Teo didn’t want to set foot in his homeland again. The political alliances that were arrayed against him as a child had shifted endlessly over the decades since he had last been in Inchesso, but he knew that there was one certainty he could rely on; people were going to hate him.
It wouldn’t be a personal hate. Not at first anyways. His years as an expatriate and his marriage into a Gallagrin noble family marked him as an outsider, and it was not in the Inchesso character to trust outsiders. At least not when it came to Inchesso nobles that is. Especially not the Inchesso nobles he was flying to met with.
“Do you speak their language?” Eorn asked. She had been silent for most of the trip, but the worry lines that creased her brow spoke volumes.
“I’m passable at the Traveller’s dialect,” Teo said. “I knew the Western Noble’s tongue when I was young, but I lost it years ago.”
“I don’t understand why Inchesso has so many languages,” Eorn said. “Gallagrin gets by just fine with one.”
“It makes it easier to hate each other when the Great Families can disagree on what basic words mean,” Teo said.
“Why waste their efforts on that?” Eorn asked. “Wouldn’t it make them more powerful if they worked together?”
“I’m not sure,” Teo said. “Perhaps you can ask that question to the Gallagrin nobles that our queen has locked up in her castle?”
“If Queen Alari was an Inchesso queen, the nobles would be locked up at the bottom of a river,” Eorn said.
“That’s the sort of tale other nations love to concoct about the Inchesso,” Teo said. “If the Inchesso nobles were as murderous as that though, nothing would ever get done.”
“I thought that’s what Inchesso’s problem was,” Eorn said. “It’s falling apart because nothing is done to care for it.”
“That’s how things appear, but Inchesso’s state is more complex than that,” Teo said. “Subterfuge is as much as part of courtly life as the air the nobles breath. There is value in appearing decayed and weak, both internally and to the other realms.”
“Appearing weak seems like an invitation for other nations to invade and destroy you at this point,” Eorn said.
“That is the general belief, and yet few serious attempts have been made to contest Inchesso’s sovereignty,” Teo said.
Below them the fens of western Inchesso faded into the cragged hills that surrounded Oloma, the capital city of the Lialarus family they were traveling to visit. It wouldn’t be long before their unannounced visit, potentially, became the worst diplomatic incident in either nation’s history.
“Gallgrin’s always had Paxmer to worry about hasn’t it?” Eorn said.
“Paxmer’s always been a concern but there were stretches of time where the two realms were peaceful enough that an assault on Inchesso could have been viable,” Teo said.
“What stopped that from happening?” Eorn asked.
“The consensus seems to be that everyone knows Inchesso is faking the amount of weakness and decay it’s afflicted with,” Teo said. “Hiding your strength is so common here that no one is able to get a good read on what sort of resources any of the families actually possess. The only constant is that whenever Inchesso’s defenses are seriously probed, the ones responsible suffer losses far in excess of any damage they inflict.”
“So none of the other realms are brave enough to engage Inchesso openly?” Eorn asked.
“Engaging Inchesso openly has never been a recipe for success,” Teo said. “Among the Inchesso elite, dealing plainly is the sign of an imbecile or a child. They place no value in a verbal agreement and will commit to written deals only with members of their own family.”
“How can a realm run like that?” Eorn asked.
“Much the same as any other,” Teo said. “Negotiations only work if both sides think they’re getting something they desire and the agreements last until one party or the other believes they can get a better deal elsewhere.”
“It seems like madness,” Eorn said, frowning but looking better for having something to take her mind off her other worries.
“It is,” Teo said, amused by the giant woman’s take on international politics. The Bromli family that Eorn hailed from was not one of the more cosmopolitan of Gallagrin’s noble houses, and apparently had few dealings abroad.
“Are we going to be able to negotiate with them?” Eorn asked. “If we can’t trust anything they say, how will we ever reach an agreement with them that has any substance?”
“You raise an excellent question,” Teo said. “It’s one I wish we could have raised with Queen Alari before she assigned this task to us.”
“You spoke with her in private after the general meeting,” Eorn said. “Didn’t she provide you with any further details to make this meeting a success?”
“The Queen is very trusting in my skills,” Teo said. “I have no idea why that would be the case though. I have never done anything like this in my life.”
“Why send you then? She had to give you some reason, didn’t she?”
“She said it was because she could trust me,” Teo said.
“Have you worked with her before?” Eorn asked.
“Only once, last fall, during the debacle with the Consort-King,” Teo said.
“Apparently you left an impression,” Eorn said. “I don’t understand why she didn’t send one of the castle’s ambassadors though? I mean there already are ones in residence in Inchesso aren’t there?”
“The current crop of ambassadors to Inchesso are long term appointees,” Teo said. “They’ve been there since King Sathe’s reign.”
“Why didn’t the Queen replace them?” Eorn said.
“Because they have experience in Inchesso which no one else possesses,” Teo said. “The result of which is that they’re more affiliated with Inchesso than they are with Paxmer these days. The Queen expressed her regrets over that but she’s had too many other important things on her agenda to fight that particular battle. At least until today.”
“Will one of the ambassadors be waiting for us when we land?” Eorn asked.
“No, there are none attached to the Lialarus family,” Teo said. “Which is one of the reasons we’re meeting with them.”
“How important of a family are they?” Eorn asked.
“They’re power has been waxing for several years now and was bolstered last year with the loss of one of their princes,” Teo said.
“How did that work?” Eorn asked.
“In reparation for the prince’s murder, the Queen sent the majority of the Consort-King’s body to the Lialarus family,” Teo said.
“How did sending a King’s corpse repay making their son into a corpse?” Eorn asked.
“Partially it was a matter of justice,” Teo said. “Halrek was ultimately one of the ones responsible for Prince Lorenzo’s murder. More importantly though, noble corpses are of tremendous value for a variety of rare and powerful alchemical extractions.”
“So they turned Halrek’s body into what then?” Eorn asked.
“That’s the delightful thing,” Teo said. “No one knows. They could have created all sorts of hideous brews but it’s an open question of which ones they chose to possess.”
“Does that make them our allies, or very dangerous associates?” Eorn asked.
“More the latter than the former,” Teo said. “By the end of our discussion they may even prove to be out enemies.”
“That would be unfortunate I take it?” Eorn said.
“On a wide variety of fronts, yes,” Teo said.
“So how are we going to make the right first impression?” Eorn asked.
“Patience,” Teo said. “They’ll want to go through hours of formal greetings and rituals. We’ll probably have to survive at least three meals in the process. In the end though, once they’ve confirmed that we’re legitimate ambassadors from Gallagrin and have a sense that we’ve come to treat with them on serious matters, we’ll be granted an audience with whatever members of the family’s Elites are in residence.”
“What do you mean by ‘survive three meals’?” Eorn asked.
“They’ll try to poison us,” Teo said. “It would be poor manners for them not to.”
“I thought you said Inchesso’s lethal reputation was overstated?” Eorn said.
“It is. The most likely poison they’ll administer will be a suggestibility draught,” Teo said. “Expect all of the wine they offer to be laced with it. The more effective psychoactive mixtures will be applied to the food, or misted into the air though.
“They violate the laws of hospitality so freely?” Eorn asked.
“From the Inchesso view, anyone who doesn’t expect to be poisoned when visiting strangers needs to be taught an object lesson. In attempting to poison us, they’ll be acknowledging that we hold enough power to be worth trying to weaken or suborn while at the same time bowing to the reality that we’re strong enough to defend ourselves,” Teo said. “Also the mixtures aren’t entirely harmful. The suggestibility draught for example is said to grant the imbiber the most restful sleep they can possibly achieve.”
“While that sounds nice, is it true that we’re strong enough to defend ourselves? I mean, you’re immune to poison because you’re a vampire, correct?” Eorn asked.
“I am, similar to how you are granted immunity through your Pact bond,” Teo said.
“Pact Knights are more resistant to poison than immune,” Eorn said. “Queen Alari made sure to impress that distinction on us when we became Guardians.”
“We being yourself and the thin young man you’ve spent the flight worrying about?” Teo asked.
“Undine can take care of himself,” Eorn said. “He’s overcome a lot already.”
“But you’re still worried about him,” Teo said. “I know the feeling. Ren’s more capable that he’s ever been and yet I keep envisioning how this could all go terribly wrong for him.”
Eorn joined Teo in a rueful frown.
“I just wish I could help him,” Eorn said.
“Take heart,” Teo said. “If things go as well as I expect them to, we’ll probably be the ones who are in need of help, so maybe they can come to our rescue.”
Eorn laughed at that.
“Oh Sleeping Gods, I can just imagine,” she said. “Undine would do the stupidest things.”
“Not the stupidest, those would be reserved for my Ren,” Teo said. “I swear since he got his Pact spirit, he’s been getting progressively more foolish.”
“It can be hard to resist trying out the spirit’s powers,” Eorn said. “I was a little undisciplined when I was first bonded too.”
“I understand the excitability of youth, but sadly I never got to enjoy the same kind of wild and uninhibited phase that Pact bearers go through,” Teo said.
“I thought vampires had all sorts of amazing powers?” Eorn asked.
“We do,” Teo said. “But since, in my case, those powers tax my strength and my strength comes from the blood of the one I love, I’ve never been inclined to use them with abandon.”
“Will you be able to protect yourself from the poison?” Eorn asked.
“Easily,” Teo said. “That’s barely even requires magic since my physiology is so different from my original human state. Most of the compounds that will harm, incapacitate or influence a human are essentially inert in my body. I can combat the ones that do pose a threat with little effort, unless of course they target vampiric blood directly. Encountering one of those would be problematic.”
“That would be a somewhat exotic thing for the Inchesso to have on hand wouldn’t it?” Eorn asked.
“Yes, the mixtures are somewhat exotic,” Teo said. “I would guess the Lialarus family wouldn’t be likely to have more than a few casks of the proper draughts on the premises at the moment.”
“A few casks?” Eorn asked.
“There aren’t many organized undead in Inchesso, but the blood ravaging poisons are useful against more than just vampires,” Teo said.
“So either or both of us could die here?” Eorn said, as the sky carriage they were traveling in began its descent towards the platform at the Lialarus family estate.
“That’s the most important thing to remember when working in Inchesso,” Teo said. “Even if you are sure that you’re safe, be aware that you’re not.”
“I feel like I should be in my armored form already,” Eorn said as they touched down with the gentle grace that only a royal issue carriage could manage.
“Oh there’s no need for that,” Teo said. “I’m speaking in broad strokes. While we’re with the Lialarus family, we should be as safe as we were in Gallagrin. The worst threat before us will be the tedium of all the flowery greetings and silly compliments.”
Inchesso guards opened the doors on both sides of the carriage, brandishing spears that gleamed with a reflective green oil that sizzled on their tips.
“Gallagrin intruders, you are under arrest in the name of the Eldest Lialarus. Surrender your arms and come quietly.”