A Clandestine Meeting I
Pulling my cloak closer around myself, I entered the quiet inn and approached the reception. The middle-aged man behind the counter looked up from his book, flashing me an impeccable business smile, his consternation at my masked visage only revealing itself for a fraction of a second.
“May I help you?”
“Yes, I believe my client is expecting me?”
“Do you know your client’s name?”
“No; he said that he preferred ‘honey from hidden hives’.”
“Ah, a poet, I see.”
“Indeed. I do hope his skill in bed matches his skill in alliteration.”
“Unfortunately, none of our present guests have mentioned that they’re expecting a companion.”
“Ah, I must be early, then. Perhaps I could rent a room and wait for him, then?”
“Certainly. Room 205. I’ll charge it to your client, if or when he arrives.”
The man took a key from behind the counter and passed it to me.
“Thank you, dear.”
I grasped the key and moved up the stairs to the second floor. I waited several seconds, then glanced down at the key in my hand. The embossed metal on it read “216”. I looked around me, ensuring that I was not being followed. I closed my eyes, trying to detect any magic in my vicinity. Nothing. Then I headed to room 216 and let myself in.
Awaiting me in that room was a well-dressed man. His suit was well-kept, his hair was neatly trimmed, and he held himself in a posture that exuded dignity. Age had begun carving its lines upon his face, tinting the roots of his hair, but his well-trained body exuded a sense of youthful energy and strength. Holding his gaze, I closed the door of the room behind me and turned the lock. Then I snapped my fingers, and in that moment, rendered the room soundproof. He narrowed his eyes.
“What magic did you just perform?”
“I purified this space. We may talk freely now; no sound can escape these walls.”
“So this conversation is one of clandestine nature, then?”
“I thought you would have guessed as much when I asked you to arrange a meeting that involved codes and nondescript inns. Will you not take a seat?”
“I know nothing about you, Madame Hummingbird, and I know not what you want from me. All I know is that you donated a large sum of money and food to my people – a sum large enough for me to agree to this meeting. What is your purpose?”
“Well, if you aren’t going to sit down, I am.” I nestled comfortably into one of the wooden chairs in the room, crossing one leg over the other, removing my hood to reveal my sky-blue hair and my masked face. “How fares your people, Lord Vance? Have they recovered from the flood yet?”
“Not quite, though they are well on their way, thanks to your aid.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I’m sure it must be a load off Lady Dorothy’s mind, as well. Her family was among the displaced, after all.”
For the first time in the conversation, Lord Vance, lord of the province of Benet, looked shaken.
“How do you know of my wife’s family? Who are you?”
Because she told me, of course. I smiled wordlessly. The time was not yet right to reveal myself – politics was all performance, and performance was one of my strong suits.
“All in due time, Vance. Take a seat.”
He sighed and took a seat across from me.
“Vance. Let me ask you a question. What do you think is the greatest problem with the Empire as it is today? Be honest. I swear that nothing you say shall leave this room.”
Vance remained silent for several seconds, staring at me, trying to figure me out. Finally, with a resigned slump of the shoulders, he answered me.
“Of the Crown?”
“No, of the nobility – though the Emperor’s not helping matters.”
“You disapprove of the Emperor, then?”
“No, certainly not. It is the prerogative of the Emperor to do as he pleases. It is, however, the duty of the lords to advise him. A duty which many lords are not adequately discharging.”
“So you think the greatest problem this country is facing is nobles acting in their own interests?”
“Yes. The lords act to further their own ambitions and fatten their own coffers, while their people suffer lack and poverty. The lords advise the Emperor to act in foolish ways, so that they can blame the results of their greed on his mismanagement. They advise him against maintaining a standing army in times of peace, while building up their own private forces. They take advantage of him to further their own agenda, like a group of bloodsucking parasites!”
Vance grew steadily angrier as he spoke. I was impressed, though the mask hid that fact. His loyalty to the Emperor was commendable. I wondered if that loyalty extended to me, as well. I decided to test it.
“Well, I think the Emperor is at fault.”
Vance abruptly stood up and placed his hand on the hilt of the blade sheathed at his side.
“I advise you to choose your next words very carefully.”
“After all, he was foolish enough for the lords to manipulate. A person in power has the responsibility to be discerning in his use of power. That he is so easy to manipulate shows a concerning lack of discerning judgment, do you not agree?”
Vance’s grip tightened around the hilt, his anger evident, though I could tell that he was struggling to produce a rebuttal.
“After all, he took a foolish tavern wench as his wife. What more proof do you-”
I found Vance’s blade an inch from my neck before I could finish my sentence. His eyes were burning with fury.
“Benefactor or no, I will not allow you to insult Her Majesty the Empress. The only reason your head is still attached to your shoulders is so that you may retract your statement.”
I glanced down at the blade. If he were to attempt to cut my neck, he would find that it was protected by an invisible barrier of hard light, courtesy of Glint. I was in no real danger, so I decided to push the man.
“Have I said anything that needs to be retracted? She was a tavern girl, was she not?”
“She may come from humble roots, but Her Majesty has proven herself to have an exceptional mind. She holds the people close to her heart, but does not allow sympathy to blind her to pragmatism. She is the kind of leader this country needs – one who knows the right way forward and has the courage to show it to others. So I will have you apologise for your disrespect.”
“Alright, alright. You’ve made your point. I apologise. Now will you put your sword away?”
Vance made no move to do so. Instead, he brought it slightly closer.
“I tire of speaking to a mask. Who are you?”
With that, he ripped off my mask and cast it aside. As the mask parted from my face, so did the spell which hid the red colour of my hair. The mask clattered to the ground, revealing my true appearance. With a gasp, Vance dropped his sword and immediately assumed a kneeling position.
“Your Majesty! I apologise for my rudeness!”
I laughed and moved forward, helping him to his feet.
“It’s of no concern; I am at fault for testing you. However, now I know that your loyalty is true, and I assure you that I greatly appreciate the trust you place in me and my judgement.”
“You honour me beyond words, Your Majesty. Yet, if I might be so bold as to ask, why have you asked to meet me here, in this run-down inn, instead of in my manor – where you would have been welcomed with honour and hospitality?”
I smiled and reached down, picking up the mask. I did not put it on, but placed it gently on the table, facing away from Vance.
“Like I said at the start, this is to be a clandestine conversation. As far as possible, I’d like for this meeting to remain a total secret between us.”
“Certainly, if you so desire, Your Majesty. But what is the purpose of this meeting?”
“You said that the biggest problem faced by this Empire was the corruption of the nobility. I agree. The corrupt lords are slowly destroying this country, eroding its future, all because they cannot see beyond temporary gain. They trample the people and the authority of the Crown, in order to secure more wealth, more influence. More power. That’s what it comes down to. They want more power. Everything they do is for the sake of power. Not content with the power that is given to them by virtue of rank and birth, they seek to acquire ever more power.”
I turned to face Vance, hands behind my back, and grinned.
“So I’m thinking of taking that power away.”