emperors], sir.”
“What if I made a mistake?”
“Then I’d suppose you weren’t acting much like an [Emperor] in that moment, sire. Or maybe it wasn’t your fault because things went wrong for no reason. Maybe it couldn’t be helped and it would’ve happened that way anyways. But [Emperors] don’t make mistakes because they know what they’re doing. Otherwise, why would they be [Emperors]?”
I frown as I mull over his convoluted statement.
“That’s circular logic, Mister Prost.”
He pauses, and then shrugs again.
“It may be circular, but I rather like it, sire. And it works. ”
“Good enough. Now, how’s Lady Rie doing?”
“Chomping at the bit, begging your pardon, sire. But she’s doing a good job, and now that there’s no need to worry about food—or a building—she’s got us figuring out seating arrangements and the like.”
“Much more manageable?”
We walk together, and for the first time I realize that Prost might not be in awe of Lady Rie as much as I was.
“I feel rather foolish, Mister Prost.”
“Do you, your majesty? I think you did a good job today. It was a hard decision.”
“But one I should have made, not anyone else. We wasted a lot of coin and time dancing to Lady Magnolia’s tune.”
“I expect the drapes and other things will make the great hall that much better anyways. And silverware’s good for entertaining folk, sire. It’s an investment for the future.”
“Were you always so optimistic, Prost?”
“No, your majesty. Not as smart, either. But I’ve changed a lot over the last few weeks. Done a lot of thinking ever since a young man pulled my son out of the snow.”
“Huh. Well, I hope I won’t make this mistake again. Mister Prost?”
“Let’s get to it.”
We walk back to work. Work being whatever I care to focus on. Lady Rie has her ideas, and I’m inclined to follow them. When I don’t have anything better in mind.
It’s a silly lesson I learned today. Relearned, rather. I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like that all the time. But I do know something more important: no one else knows what they’re doing, either. And so I’ve got to make the decisions, even if I’m wrong. Even if they’re the wrong ones.
Because I’m an [Emperor].
Hm. I feel like I finally understand. All the little pieces are coming together. If I add all the fragments up, that nonsense dream I’ve been having, then—I have an idea. Or rather, I had an idea. I’m just a few days ahead of myself.
“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring lots of sweets!”
Aha! I wake up with a smile. So that’s what it was all about! I stretch, walk out of my cottage after spending a leisurely breakfast with Durene and find Prost in good spirits.
“Emperor, we’ve got two more houses built and I reckon we can get another field sown today if we push it.”
“Excellent, Mister Prost! Any trouble from Mister Horst and Mister Wellim?”
“Not that I know of, sire. They’ve been working well. Not on the same team, but they go to each other’s sites and shout insults at each other. In a good way.”
“As opposed to a bad way?”
“It’s more like competition than it is anger, your majesty.”
“I’ll take that, then. Lady Rie?”
She bows her head, slightly…sullenly? She’s still not happy about my changes, but she’s working within my design and she’s stopped touching my arm.
“We have the clearing set up. I’ve taken the liberty of setting a few braziers up. I think [Light] spells would be more appropriate given the warmer weather, though.”
“Good, we might actually do this. Now, I know we’re expecting the nobles to bring food, but have a few of our [Cooks] see me within the hour. I want some of Riverfarm and the local dishes on display and a lot of sweet foods.”
I turn to Prost as Wiskeria rides into the village, her [Hunters] carrying a dead buck between them. I wonder if a [Witch] has any party tricks? What am I saying? I wonder if she’ll agree to perform a few. I’d rather like to see her turn someone into a frog.
“I’ll also need some dry corn for an experiment, Mister Prost—we’ll make popcorn and a few other dishes from home. How good are your sausages, by any chance? Do we have any fresh pork sausages or could we make some?”
“Sausages, sire? Let me find you a selection…”
Back to work. Only this time it feels right. Uncertain, but right.
“And pudding! Sweets and pudding, okay? Remember!”
“Quick, let’s go! Before—”
Yes, yes. I rise, and feel a hum of anticipation in the village. Lady Rie’s pacing nervously before I have a chance to meet with her.
“I’m just not sure we have enough entertainment, Emperor Laken, I don’t know how long you expect us to be occupied with trebuchets, but at some point we will be out of diversions!”
I smile at her, noticing for the first time how stressed she sounds. I wonder how much strain she’s been feeling? I feel great, incidentally.
“We’ll make do, Lady Rie. Mingling and conversation will suffice if we have nothing else at the time.”
“Conversation? If you say so, your majesty. And will you tell me at last what the other seats are for? You aren’t intending to seat more of the villagers with the nobility, are you? Your Mossbear, perhaps?”
Apparently Lady Rie also gets sarcastic when she’s peeved. I like that—it’s more honest of her.
“Trust, Lady Rie. We may have some unexpected guests. Or not. Now, let’s go over my actual conversation topics one more time. Tell me about trade goods coming from the south. You say it’s rare for Drakes to sell their goods past Liscor? What items are in high demand around here and what role did Riverfarm and the local villages fulfill up till this point?”
She sighs, but proceeds to lecture me at length. I wish I could take notes, but my stupid phone is completely dead. I hope I can get it fixed soon. Didn’t Ryoka say that a [Repair] spell charges it up? How come no one in my entire empire can cast the spell?
I wonder how you recruit mages? Reel them in with promises of free room and board? Spellbook on a fishing line? Maybe Wiskeria knows some people. Heck, maybe she’s part of a coven.
One day left. And as I sleep, it all falls into place.
“Is it time yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?”
“I think we’re early. We shouldn’t be here!”
“We’ll get in trouble!”
“Let’s go, hurry!”
“Shh! We’re not supposed to be heard!”
“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring lots of sweets!”
“And pudding! Sweets and pudding, okay? Remember!”
“Quick, let’s go! Before—”
This is what I dreamt, over a week ago. The voices stir and echo around me, not quite here, but not quite in my mind either. They’re…like real memories, if that makes sense. Memory that becomes reality as you remember it? There’s just one thing missing from the conversation, one little clue.
Today, as I wake up I feel the village come alive. I eat breakfast with Durene, smiling at her as she paces around nervously.
“Are you sure it’ll be okay, Laken? What if they get angry? Maybe I should wear a helmet! Or a hat!”
“I hate hats. Durene, it’ll be fine. Besides, your suit looks quite nice.”
“You wouldn’t know! You can’t see!”
I laugh. Durene’s been dressed for today, against Lady Rie’s objections. She decided a dress did not suit her, and instead wore a suit—at my suggestion. If women can wear pants and suits, why not Durene? And apparently she cuts a rather bold figure with the cloth my [Tailors] had labored over.
“It’ll go well with my clothing, Durene. I’ve got enough cloth for a dress. We can say we switched roles for the banquet.”
I’m not wearing a dress, but robes that are quite long and showy. All the better to give me some additional gravitas, according to Lady Rie. She tried to get me to wear lace and I refused. This was the best compromise we could come up with. I’d rather walk around naked than wear a suit with more lace than fabric.
“Looks like Lady Rie’s already pacing outside of the cottage. Prost’s here too. I thought the nobility were supposed to arrive this evening?”
“Maybe they’re early?”
“Not as far as I know. Pass me a fried potato, will you Durene? No, Frostwing, that’s not for you. Stop pooping so loudly, please? I’m trying to eat.”
This is how it goes. I go outside, tell a joke, and only Durene giggles. Gamel’s too uptight with his suit, Prost is distracted tugging at his, and Lady Rie’s far too high strung. Wiskeria just doesn’t like my sense of humor.
No one arrives in the morning, although we had prepared for a few early guests. Apparently I’m so intimidating, the entire group of nobles is arriving together. Or maybe that’s due to the presence of Magnolia’s servant, Sacra, and the famous Lady Bethal Walchaís. I sense a rather large caravan of people headed this way just after breakfast and Beniar’s riders report the nobles are coming in a train.
“A rather large group. They may arrive an hour late. I don’t think they were expecting to carry quite so much on the trip here.”
Lady Rie stares accusingly at me. I just smile.
“And their escort?”
“Light, for a group of nobles travelling. I counted sixty armed guards.”
“So two per noble? A bit less? That is trusting. If they’re staying the night, they can sleep in the houses for the nobles or outside. It shouldn’t rain today.”
“I doubt they’ll stay the night. And I’m surprised Lady Bethal isn’t travelling by magical carriage. Apparently Magnolia Reinhart lends it to all her closest friends. I wonder if it’s broken?”
“Magical carriages? Hold on, explain that to me? Someone?”
The day wears on. I try not to let my nerves get the better of me. I have a plan. It’s not a good one, and it’s based on guesswork and a dream I had. But it’s all I’ve got. As evening wears into dusk, the first nobles ride into Riverfarm, a group of laughing young [Lords] and [Ladies] and their retainers. They freeze the instant they see me.
“Lord Andres, Lady Cimeca, Lord Pattin, welcome to Riverfarm!”
Lady Rie calls out more names as the mounted nobility draw back, staring at me in alarm and awe. I smile, and gently let Frostwing flap her wings. Beneath me, my mount shifts and growls, making the noble’s horses back away skittishly.
That’s right, I’m riding Bismarck, my Mossbear. If you’ve got a Mossbear and you don’t ride it to meet people, what kind of [Emperor] are you? Durene stands by my side, practically vibrating with nerves. I try not to show anyone that my legs are trembling as they hug Bismarck’s sides.
A flurry. A torrent of bodies. Rich men and women dressed in finery, armored warriors—I can only rely on Wiskeria and Durene’s whispered explanations. Their voices sound like any other, perhaps a touch more refined and breathy—the nobles ride up to me on their horses while I let Bismarck snuffle at them. And then I hear a voice I recognize.
“Emperor Laken, I bring you greetings on behalf of Lady Magnolia Reinhart, who apologizes for the inconvenience of this small gathering.”
“Odveig. Or would you prefer to be called Sacra?”
“Either is fine.”
I turn my head to the [Maid] standing and staring up at me without a trace of fear. I can sense Wiskeria tensing besides me, but Sacra pays her no notice as she bows and introduces the last of my guests. I smell a floral perfume and hear a light voice.
“My, is that a Mossbear? Thomast, look! How exciting! Do you think I could ride it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Emperor Laken, may I present Lady Bethal Walchaís and Sir Thomast?”
The man and woman step forwards. I get nothing from my image of them in my head. Lady Bethal is wearing a dress and Thomast some kind of doublet. They’re attired much like the others I suppose—my [Emperor] senses don’t extend to color or detail well. But the two do have a kind of…presence in my mind.
Lady Bethal feels like a rose, or a bush covered in thorns. As if I could walk into her and be stung. It’s an aura about her, and Sir Thomast—just seems too poised. He stands as if he could leap into action at any moment and there’s a grace about his movements that makes me think he knows how to handle the rapier at his side. Both bow to me and Lady Bethal’s first words after her greeting are about Bismarck.
“Is he tamed, your majesty? I had heard there was an [Emperor] who commanded the hearts of both beasts and men, but until Magnolia told me about you, I was quite under the impression that it was all rumor! Oh, but do forgive me—I do forget myself. Thomast, why don’t you ever stop me?”
The [Chevalier] says nothing. I get the feeling he’s staring at me, not at Durene, for all Bethal is now gushing over Durene’s suit and greeting Lady Rie. From the way Rie goes stiff and quiet, I get the feeling that Lady Bethal’s spiky aura isn’t for show.
Big players. Large fish in small ponds, or however the saying goes. Bethal strikes me as a shark, though. The nobles wait for me as I finish greeting Lady Bethal. They’ve already spotted the clearing filled with food that their servants are busily unloading and I think their mood is—intrigued. Some of them appear dismayed from the way they shift and lean closer to talk to each other, but I’ve made an impression.
So here’s how it ends. I raise my hand and make a small speech in the silence as every eye falls to me. As the light fades I quell the butterflies in my chest. Is this the right thing to do? Is this the right thing to say? I’m an [Emperor]. It better be.
“[Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril, I greet you. I am Laken Godart.”
They stir as I don’t give myself any titles. I could have proclaimed myself ruler of the Unseen Empire, or any number of things, but I’m here to make friends, not scare them. I go on.
“I am aware that you are here at Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s request. I was unaware of this gathering until she arranged it in my honor, and I am grateful for her aid in doing so. For your enjoyment, my people have created a small setting in which we may mingle and talk. I look forwards to meeting each one of you in person. But before that—”
My heart skips a beat in my chest. Here it is.
“—But before that, I believe there are a few more guests I have yet to invite.”
Murmurs. I see heads turning and Thomast tense ever so slightly beside his wife. I ignore the confused nobility and look up.
“I greet the nobility of this land before me. I offer them the warmth of my hearths and the bounty of my lands. I would be remiss if I did not extend the same invitation to my own vassals.”
I look up towards the sky. Please be there. Please don’t be a dream.
“My lords and ladies of the court? I invite you to share this banquet at your discretion. My lands are open to all those of my empire on this day. Come, if thou would.”
I offer a hand up towards the heavens. And wait. There’s only silence. After a moment, a long moment in which I curse and wonder what the hell I should do next, I lower my hand. The silence around me is broken by a low voice muttering out of the group of nobles.
“What was that?”
I hear a titter and someone shushing the speaker. I turn, keeping my face calm, not letting blood rush to my cheeks. It was a long shot. A perhaps. And I am an [Emperor]. So I keep up the charade, as I turn to look at my [Steward].
“Mister Prost? We may have visitors this night. Keep a place at the tables open should guests arrive. Now, I believe we are ready to be seated?”
“Of course, your majesty.”
Prost breaks the silence by gesturing. The young men and women dressed in fine clothing step forwards and quite elegantly lead the nobles to the tables. I dismount Bismarck and do the same, pointedly standing. It’s going to be a standing dinner, a time to chat. Less formal which means less risk of me making a mistake. I turn my head to the buffet and try to remember my lines? Thank Magnolia for her hospitality again? No, wait, maybe I should talk about the Goblins—
I freeze as I hear a giggle. It’s a soft sound, but it cuts through the quiet murmuring like a bell ringing in a snowstorm. The sound is bright and cheerful and makes every head turn in confusion. I feel my heart beating faster.
The giggling stops abruptly. But the air is suddenly warmer, and the sky brighter. The clearing illuminated by braziers and mage light warms, and it feels as though everything is lit by a subtle glow. I feel the wind blow strong for a second, and smell wet earth, flowers, the smell of nectar, growing grass—
Oh, that’s what I was missing. I hear the voices overhead, crystal clear at last. Unearthly voices, voices that rustle and leap with life, the voices made of magic.
“Is it time yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?”
“I think we’re early. We shouldn’t be here!”
“We’ll get in trouble!”
“Let’s go, hurry!”
“Shh! We’re not supposed to be heard!”
“Shut up! Hey! Hey, remember to tell them to bring lots of sweets!”
“And pudding! Sweets and pudding, okay? Remember!”
“Quick, let’s go! Before—”
A clamor of quick voices, arguing, talking rapidly and urgently. And then an authoritative voice, singing out above them all.
“Too late! It’s time!”
I hear laughter. And I look up and smile. The skies open. The nobles gape. Durene looks up and gasps. Lady Rie nearly swallows her tongue. I just laugh as the wind blows and they step downwards, step out of the forests, dance into the meadow. Of course, why would they be cold and frozen in the spring? I look at one of them as they wink and blow me a kiss. They bow, mockingly, and I shake my head.
“Took you long enough.”
“Same to you!”
And then my banquet really begins as they descend, bringing spring and chaos in their wake. The tricksters, the harbingers of spring and snow. The beings of myth and magic. The Fair Folk.