The doors opened and she swept in, majestic in flowing white cloth, acres of the stuff that trailed out behind her in a broad gossamer wake. The ballroom fell into a quiet hush. Where moments before raucous voices had called and shouted to each other, whispers now sprouted from behind fans and open palms.

"Where are the trumpets?" I joked, making my own muffled contribution to the conspiratorial air that swirled around us. Malchev giggled, a shrill outburst that drew more than a few whirled heads and dagger-laden looks. He clapped his hands over his mouth, his eyes bulging with the restrained mirth.

"Presenting," boomed a voice from beyond the open portal, "her eminence: empress of the realm, high ruler of the domain of Trist, and heir apparent to the grand throne of all Elarch!" Now, somewhere, a trilling of horns could be heard.

"Is she not to be named?" I hissed, and Malchev doubled over. I sighed. The man was never very good at holding his drink. Besides, I'd asked a serious question.

"You must be a stranger here," said a voice at my side, and I turned to look. A wide-eyed owl stared back at me from within the inky velvet folds of a hooded cloak. A breastplate of finely wrought metallic feathers winked from below the masked chin of the speaker.

"I am indeed," I said. "Jack of Harboard, at your service." I offered a short bow, but kept my eyes fixed on the moony gaze.

"Harboard, Harboard," the other said, lending a lilting hoot to the name. It was refreshing to see one so committed to a role. "I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with your land, stranger. Never the mind, though. One does not name the empress. This is custom."

"But I would assume she has a name, yes?" I asked.

"That would be presumptuous of you, for in the long history of the current age, which stretches back some four thousand seasons, there is an unbroken line of rulers who have kept their true names secret, known only to their most intimate contacts. For don't you know, Jack of Harboard, that a name is power?"

I knew it well, which was the reason I hadn't given my own true name. I nodded and winked at the owl, then grabbed Malchev by his elbow. He'd gotten over his fit by now, and I was able to drag him aside and out of the crowd. The owl's eyes followed us until the path we'd made closed behind us, and even then, I still felt that strange piercing gaze on my skin.

"We should away from here, Malchev. There is much work to do."

2014.08.19 – 2023.04.17

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