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Calm Before the Storm

Gwenn’s journal entry, the morning before Marco’s party.

“Well, if you don’t go, Gwenn, I’ll dress myself up as you and go in your stead, darlin’!”

Those words sealed Firiel’s watch order for the night, much to my discredit.

If I’m going to ruin my reputation, the least I can do is ruin it myself. And besides– is it truly ruined if you’re already dead?

I shall have to ask Firiel. Well, maybe Ordune. Someone with a more stringent sense of propriety.

Which leads me to wonder… if Ordune is so proper as to frown disapprovingly whenever I so much as mention Marco… why is he at the Gilded Lily tonight?

I likely do not have to wonder much. If I know him as well as I do… Ordune is looking out for me and the crew. If he’s not putting a stern word into Marco’s ear, I’d be surprised.

If he knew Marco, he’d know that’s a fool’s errand. Better to tell the boy I’m panting, hot, and completely eligible for him. That would turn the boy away in a heartbeat!

I must confess, I’m not much better. Didn’t Ordune tell me I shouldn’t go meet him, as well?

Curiosity. It killed the cat, and it’ll kill me too, most likely.

Ah, I’ll bet you’re wondering by now what happened and why I’m all… tizzy about this Marco fellow. Well.

We had a meeting to discuss our next steps. Emilien wants to be well away from Sava, and his reasoning is sound. It’s getting “hot” here– too hot, with the guard being doubled after the ambush at the Dread Gazebo, and the party later tonight.

Firiel and Ordune agree that staying to recruit nobles at the party and, perhaps more importantly, finish laundering the silver, is a good plan. Firiel made an audacious suggestion that brought a grin to my face– win over the recently-impoverished Lord Tanlin… with his own silver, no less.

Tristram is eager to get to Vilnera and bring down the prison there, but he’s willing to wait out the two days it will take to complete this task.

It was also payday for my crew, which put some money in Emilien’s pocket when I sent him on his assignment tonight.

I decided we would relocate our kit to the Wobbly Lathe while I thought of a plan. Firiel sent Dalen out, with a bar of silver to help him with his travel expenses.

It’s a less than reputable place, but not bad for adventurers. I was still somewhat undecided about the plan. It’s only two days, though– almost a day and a half. Understanding that Emilien plans to spend his time securing our escape route and will not be there– a task he has proven himself in time and again– I made the choice. We’re going to the party.

A party for which we do not, yet, have an invitation, I might add. A party where we could expect Vicar Simon, in all his grief, to attend.

Tris and Ordune delivered the second batch of silver to the smith. Firiel and I went to Lady Venadi’s home to meet Marco and secure an invitation, with my “stupid noble girl” mask firmly in place.

What is it about him that causes me to slip that mask? Is it simply that I’ve been so long out of court that I’ve forgotten how to wear it? It’s difficult to maintain that stupid giggle when you’ve chortled with friends over the gentle hazing of a new recruit, or the way your commanding officer polishes his boots so firmly, his horse has permanent black stains on its sides.

I never liked the mask anyway. I was never good at it– it is a deception that relies on the assumptions of others– that noble girls are bred for beauty and hips, not brains or brawn.

And yet… someone like Lady Venadi. She has never worn that mask, never pretended to be other than an intelligent, strong woman.

Who is currently bound to her infernal master and unable to take action for the good of her own people.

No, I can respect Lady Venadi’s strength, but she has made a grave error in binding herself to her pact. Even to gain a son. Surely there are other ways to acquire a bastard heir, if one truly wanted one.

These words are less than kind about Marco, though they are truth.

Which brings my thoughts back to him. Damnit. He’s quite handsome– I would be lying if I said otherwise! Even now, having seen his true form, he’s a fascination. We met in the parlor that Firiel hates so much, and talked. Flirted, mostly. I’m so naive, I took his words to be sincere enough. He suggested we make a dalliance at the home of a friend he knows in the garden district. Much nicer than the Lathe. More discreet, too. I… did not exactly agree, but he said he would be there, even so. I was flustered and uncertain.

On the way back to the inn, Firiel asked if I was going, voiced her opinion, and sealed her fate as the night watch on our silver. When she suggested going in my stead– even if in jest– my stomach clenched. Some deep-seated impulse within me, probably the territorial nature that originally put the Jaders in power so long ago, rose up, whispering Mine! when she said that. Not a pretty thought, especially about someone over whom I have utterly no claim.

Here is what I learned from meeting with Marco last night:

  • His flirting with me was a ruse, in case others were watching last night. I tried not to be hurt by this. If he knew who I really am, he would likely stop entirely. I will miss his banter.
  • He is bound by his mother’s agreements with his father—including inaction for or against the Regency until the current conflict is decided, win or lose. In no uncertain terms, he explained that, if the Regency falls, he will be free. If the Regent is replaced, he will simply be bound not to take action against that Regent.
  • He can, however, introduce me to the likely lads and ladies at the party tonight. And will do so. With any luck, this will not result in the Harriers all being beheaded.
  • He witnessed what happened at Ilyria, and knows the truth of it. In fact, I want to question him further on this– did he see who wielded that power? Did he perchance see what happened after? We were drowning, swimming for our lives in the aftermath– as awful as it is, I want so much to know if he saw anyone else survive. If there were any little boats or flyers or… anyone.
  • He is not human. Marco is half-demon. Devil? I am not entirely sure of the distinction. In his natural form– which he showed me– he is much the same, but red-skinned, as though he had been exposed to fire, and with great, leathery wings.

I am astounded, impressed, and surprised by my utter lack of revulsion towards him in his native form. Really, isn’t this the ultimate horror, practically designed to terrify young maiden noblewomen? The quintessential specter of “why we do not associate with men whose fathers are unknown”? Dear gods. Life in the Harriers may have ruined Lady Jader for all time.

Instead, I was intrigued and curious about his ability to fly, any other powers he might possess. And, honestly, whether this meant he perceives me as a lesser creature, ultimately unworthy of his attention.

And then. I kissed him. I used the excuse of needing to muss my hair and makeup before returning over the bridge– one of the guards made note of me on my way to the rendez-vous, and he would surely notice if I looked completely unscathed on my way home.

It was an excuse, though. I wanted to kiss him. Tomorrow, we may be captured and put to death– the hanging body of Louis was certainly a chilling reminder of that. If that is going to happen… I wanted that kiss.

So. There it is. My first kiss, and from a devil. I was relieved when Marco said my hair and face were unmussed; it gave me an excuse to ask him to kiss me again.

The second kiss was much more…. devilish.

He muttered something about going elsewhere after our meeting. When I pressed, I realized he was planning to spend the rest of the evening at the Gilded Lily. I tried not to be offended, but really? I was near-swooning from a single kiss, while his mind was probably already wandering to the delicacies to be sampled at Lady Rosanna’s establishment.

He asked my name. I told him he would find it in the Lineages, if he was clever enough to deduce it. We exchanged a few further words, then I left. I don’t honestly know or care if he’ll figure out which fine young lady of his age matches my description. It’s likely he will overlook the names of deceased ladies, and focus only on the “hunting guide” portion of the rolls. If so, my secret is safe. If not… I’ll probably lose his support. I almost lost it last night when he realized I’m part of the rebellion.

Well. I can’t be other than what I am.

I returned to the Lathe early and spoke to Emilien, Ordune, and Tris. I gave Emilien the very-welcome assignment of going to the Lily to find out what Marco’s preferences are. If my kisses are going to be so easily overlooked, I’d at least like to know what he’s thinking of instead! Ordune decided to head out there himself, later. Tristram was working on his chemical compounds, but I interrupted him to learn more of his pact.

If Lady Venadi’s pact could affect someone against their knowledge or will, could Tristram’s? I cannot be like Lady Venadi and Marco, commanded by an entity I have never spoken with. Tris’ master, it seems, did not impose on him such contracts, however, instead giving him a more freeform flow of power. Good.

Tristram’s master is some kind of being called Rastaban. His pact is quite rare, and the only thing he’s ever been tasked with was slaying the priest of Tiamat. Very well– I asked him to inform us if his pact compels him again. Certainly, we all serve different agendas at times. There is no reason we cannot work together to serve them well.

I am faced with a strange decision, though not imminently. Before he died, my father made all public decisions with the thought that, some day, he may be standing before the Assembly to argue why he would be the best choice for Regent. He never wanted to feel that he was unworthy to stand there, that he had anything he would be unable to defend if he were.

There are things I have done that are not defensible, but the odds are so very low that I might ever face the Assembly as anything other than a war criminal. Still… it is something I keep in mind, so in that regard, I am bound as surely as Tristram is bound by his pact, as surely as Firiel is bound by Lady Medarr, as surely as Marco is bound by his parents. I am bound by a future council of my peers, by the structure of government that I have been raised in, that I believe in, that I hold dear and holy.

The same government that hunts us, that may have killed Rob, that slaughtered Ilyria.

Someday, I may need to decide if I am a conqueror or a liberator. Am I doing this because the Regent is corrupt and wrong? Am I merely taking steps to take over that rulership? To install a kinder, more fair Regent, whether that is me or someone else?

If I am planning a bid for the Regency myself, then I must continue to walk my father’s path, careful to make choices I can defend when the time comes. If I plan to vie for the Regency, I must step back from Marco, and I must continue to keep some space between myself and my crew.

If I hope to install someone else, perhaps a figure head, then I am more free to act as I see fit. Certainly, that path also frees me to pursue a more stringent vengeance against the church. Whatever that thing is that brought the fire…. it must be dealt with. We must stop it. I do not know if a Regent Gwenneffylasse can do so.

Or is there more to this? There is something fundamentally wrong in the world if the Regency can be so easily corrupted, if the church of Erathis can so easily be turned to evil ends. Ultimately, power rests in the hands of such a small group of people, most of whom are disconnected from those they rule. We have met so many commoners, for whom decisions made by nobles far removed from them have impacted their lives forever. Is it right that we live in such a society? Would it not be better for every man and woman to have a voice in how they are governed, and by whom?

We should not live in a world where Dalen must choose between his family’s security or donning armor and weapons against other farmboys like himself. Perhaps military service is a boon for some, but we are now overrun with farmers’ sons who must return to simpler lives. Some will be happy to do so. Others will have the faces of their former enemies haunting their dreams forever. We do a disservice to these young men by forcing them to serve, then spitting them back into the world with so little reward or thanks. For the losers, it is even worse– not a one of the Harriers sleeps soundly, I know. We will have the fire and the light searing our dreams for the rest of our lives.

Well, the party is tonight, and the mid-morning bustle of the artisan district is helping to keep me awake, at least. Tris will be relieving me in a few hours, but I’m grateful for the quiet that allows me to write my thoughts here.

I will admit to my own fears about tonight. I fear it will be difficult to remain unrecognized. The Vicar or Monsignore may decide to confront us all. Firiel may be caught. Ordune will almost certainly be recognized, and we must have a plan for deflecting that attention when it comes. Our plan to meet and endear ourselves to the lesser nobles will be compromised if it is known we’re the ones who robbed Tanlin and slew the Monsignore. And yet… to those who show themselves sympathetic to the rebellion? I wish them to know that the Harriers are here, among them, working towards their interests. I want to give them a sign they can use, a symbol, a talisman to make them bold enough to act when the time is right.

I also fear for my own social standing, as ridiculous as it is to fear that. I fear that the only dress I own is too outdated, that my manners are not in vogue– or that they are inappropriate for this more country audience. I fear Marco will be unimpressed by my appearance– is that not the fear of every girl, no matter how pretty she is, or how much time and care she takes with her toilette?

I have already decided that the “stupid Jenna” mask will not serve tonight, so the lords and ladies of this region will be meeting Jenna and Evan Stone, intelligent, vibrant nobles with an agenda and a plan for making it happen. It is a risk– the Monsignore will see me as a threat, and Lord Tanlin may recognize my voice, though probably not my demeanor.

If I cannot win Marco’s heart, I can at least win those of his peers. It will be enough if we come from this with even one ally who can take action to help us.

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