Porenn watched patiently from her armchair as Silk paced across the width of her private audience room, her letters from various friends set aside for the moment. Prince Kheldar was as light on his feet as a thieving squirrel when he had reason, but now every step struck the thick carpet like a muffled drumbeat, and the ostentatious display of jewels on his doublet clinked in counterpoint.
When he paused at last, he stood, not by accident, directly in front of the engraving that concealed one of the room’s spyholes and angled well away from the other. He didn’t speak, but his fingers flickered swiftly in the Drasnian silent language, the gestures small and sharp. —I hate this.—
—I know,— Porenn acknowledged, keeping her own hands well hidden. It had always been debatable whether Drasnians had first invented the secret language to keep professional secrets away from foreign ears, or just to have some way of holding personal conversations in a city where half the inhabitants were trained spies and the rest were amateurs.
—And it isn’t that I don’t know she’s brilliant,— he added fiercely, —because she is; I know she’s the best Academy graduate since me and she can take care of herself, but I hate this!—
Very privately, Porenn harbored the thought that it was about time Kheldar got a taste of what it was like to wait and worry, given all the waiting she had done on his behalf over the years. She tucked it away as unkind and not very helpful. —Silk, you know Velvet will be well protected,— she gestured, slow and calming. The Academy nicknames made the sentence simple, as they were meant to. Other names were trickier, but necessary. —Urgit would never let anything happen to your wife.— It was a very strange thing to believe about the King of the Murgos, after centuries of war, but Urgit was nothing like his predecessors on the throne. He was instead very much like Kheldar, which Porenn found less reassuring than most people.
Kheldar breathed a soft huff. —I know Velvet won’t let anyone protect her if she sees an opportunity.—
Porenn wisely didn’t mention that this was one of the things that made Margravine Liselle so much like Silk. —Velvet isn’t going alone,— she pointed out instead.
—No,— Silk snapped, his hands moving so quickly that if Porenn had blinked at the wrong time, she’d have missed half the words, —she’s taking her own hand-picked trainees, who would jump off the Escarpment for her if she asked. It’s not reassuring, Auntie.—
She let out a breath in annoyance at his mule-like stubbornness, and demanded with equal speed, —If it’s going to worry you so much, why aren’t you going with her?—
Silk flipped one hand back and forth, signifying frustration. —She made me promise not to follow her. Javelin will tell her if I go anywhere near Cthol Murgos.— He hesitated. —Auntie, you’ve got to convince her to let me come.—
Not a flicker of face or hand betrayed the smug triumph that Porenn hid neatly beside her other inconvenient thoughts. —I’ll try,— she gestured, with the small side-to-side waggle of doubt.
—She’ll listen to you.— Silk smiled, allowing relief and trust to show openly on his face--by way of extra encouragement, though just a touch overplayed, Porenn thought. Silk was really best at the less subtle arts of manipulation. No need for bribery or blackmail here, of course.
“Thank you for letting me know, Prince Kheldar,” she said aloud, for the benefit of any unauthorized ears. Silk’s trading contacts covered the entire world by now, and quite often sent news that even Drasnian Intelligence had not yet heard, to Javelin’s increasing irritation.
Silk swept a grandiose bow, jeweled chains jingling. “Delighted to be of help to you, your Majesty,” he declared.
Porenn accepted the tacit offer of a future favor with a dignified nod, and Silk left, looking more cheerful than he had on entering.
Permitting herself a soft smile, Porenn leaned back in her chair until he was out of earshot. Then she said, to the empty room, “Please tell Margravine Liselle that I’d like to speak with her.” There were occasional uses for the omnipresent spies, and no reason not to take advantage.
It was a very short wait before Liselle swept into the room, her silk gown more tasteful but no less expensive than Kheldar’s doublet. She offered a curtsy and a dimpled smile with equal grace, but one hand, shielded by her skirt, flickered with anxious speed, —Did he ask?—
“Liselle,” Porenn greeted warmly, inclining her head a fraction in response. “Are your trainees ready?”
The dimples grew perceptibly deeper. “As ready as Uncle and I can make them. They have their travel assignments...we should all be in place ahead of schedule.”
Among significant world powers, the only people not remotely pleased about the sudden outbreak of world peace and friendship were the Dagashi, traditional spies and assassins for the interests of Cthol Murgos. A request for aid had come, though not from King Urgit, who had appearances to keep up and would probably have had a revolt on his hands if any whisper escaped that he had asked for Drasnian help. Instead, the private message had arrived by circuitous routes from the king’s wife, Prala, specifically to Liselle. Urgit did not have the kind of support he needed to take on the Dagashi, and Prala feared they might try a little assassination close to home.
It was, of course, against protocol to ask for any kind of detail on the trainees or their specific missions, particularly with a situation this sensitive. As a general rule, only the most trusted spies were ever given palace assignment, but this was Palace Day for portions of the Academy’s senior class, and the inexperienced spies might not be quite as discreet as they should. “Well done,” Porenn praised. “I have another volunteer for you, if you think he could be helpful.”
“Oh?” Liselle asked. For all that her expressive face seemed unguarded and open, there was nothing in it but mild curiosity.
“Prince Kheldar apparently feels restless here.” Giving it the tone of ironic humor appropriate to Silk without letting her own satisfaction creep in was something of a challenge. Fortunately, Porenn was well in practice.
Liselle’s smile widened. “I certainly wouldn’t mind his company,” she said, “but I’ll have to make sure he’s not going to get in my way.”
Porenn offered a faint, theatric sigh. “You’re probably the only one who can,” she said. “Good luck, Liselle. And be careful.”
“I will, your Majesty,” Liselle promised solemnly, advancing quickly to embrace Porenn. A step backward and her fingers moved swiftly to add, —Thank you.—
—Keep him safe,— Porenn replied in silence. Liselle swept out of the room, her mind clearly on her husband.
A few moments passed without interruption, and Porenn picked up her letters. She had been saving Layla’s for last; the Sendarian queen had a chatty style and clear handwriting that made her missives a pleasure to read.
The panel behind her clicked and slid open. “Mother,” Kheva said, embarrassed puzzlement in his voice, “I didn’t understand that at all.”
With a soft chuckle, Porenn set the mail aside again and rose to hug her son. It always surprised her how tall he had grown, his chin just level with the top of her head. He wasn’t wearing his crown today, and was in fact spending the day as an Academy cadet, not as the king. Every Drasnian monarch got most of the same training as the spies who served the crown, and Kheva was of an age with his fellow trainees.
The royal viewing seat, with access only from inside the room, was positioned to make reading the secret language possible. Porenn had occasionally used it herself. —How much did you catch?— she asked, her fingers still hidden from the room’s other two spyholes. Gossip about Drasnians was a far more difficult thing to keep secret in Drasnia than any details of foreign assignments.
—Most, I think,— Kheva answered, his hands graceful. —But why didn’t Velvet just ask Silk to go with her, if she wanted him to?—
—If Velvet had asked Silk to come, Silk would take over,— Porenn explained. —We couldn’t allow that. His style is just too noticeable for this, and too well known. But if he had followed her, which he certainly would have, there’s no telling what trouble he would find, with no backup to get him out.—
Kheva nodded, looking adequately edified. —So she made him ask, instead.—
—Exactly. And now she has leverage to keep him under control.— Porenn considered that statement, and qualified it, —As much as Silk ever is.—
Her son stilled his fingers, considering. Finally he shook his head and signed, —It just seems too complicated.—
—It certainly is,— Porenn agreed at once, knowing an opportunity to teach when she saw one. —When you marry, you should work out how to be honest with your wife; it saves a lot of trouble.— She raised her eyebrows. —But you may have noticed that Silk and Velvet are very complicated people.—
Kheva threw back his head and laughed, reminding Porenn of Rhodar with a pang no less sharp for the passage of years.
“You’d better get back to practice,” she chided briskly, blinking hard. “Spies really shouldn’t come out and ask for clarification, you know.”
She went back to her chair, smiling faintly, as Kheva ducked behind his panel. Silk and Velvet were perfectly happy to go on manipulating one another, Kheva was becoming the brilliant king that Rhodar had always said their son could be, and Drasnia stood poised to do Urgit a favor and also have complete access to his intelligence network as it grew. Not bad things, at all.
Retrieving her correspondence, Porenn paused; her hands moved softly against the stack of parchment, though there was no one at all who could see.
—You would be proud, my love.—
She got so far as unfolding the first page of Layla’s letter before the chamberlain brought in another stack of reports.