“Good evening, Your Excellency.”
Reza smiled and bowed his head in reply as Esha curtsied in Zeren style and with Zeren grace. He sat between two tables. One held platters of sweet and savory delicacies and a pot of warm plum wine. Two servants waited nearby with bowls of scented water and linen cloths. The other table bore only a sheathed sword. At the sight of the sword, Esha’s eyes widened and sparkled with pure delight.
Reza cleared his throat, enjoying her reaction and seeking to draw out the moment. “A good host must always anticipate the needs of his guests. I was not certain whether you would prefer to start with refreshments . . .”
Esha gave him a sharp, sidelong look. He bit his lip to keep from laughing out loud. “Or we could go straight to swords,” he concluded cheerfully.
Esha eagerly fitted the hilt into her right hand, drew the sword from its sheath, and ran through a quick sequence of movements: a whiplike chop, a swift slice, and a slow expansive uppercut ending in a rapid figure eight. “Oh, it sings,” she exclaimed happily, now twirling with the sword. “You found an excellent swordsmith.”
“Hmm.” Reza stood and came over to her side of the table. “Sings. You have stolen my words. That is what a warrior says of a good sword. I never thought to hear the phrase repeated by a dancer.”
Again that mildly chastising look. “In a good fight, when the skill is high and the intent is pure, do you not dance with your enemy?”
He leaned a hip against the table, smiled, and shook his head. “I dance with and for the Beloved. Always.” He held out a hand for her scabbard. “May I?”
She handed it over, her face now alight with curiosity. He executed a swift run of basic movements—not the short, disjointed movements of a raw recruit at drill, but the fluid motion of a seasoned soldier who knows how to shift from attack to parry to counterattack in the space of a breath. “When I fight, I think of my soldiers watching me and following what I do. I think of our devotion for the Beloved binding us together in battle.”
A smile spread slowly over Esha’s face as he spoke while expertly wielding the scabbard. “You sound like the devotees in the temple of the Goddess. The sisters dance together and forget everything but the presence of She Who Gives the Victory.”
Reza came to a sudden stop. “Do Zeren men dance with the sword at the temple of the Gods?”
“They do not,” Esha said dryly. “They invite the devotees of the Goddess to dance on their behalf.”
On their behalf, or for their entertainment? Reza laughed softly, deciding that the wryness of Esha’s tone probably indicated the latter. “But may a man do it, or is it not permitted?”
She shrugged with effortless charm. “Boys do,” she replied. “It is excellent training for swordfighting, but dance is considered a woman’s form of worship and so men rarely continue the practice when they are grown.”
He smiled broadly. “Will you teach this boy, so that he may worship his Beloved even in times of peace and solitude?”
Esha stared at him, and for a moment he felt uneasy, as if she might have heard rumors about the foreign swordsman stalking the streets of Riverside, looking for prey. But then her surprise softened into affection and she said, “I owe you much for restoring my sword. I would be happy to teach you for as long as you wish to learn.”
Reza set down the scabbard. “And I would be happy to learn . . . but not today. Today I would have you share with me this delightful plum wine, and perhaps you could give me your opinion on these Zeren sweetmeats that my suppliers swear are of the highest quality . . . though I have my doubts.”
Esha laughed and set down her sword. “Ambassador, let no one say that you are not the most excellent of hosts.”
Reza inclined his head to acknowledge the honor, and escorted her to the cushions set before the table of food. The servants came with their bowls and Esha dipped her hands into the jasmine-infused water with a happy sigh. “Most excellent indeed. I am as content if I were in my own home.”
Kaab knew well how and when to be conspicuous. Her visits to Tremontaine House, and her address to the merchants in the Hall—some things were so important that they could not be merely done; they had to be performed. With that in mind, Kaab prepared her visit accordingly. She assembled her attire with the care of a warlord who knows that the eyes of both her soldiers and her enemies are upon her. She selected two attendants to accompany her: Ixkan, a slender young woman with the mien of a secretary, and Ahchiplik, a tall man with the bulk of a bodyguard. They arrived at the first warehouse fifteen...