"The draught is quite terrible. Close those windows, my good man, and draw the curtains," Countess Vorpinski said to a man in a plain black suit standing by the wall.
"Yes, milady," said an unexpectedly familiar voice, bland and neutral, and Alys's eyes widened as Captain Illyan went to carry out the orders. What was he doing here out of uniform, pretending to be a servant? Even the Countess would not have presumed to give orders to a man in an officer's uniform, but in that plain suit, Illyan could easily have been an upper servant, too senior to wear livery, but not too senior to attend to the guests' comfort at the party. He closed the windows and drew the curtains with smooth, unobtrusive gestures, then stood by the wall again, so still that even Alys barely seemed to see him.
She watched out for him as the evening wore on, and saw him pouring drinks for a group of laughing girls who ignored him as if he were a machine, opening doors for elderly Counts who evidently didn't pay much attention to the current General Staff, and fetching and carrying for any number of dowagers. Each time, she felt a nagging sense of wrongness. A man she treated as an equal should not be serving at a party. But it wasn't until the end of the evening that she managed to corner him.
"You've been busy," she said drily.
"My lady." He bowed to her a little more deeply than usual, and Alys's eyebrows went up.
"What's going on? Why are you pretending to be a servant?" she demanded, and then realised that she'd sounded exactly like Countess Vorpinski giving him orders. From the tiny flicker of his eyes, Illyan recognised the similarity too.
"I was not," he said, a little sharply. "I bought a new suit." Alys winced.
"But," he continued, "since the opportunity arose, I have been observing the Vor. It appears that up to eighty percent of people here have never troubled to learn my face. If I'm in full uniform, they recognise me by my insignia and my position, but without them, I am entirely invisible until they want another drink. Of course," he added, his eyes glinting, "I did learn this kind of invisibility from Negri himself. It was interesting to see how far I could take it."
"You're playing with us," she said accusingly.
"Learning my place, my lady." His voice did not drip with irony. It didn't need to.
"Something happened." She frowned at him. "What is it, Simon?"
"Do you know who did notice, though?" he went on, not reacting to her question. "Of the twenty percent of people here who recognised me out of uniform, almost none were Vor. Only you, and Aral, and some military acquaintances, among the Vor. The proles noticed, though. Only one non-Vor here mistook me for a servant."
"Perhaps they're just not as accustomed to giving orders to servants," Alys said. It was a constant source of friction here: some of the parvenus and offworlders were over-familiar or rude to the servants, and it made everyone's job harder. Only last week she'd had to despatch Cordelia to call on a certain Betan cultural attaché and explain to her that when she insisted that the maids sit down and drink tea with her and chat, the poor girls then spent the next hour trying to catch up on their work.
"One or two, perhaps. But the rest knew me. Some even engaged me in conversation." He gave a grim smile. "And one other person noticed. I tried six times to induce Lord Vorstyles to give me an order. I sent the other servants away and stood at hand when he had a request, and every time, he went wide around me and found a different servant. He knew who I was."
As Alys looked around, she saw a pair of young, athletic-looking servants from the ImpSec pool escorting Lord Vorstyles quietly from the room.
"What did he do? If I may ask?"
"Oh, we've been sniffing around after him for weeks over certain financial irregularities, money being slipped to fund extremist groups, but I wasn't sure whether he was personally involved. But given the rest of the evening's data, I feel that an innocent man would have given me orders like the other Vor. He's not military, he doesn't know me from work. Only a man with a guilty conscience would have remembered exactly who I was."
"You're arresting him on those grounds alone?"
Illyan shrugged. "Detaining him for questioning. If our interviews produce no results, we'll let him go with all due apologies. But he's a coward. He'll confess." His voice was very certain. Alys eyed him thoughtfully.
"His wife must be innocent, though," she said. "I saw her giving you orders."
"Oh no," Illyan said. "She's guilty too, though I doubt we can touch her. And she's braver, or more foolish. She's the one who told me she was glad I knew my place. Pretending to joke, of course, but she meant it."
Alys's nostrils flared. She looked around the ballroom, then said abruptly, "Dance with me."
She knew she had misstepped even before Illyan tensed, but he said merely, in a cool and distant voice, "Very well, my lady."
Alys could think of nothing to say to smooth over the mistake, but she softened her body language, becoming more girlish, harmless, friendly. Illyan's eyes narrowed fractionally, as if she were a book written in large print that he found slightly distasteful, and Alys gave up on that approach. He took her in the proper hold, and Alys drew on two decades' experience at surviving social upsets to move naturally, calmly, as if all was well. They revolved around the ballroom as neatly as a pair of clockwork dancers on a music box.
As they swirled past Countess Vorpinski and then Lady Vorstyles, Alys saw them both looking as startled and dismayed as she could have wished, but it was no longer a satisfying victory. Illyan's expression did not change. She said nothing, and finally he broke the silence.
"Do you think I need your social backing, my lady?" he demanded just as he turned her into a complex spin.
Alys tripped on her own feet and fumbled the turn. He caught her coolly and drew her back into the dance. Annoyed, she shot back, "Do you think I need your security backing, Captain?"
His hand tightened on her shoulder.
"Yes," she continued. "I do, and you do, when you step into this arena. But I asked you to dance because I was angry that you had been slighted, as you are my friend." She whirled into a second turn, flawlessly, and this time when he caught her, his grip was softer, more human. But not relaxed.
They danced on through the next bars of the music, and Alys let the familiar steps calm her. She'd rarely seen Illyan upset like this; he cultivated his expressionless exterior so well even she could sometimes believe it was not a mask. She caught his eye, and this time he met her gaze.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It's just--it's been a long time since I've been made so strongly aware that I am a prole amongst the Vor."
The music swelled to a close, and Alys dropped into the formal curtsey. Illyan bowed to her, a little ironically, and helped her up.
"Come and sit down," she said quietly. "You've been on your feet all evening."
He followed her to a secluded sofa and sat beside her without a word. "My grandfather was a bandit and a cattle-thief," Alys began, thinking it out as she spoke. "My grandmother slept with half the ghem-lords in the city. My uncle tossed a coin and supported Ezar in the civil war. Now I keep Gregor's house in order for him." She smoothed her skirts out on the sofa. "Cordelia says the Vor caste is an illusion. If she's right, then I'm one of the chief magicians. I take the rules from our ancestors and I make them into a shape that fits the world today."
"And where do I fit, in your rules?" he asked wearily.
"You don't. You stand outside them, and you always have. You're not Vor, but you're more powerful than any man in this room save two, and you can enter the game anywhere you choose, as servant or as master. Nobody else here can do that. I certainly can't."
He gave a little sigh. "Yes," he said. "I am outside." He leaned back against the cushions, and for a moment a flicker of loneliness showed in his eyes.
Alys put her hand on his. "For the formal games, yes," she said. "But even I know they're not all there is to life."
He took her hand and kissed it briefly, lips dry and warm against her skin. "I'll remember that," he murmured, and Alys's eyes widened at his choice of words. "Thank you, Alys."