“Step through! Step through!”
The woman who stepped through the portal had never been bawled at so robustly in her life. She opened her mouth to protest the treatment and then stopped when she saw the size of the crowd in the Portals Hall.
“Is everyone in the Free Lands here?” asked her companion.
“Only half of them.” She followed an impatiently beckoning hand in the direction of a door bearing the legend “Diplomatic Visitors.” “I suppose the Princess of Pür choosing a husband attracts the hopeful.”
“Or the hopeless,” said her companion with a sniff.
“Perhaps you might save your witticisms until we’re at the Embassy?”
“I don’t see why we can’t have a portal in the Embassy,” her companion grumbled. “It would save us all this mingling . . . Or at least, we could have come last week when the Prince’s family did.”
The woman handed a form to the official at the desk. Because this was the Diplomatic Visitors desk, the official contrived to look only a little bored as he scanned the document.
“Rati, from Melucha? And this is . . . Dev? Anything to declare?”
“Poisons, knives, other weapons?”
“How uncouth.” The official shrugged. “Normally, we don’t bother diplomatic visitors, but after the incident yesterday, we’ve increased security. Any luggage?”
“Sent ahead. What incident yesterday?”
“You’ll hear about it at your embassy. Go through, please.”
Trailed by Dev, Rati made her way outside. A carriage with the crest of Melucha emblazoned on the door was waiting in the portico. Rati greeted the unfamiliar driver and got in. They drove in silence along busy streets for several minutes. Elaborate gardens were on either side. Rati could name only a handful of the flowers that scented the air. She had had a thorough education in botany, by the standards of Melucha, which meant she could identify every poisonous plant by root, stem and leaf, but her knowledge of decorative blooms was limited.
“Does this city never end?” Dev muttered.
“We’re taking the long way around,”Rati replied. ‘To avoid cutting through the centre of the city. We might spend hours stuck in the crowd there. We’ll be at the Embassy soon.”
It was another half hour before the carriage finally drew to a halt in the courtyard of the Embassy of Melucha. A large sign outside informed all comers that they were now on Meluchan soil and unlicensed magic was banned. “It happens all the time, though,’ Rati warned Dev. “The Maharaja has a lax attitude to the regulation of magic, so nobody takes the warning seriously.”
“Why are we even here? Neither of us is participating in the swayamvara.”
“We are here because nearly everyone of any importance in all the Free Lands is here. Try to make some friends.”
In the back garden of the Embassy of Melucha, quite as beautiful as any of the other gardens of the city, but far more dangerous to the idle taker of walks and nibbler of berries, two young men were arguing over a plant.
“That can’t possibly be the one he meant, Kalban,” said the younger of the two. “He said the fourth from the end –”
“He said deadly nightshade! The fourth from the end is woody nightshade.”
“Look, let’s just take both.”
“And get a lecture about not paying attention? No, thank you. We’re taking the deadly nightshade.”
“Why are we doing this, anyway? Can’t the Embassy staff help?”
“They grow the plants. That’s all you can expect. You can’t ask the staff to help you brew poisons outside Melucha. They don’t have diplomatic immunity. They’ll be arrested as co-conspirators if we murder someone.”
“It’s a demonstration – and only because the Yaunic Ambassador specifically asked for one. We should take both plants. We can tell Father we thought he could use the other one to compare – what’s that?”
That was a building just visible across the lengths of three intervening gardens. The windows of one wing had begun flashing with light.
“Madh!” Kalban leapt to his feet. “Meenakshi said they were going to open portals directly into the High Commission instead of coming through the Portals Hall.”
“Mother said that would take far too much paperwork.”
“Yes, because Melucha is another country. Madh is part of Pür. The only paperwork is what the Portals Regulation Authority wants.”
He glanced down at the two plants. “What should we do about this?”
“Never mind, I’ll deal with the supplies for the demonstration,” said Abhinav. “You can go and greet your friends.”
“So that you can show Father how dedicated you are, while I’m off having a good time?”
“Maybe.” Abhinav shrugged. “So what? You do realise nobody thinks you’re good at botany, don’t you? The one thing you have in your favour is that you get on with the Master Sorcerer. You might as well go. I’m sure Mother will come join you as soon as she’s dealt with Rati.”
Kalban hesitated a moment longer. Then he went down the garden path to the back gate.
“Keep it moving,” snapped the official from the Portals Regulation Authority. “Don’t dawdle. You should all have received your room allocations before leaving Madh. Please remember that only licensed practitioners may perform magic outside the High Commission grounds.”
“She didn’t have to look right at me when she said that,” muttered the young woman exiting the portal with two companions.
“You didn’t have to sneak your griffon to Rajgir under an Illusion, Meenakshi, but here we are.”
Excerpted with permission from Miracles of the Maharaja, Aditi Krishnakumar, Duckbill.