(Part I) (Part II)
The day after a Matriarch accedes to the Matriarchate is always busy. One's time is filled with making appearances, inspecting the guard, assessing the state of Syan, and executing people whose loyalty to one's predecessor might incline them to engage in unpleasant business at a later date. These are all time-consuming activities; and, what is more, they are all activities that quickly pall. The Matriarch could not avoid them, but Darin found himself with a considerable amount of free time.
How curious it is, then, that he chose to spend that free time drinking cheap ale in a seedy bar in a seedy town several hours from the chalet. To be sure, despite its seediness, the town is famous for its felt, and for sturdy felt hats, but the felt is of the cheap wool-based kind, and Darin was easily in a position to buy infinitely finer long-stock fur-felt. And he was there for hours without consulting a fuller or felter, simply sitting in the corner a dim-lit bar sipping bad beer.
Such bars, of course, are good for only two things, providing cheap drink to the nearly penniless and a place for meetings that no one will dare overhear and everyone will studiously forget. Thus you will not be surprised that two men in nice gray felt hats entered, made a beeline for Darin, and sat down at his table.
"You look like you could use some company," said the taller and more skeletal of the two men. He was indeed very tall, and his face very skeletal.
"It depends on the kind of company," said Darin.
The other man, who, unlike his companion, would never have stood out in a crowd, having blandly normal features on a blandly normal frame, took off his felt hat and drew a stiff bit of card from the inner band where it had been tucked. He handed it across to Darin, who looked at it. It was a face card, a minor Trump, the Queen of Swords. Darin pulled another card from a pocket and handed it over: the Knight of Coins.
The blandly normal man slouched back into his seat, looking at Darin for a moment while he stroked his chin. "Our counterparts are quite pleased so far," he said. "Impressed would perhaps be the better word. To come through on a promise like the one you made is quite extraordinary, unprecedented, in fact. They would like to move things forward."
Darin picked up his glass and contemplated the glass gravely. "I want assurances."
The two men glanced at each other briefly, and then the blandly normal man said, "I am not sure what you are trying to hint."
"No hint," said Darin. "I have proven that my word can be trusted. How do i know that yours can?"
The tall, skeletal man rose suddenly and leaned over the table, glowering. Darin regarded him calmly, then looked back to the blandly normal man.
"I have spent time as a plotter in the household of the Matriarch of Syan," he said. "If this is going to devolve into threats, you will find that I am not easily intimidated. Nor am I stupid."
The blandly normal man touched the tall, skeletal man on the elbow and gestured for him to sit down. He looked around quietly and thoughtfully at the other patrons in the bar, all of whom seemed not to be paying attention, then leaned forward, folding his hands. "It is a fair enough request. Obviously it is difficult to give proof of future faith, but I guarantee you that your original proposal is acceptable and has been accepted. And you do not have to rely too much on our mere word. The bulk of it simply depends on your own actions...."
"I know that well," said Darin drily.
"As do we. Here is what we are doing, and you can be sure that our self-interest will carry it through. Even now we take advantage of the disarray you have thoughtfully provided and stretch out our hand for Eliogabulus. We can take it. Our chances of holding it for long, however, depend on the response of the Syan fleet."
"I have already persuaded the Matriarch to withdraw," said Darin.
The blandly normal man shook his head. "That will not suffice. Even if it is as you say, we have no illusions that such a withdrawal would be permanent. Our counterparts like guarantees, and the only way to have any guarantee is to make sure that the fleet of the Matriarch of Syan has no sustainable and organized response. And the only way to guarantee that is to make sure that there is no Matriarch of Syan to organize and sustain it."
"That seems a bit rushed," said Darin.
"It is the best way," said the blandly normal man, spreading his hands. "Coming so quickly after the loss of one Matriarch, the loss of a second, with no Infanta yet adopted, would be devastating. The very spirit of the Matriarchy, the very reason it always has an Infanta and not a Princess, is that the Matriarchate cannot be inherited. It must be taken, and for that there must be at least one Infanta capable of taking it. The time to strike is now. We would be able to establish ourselves in Eliogabulus without the Syan fleet breathing down our necks, and you would be in a position to seize control and carve Syan up as you wish."
The tall, skeletal man narrowed his eyes. "Can you, in fact, manage it?" he asked Darin.
Darin contemplated his glass again. "It is a pity," he said. "She is such a beautiful thing. But it was inevitable." His eyes flicked back to the tall, skeletal man. "And you will find that I am more than capable of managing such a thing."
(to be continued)