All is Fair in Love and Intrigue

by Carmel Rechnitzer


The problem with amnesia…. Well, no, Yevgeni stopped himself… One of the many problems with amnesia was etiquette. It was harrowing to remember nothing of his youth. The nightmares full of guilt and sorrow over sins he couldn’t remember committing were even worse. But it was incredibly annoying to forget which of four silver forks was meant for the salad course. Yevgeni could face fear and spit in its face. He could bear the immeasurable weight of guilt. But what were you supposed to do about annoyance? Nothing. You were supposed to ignore it. That wasn’t a skill he had, and maybe he’d never had it. Yevgeni contemplated flipping the table. His jaw clenched in anticipation, but he managed not to do it.

“Monsieur, if the salad is not to your liking, I can fetch a different dressing or a separate course,” the waiter said. The man’s black and white service uniform cost more than all Yevgeni’s belongings put together. Not that it did much for the twiggy twerp. Yevgeni couldn’t decide which was thinner – the man’s straw-colored hair, the man’s fancifully pursed lips, or his pencil moustache. The lanky bag of bones clearly needed the meal more than Yevgeni did.

“The salad isn’t the matter,” Yevgeni dismissed him. For some reason, the man still hung about the table expectantly.

“I didn’t mean to catch you so far out of your element,” Solomonia Saboruvya apologized. He shrugged his shoulders noncommittally, and the dainty chair creaked underneath him. Yevgeni quickly reached out to grab the table, half expecting his seat to break to splinter. His sausage-sized fingers were thicker than the tabletop, forcing him to pause before he broke that, too.

Solomonia seemed genuine about the apology. Yevgeni was impressed with just how well she shaped her face to give that exact impression. Her mouth was set in one-tenth of a grin and her eyebrow was cocked sardonically, as if to ask “isn’t it silly, how fussy this place is?” It gave the implication that the situation wasn’t funny enough to laugh, and that she would never be so uncouth as to laugh, but that if the inverse of both those things were true, she would be laughing with him and not at him.

“Were you an actress, before you were District Captain?” he asked.

“Close. I was married to the stupidest oaf of the Ussuran court, which required a similar skill set,” she said.

“Poison, was it?” he guessed. That got a single, maybe genuine peal of laughter.

“Yes, actually! But not my doing. He had a jealous mistress and a conniving villain for a brother.”

The waiter decided now was the appropriate time to replace the salad for an elaborate display of fowl’s thighs on a bed of spiced rice. The sauce was thick and smelled of foreign ginger and allspice, which meant the meal was also more expensive than all Yevgeni’s belongings put together. The feet were still attached to the succulent meat, and Yevgeni made the mistake of reaching out to grab it like a chicken’s drumstick. The waiter tut-tutted and gently gestured at the third fork from the left.

Yevgeni leaned back, heard the chair creak again, and thought better of it. He grabbed an obnoxiously narrow Champagne flute and took an angry sip. The bubbly excuse for wine was bone dry and sour.

“Could you fetch my guest a beer,” Solomonia requested.

“I’m afraid we don’t stock any, my Lady,” said the waiter.

Yevgeni sighed. What were you supposed to do about annoyance? No matter where he rolled his eyes, he encountered gauche and vulgar opulence. The curtains were a limp and pastel yellow, more reminiscent of piss than gold. The walls were painted a mellow shade of seafoam green, akin to baby’s vomit. Potted plants hung from the ceiling, each stuffed with exotic flowers he couldn’t guess the origin of. While the flowers actually made for a striking visual effect, all the intermingled and clashing scents were nauseating. Every inch of the establishment offered him no reprieve.

“My dearest District Captain,” he said, “please tear off the bandage and let me know why you’ve asked me here.”

“Because every time I try to assert my authority as District Captain, my dear Yevgeni, no one listens,” she said. “I keep hearing talk of ‘the Boar.’ When Ussurans need an answer, they seek him out in his nest, instead of coming to my parlor. When Ussurans need safety or power, they bow before the beast, and not before they beauty. My title is worthless with them.”

He shrugged. “I don’t ask them for their troubles, Solomonia. I help, because Dar Matushka taught me that I must.” That caught her by surprise, or at least seemed to.

“The Ussurans respect you, and you’ve earned it,” she said. “The other districts, however, respect me. And I’ve earned it. I’d like to propose an alliance.”

Yevgeni had assumed as much, but genuinely didn’t understand what he’d need her for.  Anything he required from the Usssuran district, he could simply ask for. His brothers and sisters would deliver. Anything he required from another district, he could simply go and take. The Voddace were awful, brazen criminals. The Castilians were charming, but they were also brazen criminals. The Eisen weren’t criminals per say… But they kept trying to police outside their own jurisdiction, which was annoying. And annoying was tantamount to criminal as far as Yevgeni was concerned. He had no qualms about marching to the other corners of the City of Five Sails and taking what he needed.

“What benefits do you expect to offer?” he asked.

“Power for me, power for you,” she said. Her heavy emphasis implied she knew about the magics he sought. Interesting.

“How do we guarantee the alliance? What can you offer as trust?”

Solomonia smiled at that question. He had to admit to himself that she was beautiful, in that stern way that only women in their forties could be. She radiated confidence, intelligence, and experience. She commanded his attention with the same austere beauty of a marble statue.

“I will offer the oldest, most certain guarantee a woman can offer, Yevgeni,” she said. “A dowry and my hand in marriage.”

Yevgeni barked in disbelief. She reached into her purse, pulled out an undecorated wedding ring, and slid the golden hoop his way. It was already properly sized to fit around his monstrous ring finger.

“I appreciate your speed and your daring, Solomonia,” he retorted. “But your last husband died of poison.”

“My first died of poison,” she corrected. “My most recent died while out hunting. He was thrown and kicked by an unruly horse, or something. And please, call me Sol. All my paramours and husbands did.”

“Were there more than two?”

“Three husbands, only one current paramour,” she said. “I wouldn’t ask you to give up on your romances, if you have any. I’m proposing a marriage of convenience.”

“I’m not so eager to die young,” he said, trying to put a note of finality in his voice. She almost-smiled again, her eyebrow doing more of the work than her lips. That’s all she needed to do to call his bluff. It wasn’t exactly a secret that he often volunteered himself for mortal combat with Red Hand assassins, pirates, mercenaries, sorcerers, and uppity tax collectors. He was a ‘safety third’ sort of man.

This was obviously not a proposal he could accept, but he frustratingly found himself incapable of saying no. At least not immediately. That damn bird Temhota had begged him not to lodge the Crystal Eye within his skull. Yevgeni had listened, because he wasn’t sure how to pluck out his own eye and didn’t trust any of the local surgeons to make the swap. That left him vulnerable, because the artifact allowed him to see snippets of the future. The possibility of knowing – truly knowing! – if marrying Solomonia would play to his favor concretely existed. He could actually just go and check, once this damnable meal was done.

The capacity to go home and verify was leaving Yevgeni too indecisive, as of late. He could no longer trust his gut, because a more reliable organ was available. He resolved to simply make the switch tonight, regardless of Tomhota’s chirping and squawking. While it might hurt in the moment, the pain would be less annoying than the uncertainty. Besides, he had the renowned Rune Breaker on hand. Ivy was an unmatched practitioner of Galdr and one of their sacred Vesten runes would stop him from dying in the attempt. Probably.

He appreciated that having made her proposal, Solomonia had the grace to wait for his response. The insufferable waiter did not. The man, still lingering too close for comfort, stepped forward to offer another babble of words. Yevgeni held up a finger, to motion him to stop and hold his tongue. The waiter nonetheless cleared his throat and prepared to speak.

“Sol, dearest,” Yevgeni cut him off, “is this man your spy, or someone else’s?”

Solomonia’s perfect mask slipped, or at least appeared to. The waiter began to sputter objections. Yevgeni stood back from the table and stretched to his full height and width. The man finally fell silent. 

Yevgeni did not bother to explain his accusation. There was round about evidence, of course. The waiter’s left hand was always tucked behind his back as a show of manners, but Yevgeni had caught the rest of the waitstaff and at least one guest staring like hawks. Their eyes would constantly flutter to watch that hidden hand, meaning the foolish stick of a man was signaling them something.

Yevgeni’s certainty also came from last night’s consultation with the Crystal Eye. Within the swirling mist and smog of sorcery, he’d been forewarned. The visions were closer to clues than concrete facts. While he found the eye’s metaphors annoying, he had no trouble deciphering their meaning. Yevgeni was a cleverer man than his fellow humans, the Syrneth, or even Theus seemed to suppose. He was certain. The man was a mole, tattling on their conversation.

The waiter stood in Yevgeni’s shadow, seemingly confident that the rules of polite society would keep him safe. That made the next part all the more fun.

“Pick a window,” Yevgeni told him.

“Is this strictly necessary?” Solomonia asked.

“Pick a window,” Yevgeni repeated. The light of understanding dawned on the waiter’s face. The slow transition from shaky confidence to concrete terror was amusing to watch.

“The third window on the east wall is about ten feet from a canal,” his victim offered in panic. “I don’t suppose you’d be as kind as aim for the water?”

Yevgeni gave the man a curt, respectful nod and grabbed him by his over-frilled lapel. He motioned to the rest of the waitstaff to open the window. They were mortified, but apparently their muscle memory was used to taking orders. The glass panes were swung open and one daring busboy was as kind as to hold the yellow curtain to the side. Yevegni thanked them, planted his feet, and then engaged each of his meaty muscles with practiced fury.

The inept spy went sailing through the window, and then sailing into the canal. Yevgeni was impressed that the foolish fop had the presence of mind to put his arms out and attempt a dive. If Theus was merciful, the annoying little gnat would be mostly unharmed.

“You brought me here to make a grand gesture, and put me out of my element,” he said to Solomonia. “I’m returning the favor. I can certainly see the two of us working together. You cover my weakness for politics, and I’m more muscle than you’ve likely ever had on hire. But I need you to understand that I’m not interested in intrigue, and this is how I will consistently respond to the games you dandies play.”

She gave him a dazzling smile and Yevgeni realized he’d been somewhat cheated here. He hadn’t made a statement to Solomonia. Solomonia had brought him here so he would lose his temper. So he would make a statement to the rest of the City of Five Sails’ aristocrats on her behalf. By Theus’ thick thighs, he swore to himself, I’m sticking that Eye in my skull tonight.

The rest of the diners were frozen in place, terrified that they would soon make equally dramatic exits. Yevgeni didn’t see the need to dispel them of the notion. He turned to face the specific pampered guest who the waiter had been signaling to. He was pretty certain he recognized the congenial old fox, if not by face then by reputation.

“Stranahan,” the retired Musketeer introduced himself. “I won’t make apologies, because neither you nor Sol would believe me.”

Stranahan was a handsome man, even if muscle had given way to a bit of extra weight and skin had given way to wrinkles. His voice was gravely from years of cigars and cognac, but still warm. Yevgeni wondered if he was Sol’s jealous paramour, here to judge and compare himself to her newly chosen husband. He wouldn’t have blamed her.

Solomonia waved her hand to invite the two of them to sit down. Without skipping a beat, Stranahan made his way over, bringing his tray of tea and cakes along. He set them down politely at their table, and motioned Yevgeni to try a delicacy topped with white chocolate and passionfruit puree.

“Trustier sidearms than pistols and rapiers, I promise you,” he said. “Try one. They’re good enough to stop you from throwing me out that same window.”

Yevgeni doubted the statement, but recanted his suspicion after taking a bite. The little desert was delectable. Almost tasty enough to calm him down. Maybe that was the solution to being annoyed… Just have a bite of cake before choosing to escalate matters. Still, cake or no cake, he refused to sit back down.

Solomonia and Stranahan traded veiled compliments and suggestive eyebrow wiggles, and Yevgeni tuned them out completely. He began snacking at will. First the cakes, then the chicken he hadn’t touched, and so on. There wasn’t enough meat to satisfy, and he wouldn’t be as rude as eating all the cakes, so he stood up to leave. He genuinely, from the bottom of his heart, could not muster the energy to worry about the cat and mouse game Solomonia and Stranahan were playing. He had enough mysteries in his past to worry about the secrets these people weaved for each other in the present.

“You’ll consider my proposal?” Solomonia asked as he turned to leave.

“I think I have to. I’ll be damned if I ever return to this parlor,” he said, “but I’m aware the future of districts is hammered out in places like these. If you can take the responsibility of politeness and intrigue off my plate, I’ll marry you. If you can stop the taxman from terrorizing our district’s poor and needy, I’ll even do it right and proper at a church.” That seemed to satisfy her.

“You don’t want to find out why I was spying on you?” Stranahan asked, seemingly amused.

“I do not care. Do not do it again.”

“You’re an enigmatic man with no alliances or publicly stated motives,” Stranahan said. That irked Yevgeni. His motives were straightforward. The rich of this City built their castles on the backs of the poor. Yevgeni intended to do Dar Matushka’s work and teach them a lesson. He hadn’t exactly been subtle about it. But trust these folks to fail and understand that Yevgeni wasn’t capable of their duplicity. Just too dense to imagine someone without ulterior motives.

“I wanted to know if we could ally,” Stranahan continued. “My dearest Odette seeks vengeance against the foolish Kaspar and the murderous El Gato.”

“I really did mean it when I said I do not care.”

“Don’t dismiss him, my darling,” Solomonia cautioned him. “He knows where the Cat’s Paw Gang hide and fence their stolen goods. And I know that one of them, a lady called  “Prima Rosa,” is holding onto the Devil Jonah’s Bones. Those are one of the artifacts you seek to collect, right?”

Yevgeni was more impressed than annoyed, which is why he didn’t move to throw Solomonia out the window. How in Theus’ name did she know?

“I know,” she said, seemingly having read his mind. She switched language to rural Ussuran, seemingly confident that Stranahan couldn’t translate such a thick and backwater dialect. “In fact, I commissioned you a little wedding gift. My darling Adelheide and sweetest Kallah have fashioned you a miniature Colossus of Syrne out of silver and iron.”

Yevgeni left the restaurant, more annoyed than he’d been since the day he’d awoken lost, alone and confused in the City’s gutters. Theus damn that woman! He swore to himself. She’d outmaneuvered him completely, so casually and discretely that even his sessions gazing into the Crystal Eye had failed to warn him. She was dangerous. He needed to socket that artifact into his skull and keep a more diligent Eye on her. He was probably going to have to marry that gorgeous snake of a woman. 

Special thanks to Invisible College member Ala Zilla for her contributions to the upcoming Tooth and Claw expansion, including the artwork for one of our all-time favorite pieces (Siesta) as well as editing and proofing. Ala Zilla created the persona for this chapter’s unnamed waiter, and she and Carmel were very excited to him thrown out a window.