This week, Arwin gives us a show and meets a fellow Alchemist in the third installment of Clockwork River.
Enjoy — CRN.
By Christopher Robin Negelein
Arwin found the spicy aromas drifting from the Governor’s kitchen odd, but still enticing enough to make his mouth water. Even more odd was the magnificent banquet hall offered only flat pillows for seating at low, polished tables, with place settings providing just two lacquered sticks and a spoon.
Uncle Monteriso grunted as he got down. “So, on this side of the desert, they don’t believe in chairs?”
Ambassador Tertius gave Monteriso the briefest glance, but it spoke volumes, which prompted Arwin to remain quiet and focused on keeping his brooding alchemist façade on display outside, while keeping his grin on the inside.
Dominating the head of the table was a small palanquin covered in gauzy fabric with a dim outline, the only evidence of its occupant. A nearby servant held a plate, standing ready to slide the food under the drapes.
Arwin tried not to stare, but he desperately wanted to peer inside. He found himself going through the possibilities of how he could pull it off. At some point, his hawk flying above the tables would be the evening’s entertainment, so he wondered how he could contrive an accident.
A dive that forced someone to topple onto the palanquin was too risky. Perhaps if the apparatus flew low enough, the following breeze would pull the veil to expose the hidden Governor.
The temptation distracted him enough that it took a few moments to master holding and using the two sticks the same how the Shans used them in place of a fork, which frustrated him even more. He noticed that other Imperials were taking much longer as their fingers stiffly held the foreign utensils.
Uncle leaned in and jabbed him with an elbow. “I know this bores you, but we all have our parts to play. Your sister is standing watch behind us, I’m sure she’d switch places with you in a heartbeat to eat a hot meal.”
Arwin glared but kept his voice low. “Don’t bet on it.”
Uncle’s voice took on a growl. “That man across the table has been trying to make eye contact with you the whole time. When you look up, nod and introduce yourself.”
Arwin gritted his teeth while the hawk box dug into on his left side. He took in the whole table at a glance and noticed how quiet the table was to his left, where the lesser members of the retinue were seated, those could not or would not learn the Shan language. On Arwin’s right and higher up the table sat the learned men, ambassadors and translators who chatted away.
He had no idea what he could say as he met the man’s gaze other than, “Good day, to you and your family, honored one.” Arwin’s gifts had their limits; he had picked up a few stock phrases. Fen has the talent for tongues. And bowed his head.
The man had the typical appearance of the people on this side of the desert, but had a slighter build and was a little shorter overall.
He bowed his head and recited his one good Shen phrase. “Good day to you and your family, honored one.”
This is going to be a riveting conversation, Arwin thought.
With a hand wave, the stranger summoned a slave woman. Her lips seemed fuller and punctuated by a bold red makeup. Her hair gleamed like moonlit waves and her grace stirred his imagination. The beauty stopped Arwin’s heart and brain; so that he barely noticed that she had the same effect on all the nearby men.
Then he took her all in, wishing that time would stop so he could pull out a canvas and paint her into immortality on said canvas. Those tiny details burned into his brain would be just a part of the challenge. He sensed from her something below the surface. A strength that she belied with demure facade, but Arwin knew facades well, having lived with one on for the last two years now. It was only the pride in his intellect that gave him the will to compose himself again, with a deep, silent breath.
The man’s smirk conveyed a sense of ownership that rubbed Arwin raw, but he remained stoic. I’ve seen men look at my sister that way. His mind kept racing, but then the woman spoke.
Her smooth, resonant voice floated to his ears. “As you heard, my master offers you a gracious welcome and we are flattered that you know our language.”
A singer too, maybe? He thought. Her Imperial accent is clipped, but it doesn’t hide her intelligence, maybe also a Prodigal?
Arwin stopped trying at that point. “I only know enough to ask for more wine. Which does me no good, since I don’t care to drink.”
Her laughter was surprisingly deep. The teenage boy who rarely missed a detail the first time now realized how his infatuation had deeply distracted him. She was older than she first appeared, maybe even older than his sister.
Her master’s disposition had switched from a warm welcome to an icy suspicion as his smile upended into a deep frown and hard glare were aimed at Arwin until she translated Arwin’s words in that, their sing-song language. The frown dropped from his face just as quickly, but Arwin was wary now; he thought it best to let the man make the next move.
The Master continued to speak and the earthly angel translated between them. “My master, Magistrate Ju wonders if you are the imperial magistrate?”
“Yes, a judge who is gifted in the Arts.”
“I am not a judge. I only do the Arts and some other artistic endeavors as well.”
She tilted her head as she effortlessly translated between them. “So your kingdom employs you to do nothing, but art?”
“No. A long time ago, my clan served the Ambassador’s Imperial family well and we have been citizens ever since. My father and grandfather were alchemists before me. My Uncle is the most trusted bodyguard, the Satellitium, of the Ambassador and my sister is in his ranks.”
He saw her eyes flicker as she stood behind Ju. You want to find out more about my sister, don’t you? You want to ask her name but don’t dare ask. Ju is hiding enough anger already.
Still translating, she never slowed down. “So then your kingdom pays the Ambassador for your gifts.”
“No. His family has livestock and businesses back home that make up his wealth. It is all very complicated how the Sentorium works and I am not a fan of politics.”
Both master and slave bowed the head slightly in agreement. “My master agrees that is best to avoid talk of those higher than us, especially at their table. He apologizes for this awkward inquiry.
“Here, the kingdoms allow those who are magistrates to pursue the craft when they are not holding court. Those who are truly gifted may decline more cases when their work benefits their superiors.”
That last part sounds no different than back in the Empire, Arwin thought. Some things are universal, it seems. Now that we have that sorted out, I double the rest of the conversation will hold any surprises.
As if on cue, two slaves quickly, but quietly, came into positions on either side of Ju.
Almost as if we had been watched the whole time. Now the show begins.
The girl looked down, as if shy. “My master has made several pieces this year. He would like to show you a modest project of his.”
Two servants strode up to bracket Arwin.
He smiled. “And I would be pleased if he would witness a small thing I have been working on.” That was a lie, the hawk was Arwin’s masterpiece. But, obviously, the same went for Ju.
Different places, same games.
The slaves motioned to the head table. They were being summoned.
He took the box with him even as Ju went up empty-handed. Arwin didn’t care.
They will play whatever games they will play. If the Ambassador scolds me, he will do so. Either for my presumption of bringing my work with me, or for being forgetful if I leave it at the table.
At court, he had seen the man do it to others before. The reasons varied, from deflating egos to boosting his own.