Two weeks later I found myself standing on a gondola, looking at the shore which was rapidly coming closer and deeply questioning my life choices. I was wearing the finest dress that the tailor had made me, a deep crimson gown with silver embroidery in the shape of abstract wolves and knots—a very northern motif. The crimson contrasted sharply with the emerald hanging from my neck, the stone gleaming in the light of the setting sun.
In theory I was ready for this. Over the past two weeks, Livia had been training me in every spare moment on how to behave at a noble ball in Aseoto. We’d covered everything from how to make a dancing partner look talented to what topics to avoid in casual conversation to how to eat politely, over and over again. In theory I knew how to avoid upsetting anyone better than most of the noble attendees.
Theory, unfortunately, often fell short of reality.
As the gondola approached the shore of Arashi, the same island where I’d helped Miles with his little “favor” what felt like a very long time ago, I had to consciously focus to control my breathing. If I hadn’t faced so many situations that were so very stressful, I might not have been able to keep my composure as I stepped off the gondola onto the street.
But for better or worse, I’d seen more than my share of rocks and hard places. I managed to keep my breathing steady, and even had a pleasant smile on my face as I began walking down the street. I was acutely conscious of every eye that turned to follow me, and there were plenty; it wasn’t every day that you got a Changed person walking around in Arashi, let alone one who dressed so eccentrically.
I’d been given directions on where to meet my…client, I supposed, was the word, though target might have been more accurate. We were going to meet up a short distance from the ball at what might be called a tavern were it not so expensive. That way, we would arrive together, and it would be a more suitable entrance for how much he was paying me to be his escort tonight. Money was rapidly coming to not mean much to me, between my work at the Comedy and what Miles had given me, but it still left me a bit stunned to see the amount Livia had negotiated for. Even after the Comedy took its cut for arranging the deal, it was easily enough to cover the cost of the gown and jewelry, with some left over for normal expenses for the week.
Once I was at the tavern, I took a deep breath and pulled a small mirror out of my pocket to check one last time that everything was in order. After making some small adjustments to my hair and collar, I put it away and stepped inside.
The noise of the taproom hit me like a tangible wave, and I rocked back on my heels slightly. It was a busy time of night; the room was thronging with people eating, drinking, and talking. The few conversations I could pick out of the noise were quite varied, ranging from casual gossip to a discussion of the recent attack on New Dawn.
That last was still the single biggest topic in the city. Word on the street and from the noble clientele of the Comedy was still conflicted as to what exactly had happened, but there was at least one thing that people were in agreement over: war wasn’t going to break out over it, not unless conditions deteriorated drastically. The Dierkhlani were in no rush to break their famed neutrality, and everyone who was directly involved had died in the attack.
But everyone was aware of how close a call it had been, and how delicate the situation still was. The empire hadn’t been that close to being seriously threatened in years, not since the early years of the emperor’s reign, and it didn’t leave a good taste in anyone’s mouth.
From what Livia had let slip, in fact, it was what had motivated several of the more important conspirators to join the conspiracy. As they saw it, either the emperor had gone mad and ordered a pointless, foolish attack, or else it really had been the legate’s own decision, in which case the emperor’s control of his own legates was in serious question. In either case, something needed to change, for everyone’s safety.
I could understand that reasoning. I didn’t think it would have been enough to move me to consider assassination myself, but then, I also had far less of a stake in the matter than they did.
I still knew next to nothing about the other conspirators. Aside from Livia, Miles, and Black, I didn’t even know their identities. It was, Livia had explained, safer that way. You couldn’t betray information you didn’t know. I hadn’t argued; I was not so naive as to think that I would be able to keep my teeth together under torture.
I was aware of the implication, of course. If I was being kept wholly in the dark so that I couldn’t give away secrets I ought not, it meant the risk outweighed the value of having me informed. It meant that I was being treated as disposable.
If that was what it took to be a part of this, I was all right with that.
Inside the taproom, I didn’t even look for the man I was here to meet. I stood out from the crowd far more than he did; it would be easier for him to find me than the reverse. I just stood, a short distance inside the door, and waited.
Less than a minute later, a young man in fairly typical nobleman’s clothing walked up to me, smiling broadly, and nodded to the door. He offered me his arm and I rested my fingertips on it as we walked outside. The air outside felt cooler and cleaner than the crowded interior of the building. a welcome change in the warm tropical evening.
I knew very little about the man I was escorting for the night. He was a young noble, a regular customer at the Comedy, and not associated with the conspiracy. Livia had felt it best to avoid having any clear connection between me and the few nobles who were part of our little group. One less vulnerability for someone to follow up on if they compromised me—or, I supposed, the reverse.
Once outside he smiled at me, and bowed over my hand, his lips brushing along my knuckles. “My lady Silf,” he said, his voice smooth and cultured. You could practically hear the classical tutoring in his words. “You look radiant this evening.”
“Flatterer,” I said with a laugh, though I was careful not to put any real sting in my tone. He smiled, a pleasant mask-like sort of smile, and led me over to the edge of the street. A carriage pulled up moments later, driven by a man in servants’ livery. The young nobleman helped me up into the back, climbing up himself a moment later, and pulled the door closed. We’d barely settled into our seats when the horses were in motion again, pulling the carriage down the street at a surprisingly good pace. The whole thing took only a few moments; the driver was clearly quite practiced.
“Have you done this sort of thing much?” the nobleman asked, leaning back in the cushions of the bench.
I shook my head. “First time,” I said.
He smiled, the expression surprisingly warm. “I feel honored,” he said. “I confess it isn’t exactly my first time, though of course never with someone quite like yourself.”
I wanted to call him a flatterer for that, but didn’t want to repeat myself, so I settled for a smile in return as I settled back into the cushions and looked around. The carriage interior was relatively plain, with little ornament beyond ornate trim in the colors of his noble house, though everything was of high quality design. It was a subtle statement of wealth, rather than the gaudiness I had half-expected. It wasn’t until you looked closer that you saw the expensive exotic woods, and the understated artistry of the design, and realized just how expensive it really was.
“Have you ever been to a ball like this before?” he asked after a moment, after it became clear that I wasn’t going to respond further.
“First time,” I said with a wry smile. “Only been in the city a little while.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding. “I trust you know the protocols and etiquette?” His tone was even and calm, suggesting that he actually did trust that.
I nodded. That much, at least, was true. After Livia’s lessons I was likely as comfortable with the details of expected behavior as the average escort was, at least in principle. “Been practicing,” I said simply.
That seemed to satisfy him, and he settled in to wait without further question, looking out the window of the carriage. He made casual conversation as we rode, mostly gossiping about various nobles. It meant little to me; I knew of some of them by name, but many not even that much, and none more than that. I nodded along and made interested noises at appropriate intervals, while filing away the relevant details of what he said.
The carriage wasn’t traveling quickly, but it was still only a few minutes before it was pulling up to a stop in front of one of the great houses of the city. It was an enormous building, easily seven or eight stories tall. The walls were stone blocks, each large enough to make me wonder how it had ever been transported there,, and elaborately painted. The carved sculptures on the upper level, each carefully lit by an alchemical lamp, loomed over us as the carriage coasted to a stop.
“Ah, we’ve arrived,” he said, redundantly. “Welcome to House Takeo,” he said, waiting for the carriage to stop completely before standing. A servant, moving with remarkable speed, was already at the door opening it before the noble had reached it. He climbed out and offered me his own hand rather than letting the servant do so. It was the fashionable thing to do, and I played along, taking his hand and stepping down out of the carriage smoothly, though I hardly needed the help.
Once I was outside looking up at it, the mansion was even more impressive, towering over us. The sun had set, but it hardly mattered. The exterior of the building was bathed in colorful light from more alchemical lamps than I could readily count, with more light shining from within the expansive windows. It was such an immense building that it was hard to conceptually grasp that it was a man-made structure; it had a sort of quiet assurance to it, as though the notion that the city could exist without it was laughable. Immense stained glass windows lined the walls, backlit by the alchemical lamps
A part of me seriously questioned the sanity of what I was doing, right about then. It wasn’t just the size of the building, though that was part of it. It was the artistry of it, the way that every detail of the structure was planned and coordinated with each other. There was no question that all of it, every last detail, had been carefully planned and arranged. The sheer amount of labor that had gone into it was intimidating as hell.
And this was just the outside of the building.
As that thought occurred to me, a servant in green and black livery walked up to us, bowing deeply. “My lord, my lady,” he said, his tone respectful without quite crossing the line into subservient. “If you will follow me, I will show you inside. May I see your invitation?”
“Of course,” my escort said, not seeming to find the question at all rude, though I had half-expected him to take offense at the implication that he might not be invited. He produced an elaborately decorated sheet of paper for review, holding it out for the servant to inspect. The servant looked at it for an instant that seemed far too short to actually see it in any meaningful way, and then nodded and walked up to the main doors of the hall.
Inside, the nobleman I was with‒his name, I remembered after a moment, was Lord Carus Reneko‒proceeded with perfect confidence through the hall, leaving me to trail behind him uncertainly. The crowd inside pressed in as tight as at any market, though the social class of those present was obviously far higher. They were dressed well enough that my own gown was, if anything, rather plain by comparison, and I was wearing considerably less jewelry than most of the women. Some were there in attendance with other nobles, but others were alone, and more than a couple had hired escorts such as myself. In fact, I actually recognized a few of these last; they weren’t workers at the Comedy, but I had seen them around Ukiyo.
The entrance hall of House Takeo was impressive beyond the capacity of words to describe, at least to someone who had never been in a noble house before in her life. It was all white marble and precious metals. Pillars lined the walls, all elaborately carved with floral and geometric designs, though I was sure they were also quite functional supports for the ceiling far overhead. The stained glass cast gorgeous light across the hall’s floor, brilliantly colored and impossibly detailed. The crowd milled around, all of them nobles except for the liveried servants of the House.
I barely had time to pay attention to any of it as Lord Carus led me across the entrance hall and into the main hall. It was much like the entrance hall, but larger and somehow even more elaborately decorated. The stained glass, mostly geometric designs in the entry hall, was instead marked by scenes I recognized from Tsuran folktales.
Carus led me up to one of the balconies overlooking the dance floor, following another servant who had been assigned to show us to our table. It was a smaller table, suitable for a couple dining alone, and tucked away in a corner out of the center of the action. I suspected this last was a commentary on the status of my date, who wasn’t exactly a part of the highest ranks of Tsuran nobility, but I was just as glad; it was more than busy enough for my tastes.
The food was much the same as I had grown to expect, first from eating at the Comedy and then particularly from my dining etiquette classes with Livia. It was still a bit overwhelming, but at least I knew what the various dishes were and how to eat them, and the flavors were familiar enough.
More surprising to me was the assortment. There wasn’t just one dish served to us, or even a few. Rather, the fashion seemed to be a large number of small servings, one dish after another presented for us. The flavors were highly varied, ranging from shrimp in a citrus sauce through various breads to sauteed vegetables and beef with rice. I was quickly glad for Livia’s warning that I shouldn’t eat all of even the small servings presented to me as a lady; there were simply too many. I ate a few bites of each, no more, and it was still enough that I was feeling quite full when there were still a good many dishes to be served.
I had been warned to expect this, as well, and didn’t hesitate to lay my fork and knife across my plate, signaling that I was finished eating. Lord Carus was still involved with his meal, having eaten more slowly than I even though I was making a conscious effort not to eat too quickly, which gave me the chance to look around in more detail.
Perhaps inevitably the dancers were what drew my eye, and I found myself evaluating them, judging the quality of their performance. For the most part, I found myself surprised and impressed. They weren’t, generally speaking, as well-trained as most dancers at the Comedy, and there were only a few styles of dance on display, none of them terribly exotic. But within those bounds, they actually weren’t half-bad. The nobles moved more smoothly and gracefully than I had expected, though perhaps that was because my expectations had been unfair. It had not occurred to me that balls were how the upper nobility spent a large portion of their time, and in their own way they had just as much riding on their performance as I had on mine.
Finally, after several minutes longer, Lord Carus laid down his silverware and dabbed at his face with his napkin. “Shall we dance, my lady?” he murmured, already rising and offering me his hand. I took it, not having to feign relief, and rose as well. I was feeling more than a little overwhelmed by that point, more than a little out of place, and the opportunity to get back onto familiar territory was a welcome one.
At least with dancing I was confident that I knew what I was doing.
He led me down the stairs to the dance floor, where we stood at the edge of the floor and waited for the current song to finish. We didn’t have to wait long; the musicians were making sure to pause frequently for dancers to join and leave the dance floor. Before long they struck up a waltz and I allowed Lord Carus to lead me out onto the dance floor.
I was most confident in my skills with solo dances, but I had first learned to dance so that I could take part in events not so dissimilar from this one. I was comfortable enough with waltzes that I didn’t have to focus too hard on the motions of the dance, and was free to pay attention to the other dancers as well as maintaining casual conversation with my partner. This last proved a rather easy demand to meet; Carus was not as comfortable with the dance as I was, and mostly focused his attention on the forms of the movement.
But he danced the song without making any mistakes obvious enough to be embarrassing, which was what mattered, and we flowed easily into the next song as well. With this, at least, I felt confident, and the feeling of fear and of being exposed which I’d had since I first met up with Carus finally faded a little. I was still afraid, but I wasn’t terrified, and I was finally able to relax enough to pay more attention to the conversations around me, which were the real reason I was here.
Livia had explained this to me in some detail. I wasn’t the sole source of information that the conspirators had; not even close. But aside from the handful that were themselves noble (and none of them were from the upper ranks of the nobility), they were getting their information from paid informants. Mos t of those got their information by bribing servants.
In principle, that was fine. Servants heard more than anyone really knew, and their masters and mistresses didn’t pay them so well that they all felt the need to keep their teeth together.
The problem was that the nobles weren’t idiots. They knew that information about them was bought and sold in dark alleys as much as it was in brightly lit ballrooms, and they knew perfectly well that their servants weren’t all completely trustworthy. Important conversations were often held away from prying ears as a result, and even the best informants struggled to get access to them. Bringing the nobles themselves in on the conspiracy would be ideal for getting around that, but it would also be extremely risky. There was a reason that people were brought in only with great caution, and even then given the absolute bare minimum of information they needed to do their jobs. The more people knew about something, the greater the risk that the information would get out. And given that we would all lose our heads if the authorities found out what we were planning, that meant that telling even a single person was an immense risk‒they would never have told me even what little they had without Black, Livia, and Miles vouching for me.
Thus, the tradition of hired escorts being used as spies. We were, in some ways, better than the nobles themselves at it. We were close enough to them to be part of conversations that ordinary servants were excluded from, while being close enough to the servants to be overlooked. We had fewer complicating loyalties and connections to the rest of the nobility. And should it come to it, we had less to gain and more to lose by betraying our employers.
So I listened. As the second dance flowed into a third, I listened to the conversations happening around me on the dance floor. There were quite a few of them, and I was shocked at the content of some; Livia had, it seemed, not exaggerated the degree to which the nobility was willing to talk in this setting. There was everything from casual gossip to trade negotiations going on around me.
I wouldn’t remember everything. My memory was good, but it wasn’t perfect. But I would remember the most important things, and at the end of the day, whatever information I got was more than Livia had without me.
I was actually feeling confident that this wasn’t a waste of time and risk by the time we finished the fourth dance.
Naturally, that’s when Lord Carus excused himself, leaving me alone at the edge of the dance floor with nowhere to hide and no idea where to go next.