"And it is with great pleasure and pride," Lady Aquitaine addressed the assembled Dianic League, "that I introduce to some of you, and reintroduce to many of you, the first female Steadholder in Aleran history. Please welcome Isana of Calderon."
The public amphitheater of Ceres was filled to its capacity of four thousand, though perhaps only half of them were actual members of the Dianic League, the organization consisting of the leading ladies of the Citizenry. Few of the women in attendance bore a title lower than Countess. Perhaps two hundred had been freemen who won their Citizenship through the formal duel of the juris macto, or who had served in the Legions, mostly in service as Knights, though half a dozen had served as rank-and-file legionares, disguising their sex until after they had proven themselves in battle.
Of them all, only Isana had attained her rank through rightful, legal appointment, free of any sort of violence or military service. In all of Aleran history, she was the only woman to do so.
The rest of those present were mostly men, and by and large members of the abolitionist movement. They included a dozen Senators among their number, their supporters and contacts in the Citizenry, and members of the Liber-tus Vigilantes, a quasi-secret organization of militant abolitionists within the city of Ceres. The Vigilantes had spent years persecuting slave traders and slave owners within the city. It was not unusual to find an insufficiently paranoid slaver hung from the top of a slave pen by his own manacles, strangled by one of his own chains. The elderly High Lord Cereus Ventis, though the legal master of the city, did not command the respect of the Vigilantes or their supporters, nor possess the resolve to come down on them with all the power at his disposal, and had consequently failed to quell the violence.
Any remaining folk there were either spies who would report back to the Slavers Consortium or simply curious onlookers. The amphitheater was a public forum, open to any Citizen of the Realm.
The crowd applauded, and their emotions flowed over Isana like the first incoming wave of an ocean tide. Isana closed her eyes against it for a moment, fortifying herself against its impact, then rose from her seat, smiled, and stepped to the front of the stage, to the podium beside Lady Aquitaine.
"Thank you," she said. Her voice rang clearly throughout the amphitheater. "Ladies, gentlemen. A man I once knew told me that giving a speech is like amputating a limb. It's best to finish it as quickly and painlessly as possible." There was polite laughter. She waited for it to fade, then said, "The institution of slavery is a blight upon our entire society. Its abuses have become intolerable, its legal safety mechanisms nonfunctional. Everyone here knows that to be true."
She took a deep breath. "But not everyone here has been taken captive by a slaver, illegally and against her will. I have." She glanced aside at Lady Aquitaine for a moment. "It's a terrible thing to feel so helpless. To see..." She swallowed. "To see what happens to women in such a situation. I hardly believed the rumors of such things-until they happened to me. Until I saw them with my own eyes."
She turned back to the audience. "The stories may sound like nightmares. But they are true. Through the course of this summit, you have heard testimony from freed slaves, men and women alike, of atrocities that have no place in any society living under the rule of law."
"We find ourselves in a unique position to destroy this cancer, to cleanse this festering wound, to make a change in our Realm for the better. We have a responsibility to our fellow Alerans, to ourselves, and to our progeny to do so. Senators, Citizens, I ask that you all support the Lady Aquitaine's emancipation proposal. Together, we can make our lands and people whole once more."
She took a step back from the podium and nodded. The crowd rose to their feet in enthusiastic applause. Their approval flooded over her in another wave of emotion, and she could hardly keep her feet beneath it. She had no illusions about the skill of her oratory: Of course the Abolitionists would support Lady Aquitaine's emancipation legislation. The speech and the crowd's public approval, at the conclusion of the weeks-long summit, was little more than a formality.
She took her seat again while Senator Parmos rose to the podium, to expound upon the Abolitionist movement's enthusiastic support. Parmos, a talented speaker, a master of the subtle firecrafting of the inspiration and manipulation of emotion, would in all likelihood hold the crowd spellbound for an hour or more with the power of his words.
"Very good," Lady Aquitaine murmured as Isana sat down beside her. "You have a natural talent."
Isana shook her head. "I could have cawed like a crow, and they would have reacted the same way."
"You underestimate yourself," Lady Aquitaine replied. "You possess a quality of... integrity, I think describes it best. It sounds sincere. It gives your words additional weight."
"It doesn't sound sincere. It is sincere," Isana replied. "And I have no integrity anymore. I sold it three years ago."
Lady Aquitaine gave her a wintry little smile. "Such sincerity."
Isana inclined her head in a slight nod and did not look at the woman beside her. "Does this appearance conclude my obligation for today?"
Lady Aquitaine arched an eyebrow. "Why do you ask?"
"I'm meeting my brother for dinner at Vorello's."
"A very nice dining house," Lady Aquitaine said. "You'll like it. We're almost done with this trip. I'll have one or two more meetings before I can return to Aquitaine. If I require your presence, I shall send for you."
"Very well, my lady," Isana said, then pretended to listen to Senator Parmos speak. Eventually, his voice rose to a thundering crescendo of a conclusion that brought the entire amphitheater enthusiastically to its feet. The tide of their emotion, fanned to fiery heat by the Senator's speech and firecraft, disoriented Isana, and left her with a giddy, whirling miasma of a sensation that managed to be exhilarating and uncomfortable at the same time.
Isana had to leave the amphitheater. When Lady Aquitaine rose and began to thank and dismiss the gathering, Isana slipped off the stage and out a side exit of the sunken bowl of the amphitheater. The dizzying pressure of the crowd's emotions waned as she walked away from the theater. She paused beside a small public garden, trees and flowers centered around an elegant fountain of black marble. The spring sun was hot, but the mist rising from the fountain, together with the trees' shade, kept the whole of the little garden cool and comfortable. She sat down on a carved-stone bench and pressed her fingertips against her temples for a moment, forcing herself to relax and slow her breathing.
"I know just how you feel," said a rather dry, feminine voice from nearby. Isana looked up to see a tall, willowy woman with rich red hair and a deep green gown seated upon the bench beside hers. "It's Parmos," the woman continued. "He's not happy until the audience is a few seconds short of becoming a riot. And I don't like his speechmaking voice. It's too syrupy."
Isana smiled and inclined her head. "High Lady Placida. Good afternoon."
"Steadholder," Lady Placida, said with exaggerated formality. "An' it please thee, I would fane speak with thee a while. "
Isana blinked at her. "Your Grace?"
She held up a hand. "I'm teasing, Steadholder. This certainly is anything but a formal setting. How would it suit you if I called you Isana and you called me Aria?"
"I'd like that."
Lady Placida nodded sharply. "Good. Many Citizens assign far too much importance to the privileges of rank without placing complementary weight upon their duties. I'm glad to see that you aren't one of them, Isana."
Uncertain of how to respond politely, Isana nodded.
"It grieved me to hear about the attack upon you at Sir Nedus's manor on the night we met."
Isana felt a twinge of pain, low on her abdomen, near her hip. The arrow wound had healed cleanly, but there was a very faint scar, hardly more than a discoloration upon her skin. "Nedus was a good man. And Serai was more of a friend than I had at first believed." She shook her head. "I wish things had happened differently."
Lady Placida smiled, though there was sadness at the edges of it. "That's the way of things. It's easy to see what choices one should have made after it is too late to go back. I shall miss Serai. We were not close, but I respected her. And I enjoyed her talent for puncturing pompous windbags."
Isana smiled. "Yes. I wish I had known her longer."