“It’s very simple,” said Walker. “As a general rule, you’ll work from the outside in. When in doubt, look at what utensil I’m using. If you follow my lead, you can’t go wrong.”
“Can do,” said the dwarf.
They walked at a brisk pace through the city streets, surrounded by large men and advisors.
“What I’m not sure of, yet,” began Walker, “Is how are we going to present you? I don’t want you to be insulted, but people here may not treat you the same if they know you live by yourselves on an island.”
“What do you mean?” asked the giant.
“Well… city folk are full of themselves. I’m just a humble country boy, self-made, hard working, not like these bankers and lawyers. I got by on the sweat of my brow, they get rich manipulating money and talking passionately. They’re a pack of thieves and deceivers, but they’re my pack of thieves and deceivers. It would be easier if we just didn’t bring up your uncultured background.”
“You don’t think it will come up?” asked the dwarf.
Walker laughed. “Don’t worry about that. I have a particular way of telling the truth. I’ll do the intros. If they ask you personally about your homeland, just tell them about the geography. Lakes, rivers, hills, valleys, that kind of stuff. Maybe throw in some anecdotes about interesting plants and animals. Keep it focused on nature and they’ll fill in the gaps themselves, imagining you live around many others, because that is what they’re familiar with.”
“Sir,” a man next to Walker spoke up. “The arrangements you requested have been finalized. We got two silvers, but we still can’t do better than bronzes for the cyclops.”
Walker nodded. “Better than irons. When can we expect them?”
“They’ve already been commissioned, and I was assured they would be finished by morning.”
“That’s much better than we expected. I hope you didn’t have to pull too many strings.”
“It was all cash, no favors.”
Walker slapped the man on the back. “Heck of a job.” He turned toward the dwarf and giant. “We have your citizenship status underway, including you, Hugh. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the registrar to grant you the special rights that would be afforded a full citizen, but you’ll still have freedman status, so you won’t be a slave.”
“Oh… well that’s good,” said Hugh. “I didn’t know that would be an issue.”
“You came by the right road, so it really wasn’t,” said Walker.
“What do you mean?” asked Hugh.
“If you had chosen incorrectly when you entered the city, you’d be auctioned off as a slave by morning.”
“I see,” said Hugh.
“After dinner, one of my assistants will take down your full names, the names of yours parents, date and place of birth, that sort of thing.”
“But… me and my brother don’t have names, and we never met our parents, and we have no idea when or where we were born,” said the giant.
Walker furrowed his brow. “Hmm… we’ll figure something out. That reminds me, how should I introduce you to the others at dinner?”
“I just go by dwarf, and my sister goes by giant.”
“I suppose that will work… I mean, the entire city of Anon gets by without anyone having any names. Perhaps we could say that is where you’re from. Maybe born there, and then you retired to your island nation.”
“Island nation?” asked Hugh.
“I’ll just keep it vague,” said Walker. “It’s not like these people will make any great effort to remember your names or where you actually hail from. Their primary concern will be what you think of them, which will largely define what they think of you. All they need to know is that you are my guests.”
“What will be put on the tablets?” asked Hugh.
“It doesn’t really matter,” said Walker. “We’ll come up with something and have your engraved tablets tomorrow morning, in time for the two of you to vote. Unfortunately, you won’t get to cast a ballot, Hugh, but I still might be able to use you yet. We’ll see how dinner goes.”
They approached a large building with a small group of women waiting outside.
“Ah, love of my life,” said Walker, taking the hand of a woman wearing a red and white dress. “We have visitors from afar dining with us tonight.”
The woman looked at them, closed her eyes, and nodded.
“Let’s get this over with,” said Walker, who then walked through the door being opened for him. “Remember, when it doubt, follow my lead, be it silverware or conversation.”
They entered and quickly walked through a small anteroom before coming to a large dining hall with a long table which was set with over two dozen plates. Paintings adorned the walls, each depicting some peaceful, pastoral scene, with the occasional bloody battle depiction. Small circles of two to five people were peppered throughout the room, but all eyes turned to Walker and his entourage as they entered.
Many bowed their heads in their direction, and a few made a beeline for them to engage Walker in conversation, inquiring about his unusual guests.
In a boomed voice that travelled across the room, Walker explained, “These brave souls have journeyed from afar to put their dear friend’s body to rest in the greatest city in the world… but they got turned away, so they came here.”
Chuckles erupted in some circles.
“What kind of way is that for an aspiring chancellor to talk?” asked an old man in thick robes with a cowl over his head.
“Lighten up, Lucan,” said Walker as he walked up to him to shake his hand. “What kind of aspiring chancellor can’t take a joke? Do you think foreign dignitaries won’t have a laugh at our expense?”
“They wouldn’t, if they knew what’s best for them,” said Lucan. “I suppose the foreigners you bring to this table come bearing jokes?”
“If you don’t like people finding us funny,” said Walker, “Then stop doing things that make people laugh.”
Lucan shook his head. “Obstinate to the end, I see.”
Walker leaned in close to him. “Likewise, I see.” Walker winked.
Hugh, the dwarf, and the giant stood awkwardly, fidgeting in their new clothes. They fit perfectly, but it had been a while since Hugh wore so much formal attire, and it had been since never that the dwarf and giant had. They sort of lingered near the entrance, trying not to stare at people. After his exchange with Lucan, Walker came up to them.
“Come, let me introduce you to the room.”
They slowly worked their way around the hall, and it seemed to them that each time Walker introduced them, he would add some new bit of fiction. By the time they had met everyone, there was an entire elaborate explanation for all the common questions most of them untrue.
They now came from the Cyclopian Isles. The dwarf and giant were the children of minor aristocrats, and Hugh is their bodyguard. The dwarf and giant had no names because where they live, they went through a naming ceremony as adults. Their dead friend had been like a grandfather to them, and he had died of a prolonged disease which they nursed him through with great love and struggle.
They learned a lot of about themselves that night…
Eventually another group came in, even louder and rowdier than Walker’s, and after some more introductions, a bell was rung and everyone sat to eat. Hugh was seated between the dwarf and giant, with Walker seated directly across from Hugh.
The first course was a chilled, spiced melon soup. As Hugh seemed to struggle with his spoon, Walker looked around, lifted his bowl, and drank directly from it. The dwarf saw it first, his eyes opened wide, and he did the same, followed by Hugh. The giant continued using her spoon, with some success.
“You disgust me,” said Lucan.
“Oh pipe down, you sorry old sod,” said a man clad in armor, who seemed to lead the retinue that came in last. This man, too, picked up his bowl and drank from it.
Lucan shook his head. “People who can’t even be bothered with basic rules of etiquette are liable to break the city’s laws when it suits them.”
“I’m sorry, I just don’t use spoons very often. I assure you, I won’t be breaking any of your laws,” said Hugh. “There isn’t a law requiring spoon use, is there?”
A few around the table chuckled. Lucan closed his eyes and sighed. Walker was laughing over everyone, shaking his head with a big smile on his face.
“I’m sorry, again,” said Hugh. “I didn’t mean to make light of your… spoons.”
The armored man stared at the giant as she spooned more soup for herself. “Please take no offense but… your brother and you aren’t married, are you?”
“No!” the dwarf and giant shouted in unison.
The man in armor smiled and put up his hands. “My mistake if that upset you. You never know the customs of a foreign land until you ask. After all, there are those here who would scoff at a woman who journeys about from place to place. And I must say, I am a bit taken aback that a lady of your beauty has managed to stay single for so long. You must beat back the suitors with a stick, and I suppose your size has made you successful.”
The giant set down her spoon. “The truth is that I have not had to defend myself from hordes of admirers. Rather, I think I just haven’t caught the right one yet.”
Nearly all at the table laughed.
The man in armor lifted his glass. “Strength, beauty and humor. If I weren’t already married, I just might let you capture me.”
Servants came in to take the bowls and brought salads topped with walnuts, goat cheese, dried berries and fried noodles.
A man sitting next to the dwarf asked him what he did for a living.
“I’m sort of a jack-of-all-trades,” said the dwarf.
“More like a jack-of-no-trades,” said the giant.
“I’m a pretty good butcher,” the dwarf replied.
“Yeah, after I catch and kill the animal,” said the giant.
“You hunt?” asked the man in armor.
“It’s one of my passions,” said the giant.
“What do you hunt?” the armored man asked.
“Anything,” said the giant. “Deer, elk, boar, some small game, birds, and I love spear fishing.”
The armored man nodded. “What’s your most impressive kill?”
“It’s tough to say,” said the giant. “I think the most difficult was a fire salamander twice my size. It could spit red-hot embers, so that was pretty difficult to overcome. But I guess the biggest was a huge cave bear, maybe four or five times my weight.”
The table gasped.
The man’s eyebrows rose. “How many of you were needed to bring that down?”
“Just me, my bow and a spear.”
“You hunt alone?” asked a man sitting next to Lucan.
“Sure, I can’t get these two to come with me anymore. Neither of them can keep up with me.”
The dwarf spit is drink back in his cup in surprise. “You’re kidding me! I can keep up with you just fine.”
The giant laughed. “Sure, once I’ve cornered something, you catch up just fine.”
The dwarf balled his fists. “Who tracked the badgerines back to their burrow?”
“Oh, please,” said the giant. “You were out jerking off in a field and you just happened to see one scurry into it.”
“I wasn’t jerking off, I was painting.”
“Same difference,” said the giant.
The armored man looked at Walker. “Typical siblings, huh?”
Walker smiled and shook his head slightly.
“There’s only one way to settle this,” said the giant, pushing herself back from the table.
The dwarf pushed his chair from the table as well. “It’ll be a pity to rip that pretty dress of yours. You almost look like a woman.”
Hugh stood up, knocking his chair backwards. “No one is ripping anything. Eat your dinner, we’ll discuss this later.”
A servant came and brought Hugh’s chair back upright and helped him get seated again. Hugh thanked him and used his napkin to wipe sweat from his forehead.
The man in armor looked at Hugh. “When Walker introduced you as their bodyguard, I thought it odd that such large individuals would need protection, but now I see you protect them from themselves.”
“I suppose you could say that,” said Hugh. “I don’t do a very good job, sometimes.”
“So, who usually wins?” asked Walker.
“I do,” said the dwarf.
“Bullshit,” said the giant.
The dwarf smiled. “More often than not, you’re the one who gives up first.”
“More often than not, you jump me when my back is to you. I can whip you in an even fight any day,” said the giant.
The dwarf pushed himself away from the table again. “Prove it.”
Hugh slammed his fist on the enormous, solid table, managing to jostle everything on it. “No one is proving anything!” Many around the table started to look visibly uncomfortable.
“Well, now, hold on,” said Walker. “I think we can arrange something.”
“No,” said the man in armor. “I know what you’re thinking, and no. Absolutely not.”
“Why not?” asked Walker.
“Women do not fight in the arena,” the armored man said, shaking his head and wiping his mouth with his napkin.
“I would fight anyone, anywhere, anytime,” said the giant.
“I’m sure you would, my dear,” said the man in armor. “But here in Polity, women don’t participate in blood sports.”
The giant scoffed. “Where I’m from, a woman is forced by Nature herself to participate in a blood sport roughly once a month.”
Lucan threw his napkin on the table. “I will not stand for this filth.” He got up, followed by those seated around him, and left the hall.
Walker had a big smile on his face. “Now we can finally get this party started. We all knew it was between you and me, anyway, Herbert.”
The man in armor looked at Walker, “Was this some calculated move on your part?”
Servants took the salads away and laid a plate of pheasant with saffron rice in front of those still seated and eating.
“You know me,” said Walker. “If it was planned, I would claim it was spontaneous. If it was mere chance, I would say it had been an elaborate ploy.”
“So what do you say?”
“I say after the elections tomorrow,” said Walker, “We may see the first female to fight in the arena.”
Herbert picked up his knife and fork to dig into his pheasant. “Not if I’m elected chancellor.”
To be continued…