Ahirom was not in the palace when the trade delegation from Hur gave the news to the king, of course. He was down on the abandoned wharf, the one abandoned after the new harbor breakwall made it useless and sent all the trade ships to the new docks closer to the city. While the trader was telling the king the tale which made him laugh so hard, Ahirom was leaning against the quay listening to the Buruni storyteller. At least, Ahirom thought he was Buruni, with that red-brown complexion that showed up so dark against the feather-shaped scar on his cheek. His stories, though, always seemed more western than eastern, like they came from the mountains or the archipelago. From Sounis, perhaps, or Suninex, or Attolia.
"Have I ever told you about Zenia's servant and the ruby?" the storyteller asked, while the king in his palace was making the plans that would overturn Ahirom's life -- such as it was.
"No," said Ahirom. All of the storyteller's tales were new to him, and in his current boredom, they were practically all he looked forward to. He leaned against the railing at the edge of the quay, propping his right foot behind him on the rail to rest his leg.
"Well," began the storyteller. "Zenia and Melane were sisters."
Zenia's Servant and the Ruby
Zenia and Melane were sisters, but they never got along. Melane had a lovely home, but Zenia worked a desperately poor farm that never made her enough money to get out of debt from the year before.
Both sisters were beautiful, and both were proud. Neither chose to marry. But a wealthy merchant who lived nearby fell madly in love with Zenia. Actually, he fell into a mad passion for both sisters, but he knew -- having been rebuffed numerous times -- that Melane had no interest in his advances. Zenia, on the other hand, was more vulnerable. The merchant bought her mortgage and all of her debts, and then approached her.
"If you marry me, lovely Zenia," he said to her. "I will rip these debts to shreds."
Zenia only laughed. "If you loved me, you would already have destroyed the mortgage and forgiven the debts," she said. "But even then, I would not marry you."
The merchant turned purple with rage, and determined that he would have her by any means. He went to the magistrate to have Zenia summoned before the court. Zenia went to her sister Melane, for though she was proud, she was not foolish. Melane, however, was no help.
"Why should I help you?" laughed Melane. "I rebuffed that festering merchant without receiving aid. Surely you can do the same."She sent her sister away without offering her so much as a cup of wine to wash the dust from her throat.
Zenia went back to her dilapidated farmhouse and contemplated her options. Marriage to the disgusting merchant, or homelessness and possible imprisonment. Homelessness seemed preferable, but she didn't have just herself to worry about. Zenia had a servant, an old woman who had been with her for years.
"Don't worry about me, Mistress," said the old woman. "In fact, don't worry about yourself, either. I will fix this."
So Zenia gave her last bag of dates to the servant in order to easy old woman's hunger, and she broke the handle off her only scythe in order to give the old woman a walking stick. "Be blessed in your endeavors," said Zenia to the servant, and sent her on her way.
The servant went to Melane's house to beg on behalf of her mistress, but Melane's cook sent her away with curses, threatening to set dogs on her if she returned. With that, the servant smiled a secret, powerful smile, and slipped away into the woods behind Melane's lovely home. That evening, though Melane's guards were watching carefully for any intruders, they never saw the old woman slip like a ghost into the alley behind the kitchen. There she rooted through the pile of refuse, broken tools, and stained linens Melane's servants had not yet disposed of properly. Carefully, she examined each item before laying it down: a greasy hank of wool, a single shoe, a bent fibula pin, a rock.
The servant breathed a sigh of satisfaction and slipped the rock into her pocket. Still unseen and unheard by Melane's guards, she vanished into the woods.
In the morning, the servant presented her mistress with the rock. In the bright sunlight outside Zenia's farmhouse a flaw in the grey stone showed up clearly, red gleams sparkling from beneath.
"What is this?" she asked.
By way of answer, the servant slammed the stone hard against the flags of Zenia's courtyard. It splintered along the fault line, the rough gray shell falling away to reveal a huge ruby.
Zenia eyed the stone, more than large enough to pay her mortgage and her debts and some more besides. "Where did you get this?" she asked, sternly.
"From your sister, Mistress," said the servant placidly.
"She would never have given you such a thing," said Zenia. "I will not steal from my sister, no matter what she does."
The servant only smiled. "Your sister discarded the stone in her midden heap," she said. "It is hardly your responsibility that Melane does not see the value of her holdings."
So Zenia took the ruby to town and sold it. The merchant came with the magistrate, but by then Zenia had enough gold to pay off the mortgage and the loans and quite a bit more besides.
"Huh," said Ahirom, when the storyteller had finished. "I sense a moral."
"Nonsense," said the storyteller. "It's just a story." He grinned, wolfish, and the sunlight glinted off the towers of the palace. A cloud momentarily concealed the sun, cloaking the Temple of Mulktart in a momentary shadow.
"I should get back," sighed Ahirom. "I promised my sister I would accompany her to the market this afternoon."
"Aye," answered the storyteller, like a countryman. "Enjoy your trip."
Much later, approaching Attolia's Audience Hall to make his greetings, Ahirom remembered that afternoon. Perhaps it was because that sunny day on the quay was the last moment of peace in his new, diminished life. It was the last moment of peace before he learned that his brother the King of Eblos was sending him, untrained and unprepared, on a diplomatic mission as the punchline of an infantile joke. What would Attolis make of him, Ahirom wondered. Would the King of Attolia -- or worse, his terrifying Queen -- be angry enough to ignore Ahirom's diplomatic immunity?
Ahirom entered this Audience Hall, trailing Attolian guards and servitors, embarrassed no more by his lack of a Eblan retinue than he was by the rest of this farce. He walked as smoothly as he could, but he still heard the whispers as people noticed. He was used to whispers, had been for two years, but there was more threat in these than in the jeers of his brother's court.
He managed a barely credible bow as he approached the throne. What was his brother thinking, he wondered furiously, sending a warrior (former warrior) on a mission which required politic behavior and comprehension of political stratagems? Did Eblos really need a diplomatic incident?
"His Excellency Prince Ahirom." He was being announced. "New ambassador from the court of Eblos." Ahirom straightened, and froze. He'd heard stories of Attolia -- who hadn't? But he'd always assumed they were exaggerations for literary effect, like his own quayside storyteller's tales of gods and robbers. Now, pierced by the frigid rage in the Queen of Attolia's gaze, Ahirom believed. Maybe she was a demon in human form, as one Ferrian merchant captain had claimed.
"Prince Ahirom," said the Thief of Eddis from his chair beside Attolia, where Ahirom had not even noticed him, granched as he was on the queen's glare. Ahirom dragged his eyes from the queen's to look at her king and winced at Attolis's blank expression as he had not at Attolia's fury.
The Thief smiled without humor. "An excellent joke," he said, slouching in his throne. Only the white knuckles of his left (only) hand on the arm of the throne belied his posture. "Whether it is on you or me is still unclear. In any case, I beg you wait on our hospitality while we prepare rooms for you." The Thief rearranged himself in the throne as if he were sitting up straight, yet somehow managed still to be insolently sprawled. "Welcome to Attolia."
"Your Majesties," Ahirom managed, bowing himself backwards in the direction his escort indicated. As he retreated, the queen turned towards her husband, trying to catch his eye, but he'd already turned to murmur something to the guards beside him. The queen stretched out a hand and placed it on the Thief's knee, but he gave no indication that he noticed. The last thing Ahirom saw before he turned to enter an adjoining reception room was the Thief's hand loosening on the arm of his throne, opening, palm turning up to face the sky.
Ahirom followed his escort out of the room, his cedar right foot ringing hollowly on the slate floor even through the leather sole of his shoe.
Despite his humiliation, after two hours cooling his heels in the reception room, drinking watered wine while courtiers stared out of the corners of their eyes, Ahirom was livid. How long did it take to ready a diplomatic suite? Were this the palace at Eblos, orders would have been given to prepare rooms as soon as a runner arrived from the new-docked ship. No ambassador -- and certainly no neighboring prince, no matter how useless -- would have been left alone like this with no chance to refresh himself after a taxing sea journey.
As if summoned by his anger, a diffident guard appeared at Ahirom's side. "If you would allow me, sir, I am here to escort you to your rooms."
After a surprisingly short walk, they came to a door not that far from the throne room. It didn't look much like the diplomatic apartments he was used to from his brother's palace, what he would have expected in a megaron like this one. There was a lovely little pair of rooms, with carved latticework in the ceilings, gorgeous embroidered hangings on the bed, a crackling fire. But the furniture didn't quite fit, as if they had squeezed sleeping furniture into a salon. "This is the diplomatic wing?" he asked, settling himself into the soft chair before the fireplace, resting his right foot on the plush padded footstool.
"No sir," said the guard, standing at attention and looking uncomfortable. "Their majesties had this room prepared for you." Ahirom looked up sharply. He knew he wasn't a real ambassador, but surely he should be treated as one. The guard continued, making no eye contact. "The rest of the ambassadors stay in the diplomatic wing on the third story of the megaron, looking out on the summer courtyard. It's --" The guard gestured vaguely in the opposite direction of the throne room. "-- a ways thataway."
Confused, Ahirom settled down to eat the dinner that was brought to him. It was excellent if strange, with tender mutton and an unusual soft bread. He was licking orange juice off his fingers when the Thief of Eddis arrived unannounced.
"Your Majesty!" he said, and upset the plate of orange peels on his lap as he struggled to rise.
The Thief waved him down. "Let's not stand on ceremony," he said, leaning back in the second chair and hooking his right arm behind his head so that deadly sharp edge of hook just peeked out. "Ahirom. That's Ahirom, the king of Eblos's brother?"
Ahirom nodded. The orange juice on his fingers was sticky, but he didn't feel he could lick it off or wipe his hands on his trousers in front of this urbane, elaborately dressed king. Were the stories about the Thief as true as those about his Queen?
The Thief tilted his head. "You were Eblos's primary warleader."
Ahirom nodded again. He wondered, if the gods were real and he were allowed to ask one favor right now, which favor he would ask. Would he ask never to have been sent here, where by his very presence he was giving mortal insult to the king of a sovereign nation and his gleefully sadistic wife? Or would he ask not to be having this conversation? He rather thought the latter.
"So," said the Thief. He waited expectantly, as if he expected Ahirom to volunteer more information, but it had been two years since Ahirom had volunteered anything. Once he'd been known for being brash. Rambunctious and delightful, according to the ladies of his brother's court; debauched and uncivilized, according to their mammas. He rubbed his sticky fingers against each other until finally the Thief continued. "Battlefield injury, I assume?"
That he had to answer. "No." He didn't know how to answer these questions. Everybody in his brother's court knew, and he hadn't traveled in two years.
"It was an accident," he said, and then in a rush he spoke the words he'd never needed to say before. "There was a party. I threw a party for the officers and my company, and for my friends. And for the ladies of the city. We all invited ladies, and women who were not ladies," he explained. He was babbling, but the Thief just looked at him, head tilted, face blank. "At some point in the night I cut my foot on a broken wine jar. I don't remember it. I didn't even notice at the time." He stopped talking, and looked at his hands. His fingertips were turning gray where the dust from his clothes was adhering to the stickiness. "There was more... reveling. I think I was in the gardens with several ladies for a while. When I awoke the next morning." He stopped, corrected himself. "The next afternoon. My foot was sore. I put honey on it and wrapped it up in an old shirt."
He remembered that shirt. It had been a favorite of his once, nikèian purple panels embroidered with hunting dogs, but when he'd stained it with honey wine he tossed it aside. It was lying on the floor that morning -- that afternoon -- warm and slightly reeking of cat. One of the palace cats, probably the calico he called Emunazar, had been sleeping on it.
"I didn't go to the physician until it was still throbbing after three days. It was worse," he said. The Thief of Eddis still wasn't saying anything. "By then it was too late. I don't know what I cut my foot on, what was on it. I don't know what I stepped in that night." He swallowed. "When they had it off, my brother came in to yell at me before the surgery. The king." He didn't know why he was clarifying. He had four other brothers, but only one the Thief cared about. Probably only one the Thief knew about. "He told me that I'd made myself useless to him, which wasn't my right. He told me he'd put up with my drinking and whoring as long as I was useful but now he washed his hands of me." There was finally an expression on the Thief's face: he was wincing. "Exactly," said Ahirom. "Since then, he mostly hasn't spoken to me. I was shocked when I was told that I had a diplomatic appointment. And then they told me why."
The Thief nodded him. "So the joke is on both of us equally, then." he said.
Ahirom closed his eyes, unwilling to see the Thief's face when he delivered the diplomatic insult. "Yes." Although come to think of it, his presence was the diplomatic insult. What he was delivering now was merely the confirmation of it.
When he opened his eyes, the Thief was standing. "Thank you for your time," he said, his face once again as bland as a marble statue's. "We will see you during morning court."
The Thief vanished, and Ahirom rested his head on the back of his chair. He wondered if he was to be ejected from Attolia, and what his brother would do with him when he returned. His bleak musings were interrupted by the entrance of a man in a green-trimmed tunic.
"My lord," said the man. "Are you in need of any of a physician's services?"
"No," said Ahirom, and then, "yes." The physician helped him unbuckle the straps around his calf and knee. He applied an excellent salve to the blisters under the cuff. Ahirom carefully didn't think about why a physician in Attolia had such an excellent salve, about why he conveniently had it with him.
They didn't expel the embassy. Ahirom attended morning court with the rest of the ambassadors, and fumbled over requests for improved trade conditions and lower tariffs. He offered nikèian purple dye in a small barrel as a gift to the king and queen of Attolia. In the afternoons, he explored the city, or met with the other ambassadors in a lovely shared anteroom in the ambassadorial wing of the megaron. Perhaps to make it more difficult for the inevitable scheming of the ambassadors, the ambassadorial wing was far at the other end of the inner palace, separated by endless corridors and stairs. It was three flights up from ground level just as he'd heard the royal apartments were, but unreachable by any means other than going through a courtyard between the outer and inner palaces. Ahirom became more appreciative of his unorthodox housing.
He was the most newly-arrived of the ambassadors, although there were any number of new diplomatic missions here, come to assess the cut of this new king. Everyone had heard of the Thief of Eddis, and his kingmaking threats against Sounis. It was the kind of threat royalty took most seriously. Nobody had any particular respect for these tiny mountain kingdoms, but a reportedly-undefeatable royal assassin was another story.
The new Mede ambassador had arrived only weeks before Ahirom himself. He, Ahirom liked least, and not just because the Mede ambassador in the court of Eblos was a slimy bastard, always trying to manipulate the king into taking unnecessary military risks. Although Ahirom had liked him well enough once. As he recalled, Eblos's Mede amabassador had even been at that blasted party.
Melheret, Attolia's Mede, was cut from the same cloth. Reeking of scented oil, pretending to be everyone's friend, making faux-solicitous snide comments about crippled warleaders and how wonderful it was that a use had been found for Ahirom's talents at last.
Ahirom hated him.
One morning, after a group of Ferrian traders had been made very happy by their sales of Buruni and Xiaon spices, the assistant to the Eddisian ambassador came to the diplomatic anteroom. Ornon himself, the Eddisian ambassador, never came. Why would he? As they all knew, Ornon was scarcely an ambassador, more of a pseudo-governor, telling the Thief what to do. Although after a week, Ahirom strongly suspected that nobody told the Thief what to do.He'd finally begun to see the King of Attolia, not as the larger-than-life Thief of Eddis, but as a very real, snarky, and yet somehow terrifying man. At one point, the Mede Ambassador had made reference to the king's extreme youth, and Ahirom realized with a start that he was himself older. It didn't show.
"Attolia is most eager to do honor to the Eddisian gods, Leukitos," said the ambassador from Meleneze to Ornon's assistant. "They bought enough incense to burn in the braziers of thier new temple for many years."
Leukitos shrugged. "Hephestia was once Attolia's god as well.," he said. "There is no shame in doing honor both to old gods and new."
"But still," pressed the ambassador from Melenze. "So much honor."
Ahirom said nothing, but he knew what the ambassador meant. He meant so costly. As incompetent as he himself was, he had still managed to negotiate favorable trade deals with Attolia, so eager was this country for the nikèian purple draperies for their new temple.
"It is good not to offend the gods," said Leukitos.
"I think the king believes it is his god's grace that got him here," said the ambassador from Ferria's attaché. "I think that's where he gets all his confidence."
Melehert looked thoughtful.
Ahirom's second day in the city, the king had sent a servant to attend him. Ahirom was pretty sure that getting a servitor from the hosting kingdom wasn't normal. Most ambassadors arrived with their own retinue, an assistant or at least a servant. Certainly an ambassador who was a king's brother should have come with someone to help him look appropriately regal. But Eblos didn't really care about diplomacy with a pocket country such as Attolia, and so had happily sent an ambassador who was in disgrace. Ahirom wished he had the pride to refuse the servingman, but he was so weary. Even in his well-situated room he did more walking as an ambassador that he had as the crippled washed-up wastrel of Eblos, and his wooden foot gave him cramps and blisters.
The servingman, Timos, didn't just draw him hot baths and lay his fire. He didn't just help Ahirom with the prosthetics and the physician's salve. He also showed him better ways of getting around the megaron: more direct routes, gentle sloping corridors in place of steep stairwells, all kinds of shortcuts. Ahirom was particularly fond of the shortcuts over the roofs, because they gave him much-needed solitude. One icy day, he came across the King and Queen of Attolia in a passionate clinch on a rooftop alcove. He backed up, stammering apologies, and Timos never took him in that direction again. Ahirom pretended he had forgotten the shortcut. He wished he could forget the look on Attolia's face. Head thrown back to bare her throat to her husband's mouth, eyes closed, lips slightly parted, she'd looked ... well, like a woman. Not like a statue, not like a demon. Ahirom wished he could erase the image.
Not even that horrifying, terrifying moment could keep him off the roofs. He loved the solitude too much. Before his injury, he had almost never been alone. When on campaign, he shared tents and barracks with his soldiers. When home, it was taverns or gambling halls or whorehouses. These last two years, alone in his estate but for his servants, had been vile. Learning to walk again, learning to live with pain, and over all the miasma of constant shame.
Here in Attolia, solitude meant something else, though to be sure, there was still the pain and inconvenience of walking. There always would be, he knew. But the shame of uselessness was fading. He wasn't much of an ambassador, but there was something about the way the king and queen of Attolia approached him. It was as if he were a worthy opponent -- and better, and opponent they respected and liked.
He still needed the solitude, despite the lessening shame. He may have enjoyed sparring with his royal hosts, but his diplomatic brethren were another matter. If he had to listen to that Mede inquire after his health in that solicitous tone one more time, Ahirom would scream.
"That jumped-up whelp is too cocky for his own good." The muffled voice came through the high, latticed window beneath Ahirom's rooftop seat. Gods damn it all, even here on the roofs he had to listen to that Mede. "We have to shatter his confidence or we'll never get them to accept our aid."
Another voice, one Ahirom couldn't place, responded. "What do you plan?"
"It's true what that weaselly little Ferrian said," said Melheret's voice. "The goatfoot does believe he is gifted by his gods. So what if we convince him that he has offended them?"
The other voice sounded amused. "How do you intend to do that? Arrange a convenient lightning strike?"
"Nothing so dramatic, I'm afraid." The voice got quieter, as if the speaker were moving across the room, and Ahirom realized he was creeping closer to the window in order to hear better. This was outrageous. He shouldn't be involved; this had nothing to do with him. He scolded himself roundly as he lay on the roof, his head near the edge, the window mere inches beneath his ear.
"Think how much money they are pouring into that new temple." The Mede's voice was so clear from this distance that Ahirom almost jumped. "What if the shipments all came in wrong? Cracked marble slabs, embroideries of jackals instead of musicians, spoiled batches of dye, rank incense."
"He would think his gods were against his hubris at building this temple," said the other voice.
"Or at the very least, he would be worried that his failed attempt to pay them tribute was angering them. It's no endgame, but certainly is one more move in the game."
"I like it," said the strange voice. "But how is the thing to be accomplished?"
"Simple forgery. Letters to the suppliers changing orders to the wrong items. I'm not quite sure yet how to manage the bad dye lots and cracked marble, but I think writing letters requesting shabby materials for some experimental building should be trivially easy."
Ahirom was shaking. It was about the bad dye lots, he told himself. That was the source of this overwhelming rage. He'd never cared about the business of exports before this job forced him to, but he had national pride, and of course it was unacceptable for Eblos to seem like the kind of country that would send substandard materials to a neighboring kingdom, especially for temple-building.
All the rest of that evening and as he tried to fall asleep he reassured himself that he was only angry about Eblos being used as part of this conspiracy. He would write a letter home, he decided, the very next day, letting them know that if they received any notification that Attolian shipments were to be switched with lower-quality materials, they should ignore the notification. There, that was all right, then. He would have done his duty to his country.
The next morning found him sitting on a low wall outside the megaron, staring up at the road to the acropolis. He was thinking about nothing, just nibbling on a piece of bread he'd brought with him and squinting against the sun.
"I was looking for you," said a voice behind him, and Ahirom almost fell off the wall. It was the King of Attolia, his hands in his pockets, slouched against a tree. A few yards away, a cluster of attendants whispered to each other, while two guards stared impassively straight ahead.
"Your Majesty," said Ahirom, righting himself. "I'm sorry to make you hunt for me."
"I didn't mean to shock you," said the king. He sounded amused. "I'm headed to the training yard for a workout. I came by to invite you to join."
The blood drained from Ahirom's face. He'd thought... well, he'd been wrong. "Your Majesty is having a joke at my expense," he said. "I suppose it is only fair."
The king arched one eyebrow. "No, actually, I'm not."
Ahirom bent his knee and brought up his foot so he could knock his fist against his ankle. The rapping noise echoed uncomfortably. Cocking his head, the king removed his hands from his pockets, and held them -- one hand, one hook -- out for Ahirom's inspection.
"That's different," protested Ahirom.
"True," said the king. "I lost my swordhand."
Something seemed wrong about the argument, but Ahirom couldn't figure out what. He found himself in the training yard with the king, practicing beginner forms. Oddly it wasn't the foot that hurt most, but unexpected strain in his calves, his back, his biceps. Two years without so much as a workout and he could barely hold a sword in tierce.
Afterwards, he sat bemusedly on a bench in the king's anteroom. The usual flock of attendants that followed the king everywhere were outside the door, for this tiny room was full enough with Ahirom, the king, two physicians, and a guard. One of the physicians was applying fresh dressings to Ahirom's stump, where the unexpected exercise had torn off some old callus. The other was grunting thoughtfully over the king's arm. The king caught Ahirom's eye and barked a laugh.
"If you'd told me two years ago this is where I'd be," the king said. "I would have asked you where you found the exciting berries."
Two years ago, ha. "I wish I'd been here two years ago," said Ahirom, slowly. "Attolia handles these things differently from Eblos."
"No it doesn't," said the queen from where she'd walked into the room behind him. "Eugenides is a force of nature. Where he goes, the universe bends itself to his whims."
The king looked up and smiled. It was not the sarcastic smile he reserved for Ornon, or the politic smile he occasionally dragged out for the diplomatic corps, but a real smile, and it changed his whole face. For the first time Ahirom believed in the king's youth, because the smile made him look like a boy finding his sweetheart where he hadn't expected her.
"I hope he didn't damage you too much," said the queen, walking forward and placing her hand on her husband's shoulder. "Sometimes, in his quest to prove a point, Eugenides forgets the rest of us are not god-touched."
"Hey!" said the king. "I wasn't trying to prove a point." The queen arched one eyebrow at him, in an expression eerily reminiscent of the king's. "I wasn't only. Maybe I'd like to have one decent swordsman around to spar with."
"Oh, damn," muttered Ahirom. The king and queen looked at him quizzically, but he just rubbed the heel of one hand into his eyes tiredly. He did not want to like them.
It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the entire diplomatic corps, it seemed, was out hunting. Melheret, it transpired, had woken from a dream about a lovely young lady and a cornered boar, and had coralled the courtiers, the diplomats, and any number of court hangers-on into a hunt.
"Of course, my lord, I am so sorry your infirmity makes you unable to join us," sneered Melheret, as Ahirom joined the crowd headed toward the stables. Ahirom could have said I can ride a horse with a wooden foot, you know but he didn't particularly want to spend the day with Melheret's idea of a social gathering. As much as he would have enjoyed a hunt.
Instead, he worked up a sweat in the training yard -- the Queen's Guard were wary but a few of them showed a willingness to train with him even in the king's absence -- and retired to the baths. He could grow to love it here, he mused, scraping at himself with a strigil in the Attolian fashion. All these baths, for one thing. And he'd missed holding a sword in his hand.
With all the others out of the megaron, he didn't need to hide on the roofs. Perhaps he could spend some time indoors for once. The diplomats' wing was near a small library made available for the ambassadors' convenience. He could go find some of those histories of Attolia, read up on the country.
It was a long walk up to the diplomats' wing, but he found the distance didn't bother him as much. His muscles were pleasantly sore from the workout, and whatever was in that salve used by Attolia's physician, it was remarkably soothing. His thoughts were on ideas for adapting his stance to accommodate his physical limitations when he saw somebody slip out of the diplomats' wing and dart the other way down the corridor. Wasn't that Melheret's servitor?
About to follow the slave, Ahirom paused and considered. Logic said he should follow the man, but instinct said otherwise. He quickly entered the diplomats' anteroom. There, on a bench by a window, he saw a packet of letters.
He shouldn't. This was the kind of thing which started wars. Besides, it was none of his business.
He thought about the sword practice and sighed.
A dagger held over a candle flame pried off a wax seal (and where did Melheret get Attolis's seal?) almost invisibly. Ahirom thanked the gods for his misspent youth as he unfolded the first letter. ...changing Our order to accommodate Our new plans. Yes. He opened another. ...the modified structure requires a change in the quality of materials. Quickly, he unfolded each of the letters, and found they were all of the same style.
The slave would be back any moment, and he didn't have time to write up new letters. On the other hand, these were changes, unexpected by the recipients. Perhaps he could... yes. He slipped into the library, hoping he had enough time, and found a ream of blank paper on the work desk where he'd hoped. Quickly he returned to the anteroom. He refolded his sheets of blank paper, wrinkling them slightly so they looked as if they'd been written upon. Some quick work with his dagger and the candle flame -- thank you once again, my gods, for my misspent youth and the lessons it gave me! -- and the letters should be able to pass. If nobody examined them too closely.
When the slave returned a few minutes later, Ahirom was standing over a sudden, crackling blaze in the tiny anteroom fireplace. "My lord!" exclaimed the slave, and glanced suspiciously at the table.
"Hmm?" murmured Ahirom. "Why aren't you out with your master?"
The slave grabbed the envelopes and slipped them into his shirt. Ahirom was hard pressed not to laugh. Did the man think that was surreptitious? "I had some errands to run for my master," said the slave. "but just now -- my lord, did you see a woman?"
"Avoiding your chores to follow the ladies, Shebit?"
The slave scowled. "No. Only I could have sworn a woman called me while I was in the middle of -- in the middle of a very unimportant task for my master. I ran down the hall because I thought I saw her, a young woman in archaic Attolian dress, all pleated like a statue. I thought it was suspicious. Are you sure you didn't see anyone?"
Ahirom raised his eyebrows. "Not hardly," he said.
"Yes, well. Thank you, my lord," said the slave. "I'd best be going." Patting his shirt to make the papers crinkle, the slave slipped out of the room.
Ahirom stood pensively after him. He was committed to this place now.
Good thing he liked it.
"I never did discover who the woman was, my king. It was purest serendipity that she distracted the slave at that moment, but why was she wearing ancient clothing?" Ahirom smiled at the memory. "Unless Shebit was drunk. Gods know I'd have been if I had to serve a man such as Melheret."
"Gods know indeed," said the King of Attolia. "That, my friend, was Moira."
Ahirom cast his mind over the queen's attendants and the women of the court, trying to think of their names. Elia, Imenia, Temis, Helena... "I can't think of any Moira," he said, puzzled.
The King laughed. "Let me tell you a story, then," he began, and Ahirom leaned back and listened, sipping a cup of wine as his friend told him a story of gods and kings.