The distant chime of the doorbell made Drinith freeze in the middle of turning a page of the notebook. She reflexively glanced across her study at the bookshelves that hid the secret escape door. The ridiculousness of her reaction made her laugh out her held breath. No assassin would announce his coming in such a fashion. She had become much too paranoid.
She glanced with irritation at the bare walls. When Epmar, her predecessor as Meritocrat Hax, retired to a country estate on the shard of Noster, she had taken everything that had once adorned them with her. The empty hooks mocked Drinith’s failure to stamp her presence on the room. She had filled only two hooks in the year since Epmar’s departure. Impaled on one was a straw doll, frayed and battered and missing its flower crown, that Quiescat had insisted she must keep. The other bore a large brass map of her home shard, Rhumgad. The kingdom names and boundaries etched on it, from the highlands in the north to the basin of the Wandering Sea in the south, had been swept away by Magian the Infinite’s armies around the time of her birth. One day, Drinith would return to wrest Rhumgad from his iron grip and restore her realm, Kaplar. But for now, she must content herself that the blockade of his empire by Gyre and its allies had stymied his greater ambitions.
Smoothing a crackling page, she let her attention return to the notebook.
A great cauldron simmers on a fire. The chunks of wood beneath are shaped like dragons. As the cauldron nears boiling, bubbles disturb its fizzing surface, each warped by a different smiling face. The tops of the bubbles curve like talons. As they sink again, they whisper too softly to understand. More and more bubbles rise until the faces become a froth; their whispers expand into an impossible roar. A shadow is visible in the foam. A hand and forearm, green-black, delicate and feminine, rises out of the spitting churn. The dragons beneath rise and the cauldron overturns, spilling its boiling water across the floor. The draining liquid reveals a gleaming dagger. Its pommel has an amethyst engraved with a dragon’s head.
It was one of four prophetic visions of Versifer, the late poet and Oracle of Godsdoor. And friend, though the notion made Drinith queasy given that she had spurned his romantic advances. He had believed the arm in his vision belonged to her. She and Quiescat read the prophesies almost every day, hoping to decipher them. She could recite most of them without recourse to the book, but they remained as enigmatic and sinister as ever.
Before the visions, brief notes, lines of unfinished verse (often scratched out), musings, reminders, and doodles littered the pages—the flitting ramblings of a restless mind. The leaf after the last vision had been ripped out, wounding the book. Versifer must have written the poem he had dedicated to her on it. She should have never asked him to burn it. She longed to remember the words, but she had been too mortified to take them in when he thrust the poem upon her. If she had known what was about to happen to him… After the missing page, the book was blank, untouched by his quill, a painful reminder of a life cut short.
Hearing Fenvar’s signature sequence of soft raps on the door, Drinith tucked the book into a drawer and straightened the documents on her desk. “Come in.”
The door opened just wide enough for the butler to step across the threshold. Drinith wondered how she maintained such an immaculate appearance. Her snowy bowl crop never had a stray hair. Her teal and black uniform was always crisp and clean, though she worked from before dawn to late into the night. Drinith had been fortunate to keep her services, and Fenvar hadn’t followed her former mistress, Epmar, into self-imposed retirement.
“Meritocrats Aretro Falier and Thaxen Savarel have come calling,” Fenvar said. “I showed them to the parlor and arranged refreshments.”
Aside from a brief introduction at a ducal reception, Drinith had no interaction with Aretro. As Ambassador General, she had negotiated truces with most of Gyre’s adversaries in the Short War. But success in Gyre always drew suspicion. Her accomplishments had earned a diverse assortment of detractors among her peers, who damned her as a self-aggrandizing appeaser. Rumors swirled in the dark corridors and alcoves of the Parliament of Merit that she might soon be ousted.
Thaxen was a different matter. The position of the Meritocracy’s Intelligencer General was impregnable. She was too useful to Gyre and too dangerous for any potential rival to contemplate moving against her. Thaxen had never made a social call to the Hax Mansion before. Instead, when she had needed to speak to Drinith, Thaxen had simply summoned her with the thinnest veneer of politeness possible. Drinith chafed at Thaxen’s overbearing influence over her, but extricating herself from it would make a dangerous enemy.
Something serious must have happened. Gyre’s coalition against the tyrant Magian might have unraveled.
“Inform them I shall join them shortly,” Drinith said. “Ask Quiescat to meet me outside the parlor.” Though she leaned on his counsel, the meritocrats, jealous of their lofty status as oligarchs of the Halcyon Republic, would take offense if he wandered in and plunked himself down beside them uninvited.
Fenvar slipped away with a graceful bow. Drinith lifted her medallion headpiece off its stand. It bore the sigil of the House of Hax, an alerion taking flight. Resting it on her head, she took a deep breath and headed for the parlor.
Quiescat awaited her by the entrance. Despite his customary white cowl and receding blue hair, the dark eyes the preservators had given him made the lean Rhumgadian lowlander look like a stranger. In a sense, he was. He hadn’t yet recovered from the loss of his oracular gift.
“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered. He pushed open the doors and stepped out of the way for Drinith to enter first.
The parlor always felt to Drinith like a hostile courtroom. While she bristled at the condemnatory stares of her Hax predecessors in their ornately framed portraits, the prospect of banishing Epmar’s ancestors to a less frequented corner of the mansion made her uncomfortable.
The two meritocrats sat together on a couch. Aretro’s medallion headdress, bearing her emblem, the centicore, peeped out of a burst of whitening red curls. Despite her fiery orange complexion, her large laurel green eyes gave her face disarming sincerity and softness.
Thaxen provided a striking contrast. Dark of hair, her gray face with its chiseled lines made her a forbidding presence at the best of times. Her emblem, the mandrake root, hung proudly on her broad forehead.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Drinith said as she swept inside and shook their hands. “I invited my steward to join us.” She alighted on the couch across from her guests.
Aretro’s eyes bulged with surprise. A mirthless grin creased Thaxen’s harsh face, but irritation smoldered in her black eyes as she regarded Quiescat. “It’s always a delight to meet the Oracle of Godsdoor.”
“I’m no longer an oracle,” Quiescat said stiffly as he took a seat.
“True, you now lack the prophetic gift associated with the position, but surely there’s nobody more qualified to claim the title. Do you harbor no hope of returning to your temple?”
“Its charred ruins, perhaps.”
“To business,” Thaxen growled, knitting her fingers together and turning her attention to Drinith. “Aretro has a problem that you may be able to help resolve.”
Aretro nearly choked as she swallowed the mouthful of cake she had been chewing. “Yes,” she croaked. She sipped her tea and locked eyes with Drinith. “We have convinced most of our opponents in the Short War to bring the conflict to a long overdue cessation and join our blockade of Rhumgad. It’s in all our interests to check Magian’s ambitions.”
Thaxen’s small mouth tightened. “All except the Shopkeepers.”
Aretro directed a sideways frown at her colleague. “Yes, the Ophigeens intend to fight on, distracting us, diverting resources from our campaign.”
“But, surely, facing the combined strength of their four rivals, their logical course is to make peace,” Quiescat said.
“The other republics, Numenal, Laxur, and Helifer, have entered a truce with us,” Aretro said. “But they restrict their cooperation to Rhumgad. They won’t coordinate with us in defending against Ophigeen aggression, much less take offensive action against them. Pro-Short War factions remain powerful in all the republics, including our own. Push our coalition too far beyond its stated goals and it will splinter.” She took another sip of tea. “To secure the Ophigeens’ aid or, at least, the end of their active hostility, we must show them a truce is in their interest.” All the while she spoke, her gaze remained fixed on her host, demanding reciprocal attention. Shying from its intensity, Drinith focused on pouring herself some yellow tea.
Thaxen studied the fireplace to conceal a burgeoning smirk. Oblivious, Aretro continued. “The Ophigeens are a vain people, convinced of their moral superiority.”
Drinith sipped from her cup before her own smile could slip out. Aretro’s description applied equally to many Gyran meritocrats.
“I’m sure they are most moral for slavers,” Thaxen quipped.
“They are mistrustful and quick to take offense,” Aretro said, still focused on Drinith. “The assurances of Gyre won’t convince them to help us. But you might persuade them.”
An icy chill raced up Drinith’s spine. “What do you mean?”
“You uncovered Magian’s plot in Gyre,” Thaxen said. “You defeated his assassins. You are the rightful heir to a realm brutally subjugated by him. You understand better than any other meritocrat the threat he poses.”
“The Diarchs of Ophigee have formally invited you to visit their court,” Aretro said. “They are offering you a chance to convince them that Magian poses a genuine threat.”
“Then I must take it,” Drinith said, repressing the urge to spring from her seat. “How soon must I depart?”
“A dragon, the Piquant Buss, will depart for Ophigee tomorrow morning.”
“We’ll be ready,” Drinith promised.
Thaxen and Aretro exchanged glances. Aretro cleared her throat. “The Ophigeens are prickly at the best of times.” She grimaced. “Their invitation extends to you alone. You may take whoever you choose on the journey to Ophigee but the authorities there won’t permit them to disembark, not even a personal attendant.”
“Apparently, they abide no servants except their own slaves,” Thaxen said. “Status based on inheritance is an abomination, or some such nonsense.”
Quiescat bolted upright. “No!”
Before two meritocrats’ disapproving glares, he faltered, mumbled apologies, and slumped back in his chair. Ignoring the demands implicit in their scowls to reprimand him for his impertinence, Drinith said, “It doesn’t sound very safe. Assassins still stalk me.”
Quiescat seized upon her point. “Exactly. She’s under constant threat from Magian.”
Thaxen sneered. “And you’ll protect her? You’re the oldest courtesar I’ve ever encountered.”
Queasy dismay gripped Drinith. Not only had Thaxen mocked Quiescat’s negligible combat prowess, but, far worse, she had insinuated that he and his adopted daughter might be lovers, an insult sufficient to provoke a lesser man to retaliate. Thaxen wouldn’t tolerate any slight, no matter how deserved, and her enmity could be as lethal as any poison. Quiescat folded his arms and fumed in silence. A smile slid onto his face. He must have taken some consolation in his refusal to be goaded.
“The Ophigeens guarantee your safety as long as you remain their guest,” Aretro said.
Thaxen smirked. “If Magian kills you while you’re under their protection, they’ll be honor-bound to join our coalition against him. So your death won’t be in vain.”
Drinith bristled. Why did Thaxen toss about gibes with such abandon? Did Quiescat’s presence really rile her to such petulance? More likely, Thaxen intended her mockery as a reminder she was the Intelligencer General and would brook no challenge from anyone. Drinith would later make clear to Thaxen she wouldn’t tolerate casual bullying and humiliation under her roof. But for now, with Quiescat and Aretro present, it was best to keep silent.
“It won’t come to that,” Aretro promised. “The Ophigeens will ensure your safety from hostile third parties. Our ambassador to their court, Griman Epitan, will guide you during your stay. She’s well versed with their customs and will ensure you don’t fall foul of their etiquette.”
“I will go,” Drinith said.
Thaxen stood. “We’ll leave you to prepare. Come, Aretro.”
With a regretful nod, her companion put aside her half-eaten scone and bowl of tea and plodded toward the door. Drinith and Quiescat rose from their seats.
“Oh yes,” Thaxen said. “There’s another matter I need to discuss with Drinith. A private matter.” She shot a glare at Quiescat.
“Perhaps, Quiescat, you might show Aretro our library.” Drinith said. “I understand she is an avid potter. There’s a fine collection of tomes on the subject that might interest her.” Drinith, being incurious about the craft, didn’t know if the works would prove of value to a renowned expert like Aretro, but her guest looked pleased with the prospect. It occasioned her first genuine grin since her arrival.
Drinith kept silent until the door clicked shut. “Some of your comments were in poor taste, Thaxen. In particular when you compared Quiescat to a courtesar.”
Thaxen shrugged. “Frankly, I don’t care if I offended him. He forgets his place.”
“And what about offending me? Am I not a meritocrat like you?”
Thaxen showed Drinith a razor-thin smile. “I’ll remember, if you will. I promised Epmar I’d look out for your welfare. Quiescat’s former oracular ability doesn’t entitle him to special treatment in Gyre. And you were gifted your position by your predecessor. You’re an outsider, a foreigner. Your royal ancestry, your claim to the Blood Crown of Kaplar, places you under suspicion in a republic that despises the very concept of monarchy.”
“If I’m so mistrusted, why was Epmar permitted to make me a meritocrat?”
“You can use a thing and suspect it at the same time.”
“And I’m a thing.”
Thaxen pursed her lips. “I’m simply observing the reality of your position. You can’t afford to flaunt your exoticism before our colleagues and, dare I say it …”
“Eccentric weakness. A meritocrat is a leader, not a follower. She is nobody’s puppet.”
Drinith raised her chin. “You pulled Epmar’s strings.”
“She could have cut those strings if she chose, but she refused to turn her back on her house, her people, and her state. She is a genuine patriot.” Thaxen’s eyes narrowed. “I cannot say the same of you yet.”
“You question my loyalty, my word!” Drinith fumed.
Thaxen cackled. “You may have committed your head to Gyre, but your heart’s fealty perhaps lies elsewhere.” She prodded Drinith’s chest. “Don’t deny that old dream of reclaiming your lost realm doesn’t smolder in there somewhere. You must extinguish it before somebody stamps it out for you. You’re a meritocrat now. Like your oracle’s temple, Kaplar’s dead; another autocracy best forgotten.”
Drinith bit back her anger. Best not goad Thaxen too much or she might follow through on her implied threat to Quiescat.
Thaxen’s gaze roamed the portraits on the walls, fixed on one. Ambling over to it, she gave the impression of studying it in detail. “This trip will help you. You’ll be free of Quiescat’s influence while you’re in Ophigee. You’ll learn to depend on yourself. Then, when you return, you’ll be ready to put him aside. Pack Quiescat off to one of your country estates to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. The gossips can sharpen their tongues at someone else’s expense.”
Perhaps she acted in what she considered to be Drinith’s best interest, but her ultimatum was no less stinging. “I’ll make my own decisions about my servants, thank you.”
“Of course,” Thaxen murmured, continuing to scrutinize the portrait. Why should its subject be the focus of her fascination? Drinith didn’t even know the woman’s name, much less her history.
“That’s your right as a meritocrat and the head of your house.” Thaxen turned a vexed gaze toward Drinith. “Just make sure your servants serve you and not the other way around.” She strolled over to the door. Opening it, she paused at the threshold. Without looking back, she said, “Good luck in Ophigee. I’ll collect Aretro. No need to show us out. You’ve enough to do.”
In the instant of Drinith’s hesitation, Thaxen sauntered away, leaving her threats to weigh on the air like a coming thunderstorm.
Quiescat was Drinith’s father in all but name. She couldn’t send him away. He was one of the few people she could trust. She’d be a fool to relinquish his sage counsel. There must be some compromise short of banishment that would sate Thaxen and Quiescat’s other shadowy enemies in the Meritocracy. There had to be.
Her cheeks warmed as she remembered her elevation to a meritocrat. Her exultation felt so naive now. No matter how high she climbed, the ground always shifted beneath her, threatening to topple her.