“So now they want to put us down in the third tier between the Dynasties and Sarvarthi?” Djaren asked, tapping the map with his pencil. He and Isakoa, teenaged king of the Tembelakan islands, were sharing tea with the ambassador at the little Shandorian embassy in Cambriol. The Shandorian ambassador to Arien had a guest, his counterpart who worked in Levour. That gentleman, Darcere, was a tall, thin man with hooded eyes and a bored demeanor that likely helped him in Levour.
Darcere nodded in despair. “Preseriope was recently divided in two, and each demands representation in the second tier, as recognized allies of Firaus and Vespiri respectively,” he said. “They have the clout, so they get the spots. I’ve been fighting it as hard as I can, but we have no push with them, and no larger allies to lobby. So down we go.” He waved his fingers, emulating water splashing downward.
Djaren shook his head and sighed. “No one back home is going to like it. The council’s been on about stressing how modern and scholarly and up to date we are. How un-annexable we should appear. Now they’re putting us between a country that Vespiri has just bought out, and the next course that the trade companies can’t wait to have for dinner. Anna’s going to have fits when she hears about the new site, and she’ll probably find and strangle everyone responsible, if she’s not exhausted from having strangled the committee already back home.”
Isakoa threw a pencil at Djaren. “At least you have a full pavilion. They only gave Tembelaka turns at a performance stage and a tiny ‘savage’ camp for the performers.”
“But isn’t escaping notice and disappearing from the world just what you want?” Djaren glared over at the king, who was lounging in the window he used for a door.
“You should try it,” Isakoa said.
“We’re attached to the continent, not safe behind miles of reef. If the industrialized nations find out what mineral deposits we’ve been sitting on all these years, or half a dozen other secrets we have, they’ll be over us like ants on sugar. We have to look modern and too much like our advanced neighbors for them to think of invading.”
“It won’t work forever,” Isakoa said. “No matter how pale you try to be, or how you adjust your accents, or dress in the fashions, it won’t hold them off. The trade nations are nearly ready to turn cannibal on one another.”
Djaren frowned, annoyed. “I’m not trying to be pale. It’s just what happens when there’s no real sun for months and it’s too cold not to wear layers.”
Isakoa, brown and tattooed and seemingly comfortable in shirtsleeves in any season, only shrugged.
Kara, just as brown, but perpetually overdressed, walked in without knocking. “It’s awful out there,” she scowled.
“Raining?” Djaren looked to the window.
Kara shook water from her new oversized men’s coat. Her old one had perished from a long life of adventure. “No, I was exploring the sewer.”
“Anything notable?” Djaren asked. “They got the rest of the body snatching rings, didn’t they?”
She hesitated, just long enough to make Djaren worry, then sighed. “I found a few things the cultists dropped.” She held out a silver pendant, with the stylized old Corestemarian symbol for Vashiel the Skylord, and coughed. “Later we, we should, ah, research. This.” She coughed on the unfamiliar word, and looked sideways at Darcere.
“I won’t ask.” The Shandorian diplomat lifted thin hands. “Just please let’s not have another war with Corestemar. The falling temple could have been faulty ancient construction on sandy soil, and it never got back to your parents, Djaren, but all the same, a religious war is in very bad taste. Best not to stir that up.”
“We’re not the ones stirring,” Djaren began.
“But you’re a stirrer. You stir things. You cause a stir. Kindly focus your energies on making us friends and allies, not ancestral enemies.”
Kara looked rueful at the bit about ancestral enemies, and Djaren wished they could talk more, but then there was another sets of maps and plans and lists of nations and dignitaries to look over.
“None of these people want to be friends,” Djaren said, flipping through the sheaf.
“When has that ever stopped you?” Isakoa asked, winning a reluctant grin from Kara. Djaren smiled too, when she did.
“Maybe we can invite more princes to come along next time we go hunting through tombs or sewers.”
Darcere shuddered. “Please don’t. Hmm. I don’t suppose, though, that we could have any sort of civilized soiree at the Shandorian pavilion that could hold a candle to the sort of gatherings they’ll be having in the salons.”
“I’m sure whatever we have will be loads better than those boring things,” Djaren said.
“You’ve been?” Kara asked him, while Isakoa looked on keenly.
“Well, no. But from what I’ve read it’s all champagne and snails and sharp critiques of people’s hats and shoes.”
“Glad to know that all our keenest minds and most well-travelled nationals get their news from the same articles in the Post and Journal,” Darcere sighed.
“Well, I mean, I’ve been wanting to try snails,” Djaren shrugged, as Isakoa smirked. “But I don’t have any interesting hats.”
“If you’re going to be a diplomat, you’ll have to start picking some more up, both figuratively and literally,” the old ambassador said.
“I feel I’ve too many figurative ones,” Djaren said. “I could start a metaphorical haberdashery with them all. My professors all tell me that if I’m to be a proper architect, engineer, lawyer, archeologist, or historian, I shall have to focus on just that, to the exclusion of the others.”
“But you want to be everything to everyone, because you can’t be want you want to be,” Kara said drily.
“Well, of course everyone wants to be you.” He made a face at her.
“I meant your father,” she said.
“Oh,” said Djaren, feeling struck. That stung like something true.
“Speaking of which, you have letters from home, and your cousin Tani has sent you an engineering problem to solve.” Darcere handed him a letter. “I expect I’ll be kept busy with all the customs and legal work to do with the exhibition. There are a number of headaches in all our futures.”
“Not mine,” said Isakoa. “Invite me, though, to whatever Shandorian feast you arrange. My people are known for some amazing headwear.”
* * * * * *
Dear Miss A. Darvin,
I must plead your forgiveness for what I’ve done. You’ve every right to curse my name, but before you do, I hope that you will meet with me on the exhibition grounds in Levour to look over the new plans. The reassignment of our location has thrown the committee into chaos, and they have accepted an earlier draft of your plans, with some notable changes which I pray you’ll forgive me for my part in creating. You shall have to come to Levour to curse me for it, though, as my penance is to be that I am now overseeing implementation of said plans and was sent away on the first train with most of the greenery. I pray you will follow soon after, either to rescue or to flay me. I have taken ransom those paintings by Verescinthe DeAngelli you wished to exhibit, so you simply must come, if only to rescue them from improper display. If you have any mercy, please bring the twenty-eight wildflower sets and the grove of willows on the same train as the stones I’ve had ever so much bother getting permission to move. Please forgive me also for submitting your name for the position of one of the committee members who is no longer willing to take on the role originally assigned to him.
Yours, in as much as you’ll bear me,
Assistant to the Director of the Shandorian Exhibition, Miss A. Darvin
Postscript: Please say you’ll rescue me.
Post postscript: Because really, I’ll make a mess of things here.
Post post postscript: You shall find me upon my knees, eyes brimming with grateful tears. Also, please bring the four tons of earth we seem somehow to have left behind. Really, you’d best leave at once.
Anna threw the letter on the ground and grabbed a pillow off her cot to scream into. She was done with this. She wasn’t allowed to be done with this. It was a nightmare that wouldn’t end. She’d petitioned for months to be allowed to take twelve of Verescinthe’s paintings to the exhibition, then just eight, then six, then four, and been told that they were national treasures too valuable to transport. Which ones had Teresthan managed to escape with? And how? And which earlier version of plans was he working from? Was it a draft from before the committee had started asking for completely contradictory things? Anna threw the pillow across the room and flopped down onto her cot with that headache she now got any time anyone said “a few modest changes.” Then she got up and began stuffing her belongings into bags. Stubbornness was the most Shandorian trait of all, didn’t they say?
“I’m the new Director of the Exhibition,” she realized. “And I’m going to skin my assistant.”
She took deep breaths and began steadily and calmly to pack. She did not bring a skinning knife, but she did bring more than one of her favorite daggers. “In case of adventure,” she told herself. “Only adventure ought to know better than to look for me when I am in a mood like this.”
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