As a linguist and military interpreter, Eliadmaru Faraa has always been a supporting character in other people's stories. And so far, that's been just fine with him: it's words he loves, not swordplay or affairs of state.
Now he's been asked for help by the Emperor's nephew. Together, along with an irritating ambassador and a sorceress with a secret and a high sex drive, they aim to save an ailing princess and stop the trade of weapons to the border war.
Which is more difficult―not disgracing himself during a touchy negotiation, winning back his boyhood sweetheart, or translating his lovelorn teenage boss's amateur poetry? He'll soon find out....
With his stocking feet sticking off the end of the cot, Eliadmaru lay on his back frowning up at the book of Tsiani philosophy he'd been puzzling over for the last three hours. This choice of study material was in some ways an odd one, since Eliadmaru was not at all interested in philosophy. Yet he was interested in vocabulary, and this particular work―the title of which meant something like On the Morphic Exemplars of Unitary Spaces Throughout a Spiritual Continuum―contained quite a few words he had not yet run across in his work as a translator and interpreter.
The discoveries would have been thrilling, had the book not actually been so very boring.
Eliadmaru Devesento Faraa was a wiry, elongated young man, tall even for a Hena, with hazel eyes and light brown hair that tended to curl at the edges. Technically, he was working, so he was wearing a light green civilian-specialist's shirt and trousers. Beside him on the cot lay a drastically insufficient dictionary and the wax tablet onto which he had been taking notes.
There were days when his job was exciting—perhaps even a little too exciting. Fort Sandpoint was the command post for the entire region, and the number of people fluent in both Henanue and Tsiane―extremely different languages―was few. There had been innumerable times when he'd been roused out of bed to be booted through a sorcerer's Gate into a region on the edge of war. Or, on a few regrettably memorable occasions, onto an active battlefield.
Of late, however, the various local Tsiani border kingdoms had been quiet. And he always made short work of the newssheets that the Fort's sorcerer filched from the other side of the River. So, in order to feel that he was earning his pay, he had branched out into lexicography.
The Empire seemed to think its existing dictionaries were good enough. Being one of the few people who was forced to use them on a regular basis, Eliadmaru disagreed.
But he had been at it for too long, today. He found his mind drifting as he tried to ferret out from context whether -gitsa- meant "increase" or "diminish" or "assist" or something else entirely. ("Being aware of the nature of oneness can only gitsa a spirit-identity's search for individuality....") Inevitably his thoughts turned toward Fenka, the girl he wanted to marry; and the ages-old difficulty of the fact that she didn't want to marry him.
Not that she disliked him; they had grown up together, and had been lovers once, long ago. But Eliadmaru, "Marika," her good old almost-brother, was not as interesting as the handsome, much-decorated commander of the unit that bunked next door to his.
And to think of the devil: Captain Zheio Atsinto Gashaim opened the door to the barracks and stuck in his head.
"Yo, Faraa! Your mother wants you."
Somehow or other it had been found out that Eliadmaru's family was neighbors with the General's family, and, as he had been childhood best friends with her daughter―Fenka's cousin―he had more or less grown up in the General's household. (Actually, Eliadmaru suspected Fenka of letting that one slip: she would tell Gashaim anything.) So while the General had never shown Eliadmaru the slightest bit of favoritism beyond what his professional skill warranted, it amused Gashaim to no end to rib him about the connection.
Eliadmaru sat up and put aside his book.
"Yes, sir," he said in Tsiane, sweetly: "You two-faced puff-chested adulterous swine."
Give the Captain some credit, he was a two-faced puff-chested adulterous swine, but he had the sense to look suspicious.
"What was that, Faraa?"
"I said, 'Yes, sir, I'm going, as soon as I find my boots.'"
"Well, don't keep your mommy waiting."
The door closed. Eliadmaru let out a breath between clenched teeth, then made himself relax. He reached beneath the cot and pulled out his boots. He knew exactly where they were.
Eliadmaru pounded up the stairs to the second floor of the Fort, and was admitted to the General's office by the guards at the door.
General Damaiud's office was spartan. On this cool summer day, the light through the barred, leaded glass window provided sufficient light, but the rough-hewn walls had been forever darkened by woodsmoke from the braziers which struggled through winters and nights to keep the place warm and bright. In deference to the constant comings and goings of armored, muddy-booted soldiers, the floor (here as in the barracks) was bare wood uncovered by carpets, and the traditional Hena low furnishings and comfortable floor pillows had been replaced by a tall map table and chairs.
The only ornaments on the walls were the obligatory flags, also rather smokey. The General did not display her weapons.
Now, when the General accepted Eliadmaru's slight bow with a curt inclination of her head, and then stepped aside, he was surprised to find that there was a boy perched awkwardly on one of the chairs beside the table. And not just any boy. He was wearing gloves, but Eliadmaru didn't have to see the clan tattoo on the back of his hand to recognize him as an Autransi.
Even had his rich indigo traveling clothes not given away his aristocracy, the boy's resemblance to the faces on the coins was firm: a wide flat nose, high cheekbones and the thin tilted eyes of old nobility. His pale face was baby-soft, though, and he looked oddly vulnerable with his black hair shorn to a half-inch fuzz―as if the intimate revelation of the shape of his skull gave away more than just genetic geometry.
Eliadmaru had thought of him as a boy, but he was probably no more than ten years younger than Eliadmaru himself; fifteen or sixteen perhaps.
Luckily, Henanue―unlike Tsiane―was an informal language, and Eliadmaru was able to swiftly bow and say "Greetings, My Lord," without having to worry about which particular honorific and title to use for some unspecific nephew of the Imperial brood.
Not that he hadn't broken out into a sweat: it was just that for once the proper language was not something he had to worry about.
"See, I told you everybody'd recognize you," said a woman's voice, dry but not unkind. And for the first time Eliadmaru noticed the fourth person in the General's office, besides himself, the Autransi and the General herself.
On rising from his bow he glanced over at the woman, who was sitting on the other side of the General's table with her elbow pressing a dent into a map and her chin comfortably on her hand. She too had aristocratic features and jet-black hair that she wore loose and uncovered. Despite being middle-aged and plump, her smooth skin, strong chin and widely-spaced dark eyes made her strikingly handsome. Her full mouth was expressively wry as she teased the young man.
She met Eliadmaru's eyes at once, and sized him up. After a snap decision she seemed to find him acceptable, because she tipped him a half-smile, letting him share in the joke.
Only belatedly did Eliadmaru notice the embroidered symbol gleaming gold on the collar of her dress, which was an indigo so dark it was almost black. The emblem was the Imperial pine and rye sheaves, of course; but beneath it, one on each side, were two cupped hands. She was a Parda Autransin―a Hand of the Autransi―and therefore a sorcerer.
The Parda Autransin were the only sorcerers who didn't wear grey robes―for a grey robe meant that you served anyone who needed help. The Parda Autransin served only the Autransi.
"I never doubted our own people would recognize me, Folso," said the Autransi in a low voice surprisingly measured for an adolescent. "The question is―will the Tsiani?"
The woman named Folso sat back in her chair. "I think they'll believe us, from the cost of the dye in your coat even if they don't know your face," she quipped.
Eliadmaru bowed a second time, to the sorceress now. "Greetings, Siol."
And―perhaps he shouldn't have been surprised, if she spent her days at court―she pushed her chair back and stood to return his bow. He glanced at her clan tattoo when she touched her hand to her forehead. Siovare, and not a sub-branch either. She sat again.
"So you're the interpreter," said the Autransi in a tone that gave away little.
"Interpreter-Specialist Eliadmaru Devesento Faraa," Eliadmaru said. He approximated standing at attention because it seemed like the thing to do.
He sneaked a glance off to the side, where General Damaiud was standing tense with a grim expression. That was not unusual for her, and most people would have chalked it down to a constitutional seriousness. But Eliadmaru had known her his entire life, and he was skilled, besides, at interpreting the language of the body as well as that of the tongue; and he noted the way she moved her hands as if she would cross her arms, then stopped herself. A few unruly wine-red curls had escaped from her hairclip, and she'd not yet tucked them back in.
The General was often worried, but rarely at a loss. Right now, she was as mystified as he was.
"I am Auyim Gaavenento Autransi," said the young man, "and this is Siol Folso Banendre Siovare, Parda Autransin. I have come because I have need of the services of an interpreter, and I have heard you are one of our best."
Eliadmaru's mouth went dry. He was a romantic in many things but time spent among soldiers had made him cynical about politics. While the Autransi were fairly well-behaved as rulers went, he could think of nothing good that could come of being near that kind of power.
Nevertheless, he had only one answer he could make.
"I am yours to command, My Lord," with a stiff half-bow this time.
The sorceress said, out of curiosity and not rudeness: "Do you speak Tsiane with an accent like that?"
From her point of view, he had the thick provincial brogue of a southerner. From his point of view, she and the Autransi mangled their vowels and neglected their rhotics in a manner only the rich upper classes of Avven could get away with.
"No, Siol, nor with an Avvenese one," he said, using her own dialect with reasonable accuracy. She raised an eyebrow. Then he switched back and said:
"But, My Lord, with respect, your family must employ many interpreters. May I ask why you want me?"
The young man frowned. Sweat crept down Eliadmaru's back beneath his shirt. Maybe he had stepped too far over the line. But the Autransi had permitted the sorceress to tease him―
―of course, Eliadmaru was significantly more expendable than a sorceress.
Siol Siovare said, "Ha," flat, as if she knew what Eliadmaru was thinking. And maybe she did.
"You might as well tell him," she said.
The Autransi studied Eliadmaru's face for a moment longer. Then he shifted his weight back in his chair, as if deciding something. He looked weary.
"I am interested in finding an interpreter who is loyal to me, rather than to my family," he said in his quiet measured voice. "They think I am on a fool's errand, and they may be right, but I would rather not find my attempt aborted before quickening by the poisonous proximity of cynics."
Eliadmaru looked at him. The Autransi sounded a little cynical, himself, even if it was hidden amongst flowery language.
He spent the time of an eye-blink cursing the commendation he had received, eight months ago, for exemplary service. That had surely been what had brought his name to the Autransi's eye. At the time he had been pleased―not because the commendation meant much to him personally―but because he'd had a vague hope that it might impress Fenka.
And Fenka had indeed been happy about it, in a sisterly way; and then continued seeing her heroic lover.
"I'm yours to command," Eliadmaru said again.
"You can talk, Faraa," said Siol Siovare, sounding amused. "It's all right, really. In fact, come and sit down." She got up and pulled out a third chair.
Eliadmaru couldn't stop himself; he looked helplessly at the General, who was still hovering in the shadows. She had put her hands behind her back. The tip of her head, in response to his glance, and the compression of her lips told him what he needed to know. She didn't like it either, and there was nothing she could do about it.
He hesitated and then remained standing. He suspected the fine distinction between being a member of the military and being a civilian on contract with it was not a terribly relevant one if an Autransi wanted you to do something.
He looked at Siol Siovare and then at the Autransi.
"Do you have orders for me, My Lord? Or are you looking for a volunteer?"
The sorceress snorted as if in surprise. The Autransi's eyebrows arched and then he froze his face again.
"Cheeky," said Siol Siovare, not disapproving. She looked over at the General. "How do you put up with him?"
Hamyenev Hegaantendre Damaiud came forward out of the shadows. Her arms were crossed now. She looked at the sorceress with a taut expression. The other woman returned her look with one of wide-eyed curiosity―claiming to be an open book. Eliadmaru knew better than to trust that. He had some personal experience with sorcerers. So did the General: her daughter was one.
"I think he asked perfectly reasonable questions," the General said quietly.
"If you need them, I have orders for you," said the Autransi, without inflection. "But I would be pleased to have a volunteer."
Eliadmaru's expression must have showed what he thought of that arrangement. He could speak three languages and four dialects with near-native fluency; but he never could school his face to say only what he wanted it to.
Siol Siovare laughed at him.
"Come on, Faraa! Don't judge until you hear what the plan is. It may or may not be a fool's errand, but it's safer than what you're doing here. You've got―what―three magicians and one sorcerer for the whole Fort? Come with us, and I'll be your personal bodyguard."
"Did you volunteer?" Eliadmaru challenged. She had invited him to speak freely, after all, and the Autransi had not contradicted it.
She grinned at him, cat-like. "I did. Come on―" she made a swift movement of her hand towards the chair "―have a seat, and let's talk. You too, General: since I don't get the impression your loyal man would take it well if we dismissed you from your own office."
She was right about that. Eliadmaru finally sat, feeling unsettled, as if he was agreeing to a bargain with a djinni without settling the cost beforehand. Hamyenev Damaiud crossed stiffly around the table and took the fourth chair.
The Autransi sat forward and clasped his hands on the table. His soft baby's face was as composed as a courtly portrait, but his knuckles were white, and his voice too soft.
A member of the Imperial family he may have been―but it was a large family, and it chose its governing members by internal vote. It struck Eliadmaru that there would always be those, by design or merely by nature, who were destined to be a blur in the background of history.
"My plan is not excessively complex," began the Autransi. Then he paused and added, with a wry look that was the first real hint of personality he had so far shown: "―which the lady sorceress tells me might be its saving grace." And she grinned. He went on. "Our intelligence tells us that the elder daughter of the King of Dayono is stricken with a wasting disease. Her health has grown progressively worse despite the King having sought out a multitude of magicians and medical experts from many Tsiani lands. Their treatments have had no lasting effect so far as we know. But what a magician struggles with, a sorcerer might easily do. Therefore I propose to extend the hand of diplomacy to the King, offering Siol Siovare's skills to save his daughter."
The General shifted. Eliadmaru didn't need to look at her to know that she was excited and wary at once, because that was how he felt as well.
"And in exchange―" said the General.
"In exchange, I hope," said the Autransi, "for their embargo of trade with Nisyono."
The Hena Empire was not at war with Dayono, but the Kingdom of Nisyono, which lay between the two, was constantly harrying the Empire's borders. Nisyono would struggle to supply its armies if trade from the south was cut off. A peaceful solution to a long-standing problem.
"It won't fly," said the General at once. "Not―" Then she stopped, perhaps realizing that while Eliadmaru had been invited to speak, she had not.
"Why not?" said Siol Siovare, almost lazily. "...Interpreter Faraa?"
The General cut her a glance. But Eliadmaru, who had translated reams of similar intelligence over the years, could answer without difficulty.
"Because their economy depends on it," he said. "The Vosa River passes right through the middle of Dayono City, and as it runs very near to true north-south it's one of the premier trade routes in the region. I'd imagine that not only do the Dayonosi sell their own goods to Nisyono and vice versa, but they get fat off the duties they collect on the trade that merely passes through their gates, as well."
"You lose!" said the sorceress, looking directly at the Autransi.
Hamyenev Damaiud and Eliadmaru glanced at each other, both puzzled.
"We had a bet going," explained Siol Siovare. "Whether you'd object first on practical grounds, or legal ones."
"Well," Hamyenev murmured, "there are those too."
The Empire had a strict policy of staying out of foreign affairs...except, of course, for killing foreigners when they tried to come north of the River Zhelne.
But whether saving a princess counted as meddling in foreign affairs, Eliadmaru had no idea. If they didn't get anything from it, was it meddling, and if they did, was it a successful diplomatic mission?
"So that's why you don't want to use one of your family's interpreters," he said.
"Yes," admitted the Autransi. He looked very young just then; a boy, as Eliadmaru had first seen him. "This is...neither disapproved nor approved by the Emperor."
Eliadmaru took that to mean: "If it works, then my family takes the credit, and if it doesn't, then it was my idea, and they never thought I was very promising anyway."
He considered. Part of him was excited about the possibility of trying something new. Both personally, as a challenge and an adventure; and as a Hena citizen, who did not necessarily believe in all of the policies of his government. And as a closet romantic, who liked the idea of saving a princess....
The sorceress and the Autransi did him the honor of waiting while he thought it through. At last he came to a conclusion: one that he regretted.
"I don't know anything about the law, but the practical objection stands. If you desire to avoid cynics, My Lord, you'd better avoid me as well. If I remember right, the King of Dayono is about sixty years old and has no sons―just a bunch of very eager nephews and cousins who are sooner or later going to help him, and then each other, in the direction of a premature introduction to the Weigher of Souls. Even if you get the promise of a partial trade embargo out of him, it'll be impossible to put into practice; it'll make the citizens revolt when they realize the monetary losses they'll suffer; and whoever takes power next will laugh in your face. It's not an interpreter you need, nor for that matter diplomats or even sorcerers. You'll need an act of the Gods."
Siol Siovare looked amused, and grim. "Well, that escalated quickly."
Eliadmaru shrugged. It seemed like common sense to him. But then, he had spent a lot of time reading Tsiani history.
The Autransi's mouth had twisted unhappily.
Oh, Gods, Eliadmaru thought, looking at him in horror; I just crushed the pipe dream of a member of the most powerful family in the world.
"I mean," he said, "I agree with the idea of it, but―"
"Good!" said Siol Siovare, bullying: "You're in, then!"
The General made a sound like a hiccup.
Eliadmaru ignored the sorceress. He kept looking at the Autransi. And, slowly, the young man met his eyes.
"Still going to try it?" Eliadmaru said. Asking him directly, without giving Siol Siovare a way to butt in.
The young man hesitated, then said: "Yes."
"Was there more to your plan?"
"Yes," said the Autransi. "I'm going to ask for her hand in marriage, to further secure our compact of peace. If she's willing."
Eliadmaru raised his eyebrows. A very Tsiani move, that. He respected its insight.
"Do you know her, My Lord?" As unlikely as it was, he had to check.
"I do not."
"Are you going to try for King of Dayono, then?"
Eliadmaru knew he sounded disapproving. But the young man's eyes widened. He was brave, not treasonous.
"Oh―no!" he said, startled. "Don't be ridiculous! Let them sort themselves out. If you're right, and things do fall apart after her father passes, she'll be safe here. But he has survived so far. Is it so foolish to hope he might survive a while longer?"
Eliadmaru's expression said "Yes."
The Autransi saw his face, and looked at him with sudden and unexpected shyness.
"I am an Autransi," he said softly, "but though the Gods have favored my family for a long time, I at least am under no illusion that they are at my beck and call. Nevertheless, they do sometimes bless a bold endeavor. Will you come with us?"
Eliadmaru swallowed. He had faced danger before―voluntarily even. At eighteen he had dyed his hair black in order to stand out less, and joined a caravan of traders crossing south into one of the border kingdoms that preferred to make money off the Empire rather than fighting it. It hadn't been money he'd been after; it had been words.
But that was when he had been eighteen. Since then, he had gained some sense, and a more distinct concept of his own mortality.
Except there was Fenka in love with an asshole with a chest covered with medals; there was a dying princess who needed saving; and there was an endeavor toward peace that would never happen if Heina and Tsiani could not talk to each other.
Questioning his decision even as he affirmed it, he said: "I remain cynical, My Lord; but I am your servant."
As soon as was polite, Hamyenev Damaiud stood up and personally fetched them all some strong wine. If he died on this fool's errand, Eliadmaru thought, she was going to follow him into the afterlife and kill him again.
He would deserve it.