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The Event of the Season

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Ashe stood in the shadows of the arched window, looking down upon Archades. From here, she could see so much of the architectural beauty for which the country was renowned.

She supposed architecture was better for discussion over cups of tea than regicide, treason, and war.

She heard the faint rustle of fabric and turned back. "We will begin," she said, and her maid gave her a half-curtsey.

In truth the costume was not so elaborate as to require a maid's services to don, but appearances must be maintained. Ashe stood patiently while the layers of silk were arranged and the cunning tiny hooks fastened beneath her left arm. The scabbard she strapped to her waist was empty, the jeweled pommel for show alone. She had not liked it, but even a Queen might not take a true weapon to a masquerade ball. She would have argued harder, but even if she did not trust Larsa, she trusted the Archadian Emperor's spymaster, and he had assured her of her safety.

The wig felt strange on her head, both for its weight and for the fact that she had not worn her hair past her chin since her childhood, but the waist-length sable curls went a good distance toward assuring that no one at the ball who did not already know her identity could discern it, precisely as she had planned. She sat still while the maid carefully ran a brush through it and then affixed dozens of fresh desert flowers, brought at ridiculous effort from her gardens and lovingly tended next to a fireplace for the week she had been engaged in diplomatic meetings, all for this night.

The mask was the last portion, layers of gold leather as thin as silk stitched into the blank countenance of Lady Justice. Most importantly, the wind crystals concealed along the bottom edge would reshape her voice. For this masquerade, she needed far more than the illusion of anonymity.

Ashe studied herself in the mirror and nodded in satisfaction. The indigo silk lay in rich folds, flexible enough for dancing but draped to make her outline uncertain. With the wig and mask, no one would recognize her, especially after the maid fastened the tall shoes to her feet and added five inches to her height. She had spent hours dancing and moving in those shoes to accustom herself to the height and the difference in movement.

She murmured her thanks and cast Vanish on herself before she left the room. By Larsa's command, this entire corridor had been given over to her entourage, and her guard captain had cleared it by her orders, stationing his men at the end of the hallway, facing outward. Ashe kept her steps quiet and her pace even as she slid between them. The hardest part was now done; from here it was a matter only of detouring through the next corridor up and slipping in with the Rozarrian delegation to join the ball, as she could not open the door while maintaining her concealment.

The Rozarrians were dressed in an array of costumes, from an Ultima that would have been ruinous if the lady's identity had been known and was instead merely scandalous, to a man who lumbered carefully in the costume of a slaven. Though she glanced at all of the delegation, she did not see Al-Cid, which was according to plan.

The delegation was announced en masse and she slid away from them, easing behind a column to discard her spell. Once visible, she stepped out to survey the room.

Larsa's master of ceremonies had transformed the ballroom into a scene straight out of myth, an idealized pastoral scene that supposedly called to mind the war between the scions of light and dark. By Ashe's lights, it was too serene by half to be anything like a battlefield, but she acknowledged that the carpet of rich green and all the glorious flowers made a stunning backdrop for the thirteen statues of the scions. Belias stirred curiously in her mind as she paused by the statue of him. The rippling muscles and detailed tufts of fur were at least a year's work for a team of skilled artisans, longer for a single sculptor. It had been painted in colors so bright she was tempted to summon the Esper to see if they truly exceeded his own appearance, but that would give her away, and besides, Larsa would not appreciate her setting his ball on fire.

The musicians struck up a waltz, and she turned toward the dance floor. As couples took their places, one person walked toward her. He wore red and copper, a fitting counterpoint to her indigo and gold, and his mask was a masterwork of carefully twisted points, towering horns, and uneven layers, giving no hint of the shape of the face beneath. His robe seemed to wrap tight, but it shifted such that it never stayed the same from one breath to the next. Rather than a sword at his side, he wore a whip. Lord Chaos held out his hand, and Ashe accepted, allowing him to draw her into the waltz.

"A fine costume, princess," he murmured. Wind crystals could change the timbre of his voice, but he would always give himself away thus, something about which she had warned him.

"And yours," she replied, holding back the word pirate that wanted to append itself.

He held her close and spun her around the dance floor with great skill, not that she expected anything else. "You have it?"

"Of course." She twined her arms about his neck, let herself drift far closer than the dance required, and felt his hand at her waist, toying with the sheath. Deftly he plucked the massive topaz from the hilt, and replaced it as smoothly with another, after sliding the piece of parchment he held into the scabbard. He kept her close even after the exchange was done, his palm warm between her shoulder blades.

"A pity you were so prepared," he murmured. "I hoped we might meet privately."

Ashe counted three turns before she answered him. "Complete the exchange, and our work here is done; none will miss me should I go."

HIs lips curved beneath the rim of his mask. "But what if I wish to dance?"

"Then we shall dance." She would not be disappointed that he preferred the distance of public appearance; she was the one who had insisted they could not be linked.

The waltz ended, and he bowed over her hand, then disappeared into the crowd. She took a glass of wine from a passing servant and nearly choked on it when Lord Chaos stopped next to a spectacularly corpulent rendition of Cu Chulainn, lining up next to him for a country dance where the dancers faced each other in lines. No wonder Al-Cid had declined to enter with his delegation; he would have given himself away in an instant, with the way his "little birds" flocked close.

Ashe was incredibly curious to read the note that Al-Cid had conveyed, but knew it would have to wait. A masquerade ball with everyone who was anyone from three nations was no place to read state secrets.

When the dance was done, and the jewel Balthier had swapped for glass on her false sword presumably conveyed to Al-Cid, the pirate crossed the dance floor to her once again, and held out his hand. She took it, thinking he intended to lead her back onto the dance floor, but instead he guided her behind another set of columns and through a door hidden behind one of the massive floral arrangements. It was a servants' passage, narrow but clean, but the steep stairs gave her a moment of trouble in the high shoes. Still, she made it to the bottom, and he guided her into a long room just beneath the ballroom. The music was clearly audible, but they had the room to themselves, save some practice dummies and racks of wooden swords.

"May I have this dance?" He bowed, and a smile curved her lips.

Larsa had promised her the event of the season, and now she had all she could have wished from it.

She took his hand and began the dance.