Looking back through the past few months, I know there’s plenty of times when I felt like I was in over my head, and I know that I’ve come out of them more or less intact. This time is different, though – when we raided the White Tower, I knew it would be risky, but I also knew it was the right thing to do. What I’ve gotten myself dragged into? I know why I’m doing it, and what I’m getting out of it is important, but what I have to do to achieve it sets me on edge.
I could have chosen to let what happened at the outpost go. Heh, that’s a funny thought, me letting something like that go. My curiosity’s always gotten me in trouble, and I keep on dancing to its tune. Magnus sent the translation on to me, and it was a pretty straightforward status report. Nothing that I’d consider worthy of packing up a well-maintained post in a hurry.
I followed my next lead, finding Krog in a teahouse in Moss Point. In the future, I really must consider never having an important conversation in a mostly empty room in a high-class establishment. The Quiver at dinner rush would have been a better choice – enough activity to garble the conversation, at least. I’m starting to think that my quarters are the only place I can speak in confidence, and I’m fairly sure that if Krog and I had a conversation there, Naheeda would have some very strong opinions about the matter.
So it’s well-known (to the people who care) that I know a good amount of details about this developing plan. Thenex the Bastard was older than the legitimate heir, giving him a fairly strong claim to the throne after Ceraxus II met his fitting end. Rumor always ran that Thenex had a twin – a female twin. Although House Anaxamander normally only allows for succession through the male line, there’s a quirk of law that states that a female twin and all her line inherit as if she was the same as her brother. If said female twin existed, she’d have likely fled a long time ago, to the Venom Deserts or the Kingdom of the Ram, taking with her some of Thenex’s considerable wealth. This fits quite nicely in with finding that coin – her heirs would be incredibly more likely to have one of those coins than anyone else in the known world.
Krog also introduced me to some rather circular logic at the foundation of Imperial governance – the Anaxamanders have a divine right to rule, proven by three relics that choose the ruler based on their claim to the house of Anaxamander. Point being, there are three relics – two of which (a crown and a sword) are in direct possession of the throne at Quelldawn, one of which, a bridle, was kept in trust by the Church of St. Cuthbert. If you wanted to get that bridle out of the Empire, now would be the time. This assures me that this isn’t all smoke and mirrors, making a rightful heir out of thin air to press a claim. I almost wrote “reassures”, but I don’t feel particularly comforted by that knowledge. Fake heir or real, result’s the same – I’ve been asked to start a war.
Lysander Bantam had someone listening in on that conversation – I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been the man himself. In less time than it took me to cross the city, there was a messenger at my elbow proposing a meeting at the Water Clock. He is stunningly skilled at disguise – I was looking for him, I know his voice, and I barely knew him when he brought me my beer and sat down at my table. As far as I can tell, it’s not cheap transmutation, highly impressive and and neatly sidestepping a simple detect magic. I wasn’t entirely certain what was going on when I sat down, but after he gave me the translation of the invisible ink cipher and I kept him talking for a while, I know what’s going on “better than Bishopsgate”. Although apparently about as well as someone I will be having very sharp words with very soon. Clyde deserved that cookie for pointing out that I was making a terrible assumption.
They’re after a descendant of Thenex’s twin, a girl who can’t be older than I am. She’s headed straight into an ambush, and the Exiles’ best attempts to pre-emptively ambush her have been thwarted by her two companions – a bodyguard of sorts from the Venom Deserts and a gnomish mage. From the intelligence I was given, he’s an incredibly powerful transmuter, surely more powerful than I am. They’re headed towards a full Imperial platoon, two mages, two clerics, two scouts, fourteen soldiers. Lots of manpower, but they’re going to have the same problems Cyrus bitches about so profusely after leading expeditionary forces – low mobility, little understanding of the terrain. So my task is this – foil the Imperial ambush, convince the girl and her companions that this is the least bad of several bad options, get them back to the edge of town and meet up with the Collective Friend. Deliver their casus belli, and in return, the exile army will defend the city. I know they’ll need that bridle as well, but I have this sneaking feeling that this opportunity isn’t immediately following the chaos at the Church of St. Cuthbert by chance. It’s headed this way, I’m sure of it.
At least I have enough to worry about for the immediate future, even setting aside our upcoming excursions in the swamp. Before I found out he’d been playing me like a catfish on a line, I was considering finally making a move. I probably still will, because he’s just as handsome and charming and utterly infuriating as ever. It will come with some very deep caveats. If it’s going to be anything more than physical I need to know what his motives are, and I am not desperate enough to put up with all this protocol just to get laid. Everyone from Krog to Lysander Bantam keeps assuring me that Cyrus is a good man, and all that makes me think is that everyone thinks I can’t see what’s right in front of my face. And that makes me wonder if they’re right.
How to make a move, according to Krog, is entirely ass-backwards from how this works with normal people. Usually, two potential lovers meet, they actually tell each other that they’re interested, they test the waters to see if they’re compatible, and finally they introduce each other to their families. I thought that was pretty universal, but no, that’s not how it works with nobility. I should have asked Krog how his relationship with Naheeda fits into this paradigm, but he’d probably have correctly pointed out that he’s not the heir apparent to his house and his family isn’t just down the street from the Collective.
Apparently, the way that you start a courtship in noble circles is to demonstrate your ability to fake social graces for long enough that your prospective mate’s family agrees that you’re not going to utterly embarrass them. I thought I pulled that off well enough at the feast we attended, but a slightly more personal gesture is going to be required. I have to host a dinner party. I haven’t even talked about it with anyone other than Krog and Clyde, and I already feel like I’m in way over my head.
Krog very helpfully suggested that I keep the guest list to the Drylands and one other family, and that the Limbers would suffice. He also instructed me on the very basics of noble manners – essentially, figure out who cares most about protocol and copy them. We also determined that I am very much not the ideal match from a traditional perspective. Lack of nobility is one thing, but my total lack of family history is problematic. The best way he could figure out to spin it is to play up a “mysterious past” and prominently wear my “family heirlooms”. In the strictest sense those are both true, but it feels a bit disingenuous. I don’t know a thing about my mother, save that the brooch and vest came from her, but as far as I’m concerned, the most mysterious thing about my past is a vague memory of island breezes and warm sands. I’d love to know more about my mother – what she looked like, how she met my father, why she sent me to Stone Table. Knowing that wouldn’t change who I am.
Who I am, for the record, is someone with nothing polite to talk about at dinner. I knew that it’s not considered polite to talk about politics at dinner outside Stone Table, but it’s a bit intimidating to find out most of my interests would be considered equally crass. There’s a short list of things that I can talk about, provided I carefully obscure the more colorful details: the mundane aspects of my study at the Academy, my interest in language and dialect, and my experiences traveling (editing out the bits where I was working as a tinker or caravan guard). Literature would also be acceptable, and knowing that Finn is a connoisseur of Elven poetry, that might not be the worst direction to steer a conversation. I don’t think I’ll have to master the skill for this party, but Krog pointed out that I’ll have to learn how to dance, “and not to a fiddle at a tavern”. Gods of mercy, isn’t it enough that I’m an accomplished arcanist, practiced tactician, and starting a damn war for them? I have to dance like a trained bear too?
What I have been very soundly assured of is that everything is about the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of it. All I have to do is show that I can play by the rules until dinner is over and drinks are served, because no one cares if you’re actually proper, just that you can wear the trappings of propriety when someone’s looking. As an attempt to make me seem somewhat more respectable, Krog is drawing up a coat of arms for me. I’d thought that was something you didn’t just get because your friend decided you needed one, but because I own property, I’m rather wealthier than much of the petty nobility, and in an incredible loophole my Republican citizenship guarantees my family has never been “serfs” by their reckoning, I’m actually eligible to have one. I’m interested in seeing what he comes up with. He also introduced me to a very important insight – this is a con game like any other con game. In my line of work, who hasn’t paid with a “favor to be named later”?
This is about the last thing I want to do, and I’m going to do it. I’ve just been feeling rather vulnerable lately, and something inside me is lashing out, clawing and flailing and trying to do something to make anything happen. It might be the storm coming. Everyone feels it. I call it a storm. Isabella called it war. I think Jack saw it long before I arrived. “He doesn’t have to watch everyone and figure out who’s important… he just knows what threads to pull, without even looking at the ball of string.” So his “real” power is way less than he’s projecting, but what does that even mean? Jack’s not exactly counting his firepower by arrows and bullets, last time I checked. How he knew a traveling sorcerer for hire had something there that made her able to get mixed up in all this, I haven’t the faintest. Hell, if I walked up to the caravan a year ago and told myself what I’m capable of, I wouldn’t have believed me. I still don’t know what he wants, and that scares me.
Isabella showed a tiny bit of personality today. I looked through her holy book to investigate the inheritance laws, and when I went to return it, I noticed her prayer beads. She made every one of them. They’re her personal history, the one thing she took with her when she fled that wasn’t standard issue. I’ve been such a twit about having her around. I may not understand her, she may not understand me, but she’s gone through some significant traumatic experiences recently. I can be better about showing some damn empathy and trying to make her feel like she’s welcome here. I’m going to have to take an invitation to the Limbers soon. I’ll ask if they have any off-cuts from the titan trees we secured for them. That might not be proper, but with a name like Limber, I very much doubt they’ll look down on me for an interest in craft.
I thought I’d processed most of the events of yesterday fairly well, but upon reflection, I can’t reconcile something that happened while I was talking with Bantam. He slipped up. Told me he’d met the Grandmaster Diviner, asked if he’d ever told me that. This, may I note, was the first time we’ve had a proper conversation. He’s been tailing me a while, and somewhere that crossed over to forgetting we don’t actually know each other. I have this sense that he spends so much time on his work that he’s missed out on a lot of things. Blames himself for not having a relationship with his sons. Blames that for how much of shits they became. A sad tale.
The only thing is, Lord Bantam, because of your work, I will never be entirely sure whether I caught a genuine moment of vulnerability or if you showed me that for a reason. What that reason might be, I haven’t the faintest. I might be a sentimental fool when it comes to Drylands, but all that performance evoked in me was a mixture of pity, discomfort, and suspicion. I’m going to stop assuming that the twins are useless shits. I’m fairly sure that my read was good and they’re empty-headed cads, but if their father is trying to reinforce that view, I need to plan for the contingency that they’re merely playing a part.
I’m also going to hear those words in my head when I’m staring at the ceiling at night – “I have this feeling I would have done very well for myself in the Republic. Maybe I’ll still have the chance.” It was tucked among a litany of regrets, but I still feel ice in my veins when I think about it. I may have snatched the bait from the snare, as it were, but I have this feeling all I did was walk into a larger trap.