The sandy pink path led upward between walls of flowering vines and smooth-barked trees that seemed to be home to a legion of jewel-bright birds and insects. I wouldn't have minded taking a closer look around under other circumstances. As we drew near the crest of the ridge two massive sculpted pillars marked the end of the path, the jungle ended abruptly, and the Coral Palace lay before me.
Pink. The palace was pink. And covered with large elaborate frescos. I didn't take time to gawk, however—I was too focused on getting a grip on young t'Eteso, who had stopped between the pillars and stood there catching his breath. I grabbed his arm and squeezed. “I need details.”
“I... of course... inside?”
I grunted and let go, but kept a careful eye on him as he led the way up some shallow steps, through an open doorway flanked by large brass doors, and into the dim interior. I blinked, hoping that would help my eyes adjust, but I could hardly see a thing except for the back of t'Eteso's feathered hat disappearing into the darkness. I followed blindly, and by the time my eyes had adjusted, we were in a square chamber about nine paces wide, with a high ceiling and door on the far side. There T'Eteso turned to face me.
“I'll tell you everything now,” he said. “What do you want to know?”
“Who do they think the ambassador killed?”
“Isde Keplo, Eplakil of Isdulilekhi, may his ascent be smooth.”
“May his what?” But I was less concerned with what was clearly a ritual phrase than I was with deciphering the title. It sounded unfortunately prestigious. I finally worked it out to mean something like ‘High Keplo, Prince of Rocky Heights.’
“Why do they think the ambassador killed him?”
“He was right... right there, stand... standing over the...” T'Eteso began to shake, and I looked about vainly for a chair. Spying a pile of cushions in one corner I pushed him towards them.
“Yes, sir.” He sat, and swallowed hard, and then looked at me again.
“When did all this happen?”
“Just after the little sleep. Three days ago. I... I don't really know much. I don't attend the Most Capable during the little sleep.”
“No, no, of course not,” I answered, trying to sound soothing. “Stay calm.” An inane thing to say when he had doubtless done nothing but panic from that moment to this one.
“You'll fix everything, won't you? You know what to do?”
The first thing to do was to get some real information. But the ambassador was unlikely to be available, and t'Eteso was an inadequate replacement. I was a foreigner, and a guest in the Palace; skulking about looking for informers seemed like the quickest possible road to incarceration. “I think the first thing to do is talk to the emperor.”
All the blood drained from t'Eteso's face, turning his golden complexion rather green. “Not the emperor! He's most enraged. The birds say he might declare war.”
“Highly unlikely.” At least I hoped it was unlikely.
“Or a trade embargo.”
“That's why I need to talk to him!” I noticed my tone was getting decidedly snappish.
“No.” T'Eteso's head waggled back and forth, twisting the fluffy feathers on his hat about. “I can't do it.”
“You know how to arrange an audience, don't you?” I asked, trying to sound patient and calm. His chin dipped half a fingersbreadth, and I took that for a yes. “So you arrange for an audience for me. You don't have to go. The emperor won't be angry with me, I wasn't here.” That wouldn't make a difference if the emperor was sufficiently furious, of course, but by then I was willing to say anything that would stop the boy from gibbering. “You can arrange an audience for me, can't you?”
He didn't sound too certain, but I leaped on the affirmative as if it had been stated with confidence. “Glad to hear it! Off you go then. We don't want to delay!”
“Yes.” He got to his feet, a rather dazed expression on his face, and tottered past me, disappearing through the open doorway and around the corner.
The guard who had been at the dock must have arrived while t'Eteso and I were talking, for he stood beside the doorway doing his best to imitate a statue. “You wouldn't happen to know what is going on, would you?” I asked him.
“Are you the only guard assigned to the Embassy?”
“Where are the others?”
A muscle in his cheek twitched. “I told my men to keep to the underbrush, sir.”
I assumed he didn't mean that literally. His men were probably lounging quietly about in the servants' quarters wearing Borgim fashions and otherwise attempting to blend in with the crowd. “Since you don't know what is going on, I suppose that was wise.” I frowned. My head was starting to ache, and I didn't think it was due to a brisk trot uphill in the noon sunshine. The realization of what was ahead of me, only now coming into focus, was a more likely culprit. “When do you think t'Eteso will get back?” I asked the guard. My party mentor had always assured me that proper preparation was the secret to a successful presentation, and I liked to make pages and pages of notes before every speech, only at the moment I had nothing to write notes about.
The guard's mouth tightened. “You'll be lucky if he comes back at all.”