"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."
Silence fell for a moment before Lady Placida said, "I met your nephew, back during that Wintersend excitement."
"Did you?" Isana asked.
"Yes. A most promising youth, I thought."
Isana lifted an eyebrow and studied Lady Placida for a moment, and asked, cautiously, "Why would you say that?"
Lady Placida spread her hand in a languid, seed-scattering gesture. "He impressed me with his intelligence. Cleverness. Determination. He is a most well spoken young man. I share a similar respect for several of the young people who are his friends. You can tell a great deal about a person by looking at the people who share his life."
Isana did not miss the implication of Lady Placida's statement, and she nodded in thanks of the compliment. "Tavi's always been very bright," Isana said, smiling despite herself. "Too much so for his own good, I think. He's never let anything hold him back."
"His... condition," Lady Placida said with deliberately delicate phrasing. "I have never heard of anything quite like it."
"It's always been a mystery," Isana agreed.
"Then I assume his situation has not changed?"
Isana shook her head. "Though goodness knows, there are plenty of people with many crafting skills who never do anything constructive with them."
"Very true," Lady Placida agreed. "Will you be in Ceres for long?"
Isana shook her head. "A few more days at most. I've been away from my steadholt too long as it is."
Lady Placida nodded. "I'll have a mountain of work waiting for me as well. And I miss my lord husband." She shook her head and smiled. "Which is somewhat girlish and silly of me. But there it is."
"Not silly," Isana said. "There's nothing wrong with missing loved ones. I hadn't seen my brother in nearly a year. It was nice to visit him here."
Lady Placida smiled. "That must have been a relief from what Invidia has you doing."
Isana felt her back stiffen a little. "I'm not sure what you mean."
Lady Placida gave her an arch look. "Isana, please. It's clear she's managed to attach some strings, and equally clear that you don't care for the situation."
Strictly speaking, Isana should have denied it. Part of her agreement with Lady Aquitaine had been to support her publicly. But this was hardly a public forum, was it? So instead, she remained silent.
Lady Placida smiled and nodded. "Isana, I know how difficult this kind of situation can be. Should you need to talk to anyone about it, or if it progresses to something you are not willing to tolerate, I would like to offer you my support. I don't know the particulars, so I cannot know how I might be of help to you-but if nothing else, I could at least listen to what you chose to share and offer advice."
Isana nodded, and said, carefully, "That's... very kind."
"Or a most manipulative way to suborn information from you, hm?"
Isana blinked, then felt herself smile a little. "Well. Not to put too fine a point on it, but, yes."
"I sometimes grow bored with tactful evasions," Lady Placida explained.
Isana nodded, then said, "Assuming that you are sincere: Why would you offer such help to me?"
Lady Placida tilted her head to one side and blinked. Then she took Isana's hand, met her eyes, and spoke. "Because you may need it, Isana. Because you seem to me to be a decent person in unenviable circumstances. Because I can judge from the child you raised that you are a person worthy of my respect." She shrugged a shoulder. "Not terribly aloof and aristocratic of me, I know, but there. The truth."
Isana watched Lady Placida steadily and in growing surprise. Through the touch of her hand, Isana could sense the clear, chiming tone of absolute truth in her voice. Lady Placida met her eyes and nodded before withdrawing her hand.
"I... Thank you," Isana said. "Thank you, Aria."
"Sometimes, just knowing that the help is there, if you need it, is help enough in itself," she murmured. Then Aria closed her eyes, inclined her head in a little bow, and departed the little garden, gliding away into the streets of Ceres.
Isana sat for a moment more, enjoying the murmur of the fountain, the cool shadows beneath the trees. She had grown weary of fulfilling her obligations to Lady Aquitaine over the past three years. There had been many distasteful things about it, but the most distressing facet of the matter was the helplessness of it. There were few people in all Alera as powerful and influential as Lady Aquitaine.
The First Lord, of course, would never be a source of support or comfort. His actions had made that quite clear. Other than Gaius, there were fewer than a score of people whose power approached that of the Aquitaines, many of them already allies. There was no more than a handful of folk who had both the power and the inclination to defy Aquitaine Invidia.
The High Lady Placidus was one of them.
Aria's presence, and her offer, had provided a sense of comfort and confidence that felt like a cold drink in the middle of a hot, endless day. Isana felt surprised at her reaction. Aria had done nothing more than speak idle words during a casual meeting, and nothing about them would bind her to them. Yet Isana had felt the truth in the woman's voice and manner. She sensed Aria's genuine compassion and respect.
Isana had once shared a similar contact with Lady Aquitaine. Isana had indeed felt the truth in her voice, but the sense of the woman had also been utterly different. Both women were the sort to keep their word-but what was primarily integrity in Aria was, in Lady Aquitaine, simple calculation, a kind of enlightened self-interest. Lady Aquitaine was an expert at negotiations, and to negotiate one needed a reputation of keeping one's end of the bargain, for good or ill. She had a steely resolve to make sure that she paid what she owed-and more to the point, to be paid what was owed her. Her honesty had more to do with calculating debt and value than it did with right and wrong.
It was one of the things that made Lady Aquitaine particularly dangerous, and Isana suddenly realized that she feared her patron-and not merely for what Lady Aquitaine might do that would touch upon Isana's loved ones. Isana feared her, personally, sickeningly.
She'd never realized that. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she'd never allowed herself to realize it before now. Aria's simple offer of support had created another possibility for the future. Perhaps it was the relief Isana had needed to allow herself to face the fear she had kept hidden away. Isana had found hope again.
She shivered and put her face in her hands. Silent tears came, and she did not try to stop them. She sat in the peace of the little garden and let some of her bitter fear wash out with her tears, and in time, when the tears had passed, she felt better. Not buoyant, not ecstatic-but better. The future was not set in stone, no longer unremittingly dark.
Isana murmured to Rill to cleanse the tears from her eyes and restore the reddened skin of her face to its natural color, and left the garden to face the world.