Foreign Affairs: Chapter 5
“Morning, Ms. Greenglass.”
She murmured what could generously be called a response and kept looking over her part of the war documents. Thus far, he hardly had time to tackle his half. Things were starting to slow down in the ministry, so maybe today he would… oh. He would still be busy until the end of next month if the state of his desk was any indication. There were a few letters in his inbox by the door, but on top of that was a massive pile of work on his desk and a box with more on the ground.
The pile of letters felt intimidating after his adventure with Ms. Cavallari last month, so he decided to start with the loose sheets first. Ah, the first one seemed important, what with its fancy knotwork motif and the weight of the paper. It was even addressed directly to him, with a swirling ‘Dunmuir Ministry of Diplomacy, Minister Rowan of Waterton’ artfully woven into the knotwork on top. The first page being blank was an odd choice, given the amount of white space available, but alright. He set it aside and moved on to the next.
It was identical to the first page. It looked like some sort of block print, so maybe this was an extra they left in for some reason. Alright. The next was the same and so was the one after that. This was a suspicious amount of effort for a prank. He flicked through sheet after identical sheet, finding that the crate on the floor was full of the strange blank pages as well.
“Mmn?” She was half-listening at best.
“Do you know what these are? They’ve got my name on them, but they’re all blank.”
“They were delivered this morning with a letter.”
“Oh. Who from?”
“No idea. I’m busy, Temporary Minister.”
The letters in the tray were easy enough to get through, at least. Tara’s report on her schedule, some unusual movements for funds in the Institute that she would follow up on, another formal complaint in the apple export saga… The next seal he recognised from the Paperer’s Guild building. To his relief, it was emblazoned on a friendly green wax rather than the sombre black they used in his brief dealings with criminals.
As I would like to foster our professional relationship going forward, I’d like you to consider the attached crate of personalised stationery as the guild’s gift to you. If you’d like to purchase more, we’ve kept the plate on file and can print on demand.
Looking forward to a long and profitable relationship,
Guildmistress L.R.F. Cavallari
Dunmuir Guild of Paperers
Oh. Wow. Now that he examined it closer, the work on his stationery was impressive. There wasn’t a smudge or smeared line anywhere in sight and the border became more complex the longer you looked at it. She wasn’t even charging him for all this work?
When Greenglass spoke up, he nearly jumped out of his seat. He didn’t anticipate her having any interest in talking with him more than necessary.
“What did it say?”
“Ah, it was from the Paperers. These are all just stationery they sent me as a gift, apparently. They’re quite impressive, did you see?”
The elf’s face soured into a sneer and the paper crinkled loudly in her grip. “They’re wonderful. The guild’s prices are so affordable that anyone could get something like that, especially a woman of my means.”
“Oh, of course. You know how these things are, they’re probably just trying to get me to buy more, right?”
She raised her work higher to hide her face from him. He wasn’t expecting jealousy from Greenglass, so Rowan opened the other letter before he put her in a worse mood.
Ms. Merrywing requested an audience with me over a small concern regarding a rogue mage and requested some assistance, given her lack of staff. I was impressed with your handling of the issue with Blackrock mine and the Reid sisters, so I’d like you present for the meeting. It’s over breakfast, so I’ll see you at nine in the dining room.
Then it was a stroke of luck that he came straight to the office and didn’t go for breakfast yet. He didn’t want the Queen holding another missed meeting over his head.
“It looks like I have a meeting this morning. Would you mind taking care of things here while I’m gone?”
“I take care of things while you’re here as well.”
“I… I suppose so. Oh, do you know what time it is? I’m supposed to be there by nine.”
“About nine.” She did not check her watch.
“Oh, well. I’ll be on my way then, I wouldn’t want to be late.”
Rowan was used to the treatment by now. He was starting to catch his stride when it came to the paperwork he needed to bumble his way through, but Greenglass still demanded to inspect everything he did or just took over. There wasn’t any aggression per se, but she was terse and made no attempt to conceal her displeasure that he was technically in charge.
“Good morning, Rowan.”
He froze in place when he felt a hand on his shoulder, only halfway to the dining room. It was Rhiannon. It didn’t surprise him that she managed to still look elegant in what amounted to little more than a silk robe and a delicately-embroidered pair of slippers.
“Oh. Good morning, Your Majesty.” Dark circles ringed her eyes and her long, silky hair was as messy as a seagull’s nest. “Early morning?”
“A late night. It took me a while to convince them, but I had a pair of sisters join me last night and we only managed to get to sleep around sunrise.” The Queen stifled a yawn in her mouth with a closed fist. “Vixens, both of them. Any luck yourself? I’m still expecting that report, you know.” As tired as she was, her eyes still twinkled with simmering, lustful mischievousness.
Rowan didn’t dare ask if she meant vixen in the literal or metaphorical sense. “Er... not yet. Time constraints, you know.”
She waved her hand dismissively and began shuffling toward the dining room. “Fair enough. I hope you don’t mind a heavy breakfast, I’m counting on it to get through the day.”
The hall was a bit less empty than it had been the first time Rowan visited. There was still fairly little in the room, but now a much larger table occupied the centre, still in the process of being set. There were heaping bowls of fresh cut vegetables and fruit at one end of the table as well as three full loaves of bread so far. A maid was perfecting the setting when they entered and she jumped with an anxious fright. He did not recognize the girl, but she sported a bulky, scaled tail and sharp teeth she revealed when she flashed her too-wide grin. Rowan stifled a gulp with a cough.
Rhiannon paused mid-stride. “Feeling alright, Rowan?”
“Sorry, yes. Just lost in thought briefly.”
The Queen eyed him queerly, but yielded when an entire roast pig was brought out to the dining hall. The flash of hunger in her eyes smothered whatever follow-up question she was formulating.
“That’s the ticket,” she cheered under her breath. “Ahem. Rowan, sit on my left, won’t you? I don’t think I can wait for Ms. Merrywing.”
The maids brought tea first, an odd but fresh smell wafting from the pot.
“Even my favourite tea. Compliment Finian on his foresight, won’t you dear?” Rhiannon was already ahead of Rowan, not speaking again until she drained her teacup in a single long swig. “Rosehip, spruce tip and nettle, if you’d care for some, Rowan.”
“I suppose I could give it a try,” he ventured, leaning to one side so the unsettling maid could fill his cup more easily. “...Is Arlene busy this morning?”
The innocent tone combined with the mischievous smile told him all he needed to know. He pulled his feet back so he at least avoided kicking the poor girl under the table.
After a beat, Rhiannon wheezed in laughter, covering her mouth and turning away. “Aaah. You’re too easy to read, Rowan. I’m letting her sleep, though I’ll get an earful about going on without her.”
“O-oh. Aha. You did catch me out with that one, Your Majesty.”
Rhiannon gestured at a few things with her fork as she regained her composure. The maid was familiar enough with the chain of events that she wasted no time bringing the Queen portions of whichever dishes she pointed at. Once Rhiannon was finished, Rowan hesitantly followed suit and pointed at some berries near the middle of the table. The maid faithfully brought the bowl over, then scraped a few onto his plate.
“Thank you,” he said as he stabbed through the juicy fruit. The girl’s unsettling smile hovered over him. She must be waiting for him to point out something else. “A bit of the hog please. It smells great.”
The Queen was not talkative, which was fine by him. She busied herself deciding what and how much she wanted, exploring the spread and testing different condiments on them. On the other hand, Rowan felt a bit guilty about starting without Tara and ate as slowly as he could without seeming rude.
It took a few minutes longer for the fairy to arrive, flitting through the door and looking more energetic than usual.
“Sorry Your Majesty, one of the annexes caught fire and I ended up directin’ the water mages.”
“Mmm. ‘Oo waff it?” Rhiannon asked, her mouth still full with a particularly large chunk of pork.
“...Dr. Halske testin’ her box again.”
The Queen gulped down her bite and gestured to the chair on her right. “Bless her. Breakfast?”
“Already eaten.” Tara glided down to the table and folded the napkin at her place into an impromptu chair.
“I’m more than halfway starved, so forgive me if I don’t speak much.”
“Not a problem, Your Majesty. Have you read the letter I sent you?”
“Mhmm.” Rhiannon plucked the apple out of the pig’s mouth and took a bite.
“Right. Well, from the Institute’s perspective, havin’ a rogue mage is the main problem. Though I’m sure you can understand the problem that Agriculture’s having with the potential quality of products.”
“Fha local counteff-” She swallowed in a hurry, “The local countess sent a letter of protest as well. Something about taxation, apparently.”
The fairy scratched her chin. “Might be a problem if other countries find out we aren’t controlling our witches, but I’d ask Diplomacy’s opinion on that.”
Rowan glanced up at the remark and found both womens’ eyes on him. “I don’t know the whole situation, but if an independent witch was causing trouble…” He stared at the ceiling in thought for a moment. If he still officially worked for Gisland and found out a magician was out terrorising the countryside and stirring up problems even a countess couldn’t deal with… “I think even a junior diplomat could do something with that. Calling your government into question and so on.”
Rhiannon’s mouth curled into a smirk that got the message across long before the words left her mouth. “Well, it sounds like my Minister of Magic is going to need some help from my executive problem-solver, then.”
Carriage rides were long and exhausting, he told himself. There was no harm in taking the fast way, since Tara offered. How Rowan managed to convince himself that he would be fine on his second ever broom ride evaded him, especially when he was flying long-distance this time. He was glad that he was wearing a Dunmuir-style robe to stave off the cold of the high-altitude air, but he now appreciated the witches’ wide-brimmed hats all the more now. Spending a few hours above the clouds to cross some mountains gave him an annoying, itchy sunburn on his face from the merciless sun at that altitude.
...He had never seen a cloud from above before. Like most children, a young Rowan imagined standing on top of them, jumping from crest to rolling crest in a sort of game. It would be deflating if he wasn’t preoccupied with how trying to step onto the wispy fog they passed over would lead him plummeting into the void. He took some solace in the beauty of the rolling fields and mountains that stretched out before them. When he didn’t think about how far they were below them or that perverse call from his subconscious to consider what it would be like to just fall, it was practically enjoyable.
Tara was quite thoughtful as well. Every few hours, she would land so they could rest and stretch their legs on solid ground. Apparently, this little scheme was how Dunmuir’s army of witches could cover so much ground in a day, though they were limited by their weakest magician when they travelled like this. The little fairy seemed much more comfortable than he did, piloting the broom from a lantern-like box hanging from the end. When they touched down for another rest at the edge of a field, she walked out of her little enclosure and stretched out.
“How’re you-” Tara laughed every time he got off the broom with wobbly legs and this time was no exception. “Still, eh?”
Rowan shakily laughed at himself in embarrassment. “A-are we close?”
“It’s just down the road this way, about half a league. Shouldn’t take but a few minutes.”
“...Could we walk?”
“So long as ya carry me n’ the broom. This woulda taken most witches two days.”
Tara was pleased with a spot on his shoulder, kicking her feet as they walked down the idyllic country road. The grain waved in the breeze like the surface of the sea and the distant farmers with their animals looked like frolicking whales, occasionally poking their heads up above the crops before diving back down. It would have been magnificent if it weren’t for the smell. Manure was an unavoidable stench on farms, but this smelt worse. It was hard to place, but he could pick out whiffs of individual scents. Rotten eggs, blood, mold and the sharp reek of something alchemical.
After a few minutes of walking, Rowan reacquired his land legs and decided to get a better idea of the situation before they met their rogue mage. “So who is this, exactly?”
“Dr. Stowell? She’s- well, she was with the necromancy department. Could’ve even had the run of the place, but she’s-”
“A- sorry, a necromancer?”
“Doctor of necromancy, yes. Her Master’s was in healin’ and restoration with a minor in necromancy, but that’s the usual pipeline. The main problem on my side’s that the Institute licences dangerous magicians to keep an eye on them and make sure their knowledge doesn’t leave the country. But, well…” Tara gestured broadly at the fields around them. “She’s kind of doin’ her own thing here.”
“You tolerate necromancy?”
She took a second to formulate her response. “It’s not all dark towers an’ cacklin’ villains, y’know. Hell, half the department wants to rename it ‘Post-Mortem Communications’ since that’s all they do.”
It was hard to just write this off as just another cultural difference. Polygamy and necromancy were on two completely different moral levels, though there was a period in his childhood where Rowan assumed they were both kinds of magic based on how they sounded.
“If it makes ya feel any better, we’re checkin’ up on her because she’s a necromancer. There’s laws against raisin’ the dead without consent.”
“I can see why the Countess has problems with this.”
“I get you’re uncomfortable. Would ya bring me over to one of them farmers?”
There was a small group pulling plants off of a cart and putting them into the rocky ground, so Rowan headed toward them. Tara waved one of the farmers down and the figure staggered toward them. When he raised his eyes to meet theirs, Rowan was horrified at what he saw.
It was a man, once. The skin hung loosely over its face, so deathly pale that it emphasised the eyes. Lord, the eyes. It felt like they had no pupils, glowing a sickly cyan as the thing stared up at them. Every fibre of Rowan’s body tensed when the zombie let out a hoarse, hollow groan.
Another jerked its head up at the sound and jogged over, shattering Rowan’s prayer that they couldn’t move at more than a shamble.
“Evenin’,” Tara chirped.
“Sssorry about Arthur, madam,” the second zombie rasped. “He has not learned to ssspeak yet.”
“Oh, ‘s no problem. We’re just in from Dun Peak, lookin’ for Stowell.”
“Ssshe ssshould be in her workshop.” Arthur the zombie helpfully raised a finger in the direction of a ramshackle shed on the edge of one of the larger fields.
“Well, thank ya, gents. We’ll leave you to your work now.”
There was a storm of thoughts in Rowan’s mind as he walked toward the shed. They could run? They smelt awful. How could they talk? Why did Tara treat this as if it was commonplace? How could they understand things and not know how to speak? Was ‘Arthur’ its name when it was alive, or-?
“They’re… uh… can… can talk?” An errant question spilled out of his mouth unbidden and incomplete.
“‘Course. They’re new people when they get stood back up, but they learn.”
The professional half of his brain mulled over the information before spitting out a triaged list of questions to the other half that was still reeling from the zombie. “They’re sentient?”
“Well, they need healers or necromancers to take care of ‘em. Other than that, they’re just like you or me, aye.”
That changed things considerably. Presumably. He was horrified, but it helped to know that they were kind of like people. It was a hop, skip and a flying leap further than knowing that some people happened to have wings or animal ears, but if the horrifying monsters could understand him, they felt more… manageable.
They heard a cackling laugh from the shed before they even reached the door. Even if zombies were under mental review, Rowan had his reservations about the kind of people who would raise them from the dead.
It didn’t help that the cackling had turned to cries of: “It’s alive! I’ve done it! NYAHAHAHA! RIIIIIIISE!”
The first thing he noticed as he poked his head in was an armoured woman. Her tabard was covered in blood and torn, though still recognisable enough that he could tell she was part of Gisland’s Order of the Holy Scale. Or was in life, at least. If the luminescent, otherworldly eyes didn’t give her nature away, the missing chunk of shoulder, exposed bone, congealed blood, and arrows still embedded in her body like a pincushion certainly did. She turned her head in an unnerving, jerking manner toward Rowan and Tara. Rowan nervously rubbed his prayer beads as he tried to remind himself that she was a person. Her blank eyes betrayed nothing of her emotions or even whether she saw anything beside the door behind them.
The other woman in the room sat on her knees in front of a flowerbed. The last of her menacing cackling trickled out as she prodded a rosebush with… Rowan couldn’t tell whether it was a gardening tool, surgical device or a wand. The tiny skull on the end with the drill seemed to just be a decoration, but the other end was definitely meant to be a handle and not a plant-poker.
“Nyha. Ha. Aha. Hm?” She whipped her head around and the assortment of tools on her belt clattered like a dozen rusty bells. The blood-stained black robes that Rowan imagined all necromancers wore were suspiciously absent and the magician before him resembled a butcher more than anything else. A leather apron hung over the front of her body, the only protection her greasy brown shirt had from the variety of saws, knives and other mysterious instruments hooked onto her belt without sheaths. The rest of the grim costume was topped off by a robe that… Well, it didn’t have the jaunty flair he was used to from the other witches in his life. The drape of the brown fabric was strange, it was a little too tightly fit and the braid on the trim was so filthy he could hardly make out the military insignia. The whole sordid affair was topped by an oddly-shaped hood with a pair of completely-enclosed pockets for her feline ears more fit for a human child’s costume.
Tara hopped off Rowan’s shoulder and flitted towards her. “I’m here from the Institute. I believe I sent you a letter?”
“Ah!” The catwoman exclaimed, “Merrywing, wasn’t it? Doctor, or…?”
“Oh. OH. You poor woman. Were you working on anything important?”
“You were the Merrywing paper? Your career was going places!”
Tara nodded glumly. “Well, I’m glad you’ve heard of me, at least. Maybe I can get back to it in fifty years or so. Anyway, what are you doing here?”
“Right. Sorry, this is just a little necromancy project I’ve been working on with plants,” she said, wiping her dirt-covered hands on her apron and nudging the armoured zombie who was watching over her. “I guess you could say it rose from the dead, huh? Nyaha! ...Anyway, I didn’t end up reading the letter. What are you here for?”
“Well, you’ve let your licence with the Institute expire, primarily. We’re also goin’ to need reports on your operation.”
There was no sense interrupting her when this was a job from her department, but Rowan hoped she remembered to mention the taxes as well. He didn’t want to be the bearer of news that bad when the woman was already going to have piles of work heaped onto her plate.
“Oh, that’s fine.” The necromancer rose to her feet and brushed the dirt off her knees. “I’ll get on it as soon as I can, so thank you for reminding me.”
“I hope y’know we can’t just take you at your word, doctor. Minister Rowan and I are gonna have to run an inspection.”
Stowell’s face dropped into a grimace at the prospect. “Do we have to? I’m a few weeks behind on-”
“Look, I wanna play nice. You know what happens to necromancers who don’t play by the rules.”
“Could we… keep it brief?”
“That’s fine.” Tara produced a tiny set of wax tablets and made a note with a stylus that looked like it began its life as a sewing needle. “You said you were workin’ with plants?”
“Mostly, yes. There’s a few extra little projects, but that’s the main thrust of my research. I’ve been able to raise them from the dead with a few little tweaks to the standard formulae.”
“No reactions out of the ordinary?”
“You’re acting like I’m trying to find out if I can make a sentient plant, Minister!”
The fairy studiously noted down the bead of sweat that formed on Stowell’s forehead. “Answer the question please, Doctor.”
“Well, the crops won’t die any more, that’s all. Don’t need water or sunlight as long as I can heal them daily like the other zombies.”
“That’s… quite a breakthrough.” The statement got a triple underline.
Stowell beamed. “That’s just the beginning! Almost none of this land is traditionally arable, but I’ve been able to keep several acres of crops alive.”
Tara’s notes reached a fever pitch, though she didn’t let anything show on her face. “Mhm. And these crops are safe for consumption?”
“A friend came by and didn’t find anything with the Racyte incantation. I’ve only eaten what I’ve grown here since then.” She stood with her hands on her hips, her cat tail waving in calm pride.
“Would ya mind showin’ us?”
Rowan was almost glad he couldn’t follow the magical conversation between Tara and Stowell. It gave him time to think. The tax discussion could wait until after they won the Doctor’s trust, but the main issue was the zombies. They were sentient, but how much? Should they be considered legal persons? Agh, would that even matter on the international stage? How many new ones was she making?
As they toured their fourth field, Stowell paused briefly to wave at a group of zombies at work. That was a good enough excuse to start voicing his concerns.
“So... Doctor. What duties are the zombies involved in? I notice you have quite a few.” It was difficult to avoid an accusatory tone when he was dealing with a real-life necromancer, but he bit his tongue as best he could.
“Oh, that depends. I’m mostly just having them put the plants into the ground and handle harvests. Saves me the time and expertise, really.”
“I see.” He glanced at the armoured nun with a raised eyebrow. “And the others?”
Stowell followed his gaze and looked behind the zombie before she realised what he was implying. “Oh, Thidela? She’s nothing but a bodyguard. Not much use as anything else, are y-gh!”
Her ‘bodyguard’ mechanically caught the playful smack the catwoman aimed at her. Stowell only had a second to react before her wrist was twisted backwards and she was brought to her knees.
“A-a-aaah…! Thid… D-don’t worry, compghh… completely normal…! She’s a little, ha- she’s just-” Stowell fumbled with the mess of tools hanging off her belt and tapped the zombie’s elbow with a wooden mallet. Thidela’s arm jerked from the stimulus and the Doctor slipped away before she was grabbed again. “She’s… guh… she’s just a bit willful. A fascinating case study, actually. Completely different from the other zombies. She’s even got some memories!”
“She what?” Tara’s eyes flew open as her concern morphed into shock.
“Well, she can tell me her name, at least. Oh, absolutely hates me as well! Very exciting.”
“That doesn’t sound like a bodyguard, Dr. Stowell,” Rowan countered. “If you have a band of violent undead-”
“No, no! No. Aha. She protects me from serious bodily harm. She just won’t talk to me or let me deal with…” she gestured to Thidela’s body. She was pierced with so many arrows and other pieces of battle detritus that she looked as if she was dressed as a pincushion. “That. Not a fan of touching at all, actually.”
“Why haven’t you reported this to the Institute? Are there more who remember?” Tara impatiently tapped her stylus against the edge of the wax tablet.
“Well, er… I don’t think so? I’m not sure. Busy with upkeep, I’m sure you know. I’ll get around to it, but the reports are half the reason I left. Ha.”
“You’re going to have to write one on this. I don’t have to tell you that this isn’t something that just happens.”
Rowan cleared his throat. “I’m not well-versed with magic, so would you fill me in? The undead are different people when they rise?”
Tara answered first. “Essentially. You use the body as a vessel for a new soul. Heard there’s other ways of doin’ it in other places, but that’s what ours are like. They’re normally like newborns and you’ve gotta teach ‘em from square one.”
“So you’ve been teaching them on top of the rest of this, Doctor?”
“Er…” Stowell was suddenly very keen on seeing what was happening in an empty field that was in a direction where she didn’t have to meet Rowan’s eye. “Yes, I have to, don’t I?”
“I hope you aren’t lying by omission. If every one of them is sentient, this could be construed as child abandonment.”
“No, no, no! I have been! I used to be able to sit down for a class once a week, but it’s more like two hours a month now that I have so many more!”
“You’re making more?” Why did the Queen select Rowan for this? Why was necromancy even allowed? He didn’t have a violent bone in his body, but necromancer serial killers were exactly the kind of thing scary folk tales were made of. Ones that ended with an entire town up in arms.
“I wouldn’t make more on purpose! I have too much to take care of already and I would have to spend months getting legal permission!” Stowell whined. “A colleague just happened to die near the end of the war so I took in her orphaned zombies.”
“You seem awfully nonchalant about this.” To say that Rowan was still suspicious would be a massive understatement.
“I-” Stowell broke off her sentence before she reached a manic pitch. “I’m a necromancer, Minister. I know better than anyone that everyone dies eventually, so I have my corpse clothes picked out and I’m going to play a prank on whoever raises me by hiding a message up my-”
“Right. Pardon me.” He felt it was critical to cut her off before her hand gestures and story got any more explicit. “That’s the end of my line of questioning.”
Tara hummed to herself and idly chewed the end of her stylus. “Do you have anything else to show before I call this inspection done, Doctor? These fields are lookin’ fine to me.”
“Well, there is my magnum opus.”
Stowell said that her ‘magnum opus’ was off in an isolated corner of the property. Rowan didn’t count on it being so isolated that they needed to walk for twenty minutes and scramble up a scree slope to get to it. At least it wasn’t as bad as the palace stairs.
“S-ugh… so here it is!” Stowell announced, waving a weary arm at a hill of grapevines. “...A-am I the only one that’s tired?”
“I got carried, if that helps,” Tara shrugged. “What’s all this?”
The necromancer dropped onto the ground with none of the grace Rowan would expect from a cat and fought to catch her breath. “It’s… guh… just a minute…” She waved at a zombie who was carefully tending the vines, gesturing wildly until she brought over a basket of grapes.
“Better. Try some.”
Tara hopped off his shoulder and plummeted toward the ground without even attempting to fly. Rowan was about to catch her when she snapped her fingers and her feet touched the ground. The sound echoed through his head as his mind struggled to come to terms with what he was seeing. Tara stood in front of him at full human height, wings nowhere to be seen. On an intellectual level, he already knew the fairy could transform herself to do both of those things. What he didn’t know was that magic could be so… jarring. There was no light, no gradual change in the size of her limbs. Only the sound of her snapping her fingers, then she just… was.
To his relief, neither Stowell nor Tara noticed him reaching out like he was getting ready to grab the fairy’s butt instead of catching her. Tara plucked a grape out of the basket and peered at it with suspicion. “I hope y’don’t mind if I cast a quick spell on it to see if it’s toxic.”
Stowell dismissed the concern with a shake of her head. “Be my guest.”
A glow came out of the grape when Tara laid her finger on it. She tilted her head in thought and raised her eyebrow when she came to a conclusion. “Alcohol?”
“Ah, you caught me. I found a way to allow the inside of the dead grape to ferment while I keep the outside in shape. They’re like candy!”
She popped the grape into her mouth and hummed in approval as she bit in. “That’s pretty good. You plannin’ on tryin’ one, Rowan?”
“Oh, I guess…” He squinted at the grape for a moment. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it, but he wasn’t keen on having anything magical inside his body, especially when there was necromancy involved.
There was no conscious thought that made Rowan shove the grape into his mouth like it was a matter of life or death. He would have dearly loved to blame the instant response on some diplomatic habit that had gotten him through thick and thin. It would be much more comfortable than admitting he buckled under peer pressure.
He held the grape in his mouth a moment, expecting the worst. Well, it tasted like grape skin. Anticipating the taste of rotting flesh was a bit silly, in hindsight. It was just a plant, after all. Another second passed as he screwed up his courage to bite in and-
There was an audible pop as the skin broke on his teeth. The deluge of wine flooding his mouth surprised him at first, but it was quite pleasant after a few seconds. The sweetness of the wine was well-balanced by the slightly bitter skin and he instinctively reached for another. This time, he poked a hole in the skin with his tooth and sucked the inside out. It was kind of fun, actually.
“So?” The catwoman flicked her tail like she caught the canary.
“They are quite good,” Rowan admitted.
Tara clapped her tablet shut and slipped it back into a bag at her side. “Well, that’s all from me. We’ll have to send out an inspector once a month or so, but you seem to be runnin’ a clean operation.”
“Oh, good. A room is ready for the two of you in the main house, unless you’re planning on turning right back around…?”
“I don’t think I could get us to the next town without a kip first. I think Rowan wanted to talk to you about somethin’ anyway.”
“If we’re staying overnight, I think we can handle it in the morning. Just a little administration work,” he casually mentioned. He wasn’t willing to sour her hospitality by bringing up taxes before he absolutely had to.
“Perfect. Thidela can take you there, I’ll be busy until morning.”
It was naive for Rowan to expect he could actually fall asleep in a necromancer’s house. He woke up every hour or so to a nightmare about being eaten by or turned into a zombie, even if he knew they could talk and think. He also found out the hard way that Tara didn’t only snore when she was drunk.
Even if it was still dark out, it was obvious he wasn’t getting any more sleep. He rose as quietly as he could and slipped out of the room. The main space in the circular house was far worse for his heart than the guest room, but he needed to cross the space to leave.
Stowell must have intended the operating theatre to look as stereotypically horrifying as it did. There was no other way Rowan could wrap his head around her large collection of jarred eyeballs, strange surgical tools, rickety prosthetics and piles of mysterious alchemy equipment. He hurried past the observation stands as quickly as he dared, skirting the centre of the round main room with its ominous operating table with its multitude of restraining straps. The floor of the front hallway creaked in protest, but thankfully nothing stopped him from escaping through the front door.
Rowan was happy to leave the house behind him and shut the door with a calm finality. The night air was cool and crisp, the waxing moon providing just enough light to-
He nearly fell over when he tried to assume the foetal position while still standing. When his eyes adjusted to the light, he realised his mistake. What he confused for a corpse nailed to the side of the building was that zombie nun that was following them around all day. If they understood speech, the least he could do was apologise and avoid making an ass of himself again.
“Ah, sorry about that, Sister. I’m just a little nervous and you just caught me unawares. Ha.” Well, it wasn’t his most charming performance, but she only looked down on him like a judgemental statue. She wasn’t enraged, at least. “Oh. Right, I don’t even know if you can talk b-”
“I can.” Each creaky word left her mouth with a foreboding sense of finality, as though she’d been waiting years to deliver the words.
“Oh! Then it’s nice to speak with you, Sister…?”
“And you as well.”
In the course of his career, he interacted with a few nuns in the Order of the Holy Scale. Extremely pious, resolutely dedicated to the pursuit of Balance and justice, but also not particularly sensitive to subtlety even when they were alive. “I don’t think I caught your name, Sister. If you can remember it, that is! I don’t want to impose.”
Every muscle in her face tensed up as though she were using some great force of will to conjure up the memory. “...Thidela.”
“Now that we’re acquainted, Sister Thidela, could you-”
“Why do you call me that? It feels familiar.”
“Mostly your er...” He trailed off and gestured at her distinctive black-and-white surcoat with the scales of her order on one side and a sword on the other.
Thidela’s mail jingled as she struggled to get a better look at herself. “The cat thinks I was a knight. Is that…?”
“Your order is a group of nuns who took up arms. You look like a lay sister, which is why I… well.”
“This gives me much to think about, thank you.”
“Oh, it’s no prob-”
“You asked a question before. What was it?”
Rowan waited a beat to make sure she wasn’t going to interrupt him again. The way she concentrated, an unsubtle glare followed by a lagging response, kept Rowan from speaking as quickly as he was accustomed to. “I was just wondering if you know where Dr. Stowell was. I want to speak to her about a few things before we leave and I couldn’t sleep.”
“She will be somewhere in the fields, working. I do not know where.”
He wasn’t keen on wandering around at night in a field full of zombies, but maybe he could just stick to the road. “Well, thank you anyway, Sister. Have a nice night.”
He set off down the dirt road with excruciating attention on where he put his feet. He couldn’t think of many ends less appealing than taking a tumble in the middle of the night, landing on some farm equipment, and having his corpse used for Change-knew-what. He was lucky the moon was bright enough that he could see where every step was going to go. Left. Right. Left. Left. Right. Right. Left. Left. Right. Right.
Last he checked, he only had two feet.
When he stopped, so did the footsteps behind him. Was it an echo? He turned his head at a glacial pace, hoping not to find the terrifying monster his tired mind was inventing for him. To her credit, Thidela followed his gaze and searched behind herself, ready to handle whatever he thought was following them.
“I was just wondering why you’re following me.”
Her response trailed several seconds behind a point that could be considered reasonable. Rowan knew that she was just thinking about what to say, but her features stayed dead still and she just… loomed. “The night is dangerous. I will protect you.”
“You don’t have to, you know!” It was difficult to say whether being completely alone or having a living corpse follow him through the night would be more unnerving.
She gave no answer and he felt obliged to say something to acknowledge her. “You’re free to, of course. I do appreciate you thinking about me. I’ll just keep heading this direction.”
She stuck behind him and it only took a few minutes for the silence to become unbearable again. Thidela wasn’t an excellent conversational partner, but chatting out of nervousness was better than feeling like he was being followed by some angered spirit.
“So Thidela, what do you usually do around here…?”
The zombie stopped and held a finger to her lips, peering into the thicket beside them. Rowan squinted to recognise any shape in the dim moonlight but came up with nothing in the ink-black tangle of sticks. He trusted her judgement better than his own, though a quiet minute passed and his racing heart calmed down.
Thidela stepped in front of him only a few seconds before a crossbow bolt whizzed toward them. He recoiled at the sickening thunk it made when it hit her chest. One extra arrow was no real inconvenience compared to the collection sticking out of her, but that was almost worse.
An armoured figure rose from the bushes with a crossbow in hand. He couldn’t make heads or tails of the way it was dressed. The helmet was a relic of a piece: just a flat-topped cylinder of metal with narrow slits to see through. Rowan recognised the visual simplicity of the design, but ones he had seen were exclusively in collections of armour that were hundreds of years old. On the other hand, the brigandine and its supplementary plates covering the arms and legs were straight off a modern battlefield. The surcoat was filthy and unrecognisable, but putting it all together, the style had to be from Gisland.
It stepped forward menacingly before shouting in a tinny, feminine voice. “Why dost thou not perish, monster?! You no longer belong in this world!”
Thidela seemed to have no interest in continuing the exchange, drawing her sword and marching straight toward the woman who shot at them.
“Ah, still terse in thy villany? So be it!”
It was the strangest thing. This mystery woman was dressed like a Gislander, but everything from the words she used down to her accent was… wrong. Not even Dunmuirian, just a mixed-up blend of regions and time periods that had nothing in common but the fact they were old. Was she some sort of foreign agent who was here to make a false attack on-
Thidela tore the crossbow from her hands when she tried to strike with it. After that, it was only the blink of an eye before the zombie skillfully whirled her blade around and buried it in the stranger up to its hilt. Once she wheezed out a last breath and slid off the sword to the ground, Thidela’s grim efficiency struck him. She was completely unaffected by ending a person’s life as quickly and easily as he could fillet a fish. Her sword went back in its sheath, she snapped the limbs of the crossbow, threw it back into the woods like a piece of trash, and waded back through the brush to Rowan’s side.
“Did… what… who was that?”
“Does this just happen all the time? You looked ready for it!”
“Yes. The cat tells me to leave anything I take care of where it lies.”
“I… I see.” Rowan was unfamiliar with death to say the least. He was present for the deaths of a few farm animals, countless fish and his fair share of crabs, but people were another matter entirely. He had only ever been on a battlefield once—the night he first met Rhiannon. Even in front of one of the world’s most famous generals, he wasn’t party to any violent deaths.
...It was part of life, but it wasn’t pleasant. He supposed he should be grateful that Thidela acted as his bodyguard or it would likely be him lying dead at the side of the road. She dutifully stood over him as he offered a quick prayer to the stranger. He was mentored by priests of his religion during his childhood, but he found precious little to say when he knew so little about her. Mercy on her soul for mistakes in her life, praying the scales of the afterlife reflected well on her, hoping she went to her choice of good place rather than any bad and all the usual platitudes. He took a few steps away before his guilty conscience overwhelmed him. Working as quickly as he could, Rowan plodded through the underbrush, arranged her limbs in a dignified position, then scampered away.
The sun cast its first hesitant rays across the sky after an hour of walking through the fields. Tara caught up with them a few minutes later, catching sight of him standing in the road.
“Mornin’ Rowan. How are we doin’?”
He scratched the scruff of hair on his chin and grimaced. “We were attacked.”
“Oh, by that mystery whosit she was talkin’ about?”
“Ah, you looked like you were dozin’ off when we were discussin’ that. It was right between plant anatomy and thaumically-induced necromorphism if that rings any bells.”
Rowan couldn’t find the strength to be angry. He was just disappointed that missing the critical information was entirely his fault. It was his job to listen to people and help work through situations, but he was too caught up in his own thoughts and just assumed that Tara could take care of the more academically-focussed parts.
“I… may have missed that bit.”
“So long’s you’re alright. I’m arrangin’ to send a couple of army lasses down to take care of the problem officially, so don’t worry too much about it.”
“There’s more than one? The woman who attacked us is… departed now..”
“Sounded like it was a recurrin’ problem, but let’s raise it with Stowell at some point.”
“Absolutely. You’re right.”
“No, er… raise, y’see.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a pun.”
“Tryin’ to lighten the mood. Sorry.”
Eventually, they found Dr. Stowell lying face-down under a scarecrow. Her body was twisted into an awkward jumble with her hips in the air as though someone dumped her out of a wheelbarrow. Rowan’s morbid thoughts caught up with him and mistook her for dead until he noticed her tail twitching every so often in her sleep. On the other hand, Thidela didn’t pause for a moment and unceremoniously kicked the doctor onto her side with an armoured boot.
“Nh- gah!” Dr. Stowell looked around in a daze, moist dirt sticking to her hair. “...What time is it?”
“Mmah, good! Only two hours wasted this time! Are the ministers awake yet?”
“They’re behind me.”
The necromancer squinted, rubbed her eyes and looked Rowan up and down. “So they are. Good morning!”
Tara took a long breath, formulating a response. “Mornin’. Have you been sleepin’ enough, doctor?”
“Hm? Oh, of course! Fit as a fiddle. I’m fortunate to only need about four or five hours of sleep every two days or so!” She got up and dusted herself off, adding, “Well, in the fifty hour range, but who’s counting?”
Was this a witch thing? It would explain how the Queen managed to spend her nights so… busy. Rowan glanced over to Tara and noticed the incredulous squint she was giving her.
“That’s… not healthy, you know.”
Never mind, then.
“Oh, nonsense! The miracles of modern alchemy are sustaining me just fine!”
“Don’t tell me you’re makin’ a habit of drinkin’ that stuff Dr. Cassella makes.”
“The Monster’s Dew? Why wouldn’t I? Keeps me productive!”
“You’re goin’ to work yourself to death is why.”
“It’s just… it’s just going to be a bit longer! Once everything’s set up, the place will run itself and I’ll have all the time in the world! Ah, speaking of.” Stowell waved her arms at a crowd of zombies gathering near a barn. “Over here, please!”
As the crowd stumbled over, the reek of rotting flesh hit them like a wall. The farmers as well as their work animals were in various states of poor repair. A few were missing limbs and almost every pair of eyes looked milky and on the verge of putrefaction.
The group was revolting enough that Rowan needed to avert his gaze, but it seemed not to bother the necromancer any. “How are we doing, everyone? Worked hard, I hope?”
Affirmative moans came from their half-liquefied voiceboxes and those without tongues or the capacity to grunt simply nodded their heads.
“Good! Alright, line up and I’ll have you as good as new. Anyone with an injury from early in the day first, please.”
The undead shambled into their positions with an uncanny coordination. Stowell laid a hand on the first zombie without a moment’s hesitation and a soft yellow glow flowed from her hand and through her patient. Healing magic was one of the few schools Rowan saw before he moved to Dunmuir, so he recognised it immediately. It was all considered a very holy affair back home, with a priest tending to a very sick, elderly and generally extremely wealthy person. They got a few seconds of glowing light twice a day and eventually they would say they felt better.
On the other hand, Stowell’s process was amazing. She only took a few seconds and when it was done, the first farmer in line transformed from the shuffling remains of a corpse into a person who just looked a little pale. Rowan got an extra jolt of surprise when it let out a raspy “Thank you, doctor,” before moving out of the way.
Tara spoke up when Stowell was a few zombies deeper into the line. “So this is how you’ve been handling the decomposition?”
“Well,” Stowell said, turning to the fairy without stopping the stream of healing magic, “I’ve got a class I’ve been hoping to teach a little basic magic to, but well… Not enough hours in the day. Once things are up and running the place will practically run itself, as I said.”
“I might not know much,” Rowan began, “but isn’t that unsustainable? You seem like you’re going to drop dead at this rate.”
The necromancer grimaced. “It’s… it’s fine? It’s going to work out somehow.”
“Stowell, you’re soundin’ like a gambler. Why don’t ye just get some apprentices like a normal witch would?”
“My request was denied! The council never took me seriously, so I left!”
“Let me consult with Mr. Rowan.” Tara flitted over to Rowan’s side to whisper in his ear. “D’you think she’s going to make trouble for you if we leave things like this?”
The doctor was certainly struggling to control Thidela at the very least. That was going to be a problem, especially if she died and there was a horde of orphaned zombies wandering the countryside. She promised not to make more, but Stowell was teetering on the verge of delirium. If she got the idea that more zombies would help somehow, she was unlikely to hesitate, and what would that mean? There were potentially foreign agents attacking people in the area, taxes to worry about yet and that wasn’t even mentioning the possibility of a mob with torches and pitchforks showing up at her door.
“...I think so.”
“Right. Would you back me up if I try an’ fix this?”
He would have agreed even if he didn’t think he owed it to the fairy. She saved his life but more than that, she was sharp and knew exactly how to deal with this sort of thing. He even looked over her schedule weekly, so he knew that ‘rogue mage’ was on her to-fix list several times a month. “Of course.”
Tara turned back to Stowell, dejectedly still healing her farmers. “Doctor, I want to make you an offer.”
“I’m goin’ to have apprentices sent over to help, but you’re goin’ to have to agree to being an official research centre. Research papers, taking in orphaned zombies and the like.”
“How? The Institute already said I wasn’t getting anything out of them!”
“Bet y’never had a pair of someones who could get the Queen to sign it, did ya?”
The necromancer’s head snapped toward them with her eyes as wide as saucers and the hesitant beginnings of a smile on her face. “You wouldn’t.”
“The way Minister Rowan and I see it, leaving this alone would be a mistake. Besides, you’ve got that grape thing goin’, so you could even be profitable. That sound interestin’, doct-”
“YES! Yes. Ha! I’d… well..!”
Tara jotted down a few more things on her tablet. “Right. Does your farm have a name, then?”
“I… not really, no.”
“I reckon you need somethin’ flashy to snag some attention. Plants n’ zombies…” she twiddled the stylus back and forth a moment. “‘Reaper’s Repose, maybe? Nice lil’ pun.”
“Right. Reaper’s Repose Centre for the Research of Necrobotany it is, then. Royal pendin’.”
Stowell let out a squeal of joy and clasped her hands together. “Yes! That’s… oh, I just… Forget it! This calls for a celebration! It’s inefficient but let me just finish up quickly!”
Both her hands took on the gentle glow of healing magic as she held them out to either side of her body. After a deep breath, she slammed her hands together and a wave of healing magic spread out like Stowell was a rock dropped into a still pond.
Magical healers were expensive and in enough demand that Rowan never had the privilege of visiting one for his own ailments, so when the wave washed over him the feeling was unfamiliar. It felt like a warm breeze tickling his skin everywhere at once, initially. After that, it sunk in and the real magic happened. A dozen little aches he never noticed dissolved away, as did his muscle pain, scrapes from walking through bushes, and even the little callous he developed on his middle finger from using a quill day in and day out.
The zombie farmers returned to pristine condition in a flash and even Tara sighed with relief and stretched out her neck. After a disconcertingly loud crack, the fairy straightened up and spoke. “You’re quite a healer, doctor.”
“Zavia please, Minister! We’re friends enough for at least that much! And you know what they always say! A necromancer is just a healer with a late streak!” She bounced on her toes with a frenzied energy as she laughed at her own joke. “Now! Do we have anything else to work out?”
“A few things,” Rowan said. “Although the first thing on my mind is that Thidela and I were attacked by someone when we were walking around. Do you know anything about that?”
“Oh! Yes, er… that. Aha. I was wondering why she had an extra arrow in her. Let me get that out, can’t have her looking like a wreck when I’m an official research centrrrrrgh…”
Stowell lunged toward Thidela suddenly enough that she managed to get a hand around the crossbow bolt sticking out of her chest. Unfortunately for her, the nun wasn’t much slower and seized her by the throat to keep her at bay.
“Juhhhst let mhheeee…!” The necromancer’s face was turning a disconcerting shade of blue as she desperately tried to pull the object free. It took about a minute before Stowell stopped fighting and clawed for the tools on her belt, knocking several onto the ground in her panic.
Rowan needed to do something before the doctor was strangled to death. To his horror, he didn’t realise he was tempting fate until after he put a hand on Thidela’s arm. The irony of being killed less than five minutes after a healing spell was cast on him struck Rowan with at least as much force as would be applied to his face or neck any second.
Thidela craned her neck to see him but didn’t make any threatening moves.
“Could you, er… let her go? I think she’s learned her lesson.”
There wasn’t any kind of human glimmer of recognition or argument out of Thidela. She just dropped Stowell into a heap on the ground like she was a crane and he simply pulled the right lever.
Stowell coughed and wheezed as she recovered her breath. “Y- Th… thanks…”
“No, it’s, er…” Rowan took his hand off the zombie’s arm. “You looked like you needed a hand.”
After a moment of hoarse breathing, Stowell stood back up, completely unfazed by the near-death experience. “That’s really fascinating though, Minister! Would you do it again for me?”
“Yes! I’ve never seen her… well, actually I’m the only other one who’s tried, but…”
“Is that okay?” Rowan glanced up at Thidela, who nodded. He laid his hand back on her arm and she made no attempt to stop him. “Like this?”
“Yes! Actually, if we’re here, would you mind trying to take an arrow out?”
“She can talk, you know. You could be asking her.”
Stowell blinked a few times as if the thought had never crossed her mind. “Er… would you let the Minister take out one of your whatsits?”
There was an incredible amount of pressure in her pale features and cold eyes. “He told me who I was. I trust him.”
Oh good. Rowan was fairly sure he had nightmares about this particular subject and he couldn’t get out of it now. “I’ll, um… I’ll try to be gentle.”
Wonderful. Fantastic. Brilliant. Excellent. Rowan kept his mind busy with thinking up a neverending stream of synonyms while he avoided any kind of emotional thought about the task that faced him. Magnificent. Amazing. This morning’s crossbow bolt seemed like a good candidate. Maybe Stowell even loosened it up a little for him. Phenomenal. Outstanding. He wrapped one hand around the shaft and braced the other on her stomach, hoping not to make this any stranger than it needed to be. Terrific. Fantastic. Did he do that one already?
The crossbow bolt came free with a disgusting sucking noise like a stick pulled out of mud. If that wasn’t enough to occupy his unpleasant dreams for weeks to come, the squirt of disgusting black bile that landed on his hands certainly was. He closed his eyes and took a breath to calm himself before he dropped the bolt on the ground and shook his hands to get the worst of the liquid off of them. For her part, Tara was doing a mediocre job of concealing her snickering at his reaction, though Stowell didn’t notice.
“Amazing! Would you keep going? I’ve been meaning to clean her up for a year now but she’s never let me get close.”
He planned on protesting, but the way Thidela nodded her head at him really did make him feel responsible for his (former) countrywoman.
“Could you at least tell me what was going on with that knight or whatever she was?” The next arrow came free with another sickening slurp.
“Hm? Oh. Right, aha. Well, she’s just a wayward zombie, I think.”
“She’s come back every time we kill her for ten straight months. Keeps complaining about me being a ‘vile villain,’ so I just rile her up every so often.”
“Doctor, you’re going to need to deal with this! I don’t know if Minister Merrywing or I are going to be able to convince the Queen to help you if… mmh... ” The next fragmented shaft was a little slippery and needed extra attention. He dearly wished he had gloves, not least of which was the horror he would feel at getting a splinter and having Thidela’s undead blood mix with his own. “Where was I?”
“...convince the Queen if-”
“Right.” Rowan noticed he was waving the gore-smeared arrow at her like it was a schoolmaster’s cane, so he tossed it aside and grasped the next. “If the only thing we can tell the Queen is ‘we’re not sure Your Majesty, she said she made things worse for fun and seems to have no interest in dealing with the problem at its source,’ she’s not going to be approving anything.”
The last weapon stuck in Thidela was the remains of a lance jutting out of her back. He gave it a sharp tug like he had with the arrows but it didn’t budge. Hm.
“I would, Minister, but she’s escaped every time we’ve tried to capture her!”
“I understand it would be difficult, but… hngh… you know it would just sound like excuses to regular people, right?”
A more concerted pull amounted to nothing as Thidela was pulled backward along with the lance.
He murmured a quick apology to Thidela as he put his foot on her back for leverage, prying her away from the lance. “Look, just… get Thidela to… take her ouuuuu-!” Rowan tumbled to the ground with the lance in his hands that were now slick with blood. He retched but managed to keep enough composure that he didn’t vomit at the state of his filthy tunic sleeves.
Stowell mused to herself, completely uninterested in his plight. “I think I might have a plan, actually…”
The doctor was kind enough to lay out a rug for Rowan and Tara to sit on, which was a blessing considering how long she was gone. It was hard to tell, but it felt like they had been sitting under the midsummer sun for almost an hour.
“Oh, there it is.” Tara pointed off toward Stowell’s house and the view caught Rowan by surprise.
The rustic country house was replaced by a massive tower built from black marble, decorated with flowing fountains of blood and cages filled with skeletons that were swaying in some sort of off-putting dance, their pelvises low to the ground. It was to the point that it wasn’t even terrifying, just… a bit much. Of course, it wasn’t helped by the fact that he could see that the illusion was two-dimensional from where he was sitting.
Dr. Stowell appeared a few seconds later and soundly put the final nail in the coffin of Rowan’s opinion of her. She traded her clothes for a black robe and witch hat, though the hat was comically large and both were covered with symbols that pushed the word gauche to its logical limit. There were skulls, daggers, a few scattered mushrooms and long, squiggly lines he could only assume were supposed to represent worms or snakes. It was hard to decide, given that every one of the symbols looked like a child’s scrawling. Frankly, she was more intimidating in her stained, battered cloak and apron with a belt of obscure surgical tools around her waist.
She peered into the woods for a few moments before catching sight of a glint of metal in the brush.
“Ah! Ministers, if you could just stay back a moment? She’s harmless, but it would spoil the day if I had to reattach any of your limbs…” She dashed off before they could ask any further questions, Thidela trailing behind her.
Stowell managed to project her voice like a trained stage actress as she cackled from a safe distance away from the armoured combatant. “So! The knight of justice rears her head once again in this land forgotten by god and man alike!”
“Villain!” The knight cried, spinning around to point her sword at the necromancer. “My defeats mean nothing! Now that thou hast revealed thyself, thy reign of terror is at an end!”
“NYAHAHA! Is that so? And how do you expect to stop the unstoppable?! My undying hordes?”
“I send each one to meet their maker, one by one! Your vile slaves are nothing before me!” The knight ran a little closer, taking a swing at an unlucky zombie near her and sending its leg sailing off in an arc.
For its part, the dismembered zombie made no sign it had heard them and hopped behind the plow it was driving with its one remaining leg. Now that Rowan looked, there was also a bit of a traffic jam behind the scene as a few sowers waited patiently for them to be done.
“Their maker is ME!” Stowell shouted proudly. “I have surpassed any petty foreign god and become the embodiment of the Crone’s wisdom! I am eternal!”
“Eternally resting once I’m done with you, foul necromancer!”
At Stowell’s exclamation, Thidela impassively drew her sword. It only took a few seconds for her to prove herself to be the better swordswoman, disarming her opponent after parrying a few haphazard swings.
“Agh! Monster! Demon!” There was a hesitant waver in the knight’s voice when she saw Thidela turning her sword around in her hands to hold it by the blade. “I’ll-!”
The oath was cut off when the zombie brought the guard of her sword down on the stranger’s helmet like a hammer. There was a loud clang and the knight crumpled to the ground.
The necromancer chuckled to herself and doffed the oversize hat. “Well, not a bad showing for a mindless undead sla-guh!” She retched loudly when Thidela slammed a gauntleted fist into her stomach. “Kh… A-alright, s… sorry, sorry… let’s just see what we’re working with, Ministers.”
Rowan and Tara strolled over at the invitation, just in time for Stowell to impatiently pull off the stranger’s helmet. The drooping rabbit ears immediately stuck out in Rowan’s mind. Even with the strange voice and unrecognisable surcoat, he would have gambled a considerable amount on the stranger being a Gislander, but no. Rabbits were one of the most dominant ethnicities in Dunmuir and the pale, grey haired lop before them was no exception.
“Who?” Tara asked.
“That necromancer associate who all my extra zombies are from. She looks dead.”
“Oh, no. Zombie dead. I guess someone picked her back up and forgot her.”
The rabbit twitched, so Stowell sat down on her in a panic to keep her still.
“Hngh… I… Hey! Unhand me, you fiend!” She fruitlessly hammered her fists against the necromancer’s back.
“Good morning, Allermorte! I haven’t seen you since before you died!”
“Who in our sweet lord’s name are you talking about, demon?!”
“You, sorry! You were one of my friends back when you were alive.”
“Excuse me? I am a noble knight of Gisrick, rightful King of Gisland!”
That poor woman. Gisrick was deposed and executed nearly four hundred years prior, when the Dukes took over the country. It was no wonder she sounded so confused.
Stowell, on the other hand, seemed to have no particular concern for the suffering of the undead woman before her. “So anyway, who taught you to talk? You sound a little funny.”
“Taught? Order itself taught me! When I awoke from the battlefield, I found the holy scriptures of Balance and clothed myself in my rightful panoply of war against the monstrous menace!”
Oh. Rowan knew the scriptures quite well and knew they were full of valuable knowledge. A few details may have been a bit archaic compared to the good parts, however. Legends about the various races outside pure humans being demons of Change immediately sprang to mind. Most of those passages came from centuries before when Gisland was locked in an existential struggle against a kingdom of beastfolk to its north. The rhetoric made a minor return during the war with Dunmuir, but on the whole, the Church of Balance was much more open and inviting these days. His own town’s priest focused on improvement of the self, balancing virtue with vice and the more wholesome, philosophical side of the religion.
“Aw, come on Allermorte. You can’t just suddenly read when you don’t even know how to talk yet.”
“Call me not that foul name, beast-creature! It… confuses me.”
“If I might step in…” For the first time in his life, Rowan emphasised his native Waterton accent. To his ears, he sounded like the epitome of a yokel fisherman, but it might just be enough to convince this poor, confused soul. “I’m thinkin’ you’re feelin’ lost, lil’ lady?”
“Sooth! A Gislander!”
“Yep, that’s me. N’how I’m understandin’ it, you’ve been a-fightin’ with this cat lady here, ay?”
“It is our prerogative! Have you no love of Order?”
“Ay, I do.” He held up his prayer beads like a kind of shield against criticism. “N’I’m plannin’ on tellin’ ya some strange facts, alright?”
“...Very well, countryman. I have no choice in the matter, so go on.”
“Well, first off, d’y’remember anythin’ from afore ya woke up? Reckon it’s awful odd t’get born knowin’ how to read.”
“I… I was with my fellows, I know that much. I saw witches before I fell and before I knew it, I was reborn.”
Rowan scratched his chin. She was remembering things from before her death, too? “Well, what if I went’n told ya that you’re not exactly livin’?”
“I know that much! I have to use the holy spells of Balance to reorder my body every evening. It’s how I stay clear of healers to pursue my enemy. This horrendous witch!” She helplessly smacked Stowell again for emphasis.
“How ‘bout if I said you’re a witch too?”
“Don’t be ridiculous! I might remember them well, but I fell among noble knights, human as you and I.”
“Probably the ones that killed you,” Stowell added.
“Now you were goin’ on sayin’ human ‘bout yourself, ay?”
“Of course. As all true Gislanders are.”
That was another slightly outdated principle that made it into scripture. They weren’t large by any means, but small communities of beastwomen or elves did live in pockets here and there. Merfolk certainly lived in the waters near the coast as well.
“An’ would ya mind if I went n’ asked what y’got hangin’ on either side a’ your head there?” It was time to get to the root of the issue. He gestured to the limp rabbit ears dangling off her head.
“H… hair. Is it not hair?” She was starting to crack.
“Tara, d’y’mind summonin’ one’a them mirrors fer our friend here?”
The fairy blinked a few times in his direction. “What? I didn’t catch a word of that.”
“Ah, pardon me. Would you summon a mirror, please?”
Allermorte would have blanched when she saw her reflection, if only she had blood in her face. She pulled at her skin, examined her ears from every angle and rubbed her eyes as though she hoped they were wrong. “I’m…?”
“Ay. Er, yes. Do you mind if I speak like this now?”
“...A witch? Like her?”
“I gather Dr. Stowell here was your friend in life.”
“But-! The holy magic!”
Stowell couldn’t read the mood to save her life. “You knew that stuff before you died! I can teach you what you forgot.”
“We think it’s because you remember some of your last life. The Doctor here takes care of people with your… condition. Would you mind hearing her out?”
“I… I suppose. May I get up? I have so much to think about…”
“Take as long as you want!” Stowell hopped to her feet, then helped Allermorte to hers. “We’ll be around, or you can come to my house if you can’t find me.”
“Very well…” The rabbitwoman shuffled down the road toward a lonely hill, rubbing her ears now and then.
Stowell put her hands on her hips and sighed proudly. “Aaah. Looks like all’s well that ends well.”
“Actually,” Rowan interrupted, “there’s the small matter of your taxes.”
“I-I’m still really not sure what you’re talking about! I mean, nobody’s come by to tell me if anything’s wrong!” Stowell said, getting consistently more agitated as Rowan closed in on her office.
“Well, I need to check. It’s part of my job, that’s all.” Rowan opened the door and was taken aback at the mess.
The desk was barely visible beneath the massive pile of papers and unopened envelopes that spilled onto the floor and pooled out into a lake at the bottom of the paper-fall. The neglected correspondence and the rest of the room was covered in a thick, unbroken layer of dust. There was no way that the envelopes were even set down on the ever-increasing pile, much less read. Stowell shuffled her feet in embarrassment at the state of the room, but Rowan didn’t even register it over the voice in his head screaming in discomfort at the sheer chaos that lay before him.
How long were those letters there? Surely they had to be important. Why throw them into the room from the door? They were completely devoid of any reasonable, logical order and that wasn’t even covering the jumbled shelves, filthy windows or chunk of stale bread sitting on the desk from Change-knew-when! The priest from his childhood always told Rowan that he was oversensitive to things like these and should focus his mind on prayer instead of tap-taptapping on his leg the way he was now.
“I-I… I just fell a little behind on mail with how much I’ve had to work… Thidela handles the mail anyway!”
He let out a trembling breath and squeezed his prayer beads like a security blanket. “It’s hard to even think in a mess this big. Let’s clean up, first.”
It took the better part of two hours, but they finally organised the office to Rowan’s satisfaction. Papers by subject, then letters in order of importance by sender. A short pile of research notes, a tall pile of things she’d been meaning to read. Nothing to worry about, really, nor were the eight stacks of personal letters.
Stowell blanched when Rowan picked up the first letter.
“Ah, it’s from the Queen. Let’s see…” He broke the seal and shook out the letter within, struggling not to admire the quality of the paper or the intricacy of the letterhead. “Doctor Stowell, I’m writing with regard to a taxation issue your local countess has contacted me about. Please work something out with her or I’ll be forced to send officials. I would hate to have to revise my tax laws on your account. Cordially, your queen L.E.R. IX.”
The thin material of Stowell’s robe was visibly soaked through with a cold sweat. “I-I didn’t see that one! I swear! P-please, I just-!”
“Calm down please, Doctor. As far as I’m aware you haven’t committed a crime.”
“The next few are from the Magical Institute. Let’s see… Asking for reports and a summary of your activities… Asking to schedule an inspection… Demanding an inspection… Ah, here’s Tara’s letter telling you that we were coming. Nothing you don’t know now.”
The doctor stammered out a noise that sounded relieved. The subsequent pile was the star of the show, though. They were all letters from one Countess C.R.F. Byrne.
While I’m glad you’ve purchased the fallow land east of Glen Dubh, I’d like to follow up. While you have at present paid the taxes which are due in the technical sense, I want to remind you of your special position. I still intend to honour my promise not to tax the land since it was unused, but I do need to come to a consensus with you on the head tax and revenue tax.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
The next was similarly diplomatic.
I haven’t received a response from you, so I’d like to remind you in case the previous letter was lost. I want to discuss the tax situation for your operation, since your zombies put me in an awkward position with the head tax.
“Are these ringing any bells?” Rowan asked. They were sealed, so scolding Stowell for failing to know she was doing anything wrong would be a bit cruel.
“No! I don’t know how this happened, I’ve never seen a letter from any countess before.”
“Well, let’s get to the next one then.”
You can’t claim ignorance any more. I’ve been informed the last letter was delivered directly into your hands and I’ve ordered this one to get the same treatment. Let me spell this out to you. I’ve declared that I’m taxing every living person in my territory over the age of twenty. Living. Do you see where that puts me when you have several dozen unliving persons on your property? You’re getting value out of them, so all I’m asking is for you to pay your fair share to the county. You also claim to have no revenue, but I question that when you have so much farmland. What are you doing with it all? I’d even take payment in goods if these products are as safe as you say. I don’t just hoard all this money, Stowell. It pays for expensive things like upkeeping the bridge between your land and town.
Speaking of, the Institute has been sending me letters to the tune of you being a rogue mage. You need to respond to both of us as soon as physically possible.
“I-I uh… I guess I may have seen one or two? I… I don’t really remember.” The catwoman laughed nervously and cast her eyes around the room to find her most viable escape route.
“Doctor, I think that reading the other fourteen letters from Countess Byrne is something you could do on your own time. After we send her a letter apologising for your procrastination and suggesting a reasonable tax concession.”
She anxiously stroked her tail, seeming unconcerned about brushing the hair the wrong way. “I-is that, um…?”
“I’d like us to work together. I had to unofficially arrest a military commander in a position like yours a month and a half ago and I have no interest in repeating the experience. You can still recover from this.”
Rowan was glad that Stowell realised she had no bargaining chips. Even with the slow, messy scrawl she called handwriting, the letter didn’t take long to write since he was practically dictating the contents. A page of apologies was on one side of the letter, with the taxation suggestions on the back. She would pay the head tax on the zombies starting in three months once she built up steam with her business. Aside from that, a generous 20% tax on her revenue, though he expected they would end up settling on 25%.
“So, we need to get you selling things as soon as possible so she accepts this, you understand.”
“Yes…” The catwoman was exhausted from all the back-and-forth, though a faint flicker of hope remained in her voice.
“I think you’re really on to something with those grapes you gave us earlier, so I’m willing to give them to a few people who would enjoy them. If you could put a few boxes together, I’ll make sure one gets to the Queen.”
Stowell rebounded out of her dreary state like his offer was the news of a lifetime. “Really?! How many?”
Rhiannon would certainly enjoy them, considering her relationship with wine. Who else? Ah, Arlene and the maids deserved a gift, absolutely. Women who worked in a palace were probably wealthy enough to afford a little treat now and then. Maybe Greenglass would accept a peace offering, too. Even if it didn’t work, at least it would stop her from complaining that she didn’t get any.
“Three, if that’s not too much.”
“Of course not! Ha! Let me just… oh!” She dumped the papers out of a tray sitting on a shelf, then started tearing and folding some of the used envelopes.
“What are you doing?”
“I have to separate them or the grapes could burst when you’re flying home.” She set the first piece into the tray, splitting it into little cells like a honeycomb. It was a good idea, if sloppy. He could even see the final packaging at the market looking something like it.
“Hm?” She lost her place in folding the next hexagon-shaped piece.
“Why don’t I introduce you to someone from the Paperer’s guild before you bring too many of these to market?”
“You would?! They don’t talk to-! Really?!” Stowell stared at him with an intensity that told him she was considering throwing herself to the floor and kissing his boots.
“I’m sure I could get you an appointment with Ms. Cavallari. I’d just like you to remember this if I ever ask for a favour.”
“Cav-! Yes! Of course! I’d do anything I could, really! Farm things or if you want anyone dead back on their feet, I’d do it! That’s just… Wow! Yes!”
Rowan let out a yawn that was far louder than he meant for it to be. He hoped Rhiannon and Tara didn’t think he was expressing his boredom with their chat over dinner. The early morning and lack of sleep at Stowell’s house was just beginning to wear on him. “Pardon me, Your Majesty.”
“Oh, there’s nothing for it. I think Tara was about done if you’d like to begin.”
“Ah, of course.” His mind felt sluggish, but all he had to accomplish was one last push. “I handed you a copy of the taxation specifics, but to summarise, I had her write a proposal for a head tax and revenue tax, since the fallow land she occupies isn’t currently valued at anything.”
“A bit bold of you to suggest a head tax on the undead.”
“It’s-” He yawned again, much to his annoyance. “Excuse me. It’s certainly up for negotiation, but I gained a new respect for the dearly departed. My thought was that it would be fair to the countess if what are essentially free-thinking citizens are treated as such.”
Rhiannon leaned in with a wry smirk. “Enjoyed their company, did you?”
“We had a surprisingly pleasant time there. As far as the head tax is concerned…”
“I was wondering what your take on it was. It’s outside of royal territory, but would it be reasonable to have a reduced price per zombie?” He was fading fast, but Stowell was inevitably going to write him letters to ask him what her next move should be in the negotiation with the Countess.
“I suppose that would be the question. If she’s acting as a kind of official orphanage, she’s certainly going to build up a considerable number. We would have to take the ability to pay in mind. The Finance Minister tells me it’s in my best interest to avoid subsidising ventures like this at all costs, considering the state of the treasury.”
“Hmm… Would that make an impact on… citizenship for the undead?”
“They don’t have any at present. Are you of the opinion I should make it an issue?”
“That would be contingent on…” He could feel his head dipping. He managed to stay wide awake from sheer terror alone on the broom ride back to the palace, but now that he was in a warm, comfortable room…
Surely it wouldn’t hurt, right? He could let his head dip a little lower. Rhiannon would understand. There was a small moment of discomfort when Rowan realised that his body decided to close his eyes and rest his face in a pile of millet. It was warm, at least. He would pick his head up in just one more second, they’d have a bit of a laugh, finish up and then he would be straight off to bed.
Rowan's mind eventually worked out that he should avoid sleeping in a pile of grain in front of the Queen, if not in his private life as well. The next thing it worked out is that he was no longer face-down in his dinner and swiftly followed up by informing him that his head was a lot less foggy now that they had gotten some sleep.
He struggled to open his eyes, partly in fear of the situation he would find himself in, but also for how comfortable he felt. His head was laid on a pleasantly firm pillow, his body was wonderfully warm and his nose picked up a pleasing medley of cedarwood and expensive foreign spices. It reminded him of…
Rhiannon glanced down at him when he pried his eyes open. There was no doubt in his mind that she was responsible for his comfortable position in her suite. He was laid across one of her comfortable settees with his head in the Queen’s lap.
“Finally awake, are we?” Her tone was teasing, but it was horribly embarrassing to find himself in the situation at all.
“S-” He tried to lift his head off of her lap but she put a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Keep resting. You’ve only slept a few hours since your little… incident.” A polite giggle escaped her lips, but he could only dread the rumours that would circulate about the evening. Her focus was on a sheaf of papers she held in one hand and her voice lacked its usual excitement, so he felt more confident in his safety than usual.
“A few hours, sorry?” He was hoping it was only a few minutes, but he should have put it together himself. They completely changed venues while he was asleep after all.
“Mhm.” Her eyes didn’t leave the pages.
The silence stretched on for a few intolerably long moments before it became obvious that Rhiannon had no plans to speak again.
“So, um… I don’t remember exactly where I left off with telling you what-”
“That’s fine. I trust you’ll write a lovely report and I’m not particularly interested in talking business at the moment.”
“Ah.” ...She was keeping him here for a reason, wasn’t she? If it wasn’t business or anything related to the bedroom, did she expect him to make conversation? “Thank you for, well… today. I made a bit of a fool of myself, didn’t I?” He hazarded.
“Oh, it’s not a problem at all. You’re adjusting.”
“I suppose I am, yes. Aha.” Rowan waited another few silent moments before he decided to play the guessing game again. “...Are you wearing a different perfume than usual? I don’t think I’ve ever smelled it before.”
“Enjoying smelling me then?”
“No! Just trying to make conversation.”
“Mmm. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be getting out of these, Arlene. Could you deliver them to Eryl?” She handed off the papers to the maid standing just out of his sight, then plucked a few more out of her hand. “I do appreciate the attempt, Rowan. You’re free to try again.”
“You seem busy, maybe I could-”
“Reading reports is always a little dreary, frankly. Entice me.”
There weren’t many topics he had ready for this kind of exchange. What did one even casually chat with a queen about? His day was off the table if she wasn’t interested in business and he wasn’t about to complain about Greenglass being a touch rude the day prior. The weather? No, that was worse than nothing. Would something profound be better? She was a well-educated woman, so there was the opportunity to bring up the zombie situation and its ramifications on mortality. No, no. Witches tended to have concrete answers for magical things like this and she was the head priestess of a competing religion. There was probably almost nothing he could say about theology that wouldn’t be inane to her.
...He really had nothing, then. This felt like the first few dates with his childhood sweetheart when she said she was bored and had no suggestions for what they should talk about. If that was how it was going to be, the best he could was comment on the most surface-level thing. She never wore anything but the finest, most fashionable clothes and what she was wearing now was exquisite now that he was paying attention.
“I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment, but are you wearing new underwear?”
Rhiannon raised her eyebrows and looked down at him with a smile. “Hm. And why would you think that?”
Today’s lingerie was a bright red corset and garters, teasing with just enough transparency that he found himself unconsciously searching to see if he would be able to see anything more than glimpses of her pale skin beneath. The silk would have to be worked by a master with a magnifying glass for the weave to be so beautifully fine. Even with Rhiannon’s chest hanging a hand’s breadth above his eyes, he couldn’t make out the individual fibres.
“Just a guess, really. I’ve only seen the one set…”
“Hm?” Her voice came out as a seductive whisper. “And are you hoping to see more?”
Rowan’s face heated up at the gravity of his mistake. He didn’t leave himself a good way to weasel out of this. “I- er… appreciate the craftsmanship of your choices, Your Majesty…”
“Really? Sit up then, won’t you?”
The soreness from the long broom ride and mild crick in his neck from laying on her generous thighs melted away when he raised his head and she stood up in front of him. Even in comparison to other noblewomen, the way she dressed and carried herself was downright hypnotic. She swayed gently back and forth with the practised grace of a dancer, running one hand from her thigh, over the curve of her hip, past her chest and up to her cheek.
“These do happen to be new, so I’d like your opinion on them.”
She gracefully twirled around, giving him a full view of the whole set. Delicate gold buckles fastened the straps that connected her dark stockings to the main body of the corset. The playful tufts of lace on the matching panties, but most of all, the main attraction. The transparency of the sheer silk that covered up her torso was broken up with dense floral patterns that left just enough to make the imagination run wild.
It was a shame his mouth couldn’t keep up with his thoughts, considering how much praise he had for the designer. “Th-um. Yes. Very impressive. The, er… the material is very interesting.”
Rhiannon put one foot beside him on the seat and leaned in. His heart raced when he realised she was pinning him to his seat with her spread legs at his face height. “Is that because you can see through it?” She teased.
“No, I…” Rowan felt very self-conscious when he heard a snicker off to one side of the room. A woman in black underwear stood in an alcove, leaning on a spear wrapped in purple ribbon.
Rhiannon put a finger under his chin and turned his head back to face her. “My, Rowan. Our eyes are wandering quite a bit today, aren’t they?”
“I was just wondering who, er…”
“Only the Royal Guard,” she sighed. “There was a minor assassination attempt while you were-”
“Assassination?! That doesn’t seem min... or.” It wasn’t just arousal that made his heart pound now. Not only were there people attempting to kill the Queen, they might come after other people. Would Gisland expect him to help if they were from their side? Would he be blamed for them infiltrating the palace? Worst of all, he realised his lack of manners with Rhiannon too late.
She leaned in close enough that he could smell that intoxicating perfume again. “Bold of you to interrupt a queen.”
Rowan felt like a caged animal. He was stuck in his seat and not sure whether Rhiannon was angry or just interested in him again. The silence dragged on long enough that she was clearly expecting an answer, even if he would prefer keeping his mouth shut. “I apologise, Your Majesty. You’re such an important person and I’ve never dealt with… well…”
“It’s exactly because I’m important that they try.” She withdrew her leg and crossed her arms. “To be candid, this isn’t anything but a return to normalcy. I was almost lonely when your Archduke stopped sending his bi-weekly assassin.”
Feeling guilt on behalf of his country was a theme in Rowan’s life, but at least before this it was usually about tariffs or tax enforcement.
Rhiannon sauntered toward the offending guard and made a small gesture for Rowan to follow her. “Everyone overreacts to minor little facts of political life like this. I feel like the captain of my guard is under the impression I’m still a helpless teenager, posting armed soldiers inside my suite.” She brushed a lock of hair behind the guard’s ear and brought her face so close their noses almost touched. “Wouldn’t you say, Brigid?”
Her new victim chewed her lip as she looked for a satisfying answer. “...No, Your Majesty.”
“The, er… The captain is only trying to do her job, Your Majesty. We’re happy to serve and keep you safe.”
The Queen stepped back and playfully smacked Brigid’s rear before she turned to Rowan. “Well, the upside is that it’s given me the opportunity to try out something I’ve been meaning to for a long time.”
“That would be…?” Rowan asked. The last thing he wanted was for Rhiannon to use him as a punishment because the guard defied her. Angering one of the guardswomen who watched the palace was unwise to say the least.
“I commissioned matching sets of underwear for the palace guards. It was either they sweat themselves to death or end up wearing something drab, so I decided to liven things up a little.”
“Ah, I see.” He averted his eyes to the best of his ability.
Just when he thought the poor woman had enough humiliation, Rhiannon stepped to one side and presented her like she was a mannequin. “I’m sure you’ll appreciate the craftsmanship on these as well. Why don’t you have a closer look?”
Brigid shrugged when she noticed Rowan’s stiff-jawed hesitation. Her casual indifference dulled the awkwardness, but it still felt obscene to be asked to inspect a half-naked woman. The set was to Rhiannon’s taste, that much was certain. The black silk wasn’t as fine or as decorated as the Queen’s own, but it had a similar cut. The corset ran up from her waist and over her chest, though the straps which held it up crossed over each other in such a way that they made a star on her chest. The motif carried on down her body, the lace on her panties and the tops of her stockings replicating the star in miniature.
“I hope the silence means you’re appreciating them? I’m considering adding a matching gag if the guardswomen can’t stay silent while I have guests.” She didn’t turn toward Brigid and let the weight of her words do the talking.
“I’m sure she learned her lesson.” The best he could do was convince Rhinnon it wasn’t necessary. “I must say that your taste is impeccable, though.” Rowan could tell the smile he was giving her didn’t radiate the confidence he meant it to.
Rhiannon hummed in approval and looked down toward his pants with a smug expression. “So it seems. To get back to the topic at hand, I hope you’ve got a report on why you stayed up so late?”
“Tell me, Rowan. Was it the doctor? Ms. Merrywing? This zombie nun you were talking about, perhaps?”
“I-” Oh. She was hoping for that report. He didn’t really take her seriously when she told him to have sex with someone, but… “No. Aha. I just couldn’t sleep in Dr. Stowell’s house. I-I mean, how would it even work with Tara?”
“She can make herself big enough.” She let the silence hang for a moment. “And why not the other two, hm?”
“I don’t think I’d feel… hygienic with the other two…”
“You’re starting to sound like you’re making excuses, Rowan. Do I need to go over why it would seem embarrassing that you can’t seduce a single woman in a country full of them? Most ladies who aren’t rich need to share.”
“No! I’m sure it’s… unusual. I’ll get on it as soon as I can!”
“See that you do. Consider this a test of your skill as a negotiator.”
“Right. Of course.”
Rhiannon kept eye contact with him for a few more moments before Arlene came back in and handed her another bundle of papers. “Is there anything else before I send you off, Rowan?”
“Yes, actually…!” He nearly shouted in his excitement to break the awkward silence. “I convinced Dr. Stowell to give me a sample of a kind of wine she’s been growing on her farm. I had the boxes with me at…”
“I brought them with you, Minister,” Arlene said, gesturing at the neatly stacked boxes of wine-filled grapes she left on a table near the door.
“Ah, thank you!” Rowan hurried over to the door and returned with one of the hastily-assembled cartons. “Sorry about the packaging, it’s being worked on.”
Rhiannon opened the lid with a finger and looked at the assembled rows of grapes. “Hm. What are they?”
“They’re grapes, but the wine is fermented inside of-”
Arlene stifled a cry as the Queen took one out and popped it in her mouth. “L-! Your Majesty, we just had an assassination attempt!”
“Hm… Mmm!” Rhiannon swished the liquid around her mouth for a moment before swallowing. “Oh, Rowan wouldn’t try it. It’s just a harmless gift.”
“Still, Your Majesty…!”
She rolled her eyes before pulling Rowan in by his tunic, looking down at him with their noses almost touching. “Rowan.”
“Y-yes?” A shiver went down his spine and he was suddenly aware of every bead of sweat on his body. The heat of the room. How firm the Queen’s grip was. She was tall and strong enough that she could pick him up by his tunic if she wanted to. What should he do with his hands? He really didn’t do anything! The smell of her perfume was almost as intense as her eyes. They were beautiful, but he felt like prey when she stared him down with those rectangular pupils.
He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that it took him a second to notice when she shut her eyes and pressed her lips to his. She was an aggressive kisser, insistently nibbling at his lower lip and prodding with her tongue until he opened his mouth and she dove in. She yanked him even closer by his shirt and curled her tongue around his, teasingly pulling away when he tried to respond.
After a few more moments, Rhiannon broke off the kiss with a pleased breath. “There. If it was poison, he’ll die too.”
Arlene wearily massaged the bridge of her nose and the guard looked as though she were desperately trying to remember some awful part of the war to stop herself from laughing at Arlene’s exasperation. It wasn’t working, though she was staring at the wall as though her life depended on it.
“I appreciate the gift Rowan, they’re absolutely delicious. Are those other boxes going anywhere?”
With his head still spinning, Rowan took a moment to realise that he was being spoken to. Did this count as something sexual? He certainly felt breathless, but that had more to do with how unexpected the attack was. Rhiannon moved on like the kiss didn’t mean much, so should he respond normally? “Er, yes. I… I was hoping to give one to Arlene and one to Ms. Greenglass.”
“Oooh?” Rhiannon asked, her eyes lighting up. “And here I thought you weren’t being ambitious, but if you’re courting more than one at once…!”
“Er… That’s not exactly how I intended it. In fact, if you could distribute some to the other maids, Arlene…”
Arlene looked a little taken aback. “You’re…? Of course. I’m sure the girls will appreciate it, sir.”
Rhiannon patted his shoulder and moved close enough to his ear he could feel her breath when she whispered. “If you manage to pull off an orgy with more than three of the staff I’ll never question you again, you madman.”