Authors: Lindsay Buroker
Tags: #General Fiction
Diplomats and Fugitives
by Lindsay Buroker
Copyright © Lindsay Buroker 2015
After I published
last year, I thought I had left The Emperor’s Edge characters in a good spot (Rias and Tikaya from
, too). I didn’t feel a need to write more stories with them.
Then… every week or so, someone would write and ask if there would be more books in the series. Even though most of those emails specifically asked about Amaranthe and Sicarius, I wasn’t quite sure what I would do with them if I picked up their story again. They do come in as characters in the second half of this book, but of all the main characters, Basilard was the one who seemed to still be waiting for some resolution in his life. So this novel is his story, at least in part. He shares it with a new character. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about both of them.
Before we get started, let me thank my beta readers, Cindy Wilkinson and Sarah Engelke, and my editor, Shelley Holloway. They’ve stuck with me for a lot of books now, and I appreciate their help!
A hundred sets of eyes watched Ashara Longbow as she walked toward the front of the auditorium. Once, she had climbed trees, swung from branches, and chased enemies through the forest with the agility of a deer. Now, she was praying that she wouldn’t trip and break every bottle in her satchel.
As she neared the front, she wiped her palms on her wool trousers. The material itched, making her miss the soft supple feel of her buckskins, but today, more than ever, it might help to look like a Turgonian. True, that would be difficult with pale skin, gray eyes, and frizzy red-blonde hair that usually looked like an unruly bush—or had pieces of unruly bushes sticking out of it. The faces that turned to watch her were all darker skinned, framed by brown or black hair. In most cases, at least. A few students had dyed their hair ridiculous colors, then used grimbal grease to make it stick out like porcupine quills. The eccentricities of youth. There were a few other students in their thirties, but most were much younger than Ashara, and they watched her with the jaded indifference of teenagers. It galled her that she needed their votes today.
“What am I doing here?” she muttered as she approached the table set in front of the rows of students.
Her professor, a homely Turgonian woman in her forties, stood a few feet to the side of the table. She nodded encouragingly. At least Ashara had one supporter.
She withdrew the glass bottles from her satchel, nearly dropping one on the floor. The green liquid sloshed alarmingly. She willed her trembling hands to still as she pulled out more bottles. Nobody here would have guessed that she had been trained to kill and had fought in a hundred battles. Her audience was probably marveling that she had managed to dress and get to the university without falling into a canal.
“Smile,” Professor Tatka urged softly.
Smile? Ashara had to be personable in addition to remembering her speech? She bared her teeth at the assemblage, though she didn’t meet any of their eyes. Instead, she focused on the windows at the back of the room, at the cobblestone square outside and the university students walking or bicycling past.
“Never mind,” Tatka whispered. “Don’t do that. That’s alarming.”
Yes, it had definitely been her
that had once won a lord’s eye, not her charisma.
A student in the front row yawned. The one next to him was folding his voting ballot into a paper dirigible.
“Thank you for appearing here today,” Ashara announced—as if her fellow business students had had any choice. “I wish to introduce you to—” Her mouth opened to say the next word, but it disappeared from her mind before she could utter it. In fact, everything disappeared from her mind, as if she had been struck by an enemy shaman with mind-manipulation powers. If only that were the case. She knew how to deal with that problem—a sword to the throat. Or to the gut to ensure maximum torment before death.
“Thank you for appearing here today,” she repeated, hoping to push her memory back onto the tracks. “I wish to introduce you to…ah…” She looked down at the table. Bottles. Potions. No, Turgonians thought that word implied magic, and magic was as welcome here as a particularly virulent toenail fungus. “Elixirs,” she blurted. Yes, that was it. Part of it. “Alpine Elixirs. That’s my company, yes.”
“Glad she figured it out,” a front-row student muttered. His seatmates snickered.
“Not like you can understand her anyway with that awful accent.”
Magura’s twisted foot, was it too late to find a sword and start eviscerating people?
“Alpine Elixirs offers three lines of, uhm, elixirs, all with unique properties, all derived from fresh ingredients gathered from the Batladesh Mountains.” Or from the plants Ashara had been growing all over her dormitory room, much to her roommate’s consternation. It wasn’t her fault the Osaka Vine sprouted so vigorously. “The Athletic Elixirs are designed to enhance performance in the rings or on the battlefield. The Clarity Elixirs will help you focus for your tests. The Aphrodisiacs will encourage extra, ah, stamina and amorousness when you, ah—” Should she be talking about this in front of these kids? Most of them were old enough to shave—the men, anyway—but she had no idea if they were sexually active.
hadn’t been at seventeen or eighteen. But she had been more interested in mastering swordsmanship at the time, the kind that involved steel blades and nothing more… biological.
“When you have sex?” a young woman in the front row suggested bluntly. Ah, the charm of the younger generation.
“Yes,” Ashara said. “All of the elixirs are—”
“Are they magic?” the paper dirigible engineer asked, squinting suspiciously at the bottles on the table.
“Not at all,” Ashara said firmly. She had anticipated the question. The plants she used might have been
slightly, but another practitioner shouldn’t detect anything unusual about the potions themselves. “I know there’s a history of charlatans selling fake potions that are supposed to help one’s health but that do nothing. I want to invite you to sample my elixirs, so you can see for yourselves that they truly do as claimed.” She withdrew a couple of wooden puzzles, the sliding tiles painted with tiny soldiers that slid around and could be assembled into a Turgonian infantry company in the field. “I suggest you try the puzzle before and after drinking the Clarity Elixir. I have a timer if you wish to use it.”
This was the weak part of her presentation. Each of the presenting students were only supposed to take three minutes to deliver their spiels and convince the audience to invest, but she hadn’t yet figured out how to sell her product without giving samples, and the elixirs, while truly helpful for enhancing one’s skills for a few hours, took fifteen or twenty minutes before the effects were felt. She had talked a couple of classmates into coming up to sample them and pretend to feel the effects earlier than normal. Since they had both tried the potions before and believed they worked, she did not feel too dishonest about this legerdemain.
“Do I have any volunteers?” Ashara lifted her hand, prepared to point to the third row where her classmates sat, but the dirigible engineer thrust himself to his feet first.
“I want to try the sex one,” he announced, leering over his shoulder at his fellow students. Or maybe he was leering at some woman in the audience. Ashara hoped not.
“Are you lacking stamina?” Ashara asked before she thought better of it. Even if sarcasm came more easily to her than smiles and charisma, she had enough sense to know one shouldn’t insult potential customers. Of course, knowing that and implementing it were different things.
“Not at all,” her volunteer said, pushing his jacket away from his pelvis and smirking as he approached the table.
By habit, and because he turned his leer briefly onto her, Ashara assessed him as a potential combat opponent, noting his height, arm reach, the confidence in his eyes, the athleticism in his movement, and whether he had bulges that might represent hidden weapons. He was someone who would cause her to, if she met him on a road through the wild plains, rest a hand on her sword or pull an arrow from her quiver. Here, in this civilized setting, she forced herself to calmly meet his gaze, then pour a sample of the requested elixir.
Professor Tatka wrote a few notes in her pad and glanced at a pocket watch. Ashara winced, certain she was taking too long and wasting time that should be spent convincing her audience. She should be handing samples to her staged classmates and talking about sales thus far, not increasing the libido of someone who did not look like he needed such help.
A door in the back creaked open, and a man wearing a cloak walked in, the cowl pulled up over his head. An odd choice for a sunny summer day.
Dirigible Boy quaffed her sample, not hesitating despite the dubious appearance of the viscous grayish-green liquid. Ashara needed to find some natural dyes that would make her products appear more palatable without altering their characteristics. Judging by the way the student’s lips curled, she needed to refine the taste further too.
He recovered quickly, propping his hip on the table and smiling. “Professor Tatka, you’re looking particularly luscious today. Why don’t we go to your office and measure my stamina?”
Ashara would have rolled her eyes—dozens of students snickered—but she noted with alarm that the professor was writing in her pad again. Tatka didn’t think this monkey’s armpit had truly been affected by the potion, did she? It was too soon, and besides, Ashara’s elixirs weren’t supposed to increase one’s bravado—or stupidity. Anything he was saying was a result of his own idiocy, not her elixir.
“I assure you,” Dirigible Boy continued, “I—” He stopped, frowned down at the floor, then grabbed his throat with both hands, and made a gagging noise.
This time, Ashara
roll her eyes. There were no common allergens in her potions, nor was there anything that could harm humans. Her unwanted volunteer was trying to make her look bad—or maybe he simply delighted in being the center of attention. That seemed likely.
He staggered, gagging more loudly, and several students stood up. Everyone’s gazes were riveted. The figure in the back stood against the wall, his cowl still up, shadowing his features.
“Quit it,” Ashara whispered, “or I’ll be an ass during
presentation.” What a warning. Alas, she did not have her sword nearby, so an evisceration threat was not an option. Too bad. She wouldn’t have minded challenging this one to a duel. Even if much about Turgonia made her miss her homeland, their laws on killing people were delightfully flexible. So long as both parties agreed to engage in a duel or a match in a ring, one needn’t worry about reprisal for what happened.
Dirigible Boy clutched at the air, his eyes bulging, then crumpled to the floor, his hand flung out, the sample cup rolling across the tiles.
“Bremon?” Professor Tatka tossed her notepad aside and ran to him, kneeling at his side.
The rest of the horrified students were standing now. Dozens of hushed conversations flowed from the audience. For the first time, Ashara worried that the kid might
be joking. What if someone had tampered with her potions? Added something poisonous when she hadn’t been around? She didn’t think she had any enemies on campus, but the gods knew she had left behind countless Kendorians who wished her ill.
Ashara stepped around the table, opening her mouth to say that she had some healing knowledge, but she did not know if Tatka would let her get close, not when her potion had been the cause of the medical emergency.
Before she reached them, Dirigible Boy leaped to his feet, nearly knocking the professor over.
“Joking,” he called. “It was just a joke.”
He grinned, bowed, then spun toward Professor Tatka, grabbing her hands and helping her to her feet. Then he nearly tipped her off her feet again when he stepped close and kissed her on the mouth.
The formerly worried audience erupted in laughter. Ashara rubbed her face. She hadn’t had much hope of winning this competition when she had put together her speech and business plan. Now, she would be lucky to pass the class.
After a startled moment in which both parties looked like they might be enjoying the kiss, Professor Tatka shoved Dirigible Boy away from her. “Mister Bremon,” she said, “take your seat immediately.”