Winslow North suspected a diplomatic incident afoot from the moment Arthur Armitage invited him to take tea at the finest club in Ruritania’s capital. Five minutes into his first cucumber sandwich, Winslow, who subscribed to – not pessimism, surely, but a certain bracing realism – found his prediction rewarded.
“Oh, Your Grace,” sighed Arthur, looking distressed indeed, with his face pulled long beneath his strawberry-blond curls. “I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for your friendship, and how wretched I feel for calling on its services in so gauche a manner. Nevertheless” – here, he heaved another gusty sigh – “the trouble cannot be otherwise helped. I feel a damnable fool, in truth. Do you think me a very great fool?”
Winslow, over the rim of his teacup, said rather dryly, “I find I cannot make a proper assessment of a man’s foolishness, great or small, without first knowing its cause.”
“The trouble began with my school,” said Arthur, stirring his tea with a melancholic air. “Poor school! How it suffers on my account.”
Winslow frowned. “School?”
“You know the one, Your Grace –”
“Winslow, please,” said Winslow, for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. He’d lost count, in truth, of how many times he’d corrected Arthur on matters of address. Winslow massaged his temples. “I am only properly a duke in the Kingdom of Kunlun. Dukes in my grandparents’ country hardly deign to run companies, or take tea with Western businessmen, as I do here in Ruritania. They consider the handling of money and the willful fraternization with foreigners uncouth, and never quite forgave my father for adopting an English surname for our business purposes. My family in Kunlun would hardly approve of our friendship, Arthur. Which,” Winslow added, to forestall any perception of insult, “I of course hold in the highest esteem, regardless of any elderly great-aunt’s antiquated misgivings.”
Arthur beamed. “I do so admire your humility, Your Gra – ah, Winslow. Indeed, it is a quality I most admire in Kunlunese people like yourself. That is why I started the school, you see,” he added earnestly. “Surely, you’ve heard about the Armitage School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. I teach the martial arts course for gentlemen myself. My father was terribly proud.”
“Indeed,” said Winslow, taking care to curb the wryness of his tone. He had no doubt regarding Armitage Senior’s satisfaction in such an enterprise. The Armitages were businessmen, and trade deals recently struck between the young Western government of Ruritania and the forward-thinking, great-aunt-scandalizing Crown Prince of Kunlun had made all things Eastern abruptly fashionable in the West. Kunlunese magic – and its accompanying martial traditions – had won particular favor with Western gentlemen of a certain class and sensibility.
“The school has been quite the success, as I’m sure you know,” Arthur went on. “I have the grand tour I took across the Asian continent in my boyhood, not to mention my month-long education in Chinese sorcery fundamentals, to thank for that.” He winked. “I do, unlike most Western Ruritaneans, know my Kunlunese enchantments and martial practices.”
“Surely any obstacle at your School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments could be overcome by a full month’s worth of Chinese magic instruction,” replied Winslow.
“But that is just the problem!” exclaimed Arthur. “Some – perhaps misunderstanding my history, and indeed, the nobility of my intentions – do not approve of my school.”
Winslow sat up a little over his cooling tea. “Really.” Now, this was interesting. Not many in Ruritania dared quarrel with the Armitages, even over something silly enough to be called the School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. Winslow frowned. “Perhaps they disapprove of an institution of Asian sorcery.” Ruritania, for all its young government’s earnest talk of peace and progressivism, also gave home to those who misliked the growing repute of Asian and African Ruritanians. A certain cosmopolitan aesthetic which sampled the occasional Persian chemise pattern or Vietnamese soup course was all very well, but Western nations, with their notoriously delicate constitutions, could only stomach so much of the strange and exotic.
“Oh, it is not a matter of intolerance,” said Arthur, drooping further still, “which is a shame, really. To snub the intolerant is quite fashionable in respectable Ruritanian circles now. Unfortunately, the critic I speak of is herself a Kunlunese. One Miss Mabel Lee, though she went by a properly native name in Kunlun, Ming-ling or Mu-lan, or some such thing.”
Winslow’s eyebrows climbed. “She?”
“Indeed.” Arthur leaned across the table with enthusiasm. Subtly, Winslow rescued the tray of miniature fruit tarts from Arthur’s flailing elbow. “A female magician – and a martial practitioner, at that!”
Winslow felt his eyebrows climb higher still. Women martial-magicians, sworn to the code of Jianghu, were rarer than their male counterparts, and according to the old sages of Kunlun, rarely as strong. Still, such women were not unheard of. “What seems to be the young lady’s complaint?”
“It is the most unconscionable thing!” replied Arthur. “She came to the school – for lessons, I thought – but no, the heartless creature wanted merely to pillory me. Going on about how my teachings lack authenticity. Mine! I, who spent a full year traversing the Asian continent.”
“It contains a good many countries,” said Winslow, comfortingly. “Pray, do not spill your tea over such a trifle. One disgruntled young lady, Jianghu disciple or not, should not provoke such emotional excesses.”
Arthur sniffed, curls flopping over his forehead, where they clashed unfortunately with his reddening face. “Perhaps my honor and reputation are a trifle to you, but I expect you should care rather more about the honor of your royal family.”
“Ruritania has no royal family,” said Winslow, puzzled. “I’m given to understand the young government is quite proud of its democratic achievements –”
“Don’t be daft, man! I speak of the Kingdom of Kunlun, of course.” Arthur’s gaze darted about the club, a bit nervously, as he adjusted his cravat. “In truth, I had not wanted to spread such gauche gossip about your homeland –”
“I was born in Ruritania, Arthur. And all gossip is, by definition, quite gauche, otherwise it would not be worth gossiping about.”
“– but I am privy to certain rumors. My father’s business associates, you know, they do go on. It seems the young upstart who impugned my teachings has also impugned the reputation of the Crown Prince himself. It is a scandal, of quite literally royal proportions!” Arthur looked triumphant. “Is the Prince not your own flesh and blood?”
“Prince Tai?” Winslow frowned. “I am a cousin of his, yes. However, save our blood, there is precious little in common between a rising head of state in a remote mountain kingdom, and a displaced duke who runs a Ruritanian company and takes tea with Western gentlemen.”
“But the thickness of that shared blood must stir even your wretched heart!” exclaimed Arthur. “I must say, I do so admire the Kunlunese devotion to family. I am sure your noble cousin would agree that the Lee girl is a cross-continental menace, and must be stopped.”
“Now, Arthur, you cannot simply class every woman who wields a sharp tongue as a menace, or the men of Ruritania would have none left to wed. Besides,” added Winslow, a bit impish-grinned, “I daresay I would not fare any better with such women than you do at your father’s Winter Ball.”
Arthur’s color deepened further. “I am being serious, Winslow. And it is not for nothing. Speak to your cousin. A conversation between family is not such a difficult thing.”
Winslow thought, wryly, that Arthur clearly had little experience of Kunlunese house-matrons during his year-long tour of the Asian continent, but refrained from saying so.
“I shall make it worth your while,” Arthur continued. “If you do this small thing for our friendship, I will entreat my father to stop nipping at the heels of the North Enterprise, as it were.”
Winslow froze, staring at Arthur. “How do you know about that?”
“I know some may think me an empty-handed dandy,” said Arthur, heaving his grandest sigh yet, “but I have ears. As I said, I am privy to certain rumors. My father has been attempting to snap up your family’s company since spring.”
“And I have expressed, time and again, my refusal. What does the Armitage trading empire need with a quaint little research company? We fund minor magical inventions and spell-work experimentation, not trading routes.”
Arthur shrugged. “Kunlunese magic is in fashion. My father is a businessman.”
Winslow’s fingers tightened, almost imperceptibly, on his teacup. “If I speak to my cousin of this Miss Lee of yours, you will ensure that your father puts a stop to this nonsense about an acquisition?”
“I shall speak most firmly to him,” promised Arthur. His curls bounced up and down when he nodded. “You have my word.”
Winslow leaned back in his plushly-cushioned seat, and cast a long-suffering glance toward the tea room’s finely-painted ceiling, a delicate imitation of Moroccan tile. “It will be good for my constitution to exercise my scrying mirrors, I suppose.”