This chapter turned out so long I had break it into two parts. There’s more going on at this party than I could pack into four thousand words. Hopefully I’ll have the second part up soon.
Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
“You were very lucky,” Deremanoi said.
“I know, sir,” Mankin said. “With those numbers against us, Denetoi and I should be dead.”
“That is not what I meant,” Deremanoi said. “You are fortunate in that you were attacked in broad daylight, in about as public a space as can be found in Venia, unless you arranged to be ambushed attending the Arena. There is no doubt that the attack was unprovoked.”
“Ah,” Mankin said. “I see.”
The two of them were talking by themselves, but the forecourt of the Triumvir’s Basilica was crowded. This was where all the foreign officers and officials to be presented tonight had been gathered; under high lanterns a crowd of folk were gathered under the eyes of several rather stern-looking major-domos. There were at least fifty people to be presented, and every one was dressed in the best garb of their respective lands. Mankin wore his new blue and gold clan uniform, while Deremanoi wore the red and black of the Copper clan. Mankin would never have admitted it out loud, but he had always thought the Copper Clan had the best uniform in the Hegemony. In blue and gold Mankin always felt like a parakeet.
“As a consequence,” Deremanoi said, “everyone knows you and your man were merely defending yourselves, and the Imperial authorities are obliged to conduct a thorough investigation. They are embarrassed that a representative of an Imperial tributary, although not yet officially presented, should be attacked in the streets.”
Something in the way Deremanoi said this disturbed Mankin. “What will this investigation involve?”
Deremanoi shrugged. “The secret police are hunting this…Chumaki? Chumaki, and bringing in his associates for questioning, even as we speak. I received word that they found the man whose hand you cut off, and are holding him for later questioning. Of which we shall be allotted a share.”
“I see, sir,” Mankin said. The thought did not make him happy.
“His name is Staka, of Brenaj,” Deremanoi said. “Is he known to you?”
Mankin shook his head. “No, sir.”
Deremanoi nodded. “I didn’t really expect so– apparently the man has lived in Venia for years, since before the war. But you never know what odd connections may come to light in matters of this sort.”
“Yes, sir,” Mankin said.
Deremanoi peered at Mankin. “Are you all right, young man?”
Mankin forced himself to stand straighter. “I’m fine, sir– it’s just, well, there’s always a bit of a reaction whenever someone tries to kill me.”
Deremanoi nodded. “Of course. If you I wish I could make an excuse for you….”
“Oh, no, sir,” Mankin said at once. “I’m quite all right for tonight.”
“Good. This first impression is very important, Mankin. All the more so after what you’ve been through today. Fortunately, your role is very simple. Present yourself to the Triumvirs, salute them with proper courtesy, say the formula, wait for their response, and then bow yourself out. If you can endure for a little while the socializing that will come afterward, it will help cement whatever impression you make. Remember, it’s not just the Triumvirs who will be watching– most of the Highborn of Venia, and nearly anyone of consequence, will be here.”
“I understand, sir. I will be fine.”
“Excellent.” Deremanoi glanced at the major-domos at the far end of the court, who were now conferring between themselves with earnest looks. “It appears you’re about to be admitted. I should leave you. Do your best, Mankin, and we will talk afterwards.”
“Yes, sir.” Mankin saluted. Deremanoi left.
Mankin let out a relieved breath when Deremanoi was gone. It was bad enough to face the rulers of the Venian Empire, with hundreds of the Empire’s elite watching; doing it with Deremanoi hovering about only made it worse.
He was still shaky from the morning. He was often like this after a fight. Never during, just after. It made him want to drink, or have a woman. He needed to be sober tonight, and there was no woman he wanted other than Alektl, so one impulse could not be satisfied in the immediate future, and the other, never.
It didn’t help that his scar ached. The weather must be changing.
In his heart, Mankin knew there was another reason for him to count himself and Denetoi fortunate. Tejoi had been a veteran soldier, but as best he could tell the others had hardly known which end of a sword to grab. An interesting datum, which Mankin had not chosen to share with Deremanoi. Chumaki, in whatever scheme he had cooking, did not have many experienced men at his command.
Denetoi, with no role to play in this high-end reception, had gone off to his favorite brothel to work off his jitters in his own way. For tonight, at least, he went with two city militiamen, not as minders, but openly, as guards. “The more the merrier, Cap’n,” he’d told Mankin, “but those boys are paying their own way.” A bodyguard awaited Mankin when he left the reception tonight, as well.
Welcome to Venia. So Deremanoi’s first warning to Mankin about the need for caution had been fully justified. How many other disaffected members of the Black Party lurked in the city, waiting for a chance? And did Chumaki have something more in mind than just Mankin’s death? It would be like the man, who’d always reveled in schemes.
Mankin wondered what the Unchanging was about, giving him a cousin like that.
One thing was certain, though– there would be no scampering home just because people were looking to avenge themselves on him. Deremanoi had not suggested it, and Mankin would have been surprised if he had. Which meant, he realized without much surprise, that there was a good chance he would die in this assignment. The thought did not bother him a great deal.
He frowned. If his grip on life was still shaky, why had he fought so hard that very morning? It would have been easy to let the assassins kill him. Perhaps he had become, after three years of war, a mere creature of instinct and reflexes. The thought troubled him.
But then, of course, if he had died almost certainly Denetoi would have, too. Mankin felt better about that. It was strange how a comrade could anger you one minute, and the next you’re fighting to save his life. But then, Mankin had seen many stranger things in the last few years.
A staff was tapped on flagstones, a sharp sound. One of the major-domos stepped forward. “Ladies, lords,” he called, “it is time.”
Crisonia, for a moment, felt almost wealthy. She had been afraid she would have to hire a palanquin for the evening. Instead, word came that morning first from Garus Pilius that he was sending a chair for her; then word arrived from General Rebonius that he was sending a palanquin with his own slaves to carry it; and then word came from Ramius Eunitus, another old friend of her father’s, that he was sending a chair. It was quite a sight to see them all lined up at her front gate when it came time to leave for the reception.
She, of course, chose General Rebonius’ palanquin, as he was the highest ranking of the three. But she told the leader of each of the other two teams to convey her thanks their masters, and she resolved to thank them in person if she saw them at the reception.
The bearers breasted the traffic in the streets with steady strength, their leader shouting clear the way, clear the way! They got her to the basilica in good time. The leader told her they would return for her at the reception’s end, or the lady could send word to Rebonius’ house and they would come for her sooner. It gave Crisonia a small glow, which she carried with her into the basilica.
She had been here many times before, but almost always under happier circumstances. She had often accompanied her father on his business. Because he had no son, Mario had tried to impart to his daughter a sense of the business of the government– and who was important in that government. If she was to inherit his estate, he reasoned, she would also inherit his responsibilities in the New Way. Of course, Crisonia could never hold office, but her husband might– which led directly to Mario’s second reason for bring his daughter to the Triumvir’s Basilica. The eldest sons of so many Highborn fathers congregated there, learning the business of government, that Mario often referred to it as the “best husband market in the Empire, with the widest selections!” The joke rarely failed to get at least a smile out of his daughter.
In the end, though, Crisonia had never found anyone there interesting enough to spend the rest of her life with. Her father had indulged her, as his only child, while dropping hints that she couldn’t be too picky. Then their lives had unraveled, and Crisonia’s marriage prospects had appeared to shrivel like grapevines in a drought.
Until yesterday morning. She was still trying to digest Garus’ proposal. It was ridiculous, and flattering, and charming, and utterly impossible. She would be glad when Garus’ father smacked it down, which Crisonia thought was a certainty. It would save her the embarrassment of having to refuse him herself.
She had since resolved to refuse any and all marriage offers she might receive, at least for the foreseeable future. It would just complicate what she had to do. She knew that meant, at minimum, months or years alone. Her higher purpose, she decided, was worth it.
She entered the basilica by way of the Senator’s Entrance. She was not alone on the wide steps; other attendees, Highborn and officers, were streaming into the building. As Crisonia gained the top of the stairs, and saw the bronze doors standing wide, she caught sight of Talia Setima. The young woman saw her, too, and turned back from going in. “I was hoping you would be here!” the other woman exclaimed.
“I’m hardly going to give the Order the satisfaction of thinking I am pining away at home,” Crisonia said. The Setima were stalwarts of the New Way, and Talia a friend since childhood.
“Good!” Talia exclaimed. She embraced Crisonia as if she were a blood-sister. “Yes, frustrate them at every turn! Mother is already inside– come, you must sit with us.”
Crisonia smiled. She did not think at all of disputing Talia. They went in together.
The reception itself was to be held in the Hall of the Protecting Gods, a broad, circular space that could accommodate hundreds of guests. A dais for the Triumvirs, with ornate seats, had been erected against one wall. A broad stretch of floor had been left open in front of the dais. Here, Crisonia knew from past such receptions, the foreigners would present themselves to the Triumvirs. It was, she supposed, a remnant from the days when Venia was a small city-state and every foreign-born person who came to the city had to make themselves known to the rulers– first the kings, then the tyrants, and now the triumvirs. As it stood now, it was an occasion for a little pomp and pageantry, as well as an excuse for the better-born of the city to congregate and socialize.
Around the open space were the couches reserved for the families of sitting Senators, where they could recline in comfort while hearing the foreigners’ conversations with the triumvirs. Behind them, the lesser families, retired officers and those invited by a senatorial family milled in a murmuring crowd. There could be, Crisonia reflected, as many as a thousand people here tonight.
Mirana Setima was a thin, elderly woman whose normal demeanor was stern reserve; but tonight, she condescended to smile warmly at Crisonia as she came in on Talia’s arm. “Well met, child,” Mirana said, and she increased the honor she showed to Crisonia by rising and planting a kiss on each of the younger woman’s cheeks. “Yes, you must sit with us, they’re about to let the barbarians in.”
Crisonia reclined on a couch by Talia. Slaves brought edible tidbits and cooled wine. Crisonia hid a sigh of contentment. Let it all go, just for now.
As she nibbled and drank the sweet wine, Talia plied her with questions– how she was feeling, how was she passing the time, was she tired from having to do her own housework? Talia seemed to be quietly horrified at the thought of having to sweep and clean. Crisonia tried to assure her that housework was not disarranging her internal organs or driving her to distraction. She got the sense, however, that Talia simply had trouble conceiving of life without slaves, or, at least, house servants.
“Well,” Crisonia said, “there’s just the two of us now. And Rema is a great help. Of course, we won’t be entertaining very much, so that simplifies matters a great deal. It is the time, perhaps, that hangs the heaviest on us.” She forced herself to smile. “Perhaps I’ll take up scholarship– teach myself Serinian or something.”
Talia’s mother had listened without speaking up to this point. Now she scowled. “Dearest child, this is such a degradation! For one of the oldest house’s of Venia to be reduced to such straits! The Senate was cruel in judging your father, but doubly-so in leaving you with nothing to live on– and nothing for a dowry, on top of it.”
Crisonia shrugged. “What is to be done, lady? Both trial and sentence are over and done with.”
Mirana’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly some restoration of your property may yet be possible. My husband wanted me to tell you, if I saw you tonight, that many in the New Way are in favor of a law in your favor, to do just that.”
Crisonia was surprised. “Lady, this is unexpected. Thank you.”
Mirana shook her head. “Do not thank me, and do not thank anyone, yet– it is merely an idea being mooted among our friends. And, in truth, it is not just out of sympathy for you. We want to let the Order know that we will not tolerate this kind of…legal brutality. Their precedent must be countered with one of our own.”
Crisonia nodded. “I understand. I am still grateful.” She hesitated. “I miss the presence of your honored husband. I trust Carus Setima is not ill?”
Mirana hesitated in her turn, if only for a moment. “No, my husband is quite well. Other business detained him tonight.”
Crisonia was surprised again. Carus Setima, to her certain knowledge, had not missed this event as far back as she could remember. Her father and Setima usually attended it together, using it as an occasion to shore up alliances and confer with other Highborn they might not see on a daily basis. Despite Mirana’s words, Carus’ absence seemed odd. All Crisonia said, though, was, “I am sorry to miss his company, lady.”
The sound of wood on stone echoed through the chamber. “Now heed my words!” a major-domo cried, in a booming voice. “Greet the Triumvirs, the guardians of the people!”
Everyone in the room reclining at table stood, as the three Triumvirs entered and ascended the dais. In the lead was Farus Tolius, the Triumvir of the Green. Genial old fool, had been the judgment of her father, and Crisonia saw no reason to doubt it, for all that Farus was of the New Way. If there had been a strong will and sharper mind in the Green chair, perhaps her father would still be alive.
Behind him came Polius Manico, Triumvir of the White. Crisonia wished looks truly could kill, but she knew the fat man was, in truth, just the puppet of Junius Valerius. She still despised him from afar, loathing his simpering look of superiority, hating the fact that the innocent Earth had to bear his ponderous weight.
Last came Attius Ternarum, Triumvir of the Red. This man was an Imperialist, everyone knew that, but Crisonia heard the whispers that he had opposed the war in the east in the private councils of the party, and argued against the more extreme ideas of his compatriots. In public, though, hardly anyone knew more than what he spoke aloud, and that was not much. His bland face, as always, gave nothing away. He had stood by, though, while Crisonia’s father was condemned, and that was enough to mark him down as an enemy in her mind.
The three climbed up on the dais and stood before their seats. “Ladies, gentlemen, Highborn,” Attius said, in a voice that carried. “We welcome you to this Remembrance of our Heroic Ancestors. Let us all recall the deeds of our forebears, as examples to us of how we may maintain their great legacy.”
Everyone in the room bowed their head in silence for a moment. Crisonia wondered how the ancestors felt about the fact that this was about all the actual remembrance they would receive this evening. Probably used to it by now.
Attius lifted his face. “And we welcome you as witnesses to the reception of honored foreign officers, representing their several peoples and nations to our mighty state.”
With rustling silk and cotton, those at table reclined or sat once more. The rest of the crowd murmured and stirred, as the first foreigner entered.
“Oh, a Serinian,” Talia murmured to Crisonia.
Crisonia looked closely at the man who stepped out on to the open floor– a compact man in foreign silks, belted tight at the waist and tucked into boots of soft leather. Crisonia had seen only a few Westerners from across the Great Sea before, so the fellow’s brown skin and narrow eyes were strange to her. When he had bowed to the Triumvirs, though, he said his name in clear Venian. “Tungus An, of the Serinian Supremacy, at your service, my lords.”
“We greet you, Tungus An, and recognize that you have come to serve your Speaker,” Farus said. “As such, your person is inviolable and sacred. We invite you to enjoy the hospitality of our nation, and to respect its peace and harmony.”
“I respect your peace and harmony, and I am grateful for your generosity.” Tungus bowed again, turned and walked off to the left, and that was that for him. The next barbarian was already at the entrance to the chamber.
“A Serinian,” Talia whispered, openly fascinated. “How…interesting.”
“Be quiet, girl,” Mirana said, sounding irritated. “Control your fantasies. Eastern, Western, Middle, men are all the same.”
“Not quite,” Talia whispered to Crisonia, with a sly grin.
The next foreigner was a Massanian. By the time Crisonia turned to hear him address the Triumvirs, she had missed his name. He was hardly less exotic than the Serinian– tall and red-headed, with hands tattooed with strange, blue whorls. She wondered a bit at his presence– the Empire had only lately made peace with the far-northerners, and to see one loose in the capitol came as a bit of surprise. Crisonia had not even been aware the Massanians had a Speaker in Venia.
The northerner left, and in came another exotic sight– a short woman, black-skinned, dressed in glittering scale armor. Her hair was cropped short, and she carried a silver helmet under one arm. She was armed with a curving sword in a polished scabbard that reflected the lamplight.
“What’s this, then?” Talia exclaimed lowly.
“Tarthia vul-Pasar,” the woman said, “First Captain of the Mother’s Chapterhouse of Devotions, of the Kingdom of Cahria, at your service, my lords.” Her Venian was very good.
“Quite a title, for such a short woman,” Talia said. Indeed, Crisonia doubted this Tarthia was more than an inch over five feet. “What’s it all about?”
“Child, it means she is a warrior-maid dedicated to the Mother Goddess of Cahria,” Mirana whispered. “I do wish you had paid better attention to your lessons.”
“How is anyone supposed to keep track of all these foreigners, anyway?” Talia complained. To Crisonia she said, “I’d pay attention better if she were a male warrior. It would make all the difference.”
Tarthia vul-Pasar finished the formula and departed. A tall man came after her, tall enough that the height difference between him and the Cahrian caused a titter of mirth among the watchers. Crisonia saw a man dressed in dark, high boots and tight gold britches, with a dark blue jerkin over a white linen shirt. He carried a broad-brimmed hat, leaving himself properly bare-headed before the Triumvirs. As a consequence, his long, golden-brown hair shone in the lamplight. Crisonia might have delighted in the color, except that all that hair was clubbed into a horridly barbaric pig-tail at the back of the man’s head.
He wore a sword that might have possibly been the longest one-handed blade Crisonia had ever seen, four feet or even longer. As a weapon to be borne into the presence of the Triumvirs, it seemed singularly plain and practical, contained in a sheath of black leather lacking any ornamentation, the bell and hand-grip without decoration. Crisonia wondered why the sight of it troubled her.
The man stopped and bowed to the Triumvirs. “Mankin, son of Toren, of the Hegemony of the Attau, at your service, my lords.” His Venian was quite good– only a trace of a burred accent showed through.
“Oh!” Talia exclaimed in a low whisper. “I’ve heard stories about this one. He’s one of those wild horsemen from the northeast– the grandson of their headman, or whatever he’s called. They say his wife and child were killed in the war they fought among themselves, and that out of grief he tried to die by feeding himself to tigers. Or it may have been bears. I forget.”
“Indeed,” Crisonia said. She eyed the foreigner, as Attius spoke the formula to him. Weakling.
“I wonder where he got that scar,” Mirena pondered. Indeed, the outlander had a long, curving scar down the right side of his face, temple to jaw. Crisonia had no trouble seeing it from forty feet away. She wondered if the man had grown his beard out to hide the lower portion of it; if he had, it did little good, for the wound had turned the beard hairs over it white. “It must have been quite a blow.”
Crisonia could not have cared less. But she was startled out of indifference when, as the Attau finished the formula and turned to leave, Farus stood up. “Young man, a word.”
“What is Farus doing?” Talia gasped. She might have been heard, except that the whole crowd in the chamber murmured and whispered at the same moment, startled by the sudden break in the ceremony.
The Attau stopped, faced Farus and the other other Triumvirs again. “Yes, my lord?”
“I wanted to offer you the apology of the Triumvirs, and the Venian people, for the insult you received this morning, and the danger you faced. Be assured, all the conspirators will be hunted down without mercy.”
The Attau seemed as surprised as any of the spectators at these words. “I-I thank my lord,” he said, stumbling a little.
“I trust the rest of your time in Venia will be more pleasant.”
“I’m sure it will be, my lord.” Hesitating, the Attau bowed again, turned, and left the floor.
“What was that all about?” Crisonia asked Talia, having to raise her voice a little over the increased murmuring that followed the Attau’s departure.
“Oh, you didn’t hear?” Mirana said, sounding indifferent. “There was an affray involving that one this morning on the waterfront. Apparently some of his countrymen thought to revenge themselves on him. Farus is simply being polite, I expect.”
“It’s not every day a Triumvir is heard begging the forgiveness of a barbarian,” Crisonia said.
“Well, Mirana said, “it’s an embarrassing incident. He had to say something, just for form’s sake.”
“Oh, Mother, you take the juice out of everything!” Talia complained. “I heard that this man and his servant were set upon by ten assassins, each pledged to kill them or die. The two maimed one and killed the other nine, and suffered not a scratch between them.”
“Of course,” Mirana said, dismissive. “Killing comes naturally to barbarians.”
“Didn’t you think him a fine-looking fellow, though?” Talia asked.
Crisonia wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Oh, no– all pig-tails and scars. And that uniform– it made him look like a giant parakeet.”