Alix could hear the music from three streets away.
Trumpets blared, drums rattled, and piano keys jingled. A manzello wailed, high as a siren’s song.
Even through brick and steel, she could almost make out the tune. She didn’t know much about music, but even she could hum along- it was on the radio at least two or three times a day.
“Right. This is your last chance,” Vashe said. “You wanna back out, do it now.”
Alix bit her lip. No one said a word.
“Nvara, you ready?” Vashe asked.
Nvara stood up straighter and pushed her hair back behind her ears. In seconds, she looked like a completely different person. Maybe it was her expression, maybe it was her posture. But if Alix had to guess without knowing who she was, she’d say Nvara was the boss. The Vleylaander clothes fit her, hanging off her shoulders in crisp folds.
“Ayah,” she said. She sounded like a Vleylaander too, accent and all.
The four of them started for the door.
A guard leaned against the wall next to the door. He was barely older than Alix, with a pimply face; he wore the dull khaki Vravesva uniform, with no helmet or gas mask.
Well, they’d figured there’d be one. But it still made Alix nervous. She wanted to shove her hands in her pockets, but her robe covered them. She clenched a hand into a fist and rubbed her knuckles against her thumb.
As Nvara walked up to the door, he held up his hand.
“Do you have an invitation?” he said.
“My good man,” Nvara said. “We’re attachés. Ambassador Hooglandt has our invitations.”
Her voice still had the accent- the weird, lilting Vleylaander cadence, with sharp Rs and long Us. Alix tried to keep a straight face.
The guard frowned. His mouth twitched to the side.
“I can’t let you in without an invitation, pal. It’s not like I can just grab the Ambassador.”
“Do you want to be the one who caused an incident?” Nvara asked. She raised an eyebrow. Her face reminded Alix of a stern schoolteacher.
“N. No.” The guard fidgeted with the keys on his belt.
Nvara stared him down for a long, long moment. Then she grinned. Alix thought she saw every one of Nvara’s teeth.
“I can guarantee you, if you don’t let us pass, there will be one.” Nvara paused. “Now, if you’ll let us in, I’ll let the Ambassador know you helped us. If you don’t…”
“Well. I. I guess I can make an exception,” he said. “For once. If you leave, I can’t let you back in.”
“That’s fine,” Nvara said. “We’re not leaving any time soon.”
He cracked the door open. The sound of the manzello and a doubl-hundred people talking rushed towards Alix. Her fingers curled in her sleeve.
“Enjoy the party,” the guard said.
Nvara gathered up her robes and swept inside. The others followed.
Alix lagged in the rear. She glanced back at the guard- he pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit up.
“That was easy enough,” Svelen murmured.
“Aye. Now comes the vexin’ hard part.” Vashe’s lips pressed tight together.
“Why does everyone care about the ambassador?” Alix said.
“Politics,” Nvara said. “There’s war talks on.”
The long hallway opened up to a ballroom bigger than a city street. Alix could see her reflection in the polished floors. The peach-gold walls shimmered. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, electric candles shedding light that shattered on the crystal arcs.
Men and women, all human, mingled on the dance floor. Most of them were from Isseran. The women wore dresses with sharp collars and asymmetrical hems, covered in spiky patterns; the men, by and large, wore suits, unbuttoned at the collar, with no ties, waistcoats, or hats. In the corner, a person who looked like neither a man nor a woman wore a short skirt and a blazer with the Quorum’s insignia pinned to the lapel; they were surrounded by admirers.
A handful of people, scattered among the crowd, wore golden Yunlin silksuits or garish Vleylaand robes (thank goodness, thought Alix; they wouldn’t stand out as badly).
“Spread out,” Vashe murmured. “When it’s time, I’ll signal you.”
He tapped his cheekbone twice and his temple once.
She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. They stung like she’d stared into a bright light for too long. It was part of her disguise- Nvara had made lenses she could wear and pass for human. But they made her eyes itch and burn.
The chandelier-light made it worse. It was too bright- electric light, yes, but white, not yellow. It made the floor and the trumpets of the brass band gleam white-bright and hurt her eyes if she caught a glimpse of it head-on.
So did the music- this close it was so vexing loud she couldn’t hear herself think. The music and the noise and the crowd of people… She didn’t know why, but all of it together it pissed her right the fuck off.
She squinted, took a deep breath, and tried to get a feel for the room.
The band was on a dias at one end of the room- all right, she’d just have to stay away from that side.
The polished dance floor stretched out in front of them, filled with small groups of people. In the centre, they danced, spinning and reeling, new dances like the pinprick and the verve. At the edges, they stood or sat in little groups, talking.
Alix caught snatches of their conversation as she walked. Half of it was gossip about people she’d never heard of; the other half was business conversations she knew were important, but couldn’t follow to save her life.
At the end of the room, though- Food!
There was a long table, with a punch bowl bigger than Alix’s head and trays tiered like a terrace. The trays were full to spilling over, covered in so much food that Alix couldn’t even tell what all of it was. There were tiny cakes, cubed pineapple, quartered moonfruit, sliced carrots and cucumbers, salmon and parsley on toothpicks with little feathers stuck to the ends, bite-sized creamhorns and lilyfingers and mintpies.
She grabbed a paper napkin and picked up as much as she could without drawing attention to herself.Why didn’t her robes have pockets? How was she supposed to hide food for later if she didn’t have them?
There wasn’t enough room on one napkin for much of anything, either, and it soaked through all too quick. The salmon leaked through the thin paper, turning it pink.
Fuck. She’d have to eat as much as she could here without drawing attention before Vashe gave her the signal. She glanced back up to make sure he hadn’t already.
As she looked around, someone tapped her on the shoulder from behind. She wheeled.
The person who stood behind her was a young man, about her age, with shaggy brown hair and eyes rimmed by dark circles. He wore glasses and a high-collared shirt under a double-breasted jacket.
She couldn’t see any caste symbols on him- not a lapel pin, not a badge, not a belt buckle, nothing. That meant one of two things- either he was a foreigner, or he was so important that no one needed to know who he was. She didn’t recognize him.
“Excuse me,” he said. He didn’t have an accent; there was something naggingly familiar about his voice, but Alix couldn’t quite place it.
“Would you like to dance?”
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