Kingdoms Don’t Run Themselves, They Require Support from Careful and Observant Public Servants Who Can Perceive Threats Before Anyone Else
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“You’re an exceptionally hard woman to track down,” Helena said to Jocelyn.
“You would be too,” Jocelyn snapped, glaring at Helena. “If the people who were after me were after you.”
“Indeed. You’re very lucky that Samson Arkhewer doesn’t have the resources I do. Tell me,” Helena said. “What in the world possessed you to betray him?”
“Perhaps I’d be inclined to answer you,” Jocelyn said. She took one of Helena’s cookies, bit into it, and then glared at it. Helena had never understood people who didn’t like her cookies; she made them herself. “If I knew who the fuck you were.”
Helena sipped her tea. “I believe I already told you, I’m Helena of House Quate. I’m the king’s primary advisor on matters of domestic import.”
“And I’m a matter of domestic import, am I?”
“No. But I believe you’re likely here in Three Hills to cause problems for the rest of us, and I’d very much rather you didn’t do that.”
Jocelyn glared at Helena. Helena watched Jocelyn. “I could kill you,” Jocelyn said, after a moment.
Helena nodded. “I’m aware. I’d very much rather you didn’t do that either.”
They looked at each other another moment before Jocelyn snorted a laugh. She took a teacup, drank. “I’m only here to find a student of mine. I’ll leave after I’ve found him.”
“Ronaldo Harrow’s assistant Gus,” Helena said with a nod. Jocelyn blinked. “I’m aware. How did you know he was in Three Hills?”
“His magic is potent.I can sense it from miles away.”
Interesting. “If you attempt to approach him, you will most likely be arrested or even killed. I strongly advise that you don’t try.”
“Why?” Jocelyn challenged. “Because you will stop me?”
Helena wondered if she was touching her magic. Helena’s grandmother had been a witch from the Yellow Clan, but that talent hadn’t passed down to Helena’s father or Helena herself, nor to Hector. “Of course not. I’m merely telling you that it will go badly for you. He’s quite well protected and you won’t have as easy a time accessing him as you think. I suggest you leave Three Hills and seek out a new student somewhere else.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t heed your wise counsel,” Jocelyn said in a drawl.
“I won’t, actually. Samson Arkhewer is dead, from what I hear. You should worry about people who can actually do something to you.” Helena smiled, and stood up. “I’m afraid I have another appointment. My head servant Jessie will see you out. I’ll look forward to hearing that you’ve left town.”
“Who the hell are you?” Jocelyn demanded, as Helena left the room.
Helena looked over her shoulder and smiled at Jocelyn. “I’m the one who found you almost entirely by accident because you’re being so obvious, and I’m the one who’ll find you again, Jocelyn. Leave the capital or I’ll be in touch with your son.” She didn’t know Jocelyn’s son, but she could if she wanted to, now that there was ever so conveniently a portal linking his house and the academy.
Helena walked out, striding crisply down the hallway. Jessie was there, a short, plain woman with short hair. “Do see my guest out,” she said, as Jessie handed her a sheaf of papers.
“Yes, Lady Quate,” said Jessie. Helena scanned the papers, which contained a list of foodstuffs the kitchen wanted to purchase. Nothing seemed too out of the ordinary, though…
“Six baskets of eggs?” Helena asked, pointing at one line. “Are you quite sure?”
Helena sighed. “Tell Hardin I’ll speak with him in person in two hours.” If House Redwater was hiring that many mercenaries, there was a reason for it. It was most likely just that Andrew Redwater was going to use the threat of banditry in the area—itself a growing problem—as an excuse to hire swords and overthrow his mother. That was frustrating but inevitable, and Helena didn’t particularly care. But six different bands of mercenaries was far too many even for that. Either he didn’t realize bigger wasn’t always better, or Andrew Redwater was after something bigger than the lands he already stood to inherit.
“Yes, Lady Quate,” Jessie said again, retreating to kick Jocelyn out of the house.
Helena went to her private study, unlocked the door, and was mildly annoyed to see her son in there, using the mirror in the corner to do something to his face, of course. “Hector,” she said, wondering which secret passage he’d used to get in here, “you have mirrors in your room.”
Hector didn’t seem concerned at her presence. “Yeah, but they’re cloudy and yours isn’t. Do you think I have bushy eyebrows?”
“I do not.” She also hadn’t thought there was anything wrong with him the last several times he’d asked her questions like this.
“Okay.” He sighed, turning to face her. “Trent is still buying and selling a lot of shit to and from a lot of people. I’ve never met those people, and neither has anyone we like. He’s smuggling, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is,” Helena said, sitting down at her desk. “Would you do me a favour and find out what he’s smuggling?”
“Sure. Is this one of those things where you already know and you’re just testing my spying acumen?”
“It is not,” said Helena, scanning another report on her desk. Three ships had deserted from Kyaine’s royal navy and disappeared south. “I believe it’s poppies, but it may be a coincidence that more of their derivatives have started to appear in the city since he got here.”
“That’s kind of dangerous, right?”
“Yes, drugs derived from poppies are very addictive and can be very dangerous if too much are taken at once. Do you remember when you broke your leg?”
Hector scowled. “Yeah, vaguely.”
He’d been five and had fallen off a horse. “We gave you poppy wine for a few days because you were in so much pain. You very quickly developed a tolerance for it and kept wanting more. We had to stop giving it to you a week before the doctor told us to.”
Hector looked at the floor. “I don’t remember that.”
“I do.” It had been one of the more harrowing weeks of Helena’s life. “I’d like it if nobody else’s parents had to go through that.”
Hector headed for the door, nodding. “I’ll see what I can find out.”
“Thank you. Don’t pluck your eyebrows.”
“I think I will, but just a little bit.”
“It’s your face, but I suspect Boey likes it just fine as it is.” Just like he’d liked Hector’s hair before he’d cut it, and Hector’s nails before he’d painted them, and Hector’s feet before he’d started washing them in strange honey-scented soap.
“This is totally definitely not about Boey,” Hector said, very quickly. “God, Mom, not every decision I make is about my boyfriend, grow up.”
“If you insist,” Helena said, with a chuckle.
Hector was lingering in the doorway, biting his lip. After a second he said, “Um. I don’t want to have a big conversation about it right now or anything. But I think I’m going to start talking to some people about, you know.” He gestured at himself. “Fixing some other body parts. Not because of Boey,” he clarified, when Helena’s eyes asked that. “For real. Just, you know. In general.”
“Okay,” said Helena. Hector had been on the fence about major changes for a while. “They’re your body parts, do what you like with them. Let me know if you do want to talk about it.”
“I probably will, a bit,” Hector said. “Just not right now, I want to learn more about it first. I’m going to go now, though, I’m meeting Boey in a bit.”
Helena nodded. “Very well. Have a good afternoon.”
“I’ll see you at…” he paused. “Breakfast tomorrow.” He sounded embarrassed as he said it, as if Helena didn’t know that he and his boyfriend were having sex.
No spy had had to tell her that one. Hector wore everything on his face and could never conceal something that made him happy.
“Have a good night, then.”
Hector blushed, and left the room. He shut the door behind him, and it locked as soon as it was shut. Helena stood, and went over to the mirror. It was tall and ornate, carved with prancing animals in silver all around the frame. It had been a wedding gift.
She reached up to the top of the mirror, found a small carved frog, and turned it. The mirror went dark for a moment. Then a horned woman appeared in it. “You are late,” she accused.
“I apologize. My son was having a crisis.”
In the mirror, Mathilda nodded. She was seated in a chair at a round table. Helena pulled a chair of her own over to sit as well. “Yes, they do that well, in my experience. One of mine was just in here complaining because a chain broke on something in his hoard, as if it’s my responsibility to repair his possessions.”
“And yet you repaired it for him anyway, no doubt,” Helena guessed.
“Of course I didn’t, I showed him how to repair it himself. I hope your offspring’s concerns are equally as trivial.”
“Some of them are,” Helena said. “No doubt he’ll be in here tomorrow complaining that his eyebrows are too small, but that’s tomorrow’s problem. The team I sent to find the Map of Amker left this morning. It will take them a few weeks to arrive in Narwhal Junction, where they’ll meet one of my agents.”
Mathilda nodded. “You did hire Calvin and his people, yes?”
“I did,” Helena confirmed. “You were right, their reputations speak for themselves.”
“They robbed me.” Mathilda smiled. “And got away with it. What other credentials do they need?”
They needed a few credentials beyond that, but they had them. “I’m fully confident that they’ll recover the Map.”
“Good. I’ll make sure Ayrkanumone actually watches them. He’s been getting distracted lately.”
“That would be appreciated,” Helena said. “Maybe you could even convince him to report directly to me.” An imp that could cross the world in an instant would be very useful to Helena.
“He will report to me and I will convey the information to you,” Mathilda said with a nod.
Helena laughed. “It was worth a try.”
“It was not. I must go, my other son has just arrived and he looks like he, too, has complaints.”
“Of course,” Helena said, standing. “I’ll speak with you again, Mathilda.”
The mirror went dark, and Helena turned the frog back. She always wished she could speak longer with Mathilda, but neither of them had the time. She hardly had the time for anything these days. Looking at the clock in the corner, she reached down to the bottom and pressed a small bird. The mirror went dark again, and this time nobody appeared in it. “You’re late,” a man’s voice said.
“So I keep being told,” said Helena. “And as I keep telling you, if you want me to be on time, you must stop setting these meetings in the middle of the day. Can we not meet in the dark of night like respectable assassins?”
“You must not speak so freely.” That one was a woman. “You don’t know who might hear you.”
Helena knew exactly who could hear her. “I assure you I am in a secure room. Shall we proceed? I understand that we are discussing a new job brought before the guild.”
“Indeed.” This was a third voice. There were fifteen people in this meeting, and ostensibly none of them knew each other’s names. The current speaker was an older man named Vale, who lived in Bethel’s Frontier. “The Moon has rarely taken on a job of this magnitude. It may be beyond our reach.”
Helena listened to the meeting, taking careful note of the power struggle between the two factions of the guild’s leadership. She didn’t learn much about to whom the larger faction was so suddenly answering, which was frustrating. By the time she was done, Helena had a headache. The mirror went back to normal, and she returned to her desk. She had a few minutes before her meeting with Hardin, she thought.
Enough time to update the small book she kept in her drawer, locked and only able to be opened with her signet ring. Whoever was pulling the strings in the Moon was the same person pulling strings behind a number of other things, including King Stephan’s rescue, the mess in Ech’kent, and a dozen others. They’d also arranged the Empire finding out where the Map of Amker was, and led Jocelyn to Three Hills. Helena had no proof and she didn’t yet know what this person’s endgame was, but she was sure there was an endgame.
A few more notes about her mysterious enemy—anyone who pulled strings in Dolovai was either Helena’s employee or her enemy, and this person was not yet working for her—and she put her book back. She had her meeting with Hardin shortly, and then dinner with the king, and then another meeting in the mirror with Delia DiGann. She wouldn’t have time to continue piecing together the miniscule threads of this larger mystery until later.
But piece them together she would. Someday Helena would find out who she was dealing with, and she’d make them understand the mistake they’d made in crossing her.