The last murder in Shantiis had happened when Runa was seven years old.  She knew only a few details: the murderer was a man, he had been exiled, and it hadn’t happened since.  She wanted to ask her parents about it, but lunch that day was not the usual private family meal. Some of the dignitaries were in attendance, along with a number of her relatives, including Devarajas.  He sat down next to Runa and smiled his oil-slick smile.

“I trust your appointment went well,” he said.

“Perfectly fine, thank you,” Runa said.

“Runa was telling us about the magician she invited to perform,” her father said. “Damayanti, was it?”

“That’s right,” Runa said. “He’s very talented.”

“How fascinating,” Devarajas said.  He reached over Runa and picked up her napkin to unfold it for her. “Quite a feat to impress you, princess.”

“I think everyone will find him impressive,” Runa said, unable to discern whether or not Devas’s bone-dry delivery was sarcastic or not.

Devarajas dropped the unfolded napkin over Runa’s lap, leaning in close as he did so.  He murmured as he pulled back, his breath warm in her ear, “I look forward to it.”

Runa crumpled the napkin in her fists.  Her parents were occupied with the dignitaries, chuckling indulgently at their visitors’ overly excited reactions to the spiced fruit and goat cheese laid out on the table.  A number of rare and curious plants grew on the banks of the oasis kingdom’s lakes, several of which were frequently ground for seasoning. The peeled figs were sprinkled with crushed diamond lily root, a delicate flower with translucent petals that sparkled under the touch of any light.  The root and petal were both said to have medicinal properties, but only the root, sharply sweet in flavor, was actually palatable.  Despite its beauty, the diamond petal was violently bitter.

Runa ate her ruby plums without engaging anyone at the table; she fixed her gaze on her fork and opened her mouth for the sole purpose of pushing food past her lips.  Everyone there was false and simpering, including her parents.  The visitors were more merchants than ambassadors and it was clear that they saw Shantiis as a profitable opportunity.  She did hear a few people calling themselves Senator This-or-that, but they were the worst, the ones who spoke with sugared, condescending voices.  The merchants abandoned pretense after a few goblets of fig wine, speaking greedily about the purity of the oasis water and the strong flavor of its foods, but the actual politicians never let their masks slip.  Unsurprisingly, Devarajas carried on animated conversations with all of them.

Runa stabbed at a caramelized lettuce leaf when she heard one of the senatorial people refer to Shantiis’s irrigation systems as ‘cleverly quaint’.  Her country was not primitive.  The phoenix frieze in the grand hallway of the palace-temple was centuries old and detailed in fine, delicate strokes; the bird’s tail-feathers and eyes were set with hundreds of tiny, carefully set gems.  The colorful mosaics on the arches of the barrel vaults that served as the palace-temple’s entrances were more geometrically complex than any of these people could likely comprehend.

 (( to be continued ))