This is the fourth part of a short story draft. Part I. Part II. Part III.
I found myself somewhat tongue-tied, and before I could come up with some properly Imperial greeting, the Matriarch clapped her hands together once and said, "Your Excellency must have had a very long journey. Let us have dinner."
In general it is best to avoid having dinner with someone who poisoned your predecessor's meal. In general it is also best not to face off with a dangerous enemy when ravenously hungry. Normally the former political truth would heavily outweigh the latter, but as I considered the possibilities they were surprisingly evenly matched. I could not help but reflect that the Matriarch would probably have some difficulty explaining yet another ambassador dying from bad food.
"I would be honored to dine with you, Matriarch," I said. "May it be the first such dinner of many, for many years to come."
She smiled at that. "Indeed," she said.
The small dining hall itself was quietly spartan, but this was offset by the lush paintings that hung on its walls. One of them caught the eye immediately. It was a snow scene with two figures. One, a man, lay dying on the ground. The other, standing, was a pale woman with fire-red hair blowing about her pale face like an aura of flame, looked right out of the painting at you with eyes of subtle green so skillfully painting that they seemed wet with tears and measurelessly lovely.
"I have heard of this painting," I said. "One of the old Matriarchs. It is one of the most famous paintings ever made."
"Yes," said the Matriarch, indifferently, as she sat at the table. "I have never liked it myself, but if I were to order it destroyed, someone would surely smuggle it out instead. Better to have it hang where no one ever sees it." She gestured at the table. "Please sit down. Go ahead and try the saltwater pickles, if you are hungry; they are splendid."
I was indeed hungry, but I politely declined the pickles. The steward brought the wine as I sat down.
"It seems to me," said the Matriarch, "that you have the look of a man with something to say."
"A question to ask, Matriarch, but it is a bold one."
She merely inclined her head.
"I am a loyal son of the Empire, but I was chosen for this position by a political enemy of my family. I am being set up, and I refuse to cooperate with it. I am certain by this point that there are spies on my staff and that my predecessor was involved in some sort of scheme; I suspect one that has something to do with the Republic of Five Cities." The meal was brought. It smelled heavenly.
The Matriarch's face was inscrutable. "You are bolder than I would have expected of an Empire-man. Truth is a dangerous weapon in this business, never to be given out without expectation of return, and despite your innocent, pretty-boy looks, you do not strike me as too naive to understand that. What do you wish from me?"
"I do not know what relationship you had with my predecessor, but I am wagering that your plans did not overlap. I will do nothing contrary to the interests of the Empire, but I think you and I can come to a more amicable arrangement. But I need to know what is going on, and I suspect that you know."
While I began eating, she leaned back and looked at me through narrowed eyes a long while. Then she smiled. "You would make an excellent confidence artist."
"I never lie," I replied hotly.
"The best confidence men never do," she said. She drank some wine, then said, "I do not know everything; your predecessor was many things, but not a fool, and my means of gathering information have necessarily been indirect. But this is what I know. A rumor has spread through the Five Cities that the army of Syan is in poor shape -- soldiers not being paid and regiments on the verge of revolt."
"Is that true?"
"It is true that the rumor has spread. Because of it, the Republic is preparing an assault on Syan. The Empire is being bribed, and I believe your predecessor was being bribed, to provide certain logistical support; I am not privy to all the details, but I believe part of the deal is that once the Five Cities took over, the Empire would receive certain valuable mining lands near the border, without having to do any hard fighting to get them. It is a very Imperial scheme; I would not be surprised if some Imperial senator had not suggested it once the Five Cities approached the Empire about the matter. I have also strongly suspected that the Imperial embassy has been providing cover for Republican spies, so your sense of things confirms my own. What I wish I knew was exactly when they intend to move....You do not seem to be very happy at the information."
Indeed, I had been trying not to swear out loud at it, although half of it I had already suspected. The Matriarch nodded.
"If you are thinking what I suspect, you are quite right: you were likely sent here to die. And while my reputation is partly the legend and mystique of the Matriarchs, it is not entirely empty. Once the Five Cities began to move, had any clear evidence turned up to confirm my suspicion of Imperial sheltering of Republican spies, you would have been responsible for it, whether knowing about it or not, and your life would have been forfeit. It is useless to follow Imperial politics too closely, given that these days it mostly consists of posturing and bribery and attempts to wiggle out of hard military decisions, but I have heard some few things about your family. I would be surprised if there weren't a plan to plant the evidence on you at just the right time, in the hope that I would take care of their problem for them. Were I them I would also falsify evidence that you had, in fact, been the major player in the plan the entire time. But I don't know if the Empire is that brazen anymore. If I wanted to conquer the Empire by force, I could almost do it by sending in a brigade of old women with brooms and ladles to take the Senate hostage."
I flushed at the insult, but was not at that point in the mood to rise to the Empire's defense. "I suppose we have a common interest in finding out exactly when the Republic will move and what the spies are doing in preparation for it."
"Then it is done," said the Matriarch. "I will keep you informed about what I learn if you will keep me informed about what you learn."
I was still finishing my meal, but she, who had hardly touched her plate at all, rose to leave.
"I have two more questions, Matriarch," I said, "if it would not be too much trouble."
She gestured at me to continue.
"I seriously doubt that the Five Cities would act on a rumor alone; if they are acting on a rumor, there must have been confirming evidence. Did you start the rumor that the armies of Syan were in disarray?"
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. "Who can ever know how a rumor first starts?" she replied. "What is your second question?"
"Why do you hate the painting so much?"
She looked somber a moment, then said thoughtfully, "There is power and there is power. One kind of power is the kind I wield over Syan. It is clear, it is brutal -- and it is limited. It cannot be everywhere at once, it cannot loom over everyone all the time. Your Imperial peacocks let out their peacock-screams about the freedom of the Imperial citizen, but here in Syan the laws, though merciless, are clear and few. Murderers are shot, rapists and traitors flayed, brigands hanged, tax evaders and thieves branded, and almost everyone else can go about their business however they please. To try to rule everything would be a misstep. Every Matriarch is taught that from the first day she is Infanta, to make no plans requiring control of little details. But there is another kind of power, and it regards no limits. It exerts a slow pressure to conform to impossible standards, mythical standards, and it seeps into the very core of who you are." She pointed to the painting. "It is a power that she presumed to try to wield over future Matriarchs. And it is a power to which I refuse to give any opportunity for exercise."
And she turned and left, leaving me to finish my meal.
to be continued