Chapter Fifteen: Well-Fed Beasts in Bejeweled Cages
When the Klyrnians called him Count Radigan, Gaspar felt costumed for a masquerade, for the Radigans were never nobility. While that title was imprecise, Gaspar did not correct them, for technically he was the Count Vara, having inherited the title from his late wife, and since he feared their respect was as counterfeit as the honor they granted, with hints of mockery contaminating their deference, he did not want pity mixed with the contempt, and reiterated his desire that they call him Gaspar. Since the Klyrnians had a greater respect for titles than the Vanoori, and wouldn't dream of calling him anything else, he allowed the fiction of Count Radigan to continue.
He was otherwise a disappointment to then, as in Klyrn both sexes enjoyed warlike games such as knife and dart throwing, quarterstaff bouts, jousting with blunted lances, and dueling with swords, spears, and halberds. While if Gaspar had the bearing and skill of a great warrior, none would have made the faux pas of challenging a visiting dignitary to any injurious game, the idea of prowess would have made him more popular.
Though Gaspar did not cut a romantic figure, he found himself with a surfeit of social invitations, and since he initially misread their overweening politeness as a delight in his company, it took him a while to find out why. Because Gaspar mastered Klyrnish fourteen years ago to make advances on a lady, he was entirely lacking in context clues, idioms, and other figures of speech, and believed the feasts, drinks, and dances with unmarried daughters, sisters, and nieces were a true sign of his popularity, until Lord Chemeryn, who learned the habit of bringing his native Klyrnish circumlocution to a blunt end from his travels, said "Count Radigan, while hospitality is our custom, and you are welcome to anything you see, whether food or feminine company, I should tell you that our interest in you is slight, for though your trinket of a title has more currency in Klyrn than it does in Vanoor, we value flying steeds more than noble titles. Count Radigan, I propose an alliance between our families; you would do well to pick whichever of my daughters is most to your liking, forget Vanoor, and settle in Klyrn. Or, if age or infirmity has made you unable to consummate, I would trade a wyvern egg for the offspring of your griffin, so that both our names will prosper."
Though Vanoori aristocracy thought their speeches long and flowery, four foot scrolls unrolled when the Klyrnish nobility opened their mouths, and as it was his second language, Gaspar digested Lord Chemeryn's speech before his valiant effort to respond in kind. Lord Chemeryn's love for his native Klyrn was evident in the tattoo of the Klyrnish peninsula and connecting archipelago which covered his neck in blue and green seas, bronze islands, and silver cities. An extravagant decoration like Chemeryn's marked an investiture not only of coin but time, and in Klyrn announced that its bearer was of high status.
"Lord Chemeryn, to offer me either a fabled egg that would ransom twenty of me, or the hand of one of your daughters—the fond treasures of your own middle age—is undeserved generosity. That said, just to be clear, were all these feasts and parties bids on the womb of my griffin?"
"Count Radigan, while I do not wish you to think our hospitality is for show, I should not like you to take away the opinion that we are empty-headed addicts of abandon and pleasure. No doubt had you ridden here by horse, we should still have feasted both your arrival and your departure, but surely you knew that with so many soirees, each lord vying the other in spectacle, something was expected of you?"
"Though knowing my long, lavish welcome was a contest of manipulation undermines the flattery, I still think Klyrn a wonderful place. Moreover, only a friend would put the matter so plainly, though I am not so naive to think you expect nothing in exchange for your friendship. In fact, I come out ahead in both exchanges, as I'm only tendering the promise of offspring from an unmated griffin for a useful friend and a betrothal in all but name to your daughter. You ask me only to trade possibilities for actualities."
"I will treasure your friendship, as while I have friends in many lands, I have few in Vanoor, where there is no sense of humor. As to the rate of exchange, since we do not sully our treasures with offers of coin or commodities, they remain close to our heart after the trade, and become more priceless. You understand, no?" Not waiting for a reply, Lord Chemeryn continued breathlessly. "While wyverns are prestigious, their massive bellies are flesh-hungry money pits, and you will struggle to feed it within two months of hatching. They eat a side of beef in two days, and if you train them to hunt their own meals, one day your stable may be empty, as wild habits will taint your crusade for its domestication and affection. Hence, few Klyrnish lords desire more than one. Those that do come under closer examination from our king, as a loyal Lord requires only one wyvern. Just as a lord may fret that a king who accumulates executioners is a tyrant, a king may fret that a lord who collects wyverns is a rebel. There would be no cloud of suspicion if I were to stable a different fabulous beast, though I would be envied by all, for the pursuit of speed is as noble as the pursuit of power, and griffins fly rings around our wyverns. Moreover, griffins present the appearance of noble beasts, and in Klyrn, where appearance is everything, if you look noble you are accorded the deference of an aristocrat. I tell you all this so that you will understand why I should wish to trade a more dangerous beast for a less dangerous one, and also to impress upon you the unenviable duties of owning a wyvern. There are easier paths to privilege. In the case of my own offspring, I assure you my daughters are lighter eaters, and while they may need persuading, my own intentions are pure. A father could do much, much worse than a son-in-law with prospects in two kingdoms."
"Even if my Klyrnish prospects stem from your hand?"
"Especially if it is my own. My daughters only retain their land and inheritance if they marry an outlander. Count Radigan, you have political value. Until your griffin and its offspring are barren, people will wine and dine you in perpetuity. When that griffon nests, raise a herd to assure your prosperity."
"Though I was happiest as a shopkeeper," said Gaspar, "and I am fond of haggling, it is so pleasant to do business in such a familiar way that I will take you up on your generosity. Moreover, if all your daughters despise me, I will solemnize our friendship with the exchange of eggs that you propose."
Lord Chemeryn said, "That you speak of your pleasure and our friendship so fluently makes me happy, for though you were born in Vanoor, your silver tongue has found its roost in Klyrn.. Long life and health, my friend. Please stay the night. No matter what happens, we are family."
Though Gaspar thought he was acquainted with the Klyrnish aristocracy, their nobility seemed to die in their shared common ambition. Before, their individual idiosyncracies where endearing. This one was full of himself but gave excellent advice, that one was famous for clumsiness but baked wonderful cakes, another was a promiscuous mess but taught orphans to read and write, and yet one more was a drunken old lout with bawdy jokes that fancied himself a poet. Ordinarily, he wouldn't have objected to grasping at opportunity, but it was different when he was the opportunity grasped by his potential friends.
Though Gaspar was embarrassed at not recognizing the conditional nature of his warm welcome, it was mollified when he remembered he was a merchant and not a hero, and had in one conversation bought not only his second marriage, but a best friend. In minutes, Lord Chemeryn had kindly navigated Gaspar's passage through disillusionment to a more honest enchantment. That said, he must remain true to himself amidst the temptations of his foreign hosts, and treat the Klyrnians with more perspicacity.
The next morning, Gaspar entered the Great Library of Klyrn, curious to see its famed, all-encompassing collection of books, scrolls, and maps, amassed without a thought of censorship or preference for genre or language. Having lived the lives of a king's courtier, a rural grocer, and a wizard's minion, it was rare for Gaspar's mouth to drop, but he stood there in the shadow of its ancient bronze doors with his jaw slack for five minutes as he stared at shelves that ascended eighty feet through nine floors past a spiraling mezzanine stairway. Perusers climbed wheeled iron ladders, or carefully clung to sliding scaffolding which flipped from one side of the shelves to the other, or ascended the spiraling stairs to enter adjacent rooms.
While Gaspar began with an ambitious and comprehensive study of Klyrnish culture, as the day drew on, his comprehension was beaten down by his ambition, for Klyrnish histories were written with a dry, acerbic wit, his grasp of the language did not extend to the subtle timing of Klyrnish humor, and the textured ironies of Klyrnish history evaded him.
He segued to a Klyrnish book of plays, then to the fairy tales the playwright used for his reference, and from there to The High Earth and the Quaking Sky, Storms of Blood, and a hinted-at conclusion in the writer's memoirs. Did this tale exist? Elessa was surprised to find a sequel to her favorite book.
Bemused at the way the Klyrnish theater flowed from Vanoori fantasies, he decided to check the source, and located his favorite book, The Treasury of Golden Heroes, a collection of Vanoori myths, fairy tales, and fictionalized lives of folk heroes, written in a lurid but bloodless style for children. Though Gaspar was in a famous library with one hundred thousand books, upon opening The Treasury of Golden Heroes he felt both liberation and homecoming, for it was his devotion to this colorful but impeccably grammatical storybook that had imbued the ambition, eloquence, and love of reward which suited the precocious boy for little else in life but as a king's courtier, a shopkeeper, and a wizard's minion.
When dusk darkened the windows, the librarians lit the lamps, and Gaspar continued into evening reading passages he knew by heart. Before he knew it, a clerk begged him obsequiously to return tomorrow, and Gaspar was not too immersed in The Treasury of Golden Heroes to understand this was a plea for his departure. This was when Gaspar knew that no matter how intense his admiration for the land's ornateness, or how vivid his experience in its clouds of colored veils, oases of rose and citrus perfumes, and days filled with feasting, dancing, and the melodies of lutes and harps, his heart would never belong to Klyrn, as neither his mind nor his tongue could slither through so much periphrasis. Though he liked to take his audience on a little journey before the end of his sentences, he felt it was too much to invert the beginning and the end.
Though Gaspar felt out of place in Klyrn, it was a bejeweled alienation that held his sense of wonder, and he did not miss Vanoor. Moreover, Gaspar was a lifelong hedonist, and only a holiday idealist. Even in reading The Treasury of Golden Heroes, he was less captivated by dragon slaying than by dragon gold. Thoughts of Lord Chmeryn's daughters were more appealing than sentiment for his country, and he knew that he would linger where he did not belong.
Knowing that the claws of cowardice might tear his resolve into tatters, Gaspar stopped at Lord Chemeryn's manor the next day to call on his eldest daughter Bryttienne. While he was most interested in the second daughter, a ravishing brunette that smiled as she listened to his adventures, he respected Klyrnish custom, which expected wooing to follow order of birth. Though in a perfect world, Bryttienne would offer him a gracious rejection, and her sister would seal their engagement with a kiss and bake him a pie, he could not spurn any match, as he was long in the tooth and only in season because Biter was a novelty to the Trade Lords, War Lords, and ladies of Klyrn. Moreover, he did not wish to offend his prospective trade partner, who had a house full of unwed daughters.
Which is not to say that Bryttienne's many sisters weren't eager for matrimony, but that she was the beast responsible for this hoard of eligible women. Half of her numerous suitors were spurned immediately, while those she disliked were strung along so that she could mock them to her handmaidens. At each tryst, she and her accomplices would stage a broader humiliation, until the detested lord withdrew their courtship.
If Gaspar went unprepared, Bryttienne would have minced him with a few choice cuts, but her father seasoned him with sage advice: say little, ignore Bryttienne's discourtesies, eschew kindness and affection like vipers, and enjoy himself. "Though none would hold you to our ways, and I would prefer you in the company of one of my soft-hearted daughters, I appreciate your graciousness, Gaspar. When Bryttienne is not paraded in high society, the Lords of Klyrn only gossip of her rude episodes and forget she is eligible and smart in a dress." Despite this complimentary advice, Gaspar proceeded with as much trepidation as he had in the griffin nest, though Lord Chemeryn's oldest daughter seemed more of a voluptuous flower, her crushed velvet dress so crimson that it seemed voraciously fed on every shade of red from blood to merlot.
The occasion celebrated by Lady Intawaia was the acquisition of a lifesize bronze unicorn for her sculpture garden. Until she became too intoxicated for other than sloshed dancing, the noblewoman could be heard bragging to everybody who was anybody that the statue cost more to ship than to commission. Before Lady Intawaia made it around to Gaspar, Byrttienne led him between two orange rosebushes in the shadow of a stone elephant, where his sticky underarms soon chilled in the cool breeze, though this did not stop the cold sweat beading on his forehead and palms. In the flare of the hissing garden lamp, Bryttienne was enveloped by a doubled shadow, so that it seemed one woman lurked in another; in the snarl of her perfect, white smile, and the curl of lust crouching in her shapely physique, she seemed about to pounce. Though the flame of his identity died in fear, he desired Byrttienne. Though he had misgivings about her ill fame, she was curvaceous and favored with auburn tresses limned with a cherry red, so that she recalled the shape of his past desire.
"After talking shop with my father, you asked me to a soiree. What am I to think?"
"I'm only lonely, Bryttienne. While I am inclined to accept your father's attractive offer, honor compels me to finish my liege's business first, and I sought a pretty face to relieve the monotony of diplomacy."
"You think I'm pretty? I'm flattered, Gaspar. Am I my father's attractive offer?"
Gaspar was taken aback. As candor was a rare bird in Klyrn, Gaspar would be less surprised to see it perched on Lady Intawaia's stone unicorn than to hear the daughter of his long-winded friend speak so directly.
"Do I live up to your expectations?" said Bryttienne, her smile like one savoring a delicacy.
Gaspar could only repeat himelf, though "..." now took the form of stammering and pressing himself so flat against the elephant's cold marble base that he might have seemed a bas-relief.
"Am I living up to my reputation?" When she touched him, Gaspar felt a tremor, as if she had kindled some volcanic response. Then she stepped to one side, crossed her arms, and looked away. "I like you, Gaspar, so I'll speak in a plain style, as if my birthright and wardrobe were Vanoori. Though you know left from right, front from back, and fork from spoon, I require grander standards of my paramours. Moreover, if I were to encourage your attentions, I would soon find myself like you, a footnote to your griffin. Though you must be rich, and have influence with your king and pull with my father, if he had not instructed me otherwise, I would have left you here five minutes after our arrival."
"That would have been unfortunate, as it was his carriage that brought us here. Forgive me for not eliciting your interest."
"I'm easily distracted. Though you are eloquent, graceful, and mannered, you are so unobservant that you've been crashing into my rebuffs all evening. You haven't even noticed that I've been flirting with Lord Cassalia."
Having discussed the horse trade with Lord Cassalia only a few nights ago, Gaspar thought him a decent man. At Gaspar's glance, Lord Cassalia smiled with a chilly cordiality. "Is that Gaspar? It is! Lord Unduruk and I were just discussing you. Join us for a quick round of Qamary." Lord Cassalia's brow was tattooed with two horn-locked coppery rams, and Lord Unduruk's face and hands were clear of any device same his profuse gray beard and knuckle-hair
"While I am glad to see you, Lorc Cassalia, the lady and I are occupied."
"Would she not be better occupied in the company of two more handsome men?" Gaspar did not like the way more was accented, as the Klyrnish aristocrat nuanced it just so, that both two and handsome might be influenced by its orbit, and both two more and more handsome were intended.
"I fear I must decline."
"But you must join us, Gaspar. While two Klyrnish lords that put their heads together can propose a concept for congress, rescue a princess from a foul-smelling ogre, or skewer an oblivious beast, playing a three-handed game is beyond our capabilities."
As Qamary could only be played three-handed, it was an excellent contrivance for Lords Cassalia and Unduruk to annex Gaspar. Though Lord Chemeryn's insight prepared Gaspar for the status-seeking, griffin-coveting Klyrnish Lords, he was disjointed by Bryttienne's disclosure of Caassalia's sly overtures, so that he no longer knew whose loins they desired. And if they sought satisfaction on two fronts, Gaspar felt ill-equipped for a subtle, two-pronged conflict waged on the battlefield of his second language.
That said, he acquiesced to their invitation, which he took as an opportunity to humiliate them at Qamary. Since Gaspar loved card games, dice games, dance games, board games, and word games, and took to Qamary like a duck to water, the classic Klyrnish game was never new to him. The night of his arrival, he discovered it was his favorite Klyrnish pastime, and since that night, it remained the only Klyrnish pastime at which he excelled. Since he was accounted a Qamary master, not an evening would go by that dignitaries or lords—the importance of whom were only sometimes explained and rarely appreciated—would invite this Vanoori with the gaming gift to their table.
"If you insist," was all that Gaspar said. "Why not join us, Brytt?" Though Byrttienne glared to hear her name shrunk to a diminutive, she sat beside him and watched.
While at first the Lords Cassalia and Unduruk attempted to sabotage Gaspar with bon mots and double entendre, when he soon gained a prodigal advantage over them, the Klyrnish Lords became as quiet as canaries, and each of the players began to play well, with only the occasional chirp.
Meanwhile, Bryttienne said everything that came into her mind. "This is as ponderous as watching wyverns mate...I'm hungry. Where are the hors d'oeuvres and those little brandy snifters?...Don't move there, Gaspar...Oh, you should have moved there...Oh, you play much smarter than you look, Gaspar...Your Qamari pieces are wiser than you are, Gaspar...My bottom hurts from sitting. Let's dance...I'm going to talk to Lord Ameryda. I might be back... I'm back! Are you still playing the same game? Has anyone died playing this game?" Their table was cluttered by her tangential commentary until her satisfying acknowledgment that "you won, Gaspar!"
"Good game, Count Radigan. Let's play another."
"No, I'm exhausted. I'm going to find myself a different corner."
"Find one a little quieter, Radigan." Bryttienne looked daggers at Cassalia, then walked off with Gaspar.
"Have you thought on my father's offer, Vanoori?"
Gaspar said, "Though it was on the forefront of my mind the entire evening, I'm no better off now than before."
"Mere living should not concern one who so easily conquers games."
"Omnaro wrote that while art solves the complexity of life, a game counts many possible victories. One looks for closure, and the other for openings."
"Vanoori philosophy? Pfft."
"Klyrnish philosophy contains too much math for my taste."
"I am unsurprised," said Lady Bryttienne, "as I know your game, Gaspar."
"You live as you game, skimming your chances, appraising your odds, and cashing in too quickly unless you see the win. Since you dislike risk, you satisfy yourself with modest gains."
"You think I fold that easily?"
"It is tragic," breathed Bryttienne huskily, "as you have such a strong hand." She took his hand at this, caressing the palm and the fingers until he rasped a tense sigh, when she barked a cruel laugh and dropped it like a pair of twos. "If you only learned to stack the deck, Gaspar."
"You mean cheat?"
"I mean live like a victor. While I hoped to better appraise your value, after an hour in your corner, I am willing to propose a strategy. Since you're spent for the night, I'll phrase things in the simple, wooden way of the table games you adore."
"You say simple, I say elegant."
"Tell father I've accepted you as my suitor, and after a suitable show of affection, we'll be wed. But rather than you becoming my father's pawn, I'll go with you to Vanoori, your wife only in name."
"A marriage of convenience?"
"Call it only a marriage."
"While I see a lot in this match for you—you remain Lord Chemeryn's heir, retain your influence and property, and escape his reach--what's in it for me?"
"Money and power. As my share of father's riches is immodest, and Vanoori nobles court outlanders just as we do, the increase of your wealth and prestige would be immeasurable."
Perhaps because Gaspar was once tempted into wedlock with an older Baroness and the promise of prestige, only to be disappointed when that upward mobility was packaged with inadequate riches to fuel his upstart ambitions, he was both desirous and wary of the younger and less entitled Lady's offer. While he had already climbed higher than he had ever dreamed, both literally and figuratively, Gaspar would always have an appetite for altitude, and Bryttienne's modest title was only the tip of Lord Chemeryn's enormous wealth and vast estates, any one of which would take days to explore, while leaving an abundance of detail for future excursions.
That said, Gaspar knew the deal was uneven; in his first marriage, Adelae told him that she loved him, so that he was marrying into not only prestige and riches, but a wealth of affection. Though the treasure was a derelict lighthouse and the affection a honeypot that flowed for any that wanted a taste, the illusion of believing his ambitions satisfied carried him through the wedding.. On the other hand, while he appreciated Bryttienne's honesty, she made clear from the start that she did not love him; moreover, his title was a match for hers in Klyrn and Vanoor, so that she could only tantalize him with wealth. Though interested in satisfying Lord Chemeryn with a match, by pursuing Bryttienne's sister, he might score in two of the three columns.
"I must decline your offer, Lady Bryttienne. Although generous, it is also unfair to me, who is only recently a widower from one loveless union and shy of being suited in another, regardless how much my greed might be satisfied. Greed is a swinish thing, and if you let me muddy my feet in your gold, romp in your castles, and eat from your trough, we'd be a pigkeeper and pig, not wife and husband. Here's my counter proposal: I'll tell Lord Chemeryn things went well, and I'll take you out tomorrow. By making a habit our of our acquaintance, we might become the couple you propose we pretend to be."
She did not talk for several minutes, during which she seemed to take an interest in her coach window, open on peasants wrapped in indigo, black, or green robes, and on storefronts, each garishly painted to distinguish them from their neighbors. While Gaspar's window was open, he was sozzled from four flutes of brandy, and though the horses only moved at a tidy clip, the peasant pageantry seemed a great wave of sickness, so he closed his eyes until he blurred into the smells of sesame-crusted bread, lamb stew, chicken and almond pastillas baked in a strong aroma of cinnamon, and the strong scent of lemons, in lemon ices, lemonade, and lemon tea. When Gaspar rattled the coach belll, the carriage stopped, and the coachman left them to satisfy Gaspar's impassioned and tipsy plea for food, as well as Bryttienne's honeyed request for an orange, which was so dulcetly said that Gaspar then craved nothing but oranges.
"I have one provision." Bryttienne said, crossing from her seat to Gaspar's. "If your experiment satisfies you that I will never be a loving wife, you will chaperon me to Vanoor as I wish to see the Royal Theater." As the thought lingered, she began to argue her unromantic proposition more passionately than he had ever been wooed. She held his hand between hers in her warm lap and leaned into him, so that he felt the press of her breasts. Her scent of rose, jasmine, and the bitter vanilla of agarwood mastered his drunkenness, though the sudden sobriety was streaked with an intoxicating ardor that seemed remarkable towards such an honestly vicious woman, as if she was an arsonist of lust that had set his body ablaze.
He spoke through the painful scrunch of his suddenly dry lips. "Less as a courtesy or a favor to your father than to satisfy my own passion for the theater, I will only too gladly accompany you there, and to the grand opening of the Pennyroyal. That said, take care not to tell a soul, as I won't shepherd your whole brood."
"I wouldn't dream of my sisters taking a lock or thread from my Gaspar," she said, twirling her finger in the graying brown ringlets he had grown on Wysaerie, "as none will not-love you as well as I not-love you. Where are you taking me tomorrow?"
"While I can't remember the affair, I'm certain there is one. Can your reputation as a maneater withstand our friendship?"
"Until tomorrow, Count Radigan. If you play the knight and not the fop, I may let you see my tattoo."
As the carriage shipped them to Lord Chemeryn's estate, he mused that he had honored the lord's rules in Qamary, only to drag them in the wake of Bryttienne's crimson train. If this night was a mistake, he well knew how to downplay a bad hand to make a profit.
The next morning, he was stirred by the knock of Lord Chemeryn's horseman, whose shout of "Count Radigan!" rattled his hangover. All four syllables were stressed with military urgency.
"I'm awake. But only just," he called through the door. "What is it?"
"Your presence is requested."
"Tell Bryttienne I'll be along."
"It is Lord Chemeryn that calls, my lord."
While a visiting dignitary would be allowed to take their good sweet time, Gaspar thought not to upset his only friend, and donned riding clothes of opalescent silk checkered many shades of green which Lord Chemeryn gifted to him upon arrival. When he opened the door, and saw a horseman both younger and much shorter than his baying voice suggested, Gaspar reined in his smile. It was only right to respect a stripling that accomplished such an out of scale noise, and he strove to give the lad a somber smile, though it was much easier than stifling his laugh at the absurdly sweet strains of the king's choir of castrati which sang during his welcome. It might have been his hangover, but the juxtaposition of these thoughts troubled Gaspar. If the Klyrnish concealed hidden motives in their rotund way of speech, Gaspar wondered if he should worry about the symbolism in other things—was the song of the castrati an assertion of Vanoor's powerlessness that the Klyrnish king waved in his face, and was this roaring young man a way of Lord Chemeryn giving Gaspar the finger so early in the morning? He hoped he had not offended Lady Bryttienne, and thereby his only supporter.
Though rocks tell more tales than servants in Klyrn, where laws governing masters and servants are draconian, Gaspar thought to loosen the horseman's lips with idle chatter, and by a feathery stroke on the right side of Biter's neck, signaled the griffin to ride alongside. While the warhorse's nostrils flared, and it lifted its head to a higher bearing so that it now seemed to prance, it seemed less fearful than enraged at the presence of its indifferent predator.
"What a wonderful day," said Gaspar. "You have had little rain during my stay."
"Though we do get little rain, my lord, you are wise to call it a wonderful day."
Though Gaspar detected a sardonic note in the young horseman, he blithely continued. "I'm never wise at this hour. Especially when I feel one beer short of a barrel. Are you a drinking man?" Any pretense of Klyrnish elocution was banished by Gaspar's profound hangover.
"I am whatever my master bids me to be, my lord—though he cannot command skillfulness, so that no matter the many uses he makes of me, I can only call myself horseman, Since my master bade me to do as you ask, I could fetch us ale or wine, though I am only a passable drunk and no master inebriate like my lord."
Gaspar laughed. "I've never been called a sot with so much civility. No, I'm in a fog already. Not only do I not know where I'm going and to what purpose, I barely know my own name."
At this, the horseman was silent.
"How are you called, young man?"
"Toromal, my lord."
"Toromal, call me Gaspar."
"If I accepted such a gift, I might beggar my honor and my life. Not only do I not have a way to repay you for such generosity, my lord, but the price for forgetting myself is steep."
"Believe me, my lean pedigree is no gift. And certainly not your life?"
"The punishment for familiarity is twenty-nine lashes, my lord. Adultery is only twelve."
"Call me Count Radigan then."
"As you wish, Count Radigan."
"What I wish, Toromal, is to know the cause of such urgency." Gaspar regretted his artless question even as he asked it.
"While I might answer if I knew, Count Radigan, Lord Chemeryn does not make his mind known."
"Where are we going, Toromal? I do not recognize these roads." Gaspar now feared he offended Bryttienne, and Lord Chemeryn ordered Toromal to lead him into danger. How many lashes, Gaspar wondered, or was only one fatal stroke required to restore their honor?
"We meet Lord Chemeryn at the king's stables." As stables are not the typical backdrop for breakfasts, lunches, or teas, this did not alleviate Gaspar's suspicions; in fact, it seemed like the ideal setting for beating one's frustrations out of a visiting dignitary.
They rode the rest of the way in silence. Biter's wings twitched and her ears fidgeted. Was she sensitive to Gaspar's anxiety, or was this animal premonition, like that of hounds and horses?
When they passed through the king's outer gates, they rode several miles more through a vast estate, first through an immense orchard of nut trees that would have swallowed Vanoor's entire palace and court districts, then through a huger grove of fruit trees redolent of oranges and lemons, then through fenced-in flocks of chickens, geese, and ducks, and corraled herds of horses, goats, and cows. The Klyrnish king's stables rivaled the Royal Theater in size, and shook with the screeching of wyverns and the neighing of horses.
"Gaspar!" Lord Chemeryn called from a bench, where he sat with a tall, aged man in dark red riding leathers and boots. Though the other man took pains to cover his identity in more plainly aristocratic clothes, his grooming betrayed a luxury graven by many hands. Though he wore not his crown, his face was less man than carving, and the Klyrnish king was the image of his nation even in Lord Chemeryn's riding clothes. His mustache lolled below the jutting point of his oiled and braided charcoal gray beard, his eyebrow tips curled three times, and a black dragon tattoo descended on his nose, its fang-filled mouth merging with the border of his upper lip, its spine and tail flicking up the bridge of his nose to his brow, and its fanned wings crowding red and green wyvern tattoos on his left and right cheeks.
This was the most striking tattoo Gaspar had seen in Klyrn,
"Your majesty," Gaspar hoped he bowed deep enough to satisfy the king.
"Count Radigan, thank you for joining us at this early hour. Forgive our unusual meeting place, but it's apt for the matters we must hatch between us, as the noise of the beasts will drown out any eavesdroppers."
"Hatch, your majesty? Should I have acquired your permission before offering Biter's firstborn?"
"Gaspar, men of honor may conduct whatever dealings they wish without a king meddling in their affairs, and I am only too happy to hear that you and Lord Chemeryn are using that exchange of favors to solemninze your friendship. No, I wished to discuss political secrets with you before they became news, and then seeped down to common gossip."
"Your majesty, as I only poorly understand Klyrn, Klyrnish political secrets will befuddle me. Moreover, I strive not to listen to gossip, since I am told that much pertains to me."
"Though political, this disclosure also touches on you personally, Gaspar. Klyrn chooses not to ally with Vanoor at this time."
"I will be sorry to bear these tidings to King Algus, your majesty."
"About that, Gaspar. Shortly before your arrival, we entertained your acquaintance, Ilmar Andercruik. This wizard offers more favorable terms as well as stronger incentives, starting with twenty griffins and the return of Sedafa to Klyrn."
"But Sedafa belongs to Vanoor."
"Indeed." When the Klyrnish king smiled, it seemed that he was about to laugh, but then mastered himself. "Though Ilmar promises what he does not own, together we can produce it. When he offered to escort you to Vanoor, however, we demurred. Lord Chemeryn strongly argued in your favor. and the court is fond enough of your quirks that we would prefer you remain ensconced with us as friend and guest rather than return you to a quick, inglorious death. Sadly, you will be unable to tether either your resignation or our refusal to King Algus. Do not worry, we will announce our own intentions forthwith. In the meantime, you will reside with our mutual friend, Lord Chemeryn, who will be accountable for you in this time of strife until we can provide you with a position commensurate to your status."
"I don't understand," said Gaspar. "While you make it sound like I'm an honored guest, when I hear of Ilmar, Sedafa and my death, I wonder if I'm a hostage or prisoner of war."
"I will say only that your position is precarious, Gaspar, and you will enjoy your stay if you are satisfied to leave it just as I have said, with you defined as our beloved friend. We do not allow beloved friends to fly into death, even if we must post a detail of archers to prevent it." Here the Klyrnish king waved over four men tattooed with the black dragon on their right hands and under their right eyes. "These young men are responsible for your person, living or dead. While your social calendar might dry up when the peerage learn you are under the king's protection, try to enjoy this sabbatical as much as being an ambassador."
"Gaspar," said Lord Chemeryn, "forgive this political expediency, as my offer of friendship has not changed."
Gaspar turned to Lord Chemeryn. How could he forgive a friend of this much subterfuge? Though Gaspar could have argued King Algus's case more stridently had he known he was in a contest with Ilmar, Lord Chemeryn said nothing of the wizard's presence in Klyrn.
"Radigan," said the Klyrnish king, "don't lose your best friend. When Ilmar heard of your arrival, he demanded your head and your griffin's feathers for a headdress. Since he became so ugly in his negotiations, and you were so polite and composed, we almost took your side. When we decided that we could not decline the wizard's offer, it was Lord Chemeryn who spoke on your behalf. And he was only one voice of many concerned with your fate, since Klyrn values friendship nearly as much as gold."
"Not only is your majesty wise and kind, but I am grateful for Lord Chemeryn's assurances of friendship." Far from feeling a patriotic duty to protest or escape, Gaspar was relieved that his responsibilities to Algus had ended, for not a day went by that he had not dreamed of shirking them; not that he was particularly disloyal to king and country, but as Gaspar proceeded from shopkeeper to wizard's minion to king's herald, he enjoyed the increase of his indolence at each stage, so that now his laziness was gratified in not having to make the long trek back to Vanoor. Moreover, though he felt alienated in Klyrn, he was unloved in Vanoor, and only one person in his homeland affected him more than the sight of his king's enemies bending over backwards to accommodate him.
Mostly, Gaspar was satisfied that his head was not wrapped up in a gift basket.
Though he now stood little chance of delivering a trip to the Royal Theater short of touring Vanoor after it was sacked, he hoped Bryttienne would still have him, for their marriage of convenience seemed a good way to tie down his friendship with Lord Chemeryn.
On their way back to Lord Chemeryn's estate, Lord Chemeryn rode with the carriage window open, so that he could talk with Gaspar, who rode Biter to the side of the coach. Without invitation the king's four archers climbed onto the carriage's running boards.
"Forgive me, Gaspar," said Lord Chemeryn "I knew about this treachery before you arrived. Though we had nearly decided to accept the wizard's offer, I convinced the king that there would be little time in entertaining you and your proposal. At the least, I said, it would be diverting. Though as a loyal subject, I could tell you nothing, my open dislike of the wizard may have encouraged his premature return. When his hourly calls for your head became tedious, I told him that I could make a head fall at his feet any time he wished. That said, none of this proves my friendship, given what you have just experienced."
"Think nothing of it," said Gaspar. "It only means I get to procrastinate my happiness."
Though Lord Chemeryn looked disappointed at this response, he only said 'Think on that Gaspar, during your branding."
"Branding?" Gaspar swelled with horror.
"What do you think of a griffin for your tattoo?"