Sjei, after considerable deliberation, picked out an apple from the cart and paid the groveling Fifth Estate market vendor with carefully and precisely measured coins. He then turned, holding the apple gingerly in his left hand as he looked across the square to the building occupying his thoughts.
He smiled slightly, baring a minimum of his teeth. He felt a kinship with Majority House. It, too, was unassuming in the extreme if one might be forgiven for describing mediocrity in imperative terms. The subatria was narrow and high, appearing to be almost hidden behind flanks of vertical shops and market stalls in the plaza. That those shops were either owned or controlled by the Modalis was an open secret, and the height of the walls and location of the shops were a part of a carefully orchestrated design for its defense and safekeeping. The avatria floating above it was small and unassuming, dwarfed in comparison to the monumental extravagances of the surrounding houses, each of which vied for supremacy of ostentation. That was also to Sjei's liking: the idea of hiding in plain sight appealed to him.
Sjei lifted the apple and sank his teeth into its crisp flesh, pulling it away with a satisfying snapping sound. The plaza was filled with elves moving in the labyrinthine spaces between the stalls of the market. A cross section of the Empire was well represented there: First Estate Imperators anxious to get through the crowds and on with their business in The Ministries; Second Estate masters and mistresses of the Aether simply taking from rather than bargaining with the Fourth Estate vendors who were dependent upon their magic to maintain the yield of their client Fifth Estate farms; Third Estate noblewomen on their shopping expeditions with their slaves and guardians in tow . . . all these moved through the plaza with their eyes casting about or staring at their feet. Not one of them gave so much as a casual glance upward toward the unassuming building that held their fate within its common-looking walls.
Sjei tore another large bite from the apple, his grin allowing some of the juice to run down the side of his chin. He was more than a member of the Modalis; he was the
, the Quartermaster whose charge was to conduct the meetings of the Modalis. Some had more rank and some had more seniority in the House Forum, but he alone controlled the agenda of those meetings, steering the discussion in the direction he felt necessary. It was a power that required finesse and a subtle touch. It also was a power that was best used sparingly, tactically, and emphatically.
Today, he knew, was a day when all his skills would be required. Playing the Modalis council members was a dangerous game with stakes deadly high, swift, and permanent. Still, one didn't begin with the Modalis unless one was sure all his pieces were in place and that all the dice were covered.
Besides, he loved a good game.
“Kyori-Xiuchi,” Sjei said with quiet dignity. “You have summoned this assembly. It is for you to state your cause.”
In truth, Sjei had exerted considerable effort in influencing Kyori into calling this gathering. He could only hope the doddering old patriarch of the Occuran would actually remember the reason he had been given for summoning everyone to the Modalis forum.
Smoke from the incense braziers drifted through the large room. To Sjei, the smell was cloying, but it seemed to please Liau Nyenjei, the Minister of Thought, who was very much enamored with such recent fads. The walls were partially hidden behind layers of shadow and smoke. Only a single shaft of light from the open circle in the apex of the domed ceiling illuminated the center of the room. The elven figures sat in their appointed chairs facing toward one another just within the shadows around the bright center of the floorâas they each did in their dealings as the Modalis.
Kyori stood very slowly.
Play your part, you old fool,
“A most troubling report has reached the Occuran regarding the Western Provinces,” Kyori began. “It seems that there has been a disruption of the Aether Wells across most of the province. Several Houses fell completely, their magic failing and their Impress slaves released from the bondage of the House Altars.”
A low murmur rumbled through the forum space from the other Modalis masters.
“As control and trade of the Aether is the lifeblood of our Order, this constitutes a threat to the Modalis as well as the Empire at largeâmaking our interests allied with the Imperial Will. I therefore forward the discussion and resolution of this matter before the assembled . . .”
“I beg a question.”
Sjei frowned. It was Wejon Rei, the Fifth High Priest of the Myrdin-dai and councillor to Master K'chok Valerisom, the Grand Master of their Order. He was a stooped, round-shouldered elf, shorter than most, who had an unfortunate tendency to interrupt others with what he believed were more important or pertinent thoughts of his own. His voice, however, was like honey: smooth, rich, inviting, and occasionally overpowering. It did not help that the Myrdin-dai were still basking in the favor of the Emperor, as Wejon seemed talented at keeping his particular brand of sunshine blinding the members of the Imperial Court. The darker truths of the disaster in the Western Provinces were still effectively hidden from the Emperor's eyes. So Wejon could afford to interrupt the senior Kyori of his rival Order without fear of reprisal for the time being.
If Wejon had no fear of the Occuran, then he certainly had no fear of opposing Sjei.
“The Myrdin-dai have already addressed this matter,” Wejon said with smiling condescension. “We were first aware of this incident in the Provinces and our illustrious Grand Master Valerisom took decisive action that should serve our interests. Our Iblisi brothers . . .”
Sjei could feel Kyori stiffen. The Iblisi were allied with Kyori's own Order. Wejon was rubbing the aging patriarch's face in the recent changes of favor at court.
“. . . investigated the matter at our request and have since provided us a most satisfactory report in all its particulars. The reports of trouble in the Provinces have been greatly exaggerated and the problem has been fully contained through the mutual efforts of the Myrdin-dai and the Iblisi
I put forward the dismissal of this discussion and the adjournment of this forum.”
Wejon turned toward Sjei, flashing a syrupy smile as he bowed.
Kyori glared at the short elf opposite him.
“I am compelled to remind our brother Wejon Rei,” Sjei said with a courteous nod of his own, “that no member of the forum may put forward either discussion or action before the assembly when begging a question.”
Wejon's smile dimmed even as his eyes brightened.
“Our brother Kyori holds the attention of this forum still and . . .”
“Then I would urge this forum,” Wejon's voice cut across the hall, “to reject my brother's suggestion that the great members of the Modalis should concern themselves with a matter that has already been resolved!”
Sjei's eyes narrowed. The Myrdin-dai must be very sure of themselves if Wejon thinks he can interrupt the Sinechai of the Modalis.
You're getting careless,
It will cost you dearly.
“I beg a question!”
Sjei turned toward the high, nasal voice two seats to his left.
“Your question, Brother Liau?” Sjei said, turning away from Wejon. Liau Nyenjei was the Director of the Ministry of Thought and, ironically, rather slow-witted on his own but his timing was impeccable.
“Unlike our brother,” Liau tossed a sneering nod in the direction of Wejon, “I actually
have a question. Is there any evidence of what actually happened out in the Provinces? All due respect to our brother and the incomparable thoroughness of the Iblisi, the failure of Aether Wells over such a wide area as we have come to understand warrants more consideration than vague and simple assurances from our brother Myrdin-dai . . .”
Wejon jumped to his feet, his black eyes flashing in the column of light striking down from above. “Does our brother insult me thus? Am I to endure this outrage without the satisfaction of his blood?”
Liau did not move from his chair but only turned his head slightly in the direction of Wejon. “No matter how strong the wind, the stars remain fixed. Blow all you like, Wejon, but it is unbiased confirmation that we lack.”
Wejon reached for the handle of his sword.
“If the assembly will indulge me . . . I have evidence to present in the matter.”
Sjei turned his solid-black eyes languorously toward Ch'dak Vaijan. He was the Imperial Emissary from the Ministry of Lawâa middle-level position, but his family's influence was beyond reproach. He was the one member of the Modalis that everyone in the forum knew to be beyond influence.
He was the first elf Sjei had learned to manipulate.
“Will Kyori yield the forum for evidence?” Sjei asked the elder Occuran who was still standing, waiting to present the rest of his motion.
“For evidence,” Kyori said carefully.
Sjei nodded then turned back to Ch'dak. “The forum is yielded to Ch'dak Vaijan for evidence.”
“What is the nature of this so-called âevidence'?” Wejon hissed through his bared, sharpened teeth.
Ch'dak stood and stepped into the light in the center of the forum. “The best evidence. I have a witness.”
“A witness?” Wejon mocked. “What witness could you possibly present?”
“One who was there at the very heart of what happened,” Ch'dak continued. He lifted his hand, gesturing to the guardians at either side of the forum doors. “One who can tell us who is responsible for what we believe to be the worst disaster to befall our Empire in over a hundred years. One who comes to warn us of even greater disasters to be visited upon our Empire unless we act quickly and decisively. One who can tell us the truth of who is responsible . . . and help us to know what must be done to stop them. Hear her now!”
The doors at the end of the hall opened and a thin elven figure with a bowed head walked into the forum. It was a female elf, young by the look of her build, but her face was careworn. She lifted her head as she stopped in the center of the circle of light.
“I am Tsi-Shebin, daughter of Sha-Timuran of the fallen House of Timuran,” the young girl said, her voice clear and her black eyes shining in the light. “I was there.”
HE WORE THE SAME STAINED and tattered dress that she had been discovered in amid the ruins of her household. Some of the rips in the cloth seemed a bit too strategically located to have occurred entirely by accident, showing off her young figure to better advantage.
She put them there herself,
And the stains are still in the cloth. Surely the brothers of the council are not so gullible as to think she's worn this same dress for the last two months since her House fell. Her face is even smudged! Still, it
an excellent bit of theater . . . and just look at them; she's got their sympathies already.
Ch'dak stepped to the edge of the light, his features cast in stark relief. His voice was firm but had a soft edge to it. “Tell us, child, what happened to you in the Western Provinces.”
Tsi-Shebin raised her head, lifting her chin with seemingly enormous effort. “My father took us some years ago to establish our House in the Western Provinces. He was a devout citizen of Rhonas. We moved there so that my father might better serve the Emperor's Will.”
Sjei smiled inwardly.
Everyone who knew him reported that ShaTimuran was a crass, opportunistic fool with a violent temper and delusions of grandeur far above his Estate. He was generally despised at court and only moved to the frontier when no other form of easier social advance was available to him.
Ch'dak continued. “And where do you reside now?”
Sjei glanced at Ch'dak with a slight frown. The answer to that question might prove awkward to the Quartermaster.
“I am currently living off the graces of my remaining relatives here in town. My home is gone, our estate is in ruins, and I have lost everything in the fall of my father's House from the wanton and utter destruction of our Aether Well.”
Sjei raised an eyebrow, drawing in a relieved breath. Shebin had not only avoided divulging her living arrangements but had brought old Ch'dak back to the point of the performance. This young girl was proving more adept at this game than he had hoped. In the next moment he realized that he would have to reevaluate her strengths in this regardâand take care to never underestimate her again.
Ch'dak nodded at the response. “And you were there when your House fell?”
“Yes, my lord,” Shebin's whisper carried clearly throughout the hall.