"Even for me, Kay, this is a bit weird."
"It’s brilliant is what it is. Come on, you know you’ll love it."
"Bit public, though, innit?"
"I’m good at public. It’s my forté."
"'Cause you use words like 'for-taaaay'."
"Yes. Exactly because of that. Look, was I or was I not the leader of a revolutionary religious splinter group that saved the entire world from certain destruction?"
"I dunno. Ancient history, that. Done anything else since?"
"It was less than a year ago. And I’ve still got a little something up my sleeve—as it were."
"Oh, go on then. Let’s see what you can do with this snotty little bastard."
"You’ve got the telescope?"
"I’ll be watching! Anyone would think you’re some fancypants actor, not just a toff-turned-Red Jenny."
"I’ll give them all a night to remember. Just keep your eyes on me."
Orlesian masks make impersonation a breeze. Kay Trevelyan already has the bearing and the manners down—it’s all about the utter, unshakeable confidence that you’re the most important creature in any given room, so all he needs to do is channel his great-aunt Lucille. Add his passable Orlesian and a fancy hat, and he could be a scion of any minor noble house from Churneau to Jader.
The dinner Lord Anatole throws in his honour is, at least, entertaining. From his contacts, Kay’s heard the lordling’s had his cook breaking her back for the past week, preparing goat stuffed with orange blossom and love poetry, quail poached in the milk of rare sheep that have never seen the stars, and yet more Orlesian nonsense. Watching the other guests’ variably convincing enjoyment of cheese that tastes of ennui challenges Kay’s ability to keep a straight face.
What’s more, it’s been a while since he was the centre of attention. That, plus the disquieting hum in his left arm, takes him back to his days as Inquisitor. The coin is still in the air as to whether he’s enjoying the nostalgia or just slow in hating it.
"Messere, I hope you enjoyed the feast?" Lord Anatole bobs up beside Kay. Anatole, Kay’s host and mark this evening, is a small, thin man, with dark hair painstakingly pressed into flowing curls that fall to his shoulders. Behind his ivory and gilt mask, his eyes are wide and solicitous.
Kay, standing one side of the ballroom, is busy doing his best impression of an icily unavailable yet intriguingly dashing young Orlesian lord. (He thinks he’s got the eyebrows right, though the set of his shoulders could use practice.) He lifts his chin in acknowledgement.
The little lord leans closer. "But you do not dance, I see?"
Kay inclines his head at the precise angle that indicates gracious self-effacement. "Ah, my lord—I regret I turned my ankle playing at hoops not two weeks ago at Lady Madeleine’s garden party. It pains me deeply not to be able to join you on the floor. But perhaps next time?"
"Indeed, messere!" Lord Anatole draws himself up, quivering with eagerness. "I hope to entertain you and your family at my soirée next month at my little chateau in the Ylenn Basin. And, of course, any mutually beneficial business that may happen to pass between us then would be a serendipity."
Kay winces internally on Lord Anatole’s behalf. He’s worse at the Game than Kay could ever be.
"Oh, naturally," he says, guiding Lord Anatole over toward a quieter corner of the ballroom, below a grand window that gives a magnificent view of the city of Lydes. The city’s domes and spires glow with golden lamplight under the stars. Kay continues, hushed, "Though I confess, I am distressed by certain rumours that have reached my ears recently."
"Regarding a wholesale desertion of your household by your servants. It makes one wonder how a household might continue to be run to an acceptable standard, should it be the case."
Lord Anatole’s expressive eyes widen. "Untrue, messere! Entirely untrue!"
"Oh?" Kay lifts an eyebrow with cool disinterest.
"I beg of you, messere, look around you!" Anatole spreads his hands. "I assure you, my household is amply staffed. Scurrilous rumours are just that—rumours."
Kay lets a smile slide over his face. "Serah, I can’t express my relief. I am so glad to hear you haven’t lost even one servant. My mind is at ease."
"Ah." Lord Anatole’s ears flush bright pink. "Well."
"Well?" Kay tilts his head.
"It would be inaccurate to claim that the household hadn’t made some… unexpected efficiencies of late." Lord Anatole dips his head as if expecting a blow.
"Ah, serah, you have my sympathies."
"I do?" He looks up again.
Leaning forward, Kay lowers his voice to a companionable confidence. "Loyal staff are so difficult to come by. We are both men accustomed to command, are we not? We know how it is. Even those who appear the most dutiful have a strange way of, say, disappearing at the drop of a mask."
A breath of relief escapes Lord Anatole’s lips. "You are so right, my friend!" Now vindicated, he lets his righteous indignation colour his voice. "My chambermaid, Seyrina—she had served me for ten years. And then, only last week, she was gone, my wife’s pearls with her." He tosses his carefully coiffed hair. "By the time three days had past, every other elven servant in my household had vanished too."
Kay tuts, shaking his head. "And no indication why they went, I presume? Or where?"
"Who knows why those damned knife-ears do anything? They’re a different sort of creature to you and I, not bound by reason or sense. As for where, I have only the faintest clue." Lord Anatole’s eyes narrow. "A scrap of paper my cook, a good and faithful Orlesian woman, found half-burned in the fire. A note in Seyrina’s handwriting. All I could make of it was that it mentioned the Tirashan." The lord shudders ostentatiously. "Whatever they may say about Serault’s recent rise in favour, I wouldn’t lower myself to set foot there, and certainly not merely to hunt down a handful of wayward rabbits." He spits the last few words as if he can hardly stand the taste of them in his mouth.
"Serah," Kay says, for the first time that evening drawing his left arm from behind his back. "You cannot conceive how I appreciate your forthrightness. And I can truly say I haven’t met a man with such wit as you in a long, long while." He proffers the fingers of his left hand for a kiss.
Lord Anatole doesn’t disappoint. He grasps the stuffed fingers of Kay’s false left hand—and Andraste smile on him, Kay thinks, for making this part easy.
The man’s posture changes, the wind going out of him, as he realises something is amiss. But his reaction is too slow.
Kay reaches his right hand to his left wrist, where with a flick of his fingers he turns a tiny knob. In the same moment he wrenches his left shoulder back, detaching the false arm where it’s cinched at the elbow.
Lord Anatole is left holding what to all eyes looks like a genuine, silk-gloved hand and lower arm, which—in the sudden silence that has descended over the ballroom as the dancers stop and stare—now sounds like it is ticking.
Kay grins behind his ornate mask and bows ostentatiously. "Compliments of Red Jenny, serah," he says, dropping out of Orlesian. "So you know, dinner was terrible." Lord Anatole’s eyes widen and he recoils. The detached arm falls from his limp fingers. It hits the parquet with a hollow noise.
Before anyone else can react, Kay springs back, cat-like, curling into a high somersault. It carries him backwards, crashing through the glass of the grand window and out into the still air under the stars, two floors above the streets of Lydes.
In the ballroom, the ticking ceases with a pop—as well as a loud, angry buzzing. In the very next moment the night is filled with screaming—the shrill screams of an aristocrat who has just come face to face with an entire false arm’s worth of suddenly emancipated bees.
Out in the night, the sounds of panic from the ballroom mingle with the laughter of a man and a woman, echoing down the side-streets.
"All right, all right—it was brilliant!"
"I told you it would be!"
"I almost pissed myself picturing the look on his horrible face behind that mask!"
"Definitely the best one we’ve done so far."
"Widdle is an actual wizard with explodey things."
"If I still had my hat, I would take it off to your lady-love."
"Lucky that nightsoil cart was there to break your fall. For you, anyway—you fucking reek, y’know."
"Absolutely worth it."
"Can you go jump in the river or something?"
"Only as long as you get the drinks in."
"Ugh, fine. Anything to get you away from my nose. When you get back we’ll figure out the next one."
"I can’t wait."