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The Best Laid Plans

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In Solis 441

The Scarlet Moon Empire had seen another prosperous year and the Emperor was eager to celebrate this with a ball for the members of the Imperial Nobility. Such balls were common, though ones in the palace were a treat even for the patricians. The food and wine were in endless supply as the shifting, modal music provided a perfect backdrop for the usual schemes of the aristocracy.

In between the games of flirtation and libation another more serious one was played. Noblemen, desperate to maintain their power and influence, spent most of the evening in negotiations promising their children to one and another. Samantha Weisstrum was not immune to this. She joined a reel in the hopes that it would distract her from anxiously watching her father. He had spent the better part of the ball talking to a middle-aged man whose far-gazing eyes told that he'd rather be anywhere else.

Eventually, her father approached her. He was giddy, and had a healthy blush on his cheeks from the wine. His news for her wasn't exactly unexpected but it still chilled her. She turned her back to him so she didn't see him walk away, but the second he was gone she started running.

She wasn't sure where she was going but she knew she needed some air. Up a flight stairs she ran, lifting the hem of her crimson gown up so as not to step on it. Another flight. And another. She finally breathed when she realized she was in a garden.

The moon was but a thumbnail in the sky though lanterns that hung on ornamental pikes gave a jaundiced light to the small rooftop refuge. Roses entwined themselves around every bit of trellis they could find nearly choking each other as they climbed skyward. In the moonlight, their red color seemed darker, even morose. Samantha glanced around through her forming tears and saw a bench with a white cushion atop it but decided against approaching it. Instead, she walked to the ledge of the roof and buried her face in her arms. Hours seemed to pass as she cried in solitude on the roof, her tears bringing her neither comfort nor a resolution.

"Can I offer you a needle?" a voice behind her asked. It was definitely male and the tone was dry.

She spun around to see a figure clad in a white suit lying on the bench about ten yards away. As he pulled himself to a sitting position, she realized that she had mistaken him for the cushions. "A needle?"

He stretched his arms up over his head. "To mend your broken heart. I find taking the one off your moral compass is rather troublesome, so I'll offer one to you."

Staring at him in confusion as she tried to distinguish his face in the dim lighting she said, "Who are you?"

"No one of consequence," was the near-mumbled reply.

She quickly brushed the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. "If that's so, then what are you doing in the Emperor's palace?"

"We're not in his palace. We're in his garden."

"On top of the palace, so you would have had to walk through the palace to get up here."

He stood up and retrieved a dark colored coat—she guessed it to be blue or green—from the back of the garden bench and slung it over his shoulder. "You're right. I suppose I should give a better answer. It would seem that our esteemed Emperor only serves his guests cheap Zexen wine."

"So you don't like his wine?"

"On the contrary."

The light wind pulled at her long, fair hair. "So you're drunk?"

"No, but I do have a bothersome headache, brought on heavier by the wailing of a young woman. What is the matter?"

She turned back around to look over the ledge. "You wouldn't understand."

His stride was short and shuffling as he approached and claimed the space next to her against the wall. "Try me."

She narrowed her eyes at him quizzically, trying to meet his but he artfully dodged her glances. "I don't know that I can trust you."

"You probably can't but I'm willing to listen," he said, turning around and pulling himself up to sit on the wall.

"Why?"

"To be honest, I have nothing better to do."

She sighed heavily and rested her cheek in her hand. "My father has just informed me that I am to be married."

"I thought women wanted that."

"Wanted what?"

"Marriage," he replied, his hand smoothing his dark hair back and out of his face.

"Well…"

His words were spoken with a grin. "Come on now…it's true. You women want everything from one man. But sadly, we men prefer to just have one thing from every woman."

"Must you be so crass?" she shook her head, a hairpin falling from her locks to the ground.

"I'm not being crass, just honest," he said as he walked back to the bench. "So your father has promised you to a man. Do you know him?"

She bent down to retrieve the jewelry. "Only his name."

"Names are useless."

"My father would disagree." she replied, taking a seat next to him and shivering at the sudden chill in the air.

He stood and placed his jacket over her shoulders. "So you are being auctioned to a man for a new name? Are a new arrangement of letters worth that much?"

"Thank you," she said, examining the jacket. It was a rich hunter green and ornately embroidered with gold thread on the cuffs and lapel. "I'm not being auctioned."

"Forgive me, sold."

"What would you know of such things? Surely you're not married."

He rubbed the back of his neck. "No, I'm not. I find that women require much more energy and attention than I'm willing to devote to them."

"And what, pray tell, do you prefer to devote your energy and attention to?"

He paused in thought for a moment and he sat down on the bench. "Games."

"Games?" she asked.

"Of sorts."

Turning to face him, she tried to get a better look at him. He was tall, light of frame and had a kindly face. She was certain she'd never seen him at court before. "You are a strange fellow."

"You're not the first to tell me that," he smiled, then turned his face from her. "So what's the name of your would be husband?"

"I thought you said names were useless?"

"They are if you wear them as ornaments but if you want information I'd consider them a necessity."

"And what information would you have?"

"Depends on the name."

"Do you make other people's business your own?" she asked pointedly.

"No, I make information my business."

"So you're a spy?"

He stood up and walked to the nearest trellis, plucking a rose from it. "Hardly, but I do know that knowledge is power and information is the most powerful weapon."

Samantha pulled his jacket tighter around her shoulders. Lightning bugs that had invaded the garden twinkled in between the flowers. She watched as one landed peacefully on a rose, giving it a spark of life in the dark garden. "His name is Mathiu Silverberg."

He laughed and tossed the flower over his shoulder. "Perhaps you should have thrown yourself off the roof."

"You know him?"

"Rather well. We studied in Harmonia together this past year."

She stood and moved towards her unexpected companion. "Will you tell me about him?"

"What do you want to know?"

"I don't know."

He grinned at her. "Then why ask?"

"Just tell me about him already."

After a moment he gave an answer, the tenor of his words more playful than before. "He's an arrogant son of a bitch that rides a horse two hands too big for him."

"So he's short?" she asked, furrowing her brow at the strange description.

"You are more concerned with physical characteristics, then?"

"No, I—"

He slipped behind the trellis and moved around her. "If that's the case you might want to invest in a masquerade mask for him—one that will hide that huge nose of his. The damn thing dominates his entire face. I'm surprised that a bird hasn't tried to perch on it."

Turning to face him she raised a slim brow. "None of that tells why my father is so happy about this arrangement."

"You don't know much history, do you?" he crossed his arms over his chest.

"It was never my favorite subject."

In a most sarcastic tone, he spat, "What is your favorite subject? Gossip? Quilting?"

"Poetry and Music," she retorted.

He pulled another rose from its vine and offered it to her. "Ah, a true romantic. I suppose I should tell you the history of the Silverberg family then. Maybe you could write a song about them."

"Stop mocking me," she shook her head and grudgingly accepted the flower.

He did not look directly at her as he recited what sounded like text written in a history book. Instead, his gaze darted from rose to rose that hung above her head. "Very well. The empire as you know it would not exist without them. Nearly two hundred years ago Julian Silverberg helped the first emperor secede from Harmonia. Since then the family has kept their strategic secrets close to their chest, playing their cards only in times of war and focusing on training the next generation in the craft. There were some failures and rebels within their bloodline, including poor old Elenor who was banished to the Southern Islands. The family guards their strategies like dragons guard gold and rarely let outsiders know of their secrets—so if you are marrying into the family you should be prepared to be kept in the dark." Then he paused and chuckled, selecting another of the Emperor's flowers and held it out to her with a sly smirk. "Unless you are already related perhaps? Rumor has it that the Silverbergs are highly inbred. Perhaps that's how they retain their secrets so well."

Samantha cringed at the thought but still took the rose. "Stop telling me these things. I don't wish to know any more."

He feigned insult. "But there's so much more, Samantha Weissturm!"

She froze, realizing she had not told him her name. "How do you know who I am?"

"I told you that I make information my business," he said, offering her his arm and leading her back to the bench.

"What else do you know of me?" she asked, lowering herself down onto it.

He paced in the space in front of her, tapping his chin in thought as he spoke, his tone still light. "You prefer to go by the name 'Sam' although that is definitely not a testament to a lack of femininity. Your hands are soft, so you do not do much work. You probably have a lady who dresses you in the morning and another who keeps track of your social engagements. Your idea of fun involves sitting around with your lady friends sipping tea and talking about the servant who is sleeping with your brother and wondering if you should tell your mother about it."

"I don't have a brother," she scowled, highly disliking the insinuations he had made about her.

"Well, perhaps I'm wrong on that, but I know I'm right on this: your family claims to be one of the wealthiest in the empire. Yet, you wear shoes that are scuffed and marked. Such a family surely wouldn't let their greatest asset attend the Emperor's ball in old shoes, would they?"

She instinctively drew her feet under the hem of her dress. "I like to dance."

"In last year's color?" He paused and his tone grew gentle. "I can tell so many things about a person by looking at their shoes. But if you like to dance you'd better run from Silverberg. He's pigeon toed and will probably step all over your feet."

Samantha was tired of this fop and his teasing. She made an effort to walk away from him and disappear deeper into the rose garden, but he followed. He methodically kept himself two steps behind as she navigated her way through the first few trellises. She only stopped walking when her dress became hooked on one the vine of one of the Emperor's white roses.

"So aside from your pretty face, what could your family offer to the Silverbergs?" he asked, watching her remove the catch in her dress.

"Can't you just leave me alone?"

"But you're the one who interrupted me, milady."

She sighed, gently pulling her dress off one thorn only to have it hook on another. "We are rune gem merchants. Runes are crafted from the gems into orbs and then sold to runesages."

"But if you're wearing old shoes—"

She stomped her foot in annoyance at him as another bead on her dress latched onto a rose. "Will you shut up about my shoes? I like them. They are comfortable!"

"Ah, the lady gets angry!" He bent down to assist with her dress. "If I may?"

She nodded to him. "Of course I'm angry! I'm to be married against my will to a man that sounds like boredom personified."

"Surely you knew this was coming," he said, working the beads and fabric free from their captivity. "Surely you knew that your father would be in negotiations tonight? Isn't that what the Emperor's Ball is all about? Families looking to secure their own future generations by prancing their daughters and sons about like breeding stock."

"Of course I knew it was coming! That doesn't mean that I have to like it."

"Well, what would you like?" he asked, rising to his feet. "A prince who knocks at your window and serenades you? Or a toad that you would kiss that would become your prince?" With a grandiose motion, he wrapped an arm around her waist and forced her into a jerky dance step. "Or perhaps a mysterious stranger you meet at a masquerade that steals you off into the night?"

She pushed him away. "Enough of this! You are not helping."

"I never offered help. I only offered to listen to you."

"And you're not doing that. You're only twisting my words for your own perverse pleasure."

"Well, I suppose I am doing that," he whispered, more to himself than to her. "But I do feel for you."

"You do?" she met his eyes.

He leaned on the trellis. "Yes. I agree with you that this practice of arranging marriages is incredibly archaic and hardly fair to those involved." Then, finding a white rose that he liked, he tucked it into his breast pocket. "So, your family's runes…are they are mined in Tinto?"

"Yes, but my father's company refines them here in Gregminister."

"Fantastic. Combined with the Silverbergs, the two families could easily start wars which would raise the price of rune gems—especially in a country like Harmonia where they are so coveted." He smirked at her. "Then your father could afford a new pair of shoes for you."

"I don't want new shoes. I'm happy with these!" she shouted, pulling his jacket off and throwing it at him.

"All women want new shoes."

"Well I'm not part of your generalizations!"

"Really? What else is so unique about you?" He placed the jacket back on her shoulders. "I wouldn't want a pretty thing like you to catch her death of cold."

She shrugged the coat off and let it fall to the ground. "I ride astride."

He bent down to retrieve his jacket and brushed it off. "So do most women these days. Did you forget our own commander of the Imperial Navy, General Kilawher Schulen, is a woman?"

"Another thing, I can cook. Most noble women cannot."

"Interesting. What sort of dishes do you prepare?"

"Mostly pastries and desserts."

He folded his jacket over his arm. "Anything else?"

Samantha ran her finger along the edge of the trellis frame. "If my father would allow me to, I would like to study medicine."

"Medicine?" he asked, his voice suddenly sounding more sincere.

"Yes, I'd like to be a doctor."

"Well, I'm impressed," he smiled, finding another white rose that he liked and tucking it in his pocket with the other. "I had you pegged for just another pretty face with a large dowry and no ambitions of her own."

"Of course I have ambitions. Everyone has ambitions. Though yours confuse me."

"Mine? I have none this evening."

"Such a lie!" she snapped, feeling now she had him on the defensive. "You could have easily walked away when you saw me or ignored me. But you did not."

He seemed a bit put off when he responded: "I told you I had nothing better to do."

"Somehow, I doubt that," she accused. "I don't believe for a moment that listening to the heavy-hearted ramblings of a young woman truly entertains you as much as you claim."

"You could have walked away, too."

"I could have. But I didn't want to."

"What is it that you want, then?"

"I want you to answer a question," she said with a smile, meeting his eyes.

"Why?"

"You seem to have an answer for everything."

He considered a moment. "Such flattery. Very well. What is the question?"

"Would you marry someone just to please your family? Or would you marry only for love?"

He took the two roses from his breast pocket and studied them as he turned them in his hand. "I suppose that all depends on how you define love. Is it a game of wits played out on a board like chess? A dance to the rhythm of a waltz in a crowded ballroom? Or just euphemism to sweat up your sheets with a clear conscience?"

"That's not an answer," she retorted.

"It was a poor question."

"Humor me?"

"Fine," he sighed, placing the two roses back in his pocket. "But you'll have to tell me what your definition of love is."

"For the purpose of the question, all of the above."

He did not even pause for a second. "Then the answer is easy. I would not marry the person if I did not love them."

"I see," she smiled. "Even you, the man without a name who haunts the Emperor's garden is a romantic."

"We all can be romantics," he said, returning the smile. "I would offer some advice to you, if you would take it."

"And what is that advice?"

An impish grin on his face looked nearly ominous in the low light. "Now you're trusting me? That's dangerous."

She laughed, taking his arm and allowing him to lead her out of the rose garden. "I'm beginning to think so."

"Well then, the advice is such," he started, his words more tender than they had been in the short time that she'd known him. "Perhaps you should discuss these things with the man that your father has promised you to."

"Which things?" she asked, tilting her head in thought.

He brushed his brown hair out of his face and stopped near the small bench they had abandoned earlier. "All of it. Your aspirations. Your feelings on being sold off. His horrible coordination when he attempts to dance with you—and he will."

"Do you think he'll listen or even care? You said he was arrogant."

"Oh, he is but he does have a heart," he said quietly.

"All right then," she gave a slight bow of her head to him. "Thank you. I suppose I should get back to the party and find him."

He returned the nod. "Look for a fellow of about eighteen years with a very large nose."

She made her way towards the entrance to the palace and then stopped. After turning to face him one last time she called, "You didn't tell me your name."

"Should I?" he asked as he approached her, pulling his jacket back on.

"Yes."

He smoothed the green fabric with a hand. "Why?"

She grinned at him. "Because I want to know the name of the man who calls the Emperor's wine cheap only because he can't hold his own liquor."

"Touché, milady," he said, taking her hand and bowing deeply to her as he offered her the two white roses. "My name is Mathiu Silverberg, and I believe that I am your intended."