Just as Mito seems to be solving her problems, Aleria’s hopes for a solution to her own difficulties fade as the dreams increase and her dissatisfaction with her life deepens.
A mission to obtain information leads her to a more subtle danger; is Lord Fauvé a clever rebel, or is he a very tempting solution to her search for a place in life?
But again the world she has been so sheltered from reaches out and slaps her in the face. Suffused with rage at her ultimate degredation, Aleria goes about taking her revenge with methodical skill.
Returning home, she discovers that she is even farther from the old traditional life she had always avioded. She still feels the same, but the attitudes of everyone else towards her have changed. No one knows quite how to treat her. And when social conventions threaten her friendship with Mito, Aleria decides it’s time to straighten out the whole lot of them.
Gordon A. Long
e x c e r p t
- Answer to a Challenge
Aleria looked up the street ahead, where brightly dressed young women gathered towards the Grand Entrance Portico of their old school. She noted that many had armed escorts. Hmm. Must be worse than I thought. Then she looked at her companion, striding along as if she were going somewhere important. “Tell me again. Why are we attending this event?”
Mito grinned over at her. “We are going to the Fall Reunion to reaffirm our ties with our class and our loyalty to the principles of the Young Ladies’ Academy. It’s traditional.”
Aleria nodded with as straight a face as she could manage. “And since neither of us, as I recall, had such a warm or rewarding stay at the Young Ladies’ Academy, nor did we form close ties with many of our classmates, nor do we have much use for traditions – especially outmoded ones – the question remains. Why?”
Mito shrugged. “I’m not sure. We should show up to the Graduate Ladies’ Tea, anyway. Whether we go to the Fealty Ceremony tonight is another thing.”
“The Twins won’t be there.”
“Let’s just see how the Tea goes, shall we?”
Aleria grinned at her friend. “Maybe you just wanted an excuse to get dressed up.”
“I am not dressed up! Not any more than I should be.”
Aleria regarded Mito’s warm-hued autumn dress, its skirt emblazoned with falling-leaf patterns that Aleria knew her friend embroidered herself. “You look pretty good. Some of these swordsmen are pretty well turned out. I wonder if any of them are eligible bachelors.”
Mito reddened. “That is not why I’m going.” She turned to regard Aleria. “You certainly didn’t overdress.”
“I have a dress on. It isn’t too short; it isn’t too long. It is an appropriate colour for the season: medium brown. I have quite dainty shoes on, with even a little bit of heel.” She turned to regard her reflection in a shop window. “They wouldn’t be much good in a fight, but for afternoon tea, they’ll do.”
“Oh, you’ll do, I suppose. But…”
Something in her friend’s face alerted Aleria and she turned. A nondescript young man stood there. He was dressed in a workman’s smock and he hadn’t shaved lately. The sour odour of an unwashed body enveloped them. His shoulders were hunched, and he held out his hand to Mito.
“You ladies got a coin for a poor lad, down on his luck?
Mito glanced around in confusion. “No…I…I’m not carrying any…”
The lad leaned in. “Then what about that necklace? It looks like it’s worth a bit. I’ll take that.”
Mito’s uncertainty disappeared, and she backed up against the nearest shop wall. “You will do no such thing.” Aleria could see the fingers of her right hand bunching up the hem of her skirt at her thigh, just the level where a hideaway dagger would hang.
“And who’s gonna stop me? C’mon, lady. You don’t need that, ‘n’ I do.”
“And if I won’t give it to you?”
He loomed over her. “I need some money. I ain’t et for two days. You don’t want me to get rough, now, do you?
Mito looked over at her. “What are we going to do with this person, Aleria?”
The boy’s face changed. “Aleria?” He glanced at her, then looked again. “Aleria…oh.”
“Yes, Aleria. I know you, don’t I? You’re Geran’s buddy. I see you down at the Raven once in a while…Miedio. What do you think you’re doing?”
“Um…well, they told me there was a lotta girls meetin’ here today, and I really need some money…so I thought…”
“You didn’t think too much. Do you know what trouble you’re in?”
“Yeah…look, Aleria, please don’t tell Geran, hey?”
“And why shouldn’t I tell Geran?”
“He told me he’d lend me some money, but I said I was fine, and he warned me about doin’ somethin’ like this.”
“But you were too proud to take his money. You’d rather rob some defenceless girl.”
“Yeah, but they ain’t so defenceless. They all had men with ‘em, today. I ain’t seen so many swords on one street in all the time I bin in the city.”
“And we’re going to see a lot more in the future, mostly because of people like you. Now the question again. What are we going to do with you?”
“I didn’t do nothin’. I didn’t!”
“Only because we stopped you. What do you need money for?”
“I’m gonna get throwed outa my room, and I ain’t et proper for weeks.”
“And why is that?”
“I can’t find any work. I tried, Aleria, I really did. But nobody needs men right now, and I ain’t got a trade to speak of.”
Aleria looked at Mito, who shrugged. She dug in her reticule. “All right. Here’s a crown. Use it for what you need. Do you know where the Dalmyn Cartage yard is?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know that.”
“Be there tomorrow first thing the gate opens. I’ll find something for you. And no more of this thieving, Miedio. Got it?”
“Yeah, Aleria, I got it. I didn’t want to rob no one. I just didn’t know where to go.”
“I suppose. Away you go now.”
“Yeah, thanks Aleria.” He turned to Mito. “I’m sorry, Miss. I hope I didn’t scare you too much.”
“You didn’t scare me. Now git.” She flicked her fingers in a shooing motion.
Clutching the coin with both fists, the lad scurried away.
The two friends looked at each other, and Aleria threw up her hands. “I’ve been saying for months that there’s something wrong. That kid would work if he could. There just isn’t anything for him. And it’s not as if the economy is down. The harvests were fine this year. Our cartage trade is booming.”
She shook her head. “They taught us in Politics and History class that our Enlightened Monarchy here in Galesia was the best government in the world. Better than the anarchy they have over in Ferboden since they had their Citizen’s Revolution or whatever they called it.”
“Better than the wondrous Domaland, which is run by an Oligarchy of businessmen, I gather.” Mito shuddered.
“Exactly. But here we are with revolutions every other year, and beggars and thieves roaming the streets of the capital city. What’s wrong with us?”
“I don’t know. I guess you’ll have to fix it, won’t you?”
She favoured her friend with a look of scorn. “Sure thing. Right after I find the fabled iron mines in the Eastern Shield.” She shrugged. “Well, at least we can find a place for Miedio. If he can work at all.”
“I wish it was that easy to find a place for me.”
Aleria regarded her friend. “Are you serious?”
“I don’t want to talk about it now. Let’s go to the Tea.”
“Fine with me.”
They turned and continued down the street, but Aleria’s mind was no longer on the upcoming celebration.
f* * *
Aleria looked around the reception room. Beautiful panelling, beautiful dresses, beautiful young women circulating in meaningless eddies. “I have no idea what any of these people have been doing.”
“You’ll have something to talk about, then. I’m sure they’re all interested in what you’re doing.”
She snorted. “As if I was a sideshow at the circus, maybe.”
Mito glanced at Aleria’s hip. “At least you didn’t wear your sword.”
Aleria swished her dress. “It impedes the flow of the fabric when I move.”
“Oh, my. Evidence of fashion sense. The girl is growing normal.”
“I am, however, still wearing the hideout you gave me.”
“I wasn’t expecting a complete transformation.” Mito edged closer and dropped her voice. “I’m wearing one, too.” She touched her right leg.
“I know.” Aleria frowned. “And aren’t you glad you were.”
Mito grinned. “I hardly needed it, bastioned behind your fearsome reputation.”
A new voice broke in from behind them. “Aleria and Mito, as usual. What bastions are you two talking about? Is life still all swords and battles?”
They turned to discover Plendinta, who was dressed as if a battle were the last thing on her agenda. “As it happens, Mito had just mentioned the street robberies.”
The other girl shuddered. “Yes, horrible, isn’t it? My brother had to escort me. He wasn’t too pleased. How did you two get here?”
Aleria glanced at Mito, shrugged. “We walked.”
Plendinta grinned. “Of course, nobody is going to bother you, are they?”
Aleria shook her head. “I don’t know. The main assets a person needs on the street these days are sharp eyes and ears. By the time you have to fight, it’s too late. You could be in the middle of a riot in an instant.”
“It’s certainly time they did something about those awful people!”
Aleria shrugged again. “Not a day to be talking politics. What have you been doing to keep out of trouble?”
“I’m a working girl these days.” Plendinta indicated her pleated skirt and tailored jacket. Her hair was twisted up in a neat swirl behind her head.
Mito looked her up and down. “I wondered at the new look. It suits you.”
“What are you working at?”
Plendinta’s look became wary. “We don’t all have the leisure to do what we want, Aleria. My father’s office manager left suddenly, and I was the only one available to fill in.” Her face brightened. “It turns out I’m rather good at organizing people.”
Aleria laughed. “I could have told you that years ago. Good for you.” She looked the other girl up and down, then frowned and shook her head.
“What’s wrong?” Plendinta tried to look at her own clothing.
“I couldn’t wear a skirt that tight at the yard. I have to get up into wagon beds and climb piles of goods. And I wear walking boots because of the mud. I don’t think they’d match.”
Plendinta’s smile returned. “No, I can’t see you in a business outfit.” She nodded, as if confirming a thought. “So you’re working, too.”
“Five and a half days a week. Invoicing and accounts payable.”
“You always were good at Math. You like it?”
“Not much, but it’s the price you pay for being in the middle of the action. I may have to run the business some day, and I need to be familiar with everything.”
They nodded to each other in mutual respect, then Plendinta turned to glance around at the crowd. “Well, I’ve got a lot of people to talk to.”
“You’re chair of the planning committee, aren’t you?”
The other girl grinned. “Organizing people. My skill.”
Aleria raised a hand, and Plendinta scurried off through the growing crowd, making brief stops to talk to various people.
“She seems happy.” She glanced over at Mito. “You don’t. What’s the problem?”
Mito’s lip twisted, more of a grimace than a smile. “I know some of the girls will be horrified that Plendinta is working. They will find it much more comfortable when I tell them what I’ve been doing, which isn’t much. But I’d take her place any day.”
“Hmm. Well, if you’re not enjoying the tea, we can leave.”
Mito straightened her back. “I have nothing to be ashamed of, and jealousy is unbecoming a lady. We stay.”
Aleria slapped her friend on the back, propelling her toward a nearby group. “That’s the spirit. Let’s find out if the punch is more interesting than the tea was.”
They circulated through the crowd, and Aleria was gratified by the respect she received. “At least nobody has looked at me as if I were a sideshow.”
“Try not to act like one and you’ll be fine.”
“This constant jabber is beginning to pall. Can we find somewhere quiet to sit down?”
“The Seniors’ Room is probably empty.”
“Fine idea.” They started down the hallway.
Aleria looked around as if seeing the school for the first time. “You know, this is no place for me.”
“You’ve been acting the perfect lady.”
“I can cope. But think about it. All the other girls came with armed escorts; we walked here alone without a second thought. You frightened off a bandit – not much of one, I admit, but nonetheless a bandit – merely by mentioning my name. What place do I have at a lady’s tea?”
Mito had no answer, and they were walking silently, each immersed in her own thoughts, as they entered the Seniors’ Sitting Room. The group of girls who stood chatting and looking out the big bay window had certainly not noticed them.
“…I should hope she isn’t! After the way her family acted, I’m surprised she was even allowed to attend the Academy, let alone reaffirm her Fealty in public.”
Aleria froze, her hand on Mito’s arm, aghast at the stricken look on her friend’s face.
A voice chimed in. “What do you mean, Envelune?”
The other girl smirked. “You know the story. Her uncle bamboozled a whole bunch of people into investing in some project or other and then he let the venture fail and ruined everyone.”
Aleria had never thought much of Envelune. She was a round-cheeked girl with protruding lips and a vacant smile that some of the boys thought pretty. That smile froze on her face as she turned to realize who was behind her.
“Oh. Aleria…” Her pudgy hand flew to her mouth in a predictable, helpless, gesture that infuriated Aleria even more. She stepped forward, her fists clenched. The other girl seemed to shrink, and her cowardice brought a sneer to Aleria’s lip. She stared for a moment, deciding which piece to take off first…
A grip on her arm spun her around. “No, Aleria!”
“What do you mean, ‘no?’ This apple-brain has just impugned your honour and the honour of your family, and you think…”
Mito’s grip firmed with unexpected strength. “My honour. My way.”
“Your…” She was stunned by her friend’s intensity, and that short pause was enough for Mito to slip in front of her.
“You should hope I’m not what, Envelune?”
The round blue eyes shifted right, then left, received no support. “Why, nothing, Mito. I didn’t really mean…”
“But it sounded like you meant it, Envelune.”
“Oh, no, it was just something I heard. I didn’t mean to…”
“I see.” Mito’s voice stayed soft. “You didn’t really mean it. Maybe you just now realize you shouldn’t have said it out loud.”
The girl nodded vehemently.
“And when you said it out loud, and you heard what it sounded like?”
The girl swallowed, winced, an ugly screwing-up of her face.
“What did it make you sound like?”
“It…sounded quite horrible.”
“And when you realized that I had heard it?”
A tear started in the corner of her eye, pulling a dark trail of makeup down the soft cheek, “Oh, Mito, I just feel dreadful. I don’t know how I can ever…”
Mito laid a gentle hand on the girl’s round arm. “Perhaps you can, Envelune. If you really want to help me, the next time you hear someone say something like that, you can suggest that they check the facts before they spread malicious gossip. Can you do that?”
Envelune gulped again and nodded until it seemed she would injure her neck.
“Thank you, Envelune. That will help me a lot. And it will make you feel so much better, as well.”
Envelune stared for another moment into Mito’s calm face, and then the tears began to stream. “Oh, Mito, I’m…so…” The “sorry” was drowned in a wail of anguish, and the girl rushed from the room.
Mito glanced around at the stunned faces. “And what were we discussing that I’m not going to do?”
Only Plendinta had the starch to answer. “Attend the Fealty Ceremony tonight. Of course you’re coming. Envelune is such a ninny sometimes.”
“You shouldn’t let her go on like that. It isn’t good for her.”
Plendinta glanced at Mito, then took a more careful look. “No…no, I can see that it might not be.” Then her face lost its thoughtfulness. “But you are coming?”
Mito smiled. “We had been discussing it, but we hadn’t decided. The Twins have some other affair they have to go to, and they want Aleria and me to keep them company.”
“Mito, please come.” Plendinta turned to Aleria. “Tell the Dennals they have to come, too. It just won’t be right with all of you missing.”
Aleria refrained from rubbing her forearm where Mito’s grasp had left a definite welt. “That’s very kind of you to say, Plendinta. We’ll talk to the others and see what we can organize.”
She gave the group a pleasant smile, then she and Mito made a graceful departure.
They had only rounded the corner when Aleria whirled. “Mito! Whatever…” Then she saw her friend’s face: completely white. Her left hand shaking in spite of its firm clutch on her right arm.
“Mito, are you all right?”
The girl smiled, but her lip trembled. “Oh, yes, I’m fine. I…just need to sit down.”
The other’s spine stiffened. “No! Not here. I can handle it!”
“I think we’ve made our ladylike appearance at the Tea. Let us make a discreet departure.”
“I’m with you on that idea.”
With pressed lips, Mito strode into the street, her arms tight to her body as if holding herself together by their strength alone. Aleria stepped alongside, shooting nervous glances at her friend’s set visage.
As they made their way along the sidewalk she was relieved to see the colour come back to Mito’s face and the stiffness leave her body. Soon they were walking at a more normal pace. Aleria felt it was time to speak. “You hurt me.”
Mito’s eyes flew wide. “Hurt you?”
“Yes, hurt me. Look. You grabbed my arm so hard, you left marks. How am I going to explain that to my mother?”
Mito glanced down with disdain. “Wear a long sleeve. You’ll survive.”
Aleria snorted. “I’ll survive. I’m not sure that Envelune will. Poor, silly little cow.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean she would have been much better off if you’d have let me at her.”
“I doubt it. You looked as if you were going to hit her.”
“I probably was. Then she could have got mad; it would have been all my fault, and she would have been the poor victim, a role she plays beautifully. You, on the other hand, pinned her down like a mouse in the dissecting lab and stripped her bare. And it sounded like you were being so nice, there’s absolutely nothing she can find to take offense at.”
“Oh.” She mimicked her friend’s tone. “Not that she didn’t deserve it, mind you.”
“I thought I had good reason.”
“Of course you did. What she said…”
“That’s not why, Aleria. I did it to save her.”
“Save her? …you mean…?”
Mito nodded. “I have seen you angry, Aleria, but rarely that angry. I really thought you might injure her.”
“Was I ever going to injure her. What she said was so…so mindlessly cruel. So unfair!”
“Yes, it was, but I didn’t want you to get into trouble because of me. I can fight my own battles.”
“Obviously. It was a masterpiece. I am impressed.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“No, I’m not. You were absolutely heartless. You laid it out so she has to take the full responsibility for her actions, and no one can do anything for her.”
“I suppose that’s good, isn’t it?”
“It is if she can handle it. Do you know what it’s going to be like from now on?”
Mito grimaced. “I don’t know.”
“She’s going to be so sickly sweet to you you’re not going to be able to handle it.”
Mito’s lip made a twitch that might have been a smile. “Which I deserve since I was so cruel to her.” She glanced sideways. “At least in your twisted interpretation.”
Aleria shook her head. “I may have a twisted mind, but I don’t think any of them will ever be able to look at you the same again.”
Mito frowned. “Come on, Aleria…”
“I mean it. They’ve never seen you like that before. I’ve never seen you like that before. What’s going on?”
Mito shrugged. “I don’t think anything is going on. I’m the same old me I always was. I have often wanted to defend myself, but I have never been placed in a position where I thought it advisable. Because of the way you were feeling, I knew I had to act, and I acted as I thought was correct.”
Aleria nodded. “Oh, that was correct, all right. No one could fault you on your deportment.” She chuckled. “Only on your benevolence. Poor Envelune.”
“Poor Envelune! What about me?”
“I’m getting less and less worried about you.” She shook her head once more as they moved on. ‘“A masterpiece, a true masterpiece.”
She looked over at her friend. “Do you think we should go to the ceremony?”
Mito shrugged. “I don’t know. Not many people bother with that sort of thing any more. I think the Twins are just making up an excuse not to go. How about you?”
“I don’t know either. I had thought I would go before the Twins came up with their plan. Mother always says that even if they don’t mean that much to us, those ceremonies mean a lot to other people.”
Mito walked a few paces, then nodded. “I’m changing my mind about the whole thing.”
“Yes. You and I don’t think the Fealty Ceremony has a whole lot of relevance in today’s world. It’s obvious that Envelune thinks it does.”
They had reached Mito’s lodgings and stood a moment in the doorway. “And what she thinks should make a difference to us?”
“Maybe it should to me.”
Aleria shook her head. “Now, you’re really not making sense. You just cheerfully tied her up in the most beautiful bow-knot, and now you’re worried about what she thinks?”
Mito frowned a moment. “If that kind of people think it important to keep me away, then I should go.”
Aleria laughed. “Aha! That sounds like my kind of thinking.”
“No, no,” Mito sighed. “I’m not just being contrary like you. It’s what your mother said. Some of the smaller-minded people set great store by those ceremonies. If I don’t show up, some of them might take it as a snub. I don’t want to give anyone an excuse to start gossip about me.”
Aleria snorted. “You’re going to let that sort dictate what you do?”
Mito shrugged. “I have all my life. Why change now?” Then she looked up at Aleria and grinned. “Besides, I’ve had my fun. I don’t mind paying a little for it.”
Aleria slapped her friend on the shoulder. “I’m glad you had fun.” She peered a bit closer. “Are you all right, now?”
“Yes…you go on home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She looked down at her friend’s face, still paler than usual. “What are you doing for the rest of the afternoon?”
“A whole lot of nothing. What else?”
“I’ll just come up for an hour or so. We can send a note to the Twins, twisting their arms to come tonight. All right with you?”
“Certainly,” Mito gave her a suspicious stare. “If you really want to.”
Aleria put on her most casual grin. “I don’t want to, but it’s that or be polite to several ladies who are coming to see my mother about the Street Children’s Charity Tea.”
“Aha! An ulterior motive!” Mito turned to the door, pulling out her key.
“Exactly. And I can tell you how Envelune looked with her mascara running down her face!”
They trailed their laughter up the stairway behind them.
Aleria took the package that the teamster offered, regarding him a moment before glancing around the wagon yard, then tucking the precious information under her arm.
“Was anyone different around?”
“What do you mean, my Lady?”
“Please don’t call me, ‘my Lady’ around the yard, Jiame. It’s too formal.”
“Call me Ma’am.”
“When you picked up the package. Did you notice anyone hanging around where they shouldn’t be, that sort of thing.”
He frowned, but then his brow cleared. “Oh. You mean like the bandit lookouts we was taught to keep an eye for.”
“Yes. That’s it. Anything like that?”
“Gee, I dunno, Ma’am. I never thought to check, in this close to the city. We aren’t expecting…?”
“No, not any more than normal. I just wondered.”
“No, nobody like that, Ma’am.”
“Anything else unusual?”
“Anything like what, Ma’am?”
She didn’t let out the huge sigh that threatened to rise up from the centre of her being. “I wouldn’t know until you told me, Jiame. Just…anything out of the ordinary that you noticed.”
“No, nothin’ like that, Ma’am.”
Aleria repressed the urge to look around again. She had talked long enough, out here in the open. “That’s fine, then. Thanks for the delivery. Tell your friend in Hymnos that it got here in good condition.”
“I will, Ma’am.”
“And keep your eyes open. Everywhere, every road, no matter how safe you think it might be. Dalmyn has lost five wagons and had three men wounded this year, and these packages are even more important than bandits. Remember the rule; ‘Dalmyn business is nobody else’s.’ Keep sharp. That’s what a good carter does.”
“Oh, yes, Ma’am. I will. I sure will do that, Ma’am.”
She nodded, he bowed, and away he went. With a certain amount of relief, she couldn’t help but notice. Taking another quick glance around the yard, she went back into the office. She glared at the package for a moment. Wouldn’t she love to open it!
As if that was likely to happen. Raif and whoever he worked with up in the Castle – who she wasn’t supposed to know – with their “required knowledge” attitude.
Then she shrugged and dropped it in her totebag. She had other things to think about. That circular riposte was ready. She was sure it was ready. But was it ready to try against an opponent who was honestly fighting back?
She looked at the clock. Damn. I’m supposed to be meeting Mito for a training session. She slipped off her ink cuffs and hurried into her office for her equipment bag.
* * *
Mito picked herself up off the floor again. “You are so smooth. I never even saw that coming!”
Aleria grinned. “I’ve practiced that throw about a thousand times against men twice as heavy as you.”
“That’s five times for me. Nine hundred and some-odd to go. My turn to throw you, now.”
“Whatever you say.”
There was a brief tussle, and nothing happened.
“I’m not making it easy for you. You have to get me off balance first. Then the throw works. If you don’t, then you’re off balance, and I throw you.”
“There. That was much better.” Aleria picked herself up. “It’s polite in practice to let your partner down a bit easier, though.”
“Oh! Did I hurt you?”
“Yes, but not much. That’s the most important lesson in training. The pain doesn’t matter, as long as you did the move right.”
Mito’s hands fell to her sides. “You certainly are a different person than you were last year.”
“Yes. You seem so sure of things.”
“Huh! ‘Seem’ is the right term.”
“Why? What’s wrong? Aren’t you doing what you wanted to do?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure it’s working. I mean, what am I doing? What is a young lady of the Ranked classes doing, learning to be a fighter of some sort? What good is all this?”
Mito shrugged. “I don’t know. It was your idea. I thought you liked it. Are you going to quit?”
“No, no. I do enjoy it. I just wonder if it’s good for anything.”
Mito shook her head. “You haven’t changed in that respect, have you? You’ve never been sure where you fit.”
“That’s it. There isn’t a place for me, anywhere.”
“You’ve got two choices, then, haven’t you?”
“Yes. If you don’t fit in with society…”
“Then I change myself so I fit in. That’s about my only choice.”
“Or you change society.”
“Some chance of that.”
Mito’s grin came back. “More chance than of changing you.”
“Did you say you wanted to practice getting thrown a few more times?”
Mito shrugged her fighting smock into position and put a fierce scowl on her face. “Let’s just see you try it.”
“That’s a good technique.” Aleria dropped to a crouch. “It’s difficult to attack you when I’m choking with laughter.”
Some time later, after a particularly hard throw, Aleria reached down to help Mito up. “I think it’s time to quit.”
“But I’m just getting it!”
“You’re just getting thrashed. Isn’t it time to give up?”
“You said you wanted a good practice.”
“Not that good. You’ll have bruises all over!”
Mito rolled her shoulders. “I suppose I will. I don’t mind. I don’t often get the chance to do this. We should practise together more often. I get the feeling that I’m accomplishing something.”
Aleria grinned. “It sounds like I’m a bad influence. Not very ladylike.”
“Then we’ll just keep it between ourselves, shall we? Now show me that throw you just used on me. I was flying through the air before I knew what happened.”
Aleria took a moment to realize that her friend was serious, then complied without comment. But it got her thinking. If she can take it, I should be able to. I’ve been working that riposte for a year. I think I have it. If I don’t, I’ll just have to give it up. Now, who would be the best opponent…? Roeble Cloet is the best swordsman of the lot, I suppose…
* * *
She went to sword practice early the next day to prepare herself for the challenge. When she was thoroughly warmed up, she approached her victim.
“Yes, Aleria?” He looked up from the weights he was lifting, sweat beading his forehead.
She glanced at the number of steels on the bar. “Impressive. I couldn’t lift two of those.”
He stood. “You didn’t come over here to toss compliments around. What’s going on?”
She grinned. “Nothing in particular, but I need a partner for an exercise. You fight with either hand, don’t you?”
“I’m not as good with my left, but I’m competent.”
“If you’re fishing for a compliment, I didn’t come over here for that, remember?”
“I’ll get a sword.”
Soon they were squared off. “What do you want?”
“Just some light sparring, not too fast. I’m trying to work something out.”
He shrugged and reached out to touch her blade.
As they sparred, she kept her line a bit lower than she should, knowing that he would respond by attacking into the gap. Sure enough, soon it came, the perfect lunge in the fourth quadrant. With a surge of joy, she felt her reactions take over; there was a quick slither of steel on steel and the merchant’s sword clattered across the floor. Silence descended on the training hall. She stood, her head high, aware of attention sliding towards her.
“What was that?”
He walked over and picked up his weapon, and she could see his sword weaving as he ran through his memory of the last pass. He glared at her. “You did it!”
“You made it work!” He frowned. “But my sword was not out of line. My sword is never out of line that way.”
“It wasn’t to start with.”
“Then how did you make it work?”
He shrugged. “I’m impressed, but you spent all winter working on one move that might work against five out of a hundred fighters, and only if they make a mistake.”
“It isn’t so much your sword being out of line as my sword being out of line. When you try to follow it…”
“Still. How many left-handers do you meet?”
“Roebel, take your sword in your right hand.” She was aware of the movement in the training hall, as work stopped and fighters gravitated towards them.
She nodded and stood in guarde. He followed her.
“Now attack in third.”
“Third?…oh, yes. Of course.”
He moved his sword up and around, lunging in towards her shoulder at about half speed. She parried with her tip, then ran her sword down against his, easing the pressure until he had pushed his hand far enough to the side, then flicking her wrist in that special way that flattened her blade alongside his. Then she swept around and upwards, and again his sword flew, scattering the onlookers.
“You did it against my right hand.”
“I did. It works equally well, I think.”
A new voice came, calm and low. “It does.”
Roeble looked up to see Master Ogima standing there. He dropped both hands in disgust. “And that is the lesson.”
A small smile may have quirked the corner of the Master’s mouth. “And that is the lesson.”
“Show me again.” The stocky merchant strode to his sword, picked it up. In his right hand.
All right. I’m not so good with this side. She gritted her teeth and tried to relax her shoulders.
With a brief salute, he attacked. Hard. Aleria had a moment’s panic, but then she realized that he was alternating lunges in fourth and third quadrants, giving her an opportunity to show what she knew. But he wasn’t giving her any breaks.
She picked up her intensity, moving to the attack whenever she could, keeping him honest with the odd quick pattern that she knew she did better than anyone of his size and weight. Finally the moment came when she had enticed his sword into the perfect position, and again she twisted it away. This time he was ready and managed to hold onto his weapon, although it was so far out of line that her sword point touched his breast and was away again before he could recover.
This time there was applause. She looked up, startled. In the heat of the moment, she had forgotten the audience. Guilt flooded through her, and she turned and bowed to Master Ogima, presenting her sword hilt in mute apology for disturbing the class.
To her surprise, he smiled and waved it away, then turned to the rest of his pupils, “And that is the lesson for today.” He looked around at his students. “And what is the next lesson?”
Roeble grinned. “I know that one. To do it without thinking.”
“Correct. You can be killed thrice in the time it takes to think about what to do next. The move must come when it is the right time, without thought. That shouldn’t take more than another five years.”
He turned to the rest. “But enough of this. There is no easy lesson here. Aleria has developed an attack that most of you could not manage and many of you would never find use for. Do not waste your time trying to duplicate it.”
The others turned back to their practice, some grinning. She turned to the Battle Arts Master. “Are you suggesting that I wasted my time?”
Ogima nodded towards Roeble and walked away. The merchant flexed his wrist as if it were sore, shook his head and sheathed his sword. Without a word, he slapped her shoulder and returned to the exercise she had interrupted.
Her heart singing, she went back to work.
- A Tougher Challenge
It was good that her training was going so well, because she was discovering that the spying business was, basically, boring. She felt like an errand-girl: taking messages back and forth, never knowing what they contained. She was surprised at how difficult it was, not being able to share her problems with Mito. Finally, one day, her desperation drove her to try an oblique approach.
She strode the length of Mito’ parlour, then returned and stopped in front of her friend. “Do you have any idea how dumb carters are?”
Mito glanced up from the blouse she was embroidering. “My father is a carter.”
Aleria shot her friend an irritated glance. “You want to stretch it, so is mine. You know what I’m talking about.”
“Maybe. Are you sure it’s real?”
“You mean they play dumb? Why?”
Mito went on with her work.
“You mean they have to deal with somebody like me, someone they don’t usually deal with, and they hide behind it?”
“The thought had entered my mind.”
“So what do I do about it? I wear the same work smock that all the women wear. I don’t use big words. I just talk to them, like anybody else does.”
“Just like anybody else.”
“Mito, don’t repeating what I say. You know it drives me crazy. What do you mean?” Aleria, glancing quickly, thought she caught a smile at the corner of the other girl’s mouth “You like that, don’t you? You like getting me all riled up.”
Mito’s hands fell to her lap. “Well, I don’t do it on purpose, but when it happens, I can’t help but be entertained.”
Aleria threw a cushion that her friend ducked with the ease of long practice. She went back to pacing the room. This was easy in Mito’s sparsely furnished apartment. “I just can’t seem to get them to talk to me. Naturally, you know.”
“Why is this so important?”
“I work with them. They come into the yard, and sometimes they have business in the office, and if I’m there, I deal with it. But if I try to talk to them – you know, just make conversation – they go all closed up and say the stupidest things, and I can’t get anywhere at all with them.”
“Why would you want to?”
This was getting a bit too close to the mark, and Aleria knew she would have to turn the conversation away.
“I don’t know. It’s just that…I’ve never had the chance before. I knew they were there, you know, but I never had reason to say more than two words to anyone like that. And now I find I can’t. It’s very frustrating.”
“Aha! The lady who can do anything she wants finds out she can’t.”
“Well, don’t sound so pleased about it.”
“Oh, stop pouting. If you really want to solve the problem, don’t complain to me. Put your mind to it. You’re supposed to be a thinker.”
Aleria regarded her friend more closely. Mito’s head was once again bowed over her work. Had that been a slight edge to her voice? “I wasn’t complaining. At least I wasn’t trying to. I was asking for advice. You’re so good at talking to people.”
“You mean I’m so good at talking to the lower classes.”
“Mito, are you looking for a row? You’re taking everything I say the wrong way.”
“Maybe you’re saying it the wrong way.”
“What do you mean? I am…wait a minute!” She stood in front of her friend, demanding her attention. “You’re upset. Don’t bother to deny it. You’re definitely edgy. What is going on? No, don’t dig back into your knitting; you know it won’t work. What’s wrong?”
“I am not knitting.”
“You’re not acting like yourself, either.” She sat beside her friend, removing the blouse from her hands and laying it aside. “Come on. Confess. You in love?”
“I am not! What a stupid question.”
“All right, all right, you’re not in love. So what is it?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing specific. Just things in general.”
“What? I don’t see you having any problems right now.”
“You mean like you have? Like not being able to deal with carters? I wish I did.”
“You wish you had problems? Are you out of your mind?”
“I wish I had your kind of problems. The kind you can work on, the kind you can solve.”
Aleria looked into her friend’s eyes a moment, then dropped her hands, stood, and went back to pacing.
“Fine. Let’s get it out in the open. I’m rich and you’re poor. We never talk about it, in case it creates some kind of a rift between us. Well, if something that stupid is going to cause a problem after all the years we’ve been friends, then I guess it had better start, before we delude ourselves any more.
“I’m rich. I can do what I want. You’re poor, and you can’t. There’s nothing for you to do but hang around the city and try to marry some rich man twice your age, and live a rotten life because you have to do it to support your family.
“So I’ve said it. There it is. Are we still friends?”
Turning to face her friend again, she was relieved to see Mito’s slow smile forming.
“Right to the point as usual, Aleria. I couldn’t have put it better myself.” Then her face became serious again. “If I could only do something! If I could get work!”
“Get work? You can’t just go out and offer yourself as a lady’s maid, you know.”
Mito shrugged. “Don’t think I haven’t figured that out. You’re lucky. You’ve got a position.”
Aleria threw up her hands. “But I don’t really have a position. I know it looks like it, but I don’t. I just always go down to Father’s main wagonyard and help out. I’ve been doing it for most of my life. I’ve sort of made myself a little niche. People depend on me for certain things because I’ve always done them. But it’s not a position. I’m just the Lord’s daughter messing about, and I’m sure all the men in the yard know it.”
Mito tilted her head to one side. “I doubt if that’s the truth. I’m sure you’re quite useful, and I’m sure they appreciate it. It must be nice for them to have someone young and female around.”
“You may be right, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about you. You need a position? That’s it?”
Mito’s shoulders slumped. “I’m just so bored. Not as if I can’t entertain myself. That’s not the problem. I just feel so useless. There’s nothing I can do to make my lot in life better. I just sit here, waiting, and soon I’m going to have to go home. They can’t afford to keep me here forever.
“And you’re so caught up in what you’re doing, but of course you can’t talk about it that much, because I don’t know anything about what’s going on, so I just have to watch from the side.” Mito’s hands clenched in her lap.
“…and think that maybe our school friendship is going to slip away, now that we have our new lives.”
Mito shrugged miserably. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“I suppose it’s possible.” Aleria stopped in front of her friend, grabbed her hands, and hauled her to her feet. “So what are you going to do about it? Sit there and mope? I’m going to give you back your own advice. Think about it. Put that intelligent mind of yours to work. What are we going to do about this?”
Mito smiled slightly. “I guess I deserve that.” Then her brows furrowed, and she looked at the taller girl for a moment, as if calculating. Finally she spoke. “I’ll be honest with you, even if it’s a risk. I do have a problem. If I try too hard, it might seem like I’m clinging to you, because you’re rich.”
Aleria nodded seriously. “It’s always best to get these things out in the open. That’s what Mother says. Otherwise they fester and spoil relationships. Let’s get one thing straight. You’re my friend, and I love you, and I don’t want to see you go. I’d miss you a great deal. I depend on you. Ask Father. He’s always saying he doesn’t know what he’d do without you to keep me in balance.”
“Oh, he’s just joking.”
“He’s not, and I’m well aware of the fact. Anyway, I don’t want you to leave. On the other hand, I doubt if you want to get into some kind of a ‘paid companion’ sort of position. I can’t see our relationship staying anywhere near the same if we did that. So what do we do? Come on, girl. We’ve got to find you something to do that gives you enough money to live here until you get married to some dashingly handsome and rich son of the higher nobility, and we can work from there. And incidentally, something to do that’s interesting enough that your brain doesn’t atrophy through lack of use.”
“Sounds like a tall order.”
“Don’t worry. There’s no rush. We’ll think of something.” She stopped moving around and faced her friend. “You know how I said I wished I had your problem? I’d like to restate that. We both have the same problem.”
“I suppose.” Mito nodded twice. “We are both looking for a place, and our society doesn’t seem to have one for us.”
Aleria frowned. “And there’s a good chance that you’re going to solve your problem sooner I’ll be solving mine.”
“That could be true, now that I think of it.”
Aleria picked up her reticule and slipped the strap on her wrist. “I’ve got to go home, now. I have to get up in the morning. If I don’t show up at the yard at the same time as the men it doesn’t show a good example.”
Mito grinned. “I just can’t picture you going to work at the same time as the men. By choice! That’s just like Early Practice, last year. I didn’t think you’d make it then, even when you had to go.”
“You see? Working for a living isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’m going to find you a position, and then you’ll be sorry for making fun of me.”
They laughed and bantered as she slung on her cloak and moved down the stairs to the street. Now that she was finished school, Mito had moved into a pleasant little suite of rooms over a shop in one of the nicer quarters of the upper city. It was an easy walk from the Dalmyn mansion, so Aleria didn’t need the coach to bring her back and forth. It was nearing dusk as she set out, but there was little for a girl to worry about in this area of town, especially one with her training. However, remembering her lessons about not inviting trouble, she kept her eyes open and her hideaway dagger loose in its sheath.
As she paced along, she greeted the odd shopkeeper or errand boy that she passed, but her mind was on other things. The spying business was just the niche for Mito. After all, she would probably be more successful than Aleria herself was at pumping information from the louts who carefully but not subtly slipped those tight grease-cloth packages into her hands. Sometimes she wondered if they even knew what they were carrying. Probably not, in some cases. She would have to start figuring out which were the intelligent ones, and which were just messengers. Have to keep a list in my head, write nothing down. Then if Mito starts to help, I could tell her, introduce her to them. Yes, I’m going to have to talk to Father.
She found the opportunity after supper the next day.
“What is it, dear?” His head was still buried in his papers.
She winked at her mother, sitting with a book in the other easy chair. “Mother, tell him to listen to me.”
His head came up and he made a point of looking at her. “I answered you already, dear.”
She grinned at him. “Of course you did. Now, are you paying attention this time?”
With a sheepish grin, he gave the letter he had been reading one more reluctant glance and put it down.
“Thank you. This is serious.” She sat forward a bit. “Mito has a problem.”
“Oh?” She knew that would get his attention.
“Yes. The same old one.”
“Ah. Poor girl with a name but no husband.”
“That’s right. And the name’s not that strong either.”
“And you want me to get her a husband? Wouldn’t your mother be better at that?”
She grinned. “No, no, that’s not why I’m asking. We’re trying to find her something to do so that she can stay in town until she gets a husband.”
He thought a moment. “She can always stay here, if that’s what you want. I’m sure your mother…” He glanced at his wife, as if tossing the responsibility to her.
“Father, thank you very much, but you know how that would work out.”
“I’m glad you realize it. So why are you asking me?”
She tossed her head, side to side. “I don’t know. I thought maybe if you put your mind to it…”
He grinned. “You never ask me unless you have something already planned. What do you want me to do?”
She rolled her eyes. “This time I don’t have anything planned. She needs a position, but I know there aren’t many places for women in the business. So I didn’t think you could hire her. I did think maybe you might come up with something.”
“Can she drive a team?”
“Father! Be serious!”
Her mother put down her book. “You may be approaching this the wrong way.”
“Oh?” She couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice.
“Yes. What’s your real objective?”
“I told you. To find something to keep Mito…”
Her mother shook her head. “No, it isn’t. What’s Mito’s real objective?”
“Oh, I see. To get married. Hopefully to someone rich enough to help her family out.”
Her mother sat back and peered at her daughter. “That sounds quite mercenary. Not the Mito I know.”
Aleria shrugged, her hands wide. “She doesn’t like it either, but what else can she do? Her family made a huge sacrifice to keep her in the Ladies’ Academy all those years. She’s one main hope for them. If she could marry well enough, they might even get a foothold back in the city. They might regain the power of their name.”
Her father crossed his arms. “So the real problem is her family name, which suffered a few years ago because of some poor political choices and some bad business luck. I remember, now. A failed scheme of some sort. A sawmill, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right. Her uncle, who is the head of the family, put his name on the line in order to raise money for the project. The idea was to use the cataract at Hymnos for a millwheel to cut lumber. They thought they could cut the Shaeldit timber, then only have to move cut lumber by road to the markets.
“Yes, I remember. It sounded like a good idea, but their wheel was faulty and a flood damaged it.”
“That’s right. If they’d had more money, they could have bought better steel. If they had more influence in court, they might have got permits for better Mechanicals. If their name had carried the right clout, it could have succeeded. But they didn’t have enough of anything. To make it worse, they were using some kind of new construction technique to get around the lack of steel, which nobody seemed to notice until the problems arose. Then all the old fogeys were pointing fingers and saying ‘Mechanical, Mechanical, evil, evil!’ So they had to sell their town properties and move out to Hymnos. They’re using the remains of the mill to grind wheat and running the cartage business that we deal with. It’s a good operation, but too small to support a Ranked family, and their name is tainted, so they can’t raise money to expand. You know how that works.”
“So that’s the real problem.”
“Yes, father, but I’m not naive enough to think we’re going to solve something that her family has been working on for fifteen years. We’re concentrating on the problem we can do something about.”
Her mother cut in, “Which is…?”
“To get Mito something…no. To get Mito married.”
Her mother nodded. “So why don’t we get to work on that?”
She stared at her mother a moment. “Really?”
Her mother smiled. “Why not? If it’s something you want to do.”
“But what do we do?”
Her father laughed. “You put you problem in the hands of an expert. And that’s not me.” He rose, sliding his papers into a leather case by the chair. “So you two go ahead and plan the capture of some poor victim. I don’t want to listen to how it’s done. It might remove the final illusions I cling to about my own courtship, all those years ago.” He wandered out of the room chuckling.
His wife grinned. “Well, I think you can safely say that your father ducked out of this one.”
“I think he did. So what are we mere women going to do?”
Her mother leaned back, her hands clasped around one knee. “I suppose we do the usual.”
“What’s the usual?”
“You know. The social whirl. Parties, outings, appropriate invitations, that sort of thing.”
“Mother, you know how I hate that!”
“Yes, I do. Did you ever think it might have a purpose?”
“That’s right. How does Mito feel about it?”
“Just like I…no, I suppose she doesn’t, does she? I always thought she put up with it because we had to, but now that I think about it she never complained. Not that she ever complains, mind you. But she would have let me know.”
“Well, then, I suppose we’ll just have to ask her. There’s no sense in making a lot of plans if Mito isn’t included. Why don’t you invite her around tomorrow afternoon and we can talk. I’ll be home from that luncheon at the Aevoli around mid-afternoon.”
Her mother thought a moment. “That will be a good time, as it happens. I can drop a few hints, ask a few pointed questions, see what the flow of the current brings.”
“Mother! Gossiping again.”
“That’s right, dear. As long as it’s useful gossip.” Her mother smiled, patted her cheek and rose. “Now, I have some work to do in the kitchen, and you have to be up early if you’re going down to the yard in the morning with your father as usual.”
“I certainly am. Thank you very much, Mother. I know you’re going to be a great help.”
“Anything for a friend of yours.”
“I know. I have so few.”
“You have as many as you want, dear.” With that enigmatic remark, her mother strolled out towards the rear of the house. Deep in thought, Aleria made her way to her rooms, to spend a restless night.
- An Unwelcome Visit
The middle of the next morning Aleria was involved in a search for some lost papers when she noticed that silence had descended over the office. Looking up, she realized that Raif was in the doorway, and the clerks were all looking at him, unsure of what to do. They didn’t know who he was, but anyone dressed in a top hat, spats and gloves at this time of day wasn’t a customer. Puzzled, she put the box she was carrying on an empty shelf and stepped forward.
“What brings you around a real workplace?” She could feel the office pick up its pace again. “Aren’t you afraid someone will give you some honest labour to do?”
He returned her smile. “Many have tried, none have succeeded. So this is where you toil.”
“When I’m not being interrupted by the idle classes. May I assume you’re here on business?” She wondered what could be so important to bring him down. She led him into her father’s workroom, closed the door, and turned to frown at him. “Should you be here?”
He nodded. “I don’t see any problem. I just came down for a visit. I don’t think it will do any harm for me to be seen around here sometimes. I needed to talk with you. Can anybody hear us?”
“I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t say anything too loud. Anybody could be at the door. With the noise from the yard, who would hear them?”
“All right. I just wanted to know if you got any reports from Taine in the last few days.”
“Taine? No. I gave you everything three days ago at Lady anSharate’s garden tea.”
He rose, and began to pace the room. “I was hoping for something since. I sent a man out there to look around and I haven’t heard anything from him.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Nothing overt, or we wouldn’t be the ones working on it. But there is a possible problem.” He glanced at the door. “Speaking in general terms, there might be a new situation of the kind we have already experienced, but much more serious, because it’s much less obvious. That’s all I would like to say at the moment. If you haven’t any more information, then I’d better go.”
He turned, his hand on the door handle. “What do you mean?”
She raised her hands in exasperation. “You come down here, risking the secrecy of our relationship, just to find out if there’s been a message? And there isn’t, and you leave? Why did you come? You could have sent a letter. You could have figured out a way to invite me somewhere. But you came yourself. Why?”
He seemed taken aback for a moment. “I just came to see if there was a message, that’s all.”
“I don’t understand. You’ve got me all worried about this, and now you just walk out? Couldn’t you give me a little more?”
“You said anybody could be at the door. I’d better not.”
“Right. Well, thank you very much.” She walked closer, dropped her voice. “Next time, when you’re sitting up there in your castle with all your guards, will you think before you come running down here for no reason? I’m the one in danger if anyone suspects me. Next time, just think, will you?”
He leaned close as well. “We have someone out there, and he’s disappeared. Do you know what that could mean?”
“That’s right. I sent him undercover and he’s just dropped off the map. No contact for weeks. Do you know what that might mean?”
“I…I see. He’s out there…alone?” Images rushed into her head, unbidden.
“What can we do?”
“That’s the problem. Nothing. Just let me know immediately if anything shows up.”
She pulled her thoughts back to the present. “That still doesn’t excuse you coming down here. All you’ve done is make me worry. Next time, can you please wait until you have something to say, or something for me to do, before you risk my cover as well?”
She pulled the door open before he could answer, and stepped into the hall in front of him. She smiled sweetly over her shoulder as she walked away, chatting pleasantly, and he had no choice but to follow. “Thank you for coming, Lord Canah. I’m sure my father will be pleased to hear the news. Do drop by again, whenever you’re in the area.”
He turned in the doorway, about to say something, but glanced at the rest of the room, full of over-industrious clerks, and changed his mind. “No difficulty at all, Miss Dalmyn. I hope to see you at my father’s next reception. Perhaps we can speak further then.” He turned on the heel of his shiny black boots and left, striding more rapidly than usual, she thought, his cane stabbing the sidewalk as he went.
She turned back into the room, where no one would meet her eye. Through the anger, a small thought came to her that this wasn’t such a bad thing. They probably thought she was having some sort of a lovers’ quarrel with the young lord who had come to see her. But what a stupid thing to do! He was going to get a piece of her mind at the Duke’s reception next week.
Then a thought entered her mind, slipping in unbidden. If there’s a rebellion starting, someone has to go out there. Someone we trust. Someone who knows what’s going on. The old images rushed in on her, and she gritted her teeth. Not me. I’ve done my duty for the king, and that’s it. I don’t have to. Nobody’s making me. Raif will forbid it outright.
She felt better at that thought. Raif would never ask her to go into that sort of danger. But who to send?
* * *
Aleria strode into the kitchen.
“Mother, have you been pulling strings?”
Her mother didn’t pause in rolling the pastry. “You know me, dear. I’m always pulling strings. Which one just gave you a tug?”
Aleria sighed in exasperation, waving the parchment envelope she had just unsealed. “I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. I just received my invitation to Duke anCanah’s next reception and Mito’s been invited too. Who do you know on the Duke’s staff?”
“As it happens, no one. Your father arranged that.”
“Yes. He is not without social graces, however we may despair of him. Isn’t this what we talked about?”
“Oh, most definitely. It will be good for her family to have her seen in the Duke’s company.”
“Your father did mention that aspect.”
She smiled at her mother. “I suppose you did the right thing when you married him.”
Her mother used the back of her wrist to rub at a bit of flour on her forehead and only smudged it. “I’m usually of that mind, myself.”
“I see it didn’t keep you from a life of drudgery in the kitchen, though.” Aleria nibbled a strip of raw pastry off the corner of the cutting board. “It needs more sugar.”
Her mother gestured with the rolling pin. “It does not. If you won’t wait till it’s cooked, what do you expect?”
Aleria licked her fingers absently. “I hope I get a chance to talk to Raif. Alone. Just for a moment.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“Do you know what he did? He came down and visited me at the Yard. I haven’t been able to get a straight word out of the clerks since. They keep giggling like a bunch of girls when I go by.”
“Why did he come to the Yard? You aren’t supposed to be spreading that part of your relationship around, are you?”
“That’s what I told him. I don’t know why he had to come. He was worried about something, and instead of thinking, he just rushed down. I don’t know what’s going on, but he must be really worried. I hope so. Otherwise, he’s going to get a real piece of my mind next week.”
Her mother grinned. “I suspect he’s getting used to that.”
But her mother had already picked up the tray of pastries and was giving the cook detailed instructions as to where and for how long they were to be left to settle. Aleria shrugged and turned away, planning what she was going to say when she got Lord Thoughtless in a corner.
The reception didn’t go quite the way she had planned it. She started out showing him a cold shoulder, but Raif was so nice to Mito that she couldn’t stay angry. In fact he was so pleasant to Mito and so polite to Aleria herself that she had suspicions that he was trying to make a point of some sort. However, her friend sparkled under his attention, said all the right things at exactly the right times, and generally had a marvellous afternoon. It was only after Mito was involved in a discussion with three or four thoroughly eligible young men that she thought she could haul Raif away for a moment.
They walked out in the garden, but away from the trees, where no one could get close to them without being seen. She was all prepared to dress him down, but to her surprise, he beat her to the start.
“I’m sorry, Aleria. Maybe I shouldn’t have come down there the other day, but I was getting worried. But that’s been solved, now.”
Her relief took the last of the anger from her. “He’s safe?”
“Oh, he’s safe, all right.”
She glanced at him. “Raif, what is happening in Taine?”
He looked at her strangely for a moment, and she wondered if he was about to refuse to tell her. Finally he sighed. “I suppose I owe you something. Have you heard of Lord Fauvé?”
She puzzled through for a moment. “The name rings a bell. I should know, but I can’t remember. Who is he?”
“I’m not surprised that you don’t know him. He wouldn’t be memorable at all, if he hadn’t killed another student when he was here at school. The whole thing was hushed up as a training accident, but I don’t think there was much doubt that it was a duel. They’d had words, there was a girl involved – there always is, isn’t there – and then the other man is dead from a sword thrust.”
She stared up at him. “Leaving aside your comment about women being responsible for all your problems, what has this Lord Fauvé done now?”
He grinned. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it quite that way. You could take it as a comment on the gullibility of young men too, you know.”
He became serious. “Fauvé hasn’t done anything wrong. In fact he’s been scrupulously clean in all his dealings. I’m just suspicious, that’s all.”
“So what hasn’t he done?”
“It’s not like that. What is happening is that he’s having bandit problems. Big bandit problems.”
She thought a moment. “Oh. And he needs a larger force of men to chase these bandits down.”
He nodded. “He’s been increasing his payroll of mercenaries. The problem is, it seems he really has been having bandit problems. His neighbours, too.”
“But their problems could be him.”
“That’s what I wonder.”
“And what does the overall area look like?”
“Well, I can’t take you in and show you, but it’s quite revealing when you place all the bandit raids on one map.”
She nodded. “You don’t need to show me. Pinpoint the centre: right in the middle of Lord Fauvé’s domain.”
He nodded glumly. “But so far, he’s been clean. He’s even asking the king for financial support, in order to clear up the problem. The difficult is, the king might have to send it, unless we can show that it’s a hoax.”
She looked at him, astonished. “You mean he’s been asking the king for money to raise his army for a rebellion? That’s…that’s…” she shrugged, “…that’s pretty impressive, actually. But what’s the problem? So he’s got fifteen men-at-arms and a few mercenaries. It’s hardly enough for a rebellion.”
“He has twenty local men, and the same number of mercenaries. That he admits to. He also has a redoubt in the mountains near the border, he says in case the bandits come from Domaland, and he rotates the mercenaries back and forth, so no one can get an accurate count.”
“Forty or fifty is bad, but still not enough to cause trouble.”
“But what if he had an equal number of bandits? Now we’re up to a hundred. Then what if he had support in Domaland? There is a pass through the mountains from his demesne.”
“Why would Domaland support him?”
“The Oligarchs are businessmen. They have no use for our monarchy and its restrictions on Mechanicals. If they could get a toe-hold here with a little independent domain that allowed their traders free rein to sell all the Mechanicals anybody wanted? How do you think the merchants here would react? This isn’t a bunch of bullies and disaffected farm hands like Slathe’s lot was. This is a serious political threat to the realm.”
“I see. And Fauvé is planning all this?”
“He might be. He might not be. That’s the problem. I sent one of our pedlars in there three weeks ago and heard once from him. Nothing since. I sent another after him with instructions to look for the first and do nothing else.”
“He reported in yesterday. He found the first one, all right. Up at the manor house, comfortable as a fox in his new den.”
“Fauvé bought him?”
“Looks like it.”
“But the second one got back?”
“Yes. He had no problems, but he was very careful and he wasn’t asking any questions about anything sensitive.”
“So what now?”
Raif shrugged. “We need more information, but we need to get it a different way. It’s the backside of the country out there, and they know every stranger that shows up.”
“I agree. You know, I have a friend in Taine.”
“Yes. A merchant’s son I met on the road, just before I met you.”
“Oh. A merchant’s son. And he’s a friend, you say?”
She regarded him through narrowed eyes. “Yes. Is there anything wrong with that? In fact, I got a letter from him just the other day, saying he might be coming to the Capital. Do you want to meet him?”
He held his hands up. “No, no, I don’t think so. In fact, if he’s going to help us there should be as much distance between him and me as possible. Do you trust him?”
“Of course! I wouldn’t have mentioned him, otherwise.”
“You met him on the road. How much time did you have to get to know him that well?”
She could feel her cheeks getting hot. “Enough time to know I trust him. That should be enough.”
“It should?” She could see the colour rising in his face. “This is a serious situation, Aleria. We can’t run a…” he looked around, lowered his voice, “a…business like this one, trusting anyone we meet on the road for a few hours.”
He paused to look at her, placed a hand gently on her shoulder. “There are men’s lives at stake. You know what it’s like to be out there. Think carefully before you recommend him.”
She shook his hand away, but then his words got through to her. A shudder ran over her body, and she took a moment to calm herself. “I will think carefully. I won’t rush into anything. Shall I invite him to visit, and sound him out? I promise I won’t let him know anything until I talk to you.”
He stared at her for a moment, then nodded, satisfied. “Yes. That sounds like a good idea if you’re very careful. You might get quite a bit of information without him even knowing, if you do it right.”
She tossed her head. “Don’t worry. I’ll pump him to the bottom of the well and he won’t even know what he told me.”
He glanced at her as if to see if she was joking, then nodded, apparently satisfied. “I shouldn’t monopolize your time. Lady anTrus might need your support.”
“Thank you for inviting her. I’m sure she’s enjoying herself.”
“I hope she is. I also hope her family gets over their troubles.”
“You know about that?”
He grinned at her surprise. “Father briefed me on the guests as he always does. There seems to be some question as to whether her family weren’t victims in that scandal, not the perpetrators.”
“Oh?” She could think of nothing to say. How does he know this when I don’t?
“Oh, yes. They needed to import better Mechanicals from Domaland to make the mill stand up to the higher volume of water in the spring, but there is suspicion that a competitor used some very underhanded tricks to get their permit denied. There was some talk about it at the time, but nothing was done. Father now thinks there should at least have been an inquiry, but now it’s too late. So he did some checking, and his suspicions are confirmed to his satisfaction. Otherwise we could never have invited her. Sends the wrong message, you know.”
“Yes, I suppose it does.”
“Anyway, she seems a very pleasant sort. Can’t think why she puts up with you.”
She glanced up. “That had better be a smile.”
“Point proven. There she is. Let’s go see how she’s doing.”
They were approaching the group of young people. “And the other matter?”
“Do as you think best. I have to trust you, Aleria. We have to trust each other or we can’t function.”
She nodded, then put on a smile to greet the others.
Going home in the carriage, Mito’s rare, quiet smile seemed stuck in place. Aleria couldn’t help but grin. “Had a good time?”
“I suppose so.”
“You lie. You had a great time.”
“Oh, all right. I did. I met some very nice people, and I had a great time. How about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. Tell me all about it. Who did you meet?”
Mito reddened. “Aleria, I am not going to do it that way. I will not go out and approach every man I meet as a prospective husband. I will not tear every one of them apart the moment I leave, analysing their financial status, their prospects, their family’s acreage. That’s…that’s odious. If I had to do that, I’d go home and take whatever Fate had in store for me.”
Aleria nodded. “Good for you. And if it will make you feel any better, you did a service for your family.” She told her friend about her conversation with Raif.
Mito was astonished. “I knew that. I mean, I knew that we always considered ourselves to have been honest. But I always thought that was just how everybody talks. After all, nobody goes on about how dishonest they were, do they?”
“Well, it turns out others feel the same way as you do, because Raif told me that his father could never have invited you otherwise.”
“And me just being seen there helps?”
“Oh, yes. You already know that, too, Mito. Remember those girls in our class who took note of every little detail? Who was meeting whom, who was invited, who was not? It turns out that kind of thing can be important for practical reasons. If I were thinking of dealing with your uncle and I saw you visiting at the Duke’s home, I’d feel more comfortable with the situation, wouldn’t I?”
Mito shook her head. “I guess I have something to learn about politics.”
Aleria laughed. “I guess we all have something to learn.”
Mito suddenly became serious, as she often did. “How about you? Did you have a good time?” She paused to look in her friend’s face. “I was watching you and Raif when we first came in. Why were you so angry with him?”
Aleria stared at her friend in consternation. “Was it that obvious?”
Mito laid a calming hand on her arm. “I don’t think so. I know you pretty well, remember?”
“Oh, good. Yes, I was angry, a bit. He was being obtuse as usual.”
Mito waited a moment, and Aleria knew it was time to tell her more, but she couldn’t.
“Whatever do you see in him, Aleria? I mean, you always seem to be mad at him. You aren’t…well…you wouldn’t be seeing him for…political reasons, would you?”
Aleria felt the shock of discovery, then relief that her friend had figured out the spying. Then, as quickly, she realized the truth. No, she means something else completely. “Oh! You mean marry him? To further my father’s political ambitions? Mito, I hope you know both my father and myself a bit better than that!”
“Well, I’m sorry, but you have to realize how it looks. You two spend a lot of time together, and I know you don’t get along, and…”
Aleria sighed inwardly. “No, it’s not that, Mito. At least, there’s no chance of a marriage. It’s just that my father and the Duke are spending a lot of time together due to business and political projects, and for the reasons we discussed earlier, it looks better if our families meet sometimes.” It wasn’t quite a lie, and she moved on quickly. “My mother has been exchanging recipes with Lady anCanah, you know.”
Mito laughed. “If your mother is giving up her recipes, I know it’s serious.”
“Right! She’d give up her daughter first, any day!”
- A Welcome Visitor
It was good to see Shen again. He had been in the city for two days before he called on her, which she thought was very circumspect of him. It was a pleasant morning, and she and Mito were in the garden, pretending to weed the flowerbeds but really just enjoying the sunshine. At least Aleria was. Mito had gathered a presentable pile of weeds beside her when the maid announced Shen. Aleria got up and went to kiss him, both cheeks, then a third for friendship.
“It’s so good to see you again. You look so impressive, all dressed up!”
He glanced at Mito, then back at her, and grinned. “I thought you liked me pretty well the other way.”
She felt herself begin to redden, and shot him a wicked glance. “I’d like you to meet my friend Mito anDrus. She’s a polite person, and you’ll have to curb your natural impulses around her.”
He bowed over Mito’s hand formally, as if to show off his court manners. “Drus? From the carting business over Hymnos way?”
“That’s right. How would you know of us?”
He shrugged. “We always know who’s around when we might need them. Sometimes the big outfits – mentioning no names, because we’re being polite today – give us trouble, and we like to have some backup.”
Mito grinned, and Aleria could see her getting in on the game. “Well, if you ever have trouble with whoever it is moves your goods down our way and you’re looking for someone more reliable, you know where to come.”
Aleria gave a long-suffering sigh. “If you two are going to talk business, I suppose that means I’ll have to leave.”
Shen took her arm with a flourish. “Oh, no, my Lady. I’m sure there are more important things to talk of. How is the lawn for croquet, this year?”
Aleria smiled up at him. “Coming along nicely, thank you. But what a good idea! Mito, where is the croquet equipment? I think I might have use for a mallet quite soon.”
The talk ran on in this vein for a while, and all of them enjoyed themselves. The twins showed up later in the morning. Aleria couldn’t help but notice how Shen glowed in the attention of four young women, and was glad for him. Her fears of him being an embarrassment were unfounded.
There was an informal gathering at the Sailor’s Delight on Feast-day afternoons, and she was happier still when Hana suggested that they take Shen along to meet some of their usual friends. He agreed with enthusiasm, and they parted, all looking forward to meeting again.
“Well, what do you think?”
“I think I pulled a lot more weeds than you did.”
“Mito, I’m going to throw this whole pile, small as it is, in your hair if you don’t answer.”
“I did. You just weren’t listening.”
“I was listening. You made a comment about my weeding.”
“Very appropriately, too, I think”
“Are you trying to be obtuse?”
Mito gave her usual sweet smile. “No, just trying to be subtle.”
Aleria studied her friend’s face for a moment. So we’re still playing that game, are we? “You meant that I was preoccupied before he came. You think I was worried.”
“I guess maybe I was, a little. So, now that the worst is over, what do you think?”
Mito did her the courtesy of answering seriously. “Well, from what you said, I wasn’t expecting someone quite so polished. He certainly is witty.”
“Yes, I didn’t remember that about him, actually.”
“What did you remember?”
Aleria found her face getting warm, tried to think of a cutting reply.
Mito giggled. “All right, we won’t go into that. The Twins seemed to like him.”
“Yes, and they’re fussy, too. I’m pleased. To be honest, I was worried a bit. It was so difficult to remember what he was really like, and to try to predict how he would fit in, the Capital being such a different situation from where I met him.
“You mean with his clothes on.”
Her head swivelled around abruptly. “Mito! I am astounded!”
“Well, you two started it. I was just keeping up the repartee.”
“Well, if you don’t mind, we’ll just bury that subject, shall we?”
Mito took a moment, then nodded. “I thought so. You’ll be dropping that part of the relationship, I suppose.”
Aleria nodded. “I didn’t know until I saw him here, with all of you. Then it just struck me that it wouldn’t be right.”
“I hope you let him in on the secret.”
“A good point. I think he could tell, but I’ll square it with him the first chance I get.”
“Like you squared it with Kalmein the night of the graduation?”
Aleria realized she was blushing again. “Mito! You know I don’t like to be reminded of that!”
Her friend shrugged, but Aleria could see the stubborn set of her shoulders. “I wouldn’t bring it up if I didn’t think it was important.”
“All right. I deserve to have that mentioned, but I squared that with Kalmein a few months ago…”
“Better late than never, I suppose.”
“…and I guarantee I won’t make that mistake this time. Why did you bring it up? Do you like him?”
It was Mito’s turn to redden. “I told you. I won’t discuss young men like that.”
Aleria grinned. “Right. Let’s see how the Sailor’s Delight goes, shall we?”
* * *
As Aleria entered the main lounge at the Sailor’s that Feast-day afternoon, she could see a good number of their friends were already there. Sarit had brought a girl from next year’s class. Good. Another outsider would make it easier for Shen. She had suggested that he show up a bit later. She wanted a chance to prepare them, and herself. She realized that she wanted this to go well. Very well.
Noticing someone useful to talk to, she went over to where Sarit’s group was sitting in one of the big corner booths and made small talk. When there was a gap in the conversation, she turned to Nalt. ““Been out to that nice summer place in Taine lately?”
“No, why do you ask?”
“Oh, I’ve got a friend from that region who’s in town this week. Name of Shen Waring. He could be dropping in later this afternoon, and you might have something to talk about. The muddy roads, or something.”
He smiled, “Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but we’ve been staying out of that area. Too many bandits.”
The smile disappeared from his face. “Yes, seriously. There have been attacks on outlying farms and merchant travellers. One of the local landowners has been trying to get up some funds for some policing.”
She tried to keep her voice casual. “Oh? Who’s that?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Better ask your friend. As I said, we’ve been staying away.”
“I hope he does something, whoever he is. My father runs a line of freight wagons out that way.”
The boy didn’t pick up on this invitation, so she turned away, to see Shen hesitating in the doorway.
She raised her voice, just enough to carry. “Shen, over here!”
A grin lit his face, and he started towards her. She went to meet him, tucking her hand under his arm. “Come over and meet some friends of mine. Nalt, here, has a beautiful summer retreat on some lake near Taine, and he’s afraid to go there because of bandits or something. Tell him he’s silly.”
Shen shook hands all round, then nodded to Nalt. “There have been some problems, but I wouldn’t worry, if I were you.”
Aleria saw a chance to boost Shen’s reputation. “Do you still travel all over the region by yourself?”
He nodded and grinned. “Sure, but I’m pretty small stuff. Like I told you, I don’t carry anything too valuable, and I talk real fast. Remember those mercenaries I told you about?”
She nodded, but shot him a meaningful glance. He knew exactly what she meant, but the gleam in his eye told her that he’d keep her in suspense for a while longer.
Hana sat up a bit. “What mercenaries? You never said anything about meeting mercenaries, Aleria!”
She turned away from his look. “I never met any mercenaries. Shen did.”
She nodded to him. “Go ahead, Shen. It’s a good story.”
He turned to the others. “I was camped just off the road, and it was already dark. All by myself, in a little tent behind a tree. These mercenaries, about a dozen of them, came marching up, thought they’d camp there that night. Remember the rebellion? They were headed out to sign up with the rebels. I was fine until one of them stumbled over me in the dark, looking for firewood. You know how mercenaries are: rough fellows, and they don’t like to be surprised. Took a bit of talking to persuade him that I hadn’t snuck up on him in my tent.”
He grinned as the group laughed, and again Aleria sighed inwardly. Her friend could handle this bunch. Talk turned to the recent unrest, and her interest perked up.
“So you don’t think there’s going to be any trouble?” Nalt sounded more than a bit concerned.
Shen grinned. “I’d enjoy my summer place, if I were you. Take along a few friends if you want, but don’t let a bunch of scum like that spoil your summer.”
Aleria found the opening she had been looking for. “But aren’t the local lords doing something about the bandits?”
Shen shook his head. “Lord Fauvé has some ideas, but doesn’t have the finances to handle it. He’s hired as many guards as he can afford, but the other landowners are pretty backwards. They only think far enough to protect their own borders and let every man look to his own business.”
“So how is this Lord Fauvé handling it?”
Shen shrugged. “I don’t know, really.” He grinned. “I guess I’ll have to ask.”
Aleria tried to keep her face calm. “You mean you know him?”
Shen’s eyes rested on her for a moment longer than they needed to, and she realized what her question implied. “Certainly. Out in the sticks where I come from, the nobility have to find their company where they can. There’s plenty of room on their social calendars for someone with a bit of education,” he grinned, “and a lot of native wit.”
She picked up the ball gratefully. “Well, you certainly have the wit. I can’t see how the education helped you much.”
He responded with his own witty insult, and the conversation drifted into less political topics. Aleria faded into the background, wondering how she could have turned the conversation back to Lord Fauvé without seeming too interested. And what to do about bringing Shen in on the plan. What if Raif is right?
“You’re thinking a lot, Aleria.” It was Hana, in a quiet aside.
She smiled at her friend. “True. Things to think about.”
“You in love?”
“Why do people always ask that? Don’t they think a young woman can have anything more interesting on her mind than men?”
Gita picked up the thread of the conversation from the other side of the table. “You mean there is something more interesting? What?”
They were interrupted by a sudden change in the sound of the room. It wasn’t so much a silence as a dip in harshness, and then the noise resumed, but muted. Interested, Aleria scanned the area near the door. Three men had just entered. It wasn’t so much their size, their dress, or their military bearing. It was an air of confidence that said ‘Exalted’ as much as if they had worn uniform. One of them was Raif.
They made no fuss, but took table in the bar area, conversed with a waiter, and sat back, looking around in interest.
“What are they doing here?”
“Gita, will you take your fingernails out of my arm. Raif and his friends are allowed in here, I think.”
Hana shook her head. “They’ve never been here before, I guarantee it. Look how they’re staring around. I’ll bet he’s checking up on you, Aleria.”
Aleria shrugged. “Don’t be silly. How would he even know I was here? Supposing he had any reason to check up on me. Which he doesn’t.” She had been watching, however, and when his head turned in her direction she tossed her hair a bit, just enough movement to catch his eye. He raised a hand and smiled, and she nodded in return, then returned to her friends.
“What was that all about?”
“Oh, Gita, it was about nothing. He knows I’m here, now, and I know he is. He’ll come over and say hello in a while. He has to, just for good manners. If he has any other reason, that’s his opening. If not, then he’ll go back to his friends. Why make a big thing about it?”
Gita insisted on looking inscrutable, and Aleria kicked her under the table and concentrated on Fania’s conversation with Shen and the others.
Sure enough, a while later a silence fell on her group, and she looked up to see Raif smiling down at her. She rose and extended her hand. “Hello, Lord anCanah. Good to see you again.”
He nodded and touched her hand. “I don’t recall it being quite so formal in the Sailor’s Delight when I used to come here in my student days. Hello, Mito. How’s the design for that badge coming?”
“Slowly. I’ve tried several styles, but nothing I like yet.”
“I suspect you’re too hard on yourself. Any of those sketches you showed me looked like they would do admirably. However, take your time. I know better than to hurry you. Rush an artist and all you get is a job of work.” He turned to the Twins. “And here we have the Indomitable Dennal Duo.” He bowed slightly. “I must remind myself to be especially polite.”
Hana inclined her head regally. “So far, you do your upbringing justice, my Lord.”
Raif grinned at the group. “These ladies have seen fit to question my etiquette on several occasions and have designated themselves my social watchdogs. My poor mother is ecstatic, needless to say.” He nodded formally to Gita. “I believe it would be acceptable at this moment to request the acquaintance of your companions.”
In a jovial imitation of proper etiquette, the Twins introduced everyone. When Shen’s origins came up, Raif exhibited only polite interest, but Aleria, watching from the sidelines, could read a new tension in his body.
“Ah, Waring Weavers. A reliable company. Perhaps under-utilised by my family’s interests in that area. How are your people dealing with the bandits?”
Shen shook his head. “I don’t think the bandits are quite as serious as everyone at the Capital thinks. However, we have been trying to convoy so we can hire a few guards. It’s hard for a small business to afford that.”
Raif nodded. “Perhaps I can put a word in, see if we can make some sort of arrangement.”
Shen nodded as if this sort of break came his way on a daily basis. Raif turned the conversation to trivialities, and soon, with a casual farewell to Aleria, he rejoined his friends.
Immediately, as she knew they would, the Twins pounced.
“Mito! What was that about?”
‘What badge? What are you designing?”
Mito, for once, seemed flustered. “It’s only a badge I’m designing for him. He saw some of my embroidery and asked me for a few sketches. You can’t do it right with just sketches, though, so I’ve been basting up some samples. As you heard me say, they aren’t coming out very well, so I’m not making much progress.”
“You’re babbling, Mito.”
“What kind of badge?”
Aleria sometimes felt that the twins were a little too enthusiastic, and for once, it didn’t look like Mito was going to defend herself. “There is only one badge a young Lord is ever looking for. His Personal Signature. From what I gather, the ones who care take a lot of time and look at a lot of designs before they choose. I suspect Raif just wants Mito to give him some ideas. Right, Mito?”
To her surprise, her friend wasn’t completely relieved by this rescue. Her head came up. “Actually, he led me to believe he will be using my design. He was very impressed with my sketches. He says he’s tired of all the old stodgy ‘coat of arms in gold’ ones, and has some specific ideas himself. We talked it through and I was able to sketch out what he was talking about.”
Aleria nodded. “You always were an attentive listener. What a good way to put it to use!” She couldn’t have been happier. This chance to make a serious contribution to the Canah family could do Mito and her family no harm, and to have Raif openly offer to boost Shen’s family business!
The afternoon wore on, and the talk ranged, as it always did, from the serious to the frivolous and back again. Shen carried his end admirably, and she stopped worrying about feeding him opportunities to shine.
Given the chance to listen, she began to get the impression that Shen didn’t have much interest in politics at all. As long as the bandits weren’t bothering his shipments, they weren’t important. As long as Lord Fauvé’s mercenaries were protecting his business, he was happy to have them there. She filed that in the back of her head for further thought.
The party wound down as people began leaving to prepare for their evening’s entertainment. Shen was one of the last to leave – Aleria made sure it was not with her – and soon she and Mito were ensconced in Aleria’s sitting room, dressed in their house robes, reviewing the afternoon.
“So, what do you think of Shen, now?”
“He handles himself as well as any of them. Being educated in the country certainly hasn’t spoiled his wit.”
“His family seem to have quite a bit of money.”
“I know, I know, I’m not allowed to talk about him like that.”
“That’s right. You are not. I mean it!”
“I just want you to know, that if it happened that you were interested in him…”
“I’m not interested in him, Aleria.”
“…don’t let me get in the way, Mito. I’m not in competition or anything.”
“You’re not in the way, Aleria.”
“That’s good. If you like him…”
Mito dropped her hands in her lap with a loud sigh. “All right, Aleria. I know you’re not going to let it drop until I tell you.”
“That’s right. I’m not.” She looked at her friend in anticipation. “What do you have to tell me?”
Mito looked sideways at her. “Well…I don’t want to upset you, but you know what you used to say about the boys in our class?”
“You mean that they were nice enough, but they were only boys?”
“I’m sorry Aleria. I know he means something to you, but…that type just doesn’t interest me,” she stared at her friend, “even if he were rich.”
“…I see.” Aleria was surprised at the small pang of disappointment this pronouncement gave her. She made a bright smile. “Then I won’t be doing any matchmaking in that direction, will I?”
“Aleria, don’t go all brittle on me. You had to hear it.”
She tried to relax her shoulders, smile naturally. “I know. I got what I deserved that time. No, the reason I’m disappointed is that, when you said it aloud, I realized that I agree. He is a very nice boy, and I like him a lot. Period.”
Mito shook her head glumly. “Another chance at romance, doffed at the dance.”
Aleria frowned theatrically. “Another spud that’s a dud, mired in the mud.”
They glanced at each other for the timing, moaned in unison, “Poor us.”
Aleria grinned. “Tragic, ain’t it?”
Mito shrugged. “I guess we’ll find a way to survive.”
“We’ve managed so far. Chin up, girl. The next knight in shining armour is just around the next corner.”
Mito clutched the front of her robe. “He better not be! I’m not dressed!” Then she sobered. “What are you going to do now?”
“What? With Shen? Nothing. He can’t help but notice how I’m treating him.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes boys can be very dense. You said you were going to talk to him.”
“I haven’t had the chance. He’s pretty perceptive where people are concerned. Part of why he’s a successful merchant, I guess. Don’t worry; he knows.”
“Well, make sure he does. That sort of thing can be really messy. You’ve never been caught up in one.”
“Neither have you.”
“No, but I’ve watched the other girls doing it for years. They always seem to muddle it up.”
“Maybe, but also you never hear about the ones that don’t mess up. They aren’t worth the gossip.”
“True. I hope this is one of those.”
“I’ll be careful. This visit has probably been good for him, too. He has to have seen how things are around here.”
“You are such a worrier, Mito. Come on. I’ve got a new book that you just have to read. It will take your mind off your troubles.”
“Is it another one about pirates? That last one was far too bloodthirsty for me.”
“No pirates, but a really tragic three-way love affair.”
“Why do you read that sort of junk? You always just laugh at it afterwards.”
“I know. But it’s fun to pretend while you’re reading, isn’t it?”
They walked back into the bedroom, chatting merrily. As they went, Aleria couldn’t help but think that things were getting better.
- Honesty Pays
Aleria was about to breeze into the day lounge when she realized that her mother had a visitor. It would be a friend, or Mother would have used the more formal salon. Still, she slowed and made a decorous entrance, then stopped dead.
“Mito! You said you had a meeting.”
Her friend smiled as she placed her teacup on the tray. “I did.”
“Oh. Finish early?”
“What?” She took in the scene. The dainty cups, the inlaid trolley. Her mother dressed for receiving.
“Just what is going on here?”
Her mother levelled her one of those looks.
“Oh. Pardon me for intruding.” She turned to leave.
“No, Aleria, don’t go. We’re almost finished. Please join us.”
She turned, unsure how to handle this invitation. The temptation to storm out fought with curiosity. Just what is going on, here? She sat down, composed herself into a look she had learned in Comportment class. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Mito repressing a grin. She focused on her mother.
After a brief moment, Liniema turned to Mito again. “You understand the situation thoroughly?”
Mito pondered a moment. “You’re sure he doesn’t know?”
“And he really should.”
“We are agreed on that point.”
Mito nodded. “We are. I can create a meeting with him in the next two days. I will find a way to let him know.”
Leniema nodded as if sealing a bargain. Then she smiled. “I believe that’s it, then.” She turned to Aleria. “Business over. I’d like to stay and chat, but I have some other details to attend to. If you’ve just come back from practice, I’m sure you could use a snack.” She indicated the half-empty tray on the trolley as she rose.
As her mother left, Aleria slipped over to her mother’s chair and loaded a plate some of the more nutritious dainties. Then she sat back and regarded her friend with mock severity. It was Mito’s turn to assume the “polite interest” pose.
Aleria munched for a while, swallowed. “You’re going to tell me, so let’s jump to that point and save time and energy of an argument.”
Mito leaned back. “Well, you know how I was worried about getting a position so that I could afford to stay in the city?”
“I could hardly forget.”
“I decided I was going about it the wrong way. A person of my social status would do herself a disservice by stepping down to a position with a wage.”
“We discussed that.”
“So I decided to concentrate on what a woman of my status is supposed to be doing.”
“And how did you figure that out?”
Mito gave the grin that made her look about twelve years old. “I went to the expert.”
“Exactly. Women like your mother don’t sit around at tea parties and gossip about nothing. I know she never sets foot in the wagonyard, but she has influence. She has a position in your father’s business, but she deals in facts, not goods.”
“I never looked at it that way, but you’re right. How can you do that?”
“I realized that I needed to do the same for my family.” The dark-haired girl leaned forward eagerly, her eyes bright. “I needed to make a place for myself in the capital so I could further the family’s interests here.”
“You’ve already been doing that, by socializing with the Canah family.”
“Yes, but that was just the start. I had to make a reputation as a useful person to know.”
“How could you do that?”
“That was the problem. Your mother and I discussed it. We looked at my assets. Finally we settled on the strongest and most useful one.”
Mito looked with longing at a throwable cushion nearby, but Aleria felt safe in this formal setting.
“All right. I was joking. What did you decide on?”
“Honesty. I have spent so much of my life being scrupulously honest, afraid to make the slightest error because of my family’s tarnished reputation.”
Aleria nodded. “That’s true. You did have that reputation at school. I don’t see how that helps much. Honesty is a bit of a hindrance in diplomacy.”
“Quite the opposite. A person with a reputation for honesty can be very useful. Especially if she has information.”
“Has my mother been feeding you information?”
Mito nodded, leaned forward. “It’s amazing how many times it is important to get a certain fact to a certain person, and for that person to believe it without question. There is also a great deal of skill involved in the presentation of the fact, so that it is received in the right way. I find I’m quite good at it.”
“Subtle and sympathetic.”
“That’s part of it. Being known as a protégé of Lady Liniema Dalmyn rather helps.”
“And I gather you are successful?”
Mito rocked her hand back and forth. “Hard to say. I don’t think I’ve made a fool of myself, anyway. I certainly haven’t made any money at it.”
“How would you make money at something like that? I mean, without being seen as a complete mercenary.”
“I don’t expect to. I expect to gain a reputation for honesty, and make friends and contacts.”
“And that reputation will connect with the Trus name!”
“Right! After all, I’m the only family member in the capital. Whatever positive steps I can take will have effect out of proportion to my position in the family.”
“But this is going to take time. How are you going to support yourself?”
“That’s the part of the success I can’t pin down. The family business is improving. My uncle has been able to expand his operations. I know part of that’s because of me, because he has been interchanging wagon routes with your father. Because of that fact alone, my uncle has decided it’s worthwhile having me stay here. I think he also understands the rest of what I’m doing. He was really pleased to hear about the social contacts I’ve been making. I haven’t been able to send him any paying business yet, but everything helps, you know?”
Aleria sat back. “So all this time, while I’ve been thinking how much help I am to my father by messing about in his office, you’ve been quietly solving your family’s reputation and financial situation single-handedly.”
Mito blushed. “Not single-handedly. I’m sure it was just time. We’ve spent our sentence in purgatory, and people are willing to forgive and forget.”
“And at the exact right time, there you are, providing exactly the right boost to the family reputation.”
“It seems to be working.”
Aleria jumped to her feet. “Well, this calls for a celebration.”
“A celebration. We must honour your success!”
“No, Aleria. You don’t go out and celebrate something like this. You keep it quiet and subtle.”
Aleria laughed. “I don’t mean to tell anybody what we’re celebrating. Let’s just go out and have a good time.”
“Oh. I suppose…”
“You suppose right. I’ll send a note around to the Twins, and we can go out to that restaurant over by the old ramparts.”
“And I can pay!”
“No you won’t.”
“Yes, I will. I’m an agent of my family and I have an allowance for entertaining. I’ll put you down as ‘prospective customers,’ so it won’t be me paying, it will be the Drus family business.” She became serious. “It isn’t cheating. Your family is in cartage, and the twins’ father pretty well owns the river transport. When I tell my uncle who I’m dining with, he’ll be pleased as punch.”
“All right. Let’s get moving!”
“You already are.”
* * *
So Aleria was not too surprised the following month, when Roeble approached her after barehand practice. He was about forty, the elder son of a prominent merchant family, and the man responsible for the caravans they sent into foreign lands. He only came to practice when his work brought him home, but when he trained, he trained hard. Aleria didn’t know him well, but she honoured his skill and his mental strength.
“Can I walk with you, Aleria?”
“Certainly. You don’t usually go my direction, though.”
“I wanted to talk with you. We could go for a drink, if you like.”
She regarded him a moment. “There’s a tea-shop just up the street.” She paused and grinned. “And The Falcon opposite. Whichever you prefer.”
He grinned as he ushered her toward the teashop. “Can’t be taking a young lady to a tavern. My wife would never approve.”
She nodded and led the way inside. They ordered and made small talk about training while the drinks came. Once the server left them alone, Roeble became serious. “I need an opinion on something, Aleria, and Master Ogima told me to talk to you.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
“I don’t know why, either. It has to do with the Drus family. Do you know of them?”
“Oh. Yes, I do.”
“Good. Here’s my problem. I’ve been having some dealings with their agent in the capital. A young woman named Mito. A niece, I believe. Seems young for such a responsible position. They might be perfect for a business venture I have in mind, but I don’t know anything about them. What can you tell me?”
Aleria considered a moment. How do I approach this? First and foremost is Mito’s reputation for honesty. “You understand they had some trouble, years ago.”
“Yes, I know about that.” He grinned. “Pardon me for saying so, but I think that whole situation was blown out of proportion by the family’s social status. Believe me, all business people have enterprises that go wrong.”
Aleria shrugged. “If you use your social standing as a business tool, then you have to take the social consequences when the business has a problem.”
He nodded slowly. “Good point. However, from what I’ve heard, anDrus did the best he could in the circumstances, and that was fifteen years ago. I’ve asked around, and there hasn’t been a whiff of scandal associated with him since. What I want to know is, can I believe what this Mito says? What kind of person is she?”
Again, Aleria thought a moment before she spoke. “It’s only fair to tell you that she is a friend of mine. So I’m biased towards her. However, I hope you will believe me that her honesty is her strongest asset and she isn’t likely to compromise that under any circumstances.
“In fact, if it came to a choice between her honour and the good of the family business, I think she would choose to be honest. That’s probably more than I should be telling you.”
He laughed. “Aleria, many members of the Ranking Classes are in business, just like your father. One factor that we merchants always take into account when dealing with them is that their honour is more important than their business. That was what destroyed the Drus fortune, years ago. They insisted on taking the responsibility while their business partners ducked out and went elsewhere. You haven’t told me anything new about anDrus or your friend Mito. I just need to know if she and her family follow the usual pattern.”
“I can’t speak for her uncle or the family business, but I know that they have been very careful with their reputation for the last fifteen years. If Mito tells you anything, it will be as true as she can determine. That, I would count my life on.”
He took a sip of his drink. “High praise.”
She grinned. “I’ve had many years of dealing with her honesty. It hasn’t always been an asset, as you might guess.”
He smiled in return. “Now, that sounds more like the Aleria I know from practice.”
“That was me, all right. Before that, I was making sure I spoke as Mito would have me speak. I have no right to compromise her honesty. Besides, she’d kill me if I didn’t!”
The merchant seemed even more satisfied. He set down his empty tea glass, wiped his lips. “May I ask another question?”
“Well, it’s a bit personal. You train very hard. To the extreme, at times.”
“Is that a question?”
“If you want to know why, I don’t mind telling you. I was caught up in Slathe’s rebellion last year. I spent two weeks trapped in his army and I have not slept well since. I have determined that I will never be so helpless again.”
She grinned. “Plus, as my friends would tell you, I sometimes overdo things.”
She looked at him a moment. “So why do you train so hard?”
He shrugged. “Same reason. I travel in dangerous places and I want to be able to protect myself.”
“But you hire guards.”
“Nobody can protect you like yourself. Besides, there’s a second aspect to it. Confidence.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you are physically confident of your ability to protect yourself, people can tell. Especially the kind of people who deal in violence. If you look like a victim, they can sense it and they will take advantage of it. If you have confidence they are more careful.”
“I think I see what you mean.”
He smiled. “And then there’s the third aspect. My wife.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Your wife? Is she that hard on you?”
“No,” he laughed. “It keeps her from worrying. She knows I train hard and that I can handle myself, so she worries less when I’m on the road. Oh, I know she still worries. But it gives her something positive to think about.”
Aleria nodded bitterly. “I know all about worrying when you can’t do anything about it. I hate that.”
He sobered as well. “True. But I have to go. It’s my life.”
“Couldn’t you send someone else?”
“I could.” He shook his head. “But it wouldn’t be the same. I have to be there, to know what the situation is, how the prices change and why, how the people talk, how they respond. You have to be there. You can’t count on second-hand information, not when your livelihood depends on it.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” She finished her own drink.
He stood. “Well, I mustn’t keep you any longer, Aleria. Thank you for being honest about your friend. I will take it all into consideration.”
- Just A Small Slip
Aleria looked once more at the tattered messages strewn over the table in Mito’s sitting room. “You’d better put that mess away. I don’t want Mito coming back from Hymnos and finding one of those lying around.”
“It was good of her to let us use her apartment to meet.”
She shrugged. “I don’t like it, Raife. I didn’t lie to her, but she isn’t stupid. We need to find a better place for this.”
He grinned. “That’s the spy business.”
“On the subject of spying, what are we going to do about these? The information is just not clear, and I didn’t get anything from the drivers to make any difference.”
“That’s pretty normal, considering our sources.”
“So we need better information.”
“What about your contact out there? I assume it’s Shen, the lad I met.”
She shook her head. How do I put this so Shen doesn’t sound too bad? “Circumstances…just aren’t right for that.”
He nodded. “I’m sure you gave it a lot of thought. It has to be your decision.”
“Then we’re agreed. Someone has to go out there. Someone we trust.”
Raif nodded. “There’s something going on, and we need an eye on the scene. I should go.”
“You can’t do it. Too many people know you. We need someone they don’t know.”
“Then who can we send?”
“I’ve thought about it. A lot. I don’t like it, but I think it has to be me.”
He turned slowly to her. “What?”
“Me. I know what we need to know. Nobody knows me. Nobody would suspect a girl.”
“You’re not going out there.”
It was the answer she had expected, but she was stunned by the finality in his voice. “Pardon me?”
“Have you gone completely out of your mind?” His voice rose. “Is your memory so short that you don’t remember what happened last time?”
“This isn’t the same, Raif. It isn’t the same at all.”
He shook his head vehemently. “You think it will be different because you’re travelling normal routes with commercial transport. Believe me, a group like Slathe’s can turn up in a dangerously short time. Especially if they’re being supported, as we suspect,” he leaned forward anxiously, “and an atrocity with a prominent victim might give Fauvé the incident he needs to swing the support of the King.”
She tried to smile, to break the intensity of his stare. “I’m hardly a prominent person.”
“But your father is. Your mother is.”
“Are you telling me that the situation is so bad that the roads of the kingdom aren’t safe for travellers using public transport?”
He made a helpless gesture. Then his eyes shot straight to her. “Why is it so important to you to go out there?”
“Because I’m the right person. All right, I’ll be honest. It’s also my chance to do something. I can actually be of use, instead of hanging around here playing at helping. I told you, I don’t like it either, but I’m the best person.”
He shook his head again. “That’s not good enough, Aleria. I think you’re letting your personal desires get ahead of your common sense.”
“You don’t have to go chasing out to … to see the Waring boy.”
“Chasing out to see…” She stared at him. How can he be so aggressively stupid?
“Yes. If you send for him, he’ll come back. Maybe his family should come to the capital, anyway, meet your family, all that sort of thing. The formalities are important, you know.”
“I know you don’t care for formalities much, Aleria, but have some consideration for Shen’s family.”
“Formalities? I’m not exactly marrying the man!”
“You’re not?” He managed to make it sound like there was something wrong with that.
“No, I’m not. And if I was, what’s that to you? He’s a very nice person. He is not a ‘boy’ as you so rudely label him. He’s a very responsible young man, and he’s very important in his father’s business,” How dare he look at me like that!
“And I slept with him!”
“Yes, I did. He was kind, and gentle, and considerate, and he treated me like a lady. And I enjoyed it.”
“I suppose you did.”
His face seemed pale, but showed no emotion. Somehow, this wasn’t the reaction that she had wanted, that she had expected.
“I can sleep with whoever I want to!”
“I’m sure you can.”
That didn’t come out right, either. “Not that I do. Sleep with anyone, I mean.”
“That’s up to you.”
“He’s the only one, and it was only once!”
His piercing blue eyes turned to her. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because…because I didn’t want you getting the wrong…because I don’t really…because it matters!”
He looked down at her as he swept the messages into his satchel. “I can’t really think why.”
Then he was striding from the room. Her outstretched hand dropped slowly, uselessly to her side. For a moment she stood there, then realized that her mouth was open. She turned, lowered herself to a chair. What the hell got into me? Why did I say all that? He just seemed so smug, so self-assured in his superiority. How could he think of Shen like that? Shen is a pleasant person. He was gentle. Kind. Funny. I like him. Why shouldn’t I? Just because his family is in trade. So is mine. So is Raif’s.
“Oh shit.” She slumped in her seat, barely aware of having spoken aloud. I am immutably, decisively, and irrevocably an idiot. She sat there, unaware for a long while that the light was fading from the room, that a damp chill was seeping in through the open window. Finally she shivered, shook her head and stood. She looked around the room. He had stood there. She had stood here. How had he looked? How had she seemed to him? Like a stupid git, bragging about her conquest. Like a child. A spoiled child.
She shook herself again. She remembered an expression of her father’s. When you act like a fool, hope it’s only friends that notice. Some chance of that.
“Well, Aleria, you’ve put your foot in a pile this time. The question is, how are you going to clean it off?”
She reached over and closed the window, staring at her reflection in the dark glass for a moment.
The only way to redeem herself was to prove that she was capable. She had to go out there and discover what was going on. Who was this Fauvé? She lit a lamp and strode to the bookshelf. Mito must have a copy of the Rankings in here somewhere. It took a while to find him, but there he was: only Esteemed, but legitimate, none the less. No extra honours, no battle records. Several recent acquisitions of land, but nothing impressive. Petty nobility with big aspirations. She wondered who would know anything about him. Besides Shen.
Once again, a pang of anger shot through her. How could I have been so stupid? Raif just seemed to bring it out in her.
With a start, she realized that she had forgotten to go to barehanded practice. It was the first session she had missed in weeks. Damn! She gathered her belongings, checked that everything was exactly as she had found it, made certain to lock the door and started home.
When she entered the family room, her mother looked up from her sewing. “Have you been having any trouble at your practices?”
“Trouble?” A pang of guilt for the missed session shot through her. “What do you mean?”
“Master Ogima has asked to speak with us. He didn’t say why.”
“He never mentioned it to me. When?”
“He will be here this evening. He said it would only take a moment.” Her mother looked at her. “Are you sure there’s nothing wrong? You look out of sorts.”
Aleria grinned wryly. “Nothing to do with practice, Mother.”
“Oh. Another battle with Raif?”
“Why do you say that?”
Her mother smiled. “Because that’s the only thing I know that can put you into that sort of mood, these days.”
“I’m glad I’m so predictable.”
“What did he do this time?”
“Nothing except be his usual infuriating self. No, this one was all me.”
“All me. I lost my temper and said some very stupid things.” She raised her hands in the air. “He just gets this idiotic look on his face. Like he knows he’s right, and how could I be so stupid as to miss it.”
“…And then I proved him right.” She plopped down on a chair, her shoulders slumped.
“Well, that’s a change.”
Aleria’s head came up. “What is?”
“You admitting that you’re wrong and he’s right.”
“Oh, no. It isn’t that simple.”
Her mother smiled. “Still, it sounds like improvement, to me.”
“Well, thank you, mother. I’m glad somebody’s happy.”
Her mother thought a moment. “I just wonder whether Master Ogima is happy.”
“I couldn’t say. I’ve never heard of him doing this before.”
Aleria puzzled it over during the evening meal. She was at a complete loss as to why he would want to talk to her parents. I made very clear to him that my training is my own choice, and nothing to do with them. Finally she put it aside. I’ll know soon enough.
It was interesting, in spite of her anxiety, to see what the Master looked like in street clothing. He seemed slimmer, better groomed than she expected. His hair, which often escaped from his brow-band, was smoothed down, and his semi-formal jacket fitted his broad shoulders neatly, slimming them. He bowed to her mother in full respect for her heritage.
“Come in, Master Ogima. Would you like tea?”
Aleria resisted the impulse to roll her eyes. There were going to be no quick answers at this meeting. All the formalities would be observed.
“The hospitality of anDalmyn is not to be set aside.”
Leniema’s gracious smile ushered the Master to a chair. The social chatter was beginning to grate on Aleria’s nerves when her father came in. Immediately another round of pleasantries started, interrupted by the delivery of the teacart with a selection of light pastries.
Aleria refused these, but she did accept a cup of the special green tea her mother saved for important visitors.
Only after everyone had enquired about everyone else’s health and wellbeing and everyone had a cup filled could the business of the meeting be broached. There was a slight pause, then Master Ogima sat straighter and spoke in more formal tones.
“I have asked to meet with all of you in order to discuss an important matter.”
They all nodded.
“It has to do with Aleria’s training.”
Three more nods. Aleria pressed back a giggle that bubbled in the back of her throat, threatening to express itself no matter what she did.
“How has she been doing?”
The master turned to her father, his voice relaxing slightly. “Very well. She has a strong spirit. She has a great deal of talent, and works very hard…”
There was another pause. Here it comes.
“In what way?”
Ogima opened his hands, turned them palms up. “It is not easy to explain. In the Masters’ classes, it is expected that the students push themselves to their utmost, and all of them do. Some work harder than others. Roeble Cloet, for example. You know the name?”
Her father nodded. “Merchant family. Roeble is the eldest son.”
“Right. Roeble leads his family trading caravans all over the world. He is often in dangerous situations. He trains hard, because he needs the skills he is learning.”
“And because it keeps his wife from worrying so much when he’s away.”
Master Ogima raised his eyebrows.
“He told me.”
“Understandable.” He turned to her parents. “I bring up this man as an example of a good reason for training hard.”
“From the beginning, I was concerned with the reason for her training. We spoke of it before she started. Training to cope with fear is a natural response and leads to good training. But Aleria is not training to cope with natural fear. It is different from fear. Fear is a natural response to real danger. With Aleria, the danger is not real. Terror is perhaps a better word. So when Roeble trains hard and then goes into dangerous situations, perhaps actually uses his training, he justifies his work.
“Aleria trains hard, but never gets to use her skills. This leaves her with an unsatisfied feeling. May I ask, have the nightmares stopped?”
Aleria shook her head.
“I had hoped they would, but I am not surprised that they have not. So she is unsatisfied, and the fear remains. Her only solution is to train harder. But still she remains unsatisfied. Hold out your arm, Aleria.”
She complied. He took a pinch of skin. “See how close to the surface the muscles are? Like a soldier after months in the field. Have you been eating well?”
“Very well, Master Ogima. I watch my food intake very carefully.”
“And do you reject many foods? These pastries, for example?”
“They have no decent nutrition.”
He ate one. “But they taste good.”
“The taste doesn’t matter. The food value does.”
Ogima merely turned his glance towards her parents.
“I have seen this behaviour before. I had a student who trained himself to the point of collapse, from which it took him a year to recover.”
“Are you saying I have to stop training?”
He considered her a moment. “And if you did. What would happen then?”
Stop training? Stop… Panic clutched at her throat. “I…I don’t know. I don’t know what I’d do…”
“Exactly. If you stopped training, this problem would still exist, and the symptoms would come out in another, perhaps a more destructive, way.”
Her father had been silent through all of this. Finally he spoke. “Then what is your solution?”
The older man shook his head. “I think there is no solution under my control. This problem existed before she started training. It existed even before the unfortunate events which brought it to our notice.”
Aleria stopped herself from jumping up. “What do you mean?”
The Master gave her one of his looks, and she sat back. She knew what he meant.
“I do not come with solutions ready-made. I merely come with information which I think all must consider.”
“But surely you have suggestions.”
“On the surface, it is simple. The problem is training without justification.”
“So the solution is for Aleria to find uses for her training?” Her mother sounded shocked.
“Are you suggesting I hire out as a mercenary? A caravan guard?”
He smiled a bit. “No, that would be extreme. But I know that if there is no outlet for your hard-won skills, you will not find the peace you seek.”
The Master rose. “That is all I have to say. I have presumed on your hospitality long enough. I find it lives up to all expectations,” here he smiled at Liniema, but immediately sobered, “and I hope that, with serious thought, a solution to the problem can be found.”
Her parents rose as well, and both escorted him to the outer door: a sign of respect. Aleria was too preoccupied to respond. When her parents returned, she realized that she was sitting in the same position, staring at nothing.
Her father sat beside her, close but not touching. “This was not news to us.”
Her mother shook her head sadly. “Aleria, you have been treading this line most of your life. This is little different from discussions we have had with several school officials over the years. ‘Aleria is pushing too hard. Aleria seems driven to excel. Aleria is going to hurt herself if she doesn’t relax a bit.’ You know; you were at some of the meetings.”
“You left out, ‘Aleria is going to hurt someone else,’ Mother.”
“That one, too.”
Her father sighed. “Well, Aleria, you’ve done it again.”
He shook his head. “You have a talent for arranging things so that you get to do what you want, but for the wrong reasons.”
“I don’t understand.”
Her father took her hand. “You realize the level of concern about the situation in Taine, and what Lord Fauvé is up to. We need information.”
“And we can’t depend on second-hand information.” She leaned toward him. “We need to send someone out there, and it can’t just be a hired agent. It has to be someone we can fully trust.”
“Exactly. Raif anCanah is determined to be the one, and his father absolutely forbids it. As it happens, I agree. There is no sense in sending an agent as obvious as Raif.”
“I know. I told him that today.”
Liniema had been listening to this conversation, her face growing paler. “Kensel, you don’t mean to suggest…”
Her father shrugged helplessly. “She is the perfect one for the task. She can go out there and visit with the Waring family, even do enough business with them to make it look good, and get a feel for what’s going on. Once word gets around that she is there, Fauvé is bound to invite her for a visit, and if she’s careful, she can learn a lot without a great deal of risk. We have absolutely no indication that he mistreats anyone.
“You heard what Master Ogima said. She needs to find useful occupation for her training. She at least needs to be in a situation where it might be needed, even if she doesn’t actually do any fighting. This problem is in her imagination. She needs to deal with reality, and she isn’t going to do that sitting around in Kingsport working in the freight office.”
He reached across and took his wife’s hand. “We need to let her go.”
“But what if…?”
“If it happens, then it happens. That’s what letting her go means.” He turned to his daughter. “Aleria, there is something which you need to know.”
“Your mother and I have discussed this many times, since you were old enough that we could understand your personality. All parents worry about their children, but we…felt we had more justification for our worry. We have always been afraid that one of your…incidents, you might call them, would go wrong, and you would be killed. It has almost happened already, once. We thought that having discussed it, and being prepared, it might help when the time came.”
“And did it?”
“Who can tell? It was very difficult. It is difficult for any parent. Raif’s parents were going through the same thing. Except for one detail.”
“I know. Raif was there serving his king and the realm. I was there on a stupid prank. If he died, he died a hero. I would have died an idiot.”
Her parents were silent.
“So what do you conclude from this?”
Kensel glanced at his wife, as if asking permission, before he spoke. “I think that if we don’t give you the chance to do something useful…”
“…I’ll do something stupid again.” She sat there a moment. “You know, I should be angry at that. I should be all hurt and pouty that you would think of me that way.”
She looked at her father, then turned to her mother. “But I know myself too well.”
Liniema rested her hand on her daughter’s arm. “And you’re growing up.”
Aleria tried to grin. “So maybe there’s hope for me.”
“We see a faint possibility.”
“Well, if it helps you any, I’m not jumping for joy about this. In fact, I’m scared, Father. I know it’s a tough and dangerous task, and I’m not going in there with any idea of glory. I’ll go in, get the information, and get out. I’ll keep my head down, and take no chances.”
“That’s right. Unless it’s necessary. Don’t worry. My self-preservation instinct is pretty healthy.”
Her mother forced a smile. “We hope so.”