Isana’s jaw worked slowly as she forced herself to chew the abhorrent thing. Her salivary glands protested, and she wondered if she would need Rill’s assistance to render the bite digestible. She fought to swallow, but pieces stuck to her teeth and the roof of her mouth. Finally, by dint of sheer will, she forced it down. Or at least, enough of it was down to permit conversation. She hoped to the Great Furies that it wouldn’t come back up while she was still in the presence of the chef.
Sir Ehren smiled at her, radiating innocence.
"Chlorus Fabia is a daughter of the late personal chef to Lord Atticus," he volunteered.
"You certainly have a novel approach to cuisine," Isana managed. She could still feel it between her teeth.
The pleasantly plump young chef beamed at her and offered the plate again. Isana politely but very firmly refused.
"I’m told that the order to turn the croach into a food supply came straight from the First Lord," Fabia said, a bit breathless. "So I’m experimenting with different flavors and textures. It's quite bitter on its own, but it readily absorbs the flavor of the foods it's combined with, so it’s a matter of finding a complimentary base. I welcome the challenge! And I'd be happy to keep you updated in my progress."
Isana's stomach cramped with sudden ferocity.
"Clever Croach Creations for a Clearer Calderon." Fabia sighed dreamily. "It practically sells itself."
"Thank you, Lady Chlorus," Ehren interrupted smoothly. "I shall let you know if your services are required."
Fabia bowed to them both with great enthusiasm and departed, leaving them the half-empty plate. Isana eyed the remaining pastries dubiously. She wouldn't even feel comfortable feeding them to an animal, for fear it would choke and perish. Burying them would be the safest option, unless they tainted the groundwater.
Even fire had its risks.
She turned her attention on the young Cursor. "What was that?" she asked.
Ehren blinked owlishly. "Why, one of the Realm's most promising culinary talents. She came in second place in a competition held in the capital last Wintersend. Well, the last Wintersend that there was a capital."
Isana raised an amused eyebrow. "No. That."
"For your wedding reception, Your Highness. A groundbreaking culinary presentation to represent a new direction in Aleran history."
"There will be no reception, Sir Ehren. No one else will be invited." She picked up an hors d'oeuvre and experimentally kneaded the lump of what was once croach with a fingertip. She grimaced and put it aside, wiping her hands on a napkin. "And I certainly don't want my son's legacy associated with the taste of rancid wax."
"Ah, yes," Ehren said, his words suspiciously offhanded. "Private wedding, no one invited. How could I have forgotten?"
She eyed him askance. "Have you had any luck locating someone qualified to marry us? And who doesn't have terribly weighty political baggage?"
"Not yet. I checked the bylaws: now that Doroga has been named a High Lord, he no longer qualifies as a visiting head of state."
Isana wrinkled her nose, though a hint of a smile quirked her lips. "I was afraid of that. Couldn't the Senate have shown a little more backbone and delayed his appointment just long enough for him to perform one more marriage?"
Ehren grinned. "You yourself spoke in support of his elevation at the hearing."
"Yes, but what's the use of having to deal with stiff-necked, arrogant, backwards-thinking fools if their ignorance can't prove useful every so often?" She sighed wistfully. "You'll keep looking?"
"Of course, Your Highness."
* * * * *
Ehren requested her presence again the next day. It was to be in one of the few private rooms on the ground floor of its Citadel, no doubt owing to the young Cursor's present difficulty with stairs. When she arrived, however, Ehren was not alone. A fastidiously attired man with long, narrow features and a prim demeanor was eyeing the window treatments disdainfully. His skin was youthful, but the stylish sweep of silver at his temples marked him a watercrafter of considerable skill, entering middle age. Three racks of dresses occupied a significant portion of the room, and bolts of cloth were piled high on the furniture.
"Lady Isana," Ehren began, "may I introduce—"
"May we speak alone for a moment?" Isana interrupted.
The stranger nodded obligingly, then realized a moment later that he was not among the "we" Isana specified. He harrumphed, indignant, then hastily vacated the room.
"That was Saturnius Patricius," Ehren continued, not missing a beat, "chief couturier of Lady Riva."
"I don't require any new dresses."
Ehren lurched forward, crossing the room to the first rack. He still relied heavily on his cane for movement, but Isana found herself wondering how much of it was for show. He selected a dress and held it out for Isana, a shimmering green number that matched her eyes. "I felt that drawing attention to a local designer might boost confidence in that portion of Riva's economy. Engineers and earthcrafters and woodcrafters and healers have their work cut out for them in the rebuilding effort, but clothiers and other artisans are suffering from a sharp decline in business."
Isana sighed. "I am sure they can find a way to adapt to the new climate. One dress is not going to save anyone's livelihood, especially when the Crown's finances are in such demand elsewhere. And while I appreciate the gesture, the point was to keep politics out. That's why I'm not inviting my own son."
"Yes," Ehren said, his words carrying more edge than the knives he secreted about his person. " You aren't inviting your own son."
"Ehren, he's halfway across the Realm, fighting the remaining Vord."
"You're speaking of the man who transported an entire army across the full breadth of the continent in under two days. He'd find a way to be there."
"You know what politicians are like," she said ruefully. "Tavi's presence would guarantee a host of lackeys and belligerents, Senators and Citizens, all trying to use my wedding as their own personal platform for whatever political views they couldn't express to their satisfaction elsewhere. I've had enough. All the backbiting and espionage can wait until the wedding is over. It will just be me, Araris, and whomever marries us."
"Yes, Your Highness," he said.
Isana scowled at that, but then her expression softened. "Ehren, I asked for your help because you alone seem to know how the Aleran population still functions. You know who to go to for a gown or a marriage contract or a feast made of croach. And I respect and value your loyalty to my son with all my heart. However, all we want is the name of someone with the authority to marry us. Who won't tell Tavi until it's appropriate."
"Right now is appropriate."
"Cursor," she said. Her voice was stern, but without rancor. "You have your orders."
Ehren bowed, a steadying hand at his waist, wincing only slightly.
Araris was waiting for her outside the room.
"Did you do that?" he asked with a grin. He jerked his head in what was presumably the direction the dressmaker had gone.
"It was entirely Ehren's doing, I assure you," Isana murmured, placing a light kiss upon the upturned corner of his mouth. His fingers found hers, and together they made their way to the windport where their litter waited to return them to Calderon.
* * * * *
When Isana and Araris arose the next morning, a letter had been pushed beneath the door.
"I've found someone qualified," she read. "He will meet you and Sir Araris tonight at sunset at the bridge over the Rillwater in Fredericholt." A small sigil at the bottom right in furybound ink indicated that the letter was genuine.
Isana felt a giddy flutter in her belly at the idea, but she'd already been twice taken in by the young Cursor's games. "Qualified for what?" Isana wondered aloud.
Araris wrapped his arms around her from behind and kissed her temple. His hands slid over her skin easily. There was an almost disbelieving, reverent quality in the way he held her, as though he never imagined he would have the chance, but here she was. She leaned back into his quiet strength as he studied the letter over her shoulder.
"I suppose there's no harm seeing what he has planned. And if he's wasting your time again, we'll have a very convenient bridge to pitch him off the side of," he murmured.
She turned in his arms to kiss him properly. "It's a deal."
* * * * *
When Isana and Araris arrived for their appointment, Ehren stood alone on the bridge. Worse, he leaned against the side rail wearing a self-satisfied smirk.
Frustration and disappointment and disbelief tore through Isana's heart at the sight of him, and she fell back a step. She couldn't believe it. She'd known he could be playful in his youth, and she'd known he could be deadly, but she never took him for cruel. Araris took her hand and surged forward, devouring the ground between them with furious intent, but an instant before they reached Ehren, a voice stopped them in their tracks.
Isana's heart leapt as a watery figure stepped out from beneath the bridge.
She tore her hand from Araris' grasp and splashed headlong into the shallows of the river, paying no heed to what the water would do to her shoes or the hem of her dress. She threw her arms around her son's watersending without hesitation. The surface was hard, more like stone than the liquid it was composed of, but she'd had enough practice embracing her brother and son and fiancé through armor for such a concern to curb her enthusiasm.
Tavi grinned, boyish delight making him look just like the irrepressible youth she'd reluctantly sent away to the Academy ten long years ago. "You were going to be married without me, mother?"
"Thank you. Both of you," Isana said.
"For what?" Ehren said innocently.
"You're welcome. I am sorry about the delay. Strangely, there seems to be no precedent of a marriage being conducted by watersending proxy from across the continent," Tavi said.
"I suppose there's a first time for everything," Isana laughed, as Araris sloshed through the knee-deep water to appear behind her. "Can you verify our identities from there?"
"Unfortunately, no. I'll have to give you new ones." Tavi looked from his mother to Araris and back. "Count and Countess Rillwater, by the power invested in me as First Lord of Alera, I hereby declare you married."
Isana gasped. "Tavi…"
Araris raised an eyebrow. "Is there precedent for elevating individuals to the Citizenry by watersending?"
"Who needs a precedent?" Tavi laughed. "Well, I need to get back to the men. Anyone else need marrying?"
"I'm good," Ehren replied.
Tavi gave his friend an amused nod and turned back to his mother. "You'll give my love to Uncle Bernard and Countess Amara? And their growing army?"
"Of course, Tavi. Please give my regards to Kitai."
"I will. See you soon," he said. His column of water lost its pigment and melted into the river with barely a splash.
Araris made a contented sound and pulled Isana close. "Countess Rillwater," he murmured into her ear. "I could get used to that." Isana looked up to see if Ehren was watching, but he'd disappeared.
"Remind me to let Ehren plan our next social event," she said, and then her lips were too busy to say anything at all.