Hours dragged by. Or maybe years. Rome slumped lower in his seat. This was worse than bad. Every time he dozed off Opus hissed at him. Quyloc wouldn’t say a word. He just kept staring at the FirstMother. She seemed to be unaware that he was even alive.
Finally the lights came back up and Rome stirred, thinking, thank the stars, it was finally over. But then the sermon started. At least, Rome thought it was a sermon. Since it was in some language he’d never heard before, he couldn’t be sure. But it sounded like one. Cynar droned on and on, now and then reading from a large book on a podium that had been wheeled out to him, other times seeming to recite from memory, his eyes closed, head tilted back.
I can’t take anymore, Rome thought. I’d rather assault Karthije naked and barehanded than go through any more of this. Cynar finished a page and paused while he turned to the next. Rome saw his opportunity and acted.
He jumped out of his seat and began applauding loudly, brushing off Opus’s warning hisses and ignoring the frowns of the nobility. He was the Macht and it was by god time for dinner.
“Excellent!” he bellowed. “Well done, Cynar, High Priest of Praxiles!” What was that god’s name again? “You’ve done old Praxital proud here tonight. I’m sure he’s happy with you.” He kept clapping and when none of the nobles joined in he gave them a few murderous frowns and soon he had plenty of company. “Let’s eat!” he yelled after a bit, and now the applause was more enthusiastic. Not all of them were overly pious.
Cynar gave him a look that was pure outrage, then bowed his head. What could he do? Rome was already leaving the dais, heading for the doors that led to the great dining hall, not waiting to see how protocol determined that this should be done. When he entered the dining hall, the servants were frantically putting the last pieces of dining ware on the table. He grinned at them and waved them off. There was too much silver and crystal on the table already. All a man really needed to eat was a big mug, a plate and his knife. Even the plate wasn’t really that necessary, as long as the table wasn’t too dirty.
“Bring me some wine!” he called after the last departing servant.
╬ ╬ ╬
The wine seemed to take an awful long time to arrive and the wine glass was too small to hold even a decent swallow. “Leave the bottle here,” Rome told the server, grabbing it from the startled man.
Rome drank glass after tiny glass of the wine and watched while his guests sorted themselves out and took their seats. Judging from their expressions, he had upset the order by bolting in here ahead of everyone else. He gave them all big smiles, not letting on he noticed anything wrong. He saw several of them exchange looks that weren’t hard to decipher. Well, let them think he was an idiot. They would be more likely to underestimate him that way.
Rome muttered a curse when the food started arriving. A servant in black and white livery with a howling wolf sewn into the breast set a dainty yellow thing in front of him. It was no bigger than his thumb and looked like it had frosting on it. He poked it with his finger and it broke in half. Rome wasn’t a big one for sweets, but he ate it anyway, pinching it between his thumb and forefinger and tossing it in his mouth. Then he had to sit and wait while everyone else was served. They took tiny little forks and carved off miniscule pieces of it, whatever it was, and daintily nibbled at them, exclaiming at how good it was. Made his stomach hurt to watch.
The next round was a little bigger – some kind of egg from a small bird, with a powdery dusting of some brown stuff and some green sprigs on the side – but no more satisfying. By then Rome didn’t feel much like laughing. Was this a dining room or what? When the server came with the third round – some fluffy, leafy thing – Rome growled at him. “The next thing you bring me will be meat and it will be large or tomorrow morning you’ll be mucking the soldiers’ latrines.” The man blanched and left at a trot.
When Rome saw the huge silver platters enter the room, his good humor returned. Now they were getting somewhere. There were covers on the platters so he couldn’t see what they held. Suckling pigs maybe. Or sides of shatren. Whole turkeys.
When they set one down on the table in front of him he yanked the cover off, his knife already in his hand –
And nearly drove his knife through the table in frustration. It looked like flowers. Some kind of meat sure enough, but it had been sliced so thinly that he could see through it, and then it had been folded into flower shapes.
Rome grabbed the closest server, nearly lifting the poor man off his feet. Lord Atalafes’ wife stared at him openmouthed. Other nobles nearby paled and turned their eyes away. “Bring me the haunch of something,” he snarled. “I don’t even care if it’s cooked, but it better have a bone sticking out of it and I better be able to tell what it is. And send Opus in here.”
Rome was on Opus before he could even speak. Everyone was watching by now, most openly, but Rome didn’t care. He’d never tried to be anything he was not. “I don’t like this,” he growled, grabbing a handful of Opus’s shirt and jerking the man forward. He held up a fistful of the flowery meat. “I don’t ever want to see food like this put down before me again. Am I clear?”
For once he got through the man’s cultured facade. Opus swallowed and nodded and Rome let him go. Shaky hands patted his shirt back into place as he bowed and whispered, “My Lord.”
Rome grinned at Lord Atalafes and winked at his daughter. “Sometimes you just have to be firm with the help,” he boomed. “Don’t you think so?”