The sun was shining halfway through the alabaster windows and halfway through the open roof of the atrium where Heiro sat at a table, finishing up the last threads of her embroidery. It was quiet and comfortable, and she had made great headway. She was beginning her last stitched heron when the idyllic scene was abruptly interrupted by the door thrown open with a loud bang.
"Heiro, dear, I am not certain you understood your father!" The loud voice of her mother echoed in the silent courtyard. "We don’t think it’s any good for you to have a visible relationship with the king!" Heiro’s mother swept into the open space clad in the latest of fashions, smelling of the newest Mede imports, not caring if Heiro was even there. Sadly, she was. Heiro laid her embroidery on the table and placed her hands flatly next to it.
This was not the first time her mother had harped on about the king. It was certainly not going to be the last, considering her father had invited yet another conspiring baron masquerading as a political ally for dinner. Baron Meinedes was not only in finance, he also prided himself on his firm hand with women. The words, "Women are the tax we pay on pleasure," may have been used more than once. Heiro did not mention any of that.
"Yes, mother?" she said, placidly.
"It’s all this talk about finance and political nonsense, it takes away from the really important things. I’m sure all this political maneuvering is too exhausting for your constitution, and so complicated besides. You should let your sister do the hard work, she is more beautiful anyway. And then you always get these headaches." Her mother looked at her as if she was going to dissolve into the wind at any given moment even though Heiro’s headaches were usually predated by disagreeable company.
"That is what I told father," Heiro said without even a hint of irony her mother wouldn’t understand anyway. Her mother took the subtle cop-out as agreement, and waved her hands into the air as if to shoo away the possibility of Heiro not actually doing what she agreed to.
"You should try harder to persuade the king to dance with your sister. And why were you talking so intently?" her mother asked, her wide eyes glistening with make-up in the way that suggested tears. It was artfully applied, just as her dress was tailored exactly to her frame, and if the neckline was a bit risqué, it was very tastefully done. "It’s unbecoming for a seemingly healthy, if slightly plain daughter of a baron to refuse dances with the king, and we don’t want people to think you are rebuffing him, too."
"I am simply too exhausted for all this political maneuvering," Heiro parroted back her mother’s words. "And I cannot begin to imagine how I would ever say no to the king."
Her mother looked at her with obvious pity in her still glistening eyes. "I don’t know how we went wrong with you, my dear." She sighed, then continued, "What does Attolis see in you that’s not there in Themis, I wonder."
"I don’t know," Heiro said, and looked at her hands. She could not articulate why Attolis took a fancy to her either. She thought it might have had to do something with her reading a book during a ball, but she wasn’t sure. Themis had said that now every girl could come in with a book, and still the king would not take a fancy in them, as he already had taken up with her. Heiro had two problems with that: one, the king hadn’t taken anything up with her; and two, how was that in any way logical?
Personally, she thought Attolis needed her for something. It might have something to do with the women’s parlors, in which he could not snoop very easily — or maybe he was just looking for someone easily impressed who had lived among the court for their whole life and knew the terrain. The former Thief of Eddis would probably love nothing more than to stay out of politics, but that was something her mother, or her father, didn’t understand.
"No matter," her mother continued. "We’ll have to deal with it some other way." She paused for a second, then held out the package wrapped in linen. "This was brought by a Lord Sotis for your reading pleasure. I sincerely hope you’ll remember him, and treat him like you would any of your father’s companions." Her mother may have forgotten that Lord Sotis was one of Attolis’s attendants, but Heiro certainly hadn’t. Heiro wasn’t going to tell her mother that the thing she thought was a courting gift was probably a play (or maybe a rare encyclopaedia) from the king.
Though curious — insanely curious, but she wouldn’t be able to get anything out of her mother in this state — Heiro took up her embroidery frame up again, and continued stitching.
Her mother huffed, said, "Tomorrow Baron Meinedes will be expected at lunch again. If you cannot be nice to his son, how about visiting Eunice again? Themis will take your place," and left again without waiting for an answer.
Heiro took the finished embroidered kerchief, the play, and the note that had accompanied it with her to the rose garden inside the palace walls, a regular meeting place especially for young noblewomen (who might not be restrained from going out in public, but whose mothers might be very upset by mingling with the common folk nonetheless). It was a lovely warm day, but the garden was largely deserted due to a state function elsewhere in the palace. Three young ladies could sit indecorously in the meadow and gossip quite comfortably without fear of being overheard or reprimanded.
Heiro was ensconced with her closest friends, Eunice and Agaia, in the nicest spot of the rose garden, sheltered on three sides by high bushes. Opinions on her taste in colors — or lack thereof — absorbed quite a lot of the conversation, so Heiro forgot to ask if they had heard about the newly published play. The accompanying note said it was going to be shown at the opening ceremony of the temple, as it was a didactic religious piece. Heiro didn’t quite get that last part, as the play mainly revolved around a family embroiled in prophecy, and at the end nobody was alive to have been taught anything. It was definitely the strangest religious piece she had ever read, but maybe it gained nuance by being shown.
"It looks perfect as ever," Eunice grumbled over the stitching. Hers always turned out a mess.
"It does not," Agaia said and snatched it from her grip. "Heiro, your stitches are all over the place again. Stop worrying about your mother while doing needlepoint. Mine has recently gotten it into her head that one of the King’s attendants, you know, the smarmy one— Baron Meinedes's youngest— would be the perfect husband for me. Whatever plans your mother has for you, they certainly aren’t as bad as that. Most of Attolis’s attendants aren’t even titled or placed to inherit! Look here, you went over the edge with the coloring again."
There weren’t many people out on a stroll, and Agaia could deride Heiro’s embroidery done in the finest if very colorful silk — in a loud, obnoxious voice, which of course she did.
"The colors are perfectly fine," Eunice said calmly. She told Heiro in undertone, "Her brother is insisting she should move back to Ephrata now that it’s not under dispute anymore, and she’s obviously not gained the favor of the queen."
"Ah," Heiro nodded in understanding. It was not something she had to fear, as her whole family was established in the capital, but she could understand why one wouldn’t want to return to the political hot-spot of Ephrata. It amounted to social exile.
"That is true," Agaia said, "but he’s insisting only because I 'don’t have any other obligations here,' and he thinks the queen doesn’t like having young beautiful women around her husband. And your colors are so off— see how the saffron yellow clashes with the purple? And here—you missed the sequence, see."
The three of them peered at the piece of cloth.
"Personally, I don’t see it," Eunice answered, and smiled slyly. "It looks like something the King would wear."
Agaia burst out laughing, and Heiro looked at her newly embroidered kerchief. It was made from the finest silk of Mede dyed in a brilliant saffron. Maybe she should not have picked the most purple thread she could find. She fingered the hyacinth-purple herons, colored with a dye from snails, which she had stitched into the edging. "I’m gifting it to her Majesty," she said, when Agaia finally stopped laughing.
Agaia looked perplexed. "Really?" she asked. "But it’s so—colorful."
"I’ll ask her about the situation in Ephrata," Heiro smiled. "And I’ll tell her that you think you do better work."
Agaia gaped, her mouth falling open.
Heiro stood up and elegantly smoothed her skirt folds. She was through the trellis arch before Agaia found her voice and shouted after her. "Heiro!"
Heiro turned back.
"You know, I was just kidding! It’s very intricate work! What are you telling the queen about me?" Agaia shouted, attracting the attention of the few people around. She looked to Eunice, and asked in a panicked voice, "Is she really going to tell the Queen about me?"
Heiro winked at Agaia, when Eunice raised one shoulder in an understated shrug and answered her with, "I don’t even know if she really has an audience with the Queen."
"She has been pretty inscrutable lately," Agaia said to Eunice thoughtfully, and scrutinized Heiro, who was still standing there waiting if they were going to acknowledge her again. But then Agaia continued, still not looking at her, with, "My guess is, she has a lover, and her mother is still making her be nice to the king. Why else would she be spending so much money on fancy silk?"
"True," Eunice agreed, and the conversation turned towards the new play being shown at the theatron. Heiro left.
On the way to Baron Hippias, because that was who Heiro had an appointment arranged, and not because she had an affair with him— she was held up by the diplomatic function currently held near the archive’s front entrance. Lots of people were crowding the hallways. Heiro tried to pass by unnoticed; she hadn’t dressed this morning for the irksome task of greeting foreign nobles.
The king was in attendance but currently in deep discussion with the Ambassador of Eddis. Attolis looked intent, but the ambassador, his cousin Ornon if she remembered correctly (Heiro had never been formally introduced), seemed very uncomfortable.
When Attolis noticed her, he moved in a way that might have been calculated to cut off her escape route and then called out her name, "Heiro!"
Of course she stopped, because it was her sovereign calling her, but she recognized the mood he was in, and he was going to muck up court politics for weeks to come, she could feel it — and today of all days she was not prepared for that.
"Your Majesty," she curtsied. "Ambassador, it’s a pleasure."
She didn’t grimace at Attolis, but it was a near thing, and so instead she smiled at the heavy-set man dressed in Eddisian uniform. She knew peripherally of the Ambassador of Eddis, though she had never spoken to him. He looked like an unwilling participant of the king’s latest scheme, and also like he was used to being blamed. Heiro’s smile turned brighter.
"Have you been introduced to the ambassador, Heiro? He’s been looking for a wife, because his appointment is running out soon, and he doesn’t want to go home to his sheep. He’s gotten used to the luxuries at court, you see, and his post won’t be a necessity with Attolia’s new sovereignty of Eddis." The king of Attolia winked.
Heiro felt her stomach sinking. This was going to look very suspicious to a court mired in intrigues and machinations. In fact, if there still were certain rumors about her being his mistress— what would her mother think? What would her father do?
The Eddisian ambassador, Ornon, was at least visibly embarrassed, the tips of his ears turning red. "What are you doing, Gen?" he hissed. He might not be a part of this set-up, after all.
"Baaah," Attolis said in undertone, and Heiro was baffled why this constituted an appropriate response. The Eddisian diplomat turned an even deeper red without revealing the no doubt embarrassing backstory but stopped protesting. "I want you to meet the lovely Lady Heiro, Ornon," the king said, loudly yet again. "She has a supreme taste in earrings; likes plays in which people are viciously murdered, but since that’s almost all of them she likes plays in general; and she’s never touched sheep in her entire life."
Heiro was in no way, shape or form the king’s mistress, and frankly did not think Attolia would ever tolerate one. That begged the question: why was he trying to marry her off to one of his relatives as if she were?
Or maybe Ornon really was looking to be introduced to Attolian women looking to marry — she scrutinized the man closer. He didn’t look all that bad, and there were certainly worse options if your father was insistent that you marry someone with close ties to the king. She shuddered, thinking about Alemachos.
"Are you agreeing with him?" the Eddisian ambassador asked her incredulously.
Heiro sneaked a peak over the crowd and then let her eyes fall to the king. He didn’t seem to be realizing that this could be construed in plenty of different ways, but Attolis had an astonishing control over his expressions. "You are searching for a wife," she said bluntly to the ambassador. Maybe too bluntly by the way he flinched.
"And you consented to this, this madness?" he asked, clearly upset. Did the ambassador also think Heiro was the king’s mistress? She should take that as a compliment rather than an attack on her character, she was sure.
Helplessly, she looked at Attolis, who had suddenly stopped smiling.
"No!" he protested. "Heiro is wasted as a matron!" He kept his voice down, luckily, because gods knew what Heiro’s mother would have said to this turn of conversation.
"She’s far too young for a marriage between us to be proper," Ornon explained to the king, and while Heiro agreed with the sentiment in regard to how it would look like in the eyes of the court, she was baffled as to why age should have a play in this.
"It’s not about you and her," Attolis told him, quietly. "You are going to need a wife, and for some reason, my associations are lacking in unmarried women. It’s an oversight, I’m sure." There’s a sardonic twist to his mouth when he looked at Heiro again. "He really is looking to marry. He’s also cripplingly shy when it comes to women, and needs someone to introduce him. I apologize for not preparing you before, Heiro — I made sure your father was occupied with more complicated matters."
Heiro wasn’t sure of that at all, but she had already thrown her lot in with the king, and it was too late to change midway through.
"It would be my pleasure," Heiro said, and with an eye-twitch that probably looked slightly insane, she tried to communicate to her king that she was expected at Baron Hippias’s. While superficially Attolis took no notice, Heiro could tell he was amused. Elegantly, he directed the conversation into more banal matters and at the same time navigated her through the rush of people to deposit her directly in front of the large, iron-wrought doors.
Baron Hippias wasn’t sitting behind the big desk of his predecessor— the much lauded first Secretary of the Archives Relius— but Heiro found him quickly in the old part of the archive, where the books of succession were kept. He was crouched over a huge book. Bound in leather and iron, it was probably heavier than Heiro was. He looked up when Heiro entered, and smiled.
"Lady Heiro! I have been expecting you!"
Heiro acknowledged him, and they exchanged pleasantries. Then, he turned more serious and asked, "Do you have any notion how we should be working together?"
"Working together?" Heiro repeated, "I had the image that you were supposed to be…my commander, of sorts?" and she a spy — that sounded awfully like her childish fantasies, but now it appeared to be her real life.
"Yes, yes," Baron Hippias agreed, "we initially thought we could adopt the same practices Baron Relius left us with, but the man is inimitable — a workhorse to the bone. The new idea is that we develop an outbound spy system for foreign threats to the palace, and I’m to be the head of that; and then another network of domestic affairs, because there are some threats from just within, like a poison capsule in the wrong wine when you don’t know about it, and you would be the perfect head for that."
"With respect, Baron Hippias, I’m a woman. Nobody is going to believe I could head any spy system, let alone one for internal threats to their majesties."
"That’s the genius about it!" Baron Hippias grinned at her, like a little boy just out of school. "One department in the open, although secretive, and the other one in the dark! Relius is going to kick himself in the posterior for not thinking about it."
Heiro stared at him, speechless. This was an opportunity that wasn’t even possible to dream about, because how could you dream about something this — extraordinary. Spymaster to the king and queen of Attolia.
"The only problem we have currently," the Baron continued, like he didn’t care that he had opened the sky for her, "—is that we are not sure how to pay you. It’s rather difficult to keep an entire ministry off the books, if they are still on our pay rolls."
"Taxes," Heiro said as if in trance. And it was mightily suspicious that Baron Meinedes had spent the last few weeks at her house going on about them, as if he wanted to…
"Pardon?" the Baron Hippias asked, and looked at her in askance. She lost her trail of thought, and came back to the point she wanted to make.
"Everyone knows that if you want to pay someone without it looking like a bribe, you put it into their tax deductions," Heiro explained. "And I’m a woman, so I’m not technically allowed government official wages anyway. Maybe put it into an allowance? And once my service is over, and bequeathment from the queen — excuse me, Attolis."
"An excellent suggestion," Baron Hippias agreed, then looked thoughtfully inward and asked, "Tax deductions, really? I should look into that."
The rest of the visit with the new Secretary of the Archives passed in a half-conscious daze, and later on, Heiro couldn’t really say what had happened, except that she didn’t kiss Baron Hippias, and also didn’t ask to marry him, and she was pretty certain she didn’t make any other probably unwelcome advances.
When she stepped out again, Costis was waiting for her. "My apologies for not distracting the king from waylaying you, Lady Heiro" he told her, and looked like a miserable wet dog.
Heiro would have wanted to know why he was wet, but she also didn’t want to ask, and so it would probably forever remain a secret. "That’s alright. I don’t think you could have, Attolis is very pertinacious."
Costis looked puzzled for a second, then said, with deep felt exhaustion, "You have no idea." He picked himself up (he left a wet spot on the tapestry), and then asked, "Do you remember the way to Attolia’s quarters, or do you want me to show you again?"
Heiro looked around the palace halls, then went for a door slightly aside. "It’s here somewhere, right?"
Costis hurried after her, "No, that’s— Attolis calls it the conspiracy room, it’s basically useless. There’s a nice concealed spot in the ceiling, but— this way, please."
Costis and Heiro weren’t keeping quiet — Costis was much too big to fit comfortably through all the tiny passages and vents. All the more surprising, that they still managed to stumble over Baron Meinedes without the latter being aware of them.
Heiro had suspicions about all the small empty rooms, which could not have been built for many other purposes besides providing conspirators with a convenient meeting places. Secret dalliances came to mind.
Lo and behold, that was exactly what Baron Meinedes was up to. He had one of the younger attendants— Chloe, if Heiro’s memory was working correctly— perched against the windowsill, and was whispering sweet nothings in her ear.
Costis breathed out sharply before Heiro could pull him back — this was definitely not something to interrupt without knowing the circumstances.
"Come on," Baron Meinedes whispered. It travelled easily across the room. "You wanted us to be here. Now you are backing out again?"
Chloe was obviously uncomfortable, and Heiro wondered under what pretenses Baron Meinedes had persuaded her to come in here.
Costis was just as uncomfortable as the poor attendant; he shifted from one foot to the other, and then asked Heiro in undertone (at least he had learned not to whisper), "Aren’t we going to help her?"
"I…" Chloe said meanwhile. "Your son doesn’t like me at all. How would we be married?"
"My son does not know what to do with a women as pretty as you, but he’s going to learn. He’s still very young."
"Attolia is very dear to me," she said, firmer.
"I wouldn’t ever lay a finger on her," the Baron promised, "but you must see how wrong the goatfoot is for her. They’re trying to brainwash people into following the old religions! Haven’t you heard the buzz about the new temple?"
"True," Chloe said reluctantly. "But there must be a way to just destroy the temple, right? There’s no need for you to head the Ministry of Revenue."
"If the temple is destroyed," the Baron countered, "then they will build a new one. We need to control the money first, before we can destroy the temple. Or else all our hard work would be wasted."
"He’s out of his mind!" Costis said quietly into her ear.
Heiro nodded. Baron Meinedes was also rich and powerful enough that his stupidity didn’t matter. But Heiro knew now who was trying to get the taxes under their control again — and it did have something to do with her father. Had Attolis found out, and set her this task so she could implicate herself? No, she was being paranoid again.
Did Chloe know what Baron Meinedes was doing? She was pretty slow on the uptake, always had been—wait a moment. The conservative faction, including her own father, was convinced the new temple was the first step towards exclusionary religious practices. Which made sense, but only if you looked at it from a paranoid standpoint.
No wonder they had been so facetious the last few weeks — Baron Meinedes had poked a wasp’s nest, and now everyone was out to sting.
Maybe her newfound position was going to her head. How would she keep Baron Meinedes from snatching the Ministry of Revenue? Was this the launch of her spying career, or would she sink like a lead buoy?
On the way back to Relius’ old room at the other end of the palace, which she supposed was hers now, she had to cross the training fields, and ran into the one person she wasn’t quite confident of handling on her own.
"And who do we have here? Isn’t it the adorable Lady Heiro who has the goatfoot’s ear?" Alemachos said. He was with a group of other nobles, not quite training seriously, not quite goofing around. Their status meant she wasn’t allowed to pass them unacknowledged. It was such a shame she couldn’t just ignore them and leave.
She and Alemachos, as well as some of the others, had shared some of the same tutors, but he had been the most disagreeable when she would get praise for her astute instincts and ruthless tactics. He was not very clever, though as a blunt instrument he could inflict a large amount of pain. He’d been recently demoted due to the downsizing of the guard, and the shifting of Captain Teleus over to the military battalions stationed in the capital. Obviously, he held a grudge. His father, Baron Meinedes, held the same grudge, and was trying to maneuver his son into a better position again.
"I heard you made insinuations about my intelligence again," he continued, embarrassing himself further.
"It’s a pleasure to see you, Alemachos. I guarantee I never speak of you, and least of all that which you don’t have," Heiro said with a curtsy. From the corner of her eye, she noticed one of the palace guards moving in her direction. "How is your sister?"
Before he could answer, and even before the guard could move into hearing range, a voice from Heiro’s back exclaimed in very obviously faked delight, "Stefanes!" Her sister Themis had slid behind her, and projected enthusiasm. "I haven’t seen you in so long! Didn’t your family’s business keep you in the North? Is that issue with the border finally resolved? How delightful!"
"Lady Themis." Another of the nobles bowed. "I have been sent to the capital for education."
Themis laughed, "Education, in the capital? Hasn’t your family heard that going out of the country for studying is new craze? All the heirs do it now."
Stefanes, now Heiro remembered his name again—he was an unimposing lackey of Alemachos and always had been, looked appalled and insulted. Even he had heard of Erondites's disgraceful exile to Ferria. Dite had been liked by everyone, not like these twerps.
"I have heard wonderful things about the university of Ferria, and its many opportunities," Heiro said, sweetly. "The Magus of Sounis was so kind as to lend a series of theses to the Palace library, and a great many were created there. I was particularly impressed by a recent invention that concentrates odorous substances into something much richer."
"On that note, Heiro, I desperately need someone to find this one book," Themis said, and took her by the arm. "I do hope you’ll excuse us, boys?" she asked the group who let them pass without further word. One of them even bowed again, and Heiro elected to remember his name.
"What was that all about?" Themis asked her, when they had left the vicinity. She had put them on the way to the library, and they continued going in that direction.
"Attolis had expressed a… fondness for my dancing," Heiro said, talking as delicately as she could around the rumor that the king was—well. Entertaining her quite thoroughly?
Themis frowned with raised eyebrows, "Still? I thought that would blow over sooner."
"There may have been a public conversation concerning marriage which was witnessed by quite a few people," Heiro confessed. "It happened today, during the diplomatic conference. Mother probably doesn’t know yet."
Themis halted suddenly. "Heiro," she said earnestly, "you haven’t been sleeping with the king, have you?"
"No!" Heiro replied, outraged. "Why would you think that?"
"The king pulls you over to dance all the time. He dances with all your friends. He talks to you. The queen invited you into her parlour. Shall I continue?"
"Themis. Really. Think," Heiro told her sister. "What do you know of Attolia? Do you think she would take the mistress of her husband into her chambers and calmly chat with her and then do nothing? Do you really think I could cuckold the Queen of Attolia? Look at me, Themis. Am I really competition for the queen?"
Themis started walking again, slowly. "No," she said. "She’d hang you from the rafters alive, for the crows to feast on your liver."
Heiro sighed in relief. "Yes, that’s right."
"And then cut off Attolis’s other hand. And maybe blind him. Gods, do you think they ever even manage to sleep together?"
"Yes, thank you, Themis, for going into more detail than I ever wanted to think about my sovereigns." They had arrived at the library. Heiro opened the door with a key she had been presented with only yesterday. "So then, what did she want from you?"
"The queen has been looking for a new master of spies," Heiro said, and turned from the chamber that had once belonged to Relius, and now would belong to her, towards her sister. This might have been not very stealthy, but she trusted her sister.
Themis choked out, "What?"
"I’m the new assistant to the Secretary of the Archives," Heiro repeated. "I will need you to be my cover story. Relius of course, will stay on for administrative duties but he’ll need to take it a little slower after his recent injuries." She wasn’t going to talk about Baron Hippias being the new Secretary of Archives until she had heard other sources gossiping about it.
"You," Themis said, disbelieving. "Attolia named you the new master of spies."
"Attolis recommended me," Heiro said shyly.
"I—" Themis began, then shook her head, "I don’t think I understand this court anymore, Heiro."
"Don’t you like it better?"
"Yes," Themis confessed, "but it’s not only about liking something. How is it going to work, with people like you as the secretary of archives? What’s going to happen if you marry? Is your husband going to take over your title?"
"Definitely not," a deep voice answered from behind the cabinets, behind which Heiro had recently discovered a secret entrance. The king emerged.
"Attolis." Themis said, and curtsied.
"Lady Themis, a pleasure to make your acquaintanceship under more auspicious circumstances," the king said. He nodded his head, but eyed Heiro in a way that implied, 'Keep her away from me, and that’s an order from your sovereign.'
"I need you to do something for me, Themis," Heiro said, and butted Attolis out of the way. She could see Themis’ eyes grow wide at that, but she was distracted by the need not to implicate their entire family in what amounted to treason.
"This is what you need to do. I’m not going to be present at lunch tomorrow, but you’ll need to get Baron Meinedes drunk — the easiest way to do it, is to prevent him from eating early — and I’ll send a messenger to get him early afternoon. Don’t serve him watered wine. And keep pouring."
Attolis waved and left unobtrusively, looking slightly bemused, and finally, Heiro could get Themis to focus on something else beside than his careless attitude.
"And there’s this — a recent invention from Ferria. It makes the wine more concentrated and therefore more potent. He’ll get drunk much faster, and I have been told it doesn’t taste terribly different. It burns, though, if you use too much."
Themis rolled her eyes. "I can get a man drunk all by myself," she said. "You forget, I was married. It’s almost a prerequisite for a successful marriage."
"None of your marriages were in any way successful," Heiro pointed out.
"It certainly wasn’t because I couldn’t drive a man to drink,” Themis replied.
Heiro shrugged. She didn’t want to start a fight with her sister. Even though Themis had gotten herself respectfully settled, should she ever decide to live on her own, while Heiro was very much dependent on the goodwill of others, she would not have changed places with Themis for anything.
The next day, Heiro sent of a quick note off with a runner, and then made her way to Eunice. She was a welcome guest there, and etiquette wasn’t quite kept as stringent, so she was also an often-seen guest.
After lunch and gossip about the terrible way roofs covered with sleet instead of shingles looked (the new temple was starting an inimitable trend), Heiro announced, "I have the most desperate desire to see the new temple opening."
She was greeted with the blank faces of her friends, and the even blanker face of her dearest friend.
"What a surprise," Eunice said flatly, "Heiro, wanting to see a play. The world shall be astonished."
"No, I’m hardly shocked myself," Zenia said. "It’s a very good play — uh, I must have heard. Of course, I have no knowledge of Eddisian temple practises."
Agaia smirked "Luckily, I don’t have overbearing family in the capital. I’m free to go if you need a companion, Heiro."
"That is such a relief. Agaia, I would not know what to do without you, honestly."
Agaia grew suspicious. "Is something going on I should know about?"
"No, no, you know, just my mother being…" Heiro drifted off and grimaced.
"If you want, I can tell Mother you are accompanying Agaia as an escort to the public theatre," Themis suggested, and Heiro couldn’t have kicked her fast enough.
"Really, this is a bit suspicious," Agaia said, frowning. "Are you playing a trick on me?"
Heiro protested before she could think of any reason why they were in fact trying to trick her into attending an Eddisian temple opening. At the last minute she remembered that singular rumor. "It’s— my mother— you know," she hemmed and hawed, and then blurted out, "A lot of young men want to attend!"
Eunice began snickering. Her sister had an odd grimace on her face, as if she also wanted to laugh. Zenia’s eyes grew wide, and Agaia relaxed, admonishing her, "You could have just said so the first time!"
Heiro blushed, and was suddenly very glad for her sense of shame.
The new temple of Hephestia had been built in an excellent location, on top of the acropolis above the palace, and not far away from the resident district where both Heiro’s and Eunice’s home was located. It was the most fortified place in the city, and as Heiro had found out in her recent exploration of the archives, could hold over a tenth of the city’s population in a time of need. The fantastic view over the ocean bay was nevertheless the most impressive attribute of the new temple. The view alone was almost worth to come dedicate a trinket.
The entire area was decorated with wildflowers native to both Eddis and the steeps of Cromea where they had probably been sourced. A surprising number of people turned up for the very first ceremonial plays presented to the public.
"This is amazing!" Agaia said, and snagged one of the cups from a nearby tray. "This is almost better than the theatre." Certainly, there were many more people.
Heiro was supremely glad for her enthusiastic friend, as she had spied Attolis and more importantly his entourage and was slowly and steadily making their way through the crowd. Heads turned at the call.
"Ornon!" Heiro greeted the man she had been looking for. "This is a surprise! Do you enjoy plays?"
"I’m actually here for the service," Ornon said dryly.
Heiro suppressed the unladylike snicker that wanted to escape. "Have you met the Lady Agaia, sister of the Baron Ephrata?" she said instead.
"I haven’t had the pleasure, no," he replied, just as dry.
"Who is this, Heiro?" Agaia whispered, and pinched her in the side. "Are you planning something again? I was just coming here to watch the spectacle."
"This is Lord Ornon, the honored ambassador from Eddis, and a cousin to the King."
"How do you do." Agaia curtsied. "—this may be an impertinent question to ask, but you do practise the old rites, don’t you?"
Ornon raised an eyebrow, but politely replied in the affirmative.
"My brother, the new baron of Ephrata, is trying to dedicate an altar to Oceanus and he’s having a hard time finding sources for the dedication process. Could you perhaps point me in the right direction?"
Heiro left them to their important discussion, and sidled up to Philologos, the only attendant of Attolis she was on reasonably good terms with. (Ion didn’t count, as it was Zenia who was on very good terms with him, and normally Heiro just stood by and watched them flirt. It might grant her favourable feelings, but she wasn’t going to approach him by herself.)
Philologos had much to say on the subject of Eddisians encroaching on territory that wasn’t rightfully theirs, though he conveniently left unsaid that the gods of Eddis had been the first gods worshipped in Attolia as well. He also seemed to like Attolis, which was a surprise, at least to Heiro, since the men in her acquaintance seemed to be easily intimidated by the way he treated differences in class by ignoring them.
Heiro had to admit the scene that the new priest of Hephestia had planned for the evening was inspired. She would go as far as say it was plucked right out of real life — the reigning queen who, when forced to marry a villain who had murdered her entire family, killed him by making him drink poison.
Heiro was getting worried that the messenger she sent had been delayed by some natural disaster, or that Themis had managed to drink all the wine by herself. The crowd was getting into good spirits, however, especially when the next play used a theme similar to the one before. This time the king brutally murdered his nephew because of a prophecy, and the mother of the child came back to hack him into pieces.
That was, of course when Baron Meinedes turned up, completely and utterly drunk off his face. Heiro was going to congratulate Themis on a job well done, and pay the messenger boy an extra copper or two.
Baron Meinedes didn’t have a quiet voice at the best of times, but thanks to the excellent acoustics, his loud drunken voice could be heard to the very edges of the seating tiers.
"This!" he proclaimed. He began his monologue with great dramatic importance, and held up his index finger, waggling it around, and then forgetting what he was going to say. "Taxes! Make me the Minister of Revenue, and all your tax paying money will go to the right temples!" He stumbled over his own feet — found his footing again, and wagged his finger vaguely into the direction of Attolis. "I see you, villain! I have found you! There will be—jussstice!" He slurred the last word.
Attolis stood up, and came down the seating tiers until he was eye-level with Baron Meinedes. The Baron may have been a mite taller, but he was also hunching in on himself. Next to the king, who stood straight and nonchalant in colorful Mede silks, he looked utterly pathetic.
"There’s going to be a reckoning," he said threateningly, but the effect was lost, as he stumbled yet again. Baron Meinedes crashed onto the stage, where the principal actor took one good look at him, and said, perhaps a bit too loudly, "I say, good fellow. Perhaps you have imbibed too freely today?"
This was greeted by roaring laughter and a standing ovation. The program continued, but at the closing ceremony, most of the viewers could agree that Baron Meinedes’s role was the best — and they would make certain that their opinion would be heard by all.
While this wasn’t as bad a faux-pas as it would have been to assassinate the king, it meant that until the rumors of his not-so-secret vice had died down, there was no earthly chance anyone would recommend him as the Minister of Revenue.
Heiro looked over at Agaia, who was saying a proper good-bye to Ornon, and seemed pretty happy to have been left alone for close to three hours now.
All in a day’s work.
Do you know what the Baroness Meinedes told me today!" Her mother swept into the room — elaborately dressed in the newest finery, with lovely alabaster earrings Heiro would love to see dedicated on an altar just for the entertainment of her reaction — entirely outraged. "She said you were present at the new temple service! What an outrage! What slander! Tell me you weren’t there, dear," she commanded without pause.
"But I was," Heiro said calmly, and laid aside the play she was reading. "I went there to escort Agaia."
Her mother sighed, then touched her forehead, "Heiro, why are you so nice? You must not let your friends take advantage of you, you can’t let yourself be dragged around willy-nilly. Next thing you know, you’ll be on a ship to Ferria studying music."
"I promise I won’t get on any ships to Ferria. I’m really not that musically talented, mother."
She rolled her eyes. "You can do anything you set your sights on, dear, though I admit you’re not the most musically versatile of my daughters. Keep out of your father’s way, he’s unreasonably upset because rumor has it there’s definitely a new candidate for Minister of Revenue, and none of the likely candidates have been seen in the company their majesties. It’s perplexing, and you know how he doesn’t like to be wrong."
Heiro was touched.
At the evening’s soirée, Heiro’s friends were convened in great number to get the gossip on the changing circumstances of Baron Meinedes.
"Gods, what a slimy human being," Heiro heard Chloe saying. "I always thought he was a bit…" and she made a swirling motion with her hand. Nothing about it indicated that there had almost been an understanding between her and Alemachos.
Nobody expected Heiro’s opinion, and nobody sought it out, though several times Themis showed amusement at what Heiro strongly suspected was a conspiracy theory that Attolis had been the cause of Meinedes’ drunkenness.
Alemachos was strangely subdued and quiet — and Heiro felt vindicated and slightly disturbed at her vengeful fantasies were she threw him one handedly into a fountain, until she noticed a presence at her back.
"Huh," Attolis said, and supervised the chaos on the dance floor like a true believer in the goodness of mankind, and inordinately pleased about himself, for all he didn’t do a single thing to Baron Meinedes except showing up and looking at him. "I didn’t think political murder could be so uneventful."
"That’s because you’re needlessly dramatic," Heiro told him, and then, a bit belatedly, added, "Your Majesty."
"You can call me Eugenides, you know," he said.
Heiro braved a look at Attolia, who was studiously not watching them at all. There was a tiny part of Heiro that wanted to needle Attolia a bit, something that wasn’t malicious but rather something sisters did. Well, Themis might still do it maliciously, but Heiro would do it with deepest appreciation. She was intimately aware that the final power in this kingdom was concentrated in that extraordinary woman, and Heiro felt too intimidated to tease her. Or did she?
For the first time since Heiro had been approached by Attolis, the queen turned their way — nonchalantly looking over the crowd. "We’ll see," Heiro said, the corner of her mouth turned slightly up.
The old Secretary of the Archives was sitting next to the queen, drinking wine. When Attolia had Attolis and Heiro in perfect eye-line, she raised a single brow.
"Will you dance with me?" the King of Attolia asked. Heiro curtsied, and let herself be led onto the dance floor. Today, she could conquer the court, and maybe later, the world.