Ansom sat on the edge of the little bed. The mattress bunched lumpily beneath his posterior.
It was of wool, one of a hundred small details about this apartment which were willfully second-rate. For most of his life, he'd been a prince in this Kingdom. And although he'd rarely had occasion to visit this city, he had once been entitled to a permanent suite in this very palace, with a bed of brass, inlaid with mother of pearl and gold, and a down mattress the size of a barn door.
They could have placed him there. Quartering him here was meant to send him a message.
Such a slight would surely have incensed Prince Ansom, but as it was, it only left him feeling morose. He'd intended to say nothing about the matter, but Tramennis looked around cheerily at the cheaply painted and papered walls.
"Well isn't this cozy!" he exclaimed. He waved around the Royal Scepter (or rather, the ranged weapon it had been recast into) to indicate their surroundings. "No windows, no hearth. Not even a spinet. Nothing to distract you from your thoughts!"
Ansom regarded his brother, seated there in the corner. The man's Signamancy was quickly changing, as his hair was longer and darker, and something resembling a groomsman's mane-and-tail brush was sprouting on his chin. But the twinkle of mischief still shone in his eyes.
"So I am to remain in these quarters, then?" Ansom asked. "I'd wondered if they were part of your… jape."
The King's eyebrows knitted in sympathy. The Scepter returned to his lap, absently but unerringly aimed at the center of Ansom's torso. "Afraid not, brother. You're really here, and the guards will really run you through if you try to go anywhere. We've got a show to put on."
"What sort of show?" asked Ansom, his frown deepening.
"The Court of Jetstone, of course!" grinned Tramennis. "Surely you remember it. It's the one where there's this man at the center of a big, big room. Everybody tries to please him, but nobody ever can. He usually makes a speech about how wonderful Jetstone is, and then everyone can go have a banquet or something. Remember now?"
As a Prince, Tramennis had frequently said such things, usually not within earshot of their father. Ansom was surprised that he was still so flippant, now that he occupied the throne himself. "Of course."
"They're going to want to see me be very rude and mean to you," said Tramennis. "And I shall. I'll be perfectly brutal. Tomorrow." He relaxed his posture in the chair, just a modicum, and smiled. "Today, however, I just want to talk!"
Talking to Tramennis turned out to be easier than Ansom had feared, but he still had to remain cautious. For one thing, the King never put aside the Royal Scepter.
They avoided diplomacy at first, focusing on matters of common memory and family. They talked of Ossomer and Slately. Ossomer's turning had indeed changed Tramennis' mind about the Decrypted. It seemed to consume his attention, and he became quite serious when he talked of it. Ansom had to catch himself to keep from remarking on it. How could Mistress Wanda have known that?
They talked briefly of Jillian, but Ansom found the topic vexing. They shared some of the things they'd each seen and done since the fall of Spacerock. Tramennis told him the story of the outspoken Archon who had earned 75,000 Shmuckers each for the treasuries of Jetstone and Gobwin Knob, by spurning Jetstone's offer to turn.
"I can see why she would not," Ansom said with a puzzled frown, "but I do not understand the money demand."
"Mm," agreed Tramennis, with a sly, admiring smile. "I've had time to think it over, and I suspect she knew there was no true refuge here with us. Charlie wanted her too badly. He always gets what he wants, in time. Makes me disinclined to give it to him." He made a wrinkle-nosed grin.
"Nor would there be any future for her in Charlescomm, I'm afraid. I think Charlie is going to take her apart, to see what makes her loyal to the 'pliers and not the 'dish." His smile dried up and went humorless. "I don't imagine he'll bother putting her back together again."
Ansom shook his head. "So then, the money demand?"
"Twist of the knife," said the King, making a twisting gesture with the Scepter. "Strike him in the purse, where he lives. But Jetstone is your enemy, so Duty compelled Lilith to ask for at least as much for your treasury as for ours."
The Scepter weapon settled once more into Tramennis' lap with casual ease, aimed squarely at him. Ansom watched it, although the King seemed not to notice.
"Do you suppose that's still necessary?" asked Ansom, indicating the weapon. "You cant consider me a threat. I am here under truce."
Tramennis half closed his eyelids, and said with a serene smile, "Dear brother, remind me again. How did you croak?"
Ansom looked up and held his brother's gaze for four long breaths, unable to think of the right thing to say.
"I am certainly not here to assassinate you," was all he managed, at last."Oh, but it must've come up at the meeting," said Tramennis, leaning forward eagerly. "That Chief Warlord of yours, Parson Gotti. First thing he would have thought of, isn't it? Tell me it wasn't discussed."
Ansom wouldn't look away, but his already pained grimace darkened. "It was discussed," he said.
He sighed. "Chief Gotti was of the opinion that even if I were to be allowed to approach close enough to strike you, that I would only be attacking a Dittomancer's copy."
"Aha!" said Tramennis, nodding in triumph. "I knew he'd think of that."
Ansom looked away. He wanted to defend Lord Hamster, but could not find a way to phrase it which stood a chance of being accepted by a King of Jetstone. "He does want peace," he insisted. "Truly. The overture is sincere, and of his own initiative."
"Oh, yes. Very well." Tramennis nodded, as if humoring his brother. "We'll see where we get in discussions."
Ansom suddenly looked up at the King and narrowed his eyes, inspecting the man. "Are you a copy?"
Tramennis made a duck-lipped face and his eyebrows went up. "That would be telling."
Ansom continued to stare discerningly, not sure what he was looking for. Perhaps a little magical glow around the edges or something. This figure in front of him simply looked like a man.
Tramennis seemed amused at Ansom's uncertainty. "Funny feeling, isn't it? Not being sure if the man you're looking at is really your brother?"
The Warlord said nothing, but he stopped examining the King so closely.
"I will admit to having done it," Tramennis said airily, "to see what it was like."
And what was it like?"
The King looked away, closing his eyes with a wistful smile. "Edifying."
They sat in silence for a few moments, but Tramennis seemed disinclined to elaborate.
"I had been wondering what sort of a King you would make," said Ansom, by way of breaking the silence.
This made Tramennis perk up. "Oooh. What were your expectations? Have I met them?"
Ansom shifted his weight on the uncomfortable bed. "I suppose I'm not sure yet. I thought it would change you. I worried that you might become… like our father."
"In what way?"
"The wrong way," said Ansom. "I mean, blindly intent on maintaining Royal supremacy."
"Puh-ha!" exclaimed Tramennis. "Then you might just as easily have said you were worried I might become too much like you."
He gave a dismissive scowl. "That was another lifetime ago."
"Yes, for both of us, I'd say," the King said. He ran his hand through his hair as if missing the feel of the crown there. Ansom hadn't asked why he wasn't wearing it, but perhaps that was evidence that this was a copy, and they hadn't bothered to spend the juice to copy the crown as well. "I will tell you, our sire could lay it on pretty thick about the Titans and what it means to be a Royal. It annoyed me, and made my task as liaison all the harder. But I've since begun to see the underlying wisdom of it."
Tramennis waved the Scepter. "Here. You're not really worried I'm going to dispatch you in the middle of a parley under formal truce, are you?"
Ansom's brow knitted.
"What, really?" said Tramennis incredulously.
"Only because…" Ansom hesitated. It wasn't politic to say what he was thinking, but he decided to go ahead and say it anyway. "Only because you mightn't see us as worthy of the consideration, at this point. Gobwin Knob has violated two parleys with Jetstone."
Ansom stared, unable to give a response—even a small nod—that couldn't be taken as an admission of guilt.
"But you know, if your Lord Hamster is blind to the concept of honor, that doesn't excuse those of us who can see. Does it? Our obligations remain. I could no more shoot you under truce than I could shoot myself. But we do need to learn from our mistakes, and take precautions." Again, he raised up the Scepter a little bit "Don't we?"
Tramennis leaned back in the chair, relaxing his grip on the Scepter. "So. What sort of a king am I? Am I dedicating my reign to the preservation of Royal hegemony? Well, you're here, so it seems not. I'm at least willing to talk peace, even with the likes of Stanley and Lord Hamster.
"But I still cleave to Royal principals, Ansom. I believe in those, and quite strongly. I hope I'll be a wise king. I hope I'll be strong. I hope I'll be just. And the only way I know how to be those things is to be good. To apply the ideals I know to be right, the Royal standards. I shall lead with honor, and by example. I'll ask nothing for Jetstone that I wouldn't be willing to give to her myself."
A moment passed, then Ansom said quietly, "You are mistaken, you know. About Chief Warlord Gotti. He is not without honor."
Tramennis tilted his head. "I'd like to believe you, brother. But I have no evidence that's the case. So I hold positively no faith that a truce with Gobwin Knob would be anything other than a Parson Gotti scheme to violate it in a sneak attack, perhaps from the Magic Kingdom, and finish us off."
"How do I know?"
Ansom mulled that over, but could not produce a reasonable answer.
"I suppose you could not," he admitted.
"I could," said Tramennis, suddenly springing forward. "Parson Gotti certainly could provide me with some new evidence of his good faith, a gesture that I might very well accept!"
Ansom had, in the course of rising to level 10, walked into many traps. A few of them had even been diplomatic in nature, so this feeling was familiar. He sighed. "You have a precondition for negotiation, then. What is it?"
Tramennis grinned wide. "You're not going to believe this, but no, it's not a precondition. I've only just thought of it. But it's a splendid idea! You know the way your highly honorable Chief Warlord has of barging through our portals?"
Ansom swallowed, eying his brother with dread."Yes," Tramennis went on, his grin growing triumphant, "let's have him come here."