The young man seated at the heavy old desk sighed and let a sheaf of papers drop to the desk’s cluttered surface. It was a report on the Human Purity movement and its leader, Admirable Silverstones, the Countygold of Upper Hills. Its contents gathered his forehead into a frown.
The light was fading, and the stone-floored room, always chilly, edged toward cold. He reached over and touched the sigil on the base of the brass desk lamp, which released its cool illumination into the room as he muttered the Dwarvish word for light. Then he spoke the spell which adjusted the tall black iron warming columns set on either side of his chair. Like most of the other furniture in the room, they were old. He smelled the scent of toasting linen from his shirtsleeve, and adjusted them back down again. His feet resumed freezing, despite two pairs of socks.
Concentrating on the devices, he barely heard a tentative tap at the door.
“Yes, Reliable?” he called out.
His secretary, Reliable Chandler, poked his rabbitlike face around the door.
“Your pardon, Realmgold,” he said, addressing his master by his title. “Did you intend to join your Provincegolds in their quarterly meeting tonight?”
“Have I been invited this time?”
The secretary dropped his eyes, and coloured. “Ah, not as such, Realmgold. But as it is being held here in Lakeside Koslin this quarter…”
“Quite. When is it?”
“According to the minutes of the last meeting,” said the secretary, advancing into the room with a piece of paper, “at the twelfth deep bell.” He placed the paper on the desk, his finger indicating the information at the bottom.
The young Realmgold, whose given name was Determined, narrowed his eyes when he noticed that the last, and uncompleted, item on the previous agenda was the Human Purity movement. He glanced at the elaborate dwarfmade clock in the corner. “That gives me time to read these minutes, then.” He flipped the paper over to begin on the first side.
The secretary coughed. “And might I suggest a fresh shirt, Realmgold?”
Determined glanced down at his ruffled cuffs, marked with ink-splatters and dust. “You may. Have one brought down. And my green coat. If it’s this cold inside, I hate to think what it’s like in the street.”
The way out led through the Realmgolds’ Gallery, and Determined frowned up at the larger-than-life-size portraits of his predecessors. Studying history at the College of Ancient Turfrae, he’d experienced an odd double awareness of them as both historical figures and his own ancestors. He could trace every mistake they’d made, every unwise compromise or concession, and the reasons, good and bad. He gave a special glare to his great-great-grandmother, inappropriately named Prudence, who had put the Provincegolds in charge of collecting (and reporting) the realmtax in their provinces and accelerated the loss of power and influence of the office of Realmgold.
“And so here I am today,” he muttered to himself.
“Beg pardon, Realmgold?” said Reliable.
“Nothing,” said Determined.
The Provincegold Lake had a town house almost opposite the Realmgold’s palace. As Determined strode across the street, his footfalls rang off the cobbles, the echoes muted by the decorative vines growing up the walls of both buildings. With Reliable trailing a step behind and to the right, he marched up the marble steps to Lake’s door.
A retainer in the Provincegold’s livery stepped forward as if to stop him, but Determined simply met his gaze with raised eyebrows and kept on walking. The man stepped back, raising his hands in an “I’m not getting involved” gesture.
A grey-haired man in a long blue coat, attended by a young woman in a similar coat tailored for her much slimmer figure, were making their way up the internal staircase. The woman heard Determined’s footsteps, echoed by the lighter and more tentative steps of his secretary, and glanced behind her. He recognised Courtesy Hollowtrees of Westcoast, accompanying her father, the Provincegold Westcoast. She turned back around without giving him so much as a nod.
His few conversations with Courtesy had only demonstrated that they had nothing in common, but that stung nevertheless.
He was right behind them when they entered the tea room at the top of the stairs, and gave his best aristocratic glare to the retainer on the door, who, like his colleague downstairs, didn’t quite dare to stop the Realmgold.
There were, of course, only enough chairs for the Provincegolds and their invited guests, mostly heirs, advisors or secretaries. The hostess, Felicity Lake, took in the Realmgold’s presence without visible emotion and signalled the retainer to fetch two more seats.
When tea had been served and sipped and little spiced cakes had been sampled, the Provincegold Lake set down her delicate teacup and leaned back as a sign that business could now be discussed. The others ceased their conversations — none of which were with Determined — and turned their heads toward her.
“At our last meeting, we were speaking,” she said in her languid style, “of Human Purity.”
“And I was saying,” said gruff Westcoast, “that you want to keep an eye on your lad there.” The county of Upper Hills, Silverstones’ demesne, lay within the Province of Lake.
“You oppose his philosophy?” said Tenacious Northriver, throwing his head back and staring at the older man with his hands on his hips. His nostrils flared.
“Not at all,” said Westcoast. “I disapprove, however, of letting one’s Countygolds build up too much of a following.”
This brought wise nods from around the room.
“Who says I’m not controlling him from behind the scenes?” said Lake.
“Are you?” asked Northriver, forehead wrinkled. Northriver tended to need things explained.
Lake didn’t answer, just gave him a bland look.
“It’s not just your province that’s affected, though,” said Thousand Hills, a tremulous, querulous older woman. “The dwarves in my province have come to me asking what I’m doing about protecting them and their assets. There’s a lot of mining in Thousand Hills, you know.”
Everyone was well aware of the mining in Thousand Hills.
“What did you tell them?” asked Westcoast.
“I said I’d study the matter, of course,” she said. There were more nods. This was a reliable stall.
“I don’t see the problem,” said Northriver. “They’re not doing anything wrong. They’re allowed their opinions under the Code of Willing.”
“They’re allowed their own religious and philosophical opinions,” Determined said. “Political opinions are another matter.” He had tried to hold himself back from speaking, but he couldn’t let that one go. He had studied the ancient Code of Willing, the foundation of all human law, intensively while at the College of Ancient Turfrae.
Nobody took up his point.
“Their philosophy gives the disaffected and the underemployed among the Copper class something to do with their excess energy,” said Southcliffs, a middle-aged man with a weatherbeaten face. “I don’t see the harm.”
“Easy for you to say,” quavered Thousand Hills. “Plenty to do already in your province.”
“No fault of mine that your hills don’t grow much grain,” snapped Southcliffs. “Most of the troublemakers I do have come down over the border looking for work I don’t have.”
The discussion dissolved into a rehearsal of grievances going back three generations between the two neighbouring provinces, and it took some time for Lake to bring it back on track.
“We were discussing,” she said, “Human Purity.” By her standards, she spoke emphatically. “And Consolation, I get plenty of your people too, by the way. Hard workers, as a general thing.” Thousand Hills preened at the small, if backhanded, compliment, and shot a glare at Southcliffs, but stopped complaining.
“Perhaps,” said Beauty Six Gorges, the only provincegold who had not so far spoken, “we should talk about why there are so many disaffected people in the first place.”
“It’s Koskant’s fault,” said Southcliffs immediately. “If they didn’t have the gulf trade locked up…”
“Failing crops…” put in Thousand Hills.
“Greedy Nine-cursed dwarves,” said Northriver. “And those centaurs across my river…”
One by one, each provincegold managed to find a reason why it wasn’t his or her fault that the people weren’t prosperous. Six Gorges listened patiently, swivelling her head from one speaker to the next. As her eyes passed across Determined’s, she twitched one eyelid very slightly at exactly the moment that their gazes met, and despite his distress at the way the meeting was going, he had to purse his lips to keep from smiling.
When the litany of complaint subsided, Six Gorges said, “I think it’s wonderful that you’ve all done so much to overcome the problems your people face, so that only factors beyond your control are left. Truly, wonderful. So I suppose the only question left to ask is, do we take a joint position on this Human Purity movement, or do we… study the matter further and deal with it individually?”
She habitually kept her face still, presumably to keep from cracking her makeup, and her voice was carefully modulated, so most of the provincegolds missed the sarcasm, Determined thought. Northriver certainly would have, but Northriver would miss being hit with a sack of rocks. Lake, he thought, would have got it, but her expression didn’t change either as she resumed control of the meeting.
“Thank you, Beauty, that is exactly the question before us. Let us have the sense of the meeting now, and if we decide for a joint response we can talk about what that will be afterwards. In order of seniority, then. Consolation?”
“Individually,” said Thousand Hills. “We all have very different problems in our provinces, after all.”
Lake turned to Westcoast, the next oldest, with a questioning look. He also voted for an individual response.
So did Southcliffs. “Let’s see,” Lake said, “who’s next?” She turned to Six Gorges. “Beauty?”
Claws of the cat, thought Determined. The two women were about the same age, but Lake looked several years older.
“Oh, is it me?” said Six Gorges. “I forget you’re a little younger, Felicity. For what it’s worth, I think we should have a joint response, but I fear I’m already outvoted.”
Lake merely nodded, and voted individual. Predictably, so did Northriver, the youngest of the six.
“That’s settled, then,” said Lake. “We each make our own response, though we keep the option open to discuss a joint position at our next meeting. Which is in your province, I believe, Tenacious.”
Northriver nodded, drawing himself up self-importantly. “Yes, I look forward to seeing you there in a quarter of a year,” he said.
“Very good,” said Lake. “As usual, all of you are invited to dine. Oh, Determined, I’m sorry, dear, I didn’t expect you, so I haven’t catered accordingly.”
This was a flimsy and transparent excuse to exclude him from the meal, where, no doubt, the real business of the evening would be transacted. Years of training not to make a scene overruled the familiar angry helplessness stinging behind his eyes.
“No apology necessary, Lake,” he said, using her name of affiliation rather than her personal name to emphasise the distance between them, but not referencing her title since she hadn’t used his. He bowed the merest inch. “I am well suited across the street. Come, Reliable.”
She bowed back, just detectably lower, and removed her attention from him entirely. Nobody else paid him any either, except Six Gorges, who also bowed to him as he passed. He leaned close, covered by the hubbub of conversation, and whispered, “I’d like to talk.”
“Sixth bell,” she whispered back, and he nodded and left the room.
“Well,” Determined remarked to Reliable, as they crossed the darkened street, “that was a scintillating evening filled with valuable progress.”
The little secretary didn’t comment.