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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 4: Birds of Prey

part 2

The banquet goes on forever. The ambassador from the Emperor is obsequious, a hint of menace lurking beneath the surface. A knife sheathed in velvet. Although at times the threads fray, he retains the essence of civility and does not let them unravel. Garaile attends him as befits his rank. Much of my evening’s entertainment derives from meeting my new lover’s eyes over the emissary’s head as he engages in polite conversation with my father.

Mireio is his dinner companion, seated beside him on the couch, as she is the most senior royal lady present. It is at once a compliment and a slight. She is a lesser royal compared to the queen or the king’s own daughter. There is the implication that she might be available, and in that, the Empire’s ambassador is indeed honoured.

‘My concubine’s daughter is yours’ — a poor compliment to Mireio. Judging from the necklace and smile she wears, she will earn her reward. Mireio plays her role well, pouring wine for the ambassador with her own hands.

It’s usual on formal occasions to water the wine liberally but my sister’s condescension makes this difficult. The ambassador politely takes a sip after every toast and then passes the cup to Garaile. It’s a neat riposte, as Garaile must finish each cup but remain sober in the presence of the king. After a while I notice the flick of his wrist that spills the wine in dark stains on the rushes. Did I say our court was elegant? He sees me looking and grins, raising the last cup to me and draining it to the lees.

My father barely looks at me, but Majvaz is high in favour. He’s lounging next to the king’s couch and filling his goblet. He doesn’t trouble to water his wine and is drinking deep.

I take care he knows I’m watching, although he doesn’t deign to acknowledge me. Not even Majvaz would poison my father in full sight of his court. To be fair, I doubt he’d poison anyone. Knife in the dark maybe, but like all of us, he has his own twisted sense of honour.

There is a space around me. My neighbours, prosperous nobles of the second rank have little or nothing to say to me once we’ve exchanged the ritual courtesies. No one wants to provoke Majvaz, so they are polite but guarded.

I content myself with languorous glances at Garaile. I could do with a friend, and in the end I grow reckless, pretending to be far more drunk than I am and whispering all kinds of inappropriate suggestions to the demure damsel sitting next to me.

Thinking I’m unlikely to live out the week, I see little cause for caution. If Majvaz thinks I can’t hold my drink, so much the better. At one point I glance up to meet my father’s eyes, rendering me stone cold sober.

After the banquet, Mireio rises and offers her arm to the ambassador, taking care not to tangle her bracelets in his sleeve. She invites him to take in some air and view the gardens. This is traditional, giving the monarch a pretext to retire, lesser persons a chance to ease their bladders and bowels. Then a relaxation of protocol for all manner of less formal diversions once the royal party has left.

I allow myself to bid farewell to the dull provincial governor, who was my duty, and to his plain daughter, who did not appreciate my ‘compliments’ at all. She seems pleased to withdraw from the contamination of my presence. Her braid is tied with four ribbons; most maidens marry when they have achieved three. A sad fate, I think, as well I might when I doubt I’ll live to make four hands of five.

It’s time to earn my sister’s gratitude and release her. I shed my drunken persona at the door like last season’s cloak and appear, duly courteous, to honour the ambassador. My presence means my sister can make her excuses. I’m a suitable escort to light the imperial guest to his chamber.

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Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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