Two days later Claudia and Rat prepared to go to the palace. It wasn’t difficult to schedule an official audience with the King.
Though it pained her, Claudia put on the blue dress she’d worn when she first visited Reginald in Calceria. I hope Sallith doesn’t recognize me. I’ve eaten a lot since then... and this dress is less revealing. She strapped a small document pouch to her belt and stepped outside.
Rat buttoned his white tunic and smoothed the fine black wool slacks of his navy captain’s uniform. I wonder if Claudia will be surprised to see me in this. It’s quite different from my usual attire.
He met Claudia on her stoop. They walked to Street One without saying a word.
The ornate front entrance of the palace was cut and sculpted from black obsidian. As Rat and Claudia stepped inside the chamber they were swarmed by ten guards in silver armor that shone much too brightly given the weak lighting.
Can the guards smell the burning stench of their armor, or is it just another of the King’s little magic tricks for the benefit of his visitors? Claudia wondered. Rat turned and smiled at her as they were led down a thick green carpet. There was a platform at the far end.
The crier burst between Claudia and Rat. He ran to the stone steps at the front of the platform and looked at the scroll pinned to his wooden board. “Claudia Nierra and... Rat, Your Majesty. They wish to discuss a potential venture that promises to benefit the King.” The man bowed and began scurrying away.
Sallith was behind a great gilded table carved from the trunk of a tree that must’ve lived for thousands of years. At least he’d done away with the pompous throne of former kings. The table was large enough to seat his entire council. Today he was meeting his subjects on simple civil matters, and didn’t require the counsel of his advisors. Maps, giant leather-bound ledgers, law books, and nearly transparent sheets that looked highly flammable were spread across the table.
“Crier!” shouted Sallith.
The man rushed back. “Yes, my King?”
“You unnecessarily barged between my subjects,” said Sallith.
“I beg your pardon, Your Highness. I was merely trying to prevent them reaching you unannounced. Perhaps if there were not so many guards...” The young man realized he would either lose this argument or his hands. “Forgive me, Sire. It will not happen again.”
“That’s better.” Sallith stood up. His shining leather armor looked like bubbling black tar. “Ah, Claudia.” He turned to the crier. “Dismissed.”
The King looked Claudia up and down. “It seems as though you’ve healed well. I should praise my medicine man.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Claudia curtseyed and lowered her eyes. Looking at him was unbearable, like staring into the fires of a furnace.
“I’m glad to see you here in the appropriate place, as opposed to reaching into my pocket, or into your own to stab me.” Sallith sat down and propped his feet on the table.
“I...” Thoughts of Reginald’s sacrifice flooded Claudia’s mind and her throat dried up.
“The woman has a plan to regain her wealth and dignity, my King,” Rat said. “And I am helping her.”
Sallith looked at him for the first time. “What is that garb? I don’t recognize it.”
“This is the uniform of a Rose Amon Navy captain.” Rat smiled and patted a shiny gold button on his chest. The finery gave him an added air of confidence.
“Are you a man of the high seas? A battler of the giant nautilus?” asked the King.
“I am afraid not. The uniform was a gift from a good friend.”
“Well, it is indeed impressive. Are you the one who dragged this bitch from the mud? You took pity on her, as I did, I take it.”
I have to be good, show him I’m reformed. Claudia looked down at the green carpet. I can’t wait until your head rolls from your body and you see your own corpse before you fade away.
Rat coughed. “You are right, my King. However, she has since earned my trust.”
“What an interesting pair you two are, a wealthy young man and a wretched young woman. What’s your proposal?”
“Spectacle matches in the Colosseum, my King.” Claudia’s dry throat thankfully delivered the right tone.
“Yes, Your Highness,” said Rat. “The match between Reginald and Headsplitter was a most satisfying spectacle, and a hearty boost to your coffers. Your subjects saw a great show and you saw a great profit. We would like to repeat that success by training and providing the most qualified fighters for your matches in return for a tiny portion of the significantly increased proceeds.”
Sallith thumbed through one of the leather-bound ledgers on the table.
“Please Your Majesty, give us a chance,” said Claudia. “We will find worthy opponents for your champion. Nothing less than a mighty Ozarian hero will be able to defeat our challengers.”
“I will not allow you to bring monsters into the city,” said Sallith, “if that’s what you mean.”
“No, My King, of course not,” Claudia said. “I have taken the liberty of drafting a proposal. It explains everything. It is our hope that you will see fit to sign it.” She reached into the leather pouch at her side.
“You have the nerve to present me with a written agreement I did not ask for and wasn’t consulted about?” Sallith snorted. “Do you plan to arrest me if I disobey it?”
“It is simply a proposal, Your Majesty. It is yours to reject, accept, or amend at will.” Claudia’s jurist mind was awakened by Sallith’s threat. “King Sallith, before your illustrious rise to power you were a famous archer well known for your love of your common roots. You have known hunger and poverty, and you have shown mercy. Let us reinforce your reputation as a benevolent, just, and generous leader by providing this entertainment for your loyal subjects. It would further demonstrate the common touch you are so loved for.”
Sallith stood up. He walked down the stairs and along the green carpet with a scowl on his face.
I’m glad I'm not on clean-up duty today, thought the guard behind Rat, making him nervous. Several guards rustled in their armor as they tightened their weapons, ready to bring them down on both of them without a second thought.
Claudia's and Rat’s hearts pounded in unison. They could nearly feel each other’s pulse. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so direct, thought Claudia. Maybe, thought Rat.
The King stopped in front of her. He leaned toward Claudia’s face and stared her in the eye as he gently raised her hand to his mouth. “It seems I was wrong, my dear. You are not just the common thief I found raiding my treasury. You have the potential to serve me and this city very well.”
He’s not as much of a brute as I imagined, thought Claudia. He’s smart.
Some of the guards were shocked and discreetly whispering about the King’s impressive self-control in front of this lowly woman’s insubordination.
“I’m afraid there is an issue, however,” said Sallith. “I must ask you to read and sign something before we proceed.” He snapped his fingers.
A servant with a wooden box hanging off each shoulder walked over to the King. The boxes were full of scrolls in individual compartments. The servant plucked one out and held it toward Claudia. Rat took it before she could. He read it and nodded.
“Everyone, out!” Sallith shouted.
Servants and guards retreated through the archways along the sides of the chamber. The archers protecting the King from the high galleries remained in place, but were too far to hear.
“Now then, you understand?” the King asked.
“Yes,” said Rat. “You only have Headsplitter for nine more fights. After his hundredth victory you must free him.”
“Headsplitter is a captive?” Claudia wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
“He is here under a private arrangement,” Sallith said in a low tone.
“I beg your pardon, my King,” said Rat, “I would like to speak to the lady without embarrassing her.”
Sallith lifted both hands like scales and shrugged. “By all means.” He returned to his seat behind the grand table on the platform.
Rat put his hand on Claudia’s shoulder and turned her away.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
“I’ve been reading his thoughts. He won’t accept the proposal if he thinks you’re the one in charge.”
“That’s not possible in his mind. One of us is the leader. He needs to think that it’s me.”
Claudia shut her eyes and quietly sighed. Alright. I’ll take your lead.
Rat walked up the steps. “Sire, nine fights will be quite sufficient to show you a most satisfactory rise in profits. Should you agree with our proposal, of course.” Rat opened his hand, palm up.
A servant with a quill on a plate approached the richly dressed long-haired man. Rat signed his name to the King’s agreement and handed the quill to Claudia. She left her signature directly beneath his—in conspicuously smaller letters.
“Now then, give me your proposal.” Sallith patted the table.
Claudia placed the scroll on the table in front of the King with a small curtsy.
“I will examine your terms. Do not worry, my dear. I know you’re a jurist. I will not demand amendments. I will either accept entirely or reject entirely.”
“It does not surprise me that Your Majesty will know his own mind with such certainty,” said Claudia with a smile.
Lightly shaking, they stepped through the palace gates and into Street One. It was the shortest and most tightly curved road in Mirek.
The people here had a different quality of life than those on Street Nine. The women traveled on litters carried by four manservants—two of which also had to fan them—and the men got around on exceedingly healthy and well-trained camels. Claudia and Rat looked like children playing dress-up.
“Come, my home isn’t far,” Rat said. “We can figure how we’re going to do this.”
“Do you think he’ll accept?”
“He already has.”