“Gwenna.” Ruar sat back in his chair. “I can’t accept that.”
He is your ally, not your adversary, I told myself, facing the Teannasach of Linrathe across the table. “The tariff on fleeces must be increased,” I said firmly. “Ésparias has no shortage of sheep. We’ve dropped the fees on timber, after all.”
“Timber benefits only some landholders. Fleeces bring money to almost everyone,” Ruar countered. Beside him, his young son shifted a little. Bored, perhaps; we’d been renegotiating the border tariffs for two days.
I glanced down at the figures before me. I still had room to bargain. “A reduction in the tariff on salt fish would serve the coastal torps.” I suggested a number. We needed timber, with all the new buildings being constructed, and salt fish for the ships going back and forth to Casil. The coarse wool of the hardy northern sheep was of limited value in the Eastern Empire.
“Is this fair, Daragh?” Ruar asked his son. In the tradition of Linrathe, the boy was there to listen and learn. This wasn’t the first question the Teannasach had asked him over the last two days.
“I think it is,” Daragh said. “If Ésparias does not want our fleeces, Varsland will. We will not lose revenue, Athàir.”
“Nor will we,” his father agreed. “I accept the new tariffs. Fairly done, Gwenna.”
“Thank you.” Tension seeped from me. My first independent negotiation was over, and I’d got the agreement I’d been directed to produce. Granted, this was a routine process, slight adjustments made every three years, but still—I’d done it. “The agreement will be ready to sign soon, will it not, Sorley?”
“I’ll have two copies done in the morning,” Sorley said from down the table, where, in his role as scáeli, he’d been recording the session. “Will that be soon enough for you, Ruar?”
“It will,” the Teannasach said. “We’ll leave tomorrow. I’ve still things to discuss with Cillian, but I shouldn’t be away from home too long. Nor should we intrude here more than we must.”
Sorley’s lips tightened. “The needs of government go on. Government and Empires.”
“And lives.” Ruar put a hand on his son’s shoulder as he spoke. “Loss comes to us all, and sometimes far too soon.” His too would be a house of mourning before long; his wife, Helvi, was dying. She’d been ill for over a year, a wasting illness slowly killing her. An expected death now, unlike the sudden fever that, just over a week ago, had taken the little sister I had barely known.
We—Sorley and Druise and I—had returned home four summers past from our northern travels to my mother’s announcement that she was pregnant. The baby, she told us, was due a few weeks after mid-winter. I’d been—what? Embarrassed, I suppose, although less so than I might have been before that summer and Druise’s blunt words to me. He, I remembered, had been delighted.
But I had gone back to cadet school, and the next summer I’d only had two weeks of leave, and how well could one get to know a five-month-old baby? Lianë was sweet enough, her hair not the almost black of mine and Colm’s but a reddish-gold, and she gurgled and smiled contentedly in Mhairi’s arms.
Except for the requisite three months in the company of my classmates, taking advanced lessons in diplomacy from my father, I’d been home fewer than eight full weeks in the last four years. Not much time to become more than fondly interested in Lianë. In the months of intense study, I hadn’t been treated as a member of the family, but as another senior diplomatic cadet from Ésparias. Only in my private seminars with my father was the formality dropped, and we’d had things other than my baby sister to talk about. She hadn’t been mentioned more than once or twice, and even then, still in the context of our discussions.
Ruar stood. “I’ll see you both at dinner,” he said. “Come, Daragh; let us find the Comiádh, and discover what you are to read and study.” Daragh was twelve, and in the usual course of things he would have become a student of my father’s this year. But there would be no students at the Ti’ach na Cillian until at least midwinter, because in a very few weeks, mourning a dead child or not, we were travelling to Casil to witness the investiture of Alekos, son of the abdicating Empress Eudekia, as the Emperor of the East. Alekos was twenty-one, and unmarried, and the invitation had been specific. I, heir to the leadership of Ésparias, must be present.
I hadn’t needed six years of diplomatic training to decipher that message. Alekos needed a bride, and the Empress thought that bride might well be me.
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Release Date: 30th August 2021