I ended up in the hedge maze, sitting in a pocket of it where someone had placed a stone bench. I’d been crying earlier, but now I just felt numb, and empty, and angry. I wanted to break something, or someone.
What gave them the right to judge me, anyway? To look at me like I was less than a person, just because of what was ultimately an accident of random chance? It was only chance that I’d been Changed while they lived behind wards, safe from the magic’s random depredations. It was only an accident of birth that left them the inheritors of wealth, and power, and privilege, while I was an outcast with none of the above.
How dare they pass judgment on me?
I was acutely aware of the knife next to my skin, the bits of sharp metal in a pouch under my tunic. I couldn’t kill them all, the guards would get me long before that, but I could get a few. The temptation was very real.
But no. Hadn’t I just been thinking about how they were less monstrous than I had thought? Their crime was arrogance and silence, nothing more. They didn’t deserve to die for that.
But at the same time, their crime was nothing less, either. And while they didn’t deserve to die, I couldn’t help but feel that they deserved some kind of karmic comeuppance that I was sure they wouldn’t get. After all, why should the gods start being egalitarian when it came to handing out punishments now? They’d never bothered before.
The thing that truly bothered me wasn’t what was said. I’d heard that and worse before, albeit not in such a context. It was the silence. The fact that he was going to get away with saying it, that was worse than it actually being said. What was even the point of so-called etiquette if it only applied when it came to someone who fit the mold.
It kind of made me miss the Comedy. I might be objectified and put on display like a rare breed of animal there, but at least I mattered.
I was just about to start crying again when I heard a rustling. I looked up, and Lucius walked into the clearing. He was wearing a mask that obscured his face completely, but I could tell it was him by the way he moved. He walked over and sat on the bench next to me, and for a long moment nothing was said.
“Aren’t you going to be in trouble?” I asked eventually, choking the words out through a throat that felt more choked than usual. “For missing the feast.”
“Probably,” he said cheerfully. “But you know what? Fuck those self-righteous pricks and everything they stand for. At the moment, I’m really not in the mood to pander to their little self-important world and pretend I care what their opinions are on, I don’t know, cheese or something. I’m bloody tired of acting like the most important things in the world are high society parties and the girls that get thrown at me by their parents hoping to marry into status.”
I stared. I really didn’t know what to say to that. He’d said some things that implied something of that attitude, and his disinclination to join in on the cliques had certainly suggested a certain disdain for the way Akitsuran nobility worked. But to come right out and say it like that?
“I’m sorry,” he said, relaxing a little. “The important thing is, how are you doing? It can’t be easy dealing with that kind of bigotry.”
“You get used to it,” I said softly. I hesitated, then said, “Hurts more no one cares.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “If it’s any comfort, Rien and Ryoko are planning to drug his wine with something embarrassing at the next party he attends. I’m not sure what.”
I managed a weak but genuine smile. “Helps,” I said. It was good to know that at least a couple of the people I called friends were willing to stand up for me, however subtly.
“Good,” he said. “I’ll let you know what happens if you aren’t there. Frankly, the duke has deserved that and more for quite some time – I can’t stand the man, nor can most anyone else. I’ve considered starting a betting pool for how long it takes for someone to finally take out an assassination contract on him.”
That got an actual giggle, and Lucius smiled. “Ah, there we go,” he said. “I knew that would cheer you up.”
I nodded, and we sat in silence for a minute or so, the only sound the distant music from the main garden party. As we sat, the silence took on a strange…tone, I suppose, would be the word. A feeling of quiet companionship. I suddenly realized that, in the middle of the biggest party I’d ever seen, I was for the first time genuinely alone with Lucius.
“Why?” I asked, the question that had been burning in me since the first time we spoke. “Why do you talk to me?”
Normally he would have given a flippant answer, but this time he was quiet, and when he spoke his voice was serious. “You are…atypical,” he said. “And please understand I mean that as a compliment. Almost everyone I interact with, they fit the same mold. Going along to get along, playing the game for a reward of getting to play some more. They don’t see, or think, anything outside the pattern. But you…you’re not like that. I talk to you and I can have an actual conversation. Talk about real things, things that matter, instead of acting like people are just…just chess pieces to move around on the board.”
I nodded slowly. In a way, I supposed, it made sense. It was much the same reason I kept talking to him, in a way – as a reprieve from the constant, petty squabbling and jockeying for position of high society.
I could barely stand it when I was just an occasional visitor to that world. How hard must it be for someone who was born and raised in it?
We sat quietly for a few minutes more. There was a slightly different note to it this time, though, a feeling of anxiety. I wasn’t sure why, but Lucius was feeling tense, nervous.
I found out when he said, very tentatively, “I would like to kiss you.”
A thousand thoughts seemed to flash through my head in an instant. It was a bad idea on so many levels. He was a noble, for the black gods’ sake, he was the enemy, I was trying to undermine his whole culture. There was no future here. And in the immediate sense, what if someone walked in on us? We were just in a corner of the hedge maze, it wasn’t as though there were any true privacy here. What if we got caught? They could blackmail him, they could use us against each other. And…and….
And nothing good ever happened to people who weren’t willing to take risks.
“I would like that very much,” I said, a little breathlessly.
He froze, as though he had never really considered the possibility that I might say yes. Then he removed his mask with shaking hands, and leaned in, and kissed me.
It was a long, slow exploration of a kiss, gentle and tender and clumsy and real. I raised one hand to his neck, holding him close, and was quietly thankful that I’d chosen an outfit that was easy to take off tonight. And for a time, there was no thought of war, or blood, or horror, or betrayal. Only him and me, together. For a time, I was just a girl who loved a boy, and thought that was enough.
The next two weeks passed in a blur. I saw Lucius regularly at the Comedy, now, though never in the taproom and never when I was on shift. He didn’t berate me for my work, but it was clear he didn’t feel a need to be part of it either. I kept attending the parties and balls and fetes, and it was both easier and harder. Easier, because there was a reprieve, a connection that kept me from drowning in the mindless struggle for position. Harder, because now I had something to lose.
It wasn’t a position I was accustomed to being in.
All told, though, I was almost deliriously happy. I had friends – I even told Rose and Lyssa a little about that night in the hedge maze, trusting that they wouldn’t spread it further, and they didn’t. I had a home. I had every luxury I could have asked for. And now, I had Lucius.
What more could I want than that?
But all good things must come to an end, and it was only two and a half weeks before this period of delirious happiness was cut short in a brutally abrupt manner.
My first and last warning was when I was awakened in my bed at the Comedy by a heavy pounding on the door and a voice calling out, grim and hard, “Silf! You are under arrest for treason, conspiracy to commit treason, and the murder of an agent of the throne. Open, by the order of the emperor!”