The Diplomat — Winner, Lesbian Debut Fiction.Alice B. Readers
Sophia French: 2016 Lavender Certificate for The Diplomatafterellen.com
Whether you like your romance wrapped up in an epic story, or your action adventure with a dash of romance, then I recommend spending some time with The Diplomat. It’s full of rich details, smart writing and interesting characters and grabs your attention right from the start.
Rema loved every weave and fiber of her uniform, but most of all she enjoyed tightening the silver clasp that sealed its high collar. Even after thirteen years, the triumphant final touch still evoked her pride at becoming the first female diplomat in the history of the Empire.
She admired her reflection in the cabin’s mirror. The trousers still fit snugly about her narrow hips, and the coat, which shone a vibrant purple in the morning light, added length to her shoulders and drew tight at her waist. She swept her bangs from her eyes and ran a comb through the tangles of her dark red hair. It had grown over the journey to rest just above the collar. Time soon for a trim.
With a dampened cloth, she wiped her face clean while feeling the sharp curve of her cheekbones. A woman in trousers was an oddity, and Rema’s angular features and boyish figure often caused her to be mistaken for a beautiful young man. Fortunately, she enjoyed the attention.
Three short raps sounded on the cabin door. “Come in,” Rema said, adjusting her collar.
The door opened to reveal the sweat-soaked face of the first mate. “My lady, we’ve docked.”
“Evidently.” Rema gestured to the window. Beyond its wooden frame, the city was visible, a sprawl of stone buildings beneath plumes of chimney smoke.
“You’ll be wanting an escort to the royal palace. This is a rough city, especially for a woman on her own.”
“I have diplomatic immunity. Surely the muggers and rapists will respect the authority of our Emperor.”
The sailor tilted his head. “Are you joking, my lady?”
Rema smiled. “If you want to send some of the crew with me, it would be appreciated.”
He nodded, gave her an inexpert salute and left. Despite their initial reservations, the crew had warmed to Rema over the voyage. She had won over harder hearts than those of a few cranky seamen, and despite being a woman alone among men, she’d never felt threatened. Diplomatic immunity might be worth little on foreign streets, but these men had family in Arann, the imperial capital.
Rema waited, her gaze on the city, until three large sailors arrived in her cabin, their heads bowed in bashful reverence. No doubt they had been chosen for the terrifying tattoos on their forearms, one of which featured a skull devouring a snake—surely an uncommon occurrence.
One of the sailors reached for her luggage, and she raised her hand. “No, that’s fine. I can manage it myself.” She took the handle of her ornate wooden trunk, which had seen most of the world with her. It was a unique and inventive design—a chest with wheels attached and a long handle, perfect for a roaming emissary. Though its polish had long worn off and each wheel had been replaced at least twice, the chest remained intact, and Rema was convinced that if anyone else touched it, it would immediately fall apart.
She followed the sailors through the narrow halls of the lower deck, trundling the luggage behind her. As she ascended onto the deck, the stench of the docks pried open her nostrils and settled in her stomach. It was a rancid mixture of decaying fish, sweat and city sewage, the characteristic perfume of dockyards everywhere.
The sun gleamed bright against the water, forcing Rema to squint as she gazed toward the docks. Innumerable small boats and large ships cluttered the crescent sweep of the bay. Upon the cobbled shore, men and women dragged crates and pulled squirming nets. A breeze swept across the deck, and Rema shivered. She’d never become accustomed to these eastern chills.
The captain marched across deck. “My lady. A good journey, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I’ve had many worse. My thanks to you and your crew.”
“We’ll be here for the week.” He scratched through his beard and flicked a wiggling insect from his fingernail. “If that’s not long enough, another ship’ll be here in fifteen days.”
“That’s more than enough time. Thank you.”
The captain walked away still digging at his whiskers. Rema gestured to her escorts, crossed the creaking deck and followed the thin gangplank to the shore. The sailors whispered behind her, impressed, it seemed, by her balance. The wheels of her luggage hit the cobblestones with a shudder, and she weaved immediately to avoid a pile of fish guts drying in the sun. One of the sailors wasn’t as vigilant, and she smiled as he let loose a stream of profanities.
“Excuse him, my lady,” said another of the sailors, who had a dolphin tattooed on his cheek. “He shouldn’t use language like that in front of you.”
Rema laughed. “If there’s a sailor’s cuss I haven’t yet heard, I’d like to know about it.”
The docks were crowded, and Rema moved cautiously to avoid heavy crates and jutting elbows. As she passed through the tumult, the dock workers stared at her. “That’s a bloody woman,” said a squat man gutting a fish, heedless that he was spilling the mess on himself. “Look, she’s dressed as a man.”
Rema paused in her march. “It’s better than being clad in fish guts. You should take more care with your work.” She resumed her measured pace, leaving the fisherman speechless.
The dolphin-tattooed sailor walked beside her. “Be careful. It might not be wise to talk back to folks like that. Some’s pretty rough.”
“If I didn’t talk back, I wouldn’t be much good at my job.” As Rema spoke, a woman sorting fish heads cast an admiring glance up Rema’s body. She blushed as their eyes met. Rema winked, and the woman found an intensified interest in her work.
The group continued through the city streets, leaving the salty stench behind them. A crowd pressed close, composed of slow-moving travelers, impatient merchants and lumbering wagons. Swarms of children menaced travelers by running about their feet. Even the houses lining the streets were tightly clustered, and their thatch and slate roofs competed for space.
A horse strutted by while relaxing its bowels, and the unfortunate sailor who had trodden in the fish guts managed to further ruin his boots. His curses withered the air. “How I’d missed dry land,” said Rema.
“This is one of the poorest capitals on the continent,” said the sailor with the dolphin. “What’s a fancy diplomat like you doing here?”
“Fancy diplomacy.” Rema waved to three farmers who had dropped their bundles in the street to stare at her. “Are you interested in hearing about it?”
“You can talk all you like,” he said, and Rema chuckled. No doubt the sailor was only interested in the sound of her voice, which was low, smooth and accentuated with lyrical subtleties. A diplomat’s voice was her weapon, and Rema’s was lethally honed.
“Danosha is a backward kingdom, ruled by a King and Queen born with the proper blood but not much imagination. I doubt there’s been an agricultural or military innovation here in centuries.” Rema stepped over a wandering cat. “They’re presently at war with Lyorn, a plutocratic realm that’s rich, expansive, well-armed and with no shortage of fine military minds.”
Probably she’d lost him at “agricultural,” but Rema pressed on regardless. “As you might expect, Danosha is losing very badly.” She ducked beneath a line of washing. “This is where things get interesting, so pay attention.”
“I am.” The sailor glanced at her chest before returning his serious gaze to her face. “Go on.”
“If Lyorn conquers Danosha, it will become rather more formidable. Lyorn has close ties with our enemies, and the stronger they become, the more we have to worry about our vulnerable eastern shore.”
The sailor nodded. “Vulnerable.”
Their approach startled a woman drenching clothes in a bucket, which she knocked over, flooding the street with rivulets of soapy water. “Is it always like this?” said the sailor. “People staring at you?”
“Very often. I was in Urandal three months ago, and you should have seen the trail of blushing, bewildered women I left behind me.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“Quite the contrary. Anyway, back to our conversation. I’m here to offer Danosha the military support it needs to bring the war to a stalemate. Lyorn bleeds itself on our superior armies, agrees to a ceasefire and a future crisis is averted.”
“Averted. Sounds good.”
Rema and the sailors reached the edge of a marketplace teeming with aggressive hawkers. They passed through the stalls, avoiding eye contact. Just as Rema thought she was safe, a merchant ran up to her and bellowed in her ear. “No,” she said. “I don’t want any oranges. Thank you.” The man retreated, still brandishing the unwanted fruit.
“So you’re here to save these foreigners from being destroyed,” said the sailor, who had himself barely avoided being sold a pineapple. “Sounds like an easy job to me.”
“You’d be surprised.” Rema stretched her arms toward the sun, releasing the tension in her shoulders. It was best to enjoy the open air while she could. Soon she’d be stuck in the stuffy confines of the palace, listening to the mumblings of orderlies and bureaucrats.
The streets widened, and the crude dwellings gave way to sturdy, multistoried houses. A large smithy came into view, its chimney puffing dark clouds of smoke. A scarred man worked a grindstone in its yard. He lifted his head and scowled at Rema. “What are you looking at, you cocksucking pretty-boy?”
“Good morning to you too,” said Rema. “I hope your craftwork is finer than your manners.”
The man’s face purpled. “You’re a woman?”
“Am I the first you’ve seen? No wonder you’re surprised.”
“You’re wearing long trousers.” The man’s expression grew sullen. “That’s perverse.”
“And imagine how perverse I would be if I took them off.” Rema treated the man to her most winning smile. “Have a good day.”
She left the man at his grindstone, his face twitching in slow and reluctant thought. Her conversation partner frowned. “You’ve got some courage,” he said.
“Why, because I’m not afraid of an ill-tempered blacksmith?” Rema yanked her luggage over a high cobblestone. “Come on, it grows late. Let’s pick up the pace.”
It was midafternoon when they arrived at the wide road leading up to the palace, which sat on a small hill in the center of the city. Its tired walls seemed a gesture to tradition rather than an obstacle that might seriously keep out an invading army. The road continued beneath a raised portcullis, and a stream of travelers wandered to and from the palace, most of them miserable-looking peasants. Presumably, the rulers held audiences for their stricken people to placate them with royal gestures and mumbles.
Rema brought the sailors to a stop amid the drifting crowd. “You three had best go back to your ship. I’ll be safe now. Thank you for the courtesy of your escort.”
“You didn’t need us at all,” said the tattooed sailor. “If a mugger came at you, you’d just talk at him until he apologized and ran away.”
Rema accepted the compliment with a graceful tilt of her head. “Go on, before it gets dark. Here.” She counted out several coins from her purse. “Try not to drink it all.”
The money disappeared into the sailor’s big hand. “You’re a jewel of the Empire, my lady. Have fun with the fancy diplomacy.”
“Enjoy your evening.” Rema arched an eyebrow. “And advise your friend to tread more carefully.”
She left the sailors counting their wealth and proceeded toward the palace entrance. A guardsman separated from the brickwork and stepped into her path. He looked her up and down, opened his mouth to speak, hesitated and inspected her one more time to be sure. “Miss,” he said finally. “May I help you?”
“Good afternoon.” Rema performed a modest bow. “My name is Remela. I’m an emissary from Emperor Ormun of the Pale Plains, Heir to the Wide Realms, Lord Master of the City States of Urandal, King of the Lastar, Lord of Goronba and so on. Please don’t make me say the rest.”
The guard began to laugh and quickly turned the sound into a cough. “Well, looking at you, I can see you’re not some peasant come to shovel muck at the feet of the king. I’ll wave you on through and ask someone to give a shout to the steward. Just loiter around in the front court.”
“I’m excellent at loitering. Enjoy a safe watch.”
“Aye, thank you.” The guard grinned under his mustache and wandered back to his post.
Rema tugged her luggage through the portcullis and into the din of the courtyard. Guards clanked across the cobblestones, horses grumbled in their stables and peasants raised their voices in complaint as they pushed toward the palace doors. Rema fought her way through the chaos and into the relative quiet of a wide, high-ceilinged front court. Windows above the door admitted the afternoon’s light and warmth, and archways about the walls opened into numerous palace corridors.
A series of stone benches lined the walls, most occupied by slumped visitors waiting for guards to lead them to the audience chamber. Rema pulled her trunk next to an empty bench and sat with her feet crossed, her eyes closed and her face lifted toward the sun. After a stretch of pleasant idleness, a cleared throat summoned her attention.
Before her stood a middle-aged, balding man in white robes. Like all native-born Danoshans, his skin was lily-white. Deep creases lined his face, and his eyes were heavily pouched as if he rarely slept. “By that weary face, I’d say you must be the steward,” Rema said.
“I’m Yorin. You must be the emissary.” Yorin began to extend his hand, but hesitated.
“Yes, I can shake your hand. You don’t have to serenade me first.”
Yorin gave her a furtive handshake. “Not to insult you, but I’ve never had to deal with a woman diplomat before. And to have one come from your Emperor is a bigger surprise still.”
“I obtained my position while his father was still in power. Ormun decided to keep me. My name is Remela, but please call me Rema.”
“Rema it is. You should be aware that the Queen dislikes Emperor Ormun very much.”
“Any sensible woman would,” said Rema. Yorin’s eyebrows jumped, and she laughed. “Don’t look so shocked. So long as I get the results he wants, Ormun doesn’t care what I say about him.”
“Let’s get you out of this filthy court.” Yorin spoke with a new touch of warmth. “This palace must seem a hovel to you.”
“After three weeks at sea, anywhere is home.”
Yorin’s lips moved in the barest beginnings of a smile. He drew his robes around him and beckoned Rema to follow. “Very well. Come, then, and keep your wits about you. Some of these idiot servants will knock you over without a word of warning.” He trudged across the court, and Rema followed, her mood brightened by the prospect of a challenge. Whatever these people thought they knew of diplomats, they were soon to be surprised.
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