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Carnival Games

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Alma stared at the stuffed antlion toy Cabanela held out to her with, she hoped, well-concealed loathing. “Thank you…?”

The fair in South Figaro raged all around them; the Empire’s ambassador had been asked to judge a few events, since he was on one of his inspection tours and the fair was in the Empire's honor after all. Alma had been hard-pressed to find a reason to say no. And so she would smile, and smile, and get what information she could wheedle from him, but it didn’t mean she had to like it.

He smiled broadly at her, wide and genuine, teeth pearly white and perfect. Somehow monstrous. “I won it at the fishing game, baby. Seemed appropriate for a Doman, wouldn’t you say? You could give it to Kamila, baby, when you allow me to briiing her home...”

Her knuckles whitened as she fought not to squeeze the toy until it popped its seams. “You could bring her home any time. And Jowd too, while you’re at it.”

He took the toy from her, dangling it playfully by the tail. “That depeeends on you, doesn’t it, baby?” Teasingly, he turned his back on the ocean and swept the horizon, gesturing grandly at the town with the toy. “Just swear your allegiance to me—er, to my Emperor and we can clear this little misunderstandin’ riiight up. All for the little lady, my Queen.”

“Don’t call me that.” Alma swallowed her rage, floating too closely to the surface. “We’ve already signed the treaty you said would ‘cleeear everythin’ up.’ That's what this festival is for.” Her imitation of his drawling tones was precise, unmistakable, and without an iota of mirth. “And where is my daughter? Where is Jowd? They should be here to celebrate too.”

His smile turned craftier, and he slid an arm around her shoulders while she fought not to cringe away from his crawling touch. “You know these,” he waved the antlion carelessly in the air, “paaaper-pushers in the Empire, they want all the Is crossed and the Ts dotted. A treaty isn’t enough. They want an… alliance, baby. Nothing like it for clearing the air, wouldn’t you say?” His dark gaze watched her carefully, waiting for her to slip up.

Secretly, her two fingers tapped against her leg, Jowd-Kamila, Jowd-Kamila, before she fisted them into the loose folds of her practical trousers. “I cannot discuss this here. Bring your terms to court and we shall see.”

He grinned, and the pressure of his malevolence vanished as if blown away in the wind coming off the sea. “Very good, your Majesty,” he said, tone dripping with sardonic amusement at her feeble delaying tactics. “Lookin’ forward to it.” He offered her his arm. “Anyhoot, maaay I escort you to the… entertainments?” His scornful gaze swept the crowd and he raised an eyebrow. “Such as they are, baby. Vector would eat this town whole.”

That’s the fear, yes. But Alma kept her counsel, and her smile. “I’m afraid I’m engaged this afternoon, my Lord Ambassador. But please, continue to take advantage of Figaro’s hospitality, and we shall discuss your proposal at another time.”

His smile dropped, and he breathed, for her ears alone, “Don’t wait too long, my Queen. Or whooo knows what could happen?” He tossed the antlion toy carelessly over his shoulder, letting it fall where it may. The wind from the sea caught it, and it danced briefly in the wind before sinking into the depths off the dock. Cabanela guffawed. “Whaaat a pity, baby. Shall I win you another one?”

“No, thank you,” Alma said, her face composed, and she swept away, her back regally straight as she took the last word and fled. “That’s one prize I believe I shall win on my own.”