Bellona paced around the low table in the receiving room of the Ikaran embassy. She’d tried to cover the scratches on her face from several days ago with makeup, but he knew they were still there.
Takeshi had been surprised that Bellona accepted his invitation, thinking she’d insist he meet her at the Mertikan embassy as if she were the senior and he the junior. But something had changed for Bellona recently.
So much had changed. The assassination attempt on Ojo. The escalation of the war. And now . . .
“There’s far too much here for us to just sweep away and ignore, Bellona. With Lavinia gone, it is up to the two of us and Michiko—”
“Don’t talk to me about Michiko.” Bellona’s face was red with anger, her normally warm tones flushed into the colors of a raging fire. “We will deal with us, you and I. Block Kris from bringing their witness to the council, work with the agents here to discredit their account. But we may need to ask the fleet to take a more direct hand with the Rumikan leadership. With them in protective custody, we can keep Kris from destroying their country with these horrible lies.”
Takeshi took a deep breath. He wanted little more than to return to his laboratory, his books. To retreat from the world, be left alone to his research. But Lavinia was gone. Kensuke, too. He was the senior-most imperial warder.
He’d sat through enough meetings with Bellona that he knew there was a delicate balance between letting her get her anger out and letting her roll over you like a cavalry charge. You had to pick your moment, pick your position.
Takeshi stood and drew himself up as much as he could, casting aside his default slouch.
Bellona stopped, her head cocked in confusion.
“The truth will get out,” he said. “If we face it head-on, we may be able to salvage a working relationship with Rumika. The empress wants us to use this conflict to put Quloo on the defensive, force them back and show them that they should not stand in our way. But we cannot hope to do that without cooperation from Rumika. You and I should sit down with Kris and talk through this. I think I can get them to hold off on a public hearing—”
“Let them try. We’ll overrule them, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll force a duel to dismiss their witness’s testimony.”
Bellona had learned all of the wrong lessons from Lavinia, and seemingly none of the right ones.
“At a certain point,” Takeshi said, “you cannot bully everyone and expect to have any allies remaining. If Kris brings up the evidence, I will not vote to block their motion.”
Bellona stepped forward, her breath hot on his chin. “How dare you defy me, defy the empire?” She was trying to be Lavinia. But she had neither the presence nor the skill to back up her threats the way Lavinia did. Nor the authority.
“We’ve received no orders as to the evidence as of yet. Therefore, we have discretion in how to handle the situation. Talking may forge a way forward where threats and violence do not.”
“I’m surrounded by cowards and fools!” Bellona shouted, storming out of the room.
The first lights of dawn cut across the horizon, not yet warming the chill wind rolling through the streets of the lowest island of Twaa-Fei. Michiko drew her furs tighter as she sat on one of the only two wooden chairs at the noodle stand.
They’d seen this place during their hunt for the Golden Lord. Ancestors . . . how that felt like a lifetime ago. She’d been so hopeful then. Eager to please, ignorant of the brutal truth of what it meant to be part of the Mertikan empire.
Kris was late. She could have guessed. They’d never been an early riser, often hiding yawns as they walked into council meetings.
All around her were the familiar sights of the island. Laborers hurried to their posts, sailors staggered from their beds back to their ships. But unlike that daylong hunt, the streets were now filled with Rumikan refugees. They slept in alleys under makeshift fur and muslin tents, filled boarding houses five or more to a room.
If she did what she meant to do back home, before long, refugees from Kakute would be fighting for survival alongside these people. There was no war in history that didn’t produce orphans, that didn’t drive people from their homes.
But if she did nothing, her people would be the ones at war, making orphans and burning fields.
There were no easy answers, no quick fixes. But nothing about her life in Twaa-Fei had been easy or simple. If the Golden Lord weren’t her ancestor, she might have been able to keep her life simple. Serve the empire, devote herself to Lavinia’s will, rise in the ranks slowly as a good weapon in the hands of the empire.
Now she was her own...