The capital of Syan is wherever the Matriarch is officially residing at a time, and Matriarchs change 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 adhere -- in part, I imagine, because it reduces the resources available for plotting and scheming against them.
When I arrived in Syan, 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 information about 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, indeed many not-at-all-fascinating, facts about pickling.
The ride was much longer than I could have hoped, and the Imperial 'embassy' was just 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 been forced into a position that would likely lead to my death and 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, as the final insult, that my staff was 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 request he was fortunately competent enough to understand, and I began estimating how long it would take to walk to the castle, since walk I apparently must. 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 along the nearest road, 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, pale-skinned 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 wondered at this 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," I told the chief of staff.
"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 of senatorial pedigree -- 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, "Well, at least the Empire has sent me a pretty one this time."
This was very disconcerting, and I found myself somewhat tongue-tied. 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, a little too obviously insincerely, I thought. "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 in the Empire," I said. "It must be one of the most famous paintings ever made. One of the former Matriarchs, I take it?"
"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. Even I have to avoid giving orders that are guaranteed to be disobeyed. 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."
"I do, Matriarch, but it is perhaps excessively bold of me to say it."
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. To make the matter short, 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. Our interests are perhaps more aligned. 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 better than anyone."
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 need to lie," 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?"
She smiled. "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; ingenious of you Empire-boys to try to steal territory without fighting for it. I would not be at all surprised if it were an Imperial scheme from the start. I have also strongly suspected that the Imperial embassy has been providing assistance to Republican spies in one way or another, 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 surely sent here as an expendable pawn. 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 evidence at all turned up to confirm my suspicion of the Imperial sheltering of Republican spies, you would have been responsible for it, whether you knew 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 a few things about your family and their troubles. 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 reflexively at the insult, but at that point I was also not 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 on that front, if you will keep me informed about what you learn about it. It is a small thing, but it is something."
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 again and shrugged her shoulders. "Who can ever know how a rumor first starts?" she replied. "What is your second question?"
"It is a mere matter of curiosity. Why do you hate that 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 senators let out their occasional peacock-screams about the freedom of the Imperial citizen, as you bury those very citizens alive in laws, 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 quiet business according to custom and choice. To try to rule everything is the surest way to loss of power. Every Matriarch is taught that from the first day she is Infanta: Make no plans requiring control of little details. But there is another kind of power, and it respects no limits. It exerts a slow pressure to conform to impossible standards, mythical standards, and it is designed to seep 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