“Come this way,” the servant said.
Charls looked around with interest as he was led through the palace. Every few yards he also glanced over his shoulder to make sure that the men carrying his huge leather books, full of the samples that represented the best fabrics he had to offer, were not endangering them through careless handling.
Charls fiddled with the hem of his tunic, brushed away a tiny speck of dust, then smoothed it. Yes. The green one had been a good choice. This was one of the most important meetings of his life: surely, it was a short step from being invited to provide fabric for the royal wedding clothes to being named Official Cloth Purveyor to the Crown.
He wondered what King Damianos would be like, or if he would even be present. These political marriages; it was a pity, really. The Veretian King was such a bright, attractive young man. But that was how it had to be for aristocrats. Charls thought fondly of his own wife and his lover, the one in Arles and the other in the busy trade port of Basouy. Oh, Floriane had been his old employer’s daughter, and marrying her had guaranteed Charls access to the man’s trade contacts and production sites when he was setting up on his own, but Charls wouldn’t have agreed to it if he hadn’t also genuinely liked her and respected her as a shrewd businesswoman in her own right. Marital harmony was worth a thousand bales of silk.
The servant bowed Charls through a final door, the heavy pile of sample-books was deposited on the floor next to him, and all the men retreated.
There was someone else in the room, who turned from the window when he hears Charls enter: it was the King’s companion, the tall Patran lord, who had met and talked with Charles in an inn and then, later, played at being the King’s assistant. He was dressed simply but well, in Akielon garb that was clearly of the finest grade linen.
“Lamen!” said Charls, delighted. “Or no, is it Alfar, as it was when we first met? I must admit, given everything that has happened, I have never been sure of your true name.”
The Patran, whatever his name was, gave Charls a look that started out surprised and settled somewhere between discomfort and hilarity. Before he could speak, however, the door opened again and His Majesty Laurent the King of Vere strode into the room. He had the same open and irrepressible confidence of manner as he had when playing merchant or prostitute, but Charls thought that his throne suited him: there was a relaxation to his shoulders, a sense that he had finally stepped into the role he’d been born for. He was not wearing the Akielon style, but an embroidered shirt tucked into his Veretian trousers.
“Your Majesty!” Charls swept a bow, making sure to flip his cloak over his arm in a way that showed off the quality of the wool. “I was just saying to your-–” assistant? bodyguard? “-–friend here that I remain ignorant of his name. Much as I have enjoyed our various exploits under false guise.”
There was a pause, so pregnant with unsaid things that Charls was puzzled. And then something began to sparkle in the King’s gaze that Charls, veteran of hundreds of fierce negotiating tables, recognised as the birth of a wild idea.
The King directed that sparkling gaze onto possibly-Lamen.
“And how long do you think you could maintain it this time?” said the Patran, as if responding to something the King had said. He was looking at King Laurent with a fondness that went far past familiarity and into something else. And the King was looking back.
How romantic! How unfortunate! And here the man was, to loyally support his royal beloved, even in the task of preparing for his marriage to another. Charls was touched.
“Laurent,” said Lamen.
“Oh, very well,” said the King. He turned back to Charls. “Charls, this is King Damianos of Akielos.”
Charls opened his mouth. Charls closed his mouth. He looked, unable to help himself, from the top of King Damianos’s head, down to the sandals on King Damianos’s feet, and back up again.
“I know,” said King Laurent, as if in commiseration. “But just think how many yards of fabric I shall be forced to buy from you, in order to cover him.”