Under ordinary circumstances, Beshar, Ninth of the Thirteen, would have been bored. Today’s circumstances, however, were anything but ordinary. He squirmed in the hard wooden seat of the Ninth and struggled to focus his thoughts on the present.
The First presided over the Session, placing judgment on the citizens who came before him. There was an increasing number of citizens getting into trouble these days. Increased water rations led to riots in the street and even the cost of cictuss had inflated. The plant’s horrific odor was only matched by its taste, but the foul smelling plant could keep one hydrated for a day with just one of its leaves. Citizens had taken to growing the plant in small boxes outside their homes. Beshar would have thought the smell was enough to keep any robbers away, but home break-ins had more than quadrupled compared to last quarter’s numbers. They needed to find a solution to this issue with the Sea King. Without his steady supply of water, the Republic was in trouble.
Amira sat tall in the seat of the Third, her attention focused and eyes rapt on the First. Beshar had a hard time taking his eyes off her. She was beautiful, calm, deadly. It was hard to envision that the beautiful young woman was actually miles away, hidden away where only the Everflame knew. Amira was not Amira at all. She was alttaw’am, and she would kill him if she knew he’d learned her secret.
As if sensing his eyes on her, she turned to look at him, her lips curling up in a small smile. Beshar quickly looked away. He had to remember not to bring any attention to himself, he certainly couldn’t help Jura if he wound up dead. He reached for his handkerchief, breathing deeply of the calming oils. There was plenty of wine in the privacy of his new rooms. He’d moved into the apartments of the Ninth just yesterday, taking small delight in the fact that his new wine cellar was decidedly bigger in his new establishment. At least that was something to be thankful for. He could now store more wine, he was going to need it.
He’d promptly celebrated by ordering several cases of his preferred vintage be sent to him immediately.
“I believe the council is in need of more female representation,” Amira smiled down the line of the council.
Denir, the new Fourth, nodded her agreement. “Well said, Third. There are too few of us here.” She looked over at Fatima, the Eleventh, who nodded enthusiastically.
“I’ve a cousin. A widow—”
Fatima was interrupted by the soft musical voice of Amira. “Actually Fatima, I had someone else in mind. She more than meets the requirements. Excellent bloodlines. Rich in water. I nominate Ishani, daughter of Abhaya.”
“The ambassador of Kitoi? What an interesting nomination.” Denir turned the corners of her lips up ever so slightly.
“It’s never been done before,” Nasir, the Eighth frowned. “The council has always been comprised of citizens of the Republic.”
Beshar kept his face neutral and reached for the thoughts of Velder, the Second, and his puppet of the last several years. Velder’s own thoughts were a mere echo that Beshar pushed aside with ease as he made the Second speak up.
“That’s because it shouldn’t be done. Why should we give citizens of another nation a voice in our government? I vote against this.”
Nasir and Geedar, the Fifth, bobbed their heads in agreement.
Beshar let loose a relieved sigh.
Amira scowled at Velder for the briefest second before smiling beautifully at the council. “The Second makes a valid statement, and in years past I would agree with him. But times are changing and the ambassador would be a welcome addition. She has grown up in politics, she speaks several languages and, as the daughter of Kitoi’s finest war general, she is well versed in all matters of war. In addition to these attributes, we should welcome our allies in times of war. Ishani has served as a worthy ambassador for the last ten years and has always shown to have the best interest of not only her own nation, but that of the Republic as well. I urge the council to heed the wisdom in my words and allow this breach in government policy during these troubling times.”
Denir nodded thoughtfully. Geedar too, though his eyes still looked troubled. Beshar looked to his left and noted that the lesser council members had all schooled their faces to look completely blank. Had she gotten to each of them already? Fatima studied her fingernails and Ledair, the Twelfth and newest member of the council, looked as though he wished to be anywhere else.
Beshar spoke up again as Velder, “The Third makes an admirable argument. Truly, voting in the ambassador would be a wise decision if the Republic didn’t already have so many other worthy candidates.”
A few of the council members muttered their agreement, but no one was brave enough to voice their opinion out loud, not when the Third, Fourth, and Fifth already seemed to be in agreement.
Justir, the First, and Amira’s own puppet, held up a halting hand that demanded attention.
“I agree with our Third. These are difficult times, and as our great Republic prepares for war, we would be wise to accept the ambassador as one of our own. We will put the matter to a vote. I will raise my vote for her.” The First raised his hand higher.
Beshar forced Velder’s hand to lay flat on the table, mimicking his own. He noted that Jabir also laid his hands flat. Ledair looked anguished for a moment, but then began knocking the stone table. Everyone else did too.
“Then it is decreed that Ishani is given full Rank and authority as our Thirteenth.” The First looked to Velder, and Beshar had him mumble the words that called the meeting to a close.
Beshar sat in his chair for several moments after as everyone made their way from the room. He didn’t hear Amira’s quiet approach and jumped when she placed a soft hand over his. His hands were still laid flat on the table and he looked up at her in alarm.
“My lady Third, you startled me.”
She smiled down at him, removing her hand and crossing her arms over her chest, leaning her hip against the table.
“You were very quiet in today’s session,” she noted.
He’d spoken up in every way he’d felt safe. He watched Velder’s departing form but kept his connection to his thoughts on a tight leash. He’d thought alttaw’am were mindless creatures, yet this one seemed to have no problem controlling the First and maintaining the illusion of Amira. Who was she, really?
“Should I have spoken up more, my lady Third?” The feel of her eyes settling on him sent shivers down his spine.
“I find it curious that you voted against the ambassador joining the council yet you gave no voice to your objection.”
Flames but she was right. He should have at least muttered along with the rest of them. He tried for a wan smile, “Trying my hand at diplomacy. I suspect I did poorly.”
Her chocolate eyes held his gaze. “You’re allowed your own opinion, of course.”
“Of course,” he inclined his head, rising from his chair. “It irks me that I must depart your lovely presence, but my duties in the arena call.”
“I hear that Justir has doubled the amount of men in search of Jura.”
Justir, not the First. Was she testing him? He ignored her breach in etiquette. “Did he now? That is most pleasing to hear. It pains me that she went missing as she did. Though, I suppose, my pain pales in comparison to your own sadness. You must be beside yourself with worry for your friend.”
“Indeed,” she said pitifully, closing her eyes as if to squeeze away the tears. She put on a good show. “When news of those bodies found in the dungeons came I feared the worst. Now, to know that she is out there, forced to follow the wishes of that monster. How is it that the slave was even able to escape the dungeons in the first place? And what does he want with our poor, sweet Jura?”
Though Jura had left with Tylak on her own free will, it was widely believed by the Republic that the Daughter of the First had been kidnapped by the former slave turned Shadow Dancer. The two were spotted by a merchant outside the city gates, but that had been nearly a week ago. There hadn’t been any trace of them since. Beshar didn’t believe in prayers to the Everflame, but he sent one up anyway in hopes that the group was in Kitoi by now.
“It’s very sad. Jura is a fine young woman and a dear friend. I’ll burn a prayer to the Everflame that she is recovered quickly.”
The creature smiled. “Yes, I burn prayers daily that she is reunited with her loved ones. Funny, I never thought of you as a religious man. I’ve never seen you at the Everflame.”
“Troubling times have a way of bringing out the religion in all of us I imagine.”
Her kohl-lined eyes narrowed, “It would seem so.” She pushed away from the table and shook her head, causing her thick maiden’s braid to fall over her shoulder. “Look at me, carrying on with my troubles when you have more pressing matters. I won’t detain you any longer, Beshar. You’re dismissed.”
He gritted his teeth but bowed low before turning on his heel to hurry from her presence. Several of his Samur waited outside the imposing double doors of the auditorium. He was relieved by the sight of them. For the last week he had taken to requesting the presence of all his men whenever he left his chambers. He gestured for them to fall in place around him, and he made his way through the glass halls and back to his own apartments.
“Any news?” he asked once he was sure they were out of earshot of any council members.
Kenjiro shook his head, his expression grim. “None. It seems they’ve vanished.”
Beshar gave the head of his Samur a tight-lipped smile. “Good, it appears they’re staying away from the main roads. If you can’t find them, the First won’t either. Give up the search. It’s a safe assumption they’ve made it to Kitoi by now, or at least very near its borders. I need your ears here, the First and the Third are planning something. And get me everything you can on the ambassador from Kitoi. It seems she is our new Thirteenth.”
Kenjiro nodded, stepping forward to open the doors to Beshar’s apartments and doing a careful sweep before allowing the Ninth to enter. Once he was given the signal that it was safe, Beshar entered his room, immediately going for his wine cellar. He’d uncork some of his private reserve tonight. He needed the alcohol content. The Shadow Dancer and his men should be capable of keeping one tiny girl alive, right? He drank deep from the bottle and hoped that it was so.