Feeling lost, I drifted away from the dance floor, making my way back towards the entry hall. The crowd, which had been manageable just moments before, suddenly felt overwhelming, and the heat was stifling. The noise, too, was a great deal to take in now that I wasn’t focused on sifting it for useful tidbits. Conversations washed over me, too many to really absorb; I had no sooner focused on one than another was drowning it out.
I knew, logically, that the noise and heat were no greater than they had been a moment before. But they felt much greater, much more overwhelming. Before I had been concentrating on the task at hand, which made it easier not to think about those things. Now I didn’t know what to do, and that removed the support I had been leaning on.
At the edge of the hall, I paused, looking around. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I felt that I needed something to grasp onto, some distraction from what was quickly becoming too much stimulation.
I found it when someone at one of the nearby tables said, “Looking for something?”
I started, then looked for the source of the voice. It wasn’t hard to find; there was only one person looking at me. A slender man my age or a little older, he had very Tsuran features and was dressed more conservatively than most of the nobles at the ball. He was finished eating, but still sitting alone at the table, apparently just watching the crowd. Currently that meant watching me with an expression of mild curiosity.
I flushed and said, “Just feeling overwhelmed.”
He nodded. “First time?” he said, his tone kinder than I would have expected.
I nodded, and he smiled gently. “It can take a while to get used to,” he said. “I presume you’re here as an escort?”
“Yes,” I said. “Here with Lord Carus Reneko.”
“Fascinating,” he said, in a tone that wasn’t at all fascinated. “I’m guessing that you’re wondering where he went?”
“A little,” I admitted.
“I figured. It’s not something that’s intuitive at first. You see – what’s your name, anyway?”
“Silf,” I said. It felt a little strange to use my real name while doing something this secretive, but there was no getting around it; I was too well known as an entertainer, and trading on that reputation to get in.
“I’m Lucius,” he said. “Anyway, SIlf, the thing is that being an escort is all about the appearance of the person you’re escorting. And that changes with the fashion, so at any given time the expectations might be different than at another. Right now the fashion is to show up with an escort, spend enough time with them for it to be noted, and then interact with your friends alone before leaving with your escort. “
I nodded. “Why take the time to tell me this?” I asked, a trifle suspiciously.
“Honestly? Two reasons,” he said. “One, you looked rather lost and I felt sorry for you. Two, I think the practice is a touch disgusting. It makes you into little more than an ornament to be held just long enough to be seen before being cast aside, and that’s sad.”
I nodded. I wasn’t entirely sure I believed him. I probably wouldn’t if he’d just said the first, but the second reason wasn’t quite altruistic enough to be implausible.
“So,” he said, nodding to the empty chair across from him. “I happen to be alone, and you’re off the hook until Carus finishes whatever he’s doing. Would you like to talk?”
I hesitated, then sat down in the offered chair. I still wasn’t sure what to make of Lucius, but he was being polite, and I had come here to talk to the nobles. “What about?” I asked.
He smiled. “The nature of the universe, perhaps,” he suggested. “Or your favorite kind of cheese. I’m quite open, really.”
I snorted. “Why were you just sitting here?” I asked, somewhat curious. Almost all the nobles had either another noble or a hired escort with them, and clearly Lucius wasn’t antisocial. It seemed odd that he would just be sitting here alone.
“So that I could talk to you, apparently,” he said, his tone flippant. “But if you want a better reason, it’s because I only came here at the behest of my lord father. He feels that I spend too much time alone at home, you see.”
“I must,” he said with a grin. “Because it costs me the chance to talk to such interesting women. Now, if we’re to be trading questions, where are you from? You have a northern accent.”
“Skelland before here,” I said. “I hope my accent isn’t too bad?”
“It’s charming, really,” he said. “What brought you south?”
“I’d heard a lot of stories about Aseoto. I wanted to see how they measured up to the reality.” I wasn’t quite lying. At least, it was as close to the truth as I could get without causing trouble. For some reason the thought of lying to him was…distasteful.
“I hope we’ve been satisfactory.”
“It’s been an experience,” I said. “Nothing like the countryside. Have you ever traveled?”
“Not far, sadly,” he said. “Most of the nobility don’t, really, unless they’re with the legions. Too many social events to keep up with. What made you decide to try your hand as an escort?”
“I’ve been working as a dancer,” I said. “It was suggested to me by the manager of the house. Do you come to these balls often?”
“More than I’d like.” His smile was rueful this time. “They’re a bit of a waste of time in my opinion, but it’s the expected thing to do in my social class. How do you find the people treat you here?”
I shrugged. “I’m a novelty. It could be worse.”
“That’s something,” he said. “I was concerned that you would be discriminated against, between being Changed and being a foreigner. Though I imagine being looked at as a novelty isn’t a great deal better, really.”
That was a little more true than I would have liked. “Have you met very many Changed people?” I asked.
“Almost none, unfortunately,” he said. “They’re rather rare among the nobility, especially the younger generation. And to be honest, the Changed tend to be…hidden away, to put it politely, here. Especially in high society. It’s part of why I’m impressed that you’re here.”
And probably part of why you’re talking to me, I added mentally. There was no real heat to the thought, though. At least he seemed willing to engage with me as a person, rather than seeing me as a freak or even just a novelty to be gawked at.
“Frankly,” he continued, “I’m also impressed that you’re willing to talk to me on any kind of personal level. I can’t imagine that we’re looked on fondly where you’re from after what we’ve done.”
I drew back a little at that, surprised. It was about as close as any Tsuran I’d talked to had come to acknowledging that the invasion to the north was anything other than a kindness to the northerners. “It took a while,” I said, matching his honesty with my own. “And I still am…not happy about it. But you’re just people, really.” I coughed. So much talking was starting to aggravate my throat.
“A commendable attitude,” he replied. “Too many people on both sides seem unable to come to that particular realization.”
“Do your people look at us as the enemy, then?”
He shrugged. “It’s a complicated situation. Some of us do, certainly, particularly those who have lost friends and loved ones in the war. But more often you’re seen as…provincial, perhaps, would be the word. Charmingly backward and desperately in need of our…assistance. Though to be entirely fair, some of the time that’s a genuine wish to help you rather than looking down on you. And I’m told that life has in many ways improved since the occupation. Were you aware that when the legions moved into Skelland, they were greeted by many as a welcome arrival? The queen herself surrendered peacefully and remained as the provincial governor.”
I paused. That…didn’t line up with what I’d heard at all. “I thought there was resistance for some time,” I said.
“Oh, there was, certainly.” His tone was earnest now. “But it was far from black and white. A good number of the Skellish people actually joined the legion as auxiliaries, and the rest were conflicted about the invasion. Now, to be fair, my information comes from the side that won the war, and I’m sure it’s biased. But some elements, like the surrender, are objective facts. You can ask around if you don’t believe me; it’s a matter of public record.”
I frowned. “I…see. Why do you know so much about the war?”
“Being a noble isn’t entirely about balls and parties. My father was a legate in the early years of the war, and he kept up on the news from the front after he retired from service. He made sure that my siblings and I were educated on the topic. In truth he would prefer that I follow in his footsteps, but it’s neither where my aptitude nor my interests lie. I take it that you didn’t know that particular detail, then?”
I shook my head. “Not at all,” I said, then admitted, “I might be biased as well.”
“Ah, but at least you can admit it. Though I’m curious how you could have come from Skelland and not known that about its history.”
I smiled a little. “I wasn’t raised in Skelland.”
“That would explain it,” he said.
“Do you have many siblings, then?” I wanted to move the conversation to less delicate topics, and that seemed like a natural continuation of what he’d said.
Perhaps sensing that I was growing uncomfortable, he didn’t try to press the point. “Two brothers and a sister, all older than me,” he said. “Yourself?”
“I had a brother, but I doubt he’s alive.”
“You aren’t sure?”
I shrugged. “He was even younger than me when the city fell. I would be very surprised if he were able to get out alone.”
“Ah,” he said. “I’m sorry for your loss.” He paused, seeming at a bit of a loss for words.
“It was a long time ago,” I said, not directly responding to what he’d said.
“All the same. I’m not particularly close to my siblings, but I know that I’d still be devastated if anything happened to them. I apologize for bringing it up; I’m sure it can’t be a pleasant memory.”
I let out a short bark of bitter laughter. “You have no idea.”
“No,” he said. “No, I don’t. I’m well aware of just how fortunate my life has really been. I’ve never been through any great hardships, certainly nothing like what you must have. All I can do is try to be empathetic and understanding, always with the knowledge that I can’t truly understand what it’s like. And to be frank, I pray that I never learn.”
I considered him for a moment. It sounded too good to be true, but he seemed sincere. And what he’d already said made it clear that he put more thought into the perspective of others than most. It was possible that he meant what he said.
I had tentatively decided by this point that I liked Lucius. Which felt absolutely wrong. As I’d thought when I was last on this island, there was an enormous difference between liking the workers at the Comedy and tolerating the nobility of Akitsuro.
Except that…Lucius was no more a direct part of what had happened than they were. He was a younger son of a noble family, who hadn’t joined the legions. His family might have supported the emperor’s orders, but he himself hadn’t even been born when this war started. He certainly wasn’t an active participant in it. Yes, he had prospered from it, but could I really hate him for a choice that he had no part in making?
Life was so much simpler when you could divide things into black and white. When you looked closer and saw all the shades of grey in between, things got…messy.
Out loud, all I said was, “I hope so too.”
“My thanks,” he said, once again sounding like he genuinely meant it. “Do you miss the north?”
I shrugged. “Sometimes, some things. Others, less so.” I paused, then continued, “I miss the people more than the place.”
“Do you think you’ll go back, then?”
I hesitated. “I don’t know. Most of the people are dead.”
He gave me a searching look at that. “Your life sounds like it has been quite tragic.”
I smiled a little. “Most lives seem to be.”
He laughed. “Too true, that. Still, I’m sorry that you’ve had to suffer so. There seems to be very little fairness in this world, at times.”
I sighed and nodded. That, too, was too true.
“Do you think you’ll do this sort of thing again?” he asked.
“It seems likely.”
“Very good, then I’ll likely see you again.”
“You’re looking forward to that, then?”
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “It’s so rare that one meets a genuinely interesting person at one of these events, you know. Quite a treat.”
“You flatter me.”
“Not in the least,” he said. “But ah! As edifying as this conversation has been, I do believe that’s Carus looking for you. Making a short night of it tonight, it seems. Before you go, I’m rather curious. What is your favorite kind of cheese?”
I smiled in spite of myself. “I don’t have one,” I said.
“You should correct that. It’s a marvelous topic when one doesn’t feel like discussing anything of import. Now, good luck, and I hope to see you again soon.”
“My thanks,” I said, standing. He stood with me and offered me a shallow bow with a sardonic smile.
Carus found me a minute or so later, standing at the edge of the dance floor in much the same place he’d left me. “Good evening, my lady,” he said, nodding to me as he walked up. “Thank you for your patience; there were some matters that needed my attention. I hope you’re enjoying the evening?”
“Quite,” I said, and found somewhat to my surprise that it was true.
“Most excellent. Would you care for another dance before we go?”
“Certainly,” I said. Only a few moments later the next song started, and we moved out onto the dance floor. As before, I made sure to pay attention to what was being said around me, filing away the most important bits for later.
We ended up dancing two more songs before leaving the ball, still relatively early. Carus offered me a ride to the shore, which I accepted, and we made small talk on the way, discussing nothing of real importance.
After parting with him, with his assurances that he would call on me again, I boarded a gondola back to Ukiyo. I was just as glad that it had been a short night. I was feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed, struggling to process all of what had happened. It felt like it had been a much longer night than it had, and I was glad to get out into the relatively cool night air.
I made my way back to the Comedy, where Livia was waiting for me to report in. I told her all the bits of information I’d overheard, as well as I could remember. She wasn’t entirely satisfied with my memory, but acknowledged that I had done as good a job as could be expected for my first night. As expected, she told me nothing about the uses my information were being put to.
It wasn’t until I was sliding into bed, yawning and glad that I worked night shift the next day rather than day, that I realized Lucius had never told me his family name.