Part One: Zelli tos Renpli arrives at the Coral Palace
The captain told me that a small welcoming party would be waiting for me at the dock. So I dressed for a public appearance in my official courier's kilt, its strips still stiff with newness, and my most formal vest, only to discover that the small party was either late, or a very small party indeed. There were only two people on the quay that stretched out into the painfully bright bay. I could see no sign of any impending arrivals, either. To each side of the dock there was an open and bare stretch of beach, and then, beyond the curve of the bay, the mangroves once again took up their relentless encroachment. Further up the hill I could occasionally see breaks in the dense jungle foliage that must mark a wide and well-kept path. But I saw no signs of approaching envoys–no parasols or canopies to protect them from the sun that glared directly down on us, and on the wooden wharf, and on the tiered roofs of gold high above on the crest of the hill.
Here I was at last, viewing the legendary Coral Palace, seat of the Borgim Emperor, and all I could think about was that, unless the captain had a more humorous outlook than I had previously suspected, something had gone wrong.
“Are we early, perhaps?” I inquired of the captain.
He shook his head. “The wind's been sluggish all morning. I like to get in earlier.”
“Noon does seem to be an awkward time to be making our arrival,” I agreed, hoping that provided the explanation. “Perhaps everyone has wearied of awaiting us, and returned to their quarters to take their rest.” But the captain only stared grimly across the waters. Disheartened, I turned to examine the two on the dock.
One was garbed in ludicrously puffy Borgimian pants, a sparkling vest, and a hat topped with fluffy feathers. This was the dress of a Borgim courtier, but standing behind him was a guard from my own country, and why would a Borgim courtier be accompanied by a foreign guard? Furthermore, the posture of the courtier was tense—he shifted about restlessly and held in his hands a piece of material that had been twisted into knots. The closer I came, the more certain I was that I had been met by the Ambassadorial Aide, a scion of the t'Eteso family, who looked sicker than any novice politician I'd ever seen preparing for his first speech in the forum. The guard, too, I realized, held his stance too stiffly, and kept glancing sideways at the jungled slopes.
I wasn't particularly surprised when t'Eteso ignored protocol and bounded up the gangplank to meet me, instead of waiting for me to disembark. “You're here! I'm so glad you arrived in time!”
I saluted. “Zelli tos Renpli, Special Courier for the Grand Council.”
“I'm so glad it's you. I heard you speak in the forum. So insightful. You'll be able to do something.”
Insightful. Yes. My latest set of speeches had been so insightful that before I could get the second one scheduled I found myself packed for an unexpected ocean voyage. Observational skills are valued, it seems, only when they are directed at the other parties' weaknesses, not one's own. “I'm afraid I don't remember you,” I answered.
“But you know of me?” he asked anxiously, gripping my wrist and pulling me down the gangplank. “You know why I was given this position?” The plank bounced disconcertingly beneath my feet, but even with such a distraction I noticed that he sounded as if he were about to burst into tears.
I searched for a polite way to phrase the fact that the boy was a posturing fop. “Actually, I...”
“Because I'm artistic,” t'Eteso responded, pulling me along the wharf with a grip that was surprisingly un-foppish. “Because I know how to dress, and can converse about music and paintings. I can't deal with this!”
“Deal with what?” I asked, trying to imagine what emergency a newly arrived courier could handle better than the ambassadorial staff. “Surely it's the ambassador's job...”
“But that's just it!” he wailed, releasing my wrist. “The Borgim emperor has taken the Most Capable and put him under guard. He's been accused of murder.”
That particular emergency hadn't occurred to me. In fact, the longer I thought about it the more peculiar it seemed. And I had more time than I wished to puzzle over the brief announcement, as t'Eteso, his confession made, blurted “Please hurry” and then turned and ran all the way up the hill to the palace. The pace he managed to maintain in the stifling heat wasn't particularly foppish either, but it was hard to think the better of him for it. He should have been explaining matters, not bolting.