Fairy lamps blazed everywhere, their golden auras driving all shadows from the front of the manor. A line of carriages, some few drawn by horses but most of the modern enchanted variety, wound through the circular driveway, depositing their elegantly-dressed riders directly before the broad steps that rose to the mansion’s towering doors. Guards were everywhere, soldiers in the navy uniforms of the Imperial Army, covering multiple vantage points with staves at the ready. Others milled about, too, in addition to the trickle of wealthy guests making their way into the party. Some loitered near the carriage line or in the surrounding gardens, most chit-chatting idly while in truth watching like hawks, ready to swoop down upon any morsel of social advantage. More than a few of those who had already attained entry lined balconies extending from the front of the building, gazing down on the people below.
As an old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage pulled out of the way, an impossibly sleek and low-slung roadster eased into its place directly before the walkway to the doors, the arcane blue of its running lights glaring even in the brightly-lit garden. Necks were craned and avid faces marked its progress; this glossy new model was the very latest thing off the Falconer lines. There couldn’t have been a dozen on the roads in the whole province. Its driver, a figure in a sharply-tailored tuxedo, hopped lightly down from the master seat, stepping around to open the door of the passenger compartment, bowing and extending a hand.
The onlookers stared intently, quite a few forgetting to pretend they weren’t watching, as the driver helped a petite drow woman down to the path. Whispers broke out on all sides as the roadster, itself a novelty, continued to disgorge fascinating passengers: a short brown girl in a richly-embroidered blue coat that swept to her ankles, and then a blonde woman in the dress uniform of the Silver Legions, complete with silver armor. As they lit on the path, the soldier rather stiffly draped her white cape about her shoulders and the young Punaji woman settled a broad-brimmed hat bristling with feathers on her head. A ball of light, somewhat hard to see in the glare of fairy lamps, darted out of the carriage’s open door and floated around their heads energetically, bobbing in apparent excitement. The driver strolled forward in the lead, the drow on her—her!—arm, and casually tossed the roadster’s control rune to a uniformed footman.
“You probably could’ve arranged a driver for us,” Ruda commented as the party ascended the steps.
“A Falconer is never driven,” Teal replied, grinning over her shoulder. “We drive.”
Her bravado diminished somewhat when they arrived at the top of the stairs. The entrance was flanked by four soldiers at attention, supervised by a supercilious-looking young man in black livery.
“Good evening, ladies,” he intoned, sweeping his gaze quickly across them. If he felt any surprise at their group’s composition, he was too professional to show it. “Invitations, please?”
Teal hunched her shoulders slightly, opening her mouth to speak, but Shaeine beat her to it.
“I’m afraid we arrived in the city too recently to have received such consideration,” she said smoothly. “As General Panissar would surely not wish to be embarrassed by this oversight, we do not wish to press the issue.”
The servant looked serenely unimpressed. “Be that as it may, I am afraid this event is strictly by invitation only.”
“I told you so,” Fross stage whispered.
“How about we make a deal, then,” Ruda suggested, pushing forward and grinning broadly. “We’ll tell you who we are, and then take bets on how long you stay employed when your boss finds out you turned us away.”
Toman Panissar liked things simple, and in this he was usually thwarted. These absurdly over-the-top social events were a perfect case in point, and a painful reality of his exalted rank. It was impossible for the commander of the Empire’s military to avoid rubbing elbows with the high and mighty, unwise to leave all such rubbing up to them to initiate, and apparently unacceptable to entertain them in anything less than the absurd fashion to which they were accustomed. The necessity of these idiotic, wasteful spectacles was the only reason he had purchased this manor, which was itself the most humble residence he felt he could get away with. He and his wife lived in all of two rooms, in what had been an apartment for the residence’s master servants. Various military purposes had been found for the otherwise unneeded space, except on nights like this when it was all put to the use its designers had intended.
Panissar knew people talked down about his parties, and didn’t give a damn. There was free food and liquor of the finest quality, abundant light from fairy lamps, and a small orchestra to provide motive to their dancing and background noise to cover their scheming. That, he felt, discharged his duties to the social elite. He’d been to no shortage of their parties, and found their preposterous spreads of food, illusionists, actors, exotic animal shows and even more excessive spectacles laughable. If they didn’t like his events, they didn’t have to damn well come.
“Smile,” his wife murmured, squeezing his arm.
“No,” he said sullenly, and she laughed. He relaxed a little in spite of himself. She had that effect on him.
They were making their slow rounds through the knots of people standing around talking, having just come back from the dance floor. He exchanged nods and greetings with some of those they passed, Marie giving somewhat more enthusiasm to her duties as hostess. She was an absolute treasure, and indispensable at these wretched things. Marie shared his preferences for order and simplicity, but she was of a more social inclination, organizing and managing even to enjoy the events somewhat. At the very least, she compensated for the grouchiness they brought out in him.
His Butler, manning the front doors of the great hall, announced the arrival of Lord and Lady Radour, and Panissar winced. He shot Marie a glance, having to tilt his head; she was several inches taller than he. “Do we need to…”
“Eventually,” she said calmly, patting his hand. “Let them circle a bit first, though, the Radours love being seen. Remember, you’ll need to compliment her dress when we do greet them.”
“Hnh,” he grunted, eying the new arrivals as they immediately entered a large knot of chatting nobles. “What there is of it.”
“There are elves in the room, dear,” Marie said, but didn’t try to repress her grin.
“Did we ever hear back from that pompous fool Madouri?”
“The Duke did not deign to RSVP,” she said calmly, “but he is still keeping his family on their country estate. He is very unlikely to put in an appearance.”
“Splendid. There’ll be no end of paperwork if I disembowel him in public.”
“I should think not,” Marie replied. “The receipts for the carpet-cleaning alone…”
“We’ll have to deal with that anyway, unless these well-bred lushes have learned not to spill their snacks everywhere since the last time.”
“Toman,” she warned, but smiled.
Panissar spotted someone he actually wanted to talk to, at the mercy of old Colonel Norynx, and changed course to intercept.
To his very great credit, Bishop Darling was attending to the Colonel’s recitation of his service in the Stalnar Rebellion without glazing over or nodding off. He wasn’t too self-possessed to look relieved when the General cleared his throat from just behind him. “Colonel, if you’ll forgive me, I need to borrow his Grace for a moment.”
“General, unless you’re here to march me to execution, I owe you a great debt,” Darling said as they stepped out of earshot, Norynx already having latched onto another victim. “It’s absolutely amazing how that man makes carnage and bloodshed so soporifically dull. In fact, if we’re doing the execution thing, I want you to know there are no hard feelings.”
“Are you enjoying yourself, your Grace?” Marie inquired, smiling.
“Much more now than a moment ago, thanks to you! Always a pleasure, Captain.”
“I’m retired,” she said. “It’s mostly Lady Panissar, these days.”
“Madam,” Darling said with a flourish and a bow, “nearly all of the most useless people I know answer to Lady. My belief is that a person who has earned a rank is entitled to be called by it, no matter how bewitchingly lovely she may be.”
“You don’t even realize you’re doing it, do you,” Panissar said sourly.
Marie smiled, squeezing his arm again. “Oh, he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
“Regardless,” said the General, “I’ve need of your skills, Darling.”
“Happy to help! Whose pocket shall I pick for you?”
“Please don’t,” Panissar said feelingly. “In fact, let’s try to stay out of arm’s distance of everyone for as long as possible. I need you to be my beard.”
Darling blinked, looked thoughtfully at Marie, then made a show of stroking his chin in contemplation. “Well. This just got a great deal more exciting than I anticipated.”
“I’m so glad when we get to talk outside of work,” Panissar grumbled. “I’m mostly spared your sense of humor at council meetings. Just walk with us, if you would, your Grace. I know you loathe these events as much as I do. Act like we’re discussing something important, and perhaps we can both be spared the attentions of these…people.”
“Oh? What makes you think so?” Darling asked with a smile. “I’ve always thought of myself as a people person, really.”
“You’re not so smooth that I haven’t caught you cringing at the politics we have to deal with,” said Panissar, beginning to walk again. Marie and the Bishop fell into step on either side of him. “This isn’t your scene. I suspect you’d much rather be hanging around with the city’s lowlifes.”
“You’re both right and missing the point,” Darling mused. “People are people; all of them are fascinating in their way. I do enjoy the lowlifes, though. So many in this social circle fail to appreciate them. It’s satisfying, feeling like I’m getting something others are missing out on.”
Their course had taken them to the foot of the dais opposite the entrance, on which the buffet tables perched. There came a momentary lull in their conversation while the General mulled the Bishop’s words, and at that moment, Panissar’s Butler, Spencer, announced the arrival of new guests in his booming voice.
“Princess Zaruda Carmelita Xingyu Sameera Meredith Punaji.”
Murmurs sprung up around them, conversations staggering to a halt. Panissar narrowed his eyes. “…what?”
“Not your idea, I take it?” Darling asked.
Spencer wasn’t done.
“General Trissiny Avelea, Hand of Avei.”
“What?” Panissar growled; the murmuring around them rose in pitch and volume.
“Miss Teal Falconer,” Spencer intoned. “Lady Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion.” He actually hesitated, the first time Panissar had ever seen the man anything less than perfectly smooth. “Fross, emissary of the Pixie Queen.”
“Oh, my,” said Darling, looking and sounding delightedly fascinated.
“Bloody hell,” Panissar growled. “Do you realize what this means?”
“You’re about to spend a fortune on booze?”
“That woman must be in the city.”
The Bishop turned to look at him, surprised. “You mean Tellwyrn? You didn’t know? Vex has people all over her.”
“Nobody tells me anything,” Panissar snarled. “Dear? Help?”
Marie spoke in a low voice as they moved slowly forward, Darling trailing along after them. “The Princess may be trouble; she’ll be mindful of the honor of her family, but Punaji ideas of proper behavior have been known to cause diplomatic incidents in the past. Avelea is a complete unknown; first the Sisters and then Tellwyrn have been hiding her. She’s a soldier, though; you should get along. The drow is of House Awarrion, and will be a mitigating factor if anything. No trouble from that source. The Falconer girl… Her whole family are artists and enchanters who disdain high society, and Teal has a reputation for being socially awkward.” She hesitated. “The pixie… I have no idea. I didn’t realize they were intelligent.”
The four uninvited guests descended the stairs to the lowered floor of the ballroom, the target of nearly every eye in the place. Five, he amended silently, counting the pixie. Well, six, if one considered that one of them was infested with a bloody demon. On his first visual inspection, he mostly found Marie’s analysis borne out. The drow looked calm and aloof as only a Narisian could. Avelea, dressed in silver armor over a sharp white dress uniform with the high-collared, gold-trimmed white ceremonial cape over that, was straight-backed and self-possessed, but visibly slightly uncomfortable. A woman after his own heart; a dance floor was no place for soldiers like them. The Punaji girl, who was hard to think of as a Princess now that he saw her, wore royal blue heavily embroidered with gold, the feathers in her hat glittering garishly with a rather tacky enchantment; between the lapels of her open coat, she was showing a bare midriff and a lot of decolletage, and probably getting a kick out of spitting in the face of Imperial fashion. Speaking of which, the Falconer girl was wearing a suit. What with that and the haircut he could have mistaken her for a boy, were it not so well-tailored. She had by no means the most impressive figure he’d ever seen on a girl, but the way her coat outlined her was eye-catching, to say the least. Great; socially awkward and apparently out to make some kind of point. Why did she have to pick his party to do it?
“Ladies,” he said, approaching. “Your Highness; General. Lady Shaeine. Miss Falconer. And… I’m sorry, miss, I don’t know the formal customs of your people.”
“We don’t really have any,” the fluttering ball of light chimed, her voice high-pitched and disgustingly cheerful. “My name’s Fross! It’s nice to meet you! Wow, your house sure is pretty!”
“Thank you,” he said, somewhat nonplussed. “Most of the credit goes to my wife. May I present Captain Marie Panissar.”
“She’s pretty too!”
“Why, thank you, Fross,” Marie said with a smile. “So are you. Ladies, welcome to our humble home. You honor us with your presence.”
“We must apologize for descending on you unannounced, Captain,” said the drow. Marie made a wry face, and Panissar grimaced, inwardly cursing Darling for putting the reminder in his head. His wife had served with honor and distinction, but usually preferred civilian address now, feeling it an appropriate counterpoint to her husband. They had a good functional partnership: he organized the Empire’s army, and she organized the rest of his life.
“Not at all, it’s I who should apologize,” Marie said smoothly. “I am terribly embarrassed that none of you were sent an invitation to our little event. I simply had no idea you were in the city.”
“Don’t feel bad, everyone was taken equally by surprise,” said Princess Zaruda, grinning. Panissar took note of that grin and resigned himself to having to clean up a mess later. That was the grin he saw on the face of young soldiers who were about eight hours away from being in lockup for drunk and disorderly conduct.
“Yes,” said Darling cheerfully, “Hurricane Arachne has a way of blowing everyone off course.”
Zaruda barked a most un-Princesslike laugh. Panissar cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to leave you out, your Grace. Ladies, this is Bishop Antonio Darling of the Universal Church.”
“Pleasure,” said Avelea crisply, extending a hand and clasping the Bishop’s. “From what faith do you come to the Church, if I may ask?”
“Of course you may! I have the honor of being a priest of Eserion.”
“I see,” she said somewhat grimly.
“I’m sure you believe that you do,” Darling replied with a broad smile. “Do you play poker, General? We really should have a game sometime.”
Avelea narrowed her eyes, and Panissar sighed, making a mental note not to hang around with Darling outside of work if it could be helped. He was much better behaved in a small room with three of the Empire’s most powerful men.
Zaruda laughed again, deftly snagging a flute of champagne from a passing waiter. “All right, keep it in your pants, your Generalship, ma’am. I have decided that I like this guy.”
“Smashing!” Darling proclaimed with a grin. “Does that mean I get to live?”
“For the time being. I’ll expect you to flirt shamelessly with me for a good chunk of the evening, of course.”
“Your Highness, I do everything shamelessly,” he said with a deep bow.
“General Panissar,” said Avelea crisply. “I wonder if I could trouble you for a word in private?”
“I would be delighted,” he said, patting Marie’s hand and then releasing her arm. He spoke in absolute sincerity. Anything to get away from this crowd for a moment.
Panissar led the way across the ballroom, up the dais and to the row of picture windows overlooking the manor gardens. There, he had to abruptly change course as the small private balcony to which he was headed proved to be occupied by two figures trying fervently to become one. Luckily, there was an identical one on the opposite side, this one empty. Panissar led Avelea across to it, ushered her through, and shut the door, cutting off the sounds of the party with more than a little relief.
“I’m afraid I’m a rather poor guest,” said Avelea, turning to face him and placing her back to the railing. “I must confess I came here tonight with the primary goal of speaking with you.”
“General,” he said with a smile, “every one of those overdressed peacocks in there is here for the singular purpose of currying favor, with me or in some cases with each other. The only exceptions are some of my officers whom I ordered to attend. Out of all those bootlickers, not one has had the basic spine to tell me to my face what they’re up to. You are now officially my favorite guest. What can I do for you?”
She smiled, and Panissar found himself liking the girl. Avelea was an enigma, little known and much speculated about, due to the secrecy in which her caretakers had shrouded her. She was young enough to be the rawest recruit his Army would allow in, but had the poise and bearing of a much more experienced soldier. Well, that made a certain amount of sense, given her upbringing.
“I am… Please don’t take offense, General Panissar,” she said, frowning slightly in thought. “I don’t mean to interfere in the running of your forces. I’d not trouble you with this matter at all if I didn’t believe it important.”
“You’re not about to bruise my ego,” he said. “Please, speak freely.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “There is an issue in the city district commonly known as Lor’naris. It seems soldiers acting as city guards have been harassing the residents.”
Panissar frowned. “Harassing? In what way?”
“So far, it has been limited to verbal attempts at intimidation, but the matter is gradually escalating. The guards have repeatedly tried to disperse the neighborhood watch, and most recently attempted to arrest them on entirely specious grounds.”
“Attempted to arrest?”
“In fact,” she said dryly, “they attempted to arrest everyone present. Including me.”
“Now, that is fascinating,” he said grimly. “I can’t think of a single good damn reason why I haven’t been informed of such an event taking place. Ah, pardon my language.”
She nodded. “The residents have turned to me for help. I’ve sent a message to the commander of the local barracks, but… I expect little result from that, frankly. Any further action on my part would be disruptive to your chain of command, which I of course would rather avoid. That’s why I sought you out.”
“I appreciate that,” he said thoughtfully.
“Then I trust you’ll address the matter?”
“Mm,” Panissar murmured. “I will definitely look into it. I have an immediate need to know of any such things occurring among my soldiers. But before I make you any promises, General Avelea… Based on what you’ve told me so far, addressing the matter in any concrete way might not be the right move.”
She looked shocked, an expression which slowly began to morph into frustration. “I’m not sure I understand…”
“Let me apologize, now, if I seem impertinent,” he said. “I know you’ve had the best training available. Have you had much experience in actual battle?”
“I wouldn’t say much,” she admitted. “Some centaurs, a few bandits. Not substantial engagements.”
Panissar nodded. “Did you command troops in any of these conflicts?”
“Not…troops. Civilian recruits. Some…adventurers.”
He winced. “Ouch.”
“Yeah,” she said with a sigh.
“Inexperience isn’t a failing unless you refuse to remedy it,” said Panissar. “In this case, it’s my experience leading soldiers for the last several decades that makes me reluctant to take direct action. I can’t speak for the Silver Legions, obviously, but this is actually something for which officers in the Imperial Army are trained; the Empire has frequently needed to station forces among native populations who aren’t always happy with the presence of troops. There’s an art to keeping peace between soldiers and foreign civilians, and direct confrontation isn’t any part of it.”
“Direct confrontation is absolutely the last thing anyone wants,” she said earnestly. “That’s exactly why I’d hoped you would call down the offending regiment. This pattern of behavior goes well beyond just a few individuals.”
“There are more kinds of confrontation than soldiers clashing with rebels,” he said. “Tolerance is a lot like morale; you can’t just order your soldiers to have it. It must be carefully fostered. The important thing to understand about the bigoted mind, General Avelea, is what it fears.”
Her eyebrows rose sharply. “Fears?”
He nodded. “Lor’naris isn’t just drow, you know. Oh, there are a few drow adventurers who came to Tiraas looking for who-knows-what, I’m not contesting that. The vast majority of the drow in that district, however, moved there because they chose human mates and their own families weren’t having any of it back in Tar’naris. And of those pairings, a lot are my former soldiers who were stationed at Fort Vaspian and the Imperial embassy in Tar’naris itself. That is what the bigoted mind fears: normal people living out the contradiction of its ideas. Proof that it is wrong. Bad enough that the drow and humans of Lor’naris are all cuddly with each other; they’ve gone and become successful, which must be absolutely infuriating. This kind of thing is why the most ardent racists get more worked up over halfbloods than they do about actual elves or dwarves or whatever their problem is.”
“This is quite interesting,” she said patiently, “but I’m not sure how it pertains to the matter of enforcement.”
“Just that coming down on the troops who are causing this ruckus won’t solve the problem,” he said. “Oh, if this were wartime, if the overall situation were worse in any of a number of possible ways, that’s exactly what I’d do. But it’s not. This is about the culture of my Army and the welfare of this city, and that means…” He sighed. “…that it doesn’t get to be simple. Ordering those soldiers to lighten up, even disciplining them, will make them dig their heels in. Consider the positives of the situation. A lot of those residents are fellow soldiers, or were. A lot of those serving in that barracks are likely just toeing the line; the cohesiveness of the unit is a powerful force, and many of them may not have any animosity toward the residents. Shutting them down would alleviate the current tension at the cost of entrenching those attitudes, making them much harder to root out in the future.”
“What do you intend to do, then?” she asked. Avelea was holding to her self-control, but he could plainly see the frustration on her face. Were she any junior officer of his, Panissar would have laid a hand on her shoulder, but Legionnaires could be prickly about men touching them without permission. He contented himself with folding his hands behind his back.
“Don’t think I’m going to ignore this, General,” he said firmly. “I greatly appreciate you bringing it to my attention. I had no idea any of this was going on, and it’s always preferable to act from a position of knowledge. First, though, I need to gather more information, and if and when action is necessary, it will be of the careful variety, and possibly not undertaken from within the Army itself. This is a good job for diplomats, religious leaders and civic organizers. The folk in Lor’naris have a solid reputation for being able to handle their own affairs, too. It should never be an excuse for apathy,” he added more gently, “but sometimes, the best thing you can do actually is nothing. Provided you do that nothing in a careful, controlled manner and stand ready to take action if it becomes needful.”
“I see,” she said stiffly, and Panissar barely managed not to sigh. Yes, she might be disciplined and mature for her age, but… Teenagers always thought they could save the world. A teenager who was the personal Hand of a goddess was doubtless ten times as bad.
Avelea turned to stare thoughtfully out over the garden, and one good look at her expression told Panissar he hadn’t heard the last of this.
It almost made him eager to get back to the party.