Calistril 19, 4713 (Ordu-Aganhei, small hours)
I spent a good portion of the night coming to terms with this. In the course of a few hours I’ve felt alone and scared, victimized and helpless, overwhelmed and anxious, and hollowed out and numb. Now? Now I am just angry: angry at being put in this position, at being trapped, at being fetishized because I am a foreigner, at being labeled as “exotic”. Here’s a hint for you: “exotic” is not a compliment. It translates to, “You’re attractive, for a <blank>“, where you fill in the blank with anything that’s inferior in your eyes. That little backhand speaks volumes.
We can’t just leave. It would be perceived as an insult to Prince Batsaikhar, which is something he is not likely to take well. From what we have seen and heard, the people here live in a constant state of low-grade fear that they’ll disappoint, anger, or even just fail to please him. It explains why the attendants here are so enthusiastic to carry out his requests. Most people, given the option, prefer to live. Making him angry gets people killed. That’s the sort of person we are dealing with.
Ameiko is pretty sure that we’re safe as long as we are his guests, but this position is tenuous at best. Our status can be revoked at any time, and if he really needed a justification to turn on us without breaking the protocol he values, I am sure he can find one. We can’t travel across Hongal with a hostile government at our back.
That means we are stuck here until the last Feast, and that means I have to see this through. I have to keep him happy, too, even if it means enduring more … of that. If I slip up, if he doesn’t get what he wants from me, will this be taken out on my friends? Will this be taken out on his subjects?
I can’t do anything about the latter, of course. We’re not here to overthrow a government. Well, okay, we are, but not this government. In Minkai, Ameiko at least has a divine mandate to rule and that is supposed to mean something to the people there. Here? We’re nobody, and nobodies don’t start revolutions. This isn’t a fight we can even start, much less win. We’re just going to have to move on.
Ensuring we can move on is now my job. Whatever the Prince wants from me, personally, I have to find a way to give it to him. If it’s something he can’t have (for example, me) I need to refuse without refusing. To give the impression of accepting without accepting. Ameiko and I spent a lot of time tonight practicing, role-playing various scenarios. At first it just felt like a desperate exercise, but by the end … I have to admit it was a little empowering. I walked away feeling like I could actually exert some control over these events. That I could spin convincing half-truths, and use his assumptions to my advantage.
What does it say about my friendship with Ameiko that it has made me a better liar?
The point to all of this is to buy time so that we can get away safely.
And what if I’m right? What if what he wants from me really is me? My biggest fear there would be a marriage proposal (no doubt I’d be added to what I am sure is a long list of wives with whom he quickly grew bored and possibly beheaded), but it could be any number of things which are nearly as bad, from joining his concubine to becoming a permanent fixture at the palace for him to beckon and paw. If it comes to this, my best diversion is my Vudrani heritage and customs.
I think this would actually qualify as irony.
Vudrani have a fairly structured society: it’s a caste system, marriages are often arranged, and going outside your caste for anything is, while not unheard of, fairly rare. Though I’ve never lived in a traditional Vudrani society—the closest I have come is visiting dadi and dada in Niswan—I know the broad strokes. It sounds awful and I want nothing to do with it. I am lucky to have grown up in Varisia.
Dad doesn’t care about any of those traditions. I mean, look who he married, right? And he’s not some black sheep in the family: dadi and dada aren’t much for these norms, either. It’s not generally known, but dada is half Keleshite. My aljidu al’akbar was from Katheer, and he met my paradadi in, of all places, Sothis. They were married in Absalom. It’s always been a kind of international family.
Technically, that makes me only three-eights Vudrani. I haven’t exactly tried to hide it, of course, it’s just that it doesn’t come up, and it’s easier to say “half” and skip the details. I am actually kind of surprised that no one has ever asked. I mean, it’s obvious from both dad’s name and our family name that there is more than just Vudrani behind him, but I guess that these subtleties get lost north of the Inner Sea, even among the well-traveled.
My grandparents on mom’s side are pretty progressive, too, especially for Korvosans. It’s almost two cities in one: there are those who long for the days of Chelish rule, and those who recognize Cheliax for the literal hellhole that it is and bask in Korvosa’s independence. Grandma and grandpa fall into the latter category. They are quite proud of mom’s marriage. It reinforces their view of Korvosa as a cosmopolitan city, and their contributions to it.
But for the Prince, I need to be half of Vudrani with an orthodox heritage. For anything beyond courtship, I require permission from my father (though, technically, I needed it even before that). Ignoring cultural protocol and norms will bring shame to me and my family. Protocol and honor seem to be concepts the Prince understands and respects. And of course, this conveniently and retroactively explains why I’ve needed an escort on both of our “dates”. The best lies are the ones that are founded in truth.
Unfortunately, this would only buy time for my friends to leave. If it comes to this, they’ll take the caravan out of the city and once they’re safely away I’ll escape and catch up. That sounds deceptively simple, but for once it really is that simple. A day’s head start is sufficient for the caravan. I can teleport short distances and that’s enough to get out. Then I can summon a horse—or better yet, conjure a phantom one—and race after them. Time it right, and it will be hours before anyone in the palace notices I am gone. Especially if I repair those little peep holes Radella told us about using magic. We already did that in this room.
Worst-case scenario is that I end up being held against my will, and they take my spell book. But the thing is, they can’t take the spells out of my head. I will memorize what I need to get away, and regardless, I don’t need my spells for dimensional hops. They cannot hold me here.
We need to prepare the food and entertainment for tonight. Traditional food and entertainment from our native land. Qatana got a little excited about this and put together a meal plan that is … a little over the top, so Ameiko offered some suggestions to tone it down. I am actually not too worried either way. As long as it tastes good, we’ll be fine. Those two know what they’re doing, and they’ll have an enormous, professional kitchen and a small army of sous-chefs, chefs, cooks and bakers at their disposal. I’d be pretty stunned if the dinner came out anything less than spectacular.
For the entertainment part of the evening we need two performances of something. So far, the Prince has treated us to a mix of arts and sporting events so I suggested we do one of each. More than one person remarked that the Prince wants to see me dance again. Preferably in something with less coverage than I normally wear. Yeah, I figured that one out already, thanks. And, fuck you, too.
My suggestion for an artistic performance was a flamenco dance. I said, “Ameiko can play strings, though we’ll need to procure a lute or something like it.” Flamenco is an emotionally intense form of dance, with expressive arm gestures and precise footwork that rivals tap for speed. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and when done right it leaves an impression. Flamenco is a whole experience. And it’s roots are Varisian.
For a sporting event, I thought a mock gladiatorial battle, with heavy weaponry and armor, would play well. What we’ve seen of the people in Hongal so far is what Sparna and Olmas call “light cavalry”. Weapons are thin and sharp, and armor is thin. Lightly armed, but very mobile. While I’m no expert on martial weapons, I’ve learned enough through osmosis over the last few months to know that our fighting styles in Avistan are vastly different. A heavy flail crashing against plate armor both looks and sounds terrifying, and that also leaves an impression. And it’s something these people have probably never seen.
But the idea was vetoed because I don’t know why, and then we bickered for a while over alternatives that ranged from the impractical to the ridiculous. I don’t know why this needs to be so difficult.
At one point Sparna asked, “What about Kikonu’s play?”
I should have said “no”. I should have, but I didn’t. Now I am stuck here for the next few hours. so I can work with the actors once they get here. We can’t do the whole thing, of course, but we can do this one scene where … Never mind. It’s terrible, just like the rest of the thing, only it’s terrible in a way that is almost so bad it’s good. Koya was excited about putting together abstract crow costumes, so this thing is either going to be spectacularly bizarre, or a memorable failure. I count either as a win.
I think what all of this says is, while I should have said “no”, a big pert of me really wants to do it.
Chua knocked on the door a little after sunrise to extend an invitation from the Prince to join him for lunch and a tour of the city. Of course I said yes because I don’t want my friends, or half the servants attending to us, to be executed. But, having empowered myself to take an active role in events, I put this place to work so that we didn’t lose precious time on a glorified scavenger hunt. I sent Chua off in search of a lute-like string instrument—Ameiko helped here, showing him what she needed, and how it differed from the traditional instruments in Hongal—and some local actors who were comfortable with a little improvisation.
The latter was actually kind of surreal. Asking about finding actors slipped my mind, and I didn’t remember until after he had left so I had to go find him. As soon as I called out after him, nearly two dozen servants swarmed into the hallway ahead of me, hollering his name in a clamor of “Chua!”‘s. They practically tackled him in their enthusiasm to help out. This place is just one absurd scene after another.
Merely images and shadows, my ass. Prince Batsaikhar asked me to marry him.
Gods! I don’t even know where to start. I can barely think straight.
If I hadn’t spent all that time last night preparing for this possibility I’d probably be in a panic right now. A worse panic, that is. It’s not like I am taking this in stride.
He led up to it with compliments, and promises about how the city could be mine, and how much it’s been graced by my beauty, how I will always be safe here, and other over-the-top nonsense. Oh, I am sure he meant it all, but so what? We’ve only been here three days. He’s infatuated and nothing more. If I were so naive as to believe this was somehow real, I’m sure I’d be tossed aside and forgotten in time.
Just as I worked out with Ameiko, I stalled. I feigned nervous excitement—this wasn’t all that hard because the “nervous” part came naturally—and went on about needing to get my father’s permission, with what I hope was a sufficiently frenzied tone. All without ever answering ‘yes’. He just assumed that I meant to, and more or less accepted the delay as a mere formality. That part went flawlessly.
Less flawless? He wants an answer as soon as possible because we have a wedding to plan! How exciting! Just writing that makes me gag. I said, truthfully, that the soonest I could talk to my parents would be tomorrow because I (intentionally) don’t have the right spells prepared. It will be done in a public ceremony right after the Feast of the Dragon. How dramatic!
I’ll actually have to talk to mom and dad twice. The first time will be from the privacy of my room so that I can prepare them for what’s about to happen. That should be a lively discussion. Frame it right, and they might not even disown me.
Having to do this tomorrow buys us less time than I was hoping, but it will have to do. What choice do we have?
OK, this is as much as I can afford to think about it right now. We still have to get through tonight.
The actors Chua found are as ready as they’ll ever be. Once they got over the fear that this might get them killed, they got down to the business of rehearsing with consummate professionalism, and even spent much of the day practicing on their own. They’re good. And Koya’s crow costumes are a literal work of art. Each is a simple black outfit or dress, adorned with strips of fabric that is reminiscent of feathers, torn in places to give them a tattered look. They are positively spooky. It’s amazing what she was able to accomplish in so little time.
The instrument that Chua turned up is not a lute, but it has the right sound so it’s good enough. Ameiko is satisfied and that’s what matters. He didn’t let me pay for it, though, which means it was probably “appropriated” from the owner. I made a big deal of writing a thank you note to them, complete with an origami rose and a blessing to Shelyn. Hopefully they are still alive to receive it.
Gods, what a night. I would not think it possible to have this much upheaval in just a single day. I am wrung out.
Sparna is leaving us. He didn’t even come to dinner. Ivan said he’s leaving because he has, in his words, lost his nerve. The constant threats to our lives, the poisonings, the paranoia—basically the entirety of the past seven months—has gotten to him. I had no idea. None. I guess it hit him hard enough that the only person he was able to face was Ivan.
He’s been a guard with Sandru’s caravan for as long as I’ve known him, possibly even going back to when it started. He wasn’t much of a talker back in those early days, but I think that’s part of the image. Who wants a chatty guard, right? I’ve been kind of hard on him about his gruff manor. I should have toned it down.
This news is going to be hard on Sandru. His employees are more than just hired workers: they are his friends, too. This has to sting.
There were eight of us when this began. Now we’re down to five. The Five Storms have a significant advantage over us in this way. We have to force them out of Minkai, almost certainly at the point of a sword, but their task is much easier: they just have to stop us. Whether they kill us all or demoralize us into abandoning the quest, the result is the same: they win. They’re well on their way.
This more or less set the tone for our dinner conversation.
I used that spell I got from Thadeus so that we could speak freely, and told them about the Prince. Most of them looked concerned or worried, but a couple of people were downright angry. Qatana, especially, looked like she wanted to kill someone (and I had a pretty good idea who that would be).
The pressing issue was, how was I going to escape?
“I have a plan,” I said. “You get the caravan out of the city tomorrow morning. Then, after the Feast of the Dragon, you leave and I stay here. It would make sense that you would continue on without me.
“I’ll find a time after you have left to slip away. I can jump outside of the city walls so I can’t be followed, conjure a phantom horse, and then come to you.”
The short version is: everyone hated it. Olmas, in particular, pointed out the big flaw in my thinking; a one day lead is not going to be sufficient in a country renowned for its horsemanship (and, I might add, notorious for its xenophobia).
“How about we stage your death?” he asked. “It’d give a reason for you to disappear.”
Radella and I looked at each other. We had the exact same thought: he could get angry enough to kill a whole bunch of innocent people, thinking they had failed at their job of keeping an eye on me. No. No way. I was not going to pay for my escape in executions.
But Olmas persisted. “I don’t like the idea of you running away from the Prince.” Presumably because it would make him angry.
Ivan chimed in, too. “We can’t get away fast enough.”
These were good points. After a long silence, I finally said, “All right. If you want to do that, then we should make it convincing and stage an attack. We can take the seal out of the box.”
There was stunned silence, followed by nervous laughter. “I’m serious,” I said.
I mean, this would do it, right? The Five Storms almost certainly know we’re here. How could they not? There’s been nothing subtle about our time here. Having a couple of oni come at us in the middle of the palace would probably change the equation significantly. The Prince would either evict us, or we’d have good cover for my disappearance.
Obviously, it was a terrible idea, but I was so frustrated at that point that I didn’t care how reckless it was. I just wanted to be done with it. But, of course, there’s never a “done” with us, is there? As soon as it seemed like we were in agreement, Olmas and Ivan objected: If the Prince was even indifferent towards the Jade Regent, an attack from the Five Storms might just cause him to turn on us.
And we were back to the same problem: the caravan can’t get away fast enough.
That’s when Ivan suggested, “Instead of faking your death, let’s make it a real one.”
He was being completely serious. He was seriously suggesting that I kill myself, and that they stage it as a murder or something. This is what it’s come to. I didn’t even bother saying anything as I am sure they could see it on my face. This was insane, and the answer was “no”. No fucking way.
After a long silence, a good idea finally came to me. Shut up. It’s been known to happen.
“It will take two weeks for the caravan to reach the eastern border,” I said. “I’ll stay here, then find you by scrying and teleport to you. I should be able to manage the spell on my own, but I’ll get a pair of scrolls just in case.”
The short version is: they hated only a little bit. It would still infuriate the Prince, but it would give the caravan a huge head start.
Most of the objections centered around leaving me here by myself, the fact that I’d probably be married at that point (as if I cared), and a long string of what-if’s. What if they take away my spell books? What if they lock me away somewhere? And on and on. It was like listening to my grandmother. We traveled halfway around the world to end up where I started.
I lost my temper. “I am a fucking adult! This is my decision!” I realized that I was standing, and that lots and lots of people were silently staring at me. I sat down and said, quietly, “Even if they take away my spell book, even if they take my things, I can get out of here. They. Can’t. Hold me.”
Was that strictly true? Maybe not in the way that I said it, but effectively? Yes. They can slow me down, but unless they plan on keeping me in some anti-magic bubble for the rest of my life, I can and will get away. That’s a promise.
Damnit! This is making me upset again. I can’t do this right now.