A rose snapped as Jessica’s hand jerked, petals falling to the floor as she recovered from hearing the Shadow’s name. Her neck stiffened as she pretended to focus on the arrangements, angling herself such that she could watch the visitors out of the corner of her eye. A thorn pricked her thumb as her attention lapsed, a bead of blood smearing over the fresh nightshade flowers.
Rorcul and the king stood about the table in the center of the room. Rorcul was tall and thin, three or four inches taller than the king and at least two dozen fewer about the waistline. And he stood like a king should—his chin high, shoulders back, and stance square. Little emotion showed on his face, and his features appeared calm, though Jessica sensed something underneath. It felt similar to tension, but not quite—more like that of a feral animal walking through the woods. Able to pounce, able to strike, but walking because it’s the time to walk.
The second figure, a wiry girl with a bright, red streak running through her otherwise brunette hair, stepped forward, emptying the contents of a silk sack onto the table before them. A dozen shadowy stones tumbled out, and Jessica’s heart pounded with each clink they made on the wood.
“Black pearls from the swift waters of the Dangst Bay,” the girl breathed, spinning one on the tabletop. “You’ll find none like them in all of Corpia. Their beauty is unmatched. Many have met their deaths while stealing them from the clutches of the salty depths.”
“A beauty paralleled only by your own, Alretta.” The king’s eyes had grown wide as he played with the pearls, letting them slip through his fingers.
“Yes, but these are only the beginning of the many treasures Corsus contains. They are mere pebbles in comparison, and the vast treasure troves can be open to your coffers if we cast aside the outdated superstitions that have closed our borders for so long,” said Rorcul, casually tossing one of the pearls into the fire in the hearth.
“Tell me more of the riches,” pleaded the king. “What has Corsus hidden for so long that we could gain by trade?”
“Another day, another day. I promise that not only will you hear of them, but you shall hold them as well,” said Rorcul as he brushed aside the king’s request. Even from across the hall, Jessica could see the contempt that flashed across his expression.
Then the queen strode over to the table, casting a disdainful look down at the priceless pearls.
“And what is the meaning of your visit?“ she asked.
“We are only ambassadors, Your Highness, here to embolden the friendship between your most beautiful city of Querkus and Vary, the beacon of light in Corsus,” replied Rorcul with flowing words and a smiling bow.
The queen squinted at Rorcul, then spoke.
“You know full well that members of court from Corsus are not accepted here by the treaties of old.”
“Egola, treat our visitors with respect, they have only shown us kindness,” chided the king, tucking the pearls into a pocket at his breast, above his heart.
From the doorway a third voice spoke, one younger than the others in attendance, “Mother is right. The treaties hold that no members of Corsus may hold council with the royal family. But perhaps our guests have disavowed their allegiances to Corsus and would pledge to us?” Jessica recognized the prince, a young man who possessed both the caution of his mother and his father’s taste for gold. He was dressed in all purple and walked into the room with purpose, heading directly toward the table.
“Of course, Your Highness,” replied Rorcul, his back bending in a shallow bow. “We are not of the common filth that inhabit the lands far east of the mountains, those that have plagued the borderlands in the past through raiding. Rather, we are sophisticated like yourselves. And as your father has seen, we hold your friendship to be quite valuable.”
“But for gifts there is always a price. Rorcul, do not take me as a fool. Nevertheless, I will consider your offer.”
“Yes, but let us speak terms in the morning. Both Alretta and I are weary from our travels and need rest before we show you how Querkus can profit through allegiance. And besides allegiance, we come here looking for an outlaw—an outcast, if you will. A very dangerous individual, one who must be contained for the safety of Querkus and continued peace between our lands. But again, this can wait for the morning.”
“As you wish,” said the prince. “We’ll see to it that your rooms are well furnished and attended by servants.”
“But first let us stable our horses. Mine will not rest unless I comfort her,” claimed Alretta. “And I have my carriage to unpack.”
“I’m sure our servants will be glad to assist you in that endeavor,” said the prince, “especially after such a long journey.”
“I appreciate your offer, Your Highness,” countered Alretta, “and am thankful for your kindness, but there are several items of a more, well, personal nature that I wish to attend to myself. And we would not wish to disclose the remainder of our gifts to your royal family and spoil the surprise.”
The prince nodded, his eyebrows raising at the mention of additional gifts, and Rorcul spoke again.
“And before rest I should like to walk the palace grounds, I have heard tales from afar of their magnificence.”
“As our guests you are free to do both,” said the prince as he searched the room, his gaze falling upon Jessica. “And who better to show you the grounds than our own gardener? Fresh from Andrea, and a master at her craft.”
The prince beckoned to Jessica and a lump formed in her throat as she moved toward them. She smiled, curtsying to Rorcul and meeting the depths of his steel eyes with her faux brown ones.
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