A Palace Ballroom,


Tellesberg Palace,


City of Tellesberg,


Kingdom of Charis


            Ehdwyrd Howsmyn and Ahlvyno Pawalsyn stood beside the punch bowl and watched the colorful crowd.


            The two men were old friends, and one of their favorite entertainments at formal bowls and parties was to count noses and see who managed to turn up fashionably later than anyone else. Howsmyn's wealth and Pawalsyn's title as Baron Ironhill — and his position as Keeper of the Purse — virtually guaranteed that both of them would be invited to any social gathering. Neither of them were particularly fond of such affairs, especially Howsmyn, but neither of them was foolish enough to think he could have gotten away with avoiding them, either. So they tended to gravitate toward a quiet corner somewhere, sometimes accompanied by a handful of their closer personal friends, and observe the plumage displays of the wealthy, the powerful, and — above all — the foolish.


            "Now there's a gown," Howsmyn murmured, twitching his head unobtrusively in the direction of a matron of middle years who had just sailed majesticallyinto the palace ballroom with what looked like half a dozen marriageable-age daughters bobbing along in her wake. The confection she was wearing must have cost of least enough to feed a family of five for half a year. As such, it was ample evidence of her wealth; unfortunately, it was also ample evidence of her taste.


            "Well," Ironhill observed philosophically, "it may hurt your eyes, but at least Rhaiyan must have collected a pretty pile of marks from her to pay for it. And," he grinned, "speaking as the Crown's tax collector, I'm delighted to see him doing so well!"


            "You really shouldn't remind me on social occasions that you're the enemy," Howsmyn replied.


            "Me?" Ironhill said with artful innocence.


            "Unless it was someone else who just set the new wharf taxes. Oh, and the warehouse inventory duties, too, while I'm thinking about it."


            "But, Ehdwyrd, you're the one who told me that the Kingdom's merchants and manufacturers ought to be willing to pay a little more in order to finance the Navy."


            "Obviously, that represented a moment of temporary insanity on my part," Howsmyn shot back with a chuckle. "Now that I've regained my senses, I've become aware of that hand slipping into my purse again. You know — the one with your rings on it."


            "Ah, but I do it so smoothly you'll hardly even notice the pain. I promise."


            Howsmyn chuckled again, then turned to survey the ballroom once again.


            If pressed, he would have been forced to admit that he found this evening's gala less of a burden than most. His wife had been delighted when the invitations had been delivered, and this time he hadn't even tried to convince her she should go and have a good time while he stayed home with a book. Or perhaps arranged an emergency visit to the dentist, or something else, equally enjoyable. Zhain Howsmyn was the daughter of an earl, whereas Howsmyn had been born a commoner and still hadn't gotten around to acquiring the patent of nobility which his wealth undoubtedly deserved. For the most part, Zhain had absolutely no objection to being plain "Madame Howsmyn," rather than "Lady Whatever," but she did have a much more highly developed sense of the social dynamics of Tellesberg and the Kingdom as a whole.


            Howsmyn was very well aware of just how great an asset his wife was. Not only did they love one another deeply, but she refused to allow him to retreat into the social hermitage which, in many ways, would have suited him far better. Whether he wanted to go to affairs like tonight's or not, he truly couldn't justify avoiding them entirely. A man of his wealth had no choice about that, but Zhain generally saw to it that he attended the ones he had to and gracefully avoided every single one that he could.


            No one on the invitation list could have avoided tonight's formal ball, however. Not when it was being hosted by Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm in a ballroom she'd borrowed from her affianced husband.


            Howsmyn gazed across the room to the thick cluster of exquisitely attired, lavishly bejeweled courtiers gathered around King Cayleb and his bride to be and felt a stab of sympathy as he watched Cayleb smiling, acknowledging greetings, and chatting away as if he were genuinely enjoying himself.


            And he may well be, actually, Howsmyn thought, noting how close to Sharleyan's side Cayleb seemed to be glued. Obviously, no man with any sense was going to just wander off and leave his fiancée standing alone and forlorn at her own party. Cayleb, on the other hand, hadn't even allowed anyone else a dance with her yet. For that matter, Howsmyn rather doubted that anyone could have fitted a hand between the two of them. And, judging from Sharleyan's expression and body language, she was perfectly happy with that state of affairs.


            "I think this is going to work out even better than I'd hoped," Ironhill said very quietly, and Howsmyn glanced back at his taller friend.


            "I assume you're referring to the unfortunate twosome at the bottom of that feeding swarm of krakens?" he said dryly.


            "They do seem to be feeding a bit more aggressively than usual tonight," Ironhill acknowledged. "Hard to blame them, really, I suppose."


            "Oh, on the contrary, I find it very easy to blame them." Howsmyn grimaced. "Have you ever noticed how it's the most useless people who fight hardest to corner the guest of honor at something like this?"


            "I don't know if that's quite fair," Ironhill said, his eyebrows rising at the unusual asperity of Howsmyn's tone. The ironmaster had never had a very high opinion of "court drones," as he was wont to call them, but he normally regarded them with a sort of amused toleration. Tonight, he sounded genuinely disgusted. "Very few of those people have the sort of access to the King that you and I enjoy, Ehdwyrd," he pointed out. "Social occasions like this one are the only real opportunity they have to get the Crown's attention."


            "Oh, I know that." Howsmyn's left hand chopped at the air in a gesture which mingled acceptance of Ironhill's point with impatience. "And I also know that everyone wants to get as close to the Queen as he can, and why. I'm even aware that it's not all simply because people are looking for advantages and opportunities. But still . . . ."