Zokol woke both Sh'yan and Kyave the next morning, looking stiff and uncomfortable and not glancing at either of them more than necessary. Kyave didn't blame him, knowing how he felt about Sh'yan and his preferences…and Kyave's preferences, even if Kyave hadn't said anything about them to Zokol. Zokol didn't need to know.

So, he didn't call his guide out on his attitude as he climbed out of bed and dressed himself before turning away to give Sh'yan some privacy.

Sh'yan chose white robes out of the closet, much like Kyave had. They were having a meeting…and even if it wasn't formal, respecting traditions could only make things go easier for Kyave. Sh'yan was probably used to the color, he mused, looking at the stained white pants on the floor. "Zokol," he said, "can you make sure Sh'yan's clothes make it back down to his room?"

Zokol nodded tightly. "I will have someone see to it. Your breakfast." The guide waved to the low table, where two bowls of mashed fruit mixed with spices lay.

"And after this, you'll take us to the meeting?" Kyave asked, sitting down and spooning the food into his mouth. Zokol nodded.

Sh'yan sat next to him and started eating out of his own bowl silently, the spoon scraping against the wooden bowl. Kyave pushed his bowl away while it was still half full. "I don't think I can eat any more," he said, looking up at Zokol. "I'm too nervous."

"Please try, my lord," Zokol said. "You will need your strength."

Kyave looked at the bowl grudgingly and pulled it towards him again while Sh'yan's spoon stopped scraping at his bowl. He peeked at Sh'yan out of the corner of his eye and saw the stable boy staring at him. He flushed and turned back to his own meal.

After all, he would need his strength.

"Sh'yan," he said in between bites. "I think the same goes for you."

"Oh, um, of course." The scraping sound resumed.

Kyave forced himself to swallow the last few mouthfuls around the lump in his throat. He pushed the bowl away wondering how such a soft breakfast could turn into such a cold pit in his stomach.

Sh'yan did the same only a moment later and Kyave stood. "Well," he said to Zokol. "Take us where we need to go."

Zokol nodded.


He led them through a maze of marble hallways, ones that Kyave didn't quite recognize even after the months he had spent in the palace. The logical conclusion was that they were going somewhere he hadn't been before—which puzzled him. He had been to the throne room, where the queen had greeted him originally. Why wouldn't this meeting be there, too?

He didn't bother to ask, knowing that Zokol wouldn't give him a response. For all he knew, there was a perfectly good reason.

Maybe the people were right. Maybe he wasn't meant to be the ambassador to Heswa. He had been there for months and didn't even know the queen's protocol for handling disgruntled citizens.

But that didn't mean he could think that way when he was in front of the people. The queen was counting on him and letting her down would also mean letting his own king down. Even if he hadn't been here to specifically serve his king, he didn't think he could bear to let King Reon down. The king had already been through more than Kyave could imagine. He wasn't going to fail him with this.

The queen trusted in him and King Reon trusted in him. He could be a good ambassador if they wanted him to be. But he still had to convince a lot of commoners of that.

Zokol stopped before a set of double doors built a bit larger than strictly necessary, bracketed by four of the servants that had come with him from Sheva. Kyave felt unduly small before them as his guide waved to the door. "She's waiting for you there. I'm not to go with you."

Kyave nodded slowly and looked around. "Are they?" he asked.

Zokol nodded. "Protection," he explained. Two of the men stood in front of Sh'yan and Kyave and the others took up positions behind them. Kyave sighed.

"All right," he said. "Let's not keep them waiting any longer. Are you ready, Sh'yan?" He looked at the boy next to him. Sh'yan was tense, his muscles locked up and his fists clenched together, but the set of his delicate jaw line was determined, not scared.

"Yes," Sh'yan said quietly.

Kyave nodded and the servants in front of them pushed open the doors and started forward. The doors swung open to reveal bright sunlight and so many voices that Kyave couldn't make out what any one of them was saying.

Oh, he had not expected quite so many people to be there. There was a crowd of them at the base of a long staircase, a crowd that actually trailed onto the staircase, stopping several yards before the top, where he, Sh'yan, and the guards had emerged. The queen was there, too, though she didn't turn to greet them.

The guards in front of them spread out to the sides so that, while still protecting both Kyave and Sh'yan from the crowd, they weren't blocking their view, either. Kyave swallowed hard. He was pretty sure looking down at so many people wasn't supposed to make him nervous. Maybe it was just height sickness.

Except that he had never gotten height sickness before, and they weren't all that high. His bedroom back in Illyo was father off the ground than the top of the staircase he was on. It was almost certainly the angry faces of countless civilians that were making him want to review his small breakfast.

He forced a smile. He could at least try to fake confidence. If he was being honest, Kyave was pretty sure that was what Dytan did most of the time and everyone loved him.

The queen raised a hand to the crowd and the murmuring ceased. Kyave pressed his lips together tightly to prevent a smile of admiration. He wasn't sure smiling was the best expression for him at that particular moment.

He wondered what was.

"You are well met, my people," the queen said, lowering her hand. "I am here to address your concerns."

The crowd shifted, the edges of it changing shape and bulging out as one woman stepped forward out of the mass. She strode up a handful of steps before stopping only a few feet away from the guards. "You are well met, my queen. My name is Onmwe. I am here to speak for the people."

Queen Malwe nodded and waved her arms to indicate that Onmwe should continue.

"We would like to ask you why you would choose another country over your own."

The queen was silent for a second while Kyave stiffened where he stood. He didn't think she would explain what she was trying to do —but how else was she supposed to explain Kyave's presence? The people didn't seem to even want an association with Sheva, and with the distance between the two countries, they certainly weren't required to have one.

"I am sorry that I have done anything that would you all think I could ever choose a country over this one."

"That does not change our minds."

"I know. I ask what may. I would like to resolve this rift between us."

"As do we, Your Majesty, but this ambassador is an insult to our country, sent by a foolish, unworthy man who knows nothing of us."

Kyave bristled. He had expected to be insulted, after the queen had told him how unhappy the people were to have him around, but his king had done nothing wrong, and certainly wasn't going to insult anyone. And he wasn't foolish or unworthy. Anyone who could say that couldn't know about everything Reon had gone through before he had taken the crown and the throne.

"I assure you, he was not sent as an insult. He was sent to learn about our people."

Onmwe shook her head. "We do not believe that after the last ambassador was sent. We told him why he was unacceptable, yet the king repeats the same mistake."

"Perhaps the ambassador did not feel it appropriate to pass on such a message. I am afraid I do not know King Reon's reasoning for such an action, but Ambassador ne Illyo is not at fault."

"That does not change his suitability for the post. We asked for a woman to take it, and our request was ignored entirely. Why should we treat an ambassador for such a king with any respect?"

So that was why no one had told him why the other ambassador had been sent back. He wasn't any different, any better. And if King Reon had known, he never would have sent Kyave, another man. Either the ambassador was too embarrassed to tell the king…or he hadn't even known about it himself. Kyave eyed the queen. It was obvious she wanted a male ambassador, someone to stir up her people.

And now he and his king were taking the blame.

Kyave glanced at Sh'yan out of the corner of his eye, trying not to be too obvious. Sh'yan wasn't looking at him or the crowd, but staring at his booted feet and biting his lip. He wasn't comfortable, but there was nothing Kyave could do about with so many eyes on them.

"Perhaps he was merely trying to show us his ways," Queen Malwe said calmly. "I see no harm in being willing to learn about such things. Certainly, I do not think that it means I think their ways are better."

Onmwe nodded slowly at that statement and looked to the people before taking a deep breath. Kyave shifted his weight from foot to foot. That was not at all what the queen had said to him in their private meeting, and he wasn't sure if she was lying to him or her own people, but it was obvious that he needed to be careful.

At least he knew his guards were loyal to him.

"If you truly feel that way, Your Majesty, why do you not send him home? It would reassure us all."

"I'm afraid I do not think it would be very courteous of me to send two ambassadors home empty-handed, Onmwe. Ambassador ne Illyo is from a strong country, and it would not be to our benefit to insult them any further. They will want to know why you object so strongly to a male ambassador."

"Then let him know!" Onmwe cried. "Men are not equipped for such responsibilities. You know this! They have no judgment. They are ruled by their emotions."

The queen cast a look back at Kyave. No, at Sh'yan. Perhaps at both of them? She didn't say a word to either of them before turning back to Onmwe, so Kyave couldn't be sure.

"Perhaps the ambassador could prove that he is the exception to the rule."

Kyave grimaced before forcing his face back into order. If that was the stereotype of males here, he certainly wasn't going to be an exception. This wasn't going how the queen had promised him. She had said that Sh'yan would be called on. Not him.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Kyave couldn't say for sure, Onmwe didn't look impressed by that suggestion. "How?"

"Perhaps you have an idea. What could he do that would prove that he is calm of mind?"

Onmwe bowed slightly. "My queen, I was not expecting such a question. I shall have to talk to the people before I can answer that."

The queen nodded and waved her back to the crowd. Onmwe turned her back on them and headed into the thick of people as they all began talking. Kyave could say for sure how long they talked, only that it probably seemed longer than it was, standing under the sun like he was with the weight of so much attention on him.

But eventually Onmwe emerged with a smile and bowed to the queen again. "Your Majesty, you should know as well as any of us what the highest expression of rational is. If your ambassador can weave silk, than he will have proven himself."

The queen smiled. "Yes, of course. But that is hardly a fair challenge for a foreigner. Perhaps a substitute can be brought to represent him. Another male?"

Onmwe glanced at Kyave and Sh'yan before turning back to the people for a moment. Finally, her gaze returned to the queen and she nodded. "And…who would this substitute be?"

"Sh'yan of the Enlaya family."

The woman stated. "But—"

"Surely if he can manage the task and the Mistress of Silk approves his work without bias, you can have no other complaints against the ambassador."

"He'll never be able to do it!"

"We shall have to see. Ambassador ne Illyo, do you think Sh'yan an acceptable substitute for you in this task?"

Kyave jumped, but he managed to curb the impulse to look around wildly. "Um, of course, Your Majesty. I am satisfied with that."

The queen nodded and looked to Sh'yan. "And Sh'yan? Do you accept the challenge?"

Sh'yan nodded, not looking up from his feet. "Yes, Your Majesty. I do."

"Then we shall make preparations without any further ado."

She nodded to Onmwe, who returned the gesture, and the turned, heading into the palace. After a moment's hesitation, Kyave followed hastily, barely checking to make sure Sh'yan was there next to him. Theses weren't his people. He had done what he had to already.

He had only made it up a handful of steps before he was shoved forward onto his knees with a call of, "Ambassador! Down!" in Shevan.

Kyave turned behind him to see two of his guards blocking the crowd from his sight, and most of a man lying on the ground. Sh'yan was standing frozen next to him as the ambassador got to his feet and peered around his guards.

He stiffened, freezing the same way Sh'yan had. The man had a dagger sticking out his chest, blood oozing from the wound heavily. The man was still, but managed to lift his head up to glare at Kyave.

"Not all of us are as peaceful as Onmwe, you worthless foreigner. You will not meet her challenge."

One of Kyave's guards kicked him down a couple of steps while the other pressed a hand to Kyave's shoulder. "Come, Ambassador. We shouldn't stay out here."

Kyave couldn't move. "What…just…"

"He attacked, my lord. We only did what was necessary to protect you."

"But…but…what have I ever done to him?"

The guard shook his head and shoved him forward. "I don't know. It isn't safe for you're here. You can ask questions late. Come with me."

Kyave tore his eyes from the man and nodded, glancing at Sh'yan, taking his hand, and running into the palace past the queen.


A/N: Um, so, this didn't take forever or anything. I really, really am sorry. I didn't expect it to take this long. I have lots of excuses, but they won't change anything, so I won't bother. Hopefully, this chapter is worth the wait.