The serving girl reached in front of Luthen to take away the half-eaten soup. He sneered up at her. “Next time, dear, less salt, more cream.”
She gave him an apologetic smile before scurrying off. “I certainly hope you don’t pay them too well,” he sighed.
The man across the table pressed his lips together in a thin line. “Care for more wine?”
Luthen nodded despite his brain’s sluggishness as he scanned the horizon. He despised talking politics without a glass in hand. Besides, how could he be expected to refrain from indulging on a beautiful seaside afternoon like this? “Thank you again for speaking with me, Minister,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be able to reach a… mutually beneficial agreement.”
“That depends on what you plan to ask for in return. You’ve offered a great deal without voicing your requests.”
Luthen took a long sip from his glass. “Ostensibly, I’m here to propose a stronger alliance between our cities. Merthia wishes to establish an ambassadorship, with me as the delegate stationed here.”
He paused for a reaction, but the minister remained stone-faced. “And actually?”
Luthen smiled weakly, leaning forward. “I need your protection. I’m seeking asylum.”
“Not the government, no. But there are rumors that I’m in danger there all the same. You see, I’m not originally from Merthia.”
The minister’s eyes narrowed, but from interest or boredom Luthen couldn’t tell. “Go on,” the other man said.
“In another life I was a junior advisor to the last executor of Ravandis.”
Finally, a clear reaction from the minister, a definite glimmer in his eye. Setting his glass on the table, the minister reclined, perfectly masking the curiosity no doubt burning within. “So I’m having lunch with a ghost.”
Luthen chuckled before raising his glass again. The wine warmed his whole torso. “Nothing so supernatural. I’m flesh and blood, I assure you.”
“How did you manage to escape the great culling of Ravandis?”
Luthen grinned joylessly. “Tell me, what news reached your fair city about those dark times?”
“The executive council was massacred,” the minister replied. “Some were mysteriously murdered, found dead with little to no evidence of a culprit. Others were butchered in broad daylight, without a second glance from the city guard. The assailants that were identified became known as the Gallows Girls.”
Luthen shook his head. “The city guard were in their pockets. Complicit. And the Gallows Girls were so named long before their infamous culling.”
The minister’s eyes darted to a passing servant, but his request went unspoken. “Who are they?” he asked instead, refilling Luthen’s glass. “Vigilantes?”
“They’re a mistake,” Luthen snarled. “Leftovers who should have been put down a long time ago.” He took another careful—but long—sip from his now brimming wine glass. It was very good wine. “They’re orphans of the rulers we executed when we seized power. Called them traitors and strung them up. Wiped out whole families to prevent reprisals and took the daughters to work as maids and cooks in our manors.”
Luthen thought he saw the minister’s jaw clench, but the subtle ripple of jowls flitted right out of his wine-addled mind. “And were they traitors?” the minister rumbled.
“I doubt it,” Luthen scoffed, his tongue thick and heavy. “At the time I was still learning the ropes, going along with whatever my elders said. They saw an opportunity to seize power, and they took it. And it worked well for us. We profited… for a time. So much that when those girls started disappearing, oldest first, we dismissed it all. Wasn’t a concern… until they returned years later, lean, angry, armed to the teeth, and full of bloodlust.”
“The culling,” the minister said. Luthen nodded, nearly knocking his glass over as he reached for another sip. “But you eluded them.”
Luthen waved away the comment with his free hand. “I managed to get away in time and insinuate myself in the Merthian court under a false name. But there are whispers now that the Gallows Girls have slipped into Merthia as well. It’s no longer safe for me there.”
“So,” the minister said, “you petition Merthia’s government for an ambassadorship with us, in order to buy our protection with their resources.”
“And everyone is happy!” Luthen agreed. “My retinue has even brought some of the gifts with them—“
Luthen tried to blink away the wine in his vision. “Pardon?”
The minister’s lips curled back as he nodded at a serving girl. “My answer is a resounding and demoralizing ‘no.’”
“I don’t understand,” Luthen spluttered with a nervous chuckle. “Why?”
“Because you’re a dishonorable coward,” the minister replied, voice devoid of emotion.
Luthen opened his mouth to slur in protest, but the words caught in his throat when he spotted his attendants standing at their tables around the patio, serving girls clutching daggers to the men’s necks. The minister seemed unfazed, keeping his stony glare on Luthen as he continued. “I say no because of your heinous plot to murder an entire legitimate governing body for personal gain.”
From deep within his wine-soaked body Luthen summoned the strength and presence of mind to stand—and was promptly driven back to his seat by powerful hands on his shoulders. Baffled and outraged, he twisted his head around—and met the face of the young woman who’d brought him breakfast every morning for years. But how could she be here—?
The minister leaned forward, gripping his chair’s arms with white-knuckled fingers, rage suddenly boiling in his eyes. “I say no because I lost a brother to your greed and treachery.”
Luthen had no time to react. Pinning him to his seat with one hand on his shoulder, the serving girl behind him reached a dagger around and plunged the blade into his chest. He gasped from shock and pain and the peculiar sensation of metal scraping ribs as the dagger sank to the hilt. Leaving the weapon in Luthen’s chest, the girl walked around the table and squeezed the minister’s hand. “Thank you for your help, uncle.”
Luthen’s eyes bulged, arms hanging limp at his sides as warmth spread over his chest and down his stomach. The minister still stared at him. “It was necessary,” he said, then turned to Luthen’s killer. “Will you stay here now?”
The girl shook her head. “There are other loose ends that must be trimmed. We sail for the Spires at dusk.”
The minister dipped his head. “Give Stryklin my regards.”
“Oh, we will.” She turned to the nearest of Luthen’s attendants, ashen and quaking behind a serving girl’s knife. “Tell your leash-holders back home that harboring foreign criminals is unhealthy.”
Without another word she grasped the handle of her dagger and yanked it out of Luthen, wiped the blood on his pant leg, and gestured for the other young women to follow her off the patio.
Despite the lack of a breeze, Luthen felt cold then.
This story is the product of another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig at TerribleMinds.com – write a 1,000-word story inspired by one of ten 3-word titles submitted by his blog readers.