Foreign Affairs: Chapter 7
Compared to his visit during Gwen and Morna’s ‘trial,’ the space had transformed. The relaxed settees and stuffed chairs were replaced with an elegant carved table that was just the right size for a group of four. Diana was alone and made an entire lap of the room to admire several new busts and paintings before she noticed him. “Oh! Sir Rowan!”
“Just Rowan is fine.” Oh no. That wasn’t going to stick, was it? It was bad enough having everyone present for Rhiannon’s drunken prank without needing to hear it referenced by anyone with half a mind to tease him.
“Right! Is it just us today?”
“I’m not sure, actually. Feel free to take a s-”
Arlene’s voice came from outside, though she didn’t even poke her head through. “Her Majesty, Luna Evanora Rhiannon IX.”
“Thank you, Arlene.” Rhiannon’s voice was hoarse and when she and Greenglass stepped through the door, it was obvious that they were doing even worse than they sounded. From the dark circles under their eyes to the slouched, barely-conscious posture, they both seemed to have regrets about their alcohol consumption the previous night. It was impossible to tell whether Greenglass was sneering at Diana or if she woke up with an angry squint painted over her glasses. By his own estimation, this was about an 8 on the Greenglass irritation index—two or three points higher than normal. Fortunately for the negotiation, she seemed to have taken something from her punishment and sat next to Rowan without comment.
On the other hand, Rhiannon threw herself into her chair and groaned. “Morning, Diana. Rowan.”
The Girian performed a deep, fluid bow in the Queen’s direction. Even at this early hour, she was bright, chipper and considerably more alert than the rest of them. “Good morning, Your Majesty.”
“Sit down, won’t you?” She paused to watch Diana take her seat, her bare legs sticking out on either side of the hanging skirt that dangled down her front. After a moment of squinting and chin-scratching, Rhiannon flicked her eyes over to Rowan. “Hm. I’ve never opened a trade negotiation.”
He gave the possibility some thought after her talk last night. She hadn’t been in charge of the country for long. Between being a general for eighty years and her former ministers running the country as they pleased, she likely didn’t have much experience in governing at all.
“If I may then, Your Majesty?” He asked more as a formality. Anyone with eyes could tell Rhiannon was in no state to lead a negotiation even if she knew how.
She gave him a grateful nod and leaned back in her chair. Hopefully she picked things up quickly and wouldn’t embarrass herself the next time.
Rowan leaned over the table and gave Diana’s hand a perfunctory shake. “We’d all like to thank you for coming, Diana. Her Majesty appreciated your gift very much.”
“It was my pleasure, Rowan. Even if it was a magnificent prize, we end up having to abandon those sorts of things to the wood. Only someone with a settled lifestyle and an impressive home would be able to appreciate it properly.”
It was a classic opening move to insinuate your expensive gift was plentiful enough that a successful negotiation would lead to having as many as you were willing to buy. Well, the classic response wasn’t a bad counter.
“Speaking of, I trust you enjoyed the dinner last night? I heard the breads and cakes were quite popular.”
“Yes, they were really-!” Diana paused and cleared her throat. This must not have been her first negotiation if she knew to catch herself like that. “They were excellent. Should we get on with the negotiation?”
“Of course.” Rowan set his notebook on the table and smoothed out the pages. “I think I’d like a better idea of what we’re negotiating for, first. You said you were looking for a trade in goods instead of gold or silver?” That was going to be their first stumbling block. For convenience’s sake, they would have to evaluate prices in coin, but they wouldn’t be taking any change with them when a caravan left.
“Yes. Making cloth or metal tools is nearly impossible with our living situation. Without axes and saws, we can’t do our due diligence managing the forest’s size, much less have exotic lumber to sell.”
Rhiannon rallied the energy to speak again. “How is the forest? I know my grandmother was very keen on containing it.”
“It crossed the Brina river about thirty years ago, but I know that isn’t long for a witch-queen.”
“Could we speak about that first, actually? We want to contract a group that can clear an area with witch-fire since the trees don’t burn from any flame we have.”
“That’s fine. I’ll send an army detachment and you can give a payment in goods for them to bring back.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Rowan wouldn’t dare interrupt a queen, but he really wished she hadn’t done that. Having a mild concession in the lumber negotiation would have been a far better deal as far as their side was concerned. Why get fifty trees now when you could get an extra five a year for the next century? There was nothing he could do about it now, he supposed. “Shall we move on to the next point, then?”
“Of course! Would you mind going over the lumber section? I want to get an idea of what you’d like before I suggest how much we could buy and it’s the vast majority of our income.”
“I don’t have a problem with that. What would you like to charge?”
She gave him a placid smile. “How much are you willing to pay?”
He should have planned for this discussion, but there wasn’t any time with how late Greenglass had told him. Come to think of it, he didn’t even know who he would talk to about finding out lumber prices.
Greenglass let out a sniff of contempt, but it lacked its usual conviction. The haughtiness and look of disgust were completely absent so Rowan could only assume she did it as a matter of habit. “I anticipated the temporary minister would make an error like this.” She stared straight at Rhiannon as she laid a set of papers down on the table.
It would be nice to believe that Greenglass found the time to ask for a report at some point the day before. Giving her the benefit of the doubt and all that. It was a very handy little document, now that he read it over. Year-on-year averages, different regions and varieties of wood… The kind of thing that would have taken at least a few days to write up.
Not surprising. It would be a herculean task to believe she didn’t do this to make him look bad at this stage in their relationship.
“Well,” he began, “it seems like we sit at around a half rhin for a thousand board-ells.”
“Would you mind discussing each species separately? The areas and harvesting is actually quite different for different trees.”
“Of course, being thorough is important.”
Diana stood up from her seat and stretched out her legs. “I’m sorry to have to leave, everyone. Our god demands we pray and tend to the day’s work after noon passes.”
“Oh, no. By all means…” Rowan wilted onto the table. The cool wood against his forehead was a soothing relief after the negotiation. There had to be a better way to do this. It took hours and he was fairly sure they worked out a price and an appropriate import tariff.
On alder. Just alder.
He tried to be attentive and as a result his notebook was filled with page after page of detail on the tree. Girian alder being a different species than what Dunmuir had was only the beginning. He now knew every fact there was about the growing conditions and the difficulties in cutting it down. At least he had an approximation of how much he could expect per year and hammered out the deal.
There was a question he didn’t want the answer to. He turned to the right page on his notebook and put a check beside ‘alder.’ Diana listed them out by heart and he found out they only started at ‘A’ in a list of thirty major species.
Greenglass pushed up her glasses, then massaged her temples the second the door shut. “I hate Girians.”
“Oh, don’t be that way.” Rhiannon didn’t bother moving her head to face the elf. She yawned, blinked the tears out of her eyes and finally gave up the long battle to keep her eyes open. “It was ninety years ago. She’s probably a great-grandchild of the elves your family’s little spat is with.”
“And they haven’t changed, clearly! They’d get us all killed with their brand of ‘negotiation’ all over again if we needed anything at all important.”
“I have big plans for this. We’re going to need wood to build ships and there’s nowhere better to get it.”
Rowan felt a pit in his stomach. The Dunmuirian navy was annihilated over the course of a few pitched naval battles during the war and Gisland quickly gained supremacy over the sea. Even if Rhiannon just wanted to rebuild her fleet, it would look like the overtures to a second attempt at military supremacy. Of course, that supposed Rhiannon didn’t have nefarious intentions.
It was dangerous, but he would have to gauge her reaction. “You’re rebuilding the navy?”
“I’m not stupid enough to build a military force when the war just ended. I’m looking for an oceangoing merchant fleet.”
He loosened the death grip on his prayer beads. Adalard would still want to hear about it, but he wasn’t in trouble and Rhiannon was showing a reasonable amount of political acumen. It was hardly surprising that she might want to open the strait that led through Gisland and into the ocean now that the countries were at peace. “I assume we’re going to be interested in oak for keels, then?”
The Queen raised one eyelid just far enough to peer at him. “Knowledgeable, are we?”
“Not really. I just grew up on the coast and almost everyone in town was some kind of boatman.”
“Good. I trust you’ll know why I’m after witchwood, then.”
“I… well, of course.” Witchwood? It was the best you could get for shipbuilding. Heavy, strong and as stiff as steel, with the benefit of it being nearly impervious to rot. Of course, the best-of-the-best had the price tag to match. The trees were a nightmare to cut down and the timber practically fought the carpenters who shaped it. “Your Majesty, you know that might be prohibitively expensive?”
“I hope we’ll be getting a good deal, then.” Rhiannon stood and managed to menace with nothing more than a cheerful grin. “Now then, I have a hangover to sleep off.”
An awkward silence passed over the room once the Queen left. Rowan flicked through his notes from the meeting for several long moments while he tried to work up his courage to speak with Greenglass. How would he even phrase this? Maybe it would be safer to open up with some small talk to cut the tension? No. She would get impatient and start accusing him of things. Best to get straight to the point.
“So, do you want, um…?” He began, reaching back and taking Greenglass’ underwear out of the pouch on his belt. As he did, a stray thought breached above the roiling ocean of his subconscious. What if he made her ask politely? Her embarrassment on the previous night wasn’t just personally gratifying; having her blush and trip over herself was adorable. He would get a little respect for once and she might even lift-
The thought came from the same part of the brain that made people consider jumping off cliffs for no reason. It was cute, certainly, but the thought of sabotaging his professional relationship so he could become more like Rhiannon was terrifying. No. If she was ever caught being vindictive or had a change of heart, he wanted to come out on the other side with the reputation of a saint. Even if nobody would blame him for knocking her down a peg.
“You didn’t… use them, did you?”
“For what?” He knew exactly what she was asking, of course. That line of questioning would end up opening a conversation he had no interest in pursuing. The kind where no matter what he answered, she would come away thinking the answer was ‘yes.’
“I… never mind.” She snatched the panties out of his hand and strode to a corner of the room. She had them back around her ankles before she noticed him. “Don’t watch, you cretin!”
Rowan found a half-interesting tower to stare at out the window. “Sorry. She really made you go without all day?”
There was a long, tense pause before Greenglass answered him. “...It was implied.”
Arlene caught up with Rowan as he was walking to the meeting room the next morning. She was riding a broom through the halls at breakneck speed and only stopped long enough to tell him that the Queen was leaving the rest of the negotiation to him. He waved at the maid as she sped off again.
Any annoyance he felt toward Rhiannon shirking the meeting was washed away by early-morning introspection. Normalcy felt as though it was being leached out of him and it was making a desperate plea for him to remember how things were before Dunmuir. It was to the point where he felt that being dressed by maids this morning was completely natural. Of course a message was delivered to him by a woman flying a broom and of course someone was going around re-lighting the alchemical lanterns plated in gold. How else would such basic tasks ever get done?
Even the daily perils of his new life were starting to seem banal. He remembered enough names that he rarely had to offend someone by addressing them by whatever bit of animal or insect they possessed (and discovering ‘long-eared gentlewoman’ as a flattering synonym for ‘rabbit lady’ was a breakthrough of its own). Greenglass’ temper and sharp tongue never seemed to accomplish anything for her. The Queen herself… Well, it felt like he had his hand in the mouth of a crocodile, but he was the confident carney who assured the audience he was in no danger.
As strange as they were, negotiations with the Girians needed little adjustment on his part and he appreciated the relief. They were normal. Properly, capital-n Normal. There were no machinations but politics, no threat of being run over by some ogress on the street. The negotiating table was his element. Rowan walked in the open door and ran his hand over the scruff of hair on his chin. The coarseness brought his mind back to the matter at hand.
Numbers, figures, and facts swirled about his conscious mind: cards in his hand to be played or held fast in reserve. He shuffled them around and tried to find the lines of play that would produce the best outcomes. There was no mistake to be made here—every card was counted and the aces were marked, even if his partner thought they were playing a game of chance. No, the only problem was the game itself. The Temporary Minister of Diplomacy was playing with someone else’s money while the threat of his home country asking him to throw a hand or make an unscrupulous ploy lingered just behind that. And in his experience, monarchs hated to lose at cards.
“Are you alright, Rowan? You look like you’re trying to ignore a foot under the table.”
It wouldn’t be the first time. Diana’s voice brought him out of his thoughtful haze and he noticed that his body already helpfully sat itself down at the table. “Ah, just giving some thought to a few things before we start. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“I should hope not,” Greenglass shot from her position beside him. “The last thing we need is for your head to be in the clouds.”
“I’m hoping to give us a bit of a headstart on things today, actually. The price list is excellent, but I think this could give us a little insight as well.” Rowan rolled out a sheet of paper with a flourish. It was an absolute nightmare to get a hold of a map of Giria and he spent the entire evening of the previous day trying to find someone who could get him one. He checked the shops in town, got Tara’s opinion at the Institute, went back to the palace, found out that the Royal Cartographer had moved into an office in town, went back down the stairs and finally got his prize.
The worst part was that it wasn’t even a very good map. Nobody knew the true size of the region they called Giria. It was just an endless forest full of nomadic tribes which expanded ever outward from some theoretical centre point in the middle of the continent. There was very little information aside from what groups like Diana’s could tell and a sparse set of myths and superstitions. Some said that entire countries were swallowed up by the forest or that if you got too far in, the trees would tear you apart. All that left him with was a map which was a hazy idea of what the section backing onto Gisland near the Dunmuir border looked like ninety years ago. The cartographer valued it so little that they were free to draw on it as they pleased.
“Can she even read a map? You’re being awfully optimistic, Minister.”
“Don’t worry, I can!” Diana showed no sign that she registered the comment as an insult to her intelligence.
“Oh, good.” Rowan heaved a sigh of relief. “I was thinking that we could shorten down how long each kind of lumber takes us to talk about if we have an idea of what your routes are and where things come from. We wouldn’t need as much background information.”
“That’s good thinking, Sir Rowan! Alright, I see a few mistakes here, though…”
“Ah, feel free to fix them! This copy is ours.”
The forest extended further than it did on the map, crossing a river that ran through Gisland and ended with Lake Brina in a basin near the northern pass between Gisland and Dunmuir. That would be useful, especially since the elven trading settlement was on its banks.
“I think that’s about all the changes I’d make, besides a few routes we can talk about when we get to them,” Diana said, setting down her quill.
“Let’s get to the real business before we lose you to that quaint little rule, hm? I believe the next wood is ash,” Greenglass said.
“I was hoping to change tack a bit, if that’s alright. I want to handle the easy varieties today just to get them out of the way.” Greenglass gave Rowan a nasty look for stealing her thunder but didn’t interrupt. “Would you mind handling the softwoods as a group, Diana?”
The Girian chewed her lip for a few moments, making a face like she was pondering the decision of a lifetime.
Rowan missed the Queen’s chiding that kept his deputy’s worst tics at bay. Did she know she was putting the negotiation at risk? Did she even care? He wanted to scold her, but she clearly didn’t recognise his authority and an argument was the last thing he wanted to have in front of a trade partner.
“Alright, we get most of it from the same area anyway. It’s right along the mountains of Graniteslate, right here…” She pointed to a section of the map and dragged her finger off the edge of the paper where the mountain range would continue. “Obviously there’s a few different groves and cedar doesn’t like to grow in the same place as the pines…”
Rowan nodded. “That’s simple enough. How would you transport them?”
“We bring things along the base of the mountains if we can help it. The trees aren’t as thick and the scree makes logs easier to drag in places. After that, we get it to Lake Brina and float it across into Gisland.”
That would be fine. The pass in that area was a little difficult to cross, but it minimised the amount of Gisland they had to travel through. “Alright. I think there isn’t much problem with buying them at market value for us. We would have to think of the customs tax, though.”
Diana hesitated. “I’m… not so sure about buying them with money. I mean, calculating prices is fine, but we’re bringing things a long way to lose a little bit of money on bargaining…”
Rowan felt his stomach drop. This was a negotiation tactic, but it could escalate to the Girians walking away from negotiation completely if it went wrong or one side showed too much pride. “Well…”
“The Temple bank can open an account for your money, then. No need to drag all the coins back when you can just leave them here.” His deputy folded her arms and stared Diana down.
“We… we can do that?”
It was a stroke of genius. They could cut out the frustrating negotiating they would have to do for goods, to begin with. On top of that, keeping their money safe in Dun Peak meant they were unlikely to spend any significant amount anywhere else and it would just go back into local hands. Why couldn’t Greenglass be this helpful all the time?
She caught Rowan’s stunned expression and leaned back in her chair with the satisfaction of a well-fed lioness. “Of course. I’m sure the Minister would be happy to take you to open an account after negotiations today.”
“Oh, good!” Diana clapped her hands and beamed at Rowan. “Your Queen has been telling me so much about you, so I’d love to get to know you better!”
“Ah, yes. Of course. Maybe I could show you what the markets have to offer as well?”
“That sounds amazing! Just a date with the two of us?”
Diana tapped his feet with hers, then moved up his ankle. It lacked a little subtlety but he did have to credit her for studying up on the classics of the romantic approach. He put on the placid smile that he practised in a mirror and felt out the curve of her calf with his boot.
The muffled gasp of surprise she let out was exactly what he was hoping for. Once she regained her composure, she pushed her chest out toward him and her leg into his foot. Playing along to make her think she had him would keep her mind off using other tactics that would be more effective. In the best-case scenario, she would think something real was happening and pester him for sex rather than concessions.
“If that’s what you’d like to call it. Shall we get back to work with the time we have left?” Greenglass’ expression of disgust washed over him harmlessly. Pride had no place at the negotiating table.
“Ah, of course!”
“Well, I was thinking of starting the softwood tariff at around 15%. We already produce it and we need to protect the lumberjacking that we do in-country. There are a lot of unemployed soldiers now.” And didn’t he know it. The business with Gwen and Morna was teetering on a knife’s edge before he arrived with lady luck on his side.
The fond rubbing took a brief pause and Diana lowered her chin so she could look up at him with watery eyes. “That puts us in a difficult position, Mr. Rowan…”
“The fact of the matter is that you’re still going to be able to out-produce any local supplier here, so that won’t stifle sales much.” She would have to do far better than that to get her way on something that might affect the already slim supply of work for veterans like Gwen. “This is the highest tariff we would be interested in enforcing, as well.”
“Still… we’d be troubled to bring it all that way. Is 10% still agreeable?”
It was completely fair. Rowan didn’t have any deep knowledge of what Dunmuir’s lumber industry looked like, but knowing what things were like in Gisland gave him an inkling. Ten would be a reasonable place where local production could nudge foreign exports out of the market for anything but huge volume. If he was lucky, it might even push Dunmuir’s lumber companies to hire on extra help and get the elves’ softwood out of the market entirely. Perhaps Diana knew more than he gave her credit for, suggesting such a reasonable number. What a shame this was a negotiating table.
“I don’t think I could face the Queen if I did anything lower than 12. I’m not sure you heard about it, but I had to deal with some soldiers a few weeks ago who had pay problems and no job opportunities.”
She baulked at the mention of his personal experience and scratched at her chin in silence.
“I only mention it because lumber is one of our most important industries in terms of manpower. The group in question were set to work as mercenaries, but I’m sure you can imagine what a disaster it would be to send thousands of armed witches out of our borders to look for work killing people.” A lovely narrative, though the main idea was covered in a shell of assumptions about what the economy looked like.
“I, er… I think that would be acceptable for us, then.”
“Good! Would you mind taking this all down, Ms. Greenglass?” Rowan was glad that his deputy agreed to let him handle everything. It was critical to keep his messaging straight and make sure the negotiation stayed on-task for what he planned. In fact, she barely even grimaced when he was bold enough to make a request that might sound like a polite order. Things were starting to feel right. “This is working out much better, wouldn’t you say Diana?”
“Mhm. You do lead quite well…” The casual touches on his leg started again, so Rowan assumed she meant it.
“Alright… Cherry is next on my list.”
The elves’ usual place was a little further away to the north, though fortunately close to the river. Diana was happy to snap up a 1% tariff at market price for that, putting her into a relaxed, happy mood. When he told her that Dunmuir didn’t produce most of the woods they offered, she started paying less attention. When she signed off on an outrageous 6% for oak, he knew it was time to spring his trap.
Rowan peered at a blank piece of paper for a few seconds to put on a show. “Let’s see… more easy ones… ah! Would you mind witchwood next?” He set his sheet face-down and looked up at Diana.
“Oh, Blue Pockholz?”
“I’ve heard it called that once or twice. Where is it from?”
“Deeper in. If our settlements are here on the map…” She put her finger down on a dot labelled ‘Forest’s Edge’ and dragged it off the map for quite some distance. It had to be half the length of the entire country of Dunmuir. “Here or so. We try not to get deeper in so we don’t meet monsters or anger the trees. It’s a long route, so if we all migrated now, the absolute soonest we could make a delivery is next spring.”
The monsters made sense. Diana brought Rhiannon the skull of a mystery creature that even she didn’t know the name of, after all. But… “The trees?”
“They get more… active. Even fairies don't go much further in.”
“Ah.” Trees. Why was it always trees? People turned into trees and now murder trees. Wonderful. He would have double-strength nightmares if he managed to get to sleep. Maybe he would even get lucky and find out that trees could walk when one got nearer and nearer to his window every day and-
“That shouldn’t affect our deal, though! Our problem is with how much trouble there is cutting and transporting them.”
“Right. Yes. They are famous for that.”
“They’re even worse when they’re alive, believe me. They wiggle to try and ruin your saws out of spite.”
Rowan closed his eyes, trying to plot a course to the middle of a desert where he wouldn’t have to think about trees any more. At least he was dealing with a professional tree-killer, but it made his skin crawl to think about being sawn down if Rhiannon turned him into one. “I see. So they’re expensive to harvest?”
“Very. My great-grandmother told me that Dunmuir magic saws were the only thing they would use if they could help it.”
“Hmm…” his eyes flicked back open and he straightened up. “How receptive would you be if we waived the tariff then?”
“I should think not, Minister.” Greenglass cut in and kept going without regard to Rowan’s pleading glance. “Are you really planning to leave this when it would be such a large revenue stream?”
“I was going to, yes.”
“Have you-?” Greenglass’ face turned to embarrassed horror when he slapped her leg in an attempt to get her to stop. “I-I… we can speak about your actions later, Minister.”
“Is everything alright, Rowan?” Diana gave him a smirk as she wormed her feet onto his lap.
“I think so,” he answered. A moment of waiting produced no response from the darker-skinned elf.
“Tell me more about this plan of yours, then. I assume this isn’t just goodwill if your secretary is this opposed to it.”
Greenglass went red out to her ears but stayed astonishingly silent. It was the least she could do after calling attention to the most important part of the deal when he almost squeezed it past Diana unnoticed.
“Well, I was hoping to propose a set price for government contracts. You’d be free to sell at whatever price you please to the general population.”
The open-endedness of the offer caught Diana by surprise and she took a full minute to mull it over. “...What’s the catch?”
“No catch. The set price might even be in your favour if market prices go down.” As if it would. They controlled the only viable source of the stuff and they would be insane to not push the limits of affordability. If they found a big enough market in Dunmuir, they might not even have any interest in selling to Gisland any more, which would be…
Good? Rowan suddenly realised he was a little carried away with his cutthroat diplomatic deals. With the way Diana’s eyes were sparkling, it was too late to back out now.
“You’ve convinced me, Sir Rowan.” She batted her eyelashes at him and rested both elbows on the table. “So what will you be asking for?”
The math took a little bit of puzzling and back-and-forth. The price of a saw, divide that by the average number of trees it could cut down before it was unusable, and then a sum on top of that to account for travel and profit. In the end, Rhiannon would get her boats and he felt accomplished that they would only be three times as expensive as oak.
The rest of the meeting went swimmingly. He avoided the encyclopaedic explanation of every tree and managed to knock out a few more varieties after the witchwood was settled. Diana said her goodbyes and promised to meet him in her camp after she took care of some other work. The shutting door felt like a trumpet heralding the confrontation he was dreading.
“What was that?!” Greenglass spent the last hour and a half stewing and every complaint she had came tumbling out of her mouth. “You hit me! Half a year ago you wouldn’t have been allowed to stand in my presence and now you’re doing what you please to my body?! Do you think you have the authority to do that? You’re nothing but a Temporary Minister until the Queen gets sick of you!”
Rowan was prepared for the complaints about the slap, but the comment about her superiority stung. “You told me you’d let me handle this! I don’t know why you put the whole discussion at risk more than once because of your attitude. Are you really complaining that I tapped you because you couldn’t take a hint?”
She blinked a few times, not believing what she was hearing.
“Did I or did I not succeed when you didn’t butt in?”
“That’s irrelevant! You’re probably trying to sabotage this whole thing like the lapdog of Gisland that you are!”
“I have been scraping and trying to get along with you, Greenglass! Have I ever questioned anything you’ve done? Have I earned your distrust in any way?”
The defensive sputtering was almost worth putting their working relationship at risk. Almost. He decided to dial back his reaction before steam came out of her ears.
“I’m happy to let you have your run of the Ministry. Will you just let me do the job the Queen set me to? You don’t even seem like you want to be here!”
“Fine! I’ll run the real business and leave you to bang rocks together with your unwashed swineherds if you love them so much!”
“Good! Thank you!”
She slammed the door on her way out.
The familiar walk into town to meet Diana helped him cool down. He said too much, even if it was what he was thinking for weeks. It was improbable Rhiannon would take her seriously enough to do anything drastic, but she might have one of her humiliating punishments in store for his outburst. All he could do was hope it wasn’t too bad.
The elves had well and truly set themselves up in the greenspace across from the palace. The tents and cooking spits already looked as if they were there for years and some of the tables and chairs from the night of the party were still set out and getting heavy use. A few Girians walked out of the Gilded Lily and waved at him like he was an old friend. Some of his dance partners, if he had to guess.
Diana was absentmindedly teasing one of the giant boars with a piece of grass. He hoped the huffs it was making were pleased and not some threat that it was about to put its sword-length tusks to use.
“Are you ready to go, Diana?” He asked from a safe distance. “I can wait a little longer if you need.”
“No, that’s alright! The prayers are done, the pigs are tended to and there’s no trees to cut down. I’m free now!” She strutted over and wrapped herself around one of his arms like he was the only piece of driftwood in an ocean.
It was a transparent ploy to get on his good side, but that didn’t change the fact she was an attractive young woman. Her fluffy hair bounced with every small movement of her head, her clothes emphasised her beautiful legs and her eyes sparkled with—certainly feigned—interest at his every word. All he could do was put on his best impression of a cliff and let her beat herself against him.
“Where would you like to go first?”
“The bank, if that agrees with you. If we have the serious business out of the way, we can take our time.”
The bank wasn’t far away. Rowan could never handle having large sums of money just sitting around without turning into a nervous wreck, so it was gratifying to find out that there was a bank in the city. He wasn’t sure that he liked that it was run by the Trinitarian temple, but it was a safe place to put his money regardless. Even if you didn’t believe in the gods you were robbing, most people wouldn’t risk it. Just in case.
A white-robed priestess with a circlet of greenery greeted them with a dramatic bow when they entered. “Good afternoon, maiden. Sir.”
And that was part of what put him off. It was still fundamentally a religious institution, even if the actual area of worship was in the building next door. “Hello, sister. My friend is hoping to open an account with you to keep some money safe.”
“Of course, sir. May I know your name?”
The priestess clasped her hands together and her tone became far more deferential. “Ah! The Minister? I’m not sure how I didn’t recognise such a valued cust- member of the congregation.”
“Oh, it’s no problem. I’m working out some trade negotiations with the Girians and they’re hoping to store at least some of their revenue here.”
Her face lit up as if she was already counting the coins. “Of course, sir! I’ll fetch the Crone Superior at once, I’m sure she’ll want to handle this personally!” She bowed a few times and scampered off, leaving Diana with a big smile.
“I’m starting to feel bad for not addressing you properly, Sir.”
“No need.” Rowan sidestepped the jab and put up his wall of noble humility. The strategy wasn’t born of noble intent, but the humility was less than half fake and that had to count for something. “I’m only an innkeeper’s son from a fishing town, really. I was just lucky enough to accomplish a few things other people think are great.”
They didn’t have to wait long. A dog woman walked out of a door to the back of the bank with an aura that left no question about her identity. Though she was garbed in the same white robes as the first priestess, she wore a placid smile and displayed no intention to move at anything but a graceful pace.
Even in the odd world of witches, the old woman felt… off. All the marks of old age were there—her head and drooping ears were covered with snow-white hair, crow’s feet sat at the corners of her eyes and her hands were gnarled and knobbly. There was just a certain… something. She possessed an impeccable, ramrod-straight posture and gazed at the world through eyes with the sharpness of youth. She chose to be old in a country full of hundred year olds who remained in their twenties and thirties.
They were led through pristine white halls that snaked back and forth in a maze of small offices. It was hardly as overwhelming as the Paperers’ guildhall, but keeping so much marble and travertine clean was an achievement of its own. The Crone Superior eventually found the right door and let them inside. The small room had little more than a single shelf of books, a table and three chairs. Rowan would have considered it spartan if it wasn’t for a massive mural that took up three of the four walls. He didn’t know much about Dunmuir’s religion, but it didn’t take a genius to spot a trinity when it was in the name.
What caught him off-guard was who was featured: the mural on the left was a full-length portrait of a teenaged Rhiannon, looking down at him with a cheeky smile and a sparkle in her gold-leaf eyes. She was clad in the same white robes as the priestesses, leaning on a sword that pointed down at a scroll that announced her as ‘THE MAIDEN.’
The other two were less hauntingly familiar. ‘THE MOTHER’ was a middle-aged goat woman with features similar to Rhiannon’s and gazed down with a peaceful expression. No doubt the cauldron and ladle she held were something deep and meaningful, but it really just seemed like she was about to serve a bowl of soup.
‘THE CRONE’ was sterner than the other two and her silver-leaf hair was tied into two tight braids beneath her witch’s hat. Though she wasn’t as tall or lithe as the other two, her gold eyes were locked in a scrutinising glare at the seat that faced the portrait. The wand, book and black cat arrayed about her were familiar motifs of witchhood at least.
“Enjoying the artwork, Minister? We commissioned it as a gift to our ninth Rhiannon in her teen years.”
“It’s stunning. Symbolic, I assume?”
The dog woman had a slow, sagely nod that suited her well. “Her line has been blessed with three queens, so it was fitting to have her portrayed along with her mother and grandmother to represent the Three-and-One.”
If only it wasn’t so off-putting to have somebody he knew staring at him. With the way the seats were arranged, the young Rhiannon peered down at him like she was in on some joke he was the butt of.
“Now, I believe we’ve met once already, Minister.”
“Er, yes. When I opened my account, wasn’t it?” The details were hazy and he had no idea what the woman’s name was after all the reading and conversation he went through. “Would you mind introducing yourself to my friend? I’d hate to misremember and embarrass you.”
“Of course. I’m Mildred Fortuna Nora of Thryce. I’ve been blessed to be the Crone Superior of our bank here in Dun Peak.” She held out her hand to Diana.
Diana happily took the invitation. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Diana. Next in line to be chief at Forest’s Edge, if you know where that is.”
“Ah, I thought you looked familiar. I had the opportunity to sit for tea with one of the chiefs of your tribe a number of years ago. She had your name, if I’m not mistaken.” Nora smiled at her as though Diana was her own granddaughter and patted her hand before leaning back.
The elf squinted, then lifted her gaze to the ceiling as she moved the beads around on a mental abacus. When she came to her solution, her eyes went wide with disbelief. “Do you mean great-great-great grandmother Diana?”
“Hm… I think that sounds about right. Something in the hundred-and-fifty year range.”
It was easy to forget how terrifyingly old these witches got. How old were the ones he knew, even? All Rowan could be sure of was Rhiannon—and only that she had to be more than the eighty years she waged her war for.
“Ah, but look at me talking your ears off. I’ve heard the young lady is intending to open an account with us?”
“That’s right, Grandmother. It’s not practical for us to carry coins back and forth from Giria, so the Minister’s secretary suggested we keep our money with you.”
“Well, I don’t think that will pose much of a problem. An entire tribe with the backing of our young Queen would hardly be the kind to take advantage of us.” She took an imposing stack of paperwork off of the shelf and slid it in front of Diana. “If you could just read the particulars written in green ink…”
“I… um…” The elf gave the papers an intense stare and flipped through the first few pages. Her long ears drooped and turned scarlet when she found yet more dense text on the back.
“Something wrong, dear?”
When her attempt to raise her eyes higher than the priestess’ chest failed, she cleared her dry throat. “I can’t read…” She squeaked out in a small voice.
Not particularly surprising. There were a few fishermen in Rowan’s hometown who couldn’t read and they had the advantage of living settled lives. Diana wouldn’t have the luxury of book-learning in a nomadic tribe and that was saying nothing of the fact that Dunmuir's language was different from the Gislandic she was used to.
Rowan slipped a few drops of feigned surprise into his voice like poison into a goblet. “Oh, really? It’s a bit long but I could read it to you.”
Effortless. Diana gave him an even finer reaction to his jab than he hoped. Her lips thinned, her body tensed and the chair even squeaked loudly on the floor as she moved over to his side. She knew how much face she just lost and the best she could do was rest a hand on his thigh. “If you could…”
The mural of Rhiannon gazed down at him with the same expression as before. Surely it was his imagination that made it seem like more of a lecherous smile at the woman doing her best to seduce him.
As was normal, the terms of the bank’s contract were dry and he had to explain a few words to the elf that were specifically designed to confuse. Bankers weren’t eager to tell their clients that the account was only a promise to return a sum upon request and that they spent the physical coin on investments. Nora was at least helpful in reassuring Diana that this was the normal state of financial institutions and that temples had no interest in scamming people.
Still, he couldn’t blame the Girian for her suspicion. The Trinitarians were oddly worldly for even the most individual-focussed religions. They ran businesses, took reverse-pilgrimages to dispense wisdom and didn’t bother with vowing chastity, poverty or any other sort of classically spiritual promises. Compared to the monastic traditions of Gisland- Well… perhaps they weren’t so different, but they at least put up a front of self-serious piety. It was the spirit of the thing that counted.
They thanked Nora and set off once the particulars were finished. Diana stuck to him like glue; she gave Rowan a jumbled mix of apologies and gratitude for his help.
It was probably the easiest set of points he ever scored in his favour for a negotiation. No doubt that was the reason she was rubbing herself on him like a desperate cat in the hope he would forget. It was only natural she was trying to level the playing field when he even needed to help her write a signature.
She kept up her flirting as he escorted her around town, flashing him those impressive legs every so often once she caught him staring. That was natural, of course. Rowan was beginning to understand that she was a one-trick pony in terms of negotiation style. Sex this, sex that. One of these days she was going to have to make a deal with a man who knew exactly how to handle that sort of approach and she would lose spectacularly.
Blacksmiths were the main attraction—especially the ones that produced saws that the user could channel magic through to help them cut. They visited a number of other places once Diana was satisfied with the selection. Fabric shops, fletchers and jewellers flew past, then after that it was off to visit sawmills and shipwrights to gauge interest in the lumber that would be coming in. By the time they finished their whirlwind tour of the nice part of town, even the sluggish midsummer sun was threatening to dip below the horizon to the west.
“I’m sorry to have kept you out so long!” Diana said, none-too-subtly pushing her chest against his.
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. It’s important for me to put in a little legwork if I want both sides to be happy with the negotiations.”
“Well I’m very happy.”
“Let’s keep it that way, then.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and started batting her eyelashes again. “Can I do something that would make you happy?”
There was no question what she had in mind and that was her first mistake. Trying to string him along with playfulness in the hope that his heart would be all aflutter with romance instead of business was fruitless. Diplomacy was all a great game and it was time to counter.
“Is this something for me or for you?”
The line in combination with the hand he laid on her hip made Diana’s pointed ears twitch. She lacked Greenglass’ stern composure and her entire thought process showed on her face. What? I didn’t expect-! No, hold on! I’m the one on the offensive! Did he really-? If he knows, should I still… But if I don’t do it now, he might get the first move!
The elf chewed her lip for an instant longer before coming to her decision and diving in for a kiss.
She took excellent care of herself. Her lips were soft and smooth, unchapped despite her outdoor lifestyle. She must have chewed a mint leaf before they met as well. Diana’s mouth tasted sweet and fresh when she desperately shoved her tongue past his lips in the effort to gain the advantage.
It ended as abruptly as it started. She pulled away with pink cheeks and a small but confident smile. “You’re a cruel man, Sir Rowan.”
“I don’t intend to be, princess.” He brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes as a kind of peace offering. If he could keep her trying to sleep with him instead of changing tack, it would play immensely into his favour. Not hurting an attractive woman’s feelings didn’t factor into his calculations at all. Probably.
“Then will I meet you tomorrow morning?”
Rowan nodded with a smile and made his way back to the palace.
The diplomat in Rowan’s mind leaned back in his imaginary chair. It was a job adequately done, so he allowed an icy smile to appear on his face. Of course, adequate wasn’t quite enough. Even the stuttering pushover in charge of Rowan’s conscience didn’t settle for that. He flicked through the pages of an abstract representation of the conversation and looked for any mistakes for the conscious brain to review. Ah, there was one.
The thought struck Rowan at the same time as his foot struck the first step of the stairs to the palace. Princess? Oh, sweet heaven and hells. Why did he say that? As a matter of fact, he knew why. It was only supposed to be a quick jab to make her feel valuable while at the same time reminding her that he had no interest in being called ‘sir.’ At least in public.
Unfortunately, the memory was forcing his body to lock up in distress. That was one of the most embarrassing things he ever said and then he brushed some hair out of her face? Who did he think he was? The horrendous combination was less ‘charming prince’ and far more like some kind of slimy, overweight man who stood around in alleys. The kind who harassed married women and young girls to whore themselves out, mostly because he couldn’t afford any more professionals that month. Even being generous, that was far more like a middle-aged man comforting his crying daughter because he didn’t give her a pony for her birthday.
The rest of the march back to his room was anxious and mechanical.
One more day. Rowan figured he could hammer out the rest of the trade deal, or at least the last of the specifics in one more day’s worth of negotiating as long as they were as fast as the day before. He was getting a better idea of what routes they took to get to and from things and the distances involved, so it took less and less explanation to handle each item. On top of that, yesterday's tour had gone swimmingly if he discounted the mortifying fumble at the end. The bank was set up and she was fascinated at the amount of goods the capital offered. At this point, his single concern was the heat.
It was a sweltering day even this far up a mountain. The maid who came to dress him was on the verge of toppling over in her uniform, so he waved her off and told her to rest as he dug up the absolute minimum he could wear. A linen shirt from Gisland and a pair of baggy Dunmuir pants was the best he could do. He didn’t care if it looked ridiculous, he was going to stay cool even if it cost him his reputation.
The back of his shirt was already damp and sticky by the time he was halfway through the trek down the stuffy hallways. The muggy air was only broken by the occasional gust of wind that trailed behind broom-mounted messengers performing their duties.
Rowan was surprised to find Diana alone in the meeting room when he stepped in. Greenglass really just did what he asked? He was expecting her to show up just to spite him, if he was honest with himself.
“Good morning, Diana.” He wiped his sweaty hand off on his clothes before offering it to her.
The elf lolled her head in his direction and shook his hand with all the vigorous energy of a damp piece of seaweed. “Hello, sir. Is it always so hot here?”
“I couldn’t say, it’s my first summer here as well.” A beat passed as he considered whether to acknowledge the first diplomatic prod of the morning. He certainly wouldn’t be spouting the p-word again and embarrassing himself. Clarity would have to be the best policy. “I did say you could just call me Rowan.”
The reaction was so expected that it almost felt scripted. Her hands went into her lap, she subtly arched her back to stick her chest out, then she lowered her chin to give him her best watery, pleading eyes. “Is it not okay?”
He felt foolish for letting the aggressive approach affect him in the slightest. It was just so hot that it was hard to engage the logical side of his brain. At least he was wearing loose pants. “I want us to speak as equals, that’s all.”
“Yes sir!” She chirped.
Don’t think about it. Don’t mention it. You’d do nothing but encourage her.
The last time he fell for this, he had a wonderful night, lost his entire bargaining position and had rumours swirling around him for months. Rowan dropped himself into a chair and resolved himself to not test his luck. “Now then, should we pick up where we left off yesterday?”
“With kissing?” Diana let out a girlish giggle. “I did feel like it was a shame we only got one in.”
“With the trade deals. If we can get everything out of the way today, we can-”
“We will! But can’t we have a little fun since we’re alone today?”
Why was the word ‘no’ suddenly so hard to say? It had to be the heat that made it hard to think. Couldn’t he afford one little indulgence so she’d stop pestering him? If she asked again, he could just say they’d already kissed once and it was time to work now. That would be far faster than arguing with her anyway.
“Alright, fine. Just once, though.”
Diana clambered onto his lap without breaking eye contact. It was a charming move, he had to admit. When she wasn’t batting her eyelashes at an alarming rate, the rosy garnet colour of her eyes was lovely from close up. She waited for him to get his fill of her looks before she put a hand on his chest and dove in.
All of the previous day’s minimal restraint was gone. She moaned like an animal in heat as she pressed her lips against his. It was comfortable at first, but her desperation to keep their tongues intertwined made it hard to breathe after several long minutes of sloppy kissing. When she finally relented and pulled away, a strand of saliva still connected them.
It took a moment to recover his breath and regain control of himself after the passion of the moment. Rowan met her eyes again before he spoke. “Satisfied?”
“Absolutely. I think you were saying something about the trade deal?” She made no attempt to get off of his lap and continued staring at him.
He wouldn’t even have minded on a normal day. She was a cute young lady, so who was he to stop her from sitting on his lap after they wasted a few minutes kissing? It was just so stiflingly hot. It wasn’t just him either: he could see a sheen of sweat on Diana’s skin worsening the longer she clung to him.
“Er, yes. Would you mind if we knock birch off the list first?”
“Oh, that one’s easy.” She peeled herself off of him to lean over the table and look at the map. By the way she was wiggling her butt back and forth, she knew she was sticking it in the air. “Can you see?”
He could certainly see the way the flap of her dress hung down over her sizable backside, though not much else. She had just enough of her leg and butt exposed out of the side to have him torn on whether he wanted to lift the flap to see what was underneath or give her exposed skin a spank to see what she would do. She might even like it, given the circumstances.
No. No no no. He could play with the elf after he finished the work he had ahead of him, if she was still interested. He already managed to cut down the time per tree from a day each to half an hour at most, but he still only had Diana available to negotiate until noon. If she wanted to tease in a way that wasn’t going to escalate, he could do that too.
“Not quite.” He stood up and rested a hand on her hip as he leaned in next to her. That often slowed down women who were just trying to use their looks to get what they wanted.
It backfired somewhat. “Well, sir…” Diana ran her hand over a broad area of the map. “This is where we forest elves like to get our nice hard wood from.”
Rowan considered withdrawing his hand, but it was too late if they were at the stage where she was telling puns about penises. Come to think of it, any hope for serious negotiation died when he kissed her the day before. Perhaps he would get lucky and get her back on task by ignoring it. “And birch specifically?”
“Hmmm…” She paused and he could guarantee that she was trying to find a way to turn birch into an innuendo. The defeat was gracious at least, and she pointed out a helpful area when she realised she had nothing. “Here, mostly.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but you would bring it along here,” he followed a path with his finger, “then to your settlement before taking it across the pass?”
Diana looked up at him and batted her eyelashes as if knowing about lumber carriage routes was the sexiest thing she could think of. “I’m so happy you’re starting to understand.”
“Alright, shall we start the tariff at 8% then?”
“You don’t want to take the birches you deserve? They’ll be nice and ready for you…”
She was saving her birch pun for that? The haze of mild arousal only made it a touch less funny. “We do have a reasonable amount of domestic production.”
“But don’t you like foreign wood?” Diana put a hand on his sweaty chest. “I do, sir.”
“7% then.” Dammit. Why did Rhiannon have to announce his preferences to the world? That wasn’t even something he knew he liked two months ago and now the comment had more of an effect on him than it should have.
“If I did you a favour, would you lower it to 6%?” Her hand drifted down to the belt holding his pants up.
“Diana,” he said, gathering up every loose scrap of willpower he could muster. “We’re wasting a lot of time that we could spend to figure out this trade deal. I even sent Ms. Greenglass away, so I don’t want to come back without getting anything done. I’d seem stupid.”
“You did that for me?”
“She wasn’t happy being here and wasn’t being helpful, so I suggested that I should handle this myself.” That was… an abridgement.
She stood on her toes to meet his eyes, not breaking her death grip on his belt. “There’s a way that I could give you more time, you know.”
There was something enchanting about her eyes. The vibrant colour reminded him of the first blooms of wild carnation in summer and the lacey patterns in her iris were a world of their own to lose himself in. Of course it helped to know that she was willing to do almost anything to get a leg up at this point.
“Our priest is always talking about how holy the union of two people is…”
Rowan swallowed. “I-is that so?”
“None may knock when the bed is arock. That’s a quote.”
“You sound like you’re joking.”
“Is it wrong to want to reward such a handsome man when he’s helped me so much? We could talk as long as you want…”
Repeating this is a ploy over and over again in his head did nothing to stop his dick from rising, to his chagrin. Rowan’s foggy brain was betraying him. The important part is over, it said. You can enjoy yourself and get work done at the same time, it argued. He was starting to believe it, too. The witchwood was handled, as were the high-tariff goods. Rhiannon even seemed keen on having him sleep with someone…
Letting her string him along would put him in a far weaker position, of course. Sex was clearly what she was after, so that was off the table if he still wanted to control the situation. Stimulating her with his hands seemed to be the best bet if he wanted to avoid finishing before she did and embarrassing himself.
The question of what he would open with was still in the air, though. Teasing but firm, just to make sure she knew he was in charge. There was that, he supposed. Who knew that such an embarrassing lesson from his apprenticeship would come in handy.
Diana squealed in surprised delight when he swatted her butt with conviction. It was everything he hoped for, honestly. All the lean muscle made it spring back and there was just enough softness to make a satisfying sound. “I’m willing to play with you a little, but I’m not going to go all the way with you.”
“Aww, you’re sure?” She brushed the flap of her skirt aside to show off how wet her thighs had become. “I’m all ready for you…”
“You started coming onto me yesterday and I’d hate for you to have any inconvenient complications.”
“I don’t mind. Your Queen was very persuasive about how worthwhile you are…” It was no surprise Rhiannon was behind this, but it was good to have his suspicions confirmed. It was even a kind gesture if you followed the Queen’s slightly twisted logic. “We have a place in the tribe for a handsome nobleman if you want to breed your cute little elf.”
If he wanted enough space to breathe, Rowan needed to distract her with something. Since she was already comfortable with touching he slid his hand under her skirt. A quiet gasp left her mouth when he brushed her labia, though she tried to suppress it. He was hardly surprised that she wasn’t wearing any underwear. Even if he didn’t know her modus operandi, her dress left little to the imagination.
Diana’s slick lips parted around his finger the moment he applied pressure. Her body shuddered, desperately looking for more than his delicate first touch. “I think I told the cute little elf that I wasn’t doing that.”
“Please?” She mewled. “It’s not fair if you only make me feel good!”
Rowan hesitated. This was exactly the kind of thing he couldn’t handle. His heart was beating in his throat and his dick strained against the confines of his pants. It was putting him off his game. She caught his moment of weakness and pushed his hand to one side, rubbing it against the meat of her leg.
“You could fuck my thighs, sir. I’ve seen you staring at them since we met.”
Being caught was embarrassing, though he admitted she had an impressive pair of legs. His greed overcame him for a moment and he gave her thigh a squeeze. It had the firmness of a stump but the plushness of a throw pillow and he couldn’t bring himself to turn her down. “That’s… acceptable.”
Diana spun about on her heel to face him with a self-satisfied grin and planted her lips against his cheek. All too quickly, her focus shifted downward. Eager fingers fumbled undoing his belt then slid down his pants with so little grace he worried for the buttons.
With both of her small hands, she explored his cock like it was her first time. She cupped his balls, ran her palm along his shaft and ever-so-softly felt out the shape of the head, rubbing the sticky precum between her fingertips.
“You’re so big, sir. How do you fit it all in your clothes?”
“Carefully.” Perhaps it was true what people meant by being caught up in a moment. Rowan wanted to eat his own sweat-soaked clothes for their amateurish dirty talk fit for the bookshelves of chaste maidens. Better to be caught in a moment than-
“I have something else you could carefully put it in.” If she was illiterate, how did she hit so many awful cliches? He didn’t have long to linger on her statement. Diana lifted herself off the table and arched her back. Rowan was mesmerised first by her bust pressing against the table, but his eyes drifted lower. Her butt was a rosy pink from his slap and her clean-shaven pussy drooled with anticipation. Would there be that much trouble if he took her up on the offer for more than rubbing?
…Probably. She was hoping to make him doubt his better judgement with this position, but he wasn’t going to play any more games.
He slid his cock between her waiting thighs and was overwhelmed by the sensation. A mixture of sweat and honey coated his length that turned the soft space between her legs into something else entirely. The fullness of her thighs, the sheer, mind-numbing hotness of her womanhood, and the blessed pressure of her careful squeezing was whittling away at Rowan's resistance.
Diana moaned softly to spur him on. “Is it okay if we do 6% on the birch, sir? Just so your little elf bitch can tell her papa she did well?”
This was what he got for letting his dick do the thinking for him. The little gasps and hums suggested she was enjoying the feeling of his cock sawing against her, but this is what she was really after. He wasn’t even in a position to say no. He already took her offer and if he stonewalled her now, there was a reasonable chance she would just walk out and make some uncomfortable accusations. She could have her little concession on birch, but he would get her on the next one. “Nnh… fine. Next is…”
“L-linden?” She stumbled over her words when he reached between her legs and spread the lips over his shaft. He wouldn’t be giving in so easily.
“Sure. Where is it?”
“Here, I think.”
“Along the mountains near the river?”
“You can bring it from the river, then. I don’t think you’d have much problem with 9%.”
Diana pouted, then squeezed her thighs tighter together. If she meant it to be uncomfortable, it didn’t work. Her pillowy legs, lubricated with their mixed fluids, instead delighted him when she tried to clamp down.. “You’re going to treat me like your little sex toy and be like this?”
Aha. It would be a shame to pull out now, but if she was desperate then he’d already won. “I can stop if you want. This was your idea, after all.”
“N-no! Fine. Nine is fine.”
He smiled to himself and started thrusting harder. It was getting hard to hold out, but it was worth it to reward her for giving in without a fight. Should he push it? If he could get her horny enough, she might just let him do whatever he wanted within reason. If she was so happy to call him ‘sir,’ he could pay her back. He took the elf’s long ear into his mouth and ran his tongue over the tip.
Diana’s whole body shivered against his and she turned to gaze at him with lust-clouded eyes. “H-harder, sir…”
“Hmm?” He twisted the groan of pleasure into giving the impression he wasn’t on the verge of splattering her legs and dress with cum. “Shouldn’t we get our business done first? I don’t want to have you need to leave…”
“We’ve only… ” Rowan panted for a moment, unable to keep up his charade. “We’ve only got about half a dozen species left. If you’re so desperate, let’s negotiate all at once.”
He brought his hand down between their bodies and pressed down on her clit on his next thrust. “How about 6%?”
“Mmmn…” She squeezed her eyelids shut and sprawled over the table. He was winning. “I-I understand… Can it… can’t it be five? Pleeeease…” She ground her hips against his cock and his head dropped into a haze. He couldn’t do it any more. It was enough. Every nerve in his body was lighting up and trembling with anticipation as he reached the edge.
“Fine!” He flipped up the rear of her skirt and slammed his dick in and out of her legs as hard as he was able. With the deal sealed, any semblance of thought that wasn’t about the pert ass in front of him went out the window.
“Y-yeeees! Please sir! Cum all over me! I need it!”
The begging did it for him. He yanked his cock free of her legs just in time to splatter her thighs and butt in white. When she felt the hot cum hit her skin, a pleased gasp escaped her throat.
Diana collapsed over the table and gazed back at her cum-covered legs with a distant smile. “I-it’s been an honour negotiating with you, Sir Rowan…”
Rowan walked back to the ministry covered in sweat and pleased with himself. Purely for occupational reasons, of course. He tossed the thankfully-unsullied final agreement onto his desk and took a seat at his usual place across from Greenglass.
“Finished fucking your yokel?” She didn’t look up from the letter she was reading.
“I have no idea what you mean,” he shot back, rearranging his papers to hide his flushed cheeks. “We just finished the last of the negotiations. The trade route is set and they’ll be ready to get things going by spring.”
“Fascinating.” A nasty smile crossed the elf’s tanned face.
“...What?” He was getting a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach from her tone.
“I was just wondering if you’d realise you’ve botched the whole thing.”