This is the first part of a short story draft.
The Matriarch of Syan does not at first give an impression of extraordinary power. One hears of Matriarchs who have done so, but it is not the look that makes a Matriarch. I am not sure what does; but perhaps it is the the ability to smile coolly at the destruction of enemies. And I have no doubt that the Matriarch was smiling coolly as my predecessor sat down to dinner with her.
He was a cautious man, my predecessor, and carefully ate nothing except what was tasted by the food-tasters, a young man and a young woman. I hope they were well-paid for what must be a harrowing occupation; but perhaps they, like canaries in the coal mine, were simply drafted. But everything was tasted by one or the other, and the Matriarch herself began to eat, and so he ate.
"I have heard an interesting rumor," the Matriarch said abstractedly as she looked down at her wine and swirled it in her cup. "I have heard that you have had a meeting with the ambassador from the Five Cities Republic."
"'Having a meeting' is hardly the name for it," said the ambassador. "We happened to meet in passing and exchanged some words."
"Half an hour of words, it seems."
"That is certainly an exaggeration." You have to give the man credit; he must have been part steel, to lie like that and calmly continue eating.
"Rumors often are," she said carelessly. "I only bring it up because there are interesting things happening in the Republic. Or perhaps they are rumors, as well."
"Those rumors I have heard," he said, clearing his throat, then clearing his throat again. He drank some wine. "The Republic appears less stable than it used to be."
"Republics are always less stable than they used to be," said the Matriarch. "I am thinking more particularly of the tales I've heard that certain statesman there are interested in trying to destabilize the Matriarchate."
The ambassador perhaps turned slightly pale, but no other sign of distress showed. "Indeed? But I am not really surprised. The Five Cities are always a cesspool of intrigue, as you know. I am sure that they are plotting and plotting to unsettle the Empire in half a dozen ways, as well."
"No doubt," said the Matriarch. "The Republican ambassador said nothing to you about the matter."
"Nothing whatsoever," was the reply.
"Interesting." The Matriarch carefully cut her steak. It is a quirk of hers, the extraordinary care with which she eats her food, everything in precise bites.
After a few minutes of quiet eating, she spoke again. "One of the things I actually wanted to ask you about was the Imperial training exercises."
The ambassador cleared his throat. "Training exercises?" he said. His forehead was getting slightly damp.
"Training exercises," she said. "That is what the excuse would have been, would it not? 'We are not really building up our forces. It is a training exercise. Um...it is only near your borders because the location allows for' -- what would it be? -- 'because the location is ideal for practicing mountain maneuvers'? Let's see. Ah, yes, 'all routine; if you would like we can arrange for observers from Syan, but it would take time to get the permission, since you would have to notify the Imperial City and the local commanders.' Something like that would be the excuse, would it not?"
"Well," said the ambassador, perhaps a little weakly, "there are some training maneuvers going on, but there always are, you know. They don't keep me informed of every detail. Surely it is not so many that you could regard it as a serious threat."
"I am sorry to be so blunt, Your Excellency, but the Empire is long past being a serious threat to anyone, regardless of numbers. Nonetheless, it seems somewhat reckless to engage in 'training exercises' so close to the border without any prior notification. It seems only a matter of courtesy to let us know. After all, it could be taken very badly. To take just an example, there are all these rumors about the Five Cities plotting to assassinate me, and should I be out of the way, who would not think that the Empire might be tempted to annex the mines across the border, just to take advantage of a temporary moment of weakness on the part of Syan? Or perhaps to lend troops in assisting the Five Cities in opposing the Infanta? Or perhaps the Empire would be happy to cut a deal with the Republic to recognize and support its invasion in exchange for some valuable favors? There are so many possibilities for bad interpretation in the whole matter."
The pallor of the face and the beads of sweat on the forehead were quite pronounced. The ambassador cleared his throat. "If you wish," he said weakly, "I can file an official report registering your protest, in addition to any your ambassador to the Empire might file directly." He cleared his throat again.
"That would be very kind," she said. "You see, it is not the single event that causes consternation. But there are combinations of things that should always be avoided, even if singly they are perfectly harmless." She took a drink of wine.
"I heard about one that will no doubt amuse you," she said. "There was an incident in my predecessors day of someone important dying suddenly and mysteriously. And it turned out that the cause of death was two completely harmless substances. You see, when they separate, they have no ill effect. But if you were to mix the two under just the right circumstances, they convert to a highly toxic compound. As it happened, one of the substances had been in the food, and another in the drink. If he had just taken wine, or had water instead of the wine, he would have been perfectly fine; but he had both, and as it turns out, the acids of the stomach are the perfect conditions for the combination of the two compounds. Is that not remarkable?"
Whether the ambassador thought it remarkable was difficult to determine, since he was by this point sweating profusely, breathing raspily, and doubled over as if in pain. It was not long before he slid onto the floor, dead.
The Matriarch had his body shipped back to the Empire in grandest honors, expressing her deepest sorrow at having lost someone who had worked so hard for the mutual benefit of the Empire and the Matriarchate. The official story was food poisoning; which I suppose was completely true.
Of course, no one knows precisely what happened except the Matriarch; this is all just how I imagine it happened, based on what little I have been able to find out about it. I like to think that my predecessor took it stoically, in the finest Imperial tradition, as his forefathers would have. I hated the man myself, but he was an Imperial citizen, after all, of an old senatorial family, and I would hope that some of that would show itself in the end. And, I suppose, being killed by the Matriarch, which you can guarantee will be an inconveniently undignified and unpleasant death, cannot but make me have some sympathy for him.
Obviously my own involvement in the matter began after the body had been shipped back to the Empire with all the crocodile tears the Matriarch could ship with it.
to be continued