Arwin Tsocco, the Kelvon ambassador, came to the palace to visit his friend, the King, the next Tuesday, as he always did if circumstances allowed. “Arwin!” cried the King in delight as he entered the entrance hall, where the doorman had taken his guest “Welcome! Really glad you could make It!”
“Good to see you, my friend!” replied the ambassador as he handed his coat to the doorman, who left the room with it. “The ride from the embassy really works up a thirst, though. I hope you have some more of that excellent Harrolian tark laid in.”
“Something even better, my friend! I've come into possession of something really special. Three crates of Kelnish wine!”
“Kelnish wine?” said Arwin, his eyes widening in surprise. “The Emperor himself couldn't get any of that stuff! How did you get It?”
“It was a gift from King Altor, in return for a favour I did him. Let's open a bottle tonight, shall we? Drinking it by myself is no fun.”
“You are full of surprises, Bill! What other little treasures have you got hidden up your sleeves? A cup of glee powder? A clutch of pearl beetles?”
“I think Kat might take exception to that! I’d like to offer you one of the crates, though, to take back home. You can impress Tyron by serving it to him next time he visits your home. Should do wonders for your reputation.”
Arwin laughed. “Thank you! I accept! Tyron will think I raided Altor’s wine cellar! Maybe he'll make me the new Director in charge of Special Acquisitions.”
Leothan chuckled. Very few people knew that there actually was such a person, whose job was to ‘acquire’ things for the Emperor by any means necessary. Arwin had confided this to him during one of their previous drinking nights, and had later jokingly accused the King of getting him drunk on purpose in order to get him to say things he shouldn't. Leothan had just laughed in reply.
“Shall we go?” said the King, gesturing the way up one of the long, sweeping staircases to the first floor. The two men followed the familiar route along the upper corridor, past huge landscape paintings by the best artists of the past three hundred years and little alcoves in which chairs with cushions of padded green velvet stood against the wall in case someone might want to sit on them, although to the best of the King’s knowledge, nobody ever had. They passed a maid along the way, who stood with her back against the wall and lowered her head until the two men had passed.
Near the end of the corridor was the room they always used for their private meetings, and as they entered Arwin saw that the palace staff had set up the Glory board for the game they liked to play together. The starting pieces, round flat discs, gold on one side, ivory on the other, were all in their correct places, and the box standing beside it contained the extra pieces that the players would recruit during the course of the game.
Also on the table was the promised bottle of Kelnish wine, dusty with age and the label curling where it had come partially unstuck from the bottle. King Leothan pulled the cork, then poured a glass of the silvery liquid into a crystal glass. He handed it over to the ambassador, then poured another glass for himself.
Arwin lifted the glass to his nose, took a long sniff, then took the very slightest sip. He stared up at the intricately carved wooden panels in the ceiling as he savoured it. “Superb!” he said, then took another sip. “Sharp, with a bite to It. The Emperor will love It!”
The King took a sip from his own glass, and tried to keep an expression of disappointment from his face. He'd tasted better, he thought, or perhaps he just lacked the palate to appreciate it. He put the glass aside and took his place at the table. Arwin sat opposite him. “Has there been word from the Brigadier?” asked the ambassador. “He's been gone some weeks now, hasn't he?”
“We have no means of communicating with Mekrol,” replied Leothan. “The nearest city with a telegraph connection is Barlowe, and that's nearly a thousand miles away from the direct route he’ll be following. We won't know whether he’s been successful until he actually arrives back.”
“May Those Above be with him, and please be assured that the good wishes of all the people of the Empire are with Princess Ardria, and with you.”
“Thank you. It's harder on the Queen than it is for me. I have matters of state to occupy me. I can go nearly a full hour sometimes without thinking of my daughter, of what she's going through, but Kat spends every waking moment in purest agony. Even sleep is no escape. She dreams of Ardria. She has nightmares. The doctors try to help her. They give her potions that are supposed to make her sleep dreamlessly, they don't work. She barely eats, she spends far too much time with the Princess.” He ran a hand through his hair and gave a tremulous sigh. “I thank Those Above for Lady Dwen. She and the Queen have become great friends lately, I hardly dare to think what kind of state Kat would be in by now without her, but even so I fear that this will kill her before the Princess ceases to be human. This agony is more than the human frame can bear.”
“If it is proved that the Carrowmen did this, you can be sure that they will be punished,” promised Arwin. “This is a crime that has shocked and horrified the whole world. The people responsible will have made themselves pariahs before all humanity.”
The King nodded his gratitude. “You are the only person I can talk to about this,” he said. “In front of my own people, in front of the Queen, I have to be strong. To my ministers and advisors I have to be a leader, and to my people I have to be a figurehead, a symbol of continuity and unity. You are the only person to whom I can speak freely. Without you, these worries would eat me alive from the inside.”
“You can always say anything to me, my friend, just as I know I can say anything to you.” He indicated the Glory board. “Your turn to play gold, I believe. Never let it be said that I don't play fair.”
Leothan smiled. “You've been lucky in the past. Not this evening, though. Tonight, I intend to kick your skinny arse up one side of the board and down the other!” He picked up three of the central guardsmen, placed so that their golden faces were uppermost, and moved them one place forward.
Arwin picked up one of his own guardsmen, placed with its ivory side uppermost, and moved it two places forward. Then he moved one of his archers to cover it against attack. The archer had two service tiles sitting on it, to indicate that it was an experienced veteran, and therefore more powerful than a new recruit. The King then moved one of his cavalry pieces, also with two service tiles, to the side, to threaten the archers. The Porovian opening. Their games almost always started this way, but tonight the King intended to try the Dulcian variation. See what the ambassador makes of that! he thought with amusement.
“Did you get that redfruit plantation you wanted?” he asked as Arwin recruited his first three conscripts and placed them next to his training ground.
“Yes, I did. Had to pay a little more for it than I'd expected, but if it’s handled right it'll pay for itself within five years, and then it'll be pure profit, year after year. My pension. Unlike yourself, I won't have the same job until the day I die. Got to give some thought to my declining years.”
“Retirement,” said the King, as if savouring the word on his tongue. He moved his cavalry to surround Arwin’s archer and took it, removing it from the board. He dropped the pieces into the box, to be used later. Arwin countered by moving his conscripts away from his training ground to make way for some more on his next move. “I sometimes try to imagine what it would be like to retire, but it’s like trying to imagine being able to fly. I'm the King, and I'll be King until I go back to the earth. That's the reality of my life,”
“You could abdicate one day,” pointed out the ambassador. “Other kings do. When Ardria's been cured and has grown into her role, you could lay down the burden and let her take over. Enjoy some well earned peace and quiet.”
“I just wouldn’t know how to do that. I'd want to keep interfering, offering advice. Ardria would probably end up having to throw me into a dungeon.” He moved his cavalry further forward, then moved his own archers to threaten Arwin’s conscripts. The time to take them was before they could be trained, while they were still almost powerless and helpless.
“So you're a landowner now,” he added. “A hundred acres, did you say?”
“About that, and over a hundred staff. I’ll need to hire a new manager though. The old one went with the old owner and took all his experience with him. Finding people who know now to grow redfruits won't be easy. A good one can pretty much name his own price.” He placed three more recruits on the board, and moved his cavalry to block the King’s approach.
“Can't you just promote one of the hired hands? They've done the work, they must know it all just from having been there, seeing it done.”
“There are a dozen different jobs, and each man only does two or three over the course of his career. Only the manager knows everything. I suspect they keep it that way on purpose, to maintain their own value.”
“Then the first thing I would do was move the men around regularly, give them a wider experience. You can't allow a hireling to hold a whip hand over you. If you’ve got half a dozen good men with broad experience, all ready to take over the manager's job if necessary, the fellow will remember his place better.” He moved his cavalry to attack Arwin’s cavalry, and while the ambassador's pieces were all occupied with the defence of his homeland he took the opportunity to conscript some new troops of his own.
“I’m pretty sure someone else has already had the same idea. Somehow though, the managers are still calling the shots. It seems to be something you just have to accept if you want to get into the redfruit business.” He moved his sergeant towards his conscripts. Had to get them trained before the King could cut their careers short. “Also, I'll need someone who can work without need for supervision for a few years. It's going to be a while before I'm free to take charge personally, I hope. I'll need someone I can trust to get a crop sown, raised and harvested all on his own, without ruining the estate or embezzling the place dry. Some people have already been recommended to me. I'm going to have to find the time for interviews.”
“Pity plants can't just adopt globs, like animals.” The King pressed his attack, taking another of Arwin's cavalry pieces. “It's a messy business, all that flowering and pollinating and growing seeds.”
“Don’t talk to me about globs,” growled the ambassador. “They're a real pest! Every night they climb the stalks and eat the leaves. If you get up early enough in the morning, the whole plant's glistening with jelly! Weighed down by the weight of It! Looks like a heavy dew at first, but then you see it moving, creeping. Oozing back down the plant to the soil as the sun rises.” He reached into the box for some service tiles, and as he brought them out one slipped through his fingers and fell to the floor. He bent down to pick it up, and as his head was lowered he seemed to freeze for a moment, as if he'd seen something on the floor. He said nothing as he straightened again, though, and placed one tile on each of the new recruits directly adjacent to the sergeant, to indicate that they'd had training. Then he placed them on the nearest blue square to Indicate that they were cavalry.
“My wizard is always going on about the balance of nature. There are plenty of creatures that eat globs. Don’t they keep them under control?”
“They're supposed to, but they also have enemies. Everything’s food to something else. Even us, if we get careless.”
The King moved his own sergeant to train his new recruits, then pressed his attack with his experienced cavalry. The ambassador watched with dismay as his own cavalry was thoroughly routed, and withdrew his new recruits before they could also be taken. “You're on good form tonight,” he said as he reviewed his diminished forces.
“You always put too much effort into recruiting troops. Experienced veterans always beat conscripts, even on the Glory board.”
Arwin arranged his archers to form a perimeter behind which he could recruit a new cavalry force, while sending his guardsmen out to harry the King's attacking forces, but Leothan had gained too much of an advantage. The ambassador managed to drag the game out for another few moves, but eventually he was forced to accept the inevitable and sue for peace. They drank another glass of Kelnish wine, then cleared the board and set the pieces for a new game.
“Before we get started,” said Arwin, his eyes focused on the board as he considered his next strategy, “There is a matter of a little concern that the Emperor has asked me to discuss with you.”
Leothan looked up, suddenly worried. He wasn't fooled by the ambassador's casual manner. This would be important, maybe serious. “What is that?” he asked.
“As you know, we've been having some problems with our machineries lately. Sabotage, made to look like accidents.”
“Carrow. They want you to think that we're behind it. They want to drive a wedge between us.”
“So you have said, and we've always believed it. Carrow has a certain, reputation, shall we say. Their penchant for dirty tricks is well known.”
The game was forgotten now. The King stared at his guest. “You've always believed It?” He asked. “Past tense?”
“We have the contract to supply mining and pumping equipment to Utrell, as you know,” the ambassador continued. “That contract was one of the ones hit by the sabotage incidents, it was a major embarrassment for us that we were unable to deliver as promised. We had to compensate them, as per the clause in the contract. Quite a considerable sum of money.”
“You have my sympathy, but it was nothing to do with us, except indirectly. Carrow trying to hurt us by framing us for these acts.”
“So you have said, repeatedly. Imagine our surprise, then, when it turned out that Utrell had received a major delivery of equipment from another source. From you, they claim.”
“That is not true!” declared the King. “We would never do such a thing!”
“The Utrell ambassador to the court of the Emperor states that you did do such a thing. He claims that agents of Maywell Manning, your principal engine manufacturer, approached them on your behalf and offered to fulfil the contract for the same price we offered them...”
“That is completely untrue! It must have been Carrow agents, posing as Maywell Manning salespeople, trying to blacken our name! You cannot believe we would do such a thing! Losing the friendship of the Empire would be a major blow to us, would cost us far more than anything we would gain from one contract! It makes no sense that we would do such a thing!”
“What you say is true. Nevertheless, our agents were able to make a close examination of some of these pieces of equipment, and they say they are definitely of Helberion manufacture.”
“Clever imitations, I'm sure! Carrow has its own very capable arms manufacturers. If our people were to examine them, I'm sure we'd be able to find differences, proof that they are counterfeit.”
“Differences that would only be apparent to your experts I'm sure.” He held up a hand as the King started to say something. “Bill, I believe you! I do! You’re right, it would make no sense for you to do something so foolish and dangerous. There are people in court, though, whispering in the Emperor's ear that you are counting on people thinking that, that you wish to make a quick profit at our expanse and blame it all on Carrow. Others say that this is merely a part of some larger scheme, some ploy to increase your influence in the world. I don't believe any of this. I know you too well. We've been friends too long for me to believe you capable of such a gamble.”
“Thank you,” said Leothan, his fists clenched out of sight under the table. He hated the need to say such a thing to someone in his own palace. The needs of my people come first, he reminded himself. Pride is a luxury I cannot afford at the moment.
“Our friendship is well known in court, though. People are whispering to the Emperor that our friendship prevents me from being objective. They want me replaced with someone able to see with what they call a ‘clearer eye'.”
“This very conversation is proof that there is nothing wrong with your objectivity,” said the King. “And our friendship has benefited both our countries immensely over the years. I will get my people to work on this immediately! They will find proof of Carrow’s involvement, I promise you.” He rose from the table and went to the door. Outside, the guards on duty snapped to attention and Darnell, the King's Private Secretary, came forward. “Get Benley!” He commanded. “Now!” Darnell nodded and gave an order to one of the messengers standing beside him, who hurried off towards the administrative wing.
The next door down the corridor opened and Matron Darniss looked out, looking worried and alarmed. “Majesty?” she said. “Is anything wrong?”
“Nothing. Return to your duties.” The head of the household staff bowed her head and closed the door again.
While the King’s attention was diverted, Arwin bent down to snatch up the scrap of paper he'd seen on the floor earlier. Probably nothing, but you never knew. He stuffed it into a pocket without looking at it, and made sure his attention was fixed on the board before the King turned back to him.
“I promise you we will get to the bottom of this!” he assured the ambassador. “To be embarrassed like this in my own palace! Someone will pay, I promise you!”
“I'm sure they will,” replied Arwin. “Please, I urge you not to be too upset by this matter. It is Carrow, as you say. I’m certain of it. The Imperial Court is always full of gossip and accusation, most of it baseless. I wouldn't have mentioned it at all except that the Emperor instructed me to do so.”
“No, I'm glad you did,” the King replied. “I'm glad you brought this to my attention. Someone has set out to blackening our reputation, and I don’t intend to let them get away with it!”
“I wouldn't like to be in their shoes when you catch them!” Both men chuckled, and the awkward atmosphere that had fallen over the room dissipated. “It may take some time for Benley to turn up,” Leothan said. “He may not even be in the palace at the moment.”
“Then let's have another game and drink some more of this excellent wine while we wait. My turn to be gold, I think.” He looked at the board again, thought for a moment, and made the first move.
They played two more games, winning one each, and gossiped about the amusing activities and eccentricities of the people in their households and various celebrities known to them both. They were setting the board for a fourth game when there was a polite knock on the door. The King called for them to enter, and Benley entered, still dressed in his travelling clothes. “Pardon my appearance,” he said, “but I was conducting business in the city. A runner found me and said you wanted me. Since it seemed to be urgent I thought I'd better come straight away.”
“Yes, it is,” said the King, and quickly told the spymaster what the ambassador had told him. Benley looked grave. “We knew Utrell was getting equipment from somewhere other than the Empire,“ he said. “We assumed it was Carrow.”
“Which it almost certainly is,” replied the King.
“I admit we didn't give the matter much attention. We’re almost totally focused on Carrow military movements at the moment.”
“Well, from now on I want you to make it your top priority. Find out if Carrow is copying our equipment and find proof. Keep the Kelvon embassy fully informed on your investigation. Assign a man to liaise with them. Keep nothing from them regarding this matter.”
Benley glanced at the ambassador and nodded. “We will,” he said. “We'll get you answers. You have my word.” He bowed to the King and left the room, closing the door gently behind him.
“Please let the liaison officer know of any other incidents such as this,” he said to the ambassador. “If they’ve done it once, you can be sure they’ve done it again, or are planning to. I want to impress upon you our determination to honour the agreement we have with the Empire, informal though it is. Your continued friendship is more important to us than any number of supply contracts.”
“I will continue to remind the Emperor of that, my friend. The full power of the Kelvon intelligence agencies will also be pursuing this matter. Between us, we will uncover the truth.”
Darwin Tsocco stayed a hour or so longer, during which they played another couple of games and shared more jokes and anecdotes, but then the Ambassador made his apologies and said he had to go. “I'm meeting with some people from the cotton guild in the morning, and I’ll never get through it with mind and sanity intact unless I've got a clear head. The last time I arbitrated a dispute with them, it took me the rest of the week to recover.”
“With me, It’s the cattle association. I would never have guessed that raising beef could be so complicated. I hope you find a manager for your plantation.”
“Oh I’ll find one. It's must a matter of finding one who doesn't think he’s worth higher wages than I get, and who understands his status as merely the most senior member of staff.” The two men walked together back to the entrance hall, where the doorman had somehow been expecting them and was waiting with the ambassador’s coat. “Until next time,” said Arwin as he put it on and moved towards the door, where the doorman opened it for him.
“I look forward to it. I'll have the wine delivered to the embassy in the morning.”
The ambassador's carriage was waiting for him in the forecourt, and a footman opened the door for him as he climbed inside. Inside, Dav Herret, his chief aide, was waiting, and Arwin sat on the seat opposite him. “What did he say?” asked Dav.
“What we expected. It's all a Carrow plot. They'll look into it, and they expect to find proof of their innocence.”
“Do you believe him?”
Arwin sighed. “I don't know,” he admitted. “Yes, probably. I think he's probably telling the truth. I've known him a long time, I can't really believe him capable of this kind of duplicity. He's right about one thing. This is exactly the kind of dirty trick the Carrowmen like to play.”
“Which would make them the perfect scapegoats if Leothan was trying to edge into our markets.”
“Yes. Until someone finds some solid proof, It’s just a matter of who you want to believe. I might be wrong, Those Above know I've been wrong in the past, but I tend to believe the King. I just can't believe that he’s capable of lying to my face like that. Not unless he's been playing me from the very first day we met.”
He suddenly remembered the scrap of paper he'd picked up from the floor of their private room. Probably nothing. That room was probably used for private meetings with all kinds of other people. Other ambassadors, members of his own palace staff. Any time he wanted to have a conversation he didn't want overheard, and he probably took notes. It was probably just a reminder to himself to have some new dinner suits made, or something equally mundane. With most of his attention still on the discussion he'd just had with the King, therefore, he pulled the paper out of his pocket, smoothed it out as best he could, and scanned his eyes across it, the words barely registering on his consciousness...
Then he froze rigid. The paper now had all his attention, every smallest part of it. He hissed through his teeth and his hands tightened into fists, crumpling the paper again. “What is It?” asked Dav Herret, leaning forward in concern.
Arwin barely heard him. He smoothed out the paper again, thinking he must have misread it, or perhaps misunderstood what he'd read, but the words were still there, just as he remembered them. He began to shake with fury, and his aide watched with growing fear as he thumped his fist on the seat beside him with enough strength to bring the sound of cracking wood from the frame underneath. “DAMN IT!”