Foreign Affairs Chapter 4
His heart jumped into his throat when he pried open his eyes and found a stranger’s cloak draped over him. Surprisingly, he was exactly where he laid down in the garden, not in a dungeon somewhere. Not even someone standing over him and asking why he was sleeping in a garden of all places. He stood up and wobbled his way back to his room before anyone had the chance to come looking for him.
And nobody did. The next day, despite being tense for twenty-four straight hours, nobody asked him anything. Breakfast, looking over documents in the office and his fitful sleep that night were met with nothing more than a few passing greetings.
‘Painfully cautious’ didn’t even begin to describe how Rowan spent his next week. He checked every corner, locked every door, followed the strictest, least suspicious schedule he could and made sure nobody got a whiff of anything but the highest professionalism. He even started recognising some of the people in the background of his life. A few guards, the maids who still insisted on dressing him in the morning and some of the ladies other than Greenglass who worked in the ministry. Their names still evaded him and he was too scared to ask a third time, but it was reassuring to know a few faces.
He developed a habit of stopping by the Gilded Lily for his breakfasts since he wanted to avoid being invited to any more tense meals with the Queen if he could help it. That was where he found himself on what he hoped would be a rather unremarkable Thursday. He sipped at a herbal tea and reviewed his notes on a dispute about the domestic export of apples so uninteresting that his eyes practically bounced off the words when he tried to read them.
The owner came back around to chat, but pointed at Rowan’s elbow before a word left his mouth. “You’ve, er…”
He must have spilled some of the tea while he wasn’t paying attention. He glanced down with his napkin at the ready, but there was nothing to clean up. The only thing he spied was a neatly folded envelope just under his drinking saucer.
“Oh, sorry. Was this here before?” Rowan pulled it out and went to hand it to the owner, but Olin’s eyes went wide when he saw the black wax seal on the lips of the paper.
“Oh no, that’s not mine. Nope. Nuh-uh.”
Rowan peered at the envelope and turned it over, finding his name written on the other side in handwriting he could only describe as accusatory.
There were probably other Rowans in the city, right?
...Probably not many who were sitting at this particular seat at the bar. The reaction to the envelope set off alarms in his head, but Rowan stubbornly clung to the delusion that Olin was overreacting. He picked at the seal until he ended up tearing the paper around it and the owner grimaced at the harsh sound. Rowan squirmed in his seat, took a deep breath, then set the letter down on the counter.
“Would you mind getting me a little more tea, Olin?” Having an audience was making this even more tense than it needed to be.
The owner was more than happy to heed his request and scurry away from the letter like it was a wild animal. Rowan rubbed his hand over his face. Would it be so bad if he knocked the letter into, say, the bin, before leaving the establishment? No, there were many others who walked in and out during his time here. He thumbed the flap open and held his breath. With the grace of a fumbling, grabbing toddler, he shook the note inside free of its envelope.
Mr. Rowan. You have our attention.
The letter had a disconcerting perfection to it. The paper was heavy. You wouldn’t normally send such a curt, ominous letter with something so clearly designed for use in outdoor posters, but the choice was intentional. Death by crushing was the first thing that came to his mind when he held that paper which bore the weight of the world. And the lettering! It was smooth in its calculated flow and didn’t leave a single speck of unintended ink on the paper. The author had already written this note a thousand times and would a thousand more after he met his untimely end.
He couldn’t think of a better way to upend his morning, even though his mornings were normally upended since he arrived in Dunmuir. At least in Gisland they usually had the good grace to wait until noon before ruining his entire day. He quickly downed his drink and the dread got a little easier to ignore with the mild discomfort of hot tea trickling down his throat. He stuffed the envelope and letter into his right boot, left a coin for the tea and hurried back to his office to further dig an early grave for himself.
Rowan convinced himself the stairs were getting easier, though his legs still wobbled like jelly every time he got to the top. All said though, getting all the way to the Ministry of Diplomacy without stopping to rest was a lovely achievement to concentrate on instead of the looming feeling of dread emanating from his boot.
He smiled as pleasantly as he could at the girls who were in for an early morning, but the insincere pleasantries exhausted Rowan before he was even in his office. Sitting down on his side of the desk, he noted that he at least didn’t have the mild displeasure of Greenglass’ company. A few reminders of her remained, like her favourite quill and a small wall made out of papers she erected to split the desk in half. He couldn’t tell if she hoped he wouldn’t notice that she had slightly more space or whether it was a challenge to see if he’d complain.
Who cared? It was time to work. Right. First of all, this apple business. He took out a sheet of paper and began writing. Dear Countess, so on and so forth, I regret to inform you that though under previous monarchs your family was given the right to be the sole growers and distributors of the ‘Setting Sun’ cultivar of apple, the agreement has now come to its sunset date (no pun intended). As such, the Queen has chosen not to take action against the orchard you have brought up to us. All the best, so on and so forth, Rowan.
He glanced down at the finished letter to catch any embarrassing spelling mistakes. It read:
Nobody gives a damn about your stupid apple thing. Stop writing to us about this when you know you’re in the wrong and the farmer just wants his damned apples.
Looking forward to never hearing from you again,
Ah. Right, that one was going to need to be torn up and burned.
He tried again and it didn’t take. He was too distracted by… ugh. Setting the black-sealed letter from the morning on his desk, he reread it. No sender of course. That was the first problem. Who? Why did he have their attention and what did they know?
There was a tightness in his chest. Did they know he was a spy? What else was there to know about him? It must be blackmail, unless Rhiannon was just taunting him before...
The tightness shot up to a near heart attack when there was a curt knock on the door and it swung open before he had a chance to do anything but hide the blackmail letter under a pile of triplicate reports on the generalities of how Gisland was run.
“Good morning, Minister.” It was Rhiannon’s maid. He still had a hard time meeting her eye after seeing her nearly naked, but she didn’t hesitate to stare him down.
“Good morning, er…”
She flicked her shimmering insect wings behind her. “Arlene, sir.”
“Arlene, right! What can I do for you? ...It’s not the Queen, is it?”
“Not at the moment. You have a letter.”
Another? Wonderful. Great. Fantastic. You know, he really had been so bored he wanted to die lately, so it was good he was getting exactly the death he wanted instead of getting to work in peace, going back home with his new credentials, getting a better job than his last, meeting a girl, settling down…
“Ah, sorry. What does it say?”
“Sir Adalard instructed the messenger it was for your eyes only.”
“Oh. Thank you, Arlene.” He repeated her name and hoped he wouldn’t forget this time. “You can just set it on the desk there and I’ll get to it in a few minutes. Is there anything else?”
She shook her head and departed. Rowan waited to the count of ten before eagerly tearing open the envelope, making sure she wasn’t going to poke her head back in. There were hellos, blah blah, gone to the end of the month overseeing elections, so on and so forth… Aha. Okay, it didn’t seem it was any immediate danger to his life, at least. Just that a Gislander had gone missing in the bad part of town and a rescue would be appreciated. Reading between the lines, it was probably one of his fellow spies.
Right. Well, was that what the first letter was about? Rowan slowed his breath down and tried not to panic. It wouldn’t get him anywhere. Tap. Taptap. Dammit. He started tapping the desk without even thinking. Right. Think. He should best deal with the problem before it got any worse.
Down the stairs. Up the stairs. Down the stairs with an inevitable need to go back up. It was enough to drive a man mad, if he wasn't too damn tired to act like a raving lunatic. Olin wasn't helpful at all in telling him who delivered the letter. He only suggested it was either criminals or necromancers based on the black sealing-wax, and he wanted nothing to do with either.
Rowan wrapped his peasant clothes around him and took a deep breath. The quick stop by his room to change into inconspicuous clothing and write a quick will did nothing to calm his nerves now that his mind was made up. He was going to the only part of town he knew where he was likely to meet a criminal.
Unfortunately, the only place he knew was a tavern he’d been very kindly mugged against, and he had no desire to wander around looking lost to try and find somewhere else. He wasn’t going to be able to ask for help, considering the nature of his mission, and he certainly wasn’t going to carry a weapon. Even if he knew how to use a sword or dagger, someone would inevitably take it from him and stab him with it. Best that he just let himself be beaten to a pulp and drag himself to a healer afterwards.
It was easy enough to find the place, at least. Every step to get there was burned into his memory from a thousand mental repetitions of that day. He pulled up his hood and hoped the two thousand recitations of Tara’s escape route could get him out if need be.
The cobbles were just as rough as he remembered, the buildings a little dingier and less clean than the surrounding city. Ah, and there it was. He didn’t see the sign before, but the little hole in the wall was apparently called ‘The Groaning Greenskin,’ with as charming a sign as one might expect from the name. He avoided making eye contact with the lovingly-painted though crude picture of an orcish woman laying on her back and made his way inside.
Rowan was slammed with the rancid scent of sweet liquor and beer stains that had been left too long before he even opened the door all the way. A smoky haze from a poorly-maintained fireplace stung his eyes as he peered in at the shady patrons who sat on shoddy furniture that needed to be replaced regularly. The claustrophobically low ceiling capped off a visual experience that made him feel like a sheep wandering into a cave full of wolves.
It was a small comfort that the wolves in question were still wary of someone who would be stupid enough to wander in. He would have to take advantage of the element of surprise before they regained their senses or he lost his nerve. The other patrons were already whispering in their corners when he pulled up a seat at the bar.
The green-skinned bartender was a little shorter than he was, though likely twice his weight with the amount of bulging muscle packed onto her frame. An orc? She had a few scattered tattoos depicting stereotypical intimidating motifs like skulls and snakes, but a pair of bands around her biceps caught his attention far more than the scroll that misspelled ‘death or glory’. The image of Dunmuir’s military sleeve braid was rendered with reverence and left no doubt that she was a veteran of the war. She wasn’t going to like him based on his accent alone.
“You… lookin’ for someone?” She asked, squinting at him as if she planned to break a bottle over his head at the first provocation.
“I am, actually. He should’ve been around here a few days ago.”
“He, huh? He talk like a Gislander, too?” She leaned over the counter and flexed her arm.
Rowan was terrified, frankly. Nobody knew where he was and there wouldn’t be any last-minute rescues. It felt stupid at the time, but he was glad he rehearsed his scowl and plan of action for just this situation.
“He does, yes. I’m told his name is Balderic.” He prayed he sounded confident, slapping the blackmail letter on the counter with the black wax seal facing up.
“Wait, a…” A flicker of recognition crossed her eyes and she straightened up. “Sorry, boss. I don’t know anythin’ about him. Makes things easier with the gals in the guard, see.”
“Right.” Huh. That had worked better than he could’ve dreamed. “Do you know anyone I could talk to? Civilly, of course.”
“Ya gotta promise not to wreck the bar. You wanna fight or kill ‘em, you do it outside. And no poisonin’ or anything neither, I got a reputation to uphold!”
This was clearly one of those times he was far better off just keeping his mouth shut and letting the nice lady assume whatever she wanted to. He put on his best impression of the strong, silent type and spoke again. “I only want to talk.”
“Alright, fine. I’m serious though. They’re in the back room playin’ cards.”
He acquiesced and wove his way through the sparsely populated bar to a metal-clad door she pointed out to him. He tapped four times and the door swung open for him.
Rowan expected a tense, unpleasant exchange, but he wasn't counting on a familiar face. As the ogre that had tried to mug him came into view, he supposed it made sense. If a little gang of thieves went around extorting people, they just might do other things in the area. The hood didn’t help conceal his identity at all and she stood up, pointing an accusing finger as she said something to the other players huddled around a small table.
He couldn’t hear them over the sound of his own panicked heartbeat, so he settled for holding up the letter again and hoping his voice didn’t come out as a croak. “I’m looking for someone.”
“Lucky break…” Fox slapped her cards down on the table and gritted her teeth.
Dunmuir was a strange place and plenty of things had already happened to Rowan that proved it. Even in comparison to all that, this evening was so surreal it had to be a dream.
Ah, he had a knave of wands he could play here. He set his card in the pile, prompting an annoyed groan from the dog woman who had introduced herself as Fox.
He didn’t know if it was the letter or his encounter with the ogre, (who was quiet and hadn’t met his eyes) but for some reason they patted him on the back and invited him to a round of cards as they talked.
“So, Mr. Rowan. You said you’re looking for someone, huh?”
“That’s right. A Gislander who was wandering around here. He was on his own, I think,” he answered, cards held up near his face as a shield against his terror leaking out.
“Hm. You mugged any other Gislanders lately, Maz?”
“No, uh…” his ogre mugger was lost for words. “I don’t wanna step on any toes, y’know?”
“Mm. Your turn again, Rowan.” Fox waited until he tossed down a card. “This fella run with your gang?”
The voice of the master diplomat who taught him echoed in his head. He could practically smell the stacks of parchment as ‘NEVER correct someone who’s made a mistake in your favour, boy’ echoed in his head. He had an unforgettable tone and stress pattern when he would repeat certain axioms to his apprentices.
“You could say that.” As long as Gisland’s national spies counted as ‘his gang.’ Rowan hadn’t lied, exactly. “Any idea where he could be? Balderic is the name, if that helps.”
“Well, we don’t have him. I figure I know who probably scooped him, though.”
“Are we gambling the round on some information, then?”
“Ha. Nope. This’d be a way bigger pain in the ass than that, but I think you’d be good for the favour I’m gonna ask.”
“I was about to lose, anyway.” Rowan set his cards down on the table with a mixture of relief and dismay. “That said, I don’t know if I can do anything for you, considering how close I am with the… authorities.” He would be lucky to hang if the Queen found out about this.
“Nothin’ dirty. ‘Sides, if you’re tryin’ to get into the market, you’d probably sabotage things. Couple gangs just need a mediator for somethin’.”
“Can I ask what it is?”
“Territory thing. We’ve been arguin’ about it for months now, but the middleman’s always crooked. ‘Cept our gal of course,” she added with a wink.
“And nothing else? I can’t risk taking a side, angering some group and having them either attack me in the streets or...” Or report him to the Queen, but it was a horrible idea to remind the criminals that they had blackmail material.
“Fine, I get it. I just want this bullshit over with and the other gals out of my territory.”
“Then we have a deal, Ms. Fox.”
She snickered at the ‘miss’ but didn’t comment. “Alright, we’re in business. I’ll send a messenger when the meeting’s all set up. Should be soon.” She paused a moment. “Girls are hardly gonna believe it when I tell ‘em I got the guy that beat up my ogre.”
“...People know about that?”
“Whole town by now,” Fox laughed.
That went too well. He would still be in trouble if he was caught, but it was surprisingly painless to arrange this little meeting with the kidnappers. Well, the meeting would be the part that was actually difficult. He had never dealt with crim- well, Gwen counted, he supposed. Hm.
Regardless, he was still worried he would be getting a bout of bad luck to balance out the good. Ah, and there was Lady Misfortune flying down the street on a broom, leading a guard behind her. Odd that she looked so much like Arlene today. Was he being arrested so soon? He hadn’t even committed any interesting crimes yet, considering who he spent the evening with-
Oh. He was probably being arrested for the spying, come to think of it.
“Where were you?” Arlene’s tone sounded a little accusatory to his ears.
“Er, just out on some business? Is something…?” There was no use incriminating himself. They could lay their charges first and he would avoid spitting out any inconvenient information they didn’t already know.
“Yes. The Queen’s ordered the ministers gathered and you’re the only one missing.”
“Oh.” Maybe he got lucky and they didn’t know who the spy was? Well, he was the obvious choice, considering he was the only one from a hostile foreign nation. “Should I be on my way to the palace, then?”
“You should’ve been on your way over an hour ago,” she stated, expertly drifting down to present Rowan a seat behind her on the broom. “Get on, please. I don’t want to be responsible for you being delayed any further.”
“You’re… okay.” As he stepped over, he noticed that the broom’s handle was too short to comfortably fit two people on anything less than friendly terms. She was clearly in a hurry, so he didn’t make any complaints when he needed to press his hips against her back. This was probably just like riding a horse, right? He laid his hands on her hips to be polite, but she turned and shot him an unimpressed glare.
“Unless you plan on tumbling to an early grave, I’d suggest you hold on more seriously than that, Minister. My wings aren’t delicate.”
It wasn’t until the broom lurched upward that he understood what she meant. Rowan wrapped as much of himself as he could around her slim body, holding on for dear life.
Once they got above the buildings, the view of the city was breathtaking. The spindly roads made even less sense from above, stopping and starting at random as they lazily weaved their way between and around buildings that seemed to predate them. It was breathtaking in both senses when Rowan realised how high up they were and that any fall would end with a splat.
Arlene must have noticed his shallow, panicky breathing. “It helps if you look forward instead of down, Minister.”
It did help, at least a little. Based on the people flying around them, the altitude they were at was normal. Streams of traffic went to and fro over the city mounted on brooms and a few more exotic pieces like carpets, weaving through the many towers poking above the rooves like islands in a sea. The lurch forward startled him less than going straight up and the feeling of floating over the city was more invigorating than a simple horse ride once he took his mind off the peril.
“So, er. What’s it like being the Queen’s maid?” The combination of dreading the Queen and the more present terror of their altitude was the perfect storm. He never really intended to be one of those people who was chatty even when it was obvious the other person wasn’t interested. It was just that his subconscious considered talking to be an excellent coping strategy, especially when the only thing he could nervously tap his fingers on was Arlene.
“What?” She didn’t turn her head and shouted to be heard over the sound of the wind rushing past them as they flew.
“What’s it like being the Queen’s maid, I said!”
“Why do you ask?”
“Just curiosity.” Oh, and terror that he was being brought to his death or worse. All things said, it would probably be a more pleasant experience if Arlene just shoved him off the broom instead of being turned into a tree and tormented forever.
“It’s about how you’d imagine.”
“How do you mean?”
She let the moment hang and kept flying. “...An honour and so on. You’ve seen enough to put things together.”
The poor girl did offer more intimate services than even the most hard-done-by maids needed to. It was a wonder she was so stoic in the face of it all. “If you ever need help with anything, I-”
“Minister.” She looked over her shoulder with a deadpan expression and locked eyes with him. “I appreciate that you’re just trying to be kind and show interest, but I can take care of myself.”
“Nothing would ever be done if everyone was like your deputy. A servant is a piece of furniture. Would you ask a chair its opinion on bearing your weight?”
“If it could talk, I might.”
The hint of an exasperated sigh reached his ears before the wind carried it away. “This chair’s opinion is irrelevant and it would rather you not encourage the other furniture to gossip any more than it already does.”
Arlene was content to let the icy silence hang as they raced toward the palace.
Rowan was surprised when they took a sharp turn away from the throne room. Did that mean he was-? No, he was being brought to the dining room. He set his jaw, already anxious at the implications. The last time was tense, to say nothing of the fact that Arlene was punished on his account.
Worst of all, the second he came in, a dozen pairs of eyes were fixed on him and the Queen didn’t hesitate to point out the situation.
“Rowan! I was wondering where you were, we’ve all been waiting for you!”
He wished he could be back in those halcyon days of thirty seconds ago. He thought he was nervously sweating then? Ha! It felt like it was pooling in his boots at this point. “Well, um… I wasn’t aware you’d planned on doing anything this evening, so I was taking care of some business…”
“Oh, that’s alright. I just decided we should do a little something on the spur of the moment. Not up to anything I wouldn’t do, I hope?”
“No, no! Er, what are we all…?”
“Have a seat first.”
And she left him a spot beside her at the head of the table. How kind. He pulled up a seat, grateful to be across from Torsten and beside… oh! Tara was hard to spot at human size now that he was used to her being about as tall as his forearm. He smiled sheepishly at the two of them and took his seat.
“Now then, lords and ladies,” Rhiannon began, “I’ve gathered you all here today for a matter of grave importance. I want to start dealing with it as soon as possible with my loyal advisors.”
She stood up and cast a distrustful gaze around the long table, meeting each minister’s eyes for only a moment before finally landing on Rowan. Did she…?! The hand she laid on his shoulder felt like the weight of the world pressing down on him.
“Dinner, that is!” She slapped Rowan’s shoulder playfully. “We’ve got a lovely grilled swordfish steak lined up for tonight, so I couldn’t resist getting you all together for a chat and some food. Finian!”
He wasn’t the only one who was holding his breath, given the volume of the collective sigh of relief from around the table. The chef came in with a penitent expression and ordered the kitchen apprentices around to deliver all the meals post-haste. The Queen smirked in amusement and whispered something to Torsten when she sat back down.
The steak was enormous. Growing up on the coast, he saw fish being brought in on the ships before, but the swordfish it came from must have been monstrous before they carved it up. The real question was whether they dragged a boat-sized fish onto the deck and worked around it or towed it behind them as they sailed home. The slab did look delicious though. The marbling of the fat lent an impressive sheen to the already perfectly-grilled meats sprinkled in foreign herbs and pepper.
“You nearly gave your colleagues a heart attack, Rowan.” Rhiannon nudged him with a momentary grin wide enough he could tell she was pleased he took so long. “I just wanted this to be a cute little prank, but you really had them sweating.”
“Aha, sorry…” His immediate instinct was to apologise even if he recognised that he was at less at fault than the Queen herself.
“Oh no, I’m glad you’re keeping everyone on their toes. Were you doing anything that you’d need help with? You’re dressed like you’re ready to go work in the fields.”
Rhiannon’s feet tapped Rowan’s and he pulled them back self-consciously. “No! Just a few little thises and thatses of life, you know?”
She persisted with one foot, sliding up from his foot to overtly feel out his calf with a predatory smile. “I’m not sure I would, being born a princess and all… What are these little ‘thises and thatses’?” Her tone was innocent, but the sparkle in her eyes as she pressed him was anything but.
“Nothing interesting, Your Majesty.” The Queen was onto him. She had to be. All Rowan could do was avoid panicking enough that it was visible on his face. Rowan white-knuckled his cutlery and focussed all his anxiety on the silverware. The Queen might mistake any foot tapping as an invitation for further exploration of his lower half.
“Oh? A little cagey, aren’t we,” she ventured as her foot crawled higher on his leg. “Were you trying to drink without anyone catching you this time?”
“W-what? How did…? I-I mean I wasn’t, but-”
Rhiannon batted her eyelashes at him. “Oh, the gate guards have been saying you put on quite a show for them. Poor Arlene even tried to wake you up when you were sleeping in the garden. You somehow refused to wake up after being kicked, so she just laid her cloak over you, I hear.”
Rowan was abruptly made aware that his failure was now public knowledge when Torsten dropped his fork and burst out laughing at the Queen’s accusation. Even Tara snorted in amusement, though she didn’t break the conversation she was having with Agriculture to her right. “Aha… It’s what I get for trying to keep up with a dwarf, I suppose.”
The temporary relief he felt when Rhiannon pulled her foot away was spoiled when he realised she only stopped to take off her shoe. She slid her stockinged foot even higher and studied his face for a response when she touched his thighs.
“So then what were we doing then, Mr. Rowan? If you were looking for a brothel, I’m afraid you’re not going to find many with women in my country. I’d be happy to introduce you to a few willing ladies free of charge…” She got disconcertingly close to his crotch with her teasing and he needed to clamp his legs shut to stop her going any higher.
The mental arithmetic took a few seconds. She was going to get suspicious if he kept denying things and making her guess. He wasn’t sure he could come up with a convincing reason he was in the bad part of town, so it was his life, or… He supposed this did count as not letting a misunderstanding go to waste. Rowan lowered his voice and leaned in conspiratorially. “I couldn’t possibly impose, Your Majesty, but thank you.”
Her lips curled into a charmed smirk and she wordlessly leaned back in her seat. He… hadn’t expected it to be that easy. He kept eating, though she did occasionally run her foot across his lap to keep him on edge for the rest of the meal. After what seemed like an eternity, it finally withdrew only when the plates had all been taken away, she finished a conversation with Torsten and stood.
“Gentlemen, Ladies. I’m delighted you could all come to this little dinner of mine. I’ve sorely missed having you all gathered and seeing what you’re busying yourselves with. Since I’ll be in the capital for the foreseeable future, I’d like to hold these little meetings of the minds every now and then,” Rhiannon moved away from her seat and made a small gesture to the servants’ entrance. Like magic, a full band poured out and began setting up their instruments in practiced unison. “I’d urge you all to mingle, enjoy tonight’s entertainment and drink a while longer, since I hope it’ll bring us all together. Musicians, if you would.”
The humming drone, then the opening blast of the reel pipes set off a tune that signalled the start of the festivities. The table was taken away in short order and the crowd of ministers split off into groups and started socialising. Rowan surveyed the room, trying to spot anyone who could keep him away from Rhiannon’s games, but came up with nothing. He counted his blessings when the Queen walked off, more interested in the other ministers. He jumped when Torsten slapped his back and chuckled to himself.
“Ha! I didn’t know ye got that pickled, lad! Nearly as bad as li’l Tara needin’ me to carry her home!”
“Oh, well, you know…” The dwarf made Rowan feel at ease, even if he was one of the Queen’s favourites. “Didn’t want to out myself, but I think I took more than an hour to get up the stairs, then I found the guards betting on if I’d make it to the top!”
“Scamps, those girls. It’s a wonder their captain has any say in how they run the palace. Ha!”
After a few more moments catching up, Torsten started stroking his beard and eyeing the punch bowl. The embarrassment of being caught drunk still lingered in Rowan’s mind, so he left the dwarf to his devices. It would be easier to join in the festivities now that he was more relaxed. Still, it would be ideal to have someone he knew introduce him to the others one at a time. Cait was out, considering she was having a chat with the Queen and the elf in charge of Finance at the moment, so… Ah, Tara was still talking with Agriculture. He walked over and managed to get a smile from both of them.
“How are we this evening, ladies?”
“Just fine, ye drunkard,” Tara teased with a nudge.. “I was just talking with Eryl here about some trouble in the countryside I might be going out to deal with.”
The Minister of Agriculture smiled at him gently and held out a hand. “Rowan, wasn’t it? I know it’s hard to keep names straight around here.”
She appeared surprisingly aged in comparison to most of the witches he saw thus far. Her greyed hair and soft, wrinkled face lent her the air of a kind old aunt, though the bovine horns, tail and drooping ears sticking out of the side of her head would have been a strange sight in his childhood.
Rowan also noticed that she had a surprisingly strong grip when he took her hand. “That’s right. Pleased to meet you again, Eryl.”
“Likewise! We’re all very pleased to have the war-ender among us, I’m sure you can guess. How are you settling in?” She shook his hand a few more seconds, only letting go once she finished speaking.
“Well, it’s certainly an adjustment, aha. If you’ll believe it, I’d actually never left Gisland before!”
“Oh, you poor dear. If you ever need help with anything, don’t be afraid to ask! My office is always open!”
“Well, thank you for the offer!” He chirped, matching his own expression to her saccharine smile. “Her Majesty’s had me on the hop lately.”
“Is that so? Well, I’ll leave young Tara here to you, so do have a good evening, won’t you?”
“Of course! You too!”
Eryl wandered off to talk to another small group of ministers in another corner of the room and Rowan spent the next few minutes talking shop with Tara. There was his progress on working his way through her reports of course, as well as a few questions he had about what certain words meant in a few diplomatic- He nearly jumped out of his skin when someone casually laid a hand on his shoulder. His momentary surprise turned to dread when he noticed it was the Queen, calmly swirling a glass of wine.
He plastered his politician’s smile to his face and turned to her. She already made the rounds and talked to most of the ministers. It was probably nothing to be concerned about. “Yes, Your Majesty?”
She leaned in close enough that her hot breath tickled his ear. “Just Rhiannon, handsome…”
Tara shot him a little wink and walked off like she thought she was doing him a favour instead of abandoning him to his fate.
Hearing her name satisfied her enough that she moved her face away and he could actually turn his head to see her without bumping noses. A soft flush had come over her pale face and she was considerably more calm than usual, though he could smell the sweetness of the wine on her breath.
“There’s a few things I’d like to talk to you about, Rowan, but I think I’d prefer a private location so late in the night…”
Okay. Probably not anything dangerous, right? If she knew about him spying or making deals with criminals, she didn’t show it. She must have bought his story. ...Oh, who was he kidding? He was worried, but his bed was quite thoroughly made at this point. “Well, I suppose I can’t turn you down.” His sentence was punctuated with a nervous chuckle that he didn’t intend.
“Good. You do owe me for overlooking that day you slipped away from me.”
After a minute of walking down the halls, Rhiannon’s hand slowly drifted down from its controlling position on his shoulder and down to his hip, gently guiding him along. A few guards snickered as they passed, so he felt obliged to speak. The silence was making the awkwardness intolerable.
“So, erm… You have a beautiful palace, Rhiannon.”
She slowed her walk. “You think? Most people are a little overawed by it, frankly.”
“I know you’re from a dynasty of Witch-Queens, but I’ve been enjoying some of the finer details lately…”
“An art appreciator, are we?” She hummed.
“Well,” he said, thankful to get onto a subject he could talk about at length, “I did have a small collection back home, though nothing as impressive as this, obviously. The rarest thing I had was a little amphora all the way from Sicorath.”
“I suppose we do have a few little things of note here, don’t we? Plenty of history...” she pondered a while longer as they wandered down the halls together before coming to a sudden decision. “In fact, Rowan, would you like to see our oldest artefact? I think it’s quite impressive, personally…”
“If it’s not any trouble,” he murmured, trying to play off his excitement to see something that might well be older than recorded history, given the age of Dunmuir. They arrived at the entrance to Rhiannon’s private tower after a little more walking. Even from ten paces back, the massive door and bronze knocker loomed large in the wall.
“If you can believe it, this was the front gate when Rhiannon II started building the palace.”
“This?” Rowan was impressed with it the first time, but its age granted it a sublime impressiveness. What stories could a door that was thousands of years old tell if only it could speak?
“Mhmm. It’s why all the fittings are bronze as well. Ironworking hadn’t been discovered yet.”
He stood in awe of the enormity of the thing for a while, too distracted by the age-darkened timbers and patina of the bronze to even acknowledge Rhiannon’s hand lowering itself down to rest on his butt. In fact, the only thing that shook him out of his reverie was when the ancient door swung halfway open to reveal Arlene.
She addressed them with professional detachment. “Good evening, Your Majesty. And to you, Minister.”
“Oh, yes! Good evening!”
The maid flitted her wings only once before guiding them into the suite. The reception room on the first floor was laid out in a circle nearly as large as the dining room they left behind. Even compared to what he might have expected, the vibrant decadence of the decoration shocked Rowan. The ceiling and walls were draped with so much artfully drooping velvet that the whole room had the atmosphere of a tent aside from a few tall doors and a glass-panelled window that opened onto a balcony with a stunning view of the city. A sunken meeting space in the centre of the room was filled with plush carpeting and overstuffed furniture that completed the look.
The next thing he noticed was how warm the room was. You could probably… Ah. He worked it out before he even finished the thought. You could comfortably spend the entire day without clothes in here.
The Queen and her maid moved in a kind of silent dance as he came to his realisation. They knew the steps well: Arlene bowed and Rhiannon nodded back before the maid began her work. Rhiannon lifted her arm with a ballerina’s grace so that her servant could delicately slip off her rings and bracelets. Arlene’s skirt whirled elegantly as she placed each delicate piece in its box and turned back to remove the Queen’s engraved garnet necklace.
Arlene stumbled a little when the choreography changed. Just as she reached around the Queen’s neck, Rhiannon gave her an appreciative kiss on the cheek. Her cheeks turned pink and she grimaced in Rowan’s direction as though it was his fault she had to put up with the unwanted attention. To her credit, her hands never stopped their work. After she removed the Queen’s ornamented belt and a pair of silver brooches on her shoulders, Rhiannon's sleek black dress puddled to the ground at her feet.
With her back turned, Rowan couldn’t be sure if there was anything covering her aside from her stockings and pair of dramatic evening gloves that rose past her elbows. Her long, raven-black hair fluttered as she walked to her chair and gave him occasional teasing glimpses of her pale skin beneath. When she turned to sit, what she wore sucked in his eyes just as much as her nude body would have.
The pitch black of her stockings and gloves was reflected in the rest of her underwear and contrasted her pale skin like ink on paper, but where her panties and bra differed from the rest was in their extravagant decoration. Rich floral motifs and silk ribbons covered the scanty garments in a veritable garden of royal purple that elevated them beyond the formality of even the dress she was wearing moments ago. She leaned back and let him take her in as long as he pleased. Everything from her glossy heeled shoes that recalled cavalry boots to her understated silver circlet felt tailor-made to highlight her mastery of the situation. She was allowing him to see her unclothed, confident in the knowledge that she was still better dressed than him in next to nothing.
Not that he was staring. Aha. He was sure she was smiling at nothing. She hadn’t said anything and was just taking another sip of wine, that was all!
Rhiannon precariously balanced her glass on the arm of the chair before sizing up Rowan and her maid. “Arlene, dear. I know it’s awfully hot in here for all those clothes. Would you mind helping Rowan with his once you’ve made yourself comfortable?”
The maid did clearly have a glaze of sweat on her forehead, though she still gave an exasperated huff before she started taking off her clothes. The apron, then skirt… She was meticulous in refastening the buttons of her shirt before folding it with amazing precision. It impressed Rowan almost as much as the way the black ribbons and lace of her underwear hugged her slender body.
He had no time to object when she started doing the same for his clothes as well. His outer robe was stripped off and folded before he even managed to blurt out a weak “Actually I think I’m fine in-”
Arlene’s gaze was dispassionate, but she raised an eyebrow in a way that told him more than she could have in a minute’s worth of talking. His diplomat’s mind registered a kind of professional envy at being able to get across ‘you don’t have a choice, the Queen said so’, ‘if I’m doing it you’re doing it too’, and half a dozen other subtle shades of ‘shut up’ with a single gesture.
His mind raced as he silently let himself be undressed. Was this going to be it? How many years of his life was he going to lose? The tunic was off and he developed a red-hot flush in his cheeks as his body was exposed. Rowan was far from an impressive tower of muscle who would be more at home with two women this attractive. Oh no. Arlene knelt to help him take off his boots, putting her face at the same height as his crotch. Was she going to noti-? Oh. Arlene slid down his pants like it was the most natural thing in the world. She would be hard-pressed to miss his growing erection through the thin material left covering him. He felt like quite the fool in his plain linen underpants next to two women wearing underwear worth more than every piece of the peasant’s clothes he was wearing. Should he buy nicer underwear? Did men even have something like that?
Rhiannon didn’t give any indication she minded. She let her eyes wander up and down his body for several long moments before landing back on his face with a satisfied expression. “More comfortable, Rowan?”
“...In… in some respects.”
She made no attempt to conceal her amusement when she glanced between his legs. “So it seems. I really am sorry about getting in the way of your little run to take care of your needs.”
“O-oh no, it’s-”
“There’s no need to be modest when we’re in here. I expect your intentions to be as… uncloaked as you are.” She swirled her wine around in the glass before taking another long sip. “I would know how distractingly difficult day-to-day life is when you haven’t had someone take care of things for you, after all.”
“I wouldn’t go that far, it was just… a mild inconvenience, really. I was on my way back, anyway.” As they always said, a lie with a kernel of truth was the most convincing kind. He could even say he went to that tavern with the intention of asking around about a brothel.
“It’s still my fault. Playing at being a real queen is all responsibility and no fun, so I needed to liven things up for myself. Hence the little prank and demand for a dinner party.”
“I… I think I’ve struggled with the new recognition myself and I didn’t have being a Queen dumped on my lap.”
“Exactly! At least on campaign, I could meet my soldiers as peers, but now, ugh.” She waved her glass at her surroundings and some of the wine sloshed over the rim. “I miss it. Not the war, of course, but just… trusting. Being trusted.”
It was strange to see Rhiannon allowing herself to be vulnerable in front of him. He couldn’t imagine a situation she wasn’t a complete master of. The image of her in his mind was still the armoured general he met in her tent, confident and powerful. Still, for politeness’ sake he needed to stutter out a sympathetic response. “It’s more than understandable, Your Maj-”
The Queen groaned so hard her shoulders slumped forward. “Rhiannon. I want to build that kind of relationship with you, Rowan. I’ve pulled you away from exactly the kind of thing that makes us kindred spirits and I want to apologise.”
Rowan chafed at being called a kindred spirit because she was under the impression he was visiting a brothel. It was an excellent sign the deceit was working, but it was a blow to his ego and reputation simultaneously. “I accept your apology, Rhiannon. You couldn’t have known and I look forward to building trust with you in the future.” The words that came out were more stiff than he wanted. Uncomfortable, even.
Rhiannon leaned forward, showing off her cleavage with a teasing smile. “You misunderstand, Rowan. I’d like to apologise for my city’s lack of… hospitality. Arlene, would you mind easing our minister’s tension? I’m sure the messenger from Horthsgap would be willing to do a little something for him later if you’re uncomfortable.”
“No, that’s alright. Would my hands be sufficient, Minister?” She was giving him that glare again. He could ask for more, though she didn’t want to, but refusing was no longer on the table.
“What do you…?” Rowan’s mind caught up with the situation when Arlene took an exaggerated look between his legs. “I really don’t think that’s necessary! I’ll take care of things myself, no need to trouble Arlene,” he blurted out, hoping there wasn’t too much guilt or desire in his voice. The maid completely ignored him, bending over to get a glass jar off a table and giving him quite a view as her risque panties dug into-
“See, Rowan? She’s an excellent woman and you’re desperate,” Rhiannon announced.
Arlene made no attempt to retort and simply met Rowan’s eyes. “My hands, Minister Rowan?”
“Just, um… whatever’s the least intrusive for you…” The line sounded so lame that he felt like an awkward teenager all over again.
Arlene took up a place behind him, delicately untying the drawstrings of his underwear and letting them fall. Rhiannon made a sound of approval as his half-hard dick popped free, then gave the maid a nod to move on.
She poured a little oil from the bottle she collected onto her hand and wrapped it around his length and squeezed gently. She made a long, slow process out of spreading the oil onto his dick before standing up on her toes to whisper into Rowan’s ear. “I haven’t touched a man in years, so let me know if I’m doing anything wrong, sir.” Her voice had been as dispassionate as ever, but something about the way ‘sir’ left her mouth made his heart pound in excitement.
Arlene’s hand teasingly slid up and down his shaft. The gentle touch sent shivers down his spine. The stimulation combined with looking at Rhiannon’s mostly-unclothed body put him on the verge of being painfully hard in no time.
The Queen took another sip of her wine, “Hmm… It really is a shame you didn’t get to use that thing today…”
“W-what?” He had a hard time focusing as Arlene’s thumb brushed over his head.
“Oh, just a shame. I hope you gave Captain Gwen the night of her life, at least.”
“I… um… No, we just had a kiss before she said she had to leave…”
Rhiannon huffed in exaggerated displeasure. “She would have had just enough time if she left things to her girls, Rowan. You really need to work on your seduction.”
“I-mmmn…!” Arlene noticed the throb in his dick when she passed her thumb over the head and started focussing more attention there. “I-I didn’t… I thought it went well…”
“You’ve got looks going for you, certainly, but you can’t just rely on a handsome face and a nice cock.” The words were unconvincing from a woman who hadn’t broken eye contact with it since it had gotten all the way hard. “Please tell me you’ve at least managed to put Greenglass in her rightful place.”
“No, she’s…” Rowan paused, having a hard time coming up with an excuse that wasn’t ‘well actually, I’ve figured out your little game and I know that if I have sex with a witch, I’m having my life siphoned out of my dick.’ ...Did a handjob count? He couldn’t focus enough to consider the thought at length.
“...Really?” The Queen frowned. “No wonder you’re desperate. Two entire weeks without anything?”
Arlene wrapped an arm around his chest to hug him closer and sped her hand up. Was she doing this on purpose? His answer turned into a low moan in his throat and he hurried to nod in response.
Rhiannon drained her wine glass and leaned in closer. The flush of arousal and intoxication that coloured her pale face was bewitching. “Right. Well, I expect you to have a clear enough head that you'll be able to handle yourself after this. It makes me look bad to have a bumbling Minister of Diplomacy. I’ll be expecting a report on your next woman or I’m sending someone out to watch you.”
His head was getting foggy and he struggled to think of anything but the sensations he was feeling. Arlene’s small breasts pressing into his back. The scent of her perfume and the oil. Her quickly-pumping hand as she jerked his dick back and forth, thumbing his weak spots. That would be… bad? Yes. Spying. Having someone watching him would mean he’d… Rhiannon was watching him, her eyes following every throb of his dick and twitch of his body. No, wait… if someone was… he’d get caught. Right. He’d have to find someone… The Queen was beautiful and the black lace of her underwear looked so good on her, begging him to-
No. Distracted again. He’d pick up a girl. It would be easy. He’d fuck her dripping pussy senseless, then write about it so well that the Queen would be knuckle-deep in herself just reading it. He nodded his head.
“Then we’re agreed,” Rhiannon smiled seductively, then leaned forward with the wine glass extending towards his crotch. “Finish him off, Arlene. He’s a busy man.”
The maid’s hand started working his dick intolerably fast and she moved her lips close enough to touch his ear. “Please, sir.”
He wasn’t sure if it was the sultry whisper, the sudden feeling of cool, smooth glass touching his sensitive glans or something else, but he couldn’t hold out any longer. He convulsed and filled Rhiannon’s glass with more cum than he thought was possible.
When Rowan’s vision cleared and he slowed his breathing down enough he could focus, Rhiannon had leaned back in her seat and was swirling the cum-filled glass around.
“My, my…” She studied the glass with distant, unfocussed eyes. “It’s a good thing we took care of this now, you were awfully backed up…”
“Y-w-well, aha…” He was glad that Arlene was still supporting him, though he jerked a little when she wiped the last of the cum and oil off his painfully sensitive dick with a handkerchief.
The Queen smirked when she heard the small noise of surprise he made. “You know, it would be a shame to let all this go to waste, now that I think about it,” she mused. “I wonder how you taste?”
He didn’t have time to retort before Rhiannon turned her head to give him a better view, then tipped the glass up to her lips and drained it with a long, low moan.
“Mmm…” She stuck her clean tongue out at him as proof, her face full of smug satisfaction. “Not bad, Rowan. Maybe I’ll have you over again.”
He tried to remind himself that she would steal part of his lifespan if he slept with her, but it was hard to remember when she was so stunningly sexy. She was clearly showing off, but had she actually enjoyed it? He briefly wondered if she… No, wait. Did her drinking his cum count as sex? Agh…
“See him out please, Arlene.”
Before he knew what was even happening, his pile of clothes was set in his arms and he was ushered out of the Queen’s room as naked as the day he was born. The worst part was that he was already more than halfway hard again from Rhiannon’s little show.
The two guards at the door were clearly used to this chain of events and didn’t show any surprise at his nudity, but the one he was closer to glanced down and hummed in approval.
The next morning felt… strange. As though none of it ever happened, he woke, suffered through being dressed, had breakfast at the Gilded Lily, came back up to the palace and went to his office. He didn’t receive a single comment or sign from anyone that the events of the last night were anything but a dream. Greenglass was waiting in the ministry for him and acting almost too normally, all accusations and demands that he help with something.
An hour of pacing and flipping through dictionaries and books of kennings passed with little progress to show, considering the length of the material. A correspondence from Mistheim had come in from abroad, but on top of the unfamiliar language, the entire thing was written in verse.
They had stared so long at the thing trying to unravel it that Rowan was starting to worry it was unravelling his mind instead.
“Mistheimers’ obsession,” began the irascible elf, “is this damnable poetry, as you can see for yourself.”
Their culture prized their poets’ wit, and so it was considered vital that serious letters between the powerful should be written as artfully as possible. Going through the twenty-page letter word by word was starting to take a toll on Greenglass’ sanity just as much as Rowan’s. When he suggested they take a break, she squinted at her dictionary for a long moment as if she was trying to figure out what that meant. She snapped at him when he clarified that he meant ‘stop for a while.’ And was she rhyming or did he just imagine it?
Thus upon a midday dreary, while they pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— While he nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at their office door. “’Tis some visitor,” she muttered, “tapping at our office door— Only this and nothing more.”
Presently her soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer, “Sir,” said she, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore; but the fact is he was yapping, and so gently you came rapping, And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at our office door, that I scarce was sure I heard you”—here she opened wide the door;— Empty space there, nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all her wrath within her burning, Soon again they heard a tapping somewhat louder than before. “Surely,” said he, “surely that is something at the window lattice; let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore— Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;— ’Tis the wind and nothing more!” Open here he flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, in there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore; not the least obeisance made she; not a minute stopped or stayed she; But, with mien of lord or lady, dropped a note upon the floor— dropped her note and nothing more.
“In this office, overtaxed—tell me truly, I implore— what there—what kind of letter have you?—Tell me—tell me, I implore!”
“Er.” The sight of the black seal upon the note sent Rowan’s train of thought reeling. This was it. They were serious when they asked him to mediate an actual criminal meeting. And now Greenglass knew he received a suspicious letter delivered by a witch’s familiar.
“Minister? Are you quite alright? I asked what you’ve got there.”
“Hm? Oh! I was just expecting a letter from home is all. I’m surprised at the speed of delivery in this country!” He laughed to cut the tension, but it sounded painfully nervous. “Just a personal letter.”
“A personal letter, hmm?” Greenglass turned to the raven with a smug expression. “Is that true, familiar?”
Rowan didn’t know birds could look insulted, but this one managed it. It glared at the elf for a moment, but then nodded and flew off before she had a chance to ask it any more questions.
“Well Ms. Greenglass,” Rowan said, collecting himself enough to slip the letter down the front of his tunic so his deputy didn’t get any ideas about grabbing it, “shall we keep going on this Mistheim business? We still don’t even know if this was a congratulatory letter or a threat.”
The speed that her face curled from satisfied superiority into a pout gave Rowan an immense amount of satisfaction. If she was that easy to deal with all the time, she might even be cute. “Right. Yes.”--------------------
As it turned out, the letter was from the King of Mistheim and congratulated them on the end of hostilities with Gisland. Well, good for him. In reality, he was probably sad to see the end of the era where Gisland couldn’t stop his raiders from looting ports like Rowan’s hometown now. The bastard.
It was actually a bonus that Greenglass insisted that she meet the Queen to deliver the message. Rowan wasn’t exactly eager to see her again after… his mind briefly flashed back to how she looked in her showy black lingerie, the empty wine glass coming away from her lips as she drank his-
Greenglass raised an eyebrow when he cleared his throat and shook his head. Unfortunately, Rhiannon demanded he also be present for the reading, so he resolved himself to do as little as possible while following along with Greenglass. When they were let into the throne room, he avoided eye contact with the Queen, though she seemed to have other ideas about where his gaze was. She teasingly pulled the neckline of her dress a little lower and winked in his direction. Perhaps keeping eye contact was the lesser of two evils.
The Queen watched Rowan's reactions from the throne as Greenglass read out the poem with her clear voice and intricately-rehearsed court mannerisms. Mistheim’s language was related to the languages Gislanders and Dunmuirians spoke, though only distantly. He was shocked at Greenglass' linguistic ability when she breezed through it as though she spent a day practicing. The best he could do was bumble his way through conversations in Dunmuir and hope they found him charming, to say nothing of the distinct accent he couldn’t seem to lose.
“So, Your Majesty,” the elf concluded, “I’ve determined that the essence of the poem is that King Hjalmar wishes you fair weather—a blessing of good luck—and congratulations on the end of the war. So on and so forth, wishes for good relations going forward… ah. I believe stanza eight is referencing the Crown Prince sending his greetings as well.”
“Hm. Well, that’s very kind of them. And you did it all, Sophia?”
Greenglass cringed at hearing her most intimate name, then the implication. “I’d rather you… pardon me. Yes, Your Majesty. The Minister did a few things, but he was busy handling personal correspondence during work hours.”
Rhiannon watched the two of them like an impartial parent and eventually settled her eyes on Rowan. If he was the type, he would have bet that she was a half-second away from lifting an eyebrow. “Is that so? Would you like to dispute that, Rowan?”
The sheer pettiness on display was breathtaking. Of course he helped! He did nearly half of the work too, since Greenglass hadn’t been able to figure out several of the terms relating to Gisland. He would argue, but he had no interest in dragging this out longer than it needed to be, considering that the discussion was going toward questions about his letter. Agh, forget it. He peeked at the contents earlier and knew he was expected back in the slums in a few hours.
“I’d rather not argue about who did how much, Your Majesty. If Ms. Greenglass thinks I didn’t do my fair share, then I’ll apologise. I hope the only thing you’ll concern yourself with is whether or not we finish.”
The Queen straightened up on her throne, amused with herself. “Well-said, Rowan. Your head seems much… clearer lately. Now, is there anything else?”
“Actually, Your Majesty…” Rowan gave Greenglass a chance to speak, but she was uninterested in anything but leaving. “Would you mind if I spoke with Arlene for a minute? I have something to return.”
“She’s at your full disposal, Rowan. You can speak with her outside, I have a border dispute with a pair of Baronesses to settle.”
Arlene bowed to the Queen, then held open the door for Rowan as they left. He led them to a comfortable alcove around a corner from the door of the throne room and turned to face her. “I’ve been meaning to apologise about, well…”
Arlene’s expression stayed flat and measured. “It’s no problem, just part of the job with the Queen. I hope you found it enjoyable?”
“Yes! I mean-” he ground to a halt before trying to reset himself. “Thank you, and I’m sorry you had to do that if you didn’t want to.”
“That’s fine, Minister. It was an interesting change of pace.”
“Anyway, I was hoping to give back your cloak, since I was finally told whose it was.” He handed over the heavy pile of wool he had draped over his arm. “I was thinking that… well, I know it’s a bit strange. I just wanted to give you something, since you’ve done me a few favours.”
The maid peered up at him as he handed over the wrapped package. She looked unimpressed, but the antennae on the top of her head crossed and uncrossed a few times. Was this curiosity?
“I couldn’t think of anything in particular, so I got you a jar of honey. I hope that’s alright?”
Arlene’s expression stayed tight-lipped and aloof, but her eyes flicked from Rowan to the package. “You know that might come off a bit… prejudiced?”
Rowan clenched his teeth in discomfort. She was a bee woman? Beyond noting the insect wings and antennae, he never bothered trying to categorise her. It made an uncomfortable amount of sense now that she pointed it out. “I… Sorry, I didn’t think about if-!” He heard the trace of a snicker, but she was as straight-faced as ever.
“I happen to enjoy sweet things, so thank you, Minister.” Her lips curled ever-so-slightly into the ghost of a smile. “But if you’re hoping for another... favour, I won’t be able to fit you in until ten.”
“No, no! Not that it wasn’t enjoyable, but-!” He stumbled over his words and was headed for a metaphorical brick wall if he didn’t change course. “I really only meant this as a gift. Thank you.”
“Oh,” she furrowed her brow, eyes darting back and forth as though she was looking through an invisible list of words to find something to say. “That’s very... sweet of you. I appreciate it.”
“I’m, er… I’m glad you like it! Anyway, I have some business to take care of, so I’ll see myself off, aha.” Rowan coughed, hoping to cover up his nervousness. “Have a nice night, though!”
“And you as well, sir.” Was that flirtation or gentle mocking? Judging from her smirk, Arlene was happy at least.
Rowan was already unnerved and uneasy when he wandered into the bad part of town in daylight, so doing it in the evening was far worse. The long trudge back to the Groaning Greenskin tonight was only lit by the sickly green of the city’s alchemical street lamps. Worst of all, the night was still young and the lamplighters hadn't completed their rounds, so the shadows were unsettlingly dramatic in the places they hadn’t been.
His heart raced when he saw the first gang of cloak-wrapped thugs. They gathered under a lamp, silhouetting themselves against the harsh light as they spoke to each other. Sword scabbards were plain to see, but he could also pick out that the group was wearing armour. Even if both of those things were practically normal in Gisland, it shook Rowan to the core to see witches wearing them. The average lady in Dun Peak was confident enough in her magic that weapons and armour were only seen on guards or professional soldiers. He made to turn back, but one of the group spotted him and he froze in place. None of them moved toward him and they stood at a silent impasse for a moment that felt like hours.
Just as the first bead of cold sweat ran down Rowan’s forehead, time began to flow again. A glimmer of recognition crossed the face of the criminal who first noticed him and her shoulders relaxed. A curt, businesslike nod was her only acknowledgement of him before she led the group to take up a post in an alleyway. He was still on edge, but it was less terrifying when the encounter repeated itself with another gang that was armed to the teeth. By the time a half-dozen groups gave him grimly approving gestures, all that was left was a lingering sense of dread. He doubted that anyone could get this many criminals of various sorts to cooperate if this was just some kind of prank where the punchline was his death, at least.
Rounding the final corner, he saw light streaming out of the windows of the pub and over the cobbles like a lighthouse guiding him in and through a front door that creaked cacophonously in the silence. The inside was empty, though Fox the dog woman was standing by the door to the back room and waved at him.
“You alright boss? We were startin’ to wonder if you were gonna show.”
“I had to make sure nobody was following me,” Rowan said in a rehearsed gruff tone. Apparently his time in front of a mirror wasn’t in vain, as the remark went over well.
Her gently waving tail went stiff and her ears flattened with guilt. “...Alright. I think the sponsor knows where your guy is, so after you.”
There were unusually few representatives gathered based on what he assumed: only four including Fox. A cowled man sat at the head of the table and nodded as a silent greeting. A tall woman with horse ears in notably opulent blue robes sitting to his left, and a short woman with green skin and greasy black hair on his right. A… goblin? Rowan wasn’t an expert, especially on the difference between all the green-skinned peoples.
The man at the head of the table spoke up first. “Kind of you to join us, Mr. Rowan. Please, have a seat.”
There were only enough chairs in the room for four, so he perched on the offered barstool. Rowan was immediately grateful for the high position when the man rolled out a pair of maps on the table.
“I hope you’ll forgive us for not giving our names to an agent of the Queen,” he stated.
“Oh no, that’s fine. I’d prefer if you didn’t know mine either, to be honest, but here we are.” Rowan sat himself down on the rickety barstool surrounding the poker table. Scanning around, he got a few curious glances but nobody met his gaze. “You don’t have to give names, but could I get an idea of what you’re representing?”
The man in the hood spoke first. “I represent the sponsor of this meeting.”
“And that would be…?”
He shook his head. So they were going to avoid telling him anything, then. Wonderful.
The horse woman was thankfully less interested in playing coy and gave an answer before Rowan even asked the question. “Smuggling business.”
“Racketeering for us, mostly,” Fox nudged him, “but you know we do a little mugging on the side, eh? We’re mostly in the central slums.”
The goblin hopped off her seat and walked over to shake Rowan’s hand. “I’m representin’ goblin interests ‘ere, Mr. Rowan. There’s enough of us we’s decided to centralise our own gang.”
“Charmed, thank you.” The small green woman was polite, at least. “Since I’m the mediator, I’ll try not to say much unless I think I need to. Please, go ahead.”
“The first thing I’d like to address is this.” The cowled man brought out a map and spread it on the table, having drawn in various arrows and circles. “Recent goblin activity has been throttling our supply chain. They occupy the smuggler’s tunnels, which violated our initial agreement. They know those tunnels have a purpose besides free room and board.”
The goblin woman snorted. “Yea? You’se ain’t using them tunnels for shit. I’m thinkin’ your boss just changed her mind ‘bout the agreement and wants us gone just like the dwarves.”
“We don’t mind giving your little enclave a piece of the pie but it’s proving to be more trouble than it’s worth. Smuggling and Central both tell me you’re taking up more space than you’ve been allotted.”
The horse girl tilted her ears forward, nodding in agreement. “When you signed on, you knew that those tunnels have been a part of our smuggling routes for the last 204 years under the third treaty. If the guard cracks down on us, we need to move into the tunnels! We can’t do it if all your little camps are in the way.”
The goblin shrunk in her seat, but regained her courage. “Look, we’s wouldn’t even be in this situation if the dwarves weren’t pushin’ us out of Graniteslate! These are our families here! What the ‘ell are we supposed to do?”
“Just go above ground like the rest of us! Maybe if you didn’t live like sewer rats the dwarves would stop treating you like them! You’ve even occupied some of our loading bays!”
Fox spoke up this time and pointed a finger at the horse woman. “Whoa now! Don’t tell ‘em to come into our territory. We can’t afford a goblin surplus either. My girls have their hands full with our own racket and we can’t promise protection against a threat we don’t directly control!” She turned her gaze to the mysterious man. “Which means-”
“Goblins? In our part of the city? Tell me you’re joking.” He folded his arms. “Personally I don’t see why you can’t just induct them into your little racketeering scheme. I hear they’re good at causing chaos.”
At this point the goblin was close to dragging her nails across the table in frustration, barely restraining herself from snapping in indignation.
“We don’t need more chaos! We need our slums to stop getting occupied by those who don’t belong there!” Fox pounded the desk, shifting her gaze to the smuggler. “An’ that’s you too!”
The smuggling rep stood up. “Get out of our docks first, then!”
Finally the man stood up. “This is going to end up in a brawl again at this rate! We’ve just finished opening statements and you’re already out of control!”
It didn’t take a diplomatic genius to see where this was headed. Rowan raised an arm before things got worse. “Alright, stop. We need to come to an understanding about-”
His train of thought was cut off when the other man began rummaging through in his bag for something, finally pulling out a quill and some ink. “I think some redistricting is in order. It’s clearly been too long since we updated our territories anyway. Smuggling, what if you let Central have the dock they’ve occupied in exchange for a few blocks?”
“No! We need all our territory! The smugglers just let perfectly good areas go to rot when they don’t do anythin’ with them,” Fox retorted.
“Oh, and you’re doing something with our dock, are you?” The smuggler spat.
“Things are here at the moment, right?” The man in charge of the meeting poked at a few spots on the map. “We just need to move the line a little. Alright, why don’t we draw the line at Beckett avenue?”
Were they really doing this? Why did they bother asking him to be a mediator if they were just going to ignore him? He hoped the polite goblin would at least be on his side, but she was ready to jump in at any second.
“Fine! They’re not getting anything past Rindir’s place, though!” Fox blurted.
The smuggler’s tail swished in undisguised irritation. “Rindir’s?! That doesn’t make any sense, you stingy dog! We can start with going up to the crossing, even though you owe us more!”
“He’s our most profitable stop! I’m not giving you a damn thing! Why don’t you just take the sewer under Beckett if you like stinkin’ like piss so much?”
“Eat shit, that’s been ours since the beginnin’!” The goblin shouted. “I ain’t givin’ up a damn dirty inch to either of ya!”
Rowan was impressed. It usually took at least twenty minutes for negotiations to break down this badly when all the parties were willing to come to the table. The sponsor’s representative was desperately trying to get Fox and the horse’s attention to avoid a fight, but they didn’t seem to be interested in listening.
Tap. Taptap. Oh good. He was getting so nervous that he started that stupid tapping habit again. Why did it have to be him doing this? If they wanted someone to just listen to them fight, they could’ve picked literally anyone else. Ah, now the goblin looked like she was planning on punching the back of the smuggler’s knee to bring her down. It was headache-inducing.
“Everyone, we- ah- I-” He kept trying to get a word in, but they were getting in the thick of it with no end in sight. With his own frustration building, Rowan attempted to tap a little louder to get their attention. Maybe he could turn it into a way to let them know how rude they were being and that he was getting impatient. He needed to play the brash, strong character they thought he was, after all.
Rowan watched himself with abject horror as he brought his fist down and pounded the table hard enough for a mug to bounce off, clatter on the floor and roll away.
The clamour of the argument came to a screeching halt and all eyes snapped to him. Fox’s ears shot straight up and her eyes went as wide as a cornered animal. She started sputtering out an apology but went quiet when he stood up.
“If I may make… a suggestion.” He didn’t intend to make a scene, but everyone was listening now and that was a step in the right direction. “It sounds like instead of just redrawing district lines in hopes of solving the problem, you all need to lay out what it is you want out of the negotiations.” He turned his head towards the smuggler. “Let’s start with you.”
The horse girl pressed her fingers together thoughtfully, then raised her head. “Well… we smuggle.”
“And?” Rowan came off a little harsher than he meant to and the smuggler flattened her ears defensively at his tone.
“Well… We need the docks to do our business out of. Er, sir.”
Rowan was getting ‘sir’ a lot lately. He idly flicked through the prayer beads on his belt to distract from the unwanted thoughts on the subject. Now wasn’t the time to think about Arlene whispering into his ear and especially not about what she was doing at the time. “We can work with that. What are you getting out of the tunnels and slums?”
“Product. We need to move goods from the docks across town, so when the tunnels filled up with goblins, we needed somewhere to keep things before we moved them on. Helps that some buyers are in the area, too.”
“I see. How about you, Ms. Goblin?”
She let out a sigh that Rowan didn’t realise she was holding in. “Finally! See, all’s we needs is some space for our refugees away from the nasty stuff. Oh! Some places to slip in and out of there safe-like would be great.”
“That’s why your people are in the smuggler’s tunnels?”
“Yeah. Only place we could find that had extra space an’ wasn’t guarded to shit.”
That was apparently too much for the smuggler to stay quiet about. “You were trying to break into our sewer warehouses! Of course we’re going to keep your little thieves away from expensive goods.”
“Ey! That ain’t the same! We’re just lookin’ for-”
“Please ladies. We’re getting somewhere, don’t fight now,” Rowan interrupted. “The rest of the sewers don’t have room to house any number of goblins?”
The goblin idly scratched the table with her thumbnail. “Well, the tunnels is pretty narrow. There’s mildew down there an’ we can’t do much more n’ pass through. Everywhere else underground’s full.”
“Mold? You don’t clean your sewers?” Rowan glanced at the other two ladies.
“The sewers have been... neglected for a few centuries now.” The smuggler deflated. “Not that my girls would cooperate with any sanitation workers poking their heads around down there. They might stumble across something they aren’t supposed to.”
“Aaaah.” Rowan rubbed his temple. It was good to know that even toilets weren’t safe if he made the wrong move here. “Well, if the goblins can’t be in the sewers, where can they go?”
“Yeah!” The goblin added. “We gotsta go somewhere!”
The smuggler turned up her nose. “I hear Central has quite a few warehouses they don’t use above ground. Maybe they can set up shop there.”
“And do what?” Fox threw her hands up. “We could be using that space for all you know! Even if we aren’t, what’s stopping them from getting bored and causing trouble for us and our clients?”
“We’d never-” The goblin stopped as the rest of the sentence died in her throat. “Ehh…”
“If they’re going to stay there, couldn’t you put them to work?” Rowan suggested.
“I mean, how many goblins are coming in, roughly?” Fox looked over to the goblin.
“Bout a hundred, methinks. W-we really don’t need that much space! We can even make one warehouse work if that’s what ya got. I’ll hang ‘em myself if they fuck with any of your stuff.”
Fox idly scratched her ear as she thought. “Actually… Maybe there is something you can do.”
The goblin leaned in. “I’m listenin’.”
“We got businesses in our territory that haven’t coughed up protection money for a while. I’m thinkin’ if they have a goblin problem to worry about, maybe they’ll be willin’ to come crawling back.”
“So you want enforcers?” The goblin grinned.
“Oh, nah, nah. I’m just sayin’ that if a gang of goblins started pesterin’ a few businesses that don’t have my professional security gals lookin’ out for ‘em, they might want to beef up security.”
Crime was absolutely a part of life. Rowan wouldn’t be able to get rid of it, even if he was the monarch. There were even criminals in Gisland that the government asked him to negotiate with. Even taking all that into account, it still felt strange to be giving a gang ideas. “Good. I’ll let you two settle things on your own. How about you, Fox?”
“Well, I wanna keep all our territory in the slums, but I don’t have room for more’n half of the goblins unless I can keep ‘em at the docks.”
“We need those,” Smuggling cut in. “And need I remind you that we’re the only sanctioned criminal organisation here? I’m within my rights to complain to the Queen.”
Her little statement soured the mood of the negotiating table so quickly that Rowan could have confused her for Greenglass. The rest of the representatives were already looking away in discomfort at the mention of Rhiannon, so he needed to get this back on track before it all fell apart.
“It seems to me,” Rowan began, “that you and Central would be happy to give back each other’s territory as long as the borders went back to how they used to be, correct?”
“I’m of the opinion that they owe us extra for the lost revenue we would have made at those docks.”
She certainly knew how to tug the right strings to anger her fellow criminals. Whether that was a good idea came into question when Fox rose to her feet and started wagging a finger in Smuggling’s face.
“We owe you? You pushed into our territory first!”
The horse woman stood to meet her. “My girls took up unused space, but you cut into business!”
That was enough for Rowan. They were clenching their fists like they were on the verge of coming to blows and his patience had run completely dry. “Sit.”
Fox hesitantly took her seat but frowned in displeasure. On the other hand, Smuggling was appalled.
“Excuse me? I haven’t had someone be so rude to me in my life! You’re only here as a moderator, so why don’t you just-!”
“Take your seat, please.” Rowan wordlessly glared as hard as he dared until she lost her composure and did as he asked. “The four of you are fighting like a pack of schoolboys, so I’d like to remind you that you’re all grown women.”
He was met with silence, but nobody challenged him. Good.
“I think it’s best for all of you if any reparations are done in goods or services so there’s no territory complaints later down the line. Does that sound acceptable to both of you?”
They both nodded. Rowan hoped that the ‘schoolboys’ comment would make them act more mature, but now he was being treated like the schoolmaster instead. Working this hard as a moderator melted his frustration into exhaustion. Fine. He would finish this for them.
“You two can work that out later, then. Ms. Goblin, am I correct in assuming that your people are looking for work?”
“Yeah. We’re barely scrapin’ by. Why?”
“Maybe you could set aside some of your trustworthy people to help Smuggling with a few jobs, then. Generate some goodwill so you’re not resented for sharing a space.”
“If, uh…” She peeked nervously at Smuggling. “If she’s alright with that.”
“I’m not going to be using you as anything more than heavily-monitored dockworkers, you know.”
“No, that’s gr-! Good. We’re all good with that. Pay our way, y’know?” The goblin did a poor job of concealing her excitement as she kicked her feet.
“And was there anything you were looking to discuss…?” Rowan spared a glance toward the hooded man at the head of the table in the hope that he would get something more than silence or a terse answer.
“Actually, I think you wrapped this up handily. I can see why you have friends in such high places.”
“Well, thank you. I did have something to ask, now that we’re wrapped up.”
“Oh? And what would that be?”
“Do you know if you’ve kidnapped a man by the name of Balderic?”
He rubbed his chin. “Hmm. The name seems familiar, but you’d have to ask my... boss on that one.”
“Is she busy?”
“Since you helped us out with this, I’m sure she can make time for you. Come with me.”
The confidence Rowan built up during the meeting waned as he was led further and further away from the territory he knew the gangs occupied. Once they crossed a bridge and entered the wealthy district near the Institute, he felt hopelessly out of his depth. He was dealing with a high-class organisation. If that was the case, being able to bring a group of criminals to the negotiating table would be easy if they were pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Out of the many towering guildhalls and villas in the area, the building they approached was by far the most opulent. The side facing the street was built like a replica of the palace at a smaller scale, with tall towers jutting up into the sky frequently enough that they nearly formed a facade all on their own. All the banded masonry and delicate detail very nearly disguised that the building was built like a fortress. There was even a conspicuously armed archer stationed above a large alabaster panel that announced the building as:
THE HONOURABLE GUILD OF PAPERERS AND STATIONERS
OF DUN PEAK
BY WARRANT OF H.M. RHIANNON VI
The trend of prominent security continued on the inside of the building as well. There were guards at every intersection and imposing steel doors contrasted jarringly against the plush green carpeting and marble statuary that decorated the building. They were even stopped and searched for weapons before they were allowed to climb the stairs to an important-looking tower. When they reached the door that read ‘GUILDMISTRESS’, his hooded companion motioned him inside and shut the door behind him.
The chief paperer’s office was certainly no disappointment compared to the rest of the guild hall. Every candlestick was gilt, every fabric coated with complex geometric prints and the single section of wall that wasn’t bedecked with art and carvings was covered in wallpaper the likes of which he’d never seen. It was a verdant green, though it was interrupted by lines of knotwork in- yes, that was gold leaf. If anyone was going to cover their walls in rare, expensive paper, it would be the leader of the guild that guarded the secret of how to make it, he supposed.
There was plenty he recognised from researching the history of artwork for his own collection as well. Dwarven sconces in brass, paintings from more than one renowned master, a carpet in a style that had to be from the western desert of Sicorath... His eyes were sucked in when he noticed a rare piece of Girian elf statuary. He never saw one in person, but based on descriptions alone, he could tell what it was. The little piece of exotic wood was grown into shape without a single tool mark on it. Even among the pieces he knew of, this was especially impressive, given that it was formed into the shape of an entire sailing sh-
Rowan strangled a scream of surprise when a woman sitting behind the broad, impressive desk in the centre of the room cleared her throat.
She was unassuming at first glance. Loose brown hair tied into a ponytail rested over her shoulder, a medium-olive complexion that was hard to place and… he finished his once-over and found no remarkable features besides a dress that matched the colour of the walls. Well, humans were far from unheard of. Apparently magical women of all stripes from across the known world would travel to Dunmuir for education or to be among their fellows, even from Gisland now and then.
There was nothing visible that warned him of any danger, but there was something about the intensity of her aura. This was the woman who wrote the letter, Rowan knew it. A common criminal wouldn’t have been able to craft a letter to threaten him out of less than ten words in flawless handwriting.
He choked down enough of his panic to give an answer in a steady voice. “Ah, pardon me. I was just admiring your statue there.”
“Very perceptive of you, Mr. Rowan.” The woman had an amicable tone, but spoke in a strange accent that he couldn’t place. “Feel free to sit.”
The chair he sat in across from the woman’s desk was almost offensively soft and sucked him in so much he doubted he would be able to stand easily, let alone flee if he needed to. “Thank you very much. I’m here about a gentleman I’ve heard you’re taking care of, miss…?”
“Very polite of you. My name is Cavallari.” She let the silence hang dramatically before ignoring his question. “I understand you’ve gone out of your way to provide a little service to our family here in Dun Peak.”
Now this was what Rowan had trained most of his life for. He let his mind empty and leaned back to give her the impression of professional confidence. She was still a threatening presence, but he was here as a reward. “It was nothing, really. Your representative did most of the heavy lifting. I just guided the conversation, even if I wasn’t sure what you were trying to accomplish.”
Cavallari tapped her fingers against her desk as she pondered his meaning. “Your humility is appreciated. We’ve been trying to push the gangs that don’t play by our rules out of the city, but I’m sure you saw the girls.”
“We just had to find what each of them needed.” Despite the fact that they nearly came to blows, they really were more cooperative than Rowan could have hoped for career criminals.
“...I’m starting to understand the Queen’s decision to give you work.” She stared him down and tapped her fingers together. “My guild has needs too, as I’m sure you know.”
“Certainly. You’re a successful business.” He kept his options open with a monsterous understatement. Their guild was the only alternative to vellum or slabs of wood if you wanted a writing medium, and even smuggled into Gisland at huge markups, their paper was still cheaper than the other options.
“You could say that.” There was a half-beat of hesitation there that hinted she didn’t believe they were yet. “We need to keep our secrets like any guild, of course. People who try to leave our family are easy enough to deal with, but our problem is stability and security now that the Queen’s war is over.”
“Sorry,” he apologised, still thinking about what ‘deal with’ meant.
“I’m happy, Mr. Rowan. I am. My family is safer than it ever has been, and I may see the day where we do more business than we ever have. But,” she clenched her jaw, “I’ve developed a problem with gang wars. Some criminals are desperate or stupid enough to not respect my guild’s secrets, and that’s without talking about hassling protected places, ruining the balance in the city...”
“...So you control the city by splitting it up between the ones that listen to you?”
“I’m glad you understand. You’ll see why I had to show your young man a little hospitality when he started trying to gather influence for your gang.”
‘His gang’? Rowan’s reputation was getting out of control now. First he was a hero and now he was a man who ran a gang and could beat ogres within an inch of their lives. He started tapping his lap idly. Tap. Taptap.
Clearly this was some government-sponsored thing. Couldn’t Adalard at least have given him some idea of what they were trying to do? He was going to trip over his own tongue at this rate and given present company, having it cut out wasn’t out of the question. Right. He would go neutral and hope that worked. “It wasn’t the intention to move in on any territory, if that means anything. I can apologise personally if our agent stepped on any toes.”
The woman rubbed her chin in thought for a handful of seconds that felt like a lifetime with how much rested on her decision. “You’re an interesting man, Mr. Rowan. I wouldn’t have believed you the night we picked up your man, but with tonight considered and with the research I did into how you’ve been running things in the palace, I’m impressed. I think I’d like to develop a working relationship with your group.”
“I’m a believer in avoiding wars, as you might guess. I’d love to,” he answered, hoping she wouldn’t notice his compulsive tapping or sweaty palms. “Especially since we both know something inconvenient about each other now, what with our enterprises on the side.”
A conspiratorial grin crossed Cavallari’s face and she stood to shake his hand. “Clever. I’ll have your man brought up for you on the way out.”
She had a firm handshake indeed, but Rowan matched her intensity with a smile. “Thank you. Anything else before I head home?”
“I don’t want any more clashes, so I’m willing to offer you our no-man’s land on main street and near the palace. It’s too hard to do business there for us, but for you…”
The sheer whimsy of the situation struck him. He was a gang boss with turf now, even if he had no gang to speak of. “I’m sure I’ll work something out. It’s been a pleasure working with you, Ms. Cavallari.”
Rowan needed to linger in the building a little longer before Balderic was dragged out to him. The man fit almost too well into his image of a spy. Small, sunken eyes and a dark mane of messy hair gave him the air of a swarm of rats stacked into a coarse robe. Of course, Rowan would never say something that rude to the poor wretch in front of him. He wasn’t missing any body parts to Rowan’s relief, but Balderic did look a little worse for wear. There were a few cuts and bruises on the exposed parts of his skin and he looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
“I’ll take him, thank you.” Rowan supported the man to the best of his ability. “Are you alright, Balderic?”
His reply was raspy. “Do you… do you know how much papercuts hurt?”