“The leaders of the Consortium always weigh risks versus potential gain.”
“Stop moving around! You are like a little kid,” Fae complains and leans closer with the brush in her hand.
“I hate make-up. Don't smear that stuff on my face! Why should I go through such lengths if I want to rebuff them anyway?” I retort and push the elf away. Fae and Kiara are taking too much pleasure in dressing me up.
“Because we invested a lot of time into your outfit!” Kiara explains. “We had to make it loose enough to hide armour beneath it. At the same time, you need to fulfil the dress code at the party. That wasn't easy, since you insist on wearing that barrette of yours. We had to order a dress just for the occasion.” The beastwoman reaches for my hair, but I slap her hand away.
“Hands off! The barrette is holy,” I rebuff her.
“Is it something like your mask or the tattoo?” Fae asks.
“Something like that.” I reach for the amulet around my neck. The mask was too clunky for a party like this one, so I had to reshape it into an amulet. There is no way that I'll stumble into this party without everything I can bring to bear. Since weapons aren't allowed, I also reshaped my spear into a thin mesh which covers my lower body and my legs.
It took a long time for my two female advisers to approve of the result.
“But you aren't half as intimidating without the eye shadow! It's destroying your whole style. We went for the evil sorceress/master magician look. Without the eye shadow, you just look like a Goth princess who is rebelling against her father.” Kiara holds a mirror in front of me.
Fae sighs and stores the brush away. “I guess that you'll simply have to endure the advances of your suitors.”
I raise my hands and close my eyes. “Okay! Just make it quick! And if I get more than five proposals, you two are out of a job.”
The elf hurries to apply the eye shadow. It takes over ten minutes, but in the end I have to pay them my respects. The make-up really does wonders for my haughty expression. I study myself in the mirror. The black and white dress fits my hair and my fingernails. There is also golden embroidery to match my golden barrette. I look like a dark queen. Almost.
Fae claps her hands. “Now smile. It'll look gorgeous!”
“I don't intend to.” Not fulfilling their wish, I turn and head out of my private quarters.
Fae follows me in her white dress, while Kiara chose a purely black one. They said that it would be good to show that they belong to me. At least Tristen and Brian look more like guards. Each party guest is allowed to bring two guards, so Fae and Kiara have to play my maids.
We meet the two men in my office. Both are clad in black armour. Brian chose it as the official uniform of Illum's guard. During the week since we hired the guardsmen, the paladin took over their management and somehow evolved into my chief of security.
I study the two men in their plate armour. “You two look better than me. Why can't I wear weapons and armour?”
“Because you are the guest. You aren't supposed to be there for battle. We'll also stay behind once you are inside the ballroom. Guards aren't allowed to wander around. We have to stay close to the walls,” Tristen explains.
I just wanted to tease him, but he turned it around by taking me seriously. Grumbling, I head for the balcony. “I just wonder why the human prince has his birthday party in Unis. Don't the humans have their own capital? And what was his name again?”
“Gregor!” They answer in unison.
Fae clears her throat. “They have, but every race entertains their own localities in Unis. It's much easier to host large events here, especially when the host invites people from other races. Unis has everything easily available.”
I nod and step onto the balcony. It's already night, but Unis is brightly illuminated. From up here, the city looks like any modern town when it’s dark. I wonder if they are powering all the magelights with a power stone, or if they have other means.
Next to the government complex is a large building. It's hard to miss, since several spotlights are pointed at the walls. That's where we have to go. I call up Illum's interface and give the order to land us directly in front of the entrance. There is no reason to leave our hosts waiting.
My feet lift off the ground and we float out into the night. “I hope that all of you have the antidotes which Dorver bought for us. It would suck to die of poisoned food.”
“We should really hire a few professional healers.” Brian doesn't sound pleased.
I sigh. “They have some weird code of conduct in their guild. It's not possible to hire them with money alone. I am playing with the thought of abducting a healer from the Empire. The ones in the Alliance seem to be tied up in politics.”
Fae snorts. “That's how the nobility of the Alliance stays in power. They guide their lands with relatively loose reins, but they control what's really important. Life.”
“At least we got some adventurers with healing abilities. They are good enough for now.” We touch the paved ground amidst a crowd of people. The area in front of the large building is laid out with red velvet. Guards are keeping the crowd off of the 'welcome carpet'. I took the liberty to land us right in the middle of it, since I had no wish to force myself through the spectators.
Normally, a cart would roll up at the end of the carpet and a page would guide the guests into the ballroom. I clearly interrupted the procedure. The haughtily dressed servant who was waiting at the end of the carpet has to hurry all the way back to our position.
The brunette woman bows and clutches a board with a list to her chest. Fae hands her our invitation and the servant crosses me from her list. She gestures towards the entrance. “After you, Miss Joyce.”
For a moment, I consider protesting. The servant addressed me like a free citizen. Is this some sort of power game? Was the servant ordered to treat me below my rank? If so, not responding to it would show that I see myself as not worthy of being paid the proper amount of respect. Doing so in front of dozens of witnesses could cause repercussions later on.
I glare at the woman, but she doesn't falter. Seeing no other choice, I turn away and walk to the entrance. “The host of this party must lack the money to employ people who know the proper protocol.” I speak loud and clearly to make sure that I am heard.
The servant has to run in order to overtake me. She opens the door and bows deeply. “My apologies, Mistress Joyce, ruler of Illum.”
I ignore her and stride through the door into an entrance hall. Behind it is a much larger ballroom which is filled with people. Somehow, I expected that the prince would greet us personally, but we are being treated like any other guest. It's probably impossible to greet several hundred guests personally. If the prince greeted me personally, it would mean that I am someone who is at least equal to him.
Which I am. I was recognized as the ruler of Illum. I admit that Illum is small in terms of population, so it's impossible for a large country to treat me on equal footing. But I am at the very least high nobility and famous, which means that a word of greeting can be expected.
Fae leans over. “They are testing us.”
“I know,” I hiss. “And in a very rude way.”
Tristen clears his throat. “We'll wait over there at the wall. I think it gives us the best view on the ballroom. Please try to stay within our field of view and don't wander around too quickly. We need time to catch up.”
I smile and watch as the two of them depart, then I link arms with Fae. “We have to find myself a partner before they can separate us. Honestly, why did I allow Kiara to persuade me to do this?”
“I did not!” the beastwoman protests. “Persuasion looks totally different. I gave you the invitation and said something stupid, stupid. That's all.”
“You said stupid twice.”
“Intentionally!” She huffs.
Fae points at a round bar with a servant who serves drinks. “Why don't we check that out?” Fae pulls me towards her target.
“Kiara, love! It's been a long time.”
We aren't even twenty metres into the ballroom when Kiara gets practically abducted by a hunk of a man. His beard is like a mane and this ears are a little rounded. A lion-kin? Kiara replies with a forced smile. “General Utlov, it has been indeed a long time.”
He completely ignores me and begins to question Kiara about her current occupation. I want to protest, but Fae pinches my side and guides me away. “Beastmen have a very rigid social structure. We shouldn't interfere when Kiara is challenged by someone higher up the ladder. She could lose social status among her kind and that's something she certainly won't thank us for.”
I whistle, frustrated. “Ten metres into the room and one of my shields is already gone. How long will it take for you to disappear?”
At least we reach the bar without further interruptions. Fae gets herself some wine, while I settle for fruit juice. The decision was made as soon as I spotted a bottle with the same stuff which I got addicted to when I started my journey on Illum.
Fae leans over. “Do you know how expensive that grapple juice is? It's one gold per bottle!”
I wave her off and pay without questioning the price. As if I would care. “I have been drinking several crates of it since I left Hormundad. What's the point in being rich if I have to eat bad food? Though, I am running low. At some point I'll have to restock.”
We manage to chat a little bit, before I spot the next problem in the crowd. And it's high profile. “Fae, do you know an elf with the name Alias?”
“Yes, he is the king's spymaster.”
“Ah, he is heading directly towards us,” I inform her.
Fae's expression distorts in distaste and she turns in the indicated direction. “Now I know why you gave all of us an amulet to block mental attacks. Why do you know him?”
“Oh, we met in Hormundad. He had a certain problem and requested my help. I wonder what he needs this time.” I take a sip from the excellent fruit juice. Fae called it grapple.
Alias reaches us and grants me a heart warming smile, but his mojo is immediately extinguished by the tattoo on my shoulder. A slight sting in the back of my brain extinguishes any positive feelings towards him.
I use the glass to hide my mouth and whisper, “Do that again and you'll be in a world of pain.”
He sighs. “I am sorry. My ability is always active to a certain degree. I am not here to seduce you.”
Fae raises an eyebrow and looks at me.
I smile. “He tried to use his glamour on me. Almost ended up with a dagger in his heart.”
Alias crosses his arms in front of his chest. “I am seeking you out because of something else, enchantress. Do you know that a certain dubious individual bought a lot of spacial chests from your company?”
The corner of my mouth twitches involuntarily, but the glass covered it up. He almost had me there. “I suppose that such transactions are unavoidable. My company doesn't have access to the Alliance's criminal records. But I can give you insight into my company's records, if you can convince me that this individual is dangerous.”
A good lie always includes a little initiative. He is trying to extract information. For example, if I slip up and admit that the criminal in question is from the Sociocrathy, I would have a problem. But if I assume that Alliance records would have prevented the situation, then I give off the image of being willing to help and show that I know nothing of his case.
“That wouldn't have helped. The man in question was from the Sociocrathy,” the elf informs me. He turns his attention to Fae. “By the way, I wasn't aware that you have the Forest Princess working for you.”
I nod and try to sound surprised. “Yes, Fae. That's the second time that someone mentioned this nickname. Could you explain that? I thought that I hired a totally normal adventurer.”
Of course, I knew from the start that Fae at least knows someone important. I doubt that a normal, run-of-the-mill adventurer could send information home where it would be immediately paid attention to.
Fae gulps down her glass of wine. “My dead uncle was the king's brother, so I am twenty-eighth in line to the king's throne. This vague chance at the throne and my achievement as a scout on the battlefield earned me the nickname, Forest Princess.”
Alias shakes his finger at Fae. “I am afraid that you are twenty-sixth. Your information is outdated. The king purged most of the Finguld family, which got you rid of two distant cousins. Congratulations.”
Fae snorts. “I dread the day at which I ascend to the single digits. Life expectancy declines rapidly from then on.”