4/20/1272 16:00 The Palace of Princess Okiku, Anbirujima, Moriyume
“She WHAT?!” Tselenah bellows.
“Contain yourself, Regent,” Princess Okiku says in sing-song Arghentian. “Your mother sent me an ethergram yesterday.” The young Princess waves one of her jet-black hands. A Moriyuman servant comes, bows, and without looking at the Princess, holds out her hands, palms facing the ceiling.
Okiku puts a slip of paper into the servant’s hand. The servant’s head bows. She then turns, takes a couple of small steps, and offers the note to Tselenah, again without meeting the Regent’s gaze.
I wonder if Her Holiness would consider trading the captives for one useless Arghentian Lawyer that you could torture and kill at your leisure?
Her anger on a low simmer, Tselenah looks up at the small, black-skinned, blonde-haired Princess who otherwise appears to be a fourteen-year-old girl. “How did Your Holiness reply?”
“I reminded her as I remind you that I hold your sailors and your brother and that Arghentia is in no position to be asking favors,” Okiku coldly replies.
“You haven’t even met my husband,” Tselenah snarls.
“How could I?” Okiku responds. “You did not invite me to your wedding. Not that I would have accepted, but it IS courtesy to ask.”
“You could have invited him to this meeting,” Tselenah says.
“I do not air the secrets of your kingdom or the Jasmine Throne to commoners,” Okiku replies. “Though given your press and your reputation, I can only feign surprise at your suggestion.”
“I didn’t come halfway across the globe to be insulted, Your Holiness,” Tselenah growls.
“No,” Okiku says. “You came to make the Jasmine Throne offerings to convince us to send your defeated military home rather than crucifying them to the last soul. I’m still waiting to hear those offers.”
“What is it you want?” Tselenah says.
Okiku pulls out a fan and fans herself, an insidious grin playing across her face. She stares at Tselenah with the golden eyes of a black cat.
“Where do I begin?” she slowly says. “Arghentia will, upon your return, cease all production of firearms, artillery, and military steam vessels. They will, instead, outsource the production of those commodities to the Jasmine Throne and its allies.”
Tselenah’s eyes go wide. “That’s…” she begins.
Okiku speeds up her fan. “Oh wait!” she says, elegantly holding up her free hand, her glorious hand-painted silk kimono sleeve trailing the graceful motion. “I forgot to lay out the framework.” Her hand goes back to her lap, and her pert glance turns into a menacing stare. “Every time you protest, or tell me no, or try to negotiate, the price of that insolence is the lives of ten of the hostages.”
“That, Your Holiness, would be an act of war,” Tselenah says.
“What did you think your fleet sailing towards Arklow or Alsae was?” Okiku says. “We are at war. I have hostages. I sunk your entire navy, even the civilian supply ships, and only lost one vessel. My ships outnumbered yours ten to one in this engagement. Deirdre can tell whatever domestic fairy tale she wishes. I am here to accept Arghentia’s unconditional surrender.”
Tselenah bows from her seated position, touching her forehead to the tatami mats. “I beseech Her Holiness for abeyance.”
Okiku gives the Regent an impatient smile. “Denied. If you give me an hour, the list of demands will only grow, and the number of surviving hostages will only shrink. You can hold the lottery bowl out to them. Would that give the Regent enough time to think?”
Tselenah’s eyes begin to blink rapidly. She wipes her sweaty palms on her gown. She first holds her breath and then gasps.
Her mind is a brush fire, running from one thought to the next, scraping for any advantage she might have. She begins to shake. Okiku sees Tselenah’s growing panic and smiles.
“Continue, Your Holiness,” Tselenah tries to say past the frog in her throat.
Okiku claps. “Tea for our guest!” she commands. Servants hurry in with a tea service. Green tea is perfectly frothed. The tea master places the cup in front of the Regent. She looks down, scanning her etiquette lessons for proper behavior. She picks up the tea bowl and examines it, feigning an artist’s eye. She finally takes a sip and sets the cup down in front of her.
“Better?” Okiku says.
Tselenah draws in a trembling breath, then slowly exhales. “Yes, Your Holiness,” she meekly says.
“You were saying?” Okiku says with a predatory smile.
“Please continue, Your Holiness,” Tselenah says.
Okiku does continue.
On every export product on which the two realms compete, she demands that Arghentia yield. She calls for a ten-year moratorium on Arghentian shipping past the FotheringayArchipelago, requiring that all Arghentian products bound for Penamharik be transferred there to Esokudo-allied shipping companies. She demands that the pirate ships of the Sarojyn, her mother’s clan, be allowed free docking at Arghentian ports and free passage through Arghentian seas. The escalating demands grow towards a crescendo, Okiku’s smile widening. A knock interrupts the symphony of misery.
“I said that I was not to be disturbed,” she shouts in Moriyuman.
“Forgive me, Your Holiness, but this is a matter of grave urgency!” the masculine voice from the other side of the door replies. Okiku recognizes the voice as that of the Anbirujima Magistrate.
Okiku turns to Tselenah and bows, but not very low. “My apologies, Your Highness,” she coos in Arghentian. “I will be just a moment. Please relax, and I will return.”
Tselenah hyperventilates. She mops the sweat from her brow. She’s about to sell her nation down the river to save the hostages. Hundreds of lives hang in the balance. She has no way out, and fear consumes her. Scribes scratch out the contract in both Moriyuman and Arghentian. The noise of their pens grates on the Regent. It’s all she can do not to weep.
It’s an hour before Okiku returns. She flings open the door, walks over her bureaucrat, quickly snatches the scrolls, and shouts at him to get out. She glares down at Tselenah. “You will speak to no one of this. And you will leave tomorrow morning with your damned prisoners and to eternal damnation as far I am concerned. Get out of my hall!”
Tselenah watches dumbfounded as Okiku tosses the scrolls into a fire pit burning in the courtyard behind them. Then, seeing the Regent’s confusion, the Magistrate enters the room, bows, and looks at her with sad, resigned eyes.
“Your Highness,” the Magistrate says in stumbling Arghentian. “Your husband was separated from your entourage during a shopping trip.”
“It’s his first trip abroad,” Tselenah smiles. “He has no sense of direction.”
“We found him,” the Magistrate says, looking nervous.
“Good!” she says, relief settling into her bones. “Is my husband in our room?”
“He is dead, Your Highness,” the Magistrate says. “Stabbed.”
Tselenah rubs her eyelids, shakes her head, and runs her hands through her wavy white hair. Then her mind connects the dots: Okiku’s rage, her mother’s telegram, the urging to speak of this to no one.