Clatan 18, 1015
“And here we are, mein Prince! Takemizu!”
“Yes, my lord?”
“I know for a fact that you’ve never been here before.” Kay turned to Walter with a raised eyebrow. “So … where do you get off acting like the tour guide?”
“My lord! I am appalled!” Walter put his hands on his heart and opened his eyes wide. “I am your valet! I am always instantly at home wherever you go, the better to make you at home.”
“Huh. And here I thought, before you mentioned that, that home was the place you could fart and nobody would look at you funny.”
Walter blinked. “My lord … if you keep thinking that way … then I’m afraid the world will become a much more f–”
“I was going to say fragrant place, in very short order.”
Another fart-related quip rose to Kay’s lips — and then he shook himself. “Good Lord, what am I saying?”
“I don’t know, my lord.”
“That makes two of us …” Kay rubbed his eyes.
“Don’t worry, my lord. I for one blame all those salty-lipped sailors.”
“Salty-lipped …” Kay murmured. He glanced sidelong at Walter. Walter started to whistle.
“I take it that I’m better off not knowing?” asked Kay.
“At least until we figure out the legalities of the situation, my lord.”
And Kay decided, very wisely, to leave it that, and spend the next few moments appreciating where he had come to be.
First and foremost, Kay was back on terra firma, and while the terra didn’t feel all that firma at the moment — it kept rocking and swaying like he was still aboard ship — he was inclined to be appreciative all the same. Captain Love had assured him that that was normal and would subside in due time.
And in the meantime … he was still in Takemizu.
Takemizu! Home to all the fabled riches of the east! Takemizu, the main port that the Sminese used for trading outward! Takemizu — a city that was already quite cosmopolitan in its outlook and which was, according to Baron Ferreira, home to an elite that was keen to strengthen its ties to Albion. Albion, according to Baron Ferreira, had access to the money and the markets of Glasonland, Reme, Gaul and even Simspain, at the low, low price of half the insanity.
That could work out well for Albion, provided Kay that played his cards — or, given that he was in Takemizu, tiles — right.
And he thought that he was just about to get a chance to play those cards as he saw a dark-haired man in a green-and-white robe come hurrying toward him. Kay barely had a chance to nudge Walter before the man was practically upon them.
“Prince Kay of Albion?” asked the man in very good, if rather accented, Simlish. Kay nodded. “I give you greetings and welcome!” He bowed.
Baron Ferreira had said that that was the custom here, for all men to bow to each other (and women, for that matter). Kay did his best to bow in reply. “Greetings, er … I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage …”
“I am Motuo Thanh, my lord.”
Motuo Thanh … Baron Ferreira had mentioned that the Sminese reversed the usual order of names, giving the family name first and the personal name second. So that would mean. “Thank you, Master … Motuo?”
Master Motuo grinned, and Kay almost sighed and relief.
“I am most pleased to meet you,” Kay went on, “and I must introduce you to my–to my man, Walter Smith. Er–Smith Walter, I suppose is how we would say it here.”
“Your man?” asked Master Motuo, casting a calculating, appraising look at Walter. Walter smirked back.
Was … was Master Motuo starting to flush? Oh, Lord. Kay really didn’t want to notice anything of that sort until, as Walter had pointed out, they got a handle on the legalities of the situation. “My servant,” Kay clarified, although he did not specify exactly what kind of servant. He had no idea what precise rank a valet held in Sminese culture — and more importantly, Walter now acting as his secretary and general assistant was not precisely usual back in Albion, either. Best for everybody to just keep quiet about the exact rankings.
“Of course, of course,” replied Master Motuo. “But come! Doubtless you wish to rest from your journey. Let me conduct you to Lady Rhee, and then I can conduct you to your lodgings.”
Kay exchanged a glance with Walter. Lady? he asked.
Lodgings? asked Walter.
Well, it was good to know that Walter had his heart — or perhaps his head — in the right place. Surely where they were to live for the next few months was more important than the precise sex of the person they were about to meet.
At least … Kay hoped it was. A good home could make up for many ills, and at the very least, having someplace secure to lay your head at night could give you the mental wherewithal to know how to deal with the person you may very well have to be … well, dealing with.
Kay sincerely hoped that would be the case as Master Motuo led them across the sunny courtyard to the tall pagoda in the distance. He ushered them through the sliding double doors, and with scarcely a hint of hesitation led them into the first door on their right. That was … not what Kay had been expecting. In his experience, back home, the important people kept their offices near the back, where it wasn’t easy to bother them with trivial things.
Perhaps the Sminese saw things differently.
“My lady,” said Master Motuo, bowing to the old woman — and there was no doubting that this person was a woman and not a mistranslation — “I present to you Prince Kay of Albion, and Smith Walter, his man.”
The woman before them also clad in a robe of green silk, though to Kay’s eye, her silk was a bit shinier, a bit newer, and much greener than Master Motuo’s. She had been holding a pair of spectacles to her eyes when they had first walked in, but put them down almost immediately. “Ah yes. Of course, the prince. Please, my Prince …” She gestured to the chair across from her. “Sit, will you?”
Her accent, Kay noticed, was much smoother than Master Motuo’s. Everything about her seemed smoother: her hair, carefully knotted and arranged, the set of her back and shoulders, her graceful movements. Even her skin seemed somehow smoother, which, given that she had to be at least twenty years Master Motuo’s senior, was saying something.
Still, Kay knew when he was dealing with an older woman who would not be gainsaid, so, with a brisk bow in the Albionese style, he took his seat. “Thank you, my lady.”
“Is there anything I can get you?” asked Master Motuo, hanging back by the door. “Some refreshments? Tea? Food?”
Lady Rhee looked expectantly at Kay; after a quick glance at Walter to confirm, Kay shook his head.
Lady Rhee nodded once and turned to Master Motuo. “No, Motuo. Thank you. You may go.”
Master Motuo bowed and hurried from the room, leaving Walter and Kay alone with Lady Rhee.
Lady Rhee wasted no time in getting to the point. “So!” She smiled, her eyes glittering. “The Albionese have come at least, to treat with us officially.”
“We apologize for not coming to you sooner,” Kay replied as smoothly as he dared. “But …”
Drat, what was a good excuse? They had been trading with the Sminese, more or less, for longer than Kay had been alive. Even if it was true that most of the delay stemmed from the fact that Arthur had more than enough on his plate on the continent to go bothering with people an ocean away … well, you didn’t exactly say that to a potential trading and treating partner.
Best to butter them up. “We assumed, my lady, that a great empire like Smina would have no interest in treating with us.”
“Is that what you thought?” asked Lady Rhee. Kay thought he saw her eyes twinkling. “But we were perfectly content to trade with you. Why should we not wish to treat with you as well?”
Kay hesitated. That could very easily be a trick question …
“Well, to be honest, my lady,” he replied, “it may be at least in part because while you say you were trading with us, as far as I am aware, we’ve only got one man — Baron Ferreira — trading with this fine country in any kind of volume, and, well …” He couldn’t help it. The old grin came out. “We may be small, my lady, but we are not so small that we imagine that one citizen trading with this great empire merits a treaty.”
“But things have changed,” murmured Lady Rhee. “Why is that?”
Kay’s mouth opened and closed again. Well. That was an interesting question …
And perhaps it was one that deserved a truthful answer. Will had told him that a good half of diplomacy was saying nothing both verifiable and false while at the same time not letting more of the truth out than one could help. Perhaps this conversation would be best placed in the other half.
“Well, my lady — I suppose now, it matters because our Baron — and, truthfully, some other merchants — are taking over a lot of the trade that used to come from Gaul, Simspain and even Smooria, which means that you are no longer dealing with just one man, but rather with several countries … admittedly all trading through the one man, true, but–”
“You mentioned Smooria,” Lady Rhee interrupted. “Tell me — what is Albion’s position vis-a-vis Smooria?”
Kay did not let his eyes widen. Nor did he turn to Walter for assistance. He was the bloody diplomat here, and more importantly, he was the King’s son. If anybody in the room would know the answer to this, wouldn’t it be him?
Unfortunately, knowing the answer did not equate to knowing how to answer …
“Well, my lady,” Kay began, “of course we are appalled by the atrocities being visited on good Wrightians–”
“What atrocities?” barked Lady Rhee. “Specifically.”
Wright damn it! Of course she would ask that … but then again … Kay remembered something his father had once said. “We are discussing a war, madam. There are always atrocities. Rape … pillage … the slaughter of innocent civilians …” He shrugged. “If you can show me any war that has not included those, I will show you a war waged not by Sims, but by angels.”
“Angels,” repeated Lady Rhee. “I know what your ‘angels’ are. Tell me, what business would any ‘angel’ have in fighting a war in the first place?”
Kay supposed he could have mentioned the war of the angels against the demons, when the demons were cast from heaven and into hell. But now was not the time to argue theology. So Kay only smiled. “Precisely, my lady.”
For some reason that made Lady Rhee grin. “You are a clever young man … but!” She smacked her hand on the desk, probably just to watch Kay and Walter jump. “Have a care, good sir, that you not become too clever!”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” replied Kay, somehow managing to keep a straight face.
“Excellent.” Lady Rhee began to smile, but soon the smile dropped away. “So. You are appalled by the atrocities — very well, so would anyone with a rudiment of a conscience be. But let me ask you — do not you Wrightians visit such atrocities on each other daily? Not only in war, but in peace?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Kay replied, hoping that the Lord valued honesty over tribal loyalty.
“So what is so much worse about the Smoors doing it to Wrightians than Wrightians doing it to other Wrightians?”
Well, damn. That was a good question. A question Kay hadn’t the least idea how to —
Wait a minute. His brain eagerly ticked over what he had said. He had never actually said — no, he hadn’t said that. Not in so many words.
Ha! “But my lady,” Kay replied, making his eyes fly wide the way he used to when he was in trouble with his mother, “I never said it was!”
That look never fooled his mother. And by Lady Rhee’s little frown, Kay guessed he wasn’t fooling her, either. But this was diplomacy, not real life. In reality, what mattered most was what was meant, not exactly what was said. In diplomacy … Kay was beginning to sense that the opposite was the case.
Given the rules of diplomacy, then, Lady Rhee had little choice but to nod. “True. Very true, Prince Kay. You did not … say … that.”
“And we are always appalled when atrocities are visited upon good Wrightians, no matter who is doing the visiting. It may even be worse when Wrightians are both oppressors and oppressed. After all …” Kay let a shrug fill in the rest of that, suspecting that pointing out many would argue that the Smoors might not know any better would not go over well with his audience.
“I see. I see,” murmured Lady Rhee. Yes, Kay suspected she did see. “So–you are not well-pleased by the bloodshed … but beyond that …?”
“This is the real world, Lady Rhee. If the Simspanish were being slaughtered for no more reason than their faith — if we did not have it on good authority that most Wrightians were left alone and only asked to pay an additional tax — then we might have to marshal our resources, however pitiful, to help them out. As it stands, however …: Kay shrugged again. “This is the real world, my lady. These things happen.”
“These things happen,” repeated Lady Rhee, but before she could say more, the door to the office slid open, and a man in a blue robe walked in. He seemed startled to see Kay and Walter.
“Ah–Himara!” That was all Kay could make out before Lady Rhee began a fast conversation in Sminese with the man. After a few minutes of back-and-forth, she turned to Kay and Walter. “I apologize that I must cut this meeting short — unfortunately I have much to do today. But doubtless you are tired and wish to rest?”
“Indeed we are, my lady. And I must thank you for taking steps to procure lodgings for us.”
Lady Rhee shrugged. “It was the least we could do. Hopefully, when our ambassador travels to your country, you will repay our kindness.”
“That goes without saying, my lady.” And with that, Kay stood — Lady Rhee and Walter stood as well — and showed Lady Rhee his best Sminese bow.
Unfortunately it was not very good — and where Kay’s eyes ended up, well —
But it made Lady Rhee chuckle. “An excellent try, Prince Kay, an excellent try.” She bowed to him in turn. “I am most pleased to make your acquaintance. And when we start our negotiations tomorrow, I hope they will prove fruitful on both sides.
“But enough pleasantries. Go and rest, Prince Kay. Settle in to your lodgings. Starting tomorrow … then we can negotiate.”
“These are our lodgings?” Kay demanded incredulously some time later.
“Are they not satisfactory?” asked Motuo, turning around, obviously worried.
“Satisfactory?” Kay asked. “Master Motuo, I think your Simlish needs a bit of … work. Satisfactory would have meant a private room at an inn, with regular meals, a pleasant atmosphere, and as few bedbugs as could be arranged. This …” Kay flung out his arm to indicate the house, the wall surrounding it, the garden, the bloody ornamental pond. “This is not in any way satisfactory! This is stupendous, Master Motuo!”
Master Motuo grinned. “I am glad it is to your standards.”
“My standards? Sir, you clearly have not met enough Albionese if you think that are standards are so high that this home wouldn’t meet and surpass them by a great deal!”
“Ah, don’t listen to him, Master Motuo,” replied Walter. “Some of us have very high standards indeed.”
Master Motuo grinned — then, seeming to remember where he was and what he was meant to be doing, he hurried to the door. “Let me show you the inside.”
They suited the action to the word.
The inside was every bit as pleasant as the outside promised. Kay liked the color scheme: black and red, though neither the black nor the red was so very pronounced as to be eye-searing. It wasn’t the warmer reds and golds he favored in his own home, but for here … oh, it would do. It would do very well.
But what really drew Kay’s attention was not the small sitting area, or the room that appeared to be a study with … was that a tea table? No, it was none of these things.
It was the dining area.
He never thought he would see this much Pendragon heraldry outside of Albion — hell, outside of Camelot.
“My … my goodness …” Kay murmured.
“That is correct, is it not?” asked Master Motuo. “The–the device? I have it on very good authority–”
“Correct? Correct, man?” Kay whirled around. “This–this is more than correct! Better than correct! This–this is more than I ever dared to imagine! This is …”
Like home … thought Kay.
But that was it, wasn’t it? Seeing that heraldry — it was like being welcomed back home again. It was a sign that somehow, someway, he was still connected to Albion even though an ocean and a not-particularly friendly empire lay between them. And even if Kay understood why the heraldry was here — even if he saw that he would be expected to entertain here, and when he entertained, Albion entertained — none of that mattered. All he could see right now was the fact that this was like home …
And that was all he cared about. For the moment.
“Excellent!” replied Master Motuo. “Well, the bedrooms are upstairs — I am sure, Prince, that you will be able to determine which is which. Unfortunately I must leave you, but I am certain you would like to have some privacy to settle in?”
“Yes, yes, we would,” replied Kay. “Thank you, Master Motuo.”
Master Motuo grinned, and bowed, and hurried from the house.
And he was right: they had a lot to do, Kay and Walter. They had to send for their luggage to be brought here. They had to see to the unpacking of it. Kay had to review his orders as many times as he could manage and pray that nothing had gone out of date. And he needed to prepare for the meeting tomorrow.
But first … first he needed a moment to celebrate with his man.
Because, even if it was premature, Kay could not help but sense that this would be a very successful trip.