“You should keep your best friends close by / But keep your enemies closer / But keep your enemies closer.”
~ Example, Close Enemies
Ambassador Mose Ruict was pleased with the way his mansion had been designed. The theme was essentially Roman – though only a handful of his guests knew that – and he was aiming to make his party as mocking as possible. All the servants were being paid over double their regular wages – and for good purpose. There were no toilets in the building. There was a large table surrounded by plush long couches for people to eat, lay or sit on. There was no cutlery, instead there were feathers. That’s right, feathers.
Ancient Roman practices:
People didn’t eat with cutlery, they ate with their hands.
It was rude to leave one’s seat to use the restroom when at the dinner table, so people would be going to the toilet in clay pots that would be brought by the servants.
It was equally rude to stop eating because one is ‘full’, and therefore – people would use feathers to help them throw-up so that they could eat more. In the same clay pots, mind.
And the orgy? It would all happen in the same place. Everything would happen in the same place. He’d hired about a hundred courtesans to make sure of it. Also paid double for what they were really worth.
As for the Ambassador himself? He laughed at the thought. He’d garbed himself in the likeness of Emperor Iago. Only – Ruict was broader and taller, burlier and sturdier. He looked better, and the toga he’d prepared for the occasion suited his physique well. His hair had been braided for the gathering and the golden wreath sat far better on his head than on the Emperor’s.
All of this in sheer mockery of the Empire.
It was no secret that the Escarr Square Assassination was the Empire’s doing. Or the Queen’s, but no-one was going to say that aloud. In either case, mocking the Empire was more suitable. And it wasn’t something Ruict hesitated to do.
The first of the guests started milling into the hall and gasped at the sight. The Ambassador stood at the top of the stairs, leaning against the banister as the guests flooded in, Ruict already becoming excessively bored. There was one person he was expecting, though. It was strange that he should be, now that he thought on it. It was hardly ever that Ruict got infatuated with a person. Sure, one or two made him speechless and nervous, but hardly ever did he want any specific person. That was typical of him – he got bored of people so easily.
But this person… Messina, she’d said her name was, [another shock – Ruict wasn’t good with names] had stirred a new feeling. And he wasn’t quite sure why or how or what that exact feeling was. It felt like an infatuation, lust… but there was something more.
Not particularly pleasant. But not particularly unpleasant either.
Ruict cupped his face in his hands and sighed, staring at the guests as they took their seats – trying to see if he recognized any of them. A friend of his arrived and stared up at Ruict – smiling and waving. Ruict smiled back as the man ascended the stairs.
They embraced, and Ruict said, “Iustayn! I thought you said you wouldn’t be joining us!”
Iustayn smirked. He was dressed – as instructed by Ruict – in the likeness of Legate Cornelius. He said, “Well, you said it was Roman themed, and that sounded well interesting, so I came,” he laughed, “I’m beginning to wonder how the guests are going to take it all. And this girl you were talking about...” Iustayn looked about, “She come yet?”
Ruict groaned, “That’s the real reason you came, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s hardly ever something like that happens with you – and it’s hilariously funny each time it does happen; so why wouldn’t I want to tag along?”
“So motivating, you are.”
Something caught Ruict’s eye and Iustayn followed his friend’s gaze.
“That one looks sly,” Iustayn commented.
A girl in a red and black dress – that flattered her figure to the max. – strode into the room, looking as composed as one can when encountered by something new. She wore a red shawl, and she had no bonnet on her head. Her dress only reached her knees.
“And loose,” Iustayn added.
Ruict sighed dreamily, “Isn’t she just perfect like that?”
“You sound over-impressed.”
“I’m doing it on purpose, you oaf,” Ruict punched Iustayn in the shoulder, “I don’t know. I don’t like her. Not in that way. She just… I don’t know. She gave me a strange feeling.”
“A boner, perhaps?”
“No. And that’s what’s the most surprising. It’s the first kind of… platonic, deep feeling that anyone’s given me in a long time,” Ruict tilted his head forward slightly, “It’s weird.”
“Still,” Iustayn tapped his bearded chin with his forefinger, “She doesn’t look the trustworthy type. She’s over-dressed. Over-made-up. Even her manner is way too calm. I mean, the view up here isn’t great but…” Iustayn paused, “But this girl… she has a calculating kind of face. A fox face. Vixen-like.”
Ruict stared at his friend, emotionless for a moment, and then burst out laughing.
“What?” said Iustayn, his face blanched.
Ruict pointed at Iustayn’s head, “That haircut isn’t the stupidest thing about you today,” Ruict descended down the stairs, still laughing, “Judging a woman by her face! What rubbish is that?”
Ruict barged passed the hoards of people and made his way to ‘Messina’. On seeing him, Proxima sighed.
Oh, so clueless, she thought.
She smiled at him, keeping up the façade, and made her own way to him.
“You were expecting me?” she asked, softly.
“I expect everyone,” said Ruict, taking her hands.
She laughed, “I didn’t see you shaking everyone else’s hands,” she pointed behind him, “They all look stunned that you ignored them.”
Ruict looked irritated and didn’t glance back over his shoulder.
He tilted his head to a side, “May I speak with you?” he paused, “Somewhere else?”
“You want out of your own party?” asked Proxima, amused.
Ruict smacked his forehead, “Please?”
Proxima furrowed her brows, trying to figure out the man’s purpose.
Had she been found out?
Surely he wasn’t this much of a fool? To merely look on her and feel the need to sleep with her?
Or perhaps there was something else…? A piece of the puzzle she hadn’t seen yet?
But she smiled again and allowed Ruict to pull her along. They climbed up the stairs and left the female guests to mutter in envy. Proxima thought she sighted Legate Cornelius on their way towards the left wing, but she couldn’t be sure.
There was no way he’d be here anyway, she thought, shrugging.
Mose Ruict continued to drag her away from the noise and density of the hall until they reached a vast balcony.
Ruict leaned against the banister and allowed Proxima to drink in the view of the expanse of his garden.
It was gorgeous.
That was an understatement.
The garden had been allowed to grow in a natural fashion – no flower arrangements or trees grown in a perfect circle – instead the trees grew on the outskirts, at the far end, and the flowers sprinkling the untrimmed green grass with various different colors. Untamed and yet controlled. Chaos contained.
The garden had the markings of the works of Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
Proxima gazed at the sight, unable to form conversation.
That was how it was meant to be, she thought, No fast restraints or Iron Fists: Just chaos in its purest form, brought and held together by simple rules and simple laws. No Evil could ever touch that innate disposition that Nature held to so steadfastly. And it would never be bent to evil. How piteous we Humans and Half-Humans must seem to these inanimate beings. They are beauty. They are how everything should have been. And we are the Snakes in their Gardens.
“You understand it, don’t you?” said Ruict, interrupting Proxima’s train of thought.
Proxima tore her gaze away from the garden, and looked at Ruict, “Yes. I do.”
Ruict paused thoughtfully and then said, “You remind me of something, Messina. Something bittersweet. Something that I know is present but I can’t place. Something. Does that make sense?”
Of course it does, Proxima thought.
“No,” she said, “I’ve only just met you.”
“Even so…” Ruict fumbled for words, “I understand that you’re a traveler.”
Wonderful, she thought sadly, He even remembers details.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Well… where did you originate from?”
Proxima raised her brows, searching for a quick answer, “The Laebnisos Forest.”
Ruict straightened, “You…” he said, bewildered, “The Forest… You’re kidding.”
“I’m afraid not,” said Proxima, resisting the urge to itch her nose, “We’re a nomadic people. We move from place to place. But that is were I came from.”
Ruict stared at her, his eyes piercing through hers, and then fixed his mouth into a straight line, “I don’t believe you.”
“You’re lying to me,” he said coldly, “Tell me the truth.”
“I’ve been through that forest. There is no way someone or a group of people can live in there!” Ruict snapped, “That place has a mind of its own. It is its own being. It drives you to the brink of madness, finding your way around there. And you’re going to stand here and tell me that you’ve lived there?”
Proxima lowered her gaze, “Not for all that long,” she mumbled.
“You’re still not telling me something.”
“Am I obliged to?” Proxima retorted angrily.
“If you want to leave, then yes!” Ruict hissed, grabbing her arms, “Where did you come from? You aren’t like the rest of the Methists!”
Proxima’s breathing quickened, Ruict’s broad hands tightening around her bare arms, going dangerously close to the patch of skin where the Empire’s tattoo had been. The sleeve was covering it, but if he went too far up…
Her mouth parted in shock, unable to form a response.
“Why don’t you answer me?” asked Ruict, “You have nothing to fear.”
I have everything to fear, she thought.
“I have given you my answer, and I stand by it,” she said frantically, “We lived in the Laebnisos Forest!”
“Fine,” Ruict said, baring his teeth, “What is your nomadic tribe called?”
“I’m not going to answer that question.”
“Because you don’t have an answer.”
“NO. I simply don’t want to answer to an ill-mannered satirist such as yourself!”
That was it. Ruict had touched the patch of skin. He stiffened. Proxima stiffened. Ruict regarded the mangled path of torn flesh with shock and disbelief. There was an uncomfortable silence between them, as Mose Ruict prodded her arm. He stared at her, tears brimming in his eyes.
That’s why, he thought, That’s why…
“You…” he whispered, “You’re from the Empire.”
Proxima paused, not knowing how to respond, and then said slowly, “My name is Proxima, I am a Half-Caste,” she paused again, unable to meet his gaze this time, “And I’m here to kill you.”