This is the third part of a short story draft. Part I. Part II.
The capital of Syan is wherever the Matriarch is officially residing at a time, and the Matriarchs have always changed their official residence quite regularly. However odd it may seem to the Imperial mind, and however difficult it may make matters for foreign envoys, it is a custom to which the Matriarchs faithfully keep -- in part, I imagine, because it reduces the resources available for plotting and scheming.
At that time, the Matriarch was summering at one of the old Matriarchal castles on Lake Ayssan, which meant that the official capital of Syan was a tiny village called Amansaiva that is apparently three hours away from anywhere. I spent the three hours, when I was not brooding darkly on the follies of my father and brother or wondering whether the Matriarch's preferred choice of death in my case would be poison or firing squad, reflecting on the mystery of how the Matriarch managed to maintain such an iron grip on everything while being so thoroughly inaccessible.
I had hardly eaten anything the whole day -- the only things sold at the stations along the way were saltwater pickles, nasty, foul things that taste as if you were washing your mouth in dirty seawater -- and so was already not in a good mood when we finally came to Amansaiva and found no one to meet me at the station there. No one was at the station at all, except a pickle vendor and an old fortune-teller woman mumbling and cackling to herself as she repeatedly laid out her cards. After asking both of them for transportation, I was forced to buy a saltwater pickle from the pickle vendor just to find that he was the transportation. Thus I, ambassador of the Empire, rode to the embassy on a pickle cart. The vendor was very talkative. Along the way I learned many not-entirely-fascinating facts about pickling.
The ride turned out to be quite long. The 'embassy' was just a log cabin way up in the woods. In the front room of the cabin there was a desk piled with papers and a man who looked like he had been dozing a moment before. I glared at him. He looked blankly at me.
Finally, he said, in a dialect I could not quite place, "Can I help you?"
It would be inappropriate for me to relay my response. It is inexcusable for a man of the Empire to act with anger, but I had had a long trip, during which I had eaten practically nothing, and had the rotten smell of saltwater pickles hanging around me until I was nauseous, only to find my staff apparently lazy and incompetent.
The man at the desk, once sorted out properly, informed me that the rest of the staff were at the castle, and would be there for much of the rest of the day; apparently there was an office set aside in the castle itself for them. So I asked for transportation to the castle.
"Transportation?" he said blankly.
Trying not to seethe, I carefully explained to him what transportation was.
"Yes, Ambassador," he said, "but everything we have is at the castle."
I asked for a map, which was a request he was fortunately competent enough to understand, and began estimating how long it would take to walk to the castle. Fortunately, it would certainly not take long; the cabin -- thinking of the ugly little building as an 'embassy' was going to take some time -- was relatively close to the castle, and I could certainly walk the distance in no more time than it had taken the pickle cart to carry me to the cabin.
"But surely you could wait until tomorrow," the man at the desk protested.
I frowned. "And waste daylight? What kind of Imperial citizen are you?" This silenced him completely, and I am afraid I could not entirely suppress the feeling of satisfaction at this.
So I walked to the castle. By the time I had arrived and gone through security, it was nearly sunset, and I had dust on my boots and mud splatters on my slacks, but I was there, and I set about straightway to find the Imperial office.
It was more like an Imperial broom closet, with barely enough room for a desk. Behind it sat a man in an inexpensive green jacket; he was talking to a man, just outside the door, in a very expensive blue jacket. They were both startled to see me. The man in the green jacket, a dark-haired, snub-nosed character with an accent even more barbarous than that of the man at the embassy (what backwoods provincials do they stock these offices with, I was wondering at that point), was my chief of staff. The other man was an ambassador from the Five Cities Republic.
"Delighted to meet you," he said cheerfully. "I was just offering my condolences on the passing of your predecessor. Excellent man, excellent man."
"Your kindness is much appreciated," I said. I then stood there and waited until he took the hint and, glancing at my chief of staff, took leave.
"Please arrange a meeting with the Matriarch at her earliest convenience."
"It would probably be easier to get a meeting tomorrow...."
"I don't recall asking you to arrange it at your earliest convenience," I said curtly.
I would likely have lost my temper again -- twice in one day, how embarrassing and inappropriate for a man from a senatorial family -- but we were interrupted at that moment by a messenger, who brought word that the Matriarch would like to see the Imperial ambassador at his earliest convenience.
I shot the chief of staff a triumphant look and said, "My earliest convience is now."
The messenger led me through the castle, which was dizzyingly maze-like, and we eventually came to the Matriarch's own office. I was announced, and then met the woman herself -- an almost mousy-looking woman, like someone's aunt, and not at all like you would expect an iron-fisted dictator to look.
She looked me up and down shrewdly, then, fixing me with a cool glance said (and it was very disconcerting), "Well, at least the Empire has sent me a pretty one this time."
to be continued