A Keith Interlude

"…and so Van-sama and I were wed," Lady Fanel said, smiling dreamily as she finished relating the turns of events that had led to her leaving her homeland of Ashina to settle in Tasmeria with her husband

"Ah, that's so romantic!" Katarina swooned.

Keith had absolutely no idea what his sister was saying as she spoke with Lady Fanel, though he vaguely recognized it as that language that some of the women who lived in Maria's estate spoke. Ashinese, or something? The two were obviously deeply enjoying their conversation, but that was a perfectly normal state of affairs when it came to Katarina. Even Maria enjoyed his sister's company, in her way.

"My, I hadn't realized the Lady Katarina was a linguist," Duke Fanel said, looking intrigued as he watched the two women talk. Lord Fanel was watching his wife and Katarina talking, and wore an expression Keith had often seem on his father when the man was simply staring happily at Mother. "Very few have been receptive to learning my sister-in-law's tongue, which has caused her some degree of difficulty, as she finds it equally difficult to learn our language."

"She also speaks Hollow," Keith said.

"Really? My, that is a rare talent among the still-living. However did she learn it?"

"I have absolutely no idea," Keith admitted honestly. "I didn't know until she spoke to someone from the Ethenell a few days ago."

"Truly? That's difficult to believe."

Keith remembered that, no matter how friendly Katarina was, this was no normal party. It was the International Assembly, where matters of international politics was conducted on all levels. While he must, of course, be on his best behavior with the foreign duke, he need not necessarily be honest. Or truthful. Or even helpful. Certainly he shouldn't be informative. On the other hand… there was something perversely amusing about the thought of just telling the truth. Perverse amusement won out. "Oh yes," Keith said, fighting his instinct to put on his fake noble's smile that he knew his sister disliked and instead put on a genuine smile, as only talking about his dear sister could give rise to. "I've lived with her for years and had no idea she could speak Hollow until that day, when she gave that visiting Ethenell scholar directions to the library."

"Oh, come now, Lord Claes. Surely you don't expect me to believe that the Lady Claes just happened to reveal a natural aptitude to speak Hollow one day?" Duke Fanel said.

"You're free to ask her yourself, your grace," Keith said, still smiling. The smile managed to be completely genuine as he thought of the likely confusion the duke would experience at trying to learn anything from his sister on the subject, much less from spies and rumors.

"Oh, if you want, I can help translate for you, Hitomi-chan," Katarina said, her words still incomprehensible to Keith.

"Ah, I wouldn't want to impose, Katarina-chan," Lady Fanel said. Though he couldn't understand what they were saying, from the way they talked, he had a feeling sister had gained yet another admirer. Fortunately she was married, so she was unlikely to become a rival… probably. Maybe. Hopefully.

"Oh, it's no problem! What are friends for?"

"F-friends…! Ah, Van-sama, do you mind if I accept Katarina-chan's invitation?"

"Of course, Hitomi. My brother and I can handle the rest. Go and enjoy yourself. Thank you for doing this, Lady Claes."

"Yay! Come on, Hitomi-chan! We're supposed to move on and greet other groups after a little bit in parties like this. Ah, did anyone teach you what the etiquette is in Sorcier?"

"Van-sama tried to teach me, but we weren't able to discuss everything, I fear."

"Ah, well, don't worry! I'll tell you everything you need to know! and since I'll be telling you in Ashinago, no one else will probably understand, so you don't need to worry about being embarrassed!"

Wait, was Katarina's voice starting to move away…?

Keith turned in time to see his sister walking away arm-in-arm with Lady Fanel, the two of them still talking enthusiastically in that strange, foreign tongue from lands beyond as other members of the Tasmerian delegation looked after them curiously. There was a moment of indecision as he tried to think of how to politely disengage from his current conversation, realized there wasn't, and saw his sister and Lady Fanel vanish from view, hidden by the crowd.

Oh, dung pies.

A Mary Hunt Interlude

Mary could do this in her sleep.

Mingling with people with a false but genuine-looking smile on her face, exchanging empty greetings and receiving empty replies, using her water magic to try and listen in on the conversations around her… It all came easily to her, though she was annoyed to find that far too many people kept randomly tapping their wine cups with the rings they wore, which was an old trick to make listening with water magic more difficult. Not impossible, but enough to make the one doing it inclined to listen to easier prey.

It worked annoyingly well, because it did make Mary stop trying to listen in. Still, she did learn a thing or two, which she remembered to write down later—it was a noob mistake to write down your notes while still in public—so she can sort through the all the blatant misinformation for the little rare drops of worth that people had let slip unknowingly.

She wasn't alone, of course. There were always young men and women who were bedazzled by paltry things like social standing, and over the years Mary had managed to make some acquaintances. After she had managed to weed out the sycophants, the ruthless social climbers—social climbing was all well and good, but one must remember to give everyone their due in your rise, and these people merely trampled—those who thought they could take Alan from her—he was a rival, but he was her rival and friend, and no one would do that to him!—those who thought they could take her from Alan, those who thought to use her as leverage towards any of her friends, and other undesirables—most especially those who thought they could get to her dear Katarina!—those that remained were all pleasant, sociable, competent young men and women who knew how to be good people while living in society.

They weren't friends, really. Friends, in her experience, was just another word for 'rival for Katarina', because to be friends required a deep and personal connection and understanding, of shared hopes and dreams and aspirations and pains and frustrations… so, 'rival for Katarina'.

She was not friends with Maria Campbell! She was simply an unavoidable fact of life now, like the sun, undeath and taxes. True, she had felt for the once-commoner when she had heard that her mother had been abducted, but Maria still had a mother and Mary didn't, so really, they weren't the same at all! It wasn't like they were friends of anything! It was merely that they were both in her dear Katarina's social circle, hmph!

But her acquaintances, who in another life she was willing to admit she might have been good friends with if the twists and turns hadn't taught her what it was like to feel such depths of emotions when she was but a mere girl, knew her, and she knew them, and so a few had been quite willing to follow her lead as she had made their greetings to the various delegations by turns. Were it not for the fact that she had be separated from her dear Katarina, she might have even said she enjoyed herself. This was her element, even more than water was, for the currents and twists of water were nothing compared to that of society, and the only reason she had not been crowned was because above her stood Duchess Claes and her generation of old monsters who towered over Mary, standing like giants and waiting behind doors of fog she was content not to cross.

Right now, she was taking a break, having stopped a passing servant to acquire a glass of sparkling grape juice while Lady Lara Wraithcroft took the lead, speaking to some Catarina nobles. Lady Sieglizabeth and Lady Siegevey, it turned out, were part of queen Siegmidala's honor guard, though by their presence in this gathering, they weren't on duty, ha ha! As Mary drank, she glanced about, looking for—

"If you're looking for Katarina Claes, she's somewhere over by the south-west end of the room," the servant whom she'd taken her drink from said quietly, his lips barely moving.

Mary blinked at the sudden interruption. "What?" she said, just barely remembering to keep her voice low.

The servant smiled that professional, vapid servant's smile, not looking directly at her. "Katarina Claes is by the south-west end of the room, where she's been showing some Tasmerian woman around and speaking what mostly sounds like gibberish," the servant said, still barely moving his lips.

She looked, really looked at the servant. A smart, professional look, glasses, his long blue hair held back in a neat tail… "Do I know you?" she said suspiciously.

"We've never met, but she talks about you a lot," the servant said, holding out his tray with a smile.

Mary's eyes narrowed in suspicion, but she placed her mostly-finished drink on his tray, and he turned and drifted off, just another servant in the crowd, and then she'd lost sight of him.

Turning, Mary approached Lady Anastasia Cisarovna, the one closest to her, and put on a graceful smile on her face. "Talk to me," she told the baroness's daughter.

The woman smoothly began a well-practiced routine, asking Mary if she'd been to a that café in the capital, Diem, and if so had Mary tried their new dessert? It was a familiar, perfectly timed routine, useful for buying Mary time to concentrate on her magic while seeming to be conversing as she directed her Water Magic towards the drink towards the south-west. There were a less people tapping rings on their cups there, thank goodness, letting the beverages there vibrate with the clearly recognizable tones of the voice of her dear Katarina… speaking utter gibberish.

No, wait, that wasn't gibberish, that was Ashinago. Mary knew only a few words that her young student had taught her, but the general sound of the words were familiar enough.

Oh dear. Why was her dear Katarina speaking Ashinago in public?

Mary tried to remember the distribution of the delegations. South-west… that was Hallig delegation, or at least it had been when this gathering had started. It was still early though, so it was probably where most of the highest-ranked delegates of that group would be, since they might be playing the game of having their peers come to them.

She met Lay Anastacia's eyes and ran her thumb over the black tassel that hung from the end of her fan. The other socialite did the same in acknowledgement, and Mary split off from the group, heading towards where she had heard her dear Katarina. If she was speaking Ashinago in public, chances were she'd gotten separated from Keith somehow. Mary needed to hook up with her quickly, lest some duplicitous person take advantage of Lady Katarina!

As she glided off gracefully—Mary Hunt did not scurry!—she wondered who that servant had been. Well, it wasn't surprising. Lady Katarina was on first-name terms with all the servants in the castle, after all. They were probably just looking out for her.

Still gliding gracefully, Mary put the man out of her mind.

A Sophia Totally-Not-The-Paledrake Interlude

Sophia Ascart was many things. A romance novel junkie. A tax-paying businesswoman. A loving daughter. A doting sister. Part owner of a monopoly on the next generation of deadly weapons of war. Out for revenge against those who'd tormented her for her hair and eyes and had called her the paledrake, which she most definitely was not.

However, one of the things she was not was heartless.

And so, despite how much she wanted her brother to be the one to sweet Lady Katarina off her feet and marry her, cuckolding that black-hearted Third Prince, she couldn't find it in herself to interfere as she watched Nicol having a pleasant chat with Lady Hyetta Carim, of the Hallig delegation. Sure, they were surrounded by the fallen bodies of stunned men and women who'd looked directly at Nicol without preparing themselves, but neither seemed to mind as they both simply chatted pleasantly.

Why, Sophia wondered, had they never thought to set Nicol up with a blind woman?

In hindsight, it made so many kinds of sense. A blind woman wouldn't be able to see Nicol, and be neither overwhelmed by his looks nor put off by his expressions. Come to think of it, a blind woman probably also wouldn't have cared about Sophia's appearance, since they… well, wouldn't be able to see it. As very distant backup plans went, it was something to consider… not that they would need to! Because Nicol was going to win Lady Katarina's heart and marry her, and then she'd become Sophia's sister-in-law and then they'd all live happily ever after…!

Still, Sophia made a note to discreetly inquire as to the whereabouts for any blind ladies who might appreciate a friendly gentleman caller…

"Lady Sophia Ascart, I presume?"

Years of being relaxed, happy, and having two firearms under the mantle of her dress allowed Sophia to keep from stiffening at an unfamiliar voice calling her name. Putting on a polite, pleasant face, and making a subtle gesture to tell her big brother that she would take care of this when he glanced towards her in concern, she turned to face the source of the voice.

It was then she had the rather novel experience of actually looking down to meet someone's eyeline. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, good lady," Sophia said in her best Mary Hunt impersonation that didn't involve stick apples down her dress.

It would have been easy to think that the person she was speaking to was someone's young daughter. However, as a woman of rather short stature herself, Sophia could see the signs of someone who wasn't a child. A certain sharpness to the jawline, a lack of baby fat in the cheeks… they were there for anyone who cared to look.

The young-looking woman bowed in a way that Sophia found very Maria-esque. "I'm afraid I must correct you, Lady Ascart," she said smooth, smiling widely. The smile… had a bit too much teeth to it, but that was probably a consequence of their wide lips. She wore a suit that seemed based on the popular Fashion Souls of the Wanderer's Elevation Set, but in a rich wine red. Blonde hair was pulled back from blue eyes by a simple ponytail, and while their belt had a fitting for some kind of weapon, it was empty. No peace bound, just empty. "I am but a simple private citizen, with no title to my name." Ah. That explained it. Not even a knight, so of course they were asked to disarm. But till wearing the belt with the fitting for it, proclaiming their skill. "My name is Jennifer Ecks, of the Etran delegation. I'm here on behalf of my employer, the Mercantile House of Argent Silver. I had heard that you were the one to speak to on the topic of… what were they called? Nightflowers?"