The young dwarf stands there, hands on her hips and a determined look on her face as we stare at her in shock. She is fifteen, maybe sixteen at most. Marriageable age, but only barely.
“Ludgera,” Yaluda begins, “This isn’t what it looks like–”
“Oh don’t you dare try to pull that lie on me!” she shouts “You’re plotting treason with these elves! You want to kill the king! I overheard everything ever since you passed by the kitchens with that dwarf,” she points at me “so let’s just skip all the nonsense and let me help! In return though, you have to help me too, got it!” The way she says the question makes it feel more like a threat.
Yaluda and Blix are clearly in shock by her announcement, and the two elves obviously aren’t going to step up to take the lead on this one. Faladel is looking at Yaluda, waiting for him to do something, and Briareth is too busy drinking his now-slightly-cooler tea as if nothing weird just happened.
“Why should we let you in on this?” I ask her, deciding to shoulder the responsibility.
“Because if you don’t I’ll go tell everyone else what you’re planning.” Ludgera says staunchly. “I’ll tell my parents, the guards, the other nobility, anyone who will listen. I’m sure plenty of people would love to hear all about your planned coup.”
“True.” I say calmly, as if talking to a child. “But what’s to stop us from killing you here and now? You know you’re heavily outnumbered, and– unless you’re hiding an armory under your petticoats–” I gesture to her huge bell-shaped skirts “out-armed too.”
“You–” She stutters, less sure of herself now “You wouldn’t do that. The elf Prince– you called him Faladel–” she glances at the two elves, probably trying to figure out which is the prince, “doesn’t condone murder. Not even of a sworn enemy of his like the dwarf King, so definitely not of a pretty young dwarf like me who hasn’t done anything yet.” I mentally groan, I’d forgotten Briareth had mentioned that.
“Gotta admire her self-confidence.” The guilty elf claims.
Faladel chuckles and puts his teacup down carefully on his saucer. “True, he wouldn’t condone murder. But I don’t think the prince would have any problem with locking the offender up for an unspecified amount of time.”
“Excellent idea!” Briareth snaps his fingers and grins. Ludgera glares at the both of them, and I kinda agree with her. They’re taking this wayyy too lightly. I mean Briareth at least I can understand. Not taking things seriously is part of his personality. But Faladel? The only thing I can think of is that he’s amused that she’s using his reluctance to kill against us.
“If you try to lock me up.” Ludgera responds “I’d escape, or I’d howl for help till someone overhears me, and even if neither of those work, people will come looking for me.” Her confidence is apparently fully regained now that there’s no immediate threat of death.
“True that.” Yaluda mutters angrily. At my questioning look he elaborates. “This young lady, Ludgera Tirade, is a terrible combination of clever and an absolute brat. If we refuse her and lock her up somewhere, she’ll still manage to sabotage us.”
“Although I like being called clever, I resent the fact that you paired it with Brat. I prefer to be known as determined.” Ludgera says, flipping her hair.
“Just curious,” Faladel says, “But what’s your motive for doing this? Since you’re so willing to turn us over, it can’t be because you believe in our cause.”
Ludgera stares at him, confused for a few seconds, and then light dawns in her eyes. “Oh! To stop the war! Duh, I should have realized that’s why you allied with each other. Of course that’s not my goal! It probably doesn’t have a chance of succeeding, too many people are against it. What I want is to make a mark. To be remembered. You all, being boys, won’t get it, but this is my once chance to do something that will matter. It could be anything, helping you or hindering you– I really don’t care.”
“If that’s your goal, then why are you asking for our help?” Faladel says calmly. “Seems to me that your goal will happen just as a side effect from working with us.”
“Well, I’m not dumb, I’m not going to do all this for no material gain.” Ludgera snorts in a very unladylike manner. “But bringing my family up in the world is more of a bonus than a motive.” Faladel stares at her, his eyes doing that whole ‘I’m staring into your soul’ thing again. Ludgera fidgets, unnerved.
“I–’ she stutters, sensing all the continued skepticism and hostility around her. “I don’t come to the table alone.” She continues, slowly regaining a bit of her confidence. It’s clear she rehearsed some of these lines. “I have information –valuable information –that will definitely help you.”
“What sort of information?” Briareth asks, taking the bait.
Ludgera walks over, lays both hands on the table, and stares directly into Yaluda’s eyes. He stares back grimly as she announces “You need to take the High Priest down a few pegs, right? So he doesn’t dare attack you?” She doesn’t wait for him to respond before she continues. “I have blackmail material on him. Stuff that would get him thrown in jail, even by a court full of priests.”
Despite their staring contest, it’s Blix, not Yaluda who replies. Leaning forward, he queries “What sort of blackmail material do you have that could do that? Where’s your evidence?”
Ludgera, never taking her eyes off Yaluda says, “I’m not telling you anything more until you agree to my terms. You’re just going to have to trust me that it exists, like I’ll trust you to keep your promise after you become king with my help.”
Yaluda and Ludgera continue staring at each other for ages. I can guess what’s going on in his mind. He’s predicting, judging, trying to figure out if the risk of taking her into our little team is worth the potential reward of the information she may or may not hold. I can tell the exact moment he decides, but he keeps her waiting, desperate to learn if her play worked or not just a few seconds longer. Out of spite I think. He’s not the type to enjoy getting his hand forced like this, especially by someone over twenty years his junior.
“Alright.” He eventually concedes “We’ll take you up on your offer.” Before the second part of the proclamation has even passed his lips, Ludgera collapses into an open chair at the table, visibly relaxing.
“Thank goodness.” She mumbles, and then, to Faladel. “Got anymore of that tea left? I could really use a cup.”
“Once you tell us exactly what your terms are.” Yaluda adds on. “What do you mean by bringing your family up in the world?”
“Simple enough,” Ludgera says, watching as Faladel goes to put another kettle of tea over the fire. “You know my family is looked down upon because we fell on hard times, and now have to make our money through trade. I personally have always enjoyed that sector of our family. Instead of it being our embarrassment, I want to make it our pride. I want you to lay your full support behind our expansion. Give us a lower tax rate, and allow us– if this whole peace thing of yours works out –to have full rights over exports to elvish territories and” she hesitates and I can almost see her mind racing “control the market imports for the first decade.”
Faladel raises a hand over from his position by the teapot and butts in “What exactly would that mean for the elven traders, when your family has control over imports?”
“It means,” Ludgera says, “That elves will only sell to my family, and if they wish to come in and do business here in person, they agree to not sell for” again, she hesitates, trying to calculate something. “Anything less than ninety percent of the price we’re selling the same goods at.”
“Ninety-five percent on the bigger items.” She adds on, almost as an afterthought.
Faladel chuckles. “This is brilliant! You’re trying to create a monopoly!”
“We can work out how high of a markup my family will sell at and how much of that will go to elven merchants later.” Ludgera says “Assuming the peace project goes as planned of course. I give you my word that our family will not misuse this privilege–” She smiles “–too much. I believe this venture can be very profitable for all of us.”
Faladel practically beams at her. “Especially if such an enterprising young lady is in charge of it.”
Ludgera flushes, proud to have gained his approval, but suddenly her smile vanishes and her shoulders droop. “Unfortunately, that duty will be on my younger brother’s shoulders.” She admits. “My parents were progressive enough to teach me how to conduct trade, but even they’d balk at the idea of me in charge of anything.”
“Ahh… I’d briefly forgotten how backwards dwarven culture is on such matters.” Faladel blinks rapidly. “I apologize.” I’m pretty sure the elf prince is embarrassed at such a blunder. That at least would explain his sudden formality and awkwardness as he goes about carefully taking the tea off the fire and serving Ludgera some.
“I mean, if you’re really interested in running your own business.” Briareth chimes in, pushing his cup and saucer towards Faladel for another refill, “you could always come over to Elven territories. You’d probably have to start from scratch and there’d be severe competition but–” He stops, and stares at Ludgera who’s coughing and gasping, choking on her tea. “Are you okay?” he asks.
“Fine.” She gasps between coughs, “I’m fine.” Once she’d fully regained use of her vocal cords she says “Let me get this straight. Tea boy–” Faladel chuckles softly at his new moniker, but doesn’t protest it, “–suggested it, and you’re outright saying that women elves can start and own businesses.”
“Yep.” Briareth confirms. I already knew this, but three pairs of eyes in this room goggle at him.
“They can also lead noble families,” Briareth says, ticing it off on his fingers “attend school as long as they are financially able, serve in the military, oh, and vote. I’m not going to explain the last one.” He says, staring at his four fingers, ”That would get too complicated. But basically, if you want to visit and or live in elven territories, throw all assumptions about society and culture out the window because you’re going to have to relearn a lot of it.”
“Look at you,” Faladel snorts, “Just extending invitations to Elven territory without even consulting me.”
“Well,” Briareth stutters for a second and I chuckle at how easily Faladel can leave him scrambling for a retort. “You obviously approved of her, and you invited Balderk, so I thought…”
“Ahh, dangerous thing, thinking, Briareth.” Faladel says, “The reason I invited Balderk is because I already knew I wanted to create a foreign student exchange program and had talked with my Father about it beforehand. Once I realized dwarves have their own versions of magic, the obvious next step would be to extend the foreign exchange program to include magic schools as well.” Faladel offers the rest of us tea as well, but I opt for beer instead.
Ludgera looks totally flabbergasted, so does Blix and even Yaluda looks mildly confused.
“So am I invited or not tea boy– I mean Your Highness?” Ludgera asks finally.
“Invited as a student, certainly. But for anything more I’d have to consult with my Father, and unfortunately I can’t do that right now.” Faladel says gently, sipping his tea delicately.
“Oh! One more thing you should know about elves before you make any more decisions about moving or working in Elven territories.” Briareth adds on, ticking his last finger. “Yaluda and Balderk already kinda know this and I don’t know about Smediga–”
“Call me Blix.” Smedigan interjects.
“Got it, Blix– if Blix knows anything about it but pretty much anyone –whether you chose to go to school or start your own business, will have decades, if not centuries of experience on you.”
“Centuries?!” Ludgera asks, “How is that even possible?”
“Immortality,” Faladel answers. “The oldest student I’ve ever met was 200-something.”
“238,” Briareth clarifies. “Adamar was 238, so he’d be about 240 now.”
Even Yaluda’s eyes bug out a little at that number.
“What is he still doing in school?” I ask. “What could he possibly have left to learn after 200 years of study?”
“Eh, apparently he was a late bloomer magic wise, I didn’t press for details. Seemed like a rather sore spot for him.” Briareth says.
“That’s… More than a little bit intimidating.” Ludgera admits.
“It’s not normally that diverse, most schools don’t have over a fifty-year age gap in each year of schooling.” Faladel says, trying to be reassuring.
“Is…” Ludgera hesitates. “Is there any way I could become immortal too?” Out of the corner of my eye I watch Yaluda and Blix sit up strater and exchange intrigued glances. I share my own glance with Faladel and Briareth, remembering what the crazy librarian told us. At one point elves hadn’t been immortal. They became immortal through magic, therefore it was possible but–
“Yes. Maybe.” Briareth says, “At one point we did have that knowledge, but everyone who would know of it kinda died. We don’t know if any written records survived.”
“Wait,” Blix breaks in, “If you’re ‘immortal,’ how did they all die?”
“War. Apparently your ancestors ransacked our old capital and killed them all. They were probably in a meeting or something, otherwise surely one of them would have escaped. All we know is that they were all in the city when it got pretty much wiped out.” Briareth says flatly. “Now that’s not to say we can’t recreate the magic. It would just be very long and difficult and probably require a few test subjects, and seeing how Balderk first reacted to our magic, it might be difficult to convince dwarves to volunteer to test any solution or spell.”
After that, Briareth and Faladel have to explain the difference of magic verses sorcery to an entirely new group. Briareth is absolutely delighted to retell how I first reacted, over exaggerating so much that I felt the need to take over, less my pride be entirely extinguished.
After that we sit quietly drinking the last dregs of the tea. I think the others need some time to process everything Faladel and Briareth just dumped on them. I can sympathize, it was a lot for me at first too. Yaluda is the first to shake himself out of it.
“If a monopoly on trade is all you want in return, that should be easy enough.” He says to Ludgera, bringing us all back to what this conversation was originally supposed to be about.
“That’s not all.” She says, looking up from her teacup. “I also want you to let my boyfriend in on this.”
“Come again?” Yaluda asks.
“From what I remember, you aren’t currently being courted, right?” Blix says, frowning.
“Not officially,” Ludgera confirms. “It’s a love match. His parents wouldn’t approve because of my social standing.”
“The reason you’re doing this.” Faladel says, putting two and two together. “You don’t want your house to become more powerful for your brother’s sake, you want society to see you two as an acceptable match.”
“Yes,” Ludgera simply confirms.
“What’s his name?” Asks Yaluda.
“See this is the part where things get difficult.” Ludgera sighs. “I overheard you earlier, so I know you won’t react well to this, but–”
“A name.” Blix demands, cutting to the point.
“Agnark Yamat.” Ludgera says glumly.
“Are you insane!” Yaluda exclaims, voice rising to a shout “There is no way I’m letting the heir to the Yamat house– whose father is plotting to kill me—!”
“I know you wouldn’t like it!” Ludgera interrupts loudly. “That’s why I hesitated to tell you. But I can’t keep something so big a secret from him. Not when it affects our future. We either come as a pair, or I go and tell his dad what you’re up to.” That shuts Yaluda up real quick, but his golden eyes burn with suppressed fury, an expression that still is somehow beautiful, even though it promises violence.
“He can be useful!” Ludgera is practically begging now. “He’s loyal, to me at least, more loyal than he is to his family. If I tell him it’s for us, he can become a double agent within the Yamat household.”
“And what if he’s not loyal?” Yaluda’s voice is grating.
“He is loyal!” Ludgera insists. “He’s kept us a secret from his parents for three years now.”
“Are you completely certain of that?” Blix asks sternly.
“Dead certain!” Ludgera replies. “They’d never let him sneak out to meet with a Tirade, they’d die from apoplexy if they thought anything close to that was happening to their heir. They’re so arrogant and annoying! They think of him more as an object than as a real person with feelings and opinions!” Ludgera continues, desperate in the face of Yaluda’s grim expression.
“We could always use another spy…” Blix says, turning to look at Yaluda. “Especially one so close to Lord Yamat. Imagine the possibilities, Yaluda.”
“I am.” Yaluda says coldly. “Especially the ones where he gets cold feet and runs back to his daddy.”
“I’ll take full responsibility for his actions.” Ludgera throws in. “If he does something wrong, you can imprison me or whatever. I’ll cooperate, I won’t attempt to sabotage you. Just consider him an extension of me. If he puts a toe out of line, you don’t even have to keep the promises you make me.” She glances at the elves, who are both still silent, letting us figure this out on our own. Then she glances towards me next. My gaze meets hers, and then I quickly look away. Why would she look at me? Yaluda is the one she needs to convince. I shift uncomfortably and glance up at her again. Her eyes sparkle with desperation and unshed tears. She’s already half-way given up. Yaluda just won’t bend on this matter, and she can’t either.
I almost sympathize with her on this one, and I can definitely respect her choice. Honesty is vital in a relationship, it makes sense she would want her boyfriend in on this. Unfortunately for her, Yaluda can’t risk bringing in a Yamat–”
“Fine.” Yaluda cuts in on my thoughts. Every eye in the room, including both my own, turn to stare at him, completely shocked. His face twitches slightly before he elaborates. “It’s not like you leave me much choice at this point. But if either of you puts a toe out of line, I will destroy both your family and your relationship if it’s the last thing I do.” I gulp. He’s dead serious.
The room is completely silent for half-a-second while we all just process Yaluda’s choice then “Thank you! You won’t regret this! I promise!” Ludgera exclaims, but only I seem to notice.
“Yaluda?” Blix asks at the same time, even more confused than I am.
“She said she’d go to his parents. If I reject him, I reject her, she made that clear.” Yaluda says, and lifts his tea mug hiding his lips, “As I said, I don’t really have a choice.”
Meanwhile Faladel murmurs, “Interesting. I wasn’t expecting him to make that decision.”
“Yeah, I really thought this would end up in a fight.” Briareth says, seemingly almost disappointed. “And here I was all ready to leap across the table with my knife to prevent her escape.”
Faladel chokes on his tea for a few seconds and twists to stare at Briareth, who’s sitting innocently next to him. Faladel quickly relaxes. “Really Briareth? Put that back in the butter, where it belongs.”
“Got you!” Briareth cheers, his serious face twisting into a grin. “But seriously, I could’ve used it if it was necessary.” I hadn’t even noticed the butter knife was missing. When did Briareth snitch it?
Faladel sighs tiredly. He looks like an overworked babysitter. “I’m sure you could’ve. But you shouldn’t now that we’re all allies, so put it back please.”
Briareth nods, and leans forward, putting it back. At the questioning look Blix and Ludgera shoot him, he shrugs. “It was just a precaution.”
“That’s blunt, it wouldn’t have done much.” Ludgera says. Briareth grins savagely and I wince. Wrong comment.
“Not to kill maybe, but blunt objects are far better for inflicting pain. Would you like to hear the list of the 23 ways I was considering using it?” Ludgera looks frightened and a little sick to her stomach. I hope he’s joking, but I can’t be sure. I mean, according to Faladel and himself he’s quite skilled, and 23 ways to use a butter knife feels up his alley. But he has to be kidding right? I mean, just earlier he was inviting her to Elven territories and less than a minute later he’s considering torture?
“Unless that list only includes 23 different ways of buttering bread,” Faladel cuts in, shutting him down. “I think we’re good.”
After that, Briareth settles down a bit and we all get to work. Yaluda hashes out a few more details with Ludgera, With Blix, Briareth, Faladel and I occasionally chiming in with ideas, opinions and suggestions.
A few hours later, there is a written agreement signed by the both of them, with Faladel and I written in as witnesses. I feel honored, I thought Yaluda would chose Blix as a witness, but instead he picked me. Ludgera picked Faladel, probably since he’s been the nicest one to her so far. It is agreed that she’ll come by with Agnark Yamat, her boyfriend, in a few days time. With him there, she’ll give us the blackmail, both the verbal summary and the proof of its authenticity. Then she leaves, much more quietly than she entered.
Once she’s gone, Yaluda slouches in his seat, elbows on the table, head concealed by his hands. “How did she even find us?! This is a disaster!” He moans.
“She probably followed you two back from the castle.” Blix says, patting Yaluda on the back. “I apologize for leaving the door unguarded, I should have called the previous soldier back when I followed you inside. I made a mistake, but it won’t happen again.”
“Look on the bright side,” I add, “Doesn’t this mean we can stop the High Priest and the Yamat family from interfering?”
“Yeah, if anyone tries to misbehave, release the blackmail on the High Priest and threaten to kill the Yamat heir dude.” Briareth says. “I, for one, think we’re in a better position than we started out from!” Faladel looks a little scandalized at his bluntness, but Yaluda seems to take the suggestion seriously.
“It’s a good idea, but who knows if it will work. We still don’t know what that blackmail even is, much less where Ludgera Tirade, of all people, managed to get her hands on it!” Yaluda sighs.
“It doesn’t matter where or how she got the information, as long as it’s true and her proof is as good as she thinks it is.” Blix says calmly reading the situation. “She has no reason to betray us, now that she has not just one but three things riding on our success. Her future, the Yamat heir’s future, and the future of her family are all at risk now, because if we go down and get questioned, you made it quite clear you’ll bring them all down too. She wouldn’t be dumb enough to risk it all. And if the boy she loves is as in love with her as she claims, he won’t dare do anything either.”
Yaluda doesn’t say anything, but he and Blix exchange stares that speak a lot. Yaluda’s is tired, Blix’s reassuring.
Eventually, their gazes break, and Yaluda straightens up, glancing my direction and smiling at me. My stomach swooshes uncomfortably. “Blix and I should get going. I’m expected at a state dinner my father is holding. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Have a nice evening.” Faladel offers.
“Fat chance.” Briareth says, “Good luck staying awake!” Blix actually chuckles at that.
“Good bye.” I say slightly lamely.
“Good bye.” Yaluda responds, waving as he heads out the door.
“One of the PPG members will bring you supper in a while.” Blix turns around as he reaches the door. “Hopefully, when he reports back, it will be with news that nothing out of the ordinary has happened. I don’t want to hear of any more broken teacups, rugs set on fire, or escape attempts when I get back.”
“Don’t worry! You won’t hear about them this time!” Briareth calls out as he shuts the door.
“What exactly happened with you guys while I was gone?” I ask, more to Faladel than to Briareth. The elf Prince looks like he’s about to answer, but Briareth beats him to it.
“No Balderk, the real question is, what happened with you while you were gone? Am I to understand that you snuck out and spent hours alone with Yaluda?”
“I spent maybe the last thirty minutes with him! The rest of it I was out spying.” I protest.
“And? What did you talk about?” Briareth presses teasingly. “Come on, Balderk, spill the tea!” I take a teacup from the table and start to lift it. “Not literally!” Briareth hastily adds.
“Pfft!” Faladel lets out as I put the teacup down slowly. “Leave him alone Briareth,” he adds. “The poor dwarf has enough on his plate without you messing with his head. Besides, this boyfriend joke is getting old.”
Thank heavens one of the elves is sensible I think to myself, ears burning as I help Faladel put all the tea supplies back onto a tray.
“Well…” Briareth says, “It did start out as a joke, Faladel, but now I’m almost serious. I swear, our dear friend Balderk here is catching feelings. Look at his ears!”
At his comment the heat spreads all the way around the back of my neck as well.
“Blushing does not equate crushing!” Faladel retorts.
“I’m not blushing!” I protest. “It’s just a little hot in here. Besides Briareth, although Prince Yaluda and I have gotten closer, it isn’t nearly as romantic as you suspect. And even if it were, he’s heir to the throne. No matter how you elves think things are done, he’ll need to have heirs someday, and even if he and I were–” The heat spreads to my cheeks as I try to find a delicate way to say it “–romantically inclined, I would never biologically be able to provide that. You always trying to pry into my personal relationships and set me up with someone I appreciate and respect as a friend is really getting annoying. Yes I like Yaluda. I value his honesty, I enjoy his companionship, and I don’t ever want to lose that. Especially not by making things awkward because he thinks I have feelings for him beyond friendship.” My face is in flames as I finish, and it only reddens more as some part of me adds on internally “especially if he isn’t attracted to guys.” I bury my face in my hands and groan, imagining for a few seconds actually having romantic intentions towards Yaluda and trying to confess to him and having him turn me down because of that. Stupid Briareth for putting these ideas in my head in the first place.
“Oh.” Is Briareth’s only response. He’s probably surprised by my outburst.
“Well said Balderk.” Faladel chimes in approvingly. I thump my head– still covered by my hands– on the table. He might be proud of me, but I’m not. That was so embarrassing. Just considering those thoughts, just thinking about it, it’s too much.
“Uhh… Sorry, if I came on strong.” Briareth mumbles. “I guess I– well, I guess I didn’t think about how you would feel if the prince walked in on me teasing you.” He hesitates. “I– um… I won’t ask about it again, if it really makes you uncomfortable.” He offers. I nod into my hands still not looking at him. “Uh…” Briareth says, obviously feeling something is lacking from his response to my outburst, but not quite sure what to add. “Yeah. Sorry.” he eventually finishes. I nod again. I don’t think I’m capable of a verbal response right now. Much less one that will require me to meet his eyes. But I do forgive him, especially if he keeps his promise not to tease me again.