"Absolutely not," Stocke said.
"Stocke, I'm asking this as your friend," Rosch said. "Please don't make me ask it as your commanding officer."
"We both know how little that actually means," Stocke said, testing the edge of a knife with his thumb. He looked at it with dissatisfaction, re-sheathed it, and set it down in the left of the two neat piles on the table in front of him. "And I can't think of much I'd enjoy less than playing the dancing bear for a pack of Hugo's cronies."
"Well, you're going to have to eventually. Lieuten— Prime Minister Raul has been hounding me since you came back."
Stocke gave him a completely expressionless look.
"I had to pull a lot of strings to get you reinstated, all right? So now everyone's clamoring to meet you, and— look, you've always been better at this political garbage than me—"
Rosch stopped. He was at the edge of that delicate silence that stretched between the two of them all too often these days.
"So you need to trot me out to show I was worth the favor," Stocke said, pulling out yet another knife from somewhere and studying the blade closely. "And whatever I do will reflect on you, and by extension, the entire reform government."
"Right. So all you need to do is be civil for one evening, make a good impression, and convince them you're—" Rosch stopped again.
"Not going to sell Alistel out to Granorg?" Stocke said, quietly.
It had been... well, easier before. There had been Rosch, the one who was good with people, and Stocke, the one who understood them. Stocke had always had a head for thinking above his pay grade, and for all his standoffishness, Rosch knew there were a surprising number of couples that wouldn't still be together without his advice. He'd never questioned Heiss's motives in poaching Stocke for Specint; Rosch hadn't liked it, but it made sense to put a man like that in espionage, and he'd folded on enough good hands only to find that Stocke had been holding a pair of threes to know the man could lie with the best.
The problem, of course, was that when Rosch found himself faced with a dilemma like, "I found out my best friend is the amnesiac prince of Granorg and everything I thought I knew about him is a lie," his first instinct was to ask Stocke for advice.
"Granorg is our ally now," Rosch said, and Stocke snorted, sheathing the knife and slipping it back into his boot.
It wasn't as if anyone really knew. But the story of the princess and her knight had spread too far and too fast, and then Stocke had disappeared, and that had been a nightmare to explain to Raul without giving too much away. Seventy years of bad blood between the nations didn't just go away in six months; there were those to whom a man who had fought against Alistel and for a Granorgite princess was untrustworthy by definition, regardless of what Alistel might have been doing at the time. And it was turning out, to Rosch's annoyance, that if you fired all of those people, there wouldn't be enough people who knew the filing systems and where the brooms were kept to keep the government running.
"You wouldn't be in this position if you hadn't insisted on promoting me while I was gone," Stocke said.
"I told you, that was Raul. It was all I could do to talk him down to colonel."
"One party," Rosch said, pleading. "Make small talk for a few hours, and then leave. You can be polite for that long. You talked the king of Cygnus around, didn't you?"
"I insulted him and threw a fireball at his head," Stocke said.
That did, admittedly, sound like Stocke.
Rosch fell back to his defenses. "If you won't come, I'll need to let the Prime Minister know. He asked me to confirm with you in person."
"Doesn't sound like I have much of a choice," Stocke said, holding up a knife with one finger to test the balance. "Either I attend, or the infighting worsens, I watch Alistel collapse into civil war, and I have to go anyway to prevent it. Tell Raul I'll be there."
"Glad to hear it."
Rosch paused in the doorway. "Oh, there's one other thing," he said, trying to make it sound like an afterthought. "You'll need to wear dress uniform."
Rosch hurried out so he wouldn't have to see the look on Stocke's face.
Rosch had heard that the dress uniforms for generals were designed so that the wearer could fight in them. And maybe that was true, if the wearer was Field Marshal Viola. Rosch, though, was a mere mortal, and had enough trouble not stepping on the hem of his robes.
Stocke, in the rather more restrained field officer uniform, currently looked fully capable of committing murder no matter what he was wearing.
It wasn't as if it looked bad on him. The armor wasn't too much more than he usually wore, and the gold-embroidered blue-on-blue of the tabard and cape suited him well enough.
"The statue looked good," Rosch said. "Nice rendition of Viola. And of the Prophet too, of course. It'll be good to see her getting some credit."
"Stop trying to distract me, Rosch," Stocke said. It wasn't quite a growl.
"Well, somebody has to. If you go in looking like that, they'll think you'll murder them in their beds."
"I won't," Stocke said. Rosch was about to ask which he meant when the elevator clanked to a halt.
Stocke's glower vanished as suddenly and completely as if the switch that opened the door had dropped a mask over his face as well.
Alistel Castle didn't have ballrooms, of course— balls were a luxury of the decadent monarchists, born from the blood and tears of the common people. It simply had well-appointed multi-purpose rooms available for reservation for prayer services and commemorative receptions on historically important dates, which had refreshments, music, and sometimes dancing and were invariably attended by high officers in gold-filigreed dress armor and civilian officials in silk waistcoats.
Stocke had always called them ballrooms, which was, in retrospect, fairly damning.
One of those civilian officials was already gliding toward them.
"General Rosch! I'm glad to see you could make it," said the Minister of Agriculture. "Will your lovely wife be joining us this evening?"
Of course the first person he'd have to deal with would be Shaw.
"She had a surgery to oversee," Rosch said stiffly. He was pretty sure she'd scheduled it on purpose, too.
"Such a loss. And this must be the famous Colonel Stocke."
"Right," Rosch said. "Stocke, this is Agriculture Minister Shaw." He tried to give Stocke a glance of warning, but Stocke wasn't looking at him.
Shaw was old guard, the kind of politician who had licked Hugo's boots and then claimed to be against him all along as soon as it was obvious the alliance troops would win, and had a personality so greasy that if you lit his hair on fire, he could pass for a cheap candle. He seemed to think that if he acted unctuous enough, everyone would forget how hard he'd pushed for the invasion of Granorg. The best Rosch could say for him was that he was only most of what was wrong with Alistel.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Minister," Stocke said, offering a gloved hand.
Rosch had seen Shaw try to treat handshakes as an exercise in dominance before, but apparently he wasn't stupid enough to try it this time. Too bad; it would have been funny.
"Home safe after six months presumed dead! That must set some sort of record, Colonel," Shaw said.
Stocke's smile reached his eyes in a way that, in Rosch's experience, usually meant someone else at the card table was going to lose a lot of money. "I'm afraid not. The men of Rosch's brigade were gone for eight. I come in a distant second."
"My, General," Shaw said, "your commands have the most extraordinary luck." Rosch was pretty sure there was a barb in that, somewhere.
"Rosch Brigade was ordered into a killbox. It took far more than luck to get out of that alive," Stocke said. Rosch looked at him sharply— an argument about that would not exactly be a politic way to start the evening— but Stocke's face was still as open, inviting, and unreadable as a blank sheet of paper.
Shaw didn't seem to notice. "And what about you, Colonel Stocke?" he said, his voice more oily than ever. "Your disappearance has been the talk of the castle ever since you returned. I don't suppose you could enlighten us...?"
"That's classified," Stocke said, and for a moment almost sounded like himself. Then the polite mask was back; it was beginning to give Rosch the heebie-jeebies. "National secrets, the usual."
"Whose?" Shaw said, and barked a laugh.
Stocke chuckled, and that was downright terrifying.
"Now, Colonel, are you sure you can't even give us a hint? Off the record, of course," Shaw added, glancing at Rosch. "We wouldn't breathe a word, I'm sure."
"My apologies," Stocke said, smiling again, "but I'm afraid that my return from the dead will have to remain a mystery."
Thankfully, Shaw drifted away soon after, fading into the back as another group of partygoers descended on them like feral bush lizards on a sheep carcass. Rosch made his own escape after a few introductions, pleading the need to fetch drinks and feeling slightly guilty about it. Oh well— Stocke seemed to have it handled, and if he didn't, Rosch probably wouldn't know anyway until he'd already hauled off and stabbed someone.
One of the nice things about the war ending was that the wine you could get in Alistel was a lot better now. Rosch had a feeling he was going to need it.
He'd never really gotten the hang of insinuating himself subtly into these kinds of conversations, so when he returned with two glasses of wine— a dry white from southern Granorg for himself, and a sweeter red for Stocke— he settled for barging. Or tried to, at least.
"Ah, General Rosch! Just the man we were talking about!"
He didn't dislike Quercus. He didn't. Quercus was a well-informed and passionate man and an excellent pick on Raul's part for Minister of Trade, and Rosch was going to keep reminding himself of that until he stopped finding the man screamingly annoying.
"Nothing too bad, I hope," Rosch said. "Here's your drink, Stocke."
"Thanks," said Stocke, carefully slipping the wineglass from Rosch's left hand. As amazing a piece of technology as the Gauntlet was, it didn't have great traction on glass.
"Why, Colonel!" Quercus said. "Do be careful not to lose any fingers!"
Rosch gave Quercus a blank look until the minister's laugh petered out.
Stocke turned that disturbingly believable smile on Rosch. "Major Alatus was telling me about your wedding. It sounds like my untimely death made me miss even more than I knew."
A woman in a major's colors— one of the new ones, Rosch thought, promoted to fill gaps in the command structure left by death and desertion during the war— tittered a laugh.
Much more softly, Stocke said, "I do wish I could have been there."
"Wasn't your fault," Rosch said, keeping his voice light, conscious of the eyes on them. "Sonja and I would have liked you there, but we would have liked a small ceremony, too, and that sure wasn't in the cards."
"It sounds like I missed the social event of the year," Stocke said, smiling again slightly. "A few years, really."
"It wasn't as much as that," Rosch said, trying not to wince at the memory. The whole event had spiraled hopelessly out of his control, as a general's wedding was a prime excuse for the kind of diplomatic hobnobbing that everyone seemed to be doing these days. It had turned into a week-long gauntlet of receptions and rehearsals and dinners and parties, and by the time he and Sonja had finally gone home together they'd been so exhausted that they'd just gone straight to sleep.
"Envious, Colonel?" Minister Quercus interrupted. "I'm sure as an unattached man like myself, you must dream of a ceremony as impressive as the General's."
Rosch closed his eyes and braced for the scathing reply. At least Quercus wasn't the worst person here Stocke could mortally offend.
"Nothing like that," Stocke said, smiling ruefully and taking a sip of his wine. "You'd be amazed how much less ambitious you become when you grow up in the kind of family that would accept nothing short of a national holiday and a parade down Main Street."
Rosch choked on his wine.
"Ah!" said Quercus, amid some polite chuckles. "Then your family are...?"
"Were, mostly," Stocke said, shrugging. "It's an old story to an economist, I'm sure. A few deaths, some mismanagement, and by the time I was eighteen there was no inheritance left for me and all their plans were in the dust, so I joined the army. It was a bit of a relief, frankly."
Rosch stared at him. There was nothing. Just that slight, relaxed smile— polite, but not a glimmer of insincerity. Rosch realized he was already half-trying to convince himself it had been a coincidence, because Stocke could not possibly have actually implied what Rosch thought he had just implied in a room containing half of Alistel's government.
"What business were they in, if I may?" said Quercus, who in Rosch's experience had never even heard of the concept of leaving well enough alone.
"Land management," Stocke said.
Rosch reassured them that he was fine, his drink had just gone down the wrong way, but agreed that yes, he would like to sit down for a few minutes.
Rosch, who suddenly found himself vividly recalling an old propaganda poster showing a woman in a crown holding out a bundle of flowers with a rafflesia vine hidden in it and "HER WORDS HIDE EVIL" in lurid yellow capitals underneath, suspected he was not particularly convincing.
Stocke might be the fascinating new enigma that everyone had come to sound out, but a rank like "General" meant that even with a distraction, there would always be people at an event like this waiting to pounce on Rosch and delicately suggest that he might find it in his heart to pave the way for some minor matter of important government policy to get the attention it obviously deserved. He couldn't actually say it had been easier back when command had just been about killing enough of the other side to stop them from killing his, but it had at least involved less being earnestly talked at about bewilderingly specific financial problems because he had an office down the hall from Raul's.
Today it was something about pensions for road maintenance crews, which the mysteriously-ranked civil servant was trying her best to spin as a military issue for his benefit, and behind her, someone he recognized as Captain Lorelai from Personnel was waiting impatiently for her to run out of breath.
She was well into the third paragraph of a game attempt to convince him that wear and tear on thaumachines from crossing wheel ruts was one of the most outstanding threats to Alistel's national security when he noticed that on the other side of the room, Stocke was deep in conversation with the Ministers of Health and Public Works.
Rosch hastily excused himself, promising that he'd be back in a few minutes, and that if she sent his staff a copy of her proposal, he'd make sure it got to Raul's desk. He didn't have the heart to mention the drifts of paper that were, as always, already there.
"Ah, Stocke, there you are!" he announced loudly as he descended on the group. Being a large man in plate mail had its benefits when it came to navigating crowds. "Can I borrow you for a moment?" he said, and didn't wait for an answer before putting an arm around Stocke's shoulders and steering him toward an alcove.
Stocke went along with the tide with a look of polite confusion that evaporated the moment they stepped out of sight.
Before Rosch could open his mouth, Stocke said, "Hold out your left arm and hold still." He pulled something evil-looking and metallic out of his pocket, and Rosch, previous concerns suddenly forgotten, pulled his arm against his chest in self-defense.
"Stocke," Rosch said, "what in the name of all the gods do you think you're doing?"
"Saving your life," Stocke growled. "And we won't get another chance, so give me your arm."
The thing about being friends with Stocke was that, sooner or later, you had to start taking this kind of thing at his word. Rosch reluctantly extended the Gauntlet, and tried not to look as Stocke pried a service panel near the elbow open.
Rosch hated Gauntlet maintenance. It was like watching himself have surgery that didn't even have the decency to hurt. And which was currently being done by someone with no medical training, but he really didn’t want to think about that part right now.
"You wanted to talk to me about Ruushan and Salix," Stocke said, not looking up.
"I did?" Rosch said. "Ow! Right." Whatever the hell Stocke was doing to his arm was sending electric twinges through the nerves of his shoulder, which did not make it any easier to think. "Stocke, don't you know who those two are? Ruushan is—"
"A former secretary of Hugo's who Raul appointed as Minister of Health to appease the conservative faction, because that's where Raul thought he'd do the least damage," Stocke said. Were those wire strippers he'd just pulled out of his pocket? "And Salix and the rest of the Public Works department have been figureheads for the Thaumatech Engineering Corps for decades." His mouth thinned, and he glanced up. "People would notice if I avoided the Restorationists, Rosch. And they'll notice even more if you show up to chaperone every time I'm near one of them. Leave it."
Stocke twisted something, and Rosch's entire shoulder went numb for a moment. "You sure did your homework," Rosch said, wincing.
"This isn't my first time at one of these," Stocke said. "A lot of the faces have changed since Raul took over, but fewer than you might think."
"Guess it does sound like Specint to have you spy on your own government," Rosch said, as a stabbing phantom pain shot through where his hand would have been.
Stocke went very, very still, and Rosch felt himself go red as his brain caught up with his mouth.
After slightly too long, Stocke said, "It wasn't on Heiss's orders." He held a wire carefully in place with one hand as he slipped something out of another pocket.
"Then why were— is that a soldering iron? Stocke, what the hell—"
"I said hold still."
"I sure hope you know what you're doing," Rosch said, closing his eyes, "because if you don't, Sonja's going to kill both of us."
Stocke made a vague noise that might have been intended as either reassurance or agreement. "I was surprised about the Justice Minister. I would have thought you'd need a crowbar to get Gautier out of office, and even then I'd be wary of him trying to sneak back into the building to hound his replacement. How did Raul manage it?"
Rosch cleared his throat awkwardly. "Prime Minister Raul was forced to appoint a replacement after Minister Gautier's abrupt death of Sand Plague during the earthquakes on the day you went missing."
There were a few moments' pause, and then Stocke said, "Ah."
The panel on Rosch's arm clicked shut, and the tools disappeared back into whatever mysterious pockets Stocke had produced them from.
"That should do it," Stocke said. "Be careful. You'll need to have Sonja take a look at it afterward, but this should stop it from detonating."
"Stop it from what?" Rosch said, but Stocke was already gone.
Stocke had just made a completely straightfaced comment about "turning back the clock," and Rosch was pretty sure that the Finance Minister, a frankly terrifying woman in her seventies who reminded Rosch in the worst way of his arithmetic teacher from when he was nine, was trying to flirt with him. Stocke didn't seem to have noticed, which was more like Stocke than virtually anything Rosch had seen him do in the last hour.
"It's a pleasure to learn that some of our younger officers still have an appreciation for etiquette," she said, with a smile as eerily uncharacteristic as the one Stocke had been wearing for most of the evening. "I've long feared that courtesy and respectful behavior were dying virtues in the young. I must admit, I'd doubted the rumors of how you charmed the princess of Granorg, but it seems my skepticism was misplaced."
Stocke's wince, at least, Rosch believed. "It's nothing like what you're thinking," Stocke said. "We agreed it would be better for all of us if we pooled our resources, that's all."
Rosch might have imagined that one. He hoped he'd imagined that one.
"Our resources and her freeloading, more like," grumbled the Minister of Health, who, from his red face, had been enjoying the wine more than was either polite or wise.
Rosch was pretty sure anyone who knew Stocke even slightly less well than he did wouldn't notice how his left hand had drifted to where his palm would have been resting on the pommel of his sword if weapons were permitted at events like this.
His smile this time was, perhaps, a little more visibly false. "Queen Eruca may have had less manpower at her command than our other allies, but she's formidable in her own right," Stocke said. "While I'm not at liberty to speak about all of the details, I'm sure General Rosch will be happy to confirm that if it wasn't for her strength of spirit, I wouldn't be alive today."
Rosch was going to kill him.
It would be a bad idea to drink any more than he already had, a fact that Rosch rather resented being aware of. He lurked near the table with the finicky snacks that passed for food at these things, at least as much as it was possible to lurk in enameled white armor and a cape that nearly dragged the floor. Or with a furtive parade of hangers-on approaching him about matters that were, mostly, completely outside his jurisdiction. Alistel still hadn't really gotten the hang of the army answering to the civvies and not the other way around.
The approach of Prime Minister Raul and Minister of Justice Naomi put flight to a group of them. As important as they evidently thought taxes on thaumlight exports were, it seemed they weren't confident that it was quite important enough for them to get in the way of that many people who could fire them at once.
"Ah, General," Raul said, folding his hands in the sleeves of his robe. "How are you holding up? I heard you were feeling ill this evening."
"Nothing more than nerves, sir," Rosch said, privately cursing Stocke. Rosch never had been much of an actor; it had probably just been a matter of time until someone noticed his expression while Stocke was talking and asked if he was feeling well. Stocke, the bastard, had made some glib comment about how "you'd be surprised how often he's on death's door," which was rich coming from a man with that many hospitalizations on his record, and everyone had laughed and moved on. And Rosch couldn't even protest, because illness was the best excuse he was probably going to get.
Minister Naomi snorted. She had been a judge for longer than Rosch had been alive and was, in his experience, amazingly difficult to fool.
"About Stocke, you mean?" Raul said. "I can't say I didn't have some concerns, but it seems we had little need for worry. He's acclimated shockingly well."
"That's one way to put it," the Justice Minister muttered.
"Sometimes I wonder if he was wasted in the army," Raul said pensively. "I've long suspected that deep down, he had the soul of a diplomat."
Rosch was in hell. He had accidentally offended some god or other and they had skipped the usual business with the brimstone and the spiders and dropped him straight into their deepest pit of divine torment.
"Or the tongue of a liar, at least," Minister Naomi said dryly. "Which mostly amounts to the same thing. Don't look at me like that, Raul, all you had to do was watch General Rosch's face to know the colonel was putting on an act fit to entertain the Prophet himself. One of Heiss's boys through and through, that one."
She took a long sip of her brandy, then glanced up at Rosch's stricken expression. "I never said I didn't like him, General. I just don't trust a word that comes out of his mouth."
"You're likely not alone in that," Raul said with a sigh. "As staunch and invaluable an ally as I've found him to be, Special Intelligence's reputation was, unfortunately, well-earned."
"Of course I'm not. And he knows it, too, which is why he's telling whoppers that make General Rosch here look like he's being tortured." She winked at Rosch. "I have to respect his audacity. There's barely a soul here who'd trust a Specint man that the sky was up, so he's spinning lies that make the general's eyes bulge, because no one who matters will believe it anyway."
Rosch made a strangled noise in the back of his throat.
A part of him wished desperately that Sonja was here. Another part of him, deeper, knew with a terrible certainty that if she was, she would have found an excuse to use the phrase "dead man walking" at least twice by now.
Rosch wasn't watching the clock. He was, in fact, making a point of not watching the clock, because once he'd looked at it, he wouldn't be able to stop, and it would make it even harder to pretend he had any opinions whatsoever about the naming of the bridge over the Shield Street intersection. Everyone else in the group seemed to agree that it was vital that it be named after a military leader from the founding of the nation, and no two of them seemed to agree on which one. Rosch was getting good at nodding thoughtfully and noncommittally; it was proving to be a vital life skill in these situations.
And, of course, he'd had practice long before that at not jumping when Stocke materialized out of the crowd at his elbow.
Well. Not literally materialized. Even Stocke had enough discretion that he wouldn't turn invisible in the middle of a party.
"Get to Raul and watch his back," Stocke murmured nearly in his ear, and then he was gone again.
They were going to have to have a very pointed conversation later.
Rosch excused himself, though he wasn't sure any of the others would have noticed if he hadn't. Apparently it was absolutely crucial that the bridge not be named after someone living, but all the prominent officers who were actually dead were unacceptable for reasons ranging from already having a watchtower named after them to having been revealed to be carrying on a long-term steamy correspondence with their opposite number in the Granorgite forces.
Rosch made a mental note to personally request that the name be "Shield Street Bridge."
He found Raul near the symphonium, which wasn't unexpected. The thing was Raul's baby.
The Prime Minister had commissioned it soon after his appointment as part of an "initiative for thaumatech as art," which was code for "non-military applications of thaumatech," which was, effectively, code for "I want to disentangle the army thaumatech corps' claws from the civilian infrastructure," which was quite a political statement for something that resembled nothing more than a large cabinet.
It was made of walnut and brushed bronze, with clear windows on the front that revealed an array of bells, chimes, keys, horns, drums, rollers, and a single, gently spinning flywheel, and it was currently piping and jangling its way cheerfully through "The Meadows of the Mountain Pass." They'd even turned on the speaker, which was adding a rather tinny and canned-sounding recording of a choir as accompaniment, possibly to reassure the listeners that it was "Meadows of the Mountain Pass" and not the Granorgite song it had taken the tune from.
As far as Rosch was concerned, the shine had worn off the thing fairly quickly— it might theoretically be able to play any music you had a score for, but there were only so many unimpeachably patriotic songs out there, especially if you ruled out the ones all about killing foreigners— but Raul never seemed to stop being delighted by it, and some of that couldn't help but rub off.
"Perfect timing, General!" Raul said, and Rosch morosely thought, It would be, wouldn't it. "I was just thinking it was about time to wrap this up. Would you mind accompanying me as I give the closing address? A united front would be appropriate, I feel."
"Of course, sir," he said, surreptitiously glancing around. He'd known Stocke for too long to expect him to give useful explanations, but it would certainly simplify these sorts of situations if he did. What was Rosch supposed to be watching for?
Raul, oblivious to whatever nebulous danger was apparently lurking and with a certain amount of reverence, removed a key from around his neck and unlocked the case of the symphonium. He pushed a button, there was a faint clunk, and the machine began merrily piping its way through the outro two verses early.
Raul let it go all the way to the end, watching hammers hit wires and chimes with a beatific smile, and then once it was done, pulled another lever inside the open panel. Rosch could hear a gear shift somewhere behind the flywheel, and then, with a hiss of steam, it burst into a loud rendition of the trumpet fanfare that usually preceded the national anthem. Rosch found himself standing at attention on pure muscle memory.
It was certainly more impressive than hitting a wine glass with a spoon.
"Good evening, citizens of Alistel!" Raul announced.
It was surprisingly easy to forget Raul was a good speaker. It probably came of too much time spent watching him rambling aimlessly over a large mug of cocoa after being found asleep at his desk after another all-nighter. Still, Rosch had heard this particular speech and its cousins dozens of times by now, and it hadn't been particularly exciting to start with. Blah, blah, celebrate our great nation, blah blah, preserve our history, example for our children, ideals that burn in the hearts of all our people, etc. Under Raul's regime, statues and memorials had been sprouting up around Alistel like mushrooms, and nearly every one of them merited one of these parties. Rosch sometimes uncharitably wondered if the ministers were putting them up just so they had an excuse to stand around and delicately politic at each other while pretending that wasn't what they were doing.
The audience didn't seem any different from usual, either, whatever Stocke might be in a knot about. It was the usual mix of patient, bored, paying no attention, and the kind of unnervingly close attention that could make the weak of heart resolve to never say another word in public ever again. (That, at least, command prepared you for; a cushy party was easy after you'd done it knowing there was a non-negligible chance there were Granorgite crossbows trained on you.) There was the Minister of Education, surreptitiously using the break in the conversation to shovel down the food she hadn't gotten the chance to touch all evening; there was Shaw, not concealing a yawn very well; there was that undersecretary Rosch kept dodging when she tried to corner him to talk about uniform redesigns. There was Stocke, way on the other side of the room, and he raised his glass very slightly when Rosch looked his way. And there was— wait, was that Section Chief Hester? Rosch was damn sure she hadn't been on the guest list, because she was on probation until they finished investigating her division of thaumatech corps for ties to what they'd been doing down in Hugo's lab—
He caught Stocke's eye again. Right. Watch Raul's back.
"And, of course," Raul was saying, "this will be the first time many of you have met Colonel Stocke. I know him as a man of few words, but great actions, and I have more than once trusted him with my life and never seen reason to regret it. Though this is the first time I've seen him wearing something other than red," Raul added, to a low chorus of chuckles.
Stocke's polite smile had gone faintly glassy.
"He has been kept from Alistel these months by a mission of critical importance to our nation's safety, executed alone at grave personal risk," Raul said, which was almost word for word what Rosch had told him when he asked where Stocke was, minus the parts where Rosch begged him not to ask for more details. "And so I am delighted to welcome him home to—"
Rosch felt it in his left arm first, a buzzing feeling that swept up his shoulder like a tide; he'd ripped thaumachines apart before, and that was what grabbing a live cable felt like. He was already moving toward Raul on instinct when the lights spat out an impressive shower of copper-and-magnesium sparks and the symphonium began to make a truly hellish noise, all the pipes blaring in a horrible warbling discord as it galloped through "The Prophet's Holy Name" at a frenetic pace, the recorded children's choir singing serenely over the top at normal speed and deafening volume. He tackled the Prime Minister to the ground more or less as the shouting began, and Raul had time to gasp, "What on earth—?" before every light in the room, and the symphonium, exploded.
It went on for a while. A few bits of pipe bounced off Rosch's armor with sad melodic clongs.
When it seemed to have stopped, Rosch got back to his feet, dragging the wheezing Prime Minister after him. He'd have to make sure Raul got to a doctor after this; even stupid white and gold plate mail was pretty heavy when someone wearing it dropped on you. Hopefully he hadn't broken anything.
"Is everyone all right?" he heard Stocke say, and there was absolutely no doubt that it was Stocke, because even aside from the accent Stocke was the only person Rosch had ever met who could have sounded no more ruffled by this situation than if someone had dropped a tray of wine glasses.
"Can't tell," Rosch bellowed back, peering through the gloom. Rooms this far back in the castle didn't tend to be overendowed with windows, and all he could see was vague shapes. "Can somebody get some light in here?"
The room suddenly lit up in a long-shadowed tableau. There were scorch marks; there were stunned partygoers coated in plaster dust; there were lonely, heat-blistered piano keys scattered around like oversized confetti. There was Raul, looking not too much the worse for wear other than a big red mark on his cheek that would probably turn into a spectacular bruise if nobody patched it up with a spell in time. There was Stocke, innocently holding up a ball of white magical fire, which made it all the easier for Rosch to tell that he was all the way across the room, and at far too much of a distance to be of any help whatsoever against the person in a waiter's uniform who had frozen with a guilty expression in the middle of readying a knife at Raul's back.
Rosch was going to make Stocke pay for this, even if he had to break out the big guns and promote him again.
It was later.
Someone had found an intact box of dim yellow emergency lights somewhere, and the room was more or less lit again by a swampy light. Rosch had managed to corral the crowd jostling at the entrance to a service stairwell back long enough for a repair team to climb up without anyone being trampled, and now an unlucky waiter was ushering partygoers down it one at a time. An even unluckier pair of officers who had been tasked with security and were visibly counting the seconds before their commissions evaporated were guarding the would-be assassin, who had been trussed up with a couple of donated belts and a string of decorative banners.
Stocke had slipped effortlessly back into his preferred role of adjutant, and had quietly and efficiently collected everyone in the room with any medical training and set them to treating scrapes and bruises. He'd even somehow roped in the Minister of Health, which Rosch thought was the first time he'd ever seen the man do anything remotely useful. Whatever creepy doppelganger still hadn't completely relinquished control of Stocke's body was, apparently, very convincing. Stocke was currently kneeling down to talk gently to a hysterical young man who Rosch thought was some sort of clerk; best not to interrupt him.
Rosch turned the knife he'd taken from the assassin over in his hands, then sheathed it and approached where Raul was looking mournfully over the wreckage of the symphonium.
"Any news?" said Raul.
"There don't seem to have been any other major injuries," Rosch said, with a glance at the bloodstained cut in the cloth at Raul's arm. The impromptu medical team had gotten to that first. "We got a runner from downstairs just now saying they detained someone trying to sneak out a side door in the confusion."
Raul nodded. "The engineers tell me the perpetrator planted a device to overload a mana capacitor down the hall, and that set off a chain reaction that destroyed every piece of thaumatech in the whole wing. They assured me that the rest of the building has more modern wiring, so this can't happen again, but..." Another morose look at the ruined instrument.
"They still have the blueprints," Rosch said encouragingly. "I'm sure it can be rebuilt." And then they'd have another gods-damned party to celebrate when it was done.
"I know, I know," Raul said. "Learn, rebuild, and move forward. Our new national philosophy. But I was rather attached to Sophie."
Another buzzing twitch ran up Rosch's left shoulder. He was going to have a very long talk with whoever got assigned to build another symphonium about exactly what constituted "modern wiring," but not before he'd had one with Sonja.
The door rattled shut, and the elevator began to move, albeit more slowly and with rather more shaking than usual. The stabilizers and backup motors were fried and would need to be replaced, the engineers had said.
"Stocke," Rosch said quietly after they'd dropped out of sight, "why, exactly, did the assassin sent to kill Raul have one of your knives?"
"Because the one she brought was poisoned," Stocke said. He pushed a sleeve back and unbuckled a wrist sheath he definitely wasn't supposed to have at a government event, and held that knife out to Rosch.
"Stocke—” Rosch began.
"She would have noticed if it went missing. I had to replace it with something," Stocke said, as if this was sufficient explanation. He was still holding out the knife.
Eventually Rosch gave in, sighed, and took it. He passed the other knife back to him, and Stocke made it vanish. This definitely counted as some sort of criminal charge, Rosch thought.
He was running into another one of the dilemmas of being friends with Stocke, which was that once you set out to talk to him about his latest odd behavior, there would be so much of it that it made it impossible to decide where to start.
"Stocke," he settled for, "what the hell do you think you were you doing back there?"
Stocke didn't even bother to shrug, but you could see the shrug that wasn't actually there in the set of his shoulders. "Everyone saw what happened. The assassination failed, the saboteurs were caught, no one was badly hurt, and the collateral damage was minimal. Trust me, it's better if this sort of thing happens in the light."
"Yeah, well," Rosch said, "next time you're scheming to have me fistfight a knife-wielding assassin, warn me first."
Stocke did shrug this time. He didn't look particularly sorry.
"And anyway," Rosch said, "that doesn't explain what you were saying."
The elevator clattered to a halt, the door began to open, and Stocke turned to him with a look as polished and as genuine as a two-dollar diamond.
"You'll need to be more specific," Stocke said. "After all—" He smiled, guileless as a grifter. "—my memory is a little fuzzy."