Jin Li Tam
Jin Li Tam had been sure that of all nights, this would be a night that Sethbert would summon her. She suspected that her father would want her to do what was expected and use the opportunity to learn more about the Overseer’s plot. But a part of her wondered if she didn’t already know enough, wondered if
she shouldn’t, instead, slide a knife between his ribs. Of course, at least half the few times-of late-he’d summoned her, he’d had her carefully searched as well.
But Sethbert didn’t summon her. Instead, he called a council of his generals and waved Jin Li Tam away in dismissal. She was grateful for it.
She closed the tent flap, tying a set of ankle bells to the silk rope so that the door couldn’t move without the subdued tinkling. Jin Li Tam had been trained since girlhood to use all of the accoutrements of her courtesan role to keep herself safe and the information flowing back to House Li Tam.
Slippers and all, she wore her riding silks to bed, her hand wrapped around the handle of her slender, curved knife. Before the banquet, she had hidden a small bundle wrapped in a dark cloak beneath her bed. She could magick herself, slip past Sethbert’s patrols, and be to the Wandering Army before morning.
But only if Rudolfo sent a man. And if he Kan.p hdid, she would be sure of the hidden message she’d found in his hastily tapped words.
A sunrise such as you belongs in the East with me, Rudolfo had said. But he’d pressed the word “sunrise” harder and he inverted the word “east,” and turned his fingers ever so slightly on the word “belongs,” giving it a sense of urgency.
The message was that there was compelling need for her to leave the camp and travel west before the sun rose.
But the message behind the message was even more intriguing: Rudolfo somehow knew an ancient form of House Li Tam’s nonverbal sublanguage. The “accent”-if you could call it that-was off, giving it an older, more formal tone.
Before the banquet, when she’d made her preparations to leave, she had expected to flee south and
west, making her way back to the Emerald Coasts under magicks until she was far enough away to not be recognized.
But now, another offer seemed to be clearly-and cleverly-presented.
This Rudolfo, she thought, may be a bit of a fop. But there was hardness in his eyes and practiced purpose in the way his fingers moved along her wrist.
She willed herself into a light sleep, one ear turned toward the bell on her door.
Jin Li Tam awoke to the hand over her mouth. She brought the small knife up and as she stabbed with it, another strong hand snaked in to grip her wrist. She struggled against the intruder. “Easy, Lady Tam,” a voice whispered. “I bear a message from General Rudolfo.” She stopped struggling. “Would you hear it?”
She nodded and he released her. “I would hear.”
The Gypsy Scout cleared his voice, then recited the message. “General Rudolfo bids you good evening and assures you that his proposition is true. He bids you to choose well between he and Sethbert and to consider your father in all of this. It is true that the Wandering Army is small, but as you well know, House Li Tam will launch its Iron Armada to honor its secret kin-clave with Windwir, and when they blockade the Three Rivers and its Delta, it won’t matter how small General Rudolfo’s army is. Sethbert will be divided, fighting the fight in two theaters.”
Jin Li Tam smiled. Her father was right about this Rudolfo. He was a formidable leader.
The Gypsy Scout went on. “Meanwhile, should you choose well, you shall be his guest until this unpleasantness passes and you can be reunited with your father.”
She nodded. Of course, her father’s secret kin-clave was with the Androfrancines, but Rudolfo’s messenger was proof that other alliances were being sought. House Li Tam, a shipbuilding concern that had established a successful line of banks over five hundred years ago that-known for their political neutrality-even handled the massive Androfrancine accounts. Because House Li Tam had no formal, acknowledged kin-clave with any of the powers, they were free to collect and share information on all of them to the highest bidders.
“What does Rudolfo get out of this for himself?”
She could hear the Scout’s smile around his reply. “He said that when you asked that question, I should tell you that one dance with the sunrise will warm him all the days of his life.”
She chuckled. “I see. A king who wishes he were a poet.”
“We will be waiting to the west for you, should you accept General Rudolfo’s offer of aid.” And then she was alone in the dark again. Once more, the bell didn’t ring.
Jin Li Tam didn’t need any time to make her decision. It had already been made before the scout arrived. But she’d wondered earlier if Rudolfo would make the third gesture, and the scout in her tent was sufficient. Typically, there would be less subterfuge involved, perhaps even a formal gathering. But each
of Rudolfo’s three gestures bore a subtlety that could be open to interpretation. The first had been the offer to dance in the presence of Sethbert. The second had been another message he had tapped into her
wrist, the last words: And I would never call you consort.
She had her third gesture. If there had been only one or two gestures within the night, it would have
meant nothing. But the third gesture contained yet another hidden message, and she knew for certain now that this Rudolfo was a Whymer Maze of hidden paths behind secret doors. That last hidden message
was clearly present, wrapped in the cloak of courtesy to her father. It was the third gesture of a night, a clear point made with subtle grace.
Lord Rudolfo of the Ninefold Forest Houses had announced himself as a potential suitor, following the ancient kin-clave rite prescribed for a Lord seeking alliance between Houses in order to defeat a common foe.
That meant that if she wished to, she could invoke the Providence of Kin-Clave, and by doing so, state without words that she was accepting him as a suitor.
Jin Li Tam wondered how much of this her father already knew, and decided that it had probably been his idea in the first place.
rldeight="0em" width="1em" align="justify"›Isaak released his hand. His eyes went hot and steam shot out from him. “I will not, Lord. I will not be anyone’s weapon again.”
For a brief moment, Rudolfo tasted fear in his mouth. A metallic taste. “No, no, no.” He reached out, took up the hand again. “Never that, Isaak. But the other bits. The poetry, the plays, the histories, the philosophies, the mythologies, the maps. Everything the Androfrancine library protected and
preserved… at least what bits you know. I would not have these pass from our world because of a buffoon’s ambition.”
“That is a monumental task, Lord, for a single servitor.”
“I believe,” Rudolfo said, “that you may have some help.”
The magicked Gypsy Scouts returned from the Entrolusian camp before dawn. They carried a bound, gagged, hooded man between them, deposited him in a chair and removed his hood. Another scout put a large leather pouch on the table.
Servers laid breakfast on the table-oranges, pomegranates, cakes made with nuts and honey, berries with liquored syrup-while Rudolfo studied their guest. He was a smallish man with delicate fingers and a broad face. His eyes bulged and veins stood out on his neck and forehead.
Isaak stared. Rudolfo patted his arm. “He looks familiar to you?”
The metal man clicked. “He does, Lord. He was Brother Charles’s apprentice.”
Rudolfo nodded. He sat at the head of the table and nibbled at a cake, washing it down with chilled peach wine.
The Gypsy Scouts gave their report; it was brief. “So how many do they have?”
“Thirteen in total, Lord,” the chief scout answered. “They are in a tent near the center of his camp. We found him sleeping among them.”
“Thirteen,” Rudolfo said, stroking his beard. “How many mechoservitors did the Androfrancines have, Isaak?”
“That is all of them, lord.”
He waved to the nearest Scout. “Remove his gag.”
The man blustered and flushed, his eyes wild and his mouth working like a landed tr Ske "›
Rudolfo stabbed a slice of orange with a small silver fork. “I will ask you questions; you will answer them. Otherwise you will not speak.”
The man nodded.
Rudolfo pointed at Isaak with his fork. “Do you recognize this metal man?” The man nodded again, his face now pale.
“Did you change this mechoservitor’s script on the orders of Overseer Sethbert of the Entrolusian City
“I… I did. Overseer Sethbert-”
Rudolfo snapped his fingers. A scout drew a slim dagger, placing its tip at the man’s throat. “Just yes or no for now.”
The man swallowed. “Yes.” The knife eased up.
Rudolfo selected another slice of orange and popped it into his mouth. “Did you do this terrible thing for money?”
The man’s eyes filled with tears. His jaw tensed. Slowly, he nodded again. Rudolfo leaned forward. “And do you understand exactly what you did?”
The Androfrancine apprentice sobbed. When he didn’t nod right away, the scout refocused him on
Rudolfo’s question with a point of the blade. “Y-yes, Lord.”
Rudolfo chewed a bit of pomegranate. He kept his voice level and low. “Do you wish mercy for this terrible crime?”
The sobbing escalated. A low whine rose to a howl so full of misery, so full of despair that it lay heavy on the air.
“Do you,” Rudolfo said again, his voice even quieter, “want mercy for your terrible crime?”
“I didn’t know it would work, Lord. I swear to you. And none of us thought that if it did work it would be so… so utterly, so…”
Rudolfo raised his hand and his eyebrows. The man stopped. “How could you know? How could anyone know? Xhum Y’zir has been dead over two thousand years. And his so-called Age of Laughing Madness has lo SMadcoung passed.” Rudolfo carefully selected another honeyed cake, nibbling at its corners. “So my question remains: Do you wish mercy?”
The man nodded.
“Very well. You have one opportunity and only one. I can not say the same for your liege.” Rudolfo looked over at the metal man. His eyes flashed and a slight trail of steam leaked from the corners of his mouth. “In a few moments, I am going to leave you here with my best Gypsy Scouts and my metallic friend, Isaak. I want you to very slowly, very clearly and in great detail, explain everything you know about scripting, maintaining and repairing Androfrancine mechoservitors.” Rudolfo stood. “You only have one chance and you only have a few hours. If you do not satisfy me, you will spend the rest of your natural days in chains, on Tormentor’s Row for all the known world to see, while my Physicians of Penitent Torture peel away your skin with salted knives and wait for it to grow back.” He tossed back
the rest of his wine. “You will spend the rest of your days in urine and feces and blood, with the screams of young children in your ears and the genocide of a city on your soul.”
The man vomited now, choking foul-smelling bile onto his tunic.
Rudolfo smiled. “I’m so glad you understand me.” He paused at the tent flap. “Isaak, pay careful
attention to the man.”
Outside, he waved for Gregoric. “Bring me a bird.”
He wrote the message himself. It was a simple, one-word question. After he wrote it, he tied it to the bird’s foot with the green thread of peace, but it felt like a lie. He whispered a destination to the bird and pressed his lips briefly to its small, soft head. Then he threw it at the sky and the sky caught it, sent it flapping south to the Entrolusian camp.
He whispered the question he had written. It sounded empty, but he whispered it again. “Why?”