Life goes on after the Ball, but it is a dull, tasteless affair now the Kinwiinik have stopped supplying the City with chocolate. The Duchess almost certainly knows more than she’s saying about this unpleasant state of affairs – but does the Duke have a hand in selecting the panel to preside over Rafe’s doctoral exam?
This week starts with a dreamy description of a City on the edge of summer before coming straight to the point: our attention this week should be firmly on matters of trade and politics.
We find Diane in her study, unsurprisingly unaffected by the shocking lack of the City’s favourite drink. Previously, we’ve seen her play the socially poisonous harpy, exchanging barbs and laying traps for her peers, and the delicate negotiator, cautiously implying a great deal without saying too much. Now the gloves are off: having failed to manoeuvre the gentlemen of the City Council into the right positions (politically, at least) she has designed and executed a plan with the Balam themselves.
This is the Diane we hear of in Swordspoint – ruthless and insightful – although I’ll admit to being mildly disappointed to having her plot laid out for us so explicitly.
Diane’s weakness, it appears, is a late-acknowledged need to be desired. She has enjoyed Lord Davenant’s attentions a little too much. He’s handsome, he’s charming and he’s ever so keen – unlike William. I think this is a turning point for our good Duchess: her first extra-marital affair, pursued for political ends as well as pleasure, and where she can – for the first time – make demands in exchange for desires, rather than merely make suggestions. I almost pity poor Lord Davenant when she realises she can prolong the novelty and get the political benefits by regularly changing (or at least alternating) her bed partner…
Rafe, meanwhile, has been summoned for his oral exam. There’s a wonderful Easter egg here for readers of The Fall of the Kings – the examination takes place in Badrick Hall, which has
windows of dark stained glass depicting the eerie hunting of a horned figure whose long hair looped noose-like around his neck.
If we’re meant to take this as an ominous portent – given the success and disaster of Basil’s public performance in The Fall of the Kings – it’s beautifully done. Rafe, however, has rather different concerns to Basil and his students: he is perturbed to discover a late change in the line-up for his examiners. I was delighted to see our self-absorbed young man had a twinge of conscience, being slightly taken aback by the realisation that the Duke of Tremontaine may have loaded the dice for him. Ultimately, though, Rafe is certain enough of his own intellectual worth – and sufficiently attached to his ambitions – to run with it rather than risk losing his chance at his Masters degree.
But Rafe is feeling queasy. He has been drinking amandyne, the University bars’ makeshift substitute for chocolate, and it seems the concoction has some side effects. I was a bit underwhelmed with how this subplot played out, although the scene in the Ink Pot was both entertaining and a finely-captured moment of social embarrassment. We’ve all had those meetings when we wonder why we thought friends from very different worlds would get on. Thankfully, William is far too well-bred to pass comment.
At the Balam compound, Diane’s latest instructions to ensure the import tariffs are lowered raise a few Kinwiinik eyebrows. There’s an intriguing difference in perception between the Balam family members: Chuleb thinks she’s a manipulative snake; Saabim feels she’s just trying to show she has the upper hand; and Kaab (not knowing about Davenant) thinks the Duchess’s weakness is a need to be perceived as powerful. I think Saabim is probably closest to the truth here; I don’t think Diane needs to be seen as powerful so much as she’s enjoying the rare occasion when she can show off. Her power is largely derived from subterfuge and manipulation of others and can never be publicly acknowledged on the Hill; but she has no reputation to protect with these foreign traders. She can flaunt her influence for once.
Kaab is spot on with her other observations, however:
“Rafe probably has little opinion of her at all. He’s not so well attuned to, well, women in general”
No kidding, although it seems to be a University-wide failing. Students may be well-educated and taught to rigorously question (or not, depending on their Master), but they’re not very observant. Months on, and still nobody has spotted that Micah is a teenage girl.
The highlight of the week, however, comes with Kaab’s visit to Tess. She has been cautiously courting the Riverside forger, but the time has come to take the next steps in the seduction. Kaab has brought the finest chocolate, but the ceremony with which she prepares it is enchanting and sexy as hell. Tess really doesn’t need such inducements – she’s clearly as interested in Kaab as the Kinwiinik is in her – but she grasps the significance of the ritual and treats it seriously, not merely as a fabulously flirtatious way to prepare a hot drink. Yum.
But this interlude may be brief at best. Diane has discovered that Kaab is asking dangerous questions about the death of Tess’s former protector. Kaab is quite right in thinking Diane has secrets she’ll kill to keep hidden – so we’d best hope that she has been making excellent progress in her lessons with Vincent. Although I’m rather hoping that the fight, when it comes, will be between Reynald and Vincent. Time to see our master swordsman in action…