“Well. It seems they’ll invite just anyone to these events. Poor General Panissar; he must be completely out of friends if he has to stuff the guest list with wharf rats.”
Ruda took her time savoring a sip of champagne before turning slowly to regard the speaker. A young woman in a daringly low-cut gown that glittered with iridescent charms stood a few steps from her, smirking over a lavishly embroidered court fan. Two more stood behind her on both sides, wearing similarly smug expressions.
“Um, I think you’re confused,” Fross noted. “This is Princess Zaruda. Not someone you should be rude to.”
“Princess, oh, but of course,” the girl tittered, fluttering her fan. “I guess in a small enough pond, the wartiest frog is the queen. So, is this what they’re wearing in Puna Dara this season?” She made a languid up-and-down gesture with her fan, indicating Ruda’s outfit. “My, that’s quite a step up from the traditional used sail canvas and fish scales. How many merchants did you have to rob to afford that coat, dear?”
Fross fluttered down to hover next to Ruda’s ear. “I think this girl may be touched in the head,” she whispered, sort of. She had mastered the breathy intonation of a whisper, but apparently not learned how to speak more quietly.
“Nah, this is a social game,” Ruda said. “Making backhanded insinuations and snippy remarks cloaked behind pretty words, trying to pull down my character. It’s how people try to assert dominance when they don’t actually have any.”
“Ooh, what a wicked little tongue you have,” the young lady said, her smirk widening. “The other scullery maids must be absolutely terrified of you.”
“Must say, I’m intrigued to see this in practice,” Ruda said mildly. “We Punaji prefer a more direct approach. For example.” Grasping her sheathed rapier in her left hand, she jerked it upward, causing it to slide out of the scabbard, then pinched the leather sheath so that the sword was trapped half out. Its glittering hilt stayed just below her eye level, held up like a scepter. “Bitch, my jewels cost ten times what yours did, and I can kill you with them. Now fuck off, you underdressed, overweening speck.”
“Bark louder,” the girl sneered. “Maybe the other dogs—”
“Why, Miss Covrin, how lovely to see you out and about!” Bishop Darling said pleasantly, oozing out from behind Ruda. “And congratulations on the outcome of your recent pregnancy scare. I’m sure all of Tiraas shares your relief that you haven’t managed to accidentally reproduce.”
The girl went dead white, her fan falling still. Her two companions both gasped softly, turning shocked gazes upon her from behind.
“Oh,” said Darling, wincing, “I’m sorry, was that meant to be a secret? I always forget these little details.”
Miss Covrin whirled and flounced rapidly away, trailing her little entourage. Darling grinned savagely after her; Ruda grunted, let her sword slide fully back into its sheath and delicately sipped at her drink.
“Okay, I am so lost,” Fross complained. “What was that about? Did you know that girl? She seemed really mad at you.”
“Never saw her before,” Ruda said idly, taking another dainty sip.
“Then why was she being so mean? It makes no sense! You’re way more important than her and there was no reason for her to act like that! And why are you drinking that so slowly? I’ve seen you go through bottles faster than the amount of time you’ve had that glass.”
“Effervescent wines, Fross my dear, are an experience. They are to be savored, one sip at a time.”
Ruda sipped her champagne. “Because if you drink ’em too fast, you get the burps.”
“And as for your other question,” Darling remarked, turning his disarming smile on the pixie, “some folks mistakenly believe that socializing is a zero-sum game. They think they have to tear somebody down in order to build themselves up.”
“And…that’s not true?”
“Eh.” He shrugged. “In certain, specific situations, it can be. As a general rule, though, you get better results being nice to people.”
“See, that’s what I think,” the pixie agreed bobbing enthusiastically. “Oh, hey, Trissiny’s back!”
The paladin strode toward them, exhibiting barely-held restraint; her stride was just short of stomping, her face scarcely less than a glare.
“I’d ask how your conversation went,” Ruda said dryly, “but, well…look at you.”
“He’s not going to do anything,” Trissiny said tightly, coming to a stop next to them. Unconsciously, she rested her left hand on her sword, thumb caressing its pommel. “Oh, he didn’t come out and say so, but all he did give me was a speech about restraint and subtlety. I know by now when I’m getting the runaround from a bureaucrat.”
Bishop Darling burst out laughing.
Trissiny stared at him in silence for a moment, her expression deteriorating further. “I’m glad I amuse, your Grace.”
“Sorry!” he wheezed. “I’m sorry, but… You just called Toman Panissar a bureaucrat. If you knew the man at all, General, you’d realize just what a grand joke that is.”
“General Panissar isn’t likely to tell you his plans under any circumstances; the world typically finds out what he intends to do after he’s done it. If he gave you a speech about restraint, well… That sounds to me less like a man declaring his intentions and more like a seasoned commander taking the opportunity to offer some advice to a less experienced one. What’s all this about, if I may ask?”
Trissiny pursed her lips for a moment before replying. “Trouble in Lor’naris. Some of his soldiers have been hassling the residents.”
“Ah, yes. That.” Darling nodded. “I begin to see why the talk of restraint. It’s good of you to take an interest, Ms. Avelea, but the Lorisians can usually handle their own affairs.”
“You know about this?” she demanded, her eyebrows rising.
“It’s been going on for a while. A number of people aren’t happy about having a district full of drow right here in Tiraas; some of them happen to wear uniforms. Like I said, the matter has never gotten out of hand.”
“Well, it’s beginning to,” she said sharply. “I personally saw soldiers of the city guard attempt to arrest several citizens on entirely trumped-up charges. If I hadn’t been there to put a stop to it, who knows how this might have escalated?”
Darling’s expression sobered in an instant. “Now that…is troubling. Not least because I hadn’t heard word of it.” He glanced around at the party-goers. Most of them were trying to be subtle about it at this point, but a lot of the nearby eyes were on their group, nakedly speculating. “I wonder if I could borrow you for a little bit, General?”
Trissiny hesitated, glancing at Ruda.
“Hell yes, go have a chat with him,” the pirate said. “This guy’s sharp. And if you didn’t get anywhere with Panissar, maybe you could use the extra help.”
“All right,” Trissiny said, nodding to Darling.
“Splendid! The General has the dullest, most unimaginative gardens in the entire city. Shall we go have a look?”
Ruda sipped at her champagne, watching them leave.
“Is…that gonna help at all?” Fross asked uncertainly. “That’s a priest, right? He can’t do much about misbehaving soldiers…”
“Could do. That’s a priest of Eserion, specifically; they’re crafty. To be frank, that’s exactly what Triss needs if she insists on getting involved in this. More confrontation will only make it worse; a little craftiness might be just the thing.”
That was as far as she got before another knot of young women manifested seemingly from thin air around her, these far more friendly than the last group had been.
“Princess Zaruda, it’s an honor to meet you,” one said, curtsying deeply. “I am Lady Laila Falsravi. Welcome to our city!”
“Glad to know you,” Ruda replied, nodding in return. “So far I like what I see.”
“I hope we’re not intruding,” another young woman said, her expression both eager and uncertain, “but, well… We just had to ask you.”
“You can ask me anything, girls,” Ruda said with a beatific smile. “I reserve the right not to answer, but I don’t stab people for curiosity.”
“Well…” Lady Laila bit her lip nervously before bursting out. “Is that really the Hand of Avei?”
As if her question had burst a dam, the others began talking over each other in their enthusiasm.
“Are you actually her roommate?”
“What’s she like?!”
“Have you seen her fight?”
“Is she single?”
After that last, they dissolved into giggles, then expectant stares, waiting avidly for her to reply.
Ruda closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath, then tilted her head back, draining her glass in one go.
“The best part,” Shaeine mused, “is how worried she was about the reception of polite society.”
“Well, that’s a fair concern, but not at this party of all places,” Mrs. Khalinar said with a smile. “Oh, I’m sure there are some crusty traditionalists in the audience who are just seething, but remember, this is General Panissar’s party. At least half those present are officers in the Army and their families. None of us will give either of you so much as a cross look, and the rest have better sense than to start trouble in a large room full of Avenists.”
“And quite a few of us are relatively accustomed to drow,” added Lady Ashravi. “None of our husbands attained the rank they have without having been posted at Fort Vaspian for at least a while.”
“Look how well she’s fitting in,” Mrs. Khalinar added wryly.
A few feet away, a knot of men of varying ages, wearing a mix of Army uniforms and formal evening wear, stood around Teal. A couple of them had female escorts at hand, who were pretending with varying degrees of enthusiasm to be interested in the conversation.
“I get what you mean,” a young man with a sergeant’s stripes was saying, “but it’s old-fashioned thinking! The advances in golem logic controllers have changed the whole game. All-wheel drive tied to a central spell network is going to revolutionize the carriage industry.”
“’Revolutionize’ is a pretty strong term,” Teal replied animatedly. “Yes, the new spell lattices have a lot of potential, but just because an enchantment is new doesn’t mean it’s better, or that it’s useful in all situations. There’s a very good reason no modern carriage maker uses centralized control for wheel enchantments.”
“Yeah, of course, it was less efficient than having four separate wheel enchantments, but that was before there were logic controllers sophisticated enough to make use of the system! I’m talking about active traction control, terrain adaptation…”
“All very nice,” she retorted, “but none of that has proven to be at all useful in actual, on-the-road trials. The separate wheel enchantments are designed for stable, mutual interaction anyway, and the existing systems have not been improved on. We’ve tested our newest lines against those clunkers put out by DawnCo, and in every single case, Falconer carriages outperformed them in adverse road conditions. With independent wheel controllers.”
“Yes, we’ve all heard about the famous trials,” an older man said with a grin. “DawnCo argues pretty vehemently with the results.”
“Yes, we smoke their carriages in tests before an independent panel, and they want to quibble about the results,” Teal said, grinning. “Shocking.”
“Welcome to the ranks of the carriage widows, dear,” Mrs. Khalinar said resignedly. Lady Ashravi laughed.
“I almost hate to spoil their fun,” Shaeine said. “How do you pull them away?”
“My experience has been that it’s easiest to let them work it out on their own,” Lady Ashravi said, watching her husband with an indulgent smile.
“Mm. We do things a little differently in Tar’naris. Please excuse me, ladies.” Shaeine bowed to them, then glided over to the other group.
Teal was just winding up another enthusiastic anecdote about carriage stability when Shaeine placed a hand on her arm. She broke off, looking at her date in surprise.
“Teal,” Shaeine said, “they have just begun playing a waltz.”
“Oh! Um, I…”
“Dance with me,” the drow ordered, gently pulling her away. Teal allowed herself to be tugged onto the dance floor, looking dazed and a little uncertain, but very quickly turned her full focus onto her partner as Shaeine expertly guided them into the steps.
“Well,” Mrs. Khalinar marveled. “Do you think that’d work?”
“I see only one way to find out,” Lady Ashravi replied with a grin.
“You’re troubled,” Shaeine murmured.
“I…cannot remember the last time I was less troubled,” Teal replied just as quietly, smiling down at her.
“That may be,” the drow said, smiling back, “but it’s still a less than perfect moment. You are tense.”
“I’m… I’ve never done anything this brazen.” She glanced around furtively at the other dancing couples. They had maneuvered near the middle of the floor; nobody nearby was even looking in their direction. “I feel like every eye in the room is on me. Knowing that’s completely irrational doesn’t change it.”
“You are concerned about word getting back to your parents?”
“Hardly,” she said rolling her eyes. “They take pride in refusing to follow gossip. I’m sure somebody will try to carry tales of this back to them, and they’ll brush it off, if they even hear it at all.”
“It is a general concern, then.”
Teal sighed softly. “I’m sorry, love. I don’t mean to spoil anything… And you! You dance beautifully. When did you learn to waltz?”
“I was trained for most of the likely social situations a diplomat to Tiraas could expect to encounter,” Shaeine replied with one of her mysterious smiles. “The hard part was acclimating myself to the expectation that the man would lead.”
Teal grinned. “Then…you’re not concerned about your mother hearing about this?”
“I have no doubt that she will. And I have no reason to think she does not trust my judgment. The nature of House Awarrion being what it is, fraternizing with humans is not discouraged. That is why there are relatively few from my House living in Lor’naris; they were never made unwelcome at home. Those who have come here did so presumably to be close to the families of their human partners.”
Teal nodded, bit her lip, and glanced around again.
“Teal,” Shaeine said gently. She lifted her hand from the taller girl’s waist and reached up to touch her cheek. “The fear is not real. The other people are not real. Nothing is real but you, me and the music.” She murmured on, her garnet eyes staring up with arresting intensity. “The world will wait. Right now, at this moment, you are only mine.”
Teal held her gaze in silence, in something very like awe, for several seconds, before the tension began to seep out of her frame. Her steps grew more fluid, and she smiled softly, replying in elvish.
“And I you.”
“Please don’t think me impertinent,” said Darling, “but I wonder if I could prevail upon you to recount the details of your brush with the soldiers? The exact sequence of events, as you’d put it in an official report.”
Trissiny frowned, but responded, keeping her eyes on the path ahead. The garden was dim, its fairy lamps fewer than those illuminating the front of the manor, but not truly dark. “I saw soldiers squaring off against civilians at the mouth of the district and went to investigate. The men were verbally accosting four members of the Lor’naris neighborhood watch, who were refusing to rise to the bait. I asked the sergeant’s name and that of his commander, he ordered his men to arrest everyone present, I revealed my identity, repeated my request and then directed the soldiers to leave. They did without further protest.”
“Hm,” said the Bishop thoughtfully. “Then you weren’t in armor at the time?”
“No. I was trying to avoid needless attention.”
“I see.” He nodded slowly. “So to review… It was more of the same that the Lorisians are accustomed to dealing with, and they were gently talking down their harassers as usual. Then you arrived, as far as anyone could tell, just some random girl. You started giving orders, the soldiers responded to that pretty much as any soldiers would… And that is when things began to go south. Yes?”
“Are you saying this is my fault?” she demanded, her voice rising an octave.
“Whoah!” Darling held up his hands. “Fault isn’t even a relevant concept here. I know what those men have been doing around that district and how the watch have been handling them. I know you aren’t likely to have done anything illegal or inappropriately aggressive, so yeah, that leaves the guard’s attempt to arrest everyone a pretty blatant abuse of authority. To answer your question, though… Maybe it would be wise for you to consider how your own actions have added to this.”
Trissiny pressed her lips into an angry line, glaring at the path ahead.
“Let me put it in military terms,” Darling said more gently. “You wouldn’t want to commit your forces to a charge without doing some reconnaissance first, right?”
“Fair enough,” she said grudgingly. “But I don’t know what else you think I should have done.”
“You’re not on trial here,” he replied. “Once again, it’s fairly obvious who’s been acting inappropriately. The question, now, is what to do about it. I think the General was right to remind you of caution. This is a tense thing; you’re dealing with groups of people who are in fairly intractable positions. The folk of Lor’naris are defending what’s theirs, what they have built up with their own hands and have the perfect right to take pride in. The guards, on the other hand, haven’t a moral prerogative here, but their specific motivations are exactly the kind of thing that makes people stubborn and unbending. The rock and the hard place; unstoppable force and immovable object.”
“Yes, I know,” she said in exasperation. “What’s important is that a direct confrontation between these parties be avoided. So everyone keeps telling me, as if I hadn’t the wit to see that for myself at a glance. The question is how?!”
“Exactly,” he nodded. “This is the time for some careful maneuvering behind the scenes.”
“Hn,” she grunted. “That’s exactly how I’d expect an Eserite to address a problem.”
“Oh, are we playing that game?” he replied wryly. “Very well. You Avenists love to talk about the art of war being applicable in any situation, which sounds impressive and all, but in practice it tends to mean that you approach every problem like a fight. Fighting, in this case, is exactly what no one should be doing. Look, the people in that district can take care of themselves and have spent years proving it. They’re pretty much the most competent, self-reliant group of folk in this city. Lorisians are a lot like frontier pioneers, but with a lot of hard-earned expertise at navigating the social and legal currents of the city. They can handle this.”
“So you just want to abandon them to it?” she demanded. “Let a corrupt unit of the city guard operate without repercussions?”
“No, no,” he said firmly. “I mean that any solution should not take the form of an avenging hero descending from on high to rescue them from their tribulations. In the best case scenario, that’ll leave the folk in that district deeply suspicious of guards and civil authorities, and the soldiers in the city—all of them, not just the offending barracks—deeply resentful of Lor’naris. It’s a recipe for inevitable trouble down the line. No…this calls for careful action.”
“Of what kind?”
“You’re not gonna like hearing this…” he said with a wince.
“To be perfectly frank, Bishop Darling, I didn’t come to this ridiculous party expecting to like anything I encountered.”
Darling’s lips twitched with repressed mirth. “Very well, then. For now, I advise you step back and let people who are in a position to gather information do so. I’m guessing Panissar said he would be following up on this? Quietly, in his own way?”
“That’s…pretty much exactly what he said,” she admitted.
He nodded. “I’ll do the same. And I can involve others; a number of the cults have interests in Lor’naris, including mine. Those that won’t talk to me directly I can reach via the Church. There’s also Ambassador Shariss, who can make inquiries and draw official attention if necessary. I, for my part, will be sending some people I trust to gather information for me in the district.”
“At the expense of igniting another interfaith tiff,” she said stiffly, “I don’t see how sending thieves to poke around will create less tension.”
“Not official Guild agents,” he said with a grin. “You’re right, that’d only ratchet up the stakes. That’s why I won’t be sticking my own personal nose into it, even though I’m fairly well liked around there. No, there are plenty of folk in Lor’naris itself who’ll be glad to bring me intelligence if I ask for it. I may just have my apprentices pop by the local inns for a drink now and again; they can be trusted to take more direct action, if needed, without officially involving the Guild. Apprentices are always rushing off and getting into trouble, you know how it is.”
“I certainly do not,” she said, twisting her lips disdainfully. “Cadets in the Legion do as they’re told, or they don’t last long.”
Darling chuckled. “Well, my point is, no one is going to ignore this. But for now, let’s have the action be of a fairly hands-off variety, yes? At least until we know more.”
“And then,” he said, “when it’s apparent what the situation is, we act gently to encourage the guards to lighten up. It may be as simple as reassigning the commander of that barracks; some firmer pressure might be needed in a few places. Or, hell, the whole thing might just up and go away on its own, if nobody stirs the pot. We’ll have to see. But in the meantime, with all due respect, I really don’t think that the Hand of Avei swaggering around barking orders will calm things down any.”
“I neither swagger nor bark,” she said stiffly. “But…I take your point. We may not be in the city for long, anyway.”
“Far be it from me to inquire into the great and mysterious Professor Tellwyrn’s plans…”
“I’ve learned there’s not much point,” she groused.
Darling grinned. “But as long as you are still in the city, I’ll see to it you’re included in anything that’s decided, provided you’re careful and don’t escalate this any further. Fair?”
“Fair enough,” she said grudgingly, nodding.
“Smashing! Then perhaps we’d best rejoin the party, before rumors about us begin to circulate!”
Trissiny sighed heavily. “Great.”