The rage surging across her skin was probably making her stupid, funny how she didn’t care. For just a moment, she tried not to smile, then forgot every reason why she should hold back. She smiled up at him from her seat and pushed herself back in her chair. Leaning one elbow on the carved wooden arm, she tilted her head toward her hand as if she might hide her mouth. She touched her lips with two fingers and covered nothing.
She tried to understand how it was that someone else’s anger could make her so reckless. Then she watched him a moment longer as he leaned against the table in front of her, jaw working at throwing his words out loud and sharp and fast, and understood she had swallowed a piece of it. She wasn’t only face forward in the gale of it, she was breathing it in, and there was just enough heat under her skin now to relax her into this stupidity.
It barely took him a moment to take in her smile, though he finished his sentence before he held himself to a brief silence.
“Are you mocking me, Lady Marike?” he asked.
Marike should have let her smile drop away then. Instead, she was talking herself out of laughing at the brittle control in Arjan’s tone. He could so easily have shouted the question at her.
She took her hand away from her mouth, raised her head a little. “Should I not be?”
Arjan leaned a little heavier on his hands. “If you won’t take this seriously…” He paused, leaving her an invitation to interrupt. She let it stretch until the invitation was obvious to the entire council room and smiled wider when he shifted his feet.
“Of course, I take it seriously,” Marike told him. “I would ask if you had somehow missed the arguments I just delivered for these alliance appeals, but you can’t have. If you had, I would have to count this personal attention as favoritism.”
Nodding to himself, Arjan paused to take a shallow breath. “You’re mocking me,” he said.
“I haven’t denied it for a moment,” Marike returned quickly. “How can I, when you yourself admit how poor you think your own arguments are? You clearly believe they must be shouted if they’re to make any impression at all.”
Arjan stared at her.
Marike turned to the side so he wouldn’t have to see her smile grow sharply wider. “Tell me I’m wrong, my lord,” she said. “And I’ll sign and swear my apologies.”
Arjan met her eye and she thought she saw his hand shake on the edge of the table. “You’re wrong,” he told her. But it wasn’t but loud enough to reach the entire room.
Marike raised her eyebrows.
Arjan watched her, jaw tightening.
Then the Clan Lady applauded from her place at the head of the room. The sound echoed, snapped in the silence, and caught the attention of the entire council. Every head turned. Arjan straightened awkwardly. Marike’s smile thinned. A moment before it would occur to anyone they ought to join her, she stopped, pointing to her secretary with a cat’s grin.
“Write all that down,” she commanded. “That’s exactly how I want it put in the history books. Those pages always need a little spice.” She turned immediately to Marike and Arjan, pinning them each with a pointed look that betrayed her good humor. “It won’t do for the play though.”
“My lady?” Arjan murmured.
“No,” she continued, as if he had just made a valid counter argument. “No, you’ll have to pull a dagger at the very least, and she’ll fight you off bare-handed, but you’ll have a good run around the room. The chorus can come out and narrate the scene with a song, remind the audience that this is properly philosophical disagreement, not just some hot-headed battle of wills.”
Arjan coughed in surprise at the jab. Marike covered her mouth until she could lose the last corners of her smile.
“We’ll choreograph it later, I think,” the Clan Lady said. “After we’ve concluded our business.”
“Yes, my lady,” Arjan said. Bowing, he returned immediately to his seat.
Marike took a deep breath, then nodded across the room, apologizing and thanking her in the same motion.
The Clan Lady hid her final smile.