I kept working at the Comedy, where I’d become a fixture. As strange as it seemed, I was now one of the more popular performers. I had regular clients who came in specifically when I was dancing, and got requests and tips every night. Money had stopped meaning anything, between the absurd payment from the brothel’s patrons and what was left of Miles’s bizarre payment. I wore silk and jewelry whenever I wanted, ate whatever I wanted, bought gifts for my friends at the Comedy, and I was still saving some in case of disaster.
Life would have been wonderful, were it not for the fact that I was also continuing work for Miles’s…less savory pursuits. And that work, well, it was not as benign as it once was. Sometimes jobs would include things like slipping something into a certain lord’s drink, planting a rumor that a given lady was cheating on her husband, or planting something in a person’s belongings while they weren’t paying attention.
Despite saying that he wanted me to know more and to be more involved in the planning of the conspiracy’s activities, he never told me precisely what these little tasks were supposed to accomplish. But sometimes I saw the consequences, and they were…well, pretty serious, a lot of the time. Things like ruined reputations, collapsed trade deals…even death, once, when a lord’s son I had drugged choked on his food during dinner and died before the medics could get to him.
It cast my actions into stark relief, highlighted the magnitude of my choices’ consequences, and I found it not to my taste. It was ugly stuff, most of the time, and while I told myself that they were nobles, that justification was wearing thinner and thinner as time went on. As I spent more time around them, I was having an ever harder time convincing myself that the nobility were really that bad.
Oh, there were some, sure, who I had no trouble with the idea of killing. There were a handful of nobles who talked quite casually about doing horrible things, things that left me stunned that they could do them, let alone talk about them in mixed company. There were nobles that were fully behind the war effort and dismissed any concerns about the feelings of the invaded nations by calling them ignorant savages who were of no consequence. Those people, I could stab in the back and never feel a qualm.
But most of them just…weren’t like that. They weren’t like my idea of them had been at all. They were just people. People with wealth and power far in excess of what I felt anyone should be trusted with, granted, but still people. They had normal desires, they wanted the same basic things from life that anyone else did. More than a couple of them, I suspected, had the same nagging questions in their conscience from what their empire did that I had from what I was doing for Miles.
And then there was Lucius, who continued to be just…an enigma to me. He was often present, always on the sidelines, always with an air of detachment from the proceedings of the noble court. It was like he was watching something but not actually a part of it. He was always willing to talk to me – hells, he seemed like he was actually happy to – but he rarely interacted with the other nobles at the balls and fetes I saw him at. He was educated on a shocking variety of topics, and clearly sharply intelligent, but he had no problems acknowledging my expertise when our talks strayed to something I knew something about.
He was impossible for me to figure out. Maybe that’s why I kept talking to him every time I saw him at an event – he was simply too tempting of a problem to work on, too alluring a question. The fact that he was a candid source of information on so many things related to Akitsuro’s history and culture was just an added benefit.
The next major event that I was to attend was a traditional spring festival to celebrate the cherry blossoms, an important cultural touchstone which had a great deal of symbolic significance to Tsurans. They were just another flower to me, but I had grown up in the north, and even the Whitewood’s plant-mages could only do so much to encourage flowers in their harsh climate. A festival celebrating blooming trees made perfect sense to me.
It was important to give thanks for beautiful things.
This particular festival was only one of many during the week that was the primary viewing period for sakura blossoms. But it was generally acknowledged to be the best of them, at least by the nobility. It was hosted by House Karesha, and it was one of the premiere social events of the year for Aseoto’s upper crust. Anyone who was anyone would be there, along with scores of entertainers of all kinds.
I was getting in as one of the latter. Livia, trading on my burgeoning reputation as an exotic dancer, had managed to get my name on the list of invitees. I was encouraged to dance or otherwise entertain the nobles in attendance, but it wasn’t required or structured, and I was attending on my own for once rather than as someone’s escort. What that meant for me was that I had a great deal more freedom to wander, pick up gossip, and be seen.
It was a masquerade party, and it had taken over two weeks for Clarus, Livia, and me to decide on the mask I would wear. It had to conceal enough to be intriguing, reveal enough to be recognizable to those who had seen me dance, and accentuate my exotic Changed features. What we settled on, after much argument, was a domino mask of silver, thin as paper and with elaborate designs cut into it with alchemical-precision tools. It revealed bits of my skin in a pattern that evoked fur without quite being obvious about it, and left my mouth and hair bare. The mask itself was set with emeralds and etched with more designs, some geometric and some continuing the almost-fur look of the cutouts.
That was going with a silk tunic and loose calf-length pants, both in a rich shade that shimmered from green to blue, and light slippers embroidered with a sakura pattern. I was wearing silver jewelry with more emeralds, and a musky perfume that brought to mind animals dozing in the sunlight.
It was one of the most elaborate, carefully planned outfits Clarus had ever made for me. I looked at myself in the mirror one last time after putting it on, and I had to admit, it looked good. The mask really did strike a balance between concealing and showing, leaving me recognizably Changed and recognizably myself but with an air of intrigue.
It was astonishing to me the lies that could be told with simple cloth and metal.
I arrived to the party fashionably late. It was on the mainland at House Karesha’s estate, well outside the city proper. I had been assured that the way there was perfectly safe, here in the heart of Akitsuro’s empire and with the civic legion patrolling the route heavily for the festival.
I was still carrying a pouch of sharpened metal bits, and there was a knife tucked inside my tunic. Some habits don’t die, hard or otherwise.
The carriage Livia had hired was a very fine one, with rich mahogany paneling, matching black horses, and a driver and footman in the livery of a major travel service operating in the city. The ride was very smooth, but I was still a nervous mess inside, and I had to be very mindful not to muss my hair or outfit. This wasn’t really so much different from any number of other events I’d attended, but it felt far more serious. For one thing, it was a much larger party than almost any of the ones I’d been to thus far. For another, I was attending on my own rather than as an escort of some young son or daughter of a noble family.
I waited through the line, until I got to the gate, wrought iron with the shapes of tiny frolicking faeries and vargs, the designs so tiny and perfect that they could only have been made in Aseoto. The gatekeeper, a tall man with exotic dark skin in the green and gold livery of the House, checked my invitation thoroughly, then waved me through.
I continued in the carriage for a while longer, inside the estate. It was a massive plot of land, acres and acres and acres of wild growth forest before the gardens started. I got out there, and stepped out into the evening air, and smiled. Now that I was here, in the moment, it was easier. Simpler.
I walked forward, holding my hands carefully just a touch out from my sides, letting my fingers play slightly in the breeze. The party was being held both inside the manor, a vast structure that sprawled far more than the city estates could on the islands, and in the gardens outside. I planned to stay mostly in the gardens, though. The cool evening air felt good, and the openness of the gardens was appealing. I’d spent more than enough time lately in packed ballrooms and taprooms and dining halls. It was pleasant to get to be outside during an event for once.
I ran into Caius Anaai, a casual acquaintance I remembered from the falconing trips, and spent a while discussing the news of a recent attack by the barbarians of the Tears on an outpost of the legions in the far north. It had apparently been brutal, involving several tribes’ warriors backed by channelers, with berserkers acting as a hammer to reinforce any parts of the assault force that were failing. The outpost had been routed, with few survivors making it out through the mountains and the forests. Speculation was rife as to what the emperor would do as reprisal.
I was quietly thrilled to hear that the Tears-folk were putting up a good fight. I might have come to see the nobility of Akitsuro in a slightly more nuanced light, but the invasion itself? Not so much.
After I spent some time with Caius, I mingled, sipping at a glass of alchemical liqueur. It was deep violet, and tasted like blackberries and fire with an aftertaste of sweet sorrow. I talked to Ryoko Yagari, a daughter of an old House with heavy investment in alchemy and alchemical manufacturing. She was a practicing alchemist herself, apparently quite a good one – she had several designs that had gone into production at manufactories and universities throughout the city. She was also bitchy, snappish, and ethically…limited.
I enjoyed talking with Ryoko. She always had something interesting and useful to talk about, even if it rarely mattered to my actual goals. Tonight she was full of news about a serious fire that had broken out in an alchemical workshop in Narrows. I’d heard little about it – in Narrows, a whole island could burn to the ground and no one would blink an eye. Ryoki, unsurprisingly, knew more. Apparently a team of alchemists had been working with a caustic substance called frost-tar. It was called that not because it was cold, but because it had to be kept cold – it ignited at room temperature. The alchemical icebox it was stored in, though far more advanced than those used by the common folk, was also more complex, and it had been ever so slightly less than perfect. The defect had led to a crack, which led to a leak, which led to roiling, caustic, burning fog filling the workshop and spilling out into the street.
One of the things about talking to Ryoko that was both refreshing and concerning was that she didn’t trouble herself too much with the moral ramifications of events. It was all about technical and practical stuff for her. So rather than talk about how tragic it was that so many lives had been lost, she said that the defect should have been obvious, and the alchemical team working with the stuff had been far too careless. She also said something about how she was now considering using frost-tar for controlled ignition before being pulled aside by another alchemist.
After finishing the liqueur, I spent twenty minutes or so dancing before I heard a familiar voice call out. It was Rien Kanai, a noble girl a little younger than myself. She was one of my better friends among the nobles – she was one of the few younger girls who seemed to be actually inclined to pay attention to the world outside her ballrooms and manors. She wasn’t quite as shockingly outspoken as Lucius, but she still knew a great deal about current events. She was interested in foreign cultures – she’d asked me numerous questions about Skelland and the Whitewood, and even come to the Comedy a few times, always with a very…interested expression.
That talk wasn’t as fruitful as the others, in terms of actually learning something useful. But I liked to think that talking to Rien was a way to help influence the next generation of nobility.
As soon as I was done talking to her I was pulled aside by Arate Saeki, an older gentleman I didn’t much care for. HIs House was notorious for its arms dealing, producing much of the equipment used by the legions. Rumor had it that they were also supplying the northern nations that the empire was at war with, profiting from both sides of the conflict, and Arate was one of the ones most linked to those rumors. If there was anyone who had a reason to want that stupid, senseless war of invasion to continue, it was him. But at the same time, that exact factor also meant that he was in an excellent place to have useful information for the conspiracy.
Talking with him was always a delicate dance, tidbits of knowledge traded for each other and tasted for poison carefully, and this was no exception. I kept it up for about ten minutes, and then I couldn’t take any more.
After another interval of dancing, it was time for the host to properly welcome us. There was to be a toast of blackwine, as I understood it, followed by a feast. I made my way to the center of the gardens where the long tables had been laid out, along with the rest of the attendees.
Then someone shoved me from behind. Not a casual, friendly sort of shove, but the kind that almost knocks you over. I recovered my balance after a moment and spun to see a short, stocky Tsuran man with a devil mask that covered his entire face.
“Excuse me?” I said, as politely as I could, which wasn’t very.
He laughed. “Oh, shut up, and go away.” His tone was openly mocking.
“I don’t – “ I began, only to be cut off by him.
“Exactly. ‘You don’t’ have the right to eat with your betters, you fucking Changed freak. I don’t know why you’re even invited here, but I certainly won’t be sitting at a table with you. Probably lose my appetite.”
I just stood there for a moment, mouth open. I’d gotten numerous comments that expressed the same general attitude while in Aseoto, it went without saying – the Changed were not welcome here, and it was not subtle. Among the nobility, though, it had always been more subtle, barbed comments and sudden silences, veiled insults and half-heard slurs. Nothing like this. Nothing so direct, so brutal.
I looked around, in silence, and the crowd looked back at me, in silence. No one, not a single person, spoke up. Most of them weren’t even watching, were carefully not-watching in the same way one didn’t look directly at a man beating a slave, or a drunk kicking a dog. Rien, clever Rien whom I had thought a friend, wouldn’t even meet my eye.
I turned and fled, tears in my eyes.