“May I have a word with you, Sati Lazuli..?”
“But of course, Sati Narcissus. I always do so enjoy our conversations.”
The din turned only slightly less deafening as they made their way into the fresh night air of the gardens, moving with the very studied casual grace of two men expecting a dagger to the back at any moment.
“Our beloved Rava certainly knows how to throw a party, doesn’t she..?” Lazuli commented, turning to face his bitter rival with a benign smile.
“Oh, yes,” Narcissus agreed, smile every bit as sweet. “The Festival of Five Flowers this last spring? Absolutely inspired! I will have to admit, these last few years of sparring with you in all the golden halls of Machra-la have been entertaining beyond measure.”
“Past tense..?” Lazuli commented, a sudden sharpness to the unwavering smile.
“Mmm. A few minor technicalities aside, I would say our glorious rivalry is reaching its end. The dance of the aristocracy this evening only made clear the inevitable – they flock to you like moths to the moons. I owe you congratulations. Watching you play has been magnificent.”
“And yet,“ Lazuli pointed out, ”Saya-rehu Rava is still very much wearing the crown and the party is far from over. I think you may be a bit premature in your congratulation, Sati Narcissus.”
Narcissus’ smile turned sweeter still, ember eyes momentarily veiled by thick lashes.
“Oh, I think we can both tell where the wind is blowing, Sati Lazuli, and neither of us are the kind of man to wait for fortune to make its call. I have little choice left tonight but to surrender to you or kill you.”
Lazuli’s brows quirked, smile still on his lips, but a subtle shift of wariness crept into his stance.
“How unusually straightforward! So tell me, dear friend, which will it be?”
Narcissus hesitated for a moment, as though making his final decision right then and there. Then, slowly and unthreateningly, not being a fool after all, he produced a delicate vial from his sleeve and held it out. Lazuli made no move to touch it.
“What is it?”
“Antidote,” Narcissus told him, serenely. “To the niphrith I had put on the goblet you drank from not half an hour ago.”
Blue eyes suddenly narrowing, Lazuli still didn’t move.
“It’s slow-working, as you no doubt know. You wouldn’t even feel it until around dawn, at which time it would unfortunately be too late. It does mean, though, dear friend, that you have plenty of time to let a healer confirm what I’m telling you, and get your antidote from somewhere else, should you so wish. It would be faster if you would accept it from me, of course. And lessen risk for unfortunate lingering side-effects.”
“Unless,” said Lazuli, matter-of-factly, still smiling, “What you’re offering me is actually the poison.”
Narcissus laughed, a pleasant warm sound.
“Of course! A rising ruler of Machra-la needs a keen sense of judgment, wouldn’t you agree? You make the choice yourself, my friend. All I humbly ask is that you remember this moment when you put that crown atop your lovely blue hair. That our grand game might have ended differently, had I only chosen so. Oh, who knows? You might have been warned, recognized the symptoms, survived to take gruesome vengeance even had I opted not to tell you this. But I did. Consider it my first act of servitude to you, Sati-rehu Lazuli, Lord of Machra-la – and this my humble gift of celebration.”
The hand holding out the small vial was utterly steady, as were his fire-colored eyes. Lazuli held his gaze for a long scrutinizing moment, then relaxed and reached out to accept the offered draught of life. Without any further hesitation he removed the stopper and swallowed the oily contents, making a face at the expected bitterness.
“You play with high stakes, Sati Narcissus,” he concluded after a few moments of heavy silence, somewhat acerbically, but with a thoughtful look on his face.
“What other games are worth playing..?” asked his once-rival with an elegant bow, an impeccable display of submission before a ruling lord. He smiled sharply at that.
“You are still somewhat premature in your congratulations and obeisances, my friend, appreciated as they are.”
Narcissus tilted his head, and for a fraction of a moment there was a hard darkness glimpsed beyond the honeyed smile.
“I should think not. Yours was not the only goblet kissed by death tonight. Our most beloved Rava has been wondrous company, and shall be genuinely missed. But lest you decide to interfere, knowing now what you know, the throne should be empty and awaiting you tomorrow morning.”
With another, final bow the young nobleman nodded knowingly at him, and drifted back through the curtains inside, for a final dance with their beloved benefactor.
They both knew she would be dead before sunrise.