I heard Lancois’s effusive voice clear as day from just beyond the other side of the thick black curtain. “Ladies and gentlemen…and Fenssaint the Spade…” The lords and ladies gathered in the ballroom chuckled politely at this, and I was later told that the drunken guffaw echoing over them all belonged to Fenssaint himself. “It is at great personal expense that I’ve brought to you this evening’s guest of honor. He hails from a far away land, a mystical place where dragons soar across the sky and beautiful mermaids roam the seas!” His audience oohed and aahed. I rolled my eyes and shook my head. Did none of these pretentious mortals have any clue as to the nature of the Dreaming Lands? “I give to you Lord Thistelonius, Prefect of Maeda Cricao!”
The crowd burst into applause as the curtain fell away, exposing me to the piercing judgment of the crowd. I’d been dreading this moment since Lancois first told me of his plans two weeks ago.
“It’ll be the grandest party Terre Haute has ever seen!” he crowed from atop the over-stuffed couch in his parlor. Somehow, despite the couch’s sturdy frame and thick cushions, Lancois’s girth managed to make the thing look like a piece of children’s furniture. His eyes glittered as he spoke, either with pride or with the three bottles of wine he’d inhaled since breakfast. “Anyone who’s anyone will be there!”
“But I’m not royalty!” I protested from the little chair across the room to which I was shackled. “I’m but a humble lean’aghan, a nameless soul wandering the world in search of–“
“Pish-posh!” Lancois snapped with a wave of his fingers. The motion sent a little quake through his flabby form. “These suckers will believe whatever we tell them, and they’ll love us for it!”
“But if the Courts of Twilight were to find out that I’m impersonating–“
“Enough! You’ll do as I say, or you’ll end up like them!”
He pointed angrily to the mounted heads of a family of thul bears–father, mother, and three cubs–attached to the wall to my right. I swallowed, my throat tight and rough. “P-P-Prefect Thistle, at your service, sir…”
I took a few hesitant steps further onto the stage. I’d never worn so much clothing before and it made my movements slow and deliberate, as if I were trapped in a pit of thick mud. The tailors had dressed me in black leather pants that were two sizes too tight (“All the rage in Priyati!”), a heavy fur tunic studded diagonally across the chest with gold and gems (“Emperor Pileaus wore one just like it at the last fete!”) and an extremely heavy cloak streaked black and white with smelly dyes (“The tailor in Ouillaine simply can’t make them fast enough!”). A platinum crown sat cockeyed on my head; the smith spent a day reshaping it to fit around my skull, and he’d twisted it a bit too far. I didn’t ask why the Prefect of Maeda Cricao would wear mortal clothing.
But by far the worst of it all were the shoes. Why anyone would wish to stick his feet in those things on a regular basis was beyond me. They were like the mouths of some vicious beasts trying to crush my delicate toes in their jaws. The cobbler had never seen feet as long as mine, and it had taken him a few tries to produce a set of slippers that he could declare “right.” It took me three days to learn to walk in the Mother-forsaken monstrosities.
Lancois beckoned me forward from his raised platform near the front, decked out in a silly purple robe covered in gold moons and stars and an impossible tall, impossibly pointy hat tipped with a black feather. I shuffled to his side, taking small, delicate steps so as not to lose my balance or my crown. The crowd on the floor below was a motley collection of the rich and the learned and those who were just good at faking one or both. These were the cream of Terre Haute’s crop–and they were the silliest looking group I’d ever seen. Their outfits made mine look positively normal. All the colors of the rainbow were well represented, occasionally on a single tunic or gown. A stringy old woman in the very front wore a duck on her head that was still alive and quacking. A man beside her wore a glittering gold robe with his face reproduced on the breast in sparkling rubies. I spotted a pair of twins in the back who’d shoved themselves side-by-side into a single giant gown, each wearing a thin strap over her outside shoulder. It was all I could do to keep myself from bursting into hysterics.
I stopped beside Lancois and offered what I hoped was a benevolent, kingly wave. The heavy rings covering most of my fingers made the motion awkward. My master’s guests applauded politely and generally seemed glad to see me in an I’m-impressed-but-I’m-too-important-to-show-it-and-anyway-you-should-be-more-impressed-with-me sort of way. I was just glad I hadn’t tripped.
“And now, if you’ll all adjourn to your assigned seats,” Lancois said dramatically. “Dinner is served!”
The guests dispersed to their tables, using their invitations to find their way. Young men in crimson shifts and black masks stood behind each chair, pulling it out for its owner with a smile and a flourish of the right hand. They then hurried off through the servants’ entrance to their duties in the kitchen. Lancois and I sat at together on one side of a round table, joined by four others who I’d been trained to recognize on sight. The duck lady to my right was Madame Hoost, widow of Terre Haute’s former authority on textiles. To her right in the gold robe sat her latest companion, Hoctor Hanhuis, a man of some repute in Priyati. They were joined by the Almais brothers, Lantel and Remly, who came in matching black tunics and silversilk cloaks. We barely finished introductions before the serving men returned, each bearing a plate piled high with meats and vegetables and cheeses I didn’t recognize.
Lancois attempted to engage me in conversation with Madame Hoost, but it was the discussion across the table that caught my attention.
“I swear to you, Lantel, I saw the arrows go right through her!” Remly said as he bit off a big hunk of cheese and washed it down with a gulp of wine. He was the younger of the two brothers, the one who spent most of his time in the jungles hunting for mah’saiid relics. According to Lancois he was damn good at it. His curly blond hair bounced as he spoke, making his babyface look even younger. “Check the gouges in the door of Simonez’s shop. Clean through her, and not a drop of blood came out with ’em.”
“Boruin’s woman is a strange one indeed,” Lantel replied thoughtfully. He took care of finding buyers for the priceless antiquities Remly brought in from the jungles. Supposedly he was also damn good at his job, and Lancois was hoping to butter him up a bit that evening to get a better price on some such-and-such he wanted for his steam room. “But it’s that slave that worries me. The man looks right through you, like he’d cut you in half just so you’ll be out of his way.”
“And that short one–what’s his name, something like Heap?–he’ll pick your pocket just as soon as shake your hand. Got to watch your coins around that one,” Remly replied. “Strange crew.”
Lantel nodded. “Strange men keep strange company. Any man dumb enough to cross their boss, though, will more ‘an get what he deserves. Boruin walks around with this bearing like the whole world is out to get him. And like he’s daring the whole world to try.”
Hoctor turned to the two of them. “Friend of mine had some dealings with Boruin’s crew recently. Said they were to ride to Priyati, but then the whole lot of them just disappeared somewhere along the road. One moment they’re talking business, about how they’re going to split the whole deal fifty-fifty, and the next Belok’s on the road all by his lonesome, swindled out of the delivery. Couldn’t find him anywhere.”
Now that really caught my attention. That was interesting. Very interesting.
Madame Hoost reached across the table to put her hand on my arm. The duck on her head flapped its wings and tried to snap at me with its bill. “You’re not going to eat, dear?”
“Mortal food does not sit well with me,” I said quickly, getting rid of her so I could address the men. “Hoctor, where is this Belok now?”
He shifted in his seat and looked down at his plate, seemingly uncomfortable at speaking with me. “Priyati. He rode on. A letter came from him the other day. He writes a lot of letters.”
“Such a charming hobby!” Madame Hoost crowed. The duck on her head quacked angrily; it didn’t agree. “And such a charming man! That Belok would surely be the life of this very party if he were not busy elsewhere!”
I ignored her and looked to Lancois, hoping he’d get the message. “I’d rather like to see this spot where Boruin disappeared. It could be most…enlightening.”
He was confused for a moment, but then realization slowly crept into his eyes. He smelled a potential profit, just as I’d hoped. “Why, yes, Hoctor will be good enough to take us, won’t you, Hoctor?”
The man across the table nodded stiffly. “Of course, Master Lancois. Anything for the Prefect.”
Conversation picked back up around the table. Lancois leaned in close to my ear a few moments later. “Excellent work, Thistle. You keep this up and the chains will stay off for a very long time.”