The antechamber in the Quloi embassy stood draped in peacock greens and gilt-kissed blues, in constellations of silvery damask, all tasseled with symbols that Kris did not recognize. To Kris’s surprise, only a nominal number of weapons were on display, and there was little indication of the island’s mercantile history, no statement pieces. Instead they saw portraits of Twaa-Fei and its myriad inhabitants, images of the other warders, all smiling, their eyes luminous with the future. It made Kris’s heart seize with want. One day, perhaps, they’d be on these walls too. Recognized as a friend, a peer. “You honor me, Warder Kante. I believe—”
“Ojo,” the older man corrected them. He wore formal attire this time: a kaftan belted at the waist, shawl over one muscular shoulder, trousers metallic copper and delicately brocaded, a vest that reached to his hips. And the ceremonial dagger, of course, worn against Ojo’s belly. The hilt was exquisite, manak-bone scrimshaw, lined with obsidian and veined with amber. “Call me Ojo. There is no need to stand at attention. We are friends, are we not?”
Ojo laughed. His voice was warm and rich and honeyed, as much a weapon as the blades resting against his spine. Maybe even more, Kris thought, studying the Quloo warder’s regal features, the practiced smile. Somewhere in their mind, a ghost of Alyx was shaking their silver-haired head, mouthing warnings. Be wary of kindness, Kris.
But anyone who was anyone, even the dullest child in the smallest village in the worst slums of Mertika, knew that the point of Twaa-Fei was to establish peace among the nations. So what if Ojo intended to use Kris against the other warders? Ultimately, this would all be in pursuit of the greater good. More important, Kris knew exactly what they had to do. They’d gone over this plan too many times. Rumika would not side with any of the other factions. Rumika would serve as the axis of all political interactions, neutral and impartial.
Let the other warders, with their glib tongues, their loaded discourse, their endless posturing, do their worst. Rumika would not fall. Kris would not fall. Besides, they had no plans to do anything until they’d at least listened to Michiko’s appeal. A little conversation couldn’t possibly hurt anyone.
“I am honored you’d call me friend. Overwhelmed, even. It’s such a generous thing to say.” Kris bobbed a quick bow, sharpened their smile. “Especially given the fact that we’ll have to duel soon, and I will thoroughly trounce you in front of an audience of our peers.”
Ojo’s expression faltered, and Kris couldn’t help but grin as his counterpart spluttered through niceties, starting and stopping halfway through each new line, before finally surrendering to an unabashed guffaw.
“I believe in honesty,” Kris declared breezily, earning another round of laughter.
“You do Rumika proud,” Ojo said, once he again had enough breath to speak, his smile infectious.
“I hope to do more still, my new friend. Regarding our possible arrangement—”
The warder interrupted them with a flap of his hand. “Later. And only once you’ve ascended to your office. It wouldn’t be right to force you into a commitment now.”
“But I am authorized—”
“And I am old and sentimental.” Ojo’s attention drifted from Kris, the humor draining from his face. Something like grief flickered, just for a moment, in the dark wells of his eyes. “I believe in protocol. Tradition represents the bones of our civilization. Without orders, without rules, without regard for system, we’d be no better than animals. I would not have you speak to your government without anything but a gentleman’s agreement to show.”
“You’re too kind.” Kris followed the man’s gaze over the slant of their shoulder. Their eyes grazed over a myriad of beautifully calligraphed posters. The notices had become a familiar sight over the last week. Twaa-Fei was practically drowning in them, thanks to Bellona’s efforts. “So, are you excited for the baby shower, then? I can’t imagine what Bellona might have planned. Something lavish, I’m sure.”
“Oh, most definitely. She’s Lavinia’s little tiger cub, after all. Anything less and she stands at risk of offending all her previous selves.” Ojo strolled up to the posters and began, very slowly, peeling them from the wall. He did not crumple them as Kris thought he would have, but instead halved them, again and again, all with the focus of a man walking a tightrope.
“Warder Kante? Did something happen between you and Warder Kyrkos? If this...