Vorello's Pool was one of the most beautiful places Isana had ever visited. Centered around a crystalline pool in the base of a rocky grotto, the whole of the dining house had seemingly been built from the trees and vines planted within the grotto and growing as living partitions, bridges, and stairways. Tables were arranged upon rocky shelves around the pool at varying heights. Several tables were set upon flat stones rising from the pool itself, and employees of the hotel would ferry customers out to the tables with graceful boats propelled by furies within the pool's waters.
Furylamps cast luminous color over each table, and the colors constantly, slowly shifted and changed from hue to hue. From a distance, it looked like a cloud of fireflies hovering over the surface of the water. More lights within the pool itself shone up, also changing colors over time, casting shadows up the walls of the grotto and half-shadowing each table.
Singers, mostly young women, stood upon a number of raised rocks or sat upon the low-hanging branches of one of the trees. They sang songs of beauty and sadness in quiet, hauntingly lovely voices. Instrumental music supported the voices, drifting through the restaurant with no evident source.
One of the staff showed Isana to a table, set upon a rocky outcropping over the pool, framed by the embrace of the long, strong roots of a tree above. She had hardly settled into her seat before Bernard and Amara arrived, with Giraldi trailing in their wake.
Isana rose to meet her little brother's bearish, affectionate embrace, and knew at once that something had happened. Her entire sense of him was filled with a brimming excitement and mirth that she hadn't felt in him since... Isana drew in a sharp breath. Since he'd been married. She stared at his face for a moment, his own happiness drawing a smile onto her face, then glanced aside at Amara.
The Countess looked as she always did-distant, golden, and difficult to read. She had the warm, honey brown skin characteristic of the folk of sunny Parcia in the south, and her straight, fine hair was almost the precise same shade, giving her, in stillness, the appearance of a statue, some work dedicated to a huntress figure, lean and intense and dangerous. Isana had come to know that it was only part of the Countess's personality. Her beauty could best be seen in motion, as she walked or flew.
Isana glanced aside at Amara, and the Countess avoided her eyes. Amara's cheeks flushed with color, and her usual reserved expression changed, becoming something young and girlish and delighted. She fidgeted in place, and she and Bernard's hands found one another without either of them seeming to be aware of it before she became still again.
"Well," Isana said to her brother. "Shall I order a bottle of something special?"
"Why would you ask that?" Bernard said, his tone smug.
"Because she's not stupid," growled Giraldi. The old centurion, grizzled and stalwart despite his limp, stepped around Bernard to bow politely to Isana. She laughed and gave him a fond embrace. Giraldi smiled, evidently pleased, and said, "But don't buy any special drink on my account. Just something that will make me think the food tastes good if I drink enough of it."
"Then you'll need almost nothing," Amara said. "The food here is wonderful-though the gourmands from my own home city disdain it. They hate it when any cook makes them eat too much by daring to exceed their expectations, I think."
Giraldi grunted and looked around. "I don't know. Awful lot of upper crust in this place." He nodded at a table above their own. "High Lady Parcia, there, having dinner with High Lady Attica's daughter. Couple of Senators, over there. And that's Lord Mandus, from Rhodes. He's the Fleet Tribune in their navy. They aren't the sort of folk that eat decent food."
Amara laughed. "If the meal isn't to your liking, centurion, I'll pay someone to fetch you a steak and a pitcher of ale."
Giraldi grinned and subsided. "Well, then."
Isana paused to regard Amara. There was a warmth in her voice and manner she had never sensed there before. Isana already respected Amara, but to see her and Bernard together and so clearly happy, made it very difficult for her not to share some portion of her brother's affection for the young woman. She was wearing a dress, too, which was unusual in Isana's experience. Isana did not miss the fact that the Cursor wore a gown in the rich green and brown Bernard had chosen for his colors, and not the somber, muted tones of red and blue generally favored for formal wear by the Cursors and other servants of the Crown.
Isana had always maintained a certain distance from the Cursor, the young woman who owed her personal loyalty to Gaius Sextus. Isana's harsh feelings toward the First Lord had spilled over onto Amara. She knew, on some level, that it was unfair of her to hold the sins of the liege against the Cursor who served him, and yet she had never been able to bring herself to give Amara a chance to prove herself in her own right.
Perhaps it was time for that to change. Bernard clearly adored the young Countess, and she had obviously brought Isana's little brother a great deal of happiness. If what Isana suspected was true, Amara might be around for a very long while. That was reason enough to force Isana to face the fact that she owed it to her brother to attempt at least to make peace with the Cursor.
Isana bowed her head to the Countess, and said, "You look lovely tonight, Amara."
The Cursor's cheeks flushed again, and she met Isana's eyes for a moment before smiling. "Thank you."
Isana smiled and turned to sit down as Giraldi drew out her seat for her. "Why thank you, centurion."
"Ma'am," the old soldier said. He waited for Amara to be seated, then lowered himself into his own chair, leaning on his cane and briefly grimacing in discomfort.
"The leg never healed any better?" Isana asked.
"Not that I noticed."
Isana frowned. "Would you like me to take a look at it?"
"Count brought in some big healer from Riva. It's been poked enough. Problem isn't the wound. The leg is getting old," Giraldi said, a small smile on his lips. "It had a good run, Isana. And I can still march. I'll finish this hitch. So don't you worry about it."
Isana felt the little spike of disappointment and regret in Giraldi's voice, but it was a small thing beside his resolve and his pride-or perhaps more accurately, his self-satisfaction, a form of inner peace. Giraldi had been badly wounded in battle against the vord at the Battle of Aricholt, but he had never faltered in his duty, never failed to fight in defense of the Realm. He had spent a lifetime in the Legions and in service to the Realm, and made a difference by doing so. That knowledge formed a bedrock for the old soldier, Isana reasoned.
"How have your presentations gone?" she asked, looking at Giraldi, then Bernard.
Bernard grunted. "Well enough."
"Well enough with soldiers," Giraldi corrected. "The Senators are all certain that we poor countryfolk have been bamboozled by the Marat, and that the vord aren't really anything to worry about."
Isana frowned. "That hardly sounds encouraging."
Bernard shook his head. "The Senators won't be doing the fighting. The Legions do that."
To Isana, he sounded like a man trying to convince himself of something. "But doesn't the Senate administer the Crown's military budget?"
"Well," Bernard said, frowning. "Yes."
"We've done all we can," Amara said, and put her hand over Bernard's. "There's no reason to blame yourself for the Senate's reaction."
"Right, " Giraldi said. "His mind was made up even before you threatened to rip his tongue out for him."
Isana blinked at Giraldi, then at Bernard. Her brother cleared his throat and blushed.
"Oh, dear," Isana said.
A server arrived just then with a light wine, fruit, and bread, and told them that the evening meal would be served shortly.
"What about you, Steadholder?" Amara asked, once the server had withdrawn. "What were the results of the League's summit with the abolitionists?"
"Complete success," Isana replied. "Senator Parmos addressed the entire assembly this afternoon. He's going to sponsor Lady Aquitaines proposal."
Amara's eyebrows lifted. "Is he?"
Isana frowned. "Is that such a surprise?"
"Yes, actually," Amara said, frowning. "From my understanding of the situation in the Senate, any emancipation legislation would have been blocked by the southern Senators. Between Rhodes and Kalare, they have votes enough to kill any such motion."
Isana arched an eyebrow. Amara's information was doubtless obtained from the Crown's intelligence network. If Amara had been unaware of the shift in the balance of power, then it was entirely possible that the First Lord was, too. "The Rhodesian Senators have cast their support to the abolitionists."
Amara stiffened in her seat. "All of them?"
"Yes," Isana said. "I thought you'd know already."
Amara shook her head, her lips pressed together. Isana could feel the Cursor's anxiety rising. "When did this happen?"
"I'm not sure," Isana said. "I overheard two members of the League discussing it during Lady Aquitaine's tour. Perhaps three weeks ago?"
Amara suddenly rose, her voice tight. "Bernard, I need to contact the First Lord. Immediately."
Bernard frowned at her in concern. "Why? Amara, what's wrong?"
"It's too much," Amara said, her eyes focused elsewhere, her voice running in quick bursts that mirrored her furious thought. "Kalare's being forced into a corner. He won't take covert measures. He can't. Between emancipation laws and the letter... we're not ready. Oh, crows, not ready."
Isana felt the Cursor's anxiety begin to change into rising fear. "What do you mean?"
Amara shook her head rapidly. "I'm sorry, I don't dare say more. Not here." She looked around quickly. "Bernard, I need to get to the river, immediately. Isana, I'm sorry to disrupt the dinner-"
"No," Isana said quietly. "It's all right."
"Bernard," Amara said.
Isana looked across the table at her brother, who was frowning deeply, eyes focused on the sky above the open grotto.
"Why, " he asked quietly, "are the stars turning red?"
Isana frowned and stared up at the sky. She could not see the full glory of the stars in the furylit beauty of the city of Ceres, but the brightest stars were still visible. The entire western half of the sky was filled with crimson pinpoints of light. As she watched, the white stars overhead burned sullen, and the scarlet light spread like some kind of plague to the east, marching slowly and steadily forward. "Is it some kind of furycrafting?" she murmured.
In the grotto around them, the singers fell quiet one by one, and the music trailed off to silence. Everyone started staring up and pointing. A confused tide of emotion pushed against Isana's senses.
Amara looked around them. "I don't think so. I've never seen anything like that. Bernard?"
Isana's brother shook his head. "Never saw anything like it." He glanced at Giraldi, who shook his head as well.
The confusion around Isana became something thicker, almost tangible, and tinged with more than a little fear. Over the next several seconds, the tide of emotion continued to grow, getting rapidly more distracting. Seconds after that, the sensations pressed so loudly against Isana's thoughts that she began to lose track of which were her own emotions and which came from without. It was excruciating, in its own way, and she suddenly found herself in a battle to hold on to her ability to reason. She put her hands to the sides of her head.
"Isana?" said Bernard's voice. It sounded like it was coming from very far away. "Are you all right?"
"T-too many people," Isana gasped. "Afraid. They're afraid. Confused. Afraid. I can't push it out."
"We need to get her out of here," Bernard said. He stepped around the table and picked Isana up. She wanted to protest, but the pressure against her thoughts was too much to struggle against. "Giraldi," he said. "Get the coach."
"Right," Giraldi said.
"Amara, watch for those two that were shadowing us. Be ready to knock someone down if you have to."
Isana heard Amara's voice grow suddenly tense. "You think this is an attack of some kind. "
"I think we're unarmed and vulnerable," Bernard said. "Move."
Isana felt her brother walking and opened her eyes in time to see the grotto's pool passing beneath them as he walked over an archway. Desperate, she reached out to Rill, calling up the fury to let the emotions washing over her pass through her, into the water. If she could not stand against the tide of emotion, perhaps she could divert it.
The pressure eased, though it was strenuous to maintain the redirection. It was enough to let her remember her name and to have the presence of mind to look up and see what was happening.
Sudden excitement, exaltation and battle lust washed over her, near enough to make her feel as though she stood too close to a forge. She looked up and saw confusion, patrons and staff rising and moving toward the exits, and among them she saw a number of men in the clean white tunics of restaurant staff moving with professional, calculated haste, expressions sharp with eagerness and purpose.
Even as she watched, one of the men closed in behind Mandus, the Rhode-sian Fleet Tribune, seized his hair, bent his head back, and cut his throat with swift efficiency.
More excitement made Isana look up. Three more men stood on the ledge above them, crouched and ready to leap. Each wore a white tunic, each bore a short, curved, cruel-looking sword, and steel collars shone upon their throats.
Her own sudden terror destabilized her crafting and plunged her into an ocean of confusion and fear.
"Bernard!" she cried.
The three assassins leapt down upon them.