"It's a wonder we've made it at all," says Mrs. Shaw, "the way it's pouring rain outside. I had to change my shoes three times! Can you imagine?" She stops speaking and stares at one of the servers, who rushes forward and pulls out her chair. She sits with a huff and makes a quick inspection of the table. "We've missed the first course, have we? It's just as well. I had a late lunch."
My father smiles and settles into his chair once again. "Vaela, may I introduce Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Shaw, and their son, Aaden."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," I say.
"The pleasure is ours," says Mr. Shaw. "And happy birthday! I presume you've already had occasion to open your gifts?" He raises a brow at my father.
"Yes, sir," I say. "And I'm told it was by your invitation that we are able to see the Continent. I can't say how grateful I am."
"Not at all," he says. "It is our good fortune to have you and your family along. The more the merrier, so they say."
"I couldn't agree more," my mother says. "A journey across the sea! I can scarcely imagine how exciting it will be. Are you looking forward to the trip, Mrs. Shaw?"
Mrs. Shaw has busied herself with inspecting the silverware, but hasn't missed a word. "Oh, yes. I've been after Arthur for years to get us bumped up the wait list, but he's always too busy doing something or other for the Chancellery."
"They do keep us busy," he agrees. "As I'm sure your husband can attest, Mrs. Sun."
My mother reaches over and pats my father's hand. "It's fortunate for all of us that the government has seen fit to spare you both for a holiday."
"I've been packed and ready for two weeks," says Mrs. Shaw, adjusting her very large hat, upon which no fewer than six black ceramic birds are perched atop a spray of shining golden wheat. "No one can ever say I don't properly prepare for these events.
Of course, there's always the odd thing you somehow manage to forget, isn't there?" She takes a sip of wine and smiles at me. "What a lovely pendant, Vaela. I've never been able to wear rubies—I look absolutely dreadful in red. I'd have done much better if I'd been born in the South, draped in all that luxurious purple. Haven't I always said so, Arthur? Anyhow. The color suits you very well, and that chain brings out the gold of your hair. Makes it look like—" She pauses, searching for the right word.
"Like honey," Aaden says. I glance over to find him staring at me, a contemplative expression on his face, and I quickly look away.
Mrs. Shaw considers this for a moment, then nods in agreement. "You're a lovely girl—why, you're nearly the spitting image of your mother, but with your father's hair! And what I wouldn't give for tresses so—heavens, Vaela, are you blushing? Oh!" She laughs. "How quaint! How darling! She's blushing, dear, do you see?"
I bring my glass to my lips and fix my eyes on the ice water within. My cheeks are burning, but I can think of nothing to say. My father graciously intervenes.
"Have you any thoughts, Mr. Shaw, about the Xoe and the Aven'ei? I expect we shall see a good deal of fighting during our tour."
"I favor the Xoe, myself," says Mr. Shaw, leaning forward. "I'm not as well-read as my boy Aaden here, but the Xoe seem highly skilled—masterful men-and women-at-arms, they say."
"They are a popular favorite, to be sure," my father says. "Much more formidable than the Aven'ei, or so I hear. I take no preference, myself, but I admit, it will be interesting to see them at battle."
"Thomas, really?" my mother says, a tiny crinkle appearing between her brows. "I was hoping not to see any bloodshed at all."
"Come now, madam," Aaden says, an easy smile upon his face. "Is there any other reason to go to the Continent?"
My mother is taken aback. "I'm sure there are many reasons. For my part, I have heard that the landscape is spectacular, and I shall be very glad to see it."
"Ah, yes," Aaden says. "Snow and ice, and miles and miles of treacherous wilderness." He laughs. "Let's be honest—it's not the scenery that has every citizen in the Spire clamoring to see the Continent. It's the war."
My mother smiles and sets down her fork. "I have no interest in seeing the Xoe and the Aven'ei slaughter one another."
"But that is exactly what you'll see, Mrs. Sun," Aaden says. "Surely you are prepared for it?"
"She knows perfectly well what she will and won't see," says Mrs. Shaw. "No one expects that the violence on the Continent will stop simply because we're there to observe it. The Xoe and the Aven'ei have been railing at each other for centuries. I've never understood the fascination with it, myself. I'm with you, Mrs. Sun."