The reception was being held in a large foyer on the second floor of one of the subsidiary buildings. Antrey remembered that it had once been the home for the Confederation’s trade delegation, but now served as overflow office space for the Grand Council itself. As a result of its heritage, the room was filled with deep rich wood textures, with fine carvings climbing the wall. Candles flew high overhead, providing an endless supply of light that reminded Antrey of dusk on the eastern shore. They arrived slightly behind schedule and the room was already a buzz of multiple conversations reverberating around the oaken hall.
“Come on,” Alban said, tugging gently on her elbow, “we’ll find some drinks.”
They walked over to the other side of the large circular room, to a table manned by a pair of young men. Sharply dressed, one held a wine bottle in his hand, the other some kind of fruit-based punch. Alban picked up an empty glass at the table and gave it to Antrey, before taking one for himself. “Try the wine,” he said. “It’s from Guild vineyards along the northern portion of the River Innis. Best in Altreria, in my opinion.” He held out his glass and it was filled a clear crisp white wine.
Antrey did the same. She looked at the man pouring the wine, studying him. He paid no attention to her, aside from dealing with the empty glass she held. It was impossible to say if that was particularly due to who she was or merely part of his job. She thanked him when the glass was full, but that prompted no response. She turned and faced the crowd while she took a sip of wine. Antrey had not had much experience with wine, beside the common table wines Alban would bring home every now and then. It was beyond her experience to call this the best in the land, but it was very good.
“All right,” Alban said, after they had observed the crowd and sipped their drinks for a moment. “Time to get this over with, yes?”
Antrey nodded and followed him as he plunged on into the crowd. Before they got very far, a voice called out in their direction.
“Alban!” the voice said, from off in the crowd to their right.
Alban stopped just long enough to turn that direction before he was confronted by a large man with dark green skin. A smaller, but similarly hued, woman, hung off his arm. “So good to see you again, old friend!” He wrapped his free arm around Alban in a brief hug. Alban returned the favor.
“Jamil,” Alban said, “it has been a while since you were in the city. What brings you back to Tolenor?”
“I was talked out of retirement by the mayor,” the other man said, with mock exasperation. “Once you come here, everyone insists on sending you back.” He laughed. “Where are my manners,” he said turning to the woman with him. “This is my wife, Utka. Utka, this is Alban Ventris, clerk to the Grand Council.”
The woman extended a hand to Alban, who took it and shook it politely. “My pleasure. And this is Antrey Ranbren,” he said, turning to her. “She is my assistant with the Grand Council. She’s been most vital to my work over the past few years.” Jamil ignored the introduction. Alban continued. “Jamil was a trade missionary from Kerkondala back when I was a Sentinel. We met more than a few times on the roads. Or what pass for roads in the Arbor.”
“We were much younger then, were we not?” Jamil said, with a jovial smile that quickly disappeared. “And perhaps less prone to eccentricity.”
Alban smiled and took a drink, as if thrown back on his heels. “We were younger, Jamil, certainly,” he said, after an awkward pause. “So what brings you back to Tolenor? What task has the mayor given you?”
Jamil launched into a discussion of his trade mission, about which Antrey knew nothing and cared little. She stood beside Alban and sipped her wine. As he spoke with Alban, Jamil kept his gaze fixed on him alone. It was as if Antrey was not even there. This was a new sensation for her. Usually her appearance caused strangers to gawk and follow her through a room. She had come to terms with that years ago. Being treated like a black hole, a non entity that could simply be ignored was more difficult. She did her best to keep a calm façade for Alban’s benefit, at least.
Rather than pay attention to Jamil’s story, Antrey studied Utka. She stood, silent, behind Jamil. Presumably, she knew all that Jamil was saying, yet she nodded as if hearing it for the first time. After a few moments, she turned her gaze to Antrey. They said nothing, but Antrey could sense some shared misery between them. Antrey was roused from her thoughts by Alban’s hand on her shoulder.
“It was good to see you again, Jamil,” he said, turning to walk away. “Perhaps we can talk in a few days.”
“That would be good. I might have to ask you for some help, depending on how things turn out,” Jamil said.
“Come by my office,” Alban said. Without any other parting words, he and Antrey began to walk away.
As they passed each other, Utka reached out and grabbed Antrey’s arm. The two women paused, exchanged glances, and then went their separate ways.
“I apologize for that,” Alban said as they wound their way around various clutches of people.
“For what?” Antrey asked.
“For Jamil. The way he treated you. Or didn’t treat you, as the case may be. I can’t go so far as to call him a good man, but he’s not a bad one. He isn’t the most enlightened of fellows, however. Even within the Arbor. Try not to let it bother you.”
“I really didn’t notice,” Antrey said, lying. She appreciated Alban’s attempt to smooth things over, even if it cost him little.
They had almost reached the other end of the room when Alban changed direction and intercepted a woman who had just broken away from a small group. “Galenna!” Alban called out after her. She stopped turned, began to walk towards them, and greeted him with a smile.
Antrey surveyed Galenna as she approached. She looked to be about Alban’s age, with some cracks and wrinkles evident on her face, which was dominated by bright black eyes that almost overpowered the pale green of her skin. She was dressed in a formal military uniform, pale yellow with hints of silver around the collar and cuffs. Although Antrey did not recognize the insignia, she must be from the Guild. Telebrian women were not part of the military. While some of the cities in the Confederation had women fighters, they were more organized as irregulars or ready militia. A professionally dressed military woman could only be from the Guild.
“Hello, Alban,” she said, greeting him with outstretched hands. “How does the evening find you?”
“It finds me well,” he said. “This is my assistant, Antrey Ranbren. Antrey, this is Galenna, Master of the Guild of Soldiers and the new member of the Grand Council from the Guilds.”
“Pleased to meet you, councilor,” Antrey said, with a courteous nod.
“Please, call me Galenna,” she said to Antrey, before quickly shifting attention to Alban. “We’ve known each other too long to rest on formalities, eh, Alban?”
Alban laughed. “I suppose that’s true.” He turned to Antrey. “Galenna was the first woman allowed into the Sentinel corps. They kept her isolated in an outpost on the shore of Great Basin Lake. They sent all the trouble makers there.”
Galenna’s eyes flitted quickly to Antrey, but then returned to Alban before she answered. “Which is why that is where they sent you too, of course.”
“Of course,” Alban said. They launched into a discussion about Galenna’s recent postings, how she found life in Tolenor, and a little about the trouble in the Badlands. All the while, Galenna continued to snatch glances at Antrey. It was if she was afraid to actually look directly at her and be caught by someone. Unlike Jamil, who was content to excise her from his reality, Galenna was concerned about Antrey’s presence. What was her concern? That the trained beast would break its chains and cause a scene. Antrey sipped her wine slowly and deliberately, breathing deeply. She was shaken from her observations when she heard her name pop up in the conversation.
“As Antrey can tell you,” Alban was saying about something, “the work of the Grand Council can often lose its focus on real issues and devolve into minutiae.” He paused, expecting either of the women to pick up the conversation. Galenna looked nervously at Alban and Antrey, but said nothing.
“Yes, that’s true,” Antrey said, finally, to fill the silence. “But, to be honest, even the minutiae can be fascinating.” It was only a partial lie, one designed to inject some levity into the conversation. It didn’t help.
“Well, I suppose I’ll see firsthand for myself tomorrow,” Galenna said to Alban. “If you’ll excuse me, old friend, I’ve had a long day and will have a longer one tomorrow. I must be going. Good evening.” She turned and walked off before Alban could return the courtesy.
“Wait here for a moment,” Alban said to Antrey before rushing off after her.
Antrey watched as Alban caught up with Galenna just as she was about to leave the rotunda. He grabbed by her arm and obviously surprised her. Alban promptly began to tell her something. Antrey couldn’t hear what was being said, but the tone was clear. He spoke quickly and gestured with his free hand more than usual. At one point, he shifted his feet to block Galenna’s view of Antrey, just as she tried to snatch another glance at her. When Galenna tried to get a word in, Alban cut her off. It was a tense exchange and it made Antrey nervous. She turned away, back toward the bulk of the crowd. Alban returned in a few moments, clearly upset.
“What’s wrong, sir?” Antrey asked.
He sighed. “I’m afraid that I must once again apologize for an acquaintance. And this time, I can make no excuses on her behalf. Galenna, given all she has accomplished in her life and the prejudice she has faced, should know better. I am truly sorry, Antrey. I trust that the entire evening won’t be like this.”
“You should stop apologizing for the acts of others, sir,” Antrey said. He started to say something else but closed his mouth without uttering a word. Perhaps Alban was surprised by her directness. “Neither you nor I can control how others behave or how they react to me. I am, like it or not, a curiosity, sir. It is enough to know that you are offended on my behalf.”
That seemed to please Alban. He looked about ready to start across the room to refill his drink when an elegant older man stepped in front of him. “Alban, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance once more,” he said, extending his hands.
“The pleasure is all mine, president,” Alban said, bowing his head slightly.
Antrey knew at once that this was Atilleo, the current President of the Grand Council. He was also a member of the inner circle of the King of Telebria. Quite possibly, he was the most important person in the city.
“President, I don’t believe you have met my assistant, Antrey Ranbren,” Alban said, presenting her for inspection.
“Why, yes, of course, I have seen her in the chamber many times,” he said to Alban before turning to her. “Good evening, Antrey,” he said, in a slower cadence and at a slightly higher volume than he had been speaking to Alban. “Does it find you well?”
“Yes, president,” Antrey said, somewhat self consciously. “Thank you.”
The older man turned his attention back to Alban. “Are you ready for the start of the session?”
“Of course, president. Antrey has been hard at work making sure everything is in place while I finished my latest volume.”
“Ah, yes. You do us great honor with your work, Alban. It reflects very well on the Grand Council,” Atilleo said.
“Thank you, president,” Alban said, giving him a deferential nod.
“As does all your hard work, Antrey,” Atilleo said, turning to address her. Again, he spoke with a halting tone and talked to her as if she was deaf. “I know that Alban relies on all that you do.”
Antrey mimicked Alban’s nod. “Thank you, president. I have learned a great deal from working with Alban, both within and without the Grand Council chamber. I look forward to hearing the session tomorrow.” In spite of be treated like a dim-witted child, she did her best to match Alban’s eloquence.
The effort obviously threw Atilleo out of his comfort area. “Well, yes,” he said, before pausing awkwardly. Finally, he took Antrey’s hand in his and patted it, like one might pat the head of a small animal. “I am sure you will learn something.” He hastily turned back to Alban. “I beg your forgiveness, but I must go and say a few words. In the morning, then?”
“In the morning, president, absolutely,” Alban said.
Atilleo gave Antrey one last look, smiled nervously at her, and then bled into the crowd.
Alban stood for a moment, speechless. One of the wine servers started to walk past and Alban grabbed him, abruptly and without warning. He shoved his empty glass into the young man’s hand, then took Antrey’s from her and did the same.
“Come on,” he said, turning and walking away from the crowd that was gravitating towards where Atilleo was about to speak. “Galenna was right about one thing. We have an early morning tomorrow.”
Antrey said nothing and they walked back home in silence.