5/1/1272 17:00 The Transit Station, Alsae

How do you move two billion Song and priceless antiques without drawing attention?

If you’re Tania Tsiarkeh, it’s impossible.

Rumor spreads as fast as the mail in Eastern Penamharik, and awaiting the coach of Desmond Patton is a delegation of the Craobhach clan, the family of the Duke of Pamhia. Demond spies them out the window of the coach before it even rolls to a stop. He sighs. “The Craobhach are waiting,” he says to the exiled Princess. “Once upon a time, they were the Dukes of Fiana Province.”

“What are they doing in this grimy shithole?” Tania asks, looking around black basalt building whitewashed with paint and blackened again with soot.

“They lost,” Desmond says. “They were on the side of the Royals. They couldn’t stop fighting one another, so it was easy for the Western Alliance to marginalize them on the pretext of a ‘promotion.’ Still, they’re fabulously rich, which is good, since they have to import all their food.”

“And Milford is a mere two days away,” Tania says. “Your two cities must be joined at the hip.”

“They would be if County Pim was more developed than it is,” Desmond says. “Right now they’re under the thumb of your friends in Anbirujima. The Royals still don’t trust them, three generations later.”

“So, a nest of vipers,” Tania says.

“Don’t insult snakes,” Desmond replies.

“Briefly, what is the source of their fortune?” Tania asks.

“Guns, gunpowder, cannons, swords, precious metals,” Desmond says. “If you can make it from a rock; they have it.”

“No wonder they look so sullen,” Tania says as the coach pulls to a halt.

Desmond rises. “I’ll handle introductions, Your Highness, but this may take a while.”

Demond steps out, donning his bowler hat, not so much to protect him from the sun but rather to ensure at least one part of his hair doesn’t get covered in coal ash by the end of the day. He’s dressed like the Craobhachs and their subjects in somber, conservative blacks and browns.

Tania steps from the coach in a gown that’s an explosion of color. Her underskirt is the red, gold and blue arms Sáerglen. The rest of her dress riffs on those colors and motifs.Her white skin and white hair pop out as she doffs the hood of her silk and fur cloak. The dour Craobhach squint and step back as though she had hit them with pepper spray.

“From the Eoisle Tsiarkeh, I am thirdborn Princess of the Blood Tania, Duchess of Sáerglen,” she says. “To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”

A man clearly 50 years her senior steps out from the line.He bows as best he can, his back stiffened from years of labor in the mountains of his province. “Ethan Craobhach, Duke of Alsae,” he wheezes, kissing Tania’s extended gloved hand. “What brings you to Alsae?”

“It’s the furthest piece of seaside land from my mother,” Tania says. “We had a little disagreement about the succession of the Arghentian throne. I didn’t win.”

The old man laughs as he rises. The twenty-four Craobhachs behind him, all looking at the old man as though they’re vultures awaiting his demise, creak with bitter, unconvincing laughter.

The introductions feature all the expected characters for an older clan: the scheming wives; the hapless sons of the clan leader.The bitter sons and grandsons of the clan leader’s deceased younger brothers.All are obsequious to Tania, assessing how they get her to financially back their particular faction in what they view as the inevitable succession war that will follow Ethan’s death. Tania sees through their designs as though she was reading a picture book.Her only surprise comes at the end of the third line.

Standing there at the end of the last rank is the sixth son of Flannery and Elvinia Croabhach, owners of Black Mountain Alchemical Company, the leading gunpowder producer in the world.He’s eighteen, blonde, built like a professional athlete, and smiling.He wears a Pamhian Army captain’s uniform with the mark of a Drionnic priest on his collar.The coat of arms on his sleeve bears the belt and the helmet of the Exalted Order of Drionnic Templars, and the shield of the Craobhach’s third line. He looks at the Princess, who is his age, and undresses her with his eyes.His smile becomes salacious. He reminds Tania she’s eighteen. A certain part of her body wakes up as if from hibernation.

“Who is this?” she says to Desmond, but her sunset-hued eyes never break contact with those of the young man. Her smile is glorious. It broadens that of the young officer, but not of his five brothers or his parents.

“Captain Craobhach, Princess Tania Tsiarkeh,” Desmond smiles. “Your Highness, this is Sir Torin Craobhach of the Exalted Order of Drionnic Templars, Captain of the Alsatian First Company of Mounted Musketeers.”

“Ethan!” Tania barks. “Why did you hide this from me in the third row?”

The old man issues another wheezing laugh.The rest of the clan stares at the Princess as if they were suddenly declaring blood feuds.

“I believe I can answer that, Your Highness,” Torin says in a voice that vibrates in Tania’s pelvis. “I’m shut out of the succession chart because everyone else you met is in line is front of me. I’m shut out of my father’s company because my five brothers occupy all the senior management positions. I joined the junior reserve officer’s training corps at ten and became a Templar at fourteen. In the fall, I’m going to the Bailey, which is just up the road here.You may know it as the premier military college in the world. But in the Summer, I’m taking a corp of volunteers to help out the rebels in Pamhia.”

Tania’s eyes caress parts of Torin’s body she’s much rather have touched.She extends her gloved hand. Torin takes it and kisses it. Tania moans softly at the warmth coming through the glove. She almost drops the small note he pushes into her hand in the process. She feels magic pulsing in Torin’s touch.She withdraws her hands into the pockets of her cloak, deftly hiding the note. She curtsies.

“My brother is a Templar,” Tania says. “How big is your… chapter house?”

He points behind him to one of the taller buildings in town other than the imposing black Craobhach castle that dominates the western hills of the town.

“How would your company like to make a little spare money?” Tania says. “I need strong, handsome people to help me move some stuff from dockside.”

“Master Desmond, may I escort the Princess to the stairs?” Torin says but doesn’t wait for an answer. The pair stroll until they reach a chain suspended from a picket of forty thick wooden posts. Tania looks down.Her eyes go wide. She lurches back into Torin’s arms.She looks up at him. He reaches under her cloak to pat her boyish behind. She unwillingly steps back from his fondling embrace.She gives him a lecherous grin. “Did you mean to push me off the cliff, Sir Torin?”

“Not at all,” he says as he steps up and put an arm on her shoulder.He edges her close to the chains.He points down to a small harbor, a ramshackle embarcadero, and a set of rail-less stairs cut out of a five-hundred-foot bare basalt cliff that runs from their location to the docks below.

“You bought that one,” he says, pointing to the large warehouse at the end of the docks. “My father’s company used to use that for our shipments.Since it’s purchase, the other warehouses have trebled their fees. You said you wanted the contents of the warehouse moved, but to where?”

“Milford,” Tania says. “It’s my home away from home right now.”

“If it’s heavy or bulky, you’d be better off renting a sternwheeler to get the stuff up the Almeign to where it meets the Comberton,” he says with the authority of someone who knows the area. “Only a few captains are crazy enough to take on those rapids. And if what you’re transferring weighs more than a couple of carriages, you’d best be careful about taking it over the bridge over the Almeign that your coach took.You must have been reading if you didn’t wet your knickers going over that rickety thing on the way up.”

“I’m not easily intimidated,” Tania says.

“At least not till you get my shorts off,” Torin chuckles.

“Careful, Captain,” Tania says. “I’ve been busy. I haven’t had a balancing job in months. I’m rather cranky at this point. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.” She turns and leads the stunned young officer back to the line. “Tell me about your crazy Captains.”

“Tomorrow morning perhaps,” Torin says. “The clan wants to have you over for dinner.”

Tania looks at the glaring, hostile clans people as the couple walks back to their places.

“Dinner?” Tania says to Ethan. “I’d be delighted.”

“You and Desmond should stay in the guest suites at the Palace,” Ethan says. “It’s upwind from the factories.”

“Tell your help I’ll be there early,” Tania says. “I’ve been in a coach all day. I’ll need to freshen up. What time?”

“After sunset,” Ethan says. “Show up as early as you like. We’ll be there in thirty minutes. And how you are is fine. You’re the only color in this town. Don’t stay long or you’ll be blackened, too.”

Tania gives a graceful curtsy. “Come, Desmond,” she says. “I need to shop.” She steps into the coach.Her hand immediately goes after the note.

What would twenty-four dead bodies make Her Highness?

The Duchess of Alsae, if I had my way.

Torin

“What did Sir Torin pass you, if I may be so bold?” Desmond asks.

Tania tucks the note back in her pocket. “Proof that we speak the same language,” she says with a menacing grin. “And by the way, what would you advise if I wanted to control all the industries in this city?”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Desmond says. “Because you’d have to pry them from the cold, dead fingers of… Oh, Sweet Sister Moon!” He cradles his face in his palm. “You’re a Tsiarkeh.”

Tania crosses her arms and smiles at Desmond. He shudders, then directs the carriage driver to his townhouse.

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