Cobalt climbed out of her car, nodding respectfully to Liliaceae as she stood with Mirror. She had no contention with the ruler of the Eastern Quadrant, and no desire to initiate a fight here with aloofness. There were already too many things at stake from this contest. As much as she wanted to be the one to host Egret and the royal court for the High Days, she didn't want to get into a dispute with Liliaceae about it. In fact, they probably could have split the seasons amicably between them if it wasn't for Marigold.
As if on cue, another car pulled up; only one, as though Marigold did not need the protection and prestige of her entire entourage. Of course she did, because everyone did, and Cobalt was willing to bet that the jumped-up regent was simply hiding her extra forces. She could affect the arrogance of one born to her position, and with no cares of reprisals, but it didn't change the fact that one decade ago she had had less status than the lowest of Cobalt's bodyguards.
Marigold waved and smiled falsely and Cobalt reacted instinctively, hissing at the lesser creature. Here there would be no amicable nods, though Liliaceae might attempt it. But Cobalt knew the real place of the self-styled Queen of the Rimlands, and she intended one day to kick her back down into the dust. Some had said that Champagne had deserved what she got, that a ruler who could be usurped in such a way did not deserve her lands. Cobalt, however, had seen the corpses of the bodyguards who could not be bought. Leadership ability and loyalty were unevenly matched with treachery and bloodlust.
Soon the others, the Avatars, arrived. Appearing out of the desert like mirages in the heat, they joined the circle. Cobalt didn't bother to guess which was which, though some were obvious. She knew well enough who was vitally interested in the outcome of this race, and who would just be there to gawk and stir up drama. She didn't need to confirm the origin of each Avatar to prove her suspicions. She knew those who she would favor if she won, and those who would turn on her if Liliaceae won. Thus no amount of silent communication in these last seconds would affect her at all.
A somberly dressed Moonstone placed the rabbit – an archaic symbol, but then weren't they all – before walking back to the others. Cobalt saw the dogs warming up and she contained a smile. Her Champion was the best, hand-picked by herself and trained by the best artiste in the Northern Hemisphere. Marigold, as new as she was, couldn't hope to attract a master of that caliber. And her lands were too small to have many hidden prodigies.
No, the real competition would come from Liliaceae, who had the same talent and resources as herself. It was honestly a demeaning disgrace to allow Marigold to even compete, but Cobalt had been overruled on that score. She consoled herself with the reassurance that the upstart wouldn't have a Champion capable of winning, but knowing the other woman as well as she unfortunately did, it was a hollow consolation. Bribery and trickery could accomplish much in certain parts of this world.
The lineman dropped his hand and the dogs took off; pristine representations spurred by the power of the Champions. Slice jumped up and down like a small child at the sight; Cobalt ignored it, as she was quite young, but if it happened again she knew she would need to discipline her companion.
The race continued across the salty flats, and Cobalt watched it closely. The outcome would determine not only who hosted Egret, but who would carry her favor for the next decade. It wouldn't be easy, as there were more than enough troublesome elements in the crowd around her who would love to take a bite out of her security in front of their Royal Commander. But it would be worth it. It would mean a decade of security in her own court, and a decade of dominance over Marigold and the others. More than enough time to dethrone the upstart.
Her mother had hosted Egret many times, much to the family's honor, but this would be Cobalt's first chance. She simply had to win, to prove to her people – and to the rest of the court – that she was worthy and capable of filling her mother's shoes. She could prove that her travels to the other worlds had been a worthy expedition, and that she had not, in fact, neglected her own people. Not if she could find so gifted a Champion among them.
Suddenly her hound fell, tumbling over and over in the white dust. That bitch Marigold had programmed in a booby trap! Cobalt affected shock, but really, one had to be an idiot not to expect that kind of thing from Marigold. Liliaceae, of course, was entirely too honest and trusting, but Cobalt had anticipated such treachery. And Cobalt had a little surprise of her own planned. A power accelerator, built into the beat.
As her greyhound drew closer on the others, Cobalt allowed herself a coordinated smile to increase Marigold's discomfort. It was perhaps slightly petty, but well within her rights. All who had come today would have seen the lack of gamesmanship and the treachery that ran through the self-styled Queen, and that was more than consolation enough for Cobalt. Any small reprimand one might think to give her for her challenge would be lost in the greater storm of Marigold's coarse behavior.
The hounds drew closer to the line, and Cobalt steeled her will not to react. Marigold's Champion was worth something, as her avatar had not faltered in the least, and was keeping pace with the other two. But she simply couldn't win! It would be an unthinkable horror for this upstart to host the royal court for an entire decade when she hadn't even ruled her ill-gotten lands for as long!
They were almost upon the line. Just one more step!