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Crossing through the grand ballroom was not the most direct or efficient way to reach the solarium which served as the Duchess’s study and private audience chamber, but at this moment, for this purpose, it was the correct way. A household was a living organism, an unfathomably complex machine whose health depended upon countless details from the towering to the infinitesimal. A doctor would study for years to know every medical detail that could be known, and still barely scratch the surface; a hedge witch could immerse herself in lore and familiarity until intuition told her things that medical science could not, yet lack the power to achieve a surgeon’s sometimes miraculous results.
Though they worked upon lives rather than bodies, Butlers had to do both, and more.
There was, sadly, nothing yet which could do for the living body what a Butler could do for a household. But though she was not yet fully accredited, and though this was not truly her household, Price was Butler enough to know where she needed to be. Right now, that was in the grand ballroom just in time to ward off a disaster.
The arrangement would be stunning once completed, but was inherently precarious. The columns had been exquisitely detailed by master artists to resemble carved marble with gilded trim, but were in fact made of cast plaster, and thus too light to be reliably stable, given their height. Placing expensive ceramic urns atop them was just asking for trouble, and while the finished arrangement would be more sturdy, at this stage it was all exceedingly delicate.
Price entered the ballroom just as a young man—a worker from Leineth, not one of the household staff—lost his grip atop a ladder, and in his fumbling to avoid dropping the large and heavy vase in his arms, managed to not only finish dropping it but topple the pillar he’d been about to place it atop.
She surged smoothly into motion, flashing across the ballroom in one second, and vaulted into position. Everything about the situation was spelled out before her, senses taking in details that few would have gathered and mind parsing them into usable data in calculations no one who had not undergone the Treatment could have performed.
Even for a Butler, that was an impossible vertical leap, forcing Price to approach at an angle. One step brought her to the top of the long table which would be laid out with finger foods at the ball. The next, kicking off with all her considerable strength, hurled her into the wall of the ballroom. She hit that like a spring and uncoiled, shooting across the open space in nearly horizontal flight.
Price intercepted the urn as it tumbled; the thing was custom-made for this event, designed to look like a beautiful vase from the perspective of those below the pillars, meaning it had to be more than half as tall as a person and correspondingly broad. Awkward to lift, had she tried to wrap arms around it. Instead, she smoothly caught it with one hand flat under its base, as her other arm and both legs coiled around the pillar.
Using her momentum, Price spun in a full circle around the falling column, arresting her flight and accelerating the column’s own descent. That would have naturally sent the urn flying out of her grip as soon as the rotation ceased, had she not spun her arm to invert its orientation mid-fall, so that once again her flat hand was between the fragile vase and the direction of its momentum. Completing the rotation brought it back to rest upright upon her palm, while she uncoiled her body from the pillar.
Price extended her full height as she descended, positioning herself beneath the plaster column with her feet reaching the floor the second she completed this maneuver, one hand held up above her head to support the tumbling pillar, the other held out to the side with the tall vase balanced upon her palm. She folded her body up again like a spring, this time a collapsing one, absorbing the energy of the fall, and thus ended up with her feet fully on the ground, having prevented either pillar of base from breaking. Quite fortunately, too, as replacing them at this juncture would have been challenging.
Total silence had descended upon the ballroom, all the servants and workmen present staring at her. The entire thing had unfolded before everyone had even noticed the tumble about to occur.
“Ahem,” Price said pointedly, being pinned beneath a mostly-fallen plaster column with her free hand holding up a heavy (and expensive) piece of ceramic.
Her prompting brought servants rushing forward; one man very carefully took the vase from her, while two others got themselves under the pillar, lifted it from her hand, and finished lowering it gently to the floor. Price straightened her coat, turning to address the youth standing atop the nearby latter, staring down at her in frozen horror.
“I will remind you, Master Borson, that your employer regards every aspect of these preparations as an expense without emotional investment. Workmen are more easily replaced than custom-made masterwork ceramic, and distinct in her Grace’s eyes primarily by their ability to feel pain. More caution from you would be advisable.”
“Yes, Miss Price,” he choked. She did not have to waste time staring him down to ascertain that the point was made. The room, the servants present, the state of ongoing preparations, it all factored into the rhythm of the household. It all washed over and through Price—intuitively, cognitively, both and neither, informing her of the state of things. The nascent disaster was thwarted; Borson and the rest of those present would go about their tasks with greater care.
Price turned and continued on to the ballroom’s side entrance without another instant’s delay. A Butler always knew where she was needed, and that was no longer here. Once again, everything was Proper.
By lengthening her stride, she reached the door of the Duchess’s solarium in what was still acceptable time to answer her Grace’s summons. Price tapped twice, at precisely the correctly diffident volume.
The solarium, like everything Duchess Tiradegh owned or used, was a weapon. At this hour of the morning, sunlight streamed aggressively through it, framing the Duchess herself in her wheeled chair and glaring in the eyes of anyone who stood before her. Price, of course, entered to the exact distance that placed the shadow of the wall across her eyes, protecting them from direct glare. Thanks to the Treatment, she was also not impeded in her assessment of the room and its occupant.
She bowed to the Proper degree. “Your Grace.”
“Ah, Miss Price.” Inara Tiradegh’s voice was only lightly cracked with age; she had been a singer of some fame in her youth, and carried on the hobby her entire life. The old woman, now frail in body though her mind was not a whit less sharp, regarded Price expressionlessly. “How go the preparations?”
“Everything within my purview is on schedule and completed to your Grace’s standards. Yancey, of course, has a more complete knowledge of the state of the household. I can consult him for greater detail, if your Grace wishes?”
“That will not be necessary.” Perfectly neutral, that tone, just like the expression. Inara’s social instincts had been crafted through a noblewoman’s upbringing and honed by decades of ruthless practice; she was a living masterpiece of control. Were Price not a Butler, she would probably be unaware of the old woman’s vivid personal dislike of her. She did not yet know the reason for it, much less while the Duchess had consented to have Price conduct her Trial in this household under Yancey’s supervision, but on both points she had suspicions. “I summoned you here, Miss Price, because I wish to have a conversation.”
“How may I be of service, your Grace?”
“When service is required, I’ll inform you. At this moment, I would simply satisfy my own curiosity.”
Price did not alter her aspect by a hair; even another Butler would not have been able to detect her feelings about this. “Needless to say, your Grace, I am no more authorized than Yancey to discuss the Service Society’s internal business.”
“Oh, spare me,” Inara replied with, finally, the lightest hint of asperity. “Invaluable as Yancey is, I have never found your Society intriguing enough to be personally interested. Avenist alchemists have been turning men into women and elves into humans for centuries; your parlor tricks are more useful, but an order of magnitude less impressive.”
Highly imProper. The Treatment was a far more substantial achievement than the Sisterhood’s work—and both those descriptions broadly mischaracterized their alchemists’ achievements in treating transgender women and bringing elves up to Legion standards of physical strength. More importantly, Inara Tiradegh was well aware of these facts and a known stickler for precision in all things. Price didn’t need to be a Butler to tell she was being deliberately needled here.
“My inquiry is of a more personal nature,” the Duchess continued, regarding Price with a vaguely disinterested expression they both knew to be a lie. “I understand that you are, somewhat unconventionally, an Eserite.”
Ah, yes. As she had suspected.
“If your Grace wishes to have my room and belongings searched, I have no objection,” Price said blandly.
“I would consider such an obvious deflection damning, were Yancey not so fond of doing exactly the same,” Inara said with a wry twist of her lips. “Nor is he the only Butler I’ve met by far. Do they teach you that servile snark at your Society?”
“A good servant must be proficient at all skills relevant to the running of a household, your Grace,” Price replied.
Duchess Tiradegh actually smiled at her. Faintly, but with evident amusement. That fact by itself meant nothing, but Price sensed the emotion was sincere, if grudging.
“What is it, then,” Inara asked, settling subtly backward in her wheelchair, “which prompts a member of the Thieves’ Guild to enter human society in a productive capacity?”
Price did not rise to that obvious bait, either. She did permit herself the indulgence of hesitating, a thing which was done only for effect. A Butler was poised at all times, prepared with the proper response for any contingency. A conversation, like a household, was a thing with rhythms which could be sensed and anticipated, and while talking to the Duchess of House Tiradegh was an entirely different level of challenge from the house servants, even the sly-tongued nobility did not outmaneuver a Butler with words. Delaying for a moment was simply a way of asserting a measure of power—in this case, mirroring the same petty effect achieved by Inara insulting her religion.
“Your Grace is naturally aware of the personal benefit of dedicating oneself to a cause. Being the head of a noble House, your Grace has had such a calling provided from birth.”
“Are you comparing House Tiradegh to the Thieves’ Guild?” Inara inquired in a dangerously polite tone.
“I would never so insult either, your Grace, much less both in the same breath.” The Duchess quirked another faint smile at that, but did not speak again, and so Price continued. “Those not granted such a cause by birth must seek one out. For some, religion is enough. At the core of the Service Society is the belief that it is a fine choice to select, as one’s life’s work, a deserving person. Not everyone can be a force who moves the world. It can be enough to seek out someone who is, and devote oneself fully to their success.”
“Yancey has never spelled it out in those terms,” Inara said in a much more introspective tone. “So. Is that how he sees me, then?” Price did not answer; the question had not truly been directed at her. After a thoughtful pause, the Duchess’s gaze sharpened once more, returning from its brief wander to her own eyes. “You describe your own vocation in terms which would apply to a housewife helping support a factory laborer.”
“A serviceable analogy, your Grace. And were your Grace a factory laborer, a housewife would suffice. A sufficiently interesting person, however, requires a Butler.”
Again, that minute smile. “That’s good flattery, Miss Price. Subtle. At your age I might not have noticed it, and definitely would have missed the underlying mockery.”
“I dared to hope your Grace would appreciate the technique.”
“Yes, quite, and you can desist.” She straightened up in her chair as much as her slightly hunched spine allowed, a subtle signal that the conversation would now turn to business. “I have found no complaint with your work here, Miss Price, and not for lack of trying. At this time, I am prepared to render a favorable report to the Service Society on your performance. I understand that it is Yancey’s endorsement which matters…but that his satisfaction hinges largely upon mine.”
“Your Grace’s understanding is correct,” Price replied neutrally. “I am gratified that I have served adequately.”
“Yes, I’m sure you are,” Inara said dryly. “With all that in mind, Miss Price, I have a specific task for you.”
“I am here to be of service, your Grace.”
“I know. Tonight, at the ball, I will need you to embarrass me.”
Once more, Price hesitated. This time, because the momentary pause would appeal to the Duchess’s sense of dramatic timing. Her own mind was racing over the multitude of possibilities which had exploded from that command, the closest thing a fully trained and Treated Butler experienced to confusion.
“Your Grace?” she asked after the appropriate number of seconds, in the correct tone of polite bafflement.
The Duchess’s satisfied smile said she had done it Properly. “Allow me to explain.”
A woman like Inara Tiradegh never explained herself one bit more than was absolutely necessary, and so Price came away with instructions no more specific than what she was to spill on Lord Reine Daraspian, and when. On the face of it, the reasons a Head of House might want to inflict a minor, slightly embarrassing inconvenience upon a volatile member of a rival House were beyond counting. The majority of them consisted of little more than petty spite. Duchess Inara, however, did nothing without a purpose in mind and a plan in place.
A well-laid scheme was like a conversation, or an organism, or a household. It had rhythms, patterns. Details which yielded themselves both to intuition and to analysis—and therefore, despite any secrecy involved, to a Butler. With the right parts of her mind accelerated by the Treatment and advanced further by the Bargains the Service Society required its full members to make, Price could see somewhat beyond her own relatively tiny role. Possibilities unrolled in every direction, narrowed into a few chains of events of varying likelihood constrained by the other factors already in place. This insight was one of the services Butlers provided their contract-holders, though most of those approved by the Society as business partners were well capable of examining the threads of mortal plots on their own.
She could not read, exactly, the whole of the plan, but it took several potential shapes, most deeply troubling.
Price had gone so far as to push the very limits of what was Proper by taking her concerns to Yancey, only to be rebuffed in his Properly polite but firm manner. She could sense nothing from him, none of the unease he would definitely be feeling if her fears were well-founded—and if they were, Yancey would know in detail. He, however, was a Butler of greater experience than she, and would be well able to conceal his mental state even from another Butler.
Her concern, in truth, was not only for Yancey and his contract. This was her Trial; if it ended in as great a disaster as the Duchess might be actively trying to arrange, that could reflect very badly upon her indeed.
Nonetheless, she went about her duties with all the poise a Butler must exhibit at all times. The preparations were completed, the ball unfolding to the clear delight of the Duchess’s guests. Assisting with the arrangement of social events had all been part of Price’s training, and almost nothing about the early part of the evening proved memorable to her, at least not in the shadow of her nervous anticipation. With two Butlers present to oversee the affair, even with one only on Trial, it could hardly have gone wrong.
At least, not until the point where Duchess Inara Tiradegh intended it to.
Once fully set up, those vases atop the pillars housed plants—vines enhanced by witchcraft from common philodendron and begonias, to form an arboreal network of greenery connecting the vases and the columns. The Duchess had brought in an engineer, rather than a florist, to finalize the arrangement. That was, to say the least, revelatory. More so was what Price could discern about how physical impacts would affect the entire interlaced structure.
And more, still, the way Yancey, at the Duchess’s urging, had casually positioned certain relevant players in the night’s forthcoming drama.
As a minor milestone, Price had already been complicit in a crime this evening, albeit a very, very small one. The Society made clear to its members that service to their contract-holders was considered to supersede adherence to the law; between that and her own religious affiliation, Price had no personal qualms. In this case, even drugging someone’s cup wouldn’t qualify as a crime, given that the dosage in question was non-lethal, generally recreational, and a known indulgence of the person to whom it was administered, and legal precedent established that a host (and their servants) were not to be held responsible for adverse reactions to “mixed drinks” served at a private venue such as this, the responsibility resting upon the drinker to understand what they were imbibing.
These were the sort of obscene technicalities a person had to know, when working for the likes of Inara Tiradegh.
No, the only offense (so far) was in the trafficking; cocaine being a banned substance for which the Imperial Treasury sold exemption licenses, it was legal to own and use it, but not to distribute it to others without acquiring such an exemption, which neither Price nor the Duchess had. Drug trafficking, however, was a white-collar crime of interest to no one but the Treasury even in volumes that involved significant money. This quantity would have been ignored by any Imperial prosecutor, especially with the actual cocaine in an alchemical formulation designed to be dissolved in wine; less than half of the powder was the actual drug.
Price was more concerned that she was being made party to a murder. The Eserite in her wouldn’t mourn the death of anybody in this room save possibly Yancey, and least of all the notoriously corrupt young sot Reine Daraspian, but this was the sort of thing that could damage a person’s career prospects.
Attentive as duty required she be to the festivities, she saw it coming clearly. Yancey’s deft positioning of the already-drunk Lord Reine was accomplished all but invisibly, by leading the man with precisely-positioned trays of snacks and drink; once Price had slipped him the altered wine, the blend of alcohol and cocaine in his system made him as malleable as a sheep—and raised serious ethical questions about whatever alchemist had decided to cook up a way for those two drugs to function simultaneously to the point of enhancing each other.
Few of the other guests marked this, save with the occasional contemptuous glance. The younger Lord Daraspian was known to imbibe worse than wine; it was known, also, that he was here chiefly to be a target, given the relationship between Houses Daraspian and Tiradegh. It was early in the evening; people were still arriving, milling about, chatting, sampling the delicacies laid out, and admiring the decorations. It would be almost another hour before the ballroom would be put to use for dancing. Now, for the most part, people were passing through on their way to the more comfortable chambers next door.
“The ballroom is more active than anticipated at this hour,” the Duchess said offhandedly. “Yancey, instruct the musicians to set up now.”
“At once, your Grace,” her Butler replied, stepping away from the columns, the target, and whatever they had arranged for him.
“…thank you, Yancey,” Inara said after the merest hesitation. Her voice was soft, barely audible through the murmur of chat, the look she gave him superficially even yet loaded with meaning that even Price could barely scratch the surface of.
He actually paused in the act of turning to leave the room, and bowed to her. Deeply. Then finally departed.
It was the realization that she had just witnessed a farewell which collapsed all the possible outcomes of this ploy in Price’s mind. She could see where the young Daraspian stood beneath the arboreal display—and where the aged Duchess had positioned her wheelchair. She was well aware that Inara Tiradegh’s health had been failing for years now, the process accelerating in recent months. She understood the basics of House Tiradegh’s political situation, how its ambitions were impeded by House Daraspian and the fact that the young Lord currently present was the de facto representative of his House at this event specifically because anything done to him would be politically pointless.
And suddenly she knew that she was not involved in a plot to murder Lord Reine Daraspian.
Duchess Inara caught Price’s eye and infinitesimally tilted her head in young Daraspian’s direction. It was not an agreed-upon signal—they hadn’t prearranged one—but to someone with a Butler’s situational awareness the message was explicit.
Very much to Price’s surprise, she found herself considering open defiance. She did not, however, consider it long enough for her hesitation to be outwardly observable.
This was not her contract. Her position here was not such that she had the privilege of questioning the Duchess’s commands. It was not a servant’s place to make such decisions on behalf of their master. Yancey knew what was coming, had accepted it.
So she administered her role in the homicide with poise, as was Proper.
“More wine, my Lord?” Price said diffidently, deliberately sneaking up on Lord Reine with the carafe and startling him into stumbling into her. Twitchy with the stimulant and clumsy with the depressant—truly a diabolical concoction—he was easy to ambush, and in his flailing likely would have knocked her down had she not been a Butler. As it was, avoiding the sweep of his elbow and even protecting the carafe upon the tray would have been simpler than breathing, had that been her duty.
Instead, she neatly arranged for the blow to knock it over, pouring crimson wine straight down the front of his suit, falling to shatter upon the marble floor and splashing his shoes.
“Clumsy goat!” Daraspian snarled as Price retreated two judicious steps.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir—”
“You did that deliberately!”
Obviously, yes; he wasn’t too impaired to have noticed that. Merely enough not to handle it with anything like the grace befitting his station.
“Whatever is all this noise about?” Duchess Inara demanded, deliberately pitching her well-honed voice to cut across what little talk remained in the room after Daraspian’s outburst.
“Excuse me, your Grace,” said Price, “there has been a slight—”
“Your servant attacked me!” he snarled, rounding on the Duchess and nearly toppling over. Price steadied him with one hand and he violently shrugged her off, once more barely avoiding a fall—and snagging his arm in the vines dangling from one of the pillars.
Price could see the shape of the structure, the tension in the vines—far sturdier than those plant species ought normally to be—the shape of the base of the column which would determine the direction it fell. The way Inara had planted her chair so that in turning on her the drunk Lord Reine would entangle himself, and then…
“Oh, don’t be absurd,” she said disdainfully. “She is new, training under Yancey. Price, you fool, get away from there if you’re only going to make a mess.”
Price bowed, stepping back through the columns. Philodendron leaves brushed her coat; she, obviously, did not snare herself in the vines, despite the way they hung in cunning loops rather than the usual dangling strings. Obvious why this was being done so early in the evening; it was only a matter of time before somebody got themselves caught in these.
“You vicious, petty old cow,” Lord Reine spat, taking a lurching step toward the Duchess and absently trying to jerk his arm free. Seemingly fragile vines held him as securely as braided cord; the pillar rocked, the vase atop it teetering very precariously. “You invited me here just to make a spectacle of me!”
“Young man,” the Duchess said in her driest tone, not giving herself away by glancing up at the wobbling column, “I wouldn’t presume to take credit for that which you have achieved on your own. If you cannot behave in civilized society, perhaps you ought to return to your own House.”
“Oh, you’d like that!” he raged, trying to take another step, and reaching the end of the slack he had with those vines. Not paying attention, he gave a final jerk.
Price saw it coming. There were innumerable ways she could have stopped it. Duchess Inara caught her eye once as the column finally began to topple, and a sly little smile flitted across her face.
It was so skillfully done. The column bases were triangular, creating only three lines along which they would inevitably fall if pulled upon. They had been arranged in a very particular orientation, each of them. Inara had planted herself right in the proper line, right at the perfect distance. Lord Reine’s lunge in her direction and furious yank at the vines—so cleverly looped around the column—looked, from the perspective of the onlookers, like a convincingly deliberate act.
Or could be made to, assuming the proper rumors had been planted ahead of time. Price did not doubt for a second that they had.
Just as she did not doubt what the effect would be of Reine Daraspian’s implication in the death of the Duchess of House Tiradegh.
And so she watched, unmoving, as the tower of weighted plaster descended straight onto the smirking old woman’s head.
It was a strange thing, death. She had never liked the old lady in the least, and the feeling had been fully mutual. Price frankly had a low opinion of hereditary nobility in general; her aspiration was to attach her career to someone like the Falconers, people who had earned their wealth and power by making actual contributions to the world. The Eserite in her counted the damage done to two noble Houses as a hilarious success for the human race.
And yet, she couldn’t make herself feel satisfied about any part of this.
The Eserite in her also grudgingly admired Inara Tiradegh’s final gambit. House Tiradegh was no better than any of them, built on the backs of thousands of people who actually did work and lived meaningful lives, unlike the nobles who grew fat from their sweat. But House Daraspian was the next best thing to a crime syndicate themselves; the Guild had rapped its knuckles repeatedly and was widely believed to be the reason for a few untimely deaths within its ranks. But the Daraspians thrived by corruption and bribery, and the Guild could only terrorize so many people at a time—particularly when most of those people were Imperial functionaries. Matters became very different when a young noble of their House was accused of publicly murdering the head of a rival House in a drunken rage.
It was far from certain, yet, whether Reine Daraspian would be convicted. Price didn’t really care what happened to him; the damage was already done. Imperial Intelligence had taken a hand in the investigation, considering the stature of the victim, and was uprooting Daraspian interests right and left, not to mention cleaning out much of the damage they had done to Leineth’s political infrastructure. By the time that finished, Vrandis Province was likely to end up with a whole new government. Sensing weakness, the other Houses had turned on the beleaguered Daraspians, and the Thieves’ Guild had grown increasingly bold throughout Vrandis. In Leineth itself, the Guild was currently being circumspect, since the city was presently crawling with Imperial spooks, but if House Daraspian managed to survive the investigations relatively intact, the Boss was almost certainly going to declare open season on them once Intelligence withdrew.
And that new provincial government was likely to have a Tiradegh named Imperial Governor.
Price could admire it. She couldn’t convince herself that she would miss Inara. Yet this was all so…melancholy.
Sympathy for Yancey was most of it. He had been rigid even by Butler standards ever since that fateful night, and Price had respected his aloofness. She was not naive enough to think that just because she had never liked Inara, no one could; the bond a Butler shared with their contract-holder was, by design, something intimate and even intense. When you made another person your life’s work, the loss of that person must be a complete unmooring of everything in the world that mattered.
It was a sobering thing to think about. Price kept herself nearby, but kept herself contained—her presence an offer of support if it was needed, but not an imposition upon his already raw emotional state. Yancey had not taken it up, and she had not resented it. They had dealt with the investigations and fallout side by side, in professional silence. In grief, there was solace in remaining unshakably Proper.
Yancey was barely middle-aged, far younger than the Duchess. He had to have known, upon taking her contract, that this would be how it ended. Well, not this precisely, but that he would outlive her. Price silently resolved that she would not sign on with someone far different from herself in age. Some Butlers had two or occasionally even three masters over the course of a life’s work, but the Service Society’s ideal was one Butler for one master, for one lifetime.
Now, two weeks after Inara Tiradegh’s final ball, the two of them had at last returned to the Society’s headquarters in Tiraas. It was quiet, as always—the flawless quiet of a household in the most perfect order imaginable. Here, there was nothing not Proper, nothing out of place, no one who did not know their tasks. At least, not now that they had passed through the student training areas into the Society’s far more secretive lower reaches. Students were not permitted down here; even full Butlers did not enter except on specific and official business.
And yet, this was where Master Butler kept his personal office. It was only Proper for his Butlers to be reminded of the full details of their commitments whenever their presence was required before him.
So it was that Price found herself passing the alchemy labs where the Treatment was administered, in many sessions over a span of two years. And then the heavy vault doors to the summoning chambers where the Bargains took place.
Alchemy alone did not a Butler make, for all that it enhanced the body and to a lesser extent the mind. Their true facility came from deals with established agents, beings of each school of magic. Bargaining with fairies had its known risks; deals with demons were even trickier, not to mention extraordinarily illegal. Master Butler’s true genius was in rounding out the circle. It was not clear whether the arcane entities with which she had formed contracts were summoned from elsewhere or actually created for the purpose, but she had been most impressed by the last. Nowhere else had she even heard suggestion that there were consciousnesses out there in the world that stemmed from the divine, save the gods themselves. And yet…
It was the combination that created that which was Proper. Each being demanded its price; their bargains were laid out in a loop such that all costs were paid, but not by the Butler making the Bargains. Each price was parlayed into the next, in a devouring ring like the Circle of Interaction itself. The Society gained its gifts, and paid nothing.
These were the deepest secrets of the Service Society, the sources of power that the world entire would kill to possess. It was not the feared strength or prowess in combat of Butlers which kept the jackals at bay; each Butler was attached to someone of influence, each contract stipulating certain types of support which could be demanded at need. No government or cult dared move against the one organization which had positioned itself to topple any of them, anywhere, under any circumstances.
Master Butler’s brilliance was in forming balance. In creating these networks that sustained and supported themselves. In a very real sense, he was the Service Society.
“Enter,” he called from within his office as soon as Yancey and Price arrived outside the door. They had not even had time to knock.
They did as bade, stepping inside, closing the door, and bowing to exactly the Proper degree.
“Please, sit,” Simeon Butler said with a smile. “Both of you.”
His seat, of course, was much taller than theirs, and even so his head was below their level. For all that, to be in his presence precluded any thought of overpowering him. Price had not known many gnomes, but Master Butler was the single most impressive personality she had ever encountered, not least because even with her training, her Treatment and her Bargains, her senses and accelerated mind could not pin down exactly what it was about him which commanded such instinctive respect. He was simply that far above her level, and always would be. She had never met a dragon, but had read descriptions of the aura of majesty they cultivated; privately, Price suspected Master Butler had found some way to imitate that effect.
“You have my deepest condolences, Yancey,” Master Butler said with pure sincerity. “No matter how many times I have had this conversation, it never grows easier.”
Yancey nodded deeply, almost bowing from his chair. “Thank you, Master Butler.”
“She was a deeply impressive woman,” the gnome said, nodding back. “Well worthy of the Society’s favor. Your service was a credit to her and to us. Even as we share in your loss, Yancey, we welcome you home with honor. Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Yancey only nodded again, this time almost perfunctorily.
“Naturally, the home office is yours until you are ready to resume work,” Master Butler continued more briskly, sensing the mood and ushering the conversation past that painful area. “Simply make your needs known to me and I shall see to it that they are met.”
“If it pleases you, sir,” Yancey replied, “I would like to take part in the education of the students. Whatever vacation time I have accumulated, I would prefer not to redeem at this juncture.”
“I well understand the value of keeping busy,” Master Butler agreed. “Very well, it shall be done. Consult with Crispin at your convenience as to what classes and individuals need instruction. I shall make it known to him that you are to have your pick of available assignments.”
“Thank you very much, Master Butler.”
The gnome nodded to him again, smiling, and then turned to Price. “Well, then! Unusual as it is for me to have two such exit interviews simultaneously, it is also something of a relief in this case. Yancey has reported that your Trial’s results were more than satisfactory—and it seems that one of the late Duchess Inara’s last acts was to send me a glowing recommendation via telescroll. She spoke of you in the highest terms.”
Price raised her eyebrows a tiny fraction that none but a Butler or elf would even have noticed. In this company, under these circumstances, it sufficed to express her pure astonishment.
“Yes,” Master Butler said, his smile widening, “her Grace the Duchess did not make a secret of her lack of personal fondness for you, Miss Price, nor her specific dislike of your religious affiliation. She seemed, if anything, ruefully resentful of her failure to find fault with your performance. It was her belief that your ability to conduct yourself so professionally under such hostility was the mark of a true servant. I concur with that assessment wholeheartedly. And as you have passed your Trial with flying colors, it is my honor and pleasure to welcome you, Sabrina Price, as a full-fledged member of the Service Society.”
Price inclined her head deeply. “Thank you very much, Master Butler. And thank you, Yancey.”
“Congratulations, Price.” Yancey found a smile for her. Strangely, that was the most touching thing of all.
“Now, then,” Master Butler continued, once more growing brisk, “I’ll need a further word with you, Price. Yancey, your reserved chambers are in readiness. Once again, welcome home.”
“My thanks, sir.” Yancey rose smoothly and bowed to the Master, nodded to Price, and then excused himself.
“I want to caution you, Price,” Master Butler said seriously as soon as they were alone, “not to be in a hurry to choose a contract. This is a matter of the greatest seriousness and should not be approached lightly. It is common for newly accredited members of the Service Society to peruse applications for months if not years before making a selection. Most interview with multiple applicants before choosing one.”
“Of course, sir. I understand fully.”
He nodded, reaching over to open the top drawer of his desk, and withdrew a folder. “I am aware that you do, Price, and did not mean to imply any lack of attention on your part. The reminder is simply to assert that I am not applying any pressure to you now. With that said, this is fortuitous timing indeed, as an application has just arrived which made me immediately think of you.”
“Oh?” She glanced at the folder before returning her gaze politely to his own. The Master folded his hands atop it on the desk, regarding her solemnly rather than opening it.
“I realize you have been distracted with the final affairs of the late Duchess Tiradegh. I’m sorry to have to report to you that Bishop Vaade recently passed away.”
Price bowed her head respectfully, murmuring, “We are still here.” It was, in truth, a formality; rank-and-file like herself had little interaction with Bishops or any of the Guild’s higher-ups. Most Eserites wanted nothing to do with authority, even their own. Vaade was a person she was aware of, and that was about it.
“From this unfortunate loss,” Master Butler continued, “have issued a sequence of surprises. It seems that Boss Sweet has selected as her replacement none other than himself. He has stepped down as Boss of the Guild, and just two days ago been confirmed by the Archpope and the new Boss, Tricks, as the new Bishop of Eserion.”
“How…intriguing,” Price said thoughtfully. No exaggeration; that was intriguing. Even distant as she was from Guild politics, she could not help beginning to tease out some of the implications of this.
“Now, it appears that Sweet—or Antonio Darling, as I’m sure you are aware—has never lived lavishly. That is quite typical of Eserites, of course. But now he has purchased a house in Tiraas which befits his new social standing, and hired decorators to furnish in in such a manner as is appropriate for a man of such rank. More interestingly still, Bishop Darling’s first formal act as a ranking officer of the Universal Church has been to commission what appears to be the most in-depth historical study of all recorded encounters with and descriptions of Elilial ever undertaken.” The Master let that hang for a moment before finally unfolding his hands and pushing the folder toward her. “And, as of yesterday, he has submitted an application for a Butler to the Service Society. I thought, Price, you ought to be the first to peruse it.”
Price pulled the folder toward herself and opened it, but though she stared at the page, she did not yet read. Already her mind rushed ahead, finding the shape of it, determining what was Proper in this situation. Sweet was a famously people-oriented person, a man who lived to get his own hands dirty and hated both delegation and ostentation. He liked to be in the streets and trenches, making himself known and doing his best to make everyone else’s jobs easier. He was a lot more popular in the Guild than Boss Catseye had been. This was a striking departure. What could prompt someone to so completely and suddenly reverse all his habits?
He had gone to the Church. He was deliberately re-positioning himself as a man of power and influence. And it seemed he was launching a personal crusade at the Dark Lady.
Intriguing barely began to describe it. This, this was someone to whom, unless he personally proved otherwise, a person could devote their life’s work, and find it a life well spent in deed.
“Thank you very much, Master Butler,” said Price thoughtfully. “I believe I would like to interview Mr. Darling at his earliest convenience.”
The Master smiled. “I thought you would say that.”
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