An Ill-Mannered Cur

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Rainhart expected that they would be called back into the Empress' presence later that day or at the latest, early the next. It didn't happen. They saw the Empress in the great hall at dinner time, but her attention was taken up by the Skyan and Vernais ambassadors and she barely spared them a look.

The day after their meeting, Lord Valentin appeared to take them to the sea wall south of the city for a picnic. Tancred's protestations that he would rather stay nearby in case the Empress wished to speak to him were halted by Valentin, his tone pitched somewhere between sympathy and pity, saying, "The Empress is very busy with several matters of trade today."

Despite keeping up a discontented rumble throughout the short ride south of the city, Tancred, like Rainhart, was stunned into silence by the apparition of the sea. In some ways, it was just as he would have imagined; in others it challenged comprehension to stare out at that vast blue nothingness and think that somewhere on the other side of it were more folk--Alysines and Cambrians, and Iloresians, and all the kingdoms Rainhart had heard about and vaguely imagined as being basically like Deusetats.

"How long was the sea voyage from Alysia?" he asked Philomena. who stood beside him, her arms wrapped around her chest.

"About a month," she said. "I don't remember it all that well. I was only ten years old."

"A month," Rainhart echoed. "How could anyone be out in that nothingness for so long and not go mad?"

"Well, you don't go straight across the ocean. We made port in Ilores and Skya before reaching Jovan."

"I see." There had been a lot to think about these past few days.

That night, the Empress was holding a reception for the Skyan delegation. The feasting, drinking and dancing went late into the night.

Rainhart amused himself by drifting around the great hall picking up scraps of court intrigue from the tops of the courtiers' minds. He didn't learn anything of interest; the Empress was well-regarded by most people there, and all agreed she kept an excellent table. He also skimmed several appreciative thoughts about himself that made him puff out his chest and reach for another tankard of ale.

The ale made it difficult to concentrate on his gift, and he finished the night in companionable company with a young man whose lingua Jovan was as poor as his own, and from whom he parted vowing to be lifelong friends, only to wake the next morning unable to recall the man's name or face.

The next day, Lord Fidelio, the Empress' husband, invited them on a tour of the city. While they were riding through the upper town, Rainhart discovered Fidelio's passionate interest in horses. The next day, Fidelio showed him around the stables, kennels and mews. Rainhart had never hunted with hawks, so Fidelio arranged for a demonstration.

Then came the tournament in which Rainhart was knocked out in the third round by Lord Valentin's younger brother Cassius, who helped him up and offered him freedom of the Imperial Guard training grounds if he wished to keep in shape while in Monsilys. Rainhart took him up on this generosity, and what with everything, several days passed quickly.

Tancred was less willing to be distracted. Every morning he asked Lord Valentin whether the Empress would see him, and he became increasingly frustrated with Valentin's politician's answers.

Rainhart thought of what Holle had said--that Tancred should learn some tricks of negotiation from the Empress. It was undoubtedly true that Tancred had courage, intelligence and a good heart, but he was inexperienced and Rainhart became increasingly worried about what the Empress would ask of him, and how he would react.

* * *

Five days after they arrived in Monsilys, Rainhart was in the courtyard with Briga, trying to see whether he could teach her any tracking commands. Although she was willing to stay by him, and fearless in a fight, she was a sighthound to her bones and disdained to hunt by scent. But the journey through Deusetats had made him realise the usefulness of teaching her the basics of hunting rabbits and other small game, and so, he was determined to try.

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