The tremendous grand ballroom was crowded, full of the wealthy elite chatting, laughing, toasting their glasses to their fortunes and good looks and vacation homes or whatever it was rich people concerned themselves with. Overhead, a chandelier glittered so brightly Fiearius had to squint, and below it, couples twirled on the dance floor to the string quartet. But for all of the visual overload around him, when he glanced across the room, his eyes instantly gravitated to one sight in particular.
Leta was hanging close to the bar, deep in conversation with a young Carthian beside her. A deep blue gown clung to her skin and flowed down her legs, and her hair was woven into an elaborate design. Really, she didn’t look much like the woman Fiearius had said goodbye to a few days ago when she’d departed the CORS for Carthis proper.
Nodding an absent farewell to a group of soldiers that had presumably been talking at him, he melted into the crowd, heading toward her, but then a hand on his shoulder pulled him out of the daze. When Fiearius turned his head, he found Admiral Gates watching him expectantly, glass of bourbon in hand, a cigar in the other. He was dressed in pressed military formalwear, decorated with pins and badges from his time in the service. And he was waiting for a response to a remark Fiearius hadn’t heard.
“I said, glad you could make it this time, Admiral,” he repeated, an image of patience and, Fiearius thought, a hint of amusement. “I know you were busy on the station.”
On purpose, Fiearius thought grimly. He had indeed over-scheduled himself in an attempt to get out of this particular event. The Dionysian was meant to only finish its business when it was far too late to attend, but someone, early this morning, had miraculously moved some meetings around and left him with a nice clear day. And no excuses. By the tiny smirk on Gates’ face, Fiearius thought he knew who was responsible.
“An hour, tops,” said Fiearius darkly. “And then I’m gone.”
“Remember to smile as you insult our honored guests, please,” Gates murmured, turning away.
He headed off again toward the bar, though he could feel eyes on him now. A throng of people murmured as he passed, undoubtedly wanting to speak to him, to press him with questions about his fascinating dangerous ‘adventures.’ Fiearius knew it was his duty to humor them long enough to earn donations to the cause. But as annoyed as he’d been this morning that he had to spend the evening here, the flight to Carthis and a few hours of research had yielded some interest after all. And it certainly wasn’t in mingling with these stiffs.
Leta didn’t seem to notice as Fiearius shuffled his way through the crowd. He leaned against the bar behind her and waited for a lapse in her conversation. Or, more accurately, the perfect time to rudely interrupt her.
“–really, not a matter of time, it’s a matter of –” she was saying when he suddenly reached out to tap her shoulder and ask, “Excuse me, have we met?”
She turned to face him, first in annoyance, probably ready to rip him apart, and quickly afterwards, surprise. To his amusement, all remnants of her previous engagement seemed to dissolve. “Fiearius? I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I wasn’t,” he grunted, sliding into place at the bar beside her. He lifted a hand toward the bartender. “But plans changed.”
“Well if I’d known that, I could have stayed on the station and come here on the Dionysian rather than take that cramped envoy you subjected me to,” Leta bristled.
“I didn’t subject you to anything,” Fiearius argued. “You chose to come early. I thought you were meeting someone in the city?”
“Yes. I did,” Leta said, suddenly averting her eyes. Before Fiearius could press for further explanation, she centered her gaze back on him and set her glass down briskly, like they were back in the infirmary again and she was telling him what to do. “You know what tonight is about, Fiear, don’t you? You know what’s at stake? Because these people aren’t just investing in Carthis, they’re investing in you — “
“You sound exactly like Gates. Bourbon on the rocks,” he said to the bartender.
“Fiear, tonight is important. You can’t ignore the guests here, you’re going to have to do a lot of small talk.”
“And make it a double,” he added. When his drink arrived, he threw it back, letting it burn down his throat.
“Are you here with Quin?”
Fiearius barked a laugh. He had actually tried to get Quin to accompany him to this disaster before he’d left this morning. She conveniently had other plans. “No, she cancelled. The traitor.”
“But you did bring someone, yes?”
“Oh, of course. It was made very clear to me that I had to at least appear to maintain a stable relationship. I’m told investors don’t trust a man who’s single in his thirties.”
Leta looked like she was about to remark, but coolly decided against it. Instead, she lifted her drink to her mouth and mused, “Well? Where is this mystery date of yours?”
Honestly, Fiearius wasn’t sure. He had successfully lost the woman he’d walked in with about ten minutes after they’d arrived. Now sort of wondering where she’d gone off to, he scanned the room until he spotted a familiar shade of brown hair. “Over there,” he said, pointing unabashedly, “the one with the braid and the green dress.”
Leta followed the direction of his finger and lifted her brows in appreciation. “She’s lovely. How do you know her?”
“I first met her on a field mission a few months back,” he explained. “She disagreed with everything I was doing from the get-go. We fought a lot, she turned out to be right, saved my ass from getting blown up, brought my sympathy whiskey in the infirmary. Oh, and she’s definitely a Carthian spy.”
“What?” Leta gawked. “How the hell do you know that?”
He took a long sip from his drink before he answered. “Because she’s you.”
Leta knit her brow together, suspicious. “Wait — ”
“Like she took a class called ‘Leta 101’,” Fiearius smirked tightly. “Dresses like you, acts like you. Even has a habit of stopping by my quarters at odd hours to chat. If she’s not a spy, she’s a clone. Or perhaps both.”
Apparently, words failed her, which rarely happened. She opened her mouth, but looked down at her glass in her hands, not at him. “Well,” she muttered at last, “They got it all wrong then.” Before Fiearius could ask what that meant, she said, “Carthis is smart to spy on you. I told you this would happen.”
“Right, because I’m an expensive investment. Because I’m a ruthless pirate. Because they know there’s something I’m not telling them.” He smirked knowingly and leaned in to speak close to her ear. “Speaking of which, I–”
“There you are.”
Suddenly, a handsome-looking man Fiearius recognized from somewhere arrived at the bar, his hand finding Leta’s elbow. “Leta, look like we’re busy talking, okay? The most boring banker alive wants to tell me all about his pet parakeet –” Then he noticed that Leta wasn’t alone. “Oh, Admiral, hello.”
He reached out his hand, and Fiearius accepted it, suddenly remembering who he was. Liam Andrews. The journalist from Vescent. Their last interaction had been rather nasty: Liam had followed him through Fall’s End, eavesdropped on a particularly confidential conversation and Fiearius had seriously considered ending his life for it. Back then, Liam had looked like he’d rolled in off the streets, dirty and tired and exhausted from chasing war veterans. Now he looked dramatically different — clean-shaven, relaxed, even in fancy dress clothes. But what the hell was he doing at a private investor party? He was a reporter.
And then it clicked. He was Leta’s date.
“Didn’t think we’d see you here tonight,” said Liam politely, and Fiearius dropped his hand.
“Yeah. You either.” He was terse, thoughtful, when he added, “So did you blackmail her into inviting you to this too?”
Leta shot him a look over the rim of her glass, but Liam laughed.
“Not at all. Did beg her though. Press isn’t normally allowed into these fundraisers. And for good reason. People get drunk, tell all their secrets.”
“So you’re here to, what? Report those secrets?”
“Well, maybe.” He looked deeply amused, even pleased with himself. “We’ll see how the night pans out, I suppose. I know neither of you are very fond of journalists.”
Absently, Leta commented, “I’m warming up to them.”
“Well I’m not,” said Fiearius bluntly. “I haven’t forgotten about last time y’know. Your sense of ‘journalistic integrity.’”
Leta’s eyes narrowed. “He didn’t report anything you said, Fiearius.”