After nightfall, the halls of Madouri Manner were dim but not dark, the fairy lamps still active but lowered in intensity to leave the corridors easily navigable, creating a twilight state that, if anything, emphasized the quality of their furnishings. Pacing through them alone in the quiet of the night, Trissiny mulled what she was seeing in the context of what she’d been taught by the Thieves’ Guild.
Though her apprenticeship had been short and thus necessarily less nuanced than the personal training young Eserites got from direct sponsors, she had often sought out Lore for insights, finding his cerebral style more to her liking. One of his lessons turned over in her head as she took her time inspecting the home of House Madouri, concerning the importance of good taste among the rich. People with money and a lavish sense of style, Lore had warned, were the worst kind of people, the most likely to need a Guild-administered comeuppance and most likely to take it badly when one came, but also not usually all that difficult to thwart. Watch for gold in places where gold doesn’t belong, he had warned; other senior thieves she’d questioned had expanded her understanding of tasteless extravagance. The tendency to flaunt wealth without restraint often went hand-in-hand with brutality and cruelty, but seldom with intelligence.
That was not the case here.
House Madouri’s wealth was very much on display, but in less tacky ways. The sheer size of the place, for one. The fact that they could afford to keep lights on all night—and the way they dimmed them for aesthetic effect was another warning. Carpets were plush and well-kept, but not excessively decorated, wallpaper elegant but understated, and even the wall paneling, though lovingly polished till it glowed even in the dimness, was clearly oak and not the fancier cherry or mahogany that would flaunt the House’s deep coffers. There was not a glimmer of gold to be seen, anywhere.
Beware the rich and restrained, Lore had warned. Sometimes they were the good ones; other times, they were by far the most dangerous. Trissiny suspected she knew into which category Duchess Ravana fell.
Whatever else it was, Madouri Manor was old and not terribly well insulated; in the hallways, away from the hearths and arcane heaters which warmed the mansion’s rooms, it was rather drafty at this time of year. In truth, it might have felt worse than it was to Trissiny, who was pacing the corridors in a simple shirt, trousers, and the slippers which had been provided with her guest room. It left her thinking fondly of that room, and its late-model arcane radiator and amazingly plush blankets.
She turned a corner that looked vaguely familiar, and found herself in a stretch of hall that looked exactly like the one behind her, save that this one had exterior windows along one side, and on the other, one of the oak doors stood open and there was light within.
Having no better idea, Trissiny crept forward and peeked around the corner.
It was a study, not small but still cozy in aspect, with a merry fire in its large hearth and two plush armchairs set before it. Most of the walls were covered by heavily laden bookshelves all the way up to the ceiling, save at the far end of the room, where there stood a heavy writing desk. Behind it sat Ravana herself, perusing one of the numerous sheets of paper laid out upon the desk and making occasional notes with a pen.
She looked up, and smile. “Oh, good evening, Trissiny.”
“Hi,” Trissiny answered, easing fully around the corner. “I’m sorry to interrupt, I didn’t expect to find you still busy at this hour.”
“Not to worry, this is just a…pet project. Something to draw down the mental tension before bed. Today was ultimately productive, though annoying in how it came to its end. I am sorry to have missed dinner. I hope everyone had a pleasant meal.”
“We did,” Trissiny said, “and don’t worry, you did warn us you’d be busy this week.”
“Quite. Still, it will be a glum irony if I cannot manage to spend some time with friends until our vacation is over. Were you looking for something?”
“Ah.” Trissiny glanced over her shoulder at the hallway outside. “Well, actually, I was having some trouble sleeping, so I went to stretch my legs a little. Then I thought maybe the kitchen might have some warm milk or something, and I tried to find it. And…”
Ravana’s smile widened incrementally. “Are you lost?”
“Be honest: does that happen to a lot of visitors?”
“Oh, my, yes. This house is frankly asinine in most of its details; there is simply no reason for anyone to have a residence this large, not to mention that its interior layout is quite deliberately obfuscatory. A number of my ancestors took unseemly delight in being difficult.”
“Well,” she said, grinning ruefully, “I don’t feel quite so bad, then.”
“Please don’t,” Ravanna said with a reassuring little chuckle. “Fortunately, your wanderings have brought you back near your starting point. If you go back out the way you came, turn left, then right, then right again, you’ll come right to the foyer of your suite. There’s a kitchen attached, but if you’re having a brush with insomnia, may I offer you some hot chocolate? It always does the trick for me.”
She shifted aside the thick ledger which had partially obscured a tall carafe set on a tray at one side of the desk. It was accompanied by two mugs; a third, Trissiny now noticed, stood near Ravana’s elbow.
“Oh, actually…that sounds perfect, if it’s not an imposition.”
“You are a guest,” Ravana said warmly, already pouring. “Offering a spot of sustenance is purely the minimum I can do. Please, join me.”
There was a chair in front of the desk as well, padded though nowhere near as plush as those by the fire. Trissiny slid into it, accepting the mug her hostess proffered with a nod.
“Thanks very much.”
“My pleasure. And if he attempts to rib you over this tomorrow, may I just mention that according to Yancey, Gabriel has been lost thrice already today. The second time, he actually ended up in a wine cellar. I know I shouldn’t poke fun; we regularly have to retrieve servants during the first few months of their employment here. I only know my way about because I spent my childhood exploring the place rather than receiving any attention from my parents.”
Though Ravana delivered that anecdote with an apparent lack of feeling, Trissiny found it a very opportune moment to hide behind a sip from her mug rather than have to come up with something to say. In the next moment, though, she found herself blinking in surprise down at the rich liquid within.
“Oh! This cocoa is…”
“Sipping chocolate, actually, with just the right amount of orange and cinnamon. An Arkanian recipe. If you ask me, the famous Glassian chocolate is vastly overvalued. Cacao doesn’t even grow in that climate; how much could they possibly know about its preparation?”
She savored her next sip, finding it even better now that it wasn’t a surprise. The chocolate was so thick it barely seemed liquid, perfectly spiced so that its sweetness wasn’t cloying, smoothed with cream so that neither the sugar nor cinnamon was rough on the throat. Trissiny had always disdained material comforts, but this she could get used to.
“I’m sorry your day was stressful,” she offered. “But at least it ended well?”
“Indeed,” Ravana said, smiling in clear self-satisfaction. “I have filled the traditional role of Warden, and in a manner which should alleviate the burden upon my coffers somewhat.”
“Warden… I don’t think I’ve heard of that office.”
“It’s quite old-fashioned; I don’t believe any House still uses one.”
“Ah, like your Court Wizard.”
“Indeed, and my Lord-Captain of the Guard, another anachronism I’ve brought back.”
Trissiny sipped her drink pensively. “Why resurrect these outdated titles, if I may ask?”
“Because,” Ravana said, her brows lowering very slightly to hint at a troubled line of thought, “I am a reformer. My father left this poor province in the most appalling state of disarray; nearly every detail of its administration has urgently needed to be changed, and when I took over, it seemed to me only logical to take this golden opportunity to modernize.”
“That sounds like good sense to me,” Trissiny agreed.
“One would think,” the Duchess said with a faint sigh of annoyance. “Imagine my surprise upon learning that the people most resistant to reform are those who stand to benefit most from it. People like the comfort of routine. Evidently, they would rather embrace overt suffering than the inconvenience of having to adapt to new ways of thinking. That was a most edifying lesson for me. Well, I obviously cannot back down from the reforms I already instigated, such as my attempt to retire the address of Grace for the duke or duchess of the province, an anachronism which is purely confusing in the modern age of Bishops. My position is precarious enough without losing face. But I have discovered that the very same people who fly into a furor at even a suggestion of reform will swallow absolutely any pill if it’s coated in tradition. Never mind that my ideas are mostly new, and frequently imported from the Five Kingdoms and even farther afield; resurrect a few traditional titles and old festivals that my father and grandfather stopped financing, and everyone’s happey.” She shook her head. “Honestly, people are such children.”
Trissiny had just taken another sip, and now took her time to swallow while considering a response to that.
“I can only imagine how frustrating that must be. It seems to me, though, that a condescending attitude toward your subjects can only lead you in a dangerous direction.”
“Hm.” Ravana regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then her eyes slipped past Trissiny to stare into the fire. “Yes, even beyond the demands of your various doctrines, you’ve had some rather unpleasant brushes with various nobles, have you not?”
“It’s been my experience that nobles are people like any other. They can be good or bad, individually, according to their own natures.”
“I am not sure I agree with that. Growing up with power has a noticeable effect upon the brain.”
“I know several Eserites who grew up noble, and you wouldn’t know it from talking to them.”
“Good for them,” Ravana said with apparent sincerity, returning her gaze to Trissiny’s face. “But as for condescension, yes. I doubt any would be fool enough to say it right in front of you, but it is common enough for people in my social class to compare their subjects to domestic animals.”
“They don’t need to say it out loud for the attitude to be known,” Trissiny said wryly.
Ravana nodded, picked up her own mug of chocolate, and took a sip. “It is, of course, a lie.”
The paladin frowned, lowering her mug. “A lie? Simple arrogance, I’ll grant you. I mean, obviously people aren’t animals, but I don’t see what anyone would gain from claiming that, except as an expression of pure contempt.”
“It is precisely because people are people,” Ravana said, gazing intently into her eyes now. “Because people in a position of power have to believe certain things about themselves in order to justify having that power, and the basic empathy common to anyone who is not mentally defective in some way interferes with that justification. A duke or princess can look at a peasant laborer and see themselves, if they allow it. They don’t, because that is what terrifies them to their core. More than anything else, the realization that they are not different, truly, let alone better, is a deep-seated horror for the ruling class. That with the benefit of their resources and upbringing, any chambermaid might be as good or better at their job. And so, they construct a whole new view of the world to justify their privileges.”
“That is…remarkably enlightened of you,” Trissiny said slowly.
“You can see it in the way they behave, you know. This overt contempt for the lower classes gives the lie to its very self. After all, if one keeps domestic livestock, one takes care of them. Is that not obvious? They are valuable property, an investment. The point is to receive a return on that investment, which mandates the pursuit of best practices. People who abuse those underneath them reveal their fundamental weakness. They are willing to do anything to silence that niggling doubt in the backs of their minds, and take out their insecurities on those they would be most ardently protecting, were their protestations of superiority truly sincere.”
Trissiny remained silent now, just watching her. She wasn’t adept enough at reading people to untangle all the nuances here, but it was plain enough that Ravana was getting something off her chest that mattered deeply to her.
“I do not play such games,” Ravana continued, her tone softer, “because I feel no need to justify myself. I have the advantages I have, and that is a simple fact. I am the product of a thousand years of careful breeding, and the most expensive education a person can receive. I am, fundamentally, a superior creature. And so, as a competent businesswoman, I do my very best to ensure the health and happiness of my subjects, and do not suffer them to be mistreated. Because only a well cared-for citizen is a productive citizen. Because I do not care what they think. They are, in comparison, the livestock. If I abused them for the sake of my ego, I would become an even lesser creature than they.”
Slowly, Trissiny raised her mug again and took a deep sip of the chocolate, barely tasting the delicacy as she bought time to think. The instinctive surge of anger and revulsion she recognized for what it was, and carefully pushed it aside without allowing it to show on her face.
“Now,” she said at last, “what game are you playing, here, Ravana? You are far too intelligent to say a thing like that to the face of an Eserite Avenist paladin and expect agreement. Quite a few of my predecessors in Avei’s service, and most tagged members of the Guild, would already be beating you senseless by now.”
The faintest of smiles quirked the corner of Ravana’s mouth. “Well. Perhaps I simply wanted to say it to someone. It’s entirely normal for a person to want recognition; people are always saying things they shouldn’t in a simple plea to be understood. It’s why villains in stories always seem to reveal their evil plans to the hero at the last moment. People do that in real life, too, you know.”
“People as fully self-controlled as you?”
“You flatter me,” the Duchess said, inclining her head in an almost-bow. “But you are not wrong; I do little without a practical motive. The truth is, Trissiny, I am simply not someone I would expect you to like, or respect, at least on a personal level. Very much about my true character is likely to raise alarm bells in the mind of a person such as yourself. By dint of the very things that make me unpalatable to Avenist or Eserite sensibilities, though, I am not your enemy. It has always seemed to me that sufficiently examined self-interest is indistinguishable from altruism, up to a point. I arrive at my conclusions via a different logic than the idealist, but my very cynicism leads me to insist upon justice, mercy, and generosity as a standard for leadership.”
She paused to take another long sip of her chocolate, her eyes never leaving Trissiny’s over the rim of the mug even after she had daintily swallowed.
“Because it will never need to be my face held in the punchbowl, and I think I would rather you understand that before you are forced to make a quick decision under pressure.”
Trissiny deliberately breathed in and out, indulging in a moment to center herself against the surge of emotion that brought, all under Ravana’s piercing gaze. The young aristocrat was far too canny not to know exactly the effect that comment would have. Even knowing word games like this were not her own strong suit, Trissiny knew the importance of remaining calm and in control. All the greatest mistakes of her life had stemmed from temper and the injudicious expression of outrage.
“And you think,” she said after a pause, “this is giving me that impression?”
Ravana quirked one eyebrow. “Admittedly, I am less immersed in religious doctrine than you, but it was my impression that neither Avei nor Eserion ask their followers to be the arbiter of other people’s moral character. What difference does it make what goes on inside my head, so long as the result is in the best interests of those who depend on me?”
“What goes on in your head determines what you decide their best interest is, Ravana. It’s obvious to all that you’ve done great things with this province, even in a short time; your generosity has already become famous throughout the Empire. But you also have a noted tendency to be aggressive, duplicitous, and to choose the most gratuitously destructive means possible of dealing with anyone who opposes you. It’s a small campus, you know; everybody knows about Addiwyn and the entling. Everyone certainly knows why Oak is the way she is now.”
“There is a marked difference between my enemies and people dependent upon me.”
“For how long?”
“Ah, ah,” Ravana chided, smiling. “The slippery slope is one of the classic logical fallacies.”
“That’s not the nature of your problem at all,” Trissiny said pensively, finally setting her mug down atop the desk. “I don’t see a gradual slide into depravity in your future, Ravana. It will be more abrupt.”
Ravana placed her own mug on the desk, then folded her hands demurely on its surface and regarded Trissiny with a calmly open expression. “Oh? I confess, I am rather interested to hear your thoughts on this.”
“In the martial arts,” Trissiny said, leaning forward, “we train through repetition. Moves are drilled, individually and in sequence, until they become habit. Only then will you execute them when they are needed without having to think. A fight is not a chess match; pausing to consider every motion will cause you to swiftly lose. You must practice blows, dodges, and parries until you will simply perform them without hesitation when they are called for. It’s the same with the moral arts.”
“Moral arts,” Ravana mused. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that expression.”
“It works the same way, though. Doing the right thing requires a commitment to practice. Considering every little dilemma analytically just leaves you prone to indulging in temptation as much as you embrace ethical action. You seem to have this idea that you’re superior to conventional morality because you’ve thought out why morality exists, because you’ve followed it back far enough to figure that yes, our ancestors derived moral rules purely out of what made the best practices for maintaining a functional society.”
“Quite frankly, yes. To do a thing because one understands it is fundamentally better than doing it out of blind habit or obedience. I confess I am very surprised to hear a student of Professor Tellwyrn’s suggest otherwise. You have heard her pet theory about stupidity and evil, have you not?”
“Everyone at the school has heard it,” Trissiny said dryly. “Most wrong action is due to thoughtlessness, not malice. It’s her favorite rant.”
“I think…she has a point, though I’m less convinced it explains everything as neatly as she thinks. But that isn’t what I’m saying at all, Ravana. Yes, it’s absolutely better to understand what makes moral actions moral. Yes, you can approach them pragmatically and find good, even cynical reasons why ideas like compassion and justice are functional. But understanding and acting are not the same thing. You mentioned me having to make a quick decision under pressure?”
She leaned back in the chair, still holding Ravana’s gaze, and folded her own hands in her lap in a deliberately calm posture.
“What will happen when you have to do the same thing, Ravana?”
The Duchess regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment.
“I’m not sure your core contention holds up,” she mused at last. “Ruling a country is far more like a game of chess than a duel.”
“Up to a point, sure. Much of the time, probably. But you know very well that times come when you have to test your will and your power against those who oppose you, when you have to act fast. At times like that, it’s the movements you’ve practiced that will reflexively emerge. You seem to have practiced ponderous speeches about why you’re better than everyone else. So what makes you so fundamentally different from those other nobles you despise? Under pressure, will you make better choices than they?”
“Interesting,” Ravana said. Her smile remained, but had begun to seem fixed in place and slightly brittle. “It’s not that I don’t follow your reasoning, Trissiny, and in fact you are not without a point. It’s an intriguing angle, one I had not considered. But ultimately, you are speaking in hypotheticals, and we don’t really need to, do we? I have been tested under pressure. Experience suggests that what I do when pressed is swiftly conceive a strategy, and lead others in executing it. With, I might add, an established record of success.”
“What you do under pressure,” Trissiny said evenly, “is fix your attention on a perceived enemy and throw everything you’ve got into destroying them, and lend your natural charisma to getting everyone around you to go along with it. Nothing you’ve done that I’m aware of makes me think I have ever needed to intervene in your business, Ravana, otherwise we probably wouldn’t be talking like this. But nothing you’ve done reassures me that I’ll never have to. I can’t predict any specific scenario where I’ll have to put your face in a punchbowl, but honestly? If one arises, I’m not going to be terribly surprised.”
The Duchess regarded her in silence, smiling with her eyes slightly narrowed.
“Saddened,” Trissiny said softly, “but not surprised. I firmly agree with you, y’know. I don’t like the idea of us being at cross purposes. It just seems so…wasteful. More than anything, you seem to me like someone who truly wants to do the right thing, and doesn’t exactly know how. That whole punchbowl business was a mistake; I wouldn’t do that again.”
“I’m not sure I agree,” Ravana said, her voice wry. “It goes back to the fundamental difference I was talking about, between those who have power and those who don’t. That is a terribly abusive way to treat the vulnerable, and likely to backfire, but the powerful? You really can’t get through to such as Irina Araadia except by appealing to greed or fear.”
“Be that as it may, it wasn’t strategic. Too prone to creating unpredictable outcomes.”
“It was the sort of thing I would have done,” Ravana said softly. “Which seems to speak to the heart of our disagreement, does it not?”
Trissiny nodded. “If you prefer to think in strategic rather than moral terms, consider it a cautionary tale. That outburst caused a political backlash I barely managed to get under control, and doing so required a lot of highly-placed help. If I can learn to restrain my violent impulses, you absolutely can.”
Ravana let her gaze wander, again studying the fire. Her expression contemplative, she leaned backward in her chair, letting her hands fall from the desk into her lap. For a long span of seconds, only the gentle crackling of the fire filled the room.
“Well,” Trissiny said, straightening up as if shaking off the mood, “thank you for the chocolate. That really hit the spot; I think I’ll have a much easier time getting to sleep now.”
“Yes, something warm and heavy in the stomach does wonders,” Ravana agreed, focusing on her again with a warm smile. “It was my pleasure entirely. Good night, Trissiny.”
She stood, inclining her head politely. “Good night, Ravana.”
The paladin turned and made for the door. She had actually put a foot across the threshold when the Duchess spoke again.
She paused, turning back with her eyebrows raised.
“I hope we can have many more arguments like this,” Ravana said. She was still smiling, the expression now seeming calm and sincere—whether because it was, or because she had regained enough equilibrium to fake it, only she herself knew. “Power, whatever its source, twists the mind. People like you and I urgently need opposition to stay sane.”
“I’ve had the same thought myself,” Trissiny agreed, smiling. She nodded once more, then turned and slipped back out into the hall.
Behind her, the young Duchess Madouri slumped back in her chair once more, expression growing dour as she gazed into the distant nothingness beyond the walls of her manor.
Moments later, Trissiny’s head reappeared in the doorway. “Um…”
Ravana grinned. “Left, then right, then right.”
“Got it. Thanks.”