6750 words, short story
Dreams Strung like Pearls Between War and Peace
Serolar existed in a state of curfew and of anticipation. Steam-powered mini-dirigibles issuing directives from the Governor’s Palace traveled from quarter to quarter every afternoon. Every seventh-day or so, klaxons wailed while the dirigibles advised them it was a test. Despite this, stray pockets of celebration happened every now and then but it was hard to tell if celebrants were for or against the central Dvenri government. Even the Governor was busy holding her own balls and soirees.
“This war will not be fought on battlefields,” Liannell the florist said to Raneka, even as they argued about whether yellow or white peacock flowers would best augment the calla lilies selected for Raneka’s dinner party.
“Why would we need to fight a war at all, and if not on a battlefield, how will the war be fought? With floral arrangements?” Raneka had asked in bemusement.
“Perhaps,” said Liannell with sparkling eyes, even as she perused the seating charts Raneka had provided her.
Liannell had wanted of Raneka the same thing that the candlemaker had wanted, and the table-linen merchant, and the wine-merchant. It had been a difficult day in which Raneka had received far more information than she’d expected, from the remnants of an insurrectionist’s past that she had left behind. It was made far more difficult by the muted atmosphere of panic and a near-manic euphoria. She’d seen a couple rutting in a laneway, oblivious to bystanders placing ribald bets in tin cups filled with paper money. She’d seen two men shoot each other in the head. On her way back, she had observed in shock as another man flung himself from the clock tower of the University down towards the cobblestoned pavement below. He had shouted to a horrified audience that the world was ending because the war was coming. And then he had spread his arms as though to fly.
Shaken, Raneka had fled the scene, her heart beating like a caged bird as she half-ran towards the Upper Residential Quarter where sunlight scraped the undersides of buildings as the day ebbed into a night of no moon. Her shoulder blades itched with the presentiment that she was being followed. Her heart skipped several beats, causing a breathlessness that had become a part of her life for too long. Nevertheless, she had remained unmolested. She made a note to send a factor out the next day in search of a bodyguard or two. They were right—she was in need of protection, and she hated that thought.
The smoothly swooping road of the cul-de-sac was becoming a familiar sight. She sobbed with relief at the sight of the four-storeyed negligible refuge of her grandfather’s house. Her house now. This house was not a house best suited for one who had been living in an apartment in the Civil Quarters of the city—a small two-room affair that could barely fit into one of the closets in her grandfather’s house. Here, the furniture loomed like huge teakwood machines that had been carved with painful precision. They all seemed rather painfully anthropomorphic as though they would be able to walk across the room at any given moment to tap her on the shoulder. It reminded her that her grandfather had run away from this very house to live in a hut put together out of woven and treated ganggas leaves. A hut her parents had left her in when they’d run away to join the counterrevolutionary rebellion in the North. A hut in which she learned she had been orphaned and that her parents were warriors, or criminals depending on who you asked.
During her university days she’d been wrought with fear that the infamous dark-robed inquisitors of the Governor’s secret cabinet would pull her away for questioning. Every now and then she thought she’d spotted them in crowded lecture halls. Phantasms and fears born of anxiety, she’d assured herself over the years. To be safe, she put away every single thought of hers that was even a modicum of revolutionary. She stopped visiting her grandfather. She renounced his rebellion. She joined first the government training scheme after graduation and then became a civil servant in the Dvenri government. She thought it would keep her safe. And so it did. But she didn’t feel so safe now. And so she spent money like it was water, and acted like a newly anointed heiress was expected to behave. Members of her more respectable family might view her excesses with scorn but she suspected they were also relieved that she was so colorless, and that she seemed more inclined towards spending her grandfather’s accumulated and untouched wealth rather than following in her grandfather’s footsteps.
The doorbell rang. “Shall I get that, Dahshani?” asked Jarold, the footman.
“Please. Send them away, whoever they are. I have a headache,” she said.
She moved towards the chaise lounge and started opening the piles of sealed letters that had been on the side table in the marbled foyer of the town house. From the front door she heard the sound of masculine voices raised in argument. Then there was a scuffling sound. Then silence. Raneka frowned, and stood up. The door to her drawing room slammed open and three black-robed government inquisitors walked in. They looked oddly familiar. Correction. They looked entirely too familiar. Her head started to throb.
They had been with her for years.
“Dahshani Raneka. I believe you know who we are. You’ve been very good for years, a very good little mouse. You’ve been so very good, right up till today.”
Hand raised to her throat, Raneka said, “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’ve been consorting with known dissidents, Dahshani.”
“I’ve merely been buying flowers, draperies, silverware, and other accoutrements for my dinner party,” she said.
“Yes, we’ve taken into account that they accosted you, rather than the other way round. Which is why there’s a way out of your current predicament, Dahshani,” said the third man.
“And what would that way out be?” asked Raneka.
“Write us an invitation to your dinner party. All three of us. We will monitor what is happening, and all you need to do is be a good hostess,” said the third man who looked her up and down in a very familiar manner. “And we’ve a list of other merchants you need to visit tomorrow.”
“Very well. I will have extra food ordered,” said Raneka, who faked a calm she did not feel as the rest of what they were saying seemed to float in the air beyond her ability to comprehend.
She strode to her wall-desk, pulling out more gilt-edged invitations. “If I may get your names to write three invitations?”
“Please, do not waste resources on our food. We don’t eat much—we don’t need to,” said the third man whose eyes gleamed in that same alien way that told her they didn’t need much that most humans did. There’d been rumors about these secret cabinet members for years. Rumors whispered about at night to frighten children. That they were not human, but one of the beta tribes who’d been crossbred by Dvenri alchemists to create the ultimate government agents. Not as strong as purebred Llen, and far more biddable to the Dvenri cause.
“And you can make out just one invitation card to Messrs, Red, Brown, and White.”
Raneka gave all three of them dubious looks, but did as they’d asked. “I assume you’re Mr. White, then?” she asked of the third man.
He laughed. “Actually, Mr. Brown. As usual, you will not remember we’ve conversed after we’ve left.”
Mr. Brown palmed the invitation and gently grazed the back of her hand. She shuddered in reflex. How many times had this happened? How many times had she forgotten them?
“Oh, and Jarold will be as good as new in the morning. As always. We always reset our mice,” said the second black-robed man.
“Don’t look so petrified, Dahshani. We’ve never touched you beyond this,” said Mr. Brown as his finger grazed her skin once more. “Our employer would be very displeased if we manhandled even nobility who have indulged in counterinsurgencies. And you’ve been so very good. Too good, very obedient,” he said.
There was much that was implicit. It was a gentle threat that caused her skin to crawl. She resisted the urge to gag.
They pulled her toward the chaise lounge and placed her there. “You will be very sleepy now, my dear. When you wake up, you may return to your preparations for the biggest dinner party of the season. You now know who you should visit, don’t you? You will be so very good, once you’re reset. A list of people to visit will be on your desk,” said the first man, the one she now drowsily remembered was Mr. White.
“Yes, she will be far more useful to us now that she’s quit from the government,” said Mr. Red.
“That was a brilliant masterstroke, suggesting she’d resign,” answered Mr. Brown.
“She’s always been so very obedient, this little mouse of us,” laughed one of them, or was it all of them?
“Too obedient. No chance for sport,” said Mr. Brown again.
If she ever had a chance, she’d rip his face off with a fork, she thought.
Oblivion claimed her.
The Braided Lion Cloth Emporium was run by a family who had received the Imperial Writ from the Governors of Serolar for decades. Their fame showed in the elaborate architecture of the storefront with its ornate carved panels, floral mosaicked tiles and the wood carvings on the main doors. Within, the textiles that hung from the wall of the shop flowed like a waterfall of colors from some railings while others in earthy hues dangled like lianas from branches of fern-encrusted trees that thrust upwards from the undergrowth of the Serol Forest. At the memory of the forest, of another lifetime from this one, Raneka choked in sudden grief as she meandered through aisles crammed with boles of cloth like colorful tree trunks. Vibrant reds, blues that shimmered like the Tere-Ora Ocean, ambers, greens and textured gold like the mage-lions of Serolar. Raneka caressed rich silk embroidered with silver stars and spirals that soothed the eyes with her dark golden brown fingers, rubbing her calluses over the stars, feeling the imprint as though she was trying to bring constellations into her being. She inhaled the scent of fresh textiles that seemed to bring her back to her youth when she’d climbed the trees of the Serol Forest to collect the fungi that lived in a parasitical relationship with the raincaller trees. Her grandfather would use the fungi to brew a drink that allowed rogue neithyrs to confer with other neithyrs through means that were not crystal-bestowed. In her youth, the forest was the safest place for her, while hostilities raged between the order of Holy Neithyrs and the armies of the Dvenri Empire.
Sometimes, she thought of the heedless opulence she had stockpiled for the dinner party, and she cringed inwardly. Crystal glasses had been bought, the best porcelain from the Ruma’i isles, Lusini butter—not celestial and not as deadly as those whispered about in folklore and horror stories. Meat from Mirozkh sheep farms, and vegetables harvested from underwater farms deep within Lake Llendrys, adjuncts to the underwater kingdom of the aquatic Llen. And now here she was, in search of the perfect cloth to make an evening gown fit for an unexpected heiress. Except, the party was tomorrow night, and she did not know if it was even possible to make a gown within a day. Oh grandfather, Raneka whispered to herself as she had on too many occasions. Why did you not tell me? Why did you lead me to discover and inherit all this only now, when I have no idea what to do with this legacy of yours?
She choked back on unwelcome feelings as she palmed a rich, velvet fabric with a tapestry weave of deep burgundy, bronze, and navy blue. It was exquisite.
“This is lovely but won’t be comfortable in our weather,” advised a soignee woman who swooped in from beneath a curtain of fabric to address her. She was large, both in frame and in height; her abundant curves were enhanced rather than concealed by the stark lines of the dramatically elegant gown she wore.
“Why do you think so?” challenged Raneka, sure that the woman assumed that she couldn’t afford the fabric. She bristled the defensive bristle of one who had worn cheap synthetic weaves from Dvenri textile machines for the entirety of her adult life in the city.
“Because I made a caftan from another bolt and it was so itchy my skin broke out in rashes?” asked the woman.
Her grin, Raneka decided, was so affable it would have melted the most dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon.
The woman held out her hand to Raneka, “I’m Dahshani Infarre. I see you’re not attended. Come to the back and I’ll show you some of the newer material!”
Raneka took Infarre’s hand and shook it, drawn to the woman’s confident warmth. “Fine, I’ll follow you. Do you own this emporium?” she asked.
Infarre chuckled. “My family owns the company that runs this chain of emporiums, yes. As for me, I merely manage the main branch.”
There were volumes that Infarre managed to convey in her statement as she walked in aggressive yet intrinsically feminine strides across the emporium. Raneka touched bolts of cloth as they walked through the showroom. Silk, satin, gossamer, georgette, woolen weaves from Mirozkh, and more exotic printed cloth from the archipelagos. Once, she could only dream of affording these textiles.
Towards the back of the vast showroom, Infarre beckoned her through the open doorway, wide enough that five Verconian palanquins could park side-by-side. An exquisitely garbed man ambled towards them. Tall and lanky, he was dressed in tights embroidered in fractal loops, and a heavily bejeweled bolero that left his torso bare. Modesty did not seem this man’s suit. His hair was puffed up upon his head, his face clean-shaven and his spectacle frames bejeweled to match his bolero.
“Aaah, the new heiress herself!” he exclaimed with mock pomp as he executed a bow.
“Shush, Acquasar, don’t tease her,” said Infarre with a warning look at the man.
Raneka was immediately defensive, the fear that had dogged her since she gained her inheritance doubling, causing her to pale. She made to run, but the all-too-familiar breathlessness gave her pause. One skipped beat. Two, three. And then her heart settled on a regular rhythm again. She breathed in air like she’d never breathed it before. She counted to ten.
“Are you quite alright, love?” asked Infarre with some concern.
“Anxiety, I think,” said Acquasar. “I recognize it well.”
“Yes, I know you do,” Infarre said with a soft voice. They exchanged glances. She said. “Let’s bring her to my office. She could be dehydrated. And we can talk there in peace.”
Raneka stiffened again at the volumes Infarre managed to lace into her words. It was a skill she would have to pick up, she thought. The elite of the city played too many political games and she’d managed to sidestep at least two dozen since it became known that she was a Mirozhi heiress.
“I hope we’re just looking at textiles,” Raneka said.
“Well, mostly textiles,” Infarre qualified as they walked into her spacious office with fine mahogany furniture.
Acquasar walked directly to a carved wooden door with the confidence of familiarity, opening it to reveal a cooling box, the contents lit up by the cooling crystals that lined the sides and top of the box. He pulled out a glass bottle filled with water and a bowl of fresh strawberries.
“Where’d you put the lemons, Infarre?” he asked as he stuck his head in the icebox.
“Behind the chocolates,” Infarre said as she led Raneka to a comfortable chaise lounge.
“You must forgive Dahshan Acquasar, he can be so very gauche despite his station. But as you may have already discerned, we were quite pleased you decided to visit one of our shops. We would have met with you at some point, but this is far more efficacious. We have.” Infarre paused, hesitated even.
“We have things to discuss. About your grandfather.”
Raneka knew what both Acquasar and Infarre wanted from her. It seemed like almost all the merchants she’d visited had been insurrectionists who’d been trained by her grandfather. She wondered why.
“No,” Raneka said in even tones that brooked no nonsense. Authority was new to her but she had learned to be comfortable with it, like a ball gown that was ill-fitting at first but which sagged and softened into one’s curves and angles as the night wore on.
Infarre and Acquasar exchanged glances. “We haven’t even said anything yet.”
“I am not my grandfather; and I will not help you,” she said firmly.
“We thought that after you resigned from your government job you would surely . . . ” began Acquasar but then he stopped, disappointment etched on his patrician features.
“Your stupid resistance has cost me my parents, my grandfather, and everything I loved. The Dvenri were hostages for centuries. Centuries! Of your glorious Yroi Empire. Why should I help you? For that matter, why should I care for either of you? I’m Mirozhi—and I’m not as idealistic as my grandfather was,” said Raneka, heat entering her voice—surprising and alarming herself.
“Is that what you think?” Infarre asked.
Her tones were mild while her eyes contemplated Raneka like she was a new bolt of cloth with a perplexing pattern. “Do you think we all do this because of idealism? I’m Dvenri—in case you haven’t noticed. As is Acquasar. We’ve nary enough Dvenri blood between us to make a gruesome cocktail for blood-drinkers.”
“Besides, bloody cocktails are far too cavalier for my taste,” said Acquasar, who expertly measured and decanted liquors into three tall glasses before adding chopped fruits and herbs. He handed her a cocktail decorated with strawberry wedges she’d watch him chop daintily on Infarre’s sideboard, the ice cubes clinking in the tall glass.
Raneka shrugged as she accepted the drink, “It’s none of my business.”
She sipped on the drink with some relief as the cool liquid slid down her throat.
“Are you sure? Are you sure you do not want to know how corrupt and how—disturbed our current Governor is? Never mind the entire Empire. Just consider our little city-state. Pay attention today. Pay attention tomorrow night as you host your little soiree. To which we’re invited, in case you hadn’t realized.”
Raneka inhaled. Of course. They were of two of the most prominent Dvenri families in the city—of course they’d been invited.
“Can you promise us that much?” asked Acquasar with a gentleness that Raneka found intimidating rather than reassuring.
“I can’t promise what I don’t understand,” said Raneka, defensive once again.
“We’ll tell you if the need arises. Now,” Infarre said, briskly. “What was it you wanted for your dinner party?”
“Cloth to be turned into a gown,” said Raneka, nervous and abashed at her confession.
“Darling, your party is tomorrow! Who do you think would be able to make a gown within a day?” Acquasar stared at her with a kind of horrified fascination as though she’d declared she’d be daubing herself with cow dung as raiment.
“I’d completely forgotten about the gown until this morning,” Raneka pulled the confession out, something that had embarrassed her to no end when she woke up that morning.
Infarre said, “Would you be content with one-of-a-kind ready-made gowns that no one has seen, let alone worn?”
“Ready-made gowns that no one has seen? How is this possible?” asked Raneka.
“Designing is a . . . well, some would say it’s a hobby of mine, but I’ve never really shown anyone apart from Acquasar,” Infarre answered, her tone matter-of-fact rather than shy.
“And they’re brilliant. I keep telling her she should sell them, but no, it’s art! You should take her up on the offer—it’s the first time she’s allowed it,” said Acquasar, who sounded very proud of Infarre, and ridiculously fond.
Raneka said, “Yes, I’d love to see your designs.”
Infarre’s eyes warmed as though she’d been given a gift. As they walked into another room, Raneka’s eyes were agog at the exquisite creations hanging from the wall.
“They’re marvelous,” breathed Raneka in wonder.
“She’s marvelous,” said Acquasar in a tone of unmasked adoration.
“Stop it, both of you,” said Infarre with profound embarrassment. “Here, I know you wanted us to say nothing else but could you amuse me for at least two nights with this?”
She held out what looked like an intricate silver brooch with an emerald cabochon in the middle of it.
“What is this?” asked Raneka suspiciously.
“It’s a memory recorder. Wear it on you until the next time we meet. Just put it on now, then press on the cabochon three times. If ever you feel in doubt of your memories, twist the cabochon anticlockwise. Then, come to see us. If you’re scared to do it—don’t twist the cabochon alone. Come see us, and we’ll review your memories together.”
Infarre gave Raneka the brooch and then squeezed her shoulders comfortingly.
“I don’t understand,” Raneka said.
“Have you been feeling frightened your whole life?”
“No, just since . . . ” Raneka looked up, her face blank.
Infarre and Acquasar gave each other significant looks.
“This meeting doesn’t feel random,” said Raneka. None of the meetings felt random. It felt as though she’d been given a list of merchants to visit.
“Only think, how did you know to come to this Emporium?” asked Infarre.
“I don’t know . . . , I’ve heard of your textiles, I suppose.”
“It wasn’t us; I can tell you that. But things are escalating, and we’re on the verge of war—so the shenanigans by the Government increase,” said Acquasar.
“If you think I’m a spy, why are you talking to me anyway?” asked Raneka.
“Because you’re an innocent—and because we loved your grandfather. Besides, most of us know you. Don’t you remember us? You were a little girl running about in your grandfather’s hut when he was training both of us,” said Acquasar.
“There is so much I don’t remember,” Raneka said, her voice slow. “So many gaps in how I perceive things. I don’t know when I was last a whole person.”
Acquasar said, “Hard to say how much of that is who you are, and how much of that is what’s been done to you.”
“What’s been . . . done to me?” asked Raneka.
“You’re not the only one,” Acquasar said, the words dragged out of him like marsh-sludge. “I was a threat, and so they—reset me more than once. Until your grandfather saved me. So now, let us return the favor. They’ll be wanting to trap us at your dinner party. But we have a little trap of our own planned.”
“I’m sorry,” Raneka said. “I’m sorry.”
Raneka decided then that it was time she started to trust people. It didn’t seem such a bad thing to start with these two strangers.
Two hours later, Raneka lurched out of the Emporium, half-dizzy with the weight of an obligation she did not want but still tugged by the camaraderie that had grown between the three of them after an afternoon of trying on gowns. She had finally settled on an elegant creation of dove-gray and soft hues of peach, studded with seed-pearls. She had listened to all that Infarre had told her in urgent tones. She fingered the new brooch she now wore affixed to her day gown. The weight of their expectation placed a pall even on what seemed to be a budding friendship. The weight of what she’d been told? Even more so.
She grew up on conversations of revolution, of strategies for offensives happening in the passes of the Southern Crescent range. Many caravans of the Dvenri were relieved of hostages and goods. Many indentured laborers were subsumed into the underground network created by the neithyrs. Raneka however, had learned her histories. Her grandfather had been a Professor of Lusini history before he decamped for the Serol Forest, leaving his holdings and his business to family members to run.
She ran back to the city after her last explosive fight with her grandfather. She did not want any of what he was doing. Not a revolution. She wanted a quiet life. She knew from the history books that the Dvenri had been victimized for years by the Yroi. She did not understand why they should side with a dead Empire who had been brutes to all of them: Dvenri, Mirozhi, Lusini.
“That was past history, but the evil the Dvenri are creating in the here and now needs to be ended,” her grandfather had said during that final confrontation.
“I think you’ve become susceptible to neithyr propaganda. I’m not sure what evil you’re talking about. The city’s entirely civilized,” Raneka had replied.
“I knew it was a mistake sending you to study at the University of Serolar. I should have sent you to Vontessa!” Her grandfather had shaken his fist in the air.
“I made that decision, grandfather, remember? I made that decision—and the money came from the funds my parents set aside for my studies. Not yours,” she had said, before she’d walked out of his life. And then her grandfather had died and had left her everything. She supposed that was his final volley. One that had taken her into a life she’d left behind.
She choked back tears at the memory of her grandfather. But she could handle the grief. What she had trouble managing was the rising tide of anxiety that shortened her breath with the niggling sense that there was something that lay just beyond the periphery of her accessible memories as she walked through the familiar streets of the Merchant’s Quarter before she took the Intermediary Avenue towards the Upper Residential Quarter.
Raneka woke up with a start on her chaise lounge. Something had awakened her, but she was not sure what. She felt a pain on the side of her neck. She sat up. What had happened? She had a migraine, she remembered that much. She had been walking towards her town house. The familiar cul-de-sac greeted her. What happened next?
Raneka touched the memory recorder, still affixed to the collar of her day gown. Slowly, she forced herself to stand. Infarre said not to turn it alone if she was afraid. She walked over to her desk, and put a hand on the small telecommunications crystal. But was it safe to pass a message through her crystal? The next time she saw Infarre and Acquasar would be at the dinner party. She yawned once, and then three times. She trudged out of her drawing room, towards the staircase, still barely feeling awake. She frightened two of the maids who were slowly turning down the lights.
“Dahshani! We thought you’d sleep through till the morning,” they said.
“I’m awake, I fear,” she said. “Can I have a hot chocolate brought to my room, please?”
“With marshmallows, Dahshani?” asked the younger maid, Litta.
She smiled, “That would be marvelous, Litta.”
In her room, she pulled the brooch off from her day gown before affixing it to her nightgown. She was supposed to hire a lady’s maid to help her dress—that was what the best families did. But Raneka had grown up in a hut, tending to herself in the bushes and cleansing herself in the river. The thought of someone dressing and washing her filled her with revulsion. Ultimately, it was that revulsion that caused her to turn the cabochon anticlockwise.
The entire night’s encounter returned to her memory. They had accosted her outside of her house, and had walked in with her. Instructions had been given for the delivery of weapons and for the placement of guards.
She did not have time to process those memories, because the memory recorder had dug itself in deeper into her consciousness. She recalled not just the events of that night. She relived every single encounter with Messrs Red, White, and Brown since she first enrolled in the University of Serolar. She remembered it all. Every session. Every torture. Never anything that left marks. But they had broken her with their Llen tricks. For that was what they were. They were the lake-dwelling Alpha nonhumans who could glide from shape to shape. They’d existed in childhood nightmares and horror stories told to keep them good, amongst a panoply of other bogeys. But they had broken her with their Llen tricks. The Llen were never seen. At least the Arlishya allowed themselves to be sighted. They had been employed by the shadow cabinets of first the Yroi and now the Dvenri because they were so efficient at what they did. They were less likely to perform the misdemeanors humans placed in their position would perform. Small mercies, Raneka thought with a shudder. Small mercies indeed.
“Press me clockwise,” whispered the crystal to her mind.
She pressed the crystal until it clicked, and then rotated it clockwise. She felt the healing light of its central crystal flooding her being. She also felt what she’d been avoiding for near two decades. The Great Complect enfolded her consciousness. Infarre was waiting in her astral form, as were other figures that looked all too familiar. Creondi, Thegen, the figures of insurrectionists from her childhood.
“Are you alright?” was the first concerned question.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be alright again,” said Raneka.
The astral forms gently guided her towards the thrumming crystal that sat at the apex of their Quadrant of the Great Complect, that grid line of crystalline energy that ran from Living Crystal to Living Crystal. She recognized this glowing golden crystal they called the Grand Lady. Her astral form knelt before it. She allowed the golden energy to enter her. This was not a healing that the thrumming crystal gave her. What it did to her—she would muse later—reconstituted her insides. Some of those memories would never return to her, but she was given other augmentations instead.
“Tell us what you know,” the glowing figure of Infarre said to her.
“It will be war, won’t it?” asked Raneka with deep sorrow.
“It was always going to be war, because it is what they’ve been pushing,” said Thegen, the old man of the woods.
Raneka told them what she knew.
Raneka was garbed for war in a near-luminous dove-gray gown that left one shoulder bare, with several whisper-thin layers cascading to the ground over her bared back. This was not the gown she had chosen when she had been a mouse. This gown was illuminated by an algae-based substance and the illuminations were augmented by the delicately geometric embroidery made with threads dyed with a condensed unguent made of the same algae. The memory recorder and preserver was pinned carefully to the strap that held up her asymmetrical gown on the other shoulder. Within a handbag beaded with weaponized crystals was a bronze fork that she’d spent nearly two hours sharpening.
Her anxiety had ironically receded on this day, this most dangerous day. She’d been run off her feet chasing different members of the insurrection—watching as they gagged and bundled away agents of the shadow cabinets, watching as bloodstains were efficiently wiped from the floorboards and as walls were quietly painted over. Not a tear did she shed. And her heartbeat remained as regular as the presence of the Grand Lady in her head.
It had been a difficult day in the household as they had carefully unearthed the weapons that had been brought in while they had all been knocked out by Llen devices. Three dozen efficient members of the catering company walked around, making table arrangements. The florists marched in to place trellises around the room, following Liannell’s precise instructions. She knew what those floral arrangements contained. She knew what had been removed—both the weapons and the members of the staff that had been appointed by the Llen inquisitors.
“They’re planning on taking out all of the main players of the insurrection contained within the Dvenri society,” Raneka had told Infarre, Thegen, and the rest of her neithyr network the night before.
“Well, if it’s fireworks they want, we’ll be more than happy to supply. Apparently the great massacre at the crossroads was not enough for them,” Thegen said, nearly spitting out the words.
“Try not to destroy my town house too much,” Raneka had responded.
Now, she watched as her ballroom was transformed into a pristine white wonderland with glistening ice swans and chandeliers with myriad sentient crystals that sang. Calla lilies were woven onto the trellises that soared above carefully positioned tables while crystalline bird-mobiles flew from table to table with dainty hors d’oeuvres, using the same steam-powered technology that powered the Governor’s mini-dirigibles.
The tables were soon filled with elegant guests while a clockwork string quartet played the Sonatas of the Seven Moons.
The table next to the windows remained empty. Raneka wondered if her tormenters had decided not to show up in a place with so many witnesses after all. She wondered if they knew how far their plans had been overturned. Her surmise was proven wrong when an hour later, the three dark-robed inquisitors of the shadow cabinet entered. Their presence afflicted the people whom they passed. Eyes grew glassy, lips suddenly required copious amounts of cocktails which the servitors poured liberally. She steeled herself but felt the golden glow of the Grand Lady bolstering her and amplifying her senses from within.
Raneka touched her memory preserver before she walked up to her tormentors.
“Welcome,” she said. “Messrs. Red, White, and Brown, I assume? You’re the only names not crossed out on the guest list.”
“You assume correctly. How very kind of you to invite us,” said Mr. Brown.
“Please, allow my ushers to seat you. You’re just in time for the first course. During the third course, entertainments begin,” Raneka said with a hospitable smile which fairly reeked fakery.
Mr. Brown threw her a sharp look. “Might I say you look rather resplendent tonight, Dahshani Raneka.”
“Thank you, Mr.—have we met?” asked Raneka before one of the ushers waved at her in well-timed execution. “You must excuse me, I am needed. Please, do enjoy the food. There won’t be fireworks because we’re in a state of emergency, but the entertainments will be very satisfying, I hope.”
Mr. Brown threw her a piercing look that turned her knees into gelatin.
She walked away until she reached a smartly attired servitor. It was Ravesh Kaligil, a curly-haired Kattani warrior who had been trained by her grandfather.
“Are you fine, Raneka?” she asked.
“I’m trying to be fine,” Raneka murmured, willing her hands not to shake. But even now, even now her heart did not skip a beat and was insistently normal in its measured, rapid rhythm.
“You did well, as you did well in allowing the Complect to weave you back in. But be safe, Raneka. Those three . . . those three are incredibly dangerous.”
“You’re telling me,” Raneka said with a bitter laugh.
“Go now, you’re needed in the foyer,” said Ravesh. “More organizing.”
Raneka nodded and left the ballroom with some relief. More familiar faces met her at the foyer, dressed in the uniforms provided by the new caterers.
“Is there something wrong with the food delivery?” she asked them.
“No, everything is going according to plan, Dahshani,” said Creondi. “But we need your consent for certain . . . arrangements.”
“Walk me through it then,” she said. “Perhaps in the kitchen?”
She strode towards the kitchens without waiting to see if they followed her. Earlier, the caterers had set up their cooking stations and their implements. It was also there that more resistant servitors placed by the Inquisitors had been dispatched rather ungently.
“There’s no turning back now, Raneka,” said Creondi.
“I know—but you still need my consent, it would seem,” said Raneka, injecting the dark amusement she’d been feeling all night.
“For this, yes. Do you consent for us to enact the final act for the night?”
“If you’d asked me yesterday afternoon, I would have said no. Tonight? I’ll say—go for it, even if unnecessary. Final act for the night, but opening act for the war, is it not?”
Creondi gave her a searching look, “You’re still not recovered from learning what they’ve done to you. We have not recovered. If we’d known much earlier, we’d have tried to extract you.”
“It’s a good thing Infarre had that hunch, then,” said Raneka.
“We should have had that hunch earlier,” said Creondi.
“Well, you didn’t. Infarre did. Give her credit for it,” said Acquasar.
They both turned to find him lounging against the doorframe. “However, I am here to tell you the Governor’s officials have arrived. When do the games begin?”
“Between the second and third course,” Raneka said decisively.
Behind her, a man moaned in grief. “Can you all not wait till after they’ve enjoyed all the courses?”
“Mahruk, we’ve gone through this. We told you not to cook your best,” said Acquasar as he swatted at the head chef’s arm.
“How can I not cook my best?”
“Relax. Just don’t serve all the courses—later they can be portioned out to people who really deserve them,” said Creondi sharply. He then turned towards Raneka, “Another thing, Raneka. Some of our own are also Llen. We need your consent for that too—after what you’ve been through.”
Raneka inhaled. “I can’t blame all Llen for the actions of those who work with the Dvenri. But I can’t be comfortable with them either. But if the Llen are as deadly as they appear to be then it makes sense to make things more fairly matched.”
“We will do our best not to startle or frighten you too much,” said one of the kitchen helpers, who looked up as she finished speaking.
A certain familiarity to the set of her eyes told Raneka everything she needed to know.
“Amongst the catering team?” asked Raneka.
“I . . . only found out just now,” Creondi said apologetically.
“This is such an unholy mess,” groaned Acquasar. “Raneka, are you fine?”
“I’ll probably need to be in a dark room for a week or two after this is over. If we survive this,” said Raneka.
“Alright then. Ready for the next phase?” asked Acquasar.
“This is just the beginning,” Creondi said to them both. “We will all need much fortitude. But this first act is not just happening here. The war will begin properly tonight in the Governor’s Palace.
Raneka took Acquasar’s arm as they strolled towards the ballroom, thinking of the trajectory that took her from clothes shopping yesterday to actively participating in the initiation of the war from within the city.
It defied belief, but she knew that wars had started over less.
Outside, the klaxons began to wail. This time, it was not a test.
Within, the floral arrangements disintegrated as tiny brass cannons popped out of the arrangements, shooting crystalline pellets set to stun or maim members of the Dvenri government who were present. It was messy and it was very unkind. Soon, prisoners and hostages were taken. The ballroom was emptied of nearly all of Raneka’s guests.
Raneka took particular pleasure in standing before Messrs Red, Brown, and White who were being immobilized by Llen insurrectionists.
“Our Llen allies I’m told, have not been crossbred by Dvenri alchemists and are therefore stronger than you,” Raneka told her tormenters as she took out her brass fork. “They’ll keep you in place while I . . . make some modifications. You seem to forget that even mice have teeth, my morbid pussycats.”
Their eyes widened as she approached.
“Fortunately for you, I’m quite efficient with a fork. My grandfather trained me well,” she said as she turned her attention upon Mr. Brown first. “This won’t take too long. While I’d love to protract your suffering—we’ve got bigger fish to fry and far too little time.”
Outside, the sound of cannon-fire punctuated their screams.
As Liannell had predicted, the Great War that Serolar had been poised for did not happen on battlefields, or even in the streets of their segregated city. It began in ballrooms, in drawing rooms and across the two-dozen odd soirees that happened on the night of the Lion Moon.
Nin Harris is an author, poet, critical theorist and Gothic scholar who exists in a perpetual state of unheimlich. Nin writes Gothic fiction, baroque planetary romances and space operas, mythic fantasies and various other forms of hyphenated weird fiction. Nin's publishing credits include: Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, The Dark, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, etc. Nin was a 2016 Rhysling Poetry Award nominee.