The table was long and every inch of it was covered with food, more food, and more kinds of food than King Joseph had ever heard of. He had never seen potatoes as small or as delicious as these, with that colour of skin. Or rice of that length. Lamb. He had never eaten lamb. He was king in his own land, but here he was beginning to feel like no more than a pauper.
The food was served on painted clay, he thought, but more polished than he’d ever seen. Glazed and shiny, with gilded edges. When he thought no one was looking, he ran a finger over the edge of his plate.
Slaves laid the table and served the food. They had come from countries Rook was at war with, or had conquered. Some of them were women, covered head to toe in brilliant silks, translucent fabric masking their eyes. They wore soft gloves and slippers. Joseph wondered if assassins had ever tried to disguise themselves thusly.
When they had been brought in, King Galbert had offered General Beatrice a plate of the finest food his kitchens knew how to make. “The very same dishes,” he explained, “on the very same plates.” But in the women’s room, not at the long table.
So instead she stood at Joseph’s rear and left, arms crossed and back straight, her ferocious scowl hidden under her scarf. He imagined she must be hungry from their long journey, but dared not mention it to her.
It was not often Joseph got to eat food of this calibre, so he dug right in as soon as it seemed appropriate. Certainly manners didn’t seem to matter all that much to the other king, who had been reaching for dishes the moment they arrived, pawing portions out onto his plate, stuffing meat in his mouth with one hand and cradling a jug of wine with the other.
He talked as he ate, through a full mouth, belabouring each detail of the meal as though he’d killed the lamb and picked the rice himself. “You’ve never tasted a grape as red as this, I can tell. They grow it in the south of Yordan, where my grandfather conquered fifty years ago. The potatoes are a delicacy of the little people of Sandland. And the olives and dates, my friend, are from the old cursed country far away where they say nothing but these may grow. All lands my armies have marched to. All lands of the Empire.”
He went on in this way. Sketching a map of his dominion in the dinner before them. Joseph was actually impressed, despite himself.
He ate his fill. More than his fill. He tried to go easy on the wine, but the food he gorged himself on. The sweetest fruits and most succulent meats of his life. And the King of Rook smiled at him.
“Eat, my friend.”
Joseph wanted to think that they were friends. More than that. If they could be friends, maybe their two countries could as well. Was that possible? To boil down the relationship between two countries until it mirrored a relationship between two people? There were so many differences. And yet, perhaps, they could co-exist. He thought, it should be easy. To live in peace. If we can sit at a table and smile at one another, anyone can. What possesses anyone to take up a sword instead of a fork?
He realized he was a pacifist. Violence had never made any sense to him, but he’d never really thought of it in just that way until he was seated across from someone who had benefited so much from war. He glanced at Beatrice. Not a warmonger, but a soldier. It had not occurred to him to talk about war and peace when he was running for king; he had not fully explained his stance on the matter. And now Solon had a pacifist for a king, whether they knew it or not.
Do they know who I am? Do they know what they got when they elected me?
As the meal wrapped up and the two kings sat back loosening their belts, Galbert hollered across the table at him: “I must present my gift to you, King Joseph.” And he leered. “Something I think you will cherish. I know your people will.” And now more sombrely, “Something I hope you will love.”
He clapped his hands, grinning, all sobriety gone. He stood up out of his chair and posed behind it looking to a side door. Slaves drew open the heavy double doors and a woman stepped through from outside. Joseph was still slouching, vaguely drunk, with his wine in hand. He was not sure what was happening.
The woman who had entered was clad entirely in blue satin. No single part of her body was visible. As she moved the material rippled and changed color, showing purples and reds. She stepped forward and King Galbert took her gloved hand gently. She bowed her head and the two of them faced King Joseph. She was about shoulder height on the king and very slight of build. That was all Joseph could tell about her appearance.
“Allow me to introduce my eldest daughter, Fina,” said King Galbert.
Joseph blinked. He set down his goblet of wine.
“Nice to meet ya.”
From behind, Beatrice coughed.
Father and daughter looked at one another. Then Galbert went on. “Yours is a faraway nation. Our paths have not crossed. Our desires have not clashed. We have peace, and I hope to have peace forevermore.”
He drew his daughter closer and began to make his way down the table to Joseph, putting her arm in the crook of his elbow. The woman moved timidly, but what she thought or where she looked was impossible to say.
“But that peace may be short lived,” Galbert said importantly. “For at our southernmost borders, the Kingdom of Kant grows restless and jostles the swords in the scabbard. And that evil king and his evil sons crave nothing more than to rule the whole Scar.”
He was just before Joseph now, looking down at him. “You know they will come for me, and then they will come for you. They are not godly men. There is no injustice or torture they fear to commit.” He smiled and turned to his daughter, putting a hand on her shoulder. She seemed too nervous or embarrassed to move. Joseph still had not figured out what was happening.
“For the same of your country and mine, let us join our forces. Let us join our families.”
And with that he nodded, and Fina swiftly knelt on the floor. First one knee, then the other, then both hands. Then she pressed her satin forehead worshipfully to the stones.
For a long time Joseph did nothing. Then he slowly sipped wine.
King Galbert explained, “I offer her to you.”
“Ah. I see.”
There was a long moment of hesitation. Galbert began to turn red. Joseph thought about it. His mind should have been whirling, but it moved sluggishly as he tried to work out what was going on. Beatrice coughed again.
Joseph said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Galbert glared sharply at him. On the floor, Fina seemed to shrink into herself.
“You refuse?” Galbert barked. “On what grounds do you dare to refuse such a—”
Joseph stood and knocked his chair over in his haste to appear apologetic. His hands lifted automatically, sycophantically. But with the girl knelt before him, and the other king up close, he realized that he was actually the tallest among them. And there was wine in his body and for a moment he remembered who he was when making speeches, when talking to supporters, to subjects. With Galbert angrily a foot before him, he finally found himself, paradoxically, in charge.
“My friend,” Joseph said, smiling. He leaned in and put a hand on Galbert’s shoulder. “My lady. I did not mean to offend. Far from it. I am unworthy for such a one as you.”
Galbert cocked an eyebrow.
“No, really. I am,” Joseph said. He was losing his train of thought. “Uh. Uh, allow me to explain. Solon is a republic. I was elected King.”
Galbert looked at him uncomprehending.
“Uh. By vote. I ran in a campaign. Uh, canvassed. Then they voted. The people. And I, uh, became King.”
“Yes,” said Galbert suspiciously. “King.”
“So, um,” said Joseph, gesticulating. Seeking his words. “My father. He was not a king.”
Galbert stiffened. He looked mortified.
“And my children. They won’t be kings or queens either. Unless they decide to run as well.” He laughed at his little joke.
Galbert relaxed. “Then they will run,” he said dismissively. “And may they run as hard and fast as stallions. Come now, my offer stands.”
“Well, I mean there’s no guarantee that they would run—would try to be, uh, elected,” Joseph stammered. “Besides, the people decide, in the end. And I’m only King for another four years anyway.”
Galbert looked like Joseph had punched him in the face.
“Four years? What then?”
“Then my term is up and they elect someone else.”
After a moment, the other King was seized by an uncontrollable fit of laughter. “King for four years!” he shouted around to his slaves. “And I have him to my table, and offer him my daughter.” There was a nervous burbling of laughter from the slaves. “More the fool I.”
Galbert reached for his daughter’s hand and pulled her to her feet. Her face downcast, stare invisible, but embarrassment obvious. Galbert stared hard at Joseph.
“So your country is odd. Your government is archaic and backwards,” he said. “It is no matter. Nations change. Governments come and go. You need but speak your dissatisfaction and I can make you the King you deserve to be, and make your dynasty last till all ages end and the End Times come. No favour would be too great for the husband of my eldest daughter.”
Joseph did not know what to say to that. Control of the conversation was firmly back in Galbert’s hands.
“Think on that, King Joseph,” said Galbert, retreating with his daughter through the side door. “And sleep well, to keep your wits for our next meeting.”
Later that night he and General Beatrice stood on the parapet overlooking the city. The cool night breeze tugged at them. She stood with her arms crossed, back to the view, and he gazed out, slumped upon the wall. Below, the points of light stretched out to the black walls around them. A white moon illuminating the fields and desert around.
“That was a disaster,” Joseph said.
“It could have been worse, my King. An offer of marriage is no light matter. Even if it isn’t the way we do things.”
He looked at her plaintively. “We need them. We need this alliance. But what is he after? Why so welcoming? Why his daughter?”
She considered for a moment. “Did you see his reaction when you gave him the computer?”
“A little too sly. Maybe bringing such a good piece was a bad idea.”
She nodded. “He knows about the Find.”
Joseph looked back at the city with a long sigh. “You think so?”
“It was only a matter of time. Their spies are everywhere, my King. They don’t want friendship. They want what we have. They want the magic of the ancients, my King.”
After a mournful pause, Joseph said: “You can just call me Joe.”
“I cannot, my King.”
“Why not?” He looked at her.
A long moment’s deliberation. “Because then you would be King Joe.”
Joseph shrugged. He was about to say something, but Beatrice snorted. By the time he looked at her, her face was completely straight.
He said, “Are you laughing at my name?”
“No, my King.”
“King Joe,” he said. “King Joe Sweet.”
The corner of her mouth turned up slightly, but she reined it in and crossed her arms so tight that something popped in her elbow.
“It’s not grand, I admit. It’s not ‘Galbert Hammerfist,’” he went on.
This time the other corner of her mouth turned up and got away from her before she could catch it. But she did catch it. And went back to frowning. “If you’ll excuse me, my King, it’s a long day tomorrow.” She bowed to him and left, never uncrossing her arms. She still hadn’t eaten, he realized.
He pushed his glasses up on his nose and shook his head wryly down at the city below him. Then he went inside to get some rest.