CHAPTER 2: HARLEQUIN (continued)
All the harlequins were highly trained in martial arts, slight of hand, languages, disguise, and poisons. Each had a handful of alter egos that they used to function in society and gather more intelligence. They wore their harlequin guises to remind people of their existence – to remind people that they didn’t know whose face was behind the makeup. It tended to keep the malcontents properly hesitant to plot against the crown.
It hadn’t been enough lately, though. Not since the crown prince and his new bride decided they didn’t want to wait until Empress Savant died a natural death before they assumed the throne.
Harlequin walked noiselessly across the stone foyer towards the throne room. She passed servants and courtiers, nobles and flunkies. She knew most of their histories, their families and lovers, from the lowest to the highest. She carefully watched their reaction to her passing without seeming to pay any particular attention. Even the Empress’ closest allies were unnerved by her proximity. Everyone has secrets.
Harlequin flowed around the chamber towards the throne. Empress Savant held court from a raised dais. Harlequin knew the Empress was at least forty years of age, but she looked like she was in her early twenties at the most. Her long black hair was held by a simple coronet, and her clothes were the silks favored in the East. Trousers allowed free movement underneath a slitted skirt that was her fashion of choice. Rare magic kept her appearance ageless. This magic didn’t extend her life, but Harlequin believed that Savant’s youthful appearance contributed to her son and daughter-in-law’s decision not to wait for nature to take its course so they could assume the throne in the fullness of time.
Empress Savant nodded an acknowledgment to Harlequin without taking her attention away from the Exchequer, who was giving his weekly report. The public one. Harlequin moved quietly enough to catch whispers of conversation not meant to be overheard, but didn’t learn anything she didn’t already know.
She moved past the guards next to the throne and they let her. Only harlequins were permitted to be behind the throne when the Empress was seated. She watched the crowd. Watched who spoke to whom, who watched, who spoke, who avoided.
When the audience was finished, Harlequin joined Savant in her private chambers. The ceiling was high, with strange artifacts decorating the wall. A fire was roaring, with cushioned sofas scattered near. It was a comfortable room, designed to make its inhabitants relax. Harlequin wasn’t foolish enough to do so. She stood while Savant sat elegantly curled at one end of a sofa.
“What news?” Savant asked.
“More graffiti. We’re using work gangs from the prisons to scrub it off.” Damien and Pandora had adopted a symbol: a crescent moon with a shooting star. Since the crown prince’s rebellion, sympathizers had been painting that symbol on public buildings.
“A few neighborhood groups meeting in ‘secret’ to get drunk and feel important while they gripe about the Empress’ iron fist,” Harlequin continued. “We’re keeping an eye on them. I don’t expect any real threat from any of them. If any of them get to the action stage, we can make an example of them.”
She looked closely at Savant as she spoke, trying to gauge her sovereign’s emotions. As usual, she could detect none. But this was her only son they were discussing. The enemy. Surely Savant must feel something. Harlequin needed to know whether Savant would be more prone to harshness or to leniency, so she could counter-balance Savant’s tendency.
So far, Savant’s orders had been cool, clinical, and measured. No reprisals, but no forbearance.[i]
[i] Chapter 2 gives the reader a lot of backround in the flabbiest possible way. Nothing happens besides a desultory encounter between sovereign and spy – no action and no conflict. It was a lazy way for me to set the stage of the story so I could get to the stuff I really wanted to write about. On a re-write, this should be cut completely and replaced with as-it-happens action scenes that would take several chapters.