Trissiny privately thought that House Araadia’s ancestors would be disgusted. The current head of House clearly didn’t know what a perimeter was, much less how to maintain it; getting in had been quite literally a walk in the park. Specifically, the small private park which had a secret entrances leading both into the manor and the alley behind the estate. Once through the outer defenses—to apply the word very loosely—navigating the manor itself wasn’t any more difficult. It was unfair, she knew, to cast such aspersions when this was actually helping her, not to mention that she was getting inside using intel provided by an actual member of the Araadia family, and the path had been opened by agents planted within the family’s servants and secured by Thieves’ Guild enforcers by the time she even got there.
But still, it was the principle of the thing. There had been a time when a noble House was meant to be a defensible political unit; on paper, at least, they still had the obligation to protect those within their employ. Hostiles should not be able to just walk in. Hell, she, Gabriel, and Yasmeen weren’t even the worst of it; Toby had literally gone in the front door and bluffed his way through using sheer rank.
“And this is a feature common to ballrooms owned by Houses, or facilities which cater to them,” Yasmeen narrated quietly, leading the way to the balcony rail which overlooked the dance floor a story below. “An architect’s duty is to provide a grand public space where people can mingle and be seen, balanced with liberal access to private corners where they can disappear to canoodle and/or plot skulduggery. Wraparound balconies such as this aren’t the only way to achieve this result, but they’re a particularly efficient one, and thus popular. Note the position of the fairy lamps on the outer sides of the support pillars, and lack of any lighting on the balcony itself! This, coupled with these strategic climbing vines—not easy to cultivate indoors—and the high, outward-leaning rail, make it all but impossible for those below to observe those above, while we can see them with perfect clarity.”
Trissiny touched Gabriel on the shoulder, tugging lightly; he had gone right to the rail and been about to lean out over it. At her silent urging, he pulled back, giving her a wry look.
“The Guild has secured this spot for now,” Trissiny said in a low voice, “but the longer they keep people out, the more likely someone will notice and make an outcry.”
“That’s inevitable, anyway,” Yasmeen replied at the same volume, “given that this is far from the only spot they are pinning down. Timing will be the key; the pieces are already in motion, and you must move at the right moment. It will be best if your moment comes before the guests realize they are encircled by thieves, but it should work regardless.”
“There’s a Butler down there,” Trissiny noted. “Guild enforcers are not going to stand up to that.”
“He’s accompanying Lord Taveshin,” Yasmeen reassured her. “Lady Araadia doesn’t have one. Wilkes will only act to protect his client, not secure House Araadia.”
“How many of those women with swords know how to use them?”
“I would say roughly half. But really, it won’t come to that, I assure you.”
“Hm,” Trissiny grunted skeptically, studying the guests. It wasn’t quite as easy as the design of the ballroom was meant to make it from up here; the place was dimmer than it would ordinarily be, with much of the light provided by glowing illusory trees and vines which had been conjured around the walls, climbing the support pillars, and overshadowing the buffet tables. The effect was dizzyingly beautiful, but did no favors for visibility.
She looked up to find Gabriel watching her sidelong, wearing an amused little smile.
“What are you smirking at?” she demanded.
He shook his head, smile widening, and turned his gaze back to the scene below. “I’ve missed you.”
That was so far from what she had expected that she could only stare at him, mouth slightly open. At least he was no longer looking in her direction, or she’d never live that down.
“Ah, looks like Toby’s already struck out before we arrived,” Yasmeen murmured, pointing.
“Baseball term,” Gabriel explained. “Didn’t you play baseball growing up?”
“Ball games aren’t huge in Viridill. Martial arts and war games, mostly.”
“Let me guess,” Gabriel said, narrowing his eyes to peer closely at Toby down below, “that’s this Lark character I’ve been hearing about.”
“The same,” Yasmeen confirmed.
Oliver Lark was the Vidian cleric who was apparently a key player in city politics, and a large part of the reason for their intervention here. To judge by his name and fair coloring, he was of frontier stock; most of the nobles assembled below were local, the Calderaan being the same dark-haired and olive-skinned ethnicity as the Tiraan, by and large. Lark and Toby stood off to the side, conversing quietly, which meant that Toby’s first intervention with Lady Araadia had failed. Both of them stood out somewhat, being in formal clerical robes, Lark’s a dashing ensemble of black and white (Vidians did not have an official costume, exactly, but borrowed elements from other cults to create whatever impression circumstances required), while Toby wore plain and simple brown which contrasted powerfully with the glittering outfits all around him. Trissiny had never seen him wear robes before. In fact, he looked rather stately in them.
Unlike the last time she had crashed a high society party, she was just in her silver armor, not having bothered with a dress uniform. She wasn’t here to impress these people—at least, not favorably. The armor’s disappearance from the grove might worry Lanaera, which she regretted, but a shaman of her grandmother’s skill could doubtless verify that she was well; fae magic was good for information gathering, provided it was gathered by spirits with whom the shaman had a good relationship. Gabriel hadn’t dressed up, either, though he had at least brushed clean his dark green overcoat and combed his hair, for once.
Glancing at him, she did a surreptitious double take. When had he started carrying his spine so straight? She remembered him with a permanent awkward hunch. It made him look taller.
“Now, that’s the one we’ll want to watch,” Yasmeen said, stepping up to the rail, and pointing. “Lady Irina Araadia is the one in blue, with half her tits on display like a burlesque dancer. As soon as Velvet makes her move, you’ll need to make yours.”
“I see her,” Trissiny nodded. “And it’s really not necessary to shame another woman for either her body or sexuality, Yasmeen.”
“Trissiny, please! A little credit!” Yasmeen turned to her, putting on a faux-wounded look. “I am fashion shaming. Do you note, glancing about, that decolletage is not a widely used component of current styles? Clothing is communication. It is a powerful way to send a message, to express the very identity one chooses to cultivate. I know you are aware that the greatest effect of that silver armor is not its ability to protect you from arrows. It reveals a great deal about a woman if the only thing she can think to express is ‘hey, look at these!’”
“Heh,” Gabriel muttered, grinning. “Reveals.”
Trissiny gave him a long-suffering look. “And you almost got through a conversational mention of breasts without making an ass of yourself.”
“I know, right? Close save!”
“How dare you!” The shrill exclamation was loud enough to cut through the general pattern of lively conversation among the party-goers and drift up to the balcony above. In the sudden silence below, a path opened as socially-attuned aristocrats melted out of the way of Lady Araadia and the dark-suited figure of Velvet, the local Guild Underboss, who had appeared next to the tables and was in the process of selecting a canape.
“And that’s our cue,” Gabriel said, pushing back from the rail. “Wish us luck!”
“You don’t need it, my dears,” Yasmeen assured them with a smirk of pure mischief. “Just be yourselves.”
He gallantly offered Trissiny his arm. “My lady?”
“I’m only not smacking you because I want your hair still relatively presentable when we get down there,” she informed him, turning and making for the main stairs, in the opposite direction from the discreet servant’s staircase by which they had reached the balcony. He laughed, falling into step beside her.
The sound of the ongoing row faded as they descended the stairwell, then grew again when they were closer to the bottom floor. While on the stairs, Gabriel withdrew the twisted black wand from inside his coat and extended it to its full length, using the scythe like a walking stick. Somehow, the rhythmic thump of its shaft against the floor was ominous even to her.
The stairs came out at a landing where a grand hall led from the front of the manor, right before a pair of wide doors which opened onto the ballroom itself—or rather, onto a short flight of steps descending to it, giving those assembled within a perfect view of anyone entering. A stately-looking man in Araadia livery stood beside the doors, there to facilitate exactly that purpose. He was very studiously ignoring the loud spectacle of his head of House shouting at an intruder, but the sudden appearance of the two of them managed to surprise him visibly.
“General Trissiny Avelea,” she declared before he could challenge their presence, “Hand of Avei.”
“Gabriel Arquin,” he added right on her heels, “Hand of Vidius.”
The herald quickly marshaled his expression, bowed to them, and turned to face the ballroom. While Trissiny and Gabriel descended the stairs, his voice rang out, announcing their identities.
This, naturally, caused a stir—but a muted one, the party attendees’ attention being divided between them and the ongoing spectacle of the Lady of the House and her long-lost sister. That, of course, had been the entire point: arranging for the two paladins to corner Irina under circumstances in which she had no chance to seize control of the ensuing conversation. There was a time not long ago when Trissiny would have rolled her eyes and called Princess Yasmeen’s entire plan here a grandiose waste of time, but in the last few months she had learned a great deal about the importance of social maneuvering—and how the lessons of military strategy applied to it. Perhaps the most compelling argument for this gambit was how readily Velvet had agreed to it. A noble by blood she might be, but one did not become a Thieves’ Guild underboss without being hard-nosed and pragmatic.
“My tolerance was frayed to begin with, Cardassa,” Lady Irina was snarling at Velvet as they approached. “If you are going to disrupt my social life merely to taunt me, I will yet see you disowned and banished from the city!”
“I would honestly like to see you try to get me banished, Irina,” Velvet said with a light sigh. She had picked up some kind of delicate-looking puff pastry which glowed, tiny blue motes of light seeming to coalesce out of the air and form a scintillating glaze over its surface. “Are you actually feeding this to your guests? You’ve never seen someone suffering from mana poisoning, I take it.”
“Those were handcrafted by the— No, I will not be baited into another of these exchanges. Remove yourself from my house immediately, and I will spare you, one last time, the indignity of being bodily hurled into the street.”
“The guards are too afraid of me even to try that, and you know it. You’ll have to forgive my sister,” she added past Irina’s shoulder to Trissiny. “She’s still tetchy because I trashed her art collection.”
“The complete Fire Lilies collection by Avistaan of Anteraas!” Irina raged. “Those paintings were priceless!”
“Priceless is the same as worthless,” Velvet retorted. “Those paintings were neither. They were beautiful, and art is wasted on someone who values it only for how expensive it is. You keep doing things like this, Irina, despite my repeated warnings. A point is coming where I won’t be able to protect you anymore.”
For a moment, Lady Irina physically quivered, as if gathering herself to lunge at her sister. Instead, she drew in a deep breath, forcing herself back under control, and pointedly turned her back on Velvet, facing the paladins. Evidently she had heard their introduction, despite herself shouting over it; at any rate, her eyes flickered between them with no evidence of surprise. The fact remained, though, they had come upon her in the middle of a yelling fit, hardly befitting the dignity of a head of House.
Still, Lady Irina straightened her spine and inclined her head to each of them courteously. Dressed in a shade of blue which perfectly matched the arcane light that filled her ballroom, she was a beautiful woman in her forties, her face unlined and elaborate black coif untouched by silver. Younger than her sister, if Trissiny was any judge, which would mean Cardassa had abdicated the high seat of House Araadia. Or perhaps the socialite just devoted more effort to preserving her looks than the Eserite.
“What an unexpected honor this is,” Irina said with a tight little smile which did not entirely conceal the anger still simmering beneath it. “I hardly expected even one paladin to appear at my little soiree, much less all three!”
Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “Soiree?”
“It’s Glassian,” Gabriel explained. “Very trendy, so I understand. The lightworks are truly impressive, Lady Araadia. Keyed to a single spell lattice, I believe? Not very efficient, but it would give the caster a more total control over the whole effect. I see how that would be a benefit. Whoever did this is as much an artist as enchanter.”
“Ah—an enthusiast,” she said, smiling coquettishly at him, a little of the tension easing from her shoulders. “So little is known of you, Lord Gabriel. I am surprised to learn the world’s most famous Vidian is also something of a Salyrite!”
“It’s just Gabriel,” he said nonchalantly, picking up one of the glowing pastries and inspecting it critically.
“I understand all this is thematic,” Trissiny stated, deliberately keeping her tone and expression flat. “Something about a museum?”
“The Araadia Institute of Arcane Enchantment,” Lady Irina replied, nodding her head again, her face suddenly wary. “The founding of which is the event which this humble gathering has been called to celebrate.” Velvet snorted loudly, which Irina pretended to ignore, despite the reddening of her cheeks. “It will serve as a permanent exhibition of the productive science which has come to fuel so much of the industry of our great city. The cutting edge of enchantment, constantly updated and displayed for the edification of all citizens, and as a badge of pride for Calderaas!”
This brought a smattering of applause from the onlookers, which Trissiny talked right over.
“Yes, and I understand it’s going to take a substantial endowment from the Sultanate’s education budget. What was it those funds were earmarked for, before you came along?”
“Schools,” Velvet interjected before Irina could reply, casually tossing the luminous pastry from hand to hand and watching the light trails it made. “Eight new primary and secondary schools, to be constructed in the city’s poorer districts. Calderaas has been lagging behind the Tirasian Dynasty’s mandates on public education for two Emperors, now. Fucking Shaathvar has a more up to date school system.”
Trissiny turned an openly scornful glare on Lady Irina. “Really? Really.”
“Yes, I thought I saw where this was going,” Irina retorted, the pretense of friendliness gone from her own features now. “Your colleague made a far more persuasive appeal to my better nature, I must say.”
She glanced at Toby, who had stepped up to the group with Oliver Lark still in tow.
“I take it he overestimated your better nature, then,” Gabriel mumbled around a mouthful. “Toby tends to do that.”
“Tell me you aren’t actually eating that,” Trissiny said in exasperation.
“I’ll save you one,” Gabriel promised, swallowing and holding up the remaining half of his arcane pastry. “Seriously, lightshow aside, this is the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth that wasn’t yelling my name.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Gross, Gabe.”
“As I attempted to explain to Tobias,” Lady Irina interjected in a tight voice, “the administration of a society demands a more complex, more nuanced manner of thinking than does traveling the land and smiting demons. One must consider the intricacies of the situation, and especially the future, and determine what best serves the interest of all Calderaan.”
“Mm,” Gabriel grunted, licking his fingers. “Big, fancy museum’s a much more prestigious thing to have your name on than a handful of elementary schools.”
“Not to mention,” Trissiny said grimly, “that it benefits a certain element of society more than the masses who work in that element’s factories.”
“I do say I am surprised at this level of attention,” Irina snapped. “Are there no open hellgates, no ongoing plots by the Black Wreath? Is our entire Empire, the very world, so blessedly free of evil that you three are at liberty to crash my social events? I have never heard of such a thing as three paladins intervening in a simple budget allocation. I must beg your forgiveness if I seem less than sympathetic, madam and gentlemen, but following on the heels of my sister declaring that harassing our House is her warped Eserite idea of protecting me, I am even less receptive to the appeals of religious people than your frankly inexplicable priorities would leave me ordinarily.”
“It makes sense, though,” Toby said in a quiet voice which seemed to balm the mounting tension, “if you understand how Eserites think, my Lady. If you persist in acting in a way which demands punishment, she protects you by taking it out on your possessions rather than your person. I don’t endorse that view,” he added, nodding politely to Velvet, “but understanding is the beginning of all compromise.”
“Regardless,” Irina said stiffly, “the discussion is academic. The matter is done and settled, hence this event to celebrate, which you all have now thoroughly ruined. I hope that fact brings you some satisfaction, because that is all you shall get from it.”
Lark diffidently cleared his throat. “With the greatest respect, most honored Lady, that is not necessarily so. The allocation of funds is the result of, as you know, many influences. It has been my honor to lend the weight of the Church and the cult of Vidius to your cause, but circumstances being as they are…”
“You would not dare,” she whispered.
He gave her a gentle smile and an ostentatiously helpless shrug. “In all aspects of my work, my Lady, I endeavor to navigate the complex currents of Calderaan society to achieve the end which seems, to my imperfect perception, the best for the city overall. Just as you yourself so eloquently explained. Clearly, the open opposition of every living paladin is a factor which changes a great many other variables. I am forced to reconsider my position. As, I fear, will be others present.”
“Well, look what a reasonable fellow you are,” Gabriel said lightly. “And here I was planning to threaten you with my scythe and everything.”
“Yes, so I assumed,” the priest replied, the smile fading from his face. “Your performance at the temple in Last Rock is already legendary, Gabriel.”
“Lark,” Irina hissed, “you intransigent little eel.”
“I am impressed that you are courageous enough to brazenly oppose the three primary gods, my Lady,” he said, bowing deeply to her. “I am a man of far lesser inner strength, myself.”
She bared her teeth at him, then abruptly whirled to glare at Velvet. “You planned this.”
The Eserite shrugged and finished chewing, having finally taken an experimental nibble of the mana pastry. “Credit where it’s due, little sister: this actually is delicious. But really, the glowing? Blue sugar icing would have been thematically adequate. You wouldn’t keep finding yourself in these embarrassing situations if you knew the meaning of restraint.”
Irina had to draw in another deep breath, this one wavering audibly, to gather enough calm to apparently work past an aggressive urge which would surely not have ended well for her. Instead, the turned slowly back around, and sketched an impressively sarcastic bow in Trissiny’s direction—a maneuver made risky by the unusually low cut of her bodice.
“Well, then, I congratulate you,” Lady Irina said icily, straightening up again and tilting her chin back to stare down her nose at Trissiny. “I only hope no one was sacrificed to summon a demon while you were slaying the vile threat of my political aspirations. Since you care so deeply for the plight of the working class, I will take the liberty of directing the laborers who would have been contracted to build a proud edifice to the Sisterhood of Avei for work. Are you satisfied, now?”
“No,” Trissiny replied, and punched her in the jaw.
It was a simple right jab, but Lady Irina dropped like a bag of turnips. It was a good thing she had decided not to haul off and throw her whole weight into it; that might have killed the woman.
Naturally, pandemonium immediately erupted. Screams and shouts rang out, accompanied by more than one metallic hiss of a sword being unsheathed. Trissiny had noted on the way in that only about half the women present wore Imperial-style gowns; others were in more traditional Calderaan costume, which included bejeweled shamshirs belted over their baggy trousers. Cavalry swords, to be sure, but she had seen enough Narisian fighting to know that a person with a long saber didn’t need to be on horseback to be exceedingly deadly.
Trusting the Guild enforcers to do their jobs, she ignored all the hubbub and bent to seize Lady Irina by the hair with her right hand. The noblewoman had been felled but not rendered unconscious, and was in the process of woozily getting to her hands and knees; she had enough presence of mind to shriek in shock and agony at being unceremoniously hauled upright by her scalp.
On the buffet table was a large crystal bowl of punch. Blue punch, which put off a faint, scintillating light—whether from the liquid itself or the glowing patterns being traced across its surface by some enchantment on the punchbowl, she couldn’t tell and didn’t care. Trissiny dragged the hostess bodily over to the table, shoved her face into the punchbowl, and held her there.
“Her Ladyship is correct,” she said, projecting from the diaphragm to cut across the hubbub, and ignoring the bubbles rising from the punch and Irina’s hands frantically scrabbling at her gauntlet. “This is beneath me. I resent having to come here and deal with this nonsense. It’s not as if there is nothing in the world more urgent and better suited for my skills. But at the end of the day, a paladin is called to serve an ideal—in my case, justice. And injustice is injustice, whether it is dealt by a bunch of smirking vultures conniving in a back room to cheat thousands of people out of the benefit of their tax money, or some warlock trying to summon a demon he can’t hope to control. The difference is that warlocks rarely suffer the delusion that they won’t face consequences.”
She hauled Irina’s face up out of the punch, in the process upending the whole bowl. It tilted, teetered, and finally rolled off the table, shattering upon the marble mosaic floor and splashing arcane-tinged punch across Trissiny’s boots, though she was already liberally speckled with it after Irina’s struggles. The Lady choked, gasped, and sprayed blue droplets everywhere as she fought to breathe, but impressively given her condition, she managed to shout (albeit in a somewhat gargled voice).
“Ah, yes,” Trissiny agreed far more clearly. “Guards?”
More gasps and shouts ensued, and now the gathered aristocrats began clustering together in the center of the ballroom, away from the perimeter, where two dozen Thieves’ Guild enforcers had begun melting out of the shadowed alcoves and servant entrances, grim-faced, shabbily-dressed, and visibly armed. The kept their weapons at their sides and made no move save to block anyone from fleeing. Still, this situation could explode into violence very easily; there were, at Trissiny’s quick count, nine women now holding up swords, and all had placed themselves around the perimeter of the gaggle of aristocrats, facing down the enforcers. She noted that every armed person was female, and she could tell at a glance which were potentially a problem; some held up weapons that were clearly nothing but expensive costume props, literally quivering. Even they hadn’t hesitated to the fore, though, and they were the minority. More than half were stone-faced, with correctly braced stances and practically radiating menace. Clearly, the nobility of Calderaas lacked neither spine nor skill.
“I understand,” Trissiny said loudly, tightening her grip on Lady Irina’s hair but allowing the coughing noblewoman to slump across the now-stained table. “It’s not so simple as that, or so you tell yourselves. There are a thousand compromises to be made every day, deals to be struck to get anything done. A more privileged position means greater responsibility, and why should you not enjoy the prestige and luxury that makes it all tolerable? Really, I do understand. It’s not even that the basic premise is wrong. It only becomes a problem when you take it too far.”
She drew her sword, causing an overall increase in tension. Two shamshir-wielding women turned to face her directly, blades upraised, and Trissiny couldn’t help feeling a trickle of approval. Backed into a corner, they were still willing to cross swords with a being they had to know could demolish them all with little effort. This group was far from useless; Calderaas might even be in good hands, so long as they took to heart the point she had come here to make.
“Three paladins didn’t come here because of Calderaas’s education budget, or Araadia’s museum. We are here because this has become a pattern. Because you, the lot of you, seem to have forgotten some important facts. Not one of your lives is more fundamentally important than the meanest laborer stacking crates in one of your warehouses. You are certainly not invincible, or impervious to repercussions.” She emphasized her point but wrenching her fist in Irina’s hair, twisting the woman’s neck and eliciting a scream which made several of those before her flinch. “Noble blood spills just as easily as any other, and runs just as red. Remember that, and recite it to yourself next time you find yourself contemplating cheating masses of people out of a basic necessity so you can enjoy another luxury.
“Because I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, I care about your privileges even less than you care about the fates of the poor. The difference between us is that I actually can shrug off any vengeance you try to impose. Remember that, and don’t make me come back here. Because the next time I have to come and carefully unravel the intricate webs you weave…”
Abruptly, she hauled Irina upright again, spinning her to face the crowd, and drove the pommel of her sword into the woman’s sternum. Irina’s shriek was cut off in a whoosh of expelled breath, and she tried to double over on herself—impossible, due to Trissiny’s grip on her hair, but she did cross her arms over her midsection, which was the point.
The ancient sword had a visibly scarred blade; it wasn’t nearly as dull as it looked, but Trissiny still channeled light into it, making the blade glow like the sun and honing its edge to a razor’s keen, before slashing it deftly through the inch between her fingers and Lady Irina’s skull.
Irina collapsed to the floor, weakly sobbing, the sodden mass of her once carefully-styled hair remaining in Trissiny’s fist.
She kept it aloft for a moment before tossing it into the puddle of punch and crystal shards.
The oppressive silence was marred only by the broken whimpering of the party’s hostess. Trissiny roved her eyes slowly across the crowd, taking the time to directly meet the gaze of everyone present who didn’t flinch from her stare, a trick taught to her by a Guild enforcer back in Tiraas. A lot of them glared right back. Fine; she didn’t need them cowed into submission, just aware of their limits.
Finally, she turned her back on the group. Toby stood nearby, Lark having beat a judicious retreat; he looked tired and mournful. For some reason, that irritated her. Gabriel was leaning his rear against the table over which she had so recently thrown Lady Irina Araadia, his arms folded and the haft of his scythe tucked into his elbow with its wicked blade gleaming above.
“Anything to add?” she asked dryly.
Gabriel shook his head, straightening up. “Threats are the province of war.”
Taking his scythe in hand, he casually swept it through the air overhead. A blue spark ignited along the blade, as if it had slashed through something invisible, and suddenly the room was plunged into dimness as every illusory vine and tree in the place winked out. This, finally, prompted more gasps and small shrieks, though not enough to drown out Gabriel’s finishing statement.
Toby turned and bowed toward the assembled aristocrats, hands folded before his midsection. “Thank you kindly for the hospitality. It was a lovely party.”
All three of them turned and strode toward the doors, Trissiny flanked by the boys. They walked without speaking, their footsteps unconsciously falling into a matching rhythm. Not a word was said until they had passed beyond the great entry and the wide-eyed herald, into the more well-lit hallway beyond which led to the manor’s front door.
“So that thing cuts enchantment, even?” Trissiny asked finally.
“Nothing doesn’t die,” Gabriel murmured, eyes ahead.
Toby heaved a sigh. “I can’t make myself be happy about this night’s work.”
“Yeah, well, you should.” They all slowed, turning in surprise, while Velvet caught up with them. “That was the whole point of you going in first to ask nicely, Caine. Next time an Omnist makes a polite request of any of those people, they will damn well listen. Now that they know they don’t want any of what comes along after. Believe me, that’s for the best. The whole world can’t be run by people like me and Thorn; if a society is kept in line by nothing but fear, it’ll tear itself apart. You may not like how I do things, but I really prefer if people like them listen to people like you before I ever have to become involved.”
“You sure you just wanna leave?” Gabriel asked her. “Seems like your sister could really use a friendly hand right now…”
Velvet shook her head. “She’s already never going to forgive me for the part I played in that; every second I stick around and witness her humiliation will only make it worse. This business has effectively neutered House Araadia’s political ambitions for a generation, I hope you realize.”
“Sorry,” Trissiny said, not trying overly hard for a sincere tone.
Velvet didn’t exactly smile, but the look she gave her was sardonic and not at all reproachful. “They’ll get no sympathy from me. Aristocrats are like church bells: expensive, pretty, and only useful when regularly struck. You did a good thing here tonight, kids; ugly, but necessary. If Yasmeen is able to come up with a play like this, she’ll make a hell of a Sultana when her time comes.”
Gabriel cracked a grin at that, but Toby just sighed.
“Well. I suggest we all move along before our welcome wears out any further. No offense meant to Calderaas, Velvet, but I find I am suddenly eager to find the Princess, collect our trinket, and get out of this city.”
No one had any objection to that.