Present day, on the world of Florentia
Silk D’Avray ran down the echoing marble hall of the council chambers, with the front of her delicate cream gown clutched in her sweaty fingers. Dread beat a tattoo against her temples, but she knew she mustn’t disgrace herself in any way. There was no going home to her kingdom if she failed here. Her parents would disown her. She had to be invested as the new ambassador of Rhocer. No other option was available to her.
Her superior, Ambassador Wisern, loped ahead of her in a stiff gown of blue brocade, while their assigned guardsman lumbered behind Silk, grunting at the exertion. His ceremonial sword clunked with each footfall, but thankfully the council that governed their world was behind closed doors and unable to witness their embarrassing procession. The hallways were empty save for the double-sized statues that lined the marble walls: images of Florentine family members who had served on the council for the past five hundred years. They were faces Silk had grown up hating, along with the Medici kings who’d been stealing the wealth of her world since they first invaded it five hundred years before.
Her people had been foolish to help them, pitying them as refugees fleeing persecution in their own world. How quickly the tables had turned. The people of Silk’s own kingdom of Rhocer had suffered mightily over those centuries, and as she ran past the statues, their looming presence made her feel even more insignificant than recent events had shown her to be. She imagined they were scowling down at her disrespectful haste, but when she rounded a corner and was confronted by an empty hallway, that fantasy flew out of her mind.
Ambassador Wisern was gone.
Silk stopped and gasped a breath that bordered on a sob. Her guardsman lurched to a halt behind her and waited as he had been trained to do. Silk knew her dignity had been lost before she’d even been presented as the new ambassador, but that was surmountable. Losing the one person who was allowed to present her, was not.
Still, despite the clamminess of her hands, Silk did as she was trained, checking her appearance with her fingers, rearranging her coiled blonde hair so the hundred loops sat neatly against each other on her shoulders. Then her trembling fingers slipped down to adjust the bodice of her gown with its waterfall of glistening strands falling from her bosom to brush the floor.
There were creases at her hips where she’d gripped the fabric, and she smoothed her damp palms over those, hoping the marks would soften. Her superiors would order a fresh gown if she wasn’t invested as the new ambassador today, and she didn’t want that. The fashionable trappings of her presentation had cost her people enough to feed an entire village for a year. She wasn’t about to waste that.
“D’Avray!” Ambassador Wisern called, her dark head popping out of a doorway down the hall.
Silk hid her relief behind a mask of attentiveness as she strode the few paces and stood patiently beside her older associate, aware of the guardsman who followed her. He was so close behind she could smell sweat from his direction, and the realization that they must share a small carriage on their return journey to the ambassadorial precinct slid into her mind before she could push it away as unimportant.
Wisern snapped, “We are too late,” and Silk couldn’t stop herself clutching her gown again as her worst nightmare was realized.
Her superior nodded at the official with whom she had conferred. His protruding jowls and oiled curls gave him the appearance of a smug ocean seal in a grey velvet doublet. “As a result of our tardiness,” Wisern said, her voice barely civil, as though she blamed Silk for their woes, “Council has decided to cancel your investiture.”
Fear battered around inside Silk’s breast like a trapped bird with sharp claws but she forced her chin up, refusing to be cowed in front of the petty official watching her so lasciviously. “Why was the timing changed?” she demanded. “And why was our embassy not notified?”
She might be half Wisern’s age, but she had trained for this since she was seven. Ten years. More than half her short life had been focused on her career, and she was not giving that up without a fight. She may be only an insignificant ambassador from a lowly kingdom, but Silk was determined to use whatever talents she may possess to leverage the Medici into sharing their wealth with the starving.
Wisern, with her heavily powdered face, painted rosebud lips and glossy black curls, ignored Silk’s question to glance at their guardsman. “Your doublet has come unbuttoned.” She nodded at his forest green jacket. “And your hair is unkempt. Pull it back into a tail and tie it.”
Silk clenched her jaws to hide her turmoil and turned to look at their escort. The young man with his over-large ears and pleasantly freckled face did look disheveled, and that would reflect badly on Rhocer if it were not rectified. Yet she felt embarrassed for him as he pulled his straw colored hair into a tail, then faltered when he had nothing to tie it with.
“Here,” Wisern snapped, handing over a ribbon the oily official had produced. Then she turned on Silk. “You have been authorized to watch the council meeting this morning, and that is a signal honor.” She stressed the last comment as though Silk was a first year and had no understanding of protocol. “I will be meeting with Councilor Orsini at the conclusion of the morning session and we will discuss your situation.”
A trickle of relief unclenched Silk’s jaws. Wisern may be able to negotiate her investiture for a later date. Perhaps the cancellation had been a clerical error.
The young guardsman blurted, “I know the way to the viewing chamber,” his voice over-loud in the quiet corridor. “I will continue my escort duties, if my Lady D’Avray wishes.”
Wisern gave them both a vexed glance, but Silk merely curtsied as rank demanded and said nothing that might disadvantage her position. When her guardsman gestured down the corridor, Silk took the lead and again heard his sword thumping his leg as he followed.
It would be easy to feel annoyed with Wisern’s petty behavior, but Silk focused instead on the fact that all Rhocerians must work together for their common good – that included her superior, the guardsman at her back, the others at their embassy who had helped her prepare for this important day, and the thousands at home who relied on her to further their cause economically. Florentia was a world of political jostling. Children she’d grown up with in Rhocer were starving to death, while outside this very building on the streets of Tarot, the poorest concubine could own gowns and jewels and pets. Silk wanted to change all that.
“To your left, my lady,” the guardsman said, and she took the corridor, striding past even more statues of men and women she despised, until at last she found herself at the base of a narrow spiral staircase. She turned to her guardsman who bowed. “The observation gallery is above, my lady,” he said and straightened. “I will wait here to return you to the embassy.”
Silk nodded, then glanced at his chest where another button on his green doublet had dislodged revealing his white undershirt beneath. She knew she would be expected to report such breaches of deportment, and to ask for a replacement guardsman on the morrow. Her mission relied on creating a good impression, yet she also knew she would not report the guardsman, and despite her passion for her people, she wondered then if she had been the right choice for this position. Signoria Council politics were ruthless, and back home in Rhocer she’d convinced herself she would meet that challenge. Yet here, at the first moment requiring a hard decision, she balked.
She must not.
So she swallowed hard and said, “Ambassador Wisern has rebuked you on your grooming, and I find it still lacking.” She pointed at the offending button. “Please be properly deported when I return in an hour.”
The guardsman’s expression stiffened, and in the seconds that followed his face suffused with color. “My lady,” he said quietly, and it was all Silk could do to nod and turn away, hating herself in that moment, hating politics, and especially hating the Medici who had turned the happy simplicity of their lives into a complex struggle for survival.
She climbed the narrow stairs apace, trying to outrun her own cruelty. I must be strong for the good of my people. But what she had just done was wrong, and she knew it. In Rhocer, amid the beauty of the forests and the wisdom of her elders, she had been so sure of herself, of her ability to follow the path of minimal harm. But here, amid the intrigue of the Medici court, one wrong appeared very much like another and she felt so unsure, so weak. She could not even get herself invested in her role! How was she to help anyone when she could not even manage the first step?
Heavy thoughts filled her mind as she trudged up the thick white-carpeted stairs that deposited her at a brass door flanked by onyx statues of a similar height to herself. The bronze door ring tilted easily to one side, but when she shoved the door forward and the seal broke, she heard voices from within, angry voices that cut over each other in their haste to insult.
“The pompous ranting of a—”
Silk knew that last voice. It was the Medici king, Castilo, head of the Signoria Council. In the same instant as she registered anger in his rumbling tone, her hand froze on the brass ring. This was not a good time to enter, but unfortunately the momentum of the heavy door wasn’t as easily stayed, and though she pulled back on it with all her weight, it continued to open. When it finally reached a halt, it was wide enough for her to slip through and she did that, immediately pressing her back against it to close it and block out the light. She could not have picked a worse time to be seen entering.
The narrow viewing gallery she’d just stepped into was darkened, and it was only light drifting up from the candelabra below that offered a shadowed view of the row of straight-backed chairs before her. Silk ignored them to slide along the wall to her right, only stepping forward when she was sure the curtain framing the gallery would hide her within its shadows. She prayed that no one below had noticed the light from her entry shining above them. If they were in foul dispositions, this was not the moment to come to their attention.
Holding the edges of the stiff gold curtain as a shield, she peered around it, looking down to find King Castilo standing at the head of the table with a Sforza matron standing at the opposite end. They were glaring at each other. Around them lounged the five other councilors of the Signoria, four men and one woman, some gazing away as though in boredom.
“Speak plainly,” the king demanded, his voice low and deadly, or so it seemed to Silk, but the Sforza matron appeared unflustered. Instead of shuddering as Silk did, she turned almost arrogantly to face the only dignitary in the room not seated at the Signoria table.
Silk leaned sideways, bringing the curtain with her, intent on discovering whose black-clad legs she could see negligently crossed at the side of the room. Then her breath stilled in her chest as she gazed for the first time on Luc de Medici, the king’s son and heir to the throne, generale of the armies that controlled Florentia. He sat on a velvet throne reserved for visitors, and even if she had not studied the royal portraits, Silk would have recognized him instantly. His unfashionably short-cropped red hair and disdainful glance were legend, and in his current mood, terrifying. She wanted to slide back along the wall, exit the Signoria building, and return at once to Rhocer.
While she had been safely in the forests of her home kingdom studying the Medici royal family, she had tricked herself into believing that her familiarity with the subject would demystify them, making them no more daunting to her than any other dignitary she might meet. But she was entirely unprepared for the aura of power and casual menace that the generale exuded like an expensive parfum.
How the matron could gaze into those pale blue eyes and not tremble in fear for her very life was beyond Silk’s comprehension. Yet the matron did stare straight at him as she said, “We need assurances.” Her voice echoed hollowly up from the marble floor below into the shadowed gallery where Silk hid. “The king’s son must produce an heir before he can be considered worthy of the throne.”
Silk, who had been afraid before, thought her heart would stop beating in her chest. Questioning the virility of the king’s eldest son was a blatant insult that could not go unpunished. How would the Sforza matron exit these chambers alive?
Reluctantly, Silk returned her frightened gaze to the generale as he uncrossed his legs and stood, gazing calmly at his enemy. Silk forgot to breathe. Luc de Medici was tall and lean of frame, and though his short red hair went against the prevailing fashion of long dark locks, it focused attention on his piercing eyes and the stark bones of his face. The unadorned black breeches and sleek black doublet that clung to his shoulders and muscular arms were neither uniform nor social wear. They were a statement of the fact that he could not be controlled.
At twenty-five, Luc de Medici was the youngest generale the Signoria had ever appointed, and he’d wielded total control of the armies of Florentia these last five years. The council gave him orders but Luc de Medici did not always obey. Yet in his own way he did what they required of him – he kept the capital of Tarot secure for the Florentine families who lived here, and his garrisons in each kingdom prevented rebellion and war. The trade routes on which they all depended were safeguarded by his fearsome Condottiere, and as their most powerful military leader Luc was revered, and rightly feared.
Silk had never heard of him being insulted before this day, and if she had not witnessed the act herself, she would never have believed it. She swallowed tightly, terrified she would witness a murder on the floor below her, unable to drag her gaze away from the scene, insatiably curious to discover how the generale would respond. Around the table the other councilors had also stilled, watching the king’s son whose calculating gaze swept past the matron as though she had already ceased to exist, and came to rest on his father.
A silent communication appeared to pass between them, and then the king said, “You are dismissed.” The generale bowed to the king only, then he strode past the table toward the doors. Two guardsmen leaped forward to open them, then they closed so quietly Silk could hear blood pounding in her temples.
“My son will marry,” the king said quietly, and in that instant his gaze swept up to find Silk in the gallery, hiding behind the curtain, peeking out at him with what must surely appear to be a disapproving frown.
The shock of discovery jolted through her as though someone had touched her spine with a rod of ice, but she knew instinctively that she must make no move to hide herself, lest her purpose appear sinister. Instead, she released the curtain and let it fall to her side, exposing herself to the curiosity of the other councilors who turned to see what held the king’s attention.
“Silk D’Avray,” he said in his deep rumbling tone.
This shock went deeper. How did the king come to know her name? She was an uninvested ambassador from a lowly kingdom. Yet here he was staring at her as though it was perfectly normal that he knew her name, and could recognize her on sight.
Then he turned his regal attention on the matron and said, “Here, Councilor Sforza, stands the future wife of my son.” His hand rose to gesture toward Silk. “She will bear his child before the year is out. Your speculation is unfounded.”
Silk could only stare at the king’s profile, as if the structure of his face would somehow reveal the thoughts behind that regal countenance.
. . . the future wife of my son.
“We are finished,” he told his council, and with that he rose and turned away from the table, away from Silk. The guards opened the wide brass doors and the king swept through, not as tall as his son, but in the thick robes of his office, bejeweled and fur-trimmed, he had a stature few men could emulate. One by one the councilors rose and followed their king, some casting glances at Silk as she stood stiffly in the gallery. She knew their names, had studied their families, Pazzi, Sforza, Albizzi, Borgia, Orsini, Strozzi, but as they filed out her legs began to tremble. When the last councilor had left the chamber, Silk could no longer hold herself up.
She reached behind herself blindly to find support, grabbed the edge of a padded seat and slumped into it.
. . . the future wife of my son.
Her cancelled investiture suddenly made sense, yet all she could do was stare blindly at her slippers almost hidden in the shadows, imagining them racing her down the stairs, out of the Palazzo della Signoria and through the piazza beyond to the commercial district and down cobbled lanes to the edges of the royal city where she would . . . what? Run home to Rhocer?
How long would that journey take on foot? She had sailed two days in the eerie silence of the Signoria’s diplomatic service skyship to reach Tarot, watching the lands below her slip past like models in a child’s toy room: the open paddocks with miniature cattle, the impenetrable forests of Golivia rumored to be inhabited by witches, the Stolen Lands that even the Medici’s fearsome Condottiere avoided.
It was an impossible idea that she, a woman alone with no provisions, could expect to survive outside Tarot in the forests of Etruscia, let alone cross the many kingdoms between the Medici’s and her own. But as that thought came and went, she wondered if she could hide herself in a trade caravan.
I am desperate.
In that moment she felt as though she stood outside herself gazing at the narrow hunched shoulders, the wide unseeing eyes, the racing heart.
Desperate people make bad decisions. She had heard that innumerable times during her training.
I must not to be desperate.
Yet how to accomplish that when every particle of her being strained to escape? Focus on the mission. Find advantages in the current situation. There would be advantages. There must be. But her mind allowed no room for them. It was crammed full of a restless, pacing fear that longed for physical expression.
And all of it centered on the vision of Luc de Medici with his cold blue eyes and his aura of deadly menace walking toward her bed.
Present day, Professor Sykes laboratory, Florence, Italy
Dan Rivers slid the tiny crystal tube he’d been polishing into position within the maze of other crystal cylinders of various colors and sizes. The machine looked like an oversized pastel version of pick-up-sticks, but the configuration wasn’t random. Dan was following a five hundred year old blueprint sketched by the most imaginative engineer who’d ever lived.
Courtesy of a lost codex.
Photocopies of those ancient parchments lay strewn across the lab bench behind Dan, and with the morning’s work done, he turned away from the intricate machine on its platform of gyroscopic stabilizers, created to ensure the pieces of crystal would remain in position even if there was an earthquake – highly unlikely in this part of Italy. His boss, Professor Sykes, wasn’t taking any chances. The materials were costly and the project highly secretive. They wouldn’t get a second shot at this in the old man’s lifetime.
Dan sorted among the photocopied codex pages on the white laminate bench and picked out his favorite. It showed the crystal machine radiating lightning that pierced . . . something. A wall? A dimension? A flower sat on the other side of the barrier, but unlike the lightning which appeared quite realistic, the flower was stylized, almost geometric. Sykes was completely convinced that the machine opened a portal between worlds, and had speculated that the flower represented the name of the world, or symbolized its contents. But whether it was an alien world, or a parallel world – a duplicate of earth that had developed on a different timeline – could be anyone’s guess.
Dan had grown up watching Stargate and playing fantasy computer games, so he was naturally predisposed to hope a portal to another world was possible. The handwriting on the yellowed parchment wasn’t Leonardo da Vinci’s, but Sykes believed it was Da Vinci’s student at the time of his death, Francesco Melzi, taking notes for his master. The shaky drawings, particularly the stylized geometric flower, were what really excited Dan. They bore a startling similarity to those he’d seen behind bulletproof glass on a school field trip when Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester had toured his hometown of Sydney.
Unfortunately for Sykes, Dan had put the last piece of crystal into place a month ago and nothing had happened.
At first Sykes had been puzzled, then angry. Dan had checked every crystal tube with a microscope looking for flaws. They’d used laser beams to ensure the alignment of the tubes was within a tenth of a nanometer. Everything electromagnetic that could possibly interfere with the device – watches, phones, computers, had been taken outside the lab. The only thing inside the locked room was the machine, paperwork and pencils.
Still the damn thing did nothing.
Dan wouldn’t let himself be frustrated with the machine. It had been a highly unlikely project from the start. Even if Da Vinci had invented it, that didn’t mean it had ever worked for him. But Dan was frustrated with Sykes who had taken off on a lecture tour the day after they’d discovered it wasn’t working. Every check-in phone call seemed to subtly imply that Dan must be doing something wrong, even though he’d done everything the professor suggested, and more.
So instead of a thrilling opening to his engineering career, where reflected glory secured him research funding for a project of his own, he had to content himself with the fact that he’d spent a year in beautiful Florence eating fabulous Italian food, studying under a brilliant man and having nothing to show for it. He couldn’t even write a paper on their portal project, because Sykes would most definitely want to keep this failure to himself. All Dan could hope for was a good reference, but even that wasn’t looking promising of late.
Homesickness was acute today, so he let himself out of the lab, locked it and went into his office to retrieve his watch. Midday. He did a quick calculation, then phoned home. Five rings later his shoulders relaxed as his father’s voice came down the line.
“Danno! How’s my boy?”
“Great dad. All good here,” he lied.
“You on a lunch break?”
“Yep. More pasta drowning in endless olive oil.” The thought of food made his stomach wake up and he decided he may as well go into town for lunch after the phone call. Sykes liked him to keep out of the university canteen and away from where people could ask questions.
“You sound sad,” his father said, and Dan heard clunking noises. The old man was on the move, probably going into the kitchen to pretend to make tea so he could talk in private. “Things okay there?”
Dan wanted to sigh, but he managed to hold that in. “I broke up with Rosa.” He should have told them a month ago when it happened, but knowing his mother, she’d have been knitting baby booties in the hope that her only child would settle down and give her grandchildren. “But I’m okay about it,” he hurried to add. “You know how it is, dad. We dated, but she’s . . . not right for me.” That was an understatement, but it was his fault for asking her out in the first place. She’d been yelling at her old boyfriend the first time they met. He should have realized she was a drama queen, but he’d been lonely and she was pretty, and some things in life were just plain stupid.
“That’s my boy. Nothing fazes you. That’s why Sykes chose you.”
“And the project?”
“On track.” Dan nodded, though his father couldn’t see him. “The professor’s happy with it all. Should be a big success.”
There was a beat of silence, then his father said, “I’m proud of you son,” and unexpectedly, Dan’s throat constricted. He’d never felt so far from home in the whole twelve months he’d been away. “You always did have your head screwed on right.”
Dan nodded again, his lips pressed together, the phone hard up against his ear. “Thanks, Dad,” he said softly.
“You’re welcome,” his father replied, the calm confidence in his voice helping Dan’s emotions to settle. “Want to chat with your mother?”
“Not this time.” There was no way he’d be able to hold it together if his mom started crying about missing her baby. “Can you tell her I was late for a meeting?”
Dan finished the call with some small talk about sport, then headed out into the fresh air where he changed his mind about going into the noisy centre of Florence and caught the number seven bus up the hill to Fiesole, a tiny village with the best pizza in the region. Garibaldi’s cheesy Margherita was worth the twenty minute scenic journey, and with a large slab warming his hands, he hiked up a steep cobbled lane, watched over by regularly spaced statues of the Madonna and child set into glass-fronted niches in the high stone walls.
He’d come to Fiesole with Rosa once and she’d dared him to run to the top, which he’d easily done. His fitness had surprised her. Maybe she’d expected that long hours in the lab would translate into flab. Three dates hadn’t been quite long enough for her to discover that he got up at five every morning to run, then trained with the university rowing team on the Arno River.
The cobbled lane spilled out onto a grassy lookout and a gust of autumn wind propelled him to his favorite bench where he settled in the warm Mediterranean sunlight to munch quietly and gaze down on the city below. Florentine architecture had barely changed over the centuries, with the Arno River still snaking through it and a sea of red tiled roofs surrounded by green estates dotted with Cypress trees. Italy was lush and fertile and so very different to the drought-affected pastures he’d left behind in Australia. The city itself was hazy with pollution, but probably cleaner than it would have been centuries ago with all those smoky wood fires. On this crisp day, the view was particularly beautiful, with the sun reflecting off the distinctive white spines of the famous cathedral’s Duomo – dome – culminating in a tiny white tower on the top.
As an engineer himself, Dan marveled that Renaissance genius Brunelleschi had been able to design and build such a spectacularly huge dome atop Florence’s cathedral with no inside buttressing. The fact that it was still standing almost six hundred years later awed him. That was the sort of legacy Dan would love to create. Unfortunately for him, his mentor Sykes was obsessed with regurgitating the past to gain notoriety and glory.
Not that the idea of a portal wasn’t thrilling. It just didn’t look likely anymore, so sooner or later he needed to start thinking about what he really wanted to do, what he’d planned to do all those years he’d been studying and sitting exams. But first he had to acquit the project he was on, so he swallowed the last mouthful of pizza, wiped his fingers on the paper napkin and tossed that in the bin as he stood. There were plenty more hours in the day for him to go over their calculations and check, yet again, for mistakes.
But before he left the lookout, he cast a last glance at the Duomo, reminding himself that it hadn’t been Brunelleschi’s idea to build a huge dome over the Florence Cathedral. That had been someone else’s obsession. Brunelleschi had merely won a competition to get the job, much as Dan had. Yet the Duomo appeared to be the crowning achievement of his life, and it had opened doors for him. Dan could only hope for similar luck with the portal machine.
A cool breeze chased him back down the steep cobbled street, and he thought for the first time about Da Vinci, and whether he’d wanted to create the crystal machine, or if someone had commissioned him to do that. Hadn’t the wealthy Medici family, who had employed Brunelleschi for the dome and Michelangelo for statues, also commissioned Da Vinci to paint for them? Or had that been an engineering project? Dan couldn’t remember for sure, and resolved to do some research on the subject that night.
The tiny geometric flower on the codex came back into his mind then, and he struggled to remember where he’d seen it before. Not in a painting. Something to do with math? With geometry? He shook his head, determined to research that as well. He had the sudden sharp feeling that they were missing something really obvious, and he was determined to find out what it was before Sykes came back.
That gave him two days.
Royal Palace in the capital of Tarot, Florentia
Silk stood motionless on the raised platform the seamstresses had brought, breathing shallowly while they sewed her into the glacier-green velvet gown she had selected from the dizzying array delivered to her new quarters. Within an hour of the king’s announcement of her betrothal, her meager possessions had been moved from the humble ambassadorial residencies into the royal palace where her suite took up almost a whole floor. Silk herself had been immediately transported to the palace from the Palazzo della Signoria on a hand-held litter, like a trophy being exhibited for the benefit of the populace who, thanks to the herald who preceded her, came out in droves to see the woman who would marry the king’s son.
Silk had been mortified, and it had been all she could do to sit stiffly within the veiled litter, staring straight ahead, wondering whether the generale even knew he was to wed, let alone that a wife had been chosen for him. That had been two days ago. Two days during which she’d barely slept, expecting at any moment to be called into an audience with either the king or the generale. But she had been left alone, far too long, with her own frightened thoughts. This morning Ambassador Wisern visited, and though Silk had craved company, the critical eye of her superior was hardly likely to lend her any solace.
“I don’t like that gown.” Wisern handed her empty wine goblet to a steward who immediately returned to his position against a wall of the huge frescoed sitting room. His uniform of a sapphire blue doublet and paler blue breeches finished in impressive gold trim, matched the dresses worn by the serving women who stood twenty paces away on the opposite wall beside the tables of food. They watched Silk and Wisern so closely it was unnerving, waiting for the slightest gesture of request. Their constant inspection frayed Silk’s nerves, and matters weren’t improved when Wisern gestured dismissively at her and added, “A darker green may have suited your complexion.”
Silk replied over the head of the seamstress who moved in front of her. “I am told the generale favors this hue.”
“If you say so.” Wisern’s own black gown coupled with her wig of black curls gave her skin a sallow cast, but Silk was too polite to comment on that. “And when is the wedding?” Wisern added, no doubt thinking, as Silk did, that the sooner it was arranged, the sooner their people would benefit from the generous trade concessions royal wives were gifted.
It was this fact alone that had halted Silk’s desperation to flee. She was still terrified of being the generale’s wife, still baffled as to why she had been chosen, but she knew her duty. This sacrifice on her part would create opportunities she could never have dreamed of securing as an ambassador. Her marriage would mean food for starving children, but only while she lived. As soon as she’d realized that, she set her mind to obedience. Outward obedience at least. “I have not been told,” she replied, wondering if she could ask about the date if she wasn’t notified. Or would that be considered rude?
“And do not forget that he is not majesty but my lord while he retains his military command,” Wisern reminded her, as though she’d had no training whatsoever. Silk’s cheeks burned with embarrassment, wondering what the servants must think.
But before she could tell her superior that her change in circumstance hadn’t clouded her intelligence, Wisern stepped up behind the seamstress and changed the subject, “You have been favored over the heads of the daughters of all the noble houses. They will be your enemies now.”
For Wisern to be saying such a thing in front of servants, it must be common gossip. “Perhaps,” Silk said, wondering if that was true, or whether the daughters of noblemen were sighing in relief to hear that the king’s butcher no longer needed a wife. The seamstress tugged a thread at her midriff and Silk swayed with it, hoping they were nearly done so she could take a decent breath again.
“Believe it,” Wisern said. The red cupid’s bow of her mouth puckered in disapproval. “They may plot against you, but you must stay alive at all costs.”
“I plan to,” Silk replied, but she wondered how easy that would be. Would the generale protect his wife? That probably depended on whether he was happy with her selection. The occasional ‘disappearance’ of courtiers was often blamed on the generale, so it made sense to ensure she pleased him. But how could she accomplish that when no information was forthcoming?
Her embassy should have provided background details immediately, but Wisern had taken days to visit her at her new quarters, and Silk had begun to imagine she’d been abandoned to her fate. Even now Wisern insulted her when she should be helping her, for their people’s sake, if for no other reason. And because Silk was too impatient to wait until the servants were gone, she asked, “When am I to be briefed on my . . . new duties?”
Wisern glanced pointedly at the seamstress between them, before saying, “As you well know, the bridal practices of our people are secret.” A convenient lie to delay speaking until they were alone.
Silk understood the need but she balked at it all the same, and asked of the seamstress, “Are we finished yet?” hoping she appeared impetuous and enthusiastic about her coming nuptials, rather than desperate. “I am hungry for luncheon.” Another lie to add to her tally.
“My lady, almost,” the grey-haired woman replied, bowing her capped head respectfully before pulling a last few stitches through a seam her two apprentices held closed.
Silk glanced up at the servants along the wall and said, “I will not need you—” but she did not finish her sentence. A door ten paces behind Silk banged opened, and everyone in the room around her dropped into a bow or a curtsy.
“My lord generale,” Wisern said.
Cold fingers of dread crept up Silk’s back.