Rondon paced nervously in front of the marble fireplace, the crackle of split logs filling the silence. This was an important meeting; the most important in his political career. The rebels had seized control of several northern cities, and had now blockaded key trade routes. They were winning, and there was little Rondon could do about it. His grip on the military was slipping; it was only a matter of time before they turned on him as well.
The ambassador would be his last chance. Everything had to be perfect this evening. No expense was to be spared. Rondon chose his finest dining room, with the marble fireplace, wide bay windows overlooking the gardens, polished oak furnishing and a heavy oak table, gilded with gold inlay and clawed feet. The table was set with the finest china, porcelain plates and mugs imported from across the sea. Red leaves and foreign birds were hand painted on the dishes, red breasted with orange tipped wings. He had never seen their like, they may not even exist. But they looked elegant, and important, which is what he needed to convince the ambassador of this evening. That he was worth saving.
“Hector” he called as he picked up a golden bell, ringing it with a slight wiggle of his wrist. A short man, round belly stretching the grey jacket to the limit, his dark black hair tied back, the pony tail sticking out from underneath his black cap, came darting though the servant door. He bowed to Rondon, patiently waiting for further instructions.
“Is dinner ready? Has the ambassador arrived?”
Hector nodded, replying, “The appetizer is ready, and the main course will be ready shortly. As for the ambassador, the livery was called to the stables, so it’s reasonable to assume she’s here. I was just about to send Henri to escort her, unless you would like to meet her yourself?”
“No, Henri will be fine.” He replied, “I will wait here to welcome her properly.” He glanced around at the room again as Hector left, inspecting the table and settings, considering if they were elaborate enough, but realizing that he was out of time to make changes. The set up would have to suffice. He continued to pace around the room, looking for the perfect spot to greet the ambassador when she arrived. He settled on standing beside the fireplace, the rich marble and roaring fire enhancing his stature. He added another log to the fire, prodding the flames with an iron poker to allow air to circulate around the logs, sending the flames higher. There was a knock on the door.
Straightening, he thrust his shoulders back, raising his pointed chin, trying to look as tall and as important as he possibly could. Taking a deep breath, he called out, “Enter.” As the heavy oak door opened, he exhaled slowly, trying to maintain an air of calm. In through the door entered Henri, a tall, thin, clean shaven balding man in his gray servant coat. Stepping to the right, he stood stock still erect, his right hand clenched in a fist at his chest, his left hand saluting at a forty-five degree angle above his left eye. “Rondon, King of Mutapa, Conqueror of Edom, High Lord of Estaria, may I present the Ambassador of Arinthia, General Kharasha.”
Kharasha strode into the room, her embroidered purple robes over a leather jerkin and leather breaches. Swords strapped on each hip, she appeared ready for battle, not dinner. Rondon tried to maintain his outward composure, hoping she didn’t notice the sweat dripping down his brow.
“Welcome, General Kharasha. Would you like some wine.” Before she could answer, Henri brought over a golden tray with two silver goblets and a pitcher of red wine. Kharasha nodded, waited for Henri to fill it, striding to the fireplace to join Rondon. Henri followed, handing the other goblet to Rondon.
“To a fruitful alliance,” Rondon said as he raised his glass hopefully.
“We shall see.” Her voice was deep, a thunderclap on a still night. “I have seen much on my way here, and little of it impresses me. “ Kharasha’s eyes bored into him, Rondon cowering under the gaze. He wanted to make an impression, gain an ally, yet he could feel that slipping from his grip. She took a long draw from the goblet, wiped the corner of her mouth. “But the wine is good, so there is still hope.”
He let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, and pointed toward the chairs at the table. He pulled out her chair, waited for her to be seated then walked around the table and took the chair opposite. Henri entered with a tray of bread s, cheeses and sliced meats, placing it between Kharasha and Rondon. Pro-offering he wine pitcher, Kharasha waved him away, muttering “too much wine dulls the intellect.” Rondon, despite wanting more wine, followed his guests’ lead and declined the refill. He wasn’t sure if he was meant to hear the warning or not. Henri bowed to the guest, then to Rondon, and backed silently out of the room. They sat in silence for a few minutes, only the crackle of the fire filled the silence, feeding hesitantly on the bread and cheese. Kharasha did not touch the meats, and Rondon chose not to inquire why.
“I have a battalion of troops two days north, and another within a hard days ride east. Tell me why they should support you instead of your rebels.” The bluntness shook his confidence.
The entirety of this plan was falling apart. His hopes of impressing Kharasha had fled, and he knew he was now reduced to begging. He was unprepared for this turn of events. He thought titles and marble fireplaces would impress. He wasn’t expecting her to be so forward. Rondon was ready to be a supplicant now.
“The rebels are isolationists. They’ll cut off all contact and trade. Arinthia won’t have access to the sea, or to our grains, gems and ironworkers. All your nation has worked for these last thirty years will be lost. The best hope of preserving your nation is to help me preserve mine.” He sighed silently, his heart trying to leap out his chest and out his throat at the same time. She only stared at him, the iron grip of her gaze holding him in place. “Please, for the sake of both our nations, join in my fight. We can restore the balance. We can protect the future.” He was desperate for her to say something, to provide any indication of which direction she leaned.
Henri entered with the main meal on a wheeled cart. The smell of stewed beef, roasted potatoes, curry rice and grilled pork smothered in a peanut sauce. Kharasha studied the plate in front of her, taking in the smells, studying the food on her plate. “I haven’t seen this sauce before,” she queried, “where is it from?”
Rondon smiled, pleased to have piqued her interest. “It’s made from a unique plant from across the sea. We sourced it through the southern port last winter. Quite tasty, particularly on pork.” He began to relax, the tension leaving his body as she picked at the vegetables. He felt she may be coming around to his mindset. There was hope still.
“Meat is not common on our plates,” she began, “we don’t give up our forests for animal husbandry, and the meats don’t keep well in the trade caravans. But I may try this, the smell is intriguing.” Her knife and spoon pushed around the meat, picking at the potatoes some more. It seemed she was about to say something, caught herself, clenching her jaw tightly. Rondon sipped at the remaining drops of wine in his goblet, wishing for more, but trying still to emulate his guest.
“What say you?” he finally asked.
“Honesty,” she breathed, “is, I think, the best policy. My intent was to take advantage of your chaos. The rebels are strong, but no match for my forces in the North. And your remaining forces in the east are terribly weak. My standing orders were to over-run both, and take control of the entire realm.” She paused, studying the food in front of her, “But I think you may be worthy to save. I will ride east this evening. You’ll have the North secure before winter falls upon us.”
Rondon breathed a sigh of relief. Who would have guessed some exotic sauces would secure his future. He watched her dig into the meat, savoring every bite, the juices dripping down her chin. His nation would survive. He would have to watch Arinthia more closely in the future, as he had surely underestimated their aggression, but for now, he had secured his future. That was to be a problem for another day.
“May we have more wine to seal the pact?”
She began to mouth something, her lips quivering, a stunted sound emitting from her throat. She dropped the knife and spoon, trying to sputter, spit up something seemingly stuck in her throat. But nothing came out. Her breathing became sharp, short bursts, her hands going to her throat. Rondon watched in horror as she quickly turned blue, her throat and hands swelling to three times their normal size, and before he could do anything, Kharasha slumped from her chair, a lifeless gaze replacing her iron stare.
Rondon could do nothing but stare at the corpse of his ally, and his nation. Pouring out the last of the wine, he stared into the fire place, and pondered his next move.