Spoilers if you haven’t read the book. Sort of.
This is a chunk taken out of a chapter – which was also cut – out of an early draft, so it’s abrupt and rough, though I’ve made a few slight changes so the scene makes more sense. Nothing really happens in it, which was one of the reasons it was tossed.
Another Dinner From Hell
“We’re to dine with the Emperor tonight,” Taro announced.
Son of a – “That’s quite an honour.” Said only because there was a maid in the suite with us.
“Aye. You’ll be expected to be in full rig.”
Of course I was. I was tempted to show up in a cotton shirt and those baggy trousers I wore when I was riding, with my hair teased into a mess and bare feet. And I might have, if the maid hadn’t called in Ethel, the woman who always set my hair and fussed with cosmetics in the vain attempt to make me look beautiful. She was a nervous creature, her hands always shaking and her gaze directed at the floor whenever Taro and I tried to talk to her. Sometimes I wondered if she was afraid of being punished if she couldn’t make me look good enough.
It was always hard for me to refrain from twitching and making Ethel’s task even more difficult. Ethel’s appearance usually meant I was going to have to be in the Emperor’s company, and I almost perceived her as an enemy, as the messenger of bad news. Every time I saw her, my stomach cramped with tension, and I wondered if I could claim illness to avoid the nightmare that was interaction with the Emperor.
Except I didn’t want to do anything to put the Emperor in a foul mood. He did irrational things when he was irritated. It was going to be bad enough to have the Emperor’s unadulterated attention for however many hours we’d be forced to share the table with him without deliberately goading him into punishing us.
Once I was finally as primped as Ethel could manage, Taro and I strode through the corridors with as normal a gait as possible in order to appear eager to appreciate the honour of being with the Emperor.
Relief swept through me as we entered the dining room and I saw others standing at the long table. There was seating for twenty-four, including the single chairs at the head and foot. The Emperor’s scrutiny would be diluted. Maybe he’d even forget we were there.
I didn’t remember seeing any of the people already at the table before, or any of those who came in after us. We all stood behind our chairs waiting for the Emperor. In silence. It seemed to me that when people were in the palace, they didn’t want to speak unless they absolutely had to.
In time, the Emperor’s arrival was announced, and he and Green swept in, her hand resting on his. I examined their faces, trying to determine if they were in harmony with each other that evening. I couldn’t tell. They both seemed calm.
They separated to stand at either end of the table. They didn’t sit, though, so we didn’t.
“Good evening,” said the Emperor, and we all mindlessly echoed him.
“This is the Erstwhile Pair,” said Lady Green, and everyone murmured a greeting to Taro and me. “This,” she gestured at the person beside her, “Is Trader Sarain Nighy and her husband Holder Cohen Pokorny. They are responsible for the general supplies for our … people.”
Their armed forces, I was guessing.
“These are Forgers Duval Canuel and Guiseppe Bason. They are gifted with forging weaponry. This is Trainer Loggia Ikeda, who handles our mounts, and her wife Breeder Foyelle Tachibana. And these are Surveyor Colm Boylan and Cartographer Rebhar Uchancishivilli. They are updating our maps and charts.”
We nodded to each other and expressed our pleasure in meeting each other. The Emperor sat, and we followed. Servants placed plates in front of us, green leaves laid out in a swirling pattern and covered with a thick white sauce. The Emperor picked up his fork and took a bite.
We took up our forks and scooped up the greens.
After about three bites, Gifford put his fork down, much of the dish remaining. We all put our forks down, and the plates were swiftly taken away. These were quickly replaced with bowls of soup. Having reminded everyone of their place, Gifford seemed prepared to eat the full serving.
After five mouthfuls, he said, “Surveyor, Cartographer, We must commend you on your excellent work studying the land and waterways of the continent. The changes you have made to Our knowledge will be invaluable. The time you spent travelling and collecting this information has demonstrated your true commitment to Our needs.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said the cartographer.
“They spent seven months studying every feature between here and Shidonee’s Gap,” the Emperor informed us all. “Not a word of complaint, nor any mention of any difficulties.”
Was that a shot?
Gifford turned back to the cartographer and the surveyor. “You have always shown true and deep loyalty for Our cause. We shall ever be grateful to you.”
Sure, right. Until he made a new rule and they violated it.
“Trainer, Breeder,” said the Emperor. “We have been given disturbing information concerning the funds you have been spending on the acquisition of stock.”
Both of them stilled. “Your Majesty.” Trainer Ikeda’s tone and manner was cautious. “The mounts require training very different from what has been traditional in Erstwhile. We require entirely different breeds.”
“You have been addressing these needs for years, now.”
Years? Gifford had been building up to this for years?
“Given the numbers necessary, Your Majesty, this is an enormous task. It takes time.”
“You have had time,” the Emperor snapped. “We feel you have wasted it and the funds given to you to meet your responsibilities. You will be given no further funds.”
The trainer’s mouth dropped open in shock. “But, Your Majesty, we don’t yet have the numbers necessary.”
The Emperor waved his hand in a sharp gesture. “It’s your responsibility to find the funds. Use your own, if you must.”
The trainer looked like she was prepared to voice further protest. I was sure everyone heard the breeder kick her under the table.
“Trader Nighy.” The Emperor’s voice slid into an even harsher tone. “The state of your organisation is inexcusable.”
Trader Nighy chose to avoid claiming a lack of responsibility. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
The Emperor’s eyebrows shot up. “You were aware of this failure but continued along the same paths?”
“Of course – No, Your Majesty. We - ” Suddenly, she looked at me, and then back at the Emperor. “The Mallorough and Pride alliance has been poisoning Your Majesty’s trade with most suppliers and farms and settlements.”
The Emperor shifted his gimlet gaze towards me. “Is that true?”
I scrambled for a response. “I receive little information from my family on business matters, Your Majesty,” I said, and then hated myself, realising my words had as good as confirmed that my family were doing as Nighy claimed. “I lack an understanding of such things.”
“They have been flagrantly flouting Your Majesty’s laws,” Nighy added.
That was actually true, as far as I knew. My family still lay relatively far from the eye of the Crown. They tended to ignore the laws they found particularly stupid, as did a lot of their connections.
“It is disappointing, alarming, and treasonous, Erstwhile Shield Mallorough, that your family persists in their illegal activities,” Gifford announced.
I could respond to this with nothing other than, “Yes, Your Majesty. I’m terribly sorry.”
“This was addressed shortly after your arrival in Erstwhile, was it not?”
No, but disagreement wasn’t an option. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“You are of the highest rank in your family.”
That would be a surprise to them. Mother was the head of the family. Besides, Sources and Shields didn’t have ranks, had no place in the social hierarchy, not according to the protocol of the regulars.
“You are responsible for having them cease this behaviour immediately.”
Did that mean I could write letters again?
“You will also have them send to Us a complete manifest of their assets and funds. They shall be compensating Us for their reprehensible activities.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.” I didn’t know how I could encourage my family to submit to the Emperor’s twisted will and still sleep at night.
“Trader Nighy, you will be responsible for enforcing Our regulations upon those individuals and organisations who have placed their interests over those of the Crown, as well as collecting from each all supplies necessary. You shall be provided with impressions of Our seal, to ensure they understand you have the Crown’s orders to do such. You will be provided with Imperial Guards to assist you in your efforts.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
They had to personally visit all those people and wrest supplies from them? That would take months.
“Which brings us to Our forgers.”
“One of your swords snapped during training today.”
Snapped? Snapped? I wouldn’t have thought that possible.
Canuel tried to echo the tactic of shifting blame. “Given the inferior quality and quantity of the supplies provided by Trader -”
But Gifford didn’t let him finish. “And your response to these circumstances is to make substandard blades?”
“It’s a little more complicated - ”
“The lives of our brave and noble Imperial Guards rely on having suitable weapons. Given your negligence, We have no choice but to strip you of your assets and order you to join the Imperial Guards as a soldier.”
All right, that was harsh, and yet I thought the punishment almost fit the crime. And I agreed it was a crime.
Had I been in Erstwhile too long, to think any punishment handed down by the Emperor was just, or was I actually going crazy?
I expected the Emperor to dismiss them, but after a few moments it became clear that he wasn’t going to. He was expecting them to keep eating after being torn to pieces in front of strangers.
“Erstwhile Source Karish.”
I was pretty sure I knew where this was going.
“We have been hearing disturbing news of your classes.”
Aye. Being right was fun.
“One suspects you might be deliberately avoiding giving them instruction.”
Taro widened his eyes in what I thought was a very convincing look of horror. “Your Majesty, I would never betray you in such a way! In any way!”
The Emperor studied him for a moment.
“Truly, Your Majesty. You may inquire of anyone, these are exactly the lessons I was teaching at the Triple S.”
“How do you explain the lack of progress?”
“Your Majesty, the Triple S has been, I believe, for years collecting the most talented Pairs it could find to learn these very tasks. You might have heard, Your Majesty, how many very talented Pairs were suddenly pulled from their posts without explanation.”
“We have, but why then was your Pair, the most talented Pair in the world, not called back until so very recently?”
“I’m afraid they never told us, Your Majesty. They felt it wasn’t necessary to give us a great deal of information that wasn’t directly connected to our task.”
Like the Emperor himself. “We see.”
“I believe this, as well as having access to a wide range of instructors, has given them a significant advantage over us.”
The Emperor scowled.
I looked at Green. I couldn’t read her at all.
“We shall consider your opinion,” the Emperor stated, but with a thread of warning in his voice.
How much leeway would Taro’s oath and perceived lack of wits buy us?
“Erstwhile Shield Mallorough.”
Of course. It wasn’t as though I had expected to be spared the interrogation being slapped on the others, but it would have been nice.
“If Erstwhile Source Karish’s classes are disappointing, yours are disastrous.”
It took me a moment to figure out what to say. Agreeing would merely prompt the condemnation Trader Nighy had received. I could use Taro’s argument that the casters had lacked the advantages of those of the Triple S, which was true, but it would sound weak employed for a second time. So I decided to try a slightly different angle. “Your Majesty, there are casters who are very strong, stronger than those I was teaching in Shidonee’s Gap,” Big lie, “but there are also some who are very weak. I find myself having to spend an uneven amount of time with the weak students, leaving the strong students with insufficient attention. I have decided to try teaching the entire class a cast that will have them all working together. I believe the more intimate exposure with the superior efforts of the more capable casters will enable the weaker students to improve at a greater rate, and in quick time they will be able to learn the same lessons the better students learn. And the cast itself is very useful.”
“What does this wonderful cast do?”
“It transfers things, objects, from one location to another.” Sort of. More like lifting things. Close enough.
“We are curious as to why you chose to teach this cast only now.”
“I’m …. afraid I thought of it only recently.” I knew I sounded like an idiot, but that was better than sounding guilty.
The Emperor, glanced down the table at Green. It was the first time I’d seen him look at her. Then, he said, “I expect to hear better news immediately.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
There were no more accusations thrown about during the remainder of the meal, but that didn’t save it from feeling long and torturous. The Emperor did most of the talking. He seemed in an unusually garrulous mood. He told a lot of jokes we all forced ourselves to laugh at. Green commented from time to time, and she seemed at ease. No one else spoke except in response to direct questions.
It was hard to get the food down, as well prepared though it was.
I felt the bizarre urge to kiss the table when Gifford and Green finally left and the rest of us were released.
Taro was obviously drained, as was I. We didn’t exchange a word as we climbed up to our suite. Yet when I was finally in bed, sleep eluded me, and I stared at the canopy for hours. And although we didn’t speak, I knew Taro did, too.