An Exquisite Dance
Alys Brangwin hated aristocrats. There had been a swarm of them crop up on Motavia in the latter half of the second millennium AW, when for about three hundred years every mayor wanted to be a king, every warlord a knight, and every town council a court of dukes, counts, barons, and whatnot. Most of that nonsense was over two hundred years dead and gone by AW 2277, but there were some places and people who were slow to catch on... which, she supposed, was fairly typical of aristocrats in general. And it was just Alys's luck that she'd wound up in Estilla.
She supposed it was being an orphan that really made her short on patience with the nobility. Alys's parents had been killed by highwaymen when she was fourteen, and she'd been raised by the hunter Galf from that point. Her place in the world had much more to do with him... and to her own efforts... than it did to Alex and Lysa Brangwin. This was not a background which taught sympathy for the kind of idiot who believed they were something special just because Mommy or Daddy was rich or important, and the entire concept of aristocracy was designed to perpetuate that particular delusion. Who cared if you were descended from Alis bloody Landale, she thought, if you yourself were a worthless layabout?
The idea was doubly laughable in Estilla, which thrived because it was built around the only major oasis between Zema and Monsen, making it the only choice for a trading link between the eastern and western halves of the continent. The only titles of nobility that truly fit were those of merchant prince and robber baron...and the real trade-lords of Motavia like Rane Juael in Zema or Gareth Hart in Aiedo would have snapped up these fish in a second if given a reason.
Still and all, the Estillan aristocracy had money, and that meant they could pay for the services of the Hunter's Guild. And ultimately, Alys wasn't going to refuse to help someone...especially for pay...just because they insisted on putting a dopey title in front of their name.
She took another look at herself in the mirror.
Now this, on the other hand, should have me scurrying back to Aiedo.
There was a soft scratch at the door, a very subdued knock.
"Yes?" Alys snapped.
The door opened just far enough for a mouselike girl in maid's apron and cap to stick her head in.
"Um...Miss Brangwin, I was sent to ask if you needed any help?"
Alys groaned. She was late, of course. Pure cowardice, that's what it was. No use putting it off any longer, she thought.
"No; I'm ready. Let's get this over with."
The mouselike girl led her down the hall to a small anteroom, where Alys's partner was waiting for her. They could hear strains of music wafting up from the floor below.
"I was beginning to worry," Hysk said. "The music began over ten minutes ago."
"Hasn't anyone ever heard of being fashionably late?"
Hysk, Alys decided, looked positively dapper. His jet black tunic edged with gold braid, and gray breeches tucked into gleamingly polished black boots fit his broad-shouldered frame well, the color suiting the Motavian's blue fur, while the flowing mantle lent him the illusion of greater height. The native was not a hunter; he was instead a soldier of his civilization, the best translation of his role being "Guardian" or "Protector." Unlike Alys, he didn't work for money; he was her partner in order to learn new methods and tactics in and out of combat from the Parmanian hunters. Alys was finding herself benefiting from her new Motavian partner with the same kind of gains: different abilities to learn from, and a different cultural background that offered fresh perspectives.
Of course, with a short, hooked yellow beak instead of a nose and mouth, it was hard to tell if Hysk was laughing at her. His tufted ears weren't twitching, though, so she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. The fur-covered faces of the native race and their perfectly round red eyes were almost impossible to read, but Alys had learned to look elsewhere for the cues that would have been facial expressions on a Parmanian.
"Alys, I was under the impression that a party was a social event. That scowl of yours is guaranteed to keep everyone back a good ten paces, which likely will cut down on the chances for conversation, to say nothing of dancing."
"I feel like an idiot. Whose idea was this, anyway?"
"Our client's. I truly do not understand your concern, though. I think you look quite fetching for a Parmanian."
"I look like a kid playing dress-up." Which wasn't such a bad analogy since she was, in fact, dressed up... in a ball gown. Their client had managed to arrange for an outfit in Alys's trademark colors: a bodice and net skirt of crimson silk worn over a black underskirt, cinched at the waist with white ribbons worn sashlike, only they trailed down the front rather than at the side. Long gloves, also white, came up past the elbow and were as thin and tight as a second layer of skin. Instead of her customary boots, she wore thin white dancing slippers, hidden beneath the floor- length gown. "Besides which, how am I supposed to do my job with just this?"
She tapped the jeweled hilt of the tiny, delicate dagger whose sheath was hung from the ribbons at her waist. In this kind of social situation, it was all the weapon she could get away with carrying. At least Hysk got to carry a dress sword with halfway decent reach. Not that he'd find it any easier; his favored style of fighting was to hurl himself into battle with a short-handled axe in each hand, lashing out in an offensive whirlwind that crushed through enemy defenses. The thrust-and-parry style of battle his smallsword was designed for was diametrically opposed to his tactics. Alys's, too, when you got down to it.
"No one is asking you to confront a horde of armed bandits."
"Too bad. At this point I'd like a chance to work off a little frustration."
"I hear that dancing is excellent exercise."
"How is it that there's one Motavian on the entire planet with a sardonic wit, and I had to end up partnered with him?"
"Well, one doesn't get a reputation for success like yours, Alys, without some luck being involved."
"And putting up with you is a way of balancing the scales?" she riposted, then held up a hand to forestall a response. "Sorry; that one went a little far, I know. I'm just..." She shook her head in frustration. "This is not my kind of setting, and I didn't expect it when we took the job."
"In that case, why did you accept? We could have simply turned our client down and returned to the Guild."
"Pride," she admitted, "which in this case goeth before making a darned fool out of myself. I'd signed us up to do this job and I didn't want to back out after we'd come all the way here. It would have made me look like I was afraid that I wasn't good enough, that I didn't think I could do the job. Not in front of Baron Cromwell. Like I said, pride."
"Well, despite your misgivings I do think you fit the part quite well thus far."
"Thanks; so do you. Can you dance?"
"A number of my people's reels, jigs, and village round-dances, but not the kind they're likely to have here."
"Good," Alys said.
"At least one of us has a good excuse to sit out the dancing and keep watch over the ballroom. I'll be dancing, which will give me a closer perspective but rarely offer the chance to check out much of anyone but my dance partner and maybe the people right near me. It's a little tough to try and investigate a crime, let alone prevent one, when one's major immediate concern is to dodge the stomping feet of the man I'm dancing with."
"It's too bad we couldn't have you play the bait."
"That would be one way to get the thief in range of my toothpick, but what can you do with a robber who announces when and where they'll steal a specific item? Other than the obvious and not wear the item in question. But no. Trust the rich not to accept a solution which actually makes sense."
Frankly, Alys thought it all sounded like some kind of giant game. The thief dutifully announced the target and circumstances of the intended crime, and the victim, equally dutifully, made sure the conditions were ideal by being where the thief named with the object in question. First it had been Baroness LeMornai's amberine bracelet, taken off her wrist at an afternoon concert. Then it had been Archon Vair's sword, believed by some to be the legendary Sword of Ango, snatched while he'd been attending his weekly card game at the Griffin Club.
Tonight, it was the sion-and-emerald necklace to be worn by the Damosel Tristiane LeMornai to the ball. Alys wondered if the thief had a grudge against the LeMornais, singling them out for two of three thefts so far. Or it could just be that the LeMornai women had a fetish for wearing gaudy and valuable items in public.
She looked down at herself one last time, still trying to figure out what she'd done wrong to find herself in this situation, and summoned up the courage that had made her one of Motavia's most famous hunters.
"All right, Hysk; I don't think the desert is going to open up and swallow the whole town in time to save us, so let's go down."
He offered her his arm; she took it while wondering where he'd learned Parmanian formal customs. They left the anteroom, went down the upstairs main hall, and out onto the landing overlooking the ballroom. At the other end was a curtained archway similar to that they'd entered by, this one leading towards the front hall. In this ballroom, everyone got the chance to make a grand entrance.
A grand staircase led from the landing down to the ballroom floor; at the top stood a white-haired servant in stiffly formal livery. From the landing Alys could see all the way from her side of the room to the two-story-tall floor-to-ceiling windows without obstruction. A gigantic chandelier sent golden, glittering light reflected through its myriad of crystals and turned night into day. The floor was a mosaic of polished stone tiles, white mottled with specks of black, which threw back the light. Along one side wall refreshment tables stood covered in crisp white linen, offering trays of attractively arranged canapes and sweetmeats and large crystal bowls filled with frothy, varicolored punch. Opposite them, a seven-piece group of musicians played on a raised dais, their current selection a minuet that dated back centuries. Amid all this spectacle were the guests... over one hundred of Estilla's petty nobility, politicians, wealthy traders, and hangers-on, literally "everyone who was everyone" in the oasis town dressed in their most dazzling finery, dancing, eating, talking, and generally conducting the business of seeing and being seen... playing audience to their own importance.
Remember, Alys told herself, these are paying customers. They don't deserve to be robbed just because they like a lot of silly rituals. Which, she supposed, was really no sillier than anyone else's social rituals. And besides, if nobody went about the business of making money, there wouldn't be any jobs for hunters, and Alys would have to find something much more boring to do with her life.
Not that she would have minded boring, just then.
As she and Hysk began to descend the stairs, the servant cried out in a bold, carrying voice, "Mr. Hysk, of Azhar, and Miss Alys Brangwin." The announcement of each arrival's name gave them the chance to make their entrance in turn, letting themselves be seen descending to the ballroom floor. Since most eyes had at least turned to look, Alys devoted the reflexes and dexterity honed to a razor's edge by years of battle against Motavia's deadliest creatures to the much more challenging task of not tripping over her skirt and falling down the stairs.
At the end of their descent, they were greeted by the party's host, their client. His name was Theron, Baron Cromwell, and he wore formal wear much like Hysk's only in a deep blue just on the border between royal and midnight. Over six feet tall and thirty-five years old, he was dashingly handsome in that square-jawed, rugged way that was supposed to imply backbone, courage, and strength of character. Somewhat surprisingly, from what Alys had learned he actually seemed to possess these qualities. He'd inherited his title at the age of twenty-two and with it an encumbered estate and a flagging trade concern. Through diligent attention to business he was now one of Estilla's richest traders. He threw lavish entertainments like this ball because he had the money to do so.
He'd contacted the Hunter's Guild because he didn't want his guests to suffer the minor inconvenience of being robbed blind under his roof. Like any good merchant, he preferred robbery in the marketplace. Avoiding the humiliating loss of face that went with having one's guests abused under one's own roof also played a part, Alys suspected.
"Alys, Hysk; so good of you to join us," he said breezily, as if it hadn't all been his own doing. As a trader, Cromwell did have to be a salesman, and any successful salesman could lie through his teeth or convey false impressions without batting an eyelash. "I must say that you look especially radiant, Alys."
"Thank you," she managed to say without sarcasm or any further comment.
She was on the job now.
"It's a pleasure to be here," Hysk handled the public chatter. "You have a lovely home."
"One can but try... but I mustn't monopolize your time. Please feel free to circulate. The guests of honor have not yet arrived." He meant the LeMornais, of course. "Oh, and Hysk, might I recommend the makreth nuts? I'm given to understand they're a favorite among your people."
Hysk's ears twitched.
"You were given to understand correctly."
"Wonderful. Please, do enjoy yourselves."
He bowed, then turned to greet the next arriving guests without any indication to those nearby that Alys was in his employ. It would have been very classless (and another loss of face) for Cromwell to have hired guards at the ball, which was why Alys and Hysk were in formal wear. On the other hand, he'd also insisted that they use their real names.
"People are going to have heard of me," Alys had pointed out when he'd explained his scheme to them. "That's what having a reputation means."
"All the better, then. It would take a very audacious or a very stupid thief to attempt a robbery under the nose of the famous hunter, Alys Brangwin."
"It'll be a lot harder to catch the thief if he or she doesn't do anything."
"I'm not hiring you to catch the thief," the baron had replied easily. "I'm hiring you to prevent my ball from becoming a laughingstock that would hurt my social and financial interests. If the thief sees you and slinks away without doing anything at all, then all the better. If, on the other hand, you are forced to stop him or her in the act, well, people expect spontaneous acts of heroism from you. It becomes good gossip instead of bad, though I'd prefer to avoid spectacle altogether."
Moving through the ballroom, Alys could see the irony in that line which had escaped her at that time. That anyone who put on a gala like this could talk with a straight face about avoiding spectacle actually brought a smile to her lips for the first time that night.
Ordinarily Cromwell would have taken the time to introduce his guest to several other people so she wouldn't be socially isolated, but he hadn't bothered with Alys. As he'd correctly surmised, while there were a few high-sticklers who sniffed at the presence of a "vulger monster-slayer" in their exalted midst, the majority of guests were eager to cadge invitations to meet Alys. Hysk was not famous, but a Motavian at a society party was a novelty, and novelties always attracted attention. Neither of them lacked for conversation.
"Baron Veldar LeMornai, Baroness Ysia LeMornai, and Damosel Tristiane LeMornai!" the herald's voice announced, and Alys turned to look. It was always nice to be able to recognize whom she was supposed to protect. The Baron was a tall, thin man with a patrician face and wispy gray hair, his wife much younger than he, plump with girlish gold curls. The girl, who looked to be around eighteen, resembled her mother greatly, with equally golden hair and a certain fleshiness of feature that implied she'd gain weight as she aged. The famous necklace was blazingly apparent.
"Ah, so the sacrifice has arrived."
"Excuse me?" Alys glanced back to her current partner. Viceroy Dorner was an elegantly beautiful man with long silver hair wearing a sky-blue tunic. He reminded Alys somewhat of her old friend, the wizard Rune Walsh.
"Surely you've heard? The fair Damosel Tristiane is to be the next victim of the Phantom Hand." Dorner's voice was laden with mockery. "No doubt she finds it thrilling to be the subject of such exciting attentions before her sentence begins."
Alys blinked. The "Phantom Hand"? Was she dealing with a juvenile nitwit? And did everyone at the ball know the thief was going to strike?
"Sentence?" she asked. "Did she commit some crime?" She found it hard to believe.
The viceroy laughed and spun Alys through the dance's next figure. "Only that of being a merchant lord's young heiress! She's to wed the Baron Corler, to unite their houses in marriage and more importantly their trading concerns in partnership. That's Corler over to your right, wearing green and black."
Baron Corler was clearly a contemporary of Tristiane's father, around sixty, with a hangdog look and jowly, pockmarked face. He was not the type who'd appeal to a teenaged girl, not unless he was blessed with a personality completely at odds with his looks and she had the maturity to see it. Alys considered neither likely.
"When is the wedding?"
"In two weeks. So you see, being the object of Estilla's mysterious thief may be the last excitement the fair damosel enjoys for some time."
When the dance ended, Alys sought out Hysk. She found him chatting with a blue-haired young man, a handful of green-tipped nuts in his furry paw.
"Our host was right," he told her. "The makreth nuts are excellent." He turned to the young man and added, "The secret, Archon Vair, is to pick them just before the shell completely hardens. You can then bite off the soft tip and suck out the meat. Parmanians generally pick them too early or too late, most likely because they don't taste very good to you at any stage."
Vair grinned boyishly... a fitting adjective, because he was barely out of adolescence.
"I'll have to remember that, if I'm ever called on to serve a Motavian guest." He turned to Alys. "You must be the Eight-Stroke Sword! I've heard so many stories about you!"
She considered a variety of cutting remarks, then gave up. It would be like kicking a puppy.
"Thank you. Hopefully they were some of the better ones."
"Oh, yes, I've always wanted to..." He was interrupted when the music changed. "I'm sorry, Miss Brangwin, but I'm promised to someone for this waltz."
The hunters watched him cross the floor. They weren't particularly interested in him, but since it was Tristiane whom he was to partner, it was hard not to watch.
"So that was the second victim."
"Mm-hm," Hysk agreed, nibbling a nut.
"Did he say anything useful?"
"Very little. The letter from the 'Phantom Hand' was delivered to the card table at his club about an hour before the theft. When he was leaving, he went into the cloakroom to get his cape, a cloth was flung over his head, he was pushed into a wall, and the sword was snatched sheath and all from his belt."
"That was good work, getting him to talk."
"Not really. Apparently he found it all immensely thrilling and couldn't wait to tell anyone who hadn't already heard the tale. I'd have had to be very clever or very rude not to have heard it. Your younglings are quite silly."
"They learn it from their parents," Alys sighed. "This entire town is silly, at least at the top. The Phantom Hand, for Heaven's sake!"
"Ah, I see. I'd wondered about that. I thought it might just be me, not being a native speaker."
"No, it sounds just as absurd to me."
She watched the dancers spin and twirl by in each other's arms while the lilting strains of music drifted through the hall. At least the guests appeared to be having fun; you couldn't really fault people for that. Vair and Tristiane were all but laughing as he led her through the steps. Then his foot landed on the hem of her gown and there was a loud ripping sound as stitches burst and a flounce was torn half off. The boy was contrite and apologetic, the girl distraught, but the Baroness LeMornai quickly took things in hand, escorting her daughter from the floor.
"Such things happen," Hysk noted philosophically.
"There'll be a withdrawing room where she can pin up her dress," Alys said. Indeed, the Baroness had taken something, presumably sewing materials, from her wrist-reticule, gave it to her daughter, and pointed the girl to a side door on the far side of the dance floor.
A sharp rending noise distracted Alys. She looked down and saw one of Hysk's booted hindpaws firmly planted on her net overskirt, which was now torn.
"What was that for?"
"You were intending to follow her, weren't you? Now you have an excuse. And it isn't as if you liked the dress anyway."
She'd have sworn there was a twinkle in his eye, but wild scorpii could have trampled her before she'd admit that there had been a yelp of irritation in her own voice. Besides, Hysk was right. The thief was more likely to strike while his or her proposed victim was isolated, not on the middle of the dance floor where even if Tristiane did not notice a feather-light touch on her neck there would be many witnesses who might.
It took some time for Alys to work her way around the dance floor, though, so that the girl had quite a head start on her. Tristiane had been so far ahead that when Alys left by the same door the girl was nowhere in sight. Alys tried one side door and then a second in search of her before a high-pitched squeal settled the matter. She ran down the corridor, all but tripping over her gown, and burst into a room decorated with sculptures, Native vases, and other bric-a-brac. There were two windows set with fancy stained-glass panes, one of which stood open. Tristiane herself stood in the center of the room, wide-eyed and feebly clutching at her sand-white throat.
Her bare throat.
"Oh, damn it!" Alys swore.
The girl jumped at Alys's loud and rather blunt speaking and keeled over in a dead faint.
"I feel like I've stepped into a bad Gothic," Alys sighed, and turned to fetch help. A maidservant met her in the corridor.
"I heard a cry, Miss. Is everything all right?"
"No, it isn't. I need you to fetch several people for me from the ballroom. Can you do that?"
"Yes, ma'am." There was nothing like the tone of authority to turn someone from a miss into a ma'am.
"Good. Tell Baron Cromwell and my partner Hysk... he's the Motavian... that Alys Brangwin needs them here. Oh, and they'd better bring along Tristiane LeMornai's parents."
The girl bobbed a curtsey and darted off. Alys pinned up her torn dress, which would have looked absurd, while she waited. It didn't take long for a little group of five people to come trooping in.
"Oh, my baby!" the Baroness exclaimed at seeing her daughter lying prone. She rushed to the girl's side and waved a ceramic vial of smelling salts under Tristiane's nose.
"What's been happening here?" Cromwell asked.
"About what you'd expect," Alys said wryly.
"The Phantom Hand has struck again!" breathed Archon Vair, wide-eyed. Since he wasn't one of those she'd asked to be summoned, she glanced at Hysk.
"I brought him along," the Motavian said. "I thought he'd be useful."
"Yeah; I should have thought of that."
Tristiane gave a low groan.
"It's all right, dear. We're here now."
"Pardon me," Alys said, "but we're going to need to hear her story."
The Baroness rounded on her.
"My daughter has been put through quite enough! I will not have her bullied into answering a lot of questions just to satisfy your vulgar curiosity!"
Alys glanced at Cromwell. He looked unhappy, but he spoke up.
"Miss Brangwin's curiosity is professional rather than personal, Baroness. She and her partner are hunters from the Guild in Aiedo, hired by me to deal with this crime."
"Hired hunters!" the Baroness exclaimed, preventing Alys from explaining that Hysk wasn't quite a hunter.
"You invited paid spies to a ball, Cromwell?" Baron LeMornai spoke up for the first time. "That's in the worst of taste. Believe me that there shall be repurcussions."
"He did it to protect your family's health and property, Baron," Hysk noted.
"And a fine job of it you've done!" It was apparently the mother's turn. "My daughter has been assaulted and her necklace stolen!"
"Actually, I'm kind of hoping to have that back for you in a few minutes. The story?" Alys prompted the girl.
"Well, that is, I came in here to pin up my torn flounce, and there was a masked man! He gave a horribly evil laugh and ripped the necklace from my throat. Then he threw open that window, there, and escaped into the night even as I was screaming in terror." She rubbed at her neck again.
Alys looked at Hysk.
"I'd say that just about covers it."
"Quite." His ears twitched.
Without even having to discuss it, they both began to search the room.
"What are you doing?" Vair wanted to know.
"Searching for evidence, it looks like," Cromwell suggested.
"Well...in a manner of speaking," Alys said.
The search took less than two minutes; it was actually Hysk who nearly got his arm stuck in a fancy porcelain vase but fished out the glittering necklace.
"But...what is that doing there?" exclaimed Baron LeMornai.
"Well, she had to put it somewhere," Hysk explained, almost apologetically. "She couldn't just throw it out the window."
Cromwell, at least, got it. He looked immediately at the girl.
"I was pretty sure because the faint was faked," Alys said, "but the story clinched it. There was no mark on her neck where the necklace had supposedly been yanked away."
"She was shamming her faint?"
"The breathing will give it away if you aren't paying attention to slowing it down."
"How dare you!" the Baroness exclaimed.
"You have no right to impugn her honor!" That was Vair.
"Kvan, don't let her say such things," added the accused herself.
"Are you accusing my daughter of being the Phantom Hand? Of stealing from her own mother?" the Baron came in last, probably because the necklace's presence was making him think, at least a little.
She waited just long enough for Vair and the LeMornais to reclaim their smug looks of superiority before continuing.
"She's not the Phantom Hand because there's more than one, and I'm not accusing her of stealing because nothing's been stolen."
"Nothing stolen!" yelped the Baroness. "What about my bracelet?"
"And my sword!" chimed in Vair.
Hysk's ears were once again twitching. Alys wondered what part of that he had found so funny.
"I wouldn't call those stolen," she said. "Well, maybe the bracelet; does the Baroness own that outright?"
"It is a family heirloom," the Baron said archly, "like the necklace."
"All right, so that would be theft."
"Miss Brangwin, if you do not stop these insinuations at once, I shall be forced to demand satisfaction."
Alys glared at Vair. This farce was becoming absurd.
"Oh, shut up. If you still want to challenge me after I'm done, then I'll step into any dueling circle you name and kick your pretty-boy butt clear to Aiedo. Until then, keep quiet!"
Her gaze swept the room.
"I'll put it into words of one syllable. Baron LeMornai sold Tristiane in marriage to make a business deal. She wants to marry Vair, here. They need money to elope. The Baroness is sympathetic. They cook up the scheme to raise funds. They issue threats with those juvenile letters. They fake thefts. Once they convert the Baron's heirloom jewels into cash, they can run off. Am I missing anything?" Her gaze lashed them again. The expressions ranged from guilt-stricken to thunderstruck, except of course for Hysk's.
"No? Good. I'd strongly suggest calling off the wedding in private now, Baron LeMornai, before Tristiane and your wife can come up with a scheme that's even sillier and more embarrassing than this one."
"Besides," Cromwell said, clapping LeMornai on the back, "at least Archon Vair, here, is descended from a good family. She might have fallen in love with her sketch-table master or someone equally unsuitable."
The elder Baron looked sulky and truculent, but he was obviously thinking it over. Good enough, Alys decided. She was getting paid to stop a scandal from breaking out at the ball, not to play matchmaker for the kids.
"You people work it out from here," she said, heading for the door. "I'm going to get out of this get-up and go to bed. Cromwell, you'll be sending our fee to the Guild in the usual way?"
"Good. Let's go, Hysk."
"Actually, Alys," he replied mildly, "I'd like to return to the ball."
"What?" He always found ways to surprise her.
His brows twitched in a hint of a smile.
"I enjoy watching Parmanian society. You dance even when you are standing still," he said with a nod back towards the withdrawing room where the LeMornais were still debating marriage arrangements. "Besides, Damosel Sena Crysallin liked my ears."