We arrived at the Honji Royal Review and Charity Gala late enough to be stuck in crowds. Wall to wall people from dozens of different worlds and twice as many species were massed in front of the Central Authority Building waiting for their chance to storm the doors and enter the Grand Hall where the “event of a lifetime” awaited them.
While the advertising for charity events can be a bit overblown, this particular occassion had a decent chance of living up to its billing. Normally the fate weave that permeated Abyz was focused solely on preventing injury and violence. As a “royal” event though, the Review and Charity Gala enjoyed the privilege of an enhanced version of the weave. The presence of Her Royal Highness meant that fate would go above and beyond “keeping you safe”. People thought of it as the fate weave giving you a “Happily Ever After” but that was out of reach even for the weapons grade magic Abyz was drenched in. What fate would actually do is conspire to “bring you together with someone special” at the ball. For some reason a lot of people thought of that as being a good thing.
Most royal events were for open only to select members of the Queen supporters, but each season there was at least one event to which the public could purchase tickets. When I asked Fari how much she’d paid for the three tickets we had, the price she quoted made me gulp.
My formal attire was an expensive luxury, especially with the “extra durability” enchantments that were woven into each piece. On a planet where everyone was protected from harm every hour of the day, the need for armored gowns was pretty much non-existent. I was able to find a shop that could manage to craft one on short notice only because the wealthy people who lived on Abyz occasionally had to travel off-world and were ten times more paranoid about such flights than the usual interstellar traveller.
The dependable thing about shops that specializes in providing rare clothes for desperate clients on short notice is that they don’t really have fixed prices for their ensembles. Usually they don’t even specify what the pricing is. If you care to ask, you’re probably not rich enough to afford it.
Despite that, my ticket to the gala was still more than the cost of my entire outfit by an order of magnitude.
“We should make sure we have our pictures taken,” Darius said as he took my arm. For a crowd of the ultra-wealthy, they were behaving not unlike drunken sports fans so becoming separated was a real possibility unless we clung to each other.
“Only if we can send them to your Dads,” I said.
Darius had an odd fascination with seeing me dressed up, while at the same time thinking that every formal suit he wore looked terrible. The crazy thing was, as far as I could tell, every suit he ever dressed in made him look smolderingly hot.
Granted I’m biased, but we don’t get to that many formal balls and it takes more than all my fingers and toes to count the number of times someone has tried to “cut in” and steal a dance with him. I joked that someday I would need to get into a knock-down, drag-out brawl just to fend off his overly eager admirers, except I wasn’t entirely sure I was joking about that.
For my own part, I never felt that comfortable in gowns or dresses but, when the mood struck me, they could be fun to wear for a bit. A formal gown is like a costume for me. It’s not who I am, or even who I want to be, but it’s still nice to pretend (and blend in) some times.
“They would love to have more pictures of you,” Darius said, and steered us a couple of steps forward as the crowd filtered into the Grand Hall.
“They’re very kind,” I said. I got along with Darius’ dads, Hector and Osgood, very well with despite having virtually nothing in common with them. They’re politicians with years of service on a world that had been beset by warfare for longer than any of us had been alive. I’m an orphan, street rat who managed to get recruited into one of the most prestigious peace-keeping groups in the galaxy. We literally come from different worlds, but despite that we agree on a shocking number of things.
Like how wonderful Darius looks in formal wear.
“They’ll be happy to have pictures of me, but you’re the one they miss,” I said.
“I send them a letter every week!” he said.
“Somehow I’m thinking that’s not quite the same as having you at home.” I said and guided us into an opening in the crowd that got us a whole three feet closer to the door.
“I wasn’t at home much before though,” he said. “I was in the field three weeks out of every four as a scout.”
“Yeah, but they still felt like they knew what was happening with you,” I said.
“I suppose they did see the troop distribution reports each day in the Council meetings,” he said.
“Right, so they knew when you were safe, and if you’re team was heading into danger they knew to worry extra hard.” I said.
“Not that extra worrying does much good,” he said.
“It gave them a sense of being in control,” I said. “Even knowing that it was crazy, they said it still helped them.”
“It’s hard to accept that my parents are that crazy, but I guess the evidence kind of supports it,” he said and guided us into one of the entry channels that led to the Grand Hall.
“People will do a lot to feel in control of their lives.” I got my ticket ready for inspection as we finally got close to the ticket takers.
“This from the girl who’s dressed in a blast proof gossamer gown,” Fari said over our telepathic link.
She was strolling around in our doppleganger body, looking like Ilya’s identical twin. Ilya, meanwhile. was waiting in the chauffer area after dropping us off. In an hour she was going to step into the back of the rented carriage we’d arrived in. Twenty minutes later Fari and I would join her in the carriage and once we finished dressing, they would emerge together with the doppleganger configured to look like me. I would exit at the same time, but I would be cloaked by an invisibility spell and wearing my proper battle attire (since Fari would be wearing my dress and Ilya would be wearing the one Fari was currently robed in).
The logistics of getting changed in the back of a carriage were a little tricky but it offered us the best chance of passing undetected since Fari and I could veil our subterfuge pretty easily as long as we out of direct sight of anyone.
That gave me about an hour to scope out the crowd and determine the sort of security that was in place for the event. In a sense, I was courting disaster with that approach. With the Queen attending the event, security was extremely heavy all around the building. In practice though that almost made it easier.
An event like the seasonal appearance by the Queen wasn’t put together in an afternoon. There had been heightened security on the Grand Hall for weeks leading up to the event and for the last three days the place had been in a constant state of high alert. The arrival of the Queen had intensified that but it had also focused it. The entrances were watched, and the Grand Hall teemed with armored security troops. They were almost all focused on the Queen herself though.
Two hundred guards and I had to laugh when I saw them. Their armor was beautiful and ornate and practically worthless. The police of Abyz still have all sorts of criminal matters to attend too, from burglary to fraud to arson and vandalism. Abyz even had a standing space navy, since the fate weave didn’t reach much beyond its atmosphere. What the planet was lacking though was any sort of domestic force that dealt with violence among or directly against its people.
On other planets, that would have been one of the prime roles of any governmental security force, but yhe security on the Grand Hall wasn’t in place to safeguard the Queen’s life. They were there to preserve her dignity at all costs. Anyone who tried to harm the Queen would find the most ridiculous of events occurring to foiling their plans thanks to the fate weave. Magic is finicky though. Dropping a paint balloon on the royal brow might be unpleasant but, as it posed no danger to the royal health, the fate weave would remain blissfully ignore it.
The current Queen enjoyed a fair amount of popular support, but no one, not even the Crystal Empress, is beloved by everyone. With regicide being off the table on Abyz, the opposition was limited to attacks that were little more than pranks, though from what I’d read it wasn’t a good idea to underestimate how nasty a non-lethal prank could be.
It also wasn’t good to overestimate the effectiveness of the fate weave. Abyz billed itself as a paradise world thanks to the safety provided by the magic that surrounded it. From what I could see, there were a lot of wealthy people, locals and off-worlders, who bought into that. The Queen however was not one of them.
Evidence to that fact came from the presence of a second, less obvious set of guardians. These weren’t garbed in beautiful and ridiculous armor. They wore simple servant uniforms which Void sight showed me were devoid of enchantments. Not even a simple “Stay Clean” cantrip.
“There’s a whole lot of wait staff here who are primed and ready to fight Void anima casters,” I said on our telepathic link.
“Is that going to be a problem?” Darius asked, also silently.
“Only if they catch me,” I said. “And only for them in that case.”
“I just put your organs back in place,” Ilya said. “Could you please try to keep them there?”
“I always try,” I said.
We reached the ticket takers at last and were waved through without delay. It’s always nice when you can use legitimate credentials in situations like that, though if Fari had been forced to counterfeit us a set of tickets the results probably would have been the same.
“We’re in,” Darius said.
“Same here,” Fari said. “How’s the drain on the animation spell Ilya?”
“Not bad yet,” our medic said. “I’m resting in the carriage now, so I can manage it for as long as you need. If you get into a fight though, or have to wander farther away, I reserve the right to change my answer.”
Inside the Grand Hall was a space that more than lived up to its name. The Central Authority Building was a sixty story tall skyscraper. The bottom twenty floors though were dedicated to the Grand Hall and it’s support offices.
I flicked my vision over to Void sight briefly to see the rich latticework of Physical spells that made the hall possible. In place of proper walls, the Grand Hall was built on graceful, curving swirls of a colored glass filigree. During the day, the hall was flooded with natural light, but at night it truly came alive. Thousands of tiny lights rested in the air above us with thousands more casting light into the vast room from outside.
I’ve traveled in space and seen nebula from afar. I’ve been inside several of them too, but the Grand Hall captured the essence of being surrounded by brilliant points of light that stretch into the vastness of the universe far better than any natural phenomena ever could. If there was a spot for finding your Happily Ever After, it was easy to imagine why people might mistake this for being it.
I looked over at Darius and then searched for Fari in the crowds. Surprisingly, I saw that Captain Hanq was in attendence as well, which meant some of the rest of the Horizon Breaker’s crew was probably here too. Without any prompting, Darius chose that moment to hold my arm a little closer and I felt a warm blush radiate through me. If I had a Happily Ever After waiting for me, something told me I didn’t need Abyz’s fate magic to find it.
“I think the tables will be lifting off soon for the Review,” Darius said. “We should probably stake out our seats sooner than later.”
To complete the illusion of being adrift amidst the stars, some of the dining tables (meant for the more adventurous of the gala’s attendees) were enchanted to float about the room as the parade of new police cadets made their journey to the Queen’s throne for their formal presentation to her.
The idea appealed to me, but since floating in mid-air would make it hard to wander around and inspect the facility, we had to make sure that we got seats which would remain boringly anchored to the ground.
As I expected those weren’t the first ones to fill up and we were able to find a nice little table with four seats that was towards the edge of the gathering space. I was about to suggest that Fari head over and join us when I heard someone step up behind me.
“Are these taken?” a tall woman with skin a few shades darker than mine asked, referring to the two open seats. Another woman, who looked to be a few years younger, stood beside her watching me as well.
“Not yet,” Darius said and stepped to the side to allow the two women easier access to the chairs.
“Thank you,” the tall woman said and moved to take the seat that was opposite from me, while her companion took the seat to my left.
Out of reflex, I flicked my vision over to Void sight for a second to check them out as they sat down.
There were no enchantments on them. Not on their expertly coiffed hair. Not on their radiant and lovely gowns. Not even on the sparkling jewelry they wore. If we were in a low class bar on Halli I wouldn’t have been surprised. This venue however was packed with people who had so much money it wasn’t anything more than a cute number to them. All of the attendees were enchanted in some fashion.
Except apparently for the Queen’s special line of defense.
The Gala was reputed to connect you with someone special. I hadn’t considered that might mean I’d be connected with exactly the people I was looking for.